Like lightning, Middknight’s cavalry never needed to strike twice.
Eleanor pulled the reins on her horse and cued him to turn. Hooves pushed into the field’s grass. They picked up speed, wind blowing her hair behind her, and Eleanor raised a stick to the air. Her makeshift sword—she would be the first woman from Middknight to ride a horse into battle.
Until then, she found herself like every other woman training for the army. Atop a pegasus. A pure white, flying horse. One that could control the skies. The riders wore bright cyan-coloured jackets, lined with plates, a lion in mid-roar engraved on the right shoulder. The symbol of Middknight.
Eleanor could not find her balance with a pegasus.
The skies froze her hands despite her gloves, and she could hardly swing a sword. Her pegasus wouldn’t cooperate with her, and its wings would get in the way. She couldn’t turn the beasts and spin midair like the other women.
The skies did not belong to her.
Every chance she got, she showed off her skills on horseback. Solid ground. She’d ask the other boys to race, pick the slowest horse, then leave them in the dust. None of them wanted to joust her—she’d knock them to the dirt before they could see it coming.
“Doesn’t make sense to me,” her captain said. Eleanor brushed dirt off her pegasus, who kept bringing its wing down to block the comb. “A woman of your skill should be untouchable in the air. It’s puzzling since you have the aptitude for it. With some coin, we could get you private training-”
“Let me ride armoured cavalry,” Eleanor said. She dropped the comb into a bucket of water. “You’ve seen me. I’m better than all the men here. Don’t fault Middknight’s military for a cultural decree about man and woman. We can do more than art, dancing, and pegasus riding. Give me a chance.”
Her captain considered it—and great tacticians learn that consistency often trumps potential.
Eleanor graduated as the first female horseback knight in Middknight’s history.
A half-decade later, she stepped into a command tent. Her iron boots broke into melting snow. The weather had changed faces like a flipped coin—freezing cold to a humid warmth in a week. She approached the command table and saluted, a fist to her right shoulder.
Her captain looked up from the table. Chess pieces, most knocked down, littered a map laid out across it. Lost territory. The people of the desert—Sola—had made quick work of them. While Sola struggled to fight Middknight’s forces in the winter, the sudden change in season had been the luck they needed. They fought in the heat like no other country.
“Eleanor,” her captain said. “Speak.”
“Sir,” she kept her eyes off the table. Too many knocked-over pieces. “My scout team has returned from their expedition west. Solan generals are moving toward the plains of Tian. One sandworm in their control. If they set up camp, they’ll cut off our supply routes and have a flanking position. We’d lose the war in weeks.”
“And?” he said, “what’s your plan?”
“Sir, I need siege equipment-”
He laughed, and Eleanor spoke louder.
“A few ballistae. If we take down their sandworm, it’s easy pickings for my cavalry.”
“El,” he stood from the table and pointed to a few standing chess pieces. Rooks. A warm breeze fluttered the tent’s sidewalls. “We needed the winter to build more siege weapons. Now we’re cut short. The second I move what little we have here,” he pointed to their current position, “they’ll advance right on us. It’s a straight road to the capital from this spot.”
“Best I can give you is a force of pegasus riders.”
Eleanor clenched her teeth, but agreed. Her captain moved a knight piece to the plains of Tian before dismissing her. She would ride out at first light. Fifty armoured horses and twelve pegasi awaited her command, armed with crossbows, chain rope, and long pikes tipped with venom.
Nothing that had yet to be effective against the sandworms.
At dawn, Eleanor rode west. The pegasi soared through the air as the heavy cavalry clunked behind, the fliers leading them an hour out to the plains of Tian.
Minutes from the Solan army, a rider signalled to her and landed.
“Ma’am,” she said. Eleanor prompted her to continue. “I’m seeing double. Our scouts were wrong, because there are two sandworms out there. Sola must have brought in another.”
“They know it’s an important spot.” Eleanor exhaled. The rest of her cavalry force shuffled on their saddles. If she squinted, she could make the fifty-foot beasts in the distance. Scaled in beige plates, with a maw of endless teeth.
“Infantry numbers?” she asked.
“More than us, ma’am. We couldn’t get too close, but we’re estimating a couple dozen camel riders and thirty or so archers. We need to consider retreating-”
“No. Call your team down.” The rider hesitated, then whistled. Gusts of wind shifted branches as the eleven other pegasi—majestic beasts—landed. Eleanor breathed in, deep, and cleared her throat.
A moment of calm before a battle can end the war.
“I would never lead any of you into a skirmish we could not win. It’s a promise I don’t plan to break, but we will face death on these plains.” She rested a hand on her sheathed blade. “Know that a man’s life is the greatest gift he can give—and thousands of our soldiers have died before us, courageous, anguished, and far from meaningless.”
Her soldiers watched, sitting upright. Horses nickered in the break of silence. Eleanor unsheathed her blade, cutting through air, light glinting off the steel.
“Let the memories of our fallen serve as a lesson to us all!” her voice became a shout. “Their lives have meaning because we, the living, refuse to forget them! As we ride to our deaths, we will trust our successors and comrades to do the very same for us!
“We will not yield to the adversity of this war!” She kicked her horse into motion. Her team followed. “The fate of Middknight depends on us! Ride with pride, strike with fury, die with honour!”
The armoured cavalry cried out and charged. Pegasus riders took to the skies. Hooves battered against the plains, trees shook from the winds, and the Solan army ahead readied their archers. Two sandworms, beasts over fifty feet tall, cast looming shadows over the grass fields. Long trails of sludge dripped down from their petal-shaped jaws.
A river of melting ice snaked between the two forces.
Eleanor rode at the front—raising her shield to the volley of arrows, a temporary blot to the sunlight. Projectiles clinked against steel. A pegasus rider above fell from her mount. One arrow struck Eleanor where her plate connected to her neck guard and broke into her shoulder.
A second and third arrow pierced her leg, hitting bone. Eleanor stumbled off her horse, collapsing against the dirt, rolling, hooves pounding the ground beside her head. Soldiers stopped, calling her name.
Blood ran down her shoulder blade. Eleanor stood up, balancing on her sword, then swung it forward.
“Charge, damn it!” she shouted. “Victory is right in front of you, do not falter!”
Her cavalry force pressed on. A pegasus swooped down to pick her up, and she obliged—it’d be an easier ride while injured than a horse. The beast would put in more effort than she’d have to.
“Work with me this time,” she said, finding her place on the saddle. Eleanor leaned her weight forward and tapped the pegasus’ faceplate. “I know we’ve had bad history.”
The pegasus beat its wings, rising into the air.
Ahead, her cavalry unit clashed with the Solan forces. Her soldiers sliced through camels. Horses trampled the leather-armoured infantry from the desert. Steel crashed against steel, drowning out battle cries. The sandworms shook the earth as they crushed soldiers from both sides beneath them, and her cavalry attempted to blind their exposed eyes with crossbow bolts.
Eleanor dug her heel into the pegasus’ side. She didn’t need to—the beast reacted to the incoming arrow on its own, spinning in the air, nearly dropping her from the saddle. She held on tight around its neck, as she had learned in training a half-decade ago. Her mount raised its wings to block a second.
Another pegasus dove, the rider swinging her sword to behead a Solan archer. Her pegasus kicked at a bowman. The iron hooves snapped the man’s head back, breaking his neck. The beast neighed at the kill. Blood coated its white skin.
Eleanor pulled up on the reins, flying towards the sandworm. She reached to the side, above the pegasus’ left wing, and detached a pike coated with venom. The desert leviathan roared. Spittle flew from its maw like rain.
Her soldiers had blinded one, and she’d get the other.
It lunged for her. Its petal-shaped jaw opened, an abyss of jagged teeth, the limbs of her comrades and pieces of armour stuck within. Her pegasus pulled back. Sunlight stretched their shadows out across the field. Eleanor took the pike in her good hand, kicked her ride forward, then stabbed the sandworm’s crevice-shaped eye. Amber blood leaked.
The other riders followed suit and jabbed pikes into the sandworms. The combined venom—the strongest Middknight’s alchemists could create—would paralyze the beast, where her knights could then wrap them in chains.
One sandworm collapsed, horses jumping as the earth shook. The second followed, lashing out and snagging a rider out of the air before cratering the ground.
Eleanor landed. She would’ve collapsed if not for the pegasus' shifting its weight. Her heavy cavalry executed the remaining Solans and tied down their camels. They then shouted orders, working to chain the sandworms. A woman landed beside her. The leader of the flying team.
“Ma’am,” she said. “We took down two sand beasts! They can be killed! We’re victorious-”
“Send scouts,” Eleanor mumbled, “make sure there are no reinforcements. Send your fastest flier back and bring surgeons for our wounded.” Her pegasus raised its wing to prevent her from sliding off. “Casualty report?”
“Half of our horsemen and four fliers. This is a monumental win. We—I need to get you to a surgeon, ma’am,” she dropped from her pegasus, stepping around a bloodied sword. “I’ll fly you myself. It’ll be less than a half-hour-”
Eleanor raised a hand.
“No,” she said, “I’m staying here with my cavalry.” She turned her head. Her knights hammered poles into the ground to leash the sandworms. Some tended to the wounded with ripped-apart banners as bandages.
“This is only the beginning of the war,” she continued, “and they need to see me as unbreakable. I’ll lead this cavalry force until Sola surrenders. Until their white flag is raised to the sunlight. Got it?”
The pegasus rider saluted, a fist to her right shoulder, then took off.
Eleanor sheathed her blade. She dismounted, stumbling.
Her knights cheered—and she swore she would lead them to victory, no matter what.