When Veritae was just seven years old, her mother placed ten coins in her hand.
“Listen to me very carefully, Veri,” she said. “This is all we have. You need to go to Avanta. Do you remember where she is?”
Veritae nodded. She had accompanied her mother to the home of the local healer before.
A violent spasm of guttural coughing spewed from her mother and Veritae waited, knowing it would take time to pass.
“Tell her I need the special medicine. She will know,” her mother gasped. “Do not tell her how much you have. Offer her five. She will want more. Offer her six and then seven if you have to.” Her mother dropped to the bed of straw and Veritae leaned in to hear her. “Give her all only if you must.”
Veritae hurried down the twisted path, over the hill and along the river, arriving at an earthen hut draped with mysterious leaves and vines. She heard voices from inside and peeked through the doorway.
She saw several women crammed together around a small fire. Another woman, taller than the rest, dark hair falling across her shoulder, hovered over the flames, eyes closed and murmuring. Veritae recognized Avanta and edged into the room, back against the wall.
The healer’s eyes opened and she focused her gaze on Veritae who pressed herself harder against the wall. Avanta’s cold silver eyes had frightened her during previous encounters and she had always clutched her mother’s skirts, hidden behind the folds.
“What brings you here, child? Daughter of Ministrae,” her voice slithered toward Veritae like a hiss. The little girl swallowed and bit her lip, trying to control her trembling legs. She thrust her fistful of coins at Avanta.
“Mama’s medicine,” she managed to whisper, tongue feeling thick and clumsy.
“Yessss,” Avanta plucked the ten coins from Veritae’s grip. That’s when she remembered her mother’s instructions.
“Oh no! No no no no no,” Veritae shouted, fear forgotten. “Five! You’re only supposed to take five.”
Avanta laughed, counting the money. “Now why would I take five when you have already given me ten?”
“Six! Take six,” Veritae pleaded. “Seven!”
The women surrounding her were cackling and pointing as they watched. “Look at her. Stupid girl!” Veritae heard one say. “Little girl, you are supposed to go the OTHER way,” sniggered another.
Veritae struggled to hold back her tears. She grabbed the bag of herbs Avanta held out to her and ran out the door. The tears burned as she made her way back along the river, over the hill and up the path to their camp, dreading telling her mother.
After the tears had dried and the medicine had done its work, Veritae’s mother rose and called her. The little girl followed her mother through the forest until they reached a small clearing encircled by hemlock trees. Darkness had fallen and her mother built a small fire.
“Come, child,” said her mother, light flickering on her face. She reached under her skirts and pulled out a broad knife she had secured to her leg. She handed it to Veritae. The girl grasped the leather hilt and felt comforted by its weight.
“This knife is now yours,” her mother said. “You will learn to use it wisely and you will never be frightened again. You will think clearly, you will be strong and you give up nothing - never again. Now, you hold it like this.”
“Why do you carry this knife?”
“Long ago, I had a dangerous job. I had need to protect myself often. I have gone nowhere without this knife. Enough questions, child. It is time to train.”
And that is how Veritae became skilled with the knife and then with a sword. That is how she became famed for defending her people. That is how she became an infantry officer when war came to their land. That is how she became feared by enemies and infamous for demanding unconditional surrender. That is how she came to lead the armies of the western front in battle after battle, victory after victory.
And that is how, twenty years later, Veritae found herself on a windswept mountaintop far from her home, contemplating the soldier before her.
“I do not accept,” she said. The soldier struck his boot with his riding crop, a sharp crack piercing the wind. This was no ordinary soldier. This was General Kirill Eleysian, the enemy commander. His army had battled Veritae’s forces for years, suffering many defeats, countless losses. He received one communication after another from his dispirited generals reporting that she refused to accept any conditions of surrender – no return of prisoners, nor weapons, nor horses, nor territory. With each loss, each surrender, his exhausted army faded a bit more.
This was the final campaign. Veritae had ordered her forces to descend on his capital from the east and west as she had led her battalion down from the north. They captured the city, but with immeasurable losses on both sides.
Defeat pained the great general. But as he sat at his desk reflecting on the conflict, he discovered the thread of a new strategy, a final whisper of hope. He drew up his terms of surrender and vowed to make Veritae accept them.
“What are your terms?” he asked.
“There are no terms. Unconditional surrender.”
General Eleysian drew in a deep breath.
“General,” he said to her. “Your forces are exhausted. Our intelligence tells us they are starving and many are ill. Your rations are low. You have won. Give us this dignity in surrender by accepting my terms.”
“I have no reason to do so. You are in a position of weakness.”
Those two words stopped the steady pulse of Veritae’s heart. Questions, doubts and fears erupted in her mind as she struggled to analyze the General’s position. Was this a bluff? What if she agreed to his terms? What if she did not? Had he reinforcements? Why would he offer terms of surrender? Should she cede? Should she push? He was out of moves. He had to be. But if he was not?
He was right. Her troops were worn from many years of battle. Supplies were scarce. What was left of their uniforms hung loosely on their bones, faces gaunt and scarred. The battle cry that launched their final siege came from heart alone and the hope of returning home.
Veritae felt the slightest tremble in her legs, a tremor she had not felt since that first mistake with Avanta decades ago. She heard the officers accompanying General Eleysian sniggering just as those awful women had done. But when she glanced at them, their faces were stoic. Though she had not moved, she feared her eyes revealed her jumbled thoughts. She met Elesysian’s icy stare and saw the triumph, the same satisfied triumph in Avanta’s silver eyes after she had pounced.
“My terms are an immediate and unconditional surrender,” she stated.
General Eleysian regarded her in silence. Then he spoke.
“We do not accept. The mistake, General, is yours," he said
He mounted his horse and rode away with his officers.
Veritae watched them until they were gone. Her own officers were silent, but she could feel anger radiating from them. She laid a hand on the knife that had hung by her side since the day her mother had given it to her.
It did not bring her comfort.