It was an uncomfortable three-day journey by mule train from Tristram to the Sisters of the Sightless Eye convent. By the second day, Val had used up the patience and goodwill that she had worked so hard to build during her stay in Tristram. At sixteen-nearly-seventeen, she was easily the oldest of the girls Sister Sylverwraithe was ferrying to join the Sisters of the Sightless Eye. They seemed a pretty serious bunch, though. In fact, some of them were positively dour. None of them was interested in talking to Val or hearing how she had saved Tristram with a single magnificent shot.
One exchange early on had reflected badly on the entire trip. Val had been trying to engage her traveling companions in some sort of conversation when one of them, a dark-skinned fourteen year-old, interrupted her. "Who the hell-hell are you anyway?" snapped the girl. "We are trying to meditate and prepare ourselves for the trials ahead."
Val was taken aback. "I am Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla," she responded with practiced haughtiness.
"That figures," snorted the girl. "I bet you're a Wild Angel."
"With a name like that, they'll probably put you in the Wild Angel Squad." The girl's tone made it clear that she was not complimenting Val on the melodious sound of her name.
"Why?" Val didn't know what squad she was in, or even that she was going to be in one.
"It's the spoiled princess brigade. While the rest of us have trained all our lives for this honor, your daddy paid your way into the Sisterhood," complained the girl. "Sweet Zakarum on a pony, don't you know anything?"
Val bit her lip. "Apparently not," she said, "but I'll bet I can hazard some pretty astute guesses about your breeding, intelligence, and personal habits. I suspect farm animals were involved."
The icy silence that followed was lovely. It lasted the rest of the trip.
They were still miles away when Val spotted their destination as they crossed the Tamoe Highlands. It had been built centuries ago as a Horadrim stronghold, and many still referred to it as a monastery. But the Horadrim, their numbers decimated by the Sin Wars and their funds depleted, had been forced to abandon the place to the care of the Sisters of the Sightless Eye. Out of deference to the gender of the place's owners of the last century or so, some now referred to it as a convent.
In fact it was neither. Nestled against the mountains, it was nothing less than a fortress. Its great golem-built block walls stretched between the sheer cliffs that bounded the only pass between the lush Talsande Basin and the mountains and deserts to the east. No man, beast, monster, or army passed in either direction without the good graces of the occupants of the fortress. It was more than just a set of stone walls and towers. From what Val had heard, the majority of the fortress lay underground in the form of tunnels connecting to caves and smaller fortresses all along the pass.
The mule train plodded through the main gates and into the convent's outer courtyard. Sister Sylverwraithe, riding horseback at the head of the train, called back as they came to a stop. "Unload your gear, sign in and report to your squad for further instructions," she called. "If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask someone else." She was already off her horse and leading it away as she finished her sentence.
These scant instructions seemed sufficient for the other girls riding with her. They quietly began gathering their belongings and climbing out of the wagon. Val looked around. She had no gear other than what she had left Tristram with. The rest of her belongings had allegedly been sent on ahead of her and were already here somewhere. Of course "here somewhere" could have anywhere.
The main courtyard, like everything else in the stronghold, was huge. It was also crowded with people, mostly women and girls, and most with bows in hand or slung over shoulders. The few men present seemed to be delivering goods or people or were merchants hawking their wares or services to the crowd.
Val hopped down from the wagon. Her traveling companions had already dispersed into the crowd. She wandered around a bit. There seemed to be several tables where girls were lined up. At each table, a Sister sat and wrote down the information given her by the girls.
Finally, she decided she was just going to have to ask someone. She went to the end of the shortest line and asked the girl in front of her. "Is this where we sign in?"
The girl looked back at her. Her face was pockmarked and she was missing several teeth. It had clearly been awhile since her last bath. She eyed Val's clear complexion and clean hair with evident suspicion. "Well, this is where I sign in, but I don't know about you, pretty girl." The last was not a compliment. "What squad are you in? Wild Angels?"
"I don't know," admitted Val.
"Well then, how should I know?"
Val sighed. She was determined to be patient with this person.
The girl turned to the girl in front of her. "Hey, do you think pretty girl here is a Wild Angel?"
The next girl in line glanced back at Val. She looked like she was about ten years old, but at least she appeared to have been in contact with a bar of soap some time within the last few weeks.
"What's your name?" the younger girl asked Val.
"Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla."
The two girls nodded to each other. "Definitely a Wild Angel," said the younger girl.
"Try over there," suggested the first girl, pointing Val in the direction of a tent about fifty yards away.
"What's a Wild Angel?" Val wanted to know.
This amused the girl and she broke into a wide grin that revealed even more missing teeth. "Be on your way, your highness. Try not to make the rest of us look too bad."
"Bit late for that," replied Val with a pleasant smile.
The girl looked startled and then laughed. "Off you go, pretty girl. Maybe we'll talk again if it turns out you actually have the right to be here. Good-bye." She turned her back on Val.
Val scowled for a moment and then shrugged. This conversation was over, and there was nothing to be gained by trying to prolong it. Besides, there was no line at the tent where she'd been directed.
A middle-aged Sister sat behind a table just inside the tent. She was wearing a plain brown robe and a scarf over her hair. Her bow leaned against the tent wall within her easy reach. On the other side of her were several large chests and crates. She squinted into the bright light at Val. "Name?" asked the Sister.
"Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla." Val waited for the display of attitude, but the Sister just smiled and jotted something down in the ledger in front of her.
"Ah, yes," said the Sister. "It seems as though the House of Halla has high hopes for your future with us." She patted one of several crates bearing the seal of the House of Halla.
"What's in those boxes?" asked Val. She didn't remember seeing them before.
"Why, your tuition, of course." She opened one of the crates and Val saw that it was full of gold coins.
"My tuition?" Just how much had her father and Shinobi paid to subject her to this experience?
The Sister chuckled. "That's how one gets to be a Wild Angel. The other girls will tell you that they worked hard and earned the right to be here," said the Sister. "And while that may be true, it's your gold that'll put food in their bellies and roofs over their heads during their training. So don't let the other girls get your goat with all that 'spoiled princess squad' garbage. We each earn what we deserve in different ways." She extended a calloused hand to Val. "I'm Sister Larza, Wild Angel."
Val shook the Sister's hand gratefully.
"Report to the Wild Angels banner outside," Sister Larza instructed her. "I probably won't see you again until we get to Wraithespyre."
"You'll be briefed in due time," said Sister Larza. "Good luck to you."
Val stepped outside and looked more closely at the colorful banners hanging around the courtyard. A gold banner with a black silhouette of a warrior woman about to shoot an arrow into the heavens proclaimed the girls and women gathered 'round it to be members of Amazon Squad. The green banner of Mantis Squad depicted an unnervingly realistic great silver praying mantis that looked capable of lunging out of the flag at unwary prey. The Black Widows' banner was more stylized. It was red with a black bow-and-arrow. Where the arrowhead should have been, the shaft turned into a black widow spider spinning a strand of web behind her.
Further around the courtyard was the silver banner belonging to Raven Squad, with its black soaring raven emblem. Finally, there was the blue banner of the Wild Angels. It depicted an elegant winged angel using her gold halo as a bow. Instead of an arrow, however, the angel had a lightning bolt nocked and aimed at the viewer. The look in the angel's silver eyes made it clear that she was not one to be trifled with, but at the same time, a slight smile played across her lips.
There was no one waiting beneath the Wild Angels banner, but Val spotted another girl who was obviously headed in that direction. Not only was she clean and beautiful, but she was wearing a long, flowing gown and jewelry which included a delicate silver tiara. She would have looked perfectly at home riding side-saddle on a unicorn. Her honey-blonde hair was tied up in some elaborate way that looked like she (or perhaps a personal attendant) had spent a good part of the morning on. Only the short silver bow in her hand and the quiver of slender silver arrows over her shoulder gave any indication that she belonged at all.
Val shrugged, now understanding the whole "princess brigade" riff. She wondered if all her classmates were going to be like this girl. Whatever the case turned out to be, she probably wouldn't be any more annoying than any of the other would-be Sisters she'd met so far, and was likely to smell a lot less ripe, so that was a plus.
As Val reached the Wild Angels' banner, she held up a hand to greet the girl who was coming to join her. The girl smiled at Val and started to call out. Unfortunately, she had made the mistake of walking too close to the cluster of about four dozen girls waiting around the Raven banner. One of them stuck out her bow, and the richly dressed girl when down face-first in the dirt. Her arrows spilled out everywhere and her tiara flew from her head and landed in a fresh pile of something a donkey had left behind.
"Hey!" shouted Val running to help the girl. "What the hell was that?"
"Her Majesty looked so tired and pale, I thought she might like to lie down for awhile," said the tripper. Ten or twelve of the Ravens found this to be the height of wit. The others edged away from them, apparently wanting no part of the incident.
Val helped the girl up. Her gown was torn and her right elbow and both knees were bleeding. "Are you okay?" she asked.
The girl nodded and said, "Thank you. I am Miri."
Val glared up at the Ravens. "You mis-bred, quasi-bovine, excuse for..."
"Please," said Miri. "There's no need to make things worse. We should just..."
"Get back to you castle, princesses!" shouted one of the other Ravens.
"Only if you get back to your pig sty," snapped Val, "Or would the pigs object?"
The clammy contents of a half-pot of corn mush spattered Val and Miri. "Hey look! Dinner's on the princesses!"
"Oh yeah?" shouted Val. "Well the let me serve you some dessert!" She reached for Miri's tiara and, using it as a scoop, flung most of the pile of donkey droppings at their antagonists. The stuff was relatively fresh and produced a wide splash zone. Val's shot was rewarded with several screams of disgust.
She gingerly offered Miri her headpiece back. "Sorry about your crown," she said holding it between her thumb and forefinger.
Miri smiled. "You can keep it. I have four more just like it."
Trying to wipe the foul mess off her face and chest, the Raven that had tripped Miri shared with them in colorful terms exactly what they could both do with Miri's crown.
Val's counter-suggestion was even more colorful, physically dubious at best, and involved several members of the Raven's family along with some farm animals and a rusty halberd.
Reaching the conclusion that the time for discourse had reached its end, the enraged Raven charged Val. The other girl was considerably bigger than Val, but Val was quick enough to avoid getting knocked down. Somebody sucker-punched Val in the ribs as she tried to spin out of the way. Out of the corner of her eye, Val saw two more Ravens moving into position to gang up on Miri.
Meanwhile, someone else tried to pin Val's arms behind her back, but Val squirmed free, kicking someone in the knee as she did. She found herself face-to-manure-smeared-face with the Raven who had started the fight. Two of her sidekicks flanked her on either side. "Better get ready to beg for mercy, princess!" sneered the Raven.
"I may be a princess, but that doesn't mean I can't kick your ass," replied Val. Even as she said this, Val had no doubts as to who was going to be kicking and who was going to be kicked. Not only was she outnumbered, but even the smallest of her opponents had at least four inches and twenty pounds on her. They also looked like they enjoyed fighting.
Val tried to match their bluster with a smile. Amazingly, the three girls stepped back a pace.
"Ravens want to fight Wild Angels, then Ravens have to fight Stunlocke too," said a new voice.
The girl standing behind Val was at least six-and-a-half feet tall, 190 pounds, and heavily muscled. A mane of wild black hair surrounded her tanned face and her bare arms and shoulders were covered with tattoos.
A pair of twins stood with the newcomer. Both were a foot shorter than the giant girl, with caramel-colored skin, curly black hair and hazel eyes. "So what's it going to be?" asked one of the twins.
"We're happy to oblige either way," added the other.
"Better stand down, Ravens," said a girl who had been watching from the sidelines. "Captains Bloodraven and Kashya are on their way over here." Val recognized her as the girl from line. "Looks like you lucked out, pretty girl."
"It looks like somebody lucked out," Val allowed.
Silently, though not without a few menacing glares, the three Ravens facing Val melted back into their group. Val glanced over to see how Miri was faring and was startled to see her chatting aimiably with the two Ravens who had been attacking her last time Val had looked. Miri and the Ravens parted company, all smiles and waves.
"How did you do that?" Val asked Miri as she rejoined her fellow Wild Angels.
"Do what?" asked Miri.
"They were getting ready to feed you your bow and arrows," said Val.
Miri shrugged. "We just got to talking, that's all."
"We'd better get over to where we belong," suggested one of the twins noting that Sylverwraithe had joined Kashya and Bloodraven. "By the way, this is Stunlocke..." She indicated the giant girl. "...I'm Tanda and that's my sister, Randa."
Kashya and Bloodraven arrived as Val and her new companions hurried back to the Wild Angels banner. "Did you ever see a sorrier looking bunch of rogues?" Val heard Bloodraven say grimly.
"Not since last year," she heard Kashya reply.
Val's back was to the two captains, so it was possible that they weren't talking about her and the Wild Angels specifically. But she wouldn't have bet her life on it.
Meanwhile, Miri had introduced herself to the other Wild Angels. "I'm sorry," she said to Val. "I don't know your name."
"Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla," answered Val.
"What a beautiful name," said Miri. "So musical." But Val saw Tanda and Randa exchange a glance, and one of the twins rolled her eyes.
"Do you have a problem with my name?" Val asked the twin who had rolled her eyes.
Randa shook her head. "It's just that it's kind of a mouthful."
"For instance, if I was trying to warn you, 'Valeria Desdemona Sapphire whatever whatever whatever, look out for that dragon,'" continued Tanda. "By time I finished, the dragon would have already devoured you, digested you, and left you a steaming pile at the other end."
It was a fair enough concern, Val reflected. Her long name had had never been an issue int Riparia. People there had always addressed her as "Milady" or "I'm-sorry-I-won't-do-it-again." She guessed that neither of those salutations would fly here. Probably part of that humility thing Shinobi and her father were trying to inflict on her. She sighed. "Call me Val, if you must." She'd learned to tolerate it in Tristram, she'd get used to it here.
"Might I make a suggestion?" offered Miri. "How about Val Halla?"
"Val Halla?" repeated Val.
Miri nodded. "Among some of the warrior clans of the north, Valhalla is their name for heaven."
"Val Halla," she repeated again and nodded. She might just be able to get used to that.
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