My dearest Elizabeth,
You probably wonder how it came to this. How I, your best friend, am leading an army of what you must think of as the forces of darkness and evil. But you know, if you think about it, it’s not really that much of a surprise. I always said I was going to be a great knight and go forth into battle and do all kinds of great deeds.
I’m sure you remember how unhappy I was as a child. I never wanted to be a proper lady, to learn embroidery and etiquette and penmanship (you can see from this letter my penmanship never did improve) and wear pretty clothes that are impossible to move in, and marry and spend the rest of my life having children. But as far back as I can remember, I knew that that was the only life I would ever be allowed. Most people have big dreams as children, then grow up and are disillusioned, but for me it was the opposite. I always knew that my dreams were impossible. Until that one day…
You probably don’t remember it. We were six, and I’d managed to convince you to play at fencing with me. So we were whacking at each other with sticks a little down the road from my house when a rider on horseback galloped right up to us. You shrieked and dropped your stick and ran away then, and I never did tell you what happened next.
The rider dismounted. To my shock, it was a woman, but she was dressed in rather rakish men’s clothes and a sword hung at her waist. She was not, I will emphasize, disguised as a man. She wore her hair in a long black braid down her back, and her clothes did nothing to hide her figure. So it was quite clear that this heroic-looking figure was a woman, and at seeing her, my dreams came back from the dead.
I stared up at her as if she was a god. I’m sure you think that’s blasphemous, but that’s how I felt. She looked me over, taking in the stick-sword I was still carrying, and smiled. And then she drew her blade and told me, “En guard!” And we dueled.
Even then, I knew that she was not really fighting. She was an adult, and a trained swordswoman, and I was six and using a stick. Had she wanted to, she could have defeated me in far less than the thirty seconds that passed before she finally touched the tip of her sword to my nose and said with a grin, “You’re dead.”
“Are you riding out with Lord Arthlbee’s troops?” I asked her. I’d forgotten, until I wrote that just now, that that was the day they left for battle. I’m sure you will remember the day then, if not that incident. But surely you remember when we sneaked off to watch them ride off, the sun glistening on their shiny white armor. And I said, “I’m going to ride off like that someday,” and you just laughed, but then I really knew I could. But anyway, back to telling what happened in chronological order, the woman—her name’s Antheria, I didn’t know that then but I’m tired of using pronouns so I’ll use her name anyway—got a mischievous gleam in her eyes and answered, “Something like that.” I didn’t understand what she meant, then. Then she asked me where the troops were gathering, and I gave her directions, and she left, and my life went back to being a miserable series of things that ladies were supposed to do that I didn’t want to. But it was better than before, because now I had hope.
I’m sure you remember the day I finally did run away? I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I didn’t know I was going to until it happened and then it was too late. It was, what, four years ago now? We were sixteen, and it was the day the troops came back from the war. You remember that, of course—how could anyone forget that sight, with all the banners and trumpets and celebrations in the streets? And you looked at the captain and got all dreamy eyed and said, “I’m going to marry him.” And I looked at him and was probably equally dreamy eyed, though in a different way, and I said, “I’m going to go join his unit.” I was such a fool back then, seeing only the glamour and hype and believing all the “We are the forces of good and righteousness and the gods are on our side and the enemy is evil and we will defeat them!” crap.
So anyway, I went right up to him, and said, “Sir, I want to join your unit.” Now, if I’d been a boy they’d have taken me right on. I was a good fighter, and after the heavy losses they’d taken they were recruiting aggressively. I should have known better, though. I’d lived in that world for sixteen years, I shouldn’t have been surprised at his reaction. But I was. When he started laughing, and called over all his buddies so they could laugh at me with him, I was cut to the core. And when they, still laughing, began to make crude remarks about what I could do… I’d never been so livid and disappointed and heartbroken all at the same time. I spat in his face, and ran off.
I don’t know what I would have done then. Probably went and told you about it, now that I think about it. I wonder what would have happened if I had, if you’d heard it from me instead of him, if I’d stayed at least a little longer? I would have left soon anyway, I’m not made to live that kind of life, but still… it would have been different.
Anyhow, I was running away from them, well, I’d slowed down once I was out of sight so now I was stomping away, not to anywhere, just away. I could barely see through the hot tears welling up in my eyes. I wiped my eyes before the tears could spill, and it was then that I looked over and saw Antheria.
She looked the same as the last time I’d seen her. Well, older, of course, it had been ten years, with a scar on her cheek that hadn’t been there before, but she had the same long black braid and cheerful features and she wore the same clothes—well, of course it wasn’t the same clothes, but you know what I mean—and had a sword at her side.
She didn’t recognize me, of course. An adult may look much the same after ten years, a sixteen year old does not look the same as a six year old. But once I went up to her, introduced myself, and told her how we’d met before, she remembered at once.
“You had such…independence,” she told me, “I hoped that you’d manage to get out of this place somehow.”
“Me too,” I told her emphatically. “I thought I was about to, but…” and I told her what had happened. “If those assholes are fighting for all that’s good and righteous, I’d hate to see what the evil ones are like,” I concluded.
She laughed, not at me, as they had, but at the absurdity. I didn’t quite understand, then, but I could tell I was not being insulted. Finally, she stopped laughing and told me, “It’s not really a fight between good and evil.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, shocked. That went against everything I’d ever been told. “Of course it is, they’re fighting evil so it doesn’t overtake us and ruin civilization and everything and kill the gods and um….”
Antheria laughed again, and this time she was laughing at me, but I knew how foolish I sounded so I didn’t really mind. “Fine,” I admitted, “what is it then?”
She grew serious. “Order versus chaos, so to speak. Your side—or their side, rather—wants to bring order to the world. To civilize the uncivilized and impose their rules on everyone else.”
“That sounds… bad,” I said.
“I can’t claim to be unbiased,” she said. “I’m telling it how I see it, and to me, that is bad. But do you think I’m wrong?”
I thought about all the times I’d been told exactly how things should be, how I should be, and I knew in my heart that she was right. I didn’t have to answer her, she could see it. “Then what’s the other side?”
“I said chaos, but it’s more than that. Freedom, I guess. The ability to live your life however you want to. Sure, there’re more risks and less… I don’t know, stability? But we can chose how we want to live. And the people are a hell of a lot more interesting.”
Having met her, I believed it. “But why do they want to kill us?”
“Like I said, I’m biased, but they way I’ve always heard it is that they want to kill us, or at least bring us under their rein. And since we like our freedom, we fight to keep it.”
I thought about it, and realized that it was always our armies who went out to “destroy evil.”
Antheria continued, “Do you know what entropy is?”
I shook my head.
“It’s basically the principal that the natural order of things is disorder, and efforts to create order create more disorder elsewhere. That’s my understanding of it, anyway. So by trying to impose order, they just cause more chaos—and of the bad kind. War, hate, intolerance, death and destruction.”
“Is there a good kind of chaos?”
She smiled. “You’ll see.”
I looked at her quizzically.
“You said you wanted to get out of here. This is your chance.”
I didn’t even stop home. There was nothing I wanted there; I owned no clothes fit for travelling, no books on subjects other than etiquette. What little money I had I had with me, and if I’d told anyone I was leaving, they would have stopped me. Antheria had a spare horse she let me ride. We had to stop to let them rest more often than she would have otherwise, but it was no great inconvenience. We reached the camp in three days. And I discovered the good kind of chaos.
The camp was located between a forest and the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. When we first came out from between the trees I was utterly overwhelmed. I stopped and just stared and stared and stared. It wasn’t the numbers that awed me; the army I’d seen ride in as I’d left was larger. But this was… like a carnival, bright and loud and filled with good spirits and hectic energy. It was noon, and summer, but still there were fires burning and I could smell things roasting. Tents of all shapes and sizes and colors were set up all around. And the people! There were men and women of all descriptions, as well as… beings that aren’t quite human. I saw a shirtless man and a green-skinned woman practicing throwing knives; a beautiful woman with six horns growing from her head locked in a kiss with a barbarian of a man; a little girl playing with a baby dragon. A boy about my age galloped past on a unicorn, a woman with snakes for hair lounged against a tree with a book, and a series of tiny hot air balloons filled with people no more than six inches high floated past. And everywhere huge black butterflies larger than my face flew overhead.
“You’ll get used to it, eventually,” Antheria told me. I didn’t really believe her. But by dinner that evening I was sitting around a campfire with a woman dressed in motley who spoke only limericks, the horned woman and her boyfriend, a rainbow-skinned swordswoman, an elderly couple no taller than my hand, a man who seemed normal enough until he began discussing, in very technical terms, on the merits of fire magic as opposed to blood magic with the tiny woman, and a pirate who said he’d promised to bring back some food for a mermaid who was just outside of his ship. After I got over being intimidated, I was worried about how boring I was compared to them, but they listened to my story with real interest, and when I confessed my worry, assured me I’d grow into the place soon enough. The magician taught me how to light a fire (magically, I mean), and when I proved fairly good at it, got some other magic users together to teach me how to turn invisible, conjure food, speak across distances, and other such useful bits of magic. Some were easier than others—I never did quite get the hang of invisibility—and I’ve only ever learned such basic magic. I spent much of my time practicing fighting, and eventually became good with a sword, proficient with a bow, and capable of throwing a knife without killing anyone accidentally.
It’s funny, I always dreamed of marching off to battle, but once I actually got the chance, found I had no taste for it. There’s nothing glorious about being in battle; it’s just killing and trying not to get killed. But though I dreamed of being a great knight, it was never really about that. I just wanted to get out of the box I was kept in. I don’t know if you understand, because you always did want that life, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it should be a choice. And though I don’t love the fighting, this is my home now; these are my people. I’ve never had that before, and I’m not going to lose it. So I fight on.
Our armies, being the armies of chaos, are far less organized than those you’re used to. We don’t stand in lines and march out to fight. We have spies and raiding parties beforehand and berserkers that lead the charge into battle. I won’t go into more detail than that because, as much as it pains me to think it, you’re on the other side.
I fight in all the battles—most of us do, though like everything here, it’s not mandatory. Though I don’t like the fighting, I don’t lose my head during it, and I do fight well. Over time I also realized I was good with tactics and strategy, and good at guessing what the enemy would do, both in the long run and in the immediate instant—comes from growing up among them, I guess. Anyhow, there’s no rank system like there is in your armies, but people started following me and I started leading them, and eventually I kind of drifted into a commanding role.
So we’d had word of an imminent attack, and I led my troops out to meet it. As we drew closer, I recognized the banners of the town I’d grown up in—but what was I supposed to do, retreat and let them attack? Abandon my people? Anyhow, there was no one there I had any attachment to—well, there’s you, of course, but I mean no one in the army. So I gave the signal for my berserkers to attack, and the rest of us followed. I was in the thick of the fighting, my sword already bloody, when I came face to face with the captain who’s unit I’d tried to join. He lifted his sword to attack, I blocked it. We fought for a bit, and finally he let his guard down and I ran him through. He died instantly.
You have my sincere condolences on your husband’s death, Elizabeth. I send my deepest sympathy and hope this letter finds you well. Know that whatever has happened and whatever the future brings, I remain