Aniia’s hands are trembling, her whole crossbow is trembling, but she holds line like the other soldiers. The man next to her smells like vomit and sweat and she can barely keep her eyes open. She didn’t sleep well last night, of course she didn’t, not with the shouting and the drums, the drums, the drums.
In the distance she can see them. They’re singing, she thinks, or yelling something. It’s occasionally punctuated by the low, rumbling roars of the Bears.
The White Bears. Aniia’s breath hitches as the largest opens its maw— even from this distance, a thousand paces at least, she can see saliva dripping from its teeth. It’s three stories tall, it has to be, it has a flat surface tied to its back and there are people on it. People with bows and arrows, wearing the furs and leathers all the footsoldiers of the Coldfields wear.
Aniia shuts her eyes for a moment and thinks about her mother, her father, her friends and home. She wonders if she’ll ever see it again. The village, twelve stories up and green with life and happiness. She remembers the smell of the goats, the sunshine on her face as she’s pulling weeds atop the roof gardens. She remembers a few nights ago, the party, the kisses, when the war seemed so far away. When they were young and out for glory— now Aniia feels like she is ninety years old.
Someone else around her is vomiting. It brings her back into miserable reality and she opens her eyes. “Mother help us,” someone whispers, “Look at the size of those things.”
Aniia doesn’t want to think about the Bears. Her comrades are, though, by the pallor of their faces and the words whispered furtively under their breath. They stand rank and file, numbering in the high hundreds, and she wonders if they’re even enough to take on the Bears and live. There are a dozen or so of the great white beasts out there. How can I bring one down? She wonders. Shoot for the eye? The lungs? The feet?
She’s wearing the same brown leather as everyone else. She imagines what a Bear’s claws would do but she stops herself, she stops and shuts her eyes again and finds her courage. It’s all she has left in the wake of the battle ahead of her.
“Steady!” The commander calls from the front. “They’re animals! They’re dumb as rocks.”
Aniia doesn’t believe that. The Bears break out into a gallop and soon enough they’re pulling ahead of the rest of the Coldfield army.
“Archers!” The commander yells and Aniia lifts her crossbow. She aims but her hands are shaking so hard she can barely see straight. She goes for the biggest Bear, the one towering over its brothers and sisters, aiming for its eyes. “For King and City!” The commander reminds them. The man next to Annia looks like he’s going to be sick again, even as he raises his bow with arrow notched. “Fire!”
The Bears scream, scream, as a wave of arrows and bolts are loosed towards them. She reaches for the next bolt, reloads, and waits for the next order like a machine. She can’t think. She won’t think. “Fire!”
More screams. More roars. And the drums, drums, drums.