The Bloodfist summer home was really quite lovely, Ynga decided as she peered excitedly over the edge of the sail barge’s railing. It was nothing like the fortress in the mountains that served as the Bloodfist clan’s residence in Dukagsh’s rainy season, carved into the rock diligently over the course of generations; solid, stone cave walls and warrens that were imminently defensible, but gloomy. Those halls, where Ynga had dwelt among the clan’s unmarried girls her whole life, were ill-suited to her unseemly adventurous nature, and she and her twin sister Y’Anid had spent many hours, even days, clambering over the rocky steppes on whatever pretense they could invent; from overseeing the pepper and quinoa farms to inspecting the lofty rope bridges that connected one outcropping to another. Their excursions were never approved of, naturally, but their mother was the reigning Den Mother, and she defended her daughters’ right to see to the women’s duties in their own unique way, so none would dare gainsay her. And to be fair, since Dorin Bloodfist, their uncle, had become Almighty Leader, there had been a lot less pressure for the girls to keep close to home.
Their summer estate was a sprawling, welcoming affair of warm jungle hardwoods in various shades of brown, red and purple. The roofs were conical and constructed of adobe in order to bleed off some of the humidity, and since it was close to the ocean, the buildings were supported by pillars to keep them off the ground in case of flooding. Best of all, there were lots of windows! Because Ynga’s new husband was the son of the Almighty Leader, she would live in the women’s chambers in the manor house itself; a beautiful square building that surrounded a courtyard atrium overflowing with bright-coloured flowers.
Ynga knew how truly fortunate her match was. Gathka, her father’s Second Wife, lost no opportunity to inform her that being so uppity and willful was not an asset. But Corin did not seem to mind. Ynga remembered him from their childhood, before his Rite of Passage had taken him into his father’s house, and they had been good friends. She used to eavesdrop on the boys’ lessons and Corin knew it, but had never exposed her. He had grown into a handsome young scro; muscular, large, and tusky, his olive skin gleaming with the rigours of spacefaring life and not without a couple of honourable scars; yet his unusual blue eyes still reflected depth, humour, and a joy that Ynga associated with the blue skies of the early dry season. He was awkward and respectful at their first meeting, though he had warmed up and was cracking jokes by its conclusion.
Corin precisely observed the traditional year of courtship before requesting Ynga’s hand; and if his interest had Gathka stammering, the betrothal had her fuming and frothing. By this time, Ynga was beyond caring for Gathka’s opinion; she knew full well that her father’s Second Wife would not dare to act against her now. She began to grow and harden her claws to prepare for her new status as a married woman and soon-to-be initiated Priestess of the Cave Mother. She remembered that the celebratory feast had been mortifying. Everyone was there, including the Almighty Leader himself, Y’Anid and her new husband Targ, who was Corin’s father’s successor as Clan Champion, and all of their wives, her mother and father, and the other Admirals, Generals and Warlords of the clan; but Corin showed well in the Nuptial Games and in the traditional Boast. At their wedding, Corin delivered a sound beating to the pompous Champion and nearly defeated him. And when he took her to bed, he was diffident and gentle; almost shy. Ynga liked her new husband a great deal, and knew she would grow to love him over time.
The sail barge landed, and Ynga disembarked without prompting, clad in her noble’s amber and one of her nicest dresses. She was delighted and honoured to see that Corin had come himself to greet her, as had his formidable father. She was struck by the close resemblance between them, save the Almighty Leader’s ruddy terra cotta orange complexion, and the landscape of burn scars etched along the side of his face. She declined her head respectfully. But Corin merely grinned and wrapped her in a welcoming embrace. Her uncle the Almighty Leader laughed aloud. “Welcome, niece and daughter, welcome!” he beamed. “My son has been eagerly awaiting your arrival.”
“Thank you, my lord,” she replied respectfully.
Dorin Bloodfist let out a hearty chuckle. “Now don’t you ‘my lord’ me,” he rumbled. “You’re my niece, and now you’re my daughter too, so ‘Durkarr’ or ‘Kor’durkarr’ would be just fine.”
“Durkarr, then,” she smiled warmly back, “and I’m honoured.”
The big scro seemed pleased by her choice of “father” as a form of address. “Well, I can’t show you your room, of course, but your mother is here and I’m sure she’d love to do some catching up with you. But Corin and I have reserved the right to show you around the rest of the manor house, anyway.” He started walking and Corin, gently taking her hand, fell in step. Ynga had not known that her mother was here and she was overjoyed by the prospect of seeing her. “And my sister; is she here too?” Ynga inquired. She missed her sister, who was like another part of herself, desperately. Y’Anid had just written to tell Ynga that she was pregnant and Ynga was excited for her; but her letter had been strange. Sparse was the only word that came to mind, as though she had left out some important details. Ynga wanted to know what had been omitted.
“She’s been sick lately,” Dorin said frankly. “The babies, I think. I haven’t seen her yet today.”
“The trip was uneventful?” Corin inquired softly in his basso rumble that was so like his father’s.
“Sadly,” Ynga said with genuine regret; and at this, the men both laughed in appreciation.
“You see why I love her, Dad?” Corin smiled.
The clan leader clapped his son on the back. “Your mother was similar . . .” He trailed off; whether because the memories written in his eyes were bitter or sweet or both, Ynga couldn’t say. She knew that Corin’s mother had died birthing him, and contrary to all tradition and social convention, he had never remarried. Corin confided in Ynga during their courtship that his father had loved his mother so much that no other scro woman could possibly take her place. The powers of the clan clucked disapprovingly at Dorin’s short-sightedness in public, but behind closed doors, everyone told their story with admiration.
She watched, spellbound, as one of the Scorpion ships rose into the air from the landing site, while the crew of the sail barge finished mooring up behind her. Spelljamming was something that fascinated and intrigued her, but it was considered bad luck for women to be on warships, and with the War of Revenge so thoroughly joined only warships would leave Dukagsh without great imperative. The Scorpion sailed over the rice paddies, the coastline, and the great bamboo walls surrounding the village compound, up into the bright blue sky to vanish without a trace. “Is there anything going on that I should be aware of, my lords, or is this just a routine exercise?” she asked, indicating the departing ship.
They exchanged a glance. “I don’t know what you mean,” Corin confessed. Ynga smiled faintly. Of course not. Women were not involved in warfare.
“Forgive me for being so blunt,” she said, “but with no Lady of the Clan, does the defense of the estate not become my concern as the lady of the Clan Heir?”
Corin seemed surprised, but Dorin barked out a startled laugh. “Yes, I do believe it does,” he admitted. “Your father has been standing in for the role for so long that I had forgotten that it was not his to begin with.” He shook his head, and the tip of a ruined ear was revealed for a moment from beneath his coal-black hair. “But that’s good! I have missed his presence at War Council. To answer your question, Ynga – no, not really. A strange ship was sighted in the area and we’re going to investigate and board if necessary. Pretty routine.”
They arrived at the great double doors of the manor house, which were no different from the ones in the winter fortress except that these were ebony and not iron, and these ones were wide open. The receiving hall was resplendent with its large window bays – still equipped with stout shutters and iron to bar them with, of course – and the stone carvings and cast bronzes depicting Dukagsh and some of the great heroes of Clan Bloodfist in their greatest moments of victory. The end of the hall enshrined the statue that was considered the crowning glory of their collection; Dukagsh and Korr Bloodfist, clan progenitor, with their fists clasped together and blood dripping down their arms, swearing the sacred Oath of the Na’kor. It was said to have been carved in the years following the Exodus by Korr himself.
“Do you like it?” Corin inquired, noting the smile on her lips.
“Very much,” she agreed. She liked the fierce look in the eyes of the scro warriors, captured even in the unyielding stone. She knew in that gaze that they lived and died for each other.
Dorin cleared his throat. “Feel free to decorate,” he invited. “It has been far too long since this place has felt a woman’s touch and Y’Anid doesn’t seem inclined to take that task on. Maybe get some plants in here or something . . .”
“I’ll do that,” she consented happily. Not too much, nothing to detract from the view of the statuary, but she thought maybe a couple of strategically placed fig trees and some vines to frame the alcoves might make it a little less sterile.
They made their way through a large office area, and then, to Ynga’s surprise, an area that was traditionally restricted to the males of the tribe; the War Room, the Warrior’s Quarters, and the Den. “Might as well know where they are,” Dorin grumbled at her questioning look. “You might have to fetch your drunken husband out of there sometime!”
Corin was aghast. “Durkarr, don’t tell her that! She’ll think I’m a sot!”
The Almighty Leader roared laughter and thumped his son on the back. “We’re all sots when we’re celebrating a clan victory, boy! Let’s not have any illusions about it.”
“I don’t have any illusions about that, sir,” Ynga assured him. “I’ve rescued my inebriated father on more than one occasion. And I know where the Den is in the winter fortress, too.”
Corin chuckled. “One step ahead of me, I guess, Ynga.”
They did not allow her into the Armoury or the Temple of Dukagsh. That did not surprise Ynga; such was not the domain of women, nor would it ever be, just as Luthic’s Sanctum was not for any man. But she was permitted in the Staterooms and the Portrait Hall, where images of all the previous Almighty Leaders and Clan Champions were carefully preserved against the sun and humidity. They made it from there to the Family Lounge, and that is where her mother awaited her. Ynga beamed and rushed to embrace her. The crow’s feet at her mother’s eyes crinkled a little as she stood up to receive and return the hug with a broad smile.
“What do you think of your new home?” Elka Bloodfist inquired of her daughter.
“It’s beautiful,” she answered with sincerity.
The older woman’s gentle eyes smiled a little more. “You have been here before, of course, but you were much, much younger.” She looked to the men and announced, “I’ll be taking Ynga to her rooms to get her settled in now. You can see her later at dinner.”
“Of course, Den Mother,” Dorin acquiesced. “I have some things I should probably be doing anyway. When Targ gets back, Corin, tell him that I want to see him.”
“Gul, karr,” he agreed with a salute, easily transitioning from son to soldier addressing his commanding officer. It was a switch that Ynga still didn’t really comprehend; no matter how much she had seen it. But then Corin looked to Ynga’s mother and asked softly, “May I accompany you as far as the galley?”
The smile widened on her gentle mouth. “Of course Corin.” She declined her head towards the Clan Leader, who did the same; and then they headed off in opposite directions.
“How was your trip?” Elka asked her daughter pleasantly.
“Uneventful, she said,” Corin replied with a smirk. Ynga clasped her hand to her mouth to stifle an embarrassed giggle.
“Always a good thing,” the older woman nodded.
“As you say,” said Ynga primly, her expression carefully blank.
But Ynga did not fool her mother. Elka’s red-and-silver braids whirled about her head as she turned and met the blue eyes that matched her own. “Ah, the hot blood of youth,” she sighed. “I think you will be less pleased to invite conflict once you have seen more of it.”
Ynga’s smile faltered. “I’m sure you’re right, durka,” she admitted. She knew that her mother had been through much.
She liked the look of the dining hall; a place of friendly, warm-coloured woods that could double as either a family dinner hall or something more stately, with an excellent buffet table supported by the galley. “The kitchen is out there,” Mother indicated with a long and shapely claw through a door that would lead into the courtyard. “But the tannery is outside the building.”
“Thank the Goddess,” Ynga replied with sincerity. Tanneries, not to put too fine a point on it, stank.
The nursery was equipped for fifty or more small children, but there were only about half a dozen now. That will change soon, Ynga thought to herself, considering Y’Anid. She was pleased to see that the children ran to greet Corin with excitement, and he knew all of their names and introduced them each in turn. Many scro men were of the opinion that their responsibilities in childrearing began and ended in the bedchamber, until their sons were ready for their Rites of Passage. Evidently Corin was not one such. What a blessing!
“Well,” Ynga’s mother pointed out, “the next room is the Solar, so . . .”
“Gul, of course, I’ll be going,” said Corin after a moment’s hesitation. He took Ynga’s hand and kissed her palm gently. “I’ll see you tonight,” he said hopefully. Then he bowed to Elka. “Good to see you, Aunt,” he rumbled with respect; and he took his leave.
“How are you finding married life?” Mother asked with piercing eyes.
“So far, pretty good. Corin is a dear.”
The elder scro woman smiled. “I am glad to hear it.” They entered the Solar, which by tradition was the indoor sitting room for the noblewomen of the clan. Ynga loved it instantly; the metal security shutters that fit over the enormous windows were wide open to the beautiful day and the light reflected off of the bright paint and filled the space completely. A few women were bent over their needlework. Ynga recognized some of her older cousins. They exchanged friendly greetings, but a few looked at her with piercing, jealous eyes. She recognized Nadia, a cousin on her father’s side, giving her a particularly scathing look. She knew that Nadia had desired Corin from the time they were small, and she felt badly for her cousin.
“Do you want the Lady’s Chambers?” Ynga’s mother asked once they had exited the Solar and found themselves in a long passageway with many doors. “They’re not being used. Dorin told me to offer them to you.”
Ynga was touched. How very like Uncle, she thought to herself. But she had seen the eyes of the women in the Solar. “I’m honoured, but I don’t think that would be right. I’m not the Clan Lady. If and when Corin wins the right to call himself Almighty Leader – and I hope it’s not for a very long time – then I will be. Not before.”
She smirked around her tusks. “Wise decision, my daughter,” the priestess acknowledged cynically.
“My mother raised no fools,” she shrugged. Women’s politics sometimes ended in poisonings. It wouldn’t hurt to not get above herself. People already accused her of that frequently.
Ynga couldn’t imagine why she would need anything more than her assigned chambers anyway. Four rooms entirely her own! There was a sitting room (with bay doors and big windows facing the courtyard,) a bedchamber, a private bath, and a wardrobe. The bed was a luxurious canopied affair and the wardrobe was immense. She even had her own couches and a daybed. The entirety of her belongings, which had been brought ahead by the goblins, barely covered one of them.
“I’ll leave you to get cleaned up before we make dinner,” her mother said with a happy smile.
“Where’s Y’Anid, Mom?” Ynga pressed now that they had some privacy.
Her durka’s face fell. “Y’Anid didn’t marry as well as you did,” she explained. “Targ keeps her on a pretty short leash.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” sighed Ynga in resignation. She felt badly for her sister and was doubly glad that she had come. Maybe she could be of some help.
“You might want to try that bathtub,” her mother suggested, closing the door.
Ynga didn’t need to be told twice. She rang for one of the servants to heat water for the bath, and while she was waiting, she set about unpacking her meagre belongings. A good soak in the hot water and some jasmine oil was just what was needed to make her feel at home and relaxed. She did up her mahogany red hair – her source of vanity – in a high piled coil of braids to keep it out of her face, lacquered her claws with more hardener, and dressed nicely for the galley.
She fell into the routine of helping to prepare the evening meal with the other ladies of the house. It gave her a chance to get to know them a little better. Tatha, her father’s Third Wife, was here and they had always gotten on reasonably well. And there was an older woman named Ganna among the concubines who spoke with an acerbic sense of humour that made Ynga laugh.
They brought the meal into the dining hall, where the males were already seated, jabbering excitedly about the details of the War. She narrowed her eyes at Targ the Clan Champion, who was a great grey-skinned scro that hulked over nearly one entire table side. He had married into the clan so he had none of the Bloodfist look to him. While Ynga agreed that new blood was important, she was not certain that his blood was the best choice. He seemed to be everything the women had come to fear about scro males in general; not at all like the other Bloodfist men. She smiled when she saw her sister at the Champion’s side, but her smile faltered when she saw her sister’s pallid complexion and tight-lipped expression as she raised a hand and waved.
But her heart lifted when she saw her father at the Almighty Leader’s left side. He looked a lot like his younger brother, only his coal-black hair had just a dash of silver in it now, and then of course there was his missing eye. Ynga was told he had been born without it, which marked him as having been chosen by Dukagsh and the One-Eyed God to serve as a Warpriest. He often did not bother to cover the empty socket at home and he wasn’t covering it now. She was accustomed to this and it held no mystery or discomfort for her.
Corin looked up at her and his eyes brightened. “Gentlemen,” he rumbled, clearing his throat, “for those of you who have not yet met her, this is my lovely wife Ynga.”
The males at the table tipped their tankards in her direction, and she bowed in reply. “Ah, my daughter has arrived!” her father announced with pride. “Come give us a hug, girl!”
“Once I have done my duty to my husband, durkarr,” she smiled back at him, and she brought Corin his plate. A married nobleman could only be served by his wife when he was home. Many thought it was a tradition born of honour and respect, but Ynga cynically believed that it was more likely a practical way to avoid poisoning – or to know who had done it, should he suddenly drop dead in his soup.
Corin beamed at her and fell to his food. Some of the men applauded softly as she then made her way over to her father and embraced him. “I’d heard she was an uppity thing,” Targ smirked, “but I see that she knows her place after all.” Y’Anid, still sitting demurely at Targ’s side, winced.
“That rumour no doubt came from her stepmother, Gathka,” Ynga and Y’Anid’s father announced nonchalantly as he dug into a large drumstick. “They haven’t gotten along since Ynga was a toddler. So you really can’t take her word for it.”
Less smug, Targ fixed his sour yellow eyes on her. “Well, what do you think, Ynga?” he asked. “Are you uppity?”
There seemed to be a challenge in that gaze; a challenge, and something more sinister. Ynga found herself responding almost before she thought about it. She drew herself up to her full height, met his gaze head on, and replied, “That depends on the perspective of who’s asking, my lord.”
Now it was Corin’s turn to smirk as the warlords guffawed. Targ’s eyes smouldered for just a moment before he returned to his plate. Ynga knew by reputation that Targ was too proud by half. He would not thank her for making him look foolish. And how would this reflect on her sister? Inwardly she groaned. Why could she not seem to ever keep her stupid mouth shut? He would be a dangerous enemy to aggravate.
The timing could not have been better, in her opinion, for the alarm bell to clang. The men jumped up from their plates, startled, and reached for their axes and maces in the racks behind them. Those who had removed their armour for the day now slapped on what pieces they could. Y’Anid handed Targ his axe while Ynga ran to assist Corin with his straps and buckles. He was swearing under his breath.
A commoner soldier came into the dining hall and saluted. “Strange ship landing, my lords,” he announced. “It’s a Hammership and it’s flying a jack.”
“Pirates?” demanded the Clan Lord incredulously. “One ship of pirates?”
“Mercs, more likely,” the father of the girls corrected him. “And they probably didn’t know about the wedding. Three guesses as to who sent them.”
Dorin’s eyes narrowed. “Good point, Olaf,” he concurred. “Well, let’s get to it, lads, before they breach the compound.”
A cacophonic roar followed this pronouncement as if on cue, and the ground trembled. Several hard fragments of something rattled against the outside wall. “Too late,” the Warpriest observed.
“To arms!” roared Dorin; and he charged towards the north door, which was closest. The other lords of the clan followed.
Ynga yanked open one of the linen cupboards and tossed out tablecloths. Her mother’s eyes sparked with recognition of her intent. “Make bandages!” she commanded, and most of the women fell to it, hacking a start to a strip with the dinner knives and tearing them free.
Once there was a pile, Y’Anid scooped it up and charged after the warriors.
“Where are you going?” cried Ynga.
“I’m a priestess!” Y’Anid shot back. “I’m going to heal the wounded!” With that, she was out the door. Ynga followed her.
– from Brothers in Arms (Toy Soldier Saga book 2).
Diane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author. Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012). Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power will be published by Red Wheel / Weiser in September of this year. Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.