Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Six Thegn Quean

Episode One

by David Ulnar-Slew




DEDICATION

This is for my daughter, who inspires me everyday to believe that one way or another, a piece of me that is good and useful will carry on into the future.



Hunger Pervades

The Band of the Jackal thundered across the flat land of the Mill Steppes. They moved like a great beast, hungry and wild. It was the job of Tuhn Brid to keep this beast fed. He stopped his horse and looked off into the distance at the last farmland before crossing the Loft Mountains. His stare seemed to go far off in the distance as if what was in front of him wasn't really his focus. The bandit horde's second, Ret Unif, knew better. The keen mind behind the eight days growth of beard and layers of trail mud was busy at work considering their next move. Ret stopped his animal next to the leader and stared in the same direction. Seeing no reason to break the silence he waited patiently. Neither man used words needlessly; this resulted in everyone listening much more carefully when they chose to speak.

"Come ride with me over to the woods edge, Ret. We have things to discuss." Tuhn was never a man to create a sense of drama. There was no doubt a practical reason for his request. He turned his mount and started towards the wood's edge several hundred feet from the line of the moving horde.

Ret turned his horse and followed. If Tuhn had something to say that was not for the ears of the horde, it was important. Enough at least to obey commands even in a horde where every man thought he was beholden to no one in the end. He had learned to trust the judgment of his mentor and friend. That trust had never failed him. He was rich with wealth hidden in many places along the coast of the continent. It was good to be the second; you could be almost as rich as the leader and there was no target on your back every day of your life.

He caught up to the bandit chieftain at the edge of the woods. Tuhn had turned his horse so he was half looking at the riding horde and half looking at the nearby settlement of Mulish. He looked pensive, like something was undecided. He knew Tuhn was not indecisive by nature so the question at hand must be weighty indeed.

Ret knew he had the right to speak first to the leader, especially in private company. "Mulish looks quiet. Are we going to take them?"

"We took them out of necessity right before spring so we had enough to lay low." The older man shook his head.

Ret nodded. "Fine then. We have enough to cross the mountains to trade at the southern cities. We will get them on the way back. They will have pulled in the final harvest by then. We can use them to supply for the winter again this year."

Tuhn looked torn. "If we do that, some of them will starve. It will mean less for us the next time we pass through the following year."

"So be it. We will cross the mountains further west and leave them alone the following year to bulk up." Ret paused to see his leader's reaction to his proposed plan.

"Very well. Let some of them die. It will keep them in line anyway. It is best that way. Come, let us catch up with the others. I don't want them crossing onto the pass without us. They can be fools when left alone for too long." Tuhn turned his mount and moved off. Ret followed closely behind.

#

An old woman trembled in the brush at the edge of the forest. She dared not move nor make a sound. When she later told her tale she would claim she had not even breathed. She wanted to live, so she dare not give herself away. Nana Crowley just wanted to gather mushrooms for stew. She thought it would be a fine surprise for the family on a cool spring night. She now was frozen in terror in a bush. She had heard everything. She had to get to the village. They had a horrible problem. She did not know what they would do. Perhaps no one would know there, either. This was quite horrible. She rose slowly and began to hobble as quickly as her old legs could move back towards the village. She hoped someone would know what to do. She certainly had no idea where to start. The gods seemed to hate Mulish today indeed.

Bow No More

The village was not a place which was ready for a new problem. Open argument was no stranger these days right in the town square. Taxes, hunger, and hard work made good people hard to live with. Fear was a poison which took root and soured even the happiest of places. Nana Crowley's news caused a near panic. Arguments were rampant.

Two voices grew louder than the rest in the square. The meister Reichart and the trader Naomi did not like each other one bit. They had very different perspectives on what would happen. Neither guaranteed to be for the best for the town, but both were most likely to be best for the party presenting the solution. Reichart, former soldier he was, wanted to be the hero again and defend what was his. This was popular with some, mostly the young, hot blooded and unwise. Naomi wanted to buy off the bandits when they came. This would hurt her purse quite a bit, but she would not lose everything like some of the times the town was raided. This played well to the older villagers, though everyone knew while it would cost the trader some gold, it meant less to eat for everyone else this winter. She would be fine one way or another. Some of the others may or may not starve by sacrificing some of their share of the harvest. She had reserves of gold, hidden no doubt, and the means to buy food from other cities where the bandits could not or would not raid.

"...and that is if the whole crop is not withered by the Gods. The bandits will be here soon as well. Remember that!"

"Quiet, woman; men are speaking!" Reichart, the town meister, boomed over everyone's voice. "If the bandits come, this time we will fight and keep what is ours!"

"Do not tell me to be quiet, you fool. We have half as many people as the horde did the last time they visited, and our people are farmers, not fighters." Naomi Trull was not one to back down from the likes of him. She didn't run the trading post since her husband's death by being soft. She possibly had more to lose than some of the others because the post had some goods which had value beyond being food and the bandits had bankrupted her family more than once over the years. "Besides, you are the one who refused to pay taxes to any kingdom on either side of the mountains. So now we have no flag and no one aids us!"

"Witch, hold your tongue, or I will pull it out." Several men held Reichart. They succeeded. This showed her that he really didn't want to go to her and was making a show for the crowd.

An aura of silence sprang up from the left of the crowd. They began to part and the little man standing there commanded everyone's eyes with his presence. He was older than anyone else in the village. His robes were black and stiff. A square hat sat on his little bald head. It was his only badge of office. The only other thing which adorned him was the necklace with the sign of his god. Torg, his apprentice, held his elbow and helped him forward. He looked from meister to trader and cleared his throat.

The voice was soft. Some say he spoke softly on purpose because he knew others dare not ignore him and he wanted to be sure they concentrated lest they miss his words.

"We can't fight them."

The trader smiled. She thought that meant that a part of the harvest would be sacrificed and she was safe.

The little man cleared his throat again. "We can't afford to starve. If we are to starve even a little, let it have purpose."

The woman sprang forward. "We can't fight them. You know that. What would you have us do?"

"Not us."

"Then who, old man? None care for us. We're alone." She folded her arms in front of herself and scowled. That she showed even that small bit of defiance was a serious sign of her stalwart position.

The priest waited, so it was understood that he felt no need to reply quickly. "We will hire others to fight for us then."

The meister and the trader both laughed out loud. They immediately regretted showing even that much solidarity judging by the look on their respective faces.

The big man got his words out quicker. "We can't afford better than the hands we have right here. We are strong country folk. We can protect ourselves."

The woman soon followed. "This village is poor. You all have no money. It makes no difference to me which fighters bankrupt me or who they fight for. How do you intend to pay warriors, priest?"

Again the old man let the silence sit for a moment. The situation bordered on chaos but he remained with his hand on the bridle. "We will give part of our harvest to those who would fight for us. We will have less this year, but if the bandits know we will do this they may go elsewhere next year and forever more."

"Warriors fight for gold. They don't fight for gourds, grain, and potatoes. Have you finally lost it, old man?" This made the majority of the crowd look at the trader. She had crossed a line. The old man was a revered one, not to be spoken to like that.

The old man waved his free hand slowly back and forth as if to banish the tension of the insult. "Even the fiercest bear in the forest needs to eat. We live in a dark time; all the gold goes to the big cities. The bandits come here and steal food, not gold. If times were good we would not worry because we have no gold. There are some out there who need to eat but have the honor to not steal. We will find them and offer them what they need for what we need."

"I hate to agree with that crazy woman, but this will not work, your reverence." The big man clasped his hands in front of him in a pleading gesture.

The old man shook his head. "It will work. I know this because I want the two most qualified people in town to go to the city at the crossroads to find our saviors. I am sure the two of you won't let us down." The old man stared at the meister, then slowly shifted his gaze to the trader.

Both stood speechless. Neither had the courage to deny a direct request from the man who held the real power in the village. Every other person in the village loved him more than any other and trusted him. In their eyes he spoke for their god. The die was cast. The plan was made. The old man nodded and turned to head back to his hut next to the church with his apprentice in tow.

The meister stared at the trader. She shook her head at him. He spat on the ground.

"Meet me here at daybreak and be ready to travel. I have no need to be away from my store for more than a day or two!" She turned on her heel and headed to her home. He did the same. Both knew that this was not going to be a pleasant trip.

The two met the next day in the square as the sun crept up. Neither had slept well and both were sorry for the company they were to keep on this journey.

"We may as well get moving. It is a long ride to the crossroads. Where is your horse, silly woman?"

She scowled at him. "Do you really think it is wise to go to the crossroads to beg for help offering food as payment while riding a good horse, idiot?"

The man seemed ready to retort. Then thinking for a moment, his face changed. She had a point. He did not want to seem wealthy at a time when many would be asked to give to save the village. Uncomfortable as it was, it seems it would be best to walk to the cross roads. He grunted what was probably half frustration and half assent. He turned back toward his home to stable the horse. If it were not for the obvious silence of the morning he would swear he could hear her grin behind him.

Lost at the Crossroads

The road to the crossroads was long and the company not pleasurable. Reichart just wanted to find some warriors and be back to the village. His desire was nothing in comparison to the trader's, though. She looked more nervous than many men do before battle. He knew each day she was on the road with him was a day of lost business for her. Even worse, it was one more day wasted in her quest to liquidate her inventory and find ways to hide her wealth. The big fellow grinned as he thought of her anxiety. As far as he was concerned she deserved every last moment of it. This trip might have some bright side after all.

Naomi knew he was watching her. He could just be damned. They would find the first available ruffians and get back to the village so the real preparations could be made. She would sell everything before the snow came, then send the proceeds by messenger to the city. This whole trip was meaningless. She had things to attend to which were much more important. Any collection of fools would do to die along with Reichart fighting bandits. Her only concern was finding the appropriate rubes and getting them back to town so the old man would approve and leave her to get things done at the trading post without upsetting her customers.

#

"There is the crossroads." He pointed with his beefy hand at the horizon. "We should be there before nightfall. It will be good to spend a night within the gates. I am sick of sleeping on the ground and desire better company."

She grunted. "You mean whores and beer. You wouldn't know good accommodations if the gods dropped them from the sky and they landed on your face."

"Woman, your tongue has gotten loose and sharp since your husband died!"

The trader stopped. Her dagger came from in her cloak and went under his chin quicker than he could have imagined. "You will not speak of my husband again, clod! He was a sainted man, and for your information, he put no restrictions on my tongue. If you feel the need to speak so freely I will either remove your tongue or perhaps my loose tongue will wag at your wife. She would be thankful, I am sure. Does she know about your fun when you visit the crossroads?"

Reichart knew now was not the time to test her. She very well may cut him by accident, she was so on edge.

"I am sorry, Naomi. Let's not be rash. I am sure we can complete this little errand and get back to the village without any extra problems. My wife is worried enough with all this talk of bandits. There should be no need to weigh her mind down more with speculation of problems with her husband. Right?"

She made the knife disappear as quickly as it came. She started back down the road. "I suppose we could do things that way. Please remember to watch your loose tongue!" She chuckled and threw her head back. "Let's go, fool. We need to make it to the gate before dark."

They went the remainder of the way in silence. The sun was just setting as they came to the gate. Two guards who had obviously seen better days leaned on either side of the gates. One may have even been asleep. They were more clerks with halberds than warriors. They served the purpose of monitoring who came and went and securing the gate at night. The real reason no one attacked the town was the private men-at-arms the merchants retained to ensure their goods were not stolen by anyone inside or outside of the gates.

If the village could have those men they would have half as many bodies and twice as much skill as the bandits when the time came to fight. That was just a pipe dream though. They were hired on a cash-only basis. The village would have to pool their gold for a month to hire three or four of them for a week. They also were not very fond of being heroes. Most hired swords at the crossroads liked to be on the side which was guaranteed to win before the fight even started. Skilled didn't always mean brave.

Naomi got there a moment before Reichart. "Hail, guard. We are coming from Mulish."

"Whatever. Pass quickly. We have to close the gates so we can finish our watch." The first guard nudged the sleeper with the blunt end of his halberd to wake him.

The two villagers shared a look that showed solidarity. These were definitely not the men they were looking for. It seemed even the crossroads may not be the answer. Everyone here may be too expensive or too incompetent to be their savior. Where were they going to find warriors competent enough to fight the bandits but desperate enough to accept the wages they were offering?

"The tavern." Reichart sped ahead. He was eager to taste beer and pinch rumps.

Naomi grunted in disgust. He was headed to the right place though. If they were going to find people who like to fight but had no money, then going somewhere that men spent too much on booze and women was a good start. "Fine, let's see what rooms they have available."

The tavern was called The Angry Man. It had a sign with the silhouette of a man swinging a sword over his head. Rumor had it that the tavern was supposed to be The Conquering Hero. The goings on there with the serving girls and the bar fights led to everyone referring to it as The Angry Man from the very beginning. The name stuck and became notorious so the owner stopped fighting it. He didn't really care what they called it as long as they spent money there and he had it when they left.

It started to rain. That suited her mood. Reichart was almost to the door before she was halfway there. She pouted at his back. He needed to focus on finding warriors and less on vice. She could have done this by herself much better. The villagers assumed that because she traded and chose not to fight that she could not. They would be ill if they even suspected the truth. She probably had more blood on her hands than any ten men for hundreds of miles. That was a different time, in a different life. There was a happiness to her life now, even though Tom was no longer with her. She had no desire to go back in time, even if she could. Naomi also knew that even if she cared to fight she could not stop the bandits alone. It was doubtful she would find anyone here that would change the odds enough to matter, either.

Reichart had already stormed through the door in search of alcohol and women. She pushed it open and shook the rain from her cloak. The room was filled with the stench of smoke, beer, meat, and sweaty men. It was enough to turn a stomach. She saw her erstwhile partner already with a mug in his hand slapping backs and chatting. His companions must be casual acquaintances because she could not picture many wanting to be his friend. There was a corner near the front wall that was vacant, most probably because it was near neither the fire nor the bar. She wished she could be near both but had learned long ago it was better to be near the door in a place such as this. She went to the corner to remove her cloak and sit. Being frugal with her time, she absent-mindedly signaled for a server as she sat, not wanting to wait too long. She saw the girl coming from the corner of her eye as she sat.

"What can I get for you, Ma....." The girl paused, which caused Naomi to look up fully.

"Oh, three-legged Thunderbird shit!" Naomi had her knife out in a flash and in the girl's ribs. "Why are you here, Cammi?"

"Please don't kill me. We are all here. Yes, we were looking for you, but aren't any longer, and please don't kill me." Tears were forming in the statuesque girl's eyes. She wasn't stunning, but could have been called comely. The tears were probably a ruse as Naomi had seen her pick a full grown man off his feet and throw him twenty feet once in a bar much like this.

"You are all here? Who is all?" The dagger pressed a little more.

"Katlyn, the twins, and Grenda." This news did not make Naomi seem at ease at all.

"Where are they right now? Lie and I will know it and they will be cleaning your organs off the floor after closing."

"Katlyn minds the bar. You can just see her from here through the crowd if you watch. The twins are both upstairs entertaining...."

"Whoring."

"Yes, they have taken to it better than fighting. It allows them to remain in themselves yet be excited."

"And the poisoner?"

"Grenda is the cook."

"What?" Naomi's eyes bulged. "The poisoner is the cook? What kind of place is this?"

The surprise on Naomi's face seemed to give Cammi courage. "Many things have changed. Home is not home any longer. What started as a search for you has turned into a permanent change of life for us."

"Did Thegns come with you?"

"Yes, fifty. All dead. This kingdom was not keen on banditry close to the capitol. The Thegns did what Thegns do and took what they want when they wanted it. The king's guard disagreed, to their detriment. One hundred twenty-four of two hundred twelve of them died to prove that point to the fifty. We were on patrol. The remaining kings-men did not think to look for five more of us, especially not women. It could also be argued they were no longer in the mood for a fight by that time."

Naomi nodded. "Lucky them."

Cammi returned the nod. The knife pressed slightly less into the big girl's midsection but was still plenty close enough to kill. "I promise you, if you take the knife away, nothing will harm you. Grenda has taken charge and forbids killing. We have no place to take you back to anyway. The king was displeased that fifty killed so many of his, so he sent a force back to look for our village."

"How many?"

"Five hundred."

"And?"

"One guardsman survived to report their victory to the king. Our clan is done."

Naomi's dagger slipped back under her cloak as Reichart approached quickly followed by two men. Oddly, they kept going towards the door. She saw as they passed that one had a blade in his back. It seemed, despite her thought that things could not get any worse, the gods had more in store for this evening.

An Unfair Fight

The two men pushed him through the door without the courtesy of moving the latch. Reichart went flying out into the rain and landed face down in the mud. He was already so drunk he had trouble raising himself up on hands and knees. The bigger of the two men sprinted forward and kicked him just as Naomi got to the door. She knew that this ended badly no matter what she did from this point. Either she interfered and the men would fight her and die, or she let them kill him for the gods only knew what idiocy he had done. She was considering her options when she felt Cammi come up behind her along with a few other gawkers. It was most definitely Cammi because the hand in her back was using Thegn raider touch-speak to let her know that she was not alone and her back was covered. Moreover her hands were huge. This night could not have gotten any more dramatic and weird if one of the gods themselves made an appearance.

She went out into the rain and only then heard what the two men were saying to Reichart. It was then she understood his error.

"So we are offered crops to fight instead of gold. You have the stones to make such a measly offer, then to insult us further by claiming it would be overpaying if only we two came to help. We will show you how we fight, villager!" The smaller man kicked him in the mouth. The larger tough seemed to be tiring of just beating him and considered the knife he still held momentarily. This is where Naomi had a decision to make. If she tipped her hand here and now, and Cammi was not telling the truth, she would be fighting these buffoons when the others came. Reichart was about to be dead; she wasn't sure that she minded that out of hand, but that would not help save the village.

She darted forward and struck the larger man's hand sending his knife flying. He turned immediately to strike whoever had hit him. Apparently he wasn't that drunk and was fairly well trained. It wasn't going to be a problem, but wasn't a pleasant surprise nonetheless. The fist aimed at her head went a bit wild and probably would have knocked her out as it traded power for accuracy in its execution. She dodged it and shoved her own knife right into his throat. There was no reason to prolong this. He fell back taking the knife with him. She made the slightest momentary mistake and looked down to assess Reichart's condition. She could hear the other man's running start for the charge he was building. Naomi would be caught standing square-footed regardless of how she moved. As he closed the distance a large shape parted the rain. Cammi's punch swung halfway around her body and caught him in the chest. The sound of branches snapping cracked above the din of the rain. The man's chest ceased moving before he hit the ground. She looked big even for a Thegn girl but even that was deceptively underestimating her actual strength. If Naomi had not thought ogres were the scary night stories of the mountain people she would think their blood ran through that girl's veins.

She looked at Cammi, then down at Reichart. The young girl did not seem to be threatening her in any fashion so she bent to help the brutish fool off the ground. She heard stirring at the entrance to the tavern. It was now time to meet the horde of drunken friends the two dead men had, who, also drunk, did not see the danger in confronting two women that had just dispatched two rather robust men in mere seconds. The entrance was awfully full. Apparently these two were fairly popular, given they had been part of a larger party of seventeen that had come to the crossroads looking for work. While she had not lost a step since the day she started trading and stopped fighting, and Cammi seemed fit as ever, it was troubling. There was winning, and there was winning without large holes in your flesh. Your average Thegn was not supposed to fight with consideration to being wounded. Two things made that moot, first she was smarter than the average Thegn; the other, she was a Thegn Quean and very much frowned upon being cut by her lessers in battle.

Cammi had on a pair of metal knuckle rings which engulfed her fists, smaller cestus than she was usually known to wear, but then again Naomi had no idea where the girl pulled even a pair that size out of comfortably. She went over to the larger corpse and stepped on its face while she pulled the knife out of his throat. The remaining fifteen warriors had taken their time getting to the door to watch their comrades beat a drunk, but it seems they had all arrived. A few even had the courtesy to come armed. It was very possible that unprepared, outnumbered, in the rain such that it was, Naomi was going to die with an old friend she had not seen in five years till moments ago. If this wasn't folly of the gods she had no idea what was.

Reichart was stepping forward toward the men as if he was capable of doing anything in the state he was in. Both women grabbed a shoulder and flung him back through the rain between them. He landed with an awkward thud and grunt.

"Stay there!" The women thundered in unison.

The fifteen seemed to be a little wiser than the average tavern drunk, as they were hesitating slightly and discussing their approach in hushed tones as they carefully made their way down the short path between the tavern and the road. The most reasonable tactic, given what they had witnessed, was chivalry be damned and swarm the two women, stabbing until movement stopped at the target. As always, outside of the Northlands, men did not give women their due and they went with the ridiculous plan of coming mostly three across and five deep at the women. It was only menially that well organized. There were three at the front and the others stood behind them in a mob.

Cammi posted her trailing leg; Naomi followed suit. The best strategy to start with was to create an unmovable wall of pain and injury to reduce the numbers. They would fall back with the push and try not to allow themselves to be flanked early on. Hopefully they could kill four or five before the others got around to the sides. It was a bad plan. There weren't many better options. Just then it seemed a few of the group at the back dropped like sacks of wheat. That probably left twelve or so. They could have just tripped. More fell. That was not quite half of them. The front men started to notice the disruption. Grenda stood upright behind them with a rather large needle device in her hand and shrugged. Her crooked smile and sandy blonde hair was a sight for sore eyes considering the circumstances.

"Sorry, fellas. I figured going to sleep would be better for you than dying badly." Grenda seemed amused to see Naomi. She winked at her over the warriors' heads. Four of them turned towards her and their unconscious comrades. The remaining four turned back toward the other two women. Naomi considered that that was hardly fair for Grenda when the butt end of a dagger hit the back one on the furthest right in the head. The one next to him dropped a moment later. Katlyn's innocent giggle followed the daggers soon after. Her short boyish hair and sharp cheekbones made her seem much younger than her twenty-five summers. The remaining two in the back merged in with the front four to create a defensive circle. Odd bit of luck wasn't it? Now they were on the defensive so soon after coming out fifteen strong to fight two women. The biggest, dumbest looking one waved his sword over his head.

"There is still six of us and four of you witches. We should kill all of you, nothing could stop us!" He tried to put some growl into it but the gals had been growled at by the best and it was left wanting by quite a bit.

Naomi smiled at him demurely. "You six on us four would end badly for you, trust me. I think you are mistaken about our numbers. If I were you I would put your swords down while they are still attached to your hands; the next to enter the fray aren't much for talking."

The shuttered windows on the second story shattered outwards flinging wood everywhere. The two dark haired, dark skinned sisters fell through the air and landed in animalistic crouches. They were nude and haphazardly painted in colored grease and animal fat. The left growled deeply in a hushed tone, keeping her sister in her peripheral vision. If Lilith charged, Eve would follow. Lilith was making a noise that was growling but also undulated. It was disconcerting even if you had spent a lifetime hearing it. It promised of pain and blood. The sisters were twins but pack animals always had a pecking order and Lilith was the Alpha. She would have been the Alpha even if more Berserkers were present. Eve sidestepped to be closer to her sister. She leaned forward pressing the large metal hook devices she held in both hands to balance her. Lilith swiped at her sister with the bladed mace she carried in what seemed like slight attack. It left a small gash in Eve's side. She returned the favor by pushing a blade on the far tip of her weapon into Lilith's shoulder. The pair's heads tilted back and they screamed in rage and charged. The six men dropped their swords and raised their hands. Grenda and Naomi both shouted at the top of their voice.

"Hedh!"

"Hedh!"

The twins stopped just short of the men with weapons raised. They leaned in and snapped their teeth at the men. Eve leaned in and swiped her hook at one who skittered backwards a few steps. One of the drunker ones peed in his britches.

Naomi cleared her throat. She cast a glance at Grenda because she understood that the situation was still precarious for more than one reason. Grenda nodded her assent to let Naomi take charge.

"Gentlemen, no one here has died beyond these first two blackhearted drunks who intended to kill a drunk man in the rain. Why don't you pull your drugged friends back into the tavern and we will just end this now?" The men began nodding, seeing the infinite wisdom in her words. They began picking up and moving their limp comrades back toward the door.

The women grouped up while glancing around for other threats. Katlyn was missing. Naomi felt there was no sense in delaying the inevitable.

"Grenda, you look well. Do we have issue?"

Grenda looked at her sternly but gave in with a laugh. "No sister, there is no issue, mostly because there is no clan to return to. Therefore there is no clan geld to pay for the use of the river. That means you have no need to marry anyone from the plains clan. It is just us now, as it should be. Katlyn has gone for the wagon and our supplies. She will only be a moment, then we can leave."

"Well, about that," Naomi did the very uncharacteristic foot shuffle of a village woman with nerves, "I have put down some roots I intend to return to."

Grenda just laughed louder. "Very well, we shall come see your roots, then!"

Naomi just smiled. They heard a shuffle in back of them and all turned ready to kill.

"I hate to intrude but did that really just happen?" Reichart looked quite gobstruck. This was going to take some explaining.

Take the Long Road Home

The wagon clattered down the central trail, followed by the twin sisters on matched ponies. It had taken quite some time to even get the sisters to concede to riding an animal. In the end they preferred it to being inside the cabin structure of the tinker's wagon the crew had bought. They were taking the lengthy way home, which was most probably the safer and less adventurous way as well. They needed time to talk, and felt the long way could avoid unnecessary trouble. Katlyn drove the wagon while the others talked inside.

"So you got married after all that running and fighting to not be married?" Grenda was playfully incredulous in her jibe.

"I loved him. He was kind and safe. He made me want to stay." Naomi hid the slight tremble of her lip as she spoke.

Cammi put her big arm around her shoulder and embraced her in a hug that looked like it could crush the breath out of a full grown bear. Naomi just nuzzled into it acceptingly.

"He died four winters ago. He got fluid in his lungs. Neither the healer nor the priest could do anything. One night it was just too much and he stopped breathing." She tucked her head into Cammi's shoulder.

"Not the way a warrior should go." Grenda shook her head.

Naomi spoke very softly. "He wasn't a warrior. He was a simple man with a simple life, full of love; uncomplicated, peaceful love. I shared it with him for a time. The village we settled in has become home to me. That is why I want it to be safe. I thought I needed my money and goods. I was wrong. I just want my home; my safe, happy home."

Reichart looked up from the tea he was brewing on the little stove in the cabin. "So, am I to understand that not only are you from the Northlands, but you lead a band of warrior women? It was you who argued against fighting."

"I had lost my taste for it. I thought my goods and gold were important. Ever since Thomas died, I focused on the business. It was all I thought I had. He loved the village. He would have chose it over wealth. I honor him better by helping save it."

The cabin was silent momentarily. The squeaking of the turning wheels counted rhythm as they traveled. Then they stopped.

A loud baritone boomed from outside the front of the wagon. "Hello, ladies and assorted occupants of yonder wagon. We, and by we I mean myself, Snigin, and my men, are the Back Forest Fellows. We will be robbing you today. I hope to not hurt anyone during the robbery but that is not requisite in this transaction."

Naomi tensed. Grenda waved her hand at her and smiled. The poisoner leaned out the window and bayed. "Snigin, shove off or I will have the twins ride up and kill you. I swear I will."

"Bugger me. Katlyn, why'd you have to go riding down the road like that, and why are the twins so far back. Forget it, boys. Less you want to bleed today. It's them Thegn girls."

Naomi saw Grenda turn back into the wagon. "We did a little time on the roads before settling at the inn. Snigin's band of forty went down to thirty the first time territory was disputed. After that it was all understood quite well till we left the open road for the crossroads." She leaned back out. "Snigin, point Katlyn in the direction of your camp, then come in for tea. You may be interested in what we are discussing."

"What are we doing? Why are we going to their camp?" Naomi was getting a little tense. This was a strange situation and Grenda had the information, therefore she had the upper hand. This as a rule made Naomi uncomfortable.

"Snigin knows every band of thieves, bandits, raiders, and thugs for hundreds of miles. He is as much bard as bandit. Really for the most part a good fellow. He will know who your horde of bandits is and what they are about. We should camp with them. It will be safe, safer at least than the open road. The King's guard have been strangely absent lately around these parts. It seems he is having a bit of a personnel issue."

All the women laughed and shook their heads. Reichart looked puzzled; he had not been let in on the joke.

Paradise Under the Stars

Snigin's camp was fairly civilized for being in a gully in the woods. There were some wagons and tents, even a small makeshift structure or two. This band was putting down roots even if they were small ones. The distinct lack of guards as you got further south became increasingly conspicuous.

Snigin yelled over to them as they were making their camp. "That fool of a kinglet would let his pride get in the way of running his kingdom. This is why teenagers should not govern. He is concerned with playing how-big-is-my-cock with Thegn clans. He can neither conquer or pacify the Northlands he doesn't even want. "

Naomi approved less and less of the state of things the more she learned of the goings on in these lands. It served her right for hiding in a southern border village with her head hidden for years. Snigin himself was a font of information.

It seemed the local constabulary around these parts wasn't very stalwart without royal troops backing him up. He and his deputies divvied up whatever they could carry at the guardhouse and rode northeast toward the capitol. Since then it had been everyone out for themselves south of the central plains, according to everything he had seen or heard. The bandit horde that crossed the mountains to the southland for the winter near her village was one of the results of this anarchy.

Snigin spoke while he ate, which was unappetizing enough that others refrained from eating while listening to him. He wasn't a bad looking fellow per se, he just ate like a mongrel who had been starved for a week. "So the main part of these bandits seems to be a group of fellas named the Band of the Jackal, named after the wild dogs they got in the greener sections of the South kingdoms. There was probably about sixty of them and they didn't do too bad. They popped over the mountains in the spring, spent the summer, and popped back down south for the winter. Those are probably the boys you're used to seeing. They wouldn't even bother robbing a village like yours too bad. They just needed enough food to keep moving till they got to civilization where the good stuff gets taken. So about a month after spring broke they get into some kind of scrape up with another band, not sure who. This ends with one big group and new leadership after the smoke clears. Since then every band they come across bigger than three or four guys gets the choice, join or die. I figure they are about four hundred fifty give or take a few dozen, last I heard. That's not a crew, that's an army. Even if they don't gain a man in the South I'd say your village is done if they even raid it for supplies on the way back. I wouldn't count on that though, they seem to be up to something and that something is making them grow."

Grenda held her chin on her hand as she listened to him. "How long ago did they meet this other group?"

Snigin wiped grease away with the back of his hand. "I heard about fifth or sixth month of the year."

The poisoner looked at Naomi and shook her head more in hope than knowledge. That was about the time the band of Thegns they were traveling with supposedly died at the hands of the guard. The only one who really knew what happened was one survivor of the massacre. One survivor who probably didn't want a petulant boy ruler to take the life he had narrowly escaped with by bringing truthful news that was worse than a convenient lie. If the Thegns won and returned home to find the clan slaughtered, this was monumentally bad news.

Naomi shook her head in despair. "Grenda, who was leading the band that came down with you?"

"Tuhn Brid came himself to fetch you and brought Ret Unif with him to present you to him the moment he caught you. Ret Unif swore a blood-oath to Tuhn Brid to bind the clans in anticipation of receiving you. He was now our clan."

Naomi turned to Snigin and leered. "You never heard this, thief, or I will skin you myself, do you understand?" The bandit visibly blanched at the threat. "Tuhn Brid lost his clan so he builds an army for revenge. It has been generations since a kief built a horde. This is unbelievable. We have problems beyond the village."

The others had come to join the three at the fire. They had not heard it all but the end was enough. The women were staring in shocked silence. War was coming to the kingdom of Oltance, perhaps the entirety of the midlands. The North and south of the mountains were not safe either. Once the horde was built it would always move and always take whatever it wanted or needed. It became like a beast which had a life of its own and had to be fed.

Snigin knew when there was tension which had to be broken so he hopped up and let out a whoop. "Come, ladies, whatever trouble is on the horizon is not coming for us tonight, so eat and I will have a few of the boys play a tune. We can drink the little bit we have around the camp and then sleep well. If I get the gist of what you are saying I may need to talk with the boys about going our separate ways tomorrow. It doesn't seem like a good time to be a band of thieves is coming very soon."

The women did begin to eat and drink a little. Reichart had joined them. He had not been privy to the earlier exchange so he was a bit cheerier. "Hey, Naomi, guess what?"

"What, Reichart? Why are you smiling?"

He grinned even wider. "I think I convinced a few of these boys to come and join us at the village. Five or six of them think they might prefer warm huts and full bellies to this life and are willing to stave off bandits with us as the cost of admission."

"That is nice, Reichart, can we talk about it tomorrow?" She could see by his face he was confused by her dour countenance. He thought he had just had a stroke of overwhelming luck; he could not have known she saw it as piddling in the wind right now.

He turned and continued his meal, confused but not unaccustomed to Naomi being sharp with him, though she had been amicable since saving him at the crossroads. There was no need to tempt fate though, so he let her be.

The twins had settled at Naomi's feet by the fire. When she looked up Grenda was looking at them.

"They missed you. I was able to get them to mind, but never like you could. They are good girls though. I knew the minute I saw you it would be that way. The same with Cammi. Hell, Katlyn and I as well, I guess. Things would have been bad if Tuhn found you; we probably would have all died fighting them before letting you be a gift."

The twins growled softly.

Snigin cocked an eyebrow. "What is the story with them sisters anyway? Are they berserkers? Feral?" A noise came from Lilith's throat that sounded admonishingly threatening. Naomi just ran her fingers through the girl's hair in response.

"The girls are what is left of a southern trade ambassador's family. Notice the dark skin? The group met with a bad end with a pack of dire-wolves. The girls were toddlers then. Apparently from the best we have ever figured, Lilith took Eve's hand and began to run. They got lucky and headed toward our village. The wolves were busy fighting then, eating large quantities of meat. Too busy perhaps to see smaller game sneak off. I was on patrol with Grenda, we were youths ourselves. We found them half dead in the outer perimeter of the village in the snow. We sheltered them, nursed them. When they grew they trained as warriors, though they never spoke. Then they were chosen as berserkers. Women had not been chosen in generations, and even then it was perhaps one in a century or two. It is the stuff of legends. They scare even some berserkers because they are always ready and require very little ceremony to berserk. The girls consider it a concession to me to be clothed at this moment. The wolves got their comeuppance though, didn't they girls?" The twins mewled. "I doubt that even now there is a pack of wolves within a hundred miles of our clan lands. The girls have quite a collection of outfits and blankets at home. It is the envy of everyone in the cold lands to the North." This caused all the women to laugh. There was a solidarity and righteousness when they laughed together like that.

"So, are they dim?" No sooner than Snigin had said it than the twins both leapt over the fire and pinned him to the ground, their faces inches from his.

"They are not by any means. Now you have insulted them, which means a debt is owed. I think they will let you choose whether they take it in blood or another fluid though." Naomi snorted a little bit.

Now Snigin's voice cracked, "How do you know that?"

Grenda answered first. "Dear boy, if blood was the only option, you would already be dead." This again made all the woman laugh and smile.

The twins rose and each grabbed an arm and dragged him off towards the tree line.

Cammi nudged Naomi in the ribs. "Might be tomorrow he wishes it was blood they took!" Reichart shot mulled cider out his nose and began to cough spasmodically.


Coming soon ... Episode 2


Copyright 2015, David Ulnar-Slew

Bio: David Ulnar-Slew was born in Innsmouth, MA, to Dutch immigrant parents of the famous Diepeen family, grew up in Newburyport, MA, and moved to an undisclosed location in the woods of VT in 2010. For ten years he taught Dark Magic to cannibal dwarves in the American Southwest. His first book, "Possible Flash Damage" is what he calls, "the beginning of Humankind's indoctrination into the ways the Elder Gods want us to think."

The truth:

David Ulnar-Slew is the nom-de-plume of Ed Sullivan. He is the former flash fiction editor at Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Editor-in-Chief at Cheapjack Pulp. He needs a pseudonym because his given name is not terribly good for him in terms of search engine placement.

He would also be pleased if you were to visit:

http://www.cheapjackpulp.com

E-mail: David Ulnar-Slew

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