Recap: The Connarii are making their way through the mists of a featureless land, the gateway to the Otherworld(s) in search of a new homeland. Crown Princess Edana and ambitious upstart Camlin have just been awarded co-leadership of a yet-to-be-formed guard in the absence of the warband, who were lost when the Connarii were banished. This is a huge opportunity for Edana, a chance to prove her leadership capabilities, as well as her martial prowess, but she takes it as a failure to have to share any of her power with Camlin, and it doesn’t help when her ‘troops’ think the whole thing is a joke.
The scraped-together band of trainees, b-string recruits and elderly has-been warriors certainly didn’t take their king’s declaration at face value. They rolled with laughter as Toryn announced Edana’s position; co-captain with Camlin, at that. A handful of men stood upright with expressions ranging from distaste to full-out disgust fixed on their faces.
Camlin grinned as Edana’s eyes widened. She stepped forward, and a few more of the men stopped laughing and looked questioningly at Toryn.
“And what exactly-” Edana planted one hand on her hip, dangerously near the dagger strapped there, “-is so amusing?”
A flurry of shouted answers to her question rang out from between the guffaws, although slow patches of confounded silence were spreading. Some of the sharper, or less intensely amused, youths began to realize that something was wrong. The range of unwise comments mainly focused on Edana’s gender and a deep-rooted doubt that her combat skills rendered her deserving of the posting. The hilarity petered off into stillness as Aislynn, in full druidic regalia, stepped up beside her sister, who was staring into the middle distance with steely eyes.
“Fools.” Aislynn said crisply and with genuine regret. A number of young men looked crushed. Aislynn was well-liked, even respected among many members of the tribe for her gentleness, knowledge, and generally elevated position (her delicate beauty didn’t hurt her popularity among the ranks, either.) To put it bluntly, they worshipped the ground she walked on.
“It is not as if there has never been a female warrior before.” Aislynn continued more gently. “There is even precedent for a woman battle-chief. You forget your own history. The Connarii of old were much more varied in their skills. In these uncertain times, it is only fitting that some of our customs change with necessity.”
“And if any doubt my capability to lead, let him choose his weapon, and I will prove my worth, and the worth of the Ffarach bloodline, in front of any who care to watch.” Edana raised her staff, edging her sister off to one side. Aislynn rolled her eyes, but turned back to the men.
“Camlin and his men may go and prepare. The rest of you will gather at the head of the tribe and ensure that you are properly prepared for the responsibility of protecting our people. Your captain will join you shortly.” More than a few of the men looked as if they would have liked to argue, but under Aislynn’s steady gaze, none were willing to speak up and the crowd dispersed. Camlin looked less than pleased as he stumped off with his band in tow.
Aislynn waited until Edana’s group had vanished into the mists before turning to her sister and laying a hand on her shoulder. Edana stared off after the men, and spoke without looking at her sister.
“You should not have interfered.” Edana was quiet for a long moment. Aislynn waited. “They thought I was a joke.”
“You cannot blame them.”
“Really? We grew up with those boys, ‘Lynnie. I trained with them, right from when we couldn’t hardly stand to lift the wooden training swords. I’ve beaten most of them, at one time or another. Not to mention, you and I carry the purest blood of the Connarii in our veins. That means power, however you look at it. How could they dismiss me like that? I’m perfectly capable of-”
“Of what? Overturning generations of implicitly understood beliefs? Of eliminating an entire social gender scheme? Of razing centuries of tradition? Revolution is still revolution to the young. You have a chance for change, not a promise of it. Did you truly expect them to accept you without question?”
“I didn’t expect them to laugh.” Edana breathed the words, her face turned away from Aislynn, as if she were ashamed.
“You didn’t think, or you would have. You’re too focused on what you want. You never try to see it from their perspective. The world is more complicated, people are more complicated, than you give them credit for.”
“I’m not stupid-”
“No, no, of course you’re not–“ Aislynn smirked, “-you’re my sister, after all…”
“Very funny. You’re hilarious, you know that?”
“The point is, take it easy on your men. If you’re a good leader, they’ll come to love you for it, and obey you all the better when needed. In the meantime, try to remember how much of a stretch this is for them, and be patient-” Aislynn held up both hands as Edana huffed and half turned away, “-I know, not really your thing. Think of it as a learning experience.”
“You know, I never liked learning. That’s your love.”
“You loved learning to swing those ropes of yours; this is just an extension of those early lessons – the next step in your training. You know how to fight with your own power; now earn the right to guide the power of others. Learn to lead. You can’t seize leadership; you have to earn it. Now, hurry up. Your men are waiting for you.” Aislynn squeezed Edana’s shoulder and stepped back. Toryn stood a few steps away, just watching. Edana shook her head and looked at him.
“What is there left for me to say?” His shoulders rounded as he stood. “I don’t want my eldest daughter, my heir, going out where she can be hurt-” Edana’s expression turned mutinous; Toryn hurried on, “-I also can’t argue with Aislynn – you are as qualified as anyone now left in the tribe to lead the warriors. It would be unfair of me now to keep you from combat after letting you train all those years. Make me proud, ‘Dana.”
Edana grinned at the nickname, turned, and strode off. Toryn sighed and looked at his youngest, running the feathers of her cloak through nervous fingers – ragged, smooth, ragged – and staring after her big sister.
“Am I right?” He looked away as Aislynn blinked and focused on him. “Is she ready? In some ways, she knows so little of the world, of the people. She does not have your maturity and wisdom.”
“Nor should she.” Aislynn’s hands left off preening the feathers and stilled, calm as usual. “Edana is Edana. That is what will save her and give her the strength to triumph. It’s time for this responsibility. She’ll learn quickly, and be the better for it.”
“If she survives the learning.”
“She’s strong, father. That fire in her will burn up any obstacle. She’ll come out fine.”
“Then, if the tribe survives the learning. They can ill afford to bear the scars of youthful flames.”
Edana laughed, suddenly bright and carefree, “Stop worrying. We could all use a distraction. Flame may burn, but it also warms and illuminates. It brings out the color and texture of life. She may be the best thing for us all right now.”
Toryn wanted to smile back, but he couldn’t let go of the worry that he’d made the wrong move. Sure, that Blyc boy was irritating, but maybe it would have been better to keep Edana out of it and deal with the boy alone. Boys grew up and became men. They grew strong and fierce, warriors for the tribe, leaders. Girls… girls grew up to be mothers. Healers. What was he stealing from his daughter by letting her take this path? What choices, what opportunities, what future joys?
Toryn knew the weight of leadership, the burden of responsibility for all those lives, the burden his wife had softened and shared in their short years together, the burden that his daughters now shared, but even so. It was one thing, knowing, discussing, even advising, and quite another being the one in charge, the one responsible for lives and livelihoods, the one who the choice came down to when a sacrifice had to be made.
She wasn’t ready. She might never be ready. Too young, too inexperienced, too brash and careless… Toryn had half a mind to call together the men again, to take it back, to appoint one of the doddering old warriors to lead, or one of the more promising trainees. But Camlin, with all his talent and popularity, needed a strong partner to keep him in check, and Edana, for all her faults, would never lack loyalty to the crown. No, there was no way he could take it back now. She’d never forgive him. And without a male heir, if she could prove herself in leading the men and earn the trust of the people now, they would follow her anywhere, support her as queen… It would ensure security for another generation in another land.
It was a crazy plan, but as long as she didn’t get herself killed, alienate the warriors, fail spectacularly or lose the trust of the people, it might just work.
Edana marched through the camp and planted herself directly in front of the pack of lolling young men that she was to command. Hands on her hips, she surveyed the boys who were sprawled across the ground, joking and idly sparring. A few peeked at her out of the corner of their eyes, but were careful not to acknowledge her presence. Their ages ranged roughly from the early teens to barely twenty, with a handful of geriatrics standing stiffly around the edges. Anyone older than the boys and still reasonably mobile had been a veteran warrior, and included in Corwin’s very final excursion, while any boy younger was still at the basic training stage, and not considered eligible for service, even in the current extremity of circumstance. Edana briefly considered accelerating the training process to increase her forces, then shelved the idea for further, and timelier, consideration.
“On your feet.” She ordered. A couple of the youngest warriors quickly got up, and even more rapidly sat down again, feigning a misplaced and untimely nonchalance, small faces flaming, as their comrades roared with laughter. Edana walked straight towards the group, and then through it, as the novice fighters hurriedly tumbled out of her way, yelping as she trod on fingers that were too slow getting out of the path of her feet.
She turned slowly, giving the boys a good look at the weapons strapped around her body. By the time she faced them again, the troops were silent. It was an impressive arsenal, especially when suspended on the small frame of a girl. Brandishing her staff, she paced slowly backwards.
“In my great wisdom,” Edana said, baring her teeth in a disturbingly wide smile. “I have come to the astonishing insight that you are not pleased to be under my command.”
The men were dumbfounded. Many were starting to look nervous, their expectations shifting. Edana grinned, catlike, pleased with the early results of her hastily conceived tactic.
“Come on boys,” She smirked, pacing. Cheerleading and cajoling really weren’t her thing, but she was starting to get into the role. “I’ll forgive you – if you stop rolling around in the muck down there and stand up like men. Come on! You are warriors of the Connarii, the best and brightest of the tribe. You are guardians of our people, body and soul. You are responsible for the honor, pride, and ongoing life of the clans – now let’s get out there and show them what we can do!”
Most of the youths were on their feet now, fingering their weapons and nudging one another. If they weren’t quite inspired, they were at least intrigued. A couple of sullen boys still lolled insolently on the ground. Edana gave the men standing a brilliant smile and waved them into position on one side, turning to face the much smaller group that remained on the ground.
“What? Not tired, my lads? Not too fatigued to defend your tribe, I hope? On your feet, before all the good posts are handed out.”
“I’m not taking orders from no girl – even if she is the king’s daughter.” One spotty boy grumbled.
“We know you ‘Dana,” Another put in. “Your fightin’ s‘all for show. You’re no battle-chief, just a curiosity-like.” A couple of the trainees chimed in with their approval for this statement. The seniors just stood, impassive, at the edges, staring blankly at nothing. Edana lifted one golden eyebrow, and turned to the men standing to one side, watching carefully.
“Obviously it’s been far too long since I’ve been in the sparring ring with any of you.” She told them, her lips curving up at the edges. When she turned back to the critics, who had risen warily, the smile had widened to a wolfish grin. A couple of their number had slunk off to the side, but there were well over a dozen still remaining. Edana reached over to draw her sword, so that she held both sword and the staff at the ready.
“Come on, then. I’m a fair person. I won’t lead men that are forced into service. Let’s choose, here and now. First man to best me takes leadership of the First Guard.” Edana declared, staring down her opponents one by one. The first youth to speak stepped forward.
“I’ll take that challenge.” He drew a heavy double-handled sword. Three years older than Edana, at eighteen he stood head and shoulders above her, his body nearly twice as broad. Though not the oldest recruit, he was certainly one of the largest. He had barely escaped being called into action, and trained at a level nearly on par with an adult Connarii warrior. With a roar he put his head down, brandished his sword, and charged. Edana stepped aside and rapped his wrists with her staff as he passed, sending his sword flying. He skidded to a stop and stared.
“Stop playing around. Go get it.” She pointed to his sword. He walked over slowly and picked it up. Edana scanned the small knot of dissenters and gestured at the second man to speak. “You, join him this time.”
The young warrior blinked, then shrugged and walked over to join the first attacker. They stood together and watched Edana.
“What’s this? You don’t want to be captain? You’ve got to win it, boys, and to do that, you’ve got to beat me.” Edana brandished her weapons as she taunted them. “Look. I’ll even put down the staff.”
She tossed the polished length of wood off to one side and beckoned to the two men. They looked at each other and charged. Edana dropped to the ground just before they reached her, sweeping the feet out from one while she disarmed the other. She beckoned to two more men while the first two regained their feet and weapons.
“Come on already. I’m getting bored.” She announced when they hesitated. This time, instead of taking them out right away, she played with the novice warriors, slipping between their blows while tapping their legs and torsos with the flat of her blade. After a few minutes, she confiscated their weapons one by one and left the four standing flat-footed, red faced and blowing like a herd of winded horses.
“Let’s have the rest of you, then.” She ordered the remaining hold-outs. They were learning a little, by this time, and spread out to surround her. Edana laughed, her eyes alight.
“Captain, a dozen opponents? You’ve already proved yourself. This is ridiculous.” One of the men standing off to the side called out. Others of Edana’s men added their support. A couple of the youngest looked visibly pale, while the oldest looked on speculatively, grumbling appreciation at intervals, and sniffing at the poorly trained lads. She bowed to her supporters.
“I’m happy you’re convinced. Allow me the opportunity to turn your comrades as well.” Edana gestured to the circle of men, a ‘come-on’ beckoning that brought hectic fever-flushes to their angry faces.
In groups of three and four they attacked. Edana danced between them, leading the men to trip over each other as they lunged after her. She sheathed her sword and dove into the center of the pack, flinging her arms outward as she flipped upside-down. She planted her hands on the backs of the churning combatants to spring high, twisting over the melee.
Edana released the cords on her arms as she flew, flicking her wrists to direct them at the boys below. The cords coiled around the combatants, restraining them while at the same time pulling her back towards them with increased velocity. Several hit the ground as she landed. Others she tripped with the cords, while doling out kicks and blows from every angle, using the tension on the whips to spin and weave through the infuriated and increasingly befuddled troops. After a couple of minutes, the would-be captains were sensible enough to stay down. Edana stepped away from the heap of men and bowed to her applauding supporters.
“So?” She rolled her neck to work out the kinks and adjusted the cords coiled around her arms. “I understand you’re convinced. Think they are?”
She turned back to eye the combatants, who knelt, sides heaving and heads down, weapons laid in front of them.
“We’ll swear to you, captain.” The first dissenter told her, panting. “You may be a lady, but you can fight. Blood tells. We’ll do as you say.”
Edana nodded. “I’d hoped you’d see it my way. One thing, though. I’ve trained long and hard to get to this point, and I’ll expect the same of each and every one of you.” She scanned the ranks, making eye contact and taking the measure of each boy and man. Some gazed back in open admiration or awed fear, others avoided her glance or still gazed sullenly at the ground. She nodded again. Hardly surprising. “Now. I’ll take your oaths, all of you – then into formation. We’ve got a job to do.”
Two hours into the second day’s march, the fog thinned. By the fourth hour, Edana pointed out to Toryn, who had advanced to the head of the column to survey her troops, that the ground had become visible beneath the shifting mists. It was dusty, grey, and arid, but it was also the first solid thing they had seen in two days. Cries sprang up from the villagers behind as each group noticed the ground anew. An hour later, the ground had brightened to a pale, grungy yellow, and the occasional stone littered the dust. By this time the mists had thinned to the occasional stray wisp floating along the ground.
“Father,” Edana called. “Look. That mass on the horizon. What does that look like to you?”
“Cafan’na! A forest! We’ve made it!” Toryn noticed Aislynn running up from the side of the column. “Look, daughter! You were right. We’ve made it to the Otherworld!”
“Hush, father,” worry creased Aislynn’s smooth forehead, “this is not right. Look at this place! I am afraid that these are not the bright-lands that we look for. Keep the people together. If this is not the shining land of the tales, it could be a very dangerous place indeed. We cannot know what is here, waiting for us.”
Edana frowned, while Toryn grumbled, “Well, now what?”
“Go forward; we can hardly return to that horrible fog! Let’s go find some trees!”
“Right then. Edana? Forward!” Toryn waved the eager families on.
The long line jolted into action, men and women scurrying forward, slowing only to snatch up children and belongings as they rushed towards the reassuringly solid horizon. Edana’s guard had to work hard to stay ahead of the masses, struggling to maintain their dignity and alertness as they dashed forward, peering in all directions at once.
The mists, however, still floated vaguely around the villagers, and the far russet bounds of the distant forest never seemed to grow closer.