The chill wind blew across the stone ridge, causing Hagarsh Farthang’s mane of stringy black hair and the layered hides he wore to flap around him like tattered banners. His small, deep set eyes squinted and his jaws worked on the tough wad of fat, spices and jerky his people chewed against the cold.
Crushfang, the ax that symbolized his position at head of the entire clan nation, rested on his shoulder. One side of the head was a hammed iron crescent set at the edge of a polished slice of stone. The other as a rounded stone hammer, polished to a gloss. Clan mystics of a generation long past had caused a small, gnarled tree to grow up and around the head, forming the still living haft. Crushfang was the weapon of the clanlord and was said to only allow its holder to die when a suitable clanlord was ready to ascend.
Speaking of clanlords, Hagarsh’s gaze drifted beside him.
There was only one other person beside him on the ridge, surveying the army arraying to meet the Nomagomarr Clan in battle down on the plain. Grell Farthang, Hagarshdottir, the prospective next clanlord of the Nomagomarr and candidate for the next to raise up Crushfang when he fell.
His daughter was dressed in hides just as he was, with a cloak she’d made herself from the leather of the first greatseal she ever killed on her own. It was the symbol of adulthood and its seamlessness made him swell with pride.
Children often dithered when they hunted their first greatseal, and for good reason; the beasts outweighed a full grown warrior by several times and sported tusks and claws that were used later by the clan as precision cutting tools. They usually worked to wear the beast down, bleed it out, striking at opportunity. The process usually destroyed the hide and the resultant coat was sewn from the scraps.
Grell spent an hour hounding the monstrous beast, but never made a move against it until she saw her opening and opened it’s throat with two quick blows. The coat was made of a single, unmarred span of leather because of that and it was a mark of a great warrior. Not even Hagarsh’s own first coat, nor her mother, Koenya’s were as whole.
The girl had the haft of her own ax planted in on the stone in front of her and she leaned on the top of the head. She wore a leather helm, her wild, brown hair mashed down behind her. Her eyes, large and gray like those of her mother’s clan instead of small, brown and rather piggish like his own, were narrowed against the wind and she kept a close eye on the army of the city dwellers below.
“You might be late.” He warned. “They have a champion down there somewhere; he might keep them fighting for days. And if they fall back to wait out a siege…”
“I won’t be late.” She said evenly. “If we have to siege them, I’ll leave from here, Clanlord, I promise.” In battle, even Hagarsh’s own mother was required to call him Clanlord, but he hardly felt it right for her to be so formal if this would be her farewell. But he was just as bound by tradition as she.
“And the champion?”
She lifted the twenty pound ax easily and moved into a mock battle stance. “I will name my ax on their champion.”
Aside from the ax, she had a set of bronze daggers on her belt as well as a stone hand ax. Most warriors carried one or two javelins as well, but at the moment, Grell was short enough that they would drag behind her. Women of her mother’s clan rarely gained height before their sixteenth year and even then, never became the lean,towering women like Hagarsh’s sisters. They tended to remain compact and heavily muscled.
Hagarsh nodded to her. “If I spot him first, I’ll shout for you.”
He looked over his shoulder at his own warriors. There were five plainsmen to every warrior. The city was badly prepared, especially considering that this raid was instigated by their city lord’s insults against him. His clans never took much in their raids, only killed those who fought. It was more about tradition then need in these days when the Nomagomarr traded with the people of the hotlands and the steppe, and even as far away as the Shield Islands and the mountains beyond the plains.
But the city lord had to make this an issue of honor. And he had to be shown the error of his ways.
And on top of there, he had his daughter to think about. “Do you have everything you need packed?”
“I do, Clanlord, everything for the journey, and everything I’ll need to live there for the year.”
“Excellent.” Hagarsh’s voice was a deep rumble. “I’m proud of you, Grell, getting into Gruuma’s. Only one or two from each nation get to go there. I hope you see the great honor and strength this puts on your shoulders. I only wish your mother wasn’t putting down the Addagota Clan uprising so she could be here to see you off ”
Grell nodded. “I will send messengers every week and I will make you pride in my grow massive, Clanlord – the pride of the entire clan nation.”
Hagarsh nodded again, pulling on his own leather hood, studded with greatseal teeth. “I know you will. Now are you ready to hunt that Champion and give that ax of yours a name?”
“Then let this begin.” He turned his massive frame to his warriors, who all rose to attention. Among the clan nation that dwelt on the islands called The Dragon’s Teeth, leaders gave no speeches on the brink of war. Speeches were only for glory won, not glory expected or wished for. Anyone that wanted a words performed well in battle and inspired them in the skalds.
Instead, Hagarsh raised Crushfang high, threw back his head, and roared, long and loud. Grell, beside him, added her voice, and then so did every warrior present. Joined together, they called up an unearthly howl that echoed off the stone slope above the beach where the Nomagomarr had landed. It carried down to the army of the plainsmen, causing their skittish, poorly bred horses grow skittish.
As the war howl reached it’s fever pitch, Hagarsh turned and set off down the hill with powerful strides. Grell wasn’t far behind and soon after the entire raiding party was spilling up and over the ridge, pouring down into the plain below.
Much like their city lord, the marshals of the militia charged to stand against the raid hadn’t learned anything in years of contact, both peaceful and violent, with the Dragon’s Teeth clan nation. From the back ranks, a volley of arrows was loosed. All that did was make the clan warriors lower their heads and shield their faces.
Perhaps, Hagarsh idly wondered, that tactic worked in battle with other plainsmen. It was no secret that the plains were poor in all metals, and maybe there wasn’t an animal on the grassland with hides as tough was the greatseals’. Only a handful would fall injured to the arrows, maybe an unlucky one would die, but by and large, the way to hurt one of Hagarsh’s raiders with an arrow was shooting them directly in the face or neck with them, not lobbing them into the air and hoping they came down with enough force.
Arrows pelted down around them, their stone heads sticking in the seal hide of their coats and cloaks until every warrior resembled a thorn covered demon. The raiders closed before a second volley could be fired. Grell, younger and far more eager beat her father to the front lines. Here, the plainsmen prepared for the charge by setting spears.
Letting them see her wicked grin, she shifted to a one handed grip and plowed into them, striking the head off one spear with her ax while bounding close in with its bearer. Her free hand drew a bronze dagger as she came and she plunged it into the man’s unarmored armpit, seeking the heart.
His lifeblood sprayed out on the dry and trampled grass of the battlefield and he crumpled. Grell ended the men to his sides with swift, efficient ax blows as the stared in disbelief. Plainsmen were strange like that; always bewildered and confused to see the young in battle.
Koenya, once told her daughter that this was because the children of the plainsmen were weak, not having the benefit of mothers who built themselves up for battle and supped upon the meat and fat of greatseals and mammoths.
That always puzzled Grell; the plainsmen always only met attacks with forces composed only of men, never women and certainly never the young. But how did they have adult male soldiers if the boys never experienced battle?
It obviously hurt their battle acumen, as she was easily carving a deep gouge through the dumbfounded lines of the plainsmen, leaving a hole that was quickly being filled with a wedge of raiders. Her father would be doing the same further down the line, and between them, they would divide the force into thirds.
The way the enemy fought, forming up neat lines on the open plain, lent itself to this, and yet they insisted upon it instead of bunching up at their gates and forcing the raiders into a bottleneck.
Finally, a spearman worked up the courage to commit a full thrust at her. She took it in the forearm of her free hand, the head sheering through the leather to bite into her flesh. Pain throbbed up her arm and just as she’d been taught, she used it to fuel her actions.
She let out a defiant roar and cut the spear in half, reversed the direction of her swing and did the same to its bearer. The spearhead would have to stay where it was until she had time to properly see to it, so she just cut away the haft before barreling onward.
With the throb of the wound making time with her heartbeat, the battle fell away into a savage routine. Plainsmen foot soldiers were always poorly armed and armored; they were mostly conscripted farmers serving at a city lord’s pleasure; fodder throw against the armies of other city lords to win slivers of land. They were never meant to meet the sheer strength of the warriors of the Dragon’s Teeth, or the mobility of infantry from the hotlands kingdoms.
Where one appeared before Grell, or attacked from the side, she put them down with her ax. Eventually, this started to seem too easy, so she started making disabling blows instead of kills. Her father frowned on this; it was inefficient on the battlefield and cruel besides, considering that the plainsmen mystics reportedly only tended to the city lords and their officers.
But at least it was a challenge. She ducked a whirling spear, ignored the exposed ribs of the man wielding it, and sheared off the toes of his right foot, sending him topping to the ground. The other raiders would tell her father what she was doing, but for once, she couldn’t be punished; she was going away once the battle was done.
Going away to the school. She’d been away from home on private hunts and trials before, but never so far and never to go among people different from her own. Gruuma’s would afford her opportunities only few of her people ever got. But all she could think of was sparring.
She was tired of lazily slaughtering plainsmen who barely knew basic spear stances. She wanted to match skill for skill with a hotlands shield bearer, a steppe tribe mounted marauder, or a two-blade duelist from the far south. Her life was too easy, as far as Grell was concerned. Gruuma’s would force her to push herself, learn new things, and become worthy of the title of clanlord.
A low note came up from the battlefield to her right; Hagarsh’s war horn. He’d found the champion.
Fast, brutal strikes felled spear men like saplings as Grell made her way to him. Suddenly, the wall of enemies was gone and she was in a clearing of trampled dirt. Three dead riders and their equally dead mounts lay there; skulls and rib cages ruined by the might of Crushfang; the champion’s former honor guard.
Grell frowned. She had wanted to take those too, but Hagarsh never made any promises on that end, and probably couldn’t help himself in the rush of battle.
And there was the champion, sitting high astride his white horse, protected by steel plate. The champions were officers of their city lords; properly trained and heavily armored with the best their particular lord could trade from the Shai-ye city-states. Most of the time, they were the only ones worth fighting.
This one was fighting to keep his horse under control as it reared and turned, shying away from Hagarsh who worked his way around the animal, engaging any of the plainsmen foot soldiers that dared enter the clearing where he now had the champion trapped.
As Grell approached, he finally gave up and leapt off the animal’s back. In the same motion, he unshipped his massive, two-handed sword from his back. Feet firmly planted, he whirled around in an intimidating display of swordsmanship before starting toward Hagarsh’s exposed back.
Grell let loose a shout and charged. The noise made the Champion turn. Despite his training, when he turned, he, like so many plainsmen, didn’t see a warrior with lethal intent, but a girl of fifteen. He didn’t know what to make of her. In his culture, children were to be protected until adulthood and women were fragile, delicate with a few exceptions that would be considered embarrassments. He hesitated and it almost cost him his life.
Only just in time did he bring his sword around into a clumsy parry. The strength of the blow took him off guard and he was forced to give up ground or fall. Grell didn’t give him time to recover, hammering at him again and again, each swing causing him to lose another step.
The champion didn’t understand what was happening. How could a child, not only a child but a girl child score such punishing hits? How could someone her size even lift an ax like that, much less one handed? This was no child, he decided. She only looked like one.
His resolve now girded, he pushed into the next hit, using sheer mass to force her back a vital step. He raised his sword, only to find it forced back further by a dagger that seemed to just materialize in Grell’s hand. The other hand raised her own ax and struck a ringing blow against his helmet, making the world swim before his eyes.
Stumbling, he planted his sword to keep from toppling over. He would have been safer falling. Grell dropped her dagger and gripped the ax in two hands, putting all her strength into the swing. The keen edge fit almost perfectly into the slit in the champion’s visor, sheering through the mesh meant to keep his eyes safe from debris.
The champion fell, blood fountaining from his crumpled helm. Grell stood over him, raising the newly named ax, Gouger skyward and letting out an undulating exaltation over his body. The plainsmen ranks lost all morale at seeing this and broke under the onslaught of the raiders.
They fled back for the city, the raiding party hot on their heels and prepared for the pillage.
Only Hagarsh remained, Crushfang leaned against his hip, arms folded. He laughed boisterously and with pride. He remembered well his first champion and the feeling of accomplishment that came with it.
“That’s my girl.” He said with a broad smile. “I’ll summon the skalds to make an epic of this at once – this one’s a keeper!”
The Bright Moon’s light reflected off the gentle waves, their patterned marred only by the low slung rowboat maneuvering up to the stone pier that was cut directly out of a rock shelf that stuck out into the bay.
There were three in the boats; two deeply tanned men, young, strong and broad chested form a lifetime of rowing, and a tall, thin woman. The men wore light, cotton shirts, the only protection they needed from the cool of a night on the Sea of Coral. The woman was dressed elaborately in blue dyed leather pants, a blood colored shirt tied with a yellow, silken sash, a wide brimmed straw hat on her head and a massive woolen coat that billowed like a cape in the light breeze. Her foot was propped up on a large wooden crate with slats cut out of the sides.
A lone figure waited for them on the pier. She was taller still than the woman in the longboat and wide enough in chest and shoulder to almost make two of her.
Gruuma of the Broken Mountain, whose honorific was Ulath-raui or ‘Facepunch’ for her celebrated defeat of the Eldest King of the Four Spires with a single crashing impact of her fist, Wash wrapped in an expansive fur cloak over a woolen robe and thick, leather boots. Her thick, black hair was tied back from her face and hung down her back, her ebon skin covered with the tattoos of clan and caste long left behind. She raised a hand as the longboat came alongside.