No True Clanswoman
© 2014 by Tyler F.M. Edwards.
The light of the jump faded as Breena emerged from the space between worlds and stepped onto the grass of her homeland.
The Clanswoman’s fiery ponytail stirred in the wind. It was the middle of summer, but in this far northern clime, the air was barely warm, and the winds carried a hint of the chill that never quite left this place.
She raised a hand to cover her eyes against the bright midday sun and surveyed her surroundings: a vast plain of grass, lichen-covered rocks, and small scrub bushes. No trees grew in this land. A shallow river meandered its way across the plain, surrounded by herds of reindeer, and by its shore were two long halls of wood and thatch.
These were the halls of the Marg clan. Her clan.
Breena took a deep breath and started towards the halls, using her wizard’s staff as a walking stick. Returning to her people conjured a confusing mixture of feelings: nostalgia for her childhood, anticipation at seeing old friends again, memories of the malaise that had gripped her during her many years with the clan, and a vague sense of unease.
She became acutely aware of the weight of the bracelet on her right wrist. Drogin had given it to her two weeks ago, on the night he had asked her to marry him. Forged by Drogin’s technomancy, it was a band of dark metal inset with delicate lines of silver that depicted the magical currents needed to activate a jumping point.
The wedding was planned for the autumn. Drogin said the autumn leaves would match her hair.
Breena knew she had made the right choice. Drogin wasn’t exactly the great warrior-poet Clanswomen were supposed to be drawn to, but despite that – or perhaps because of it – she loved him deeply. He was a humble, honest man without guile or conceit, and just thinking of him made her smile.
Drogin’s imprisonment and the other horrors of the war now known as the Redemption had shown them both the importance of living life to its fullest, and they had been almost inseparable since the fall of the Arcanids. Even with the hardships of once again rebuilding the world, the last few months had passed like a pleasant dream.
But that didn’t make what lay ahead any easier.
She drew close to the Marg halls. The scents of old leather and reindeer droppings met her nose, and the sound of laughter echoed through the air. Summer was always a time of good cheer for the Clanspeople.
“Breena!” a woman’s voice called.
Despite herself, Breena grinned.
A stocky woman charged from the crowds around the halls, red hair billowing, and swept Breena into a crushing bear hug.
“It’s good to see you, Skani,” Breena said, her voice sounding strained as her ribs creaked.
Skani was her cousin, and a fellow wizard within the Marg clan. She and Breena had been the best of friends for as long as either could remember.
Skani at last released her, allowing her to catch her breath. Skani was nearly a head shorter than Breena and more solidly built, but they had the same crimson hair, freckled faces, and blue eyes.
“Welcome home,” Skani said, grabbing Breena’s hand and leading her back towards the clan. “Breena’s back!” she called.
In a matter of moments, nearly the entire Marg clan had dropped what they were doing and gathered around to welcome Breena back, and she found herself surrounded by familiar faces she had not seen in months.
There was Vindar, Skani’s brother and the only other Marg wizard to have survived the wars. He shook her hand and clapped her on the shoulder, giving her a broad grin that she readily returned.
Next came old Grenta, who had looked after Breena in her early years while her parents were busy. She kissed Breena’s cheeks and apologized for not having any crystallized honey – a treat she had used to bring Breena.
Then there was Tirfing, a great bear of a man with a long, dark beard. He had been her first love, and they’d stayed on good terms even after their romance had fallen apart. He swept her into a warm hug, showing surprising gentleness for such a large man.
When Tirfing released her and stepped back, she shook hands with Brodar, the Marg clan’s chieftain. He had led his clan, and ultimately the entirety of the Clanspeople, to aid the southerners during the Retribution. His hair had gone white, his face was weathered and beaten, and he wasn’t as muscular as he had once been, but he still exuded the same authority she remembered.
“It’s an honor to have you back with us,” he said, his voice gone rough from years of shouting to be heard over winter winds and clashing Automatons alike.
Breena blushed and glanced downward. “The honor is mine,” she said.
The parade continued as she was reintroduced to the people she had laughed, cried, fought, and celebrated with for most of her life. Their smiling faces and warm embraces filled with a sense of comfort, of home.
But still, her palms sweated, and her stomach knotted with guilt. She saw the love and respect each and every one of them felt toward her, and she could hardly believe she was about to say goodbye to them all.
At last, the clan finished welcoming her home, and they stepped back to give her some space. Her heart fluttered as she tried to find the right way to tell them she was leaving.
“You picked a good time,” Skani said. “We were preparing for a hunt, and we could use another staff.”
Vindar nodded, still grinning.
Breena felt her pulse thrum with anticipation, and the edges of her mouth turned upward. I can tell them later, she told herself.
“What are we waiting for?”
* * *
Breena lay on a grassy hillock, feeling pebbles press into her chest and stomach. A pack of Marg hunters surrounded her, perfectly silent.
She inched forward and peered over the crest of the hillock, spotting her quarry. A large herd of musk ox spread across the field below. She turned her gaze to the surrounding hills. To her right, Skani raised her staff, its silver crown winking in the bright sun to signal her readiness. To her left, Vindar did the same. Breena rose to a crouch and held her staff aloft, showing that she, too, was ready.
Skani’s staff flashed, and three squads of Clanspeople leapt to their feet and charged the herd.
Thunder split the air as magical explosions burst in the center of the musk oxen. The herd immediately panicked, scattering in all directions.
Breena drew on the ambient energy and caused another flurry of green-white explosions before her. The oxen turned from her display, bolting away from her and her squad. At the same time, Vindar summoned a similar volley that turned the herd from his group.
Meanwhile, Skani used her magic to guide half the herd away from the rest, allowing it to scatter across the plain and away from the Clanspeople. This half would be spared. They did this not of compassion, but practicality. If they hunted the herd to extinction, that would mean less food for them in future.
Breena’s legs burned as she ran in pursuit of the remaining oxen. Around her, her fellow clan-members whooped and cheered, their cries merging with the continued magical explosions summoned by Breena and the other wizards, serving to send the musk oxen into a further panic.
The familiar cacophony sent Breena’s heart soaring with exhilaration, and even as her lungs burned with each labored breath, she pushed herself to run faster, refusing to let anyone overtake her.
The wizards slowed their spells, seeing that the oxen were already in full stampede. Only when the herd started to break apart or turn from the clan’s desired course would Breena or one of her cousins send out another volley of earth-shaking explosions to guide them back into line.
The Clanspeople could not hope to keep pace with the musk oxen, and they started to pull far ahead. Breena was forced to project her spells farther and farther to keep them on course.
The continual drawing of power and her breakneck pace wore her down, and her body begged her to slow, to rest. But she knew it would not be much longer now.
The foremost oxen suddenly disappeared from sight. The whoops and cheers around her intensified as more and more musk oxen vanished. Within moments, the last of them had toppled over the edge of a deep pit the Marg clan had dug long ago for just this purpose.
Breena at last skidded to a halt, her comrades doing likewise. She bent over her, placing her hands on her knees, and gasped for air. Her face was nearly as red as her hair.
Some of her fellow hunters congratulated her or clapped her on the shoulder.
“You haven’t lose your touch!” Skani called, walking over with her group.
Breena smiled weakly.
Once the hunters had caught their breath, they headed toward the pit. It was deep enough that nearly all of the oxen had died instantly from the fall, and the few that survived were crippled. A series of rickety old scaffoldings connected by ramps ran down the far side of the pit, and the hunters began to descend it, pulling out large knives for use in butchering the oxen and putting those still alive out of their misery.
Halfway down the middle ramp, the coppery scent of blood, tinged with pungent musk of the oxen and a sickly tang of spilt entrails, assaulted Breena’s nose.
Instantly, her mind was sent back to the war: to charnel house battlefields, to the screams of the wounded, to smelling her own terror in her sweat, to the bloodstained tunnels where Drogin and others had been tortured and experimented upon.
Her stomach churned, and she gasped. She stumbled to the side and leaned against the earthen wall of the pit. The chill wall numbed her burning cheek, and she struggled to maintain her grip on the present.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong?” Skani asked, frowning in concern.
“It’s the smell,” Breena said. “Sends me back to the Arcanids… Tallatzan… the plain.” She took a shuddering breath. “I just need a minute.
Skani squeezed her shoulder. “Why don’t you head back up? The rest of us can handle the butchery. You’re a war hero; you’ve earned the right to a little laziness. No one will think less of you.”
Breena sighed. “All right.” She turned away from the wall and smiled at her cousin. “Thank you.”
Skani returned the smile before heading down to help butcher the oxen.
Breena moved back up the scaffolding and onto the surrounding plain. She moved upwind of the pit, lay down on the grass, closed her eyes, and let the sun warm her. Away from the scent of blood, the dark memories quickly faded, and her pleasant mood returned. She felt the tension bleed away from her body.
Soon after, a deep rumble of hooves signaled the arrival of the Marg clan halls, drawn by their herds of reindeer, and the air filled with cheerful chatter as the clan went about the business of preparing their kills. The familiar sounds lulled Breena into a haze of warm nostalgia, and she spent the day dozing on the grass as her clan celebrated their bounty.
* * *
As night fell, the work ceased, but the festival air only grew. Bonfires great and small were set up on the grass, and drums and horns boomed in the night, filling the air with raucous songs.
Cups of ulu spiked with brandy were distributed throughout the clan, and they drank and cheered and sang to celebrate their successful hunt. Meanwhile, the rich and meaty scent of roasting musk ox filled the air. Most of the meat would be preserved to sustain the clan over the long winter, but there was enough extra to supply them with a hearty feast.
Breena threw herself into the celebration with as much gusto as anyone, allowing the ulu and brandy to numb her mind into a comforting fog. She danced with Tirfing for old times’ sake. She laughed herself hoarse at Vindar’s lewd jokes. She joined Skani in singing off-key ballads about ancient battles with the Tors and implausible adventures in the far northern wilds.
It all felt so natural. It was as if she had never left the clan at all. She fit back into the old ways like a glove, and she all but forgot she had come here to say her goodbyes.
When the meat was finished cooking, she joined Skani and Vindar around one of the fires and feasted on the rich, tender meat. Every time she thought she couldn’t possibly eat anymore, Skani was pushing another plate into her hands.
Her cousin even gave her a small jar of blueberries, handling it reverently like it was a rare treasure – which it was, among the Clanspeople. Breena had spent enough time in the south that fruit was no longer a precious rarity to her, but she recognized the meaning behind the gift and accepted it gratefully, hugging Skani in thanks. She savored every sweet bite.
Long after midnight, the celebration finally started to wind down. The people of the Marg clan slunk to bed in their halls or else passed out on the ground with mugs of spiked ulu still in their hands.
Breena lay on the ground beside the dwindling embers of a bonfire, the heat keeping her warm on one side as the night’s chill tickled her skin on the other. Her belly was full to the point of aching, but it was a pleasant ache.
Skani sat beside her, and they stared up at the emerald green bands of aurora borealis dancing across the stars. They reminded Breena of the natural currents of magic, and she started imagining low energy jumping points in the lulls and jumping points to Tyzu where the lights were brightest.
That thought drew her mind to the bracer on her wrist, inset with silver in patterns of magic. Inset by her fiancé. And she realized she could no longer hide from her reason for coming home.
She sat up and faced her cousin. “Skani…” she began, butterflies fluttering through her gut as she struggled to find the right words. “I – I’m going to be heading back south soon.”
Skani’s face fell, her disappointment palpable. “But you’ve only just returned! And besides, the war is over now. They no longer need you. You’ve done your duty, more than anyone could ask of you. You belong here, with your family.”
Breena swallowed against the lump in her throat. “I’m not helping them anymore – or that’s not my only reason, anyway. I’m going down there to stay.”
Skani’s icy eyes showed utter incomprehension – and perhaps a bit of hurt. “But you’re a Clanswoman! You don’t belong with those south-dwellers.”
Breena’s palms sweated, but she pressed on. “I met an Eastenholder man – Leha’s brother, Drogin. We grew very close during the war, and I care about him. He asked me to marry him, and I agreed. I’ll be living with him in Retgard.”
A range of emotions flickered across Skani’s face: shock, sorrow, and disgust. “Marry him? You’re a Clanswoman. You’re not made for life in the soft south with some weak-hearted Eastenholder. You were born to run free and strong with your clan. You’d abandon your family and our traditions just to dally with some southern boy? You’re no true Clanswoman!”
Breena surged to her feet, her face hot, and Skani did the same. They stood close, glaring at each other.
Breena drew breath for a retort, but Skani continued ranting. “It’s one thing to be tempted by some exotic flesh, but you don’t need to marry him. Have your fun and move on. We all need to outgrow out toys sooner or later.”
Fire flowed through Breena’s veins. She slapped Skani so hard that her cousin was sent stumbling back several feet, and the smack of hand striking flesh echoed through the night.
“Drogin is not just some toy,” she snarled, her hand still stinging. “He is a good and honorable man. He is Leha’s brother, blood of the Hero of Heart, and a hero of two wars. While you were up here milking reindeer, he was being tortured daily in an Arcanid dungeon, refusing to break even as they tormented him in ways you can’t imagine. He is brilliant, and brave, and kind, and I love him. You will show him the respect he deserves!”
Skani said nothing, just stumbling away into the darkness. Breena did not pursue her.
She slumped down by the fire’s embers, tears in her eyes. She reached for a nearby jug of brandy and drank until unconsciousness claimed her.
It didn’t take long.
* * *
Breena awoke in the late morning, pebbles digging into her back. Her head felt like it had been trampled by Automatons, her mouth had the texture of sandpaper, and she felt so nauseous she was worried she would throw up if she made any sudden movements.
Still, she was a Clanswoman, and she was built tough. She forced herself to a sitting position, pulling bits of grass out of her tangled hair, and prepared to get on with her day.
Then, she remembered the events of the night before.
She had struck Skani, whom she loved like a sister. Worse still, Skani had deserved it. She’d known her fellow clan members might be upset by her decision to move to the south, but she couldn’t have imagined beloved Skani would have said such hateful, insensitive things.
She took several minutes to collect herself. She did not want to face the day ahead. She couldn’t imagine what she would say if she ran into Skani, and in a community as tightly knit as the Marg clan, avoiding her would be virtually impossible.
But she knew she couldn’t just sit by the embers of the fire, surrounded by dirty plates and empty brandy jugs, so she forced herself to her feet and rejoined the clan, refusing to plan ahead more than a few minutes.
She found Tirfing’s uncle, Olav, cooking up more of the musk ox and serving it to various clan members for breakfast, and despite her rebellious stomach, she asked for a small piece.
Olav handed her a plate without speaking, refusing to meet her eye. His attitude surprised her, but she quickly realized what must have happened. Skani had told the rest of the clan she was leaving. They knew she was no longer one of them.
She shuffled away from the crowd, feeling an awkward blush, and forced herself to choke down the meat. She then spent several minutes walking slowly around the edge of the clan encampment, between the halls and where the reindeer herds grazed, in the hopes that some gentle exercise would clear her head. It only took a few minutes for her to vomit her breakfast onto the grass.
She stumbled far enough away that the scent of vomit no longer reached her and then collapsed against the side of one of the halls, breathing heavily.
Her aching head swam with conflicting thoughts. The things Skani had said about Drogin still made her flush with anger, but some of the other things her cousin had said were starting to sow doubt in her mind. Could she really leave the Marg clan behind? They were blood, her family, her everything. Not so long ago, leaving them would have been unimaginable. Perhaps she wasn’t a true Clanswoman.
She briefly considered asking Drogin to live with her here in the north. He would agree, for her sake, she felt sure, but he would not be happy with such a life. An intellect such as his would not be satisfied with the hand-to-mouth subsistence of the Northern Clans. He needed the time and the resources to let his imagination run wild.
And in truth, Breena did not relish the idea of spending the rest of her days in the far north, either. The thought of a lifetime of fixed routines, struggling against the elements, and living off dry cheese and over-salted reindeer jerky felt like a weight pressing down on her shoulders.
“I hear you’ll be leaving us soon.”
Breena jumped, sending a jab of pain through her skull. She’d been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn’t noticed anyone approaching, but now Brodar stood over her.
“Chieftain,” she said, shrinking a little. She didn’t have the strength to endure another tongue-lashing.
He sat down next to her. “To be with your Eastenholder man. They say you and Skani had a bit of a disagreement over it.”
Breena nodded sheepishly, still not liking where this is going. “She insulted him. Insulted me, too. She said I was no true Clanswoman, that I have no place with the south-dwellers.” Her voice quavered, and she feared the answer, but she asked, “Do you think the same, Chieftain? Do you think I’m betraying my heritage? Should I simply stay with my blood and my kin?”
He frowned in thought. “No,” he said, surprising her. “Skani was wrong to tell you so. It’s your right to make your own decisions.”
Breena’s eyes stung. “But you are my clan, my family. What is a Clanswoman without her clan?”
“Breena, there’s more to being one of the Clanspeople than loyalty to your clan. That’s important, yes, but it’s not the sum of who we are. We are the scions of Noria, free spirits from the time when the Gods still ruled this world. We have sought to forge our own path, to seek new horizons and test ourselves in new ways. Tell me, what will your life be like in the south?”
She sniffled. “I’ll be researching, I suppose. Drogin is making new discoveries with technomancy every day, and where his studies stray more into the realm of theoretical magic than practical technology, he needs my help. Similarly, his new inventions and discoveries have opened countless doors for my own research. I’m learning so much every day.” Her heart fluttered with excitement. “We’re going to change the world.”
“In other words, you are challenging your mind, seeking out new magical horizons?” Brodar asked.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
The chieftain’s lips twitched in a faint smile. “Then that is the pursuit of a true Clanswoman. It’s worthy of admiration, not scorn.”
Breena sat a little straighter, her mood starting to lighten.
“Tell me, also, what will your inventions be used for? Will they be used for the betterment of humanity?” Brodar continued.
“Of course,” Breena said. “We’re working on a way to automate jumping points. It will make trade and travel easier. It’ll bring people together, and it will help the world rebuild. And we’ve got other ideas, too. Some are simple conveniences, but others could make big differences in people’s lives.”
Brodar nodded. “Did you ever stop to wonder why I listened to that Tor boy when he came asking us for help all those years ago, why I put aside centuries of war and decided we should come to his people’s aid? Because the rise of the machines made me realize that we are all humans. There are things that matter more than the colors of our hair or the languages we speak. There was a time when all of humankind rose up together to overthrow the Gods, and that bond binds us still. Your kin aren’t just the Marg clan; they’re all of the human race. No one should stand in the way of your helping your fellow humans, whether you do it here or in the south.”
Breena’s mind went to back to speeches made by Leha on the importance of unity, to fighting and bleeding alongside Tors and other foreign peoples, to squares full of freed Arcanid slaves being welcomed back into the human fold. She realized he was right.
“I have one final question,” Brodar said. “This Eastenholder man of yours – do you love him?”
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation.
“Then don’t question your decision. Go where you belong.”
A few stray tears had leaked from her eyes, and she brushed them away.
“Do not misunderstand,” the chief continued. “I don’t want you to go. You’re a strong wizard, and a good woman, and the Marg clan will be less without you. But I don’t have the right to question your heritage based on the life you choose to pursue. You deserve to live your life as you see fit, and I would not be a true Clansman if I tried to stand in the way of that. I’ll respect your decision.”
He stood to leave.
Breena felt some of the weight lift from her shoulders, and the doubts faded from her mind. “Thank you.”
“You owe me nothing,” Brodar rumbled. “You knew the truth. I only reminded you of it.”
He left without another word.
Breena stayed where she was a while longer, feeling the cool northern wind blow across her face, and tried to recover from the emotional strain of the past day.
* * *
When she rejoined the rest of the clan, she noticed a subtle change in their attitude toward her. They still treated her differently than they had the day before, but they were not as coldly distant as Olav had been. She was no longer one of them, and they treated her as such, as an outsider, but they were cordial with her. She was no longer family, but she was still a beloved friend.
She suspected Brodar had talked to them on her behalf.
Tirfing even congratulated her on her betrothal, gifting her a fine ceramic cup that had belonged to his mother as an early wedding gift.
She wanted to stay longer, to enjoy her last day among the Marg clan before she forever became an outsider, but she realized it would only make things harder – for her, and for them. She had come to terms with her decision, and from the looks of it, so had the clan, but things would never be the same.
She let it be known that she was returning home – to her new home – and once again the entire clan gathered, and she prepared to say her goodbyes.
Brodar again shook her hand, wishing her well in her new life. Glenta gave her a pouch of crystallized honey, and Tirfing swept her in up in another of his surprisingly gentle hugs. Vindar shook her hand, though his smile was a bit less broad this time.
Breena stiffened as Skani appeared from the crowd, her cheek bearing a large bruise shaped like Breena’s hand. Breena carefully extended a hand, as if worried her cousin might bite, and Skani hesitantly began to shake it, but then she pulled Breena forward into another bone-crushing hug.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered in Breena’s ear.
“Me too,” Breena said softly, rubbing Skani’s back.
And that was that.
Breena did not look back as she left the Marg clan encampment, heading for the nearest jumping point. She still bore a heavy heart. She knew that she would never have been happy had she chosen to stay with her clan, but there was a feeling of home, of camaraderie, that came with being part of a clan, and she knew she would never have that back. The clan may have come to accept her decision, but that didn’t change the reality: She was no longer one of them, and she never would be again.
Her thoughts turned to returning to Retgard, and Drogin. Knowing him, she would hardly be in the door before he started bombarding her with new ideas, sketches, and theories. She’d probably be back in their workshop, poring over schematics, before the day was through.
She smiled. She could hardly wait.
She knew she had made the right decision. She belonged with Drogin, amid their equations and their studies, greeting each new day as a precious chance to discover something new. It felt right in a way that nothing else ever had.
But that didn’t make the decision to leave any easier.