Daq Aryk’s gaze swept the battlefield as he stood at the edge closest to his village. Too close. They’d brought the fight to his very doorstep this time. If it weren’t for the scouts’ warning… He eyed the scattered sod roundhuts, picturing the women and children huddled within, awaiting the outcome, and rubbed the back of his neck with a hand that shook from the aftereffects of the lia, the temporary surge of battle energy. Corded strands of tawny hair, sticky with blood, clung to his fingers. Every muscle ached. He clenched his jaw at the number of dead littering the frozen ground, including the rival daq, Ulryk. Another attack thwarted. Another day still standing. The constant raiding—what a waste. Would it never end? He shook out his tattered red daq cloak and frowned at the stiff layers of bloodstains that never came out. ’Twas not how he’d imagined his new reign progressing. There must be more to life than this. Could his son, Joro, look forward to naught else than a future of endless combat?
His second, Valkyn, strode up to him, boots crunching in the trampled red snow. Aryk frowned at the drying blood splashed across his friend’s braided beard and oft-repaired, slightly rusted mail shirt, but thankfully none of it appeared to be Valkyn’s. Valkyn shouldered his—new?—axe. “Belonged to Daq Ulryk’s second. He won’t need it anymore.” Valkyn’s ice-blue eyes gleamed with the lia’s lingering bloodlust, his smile a wolfish flash of teeth. Valkyn always got more energized after a battle. Aryk just felt tired, burned out.
Aryk motioned the rest of his warriors over, tallying the fallen. Just three of their own for the funerary pyres. Of the wounded, Erlynda looked worst. Tisht. He took a deep, calming breath. The sword slash to her ribs could be sewn, though, thank the gods. Their daughter, Birgit, wouldn’t be motherless this day. If the wound didn’t sour, Erlynda would recover to fight off the next wave of marauders.
So it went on, year after year. Aryk eyed the heart of his windswept territory—Svaaldur, a fair-sized village at the foot of Widowmaker Mountain. Eking out a living, fighting off others who’d steal what was theirs. How long could they continue like this?
“Erlynda, kyra, we owe you our lives. Were it not for your warning, things would’ve been much worse.”
Her blue eyes were glacial in her rawboned, windburned face. “You owe me naught. ’Tis my home, also.”
“Go see the healers about that cut.”
She hesitated, hissing in pain as she pressed the blood-soaked binding cloth harder against her injury. “We protected our children. But what of Ulryk’s villages? What of the Blood River women and children who no longer have his protection?”
She’d always been stubborn when it came to standing up for what she believed to be right. ’Twas why he favored her so. Creataq help him, Birgit was turning out to be just like her.
“You’re not on warrior council, woman,” Valkyn snapped. “You need a sponsor to challenge a daq’s order.”
If looks alone could kill…
“I’m her sponsor. I give the kyra Erlynda leave to speak.” Aryk frowned at Valkyn. His second refused to use the title “kyra” for the women warriors who’d earned it, not even for his own twin sister. She’d proven herself this day. Aryk pulled the daq’s medallion from Ulryk’s thick neck, held it up and placed it over his own head. The fool should’ve stayed home. Now Ulryk’s overweening ambition had just doubled Aryk’s responsibilities. He sighed. “Gather handcarts. We return their dead and claim Ulryk’s villages.”
The men cheered.
Erlynda’s ice-blue eyes spat fire. “Aryk, you promised. I hold you to it.”
Aryk raised a hand, quieting them. “No claiming the women. They deserve to mourn and burn their dead in peace.” His men weren’t the ravening riever beasts outlanders thought them. He’d restrain the celebration. “We slew fathers, brothers and sons. Though we but defended our own, and they struck first, we gain more by welcoming their kin. First man lays a hand on Ulryk’s women, I cut it off and leave him bleed in the snow.” His glare caught each man’s gaze in turn, held it ’til one by one they yielded. “They’re now under my protection. We show mercy to Blood River.”
He turned to Erlynda. “Kyra, it shall be done. Now go see those healers afore you fall over.”
Aryk had won leadership of the Widowmaker clan by the strength of his sword arm and sheer force of will. None challenged him now. Valkyn wouldn’t confront him afore the men, but he’d restate his own opinion in private. ’Twould be yet another heated discussion. Claiming conquered women was but one tradition Aryk hoped to change. Valkyn liked women in their place. He’d opposed them taking up arms, blocked their attempts to join warrior council—Erlynda’s in particular. Doubt gnawed at Aryk. Did Valkyn believe in Aryk’s vision at all, or did he just make a show of support for the sake of ties stronger than blood?