Kalian, the Red Storm of the Dariniae, is on her way home. The war in the east is almost done and fully half of the Dragon Legion will be joining her. And not a day too soon. While Lucan and Elazar fight to secure peace in Ushir, the shadow of war looms over the lands of the Caledon.
Of all the Caledon’s warriors, none are readier for a new war than Kalian, who finds few delights to occupy her during times of peace. With no time for friends or lovers, Kalian’s focus has always been on perfecting the way of the warrior, and mastering the dragonfire that burns in her soul. And the rage that burns there with it.
JAMES COSMO, Game of Thrones, Braveheart
The needle hurt, it always did, but Kalian did not acknowledge the pain. She sat still on the stool, back straight and face set, as Hewin inked the fresh lines above her eye. Though she already wore waves and spirals across her arms, neck and torso, this would be the first time she was blessed by battlemarks on her face, and she focussed on her dragonfire as the needle pricked her flesh. The familiar warm ball of light glowed in her abdomen, pulsing softly with every exhalation. For well over a decade now that gentle light had been the very centre of Kalian’s world; the calm amidst the storm.
Kalian kept her mind on the light, ignoring the needle’s jabbing sting and the steady stream of sweat running from her brow. A strand of flame-red hair had fallen across her eye, and she fought back a wince as Hewin brushed it behind her ear. To him, she was sure that the gesture meant nothing, a simple favour to a sister of the Gadarim while he finished inking her marks. To Kalian the touch was unwelcome and uncomfortable, and she reminded herself that Hewin was just a brother trying to be helpful. She just wished he would finish his work and be done with this. If nothing else the heat was growing worse by the heartbeat, and she had matters to settle before she could go indoors.
They were performing the ritual outside the city, on a patch of thin grass a little south of Khandarien. She was facing away from it, but Kalian knew well the great stone walls that surrounded Elazar’s capital, which she and her comrades had conquered only a handful of days before. Kalian’s new marks were in recognition of her deeds that day, when she’d been the first warrior of the Caledon to scale those stony ramparts.
It’d been a hard fight, though not the worst of Kalian’s life, and the end result had been good for all concerned; Elazar had saved his people honourably, and the Caledon had earned the right to send half their warriors home. And the sooner Lucan puts that plan into action, the better. We do not belong here.
Kalian found herself thinking on Elazar. Long before he became King of Ushir, Elazar son of Darizar had been the Proud Fox; the only Ushiran in the world to be a brother of the Gadarim. She’d never liked him much, this strange foreigner with his arrogant air and endless chatter, but looking back she suspected she had been a little harsh with him. She’d mocked and belittled him after only minimal provocation, and he’d shown himself to be worthy of the honour that Lucan had given him back home. And the honour his people had given him here.
For all his tiresome prattle Elazar was a decent man, and would probably make a good king. Already many of his people had named him Elazar the Peacemaker. Had Kalian’s father been here with them, he would have told her to go to Elazar and apologise for all the times she’d looked down on him, but Kyran was half a world away, and Kalian wasn’t going to go grovelling on her own initiative. In any case, Elazar didn’t really need her apology for a few snide comments here and there; his pride could withstand most things.
Her eyes flicked up to look at Hewin as he worked. None of the Dariniae here had much skill with the needle, and Kalian thought how odd it was that she didn’t care that Hewin was a Gorvic. Not so long ago the notion of letting her flesh be marked by someone from another tribe would have horrified her, Gadarim or no. But now, especially out here, the distinction didn’t seem to matter as it once had. Rhianwyn’s great alliance became more real with each passing day.
Kalian resisted the urge to sigh. Though she’d met the Wildcat briefly after the nightmare of Second Nantwyn, and had fought in her legion against the savage Seiriae, she had not truly known her, yet it was thanks to Rhianwyn that all this was possible. In some ways, it was also thanks to her that Kalian had become Gadarim.
Women had entered the warrior elite before, but Rhianwyn’s elevation to their ranks had been a fateful event, coming as it did at the very birth of the Caledon. The naming of Fearless Wildcat had brought female Gadarim to the very front line of the tribes’ thoughts, banishing the notion that it was somehow an oddity. Kalian’s mouth twitched. And now look at us. All the Gadarim in Ushir had done the Dragon God proud in the battle, but Red Storm had been first over the wall, and Prowling Lioness had taken the city’s surrender. Between us, Merian and I left little glory for the menfolk!
It was hard to keep still while Hewin went about his work, but Kalian had spent many years suppressing the urge to shift and fidget; she brought her mind back to the gentle glow behind her navel, and kept her body patiently motionless. Even if she could do nothing to stop the sweat. It was unusual for Mabonac’s rites to be performed in sunlight, but the Gadarim had decided that it didn’t really matter out here. They were in the land of Ushir and the god looking down on them now was Rihu, not Belenos, and there was no fear of godly rivalries casting any misfortune on them.
After what felt like an age the Gorvic stepped back from her, and smiled as he admired his handiwork.
‘All is done. Taran and the Dragon will see you clearer than ever, Red Storm.’
Kalian gave him a small nod, trying to show appreciation without encouraging further interaction; Hewin was a fine enough warrior but, like most men past middle age, he could be irritatingly talkative. She stood up and rose briefly onto her toes, feeling the muscles in her legs stretch after so long sitting down. She’d need to loosen up her joints before going about her next business.
Already the skin around her left eye had the burning tingle that always came with new battlemarks, but Kalian didn’t let it bother her. She said a silent prayer to Mabonac, thanking him for his guidance and assuring him that she would do all she could to be worthy of his marks. At some point today she would have to find a clear pool, or borrow a looking glass, and see the new marks with her own eyes, though she was confident that Hewin would have done a good job. She’d seen his work on Merian’s skin and he was clearly the best inker the Gorvicae had.
She nodded to him again. The Gorvic was around Kalian’s own height, but while she was built all of lean muscle, Hewin was heavy set and slowly running to fat. He was still strong of course, the man was Gadarim after all, but age had done more than just grey his hair, and a definite paunch now rolled over his belt. He returned the nod and looked like he might be about to say something, so Kalian spoke before any chatter could start.
‘There is no greater honour than the Dragon’s sight. And you honour me with your skill today, brother.’
He smiled, and Kalian made a point of meeting his eyes. She’d never much liked doing that but it was expected, especially among the warrior elite, and Hewin deserved her courtesy.
‘Sister, you are most welcome.’
Again, Kalian spoke before he could go on.
‘I have duties now, excuse me.’
Hewin blinked but answered quickly.
‘Of course. The Dragon guide you, Red Storm.’
She bowed her head.
‘And you, Bullroarer.’
With that she turned and started off east, following the line of the wall.
Ahead of her was the beginning of the green lands, where the great desert gave way to Ushir’s fertile pastures, and she could already see the little group of people waiting for her. She’d wanted her new marks made before this started, but the process had been Gadarim business and it would not have been right for the rest of them to see it. Though what comes now is Gadarim business too, of a sort. She felt anger mixed with anxiety threaten to well up in her chest, and fought it down with practiced ease. The gentle light of dragonfire warmed her from the inside, and focussed her mind ready for the task to come.
Kalian strode across the scrubby grass with her eyes fixed straight ahead, and told herself to trust in her abilities. You can do this without causing real harm, remember that. It would ruin many a good mood tonight if she killed this fool by accident.