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"PNR Staff Top Pick" for February 2009.
THE WARLORD’S DAUGHTER: a Tale of the Borderlands
“The warlord has summoned his child.” The bellow echoed in the reception hall of the battle-cruiser orbiting high above the planet Barokk, Wren’s home. Bristling with weapons and curiosity, the imperial guard hunted for her with narrowed, speculative eyes. Down, down, down his gaze had to fall to find her.
Wren shrank back from the sight of the tattooed giant dressed in armor. Beads and twists of hammered metal in his braided hair gleamed like wet seashells. The red diamond piercing the side of his nose looked like a drop of blood.
Somewhere behind him was her father, at long last here to see her. Magnified by the thick lenses of her glasses, guards blocked her view like a forest of impossibly tall and thorny trees. The giant with the blood-drop jewel was the friendliest-looking in the bunch.
Wren’s guardian, Sabra, returned his glare. Sabra feared no one, not even these ferocious-looking guards. “It’s about time. Half a day has passed. It’s one thing making his minions wait, but his daughter?”
“Hush, woman. Watch your words. You’re speaking of the Supreme Warlord of the Drakken Horde.”
“Absentee father is a more appropriate title. The last time he saw her she was three. It’s been ten years.”
The guard’s glare was direct, angry, yet somehow appraising, as if he wanted to strike Sabra for her insolence but held back because he thought her pretty, which she was. If it were Wren, and if she were not the warlord’s daughter, she would have felt the sting of his hand. Beauty was prized over brains in females. Sabra had both. Wren pushed on her glasses, turning her gaze to her new, too-tight shoes as the towering guard growled, “You are young to be her guardian, woman. And foolish because of your age. You’d be wise to keep your mouth shut and your opinions to yourself if you wish to see her to maturity.”
“And you would be wise to--”
“Sabra.” Ilkka, another guardian, touched her friend’s arm to warn her into silence. Further arguing could land Sabra in danger. “Come this way,” the towering guard growled, and led their party into the grand reception hall.
Always, there was a certain tension between the women that Wren didn’t quite understand. They seemed almost competitive at times, but today she was grateful for Ilkka’s interference. Sabra was fiercely protective of Wren. It was her warrior instincts coming out. She once worked as an elite operative in the Imperial Forces. She’d have been a wraith assassin if females had been allowed to serve in such a capacity. Instead, at a young age, at what should have been the beginning of an exciting career, she’d been handed what amounted to a position as a wealthy man’s nanny, raising the warlord’s daughter. A woman who wasn’t cut out to be a mother and never wanted to be a mother had in fact been the best of mothers.
Still annoyed, Sabra muttered in Ilkka’s ear. “In all these years he couldn’t be bothered seeing how the child was doing with his own eyes? And after what happened to her mother. As if it was her fault she produced a daughter first.”
“The warlord has done more for Wren than you like to admit, Sabra. There’s a war going on.”
“For over a thousand years this war’s gone on. Please.”
“And rather than keep the child on display at the palace he’s kept her hidden away with a guardian, you, sworn to protect her to the last breath.”
“I’ll give him that. He’s managed to completely isolate her.”
The two guardians spoke as if she weren’t there. They thought she couldn’t hear their hushed voices. Wren’s hearing was more acute than anyone realized to make up for her poor vision. Her ears caught each one of the whispered words, which revealed nothing she didn’t already know.
The warlord didn’t want her.
Wren’s stomach hurt. Her fingers clawed at the folds of her gown. What would her father think, seeing her for the first time as a young woman? Would he be disappointed? If only she weren’t so small. If only she weren’t so shy. Sabra said her mother was a great beauty. Lady Silkka had captivated all who saw her. Would the warlord expect Wren to turn heads in the same way? Worry crawled over her skin that she would not measure up to this god of a man who’d sired her.
“Be brave,” Sabra urged. “Stand tall.”
Wren did her best to be both. She was smaller than other girls her age. Scrawny and half-blind. “Some battlelord’s runt,” she’d heard others say when they thought she couldn’t hear them. No one on Barokk knew who her father really was, and Wren was forbidden to say. “It’s so you’ll feel more like the other girls,” Sabra would say.
Wren couldn’t feel more different.
Step by step she moved forward. Her shoes pinched her feet. The dress made especially for today scratched her legs. Her scalp pulsed hotly, a headache from the braids in her hair. Running her fingers over the braids, she checked that they hadn’t come undone.
Sabra took her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t fuss with your hair. “You are a beautiful girl, inside and out.”
Flushing with pleasure, Wren shook her head.
“You are. Someday you will see.”
“Take off her glasses,” Ilkka suggested. “She’ll look better without them.”
“If her father wanted her to have proper medical care, he’d have taken care of it. Maybe he’ll do so now, seeing how she struggles.” Sabra gave Wren a gentle push forward and set her heart a-pounding. “You must walk in front of us now. Go to him. Pay your respects as we practiced, sweetling. You know the words.”
Wren proceeded, step by cautious step. It was silent. She feared her heartbeats were echoing off the walls of the spaceship. A row of solemn-looking men stood to her left. Several had bodies where excess had taken its toll--paunchy bellies, jowls. Others were fit and strong. All were many years older.
Battlelords, Wren thought. They were the wealthiest and most powerful men in the empire after her father. Her husband would be chosen from amongst their ranks someday. If the warlord had invited them here, it was for that reason. Now she had to worry about impressing them as well as her father.
The guardians resumed their hushed conversation. Sabra was angry. “How long now before he hands her over as a trophy wife? Which one of those sadists will be the lucky bastard? Arkkane? Mawndarr, perhaps?”
Sadists? Wren almost whipped her attention to Sabra then remembered she wasn’t supposed to be hearing their gossip.
“Or the boy, Mawndarr’s son,” Ilkka mused. “Aral.”
“Fates. Banish the thought.”
“The boy is as good-looking as his sire.”
Sabra made a disdainful noise in her throat. “I don’t find brutality attractive.”
One tall man, quite physically fit, observed Wren with a cold, appraising glare. The void of space outside the portholes looked warm and inviting in comparison to those eyes. White streaked the midnight black hair that he wore in a ponytail not unlike like the others; yet somehow on him the style seemed more regal. Attractive he might be--for an older man--but the cruel set to his jaw and mouth made her shiver.
Battlelord Karbon Mawndarr. Based on the descriptions provided by Sabra and embellished by Ilkka, she knew it was him. The battlelord was so terrifyingly magnetic that she almost didn’t see the sullen, quiet boy standing in his shadow. He was older than her by a few years, seventeen or eighteen at most. Aral...Aral Mawndarr. The battlelord’s son.
“He is as good-looking as his sire.”
“If you find brutality attractive.”
Brutality? A merry dimple sat square in the center of his chin, mocking Sabra’s observation. More, Aral held his tall frame slightly hunched over as if injured. There wasn’t a mark on his perfect skin but his eyes were full of pain as they found hers. A searching look washed over his face and his cheeks turned pink, revealing a tender heart, a lost boy. A kindred spirit.
She gasped. In his face was everything she felt. She was just as helpless, just as out of place. Just as trapped.
We’ll find a way out, he seemed to say.
She fought the almost overwhelming urge to grab his hand so they could both escape this place. Then she stumbled over her unfamiliar shoes. Only Sabra’s quick hand kept her from falling. By the time she bashfully adjusted her glasses Aral had shuttered his expression. With his gaze frosted over, he was a miniature Karbon Mawndarr as he gazed down his arrogant nose at her. Even his dimple had flattened. The transformation was so swift she wondered if she imagined the look they’d shared. Stung and bewildered, she shoved on her glasses.
“Haven’t you been taught any manners?” a voice boomed suddenly. “Look at me, girl!”
Wren blinked in the direction of the angry shout and caught a dizzying glimpse of a man dressed in black armor striding toward her. She saw boots, a flowing cape in fabric that seemed to dance with a light all of its own, and a pinched, disapproving expression on the huge man’s face as he reached for her and yanked off her eyeglasses.
Everything around her clouded over, except for her father’s hand as thick fingers closed around the glasses, crushing them. He threw the shattered pieces to the floor.
You disappointed him. Not only him, but all her suitors. She felt their contemptuous stares raking over her, even Aral’s whose soft, sad gaze had given her hope only to steal it in the next breath.
Enveloped in her blurry world, Wren made fists in the fabric of her skirts. Before she could receive the warlord’s blessing, she had to pay respects. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t recall the words she’d rehearsed with Sabra.
“Speak!” The booming voice again.
Wren quaked. Her mind was a blank.
The warlord’s armor creaked. His voice was low and stern. “I expected more of you than this, Awrenkka.”
Her hands fidgeted with her skirt.
A heavy sigh. “You can’t see, girl. Are you mute, too?”
“Father! Say it!” he roared.
She forced herself to meet his eyes. Somewhere in their blurred, dark depths she sensed a spark of approval.
The warlord’s hand landed heavily on the top of her head. He could crush her as easily as he did the glasses, she thought. “You are my flesh and blood, Awrenkka. It means you are different from the rest. Better.”
Different. She knew that. Didn’t want that. But better? Her?
“Heed my words, daughter, and carry them with you all the days of your life: My blood is your blood. My DNA is your destiny. Do not forget it. Do not ever seek to escape it.”
“Yes, Father. I mean, no, Father.” She stopped, biting her lip, wanting to melt into the floor and disappear.
The warlord turned in a blur of black and strode away. She felt the eyes of the battlelords on her. Most of all, Aral’s. Sabra was grabbing her hand in the next moment, whisking her from the hall.
On the shuttle ride back to Barokk, Wren struggled not to be sick. Everything was a blur. It magnified the other sensations--the peculiar odor of a spacecraft, the loud noise of the air flowing and the engine, and, worst of all, the rolling and dropping and spinning. She hoped her stomach stayed down. She never wanted to set foot on another spaceship. She’d have to, of course, when she left to marry. Maybe the warlord would give up trying after today. Nursing the thought, she huddled in misery, haunted by the memory of Aral Mawndarr and the heady feeling their shared gaze had conjured, the whirlwind of joy and confusion. “Aral seemed different from the rest,” she mused quietly.
Sabra stiffened. “Don’t be fooled. He’s a Mawndarr.”
“But he seemed...kind.”
Sabra squeezed Wren’s chin between her fingers. Her tight grip made Wren wince. “He’s a Mawndarr. They’re vicious killers, all.”
“But his son--”
“Don’t be fooled. The boy will turn out like the father. A Mawndarr.”
Shock rippled through Wren at woman’s vehemence. “I don’t want to marry any of them. If father makes me, I’ll run away. I’ll--
“Hush. It won’t happen today. Or even tomorrow. For now you will live safe with me on Barokk.”
It was all Wren wanted. She never wanted her life with Sabra to change.
The guardian rested a cool hand on Wren’s sweaty face. “Your father broke those glasses like they were so much trash. Even after he saw how you depend on them. You’ll have to wait for the next supply ship to have another pair. Why didn’t I have a spare made?”
Wren squinted up at Sabra, clinging to the woman she loved with all her heart, and the only person who loved her. After meeting her father she knew it for a fact.
Sabra sighed. “How will we manage until then? How will you see?”
“Through your eyes, Sabra.” Wren answered without hesitation. “It’s how I’ve always seen the world.”
Suddenly, Sabra was dabbing at tears. She’d never seen the woman show such emotion. Even her voice trembled. “You trust me, don’t you, sweetling? You always have. You expect I will do the right thing by you.”
Why wouldn’t she trust Sabra? Bewildered, Wren tried without success to discern Sabra’s meaning. Her guardian acted as if she wanted to say something more, something important, maybe even something she didn’t intend. Then, as if she’d reconsidered, she drew Wren closer, holding her tight to her breast the way she did when Wren was small. “‘Your DNA is your destiny,’” she muttered, repeating the warlord’s words. “Poor child. That isn’t a blessing. It’s a freepin’ curse.”