Let's get right to the fun and dig into chapter one of Bloodborn, Book 0 of the Battleborn Series.
(This series won't release until 2022, but Patrons will get it for free as soon as it's ready. Audiobook chapters will begin dropping on patreon.com/paulsating in January.)
1 - Heliran
Heliran Andel screamed.
She didn’t want to show anyone in the stuffy tent any weakness. The gods demanded it. Aabiku, the god of fertility, taunted and teased. Weakness leaked. They saw. A single grace was her sword sister’s absence. Far away from Olma-Ka on a mission, she would not see Heliran’s shame. A mercy. Her teasing would have been relentless. The warrior Heliran had been mentoring over the past three sun cycles, Nydera Alethero, was outside the tent keeping the curious away. A slip of canvas separated them, but Nydera would never mention Heliran’s scream of agony. She was descent. A woman of value.
“Get it out!” She gritted her teeth, snarling at Ittaniera, Olma-Ka’s milk mother. The message wasn’t for the woman, but to the life rolling inside her. The baby promised to be a handful when he entered the world by the way he fought her. The spirit of the desert people was strong in him.
The milk mother, half again as old as Heliran, didn’t seem bothered by the woman’s tone or insistence. In response to the warrior’s command, she smiled, lowering her eyelids as if dealing with a child. “This will pass.”
“Not quickly enough,” Heliran said.
“I would think Olma-Ka’s fiercest warrior could endure something as simple as child bearing,” Ittaniera said. “Especially since that warrior has already bore one child.”
So, the gods weren’t alone in their teasing. The milk mother suddenly found a sense of humor too? Did she not understand how stubborn this child was?
Too hot, tired, and uncomfortable to play along, Heliran said, “This isn’t first time the gods cursed me with a son. But this one—” A sharp pain stopped her mid-sentence. She winced, grabbing her side.
Kavon, her mate, rested his rough hand atop hers. His eyes quivered. He shouldn’t be showing fear in front of another, milk mother or not. Had they been alone in the tent he wouldn’t lose status. But the milk mother was watching, and tending, and waiting. As was their older son. It was for him Heliran held her tongue.
Ittaniera sighed as if displeased. “Would you like something for the pain? I can—”
“No,” Heliran cut her off, flicking her hand. “I’m fine. I just want this brat out of me. I swear, he’s going to fight the entire way. As stubborn as his father.”
Kavon nodded proudly. “A sign of a strong son.”
“How do you know we’re having a son?” Heliran asked.
Kavon’s face scrunched. “You said so yourself, love. Have you changed your mind?”
“My body.” She grunted at another kick. “So I say what I want and change my mind as I see fit. But even I don’t speak with assuredness, so you’d be wise not to. At least not until this raging beast joins the world.”
Underneath her pain, she was vaguely aware of Nydera saying something about ‘the table’ from the other side of the canvas.
No time to concern herself with that chatter. After this baby finished kicking and thrashing his way into the world, she would ask. Until then, no talk or thoughts about the Paramount’s business.
Ittaniera snickered. “I’d listen, Kavon. She’ll be out of that birthing bed soon enough, and when she is, she’ll make you answer for any words you speak here.”
“May my lips be burned by the sun if I say anything wrong,” Kavon said, chuckling and turning to his other son, his first-born with Heliran, but fourth boy in total. Kavon only made sons, it seemed. He tussled the boy’s long black and tan curls. “What do you think, Nevilan? Do you want a little brother or sister?”
The first-born son pulled away from his father’s hand. “Doesn’t matter.”
Even through her discomfort and the distance separating them, Heliran swatted at her son, missing him by six hands. Still, the gesture got the reaction her exhausted mind and body desired. The boy’s hazel eyes dropped to the rug, and his light brown skin paled by a shade.
“Let’s get you more comfortable,” Ittaniera said.
Heliran scoffed. “Let’s get me some mead. Three or four goblets would be a good start. That’ll help me get comfortable. I swear. He’s as big as an aqrabuamelu.”
“So it is a boy!” Kavon slapped his hands.
“Are you disappointed?” Ittaniera asked.
He shook his head. “Not at all. Would have enjoyed having a daughter to teach the arms to, but I can teach a boy just as well.”
Heliran threw her head back against the pillow, arching her back as far as she could. She was remotely aware of the three in the tent watching. When she relaxed and stopped grimacing, no one spoke until she did. “If anyone does the teaching, it’ll be me. With you, they won’t learn which end of a spear to stick the enemy with.”
“Will you hurry and push that baby out, and stop toying with the poor man?” a voice giggled from the other side of the tent flap.
Nydera Alethero. The warrior she was supposed to be training the swords with instead of being laid up in this birthing bed.
“Come in here and show your face. Let’s see if you can be that brave when you’re looking into mine,” Heliran said, trying to blow away a thick strand of hair that fell into her face with her latest exertions. The strand was matted to her sweaty skin. When blowing it away didn’t work, she released her grip on the blanket long enough to push it with the back of a hand.
A Freed woman’s hand slipped around the tent flap fabric and pulled it open, allowing a bright beam of white sun to slice inside. Heliran winced. Ittaniera squinted. Nevilan shielded his eyes.
“Close that,” the milk mother said with the shake of a head. “The woman needs darkness. Well, as much as I can give her during the hottest part of the day.”
“My apologies for not fitting this around your schedule, milk mother. I didn’t chose this time of day or of the sun cycle. Trust me. I’d much rather have done this when the sun sleeps. Or have him go through this. It’s his fault anyway.” Heliran winked at her mate and blew a bead of sweat off her lips that threatened to tumble into her open mouth.
Nydera stood over Heliran wearing a grin like she’d just gotten away with something. “I could pummel you right now and there’s nothing you could do about it.”
“The only time.” Heliran panted, seeing a flash of genuine concern on Nydera’s face as she checked with the milk mother.
“Maybe I should take Nevilan outside,” Kavon said, wrapping a protective arm around the boy.
“Can I? I want to go to the bathing pool,” the boy whined. “I don’t want to be in here. It’s too hot and gross.”
Even through her pain, Heliran didn’t miss the boy’s subtle shift away from his father. “This is your brother or sister. You stay.”
The boy gave a nasally sniff, crossed his arms, and stomped toward the back of the tent, facing the wall.
“Come now, Nevilan. You’re about to meet your new sibling,” Kavon encouraged. “You’ll be the one who trains them to become a great warrior, just like you’ll be one day.”
“I don’t want to train them,” the boy replied with a huff. “Training is dumb. Being a warrior is dumb.”
“Boy, don’t talk like that around—”
“Turn around,” Heliran said. She waited, giving the boy a chance to comply before repeating herself. The god of fertility afforded him an extra chance when she sent a wracking bolt of pain through Heliran’s spine. After it passed, she growled. “Turn around, Nevilan. Greet your sibling.”
Kavon was there, smelling of musk and whispering in her ear, “Leave the boy be. Save your strength.”
“I have enough strength for him and this sow who refuses to leave my body.”
“I know,” he said, wiping her head with something wet and cool.
As quickly as a black stinger bug, the chilling sensation was there and gone. She swore she felt hotter than before when he pulled the rag away.
He gave her a smile that calmed the monster raging within, and Heliran felt the rest of Olma-Ka fade away. Someone running past the tent. The sounds of the children playing outside. From across the Circle of Fire, the cooks yelled at each other as they prepared the village’s nightly meal. Their aggressive exchange of demands drifted away. Even Nydera’s soft encouragement and the milk mother’s firmer orders evaporated. Olma-Ka shrunk to the sight of Kavon’s light eyes that complimented his soft brown skin.
She bore down.
When the baby entered the world, Ittaniera cleaned him up before handing him to his mother. He was long and as solid as a chimera bone. No wonder he’d given her such fits. She couldn’t stifle her pride at how he cried, announcing his arrival. So strong.
Nydera smiled, but not nearly as brightly as Kavon. Heliran was too tired to smile. Her mate would have to do the smiling for both of them. Plus, she was still irritated by Nevilan’s pouting. “Come here and say hello to your brother.”
The boy did, but reluctantly.
“What will you name him?” Nydera asked.
“Gaeron,” Heliran said immediately. The name came to her during a mission three moon cycles ago and had stuck.
“Welcome to Oltari, little warrior.” Kavon leaned forward and kissed his fifth son’s forehead. “I like the name you’ve chosen.”
“You better, because it’s not changing,” Heliran laughed, pulled in by his eyes, almost the color of diamonds. He leaned closer. She gripped his hair and pulled him closer, kissing her lover. He returned it voraciously before she pushed him away. “That’s what put me in this bed in the first place.” She held out her hand. “Help me up.”
“Uh. Why?” Kavon gave her a dumb look, so she took Nydera’s offered hand instead.
“Because I have to get to the Paramount’s table,” Heliran answered.
“Work?” Kavon asked. “You cannot be serious, Heliran.”
“Absolutely not—” Ittaniera began, but Heliran cut her off.
“Nydera? Tell them.”
“Don’t bring me into this,” the woman she’d trained for sun cycles replied, waving a hand in the air.
“You’re a Freed woman,” Heliran said, only half-jokingly. “You of all people understand the need to be at the table.”
“You’re a Freed woman, probably the greatest warrior in the bunch, the greatest Olma-Ka has seen in a generation,” Nydera countered. “Of all people, it is you who should understand why we need you at your best. Not sitting at a table listening to the elders argue.”
Ittaniera was kindly but firmly pushing Heliran’s shoulders back to the bed. “And you cannot be at your best if you do not rest.”
“Sariona moves, whether or not I’m resting.” Invoking the Paramount’s name did little for her energy.
The leader of the people of Olma-Ka, Olmarians, was a blindly ambitious woman. One likely to lead the small desert village right off the cliffs overlooking the Bitter Rivers if someone wasn’t there to keep a close eye on her motives. The Paramount wouldn’t wait. Neither could she. “Help me up.”
“Gods woman, let me clean you at least.” Ittaniera said, a firm grip on Heliran’s ankle.
The tent smelled. She likely smelled worse. Thankfully, Heliran didn’t have enough of her wits about her to care about that.
She looked down at the milk mother, past her bloody thighs. The bloody thighs that forced her to shut her mouth and accept the older woman’s help.
On her feet, she wobbled. Kavon made the mistake of darting to catch her. Nydera didn’t. As held true for life in the hard desert, a Freed woman was worth ten Freed men, born into their freedom because the gods chose them to protect the land. Kavon caught his mistake at thinking she needed help and took a step back.
She glanced at her sons, one already six sun cycles old, the other having just entered Olatri’s embrace, with sad eyes. In a few sun cycles, Nevilan would have his cock bound by the thin metal band, and he would know the discomfort and shame of his station until he earned his freedom.
No different from all Freed men, she reminded herself. Though, somehow, it felt different when it was her sons who would one day be bound.
But that was for another time. Now, there was so much work still to do before anything like that was going to change. No matter how many times she told Kavon why she was determined to make changes, it seemed his reasoning fled with his seed. With Kavon, she almost had his understanding. Throughout the nights they laid together, in the privacy of her tent or out in the open on the Bed of Petals, she had shared her vision for Olma-Ka with him. In great detail, she tried to get him to see how their lives could be more fulfilling if they restricted their aggressive nature. Kavon never understood why she pushed as she did, but neither did he fight her on her points. Now that he had five sons, he still wouldn’t understand.
Thankfully, as she ruminated, Ittaniera cleaned and dressed her.
Before leaving the tent, Kavon snagged Nydera’s wrist. “Please make sure they tend to her needs. Watch over her. If I can’t be there, someone has to stop her from pushing herself too hard.”
There was an awkward pause as the pair of women, one holding her arm at the ready to catch the other should she start to fall flat on her face, turned to each other… and laughed.
“We all know no Freed woman in Olma-Ka could stop Heliran from doing what she wants,” Nydera said with a shrug.
Ittaniera said, “The gods themselves couldn’t.” Then she went back to cleaning up the soiled bedding.
Outwardly, she appeared as Heliran Andel to those who waited on her appearance from the birthing tent. With so many gathered it was apparent Nydera had spoiled the surprise and informed them the new mother would not rest for the customary two days. Inwardly, Heliran fought to ignore the pains and exhaustion of bringing Gaeron into the world so she could think through was about to come.
Among those faces examining her were a number who didn’t appear surprised at all by her appearance. Leonaime Nynar was one such woman.
The elder, already Sariona’s most trusted advisor, would have an even greater say one day if Heliran had anything to say about it.
The portly woman greeted her with a smile that lit the day, taking Heliran under one elbow while Nydera took the other as if the three were sword sisters simply strolling across Olma-Ka. The pair subtly held her while she made polite conversation with those concerned for her and the newborn babe’s health. Nydera nor Leonaime allowed her to suffer, though, constantly and cautiously pushing forward toward the Paramount’s tent.
“She called the elders to the table?” Heliran asked once they were far enough from the curious eyes and ears who didn’t understand why she was out and walking around already.
Nydera’s wide eyes gave away her shock.
Heliran laughed. It hurt to do so. “Come now. You cannot think I didn’t hear you talking outside the tent?”
“You were on the birthing bed,” Nydera said.
“I’m surprised it took her this long,” Leonaime said. “When you gave birth to Nevilan, I seem to remember you jumping out of the bed the moment the milk mother cut his cord.”
“Is that true?” Nydera was in such disbelief, she nearly pulled herself free of the new mother.
Heliran dipped her head to hide her smile. “I was a lot younger then.”
Neither she nor Leonaime told the younger, disturbed woman the truth that her first birth hadn’t been easy either. This was far more fun.
More than a few curious heads turned in her direction when the pair of Freed women led her into the Circle of Fire. Past the cook’s tables and the empty benches where hundreds of Olmarians would eat dinner in three shifts throughout the evening. Past the raised platform upon which Sariona enjoyed endlessly boasting about how she’d led Olma-Ka from dark times into a brighter age. They led her to the largest tent in the village. The Paramount’s tent.
A pair of guards stood sentry. They looked past the three women to a distant point.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Leonaime asked.
“I don’t want to, but I have to,” Heliran answered honestly. With her elbows cocked around the other women’s arms, she gave them a slight tug. “Let me go see what this call to the table is all about.”
“You won’t make it on your own,” Nydera said, not completely letting go.
The new mother gave a firmer tug, still friendly, but insistent. Her eyes never left the flap of the Paramount’s tent. “Since you’re not of the elders, you can’t join me.” Heliran placed a hand on Nydera’s sweaty forearm. “Plus, Leonaime can get me to the table without me making a fool of myself. Thank you… for everything, Nydera.”
Nydera Alethero was tall and narrow, nearly devoid of the curves of a mature woman. Some around Olma-Ka thought she might have what Olmarians called “the flaw.” A terrible curse, some thought. Women with the flaw were thin. Bodies framed in ways no Olmarian woman desired. It did not bode well for finding a mate unless he was taken, or bearing healthy children.
Those people were wrong to underestimate Nydera. The woman was still young and would fill out in her own time. Whatever Nydera had, she was not weak. Anyone who thought that did so at their own risk. One day, she would prove herself to be a great warrior, maybe even one to lead the warriors into battle. But today, she was still a Freed woman of lower status, incapable of stopping Heliran from attending the Paramount’s meeting. Incapable of joining it herself.
“Leonaime, let’s see what this is all about.”
Both guards watched the pair approach. The one on the right gave her a shifty glance. The one on the left, Heliran swore, winked as if the two shared a secret. Neither would cause a problem. Neither moved.
“Don’t be daft,” Leonaime said, her voice suddenly harsh. “The woman just gave birth. Be decent and pull back the tent flap and announce her.”
The robust woman hadn’t been talking to either guard in particular, but Sosia, the winking one, slid into their path, reached out and grabbed the fold of material. She pulled the tent flap back and called into the Paramount that Heliran and Leonaime were here to attend the call.
Drawing a deep breath and pushing back the consistent flashes of sharp pains, Heliran stepped forward. Leonaime did her best to stay by her side in the narrow passage of hanging flaps, holding her so she could appear to not struggle.
Beyond the entry, the Paramount's tent opened into an expanse of her influence. Weapons from fallen foes, exotic animal skins, and commissioned tapestries hung from support beams and poles. Large furniture filled what would otherwise be useful space. Trunks. Two chairs twice as wide as a person, draped in the white fur of a mountain bear, sat side-by-side. But it wasn’t the riches of Sariona Petrosiana that caught Heliran’s eyes.
In the far corner, the Paramount’s table was long enough to seat twenty but held only Sariona’s small council of elders, six in total at the moment. Two chairs had been pulled away, to the side. Heliran knew who the subtle message of exclusion was meant for. Bowls of fruit and cheese dotted the table top. Goblets sat at each place in front of each elder.
“I didn’t realize we had started my son’s birth feast yet,” Heliran said, not smiling.
Sariona tried to hide her surprise at seeing Olma-Ka’s fiercest warrior. For a flash, it was there, readable and obvious. But the Paramount quickly regained her composure. Her large eyes narrowed as she smiled. Both failed to erase the irritation she’d shown at Heliran’s presence. “I apologize. If we didn’t have such urgent business, I would have waited to call everyone to the table until you had your two days’ rest.”
“Let me guess, whatever matter faces us, it couldn’t wait?” Heliran responded.
Snatching a bundle of grapes in her fist, a thin warrior with narrow eyes sneered at Heliran. “Our scouts got word of a caravan crossing the Olka-Fa from Axthelm.”
Bectan Allec popped one of the grapes in her mouth, making a show of chewing as if she took great joy in making Heliran wait for an answer she already had. “A merchant caravan. Ten
Three at the table nodded.
A merchant caravan, especially one that big, would carry desired wealth. Olmarians shared in nearly every way. Child-rearing. Men. Riches for one Olmarian were riches for all. Those rules shifted under Sariona’s leadership. Even though the desert community benefited from having two major rivers within a day’s march, this was still a land where only the hardy thrived. “The desert never yields” was a famous Olmarian saying for a reason, as those who didn’t respect its power always discovered, usually as a permanent lesson.
Sariona claimed the village’s livelihood and future health depended on caravan raids. One this large would be too tantalizing for the woman to ignore.
Maybe it was her irritation at being exhausted and uncomfortable, combined with the fact she suspected Sariona of calling everyone to the table only because she knew Heliran was indisposed. Maybe the constant demand to raid caravans finally pushed her past reservation. Her eyes falling on Sariona directly, she said, “Again? Have we not raided enough? Especially lately?”
“Can there be enough?” Bectan snorted, popping another grape into her mouth. “I don’t know about you, Heliran, but I’m not living comfortably enough to stop raiding.”
“One poor season of crops, and…” Goff Sain, the oldest male elder, said, lifting both his hands and flicking his fingers. As a Three-Marked Freed man, he’d seen some battle, had earned those raised scars the two Paramounts over his life-time had carved into his skin for his kills.
Her shoulder length hair lay flat against her head, Sariona wrapped a strand around her long fingers before tucking one side behind an ear. She appeared pleased with Bectan’s interruptions. “From what our scouts say, the wagons are brimming with goods, Heliran.”
She hated the way the Paramount said her name, as if it were an insult understood by everyone.
“And that’s what you said for the last three caravans we raided during this moon cycle.”
“And have those raids not brought us goods and wealth?”
Heliran nodded, refusing to recognize the Paramount had earned a point, and still not taking her seat. “They have. But each time we raid a caravan, we make enemies.”
“Enemies we can easily defeat,” Goff said, without heat or malice.
“And how much longer will we be able to make that claim? How many more caravans and small villages can we raid before they decide they’ve had enough?” Heliran took in each of the elders as she responded. In them, she saw little hope. Some would understand, but far too many would not. Those who would understand wouldn’t act. They had seen what Sariona’s raids brought. Heliran definitely saw every time the elders had their quiet conversations about keeping an unfair share of the raid’s earnings.
Sariona gave her a scoffing laugh. “Why, Heliran, sometimes I think you fear an invasion.”
“I do,” she said flatly.
They laughed in response, led by Bectan, but quickly joined by Sariona, as if she worried about keeping face with the other woman instead of the other way around.
“You fear Olma-Ka being invaded? How? From whom?” Bectan flung her long arms out to the sides, just above the heads of those seated next to her. “When was the last time anyone thought to raise spears against us in our own home? Who could? The Steelborn? The Walled Ones? They won’t leave their stone homes to dare enter the desert. Not that they have the courage to.”
“And the other Sun Skinned?” Heliran asked pointedly, a question that good decorum encouraged to keep quiet.
Sun Skinned, the people of the desert, did not turn on each other; an unspoken maxim from the days of the Olka-Fa’s earliest settlements.
Sariona laid a hand on Bectan’s. Looking up at Heliran as if she were speaking to a child, she said, “You, just as with any other, know I would never send our people out against others of our kind. Our scouts are reliable, and they tell us this is a Buk Toh caravan. We will send a party to intercept it. Our people need security, Heliran. There’s only so much our planting fields afford us. The rest has to be taken. You know that. I will do this, because it is the right thing to do. Either support me or make your claim.”
Bectan nodded her head greedily. Goff dropped his head and played with the base of his goblet. Subtly, Leonaime cleared her throat.
The Paramount had laid down a challenge in the face of the elders, antagonizing Heliran to state she had a right to be Paramount. A right of all Freed women, the claim was a challenge to the Paramount and had to be honored with a public fight to the death. Heliran did not desire ruling the Olmarian people and Sariona knew that. That was why the Paramount prodded. Confident Heliran would not make the claim, Sariona did this only to humiliate the woman she saw as a rival in front of Heliran’s peers.
A tense moment passed. The sounds of life outside the tent wafted in, muffled by the canvas. When Heliran did not respond, Sariona extended her arms, her long, fat–knuckled fingers stretched out before her as if she were reaching for something to pull closer. “Then it’s settled. As soon as we’re ready, we will send a party. Now.” She held the attention of the elders at the table as if only their opinions mattered. “Let’s plan the attack.”
Begrudgingly, Heliran tugged Leonaime’s arm and allowed the robust woman to escort her to the Paramount’s table, knowing this was a mistake but not knowing how to prevent it.