Rygal Saline has always stood in his sister’s shadow. As heir to the Clan Chief, Rhea has been trained in the art of leadership and warfare. Rygal is just, well, Rygal.
After several years away at a College in Ismera, Rygal returns to Jaram for his father’s funeral only to find a letter from his sister. She’s gone, she’s sorry, and she expects him to take her place as the next clan chief. Never envisioning a place for himself within the clan, let alone taking on the responsibilities of leadership, Rygal finds himself alone and out of his depth.
Desperate for companionship and for someone he can turn to for help, he writes a letter to every eligible maiden on the continent, hoping to find a wife. The letters travel far and wide. Most are rejected until an accident of fate sends Rygal’s letters into the hands of two women for whom they were never intended, setting in motion a plot that threatens to bring Clan Jaram to the brink of war.
When they brought her father’s body home, Rhea Saline did not cry. Straight-backed, she put one foot in front of the other in the wake of six men in blue and brown leathers. Their shaved heads were bared with top knots smooth and glistening with oil, their faces held to the sky even though the icy, wet wind cut at them mercilessly as they carried the Clan Chief’s hulking form on a litter up the long winding mountain trail.
Within the deep shadows of her dark blue cloak and shrouded by thick curling strands of her long, dark hair, Rhea was protected from the rain and the wind, but the weather wasn’t what concerned her. Through the thick fabric, she felt the stares of her people on her back and knew the entire Clan was watching her every movement; scrutinizing her.
But in her mind’s eye she was watching not this funeral, but another. The body, wrapped in old, off-white linens, had been smaller then, and her vision blurred by tears, not rain. That day, in the last dying embers of a long summer, her father had stood where she stood now, his shoulders broad and straight, and he had been the one to stare at her, scrutinize her, and find her wanting. She remembered hating him for it.
Now, it was his body they prepared to hoist onto the pyre.
As they reached the sacred plateau where those loved by the Clan were sent on, her former position was occupied by her younger brother, Rygal. Technically, he was Rygal Saline the Second, but as the first of his name was two steps from the pyre, the point seemed moot. Tall and lean, and dressed more like a scholar than a warrior, her brother at least knew where to stand by instinct, not like how she had needed to be shown. But he was a man grown, not a child like she had been when their mother passed. However, she could hear him sniffling, fighting back the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. Without thinking, she wordlessly thrust a handkerchief in his direction, just as her father had done to her all those years ago.
I’m just like him. The thought was as clear and sharp as the cold mountain air. He raised me to be just like him.
Rhea glanced back once more at Rygal, taking in their obvious similarities in his nearly black hair, strong jaw and nose, and the blue of his eyes, while equally noticing his differences: his slight build, the hunch in his posture from too much time spent bent over a desk, and the way he shivered at the chill in the air. He would never take his place among the warriors of their clan, but she also knew that wasn’t what he wanted.
Rygal caught her eye and tried to smile encouragingly. She lifted the corners of her mouth to return the gesture, but turned away before the expression could become a grimace.
This Clan lost its heart when it lost my mother and it won’t regain it with me in my father’s place. Rygal’s gloved hand slid into her bare one, squeezing it, and Rhea felt the first hint of tears sting her eyes. She fought them, directing her gaze skyward to meet the icy rain head-on. Rygal probably wouldn’t agree with me, and the clan certainly wouldn’t, but Jaram needs a nurturer like my mother was. She thought about the clan she knew now and the clan of her youth; things had changed, grown harder in many ways.
We’ve gone too long with only the tough love of my father and it’s not enough. As a border nation, Jaram was a Clan of warriors, herself included, but in her father’s time as Chief they had become less focused on just defending the borders and more focused on keeping them closed. They were obsessed with being the best, the strongest, feared. The clan now lived and breathed for the fight, but they no longer fought for the freedom to live and breathe. We’ve lost our way.
The six clansmen before her parted to allow the clan’s resident Priestess of Saegard to join them nearest to the pyre. A petite dark-haired young woman barely visible under her thick grey cloak, May was nothing like Rhea had always pictured the sisters of the fabled order she’d read about as a child, but she was what the clan had been sent. May’s thin, reedy voice began the funeral dirge, her high pitch in stark contrast to the low, deep voices of the six clansmen who joined her soon after. The sound was low at first, competing with the hush of the rain and the moaning of the wind, but as more and more clanspeople reached the snow-dusted plateau and filled it, they joined in and their voices blended together, growing in strength and number.
The combined sound swelled, rising and lowering in turns, undulating on the wind. There were so many voices now; the clan had grown large and strong. Awed by the sheer force of their song, Rhea turned, looking out over the plateau at the mass of gathered clanspeople. It was as she had feared, they were looking back at her. It was one thing to feel their stares on her back, but another to face them head on and find them not just looking at her but to her, for leadership.
She could see it. See herself leading them into battle. Clan Jaram had become the strongest of all the Clans, even larger now than the High Clan of Haldor, the one all the other Clans had chosen to represent them to the outside world. If commanded into battle, these trained and disciplined warriors would be an unstoppable force. It was tempting, but in the battlefield of her mind Rhea watched her clanspeople fall as wave after wave of them crashed into the enemy. No, I can’t be responsible for that much death. She shuddered.
If father knew what I was considering he would call me weak and selfish. And maybe I am, she thought as she was handed the torch and the six clansmen made way for her to step forward and light the fire. But he is gone and the clan is mine to protect now.
And I will protect it. She stepped back to watch as wood and cloth alike caught fire and the flames spread, consuming everything they could reach. The fire climbed higher, flames licking at the sky despite the rain’s attempt to dampen them, and for the first time in Rhea’s life she found she no longer cared what her father thought or wanted. Goodbye, Father, may you find peace.
Publisher: Mirror World Publishing; 1st edition
Publication Date: September 17, 2022
Print Length: 339 pages
Justine Alley Dowsett (right) is the author of more than ten novels and one of the founders of Mirror World Publishing. Her books, which she often co-writes with her sister, Murandy Damodred (left), range from young adult science fiction to dark fantasy/romance. She earned a BA in Drama from the University of Windsor, honed her skills as an entrepreneur by tackling video game production, and now she dedicates her time to writing, publishing, and occasionally roleplaying with her friends.
With a background in Drama and Communications from the University of Windsor, Murandy Damodred enjoys fantasy fiction with strong romantic subplots. She is an avid role-player and is happiest when living vicariously through her characters. Though she'd rather think of herself as the heroine of her next novel, in the real world she is a nurse and a mom of two living in Windsor, Ontario.