The Soul of a Warrior

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Rlei wrapped his arms around Hvma, placing his hands on her belly.

"You sure you'll be alright?" he murmured into her ear.

Hvma leaned back to rest against his chest, covering his hands with hers. "I will," she said, the smile clear in her voice. "Zhemr should come in later."

Rlei couldn't help frowning at the name. Hvma must've felt it, because she added, scornfully. "It's his child too."

"I know." Rlei nibbled on Hvma's ear. As much as he loathed the other man, he couldn't really refute his contribution. And Hvma liked him. Since Zhemr's lost a hand in the battle with those damn Barvai, he was no good at fighting or hunting, so all he could do was help women take care of their children. Rlei understood that.

Didn't mean he liked it.

"You could always chose your own husband," said Zshill, Rlei's mother, as if she was reading his mind. The elder woman was sitting on a mat, shelling grzev beans into a copper pot.

Rlei scowled. They'd had this conversation a thousand times already, and he wasn't going to do it again.

Zshill must have gathered that too, since she offered her own scowl.

"I just want my blood to carry on," she said. "Can you blame me?"

Zshill had two other sons who could give her grandchildren, but it wasn't the same: in Vrzwah tribes, the blood carried primarily through the female line, so if Rlei's brothers sired offspring, the children would be of their mother's kin. Rlei's unique position guaranteed that Hvma's children were considered his, even though he had nothing to do with their conception, but that, of course, was a different matter.

Zshill used to have one daughter...

Until Rlei decided otherwise.

"Will you help me with the wrap?" he asked Hvma. The woman took the long belt of linen as he held the end to his chest and started spinning, wrapping the fabric tightly around his breasts. It always made him sore afterward, but there was no way he could squeeze them under armor without it.

The gods had a fucking sense of humor, giving him a body fit for motherhood and the soul of a warrior. But there wasn't much he could do about it, other than accept his lot. Wrap his chest, braid his hair, hide his face beneath the warrior's paint, and live his life the best he could.

When all that was done and his chest was as flat as it could get, Hvma helped him fasten the linen around his neck. Then she handed him a shirt of shiny, black hrazs cotton and the lamellar armor, so light if flowed down Rlei's body like a dress. It was polished until it resembled gold more than bronze. Traditionally, the armor was polished to reflect light and blind their enemies, but nowadays it didn't matter: for centuries now, Xzsim warriors were trained to fight blindfolded. Still, it was a warrior's accessory as much as a trvuxam blade or a braid and no self-respecting man would leave his village without it—or let it dull and tarnish.

The armor stopped at Rlei's chest and then fell loosely to the ground, clinking with every movement. He fastened it with a belt of golden plates, but didn't attach the blades yet. There was still a lot to do.

He sat down, and Hvma helped to braid his scarlet hair into an intricate pattern that conveyed Rlei's tribe and status. In the meantime, he drew dark lines around his eyes and put carmine on his lips. Today's work was diplomatic, not military, so he didn't have to completely cover his face, but like any Xzsim man, he couldn't leave the house without some paint.

He was almost finished when Amrma and Vreil jumped down from their dens. Amrma climbed into Rlei's lap and Vreil did what she could to drag her off. They shrieked like little vvurs until Hvma told them to keep quiet. Rlei could hear the smile in her voice and he smiled too.

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