EVENINGS WITHOUT ECHOES

Claymore Short Story Project #2

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It's been almost seven years since I've written a short story collection of any kind. After Claymore ended, I couldn't resist attempting to tie up some loose ends and to elaborate on some of the less popular characters. So I'm writing this second project, looking at the lives of the characters in Claymore post-series, to ease my writing itch, and hopefully to get enough momentum to complete the other Claymore fics I've left hanging. (A similar collection exists on A03, but I plan the stories to be different)

This project is dedicated to all Claymore writers, especially those 'refugees' from the original Animesuki forum and Mangahelpers forums who helped me long ago to polish up my work.

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Disclaimer: Claymore belongs to Norihiro Yagi and his affliates

Rating: T/M (some implied sex, language, disturbing imagery)


1

After the rain

A story about Cynthia

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After the end of the war, the warriors claimed nothing short of victory. The Organisation was gone. Most of the Awakened Ones, their enemies, were pacified or dead. Yoma still roamed the land, but the warriors were confident that it would only take several decades to completely wipe them out.

So their leaders encouraged them to settle down. They asked the warriors to keep their blades and live out their lives among the humans. Do not make war with your sisters or the humans who we have sworn to protect, Miria told them. You're no longer tools, but free souls. Free to live. Free to love.

In the course of time, many warriors settled in the towns surrounding Rabona. They saw it as their duty to remain with and help the humans, a responsibility unaffected by the Organisation's demise. They watched over villages, built cities and cleansed the land of yoma. Others took husbands, adopted orphans and built families.

When it was time to choose, Cynthia decided to live among the humans. She had served Miria and fought the yoma and untamed Awakened Ones near the Centrals Lands for a year after the fall of Organisation. She wanted rest, no more fighting.

A warrior of her reputation and stature could take her pick from the men of Rabona's elite, and could command the highest dowry. But when all her suitors had paraded before her, she chose as her husband a cattle merchant who kept land near the border with Lautrec in the west. He did not live in Rabona. Neither was he a warrior or rich. He wasn't even native to the Central Lands.

His dowry to her included half of his grazing lands – fertile, lush lands near the Doga valley, ten days' ride from Rabona – and five thousand heads of cattle.

When Cynthia left Rabona after being betrothed, she rode a white colt that no man had ever ridden before. Her husband's people placed a wreath of lilac on her head. They spread carpets all the way to east gate of the city, throwing aromatic herbs on them. Her sisters who still remained in the city lined the route and saluted her, many of them weeping.

At the east gate, Miria waited for her, wanting to be the last to say goodbye. They held each other for a long time before Miria broke the embrace.

"Be safe. Don't forget us" was all Miria said.


Out in the Doga valley, Cynthia traded her armour for sheepskin; her uniform and boots for leather and sandals; her life of fighting beasts for tending sheep, cows and horses. Out for long days in the sun-burnt landscape, her skin took on the same burnished walnut colour as her husband's people. The only thing that didn't change was her Claymore: she kept it strapped permanently on her back, both a scar and trophy distinguishing her from others in the grazing lands.

In the day she led her husband's herds down to the valley floor to feed on glacier-watered pasture. In the night she watched over man and beast from the valley outcrops. When she did sleep, she did so under the glow of a multitude of stars.

Then one day her husband said to her, "My people will be gathering to choose a new leader for our tribe. Would you accompany me to my homeland?"


They departed on horseback with enough provisions for 10 days. But their trip took almost two weeks.

The rode out the valleys until snow-ringed mountains rose like wings all around them, blocking the setting sun. Behind them laid a hundred smaller valleys, many with villages isolated by the hills. There was Doga, the town that gave the entire valley its name, where Clare had met Raki. Then there was the mound where Clare's friend Elena was buried, lost in sliding panes of low-lying clouds.

The air thinned. Their breaths began to smoke. They slept in shallow caves along mountain passes, and boiled snow for water. Their road disappeared behind banks of fog. Lightning strobed the mountain tops at night.

Then, the land began to descend. They found themselves confronted by featureless plains, dissected by great flowing rivers, interrupted by fists of rock.

They met the first of her husband's people at a herder's camp by a snowmelt-still lake. They all carried the same sun-burnt visage of angular peaks and valleys in their faces, and talked in a deep-pitched, wispy language. She nodded to them. They touched fingers to their forehead in return.

When heat from the sun began to cusp at her eyelids, they reached another camp, this time with a cluster of small houses encircled by a low fence pockmarked with bones and animal heads. Hundreds of horses grazed in the bare fields. Men loitered outside the camp's cattle gate. Women drifted in and out with firewood.

"We're home," her husband told her.


The men lit a fire in the centre of camp. Their bodies consumed every available space around it, displacing women and children. At dusk, the fire threw their long shadows in every direction. The men talked. Women and children edged in at the margins, but none broke through the immediate circle around the fire.

Cynthia observed all this from outside the camp, beside her horse. Her husband had left her and joined the tight congregation of fire-facing men. So, not wanting to feel out of place, she did what the other women did: she looked for firewood.

On her fourth trip returning from the dark, one of the women tugged at her sleeve. She gestured at Cynthia to dump her sticks. She spoke to her in language at Cynthia was still trying to understand, her tongue cleaving her lips in an attempt to communicate.

Cynthia followed the woman past the houses and into a far corner of the camp. There, a group of women were butchering cattle. They were laughing, talking in wild sing-song voices. When they saw Cynthia, they opened their circle to include her. Cynthia held her breath: the scene parted to show women gutting and tearing through several prone carcasses, meat and bones like piers on a flood of blood and guts.

Some women pointed at her Claymore. Others made motions of chopping. They pointed at a sheaf of crimson muscle at the delta of the animal's sawn-open stomach.

She followed their prodding. She seized the meat, dislodged with a blade and nestled it with palm of her hand. The women pointed to their mouths. So she put it to her lips and swallowed it in a single bloody gulp.

She'd tasted worst. In her days in the mountains near Pieta, she had scavenged frozen animal remains and bit bark off saplings. So this was just – big. And fleshy. She felt the warmth of excess blood edge down the sides of her mouth. The moment she opened them to gasp for air, the women began to shriek and howl.

They began to lift her arms. A woman with her mouth smeared with offal and blood kissed Cynthia on her mouth, transferring some of the meat from tongue to tongue.

At the point, Cynthia felt the first raindrops hit her forehead.


Even in the drizzle, everyone assembled in the open. The women returned to the carcasses. The men were now sparring with the swords.

Or dancing. Cynthia couldn't tell. It looked too elaborate to be actual duelling: men with their swords perpendicular to their arms, facing each other, circling their opponents, and finally simultaneously moving in for a strike.

She watched them duel. No blood was shed, no one beyond a few young men exerted any force. Some duelled, bowed and returned to form a half-crescent of men standing by the fire with their swords sheathed. Her husband whirled among them. Cynthia saw his footwork more than his technique, so elaborate and artistic it felt out of place for a man who rode on his horse all day.

Then, one of the younger men called her to fight.

Much later, when reflecting back on what happened, she would admit the whole thing was more instinctive than a conscious attempt to fight. But there, in the rainy windswept plains, blood edging from her teeth, among a people whose customs she couldn't yet understand, a challenge was a challenge. Just like Miria's orders or Helen taunting her to spar. So she took out her sword.

It took three moves to understand the elaborate dance these men did. Soon, she fought in step, her Claymore matching their powerful parrying blows. The men were not intimated. They didn't soften their strikes.

So Cynthia decided: I'm not holding back.

Anticipating the next blow, Cynthia absorbed the force of the hit. Then, with a single swipe she disarmed her opponent. It just took a bit more force, the most minute injection of strength. Their swords were sharp-edged and curled, but they could not match a Claymore for brute force.

The young man stepped aside. Another took his place.

She repeated this process with three others. Two moves to understand how well her opponent danced or struck, and just one downward slap of the Claymore to pry the sword from their hands.

Then, there was just three.

She stared at the others in the declining circle: her husband, a grizzled young warrior with battered chain mail and herself. She could see tusks of warm air curling from her nose as she sized her opponents up. In between them, the fire whipped left and right with the wind and rain, freed from its confines by the spread-out spectators.

"Cynthia," her husband called.

The young warrior went for him. Now, the moves seemed less of a dance than a jittery mix of parleys, swipes and sheath blocks. She watched the warrior beat down her husband, a cattle herder from the plains beyond the mountains who previously only held a blade to skin animals. She watched until the rain began to hammer her head in icy spikes.

In a move that would make Miria proud, she strode through the fire, blocked the disarming blow and knocked the warrior to the ground with the hilt of the Claymore. A punch. An attempt to sweep out her feet. A desperate lunge for the fallen blade. And Cynthia levelled her sword at him, the other arm keeping her husband away.

They stood like that in the rain for a moment. Until the warrior walked away. She held her guard, rain pouring from her Claymore in rivulets.

She knew everyone was waiting for her next move. So she stabbed her Claymore into the ground, turned to her husband and helped him stand. As the rain continued to pour, she took him in her arms, foreheads touching, watching the raindrops collecting in his eyelashes.


After the rain, after the gathering, after her husband's people had chosen their leader, Cynthia made preparations for the long journey home. She bartered their leather for provisions and dried their coats in the short hours of blinding daylight.

Before they left, the women who had fed her the horse's insides came up to her. They asked her to dismount and they took turns kissing her hands and feet. She tried to pull away, but they blocked her horse and surrounded her.

When they rode away from the camp, it was her husband's turn to do what the women did. He kissed her left cheek, touched her lips. He smiled. Cynthia, still unsure what to say or do with his intimacy, returned it.

And this was how they headed home: her human husband by her side, her Claymore on her back and all the land of her tribe unfolding before her like an offering.


NOTES:

In many Eastern cultures (especially in imperial China), the bride is sent away from her family and marries into her husband's family. She's expected to assimilate to his culture and adapt accordingly. Examples include the Heqin (peace marriages), where the Chinese royal family married off their branch members to neighbouring nations for peace. Their stories are sad, and they're frequently viewed as helpless victims of politics.

But there are stories where the bride in a foreign land stands tall: she rises above her circumstances and leads her new people. This was the trigger for this story, where a headstrong Cynthia, being who she is, takes control and leads.

Comments welcome.

17/06/2016