I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, or anything I've borrowed and modified from the Banestorm setting published by Steve Jackson Games.
"That's right, Sayuri, ya got it!" Ranma enthused from where she stood at the edge of a forest clearing as she watched one of his few normal friends and currently her student flow through a basic kata. "Now, run through that until I tell ya ta stop. Yuka, you're up, let's see how well ya remember last week's lesson." As she watched his other normal friend run through what she'd learned the last time they'd met, the redhead really wished they could do this more than once a week. But between training with the pikes and teaching the Keldara men with his father and Soun, he was busier than he'd ever been in his life. He was lucky to see any of the girls before dinner time and nightfall except in passing and during joint exercises of the pikes and scouts. And of course, by the time the family (now including Ku Lon, Sayuri, Yuka and Miyo) did get together half of them were too exhausted to stay up long and the others didn't want to waste candles just to stay up and talk.
"Good, you've been practicin'," Ranma praised when Yuka reached the end of the kata. "Were ya watchin' Sayuri?"
"Yes, sensei." Yuka flowed into the newest series of punches and kicks.
Ranma watched her student closely, occasionally correcting her form with a touch. "Once more," the redhead ordered when Yuka reached the end of the kata.
When Yuka reached the end the second time, Ranma was grinning. "You're getting' good at this," she said. "Run through it another five times. Sayuri, break an' watch Yuka, make sure she's doin' it right."
As a gasping Sayuri gratefully finished her last run-through before sitting on a tree stump to watch her friend, Ranma turned to the center of the clearing. Even as she'd been instructing the two beginners, she'd been listening to the cracks and thumps from Akane and Ukyo's sparring match and noticed that the pace had been picking up. Now she frowned as she focused on the pair even as Akane used the massive two-handed hammer Sir Morgan had found for her to knock up and away another slashing attack from Ukyo's battle spatula.
Ranma wasn't particularly worried about the pair hurting each other. The battle spatula was covered by leather and wood sheathing with another block at the end of the handle for balance, and the hammer had a thick leather sheathing of its own. Combined with the thick cloth armor both girls wore and some care where they directed their attacks, the worst either weapon would leave were massive bruises (at least that was all for high-end martial artists). No, what concerned her was how the two girls' back-and-forth felt less like a sparring match and more like a duel.
Then Akane used the momentum from her block to swing her hammer up and around in a circle toward Ukyo's side, and Ranma tensed as she noticed faint, misty ribbons of red light playing around Akane's hands and creeping up the hammer's handle.
"Akane, Ukyo, break!" the redhead shouted over the belling sound of the hammer rebounding from Ukyo's parry.
The two girls sprang apart and lowered their weapons, sucking in deep breath after breath. Ukyo dropped her spatula's blade to the ground and braced herself on the handle. Akane unclenched her own grip on the hammer's handle, practically one finger at a time.
Ranma breathed a soft sigh of relief as the raven-haired girl dropped to crouch on her heels. That was close, she thought shakily. Too close. And the truth was lately it was Ukyo getting too intense as well, not just Akane — the newly-revealed berserker just had a way to let people know when she was getting close to losing it. Ranma just couldn't afford to let the two spar, anymore.
Fortunately, there was a second issue with Akane and Ukyo's training, and the two problems dovetailed nicely into a single solution.
"Akane, Ukyo, I'm not really gonna be able ta help ya much more with yer weapons," she said, walking over to the girls. "The Saotome school doesn't focus on weapons the way yours do."
Both girls stared. Akane demanded, "Who are you, and where have you hidden the boy who can't admit he isn't the best at everything?"
Ukyo laughed as Ranma grinned. "He got told ta hold buckets in the hall by the teacher. Truth's truth, I'm learnin' more watchin' ya spar than you are sparring," the redhead said. "And truth is, Ukyo, you're not helpin' Akane much, either. Yer spatula balances differently, more like a sword with a really wide blade than a hammer."
Ukyo straightened with a sigh and lifted her spatula to check the sheathing's ties. "You're right, I'd noticed the same thing," she said. "So, oh wise sensei, do you have a solution?"
Ranma struck a pose, fists on her hips. "But of course!" she asserted pompously, then relaxed as Akane snorted laughter. The Tendo was over being angry, good. "Some a' the dwarves that have been bringin' in supplies carry hammers, I thought I'd see if one a' them could give you a hand. And I thought I'd see if you two can spar with some a' Sir Morgan's men-at-arms instead of each other. After all, none a' the guys we're gonna be fightin' will be carrying battle spatulas.
"Also, Akane, yer pop has been better since we got here, an' he's doin' good with trainin' the Keldara. Why don't ya ask him again if he'll train you in yer own family school? It's not like ya won't be in the middle a' the fightin' whatever he says, so maybe he'll change his mind."
Akane brightened at the suggestion, and Ranma hid a grin. Good, that should keep you busy and away from Ukyo except when trainin' with the scouts.
Ukyo glanced sidelong at her now-former sparring partner. "Not bad, Ran-chan," she mused, "maybe you're growing up."
"Maybe we all are," Ranma replied, then glanced over at Sayuri and Yuka. The two girls were trying very hard to focus on Yuka's katas instead of the conversation, and failing miserably … and the shadows of the trees cast by the setting sun had reached the far side of the clearing.
Ranma stretched and yawned. "I think we're about done here," she said. "Akane, a quick spar with Sayuri, Ukyo take Yuka, then we'll head fer home before it gets too dark."
Elfrithr sighed as she leaned back against one of the logs that surrounded a small bonfire. It was the weekly evening for Ukyo, Akane, Sayuri and Yuka to join Ranma (in his disturbingly cute girl form) for more martial arts training, as usual Miyo was spending her evening studying her new religion with Father Andre, and early on the scouts had gotten into the habit of enjoying an evening together in the absence of their leaders.
Though maybe it's time we discontinued this little tradition, she thought, wincing a bit as she gazed at the others around the fire in the gathering dusk, the way they were bunching up in separate groups. Though at least none of the groups were purely Japanese or Keldara.
Things had been getting tense over the past few weeks. It had started with Akane and Ukyo, then spread as various girls took one side or the other. Not all of them, but enough. (So far, the few boys in the scouts had been smart enough to stay out of it.) And while there hadn't been any fights, there had been a few shouting matches after training, when the girls had returned to their various homes.
Not that that hasn't been entertaining occasionally, Elfrithr thought with a giggle, remembering one memorable shouting match — between sisters, no less. The fun part had been when their mother got involved, and berated both girls for arguing over other girls' marriage arrangements. The ribbing Bergdis and Runhildr had gotten over that had actually calmed things down for a few days.
Her amusement faded into a slight frown. But only a few days, she mused.
"Aren't you the thoughtful one."
She glanced up at her newest friend Kahori, one of the newcomers, standing by her with two bowls of stew in her hands. "Just thinking about quarrels," Elfrithr said.
"Oh?" Kahori dropped to sit cross-legged beside her and handed her one of the bowls. "Akane."
"Ukyo," Elfrithr rebutted.
"So, that's settled," Kahori replied, and started into her stew.
Elfrithr shook her head, smiling, but silently dug into her own stew. It was thicker than it had been weeks earlier, before the arrival of the mage with the first shipment of food from Caithness, and before the dwarves had started supplementing the Keldara's food supplies along with the weapons shipments. This time it even included some chunks of venison, someone had gotten lucky hunting.
Finally, the edge off her hunger, she said, "Settled for us, maybe, we don't really care much — Akane's and Ukyo's business, let them deal with it. Some of the others, though …" Her voice trailed off as she tried to think of a polite way to phrase it.
"… are a bunch of excitable, gossiping busybodies," Kahori finished.
Elfrithr sighed. "Yeah, that," she agreed. She finished off the last of her stew and set aside the bowl. "So what do we do about it?"
"What do we do about it?" Kahori asked, an eyebrow lifting. "And when did it become our job?"
"I don't see anyone else stepping up to the plate..." She paused when her friend giggled. She'd found the baseball games the Japanese refugees liked to play to be an unusually silly waste of time, but she'd also found that Kahori found it amusing when she used newcomer sayings — and after all the months since she had arrived from her dying world, she still didn't laugh nearly enough. "As I was saying," Elfrithr continued with a mock-scowl, "The lieutenants are too busy circling each other to pay attention to the rest of us, and when the Prophetess isn't training with us she's studying with Father Andre. And even after the fight with the orcs, the men-at-arms training us are still half-convinced we're a bunch of empty-headed girls, so —"
"How dare you! After everything Ukyo has gone through —"
"Yeah, right, just because her father's a bastard she decides to waste ten years of her life training for revenge on a six-year-old boy, and I'm supposed to feel sorry for her?"
Elfrithr's head whipped around to find Vedis and Naora, two of their leaders' most ardent supporters — unfortunately on opposite sides — on the other side of the bonfire standing face-to-face shouting at each other. "That's done it, we are a bunch of empty-headed girls," she muttered. "Come on." She rose to her feet, Kahori right behind her, and stepped around the fire. "Easy, now, there's no need to —"
Vedis abruptly shoved Naora, sending her staggering back several paces. Naora gaped for a moment, then stepped forward and her open hand seemed to blur as it cracked across Vedis's cheek. "Come on, bitch, if you want a fight, I'll — ooof!" All the air left her lungs as she doubled up around Vedis's fist buried in her gut, then collapsed, retching.
And a perfect hit, too, just like Akane and Ukyo showed us, if a little high, Elfrithr thought despairingly. She grabbed Vedis's arm. "That's enough!" she shouted. "Everyone just calm down and —" Unfortunately, Vedis was Akane's supporter, and Elfrithr realized her mistake just as someone slammed into her side, knocking her over.
For a moment they rolled on the ground, kicking and gouging, and then Kahori was there yanking her attacker off her and kicking the other girl away. She reached down a hand to pull Elfrithr to her feet, and the two girls turned to stand back-to-back for mutual protection. They looked around them at the field suddenly full of girls struggling with each other as other girls and boys hastily backed away.
"So much for team bonding," Kahori commented wryly. "Let's see if we can work our way out of this mess."
"Right," Elfrithr agreed, "to the left — my left — looks like that's the closest edge of the brawl, let's go."
The two girls edged their way through the scrum, careful to keep their backs to each other.
"My lord, Lieutenant Ukyo and Lieutenant Akane are here," Peredur announced.
Sir Morgan, Kildar of the Keldara, looked up at his page from the large book on the window-lit table in front of him with a sigh of relief. Even with the spread of printing presses, more of Caithness's nobles than not were semi-literate at best. He wasn't sure why, though — a sergeant of Megalos's legions needed to be able to read, and since his resignation from his service to the emperor he had found it a valuable skill both as a city guard at Carrick Town and especially as the next thing to an independent lord.
But that didn't make reviewing his seneschal's books any less boring.
Then the names his page had given fully registered, and Sir Morgan abruptly wished he could go back to reviewing the books. He did not want to be doing this — while he had had to dress down soldiers many times over his career (even the occasional knightly young scion of nobility he'd had to oh-so-politely take to task) he had never enjoyed it. And the fact that these two 'soldiers' were attractive young women added a surreal edge to the situation that made it even worse. Still, he had put this off as long as he could — too long — and he should have known better. He hadn't gotten where he was by letting problems fester. No matter how embarrassed he was by what his duty demanded this time.
"Thank you, Peredur," he replied, rubbing at his eyes. "Please show them in, then see to it that we are undisturbed."
"Yes, my lord." The page bobbed a bow and hurried from the room. Sir Morgan ignored the sound of voices as he rose from his chair and picked up his tankard. When the window's iron, arrow-slitted shutters were open that seat was in the best-lighted part of his library, but it was also the location from which conversations could be most easily heard outside or in another room through its open window. Best to have the discussion on the other side of the room. Of course, if this conversation gets loud enough, being away from the window isn't going to help, he thought with a wry grin as he turned to face his subordinates. It's too bad I didn't have time to learn Japanese while they were learning Anglic, a shared language no one else in the manor knows would have been useful.
Peredur stepped back into the library with the two girls behind him, sketched another quick bow with a murmured "Your guests, my Lord," then backed out of the room and closed the door. Ukyo and Akane made their own salutes of a closed fist thumped against a left shoulder, the standard salute of the Megalan legions he'd shown all the new recruits. Well, almost, it was a little and high — but he didn't think the maidens would approve of thumping a breast as a form of greeting, even when wearing armor. Of course as maidens they should really curtsey, except that those of the lower order in the towns of Caithness — and certainly the Keldara — didn't go in for obsequious manners much. And even if they did, a curtsey from a sweat-soaked maiden dressed in leather armor with a crossbow and quiver on her back would just seem strange. But though they'd already proven their worth, he was still uncomfortable taking a military salute from maidens as pleasing to the eye as these two were even after a full morning of training.
Not that the issue that had had caused him to summon the two lieutenants (as he had decided to call them) of his new scouts was military, exactly.
He returned their salutes, then waved them toward the rug-covered, upholstered chairs sitting by the fireplace (completely emptied of ash and cleaned, with the arrival of summer). He took a seat himself, subtly watching the pair as they set aside their crossbows and quivers and sat down, then poured each of them a tankard of water (properly boiled to make sure it was safe) and took a gulp of beer from his own tankard. As the grateful girls emptied half their tankards at once, he hid a frown — the two girls were apparently civil, but both were pretending that the other didn't exist. When they did acknowledge each other's existence, their crossing gazes were like clashing swords.
Finally, he sighed as he put down his tankard and leaned back. "So," he said conversationally, "tell me just why my scouts are breaking up into two mutually hostile — and armed — camps."
The two girls gaped in shock at the question, mouths hanging open until they recovered enough to start stammering responses that mixed together incomprehensibly.
Sir Morgan straightened. "Enough." He waited a moment until the girls quieted, the two shrinking back slightly in their chairs under the weight of his stern gaze. "I know the two of you haven't been fighting, or even trading insults. You have, in fact, been nothing but polite to each other — too polite. It's obvious to everyone that those manners and your mutual responsibilities have been the only thing keeping the two of you from coming to blows, and after last night's brawl we can't say the same about your supporters, can we? Kasumi tells me that Shoshi won't be able to resume training for at least a week, it'll be several days for Yusuke, Michi and Rjupa, and the only reason it wasn't worse was because Genma stepped in when Thordis pulled her knife — she isn't coming out of her cell until Shoshi rejoins you. The training in unarmed and knife fighting you've been giving the girls was intended to be used to fight off overly amorous men, not each other!"
Ukyo and Akane blushed, eyes dropping, and Sir Morgan sighed and relaxed back into his own chair. Quietly, he said, "When the two of you were given your positions I knew you were rivals, but you seemed to be friendly — I thought Nabiki's stories were exaggerated. What happened?"
"Ranma was my friend first —" Ukyo started to say, only to be interrupted by a bolt-upright Akane, a misty red light playing around the clenched fists that she pounded on the table.
"Ranma didn't even know you were a girl! The Tendo agreement came first, and I was the one that helped him —"
"Enough!" The quarreling girls broke off, shrinking back in their chairs again under Sir Morgan's glare. "I already know you're quarreling over Ranma, I asked why it's gotten worse over the past weeks — why you aren't friends anymore."
"I —" "We —" The girls broke off again, exchanged glances, and Ukyo motioned for Akane to start. Akane nodded. "We ... Ukyo's nice," she said softly, eye's falling again. "If it wasn't for Ranma I think we'd be friends. But that made her a bigger threat than Kodachi and Shampoo, much less the occasional new fiancée that dropped by. Then the power went away and people started dying and we had to run to get here, and then we had to work to make sure there'd be enough food ... it just didn't seem as important for awhile. Now ..."
Her voice trailed off, and Ukyo picked it up. "Now, Kodachi didn't come with us, Shampoo went home with Mousse, Ryoga, and Akari, we have enough food and the training with the scouts is easing off a bit, so there's more time to think. Right, Sugar?" Akane nodded again, and Ukyo continued, "And we have a fight coming up, a real one, people are going to die — like Thora did, when the orcs hit us. Suddenly, marriage seems a lot more important."
Sir Morgan rubbed the side of his nose as he thought — this was a new one, even laying aside the role reversal. Sergeant Morgan had had to lay down the law for soldiers fighting over a woman before, but never over which one would get to marry her — that wasn't something soldiers thought much about when it came to camp followers, and when it did happen it was more of a practical arrangement than a romantic liaison. If there was any group of people more practical than soldiers, it was camp followers.
Finally, he sighed and straightened. "Listen, I understand that this is a longstanding situation, and that you both believe that you have valid claims. I also understand that you both have been trying to keep this from getting in the way of your working relationship, and have actually been successful for the most part.
"However, the same cannot be said for your people. You don't have to like the men … the people you are fighting beside — I detested some of the men I served with — but you have to be able to trust them, to know that they'll have your back. Right now, I'm not sure the scouts have that.
"So, I don't care how, but I want your differences settled. If they aren't, the scouts won't be going with the pikes when we head down to join the king. Understood?"
He hadn't raised his voice, but the two girls were pale when they jerkily nodded.
"Good. You'll report again in one week."
Sir Morgan stood, and the two girls rose, saluted, and grabbed their crossbows and quivers before turning toward the door, only to pause and turn back around when he cleared his throat.
"Akane, you owe me for a new table." He nodded toward the table they'd been sitting at, now with a crack running half its width. "Also, after last night's brawl I decided you need some sergeants — Maids Elfrithr and Kahori. According to the report on last night's brawl they tried to prevent it, then when they failed they guarded each other's back in spite of being on opposite sides of your little feud. Tell them the four of you are to report to Sergeant Osric for instruction in their new duties, he knows to expect you. Dismissed."
Akane and Ukyo saluted again, blushing as they realized they hadn't waited before for his dismissal, then practically ran from the room.
If Sir Morgan seems a little too professional for a medieval setting, that's because Megalos has the only professional army in the world. The legions vary in quality, of course (especially the not-so-legal ones organized and maintained by various nobles), and are dependent enough on the battle mages assigned to each legion that they failed to reconquer mana-poor Caithness when when it rebelled, but still professional.
The chapter title, of course, comes from the feuding Hatfields and McCoys — involving at least in part various cross-family romances (though Johnse Hatfield was definitely less honorable than Ranma).
Thanks for the reviews!