History records that in the latter reigns of the Autarchs, the God-kings of Urth were hesitant to rely upon human troops alone, fearing that the commanders of their legions might seek to usurp the iridescent Peacock Throne and establish their own bloodlines as living Gods instead. Many of the horrors that now plague Vaarn are thought to have their origins in the experiments of these Autarchs’ bio-sculptors, as they sought to create demi-human soldier races that would answer directly to the Peacock Throne, armies of machines and soldier-beasts that were so loathed by the common people that they relied upon the Autarch’s grace for protection. Perhaps the most durable legacy of this paranoia on the part of Urth’s despots is the species known as Cacklemaws.
They are newbeasts, of a sort, although they disdain plasty-masks and seek no approval from mankind. In form the Cacklemaws are hyena-headed women, standing seven feet or more, with three-fingered hands and a loathsome strength in their lanky limbs. Whatever oaths bound them to the service of the Autarchy are long-since broken and these creatures are a blight upon mankind, killing and abducting at will and mounting daring raids into Hegemony territory.
The Cacklemaw are destructive and violent by nature, having been created as merciless shock-soldiers to strike fear into the hearts of any Noble House that defied the Autarch. They respect strength alone, and perhaps they would have overrun the Urth by now if it was not for the constant intra-family bloodletting as young Cacklemaw challenge their elder sisters for position.
Two things stand out, aside from their love of violence: their mirth and their singular gender. On the first subject, the monk Markus of Dulcrest has written that ‘to the Cacklemaw, all waking activity is slaughter that descends into revelry; else it is revelry that descends into slaughter’. The creatures are famed for their screaming laughter, their love of practical jokes, and most of all for the grisly leather puppets they make from the remnants of defeated foes. Their religion is not well-understood, for their rites are closed to outsiders, but it is known to revolve around a fool-capped puppet-demoness the Cacklemaw name ‘Grand Mama Punch’, to whom they devote wild rites of bloodletting and ritual clowning.
On the second subject, the gender of the Cacklemaw creatures, much has been said. It is inarguable that all Cacklemaw are female, or more accurately, as Markus of Dulcrest has recorded, that ‘all who have been sighted are female’. Since the creatures age and die, yet replace their numbers year by year, the question must be asked: from whence do new Cacklemaw emerge?
Some theorise of an unseen caste of Cacklemaw males, perhaps kept as a hidden harem somewhere in the trackless wastes. Others claim the Cacklemaw to be a clone race, emerging fully-grown from pseudo-wombs beneath the desert surface. Others still claim that the bite of a Cacklemaw is infectious, and that human women are bitten by the creatures and painfully transform into new cackling wretches. Women who laugh too long and too raucously, and who are given to drink and loose behaviour, are often believed to have Cacklemaw tooth-marks festering somewhere on their body.
Perhaps the strangest, and therefore most popular, folktales run like this: the Cacklemaw give birth only to female young, and so must seek blasphemous congress with human men to further propagate their race. Legend has it that communities in the deep deserts of Vaarn offer up young men as tribute to the Cacklemaw matriarchies, in return being spared the hyena-women’s bloody outrages. To be a ‘cackle-groom’ is the subject of many lurid jokes and bawdy songs in Vaarn, and ribald stories abound of men abducted and enticed to couple with the shameless Cacklemaw warriors – an experience the protagonists of these tales rarely survive.
Whatever the truth, these beings have plagued Vaarn for centuries, and the mystery of their reproductive cycle has yet to be solved. In battle the Cacklemaw are formidable foes, with quick reflexes, prodigious strength, and near suicidal courage. They raid human settlements for water, meat, and prisoners, for although the stories of ‘cackle-grooms’ are unconfirmed, it is certainly true that the hyena-women will use captured humans as slaves and for food, if the mood strikes them. They dislike other newbeasts and will generally kill them if they can.
Cacklemaw swear allegiance to War Mothers, but these oaths are not binding and the political support of Cacklemaw warriors is won by the Mama who can best provide her loyal daughters with food, drink, laughter, and violence. At present the dominant War Mamas are Mama Hecklehaw in the trackless Vaarnish interior, Mama Gloatgrim in the southern badlands, and Mama Yawningfool in the northern mountains. Ageing matriarchs Nana Blacklaugh and Nana Rictus command small but devoted cadres of ‘grey-muzzles’, veteran fighters who have survived decades of inter-clan warfare and respect the older Nanas’ tactical nous above the younger Mamas’ savage energy.
The War Mothers lead their daughters where they please, but always meet once a year in the midst of the Vaarnish Interior for the Great Gloating, a ten-day orgy of drinking and feasting at which each Mama brags of her daughters’ outrages and victories. The centrepiece of the Great Gloating are the ritual puppet shows, in which the severed heads and flayed skins of the Cacklemaws’ enemies are mounted upon frames of wood and metal, and compelled through the tautening of wires to caper and dance, and recount in rhyming song the stories of their ignominious defeats. The Cacklemaw are not to be underestimated as foes, and many an overconfident Hegemony officer or Faa nomad chieftain has ended their days as a capering corpse, dancing on strings to the sound of screaming, bestial laughter.