Authors: Catherine M. Wilson
Copyright © 2008 by Catherine M. Wilson
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All characters depicted herein are the product of the author’s imagination and do not represent any actual persons, living or dead.
Cover photo by Donna Trifilo
Published by Shield Maiden Press
P. O. Box 963
Boulder Creek, CA
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Many people offered advice, support, and encouragement during the “quite some time” it took to finish this project.
It is an extraordinary piece of luck for a writer to find someone who is willing to discuss a work in progress, someone who can enter the world of the story and gossip about the characters as if they were real people, who will question their motivations, scrutinize their actions, complain when they step out of character, and cast a light on a side of them their creator may have missed — someone who will take the work as seriously as the author does. For me that person is my friend and editor, Donna Trifilo, who, in addition to all of the above, pushed me through the hard times.
To everyone who was willing to read a work in progress, sometimes more than once, I offer my gratitude and the assurance that everything they had to say about it mattered.
Susan Strouse helped me overcome a major stumbling block at a crucial turning point. Lisa Liel, whose enthusiasm for the story rekindled my own enthusiasm, showed me how I could take a good idea and make it better. Ann Thryft’s considerable knowledge of the time, place, and culture deepened my own understanding of the story and its characters. Jo Trifilo’s insightful comments and careful critique gave me a new perspective on the story.
In ways too numerous to mention, significant contributions were also made by Jen Davis-Kay, Katherine Gilmartin, Rebecca Hall, Rob Field, Carmen Carter, Kate Maynard, the late Dr. Susan Barnes, Judi Miller, Jack Contento, Ru Emerson, the members of my first writers’ group—Morgan Van Dyke, Barbara Murray, Cooper Gallegos, Sandralee Watters, Marlene Michaelson, Rebecca Morn, and Eileen Thompson—who suffered through my early attempts to get my story started, and Heather Rose Jones, who helped me find my characters’ names.
And many thanks to George Derby and Marissa Holm for keeping me well fed.
All the women of my family had gone to war. My mother’s sisters, older than she, fought in the service of the Lady Abicel in the last war against the northern tribes. Their mother served the Lady’s mother in wars told of in grandmothers’ tales. As far back as our line was remembered, our family and hers stood side by side.
My mother too had served the Lady. Too young to bear arms in the last war, from within the palisade where she trained to take her place among the warriors, she heard the clash of arms and the screams of the dying outside the walls. She witnessed her three sisters carried lifeless from the battlefield, leaving her, the youngest, to be her mother’s heir. By the time she became a warrior, the tribes had made an uneasy peace, a peace that so far remained unbroken.
Now my turn had come. In early springtime, when I was just sixteen, my mother took me to the house where she had won her shield so many years before. The Lady Abicel, long dead, had left her house and lands, along with her authority, to her only daughter, Merin. More than ties of custom, the closest ties of friendship bound my mother and the Lady Merin. Together they trained in the use of arms. Together they were made warriors. They remained shield friends, though my mother took a husband and returned to her mother’s house. As my mother had been bound to the service of the Lady Abicel, so would I be bound to the Lady Merin’s service.
On the day I left home, before I set foot across the threshold, my mother made me a present of new shoes. She put on her oldest pair, her journey shoes that had been from home and back again so many times they knew the way. I had meant to be mindful of my first step out the door, but when I turned to leave my little sister with some words of wise advice, I tripped over the stone doorstop and stumbled out into the bright day.
“Dazzle the eye of trouble,” said my mother, to turn bad luck aside.
From the place where our footpath joined the road we took a last look back. My mother waved and blew a farewell kiss to my sister standing in the doorway. I waved too, though my thoughts were flying far ahead of me down the road to Merin’s house.
The first day of our journey took us through country I knew well. My feet had worn smooth every footpath through the pastures where we grazed our sheep. By midmorning of the second day we had left the world I knew behind. We walked through gentler hills than ours, through meadows bright with new grass where red cattle grazed. We never went hungry or lacked a place to spend the night. As we had cared for travelers who came to our door, so our neighbors cared for us. Every evening we sat by the hearth fire of a stranger. Even after so many years, their faces sometimes come to me in dreams.
On the fifth day, at midmorning, we crested the last hill, and the valley that is the heart of Merin’s land lay before us. The river that watered it appeared so tranquil from a distance that I suspected my mother of exaggeration when she warned me of its treachery, of whirlpools and swift currents that would sweep the feet out from under the unwary. Flowing from north to south, it meandered past fields still winter-brown but shimmering with the green promise of a new year. While the part of me that was still a child already missed my home, the person I would become drew me into this new place.
I had heard so many stories of my mother’s life here that I felt as if I too were returning to this land, though I beheld it for the first time. For a long while we stood silent, gazing down upon it from the hillside. I wondered what my mother must be feeling. Some of the happiest years of her life had been spent here, and some of her dearest friendships had been made here, but she had also lost so much here that it must have been hard for her to see this place again.
My mother took my hand and drew me down beside her in the grass. A thousand times I’d heard the story, but I listened with new ears as she retold it.
In ancient days, when only women were warriors, lived a queen whose lands were rich and whose people were content, and all under her protection lived in peace. One dark day, the queen’s daughter, a young woman skilled in the hunt, rode out with her companions. All day they rode, past the time they should have turned for home, but they found no game, and the queen’s daughter would not turn back. At last they saw a red deer at the edge of a wood, and they loosed their hounds to run it down. The queen’s daughter, her hunting spear in hand, rode after it as it vanished among the trees.
The wood belonged to a tribe with whom the queen had once been at war, although many years had passed since there had been strife between them. On that dark day, the son of the queen whose forest it was also hunted there. He saw the red deer bound from between the trees and sent his spear after it. The deer leaped aside, and the spear struck the woman who pursued it.
Late that night her companions brought her body home, tied across her horse’s back where they should have tied the body of the deer. For nine days the queen gave herself to grief. Then she prepared to ride against her neighbors, to take the blood that her daughter’s blood demanded.
On the morning of the tenth day, the queen armed herself and called together the warriors of her household. As they made ready to set out, a young woman rode alone into their midst. At first they thought she was one of their clan, come to ride with her queen, but no one knew her, and she bore no arms. She dismounted and approached the queen. She knelt, as one of the queen’s own warriors would do. When she arose, she lifted her cloak from around her shoulders, and by her clothing all could see that she was of the tribe that had taken the life of the queen’s daughter. Her golden necklace marked her as the daughter of the queen against whom they prepared to ride.
As swords were drawn all around her, the girl stood still, never taking her eyes from the queen. “I have come to replace the one you lost,” she said. “My mother sends me with this message: If your child’s blood demands it, take the blood of this child of mine, but if you need a queen’s daughter to succeed you, take my daughter for your own.”
The queen drew her sword and set its point against the girl’s breastbone and in her eyes saw her fear and her courage. Seldom it happens that wisdom will conquer anger or that grief will yield to compassion, but that day the queen’s heart was satisfied. To spare another mother the grief she knew herself, the queen put away her sword and took the daughter of her enemy to be her own, and both tribes lived in safety and in peace forever after.
So it is the custom that a free woman leave her mother’s house to bind herself and those of her blood to a neighboring clan, either by the sword or by the cradle.
When I was a child, my mother told me countless stories of the time she’d spent here. Not about the war. That was the one thing she wouldn’t speak about unasked, and when I did find the courage to question her about it, her face grew so grim and her tone so solemn that I regretted asking. The tales she told were happy ones, of feasts and festivals, of youthful pranks and bold adventures.
The land was just as she’d described it, a patchwork of rich fields beside the river and pasture on the hillsides. The farmers’ cottages nestled protected between the hills, and trickles of smoke from their hearth fires sifted up through the thatch.
A mist hid the land across the river. It was rocky land, my mother said, no good for farming. On our side of the river, trees grew along the riverbank. Here and there on the open hillsides stood the sacred groves, each a temple to one or another of the powers of life and death.
My mother pointed to a group of timber buildings, surrounded by a maze of earthworks, atop a hill close by the river.
“There is your new home,” she said.
All that day we walked, down the hill, then north along a footpath that followed the river’s edge. From time to time we stopped to rest in the shade of trees just coming into leaf. We met no other travelers, only farmers working in their fields or children driving animals to pasture. The sun was setting as we climbed the hill to Merin’s house.
From the hillside where we sat that morning, the earthworks had appeared to be mere wrinkles in the earth. Now the embankments loomed high above our heads. Topped by a palisade, whose jagged silhouette against the reddening sky looked like a giant’s teeth, they formed a maze all around the hilltop. My mother bore no arms, and we passed unchallenged through the maze. The few people we met greeted us, but no one recognized my mother, and she saw no one she knew.
Inside the fortress a stone walkway took us past pens where goats were kept for their milk and piglets fattened on the household’s refuse. Then we made our way through a scattering of sheds. In one I caught a glimpse of a great loom. Another was a pottery, and another housed a forge.
Merin’s house stood on the hill’s crest. It was the largest house I’d ever seen. The timber walls towered over us, many times higher than the walls of the stone cottage I grew up in. The massive door of hewn planks stood open. In the great hall the household had gathered for the evening meal. Trestle tables had been set out, and women and men, more than I could count, filled the benches.
At the far end of the hall, a fire burned upon an open hearth. Weapons of all kinds covered the wall behind it. Swords and axes hung there, and spears of the kind used in war, but it was the shields that drew my eye, each one painted with the device of the warrior who had borne it.
Before the hearth the high table stood. At its head the Lady Merin presided over the assembled company. She was as dark as my mother was fair and almost as beautiful. Across her pale blue gown she wore a sash of indigo, a baldric for her sword. When she saw us standing in the doorway, she rose and beckoned to us. My mother took my hand, and we approached her.