“Free land?” one of the men asked. “Are you sure?”
“I am,” the soldier sent as the Emperor’s Messenger replied. “You can read Emperor Lucian’s words yourself, if you like. Join him for this campaign, and after the northerners are defeated, their lands will be divided among the volunteers.”
“What sort of land?” another voice asked. “I’ve heard it’s poor for grain, north of the Wall.”
The messenger shrugged. “They grow enough barley and oats to feed themselves, don’t they? And you’ve sheep here, up on the hillfields. Not so different, I’d say. Who’s interested?”
Already many of the younger men crowded around him. I glanced around, seeing wrinkled brows and thinned lips on most of the women, and a few of the men, too. It wasn’t such a bad idea; there wasn’t enough land here for the young people. But now? Harvest was not many weeks away, and we needed the hands. Especially with the other half of the message the soldier had brought.
“Messenger!” I called. “You would take our young men from us, with the barley ripening?” I stepped forward. “Be clear. You expect these men to accompany you now?”
“Council-leader.” At least he remembered who I was. I had given him food and drink earlier, and found him a bed for the night. “Tomorrow, or the day after, no later. I have my instructions.”
“At the same time the Emperor has increased the amount of grain he expects as taxes?” I snapped. “If you take our young men, who is to harvest the crop? If it rots in the fields because we have no one to reap it, what then?”
“I am sure you will manage,” he said. I seethed at his tone.
“People of Tirvan!” I raised my voice. “We must meet to discuss this request. Landholders, the hall, this evening.” The fishing boats were still out, but with the tide just at the turn they would return in time, even with the catch to unload and get onto the drying racks. “Soldier, you are not to attend,” I added, to be clear.
I hear muttering among the young men – and some of the older ones, too. I understood, partly: this was a chance that might not come again. But I had to think beyond the individual to what was best for our village.
The other two council leaders met me at my house. With my husband dead these three years, and my children grown, we were assured of privacy here.
“What are your thoughts, Cenwyn?’ my sister Sæthe asked.
“Why is Lucian asking for men now?” I said. “Surely the time for raids was earlier in the summer.”
“That’s exactly why,” Alwar said, from where she sat across from me at the table. “He hopes to take the northerners by surprise. A fast raid to take the land. Then the army can hold it – oh, maybe some of the young men will decide to join them, but not most – and the rest will be back in time for the harvest.”
“We need more land,” Sæthe said. “Not just this village; the whole Empire. I say we counsel agreement.”
“As do I.” Alwar confirmed. I put down my mug of tea with a bang, splashing liquid onto the tabletop. The sharp smell of mint rose.
“And I do not,” I said.
Saethe sighed. “A long night tonight, I fear.”
A long night, indeed. The moon rode high in the dark sky by the time we left the hall. The vote had passed, just: the white pebbles in the voting box outnumbering the black by fewer than a dozen.
In some houses, the men would be filling saddlebags even now, those that had a horse to take. Others would make packs for their own backs. The smithy would be busy, come the morning, with blades to be repaired or sharpened.
I closed the door of the meeting hall behind me. I’d told Saethe and Alwar to leave; I’d clean up, what little there was to do. Straightening benches calmed me, mindless physical work. They would take the results of the vote to the soldier. Not that they needed to, I thought; the excited voices of the men would have told him the outcome.
How had the vote gone in other villages? Much like here in Tirvan, I guessed. Slow anger rose. How dare the men leave us now, with the harvest only a few weeks away? Yes, we could do it without them, if we must, but then they – or at least the older ones– would return, some injured beyond hope; some crippled beyond work. We’d have to take care of them, and still do the work they should have stayed to do. If they preferred fighting to farming, I fumed, then that’s what they should do. Go and fight, and leave the farming to us. But don’t come back, wounded and weakened.
I stood on the porch, looking up at the stars and the waxing moon. Frost, when next it was full. Behind the hall, the waterfall splashed down the cliff. What would Lucian ask next? There was always some reason he wanted the men. This wouldn’t be a fast raid, I thought. There’d be resistance, and he’d need the men; another border – because there had to be a border, didn’t there, somewhere? – would need patrols. If my husband had still been alive, he’d have heard my ultimatum: if you go, don’t come back.
Go and fight, and leave the farming to us. Why not?
Some men came back. More didn’t. Those who did were rarely whole. They nursed wounds and told stories of northerners who could disappear into the fog, or down holes in the ground, or just into the air, it seemed, to reappear at will. Lucian’s quick raid had turned into a slaughter.
The women of Tirvan reaped and threshed, fished and dried the catch, butchered animals and smoked meat, with the younger boys helping. Gisel, wife to the smith and as muscled as he, kept our tools in repair and made more as needed, her daughter working the bellows. We scraped boat hulls and scythed the marsh grass for the winter’s hay and all the time my resentment – and my conviction – grew.
Over that winter we – the council leaders and some of the other women – gathered around my hearth, talking, wondering, planning. Scoffing, at first, and disbelief…and then slowly the words ‘perhaps’ and ‘if’ began to be heard.
“Honestly,” Alwar said one evening, “what do we need them for?”
“Pleasure,” a woman said. “And the babies that result.”
“Other ways to find pleasure,” a third said, with a smirk.
“But not babies.”
“So we don’t banish them altogether,” I said. “They can come back for a week or two, twice a year, maybe?”
“You don’t think we’re really going to agree to this, do you?” one of the younger women asked.
“I think we just might,” I replied. What consideration had the men shown us, running to support the Emperor every time he suggested a raid? They left, fought, came home, fathered another child, and were off again, usually taking any of the boys who had turned twelve in the interim with them. I’d had enough, and I didn’t think I was the only one.
By the thaw, the idea was an open secret in Tirvan. The men belittled it, most of them; one or two looked thoughtful, and kept quiet. The young boys thought it would be a great adventure. The most vocal opposition came from the younger women and the few young men who’d returned, their physical pleasure in each other foremost in their minds, I thought, with a twinge of regretful memory. Maybe I’d have thought the same, at eighteen, newly awakened to the delights of the bed.
As soon as the track up to the military road was passable, I sent riders out to the inns north and south, with sealed messages and money. They’d hire members of the messenger’s guild at the inns, and within a few weeks my detailed proposal would be in the hands of all the headwomen of all the villages in our land. And sometime, later in the year, I’d receive their responses.
Garent’s fist crashed down on the table. “You cannot decide this!”
“Can we not?” I said to my sister’s husband, where he sat in the chair he’d barely moved from, after he’d come home, nearly at midwinter, missing half a leg and blind in one eye. “How the villages are run has always been the women’s decision.”
“But you cannot tell the Emperor how to run his army,” he argued. He had a point, although I wasn’t going to concede it openly. If Lucian didn’t agree – and that still rested on all the villages voting to support my proposal – then what were the men supposed to do if we banished them?
“Don’t worry,” I said, not trying to keep the sarcasm from my voice. “I’m sure we’ll agree to keep the old and infirm.” I’d never really liked Garent, and he was always the first to reach for his sword when the army called the men out. That he’d lived to past fifty with only minor wounds, up until this past year, was remarkable. “I’ll even ensure that’s a condition. But we vote tonight.”
I unfolded the last letter. The messenger had ridden in today, dusty and tired from her long ride. She carried the answers from the villages on the southern coast, somewhere I’d never been. This one was from Torrey. “Yes,” the headwoman had written. “By only a few votes, but the majority agree.”
Of all the villages of the Empire, only three had voted ‘no’. I had the numbers, and the support. But what I had to do next made even me, headwoman of Tirvan for nearly twenty years, dry-throated with apprehension. I had to see the Emperor.
I walked up the hill to the baths. I guessed rightly that the messenger would be soaking her aching muscles in the water’s heat. I slipped into the pool beside her. “I miss the north’s baths when I’m on the road,” she said. “South of here, the water has to be heated, and sometimes there isn’t enough wood. I wonder,” she mused, “why hot water just bubbles out of the ground near here, and nowhere else?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” I said. “But I’m glad it does. A question: do you know where the Emperor is?”
Three weeks later, I, accompanied by headwomen from Berge and Delle, rode into the White Fort. I’d been casting an uneasy eye north for all the last two days: this was the frontier, and beyond the road on which we travelled the land belonged to Linrathe. Patrols passed us regularly, but nervousness still kept me turning my head to scan the moors every few minutes. But all I saw was heather, and far away on the hillsides the white dots of sheep
We were challenged at the gate, but I had sent the messenger ahead of us. We were expected, if not welcome. The two guards swung the heavy wooden doors open. Overhead, the flag of our land – a white horse on a green field – snapped in the wind. The guard called a name. A young man appeared.
“Take these women to the headquarters,” the guard ordered.
“We must see to our horses first,” I replied. I had no intention of leaving horses and baggage in the hands of the soldiers. Especially the bags.
“Very well. The stables, and then the headquarters.”
Half an hour later we were shown into a large room. Four beds stood along walls painted with figures: men and women cavorting around tables of wine and fruit. The floor was tiled. I put my bags down, looking around.
“You’ll be brought water for washing, and wine for refreshment,” the young soldier said. “There are no women’s baths here.”
He shrugged. “Then you wait.”
We waited for a day and a half. I never knew, looking back, if the Emperor Lucian was truly occupied with the affairs of the army, or whether he was simply asserting his power. The latter, I think, for we had barely washed and dressed and eaten after our second night at the fort when we were summoned to his presence.
I wasn’t going to let Lucian intimidate me, but the room we were ushered into nearly did. Or rather, it awed me. I gasped as we entered through a pair of tall doors. Far above us, huge beams supported the ceiling, and fireplaces, devoid of flame in the summer, took up most of each end wall. How, I thought, did you build this of stone? Wood, yes: the meeting hall at Tirvan was probably of similar size…but stone? The weight of it – and there were no central pillars.
I forced my mind away from the construction challenge to look at the man who waited at a long table. Papers and maps littered the tabletop, and two other men sat with him, but there was no mistaking the Emperor. Authority cloaked him, even without his robes of state. “Headwomen,” he said, his voice mild, almost friendly. “What is it you want of me?”
to be continued….
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