The Road to Partition

“Free land?” I said. “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 asked “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.”
“And then?”
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 discuss the difficulties raised when you require men to leave their homes to fight,” I said, “and to propose a solution.”

He grinned, glancing at the other men as he did. “I have heard of your solution,” he said. “You want all the men to leave the villages permanently. You even took a vote, I am told.”

“My wife is very happy to see me, the few weeks of the year I manage to make it home,” one of the men said. “Otherwise why do I have four sons and two daughters?” The third man sniggered.

“What else do you contribute?” I asked, “other than fathering children? How does your wife feed and clothe your sons and daughters, and keep a roof over their heads?” I wondered if they could hear my voice quiver.

“She keeps cattle and goats,” he said, “and sells cheeses and hides in Casilla.”

“So except to warm her bed, and perhaps contribute some of your army pay,” I went on, “she lives well enough without you.”

He stared at me. “Who are you?”

“Cenwyn of Tirvan, head of the council there.”

“So, Cenwyn of Tirvan, what mandate do you have to bring this—interesting suggestion to me?” the Emperor asked. “I cannot believe all the villages supported this.”

I nodded to Sari, Berge’s headwoman. She stepped forward to place the satchel of letters on the table in front of Lucian. “All but three, Emperor. In the rest, a majority of women voted yes. We have brought you the letters, with the signatures and seals, so there is no question.”

Lucian opened the satchel, reading through half a dozen letters quickly, passing them to his advisors. He looked up. “I see. But what of it? The women’s villages do not determine my actions.”

“Nor do you determine ours,” I said. “The councils run the villages. Or do you dispute that?”

“No. That has always been our way, and the way of the East before us. For that local freedom, the villages submit to taxes of money or food, and the conscription of men, but your individual governance is your responsibility.” He was beginning to look impatient. “We teach this to our children, headwoman. I do not need reminding, and neither do you.”

“Then we – the village councils, I mean, to be clear – are free to decide that men, except for children and the old or lame – no longer live among us.” Sari and Brind and I had debated this, discussed it, torn the argument apart many times on our ride north. We were sure our interpretation was correct. Village land was held in common, but by the women, so the statutes said. Men were too likely to be killed far away.

Lucian folded his arms, leaning back in his chair. His jaw worked, but he did not speak. “I will need to consult others,” he said finally. His voice was not friendly now.  “I will call for you when I have.”

*****

We were made to wait another three days. I doubted it was necessary, but Emperors do what they like. On the third day we were called back into his presence.

“There will be an assembly,” he said. “Next summer; it is too close to harvest to call one now. Here at the White Fort.”  Harvest hadn’t mattered when he wanted soldiers, I thought.

“The location is unfair,” I argued. “It’s too far to travel for women from the south.”

“If they want this assembly, they’ll come,” he said. “It will be a measure of how strong the desire is.”

“Midsummer, then, or a bit later,” I said. “Planting is over, and the weather will be good for travelling.”

“If the border is quiet.”  He stood. “You had best hope the northerners have lost their taste for war.”


  *****


I was unaccountably tired in the weeks following our return to Tirvan. The journey had not been hard, although it had been years since I had ridden so long. After a month, I sought out our healer.

“Are you sleeping?” she asked.

“Not well.” How could I? What I had put into motion frightened me.

She gave me two tonics, one smelling of rosemary and sage for the morning, one of valerian to be taken at night. They helped a little. But when harvest came I could not swing a scythe. Reluctantly I stooked grain, and carried water and harvest cake to and from the fields, and even that tired me.

“I’ve become old,” I said to Sæthe. I wasn’t going to admit to anyone, yet, that I thought this was more than encroaching age. I couldn’t be ill; I must be at the assembly in the summer. Over the winter, I’d rest, regain my strength.

“You’re nearly sixty,” she said. “Ask one of your granddaughters to live with you. There’s room, and you could use the help.”

But I had lived alone for so long, and I liked my solitude, and the ability to do what I wanted when I wanted. On the other hand, someone to light the fires and warm the house before I got up; to bring me tea and willowbark to ease the aches…the idea had its temptations. I thought about it for a week before I spoke to my daughter, and a few days later twelve-year-old Taleth moved in.

With someone to take care of most of the chores, I did begin to feel a little better. I wrote letters to be sent in the spring; I wrote a careful set of arguments and modified and corrected them. The other two councilwomen and I sat in my warm house and talked, sometimes in agreement, sometimes not. And in the afternoons, I showed Taleth how to judge the quality of wood; how to dry it so it lay flat; how to use a saw, and as I did, another idea began to take shape.

*****

The northerners stayed quiet, and with the lengthening days of spring my energy returned. I helped with the sowing, and even put some days in at the boatbuilding sheds: I could cut boards and steam wood to direction, even if chests and boxes were my specialty. The letters began to arrive, telling me who was coming, who was not.

I’d sent warning to the inns in the autumn, so they would be prepared, and as soon as the snows had melted I sent other messengers to remind them. They too needed to choose women to send. What men we had left at Tirvan – fewer than half the number of women, and if I counted only the able-bodied over twelve, a third – grumbled and argued and laughed at me. But when midsummer grew near, and every night women rode down off the military road for food and a bed, some grew thoughtful, and some belligerent.

I was stirring a stew in the meeting hall – we ate there whenever there were visitors, because so many women wanted to hear their news – when I heard raised voices, and then the sound of a slap. Something thudded against the outside wall.  “Do it again, and it’ll be a blade you feel,” a woman’s voice growled.

I swung the stew off the coals and hurried outside. I didn’t recognize the woman as one of the three who had ridden in earlier. “I’m Cenwyn, headwoman,” I said. “What happened?” No one else was in sight.

The woman shrugged. “I’m Kirst,” she said, “messenger from Berge. He took liberties. Happens all the time. Men think because we ride the roads we can be ridden at their will, for some reason.”

“Who was it?”

“No idea. Don’t worry yourself; I can take care of myself.” She offered a hand. “It was you I was looking for. I saw the chimney smoking, so I came here first.”

“Come in.”  She followed me inside. I gave her tea, and we sat near enough the fire so I could keep an eye on the stew.

“We’re close to the fort at Wall’s End, as you know,” she began. “We supply some of their food, and there are other interactions.” She grinned. “And men talk, especially when they’re trying to impress a woman enough for her to let him into her bed.”

“What’s being said?”

“That Lucian’s going to demand the actual vote counts from the villages.”

“That is not our way,” I said. “The majority vote rules.”

“Aye, of course,” she said. “But if every man in the army has a vote, and then he adds the women who voted no to that count, you’ve lost. We’ve lost.”

“But Lucian does not make the rules for the villages,” I said. “It is our choice that matters. Why are his soldiers even voting?”

“I’d say he’s choosing to change the rules,” Kirst said. “So how do we stop him?”

That question kept my mind occupied while my hands did other things, but even when I swung myself up onto my horse to begin the ride north a couple of weeks later, I didn’t have an answer. On the second night, soaking my weary bones in the hot pool of the inn, I voiced my worry to the women from Torrey we had met there.

“But Lucian can’t,” their leader said. “He’s not our Emperor.”

“Maybe,” I said slowly, “he thinks he is. He agreed with me that the individual governance of our villages was our responsibility, and our right. But for our land as a whole, perhaps he is our leader, as much as he is the men’s.”

She made a derisive sound. “We didn’t elect him. So he doesn’t get to speak for us, or make the rules.” She stretched, laying her arms along the rim of the pool. “We need to elect a leader of our own, before this assembly begin.”

Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that? One person to speak for us, to convey what the majority wanted, just as was done in the villages. But, my mind said, the number who disagreed wasn’t small. When it was over a third of the vote, village rules called for someone to speak for those women, too; to offer compromises and alternatives for what those who differed from the majority could do. Sometimes they chose to do nothing, to accept the ruling; sometimes they agreed to separate responsibilities. And sometimes, if they could not agree to accept or compromise, individual women chose to leave the village.

I knew which villages had voted against the proposal. I hauled myself out of the pool, and went in search of the inn-keeper. “Aye,” she said. “Three women from Ballin came by two days past.”

Good. One of them could be the voice of the dissenters. And somewhere among the rest of us would be a woman of strong character, someone who could stand up to Lucian, counter his suggestions with calm logic and patience – and fire when it was needed. As I was sure it would be.

  *****

Tents covered the moorland to the south of the White Fort, arranged in small groups. We found a flattish spot on the eastern side of the encampment, and an hour later our tents were up, a cooking ring assembled, and our horses picketed and fed.

“Is anyone in charge?” I asked a woman from the neighbouring tents, as we raised ours.

“Not really,” she said. “There’s a man – Garron, his name is – who’s been assigned to ensure we have peat for the fires, and oatmeal and bread. I hope you brought food, though, because that’s all they’re providing.”

I assured her we had – cheese and smoked fish, and some fruit, and our own supply of oatmeal and dried beans. I left Alwar to prepare a meal, and began to walk through the camp, stopping to talk to each group, introducing myself. Women began to call others over, and before too long I was surrounded by several dozen women, crowded in among the tents.

“Shall we go somewhere with more space?” I suggested. I didn’t like feeling penned. On the edge of the encampment, we spread out, the women sitting or standing in a half-circle, just as we did at village meetings.  

“Have you seen the Emperor?” someone called.

“The Emperor? No. We just arrived,” I explained. “And why would I have seen him?”

“This assembly is your idea,” another woman said.

“No,” I said, “it was Lucian’s idea. But you all support it, don’t you? Or most of you? That’s why you’re here.”

From their platforms at the corners of the fort, guards watched us. I wondered if they could hear what we said. But the breeze was strong, and from the north. “I don’t,” a voice called. “We don’t. I speak for Ballin village.”

Another two women spoke their villages’ opposition. Murmurs began to run through the gathering, which had grown as more women came to listen. I didn’t like their tone.

“Women of the Empire!” I called, twice. The murmurs stopped. Heads turned my way. “We should behave as we would in our own village councils. Disagreement is expected. So is courtesy.”

Heads nodded, and I saw some sheepish glances and offered hands – but also some scowls and crossed arms. I tried to memorize the faces of the unhappy women; they would bear watching.

“I believe,” I said, pitching my voice to carry, “that we need to choose one woman to speak for all of us who support the division of the villages and the army between women and men, and one woman to be the voice of those who do not. Lucian speaks as the men’s leader, so we must have the same.”

“Aye!” someone called, followed by a chorus of agreement.

“Cenwyn?” Sari from Berge spoke. “Individual women may be called upon to speak, in support or against, as we do at council?”

“I would think so,” I said. “I don’t see why we’d do anything different than we do in council. We just can’t all speak at once, or over each other, or the Emperor will see us as disorganized, not united.”

“We’re not,” someone said.

“But those who are not will have a leader and a voice, too,” I said, trying to be patient.

The headwoman from Ballin gestured. “Those who oppose dividing our lives, come with me. We will elect a leader, and discuss our position.”

Rather more women than I had expected followed her. The remaining women turned back to me. “Who among you will stand for leader of this council?” I asked.

“To argue with the Emperor?” a woman asked.

“To state our case,” I said. “But, yes, there will be debate and disagreement.”

“It’s too bad old Elluce died,” someone said. “He’d probably not have stood up to his mother.”  Laughter rippled through the assembled women.

“Or his wife, if he had one,” another voice called.

“But Lucian doesn’t. A man’s man, from all I’ve heard.”

“Aye. His consor is my brother,” a woman said.  That could be useful, I thought. I must speak to her, later.

“Who wishes to stand for leader?” I repeated, loudly. The women fell silent.

*****

I should have known, of course. An hour later, I was the elected leader of the women’s council, with Ballin’s headwoman, Flaede, the spokeswoman for those opposed to the plan to banish the men from the villages. She and I sat at her campfire later, sharing food.

“We have to keep this civil,” I said.

She snorted. “Good luck with that. We’ve already had a fight or two among our women. Real knock-down, eye-blackening tussles. I’m surprised you haven’t.”

“Well,” I said, “it hasn’t come to that in Tirvan, luckily.”

“Tirvan’s a fishing village,” she said through a mouthful of bread. “You really think women can handle the boats and the nets?”

“Who’s going to teach you?”

“Some of the older men,” I said. “The ones who Lucian doesn’t want, when the call comes for soldiers.”

So you’ll end up being nursemaids to the boys when they’re small, and then to the old men, and miss out on all the useful years. Not to mention the fun.” Flaede was younger than I, by at least ten years. “Or have you just forgotten about fun?”

“I’m older than you,” I said. “I’m not dead.” Although it had been some time since I had shared my bed, man or woman.  I rolled a piece of bread between my fingers. “We’ll just appreciate the men all the more when we do see them, twice a year. I don’t know about Ballin, but for the last while we haven’t seen our men much anyhow.”

“It’s true,” she said thoughtfully. “But we can’t see how to live without them. There’s too much work. We’re all busy, men and women, with the cows and cheesemaking.”

“What do you do when the men go off to fight?”

She shrugged. “A lot of our men don’t go. We don’t need more land.” She took a swallow of her drink. “Different for the northern villages, I realize.  And what’s the plan for Casilla. were the vote to go your way?”

Casilla. On the southern coast. Our one walled town, with its harbour that once – the stories said – had traded with ships from the east and south. Now, occasionally, a trader came from Leste, an island nation somewhere in the southern sea. Little Casil, its name meant, someone had told me once. But where – or what – was Casil? And what were we going to do with Casilla, if we won the vote?

***

Flaede and I talked long into the night, the moon riding high when I finally left her to find my way back to my tent. Just after sunrise the next morning, she joined me, and together we slowly walked through the camp, stopping to talk to each small group of women, three or four at a time. A united front, we’d decided, was necessary. We didn’t agree about the future, but the need for us to remain calm and rational in the eyes of Lucian and his advisors took precedence, we told them, or we would give the Emperor an excuse to proclaim his right to impose his will on us. The excuse he was likely looking for.

By midday, we had spoken to everyone. Some women had grumbled, or swore, or both, but I thought – we thought, Flaede and I – that the majority would follow our lead. My back ached with standing and squatting to speak to people, and my throat rasped. I needed tea, and willow-bark, and some time to clear my head.

I didn’t get it. I had just dropped some willow-bark into bubbling water to infuse and unwrapped a piece of hard cheese when a soldier arrived. “The Emperor requests your presence in an hour,” he told me.

“Why?”

His face didn’t change: an experienced messenger. “To discuss your proposal.”

“Formally?”  I tried to keep my voice from rising.

“I believe so.”

“You are taking the same message to Flaede of Ballin?”

“I am,” he confirmed. “An hour. The meeting hall.”

I forced myself to swallow the cheese, and some stale bread, and drink the tea. This was purposeful, the Emperor wanting us unprepared, off balance. I wasn’t unprepared, but the summons had disconcerted me.

I called Sari over. “At least he gave you an hour,” she commented.

“I wonder why?” I murmured, reading the notes I’d made over the last months and on the journey here.  My arguments were sound, I thought, and not, I hoped, what Lucian would be expecting.

Even with the sun overhead, torches flickered on the walls of the meeting hall: windows high under the beams stood open to the summer air, but let in little light. We – myself and Sari, and Flaede and the woman she’d brought along – were offered chairs, on the opposite side of the long table to Lucian and his men. We left some space between us, by mutual, unspoken consent.

“You speak for the women who do not want to banish men?” Lucian asked Flaede, his tone sardonic.

“I do,” she said, just a hint of a quaver to her voice. “I am Flaede of Ballin, and the villages who oppose the proposal have chosen me as their spokeswoman.”

He nodded. “Cenwyn of Tirvan I know. The architect of this…interesting…idea. But I will hear from you first, Flaede of Ballin. Tell us why you do not want change.”

I heard Flaede’s quick intake of breath: she had not expected to be asked to speak first. But she did, with increasing confidence, saying everything I had expected. The amount of work; the skills needed, and the strength. In Ballin, for one, women could not handle the bulls, she said, nor move the great wheels of cheese. And then there was the knowledge, passed from father to son, needing long apprenticeships.

Lucian listened, his advisors taking the occasional note. When Flaede was done, he turned to me. “What have you to say to that, Cenwyn?”

“That I believe Flaede underestimates what women can do,” I said. “Her village has been less affected by your call for men than Tirvan, and perhaps she and the other women of the southern villages have not had to do what we northern women have. But I am not here just to counter arguments, Emperor, but to make them, as well.”

A slight pursing of his lips; a terse movement of his chin. “The point is taken. Make them, then.”

“Emperor, over the last years, you have tried time and again to take lands in the north. For the benefit of us all, of course: for most of my nearly sixty years, our summers have been warm and our winters mild: you, Emperor, would remember nothing else.” He made a movement of his hand: continue. “Children have lived, and older people live longer, with plenty of food and warmth. We need land.” I paused, for effect.

“But you have not been successful in taking that land.” A statement, no judgement in my voice. “And in part, I wonder if this might be because you do not have enough men, or enough trained, disciplined men.”

Lucian straightened, almost imperceptibly. His eyes on me were intent now, the sardonic  amusement gone. “Half your troops come and go,” I said, “and men die in skirmishes and battle because they do not have, or do not keep, the abilities  with weapons they might, were they a part of a regular army. A regular army nearly doubled in size, drilled and skilled, without a divided purpose.”

The Emperor’s eyes had narrowed. He rubbed a hand over his chin. “A regular army that could easily take the lands we need – and to hold them,” I said, pressing home the point. “Because you cannot take the lands, and then let half your men go. They will be needed, or the northerners will simply take the lands back. I am not wrong, am I, Emperor?”

*****

Lucian gave me a level look and the briefest nod of – what? Acknowledgment? No. Respect. He had not expected a woman to see what was needed. But who did he think did the planning for the villages? Did he even know what a headwoman did?

“I had planned to recruit more men,” he said, reluctantly, I thought. “But recruit, not compel to service. As your plan would have it.”

“But not necessarily military service,” I suggested. “Not fighting.”

He frowned. “Explain.”  Said bluntly, as if to a subordinate. I chose not to react.

“Perhaps they can serve the military, without fighting,” I said. “You will need to feed your men, Emperor, year-round. You offered land: why should not some men raise crops and animals for the army?”

“Instead of the levy on the villages?”

“No. In addition to,” I offered. “If Flaede is right, and food production from the villages will drop without the men, then you will need supplemental supplies.”

“No!”  Flaede said.  “Emperor, Cenwyn is wrong. There are skills of cheese production that are not men’s, and I am sure that is true of other husbandry. The distilling of oils for medicines; the management of fowl: these are women’s work.”

“But can be learned by men,” I countered. “Just as women in Tirvan have learned to handle the auction and plough. And the fishing boats, the nets and lines and traps, when our men are all fighting.”  She shook her head, her lips thinning, but she didn’t speak.

“Another thought,” I added, turning back to Lucian. “If you take the boys earlier – say at twelve, you can train them better.”

“Twelve?” Flaede cried. “They cannot be soldiers at twelve!”

“Not soldiers, no,” Lucian said. “But – there is a word…” He paused, searching his memory.  “Cadets? Apprentice soldiers.” He looked at me quizzically. “Have you read the old histories, Cenwyn?”

“History?” I said. “No. But we begin our children’s formal apprenticeships at twelve.”

He nodded. “There was a land once who took their boys at seven.”

“A land? This is not a new idea, then?”

“Not entirely,” he said. He grinned suddenly. “I had forgotten, if I ever knew, but one of the older men, Marel, who prefers to spend his time at the Eastern Fort, where the records are, reminded me.”

“Where was this land?”

He shrugged. “Somewhere in the East. Perhaps part of the Empire that left us to ourselves long ago.”

“Did their women do all the work of the farms, then?”  Flaede spoke, her words slowed by doubt.

“The records are not clear, but Marel believes so.”

“So it can be done,” I said.

“What about Casilla?” Flaede demanded. “How does this work in a city?”

I still had no solution for the city. Maybe it would be exempt? But Lucian spoke before I could. “Casilla is already divided. The fishing harbour is separate from the military docks. The industries that support the Eastern Fort are concentrated on one side of the town. It might be possible to…formalize that division, somehow. A wall, perhaps?”

I didn’t like that idea. Walls made me shiver inside. But I didn’t have an alternative, except exemption. I offered that idea.

Lucian frowned. “Perhaps,” he said. “Or it is given more time to adapt; certainly there would be more difficulties.  Shall we leave that question for now? It is a detail, and we are not at the point of  discussing details yet.”

A big detail, I thought, but I was happy to concede to his suggestion. We spoke some more of things to be considered. Flaede grew quiet, saying less, until, after a long period in which she had said nothing at all, she suddenly stood.

“You are talking as if this has been decided in Cenwyn’s favour,” she cried. “And that is not right. Not right at all!”

“You will have your turn,” Lucian said. “This is how my generals and I debate; first the arguments against, then those for. As we have done here. Then the order is reversed, when we begin to look more carefully at what must be deliberated.”

A structure that gave those who supported an argument more chance to sway those opposed – and, yes, I thought, makes it appear the decision has been made, or almost so.  On the other hand, it meant the last words spoken were against an idea, and if the speaker was persuasive, the tide of opinion could turn. Flaede, I thought, could be persuasive, if she used her passion well.

Which she did not, at this moment. “I am not satisfied,” she snapped. “You are favouring Cenwyn’s proposal.”

“I am not,” Lucian said, the slightest edge to his tone. “I am doing nothing but gathering information, as a general must. Campaigns cannot be considered without sufficient information.”

“Like your last foray into the northlands?” Contempt chilled Flaede’s voice. A mistake, I thought; do not anger the Emperor if you want him to listen to you. A reasoned challenge is one thing; baiting him quite another.

“An excellent example of where insufficient information hurt us,” he said, surprising me. But his eyes were cold. “A mistake I admit, and have learned from. And so will not make again.”

“Will you not?” She shook her head. “You gave us no time to prepare for this meeting. I am newly elected to speak for the women who want no part of this plan. Cenwyn is its instigator; she has had months, years, to consider all aspects. The advantage is hers. I will not continue under these circumstances. I need time to gather and organize our thoughts.” She stared at us both for a moment, then turned on her heel and stalked away.

Lucian’s brows raised, but he said nothing. I stood too. “It would be impolitic for me to be seen to stay,” I said.  He nodded.

“I will grant her – both of you – two days. But no more. I leave it to you to inform Flaede.”

My decision to leave had somehow been turned into a dismissal. Flaede was not the only one who should not underestimate this man.

***

For two days I fumed, angry with myself, with Flaede, with Lucian. I sent someone to ask Flaede to speak with me; she refused. Women from my camp began to visit hers; some went at my bidding, but not all. The ones that came from hers to us: were they spies, or real converts?

On the third day Lucian called us to him again. “We have no space large enough for us all,” he said. “One woman from each village, and the two of you. We will have one man from each regiment, speaking for the majority opinion in that regiment. And myself. Is that acceptable?”

What if it wasn’t? I wondered. But I agreed, and Flaede did too.

“After the midday meal,” Lucian said. “In the amphitheatre. We will hear the opposing argument first.”
 
Somewhere in the past two days Flaede had found control again. With conviction and passion she spoke of the disruption to families, the separation of lovers, the children who would not know their fathers, the work that could not be done by women. “There will be less cheese, less butter,” she argued. “Less fish from the coastal villages. Are we to go hungry because some women are angry with their men’s choices?”

Cheers and calls interrupted her words, and a few derisive comments as well. I shook my head, indicating with my hands for silence, at least from the women I spoke for. The space quieted a bit. She went on, persuasive, impassioned.
Finished, she sat again, reaching for her cup of water. I too took a sip, expecting to be next to speak. But Lucian had other plans.

“I want to hear from each woman who believes Flaede is correct,” he said. “One at a time, and briefly, tell us what work your village does, what it produces, how women alone with only older men and boys under twelve might do – or not do – this work.”

I frowned. What was this about? But as I listened to the women speak, I began to understand, or think I did. Were I Lucian, how better to gain an understanding of what his extra regiments of men might need to do, to keep his army supplied with food, timber, horses, metals – the materials of war?  My conclusion added to my feeling that the Emperor, for his own reasons, supported the proposal. But maybe that was just wishful thinking, and not be taken seriously. Nor did I have time to think about it more deeply: it was my turn to speak.

I said nothing new. I spoke to the same issues I had before: the disruptions when men came and went; the crops that went to waste because there were not enough bodies to harvest them, the demands of caring for injured men. “If the times when men visit are consistent – perhaps a week or two, spring and autumn,” I said, thinking aloud now, “then babies will come very close together. Which means women can share their care, if needed, even to the feeding.”

A few murmurs, at that. We always helped each other with the babies, of course, and many a woman breastfed another’s if the mother was ill, or died at the birth. But the idea of having a – a what? – a cohort of babies?  to care for caught both attention and imaginations. I glanced at Lucian. He too looked intrigued. Considering the idea of a cohort of boys, entering the army in their twelfth year, all together? 


to be continued…