“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.”
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.
to be continued
Want the next installment of this story directly to your inbox every month? Sign up for my newsletter, News From the Empire.