When Women Were Warriors
Book I: The Warrior’s Path
Chapter 1: Merin’s House
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.
The Lady gazed at my mother for a moment, then turned to me. She drew her sword and set its point against my breastbone. I knew my part. I set my fear aside and met her eyes. Her eyes held mine, but it was not my eyes she saw. What her gaze rested on, only she could see. I thought I heard the din of battle, but how could I have known what that sound was when I had never before heard it. The smoke of burning homes and fields drifted before my eyes, and the smell of burning reached me on a sudden breeze.
The Lady put her sword away and smiled at me. The smoke vanished, and with it the smell of burning, and the only sound I heard was the voices of the people in the hall.
A servant led me to a seat at another table, where I joined a group of girls my own age. They talked and laughed together, and bit by bit they drew me into their conversation. I learned that they were the companions. Each girl served one of the warriors. Many were apprenticed to their warriors and would become warriors themselves someday.
“You won’t be apprenticed,” one girl told me. “You’re too small.”
“My mother is a warrior,” I replied, “and she’s no bigger than I am.”
“Has she fought in battle?” the girl asked me.
I had to admit that she had not.
For a while I had been aware that I was being watched by the girl who sat across the table from me. She was long-boned and thin, and she would have been pretty if her expression were not so wary. She had not yet spoken to me. I caught her eye.
“I am Tamras, daughter of Tamnet,” I told her. “Who are you?”
“Sparrow,” she said, and turned to talk to the girl sitting next to her.
From time to time I glanced back at my mother, who sat beside the Lady. She would spend the evening with her friend, and in the morning she would leave for home. It might be years before I saw her again.
My first night in Merin’s house I found it hard to sleep. The other girls treated me with kindness. They found me some bedding and made a place for me in their sleeping loft, but I still felt like a stranger. There were more people here than I had ever seen together at once. How would I be able to remember them all?
Everything about the place felt strange to me. Nights at home were quiet. Here there was a constant noise of people — moving, talking, coughing, sleeping. Cracking and creaking noises startled me, and the other girls laughed at me a little. They told me it was the timbers of the house settling against each other. Stone houses make no sound.
Even the smells were unfamiliar. The heavy smell of roasting meat hung in the air. We seldom roasted meat at home. In Merin’s house they set quarters of beef over open fires, and the fat fell uncollected into the flames. Other smells tumbled together — wood smoke and the sap that oozed from the timbers, the dusty straw strewn upon the floors downstairs, the animals in the pens outside, and other things I didn’t recognize.
I tried to remember how I had felt at home when I was looking forward to seeing someplace new. Everything there was so familiar that I longed for something different. Now I longed for just one familiar thing. I felt like a bird, caged all its life, set free by an open window and cowering upon the windowsill.
Copyright © Catherine M. Wilson