When Women Were Warriors
Book I: The Warrior’s Path
Chapter 2: Companion
In the morning the Lady Merin sent a servant to bring me to her private chamber. Then I learned that what I had been told the night before was true. I would not be trained in the use of arms. Instead the Lady made me the companion of a warrior, a woman who had been in the household only a short time.
Though I tried to hide my disappointment, the Lady understood what I was feeling. I was the first daughter of my house. The blood of warriors ran in my veins, and a warrior’s place was my inheritance.
“For the time being,” the Lady told me, “you can serve me best by doing what I ask. You have the right to refuse, but I hope you will stay with us. Your mother handled weapons well despite her size. One day you may be strong enough to inherit her sword.”
So she didn’t take my hope away from me, and I stayed with her.
The companions’ loft was just a platform over the end of the great hall farthest from the hearth. It had no walls, only a railing to keep us from toppling over the side. The warriors slept upstairs, above the kitchen, each in her own tiny room partitioned off from the others by flimsy walls of wattle.
One of the companions showed me to my warrior’s room. She rapped on the doorpost, and before we heard an answer, she gave me a furtive look, then turned and fled back down the stairs. When there was still no answer to her knock, I pulled aside the curtain covering the doorway and went in.
My warrior was sitting cross-legged on her bed, the only piece of furniture in the room except for a small chest beside it. The morning light streamed in through the window and fell across her hands as she mended an old pair of boots. She looked up at me.
“I’m your companion,” I said.
“I don’t want a companion,” she replied.
She glared at me with dark and angry eyes until I couldn’t meet them anymore. When I looked away, she resumed her mending and paid me no more attention. I felt like running out the door, but my feet refused to move. I stood silent before her as if turned to stone.
After a little while my curiosity overcame my fear. There was something odd about her. I couldn’t think what it was. I’d had only one brief glimpse of her. Now the dark hair that tumbled loose over her shoulders fell forward and hid her face as she looked down at her work. Her dark eyes were all I could remember.
There was nothing unusual about her clothing. She wore a linen shirt the color of walnuts. Her trousers, like my own, were made of wool and dyed a darker brown. Her leather armor hung from a peg beside her bed, along with a sword in its scabbard and a shield, which bore no device.
She didn’t speak again. When the boots were mended, she put them on. Then she took her armor from the peg, slipped it on, and buckled it. By the time it occurred to me to help her, it was too late. She pushed past me and was out the door so quickly that I had to run to catch her as she went down the stairs and through the great hall.
Once outdoors she turned to face me. Though her eyes were no longer angry, they warned me not to follow her. She turned and strode away. I followed her anyway, but at a cautious distance, as she crossed the yard and threaded her way through the maze of earthworks. Outside the palisade I stopped and watched her walk down the hill, until she disappeared behind a stand of trees.
By the time my first day in Merin’s house was over, I was glad to see the end of it. The other girls told me that I would soon get used to life here, that the first few days are always hard, but I feared it might be many days before I felt at home.
Most of the companions came from households as large as this one. Just a few grew up in tiny villages like mine. As I listened to the talk in the companions’ loft that evening, I began to understand how different this place was from the only other place I knew. Villages in the hill country have little to tempt thieves. Here there were raids against the farms, grain and cattle stolen, border skirmishes.
I had heard tales of war all my life, but I didn’t realize that, even in a time of peace, there would be so much fighting. The warriors proved their value constantly. Without them, all that the land yielded would be taken from us. Without them, other tribes would take the land itself.
Aside from the servants, everyone living in Merin’s house was either a warrior or the companion of a warrior. The Lady kept the old traditions. Only women lived in this house. The men lived in a smaller house close by. They took their meals here and had the freedom of the great hall, but the rest of the house was forbidden to them.
The old women lived here too. They had been warriors once. Now, as members of the council, they served the Lady with wisdom instead of weapons.
I was afraid to tell the other companions that my warrior had refused me, but they already knew. They had expected it. They said I should just go about my work and pay her no attention. How could anyone pay her no attention?
Early the next morning I went to my warrior’s room only to find her gone, so I did as the companions had suggested and looked around for things to do. I swept the floor and aired the bedding. I emptied the slop jar. I filled the lamp with oil and trimmed the wick. I found some dirty clothing, a few worn woolen shirts and a pair of woolen trousers, and took them downstairs to wash them. Late that afternoon, when I returned them to my warrior clean and dry, she accepted them without a word.
There was nothing else to do, so I returned to my place in the companions’ loft. My heart was sore, and I had hoped to be alone there for a while, but I found Sparrow waiting for me. A year older than I, she was well-grown and strong enough to be apprenticed to her warrior. My face told her I was unhappy.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked me.
“I will be the first of my family without a shield,” I said, “and my warrior has no need of me. If there’s no place for me here, I might as well go home. At least I can be of some use to my family.”
Sparrow frowned her disapproval. “Are you so easily discouraged?”
I understood her, and I was ashamed.
“Don’t judge me by a handful of words,” I said.
In time I came to realize that Sparrow meant well. Sometimes she said hurtful things, but when the sting was gone, I saw that she was teaching me how to conduct myself in Merin’s house. So as not to shame my family, I hid my disappointment and my loneliness and lived each day as it came. My grandmother used to tell me that was how to get through hard times.
Copyright © Catherine M. Wilson