When Women Were Warriors
Book I: The Warrior’s Path
Chapter 3: A Healing
My warrior’s name was Maara, a name I had never heard before. No one in Merin’s house knew anything of her family or where she’d come from. No one I asked had spoken with her beyond what was necessary for daily life. The few who had tried to befriend her she’d rebuffed, and now they had little good to say of her.
Every day I did my best at whatever work I could find to do, while my warrior did her best to stay away from me. She hardly spoke to me, and when she did, it was either to send me away or to find fault with me for something. None of the other companions would put up with her. They assured me that when I had mastered the duties of a companion I could choose someone else.
While I was grateful to them for telling me I was not at fault, I was young enough to believe that I might succeed with my warrior where they had not. It was hard to bear her treatment of me when I was still so lonely in that house, but I was determined not to fail at the only thing the Lady had asked of me.
As they did every year in springtime, cattle raiders came out of the north, and our warriors left Merin’s house to guard our borders against them. The other warriors took their companions, but Maara made me stay behind. With her away there was even less for me to do.
I wasn’t idle long. A few days later they were back again. They had caught a band of cattle raiders in the act of butchering a calf and engaged them in a skirmish. One of them had hurt my warrior badly. His blade glanced off her shield and bit deep into her thigh. When she fell, he tried to finish her, and the force of his blow on her shield broke the bones of her forearm.
It was evening when her comrades brought her home. In the fading light the litter on which they bore her was black with blood. I helped the tired warriors carry her upstairs. When we set the litter down beside her bed, my hands were sticky, red in the lamplight.
My warrior lay unmoving, her eyes closed. She looked as if she might already be embarking on her journey to another world. We were about to put her on the bed when the healer came in to tend her.
“Let her bleed there on the floor,” she said. So we left her there.
My mother was a healer. She had taught me the use of herbs, and I often accompanied her when she was called to tend someone. I had helped her set broken bones and stitch up cuts made by the slip of an ax or knife, but I had never seen a wound like this one. It gaped open and bled until I wondered how my warrior could have any blood left in her.
I helped the healer remove her armor and her clothing. Together we set her broken arm. Then I watched as the healer cleaned and closed her dreadful wound. When the healer had done all she could, we washed the blood from my warrior’s body and put her into bed.
“I fear our work has been for nothing,” the healer told me. “I’ll brew something for her pain. Give it to her if she wakes tonight.”
In a little while a kitchen servant brought a bowl of tea. I took a sip of it. Bitter hops masked the strong taste of valerian root. It was a potent sleeping drug that would let my warrior sleep away her pain. It would let her sleep away her life. I poured it out into the slop jar.
I had no reason to care about the woman who thought she had no need of me. Her refusal of me had stung my pride. Perhaps I saw my chance to prove my value to her or to put her in my debt. I wish I could say I nursed her out of kindness, but it wasn’t true.
I waited until I thought everyone had gone to bed. Then I went down to the kitchen. The fragrance of lemon grass, just brought in to dry, led me to a little room behind the ovens. There I found what I was seeking. Herbs hung in bunches from drying racks. Shelves of pots, each containing a dried herb properly prepared, lined the walls. I soon found the ones I wanted — shepherd’s purse to stop her bleeding, sage and bloodwort to restore her blood.
I put them into the bowl in which the healer had brewed her tea. In the embers of the cooking fire was a cauldron of water hot enough to steep the herbs. I found a ladle and filled the bowl.
I returned to my warrior’s room. After the tea had cooled a bit, I dipped a clean cloth into it and put it to her lips. The tea trickled into her mouth and down her throat. When I saw her swallow, I knew it was safe to give her more.
All night I sat beside her on the bed. Several times she woke, and I encouraged her to drink more of the tea. I doubt she was aware of me, but she was thirsty, and she drank. Before the night was over, the bowl was empty.
At dawn I went to the window and took the shutter down. For the first time since they brought her home, I saw her clearly. Her pallor frightened me. I sat down again beside her and touched her brow. I had thought to find her warm with fever, but her skin was cold to the touch and damp.
All night her sleep had been fitful. Now she seemed lost in a deeper sleep. Whether it was a healing sleep or the approach of death I couldn’t tell, but I had done all I knew how to do. I curled up at her feet and fell asleep.
The healer dipped her fingers into the bowl, pulled out a pinch of the spent herbs, and tasted them.
“You’ve done her no good by this,” she told me. “You may have given her a few more days of pain. That’s all.”
I deserved her reprimand, and I accepted it.
“Have you seen wounds like this before?” she asked me.
I shook my head.
“In a day or two it will be poisoned. The poison will kill her, and her death won’t be an easy one.”
The healer’s eyes held mine until she saw that I had understood her.
“She’s yours to care for now,” she said, and left the room.
Then I wondered if I’d done wrong. If I had been careless of my warrior’s pain, I had done her a far greater wrong than she had done to me. What I knew to be true was that I had wanted her to live, not for her own sake or because I cared for her, but so that I might have the satisfaction of her knowing that she owed her life to me.
My pride may have done more harm than good, and for that I was sorry, but I was still proud enough to resist my guilty feelings. If my warrior died, the healer was right and I was wrong, not only in her eyes and my own, but also in the eyes of the entire household. It was a shame I would not bring upon myself willingly, even if I did deserve it.
The healer had given her to me, so I began to do everything for her I could think of. I brewed her bloodwort tea to renew her blood and tea of dried comfrey root to mend her bones. I asked Sparrow to dig some fresh comfrey root and gather leaves of comfrey, sage, and shepherd’s purse. From the root I made a salve to treat her wound. The leaves I saved for poultices.
Day and night I stayed beside her. At night I lay across the bed at her feet and dozed, so that if she moved she would awaken me.
Sparrow brought my meals to me. Sometimes she tried to persuade me to go to my own bed and rest. I refused. I believed that as long as I was there beside my warrior, death would not dare to cross the threshold, but that if I left her, she would leave me.
I had never tended anyone so ill. When she burned with fever, I bathed her with cool water and gave her a tea of willow bark. When she shook with chills, I lay beside her and warmed her with my body. I washed her wound with sage water and treated it with poultices to draw the poison out. I soaked bread in broth and fed her, though she would take only a mouthful at a time. I talked to her spirit. I named the colors of the world that I could see from the window. I reminded her of every good thing about living I could think of, so that she would be less willing to leave this world behind. Day after day went by, and my warrior didn’t die.
I lost track of time. Later Sparrow told me it had been nearly a fortnight. Then one morning, just before dawn, Maara woke me. She was restless, and I worried she would hurt herself, so I lay down beside her to hold her still. She turned away from me onto her side and fell into a deep sleep. She felt warm, but not feverish. Her breathing was quiet and easy. It was the first time I had held her without feeling that my arms around her were all that kept her spirit trapped within her body. I knew then that she would live. I thanked the Mother for my warrior’s life and followed her into sleep.
I woke to find her watching me. I had slept so soundly I hardly knew where I was. From the light pouring through the cracks in the shutter, I saw that it must already be midmorning.
I sat up and reached out to touch her brow to check for fever. She drew back and turned her face away from me. Instantly I was furious with her. All the bitterness I had ever felt toward her surged into my chest. For days I had contended with the Dark Mother for her life. I opened my mouth to tell her so and choked on my tears. As soon as I wiped them away, more fell. I didn’t understand myself where those tears came from.
Then Maara looked at me. She spoke so softly I almost didn’t hear her.
“Sorry,” she said.
The Lady Merin came into the room. When she saw that my warrior was asleep, she whispered, “The healer told me she would die.”
“She very nearly did,” I said.
“The healer says you saved her life.”
I shook my head. I would not take credit for it. Whatever I had done had been done for the wrong reasons, and there was no merit in it.
“She’s stronger than the healer thought,” I said. “It was her own doing, not mine.”
The Lady looked at me, surprised, but she left the room without saying anything more.
Maara was still too weak to do anything for herself. I fed her and bathed her and tended her wound, just as I had done before, but now she was aware of me. Every intimate thing I had to do for her she made more difficult. Her eyes never left my face. Her dark and solemn eyes followed me with questions, though she hardly said a word.
I no longer felt that I could lie with her in her bed, so I brought my bedding from the companions’ loft and laid it out on the floor. All of this she watched. She’d slept for days. Now she refused to sleep. Sleeping potions are so powerful that I was afraid to give her one until she grew stronger. Instead I bathed her with warm water and rubbed her back. I coaxed her body into sleep, and while she slept, I lay down on my own bed and got what rest I could.
After three days I could no longer bear her eyes. They watched me with a frankness I was unused to. Sometimes I thought I read in them an accusation. It must have been my own guilty conscience. She couldn’t have known what I had done, and even if she did, why would she have faulted me for doing it? After all, she was alive. But I needed to set things right with her.
“Do you wonder why the healer hasn’t come to you?” I asked her.
“I think you are my healer,” she replied.
“No,” I said. “I’m not a healer. I learned what my mother could teach me. That’s all.”
“The healer believed you would die,” I said. “She wanted to give you a painless death. I disobeyed her. I wanted you to live.”
I wish I had heard her then, but I felt the color of shame rise into my face, and I wanted to say what I had resolved to say and get it over with.
“I was angry with you,” I told her. “I wanted to make you live, so that you would have to respect me and so that I would have a claim on you.”
I couldn’t meet her eyes. I had once envisioned her telling me that she was sorry for the way she’d treated me. Now she would have reason to believe I was unworthy of her.
She said nothing for a time, while my own words echoed in my head. What I had said was true, but I was beginning to believe there was a deeper truth that I was missing.
“You have what you wanted,” she said at last. “I owe you a debt, and I will be careful to repay it.”
Her words slid over my skin like ice. “I do not have what I wanted! I wanted an honorable place here, and I have disgraced myself in my own eyes. Now I’m disgraced in your eyes. You owe me nothing. I want nothing from you.”
Her dark eyes captured mine and held them. At first she seemed troubled, hurt perhaps, and angry. Then she cocked her head at me and pursed her lips and knit her brow into a puzzled frown.
“I’m not sure I understand you,” she said. “Are you telling me you saved my life because you were angry with me?”
The idea struck me funny.
“Yes,” I said, trying not to smile. “Furious.”
“Enraged,” I said.
“Oh dear.” And then she smiled.
There was a lightness in my spirit that I hadn’t felt since I came to Merin’s house, and I had my warrior to thank for it. As I lay in my bed that night, I thought about her smile. I wanted to fix her image in my mind’s eye, so that the next time she gave me one of her scowls, I would have at least one smile to remember. Her smile told me, not that she forgave me, but that she found nothing to forgive. No matter the reason, she may have been alive that night because of me. It was the first time I had allowed myself to think it. She may have been alive that night because I had cared for her, and whether or not I had cared for her when I undertook to save her life, I cared for her now. If anything I’d done had made the difference whether she lived or died, it was a gift I had given, not only to my warrior, but to myself.
The next day I went to see the healer. It was a cool day, and I found her sitting with several of the older women at a table in the kitchen. They were enjoying the heat from the ovens, sipping hot tea, and gossiping among themselves. When I approached the healer, they all fell silent.
“I need to speak with you,” I told her.
“Speak, then,” she replied.
The others started to get up, but I asked them to stay and hear me. They must know what I had done, and I wanted them to hear me try to make amends for it.
“I disobeyed you,” I said to the healer. “I was wrong to do that. Even though my warrior didn’t die, what I did was no less wrong.”
The healer looked around at the others.
“What do you think?” she asked them.
They stared back at her with blank faces.
“I think,” the healer said, and drummed her fingers on the table, “I think she should be wrong more often.”
One of the women chuckled at that, then another, and soon they were all laughing. Although I didn’t find it funny, I was glad to know I hadn’t made an enemy.
That evening the healer came to my warrior’s room and examined her.
“She’s healing well,” she said. She turned and met my eyes. “Now I think you understand what it is to take a life into your care.”
Copyright © Catherine M. Wilson