When Women Were Warriors

Book I: The Warrior’s Path

Chapter 5: Lessons

Maara’s broken bones healed straight and strong, but the muscles of her arm had wasted from disuse. One day she took me out to the practice ground, just outside the earthworks. There we found shields made of wickerwork and wooden sticks like the toy swords children use in games.

She handed me a stick and a wicker shield and showed me how to hold them. Then she began to spar with me. At first I felt awkward, and the blows of her stick would send mine flying across the yard, but each time she showed me what I had done wrong, and before long I was doing much better.

Every day we spent several hours on the practice ground, sparring with sticks until her arm grew strong again. Then one day she put on her armor and buckled on her sword. She borrowed a leather cap and a heavy coat of sheepskin for me, as well as a real sword for me to practice with.

The sword was so heavy I had to hold it with both hands. After only a quarter of an hour I could no longer lift it, so she had me sit down and watch while she sparred with Eramet. The next morning I was stiff and sore, and I had so much trouble getting up from my bed that Maara offered me her hand. When she had me on my feet, she lifted my arm and examined it.

“You have the bones of a bird,” she said.

My disappointment that I would not be apprenticed came back to me all at once, so that I had to brush a tear from my eye before it spilled over and embarrassed me. She saw me and misunderstood.

“There’s no shame in that,” she said.

“I’m not ashamed,” I said. My face was hot. “Someday I will be a warrior, bird bones and all!”

Maara laughed at my anger. “Someday you’ll be what it’s in you to be. It does no good to argue with the gods about it.”

Every day she sparred with me, first with sticks and wicker shields, then with real swords, and every day I grew stronger, but I found it hard to believe that I would ever be strong enough to wield both sword and shield.

No one seemed to notice that my warrior was training me in swordplay. Because I wasn’t her apprentice, she had no obligation to teach me. I wondered why no one commented on it. I didn’t understand then that a warrior would do with her companion what seemed best to her, and no one would think to interfere.


While Maara recovered from her injuries, the two of us were left alone to do as we pleased. Summer’s heat made Merin’s house too hot to sleep in, and after a few days of stifling weather, Maara told me to get ready to go out into the countryside. Sparrow showed me how to prepare a pack with the things we’d need — oil and flour for baking camp bread, dried meat and fruit, a round of cheese, water skins, a small tin pot, a scrap of blanket, a flint knife, firestones.

We traveled south along the river. It was my first chance to explore Merin’s land since I made the journey with my mother. The fields that had been only bare earth then were now thick with growing grain, still green, with the heads just forming.

The country people were generous with us. When they saw us on the road, women came out of their kitchens with loaves of bread, warm from the oven. They pressed upon us jars of milk and little baskets with a few duck eggs wrapped in straw.

My warrior said not a word to them. It was up to me to thank them, but they didn’t seem to mind her. They gave her sidelong glances, coy as maidens at the springtime festival.

When thunderstorms brought an end to the hot weather, we went back to Merin’s house for a while, but Maara much preferred to live outdoors, and she took me out on expeditions whenever we could get away. Sometimes we explored the settled land along the river. More often we camped high up in the hills east of the valley. She taught me to make snares and fish traps, and we lived very well on the game and fish we caught, and on flat, round loaves baked in the ashes of our campfire.

Maara was a gifted teacher. She asked me questions and let me find the answers for myself. When she taught me a new skill — camp craft or the care of weapons — she first showed me what to do, then left me alone to fumble with my task. Though I often grew frustrated and impatient, I soon learned.


We had walked all day in silence. Several times I had tried to start a conversation. Each time she would say only a word or two and then fall silent. Sometimes in the evenings I could get her to talk a little as we sat together by our fire. Sometimes she would ask me for a story. Sometimes she just let me talk. That night she said nothing, and I had run out of chatter. The campfire had burned down to a bed of glowing embers. It gave just enough light to see her by.

“Why are you so quiet?” I asked her.

“Quiet?” she said. “Am I?”

“You never say a word unless I ask you something.”

“What should I say?”

“I don’t know. You could talk about the weather.”

She laughed. “You can see the weather as well as I can.”

“You could talk about where we’re going then, and what we’re going to do when we get there.”

“I don’t always know,” she said. “Anyway, what difference would it make? We may end up where we were going, or we may not. And when we get there, there may be something else to do than what we thought.”

I smiled at her before I could stop myself.

“What?” she said.

I couldn’t resist teasing her a little.

“I’ve never heard you say so much at once,” I said.

She frowned and looked away, and I remembered Sparrow’s words and wondered if Maara thought I was making fun of her.

“I wasn’t laughing at you,” I said. “I smiled because I was happy.”

She thought about that for a minute. “Why?”

“I like to hear you talk. It makes me feel less lonely.”

“Lonely,” she echoed back to me.

She seemed to turn the word over in her mind.

“Aren’t you ever lonely?”

She didn’t answer.


The next day we traveled higher into the hills in search of a breeze. The air, heated by a blazing sun, lay still and heavy on the ground. My pack chafed my shoulders, and my skin prickled with sweat. I was so uncomfortable that all I could think of was a drink of water and a cool place to rest.

Maara stopped so suddenly I almost ran into her.

“Look at that grove of trees in the gully over there,” she said.

I looked.

“Tell me what you see.”

“Shade,” I said.

“What else?”

“Nothing. Just some trees.”

“Look at the grass around the trees.”

I was in no mood for solving puzzles. I started to say something foolish when I saw what she meant for me to see. There was a trail of trodden grass leading into the grove. There was no trail leading out. I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.

“Are there people under those trees?” I asked her.

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe cattle, although the grass doesn’t appear trampled down enough for cattle. Whoever went under the trees could have left by the same way they went in, but I’d say there are people there, resting in the shade.”

“I wish we were resting in the shade,” I said.

Maara silenced me with a look.

“If an enemy were hidden in those trees,” she said, “you could meet your death there in the shade.”


That evening we made camp on a hillside, not far from the ruins of an ancient stronghold. Hardly anything was left of it. The sun, low in the sky, cast shadows of the old embankments on the ground.

“Who made this place?” I asked her.

“The old ones,” she replied.

I hesitated. I could think of no better way to ask her about herself except just to ask.

“Sparrow said that you are of a clan of the old ones.”

I waited for her to speak without looking at her, so that she wouldn’t feel compelled to answer.

“I don’t know,” she said.


“I don’t know my clan.”

“Everyone knows her clan.”

“I don’t,” she said.

Although I heard the irritation in her voice, I persisted.

“How is it possible not to know the clan you were born to?”

“They all died when I was a child. There was no one left to teach me.”

Then I understood that I had opened an old wound, and I didn’t know how to help her close it again. If she had been one of us, I would have touched her as we do when we’ve caused someone pain without meaning to, but she seemed so different in her ways I didn’t dare.

While I was trying to think of something to say to her, she wrapped herself in her cloak and lay down to sleep. It was a long time before she closed her eyes.

When I asked about her clan, I hadn’t remembered my obligation to the Lady. Now I thought of it, and I lay awake, wondering whether I was bound to tell the Lady what my warrior had told me. All I had learned was that she didn’t know her clan and that none of them were still living. The more I thought about it, the more I believed there was nothing to tell after all.


I woke just after midnight. When I glanced over to where Maara should have lain asleep, I saw that she was gone. For several minutes I waited for her to return. When she didn’t, I got up to look for her. It was her voice that led me to her. She was sitting on the tumbled earth of the ruined embankments, talking to someone so softly that I couldn’t make out what she was saying.

At first I thought a messenger from the household had come to find us and bring us news, but when I approached her, I saw she was alone. She paid no attention to me. She was speaking in a tongue that was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Though I couldn’t understand a word of it, she put me in mind of a child talking to her mother.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps she was speaking with the spirits of the old ones. I felt the hair stand up all over my head. The places of the old ones were to be respected, not trodden over carelessly. While she may have been one of them, I was not, and they would surely see me as an intruder.

I was about to leave as quickly as I could when she lifted her face up to the moonlight. She had a strange look in her eyes. It took me a moment to realize she was asleep.

She spoke one word that sounded like a name. She paused, waiting for an answer. She said the word again and held out her hand. I stepped forward and took it, and led her back to her sleeping place. Then I sat down and drew her down beside me.

“Lie down,” I said. “Close your eyes. Let sleep come.”

She lay down, and I tucked her cloak around her.

I lay awake for a long time, until at last I fell into a sleep so troubled by restless dreams that I woke in the morning hardly the better for it. I waited for her to speak of what had happened, but she seemed not to remember.


We were now high in the hills. The trail we followed was steep and difficult. Soon my lack of sleep caught up with me, and I began to stumble. Maara saw that I was worn out. In the early afternoon she found a place for us to camp in a grove of trees beside a stream.

That day was even hotter than the day before. We cooled ourselves in the stream as we bathed the day’s dust away. Then we had a bite to eat. The food and the heat made me drowsy.

Maara stood up and buckled on her armor. When I got up to help her, she motioned to me to sit back down and said, “Sleep for a while.”

“I’m not sleepy,” I said. “I’ll go with you.”

“Do what I tell you.”

Although it was not said unkindly, it surprised me.

“Wait for me here,” she said.

I watched her leave the grove and follow the footpath higher into the hills. Once I was alone, some instinct told me not to fall asleep. I had no reason to believe I wasn’t safe there. We were well within the boundaries of Merin’s land, but I remembered Maara’s words about meeting my death in the shade. Anyone who passed nearby would see the grove as a good place to shelter from the heat. If my warrior had been with me, I would have felt quite safe. Alone, I could not defend myself. I felt like the wildcat’s kitten, who knows enough to lie still in the tall grass while its mother hunts.

I sat cross-legged, so that if I fell asleep I would fall over and wake my­self up. From time to time I went to the edge of the grove to watch, in case someone was approaching. I was careful to stay under the trees, to avoid being seen.

All through the long twilight I waited. Darkness fell, and I began to be afraid. I worried that something had happened to my warrior.

It was a warm night, but I wouldn’t have made a fire in any case, lest it give me away. I sat still and listened to the night sounds. A fox barked. A breeze rustled the branches overhead. Small creatures in the grass made enough noise for a pack of wolves.

I shouldn’t have thought of wolves. This was not wolf country. It was too close to where cattle were pastured, and dogs would have harried the wolves out of it. Only in winter, when the wolves were desperate, would they come this close to humankind. So I told myself, but still my imagination tormented me with night fears. I peered into the darkness, trying to see with little light to see by. In a few hours the moon would rise. Now there was only starlight. In the grove, under the trees, the darkness was almost complete.

A faint light glimmered not far away. Was it the starlight reflected in the moving water of the stream, or could it be a reflection in an animal’s eye? A dark shape rose from the darker earth. I tried to convince myself it was only the large rock I’d sat on earlier that day while I bathed my tired feet in the cool water of the stream. Something moved beside it. A frond of fern, I thought, waving beside the rock.

But my fearful heart saw a wolf’s tail, and my mind created for itself the image of ears flattening against the head, the gleam of bared teeth. For a time that felt much longer than it was, the wolf created by my fear stood before me in the grove.

I closed my eyes and tried to think of something that would drive the fear away. The image of my warrior appeared in my mind’s eye. At once my fears left me.

I heard a noise, a clicking sound, then just the slightest rustling in the grass. I opened my eyes and saw in the shadows a darker shadow moving toward me. By closing my eyes I had sharpened my night vision, but the effect lasted only for a moment. I closed my eyes and kept them closed for as long as I dared. When I opened them, I saw again the shadow moving toward me under the trees.

I felt no fear. Beside me was an ancient tree whose gnarled and twisted trunk I meant to climb. That tree would have been difficult to climb in daylight. Afterwards I had no idea how I climbed it in the dark, but without knowing how it happened, I found myself among its branches.

I could no longer see the place where the shadow had moved under the trees, so I depended on my ears. For several minutes I heard only the sounds I had become used to. Then I heard a sound no animal would make. It might have been the sound of water trickling over rocks, but there was something familiar about it. It was a sound I had been hearing for weeks without being aware of it. It was the gentle clicking of a buckle. It was my warrior.

Still I didn’t move or make a sound. I didn’t understand why she hadn’t called to me, why she had approached the grove so silently. Until I understood I would stay where I was.

“You can come down now,” she said.

I didn’t answer her.

“Were you going to stay up there all night?”

She struck a light from her firestones, and a spark fell into a nest of dry grass. In a few minutes she had a small fire burning.

“Aren’t you coming down?” she said.

Climbing down was going to be more difficult than climbing up had been. “I think I’m stuck.”

She came over to the tree and looked up at me.

“Do the best you can,” she said. “I won’t let you fall.”

I couldn’t see where to put my feet, but I managed to climb down part of the way. Then I came to a place where I could find no foothold.

“Slide your foot down the trunk,” she said.

I did as she told me. When my hands were about to lose their grip, I felt her hand under my foot.

“Bring the other foot down,” she said.

I rested as much of my weight as I dared on her hand while I searched for a new foothold. I thought I had found one, but when I put my weight on it, my foot slipped, my hands lost their grip, and I fell. She caught me as if I weighed no more than a sack of barley and set me on my feet.

I didn’t know whether to thank her or be angry with her.

“Where were you?” I asked her.

“Are you hungry?” she said.

She found our pack and took from it the flatbread we’d baked that morning and some sour apples, picked from a wild apple tree.

After we had eaten, she said, “Tell me what you learned.”

Then I understood that by leaving me alone there, she had meant to teach me something. I thought about what I had done, but first I wanted an answer from her.

“Where were you?” I asked her.

“Close by,” she said.


“Within sight of this grove. I’ll show you the place in the morning, if you like.”

“You were watching me?”

“I saw you when you came out to look around. I couldn’t see you when you were under the trees, but I could see the grove and anyone who might approach it.”

I didn’t understand then what I was feeling that caused me to question her, but I believe she did understand.

“I wouldn’t have left you alone,” she said.

Her words cut the string of doubt that bound my heart. My fear had made me feel that she’d abandoned me, and when I understood that she had been there all along, watching over me, I could have hugged her for giving me that reassurance.

“Did you sleep?” she asked me.


“Why not?”

“It felt dangerous.”

“You have good instincts,” she said. “What did you do?”

“What you saw. I watched for anyone approaching.”

“What did you do when it got dark?”

“I sat still and worried that something had happened to you.”

I saw a smile lift the corner of her mouth before she turned away.

“Is that all?”

I remembered my fear, and now it seemed so silly that I had to laugh at myself.

“I watched my mind make a wolf out of that rock.”

I pointed to the rock beside the stream and to the fern frond beside it.

“Look,” I said. “It even has a tail.”

“You saw a wolf there?”


“Is the wolf your guardian?”

I had never heard the word before. “My guardian?”

She shook her head at me and made a tut-tut sound. “You tell me I must know my clan, and you don’t know your guardian?”

“No,” I said. “What’s a guardian?”

“A protector, and something more. They remind us of what we once were, of what we still are.”

“Is the wolf my guardian?”

“I don’t know.”

She sat gazing into the fire, thinking something over.

At last she said, “When you saw the wolf, were you afraid?”


“What did you do?”

“I tried to think of something else,” I said. “Something that would drive the fear away. I thought of you.”




“I feel safe with you.”

It was the truth, and I didn’t hesitate to tell her so, but it seemed to trouble her. A worry line appeared between her brows. Before I could ask her what was wrong, she leaned forward and threw dirt on the embers of the fire. Suddenly we were in darkness.

“Look for your wolf now,” she said.

I watched the rock transform itself. The wolf’s tail appeared, her eyes sparkled, and her ears flattened against her head. Her lip curled, to reveal the gleam of teeth. The wolf stared at me, and I stared back.

“Speak to her,” Maara whispered.

I had forgotten she was there, although she was so close to me that I could feel the warmth of her skin and smell the apples on her breath.

“Ask her what she wants from you,” she said.

I began to form the question in my mind, but almost before I asked it, I received an answer. As clear as Maara’s soft voice beside me, the wolf spoke.

“No harm to me, no harm from me,” she said.

She melted into the dark, and the rock was a rock again.

“She’s gone,” I said.

“Did she speak to you?”

“Yes, she said — ”

“Don’t tell me. Her words were for you.”

I put my hand over the place in my chest where my fear had been. It felt warm and full of light. It was not that I no longer feared the wolf. Wolves had haunted my dreams from childhood. In wintertime they came to take our sheep, and I had often lain in bed shivering with fear as I listened to their voices howling down the wind.

I had no desire to meet a real wolf, even if it was my guardian, but I also knew that some being that was not myself had spoken to me from the mind of the wolf I’d called out of the rock. I had never before experienced anything like it.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I wanted you to learn to be alone and to be alone in the dark. It seems you’ve learned much more than that.”

“I also learned that I’ll have to redo the stitching on your buckle. That’s how I knew you were here.”

“I was wondering about that,” she said.


“Does she treat you well?” Sparrow asked me.

“Of course.”

“She didn’t in the beginning,” she reminded me.

That time seemed very long ago.

“What’s she like?” Sparrow asked.

“She appeared a bit odd to me at first, but I suppose I must have become used to her.”


“And what?”

“Well,” she said, “does she ever talk? Does she treat you like a servant? Does she punish you when you make a mistake?”

“She’s always been kind to me. She’s never punished me. And as for treating me like a servant, sometimes it’s all I can do to persuade her to allow me to do things for her.”

I thought I caught a glimpse of envy in Sparrow’s eyes.

“Does Eramet punish you?”

She didn’t answer me.


It was late. Maara and I had spent the evening sitting in the great hall. Few people ever spoke to her. It may have been because she was a stranger, though her manner also put them off. Whether she was aware of it or not, she tended to glower when she was in a crowd of people. That evening she was eavesdropping on a conversation about what had been happening along our northern border. When she saw me yawning, she sent me up to bed.

I slept lightly, and I woke as soon as she came into the room. I raised the wick in the lamp I had left burning, to give her more light, but when I started to get up, to help her get ready for bed, she told me to go back to sleep. She undressed and slipped into her sleeping shirt. Then she pinched out the flame of the lamp and got into her bed.

As I lay there in the dark, I felt Maara’s presence in the room, familiar and comforting. When she was with me, the world was as it should be. I hardly remembered the woman with angry eyes who wouldn’t have me near her.

“Why didn’t you want me?” I asked the question the moment it came into my head. If I had stopped to think about it, I might have said it differently, or I might not have said anything at all.

For a time she didn’t answer. I thought she might already be asleep, but at last she said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“When I first came to you, you said you didn’t want a companion.”

“Oh.” She was quiet for so long I thought she wasn’t going to answer me. Then she said, “I was wrong to do that. I’m sorry.”

“You must have had a reason at the time.”

“If I did,” she said, “I’ve forgotten it.”

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Copyright © Catherine M. Wilson