Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Women soldiers, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
Worst of all, they had taken me unawares.
I was on my way home from one of the little farms that lay in those days inland about five miles, well within my father's lands. One of the farmers was ill, and my mother had sent me with a healing potion and a hymn to sing over her bed. I had stayed to teach the woman's son that hymn, which was needful to help keep up his mother's strength. He had a liking for tunes, so while I was there I taught him a few other lesser hymns to the Radiant Sun, two of them my own translations into the tongue of the people. The farmers in those days had their own names for the gods we all worshiped, few indeed had heard of the White God then in Derwen or elsewhere in our part of Tir Tanagiri.
I was walking back singing across the fields. I was thirsty in the hot sun and thinking longingly about the little stream of good clear water that ran in the shade of the trees. I was looking up at the smoke rising over the wood from the direction of the house. I wondered who had put what on a bonfire to make such a billow on the wind. The wind was coming out of the southwest and blew the smoke away from me, the smell might have warned me. As it was, the first I knew anything was amiss was the appearance out of the trees of half a dozen burly sea-raiders, yellow-haired, white-skinned, and ugly. I had seen a troop of them the summer before, but they still looked strange to me then.
There were no Jarnsmen settled anywhere near this part of the realm in those days.
They laughed to see me, showing their bad teeth, and shouted to each other in their own tongue.
I fell at once into a fighting stance. I shifted my grip on the bottle that had held the potion. It was baked clay, not a good weapon but all I had. They came on, bunched together. I held my ground and looked around for what there was to help as they closed in. It was a meadow, grassy, covered in buttercups and daisies, a pleasant place where the farmers grazed the cows. There was earth to throw in their eyes. I could see no stones.
The trees were not too far away, if I could make their cover I should know the ground better than the men and be able to get home. There would be fallen wood I could use for a club.
Somehow I assumed without thinking about it that the raiders had just come out of their boat, and that these six were all there were of them.
The first one reached me, only moments ahead of his companions. He carried a single-edged blade, typically Jarnish; it could be thought of as a short sword or a long knife, as suitable for cutting brush as slashing an enemy. It was loose in his hand. He did not think me much of a challenge. I kicked his arm hard, aiming for the elbow. My foot connected with an impact I could feel all through my leg. I spun, completing the movement. He dropped the blade and clutched his arm. The second man was on me then, and I was facing him. I brought the bottle up in his face and brought my arm down hard on his knife arm. I wasn't fast enough, and his knife caught me a gash across my sleeve. It would have been nothing if I'd been wearing leathers; as it was the cloth tore and it cut my skin. I felt nothing then, although I saw my own red blood flowing. It was a shallow cut but it stung badly later. I never feel wounds in battle. Some
say this is a gift of the gods, others have said it is a curse. Urdo always said I would die fighting of wounds I
never noticed I had. I never did, though I suppose I may yet.
The third man was there, his spear pointed towards me. The first was reaching down for his fallen knife with his good hand. I stooped for it, ducking under the second man. I was lucky in that they were not trying to kill me, for he could have had me then easily, my throat was exposed. He did not try though; the Jarnsmen in those days did not kill young women. They saw me as not only their own sport but as booty. Women had a resale value on the continent even then, when the market was glutted. They probably hoped to get as much for a strong girl like me as for a horse.
I had the sword, and as swift as thought I stabbed at the second man's knee. It was a good target from my position. These Jarnsmen wore leather tunics and leather sea boots, nothing like as hard or as well made as my boots. The knees are unprotected in the old Vincan style, nobody is supposed to be that low in the line of battle. The sword was heavier than the short knives I had practiced with. It had not the reach of even our short swords, let alone the long cavalry sword I was used to. He toppled, and I was drawing out the knife when one of the others grabbed my arms from behind. I brought my head up hard to jar his chin. I felt the force of the blow through my skull. He reeled a little, but held firm, and the others were there. I had wounded two of them, but four were whole and I was captured.
If they had taken me back to the ship then I should no doubt have spent the rest of a short unpleasant life as a slave on the continent in some Jarnish or other barbarian encampment. Maybe I would have escaped and found some other life in the parts of the continent that still clung to some shred of Vincan civilization. I have often wondered how I would have survived. I had skill at arms and languages, I knew a few useful devotional charms, but I had few womanly skills such as they might expect. But they were greedy and wanted to taste their prize themselves. One of the men quickly cut off my clothes using a short sharp knife he had at his belt, ruining the good green cloth and leaving me quite exposed. I stayed limp in their grasp, hoping for an opportunity to escape. I had no
body-shame, of course, though I had been told the Jarnsmen suffered from this badly.
My siblings and I had always trained for athletics naked, Vincan fashion.
They jabbered in their own language. I understood no word of what they were saying.
They poked at me, and dragged me, unresisting, back towards the trees. I was ready to fight at any moment there seemed to be any possibility of advantage in it. I ignored the irrelevancies of my nakedness and vulnerability, stayed limp, and concentrated on tracking where they all were. This was Duncan's advice for being in a bad spot, and it came back to me now that I was in one. They were laughing at the ones who had been wounded, though one of them bound up his companion's knee. Looking at him then, I
thought that if that was the level of their treatment he would surely lose the leg. He never walked without a limp again even as it was; that was a good blow with my strength behind it. I had clean severed the muscle.
The loud laughter was a bad sign. They had no worries about being overheard, or they thought only their own friends were near. I remembered that rising smoke and worried. I should not have called for help over that distance in any case, nobody would have heard me. But now I heard them laugh and shout out jests at each other I shouted too and screamed for help as loudly as I could. This was not only foolish but against Duncan's teaching, and I have found it hard to forgive myself for that. They gagged me with part of what had been my sleeve. I could taste the blood on it from the knife cut.
The trees' shadow was pleasantly cool. The sound of the stream trickling nearby was a torment.
The leaves were green and fully out, all at their best, stretched wide gathering summer light to
last through the winter. They tied me under a great oak, using cut strips from my clothes. They fastened my wrists and ankles to tree roots. They were careful never to let me have a chance to be free and hurt them. The bindings were very uncomfortable, especially on my wounded arm. The little roots and last year's leaves were hard and rough beneath me. I stared up at the three-fingered leaves, sending my mind up away among the pattern of twigs and branches, determined to ignore the pain. I tried to relax into it as Duncan had taught me, although it hurt like a vise. The leaves, the tree, I can see it now, the shapes the leaves made against the blue sky that did not care for me in my pain. People have told me they have taken pleasure in the act of begetting life, and some of them have even been women. That was the only time I ever did it, that thing which in most people's lives is so important, that thing for which, and for the lack of which, kingdoms fall and grown men turn into little boys. It hurt me worse than any wound I ever had. I believe there may be pleasure in it for some people, but I was not made so.
The fifth of them had just begun his thrusting and I was staring up into the leaves and wondering if I would die of the pain when the man fell forward suddenly upon me and I saw my brother Darien's face between me and the light. I had thought never to see sight of those I loved again, and it was almost too much for me. I wept.
"Sulien!" he said. He dragged the body off me and bent to cut me loose. So it was that he did not see the last man, the man with the wounded knee, come up behind him, though I did. I tried to warn him, but I was gagged of course and could make no sound. He was bending down, and the Jarnsman took him from behind in the thigh with the knife. Poor Danen had no chance, he fell forward almost at once, quite dead beside me. The wounded man limped forward, pulling up his tunic. I was quite sickened, and that time was the worst of all, both for pain and for violation. Darien's dead body lay only inches away from me, and I could send no part of my mind away, all that happened happened to me. Worst of all I knew for sure that he would kill me when he was done, and Darien and I would lie together, unburied in the wood. I believed all the rest of my family were dead already.
Nobody would say prayers for us to the gods of earth and sky, our names would not be given back, and we would all walk the world as unavenged shades forever. He had to kill me. He was one injured man alone, and he had sense enough to know he could not get me back to his ship if he untied me.
When he was done he pulled out my gag. I stared at him, sure I was about to die. I did not scream. I wanted to keep some dignity in my last moments.
"You know spells?" he asked, in broken Vincan. It was the most unexpected question I had ever been asked. I almost laughed hysterically, but just managed to restrain myself. I raised my chin in cautious assent.
"You hurt my leg, you mend it," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"You hurt, you mend," he repeated.
"Why should I if you're going to kill me after?" I asked.
"What?" he looked puzzled.
"Why mend if you kill me?" I said, slowly. His Vincan was not up to much subtlety.
"You mend, I no kill," he said. "Swear by One-Eye, Father of the Slain." This was one of their old gods. I had heard the name even then, enough to know it sacred.
"All right," I said. "If I can. Let me up." He shook his head.
"You up, you run," he said. I would have, too. I sighed.
"You give me water," I said. My mouth was unbearably dry. He took a water bottle from his waist and held it to my lips. Enough of it made its way into my mouth for me to choke, and some went down.
"Where sword?" I asked. He held up his own blade. "Where sword that did wound?"
After some searching of bodies he limped back with it. "What your name?" I asked. His ugly pale eyes narrowed. I hated those pale Jarnsman eyes; they did not seem to me at all like human eyes that are dark and full of thoughts.
"Need name to do spell," I said. He must have known that was true, however little his people knew about it.
"Ulf Gunnarsson," he muttered, reluctantly.
"Put knife against wound," I instructed. He did so, then knelt and touched me so that I could work the charm on him. With the most reluctance of my life I sang the charm of healing of weapon-wounds, an invocation both to the Lord of Light for healing and to the dark battle gods. Into the charm I wove Ulfs name, and by the time I had finished I could see that it had worked inasmuch as it could on such a wound—it was like a wound he had suffered ten years ago and not like a fresh wound. His leg would never be as it had been, and there was nothing anyone could do about that.
"Now let me go," I said. He smiled, showing his dreadful teeth again.
"Never said so," he said. "You know name, know spells. You dangerous. I not kill you. I swore. But you stay here, sacrifice to Father of the Slain, make corn go strong." I heard this with absolute horror. He took the sword that had wounded him and cut the ball of his thumb, then squeezed out a few drops of his blood to fall on my stomach. Ignoring my screams and protests and threats to curse him, and being careful not to touch me to give my curses a chance to work, he walked away, leaving me to die beside my dead brother.
Ulf Gunnarsson, I swore, if I get free and we meet again you are a dead man. I knew no real curses, then.
To the land of the dead in the dusk returning all deeds done, time gone, life ending, no more amending, this is what you are, this is your name, you know it all at last.
We, who are left on life's shore, mourning as you walk on, into dark, not turning, we cannot go with you, this journey all make alone.
However loved, and you were loved, however strong, and you were strong, however brave, and you were brave, however skilled, and you were skilled, you will come alone to Lord Death s halls speak there your name and deeds, for them to stand alone, for what you were.
You go on, shine bright, begin a new life, taking from this all of the beauty, learning from this all of the mistakes.
Do not grieve for us, though we are sundered, you were what you were, you will be remembered, learn to be what more you can be, and we will mourn with the name you left us, on life s shore, bound by old choices, go free ahead, on new paths, returning.
— From "The Hymn of Returning"
When I was quite sure Ulf was gone I began to test the bonds. The one Darien had started to cut was frayed partway through. I craned my neck to look at my wrist, then saw what I had hoped to see. Darien's knife lay near it, in a large clump of fungus that sprouted beside the root my wrist was tied to. I could slowly force my wrist and the twisted linen down on the blade, which was lying sideways rather than point up. Because of the angle of my arm and the tree, I could either see what I was doing or do it. I