Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Women soldiers, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
After a difficult while, Morien came back with the hoard. It was in a stained and half-rotted leathern sack with a ring around the top. He handed it to Gwien, who lifted it with an effort, pulled back the ring, and opened it. Two smaller leather bags emerged, and a great pile of gold coins spilled out. Aurien made a little sound in her throat as they poured onto the scarred wood. They lay there in a great heap, bearing the heads and bold mottoes of half-forgotten emperors. There must have been one there from the minting of every emperor since first the Vincans took this land. It lay there in a great glinting heap.
A few coins rolled onto the floor. Morien bent and picked them up and set them down on the edge of the table.
Gwien opened the larger of the inner bags and tipped out onto the corner at his side a pile of small silver coins, some of them half-stuck together and almost all of them tarnished green and black. He opened the smaller and drew out a comb and some jewelry, wrapped in stained sheep's wool. He handed the comb to my mother, and turned over the jewelry with his finger. There were a pair of large gold brooches, one set with pearls and the other with amber.
He gave the first to Aurien and the second to me. There were also some chains, which he pushed aside with the silver, and a heavy gold ring. This he pushed onto his finger. Then he ran his hands through the heap of gold coins, which were dulled from the earth but still had the unmistakable gleam of gold through the tarnish of water and time. He picked up one of them and turned it around in his fingers, angling it towards the light.
Vinca Victrix was written around the edge, and the picture was a warrior with his foot on the body of a fallen enemy. It was the coin struck to commemorate the conquest of some province long ago, maybe even Tir Tanagiri, five hundred years before.
He set it down again, and it chinked against the others. All this time nobody had said anything. Gwien set both hands against the great pile of gold coins and pushed it a little way across the table towards Urdo. He paled a little with the effort.
"That would be your taxes for the next twenty years or more," the king said, looking evenly at
my father, not touching the gold.
"And in twenty years' time who knows what!" said Veniva, looking at Gwien as if wondering if his wits were addled after all.
"Well before that I may be dead, and all I am building may die with me, yes," said Urdo, smiling at my mother.
She looked disconcerted. "Another government wouldn't honor your intentions, however good they are," she said, uncertainly. Urdo laughed.
"It is very true," he said.
"Who else will help us to rebuild now?" Gwien asked Veniva. "You sent to ask him for help and see, here he is. He came. I gave him my oath, forgive me, lord, for the horses, not thinking much of it. Another little king claiming the whole island, I thought, here today gone tomorrow. But here he is, right here, and he does not give us empty air but solid help, stonemasons, carpenters, organization. He will station a pennon here when he has people enough, twenty-eight mounted armigers and all those who look after them, and he promises he will send craftspeople whose homes in the east have been destroyed.
Craft workers, potters, and leather workers, maybe even a blacksmith, coming to live here at Derwen. This is not help from the moon, or help from the people of the hills that melts away in the sunlight. This is not a demand for tax that may do some good far away but benefits us little. He will give us the right by the king's grant in law, to hold a regular market here that uses the king's coin. People will come, and we can take coin from each of them who trades here."
"And this in return for our hoard? Our fathers' treasure?" My mother turned the comb over in her hands. It was the sort used to fasten up coils of hair on top of the head, and the word Maneo was engraved on it, "I shall remain." It would look good in her iron grey hair. What good had it done in the ground all those years? I turned over the brooch in my own hand. It was much larger and more splendid than most Vincan work. What forgotten ancestor had used it to fasten a cloak?
"I knew nothing about the hoard," said Urdo. "I would give the market right in return for the pennon being stationed here. They will be a protection, not just for you but for the whole coast, but you will have their keep to find and each greathorse eats two stone of roots a day, and green stuff. And then there are the people. Without supplies I can do nothing. I have not asked for this gold." Urdo still had not reached out or touched it.
"It all sounds well enough. But what if the Jarns come?" Veniva looked from one to the other of them, and then at Morien, who was leaning on the wall looking very young and frail. He stood to attention under her gaze, straightening the hem of his brown tunic.
"There will be more troops up and down the coast. I do not have enough trained riders yet, and it is hard to find and support them. I told you when I gave you the horses to have your children trained to fight from horseback. You listened—if many did, then in a few years we will have alae enough to sweep the land. When there are enough armigers and horses I will station an entire ala down here. It will probably be at Magor." Urdo sighed.
"Horses and armigers who will train together, and lords' households who have training enough to ride out with them and loyalty enough to go where they are needed to defend everyone's homes. If the Jarns come we can win against them as long as we are there.
They cannot burn our homes if they are well enough defended. Before mounted troops I have seen their shield walls break, time and again. If we are mobile and have well-found stone walls to protect us we can beat them off. As soon as I can I will be building a sea guard, too."
Veniva looked no less uncertain.
"That is why I am giving him the gold now," Gwien said, patting Veniva's hand. "There will be no wealth and no market if the Jarns come in force and the whole land is ruined.
We cannot eat gold. If we had all been killed in the raid, then this hoard would have lain still in
the earth until the end of time. It would have helped neither us nor those who count on us. If there is peace, then it will count for our taxes for many a long year, and by then wealth will have grown again. If there is no peace, then it is no good to us anyway.
My father buried it. He told me where it lay and said that if the bad times came, then we could take it and flee. Where would we go, now, Veniva? Far off to the East across the sea, to the lands of sunshine and story? There are barbarians there, too. And there are near two thousand families living on our land and looking to us. Will it buy them all passage?
And on what ship?" My father shook his head and pushed the pile closer to Urdo. "All my life and all my father's life there have been war and invasion and raiding. This is my land, and my people. It seems to me that the chance this money can help you, that it will be more help now than next year, is a chance worth taking."
Urdo gathered up the gold and counted it. "I will have my clerk send you a receipt," he said.
"And I thank you, Gwien ap Nuden, Gwien Open-Hand, with the whole of my heart for this generosity. If the priests speak truly who say that we are rewarded as we act then your open hands will flow with gold. It is with such service as this that I shall build this kingdom."
Magor was a bigger place than Derwen, though only the home of a lord and not a town.
Urdo spent much time cloistered with Duke Galba, discussing defenses, I suppose. I know he persuaded Galba to send timber and tiles to Derwen, for he asked me what would be most needed. This was a courtesy only; he had a much better idea than I did. I was glad not to have been left at home with the second pennon, and only wished that Glyn had been. I was growing tired of his teasing about sharing blankets after every time Urdo spoke with me. We rode out every day along the coast, but we saw few pirates and no action. After a month I was no longer the worst with the lance for the younger Galba began to learn with us. He told me that he would be training as an armiger so that in time he could lead the ala that would be based on his land. He sought me out to tell me this in such a way that I realized it was past time I spoke to his father.
I made an appointment to see Duke Galba alone a few days later. He was gracious and polite, showing me in to his upper chamber as if I were an important person. The room was lined with tapestries, and there was a threadbare woven rug on the wooden boards.
He bowed. I bowed. He showed me to a red padded chair. I wondered if perhaps I had made a mistake and should have chosen to tell my mother instead. I sat straight and decided to be as polite as I could while explaining as little as I could about my reasons. He handed me a beaker of warm cider. I accepted it, thanking him. It would perhaps have been possible to explain to Veniva how sickened I was by the idea of being touched again by a man, but not to this old and gracious man. His grey hair was worn in a square tail at his back. He looked like a Vincan bust brought to life. However, he was a stranger and would be polite, whatever else. He would not force me to the marriage bed, which my mother perhaps might. I decided to come straight to the point.
"Duke Galba, while I know the honor you do me and my family, and while I esteem you and your family, I am afraid that I am no longer able to marry your son. I have taken oath as an armiger, and my heart has changed since my father arranged the match." He frowned a little, but did not look surprised.
"I had heard something that made me wonder if you would be saying this to me." I had no idea what he could have heard. Had someone told him how much more suited I was to being an armiger than to running a household? That I was better with a sword than a needle? "Are you sure you are not being too hasty? My son is my only child, heir to all of Magor, this house, the great lands, and nothing the king has offered you can be sure or lasting."
"I am quite sure I have no wish to cease being an armiger, my duke, the life suits me."
"You are wise," he said. "But perhaps you may one day look on my son with more favor.
You may feel sure we would not hold your previous status against you."
I should hope not. I sipped my cider and tried to think of a way to explain diplomatically that I could never think of marriage. "There is a goddess, my lord of Magor, in whose hand I have been, and she moves me to know that although he is a worthy companion I can never feel for your son as I should." I bowed from the waist, pleased with how well I had put this. As I mentioned the Moon Maid it crossed my mind that I had not felt her sickle when I should. I began to count days in my head. I supposed it must be all the riding, or the change of water. My nurse had always said too much riding upset the cycles.
"Well,- our loss is Urdo's gain," Galba said, bowing again. "I believe your father has another daughter?" I assented, and he went on to talk about the land disputes, border problems, and inheritances I had been hearing about half my life and which my betrothal had been intended to settle. I praised Aurien to him, being perfectly honest about her ability with figures and fine needlework. Indeed, she was far better suited to be Magor's lady than I. I agreed that I would do all I could to persuade both Aurien and my father to the match, and he agreed that he would speak to his son and then write to my father concerning Aurien. This was a considerable relief, for it meant that before I had to face my mother she would have got over the worst part of her anger at me. I left the chamber with my heart high. I was free of obligations save those I had freely chosen and would be glad to fulfill.
No sooner than I was out of doors than I felt a wave of nausea sweeping over me. I ran for the midden and stood bent double, puking and catching at my breath. I had not known I was that nervous, nor had I ever been sick from relief before. Perhaps some of the herbs in the cider disagreed with me. I drank water that night and went early to bed. I woke early with my stomach griping. I wondered if Galba had poisoned me, and why. I barely made it out of the tent that time. Yet afterwards I felt well again and rode out that day with no more trouble. Over the next month it became habit to wake sick and be recovered before breakfast. It seemed a small matter. It was another month and a half, when we were back at Caer Gloran, before my dulled mind made the right associations and I realized I must be with child.
It was early morning, and I was in the barracks kitchen heating up water on the fire.
The breakfast cook was up already, measuring baked oats and chopping dried plums. He ignored me; we had given our greetings when I first came in. He was used to me being there early. Soon the girl would come round with the milk, and he would ring the bell that woke the pennon. I had just come in from outside, through the dewy garden where I had picked some mint leaves. I had a cup in my hand. When the water boiled I would pour it onto the mint in the cup and sip it until my stomach settled. I was still shuddering slightly from nausea. My breasts ached. Suddenly all these things stopped being something I took for granted. Something moved inside me, a fluttering of butterfly wings inside my belly. I saw all the symptoms together—the sickness, two, no three missed bleeding times, the ache, the rape. Something was dancing inside me. Something had clouded my mind, and now it was clear.
The water boiled, I poured it onto the mint. Then I set the cup down on the end of the trestle and put both hands on my belly.
I concentrated. I reached out and called wordlessly to the Lord of Healing and the Giver of Fruits. I could feel the life within me, just quickened, just become truly alive.
Even now it would be the easiest thing in the world to loosen the hold of that life and let it slip away, go back to Lethe and choose again. It is so much easier for a new child to slip away than for them to hold on. Many will go with only a thought, even the most tenacious will yield as a prayer lets them know they are not wanted. A woman must truly long to bear a child, or see it as her grim duty, to send no thought of being free of it. It is hard for many to come