Amazing what comes to you in the form of dreams brought on from a bit of bad pork. This story will likely be shorter than most as it is moving quite fast. If you like it I'll finish it, if not ... well, my imaginings have to go someplace or they crowd up my head too much. LOL!
FEL BY THE WAYSIDE
“Please don’t give up hope Fel. Negotiations might bog down again like they did yesterday, might even fall apart all together this time.”
I sighed as I wiped the sweat off my upper lip and chin with a piece of ancient and threadbare curtain before going back to crawling along the row of radishes to thin them out while still being gentle enough that the thinnings could be replanted and traded at the upcoming barter market. I looked at my crèche sister and told her, “What little hope I had dried up and blew away on the wind last night when we overheard how desperate the town elders are to get out from under the debt burden they built over the last few seasons.”
Docia looked more pensive than I had ever seen her. She wasn’t a deep thinker normally and it must have cost her to realize the pretty fantasies she had built to deal with her fears we’re nothing but moonbeams and wispies. “We would have starved without the barter from the Kipling traders. Harvests have gone bad for three years now.”
I growled, “It wasn’t a barter deal Docia. They sold our souls to put food in their bellies. Maybe if it had just been food it wouldn’t be like ashes on my tongue but they bought a lot of mead with our bodies to wash away their worries while leaving us to make do then and now with whatever future they’ve sunk us into.”
“No one else would deal with us. Everyone local turned their backs. They didn’t care if we starved or not.”
Still angry I told her, “And no wonder. The Headman started that reckless feud with the Lakesiders for no good reason beyond some stupid, drunken insult that wasn’t even worth noticing. Hiring those mercenaries to do his dirty work was bad but the disease they brought with them was worse. It wasn’t just the Lakesiders and our people fighting for their lives after that, it was forts and settlements for miles in all directions after it got into the water supply. I wish …”
Docia looked around scared. “Hush! Do you want another punishment?! Wasn’t being in the stocks for a week in the snow and ice enough to remind you of your place?”
I snorted, caring nothing if I was overheard or not. “They meant to be rid of me without having to claim the murder. They are only sorry the only thing I lost was a little toe. They would have been happier if it had been my life.”
Docia may have been shallow witted but that didn’t mean she was stupid. “Still, there’s no need to make it worse. If you weren’t always so honest with your opinions …”
A snide twitter from three rows over preceded the question, “What could be worse than being sold like cattle at auction? Oh that’s right, being sold like a bag of fertilizer to be nothing more than a bed warmer like the lowest saloon girl.”
Seeing Docia begin to wilt I stood up to the blonde girl who was gardening in the mud in better clothes than I had ever owned. I told her, “Docia will be a wife so keep a civil tongue in your head Daphne.”
She smirked. “Her maybe. You …” Another scathing twitter then she said, “You are going to be a …”
In a rare show of courage Docia said, “She’s going to be a wife too!”
An older woman, Daphne’s aunt and wife of the current Headman, barked a rude laugh. “Where they’re from they may call it being a second wife but here we know that’s just another word for whore … a mistress to help entertain the husband and keep him satisfied so that the real wife can have some peace.”
As a few other women nodded and murmured their agreement I almost asked if that was why her husband escaped to the town’s saloon every chance he got. But I didn’t. I knew Docia would take some pains for my words and she didn’t deserve bruises on top of her fears just for trying to defend me.
A man dressed in what passed for sec gear in our town road up on a strawberry roan and barked, “Stop your cackling you bunch o’ brainless feather dusters! The elders are calling for everyone to get to the square and it will be two weeks in the stocks if you drag your feet and hold things up!”
Two weeks in the stocks would be a death sentence for some and I watched them scramble away as I limped over the rocky path feeling every sharp pebble through my thin soled moccasins.
“Hurry Fel! I know your foot is sore but …”
“If you’re that eager to meet your fate then go.” At her crestfallen expression I felt like kicking myself; just because I was bitter was no reason to hurt poor Docia. More kindly I told her, “Just go. There’s not much worse they can do to me but there’s no need for you to get into trouble too.”
Reluctantly, as she was a true crèche sister, Docia finally began to jog as I slowly followed trying not to stub my foot on what remained of the old highway. In my great grandparents’ childhood the area had been called Saburbia or some such. I let the old fact slip by without examining it; I didn’t feel much like going over history as the future was more heavily on my mind at the moment. Most would have been surprised if they had realized I even knew any history which was just one of many things I had learned to keep to myself.
Girls did not attend the village school beyond the point where they had learned to read, write, and do basic household sums. Boys got a little more schooling but not much. They were assigned apprenticeships by the time they were ten summers and their masters were expected to train them if they needed anything more. My father taught me at home but was careful to also teach me that it was a survival skill best kept to myself as the men of the town were a different lot from my father who had come from the east on an adventure and then stayed after falling in love with the blacksmith’s daughter.
Finally I reached the town square which was nothing more than an old parking lot that had crumbled to gravel before my mother was born. Clumps of weeds were the only thing that could grow there and those had been trampled during the recent barter meetings and looked even more bedraggled than usual. My luck was in for once and no one noticed I was late. They were too busy watching the drama being played out by Daphne and her aunt as they found out being the niece of the Headman wasn’t protection against “being sold like a piece of cattle at auction.”
The Headman, formerly the one who spoiled Daphne out of all proportion, backhanded her so hard I saw droplets of blood splatter the ground. “Silence girl and don’t embarrass me or yourself further. You serve my purpose and that is all.”
Daphne, brutalized doubtless for the first time in her life, fell silent in shock at the sudden change in her station. The Headman, a wide and loutish sort, said in the sudden quiet, “The deal is done. Six horses, four teams of mules, a dozen brace of geese, and fifteen maids of marriageable age ends our debt.” It was no mistake that the maids were listed last in importance. “All men of the town will put their print in blood on the paper and the Kipling men will do the same. Each settlement will retain a copy so that no man might refute it. Are there any objections?”
The question was merely a formality and everyone knew it. “So be it. I give the maids so named one hour to pack and return here. Should any disobey her family’s life and all their worldly goods are forfeit.”
Even I was shocked at how quickly things happened after that. About half of us had no family at all and even fewer belongings we could call our own, but what we did have was quickly tucked into rucksacks and kept close in hand as we waited in a corded off area for the other girls to say tearful goodbyes to family they would likely never see or hear from again. The only exception to this might be if some could convince a peddler to carry news on their yearly routes and peddlars had been avoiding us like the plague since … well since the plague had come through.
We were herded down the old highway until we went further than I had ever travelled before, even with my father on his yearly hunting expeditions. We were as silent as the men who guided us like sheep and it gave me time to contemplate our new masters. It was strange but the men looked somehow disgusted but resigned at the same time. Finally, the captain stopped and said, “Put them in the wagon. I wish to make Glennings Pass before dusk. No more delays. Let us be off for home.”
The men seemed to get a bit chipper at that so I could tell they were eager to be home, likely as eager as I was for the trip to last forever. I had no idea what was to become of us after we reached our new dwelling place. I contemplated what the travel from this point might be and I wasn’t sure what I expected but certainly a comfortable trip in a well sprung wagon wasn’t part of it though that is closer to what happened than what I feared.
We were three weeks on the road, sometimes walking, sometimes riding when terrain necessitated it, occasionally picking up another wagon of goods with a driver and guard each, when we finally came to what I thought at first was a large lake. Instead I found out it was a wide river. I had heard of the Mississippi from my father but had never thought to see it much less cross it.
The captain, a man whom we eventually learned was properly named Capt. Rob Uhl, addressed us directly as little as possible. That was nothing unusual as most of the men of our town had been much the same. What was unusual was in his own way he was as bad as a nursemaid with a sick babe to tend when it came to our comfort and safety. I hadn’t seen the like since my father died at the hands of the Lakesider that had set our house ablaze with my mother, brother, and old granny purposely trapped inside.
The captain, for all his consideration, treated us as children and tended to expect us to act like them as well. His every word to us reflected this. “We cross by ferry. You will be safe so long as you stay where you are put. If you do not wish the indignity of being tied with the cattle then do as you are told.”
I knew from my father’s stories that the Mississippi could be traitorous and I was no fool. I was told where to sit by the ferrymaster and sit I did. Or at least I did until another ferry passing too close beside us from the opposite bank suddenly revealed itself to be a cleverly disguised pirate vessel.
When a man fell beside me and Docia was nicked by a ricochet I went cold as I sometimes did. Knowing it probably meant my life was forfeit as women in our town were forbidden weapons, I took the bow and quiver from the fallen man and then did what my father’s daughter was taught.
Every arrow I shot found its mark. Each time I thought I had shot my last arrow the quiver would magically refill. It wasn’t until the last pirate fell that I saw it was the injured young man and Docia who were refilling the quiver with arrows. I wasn’t sure what to think of that and was even less sure when a wide-eyed Docia whispered, “He says you’re nearly as good as his aunt … and she is Capt. Uhl’s wife.”
I didn’t like feeling any kind of connection to my new masters but what is done is done and I was nothing if not a realist. I handed the bow and quiver back to the young man and then silently started to help strip the pirates of anything useful before they were tossed onto a raft that was then towed to shore behind the ferry. The pirate vessel was also stripped but it had a huge gash in its side and was soon sinking so was abandoned to its fate. When we reached the dock the ferry operators were thankful enough that the pirates had been routed that they refunded the cost of passage for all persons and goods, a sum even I knew must have been handsomely sized.
At camp that night a noticeably dour Captain Uhl looked around at the wounded then addressed us all. “No loss of life but too many injuries. I would have paid twice the sum for passage if it would have avoided this.” His lips thinned then in what looked like pain as he glanced my way and I prepared myself for the worst.
Last edited by Kathy in FL; 01-30-2012 at 09:02 PM.
The Captain looked at me and then growled, “Don’t be insulting woman, I’m not going to beat you.”
I hadn’t said a word and had hoped my thoughts hadn’t shown on my face. Daphne, who had slowly regained her confidence due to the liberal application of male attention which seemed to give the Captain indigestion, managed to irritate him further when she said, “You should … and worse. She knows the penalty for a woman touching a weapon.”
It was Docia’s obvious fear and not my own that had me answering, “That rule is barely four summers old and was only made because the elders feared that their women would become as fierce as the Lakesider females … especially after the sickness halved the number of males in town, leaving us to easily outnumber them. It was a stupid rule and was made to keep us down. Your own mother was a fighter and died in battle defending your home.”
A muttered, “And see where it left me” were Daphne’s only words before she dropped her eyes from mine. I didn’t feel particularly powerful at her actions, more it reminded me that she was like she was for a reason and had had no more choice in most things than the rest of us. I made to move back into the shadows but I wasn’t allowed to.
The Captain looked at me consideringly and said, “You kept in practice.”
Knowing I was well and truly caught I gave up and shrugged. “A body that is expected to work has to eat and those of us in the crèche were sometimes … forgotten.”
A few of the girls, including Docia, nodded slowly. The Captain’s nephew muttered sotto voice, “Sounds like something that stingy piker would do. From the fat around his middle he didn’t miss too many meals though.”
I had learned to hide my emotions but it was a struggle not to laugh at what the Headman’s outraged expression would have been had he heard what was said and the other derogatory comments the Kiplings men made in agreement.
The Captain cleared his throat and all was silent again. Then addressing me directly, “Be that as it may … are you the only one that is trained?”
“Yes, Captain Uhl. Most of us are useful in a general way but I am the only one who was taught to kill humans if need be.” My bluntness momentarily flummoxed him but then he said in a harder voice, “Today wasn’t the first time.”
I’m still not sure why I answered him truthfully except he had the same steel gray eyes my father had … and that I had as well when I caught my reflection in a bit of still water. “The raiders that killed my family didn’t stay on this side of the veil for long.”
A boy who could have been no older than my own sixteen years said scornfully, “Liar. No twelve year old girl could have killed a band of warriors.”
“Raiders not warriors,” I snapped not liking his insult. “And age doesn’t matter when you’ve heard the screams of your Ma and baby brother as they were burned alive or seen your Da scalped just ‘cause two Headmen were thinking more with what’s in their buckskins than what God gave them inside their skulls.” Ignoring Daphne’s gasp of outrage I told Captain Uhl, “My father taught me the bow, the sling, and how to build traps for both man and beast. Life has taught me how to use a blade and an ax when need be.”
Docia was trying to shush me but stopped when the Captain asked, “Can you ride astride?”
Of course he meant on a horse but by the sniggers coming from a couple of the younger men I could imagine where their mind took the question. Ignoring them I answered, “I prefer mules to horses, I feel they’ve got more sense.”
Daphne muttered, “It’s not sense but kinship you feel.” I saw Captain Uhl’s lips just barely twitch beneath his bushy mustache and silently conceded that for once Daphne might be right.
The Captain beckoned me closer to the fire but as I walked forward my foot knocked against a saddle that was being used as a back rest by one of the men. I had to stop and catch my breath around the sudden and blinding pain. I opened my eyes to find the Captain forcing me to sit and asking, “Are you hurt girl? Why did you saying nothing?”
Docia had already run to my side understanding what had happened and the whole sordid tale came out. My refusal to work in the saloon “for the men’s pleasure.” The punishment in the stocks. The snowstorm. The frost bite. How I finally had to amputate my own toe when the Headman refused to allow anyone to help me. “Docia sewed me up – she’s good with a needle and awl – but we had to be careful the job wasn’t too good or the Headman would have put her in the stocks too. I wasn’t going to have that. Besides, it’s not so bad now; I just stubbed it. I won’t leave Docia so even if you dump me off for being gimp I’ll follow to make sure she gets settled properly.” I ended more belligerently than good sense dictated but I could feel Docia tremble beside me at the idea of us being separated.
The young man gently looking my foot over was the Captain’s nephew as well the group’s medic. “Uncle, she’ll be fine. It is likely diet and overwork that have slowed the healing. Father can confirm it when we reach the fort but he’ll tell you the same thing. Leave her go, she’s too much like Aunt Winnie; she’ll make noise if she thinks someone is fussing over it and only be more trouble.”
I jerked my foot away from him but it was Docia who made me blush with irritation when she smiled admiringly at the young man and whispered shyly, “That’s Fel alright. She’d rather die silent and in pain than live beholden.”
Capt. Uhl snorted and said, “Enough.” He wasn’t overly rough but everyone obeyed and knew it was time to be serious. “Girl … Fel is it? … you’ll take your turn filling out the ranks. You’ll be watched so get no ideas of running off. None of us can afford the wasted time it would take to hunt you down and haul you back. We are heading through an area known for highway men.” At my confused look he explained, “Consider them a variety of raider. Most of them just ne’er do well locals living out in the bush but capable of being extremely vicious and occasionally clever. They’ve usually got more sense than to attack a caravan this size, particularly from Kipling, but the year has been leaner pickings than usual for the forest dwellers here, and between our wounded and our goods they likely won’t be able to resist at least trying.”
Rubbing my nose and thinking I asked, “How do they usually attack? Head on or by stealth?”
He gave me another considering look like I had surprised him and he didn’t particularly appreciate it. “Each group – and there are several as they can rarely maintain a coalition for very long – has their own signature. The most common strategy is to pick off the wagon drivers then rush in to create as much shock and confusion as possible as they take control of the goods and run off into the woods with them.”
I gave it a thought or two and then let my tongue wag. Turning I said, “Daphne, you Luce and Mara stay to the middle of the wagon. You have your talents but fighting isn’t one of them. Hannah, arrange the strongest of us to protest the weaker. Docia, you and Nel had best ride in the wagon holding the wounded men and be prepared to take on more if we are attacked. None of you prattle and if you must speak then whisper. If God wills it they’ll give themselves away before they hit; if He doesn’t then take their eyes out if they get close enough. Blind men can’t aim worth a flip. If you can’t take their eyes, go for their gullet and spill their tripes.”
Turning to the Captain I said, “You want me to help you then don’t leave the rest of us helpless.” His face shuttered but I barreled on. I looked at Hannah and though she wasn’t happy about it she nodded her head in agreement and I said, “Any weapons we get we’ll turn back in. If you won’t give us weapons at least lend me a blade so I can cut spears without having to hunt up a sharp rock to use. We will not double cross you, it wouldn’t make sense. We are too far from home and familiar territory to be able to make sure we all escape and I for one won’t leave anyone behind.”
Several of the men gave me a hard look but a big bear of a man named Carter stepped up and said to the Captain, “Begging your pardon Cap’n it only makes sense. The gals will stay in the wagon sure, but there ain’t enough able bodied to be all over ‘em all the time. This way too they’s invested in keeping their own skin on. ‘Sides, they ain’t give us no trouble up to now. We’ve dealt fair with them and they’s done the same to us. I actially expected to be clawed and scratched to ribbons by now after the way them’s men of theirs talked.”
I snorted and said, “They aren’t our men.” A little quieter I added, “At least not anymore. If you really mean to make my friends wives and not saloon girls …”
The Nephew as I had started to call him in my head said, “See Uncle? I told you.”
Irritated and affronted in good measure the Captain said, “It’s to be brides as set in the bargain. We gave our word.”
It was Hannah, who eyed the man Carter in a way I’d never seen her look at a man before. She asked him, “Truly … brides?”
The man honestly blushed but smiled and said, “Truly Maid Hannah. It would be more than my skin – any man’s skin – was worth to go against the word and honor of Kipling.”
Captain Uhl snorted, “Enough of this. Let the women of Kipling handle this ridiculous situation. For now … for now … we have a bargain and you will get your spears. Woe to you – any of you – if you lie.”
I wanted to tell him to stop trying to be scary and go huff and puff somewhere else when I saw a few of the girls blanch in fear but knew that they needed the lesson that regardless of whether we’d been treated fair up to this point they were still just men and strange men at that and trusting them fully would be a mistake.
Contrary to his rough looks Carter acted more teddy bear than grizzly. It made me begin to wonder why these men from such a strong settlement were so eager to please women from so far away when they should have gotten women closer to home to swoon at their feet easily. Between Carter, myself and Hannah the spears were soon made. Hannah was the daughter of one of the town’s best Huntsmen … or had been until he had fallen in battle with a tomahawk in his back. I nearly wished a pox on our old Headman until I remembered knowing the randy old goat it would likely be spread to every man in the village once he spent some time at the saloon as was his practice.
Nerves kept me from sleep as soundly as I should have with a hard day ahead of me, and a good thing too. I was staring out to the edge of the camp when by the meager light of the setting moon I saw one of the guards get silently dog piled. I jumped up and gave the same sharp whistle I had heard the men give at the beginning of the battle with the pirates, then the brawl was on.
The spears had been distributed to those of the women that I knew wouldn’t hurt themselves with them. I was supposed to get a bow in the morning but it wasn’t even time for the cooks to be about yet. The only weapon I had close to hand was a piece of limb from a fallen tree branch. I swung it like a club, connecting with heads and other soft spots as I waded through men trying to get to where I had last seen Docia. Then I heard a scream off in the trees, much further into the trees than it should have been, and I knew the girls were being carried off. I vowed there would be no rape of the Sabine women on my watch.
As I fought I had gained ground and was near one of the campfires. I dropped my limb and pulled out one from the coals that was orange enough on one end that when I shook it a beautiful flame erupted. It gave just enough light that I could take off after my crèche sisters without having to stumble around in the dark.
The sun was starting to awaken from its slumber and brighten the clearing where we had made camp but a night as dark as pitch still ruled under the tree canopy. I was about ten yards in when I was grabbed the first time.
I hate my peaches being manhandled as it leaves you no dignity and it hurts something fierce; but the grungy highway robber was the first man I’d ever killed over it. I jabbed my torch in his face and he released me with a scream. I continued to rake the burning poker across his ear and his greasy hair and beard caught fire turning him into a human torch.
Right before the idiot started running in circles fanning the air and causing the flames to spread even more I reached in and stole the big pig sticker off of his belt and then skipped off after the sounds telling me that my sisters were putting up a good fight.
They’d caused so much trouble the human traffickers had been forced to stop in a small clearing and were smacking them around trying to subdue them so that they could continue to carry them off. Showed what they knew; we’d been knocked around enough that their fly slaps weren’t working as well as they’d expected. From out of the corner of my eye I barely had time to move to take the sting out of a fist coming my way.
With as much contempt as I could manage over a busted lip I asked, “Who taught you to fight you wuss? My old Gran hit harder with a broom and her bedridden and suffering from bent bones.”
An enraged bellow was followed by the man making a round house swing at me but in the process opening up his arm pit as a target for the long blade in my hand. As soon as I pulled it free blood gushed from what I knew would be a severed artery. The man would be dead in moments and was already falling shocked to his knees trying to stop the spurting flow. I turned from him and started stabbing kidneys and tripes, which was only determined by the side they had turned towards me.
And I wasn’t the only one. Hannah, with a reach to match her proud height, was using a spear to advantage until it got hung up in the ribs of one man. Another man was about to crush her when suddenly Carter came out of the brush bellowing like a bull and with one ham-sized fist nearly took the head off of her attacker.
I would have been satisfied with just rescuing my sisters but the Kipling men decided to obliterate the highwaymen from existence. The remainder of the battle was as bloody as the first part but was over much quicker as the highwaymen gave up in resignation. When all was said and done Captain Uhl had the corpses all strung up in a large tree so that any traveler would see and that word would get around that injured or not, you did not mess with any from Kipling.
The strange thing to me was that despite the brutal finality of the battle there was no gloating by the men of Kipling. By rights they could have. Most men in my experience would have. Instead these men simply gathered their wounded, patched everyone up both male and female, and headed on down the road quietly with not even one mocking jab at the inadequacy of their opponents.
My foot was sore and my face and knuckles bruised but the Captain still had me astride a mule with a stout bow in my hands and a quiver across my back. I watched the tree line and listened for out of place sounds beneath our own travel but would occasionally glance at Docia and Nel as they helped the Nephew tend to the wounded too injured to do anything but lay or sit in one of the wagons. The Captain rode at the head of the caravan. He looked at ease but I could see the tight lines of anger around his mouth and wondered if it was at the additional delay or the injuries caused to his men.
Carter, apparently thinking that our camaraderie over the spears and the battle made it easier to speak to me, approached and asked, “So’s … Maid Hannah …”
I rolled my eyes. “Just because I carry this bow doesn’t mean that I call Cupid my kin. If you want to know something about Hannah go ask her.”
“Welllll ….” The big man was actually embarrassed. In that moment I couldn’t have kicked the poor teddy bear had my life depended on it.
“Honestly, you Kipling men are so strange.”
He asked, “In what way Maid Fel?”
“Well that for one. Calling us all ‘Maid’ like we have some station to our place in this world. And for another … well, the lot of you act …” I had to stop as I didn’t even have the words for how strange they were. I snorted. “Let us just say that you act different from the men of our town and leave it at that.”
Looking honestly curious he asked, “And that’s bad?”
I shook my head. “No, not if this is truly real and not some play acting meant to fool us for some reason of your own. My crèche sisters might take a while to get used to it though.”
Keeping an eye on the road I said, “Not so much as they. My Da was strange in his own way too. He was a traveler that stopped and then decided to stay as he liked the look of my Ma; the taste of her cooking didn’t hurt either. He was more like your Captain only not so refined of speech. He …”
Even after four years the loss of my family felt like a dagger in my heart and I gave up trying to explain. Carter didn’t seem to be offended at our unfinished conversation … the big man didn’t seem to get offended by much at all. For all his size and ferocity in battle he seemed good natured and easy going.
The next to try their luck was a young buck by the name of Lem Hemmings asking after Daphne. “She’s … she’s …” I was forced to glance over and witness a moony look that had me looking away as fast as I could to keep from laughing.
“Hmmm, yes Daphne looks … hmmm …”
“She looks like a real lady. My mother warned me not to fall for some Outland girl with no manners. Maid Daphne … even my mother could not find fault with her.”
Oh Glory. “Best then to wait for you Ma to … er … have … er … have her say before you go any further. It would be good to show her how much … er … you respect her advice.”
I had to bite my lip to keep from saying something cheeky. It would suit me fine for Daphne to wind up with some namby pamby but I could not wish on her the mother in law from hell; she did not deserve that much pay back though I’ll admit a part of me was tempted.
It was like that off and on to the point I went from being embarrassed to finding it a little funny to beginning to be irritated … and perhaps a little jealous as none of the men approached me for me, only to find out a bit about my crèche sisters. Luckily I only had to endure a few more days of it before we approached a tall, concrete stockade with heavy gates.
Before we were within a hundred yards riders came out and there was a lot of back slapping and laughing. The way Nephew road up and was embraced by one of the men from the stockade, and by their similar look and build, I took the older man to be his Da or something close to it. The Captain had us push on and he seemed a bit anxious. The women were beginning to be anxious as well and I watched their confidence and curiosity begin to leave them, replaced by a subdued fear of the unknown.
Once inside the stockade I didn’t dare dismount but I did put the mule as close to the women’s wagon as I could.
Docia whispered fearfully, “What’s to become of us now Fel?”
I patted her shoulder to try and comfort her because I had no words that would do so. Nephew rode over with the man that had greeted him so joyfully and introduced him. “Father, these are the maids we brought back. All are in good health – or as good as can be expected under the circumstances – but a few do need for you to take a closer look at their wounds.” I could see the distrust writing itself upon my sisters’ faces and after a moment and a nudge from the older man, Nephew could as well.
He looked at me at a loss for how to proceed. If not for the building hysteria I saw in the eyes of a couple of the women I would have let him sink on his own. Putting aside my own discomfort I said, “Is this … your father perhaps?”
“Huh? Oh … oh yes. My wits have gone begging. Maids of … well …” He gave a small smile and said gently, “Maids of Kipling, may I present my father, the Chief Healer of our settlement.”
I asked, “And he’s a real healer and not just a saw bones?”
Nephew’s mouth fell open but the older man had picked up on what I was trying to do. He smiled and nodded. “Not a saw bones … we chase them out of the settlement every time they try and make their way here. But you needn’t worry about me; my wife is Head Midwife and will most likely prefer to see you first. For some it is less worrisome to see a healer of their own sex.”
Nephew’s ears turned rosey as he realized his mistake and rushed to say, “None of that happened on the way here Father. We took care of their honor. But I suppose Mother would still like to assure them they are safe now.”
My sisters relaxed but only slightly; it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. Unfortunately, after the two men returned to the Captain’s side, that feeling of safety didn’t last for long as we all noticed how many men were crowding into the area and how some stared hungrily at us.
Unknown to me why I had come to trust Captain Uhl my eyes sought him. It was with no small shock that I witnessed him embracing a woman … a very pregnant woman. It was at that moment that a man grabbed my leg and without meaning to I called out, “Captain Uhl?!”
I didn’t like the sound of panic in my voice. I liked even less the effect it had on my crèche sisters but there were too many men and they seemed to surround us. Realizing just how vulnerable we now were, my mind began to spin. At least at home I would have known what to expect and I would have known which man to be the most dangerous or devious. With so many unknown males fanning out I felt like a lamb in the middle of a jackal pack.
“Enough! Let me through I say!!”
It wasn’t Captain Uhl’s voice cracking like thunder but that of an older woman that wasn’t afraid to use the cane she leaned on to make her point and move someone along a little faster. Captain Uhl himself wasn’t far behind her and what her cane didn’t move, his presence did.
When she was near she said, “You there, girl …” I saw Captain Uhl lean down and tell her something. “You girl … Fel is your name. Drive this wagon forward between the posts of that fence over yon.” And turning to glare at all the males in sight she said, “If I catch one uninvited past that gate, regardless of family I’ll drop you from the lists. Have I made myself understood?”
Whatever that meant seemed to work on them better than even a painful crack in the shin with her cane had done.
I tried to control my shakes as I climbed from the mule to the wagon seat and do as she ordered. It was easy enough to go forward once the men had moved out of the way and I relaxed just enough not to spook the team of horses I was trying to drive. As soon as the back of the wagon passed through the posts a large gate swung shut and then was barred by two boys who were summarily told to help us get down, to take the cattle and wagon, and then to scram or the old woman would know why not.
It was only a matter of minutes before the boys were hurrying off with the wagon and my crèche sisters and I were left standing with what belongings we had. The old woman glowered and then sniffed. As a capable looking woman came into the space we occupied the old woman said, “Mona, these are the lot of them and sorry enough they look.”
“Mother!” the woman reprimanded but not with any real anger. She looked us over and I saw kindness in her eyes, real enough even if some of it was faked. “My son has said your lives before Kipling was not easy.” She stopped as if trying to pick her words carefully. “I cannot promise you a life of ease here either, but you have the chance at a different life than the one you left. Certainly one bereft of … hmmm … saloons and rules against protecting yourselves and your homes if attacked. But first I would like to get to know each of you and perhaps you will let me tend to any injuries my son was unable to whilst on the road.”
Finding my voice I said, “You are Nephew’s mother, the wife of the Chief Healer of Kipling.”
A little confused before figuring out who I meant she smiled, “My son is named Robbie after his uncle. Did he not introduce himself?”
I shrugged, “Everyone called him Uhl but then there was Captain Uhl. It was easier in my mind to name him what he was … the Captain’s nephew … or just Nephew.”
Still smiling like a picture I had once seen in a book the woman said kindly, “I see. Yes, Robbie is my son and my husband is the Chief Healer. And I do what I can to make sure all the midwives in Kipling territory have what they need to do the job right.”
Still not ready to relax I asked, “My crèche sisters were told they would be wives.”
“And that is important to them? You?”
I shrugged, “It is better than being a whore. As a wife there is usually a family, or the chance to make one, and it’s a safer life.”
Her smile faltered momentarily then she sighed. “I had hoped to put you more at ease before your new life was dumped in your lap but it appears that perhaps it is best gotten out of the way first.”
I immediately tensed, sensing that at least a few facts had been left out on purpose and they had to do with why the Kipling men searched so far afield for women.
“I know this must all be overwhelming to you but we really do mean you no harm.” I moved slightly in front of Docia and Hannah in front of her little sister Nel. The other women bunched up in their own groups and it is wasn’t missed by the Midwife or her mother … or the few other older women that stood not too far off. “Please, sit and give us a chance to explain before you judge us.”
Hannah and I looked at each other and we knew that as nicely as it was phrased by the beautiful lady that in reality we had no choice. It might have sounded like a request but it was really an order.
After we had all arranged ourselves on the stools and benches that had been placed for us to use the Midwife said, “My name is Mona … Mona Uhl. My husband is the brother of Captain Uhl that brought you here and as I said, my only child is Robbie Uhl who cared for your injuries on the road. I see at least one or two of you have wondered why a large, thriving settlement like Kipling would go to such lengths to bring women in to what should be a healthy population.” At my nod she said, “And you would be right, it is passing strange that we have been forced to these lengths. But I assure you it isn’t because of death or disease or abuse or anything of that nature … or at least not for Kipling. Our practices have been clean and careful since the Dark Days. Unfortunately we cannot say the same for the territories on our other sides. Warring and natural disasters kept their practices hidden or without consequences until the last few years. There is now a horrible imbalance and the number of males far outnumbers the females in the lands around us.”
It was Hannah and not I that asked, “Was it disease that carried their women off?”
Surprisingly it was Daphne who had the answer, “They were baby killers. Girl children were destroyed so that families wouldn’t have to support them and take the food and resources away from the boy babies.”
We looked in shock as Mona confirmed it but she asked sharply, “Who told you? Did one of the men …”
Daphne was quick to say, “No. My uncle was the Headman of our town. He had heard stories and rumors. He thought to get one of the peddlars to broker a deal with those groups for a good price to provide women but no peddler ever came, only the men from Kipling. He was angry thinking that you would be selling us off at a good profit on top of the high price the town had to pay for grain and mead.”
I tensed but Mona snorted in anger. “As if I would see any female delivered into the hands of those … those … Never, not even over my dead body. Those beasts have nearly ruined us all.”
Docia asked, “How Lady Mona?”
The title startled her enough that she was able to regain control. “I’m no lady child. Mona is good enough. And the how takes … takes some explaining. Any population can only stay healthy as long as there is sufficient diversity. Kipling had been bringing brides in from these other groups since the Dark Days. As a result birthrates were relatively stable in Kipling and any instability in the other populations was put down to poor diet, their constant warring, lack of ethnic diversity, and many other factors … except the unexpected reality. Then a dozen years ago they became less welcoming to the idea of Kipling men coming into their territories. They claimed we were stealing their women but we both knew that wasn’t true. They tried to steal ours and it was eventually discovered what was happening. Our healers were outraged … as much at the practice as at their stupidity. Their leaders tried to stop the practice of infanticide but it was ingrained by generations and culture and could not be eradicated. Then ten years ago a plague came from the south. It was mild for adults but for children it was devastating. All our peoples lost so many.”
She paused and I could see the grief of a mother on her face. Robbie was likely not her only child … he was her only living child. “As bad as it was for Kipling it was worse for the genetically undiverse populations around us.”
I found my voice and asked, “Were all the girl children killed?”
“No, not all but too many … far too many. Kipling for whatever reason has a high percentage of males born each year in our families … more brothers than sisters are born. We always balanced that out by being able to find brides for our sons amongst our neighbors. For the last five years though … the gap has been unable to be closed. Now fewer than a third of our men of reproductive years has a wife to share those years with. Social unrest is imminent and will weaken Kipling and make us vulnerable to attack by our neighbors who become more desperate with each passing season. Some of our young men have chosen to emigrate and go adventuring as they call it, being unwilling or unable to settle down. That has taken some pressure off but not enough. Some have even gone and come back with wives they’ve found for themselves. Again this is only a stop gap measure.”
Seeing it I said, “Somehow you made sure you were the only ones that would trade with our town. You made sure they were in a position that they were forced to give in to your demands. But how did you make the crops fail?”
Quickly she shook her head, “The crop failures were real as were the plague and the war. None of those were of our making … but we did shall we say … take advantage of what was providentially provided.”
I wanted to tell her that God had no hand in such workings but since I couldn’t absolutely know that I felt safer keeping the words behind my teeth. God worked in mysterious ways according to the Book and He could also seem ruthless … but I was no Padre and the one that had been brave enough to continue to visit our town despite the Headman’s threats had died in the plague. I decided I would have to think long and hard before I would dare call such events providential regardless of whether they were or not.
Seeking another piece of the puzzle I asked, “So you mean to match us up in some kind of lottery? Is that the list your mother spoke of?”
Quietly but firmly Mona said, “Not a lottery, not exactly. For Kipling to survive our families must be able to thrive. For our families to thrive there must eventually be enough of them so that we no longer are dependent on other territories for the bulk of our women. That means that all the families must thrive.”
“That diversity you keep talking about.”
Nodding she said, “That’s correct. Some of our families are doing better than others at this time. Our leaders are doing their best to see that no family dies out. The list is of men who are ready and able to be responsible husbands and fathers from each clan or family within Kipling. Fourteen of you will be brides to men on this list.”
Nel, still trying to catch up and slightly confused said, “But there are fifteen of us.”
“One has already been spoken for but rest of assured she will be just as well taken care of and will be a wife … not a … um …”
Having a feeling I was the fifteenth I said laconically, “The word you are looking for is whore.”
Slightly annoyed and embarrassed Mona gave a small nod. “I wish to …”
I was slightly annoyed myself but mostly at myself for having forgotten what I had already learned … that I was slated to be a “Second Wife” whatever that meant. But I didn’t let my annoyance – and bitterness – get in the way of keeping my promise that I would protect Docia and see her properly settled. I interrupted Mona by saying, “What I wish is to know how you mean to match up my sisters with these … men … on your lovely list.”
A rusty sounding laugh came from behind us. I turned to see the pregnant woman I thought to be Captain Uhl’s wife. Looking at Mona she said, “She has you there Sister.”
Obviously uncomfortable Mona tried to take control of the conversation back but I asked another question first. “Will you do it by looks? By talents? Did the men pay a fee for the right to have a bride? Where any of the men on the expedition to get us on that list because I can tell you that some of them already have preferences.”
“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Mona snapped.
“And children don’t think they will get belly aches from little green apples either but they do.”
The Captain’s wife snickered again and came to look me over. “I hear you are good with a bow … and a few other things as well.”
I nodded, not sure of her game or just how deep it ran. “Good.” Giving me an appraising look she asked, “How would you determine which man got which bride?”
“You mean if I thought this lunatic scheme would actually work?” At her nod I gave it some thought. “First off I would want to know if any of the women had any particular talent that could be matched up with the men’s family. It would be silly to landlock a fisherman’s daughter into a miserable marriage to a baker. Sillier still to expect the blacksmith’s daughter to want to sit around tatting lace all day with a family of tailors.”
“Second, the men must be someone the women can stomach as well. Can you see Hannah there with some little squirt who prefers counting the Headman’s gold rather than working out of doors with his hands? Or Daphne there trying accept in her bed a herdsman that neither knows nor cares anything about manners and socializing?”
Nodding the woman asked, “Anything else?”
Shrugging I said, “A girl with no dower will not be welcome in a family that expects one regardless of what talents she may have. If you wish a productive marriage to occur, you can’t expect a girl to be harangued by a mother in law or aunties who treat her as a slave because she has added no value to their family coffers.”
Mona said, “Do not speak so roughly about our people. They are not so … so barbaric as the Outlanders are.”
I snorted, “Barbaric? Baby killing went on for generations beneath the noses of your own midwives. You seek to take advantage of downtrodden people so that your own might survive. You are willing to purchase women for the men unable or unwilling to seek out their own because it would mean cutting the apron strings that tie them here. Barbaric? Outlanders? I suggest you take a look in your mirror. I don’t blame you for the desperation you find yourselves in, but call it what it is and don’t try and dress it up. That’s like putting a silk dress on a pig … it is silly and without purpose.”
The pregnant woman barked another laugh and I remembered Robbie had called her Aunt Winnie. “Oh, I like you girl. No wonder you made the Captain uncomfortable. He could see what he was doing through your eyes.” She sighed and shook her head. “Be that as it may, the dye is cast. All any of us can do is make the best of it. There will be a feeding frenzy if we don’t stick to the agreed upon plan. You saw how it was out there.”
I clenched my jaw in anger. “Yes, I saw. Why on earth didn’t you pick a neutral place to bring a man and woman together without the rest of the settlement looking on. Of course they’ll be jealousies if what you’ve said is true. It would have been safer. At least if they take an instant dislike to each other because the match was poor no one has to be embarrassed to death.”
I saw Mona blanch. Winnie said, “It was suggested.” And the way she said it I suspected she was the one that had done the suggesting and been ignored.
I shook my head. “No doubt you expected us to be ever so grateful of your rescue. But I have to tell you all you’ve done is exchange one prison we were in for another. We had no choice. We were never offered any choice. The least you could do is give my sisters some say in what man they get tied to.”
Suddenly Daphne started crying and saying, “I want to be with Lem … he’s cultured and refined … like a real man should be. Don’t make me go to one of those others. Please.”
A little irritated at the drama queen I opened my mouth to tell her to knock it off before she ruined it for everyone else when one of the older women from the sidelines rushed forward and put her arms around Daphne and said, “There, there. It’s plain as day you’ve fallen for my Lem and who could blame you. There, there now. So few truly see his worth and certainly none so quickly as you have.” Looking at Mona she said, “Mona, I demand this young woman be allowed to be my daughter in law. She’s simply too lovely to go to any of those others on that list. I won’t have it. They’ll … they’ll … Well it is too horrid for words.”
I shut my mouth and had to look away before I made a muck of it. Trust Daphne to land on her feet. Mona, shocked and unaware of the tricks Daphne could get up to stuttered, “You’ve … er … really … er … formed an … an … er … attachment for Lem so quickly?” Rather incredulously she asked, “Are you sure we are speaking of Lem?”
The mother dragon said, “Of course we are talking about my Lem. Who else would we be talking about?!”
Mona just cleared her throat and changed the subject. “Have any of you others formed … ummm … attachments?”
Hannah surprised me by saying boldly, “Carter.”
A wizened old woman stepped forward, she was bent with age but still seemed capable and looked Hannah up and down. “Well … you seem a likely girl. You’re certainly big enough he won’t break you should he get to horsing around. He’s brother is going to be disappointed though, he was hoping for a bride this time.”
Hannah all but hefted Nel up and said, “This is my sister. We could come as a pair.”
Mona started to say something but then looked at her list and admitted, “Both of your sons are indeed on this list Marjorie.”
Marjorie slapped her thigh and said, “Then it’s settled. Sisters for brothers. Like as not it will make it easier on the whole lot of you.”
There were a few others that had already made their choices and then the rest of them were paired off with the most likely partners. The number of women were dwindling and with each name Docia squeezed my hand tighter and tighter. Finally I had to sit and put my arm around her but even that was not enough and she started to fold upon herself.
I whispered urgently, “Docia, say something.”
“I can’t. She’s his mother,” was her miserable reply.
I shook my head and then looked up for some wisdom and courage to save my crèche sister from herself. I pulled her forward with me and Mona stopped, startled as I asked to see the list. “Why?”
Ignoring her I looked at the list and sure enough Robbie’s name was on it. I shook my head in irritation. “Look Mona, you may not like me and that’s fine, but don’t punish Docia and keep her in suspense. Your son is the only man I’ve ever seen my sister even able to speak to without squeaking and he looked like he was pleased with her company as well. She has sewn more than a few people up and leaves barely a scar. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at her she’s not the least bit squeamish and she knows a thing or three about what herbs to use when there’s no healer around.”
Mona got a blank look on her face and then consideringly looked at Docia. “Is this true?”
Finally Docia looked up, “He’s just like Prince Charming in that book Fel used to read us.”
Ugh. She would bring that up. I thought life would have taught her that no man was a prince but for some reason Docia always kept that little flicker of hope alive. And by God, I was going to see that she had her chance if it was the last thing I did.
But surprisingly Mona just smiled and said, “I thought the same thing when I first met his father.”
And then it was over with. Except for me. It was Docia’s shocked face that warned me that she had noticed. “But … but …”
I hugged her and said bracingly. “Didn’t you hear what Mona said in the beginning? There’s not the first thing to worry about. Do I look worried? All I care about is that you’re fixed up. Now go … I’ll let you know how it goes. Besides you’ll have Nephew … I mean Robbie … to look after you. No need to be scared. He doesn’t seem like the hitting type.”
I watched them all as they were led away by their new families leaving me behind. It was then that Winnie said, “Liar. You hate this. I can see it even if no one else does. Were I in your shoes I’d be cursing the unfairness.”
I turned to look at her and sneered, “Fairness is for children’s games. Life … you’re born, you live, then you die. If you’re lucky there are a few good memories in there to take with you to the grave and beyond. If you don’t …” I shrugged. “That’s life too.”
She crossed her arms above her large belly then sighed. “I wish it wasn’t like this. I like you too much.”
“So is it you that I’m to play underwife to?”
I had surprised her and she started laughing so hard she had to sit down. Finally she caught her breath and said, “I dare not tell the Captain what you just said. Likely he’d dig a hole and try and pull it in after him.” She hiccupped a few more laughs and then added, “No, the Captain hates every bit of this business. He thinks the men should take care of their own business and if they can’t they have no business being wed to begin with.”
“Then … then who?”
“My nephew and his wife.”
She shook her head. “No, my other nephew. My other sister’s son. But we have to do this quietly as there will be some grumbling.”
“I go no where until I get at least a bit of explanation of what I’m being forced into. I may have helped ease the way for my sisters but I’m not fool enough to really believe there was ever any choice in this matter.”
She looked at me hard and then said, “It is a shame. You would have been so much better married off to a man who could …”
“Are you saying there is something wrong with your nephew?”
She shook her head then sighed. “No. Come and let us sit down. Better you hear the unvarnished truth from me rather than trying to piece it together with bits and pieces from everyone else I suspect will try and take a hand in how things work out.”
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