Rini sat alone in her room, on her standard low quality, high cost dorm
bed; and looked at the package in her hands. It was long and light, wrapped
in blue paper covered with maniacally smiling snowmen. "Open the box
first," Aidan had ordered her when he'd given it to her. And she would
obey. Rini always listened to what people told her. Especially if it might
prove interesting. Curious, she put aside the white envelope decorated only
with her name in large round capital letters crowding out tiny lowercase
ones. She turned her attention back to the box. With near surgical
precision she tried to peel away the wrapping. Then tried a little less
gently. The colorful paper was teasing her; she simply couldn't remove it.
A moment's pause and she realized that the paper had been taped to the box
itself. A triumphant rip and it was off. A cardboard jewelry box with a
shiny gold cover lay underneath. She opened it, and a childish squeal of
glee resembling a giggle escaped her throat.
Inside the box was a choker of metallic blue roses on a gunmetal
base. And matching earrings. Rini grinned foolishly. She hadn't thought
Aidan noticed her taste in unusual jewelry. Guys usually didn't. She turned
to the mysterious card. Why was it so important she open that afterwards?
Seemed backwards to her. She opened the white envelope. The card was quite
normal, a sort of old fashioned color drawing of a spray of pine tied
together with a bow and bells. Early 60's Christmasy. It reminded Rini of
the old cards her mother had shown her. From her mother's childhood. Sweet,
and a bit sentimental, with slightly odd colors. Opening it with some
trepidation, she read the card. Aidan had written a short story for her.
"Many centuries ago in Scotland." Rini laughed again. The story, once
deciphered from Aidan's cramped scrawl, told the story of a great bard and
warrior who had won a necklace in a challenge. Its rarity made it fit to be
worn only by a deserving maiden. He presented it to his wife, a woman of
"queenly stature" and a warrior in her own right. A lady who could beat any
man but her husband in single combat. She had received it gladly and swore
to wear it always. The necklace was to find its way back to the lady,
lifetime after lifetime. Rini closed the card and smiled fondly. Aidan had
perhaps underestimated her fighting abilities, or else overestimated his
own. She glanced at the kendo sticks leaning against her wall and smirked.
While relatively new at the sport, Rini could already beat Aidan fairly
reliably when they practiced. But he had imagined a more romantic world
than Rini ever would have given him credit for, so she decided to forgive
him his touch of masculine pride. She left the card on her desk. One
unexpected, very late holiday gift had given her more smiles in a day than
she could remember wearing all week.
The smiles vanished when she beheld the stack of homework piled on
her desk. Book after book of primary sources. Rini was trapped in the
transitory period-the early dark ages, reading the 'Venomous' Bede. More
properly the Venerable, but bah, it was boring. A few hours of struggling
through his writings and it was time to go to sleep, her literature
readings could wait. She put on music, to help her relax, and crashed into
She was standing rather formally in the dusty sunlight, cloistered in heavy
robes. It felt natural. She glanced to her toes, they were hidden under a
dark red gown which flowed to a rush covered floor.
She was saying goodbye to someone. A man in chain mail and padded leather
jerkin. He swung onto a chestnut war-horse with ease, despite his heavy
armor and weaponry. She sadly touched the necklace about her throat; he had
won it for her not long ago, and was already leaving again. In the dark
times of civil war no man could afford the leisure of staying safely in his
manor for long. In giving a parting gesture she saw her arms were also
draped in a wine color, with oddly cut sleeves that fell to her knees.
Horses and men rode away. She was outside, dazed, her ladies knew to leave
her alone. She felt a slight weight resting against her left hip. Her hand
brushed down and her fingers grazed the hilt of a dagger. A troubadour's
song and battle drums echoed in her ears. "Maces and swords and painted
helms, the useless shields cut through, we shall see as the fighting
starts, and many vassals together striking, and wandering wildly, the
unreined horses of the wounded and dead. And once entered into battle let
every man proud of his birth think only of breaking arms and heads, for a
man is worth more dead than alive and beaten."[i]
On an impulse she drew the dagger and studied it intently; with a flash of
light its polished surface reflected back a pale face framed in disheveled
red hair. For a moment she saw a battle behind her. Swords, morningstars
and armored figures shimmering in the sun.
She knew that was her world. Not this stone keep-she belonged here no
more than she did in a nunnery.
The lady stood perfectly still, holding the dagger before her like a
shard of looking glass. She appeared frozen, but fought her own inner
battle valiantly. Of their own accord tears burned in her eyes, but she was
determined not to cry, and struggled to keep them back. It took all her
effort, her arms pulled tightly across her chest in a physical effort to
hold her emotion in. She had no more strength to move.
When the day grew old and fell into dusk she was led away by a
servant. Through the days she maintained a sort of frigid dignity, sharp
and fragile as ice. She hardly spoke, and when she did it was quietly,
always with a question in her voice. Her ladies tried to distract her with
needlework, a tapestry illustrating her husband's great deeds. The cream
background looked too clean, too stark for war. It wasn't right. She knew
it should be darker, dirtier. She half heartedly expressed a wish to
include her own exploits. The ladies drew back in shock and shook their
bowed heads. Delighted as they were to hear her voice approach its normal
timbre, the ladies insisted it would not be proper to boast of such things.
A woman fighting? It was very strange. Inappropriate. And what would the
clergy think? Their lord had magnanimously overlooked that strange interest
when he took her as a wife. She had to understand her proper place. The
lady shook her head, knowing they were wrong. The lord loved all of her,
and fighting was a part of her. There was no other reason he would have
taken so unorthodox a wife. But she was alone now. He had gone where he
belonged and left her at home. As a blacksmith might a leftover piece of
metal. She was not in a mood to argue with anyone, and to unleash her
frustrations on others would not be fair. So she bit her lower lip until
the taste of metal and salt touched her tongue, felt the necklace she wore,
and kept silent.
To the servants' consternation, the lady's once nimble fingers were no
longer able to fly across the cloth. She had trouble threading the large
eyed needle, and then stabbed her fingers bloody when attempting the
simplest of stitches. They assumed it was too complicated for her
distracted state of mind, and tried to take the material away. She
resisted, keeping at her work with grim determination and waiting for news
of her lord and the battle. Waiting did not suit her.
Rumors flew abroad like birds of ill omen. Smoke became visible in the
distance, and stories about burnt homes and farms abounded. A group of
armed men in unfamiliar tabards had stolen animals and goods, then
destroyed what they could not take. As the social hierarchy had decayed,
men began to strike out on their own once out of their lord's sight. They
enjoyed and abused their rare sense of freedom. Roving bands of soldiers
looking to supplement their wages prowled the land, as did the grasping
vassals looking to expand their territories. Chivalry was nothing but a
legend created to make pretty songs. Knights did not defend the helpless,
nor respect the honor of noble ladies. Women and their households were the
greatest targets of violence while their protectors were far away.
Something of the danger in the crisp air awoke the manor's lady. She no
longer wandered as a sleepwalker through life, but again strode with
Preparations were made for a fight or a siege. Servants came within the
walls, bringing animals and foodstuffs with them. Arms that had been left
behind to gather dust were quickly sought out and repaired. All of the
soldiers had gone to battle with their lord, so all the men physically
capable of fighting readied themselves. Only two elderly servants were
exempt. The lady placed hunters, many no more than boys, by strategic slits
in the stone walls to protect its corners and vulnerable portions. She
seemed to be everywhere at once, always organizing, always commanding. And
everyone listened. She was their lady, and had the right to demand anything
of her people. It did not occur to them to question her.
As expected, the rogue soldiers came, a pack of wolves on the scent of
blood. They attacked. Eagerly at first, energetic while the rush that
violence brought was upon them. But they grew slack quickly, men tired and
hungry, not expecting real resistance. Close to the walls, and poised to
break through the portcullis, they met with a hail of arrows. Those aiming
were more used to silently stalking deer than another person, but the sheer
volume of arrows significantly damaged the fighters. The attackers recoiled
like a thoughtlessly kicked cur before trying again. And being rebuffed.
Not having expected a challenge, and without the patience or equipment to
lay a proper siege, the wild soldiers and their lordless leader moved on,
short a few members. They wanted profit, and none was to be had by working
too hard to take a small manor. Larger, less protected, castles could
easily be found.
The enemy gone, the lady surveyed her household, her domain, contentedly.
Tasting battle again suited her, and she would be able to await her lord's
return with patience. She no longer envied him his chance for adventure.
She had found it at home.
Almost as her alarm clock went off, Rini woke. It had been an odd night.
She so rarely remembered her dreams; she normally just woke up feeling
panicky without knowing why. Most nights it seemed as if she had been
though some horrible adventure and awoke totally drained of energy. Like
the drop at the end of an adrenaline rush. But she felt rested that
morning. Having been plagued with insomnia and nightmares for so long, it
was an unexpected pleasure. Rini rolled out of bed and got ready for class.
Before rushing out the door that morning in slightly less disarray than
usual, Rini put on the blue rose choker. She glanced briefly into the
mirror and smiled.
[i] This is by Bertran de Born, a troubadour in 12th century Provence. It
is from Meg Bogin's book The Women Troubadours.