Blue Roses 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 bed.

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 purpose.

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. Again.

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.