He was counting the Ehue “One to be happy, two to be sad, three to be good and four to be bad.” There were four, he sighed. The fates were against him.
The man was taller than average, but not taller than his fellows in their armour. He stood a little aside from the others, leaning against a tree. His breastplate wore the green crest, embedded into the metal, as was his right. This right could not be taken from him, whatever he had done. It was a double-edged sword, for he had the right, and the duty to advertise his membership without his involvement. He was strongly built, but not exceptional for a knight. His hair was long, perhaps a little ill-kempt; the blond waves could have benefited from brushing by an acolyte; but those small luxuries were beyond him now.
He had trained over half of his twenty seven years to be a member of the guard. Some children were selected, some selected themselves. From ten he had decided to become one of the elite guards.
The others were gathering, and being feted by the populace. They were going to fight the infidel, the invading unbelievers. How could they stand against the Green Guard when God was on their side? A fact confirmed by each successful battle, of course.
Kran the woman killer, that was what the children cried, as long as they were far enough away not to be caught. One, entirely understandable, mistake and he was lost to the world for which he had trained for so many years.
The laws of chivalry were unremitting on this. You do not kill women, you do not even strike women. When they had been attacked by the screaming banshees in the Valley of Witches, he had simply stood, like the others, and let them hit him over and over. He would not return their blows. Those monsters were dispatched by lesser men, men who were deemed not to have, and not expected to have, honour. The ostlers and squires of lower rank had advanced with spears and impaled one after another of those devilish women. All the guards had done was watch, and watch for men coming to defend their wise women from this invasion of civilisation.
Even an accidental killing was not allowed. He was expelled from the order, but he kept the armour, as of right. He could no longer defend his kingdom, his king. He was a non-person. The more so because he had no other trade. Even a shoe-maker, the lowest of the guilds, if he was made outlaw, could ply his trade to the outlaws, they all needed shoes; until they were executed. But a guard was bound by his oath of fealty. He could not fight for the King, but neither could he fight against him. His oath was not rescinded by his expulsion, his oath was personal, he had promised to be loyal to the monarch. In two hundred years, no-one had broken that oath, though he was not the first to be expelled.
He returned to training a band of new recruits. They would catch on, in time. He had shouted at them, reduced one or two to tears. It was part of the toughening up process. In that, he had noticed one or two with potential. Now he was teaching them about the armour. The breast plate, the helmet, the - “Why is there no back plate?” asked a voice, a thin, weedy looking, sixteen year old stood looking at him, finding himself unaccountably alone as the others subtly moved back. They waited for the explosion. The boy had an intelligent face, it was a good question, actually.
“If you have a back plate, you are protected when you run away. If you have protection only on the front, you stand and fight.” That was the thinking of the military geniuses, anyway. “Yes, I know it’s fucking crap, so don’t say it! Green Guards don’t run, you know that. They expect Blues to be as dedicated, which, of course, they aren’t. And if you all stand and get cut down, who forms the army next time? But it is what it is.” The boy looked at him, then nodded. Yes, this boy had potential. He was already weighing when to fight and when to concede; he knew that the trainer could not change decades of theoretical war tactics. No point in challenging him then.
“That really is a load of balls.” said a female voice behind him.
“Ah, Lady Karmina. Not the kind of language I’d expect from you. Stop tittering like a schoolgirl, you!” he scowled his best scowl at the class. Actually it was exactly what he was learning to expect from this unusual girl-woman. She kept badgering him to teach her to fight. He’d told her that women don’t fight. She’d said that she’d not be some “standup fuck for anything”. He’d assured her than the army would protect her honour, and she’d replied that she’d like to do that herself. She said “I’d sooner die than be gang-raped, I think I have the right to defend myself and die fighting than stand, helpless while some smelly, bearded gahook fucks me.” A gahook was an insult somewhat worse than nonnbad; it described a particularly ill-used, fetid and leaking part of the internal male anatomy. Kran had never used the word himself, let alone heard it from a lady!
He watched as she walked away. He was weakening, he knew it, and he suspected she did too. “You look pensive.” said Bracon as he walked past. Kran was nonplussed. “Thoughtful.”
“I was thinking.”
“Yes, that’s what I said. A groat for the thought, a doulit for nought”
“I don’t know what’s happening to the world. I don’t understand it any more.”
“You never did, you only thought you did. Like so many people, what you see now, you assume to be what is. You give it a story that fits the facts you know, and you think you have solve the philosophy of life.
The world is always changing. Mostly in small steps. When I was young, it was normal to give away the womenfolk as rewards. A man might give a friend the use of his wife for a night. Or he might thank the carpenter by giving him his daughter for half an hour – a man had to be quick in those days. Then along came Ironkian the Moral, now know as Ironkian the Good, he refused his beautiful wife to his king, who was understandably miffed and put them both naked in the stocks, thinking that passing men would take advantage of the proffered buttocks of wife, and possibly husband too. But no, Ironkian had chosen his moment well. In the morning, the nakedness had been covered by blankets, and the couple were untouched. Some stories say that a man did try his luck but he was struck down by lightening. Clearly that doesn’t work if he was fucking the woman, she’d have died too.”
“Are monks allowed to say rude words?”
“Shut up and listen, you might learn something. Anyway, even more amazingly, King Graxos had suffered a bad night. Nothing to do with the lark’s liver omelette he had eaten before retiring, he had bad dreams and woke a new and better king. Ironkian became his advisor, female-erosophy was outlawed and we switched to treating women like they were bone china. Which is almost as bad really.
The point is, what you thought was static, wasn’t. Things change.”
“Teach the girl to fight, let her defend herself if she wants. She’ll probably still be raped if the enemy get this far, but at least she’ll know she tried to stop it.”
The monk walked on, smiling. He knew that if the enemy did get there, the lives of monks was generally long and very painful. He was at peace with the world and that thought, as only a truly good man could be.
Gregor the Bad was the first to be expelled. He had taken many maidens against their will, but that was merely bad form. He was expelled, so the record said, for gross discourtesy to the King. In the Guards’ drinking halls, the oral history, handed down from generation to generation, was that he had called King Hamblin a ‘boy fucker’. This was in fact an accurate description of the King, but not something to voice abroad. Gregor the Bad retired to his castle, disgraced; not a few passing maidens were despoiled at his hands; but the epithet The Bad was solely for his insult to the King.
Maximillian Tyrranus Arcturus Magna, to give his full name, was expelled for failing to defend the King. Since he was the king at the time, the case brought against him was more important than simply cowardice. He had run from the battle. The lawyers enjoyed the convoluted arguments, they argued whether, as king, he could be expelled for failing to defend himself. One lawyer for the defence suggested that, in accompanying the king in retreat, he was, in fact, defending the person of the monarch better than those who stayed. The case went on for weeks. But even that was an affront to honour, an honourable man would have walked away, not contested the law with convoluted, complicated and ingenious arguments. Of course, the king might have just short circuited the whole thing by passing a law saying the king could not be a coward or could not be expelled. It didn’t really make sense to the knights, who had seen their king, their leader, run away. The case resolved itself comfortably when the King was assassinated by Abaysid killers. He was retrospectively expelled, but he was dead anyway, so he didn’t get upset or insulted at the result. His daughter did, she made sure the Green Guard were in the thick of any battle. Most of the old hands were killed off that way.
Since then, for ninety years, the Green Guards had formed the battle-hardened core of the army, they had defended the country, and the ruler, against all-comers. Their rules were strict, unbending, and easy to understand. Defend the King, defend the country, do not kill women (though that last had apparently come later). There were a few (209 in fact) other rules, but they were all minor transgressions rather than the three golden rules – not eating meat on a Monday before sunset, the usual kind of thing.
Kran had been in the thick of the battle when a lithe warrior in golden helm swung the Griss sword at him. They had fought, it was no easy defeat, the enemy warrior was skilled and dangerous, especially in the parry counter attack. But at last the fighter made a mistake, and Kran was able to swing his blade into the side of the helmet and remove the top of the enemy’s head. The battle continued. When, at the end, the scavengers descended, they reported on a woman with half a head in a golden helmet. Kran could have stayed silent, there was no-one to report on him; even if anyone saw, Green Guards do not betray each other. But Kran had scruples and honour; knowing the consequences, he stood and confessed his ‘crime’. Far worse than rape, not quite as bad as deserting the king, the crime of killing a woman – by his own confession – resulted in instant dismissal. One or two of his erstwhile comrades saw the irony in his honour insisting on him owning the crime that was deemed his dishonour.
He swallowed his pride and took a post training the Blues, but he never again had the camaraderie of the Green Guard house. There was no remission, no time-served, no forgiveness. No Green Guard would look at him now, he was persona non grata to them. To speak to him was to disgrace themselves; not that that was written down in the 209 rules, but it was understood. Kran understood.
He watched the Green Guard ride away, and returned, sadly, to his hut. The Blues had marched the previous day, but he was forbidden even that for, as it was explained to him, they could hardly have a Blue in Green Guard armour in the fight. It would confuse them, he might be taken for a ‘real’ Green Guard and be supported by another of his kind, bringing disgrace to that warrior too. Anyway, one warrior, more or less, was hardly likely to make a difference. It all made sense.
He looked up at Karmina, she had come for her lesson, she said. He had finally given way to the inevitable; like age, a determined woman will wear down the strongest man.
Even now, in the midst of war, she wanted to continue the weekly lessons. He sighed, went outside and offered her one of the practice swords. She smiled, and took the one not offered. He smiled too, she always did that. She had learnt that in any duel, a fighter might try to keep the best weapon for himself. She had realised early on that Kran had seen what she did, now he always offered her the best. She knew that, it was a joke, an unspoken joke, between them when she pretended to distrust him and took the worse sword.
Practice swords are wooden, with a core of lead to give them a realistic weight. The skill in making them is as great as the skill in make the real Makan. A true Makan will take months of preparation and beating and re-heating. A practice sword (never called a Practice Makan, that would be a contradiction – a Makan is a killing sword, there is no practice) was made of Lignin wood and edged with Rowan to make a softer strike should the combatants hit each other. But inside, either in a groove, or in holes drilled and plugged, the lead made the sword feel as weighty as the Makan, and so the trainees could learn how long it took to swing, how long to stop a swing.
Karmina was one of the New Women, a league that believed women should protect themselves a little more and rely on men a little less. The chivalrous, hidebound, nature of male society meant that they had no way of preventing the women from doing this. Women were weak and vulnerable, so it would have been churlish to take a hand to prevent them from doing something, even when it was challenging the status quo. Karmina had moved beyond ‘how to stab a man in the balls’ to wanting to use a sword. She had persuaded Kran to teach her.
He knew he was breaking taboos, but he also knew she was good. Very good. He took up defence and parried and countered, and marvelled at how good a woman could be at such a complex subject as sword play. In the early lessons he had barely had to break a sweat, he would teach her something, have a play fight, and she would go. She would practice all week and come back better, she learnt quickly. Now he had to concentrate to prevent a strike. The sword whistled past his guard and slide along his arm. He stopped the fight and showed her how to pass his guard and then turn the sword so instead of sliding along the leather armlen, it would dig in, remove flesh, damage bone. They resumed, and, before he was ready, he felt the wooden blade hit him.
“Heh! I wasn’t ready!”
“Sorry, couldn’t resist it. Remember, you said warfare is not duels, it is live or die by any means. I just attacked early. Was that wrong?”
“No, that was exactly right. Well done.” He smiled under his helmet; yes, she was good. They took up guard again and circled each other; a younger girl, about fifteen, was watching; Karmina’s younger sister. She watched a few times. He could tell she took it in by the way her eyes followed the action, sometimes the sword, sometimes the fighter. They fought, twisted and ducked. Kran won, of course, he was more skilful, he had an instinct of what an opponent would do. Then he turned to the girl, Soma “Here, take this and show me how you would stand.” She took up a guard position, he pushed her and she fell over. “You have the stance, but you need to tense the legs, look.”
He reached down and squeezed her leg above the knee. A year ago he wouldn’t have dreamed of touching a young woman, any woman, least of all a noble, about her knee, or even on the leg at all! Now he was freer, more unbound by old-fashioned rules. She tensed her muscles at his squeeze. It was instinct to protect her purity. “Now, hold that.” He pushed again, “See?” This time, her body flexed but her legs did not move. He took Karmina’s sword and threatened Soma, she blocked his feint, and then drew back and blocked his actual thrust. “Well done.”
So, now there were two women learning to fight. Karmina admitted that she had showed a few of her friends some of her moves. They were impressed, interested, and then wanted to learn as well. A week later, a group of twenty New Women were standing round him. Three were older than the rest, they were married but their husbands were away. They wanted to be able to defend their homes, they explained. Kran shrugged internally, this would end badly. When the men returned, husbands, fathers, brothers; they would take their frustration out on him, not the women. He knew all this, but he also knew he would continue.
The world was changing. These women had minds to think, and bodies to protect. They were right, if they were willing to learn to fight, why not?
A month passed, and the women’s numbers had swelled to fifty. Now he was running classes every day, and Karmina was helping him, and Soma was helping her. He was enjoying himself for the first time in over a year. He had nearly forgotten his shame, his pain. He taught sword work, and dagger usage, and had even been persuaded to provide some hand-to-hand combat lessons. He always insisted on at least two women present so there could be no suggestion of impropriety, but it did not stop the necessity of laying hands on the women to twist, trip, turn or tumble them to the ground. It was not uncommon, though not deliberate, for him to touch them in personal ways. They all affected not to notice, it was easier that way. He couldn’t help re-running the thoughts in his head later, as his arm encircled a young body from behind and found the hand on a breast; or lifted the body off the ground by the crotch. He never had an erection during the training, but later was a different matter. What he was unaware of was that the same women imagined him dropping them to the ground and then not stopping his personal assault. Some of these women relished the idea of a Green Guard splaying their legs open.
Then the message came back, a rider rode in and went to the Prince, knelt at his young feet and said “God Save The King!”. The old king was dead! Not only that, the army was vanquished, the story slowly unravelled itself from the rider’s brain, and formed a proper tale.
The army had formed up, Blues had been on the wings, the Green Guard held the centre with the king. The enemy had formed up before them, moved forward and then had feinted or veered left; the central army had responded like the machine it was, leaving a gap as the less disciplined Blues struggled to keep up.
From nowhere, the rest of the enemy had erupted and fallen on the separated left wing, and, in moments, the left wing had been surrounded and annihilated. It was a clever move. The Green Guard and the other wing were powerless to stop it, they were held in place by the threatening lines of the enemy in their front.
Then the enemy did something even more unexpected. Instead of surging over the dead and dying to attack the remainder, the two parts of the army took up positions before and behind the Green Guard and the Blues. They neither attacked, nor retreated. If the king ordered an advance, the army moved back in front of them, and moved up from behind. They kept out of arrow range, just, and merely hemmed them in. A standoff began, a day passed, and then another. Food became scarce, water, scarcer. They were trapped in an open field system, yet when they opted to march from the field, to regroup, because they were undoubtedly still an impressive fighting force with God on their side, then the enemy bunched together and stood their ground. The Green Guard forced their way forward, but again, as if it were planned, this left the Blues exposed and they found themselves broken and cut down mercilessly.
Perhaps it had been arrogant, or self-willed. Perhaps they deserved God’s wrath. Or perhaps the enemy had learnt to organise themselves more effectively and had an effective leader. No, they had a great leader, he had planned some carefully engineered and rather subtle manoeuvres. Now the Green Guard stood alone. Here the narrative required more interpretation. What the messenger said was that they had fought the enemy to the last man. What Kran heard was that the Guard had failed to try and breakout, which they probably still could have done; instead they arrogantly opted to fight, retreat was for cowards. They knew they would lose. Yet they fought. They gave no thought for the country they left open to invasion with no force to defend it. With the crystal insight of a man who sees the errors of what he once was, he knew how they had thought. And he saw their last stand as a corruption of honour rather than the highest pinnacle of the same. They had saved themselves, their honour, by sacrificing everyone else. How was that either courageous or brave?
Yet even as he thought this, he realised that he, too, would lay his life down. But he would die to protect the retreat of the population. He could feel the panic building up around him. The young king needed advisors, his advisors would all have been at the front with the king. Now they were just piles of mouldering and torn flesh on a battlefield. Kran rode to the castle, and asked to see the king; the guard recognised the breast plate and let him through. Since Kran had never tried to enter since his shame, this guard was not aware of who he was. Captain Migros was.
Captain Migros was a one legged, hard-bitten, sour-faced, bitter old man. At twenty-four he had been a young captain with a future, at twenty-five he had been relegated to permanent palace guard duties because he had lost a leg. Now, at fifty, few people knew the story and simply assumed he was a reticent war hero. Those that knew, never said anything about how it had happened, how he had fallen, dead drunk, in the street and a late night shit-wagon had rolled over one leg. It wasn’t something to even make light of in private. Migros had killed one man for laughing at him. He was still a fine swordsman, but just not able to march to the war drums. Captain Migros saw Kran and stomped towards him, his wooden leg clunking on the stones. “Get the fuck out of here, Woman-killer. You are forbidden.”
Kran started to explain “The King -”
“-has enough worries without you being involved.”
“Migros, CAPTAIN Migros.” Kran bowed to recognise the man’s rank “You need help, His Majesty needs help. I may be able to -”
“To kill some women? Oh oh? Want to fight? I could wipe the fucking shitter with you.” Which was possibly true. Migros was a fighter, not so much a warrior, but a fighter. He had learnt that what was good on the battlefield was good in a pub, or the duelling field. There is no second in a one-on-one. You win or you lose. Migros fought with everything, and he always won.
“Migros? Get out of the way or I’ll cut your stump off and shove it up your arse!” Kran was allowing himself to get angry, he calmed, knowing that anger undermines a warrior. “Just let me through, please”
“FUCK OFF!” shouted the Captain, just as Lady Benethia came into the ante room. “Oh, forgive me Lady.”
“I’ve heard worse. Who is this? A survivor?”
“No, my lady. I am Kran, I am disgraced. But now, perhaps may offer some help?”
“Come with me. I’ve heard of you, perhaps you should go first so I am not stabbed in the back.” She was spiteful, but recognised the need for any help at the moment. Kran coloured but said nothing, nevertheless he followed her. There was no way that she would follow a mere guard, especially a disgraced Green Guard. Benethia was almost hawk-like in appearance. She had an angular nose that looked like a hawk’s beak, and her high cheek bones and slightly slanted eyes accentuated her bird like appearance. She had none of the round-eyed simplicity that men found so attractive, but all who saw her agreed that she was elegant, beautiful and could dominate a room with her presence. They also would try and avoid her spiteful sarcasm if they could, for she could reduce even a Theological Logician to jibbering confusion with the spirit and skill of her arguments, she had done so only two days ago when Theologian First Class Angmit had attempted to prove the existence of God with mathematics.
In a room off the throne room, Bishop Lupin was advocating buying the enemy off, Sadtrap Michael was suggesting they weren’t really in danger. The conversation stopped as they looked at the new arrivals. “I have brought Kran – a disgraced Green Guard, but a Green Guard nevertheless, and Captain Migros, you know. What are you thinking, my love?” Lady Benethia was betrothed to a boy five years younger than her own twenty years, she was well-born, obedient, proud, stubborn ... and somewhat more intelligent than many of the stuck-up bitches who roamed the court looking to snare a husband. She had no more love for the new king than she did for her spaniels (one of whom she had kicked down the stairs, only that morning, for peeing on the carpet. The dog did not survive); but she knew she would marry him because she had to; and she knew that she would be the mother of the next monarch if all went well. That was worth putting up with this weedy teenager for.
“Yes, thank you. Stay, Benethia. I value your advice too.” So, thought Kran, he had a mind of his own, he was willing to admit a woman might have some thoughts in their coiffured and made-up heads.
Sadtrap Michael once more advocated ignoring the problem, it would go away, the enemy would rape and pillage the border, and then go home. Bishop Lupin suggested emptying the treasury (not the church treasury, just the palace one). “What do you think Benethia?”
“We have to remove ourselves, they will come as a wave of destruction. They will destroy as they come. Our only hope is to destroy what crops we cannot take with us, hide the gold and evacuate everybody. They will lose heart as they find no food on their way.”
“You! Guard, what do you think?”
“I find myself agreeing sire. We have not enough men to fight. If we stand, we shall lose and see the whole country ravaged. Or rather not see, for we shall all be dead. I’d rather retreat and return when we can, than stand and die. But I shall stand with you, whatever you decide, as my oath states.”
“Yes, yes. Let’s forget all that for the moment, people will stay, people will go. They will do what they do.” The king really was quite quick on the uptake. “You? Captain?”
“Against my expectations, I find I agree with the woman-ki – with Kran and the Lady Benethia, sir. It would a glorious, but hopeless, battle to stand and wait. And if we were trapped inside the castle, we’d be starved in time.”
“I shall keep you three as my advisors, since you three agree. Thank you Bishop Lupin, thank you Michael, you can go.” said the new king.
“With respect, sire.” Kran replied. “The bishop and Sadtrap Michael should be retained as advisors too. They have a wealth of experience; and just because we all agree, does not mean we are right on everything. It would be good to keep all the critical powers we can.” There was a brief silence, it wasn’t normal to say ‘appoint him, he might give an opposing view’, then the king agreed. A council of five would be manageable.
They would meet, Satrap Michael suggested, to break their fast and discuss any new news, then in the evening to discuss progress in making plans. He was a committee man through and through and would organise the minutes and would keep the meetings short. Kran smiled at Migros as they left. “You think we should have kept him out? But he will keep us from wasting all day talking, and he has a way of keeping the King from interfering too much. He is a good man at heart, just an old woman on the outside.”
“Mr Kran, I hardly think ‘woman’ should be an insult.” Lady Benethia said from behind them.
“Quite right, I apologise. Oh, I am not a Mr, just Kran.”
“I think we should all be ‘Counsellor’ to the people. That way they know who they are dealing with. When alone, perhaps we can dispense with titles?” she replied. “You may call me Benethia in our meetings, and you Captain?”
“Do you have a first name?”
“Just call me Migros, your ladyship.” He must have had a first name once, many years ago, maybe when he was born. But everybody had always called him Migros; maybe that was his first name, and his family name was Cockwanker or something, who knows? Still, he was happy being Migros and everybody knew who he was.
The next lesson with the women had a more urgent sense to it. They were nervous, making silly mistakes, Soma dropped her sword.
“SOMA! You can’t drop your sword! Never ever, ever. Heh! Don’t cry, it’s fine. Look, everybody, stop! Girtle, stop killing Maxia! Yes, yes, you’re doing it very well, but stop for a second.
Look, we are probably going to have to move soon. But listen, it doesn’t matter where you fight, or when. If it happens, it happens. AND if it happens, then nerves aren’t in it. You go for the jugular; yes, like Girtle was! Don’t hesitate, remember, they will ... well let’s be honest here, they will treat you badly. You are all young and attractive, yes! ALL of you. If they come, they will ... well you know. They’ll fuck you every way you can think of, and possibly some you can’t; then sell you to someone else to do the same. Me? I’ll go down under a hail of sword strokes and bleed to death, or be trampled in the fight. But the end will be the same, I’ll be dead in a day, maximum. You will be kept alive for a while for the fun you can give. I don’t make the rules. SO ... no hesitation, no holding back, if you can cut off their nads, do it! If you can slice their face to spaghetti, fine. You will have a small window of surprise before they come at you with normal force, make the most of it. And if they come back angry, at least they are likely to kill you quickly.
Now, Soma, I am a fucking, evil, bastard rapist. STOP SMILING! I am!” He lunged at her with a hand, as if to tear off her tunic, and she brought the sword down on his leatherned arm, the arm protector stopped him getting a nasty bruise. “Good!” Then she stepped in and pushed it hard into his lower stomach, the softer parts unprotected by bone. “Urrrgh! No, no, that was excellent.” First stroke took my hand, second had me trying to stop my innards from falling in the dirt. You’re stronger than you look.” He rubbed his stomach; it hadn’t really hurt, but it made her feel good that she was able to disable him, a Green Guard.
The women got back into the swing of it; cutting, thrusting, attacking, feinting. They would not be unprotected victims, they would fight for their honour, or their bodies, or whatever they wanted to fight for. The Bishop visited and went away tutting. “That won’t make a ha’path of difference. And it definitely isn’t in the holy books that women fight.” he said to his Deaconess.
“Unless you allow for Deborah and Jael, your eminence?” Deaconess Willsh replied as she brushed his cope.
“Neither actually FOUGHT, did they? And two out of hundreds of male figures hardly sets a precedent.” he was thinking ‘even she’s getting uppity now’.
“Of, course, Bishop Lupin.” She only ever used his name when she was irritated, even he – a man who wasn’t used to reading body language because he didn’t need to – recognised that. He harrumphed as he walked out, satisfied that that harrumph had put her in her place. She went to see Kran.
In his hut, he was cleaning his sword, his Makan. It was time to make it ready for war, perhaps his last battle. He had polished it, and now was rubbing the edges with the oilstone to give the edge no reason to hesitate as it took off an arm, a leg, a head. He did not see the woman at first, something he berated himself for: ‘getting lax, could have been an assassin’.
“Good day, Lord Kran.” Lord was an honorific for Green Guards.
“Just Kran, I lost the honorary title when I was disgraced. But you knew that; so you are seeking to flatter me. Why?”
“Forgive me, I’ve been in religious service too long.” she meant that she had succumbed to the flattery and flattering ways of the religious sycophants who abounded in the bishop’s service. “We have nuns.”
“I mean, we have many young, fit, healthy nuns.”
Was she offering him something? No, surely not. Was she asking for help to get them to safety? What was he meant to take from this? “I don’t understand.” he replied, honestly.
“They need to be able to defend themselves. They are pure, brides of Christ, they should not lose that purity to the invaders.”
Light dawned, “Ah, I see. But ... are they allowed to kill? Shouldn’t they turn the other cheek?”
“It’s their other cheeks I am concerned for.” she smiled, as did he, she had made a joke with an innuendo in it. He liked her. “They will pray for forgiveness after. But they have no intention of becoming, what was it you told Angilla? ‘They’ll fuck you sideways and then sell you to someone else to do the same.’ Forgive my language. Angilla was a novice until she realised her calling was in the world, not in a nunnery. We stayed friends.”
“I only used such language to the ladies to make them realise what was coming. I would never...”
The Deaconess Willsh waved a hand to show it was no matter. She had heard the bishop once lose his temper with a young nobleman who was ploughing a furrow through the field of ladies at the court, he had made the young man’s face turn white at the terms he used. It made no difference, the man was dead two weeks later from a dagger in the liver, a brother had probably objected to his attentions to a sister. “We live in troubled times, and even if we run, we must be able to stand if necessary.”
“It is too late to teach them sword play, far too late ... but perhaps ... Yes, how shall we do this? Is the bishop agreeable or does it have to be done more subtly?
“Subtlety would be good. Would you be willing to enter the nunnery? I know that contravenes all sorts of laws.”
“As long as I don’t need to dress up. I’m as far down as I’m likely to get, but I draw the line at that.” She smiled and promised he had no need to dress like a nun.”When?” They arranged the time, and, at dawn the following day, an early riser would have seen a wagon going over the hill to the nunnery. There, it was ushered into the courtyard, usually used for gentle sports like catch-me, or foot-the-ball. These nuns were an enclosed order, and it had long been realised that sport helped distract them from the temptations of the same-sex flesh.
The nuns came out and helped unload the weapons. One picked up spear, balanced it in her hand, and launched it across the yard. It stuck into a tree thirty feet away. “No! I mean, very impressive, but let’s be careful shall we? These are lethal weapons.”
“Where are the swords?” asked a slight, willowy nun who would have turned heads if she wasn’t in her habit.
“There isn’t time for learning sword play, I’ve come up with some alternatives. The spears and pikes for one, and the long daggers for another. Heh! Those aren’t practice daggers! They’ll take an eye out, or a heart. Form up into a line.” The nuns were arranged and each given a spear. These were six feet long with a single point. They were taught to thrust, to parry, to throw. Then they formed two lines – he was impressed by how they could obey orders so readily – and each pair took a pike. “You don’t need to be as strong as a man, there are two of you. You just need to create a porcupine of spikes that the enemy can’t penetrate, especially if they are on a horse.”
Then they tried the long and short daggers. The short ones were balanced for throwing. Two whizzed across the yard after he told them that. The same tree as earlier was hit twice. “Well, ladies, I’m impressed with your targeting skills. The long ones are halfway to a sword, but they are really for; well, for stabbing into a stomach or face from far enough away to not be grabbed yourself.” A nun whispered something to another and they both giggled. “Something amusing?”
“Sorry sir, I...”
“I was just saying that we could cut off their nads, before they could do it to us.” she looked down; but several other nuns laughed.
“True, true. I’ll keep away from you.” The nuns tittered, they were generally peaceable, but now the decision had been taken, most had opted to learn the basics of fighting. One or two held to their non-violent beliefs and opted to be medics instead.
The training continued. They might be able to defend themselves with the knives and defend a group if caught in the open. “But we still need to run, yes?” asked Lady Bethenia, in their morning meeting. Her hawklike appearance gave the impression of aggression, but beneath it, Kran had seen a softer side, he was re-assessing his opinion of the woman who stood head and shoulders above him, socially, as he stood above her physically. The bishop was still overcoming his horror at being told that, not only women, but now his nuns were learning to disembowel men. What was the world coming to?
“Yes Bethenia, we still need to run. I was going to suggest we all head for the Northern Province. It has a strong castle, a lot of hills and forests -”
“And a shitty governor who has never done his duty. Which is why he wasn’t with the army that got massacred, I suppose. Yes, I agree. My Lord King? What say you?”
“Yes, tell the populace that our defence forces.” he sniggered, women and a few old veterans consisted of his ‘army’. Still the Green Guard and the Blues had been vanquished; it wasn’t like they could do worse. “our defence forces shall leave in three days. They had two days to be ahead of us rather than behind. I shall write to Governor Van Der Plac.”
He did just that, in flowery tones, commending him for his loyalty and placing faith in his courage, and informing him that the capital was coming to Drenford. He imagined that Van Der Plac would swear several oaths concerning impossible sexual acts; because, of course he, the king, was likely to attract the enemy to follow.
Reports put the enemy at two weeks away. They travelled slowly, they had no need to hurry. It wasn’t as if they were planning to surprise anyone; everyone knew that they were coming, mangling and destroying the land as they came. They were no longer living on the land, the order for scorched earth had gone out. Farmers had cried as their sheep were slaughtered, though the more entrepreneurial had already begun to head north or east. Grown men, who had built their farms on the marshes, draining, planting, draining again after floods, knelt and cried in the mud as their land was flooded by smashing the sluices. The enemy was beginning to flounder in the muddy low valleys and flounder in obtaining food. This might be the saving of the land.