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The Distaff War

By Geoff Hart

The chamber's heavy wooden door burst open, striking the thick stone wall with a thud! that made Nanette jump in her seat and prick her finger badly. Stifling a reflexive curse by thrusting her wounded finger into her mouth, the young wife gently set her embroidery onto her lap, and carefully erased the scowl from her face. She looked up at her husband—for only he would have entered the room so unceremoniously—as the door rebounded soggily from the wall, coming to rest just beside his shoulder.

"Nan, love, there'll be war!" His deep voice echoed from the stone walls of their small room.

Eyes flashing, biceps swelling the short sleeves of the jerkin she'd so carefully shaped to show off his muscles to best advantage, the tall, thickset man stood expectantly in the doorway. Her heart beat just a trifle faster despite her annoyance at his childish exuberance, and she breathed deeply and slowly through her nose, remembering those arms clasped around her. Belatedly, she withdrew the finger from her mouth. "War, my husband?" she wondered mildly.

"War! The men of Fenwick spurn His Majesty's offer to peacefully resolve the trade dispute, and our King has agreed to convince them at swordpoint. Do you know what this means?"

The implications were clear enough to banish any amorous thoughts; Nanette was young, and disinterested in such overtly political issues, but by no means naïve. "I suppose it means that you'll be leaving me for several weeks, having your body pierced repeatedly by uncaring steel or doing the same to some other poor innocent whose wife awaits him at home, and perhaps even dying a lingering death, far from me."

Thierry hesitated, plainly taken aback by her response. "Aye, it could well mean those things." Then he rallied strongly. "But more likely than that, it'll mean proving my loyalty and my honor on the bodies of other champions in individual combat. That can hardly escape the King's notice, and that's steering us a sure course to larger quarters," he gestured dismissively with his sword arm, brushing the door heedlessly aside as he did, "and more influence at court." He eyed her appraisingly, and added words he'd learned would oft soften her resistance. "Maybe even enough extra money to afford that child we've been talking about."

Nanette snorted defiantly, rejecting such obvious bait. She rose to her feet, and set her hands sternly on her hips. "You've no need to prove your manliness to me, milord husband, and as for this room and our circumstances, I find both more than adequate for our needs."

Belatedly, she recognized her mistake, for an altogether different light now shone in her husband's eyes. "Gods! There are things worth fighting for more precious than trade."

Nan backed away in alarm, flustered by his sudden and—in hindsight—entirely predictable change of tack, and the chair caught her behind her knees. She sat down abruptly, twisting at the last possible instant to avoid her pincushion. Before she could rally her suddenly scattered wits, her husband had flung the door shut behind him, the echoes of its crash just beginning as he swept across the room and pulled her into his arms. Crushed against his chest, she felt herself borne towards their bed.

On the one hand, her anger, fueled by a growing fear of Thierry's future prospects, made her push him away, futile though that struggle might be; on the other, she recalled with sudden heat that once her husband took it into his head to indulge in love-play, showing any more spirit would only fan his flames. So she relaxed into his arms, and remembering how he'd stood when first he entered the room, decided with not the faintest trace of reluctance to make the best of her situation. After all, there were more ways than a sword to disarm a strong man. She smiled contentedly to herself, and responded wholeheartedly to his attentions.

***

The next morning, a somewhat weary smile hovering on her face, Nanette found herself working in the kitchen beside her husband's mother. Hélène had not been young when she'd brought Thierry into the world, and the years had been unkind to her while her son grew to maturity.

"Beau-mère, may we speak of something other than our work?"

The older woman gathered her lips into a pout, tried to look stern, and failed. The twinkle in her eyes gave her away. "Speak, ma jeune."

"I'm worried about Thierry."

Hélène snorted. "I can see from your face he's been troubling you." She ignored the heat that rose in her daugher-in-law's cheeks. "Peace, daughter, I've heard the talk of war too. The lad's father can speak of nothing else, though what an old warhorse like him thinks he'll be doing escapes me." A roar of male voices from the great hall intruded on the peace of the kitchen. "It seems the rest of the men are similarly afflicted."

"What can be done, Beau-mère?"

"Precious little, ma jeune, once men take it into their heads to forsake their proper responsibilities in favor of assailing each other with sharp metal."

Nan stopped the motion of her knife on the chopping board lest she inadvertently echo those words. "Then I can do nothing but watch him leave?"

"It's our lot as women, ma jeune. You're hardly the first to face this problem, though you're fortunate that it's come so rarely in our lifetime. After a time, you simply accept this part of what makes them so damnably different from us and say your prayers each night they're away—for your man's return, if he's a good one; for him to fall valiantly on the field of battle so you can replace him if he's not."

Nan let the knife fall, clattering, to the chopping board. Anger suffused her cheeks. "How can you say such a thing? You know there's no finer man than your son!"

"I know no such thing, my dear; remember, I taught the little hellion to use the privy, eat with his knife like any civilized human, and treat women with something approaching respect—though that took several unfortunate paramours to achieve." Seeing her daughter-in-law's crestfallen expression, she relented. "But, as you, I would do whatever I could to spare him death or worse over such a meaningless affair."

"Then let's stop the war!"

Hélène laughed, a harsh cackle. "And how would you propose to manage something that none of the men has yet achieved? Think you you can match your wits or strength against our king?"

"Why not? Perhaps no one has really tried!" Then, a thought struck the younger woman. Her mother-in-law had to clear her throat twice to regain her attention. "I'm sorry, Beau-mère, something's occurred to me." Then she laughed, suddenly relieved. "Tell me, Beau-mère—on the battlefield, do you match strength for strength against a much stronger foe?"

Puzzled, the old woman hesitated. "I'm sure I don't know; I'm no warrior. But I've learned the occasional thing from hearing the breast-beating of those who are. I'd say no."

"Exactly." Nan dabbed at her face with her sleeve, wiping at the tears that had briefly threatened to spill over. "And neither shall we. We have other ways to disarm our men." Her face flushed at memories of the previous night, and of watching her husband snoring peacefully beside her afterwards. "Here's what we shall do..."

Leaning across the table, she whispered in her mother-in-law's ear. The older woman's brows knit briefly in concentration, then as the whisper went on, her forehead unfurrowed abruptly, as much as the passage of years permitted, and a reluctant snort of laughter escaped her lips. Other women ceased their work at that sound, and as the two continued whispering, taking turns in their laughter, they gathered around. Soon, breakfast was hopelessly ruined—but the unrestrained laughter of women filled the kitchen.

***

Thierry had grown so absorbed in the preparations for battle that he scarcely noticed when Nan left their room before dawn and stole away from town; it might have been any other day of the year, her gone off with the other women to prepare for the men's morning breaking of the fast.

Gritting her teeth in displeasure, Nanette reflected that before she'd taken on the role of wife, she might have considered walking the short distance to Fenwick. Now, though, her legs had grown soft from her sedentary life, and she opted instead to make the trip on the back of the priest's mule. It wasn't like she was stealing, she reassured herself; he'd often let her ride the beast as a child, smiling knowingly when she'd insisted on sitting astride like the men, rather than side-saddle in the way of women. In the pre-dawn dark, she let her half-asleep steed pick its own way over the rough roads that led to Fenwick. Half asleep herself, she rehearsed her plans, concentrating so hard that she only noticed the arrival of full daylight when her bladder, offended by the mule's swaying progress, forced her to halt her travel and squat by the side of the road.

By noon, dusty and parched despite having drained her waterskin several miles back, she'd reached Fenwick. The guard at the gate, doubled since last she'd visited, testified to their neighbor's preparation for war, and momentarily brought a frown to her face. But she managed a smile by the time she approached the gate, and the guards, seeing only an attractive young woman atop a disreputable animal, returned her smile and waved her past without question, though her style of riding prompted comments that would at other times have earned them an offended riposte. She rode on into town, kicking the mule's ribs to goad it into a marginally faster pace. Reluctantly, it complied.

At a certain house, grown only slightly less familiar through the passing of years, she tethered her mount by the water trough and entered without knocking. Inside, a woman to whom she bore more than a faint resemblance greeted her with joyful cries and gathered her up in a hug to rival her husband's. When they'd both recovered from that embrace, somewhat breathless and with happy tears shining on their faces, she wasted no time in revealing her mission. That erased the moment of joy, but laughter soon rang out in the room. Shortly thereafter, with only one lingering backward glance, Nanette remounted her mule and turned the placid beast's face homewards. Recognizing the road that led to its manger, the mule quickened its pace. With luck, she'd arrive before nightfall.

***

Quiet cursing brought Nan out of a deep sleep, rescuing her from increasingly unpleasant premonitory dreams. She groaned, louder than she'd expected, as her previous day's exertions made themselves felt; riding a mule was no job for a woman, every muscle in her body now chided.

"Nan? You awake?"

She gritted her teeth and ground at her eyes with her fists. "Yes, beloved."

"Sorry. I hadn't meant to wake you. You seemed so tired last night." He heaved a mighty sigh. "It's just that our war came not a moment too soon. Look at this!"

He flung the tapestry that sealed their window aside, and in the pale morning light, she could see that he'd struggled into the battered cuir bouilli vest he used when serving his annual time with the guard. "Look at this!" he repeated, his voice gone incongruously petulant for such a big man. "I can hardly move in the damned thing. All this idleness and peace has fattened me."

Remembering his flat, ridged belly and the hard muscle that broadened his shoulders, she smiled complacently into the blanket that scratchily concealed the bottom half of her face. "Indeed, milord husband, such seems to be the case. Think you there's time to have more armor made for you?"

"I'd best see to it," he replied grimly, extracting himself with some difficulty from the leather's corset-like embrace. "Glory or no glory, a man'd be as foolish going to war unable to swing his arms as going with no armor at all."

The door swung shut at his back, and Nan sank back into the lumpy mattress with a satisfied grunt. So it had begun! From the angle of the sun, she had another hour before rising to work in the kitchen, and she intended to take every moment of it to ease her weariness and recover from the previous day's ride.

***

"You should have seen their faces," Denise remarked, giggling, as she paused in plucking the chicken, feathers swirling about her.

"Tell us, 'nise!" demanded Chantal, the youngest of their company.

Denise mopped her brow with a stained sleeve, freeing a feather that had stuck itself there. "I was delivering the mulled wine to the muster, and the lot of them were sitting there like boys who'd dipped fingers in the molasses and found lamp oil in its place. I set the wine on the table, right where Garth was sure to knock it over with his elbows—" she paused to let their knowing laughter die down "—and you could see where the mice had been, clear as day. The maps looked positively motheaten."

"Smearing them with nut butter will do that," Hélène observed wryly.

"So it appears. And when I leaned across the table to kiss Garth's cheek, didn't he just go and knock all the wine across the maps?"

Laughter rose in the room. When it died down, Nan asked the question. "Were they at all legible afterwards?"

"Not a lick of it." Denise smiled like the cat that ate the starling.

"It was well done, then," Hélène smiled. "Hist! I hear footsteps."

The door flung open, and the chamberlain entered, casting his basilisk glare about the kitchen. "If lunch is as badly prepared as yesterday's breakfast, there'll be hell to pay." Meek glances answered his glare. He snorted. "Very well. Get to it!"

The door slammed again at his back. A single quiet voice broke the silence that followed. "I wonder if he could be our next project?" Denise wondered innocently. A flurry of feathers rose from her table, and the kitchen dissolved once more in laughter.

***

"I don't understand it," moaned Thierry, staring aggrievedly at the sword that rested forlornly in his lap. "I'm sure it was wrapped in oilskins, and well tended too before I stored it away!"

"Such things happen, milord husband." Nan carefully focused on her embroidery, thereby evading his poisonous glare.

"Never to me, milady wife."

Nan bit her lip to suppress a grin, remembering the sword lying out in the dew and the rasping vibration that had run up her arms and into her shoulders the next morning as she'd carefully dulled the blade's edge with a wetstone. The blisters were still rising on her hands from that work. "Still and all, my husband, it should take little time for our smith to fix the damage."

"In normal times, yes, but these days lead to war. Every man in the village is wearing the path to Tom's door deeper by the hour, and the waiting list for such repairs is long indeed. I'll have to do it myself." With a look of pain on his face, he fled the room, muttering darkly. Nan crossed to the window, smiling, and gazed out onto the courtyard, where half a dozen men sat in the sun, the rasping of their whetstones rising into the quiet morning air.

As she watched, a thin, older man came out a side door, armor hanging on him like a half-stuffed sausage casing. He cast it from him with a curse, and began a long series of pushups, dust puffing out from beneath him with the force of his exhalations. A few men stopped their swordwork, grinning, and began shouting encouragement. After a time, the man rose slowly from the ground, dusted off his chest, and tried on the armor. Laughter rose from the men, and she heard her husband's voice ring out.

"You'll not make up for years of idleness with a few minutes exercise, Rogé!"

"At least I fit into my armor, youngster," spat the older man, but even so, he flung himself once more to the ground and began his exertions anew.

Nan grinned and returned to her work.

***

"Damnit, wife, be gentle," Thierry complained, feet wriggling in her grasp.

"Be still, milord husband," she replied patiently, firmly grasping his foot and plucking another earwig from the sole of his foot. "One would think even a warrior as bold as yourself would know better than to store his marching boots by the woodpile."

"And I didn't—at least, I'm sure I didn't. Ouch, damnit!"

Nan brushed the crushed body of another earwig from her husband's foot, and bowed her head, concealing her smile.

***

"I'd be ashamed to wear something so scant even in our marriage bed!" Thierry whined, staring at the ruin of his padded jacket.

"Surely, milord husband, you say that in jest?" Nan struck a demure pose that she'd learned accentuated her hips and cast her small breasts in a more flattering light.

Her husband glared at her, ignoring the provocation. "Nay, wife, I do not. These past days have tried the patience of our men sorely, and if we've learned one thing, it's that we've been shamefully irresponsible in our ways."

Nan sighed and straightened up, reflecting that there were sacrifices to be made in any war. "Yet your observation remains true, milord husband. It has been a truly appalling year for moths. Here," she said, pulling the jacket from his grasp, "let me see if I can do aught to salvage it."

***

Smoke rose from the fireplace, where a cluster of women wrung their hands and looked woeful. The chamberlain stared in horror at the remains of the waybread, audibly grinding his teeth. At last, he spun on his heel and fled the room without so much as a backward glance or parting threat. The women exchanged secret smiles.

"I don't envy him the task of explaining this to the King," Nan reported in such a doleful voice that laughter erupted around her.

"I'd have more faith in that pronouncement if you'd actually watched the waybread bake instead of combing your hair," Hélène announced with some asperity.

Nan smiled, undaunted. "Ah, but those of us young enough to still enjoy our marriage bed have more work yet to do this night." A few of the women blushed; others simply smiled hungrily. "Yes, there is work yet to do. Denise?"

"Got them!" she announced triumphantly, and pulled a small bag from beneath her skirts.

"Ewww."

"Honestly, one'd think you'd never seen a mealworm before, Chantal!"

"Yes, but..."

"Never mind," Hélène interrupted. "Just put them with the unburned bread so they have time to make themselves at home." Denise opened the pantry that held the still-warm stacks of flat bread, emptied her sack into it, then shut the door. The older woman went on. "Chantal?"

"Yes, I have it. Why'd it have to be me?" With a grimace, the youngster pinched her nose shut and pulled a thick slab of bacon from under a counter, where she'd left it to grow ripe. The others wrinkled their noses as the stench hit them. "Are you sure of this?"

"Of course I'm sure! Into the stew with it—no, wait: chop it finely first. The better to conceal the taste."

Shuddering, Chantal complied.

***

"Again? Can't I—" moaned Thierry.

Nanette sealed his lips with a passionate kiss, and reached her hand down, caressing his lower belly and running her fingers through the dark, curly hair that rose up to meet his navel; the big man squirmed, and clutched at her hand.

"You may claim to be tired," she whispered, reaching up to chew on his earlobe, "but methinks your body belies that."

"Wife, I must sleep, or I'll be too exhausted to train tomorrow."

"Then lie back and relax, milord husband, and let me do all the work." She slid atop him, took him into her, and smiled as he groaned and clutched at her. Perhaps there was something to be said for warfare after all!

***

Despite her valiant efforts on behalf of the war effort, Nanette rose from her bed only after her husband had departed, moving far more swiftly than had been his wont in recent days. Indeed, he'd left so fast that he neglected to shut the door to their room behind him. It took some effort to rise in his wake, and she smiled sleepily at the stiffness in her legs. Sacrifices must be made in wartime, she reminded herself, yawning.

In the kitchen, the women went about their work in unprecedented silence, most moving slowly, occasionally exchanging secret smiles when their paths crossed. At last, Hélène snorted loudly. "Wake up, the lot of you! The breakfast's not going to get made all by itself, now, is it?"

"Hush, Beau-mère; we've been laboring half the night."

"Only half?" Denise smirked. "I should think a young buck like your Thierry could do better than that.

"Oh, he did," Nanette rejoined somewhat testily. "But I had to get some sleep too."

"Where are the men?" wondered Chantal. It was uncommonly silent in the great hall.

Nanette stole a glance through the half-open doorway. Not a man was in sight. "I imagine that if our little bit of bacon did its work, they're all in the privy."

"Ewww."

"And well you might say that, youngster." Nanette shuddered.

Hélène chuckled, a sufficiently unfamiliar sound that all eyes turned on her. "I look forward to seeing their muster this morning."

***

Nanette crossed the courtyard, focusing grimly on not dropping the heavy wineskins to help keep her face impassive. Those of the men who were standing looked as blown as a courier's horse after a long run, and several weren't standing; instead, they squatted down, clutching at their bellies. As she approached, one rose hastily and left at a run. The others turned dull, dark-shadowed eyes towards her, eyes that lit only sluggishly as they recognized her burden.

Those who squatted rose hesitantly, in a clatter of ill-fitting armor. Several showed evidence of hastily patched holes in their clothing. They snatched greedily at the wine, passing it impatiently from hand to hand, and it seemed to revive most of them. A few, however, winced and clutched at their guts; another left hurriedly, amidst a few weak grins from those with sterner guts. Thierry smiled gratefully at her and stood a little straighter.

"How go the preparations, milord husband?" She managed to keep the question innocent.

"Appallingly, to be honest, milady wife." He stretched painfully, the still-tight armor restricting his every motion. "More than half of us are down with the trots, and those of us still standing are none too happy about our good fortune." A chorus of supportive groans met his summation.

"How sad. But I'm confident that the prospect of imminent battle will—ahem—firm your guts."

Evidently, she'd been a trifle too daring, for Thierry shot her a suspicious glance. But the other men knew her less well, and muttered darkly about those prospects. Turning her back hastily, she strode off, casting a last thought over her shoulder. "The waybread is nearly all done, milords, so you'll soon be ready to take to the field." Another chorus of weak groans arose behind her, and she felt a smile tugging at her cheeks.

***

"Someone's going to lose his head over this," Thierry proclaimed around a mouthful of ham.

Garth nodded knowingly. "Aye. One horse going lame might be excused, but all of them at once?"

Tom glowered at them. "What have you to complain about? Who do you think will be doing without sleep for a week to reshoe the lot of them betwixt now and our departure?"

Coarse laughter echoed in the lunch room at the smith's expense. Not a one of them took the smile on the serving maid's face as anything other than shared amusement.

***

"You should have seen their faces," Denise laughed. "The men of Fenwick were in even worse shape than our own heroes. You're going to have to ask your mother how they did it, Nanette."

"I'm sure not much differently than we did, but perhaps our men are made of sterner stuff."

Hélène snorted, expressing her opinion of that judgment, but Nanette ignored her. "So what happened?"

"The King was there, of course, though he left the room twice even in the brief time I attended them. Didn't even make the privy, from the smell." Most faces smirked at this lèse majesté, but Denise carried on. "The Fenwick ambassador was a sight; I'm surprised his liege let him leave the castle what with the state his gear was in."

"And?" Nanette's voice grew a bit more stern.

"Patience, I'm getting to it. They sued for peace, and our King, after a bit of bluster, accepted their offer. Evidently, he didn't give much for our chances if our men had to take the field." Smirks broadened into full grins.

"Sounds like we won, then." There was no doubt who we referred to.

"Poor men," Chantal concluded.

"Yes," Nanette sighed. "I suppose we're going to have to be particularly nice to them for the next while."

***

The door to their chamber swung slowly open, without even enough energy to reach the thick stone wall. Nanette looked up from her sewing, managing this time to avoid pricking her finger. Her husband leaned in the doorway, looking for all the world like he'd been scolded by his mother for some imagined offence. "Milord husband?"

"It's over... we won't be fighting after all." The exhaustion in his voice made it hard to tell whether relief or disappointment predominated.

Knowing in advance what had happened made it easier to conceal her jubilation. "I'm so sorry."

Thierry sighed, and got his feet back under him. "We had such hope for this war!"

Seeing him so vulnerable, her heart went out to him. "Come to bed, my husband, and let me see if I can't make you forget your concerns for a time."

He smiled ruefully. "Not tonight, love. I can hardly lift a finger, let alone anything more likely to interest you."

She returned his rueful smile. "Then just to bed, milord husband. There will be other nights."

There were, after all, sacrifices to be made in wartime, she reflected, but some were easier to bear than others.

Author's notes

I always wondered why the women in traditional fantasies mostly sat back, shrugged, and simply let their menfolk go off to war. Sure, there was tradition, and the traditional imbalance of power between the sexes. But as a female chauvinist, I always assumed the women had at least as much brains as the men, and had their own ways of exercising their power. A little thinking revealed how that might provide a solution to the problem of the typically stupid, testosterone-fueled fantasy warfare. Not that this stopped me from writing a novel, Chords, that featured precisely such stupid warfare. When the muse calls...

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