I WAS SEVENTEEN THE spring casyn came to tirvan. He rode quietly into the village late one morning, a few weeks after Festival, with his tools and a few personal possessions. I—along with my cousin and partner, Maya, and her young brother, Pel—had sailed out in the still dawn that morning to check crab traps around the south side of the rocky headland. In the warmth of the spring sun, we hauled traps, took the catch, and reset the lines.
At my insistence, we sailed a bit further along the headland, into coves we hadn’t fished before, setting a few traps to see what these waters might yield. The late sun shone on a golden ocean before we moored back at the harbour, tired but with work still to do. My aunt Tali had come down to the harbour to collect fresh crab for supper. She helped us unload the catch, sort the damaged traps onto the jetty, and sluice down the deck of Dovekie before she mentioned the arrival.
"There’ll be a meeting tonight, Lena," she said, sorting through the catch for the largest crabs.
I looked up from the trap I was examining. "A meeting? All of us?" I frowned. Only a major event would justify a full meeting outside of the usual schedule. If something minor but urgent needed attention, the council leaders—my mother, our Aunt Sara, and Gille the herdswoman—met to mediate or decide.
"What’s happened?" Maya asked.
Tali stood, her basket full of crabs. "Take this, Pel, and go home. I’ll be there soon." Pel, tall and strong for his six years, took the heavy basket and started up the hill to the village. Women’s business held no interest for him. Tali watched him for a minute before turning back to us.
"What’s happened?" Maya repeated.
"We have a prospective tenant for the forge," Tali said.
I looked at her in puzzlement. This was expected. After burying Xani, our metalworker, in the cold of last midwinter, we had heard of a young smith looking for work at Delle village, several day’s ride to the north. She had just finished her apprenticeship and their forge had no place for her. We had sent a message north in the saddlebags of a returning soldier; her arrival was expected any day.
"Of course," said Maya. "What’s her name?”
"Is there a problem?" I asked.
Tali grinned, her teeth white against her tanned face. "Oh, there’s a problem," she said. "Our prospective new metalworker is neither from Delle, nor newly-qualified. As a guess, I’d say our new smith brings thirty years of experience—military experience. And his name is Casyn.”
I stared at my aunt, my hands tightening on the crab trap. Maya gasped. All men left the villages at seven to enter the Empire’s military schools, spending their adult years serving on the frontier. In retirement, they raised horses or grew grapes or taught in the schools, finishing out their days with whatever part of their regiment had survived. Twice a year, war and distance allowing, they came to the villages for Festival, to be provisioned, to gather food and cloth and wine, to make love and father children, to give and carry messages. Festival lasted a week, and then they left. This pattern had shaped our lives for generations. I shook my head. "But he can’t.”
Tali shrugged her narrow shoulders. "That’s to be decided at meeting. He was born here—he’s Xani’s son, actually, so that may give him double claim." She bent to pick up a broken crab trap. "Are these to go to Siane? Let’s get the catch into the holding pools and take these up. If we stand here talking much longer, you won’t have time to clean up or eat properly before meeting, and I want to get those crabs into boiling water." We finished our work quickly, and together walked up the short hill to the village, leaving the broken traps stacked outside Siane’s workshop. The traps carried Dovekie’s mark. Siane would notify us when she finished the repairs.
We walked in silence, tired from our long day on the water. At Tali’s house, where Maya and I shared the big front room upstairs, we stopped on the porch. Maya leaned into me, her slight form light against me. Her head just reached my shoulder. I gave my partner a brief hug. "I’ll see you at the baths in half an hour," I told her. "I’m going to see my mother for a few minutes.”
"Don’t let her feed you," Tali said. "In fact, tell her to come here to eat. We’ll have more than enough crab chowder.”
I turned to go.
"Lena?" Tali called after me. "If Gwen has some extra bread, we could use that at supper.”
I nodded. The smell of freshly baked bread always filled my mother’s house, except during the twice-yearly periods when the offspring of Festival alliances are born. My mother is the village midwife.
I stepped off the porch onto the path before I realized my hands were empty. "Maya!" I called. The shutters to our room opened. She leaned out. "Bring my towel and clothes, will you?”
She laughed. "Maybe.”
I chuckled, continuing on. I probably hadn’t needed to ask. As I walked up the path to my mother’s house, I remembered her teaching me how to bake bread when I was eight or nine. I had kneaded the dough with all the strength in my young arms, while Maya, learning with me, did the measuring and supervised the baking. She liked order, even then, never forgetting a step.
The smell of crab rose off my hands and clothes. Daughters sometimes followed their mother’s craft, or an aunt’s, but just as often they chose to apprentice outside the immediate family. My choice at twelve to go to the boats had met with no argument: I belonged in the open air. When Maya had announced six months earlier that she wanted to fish as well, I hadn’t been surprised. For six years, we’d done just about everything together. Breaking with usual practice, the council had let her wait so we could begin our apprenticeships together.
We’d served our five years, and this spring, we’d outfitted Dovekie and passed from apprentices into craftswomen. Fully adult now, part of the village council, we addressed all women as equals, could form Festival alliances and bear children, or just slip Dovekie’s moorings some morning to sail away into adventure. All this could happen in the secure village world we had grown up in and had taken for granted would continue forever. Tali’s news had shaken the foundations of my assumptions. Adult or not, I wanted my mother’s counsel.
My mother’s house stood in the centre of the forty houses or so that made up Tirvan village. Like most village houses, it was built of wood, two storeys high, with gabled ends. Salt air is hard on paint, so the wood of the house had been allowed to weather to a soft silvery-grey, matching the shingles of the roof. The shutters were painted blue, as was the front door, which stood open to admit the cooling breezes of late afternoon. My sister Kira, three years my junior and apprenticed to my mother, sat outside in deep conversation with a young woman. They looked up as I approached.
"Lena, you stink of crab." Kira looked like my mother, compact and curved, and liked to wear her light hair up. With my dark hair and eyes and long limbs, I take after my father. Or so I’m told. His name is Galen. He serves on the northern Wall. I’ve never met him.
"I know. I’m on my way to the baths." I looked at the other woman. "Hello, Cate." Six months older than I, trained as a weaver by my aunt Sara, Cate had helped to weave Dovekie’s sail. Festival had concluded six weeks ago, so I suspected that she had come to confirm pregnancy. But that was for her to tell when she chose. "Is Mother inside?”
"Writing records," Kira answered. The midwives must record all alliances that result in pregnancy, so we know who our fathers are, and our brothers. Inside, the seabreeze had chased out most of the day’s heat. My mother sat at her desk in the workroom, her record book open on the long pine surface. Neat lines of her writing covered half the page. She looked up, the fine lines around her blue eyes creasing in pleasure.
"Six babies to be born in the new year, all being well," she said. "How was the catch today, Lena?”
"Good. We found some new coves. Tali’s making crab chowder for supper. She asked for you to come and bring bread if there is any." I paused. "Mother, what’s going on? Tali says Xani’s son has come to take over the forge. We won’t let him, will we? Why would he want to live here and not with the men?”
Mother closed her record book, standing. "I’ll come to the baths with you," she said. "I’ll give you what answers I may when we’ve soaked out the day. Or at least this half of it. We may be in for a long night." She glanced at me. "Did you bring clean clothes? Or a towel?”
I shook my head absently. "Maya’s bringing them.”
Mother smiled. "She takes good care of you. Give me a moment to collect my things, and we’ll go.”
As we climbed up the hill, the forty or so houses that make up Tirvan, clustered together along the paths, came into full view. The village had grown according to need, with no real pattern. The oldest houses surrounded the harbour or sheltered under the hill pastures; newer houses filled the spaces between. Only the forge sat alone, half-way up the hillside, isolated to protect against fire.
At the very top of the village, hot springs bubbled out of the hillside. The very highest, the sacred one, provided us with water for the rituals of birth and fertility and death. The bracken that surrounded it sheltered small offerings brought by women asking the goddess for intervention or bringing thanks. Another group of springs fed the stream that ran down to the harbour on the far side of the village. At the lowest springs, our foremothers built the bath-house. Here, the channelled water flowed into two large pools, tiled and stepped to allow us to sit partially or completely submerged, sheltered by the walls and roof of the structure. The steaming water rushed in from the springs and out again through pipes to form a stream that then flowed west, tumbling down a cliff to the ocean. After a day on the boats or in the fields, the water—clear, sulphurous, and very hot—felt wonderful.
Maya was waiting for me, clean clothes in hand. The three of us washed quickly, settling into the hot pool to soak. I stretched my legs out, worked my sore shoulders, and sighed.
My mother repinned her knot of greying hair tighter on her head, a sure sign she was thinking out what she wished to say. "Casyn is Xani’s son," she said. "He is here as an Emperor’s Messenger, but part of his request was that he stay here to take over the forge, to be our metalworker. The Council told him that we alone could not make such a decision. The village must hear his reasons.”
"What did he say?" Maya asked. "Was he angry?”
"Not at all. We offered him Xani’s cottage to use until we make a decision. He is there now. I took him bread, cheese, and apples this afternoon." She paused. "He is a quiet man, grave, I would say. I don’t remember him. The records show that Xani bore him forty-eight years ago.”
"Will he be at the meeting tonight?" I asked.
"Yes, at first. He asked for that, too, when Sara and Gille and I spoke with him this morning. He said he knew there would be debate, and that he shouldn’t be present for that, but he has something to say that needs to be heard by us all before we make our decision. And that, my dears, is all I can tell you." She sat up. "Enough? This has been a busy day, even with Kira taking most of the new pregnancies off my hands. I’m hungry.”
Reluctantly, we dried off. Maya combed out her hair. I kept my own hair short, which was better for working on the boat, but I loved Maya’s hair. Most of the time, she wore it braided and tied back. Loose, it reached past her shoulder blades. In our bedroom, later, I would brush it for her.
Walking back from the baths, we passed the forge. A roan horse grazed in the paddock, but other than smoke rising from the chimney, there was no sign of Casyn. At home, the rich smell of crab chowder greeted us. Tali put bread and salad on the table. I followed Maya up to our room. The warm evening sun brightened the braided rug on the floor and the blue of the coverlet. Maya sat on the bed. "I don’t like this, Lena.”
I looked at her in surprise. Maya was so practical, the organizer and record-keeper of our working partnership. I was the dreamer, the one given to mood swings and doubts. "What don’t you like, love?”
"This man. Casyn. Something doesn’t feel right." She shrugged. "I’m scared. I feel like I did when I was six and Garth was leaving." Garth, her older brother, following custom, had gone with the men after the Festival following his seventh birthday. Born only fifteen months apart and sharing a father, Garth and Maya looked almost like twins. We had all played together as children. I’d liked him, in the uncomplicated way of small children, but Maya had adored her brother, grieving for months when he left. Maya swore she would bear no children, and I thought this was why.
"I’m scared, too," I said slowly. I wondered if I spoke truly. I sat beside Maya, putting my arms around her. She rested her head on my shoulder. I kissed the top of her head. We sat like that for a few minutes, each lost in her own thoughts, until Tali called us for supper.
Tali had simmered the crab in milk with root vegetables and onions. Freshly churned butter filled another bowl. I spread some on the bread, eating with an appetite honed by a long day on the water. Maya ate very little. I caught my mother and Tali sharing a concerned glance. Tali shook her head, slightly. I said nothing.
After the meal, I washed the dishes while Maya made tea. We spoke only of trivial things: a cracked mug, the need for more firewood. Siane’s daughter Lara arrived to stay with Pel; she was eleven, too young to attend the meeting. My mother slipped out, and a few minutes later, the bell rang, calling us to the meeting hall.
The hall sat on a slight rise on the right-hand side of the village, looking up from the harbour. Wooden, like all village buildings, the octagonal shape of the hall allowed us to sit in a circle, more or less. Whoever spoke, stood, to be easily heard by all. The three senior councillors: my mother, my aunt Sara, and Gille, sat last, never together, and always at random. The rest of us sat where we pleased.
Some meeting nights, people straggled in for a good half hour after the bell rang. Not so tonight. Word of Casyn’s arrival had spread quickly. Tirvan has an adult population of about eighty, and everyone was seated not ten minutes after the last peal had faded. I looked around. Someone had lit a fire against the cool of the evening. The wood crackled loudly. The faces of the women in the room showed differing emotions: curiosity, anger, worry. I looked for my mother. She stood, speaking to Sara in soft tones. I could not see Gille.
My mother walked across the hall to sit between Siane and Dessa. Maya and I had bought Dovekie from Dessa, a soft spoken, level-headed boatbuilder. Sara remained standing, but moved into the circle.
"Women of Tirvan." Sara’s voice, never loud, commanded immediate attention. "Thank you for coming to this meeting, so promptly and on such short notice. Most of you know why we are here. You know of today’s extraordinary arrival of Xani’s son, Casyn. Most of you will have heard of his request to take over the forge, to stay in Tirvan. He would be the first man to live in a woman’s village in ten generations." Sara raised her hand to quell the rising murmurs. "This in itself will need much debate. But there is more. Before we say yea or nay to Casyn, he has asked to speak to you as the Emperor’s Messenger.”
I glanced at my mother, but Sara had her attention. Men came, occasionally, emissaries from the Empire, to ask for more food or more trade goods, but I remembered no talk at Spring Festival, six weeks past, of new or increased trade. If Casyn wanted to stay at Tirvan, how then could he be an Emperor’s Messenger?
"Women of Tirvan," Sara spoke again, "will we hear Casyn speak in the name of the Empire?" While we had the right to turn down such a request, in practice they were always granted, making the question essentially a formality. We voted with raised hands, unanimous in our decision to hear Casyn speak.
At once, a middle-aged man, not tall, his dark hair streaked with grey, entered from the north-facing door of the hall. Gille walked beside him. If eighty pairs of women’s eyes made him uncomfortable, he did not show it. At the ring of benches, he paused, turning to Gille. She gestured him on. He strode into the centre of the circle, where he turned slowly on his heel, taking us in. His eyes met my mother’s. He inclined his head to her, looked around once more, and began to speak.
"Women of Tirvan." His deep voice and measured speech conveyed a sense of authority. My mother had described him as a grave man. Now I could see why.
"I thank you for allowing me to speak. I would ask one further thing: that you hear me out. The message I bring you tonight will not be welcome, and I am afraid your first reaction will be to reject the messenger." Maya inched closer to me. I found her hand and held it briefly.
Casyn hesitated, then turned to Gille. "Forgive me," he said, "but I am unused to speaking in such an arrangement. May I join the circle, so that my back is to no one, or speak from outside it?”
"From outside the circle, I think," Sara said from her seat. "We can turn to face you." He nodded, moving past the benches; we shifted ourselves, and he continued.
"Forty-eight years ago, I was born in this village to Xani, your smith. For seven years, I played in the fields and at the harbour and called Tirvan home. And then I left, as all boys do, and learned another life. This is how things are, and have been, for many generations. For all those generations, there has been peace in the Empire, or if not peace then small wars, wars in which we have been victorious. We have policed our borders and administered our lands, with little disturbing our way of life." His eyes moved over us as he spoke. "But the world changes. In all the women’s villages of the Empire, this week or next, a soldier like myself will arrive to ask to live in the village, to take up a trade." Casyn paused, for a breath, a heartbeat. "And to teach you and your daughters to fight.”
No one spoke. Casyn watched us in silence. In some small part of my mind, I felt myself measured, judged; the rest of my thoughts scattered like grouse from a harrier. I gripped Maya’s hand, looking up. In the firelit room, I could see my own confusion reflected on every face. Teach us to fight? I struggled for clarity, to make the words mean something. I heard Dessa speaking, her voice very low, and strained to hear.
"Do you know what you ask of us?”
Casyn met her eyes. "Yes," he answered. "Are not all boys taught, at our mother’s knees, why we must go with the men when we turn seven? Why comfort and love and the laughter of our children are ours for but one brief week, twice a year? Why we live apart and die apart? You teach us first, and then the Empire yet again, to remember that decision, made two hundred years ago, to divide our lives." He spoke evenly, but with an undertone of resignation, or regret. His gaze widened to take in the room as his voice rose. "You all know the facts: At that assembly, two centuries past, after a ten-day of passionate debate, our forbearers chose Partition as the compromise, to save an empire divided. For our forefathers wanted a strong army, to war on the frontier against the northern folk, and to take more of the eastern lands. But our foremothers wished only for peace to fish and farm. And so came the assembly, and the vote, and Partition there has been for these long years." His voice softened. "For the most part, it has worked and satisfied both sides, though we both have paid a price." He fell silent.
He knows our history, I thought, but he does not truly understand. All those long years ago, the women’s council voted for more than Partition. They voted to turn their backs on war and weapons, to make them only the province of men. Women did not fight. We learned, in our youth, enough hunting skills to protect our herd animals or add to the cooking pot. I could shoot a bow to take down a hare, and if need required, throw a spear with reasonable force and accuracy, but that was all. More went against our teachings and our skill. How could Casyn, not taught this way, and with thirty years of military life behind him, even begin to comprehend? I looked toward Gille and my mother impatiently. Tell him, I thought. Tell him we can not do this thing. Tell him to go away.
"Why, then, do you ask this of us?”
Casyn met Dessa’s gaze. "Because," he said simply, "there is need.”
"Great need," he replied. Again, his focus seemed to widen, to encompass the room. "There is, a week’s sail to the west and south, another country, Leste—an island both large and rich, warmer than our lands. You will have heard rumours and stories of this land, of their jewelled hands and green eyes, and their boats, each with a leopard’s head on the prow. They may even have come here, to trade their spices and fruit for your cloth and grain. But their island grows crowded, and food is short. Trading is no longer enough. We have spies among them who report that in the autumn, just at harvest, Leste will attack us. They will first come here, to Tirvan and Delle and the other villages, to the unprotected source of food.”
My mother spoke for the first time. "Could you not send part of the army to all the villages, to lie in wait?”
"We could," Casyn said. "It was, in truth, our first plan. But it would be only a stopgap at the beginning of many years of raids and counter raids. Better, we thought, to finish things once and for all. So, women of Tirvan, women of the Empire, this is what we ask of you. Learn, against your inclinations and beliefs, to fight. Defend your villages against the raiders. And while you do so, the men of the Empire will have sailed to an island depleted of its fighting force. There will be no one to mount a defence against us. We will take the island in a matter of days, and the thing will be done. The choice is yours: fight once and then go back to your peaceful way of life, or live with years of uncertainty and battle.”
"Can you not defend us and still send an army to take the island?" Sara asked from the position she had taken beside Gille and my mother.
"No," Casyn said. "There are not enough of us. We cannot leave the northern wall undefended. We can leave you the veterans, and the youngest men, but in the end, they will not be enough. The men of Leste would take the villages, growing strong on our food while we grew weak and hungry in their land. Come Spring, they would sail home to defeat us. I think you can imagine what they would do to you over that winter.”
Above the sudden din in the room, I heard Gille calling for order. Women stood, clattering benches, speaking urgently to partners or family members. Maya called my name. I turned to her.
"We can’t fight," she said. "We can’t. We don’t. Men fight. They must protect us. They have to. That’s what was decided at the Partition assembly. We feed them; they protect us. Isn’t that right, Lena?”
"Yes, love," I said slowly. I heard the fear in her voice. Maya needed order and predictability. In our business partnership, her need for stability balanced my impulsiveness. In our personal relationship, it had always cast a small shadow. I searched for words, wanting to reassure her, but knowing in my gut that our world had just changed. I pushed away something else, something I could not let Maya sense. While Casyn answered my mother’s last question, I had named what churned inside me: not fear, but excitement.
I took a deep breath. "Maya," I said finally, hugging her close. "They’ll protect us. That’s why they want to take Leste, to subdue it and protect us. They’re just asking us to help.”
She pulled away from me. "No," she said, her panicked voice rising. "I won’t fight. I won’t, Lena.”
"Hush, Maya," I said. "Gille wants to speak.”
Slowly, the room quieted. Gille waited until the last murmurs died away. "Casyn," she said, her voice clear and strong, "we thank you for your honesty. I will ask you now to leave us, so we can debate this matter with no hesitancy." He bowed his head to her, glanced at my mother and Sara, and left. I heard his footsteps crunching on the path outside. A log cracked in the fire. Someone gasped. Gille waited until the sound of Casyn’s steps had faded before she spoke again.
"Women of Tirvan," she said formally. "What we have been asked to do tonight is beyond easy understanding. We are being asked to put aside the decisions made by our foremothers, decisions that have shaped our lives for ten generations. We cannot do this in haste. All of us must give this much thought. We will make no decision tonight. Tomorrow morning, the council leaders will speak again with Casyn, and then we will all meet here, to debate and to decide. We will adjourn this meeting until one o’clock tomorrow. But," she added, her tone changing from formal to her normal way of speaking, "the hall will remain open tonight, as long as the firewood lasts. There is tea in the kettle. Please remember that Gwen and Sara and I know no more than you.”
I wanted to talk to my mother, but I felt Maya trembling. I rose to fetch tea from the pot, adding more honey than usual. She drank it in silence, not meeting my eyes. Around us swirled voices—angry, soothing, unbelieving. I sat with my arm around her shoulders, wondering a bit at her shock. No decision had been made; we were only going to talk, to debate. We could vote no.
Eventually she spoke. "I’m going home," she said. "I know how I’ll vote, and nothing will make me change my mind. Are you coming?”
"No," I said. "I want to talk to my mother. Maya, don’t—”
"Don’t what?" she snapped. "Don’t make up my mind so soon? I know how I feel, Lena. What Casyn is asking, what the Empire is asking, is wrong. I know that, and so do you. Women don’t fight. We don’t kill or harm others." Her voice held conviction now, certainty.
"Except in self-defence," I reminded her. She shook her head.
"Maybe that’s true, further north, near the wall," she said. "But who have we ever needed to defend ourselves against?" She pulled away from my encircling arm. "You think this is an adventure, Lena?" she said fiercely. "Something new? Something different? You always want to sail a little further, find another cove, even though the ones we know provide us with all the fish we need. But this isn’t the same; we can’t just sail out into this for a day or two, and then turn around and come back to our safe harbour. If we sail into this storm, Lena, we won’t come out.”
Tears stood in her hazel eyes. She knew me so well. I put my hand on the cloud of her black hair.
"But if we don’t sail into it, Maya," I said gently, "it will find us anyway. It will batter our boats at their moorings until there is nothing left. Our safe harbour will become a prison.”