Something To Be Proud Of
By Robert Collins
René needed a moment to appraise the young male bound to a chair in the cabin. She had never seen a male from outside the Valley. No one had in almost a decade. This male was a curiosity, an unknown quantity. René knew she’d have to examine him before she would accept him.
He was of average height and muscular. He had shoulder-length black hair. His tanned cheeks were clean, his face modestly proportioned. He didn’t appear to be missing any digits. From a purely physical standpoint, he would make a good consort.
Not that she needed him to be her consort. She was the First Daughter. She cold have any male in the Valley that she wanted. But René would not allow herself to travel down that path. The law applied to her as much as it did to any woman. One day she would be First Mother; if that day started with one woman angry with her, every day after that would be troubled. By taking this young male, she could avoid such an unhappy start.
She sat down in a chair across from him. She turned to the tall, brown-haired woman that had brought the male into the valley. “Wait outside, Jeanne.”
Jeanne opened her mouth, then closed it and bowed. “Certainly, mistress.” She gave a harsh glance at the young male, then left the cabin.
René leaned forward. “I’m going to loosen those bonds slightly,” she told him. She kept her tone firm, but not hostile. “You may be smart enough to not try anything. Understand this, boy: Jeanne is the best warrior in the Valley. She taught me how to fight. So, for both our sakes, don’t force me to harm you.” She punctuated the last part with a light grin, and kept it as she loosened the cords binding his hands to the chair.
She watched quietly as he flexed his muscles to get his blood coursing. He knows something about fighting. “What are you called?”
“You told Jeanne that you’re from a small village many days journey from here. Why have you traveled so far from home?”
“Rosemary wanted to see the land beyond our village. She would rather explore than rule. I agreed to follow her.”
“Does this Rosemary have a... claim to you?”
The boy frowned. “A claim? You mean like... love?”
“No. Are you... her husband?”
He looked at the floor. “No. We have not yet married.”
“That bothers you?”
He didn’t look up. “We had a fight. I left our camp and set up my own. Then your women warriors captured me.”
“You have feelings for her, then,” René observed.
“Yes.” He looked up. “Am I to wait here for her? Will you set me free, so that I can look for her? I swear upon my life that I won’t tell anyone about this place.”
How odd, René thought. He seems quite devoted to her. “Tell me, Ashe, who is older, you or her?”
“She is. And she is also smarter.”
“And you like that about her?”
“Yes. When she learns a story from the old empire, she’s filled with such a light.” His eyes gazed distantly away. “She’s a great speaker. She’s so beautiful, and warm, and wise. Her destiny wasn’t in the village, she knew that. She was willing to leave, and search for her place.”
“And you love her?”
“Oh, yes. Everyone who meets her likes her. I’ve known her since we were small children. I don’t think I could love any other woman.”
René let out a breath. This will not be easy. “You don’t have any choice, Ashe. You will have to love another woman. Or, at the very least, pretend that you love her.”
“You’re not going to let me go?”
“No. We can’t. You would tell other men about us.”
“So?” René echoed. “So, men will come here, force us to mate with them, take away what we’ve built here.”
“What have you built here?”
René felt her anger rising. No male had ever challenged her like this. And that this was coming from an outsider, barely old enough to father children!
She stopped herself. He is an outsider. He ought to understand us. He seems smart enough. Maybe he’ll see the truth.
“The women of the Valley are safe from harm,” René said slowly. “Any woman born here can become a teacher, a healer, a warrior, whatever she wants to be. She doesn’t even have to bear children, if she chooses not to. No man can force himself onto a woman, because no man here has power. We rule, they serve, and we are safe.”
Ashe paused for a moment to think. “But what if a man doesn’t wish to harm you?”
“Tell me, Ashe, isn’t it true that outside the Valley, men can take whatever woman they please? Don’t they force women to be their servants? Don’t they keep women from doing what they want?”
“In some places, yes.”
“Do you think that’s good, or bad?”
“Bad. But if it’s bad for men to treat women like that, isn’t it bad for women to treat men the same way?”
René paused. This was a odd young male. He clearly wasn’t a brute, a savage needing to be beaten into submission. But neither was he a meek, docile slave willing to do anything his master asked. He understood the Valley, but couldn’t comprehend why it must be this way. Perhaps we should let him leave.
No, that’s ridiculous. He lies. I can’t trust him. Stop talking to him, and get him into bed. You’ll never produce a daughter talking to him.
“I know Jeanne told you what your place here will be. You must follow our ways, and not question them. You will be treated well. I guarantee that. Any other position, Ashe, will mean a short life of hard work and pain.”
“I should be married to Rosemary.”
“Maybe so. But she isn’t here, and I am.” She slowly rose out of the chair. “But if you don’t want the easy life,...”
“Wait!” He let out a breath. “I’ll be your consort.” He looked up at her. “But I will not enjoy it,” he added.
“I don’t need you to enjoy it,” she replied, her voice even and firm. “I only need you to do it. Remember that, Ashe.” She touched his left cheek softly. “For both our sakes.”
René was surprised that she didn’t feel as happy as she thought she would have. She had finally coupled with a male, and nothing seemed to have gone wrong. So why, she wondered, didn’t she feel better?
Part of her considered that, at the peak of their passion, Ashe had uttered the name of the other woman Rosemary. Moments later he realized what he had said and he apologized. René hadn’t been sure how to react. On the one hand she was physically satisfied, but on the other hand some bit of her pride felt hurt. To maintain some peace she accepted his apology, reassured him of her pleasure, and told him to forget what had happened.
Perhaps it was that hurt pride that worried her. After all, why should she care what a male said at that moment? He was not there to flatter her. He was not there for his own pleasure. It didn’t even matter how he reacted to her body. His duty was to get her pregnant. As long as he carried out that duty, anything else he said or did ought to be unimportant.
But it wasn’t unimportant, René thought. After all, he had feelings for another woman. Those feelings had made him unsteady and unfocused; she couldn’t help but notice that. If those feelings were strong enough they could make him rebellious, or inspire him to try to escape. No male had ever escaped the Valley. To have the first be the male consort of the First Daughter made René shudder with fear.
She could also see that fear played a part in the injury to her pride. She wasn’t certain, but something told her that Ashe saying Rosemary’s name was a bad thing. Perhaps it meant that he was unhappy, but perhaps it meant that he didn’t find her physically attractive. She had heard that some women had trouble over the years with their males because their women could not arouse them enough to do their duty.
Was this another part of Ashe’s problem? René knew that she had been flattered almost since she could understand words. Only her younger sisters and Jeanne had consistently spoken both kind and unkind words. But not even Jeanne had called her unattractive. The fact that she had suggested René take this outsider as her consort had not only implied Rene’s power but her potential to make another woman’s male prefer her over that woman.
Maybe I should not have taken him, René mused. Maybe I should have waited until this Rosemary was brought it. I could have told her what I was facing. I could have put the burden of this onto her.
And if she’d chosen Ashe over my need to have a daughter? I’d have the same dilemma that I faced when I rose this morning.
Maybe this Rosemary won’t show up here. Maybe she’ll never come here. Time will pass, Ashe will forget, and I can stop worrying.
Is that what I should be hoping for?
Why should all this bother me so much?
The one part of being First Daughter that René truly hated was the ceremonies she had to endure. Every important event in her life, and most slightly important events, had been followed by a long and boring ceremony. For as long as she could remember, she’d felt as thought she had better things to do than be where she was at that moment. More recently, she felt embarrassed. The other women were told to put their lives on hold so they could celebrate what had happened to her.
Usually, Jeanne was nearby. She could give René a glance, a smile, something that would take her mind off the somber rituals and flat pronouncements. But on this day, as René endured the Celebration of Final Adulthood, Jeanne was on a patrol. The arrival of the male Ashe had alarmed the Valley. Jeanne had to take a few warriors out to reassure everyone that no other males were lurking beyond the surrounding hills.
Jeanne returned long after the ceremony had concluded. Usually after an expedition, Jeanne made sure to talk to René before reporting to the First Mother. But after this journey, René had to wait, and it surprised her. She was even more stunned when Jeanne replied to her light “Been busy?” with a sharp reply: “I’ve been doing hard work, and I’m in no mood for humor.”
“We’ve brought in a new woman. But just before we got to the valley, we were attacked by wolves.”
“Did you lose any?”
“No, but the newcomer was injured. She’s with the healer now. She fought well, but took a bad hit. Hurt her leg, and, believe it or not, in the fall, she broke her arm!” Jeanne calmed. “But the Goddess was with us. None lost, no others hurt.”
“Good. The injured woman, what is her name?”
“Rosemary, I think.”
Rene’s head spun, and her breathing quickened. “Describe her to me.”
“She has red hair...”
“And blue eyes? Is she short?”
Jeanne frowned. “How do you know her? You’ve never met this girl.”
René shuddered. “That girl is Rosemary, the woman Ashe was traveling with,” she answered in a small voice.
“You mean your male? So? He was rightfully claimed. Just because they were together,...”
“Oh, Jeanne, don’t you see? He...” She gestured wildly. “...well, he called her name, when... If she feels the same way about him, who knows what she will do when she learns what’s happened to Ashe. Or, for that matter, who knows what Ashe will do.” She clasped her friend’s hand. “I have to see her.”
“I don’t know why. I need to talk to her. I don’t want either of them causing trouble. Maybe I can make her understand. Maybe their fight was permanent, and she doesn’t care for him.”
Jeanne grabbed Rene’s shoulders. “You are First Daughter, René. If she stays, this Rosemary will obey the Law. One day she will be your subject. You do not owe her anything. She will do as you say and respect our law, or else.”
René gently brushed Jeanne’s arms aside. “Ashe said she’s smart. I don’t want a smart woman as an enemy. It could harm my reign. Remember the old saying, ‘All it takes is one unhappy woman to sow discontent.’ I will not allow my reign to be like my great aunt Terressy’s.”
Jeanne nodded. “I suppose you’re right. We do not have allow her to stay. We can let he leave.”
“She knows how to get here. If I send her away, and she figures out why, she could come back. With armed men, Jeanne. And the Law says we must allow her to find her place.” René shook her head. “Any of these choices puts the Valley in danger. I have to find another way. I should talk with her, make her understand. I must make some sort of peace with her.”
“You’re growing into your place, my friend.” Jeanne reached out with her right hand, and gripped Rene’s right shoulder. “Be careful. You’ve a hard path to follow. Take every step cautiously. Don’t hesitate to call for me.”
“Of course.” René gripped Jeanne’s shoulder. She left the Mother’s House, and walked to the home of the healers. They told her that Rosemary was in a room on the second floor. The healers had already been to her, and she was not resting. René was told not to excite the woman, and not to stay for too long.
Rosemary looked exactly like Ashe had described her. She had vivid red hair that stretched halfway down her back. Her face was round, and friendly. She was shapely, but her blouse and breeches didn’t call attention to her good looks. René could understand why a male like Ashe might have trouble paying attention to her.
Rosemary was lying down when René entered but not sleeping. René took the initiative and spoke first. “Hello. You’re called Rosemary, aren’t you?”
“Why, yes.” The young woman’s voice sounded pleasant and warm. “How do you know who I am?”
“Jeanne told me about you.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m René, the First Daughter.” Rosemary lowered her head. “I suppose Jeanne lectured you about the Valley.”
“Yes. It’s an interesting idea, women ruling over men.”
“Does it appeal to you?”
“No,” was the immediate reply. “Any woman, or man, should have to prove their worth before they rule over others. That’s what my parents taught me. They also taught me that no one should not, must not, own other people. It’s called slavery, and it’s wrong. Maybe it protects you, now, but sooner or later it’s going to hurt you.”
René considered challenging her opinion. I ought to put her in her place, she thought. She can’t talk to me that way.
Why not? Jeanne talks to me that way. It’s one of the things I value most in her. She’s honest, and not shy about it. Who’s to say that this woman’s opinions aren’t worth hearing? She’s brave enough to speak her mind to me now. Maybe I should hear what she has to say.
“Jeanne told me that you’ve traveled,” René said. “How are women outside the Valley protected from abuse by men?”
“They aren’t, not always,” Rosemary replied. “From what little of the world I’ve seen, I would have to say that the best way for women and men to be free from harm is for everyone to respect each other. I believe that fair laws and honest justice could protect all of us.”
“Where would we find such honesty and justice?”
René thought hers was a question without an answer. She was surprised when the other woman said, “We had such things in the past, long ago.”
Rosemary smiled. “You may be well-off here, but you don’t know any more history than anyone else. Long ago, this valley, my village, the land around here for days in every direction, were all ruled by a line of great kings and queens. They were acclaimed for their wisdom and fairness, and everyone in the kingdom benefited from their rule.”
“I’ve heard that story, but I thought it was just a myth.”
“It’s not. Ashe and I found proof. Old manuscripts, common stories, artifacts... Oh, I’m sorry. Ashe is a young man I was traveling with.”
René hesitated before speaking. What do I say? I can’t reveal anything, not now. “You say, ‘was’?”
“Yes. He’s a headstrong young man. He wanted to go a bit farther in our... relationship than I did. He ran off. He tends to do that when he doesn’t get his way.”
Now, that’s an interesting thing for her to say. I suppose I should be very happy that he hasn’t tried to run away.
“René, promise me that you’ll keep watch for him. I do miss him so. If I’m going to be stuck here, I’d like him...”
“I understand.” René patted her hand gently. “I ought to be going. You’ve had a hard day, and you need your rest.”
Rosemary nodded. “I understand. Thank you for coming to visit. I know you’re busy, but I’d like to talk to you some more. I’d like to know what sort of place you might have for me here.”
“Of course. We’ll talk again tomorrow. Maybe.”
René had considered letting someone else lead Rosemary on a tour of the Valley. She wouldn’t be violating the Law. Rosemary would still be welcomed and given a chance to find her place. But that very rationale also made René feel guilty. She would not be facing a challenge, she would be avoiding it. Once she ascended to First Mother she couldn’t avoid challenges. She decided to face this one and hope for the best.
Not that she wouldn’t be careful. Rosemary couldn’t walk without some assistance; a healer had to stay close to her. René picked the healer before she met Rosemary, a woman skilled but still too young to be assertive. She gave the healer strict instructions not to speak unless spoken to, and to say nothing of the previous day’s celebration even if asked.
After a polite greeting and a check of Rosemary’s wounds the tour began. Rosemary listened as René showed her the buildings and told their histories. The redhead asked precious few questions during the tour. René was surprised at first, but as she thought about it she remembered an old lesson that said hearing was better than speaking.
She must have heard a similar lesson, René mused. She might be wise as well being smart.
René didn’t think the newcomer would be interested in their fields. After all, nothing she knew suggested that Rosemary was a farmer. She was caught off guard when the other woman took a long look at the grain fields then asked, “Could we head out there?”
“I suppose so, as long as you’re not hurting. Why?”
“I want to take a closer look.”
René glanced at the healer. She nodded modestly. “Very well. Follow me.”
She led them down the narrow path that cut between two of the fields. This time both she and Rosemary kept silent. Once Rosemary stopped to examine plants on either side of the path. They kept walking until they reached the irrigation canal that marked the end of the path. Rosemary allowed herself to be helped to the edge of the small ditch.
She looked down the canal. “A large stream cuts through the Valley, yes?”
“Is this fed by that stream?”
Rosemary eased her body to the ground. She stuck a finger into the water in the canal. As she was helped back onto her feet she asked, “The stream flows slowly, correct?”
“I think so. Why?”
“Do any other streams feed into that one? Streams that flow down from the surrounding hills, not ones that cut other valleys?”
“Yes. There’s one just beyond the fields. Why?”
“The water flowing into your canals moves slowly. The flow isn’t strong enough to push it very far into your fields. Look at them carefully. You’ll notice that the plants farthest from water are smaller than the ones closer to water.”
René looked. She didn’t see what Rosemary was talking about at first. She did as she tried to see what the newcomer saw. The difference wasn’t spectacular, but it was there all the same.
That must have been what she noticed when she asked to see the fields, René thought.
“Something should be said to our farmers,” René said.
“Oh, don’t blame them,” Rosemary said quickly. “This has probably been happening for many years. Unless it started after a severe drought, the change would have been gradual year by year. Even now the difference isn’t extreme.”
“But you think it will be?”
“Over time. I’ve see fields like this twice before. Once the difference was modest, like here. The other time it was greater. I think this gets worse the longer it goes on. Eventually the crops that don’t get as much water have to take more from the ground. The ground dries up and gets dusty.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve seen it, in a village where no irrigation was going on. Their land had become very dry. Nothing could grow on it.”
“And you think that, if we don’t do something, our fields will turn dry?”
Rosemary shook her head. “Not all the fields, and not at once. You’ll get smaller crops in the dry spots, maybe more weeds. It isn’t that bad right now.”
“What does that other stream have to do with this problem?”
“If it flows downhill it flows faster than the bigger stream. You could build an above-ground canal from a high point in that stream to flow down to the start of your main canal. That would give the water coming from the larger stream more push. That extra water has to go somewhere.”
“It will push farther into the fields.”
René stared at Rosemary for a moment. Here is a woman who would be worth her weight in grain, she thought. She saw something that we hadn’t noticed. She’s experienced enough to recognize our problem and offer a solution.
Which puts in an even harder dilemma. If Rosemary stays she can make a contribution, but I will have to confront her about Ashe. She seems to be both smart and wise. Will she be wise enough to understand? Or will she be smart enough to resist me?
Later that afternoon René paid another visit to the red-haired outsider. This time she was joined by her sister Irena. She had wanted to meet Rosemary as soon as she had heard she’d arrived. Irena was a few years from becoming a woman; she was getting bored with her routine and any change caught her interest. She was also old enough to be trusted not to say anything about Ashe. René led her sister into Rosemary’s room and introduced her.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Rosemary said.
“Nice to meet you,” Irena replied. “René told me about you. Do you know any good stories?”
“A few. Why?”
“One of the things we’re being taught is how to make a story. Could I get you to listen to mine, and tell me if it’s any good?”
Rosemary glanced at René. René nodded. “All right, Irena. But remember, I am trying to rest and heal. Keep your story short.”
Irena had no problem complying with Rosemary’s request. René thought that if her sister’s story was any shorter it would be carried off on the next moderate breeze. Rosemary listened to her sister tell her tale without any interruptions. René felt tempted once or twice to say something. She held back because she knew she wasn’t the one whose opinion was being sought.
When Irena was finished she said to Rosemary, “That was too short, wasn’t it?”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. But you didn’t tell me much about the people in your story.”
“What do you mean?”
“The people in a story have to live, just like real people do. You told me how tall they were and what color hair they had, but not who they are.” Rosemary paused for a moment. “Let show you what I mean. One of the stories I know was about a young princess. The story says, ‘She was not a cold, bright sunrise, but a warm and mellow sunset. Her voice was not the song of the birds but the flow of a clear stream.’”
“That’s interesting,” Irena murmured.
“It is, isn’t it? You don’t see what she looks like, but you do get a sense of who she is. Capture your people as who they are. If their size, or hair color, or something like that matters, put that in. But if it doesn’t, don’t bother. Describe who they are instead. Are they happy or sad, exciting or dull, smart or dumb, good or bad? Find a few words that paint that picture instead of what they look like.”
“Yes, I can see that. That makes sense.”
It also made sense to René. That impressed her, because she never quite had the inclination towards creativity that her younger sister was displaying now. I wish I’d had a lesson as direct and as eye-opening as Irena just got, she thought.
“Are you as good with numbers as you are with stories?” Irena asked.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“I’m having trouble with my times tables.”
“My... teacher always said that problems with math could only be solved by hard work,” Rosemary told the girl. “Only you can understand it. No matter how much anyone else explains it to you, you either learn it or you don’t.”
“And don’t think you can get through life without learning it.”
“Think about this, Irena. I have five apples. You want to trade with me to get them. I tell you that I’ll trade you one apple for... a handful of grain. But if you want all five, you’ll have to give me four handfuls.”
“Well, that’s easy. Four handfuls instead of five.”
“Right. But suppose I say I’ll trade three handfuls for one, or twenty for all five. Then which is the better trade?”
Irena had to think for a few moments. “The three handfuls,” she said cautiously. “Three times five is fifteen, and fifteen is less than twenty.”
“Right again. Now back when all these lands were under one ruler, people used things called ‘coins’ to trade goods. These coins were little pieces of precious metal, either copper, silver, or gold. Ten copper coins was equal to one silver coin. Twenty silver coins were equal to one gold coin.”
“But what good were these coins?”
“You didn’t have to have goods to trade with. You could use coins to trade for what you needed. An apple was worth a certain number of coins. That way, if you had nothing to offer but you had coins, you could get an apple.”
“I still don’t see what those coins have to do with it.”
“Replace the handfuls of grain with coins. Or think about this way. Look at my hand, and look at yours. Mine’s bigger than yours, right? So who defines what a ‘handful of grain’ is? If we use my hand I’ll get more grain, less if we use yours. You don’t have that problem with coins. We don’t make them, the rulers do. We just use them. They don’t get rid of cheating, but they do make it a little harder to cheat.” Rosemary smiled. “To put it briefly, learn your math. It’s important.”
“That’s what all the women tell me.”
“Could I come back and talk to you tomorrow?”
“I think for now you’ll have to ask your older sister.”
“Maybe not tomorrow,” René said, “but I’ll see if I can arrange for you to spend an evening with Rosemary the day after tomorrow.”
Irena considered the suggestion then calmly agreed to it. She said goodbye to Rosemary and left the room. As René was about to follow her out Rosemary motioned to her to approach her.
“All this talk of trade has made me think of something we need to talk about.”
“I’ll be busy in the morning, but my afternoon is free.”
“Good. Is there anyone whose advice you trust?”
“Bring her with you.”
René nodded and left. She wondered what topic Rosemary had on her mind that she wanted to discuss. She couldn’t have found out about Ashe. She seemed to be full of ideas; perhaps it was one of those that she wanted to speak about.
Damn, René thought, this Rosemary is determined not to make my dilemma any easier.
“What do you think she wants to say?” Jeanne asked René.
“I don’t know.” René walked through the door Jeanne held open for her. “I think it has something to do with trade.”
“Trade? Why should we want to trade with anyone?”
“I’m sure she’ll tell us.” Before they went into Rosemary’s room René stopped and turned to face her friend. “Promise me you’ll listen to what she has to say.”
“Tell me why.”
“I want her to think well of us, that we aren’t who she thinks we are.”
“What does she think we are?”
“Males aren’t slaves. If they were, everyone would have them.”
“Well, just listen. Don’t say anything if you can’t say something constructive.”
“As you wish, First Daughter.”
René let out a sigh. She motioned to Jeanne to open the door for her. Rosemary was sitting up, her face mild. She greeted them more warmly than she had. René sat down next to her on her bed. Jeanne closed the door, and stood a few steps away from them.
“So,” René began, “what is this topic that we have to discuss in secret?”
Rosemary let out a short breath. “Yesterday when you showed me around I noticed that your fields had different crops growing in them. You do rotate your crops every growing season?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I also noticed you have cows and sheep. You change where they graze, right?”
“You have a few gardens for vegetables, and some fruit trees.”
“What is your point?” Jeanne asked.
“You eat the same foods year after year. You have variety, but only in what you grow yourselves. At first I thought this was a good situation. But then I remembered all these places I’ve been to with the same situation. They had just enough variety to get by, but not enough to thrive or to trade with others who had none.”
Rosemary looked at René. “Yesterday I said that if you didn’t try to irrigate all your fields, the land would dry up and become useless. The exact same thing can happen if you just grow the same crops over and over. You can rotate them, let some fields lie fallow, use some for grazing, but if you don’t put down some new ones the fields will eventually turn bad.”
“How?” Jeanne asked.
“I’m not certain how, exactly. But I found bound books and scrolls from the time of those great rulers. They were messages from the land’s seat of power to local leaders. One of these messages said it was imperative for those leaders to make their people try new crops on their farms. There had been an unexpected drought somewhere else, and a casting revealed that the land in that area was barren.”
“Castings? You mean magic?”
“Yes. Magic was common in those days. Anyway, other castings showed that fields that were using new crops were not barren. The records showed that the drought area had been rotating their crops. Therefore the local leaders were told they had to persuade their people to change.”
“Do you believe this will happen to us?” René asked.
Rosemary nodded. “If it could happen there, why couldn’t it happen here?”
“Why should we trade to get these new crops?” Jeanne said. “There should be good plants in the wilderness. We can send a patrol to look for wild grains, fruits, and vegetables for us to grow.”
“How will you know which ones are safe to eat?”
“We’ll test them on males.”
“And reckless,” René added. “What women will have to go without bearing more children, or any children? Who will do the hard work that males do?”
“There could be plants that hurt women more than men,” Rosemary said. “You wouldn’t know the danger until it was too late.
“And you have another problem that you can’t solve by sending out a patrol. I noticed some of your tools are looking worn.” Rosemary nodded towards the short sword Jeanne wore at her hip. “How old is that blade? How many women have carried it before you? Was there a time when it was longer?”
Jeanne shifted from one foot to the other. “What does any of that matter?”
“One day your tools and weapons will wear out. Swords will be whittled down to knives. Plows will lose their edges. I don’t see any mines in the Valley, Jeanne. Where will you get new metal to make new weapons and new tools? Or will you just give up swords and use wooden spears and clubs?”
“You might be right, but no one will allow male traders into our Valley.”
“Rosemary,” René said, “if we assume you’re right, and we do have to trade for these things, what would we have to offer?”
“You have forests on all sides,” Rosemary answered. “There are places not too many days from here that would welcome lumber. They have homes they need to build or repair, and other structures that need help. They also need lumber to make beds, chairs, tables, and things to store their goods in. If you treat these trees as carefully as you treat your crops, you should have enough lumber to trade for many years to come.
“And you are growing good enough crops. Add another field or two and you should have enough to trade with. Seeds also make good trades. Your gardens could be expanded to produce more than what you need. Again, if you’re careful you can produce enough food to offer in trade.”
“I’m pleased that you think so highly of our skills,” René said. “You haven’t addressed the problem of allowing male traders to come here. You must see that this is something that we cannot allow.”
Rosemary started to speak, but took in a breath instead. An instant later she replied to René. “You don’t have to allow in traders if you don’t want to. You can go out and trade instead. Make your trades beyond the Valley and bring what you get back here.”
René smiled. “Of course. It’s so obvious. Tell me, how will we know that we are not being taken advantage of?”
“We send out spies to observe traders,” Jeanne answered. “They return and report to us who is honest and who isn’t.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Rosemary said. “First, you have the problem of spies having to blend in. Trust me, a woman walking around armed will attract attention. I didn’t mind attracting attention; I wanted to learn and to help. I don’t think that’s what you’d want for a spy trying to tell good traders from bad ones.
“Then you have the problem of who you would send to spy. A newcomer might use that chance to run away. A woman from the Valley might say or do something that would be fine here but wrong out there.”
“It sounds like you’re turning against your own idea.”
“I’m not. What I am saying is that instead of spies, take the direct approach. Take your goods and make offers. If you send women who have a feel for telling truth from lies you can avoid being cheated. And don’t forget, both of you, that they won’t know you either. If they don’t trust you, they might believe that they are the ones being cheated.”
René sucked in a long breath. She had not thought of Rosemary’s idea in that way. It was a simple point, almost obvious, and yet she had not considered the matter from the view of an outsider. Of course they might be as concerned about us as we would be about them, she mused. We would be strangers to them, and they to us. They might even have as much or more to fear from us as we would from them.
She looked at Jeanne. Her friend shook her head. “I still don’t like the suggestion of us having to reply on males from outside the Valley,” she said.
“You may not like it,” René said. “Others may not like it. But if Rosemary is right, and I think she might be right, we may not have any choice.”
“You are the First Daughter. You should not even be considering such things.”
“Yes, she should,” Rosemary said. “Leaders should lead. She should think about what is best for her people. She shouldn’t worry if the best course isn’t popular. She should decide on what is best, and get the Valley to follow her.”
René turned to Jeanne. “Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
Jeanne frowned, exhaled, then left the room. René turned back to Rosemary. She clasped the other woman’s hands. “You have to forgive Jeanne. She’s never liked having to deal with males.”
“How does she expect to bear children without a man?”
“She doesn’t?” Rosemary back away from René slightly. “She hates men that much? Doesn’t that worry you?”
“I... I never thought about it.”
“You should. Is she the only woman who feels that way?”
“Ah, not really. There aren’t that many women who are like her, only five or six at most.”
“That you know about.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That five or six may be vocal, but that more might not be so willing to say what they feel. You should be worried about that, René. You really should. If many more women start to refuse to have anything to do with men, even to the point of avoiding sex to make children, the Valley is going to run out of women.”
“You sound like you don’t like it here. You haven’t been here all that long.”
“I’ve been here long enough to see that you’ve got problems.” This time it was Rosemary who clasped Rene’s hands. “I don’t think you’re evil. I don’t hate you. I don’t think the Valley started out with a bad idea. Women are vulnerable. We can be abused, and in the worst way possible, being forced have sex and then to bear children against our will.
“But you can’t keep going the way you’re going. Your isolation is starting to create problems. The way you react to men may prevent you from doing what you have to do to stay alive and well. The Valley could face a serious crisis in your lifetime, or in your daughter’s lifetime. That crisis may leave you with only two choices, change or die.”
“Why should you care about what happens to us? You don’t have to stay. I don’t think you hate us so much that you’d reveal us to other outsiders. Tell me, Rosemary, why you care so much?”
“I was taught that what happens to others can affect me. I was taught not to keep my mouth closed about things that didn’t concern me, because anything might concern me. If I take an interest in what happens to you, you might also take an interest in what happens to me. Either we help each other, René, or we end up hurting each other.”
“There is something else.”
“I’ve seen women abused and hurt. I’ve seen a little light come into their eyes when they see me, when they learn about my travels and what I’ve tried to do to help others. I think you could also offer hope to them. Perhaps you could even offer them sanctuary if they need it. But I don’t think you should offer hope if it’s cloaked in hatred. Women can’t hate men, just as men can’t hate women. What would happen to us if men and women didn’t get along?”
René nodded. Once again Rosemary’s argument was both simple and powerful. The flame-haired young woman was valuable and dangerous, a hope and a threat. The difficulty for René was how to deal with her in a way that would sustain the promise and avoid the problem. She excused herself, telling Rosemary that she would have to consider what had been discussed. She managed to keep the situation in the back of her mind for the rest of the day. But that night, after making love to Ashe, it came back to prominence in her thoughts and demanded resolution.
One solution would be to prevent Rosemary from wanting to stay, René admitted to herself. It wouldn’t be that hard to ignore what she’s said, to make it clear that her ideas weren’t welcome. To let her know that challenging the Valley and the First Daughter had a price.
Except that her ideas made sense. I can’t be certain that our troubles are as dire as she thinks they are, but she is right. We are running out of weapons and tools. I’ve seen our surpluses dropping since I was became aware of my duties. And what she had to say about Jeanne, it makes me feel cold. And if I did drive her away, I would not only be violating the Law, I would be making an enemy. A formidable enemy, and if she found out about Ashe, she might also be a determined one.
Ashe, she thought suddenly.
She looked at his sleeping body. I may have already broken the Law. “No woman may steal another’s property or man.” If Rosemary did find out, she could argue that Law against me. She might not win, an outsider against the First Daughter. But the injury would be inflicted, on me and on us. When I become First Mother, I would be watched like a bullying male. Any mistake, any harm that comes from my decisions or actions would be whispered about. I could lose their trust. I could lose their trust in the Valley.
And if Rosemary stays, René asked herself, could I keep this secret from her? Of course not. That could make her bitter. Turn her against us, or against me. Either turn injures the Valley. A wise young woman has come to us, and I’ve betrayed her without a concern.
I should have listened to Ashe.
The thought was a slap to René. A hard and vicious slap, but it got her attention.
We treated him like any other male. I treated him like any other male. Now I may have broken the Law and made a smart woman my enemy.
So how can I clean this mess I’ve made?
She gave herself a moment to find an answer. The first thing I have to do is confess to Rosemary, she mused. I have to tell her the truth, and I have to tell her that I know I’ve wronged her. If I do that, I might be able to get her help in finding a solution that preserves the Valley and keeps her from turning against us.
I have to. I don’t have any other choice.
The next morning after breakfast René went to Rosemary’s room. She did nothing to hide her unhappy mood.
“Hello, René. I hope...”
“We have to talk.”
Rosemary seemed to sense Rene’s mood. “What’s troubling you?”
“Rosemary, I have to confess something to you. I’ve done a terrible thing to you, and I ask you to forgive me.”
“Jeanne brought Ashe here a few days before you arrived.”
“He’s here? Where is he?”
“Ashe is...is in my quarters.” Say it, just say it. “He’s my mate.”
“Mate?” The redhead darkened ever so slightly.
“Yes. You see, we’ve had problems finding me a mate. There aren’t many males close to my age who aren’t... claimed. Ashe seemed to be a solution to the problem.” She paused. “I feel terrible, saying such a thing. He told me about you, about his feelings for you. But because he was a male, I didn’t care about his feelings.
“When you came, I thought you would just be another woman. You would be happy to be here. You would join us. But as we’ve talked, I learned that he was right. I should have listened to him. If I had, I might not have hurt you the way that I have.
“You still love him, don’t you? You love him, and I’ve come between you, haven’t I?”
“Yes.” The other woman was subdued. “Yes, I do, and yes, you have.”
“I am so sorry. Last night, I thought about this, and about what you said yesterday. In hurting you, I may have also hurt the Valley. You have every right to be angry with me. You may have reason to be angry with us. I don’t want you angry, Rosemary. I don’t want you to hate me, or to hate us.
“Because, as I thought about what you said, I also realized that we need you. We need your experience, your ideas, your answers. The Valley’s future is uncertain. We may have to change, maybe even open ourselves to world beyond, if we’re to survive. I will need your help if I’m to carry forward your ideas.”
“I don’t know, René.”
“Hear me out, please?”
“Thank you. I won’t force you to stay. I know that if I did, the fact that Ashe and I... Well, I know it could cause trouble for us. But I do want you to stay, because what you’ve said was right, especially yesterday. But I can’t force you to leave, either. It would break the Law. You must be allowed to find your place. And if you left unhappy, well, I know where that path leads.”
“You mean all that, don’t you?”
“So what is it that you want from me?”
“Most of all, I want your forgiveness.”
Rosemary let out a deep breath. She took René by the hand and allowed to sit down next to her. “I am hurt, René, very hurt. I do still love Ashe. I may not have been ready to commit to starting a family with him a few days ago, but one day I would be ready. I have to say that part of me hates you for doing this to us.
“But then I look at your face, and I see that you mean what you say. I was taught not to be angry with someone who apologizes for doing something bad to me. Staying angry will only create more pain, for me and for you.”
Rosemary brushed a tear from her eye. “Yesterday, I said that the Valley could be a sanctuary for women without hope. If I don’t forgive you, if I try to bring you down or destroy all this, something in me says I will be stamping out some of that hope. But I also think that what’s been happening here has brought you and I the pain we feel right now. The Valley offers hope while it crushes hope.”
The redhead let out a tiny laugh. “I don’t know if you’ve heard the stories about the end of the great kingdom. They tell of different causes for end, and how we got to the place we are now. There were mages in rebellion, warriors fighting amongst themselves, or some such crisis. But almost every story seems to begin with someone following the rules instead of thinking for themselves. We could be playing out just such a tragic end.”
“I thought about that,” René said. “That’s also why I came here to ask for your forgiveness. I hoped that, if you accepted my apology, you and I could find some way out of this. A way that preserves the Valley, but allows us to do what we have to in order to survive.”
Rosemary didn’t speak for a moment. “If the only answer was to break the Law, would you?”
“I don’t think so. I am the First Daughter. I may have already broken the Law in taking Ashe. If, as First Mother, others believe that I don’t obey the Law, my reign will degenerate into chaos. It happened once, when my mother’s mother had to unseat her sister. The story still makes Mother shudder.”
“But your Law made you treat me badly.”
Now it was Rene’s turn to see the unseen. “No, not our Law. How we have lived by that Law.”
Rosemary smiled. “Yes, that’s right. Well, I don’t know about that Ninth Law, but for the most part you’re right.”
“Even that Law can be interpreted... better. Perhaps instead of meaning ‘worth’ like the value of a cow, ‘worth’ could mean... more. I don’t know. What I do know is, whatever solution there is to our problem, it can’t be seen break the Law.
“For that matter, I don’t think that even that is a good idea. If I break the Law to do something for you, even if it’s a good thing, wouldn’t that mean that the Law can be broken if a woman thinks her action is better than following the Law?”
“Yes, that makes sense. Once a reason is given for breaking any laws, then in time any reason becomes a good one. And the reason is up to the person, not to the society. Soon law becomes whatever anyone wants it to be. I suppose that’s why the Valley came about in the first place.”
The room was silent for a moment. Rosemary broke the silence with a simple question. “Is there be some way for Ashe and I to leave?”
“Escape? No. Certainly not until I’ve given birth to a daughter.”
“What if you bear a son?”
“First Daughters and First Mothers don’t bear sons.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m afraid so. Didn’t it strike you as odd that there are almost nine years between me and Irena, but only three between her and Marina?” René looked at the floor. “I remember the second time Mother was pregnant and... I was told the baby was stillborn, but I knew I heard a baby cry.”
She turned back to Rosemary. “Let’s not think about that. Let’s try to find a way out of this.” She managed a modest smile. “Maybe if we find a way out, we can stop that from happening again.”
“I hope so. If we escape, we’d be followed, right?”
“And punished if caught.”
“Is there any other way to leave the Valley?”
“Get taken away. Die.”
Rosemary sucked in a breath. “Wait. Die.” She paused to think.
“Killing yourself isn’t an answer.”
“I don’t mean that.” She smiled. “René, do you think the death of a wise and trusted advisor might inspire your women?”
“It could. You’re not suggesting murder, are you?”
“No. Here’s what I’m thinking. I’ll stay and help you try to make some changes. We’ll start with the ideas that will do the most to benefit life in the Valley. At the same time I’ll speak up in favor of what the Valley stands for.”
“And mean it?”
“I’ll try to mean it. After all, if mine is a voice you rely on and believe in, I’ll have to mean it, won’t I? We’ll have time until you bear a daughter. We can hope it won’t take too long.”
“I still don’t see what you’re thinking about.”
“Once you’ve had your daughter, and we know she’s safe, then Ashe and I can leave. Only it won’t be us escaping in the night. We’ll make... some kind of sacrifice. Something that will inspire confidence. Something that you can use to lead the Valley in a direction that’s different but better.”
René gasped. “Yes, I see. That might be a way out.”
“Of course, there won’t be bodies for anyone to see or find. Just what you say about what happened.” Rosemary smiled. “And we have plenty of time to think up a really good story.”
“You promise that no one will come looking for us?” Ashe asked René.
“You have my word, Ashe. You’re the father of my daughter. I would never do anything to harm you.”
He glared at her for a moment before turning away. Even now, René could see that he had never stopped loving Rosemary, and had never forgiven her. But that didn’t matter anymore. They were going away, and Ashe would take his anger with him.
René took a few steps towards Rosemary. She was looking down on the valley. “Taking one last glance?” she asked.
“It looks peaceful, doesn’t it?” Rosemary said.
“Looks will be deceiving. I hope they will.” Rosemary’s eyes met hers. “You’re sure this story about sacrifice will have its effect?”
“There won’t be anything to contradict it, since Ashe and I won’t stay in the area. They’ll have no choice but to believe what you tell them. It’s a good story, if I do say so myself. Ashe and I taking on raiders to give you time to escape. Us giving our lives to save yours. Ashe giving his life for yours. The women in the valley a will hear that men can be noble and decent. It opens eyes without really undermining beliefs.” Rosemary smiled. “I’m trusting you, so you’ll have to trust me.”
René nodded. “I know.” She took in a breath. “You won’t have much, a bow, arrows, a knife. Can you survive?”
“We’ll have to. It’s too late to go back down and get supplies. And if we did come up here with more supplies, it might raise suspicions.”
René nodded again. “As you keep telling me. I’m sorry, Rosemary. But I am going to miss you.”
“You’re no fool, René. You know this is the right thing to do. For Ashe, for me, for you, for Monique, for everyone.” Rosemary opened her arms.
René embraced her. “You’ve been a good friend.”
“So have you. And I will miss you, too. We part as friends.”
They let go of each other. René raised her hand to say goodbye to Ashe. He nodded once in reply. She did the same to Rosemary, and she returned the gesture. René watched them as they disappeared into the wilderness. René stood silently for a moment. She then bent down, rubbed dirt onto her clothes, and ripped a small hole in one of her sleeves. She took a breath before breaking into a run back to the valley.
At long last Monique was asleep. René gently covered her daughter in a blanket, then slumped down into the rocking chair next to the infant’s crib. You’ve had a long day, little one, she told the child silently. We both have. I’ll tell you all about this day, when you’re older. When you can understand.
René put her hands on the arms of the chair. She took in a breath, leaned back, and allowed the rocking to calm her.
I wish Rosemary could have stayed to teach you. But she’s happy now, she and your father. I hope one day they can come back and see you.
Well, it would have to be in secret, or under different names. After all, everyone’s going to hear that they sacrificed themselves to protect us. Rosemary and Ashe can’t just return from the dead. Not without an explanation that fits what I’ll be saying about them.
René smiled. When you’re old enough, I’ll tell you what really happened. For now, you’ll have to happy with the story. It is a good story. With the Goddess’ help, the story will do what we want it to. It will push the Valley to become a better place. A place where you won’t go through the struggle I had to with Rosemary and Ashe.
A place that all of us can truly be proud of.