The Captain looked at me and then growled, “Don’t be insulting woman, I’m not going to beat you.”
I hadn’t said a word and had hoped my thoughts hadn’t shown on my face. Daphne, who had slowly regained her confidence due to the liberal application of male attention which seemed to give the Captain indigestion, managed to irritate him further when she said, “You should … and worse. She knows the penalty for a woman touching a weapon.”
It was Docia’s obvious fear and not my own that had me answering, “That rule is barely four summers old and was only made because the elders feared that their women would become as fierce as the Lakesider females … especially after the sickness halved the number of males in town, leaving us to easily outnumber them. It was a stupid rule and was made to keep us down. Your own mother was a fighter and died in battle defending your home.”
A muttered, “And see where it left me” were Daphne’s only words before she dropped her eyes from mine. I didn’t feel particularly powerful at her actions, more it reminded me that she was like she was for a reason and had had no more choice in most things than the rest of us. I made to move back into the shadows but I wasn’t allowed to.
The Captain looked at me consideringly and said, “You kept in practice.”
Knowing I was well and truly caught I gave up and shrugged. “A body that is expected to work has to eat and those of us in the crèche were sometimes … forgotten.”
A few of the girls, including Docia, nodded slowly. The Captain’s nephew muttered sotto voice, “Sounds like something that stingy piker would do. From the fat around his middle he didn’t miss too many meals though.”
I had learned to hide my emotions but it was a struggle not to laugh at what the Headman’s outraged expression would have been had he heard what was said and the other derogatory comments the Kiplings men made in agreement.
The Captain cleared his throat and all was silent again. Then addressing me directly, “Be that as it may … are you the only one that is trained?”
“Yes, Captain Uhl. Most of us are useful in a general way but I am the only one who was taught to kill humans if need be.” My bluntness momentarily flummoxed him but then he said in a harder voice, “Today wasn’t the first time.”
I’m still not sure why I answered him truthfully except he had the same steel gray eyes my father had … and that I had as well when I caught my reflection in a bit of still water. “The raiders that killed my family didn’t stay on this side of the veil for long.”
A boy who could have been no older than my own sixteen years said scornfully, “Liar. No twelve year old girl could have killed a band of warriors.”
“Raiders not warriors,” I snapped not liking his insult. “And age doesn’t matter when you’ve heard the screams of your Ma and baby brother as they were burned alive or seen your Da scalped just ‘cause two Headmen were thinking more with what’s in their buckskins than what God gave them inside their skulls.” Ignoring Daphne’s gasp of outrage I told Captain Uhl, “My father taught me the bow, the sling, and how to build traps for both man and beast. Life has taught me how to use a blade and an ax when need be.”
Docia was trying to shush me but stopped when the Captain asked, “Can you ride astride?”
Of course he meant on a horse but by the sniggers coming from a couple of the younger men I could imagine where their mind took the question. Ignoring them I answered, “I prefer mules to horses, I feel they’ve got more sense.”
Daphne muttered, “It’s not sense but kinship you feel.” I saw Captain Uhl’s lips just barely twitch beneath his bushy mustache and silently conceded that for once Daphne might be right.
The Captain beckoned me closer to the fire but as I walked forward my foot knocked against a saddle that was being used as a back rest by one of the men. I had to stop and catch my breath around the sudden and blinding pain. I opened my eyes to find the Captain forcing me to sit and asking, “Are you hurt girl? Why did you saying nothing?”
Docia had already run to my side understanding what had happened and the whole sordid tale came out. My refusal to work in the saloon “for the men’s pleasure.” The punishment in the stocks. The snowstorm. The frost bite. How I finally had to amputate my own toe when the Headman refused to allow anyone to help me. “Docia sewed me up – she’s good with a needle and awl – but we had to be careful the job wasn’t too good or the Headman would have put her in the stocks too. I wasn’t going to have that. Besides, it’s not so bad now; I just stubbed it. I won’t leave Docia so even if you dump me off for being gimp I’ll follow to make sure she gets settled properly.” I ended more belligerently than good sense dictated but I could feel Docia tremble beside me at the idea of us being separated.
The young man gently looking my foot over was the Captain’s nephew as well the group’s medic. “Uncle, she’ll be fine. It is likely diet and overwork that have slowed the healing. Father can confirm it when we reach the fort but he’ll tell you the same thing. Leave her go, she’s too much like Aunt Winnie; she’ll make noise if she thinks someone is fussing over it and only be more trouble.”
I jerked my foot away from him but it was Docia who made me blush with irritation when she smiled admiringly at the young man and whispered shyly, “That’s Fel alright. She’d rather die silent and in pain than live beholden.”
Capt. Uhl snorted and said, “Enough.” He wasn’t overly rough but everyone obeyed and knew it was time to be serious. “Girl … Fel is it? … you’ll take your turn filling out the ranks. You’ll be watched so get no ideas of running off. None of us can afford the wasted time it would take to hunt you down and haul you back. We are heading through an area known for highway men.” At my confused look he explained, “Consider them a variety of raider. Most of them just ne’er do well locals living out in the bush but capable of being extremely vicious and occasionally clever. They’ve usually got more sense than to attack a caravan this size, particularly from Kipling, but the year has been leaner pickings than usual for the forest dwellers here, and between our wounded and our goods they likely won’t be able to resist at least trying.”
Rubbing my nose and thinking I asked, “How do they usually attack? Head on or by stealth?”
He gave me another considering look like I had surprised him and he didn’t particularly appreciate it. “Each group – and there are several as they can rarely maintain a coalition for very long – has their own signature. The most common strategy is to pick off the wagon drivers then rush in to create as much shock and confusion as possible as they take control of the goods and run off into the woods with them.”
I gave it a thought or two and then let my tongue wag. Turning I said, “Daphne, you Luce and Mara stay to the middle of the wagon. You have your talents but fighting isn’t one of them. Hannah, arrange the strongest of us to protest the weaker. Docia, you and Nel had best ride in the wagon holding the wounded men and be prepared to take on more if we are attacked. None of you prattle and if you must speak then whisper. If God wills it they’ll give themselves away before they hit; if He doesn’t then take their eyes out if they get close enough. Blind men can’t aim worth a flip. If you can’t take their eyes, go for their gullet and spill their tripes.”
Turning to the Captain I said, “You want me to help you then don’t leave the rest of us helpless.” His face shuttered but I barreled on. I looked at Hannah and though she wasn’t happy about it she nodded her head in agreement and I said, “Any weapons we get we’ll turn back in. If you won’t give us weapons at least lend me a blade so I can cut spears without having to hunt up a sharp rock to use. We will not double cross you, it wouldn’t make sense. We are too far from home and familiar territory to be able to make sure we all escape and I for one won’t leave anyone behind.”
Several of the men gave me a hard look but a big bear of a man named Carter stepped up and said to the Captain, “Begging your pardon Cap’n it only makes sense. The gals will stay in the wagon sure, but there ain’t enough able bodied to be all over ‘em all the time. This way too they’s invested in keeping their own skin on. ‘Sides, they ain’t give us no trouble up to now. We’ve dealt fair with them and they’s done the same to us. I actially expected to be clawed and scratched to ribbons by now after the way them’s men of theirs talked.”
I snorted and said, “They aren’t our men.” A little quieter I added, “At least not anymore. If you really mean to make my friends wives and not saloon girls …”
The Nephew as I had started to call him in my head said, “See Uncle? I told you.”
Irritated and affronted in good measure the Captain said, “It’s to be brides as set in the bargain. We gave our word.”
It was Hannah, who eyed the man Carter in a way I’d never seen her look at a man before. She asked him, “Truly … brides?”
The man honestly blushed but smiled and said, “Truly Maid Hannah. It would be more than my skin – any man’s skin – was worth to go against the word and honor of Kipling.”
Captain Uhl snorted, “Enough of this. Let the women of Kipling handle this ridiculous situation. For now … for now … we have a bargain and you will get your spears. Woe to you – any of you – if you lie.”
I wanted to tell him to stop trying to be scary and go huff and puff somewhere else when I saw a few of the girls blanch in fear but knew that they needed the lesson that regardless of whether we’d been treated fair up to this point they were still just men and strange men at that and trusting them fully would be a mistake.
Contrary to his rough looks Carter acted more teddy bear than grizzly. It made me begin to wonder why these men from such a strong settlement were so eager to please women from so far away when they should have gotten women closer to home to swoon at their feet easily. Between Carter, myself and Hannah the spears were soon made. Hannah was the daughter of one of the town’s best Huntsmen … or had been until he had fallen in battle with a tomahawk in his back. I nearly wished a pox on our old Headman until I remembered knowing the randy old goat it would likely be spread to every man in the village once he spent some time at the saloon as was his practice.
Nerves kept me from sleep as soundly as I should have with a hard day ahead of me, and a good thing too. I was staring out to the edge of the camp when by the meager light of the setting moon I saw one of the guards get silently dog piled. I jumped up and gave the same sharp whistle I had heard the men give at the beginning of the battle with the pirates, then the brawl was on.
The spears had been distributed to those of the women that I knew wouldn’t hurt themselves with them. I was supposed to get a bow in the morning but it wasn’t even time for the cooks to be about yet. The only weapon I had close to hand was a piece of limb from a fallen tree branch. I swung it like a club, connecting with heads and other soft spots as I waded through men trying to get to where I had last seen Docia. Then I heard a scream off in the trees, much further into the trees than it should have been, and I knew the girls were being carried off. I vowed there would be no rape of the Sabine women on my watch.
As I fought I had gained ground and was near one of the campfires. I dropped my limb and pulled out one from the coals that was orange enough on one end that when I shook it a beautiful flame erupted. It gave just enough light that I could take off after my crèche sisters without having to stumble around in the dark.