Rafe had her pint of ale clutched in her right hand and balanced on her knee. She sat in the speaker’s chair, looking over her audience. Jenna had asked what story Rafe would tell tonight, to answer Auntie Finn.
“Not one suitable for little children, that is for sure. I will not be responsible for nightmares.”
Jenna had raised an eyebrow, channeling the nine year old who had done their mother’s bidding, bossing Rafe from here til noonday.
Rafe snorted. “I know you would like nothing better than for me to tell a cautionary tale about how-not-to-squander-our-special-gifts. But that is not happening. These people want to know if I can get the job done. Will I be able to help. I can’t do that by standing up and saying ‘My fault. I was a bad girl.’ They might not want to live with me after my story tonight, but they don’t care about that now. They do want to know if I am bad enough to go the distance.”
Jenna circulated among the families during the supper hour. The smallest children had been put to bed. The rest of the kids were with their families. Not in a pack. The grumble of geezers had left the Pig and Toad and moved closer to the fire finding places among the family hearths.
Rafe took a pull on her ale and began.
Here’s what I remember best of that day. The sun was bright and rose early. A skunk had wandered through camp during the night and sprayed the commander’s tend. The only person able to eat and hold it down had been dropped on her head as a child and could not tell the difference between an onion and and a lemon without laying eyes on them. She ate her fill and laughed as the rest of us puked.
We called ourselves the Ragged Range, a half century of women, and it was our day to go into battle. For some of us the skunk made no difference. We wouldn’t have eaten anyway. ‘A full stomach makes for an empty head,’ they say. The skunk just ensured that we were not alone in our ready wits that day for as long as our wits would last. Hunger fed our anger and we nourished that, ready to slip the line to Berzerker rage.
Normally we were spies and provisioners. We went to market as traders and listened in to the chat that went on. We went to dances, and barn raisings, and public houses. If anyone asked, we’d say, “Oh, I’m Alice’s cousin, just visiting for a few days. You know Alice, don’t you?” That was our story. Women working are a gossipy lot, and men are worse. Even those who should know better assume women are thinking about their next meal, or their kids’ next meal, rather than politics.
We’d listen, and prod, and learn what we could. Especially what our employer was trying to keep secret. We were paid to do what we were told, but our allegiance was to the brothers and sisters in our cohort. One of the things we found was that the opposing army included the Thundering Herd, a company we’d ridden with the summer before.
We were trained to soldier as well as spy, and every one of us had two weapons of specialty, and a half dozen more in addition to the righteous anger we could command better than any mixed company.
That morning, with the skunk, there was anger aplenty. Rather than thinking of the glorious sun, and the glint of armor, and the thrill of the fight, we were aware of the smell and the heat as we started to sweat. The skunk’s gift would return every time it rained, and every time we got soaked in a river crossing. The food would be foul until it was gone. Some would go to the pigs, but we would eat the rest or go hungry. We were keyed up going into battle, against friends, people who knew at least some of our ways, as we knew theirs.
There were things we didn’t know that we should have. We didn’t know the skunk was a gift from our ex-comrades. We didn’t know they had laid a trap for us. We didn’t know that I was their target. Would any of this have made a difference? Who is to say.
We set off, brandishing our public weapons, subtly adjusting the hidden ones useful in close fighting. We crested the hill and saw the enemy advancing across the wide valley. Our battle cry leapt from our throats, our horses stretched their necks, and the sods flew behind us.
I sent forth a small hum to break any trip wires that might have been strung. That there were none to break should have been my first clue, but I was already starting to slip beyond rage, training and reaction taking over. Hunger did not keep my thinking brain with me, long enough. We and our horses were all about the stampede, rolling down the hill to trample our enemies.
I kept my hum going, and still there were no traps to spring. The air was clear, a heavy dew had laid the dust to rest. Our noses were filled with the stench of the skunk and our eyes were on the colors of the troops we would soon meet and the honed swords they carried. Our ears were tuned to our horses hooves and listening for the blast of the signal horn that gave us our direction. We did not smell the stink of pine oil when we crossed it, nor the smoke, nor see the flames the enemy lit behind us, until it was too late. By then the flames drove us onward, forcing us to meet the enemy. There was joy in that, in meeting our fates, grappled on the battle field.
But our horses. Our horses did not share our focus. They saw the flames and felt the smoke in their eyes. In their panic they became our enemies, too. Huge bodies, caroming off each other, crushing legs, trapping weapons, fighting the reigns, snapping at each other as well as their riders. There we were, equally trapped in our Berzerker frenzy, too slow to return to ourselves to save our purpose.
I drove a path through the enemy and up a hill to the east. From there I turned and opened my throat and sang. I had used my voice to dig latrines. Now dirt flew up along the fire’s leading edge creating a break. The dirt fell back on the fire and smothered it. Trees fell, smothering the flames along the forest edge. The heavy damp from the night before helped us here.
Half the troop was unhorsed. They set about raising their pikes, anchoring them in the soft earth, a deadly palisade confronting their attackers. The rest won through and joined me on the hill. When we saw what our comrades were about we fell on the enemy from behind and drove them mercilessly onto the raised pikes.
On another day we might have shown mercy. On another day we would not have been leading the charge. This was our job. And their job. There could be no regrets. They had tried, these one time allies of ours, to do the same to us.
Rafe looked at the people she had grown up with, and their children. Some of the old soldiers were nodding.
“I was there, that day,” said one of the men. “I remember you flying through the fire, through the mayhem, through our troop, and up the hill. You were a sight to behold.” He ran his palm over his mouth and down his stubbly neck, holding it there. “That was my last battle.”
Rafe smiled, her eyes kind. “I’m glad you made it.”
Barton Stubbs had listened to Rafe’s story, leaning against one of the pillars. He spoke now. “I remember you dropping me from a tree when you were, what, twelve? Nobody much talked, around town, about what you could do with your voice.”
“I’d learned some manners by then.”
“Can you still do it? The voice thing? The song?”
“I believe so.” Rafe let the folk murmur a bit before continuing. “And even if my song is not the key to this problem with the river, I believe I can discover a solution by the time we reach the river’s source.”