The next two months are the happiest I can ever remember, not just because I was frequently in the intimate company of women, but because we operated as a coherent group in a way I would never have expected had anyone explained it to me beforehand. The Wolves pulled all our gear, and somehow explained to Sam that they needed their coats cutting somewhat as we went to warmer climes. The ladies of the group were all very attentive to Garain, and showed him how to be more genteel in appearance, binding his beard and plaiting it with bows, bestowing on him the chunkiest of their jewellery, and incidentally the most deadly, and showing him how to conceal himself in a crowd of ladies. Eventually he shaved, an operation I regarded as intrinsically dangerous, because he did it with a sharpened dagger, but it improved his concealment abilities tremendously.

I remember particularly the first night I spent with someone because it was with Ellie, she insisted that this was the case. She said that she had “promised to show me what lovers do”, and this almost unmanned me with the memory of it, but she took me in hand and showed me bliss. We talked afterwards.

“You should master your magic if you think that was good.” I rolled over towards her.

“Is that what we’re calling it now?” I asked, amused. She smiled and tickled me until I grabbed her arms and pinned her down again. “Have you not had enough?” She grinned and tried to knee me, but I was too quick.

“Hum, Garain’s lessons are paying off. Has he taught you anything else?” I looked thoughtful.

“Only that you’re here to please me.” I said laughing.

“Oh you ARE becoming embedded in the culture!” She said squirming around.

“Anyway, I don’t know the magic words.” She sat up, the furs falling away. She looked more pert than I have ever seen her.

“You can learn them. He can’t hear you, me either for a while, and never if I catch.”

“What?” I said unsteadily.

“I’m not protected, Jessop. Sally and I, we’re going to be the mothers of your children.” I don’t know quite what happened next, but it was the morning and I woke up next to Ellie, still in bed, and Sam, still fully clothed, on the other side.

__________

We sat there in the furs looking at each other.

“Look at it this way John, it’s better than dropping dead. And it’s not like we don’t WANT children. It’s just that we might have made different choices if we were home.” I shook my head.

“Can’t I just magic away the fertility?” Sam shook her head in turn.

“No, we don’t know that it will protect us. We’ve got to have it integrated into us. For that, you need to get us pregnant.”

“What about Garain? I can hardly get him pregnant.” And I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into the whole process with him anyway.

“He, and you’ll have to get used to using the female pronoun soon, is a woman. The King can’t kill him, her, without losing face. If he, it, she, they, damn it! If she drops dead, the King will be blamed. Even he can’t kill everyone, and everyone will turn on him instantly if he magics her to death.”

“Oh, right then.” And that was that.

___________

Gerain’s skill at navigating kept us from meeting any one serious, some peasants with only one woman, and a pretty poor show at that, and a few farmhands working fields. This meant that they were all women, and they varied from demure to dismissive to tart, and universally, if we had a complaint, we were to take it up with the men. I finally realised that ownership actually stopped a great of abuse, and land ownership, the exclusive right of women, gave them a great deal of power. It was this idea that finally made me be more at ease with what was going on.

Garain also proved to be very skilful a teaching me to fight. He likened it to learning a sport, which surprised me. He was taken aback.

“We’re not complete heathens you know, we have sport. [I’m having to translate somewhat]. We toss the caber, play Raquet Ball, we have Football and Golf and Football.” He scratched his bald chin. “That itches still. Anyhow, if you play golf, you have to learn to swing with your arms not your head. If you swing with your head, you’ll miss.”

We carried on fighting every day. As we carried on I became aware that any injuries I gained healed very quickly, usually within the hour. Garain commented on this. “That’s going to make you reckless. Treat every injury like it matters, because someone could chop your head off, and then where would you be?”

He carried on, teaching me to use forms used by all the fighters he knew, then how to counter them. Every day, I seemed to pick up something new. “You’re a fast learner right enough.” And so it went on.

This bucolic break lasted just up until the time we encountered our first “Lord.” By this time I had done my duty by all the ladies, and they all seemed satisfied with my performance; and seemingly it cemented their trust in my prowess.

We were attending to the wolves and setting up camp when the rag tag entourage came to a halt on the road beside our camp. Kate was outside our little circle and greeting the Lordling. I could hear her quite clearly, greeting him in the right fashion.

“Good day My Lord,” she said, curtseying. “May we assist you in any way?” he looked her up and down from the vantage point of his horse, who was shying a bit nervously at the sight of the gigantic wolves.

“I doubt it, child.” he said haughtily, looking down his nose at her, and incidentally not letting her up for her curtsey. “You could fetch your Master though, he might be able to help.” She rose and came to fetch me. Curtseying carefully, she said in a loud voice,

“John, beloved, a Lord who is unknown to me desires to speak with you. Are you ‘in’?” I wasn’t quite ready for this, but I got the message immediately. I turned my eyes to the wolf, and clipped her a bit more closely, she shrugged a shoulder.

“I’ll just pretend then for a moment if I may.” I whispered. She relaxed. I spoke louder, not looking at Kate, “Just a moment, dear, I’m not quite finished here.” I looked over the wolf, well, around the wolf, and held a finger up for a second, then bobbed back behind. Garain came up from the other side fully shrouded.

“Are you trying to annoy this man?”

“He looks the type to be easily annoyed.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Alright.” I said. I went out from behind the wolf. The Lord had got down from his saddle, I noticed one or two people looking out from the carriages.

“John Jessop. Are you lost?” The man stopped stock still.

“Do you know where you are?” I shook my head.

“We came off the ice a month or two ago, and we haven’t got our bearings yet.” His lips became very thin.

“Well I can tell you that you are on MY land, and you haven’t sought permission to be here. I do hope you haven’t taken any deer.” We HAD as a matter of fact had some rather nice venison the last evening, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I said, cheerily, even though I knew that the main body of the beast was still turning over the fire.

“I see.” The man said with a steely glare. Well as you are on my land, without my permission, you should tithe me.” I looked at him all over. He had a rapier, which seemed a like a very slight weapon for a noble-man from what Garain had been saying over the weeks. I noticed that a couple of very burly men had got down from carriages. No women. Other than this he was wearing a doublet and hose, which looked very effete to my eye. His codpiece was certainly exaggerated. Or a cricket box gone mad.

“Excuse me,” I said, as carefully as I could. “I have no wish to offend you, but are you officially a woman?” The two men stopped, stock still. Our camp became silent. “I ask, because, well, only women own land.” The chap had become very, very red in the face. I could see the veins clearly standing out on his forehead.

“How dare you!” He managed to strangle out, struggling to pull out his tiny sword. “I inherited this land from my mother you heathen! I have not found a woman worthy of me to pass it on to yet!” He managed to yank the sword out of the scabbard, and wave it in my face.

“I’m so very sorry to hear of your mother’s death.” I said placatingly. “And I know that it can be hard finding a woman sometimes.” This made him pause. I noted that in order to count above three, he was moving his lips.

“Well perhaps I shall have yours!” He shouted, and stabbed at me, thrusting full at my body with his arm extended. I had time to see one of the very burly men put his hand over his eyes. It was hard not to laugh.

The vital thing, Garain had taught me, was never to over extend; by the very nature of a manoeuvre such as stabbing someone with a flexible sword, one over extends, and since all my training about telegraphing movement was still fresh in my mind, I stepped smoothly to one side, and grabbed his wrist. I had a pretty good lock on it, and so when I ducked under his arm, it twisted mightily, and he had no choice but to follow it. He tried to jump in the air to stop his arm breaking, and ended up on the floor, without his toothpick, and with my foot on his chest. I decided that this was beneath me, so I took my foot off him. Then I decided that he needed a bit more winding up.

“Isabella.” I called as politely as I could. She came over, quite slowly, and looked down at this man sprawled in the dirt, and then did something I could have kissed her for. She tutted.

The petty lordling sprang up and tried to slap her. Too bad for him, I was standing close, and I didn’t even make an effort. I just punched him in the face, and he went down like a dropped sack of potatoes.

“Would you gentleman mind removing this man?” I said to the two men waiting behind. They nodded. “What’s he called by the way?” One of them bit his lip. I shook my head questioningly. The other one opened his mouth.

“He’s called Lord Nancy. We’re his cousins.” I nodded at this. um, would that make you…?”

“Yeah, but we’re big blokes and we got all the women we want. Why should we care? His old Mum though, she said to try and take care of him.” I nodded. “He’s typical now though, arrogant little shit. Thinks he owns the place, as long as they ain’t no women. Ain’t no crops bein’ grown either. That’s why we’re leaving. We’re hungry.”

“Never let a man do a woman’s work.” Said Isabella, tartly.

“S’right.” said the speaking one. He looked Isabella up and down. “I’ll fight yer man for yer.” he stated, dusting off his jerkin and furs. “If yer want.”

“Can’t afford me, eh?” she replied with aplomb.

“Bet you’re worth a lot, doubt anyone can afford you.” He looked sheepish as he said this. I was feeling a bit appalled. But Isabella was smiling dazzlingly.

“What a nice boy you are!” she beamed, and she went up to him with her hand outstretched.

“Er, aren’t you supposed to ask permission?” I said. She turned slightly back to me and arched an eyebrow.

“Are you going to deny me this beautiful moment, John?” I rolled my eyes up and said,

“No, no, just wondering if you were going to observe the niceties.” She laughed and allowed her hand to be lightly kissed.

“I’m Nigel, Lord Nancy and this here’s my brother, Leonard, Lord Nancy.” His brother wiped his nose on what passed for a handkerchief.

“S’right.” He said. “We’re gonna take the biggest Nancy away now alright? Got places to go, people to upset.” And with this they dragged him away. The whole entourage took a little while to get going and some time to pass; by the end of which I could hear the little chap screaming obscenities as he’d been tied to his saddle bow. They told him to shut up before he was gagged.

_________

A little later as we sat around the fire eating the forbidden meat, Isabella and Garain were reflecting on this incident.

“Garain is a right, if that sort of thing is happening a lot, then law and order is breaking down.” He nodded and tore off another piece of meat. “If that little chap is becoming typical, or even just more frequent, then we’re in for a bad time. Did you notice?” We all shook out heads. “No children around.” I looked askance at this. Ellie’s face had a dawning realisation look on it.

“No children, because they’re too afraid to come out, or the women are too afraid to let them out.” Isabella nodded.

“That’s a change in culture.” She said. Garain looked puzzled. “Men don’t do a lot of the work dear one, where do you think bread comes from. Have you ever tilled a field?” He nodded.

“That’s woman’s work.” He reflected a moment. “Peasants work the fields, all hands on deck.”

“Yes, and in this respect, women are in charge.”

“That sounds wrong, even from you Isabella.” He shifted uncomfortably, “We’re in charge.” There was a moment of consideration about this, and I could see Isabella and the others waiting. “He’s in charge.” he said pointing at me, “I have taken the robes of a woman, I’m not in charge of anything.” Gefina spoke up. I think this is the first time I’d heard her speak in company. She is a raven haired woman with quite a pointed nose, a long neck and fine features. As with all Garain’s crowd, she is intelligent and forthright, but she tended to go a long time without speaking, so we paid attention when she did.

“You’re not really a woman Garain, so you don’t know about woman culture.” He looked a bit hurt, and she laid a hand on his arm. “It’s not a secret culture, largely, but you must know that there are a lot fewer men than women.” He nodded. “We have to do the majority of the work, because you can’t be wasted on everyday things when there have been wars to be fought. Outright war has always been a disaster, so you’ve spent your life training up for tourneys and such.”

“What has that to do with culture?”

“I wouldn’t offend you for the world Garain, but have you noticed that most men are not too bright?” Kate nodded, and he looked from one to the other in bewilderment. Gefina carried on, “For generations we’ve been breeding men for muscle and women for intelligence and beauty. That’s going to have a certain effect don’t you think?”

“We’ve always known that there’s women’s work and we probably shouldn’t interfere with it.”

“Precisely. Why do you think we own all the land?”

“So you can farm it. Oh.” A rather frightened look crossed his face.

“Yes,” continued Gefina relentlessly, “we own the land you build things on. We own the land that you get a lot of your food from. We spend all our time managing that while you spend all your time training for war. Even the peasants. We outnumber you five to one at least. There are few women on the earth who can stand up to a man physically, so a balance has been struck. You own us, we own the land. We provide food, and sex, and you protect us from other men. What happens to a rapist?”

“Woman runs away to a stronger man and tells him.” Said Garain promptly. “And he kills the rapist, if he’s any good.”

“And if he’s not.”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s pretty poor for the woman.”

“Yes.”

We were all quiet for a bit after that. We ate and drank, and somehow took some time to let everything just go down a bit. A thought occurred to me.

“You ladies said two inconsistent things a while ago.” I started. Kate held up her hand.

“Hang on, John. Garain, you should know that you’re not dumb. You’re really smart and considerate.”

“For a man.” Kate waved her hands.

“No, Garain, for a person. You’ve been on a mission for a while, you haven’t interacted with the real world properly for a good long time. You haven’t seen what it’s really become.”

“I know about the King.”

“It’s not the only thing that’s going on, society is changing. We know, we talk to the women. They’re not happy. The men have started to treat them badly. You don’t do that.”

“Don’t I?”

“No, not generally. John, what were you saying about two inconsistent things?” The thought had almost slipped my mind. I considered for a moment.

“You all said that I had to get you pregnant to protect you from the King’s magic. Then you said that Garain wasn’t in any danger the because all the nobles would gather up against him if he killed a woman with his magic. Which is it?” Everyone looked shifty. “What?”

“Um.” Garain looked up. “I’m probably a sacrifice, or more likely they wanted your magic because they’re going to fight, or they wanted to protect their children.” I looked at him and gestured to the pot of food, he nodded and passed me his bowl. “You can’t protect me in the same way. So we work with what we’ve got.” He took the bowl and dug into it with his spoon.

“I’m sorry.” He looked at me.

“I’m not. All this is wrong. We’ve had this talk. The King has got to go. You’ve come here because he broke your law, we’re helping because he’s an arse and ruining the earth and our culture. That’s worth a lot. He’s bought winter to our world, and now he’s bringing winter to our culture, we’ll all die. That’s how he broke your law. You’re so far in advance of us that we call some of what you can do ‘magic’, because it isn’t any different from the old tales of magic. that’s what he does, it’s not right. He’s got to go.” Gefina nodded vigorously, and the others joined in.

“It’s a noble cause.” “It’s right and proper” “Garain is right.” and other noises of support came from them. Sam and Ellie nodded too. Ellie spoke up.

“Garain knows this is right.” He nodded.

“He is my friend,” I said, “I don’t want him to die.”

“Childish.” he said. Isabella woke up from her partial doze.

“Garain! You know better than that!” I looked from one to the other in confusion. “She’ll get you into a spurious fight if she talks like that. We can hardly afford that.”

“Sorry Isabella, the point is made though.” She shrugged her shoulders and sighed.

“Yes, but none of us want to lose you.” He just shook his head.

“This is morose, I’m going to sleep.” And this prompted us all to seek warm furs and settle down for the night.

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