When the call went out for the Women in Practical Armor anthology, nearly everyone I know sent me the link and told me to submit a story. I realized that I didn’t have any stories that fit the theme, so I thought about women who were defined by their armor. By their equipment. The world has a dire lack of stories about the power of older women, much less older WOC women — so I knew I wanted to write a story about sexy, badass, post-menopausal veterans.
I read about a festival celebrating a goddess’s menstrual cycle, which had me thinking about purity, and how religions pick different standards of virtue. Then I came across a documentary about early engineering in Moorish Cordoba, and the setting started to take shape.
What if these three women — these seasoned veterans — were asked to sacrifice themselves to a goddess. They’ve been through a lot. They’ve been failed by the bureaucracy, but were good enough at their jobs to both stay alive and rise to power.
In my head, these three looked at each other, looked at the sacrifice orders, and said, “…this is bullshit. Why don’t we kill her instead?”
And the story began.
In the beginning, the animosity between Kejra, Nouli, and Rohnaq was much more reserved. Rohnaq collected Kejra from a bar, and Nouli didn’t show until much later. You could tell that they loved each other, and their banter was closer to ribbing than cutting. You can see, through their body language, and the way they finish each other’s sentences, how close they are.
Once Rohnaq revealed the things she’d done in the name of her principles and career, the rift between the three went deeper. The tension ramped up.
In my experience, friendship forged between martial artists, (and possibly between veterans) is defined by the fact that we play rough. We push each other hard. We’ve suffered together, and taken pride in it. My little brother and I met as pre-teens and absolutely hated each other. He’s made me bleed, and I’ve broken his nose — but I wouldn’t want anyone else at my back in a crisis, because I know what he’s capable of. I was there. I put him through it. We are better because we were rough on each other. We trust each other’s strength because we’ve witnessed it. Whatever happens, we’ll handle it. We won’t crumble. We won’t disappear.
To outsiders this looks like abuse, but it’s not. Because of our context, it is respect, love, and trust. Rohnaq hits hard; but Kejra and Nouli know her, and know why she did what she did. Their history begs the question of whether or not such a bond can be repaired — and that’s when the story went beyond its action-adventure inception. This story didn’t make it into Women in Practical Armor, but after a few more revisions it found a home.
This is the first scene I wrote of the first draft, which I call the story’s “baby photo.” I was very sad to cut the bit with the mirrored dish, but ultimately it didn’t fit.
For Honor, For Waste
(1st scene, 1st draft)
Kejra tossed her walking stick at an attendant and collapsed onto a cushioned chair. She pushed the stopper from the bottle with her thumb and it dropped to the table, bounced, and rolled off while she took a swig. “A fine honor, to be sent to our death as a gift for Manaph!” She leaned forward on the table, stabbing it with her index finger. “When we took the Lejine Span, we made an effort to learn their language so that the tax laws could be enforced with compassion. Those barbarians would sacrificed the most beautiful, most talented girl and boy to the river to prevent it from flooding. The custom of shared ways enriches and stains in equal measure.”
Nouli made a beckoning gesture and Kejra passed her the bottle. She sat gracefully and without a sound, taking the time to pour a measure into a glass. “And if we are not to fight each other for this honor, what shall it be instead? Poetry?”
“Oh we’ll fight,” said Rohnaq. “But… not each other.”
Kejra arched a brow at the city commander. “The oligarchs won’t put up with that sort of thing. If we don’t fight, our provinces will be punished. Our families will lose their holdings.”
“That’s their aim in the first place. Don’t you see? Between the three of us we run the military. General Vesher had her day when he united the peninsula fifteen years ago and since then she’s been sitting on her wealth. The oligarchs still pay her prettily but she’s left the day to day running of the city in my hands. It’s the same with you and the archers, isn’t it, Nouli? And you Kejra? When was the last time you received more than perfunctory orders regarding the infantry? Problem in Lejine, take care of Tarjine, rebels in Affojine. That’s not leadership. We haven’t been chosen by Manaph, we’ve been offered up by a threatened general.”
“Perhaps you seek insults where none exist,” said Nouli. “We perform our duties as ordered. Lack of specificity indicates Vesher’s faith in our ability. I never liked being loomed over while I work.”
“Then you plan to take the honor according to the proper performance of Manaph’s rite?” Kejra asked.
Nouli faced Rohnaq with her shoulders back and her chin held at an imperious level. Despite her challenging stance, her voice remained soft. “I have sons and daughters to carry on my clan and they have been well-educated to maintain our holdings for their children. If I am to be offered to Manaph, then I accept the honor.”
Kejra shook her head with a chuckle, taking her wine bottle back. Rohnaq pressed her palm on the mouth of the bottle, preventing Kejra from taking a drink.
“She’ll come to us at the offering ground,” said Rohnaq. “Between us three, we could drive her back.”
Kejra’s barking laugh caused the other two to wince. “You cannot drive back a goddess of love; never mind a blood-frenzied creature like Manaph. Managing a city takes intelligence, Rohnaq. It is a pity that your imagination has not been tempered by it.”
Rohnaq’s eyes slid to Nouli’s. “Surely you are not eager to die. Not when you could best fulfill your duty by remaining a marklord.”
“Wasteful,” Rohnaq said, correcting her.
“Ah yes, wasteful,” said Kejra. “We can’t abide waste in the service, can we?”
“All war is waste,” said Nouli. “Wasted lives, wasted lands, wasted silver in poorly managed supply chains.”
“We can stop it. The three of us.” Rohnaq kept her eyes locked on Nouli. “You, Kejra and I. If we agree to take the honor as sisters-in-arms, out of respect for each other’s accomplishments, the oligarchs will be forced to send us all to Manaph. Then we can strike together. That is excellence.”
“They will think we have something planned. I will not have my husband and children threatened because you are afraid to die,” said Nouli. “Or have you forgotten what’s at stake for the rest of us? You foreswore family, property, and lineage when you became City Commander. You have nothing else.”
“Then you see why I cannot allow you to die.”
Kejra sniffed. Nouli averted her eyes. Rohnaq looked at the floor for a moment, and swallowed. Perhaps they were afraid. Rohnaq had thought she had become inured to the anxiety that frayed her resolve on the eve of battle; but this was something more. The admission of need, of family, of something to lose felt like a blood-letting; and yet it was the truth. It was accurate, and accuracy had saved them more than once. “The three of us have been together since we began. Even you, Kejra. You stuck with us even though you outranked us in the beginning. I am not afraid to die, but I prefer to live.”
“The warrior’s road leads to oblivion,” Kejra quoted, “to face each dawn in full knowledge that it will be the last; and feel no fear in certainty.”
“And you will be better able to protect your lands, your holdings, and your grandchildren if you return to them. You have fought so hard for so long to reach this point, my friend. You are too good to throw yourself away like this.”
Nouli fingered one of her iron-grey braids, still thick despite her years.
“Perhaps we have all grown sentimental in old age,” said Kejra, “But I think I would rather fight alongside you and Rohnaq than try to edge either of you out in competition; even if the prize is to be eaten by a goddess.”
“Then we’re agreed?” said Rohnaq.
“I was nearly twenty years old at the end of the Seeding Cycle and I remember her well. She’s as big as a house,” said Kejra. “And covered in armor.”
“Yes, I was seven when she last appeared. Her armor was segmented, and she had a face. Those sound like weaknesses to me.”
Nouli considered Rohnaq for a moment. “I will hear your strategy,” she said, folding her arms as her cloak draped back over her and nearly closed, like a priest’s. “Then I will decide.”
Rohnaq turned to Kejra, suddenly animated. “Remember the siege when Forlinnet came through the tunnel under the southwestern wall? Nouli, you weren’t there for this.”
Kejra straightened and knitted her brow to remember. “In Subaipo or…?”
“No, this was earlier. Remember? They filed in just between the two archers’ towers at the second wall?”
Kejra glanced at Nouli. “We don’t have enough archers to put Manaph in a pincer like that.”
Rohnaq shook her head. “We don’t need to. There’s only one Manaph. The point is, we’ll direct her toward one path, Nouli shoots her from above, and then you run in sideways and open her up to stab her heart. Surprise flank.”
“It won’t work,” said Nouli. “Manaph’s cave drops into the sea and she’s armored like a crushclaw. Crushclaws are solid on top so that the sea birds can’t attack them directly, my arrows would bounce right off. If her form even remains that way.”
Kejra upended a mirrored dish and fruit rolled from the table onto the floor. She breathed on it, and then started drawing their positions on the fogged surface. “Then you’ll need to be in front of her. Especially if she rears. She’s got armor underneath also.”
“There’s no cover!” Nouli objected.
“How far can you shoot, a hundred strides?” asked Rohnaq. “Age must have taken your sight or your strength from you.”
Nouli scoffed. “I have lost neither. It doesn’t matter if she thrashes, I could hit her with thumbnail accuracy at two-hundred; but that’s not the question.” Nouli pointed to Kejra’s mirror. “The span of her offering ground is less than one hundred strides. The question is whether or not my arrows will be heavy enough to penetrate. It doesn’t make sense to bring a longbow to fight at middle-range. The oligarchs will expect me to have a smaller weapon if we giving the appearance of fighting one another. I don’t know if a smaller poundage would even harm her.”
“If she hungers, she can be killed,” said Rohnaq, grimly.
“So that leaves you and I to open her armor,” said Kejra.
Rohnaq picked up a grape, an almond, and a broken square of hardcake, placing each one on the mirror. “Nouli, this is you.” She placed one finger on the purple grape, rolling it back and forth at the far perimeter of the span. “I will be here,” she placed the almond in front of the smudge indicating Manaph’s cave, with the sharp tip pointing toward it. “Then Kejra, here, at her flank. Your spear will be able to prize her open.”
“Mighty Rohnaq, controlling the funnel.” Kejra laughed. “I hope age has taught you more grace. I still remember your face when tried to free your sword from Forlinnet’s spine. Messiest beheading I’ve ever seen.”
Nouli stared down in silence, offering no argument.
“It’s settled, then.” Rohnaq picked up the almond in one gloved fist and swept the mirror clean, spilling the grape and cake-crumb to the floor. She popped the almond into her mouth and chewed. “Try not to get in each other’s way.”