Winter was coming to the Black Valleys, and the first snow was grey sludge beneath the mercenaries’ boots as they struggled up the mountain. With no interest in a seventeen-year-old girl too tired to keep up, they staggered past Althea using their spent matchlocks as walking sticks. She tried to catch her breath. The forests of her Motherland were supposed to give women strength, but she had never walked so far and had to rest. Leaning against a pine tree, she clutched a palm-sized model of an oak tree in silver. She had won the greatest honour her country could bestow by giving up her pony to the Sapling of the Mighty Oak, Princess Uschi, rightful heir to The Land of Forests. She squeezed it, praying her princess had reached the High Pass and escaped King Grey’s pursuit.
As a member of the Great Forest Court, she had witnessed the last stand, which was no stand at all, with the peasants folding and the mercenaries running. It had been a faint hope her people could halt the sequence of defeats as the invaders marched from north to south, relentlessly taking her land.
Distant gunshots interrupted the tramping of boots crunching though frozen undergrowth.
Nearby a heavy man crumpled onto the soaked ground with hardly a sound.
Althea looked at him while the few soldiers trailing the broken force looked behind her.
A second man screamed, clutching his guts before rolling down the slope. The others had little strength for running, but they tried as further shots brought them down.
Althea saw foot soldiers, charged with victory, racing toward her. They would pause, fire their guns, reload, and advance. Through their ranks came cavalry. She turned away as a rider struck the back of her head.
Propelled face first into the mud, she was too dazed to rise before a dozen soldiers fell on her. First, her rings were wrenched from her fingers and then the rest of her jewelry followed. Cold grabbed her fingers as her gloves were stolen and then stabbed into her body as her boots, thick fur mantle, and outer clothes were stripped from her. Swiftly she was bound to a tree and the troops moved on.
As her head cleared, Althea realised a group of riders were considering her. She recognised King Grey, a broad-shouldered man, who although fifty, was still fit and vibrant. His rich clothes and golden armour were spattered with mud and gore.
‘She’s the first one we found,’ said a man riding beside his sovereign.
Grey scratched his scrubby beard, asking, “What’s your name?”
There was distant and ragged gunfire.
“I am Maiden of the Woods, Guardian of the Birch Vastness.”
Althea tried to stand straight, but her bare feet slipped on the wet roots.
“Why can’t you people have proper names?”
“I think that makes her a servant to one of the Ladies-in-Waiting, your Majesty,” the man at his side observed.
“Thank you, Craven.”
“Where is Princess Uschi? Is she heading for the High Pass?”
“I will not tell you where my lady has gone.”
“You do understand you’re irrelevant?”
“I will not betray my princess!”
“Pull up her skirts.”
Two men slipped from their mounts to pull up her petticoat. exposing her legs from thigh to ankles. They knotted the slack behind her, further trapping her.
“A brave man raping a helpless maiden,” Althea shouted, her shoulders threatening to pop from their sockets as she resisted her bindings. She was trying to be brave, but there was a coldness creeping inside her that had nothing to do with winter.
“Rape?” King Grey drew a wheellock pistol from a saddle holster. “Do you think I could look my daughter in the face if I sanctioned rape? What kind of king would I be? No, I am saving you. I know how important you Ladies of the Woods hold the forests, aren’t they supposed to be the key to your health, even your fecundity? Running away from that is a terrible crime. I am going to save you.”
“Perfect shot, your majesty; dead-centre on the kneecap.”
Althea was screaming so hard she barely heard:
“Go for the double, your majesty?”
* * *
Winter was retreating from the Black Valleys for the fifteenth time since the war ended. The meadow beside Althea’s home was still frosty when five soldiers galloped through to plunge into the woods further up the mountain. They left swirls in the low mist. She knew more troops were arriving in River-Valley Town, and Black Spar was overflowing with them, and wondered why there was so much activity.
Althea returned to watching a chicken, fluttering with failing strength, trapped in an iced-covered pond.
Althea planned to have words with her youngest daughter.
Right leg hardly bending, Althea traversed the yard. Despite heavy skirts and legs wrapped in fleeces, the morning chill worked its way in, making her wish for summer. She freed the chicken by smashing the ice with her crutch before encouraging it on to solid ground. Its lopsided gait was too familiar. The challenge for her was how to pick it up without slipping.
“Mummy! Mummy!” echoed around the valley as Hannah, her nine-year-old, rushed up the slope.
Waiting for Hannah gave an opportunity to rest against the rubble foundations of their chalet.
“Mummy I have seen her!” declared Hannah as she arrived.
“I’ve seen her!”
“Where’s Uwe? You haven’t left him in the woods?”
“No, he’s with Peter-Paul, we’re watching the soldiers.”
“Peter-Paul is not Uwe’s big sister, is he? The sister who’s supposed to be watching over him — the same girl who’s supposed to count the chickens in at night.”
“He’s safe, Mummy.”
“She isn’t.” Althea pointed at the injured hen.
“Sorry,” Hannah replied, with hardly a thought. “I’ve seen her. I have seen the Lady Who Must Walk the Woods Alone!”
“Pick her up for me.”
Hannah scooped up the chicken and handed it over.
“So you abandoned your brother to tell me this? It’ll be another silly valley girl, frightening the cows.”
Althea stroked the bird and found that its leg was frozen solid.
“No, no, she’s a stranger. She’s with child, big like you were with baby Sven.”
“Then it is a very silly valley woman.”
“Mummy,” Hannah groaned theatrically.
“I don’t care about silly women; I do care about Uwe. How can I trust you with chores if you abandon your little brother?”
“But it’s her!”
Althea tried to warm the bird’s leg.
“You go back and see Peter-Paul isn’t getting your brother into trouble.”
“But… but… she had a little silver tree.”
“Then she is a very, very silly girl. Now, go and find Uwe.”
“It wasn’t like Granny’s necklace; it was loose on its own. We saw her check it, when she hid from the soldiers. Isn’t that the sign?”
Wishing her mother-in-law wouldn’t talk about what was lost, Althea looked up to the peaks behind her home, where the forest thinned and the snow lingered all year. If the High Pass was open, then she knew exactly for whom the soldiers searched.
“Did you speak to her?” Althea asked.
“No, we watched; she never saw us.”
“Where is she?”
“On the West Path. I think she was heading for town.”
“Get Sven, take him to Granny’s. Was Peter-Paul still watching this woman?”
“No, he said she was boring. They were going back to town. He wanted to see if the soldiers were bringing canons.”
“Good. Leave Sven with Granny. Find Uwe, take him to Granny’s, and wait there. Your sister’s there, she’s to tell the soldiers the person they have been looking for will be at our house.”
“Have you taken root, little sapling?” Althea gently pushed Hannah with her crutch.
“We’re supposed to protect her. Granny says The Woman Who Must has to be protected. Granny says The Woman — ”
“This is not The Woman!” Althea levered herself up, wedging her crutch firmly under her armpit so that both hands were free. “She’s trouble and I shall deal with her!”
“Hannah! Do as you’re told! Don’t make me tell you twice!”
Hannah stood her ground, biting her lip.
“You’re trying my patience,” Althea warned, trying not to shout. She knew it wasn’t really Hannah making her angry, but the girl was telling her what she’d never wanted to hear.
“Mummy, she’s miles away. You can’t walk far without help, I want to help you.”
Althea drew a deep breath before saying more quietly:
“Hannah, I’ve been walking these mountains before you were born, I’ll reach the West Path.”
“You hurt so in winter.”
“It’s spring; today I am fine. Now fetch Sven from inside and don’t let me find you here when I return. You have failed me twice this morning; a third time will be very painful for you. Make sure the soldiers get my message, the one they hunt will be here.”
A sharp jerk broke the chicken’s neck. “Hang this up, too.”
“Yes, Mummy,” Hannah said, taking the corpse and running up the steps to get her baby brother.
Althea set off, hoping Hannah would do as she was told; she didn’t want Hannah to see what was going to happen when this woman was captured.
People were quick to spot her stiff legs; few guessed the strain it put on her arms. She had crossed the meadow and was a few hundred irregular paces into the forest before her right shoulder ached. Her legs were warming. The daggers in her knee faded to the low-level reminder of fifteen years. She kept going until the pain made her break stride.
On a plaited cord tied to her belt was an intricately carved box. She popped its lid and took a measure of leaves and fungus.
It was her mother-in-law’s mix. The cunning old woman still made a better remedy. Althea smiled. Old woman. Her mother-in-law had been barely Althea’s age now when her son had carried her into their chalet. She judged the quantity, knowing that taking too much would make her forget to stand up.
Before it started to work, Althea aimed for the West Path. Chewing slowly, using her tongue to work the bits against her gums, she kept going. The hallucination was always the same, and so as she marched on, her escort were phantom soldiers. Keeping a lopsided rhythm, she trusted that instinct would guide her through the fog of painlessness.
Go for the double, your majesty?
The phrase from her nightmares shocked Althea back to reality. She found she had reached the split for Black Spar town and Klaus’s farm. She kept going. Back under the canopy, she thought she heard riders. It could have been melting snow dripping through the leaves. It could have been memories.
Her trail crossed a wider clearing of trampled pine needles and broken ferns heading down the mountain. A little way off, marking the West Path, was a bench for those weary from reaching the high pastures.
Resting at the bench, she took a second dose, and Althea lost feeling for time. The woman might be heading back to the High Pass already, her dangerous duty done.
For the Motherland she had to catch her and pressed on.
Althea had been following the slope, gambling that the woman was below her. Heading down, walking was relentless and blank; then Althea saw her target two-hundred tripod paces ahead.
She was tall, like Althea used to be, covered in a cloak with its hood down. She wore a traditional woolen hat, almost exactly like Althea’s. Her clothes were good quality, cut to the style popular in Black Spar; nothing to stand out, apart from being spotlessly new.
She turned at the sound of Althea’s approach. Although Althea recognised her, it was none of the women she had been expecting. Close to Althea’s age, she was clearly seven months pregnant.
“Good day, Mistress,” Althea called as she neared.
“Good day, Mistress,” the woman said with a smile.
Althea knew the woman had not recognised her, which would make the trap easier.
“Are you lost, Mistress?” Althea asked. “It’s strange for a woman to travel alone. You are alone?”
“I am alone. I wished to walk in the forests of my youth.”
Although she spoke Althea’s language, it had become tainted with a foreign tongue.
“I am Mistress Woodsman; what is your name?”
That gentle smile returned. Althea pushed down rising guilt. She had to destroy the threat to Peace.
“Roberta,” she replied.
“Such informality; I do not know you, Mistress. What is your family name?”
“You could call me Mistress Boat. I prefer Roberta.”
Althea had been expecting a noble title.
“Mistress Boat, is your party nearby?”
“I must walk the woods alone.”
“For your child? That’s a silly superstition. Girls with their first child might want to risk a lone walk, but this can’t be your first baby.”
Roberta caressed her bump.
“It is the first that has grown this well,” she said quietly.
“So you plan to walk our woods and then what?”
“I don’t fancy the climb twice in one day. I plan to reach Valley-River Town and then walk back tomorrow, if the weather holds.”
“If I said the town is full of soldiers, what would you do?”
“I would say, ‘Thank you, Mistress Woodsman’, and offer you this token.”
Roberta took a silver tree from a pouch on her belt.
Althea wanted to scream. Controlling her tone, she said, “No Mistress, not for that.”
“You’ve protected me, as is the way.”
“No Mistress, not for so little a thing. May I offer my home so you may rest? It’s far from town.”
“Thank you, Mistress.”
“This way, Mistress Boat.” Althea led Roberta off the path.
“Call me Roberta; we should be friends.”
“I am Mistress Woodsman.”
They walked in silence, each with an irregular gait, back along Althea’s route.
“You live on the other side of the border? In Perdot?” asked Althea, when she thought the silence had been too long.
“Not Perdot, I live in Vendore.”
“The Land of Cheats?”
“Yes,” Roberta sighed. “That’s what we’d call it. They prefer Vendore and they trade, not cheat.”
“That’s a long way to travel for a superstition.”
“It’s the only thing left to me.”
Althea had to sit down on a fallen tree.
Roberta sat beside her.
“I have failed in my duty as a wife,” Roberta said. “My husband is free to reject me if I can’t give him a child, but he won’t.”
“At least there’s one man with honour in the Land of Cheats.”
“Vendore; and there are many with honour and courage who live there.”
“You’ve been with the Cheats too long; you should’ve stayed there.”
“I know you’re angry with me and what I’m doing, but… but, you must know I didn’t want this. This is not my choice. I know what it means. As much as I want to return to the Motherland, I would happily die an exile to keep the peace; this is my last hope. I have to give my husband a child.”
“And start a war.”
“Truly, Mistress Woodsman, it’s not my aim. Honestly I have tried everything else, I have even had saplings gathered from the Motherland to create an arboretum that I visit every day and it seemed to work…”
Roberta felt her swollen abdomen.
“…I couldn’t risk it, I’m getting old, this is probably my last chance–”
“No, no, no!” Althea beat the ground with her crutch. “You’re not her! There is only one woman who can come here and you are not her!”
“By Fate, not choice, I am The Woman Who Must.”
“No, it is the Queen who must walk alone carrying the heir. King Grey’s wife died giving him a daughter. You are not her ghost.”
“I am… the True one.”
“No, no, no. I attended the old Court and I served the Lady of the Birch Vastness. I served the Ladies who served the Woman Who Must Walk Alone. You’re not her. You’re not any of them!”
“I served the Ladies too,” Roberta said softly.
Althea forced herself upright and stalked away.
Althea’s right leg would not take her weight by the time she reached the edge of the meadow. Her left leg, with its badly mended shin, would hold as it always did and punish her by nightfall.
“May I help?” Roberta asked.
Althea took more medicine. She teetered on her wooden support.
Go for the double, your majesty?
“Mistress Woodsman?” Roberta took hold of Althea and helped her toward home. “Mistress Woodsman?”
“I am Maiden of the Woods, Guardian of the Birch Vastness. I will not tell you where my lady has gone.”
“Mistress Woodsman?” Roberta helped her to sit on the steps to the chalet.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Althea said, eyes clearing.
“I’m the Woman Who Must Walk the Forests Alone, for if I cannot, then the land is not safe.” With a sad sigh, Roberta added, “I’m a woman who will do anything for a child. The myth says invaders cannot steal us away from the Motherland for we are worthless away from our woods. What if I choose a life somewhere else? Why punish me? Why punish the man who loves me?”
Go for the double, your majesty?
Althea shook her head to clear the words.
“You should’ve stayed away. You should’ve accepted the cost of exile.”
“You’re a Woman of the Woods, a wife, a mother. You must understand what I feel.”
“I was a Lady of the Court, now I’m a crippled peasant. I’ve accepted that. Who are you to resist your fate?”
“My fate was to be a token, traded in the game of Kings; I accepted that,” Roberta said. “I attended my Father when King Rupert sent him to entreat with the Duke of Perdot and then to Vendore. When Grey took our land, Fate said I couldn’t return, I accepted that. When father returned and died, I accepted that and being valueless in a foreigner’s Court. I cannot accept ending the line of the man who loves me.”
“Where is Uschi? Where is my princess?”
“I don’t know. No one knows. She never reached me. Not one lady of the Great Court reached me. My husband petitioned Grey for news; that man would not give away a smile.”
“He killed them all,” Althea said quietly. She looked up the mountain. The Ladies of Court had never left the forests. Althea pushed herself up and climbed into the house. “I expected you to be the Princess, stirring up trouble. Of course, you are a Princess, if all the ladies are dead.” Althea gave a sharp laugh, adding under her breath: “And so am I.”
Roberta followed Althea into one long room. Smelling of wood smoke, it was warm and close inside. The surrounding walls, shutters, and beams had been brightly painted and carved beautifully. Roberta sat on one of the long benches that flanked a table.
Althea fed the fire, then pulled her skirts away so the heat could reach her legs.
“May I stay the night?” asked Roberta, quickly adding, “I know you don’t want me here, but I don’t think I could walk much further. I promise I’ll say nothing to your family.”
“You can stay.” Althea looked through the chalet’s windows for sign of the soldiers. “Would you like some warmed beer?”
“You are most kind.”
Althea hung a flagon over the fire.
“I should give you this now.” Roberta placed the silver tree on the table.
“I had one of those once, don’t give me another. I’ll not protect you.”
“I told you, I’m not here as the Woman Who Must Walk Alone.”
“You have no choice in the matter. You are her and in your belly will be a son and he will be strong and tall and handsome and his words will lure young men to his side. All because his mother walked in the woods. It makes him the heir. He will start a war. My sons will die and King Grey will still be in charge. Like my brothers dying with King Rupert at Ensilage Plains, like my Ladies dying in the mountains, like my father leading a rebellion and dying for it. In your belly is death. You have brought a belly full of death into my house!”
Roberta put away the tree.
“It will be a girl,” Roberta said, with deliberate steadiness, “and I will teach her not to wish for this crown.”
“You can’t know its sex. It’ll be a boy and you’ll see so much death because of this day. This is what you have done with your walking in my woods.”
“It’ll be a girl because I have never managed to carry a boy this close to term.”
Althea stared at the woman. She felt as clear as the icy stream at the bottom of the meadow.
“You have no children?”
“I have children, Mistress, I have a crypt full of my children,” Roberta said coldly, except for the look in her eyes that made Althea wish she had been shot in the head. “It’s true, a Woman of the Forests can barely conceive in a foreign land, and carrying to term is impossible. It is said, one day, alone, by her own free will, is enough, and so I am here. Whatever the cost.”
“And you walked alone from the High Pass?” Althea had to check there were no armed escorts for this war-bringer.
“I’m alone; I have a few trusted servants waiting in Perdot.”
“No, I meant, that it is a long walk,” Althea said to cover the truth.
Over Roberta’s head, Althea saw soldiers arriving. They dismounted far down the meadow to approach quietly on foot.
“The walk was easy. Escaping my confinement was the challenge. I don’t think I shall be seeing my ladies for some time. I’m told my husband has the temper of a Fury, though I have never seen it. I think I shall upon my return.”
Althea decanted a mug of beer for Roberta to distract her from the window. Some men set up firing positions while others vanished from view as they encircled the chalet. Once the force was ready, a group of four ran for the door. Although ready for it, she was overwhelmed by the shock of the troops bursting through. More followed, piling in until the room was full of shouting as soldiers rushed past the women, hammering into the surrounding rooms and up into the roof space.
An older man entered to acknowledge the stunned women as his troops searched.
An officer returned to report his men had found nothing.
“Search the woods, out back; he may have slipped our cordon.”
Most of the troops left, apart from a small bodyguard.
“Where is he?” their commander demanded.
Althea stared at Craven. Soldiering had aged him as farm work had worn her. Although a foreign mercenary, King Grey had made him Lord of the Black Valleys. Althea and Craven had never been so close in half a lifetime. He didn’t recognise in the woman the girl left to die.
“Where’s the usurper! Where is he!”
Althea stood stock-still.
“Mistress Woodsman, I have no time for delay!”
She judged Craven to be a good lord, and there had been peace in the Black Valleys as there had been in the whole of her Motherland.
Althea hobbled toward him.
Immediately Craven softened.
“I had forgotten, Mistress; sit, rest, I had heard of your accident –” That was the story she told her children. She didn’t want them hating the only king they had ever known. What she was to do wasn’t for hate. It was for peace. “– you reported having seen the man we’re pursuing.”
“My lord, it’s not a man, it’s her.”
“A woman? Why would I be looking for a woman?”
He was a foreigner, King Grey was too. If told an heir was coming, they would expect a man. She could explain. One of the soldiers was Hans-Paul from the village. She could prompt him to remember. His granny would talk of the Woman Who Must.
Roberta silently searched for an explanation; her eyes wide with shock.
Althea looked away.
Betrayal with a word. It was duty to her family and her lord. It was for peace. She was saving the Motherland. She was saving tens of thousands by killing a mother and her unborn child. She hesitated.
“Mistress Woodsman, answer me. Why do you think I would have every soldier in my land searching for a pregnant woman?”
He didn’t understand. As much as he had taken the land to be his own, he was not of the woods. Apart from a few wives with little choice, the nobility of her Motherland was foreign. Even this woman talked of home with the Cheats.
“Mistress Woodsman, why did you think I wanted this woman?”
Roberta was exhausted. Althea hadn’t noticed that before. Her life was Althea’s for the betraying. It was such a small price against thousands, surely her own sons amongst them, if the baby lived. A girl, a new Lady of the Forests, could be even worse than a boy.
“She’s my sister,” Althea blurted. “She’s my sister. That’s why, she’s my sister.”
“Why do I want your sister?”
A woman who had returned because the Ladies had to or be barren. Roberta had hardly moved, apart from shielding her bulge.
“She’s run away from her husband because of his temper,” Althea said, thinking to tell the truth, but then continued, “I thought he had petitioned you to return her.”
“I have no interest in pregnant women or their husbands. I’m after a false claimant to the throne. Have you seen any real strangers here?”
“No, my Lord.”
Craven gestured to his men. “Out! You’re scaring the women.”
In minutes, peace had descended upon the chalet and its meadow. The soldiers deserted the farm to continue searching. The women looked at each other for a long time.
“Thank you, sister,” Roberta said, dabbing her eyes with a silk handkerchief embroidered with ships.
“Don’t thank me, I have failed the Motherland, I let the seed of war grow. I have failed.”
Althea dropped beside Roberta.
“I promise you sister, my daughter will not want Grey’s crown.”
“Stop calling me sister; your sister, whoever she was, died with the ladies of the Great Court. Her bones are up on the mountain.”
“Althea,” Roberta said gently, “Althea, my lost sister returned to me, forgive me for not recognising you until now. I came this way hoping to find you, I trusted you above all others would protect me and you have.”
“King Grey told me I was irrelevant,” Althea said, staring into the fire.
Roberta took her sister’s hand. “I’ve searched for so many years. Last fall one of my husband’s spies met a chatty little maid –”
“She’s just like you.”
“So I’m told. For my baby, I returned. But for you, I returned here.”
Althea looked at Roberta. “What now? How will you stop your baby, the girl, the woman she’ll become, being some man’s pawn in a new war?”
“What is it? What have I missed,” Althea asked surprised. “What’s the joke?”
“Sister, the Queens of Vendore have never been pawns — even those who wear the crown through marriage. *
About the author: Roderick Gladwish is an aerospace engineer whose day job is designing spacecraft structures. In his spare time he does the same, producing illustrations for print and web magazines, such as: The Zone, Premonitions, SciFantastic, and the BSFA’s Focus. When he loses self-control, he writes stories. He keeps trying to write science fiction, but it comes out fantasy. In 2006, a humorous tale “Stone Me” appeared in Planet Magazine, which was reprinted in Greek SF Magazine “Universe Pathways” the following year.
Story copyright 2013 Roderick Gladwish.
About the artist: Romeo Esparrago is an illustrator and sometime cowboy.