Damsel in Wartime - Chapter 1

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Our story begins on a cold night illuminated only by the moonlight. We catch up with our hero as he runs breathlessly through the winding paths of the old dirt road that led away from the village where he'd lived most of his life.

You see an hour ago, he packed up all the things in the world he couldn't live without into a satchel, donned his mother's favourite dress, the only thing of hers he hadn't sold off, and left home in the cover of night.

The last three years had been hard on Wulfric. His once large family had now been decimated. His father and two brothers had been killed in the ongoing war, 'the King's war' as most people called it, as its sole purpose was to keep the usurper in power despite his nephew's rightful claim to the throne.

For that reason alone, his father and two older brothers had died in this meaningless war. His mother had fallen ill and followed six months later. Wulfric of course knew the real truth, she died of heartbreak. A selfish act that left him alone in the world.

To make matters even worse, earlier that morning he'd received the news that the king was now calling for more cannon fodder. Come sunrise, he would be expected to march to his death, his apprenticeship that had kept him away from the war so far was now powerless to protect him.

Wulfric knew one thing for certain. Taking a step onto that battlefield meant his death and the end of his family tree. However unremarkable it had been so far, it deserved to survive, it deserved the chance to die for something it truly believed in. So he'd made up his mind to run.

With soldiers stationed in the village to prevent plans such as his, what choice did he have other than to turn his cursed appearance into a blessing for once?

As he walked past guard after guard in his mother's favourite blue dress, he rationalized that this was for the best. He wouldn't be of any use to the war effort. His ridiculously small frame could barely lift a sword let alone wield it effectively.

"I would be crushed from the weight of all that armor or die of dehydration long before the battle even started" he reasoned.

This was for the best.

His plan worked perfectly of course. No one would have guessed that the young, petite girl in the blue dress was anything other than she appeared to be. She was even carrying a wooden bucket so everyone must have thought she was on her way to fetch some water.

No one would have suspected, except Elowen. Elowen with her ridiculous and constant pestering was the one person he didn't want to run into outside the village when he was finally away and free.

Her shrill voice cut through the night air a moment after he walked passed her.

"Wulfric?"

His disguise would have worked perfectly when faced with any soldier or outsider but was utterly useless when dealing with the people of his village. After all, it was the same face that they'd seen nearly every day for all those years. A feminine face that did well to complement his current outfit but still just his face.

Elowen had started laughing before she realized his plot. There was no reason for her to try to stop him but still she did. Such was her nature and the reason the other villagers didn't like her or her wicked mother.

He knew his pleas would fall on deaf ears but he pleaded anyway. True to character, she reached forward and grabbed the hem of his dress holding tightly. When he turned away from her, she took hold of his satchel and pulled.

There was no reason to prevent him from running away, it didn't harm her in a way, maybe she was just jealous that he'd get to live and her only brother would die in the war but his staying wouldn't change her brother's fate so why?

He didn't bother pondering the complexities of her wicked mind, he simply swung his arm as hard as he could catching her square in the face with the wooden bucket and knocking her to the floor.

Even as she fell, her fingers remained locked in a tight grip which pulled his satchel right off his shoulders. He reached for the satchel in her hand only then realizing he hadn't succeeded in knocking her out and she wasn't giving it up without a fight.

When she began screaming for help, he'd run and continued to do so for the next 15 minutes or so even when his legs threatened to cave and his body threatened to give up. Elowen would have alerted the entire village to his actions by now. His humiliation aside, his was now a fate worse than conscription should he be caught. So he ran some more.

=^..^=

By the time Wulfric arrived at a homestead and collapsed in front of its small picket fence, his legs shook from exhaustion and his heart felt like it was ready to beat out of his chest both from fear and overuse.

Still, he'd managed to put enough distance between himself and the village that it was now time for the second stage of his plan, a stage that he couldn't begin because it consisted of a change of clothes. Clothes he no longer had because they were in the satchel.

Before any of that however, he needed to deal with his growing, unbearable thirst that was becoming impossible to ignore. He spotted a well just beside the nearby homestead. Encircling the house he spotted a wooden barrel towards the back and prayed the liquid within was clean water.

He found it to be quite a feat to scale the short fence as the tight bodice of the dress was severely restricting his range of movement and the numerous skirt layers kept getting caught by the fence pieces. Add that to the fact that he was deathly exhausted at that point.

Still, he found relief as he approached the barrel, uncovered it and found clean water within. He hurriedly scooped a generous quantity with a nearby ladle quenching his thirst and repeating the process a few times until he was satisfied.

He realized this made him a thief, one of little consequence but a thief nonetheless. He could add that to conscription dodging and assault as another one of his crimes.

Wulfric wasn't a renegade, far from it. He'd never so much as hurt a fly before today. He was a victim of circumstance. Circumstances created by the vile king that now ruled the nation. A king who wouldn't even fight his battle and left that burden to his generals and his unwilling subjects.

"Who is it?" Wulfric heard a woman's voice. He'd been so engulfed by his thoughts that he hadn't heard the door to the house open.

He thought to hide but from where his observer stood, they could see him well enough in the moonlight.

"Who are you?" the voice called out again much more sternly this time "I am armed" The woman warned.

"I mean you no trouble" Wulfric put on the best portrayal of a woman's voice he could manage in light of his clothes. "I am just passing through"

"And helping yourself to my water while you're at it" The woman took a step forward seemingly at ease at the confirmation that the intruder was a young lady.

"I'm sorry, I was just thirsty. I'll be on my way" Wulfric assured the woman.

"Come closer" she instructed.

Wulfric sheepishly obeyed. He couldn't afford another altercation and he had no buckets this time either. When he was close enough, the woman brought her candle to him illuminating his pretty face and soft locks.

He glanced down and realised the woman had been telling the truth. She was indeed armed. In her right hand was a short sword that could skewer him and at this range, there was little he could do to stop her.

"You a runaway?" She asked examining him. Without waiting for a response, she followed up, "What are you running from, girl?"

Wulfric realised he had little choice. He had to tell her something, anything that would allow him to go on his way without trouble.

"My husband" he answered.

A common enough story that wouldn't raise any suspicion. While most men were away at war, those who were deemed unfit, perhaps through injury or age, would have remained.

As much as it horrified him to think it, he knew brides his age were married away to dirty, old men as long as they were rich enough to afford it. Still, it made his story plausible.

The woman examined him some more before turning and walking back through the door.

"Follow me" she called out simply.

"I really have to be on my way, ma'am" he called out to her. He wondered whether he should make a run for it. He was tired of running, too tired to make another step that wasn't in the direction of food or rest and this woman seemed to be offering both. Invaluable since all the food he'd had was in that satchel. He cursed wicked Elowen and followed the woman.

=^..^=

The little he could see of her home in the candlelight was very comfortable. Much more than his own home. Two girls sat at the table eating dinner. Both were younger than him but the older one, not by much.

"Hello," The younger of the two girls said to him.

"Sit down, I'll bring you some food" the woman instructed.

Wulfric quietly obeyed after replying 'hello' to the young girls.

"I'm Gwyn, what's your name?" The young girl spoke again.

Wulfric froze for a moment. He hadn't thought about that. He hadn't expected anyone to ask him that. If things had gone according to plan, he would have been back in his normal clothes by now.

"Elara" he quickly recovered. It was his mother's name. Fitting since they looked so much alike.

"Pretty" Gwyn responded. "My sister is Matilda" she finished.

Matilda shot her younger sister a disapproving glance before returning her gaze to the stranger.

Every time Wulfric thought the teenager was going to say something, she kept her thoughts to herself and every time Wulfric thought to say something to her, her disapproving stare told him otherwise.

Gwyn on the other hand had no issues talking to her new friend, going as far as telling Wulfric about all the animals on their farm. Each new spilled fact of course earning her a disapproving look from her much quieter older sister.

"It's not much but you need to eat," The girls' mother said as she returned with a plate of food, "You must have been through a lot"

=^..^=

Admirably, Wulfric had managed to convey real appreciation for the food even though he hadn't really enjoyed it. The porridge was bland, the bread was stale and the cheese gave off an off-putting odor but it was enough to be filling so he was grateful.

He didn't know when his next meal would come if at all so he made sure to eat every last bite offered. In truth, he was dreading going out in the world. A girl that looked like he did at that moment travelling alone was just asking for trouble. Who knew what unsavoury characters hid around every corner? But that was a problem for tomorrow. Tonight, he had questions to answer.

"Why are you running from your husband?" The woman who revealed her name to be Maud asked.

Wulfric wasn't a thief or a violent person. His actions tonight weren't typical of him. What he was, however, was a fibber, a storyteller, a wise mouth. When you're that petite and defenceless, you pick up other ways to protect yourself.

"I was forced to marry him." He began "A wicked geezer older than my own father. He forces himself on me, kisses me with his dirty breath and takes me as he pleases"

Of course, our dear Wulfric had never experienced any of this. He'd simply listened in on people talking throughout his years and pieced together the horrors the women around him faced. Knowledge he was now exploiting.

"What is your plan? To return to your father's house?" Maud asked genuinely interested in his tale if a bit concerned that the young girl before her hadn't entirely thought things through.

"And why not?"

"Your father received a price for you. He must return you to your husband"

"Then I will slit my own throat" he responded sharply with the same extreme indignation he'd witnessed another woman have over her unfair circumstances.

"And bring shame to your family" Maud explained.

After what felt like an appropriate pause, he asked to end the night in anticipation of an early rise the next day to continue his journey.

Maud who had no interest in pressing the poor, yet misguided girl brought her bedding to make the floor that bit more comfortable and bid her goodnight.

Wulfric collected his thoughts about the day that had unfolded and the day that was yet to come. It dawned on him that he'd have to pretend to be a woman for a bit longer until he could find a place to steal some men's clothes.

He ended the night with thoughts of how one crime could easily lead to several more no matter how good one's intentions.

=^..^=

Wulfric was awoken by the thumping of heavy footsteps and the vibrations they created coursing through his very bones. The room that had only been illuminated by candlelight the night before was now lit brightly by the sun high in the sky.

The first feeling was panic. He'd planned to be on his way before first light, but he'd missed that by a very large margin.

The second feeling was evening greater panic. The footsteps were right outside the homestead. His face contorted as he frantically searched his brain for the most favorable action, a way out of this mess.

Why hadn't he woken up when he'd planned he wondered. Surely he hadn't been so tired to miss his deadline by several hours? What was he to do?

His thoughts were interrupted by rapid knocks on the wooden door followed by demands to open. His heart skipped a beat.

Were they looking for him? There had to have been hundreds of men at least. All for him?

The knocks and demands came again louder this time.

Maud hurried in from the backyard, shooed him out of sight and hurriedly opened the door.

"G'day madam" A voice came through.

"Good day, Mr...?"

"Major Donahue" the man answered "I am afraid we must trouble you this morning. We are in need of water for our horses and we must make use of your well"

Maud leaned out the door and peered wide-eyed at the large company of soldiers that rested on her property.

"All those horses" she began "They'll drink my well dry"

"His Majesty's horses, madam. Part of His Majesty's army. I'm afraid this is not a request"

"My husband serves in His Majesty's army. Surely you don't mean for one of your soldiers to return home to find his wife and children dead of thirst"

While Wulfric's focus remained locked on the ongoing discussion, he did his best to stay out of sight. His hiding spot turned out to be far less than ideal because although the Major couldn't see him from his position outside the house, if he made any attempts at entry, Wulfric's presence would surely be revealed.

His one saving grace was that the Major didn't seem to be in Maud's homestead in search of a runaway. So he simply listened and scarcely breathed.

"Captain" the Major called out "Water the horses, but do it sparingly."

"Thank you, Major" Maud replied with relief. "If that will be all..."

"I'm afraid I must trouble you some more" He interrupted "It is but a trifling matter"

Maud didn't respond but non-verbally conveyed her attention.

"We are in search of a deserter. Reports put him somewhere in this area, at least at some point" Major Donahue informed the woman. Wulfric covered his mouth with both hands to keep from making a sound. His worst fears were realized.

"The information my men and I received is that he might be disguised as a woman. Highly unusual I know" the Major confessed "Have you encountered any such characters?" He asked finally while peering past Maud into the house.

"I'm afraid I haven't" Maud replied while shifting slightly to block the Major's view.

"I hope you don't mind my taking a look inside." He spoke seriously, "He is said to be very dangerous, already attacking an innocent bystander. This is for your protection"

Wulfric knew he had to move immediately. His flimsy hiding spot wouldn't hold up against any form of inspection let alone against the trained eyes of a high-ranking officer.

He shifted to his feet. He briefly considered making his way to the backdoor but scrapped that idea when he remembered that's where the barrel of water had been. A barrel likely to draw the attention of a thirsty company of soldiers.

The room to his left was his best bet. He considered that he could hide underneath a bed however predictably. At least it would buy him some time. The problem was the entrance appeared vulnerable to the Major's line of sight even from his position outside the door.

He was trapped.

"Major, is that really necessary? I will have no men in this house except my husband especially while he is away fighting for the king"

"I am afraid I must insist, madam" He countered "It's only me and I assure you, I am an upstanding gentleman"

"Still, this is..." Maud began to argue but she was quickly cut off.

"Step aside madam" The Major briskly ushered himself passed the shocked woman and laid eyes on the apparent young girl who had nowhere to hide.

Wulfric simply stood frozen, unable to move. He must have thought his life was over, a reasonable assumption given the brutality of His Majesty's army.

"And who are you, young lady?" The major asked him. He realised the game wasn't over yet. He still had cards to play as long as he looked the part, and so did Maud who couldn't figure out why she was helping and harboring a fugitive and a liar.

"That's my eldest daughter, Elara" Maud proclaimed to the surprise of both herself and her untruthful guest.

"Well, I'd say, you have a very beautiful daughter. I assume she gets her blonde hair and grey eyes from her father" He asked with his watchful eyes inspecting the room.

His gaze lingered on the freshly used bedding on the floor but he pretended to think nothing else of it.

"How many children do you have, madam?" he asked.

"Two other girls" Maud answered.

The major grunted his acknowledgement before inspecting the house some more.

"Bring them out here" he commanded.

Maud held back her dissent when she noticed his stern expression, "Girls, come out" She called out.

A moment later, the two girls that Wulfric hadn't seen since the night before hurried out of the inner room clutching their hands together.

"You have such beautiful daughters... although I can't help but notice the striking difference between the eldest and the other two"

"She takes after her paternal grandfather..."

"Enough" The major called for a halt to the deceit and the games. Everyone had sensed its futility for some time and the Major's patience had run its course. He walked briskly and placed a firm hand on Wulfric's chest, the absence of the expected softness was telling.

In truth, it was a risky move. Had Wulfric been who Maud claimed he was and no foul play was indeed present, it would have been a sticky enough situation for the Major who prided himself an upstanding man. Instead of outrage, he was only met with the satisfaction of having been correct.

Wulfric's life flashed before his eyes as he thought of every possible way in which he could be killed. The last of his family line hung as a deserter. The best he could hope for now was obscurity after death. He hoped he wouldn't be laughed at and ridiculed for his actions for generations to come.

"I... I forced them to hide me. I threatened them" he announced. His fate was settled but he didn't want Maud to suffer for her overwhelming kindness.

"Wulfric? Is that right? We can add kidnapping to your list of charges. We apparently have a hardened criminal on our hands" Major Donahue commented.

Wulfric's heart sank. His was a grim fate. He should have just gone to fight the war and hoped for a quick death. All a village boy like him could hope for was an honorable death but he'd had the audacity to try to live.

The first tear drops rolled down his cheeks, defeated.

"Be calm," Major Donahue said to him "Yours is not a fate to envy but it is not death by my hand"

The major turned and walked towards the door, "Captain" he called out "It seems we have discovered our runaway".

An odd-looking man quickly emerged from the doorway with a look of surprise.

"The fair one." the Major pointed out "Put him in line with the troops. He will fight for his country or he will die trying."

"The girl?" the captain asked.

"Looks can be deceiving" His superior replied.

Wulfric wasn't sure whether to be relieved or not but he was terrified. Terrified of the idea of facing those men outside, hundreds of them, dressed as he was.

"May I get a change of clothes?"

"You chose those clothes over His Majesty's colors. In those clothes, you will remain"

=^..^=
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Hello again, I know I have a lot of unfinished stories but I've been having trouble writing anything lately. I'm just writing these short stories to jumpstart my brain. Hope you enjoy them nonetheless.

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Comments

Trouble writing?

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Emma, my dear namesake, if this story is an example of your trouble writing, I hope I may suffer the same affliction quickly! I haven’t posted a thing in two months. Nothing like a good short story to warm up your typing fingers.

Wulfric’s good looks are likely to prove less than a blessing in his current circumstance.

Emma

A Different War

joannebarbarella's picture

Not all of the enemy are dolts. Major Donahue is too competent by half. However, Wulfric might find himself put to different usage than he expects! Not all wars are fought with sharp weapons!

Don't keep us waiting for episode 2, Emma. I couldn't comment earlier because I was having trouble logging on.