Damsel in Wartime - Chapter 2

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The afternoon sun burned as he stepped into it. He wondered how he'd managed to sleep so long and why Maud hadn't woken him up.

He thought of Maud and her kindness, and the mess he'd brought into her home. Thankfully, if the Major was to be believed, she had nothing to fear from him. That allowed him the peace of mind to contemplate his situation. In front of him were several hundred men staring at him. It was a very large party, men conscripted into the service of the king to fight. He would have been one of them had he remained in the village.

Even though the soft cotton dress covered him fully, he still felt vulnerable and exposed. He saw hunger in their eyes as they watched him move towards them accompanied by the captain. Wulfric imagined those looks would soon turn to disgust as soon as they were apprised of the real story.

The captain placed him right at the front of the procession nearest to the major's horse which allowed him to bend his head, avoid the gazes and ignore the whispers about him. At least he'd tried to.

"Who is she?", "Why is she here?". Those were the prevailing questions for understandable reasons. Wulfric wished his identity would remain a secret. Pretending to be a woman suddenly seemed the most favorable option. No such luck.

"We have here a deserter. Disguised as a woman to avoid service" Major Donahue announced upon his exit from the homestead.

Wulfric wished the ground would open and swallow him up as the mutters of disbelief began. His gaze remained locked to the grass beneath him because if he dared raise his eyes, he would be met with a sea of eyes desperately trying to get another look at him. The humiliation was almost too much to bear.

He tried desperately not to let the tears flow as crying wouldn't help the poor regard these men already held him in. So he steeled himself, forced his emotions away and held himself together until the Major arrived at the front of the pack, climbed his horse and ordered the continuation of the journey.

"Stay beside my horse at all times" The Major instructed as they began moving.

One last time, he turned back to the homestead and saw Maud and her two daughters watching his departure from the front of their home. Oh, what they must have thought of him.

=^..^=

The captains had needed to quiet the muttering troops multiple times before they'd finally stopped talking about him and allowed him some quiet.

Wulfric's newfound peace allowed him to appreciate the sights both near and far. He hadn't ever seen much of the country he called home. Two hours into the march, this was already the farthest he'd ever been from home.

Everything from the path he walked, the grasslands on either side, the hills in the distance, everything was so new and so beautiful.

While the war already had a great human cost, it didn't have much impact on the surrounding landscape since most of the battles were fought in open fields. And since both sides of the conflict called this country home, there hadn't been any looting and plundering either.

Five hours into the march, Wulfric's legs had started to buckle from exhaustion. He hadn't been the first to falter and drop. Each time one of the conscripts did, they'd been ordered to their feet with threats. Those threats kept Wulfric walking until his legs finally failed him and he dropped to his knees.

Surprisingly, no threat came in his direction. To his great relief, the major only announced a pause to their journey and an opportunity to rest.

Major Donahue descended his horse as the troops groaned in relief. Following a short conversation with his lieutenants, the major called over a tired Wulfric who was busy tending to his sore feet.

His small feet which had endured so much punishment since the night before were already back in action following Major Donahue who led him beneath a large tree, away from the sun and prying ears.

"Tell me why you did this," The Major asked.

And so Wulfric told him everything. He spoke of his family's fate and his uselessness in the field of battle.

"But why a woman?"

Wulfric paused. He'd always been vocally against the jests growing up that pointed out his unusual femininity. If you'd asked him, he'd have told you he wished puberty would finally remember him.

He considered responding to the major's question with the obvious answer that it was the easiest way to escape but he knew that when it came to it, he hadn't even considered any other escape routes. The willingness to disguise himself as a young woman came too easily to him. He looked over to the hundreds of soldiers who sat resting in the hot sun.

'Would any of them wear a woman's dress to escape?' he wondered.

"I don't know" he answered the major.

Major Donahue pondered his answer but didn't press. He simply allowed Wulfric time to rest in the shade and tend to his sore feet.

"Why am I still alive?" Wulfric asked.

He knew that there was more than enough pretext for Major Donahue to run his sword through him where he stood. In fact, it was the expected outcome, and the major's decision-making could come under scrutiny by a superior.

"You amuse me" Major Donahue answered. "Seventeen months I have been fighting, and uncovering your secret has been the most enjoyable thing so far"

"Even more than the battles?" Wulfric asked.

"Only a madman enjoys battle" He informed him.

With that, quiet filled the air once more and so they remained until it was time for the marching to restart.

As both of them rose to their feet, Wulfric had to audacity to ask in light of their newfound camaraderie, "What is your name... sir?"

Being taken aback by the question didn't stop him from answering.

"Cedric"

To Wulfric's surprise, Cedric set his mind at ease as he climbed onto his horse.

"Don't worry, we're almost there"

=^..^=

Wulfric could hear the main force before he could see them. A cacophony of hearty laughter and clashing steel. These were the men of the 5th Battalion under the purview of Colonel Harlan, one of the King's many cousins. Colonel Harlan was one of many people along the chain of command who could veto Cedric's decision and introduce Wulfric to the hangman's noose so he was rightfully nervous.

Upon entry into the massive camp, he was met with the attention of the entire battalion. For better or worse, as the other new arrivals were ferried to their new quarters for a chance to rest in preparation for basic training, Wulfric was kept away from the rest, isolated.

'This is for the best' he reasoned. No matter how many times he asked, he wasn't allowed a change of clothing.

Considering that in addition to the fact that he wasn't receiving any training, Cedric letting him live was beginning to feel less like benevolent favor and more like forcing him to meet his death on that battlefield as embarrassingly as possible.

Not that it would have helped much. The chatter going on around camp was that the opposing army was already on the march. Estimates put them less than two full days' march away. It would take a miracle for Wulfric to become competent with the sword in that amount of time.

At least he got his own tent away from the stares. He was grateful for the opportunity to be free of that dress. Without any clothes to change into, it would have to be back on eventually but some time to be rid of it was better than none.

He breathed a sigh of relief as the dress fell to the floor. Even without the female garment, his body was little better at showing any signs of maleness. Small waist, small shoulders, small arms, long legs. A form that would make any princess jealous.

Two days to the battle. If they weren't even going to bother training him, he would spend that time sleeping, dreaming of a much better world. With no further thoughts, he took to the sparse bedding on the floor of the tent and drifted off to sleep.

=^..^=

He was awoken by calls from outside the tent. It was dark outside now causing the inside of the tent to be almost impossible to see.

"Hello," the voice called out in a hushed but hurried whisper. He recognized that voice.

"I'm coming" He responded, rushing to his feet and donning the blue dress, the only article of clothing he was allowed.

"Who is it?" He asked as he tightened the dress strings around his waist.

"I have your dinner" the voice replied. It sounded so familiar. The more Wulfric lingered on it, the more he became sure of its owner.

"Thur?" Wulfric asked in disbelief as he opened the tent.

It really was him.

"Thur! How are you here?" Wulfric practically threw himself into the boy's arms and hugged him.

"I didn't want to believe it" the older boy replied "But when I heard a boy disguised as a girl had been brought in, I just had to check. Why did you do this, Wulf?" He asked as he pushed himself into the tent. The candle he was holding offered much-needed visibility.

"It was your idea, wasn't it?" Wulfric asked with a smile.

Thurstan was using his candle to get a better, more complete assessment of his friend's new appearance which caused Wulfric to blush.

"I was joking" Thur protested his friend's statement.

Both boys had had the conversation four months ago back when Thurstan had first been conscripted. Wulfric had expressed his utter displeasure at the news as well as his insistence that if it had been him, he'd have run away.

Thurstan, always the reasonable one had explained that he was unlikely to make it very far given all the patrolling soldiers.

Thurstan, always the funny one had suggested in jest that his poorly developed friend could pass himself off as a woman and no one would be the wiser. He hadn't expected Wulfric to seriously consider it.

"Can I say, you look perfect?" Thurstan asked with a smile.

"You can't" Wulfric replied retrieving the plate of food from his friend.

Although they'd grown up together, the two of them were very different. Thur who was only a year older than him had nearly a foot on him. A combination of Wulfric being small for his age and his friend being particularly large. Not to mention how large his muscles were.

Wulfric could notice them even in this dim lighting and through his uniform. He was even bigger than Wulfric remembered. A consequence of army service he wondered.

"What did you do to earn such good treatment?" Thur asked. "Your own tent, that food was straight from the officers' stores"

"They're probably fattening me up for slaughter" Wulfric replied uncovering the sweet-smelling meal. "You can join me if you wish"

"Do you even have to ask?" Thur replied with a smile.

=^..^=

"I'm scared" Wulfric admitted while they ate. It wasn't much food but it tasted well enough.

"Of what?" Thur asked.

"Battle" he answered "It's bad enough already but Major Donahue seems intent on making me fight wearing this" He gestured to the full-length dress.

When Thur didn't reply, he continued, "He can't do that, can he? There has to be rules against this"

"What I know about Major Donahue is the higher-ups let him do what he wants so if he wants this, there's not much anyone can do to stop it"

"It doesn't make any sense" Wulfric argued.

"It doesn't have to. He's much more important than his rank suggests" Thur explained.

"I can't fight wearing a dress. I need armor, and even then I stand very little chance"

"That's true" Thur nodded.

"Thanks for the confidence" Wulfric pouted "I am going to see him tomorrow to make him change his mind"

"And how are you going to do that?" Thurstan said taking one of the last bites of the meal. Wulfric had stopped eating earlier when he noticed his friend was famished.

"I don't know yet"

=^..^=

Walking through the large camp the next morning was a daunting experience for Wulfric. Mostly he received looks of confusion and disgust from the soldiers but even knowing his identity, there were still looks of thirst sprinkled in.

Most of his life, Wulfric had been unremarkable but here, dressed as he was, he had the power to turn heads and stop entire conversations or training.

Still, he had a singular goal in mind: Find Cedric's tent.

Thurstan had given him some directions last night that had turned out to be vague and unreliable. As much as he wished against it, he was going to have to ask for directions.

He stopped outside one of the tents which had three men sitting at a table playing a game with stones.

"Excuse me" Wulfric began "Might you direct me to Major Donahue's tent?"

He realised he'd been using the softer voice he'd adopted since putting on the dress. If his memory served, he'd used it as well last night with Thurstan.

At first, he got no reply from the table but when he began to repeat, one of the men quickly spat near his feet. This caused Wulfric to back away and continue in his original direction.

Another group of soldiers was his next destination. Asking the same question, he was met with a stern "Get away". It turned out he wasn't a favourite of any of His Majesty's soldiers.

Fearing he might have to give up his quest and return to his tent, a friendly soldier approached him.

"I'll take you"

"Thank you" Wulfric replied with a bright smile.

During their short walk together, the man asked him, "Are you really a man?"

"Unfortunately" Wulfric answered much to his own surprise. Not that it mattered either way, but lately he had started entertaining the possibility that his life might have been better and much less complicated if he'd been born as he currently looked.

"You don't look it" The man replied. In truth, the man could have been his age or any for that matter. War simply had a way of ageing people beyond their years.

"I know" Wulfric answered.

"Well, here we are" The kind man announced as they stopped before a large tent, several times larger than his own.

"Thank you" Wulfric offered. The man simply grunted a response and walked off.

Wulfric took a deep breath and smoothed the dress as best he could before calling out, "Major Donahue, may I come in?"

He was once again met with only silence.

"It's Wulfric" He added.

A moment later, the familiar voice ordered his entry. Not a moment too soon as he had begun to draw even more attention than usual.

The inside of the tent was spacious and organized and even allowed room to walk freely. Noticing they weren't alone, Wulfric quickly greeted both officers.

"Fascinating" The other man, a much older gentleman exclaimed. He seemed taken aback by the young boy and inspected him in wonder like a horse at the stables.

"This is the boy" Cedric informed the officer.

"I see that. If you want my advice, dispose of him and be done with it. You don't want any unsightly rumors spreading"

"We've spoken about this" Cedric replied in a hushed tone.

The other officer cleared his throat, "Yes we have. I will take my leave. Set the other plans in motion"

"Yes sir," Cedric said with a salute. As the officer made his exit, his eyes lingered on the boy. Wulfric couldn't help but feel like a circus attraction, a show animal. He breathed a sigh of relief as the older man exited the tent with no further comments.

"Why have you come?" Cedric wasted no time.

"Dispose of me?" Wulfric asked.

"You have been more trouble than you are worth" Cedric walked towards the table at the end of the tent and rolled up what looked like a map of the surrounding area.

"And what am I worth?" Wulfric asked.

"You ask a lot of questions. I hope the favorable treatment has not left you under any wrong impressions regarding your status as a prisoner"

"So why not just dispose of me and be done with it?" Wulfric asked and Cedric let out an exhausted sigh. Wulfric's day had only just begun but the major had been up for several hours handling preparations. Testing him was the wrong move.

"If you die, it will be in service of His Majesty's army" Cedric said as he took to arranging some loose papers on his desk.

"Then give me armor, and training" Wulfric let out in frustration.

"Those are privileges reserved for soldiers of the Fifth Battalion. An honor you spat on" Cedric replied quickly, almost too quickly that it may have been rehearsed.

"Look at me... sir" Wulfric said opening himself up to inspection. He had to repeat the statement to get the major to look away from his papers "Look at my arms, feel them" He walked up to Cedric.

The interaction was very atypical and unusual but Wulfric's narrow survival prospects gave him boldness he'd never had before.

He walked up to Cedric, taking his hand and placing it on his bicep, "Feel that"

"Feel what?" Cedric asked confused.

"Exactly, there's nothing there. I would be useless in the army"

"Nonsense" Cedric withdrew his hand, "I've seen the army make men of boys many times"

"Maybe over several months or years. We fight tomorrow" Wulfric protested.

"Where did you hear that..." the major paused "No matter, it is decided. You will fight"

"Then you send me to my death. Congratulations, you're about to get what you want"

"I don't want your death" Cedric said turning away.

"Then what is it you want?"

It took him a moment to reply but when he did, he said, "I want you to pay your dues"

"What does that mean?" Wulfric asked taking a step forward.

"I will make you a promise. Should you survive tomorrow's battle, you will never have to wield a sword ever again"

"I won't"

"Maybe, maybe not. But I will fight till the end of this war, tomorrow will be your last... no matter the outcome"

=^..^=

Wulfric remained in a daze the entire day. The chattering of the troops, the clashing of training swords, all the noise faded away as he disappeared into his mind thinking about the major's words.

If Cedric was to be believed, Wulfric had his way out. One fight. Sure he would be engaging in that fight wearing his mother's dress as punishment but he had a lifeline.

Could he live? That was the question that weighed on his mind all afternoon and evening. Could he endure this humiliation and survive? Could he travel far away and put all this behind him?

He remained pondering those questions until Thur returned that night with a renewed look of determination. Wulfric knew that look and it meant trouble.

"What is it?" Wulfric asked dreading the answer.

"Let's run away" Thur replied with a hushed voice. Those two words threatened to shatter what little resolve he had spent the day building up.

"Run?"

"I think we can do it. I know the guard rotations, we can make it out. I brought you some clothes, we can..."

"I can't ask you to do this, Thur. You've served. If you run now..."

"You're not asking me."

"Major Donahue said I'm done if I survive tomorrow" Wulfric said turning away. He couldn't believe he was turning down an offer to leave this mess behind.

"Done?" Thur asked.

"Free"

"You believe him?"

"I think so. He hasn't lied to me yet"

"And what if you die?"

"I won't..."

"What if you do?" Thur stressed, "What am I supposed to do then?"

"What are you saying?"

"You're... you're my best friend," Thur told him.

"You're mine too.. which is why I can't let you throw your life away"

The two of them paused, watching each other closely in the dim candlelight. Wulfric knew that if he'd asked him to, he'd have left everything to ferry him to safety and he was grateful for that but he also worried about what constantly being the one to be saved said about him.

"It's okay" he assured his friend "I'll fight tomorrow, get it over with and leave, and when you're done with your service, we can go somewhere where we never have to run again, okay?"

It took a while but Thur finally nodded his agreement.

"I'll find you at the start of the battle. I'll find you and I'll protect you" Thur informed him.

Wulfric thought to protest but decided against it already knowing its futility.

"Okay," He answered.

"I'll come" That was the last thing Thur said before stepping out of the tent and disappearing into the night.

=^..^=

Our hero stood in a daze atop a hill in the cold, early morning. The sun was still below the horizon and dew still covered the grass.

Hours before dawn, the entire Fifth Battalion had matched out of camp divided into four regiments. Wulfric could only account for two of those four regiments.

His group stood atop a hill overlooking a large valley, the other group took their place on the slope down in the valley. Both groups had been standing in their positions for at least two hours. The other two regiments were nowhere to be seen. Thur was nowhere to be seen.

Wulfric's regiment was led by Major Donahue who sat on his horse at the front of the pack with Wulfric to his side. True to his intentions, he hadn't allowed a change of clothes and the same blue dress remained.

Every other soul on that hill was clad in some form of protective armor, while he stood unprotected, cold and shivering.

Cedric paid him no mind and remained laser-focused on the horizon. His vigilance paid off as he was the first to spot the advancing enemies in the distance. Not long after that came the vibrations in the soil signifying their numbers and close approach.

Cedric began his speech and warcry but Wulfric was unable to focus on any of the actual words. He was terrified. Fast approaching were thousands of men that had travelled all this way to kill him.

'I should have run. I should have run' His mind repeated to him as his heart beat uncontrollably. He was breathing hard and fast and his fingers tingled with fear. He didn't belong here.

He looked around him and for once, he wasn't the main attraction. All the men behind him had their gazes trained on the approaching enemy. It was time to fight and for many of them, time to die.

He watched them closely, every one of them had steeled themselves for what was to come. He was nowhere near as ready. He looked around and wondered if he could make a run for it. Surely no one would pay him any mind with that large army fast approaching.

Cedric interrupted his train of thought.

"Wulfric"

He turned quickly to face the major. Cedric was handing him a sword, sheathed in a beautiful pouch. It looked expensive, enough to feed a family for a year.

"Even you should be able to wield this," Cedric said. He was right. It was light, so light he wondered whether it could do the job it was intended for.

"That sword means a lot to me" Cedric informed him "Don't lose it"

"Yes sir".

As the King's nephew's army came to a stop on the other side of the valley, Cedric continued his speech preparing his men to lay down their lives for their king. As Wulfric held on tight to the sword in his hands, he thought about how cruel it was to be forced to fight and die for some King's ambitions.

As the opposing forces began charging into the valley, he thought about how they were no different. Pawns in the game of nobility.

It caused him to let out a stifled laugh. It was a cruel world indeed.

Both sides of the conflict engaged each other at the bottom of the valley drawing the first deaths of the battle. They hacked and slashed each other menacingly. The regiment of His Majesty's army that was down in the valley was severely outnumbered by the attacking forces.

It took 8 minutes for 60% of them to be decimated. When the two missing regiments emerged from the distance to charge into the attacking troops from east and west, Wulfric realised that the first regiment was nothing but bait. Farmers and peasants whose only purpose was to die as a distraction.

Wulfric turned to the Major who was watching the battle unfold closely.

'Was it his plan?' Wulfric wondered. There was no inkling of remorse.

The other regiments joining the battle had only managed to just about level the playing field. The attacking troops were so numerous and well-trained that they had quickly recovered from the flank attempt.

"Men, on me!" Cedric called out. Turning to Wulfric, he instructed him, "Don't fall behind"

The major called for a charge and a deafening roar from the troops behind him jolted him to life. He ran mindlessly down into the belly of the valley where swords clashed.

His eyes filled with tears blurring his vision but he kept running. He slipped in the slippery grass and fell causing some of the charging men behind him to trip trying to avoid him but they recovered quickly and continued their charge.

By the time he recovered his footing and picked up the sword, the battle in the valley was now in full swing, only he stood on the outskirts. There was nothing stopping him from turning and running the other way. It was unfair to expect him to fight in that state. He tried his best to convince himself to run but he couldn't.

To his surprise, his feet carried him in the direction of battle screaming like a mad woman.

He entered the fray swinging his sword wildly, his eyes only watching for the colors of the uniforms. His uncoordinated flurry of attacks paired with his appearance was even enough to catch a few combatants off guard and land effective strikes.

His luck carried on for a few minutes until he was parried by a superior swordsman and the sword flew from his hand. His attacker paused trying to make sense of what his eyes were showing him. A young girl on the battlefield. Still, she had attacked him with blind fury and she needed to be dispatched off.

He raised his sword to strike and Wulfric accepted his fate. It had been inevitable. At least this way, he could die with some pride. One or two soldiers had met their end at his hand. He closed his eyes ready to receive a fatal blow but it never came.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Thurstan standing over his would-be killer urging him to his feet. The two of them cautiously made their way through the battle, a sea of swords clashing all around them.

They didn't make it very far before they were attacked. Thurstan expertly pushed Wulfric to the floor and out of the path of the blade before blocking the second strike attempt.

Thurstan was yelling something but it was too loud. Thurstan's sword met with their attacker's, the clash of steel loud enough to pierce through the battlefield roar and make Wulfric's ears ring. He hadn't expected war to be so loud.

The ground beneath them had turned to a muddy mess which now splashed everywhere. Thurstan was still yelling something. He read his lips.

"Run!"

Wulfric hurried to his feet quickly scanning for an open path to safety. When he found it, he ran. He turned back to see his friend who was still engaged in brutal combat with the enemy soldier.

Wulfric prayed silently for his safety. Turning back to face the path, he was met with an oncoming horse galloping his way. There was no chance to react. Collision. Darkness.

=^..^=

When he came to, the sun was in the sky shining relentlessly on his face. His vision was blurred but he could tell he was in the arms of someone. He willed his vision clear and could just roughly make out Thur's face carrying him to safety.

Following repeated blinks, he received his correction. He was in the arms of Major Donahue who gently carried him off the battlefield.

"I told you not to lose that sword," The major said to him.

"Where is Thur?" Wulfric asked weakly.

"Who?" Cedric asked.

Wulfric groaned. It hurt everywhere. It hurt to breathe.

"I survived" he whispered. "Let me go"

The major simply shushed him.

=^..^=

Graciously, Major Donahue sent his men in search of the soldier called Thur. The report returned that despite his injuries, he was alive and expected to recover following treatment.

Wulfric was overjoyed. Their plan to travel far away together after his service was possible.

"I survived the battle" Wulfric repeated "Am I free to go?" He asked.

"Free to go?" Cedric asked in return.

"You said..."

"I said you would no longer have to fight should you survive. You have proven yourself here today and earned the men's respect but it is not over yet. You still have other uses for His Majesty's army"

=^..^=

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Hi, thanks for reading as always. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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Comments

A Fate Worse Than Death?

joannebarbarella's picture

You've done the dirty on us! The major worded his promise carefully and Wulfric misinterpreted it to mean what he wanted it to mean.

You can't possibly leave this story at this point. Enquiring minds need to know Wulfric's fate. For a start he needs a new dress. The one he's wearing must be in muddy rags by now. And the Major has some plan in mind that probably doesn't involve letting the troops have their way with him.

Please tell us there is more.

ChasingSerenity's picture

Too many if's and what abouts...
What about Thur?
What about Maud and her two daughters?

Is there no prince(ess) or dashing swashbuckler involved?

Other uses? Dark foreshadowing or hopeful glimpse of brighter future?

Curious minds need to know!!

Devious, Emma!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Well, Joan of Arc he ain’t, I guess! It does seem like a strange place to end the story, though . . . .
:)

Emma

To be honest

Emma's picture

I'm trying not to linger too long on any story. It's a bad habit but I write a few chapters and I get bored and that causes me to not write anything else for an extended period of time.

It's something I'm trying to fix but till then, I'll rather keep things short and move on to the next.

Please continue...

too many loose ends and promising plot lines to stop here.

LOL Yep knew it!

Are we going to flash to the future with our hero-ine firmly in charge of her husband's castle. Maud her loyal personal maid with daughters nannies to her adopted children.