By Cilla de Mander
It might have started when the king died. It was never clear if his death was natural or if he was poisoned. His chamber maid found him dead in his bed one morning, all pale and cold. The Royal Physician conducted an investigation and declared that he died from heart failure. But considering what happened later, and since she was the Queen’s aunt and appointed by the Queen herself, some people whispered that it might just as well have been the physician herself that killed him.
They did however whisper it in very low voices.
At that time the succession of the realm still only passed to the sons. The Queen had a son, only a year old, and so she declared she would reign in his place until he came of age. Most of the members of the council was appointed by the Queen anyway, or old and frail, and no protests were made.
It was during the first year of Queen Marion’s the First long and prosperous reign that the visitors started to show in the villages and towns across the country. Even in hindsight it isn’t clear if the Queen had anything to do with them, or if maybe it was the other way around, that whomever organised the visitors also supported the Queen’s claim to the throne. It all came together in an astonishing way, whatever the cause.
The visitors were women, dressed in grey cloaks. They were often mistaken for nuns, from one orden or another, but never claimed any religious affiliations at all. They travelled in groups of two or three, and wherever they came they met with the women. For an evening, or several, until they had delivered their message. Nobody in power cared, why should the men bother about women gathering and talking? The visitors came, talked, and went again, but left both ideas and some very special things behind.
They talked about how men constantly was expected to be willing to die for their cause or their loyalties. How they banded together and valued the group more than their own lives. How ruthlessness and the willingness to die rather than yield was what made them successful in battle. How power comes to the group with the most loyal, most ruthless, most cruel members. And they talked about how that would be equally true for women.
They didn’t need to talk all that much about the suffering, the helplessness, the oppression the women endured at the hands of men. Once they got them started, the women had a lot to say on the subject all by themselves. And before they continued on their journey the visitors always left the women of the villages and towns with a plan, a vow and some very special needles.
As usual Mary’s husband Tom was drunk in the evening, and as always when he was drunk he came to her bed. This time though, she was prepared. She could hear him across the room in his own bed, arousing himself, moaning and turning on the straw mattress and then he stumbled up and took four or five steps over to her bed. He pulled her covers off her, landing them in a crumpled heap on the dirty floor and lowered himself on top of her, without a word. His big clumsy hands pawed at her nightgown to get it out of his way, his stinking breath filled her nostrils. And she thought “never again”. And she thought “enough is enough”. Her right hand scrambled under her mattress and she felt the cold, slick weight of the big needle she hid there. She grabbed the needle, put her arm up and while Tom was trying to get into position and tried to force his half-erect penis inside her, she plunged the sharp, long needle straight into his throat.
He made a gurgling, wet noise and his body stiffened. His arms started flailing and she pushed at him, to get him off of her. He managed to grab the needle and pulled it out, and when he did a gusset of blood followed and sprayed all over her, on her face and throat and breasts. It was warm and sticky and smelled of iron, that typical slaughter day smell. He trashed around on the bed, fell down on the floor, and thrashed some more. Then all was quiet.
For a few minutes nothing happened. Then Mary got up, went to the shutters and opened one of them all the way. After that she went to her front door, opened it and started to scream for help.
The village council agreed that it must have been as Mary said, that a stranger for some unknown reason had crept in during the night through the open shutter and killed poor Tom in his sleep and then disappeared the same way. Mary’s sister, in the house adjacent to theirs, said she had seen a shadow move across the village square and that confirmed the theory. Mary didn’t remarry but took over Toms duties as the village shoemaker. She hired a boy for some of the work, he was an orphan and happy to work for room and board.
In a small town in another part of the realm there was a wedding. A happy wedding, for most of the people involved. The rich and honorable William Greenleaf had finally chosen a bride, though rather late in life. The lucky girl was only fifteen, a pretty little thing, and her parents were very pleased. The Greenleafs hosted the party and it was held in a big market square in the middle of the town. There were a lot of wine and meat, and there were tables all over the open space. The table for the bride and groom and their parents were on a dais, visible to all.
Minstrels played and jugglers juggled. There were even pigeons in a pie, to everyone’s delight.
During the festivities, after the ceremony but before it was time for the wedding night, the bride rose from her chair and raised her glass. She wanted to make a toast, which was most unusual. Everybody hushed and every pair of eyes were on her. Her father tried to signal to her and push her down again, before she embarrassed them all, but he could only reach her if he prostrated himself clear across the groom’s plates of food, and so he had to sit back and watch, like everybody else.
“I know it’s not customary” she said, fifteen year old Susie Birch, “but I want to make a toast to my husband.” There were a smattering of applause and some giggling from the guests. Susie put down her own glass, and picked up Williams instead. Everybody looked in consternation. She filled it up with more red wine from a carafe and then from somewhere on her person she procured a small poach. Slowly and deliberately, with great care, she emptied the contents of the poach in the glass and stirred it with a spoon from the table.
Then she turned to her husband and continued: “Soon, it’s time for our wedding night.” She had to make a pause then, because the crowd started to roar with laughter. When the mirth died down, she continued “and I have great hopes for that.” Again, pause for laughter. “I’ve learned a lot from my sisters and friends, and I really want this night to be special.” With that she handed her husband the glass with the wine and the powder and he took it, laughing and looking a bit red around the ears. She lifted her own glass instead and clinked it against his. “So, a toast my dear husband; for love, for freedom, for the wisdom of girls.”
It was a really strange toast, not what anyone had expected, but William lifted the glass to his mouth and drank when she did. He couldn’t really refuse after all.
Soon after the toast he started to look a bit pale and stopped eating. When dusk was settling in and the torches were lit all over the square he heaved himself up from the table with some difficulty and lurched away from the table. He didn’t even get off the dais before he throw up, and then he fell straight down onto the mess. It took a good while before the people around him realised there was something more seriously wrong than too much to drink, and by that time he was already dead.
During the confusion Susie disappeared. The town guard searched for her of course, but there were no trace of her. Her parents were heartbroken, and the general consensus was that Susie for some reason had gone crazy and poisoned her husband during their wedding. None of the men on the town council could conceive of any possible reason why the girl would do that. In the end they concluded that William Greenleaf must have had some unknown enemies who used the poor girl for their own means.
A few months later another wedding were planned, between Ann Woodbrook who recently turned 16, and her cousin Henric Woodbrook, who was 37. But when Ann openly declared that she didn’t want to marry yet, the whole thing was called off. Since it was in the same family no money had changed hands and there weren’t much talk about it. Rumour said that Henric hadn’t protested at all about calling off the arranged wedding with his child cousin.
There were bandits in the woods. Everybody knew it, and it was widely assumed that they had their lair down by Two Peak Rock, where the river flowed from the mountains. But it was a big gang, and they mostly just robbed travellers, so the villagers somehow hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it.
One late afternoon two women stumbled into the village and fell down in the square. They were carried into a house and tended to by the healer and her helpers, and it became clear that not only had they been robbed of money and horses, but also raped. They would live but they were badly bruised and bled from inside.
Almost everyone gathered in the square and talked. “Well”, said the village elders, “of course we have to do something about the bandits. We’ll petition the town for some guards and ask them to handle it. They’ll get around to it in the spring, probably. Until then it’s simply best if the women stay in the village. Those two shouldn’t have been out without their men anyway, if they had been properly protected they wouldn’t have been shamed in this way.”
All the men agreed and the crowd began to disperse, to homes or to the pub. On the square, however, stood the women. They talked to each other with low voices and then as on a signal they all left. They went to their barns and their work sheds and collected forks and picks, axes and scythes. They took lamps and torches, and those who had horses saddled them and rode out, scythes in hand.
Some of the men noticed and ran out on the square when they saw the small army congregated there. Someone ran and got the elders, who came out in the dusk half-drunk and dressed in nightgowns. There were a lot of questions, a lot of shouting, some even tried to get in the way of the well armed group preparing for battle. The women mostly ignored them. Some of the men caught on and went home to get whatever was left of axes and forks, and silently joined forces with the women when they marched out, headed for the lair at Two Peak Rock.
It was night when they arrived but the full moon gave enough light to see by. The bandits had been left alone for so long they had stopped worrying and they were sound asleep far from their weapons when the attack came. They were rudely awakened by torchlight and the rattling of blades, and a few of them wasn’t even on their feet before their throats were cut. It was a massacre. A few of the villagers were wounded but they could all walk or ride home when the battle was done.
To the men’s horror some of the women used their axes to hack off the heads of a handful of the bandits and carried them back to the village as trophies. At dawn the heads were left on the bench outside the pub, were the old men used to sit and talk and watch village life. The axes and forks were cleaned from blood and put back at their usual places, and no petition needed to be sent to the town asking for guards. There were no more talk of women not leaving the village, and there were no more bandits in the woods after that.
In the capital, Castle Town, the biggest city in the realm, men started to die. Not immediately after the king but after a few week it started to be noticed. One morning there were three men dead, in different parts of the city. The day after there were five, all in their beds, all cut or stabbed in the throat. Two days later, two more, one at home, one on the street.
The city guard were called to each death, and after a couple of weeks they were frantic. In some cases it was obvious the wife did it, found beside her dead husband with a knife in her hand, covered in blood. They even hanged a few of them. In other cases the wife was missing, or hadn’t been at home at all that evening. And those found on the street continued to be a mystery. Most of the men who were killed were drunk when it happened and the city’s pubs and alehouses suffered a decline in business. No man dared to get drunk anymore.
During this time Queen Marion saw fit to replace several of the members of her council. Two of them died, of old age and natural causes declared the Royal Physician, and two chose at this time to retire and withdraw to the country. The four new members were all female. It was not unheard of in the realm, there had been female members of the royal council before. One or two, during the last century, sitting in for a male relative for a short time period. The three male members of the council who remained didn’t utter a word of protest, however, and openly welcomed and honored their new colleagues on the council.
One of the first decrees from the council of Her Majesty Queen Marion the First was to allow women in the Royal Guard. This did cause a bit of a stir, but there were no shortage of recruits. After the first ten was recruited, the first death happened within a week. A male member of the guard, an officer in fact, was found in a hallway not far from the rooms of the new recruits. He was stabbed in the throat by something sharp, slender and round. No evidence were found and no one was accused of the crime. The female recruits seemed to settle in nicely and soon more were accepted.
During the first year of the reign of Her Majesty Marion the First a lot of changes swept through the realm. In the beginning, it was mostly that a lot of men died, and some women too, in their homes or in the streets, alone. There were no formal uprising, and no war cries. There were just the bodies, cold and bloody. There had never before been that many widows in the land, and the land prospered.
A lot of the weddings that year were called off. All those were the bride was a child, or the wedding had been arranged for practical or economical purposes. The story of Susie Birch had spread, and others like it, and if the bride didn’t refuse the wedding the grooms started to. All the town guards began to accept female recruits, by royal decree. In almost all one or more men were found dead the following weeks. In some cases they could pin it on one of the new recruits, found covered in blood with weapon in hand, but in most it officially remained a mystery.
A lot of women disappeared during that first year, for different reasons. Mostly it was those whose husbands were found dead, but with some there were no discernible reason. For a while no one knew where they went. But during the beginning of the second year of the reign of Queen Marion a fraction of the army rebelled. They attacked the castle and the troops loyal to the Queen and a bloody battle began inside the city walls.
Two things defeated the rebellion and ensured the continued long and prosperous reign of Queen Marion. One was that every woman, or what seemed like every woman, in the capital armed herself with anything she could find and went to battle for her Queen. The rebelling army didn’t just fight armed soldiers but behind every door, every window, from every rooftop they were attacked by the residents of the city. They were scalded with boiling water and boiling oil, splattered with garbage and feces, and cut, hacked, and chopped at with scythes, axes, picks and forks. Of course a lot of the women were injured and even killed, but the rebel army had to fight at two fronts and didn’t see the enemy coming. Mothers killed their sons, looking them in the eyes while they did it, fathers were attacked by daughters and lovers killed each other in the streets.
And on the dawn of the second day of the rebellion trumpets sounded and hoofs drummed on the road towards the capital and the Queens Own Army arrived. All the women who had fled their homes and their ordinary lives had congregated and trained and were now a fully fledged fighting force. The women of the capital hastened to open the city gates for their saviors and the battle was over within hours.
The surviving members of the rebellious army were all sentenced to death for treason and quickly executed. The Queens Own were instituted as a permanent fixture in the capital and has since then been the realms primary elite force. Only the best women and, in some unique cases, men, were accepted into it and it ensured the sovereignty of the glorious Queen Marion the First.
As a result of the rebellion some formal changes were implemented throughout the land. All councils, in villages and towns, were to have only female members. All officers of any guards would be female and at least half of the recruits had to be female. The law of succession was changed, so that daughters inherit their mother and father, including the inheritance of the royal throne. Luckily Queen Marion had given born to a daughter and the line is secured. Her son, regretfully, died when he was still a toddler. The Royal Physician declared that he died of measles, but no one else were allowed to see the body, and his remains were burned to stop the contagion.
All is well in the realm since this tumultuous time. Any woman or man in the streets, in the villages or in the capital itself, will say that the new order is much better, if asked. The land is prosperous and everyone thrives under their fair and loving leader. Most of the time there are no more unexplained deaths, and if there are, he probably deserved it.