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Burning Ashes

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“Please, don’t do this.” I begged Father as Mother sat in silence, avoiding eye contact. “You will die.”

“Perhaps.” He acknowledged, taking a long pull of his glass of ale. “But everyone dies, Mirauria. Dying with a sword in my hand protecting those I love is a more honourable way  to die than alone in my bed, a man of 60 who has lead a comfortable life.”

“Mother, please!” I begged. “Tell him he can’t go!”

“Your Mother and I have come to an understanding.” Father went on. “Tomorrow night I will leave to join the other men of Lossarnach to venture to Gondor. Before I leave, you will be wed to Bergil.”

“If I am to wed Bergil then why can’t he fight in your place?” I cried, the thought of marrying the leering, smelly and fat Bergil adding to my overall anger. “He could take your place for our household and-“

“Because Bergil will not be of our household!” Mother snapped. “When you marry you will take his namesake and you will join his family. Bergil has many brothers. You will not be deprived of your new husband.”

Her tone was bitter and cold, completely unlike how Mother normally spoke. I watched in teary silence as Father reached across the table and held her hands, the two sharing a look filled with many emotions; fear, hope, regret but most of all… Love.

I couldn’t bare to look at them.

Rising from the table I stormed over to the back door where I grabbed my worn cloak from the peg violently, tearing the weathered fabric.

“Where are you going?” Mother demanded, rushing over. Seeing me make a grab for my bow she tried to block my efforts.

“Let her be.” Father sighed.

“Archery is not a suitable sport for a Lady!” Mother argued, repeating the same words I had heard for years. “She is to marry tomorrow! God’s, how can I offer Bergil’s family such an unladylike girl?”

“Then don’t!” I hissed, shooting them both a hateful look. “What use is Bergil and his many brothers to me when it will not stop Father from going to war?”

“Mirauria…” Father warned, but I was beyond notice. I was furious.

“What good is marrying me to him at all? Father will die fighting this War and Mother will be left on her own whilst I take Bergil’s name! What good is this? What good will any of this make-“

I was silenced by Mother’s hand colliding sharply with my cheek, causing my head to whip to the side and my hair to fall from its messy bun. Panting heavily I turned towards her, tears of anger and betrayal in my eyes.

“How dare you?” She demanded, her own eyes – green as my own – filled with tears as she stared back at me. “You think it was easy, having Bergil agree to marry you? Do you think you’ve ever made my life easy, running around playing in the mud like some boy, firing off your arrows and stealing swords to practice? Do you think it was easy securing your future when every man and woman in the village calls you the ‘Boyish-Girl’? Do you?”

“You’ve not secured my future.” I told her defiantly. “You have killed it, just like if Father goes to battle he will die.”

“At least your Father knows his place!” She fired back, her body shaking. “Men go to war, Mirauria. Men protect the women whilst the women raise children. Your Father goes to battle to honour and protect our family whilst you will marry Bergil and carry on your Father’s bloodline. He knows his place, and it’s about time that you learnt yours.”

“My place is not by some mans side providing him children at his whim.” I sneered, picking up my quiver of arrows and slinging it across my shoulder. “I will be more than that!”

With my words said, I fled out of the backdoor and out into our small walled garden where I kicked open the fence and took off across the grassy hills of out village. At first I moved towards the river, intent of using my arrows to catch fish, but the air was cold and I had no doubt that others would be near the river, too. I wanted silence – to be alone. So, I made towards the edge of the small woodland. In the dying sunlight, I notched my arrows and fired them towards the crude target I had made four summers ago when I was just fourteen, hanging from the tree branch precariously and filled with many, many holes.

It was out here, panting from exertion that I reflected on my conversation with Mother and Father. I was angry at them for my arranged marriage but more than that – I was angry at Father for answering Gondor’s call to arms. I wasn’t stupid; I knew that for there to be a call of arms of this scale there was some sort of threat, even to our small village in Lossarnach. But I never imaged that they would call upon even my Father, who though was once a great Knight of Gondor, is now a crippled, wary old man.

I didn’t need to wait and hear the news, it was obvious before he even attempted to pick up his old blade; Father would die, and Mother would be left alone.

The King of Gondor requests that a man from every household respond to his call of arms…

The letter was waiting at home for Father to present during the call. They would check that every letter sent out was returned, regardless of which households they came. Bergil or any of his other six brothers could take my Father’s call to arms, but they would not. Nobody wanted to leave their families to fight… Nobody wanted to face what was rumoured to be an unstoppable force.

Nobody wanted to die.

Notching another arrow I sent it flying towards its target, watching without expression as it struck the center. I couldn’t help Father, I couldn’t help Mother’s conflicted torment because everything came down to a single fact that had haunted me since I had been able to form an opinion; I am just a woman.

Who I was… Who I am, truly is a disappointment. I was not a natural beauty, as Mother had always been blessed to be called, but what she dubbed a ‘secret beauty’. You’re beauty will be noticed by he who looks deep enough, she had often reassured me. But I was old enough now to understand that she was trying to explain my lack of beauty in a way as to make me feel better. My nose was a little too pointy, my face narrow and my eyes often described as ‘too bright, too knowing’. I was painfully average, another body in a sea of brown dresses, brown hair and lightly tan skin.

Nothing different. Nothing spectacular.

I was not a calm, collected and graceful girl. I was a hot headed, worrisome clumsy girl whose only redeeming quality was my ability to read and write. My knees are scabbed from tree climbing and exploring. My fingers and feet are blistered from archery and hunting. My body is scarred from sword practice and my face is forever dirty from being outdoors all day. I don’t show any great promise in needlework, cannot cook (well, cook anything of notable praise anyway, just simple meals) and I most certainly cannot sit meekly whilst my husband drinks and speaks down to me. I am blessed in that my Father had encouraged my ‘odd’ behaviour but now I realise how little any of it matters.

I will never be that perfect bride or perfect daughter for my Mother. I do not fit in, not here or anywhere…

“Not as a woman, anyway.” I muttered to myself as I went to retrieve my arrows, though was stopped short by a voice.

“Look, Dayu, there’s that Boy-ish girl mother told us to avoid.” I looked up to see two of the village girls rushing along, their eyes locked on me.

 “Why?” The younger one, perhaps nine, asked.

“Because!” The elder, just a little younger than myself declared. “It is shame on our village, doing manly things! I hear she cannot even complete simple embroidery, nor does she even prepare dishes during celebrations. She is not a girl!”

I watched expressionlessly as the two ran off towards the village, both glancing back at me occasionally. They were dressed in pretty dresses and wearing their long hair down, their skin clean and their hair neatly arranged lo0king every bit the perfect daughters. I glanced down at myself wordlessly, taking in my dirty dress, calloused hands and my fingernails, which I habitually chewed down to a stump.

In frustration, I reached out for an arrow just as a fat raindrop struck my hand, causing me to loosen my grip silently, watching the drop as it rolled down my hand and onto the floor where it struck the compact earth. I stared at my hand, a trail of dirt wiped from my skin by that single raindrop. Lost in my thoughts I stood still, frozen as the rain then came down hard and fast, soaking me within minutes.

My skin was now clean, wiped of the dirt completely. A girl… I thought warily. I am as clean as a girl should be and all it took was a little water. Kneeling in the sloppy mud I picked up a handle, the slimy texture a comfort in my fingers as I smeared it across my exposed arms.

“A little water and I am a girl who must sow, cook and be the perfect wife…” I muttered. “… A little dirt and I am a boy who would be expected to fight.”

As soon as the words left my mouth I was filled with confidence and determination. Picking myself up from the ground I retrieved the rest of my arrows and rushed home where I found Mother waiting up for me in the kitchen, her eyes opening wide as she took in my dripping attire and mud caked arms and knees.

“Just… Go wash up.” She sighed, sitting back down at the kitchen table warily. “We shall speak once you are clean.”

“Of course.” I mumbled, doing as she asked.

Once wiped free of the mud and dressed in a clean dry dress, I joined her in the kitchen where she presented me with a mug of hot tea.

“I’m sorry for striking you.” She spoke after a lengthy silence. “I was wrong too.”

“No, you had every right.” I protested. “My words were harsh… So I apologise. I shouldn’t have said such to you.”

For what I intended to do, I needed to make peace.

“Bergil isn’t so bad, you know.” She offered lightly. “One day he even may take over his Father’s bakery.”

“I don’t love Bergil.” I murmured into my  mug.

“It is a great thing, to marry for love. But not everyone can do so, Mirauria. Comfort and stability in life is what is needed. You cannot survive off love alone. When you are living comfortably and your children are well provided for… You will thank me.”

“I’m sure I will.” I nodded, gritting my teeth from saying what I truly wanted too about the subject. “Where’s Father?”

“Sleeping.” She answered, rising to her feet. “I gave him an extra dose of his medicine so he can have an undisturbed night. We are up early to prepare for your wedding, so make sure you get some sleep.”

“I will, after I finish my drink.”

“Of course.” She nodded, hesitating near the door. “I love you, Mirauria, as does your Father. We are only trying to make sure you will be looked after when we are gone.”

“I know.” I nodded. “And I only hope I may return the favour, and look over both of you.”

“I look forward to that time.” She smiled, collecting Fathers medicine with a fresh cup of tea.

Smiling into my cup I felt a tear escape.

“I’ll do you proud.” I promised the empty kitchen. “I will keep you both safe.”

But whether I could keep that promise was another matter.

I stayed awake after that, planning what I was about to do next. Once I knew Father and Mother were asleep, I made my way out into the stable and prepped our fastest Horse; Shay, and stole into Father and Mothers room, knowing Father at least wouldn’t hear me. His extra dose of medicine would keep his asleep until morning and thankfully for me, Mother was a deep sleeper.

Grabbing a pair of his breeches, a shirt, waistcoat and jacket I headed back into my room to change, pulling on his alien clothing which dwarfed my smaller frame. Using a belt I secured the breeches and shirt and decided I’d have to make do with the jacket. The breeches felt wrong, though I had often begged Mother to let me war some as they seemed easier to move in than a dress. Hobbling around a little in them I almost giggled at how oddly I was walking.

They would require some getting used too.

Folding my dress carefully on the bed I scrawled a note, each word causing my heart to ache. I told them what I was doing, and I told them not to worry. I told them I loved them and then, my heart almost breaking, I promised I’d be back. I asked them to wait for me and to not tell anyone.

Laying the note atop my dress I looked around my sparse room with unshed tears, my heart pounding in thought of what I was about to do. Kneeling I took the sword from it’s sheaf and grabbed a fistful of my long dark hair. Holding it at shoulder level I sliced, the cut uneven and splitting my ends but I was beyond caring. My wild wavy hair fell about my face in a messy tangle and I smiled sadly.

I could pass now as any boy, I reasoned. There would be no turning back now. Grabbing the locks of my hair I placed them next to my note and felt a tear slip from my eyes and swiped at them with a wet sniff. Mother had always loved my long hair, had always enjoyed plaiting it and twisting it into strange fanciful styles. This would break her heart as much as it had mine. I couldn’t stay here any longer, not now.

The last thing to take was the call to arms, which I safely tucked inside my jacket pocket to keep safe. It would be my ticket into the army and would also fool Gondor into thinking a man from every family had gone to battle. Father would be safe, and Mother wouldn’t be left alone.

Outside the rain was still lashing down, the freezing cold droplets somehow making their way into my thick cloak. Huddling up tighter in it, I made my way towards Shay, where my bow was already strapped on securely. With Father’s sword around my waist I knew I would be safe on the pathway to where those fighting were to meet.

Climbing atop the horse I felt a moment of guilt for riding it how only men should. Mother had always taught me to ride saddle side and though I had often thought about rebelling, in a dress such a thought was unreasonable. Now, dressed as a man, I could ride how I had always wanted too – and always told not too. It was a strange feeling and though I felt more secure upon the saddle, I also felt exposed with the breeches showing my (covered) legs off.

Casting one last look towards the silent cottage that had been my home since I was born I felt a pang of regret for disobeying my parents. I loved them, and all that mattered was that they were safe.

It was time to leave.

“Let’s go, Shay.” I whispered to the gentle mare. “We have nothing left for us here but painful goodbyes.”

Setting off out of the village I did not dare look back. In the morning they would discover me gone, but they wouldn’t tell others where I was heading. It would be too shameful to admit their only daughter had left on her wedding day to go join the Gondor army. Whatever Mother would say I’m sure everyone would believe anyway. Despite my rougish and rebellious ways, everyone still loved Mother and Father.

They would be fine.

And hopefully… So would I.