She smoked a cigarette on the battlements that morning. The December sun was rising – giving half of what it could, but a good half. The spire of the church, silhouetted against the Eastern sky, promised sacrifice and whispered suffering as beauty – as duty. She refused to hear it and raised her steaming cup in greeting to all the Saints. She preferred to believe in the fight. So she went to dress.
Her armour was layer over layer –first, fine wool, covering bones too near the surface to be safe. Long-sleeves, tight to articulated wrists. Long-johns that clung to femurs. Then the leather – oiled, polished smooth before each battle – dubbin and pressure and belief into the grain. Then the chain mail, link on link to turn a blade aside. And finally the heavy plates of it – over breast, back, in a skirt around her hips.
The ranks had to be fed – boiled eggs. She lifted them from the pan with a sequence of blessings.
‘Let this one feel safe enough. Let this one know I care. Let this one keep hold of his will.’
Their heads were bent over comics and the knotted laces of trainers. She placed the food on the table and her hand on the wood for a single second.
Then to work on her mask for the moment of meeting . Light washed over shadow, shadow pressed where needed. And lips the colour of blood to remind them all that she ate meat. The sharpness of her teeth placed beyond doubt. She tucked her helmet under her arm. She would wear it for the combat – she had no doubt that his sword would be swung to her temple.
The troops were rallied in the doorway – sent about their duties. Because this wasn’t their fight. No, this time, this time anyway, it was hand to hand. It was her and him in the cleared field, under the oak, with the baying circle of men passing coin from hand to hand.
I didn’t know her then – in the days of the war. But I have heard tales. I know her life was scooped from a gasp at the point of impact. That the blood in her lungs nearly drowned her. But it didn’t. And I have been to her castle. I have seen its hard-won glory – the charm of words around its walls – the ceilings high with liberated air. I know there is pain in her limbs sometimes. But she smokes a cigarette on her battlements still, drinking tea in the early morning.