Killing off My Friends (Califia’s Daughters 2)

A novel of the future needs to feel familiar and plausible even as it presents a face we have never imagined before.  I wrote Califia’s Daughters in part because I did not find that familiarity in the more famous dystopian tale by Margaret Atwood, which had been published two years before I started writing. Time has proved her vision less outrageous than I had thought—but I persist in seeing women as too strong and clever to trade their freedoms for the sort of male domination she envisioned, yet too compassionate to seize that kind of authority, if given a chance.

Yes, I kill off most of the world’s men in this book, but honestly, guys—some of my best friends are men.

Califia’s Daughters (2)
By “Leigh Richards” (Laurie R. King )

Dian would reach her in two minutes, and Judith compromised with her impatience by standing at the gatepost in the shade of the old walnut, the farmyard’s guardian since the first rough shack had been raised there by her great-great-grandparents. The five-bar gate itself was so choked with weeds and walnut sprouts that it would have taken a crew to force it shut, but as other gates now kept livestock from the crops, there was no need. She leaned her arms on the top of the fence, which like everything in the Valley needed paint, and breathed in the acrid odor of the thick, oily leaves. Over and around her hung thousands of smooth green nuts the size of a baby’s fist, still tightly wrapped in their husks, a good month yet from harvest. Her own time would follow theirs, by two or three weeks. She smoothed her belly and pictured the soft, pale infant walnuts straining against their spongy husks, then her mouth twisted in irritation and she moved out into the hot road. Think about something else. Think about the travelers.

It was Dian, inevitably, who had seen the approaching wagons, at dawn. She had been out on one of her increasingly frequent and far-ranging overnight forays and had spotted them many miles away, and waited only long enough to be reasonably sure of their destination before riding hard for home. At nine o’clock that morning Judith had been down at the mill contemplating an obstinate piece of machinery when there was a stir of alarmed voices along the road. She stepped out of the mill house to see Dian clattering up the road on a horse white with lather and shockingly near foundering, Culum gamely at her heels and no sign of the two other dogs she’d set out with. The sweaty rider reined in the instant she saw Judith.

“What happened?” Judith was demanding before Dian’s boots hit the ground.
Dian glanced at the curious faces turned their way, and called to one of the youngsters.

“Patty, would you do me a big favor, and take Simon here up to the barn? You know what to do with a hot horse?”

“Of course,” the child said, with the perfect disdain of a ten-year-old, and took the reins. She had to pull with all her weight to get the exhausted animal moving again.

“Thank you, Pats. Okay, Culum, you can go home now.” The huge dog seemed to nod his shaggy head at her as he passed, ambling off at a bone-weary plod. Dian turned to the other adults.

“I need to talk to Judith for a minute,” she said apologetically, and they faded away with curious glances and concerned remarks. Dian waited until they were out of earshot, then turned urgently to Judith.

“Jude, there are people on the road. Two wagons and a bunch of riders, at least ten or twelve.”

“Coming here?”

“Where else is there?”
“Couldn’t they just be tinkers or traders or something?”

“Didn’t look right, and tinkers would know not to ride through the hill road. Besides, they looked, I don’t know, purposeful. Tightly bunched, but moving as fast as they could manage.”

“Two wagons, though—what’s the worry? We stop them outside the Gates and see what they want.”

“Last year it only took one wagon, with some kind of gun inside, to wipe out the Smithy village,” she reminded Judith grimly. Judith winced at the memory of dry blood and buzzing flies, and studied her sister’s face.

“You’re nervous about this. In fact, I could swear you look frightened. You’re having one of your Feelings about those wagons, aren’t you?” Judith’s emphasis put a capital letter on the word, recognition that, every so often, Dian seemed to know things she couldn’t.

“Yes, and no. They seem wrong, somehow. Not necessarily dangerous, just very wrong. I don’t like the idea of them coming here with us all open like this.” Her hand gesture took in the scene: the nearby field with its paused workers, the cluster of gaping children, the slim young man walking down the road.

Judith’s eyes thoughtfully followed this last figure, her cousin Philip, before returning to Dian.

“You want me to call an alert,” she said flatly.


“When we’re all working from dawn to dark to get the crops in, you want me to declare a day off, so everyone can go play in the caves.”

Dian heard the thread of capitulation hidden beneath the protest, and looked sideways at Judith, summoning a faint air of mischief.

“We’ll have some nice babies in May,” she suggested.

“It’s no joking matter, damn it!” Judith exploded. “I can’t go around calling alerts because someone feels nervous, even if it is you. This is serious.”

Dian’s attempt at humor faded. “You can’t honestly think I don’t realize that?” she asked quietly.

“Oh, no, Di, I know you do. Sorry to be so touchy. The heat.” Dian nodded. “It’s a strong feeling, then?”

“It is.”

“Strong enough to nearly kill a horse and abandon two dogs,” Judith noted.

“They’ll find their way home—Maggie bruised her foot—but, yes, that strong.”

“There’s going to be screaming about this.”

“But you’ll do it.”

“Yes, damn it, I’ll do it. We need a break anyway, and I suppose it’ll do us good. When do you think they’ll be here?”

“The road’s bad and they’ve got two creeks to ford—if the wagons and riders stay together, they won’t arrive until dark. If they abandon the wagons and ride hard, they could be here in four, five hours. I’ll talk to Laine and Jeri, and if Carmen will trust me with another horse I’ll go back and watch the road. I don’t think we should wait too long to clear the place. At least get the menfolk out of the way.”

Judith glanced nervously down toward the entrance to the Valley. “You’re sure about this?”

“No,” Dian answered unhelpfully.

“Your hunches are usually right.”

“Maybe this time I’ll be wrong,” she said, but her voice said she did not think it likely.

“All right, then, we’d better get on with it. What do you want me to do?”

Four minutes later the assembly bell rang (five strokes, just short of a drop-everything-and-run emergency) and twenty minutes after that Judith glimpsed Dian, on a fresh horse and followed by two dogs (one of them Culum, who would not allow a little thing like exhaustion to keep him from Dian’s side). Her sister rode against a rising tide of alarmed adults and frightened children, turning her back on the shouts and confusion of the Valley’s alert.

It had taken nearly two hours for the quiet to settle, for sentries to set out and the livestock to be rounded up, for the menfolk, the pregnant and nursing mothers, and the girls under fourteen years of age to climb to the caves. When they were finally away, Judith and the others looked at one another, and went off to their tasks. Judith’s job in theory was to be available when someone needed instructions, but in practice what it had meant was waiting and chewing her lip, sitting on the front steps of her house while her fingers worked their way through a heaping basket of dried beans.

Now she could hear Dian’s voice from behind the head-high corn, speaking words of praise and encouragement to dogs and horse. As Judith walked past the remnants of the farmhouse’s picket fence, they rounded the final corner, the horse at an easy trot, barely sweating. The dripping dogs, tongues lolling, spotted Judith; the brindle broke into a run to greet her, while big Culum satisfied himself with a wag of the tail from his place at the horse’s side. Dian quickly whistled the young one off and gave them both the signal for “home.” The dogs obediently circled around Judith, looking somewhat apologetic at their muddiness, to lope on up the hill toward the cool and shady pond behind the old barn.

Dian dropped off next to Judith, and the two women started up the road to the barn, leading the horse.

“They’re coming, then?” Judith asked, although it was not really a question. “How many?”

“They’re coming. Should be here around nightfall, unless they can speed up, which didn’t look likely. And they’re playing it cautious—they went around that Remnant where Kat was killed.”

“That could be a good sign.”

“Or it could mean that they’re smart enough to know that guns won’t do much against booby traps. And it’s a well-scavenged site, which means a lot of traps. Anyway, there’s just the two wagons, both with canvas sides—no seeing what’s inside, but only two horses on each, so the loads can’t be too heavy. Ten riders, two drivers, three more horses tied to the wagons. All the animals looked tired. Unlikely there’s more than twenty women altogether.”

“Unless it’s a Trojan horse.”

Dian nodded. “In which case the wagons are full to the brim with women and guns. The Smithy’s gang looked innocent too, from all accounts.”

“Just the argument I used this morning whenever anyone objected to the alert.” Judith accepted the reins from Dian, who walked ahead to pull open the heavy barn door; Judith spoke to her sister’s back. “You were right last week when you said we were getting slack. Between the arguments and collecting last-minute things and trying to decide who was going where, it took nearly two hours.”

“Shit. If it’d been a right-now emergency . . .”

“I know. We haven’t had so much as a drill in months, so even if this is a false alarm, it’s good practice.”

“How many of the boys had to be bodily carried off when they found you weren’t going to let them stay and fight?”

Judith gave a tired grin. “Three.”
“You can’t breed hormonal impulses out of males in a couple of generations.”

“It would make life a hell of a lot easier for us if you could.”

A person could argue, Judith reflected as she handed the reins back to Dian, that male hormonal impulses were precisely what had gotten the world into its present condition, that in a horrendous sort of cosmic joke, menfolk were bearing the brunt of actions chiefly their own. However, to say that, one would have to assert that women lacked the aggressive tendency, and no one with a sister like Dian was about to make that particular assertion. No, violence and belligerence were at home on either set of chromosomes.

The ancient wooden barn the two women entered was a dim and fragrant place redolent of twelve decades of horse and hay and childhood games, its air placid with the rustle of mice and the patience of cats; once inside, Judith’s taut apprehension lessened a notch. She lowered herself onto the bench that stood against the wall, letting her head fall back against the rough boards, her hands laced together under the round of her belly. From beneath half-closed eyelids she watched her sister flip the reins around the stanchion, into the groove worn by countless reins, then remove her weapons from the horse: rifle for distance, bow for silence. As Dian leaned both in the corner and reached for the cinch buckle, Judith allowed her gaze to rise into the vast reaches of the building, to the web-draped rafters that had been cut from trees on the surrounding hills and raised, thick and bright and hopelessly anachronistic in an age of aluminum siding and prefabricated girders, by her grandmother’s grandfather. She had never met the old man in person, but she met and used his handiwork every day of her life, from the bed she’d awakened in that morning to the time-black bench underneath her now. She followed a shaft of light from one of the ventilation holes he had cut in a corner of the hayloft.

“Hey, Di—you remember the owl?”

Dian let the saddle thump down onto the top of the stall partition, then turned to look at her sister. “The nest, you mean?”

Yes, there had been a nest. It was an oddly disjointed memory, as if it had been from early childhood, although she must have been, what, fifteen? sixteen, even? when she had slipped into the barn on Dian’s heels late one night, a night when a huge full moon flooded the Valley with depthless blue light, seconds after the barn owl had dropped from the high opening of the hayloft and disappeared on silent wings down the fields. They scurried, noiseless as the owl—or at any rate, Dian did, with clumsy Judith, nearly twice her sister’s age and half again her size, stumbling behind. Two girls, Dian’s inseparable four-legged shadow for once left behind, running across the barn floor and up the ladder, to bury themselves into the hay and wait.

Even then, Judith had been bad at waiting: moonlight crept an infinitesimal path across the boards while she stifled sneezes and itches and boredom, and then without warning the owl was there, a brief outline against the bright night in the loft window before it swooped noiselessly through the barn. Tiny hatchling cries rose up over their heads, then came a faint rustle from where eight-year- old Dian lay. Suddenly a mouse was twitching across a bare patch of boards—it must have been late spring, the hay nearly gone— scrabbling and squeaking and behaving in a suicidal fashion. The owl dropped from its nest in the darkness above, only to meet bare boards, a pile of hay, and—a hand. Holding her breath, Judith saw the bird flap its wings to land on the loft floor, then eye the closed fist that protruded from the hay. Its face was a flat blue-white surface set with two unamused black holes; it seemed very large. Slowly Dian’s hand rotated, and opened, until the dead mouse was proffered between two fingers. The barn waited. After a long minute the owl took a step forward, its claws brushing the old wood with a faint scritch that Judith felt up her spine. It paused, then took another step, and a third. Inches from Dian’s hand it stopped, settled its wings in a sort of decisive shiver, and reached forward delicately to seize the offering. When it had the mouse, it retreated a step to study the empty hand. For a moment the owl was both a rather stupid bird and a visitant from the divine. Judith must have made a noise, for the owl spread its wings and was gone.

And the child Dian had laughed, had scrabbled out from the hay and shook herself off, then turned toward her teenage sister and crowed in glee at the workings of the universe. Dian used to do that a lot, Judith recalled, back when she was still called Lizzie. Not anymore.

Judith let her eyes drop from the rafters and found Dian gazing down at her, a faint trace of that long-ago amusement on her face.

“Pleasant dreams?”

Judith flushed, but she did indeed feel refreshed, whether because of the barn, the daydream, Dian’s presence, or the possibility that the invasion would be harmless, she could not have said. She stretched and picked up the water bucket that sat on one end of the bench. When she turned back there was another person standing there, a dark stump of a woman whose head barely reached Dian’s chest, scowl on face and hands on hips as she glared at the stripped horse.

Calmate, Carmen,” Dian began immediately. “El tenía una siesta larga abajo de un arboland then had an easy twelve miles home. I never pushed him out of a canter, and he positively begged to trot up from the creek. Te juro por Dios.” She put her hand over her heart to emphasize her honesty.

The horse had looked around at Carmen’s silent entrance and was now pulling against the immobilizing reins in an attempt to snuffle at her hands. He was barely wet, in spite of the heat, and his neck and ears moved vigorously, but still Carmen fixed Dian with an eye filled with baleful threats and said nothing.

Mira, Carmen, lo siento mucho de esta mañana, what I did to Simon this morning. I hated to do it to him, it hurt me to take advantage of his big heart, but I had to. I hope he’ll be all right?”

The compliment to her charge did it, and the horsewoman allowed herself to reach out and make contact with the horse’s soft nostrils before snorting a brief forgiveness.

No fue gracias a ti,” she grumbled at Dian.

“You looked at his off hind? I think I got the stone out before it bruised him, but—”

“Go teach your abuelato suck eggs. Don’t you have anything better to do than stand around here jawing? Go get yourself something to eat. Darte un baño, por Dios, you’re stinkin’ up my barn. I’ll finish him up. Got nothing better to do, hanging around here.”

“Oh, Carmen, I can’t let you care for a horse that I—”

“Shut up. Vayate.” She waved a dismissive hand at Dian, snatched the bucket out of Judith’s hand, flicked the reins from the groove in the stanchion, and stalked off, muttering Spanish imprecations. The horse shambled after her, eager as an adoring puppy. Dian and Judith looked at each other, stifled laughter, and gathered up Dian’s possessions.

The ebook of Califia’s Daughters is currently $1.99 through Bookshop Santa Cruz, or Nook, or Kindle. If you prefer a signed paperback edition, Bookshop can get you one.


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  1. Barbara on April 3, 2024 at 4:24 pm

    Please write a sequel! You left us hanging with Thomas slowly following Dian’s scent southward; there’s a reason for that, no?

    • Laurie King on May 5, 2024 at 5:52 pm

      I figured people would take it to mean that he makes it back, eventually….
      Though a sequel would indeed be fun to write.

  2. Trevor Lawrence on May 4, 2024 at 4:24 pm

    Epic story. Hoping For a sequel

    • Laurie King on May 5, 2024 at 5:50 pm

      It would be fun, maybe some year….

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