Threat or Promise? Califia’s Daughters (5)

Any society must be stable and unchanging to survive—and yet, the society that does not change both dies and kills its more adventurous spirits, a little at a time. Sometimes a door looks like a wall.  Some days an opportunity presents itself as a threat.

I’m more of a Judith than a Dian, but I know people like Dian, and I can see the chafing caused when their gifts and needs don’t fit the culture they live in. It’s a blessing when a door opens to them.

Califia’s Daughters (5)
By “Leigh Richards” (Laurie R. King )

It was nearly dusk when Susanna burst through the door of the veranda where Judith was trying to rest, to deliver Jeri’s message that the wagons had cleared the last hill before the Valley entrance. Judith pushed her daughter gently back out the door and went to find Dian, only to meet her halfway to the house. The two women, walking shoulder to shoulder, came through the gate beneath the walnut tree and made their way down the once-paved road in the twilight. The noises of the night were starting up, the whir of crickets filling the Valley; the sun’s final rays were brushing the tips of the highest trees on the cave’s hillside. The night air lay sweet and dusty and warm around them. The dogs that flowed around the two women were attentive and glad for an evening out, knowing only that some form of excitement was in the air. Dian whistled them back from the millpond but let them run on ahead to the lights and cooking smells that waited on the other side of the bridge.

Culum alone stayed with Dian, walking at her hip so her left hand brushed his massive shoulders. It was their usual position, especially when something was up, as if physical contact was a necessary element in the partnership. Judith, glancing over at Dian’s expression and then down at Culum’s equally intent face, hid a smile. The dog would not move from Dian’s side all night. Unless his teeth were needed, she corrected herself, the smile fading. A hundred eighty pounds of muscle, teeth, and brain made for a weapon more effective than the bow in Dian’s other hand.

In the meadow, the lamps were lit and hung, the big boilers gurgling to themselves. Dian checked the defenses, adjusting the arrangements slightly to her satisfaction: a half-circle of women with Judith in the center, Dian and the other archers to the sides, the rifles above and behind. As she took up her own position to the right of the greeting committee, bow strung and arrow nocked, she wondered if the others were as conscious as she of the uncomfortable overtones of meeting here, in the ground where the messiest of slaughtering tasks were done. The echoes of pig squeals and the whish of knives over whetstones seemed to tremble in her ears.

Silence gathered and spread across the meadow. A huge orange moon raised its head over the protecting hills, lighting the road beyond the reach of the lamps. The women took up their positions, the dogs arrayed for maximum effect. The short wait began.

Suddenly the sound of harnesses and hooves rang through the still air. As they drew near, Dian was hit by a spasm of apprehension: they had made the wrong decision—they should have remained in hiding until these people declared themselves. Culum whined softly, searching for the enemy she was feeling; she nudged his side comfortingly with her knee and fought the urge to step back into the shadows. One of the women beside her had unconsciously moved until she was slightly in front of Judith, protecting her and the life she carried. The strange outriders were staying close to their wagons, although they could undoubtedly see the lighted welcome party ahead.

Dian moved into the center of her dogs, the better to control them. They were alert now, aware of why they were here at this strange gathering. They sat on their haunches, the five animals, and waited with their humans.

The wagons were only a hundred yards away when Culum reacted. Culum, who left Dian’s side only when commanded, who formed her other half, who had not disobeyed a command since he was six months old; Culum rose to his feet, hunch-shouldered and intent, staring at the first wagon as if he could see through its sides. His hackles bristled huge across his shoulders and down his spine, and Dian readied her bow: in a moment he would begin his war-croon, and then all hell would be loosed, but abruptly, with Dian’s warning shout nearly to her lips, his head came up, his ears pricked, and his ruff began to subside; his tail even waved experimentally. Dian told him to sit. He twitched one ear and ignored her—Culum ignored her. And then, to her utter disbelief, the dog set off at a brisk, swinging trot down the road and got as far as Judith before Dian found her voice. Her outraged command cracked through the air like a whip.

Culum stopped, looked over his shoulders at her, and slowly, reluctantly, settled down onto his haunches, giving an audible sigh as he did so. He sat with one eye on her, head cocked, deliberate patience in every line of his powerful body. He was humoring her, she saw with amazement, putting up with her human shortcomings. Okay, he was saying. She had the right to order him around, but in his opinion she was being very stupid. Dian, meeting his gaze, only half- heard the approaching wagons. She had trusted Culum with her life before this; she would trust him now.

“Okay, if you say so,” she told him. He stood with an air of satisfaction and trotted off eagerly to meet the strangers. Dian kept the other dogs where they were.

The first of the riders had come within hailing distance of the standing half-circle when her words of greeting were strangled by the sight of this huge animal trotting down the center of the road. Her horse shied and cribbed against the bit as Culum went past, but not until he neared the wagon did the rider reach with an oath for her rifle scabbard, then in the next instant draw back her hand and shout in an unnecessarily loud order to her people that nobody was to move.

Culum stared up at the now stationary wagon, completely ignoring the white-faced driver in his interest at what lay within. The woman nearly fell off her perch to the ground five feet below when Culum, tired of waiting, rose up easily onto his hind legs to rest his front paws on the driver’s seat, peering into the closed canvas interior behind her. Dian had a moment to wonder at the woman’s dedication to duty before a movement within shifted the wagon and caused Culum to draw back and thump down on all fours to the ground, looking up expectantly, tail wagging furiously. The wagon shifted again, and a low murmur came from within. Dian’s nocked arrow raised itself marginally, and in the trees around her, the fingers on four triggers tensed.

One arm lifted the flap, and the driver hastily moved aside. The top of a glossy black head of hair appeared, followed by a large booted foot, a trousered leg, and a pair of startlingly wide shoulders. Then the rest of the figure emerged, unfolding itself until it stood upright on the front of the wagon, where it raised a face to the armed women and the lights.

A face that was dark with stubble.

“Holy Mother of God,” someone whispered hoarsely into the shocked silence.  “It’s a man.”

To read the rest of the story of Dian, Judith, Kirsten and the others, you’ll need to get a copy of Califia’s Daughters. The e-book special of $1.99 ends today, Feb 1, through Bookshop Santa Cruz, B&N/Nook, and Amazon/Kindle. If you prefer a signed paperback edition, Bookshop can get you one.

 

Posted in

1 Comment

  1. Jeanie Goldeen Conneran on February 16, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    This is one of my favorite books. I would love for you to write more of this story. It is fascinating.

Leave a Comment