I am dreadfully sorry I have not posted for so long – I forgot to do the promised Easter post and didn’t post anything else either. This is an especially long one to make amends – and there is another (about my trip to Lud’s Church), on it’s way. This one contains retellings of the dramatic moments in the lives of my favourite brave females. They are mostly stories from legends with doubtful history behind them.
Bramble Torn: The story of Ethelfleda’s victory against the Danes
‘Go, Ethelfleda – run to safety – I will fend them off.’
‘No – I will stand by you to the last, even if the consequences should be that we both are to be slaughtered.’
‘You must go Ethelfleda, you must, love.’
‘I must not!’ cried she with a spirit.
‘Go – in the name of our wedding, go, and take your maidens with you!’
She turned her black stallion round, her hair that showed red glinting through the dark as a fire glows from behind a black veil, streaming in the wind behind her as she rode away, her heart swelling with a mixture of pride, anger, love, and sort of anguished terror. A she rode deeper into the dark shadows of the forest, she could hear cries from behind her – the cries of her beloved husband. Her wedding dress of rich purple satin snagged on a briar as she rode past – she tore it angrily away – leaving a long, jagged rip in the fine material. Her heart was beating faster than she had ever known it to before – as fast as the hooves of her stallion beat upon the ground as it ran. Then, a shaft of sunlight fell upon her, bathing her in a golden light. She was out of the forest. She had now only to gallop on, and she was sure of safety. Safety? What would safety be if Ethelred did not share it with her? She looked down at that long rip in the dress were she had torn it away from a painful, clinging bramble. And she though of what the rip in her heart would be if she tore it away from love, also a painful and a clinging thing, but bearing sweetest blooms and fruits, just like the bramble.
It was the thought that settled it for her. Once more she turned about her stallion, and called to her maidens to turn theirs too – this time, her heart was full of something other than despair and anger. It was full of courage, of strength, of joy. She turned and she rode full-gallop through the forest, bursting through the thickets and the nettles, riding, riding. Then once more the beam of sunlight fell upon her, and she faced the doomed path through the forest. Before her was the scene of slaughter, and her hungry eyes glanced from man to man, searching for her husband. He was there, lying upon the floor, but alive yet, and she saw hope in his eyes as they fell upon her. He did not blame her, then, for doing what she thought to be right – did not blame her for disobeying his so firmly given commands – no, he trusted her now, he put a hope in her. As her horse rode along, there was suddenly a new sound; not the sound of metal upon earth, but of metal upon metal, as her steed’s foot struck upon the fallen blade of her husband. She dismounted, and stopped to pick it up. It shone like a flame in the sunlight, she held it high above her head, and mounting her horse once more, she rode against the Danish warriors. The ladies behind her had found weapons too; some fallen swords like herself, others mighty sticks from the forest.
They slew or frightened away the Danes, one by one, till not a man remained with courage to fight. Then she turned, and again dismounting, flung herself beside her husband. And he smiled as he lay, and she saw he would recover from his wounds, and she saw also that he would value his wife now, more than ever he would have done had she obeyed his command and flew like a coward.
Cold Winds: The story of Queen Boudicca’s speech
All eyes were turned to Queen Boudicca, as, a spark of passion flashing in her eyes as the sunlight flashes upon a silver blade, or as it bursts through a steely sky, she stood like a tigress about to leap upon her victims, and began her speech.
‘Is it natural to be struck and not to strike back – natural to watch a home sacked, the innocence of children soiled, with meek and lowered head? A lioness would spring into battle, were her young harmed – and my young,’ (gesturing towards the two girls hiding their faces from the wind and the fright against her robes) ‘my young have been injured, mocked, and deprived of their maidenhood. When a snake is trodden upon it bites with venom; when an eagle is thwarted, it puts its sharp beak to use! Am I any exception? While all animals, and all men may fight for their own, why may not I? They have kindled me to temper – tempered my heart as a blacksmith tempers steel. I am steel – tempered steel – my spirit will not be broken as my happiness has been. Who stands by me? Who aids me? We will burn London to ashes and the Romans with it! Can it be that you do not, like I, yearn for revenge?’
She ceased speaking, and for a moment all was hushed – at least, no human noise broke the silence, but the wind roared through the trees, and blew full in Boudicca’s upturned face, causing her long hair and her robe to stream out behind her. She remained for some time in this posture, her mouth stern and set, seeming almost to gain courage from the wind, though it chilled her face bone cold and brought tears into her stinging eyes. She whispered to herself, with a strange passion, and almost a smile on her lips – no ear that was present heard it – but you and me, reader, can tell what she said. ‘Blow wind – blow for what you are worth – I do not care! You crush me – I will crush them!’ And her gaze burned with a scalding ferocity. Then, in a musing tone, and with a sort of a moan, ‘Am I cruel? Am I heartless? It is well that I am both. Oh, I hate them – I hate them!’
Under the Figs: The story of Queen Cleopatra’s suicide
At last – the great queen was captive of the Romans – there was no escape from the shame of the victory parade which was soon to take place – except, perhaps, death. Octavian had considered this, and stationed a guard to be certain that no poison or weapons found their way into the palace were she was prisoner.
But Cleopatra had always been strong-willed, and strong-minded. If she wanted something, she never failed to get it. Even death.
Pharaoh Cleopatra was sitting upon a jeweled chair in her dressing room, watching her handmaiden adjust her short, sleek, ebony black hair, and put the last touches to her green eye-paint, and all the while she was thinking……..thinking……thinking……. She would not be carried in chains through the streets of Rome – she would not be part of their accursed victory parade – not for a million chests of silver. If she could not escape her prison, she must escape her body. How? How, where everywhere she looked there were guards? She knitted her brows and thought – and then, her eyes fell upon the bowl that stood upon the dressing table – and the answer came. The great queen smiled – smiled for the first time since Mark Anthony’s death. She would yet escape the shouts and jeers of the parade; she would yet teach Romans that she was not a woman easily thrown aside from her object.
On the 10 of August, Cleopatra dressed herself in her most splendid attire; a gown of pure white linen with a waistband of gold inlaid with lapis-lazuli, and wristbands and hair-jewels of the same – green and blue eye paint and other make-up upon her face, and the royal tork round her neck. Then she banished her maidens – all but two – her favourites. Then she signaled for ink and papyrus, and wrote, in hieroglyphics, ‘May I be buried beside Mark Anthony – he whom I loved – he who, had he lived, would have been the only one for whom I would remain in this world a moment longer.’ One of the maidens, Charmion by name, glaced at the note, and was filled with horror at what the writing suggested. She glanced up with terrified and questioning eyes at her mistress – and Cleopatra looked down upon her, with a certain tenderness, slowly nodding her lovely head, and biting her lip a little – her eyes and that motion of the lips seeming to indicate ‘I am sorry for it – very sorry – but so it must be.’ And Charmion nodded also, with tears in her eyes. She understood.’Then, mistress, I will share your fate.’ ‘It is well,’ replied Cleopatra ‘it is as I have planned. And you, Eiras?’ Adressing the other maiden, who had been attending carefully to the conversation of looks and motions between the two women, and understood pretty well what was happening. And she nodded as the other had done. ‘Now, call in the guard – tell him I would speak a little with him.’ And Erias, eager to show her love for her mistress in the last hour of their being together, sped away across the hall to do her bidding. Meanwhile, Cleopatra hurriedly pulled out a piece of glass that she carried on her person, and looked herself over in it, smoothing the dark raven hair on the back of her head into place, and rubbing away a smudge of make-up from below her eye.
The guard came prepared to be hard-hearted and cruel – he expected that Cleopatra would be trying to weedle him into helping her escape. But beauty is a strong weapon when wielded by a woman as cunning and as self-willed as the queen – and he broke all his resolutions when he saw Cleopatra, attired in her fine linen and her lapis lazuli and gold jewelry, with her glossy hair dark as the night, her faultlessly perfect face, her bright eyes green as a cat’s surrounded with eye-make-up. She smiled at him with her red lips, and he was dazzled. But he still tried to retain outward roughness, as he said, ‘My lady, I would have you aware that I am not here to betray my lord Octavian and abet your escape.’ And she laughed with her green eyes as she thought you will abet it, but it is not the sort of escape you are now thinking of – yet I do believe it is the best sort – for there will be no recapturing me after it.
‘Alas, no – I would not think of such a wicked thing – I bow totally to his command.’ It took some effort to smile heartwarmingly and say this, when she would rather have ground her teeth and spat in his face – and that of his emperor – but she would soon be showing him – soon.
‘I know I am soon to die, and I accept it without a struggle.’ Now she could tell the truth without giving herself away – she did know she was soon to die – not that there was any pleasure in telling the truth to one such as him, but it was interesting to try, and exited a certain triumph and self-satisfaction
‘Look at yourself – a strong man with the use of weapons, and the favor of your emperor – and then at me, a poor female captive. Will you refuse me one thing – a little thing – a small last wish – will your emperor refuse it when he knows – to poor me?’
‘What is it lady – be quick and speak.’
‘I have had a certain longing, recently, for two things – one, my royal throne to sit apron once more before I die – and the other, a bowl of fresh figs. I used to eat them a lot, and they will bring back old times. Will you allow my maid to go fetch me these figs, and yourself desire the throne from the emperor, for I know all my riches are in his power?’ The man was inevitably spellbound by her beauty and her obliging manner – he could not refuse, and the royal throne was brought before her.
She fingered the wrought gold of the old chair lovingly – and had it brought in to her chamber. ‘Now, which of you will fetch me figs?’ ‘I will, mistress,’ replied Charmion. ‘Then, come hither, and let me talk with you,’ she whispered something into her ear, and passed her also a something that looked like a bowl from under her robe. Charmion nodded, and stepped out.
Eiras then stayed behind to put still more jewels onto her mistress – and Cleopatra rinsed her face in cold water and then asked for more eye make-up. Soon, the maid had returned with the figs.
They were carried in a pottery bowl, the same as had stood on the table while Cleopatra’s handmaidens were putting on her jewels and make-up, and presumably what the queen had handed to Charmion. It was painted richly with pictures and hieroglyphics. Among these could be picked out one form more frequently illustrated than the others – a wriggling snake. Cleopatra seated herself silently upon the great throne, and took one of the figs into her hand. She bit into it – the taste was sweet, and as she savoured it as the last earthly taste she was ever to enjoy, there was a ‘hisssssssss’ from inside the bowl, and something crawled out and wound itself around the great Pharaoh’s arm. It was slender and slippery, with a pattern of black dashes upon its back. She glanced down at it, with eyes as green as the sea on a windless day – and as calm also, and the faintest hint of a sorrowful smile lifted the corners of her lips. But she spoke not a word, and watching the snake glide up her bare arm, continued to eat her figs, occasionally giving the snake little pokes and prods guarantied to make it angry. But after she had almost finished eating, she handed the remaining two to each of her maidens. ‘Eat it, and enjoy it, it is the last you will ever try.’ she said. ‘And now, I have another gift for you,’ passing them the snake from off her arm.
One Snowy Night: The story of Lady Matilda’s escape from Oxford Castle
The castle stands solemn, grave and silent, and the white snow on the ground glows through the darkness of the night. The quiet wraps the countryside round like a muffling cloak, and is broken only by an owl’s call that echoes round with melancholy sound. None are awake – even the armed guards by the gate have fallen into slumber. Softly, noiselessly, the snow is falling all round. And, unseen, another shape, white also, is without sound approaching the ground. On the cold stone walls of the castle a figure is moving, climbing stealthily along, clinging to the rough walls with slender, long-fingered white hands. She reaches the bottom, and drops, alongside the snowflakes, onto the soft white ground. There she lies a moment, and then, gently, carefully, she raises herself from the ground. She is a woman, with a tall and stately figure, and dark eyes that flash, dressed in snow white, with a cascade of dark hair flowing down her back as a river flows over grey rocks. She flees by, fast as the river her hair resembles, but silent too – silent as a river that is frozen – like the one she approaches. Yes, a great wide abyss of shining ice stretches before her – the Thames in its icy sleep. She approached it somewhat cautiously – and set a foot upon the glassy surface, patterned with frost. Her feet were bare, and the ice cold of it sent a shiver all through her, but she walked on still. It was as she was only one step away from the opposite bank, that it happened. The ice broke with sharp crack that resounded through the night. She fell through, and was at once floundering in the icy water. Horror appeared on her face as she saw the guard in glinting armour rise from his sleep against the castle wall and run towards her. She struggled onto the bank, and was about to run, but another guard, unnoticed at first, who had been patrolling on the other side of the river, started up and came towards her. He grasped her slender arm – she tore it away with surprising strength, and her dark eyes flashed fire as she looked straight at him with an odd sort of gaze. He stumbled backwards, as though it had been a real flame that had suddenly hit him, and she ran on, holding her proud head high as though she was even now a queen, her hair invisible against the ebony trunks of the trees. Her dress, dripping and torn, slapped against her legs as she ran, and ran, and ran, a white and black figure blending in with the snow.
Artemis’s Sacrifice: The story of how Agamemnon’s brave daughter was magically lifted from the sacrificial altar
Iphigenia was in the forest, playing with the deer, when he found her. She was dressed in a loose sky-blue robe, and her hair, dark and soft like the shadows between the trees, was twisted into a long rope, tied at the end with silver string. Her eyes were dark and soft also – dark and soft as the sky at evening, and little sparks twinkled in them like the starts in that sky. She smiled sweetly at him as he pushed his way through the trees – the sweetness cut his heart like a silver blade. So happy now, and so loving – soon, she would be neither.
‘Iphigenia,’ he thought he had spoken, but his words did not sound aloud. He tried again.
‘I am sorry – I am very sorry for this – but – but -‘ He turned his head away.
‘You must understand – that – that – Oh, Iphigenia my daughter! I have been cursed by Artemis – a curse likely to last the whole of my life – and the beginning of it is that I shall have no wind to sail to Troy with – and I must, Iphigenia – I must, or a vow sworn on my own blood will be broken.’
‘And is there no way Father?’
‘No way, my daughter – no way. Except -‘ again he turned his head round to gaze miserably into the trees.
‘Except – a sacrifice. In the grove where I killed the deer – that is what brought the curse upon me.’
‘Neither deer, nor hart, nor goat, nor cow, nor pig, nor boar, but -‘ Iphigenia’s wide dark eyes glistened as a tear fell from them.
‘I know, Father, and I will come. When is it to be?’ He swallowed hard.
It was early morning – the air was fresh and cool to the skin – and the birds sung on merrily enough – but to the melancholy band below the sound was changed to a funeral hymn. Dressed in white linen and barefoot, with her silken hair let down over her shoulders, Iphigenia wore no ornament but the tears beading her cheeks like glistening diamonds. She held her head high, proud in her sorrow. She had courage – but her courage was not of the sort usually heard of – she was not brave in her fury, like Boadicea, but brave in her love for her father and her self-respect.
Artemis, goddess of the hunt, likes both sorts in women – and as she looked down from the ‘blue vaults of heaven’ (I know I have used this quote before but I love it so much) her heart warmed toward the brave girl who gave her life willingly for the sake of her father’s honour. She had thought that Iphigenia would behave like most women those days – crying and shrieking and struggling – that would have hardened her heart against them at once, and she would have been able very well to look on and see the girl slaughtered at her command (for the greek gods were often cruel) – but now, she felt far more strongly for Iphigenia than she ever had for any human girl before – and she felt it would take effort to watch her die.
The dismal train below entered through the trees into the sacred glade, (find a description of the glade by clicking on the words). Iphigenia saw the celandines turn their sunny faces towards her; she saw the ground shimmer with dew-drops like a sparkling sea – she saw the beam of clear sunlight shine down upon the old oak – but sadness drew a dark veil over all.
She was made to kneel with her hand upon the sacred oak and pray. And she did pray. She asked Artemis why she blamed her for her father’s sin? Why, as she had always loved her, must she die, and serve her no more on earth? She would never dream of refusing, but she must and would ask why – it was incomprehensible to her. And, strange to say, this melted the goddess’s heart even more than blind faith without any questioning would have done. She did not like, as the other gods liked, to have all her worshipers trust in her so much that they never asked a question. She preferred them to have life of their own. But she did not answer Iphigenia’s questions – she watched to see the silver knife dipped in the clear crystal water – and then raised.
Then it happened – did it come from the shining dewdrops, the shining blade, the shining pool, the shining tears upon Iphigenia’s cheeks, or something else altogether? None knew – but suddenly, the clearing was filled with a flash of silver radiance, bathing all who stood their like a sharper sort of moonlight – and then it was gone, and likewise Iphigenia and the blade. Then a voice spoke – sharp and silvery as the light – melodious and sweet, but with a certain cutting coldness in it. ‘Is Agamemnon hear?’ it asked, ‘But I know he is. Agamemnon, do you hear me? Your daughter is safe – but she will never be with you again.’ The words were to Agamemnon as though the moon had drifted from behind a cloud – only to be covered up again with another – that little bit lighter than the first. The voice continued ‘I am angry – oh, I am angry – do not believe me to be saving her for your sake – had she no feelings of her own I should have made her suffer again and again – but she has proved herself brave – braver than any mortal woman has ever been before. I hope you realise, and are grateful for, the great service she has done you – in future, worship your daughter as you would a goddess – put none except I higher than she.’
For it is not like Artemis to let any truly brave girl die – she will watch over strong women, even today.