Jourd’Aradia, 39th Duema
In the predawn light that filtered through the windows of their room on the last day of the second month of the year, Major-CMO Jules held back his bellica’s hair while she retched into the privy bowl.
When her violent heaves had subsided he insisted on giving her a full check-up.
“It’s nothing, Jules. I just drank too much last night,” she protested, sitting unsteadily on the lid of the privy bowl, her face ashen and covered with a sheen of sweat.
He didn’t say what he was thinking – that he’d seen her drink more than three glasses of red wine before with no ill effects. “Regardless. I’m a CMO and you look sick to me.”
“You’re not a CMO or even a Major – you’re a clucking hen,” she muttered, but let him check her vitals and ask her questions.
When he was done at last and conceded she’d drunk too much the previous night, she pulled on her shirt with a “That’s what I said,” and left the privy.
Jules breathed out a sigh of relief that she’d still been too tired or sick to notice the doubt in his voice or on his face.
He’d never seen three glasses of wine make a woman’s moontime seven days late.
Jourd’Selene, 3rd Trinnia
His suspicions were confirmed their third day out of Atton. Cpt. Coalette had noticed as well.
He wanted to kick himself for not having known before – for not seeing the weight Yarrow had put on her hips and thighs while they were in Impri. Tyvian, she’d become downright curvy, and that was a word that had never applied to the angular woman. He’d ignored her mood-swings and lack of appetite, putting it down to stress, and hadn’t even noticed her moontime was late. Some medic he was.
It was too late now. They were well and truly in the soup, and what good would it do to tell her?
It was only a matter of time before she found out. The troops as well – that much was confirmed when Coalette approached him that night as they made camp.
“Major,” she said with a salute.
“As you were,” he said, somewhat awkwardly. He’d never aspired to the rank of Major. He was happy being a Chief Medical Officer.
“Major, is Bellica Yarrow alright?”
His hackles raised, but Cpt. Coalette held nothing but guileless concern on her face. “She’s fine. Why do you ask?” Lying, like leadership, didn’t come easy to Jules, and it was obvious she saw right through it.
“Ma’am, she’s been throwing up every morning,” she said with a note of incredulity in her voice. He couldn’t hide it this time as he looked across the camp to regard his Bellica – with a tortured look on his face. Coalette’s eyes followed his, then went back to his face and widened in understanding. Her hands flew up to cover her mouth as she gasped. “Oh, Goddess, no. Does she know, Major?” He shook his head, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened to come.
They were silent as they both gazed upon the woman they were devoted to. She was making her rounds among her women with a kind word or sympathetic ear as she did every night on every march. A stone settled in each officer’s gut on realising exactly what burden Yarrow carried – and to what end.
“Captain, you need to keep this quiet,” Jules spoke, barely trusting his voice.
Coalette looked at him as if he’d struck her. “Quiet! Major, she needs to know.”
“And she will,” he said, looking at the captain intensely. Coalette took a step back. “Believe me, she will. And soon. So will the rest of them. To what end should we tell her? To what purpose? Do you think it would deter her?” Coalette looked at her bellica again, then shook her head sadly. “Let her have her hope now. To know will only bring her despair.” He swallowed, banishing the lump in his throat. “Had I noticed when we hid in the mountain…had I done my job,” he said it bitterly, and raised his hand to quell Coalette’s immediate protest, her leap to his defense. “No. Had I done my job, things might have fallen out differently. She was quite resigned to exile before you and the regiment arrived.” He smiled ruefully at the captain. “So. We’re going to do our jobs now, and attend to our duties. Yarrow needs us in top shape now,” he said. Coalette looked at Yarrow again, and the life she carried, and the captain and major exchanged a look of complete understanding.
“Yes Ma’am,” Coalette said, and saluted.
Jules returned the salute and watched the woman walk off. Then, composing himself, he finished setting up the tent he’d been pitching when Coalette had disturbed him. Just when he was about finished, he became aware of someone standing next to him.
“Major Jules, are you quite finished?” He looked up and saw Yarrow looking down on him with a mischievous glint in her eyes.
He tied off the rope and stood. “Yes, Ma’am. What do you –” before he could finish he was grabbed from behind by an unknown assailant. He tried to get free but someone else grabbed his legs, and he was carried off while Yarrow followed, a smile on her face.
“Oh, Goddesses, no – stop it! No!” Jules shouted, realising what was going on, for the troops were gathering around him now and singing as he was carried off.
“Major Jules, it is a military tradition,” he heard the bellica call out in admonition. “You must participate.”
“But it’s chilly!” he shouted, still trying to get free. Lt. Peter, who held his torso and arms, and his friend Chris from the Medicorps who held his legs, grinned at him and laughed. Taunts of pollo, pollo! came from all sides and there was a good deal of laughter. Even Jules was laughing, though he did not look forward to what was coming.
They reached the bank of the river then and he tried to get them to let him go. “Come on, gals – we don’t really need to do this, you know, not tonight; can’t we just put it off?”
Chris and Peter laughed, shook their heads, and tossed Jules into the river.
Cold water sucked him down and he kicked to get to the surface, which he broke, spluttering, to cheers from the bank. “I hate you all so much right now,” he said, laughing, and immediately swallowed some water. Coughing, he began his swim to shore, grateful they’d chosen an area where the river was calm. Even if it is bloody cold.
Yarrow was standing at the bank to help him out of the water. Against his better judgement, when he grasped her hand he pulled her in too. Great whoops of laughter came from the troops when Yarrow surfaced, spluttering as he had, and began a water fight with him. When dominance had been reestablished in the bellica’s favour both climbed from the water, assisted by others, and were passed towels to wrap around their rapidly de-clothed bodies.
“I s-should c-court-martial you for t-that,” Yarrow muttered, shivering, but she was smiling.
Undressed, he wrapped the towel around his waist. “You f-forget that’s p-part of the t-tradition,” he replied, grinning at her.
She shook her head and gestured to Cpt. Garnet, who came forward with a box and presented it to the bellica.
“You didn’t,” Jules said, suddenly serious and feeling a bit embarrassed.
“Shut up,” Yarrow said, and stood in front of him. The women had gone silent, the occasion now solemn. She opened the box and held it in front of him. “Major Jules, on this, the day of your thirty-third birthday and your twenty years in the service, the First Regiment of Athering would like to present to you the following items.” Here his friend Chris came forward and pulled the first item from the box. “A wreath of laurel, for your victorious twenty years in the service and hopes for another twenty to come.” Chris placed the wreath – it was basil, not laurel, Jules saw, but he was so touched, he didn’t care – on the major’s head with a smile, and stepped back. Lt. Peter came forward to take the next item from the box, and Yarrow spoke again. “A jackahare’s foot, for luck,” she said, and Peter tied the leather thong that held the animal part around Jules’ neck. It was something he could have done without, and the smile Yarrow didn’t quite hide told him she felt the same way. A young priva came forward then, blushing, for the third and final item in the box. Jules didn’t know her name, but he smiled at her to quell her nervousness at being chosen for a part of the ceremony. “And the Blue Shield, for your continued loyalty,” Yarrow said, and the priva pulled a medal out of the box.
Jules felt his breath catch in his throat. It was real, he could see. An actual military medal, and an old one. He looked at Yarrow, asking with his eyes where she got it.
“Your brother had it,” she said gently. “It was your mother’s.”
Tears sprang to his eyes, and he brushed them away hastily. “Thank you,” he whispered, his throat tight. Yarrow only nodded.
The priva still stood, holding the medal, looking self-conscious. “Bellica,” she said, another flush creeping up her neck, “where should I pin the medal?” She gestured at Jules, who was still bare-chested.
Yarrow shrugged. “His towel would do fine.”
They tried to keep the mood solemn as the girl bent to pin the medal on the towel that went around Jules’ waist, but her nervousness made her hands shake, and she managed to pull the towel loose. Jules caught it in front before it fell completely, but he treated the soldiers behind him to a view of his bare arse. He heard giggles from behind him, quickly shushed. The priva blushed harder and apologised profusely while Jules tried to right his towel. Yarrow’s face was contorted with barely suppressed mirth, and as she tried to hold it in her body shook with it, and her own towel decided to slip loose and fall to the ground.
A whoop of laughter escaped her, and then there was no going back. The entire regiment burst out in laughter then, great peals of it that formed a deafening cacophony. Jules was laughing too as he helped the priva to her feet and clapped her on the shoulder, telling her she’d done wonderfully with all sincerity. When he got his towel finally tied on properly he was lifted up by his comrades and carried with laughing cheers to the fire, where he and Yarrow sat to warm up while the rest of the regiment stripped down and went for swims and play in the river, festivities in full swing now the ceremony was over.
“Thank you,” Jules said quietly to Yarrow as they sat and watched her women frolic on the banks of the river. “I can honestly say I didn’t expect this.”
She smiled at him. “What can we expect for our future if we don’t honour our traditions, Jules? The good ones, at least,” she said with a small laugh. “I’m honoured to have been able to do this for you.”
He grabbed her hand and squeezed, and they sat in companionable silence by the fire until, exhausted, both retired to their separate cots in the officers’ tent.