The seventh category of Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 challenge is Fake Relationship. I'm adapting the trope a little because usually it refers to two characters who have to pretend to be in a relationship and then find themselves in love after all. As you'll see, I've reorganized the components a little, in part because of the demands and direction of the overall story structure.
I need to give a content advisory for this story because some people seriously dislike the motif of an unwilling gender reveal. I thought seriously about choosing this particular event for the necessary shift in character direction. If I had set up Magdalena/Pieter as in any way being gender-questioning I wouldn't have used it. But I tried to be very careful about showing both of my Dutch soldiers as identifying clearly as women who are using male disguise for economic purposes and personal freedom. So this is not a story about someone being forced back into a rejected gender role, but about someone being forced back into abandoned social restrictions. That said, I know that not everyone finds the motif palatable so I wanted to make sure they have the chance to avoid it.
I've reined myself back to a shorter length for this snippet and it probably feels unfinished in terms of even a micro-plot. Currently I'm setting up a three-snippet story arc that will introduce a new character in the next bit and give Lena a new and even more adventurous romance in the end. [ETA: I've made some minor edits since originally posting this.]
Follow the Drum: Reprise (Lesbian Book Bingo: Fake Relationship)
They ransomed us at last from the French at Montigny. Maybe it isn’t fair to say “at last”. It wasn’t as if the French wanted the burden of dozens of Alliance prisoners, but it takes time to arrange for exchanges and calculate the worth of lives. It was long enough that Martijn’s wound had healed except for a limp that she tried to hide from the officer who took charge of us. We had grown expert at hiding. Sometimes even Martijn didn’t notice the small burdens I took from her, especially on that first long march away from captivity. It was what a comrade did.
That was what we’d become: comrades. There was a time I thought we might become lovers—more than the simple fact of sharing comfort and passion within our combined bedroll when we thought it safe—but instead we’d settled into something closer and more comfortable. When I first put on a uniform and followed the drum, my desire to see the world and have adventures was tangled up with that other desire. I still thought I liked women more than I’d ever like a man, but Martijn… Well, and Martijn had told me about Mayken, and how she hoped she might still be waiting for her back home even though they hadn’t promised each other anything. It was strange to think that there was still a place called home after everything we’d seen.
The regiment we’d served in before Montigny was off in the Germanies now and the end of our march was a camp with English flags before the officers’ tents and a babble of different voices. I’d learned bits of French in the past months but English danced just out of reach. It sounded like it ought to be no harder to understand than the soldiers from Leeuwarden, but the words always slipped sideways out of my head.
After the quiet and stillness of close confinement, the camp was crowded and noisy. At the other side of the parade ground from the officers was a fenced off space with enough clanging and hammering for five blacksmiths and a crowd of strange engines whose use I couldn’t imagine. On the far side of that was a sprawling civilian camp of the sort that grew up any time the army stayed in one place long enough: the wives and children of soldiers, as well as women less particular in their affections. Steaming cauldrons of laundry and the smoke of cook-fires mixed with the scents of better food than Martijn and I had enjoyed in months, even though it was nothing but soup with a single scrawny chicken in a big pot. At least we wouldn’t have to do our own cooking and washing until we marched away again.
That was where they took us after we’d passed inspection in front of the officers and been assigned to a new regiment. With bowls and spoons in hand, we lined up with resigned patience for a share of whatever was in the cook-pot and a chunk of bread. Martijn was staring at the ground with that look she got when her leg was aching and she was too tired to do more than put one foot in front of the other. I nudged her to close up the gap in the line so no one would push past us. “Maybe they’ll have some beer.”
Martijn shrugged. “Not unless someone’s willing to give us credit until we’re paid.”
I started calculating how we might find some spare coins before that. We were already in debt for a tent and bedrolls and that was before thinking about the state of our clothing. That distraction was why I didn’t notice anything about the woman who was ladling out the food except that she had a baby slung across her back and a small child tugging at her skirts. Not until it was my turn to hold up my bowl for her to fill.
I recognized her half a breath before her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open.
“Lena?” she cried in disbelief.
It was too late to warn her off, to hush her, to beg her silence.
“Lena? What are you doing here like this?”
Two steps beyond, Martijn had frozen in place, staring at us both.
“Greta, please!” I asked softly and urgently. “Please don’t.”
It had been two years since I’d seen my cousin Greta back in Zendoorn. Two years—the age of the boy holding on to her skirt and staring up at me. She’d followed the drum in her own way but in all the wide world, why had we ended up in the same camp?
It was too late. The officer in charge of seeing the new arrivals settled had heard the outcry and come over to see.
“You know this soldier?” he asked.
“Soldier?” she said scornfully. “That’s my cousin Magdalena, she’s no more soldier than I am.”
I think I was angrier at her for denying me that title than for exposing me to scorn. I’d marched and sweated and bled as a soldier. That should count for something. But now the officer was staring at me closely with a frown. Before I knew what he was about, he’d grabbed me by the shoulder and put his other hand between my legs to feel for the thing that wasn’t there. I shoved him away, not caring for rank, or that my supper had just gone spilling away in the dirt, or that I’d blushed as red as a beet. Not caring that he could have me whipped just for pushing him like that, never mind for what else I’d done.
But he only laughed and rolled his eyes and said, “Sweet Christ, another soldier-girl! And you—”
He turned on Martijn and my heart froze.
“Please sir,” I begged, clutching at his sleeve. “Please, I only did it to be with my sweetheart. There wasn’t time for us to be married before he marched away. Martijn didn’t want me treated like a common camp follower. Don’t blame him sir!”
Was it enough to turn his suspicions away? I babbled away my reputation, my pride—anything to protect Martijn.
Greta let out a long gust of laughter. “Oh Lena, you were so prissy when I had to marry my man, and here you are no better than you should be! You put her in my hands, sir. I’ll teach her what it means to be a soldier’s wife. And maybe we can get a pastor to bless them before her belly swells too big.”
She took me by the wrist and called for someone else to take her place at the kettle. I barely had time to look back over my shoulder at Martijn who still stood frozen in place without a word of protest or defense. But what could she have said that would do more than make things worse?
* * *
Greta found a skirt for me. The weight of it felt comfortably familiar around my legs, though I'd finally grown accustomed to breeches too. “Keep the coat,” she said. It seemed like half the women in the civilian camp were wearing bits and pieces of old uniforms. “You can sleep with me for now. Help me keep an eye on the boys. There’s plenty to do so make yourself busy.”
And just like that I went from being a soldier on the march to cooking and mending and looking after babies. All the things I thought I’d left behind. It wasn’t that I thought less of women like Greta whose entire world was caught up in home, even the home of an army camp. Maybe someday I'd want all that too. But not now, not yet. I thought back on the plans Martijn and I had shared: the places we’d go together, the cites we wanted to see, maybe even taking ship for far lands. We’d been comrades. Equals. Not just Martijn and me, but all the men we’d marched with. And now I was just “Martijn’s sweetheart who put on trousers to follow him.”
It was two days before Martijn came to find me where I was turning a spit, trying to keep Greta’s boy amused so he wouldn’t stumble into the fire, and fighting a headache from the unending pounding of metal from the engineer’s camp beside us.
“Magdalena?” she asked hesitantly. The name was awkward in her mouth because I’d been Pieter so long.
I hesitated, wondering what to say, but there were people watching who’d heard about us so I threw my arms around her neck and kissed her like all the other women did with their husbands and sweethearts. It gave me a chance to whisper in her ear, “Is all well?”
Martijn nodded. She pitched her voice low. “I’m sorry about…all of this. We’ll figure out what to do somehow.”
“What to do? They’ll find someone to marry us. What else can we do? What other excuse do I have for being here?”
“Pieter—Lena, we can’t! It’s not… We aren’t…” She broke away from the embrace and threw her hands up in a shrug. “We can’t be married in God’s eyes, it would be a lie.”
I hissed at her, “I don’t care what God thinks, I care what Greta thinks and what your commanding officer thinks.”
Martijn was afraid, I could see that. I couldn’t tell whether she was more afraid of God or of her own disguise being found out. Was she sorry she’d let me join her on that fateful day back in Zendoorn?
“Martijn, you told me before that a comrade who shared your secret made you safer. A wife who shares it will make you safer yet. It’s like you said back at De Leeuw: nothing works better to convince people you’re a man than having a woman.”
Having a woman, like one might have a gun or a pair of boots. I didn’t like it any more than she did, but we both had too much to lose. No, that wasn’t true. I’d already lost almost everything. I’d lose that last scrap of respect unless we married. Without a ring, I’d be just one more fallen woman, considered common to anyone who took a fancy to me.
“Lena—,” she began.
But then I had to scramble to pull Greta’s boy out of danger and give the spit a turn so the meat wouldn’t burn, and when I looked up again, Martijn had left.
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)
[Continue to the next installment]