In 1328, Bruges is under siege by the Chatelaine of Hell and her army of chimeras―humans mixed with animals or armour, forged in the deep fires of the Hellbeast. At night, revenants crawl over the walls and bring plague and grief to this city of widows.Margriet de Vos learns she's a widow herself when her good-for-nothing husband comes home dead from the war. He didn't come back for her. The revenant who was her husband pulls a secret treasure of coins and weapons from under his floorboards and goes back through the mouth of the beast called Hell.
Margriet killed her first soldier when she was 11. She's buried six of her seven children. She'll do anything for her daughter, even if it means raiding Hell itself to get her inheritance back.
Margriet's daughter is haunted by a dead husband of her own, and blessed, or cursed, with an enchanted distaff that allows her to control the revenants and see the future. Together with a transgender man-at-arms who has unfinished business with the Chatelaine, a traumatized widow with a giant waterpowered forgehammer at her disposal, and a wealthy alderman's wife who escapes Bruges with her children, Margriet and Beatrix forge a raiding party like Hell has never seen.
Shortlisted for the Locus, Sunburst, Crawford and Aurora Awards! Heartfield revisits and regenders an old Flemish fairy tale: 14th-century Belgian widows and a trans man take on the Chatelaine of Hell itself, and her chimeric army of humans transmogrified amalgams of humans and animals or humans and machines. Throw in an enchanted distaff, a waterpowered forgehammer, and strange Hellbeasts, and you've got yourself a story. The perfect juxtaposition of beauty and horror in writing! – Sandra Kasturi
"In Armed in Her Fashion, Kate Heartfield paints a darkly fantastic, humorously grotesque portrait of the European Middle Ages. Heartfield's deep knowledge of art and literature from and about the medieval period allows her to approach her setting in a way that is simultaneously affectionate and subversive. Her engaging characters wander through a landscape in which horror and absurdity combine, seemingly rigid truths are deconstructed, and it very much matters who is telling the story."– 2019 Sunburst Award Jury
"The novel is written with arresting detail and challenges literary tropes about women. Its roster includes half a dozen complex female characters and one trans male character, all of them captivating, sympathetic, repulsive, flawed, dangerous, selfless, determined, and damaged. They and Heartfield's powerful battle scenes make this well worth the price of admission."– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Armed in Her Fashion is Kate Heartfield's debut novel, and what a strange, compelling, genre-bending debut it is. Part horror, part fantasy, part history, and part epic, it combines all of its elements into a commentary on gender, power, and patriarchy. . . . I really enjoyed Armed in Her Fashion. It's worth reading. I may, in fact, need to read it again: there are interesting layers in the thematic work that Heartfield's doing, and I'm not convinced I caught them all in one sitting. In other words, I recommend it."– Liz Bourke, Tor.com
Margriet de Vos peered at a horizon smudged with the smoke of small fires. She cursed her weak eyes. She was too nearsighted to discern a figure against that dirty yellow sky, even had a figure chosen that moment to appear, so she scowled at that blasted, merciless horizon.
It was not that she wanted Willem to return to Bruges, not exactly that. But she had a right to her husband, dead or alive. She had a right to his body, or the little money he earned through the work of that good-for-nothing body. If he was among the dead or captive or changed, she wanted to know. Three weeks now since the battle at Cassel, and so many of the men of Bruges were still among the missing.
Margriet squatted among the dry weeds and thistles, pulled up her skirts. There was no sound but the hiss of her own urine and the hum of insects. It was quiet here, in the no man's land between the city walls and the Chatelaine's besieging forces.
They were out there, somewhere, not far. An army from Hell itself, an army the likes of which could not be found in Christendom or in the imaginations of decent people.
But Margriet de Vos was not afraid. This was her city, and she would not be penned in it. Besides, her milk was failing, her dugs drying up, and she needed her herbs.
She stood and pulled her knife out of the pouch at her waist. Margriet kept her knife sharp. It snicked through the thick thistle stems, through their woolly insides. How strange that God had ordained that the nastiest plants would be the ones to swell a woman's breasts with milk: the furry verbena, the stinging nettles, the sticking thistles. She wrapped her sleeve around her hand and placed the thistles in her apron, tied it deftly, and climbed out of the dry ditch.
The tea from these thistles would keep her milk up for a few more weeks, or so she hoped. And after that, what? Little Jacob Ooste hardly wanted the breast anymore, as much as Margriet tried to conceal that fact from his wealthy mother. But soon or late, Margriet would be unwanted.
There would be no work for a wet nurse in a city of widows.
Margriet's legs complained as she began the short walk back to the city gate. She had spent too many of her days and nights sitting. The flesh hung softly on her bones and her back creaked. She stopped, frozen like prey before a predator.
Mary, Mother of God.
A dozen chimeras lounged by the tumbledown stone wall that bordered the cow-path, where it met the main road leading to the city gate. They were facing away from her. She could not see them in detail but one had a head three sizes too big, clad in an enormous beaked helmet despite the fact he wore no other armour. The others were all the same: each had one straight arm of black metal and one arm, disturbingly, that dangled thin as rope.
Chimeras. The Chatelaine's unholy besieging army. Unnatural, misbegotten bullies, standing in her way.
A little dog circled the chimeras. The first dog she had seen in weeks; they were all dead, within the walls of Bruges. That's right, keep sniffing around there, stupid creature. Keep your nose out of the wind.
A smell of ash and fire. Something like smoke rose from the little dog's back: curls of dirty smoke or steam. It did not seem bothered. A chimera of some kind; a brazier with paws.
She crouched low, watching them through a screen of meadow foxtail. The chimeras were not facing her but they might have eyes anywhere, ears of any kind, senses not of God's making. An odd sound seemed to be coming from them: an irregular, echoing knock.
They stood between her and the city walls. Her home and family lay on the other side of the Smedenpoort. She could try one of the city's other gates, but that meant a long, leg-aching walk in either direction while the sun lowered. A dangerous walk, and undoubtedly full of more chimeras, and worse things.
At sunset the bells of Bruges would ring their tocsin, warning the living to stop their ears and harden their hearts. Then the revenants would come crawling, come calling. Up over the walls, the dead men who had lived in this city a month before would climb, uncaring what the living shot at them or poured down upon their heads. Into the streets they walked, batting away the few brave souls who fought them hand to hand, and calling the names of the living.
Margriet heard them every night. Every night she wondered whether she would hear Willem's voice, calling her own name. Was he dead? Was he among the revenants?
She would not weaken. She would keep the door shut against him.
Her heart had been shut to him long before.
All the same, the revenants turned her stomach. She did not wish to be out when they were abroad.
This was her path, and Bruges her home, and by God no one would keep her from it.
She hitched up her skirt, the bulge of thistles wagging in her apron, and crawled like a child through the grasses, until she was close enough to hear, and to see a little better. Oh, what she would give for a pair of eyes as sharp as Willem's.
The steaming dog lifted its head and looked in her direction. A man with metal and rope arms followed the dog's gaze, looking out at the horizon just as she had.
"Is Hell ever coming back this way, then?" he grumbled.
"Who knows?" said another. "The Chatelaine has gone to meet the king at Ypres. Perhaps she will return after the city surrenders."
The mouth of Hell might open anywhere now. Two years now since the Hellbeast had come to the surface of the earth, with the Chatelaine in command.
"This is only a test of the weapons, to frighten the people and see what we can do against the walls," said a hollow voice; the man in the great helmet. "Not a full attack."
A full attack.
Margriet chewed her lip. She had a secret way out of the city. She could get her daughter and leave—but that would mean leaving her father and sister behind, for there was no way her ailing father could travel and Katharina would never leave him. Neither would Margriet, if she could help it, but she must keep Beatrix safe.
Until now, the safest course had seemed to stay in Bruges, despite the siege, despite the nightly visits from the revenants. The walls were thick and the moat was deep. Bruges had starved before; its people would survive a long time on whatever tiny fish it could cull from the canals. And there were always rumours: that the survivors of the battle of Cassel were preparing to lift the siege, that the English king had chosen at last to come to save them.
No, it was impossible to leave Bruges. This was their home. How could Margriet and Beatrix live, out in a world infested with monsters? What would become of them as wandering women with little money and no home?
A full attack, said the man with the empty helmet.
It was a familiar voice, underneath the strange echo. How could it be familiar?
Once he had been a man; he had borne a head; he had given it up in the service of the Chatelaine. Had he lost it in battle? Was his head so ugly that he could not bear to live with it?
He lifted his visor. Behind it there was an empty space: empty, save for a little blue bird that fluttered and whizzed, a blur of colour that paused only when it banged into the inside of the helmet every few seconds. The bird seemed unable to find the egress although the visor was up. From its cage, from that void that should have been a head, issued his horribly empty voice.
"But if we blow the doors off, that may be all we need to do," he said. "The city fathers have all been executed. Those who remain are women and children, or old men, and more than half dead of the Plague, thanks to the revenants."
Mary, Mother of God—it was young Julius. It must be. She knew that voice; he had hung about Willem's shop, begging, since he was beardless. Most days he had his earnings stolen from him, poor child, or gave them away to some hard-hearted bully. It did not take much to trick Julius.
And yet here he was, a chimera, commanding other chimeras, by the looks of it. And he did not sound so foolish now.
With his new head, it seemed, came a new intelligence, issuing from what seemed to be empty space. Julius had never been able to drive a bargain.
Margriet did not like to look at that void or the bird within it, so she looked down, to where the gargantuan helmet was welded to a lumpy cicatrice all around his neck.
"Bah," said one of the men with metal arms. "The revenants work too slowly. It will be a city of corpses if we leave it to the revenants. Not worth taking."
"That, my clever friend, is why you are here."
Julius! What an edge his sweet voice had now.
The gate was so near. She could run to it in a matter of a minute, if it were not for these evil creatures in her way.
In the old days there would have been people, carts, horses, going in and out. She and Willem had gone through this gate so many times, on their way to trade in Poperinge or Roeselare, bickering on their little cart while their pony flicked its ears.
She had eaten the pony last week, she and Father and Beatrix and Katharina; its lean meat had been as sweet as its disposition, poor thing. And now the gate was shut, although she had no doubt of her ability to get in; she had planned to bang on the postern door, to shout the names of the boys and women who stood guard there with their improvised pikes, even, if need be, to shout the shibboleth the people of Bruges had used in her childhood to separate the city folk from the invading French, who could not pronounce it: scilt ende vrient.
She crawled forward an inch, and waited. They did not seem to notice the movement. She wished her breath were not so loud, hissing out of her nose like steam from a kettle, and her heart fluttering like that trapped bird.
If only she could go back the way she had come, riding the Nix, secretly by the canal out into the moat. But the stubborn old water-snake would not come to her out here. He obeyed her only within the city gates, in the canals where she had met him all those years ago, when she had tricked him into promising her his service. The slimy serpent was like a wool merchant who picked the last bit of fluff off the scales; he kept his promise to come to her anywhere within the city, but offered not one mote more.
How long would the chimeras stand here? They had not been here when she alighted from the Nix's back and made her way with sodden shoes from the moat to the field. Not even an hour before. The barricades were on the roads, a little distance from each city gate.
Margriet crept forward in the weeds, her thighs burning with cramping. She allowed herself a silent grimace. She husbanded her curses.
The men with the metal arms lined up, facing the Smedenpoort, while the little dog with the steam rising from its back ran back and forth.
"People of Bruges!" shouted the chimera who had been Julius, his echoing voice louder than any human's ought to be. "You have been warned. The Chatelaine would like to end your suffering. But as you have refused, time and time again, to open the gates to her, we have been sent to take down your walls."
The silence was filled only by the insects of the afternoon.
The chimera who had been Julius whistled, without lips, and the little steaming dog trotted to one end of the line of chimeras. Each in turn dipped the end of a rope-arm onto its back and rose up with the end glowing red.
"Ready," said Julius.
He spoke with such authority now.
The chimeras raised their arms and the ropes flailed in the wind, throwing sparks like fireflies, and then came to rest on the metal of their other arms.
A boom and a flash like the day of judgement ripped through the world.
Margriet went flat on the ground, her arms over her head, whispering, "Mary, save me. Mary, Mother of God."
Someone was screaming.
She raised her head.
Smoke rose black into the sky.
Two of the chimeras had been blown in half. Another had been blown to bits. His head, with a metal beak like a bird's, rolled straight to her. A man with a new nose and new arms—these men had been lepers, perhaps, before the Chatelaine made her bargain with them.
The smoke filled the air so thick she could not see the walls. Had the thundering fire breached them? She must get in. She must find her daughter.
Margriet ran through the smoke and screaming, toward the walls of her city.