'And I Darken' Tells The Story Of The Women Forgotten By History

So, the story goes like this: Stephen the Great (not his lesser-known cousin, Stephen the Pretty Okay I Guess) was losing. Prince of Moldova in the 1400s, Stephen was a brilliant military leader. His country snuggled up to Transylvania and Wallachia (present-day Romania), with neighbor Hungary. Together, they fought to keep their countries free from Ottoman rule. At least when they weren’t fighting each other, because fighting is the thing to do when you’re great, maybe? I’m Kiersten the Short, so no one bothers trying to fight me.

Anyway. Stephen comes running home with his tail between his legs, and finds the castle sealed up nice and tight. With him on the outside.

“Open the gates!” he yells.

His mother leans over the wall. “Who is that?”

“Stephen! Your son!”

“You’re not my son.”

Stephen probably just wanted to go to bed. Maybe he had to pee. Regardless, at this point he freaks out. “Mother! You gave birth to me! Let me in!”

His mother glares down, as unforgiving and immovable as the stone wall she stands sentinel on. “You are not my son. My son does not lose.”

“Oh, snap!” all the men around Stephen say. Or whatever the 1400s equivalent of that would have been. And Stephen, sufficiently chastened and reminded of who he is — and more importantly, who he came from — turns right back around and beats the crap out of the army. After which his mother decides to let him back in.

Stephen, sufficiently chastened and reminded of who he is — and more importantly, who he came from — turns right back around and beats the crap out of the army. After which his mother decides to let him back in.

Now, besides being an awesome anecdote featuring 15th century grounding tactics (“You finish your dinner or I’ll lock you outside the walls in front of an invading army!”), what does this story teach us?

We really should know more about his mom. Because yes, Stephen beat the army, but who beat him? YO MAMA. Well. His mama. But other than this folktale, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any information on her. Why? Because she was a her.

During this same relative time, another young man was rising to greatness. Mehmed, soon to be known as Mehmed the Conqueror, would go on to realize generations of Ottoman dreams by overthrowing the unconquerable city: Constantinople. And the woman behind him, who gave birth to one of the greatest men in Ottoman history, a man who would reshape the division between East and West? A concubine. We think her name was Huma, and from all evidence she was probably a slave concubine taken from Europe. Yet she gave birth to the boy who would become sultan against all odds (a few mysteriously dead brothers helped that right along), who would answer the call of history and prophecy at the gates of Constantinople. 

And the woman behind him, who gave birth to one of the greatest men in Ottoman history, a man who would reshape the division between East and West? A concubine. We think her name was Huma, and from all evidence she was probably a slave concubine taken from Europe. Yet she gave birth to the boy who would become sultan against all odds.

I’d like to know her, wouldn’t you?

Or take her fellow harem-member, Mara Brankovic. Mara was married to Mehmed’s father, Murad the Doesn’t Have a Fancy Descriptor. Mara’s father was in charge of Serbia, and Mara’s marriage to a man she despised was her family contribution to keeping Serbia peaceful. When Murad died, Mara was like “Peace out, fools!” and went straight back to Serbia. Constantine, Emperor of Constantinople, saw his opportunity and immediately sent a proposal of marriage. If he could destabilize relationships between Serbia and the Ottomans, more the better for him.

But our Mara was cleverer than that. She had already given up too much of her life in a miserable political marriage. So she sent along word of Constantine’s proposal to the new sultan, Mehmed, along with news of her rejection—thus demonstrating that no marriage was needed in order to have Serbia’s loyalty. She remained blissfully single while strengthening a treaty that could have gone either way.

Mothers, wives, daughters. These were the elements that gave “importance” to the women we read about. How many more carved out spaces of power and freedom from a history that stubbornly ignored them, making them footnotes in other people’s stories?

Mothers, wives, daughters. These were the elements that gave “importance” to the women we read about. How many more carved out spaces of power and freedom from a history that stubbornly ignored them, making them footnotes in other people’s stories?

While writing And I Darken, out today from Delacorte Press, I tried to find as many of them as I could. I looked for the real women behind genealogies, anecdotes, briefest mentions. And where there was nothing solid, I pulled from the women I know. Because women are as they ever have been: astonishing and resilient. Kind and cruel. Trusting and secretive. Maternal and standing at the top of a wall, telling their sons they’d better win or die.

And I Darken revolves around my main character, Lada Dracul, refusing to seek power through traditionally feminine means. But it was just as important to me to include these other women and the clever, desperate, and occasionally brutal ways in which they put their roots down in the flood of men’s history and refused to be washed away.

So, the question (as so eloquently posed by Beyonce the Glorious) goes like this: Who run the world?

History might try to hide the answer, but we know the truth.

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