by Rachel Parsons
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
|part 2 of 3|
“I told you. Because I would have to leave my throne.”
She sniffed, patted herself for a handkerchief, and finally blew her nose on her skirts. At least she has skirts. I have to use my arms if Rosalyn is not with me, cloth in hand.
“We are a sorry sorority, Branwen. I cannot have a man because I am naked and would be treated like an object of lust by him, am treated thus; you cannot have the self-same man because he is beneath you in station. And yet we hurt each other and fight because we each want this man.”
She looked rueful. “Race you for him.”
We both laughed at that. That was how we would handle scarcity as girls. If we both wanted the pastry, the horse, the boy, we would have a race. It would usually end with us colliding with each other, wrestling, and giggling to the point where we could not, for the life of us, remember, what we were racing for.
Then we got serious. For this was not a pastry or even a boy. It was the Prime Minister of the commercial capital of our world.
“What are we to do, Branwen?”
She straightened up. “I will not give the government to James’ opposition.”
“Have you a choice in this?”
I was amazed at how powerless a monarch was in New Prydain. If the Council of Barons opposed one of my edicts, I could change their minds by taking the disloyal ones lands away from them. By having my soldiers hunt their women and children into the woods. But Branwen had no such power.
“I do, temporarily. I can freeze the Tribunal and reign directly through the Senate for some time. But James will have to be found, or the government will collapse. And you know what that means.”
I did. The other party in New Prydain wanted the offworlders back in full force, wanted me reduced in status to a slave. It would mean the resumption of war. And I would once again have to raise an army of the dead — only this time to pour death, like a deadly oil slick, sluiced through the streets of my girlhood friend’s kingdom.
“You must use this temporary power. And I will search for him with Arianrhod and the Terran agents.”
“You will not search for him with Rosalyn?”
Branwen hates Rosalyn. She believes that Rosalyn has usurped her place as my best friend.
“Well, Rosalyn will have to tag along. Someone has to clean up after me and carry a handkerchief if I sneeze.”
“Not to mention a sheath for your death sword. Oh, I do not believe in these things, Rhiannon, but my spies tell me about how you sleep with her at night and she is the keeper of Eligor. It is she who loves you in your nakedness. You know that, do you know, Rhiannon?”
“I know no such thing.” I sniffed. “Do not try to worm your way back as my number one by sullying my relationship with my lady in waiting. I get enough of that at home.”
“No offense meant, Rhiannon.”
“No offense taken, Branwen.”
I stood up, feeling the relief in my knees. “We must each go to our task, Branwen. You must hurry home and keep the peace. And I must find this wayward male friend of ours. And keep him out of trouble.”
“That even your greatness cannot guarantee.”
I smiled. But as we headed back to camp, the smile turned to a worried frown.
Branwen and I split up and went to our separate tents. I opened the flap, stepped in, only to be surprised by the lack of people present.
“Where is everybody?”
Rosalyn, the only one left aside from the twittering Dulcimer, who was straightening up, blowing candles, relighting the candles, and, in general, dithering, was on one of the pillows we have on the floor to sit on. She was cleaning her fingernails with her dagger.
“Ryune went with Arianrhod to scout James’ last know whereabouts. He took the nicely dressed Hirel with him. The Terran Ambassador went somewhere to stroke himself and you would know where Queen Bitch went. Not me.”
“Rosalyn, one of these days your mouth is going to get you in trouble even I cannot save you from.”
She blew me a kiss and grinned. Licked her lips. Then stuck her tongue out until it, to my amazement, touched her chin. Before I could admonish her further, she stood up. Or actually, as those pillows are like marsh, flapped like a mother hen defending her chicks until I finally come over, proffered her a hand, and yanked her to her feet. She headed to the door.
“Where, missy, do you think you are going?”
“To the horses. I’m sure you won’t want Arianrhod to have all the fun. I saw how you looked at Ryune.”
“His name is John. And how do you mean, how I looked at him?”
“You know my meaning.” She rent the tent flap and slid through.
Heading to the corral where our horses were stalled, I kept repeating, “What do you mean, ‘how I looked at him?’” But she would not answer.
A couple of New Prydain slaves — good looking, trim, muscular, naked men — had groomed our horses already and presented them to us. Nightshade came up and nuzzled me, but I suspect he was looking for a treat, like a carrot or sugar. Back when I wore clothing, I would always have something for him, but I have no place to put such things now. No place I would want to put them, anyway.
He was nicely caparisoned — with his ruby laced leather, diamond studded saddle, stirrups which had a fringe of silver over the iron, and a plume. I cannot dress, but I see that my horse is always a show piece.
Scout, Rosalyn’s steed, was more plainly ornamented, as is only proper. But she has sheaths for an incredible assortment of swords and knives, and saddle bags with what equipment I could not tell you. But she is never at a loss when I demand she produce something.
We rode north, past the tents and shanties of the miners until we saw three figures in the distance. Arianrhod rode a desert stallion and had on her red riding gown. It split down the legs, but the two halves came together when she stood or walked, to make a skirt of many folds. But when she was in the saddle, her skirt looked like pantaloons made from curtains.
John was still in his purplish-grey business suit and shiny shoes — only not so shiny now. And Irene-Hirel — was wearing blue pantaloons made from cotton and a wrapping the offworlders call a blouse, although it does not resemble any feminine garment I have ever known. Still, I hear that that it is very popular among the daughters of New Prydain’s plutocrats.
As we approached, Arianrhod dismounted, knelt down and picked up something. I rode up to her. She had an orb in her hand. Her brows were knit, there was a scared element in her eye, like a splinter.
“What is it, sister?”
“Rhiannon, it is a weather orb.”
“Which, prithee, is what? Remember, sister, I only know of necromancy. I am not a witch.”
“There are seven of them in existence. If the seven combine, the one who wields them can command the weather. He would be equal in power to your command of the dead, sister. He could bring hurricanes to New Prydain, permanent frost to the west, and turn the five kingdoms into a swamp that would devour us all.”
“Do you think James may have the rest?”
I do not know why that came to mind. But it did. She shook her head.
“No mortal can wield this. But he may have stumbled upon whoever is after them. Tried to stop them.”
“And is murdered or imprisoned for his trouble. Is there any way to find the other orbs, or locate who has them?”
“No, but we should have no difficulty in that regard.”
“I do not understand.”
She pointed. Off in the distance were black clouds, with hair coming down from them — torrents of water. And lightening. We all put our hands over our ears, as the rolling explosions that the offworlders say is caused by the sky’s fire nearly shattered our sense of hearing.
“I think we just have to head into that storm and we will find what we seek.”
That was Hirel. She has always had a perky quality about her which has made me want to smash her face in. She did not have this quality at the moment.
The storm stayed on the horizon, in spite of two day’s travel. We would pitch our tents at night, Ilene and Arianrhod sharing one, Rosalyn and I sharing another, but poor John sleeping alone by the camp fire. The second night I was restless, so I came up to him.
He was stoking the fire. He had removed his coat and his neck ornament was loose.
“Your moons are very beautiful, your highness.”
“Please, call me Rhiannon.”
He had stubble on his angular features. His eyes, which seemed to change color in the fire light, were a delicate shade of blue. He smiled as he saw me admire them. I lowered my eye lashes. He took my hand.
“Why Mr. Helms-”
“I mean it, princess. We are not alone.”
He indicated the woods to our east with his eyes. I followed them. At first, I did not see what he was seeing. Then I saw it. A dark shadow, definitely humanoid, though whether mortal or immortal I could not tell.
He produced a wicked looking knife, as long as a man’s forearm, stood up and headed to the forest.
I got up to follow him. I whistled for Eligor and felt the ‘whir’, ‘whir’, ‘whir’, of my sword. Hilt over point, it twirled toward me and landed in my hand as they emerged as if out of the bark of the trees themselves.
Dozens of them quickly surrounded us. Half-naked men in buckskin pantaloons, war paint, quivers on their back, and crossbows in their hands.
They began yipping, which brought Ilene, Arianrhod, and Rosalyn out. Rosalyn had her sword drawn, Ilene had a knife identical to John’s, but Arianrhod had a pipe in her mouth. It was blowing bubbles. Little pink bubbles.
I stared at her and mouthed, ‘what the Boudicca?’
She caught my eyes then looked out at our captors.
“We are the Men,” the tallest of them, a man with a brown pony tail down his naked back to his well formed buttocks, announced. He addressed John, but his words were to all of us.
“Well, I am John Helms, of the Federation’s Secret Service. And this is my charming companion, the Princess Rhiannon. Also greeting you is my colleague, the lovely Ms. Ilene Himmel, the Lady Arianrhod, of the Court of New Fairy, and the woman with the nasty looking sword is Mistress Rosalyn Morgan. Glad to meet you, Mr, ah?”
“Your women are not welcome here. This is the Land of the Men.”
John scratched his head. “Well, that presents a little problem, Mr., ah?”
“I am Ceredryff. And I repeat your women are not welcome here.”
“Charmed. But as I was indicating, Mr. Ceredryff, there is a little problem. These are not ‘my women’. If you want them to leave your charming little territory, you will have to take this up with them. In particular, the princess Rhiannon here.”
He had hooked his arm around mine. At the last remark, he patted my hand. “Is that not correct, your highness?”
Ceredryff came right up to me until I could smell him. He reeked of mud, crud, body order, and masculine pheromones. He jutted his box like jaw in my face.
“What kind of woman is it that comes to the Land of the Men?”
“The kind who is high queen.”
“You then are the leader of the Women?”
I decided not to debate the difference between being the leader of the Women and high queen. I nodded. He bared his teeth, which showed remarkably white and straight on top, but slightly crooked, giving his mouth character, on the bottom.
That’s when I jumped him, knocking him to the ground. As he lay there, looking blank, I leapt back up, whirled Eligor over my head, until the Harpy’s wings were severed from its back. The demon bird fell, squawking.
“Woman, you saved my life.”
Ceredryff pulled his legs up, and then propelled himself to a standing position. “For that, you may be an honorary Man.”
“Oh, thank you so much.”
I elbowed John in the ribs, as he rubbed his hand over his face to hide a smile.
“We shall feast in the morning. Then, you will undergo the necessary amputation.”
“Well, you certainly cannot be a Man with those things protruding from your chest.”
He stroked the ‘protuberances’, but not in a pleasant way. I resisted striking him. We were outnumbered; now was not the time to fight. After all, I had all night to figure out a way to escape from The Men and keep my bosoms to boot.
“Do they really produce milk?”
Ceredryff’s eyes had not left my bosoms since he had stroked them. Several times, he almost fell into holes on the way to the village of the Men.
“You act, sirrah, like you have never seen bosoms before.”
“I have not, princess. You are the only woman I have even seen in her entirety. Most come into our territory so garmented that you cannot tell the difference between them and Men.”
“But if you do not have women in your village, how do you continue in existence?”
“We kidnap boys from those who would make them weak.”
“And that would be?”
“Women, of course. I can say this to you, as you will be one of The Men soon. But women make Men weak.”
The village emerged out of the forest almost without border. The structures were framed from trees, were carved out of the trunks of gigantic trees. We were led to one dwelling that was in the interior of a preternatural oak. Ceredryff pulled a large knot out of it and ushered us in.
“This will be your den for the night. Good night, Prince Rhiannon, as you will soon be.”
I looked around doubtfully at the thistle covered floor, the lack of furniture, which meant I would have to lie on the thistles. John and Ilene made themselves at home and simply sat down, cross legged. John’s eyes still twinkled as he watched me.
“I think you would make a horrible man, Rhiannon,” Rosalyn opined, in between laughs that sounded like hiccoughs.
“I will take that as a complement, missy.” I turned to Arianrhod. “And as far as you-”
She took out her pipe. “Be silent, Rhiannon. I will finish my task before you are mutilated. Of that, I vow.”
“What task? You have done nothing but blow bubbles since the Men encircled us.”
She blew the pink bubbles toward my face. I waved them away, as if they were the webbing of noxious spiders.
I could not sleep. I kept hugging Rosalyn for comfort, to be rewarded by her kicking me in her sleep. I had looked forward to sleeping on this journey, as in our tent at the mining camp, as at home, or at Branwen’s palace, Zusanna, my lycanthropic bodyguard, would climb into bed in wolf form, and would take her third of the bed out of where my legs would rest. I would sometimes wake in the morning with no feeling in them. But we had left in a hurry, and she was still in the camp when we departed. I knew she would catch up soon enough, as a werewolf can run as fast as the wind, but I had been savoring my unobstructed sleep until the thought of mutilation kept me awake.
At dawn my tossing and turning was disturbed by the sound of children. I got up, aching all over, and wishing that Rosalyn were also awake to give me a rub. I stumbled to the knot and pushed it open to see the source of the sound. I blinked.
The camp was full of boys. At my emergence, they came running up to me.
“Are you my mom?” they all asked at once.
I stood there, paralyzed, as these children, three or more years from their Quickening, began putting their grubby hands on my legs, my thighs, my lower arms. Demanding attention. I got back my ability to move, as Arianrhod emerged, yawning.
“I see it worked.”
Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Parsons