by Rachel Parsons
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 and part 2
appear in this issue.
“What worked? You mean the bubbles did this?”
“No, they did it to themselves, the bubbles but helped.”
She put her hand over her mouth to stifle another yawn. I was swatting little male hands away like they were a swarm of flies.
“Could you get these little ones off of me before they touch something they’re not supposed to?”
One had already come perilously close.
Arianrhod clapped her hands. “Okay, children. The Princess Rhiannon is not your mother. You will find your mother by following this bird.”
A beautiful white bird formed in her hands. The boys stopped pawing me and stared at it. Arianrhod released the bird and the boys ran after it.
“Will they find women to take them in?”
“Who knows? They are out of our hair, anyway.”
I was shocked at her callousness. “Remind me not to make you mad at me, Arianrhod.”
“Oh, Rhiannon. You make me mad at you on a daily basis. But I love you as a sister. You need not fear me.” But she smiled sinisterly at me as she said it.
But I had no time for speculation. In the children’s wake was a small, silver spheroid. I went over to it, squatted and picked it up. Held it to Arianrhod.
She nodded. “It is another weather orb.”
“Well, if the wizard we are following is dropping his precious jewels along his path, this will be easy to deal with.”
“Perhaps too easy, Rhiannon. Perhaps too easy.”
We filled our saddle bags with bread and fruits from the Men’s larder, after feasting on the venison they had in salt pits. Arianrhod and Rosalyn rode on point, with John, Ilene and I taking up the rear. John rode next to me.
“You seem almost part centaur the way you ride,” he observed.
“Centaur? What is this strange word? You compliment me with offworlder notions.”
“You don’t know about centaurs?”
He smiled — almost a laugh.
“What is that funny, sirrah?”
“Oh, it is not. Not really. But you believe you are cursed, that Arianrhod’s a witch, and that those boys that invaded the Men’s Camp were really the Men transformed. Quite a magical kingdom you have here, Rhiannon. Yet, you’ve never heard of centaurs.”
I looked at him through the roots of my eyes. He grinned, which made me relent and smile back.
“Tell me, sirrah.”
“They are a myth. Half man and half horse. I merely meant to say that it is hard to tell where the woman leaves off and the horse begins that you ride so well.”
“We have the same spirit too, do we not, Nightshade?” I reached to my steed’s neck and patted him. He crooked his neck and pressed it against my thigh.
“Oh, you are spirited, princess; no doubt about that.”
His eyes, filled with almost preternatural delight, went all over me — and then inside of me. It was thrilling. If we were alone, I would have plied my former trade with him, with those flashes of the eyes my payment.
The road was gravelly; increasingly so the further from the mining camp we went. To my right was the forest; to my left was a field of yellow plants — ape toes, as they looked like the toes of the great apes that swung from the trees on our world’s belly belt. We rounded a bend in the road, and were stopped by a woman in the middle of the road. John, to my annoyance, suddenly fixed his eyes not on me but on the woman in the road.
She could have been my twin. Also six feet tall, flaring brown eyes, with long black hair that swirled around her buttocks, providing her only covering. I swear if I had not punched the man, John’s tongue would have slithered out of his mouth, wended its way to her, and then found a way to her mouth.
“Zusanna. I see you caught up with us. But why in woman form?”
Her eyes twinkled. I had no doubt she noticed John’s reaction — it would be hard to miss, even without lycanthropic eyesight.
“I thought it would be nice for a change. And nice for you too. You sometimes complain how rough you have it being the only naked woman at court.”
“Yet, it is here that you make your appearance, not at court.”
“Yes, it is here.”
She strolled up to John. “Kind sir, I am without steed. May I sit behind you on yours?”
I could have killed her. My hand went to Eligor. She noticed it, and gave me a wink. No dog cookies for her tonight.
I had not been the only one to notice what she was doing. Ilene moved her horse so she could be by John’s side. Rosalyn shot Zusanna daggers, and Arianrhod stiffened into angry, statuesque arrogance. She quivered, but that could have been because of the stinging insect that had just flown up her gown.
We rode on until we came to a village; a prosperous one as it was of frame buildings and had a well in the middle of it. We stopped by an inn. The storm was still hugging the horizon, acting more and more like the end of a rainbow. The closer we got to it, the more it receded. So we decided to end our travel temporarily and rest.
I hitched Nightshade to a post in front of the inn, waited while the others did likewise. John helped Zusanna down, as if she needed help. I noticed she had done something to her legs. It took me a moment to realize she had shaved them. They were smooth as a baby’s bottom. Just the way the offworlders like their women. That is why I had shaved mine; only to discover that once any part of me was thus exposed, growing hair back would be considered an attempt at covering by the spellminder.
John escorted her to the inn door. Arianrhod and Rosalyn entered first, to pave the way for my entrance. This is not just for propriety, as I am the high lady, but to trouble-shoot any misunderstandings. I am neither a whore nor a sex slave, but my appearance makes many a man think so.
The inn’s lobby was filled with old men. And I mean old. None could have been much younger than one hundred and twenty. They were playing old men’s games as well as wearing the silver tunics and capes of the elderly.
Two men were playing ‘capture my king’, another two were playing a game which required shoving a discus on a board back and forth. I marveled at this as a man in a gray tunic and cape came up to us.
“So glad you are finally here,” he said mysteriously. “We have needed you a long time.” He turned to the gamesters. “Men, Young women. Five of them. We shall be young again ourselves.”
At that announcement I felt a strange lassitude. My joints were suddenly on fire, and I felt my bones get brittle. I began to stoop and my bosoms sagged. There was a mirror across the hall by the windows; framed, almost by the gray curtains that folded over themselves. I saw myself in the mirror. Saw Rosalyn, Arianrhod, Zusanna and Ilene. We had all become hags! While the men in the inn were becoming more youthful by the moment.
“It is the Inn of the Men Who Need Women,” croaked Arianrhod. “Quick, John, you are the only one who can save us. They will drain us completely unless they are stopped by a virgin.”
“A virgin? Where am I supposed to find one of those?” His voice conveyed his skepticism about their existence.
“You must go to Queen Branwen. She is a virgin.”
“Branwen is a virgin?”
Rosalyn and I looked at each other in disbelief as we chorused this.
Arianrhod nodded her head seriously. “Few know of this.”
“But she has the reputation-”
“Rhiannon, hers is unearned, unlike yours. Men cannot have her, so they spread rumors, just like men can have you and spread the same.”
I glared at her through eyes which could no longer see very far.
“Well, no wonder she is so bitchy,” Rosalyn observed, her voice cracking.
“Then John, go. We do not have much time,” I cried.
He ran out. I could barely hear the clomp-clomp-clomp of his horse.
“I do not understand this,” I said, sitting on a couch one of the men, now looking at the early stages of knighthood, had provided us. “I am an immortal, as are you Arianrhod. We do not age past menopause.”
“This is sorcery, Rhiannon. We will age until we are but gnarled pieces of dust. And we will still age. The Men Who Need Women did not realize this. They will continue to youth until they are but zygotes as they sap us. We need help for them as well.”
Her words were punctuated by one of the men — a man who was in his sixties — suddenly shaking, as he went from youth to child to baby, and then, to my horror, split into an ovum and a sperm. The sperm wiggled away.
“My God.” The inn keeper put his hand to his mouth. “We had no idea, ladies, that you would be so powerful. We would never have done this.”
I barely heard him. I was worried about Rosalyn. And Ilene. They were mortal. They already looked like they had survived over a hundred revolutions. Rosalyn was smacking her lips, trying to moisturize them. She had already told six times the story of how we had met in the New Prydain jail cell, and was telling it a seventh. Ilene was screaming.
“Not that story again. Please, not that story again.”
“Well, it was very interesting. When the rat crawled across Rhiannon’s foot-”
But the effort to stop Rosalyn had proven too much for Ilene. She had fallen asleep — or, scary thought, unconscious.
The days ticked away seeming like but hours, or even minutes. I spent them hugging Rosalyn, knowing this could be her last hour on Daearu. I was crying dry tears — my tear ducts had occluded — when the door burst open.
A man, strong, angular features, wearing the riding pantaloons and tunic of New Prydain, burst in.
“James? Is it you? I can barely see you.”
“I came as soon as I heard.”
But he made no move to hug or comfort me. His face was filled with horror.
“But where were you?”
“I had to leave to sort things out. You were clearly going to reject my proposal.”
“You knew this?”
He grinned thinly. “Even all that sex didn’t make me completely stupid, Rhiannon.”
And on my wanderings I ran across this man who claimed he could control the weather with these.”
He produced a small satchel, opened it and poured its contents into my hand.
“Weather orbs. Oh, James. You brought me the weather orbs. How thoughtful. Look, Rosalyn; James brought me weather orbs.”
She peered at me, uncomprehending. I looked around for a place to put them. James beamed like a little boy.
“You know, I do not believe in magic, but I know you do. I thought you would like them.”
“Enough talk, young man.” Arianrhod screeched. “Show some respect!”
“You cannot even look at us, young man.”
“That is not true, m’lady.”
“Oh? Then make love to us.”
“Arianrhod!” I shouted, only to find my voice catching on its own hoarseness.
“I cannot. Even if I were to eat pasta.”
I blinked as the gray sphere clouding my eyes got larger.
“It is made by offworlder chefs. It is reputed to be a means of natural male enhancement.”
“Oh, my goddesses!”
“Branwen, is that you?”
The figure, led in by John Helms, was very vague. It clomped up to me. Held unto my hands. Stared at the knots that were my knuckles; at the bent fingers, unable to close into a fist.
“What can I do?” Branwen asked.
“Rosalyn, are you able to cut her with Eligor?” Arianrhod asked.
“I think so. But can I tell you about the first time I met Rhiannon. In the jail cell? When the rat ran over her foot?”
“After you cut Branwen. Please, do it soon. You have not much time here on Daearu.”
She moistened her lips. “Where am I going?”
“Rosalyn, get the death sword and cut Branwen.” Arianrhod turned to my sister monarch. “It is the only way. We are crones. You are still a maiden. Can you stand it?”
“I would die for Rhiannon. As to the other of you, I will submit as a favor to her.”
Rosalyn returned with Eligor.
“Cut her throat, Rosalyn,” Arianrhod ordered.
“Cut her throat? I can’t do that!” There was terror in Rosalyn’s tone.
“Do it! Do it now. You then feast first. Then Ilene. Rhiannon, Zusanna, and I will go next. Do it!”
I could barely see, but I gasped when Rosalyn slit open Branwen’s carotid artery and blood started gushing. Rosalyn drank of it, and as she did, she began youthing. When she had her fill, Ilene doddered over and drank. Then we immortals descended, like baby goats at the udder, and drank and drank and drank.
I felt my spine straightening, the blue veins in my arms and legs disappearing, my eyesight coming back. My strength was returning, and I felt Branwen’s life force becoming mine.
As we fell from her, drunk with vitality, like it had been elderberry wine and not blood that we have filled our vessels with, the wound on her neck began to close and heal. She was white as an albino dragon, a little wobbly, but she held to John Helms, and he held her fast. During our feasting, he had had his arms around her, never once stopped looking at her, and even when she, momentarily, had absorbed all our elderliness and had become an ancient of days herself, he had never stopped having admiration in his eyes. John Helms was lost to me; and Branwen was lost to James.
She croaked to Helms, “Love me!?”
“Of course, your majesty. I am at your service. But we should do this in secret.”
He picked her up and carried her to a bedroom in the inn. He seemed to know exactly what to do and where to go.
I was writing my letter to Ioseff, telling the sheriff how much I have missed him, and telling him how awful it was to ride naked, with so many scrapes on your person. I detailed each and every one of the parts of my person that were subject to insults. How I longed for his touch and kiss to make it better. I knew what the effect would be on him. The very same effect that would make Hangowry’s blood boil from the epistle I had just finished, detailing the same problems and yearnings. I plan to serve them both pasta when they come for an audience. Branwen’s blood had made all of us maidens again, but this will not last.
I would have a good time when I got back to my kingdom, to make up for the utter frustration I was feeling now. James was no longer interested in me as a woman, as “it would be improper.” John was only seen in Branwen’s presence. The Terran Ambassador, though, was telling me what a fine woman I was, which made me wish to bathe in the camp well and stay there.
My men report most of the ex-Men, the Boys, I guess you would call them now, did manage to find a woman to take care of them. And the Men Who Need Women are still waiting, spider-like, for unwary female travelers. I had Rosalyn post a sign to warn woman of them, but I doubt if it will do much good. Women are not good at reading signs.
The storm, which, during our journey, always remained at the horizon, disappeared. It was not due to a weather wizard, clearly, as he could not have had all the orbs. Orbs now safely in my possession. The nature of the storm we never learned.
Arianrhod, Rosalyn, and even Ilene and I have grown much closer after our encounters with men. Ilene has requested a permanent assignment to my palace and awaits word from her superiors. Branwen has stopped calling me a strumpet, at least for now. If James spurns her, we shall see.
I have men who wish to make love to me, but none to love me, especially in my nakedness, which blinds them to what is in my spirit. It has been over a year and a half since my days as laced mutton, but I am still the “Whore Queen.” Yes, I know of these comments in the kingdoms’ inns and way stations. All hateful remarks eventually make it to my ears. You cannot hide from me, as my ears are everywhere.
Men see me naked and they lose their self-control. Old men wish to regain their youth when they see my bosoms, my womanhood, even my buttocks. Other men think respect means to treat me like I am a man, to ignore or excise our differences.
I am indeed “Rhiannon the Nude,” and if I have to reign that way until I stop aging, I will do so. Men quiver in my presence. And they should.
Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Parsons