As I See the Snow Melting
by Rachel Parsons
|Table of Contents|
|Part 1 of 2|
Princess Rhiannon of New Fairy was a prodigal daughter of a king, forced by circumstance into a life of prostitution before returning to her father. Though freed from her servitude, Rhiannon has suffered a terrible curse and must appear naked at all times, vulnerable and cold. As she resumes her rightful place in the world, she encounters dark sorcery, the evil of men, the intrigue of enemies and her own inner conflicts.
“Rhiannon, you’re turning blue.”
“Rosalyn, stop mo-mo-mothering me; I’m, I’m fi-f-fine.”
Boudicca, I could not stop my teeth from chattering in the bitingly cold wind. Ice from the sky was sucking the heat that had been all around just a moment before. Whence this ice storm?
“Up ahead, an Inn.”
Elfrod spurred his steed to the structure. It was large, almost mansion-like, with stables and a garden behind it. It had fire light in all the windows. My hands reached out to it.
I cried, “But there will not be room for all of us.”
“They will make room,” Elfrod yelled back. He quickly dismounted and kicked the door in; sounds of singing and a lute wafted out.
“We cannot just force them like that,” I said, still shaking and shivering.
“Rhiannon, you are queen. You can force them to do anything you wish,” Rosalyn said, furrowing her brows.
“For once I agree with Rosalyn,” Arianrhod said.
“Rosalyn, this is not right.”
But I was getting far too cold to argue. If it were not for Graymulkin’s curse, I would have ripped the clothes off anyone, even Rosalyn, to warm myself. Her cowhide pants and soldiers’ vestments filled me with unholy envy. Cry I did as my best friends lifted me down from my horse, and squeezed me tight, rubbing my shoulders, stomach, legs and buttocks with their hands to keep me warm. Rosalyn was cupping my bosoms in her palms as Arianrhod, her cape fluttering in the horrid wind, tethered my horse and the soldiers dismounted.
“God, they are cold,” she said of my bosoms, but as we entered the dwelling she pulled her hands away.
“Do not stop, Rosalyn; your hands are so warm! Please, damn the impropriety and rub them, please!”
A pudgy man clad in apron and brown pants was angrily spitting fire at Elfrod. The festivities had stopped as my men stomped in. The minstrel who was the source of the lute playing and the singing was scratching his beard nervously, and the guests, men and women in rude clothes, were staring wildly at us and obviously wanting to be nearly anywhere else.
“She’s frozen,” a girl standing by the pudgy man said. “Get her some clothes, quick, you idiots and place her by the fire,” she said to the soldiers. “Don’t just stand there, father, get her some whisky. And don’t be so indignant. They had to get her in. With the temperature dropping like it is, they had no choice.”
She came bursting through the soldiers who had ringed me and took me to the fire.
“You’ll have some clothes soon, honey. I suppose it’s your fault,” she barked at Arianrhod and Rosalyn. “You women who are so warmly dressed. Was it for your amusement that you made her go out there like this?”
“It isn’t what you think,” Rosalyn said.
“I think you’re horrid. I don’t care if you are noblewomen and these are the queen’s men. Where is Lady High-and-Mighty anyway? What kind of queen allows some poor woman to be so used?” She looked around the room, fire in her eyes. My defender, I thought, amused.
It was hard to respond to such fury. “I am ensorcelled; that is why I am in this state. I must spurn these gifts,” I pushed away the blankets that the pudgy man had thrown across the room to the girl. “But I will love your fire and your whisky.”
The girl snapped angrily, “You heard her father, get that whisky. The poor woman is icy and she needs whisky.”
A bottle was uncorked and somebody poured it. My hands shaking, my fingers numb, I swallowed two fingers worth without ado. The heat burst quickly made things better.
“Thank you. And I apologize for Elfrod’s brusque way of commandeering your inn. But as you see, the need was great. I am sorry for the imposition.”
The girl smiled. “Just sit by the fire.” She looked at the soldiers and noblewomen with bold indignation. “I’ll see to your needs.”
I dropped the glass at Rosalyn’s cry, causing the innkeeper’s daughter to suck in her breath as the shards surrounded my feet.
“Rosalyn! What is it?”
But she was not listening at me. She was staring wild-eyed at the minstrel. “Kilydd is that you?”
The boy nodded. “You are Rosalyn? I heard you had become a whore. Are you here for the soldiers’ entertainment?”
At those mean words, Rosalyn burst into tears.
My defender’s name was Kymideu. She sat beside me, her yellow linen dress clinging to her figure but flattening out around her legs, as I crouched by the fire. She was still apologizing for her outbursts.
“I am sorry, your highness. I didn’t know it was you, or about the witch’s curse. You must think me the most treasonous bitch around for saying such things to your friends.”
I smiled, feeling the flames lick at my backside and the warmth of the whisky. I held it in my arms like it was a baby I had just given birth to. It was all I could do not to lick the bottle and caress it like a lover. I turned my front toward the flame, and then stuck my butt back toward it, like I was rotisserie-ing myself.
Rosalyn, Elfrod, and Arianrhod were helping the innkeeper, whose name was Eios, figure out how my three score men could be accommodated, especially with many wounded from fighting the raiders.
“Methinks you would be a good bodyguard for me, the way you came to my defense.”
She looked appalled. “No, no, I can’t. Father needs me. My brother needs me.”
“I was not really suggesting it. Your brother is the minstrel?” She nodded. “He was cruel to Rosalyn.”
“He didn’t know better. The last he had heard was that she was walking the streets of New Dyved. He didn’t know that she was here, now, in New Fairy or of her change in station.”
“A change she made without his help,” I said bitterly. “Were they close?”
“They were friends back in New Dyved before the offworlders came to rule in that kingdom. Please, your highness, don’t think badly of him. He had heard of her fate, but also that the offworlders would crush anyone who interfered with her prostitution.”
“You heard that? That the offworlders would stop anyone from freeing a woman from whoredom?”
It was the first I had heard of that, but then the cruelties of the offworlders could fill all the books in the world.
“Yes. We knew of a man who wanted to rescue his sister. He was unmanned and his body was hanged for all to see. But surely you know better than me of the cruelty of the Terrans.” I thought I saw pity in her eyes.
“It was not the offworlders who ensorcelled me or turned me out on the streets to be a whore. I brought about the curse myself and it was my fiancé who did the other. I do not think that was their practice, except for their field whores, whom they kept for the enjoyment of their troops.”
I knew of that, because when the field whores were used up, they would go to us girls on the streets. I will never forget what they had me do at a barracks party. Some were especially beastly toward me, as they recognized me from the court, and by degrading me they were degrading all the courtly women and through them all the men of Daearu.
“You would know of their practices, I suppose,” said Kymideu. She got up to go; her enthusiasm for my well-being cut dry as if I had turned off a faucet. “Now I really have to attend to my duties and my other guests, if I have your leave, m’lady.”
“Of course,” I said, irritated. I had not meant to hurt her. I waited by the fire a little longer and went to the rooms that Eios had had prepared for me.
When I arrived Rosalyn was already there, sitting in a chair, by the room’s fireplace, reading In Cold Blood, a Terran book. She hates the Terrans for what they did, but she reads their books, especially from their golden age.
There were tears in her eyes. “Rosalyn, does it hurt so much?” I thought I knew what was the source of her pain. “Kilydd is not worth it.”
“Oh, we had such times together, when I was a child,” she said, ignoring my comment. “He had such admiration in his eyes when we would leap from rooftop to rooftop, or knock the top hats off all the rich men. But now, now, he just thinks of me as a whore!”
“Rosalyn, it matters not what he thinks.” I came and knelt by her. “You are no longer a whore.”
She looked at me. “Easy for you to say, Rhiannon.”
“Easy? You know of the whispers at court. I can practically see the words ‘strumpet’ and ‘whore’ leap from lip to lip at my lack of a gown.”
“Yes, but look at you-”
“That’s the point, Rosalyn. Everyone who looks at me knows of my shame.”
“And you have friends to warm you, soldiers who obey you, and a father who took you in. I have nothing. Without you I would still be a whore. That is what I am, Rhiannon. That’s all I am.” She sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. She fell asleep in my arms still sobbing.
* * *
“I know not what to do, Arianrhod.”
“Nothing to do until I can figure out the source of this unnatural weather. We are stuck here. If it continues to rain ice from the sky, you will die of exposure on the journey to Caer Rhiannon.”
“That is not what I meant.”
We were at the dining hall, in a section that was corded off both for my comfort and so my nudity would not shock the customers. There was a pile of toadstools in front of me and a pile of pancakes in front of Arianrhod. I never can understand how Arianrhod can get away with eating so much. She does have a slightly larger stomach than I feel I can get away with, with it available for view by anyone, but she is by no means globular.
We were washing our meals down with coffee, an offworlder beverage, but one that I favor. I was amused at first at the cries from the peasants when the coffee plantations were first built by the offworlders. You must remember that before I was forced to go about cold and vulnerable, I had no empathy for anyone. I would laugh at the misery of others, until everyone laughed at mine, making me an object of lust and derision. That is when I came to hate the offworlders for what they were doing to us: taking our resources the way men would take my body, when I had no choice but to give it. But now I realize that coffee plantations are both beneficial to the local economy and provide a most wonderful brew.
“What did you mean, Rhiannon?”
“I mean I know not what to do about Rosalyn. She is distraught about Kilydd.”
“Distraught?” Arianrhod echoed. “Why is she distraught?”
“Because he knew that she had become a whore and she cannot face his having that knowledge.”
“She is far too soft. The whole world knows of your whoredom, and you are not distraught.” She cut the pancake stack with venom and placed a large wad into her mouth but managed to chew on it daintily.
“Arianrhod, that simply is not true. I find myself weeping uncontrollably at night because of what I had to endure. And I am always cruelly reminded of what I had to do in exile when men rape me with their eyes or when I see my reflection in a mirror, or see the nice things that other ladies wear these days. Rosalyn has always been my strength at those moments. Now that it is my turn to be her strength I just know not what to do.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” Arianrhod snapped. “I could turn Kilydd into a beast if you want me to.” She pondered that. I saw immediately in her eyes that she was already, in her mind, pouring the concoctions together and scribbling the signs that would assure Kilydd’s beasthood.
“I think he is bestial enough.”
“He seems to me to be just a common man. And Rosalyn’s commonness is showing here. Would you take the attitudes of a commoner to heart like that?”
I thought of Hangowry. And how he did not care about my past, or my present. My past, lower than the dirt beneath his boots; my present too exalted for a lowly blacksmith. I got up.
“Where are you going, Rhiannon? Your meal is unfinished. And you are far too scrawny. Your ribs are showing. You need to eat more.”
“I mourned for my mother, once,” I said. “Never realizing that I would one day have two mothers doting on me. Between you and Rosalyn, I swear I am going to have to start suckling on the two of you.”
“Oh, get you away from me. I have weather witching to do.” She waved me away with her fork.
“Yes, mother.” She gave me a withering look. Arianrhod is, after all, only two years older than I.
I went to the kitchen and asked one of the scullery maids where I might find Kilydd.
“He is outside chopping wood, your highness.” I started out the door to the outside. “But it is still very cold, majesty,” she protested. As I left, I overheard her complaining to one of the other maidservants. “A mad, inconsiderate one, that. No one wants someone naked in the kitchen. Then to go out like that!?”
“You know how nobles are. They do what they want, and they make us enjoy it.”
There were other comments, but the cold had already focused my attention. Shooting pains from the icy ground going through my bare feet; goosebumps all over me. I ran to where Kilydd was doing his chores. He stopped and looked aghast.
“You can’t be out here, your highness.”
The wind made his hair do a wave and there was frost on his temples. I felt like screaming as I saw my breath and the little crystals forming in it.
“I came to talk with you.” I was jumping up and down to generate heat. He was either feigning indifference to my jiggling bosoms or the man had taken vows. He seemed totally unaffected by the sight.
He shook his head. “I have to do these chores, and you can’t be out in this cold. Go back.”
“I came to talk with you,” I repeated stubbornly as I continued jumping. “You know how many people would crawl on their bellies to have an audience with me, and I come to you?” I sounded shrill, even to myself, but it was blessed, feet-stamping, arctic out.
Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Parsons