The Man Who Was Too Many
by Rachel Parsons
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The Tower was made of stone, was in the shape of a cylinder, and had replaced the dungeon since the early days of Heveydd’s reign.
There was very little light in the interrogation room, and what there was made Chester Sprung look sallow and pathetic. He was emaciated, even though the paste that prisoners were fed made them fat. Grizelda noted that he looked with frank lust at Rhiannon. She also noted that Ioseff was at least feigning indifference to the queen’s nude beauty. She was six feet tall, big bosomed, with muscular athletic arms and legs. She had nipples like saucers, with her only imperfection that one was lower than the other. She had asked Grizelda if there were a spell that could make them symmetrical. For a brief moment, Grizelda toyed with the idea of making them look like tree branches, but knew she would be boiled in oil for that.
Rosalyn, the queen’s companion, was also there; as was Zusanna. The werewolf came up to see if Grizelda had a treat for her; she scratched the lycanthrope’s head while locking eyes with Rosalyn. Rosalyn was in a silver kirtle, and her hair looked like it had been pulled on. Rosalyn gave the duchess a wink. That meant no bees were necessary. At least not this morning.
Rhiannon, with a nod and a shake of her chin, acknowledged that everyone was now present. Ioseff decided to stand, but Grizelda and Rosalyn sat across from Chester Sprung. Rhiannon still stood; not only was that protocol so that he would be forced to look up at her; she was less vulnerable that way. Grizelda couldn’t even imagine how vulnerable it would feel to be naked in the Tower as a woman; even as the princess-regent, as Rhiannon’s official title went.
Chester Sprung stared at Rhiannon’s nipples and looked like he was about to faint.
“Prithee, tell us your story, sirrah,” Rhiannon asked the prisoner.
“Why should I trust you?”
“I am the one to decide whether you rot or go free; it is one to me if you should rot.”
“Then why are you here?”
Sprung has been locked up since Grizelda was a toddler. He would have no way of knowing about Rhiannon’s reforms. Of what the earl called her single minded drive to empty all the prisons. She loved Ioseff dearly, but he was a man of law and order. He could not fathom what it would be like to be subject to the arbitrary whims of a crazed monarch. Grizelda had always thought of Rhiannon’s father as mad. His insanity when she came back home from exile, naked and deflowered, simply made it more evident. Having people go without food or sex before the Winter Celebration, have people fart at each other at balls, talking to beings only he could see, demanding that they protect his daughter from harm, a daughter he had vowed never to speak to again. These were signs of dementia.
Ioseff snorted at the prisoner. Grizelda simply continued to stare at him. Rhiannon’s grasp of magic only went as far as necromancy; Grizelda was there to use magic forensically, if that were needed.
“I wasn’t even in the woods where the girls were killed, your highness, it was an evil doppelganger. “
“Doppelgangers don’t just happen, sirrah; they spring from a witch. What witch did make your image and why?”
“I do not know; I just wish you’d believe me.”
Rhiannon shrugged her shoulders. Grizelda knew the woman well enough to know that the princess really didn’t know what to believe. Unlike Grizelda’s husband, whose grim look and glower at Sprung revealed all too easily what he thought of the man and his plea.
After the interrogation, Rhiannon insisted upon going to the woods where the foul deed had been committed. Ioseff insisted on coming too, and Grizelda was not about to leave the two alone together for any length of time. Rosalyn shared this. Grizelda was anxious to talk to Rosalyn; always so after there had been a private meeting between her husband and the queen, but it was an early fall day. That meant that Rosalyn had to ride with Rhiannon, giving her body heat to the naked woman. Frost was on the pumpkin, Grizelda drew her shawl around her, and wished her cotton dress was woolen; she could just imagine what the naked woman was going through.
So Rosalyn, who had changed to soldier’s weeds, buckskin pants; had lodged her chain mail vest in one of Frosty Mane’s portliers. Her bare breasts were pressed against her companion, giving needed body heat. Grizelda noted Ioseff surreptitiously glowering at the two women, and then smiling, as if he hadn’t a care in the world, when he saw Grizelda staring at him.
Bastard still thinks I don’t know, she muttered to herself. Rosalyn noticed that and gave her another wink.
Between the three steeds, as if happy in the knowledge the horses won’t stomp her, pranced Zusanna. She loved going for outings with her companions. She too winked at Grizelda, as if mocking her. Zusanna, who never leaves Rhiannon’s side, would know if more than jurisprudence passed between sovereign and sheriff that morning, but she would never tell. Her loyalty to her mistress ran down to the roots of the World Tree.
Still, the lycanthrope’s mocking eyes spoke volumes.
So did the look Rhiannon gave Grizelda. Grizelda had hiked her skirts up to sit on her horse. Her legs were nicely exposed and were the equals, many thought, of the queen’s. Rhiannon obviously didn’t like that. Grizelda chose that moment to ride up to Ioseff, lean over and blow in his ear.
“God’s breath, woman, not now!”
But he was obviously tickled at the sign of affection. Rhiannon was equally obviously pissed off at the sign of ownership.
When they arrived at the woods where the children were strangled by the monster now claiming his innocence, Zusanna ran off yipping.
Everyone dismounted; Grizelda levitated off her horse, her skirts float down as she follows, lickety-split, behind Zusanna. Ioseff and Rosalyn are behind her. Taking up the rear because she is barefoot, is Rhiannon. Grizelda is also barefoot, but when you can fly, that doesn’t matter as much.
Zusanna had treed a man. Ioseff and Rosalyn drew their swords; Grizelda heard a whirling sound, meaning that Rhiannon’s death sword was coming to her aid. Her only shield was her sword, and she always holds it to cover the maximum of her embarrassment. She now had it so that it hid her left nipple and her womanhood. Not perhaps the most soldierly way to hold it, but Grizelda would have done the same, had she been the naked woman.
“Come down by the order of the sheriff,” bellowed Ioseff.
Rhiannon’s eyes connected with Grizelda. They both knew the import of that bellow. Ioseff was angry. And when he was angry, men could die.
Climbing down like a treed cat, the man side stepped Zusanna, who was nipping at his heels.
Everyone gaped at the man. Rhiannon looked confused; Ioseff looked angry. Rosalyn and Grizelda exchanged glances.
“Have you come to take me to prison?” Chester Sprung said.
“My doppelganger was the one to kill those girls, and he then took up residence in the Tower,” explained Chester Sprung, or his duplicate, whoever he is.
“Why would he do that, sirrah?” Rhiannon asked, as Ioseff bound the man’s hands and feet, and Grizelda sent bees to circle him.
Grizelda can’t help looking at Rhiannon, who shot her a dirty look. She knew, Grizelda thought, and glanced at Rosalyn. Rosalyn moved toward her protectively. She stood by Grizelda’s side; Rhiannon obviously getting the hint, turned back to the prisoner.
“Answer the question, varlet,” the princess-regent said to Sprung.
The man looked sullen.
“My doppelganger knows that there is no punishment worse than guilt and that, unexpiated, it can eat away at you. If you could see inside me, you would see me all eaten away.”
“But why would a doppelganger stay in prison and then direct us to his release?” Rhiannon asked.
Grizelda too wondered that.
“Who knows what these demons do or think?” cried Sprung or Sprung’s doppelganger.
Rhiannon ordered Ioseff to strap Sprung over his horse. She then signaled for everyone to return to the tower.
Grizelda rode along side Rhiannon and Rosalyn.
“What are you going to do, your highness?” Grizelda asked the princess.
“Only one thing to do,” sighed the naked woman. “I have to call for a champion to come forth. If Sprung’s champion’s frees him, then all will be well.”
* * *
Grizelda returned to her duties at the sheriff’s barracks. She was her husband’s forensic witch. She accompanied bailiffs to scenes of the crime to feel vibrations. She was the one who knows what the implanted image in a dead man’s eyes say. She can interpret the dreams of survivors of a rape or a murder. She can see comings and goings in mist from a cauldron. It was how she met Ioseff. Some of the men think that she put the earl under a love spell; they are afraid of her for that reason, but when they have their own love problems, they come to her for herbal remedies.
“Yes, it will last a long time,” she said to one of the younger beadles.
“My love will last as long as I need her?”
“I believe I just said that,” Grizelda answered.
The young man left blushing.
“Well, here it is,” bellowed the voice of the witch’s love.
Ioseff came into her belfry with a parchment in hand.
“Aw, you wrote me a love sonnet,” said the witch.
“No, it is the announcement of the champions. They have come forth for the Sprungs.”
“Well, that’s nice,” Grizelda said acerbically. Should have known her big ox of a man wouldn’t write her a love poem.
“You don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t,” Grizelda said, thinking of his insensitivity, not what was on the declaration.
“The two Sprungs — they are going to fight each other!” Ioseff bellowed.
“They ensnared me,” Rhiannon explained to Ioseff. “But it will be the will of the gods if the one wins. He will go free and the other will serve his sentence. Perhaps even be beheaded, as the family of the two girls so devoutly wishes.”
Rhiannon bit her lip at that. Grizelda knew the princess did not like the idea of beheading, especially when the sovereign was called to do it herself. If a death sentence is disputed, either the princess or her appointed vassal would have to do the deed. Grizelda felt sorry for her.
There hadn’t been a trial by ordeal in years, so the plains were packed. Men in carts were selling marshmallows, mead, chocolates, and an offworlder concoction called pop-corn. Grizelda was surprised and commented on that to Rhiannon.
“I want my subjects to be happy,” she shrugged.
The festivities were organized like a tournament. Rhiannon, Rosalyn, Ioseff and Grizelda were all in the royal box. They were in the front of make-shift stands that rise up several rows. Grizelda had heard the favorable murmurs among those who favored the House of Gwrydall to be the royal one; Rhiannon was smart; she knew that Grizelda’s husband was no contender to the throne, although many wanted him to be. So she lost nothing by having her share the royal box.
The crowd went wild as Rhiannon stood on a dais. The men surrounding the royal box were in jerkins, long cottes, pantaloons and shirts; the women were in kirtles and gowns. Some wore plain pantaloons or dresses. Everyone had been given the right to attend. Still, Grizelda couldn’t remember there ever being such a crowd; it reminded her of histories of the time Bran the Talking Head was forced by the barons to allow the right to own a pig. No monarch had been so craven before the barons since, but Bran had a handicap — lacking a body. Rhiannon’s handicap, lacking clothing, was moderate by comparison.
Grizelda’s eyes almost float shut as Rhiannon drones on with a prepared speech. Zusanna nipped at her left foot, making her eyes pop open in time for the proclamation.
The Sprungs face the queen and then each other.
“This is the solemn right of ordeal; all prisoners who believe that they are falsely convicted may have a champion. These men, each accusing the other of being the real malefactor, are here on the battlefield. One will die and the other will be free.
“So mote it be!”
So mote it be? Well, Grizelda thought, I might be that pompous to if I had to stand before almost the entire kingdom naked.
Rosalyn had a similar thought. “So mote it be?”
“Do not entangle my moments of mortality with agitation, little one.”
Rosalyn frowned and then said, “Oh. You meant, ‘Don’t give me a hard time’.”
“Wow. Wah. Rosalyn. Wow. Wah.”
Sprung # 1 did a thrust, it is parried by Sprung # 2, who then cried a spirit yell, moved in on Sprung # 1 with a series of slices. He chopped the hand off of Sprung # 1, then his head, then plunged the sword into the man’s stomach.
Sprung # 1 screamed, took his head off, held it under his arms, then sliced Sprung # 2’s head off. He directed Sprung # 2 to his head. Sprung # 2’s body, at first confused, finds it; the head has a satisfied smile. The two headless wonders exchange heads, then take out bandanas and wrap it around each’s neck. The one Sprung popped his hand back in place.
“Hi! Ho! Princess. Which one of us should you punish now?” they cried in triumph, each holding the other’s arm high in the air.
The crowd booed. They did not like this challenge to their princess, and they were expecting a longer-lasting fight. The cheat of the two foes collaborating and switching heads at the last minute outraged them.
The two men took off. Rhiannon leapt up and rushed after them, her bosoms swaying from side to side. Zusanna practically levitated to charge after them.
Grizelda floated up, and, straining, flew after the disappearing men, the charging queen and werewolf.
But the mass of people cloyed; Rhiannon fell into several onlookers. Zusanna looked confused, started howling. Even from several feet in the air, Grizelda was thwarted.
Copyright © 2010 by Rachel Parsons