One Beast That Cannot Be Tamed
by Rachel Parsons
Table of Contents|
|Part 1 of 4|
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.
I heard the crier crow out the time. It was the dinner hour. My stomach was already bitterly telling me all about its abandonment. I got up from my desk, went over to the pot bellied stove and checked on its wood. Still burning, which was lovely given the high summer heat inside the palace. But on evenings like this I needed my coffee. Goddesses did I ever.
I poured myself the brew, sipped it, and scowled. The dregs. Oh, Rosalyn would pay for this. I knew my attitude to be unreasonable, but this was her one failure as my lady-in-waiting, my bodyguard, and my truest companion. She often failed to keep the coffee fresh.
I finished filling my flagon, and went back to my desk, stared at my calendar again. Rosalyn was right, it was obvious. She had pointedly asked me this morn, whether the Lady Arianrhod had secretly created doppelgangers of me. No one woman, no one person, could handle my schedule of the next two weeks.
It was time for Jubilee, and in addition to the endless audiences, petitions to read; bills from the Council of Barons to sign or veto; the conferences with my viceroys and foreign ambassadors. I, as queen, would have to appear as Boudicca, the goddess of victory who had led her people through the portal and safety.
Never mind that it had been Myrddin who had opened the portal, so the people, all who had survived the witch burnings, the heresy trials, the werewolf hunts, the dragon slayings, the annihilation of Old Fairy, could escape to safety, lo that millennium and a half ago. Never mind that the real Boudicca was, like me, but a woman, and the Terrans — Romans they were called back then — had made her kill herself. And never mind that I was not really even queen, just a princess whose father had abandoned her. I was to be Boudicca. And had to appear at the endless celebrations at our Month of Jubilee.
There was no escape, especially since the people of New Fairy had once again shown their patience at my confinement in winter. They want to see their queen among them, and are kind enough (most anyway) to understand why, cursed to be naked, she has to hide from them in winter, but now that the temperature is high enough that they too, if not for modesty, would want to be naked, they become demanding.
Audiences rise during the hot months; my public appearances are almost daily. And how in Nifelheim am I to appear simultaneously at the dockworkers’ bash and the Knights of the Kneecap celebration? They are at opposite ends of Arbeth Dactyl. Oh, whoever had penned me for these would surely pay.
It had been me, of course. I recognized my own handwriting. Sighing, I went to the lower platform of my chambers and looked at myself in the mirror. I drew up to my six feet, checked my face. Next to dark circles under my eyes, the brown of my irises were being overshadowed by the red which had replaced my eyes’ whites, the only part of me still white. Ceaseless nudity had changed my skin to a permanent coffee-with-cream color. Rhonda, my secretary, who had been the subject of Terran medical experiments, says the offworlders found that if an immortal is naked for long enough under the beatings of our suns, our brains release a chemical, melanin, which blackens our skin. I am living proof of that.
On top of my miserable appearance, my hair would need trimming. I cannot wear it long lest the spellminder think I am covering myself. I picked one black lock and glared at it.
All this self-pitying reverie came to a halt at unnatural howling. I bolted to the balcony were Zusanna was lying. It was too hot for her to be in doors, and even though it would be cooler, she refuses, unless it is at the request of Elfrod, my captain at arms and her current male favorite, to appear as a woman.
“Zusanna, what is wrong?”
I bent over, hugged her. She and I can communicate on the wind when she is in wolf form as she had made me a sister of her pack.
“There is a rogue beast tamer afoot, Rhiannon! A rogue beast tamer. And I fear there is no beast safe, not even lycanthropes. No, not one!”
“A rogue beast tamer, Rhiannon?”
Ioseff, the current Third Earl of Gwrydall, shook his dirty blonde hair. I sourly noted that he, at least, could wear it long. It was shoulder length. Next to his buttocks and his muscular, nearly seven-foot frame, it was his best feature. Most women would kill to have that hair. Most women would kill to have the man. I would kill to have his trews and jerkin, even though orange and green are not my favorite colors, and even though he looked uncomfortably hot in them.
“That is what Zusanna says,” I said in response to his disbelief.
He had come quickly to my signal, as if expecting that I would bestow my favors on him. He was so swift of foot that he had to skid to a halt before running into my eitann desk. He was currently spending his time either in his rooms at the palace or at the barracks. When he is in his rooms here, it is often the case that so am I. As sheriff, he was almost as frazzled as I was during this time of year. More so, to hear him tell it.
“You do not have to spend three hours in the morning being stuffed and strapped into your ceremonial uniform, Rhiannon.”
No, I just have to flaunt my womanhood for all and sundry. Sometimes, I swear, he thinks he is the only one to suffer.
“Could it have been a nightmare?” His question snapped me out of my wool-gathering.
“Ioseff I have never thought of you as the kind of man to dismiss a female’s complaints as due to humors. Next you will think my suggestions are all due to my being blessed by the moons, either from the stress the week before the blessing, the blessing itself, or the waning of it.”
“Well, are they not?”
He said this which maddened me, even though he clearly thought I would enjoy his clever joke. I picked up a dagger I had been using as a letter opener, and threw it at him.
“Gods, Rhiannon, you almost cut me with that. Be more careful.”
“If I had been aiming to cut you, Ioseff, you would know it.”
“Oh, yes, Princess Sure-Shot. Is that why the only game you will not play at Wynne’s Inn is darts, and you always choose a champion at the knife throwing, during the joust.”
“Oh, screw you, Ioseff. Besides, how do you know what I do at Wynne’s Inn; the sheriff and his men are not welcome there.” I crossed my hands under my bosoms. “Anyway since when do you use offworlder expressions? ‘Princess Sure-Shot’, indeed. Methinks I should outlaw this defilement of our language.”
“Oh, now there is a way to make my life easier; enforcing how people talk. And you are the worst culprit in that respect.”
“I certainly am not!”
“Oh?” He scratched his chin. “Now, what was it exactly that you called me last eventide? ‘Lambie-pie’, was it not?”
My mouth dropped in outrage. Before I could deny this vile accusation, Ioseff made to leave. “All right, Rhiannon, in addition to my overseeing all your public appearances, keeping the peace of your kingdom, enforcing all your decrees, not to mention my duties -”
“As my stud-horse,” I supplied, making him splutter.
“In addition to all my other duties,” he resumed with righteous indignation, “I will keep my eyes peeled for a rogue beast tamer.”
He shuffled his bulk out of my chambers. On the way out, he bumped into Rosalyn, who was holding a silver plate with steaming rolls and coffee. I instantly forgave her for her earlier omissions.
“What’s his problem?” She indicated Ioseff with her shoulders.
I told her about Zusanna’s belief in the beast tamer.
“Lovely, Rhiannon. That is all we need. Here, have your rolls and coffee.”
She put the plate down, and stood by my side, beaming, as if she had prepared the snack, and not Cook. She smoothed down her housedress, if you want to call a floor-length silk gown with ruffles up and down it a housedress.
“Why this solicitude, Rosalyn? You are the one always nagging me about eating properly.” If I do not down my toadstools every morning or my squid brains every night, she descends upon me like a Harpy.
“I know you will hardly have time to use a chamber pot in the next few weeks, much less eat the nice dinners I have Cook prepare for you. So eat! Eat!”
I was munching on a butter-drenched roll and sipping on New Prydain roast, when Mango knocked on the door.
Mango was a burly man of medium height, with bushy eyebrows and a striking pair of green eyes. He was still in his soldier’s gray pantaloons and gray vest, even with the lateness of the hour. He bowed deeply, trying, no doubt, to make up for his rudeness at simply coming upon me unannounced.
I put him in his place anyway. “So how is the royal dogcatcher this fine evening?”
I licked butter off of my fingers and then wiped my hands on my bare thighs. Rosalyn looked disgusted, but I will wager she wishes she could do that.
Mango was the royal beast tamer, and handled all the problems stemming from the way the people interact with the animals. I frowned, realizing that coming so soon after Zusanna’s announcement and Ioseff’s leave taking, this could be foul news.
It was foul indeed.
We had saddled up and gotten under way with alacrity. Nonetheless, our destination was far enough away that Ioseff had insisted on torchbearers lest we tarry past second sunset. Rosalyn was riding to my left, mimicking Ioseff, dressed in the cowhide pants and leather jerkin favored by some of the tougher-minded of my guards; Zusanna was padding to my right. Ioseff and Mango were in front along with the torchbearers. I had even insisted on Arianrhod coming along to help me with the reading of the foul deed. I am skilled only in necromancy; if the dead wished to yield up their secrets or the mystery of their death, I would be the one to listen to them. Arianrhod would be the one to read any other vibrations left by the violation of the ancient harmonies.
I enjoy riding across the tall grasses of the manor by the woods. In the evening, the greens are not spoiled by the glare of the suns, and the sweet smell of the tree sap fill my nostrils like no other perfume. Arianrhod dismounted first when we arrived at the small cabin that was about ten miles south of the palace, on the border of the manor and the free farmers. The line of demarcation was an invisible one; the bales of wheat looked the same whether tended to by peasants or freeholders.
Her long blond hair swished against her crimson gown. She is always dressed in spider spun, even around the living quarters of the castle, and now on the road she looked like the princess, not I in my, eh, hem, splendor.
We could smell the foul deed from where we were. Rosalyn, Mango, and Ioseff put handkerchiefs to their noses. I had to simply endure the stink, as except for a momentary nose wipe to clean after a sneeze, a rag against my face counts as a covering. When she had cursed me to nakedness for humiliating her, Graymulkin had been very thorough. There is not a day that goes by when I wish I could have taken back my hurtful words toward her.
So although usually I had to be restrained from being the first through the door, I held back, only to get Arianrhod’s impatient, muffled demand.
“Rhiannon, you have to come in here. The dead may tell you something.”
And there were many dead. There were two women, in plain, brown housedresses, lying on the dirt floor. There was no mistaking that they were dead. Next to one’s dead eyes was a ghastly gash on her head; the blood had congealed. The other had a bloody knife still in her stomach.
But what made it the work of a beast tamer were the animals.
“How many are there?” I said, holding my nose.
Arianrhod, speaking through a silk hankie, mumbled, “Let us see, counting the five dogs, the six house cats, the panther, the bear, that makes thirteen.”
And although the door had been wide open, and the windows parted, none of them had tried to escape, and all had succumbed to the heat inside the cabin. Love of their mistresses might count for some of this, but one of the dogs, a spaniel, would have tried to go for help, after the way of its natural kind. Only a spell could have prevented her from this.
Gagging, I motioned Rosalyn in with the Crucible of Pain. She placed the cauldron down by my side, as I knelt by the woman who was the younger of the two. Young people believe in their own physical immortality, and the shock of sudden death might mean her spirit was still close by. A close-by spirit is usually more amenable to being brought back from the Otherworld than a far-away one.
Rosalyn then handed me my death sword. Holding the head up with my left hand, I made a semi-circular motion, slicing neatly through the occipital plate and out through the front of the throat. The blood flowed.
“Oh, gods, do you have to be so brutal?”
“Ioseff, shut up; I know what I am doing.”
Leaving bloody footprints as I, still half-kneeling, stepped back, I dropped the still flesh-clothed skull into the Crucible of Pain. I then, as ritual called for, placed crosses, the ancient symbol of life, around the bowl, and held the head by pressing against the temples.
Soon the invisible wind blew through the head’s vocal chords, giving it the power of speech.
“Who did this to you?” I whispered.
I was not prepared for the answer.
Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Parsons