One Beast That Cannot Be Tamed
by Rachel Parsons
Table of Contents|
Part 1 and part 2
appeared in issue 195.
|Part 3 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.
The carnival was near the Golgonix forest to the south of Arbeth Dactyl. We rode out the southern gate, through the farms and commons that taper off into the lush savanna that divides the forest. Rosalyn was silent over the hovels of the freeholders, which were little more than holes in the ground with thatched roofs, even though I knew she felt sorry for these non-city dwellers.
“They are really quite cozy, Rosalyn.”
“Rhiannon, you’ve never had to live like that. I doubt if you’d find them cozy.”
I started to reply to her, when she reacted. “Ooh, look at the birds.”
We had just passed a flock of swans with their babies, always a sign the goddesses bless a journey. Zusanna looked at them nervously. She thinks birds are out to get those who walk the earth.
“Oh, aren’t the swanlings cute?” Rosalyn pointed to a couple of the birds’ offspring, which had black markings.
“The word is cygnet, Rosalyn. Someone has not been practicing her homonyms.”
She stuck her tongue out at me. Ioseff tightened his grip on his reins, showing his masculine impatience at silly women. I wanted to stick my index fingers up his nostrils, to show what I thought of masculine impatience at women. When men cannot breathe through their noses, they tend to jerk in a most satisfying way. I found this out when father first had me torture villains.
The carnival was half a day’s ride from Arbeth Dactyl and, in the heat, we were all stinky, sweaty and out of sorts by the time we arrived at the camp. It was full of caravans; there was a temporary corral for the horses and in the middle of the camp, a fire pit had been dug out for cooking. To the far side of the camp, there was a fenced off area where I heard splashing. Where the carnies bathed, I presumed.
As we dismounted in the center of the camp, and tethered our horses at a tree that served as a hitching post, a man as broad as he was tall approached us. He was in red and pink billowing pantaloons, an oversized shirt, and had a walrus mustache that made a counterpoint to his bandana, which was tied in such a way that it had two points upward.
He made a motion with his right hand which the offworlders contemptuously refer to as a ‘salami, baloney, chili beanie’ gesture, but which I knew to be the nomadic way of showing respect.
Stepping in front, I once again bowed, and felt a sharp pain in the small of my back. Ioseff, Rosalyn and Zusanna closed ranks by me. I was vulnerable to attack in front, but this way, I established that, in spite of appearances, I was a lady and the others may have the clothes but not the rank.
“You are the princess Rhiannon, then,” the man said, eyeing my feminine form and making the obvious inference from its exposure and my attempt at pride in spite of it.
“She is the princess Rhiannon,” Rosalyn said, stopping Ioseff, who had started to say the same thing. He glared at her.
“I am Humbert the Humbler. The Master of this carnival.”
He bowed deeply again. I decided not to, to spare my back.
“Why comes you, your most exalted highness, to our humble carnival? We were on our way to you for Jubilee.”
“I know that, but it has come to my knowledge that you have a tribe of beast tamers with you.”
“Of course, m’lady. What carnival would be worth its salt without such? But I know of no decree of yours to forbid that. Surely you would not want to deprive your people of the most spectacular animal show on Daearu?”
“No, of course not,” I said, concealing my amusement at his self-aggrandizement. “But there has been a terrible crime committed in my kingdom, and it has been done by a beast tamer. So my sheriff here has insisted on interviewing all animal wizards.”
Ioseff opened his mouth at that to say something, but shut it again without an utterance. You could almost hear his teeth clink like the slap of beer flasks meeting in a toast. He had that ‘insufferable wench,’ look on his face that I have grown to know so well. I put my hand over my mouth, lest a guffaw burp out of me.
“Of course. Of course. Well, I have no objection. Please, I will lead you to their trailers.”
The wagons of the beast tamers formed a circle within the greater circle of the carnival wagons. Humbert knocked on the door to one of them. It opened with a creak and a man with a tiny mouth and bug eyes popped out. He was bare-chested and bare of foot, but he had the same billowy pantaloons as the carnival Master.
“What is it now, Humbler?” His voice was deep, angry and too loud.
He gave me a once over. “And what is this, my bribe of the day?”
“No! No! This is the princess Rhiannon, Rucker,” Humbert squeaked. The article was rapidly becoming part of my title.
“Oh, my apologies, your royal highness,” Rucker said in a tone which told me he was not at all sorry. “And what brings this royal visit?”
“One of your kind has gone rogue, Rucker,” said Humbert, rubbing his nose with his right index finger. “Can’t say that I’m surprised.”
“Rogue, eh? Well, I know nothing about that. And if a beast handler has gone rogue, then it because you have driven the poor devil to distraction when he is trying to get his rest before a grand performance.” He started to shut the door.
“Do not slam that door in my face, sirrah, or you will be a meal to my beasts, not a master of them.”
He stared at my bosoms thoughtfully, as if contemplating my nipples would somehow give him an insight into the ultimate nature of things. He nodded and pulled the door wide. He stepped aside to let us enter. “I have nothing fine for you lords and ladies to sit on,” Rucker said.
My eyes beheld that he was right. The inside of the wagon, which, somehow, seemed larger than its outside, was a chaos of clothes, scrolls, whips, poppers, and other instruments of animal handling. There were two rude beds which had dirty laundry on them. He knocked the soiled linens off one of the bed and gestured toward me.
It did not look like something you would want to put your bare behind on, so I declined. “No, thank you, sirrah, but I will stand.”
Rosalyn was not so delicate, however, and plopped down on the proffered seat. Zusanna climbed beside her, and lolled her tongue in a contented, if vicious sort of way.
Ioseff remained standing at my side. “Now, sir,” Ioseff said, stiffly and overly properly. “Have you, or any of your tribe, been in freeholder territory?”
“What makes you think I can speak for my whole clan?”
The way he said it made me think he was correcting our use of the term ‘tribe.’ I decided to jump in, even though Ioseff hates it when I interrupt an interrogation.
“I know what you do mean, sirrah. Many think I should know what all in my kingdom are doing.”
He looked at me gratefully. I ignored Ioseff’s scowls.
“But perhaps you know of someone in your clan who has family here in New Fairy, or he might know the mistress Melana Oswyn or her daughter Sybrina.”
“No, I do not... wait, there is one.”
“What is his name, sirrah?” Ioseff said, seizing the conversation back from me.
“Ogworht Iotrine; I remember now how he would regale us around the campfire about the lovely Sybrina, with the dulcet voice and the lovely, flat stomach.”
Which, I thought, did not look so lovely with a knife in it, placed there by a beloved pet.
Rucker took us to Ogworht’s wagon, but he was not there.
“If you are misleading us, sirrah —”
“Your highness, I swear —”
But Zusanna began growling, and then took off, as swift as a firebreather with a tail wind. We ran back to our horses, mounted them and headed out of the camp. Zusanna, who had been waiting for us on the trampled grasses that made a road to the woods, leaping and barking as if on an invisible tether, saw us sight her, and bolted off once more.
I pressed my thighs against Nightshade, to get him to go swifter; the three of us galloped after her until we came to the woods. We slowed, jumped down, tethered the horses to trees, and went in.
Zusanna, in woman form, was there, her hands outstretched protectively. She was surrounded by foxes, wolves, panthers, and the other breeds that call the jungle their home. There were even birds, perched on high branches, ready to peck eyes out or claw bare skin and snakes, ready to slither down, wrap themselves around our throats or ribs, and smother us.
I ripped the death sword from Rosalyn, startling her, and leapt to Zusanna’s aid.
We were butt to butt.
“Why are you in woman’s form?”
“As a beast, I felt his power. I could not bear being turned against you, mistress.”
I knew she hated the vulnerability. I knew why too. Both of us naked, surrounded by claws that scratch, teeth that tear, I was feeling it as well. Zusanna could be my twin; except for her long black hair, she was like a sister to me, and as sisters, we would stand together.
And die together, if need be.
Soon enough Rosalyn and Ioseff joined us. The two clothed members of our band circled us naked ones protectively. But it would be my death sword which would turn the tide. I could use it as a preternatural shield, as a way to command the dead, as a way to die honorably. So I slid through my lady-in-waiting and my sheriff, and stood to the fore.
“Come out, Ogworht! As your queen I command it!” This was done in an authoritative voice, and not a screech, as Ioseff said later.
“No! You will behead me for the foul murders of Sybrina and her mother.”
“If you did those deeds, you deserve beheading. I will see to it that your spirit will be well-judged in the Otherworld if that is so. And if you are innocent, you will have my protection.”
There was a long pause. I raised my blade. “And this is Eligor, a death sword forged by the Goblin King himself for me. Do you think your beasts can defeat it, when the offworlders could not?”
“You cannot defeat all the beasts of the forest, no matter how mighty a queen you are.”
“Yes, but the ones that die will hunt you down no matter where you run to; they will hunt you down and make you one of their legions. Do you want that? Without a living queen to command them, they and you will wander the earth aimlessly, between heaven and hell.”
Another long pause. Clutching the sword in both hands and pointing it out from my chest, I bent my knees, expanded my awareness, got on the balls of my feet. I would move, and move fast, slicing and cleaving the barrier between this world and the next. I was almost moving now.
Finally, the voice cried out again. “I surrender to you, princess Rhiannon. But I rely upon your honor; you said you would treat me justly. I do not know whether I can trust to the honor of a woman who walks the earth naked, but I am about to do so.”
The animals stood down. The foxes, the wolves, the birds, the snakes, indeed all the beasts, disappeared back into the darkness of the forest. And from a bush that was betwixt two trees, a man appeared, his hands clutched together. Not the classical sign of surrender, but without his hands free to talk, the animals could not hear him.
He was skinny, but a wiry man, clad in leather boots, the billowy linen pantaloons of his carnival, but with a tent-like shirt that was made from that alien crop the offworlders had forced the people to grow and is now running rampant on our world: cotton. With brown hair almost as long as Ioseff’s; almost as attractive, as well. Rosalyn and Ioseff ran up to him and bound his hands behind him with a strong rope.
“I did not do this thing, princess” was all he said on the way back to Caer Rhiannon and his jail cell beneath the palace.
The Jubilee itself was the most spectacular I have ever seen. We used rockets, fueled by black powder, to create starbursts in the sky. People danced in the streets, cavorted, and were as drunk as anyone could be. I was on a throne that was attached to two bars. I was being carried by six strong soldiers, and waved at the throngs that were occupying every square inch of Arbeth Dactyl.
The costumes were fabulous. Some simply wore masks, but had dyed their garments, sparing no expense. All motley colors of reds, greens, yellows from New Prydain paint. Many women were in silvery armor, pretending to be Boudicca, while the men had a predilection for things furry. I ran into many rabbits, gorillas, behemoths, and a few hairy jelly rolls. They would all place two fingers on their heads in salute, not wishing to bow and perchance have something fall off.
And there were minstrels and even bandsmen galore who paraded through the streets blowing their trumpets. It was wonderful, joyous, and a celebration of our peoples’ freedom and lives.
And then the birds came.
Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Parsons