Thursday, January 31, 2013

Rosemary, Chapter 11

Standing before Letha and Selene was a tall man with hair the color of silver. His hair seemed to have no end, streaming out all around him, sometimes passing over his face as though a strand of it had been caught in an errant breeze. His eyes were full of light, but no color. The wind was full of the scents of rain and wet earth.
“Letha, this is Aeolus, the Wind Keeper,” Selene said.
“Hello,” whispered Letha, awed.
He smiled at her and the smell of rain changed to that of warm earth and cut grass.

"You must be Cederic's wife," Aeolus said. "I've heard of your seach."

"Do you know where he is?" Letha asked, stepping toward him.

"I do not know where he is,” Aeolus admitted sadly. “But I have a feeling I know where to find him. Wait here a moment for me, and I will go and look.”

The Wind Keeper bowed and with a great gust was gone up into the sky.

Selene and Letha ate a meal while they waited for his return, sitting on the grass under the tree. There was a white cheese and white bread and a drink of smooth, pale wine. Letha's stomach kept cramping up; she kept watching the sky for a sign of the Wind Keeper’s coming.
When Aeolus returned, he did so with much gentler winds, summer breezes that blew full of the smell of the sea under rain, sea shells and wet sand.

At his return, Letha leapt to her feet.
Aeolus’s face was very troubled. “He is in no great danger to his life,” he said first. “So that is well. But I’m afraid that he has fallen into the hands of the King's Magus.”
“Who?" Letha cried.
“Another magician, one who serves the King and your husband’s greatest rival. But I’m afraid that is not all. The King has arranged for Cederic to marry his daughter and the wedding is set for tomorrow."
Letha looked at Selene in confusion, then back at Aeolus. “But why?” she asked. “Why would the King want to do that?”
“The King has always wanted Cederic to serve his purpose, and Cederic has refused. It now seems that the King will have his way.”
“But how?” implored Letha. “Would…Does…”
“Cederic does not know himself,” said Aeolus. “The Magus has taken his memory.”
This was too much for Letha. She put her hand to her mouth and shook her head slowly, her eyes never leaving Aeolus's face.
“Don’t despair,” said Selene, coming close to her. “It can still be stopped. Aeolus, you can go, can’t you, and delay the wedding?”
“I can,” he said sadly. “But I cannot stop the Magus. He and I wrestle often, and more often, he throws me down and bends my winds to his own purpose. I’m afraid I will be an unreliable ally.”
“I did not know this,” said Selene. “The man must have grown very strong indeed.”
“Yes,” said Aeolus simply. “But not unstoppable, I think.”
“What can I do?” whispered Letha. Her hands fell open. “I came all this way, and I can’t undo it. I can’t stand against the king and a magician. Do you know who I am? Look!”
She thrust her hand forward and the scar along showed pale in the light. Aeolus took her hand in both of his.
“I’ll carry you there, and delay the wedding," he said. "Once you are there, you will know what to do."
“You have grown much more than you realize,” added Selene softly. “If you could look back, I doubt that you would recognize yourself.”
“This is all his fault!” cried Letha, not hearing. She snatched her hand free of Aeolus. “It’s his fault! He married me! I didn’t have any choice. He should have known not to, I can’t think why he did and now see what happened!”
“My dear,” said Selene, putting her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “My dear. Take courage. You will find a way forward. Things will seem clearer in the light of day. Take this."

Selena placed an almond in the girl's hand and closed her fingers over it. Aeolus swung Letha up in his arms as though she were a child, bundle and all. His pewter hair blew all around as he held her, she could feel its strands like silk against her cheek. She heard the beating of his heart under her ear.
“Farewell, sweet Letha,” said Selene. “Give greetings of me to your husband, when you see him.”
Letha could only nod, though tears streamed down her face at her words. She couldn’t imagine seeing Cederic again. She had no idea what she herself would say to her husband if she ever saw him again, and had the chance to speak.
Then she could see nothing through the silver light. She felt the sun on her face, and was placed gently on her feet. She was standing in a barley field on a high hill, Aeolus beside her. It felt like early spring, much warmer than it had been when Cederic’s tower fell.
‘How long was I up there?” Letha asked, dismayed.
“Not so long as you think. This is far south of your home. But you were many weeks with Alona,” answered Aeolus.
A little distance away from where they stood, two rivers joined. In the space where they joined there was another hill. The hill was covered by a castle set about with battlements and towers and walls of stone, with banners that whipped in the wind and sparkled, even from this distance.
Crossing the rivers were two bridges and on the banks of the river were clustered great town houses, churches and marketplaces; an entire city spread all down both sides of the rivers in each direction. Surrounding the city were rich farmlands.
“That is the seat of the High King,” said Aeolus. “Even now, the tailors are in a great upset, for I have sent my winds to blow the works of their hands free, and all the wedding garments are scattered by the wind. That is safe to do I think, for the Magus would never think of anything so humble. But now the wedding is delayed, for the Princess must have her finery, and I think it is through her that you must win.”
“Through the Princess?” asked Letha, uncertain.
“Yes. For she is but a girl and so are you. You must present yourself to the Princess.”
“And say what?” asked Letha, aghast at this plan.
“Sol Invictus gave you a nut, didn't he?” asked Aeolus, bending toward her.
“Yes, it’s here somewhere..."
They both knelt on the ground and opened the bundle. The nut rolled free, a small humble thing. Letha looked at it uncertainly.
“I can’t think why he would give me a nut,” she admitted. "Or Selene."
“Well, if it comes to that, you have one from me as well,” he said then, producing a walnut.
“Oh. Well. Thank you.”
They smiled at each other. Aeolus gestured to the nut. "Crack one," he suggested.
She took the iron ring and gave the nut a smart whack. It sprang open, a great deal of material spilling out like a gush of water. Letha found her hands full of the softest wool she'd ever known.
She shook the garment gently out. It was a white mantel, embroidered all over in silver thread, the entire inside lined with ermine.
“Oh my,” breathed Letha.
“Take that in to the hall and you'll be sent straight to the Princess,” Aeolus said.
Letha looked up at him. Little breezes kept brushing past her face or playing with her air. His face was very kind, his eyes shimmered like the surface of water. He was the favorite one of all the gods she had met, she almost felt as though she had long known him. Her heart was too full to speak.
“Go now, sweet Letha,” whispered Aeolus. “Before the sun sets, or they'll close the gates before you get there.”
“I won’t ever forget you,” she said then, blinking away tears.
He smiled, it changed his eyes to the golden color of wheat when the wind runs through the tassels. “Of course not,” he said. “We’ll meet again. Give your husband greetings from me, when you meet him.”
“I will.”
He left as if washed away by the rain and all that was left was the wind that tugged at her skirts. Letha gathered her bundle together again, and with that on her back, and the mantel in her arms, she made her slow but steady way down into the King’s City.
It was evening by the time she had gotten all the way to the castle. She had kept her head down and stayed focused on just putting one foot before the other, content to the let the bustle of the roads carry her along. She knew, with a strange mix of dread and love, that each step took her closer to Cederic.
The town was full, full to bursting with people who had come to celebrate the wedding of the Princess. Flowers and white banners were hung everywhere, dripped off of windowsills and over doorways. The city smelled of bread and manure, of strange spices and spilled ale.
When she came before the castle gate she spread out her mantel and the guards let her through. She did the same at the next door.
“Hurry now,” said the porter, who waited there. “The Princess will want to see that and she'll soon retire to her rooms.”
Letha was shown into a wide hall with a vaulted ceiling, in through an arch, down steps, through another passageway and into a long, narrow room that faced east. A row of arched windows were set into that wall, showing glimpses of a rose garden. It was an elegantly furnished room, with a great deal of gold embellishments glinting from every corner and edging.
The Princess sat on a dais at the far end of the room, surrounded by a lively bunch of women. The Princess looked up curiously.
“Come here,” she ordered, her voice imperious.
As the porter drew Letha nearer, she saw that the ladies were all dressed in a strange fashion, their dresses jutted out from side to side, as though they wore wooden boards underneath. There was an overwhelming scent of jasmine, rosewater, and peonies.
Their hair was scrapped back from their high foreheads, leaving them half bald. Upon the tops of their heads rode small constructions of feathers, jewels and bits of velvet.
The entire skin of their face, from their high forehead, to their jaw, was painted white. Their eyebrows had been removed, Letha saw with horror, and then painted on again in black, which made them all appear to look all the same, and all very shocked.
They tittered and whispered, looking her up and down; it seemed they all danced like a group of puppets on the same string. Letha still wore her peasant smock of butternut brown and it was very worn. Her feet were black with grime.
Letha had not combed her hair in quite some time, and after its soaking in the celestial sea, it stood about her head stiffly, as though it were itself a small, turbulent sea, a sea in a storm, with great coils and tendrils of mahogany brown waves frozen around her face.
“Princess Annora,” said the Porter, bowing low.
Letha bowed as well and then rising, spread the mantel out.
“My Lady Matilda, bring that here,” said the Princess from her chair, a note of eagerness in her high, clear voice.
The princess was a very young woman, Letha was surprised to see. Letha looked at her and felt old. The Princess had a gold net woven over or into her hair, so that her entire head gleamed and glittered, three tall, white feathers rose from the center of a small gold crown that sat just at the very top of her head. She had a small, pointed chin, a small, full mouth that had been painted petunia pink, and hands that glistened with jewels when she moved them.
A lady took the mantel from Letha’s arms and whisked it up to the dais.
“Did you do this work yourself?” asked the Princess, looking with a mingling of disgust and wonder at the peasant girl below her.
“Yes,” said Letha firmly, for she certainly had done a great deal of work herself, work which had amounted to her getting the mantel. She figured that would do.
“It’s very fine,” admitted the Princess. “What is your price?”
“I…I trust you to name a fair price,” scrambled Letha, for in all her walking to the castle, she had not thought of that question.
“Very well. Four silver guilders,” said the Princess, pleased. “Do you have more work?”
A servant came up to Letha with a small pouch. “Yes,” said Letha, thinking of the other nuts. “But no more today. I will come tomorrow, if it pleases you.”
“Do,” said the Princess, dismissively.
Letha curtsied low, turned and left the room. At the door, she found a page waiting, who showed her all the way out of the castle. When she got outside the great castle doors, Letha sunk down on her heels, exhausted.
“Cederic,” she whispered, thinking of him, right then, moving and talking somewhere in the castle behind her back. She put her head on her arms. But the evening was deepening and so was the cold.
Letha pulled herself to her feet and walked back into the City. She asked at a dozen different hostels, but the answer was always the same; they were full, full with visitors come for the wedding feast.
At the next hostel, she went up to the counter and faced the Ostler, determined that she would go no further that night.
“I have four silver guilders,” she announced, “and you may have them all if you just let me sleep in the hay.”
The Ostler laughed then from across his counter and looked up. He saw a young woman drooping with fatigue, the dirt of her travels on her face. She carried a bundle of what seemed to be animal skins on her back, bound to her by a woolen cord of many colors. Behind her the room was full of the noise and smells of dinner time.
“That’s quite a bargain,” he said at last.
“Yes,” she said. “And I will take it to someone else if it’s not to your liking.”
Her eyes were dark gold in the dim light, her skin was all touched with gold from the lamp light. She reminded him of something, but he couldn’t think of what.
“Maggie! Maggie!” the Ostler bellowed, turning.
A little red haired girl of about seven appeared from a doorway behind him.
“Don’t shout, Papa!” she said.
“Well, don’t run off,” he rejoined. “Take this girl up to the storage room and give her some blankets.
“We don’t got no more blankets,” said Maggie.
“We don’t got no more blankets,” the Ostler told Letha solemnly, laughter winking in his eyes. “Keep your guilders, we’ll settle in the morning.”
Despite her weariness, Letha smiled.
“I’ll take you,” said Maggie, holding up a slightly sticky hand.
“Thank you,” answered Letha, taking it.
Letha slept that night on bearskin, wrapped in deerskin, amid the wine flasks, and she slept well.