“What’s your name?”
His smile as he asked was everything it was supposed to be. Playful, inviting, even a bit sensuous. I knew his name, of course. He was a prince of Pilk, the richest nichna in Ilari. He ran his eyes over my modest farm girl’s clothing, and his appreciative nod told me I’d been picked for the size of my breasts.
Perhaps my mother was right. Seducing a prince could be as easy as seducing a farmer. It certainly had been easy enough to attract this one.
“Ryalgar,” I answered him.
“Like the rock? Your family has studied science?” His gaze moved up to my eyes, and he seemed satisfied.
“Yes, Your Highness. My father is a soil expert.”
“Please. My name is Nevik. We’re just two young people here, two tidzys, looking for another with whom to celebrate the winter solstice, right?”
He picked up my hand and brushed my knuckles with a whisper of a kiss. The gesture melted away my apprehension as I reminded myself this was exactly what I came here for.
After that, we ate, drank, and danced amid the wild burning torches and countless candles that signaled a proper Kolada celebration. As we flirted and talked, this prince became more than eligible royalty; he was someone I enjoyed. When the night waned, I accepted his invitation to wander off and have sex in one of the many private rooms in the palace.
It wasn’t my first time, but the truth was that for one my age, I was relatively inexperienced. Many of my younger sisters had embraced the promiscuity permitted around holidays with far more enthusiasm. I was kind of embarrassed to be that intimate with a person I hardly knew.
Yet, Nevik was gentle and kind as we did what people do to celebrate Kolada. He held me and stroked my hair and even told me I was beautiful.
Me, beautiful? With my common brown hair and eyes, and my strong-boned farmer’s build? Me, still unmarried at my age, with six younger sisters all hoping I would get on with it so they need not embarrass me by marrying first? Me, the somewhat awkward oldest daughter who frustrated her parents by preferring her studies to the company of men?
I demurred and told him he was handsome, too, but I told the truth. He had curly brown hair and his eyes crinkled when he smiled in a way that made me want to smile too.
He held me closer and said, “You mean it, and you’ve no idea how seldom I get a sincere compliment.”
I had to laugh. “That’s true for everyone, not just a prince, you know.”
After his surprise faded, he looked at me with respect.
“You’re right. I never thought about it before, but those who flatter to get their way are in everyone’s lives, aren’t they?”
Odd as it seems, I think that’s what did it. That moment. We looked at each other and both felt we’d just spent the longest night of the year with someone interesting.
“I’d like to see you again,” he said.
“That would be nice.”
To be honest, my mother hadn’t told me it was just as easy to seduce a prince. She’d told me it was just as easy to fall in love with a prince. She’d said it over and over, since I was a little girl. I knew she had ambitions for me and my sisters, and I suppose she wanted to make sure I got the point.
I did but, despite her plans, I never imagined a prince in my future. I knew I wasn’t the sparkly type, the sort to attract the eye of a royal who could have any woman he chose.
Now, I worried her oft-repeated proclamation was right. I found Nevik attractive, sweet, and capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation. How rare was that? The truth was I liked him. I could be in the process of falling in love with a prince.
I realized Mom had never claimed it would be equally easy to get him to fall in love with me.
I decided to go to the Velka.
There were one or two of them at any farmer’s market, selling herbs and potions. These women of the forest were reputed to be helpful in all sorts of matters, not just the medical and women’s issues us farm folk consulted them for. Perhaps they had something to keep me from falling in love, so I wouldn’t humiliate myself and my family by becoming enamored with a prince who didn’t want me.
It couldn’t hurt to ask.
I’d never spoken to a Velka before, which was unusual as most mothers took their daughters to the Velka at puberty, so the young woman could learn how to remain childfree until she was ready to marry. But my mother broke with tradition and taught me about such issues herself, after she got the herbs and supplies from the Velka for me.
Even when I’d been intrigued by the Velka as a little girl, my mother always grabbed my arm and pulled me away.
“I just want to look,” I’d complain, pointing to the pretty jars on display, but the hardness in her face told me I’d better not push the issue.
I often asked my dad why my mother disliked the Velka and wouldn’t let me near them. Each time he brushed me off saying it was a complicated matter.
Whatever her reason, I knew she wouldn’t like what I was about to do now. So, I told her I was going to ride my horse over to the market to buy some ribbons and buttons to make my clothes more attractive. She knew of my interaction with Nevik, of course, and knew he’d invited me to join him in the mountains for a few days. She’d been acting particularly affectionate to me since his invitation came, and she didn’t question my need for new ornamentation. She even pressed a few extra coins into my hand.
“Don’t skimp.” She smiled.
Of course, if I did marry a prince, the dowry to my parents would pay for those ribbons and buttons a thousand times over. Not that I was being cynical about this.
The Velka woman was older than most; her gray hair had turned nearly white in the long braids she wore wrapped around her head. Like my father, she had a slighter build than most of us in Vinx, and she looked at me as though she was pleased to see me.
I tethered my horse and made my way into the noise and smells of the crowded stalls where tools, clothes, drinks, and food of all types were sold. Today the smell of rich winter cider dominated.
“Ryalgar. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” She reached out her hands to me in a gesture of warmth and even familiarity.
“Do I know you?”
“No. Of course not. Forgive my forwardness. I know of you. You’re Markita’s daughter. We’d hoped to meet you when your menses began.”
“Uh, yes. My mother chose to handle things differently.”
An odd expression passed over the older woman’s face but she only said “How can I help you today?”
Out came the story of my handsome prince and my fear that my growing affections wouldn’t be returned, and I’d emerge as an even more pronounced failure for my family. The Velka woman was easy to talk to, so I told her everything, more than I’d told my sisters or the few girlfriends I’d stayed in touch with and certainly more than I’d told my parents. I saw out of the corner of my eye that another had arrived and taken over handling the customers.
“It’s to your credit that you don’t ask me for a potion to make sure he falls in love with you instead.”
“You have such a thing?”
“Of course not. Would you buy it if we did?”
“Of course not. Who wants a man who’s obtained like that?”
“No sensible woman.” The Velka laughed. “The best I can do for you is to offer something to dull your own emotions, making you less receptive to his allure. I don’t recommend it, though, because it will dull all your feelings. Grief, joy, fear. You need these to experience life.”
“Maybe I could purchase a bit of it? For emergencies?”
She laughed again and her laugh was warm. “Unfortunately it’s slow to act and slow to leave, so it’s not something you pop into your mouth when you’re in a predicament. I can give it to you as a powder. Perhaps having a little of it tucked in your pocket will make you feel stronger when you go to the mountains with your prince.”
I thanked her and made the purchase, checking to see how much money I had left to buy the items my mother was expecting me to bring home.
“Don’t be so quick to use this potion,” she cautioned. “You don’t yet know this prince’s mind, do you?”
As I was leaving, she added “Ryalgar, come back here any time to talk. Especially as things get more complicated, the way they always do. I think you’ll find we Velka are quite good at listening.”
“You don’t recognize your own beauty, do you?”
We were snowed in, cozy inside a little mountain cabin he’d arranged. We’d arrived in a horse-drawn sleigh and now a fire he’d built crackled and lit the walls. Two glasses of rich red dinner wine sat on the dresser, barely touched. I wondered if he realized the entire setting was a fantasy come true for a country girl like me.
“Your hair isn’t ‘just brown.’ It’s the color of a fine stout. As are your eyes. Your body is fit and confident. I don’t care for tiny women. Look at the size of your breasts!”
I’m sure I blushed at this, and he laughed.
“I’m becoming quite taken with you,” he added and I could tell he meant it. I fingered the Velka’s tiny pouch of powder tucked in my pocket and considered throwing it into the fire when he wasn’t looking.
Then he touched my face with his fingertips, and his other hand found the small of my back. He pulled me closer to him. There was enough force to make me feel wanted. Enough gentleness to make me feel safe. By the time his lips were on mine I was ready to undo his trousers, but I sensed he wanted us to savor our reunion. I could do that also.
We had lots of sex over the next two days. I’d never had a partner more than once, and I was fascinated to discover how two people could learn to please each other more with repetition. Oh, so he liked that. My goodness, he could tell I liked this. No wonder married couples stuck together. It became more fun each time we did it.
I was sad the morning we had to leave, but knew it was time to go. We’d gone through all our provisions, and the cold, clear day would make for easy travel.
“Each back to our chores,” he said as he finished the last of the hard bread and cheese for breakfast.
“What chores does a prince have?” I regretted it as soon as I said it. Of course, he did something other than play all day.
“Surely you’re not that naïve.”
“I’m not. But, you are a second son. What specific responsibilities are given to you?” I was trying to cover up my stupid comment with a legitimate question. He knew it, and he let it pass. I supposed that was what people who cared for each other did.
“Believe it or not, I’m working with our generals to develop a battle plan.”
“What for? We’ve lived in peace with our neighboring kingdoms for generations. Why would they attack us now?”
“I doubt they will. Our biggest problems come from occasional marauding thieves or minor quarrels between our nichnas. But we’ve good reason to think that’s about to change.”
I must have looked puzzled because he kept on explaining.
“You do know traders from beyond our kingdom usually go to Pilk, and don’t bother with small farming nichnas like yours, don’t you?”
I nodded. Pilk not only had most of Ilari’s money and goods, but it also sat on the confluence of the large river forming our boundary on two sides and the smaller river running out of our mountains and through the realm. Pilk was our center of trade, so of course foreign merchants went there.
“Well, they all bring news along with their spices and silks. For years, many have spoken of horsemen from far to the east, horsemen who have become fierce in recent times. They say their land is so cold and barren they can grow nothing, and they live only on the meat and milk of their yaks and horses.”
“It’s hard to imagine what sort of people could call such desolation home,” I said. I wrapped up the remaining apples as I spoke. “Imagine life without fruits like these.”
“Word is they’ve developed a taste for farmed goods in recent years and have been making their way outward, raiding farms.”
“That’s horrible. Do they take all the farmers’ food?”
“Most of it. But if the farmers fight back, then they kill them all and burn everything to the ground.”
“I’m glad they’re far away.”
Nevik reached towards me and brushed the hair out of my eyes. It was a gentle gesture, but one that invited me to see more clearly.
“People like that are never far enough away. We’ve tracked the reports and these Mongols, as they’re called, are getting closer. We think they’ll be in Ilari in a year or two.”
I’d never heard something so frightening before. “What can we do? Why don’t my people in Vinx know about this? Given our location, we’d be the first to be attacked!”
Again, he gave me a look of surprise.
“We all realize that. The rulers from every nichna, including Vinx, are working hard to develop the best defense plan for Ilari. My father has given me the important task of overseeing this effort.”
He stood a little taller as he spoke, as if this assignment made him proud.
“I recognize how the lives of wonderful people like you and your family will depend on our plan. I promise you, Ryalgar, I will do my best.”
There was nothing more to say. He gathered up his things, to return to the task of preparing to save my world and everything in it. I gathered up my things to return to the task of feeding the chickens and waiting for the winter wheat to sprout in the spring.
As the oldest girl with no brothers, my father sometimes asked me to help with farming tasks normally done by males. Lucky for me, his expertise on rocks and soil brought in extra income, enabling us to hire seasonal laborers. When they were gone for the winter, though, Dad needed another person to hold up ends of things and hand him tools.
My father was more slightly built than many men, but years of farming had kept him strong, so my part of the chores were seldom strenuous. Today, he was in the large barn repairing farm equipment, and I could see his thinning gray hair as he bent over a bin of metal pieces. At his direction, I picked up the end of a wagon axle so he could pound a joining cuff on it with a large wooden mallet.
“Your mother is quite excited about this prince who’s taken an interest in you,” he said.
My first thought was that the prince’s interest in me mostly involved sex, but that seemed an awkward response to give my father.
“I’m not sure anything will come of it.”
He turned his attention away to remove a small clamp from a piece of metal and said nothing.
“Why does mom hate the Velka so much?”
“Why won’t you quit asking me that question?” he replied.
“It’s been a year since I last asked you. My life is changing. I want to know.”
He sighed. “I guess I’ve always known I’d have to tell you sooner or later.”
“Did she get in a fight with them?”
“No.” He put down his tools and leaned against the wagon. “It’s nothing like what you think.”
“So tell me.” I’d stood closer to him, unwilling to let him turn away and go back to work without answering me. Not this time.
He took a deep breath and swallowed, then he looked right at me.
“My mother isn’t dead.” His voice was so quiet it was almost a whisper.
“What? Grandma died right after Grandpa. When I was only four. I remember it.”
“No, you remember me telling you she’d died. She didn’t. She ran away, Ryalgar. To do something she wanted to do and couldn’t while she was married.”
It wasn’t hard to guess. “Grandma became a Velka?” Now this was interesting.
“I, I think that’s great. Why would mother care?”
“Think about it. She’d just given birth to your twin sisters. She already had three little girls aged four and younger. That was a lot to care for. Her own mom had died years ago, and she had no sisters to help her. She wanted your grandmother to come live with us and give her a hand. Instead …..”
Well, I guess a certain amount of resentment made sense. “How did you feel about this?”
He ran his tongue around his teeth, considering his answer. “I saw your mother’s point. If ever a mother-in-law could be helpful, this was the time. And, I saw my mother’s point. If she didn’t go then, she probably never would. She’d already raised three children of her own; she’d earned the right to her happiness.”
“This explains a lot, but why not tell me this years ago? Why pretend she’d died?”
“Your mother insisted on that part. Under the circumstances, it seemed wise to humor her.”
I didn’t know what else to say. My mother’s reaction seemed extreme, but she could be that way sometimes. It must have hurt dad something awful.
Then I thought of the one remaining question that mattered. “Do you ever see Grandma?”
“Once in a while. She comes to the farmer’s market in Vinx, hoping to get a glimpse of one of you girls. I try to get over there sometimes without your mom and when I do, we talk. She … she still cares about all of us.” He wiped at his eyes. “Now, enough of this. I want you to promise me you won’t mention this conversation to your mother, okay?”
“Believe me, I won’t.” I gave a nervous laugh.
He pointed to a small nail he wanted me to hand him. I stretched my left arm out as far as I could, but it was barely beyond my reach. Then, it rolled towards me until I could grab it.
“That thing you just did?”
“You know what. Moving that nail. Don’t let your mother see you do that.”
“She probably has. I do it a lot.”
Dad shook his head. “Try not to, okay? Your grandma used to do the same sort of thing, and they say it’s why the Velka wanted her. Don’t you know they seek out women with such skills?”
“No. I didn’t know.”
I didn’t say anything more, but for the rest of the day I wondered if the older woman who’d listened to me so well and given me the potion was my grandmother.