This is an old old story.
Once there were: a hero, a princess, a monster. You know how it goes. There are many stories like mine. You know how they end. Same old, same old. But my story was ducked in holly water then painted on countless cathedrals in pure spit. You even have a flag named after it. Yes, that’s the one. You know it.
Wrong. You know shit.
Let me draw you a picture. Imagine a procession of people in festive garments, grimly marching along the beaten track in the lengthening shadow of a barren mountain. Yes, a mountain. Not a bloody lake. and it will take five-hundred years for the crater at its centre to cool sufficiently for water to last there more then ten second. But those who hijacked my story believed that the earth was flat. Why should I expect those moronic zealots to get the setting of my wedding right?
But I can still taste the black dust in my painted mouth. Feel the zephyr pulling at the silks draping my tense buttocks, brushing against gem-encrusted nipples, turning each beaten bronze scale embroidered in my lioncloth into a tiny wind-chime.
I should have had coins of solid gold adorning my wedding frock. But my father, the king, had them all unpicked and added to the buffalo cart full of gold and silver he sent the town’s folk to barter for my life. Dad had piled that cart with every grain of precious metal and gemstones he had. When they refused, he even offered them my mother’s jewels.
‘You shouldn’t part with those,’ I said. ‘They are the only thing of value you have left of her.’
‘She’s gone. And you, princess, are my most precious treasure.’
Watching him fighting off tears, I nearly confessed everything.
Anyway, when the judges send the gold back, well, most of it, along with threats to torch our castle if the good king did not obey his own laws, we only had one night, and no one was in any mood for fancy needle work.
So the seamstress did what she could with mother’s old breastplate. How come I never noticed before that the scales were shaped like tear-drops?
My wedding gown, my shroud to be, is adorned with hand-me down bronze regret.
Which I suppose makes it easier to imagine that the sun is now setting on the marriage of a mere merchant’s daughter, who’s giddy groom would soon shower with gifts of salt, perfumed oils and livestock.
Trouble is, we have no more sheep left. And when night falls, my bridegroom will only give me one thing. Hard, cold, and everlasting.
By the time we reached the sulphur swamp, I was sweating buckets under my headdress. Apart from the silk, that’s one item from my moulding wedding chest dad was adamant I must wear. A damn waste, but I had no heart to argue. The headdress is cunningly crafted from ivory, golden chains, jet-stones, pink pearls, desert antelope horns and the feathers of at least a dozen birds of prey or pleasure.
I thought I’d look ridiculous in that pompous headdress. But oddly, wearing it does help. I do not feel like myself. Who is this horned and feathered solemn bride, the centre piece of a dusk procession heading away from the city? She strides with purpose and pride. But why are her hands bound?
Traditionally, the royal wedding feast would have featured a dish of the former owners of those feathers stuffed into each other.
The birds, at least, would be spared. The main course at this princess’s wedding banquet will be me. Served raw, still wriggling, seasoned with venom.
We cross the swamp, nearing the foot of the mountain. The silk sticks to my charioteer’s thighs and ass, the subjects of more terrible poems then I care to admit, as the sun turns into a betel stained mouth slowly chewed by the cropped peak. The entrance of the cave is almost visible, somewhere beyond the cloud of mosquitoes.
Unable to swat the ravenous mites, I am suddenly grateful for the boots covering my otherwise exposed calves. They don’t go with the dress. Dainty sandals, possibly with more bronze tears attached, would have been just the thing. But every lots-winner, if that’s the right word for them…us, is equipped with a steady pair of crocodile skin boots. Those are essential for climbing down the brittle stone river on the opposite side of the mountain. The porous grey matter would shred pretty sandals.
Those boots are a token of defiance, and hope. They, too, are totally wasted.
I remember thinking: why have we halted? A hot itch broke under the chain-mail barely covering my crotch. The bejeweled tender skin of my cunt must be starting to stain green. I’m allergic to bronze, you see. My grieving royal father must have forgotten, and I didn’t say anything. A small private penance for the pain I am about to inflict on him.
Or maybe this nagging tingle was an involuntary reaction to the gaze of the mounted imperial soldier blocking our path.
A fine creature, the man’s mare. White, five or six years old, wide-chested and towering at least three hands above our champion horse. By the time the rider addressed the head scribe, who kindly volunteered to stand in for my dad, he had urged the mare through the crowd, close enough for me to take in the spores-wound on her velvety side. And the mercenary’s long, long sword.
‘Why are you weeping, fair maiden?’
Now, having a good sob on your wedding day is also traditional, and highly appropriate, if you ask me. But I wasn’t crying. And I didn’t like the leery emphases on “maiden”, which, between us, I was not, by any stretch of the imagination. But there was no way this stranger was less ignorant of this truth then my own kin, friends, and subjects. Was there?
As the scribe, usually not a man lost for words, fumbled in search of some way to explain my imminent fate without enraging the heavily armed ancillary of the distant empire, I took a good look at the man.
The trimmed tufts of hair visible under the crested helmet and his three day stubble almost perfectly matched the dusty greys of the mare’s thick mane. And, while he sat erect in the saddle and was still powerfully built, I could detect a slight pudginess around his waist.
But a mercenary needed more then breeding, guts, and luck to survive into his middle-years in this restless corner of the empire. Even if he was, as I had gathered from his plush cloak, an officer.
And there was nothing soft about his light Phoenician eyes. Those were fanatically sharp, and utterly merciless.
Taking pity on the poor scribe, I told the imperial mercenary about the pact we had made to save our town from the monstrous malaise nesting in the mountain. About our names, the names of every woman, man, boy and girl, written on pieces of pottery and placed in a tight woven basket every month before the night when the moon was as thin and filthy as a nail clipping. About what happened to the person who’s name was drawn by the king.
You know what happened next. You know that the rider let them tie me to the heavy iron ring set in the cave’s wall. That the town’s folk departed. Truly wretched to leave me to my gruesome fate, but glad to get away from this hellish place, each and every one also furtively overjoyed that it was me, not her or him. Can you blame them?
You know that the mercenary insisted on staying with me, in the name of the son of some newfangled foreign god. You know that I did my damnedest to send the zealous gallant packing, feigning concern for his safety.
What you don’t know is, that once we were left alone, surrounded by long white bones, with me chained to a blistering rock in my jingling wedding frock, gallantry died.
I would like to believe that you had no idea, none what so ever, that the instant the last echo of my people’s voices was swallowed by the noxious fumes and the deep, deep cave, the saintly mercenary dismounted, untied his subligaculum, and ripped off my silk skirt.
I bet you think you knew exactly what happened next.
To be continued.