“Both girls nodded back at him, and, starting with Elizabet’s decaying feet, he spread a hearty layer of poultice over the afflicted area until all four of her limbs were coated. This he followed with a layer of fresh honey to lock in moisture. He wrapped her limbs in the treated rabbit skins with the fur facing out, strapping them in place with long leather straps. He changed into fresh leather gloves and repeated the process on Genevieve and, by the time he’d finished with the last rabbit hide, the two girls’ heads drooped onto their chests.
“‘The tea is a mild sedative,’ he explained. ‘You’ll sleep well tonight.’
“‘How long must we wear the furs?’ Genevieve asked.
“‘Sleep with these furs,’ said van Sputten. ‘You’ll wear the furs until your appendages burn or until the next full moon, whichever comes first.’
‘That is a very long time to go without bathing,’ Genevieve said, a hint of doubt in her voice.
“‘The honey is antibacterial and should help in the healing process,’ van Sputten replied. ‘You shouldn’t need to bathe for some time.’
“‘It tingles,’ Elizabet said, wrinkling her nose. ‘Oh, won’t you help me to bed?’ She reached out towards van Sputten who lifted her from her seat easily and placed her in folds of her downy bedding. Genevieve walked herself to bed and slipped inside it gratefully. Van Sputten distributed two candles and two silver bells to the ladies and threw a few final logs on the fire.
“‘Should you need anything,’ he said, bowing low, ‘don’t hesitate to call for me.’
“‘Thank you, good sir,’ Genevieve said as she threw the covers over herself with rabbit mittens.
“Van Sputten made his way to the exit and uttered, ‘Heal fast and true,’ clicking the heavy doors shut behind him. A tremendous wave of relief washed over him, equal parts euphoria and fatigue. An image flashed across his mind of Alice dancing around a bonfire, a gauzy white dress just transparent enough to reveal nipples, navel, and pubic hair. Untamed lust shot through him, which he shook out of his head with a sigh, touching his chest. The cook nearly made him jump out of his skin.
“‘’Ow’d i’ go?’ He whispered coarsely from the shadows of the moonlit hallway. ‘Ah wan’ed t’ come in bu’ though’ Ah’d ruin th’ magic.’
“‘Dear cook,’ van Sputten said warmly once he’d shaken his nerves, and clasped his comrade by the shoulders. ‘I’ve done what I know how to do. The rest is up to the herbs, and the moonlight, and the princesses.’
“‘Ach, sir, ye did a grand deed!’ the cook hollered exuberantly, clapping a hand on van Sputten’s back. ‘Cheers to ye!’
“The two men made their way down the spiral staircase and van Sputten retired immediately to his chamber, where he quickly fell into a deep, delicious sleep. He dreamed Alice floated above him in a pool of water, deadly still but somehow still alive, old and young, mother and daughter, maiden and crone…He touched her cheeks and white eyes opened, blinking, knowing and unknowing. She pulled him towards her by the back of his neck and kissed him, cold fingers and cold lips entwining with his hotblooded desire for her until he woke in a sweat, moon dripping through his curtains. He panted heavily in his bedclothes, touching his chest.
“‘Alice,’ he gasped as he fought for breath. When he’d recovered his thoughts and breath, he took a slug of the celebratory spiced wine the cook had poured him before bed and stared out the window until at last he again surrendered to sleep.”
“Mm-mm-mm!” Inca crowed enthusiastically. “This story is sizzling! Van Sputten could pour me a cup of medicine tea, if you know what I mean!” She laughed at her own joke at great length while her footmen exchanged significant looks.
“Very good, your grace,” Thaedrus said, eyeing the roast lamb sitting on her plate which was drowning in chutney and, at this point, quite cold. “If your grace permits me to—erm—select a morsel of lamb—”
“When the story’s done!” Inca bellowed. “And no rushing!”
“As the goddess commands,” Thaedrus said, sighing heavily. “Well, thoughts of Alice haunted our hero in the coming days after the full moon—her memory chased him down the stony hallways, her scent snuck into his every bite of food, her visage winked back at him from all the royal paintings hanging from the walls. She crept into his dreams and pressed their bodies together, leaving van Sputten restless and in a cold sweat night after restless night. Meanwhile, the princesses kept to their chamber and dutifully left their bandages in place, sipping the herbal tea before bed which tasted of apple blossoms and warm hay.
“Desperate to clear his head by the dawn of the seventh day after the full moon, van Sputten burst into the stable to collect the chestnut-colored horse which had been his companion one week before. His agitation spilled into the stall, and the horse did not take as kindly to him as on their first voyage. The two battled each other as van Sputten urged the steed faster and faster through the undergrowth, every few moments beating its hindquarters with a stick and every few moments imagining Alice, their bodies entwined, the blood rushing through him for entirely different reasons…
“When they came at last to a river, he paused only to let his mount drink. He paced beside the animal, scowling into the forest and digging his fingernails into his palms. Suddenly, an owl whooshed directly over his head, the rush of air raking sandalwood through his senses. Our hero thought he might go mad if this onslaught continued—his desire burned so hot and strong and ceaseless, and so entirely consumed his thoughts. The impending, swelling urgency which had taken over his very cells throughout the week threatened to break over him like a great wave, and the medicine man collapsed on the shore of the riverbank, clutching his throbbing skull and praying ardently for relief.
“Like a drop of cool water in a hot skillet, Alice’s voice seared itself across his mind: ‘Come.’”
“Oh!” cried Inca, who was now breathing rather heavily and leaning forward intently in her chair.
“Ahem,” Thaedrus said. To see his master’s rapt attention gave him confidence, and he carried on with just a hint of gusto.
“Throwing his body over the steed, van Sputten raced towards the fortress as fast as his horse would carry him. The forest seemed to respond to his fervor; gusts of wind swirled through the canopy, whipping the leaves and needles into a lather. Bits of debris rained down on him and lodged in his thick hair, and fat drops of icy rain began to pelt his neck and shoulders, sending a deep, gradual chill down his spine, thick and slow as honey. The sky grew darker and darker as heavy clouds bloomed out of the ether. Electricity pinpricked the air and every hair on van Sputten’s body seemed to be standing on end. He could not suppress a rugged howl as he urged his horse still faster through the turbulent atmosphere.
“By the time the two souls made it back to the fortress, the horse’s hide was thick with perspiration and mud. Van Sputten tossed the reins hastily to the open-mouthed stable boy and shook his head like a wet dog, sending a shower of droplets and leaf litter left and right. He screamed at the guards overhead: ‘Let me in! Let me in this instant!’
“Mystified but dutiful, the guards lowered the drawbridge, though not without a hint of disdain at the ex-knight’s lack of manners. The door had not even hit the ground before van Sputten posted one palm on its edge and vaulted over it. He sprinted past the perplexed cook, who shouted after him with offerings of dry clothes and nourishment, his heart leaping out of his chest and an incredible pressure squeezing him evenly across his goosepimpled skin. Dashing up the spiral stairs two at a time and panting like a jungle cat, van Sputten sped up to the princess’ chamber and pounded urgently at the door.
“‘If it pleases your highnesses, let me in!’ he cried, an edge of desperation slicing through his voice. ‘Let me in, let me in!’ He pounded at the door until a rather shaken-looking Genevieve opened it, staring at him from her young, freckled face.
“Van Sputten rushed to the hearth, haphazardly throwing logs on the fire until it crackled and grew so rapidly it threatened to lick flames up towards the mantle. Snatching a match and striking it decisively against the stone wall, he forcibly ripped a fresh candle from its housing and lit it. The wild man stood, chest heaving, water streaming from his garments and hair, staring wide-eyed at the two women with the lit candle raised up to the level of his eyes.
“‘Come,’ he said to Genevieve, but it was not his voice which carried the word—it was strong and feminine and decidedly Alice’s.
“Genevieve strode towards him, determined not to be cowed by his rough appearance. When she stood in front of him, she said emphatically, ‘I demand that you tell me what is going on.’
“Van Sputten placed his wide hands on the princess’ waist and pulled her tightly to him, gazing intently into her eyes. A ripple of heat flooded the room and Elizabet let out a small whimper from her bed.
“‘Unhand me,’ Genevieve said breathlessly. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes fiery. No one had ever dared touch her like this before.
“‘In good time, m’lady,’ van Sputten snarled, reaching between their bodies to bring forth the bone-handled knife. He raised the princess’ hands above her head and, deftly and surprisingly gently, he cut the leather binding from the rabbit fur and peeled it away, his eyes darting hungrily between the princess’ green eyes and parted lips as he did so, his task hardening in the air around them until Genevieve, too, was breathless.
“When the bandages were free from their housings, Lady Genevieve brought her hands down to meet her eyes, chest heaving as she did so.
“‘Oh!’ she gasped, sending a shiver down van Sputten’s spine. ‘Oh, sister! Look!’ She held her hands out for Elizabet to see—the skin was pink and firm, dewy with poultice and honey, and completely enclosed over her digits.
“‘Elizabet’s bandages,’ van Sputten growled hungrily. Genevieve looked at him, taking his meaning. Wordlessly, the two of them strode over to Elizabet’s resting place, pulling her gently from the bed and coaxing her feet onto the floor. Together, they silently ripped her bandages free as perspiration dripped steadily down van Sputten’s brow, anticipation still coursing hot within him. As he removed the final leather strap from Elizabet’s foot, a wave of euphoria undulated through him, causing his body to convulse. He fell to his hands and knees and, throwing his head back, let out a cry which belonged both to his voice, and Alice’s. Pleasure pulsed through him, catching in the princess’ throats, filling them with exultation until they, too, could not remain silent. At that moment, the clouds outside the windows abruptly broke and the rain stopped. Sunlight gushed into the room and the three of them huddled together, winded, laughing, and clutching each other, poultice and honey dribbling to the floor in slow, sensuous drops.”
“Oh!” Inca cried loudly. “He did it!”
“Indeed, your grace,” Thaedrus said, bowing his head slightly.
“Well did he regain his honor? Did he marry Alice?”
“If I could have but a sip of water…” Thaedrus trailed off. Hastily, Inca thrust forward her half-filled wine chalice, the contents of which swirled invitingly and threatened to leap out of the golden cup.
“Here,” she said brusquely. “Drink, and finish your story—and I will fix you a plate.”
Bowing even deeper, Thaedrus took a deep draught from his master’s cup.
“And so!” he declared, setting the empty cup down in the green, green grass. “And so, the princesses were met with their cure! The cook prepared rations for a journey and the furriers readied several horses. Within two days, Genevieve, Elizabet, van Sputten, and six guards rode from the fortress to the realm of King Walden III, a land whose flowing waters and verdant fields and supple crops had withered and dried up on the day the princesses departed all those years ago. As the months crawled by in isolation for the two royal girls, the kingdom fell deeper and deeper into darkness. The people survived on sturdy rye crackers and sheep cheese and little else—the earth would not yield, as though it had been salted, and the people scraped by bartering wool for supplies and sustenance. But the land could only support so many sheep before the creatures grazed it barren and muddy, and the citizens’ faith in their leader was wearing thin.
“Thus, on the day their highnesses returned, trumpets sounded from every turret and the king himself met them at the royal gates. He wept to see them, and they him, and he ushered them inside to greet their mother.”
“And van Sputten?” Inca asked as she slapped the remaining lamb flesh onto a plate, dropping a few wedges of fruit haphazardly on top. “Did he regain his knighthood?”
“Indeed,” Thaedrus nodded, “and he became chief council for the king. In the weeks that followed the princess’ return, the kingdom enjoyed temperate weather and jubilation as the king’s advisors rallied behind van Sputten in looking for a new antidote—how to save the land.”
“A knight and a farmer?” Inca drawled, raising her eyebrows at Thaedrus. “Don’t push it too much, now, little man.”
Clearing his throat and taking a calming breath, Thaedrus replied, “Not a farmer, your excellency, no—but a sensitive, intuitive soul speaking on behalf of the land. He journeyed back into the woods with a caravan of young men and taught them to forage respectfully and sustainably. He taught them to hunt wild boar and fowl and to raise rabbits for meat. And every day, he prayed to Alice for guidance, and every day he missed her, though the pain of this ached like a companion, and he grew accustomed to its sting.
“At the dawn of a new year and as winter threatened to give way into spring, van Sputten woke from his slumber one morning and knew that Alice was on her way to him. Like a bird of prey he leapt from his bed, scrubbed his face, threw on a fresh tunic and dashed from his chamber—only to find she had already been granted a meeting with the king. Doing his best not to rush the royal throne room, he walked as deliberately as he could over the threshold to behold Alice, dressed in a light, blue woolen gown with white flowers adorning her head in a lush vine. She looked wild as ever, and her dark hair extra curly. Van Sputten swallowed nervously and cleared his throat. Her head swiveled first and then her eyes followed—but she smiled to see him, and gesturing with one finger, she bid him come to her.
“You see, Alice was the daughter of a successful farmer and had learned the needs of the land under his tutelage. But when she had fostered her intuition and incorporated it into caring for both soil and plants, her religious father cast her out of the home, banishing her as a witch. No one knew earth better than Alice, and Alice was prepared to help this struggling king, the king who had made van Sputten a knight and had offered to protect her under his reign.
“Within a year, the fields were green again, the harvests bountiful, and Alice was pregnant with van Sputten’s child. The two married, barefoot, in a small outdoor ceremony and built two modest cottages at the edge of the king’s land—one for the knight, and one for the woman. Autonomy was important to Alice, and van Sputten vowed to honor her gifts and dreams, crazy as he was to share every moment with her. The two produced four children who grew up to be healers, horse trainers, musicians, and cooks, and they lived out the rest of their days happily under the rule of King Walden III of Umbledunn and his two lovely daughters.”
Inca applauded rigorously. “I knew he was going to marry Alice!” she cried. “I just knew it!”
“In—Indeed, m’lady,” Thaedrus said, looking pointedly at the full plate in Inca’s grasp. “If the lady bids it…?” He darted his eyes from Inca’s to the cold meat in her lap.
“Oh, go on then,” Inca sighed, carelessly holding the plate out and rolling her eyes. “It’s all you want anyway.”
Thaedrus snatched his meal from the air and ate hungrily, pausing only to breathe and request more wine. Abrazek and Limizhad looked on jealously and kicked the ground with their toes.
When Thaedrus had eaten his fill, the four of them packed up the evidence of Inca’s picnic and hoisted her from the ground. The sun was raining down on them, bright white and hot, but not too hot, as nothing in heaven ever was. Elzoarah and Bethelbar returned from their errand with jugs of eternal spring water, and the six of them shared one long, slow, glorious drink. It was a day like any other in paradise.
“Thaedrus?” Inca said softly, swaying from her perch on the rickshaw. They were headed towards the great waterfall to harvest grapes and pink salt.
“Yes, your grace?” Thaedrus answered.
“Do you think you could tell me another story, when we’re back from the falls and supper’s done?”
Inca had never asked him so gently for anything before.
“If your grace wishes it, it shall be done,” Thaedrus replied dutifully, and the cavalcade continued its march into the sun.