Chapter 4 Part 5 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book One
"Now, my dear," said the old woman, "let's see what the cards say about you, eh?" She spread the cards out one by one on the little table; it trembled precariously under the weight of each one. "Ah, how fitting. The Princess of the Flames, reversed--d'you see? Wrong-side round. Bad-tempered, easily provoked to foolishness, spoiled, bored and spiteful."
"And who is she?" said Edmerka, thinking of her stepmother.
"Oh, she's you, miss," said the old woman with an empty-mouthed grin.
"How dare you!" said Edmerka.
"Travelers dare often, and easily, miss," cackled the woman. "What stands in your way--my, my. Farr the Warrior, reversed. Uncontrollable impulses and ruthless lust." She clacked her tongue. "And such a nice girl you are. Who'd've suspected?"
Edmerka's face grew blotchy, but she held onto her temper. "Go on."
"Your enemy's card is the Prince of the Winds, reversed--untrustworthy, violent, selfish, ruthless, and reckless."
"Who is he?" said Edmerka, wondering which of her stepmother's brothers he might be.
"I can't see everything, just most things," said the crone. "Help will come from the King of the Winds, reversed. Goodness, many people in your fortune, dear, and so many reversed. Troubles, troubles."
"And who is this King of the Winds?"
"A wise man, an honest man--but a man out of place, and blind to it. He will need help himself, I don't doubt. The path before you is the Bloody One, reversed--goodness, goodness. Choices taken from you, compulsion, confinement. You have two choices of action. The Nine of the Winds, reversed, is despair and submission."
"And the second?"
"The Courage card," said the old woman. "I should think that would be self-evident even to you."
"Finish the fortune," scowled Edmerka.
"Very well. Your outcome is the Lovers. Ha! Not reversed, at least. With all these people wandering through your cards, I should think that means a marriage. But with which man is anyone's guess. A bumpy road, in any event!"
Confinement, choices taken from her--a marriage. It couldn't possibly mean anything else but a forced marriage to one of her stepmother's brothers. "I don't like this fortune!" said Edmerka. She stood up; the little table finally gave up and folded itself into the wall, scattering the cards.
"Like it or not, it's what I see, my girl," said the crone. "I'll have my silver now."
"Silver?" said Edmerka as she climbed down from the caravan. "I wouldn't give you half a copper for that! And I won't!"
"You won't pay me?" cried the old woman, clambering after her.
"No. Captain! We'll be on our way now!" The visit had become an ill omen, the caravans no longer symbols of freedom, and she hurried toward her carriage.
"Stop!" ordered the old woman. She threw something acrid on the fire; a silver smoke rose from the flames, and ghosted its way through Edmerka's escort. One by one, the guards dropped their weapons and stared stupidly at one another. The coachman let go the horses' leads, and Olka, who'd been sitting on a little fold-up stool, stood up and looked around as if she'd woken up in a start.
Low chuckling broke out among the Travelers, who advanced on the Princess. She moved backward toward her carriage, until she ran up against a Traveler man; he shoved her toward the old woman. "What's the matter with you all!" Edmerka shouted at her guards.
"Will you pay me?" said the old woman.
Edmerka set her stubborn chin, raised her head high and said, "No!"
"All right, if you won't pay me in coin, then pay me in kind. Kiss my son, and I'll consider the debt paid." The young man with the wandering eye smiled, one tooth shy of a leer.
"Certainly not!" said Edmerka.
The old crone chuckled. "Oh, Princess Edmerka, you've insulted the wrong Traveler." The men rose from their places round the fire.
"I don't recall telling you my name," the Princess answered, her voice trembling though she kept up as brave a facade as she could manage.
"Of course I know who you are, child," said the woman. "You're stubborn, and courageous in your way. It's your downfall now, but it will be your salvation later. I am Maeve, the Queen of the Travelers, and I am your fate." Her aspect changed; the grizzled, withered crone flickered into a dark-haired, implacable young woman and back, over and over until Edmerka grew dizzy. The Traveler Queen spit in her hand, cupped it to her mouth, and shouted gibberish through it. The captain of the guards awoke from his stupor, wild-eyed.
"Captain!" cried the Princess. "Draw your sword, defend me!"
"Draw my sword? Who are you?" said the captain. "Where is this place? I remember nothing...no, this is not home--that's all I remember--I have to go home!" He stumbled back in terror, and fled. The rest of the guard panicked and plunged after him into the woods. Even Olka ran away, fat legs flying. Edmerka faced the Travelers alone.
"Your fate has found you, whether you like it or not, Your Highness," said the Traveler Queen.
The Travelers took the carriage, the horses, and Edmerka's trunks. They took the clothes from her back, down to her stockings and hairpins as she struggled to cover herself with her hair and hands. She longed to fight, to rage, to throw things, but she had nothing to throw. She was one girl against a dozen or more, but she'd let Harla take her to the Hill before she'd show them how frightened she was. "Take everything," she said. "They're only things. Kill me, and my father will hang your heads above our castle gates!"
"Brave and foolish in equal measure, just as the cards said," sighed the Traveler Queen. "Very well." She threw another handful of herbs on the fire. Silvery threads wove themselves around Edmerka; her skin drank it up. She felt it slink through her, as if it seeped into her very bones. Edmerka's joints loosened, and she stumbled. She burned from the inside. Her cheeks flushed, and her nipples grew hard and dark. "I foresaw this long ago, girl, and its necessity made me uneasy. I had no idea you'd be quite this disagreeable, though. Thank you. That makes it much easier," said the old woman. "From now on, you'll give a kiss to anyone who wants one--more, you'll give your body to anyone who wants you. You shall not only be powerless to resist, you'll return their desire. And now it's cast, not even I can lift it. The only way to end the curse is to bathe in the blood of a king."