Alanah Kingsdaughter sighed and wiped sweat from her brow as she finished heaving the last basket of grain into the storage cave beneath the castle.
“There—that should last us,” she said to Jenla, but her voice sounded more worried than certain.
“Of course, my Princess.” Jenla nodded comfortingly. She was Alanah’s maid as well as her best friend—they had grown up together in the gray stone castle which had been built by Alanah’s forefathers. And now she worked faithfully beside Alanah though both their hands were roughened with the effort of getting the harvest in.
There were some who had sneered at the idea of manual labor—gentle women who cried out in horror at the idea of getting their hands dirty or staining their fine linen skirts. But Alanah had laid down the law—who else was going to do the work now that all the men were all gone? Everyone must pitch in or they would all starve.
To forestall grumbling and rebellion, she led the effort herself. With the faithful Jenla beside her, she plowed and planted, watered and hoed, harvested and threshed until her hands blistered and bled and finally callused with the rough, ugly work.
The ladies of the castle had complained amongst themselves—especially Thiera, the Elder Witch, who considered herself above any kind of work but her magic—but none dared do so in Alanah’s hearing. After her father had passed into death, she had sat on his cold, gray stone throne with its worn red velvet cushion and declared that any who didn’t help with the harvest would not be fed when the harsh winter months came.
No one was excused—the smallest child or the oldest woman could still walk behind the reapers and gather stalks of grain which had been missed. And everyone else of able and strong body had to take part as well. There could be no more ladies of leisure now that their population was reduced by half.
Will it be enough?
Alanah counted the scanty baskets of grain anxiously. She and everyone else in their small kingdom had worked diligently but the harvest was still much smaller than it had been in the past.
We worked so hard—I ruined my hands—and for what result? Such a small harvest! Would it have been better if the men were still alive? Or is the ground simply giving less each year, as Papa used to say?
Well, at least they had only half as many mouths to feed as they'd had a year ago this time. Before the plague came… But that thought made a lump rise in her throat and Alanah pushed it away.
She stared ruefully down at her dirty palms, trying to pull her mind away from the past. Their beauty wasn’t that much of a loss—her big hands were far more deft at plowing and planting than they ever had been at the tiny, delicate needlework gentle ladies were supposed to excel at. It was as though she was born to be a farmer rather than a princess.
Well now I’m both, she thought and a harsh laugh broke from her lips.
“My Princess?” Jenla looked up at her uncertainly. “Something amuses you?”
“No, not really.” Alanah sighed and smiled down at her friend. It wasn’t hard to look down at Jenla because though her friend was the normal height for a female—around 5’6"—Alanah herself most decidedly was not. Her hands weren’t the only part of her that was big—all of her was, to put it mildly, much too large.
She had a pretty face with dark hair that shone red in the sunshine and serious gray eyes, but Alanah had always been tall, even as a child. When all the other girls had stopped growing, she had gone on and on until she was as tall as her father the king, who was by far the tallest man in the kingdom. She was 6 feet in her stocking feet and decidedly taller if she dared to wear the high, spindly wooden heels which were all the fashion among the ladies of the court. Mostly, however, she avoided those—they made her feel even more gawky and out of place than she already did.
That a royal princess should have the audacity to grow taller than most men was a great scandal among the nobles. It was often whispered spitefully among the ladies of the court who didn’t like her that Alanah’s father would never find a husband for her—for what man wants to look up to his wife?
“Who will want her? Her flower will remain unbloomed all her life—for what man will desire to spread her petals with his shaft? A big, awful horsen of a girl like her…
Alanah had heard their nasty talk all her life and she used to fret about it. No more, though—she had no need to worry about getting a husband since no one had a husband anymore. Or a father…or a brother…or an uncle…or a son…
There you go again—stop thinking about it! This is life now, just deal with it, she scolded herself angrily.
But it was hard to stop—so hard. It had been barely a year since the plague had carried off the last of the men—among them her own beloved father. He had been so strong she had hoped to the last that he would survive. Though he had been the first man to sicken, he had been one of the last to finally succumb to the evil plague which killed only males.
With his dying breath the old king had placed Alanah in charge of their tiny kingdom—an unheard of honor and responsibility for a woman. But since there was no one else to rule and he himself was dying, what else could he do?
Papa, Alanah thought. I hope you’d be proud of me. I’m doing my best.
She wished she might dream of him sometimes, as she had often dreamed of her mother after she had died when Alanah was only ten. It wasn’t her father’s bearded face she saw, however, but another male's visage when she closed her eyes.
A male with long black hair which he wore in many thick braids all twisted into a club at the back of his neck. A male with skin the color of stone and eyes like blazing sapphires. He looked at her longingly and somehow Alanah got the feeling he was searching for her…searching desperately because he was anxious to hold her in his arms…
No—stop it! That’s as bad as thinking about the plague. There’s no mysterious man waiting to sweep you off your feet and take you away from this new, bleak life. It’s an illusion—a dream. A false escape from grim reality. Forget it.
But if it was only a dream, why did it come so often? And why did Alanah wake up feeling hot and flushed, her tiny, flat nipples tingling and the narrow, hairless slit of her flower feeling almost hot enough to bloom on its own, even without the fertility ritual which must be enacted by the Elder Witch? Of course, that was a complete impossibility. But still…
“My Princess, you are deep in thought,” Jenla observed as they climbed the curving stone staircase that led from the storage caves to the main floor of the castle. “What troubles your mind?”
“Nothing, Jenla,” Alanah said absently. “Just…thinking of the past and worrying about the future…the harvest and the winter to come.”
And trying not to think of the strange dreams she kept having.
“Try not to worry too much, my Princess.” Jenla laid a comforting hand on her arm. “We’ll be all right—the harvest will be enough. After all, we…we have less mouths to feed this year than we did.” Her voice broke slightly on the words and her eyes were suddenly, suspiciously bright.
“Oh, Jenla, I’m sorry…” Alanah gave her a swift hug and reminded herself that she was not the only person who had lost someone. She had lost her father but Jenla had lost her intended—a kind man by the name of Yulen who had loved her dearly. They had been of exactly the same height, which wasn’t uncommon among their people, and their hair and eyes had been the same shade of brown—a perfect couple, everyone said.
Jenla and Yulen were to have been married this year, after Thiera the Elder Witch had performed the necessary fertility ritual for them, so that Jenla’s flower could bloom and her body could open to accept her man’s shaft and conceive children. Of course there was no need for such rituals now. There could be no children without a man’s seed to beget them and as no men were left, every woman of the kingdom might as well be barren.
“I’m so sorry,” she told her friend again. “I wish the plague hadn’t come to us—I wish we didn’t have to work so hard when you’re still grieving for Yulen.”
“It’s all right.” Jenla swiped tears out of her big brown eyes and tried to smile. “The work is good—it takes my mind off what might have been.”
What will never be now, Alanah thought. Aloud she said,
“Time helps too. I don’t…don’t weep for my father nearly as often as I used to.”
“Time heals all wounds,” Jenla agreed. “Maybe by the time I’m as old as Mother Bandah I won’t miss Yulen anymore.”
“Maybe,” Alanah murmured. “But you’ll always remember him.”
But her friend’s words had set her thinking. She and Jenla were young and strong now but she wondered what would happen to them when they did grow as old as the eldest among them. After all, with no men, there would be no children to take care of them in their old age. No one to plant and harvest the grain or grind it to make flour and bread when they grew too feeble to do it. No one to make repairs when the heavy, ancient stones of the castle crumbled around their ears.
Already they were having trouble—unable to replace the plow blades when they broke. Humla, the blacksmith’s daughter, was a sturdy girl who was trying her best. She had taken over the smithy after her father died but smithing had been considered a man’s trade and she had never been formally taught what to do. She had only her memories of watching as her father pounded out the glowing red metal to go on, and so far she hadn’t managed to replace the blades that had broken, though she was trying. But what if she never managed it? What if—?
Stop it—stop thinking about it, Alanah commanded herself. Think of something good instead.
Immediately the man in her dreams rose to her mind again, as though he had been called by her wish for comfort. He looked so strong and his face was kind, despite his strange skin coloring and the glowing sapphire eyes.
Alanah sighed and pushed it aside. The strange man was only a fantasy—only a dream which would never come true.
Even if the man in my dreams was real he wouldn’t want me, she reminded herself. I’m far too big for any man to want me. Even an imaginary one.
Better to stop dreaming and get back to work. They had a long, hard winter ahead of them and in addition to the menial labor, Alanah also had the difficult work of governing to attend to. And tomorrow was High Court day which meant that despite how horribly weary she was, she would have to sit on the cold stone throne which never seemed to warm, no matter how much of her body heat it stole, and listen to all the grievances of her subjects—no matter how small or petty.
Alanah bit back a groan. How she hated High Court days! But they were part of her responsibility—her duty to her people. Her father had withstood them for forty years so she would manage as well.
Sighing, she climbed the last of the steps with Jenla and turned with leaden feet to her next task. There was a mess of fresh caught fish—possibly the last of the season—which had to be salted and pickled to preserve it for winter. It was dirty, smelly work which the noblewomen hated. Which meant of course that Alanah had to be there, leading the way to get any of them to help.
Papa, she thought again. I’m trying. I’m really trying to lead by example, just as you always said.
But it was hard sometimes—so damn hard. She couldn’t help wishing that the man in her dreams would somehow come to rescue her from this endless grind and take her someplace warm where all the hard work was done by magic and she could relax and not worry if there was enough food for the winter.
Not that that would ever happen, Alanah told herself ruefully. She would probably go on for years and years just as she was now with nothing ever changing…
Well, this was her life. What else could she do but live it?
Sighing again, she headed for the kitchen. The fish wasn’t going to salt and pickle itself and the twenty high born ladies holding their noses and complaining weren’t going to do it either unless Alanah made them.
Time to get to work.