Winter Princess

by Christine Morgan

Winter Princess
1994 Christine Morgan (
"Sir! Sir!" Richard turned, masking an impatient scowl. He had just come from the bathing chambers beneath the castle, and was eager to get to his rooms and relax. The last thing he wanted was to see one of the King's Stewards hurrying toward him. "Yes?" he said, trying not to snap. He had spent half the day with the Royal Treasurers, going over the military budget for next year, and the other half with the Talmaran ambassador. The king had been present for that meeting, and tempers had run high as old greivances were dredged up like muck from the bottom of a moat. Miraculously, the king had presented himself as befits a proper monarch, for once showing none of the madness that was both curse and tradition of Tarlakian kings. "It's the king, Sir," the steward said breathlessly. Spoken too soon, Richard thought. "What has His Majesty done now?" he asked wearily, resigned to hearing another account of setting cats afire or stripping off of clothes in the grand hall. "He's gone mad!" "He has been mad since he was seventeen," Richard pointed out, not even trying not to snap this time. "Like his father and his father's father before him. This is news to no one's ears." "No, sir, worse than usual! He's taken the princess hostage, and is unwilling to be reasoned with." Alarm struck Richard like a whip. "Alexandra! Where is she? What has he done?" "This way." The steward led him, continuing to speak. "I've not seen him this bad before, Sir Richard. He screams at those who are not there, sometimes those long dead, and believes these unseen foes to be attempting to wrest his daughter from him. In vowing that she would come to no harm, he seized her and dragged her to the north tower, locking her therein. He stands there now, axe in hand, demanding masons come to wall up the door with the princess within, to keep her safe." "In the north tower?" Richard's long strides forced the man to trot to keep up. "Dorian help us, she's hardly safe there! It's been closed off for years. She'll be dead of the cold by morning." "We've delayed him by promising that a mason has been sent for, though of course one hasn't --" "You've spoken falsehood to your king?" The steward snorted. "When the king is known to insist that white ships sail the sky, that giant snakes dwell beneath the privy, and that his ladywife yet lives but is hidden from him, how is he to know a falsehood from the truth? Even if we had sent for a mason, with the storm it is unlikely that a messenger could reach the city. The king has already nearly killed Grushen. We would have told him anything in order that he might lay down the axe and let us get Grushen to the Dorus. If only the priests could help the king! Alas that we have no church to Lunari, for although his madness does not seem moon-made, Lunari's priests might have some way to help." They reached the north tower and began climbing the curving stone stair. Richard could hear voices above, the wild shouts of the king and the desperate attempts of others to calm him. He could not hear Alexandra, and knew it to be for the best. Had she been screaming, no force on earth would have prevented him from going to her. Loyal though he was to Tarlak, he would kill the king himself to prevent Alexandra from suffering the slightest harm. "You alone might be able to make him hear sense," the steward said. "Failing that, you alone in all Tarlak would dare lay hands upon him, especially on the princess' behalf." Chagrined that he could be seen through so easily, Richard hastened his pace. He reached the landing just in time to see one of the castle guards reel back, blood flying in a dark spray. The king's axe swept back, ready to cleave the poor man's head from his neck. "Ludwig!" Richard barked. His voice, trained to command and hardened by years of leading armies, was thunder in the corridor. The king faltered, his swing going wide. The wounded guard scrambled out of reach. The group that had been clustered around the king fell back to a safer distance. King Ludwig of Tarlak had once been and still could be a handsome man, when his face was not distorted by frenzied insanity. Mad he assuredly was, but weak he was not. The axe he held before him was called Bonesplitter, crafted by the same smith that had forged Richard's own blade, Frostfire. Both weapons were of exceptional quality, and also enchanted by one of Tarlak's few sorcerors. Bonesplitter's etched blade was now sheathed in blood. "Stay back!" the king cried, brandishing the axe. "You're no different from the rest of them! You'll not take my daughter from me!" "Sire," Richard said, moving cautiously closer and hoping he would not be forced to draw steel on his own king, though glad that Frostfire was securely belted to his waist. "Sire, it is cold in there. Alexandra will not last the night. Let her go to her own rooms." "You'd like that! They could reach her then. She stays where she is, safe!" "She is not safe there. She'll freeze." He raised his voice. "Princess?" "Richard?" She was muffled by the thick door, but she sounded calm. Perhaps only he, who knew and loved her better than any other, could hear the faint tremor of fear. "He's locked the door." The king cackled. "Yes! It is locked! To keep you safe, my angel! Your mother wants it thus. No one will hurt you now." "Father, please. No one is going to hurt me." "True, for I will see to it until my dying breath!" the king said. He glared at Richard. "And you'll not go near my daughter! I'll not see her sullied by your hands!" "Sire, I vow to you, she will not be harmed," Richard said. He advanced, keeping his hands well out to his sides. With luck, the king would forget Frostfire's power to fly to its weilder's hand. "Have I not always been your loyal servant?" "Your loyalty is more to Orain than Tarlak!" the king sneered. "You are as a brother to Orain's king. You are more often there than here. Your father served me, but I see little of the father in the son!" Richard refused to show his reaction, for that was what the king wanted. Such was the way of the mad, to find by some nearly divine instinct the accusations and insults most painful. He had of late been wondering where his future lay. Tarlak was his birthplace, his home. Tarlak was where dwelt the woman he cherished above all others. Yet Orain welcomed him with a warmth that Tarlak's snowy mountains could never rival. King David was, as Ludwig had said, as a brother to Richard. David's queen, Rowena, was a dear friend and had once been much more, although they kept well-buried the secret of their affair. No one, not even David, knew that for a brief time while the king was supposedly dead and gone in an avalanche, Richard and Rowena had turned to each other in grief and consoling passion. It was in Orain that Eleanor lived, the daughter of David and Rowena, now eighteen and more beautiful with each passing day. Eleanor, no matter how young and beautiful and kind, could not compare to Alexandra. The princess of Tarlak was as dark as Eleanor was fair, with a strength of will more akin to that of Rowena. Alexandra was Tarlakian, raised as he had been raised, not expecting nor demonstrating outpourings of affection. Eleanor had always protested Richard's outward coolness. He shook the thoughts from him the way a dog might shake off water. "Your Majesty," he said, emphasizing the words in hopes of bringing Ludwig back to himself. "You must stand away from the door. Lay down the axe." "Who will take it from me? You, Richard?" "If I must." He moved even closer. He was now within the king's striking distance and so watched him carefully for the first subtle hint of action. "Another step and I'll cleave you in twain! If I do not protect my daughter, who will?" "I will, sire. I am sworn to." "You cannot! Not from these foes! Your eyes cannot behold them, but mine can! They are the same as those who stole my Leonilla away. I yet can hear her screaming from her prison, and none will aid me in finding her!" "Permit me to aid you," Richard said. It was pointless to tell the king that his wife was dead. He had never accepted it, not since the Dorus had brought the terrible news that the queen had died in childbirth. His madness, largely dormant until then, had surged forth with frightening suddenness. "We will search the castle from spire to dungeon if it will please you. We will find her if she is here." "They'll move her! They do, whenever I search! I knew surely as I knew my own name that she was in the nursery, but when I went there they had hidden her elsewhere! They are to swift, too clever! How am I to know that you are not in league with them?" "Upon my honor, I am not." The axe had lowered slightly, no longer ready to strike. "You'll help me, then? Perhaps if we both search, seperately, they'll not be quick enough." "A wise plan, sire. Will you have need of Bonesplitter during our search?" "Nay, perhaps not." He leaned the axe against the wall. The servants and guards sighed in relief, and Richard felt some of the tension melt from his shoulders. "Now, open the door and free Alexandra," he said. The king turned to the door. He closed his hand around the large iron key. He glanced back over his shoulder at Richard. "So that's your plan, is it?" he growled. "You'll not fool me so easily!" With the incredible strength born of madness, he snapped the key off in the lock. "Bugger!" Richard sprang forward. Ludwig moved swiftly, whirling and seizing the axe. Frostfire leaped to Richard's hand. The axe rose in a deadly silver arc and poised at the top, ready to fall. Richard brought Frostfire's pommel down on Ludwig's unprotected head. Bonesplitter clattered to the floor. The king's eyes rolled back. Richard caught him as he fell and gently lowered his unconscious body. "My apologies, sire," he said. "Richard, what has happened?" Alexandra called through the door. He went to it, pressing his hand flat against it as if he could touch her through it. "All will be well, princess. Your father is resting." He examined the lock and tried the handle. "It seems the lock is well and truly stuck, however." The steward came up beside him. "Will the door not open?" "It will not. 'Tis far too well-made to be broken down without benefit of a battering ram, and the hall is too short and curved for such. We must send for a locksmith." "Sir?" the steward said hesitantly. "What is it, man?" "The storm, sir. We can no more send to the city for a locksmith than we could have for a mason when the king demanded one." He swore again, a more vile oath this time, and hurled his shoulder against the door. "Richard!" Alexandra reprimanded him. He winced, having momentarily forgotten that she could hear him. "Forgive me. You appear to be trapped." She would not panic. "It is rather cold in here. I've no means to start a fire, and nothing to burn except the furniture." "I'll have this door down if I must gnaw it with my teeth," Richard vowed. "I hope that will not be necessary," she said. "You did have a large supper." "I am pleased that you maintain a sense of humor, princess," he said, studying the door. "I pray it is enough to keep you warm." The servants had lifted the king and were carrying him away. The wounded guard had likewise been taken downstairs. Richard looked at the steward. "Perhaps the axe?" the steward suggested. Richard hefted Bonesplitter, considering. "Nay," he said at last. "When King Boris built this section of the castle, he ordered the doors made of ironwood around a core of solid metal. The hinges are within -- Alexandra!" "Yes?" "Can you see the hinges?" "It is too dark to see them. I've tried already to loosen them, but there is naught here to use as a tool." "No good anyway," he said. "They are likely enclosed. Tell me what else is in the room." "A fireplace, though dark and cold. A bed and other furniture, all draped with cloth against the dust. That much I saw before the door closed." "Windows? Balcony?" "A moment." He heard her move away from the door, stumble over something in the dark, and his fists clenched in anger at whatever had tripped her. If she fell, if she got hurt ... The distant whine of the wind suddenly loudened, and a chill draft swept beneath the door. It cut off as suddenly. "There is a balcony," she called. "I opened the door, but the wind and snow are too fierce to see much more than that." "Good enough. Alexandra, listen to me. Take some of the dropcloths, dusty though they may be, and bundle yourself well. I will be there soon." "What?" "Trust me, princess." He touched the door again, gently, then caught himself and glanced at the steward. It would not do for the other man to witness him further betraying his feelings. The steward had not been paying attention, or else had looked away in time. He now met Richard's eyes. "What do you plan, sir?" "Have my horse saddled. I will need a length of rope, a bundle of wood, flint and steel, and some food. Oh, add some brandy, and have one of Alexandra's maids fetch her warmest cloak and boots." "You cannot fly in this weather!" the steward said. "I must." "You can do no good to Tarlak if you seek your own death by blizzard," the man argued. "The wind will surely throw you against the battlements, or pluck you from your steed's back and send you to the stones below." He calmly grabbed the steward by the neck. "If I do not attempt this, the princess will be dead by morning," he said flatly. "I can do no good to Tarlak if I seek my own death by my sword, which is what I would do if I failed to save her yet lived myself. Now be quick about it!" He gave him a rough shake and let him go. The steward wasted no time getting about his tasks. Richard watched him go, then skimmed his fingers across the door once more. Too quietly to be heard through the ironwood, he whispered her name. Then he strode to his own chambers and donned heavier furs over his clothes. He laced his hood, edged with wolverine fur that did not collect frost, pulling it tight over his face so that only his eyes peered out. His sword, Frostfire, carried many enchantments. Not only did the blade burst into flame or sheath itself in ice, hence it's name, but it also had the power to protect him from the worst extremes of weather. The icy Tarlakian snows or the blistering Symbyan heat could not harm him so long as the blade was at his side. Still, he bundled well for he dared not take chances. The courtyard was a swirling white nightmare. Pellets of ice stung when they chanced to strike his skin. The wind was like a living thing, buffeting him with fists of air. Korshoka was waiting, saddled and ready. He tossed his head and spread his wings in anticipation, undaunted by the sounds of the storm. Richard looked over the items the steward had assembled. He packed them into a large leather sack and strapped it to the horse's back. "If I fail," he said to the steward, "you must find some other way to get her out of there. If that means risking a man's life to send for a mason or locksmith, so be it. There ought not be a shortage of men in this castle who would offer." "It shall be done," the steward said. Richard nodded curtly, led Korshoka out into the whirling wind, and swung into the saddle. He patted the winged horse heartily on the neck. "Let us fly, boy. To the north tower!" Korshoka galloped into the teeth of the wind and spread his majestic white wings. He did not soar gracefully into the air was was his usual wont, but laboriously as an aged woman climbing steep stairs. For the first time since taming the magnificent beast, Richard feared falling. He wrapped his hands so tightly in the reins that he could feel the constriction even through his thick gloves. The freezing wind cut through Richard's clothes and would have numbed him had he been unprotected by Frostfire's sorcery. Hail battered him. He could only wonder how punishing it was to the noble Korshoka, but the horse flew on, perhaps sensing the urgency of Richard's mission. The storm was stark white and dead black, silence and deafening sound. Spires and rooftops loomed suddenly into view, causing hair-raising narrow misses. Once a pennant flapped across Korshoka's eyes. The winged horse's response to sudden blindness was to fly as high as he could, to avoid more groundward obstacles, but as they flew above the level of the buildings, the wind exploded around them. Leaning perilously forward, Richard let go of the reins with one hand and grappled for the pennant. It eluded his grasp again and again, until he finally snagged it and tore it loose. Sighted again, Korshoka began descending. Two tall catapult towers rose high above the keep. The wind was channeled between these, and much as water channeled between two stones gains in power and strength, so too did the air. The result was a current of wind akin to the rapids of the deadly Three Lost River. It was into these rapids that Korshoka's descent took them. Richard barely knew what had happened. One moment, they had been fighting their way steadily downward. The next, they were flung halfway across the sky. Earth and heaven swapped places more than once. A new storm burst around Richard, not of snow but of snow-white feathers shredded from his mount's wings. Gravity tugged at them with terrible mortal force. Richard squeezed Korshoka's sides tight with his legs. Swift prayers flashed through his mind. He prayed to Dorian to continue granting him precious life, for he risked it out of love for a woman. He prayed to Aslan as well, on his horse's behalf. He prayed to Stratos the storm god. He even offered a quick prayer, in case all the others failed, to Lunari, whose task it was to judge the deceased and assign them whatever reward they had earned. One of the gods at least must have been listening. Korshoka regained control, righting himself, and veering just in time to avoid the bulk of a tower. Richard squinted into the hail, ascertaining that it was their destination, and guided Korshoka close to the wall, where they were shielded somewhat from the wind. They flew alongside the tower until Richard saw the balcony. His heart sank. It was barely wide enough to land upon even under the best of conditions. Below was a sheer drop, not to the sloped rooftops of other buildings but straight to the rocky ground. No snow had piled in a comforting cushion here; the rocks had been scoured clean by the wind. "We must try," he shouted into the horse's ear, his words snatched from his mouth the moment they passed his lips. He urged the horse down. Their first attempt was angled incorrectly. They pulled up and looped around, riding the air currents when they could because the horse was tiring. Richard slapped his neck encouragingly. The second attempt was perfect, as if the sky had been crystal-clear and the air still as a tomb. Korshoka's hooves struck the stone and he folded his wings against his sides. "Good lad!" Richard cheered. He unwound the reins from his fist and prepared to dismount. He raised his voice to its loudest. "Alexandra!" She opened the door at once, as if she had divined his plan and been waiting for his call. Wrapped all in white, strands of dark hair escaping her braid to stream in the wind, she resembled a spirit out of legend. She reached out one slim hand. The balcony crumbled beneath them. Richard was hurled back by the sudden motion. He tipped, unbalanced. Only by seizing a handful of mane was he able to keep his seat, and his life. He heard Alexandra scream his name and looked up to see her, framed in the doorway with the broken edge at her feet. She was still reaching for him, receding in his vision. Amid a shower of stones and masonry, they were falling. Korshoka whinnied shrilly, desperately beating his wings. One of them struck Richard with nearly bone-breaking force. A melon-sized chunk of rock whistled past his head and smaller pieces pelted him. He saw more of the balcony let loose and suffered the terrible premonition of the princess falling after him. His own certain death was suddenly a blessed relief, for he would not live to see her body broken, her lovely dark eyes sightless and empty. Korshoka banged against the wall and whinnied again, this time in pain instead of fear. His shod hooves struck sparks when he kicked off. Richard clung to the saddle. He'd lost his hold on the mane when the fine white hair had torn out in clumps. The wind gusted fiercely. Korshoka spread his wings and the gust flipped them upward, allowing the horse time to recover. When he felt control return and realized he would live after all, Richard shrieked, "No!" into the howling storm. A life without Alexandra was a life of incomprehensible bleakness. He had lost another love when he was too young to fully appreciate her, and that loss had been nearly unbearable. He would lose Alexandra, after he'd loved and admired her for years and seen her through suffering of her own. He had waited too long. They might have been married ten years ago, there might have been children, heirs for Tarlak, but he had been enchanted by wanderlust, seduced by the languid warmth of southern climes, too busy with his friends in Orain, and now she was gone, gone, gone! Korshoka soared high and swung around and the hated tower came into view again. The loyal steed was still trying to reach the balcony. Richard's heart stuttered in his chest when he saw the slender figure still in the doorway. She waved to him and he laughed aloud, permitting himself tears of joy because no one could see him and no one would know of his momentary weakness. They flew closer, but there was nowhere to land. The horse could not fit through the opening. No other balconies were near, even had they been sturdy enough. Richard saw as they passed how pale Alexandra was. Whatever warmth the room might have held was surely stolen now as she stood with the door open, watching him. He wanted to motion to her to close it, but knew that he was her only chance of survival. He twisted in the saddle and fumbled with the sack secured behind him. His fingers were stiff and clumsy in his gloves. It took him too long to free the sack. Korshoka fought valiantly to keep to the air, though by now the horse's wings must have ached and the chill must be driven deep into his bones. Richard tied the end of the rope around the sack and lowered it, careful not to upset the rhythm of Korshoka's flight. Alexandra moved back, understanding his intent to swing the bundle through the door. He urged the horse as close as he dared. Korshoka was not made to hover in flight as a hummingbird, but he was able to stay steady, as one swimming upstream against a strong current, by exerting titanic effort against the strong wind. The bundle swung, a heavy pendulum, fighting the wind. Just as Richard was beginning to despair of ever getting it close to the doorway, a freak gust caught it and tossed it neatly in. He had the presence of mind to let go of the rope and saw Alexandra haul the bundle away. Another gust came up crosswise, flipping Korshoka. Richard was flung from the saddle. He felt open sky and knew that there was no chance this time. He had perhaps saved Alexandra, but at great cost. He heard her scream. Gods, how he wished it hadn't been this way! She would see him die, the third death of a suitor she'd been forced to witness. He slammed into the wall, and despite a huge flash of pain found the will to scrabble frantically for a handhold. Men of Tarlak fought to the last. His fingers snagged on the edge of the balcony. A stone came loose in his hand. The horrid drop yawned beneath him. He clung, feet flailing against the wall for purchase, finding none. The wind snatched at him. He lacked the strength to pull himself up. Soon the wind would weary of this game, or his arms would give way. A small, slim hand closed over his wrist. He jerked his head up and looked into the velvet-dark eyes of Alexandra. "No!" he gasped. "No, you'll fall!" "Hold on!" she demanded. With her other hand, she passed him the end of the rope. Trusting her utterly, he seized it. It did not slither loose and plunge him to his death. She must have tied it to something. He began to climb. Alexandra half-dragged him into the room just as his strength was about to give out. He slumped to his knees on the stone floor, unable to control a fit of trembling. "Korshoka!" he heard Alexandra command. "Stable! Stable, Korshoka!" Then she slammed the door, struggling against the wind that fought to fling it open. The next thing he knew, she was kneeling beside him, helping him stand. He unlaced his hood. She looked up at him. For a long moment, they said nothing. "By the gods, Richard, you're as mad as my father," she finally said. "Hardly. I would never lock you away from me," he replied, able to jest although he was still shaking from the ordeal. He held her gaze, his eyes speaking more than his mouth would ever dare, his eyes speaking of his desire to take her in his arms, stroke her soft hair, caress her smooth cheek, kiss her rosepetal lips. In her eyes, he saw or imagined he did a similar yearning, but then as a curtain dropped before a window the look was gone and she was all princess once more. "Your hands!" she said, turning them so the scraped palms showed. "Where else are you hurt?" "Why do you ask?" he ventured boldly, teasingly. "Do you plan to kiss my wounds as a mother might?" "Is that how you think of me, Richard? As a mother?" "As Dorian is a mother, and also the embodiment of beauty. So too are you." She smiled. Alexandra had been surrounded by suitors since she was fifteen. She had become expert at the subtle interplay of flirtation. Richard had seen her offer such smiles to countless hopeful men. Each would go away believing that he had thawed a bit of the ice reputed to enseal her heart. Those smiles, though, never quite reached her eyes as this one now did, telling him that he was unlike the others, that there was genuine warmth in her regard for him. Or else, he thought, it seemed that way to each man and he was no different. How could he know otherwise? Alexandra was no Orainian woman, to speak freely of love and affection. She was of the royal house of Tarlak. More, she had been close to marriage twice, nearly engaged. Both of those men had died untimely, in both cases with her as witness. The tragedies had made her hesitant to encourage others. In uncharacteristic solicitude, the royal court had not pressed her to marry although she was the only heir to the throne and had seen thirty winters already. "And you are the very soul of bravery, to risk yourself and your steed to bring me food and fire in my hour of need." Seeing her breath, which puffed visible as she spoke, Richard realized that the cold of the tower room was taking a toll on her. "Fire? Not yet, though I shall at once see to it. Here, take Frostfire. Its magic will ease your chill. You will find a cloak of yours therein. I suggest you don it, and perhaps take some brandy as well." He began stacking wood in the fireplace and coaxed it into a blaze. When it was burning well, he turned and saw Alexandra. The light did not so much illuminate her as love her, touching her dark hair with auburn and gold. The braid falling to her hips, her fur cloak, and her determined cheekbones made her seem a figure of northern legend, a warrior-goddess. She was twelve years his junior, though the difference in age did not show because the men of his family were oddly blessed to appear mature while still in boyhood, yet not showing signs of age until well past sixty. His hair was untouched by frost, his face lined only by experience, his body strong as it had been as a youth of twenty. As a youth of twenty, he had never imagined that he would one day love the princess. She had been a child then, pretty but unremarkable, and he had loved another. Vrushenka had been childhood playmate, first love, sister-in-arms. They had trained as warriors together over her mother's protests, gone to battle together, and would have been married had other obligations not interfered. Vrushenka had given her life to save Alexandra's, when the malicious Count Markoff had kidnaped the young princess. Looking at Alexandra now, he suddenly realized that his love for her was due in part to his loss of Vrushenka. He had left Tarlak after her death, wearing his sorrow like a yoke. During his travels, he had befriended David, Prince of Orain. Their adventures together had spanned many years. When Richard finally returned home, he found that the princess had grown from child to woman, and loved her more because Vrushenka had valued her enough to die on her behalf. He went to her, meaning to crush her tenderly into his embrace. Mistaking his intent, or perhaps recognizing his intent and sidestepping it, she held out the flask of brandy. He drank from it as she had, their lips touching the same surface moments apart. It was a poor substitute for the kiss he had wanted. She took it back from him, produced a handkerchief, and wetted the end with brandy. "Now hold still," she commanded, holding his wrist and dabbing the cloth against his abrasions. Richard showed no pain except in the tightening of his jaw, though it stung like fire. She cleaned both hands, then knelt gracefully to tend a scraped knee through a hole in his trousers. The sight of her kneeling before him, her head on a level with ... he stumbled backwards, drawing in a sharp hiss of breath as he banished the arousing thoughts from his mind. She looked up, concerned. "The wound must be cleaned no mater how it pains you," she scolded gently. "I shall tend it myself," he said. Carefully expressionless, she rose and offered him the cloth. He took it without speaking. She retreated to the long sofa before the fire, drawing her feet up beneath herself. The light flickered and danced along her temples. Finished with his wounds, he dug into the sack and came up with the food the steward had provided. A hard round loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, a large chunk of smoked devilfish, some winter- shriveled apples. He hadn't yet eaten and his stomach began speaking. He sat by Alexandra, not as close as he would have liked, and divided the food between them. With food and fire, their spirits soon lightened. He told her tales of his adventures, sharing the amusing or exciting and leaving out those dark and grim. Her laughter was a delight to him. The men who followed him on the battlefield might not have recognized their commander, usually stern and silent, mimicking a goblin or the rapid accents of a Rakvian merchant. "Rakvi is the land of a thousand sayings," he told her. "Each one more absurd yet profound than the last. You would find it amusing, Highness. If, that is, you would consent to be veiled and go nowhere without a male escort." "Would you prefer that, Richard? Would you wish me to walk at your heel docile as a lamb?" "You would not walk at my heel. A free woman, being courted, would walk at a man's side. Right or left, I disremember which. But in answer, no. I would not want to see your beauty veiled. Anatole Himself would be moved to tears if His divine light could fall no more upon your face." "I note that you made no mention of docility," she said with a slight smile. "You would never be docile, lady. Any man would be a fool to wish it." He kissed her hand. "You are not a fool, then?" "I did not say that. If I am foolish, it is with different cause." Still holding her hand, he turned it over and pressed a lingering kiss into the palm, a daring move but well worth it as she allowed her eyes to drift closed. He dared even more with his next words. "Alexandra. Ah, gods, I feared you would be harmed, and the thought alone nearly destroyed me." "I, too, was frightened," she admitted. The dim light, the solitude, seemed to make these confessions easier, Damon's darkness a comforting cloak that permitted disclosure. "When I saw you fall, I knew fear sharp as an icicle." "I pray to never again cause you fear or sorrow," he said earnestly. "I am and shall always be your devoted friend. Had something happened to you, I know not what I would have done." She slid closer to him, resting her hand on his arm. "I am safe, dear Richard, my most loyal protector." "I will always be so, if you are willing." "Can you in faith make such a vow? You might someday have other obligations." "Only death could prevent me from fulfilling a promise to you. Do not doubt me. My resolve is firm." "Is it?" she asked, in her voice a sudden and surprising throaty purr. He blinked, startled at her boldness, then smiled. "Very. Firm as iron, as it always is when I am with you." She slid even closer, settling his arm around her as comfortably as if it had been thus many times before, though aside from dancing he had never touched her so intimately. She rested her head on his shoulder. "For once, we are alone." "Yes," he said, unsure, wondering what she meant by it, if she was offering some invition or merely commenting on the peacefulness. Probably the second, he decided. Now that they were warm and rested, the sound of the storm outside seemed no longer threatening but enclosing. Alexandra sighed contentedly. "I could fall asleep here. Not for a long time have I felt so secure." "Sleep if you wish. There is little else to do until the locksmith arrives, and that will not be until tomorrow at the earliest." She laughed softly. "How many men, in this situation, would say such a thing? Here, alone together with no way for anyone to intrude, how many men would not attempt some indiscretion?" He placed his fingertips under her chin and tipped her head up. "I cannot speak for other men. For myself, I will let my actions be the answer." For a moment, she stiffened under his kiss and he was sure he'd misjudged, but then she melted sweetly against him. How long had it been since a man had kissed her, he wondered? Since the death of her last suitor? He had been waiting for this moment, anticipating it for more than a dozen years, and found to his happy surprise that it was even better than his hopes. When at last she leaned back, her eyes were dark and dreamlike. "Was that indiscretion?" she murmured. "For it did feel like purest bliss to me." "Perhaps another might determine which it was?" "Perhaps." She raised her lips to him again. This time he dared kiss her openmouthed, and she readily relaxed beneath the pressure of his lips, darting her tongue quickly against his. He held her tightly, unable to believe that one woman could fit so perfectly within the circle of his arms. A rush of intense yet reverent desire went through him. No other woman, and there had been many, had affected him in this way. Not even his first love, Vrushenka, for theirs had been the guileless explorations and exuberance of youthful curiosity. His passion for Alexandra was akin to religion. That second kiss became a third, then a fourth, and then Richard lost count. Their embrace was warm and languid, sensual yet oddly chaste. Conscious as he was of her full bosom pushing against his chest, he would not even contemplate moving his hand up from her slim waist. Until she took hold of his wrist, and with gentle but firm insistance, moved it herself. He gasped softly but did not resist. He caressed her reverently, marveling at the warmth of her skin. He had been with countless women in his time, from wenches to queens, and none of his experiences with them, no matter how tempestuous, rivaled this moment. She broke their kiss and gazed at him. "I want you to make love to me," she said. "I want that too, more than anything," he replied. "Tonight, Richard. Here tonight." He stared at her, certain he had misheard, pulling slightly away. "Alexandra ... I thought you planned to wait 'til you were wed?" "Then be my husband, Richard. Promise that you will marry me. For there is no one in Tarlak I love more than you." "I am surely dreaming," he said. "Or dying, perhaps, and Damon has in His mercy given me this last wondrous vision." "It is no dream," she said, moving his hand again to her breast. "Does that not feel real? Oh, Richard, I have waited too long for you to speak! I know that you love me. Has Orain called to you so strongly that you feel you cannot be mine?" "Never! I have been yours from the moment I saw you grown to womanhood! With all of your sorrows, I feared that you would be reluctant to accept a new suit so soon. With wars and my travels, there has never since been a right time. I would marry you tomorrow if that is your desire, tonight, even, if we could but get to the chapel." "A wedding, especially one for which the people have been so long waiting, must be done amid proper pomp and ceremony. That will take much time, but if you are willing, our own exchange of vows will be binding in my eyes." "How can it be, that after all of these years and all of my intentions, it is you who does the asking? I have been a fool, Alexandra." "Be a fool no longer. Be my husband tonight." She kissed him again, soft and brief. "What say you, Sir Richard?" "I say yes, princess. Further, I promise you this: the day the weather permits travel, I am bound for Orain, there to settle my affairs and find another to hold my lands. I shall bid farewell to David and Rowena and come home to Tarlak. Once that is done, I will be forever at your side, as much as you'll allow." "You will forsake Orain for me?" "I would forsake my life for you." "You'll have to rule Tarlak with me," she cautioned. "That is a burden I am willing to bear." He touched her dark hair, traced her lips with his fingertip. She sucked it into her mouth, her eyes holding his captive. It was all too simple to imagine some other part of him there in place of his finger. He had never expected such suggestiveness of her! Letting his finger slide from between her lips, she said, "How kind of my father, in his desire to protect me, to lock me in a chamber with a large bed." "Yes, how kind," he murmured, still half-convinced that this was some dream. Upon awakening, he would doubtless writhe in shame at entertaining such thoughts of the princess. "Shall we see if it has remained comfortable despite the years?" She stood, holding out her slim arms to him. He rose and let her lead him to the bed. The End
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Winter Princess / Copyright 1996 - Tim Morgan /