Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Tale from Gelu

There once was a kingdom named Gelu, which was built on a mountain where the timberline trembled just half a mile from the castle walls. It was always frigid, and snow decorated each nose whenever the people stumbled outside. However, as cold as the kingdom was, the people were equally as warm. Whenever a stranger came into a village, he or she was always invited to many firesides to spend the night and was gifted with stews hearty enough to satiate a blacksmith.

The people were very happy, but the king was not. King Mons was a very passionate man who loved his kingdom with all his heart. He had spent his youth and his best years in pursuit of providing hardy crops to his people and serving justice as he saw fit. Now, he realized he had never loved, so caught in his royal duties.

Very confused at how he should get love, he called to his minister. “Minister Balatro,” King Mons said, “I am very lonely, and I yearn for love. How do I go about finding it?”

Minister Balatro was very old and was wise in many matters. However, relations were not one of them. He had never wanted a woman, so he could not understand the king’s distress. However, he was determined to provide the king with all the second hand wisdom his studies had allowed him to possess. “Well, your majesty, a love fit for a king should only be the most beautiful of loves. You should scour the kingdom for the loveliest of young women to take as your wife. That is how you’ll find your love, and you will surely be happy.”

King Mons followed Minister Balatro’s advice, and he went to every village and examined every beautiful maiden to find the one without compare. In the tiny village of Gauisus where snowdrifts always leaned high over the occupants, King Mons met the mason’s daughter, Turpis. She was but fourteen, but she had the hair of mahogany and skin kissed pink by snow. Her lips were carved into a cupid’s bow and her open eyes could harbor no unease. Those that met her could not help but be delighted in her presence, as was King Mons. It was said one could live off of her fair radiance in the freezing snow for a week as her warmth overcame even the coldest of nights.

Even to a king, the mason did not want to lose her. However, as a loyal subject, the mason knew his place and dutifully handed over his only daughter. King Mons married Turpis to the great delight of the kingdom the next day.

For a while, King Mons was very happy. His wife was very beautiful to look at, and he needed nothing more than a rest for his eyes. Queen Turpis, for her part, found the castle to be very agreeable. Although she missed her father dearly, there were many diversions for a curious lady when the king was indisposed, so caught up in his royal duties.

It is said that the first flower to bloom is the first to wilt. Such was the case of Turpis. Slowly, her cheeks lost their blush and their bloom. Her hair darkened. Her gentle curves disappeared. Even her open eyes grew strained and dark from many years of embroidery and reading in the light of a candle. Indeed, by the time of Turpis’s twenty-fourth birthday, only a decade since she had wed the king, she could have made for his matronly sister.

The king was displeased. She was no longer a joy to look at it. The furrow in her brow set a furrow in his. Her words grew sharp, confident, and arrogant under the tutelage of servants who bowed low and books who whispered high knowledge. Indeed, she no longer was the peasant girl who at each turn attempted to please the king from rescuing her from poverty. She had grown into a haughty queen who did not deign to run to the king’s beckon call. Instead, she laughed when she thought him silly and called him “Mons-y Poo.”

The king called to his minister to ask him what to do about his wife, now so ugly and blunt. As much as king disliked his wife’s transformation, the minister liked it twelve times less. The minister was very used to people soliciting him for help and taking his advice seriously. However, Queen Turpis often laughed at him when he suggested that she take more pains to be demure or solicit the king’s affection more. Even when he suggested she pray at the temple to beg forgiveness to the Gods for her sins, she would smile gratingly.

“Dear Balatro,” she said, forgetting his title as she always did, “if the Gods are so great and grand to create the world and all its peoples, why are they so shallow to demand that I worship them? I certainly do not wish my subjects to beg me to remove their sins and proclaim what a wonderful queen I am. I already know I am wonderful, and only they can learn from their faults.”

Minister Balatro did not wish her to be queen. He rightly thought her as vain and impetuous. However, King Mons and Queen Turpis had been lawfully married under the will of the Gods. Little could break such a union beside witchcraft and death. Minister Balatro was not so evil a man that he considered the latter, but the former was fast on his mind. Finally, he hatched a plot.

“Your Majesty, I have suspicions that Turpis is not the beautiful gem you thought you had found in Gauisus, but a witch. She cast a powerful spell upon you so that you would perceive her as a young maiden when she was really an old crone. Now, under the increasing strength of the Gods, the potency of her sorcery has wained,” the minister said confidently.

“But, I have been married to her for ten years. How can I have not have noticed?” King Mons asked, growing pale, as he always took the words of his minister very seriously.

“She had been stealthy in her pursuits, but have you not seen her sneaking into the royal library, claiming to study the histories and philosophies within that young woman are hardly wont to do? She is studying her evil spells. However, I understand your majesty is cautious and rightly so as a great monarch. We shall have to set up a trap to catch her in the act,” the minister said, hushing his words into a deathly whisper.

The king dropped his voice likewise. “How will we do that, wise Minister Balatro?”

“Leave it to me, your majesty. In a fortnight, come to the library at midnight, and the witch Turpis shall be revealed,” Minister Balatro said.

Minister Balatro had previously checked the books Turpis read in the library, which he always found to be the histories and philosophies Turpis described. However, this did not rule out that she had used a glamour spell to disguise her dark works. The only way to fight whatever powerful sorcery he suspected the queen used was through a powerful sorcerer.

There was only one known witch in Gelu whose was called Niveus. She lived far up in the mountains where there were no trees or animals, but only blistering wind and killing cold. It was said Niveus was the mistress of the Northern Wind and daughter of the Night. She drank the snow for strength and fed off the stars. She was said to be a cunning hag who always took more than she gave. However, Minister Balatru was convinced her could outsmart the woman and was desperate to unseat the queen.

He travel for seven days and nights, losing three toes to the cold, before he reached her ice cave. Inside, she was distilling the dreams from shooting stars to use for her spells in a giant pot that bubbled blue. She sung as she stirred, low, throaty words in the language before men. Only the shadows could highlight her existence, as her skin, hair, eyes, and clothes were so white she blended into the snow.

“Niveus,” Minister Balatru called to the crone. “I require your assistance.”

“I’ve been expecting you, Balatru of Gelu. You have a queen that displeases a great many people. I have felt in the stars. You wish me to kill her?” the woman asked in a voice like the howling wind.

“No, Niveus. I am not a demon of death. I only wish that the witch is not queen. I ask you to help me prove she is a witch. In seven days time, I wish that she will be caught in the library of the castle practicing dark magic. I will show this to good King Mons, and we will banish her from the kingdom so that a worthy queen may be set in her place,” said Minister Balatru, shivering, but not only because of the cold.

“But of course, the wise Minister Balatru would not wish blood on his hands,” Niveus murmured, still stirring the dreams.

“I have been told you have powerful magic, Niveus. Surely you can accomplish something as this,” said Minister Balatru, hoping to provoke the proud witch into action.

“Of course, I can, but I do not grant favors, Minister. I write contracts. What will I get for this action?” asked Niveus. She stopped stirring her dreams and recovered a vial from within the folds of her white robes. She let the vial hover over the pot, collecting the vapors, and then sealed the vial with a touch of a long gnarled finger.

“You can have whatever you want, Niveus. The kingdom has much gold it can offer-” the minister started.

“What use does Niveus have for such a petty thing as gold? No magic can be wrought from such lifeless ore. Iron yes, but not gold. And do not offer iron, dear Minister. I can provide for myself much better iron than you and your peasants could ever find. Instead, I want a promise,” said Niveus as she took another vial and held likewise above the pot, stoppering it with a pass of her hand.

“What must I promise, Niveus?” asked the minister.

“If the king and his true love do not kiss and devote their lives to each other a decade after he abandoned his queen, he shall marry me,” she said simply. The crone stepped away from her cauldron, planting two bony hands on her prodigious hips. Her eyes, sunk deep into her head, betrayed the ice and fire within her soul.

However, the minister was too relieved to think of such things. A decade was a very long time, after all. Surely the noble king could find love by then. “Of course, Niveus. I grant my consent.”

Niveus smiled, revealing a set of very white, pointed teeth. She whisked her hand twice around the first vial she filled, turning it red. She blew on the second vial, turning it blue. “Give the red to the king and the blue to the queen on morning before the midnight seance. The queen will be witchy, and the king will see it all. Turpis shall no longer be your queen, Minister.”

Minister Balatrus was so grateful, he set off back to the castle immediately to find the king eager to see him back. The queen had now taken to questioning the king’s decisions in all matters, from the most trivial of color preference to serious issues of justice. The king wished for his wife’s true nature to be revealed shortly. Luckily for he, the next day was a fortnight since the conference between king and minister. The next morning, Minister Balatru slipped the potions into the drinks of the king and queen and anxiously waited for night, hoping the loss of his three toes had not been in vain.

As midnight neared, the king met the minister near the library, clothed in black. They hid in the shadows of a great suit of armour and waited for the queen. A minute before midnight, she arrived, likewise dressed in black and gliding as a ghost through the halls. She slid silently into the library, and the two men followed her.

Then, she drew a piece of chalk from within the folds of her dress and drew an ancient rune on the floor of the library.

“See, she writes in blood of that poor white raven the mark of the dead,” the king whispered. The minister looked quickly from the piece of chalk in the queen’s hand to the king’s hardened expression several times before he realized that the potion he had slipped the king must have created an illusion.

Turpis retrieved a book of geography that Minister Balatru recognized and set in the middle of the rune. “And now she takes the Black Book, written by the Wild Folk of the West. She is a witch. We must stop her now before she casts her spell,” he whispered urgently.

Minister and king stepped out from the shadows as King Mons called out, “Witch.” He pointed an accusing finger at her chest as she took a horrified step back.

“Evil, beguiling, foul, vile witch! You enchanted me. You lied to me. I denounce you, demon, as ever being my wife. Your disgusting deeds are an aberration against the Gods and all that is good in life. Leave now before the sun crests that sky and may the Gods have mercy on your soul if you ever return to Gelu!” he commanded.

Former Queen Turpis took another hasty step back, her face turning pale and she mumbling words she could not enunciate.

“Out, witch, out! I shall show you mercy and not burn you as you deserve. Leave now, and I’ll let the wolves decide your fate. But, leave you must, or I shall call the guards, and as Minister Balatru as my witness, I shall run you through!” the king pulled a dagger from his belt. At the flash of steel, Turpis gathered enough of her senses to flee to her quarters where she awakened her handmaiden, Lenis.

“Good queen, what is the matter?” Lenis asked, rising from her bed instantly.

“I don’t rightly know. I can’t keep my thoughts in line. However, I know King Mons has accused me of being a witch, and I feel I cannot fight the accusation! He told me to leave Gelu, but where will I go? My father died many years ago. I have no other family. I have no friends besides you, Lenis. Whatever will I do? I am dead!” Turpis proclaimed, overcome with emotion. Turpis had never called Lenis her friend before, usually referring to the young woman as “girl” or “servant.” However, Lenis did not hold grudges.

Instead, Lenis, a girl whose heart broke for anyone, fell into tears over poor Turpis’s distress. “This is indeed a sorry state. I would never expect good King Mons to make such a base accusation. However, what words are said cannot be unsaid, and we will have to live with what has been done. We shall flee together to the Low Country beyond the borders of Gelu where my cousins reside. There are no appropriate lodgings for a queen-”

“Don’t you see, dear Lenis? I am no longer a queen. I am poor Turpis, the mason’s orphan without beauty or skill or redeeming virtue. I just want to live, dear Lenis,” Turpis begged, revealing the insecurities she had long covered in a blanket of condescension.

“You will always be a queen to me, Queen Turpis. However, if you are willing to shed the adornments for now, we shall slip into the night and find ourselves with my cousin in a month’s time.

Turpis did just that, changing away her jewels, setting her hair in a simple bun, and donning one of Lenis’s flimsy shifts and a coarse shawl. They set off on two horses with loafs of bread quickly garnered from the castle kitchen.

The two women escaped the town as day drew on. They were out of the country by the end of the week. Within three more, they found themselves at the impoverished farm of Lenis’s cousins.

The journey had been very hard on a woman so accustomed to luxury as Turpis. However, Lenis was very kind and understanding, which made Turpis very eager to improve. Thus, Turpis tried to control her vanity and caprice. The expedition in itself helped in that it was difficult  for Turpis to be as arrogant when she knew so little of traveling or forests.

Even so, Turpis took made her own leaps forward. Always a skillful student, she took quick to the lessons of the road. She learned to build a fire under Lenis’s instruction. She learned how to command a horse and trim his hooves. She learned to find edible fruits and mushrooms from the forests. She learned how to suffer through hunger and sleep on hard ground. She learned how to comb her own hair and wash her own face. She even learned how to relieve herself without a chamber pot!

She was so changed that when Turpis met Lenis’s cousins, none guessed that Turpis had once been queen, and she did not tell them. She was simply a lost soul abandoned by her lover, looking for a way to live. The cousins quickly gave her this in form of milking cows, shearing sheep, and pulling a plow.

Turpis suffered much in the early days. Her soft flesh, even after her trip, was unused to hard labor. Each day, however, the blisters on her hands grew harder into calluses, and her muscles in her arms and legs grew stronger into that of a farmhand. She became an asset to the family in not only her able body, but in her able mind. Her books she read before in the royal library had discussed agriculture, and the application of the knowledge made the the farm the richest in all the Low Country. Turpis found her happiness in a shepherd’s crook, a farmhand’s scythe, a spinning wheel, and other household implements as she worked her brain to provide further revenue for the house.

Unbeknownst to the king, something much more than a queen left with Turpis. Turpis carried his heir. The little girl, Astrum, grew besides her mother, learning to the skills of a laborer, but also the refinement of a curious mind, for with the extra income Turpis helped bring in for the farm, Turpis bought books. With these bearers of higher knowledge, Turpis taught Lenis, her cousins, and little Astrum to read.

Meanwhile, all was not well in Gelu. King Mons, whose hair had gone gray and bones creaked desperately needed an heir to lead his kingdom. However, none of the women of the kingdom appealed to him. He looked at the young maidens and the old spinsters, but all of them seemed a little too docile. Strangely, he found himself looking for that biting wit Turpis had always demonstrated and the sharp glimmer in her eye.

However, a king could not yearn for a witch.

As the years passed by, Minister Balatru grew more and more nervous. He had not told King Mons of his deal with Niveus as he knew he must reveal his deceit in marking Turpis as a witch. However, a month from the end of the decade, Minister Balatru admitted his lie.

At this, King Mons flew into a rage, lambasting the miserable minister for his egregious sin and banishing the poor fool from the kingdom. But, more than anger, King Mons was overcome with sadness. He had banished his wife because she was no longer in the flower of her youth. He knew how shallow he had been, and he knew he must find his dear Turpis.

He knew Turpis had left with Lenis, and after hearing of Lenis’s cousins in the Low Country, King Mons set off on his best steed.

The king, a skilled and accomplished huntsman but growing weaker in old age, ran into much misfortune. A tree snagged and tore his cloak asunder. He was forced to sell his crown and jewels for a new horse after a pack of wolves attacked his steed. Bandits hounded him by day and gray spirits by night. As he reached the broad, rich homestead of the cousins of Lenis, he looked little more than a beggar.

So feverish with want of food and water, he stumbled into arms of a strong, fair-headed, young farmhand with open eyes and hair of mahogonay, begging to see Turpis. The young girl nodded, and hoisted the old man on her shoulders, taking slow steps toward the barn.

In the barn, a woman with open eyes and  sun-darkened skin, a wrinkled brow and a youthful smile, a playful quip and a solemn kindness stood examining a cow carefully. She had the muscles of a man and wore neither jewels or rouge.

“Mother, this poor, old beggar wished to see you,” young Astrum called to her mother as the woman carefully observed an udder. “Oh, look, Mother. He’s crying. I haven’t the faintest idea why, the poor soul.”

“Pray, tell him the cows were here first and have been patient and that he must likewise wait his turn, but you know what we do with beggars, Astrum. We will feed him, clothe him, and-” Turpis stopped as she turned.

Mons fell in love with the real Turpis for the first time. He saw the beauty in the lines on her face, the fine musculature that represented her strength, the sharp kindness that made his heart melt, and her courage to say as she thought and act as she felt.

Turpis fell in love with the real Mons for the first time. She saw the confused man searching for right in a sea of responsibility. She saw the strength of his convictions. She saw the passion that drove him strong. She saw the man whose wisdom was often his undoing. She saw the man whom love had driven back to her.

“I am so sorry, Turpis,” Mons sobbed. “I was horribly foolish. I didn’t understand-”

Turpis put a finger to his lips. “Dear Mons, I should thank you. You have given me a chance to grow in ways I could never have imagined. You gave me back my life. You gave me a place where a child can learn to run and to read in which to raise my daughter, our daughter.”

King Mons, so disoriented by his travels, had not kept track of the time, he did not know that it was just moments before the end of the decade. He did not know his kingdom depended on a kiss. All he knew was that he loved his wife and she loved him. So, he kissed her with the passion of the lonely, sorrowful nights he had passed without her, and she kissed him in return with the passion of the sunlit days in which she had grown strong.

Some say Niveus was so upset to not be able to take control of the kingdom that she flew from Gelu, taking the North Wind with her. Others say that Queen Turpis was actually a powerful sorceress and drove the cold away upon her return. Still others say that the warm happiness of the king, queen, and princess were enough to melt the snow. Whatever the case, the reign of King Mons and Queen Turpis is remember as the start of the golden era of Gelu where farms were overflowing with food and children played in the green meadows. With the hard work and wit of the queen, the wisdom and justness of the king, and a precocious heir set to inherit it all, Gelu glowed with a brightness beyond other nations, and King Mons, Queen Turpis, Princess Astrum, and the entire kingdom of Gelu lived happily ever after.

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