Friday, November 2, 2012

The Goddess's Choice by Jamie Marchant

The crown princess Samantha fears she’s mad; no one but she sees colors glowing around people. The peasant Robrek Angusstamm believes he’s a demon; animals speak to him, and his healing powers far outstrip those of his village’s priests. Despite their fears, their combined powers make them the goddess’s choice to rule the kingdom of Korthlundia.
In my sword and sorcery novel, The Goddess’s Choice, Samantha’s ability enables her to discern a person’s character through their multi-colored aura, and Robrek’s makes him the strongest healer the kingdom has seen in centuries. But their gifts also endanger their lives. Royals scheme to usurp the throne by marrying or killing Samantha, and priests plot to burn Robrek at the stake. Robrek escapes the priests only to be captured by Samantha’s arch-enemy, Duke Argblutal; Argblutal intends to force the princess to marry him by exploiting Robrek’s powers. To save their own lives and stop the realm from sinking into civil war, Robrek and Samantha must consolidate their powers and unite the people behind them.
The Goddess’s Choice is based on a Norwegian fairy tale, “The Princess and the Glass Hill.” Though my favorite fairy tale as a child, it disturbed me that the female character has no name and no role other than being handed off as a prize. My novel remakes the crown princess of Korthlundia into a strong heroine who is every bit as likely to be the rescuer as the one rescued. 


Chapter 1

“Please, no!” Robbie Angusstamm screamed as his father’s heavy strap came whistling down on his bare back. He tried to yank his hands free, but his brother Boyden held them tightly against the dining room table. Sulis-curse it! Why do I have to be such a worthless weakling? He promised himself he wouldn’t scream again, but he screamed just as loudly the next time the strap hit.

“Sleeping by the river in the middle of the goddess-cursed afternoon! How many times must I beat you before you learn responsibility, boy?” His father brought the strap down even harder.

“I didn’t mean to!” But Robbie’s explanation turned into another scream of pain as the strap landed again and again.

Robrek let out a humiliating whimper when his father finally stepped away and Boyden let go of his wrists. Robbie clutched a chair for support and struggled to hold back his tears. By the goddess, don’t let them see me cry.

His father towered over him, red faced and scowling. “Learned your lesson, boy?” “Yes, sir,” Robbie said, ashamed of how pathetic he sounded.

“I’m not going to have to send your brother looking for you again, am I, boy?” Angus Camlinstamm loomed over Robrek, making him feel even shorter than he was.

“No, sir.”

“All right, then. Stop lazing around like a fool and get your chores done.” Angus hung the strap on its peg by the door. “If you finish before dinner’s over, I may consider letting you join us.”

Like that will ever happen! Robbie clutched at his empty stomach, knowing he’d get nothing to eat before breakfast. He pulled his shirt carefully over the welts on his back and stumbled toward the back door.

As he passed through the kitchen, one of the servants quickly drew the star of Sulis in the air to ward off his evil. He hated it when people did that, but how could he blame them? He caught his reflection in the shiny pots that hung from the kitchen wall. Dark black hair, the color of night and demons. Green eyes, unlike those of the children of the goddess. Skin, darker than natural. He was also so short his brother called him a worm.

Robbie stepped outside and drew two large buckets of water from the well. He staggered toward the barn, the weight of the buckets bending him forward and pressing his shirt against his back. Praying none of the servants or farmhands would see him, he set the buckets down and emptied some of the water. His father would beat him again if he knew, and Boyden would laugh at his weakness. Boyden could carry hundred pound sacks of grain as if they contained feathers. Boyden was everything their father wanted in a son.

Boyden hadn’t killed their mother.

When he reached the barn door, he shouted for Allyn or Darien to open it, but no one came. The two farmhands were supposed to help him with the animals, but this wouldn’t be the first time they’d used Robbie getting in trouble as an excuse for taking the night off. They knew he wouldn’t risk another beating by telling on them.

Robbie sat the buckets down to open the door. The barn was large, with plenty of room for the dozen cows, ten horses, and four mules as well as for the large pig and her half-dozen piglets. When he entered, the cows mooed happily. The horses and mules neighed and stomped their feet in greeting. A bird whose wing he’d mended flew down from the rafters and landed on his shoulder. It nibbled his ear affectionately. The animals’ joy seeped into his body like a warm, living current, strengthening him against both exhaustion and pain. Animals couldn’t sense the evilness in his soul. Only here was he loved.

The animals’ welcome quickly turn to cries of thirst. He cursed himself for making them wait so long for water. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep by the river, but he’d been up most of the night helping a neighbor’s goat with a difficult birth. “It will be alright. Robbie’s here now. Just be patient, and I’ll get water for all of you.” The animals all quieted. They knew they could depend on him.

It took several more trips to the well to get enough water, and by the time he’d finished, his head was swimming from exhaustion and pain. But he was far from finished.

He started in on the milking, and the large, gray-striped barn cat twined around his legs, mewing for attention. “Hello, Ronan. Taking care of the mice and rats for me?”

:Of course.: Ronan licked his paws as if getting the last taste of a recent kill. :Good hunting.: Robbie didn’t exactly hear Ronan’s words; it was more that he got an image or feeling from the cat’s mind. He didn’t know why he could understand animals; he’d always been able to. Perhaps it was another sign of his demon blood.

Robbie placed the milk in the icehouse. He then turned to cleaning the stalls and feeding the animals. When he entered Wild Thing’s stall, the mare neighed. :Wild Thing stomp father bully to mash.: Robbie hugged his horse around the neck.

With Wild Thing, communication had always been particularly strong, and her mind seemed much more complex than other animals. He supposed this was because Wild Thing wasn’t a normal horse. Four years ago he’d found the days-old foal out on the plains, near the body of her dead mother. She’d been half mad with hunger and fear. Her brilliant coloring, somewhere between chestnut and auburn, and the stars on her chest and forehead made it obvious she was a Horsetad. The herd of wild horses roamed free on the plains of Lundia, and people said they could never be tamed. The origin of the Horsetads was highly debated. Ages ago, some said, Sulis herself had ridden her chariot in the land, and her horses had mixed with those of earthly origins. Others said the Horsetads had escaped from the seven hells and their demon masters and were forever unwilling to allow anyone to master them again.

Robbie rubbed his face against her, chocking back a sob. “Wild Thing, girl, why can’t I do anything right? Why did I have to be born evil?”

Wild Thing stomped her hoof. :Not evil. Robbie good.:

Robbie knew she was wrong, but he didn’t argue. Wild Thing might well be a demon herself. Many in the Valley thought so.

It was very late when he finally stumbled up to bed. Despite his hunger and the pain in his back, he was so tired he fell almost immediately asleep.

* * *

Early in the morning, Robbie stirred. When he tried to sit up, his back protested. But he knew the pain wouldn’t last too long. His demon blood made him heal more quickly than other people. He struggled to his feet and carefully got dressed. He brushed the tangles from his long, curly hair and tied it back with a strip of leather. He felt the smoothness of his face, wondering if he’d ever grow a beard. At sixteen, a lot of boys had at least some hair on their faces. Then again, he’d never heard of a demon with a beard.

As he left his room, the pain of an injured animal pressed against his mind. He hurried outside and heard a faint mewing. He followed the sound to the back of the barn and found Ronan covered in blood. Robbie knelt beside the cat and stroked his head. “What happened to you, boy? Don’t worry, Robbie’s here.” Robbie cradled the cat in his arms and carried him inside the barn where he kept his medicines.

As Robbie examined the injury, he sighed in relief. “It’s not as bad as I thought, my boy. Some of this blood isn’t yours. Got a few licks in yourself, did you?” Ronan mewed feebly, and Robbie saw an image of Ronan fighting several overgrown rats. Robbie cleaned the wound carefully. Then he treated it with one of his salves. Robbie couldn’t explain how he knew how to make his remedies. No one had taught him. Certain plants just seemed to make good medicines, and certain medicines felt as if they’d help a particular problem.

As he rubbed the salve in, a trickle of energy moved through his fingers into Ronan. The sensation resembled other men’s descriptions of the pleasure to be found with a woman. Ronan’s wound began to heal. Holy Sulis, what is this I do? If being a demon feels this good, maybe I shouldn’t mind being one!

By the time Robbie finished bandaging the wound, Ronan had drifted into a peaceful sleep.

* * *

After completing the morning chores, Robbie found his father outside the barn talking to Cullen Bevinstamm, a neighboring farmer. “Angus, you know all my money’s gone into seed, but I’ll pay you a tetra at harvest.”

Angus scowled. “How do you know you’ll even have a harvest? Do you have any of your wife’s preserves left?” Cullen’s wife was rumored to make the best preserves in the Valley, not that Robbie had ever tasted any.

The man nodded, glancing nervously at Robbie. “Yes, I think there are four or five jars.”

“Send all you have back with the boy, and I’ll wait for the money.” Robbie’s father stomped back to the farmhouse without even looking at him.

Cullen licked his lips nervously, and Robbie looked down at his feet, feeling both angry and ashamed. He hated it when people were scared of him, but he knew they had reason to be. “You have a sick animal?” he asked, still not meeting the man’s eyes.

Cullen backed farther away as he explained what was wrong with his plow horse. It sounded like the lung sickness. Robbie fetched his supplies and saddled Wild Thing.

On the ride to his farm, Cullen stayed far away from Robbie and said nothing. Robbie tried not to mind. Farmers came to him because he was far better at treating animals than anyone else in the Valley, but Robbie knew they wished they had another choice.

When they neared the farm, Cullen rode a little closer. “Just so you know, I’ve sent my wife and children to her sister’s for the day.”

Just what do you think I’d do to them? I’d never hurt a woman or a child. I’d never hurt anybody. But even as he thought it, he knew it was a lie. Couldn’t his demon blood cause harm even if he didn’t mean it to? It had killed his own mother.

They dismounted in front of Cullen’s small stable. The farmer led him inside, still careful to keep his distance. As soon as Robbie entered, his lungs tightened, making it difficult to breathe. A bay gelding coughed and wheezed. Robbie touched the horse to be sure of the extent of the illness. “He has the lung sickness, like I thought,” Robbie said.

He had the man light a brazier, and he set about brewing a remedy for the horse. “I’ll give this to him now, but he’ll need the dose repeated three times a day for a week. Come fetch me again if he’s not acting better in a day or so.” As he put herbs of differing amounts into the mixture, he explained the process to the farmer.

“Sounds a bit complicated,” Cullen said. “I’ll fetch you some paper and ink, and you can write it down.”

“I have better things to do than writing down remedies,” Robbie snapped. He wasn’t about to admit he was too stupid to either read or write. Father Gildas hadn’t allowed him to attend the temple school, claiming the knowledge of the goddess shouldn’t be shared with the seed of demons.

* * *

Just after noon, Robbie started back to his father’s farm with three jars of strawberry and two jars of peach preserves in his saddlebags. He felt lightheaded, and his stomach ached with hunger. Cullen hadn’t offered him so much as a piece of bread, and because of Ronan, he’d missed breakfast on top of not being allowed to eat supper the night before. By the time he reached home, the noon meal would be over.

As he took a shortcut through the woods, he got out one of the jars of preserves. “My girl, do you think my father would ever know there were five jars instead of four?”

Wild Thing’s ears flicked in answer. :Robbie hungry. Wild Thing hungry. Nice grass there. Nice jar thing here.:

Robbie knew Wild Thing was suggesting they stop at the abandoned stable up ahead. He’d found this stable when he was twelve, during one of his wanderings through the woods looking for plants for his remedies. It consisted of a small barn with four stalls and a fenced-in paddock with grass for grazing. A small stream ran alongside it, and it had been in surprisingly good condition for an abandoned structure. He’d fixed it up to use as a private retreat. He stopped beside the stream and opened the jar and reveled in the sticky sweetness of the fruit; it was the best preserves he’d ever tasted. He made sure to wash any sign of the preserves from his hands and face before heading home.

* * *

In Robbie’s dreams that night, the demon lady came to him again. He’d dreamed of her for as long as he could remember. She always dressed in brightly colored, loose-fitting clothing; tonight she wore scarlet, trimmed with bright silver braid. Like him, the lady had black hair, green eyes, and dark skin. As a child he’d longed for sleep, where he could curl up in her arms and listen to her stories and songs. But as he’d gotten older, the dreams had begun to trouble him. If demons loved him, didn’t it mean he was as evil as people said he was?

Tonight she approached through a fog of mist, the sunlight forming a halo around her. She gathered him in her arms. “I love you. You won’t always be alone.”

Chapter 2

The Princess Samantha sat at her dressing table and glowered at her reflection as her maids dressed her hair for the ball. She detested balls and loathed the hundreds of suitors who flocked around her, spouting empty flattery: “I have never seen a lovelier flower, Your Highness!” or “Your eyes rival the brilliance of the stars, Your Highness!” If I hear that one again, I’ll vomit. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if even one of them meant it. Sometimes she wished . . . She pushed the thought away. She was the heir to the throne. She couldn’t expect romance.

“Let us be painting your face tonight, Your Highness!” Ardra begged, in her north Korthian accent. Samantha’s maid was as small and slight as the princess herself and had hair so blonde it was almost white.

“Yes, Your Highness,” Malvina chimed in. “Lady Shela’s maids said just yesterday we couldn’t possibly know our business cause you never wear paint.” Malvina, more of a typical Korthlundian woman, was tall and broad and not nearly as pretty as Ardra.

“Lady Shela,” Samantha snorted in disgust. Shela wore so much paint she resembled some ghastly sea creature. Samantha knew she wasn’t pretty, but she was fond of the freckles that speckled her nose and thought the emerald green brilliance of her gown set off her white skin and auburn hair beautifully. Besides being appallingly uncomfortable, paint would absolutely spoil the effect. The princess gestured toward the huge portrait that covered one wall of her bedchamber. “Do you think Danu wore paint?”

Malvina shrugged. “The Princess Danu was said to be a powerful sorceress, Your Highness. She probably didn’t need to wear paint to attract men.”

Samantha laughed bitterly, as she thought of the army of men waiting below. “I wish not wearing paint was all it took to scare them off. They say Danu never married, and see how happy she is.”

Samantha yearned for Danu’s freedom. The long dead princess was laughing as she galloped across the fields. Danu’s auburn hair flew out behind her in the wind. The stars on the forehead and chest of her horse shone against its gorgeous coat. Samantha loved this painting, which was just as well because it was bolted to the wall and couldn’t be removed without tearing her chambers apart. She’d decorated the rest of her bedroom to match. Tapestries of horses covered the walls. Her dressing table, armoire, and large four-poster bed had horses carved into the woodwork. A quilt, embroidered with horses and stars, was spread over the bed. The mantle over her fireplace sported figurines of horses in gold, silver, jade, crystal, and precious stones. Every new ambassador added to her collection.

“Your Highness, you’ll be having to marry one of them eventually,” Ardra persisted. “The king won’t be letting you hold out forever. You are seventeen, after all. Your mother was only thirteen when she married the king.”

“You needn’t remind me, Ardra.” Samantha picked up her silver-backed brush from the dressing table. The gift from the Neaserian ambassador was inlaid with an amber Horsetad; diamonds marked the stars at its forehead and chest. She fingered it lovingly. “Do you think it’s true Danu rode a Horsetad?”

“So the bards sing of her,” Ardra said.

Malvina made an impatient noise in her throat. “And they also sing her kiss turned suitors into toads! You don’t really believe such nonsense, do you, Your Highness? Nobody can tame a Horsetad.”

“No, I suppose not,” the princess sighed wistfully, then smiled at the toads that hopped around the feet of Danu’s horse. How I wish my kiss could do that!

Finally, her maids were finished weaving the jewels through her hair and had attached the simple gold circlet of the heir. Samantha tried to take a deep breath, but was prevented by the tightness of her corset. “That’s it. This is the last time I wear a corset. Have my dresses altered to fit without one. And don’t lecture me about fashion. I’d rather be able to breathe.”

Before her maids could protest that her breasts were small enough with a corset, she left the room. She passed through her reception room, which was decorated in a similar style to her bedroom and contained more ambassadorial gifts. She paused in front of her favorite tapestry—a white mare at the edge of the forest, helping her newborn foal stand. Wishing she was heading for the stables instead of the ballroom, she forced her face into a court smile and left her chambers.

Her two bodyguards bowed and fell in behind her. The princess couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been followed by two heavily armed men. She’d grown so used to them she often forgot they were there.

* * *

A full crowd tonight, of course. While the possibility of wearing a crown still exists not even a deadly plague would keep the hordes away.

The princess entered the vast ballroom. Behind the dais at the top of the ballroom was the king’s standard—a brilliant yellow sun on a field of red. Next to it was a smaller standard in her own colors—a white horse head on a field of emerald green. The walls were lined with the standards of all the noble houses of Korthlundia; most sported images of ferocious beasts or weapons of war. If I’m supposed to be maintaining the peace, why do I have to dance in a room that celebrates war? Her father claimed they couldn’t redecorate the ballroom without the risk of offending one or more of the Korthlundian noble houses. But Samantha doubted she’d like balls any better no matter how the room was decorated.

As Samantha moved through the crowd, the courtiers parted and bowed. All the men attempted to catch her eye, and the smiles of the women failed to mask their jealousy.

She mounted the dais where her father and members of the royal council awaited. King Solar beamed at her. His long white hair and beard flowed around his head, giving him the appearance of the wise old man from the bards’ tales. She bowed to him, and he quickly extended his hand, raised her, and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Despite his insistence that she marry, her father did love her. The princess knew she should consider herself lucky. Most royal children had no choice in a spouse, but her father had left her free to choose among the men of appropriate rank. But as she looked over the sea of hungry male eyes, the thought of marrying any of them nauseated her. If only marrying them didn’t mean I had to bed them.

Beside the king, Uncle Caedmon smiled at her. Caedmon, duke of Tuath and Boirche, was her mother’s uncle and had been her father’s chancellor since she was two years old. He had very bushy eyebrows that gave the impression he was always looking down on people. But he was one of the few members of her father’s council she liked, and he was the only one who exhibited no designs on the throne. His only son had married before she was born.

Immediately after the king announced the opening of the ball, Argblutal, the Duke of Handgriff, stepped forward to claim the first dance with her. No one else ever dared ask her until the duke had had his turn. Like every Korthlundian man, Argblutal was tall, broad-shouldered, and blue-eyed. Many of the other girls found him handsome. Samantha wasn’t sure why. He was nearly twice her age, and she hated the way he towered over her. He was dressed in a surcoat of black leather with long black velvet sleeves, trimmed in gold and crimson braid. He had several thick gold chains around his neck. From the largest of these hung a pendant of a panther, the symbol of his house. In defiance of court fashion, he wore his blond beard and hair cropped short. He and Duke Sheen were her closest living relatives on her father’s side, not that they were very close—third cousins or something. Both had thought to inherit the throne until her birth gave Solar a direct heir.

Argblutal bowed. “May I have the first dance, Your Highness?”

“I’d be honored, Your Grace.” She smiled her fakest smile and accepted his hand..

As the dance opened, the duke bowed low over her hand, sliming it with a kiss. “Your Highness, you are the brightest star in a shining crowd tonight.” It’s only the first dance, and I get the star thing already. Can’t anyone be original? Is there some book they all read? Fifty-two Compliments for Ladies. A Beginner’s Guide to Flattery. The duke danced stiffly, as if he disapproved of frivolity. “Your dress, it’s Saloynan silk, is it not, Your Highness?”

“No, it’s Neaserian. I find the weave so much finer. Don’t you?” The silk did feel delightful against her skin, but she found talk of fashion and fabric tedious. She’d never understood the other girls’ obsession with it, just as she never understood why they giggled so much.

“So I have heard, Your Highness, but it’s very difficult to come by. The Neasarians are more interested in trading spices than silk.”

This was true, but equally boring, so she smiled and made some inane comment. When the dance finally ended, Argblutal slimed her hand again. “Perhaps we can share another dance before the evening’s end, Your Highness.” Samantha merely smiled, surreptitiously wiping her hand on her gown. Only if all seven of the hells freeze over.

The next suitor in line was Lord Devyn, Duke Sheen’s oldest son. Devyn was only a couple of years older than the princess, but he looked younger. His chin was covered with only the lightest and most delicate of fuzz. The princess thought he’d look better if he shaved it. But, of course, he couldn’t do that; only the clergy shaved. “May I . . . . may I have this dance, Y-y-your Highness?”

As the dance began, Lord Devyn turned a dozen shades of red. “Y-y-your Highness looks just like a-a-a flower tonight.” It was obvious he didn’t want to dance any more than she did, but Duke Sheen was bent on controlling Korthlundia through his son. She’d heard the duke had threatened Devyn with the lash to force him to court her. Devyn was only comfortable among his paints and canvases. Besides, he was in love with Count Morfran’s daughter, Lady Aislinn. She wished just once some man would look at her the way she’d seen Devyn look at Aislinn.

Samantha noticed blue paint under his fingernails. “And how is your latest creation coming. Working in blues, I see.”

Devyn gaped. “I’m doing a seascape, Your Highness, but how could you know?” When she glanced at his fingers, he curled his fingernails into his fists. “Your Highness, how could I have been so neglectful? My father will kill me.” Devyn was a nice boy, but she wished his father would leave him to his art and his lover.

After Devyn, the princess worked her way through her father’s council—Count Kane; Baron Arawn’s son, Revelin, the biggest bully among the younger set; Weylin, Count of Faoghaid; and a host of other nobles of varying degrees of importance. Nola, Count of Meillid, looked on wistfully. The count was nearly as round as he was tall, and it was rumored he’d do away with his wife if he thought he stood a chance of capturing the princess’s hand. He had a five-year-old son, and Samantha thought it a wonder Nola didn’t send the toddler to court her.

* * *

The king went to bed at midnight, but Samantha was forced to stay and dance with suitor after suitor.

“Might I dance with the stars of heaven tonight?” Count Pandaran, the only member of her father’s council she hadn’t yet danced with, asked. He always danced with her late in the balls; maybe he felt he was saving the best for last. He wore a surcoat of bright turquoise, edged with yards and yards of delicate lace. His hair and beard hung in long, blond ringlets. The princess smiled a court smile and took his hand. She cringed at the smoothness of his palms. The damned fool doesn’t even know how to wield a sword. The hands of most of the men at court were like hers—rough and calloused from weapons training.
As they whirled around the ballroom floor, a soft glow of rotten orange erupted around Pandaran. A steaming heat seeped from the orange and poured over her, coating her body with a slime so thick a dozen baths wouldn’t cleanse her. The princess nearly cried out in despair. Not the colors again! I thought I’d gotten rid of them! It had been several months since she’d spent all night, kneeling at the altar in the palace chapel and praying for the goddess’s help. She’d felt the goddess’s peace and thought the terrifying colors gone forever. But again she’d been wrong. When she’d first seen the colors, she’d gone in disguise to the Temple of the Mother’s Love. It was the only time she’d ever given her bodyguards the slip. She’d confessed her sins to a priest and told him about the colors. The priest had insisted she was under the influences of the denizens of darkness and that her soul was in great peril. He’d performed an exorcism, but it hadn’t worked. Nothing had. Maybe it’s not demons; maybe I’m insane.

The princess was so upset after her dance she fled the room without giving an explanation. She ignored the questions from her bodyguards and her maids, but she was shaking by the time Ardra and Malvina had finished undressing her and taking down her hair. When she was finally alone, she curled up into a ball on her bed and prayed to the goddess.
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