The King and Her Queen

Chapter 6:  Maidenly Games


The next day, they gathered downstairs to have breakfast.  After breakfast, Merlyn announced that she was leaving on another trip.   

Airianne pouted greatly.  "Mama will be cross with ye."  she warned.

"Aye, aye.  She gave her permission already."  said Merlyn.  "Boy, ye will accompany me.  Pack light.  We journey on horse."

"What?  Why me?"  protested Shiro.

"Will ye let an old woman travel alone unprotected?"  replied Merlyn with a dramatic air.  "And besides, ye did say that ye wanted to visit Gwent."

Shiro immediately dismissed Merlyn's first reason since she was obviously a powerful mage.  But the second reason tugged at him like a kite on a string.  However, if he went, he would spend less time with Arturia.  The two choices weighed heavily in his mind.  He strengthened his resolve and decided.

"All right.  I shall be ready within half an hour."

"Good, good.  Meet me in the great hall."  said Merlyn.  She left to prepare as well.

When they had returned Arturia to her rooms, Shiro tapped Rin's arm.  "I have to talk to you."  said Shiro in Japanese.

Rin followed Shiro into his room.  "What is it?"  replied Rin in Japanese. 

Shiro closed the door behind her.  "It's about Arturia... she... seems different."

Rin cocked her head slightly.  "In what way?"

"She... she doesn't act like Saber."

"You make it sound like they're two different people."

"That's exactly like what it seems to me.  What do you think?"

Rin reviewed the past events in her mind.  Finally, she voiced her opinion.  "I think that... the Arturia we know now is the Arturia without the burden of Saber's past.  This persona is the essence of her personality."

Shiro stood deep in thought for a few seconds.  "I suppose so... it still bothers me though."

"Maybe it's too early to tell.  She's still recovering."

"Yeah.  And about that... will you look after her?  You know how stubborn she can be sometimes."

Rin realized that Shiro was referring to the persona of the headstrong Saber.  "Yeah.  I'll look after her and make sure that she doesn't do anything rash."

"Thanks."  said Shiro gratefully.  He stared at his pack and sighed.  "I guess I'll have to get packing." 

"Okay.  See you later."  She nodded and left Shiro's room.

-----------------------

In about half an hour, Shiro bid Arturia farewell.  Rin accompanied him to the great hall to see them off.  Airianne was there as well.  With teary eyes, Airianne bid her mother good-bye and waved as the platform descended into the tunnel.  When they could no longer see them, Airianne lowered a lever, and two stone slabs closed the mouth of the tunnel.

"Why do ye close it?"  asked Rin.  It seemed unlikely that intruders would attack from the tunnel.

Airianne replied, "To keep the bats out, of course."  Then she turned to walk onto the carpet.  Rin followed her.

While they walked down the hall, Airianne declared, "Methinks, I will accept yer offer of aid."

Rin recalled Airianne's grin in the kitchen yesterday.  She tried to dismiss her apprehension.  "How may I be of assistance?"

"Well, our home is rather large and requires a lot of cleaning.  And then, there's an indoor garden which I attend to."

"I understand.  What do ye wish me to do?"

"I have a list.  I will do half and ye will do the rest."  She held up a pack of cards.  "Winner decides the loser's chores.  And let us fetch Lady Arturia.  Twould be more fun with more players."

Rin groaned inwardly.  The loss of last night's game was still fresh.  "All right.  Whither will we play?"  They started walking to Arturia's room.

"In the sitting room." replied Airianne.

When they reached Arturia's room, Airianne knocked.  They entered with Arturia's permission.  To their surprise, they found Arturia leaning against one of the dressers and was obviously inspecting its contents.

"Thou can stand?!"  exclaimed Rin who rushed to where Arturia stood.

"Yea.  It seemst that I can bear weight upon mine right leg.  But I feel some pain when I move mine left."

"That's because thy pelvis and left thigh were fractured.  With thy permission, allow me to examine thee."

Arturia nodded and Rin held out her hand in front of Arturia to scan.  When she was done, she said in an awed voice, "Thy improvement from yesterday is astonishing.  In fact, thou will not need to be bandaged anymore."

"Oh.  Tis well then."  Although she was happy about her recovery, Arturia was a bit disappointed.

"I am glad for thee."  said Rin with a warm smile.  "Anyway, we hath come with a proposal."

Airianne explained the plan for the day.  Arturia smiled with amusement.  "I understand.  Let us go.  I am glad for an opportunity to avenge mine loss."

Airianne and Rin served as Arturia's crutches.  Together, they went to the sitting room.  They went to a wooden square table with four chairs around it.  The center of the table was inlaid with a curious pattern of lines and circles.  The chairs did not match at all.  Each one boasted its own unique style.

Airianne pulled out a chair for Arturia and Rin helped her sit on it. She also pulled out a chair for Rin as well and Rin thanked her for it.

"The pleasure is all mine."  replied Airianne with a mischievous smile.  She sat on a chair facing them and dealt the cards.  When she was done, her face broke out into the wide grin again.  "Let us begin." she said with ominous tones.

-------------------

Many games later, Rin acquired the most heinous chores on the list.  Airianne had won most of the games and assigned her to clean the privies, to gather eggs from the hen cages and to sweep the eagles' tower.  Arturia managed to win a couple and kindly assigned Rin to dusting the hall fixtures. 

Arturia also got some chores which did not require her to move about.

Rin wrapped a bandanna around her head with the word 'Fight' in japanese.  She would be a good loser and do a good job.  With painstaking patience, she completed each chore in turn and only took a break for lunch. 

It was about mid-afternoon when she was ready to sweep the eagles' tower.  Rin asked Airianne what it was.

"Tis where birds roost.  Tis located in the north tower."  Airianne gave her directions to the tower.

Rin followed her directions and came to an old wooden door.  The words 'Twr Eryr' were engraved into the wood.  Beside the door was a pail and a broom.  Rin tugged on the door and cringed as cold air whipped into the hallway.  She could hear the wind howl through the tower.  The tower was about fifty feet tall and was mostly hollow except for crisscrossing beams which served as structural support for the tower.  Its moss crusted stone walls were riddled with many windows.  Each window was about one foot by one foot.  The floor of the tower was a disgusting mess of bird droppings and pieces of unidentifiable rotting carcasses. 

Rin took the pail and the broom and began sweep the crud into the pail.  As she swept, she heard a rustle of wings and a screech.  She looked up and saw a falcon peering at her from one of the windows.  She stared at the falcon and it stared back.  Then the falcon turned and flew away.

Since her hands were getting cold, Rin quickly finished sweeping the tower and closed the door.  She dumped the trash at the nearest trash chute.  After such a disgusting chore, she felt like taking a bath.  The mere thought of the bath conjured up images of Arturia taking her clothes off.  She shook her mind vigorously. 

"What's wrong with me?"  she thought.  "I'm acting like a pervert."  She shook those images out of her mind and walked away from the disgusting tower.

She passed by the kitchen on her way to the bath.  Arturia was sitting at a table with sorted piles of beans and pea pods.  She was scooping twigs and leaves into a basket.  Her eyes lit up when she saw her.

"Hast thou finished thy chores, Rhynne?"

"Yea.  I am now on mine way to the bath."

Arturia remembered their conversation from yesterday.  Now was a good time to practice cleanliness.  "I am finished as well.  Let me join thee in the bath."

Rin took off her apron and offered her arm to Arturia.  Arturia reached out to her and leaned on her as she balanced herself on her good leg. 

A sickly stale odor permeated from Rhynne.  "Whither hast thou been?"

"The eagles tower.  A most despicable place.  I pray that I shall ne'er sweep it again."  They began to hobble towards the bath.

"I, too, shall pray.  This fragrance is ill suited for thee.  I shall help thee restore thy sublime scent."

A drop of sweat trickled down Rin's forehead and she wondered how Arturia would accomplish that.  When they were ready to wash, she found out how Arturia planned to do it.  To her great bewilderment, Arturia insisted on washing her back and her hair several times.  Unwilling to decline, she let Arturia do as she pleased.  For the next ten minutes, she submitted to Arturia's blissful torture.

Rin closed her eyes as Arturia poured water to rinse her.  As she rubbed the excess water from her eyes, she felt Arturia lean against her.  Her soft breath tickled her ear.  Her back detected the softness of Arturia's breast.

Arturia let her nose check her handiwork.  She sniffed next to Rhynne's ear, on the top of her head and the nape of her neck.  "The foul scent is gone."  she declared proudly.  She moved away from Rhynne, picked up some soft soap and began to wash her own hair.

At this point, Rin's fingers were pinching her nose as warm blood trickled onto her lip.  Her heart was beating rapidly.  A part of her wanted to  release the tension that she felt inside.  She stood up and ran out of the bath.  She went to the privy, closed the door and screamed into the towel. 

Meanwhile, Arturia sat staring at the door of the bath with confusion.  Her eyes wandered to where Rin sat.  A small red spot on the floor caught her attention.  She reached over and touched it.  Her eyes grew in alarm when she recognized what it was:  blood.

After her nosebleed ceased, Rin wrapped the towel around her and calmly walked into the bath.

"Art thou well, Rhynne?  Thou left in most haste."  asked Arturia in a concerned voice.  

"Yea.  I required use of the privy."

"Ah."  remarked Arturia and she did not ask further out of politeness.

They finished bathing and went to the dining room for dinner.  Only Airianne was at the dinner table.  When Rin inquired about her mother, Airianne replied that she was resting and will have her dinner later.  They ate their meal with light conversation.

Suddenly, a thought occurred to Rin.  "There art a lot of chores to do.  Canst ye use magic to aid ye?"

"Nay.  Mother forbid me to use magic."

"Didst she saith why?"

Airianne put her fork down.  "She saith that I am not ready to use magic.  I must wait until I come of age."

"How old art ye?"

"I hath lived here for thirty-six years e'er since I was born."

Her jaw dropped and Arturia gaped at Airianne.  "But... ye look so young!"  stuttered Rin.

"Aye.  Tis because the enchantment in the Aerie keeps mine youth.  Without it, mine body will fade in time."

Several ideas began to click in Rin's head.  She recalled Merlyn's arguments over the creation of a magic circuit.  A wave of pity washed over Rin's heart when she realized the source of her logic.  Merlyn had crafted Airianne into being, but at a price.  The Aerie was not only her womb, but her prison as well.  She could only nod her sympathy.  "I understand.  Anyway, what art yer plans tonight?"

Airianne's grin returned to her face.  "I dinna know yet.  Methinks, I will let fortune decide it."

By her answer, Rin knew exactly what Airianne had in mind.  With a smirk, she said, "We'll have to see who fortune favors, now, won't we?"

Airianne met Rin's challenge evenly.  "Aye."

-------------------

"And tonight's entertainment is... Tales of Adventure!" declared Airianne.  Airianne took her place in her favorite chair.  "Ye will both tell me a tale of yer choosing.  Begin when ye art ready."

Meanwhile, Rin was staring at the pair of cards that won the game.  Once again, victory was snatched from her grasp.  She was jolted from her melancholy by Arturia's voice.

"If I may, I shall tell mine tale from here."

Airianne rotated the chair in Arturia's direction.  "Please do."

"A wandering minstrel told this tale in mine father's hall when I was young.  I will do mine best to tell it as I hath heard it."  explained Arturia.  She took a deep breath and recited her tale with a rhythmic cadence. 
 'Of Robin Hood and his merry men,
  A tale to be told to thee.
  Cast thy cares, and listen
  And free thy ears for me.'

Rin sat back in her chair and listened to Arturia's rising and falling voice.  The rhythm of her voice mesmerized her.  She had never heard Robin Hood narrated like this.  She listened with rapt admiration.

When her tale was done, Rin and Airianne burst into applause.

"Twas well done, Lady Arturia!  Ye wert a fine minstrel."  clapped Airianne.

"Yea.  Tis the finest telling of Robin Hood that I hath e'er heard."  added Rin.

Arturia bowed.  "Mine thanks.  Thy praise is too kind.  And now, I yield the stage to Rhynne."

Rin stood up and went to the platform.  She may have lost the game, but she will not be outdone in this arena.  "Mine tale is from the far off Orient.  Tis about a lady who defied the bounds of tradition and fought for the good of all.  Hear me now, about the tale of Mulan."

Rin accompanied her narration with sweeping gestures.  With the aid of her theatrical training, she used her voice to add suspense and an aura of mystery.  She utilized her aikido training to enact the action scenes.  Finally, she reached the end of her story and bowed extravagantly. 

Airianne and Arturia clapped with equal fervor.  "Amazing, Lady Rhynne!  A fascinating tale!"  exclaimed Airianne.

"Agreed.  I shall ne'er forget thy performance."  said Arturia.

Rin wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand.  "Mine thanks."

"Come hither, Rhynne."  called Arturia.

Rin walked over thinking that Arturia was going to ask her to take her back to her room.  Instead, Arturia pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped the sweat from her brow and from her neck.

Airianne watched them in silence.  Rhynne's eyes never left Arturia's face as Arturia slowly wiped her sweat away.  The scene reminded her of Mama wiping Mother's face.  A pang of loneliness invaded her heart.  She missed her mother terribly. 

When she was done, Arturia took Rhynne's hand and pressed the handkerchief into her hand.  "A maiden must keep her appearance prim at all times."  she said with a smile.

"Yea."  said Rin softly, but she made no move to take her hand away.

They remained still for a few moments as if the time were suspended around them.  Airianne cleared her throat.  "Tis been a long day.  I will now retire and bid ye good night."  she curtsied and hurriedly left the room.  When she was out of sight, she wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her finger.  She made her way to Mama's room to seek comfort in her arms.

As Airianne left the room, Rin and Arturia called out,  "Good night!"  Then Rin faced Arturia and asked, "Shall we retire as well?"

"Yea.  Or... dost thou wish to play with me some more?"

Rin blinked several times as her mind processed several meanings behind that question.  Her sense of propriety selected the most innocent meaning.  But what would they play?  Her curiosity urged her to gather up her courage and find out.  "Yea... I would be delighted to play with thee.  Methinks, however, that Old Maid is poor a choice for a game of two."

"Nine men's morris is engraved upon the table.  Dost thou know how to play?"

Now that Arturia mentioned it, she recognized the layout.  On a whim, she learned the game at the Academy's medieval fair.  "Yea." 

"Tis well.  But first, we must find the pieces."  Arturia's hands slipped under the table.  "Canst thou find a drawer under the table?"

Rin felt under her side of the table.  "... yea."  She pulled the drawer open and selected black and white pieces from the various tokens within.  "Will thou have black or white?"

"White.  To decide who starts, each of us will draw a card.  The highest card starts first."

They drew cards and compared.  Rin started first.  She placed her pieces at the most strategic positions.  She thought that she had the advantage, but when they started moving their pieces, her pieces were forced to deadlocked locations.  One by one, her pieces were captured.  With four pieces left, Rin knew that she lost.

"I forfeit..."  she admitted dejectedly.

At Rhynne's crestfallen face, Arturia felt rather sad for winning.  She restored the board to the state before they started moving pieces.  "Thy game was well played... however..." 

Rin listened with rising admiration as Arturia replayed their game from memory and made comments about each move.  She began to have a deeper understanding behind the strategy in the game.

After her explanation, Arturia asked, "Dost thou wish to play some more?"

Rin grinned at her challenge, "Yea.  I hath learned from mine mistakes and wish to redeem myself."

Arturia was glad to see Rhynne's smile on her face.  She gave her pieces back.  "Then let us increase the stakes.  The one who hath the most losses shall grant the winner a boon."

"All right."

They drew their cards and began a new game with Arturia starting first.  They continued playing until the clock tolled midnight at the middle of their sixth game.

"Ah... tis late." remarked Arturia.  "I enjoyed playing with thee so much that I neglected to asked thee if thou wisheth to retire."  she said apologetically.

"Nay.  Be not, for I felt the same as well."  She looked at the board.  If only she could position her piece there, she might be able to win.  "Shall we finish this game?"

"Only if it doth not tire thee."

"Nay, I am anxious to win this time."

"So am I."  Arturia slid her move.

The game ended with Arturia winning.  Rin sighed in defeat.  "Twas well played.  Shall we?"  She offered her arm and helped Arturia stand up. 

"Ah, before I forget... hmmm... three out of two.  Thou must grant me a boon."

Rin gulped.  "What dost thou wish for?"

"Mayhap, I shall ask for it later."  Arturia picked up a black piece.  "Until then, I shall hold thy piece hostage."

Rin exhaled with relief.  If she was lucky, Arturia might forget about it.  Together, they exited the sitting room and limped back to their rooms.  She helped Arturia to the privy first before bringing her to her room and wishing her good night. 

Then she went into her room and sat on the bed.  She pulled the handkerchief from her pocket and gazed at it before bringing it to her cheek.  She remembered how it felt against her skin.  After a few minutes, she tucked it under her shirt and resolved to keep it close to her for the rest of the night.


-------------------


The day's list lay open like a sore wound after a harsh battle.  Rin slumped down onto the table.  If gods existed, then she must have offended one of them.  "Why... why... why?"  she asked herself as she thumped her fist on the table's surface. 

Arturia watched Rhynne as she cradled her head with her arm on the table in defeat.  She observed her with curiosity as Rhynne began to pound the table with her fist.  Arturia reached towards her but stopped just before she touched her hair.  She pounded the table once more and her sympathetic heart encouraged her to bridge the distance.  She stroked Rhynne's head gently.

"Tis but a game."  consoled Arturia.

"I know..."  mumbled Rin.

"Didst she coerce thee to participate in this game?"

Rin sat up and Arturia's hand slid to rest on her shoulder. "Nay.  I hath offered mine aid to her.  This game is her way of assigning the tasks of the day.  But... I am sore that I hath not claimed victory e'en once."

"Tis but a game, and doth not reflect the strength of thy character."

Rin put her hand on Arturia's and squeezed it gently.  "I take comfort in thy words.  Mine thanks."  said Rin.   She looked over Arturia's list.  "What art thy chores?"

Arturia picked up her list and read it.  "Sweep hearth.  Cut vegetables.  Darn clothes."

"I shall take thee to the kitchen."  said Rin.  She stood up and offered Arturia her arm. 

Arturia pulled herself up and leaned on Rhynne.  As she inhaled her soft scent, Arturia smiled with satisfaction.  Together, they walked slowly to the kitchen.  Rhynne helped her sit near the hearth and bid her farewell.  Arturia grabbed a nearby apron and put it on.  She found the cinder brush and dustpan and began her chore.

Suddenly, she had a feeling that she had done this before.  Her bewilderment passed when she realized that she had acted out this task as Cinderella.  Memories of the play and of Rhynne's acting flooded her mind and she smiled softly as she remembered Rhynne's profile.  Although she wished her no ill, she secretly hoped that Rhynne would lose so that she could see her act again.

Meanwhile, Rin followed Airianne's directions to the lowest level of the Aerie.  Laundry and carpet cleaning where on the list.  With a lit lantern before her, she descended down the stairs.  Unlike the bright and warm level of the living area, the lower levels were dark, damp, cold and smelt of mold.  When she reached the laundry level, she found piles of clothes, bed sheets and tablecloths.  Above each pile was a hole in the ceiling. 

Rin took out Airianne's instructions and followed them.  After each load was washed, she opened a nearby door which lead to a deck outside the Aerie.   She hung the clothes on the clothesline.  After she was done, she went back to the main level.  There she found Airianne waving to her.

"Lady Rhynne!  Let us rest a bit and enjoy some tea."  said Airianne.

Rin smiled gratefully.  "All right.  Lead the way."

Airianne led her to another enclosed garden which included a small pond with lilies floating on its surface.  A modest stream gurgled out of the rock face from south corner of the garden.  Arturia sat at a wooden table by the pond.

Rin and Airianne took their seats while Arturia poured tea into their cups.  Airianne offered Rin a slice of cream pie which she delightfully accepted.  Meanwhile, Arturia helped herself to some grapes from the fruit bowl.

As they were eating their pie, Airianne pulled the stem off her cherry and issued a challenge.  "If ye put this cherry stem in yer mouth, can ye tie it into a knot?"

"I shall find out..."  Arturia picked a cherry with a long stem and put the stem in her mouth.  Rin did the same.

After a minute or so, Arturia stuck her tongue out to reveal a knotted stem.

Airianne clapped with glee.  "Amazing!  Ye must be a wonderful kisser!"

The cherry stem fell from Arturia's tongue while Rin almost choked on hers.  She spat it out into her hand.

"Why didst ye saith that, Lady Airianne?"  asked Arturia with her cheeks turning slightly pink with embarrassment.

"There is a saying that if one can tie a knot with a cherry stem in one's mouth, then one is a good kisser." 

"Preposterous!  I hath ne'er heard of such a saying.  Besides... e'en if it were true, I doubt I would find a use for such a talent."  She lifted her tea to her lips.

"Mayhap, we should test the saying."  She leaned towards Arturia.

With all the control at her disposal, Arturia prevented herself from spitting out her tea.  "Lady Airianne!"  she exclaimed with indignation.

With a chuckle, Airianne sat back into her chair.  "Twas merely a jest."  Then her eyes glinted with mischief.  "But... if ye e'er want to test it, I will aid ye."

"To saith that twas a jest and to make yer offer within the same breath...  ye contradict yerself."  replied Arturia sullenly.

Airianne raised her hands in surrender.  "Please dinna be cross with me.  I apologize fer mine inappropriate conduct."

Arturia glared at her for a moment and then relented with a smile.  "Apology accepted.  Ye startled me, that's all."

They laughed.  With that, the cherry stem jest was forgotten, and they enjoyed the remainder of their brief respite.


--------------------


"And tonight's entertainment is... Singing!" declared Airianne.  "Ye will both sing me songs until the clock strikes ten.  Ye may use the instruments on yon wall."  She glided over to a cabinet and opened a drawer.  "Scores of many songs art stored within this cabinet.  Ye may use these as well."  Airianne walked to her favorite chair and sat down with great anticipation.  "Begin when ye art ready."

Rin groaned as she dragged her feet to the stage.  "I'm stuck in a medieval form of karaoke..."  she thought.  She searched her mind for a simple song to sing.  With an unsteady voice, she began.


  On top of spaghetti,
  All covered with cheese,
  I lost my poor meatball
  When somebody sneezed.

  It rolled off the table
  And onto the floor,
  And then my poor meatball
  Rolled right out the door!

  It rolled in a garden
  And under a bush
  Now my poor meatball
  Was nothing but mush

  The mush was as tasty
  As tasty could be
  Early next summer
  It grew into a tree

  The tree was all covered
  With beautiful moss
  It grew lovely meatballs
  In a tomato sauce

  So if you like spaghetti
  All covered with cheese
  Hold on to your meatballs
  And DON'T EVER SNEEZE!


Rin bowed and quickly left the stage.  Airianne began to giggle and finally exploded into a fit of laughter. 

Meanwhile, Arturia was laughing into her hand. 

When she managed to control herself, she rubbed the tears in her eyes.  "Twas a funny song, Lady Rhynne!  I dinna know what spaghetti is, but I can imagine a meatball growing into a tree."  Airianne turned to Arturia.  "Lady Arturia, art ye ready?"

"Yea.  Rhynne, canst thou fetch me yonder harp?"

Rin unhooked the harp from the wall and handed it to Arturia who leaned it against her left shoulder.  With lithe fingers, Arturia checked the harp's tuning.  When she was satisfied, she began to strum a slow and haunting melody.  She played for about twenty seconds before she allowed her voice to mingle with the melody.  The notes of the harp harmonized with her resonant alto voice.

[Author's note:  For a reference song, listen to:  Fate/stay Night Animation Original Soundtrack, Kishiou no hokori]

Rin closed her eyes to listen more intently.  Although she could not understand the lyrics of the song, she felt happy just listening to her singing.  As she listened, an image of Arturia standing on a grassy hilltop in her armor formed in her mind.  Excalibur was in front of her and its tip was plunged into the ground.  Her hands rested on Excalibur's pommel.  Her eyes stared beyond the grassy hilltop.  Rin watched her in silence.  Then Arturia turned her head to face her and called her name.

"Rhynne... Rhynne..."

Rin opened her eyes and sat up.  Her eyes alighted on Arturia's concerned face. 

"Oh, is it mine turn?"  asked Rin.

"Yea... but thou seemeth to fall asleep.  Art thou tired?"

"Nay... thy song enthralled mine heart so much that its melody lingered on within me and I remaineth enraptured."

"Oh."  said Arturia with her cheeks turning a slight shade of pink.  "Thy praise is too kind."

Rin smiled a bit as she made her way to the stage.  She consoled herself that having to sing in front of an audience was a small price to pay to hear Arturia sing.


  The farmer in the dell,
  The farmer in the dell,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The farmer in the dell.

  The farmer takes a wife,
  The farmer takes a wife,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The farmer takes a wife.

  The wife takes a child,
  The wife takes a child,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The wife takes a child.

  The child takes a nurse,
  The child takes a nurse,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The child takes a nurse.
  The nurse takes the cow,
  The nurse takes the cow,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The nurse takes the cow.

  The cow takes a dog,
  The cow takes a dog,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The cow takes a dog.

  The dog takes a cat,
  The dog takes a cat,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The dog takes a cat.

  The cat takes a rat,
  The cat takes a rat,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The cat takes a rat.

  The rat takes the cheese,
  The rat takes the cheese,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The rat takes the cheese.
  The cheese stands alone,
  The cheese stands alone,
  Hi-ho, the derry-o,
  The cheese stands alone.


Rin bowed herself off the stage and hurried over to table to sit.  Airianne clapped her hands politely and quickly turned her attention to Arturia.  Arturia smiled, closed her eyes and lifted those nimble fingers to stroke the harp's strings.  A soothing melody issued forth from the harp.  After the intro, Arturia's voice weaved its way into the melody.

Rin closed her eyes once more to enjoy the song.  For the rest of the evening, she stuck to her strategy of singing simple songs and sitting back to enjoy Arturia's.

Finally, a deep resonant chime issued forth from the clock in the sitting room to announce the hour of ten.  They bid each other good night.  As Rin and Arturia hobbled their way to their rooms, Arturia's voice rang in her mind and she absentmindedly hummed one of her songs.

Suddenly, Arturia's clear voice sang the matching lyrics near her ear.  Rin stopped humming in surprise. 

"Why didst thou stop?"

"Uh... I didst not realize that I hath hummed thy song, so I was not expecting to hear thee sing it."

When they reached Arturia's room, Rin helped her sit on the bed. 

"Wouldst thou like to hear more songs?"  asked Arturia.

Rin's face lit up.  "Y-- yea!  If... if thou art not tired, that is..."

Arturia patted the bed with her right hand.  "Please sit comfortably."

After Rin was seated, Arturia closed her eyes and began another song.  Her voice echoed through the chamber and added a pleasant resonance to the song. 

Rin closed her eyes to listen as well.  The image of the green valley below the Academy formed in her mind.  As she listened to the song, the softness of the bed tempted her.  Absentmindedly, Rin leaned sideways to lie on her left side and rested her head on the crook of her arm. 

As she followed the song, she imagined herself climbing down a grassy slope and walking across a meadow.  An apple tree beckoned her with its cool shade and she walked over to sit against its trunk.  The grass in the meadow bent like waves as a stiff breeze passed by.  The song complemented the serenity that she felt as she gazed across the meadow.  Soon, she lost herself within the song and let herself drift away.

After Arturia finished the song, she glanced over at Rhynne.  She nudged her gently and then again.  Since there was no reaction from Rhynne, she reclined  beside her and crept close enough to confirm the slow breathing of sleep.  Arturia smiled with amusement.  As she watched Rhynne sleep, she tried to decide whether she should wake her up or not.  Suddenly, Rhynne's fingers on her right hand twitched.  Arturia stared at her hand which was resting between her and Rhynne.  She gently lifted the hand and turned it to look at her palm.  She brought her left palm next to Rhynne's hand.  The marks were not there, but she could feel a slight tingle in her left palm.  She interlaced their fingers together.  She wanted to see more of that vision.  She wanted to know Rhynne's connection with that vision.  With those thoughts in mind, she pressed their palms firmly together.

Suddenly, she felt herself swallowed up in darkness and then standing on her feet to see a dark hallway.  Someone was standing next to her.  It was Syrowe but he was younger and not as tall.  The construction of the hall was similar to the room that she had seen, but the floor was made out of polished wood instead of mats.  They walked to a paneled door which Syrowe slid open.  He stepped into the room and pressed something on the wall.  Light from the ceiling flooded the room and she beheld a most horrifying sight.  Blood splattered like paint on the wall across the room.  Rhynne sat leaning against that wall in a puddle of blood.  Blood trickled down her forehead and painted half her face in gruesome crimson streams.  Even her red shirt could not fail to hide the blood that seeped into the cloth.  Half the silver cross embroidered on her shirt was also dyed red.  As she stared in horror, Rhynne opened her eyes which lit up when they met her own.  Her lips slowly drew into a smile of relief.

And then, the vision faded to reform into another one of Rhynne gripping her wrist in a very awkward position which caused her joints to scream in pain for being stretched beyond their range of motion.  Her eyes focused to meet Rhynne's stern gaze.

When Rin felt Arturia's resistance drop, she released her grip on her wrist.  Arturia's hand plopped down on the bed.  Concerned that she overdid the wristlock, she scanned Arturia's wrist.  The wrist was within normal parameters, and she sighed with relief.  Her gaze returned to Arturia's eyes which stared at her blankly.

"Arturia..."  Rin called out.

Arturia blinked her eyes several times.  "Rhynne... I... I..."  Her voice was a rasp whisper.

"Dost thou feel pain?"

"Nay..."  replied Arturia.

Rin stood up.  "I fear that I underestimated how tired I was, and thus hath been a rude audience.  Please allow me retire to bed.  Good night."  She quickly left the room and closed the door behind her.  She went to her room and threw herself onto the bed.  And then she lifted her right hand to scrutinize her palm.  She could still feel the mana converging upon the mark.   She closed her hand and hoped that Arturia did not see anything that would give her secret away.


-----------------------


They greeted each other that morning as if last night's incident did not happen.  Then they met Airianne in the dining hall to have breakfast.  After breakfast was done and the dishes put away, Rin steeled herself for the next round of games.

However, Airianne declared, "There will be no chores today.  Today is a day of study."

"Study?  What will ye study?"  asked Rin.

"Magic, history, or whatever Mama tells me to study."  replied Airianne.  "Ye art free to do as ye wish.  The sitting room hath games, scrolls and instruments.  Use them as ye will.  Or... ye can wander about in town.  Just tell me an appointed time for yer return and I will open the passage."

"Whither dost ye study?"  asked Arturia. 

"In the library or sometimes in Mama's room since she tires easily." 

Rin's eyes lit up at the word library.  As a mage, she was curious to know what Merlyn kept in her library.  "I would be interested to see yer library."

"If ye wish, I shall take ye there."  said Airianne.  "Studying won't be so lonely if there art other people about."

Together, they made there way to the library.  It was a large sunlit hall like the great hall.  Rin and Arturia gaped in awe at the sight of many bookcases and cabinets suspended in the air.  Large maps where also suspended in the air as well.  Along the walls were tables and chairs.  On each corner of the room was a small room with a door.  Rin went to the nearest table and helped Arturia sit.

"Lady Airianne, how dost ye travel to yonder bookcases?"  inquired Rin with a sense of wonder.

Airianne went to a pedestal about halfway to the center of the room.  She placed her hand on a large crystal ball and said, "Apprentice spells, high level." 

Several bookcases weaved their way toward the floor and settled unto the floor in equidistant rows. 

Airianne walked to a bookcase.  "Ye touch the crystal and say what ye wisheth to find."  She pulled out a crudely bound book and held it out for Rin to see.  "The books will come to ye."

Rin walked over to read the inscription on the book.  The words 'Prentis swyn' were brushed on the cover in large black letters.

"In which tongue art the words writ?"

"Welsh." 

"I see.  Art all the books writ in Welsh?"

"Nay.  If ye wisheth to find a book in a certain tongue, ye only need to ask fer it."  Airianne went back to the crystal ball and said, "Bryton History in common". 

A bookshelf landed on the floor.  On it, several books glowed silver.  Airianne pulled out a glowing book and showed it Rhynne.  "Canst ye read it?"

Rin took the book, glanced the cover and leafed through its contents.  "Yea." she replied with relief.  "Art we allowed to peruse yer library?"

"Aye, peruse as much as ye desire."

Rin's face broke into a wide smile.  "Mine thanks."  She went to the crystal ball and requested, "Curses and charms, in common."  A bookcase landed on the floor and Rin walked toward it in great anticipation.

Meanwhile, Airianne walked over to Arturia.  "Doth ye wish to read a book?"

"Mayhap, later.  But I wish to speak to ye privately."

Airianne cocked an eyebrow in curiosity.  "All right, let us go to yonder room."  They hobbled over to the nearest corner and entered the room.  Airianne helped Arturia sit and then locked the door.  "What is on yer mind?"  she asked.

"Methinks, that thy prank hath gone too far."  said Arturia sternly. 

"What prank?"  asked Airianne innocently.

"Ye chose that chair and bid Rhynne to sit upon it.  She hath sat upon it e'er since and hath ne'er won a single game."  accused Arturia with a rising tone of anger.  She would not let Airianne deny it.

Airianne assessed Arturia thoughtfully for a few moments.  "She chose to sit on it."  she countered.

"She can't read Welsh.  I doubt she wouldst sit upon it if she read the inscription on the chair."

"Ye dinna warn her."

"I just found out yesterday afternoon."

"Then tell her."

"Nay.  I insist that ye apologize."

"Why?  Tis but a game."

The images of Rhynne laboring under her assigned chores flashed in Arturia's mind.  The image was followed by the incident where Rhynne had fainted and bled in the wagon.  Then an image of red spot on the white marble floor came next.  Finally, the horrible vision of Rhynne in that bloodstained room filled her mind.

"Rhynne may look healthy, but she hath been harboring the ill effects of a grievous wound taken in the past.  She hath deceived us with her cheer and charming smile.  E'en though she was weak of heart, she accepted her chores without question and bravely finished them though her body plagued her."

At this point, Airianne's eyes brimmed with tears.  "I dinna know!  Oh, poor Lady Rhynne!  What hath I done?  Hath I worsened her malady?"

Arturia was moved by the sincerity of Airianne's remorse.  "Methinks not."  It felt odd to console someone she was scolding.  "But I beseech ye to assign her lighter chores.  And, ye employed foul means to wrest victory in our games.  In the spirit of fair play, I beseech ye again to reveal thy prank and apologize."

Airianne wiped her tears with her handkerchief.  "Aye... I will do both.  And I will ask Mother to examine Rhynne for her malady.  Mayhap, she can yet be cured."

"Twould be well if Merlyn can lend her aid."  said Arturia.  "And one more thing, tis mine belief that she wouldst prefer to display a front of good health than cause us worry.  If she knew that we knew about her malady, she wouldst further her efforts to hide it."

"Oh, how noble!"  wailed Airianne into her handkerchief. 

"Yea.  Thus we must take steps to insure that she doth not overwhelm herself."

"Aye.  I shall keep yer words in mind."  said Airianne as she dried even more tears.  "I must thank ye fer unmasking mine prank and fer taking me into yer confidence.  I shall go now and apologize to Lady Rhynne."

"Pray, abide a moment and dry yer tears.  She might be alarmed to see yer pretty face wrought with sorrow."

"Aye..."  Airianne took a seat next to Arturia. 


---------------------


Meanwhile, Rin was busy pouring over several books of magic.  So far, she had not found any topic that was not covered in a book in some way or another.  She was reading a book on elemental summoning when Airianne approached her.

Airianne cleared her throat.  "Lady Rhynne, I must tell ye something."

"What is it?"

"Th-- the reason why ye hath not won a game... well... tis because..."

Rin's eyebrows went up a bit.  "Because...?"

"...because the chair that ye sit upon is cursed."

Rin's jaw dropped.  "Cursed?!  How?"

"Tis enchanted with a spell of misfortune.  Whoe'er sits in it will have ill luck."

"So that it explains it..."  said Rin.  Suddenly, a thought occurred to her.  "Why do ye keep such a chair?"

"The spell is engraved upon its back.  There art mages who would challenge the spell's power and some who overlook the spell only to fall prey to mine Mother's games.  Mother would often invite visiting mages to sit in it just to observe their reaction."  Airianne's face melted into a mischievous grin.  "Do ye care to guess how many mages dinna bother to look at the chair?"

"Half?"

"Nay.  O'er two-thirds."

"Really?"  The fact amused Rin and she chuckled.  Airianne giggled with her.

"And... so... I must apologize fer letting ye sit in the chair."  said Airianne as she looked down on the floor.

Arturia's words echoed in her mind.  "Tis only a game."  said Rin, accepting the apology.

"And one more thing... I must also apologize fer giving ye the most difficult chores."

Rin stared in confusion as Airianne seemed to be in the verge of tears.

"Tis of no matter.  I hath promised ye mine aid, and am glad to assist ye."

Airianne seemed even more sadder.  "But if the chore doth tax yer strength, ye must stop and rest!  Nay, ye must call me and let me assist ye."

Rin blinked in confusion.  "Yea... I shall call upon ye if need be."

"Ye promise?"

"Yea.  I promise."

Airianne bowed deeply.  "Mine thanks, Lady Rhynne, fer all yer aid!  Since I cannae use magic, an extra pair of hands is most welcome!  And now, if ye excuse me, I shall resume mine studies."  Airianne curtsied and left.

For a few moments, Rin sat contemplating the conversation that just took place.  It was so baffling to see Airianne so distressed.  Since she could not make any sense out of her behavior, she put her thoughts aside and resumed her reading.

After devouring a chapter's worth of spells, Rin detected some movement at the edge of her peripheral vision.  She looked over and saw Arturia limping towards her by using the rows of tables for support.  In one arm, she carried a book. 

Rin rushed to her side to help her.  "Please call upon me if thou require assistance.  I will be glad to offer mine aid."

Arturia took her arm.  "Thou wert so engrossed by thy book.  Twould be a shame to disturb thee."

"Thy health is more important than a book."

A slight shade of pink colored Arturia's cheeks.  "I hath come to thee with a proposal."

"A proposal?"  repeated Rin with confusion.  In a flash, her mind associated the word with 'marriage'.  She quickly brushed away that thought.  "What kind of proposal?"

"Airianne tells me that this library hath more books in Welsh than in common.  Therefore, I propose to teach thee Welsh so that thou may read such books."

Rin's face brightened at the prospect of being able to study more magic.  She was even more delighted that Arturia would be her teacher.  "I am so elated by thy offer, that I know not what to say."

"Yea would be a good answer."

Rin helped her sit on a chair at the table where she was studying.  She slid her chair next to Arturia's and sat.  "Yea.  I will be honored to receive thy instruction."

Rhynne's glowing face reflected on her own and she was happy to be able to help Rhynne with her studies.  Arturia set the book down between her and Rhynne and opened it to first page.  "Then let us begin thy lesson."


---------------------


Arturia reached over and flicked the arrow with her finger.  With bated breath, they watched the arrow spin.  Eventually, it slowed down to rest on "Tales of Horror".

Rin sat back and cracked her knuckles.  Tonight was her kind of night. 

Airianne went to the stage and told a tale about leprechaun who tricked people into giving him their gold.  A young man fell for his trap and tried to get revenge by stealing the leprechaun's gold pot.  He succeeded, but the leprechaun found out and chased him all over the countryside.  He suffered many wounds as he tried to escape the leprechaun's wrath.  With the help of a soothsayer, he lured the leprechaun to an enchanted well where the leprechaun fell in and was trapped.  As the young man looked into the well, he heard the leprechaun say:

  I'll not rest 'til I have me gold.
  Curse this well where me soul shall dwell,
  'Till I find me magic that breaks the spell.

The young man hurriedly left the country, never to pass near that well again.

Rin and Arturia clapped as Airianne bowed at the end of her tale.  After Airianne was seated, Rin grinned wickedly as she walked over to the stage.  Before she started her tale, she snapped her fingers and the lights of the lamps dimmed.

"Tis a tale from mine land."  declared Rin with ominous tones. 

"One dark night, a young traveler found a young woman, crying and forlorn by the side of a road.  He attempted to console the young woman and offered his assistance.  The young woman stopped crying and turned to face him.  The young man jumped back in horror to see the blank countenance of a faceless ghost."

For effect, Rin conjured up an image of the young woman's face.  Airianne and Arturia gasped in horror. 

Rin continued.  "Frightened, the young man ran as fast as he could until he came across a food stall.  The young man peeked in.  Although the cook had his back to him, he welcomed the young man and asked him what he wanted to eat.  The young man was relieved to meet a real person and sat down for a meal.  He told the cook his tale about the young woman.  When he was finished, the cook announced that his meal was ready.  He turned around to deliver his meal.  He, too, had no face."

Airianne shut her eyes and cradled her head while Arturia's hand leapt up to cover her mouth.  Her eyes betrayed her shock.

As the tale went on, Rin described how the young man met people on that lonely road and how each person showed him a blank face. 

"The young man ran and ran until dawn began to break.  By then, he was exhausted.  To quench his thirst, he stopped at a nearby pond.  He knelt by the water's edge to scoop some water, but he stopped as he beheld his own reflection.  He, too, had no face." 

Rin paused for effect before she bowed.  "The End."

Airianne and Arturia sat still for a few seconds.  Then they clapped politely at her tale. 

"Me-- methinks, I will now retire.  Good night."  said Airianne. 

"Good night."  replied Arturia and Rin at the same time.

Rin added with a smug smile, "Pleasant dreams."

Airianne's face blanched at the thought.  "And to ye as well."  She curtsied slightly and quickly exited the sitting room without her usual grace.

Arturia and Rin limped their way to their rooms.  From time to time, Rin noticed that Arturia would glance at her face.  She smiled evilly to herself.

When they reached Arturia's room, Rin helped Arturia sit on her bed.  As she was about to leave, Arturia grabbed her wrist.

Rin turned to face her.  "What is it?"

Arturia kept her head bowed.  Before she could control herself, a subconscious impulse compelled her to grab Rin before she left.  After the previous night's incident, she felt awkward talking to Rhynne.  She did not know what to say to explain why she grabbed her.

Rin looked at Arturia's bowed form.  Her eyes followed Arturia's arm to the hand that grabbed her wrist.  A strange thought began to form in her mind.  "No way... the king of knights is afraid of a faceless ghost story?"  she thought incredulously.  Rin waited for Arturia to say something but she remained silent.  It was hard to believe that this young lady holding her wrist would be afraid of a simple ghost story.  But perhaps, for now, that was all it was.  At the moment, Arturia was just a young lady who grabbed her wrist.  Rin almost felt sorry for telling the tale.

Rin sat next to her.  "Dost thou wish me to stay till sleep beckoned thee?"

Arturia looked up, her eyes wide with surprise.  "I... that is... if thou wisheth to stay... thou art welcome to..."  she stuttered and blushed.

"I will go now to change mine clothes.  I shall be back anon." 

Arturia nodded and Rin went to her own room to change.  When she returned, she saw that Arturia had changed as well and was lying on the side of the bed furthest from the door.

Rin doused the candles and closed the curtains around the bed.  Then she crawled onto the bed and sat on the unoccupied side.  She looked over at Arturia and met her eyes as she lay on her side.

"Sleep now.  I will stay."  said Rin.

Arturia smiled at her assurance.  She closed her eyes.

Rin leaned on the headboard.  To pass the time, she tried to remember her Welsh lessons.  However, Arturia's shocked face kept popping up from time to time.  Her lips tugged to a smile in amusement. 

After a while, she checked her watch and noted that about thirty minutes had passed.  She looked over at Arturia and was convinced that she was asleep.  Rin carefully made her way to the edge of the bed and pulled back the heavy velvet curtains to stand.

"Thou promised..."  came Arturia's voice behind her.

Rin turned around slowly to find Arturia propped up on her elbow.  Her large eyes seemed to plead silently.

Then Arturia sat up and pulled the covers aside.  "The bed... is large enough for two."  said Arturia.

Rin blushed.  She laid down on her back and rested her head on the pillow.  "Yea.  It is."

Arturia pulled the covers over Rhynne and laid down to face her.

Rin noticed that Arturia was facing her.  Once again, she felt more self-conscious and turned away so that Arturia could not see her face.  However, she could still sense Arturia watching her.

Arturia's face melted into disappointment as Rhynne turned away.  Her behavior caused her to think that Rhynne was still upset over the previous night's incident.  At least, she decided to stay which was enough for now.  Even if the dreams come, she was not alone tonight.  She closed her eyes to sleep.

-------------------

It hurt.  Several parts of her body were screaming in pain.  But she ignored it.  In battle, there was no time to deal with pain.  She braced her sword and impaled a soldier.  A hastily raised shield deflected a blow to her head.  She put her foot on the soldier's stomach and pushed him off her blade.  The soldier slid and fell on his back, his blank face declared his demise.

She whirled about and decapitated another soldier.  The head rolled and stopped a few feet away with its blank face turned to the sky.  The onslaught continued and the bodies of men with blank faces piled up around her.

Someone called her name.  She turned to meet her new challenger.  A knight wearing a helm attacked her with a wide silver blade.  She met her charge and they exchanged blows that would have felled a lesser knight.  Finally, she found an opening and cut down to split the helm in half.  The helm fell away to reveal not a blank face, but a face similar to her own.

Arturia woke up with a start.  It was yet another dream about another battle.  Cold sweat trickled down her brow and she wiped it on her sleeve.  She quickly groped the covers on the other side of the bed.  Her hands confirmed Rhynne's sleeping form.  She sighed with relief and slipped back under the covers.  Her hands crept towards Rhynne until she located her arm.  She snuggled closer until she could smell Rhynne's familiar scent on her nightgown.  She closed her eyes again and hoped for dreamless sleep.

--------------------

Airianne paced up and down the dining room.  They were late and breakfast was getting cold.  Finally, she decided to check on them.  She went to Arturia's room first and knocked.  When she heard no response, she carefully opened the door and peeped in.  The bed still had its curtains drawn.  Airianne grinned mischievously.  She would give her a nice wake up call.  She tiptoed to the bed and pulled the curtain aside to shout her morning greeting.  But the sight on the bed surprised her enough to catch her voice in her throat. 

"So... ye did want to share yer bed."  she thought wryly.  She restored the curtains and tiptoed out of the room to let Arturia sleep in Rhynne's embrace.



Chapter 7
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