Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Animal Kingdom, conclusion

Most of the preparations for her departure were already complete by the time she returned. Her room was devoid of carpets and furnishings, her clothes were folded into big trunks, all except for the ceremonial gown required for the night’s dinner. She dressed with the help of two maids, and gave one of them her mother’s earrings to deliver to the King’s chambers. The dowry had to be complete when it was presented.
She was beside Torvald when the King arrived at his place at the table. She spoke brightly with Torvald and with his mother, seated to her left. She was charming but modest; even when helping Torvald choose the proper fork for the salad course. Everyone noticed the change in her. The King was beaming – his instincts had been correct, after all. The married state was all she needed, along with one night in the marriage bed. Women only wanted to seem complicated. They liked to keep an air of mystery about themselves, but they were as coarse and predictable as any man. He could imagine making such a comment to his late wife. She wouldn’t argue with him, she never argued with him, but she had a way of cocking one eyebrow in sardonic inquiry that made him feel like a garrulous clown. Well, yes –- she was an exception to the rule, and no, he had never fully grasped her spirit, never really understood her. But Katerina was simpler. The last few days had proved that.
At the end of the meal, he presented Torvald with the chest of jewels. There was a lot of talk of “plighting her troth” and the binding together of the two families “in peace and war” – a telling phrase, Katerina thought. Her father had always deployed his resources – up to and including his daughter’s future – to maximize military security. The thought would have made her angry and bitter a few days before. Now she found she had a detached admiration for his long range tactical thinking. Only by such ruthless calculation could a King secure the safety of his kingdom. It made perfect sense, now that it was his kingdom and not hers. He really wasn’t such a bad man, when you weren’t at his mercy.
Torvald took the key on its chain and slipped it around his own neck. The chest was handed to him, the ceremonial bows and cheek kisses were exchanged … and it was done. Torvald took her to the specially prepared wedding suite, at the other end of the castle from her old chambers.
Torvald undressed them both and began his efforts anew. This time Katerina cooperated. She had nothing to lose anyway. Both her virginity and her innocence were already gone. And she had everything to gain: Torvald’s trust, which would let him sleep the sleep of the satiated and the self-righteous … and thus, her own freedom.
Freedom, the one thing her father had said she would never have.
Because she would never be willing to pay the price, that was the unstated message. He hadn’t been able to imagine any one wanting anything but this, and so he hadn’t been able to imagine how impossibly cheap that price would be for her in the end -- less than a few coins thrown at a beggar in the street.
It was nearly midnight before Torvald was sleeping deeply enough, and snoring loudly enough. Katerina dressed quickly in her travelling clothes and delicately removed the key on its chain from around her husband’s neck. He stirred slightly when her hands were under his head and she had to wait a full minute before she finished. She took the chest, and a small travelling bag of essential items.
She paused at the door, looking down at Torvald’s sleep-slack face.
For the last time, she thought with a small smile as she chewed at gryphillaria leaf. She had no regrets, no sense of loss, no last minute confusion of purpose. If anything she was surprised by how easy this all was. She had been in a cage for years and had never bothered to see if it was locked. They had told her it was locked and she had believed them. What a fool she had been! All she’d ever had to do was swing the door open and walk away.
So she did. She slipped out of the room and closed the door softly behind her. Wilf joined her in the yard. He watched as she got Lochinvar ready and arranged the saddlebags. Then they rode to the gate together. The guard was surprised but he had no orders to keep her inside –- no one expected her to be leaving.
She was crossing the fields beyond the town when she heard the pounding of hooves behind her. Someone was riding hard and fast, following her track. She thought of trying to out-run them, but for some reason she didn’t like that idea. Better to stand her ground. She fingered the knife in her travelling bag. She would use it if she had to.
The rider pulled up to her a few moments later and she saw that it was Anders.
“Good morning, Princess,” he bowed.
“What are you –- ?”
“You’re running away, aren’t you? Hoping to take on a new identity and disappear."
She looked up at him. “How did you know that?”
“Because I pay attention.”
She smiled. “I’m not used to that.”
“You should be. You’re worth noticing.”
“So … you came to say goodbye?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“Then why?”
He was nervous and the words came out in a jumble. “It occurred to me, Princess, that it might be easier, safer, for you to conceal yourself if you were not travelling alone. They’ll be looking for a woman travelling alone. But a couple, an itinerant herbalist and his wife … they might pass unnoticed.”
“You want to come with me?”
“I want to marry you.”
“I am already married.”
“I don’t care. You are a new woman now. She is free to marry whom she pleases.”
“You’re very bold.”
“You make me so.”
She smiled. “So it’s all my fault.”
“I’m afraid so, Princess.”
“I’m not a Princess any more.”
They stared at each other. Lochinvar edged closer to Anders’ horse. He reached his hand out and she took it. They held hands for a long time and the emotion filled her as dark wine fills a bottle. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not very good at this. I’ve been wanted and needed all my life. But I’ve never been loved before.” She looked into Lochinvar’s mane. “It takes a little getting used to.”
“We have time.”
“I’m not sure what do next.”
“There are a few things. The first is … kiss me.”
Lochinvar moved a few more steps and Anders was able to lean over and kiss her on the mouth. It was a gentle kiss, at first, just lips brushing lips. Then she slipped her hand behind his head and pulled him toward her. Her mouth opened under his. The kiss was long and deep. To Anders it was like drinking from a stream. But his thirst was far from quenched when she pulled away. She was smiling.
“What next?,” she said.
“The next isn’t quite so easy. But I don’t think we should live on your dowry. I can support us. If you are going to leave your old life behind, than I think you should leave all of it.”
“But – ”
“The boy, Tomas, who helped Wilf. His family is very poor. That dowry could change their lives.”
Anders saw the little dog staring up at him, tail beating the ground. It was as if he understood. Katerina looked down at Wilf, and she saw something in those deep brown eyes. She glanced back at Anders. “All right.”
“You’ll have to write a possessory draft and put the royal seal on it. That way no one can dispute his claim to the treasure or try to steal it.”
“Even Torvald?”
“The law is clear – even Torvald. He is made caretaker of the dowry, but it still belongs to you. Otherwise your family would have no hold on him.”
“You’re really thought this through.”
“I’ve thought about little else since I heard the wedding plans … Katerina.”
“I like the sound of that. I like it when you speak my name.”
He kissed her again and then they led Wilf lead them to Tomas’ house. They woke his father and mother and after a short ritual signed the dowry over to the Gunderson family. Groggy and only half-awake, Tomas’ parents had trouble understanding what was going on. Katerina told them the story as Wilf had told it to her. Their son was a hero and this was his reward. Wilf himself curled up beside Tomas as Katerina spoke
Tomas’ mother kissed him. “You’re the Good Samaritan.”
Tomas was embarrassed. “I just like dogs,” he said shyly.
They set the chest on the Gunderson’s dining room table. Anders took the key and opened it. He could see flowers of awareness blooming behind their eyes. The content of this box would secure not just them and their son, but his sons and their sons, for generations.
It was a miracle.
Anders raised his hand. “There is just one thing we need.”
He rummaged inside for a few seconds, then he pulled out the pair of emerald earrings. “They have … personal value. Is it all right if we take them with us?”
“Of – of course,” Mr. Gunderson managed.
“Thank you.”
He put them on Katerina very carefully and stepped back to admire his work.
“Beautiful,” he said. And then, turning to the Gunderson’s for the last time, “Goodbye.”
Katerina hugged Tom quickly, then followed Anders out the door, with Wilf just behind her.
First light was only a few minutes away when they left the Gunderson’s house. They stood beside the horses.
“Which way?” Katerina asked.
“West, to France. And south to the Pyrenees. I miss France.”
“I’ve never been to France. I’ve never been anywhere. And I want to go everywhere.”
“Then we will.”
Lochinvar rubbed her head with his. They could no longer speak but she knew what he was saying.
“I am,” she answered him. “I really am.”
They mounted the horses then, and rode away together in the rising light of dawn.


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