Saturday, July 27, 2019
The Princess Plague
Long, long ago in what feels like a long way away, whenever I used to wish on star the wish would be that I could be a princess. Not a queen, definitely not a queen, because when you became a queen you were a grown-up, and the fun part of your life was over. I have one specific memory of making such a wish while riding in a car in a place near home, when that wouldn’t have been my home until I was in second grade, so I must have been at least seven years old. Is that too old to be wishing on stars about being princesses? In any case, I must have been exposed to stories about princesses—I was reading voraciously even by that age--and movies, too. I think Disney’s Cinderella was out by then, and probably Snow White.
Even then I knew that my wish had no chance of being granted, and that the kind of princess I wanted to be was a fantasy princess, in a fantasy story. The fact that many happily-ever-after stories ended with the princess becoming a queen was a drawback, but in some of them she just married a prince, which put off the queen part into the misty future. Still, the end of the story meant the fun part of a princess’s life was over, however “happily” you were told that they lived “ever after.”
Apparently this plague of princess yearning is still infecting little girls. My granddaughter, who is now thirteen and has outgrown the infatuation, was into princess costumes for Halloween as much as any other girl when she was considerably younger. These days she's more into science fiction and the occasional monster.
I don’t remember what specific fantasy books intrigued me as I grew older, but there must have been some in our small-town library besides the well-known fairy tales. In my teens I went more for mysteries and science fiction and regency romances by Jane Austen and her successor Georgette Heyer, romances that didn’t deal much with royalty but did to some extent with the English nobility, which was close enough. Heyer’s were arguably fantasies of sorts, but not of the fantary genre. Tolkien’s books are the first ones I remember as being major, world-building fantasies, and those didn’t make it into print in the USA (illegitimately, at first) until I was in college and too busy with academical work and the occasional romance that edged into erotica to jump on the fantasy wagon, even for Tolkien. Eventually, of course, I did, and eventually read all of Tolkein to my kids, or rather my younger son, since the older son was reading Tolkien on his own by second grade. In Lord of the Rings, the character I most wished to identify with was Eowyn, not a king’s daughter, just his niece, but I was over princesses and entranced by strong, heroic women, of whom there were still very few. Many, many stories set in fantasy worlds followed. I especially remember Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, although those eventually tried to provide more science-fictional explanations for what had seemed like fantasy.
Much later, when I finally got around to the writing I’d always thought I would, fantasy was where I went. My first published story was in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. I was over the princess bit, of course; my heroine was a strong, influential general in an army of women, called “Silverwing” by her troops because she was going gray at the temples. She had long ago blocked out terrible memories of her earlier life, but was forced by emergency to recall, and use, the great powers of the Earth Mage she had always been but denied in herself. Other stories followed, enough to let me join SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers Association.
Then came my seduction into the world of erotica, certainly fantasy of sorts. Over the years of editing and writing for anthologies, I managed to slip in a very few erotic stories that could be classed as genre fantasies, too—one even had a shapeshifting dragon. That one is reprinted in my new collection, Wild Rides. Another was in a steampunk anthology, teetering on the brink between fantasy and science fiction. I tried for years to get my publisher to let me edit a lesbian fairy tale anthology, and eventually, just after I’d won my second Lambda Literary Award, they caved and sent me a contract. Much delay ensued due to the publisher being sold after my book was completed but not yet in print, but the new owners did bring it out at last, and it’s done pretty well, including being a Lambda Finalist. Nevertheless I can’t talk them into letting me do another one.
Which brings us back to the princess obsession. My anthology, Witches, Princesses and Women at Arms: Erotic Lesbian Fairy Tales does include several princesses, but none of them are looking for a prince, and all of them are well able to save themselves, though sometimes with the help of other women. I wrote a story myself for this one, with princesses even, but the main characters are a female troll and a woman from a Viking family forced to marry a weakling prince because the king wants to be sure of a strong grandson, and is holding her roaming brother prisoner until she produces such a child. I’ll close with an excerpt from that in which various princesses are introduced. You can judge for yourself just how far I've come from the princess obsession.
Trip, trop, trip, trop. Hjørdis stood back in disgust as Princess Tutti pranced across the bridge, hips swaying, the false tail strapped to the seat of her gown twitching. A coy toss of Tutti’s head knocked the goat horns on her headdress slightly askew. “Oh, Mr. Troll,” she piped in a falsetto voice, “are you there today? Don’t you want to eat us up? Look, this time there is a meatier prey than just we little goats!” She cast a mocking glance back toward Hjørdis. “A buxom brood mare!”
Hjørdis would have swatted the silly girl’s rump if there had been enough of it to be worth the trouble. Or, more truthfully, if she herself had not been bound by oath to abide peaceably among these puny southerners. For now. As it was, she took a threatening stride onto the wooden planks. Tutti ran off giggling toward the meadow, from which sounds of pipes and laughter and occasional playful shrieks rose above the lazy burbling of the stream.
Princess Vesla, also adorned with horns and tail, came up timidly beside Hjørdis. “There truly was a troll under the bridge a week ago,” she said in a tremulous voice. “When Tutti called out, I heard his voice, like the rumbling of stones. She thinks it was Werther, the dancing master, trying to frighten us, but I’m sure it wasn’t!”
“Oh? What did he say?” Hjørdis made some small effort to tolerate Vesla, who was not so spiteful as her sister Tutti. She felt also a slight sympathy for the girl, who had formed a hopeless passion for Hjørdis’s captive brother Harald. At least accompanying them on their outing, however nasty it promised to be, was an excuse to leave the castle.
“He said, ‘Scrawny bones not fit to pick my teeth! Get you gone!’” Vesla shivered. “But we haven’t heard him since.”
Hjørdis knew a great deal more about trolls than these little twits ever could. More than anyone could who had not known Styggri. That sounded all too much like what Styggri would say, in a humorous mood. But Styggri had crossed into another world from which there was no return.
Hjørdis looked more closely at the bridge. Its sides and the pillars beneath were stone, with wooden planking wide enough for two carriages to pass side by side over its double arch. And wide enough for a troll to lurk beneath, although why one should wish to, or venture this far south at all, was beyond her. Still… She gazed far upstream to where water surged out from a cleft in a rocky hillside. Nothing to compare with the jagged mountains and plummeting rivers of her home, but still part of a long arm of hills and ridges reaching out from those same mountains.
“You go on to your frolicking.” She gave Vesla as gentle a shove as she could manage. Gods, these pampered southern girls were brittle, twiggy things! And their brother the prince—her husband under duress—was no better. “I’ll sit a while here in the shade of the birches. This heat annoys me.”
“Oh! Are you, then…already…”
“No! And if I were, it would be too soon to know. Go along now!”
Vesla went, trying to keep the gilded wooden heels of her shoes from making as much noise on the bridge as Tutti’s had done. Once safely across she looked back over her shoulder. “Give Werner a few stomps from me,” Hjordis called. The foolish dancing master deserved whatever he got, with his tales of ancient times in foreign lands where satyrs danced on goat hooves and bands of women ran wild under the spell of a wine god.
Once her vow was fulfilled, Hjørdis would leave this flat land, leave even the child, which would doubtless be taken from her in any case. Better not to think of that. Better to be lulled by the voice of the water, close her eyes, and see the mountain home of her memories.
At first, when the voice of the water changed, that too seemed a mere echo of those memories. The longer her eyes remained closed, the longer she could imagine that Styggri was there, moving through the stream…climbing the bank…circling to stand behind her in the utter silence only a troll could manage...and Hjørdis felt a sudden presence like an unseen shadow cast across her. A troll, some troll, stood there.
“Good day, Elder Cousin.” Hjørdis spoke the formal greeting in the ancient troll tongue, as she had been taught by her uncle. Whether the trollfolk were truly distant kin of mankind, as they might well be, there was no denying that they had followed the retreating ice high into the mountains long before her own people had arrived. And more than likely that many a family had traces of trollblood in their background.
“You do not cross the bridge?”
Not a voice like the rumbling of stones at all. Closer to the murmur of fine gravel sifted through their fingers when they had searched together for blood-red crystals of garnet, like the silver-wrapped pendant that hung between Hjørdis’s breasts. Not Styggri’s voice as it had been when she was young, in the Huldra form, able to be-spell men…and Hjørdis…with her song; yet it was her voice.
"Good day, Elder Cousin.” Hjørdis spoke the formal greeting in the ancient troll tongue, as she had been taught by her uncle. Whether the trollfolk were truly distant kin of mankind, as they might well be, there was no denying that they had followed the retreating ice high into the mountains long before her own people had arrived. And more than likely that many a family had traces of trollblood in their background.
“You do not cross the bridge?”
Not a voice like the rumbling of stones at all. Closer to the murmur of fine gravel sifted through their fingers when they had searched together for blood-red crystals of garnet, like the silver-wrapped pendant that still hung between Hjørdis’s breasts. Not Styggri’s voice as it had been when she was young, in the Huldra form, able to be-spell men…and Hjørdis…with her song; yet it was her voice.
Hjørdis could not bring herself to turn and look. Hope leapt, then wavered, weighed down by disbelief, even a shiver of dread. "In five years you would not know me," Styggri had said, "even if I returned from under the mountains and did not cross over into the ice world." And Hjørdis had known it to be true. Troll women lived long, but left youth and any fleeting grace or beauty behind quickly. There were fewer and fewer of the trollkind left, even high in the mountains, and all she had known until Styggri had seemed very old indeed, including Styggri’s mother.
She must look, soon, but first she spoke. “There is nothing across the bridge for me.”
“Your prince is there.”
“No one of mine is there. No one of mine is still in this world, or so I was made to believe.”
Another spell of silence. Then, in the day-to-day speech of the mountain Norsemen, easier for them both, Styggri said, “I came back after all, and found you had gone off to wed a king’s son.”
Hjørdis’s neck was stiff from the effort of not turning. She stood and swung around in a single motion. “How can I know you are not a shade, an illusion, a snare?” But she did know. The deep-set gray-green eyes, shadowed now by thicker brows and creased at their corners, were still clear as mountain pools. The hair, even paler than it had been, arched back from a thong cinched high on her head, a traditional style seldom seen now even among the oldest trolls. Her nose was more pronounced, her face broader than it had been, and so was her body, arms and legs heavily muscled as was the way with trollkind, male or female. In elkhide breeches and loose wool tunic she could have been either, to a casual observer.
“What would you take as proof?” Styggri’s face remained carefully expressionless.
Hjørdis moved forward until the fine velvet of her gown brushed the homespun wool. She had been the taller by a little when they were younger; now they stood nose to nose. Slowly she bent her head, pressed her mouth to the hollow of Styggri’s throat, and drew her tongue along exposed skin that shivered at her touch. “Taste does not lie.”
She raised her head. The wide smile on Styggri’s face was the final proof. Years rolled away. They might have been lying on the sunlit rock beside a reed-edged mountain stream where Styggri had first spoken those words.