Happy New Year from the Nutshell! Below is a scene from my WIP, Briars and Black Hellebore, in which Princess Rosemary and Prince Gunnar of two small 10th century fantasy Germanic-ish kingdoms share their first no-kiss. Enjoy...
Rosemary unclasped her cloak and slipped it off her shoulders. Hildegard gasped and laid a hand on the bare skin above her heart. “My darling baby,” she whispered, “when did you become such a beautiful woman?”
Rosemary opened her mouth to retort that she had been a woman since she was thirteen and that a more attentive mother might have remembered, but she, too, was speechless before her own reflection. The rouge made her cheeks and lips bloom as if she had been out riding on a cool morning, and the gown fit sleek against her body, along curving lines that were normally hidden beneath the draping of her loose robes. Even when she spread her golden hair over her shoulders, such a great stretch of her white skin was revealed, far below her collarbone, that it made her neck appear long and graceful.
She heard a faraway rumbling then, a familiar thundering sound that she had heard long ago on a lonely night. Her heart raced so quickly that she could see the skin on her left breast jumping.
Hildegard took her by the shoulders and spun her around. “That must be Prince Gunnar and his men arriving early. I want you to be the first thing he sees when he steps across the threshold. Go downstairs now, and greet them when Basil lets them inside.”
Rosemary lifted the front of her skirts and floated past her mother. She felt as if her heart had sprouted wings that would carry her off her feet. She spun down and down the spiral staircase, her footsteps lost in the swishing of her heavy silk gown. Before she reached the last step, a voice called out, deep and resonant like the voice of King Sarus, but with the clear smoothness of youth: “The Lord be in this house!”
She swept out onto the hay-strewn floor, but she could see nothing through the throng of women filling the great hall. It seemed that every chambermaid and cook in the palace had found some reason to be there at that moment. She spotted Vera clutching the arm of a scullery maid.
The women parted on either side of the hall, shuffling backward as they whispered and giggled, and finally Rosemary saw him. Basil led him slowly through the room, and he grinned and nodded his head from right to left. Rosemary held her breath. Without squinting, she could see that the prince was taller than Basil and wider at the shoulders, dressed in a resplendent, many-colored silk tunic that glinted as if covered with jewels. Unlike his father Sarus, he did not wear a beard or a crown. His white-blonde hair fell like a silk veil behind his broad shoulders.
As he drew nearer, she could see that his handsome features had a fine, elfin quality, with high cheekbones and a proud, aquiline nose. His smile was brilliant, and jealousy possessed her as he offered it to every woman in the room. She lifted her chin, all her shyness forgotten, and shook some of her hair back so that it did not conceal her quite so much.
Finally Basil led Gunnar close enough that he could not help but see her, and it was her turn to receive his dashing grin. But when he rested his pale blue eyes on her, his smile disappeared completely. She felt a giddy tug at her own lips as she recognized the imbecilic stare that afflicted all men except Brother Basil in the presence of her mother Hildegard, and she knew that he found her beautiful. Then she could not help herself. She beamed at him and lifted her small, white hand in offering.
“Prince Gunnar,” Brother Basil said, touching the prince’s elbow, “I present to you the Princess Rosemary.”
For a few seconds, in which the entire crowd of ladies seemed to hold their breath, Prince Gunnar stood as still as one of the massive wooden columns and said nothing. Rosemary lowered her eyelashes and tilted her head. Gunnar fell to one knee. “My lady,” he said hoarsely, and he took her fingers in his large hand and kissed them with hot, dry lips.
A shiver coursed through her. When he stood again, regaining his regal posture, she said softly, “Welcome.”
Prince Gunnar opened his mouth to reply, but he simply blinked and licked the edges of his teeth.
“Your Highness.” Basil placed a hand on Gunnar’s back. “Please accept my apologies that we do not yet have everything made ready. It would be an honor if you would let the princess and I show you our great chapel and sacred garden while Queen Hildegard prepares to receive you.”
“Yes,” said Gunnar, “that would please me very much.”
He offered his elbow to Rosemary, and she took it with her fingertips, grateful for the rouge which camouflaged her true blushes.
As they walked out of the hall, for once she gloried in the stares of the servants. She felt like a queen already. As they walked out into the spring day and down the trail toward the chapel, she could not help grinning.
Ahead of them, Brother Basil chattered about the garden and all the plants inside as he led them around the front of the chapel. But as soon as they reached the gate, another monk ran forward to meet them. “Brother Basil,” he said, “I am so sorry to interrupt, but the abbot must speak with you immediately.”
“Oh,” said Basil in a curiously calm voice, “I do hope nothing is wrong.”
“Oh no, no,” said the other monk. “But it is an urgent matter—regarding the celebration, you know.” He looked past Basil and winked at Rosemary. At least, he appeared to, though she could never trust her eyes completely.
Basil turned around and put a hand on Prince Gunnar’s shoulder. “Your Highness,” he said, “I must apologize again, but—”
The prince laughed and patted Basil on the back. “Not to worry, Brother,” he said. “The lady will be safe here with me.” He turned and nodded toward the castle. “And my men.”
Rosemary looked back and saw a row of tall, fair guards dressed in midnight blue robes, lined up along the path like a colonnade. She had not heard them following behind. Her fingers tightened on Gunnar’s arm, and he chuckled softly. “You will grow accustomed to them, Princess, and forget that they are always nearby.”
She looked at Basil, and he gazed at the line of men with a dreamy smile as the other monk led him away by the sleeve. She felt reassured that her wise godfather seemed pleased by their presence there. “Will they come into the garden with us?” she asked.
Prince Gunnar smiled and led her through the gate. “No, I think they will be content to stand just outside. It must be strange… having so many men about when you have been so cloistered. I had heard stories about Queen Hildegard, who cast out all men and dogs from her court. Now I understand why. It is hard for us men not to act like fools before women as stunning as yourselves.”
Rosemary’s downturned face burned with bashful ecstasy as they strolled into the cool shade of the garden, between the hedges and ascension flowers, which had grown very high and fragrant, and the mossy stone wall of the chapel. Gunnar stopped at the wishing well, reached into a leather pouch at his hip, and tossed down a handful of copper coins.
Rosemary giggled. “What do you wish for, Prince?”
“I cannot tell you,” he said, “yet.” He looked at her with eyes like clear, cold water.
A breeze passed through the garden, and she felt loose tendrils of her hair tickle her cheek and breasts. She lowered her eyes and shivered, feeling suddenly naked. This is what Eve must have felt, she thought.
“My Lady,” he said, “I truly was not prepared to behold such beauty.” He took her by the hands and pulled her down to sit beside him on the edge of the well.
She smiled down at her small hands, caged within his long fingers. She said, “Your father must not have found anything about me worthy to remark upon. They say there are many beautiful women in Forasland.”
He cleared his throat. “My father—well, my father did remark upon your beauty. But I did not listen. You see, until today I believed my kingdom to have the most beautiful women in all the world. I…”
“Is that why you did not wish to come today?” Rosemary bit her lip, shocked at her own forwardness.
Gunnar clasped both of her hands, together, within both of his. “I, ah… I had hoped to do as much good for my country as possible before I left it forever.”
“Yes,” she said, a little sadly. “We have heard great things about your skill in battle and diplomacy and the ways you help your father King Sarus manage the affairs of Forasland. They say you are wise and strong beyond your years, and cleverer than any of your brothers.”
She peered up through her lashes as she spoke and watched as Gunnar seemed to grow larger with her words. His back straightened little by little; his shoulders squared, and his chest lifted. One golden eyebrow lifted slightly, and he tilted his head to look out over the hedges. In profile, he resembled a proud bird of prey, surveying its landscape.
It made her think of Stephan when Hildegard spoke to him in the crooning tones of a huntress commanding the falcon on her wrist. She had listened to her mother speak to Stephan for many years, and so she knew what to do. “It is hard on my poor mother,” Rosemary said, “trying to rule a great kingdom without a strong king beside her. But… I understand that it must be difficult to leave your home and family.” She patted his hand and added in a tone of confidence, “I know I would be afraid to do so.”
“Afrai—” Gunnar burst out laughing. Rosemary turned away, afraid she had gone too far in mocking his courage, but he took her chin in his hand and guided her face back toward his.
“Rosemary,” he said, with wonder, as if testing the word. Her heart leaped at his voice pronouncing her name, stripped of her title or any other formality. “Rosemary.” He said it again more firmly, as a parent might scold a child. She looked into his eyes, and the frightening chill she saw there made tears prick at her own. “I fear nothing and no one,” he said. “I have traveled to distant lands and hunted lions and commanded troops against the most barbarous raiders of the North. I only wished to gain more wisdom before I came to accept the precious gift of Vepres. I wish to be a strong and experienced king for this land. These are not things a young girl would understand. But…” He started to smile, crookedly, and his hand softened on her jaw. “…I do not think I could live one more year without seeing you again.”
His fingertips traced the line from her chin to her earlobe and cupped her cheek. The hardness in his eyes melted into an expression Rosemary had seen many times on the face of Stephan when Hildegard commanded him. She could feel Gunnar’s immense physical strength and also the power of his longing through the light, tremulous touch of his hand on her face. She felt her ribs strain against her close-fitting, heavy silk gown as her breath came faster. She felt very small and very powerful, very naked and very constricted by her gown, all at once.
“I will speak to your mother today,” he said, almost in a whisper. “If you wish it, too.”
“Yes,” she whispered, and his eyes fell closed, and he bent his head close. She shut her eyes and let her lips part, eager to know how it felt to be kissed by a man.
“Your Highness!” A man’s voice rang through the garden, and Gunnar dropped his hand from Rosemary’s face. One of the blue-robed guards stood at the open gate. “Your Highness, pardon this interruption, but Queen Hildegard sends word that she is ready to greet you in the great hall.”