Chapter Nine

"Tin's princess has been shipwrecked!" The warrior shouted at the robed man standing nervously behind the barred doors. "I am Andras, son of Caerleon. I demand entrance and sanctuary for this lady."

"I must get the abbot." The little man scuttled quickly out of sight.

Andras made a derisive sound though his nose, and the black stallion pawed restlessly. CC closed her eyes on a wave of nausea. She could no longer see the ocean. The monastery had been built on the top of a cliff that dropped steeply to a rugged shoreline. Although out of sight, she could hear the waves crashing against the rocks below, and if she focused hard enough on the sound, it soothed her frayed nerves.

"Not much longer, Princess," Andras said. "Abbot William and my family are well acquainted. We will be admitted."

CC wanted to say that she thought monks were supposed to help people, whether they knew their families or not, but she couldn't summon the energy to speak. She wanted to get her drenched clothes off and sleep for days—and not necessarily in that order.

But most of all she wanted the sea to quit calling to her.

"Andras! Is that you, my son?" A soft voice with an accent that sounded vaguely British called from within the walls of the monastery.

"Yes, Father. I am in need of your aid."

"Of course, of course," the voice said hastily. "Brother, unlock this gate and allow our friend entrance."

Rusty hinges complained as the gate swung open. CC tried to sit straighter, ashamed of her bedraggled appearance. But before she could even smooth her hair, Andras slid from the horse's back and pulled her down beside him. CC was horrified to realize that she couldn't stand on her own. Her vision was blurred and everything went cloudy and gray as her knees buckled. Instantly the warrior lifted her into his arms.

"The princess needs rest and care. I found her washed ashore not far from here."

"Brother Peter, have the guest quarters readied for this lady and have one of the sculleries attend to her." CC could hear the scuffle of robes as the man hurried to do the abbot's bidding.

"Are there other survivors to follow, my son?"

CC could feel the warrior shaking his head.

"Poor child," the priest spoke quietly, but he made no attempt to mask the obvious curiosity in his voice. "And you say she is a princess?"

"She remembered her name, but I am afraid she has not been able to say much else," Andras said.

"What is her name?"

"She is the Princess Undine."

Silence greeted the knight's words, and CC wanted desperately to open her eyes and see the abbot's expression. But common sense warned her that it was best to keep up the pretense that she had fainted and was still unconscious.

"Undine?" The man enunciated the name carefully. "Are you quite certain she said Undine?"

"I believe so," Andras answered. "Yes, I am certain she told me her name was the Princess Undine. Do you recognize that name, Father?"

"I only know that in some tongues an undine is a spirit from the sea. How very odd."

"Abbot William." The first monk hurried back to them. "The guest room is ready for the lady and the scullery awaits."

"Let us get her safely within," Andras said. "There will be time to question names and such when she has recovered." CC could feel the warrior's eyes on her and when he spoke his lips were close to her ear. "Look at her, Abbot. It is most certain that she is a princess." Andras's arms tightened possessively around her.

"Let us not be deceived by beauty, my son." The abbot's voice was condescending. "But you are correct, she must rest before we can expect her to speak. Follow me to the guest quarters."

CC rested her head against Andras's shoulder, slitting her eyes to try and catch a glimpse of her surroundings. She saw the green of the grass as they crossed some kind of courtyard, and she was surprised to note the fading light. It was obviously dusk, but it had seemed like only minutes had passed since she had been pulled ashore by the merman. Her hand twitched in remembrance. Surly that wasn't his kiss that she still felt warming her skin?

When they entered the monastery, the heels of Andras's shoes rang against the stone of the floor, and all CC could see through her half-closed eyes was the gray of the stone walls in a dark, narrow corridor.

"Through that door, my son," the priest instructed. "Leave her on the bed. The maid will care for her."

Andras put her gently on a hard, cotlike bed and reluctantly released his hold on her. CC curled onto her side, careful to keep her eyes closed.

"Isabel!" Abbot William's voice was hard and cold when he addressed the maid. "Get her some water with which to wash and one of the good Brother's robes to wear until her own clothing can be cleaned and dried. If she can take sustenance, offer her some broth and watered wine. Then come report her progress to me."

"Yes, Abbot." CC could hear the rustle of the servant's skirts as she curtseyed and rushed out of the room.

"Let us have our own dinner, my son. There will be ample time to speak with the child tomorrow." The priest's voice lost its hard edge when he spoke to the knight. "Your princess is in excellent hands, and as you said, she must rest."

The door closed securely behind them. CC breathed a sigh of relief and opened her eyes. The room was small and barren. The walls were made of thick gray stone. CC hugged herself, feeling a chill that the newly lit fire did little to dispel. The room held only a small, hard bed that was covered with a scratchy brown blanket and a narrow dresser on which was placed a large, plain bowl made of brown pottery. Over the head of the bed hung the only decoration in the room—a wooden crucifix which was bare except for pointed splinters of wood resembling nails that had been driven into it where Christ's hands and feet would have hung.

She squinted and stepped closer to the crucifix. During her years in the air force she had attended church services on several bases for many different denominations, everything from Baptist to Methodist, Protestant to Catholic, but she had never seen anything like that nail-decorated cross. Something about the barren crucifix made her feel very alone.

A breath of fresh air blew into the small room and ruffled her hair. CC breathed deeply, savoring a scent that was at once magical and familiar. She took another deep breath. The air was filled with salt and water and life. Desire flooded her. As if she followed the sound of an imaginary Pied Piper, her face turned to the wall farthest from the door. High up on that wall was cut a narrow window slit, probably less than three feet wide. CC's body went still as she breathed in the odors of the sea. She could hear the rush of the waves against the shore. She could almost feel the warm fingers of water against her body.

An image came to her of Dylan pressing her hand to his lips. She touched the back of that hand, remembering the jolt of feeling his caress had caused.

The door opened and CC jumped guiltily. A small, stooped woman wearing a dress made of rough, nondescript brown wool limped into the room. Her face was so heavily wrinkled that it almost looked deformed; CC thought that she had to be the ugliest woman she had ever seen. In one skeletal hand, she balanced a tray, which held a pitcher, a goblet and a bowl. In the other, she clutched a folded piece of material. Her body jerked in surprise when she saw that CC was awake and instantly dropped into a nervous, lopsided curtsey, sloshing some of the red liquid out of the goblet.

"Oh! I am so sorry, Princess." She lurched over to the dresser, pushing the tray onto the top of it. In her haste she almost knocked over the bowl that was already sitting there. "I am afraid you startled me. I thought you would still be asleep."

Her voice was low and whispery and creaked with age.

"It's me who should be sorry," CC said quickly, covering her shock at the woman's appearance. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

The old woman ducked her head and wouldn't meet her eyes. She curtseyed awkwardly again, then stood nervously plucking at her skirt with her free hand. CC waited for her to say something, but she just stood, looking like she couldn't decide if she wanted to faint or run.

CC cleared her throat and gestured at the goblet that was still on the tray. In a gentle voice she said, "I really am very thirsty."

"Yes, of course, my lady!" In a shaky motion, the woman yanked the goblet from the tray and held it out to CC, who took it with a grateful smile and drank deeply. It was wine watered with cool water, and it was sweet and delicious.

"If the princess will allow me to help her disrobe, I will take, her garments to be cleaned and dried." She shook out the material with her gnarled hands and it became a towel-sized cloth and a long robe. "I will help you wash the saltwater from your body, then you can wear this robe until your clothes have dried."

CC looked down at her dress, which was really several dresses, each layered over the top of the other. Even wet the skirts hung gracefully and the long, full sleeves ended in embroidered points that almost dragged the floor. The outfit was certainly beautiful, but she didn't see one zipper or one hook. She had no idea how she would get out of it without the woman's help, and she was honestly too tired to care.

"Please," CC said gratefully. "I would appreciate your help."

CC's legs felt shaky as she stood. The old woman moved quickly behind her. CC could feel her tugging and pulling at laces and ties as she stripped several layers of damp clothing from her body. When CC was left with only a white shift, made of almost translucent linen, the woman averted her eyes hastily.

"I give you my word that I will not look upon my lady's body. I will just hold and rinse the washing cloth for you if my lady would like to clean under her chemise."

CC was baffled. Clean under her chemise? But the thing was wet, salty and just plain disgusting. CC's tired brain felt foggy. How was she supposed to clean herself with her clothes on?

"I need to take this wet thing off, then I can clean myself and put the robe on," CC said, feeling stupid for having to say the obvious aloud.

The woman sounded shocked. "You would wear the robe with no underclothing?"

CC ran her hand down the front of the shift, where it was beginning to dry and crinkle with sea brine.

"What is your name?" CC asked.

The old woman gave her an owlish look, and her eyes almost disappeared in the wrinkled folds. "Isabel."

"Isabel," CC said calmly. "This shift needs to be cleaned. I need to be cleaned. Both things can't happen together. Now, we're both women, so it's fine with me if you see me naked." CC gave her a weary smile. "I really do appreciate your help, and I don't mean to offend you, but I'm afraid if I don't get this wet thing off and sit down pretty soon, I'm going to fall down."

Isabel's eyes widened even farther, and with jerky movements she turned around, poured the water from the pitcher into the bowl, dunked the cloth in the water and then, without looking at CC, she handed her the dripping cloth.

"Thank you," CC said.

What a ridiculous attitude, CC thought as she washed herself. The woman had literally looked horrified at the thought of seeing another woman's naked body. CC remembered the silky green gown the goddess had been wearing. It had done little to hide Gaea's erotic, voluptuous curves. And Undine's mermaid form had only been clothed in skin. What was it the goddess had said? Something about some priests being afraid of beauty. CC pulled over her head the robe of rough, undyed wool the color of parchment and grimaced as it scraped against her bare breasts. She looked down at her own lush body, now engulfed and almost completely sexless within the enshrouding robe. A sliver of unease pierced her. Didn't she remember reading in one of her college Humanities texts something about medieval people believing that the naked body, especially the naked female body, was sinful and inherently evil?

"Are you covered, my lady?" Isabel asked.

"Yes, completely," CC said, trying to keep the worry out of her voice.

Isabel turned around and studied her. "Shall I dress your hair back, Princess? It is most unseemly that it is left all"—here she paused and gestured helplessly with wizened hands to her own hair that was pulled severely back and covered with a plain white headdress—"free."

Automatically CC reached up, letting her hand skim through the thick length of the heavy tresses that reached to her waist. She could feel the jewels Gaea had magically twined throughout her hair. The thought of hiding that wondrous hair and the generous gifts from her goddess mother made CC's stomach tighten.

"No," she said. "I think I'll leave it as it is tonight."

Isabel gave her a dark look and opened her mouth to argue. Before she could speak, CC smiled sweetly at the old woman. "It is the way of my people for maidens to wear their hair free."

Now where had that come from? CC thought. But she was glad she had said it, even if the effort it had taken to stand up to Isabel had sapped all of her remaining strength. Her knees felt wobbly, and, all of a sudden, she found herself sitting down hard on the bed while the room spun around her.

"My lady," Isabel's voice was back to being kind and subservient. "You are exhausted. Here, this broth will help you to regain your strength."

Isabel put the bowl in her hands, and CC sipped the warm liquid, surprised at how wonderful it tasted.

When the bowl was empty, Isabel took it from her and gathered CC's damp clothing.

"Sleep now, my lady. You will feel better in the morning."

Without another word, the maid shuffled out. CC thought she heard a bolt being drawn on the door, but she was too tired to care. She fell asleep listening to the soothing sound of waves lapping against the distant shore.

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