Breeding and resolve stiffened her spine, but could not strengthen her knees. Once inside the steamhouse she sank gratefully on a rough wooden bench that ran the length of the woman’s court. The air was thick with steam and the smoke of some aromatic evergreen.
The princess closed her eyes. It was a joy to sit, and ecstasy to be warm. She had been so long without primitive pleasures…
“You’ll be wanting help with your tunic, then?” The voice was kindly, but the question was odd. The princess opened her eyes to see a white haired woman, thin but strong, had taken the seat beside her. The woman was naked, and the princess realized what had prompted the comment.
“Oh,” the princess said, looking down at her road stained clothes. “Oh, yes, of course.” She stood, feeling aches returning to her body, and reached to undress herself.
The woman stood, and held her hands out to take the clothing, “Ahh,” she said, looking them over, “I’ll just take this for washing then, shall I? Your man, by the look of him, won’t hurt for the cost.”
The princess nodded and found herself moved almost to tears by the simple kindness. To hide her face she sat back down. All her life she had accepted the service of others without comment, almost without noticing.
Things had changed.
The princess sat and felt the warmth of the air, breathing the steam and the fragrant smoke. There were other women, leaning back and enjoying the comfort of the room. A conversation was going on, in soft voices. Someone had recently given birth. The princess let the ritual praise of the baby boy wash over her like the steam, and drifted.
She awoke without knowing that she had fallen asleep. A gentle hand was on her shoulder, a soft voice close to her ear.
“Bairn, you best be taken off to the washroom,” the white haired woman said. “You’ll sweat the meat from your bones, and you’ve scant to spare.”
The princess stared. She’d been dreaming, of something far and away and long past. Shocking herself, she burst into tears.
The woman gathered the princess into her arms. It was a simple and natural gesture, and it made the princess weep harder, sobbing against the other’s chest.
“Hush, my bairn,” she whispered, “’tisn’t as wicked as all that. Be still now, and tell me what devils you.”
The princess took a deep breath. I am the child of a king and the grandchild of a king, she reminder herself. The thought could not stop the tears, but it gave her voice back.
“Everyone I know is dead,” the princess found herself saying, “save the man who brought me here. And I don’t think I really know him at all.”
The old woman tightened her arms around the girl. “Ahh, that’s not true. You know Crone Mellya, now, and I’m old but far from dead.”
The princess choked off her sobs and nodded gravely. “Thank you, Crone Mellya. I am sorry that I lost control.”
Mellya smiled down at her. “Not a word of that. No garden grows save the rain comes down, and it’s sounds as if you’ve storms enough for quite a sowing. Now come with me and lets get you washed afore you wash away.”