Ingebjorg Unspelled

You probably won’t believe me, but I knew Magister Klovass was going to be trouble the first moment I laid eyes on him. Yes, I have hindsight now, and yes, everyone knows how it turned out, and they can all tell you how inevitable it was, but I was the only one there at the beginning, and I remember. Mother called me into the solar and said, “Ingebjorg, darling, I want you to meet the most wonderful man,” and there was this oily little fellow with lips like a fish. He made me a smarmy little reverence, and even as I was returning it with a curtsey, I thought to myself, you’re going to be a problem, aren’t you?

You might argue, as Mother did, that I only disliked Klovass because he wasn’t the sort of man I was used to. Father, the king, is one of those blond, hearty men, with a high color from wining, dining, and riding, and a body you might describe as “running to fat” until you bump into him and realize that what you’ve been calling fat is solid muscle—and his courtiers are pretty much cut from the same mold, so no, I wasn’t used to men who smelled of violet water and wore pointed slippers. But it was Klovass’ manner, not his looks, that really struck the warning bell in my mind.

Or, if I must be honest, it was the way that Mother’s manner changed after he came around.

My mother is a very intelligent woman. She can speak four languages, play three instruments, write poetry, calculate geometry, and discourse on philosophy, astronomy, and theology. Father always swells with pride when he lists her accomplishments. She’s not the sort of woman you’d expect to find out here in the forests and fjords of the Northlands, and Father loves to brag on her to his fellow thanes. Father himself is smart enough, in his own sphere of things, but not exactly what you’d call intelligent. And I take after Father.

You know, it is strange how one person can like certain things in another person, as long as that person is of the opposite sex; but put those traits in a person of the same sex, and the first person can’t stand it. What I mean is, Mother adores Father. Absolutely adores him. Maybe he isn’t her intellectual equal, and maybe they don’t have many interests in common, but he is the only person who can make her laugh—I mean really laugh, not tee-hee-titter at something clever—and he is the only person who can get through to her when she’s in one of her fits. “Now, Frideswiede,” he’ll say, “what is this nonsense? You are stirring yourself up for no reason. Calm down!” And she will. But if I tried taking that tone with her…? Let us just say that Mother and I have always been fonder of each other the farther apart we are.

But there are many things I understand better now, after what happened, and I’ve come to realize that my mother, under all her sophistication, has always felt very unloved and alone. So when she found my father, it was wonderful—until she became afraid that someone would take him away. She could convince herself of her superiority over any other woman—who could match her for wit and charm?—but then I came along. Father’s daughter, his apple, his little bird, his heart. And I grew up to look like him, blond and big (in the right places, anyway), and I grew up to sound like him, act like him, ride, hunt, and feast like him. And while I grew up, Mother grew older.

She would sit with us at supper, a wimple over her greying hair, and listen while Father and I talked about horses and dogs and how funny it was when Nils the Hawk-Master split his pants, and she would grow cold. I did not see it, and neither did Father, how fears of age and loss, and doubts of herself and of love, were festering in her finely-strung mind, until the littlest things—a new bauble Father got me, the plums I left on his night-stand—became invested with dark and terrible meanings. We did not see it, but Klovass did.

He claimed to be a professor of alchemy. This was a new pursuit of my mother’s, alchemy. Klovass came with an introduction from one of Mother’s learned friends, and a promise to teach her the secrets of transmuting base metals into noble substances. But his true talent was the ability to transform other people’s weaknesses into advantages for him. Like an eel (which, come to think, he resembled), he wriggled his way into Mother’s confidence. Seizing upon her deepest fears, he fanned up a raging bonfire in her mind, the pain of which only he could ameliorate.

Someone who has just peered over my shoulder and claims some superior knowledge says that I should not be mixing my metaphors—having begun with an eely comparison, I should continue in an aquatic vein, and not go dodging off into talk of bonfires. To which I reply that my mother is the poet, not I, and I am only recounting how it seemed to me: Klovass slinking around in satin, berating the servants as if they were his own, while Mother sat restless day and night, scarcely able to pass an hour without the Magister’s reassurance. Of course I tried to get Father to do something. But he thought it was good that Mother had an educated person to keep her company, and he couldn’t imagine any danger from a man who didn’t even know a goshawk from a falcon.

This uncomfortable state of things persisted for about two months, until the day I returned from an outing to find Mother waiting for me in the Hall. She asked me where Father was. I replied that we had been out riding together, and now he was in his bath. With a bitter laugh, she asked me what he thought he needed cleansing from.

“Oh,” I said, “everyone feels like a bath these days, there is such a stench around the place—perhaps it is all those alchemical experiments.” Mother rounded on me, teeth bared, nose white. I waited for her to start shrieking and throwing things, as she usually did, but she only muttered some strange syllables under her breath.

I said, “What?” and she repeated herself in a raised voice, but the words still did not make sense. She giggled at my confusion.

“Do you know what that was?” she said. “That was the Binding of the Fate from the Mystic Q’bala.” She walked idly around the room as she spoke, running her hand over random objects. “The Binding of the Fate ties a person to a certain destiny—a destiny she cannot escape, no matter how hard she tries. Every action she takes to avoid it leads her back into its heart. Every resistance mires her deeper. It is like a spider’s web: delicate, elegant—deadly.”

“Indeed,” I said, keeping my voice as dry as possible. “May I ask what fate have I been, as you claim, bound to?”

Mother’s eyes were dark and glittery, their natural blue drowned behind dilated pupils. “You will cause the destruction of this house by fire. You will cause the death of your father. You will wed a man of foul description, and he will be your master for the rest of your life.

I tried to laugh, but it stuck in my throat. I could only stare. When I was nine, I’d had a cat, a sweet, affectionate tabby that slept on my bed and shared my morning milk-porridge. But once I’d come upon it in the grass, killing a baby bird, and its face at that moment had been unrecognizable to me, sharper and cruel, primeval. I thought of this now, as I looked at my mother. I took a step backward, and then another. She found the laugh I had lost, and it echoed behind me as I fled.

I went where I always went when I was upset: the stables. Hidden in the straw in my favorite hunter’s box, with my head resting on his flank, I made an attempt to think rationally. But too many pictures were running through my mind: my elbow, knocking over the candle on my dressing table, the hangings going up in flame…a coal, swept by my skirts from the hearth into the room, catching the rushes on the floor…Father and I out hunting, my crossbow discharging by accident, the quarrel lodging in his throat…Father, eating a pear I’d given him and choking…Father, reaching to catch a ball I’d thrown, and slipping, falling, striking his head on a rock…

(The same critic has just looked over my shoulder again and asked me why I had no terrible visions of the foul man I was fated to marry. I tell him to be quiet.)

I stayed in the stables until dark. By then I had decided to leave. Despite Mother’s assertions that nothing could change my fate, I had to do something, and going away, quickly and quietly, seemed best. I crept into the stablehands’ quarters, took a suit of boy’s clothes for disguise, and gathered food and such sundries as I thought I might need. I was ruthlessly practical, and proud of myself for it. I didn’t even start to blubber when I said good-bye to the dogs. I simply patted them on the head, laced my boots, and struck out into the night.

The journey was strange. The forest, my old familiar hunting ground, felt different in the dark: ancient, stern, and remote. The boughs of the firs hung over me, silent and watchful, offering no harm, but no help, either. I was a mere flesh-creature, squashy and short-lived. The trees had seen many of my kind come and go, and were not interested in my problems. Nothing seemed real. My body moved along competently enough, but it did not feel like it belonged to me. I tried to keep the wind on my face, but I still lost all sense of direction. I have no memory of sitting down to rest, but I must have, for suddenly, the birds were singing, the sun was peering down, and an old woman was tending something over a fire nearby.

I sat up and squinted at her. She had a face like an old potato and was wearing so many skirts and shawls it was impossible to determine her actual shape. Seeing me awake, she grinned, revealing two lone teeth, and handed me a clay cup.

“Get that inside you, your Lady Highness Princess Ingebjorg, and you’ll feel better,” she said.

“Thank you, Old Mother,” I replied, having been taught to be gracious to the common people, and then, spoiling the effect somewhat, blurted out, “How did you know me?”

“I’m your godmother, lovey,” she said.

I started to say, “No you’re not, my godmother is the wife of the Thane of Rjinswold, I know because she sends me little presents on my name day, like a silver sewing kit, or a book of morally uplifting essays,” but I stopped. That was my official godmother. This was my other one.

You see, the character of the heir to a kingdom is very important to that kingdom’s subjects, so whenever a royal baby is born, the wisest men and women from every village get together and choose one of their number to be the child’s unofficial guardian. This godparent watches over the prince or princess as they grow, sometimes arranging for a lesson to be learned, sometimes smoothing the path of true love, sometimes just remaining close to hand in case the royal youngster runs into the sort of problem that stumps all the king’s horses and his men too.

Like this one.

I drained the contents of the cup (it was a ferny-tasting tea), and poured out my story to the old woman. She was a good listener. When I was done, she sat with her thumb on her chin, thinking. Then she said, “You’ve got a twig in your hair, lovey, right about there.” Then she thought some more. Finally she said, “Well, I don’t know much about mystic kwabalers and such, but I do know this: the thing to ward off evil is good, and the way to break a curse is to fulfill it.”

Panic filled me in spite of myself, and I squawked, “No—!” but the old woman just patted my hand. “Trust me, lovey,” she said. “I won’t let it go bad.” Then she hoisted herself to her feet and trotted off at a surprising speed, leaving me no choice but to follow. We soon came to a rough track, where a woodcutter with a bullock-cart just happened to be passing. Godmother inveigled us a ride with shameless claims of sore feet and old bones, and we arrived back at the castle so quickly I could only conclude that either I’d been walking in circles all night, or the old woman had some magic in her.

She left me in the cart while she popped into the kitchens to see how things lay. Returning, she reported that the King (that is, Father) was out hunting with his courtiers, and Mother and her pet alchemist were off on some mystical errand, gathering newt’s eyes, no doubt. My pain must have shown on my face, because Godmother patted my hand again. “Be strong now, lovey, for I’m going to need your help. I can’t give orders to your people here, but you can. This is what we’re going to do…”

A few minutes later, I strode into the Hall and asked the seneschal to call all the servants, from the Head of Cellars to the lowest scullery maid. When they were assembled, I cleared my throat, and, in as haughty a voice as I could manage, explained what I needed them to do. There were many blank stares, and more than a few significant tappings of fingers on foreheads, but I was obeyed. Every able-bodied person in the household immediately began to gather up our earthly goods and carry them outside into the fields.

Beds, tables, chairs, tapestries, chests, pots, pans, spoons, feather pillows, eiderdowns, greaves, cuirasses, daggers, the stag’s head from the hall…combs, mirrors, razors, heaps of linen, boots, shoes, a game of draughts, a pair of silver dice…bowls, goblets, the iron strongbox from Father’s room, spinning wheels, looms, a birdcage, a lute…when it was all piled on the ground, I thanked the puffing servants graciously and gave them the rest of the day off. They wasted no time scuttling down to the village, where it would soon be common news that the Princess Ingebjorg had gone completely bonkers. I walked through the now-echoing rooms with my godmother.

“Are you sure this will work?” I asked her.

“Nearly,” she said, taking a nip of the wine that we were sprinkling liberally around the floor.

The castle made a beautiful blaze. Flames leapt out windows, roof tiles popped and shattered, beams collapsed in showers of embers, everything. Godmother and I admired the show from a safe distance, finishing up the wine and swatting out stray sparks. I was just congratulating myself on an easy job when a humanoid creature came charging out of the woods and began to fling dirt on the flames in a frenzied way. “I can get them out! I must get them out!” it was crying. Godmother and I ran to restrain it, or him (for close to it, it was obvious that under an amazing collection of rags and dirt the creature was a young man, not many years older than myself). Finally, we impressed on him that everyone was safe.

Instead of being relieved at this news, the strange boy seemed to fall into despair. “I thought it was my chance to break the curse,” he moaned, slumping to the ashy ground. Godmother offered him a drink. My ears had pricked at the word curse.

“You are under some sort of enchantment, sir?” I asked, kneeling beside him.

He snorted and flung out his arms. “Am I under—just look at me!”

I looked. He flushed and fidgeted.

“I used to be a prince,” he said, more quietly. “When I was barely out of boyhood, a great magician came to our court and won my father’s confidence. He soon convinced my father that I was worthless and a shame to him, and the two of them drove me out with nothing but the clothes on my back. I will be allowed to return only when I have won my fortune. And I have tried, you know, but the wealthy won’t let me near them because I’m dirty and I smell, the poor are suspicious of me because my manners are too fine, the knights say I’m too thin to be a fighting man, and the beggars say I’m too stout to beg. So I’ve been living alone in the forest, growing more wretched by the day.”

“This magician,” I said. “Was he a greasy little man with knock-knees and a laugh like a-heh-heh?”

“No,” said the prince. “He was a tall bony man with black fingernails and a chronic sniff like snerrk.”

“Hmm,” I said. “They must have studied at the same university.”

But the prince was gazing at me with a rapturous look on the visible portions of his face. “Do you know you are the most beautiful thing I have seen in many months?” he murmured. I looked over at Godmother.

“Could do worse,” she shrugged.

“Listen,” I said to the prince, “there is something you can do—”

But before I could finish, the air was filled with the thundering of hooves. From the north, riding pell-mell, came the courtiers, Father at their head, his eyes wild and streaming. From the west came the carriage, Mother and Klovass tumbling out of it before it had fully stopped. My first instinct was to run to Father and throw my arms around his waist. But I refrained. I mustered as much dignity as one can whilst standing among piles of underclothing and mismatched spoons, and said, “My dear parents. No one regrets more than I the loss of my childhood home. But as you can see, all our goods have been protected, and our people are safe. That such a drastic measure should be necessary I also regret, but evil can only be overcome by good, and a curse can only be broken by fulfill—”

I thought I was doing quite well, but my pretty speech was drowned in a hubbub, as the courtiers battled small pockets of flame with far more energy than was necessary, and the servants poured back from the village, attracted by the smoke. Father approached me, but stopped short. His face was a mask of bewilderment. I could not meet his eyes. Godmother popped up behind him and tugged on his elbow, and he bent down politely so she could whisper in his ear. After a minute, he straightened up.

“Let me see,” he said. “Ingebjorg was placed under a spell that she would cause the castle to be destroyed by fire, so to break this spell, she deliberately set the place on fire, only making sure that everything was safe beforehand. Is that right?” I managed a nod. “Ach, daughter,” he said, running a stained hand over his face. “Sometimes you slay me.”

I felt my heart break and mend, all in one instant.

“But what I don’t understand,” Father went on, “what I don’t understand is, who would put a spell on Ingebjorg?” Godmother cackled and gestured towards Magister Klovass.

But he wasn’t there. There was only the coach, rattling and swaying down the road as fast as it could go. Father roared. The courtiers scrambled for their horses and went in pursuit with wild whoops. As their dust cleared, I caught sight of Mother, standing white and rigid beside the charred remains of the Hall. Our eyes met across the ashes for a long moment. Then I turned away and took the prince’s hand. “How about a bath?” I said.

So we ended up building two castles to replace the one that burned. Father and Mother live in the small tower by the forest, and Erik and I have a large, airy manor by the lake. Erik turned out to be quite handsome once he washed and shaved; Godmother was rather tiresome about it, and I had to be stern with her before she’d stop leering and winking every time she saw the two of us together. Father heaped all sorts of titles and honors on Erik, and we scared the wits out of his father by sending a procession of twelve royal carriages to invite him to the wedding.

Mother seems happier now that she has Father to herself. She’s forsaken alchemy completely and taken up botany. Klovass was never caught, but Father issued numerous edicts forbidding him to so much as sneeze within the bounds of the kingdom. But my critic has piped up again, saying that I do not need to explain all this, that I can conclude my story by simply writing the words, And they all lived happily ever after, and that I ought to listen to him, because he is fated to be my master for the rest of our lives. But I tell him I have ways of breaking that part of the spell, too, and after a lengthy demonstration, he has to agree.

This story first appeared in Lorelei Signal, April 2011.