I took to speaking to my belly as if the tiny speck within me could understand the dilemma we faced. Though I felt no different, and my stomach had not yet begun to swell, it was oddly comforting knowing I wasn’t alone. At the same time, that comfort morphed into distress, knowing my life was not the only one at risk if I failed.
Finally, finally, the sheep began to slowly make their way from the open grove into the nearby trees to lay. My blood moved in a rush beneath my skin, nervousness etched into every fitful movement. When the last of them had made their way to bed, I tip-toed my way through the soft grass and knelt at the river’s edge.
“Beautiful river,” I whispered to the water god. “I think they are sleeping. May I have the honor of passing?”
That same swishing sound of reeds and trickling came together in my ears, saying in a garbled whisper, “You may.” I held my breath as the water slowed and shallowed.
“Oh, thank you!” I whispered, taking up the bottom of my dingy nightgown in one hand while I held the pail in the other, on my hip. It was heavy. I crossed in brisk steps, stepping on the smooth rocks that were somehow dry on top. When I got to the other side I blew a kiss of gratitude to the river, and it seemed to swell for a beat before returning to its rushing movement once more.
I held my breath, a beat of fear striking me as I turned to face the meadow and bordering forest. The golden shapes of the sheep, nestled in sleep, were too close for my liking. I would have to work fast. I darted through the large expanse of grass, stopping at every bush to pull golden threads that had snagged on leaves and branches. My heart never stopped thumping in my ears and throat as I raced about, casting surreptitious glances toward the grove as I went.
After I’d scoured every bush in sight, my basket was only half full. My blood pounded in wild fear. I would have to get closer to them. The bottoms of the trees held large tufts of glittering wool stuck to the bark.
I forced my breaths to be steady and silent as I walked slowly, my every sense on high alert, working together to watch, listen, grab, move. I made quick work, and my basket was nearly full. So close, so close…
The final tree had enough fleece attached to overflow my basket. I stepped gingerly toward it. My fingers closed around one, two, then three tufts, and I pressed them onto the top of my pile, exhaling slowly. The closest sheep to me was a lamb, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the tiny, wondrous creature. In sleep, it looked so peaceful and innocent, but I knew better. I took a step backward, keeping an eye on it, then another step.
A twig. Of all things! Why couldn’t this forest be like Cupid’s, where there was no shedding of the trees? I froze in place as the tiny lamb’s head rose heavily and turned to me. Even through its droopy, sleepy eyes, I saw the realization take place, and the red of bloodlust come to life. I froze, petrified, hoping it would go back to sleep. Instead, it let out a demented baaa, that was too deep for such a small creature. My chest gave a painful bang and I grasped the pail with both arms, turning, and sprinting at full speed.
I never turned to look. I didn’t need to. I could hear them.
A dissonance of rickety baaa’s and quick stomping feet rose up behind me.
“River god!” I shouted, praying it would have pity on me once more. “Help! Please!” The basket was too heavy, and I kept stepping on my damned nightgown!
Would the animals follow me if I leapt into the river’s depth? They were so close! Would the river consume me whole, rolling me under until its water became part of my body? What about my baby? Cupid’s child? My despair crashed down on me as I neared the bank of the river.
I watched in wonder as the water rose up like a great sheet, my awe turning into horror as the liquid arced over top of me like a massive wave. I crouched, covering my head, but not a drop hit me. A great rushing sound came from behind me and I spun in the dim light, watching as the water formed a wall to stop the evil sheep.
“Thank you!” My voice was hoarse as I shouted my appreciation, running forward through the rocky riverbed until I was on the other side again. I didn’t stop until I got to the trees, then I turned, panting for air, and watched as the wall of water receded into its bed. The sheep ran about bucking and kicking their back feet angrily, shaking water from their fleeces. I covered my mouth as I laughed in shock and gratitude. Someday, in some way, I wanted to thank the river god properly.
The smile was still on my lips when Venus’s grand chariot appeared from nowhere, coming to a stop just before it ran me over. I jumped back, holding the pail close, but nearly falling on my rump.
Venus towered over me in the glittering, bejeweled cart. An absolute scowl marred her beauty when she laid eyes on the pail of golden wool in my arms.
“My goddess,” I said, bowing low as I set the pail before her.
I stayed low to the ground, my head bowed, my heart hammering my chest like a blacksmith forging a shield. She took her time exiting the chariot and gliding to stand over me.
“Who helped you?”
The fierceness in her voice caused me to shudder with fear.
“I gathered the wool on my own, goddess of love. I swear it.”
Her words came out in slow, enraged spurts. “Spoiled girl. You. Are. Useless. I know you did not do this alone! You are incapable of doing anything for yourself! Well, you can rest assured…” She sounded as out of breath as I was, her anger sending a chill over me. “You are on your own for this next trial, for I daresay nobody will help you where you are going.”
SERVANTS OF VENUS
The goddess put me in a cell on her property. I sat on the cool, stone ground, one hand on my belly, my head leaning against the wall as I thought about my husband. Where was he? Was he captive, like me, or had he come to his wits and had a change of heart? I’d hurt him with my distrust. I’d ruined everything we’d precariously built. My eyes squeezed shut, fighting the burn behind my lids, sorely wishing I could turn back time and choose love over fear.
I was so tired. So very tired.
“There she is, Sorrow,” said a small, childlike voice. My eyes popped open and I gasped at the sight of two willowy wisps on the other side of the bars. The women were identical in body with long, stringy yellow hair, their eyes like bottomless pits, skin pale and ashen. The only difference was that one wore a crimson dress and the other dark blue. I hadn’t even heard footsteps! I scrambled to my feet.
“Not as beautiful as they say, is she, Sadness? We shall have to remedy that.”
The women smiled, sending a wave of frigid fear cascading over me.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“We are Sorrow—”
“—and Sadness.” Still, they smiled. “Servants of Venus. Here to beautify you for your next journey.”
I shook my head. “No, thank you.”
“We take our orders from the goddess of all things beautiful,” said the one in red, Sorrow, I thought.
They opened the cell and glided in with bags in their hands, closing the door before I could even think of fighting my way past them. I held up my palms in warning.
“Do not touch me.” I pointed at the door to my cell. “Just get out and leave me be.”
They both giggled, the sound high and creepy. And then Sadness, clad in deep blue, pulled out a gleaming pair of shears, opening and closing them with a ssssnip.
“First for your hair cut.”
My bowels turned over and I clutched my stomach. I had never been in a fight, other than innocent swordplay years ago. But these two were frail enough. Even in my state of exhaustion and pregnancy, I felt confident I could fend for myself against them. Although those shears looked sharp. That would be a problem.
“Get out,” I said again. “No haircut. I want nothing from you. Leave me.”
“Stay still, human,” Sadness warned. “Or Sorrow will have to hold you down.”
I lowered my voice, feeling as if I had sprouted spikes like a porcupine. “Do not come near me.”
“Keep her still, Sorrow.”
The waif in red came at me, and I lunged forward, a scream tearing from deep in my throat. But what I encountered was not a weak maid. She had the power of Boldar. Damned immortals! I screamed and fought as she took me by the arms and shoved me to the ground. I pulled my legs in and kicked her hard in the stomach several times, making her mouth open in a yell to reveal jagged teeth.
We scrabbled, both kicking, screaming and scratching. When she let go of one arm to smack my face, whipping my head to the side, I grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked hard enough to fill my fingers with the greasy strands as she screeched into my face. I nearly vomited at the sensation of causing pain to another.
But then they were both on me, turning me to my stomach on the floor, pinning my arms to my sides. One of them yanked my head up by the hair and smashed the side of my face into the floor. The pain radiated out from my cheekbone, across my scalp, and down through my body.
“Be still!” one of them raged at me.
With a sob of frustration and pain, I went limp, loathing the feeling of defeat.
And then the haircut began, and I screamed anew. I felt them grabbing great chunks of my thick locks, tugging against my scalp as the shears made their grinding snips. When they nipped the edge of my ear, sending another fiery burn of pain through my body, I struggled again, shrieking with fury, trying to turn, but it was useless. They giggled maniacally at my efforts.