Damsel in Distress, a short story

While cooking dinner, I had a random stroke of inspiration, one that shoved aside all my other writing endeavors and demanded to be put first. Those pesky inspiration-strikes, they can be so cumbersome when they aren’t related to what you’re actually working on. I spent 4 hours on this, and it comes out to be 4271 words long, which is a nice little size. I tried to keep from being repetitive with words (a problem of my first drafts), leaving out key points, and doing other goofy things, but this is still a first draft. When you read this, I want you to not think of scars so literally as a physical mark. I also want my readers to think about the traditional Damsel in Distress story, and how this story differs and is similar. Although Ruth plays a key role in a larger scheme, the main conflict is actually with herself.

Once again writing a serious story instead of the cute, light-hearted ones my mother says I should get around to writing, I present: Damsel in Distress.

Nicolette.

“Who’s there?”

The voice came from the rafters, and it would have made the woman below jump if she had not been about to ask the exact same question.

“The property owner. You have two minutes to explain why you are here,” she said. Her back had a crook, she walked with a spiraling branch sanded smooth, and all but her face was covered in layers of course fabric. It made her look generations older than she truly was, and she counted on it.

“I want to speak with Decker.” This was a different voice, older, worn by nights spent in the cold and days without water.

Decker had been her uncle, although she—and the rest of the neighbors—had known him as Richard. He died three summers ago, leaving her defenseless against a world that saw her as they wished instead of as she was.

Richard Decker had told her that one day, these men may come. And if they did, it meant the wrong boy was on the throne. She went about her business a little slower than usual. “You can speak to him, and for your sake, I hope he doesn’t respond. He’s under the oak grove.”

A graceless young man jumped to the floor beside her, nearly knocking over her milking pails. He tried to look up under her hood, but she bent and collected the trowel that had fallen to the floor sometime over the winter. She put it in the woven basket on her hip.

“You’re a nutter,” the young man said.

“Charles,” warned the elder man.

“You aren’t really going to allow a crazy lady to come in unannounced when she pleases?”

“My name is Ruth, and I am the keeper of the farm here,” the woman stood up, taller than Charles had imagined she could be. “I know who you are, Prince, but when I see you, all I see is another pair of helping hands, and a mouth to feed.”

“What insubordination!”

“I see we are going to be splendid companions,” Ruth said, then looked up into the rafters, dismissing the Prince with ease. “I can assume you are his protector.”

The other man was not as old as he appeared to be, either. He crouched on the rafters and was watching her with the intensity of an owl angry at being woken up during the day.

“His name is Cuthbert,” said the Prince.

“Mmm. Cuthbert, what say you to live and let live?” Ruth’s voice was stronger—and younger—than she hoped it would sound. This shed was suitable enough to live in; it had four walls two layers thick, a strong roof, and glassless windows that could be propped open to let in fresh air. Ruth’s own home was snuggled down in a copse of trees. Before the men arrived, the walk to this shed had seemed long, but now it was all too short. She hoped they would respect her space.

The man nodded his angled face, and Ruth kept on with her morning routine.

Cuthbert found her two days later, appearing out of the early-morning shadows as Ruth milked the dairy does. She saw him when she lifted her head over the goat’s hips. He was leaning against the pillar that barely held up the roof.

Ruth’s hand went to check that her scarf still covered her neck. It did. “I thought you weren’t going to stalk me.”

“I want to know that I can trust his location with you.”

“I’m not going to tell a soul,” Ruth said, but it was not a promise. It was the truth. “The only one I ever spoke to was Richard. He’s gone, and this farm is all I have. I care for what lives on it, and I will not betray it.”

She did not know if Cuthbert understood what she meant, but he nodded and left.

Over the following weeks, she noticed him observing her. At first, it made her uneasy. But, soon, she started to think of him as another one of the animals who casually stared at her as she walked over the fields, chopping down weed patches and moving livestock from field to field. The next day, she saw that in addition to sword practice, Cuthbert had Charles removing weeds. A week after, her overwhelmed garden had been tended to.

And every morning without fail, Cuthbert brought to her the goats and cow to milk.

When the summer came and fruits ripened, Charles and Cuthbert took the cheese and harvest to market for her. The task had never been one that she liked to do, and Ruth was very pleased that they did it for her, though it also disconcerted her, because it meant acknowledging them as people, as men, and she had had enough to do with them.

All too soon, others came. She did not pay them much attention once Cuthbert indicated they were expected. Nevertheless, she asked him to add a bar to the door to her home.

One fall day, she watched an etiquette lesson, and the teacher, a short man called Luke, was discussing the proper attire depending on status, age, and scenario. The lesson was of mild interest until Luke addressed her.

“Even a lowly farm maiden ought to wear more flattering clothing. That is to say, to not wear her entire wardrobe at once.”

Ruth had been avoiding the man’s persistent attacks on her character and behavior so far, but this topic struck a nerve. “And why is that?”

“To ensure a proper marriage for the young woman in question,” Luke said. He approached her, and as he spoke, he reached for her scarf. “Allow me to demonstrate the way a woman uses modesty to her advantage.”

Ruth grabbed his hand and twisted it painfully. Luke let out a squawk. Cuthbert was suddenly at her side, ready to step in, but also amused. Charles was making one of those exclamations she always ignored.

“Never touch me. And never touch my clothes.”

“But, without me, you will never get a husband! You are a lost cause, a maiden gone grandmotherly!”

“I was a lost cause when my family disowned me. Leave me to my farm.” With that, she gave him a slight shove, and he landed in the Prince’s arms.

As Ruth stalked away, she heard Luke grumbling, “…can’t believe that girl. She’s a grand cook, a patient watcher, would bear healthy children, but dressing like that…”

Ruth did not want to hear any more, and was glad when the rush of a stream pouring over the hill into the river drowned out the noise. She sat on a rock and stared into the sunset.

Cuthbert sat down on a nearby rock. “Why did they disown you?”

She pulled her knees to her chin. “It’s none of your business.”

“It is if you repeat the actions again.”

Ruth scoffed. “My betrayal is one that can only happen once.”

“Mistakes are often repeated.”

“It was no mistake. It was a crime, and I bore the punishment.” Ruth stopped herself there. She had said more than she intended to already. The quiet man had that effect on her, and she longed for the days before he had found his way into her shed. She did not want to tell him the details. She had not told anyone. Too many people had bore witness to her disownment, and she was determined to never relive it again.

Cuthbert let the rushing water fill a few seconds of silence before he spoke again. “How do you expect me to trust you after that?”

Ruth lifted her chin, extended her neck out farther than she was comfortable with, and said, “If you don’t trust me, you can slit my throat.”

“No,” he said, and it seemed the word came quickly, without proper thought. He paused and started again. “I can trust you, at least with what you know. But the question that fills my mind is, why don’t you trust me?”

“Why should I?”

Cuthbert stopped watching her and stared out at the sun. He did not answer.

Years passed, and they did not speak of the subject again. Each time Charles returned from the market, he had more tales of distress, high taxes, and war. He wanted to move against his brother. Ruth worked harder than ever to find ways to hide how well-worn the road was becoming from the sheer level of horsemen coming and going from the farm. She spoke to Cuthbert about the suspicion this must be raising. The traffic decreased, but the damage had been done.

One winter morning, Ruth awoke with a familiar twinge in her stomach. It was the same one that she had had when the Lord’s son found her walking through town. But that day had changed the course of her life, and she knew better than to wait for fate to knock on the Prince’s door this morning. While she dressed, she found the scars on her body, and memories flooded back.

She was beautiful then. Young, naive, with flawless skin and a desire to find a husband with a comfortable income. She had everything: sisters aplenty, a mother, good food, decent clothing, and a bright future. What she had was a date with a rape in the middle of the marketplace, out in the open with guards encouraging the young to-be lord. No longer a virgin, and therefore ineligible for marriage, her mother had performed the cleansing rite. It was on the idea that bloodletting, pain, and torment would remove the evil that had tainted her body and made her “seduce” a relative stranger.

Beaten and penniless, she limped out in search of anyone who would take her. One look at her wounds, and other people thought they knew all. Some stoned her away from towns. Until the day she found her way to her uncle. Robert had taken her in, not looking  at her below the face. She was forever indebted to him.

Cuthbert found her packing the saddle bags and adjusting the cinch on the final horse. He had not brought the milk animals this morning, instead  he had a bleary-eyed Charles grumbling in his wake.

The man had been good to her. Possibly better than her uncle had been. After the first summer, Cuthbert had come home with a calm horse for her. In addition to the other two horses, and the ones that came with guests, it did put a strain on the pastures, but Ruth loved their riding lessons and soon enjoyed the horse almost as much as her goats. Ruth hoped that Cuthbert would not mind her fleeing with them.

“We should take the livestock to sell,” said Cuthbert, nodding at her work.

“No time.”

He stared at her for a long second, then nodded. “What did you pack?”

“Lots of food. Blankets. A large tin of white tea.” The tea was worth gold, far more than the livestock would bring.

“How many pounds?”

“Ten.” It would get them very far, but they would need to be careful to not leave a trail.

They mounted and left the valley, and none too soon. From the safety of a distant treeline, Ruth saw the smoke in the morning air, and knew it was coming from her farm. She did not look back.

Three weeks later, they met with Luke. Though they had the money available to rent rooms, they had slept on the ground or in makeshift shelters to avoid leaving witnesses. Charles complained, but Ruth did not mind. What she minded was the blizzard that forced them into a crowded inn. Luke had arrived the night before, and if it wasn’t for that, they would have only had place to stand by the fire. She slept while the three men talked, but there was not nearly enough privacy for the four of them.

Luke brought with him clothes that would fit in with the region better. It was a wise plan, but Ruth looked doubtfully upon the skirt and blouse he had selected for her. It revealed too much skin for comfort.

Cuthbert relayed to her a grand plan which involved sneaking in to the castle and usurping the throne. The details were not given to her, but Ruth’s role was to take a position as one of the castle’s servants, then leave open a door so the others could enter unnoticed. Though it seemed it would be easier to simply bribe a servant to leave a door open, she did not comment on this. A part of her liked them using her in their plan. Luke soon grew annoyed with her questions about what the different servants wore. None concealed as well as her clothes, and that irked her.

Irate and claustrophobic in a reeking room, Luke demanded that each of them bathe, but the inn had only the water for two tubs.

Her hope had been to bathe on her own, but the inn keeper had so many bodies pressed into this hallways and eatery that he requested for all with rooms to remain in them until the storm passed through. The men were not going to allow her to hog an entire tub to herself, but they gave her the choice of a partner. Luke was easily the cleanest. Charles was the least likely to look. But Cuthbert was the only one she knew would not ask questions.

So, the other two men elbowed their way into the stuffed corridor, and she was left with Cuthbert. He motioned for her to go first, while the water was warm. She accepted the sponge, and set to work very quickly. Cuthbert stood facing the door and did not turn around to look. If he had, he would have seen the scars starting at her lower neck and extending all the way down to her ankles. They had left her face untouched as a reminder of the beauty she used to have, as a reminder of her shame. She finished before the water had even started to cool, then dressed behind the cover of a blanket as Cuthbert washed himself.

Ruth realized she had forgotten her scarf, and ducked to retrieve it before Cuthbert could see the marks on her chest. What she saw instead were the marks riddling his back and shoulders, deep gouges that had turned into pale, raised lines. She was staring. She knew she was, but she could not help herself. Here was a man, a strong man, who she had been close to for years, and never once had she guessed that he had these scars underneath his shirt. How many sweltering summer days had she seen him harvesting hay bare-chested? How many times had she glimpsed him going for a crisp swim through the river? How could she not have known that he wore these scars the way she did clothes?

He caught her staring. She hid before he could see the tale etched into her own skin.

Though she could not afford it, Ruth bought a lace modesty panel for her uniform. It buttoned from the neckline of her dress uniform to a collar. It made the other maids think her vain, but she wore no brooch at the dimple between her collar bones, and she arranged her hair without curls or decorative pins. For a month, Ruth kept to herself and performed her duties without fail. The castle hired more staff for a state dinner, so the blame of what was to come would not be so easy to pinpoint, and on the dinner night, Ruth crept downstairs and propped open the door with a potato.

Her role was now completed. The rest was up to Charles, Cuthbert, Luke, and whoever else was twisted into their plan. Her only duty now was to go find her horse at the safehouse, take her saddle bags, and go to wherever she pleased. They had involved her more than they had planned on.

The time came for her to leave when her lady asked, “Would you like to accompany me, or shall I ask Marilyn?”

Ruth should have said she wished for a quiet evening, then went away into the night to live out the rest of her life. What she said instead was, “I would be honored.”

The lady had never seen her scars. No one in the castle had, but she was renown for covering every inch of skin that she could. Either to set a new trend, or to make Ruth feel less conspicuous, the lady wore a more decorative version of Ruth’s lace. It did make her feel more comfortable.

Men stared at her during the dinner. She tried to not notice, tried to not blush, tried to stay calm and comfortable. Knowing she was in the presence of the King did little to assuage her nerves. Ruth reminded herself time and again why she was there, and it took all of her courage to examine the faces of men when the first dance played after the fruit course.

Too many of the men were smiling, eyes drifting down to where the lace ended, as though they wanted to peel it away and see what was underneath. If only they could see. If only they could, they would be turned away in horror, knowing the shame she had brought upon her family. Ruth felt tiny, and like every person in the room could see that.

Remember why you’re here.

She smiled and looked for a familiar face. She saw one, and he saw her. With his charming smile, her stomach fell to her feet, and she had to hide her mouth beneath her handkerchief to keep a gag back. It was the Lord’s son, no closer to being a Lord, though his father had a head of silver hair and wrinkles about his eyes. Her abuser smiled with a friendly glint. He did not recognize her, and she was all the more sickened when he stopped flirting with the other maids and crossed the room. Ruth’s own body held her paralyzed, the same way it had years ago when she was pinned against the cart and he was dividing her. She should rip her gaze away, but she could not. She should swallow, she should breathe. But if he had done that when she had done no more than speak with him, what would he do if he wanted a dance?

A man cut in between them, and Ruth startled. The newcomer’s arms caught her when she tripped on her hem.

“Act normal,” Cuthbert whispered, his breath hot in her ear.

Feeling ready to faint, Ruth nodded and accepted an invitation to dance. The lord’s son watched them twirl and talk with envy.

“I was not expecting you,” Cuthbert said.

He spun her, and when she came back, she whispered, “Am I in the way?”

She saw in his eyes that was not the case.

“I need Lord Eastbury’s signet ring. I believe he gave it to his son.”

“I’m not light-fingered,” Ruth whispered when she next had the chance.

“After the main course, there will be a slow dance. Work it off his finger then. He will be very drunk.”

Ruth shivered. Only after years of being around Cuthbert did she feel remotely at ease with him holding her hand. The thought of dancing closely with a strange male was enough to make her feel dizzy.

“Ruth,” Cuthbert murmured. His lips brushed her neck, and she feared the thrill that ran through her body at that light touch. Nevertheless, his words held all the greater impact. “This will not succeed without that ring.”

Ruth swallowed her fear. “Who is he?”

“When you next spin, look beneath the coat of arms. He is the one nearer the window.”

She nodded, determined to do it, but not for king and crown, not for lower taxes, not for a king who understands all walks of life in the kingdom. Ruth was doing it for Cuthbert. When had he become so important?

Her face paled when she saw who he wanted her to dance with. The lord’s son. She stumbled. Cuthbert caught her again, apologized to the other dancers, and lead her to a seat.

“What is it?”

Ruth wanted to say, “Nothing,” and leave it at that, but she couldn’t say a word. Instead, she checked the other faces to make sure she wasn’t being watched, and pulled up the sleeve of her dress to her midarm. Violent scars started there, and it was clear they continued.

“He did that?”

She hid them again and found her voice. “Worse.”

Cuthbert frowned, and she saw a fierce glint in his eyes. “I can find a way to get the ring. Don’t be concerned.”

Ruth put her hand over his arm. “No. You are needed here. Let me do what I can.”

The dinner was slow after that. Cuthbert was careful to not dance with her again, lest he attract undue attention to her. Working up her courage, Ruth accepted dances from various men, and found each of them to be worse than the last.

For once, she was grateful for the scant portions the hosts served women. It was easier to poke around the plate and look like it was eaten.

Then came the dance Cuthbert was talking about. Her throat was dry, tongue swollen, and palms sweated. She thought about Eastbury’s son, and her stomach recoiled. She thought she was going to be ill. The music started, and guests stood up to claim partners.

Ruth eyed the door, thought that she could walk out without anyone noticing her absence. Her feet were carrying her to the door, her body drifting over the wood dance floor. Then she saw a maid make an advance towards the son, and another man grabbed her arm, bringing her in close for a dance. He was a delicate dancer, a man who enjoyed the dance for the act of it, and paid little heed to who he was dancing with. It gave her time to settle the twist in her stomach and realize what needed to be done. Unlike the ladies in this dinner, she knew what sort of a man Eastbury’s son was beneath his gentlemanly demeanor. When the dance ended, she thanked her partner. The Eastbury son was making his way to the table when she caught his eye, imagined it was Cuthbert bringing the does in for their daily milking, and gave him a radiating smile. He winked. She raised her eyebrows and cocked her head towards the balcony. A feral grin overtook his face, and for an instant, she thought she wasn’t going to be able to do this after all.

The air outside was refreshing, and it cleared away the headache she felt, dried up the sweat, and left her feeling a little bit stronger.

Eastbury’s son arrived, took her hand, and kissed it. “Greetings, my maiden.”

“Greetings,” she curtseyed, looking down at the buckles on his shoes. “I am afraid I don’t know your name.”

He pulled her up. “I am John Eastbury, soon to be a lord.”

John. For all these years, she had never known his name. She smiled while she thought of what she was going to say to him, and he felt encouraged to start lifting her skirt.

“And who are you, my maiden?”

His warm approach stilled once he felt the scars, his face paled when he recognized the marks. He fell back, hit his head against the wall, and gaped up at her when she revealed a whole, scarred leg to him.

“I am Ruth Decker, and I’m going to fill your nightmares until you die,” Ruth said. He shuddered, though she wasn’t sure if it was at her words, her expression, or her scars. None of it mattered, for each was a component of her, and it was time she stopped hiding from it.

Ruth stepped forward, and he cowered, flinging his arms over his head.

When he looked up next, she was gone, and so was his father’s ring.

During dessert, Prince Charles stormed the hall with a platoon of men, and the king’s own guards turned against him. There was an impromptu trial featuring Eastbury’s ring as the main exhibit, as Eastbury was apparently known to be the King’s main hand, and a lot of talk and clamor and general mayhem ensued.

Ruth paid not the least attention to any of it, opting instead to eat her custard and cake, then slip away into the night.

She found her horse, but left her saddle bags in the safe house, and went for a light ride, stopping at the top of a hill to listen to the water fall down to the town before. While on rides with her lady, Ruth passed by this tree, and without fail Cuthbert sat beneath it.

He was there now, having beat her by having had a horse ready.

“Won’t you be missed?” Ruth asked from the back of her horse, leaning forward on his neck.

Cuthbert snorted. “Charles needs to do this on his own. Having me there during his first hours of reign is like having a chaperone present during a wedding night.”

Ruth dismounted and came to sit next to him, much closer than usual. “You once asked me what I was disowned for.” She reached to unbutton her lace.

Cuthbert grabbed her hand. “I think I know.”

She smiled, but her fingers still worked the buttons. “Before they turned me out, they told me there was no man who would look upon my marks without being repulsed. I suppose, I need to see if that is true.”

When the neck of her lace gaped open, Cuthbert did not even look at them. He looked years younger than he had upon their first meeting, and she guessed his age to be a little older than she was.

“We are nothing if not for the scars we carry,” Cuthbert said, now dropping his gaze down to her neck and running an admiring finger over her marks.

She kissed him, and he kissed back.

The moon and the stars shone on them, and when Ruth pulled back, she shook her hair free from its bun, pulled up her sleeves, and soaked up the feel of the breeze over her body.

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