The isolated Isle of Thule is under a curse. Only one in ten women can bear a child, and only one in ten children will be a boy. After more than a century, the decimated population will soon face extinction.
Only once every twenty-five years is there a chance to break the Curse. The prince of Thule must conceive a child with his intended at a certain spring under the light of the great full moon on the summer solstice.
But in order to produce a child, he must undergo a two-month process in which a primer empties him of old seed and fills him with new.
Adella is the one chosen to prime Prince Rossmur, for despite her youth and inexperience, she has a gift. But no one involved could have predicted how her gift would affect the process, or the feelings the young couple soon develop for one another – feelings they must resist at all costs, for Rossmur is already betrothed to another woman.
With their hearts and souls unexpectedly linked, can they resist their forbidden attraction and complete the ritual to free their people from the Curse?
Publisher’s Note: “The Primer’s Tale” is a softly erotic fantasy romance. It contains mild sexual scenes against a compelling, fantasy world backdrop.
Chapter One: The Interview
At her own private work table in her mother’s spice storeroom, Adella dropped a lumpy pearl into the marble mortar and crushed it with a satisfying crunch. The pestle moved rhythmically in her hand, reducing the pearl to a fine powder. As she worked, she chanted a priming prayer to summon the favor of Tenleth, goddess of the moon, goddess of fertility.
Adella knew all the priming prayers. She knew all the lotions and potions and oils and ointments for priming a man to father a child. Her mother had started training her at the age of seven in the skills of priming, from the names and recognition of herbs in the early years to more intimate knowledge as she matured. Just last month Adella had been tested by the Sisterhood and had been accepted to serve as a primer. Not that she’d been engaged to do so?but soon, her mother had promised her. Soon.
Still chanting, she added a pinch of saffron, then a fragrant dried jasmine blossom?a flower Adella would never see grow on the Isle of Thule. Her dark green eyes searched the shelves for the next ingredient. The storeroom was crammed with spices and herbs, stones and oils, which her spice merchant mother imported. From a birch-bark box, she selected a single dragon’s tear and added it into the mortar. They weren’t real dragon tears, of course, but perfect round droplets of amber from some exotic southern land. The dragons who had given Thule its rich black soil had retreated centuries ago to the northern caves of the western mountains, where they kept the island from freezing solid. And legend had it that there were dragons in the north, asleep in the ice. Unless any of them awoke, however, Adella would have to make do with amber.
Concluding the prayer, she tipped out the mortar onto a creamy square of parchment. Her delicate hands folded the parchment into a packet, which she sealed with drops from a beeswax candle. This potent blend would go into wine to make the fertility potion for her first priming client.
Setting aside the parchment packet, she pushed an unruly strand of hair behind her ear. She wore it unbraided, just tied at the neck with a woven ribbon in the manner traditional for a virgin, but the wild wavy locks were a challenge to tame. Her hair was white, though she wasn’t old, only just eighteen. Every Thulender had white hair, from the day they were born, and had for five generations?ever since Dorn cast the Curse. Dorn herself had been born with white hair. It was seen as a sign that she was barren, and when she was denied the right to inherit the throne, she had cast the Curse on the last king of Thule, rendering all of his people barren, the Curse that had nearly extinguished the nation. Now it was the job of primers like Adella to ensure that babies, especially the rare sons, would still be conceived.
But she wouldn’t be priming a man tonight. She wiped out the mortar, replaced the boxes and jars and packets, blew out the candle, and locked the storeroom as she left. She scanned the kitchen, which occupied the other half of the lower floor of the house. It was late, past suppertime, and her mother wasn’t home yet. It wasn’t like Emelda to be out so late. Adella usually made the spice deliveries herself during the day, while Emelda worked with her partner, Thomora, who did all the buying abroad ever since Emelda gave up traveling to raise Adella.
Adella went to close the shutters against the rising evening wind. Despite the chill of the near-arctic spring, the house was warm. It was solidly built of stone and spruce. Like all of the houses in the harbor district, it was old but well kept. Ever since the Curse, other districts in the city of Haven had fallen into disrepair. Some had even been razed, the lumber cannibalized for fuel in the long winters. There simply weren’t enough people to fill the once thriving city.
She lingered, inhaling the fresh salt spray. During the day, the sun had skimmed the crest of the hills beyond the bay and had slid down behind them an hour ago. The lumpy moon hung over the steep thatched rooftops, a little east still, toward the sea. Only a few tardy souls now hunched through the oak-paved streets with their cloaks pulled close and their white heads bent against the gusts. Through the slapping of water against the hulls of ships at the docks and the mutter of gulls that whitened the rooflines, she heard the purposeful approach of hooves.
Some small flutter in her belly made Adella pull back from the window to watch from the shadows as Prince Rossmur passed. He was swathed in wool and fur, but she knew it was him. No one else rode a horse in the harbor district. He was often there to visit the woman who arranged the export of horses from Hestenborth, the farm where the royal family had been breeding horses for centuries. After spending the winter in the city, he would normally have returned to Hestenborth by now, but not this year. This winter his father had died, leaving Rossmur the new Prince Regnant. And this was the summer Rossmur would go through the priming process in preparation for trying to make a male heir. Adella smirked. Every primer in the city was hoping to get that job. And now that she had passed her test, Adella could apply as well. But she knew that this was far too important for a novice. Someone experienced would get that plum.
She sighed to herself. Prince Rossmur was tall and comely. His clean-shaven face, the mark of a royal, showed strong features, a noble brow, a firm chin. Every girl in the country between the ages of eighteen and thirty had hoped to be picked as his intended. But he already had an intended, selected more than a year ago by both of his parents. The enviable girl had been brought last fall from Feldurin, her family’s country estate, to live in Haven Castle. Their wealth was in lumber, fuel, and fur. Adella knew that no mere city girl would have ever had a chance with Rossmur, and there was no point in daydreaming about it.
"Gracious, child!" Emelda’s face appeared at the window. "Haven’t you closed the shutters yet? It’s getting cold."
Quickly, Adella shuttered the window while her mother bustled in through the door, wafting her personal fragrance with her, of cinnamon, mace, and juniper berries. Her face was flushed as she pushed back her hood from her snowy hair. Like most women, she wasn’t married?there simply weren’t enough men?so she wore her hair in a single plait. She had been a primer in her youth, but as she often told Adella, she had made the mistake of falling in love, and only a virgin could be a primer, so she had gone into the spice trade instead. However, the excitement in her ice-blue eyes now did not betoken a mere deal in spices. She changed her sheepskin boots for a pair of cloth shoes, unpinned her cloak, and threw it over the back of a chair.
"I’ve arranged for you to apply for your first priming job," she announced.
Adella’s eyes widened. This was sooner than she had expected.
Teasing her with the anticipation, Emelda turned to poke at the hearth. The onions, carrots, and dried fish sat untouched on the table. "Tenleth’s eyes! You haven’t even started supper. We’ll have to have oat cakes and cheese."
But Adella could see her mother’s hand trembling with excitement. She grabbed the sleeve of Emelda’s lavender woolen tunic, bordered with embroidered violets.
"Mother!" she demanded. "Who is it?"
Emelda tugged the sleeve away, but she couldn’t keep the grin from her lips.
"All right," she yielded, pushing Adella into a chair. "Tomorrow morning you will go up to Haven Castle and speak to Princess Berra."
Adella’s hand clapped to her breast. Was it possible?
"Really?" she managed. "Berra herself?"
Emelda pulled the other chair near, plopped herself down, and gripped her daughter’s hands in hers.
"Yes," she confirmed. Her eyes held Adella’s. "With these hands, you may help to create the next royal heir. The princess has agreed to consider you as primer for the Regnant."
The Regnant. Rossmur. Images of his hard body and long curly hair danced in her head. If she were selected, she would be the one to touch that body, to transport him through fleshly pleasure, flushing out the barren seed and filling him with the seed of life.
She struggled to breathe, then returned her mother’s triumphant grin.
For two whole months, he would be hers and hers alone.
* * *
Rossmur sat up on the edge of Sella’s rumpled bed and snagged the leather band off the floor to tie back his hair. It hadn’t been business that had brought him that evening to Sella’s warm upper room.
"My mother’s been interviewing primers," he groaned, binding his hair at the nape of his neck.
Behind him, Sella sprawled on the furs and propped her chin on a work-hardened hand. Her white hair tumbled fine and straight around her naked shoulders. "Of course she is. It’s time."
"I know," he sighed. He’d always known, all his life, that this was the summer he’d have to try to break the Curse. And he knew the priming was part of that. But it didn’t make him like the idea. "You don’t understand. You haven’t seen them. They’re hags, every one. My mother’s been dragging me in to meet them. You should have seen the two today, and she’s bound to have more coming in tomorrow, all with glowing tales of their successes."
"Well, you need a primer who’ll get results. And you don’t have much time left," observed Sella. "Only two or three days before your priming has to start, or you won’t be ready by midsummer night."
"It’s disgusting." He shuddered. "To have to lie there and let some crone? you know?"
Sella sat up. Her hand slid around his muscular chest and her warm breasts pressed against his back. Her scent was crisp with lemons and rosemary.
"In fact," she teased, "I do have a pretty good idea."
A grin softened his firm mouth. Over the years, he’d been with three or four other women, at Hestenborth, for totally forgettable sex, but Sella was the one he was friends with, the one who understood him. He’d known her nearly all his life, even before he went to the farm to work with the horses. She had been his first woman when she was twenty-two and he seventeen. They had friendly sex and friendly talk. Neither had ever wanted more.
He twisted around with a rakish smile. "Too bad I can’t have you as my primer."
Sella laughed and lay back with her hands behind her head. Like most Thulenders, she was lean and hardened by living in such a cold, harsh land. "I don’t think I could even pretend to be a virgin, even if no one knew you’d been sleeping with me for the past seven years. I think my daughter would give me away."
Rossmur smiled. Sella was ever the practical one. She knew his parents had never considered her as a potential mother for his child, even though she had proven her fertility. She already had a child of her own, almost nine, sleeping in the adjacent room with Sella’s co-mother. But Rossmur was bound by royal tradition to mate with a virgin. As it was, nearly every virgin between the ages of fourteen and forty wanted to be the Regent’s intended. Not Sella, though. She was content with her life as it was. It was one of the things he liked about her. That, and so many other things? He stretched beside her on one elbow.
"You know," he said to her soft breasts, her firm belly, her creamy thighs, "once the priming begins, I won’t be able to sleep with you. At least not until it’s over. Two whole months."
She met his warm amber eyes with amused affection. "Far longer than that," she pointed out. "Once you mate with your intended, you’ll be bound to her until she gives birth. If she gives birth. And if she gives birth to a son, you’ll be hers. Only hers. You’ll marry her, and you’ll never sleep with me again."
That sobered him. In all this time, he had never imagined not sleeping with Sella ever again. His gaze drifted into the distance.
"Krohnor’s balls," he swore by the father of all gods.
She touched the tight curliness of his hair. "It’s all right. You’ll have Mechtild then."
"Mechtild." He winced. To give up Sella and have only Mechtild?
Sella lifted his strong chin. "I see," she surmised. "Mechtild was your parents’ choice. Not yours."
Rossmur snorted. No one had ever been his choice. But he knew his duty. He had to produce a male heir.
"She’ll be a good mother," he responded flatly.
"Ah. A good mother. And a proper chaperone for the priming."
And there they were, back to the priming. He dropped his forehead onto her shoulder with a groan.
Mischief sparked in her brown eyes and her fingers trailed downward along his hip. "Take heart. Maybe you’ll get the primer who worked for your father, whoever that was. She obviously did an excellent job."
"That’s sick!" he choked with a startled laugh and smacked at her hand, but she snatched it away. Heaving upward, he lunged to reach it, grabbed both of her wrists, and pinned her beneath him. He felt her laughter against his belly, and his own response grew warm against her soft white fur.
"I’ll miss you," he breathed, close to her mouth, suddenly serious.
Her smile curved softly against his cheek.
"You don’t have to miss me tonight," she breathed back.
"No," he answered, more with his body than with his words. "Not tonight."
* * *
In the morning, Adella put on the traditional close-fitting undergown of a primer and the sleeveless overgown bound at the waist with a woven girdle. The malachite wool of the overgown was brightly embroidered with flowers and silver unicorns, while the white linen gown had simple green leaves at the cuffs. The garments fit close and flat all down the front, but had deep, wide pleats to either side across the back, for when primers were rare and the city was larger, primers often rode to the homes of the men they were priming.
Her mother helped her twist her hair into a tight rope and pin it around the crown of her head.
"It won’t lie smooth," Adella complained, trying to pat the waves into place.
"It’s fine." Emelda smiled. "This isn’t about your hair. Just answer clearly and show respect. The rest will come naturally." She held Adella’s walnut-brown cloak for her and pinned it at her throat.
Adella pulled on her sheepskin boots and dropped a pair of green cloth shoes into a pocket inside her cloak. "I guess I’m ready," she decided, and waited for her mother to don her own cloak.
Instead, Emelda opened the door. Women’s voices, the squabble of gulls, the flap of sails, and the slap of rigging against the masts leaked into the room. Some white-haired mothers with white-haired children and a couple of cats moved up and down the wooden street, all on business of their own. Off on the piers, sailors and merchants, tradeswomen and fishmongers, few men among them, went about their daily work.
"Aren’t you coming?" asked Adella in alarm.
"Of course not. This is your application, not mine."
Adella’s belly flopped. She hadn’t realized she’d have to go to the Princess alone. "But?"
Emelda gave her a little push into the street. "Don’t worry so much. You’re the one they want. You’ll see." And she closed the door.
Flustered, Adella brushed down her skirts. All around her, the harbor bustled. Because of the dragons, the harbor never froze completely, but winter storms prevented shipping through most of the winter. With the advent of spring, there were ships again, five of them now, all of them of Thulender build, unloading or loading at the piers. Workers, nearly all of them women, hoisted down bales of cotton cloth, crates of raisins and dried apples, barrels of lamp oil, kegs of dried beef, and sacks of hops. Other women loaded up bales of furs and raw wool, crates of cheeses, and kegs of salt. No horses, though. Not in the spring. The horses would be shipped in the fall, after grazing all summer on the rich island grass.
Adella turned her back to the ships and picked her way over the oak planks that paved the street, careful of the slippery edges where the wood was worn smooth with age and use. The thatched homes, storehouses, and taverns of the harbor district clustered on the narrow north rim of the River Ayn, which flowed between steep, sheltering banks. Shipbuilders, sailmakers, ropemakers, sailors, merchants, and brewers were the harbor’s principal inhabitants. Above the river, the street rose stepwise into a district of cobblers, smiths, weavers, bakers, carpenters, and more brewers, still most of them women, their shop-dwellings stacked against the ridge.
Once above the trades and taverns, Adella paused to offer a prayer at the city’s central temple. It was an elaborate five-sided building of timbers and stones, with carved roof beams and painted lintels. She stepped into the shadowed chill. A pair of young women priests were tending the brazier on one of the altars, and at another, an old woman with crooked hands was presenting a bowl of barley and chanting her prayer in a quavering voice. None of them heeded Adella’s entrance.
Chanting softly, Adella lifted her eyes first to the ceiling, on which was painted Krohnor, the god of sky and rain, with a crown of lightning bolts around his stormy face. Next she bowed her head to behold the floor, inlaid in woods of golds and browns to depict Teyna, the goddess of earth and beasts, lying asleep on the new-made land. The five gods born of Krohnor and Teyna were each depicted by a statue that stood on an altar at one of the five temple walls. Adella faced each one in turn and chanted the prayers to honor each god. First was Hafith, changeable goddess of sea and rivers, carved from lapis with a real silk gown as frothy as foam and a selkie smiling at her feet. Then came Solin, powerful god of sun and fire, fashioned of oak with gilt skin and hair, with a firebird perched on his upraised hand. Then Tenleth, goddess of moon and healing, placid with her marble flesh and tinted features, her hand on the head of a unicorn. Faldur followed, temperamental god of wind and storm, carved from birch in linen raiment of painted leaves, armed with a sword of real steel and mounted on a maple griffin. Last was Elsdoth, fiery god of volcanoes and hearth, from whose furnace sparked the stars, with a hammer raised in his ebony hand and a dragon coiled around his legs.
Concluding her initial prayer, she faced the altar of Tenleth and pulled a packet from her pocket. From it she sprinkled imported mandrake and crumbled vervain into the brazier. A ribbon of smoke, both sharp and sweet, curled upward from the bed of coals. Then she bent her head and lifted her palms in supplication. Her chanted prayer rose with the smoke.
"O shining Tenleth of purest light, let your favor flow through my hands to bestow the blessing of a male child on the man they touch. Grant me your purity in service, and impart to me a right understanding of your will."
She bowed five times, then gazed at the goddess. Her marble face was round and white, her eyes deep shadows above a pale mouth, and her hair cascaded over her breasts like a celestial veil. Had the goddess ever touched a man? Adella imagined a man who could catch the eye of a goddess?lean of frame, with tight, hard muscles, a strong, clean face, and long white hair curling over his shoulders?
She could see him clearly in her mind.
He looked like Rossmur.
She reached out and touched one marble toe, then whispered a prayer that her mother had certainly never taught her.
"And may I find favor in Rossmur’s sight."
Then she bowed deeply, turned away, and left the temple.
Outside, she surveyed the city below. The morning sun glinted on the harbor, and gulls circled in squalling spirals. Then she looked up the road ahead. Above her several larger houses perched on the hillside, well-tended stone and timber compounds with rotting stockades from before the Curse, when invaders still threatened every summer. And higher, on the crest of the hill, loomed the rock foundation, stone walls, and timber rooftops of Haven Castle, a vigilant dragon guarding the city against attack from the sea. Now, of course, the dragon slept, like those in the mountains. The Curse did a far more efficient job of deterring invaders. No one came to Thule’s shores since the Curse.
She was halfway there.
A curious thrill tickled her belly.
She resumed her climb.
* * *
Rossmur stood at the window of his mother’s audience chamber and looked down over the city. He had only turned twenty-four a month ago, but even he could see the changes in the view since his childhood. The harbor district that remained was much as he remembered it, but there was less of it. Likewise with the district of trades and taverns above it, still hale through the core but slowly rotting at the edges. To the west and east, buildings he could remember being in use were empty now, their thatched roofs sagging and caving in. And further out were the barren stretches where structures had disappeared completely, now filled instead by salt grass and sheep.
At the city’s center, he could see the tiers of the temple roof. That, at least, seemed little changed. Above that, though, the upper slope had been most affected by the population decline. Once peopled by generals, wealthy landowners, and merchants of imported goods such as wine or silk, there were barely a dozen villas left.
Rossmur knew the grim statistics. He and his mother both received the birth and death reports. Just ten years ago there had been five hundred more people in Haven. In the whole country, there were only five thousand people. Only one in five women would bear a child, almost none would ever bear more than one, and only one in ten children would be a boy. If he couldn’t break the Curse this summer, there would be twenty-five more years of decline before the next midsummer full moon?twenty-five years in which the numbers could fall by another two thousand.
He was about to turn away when he saw a figure enter the courtyard through the gate. Warmed by her climb, she had thrown back her cloak. Seeing the telltale primer garb, he felt a momentary dread. But then he got a better look. From his angle on the second story, he could see her clearly as she approached. She wasn’t old like the other primers. Indeed, she barely looked eighteen. She was taller than both of the women guards escorting her. Slimmer. And her close-fitting bodice could not hide the curve of high, firm breasts. She tilted her head to regard the House, and he glimpsed high cheekbones, a delicate jaw, and dark green eyes.
He smiled to himself as she disappeared into the peak-roofed porch.
This was the primer he would choose.
The door opened behind him, and he turned.
"Good," spoke his mother. "You’re already here. I was afraid we had frightened you off with all these primer candidates."
Berra crossed the room with a purposeful step, but the winter had been hard on her, aging her past her forty-eight years. She had always been slight and not especially tall among women, but now she looked fragile and downright thin. Her spear-straight posture was no longer effortless, and sorrow had etched faint lines around her amber eyes. She settled in one of two chairs at the hearth and smoothed her skirts with birdlike hands. Her woolen gown was dark red for mourning, with dragons and golden stars at the hems, and although the room was pleasantly warm, she wore an additional sleeveless coat of umber wool, trimmed with fox as white as her hair. She wore her hair in the two long braids of a married woman, and Rossmur knew she always would, to honor the memory of his father. Three months after Torknir’s death, she still bore a hint of funeral myrrh beneath her usual scent of gardenia.
Rossmur kissed her cheek and smiled. "It would take more than a few old crones to scare me off."
"I should hope so," she sniffed. "It isn’t as if you have a choice."
The smile reached his eyes. "Of course I have a choice," he countered. "I get to choose which crone."
Berra sniffed again, but Rossmur could see a glint of humor in her glance. She raised her brows. "We shall see."
He felt unexpected anticipation as the door opened again, but it was Mechtild, his intended, who entered. Unlike Berra’s sedate attire and Rossmur’s own dark red tunic and black britches, her sign of mourning was limited to a wine-colored girdle at her waist, while the soft rose hue of her gown, embroidered all over with dainty forget-me-nots, set off the bright sky blue of her eyes, the roundness of her ample breasts, and the shape of her generous hips. Indeed, one reason for choosing Mechtild had been those hips, good for bearing a son. Rossmur’s son, his father had hoped, and Rossmur did not plan to let him down.
He promptly stepped forward to kiss her cheek, which was aromatic with oil of roses. She smiled into his amber eyes.
"So she hasn’t come up yet?" Her voice was sweet and mild, like her temper.
"No," he responded kindly. After all, he was fond of Mechtild. She had been living with them for the past eight months. She was family now.
"I gave orders for the guards to wait until you had come," Berra explained. Again Rossmur saw that hint of humor. "You must meet all of the candidates with us."
Mechtild glided to the other chair and arranged herself neatly. Everything about her was neat and tidy. Her small, straight nose, her soft, curved lips, and her fine, arched brows were pleasing in her heart-shaped face. Her small hands folded themselves in her lap. Even her heavy white hair fell straight and perfect down her back. Rossmur could find no fault with her, and yet?
Once more the door opened, and the girl who entered, accompanied by the aromas of ginger and almond oil, put all other thought out of Rossmur’s mind.
Adella paused between the guards to take in the room with a rapid glance. She had never been to the castle before, and could hardly take it all in. The walls were so much more formidable than they looked from the harbor, and the yard bustled with activity. Guards practiced with weapons in the courtyard, and there were even one or two men among them. Girls groomed horses in the doorways of a stable. There were women tallying sacks of grain being delivered in a wagon, girls feeding chickens, and boys fetching firewood. And the House was grander than she had imagined, with wooden carvings, painted adornments, and cavernous spaces.
And now she was here in this sumptuous room, in the presence of the Regnant himself. The floor was strewn with rushes and lavender, not simple straw. The walls were hung with tapestries of hunting scenes and flowering gardens, not merely lime-washed between the timbers. There was a hearth large enough for seven women to stand side by side without getting soot in their white hair. On a table of oak with carved legs stood a glass ewer of wine, several horn cups, and a painted wooden bowl of dried fruits and nuts. There was even glass in the windows.
And there was the Regnant, elegant in his mourning red embroidered with dragons, with his golden eyes appraising her?
The guards beside her bowed to the elder woman seated before the hearth.
"Adella Emeldasdotr," one of them announced, then they posted themselves on either side of the door.
Quickly, Adella lowered her gaze and bowed as her mother had taught her.
"Your highness," she managed. The Regnant moved to his mother’s side.
Berra smiled, and Adella saw welcome in her eyes.
"Adella," she spoke, extending her hand. "Come forward."
Adella approached to stand before her. The younger woman was clearly the Regnant’s intended. Berra gestured with her hand. "You will not object to Mechtild’s joining us this morning?”
Adella shook her head, aware of the Regnant’s eyes on her. "Of course not." She bowed.
"I understand that you were approved by the Sisterhood of Primers just last month," Berra queried.
"Yes, your highness, when I turned eighteen."
"Tell me, then, what goes into the first potion?"
Adella answered with confidence. It was a standard interview question. She would have smiled if she hadn’t been so nervous. More questions followed. She knew all th