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Norita

These days, American author Ruth Nestvold writes mostly science fiction and fantasy. Formerly, it was academic articles, but then she decided to give up theory for imagination. The university career has been replaced by a small software localization business, and the Black Forest by the parrots of Bad Cannstatt. She lives with her fantasy and her family and her books in a house with a turret and spends much of her free time among her roses in a garden on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany.

She has sold stories to numerous markets, including Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Scifiction, Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, and several anthologies. Her novella "Looking Through Lace" made the short list for the Tiptree award and was nominated for the Sturgeon award. In 2007, the Italian translation won the "Premio Italia" for best international SF novel. Her "Big Fat Arthurian Fantasy" Flamme und Harfe ("Flame and Harp") appeared with Random House Germany in 2009, and has since been translated into Dutch and Italian. The English original was published as Yseult: A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur in 2012.

She maintains a web site at ruthnestvold.com.
Imagine....


The building has ten spiral staircases, and nine of them go nowhere. But how to tell which is the one that leads to a tower where you can stand and look out at the vista of dark woods and castles and cathedrals and rolling hills covered with rows of vineyards and which of them ascend into crumbling ruins or air or oblivion or impossibility?
Look at the wear on the stones, the differences in front of the stairs circular here, a long groove there, making a strange light colored pattern between the five archways and the five free standing staircases. The room is a pentagon, with archways to towers of stairwells in each corner, the other five stairways at regular intervals in the middle of the room. Although they are made of stone, they look somehow airy, lacy, their patterns graceful and entrancing. The balustrades seem to curve in on themselves, looping between handrails and columns and newels. The room is dank and musty, old and deserted, smelling of abandonment.
On an eastern wall hangs a painting, fantastic as this place, seemingly forgotten. Perhaps it will tell us what the stairways mean, what we no longer know, what could never be. The painting shows a solitary rider on a road through a meadow, stylized so that every detail stands out and yet it is impossible to tell if the rider is man or woman. The features of the face are beautiful and handsome at once. The horse has come to rest as the rider gazes ahead to a fork in the road.
But there, in the shadows, is that not a woman? There, behind the staircase to the west?
Yes. She just stepped towards the window, and she is dressed in dark robes. Her hands are encased in fingerless gloves displaying the many rings she wears. Look, do you see? There are rings on every finger but one, the ring finger of her left hand.
She walks toward one of the archways and pauses, her head cocked to one side, as if she hears something, but there is no sound here except the wind whistling abandonment. Has she been forgotten too?
Her beringed right hand rests on a stone column of the archway entrance, and she places her foot on the bottom stair. Look, in the stairs curling up behind her dark figure, images, shadowy and vague--a knight, I think. A Rose Knight, wearing shades of yellow and orange.
She gazes at him a moment and turns her back, walking quickly to the nearest central staircase. But what appears here, she likes just as little as the Rose Knight a young man with intense eyes, sitting on the steps and carrying a lute. The woman in black looks away, her lips pursed, and touches a ring on her little finger.
Her head down, she moves to next spiral staircase. Here a strange vision appears, a vast city climbing the stairs, with tiled roofs and clock towers and church spires. As she looks at the shadowy city in miniature, a slight smile comes to her lips.
After a time, she walks to the nearest stairwell, but her gaze still lingers on the city she left. She is not watching where she is going, and when she turns to the archway, she starts back.
Ah, is that not blood seeping down the stairs? But she whirls away, and the image is gone.
She hurries back into the room, resting her hot forehead on the stone railing of the next central staircase. From her expression, the vision there appears to be even worse than the blood. But it is only a young boy with hair the same shade of dark red as the woman's own, looking up at her trustingly.
She bursts into tears and stumbles away.
There is some comfort to be found in the vision of the next spiral staircase, to judge by the way her posture shifts and her chin rises to its natural proud angle again. Here there is nothing but a shifting image of a middle aged man in the robes of a scholar, but she smiles as she plays with a heavy signet ring on the middle finger of her right hand.
When she leaves him to continue to the next archway set in the cold stone wall, it is with a certain degree of reluctance. Here the vision is of a handsome young man, a noble or a prince by the wealth of his garb. Nonetheless, she turns away quickly enough, yanking at the large stone on the ring finger of her right hand.
There seem to have been many men in this beautiful woman's past or is it her future? The next free standing stairway reveals yet another. This man has no lute, no finery, no surcoat of a Rose Knight, only a merry smile and an unconcerned way of cocking his head. She stands and gazes at him for a spell, and tears begin to roll down her cheeks.
Then she turns away and continues to walk her pentangle, to the side almost opposite in the five sided room.
The archway here contains the image of an easel, and it holds what looks to be an unfinished version of the painting on the wall. She leans against the decorative stone whorls and crosses her arms in front of her chest as if she expects the canvas to paint itself.
It does not, and she spins around to stride all the way across the room to the final stairwell she has not visited, completing her star of destiny. Shall we follow her, the ghosts of lives she never lived? What harm would it do? We are not even her past; we cannot hurt her now.
With hardly a hint of hesitation, she begins to climb the cold, dank stairs. When her dark robes hamper her progress, she pulls them over her head, discarding them behind her. If we were real, we might trip on the garments, but we do not.
She emerges naked onto battlements with a view of the lands of Hy Rugosa. On the stone floor of the tower lies a linen shift, a suit of chainmail, a surcoat of darkest red with a shimmer of black, and a gleaming sword. A warhorse waits patiently in the yard below. In the distance, two armies are meeting on the crest of a hill.
She dons the garments and the armor and takes up the sword. The hilt is engraved with a single word.
Norita.
She can live her own life now.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 30th, 2019


Ruth Nestvold and the late Jay Lake, both multiple award-winning authors, created the world of the Rose Knights together. Please check out other tales from their world at Tales of the Rose Knights.

- Ruth Nestvold
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