Chapter Thirty-Eight

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Riona awoke the next morning to an unfamiliar warmth between her thighs. She sat up sharply and tossed the blankets and furs of the queen's bed to one side. With trembling hands, she stood and pulled up the fabric of her nightgown. The inside of her legs were already stained with blood.

Elaine, one of the ladies-in-waiting, bustled into the room with a bowl of steaming water in one arm and a cloth in the other. Her mouth parted in surprise as she met Riona's gaze. Then, as if moved by an invisible force, she set down her burden and was at Riona's side. "Don't worry. I know it looks like a lot."

Riona nodded quickly and helped Elaine remove the stained cloth from about her loins and tie a fresh one in its place. The queen murmured in her sleep and turned over. Riona and Elaine paused in their movements and cast a glance in the direction of the bed where Gwenivar and Caiside, who had returned sometime after they had fallen asleep, still lay.

"Come with me," Elaine said softly. She took the soiled rag and motioned for Riona to follow.

As the two women moved down the stairwell, Elaine paused at a door Riona had never opened. Riona walked through and found herself instantly surrounded by women in various states of undress. The ladies-in-waiting were preparing for the day. Clothes were strewn about the room, the smell of porridge permeating the air.

"Riona!" Rowena, one of the first women Riona had met at Camalann, drew forward from a small group clumped around the hearth.

Elaine held up the soiled cloth, and Riona felt her face flush in embarrassment.

Rowena let out a 'tsk.' "Is it a curse? I have yet to decide."

"I was going to show her how to clean."

Rowena nodded in agreement, seeming to hold some sort of power over the other women because Elaine took that as permission.

"Now..." began the younger woman, "you willn't get out all the stains, mind you, but you want to get it as clean as possible." Elaine dipped the soiled cloth into a basin of water and began to stir it with a wooden rod. "Let it soak a while, and that will help."

While Riona watched, Rowena appeared at her side. "Here, take this." She lifted Riona's nightgown over her head and fastened a thick red petticoat about her waist. "This will catch any leaks and won't show the stains. Naomi," Rowena's warm voice held the gentle responsibility that comes with unofficial leadership, "bring Riona a new dress, please."

Soon, Riona had yet another new dress slipped over her head. It was a simple brown gown with long draping sleeves and a gold rope that cinched about her waist. In a lot of ways, it resembled her old woolen dress, which for so long had been the only clothing she owned.

Rowena handed Riona a small pouch, which she instructed could be tied to the petticoat by a short strap. The scent of Nutmeg immediately assaulted Riona's nose when she took it.

"To mask the smell, especially in summer months," Rowena said.

The other women's heads all nodded in agreement. Then as if a gate had been opened, they all began to offer up their personal favorite remedies, boiling toads and keeping the powder in a vial about your neck to stem the flow being one of the wildest presented. Riona thanked them all for the advice and turned back to Elaine, who was scrubbing the rag with a stone. When she seemed satisfied, she drew the cloth from the water and wrung it between her hands.

"You want to make sure it's well and dry before you wear it again, so it's best to keep at least two or three on hand," she said sagely, as she strung the rag over a line near the hearth. "Wearing them wet will get you in all sorts of trouble."

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