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A New Era
Upon returning home, once more, Bronherrn found himself bombarded by young Druthleer. “Did we destroy them? How many did you kill? Who is that?” Druthleer pointed to Prillani.
Bronherrn ruffled his brother’s scruffy light brown hair and chuckled. “Food first. I shall tell you all you crave once I get my fill.”
Disappointment spread across his youngest brother’s face and guilt swelled in his chest. He chuckled and lightened his features. His mother kept Prillani buried deep in conversation and Bronherrn went to mix some dough. “She’s a Zuthan?” he said.
Prillani turned away from their mother and smiled at Druthleer. “I am the Zuthan Chieftess. Everything that goes on in my land is controlled by me now and it is my wish that we stop fighting.”
“How?” Druthleer scratched his head.
“They will be married.”
Bronherrn cleared his throat and turned away at his mother’s words.
“Are you going to come live with us?” Druthleer asked.
“Not exactly.” Prillani giggled. “But we will rule both lands together.”
Druthleer’s question raised more in Bronherrn’s mind. Where will we live? Will she try to lead? Kill me? And how will our people ever get on if she is genuine? He cleared his throat and told himself to focus.
“Enough for now. Our guest is tired and we have food to prepare.”He busied Druthleer with cutting potatoes and Prillani thanked him.
She stood across the table from them. He shut his lips tight as she watched his hands working the dough. “What shall I do?” She asked.
“Rest yourself a while,” his mother answered.
Bronherrn turned in disbelief. She had always expected everyone to pull their own weight.
“You said it yourself. She is a guest, Bronherrn.”
“My future wife,” he corrected her. The word wife sounded foreign. It drifted through his thoughts like a phantom. He had not expected to find himself so close to marriage, and what of Aethelwyn?
Grimhelden poured ale into some mugs for them. Druthleer licked his lips at the sight, but Bronherrn shook his head. “None for you little one.”
“I am not little.”
“You are to me.” He handed his mother the dough and she took it to the hearth
Bronherrn drank from his father’s mug. The comfort of teasing his little brother in the house he was raised in filled him with ease. The grainy scent of fresh bread wafted through the room and he relaxed. Grimhelden prepared the same stew that had comforted him through many an illness. Bronherrn nodded at Prillani and offered her a bowl. He broke off a piece of the bread, still hot from the fire.
She sniffed it and tasted the stew. Her eyes brightened and she sipped with a smile.
He savored each bubble of froth, dipped in the bread he made by his own hand and devoured it. When night came, he moved to his corner of sleeping furs. Prillani rubbed her arms looking around. “Come on then.” He nodded for her to join him.
She glanced at his mother, but she had turned away. The dying fire at the hearth left her only a wisp in the darkness and he reached for her. “Just lie beside me or find a spot in the middle of the floor.”
“This is how you live?” she whispered.
He propped his head up. “A true warrior lives a life of simplicity.” Her eyes flashed in the dim light and he lay back.
She knelt with a sigh and uncoiled her hair. Smoothing out her dress she lay down rigid and stiff. Bronherrn despised her hesitation. How could they marry if she would not even lie next to him?
He grew impatient and faced her. Running his fingertips over her shoulder, he nuzzled her nose with his. She moved in closer and placed her hand on his side. He wrapped his arm about her and breathed in her sweat.
Her heart steadied and he found her give in to sleep. He stared at her features in the dark and wondered about things to come. He determined to address everyone at the market as he had before. It was as fitting a place as any. He feared that his people would revolt against the idea of embracing a Zuthan.
This thought attacked him all night. By the time he decided to give up on rest, the echoing cry of day’s arrival sounded with birdsong. He found the slope of a smile curved on Prillani’s sleeping face. He slid away as gently as he could, pondering whether he should wake her or not.
“I will look after her,” his mother said.
He turned to spot her at the hearth kindling a new fire. “I have no stomach to break any fast today. Shall I warn her in case the engagement is not accepted?”
“You need something to live on.”
“Mother, did you hear me? What if they reject the treaty, the…marriage?”
She spit in the pan beside her and rubbed it with a cloth. “They shall accept it, or answer to me.”
He nodded and turned to grab his weapons.
“You will not accept one bite?”
“Not today mother.” He carefully strapped on his harness and armed himself. As he went for the door, he stopped to watch her crack an egg into the skilled and set it over the early flames dancing around the iron. He wished to stay and eat as much as she would give him. “I appreciate your guidance.”
Before she could answer, he set out at an easy pace. He walked the length of the field where he had spent so many hours training. His pacing did not quicken the sun’s rise, but the swish of the grasses against his legs offered a familiar air. Golden light spilled over the land and he walked on.
He followed the paths around the entire village, eyeing each simple wooden dwelling with each step. Eventually the chatter from the courtyard grew loud enough that he felt the time had come.
I must make the announcement. He reached the circle of carts to people greeting him, offering their goods and haggling with others like always. He strode to the spot where he had already made a couple of speeches.
The back of his neck itched. Faces directed toward him. He stood tall: shoulders back, chest stuck out. The air of battle had left him, but it remained in his heart and shaped his face.
This would be a different fight. Getting his people to accept a Zuthan into their village would be difficult enough, but to propose a merger of the lands? Rousing support for war was easier.
“I came here to announce that our efforts have met success.” A wave of relief filled so many faces that Bronherrn gained hope. “None of our warriors were lost, and we have been offered a truce.”
Smiles wrinkled into scrutiny. Whispers dropped low around him. “It is a trick!” a young boy shouted at him. A woman stepped forward. “The Zuthans have used the worst of curses against us. They would never offer a truce!”
“I have officially accepted the Zuthan Chieftess to be my wife.”
Mournful moans of woe met his ears. He realized their prejudices could not be broken with words. He pulled out his dagger. Freshly sharpened, he took the point and cut into the scar his father had marked on his arm. “By my blood, I swear to you that I would never endanger our people.”
The commotion died down and he allowed the hush to hold as he slid his dagger back into his belt loop. “This union will put an end to countless seasons of war and feuding for good. Our lands shall benefit from each other. We are to find peace as neighbors.”
Mourack moved to the head of the crowd. “He trusts this offer enough to make a blood oath.”
Bronherrn hesitated for a moment. Prillani had lied to him in the past. The image of her soft features sleeping next to him drifted into his thoughts and he pushed down his doubts. “This will bring us a new life. A better life.”
He nodded at Mourack. A light crescendo of applause began to grow. He swallowed and stepped forward. Someone cheered, then, like a dam being broken, a flow of encouragement burst upon him. Children gazed up with excited eyes. The success of his speech bolstered his spirit, but he had one more visit to make.
He accepted a few pats on the back working his way toward the tavern. He leaned against the solid wood door before thrusting it open. Raeimo sat at his usual table. The inviting aroma of ale met Bronherrn at the doorway. He nodded to the old man and smiled on Cerlias who sat beside him.
Stepping around the empty tables and stools, Bronherrn joined them.
“They are making quite a fuss out there. You must have met victory, eh Bronherrn?”
Bronherrn smirked at Raeimo. “You could call it that.”
“Do not be modest my boy.” Raeimo wrapped his arm around him. His slurred mouth got so close to Bronherrn’s face, Bronherrn could nearly taste his aged ale. “You were made for victory.”
“How did we fare?” Cerlias leaned in with a lucid energy.
Bronherrn scratched his head. “I wooed the Zuthan Chieftess.”
“And then you slit her throat?” Raeimo grinned.
“No.” Bronherrn sat back. “She agreed to marry me and unite the lands.”
Raeimo’s eyes widened and Cerlias asked, “How can you think to bring one of them within our boundaries? They will destroy everything! We will all perish!”
Raeimo growled with anger and leapt upon Bronherrn. Bronherrn fought to lock him in a tight grip. “We must not fight amongst ourselves.”
“You have disgraced us all.” Raeimo spat in his face. “I thought you would be the one to lead us to victory.”
“This is victory.” Bronherrn released him. “We will have the Zuthan people at our will and the safety of our─”
“Oh, so you mean to beat them into our mold.” Raeimo relaxed on his stool. “That is different.”
“Yes.” Cerlias chuckled. “Take the Zuthan daughter and show her who is superior.”
Bronherrn opened his mouth to argue but stopped. Their approval is more important than the details. Stubborn minds wish to believe what they will.
He got up to leave and the barkeep stepped before him. “You handled that well, Bronherrn. We are all behind you. And everyone is excited for tonight’s celebration.”
“In honor of your victory.” He winked at Bronherrn.
Mother. Bronherrn headed home. An ambush he could handle, but a celebration in honor of his engagement? He rushed back to his house and ripped open the door. He found his mother fixing a long coil of hair around Prillani’s head. Prillani wore one of his mother’s simple dresses. The light cream fabric complimented her dark hair.
He forgot what he had been so angry about. He cocked his head at them and stared at the intricate length his mother finished pinning upon his fiancé’s head. He had not realized how long her raven tresses had grown when they reunited the day before.
He chuckled at them.
Prillani’s shoulders rose with each breath but she remained silent.
He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned his back against the door after he closed it. “Readying for tonight?”
“You did not return before word reached us. I have been able to help prepare Prillani for the occasion,” his mother said.
He grunted with a suspicion. “Then I must leave you to it.” He left to walk among the grasses and enjoy the air of solitude. It did not welcome him as it had in the early dawn. His mind grew more restless with each step.
He turned with eager steps when Grimhelden and Druthleer interrupted his escape. “No questions today.” He warned his brothers.
Grimhelden nodded in agreement, but Druthleer squirmed before him.
“What is it?” He sighed.
Druthleer shifted from foot to foot crunching the grass with his boots. “Where will you live once you are married?”
“I do not quite know yet.” He wished to ease Druthleer’s worried face. Something in those young eyes told him that Druthleer had suffered greatly while he had been lost to them. The sag beneath his eyes had more lines than a young man’s face should hold.
Bronherrn stared up at the sky and breathed in the clean summer air heavy with the perfume of wildflowers. Before he could find something to say, Grimhelden rolled his eyes. “Listen to you two, going on like a bunch of girls.”
“Girls know something of meaning when speaking their hearts.” Bronherrn would be married soon. He began to accept the changes that would take place.
Both Druthleer and Grimhelden stared at him with shock before they laughed. Bronherrn chuckled along with them, but for different reasons. He remembered being that foolish once. They would learn, in time.
He kept the rest of his conversation light and returned to prepare for the celebration with a dutiful resignation. This was no usual custom. He refused to allow his mother to aid him. He sent her and Prillani out to pick flowers and adorn their hair while he pulled on his finest leathers and furs. If his father had lived, they would be drinking and joking about the absurdity of his engagement. Or at least he hoped that is what might have been.
Once ready, Bronherrn stepped outside to find his future bride looking even lovelier. “You look as if you were born here.”
She stretched out her fingers and touched one of the violets tucked into the folds of her locks with a soft caress.
“Thank you.” She bit her lip and the pink in her cheeks deepened to a dark scarlet. He warmed from head to toe. If he could make her blush, he wondered what else he could do to her.
“Come now.” Bronherrn’s mother led them through the path in the grass that snaked through the little houses. They reached a cut walkway that led into the courtyard buried in the center of the small town.
Bronherrn blinked at the farmers who must have traveled from the outspreading farmlands. They stretched their necks to glimpse his Zuthan Chieftess. I had no idea so many Ultainians still exist. He marveled at them.
He grasped Prillani’s hand and quickened his pace. She squeezed his palm and held her chin at a perfect angle. She was born to command. That truth drifted from the confident gaze she cast on his people with softness. Proud to have her beside him, he did not refuse any greetings.
Prillani stood tall, but not commanding, graceful but not ethereal. She embodied the friendly, approachable air that he had admired in his mother. He glimpsed her between accepting congratulations. She swallowed, slightly confused by so much contact, but she allowed her hands to be patted by the grimy hands of the blacksmith, kissed by the dirt-encrusted lips of the farmers.
Bronherrn smiled on these displays. He looked around watching individuals as they walked about the crowd. Many nodded his way or offered a kind word, but he found enough suspicious scowls to convince him that it would take much more than one night of celebrating to win everyone’s approval. He searched the crowd for Raeimo and Cerlias, but they were not to be found.
His mother remained nearby. She clapped her hands to have the food brought out trays were passed around. Bronherrn raised an eyebrow at her and snatched up a goblet of wine for Prillani.
“Where do we sit?” she asked.
“Sit?” He laughed. “Are you tired?”
“No.” She gawked at him and her eyes darted to his mother and back.
His mother gestured at him and he grunted in frustration. He leaned his lips against Prillani’s ear. “This is how my people come together. You have seen how we eat at home. We barely rest on our hearth or stools. I apologize if it not your custom.”
She brushed her hand against his bearded cheek and nodded. “I have always wanted to know of your people. This is quite an experience.”
Warmth radiated from her as she grabbed his hand and pulled it to her chest before letting go. With a delicate flounce of her hand, she took a sip of her wine. “This will be our time.”
She leaned against Bronherrn for a moment and kissed him before walking over to a group of ladies, smiling on them across the yard. She joined them with ease. Bronherrn stood as if frozen while he stared at her laughing and speaking with them as if she were a trusted friend.
She could win anyone over. He worked to keep himself focused when others engaged him in conversation, but he was unable to persuade his eyes to stay off Prillani. She turned skeptical faces jovial. Concerned expressions transformed into shining gazes of approval. Something about her regal nature gained her favor with everyone.
More drink was consumed. Rich trays of meat, cheese, and fruit were passed around. A band of villagers began to beat on handmade drums. Another pulled out a pipe and blew out twirling notes. Many of the guests began to dance around Bronherrn and Prillani. The only footwork he cared for was the dance of the battleground, but someone pushed him to her.
“You have a charm that expels prejudiced thoughts.” He walked up behind his fiancé and lowered his voice just barely resting his chin on the back of her shoulder.
She turned. “Everyone is so endearing.” She breathed swaying with the music.
Bronherrn grasped her hand and spun her to the rhythm. She put her arm around his neck and smiled up at him. He let the melody direct him. He commanded Prillani’s body with ease. He could not be sure what possessed him. The sweet smell of Prillani’s skin made him hungry to hold her closer. The pink hue of sunset faded to purple and the moon shimmered with promise.
He slid his hands down the grainy fibers of her skirt. She gasped as he gripped her bottom for just a moment. She stepped on his foot drew and drew back. The song ended and she left him.
How things have changed since I told her stories in her father’s dungeon. He stood silent.
“I think your bride is weary from all the excitement,” his mother interrupted his thoughts.
He jerked his head at her. “She has her own tongue. If she is ready to retire she would say so.”
“Not in this instance, my son. Go, take her back. I will address our guests.”
Bronherrn’s head whirled with drink. He caught up with Prillani. “Have you enjoyed yourself enough tonight?”
“They will not leave until well after we have retired.”
“Is that so?” She allowed her gaze to pass over the entire area, her eyes sparkling with wonder.
“Let us make our retreat before they attack again.” He wrapped his hand around hers and pulled her along quickening his pacing into a jog. She giggled and sped up darting ahead. He chased her along the walkway until they reached the overgrown fields.
He had to rest his hands on his knees to catch his breath.
She chortled at the sight of him. “I thought you were the mightiest of Ultainians.”
He straightened his frame to full height and marched over to her with the most ridiculous march he could display. She widened her shadowed eyes with hunger.
“Of course.” In one motion, he grasped her waist and threw her over his shoulder.
She beat on his back laughing so loud she coughed. He threw her down and stared up at the swirl of clouds and mist that overtook the late sky.
“Your father and mine are out there somewhere.” Prillani glanced up.
“Probably fighting a new war.” Bronherrn kicked a stone that was smothering a wildflower determined to bloom even while constrained.
“Bite your tongue.” Prillani shivered.
Bronherrn shrugged. “Maybe they see us now, together.”
She turned with a sharp expression twisting her features. “That could cause a war in the hereafter.”
Bronherrn kissed her head and took one of the flowers out of her hair. He grasped it between his thumb and forefinger looking at each petal as if hoping to make sense of how fast things blossom and wither. “You do not regret this arrangement, do you?”
“I don’t know.”
He cocked his head at her. “Don’t you find it accommodating enough here?”
“More so than I could have imagined.”
“Good.” He tossed the flower aside. “I must take a short journey. Alone.”
“Already.” She sighed. “Where?”
“The Otherworld. The holy land of my people.”
“I have heard of this place.” She lowered her eyebrows. “We have something like it in my lands,” her voice grew softer with each word.
He touched her hair. “There is no darkness in The Otherworld. I shall not be gone long.” The relief he offered her did not protect him from a reeling pain. It was impossible to ease. Prillani had proven herself so far, but he could not marry her before seeing Aethelwyn once more.