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The Zuthan Lands
Bronherrn found himself in the strange lands of the Zuthans as if for the first time. Instead of waking in a confining dungeon, he strode beside Prillani, her fiancé.
He could never forget the torture of Pronlado. The unease crept into him bone deep. How must I pass four seasons in this land? His nerves shook. It her custom, not mine.
He strode along the deep valley inclines. He blinked with confusion. The grasses were shred, farmlands desolate. He looked over the poorly tended area and gaped. Evidence of erosion spread everywhere. Crops wilted outside of run down farms and gardens were rocky and thin.
A strange sympathy weighed on Bronherrn. He eyed the decrepit forms of a few desperate-looking individuals on the way to Prillani’s home. Their tattered clothes and bony frames were nothing like the warriors he had clashed with during battle. None of it made sense. He squinted ahead trying to avoid the questions forming in his mind.
He had heard that life was rough for the Zuthans, but he could not escape the images of their tattered clothing, strings unraveling from their scarce frames. He sighed with pity. Each image haunted him.
For years, he had hated these people, all of them. Unable to find any words, he turned his gaze to Prillani. Her manicured hair and the soft cream of her skin frustrated him. She lives a rich life. Her fine clothes and lavish foods are at the expense of her people. How is it that she enjoys any of her robbery?
He chewed his bottom lip. He marched ahead scowling. When they reached the bottom of the central valleys, Prillani and her stewards led him past training warriors. Young and old, the men ruthlessly sparred. Grunts of exertion sounded on the thick air with swords clanking.
Bronherrn noted that none of the well-seasoned fighters stopped to give their comrades pointers, just more blood in the churning mud beneath their feet. They need much training.
He could not fathom aiding them. Prillani led him away. She stepped along a rough-cut path lined with smooth stones precisely laid. He worked to balance himself with more energy as they ascended yet another incline.
He glanced up and stopped at the palace staring down on them. It sat on the highest peak atop the only plateau within the land. “You did not describe a castle.”
“This is merely a well-constructed dwelling.” She tugged at her skirt and continued upward.
Conquering the great incline made his thighs burn. His heart raced. “This is more than I imagined.” He panted. Once his feet reached the first curve onto flat land, he stopped to catch his breath. The air had thinned out and blew much more akin to the breeze of the Ultains. An array of colorful flowers decorated the sloping exterior of the castle.
Bronherrn appreciated the beauty of the rising pillars carved with spirals. He slowed his steps following Prillani into the main hall. She turned to him and he marveled at how she fit the structure.
Once inside, he found himself awed by the interior décor. Vases of flowers sat on each end table. The careful symmetry of it all reminded him of Prillani’s calculating personality. The walls stood as if made to compliment her.
Bronherrn was nearly swept away by her beauty but the contrast between this grand structure and those housing of her people disgusted him. He held silent and set his face with an indecipherable expression. He glanced at the guards who stood like statues against the walls.
“Let me show you to your room.” Prillani beamed at Bronherrn and showed him down a hall that curved into an elegant living space. “This is where you can seek rest.” She gestured inside with a smile.
“You speak as if I shall sleep alone.” He glanced at the bed, then back to her soft features.
Prillani glared at him with pursed lips. “You shall be. My room is farther down.”
“How can we start our life together if we know nothing of our connection?” He growled moving closer to her.
“You must earn your place in my bed.”
“And what do you know of earning anything?” He stepped as close to her as he could without touching the folds of her dress.
She slapped him so fast that he froze in shock. She had been so warm while staying with his family in their small one room home, and now she grew rigid and controlling in this great palace. It may have been built for beauty, but it instigated only coldness and hatred.
He rubbed his face and grabbed her arm. “Your people do not live as you, high and fine. I did not expect to see such scanty subjects. No wonder they are so vile.”
Prillani ripped his grip from her. “My people need someone to look up to. I am who they respect. I am who they trust.”
“Are you certain of that?” Bronherrn asked.
She whipped her hair against his cheek and turned to leave without answering.
He listened to the echo of her footsteps growing faint and sat on the bed. It rose up like he had never seen before and wondered if she had thought his people poor based on her fine upbringing. His mind wandered back home and beyond to Aethelwyn. She had often confused him, but never made him feel as if he did not belong.
Have I mistaken the fates? Is this truly what is meant for me? He groaned to himself as he lay down to explore his thoughts.
The shuffle of footsteps sounded down the hall. Part of him hoped Prillani would return to make nice, but instead a servant entered his room and announced that he should prepare for dinner. “The feast will be in honor of your marriage to the great Chieftess.” The servant bowed. “I am to help you prepare”
Bronherrn barely had a mind to respond. He was no longer sure of meeting Prillani’s sisters. He grew uncertain of the marriage pact. The pressure of having to make a good impression while not on the best of terms with his fiancé left him questioning his actions. Why did I ever agree to this? I should never have left home.
Despite a gnawing ache to return to his people, Bronherrn could not break his duty. He stood before the aged servant. He traced the lines cut around the gangly man’s eyes, noticed the sag in his mouth and wondered how one became a servant. His people did not believe in being waited on like this.
“Why do you stand there gawking at me?” Bronherrn growled.
The servant’s penetrating eyes darkened as if they could read him from the inside out.“I have orders to aid you with your attire.”
“I can pull on my own coverings, thank you.”
“But will you be suited for the feast? That is what our Chieftess wishes.”
“Very well.” Bronherrn turned toward the chest sitting at the end of the bed. He walked over to open it, but the servant stopped him and went to kneel before it. The man opened the chest and ran his fingers over different layers of clothing.
Bronherrn rolled his eyes. “They are all garments. What does it matter?”
“What you choose to drape over your body speaks of what lies in your mind.”
Bronherrn fixed his gaze on the grey sheet that wound around the servant’s form. It made the cloudy silver of his hair seem darker. “What is your name?”
“What does it matter? I am here to serve you. That is all you need to know.” He grasped a fine pair of black leathers and a well-woven shirt of a lighter cream hue and stood to meet Bronherrn.
“You speak of the importance of clothes, and yet forget the meaning of names?” Bronherrn squinted at the man and took the garments from his outstretched hands.
“Trander. That is my name.”
“Thank you, Trander.” Bronherrn nodded at the door. “I believe you have aided me enough.”
He smirked at Trander. The servant gaped at him as if a grown man could not dress himself. The strange conversation had distracted Bronherrn for a time and he mused on it as he prepared himself.
When ready for the feast, he stuck his chest out and followed Trander along the palace to meet Prillani at the entrance to the dining hall. Instead of her usual garb, she wore the simple fibers his mother had gifted her. He stared with pleasure and fought to concentrate on keeping his composure. Despite the plain wool dress, her sisters had twisted her hair up and adorned her bare neck with the gems of their land, causing the Prillani to look more regal than he had ever seen her.
As much as Bronherrn wanted to hold onto his anger from their earlier tiff, he reached for her hand. He forgot his reservations at the warmth of her fingers.
She smiled and whispered to him as they walked before the guests to the head of the table, “I imagine you do not think me vile?”
“I never said you were vile.”
“Just my people,” she reminded him.
They reached their seats and he refused to release her hand. “I am a stranger here.”
Based on the gentle squeeze she offered and the kind way she looked up at him from under her eyelashes, he felt his words appeased her. He forgot the occasion until he turned his gaze to meet an array of bedecked guests at the grand table. There were rules of etiquette he barely understood and customs of speaking in turn that left him sitting silent trying not to look foolish. He listened to Prillani describe his people. The warmth of her words eased his remaining concerns. She held everyone’s attention with her well-spoken details until she introduced her sisters.
They came to sit beside her. Galandra walked in first, followed by Bernisha, and last, the little one, Onfala. Bronherrn recognized Prillani in each of their features, but it stung knowing that what they had in common belonged to his torturer. Despite Pronlado’s death, Bronherrn could not control the misgivings that their dark eyes and curved nose inspired.
He did his best to greet them politely. To his surprise, in all of this formality, they spoke with ease, as if they were exempt from the stiff ceremony, especially the youngest. Onfala questioned him with scrutiny. “You fought against my father?”
Prillani dropped her fork, but Bronherrn nodded. “We did not understand each other.”
“But you understand my sister?” her voice hit a high note on the word sister. She cocked her head at him rustling the amethyst fabrics of her dress that reminded him of Aethelwyn’s eyes.
He glimpsed Prillani trying to fight off the smile, which accompanied a crimson glow on her cheeks, and his mind went blank. He struggled to regain his calm, but leaned in and winked at Onfala. “Not always, but I try.”
She giggled displaying a missing tooth at the bottom of her mouth.
He warmed to the light in that laugh, the truth in her innocence. It aided him to eat with confidence throughout each served. His hands had never been as steady when he took up his drink and Prillani’s sister Galandra offered a toast. He listened to the advisors who seemed unsure of their own behavior with him. The evening felt choreographed, but once he learned the steps, Bronherrn waltzed his way through.
It stretched well into the night before Prillani bid their guests goodbye and left her sisters to their nurses. Bronherrn stood beside her unsure of what to do with himself.
“Would you enjoy some air?” she asked.
It had been an eventful day, but Bronherrn held no intention of retiring to his lonely room yet. He was afire with the ideas her advisors had offered up, plans that would take years to complete. He nodded
She led him out to the gardens. Once beyond the doors a wave of floral perfume hung all around him. He had never smelled such loveliness. The hum of the evening insects carried his thoughts as they passed the sweet blooms in silence.
Prillani remained near enough to touch. Her arm brushed against his more than once. The sound of her deep breathing made him search for something to say, but nothing came. She turned to him with dreamy eyes. “Thank you for your composure tonight.”
“I deserve no thanks. Your efforts aided me. And Onfala’s.” He smiled to think of her impish sister.
She stifled a laugh and cast her gaze to the moon. Bronherrn brushed her cheek with his hand and leaned in to kiss her when a small giggle stopped him.
Prillani stepped back and kneeled down to find her youngest sister hiding behind a large garden stone. “It is not proper to spy on people.”
Onfala turned to Bronherrn. “Do you love my sister?”
His eyes widened. “I…uh…”
Prillani smirked at him with curiosity. She crossed her arms and snickered at his fumbling response.
Onfala continued to giggle. “She loves you, you know?”
Prillani laughed awkwardly and covered her sister’s mouth. “Thank you Fala, but we need some time alone.” She pushed Onfala toward the door and ushered her away.