he memory of the encounter haunted her day and night.
As autumn passed and the winter snows drew closer, her friends would often ask her why she seemed so worrisome. She never felt comfortable discussing it, and found it hard to muster enthusiasm for the marriage as she once had. She knew that she should have been happy, that she should not allow the incident to despair her. Nevertheless, she found herself become more and more withdrawn.
Falling leaves turned to drifting snow. As the time passed and Nohr's oaths remained unfulfilled Sigurn allowed herself a glimmer of comfort. As the snows began to melt Nohr had become only a distant and unpleasant memory. Most of her anxieties were now directed toward meeting her betrothed once more. The time they had spent together during the Aunna feast was very short and very official. The memory of Roen's face, once as clear as day, was beginning to fade. The marriage was to take place on the second day of Vurna, which was the first feast day of Spring.
The Wardland of Roen's tribe was laid in the meadows and valleys between the Giant's Wood and the Iron Wood, at the feet of the ever-white peaks of the Seven Kings. The holdings of Sigurn's own tribe, that of Menah, were further west in the Blue Wood which was beside the banks of the roaring Isaf River. And so it was that they traveled into the sunrise one misty spring morning, stepping into Sigurn's new life. Roen sent thirty of his own picked guards to escort them on the journey. They were led by his son Ebahl, who as it happened was of age with Sigurn. He had a merry disposition and laughing green eyes. Along with Sigurn there traveled Sif her mother, Tamar her aunt, and Oded her grandfather. Oded would take the place of Sigurn's late father in the marriage ceremony.
Ebahl led them on winding paths and across stone bridges, through woods and fields and lonely hills. It all passed like a dream, the country unfolding and swiftly fading behind their backs. Sigurn spent much of the time repeating over and over to herself the words of her marriage oath, hoping against hope that when the time came to recite the words she would not stumble. "Don't worry, Sigurn," Sif told her. "The Fates smile down on you this day." Sigurn prayed that this was true.
It was three days before they arrived in a pleasant land of green pastures and woody vales. Ebahl turned them northward, leading them toward the craggy Kings which loomed high on the horizon. They passed many homesteads that were hazy with woodfire smoke, and small villages where children played and farmers reaped the grass with shining sickles. The land became wild, rising into the foothills. Once the guardsmen had to chase away some wolves who were prowling outside their camp. Another time they had to cut through the brush because the trail which they followed had been washed out by snowmelt. That day, to Sigurn's vast relief, they arrived at the end of their road. They were led to a cottage that Roen had prepared for them. It was nestled within a grove of pale-trunked aspen trees, leaves newly green with the arrival of spring. It was here, Ebahl explained, that she would retire with her new husband after the ceremony took place in a nearby meadow. "I was married there," Ebahl told her of the meadow. "My grandfather was married there, his grandfather was married there. Memory hangs heavy on that place."
As she lay in her wedding bed that night Sigurn found herself far too nervous to sleep.
Her mother and aunt knocked upon her door while the morning stars still shone. They led her out into the quiet dawn, neither of them speaking a word as was the custom. A well-trod path led to a cluster of hot pools in the trees. The cool air caused the water to steam. They bathed her with fine soaps, and by the time they were finished she smelled of lilac and honey. Next they dressed her in the purple and white marriage robe, cinching her waist with a long green sash. Her mother painted the fertility runes upon her cheek, and Tamar braided her golden hair.
It was midday when Roen's guards led them to the meadow. The green sward was higher than Sigurn had expected, beyond the treeline and below one of the seven peaks of the Kings. The grass glistened with the morning's dew, and the wildflowers danced in a gentle alpine breeze. A beautiful arch had been raised with boughs of pine and aspen, hung with pine cones and leaves and flowerets. Roen stood waiting beneath the arch.
It was almost like seeing him for the first time. He was tall and strong, his hair a flowing black, his face scarred and weather worn. His eyes shown green beneath his deeply furrowed brow. He was wearing a traditional kilt that was the color of the sunset. His upper body was left bear and his elemri grew fiery red from beneath his broad pectorals. He had a warrior's countenance and bearing, a raptor gaze and sturdy stance. Sigurn looked into his eyes and gifted him a timid smile. She was delighted to see his lips twitch with a smile of his own.
The procession wound its way upwards to the arch. Her mother and grandfather broke away and stood at their appointed places. Ebahl stood beside his father and the guardsmen separated to either side, expressionless. When everyone was settled in their places the ceremony began. Sigurn took her mother's arm and walked with her up the hillside, her bare feet sinking deep in the springy turf. Sif's eyes were filled with tears. She was handed off to her grandfather, who walked with her the remainder of the way. Roen nodded at Oded and took her hand in both of his. The hands were big and callused. The arch wound its way over their heads, fragrant and sturdy. She wasn't nervous anymore, she was draped in a comforting calm.
Roen looked into her eyes and began to recite his vow.
"Sigurn the daughter of Menah is glorious within. She is brought before me in the raiment of the queen, fairest among the daughters of the Kings, bright under the sun and bright beneath the stars. Into my palace she shall come, into my heart she shall be sewn. I will cleave unto her, unto none other shall I cleave. She shall hold the golden cup, into which shall be poured the draught of many generations."
Now it was Sigurn's turn. The moment seemed to slow. The sun shown down on them from a perfectly blue sky, and a distant windsong could be heard from the rocky top of the mountain. Bees flitted between the wildflowers, jumping from petal to petal. She took a deep breath and began.
"Roen the son of Zael is mighty within. His strength is as the strength of many lions. His arrows are sharp in the hearts of the wicked, his word a scepter unto his fellows. Into his house shall I be grafted, and many sinews hold us fast. I am given to him, unto none other shall I be given. His sword is great and sows the seeds of many generations."
Roen pulled her into a kiss seconds after the last words. She could taste his breakfast on his lips, even if she couldn't determine what it had been. When they separated the multitude erupted into cheers. In her daze she had nearly forgotten that there were others in the meadow. Her mother and aunt were choked with tears, and her grandfather smiled in pride. Ebahl clapped his father's shoulder, smiling. This, she decided, was the most perfect moment of her life.
And then she did something that she always regretted. At the very moment when her joy was brimming and almost ready to overflow she happened to glance back down to the treeline. And there, standing beside a twisted pine, was the white stag. Her happiness shattered. Nohr's eyes bored straight into her soul. And then he was gone.
After that the festivities lost their savor.
There was a feast held in a clearing near the cottage. They received many gifts and ate well, but Sigurn could not seem to bury her fear. Would he be true to his oath? Would she never rid herself of him? Would nothing force him to leave her alone? Would he ever haunt her steps, until the very day she died? Perhaps Nohr had only wanted to make her aware that his wrath was still alive. Surely he would not attempt anything with Roen and all of his guardsmen there?
All of these questions and more confronted her. She became more anxious with each passing moment As night fell, however, the doubt over Nohr was left behind for a more immediate concern: the impending consummation. Sometime after the fires were lit and before the moon had set they stole away to the cottage. The feast would continue in their absence.
The sounds of revelry died out behind them as Roen closed the door to the cottage and they retired to the bedroom where she had slept the night before. Sigurn sat upon the feather bed, hugging herself nervously. She was unsure about what was expected of her. Did he want her to come to him, or should she wait for him to make the first move? Should she remove her clothing, or remove his?
Whereas Sigurn was as frantic as a storm, Roen seemed as calm as a still lake. He knelt beside the stone fire place and stoked the already smoldering coals with a sharp iron poker. He opened the shutters of the window and let some cool air into the chamber. Sigurn could see the firelight still glowing through the trees and the steam hissing from the nearby pools. The night smelled of rain and tangy pine.
At last Roen came to her. He was gentle but forceful. When they were finished she felt different. She knew that she could no longer be a capricious child, that she could no longer have selfish desires. She was a woman now, a wife of a man who would likely--if her mother told it true--become the next King. She had responsibilities to fulfill, vows to honor. Her life would never be the same. There was a certain sadness for that, but more strong was the hopes and dreams she had for the future. She drifted asleep, Nohr forgotten, her husband lying by her side. She dreamed of holding a child, her firstborn, and could almost see her face.
She awoke to a voice she knew.
She looked around, her eyes watery and unfocused. Roen was standing naked at the window, looking out into the trees. The light of the fires had died. She could see the muscles of Roen's long back were poised as if ready to pounce, and his fists were clenched tight.
The voice came again, echoing in the dewy night. "...And her nose, her nose is as white and steep as the slopes of the far north. Her hair is golden as a summer's sunrise--"
"Be gone! And hide somewhere that I won't find you!" Roen shouted in rage.
"And her eyes...her eyes are the deepest emerald green, like the leaves of spring. And her breasts--"
"I warn you! Say no more!" Roen demanded. His voice was as deep and fearful as a dragon's.
"--So round and white, like two snowy hillocks. And her nipples, they taste like the sweetest raspberries. Haven't you tasted them yet?" the voice continued, the voice of her greatest fear and most burning hate.
Roen swung around and stormed toward the fire place. His countenance was truly frightening.
"Who--who is it?" Sigurn asked, though she knew perfectly well who it was.
"A corpse!" Roen roared.
Sigurn knew that blood was about to be spilled. What she did not know, was how dangerous that blood was. It was the kind of blood over which wars were waged. Nohr's voice still echoed from outside, full of malice and taunting. Roen bent low at the fire and took hold of the poker, which had been left in the embers and was now red and glowing. It cast a ghastly light upon Roen's infuriated face. He strode purposefully toward the window and without hesitation hurdled himself outside. Sigurn gasped. She wrapped herself in bedding and ran to look outside.
Roen stood facing Nohr. He was still naked, holding the poker. Nohr was dressed in a red tunic. His white hair was intricately braided and fell to his waist. The seducer looked at her. "Remember what I told you! I will kill him now, and then you will have the honor of being my concubine!"
Ebahl and many of the guardsmen had appeared from the encampment in various stages of undress. "Stay back!" Roen ordered them. "I will have his blood, and none other!" The men obeyed, distancing themselves from the confrontation.
Roen charged. With is free hand he throttled Nohr's neck. An awesome struggle ensued. Nohr grasped Roen's wrist and tried to jerk it free. With his other, the shapeshifter clutched Roen's own neck. They pushed each other back and forth, each trying to gain advantage over the other. Nohr threw Roen into a tree with such force that it split down the middle. Roen recovered and hooked Nohr's ankle with the poker and tripped him. When the shapeshifter tried to stand Roen kicked him in the chest and pinned him to the needled ground. Nohr slithered and struggled but could not escape from underneath Roen's weight. Roen poised the red point of the poker over Nohr's eyes. There were lines of fear etched in the shapeshifter's face.
"Do you think you can kill a god? I am as endless as the elements, as powerful as the Fates!" Nohr proclaimed. "I am eternity! A Child of Lions! You cannot kill me!" It sounded more like a rant of fear than a proclamation of power.
"Can't I?" Roen responded. "I will have to settle for disfiguring you, then." He thrust the hot tip directly into Nohr's right eye. The shapeshifter screamed in agony. Roen twisted the hot metal into the melting eye socket. The flesh sizzled and Nohr's face was obscured in steam. Sigurn felt sick.
The shapeshifter writhed on the ground, moaning. Roen slid the poker free and spit into the empty eye socket. "Ugliness befits you well," her husband said.
There was a flash of light. The crumpled form of Nohr spasmed. Roen stepped back, amazed. The guardsmen were whispering and marveling among themselves. Where once there had been Nohr there was now only a one-eyed stag. The beast rolled to its feet and bounded away into the trees.
Sigurn dressed herself and went outside, bringing her husband's clothing with her. After he tied the kilt around his waist he put his arm around her. "What was that thing, father?" Ebahl asked.
"He was Aesnir, up from the Good Land in the south beyond the mountains," Roen said. " I fear what this may portend, but I do not regret my actions." He looked at his son. "We need the men ready to march before the sun is up. See that my bride's family is escorted safely to their home. We make for Emblavang to discuss this with the King."
Ebahl nodded and ordered the men to make ready, leading them back to break the camp. Sigurn looked up to her new husband. "I'm frightened," she admitted. "This is all my fault."
Roen looked at her with nothing but the purest trust. "Come now, it is time to go."
And so her dream was ended, even if she did not yet know it. For now, despite the circumstances, she was relieved only to know that her husband still loved her. For now, all was right with the world, and the future was full of possibility. For now she was content.