I took my time with returning. Firstly because the horse had been scared off almost to the next village in the north and that it was two hour journey. Secondly, because I wanted to shoot something and my billhook – what he knew nothing of thankfully – was attached on my horse’s saddle. Problem was I had to get the horse and the weapon back before someone else claimed them and I wasn’t going to let that happen.
“Ferret face!” I yelled out in the forest and sighed. Two hours since I found my sparkling boy from the hazel copse and that was the third hare to escape from my throw. Gods were angry at me, fine! I understood that, no hares for me today.
I truly considered running away. I sat there on my horse and dreamt of going to the north as far as possible and living among Sami tribes. I wasn’t part of the Halland people, why should I care what happens to them if they found out the bride had fled?
Honor. The only word I dreaded. I honored my family too much to hear about their death, which was definitely to follow my foul deed. There was no honor to die from bloodshed.
Why did I promise gods I will act upon my brother’s wishes? And get married in one family I didn’t like. The Danes. It wasn’t that I didn’t like this particular family, I loathed the whole nation and the reason was obvious on my wrist and neck even now, four years later.
It went another two hours before I got back to the village and was immediately welcomed by Hagen and Magnus, who ordered the horse to be taken back to the stable and sat me down right there in front of the house for everyone to see.
What came next is better left for wonderers to dream about, because my tongue would not repeat it.
“I agreed to marry your friend!” I burst out the moment they took a breath. “But you conveniently left out the part that he’s a Dane!”
“What has that to do with anything? He’s a Steen! They’ve lived here already when you weren’t born!” Magnus was ready to scratch my face up. I forgave him, he had no idea what happened here four years ago and thus couldn’t understand, what had changed.
“Laurien,” Hagen tried mild talk and kneeled before me on the ground, but I didn’t let him finish.
“Hagen, are you so dimwitted you have already forgotten what they did to us?” I was pegging him wordlessly to take the offer back, broke it, let me go from this dreadful nightmare. I pulled the neckline of my yellow tunic lower so the scar was in plain view. “And now you’re marring me off to one of them?”
Six women were killed while men were too busy keeping the war party off. Not only killed, their honor had been taken, stomachs cut open and left to die. She had been lucky, mere fainting saved her from sharing the same faith, left for dead she was. Magnus shook his head furiously, he had been here too little time to know all what happened after they left. Oh I hated them for leaving.
But the anger faded away and so did the fear. Only scars remained to hunt in our memories.
His brows fell an inch before he had any breath to continue. “Steens were not part of this! Keep in mind, you are outsider too, yet we welcomed you in our home!”
He was right, he always was, but not in this. I had no trust left for Danes. Yet I trusted them, my brothers, it wasn’t like they hadn’t checked the man out before taking the offer, right?
“Part of what?” I cast an eye on Magnus, whose left eyebrow crawled higher. He had really been away for long time.
“And, my dear, if you haven’t forgotten, you’re already seventeen and there is no one, who would dare to take you among Halland men.” Hagen continued. “You’ve done a good job frightening them off! So, this time I specifically chose someone you are not familiar with and can’t frighten with your tricks!” Magnus grunted behind him remembering the morning. “You need to get married and he is the last one willing to take you, so I suggest you be good to him for once and save us the trouble!”
Silence is the key that locks this conversation; I decided and kept my lips sealed.
Alright, apparently they had the solution on the dowry problem and there was little I could do, so instead of adding my own frustration to the plot I simply asked, when they had stopped yelling and only stared at me- “When will the marriage take place?”
“On Midsummer’s Eve.”
That dooming voice was not one of my brothers. I knew it was Dalek standing in the door hole. Of chores him, who else would eavesdrop on us?
“It’s too soon…” I babbled, but clenched my teeth together then to keep them from trembling. I hated when that happened. Cold, heartache, desperation – you name it, I hate it, because they all showed out through clacking of my teeth.
“May I speak with her?” he turned to my brothers, who kept changing their looks between us faster than the weather around here changed.
“You can try…” Magnus shook his head in misbelieve.
He was granted that wish too. We watched them leave and were left alone. Before he could open his mouth I intervened.
“If you’re going to chant me a song or something, I swear I’ll better jump in a lake now and get it over with!”
A tick went through his jaw. “You don’t like the songs?”
“I do!” I was confused – I was talking against myself already, what would it be after the conversation? I loved songs, only I had heard so many of them from men I was to turn down the moment they finished and thus had learned to dislike them at the same time.
“I…” I paused. I had to think this through, but I had no time. “I don’t think it’s the right time, that’s all.” I cleared my meaning.
I locked my eyes on his boots having no courage to look him in the eyes.
“Look into my eyes.” He said calmly. Way cooler than I presumed he’d be and I obeyed. His face was clean, no beard and didn’t seem he had ever had one.
I took my time looking at him, after all – so far I had only seen glances that gave me little to show his true face. Two ears, two eyes, two nostrils, one nose, two lips, one mouth, chin, neck and chest – looked alright to me. If I could now count all the fingers and toes, he’d probably be as normal as any other child. And he didn’t have fair hair either, making him as daily site as from anybody else around here. He wasn’t much taller than Magnus either, so I didn’t have to crook my neck to look at him. Only from the village boys I had seen so far, I liked his look the most. Strange, I didn’t even know him…
“It appears you have a problem with my proposal.” He started, calculative. “I want to know, what it is. Do you not wish to marry me?”
I wish I had a simple answer. Wait, it was rather simple, really.
“No.” I said quietly. He winched. But he stayed still, like waiting for the reasons and I continued dipping my strength from his huge statuesque stand. “It’s not that.”
I couldn’t bring out that him being the Dane was my problem, Hagen was right about that – Steens had nothing to do with the Danes who came to rob us and it was healthy to keep that in mind.
He’ll wait until end of the days arrive, I realized staring in his grey eyes. “I wish to decline your offer.” I tried again and came on halt seeing how his brows fell. “Because…” My temples hurt as a reaction. Gods were really against me today, because all of a sudden my head was empty from all the reasons I had listed myself in the forest, why this marriage couldn’t take place.
“I wish to ask for a favor.” I blurted out finally and waited for his reaction. This wasn’t what I wished to say, but at least it kept me going.
“What kind of a favor?”
Oh heaven, what could he be thinking about me now, I wondered, but pressed that fear far away from me.
“I wish you postpone the marriage proposal and give me a chance to learn to know you before you put me in the position of choosing.” My voice had sunk deep so anyone eavesdropping wouldn’t hear it.
Outrageous thing to ask I understood and waited for his refusal. It didn’t work that way. Here you first got married and then learned to live with each other or got beaten and then divorced and now here I was, asking the total opposites.
“Is there somebody else on the horizon?” he asked slowly, “Have you promised yourself to somebody else?”
“No, there is no one else.”
“I don’t trust men.”
“No woman does.”
“They do!” I protested, thinking about Zahrah and her husband.
He raised his eyebrows. “They do?”
“Yes.” I saw nothing amusing here, but he was openly grinning, until the next question.
“But you don’t trust me?”
I shook my head, ashamed. I wished to possess what Zahrah had, but I just couldn’t bring myself around saying the words. “I don’t know you enough to talk about trust!”
He smiled then, unknowingly, because the moment I saw it, he frowned.
“Where did you get the scars?” he changed the subject.
I was clad for the change, but I didn’t answer.
“That’s why you wear the dagger?”
I nodded. “All the girls here do.”
“They didn’t in the past.”
“A lot has changed since the past.”
“True.” He paused, thinking what to do next. He hadn’t given me his promise yet. If it was to be a promise. His eyes moved back on my neck. “I will know where you got the scars sooner or later.” I awaited him to leave, but he staid sturdily on his place.
It seemed I had no escape from this matter. I didn’t like talking about it, but perhaps it was good he knew why.
“Two years ago the village was attacked.” Simple, short and took everything nicely together.
He wrapped his arms on his chest. Too short I understood, so I started once more.
“Danes…” I paused, took a deep breath and thought there was no way I could pass this matter without insulting anyone and thus had no reason to fret about it and so I continued. “Danes attacked us two years ago in the early winter. While men were busy keeping them off, some of them got through and dragged six girls in the woods. I… I fainted I guess… When I woke I had my throat slashed – thankfully the man did a bad job, obviously – and my left arm daggered on the oak.” I had to take a breath. “Since then we all carry one.”
He let my speech go through him, before he replied.
“And since then you hate the Dane.” He took my words together.
Did I even have to say it?
“Prove me you are different.” I whispered, staring at him.
I shrugged. I had no idea, how. I just wished to see him as a good man he probably was. Just watch him aside, get used to him.
“I do this, because I am in point in my life, where I have enough wealth to take a wife and raise children.” He said quietly. “I understand that is what you wish to know.”
It hurt to hear him say it, but at least now I knew and yes, it had been one of my questions, the one I didn’t dare to ask.
“I will not back out from the contract or postpone the weddings.” He gave me his decision. “I respect your brothers and your father too much to do something so fatuous.” Though he looked all serious, he actually smiled there, leaving me sit there in front of our house, disappearing in the half dark night.