We sat in silence, the only sound being the occasional cough or movement of a person’s limb. The mess hall was nearly as wintry as the outside and just as gray. I sat on one end of the the long table, staring at the wood grain. Bane and the rest of the council sat on the benches, fiddling quietly as we waited. Jon was over an hour late to this supposedly important meeting.
I jumped as the door creaked open, boots thumping quickly on the stone floor. He pulled out his chair opposite me, sitting heavily. Snow dusted his midnight hair, wetting his curls. His black eye was in the stages of healing, more blueish-green than purple now. My stomach knotted as his eyes settled on me. There was a playfulness about him, which unnerved me. Jon was always serious.
“Sorry I’m late.” he said carelessly. My eyes narrowed at his rudeness. I knew he didn’t want to marry me, but he needn’t be so surly. Bane cleared his throat.
“Jon, ye know why we must meet.” Bane said.
“Yes, I do.” Jon answered curtly, the corners of his mouth twitching up.
“The council has met and deemed Elise fit for re-marriage, as tradition demands.” Bane’s eyes were devoid of emotion.
“Yes, I know.” he leaned forward, standing and pushing his chair back. “We’ll be married in three days. The traditional way. And once we’re married, we’re leaving.” Jon turned towards the door briskly. I didn’t know whether to be angered by his attitude or let it go. Did he have no notion of how I felt? My blood boiling, I, too, stood. My chair scraped loudly in the stillness. Jon stopped.
“Look at me.” I said quietly. Jon hesitated, not turning. I slammed my hand down on the table, causing a few council members to jump. Jon turned, finally looking to me.
“I’ll not tolerate your sour attitude because you have to marry me. I’ve been betrothed three times, married once, and could have been poisoned. Get. Over it.” I said, my hand clenching. Jon’s eyes smiled, though he did not.
“I’m no upset about havin’ to marry ye, princess. I just want to do things the proper way, the way my father and his father before him did. I’ll no make the mistakes of my brother.” Jon said. Bane’s beard lifted in a small smile.
“About time we had someone stickin’ to the ways o’ old,” Bane said. Bjorn and the old woman, whose name I’d discovered was Frig, nodded. My brow furrowed.
“And what exactly does that mean?” I crossed my ams. Jon shot a knowing look to Bane. He walked back to the head of the table, a small smile on his lips.
“It means I have much to do in very little time, so I best be gettin’ on with it.” Jon’s shoulders squared in subtle pride.
“Alright,” I said slowly, still confused.
“I must dig into the graves of my ancestors to retrieve a sword. It’s seen as my death to boyhood and rebirth into manhood.” his full lips twitched with his small smile. The men in the room nodded sagely. Bjorn smiled widely, his white teeth glinting through his beard.
“I did it, though it was summer and the ground was a bit softer when I married,” Bane laughed, everyone else chuckling.
“There’s more.” I said, still suspicious.
“Aye, yes. Ye must purify yourself.” Jon’s tone was more serious now.
“How?” I asked.
“My mother and Frig will show ye the way.” Bane nodded, seemingly uplifted at Jon’s adherence to tradition. Frig smiled a toothless grin. The crease between my brows deepened as I frowned.
“Well, none of this seems that bad.” I shrugged. Obviously, Thran had thrown tradition out the window with our wedding. Perhaps Jon pegged it as a reason for his untimely death. Never make the gods unhappy.
Jon and Bane exchanged a look, Jon’s face reddening.
“There’s two last traditions. I canna’ pick and choose which to follow or not.” his face reddened further.
“Go on,” my nerves caused my hands to shake.
“There must be witnesses to our wedding night, at least six.” his neck was also flushed now. My jaw dropped.
“It’s just how it’s done here, Elise, it always has been this way.” he explained quickly, while Bane bounced with laughter.
“But…but…there weren’t any witnesses with Thran!” I said, exasperated, my hands flying up. Jon’s lips set themselves into a thin line, his eyes telling me the truth.
“You.” I seethed, my face now the one changing shades.
“He made me be a witness, just to torture me.” Jon said, his fists clenched tightly, his knuckles white as the bones beneath his skin.
“You saw?” I sputtered, feeling utterly exposed. Bjorn covered his smile with his hands, trying in vain not to laugh at my embarrassment.
“No! No one really watches, they just need to be near, ye know…” he trailed off. I understood then what it had cost him, having to hear me struggle and scream for help. My mouth ran dry.
“Fine.” I said with finality. “What’s this last tradition you are demanding?”
“It’s no me that’s demanding. My father’s ghost would likely come back and cut off my ballocks if I didna’ do things the proper way.” Jon smiled impishly as my eyes bulged. What had gotten into this man?
“Tell me now, or I’m leaving.” I growled, flustered at Jon’s joke. He sighed, becoming slightly more sober.
“I must meet with yer father.”
“You cannot be serious.” I breathed.
“I’ll no marry someone unless I can meet her father. Seeing as this situation is a bit…different…I’ll have to meet him after, but I must do so.”
“Jon…” I shook my head, ready to argue.
“We’ll leave a day or so after our wedding.” his voice rang with finality. I pursed my lips. Clearly, this was an argument for another time. I tapped my foot, slowly processing this new onslaught of information.
Frig stood, hunched over and a bit frail, but she exuded sage wisdom and power.
“The gods will bless this union.” she beamed with pride and adoration at Jon, turning her gaze to me. “We’ve waited many years for Thran’s rule to end, so the gods might usher in a new age.”
The men around the table nodded in agreement. My stomach knotted, my gaze falling to Jon. Perhaps it was a good thing he never desired to rule; now that it was forced upon him, his people could trust in his motives. I sensed deep in my core that the course of my life was about to be altered drastically once more. It unnerved me.
Bjorn stood, his sandy, close-shaven beard shiny in the firelight. One by one, each man on the council stood, facing Jon. Bjorn spoke in their ancient language, bending on one knee to a blushing Jon. They each did this in turn, and I knew I was witnessing their history being made.
“How far is this place?” I huffed, trudging to keep up with Freyja. The snow was up to my calves, but she was thankfully forging a path for us. Miss Meerie, Frig, Rose, and two other girls close to my age were following. I worried Frig wouldn’t be able to make the journey, but she was plugging along rather limberly for an older woman. She seemed to like me more, now.
“No much farther,” she called, a smile in her voice. Her amber hair swished to and fro as she maneuvered briskly. I shifted the bundle of blankets and clothes under my arm, their weight becoming heavy. Rose and the other girls, Raina and Bre, were set to be married in the summer. I’d discovered that weddings usually happened when it was warm, and they usually took years to prepare for. Raina and Bre had been betrothed for a year and a half. Rose was rather sour towards me, more so than usual. Jon’s first order of business as ruler had been to marry her off. Her father had obliged immediately. In their clan, it was the leader who suggested marriage, in order to assure blessed unions.
The tree boughs were thickly swathed in snow, but the day was unseasonably sunny. I stopped to catch my breath, peering ahead. Smoke rose in thin plumes. It was a strange sight, the smoke having no apparent source. Freyja stopped in a small clearing, turning to smile at me, her cheeks flushed with exertion and cold. I paused beside her, staring at the strange outcropping of rocks. There was an old wooden door and frame covering the supposed entrance to these rocks. Billowy plumes of steam, not smoke, poured out of every crevice. There was a smell of rotten eggs.
“Sulfur,” Freyja said, naming the smell.
“It’s awful,” Rose complained, wrinkling her nose. Freyja shrugged. The other girls seemed nervous.
“So what exactly do we do?” I asked. Freyja shifted her own bundle of blankets.
“This purification is a symbol of ye girls turning into women. Ye cleanse yourselves of the past, preparing yourselves to be married.” she explained. Miss Meerie and Frig finally made their way to us. Freyja continued.
“We go into the caverns and cleanse ourselves.” she moved and pulled the old door open. Steam tumbled out. She ducked inside as we glanced at each other, daring one another to be the first to follow. I sighed, ducking in after her. The cave was humid and hot compared to the winter landscape outside. It nearly choked me. I jumped as Freyja grabbed my hand, towing me back.
“Ye can stand up straight back here, just watch yourself,” she cautioned. I couldn’t see a thing, and the darkness frightened me. All I could picture was sliding down the mountain.
“Everyone is in!” Miss Meerie called from somewhere behind us.
“Alright girls, set yer things down and strip naked.” Freyja said, a slight laugh in her voice. We grudgingly obeyed, thankful for the warmth and cover of darkness.
“Now grab each other’s hands and follow.” she commanded, grabbing my hand. I reached behind me, another hand joining mine. We slowly walked downhill, the slope gradual, the ground beneath surprisingly smooth. I could tell when we had entered a much larger space just by the coolness of the air. Freyja stopped, dropping my hand. I heard the scraping sound of flint and steel, seeing the orange sparks. Eventually, Freyja had lit a torch, exposing us. I had not time to fret over my naked body, instead focusing on the massive, steaming pool in front of me. I’d never seen or heard of anything like this.
“It’s shallow enough, but don’t swim off too far.” she warned, moving to set the torch in a secure spot. We picked our way down to the pool, dipping in our toes. The water was hotter than I had expected, my skin prickling as I moved in. The other girls giggled and splashed one another, but I just sank in up to my shoulders, caressed by the warm water. The walls of the cavern were black as night, shiny in the humidity.
“So what do we do now?” I asked Freyja as she relaxed next to me.
“We wait.” she said.
“For what?” I moved my hands through the water.
“For Frig to finish praying to the gods.” she smiled.
“And that’s it?” It seemed rather simplistic compared to what Jon was doing currently. I’d witnessed him picking his way through the snow to his ancestor’s final resting spots, a sturdy metal shovel thrown over his shoulder.
“She’ll pray over each of ye. I suppose this is mostly time for ye to reflect on yer life before marriage, and come to terms with being bound to someone else for eternity.” her words settled into my stomach, making me feel slightly sick with apprehension. She floated away with a small smile, leaving me with my thoughts. I stared up at the cavernous, inky black ceiling. Strange, pointed shapes clung to it.
I took Freyja’s advice, knowing my upcoming marriage to Jon was likely going to change the entire course of my life. I was scared, mostly. I turned my hands over underneath the water. Though I knew Jon had a sincere heart and would likely care for me in every way he could, would he ever love me?