Bands & Chains
With a jolt, Cyra felt all of her senses return to her body in a rush. Hiccuping, she tried to catch her bearings, but her vision was slow to adjust in the dim light of the room. Where am I? She could feel the sheets tucked in around her, the slight chill rolling across her skin, a semi-hard surface underneath her back, and her hair… in a braid. Cyra could hear the soft crackle of the fire in the hearth, the wind at the window panes, and quiet breathing very close to her. How long have I been out?
There was a sweet smell of rose petals and a headier scent she couldn’t identify, but it didn’t alarm her. Her sight returned slowly, but not entirely upon her as she tasted the tang of something bitter in her mouth. The taste of the ambrosia hadn’t entirely gone away. Fuck you, Ghiana, she thought as she blinked furiously. Shapes took on hard edges and soft curves, and Cyra could finally see in the darkroom. Sitting up, she looked at Halewijn, who stared back at her quietly, his mother’s book laying open in his lap. He blinked, still staring at her without speaking, and Cyra opened her mouth to speak.
“H-how long have I been out?” She croaked out, her throat drier than she imagined possible.
Hal’s shoulders slumped, and he exhaled deeply, his head hanging low. “Oh, thank the gods, you’re back. I wasn’t sure if Ghiana still had control of you or not.”
“You’ve been gone for a while,” Hal began, shutting the book firmly. “Ghiana had you, hostage, until about an hour ago when you collapsed after leading a round of feverish dancing.” His added sigh disheartened Cyra, and she looked down, noticing the change of clothes from a bloody dress to a simple silk nightgown. She wiggled her fingers and toes, grateful for the return of the sensation. A thought of what the goddess might have done flitted across her mind, and for a moment, she panicked, feeling her heart hammer in her chest.
“Did I embarrass you?” She whispered, and Hal’s head snapped up. He held his hands out to stop her, murmuring,
“No, no, no. You were fine, my love. I had to reel Ghiana in a couple of times, but you didn’t do anything to embarrass yourself or me.”
“Reel her in?” Halewijn shook his head, dismissing her question, and placed a hand on her shoulder, lightly squeezing.
“It doesn’t matter now. I’m just glad you’re back to being yourself.” He kneaded the muscle on her shoulder tenderly, and Cyra exhaled deeply, feeling the release of tension as she closed her eyes. Halewijn continued to massage her shoulders with care, shifting closer so that he could place a small kiss on the nape of her neck. “I’m astounded that you’re not exhausted,” he whispered, breathing against the back of her neck. “You danced quite a lot.”
“With only you, I hope,” Cyra whispered, and Halewijn chuckled low in his chest, the sound comforting Cyra even further.
“Oh, you - well, Ghiana, really - could not keep her hands off of me for a moment. To say that I was also being held hostage would be accurate, I think.” The thought of the goddess lusting after her husband heated Cyra from the neck up, but Halewijn pressed another kiss to her neck. “Fret not; you’re the only one that can seduce me successfully, little bird.”
“How late is it?” She inquired, looking over her shoulder at the High Prince.
“It’s only been nighttime for a few hours. We are not near midnight yet.” Thoughts of completing her first duty as a wife came to mind, and she twisted to face Halewijn, eyeing him carefully.
“I was going to ask you the same thing.” He quickly interrupted. Cyra took stock of the situation, looking around the room to find her answer. But Halewijn took her chin in his thumb and forefinger, peering into her eyes with care. “We should rest,” he finally admitted. “We have a tough day ahead of us.”
The holmgang. How had she forgotten so soon? Exhaustion seeped into Cyra’s bones, and she felt the strength slowly drain itself from her body. She hadn’t been able to fully enjoy what might be her last day with Halewijn. A resolve to make the most of the final hours before the holmgang grew in her mind, and she sat up straight, attempting to erase the despair off her face. Leaning into Halewijn, she pressed a tender kiss to his lips. He kissed her back, holding her close with a firm hand at her waist.
“Don’t let go of me,” Cyra murmured between kisses, feeling tears pricking at her eyes. “Please, never let go.”
“I never will,” Hal replied, trailing kisses down her neck. “By the gods, I’ll never leave you.”
Daylight spilled in through the stained glass windows like beams from a lighthouse, calling Cyra back to the land of the living and awake. As the sun danced into her eyelids, she reluctantly opened them, finding the bed terribly empty and cold. A pang of fear shot through her as she realized Halewijn was no longer in bed with her. They had fallen asleep holding each other, but had Cyra really been so tired that she didn’t notice he had slipped out of her arms?
As Cyra tossed the covers off of herself, she noticed a folded slip of parchment paper tumble out of the sheets and flutter back down onto the heap. Taking the paper in her hands, she gently unfolded it and recognized Hal’s handwriting immediately.
The absolute peace on your face as you slept was too precious to interrupt. I feared that if I woke you as I left, I would only remember your sorrow on the field today and not the expression I saw this morning. Please forgive me for this transgression.
The paper crunched a little as Cyra’s grip tightened, but the momentary anger was replaced by unyielding curiosity as she read on.
The sun is shining brighter than I have seen in a while. If this is to be my last sunrise, I will have enjoyed it. I will have appreciated you and all of the gifts you brought me. Not the physical ones, but the offerings of joy, intimacy, and love. Remember what I told you: everything is as it should be. Should things go awry, Eres will be there to take you to Skaruska. Don’t look back.
I love you and will love you long after the last star in the sky has burned into dust.
Cyra’s vision began to blur with tears, and before she could stop herself, the tears fell onto the paper and hands. Suddenly, a sob escaped her lips, and she brought her tear-stained hands to her face, trying to hide from no one and everyone.
As Mirabel twisted Cyra’s braided hair into a low bun, the High Princess thought of nothing but the facade she would wear to the holmgang. Before this, as she was clothed in a satin, blood-red gown, Cyra wondered what hand the gods would mete out and if the end would be swift or painful to watch.
She inhaled deeply and considered the cards dealt to her by circumstance: the wise option would be to pretend there was no plan if Halewijn would lose, that she didn’t have a dagger strapped to her thigh, and that justice would be appropriately served. She should just allow Omar’s mere existence to be a passing remembrance when they whisper prayers for the dead.
There was no way Halewijn would lose.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a clinking sound, like that of chains or something metallic dropping to the ground. Mirabel stooped down to pick up the item that had fallen to the ground, and Cyra immediately recognized it as the Ash Wolf armband Halewijn had bequeathed to her, and the lady-in-waiting moved to place it back in the box she had retrieved it from.
“Wait, no.” The High Princess murmured, her arm outstretched. “I would like to wear that today.” Mirabel handed the item to her, and Cyra pushed the Ash Wolf heads up and onto her bare right arm.
“Halewijn gifted this to you, didn’t he?” The lady-in-waiting inquired from across the room, and Cyra picked at non-existent lint on her dress, avoiding answering the question directly. Mirabel caught the hint and approached the High Princess with her crown. Silently, she placed the jewels on Cyra’s head and then curtsied, planning her exit.
“Wyndemere and Alorha will escort you to the Temple of Rhadros, your highness. I will follow behind you all and sit with your parents.”
“My parents will be in the box with me, won’t they?” Cyra wondered, standing from her seated position at the mirror urgently.
“No, Cyra. We’ve been given different sections to sit in. I assume since you weren’t told that it was supposed to be something you discovered upon arriving.” The side-eye Mirabel gave Cyra told her precisely what she needed to know:
Omar wasn’t finished toying with her yet.