Chapter One: Sequoia
I have seen many pairs of eyes. Blue. Green. Brown. Some races have unique eye and hair colours, characteristic to them. Mermaids have hair like red coral and eyes the colour of the glimmering sea, and fae can have hair white and eyes of frost or forest. This Dwarf Giant, however, has eyes that glint between deep indigo and lavender. Morning sun alters the colour as her eyes move. They remind me of flowers in the countryside, jewelled looking in the rain and iridescent. I’ve never seen a Dwarf Giant with colouring like Sequoia Aouren.
Typically, Dwarf Giants have dark eyes and hair, with tanned skin, but Sequoia only has one of those attributes with her dark brown hair. Otherwise, her eyes are not brown like most of her kind, and her skin is pale. She dresses in heavy furs and armour, and I stare at the sword at her hip as I stand before her in my bridal gown. It looks heavy, a two-handed weapon, and I then stare at the hilt of the axe I could see behind her head strapped to her back.
I can feel the heat of my father’s glare burning into me, so I refocus, peering instead into the steady gaze of Sequoia.
Our engagement had been hasty, brought on by a flyer father had pinned in the local tavern. Sequoia had applied for my hand in marriage and offered a hefty sum of money to do so. I’m still unsure why. I am fae, partly, but father tells us mother had a splash of everything in her, which you would think would result in me looking intriguing. Alas, I am very plain, with my one redeeming quality being my thick, black curls.
The High Elf conducting the marriage binds our hands together, muttering ancient words, and I go through the motions obediently. I’m under no illusion that Sequoia may have ulterior motives and that I may be in a loveless marriage for the rest of my life. In all honesty, shelter and security are both blessings, and Sequoia can give me both of those things. It could, as Muriel pointed out, be much worse.
My gaze flickers towards my sisters, the eight of them looking worried and unsure. Muriel locks eyes with me, nodding, and I feel sadness wash over me at the thought that we may not see each other for a long time. My chest aches. My sisters have dressed in their best gowns, but due to our father’s debts, each one is old and in need of repair. The sleeves are too short on some, exaggerating how they had outgrown them years ago. My brow furrows. Despite the humble decorations for today, in the local tavern, with the wild lavender coloured mountain flowers perfuming the air, nothing distracts me from my concern for my sisters. My concern pulses like a dark undercurrent, always in the background like a high-pitched wail.
“Do you have the ceremonial headdress?” The High Elf enquires, bringing me out of my thoughts.
I sigh, looking away from my sisters and glancing at Sequoia. The heavy white drapes of fabrics decorating the wall behind her frame her dark figure, highlighting the roughness of her appearance. She looks every inch a warrior.
Sequoia turns to her sister Brina, who steps forward and places the headdress on my head. It’s heavy and hard on my temples. It has beads of coloured glass and twisted metal fanning from its centre. It is beautiful, but my head does not currently agree as the weight threatened to take the skin off my skull as it crashed down on me.
“With the blessings of the gods, the elements and the Queen, I confirm you to be wed. May your marriage be filled with happiness,” the High Elf finished, closing the book with a theatrical flourish, “Be on your way to the Tree of Promise now, and pray.”
The wedding guests shifted, the small number leaving the event now. I glance at Sequoia, slightly nervous. Now it’s all said and done, and we’re now stuck together.
“It went smoothly,” I remarked, aware that Sequoia was a woman of few words, “Surely that’s a blessing.”
She nods gravely, her eyes drifting over me. Her hand lifts from the bind and comes to rest against my face.
“It is,” she tells me, her expression unreadable, “It’s truly a blessing to have found you.”
Surprised, I feel myself flush, taken aback by how forthright she was being. Our previous interactions had been purely for organisational reasons to prepare for the wedding, so this fleeting moment of affection caught me off guard.
“Found me?” I ask, looking down, “It’s not like I was lost. I’ve just been here.”
There’s a pause before Sequoia takes my hands in her large ones and squeezes them gently.
“Jadis Aouren,” she states, “We have our destiny laid out for us, and I put my trust in that destiny.”
Something in her words makes me feel small as if I’m unaware of things on a larger scale in motion. I had noticed before, but when she does speak, it’s almost with an old and tired tone. She’s cryptic and seldom goes into detail. I had hoped that meant she was simple, but instead, now I feel like it might not be the case and that she has many secrets.
I force a smile. Destiny. I have nothing but disdain for the notion. To think my future is pre-planned and currently unfavourable makes me angry. To think fate decided this was it for me. To be married off without my consent, all for the sake of my father to pay off his debts. To marry not for love but to pay off debt collectors.
Sequoia tugs on my hands, leading me towards the Tree of Promise. I’m not fond of praying either, for it never did me much good.
We trudge through the quiet of the village, the torches on either side of the road lighting the cobbles. I hear the thrum of crickets, and in the distance, I hear the tavern filling up with the regular customers. It feels like a chapter is coming to a close and that a new chapter is opening. Sequoia is still guiding my hand, leading me quietly. I stare at the broadness of her back. Expectedly, she’s tall. Dwarf Giants are smaller than other Giant races but still enormous. Sequoia looms over most, head held high and holding herself with a quiet confidence that made her tolerable for now. If she was loud and brash with arrogance, I might have run away.
Still, she leads me.
On the edge of the village, we finally see the glow of The Tree of Promise. It’s a giant gnarly tree, crooked and curled. The branches coil and twist and the bark seems eerily white. Sequoia sits dutifully and then looks at me. I jolt. When she’s kneeling, she’s only a head taller than me, and the sudden near eye level startles me.
“Oh,” I say unintelligently, rushing to join her, “We have to pray, don’t we?”
Sequoia seems to soften before me, but I think it’s the light of The Tree of Promise playing tricks on me. Her lavender eyes glint gently, and a near smile ghosts on her lips.
“And we pray,” she confirms, her hand squeezing mine again.
We turn, bowing before the tree. I have to hold my headdress in place to do so to stop it from falling off, and I bite my tongue to stop cursing when it grates on my eyebrow.
I’ve never been good at praying. I focus, trying to embody some resemblance of a wish to pray about, but my mind wanders. Memories of my sisters come to mind. I think of Audra and her passion. I think of her mouth that speaks too fast and holds no filter. Muriel dances in my memories, calm and soothing, like summer rain. Vanora, two years older than me, yet young in spirit, with the sweetest of natures. Haizea, born early and small, never grew taller past the age of fifteen. I smile tenderly at memories of her temper flaring for the sake of others.
The twins are both complete opposites, but both never fail in making trouble. Despite their ways, they are excellent older sisters to Pensri and Zielle. They both follow them like ducklings, imitating their every move.
I hope for their happiness. I yearn for safety, for my sisters to fall in love and have healthy marriages. I wish that if they choose to have babies, the labour is as easy as possible, and the bairns are born healthy. For my father, I pray. Despite how recently he stopped showing love. Despite how, in the end, he did nothing but think of us as a hindrance to accommodate.
Glancing at Sequoia, I wonder what she wishes for in her heart. Whether she wishes for the things I do or if we’re different. Her head bowed in concentration, her focus impeccable. I study her. The way her dark braids frame her face and the light of the tree radiant on her skin. She looks peaceful and still as stone.
I hope that our marriage is better than I expect. As long as Sequoia never raises a hand to me, or lies, or schemes and cheats, then I think I can live with this marriage. I want to exist easily.
Sequoia’s eyes open suddenly, whipping to meet my own unexpectedly.
“You’re staring,” she says flatly, and I can’t read her expression.
I drop my head, trying to refocus and calm the thunder of my heart.
“I’m sorry, I’ll pray,” I promise, my cheeks feeling hot.
I wish that in time, I’ll be able to make eye contact with her as if it’s normal and that her Giant frame doesn’t intimidate me. Muriel had told me to be open to the idea of relations of a sexual nature, even going as far as to read books with me on the subject. Audra told me that Giants have big hands and that I might die, but I didn’t understand why she laughed hysterically at the notion.
Peaking at Sequoia again, I study her hands, staring at the long fingers with puzzlement. Audra’s words drift in my mind, and slowly, it dawns on me what she was referring to that night. My face lights up in silent horror.
Tree of Promise, please make my sex life painless and that I don’t die.
“Are you okay?”
Not looking up, I nod, letting my hair hang over my face to hide my horrified face.
“Yes, just tired,” I lied smoothly, not wanting to admit my inner thoughts, “How long does one pray?”
Sequoia shifts. I’m surprised when a large hand grips my chin, turning my head gently until finally, I’m face to face with her. I’m shocked into stillness. Her facial expression is doubtful, and her eyes rove over my face in scrutiny.
“You do look tired,” she agrees and then leans forward.
I close my eyes, unsure what to do, but my heart clenches as her lips land on my forehead, gently caressing my skin. I feel my skin exploding red, searing with heat.
Sequoia hums as she leans back, brushing my hair with her hand.
“We’ll go now,” she states, standing, “We have far to travel tomorrow to go to my estate, and you have many people to meet. They are keen to meet you.”
I’m still flustered but collect my scrambled thoughts as best I can. I find my feet quickly, nervous about tomorrow. Meeting new people is also not a favourable thing to me. I’d find more pleasure in drowning myself.
We leave The Tree of Promise. Thankfully, Sequoia does not request marital night-time duties, and we sleep soundly. I don’t even stir once.