Elva looked at herself in the dirty mirror.
The edges were tarnished from the years. Veins of black marks made the shiny, visible portion hardly usable. There was very little she could see, but she had to make sure she looked just right.
She was going to meet her husband today.
A thought that tore her heart into pieces. She felt the painful ache in the depths of her chest. She inhaled slowly, biting her lips together when she caught them trembling in her reflection. Her nose stung when she felt tears building up behind her eyes.
“No, I can't be weak. I have to do this,” She whispered to herself, placing a small wisp of hair behind her ear.
Her hand shook as she brought it back to her thighs, soothing out the fabric of the dress she wore. A breeze blew from her open window, dressing her in the fresh scent of spring. She snapped her gaze to the blue sky and she couldn’t help the trembling smile that lifted her lips.
Terrifying emotions came stronger, pulling the muscles in her chest even tighter. She would miss this place. Miss her home. Miss her father.
“Oh, father. Why did you do this to me?”
She wiped the tear from her cheek that had determinedly fallen.
“I know I promised, but why?”
She shook her head, tucked her dress under her legs and sat at the edge of her bed. Like she did every day, she picked up her mother’s journal and lightly turned it in her hands.
The cover was tattered, only a few more reads away from falling apart. Though her mother had died while giving birth to her, she never felt as if she was truly gone. Not with all of her thoughts written on pages within her reach.
“You wouldn’t have given me away, would you?”
She hugged the journal to her chest, wanting to feel any sort of connection to the woman who’s blood ran through her veins. Who’s hazel eyes were the same as her own.
Or so she had been told.
With a sigh, she set the journal back down on the bed, suddenly feeling guilty for faulting her father. She was only thirteen when her father, Earl Arrion, had decided that her life would become a means of accomplishing peace. She was the price he had to pay. The only payment the Jarl would take.
A sharp knock had her shifting uncomfortably.
“Elva,” Annmarie, her maid, who was her mother’s maid before her, stepped inside the room with a tentative smile.
Elva swallowed the lump in her throat, noticing the pity in Annmarie’s dark gaze. She was having a pity party all by herself, she didn’t need anymore of it.
The maid twirled a flower in her hand, a dahlia.
“Your father wanted you to have this. To wear in your hair.”
Elva gave her a sad smile, taking the flower in her hands before trying to strap it to her hair. Annmarie nodded softly, acknowledging Elva’s silent request.
She wanted to be alone.
As soon as the door was closed and she found herself alone again, Elva dropped her hands, twirling the stem between her fingers.
She knew why she had to do what was being asked of her. Her father was seeking peace with Jarl Agnar, who only accepted the price of his daughter. Only then would he stop the raids on the villages.
Jarl Agnar arrived with his people years ago. They came on ships and when they first heard of the foreigners, fear of the unknown grew within the villages.
That fear was well founded and further established when the attacks began.
Elva agreed to the arranged marriage, knowing that her father had no other choice, had no other options. Their people were starving, they were being killed, kidnapped and raided. Her father had aged drastically, the stress eating him alive. Peace was a good thing, and something that they desperately needed.
And Elva was willing to give away her freedom for it.
She chewed on her lips as she paced her room, her stomach coming alive with bundled nerves that felt sour against her insides. Her stomach was empty though she couldn’t even think about eating in such a time as this.
With her feet carrying her to a stop, she closed her eyes, letting her body sway.
“Please, let him be good.”
She prayed to whoever would listen.
Jarl Agnar had two sons. She was to be married to the eldest as soon as she turned twenty-one. However, the Jarl died in battle, leaving his sons in charge of his territory. The new Jarl Agnar insisted that Elva should be turned over to him now, even if she was only twenty, a year before the agreed upon time.
Perhaps that is what made this day more difficult for Elva and Earl Arrion, they thought they had more time.
She looked down at her dress, at her toes as they peaked from underneath the long skirt.
She gasped, her eyes instantly filling her tears when she saw her father standing in the doorway.
“Oh, Elva,” He approached her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders, letting her cry into his chest.
As soon as she was able to catch her breath, she pulled away. She had to get used to not being able to run to her father for comfort.
“I can take it back, I can tell him we need to find another way,” He whispered, searching her eyes for an okay.
“He’d kill you,” Elva shook her head. He wouldn’t take such an offense lightly.
“I’d rather die than send you off.”
The fear and absolute devastation was clear in his eyes. It killed Elva to see it, because it was too late. Why hadn’t he said this before? Why had he never asked her before?
She shook her head, watching him slowly, “You know I can’t let that happen.”
He reached for her hand, pulling the flower from her grasp before placing it gently behind her ear.
“You look just like your mother.”
Elva could feel her face twitching. Her mother who had died so young. Her mother who never got to hold her own child. Was she destined for the same? Leaving her home to marry a stranger was already gut-wrenching. Imagining her own death, though, that was too much.
“Did you love her?”
Arrion frowned, “You know I did. I do.”
“I mean, when you were first married.”
Realization dawned in his features, “I don’t know if love is the right word, but I did know that I wanted to.”
Elva looked away, not knowing how to register the words. Her father wasn’t a violent man. He wasn’t war hungry. Not like Jarl Agnar.
“Do you think I’ll be lucky like you? That my arranged marriage will turn into one of love?”
“I hope so.”
Elva nodded, still not convinced, still thinking the worst. They fell into a silence that was neither comforting nor peaceful. They were silent because that was all that they were capable of.
Of breathing in the same space.
Arrion pulled back, turning to face his brother, who was now standing in the doorway.
“What is it, Alden?”
Arrion’s blood rushed from his face and he didn’t even offer Elva a look before he quickly made his way out of the room.
“He-he’s here?” Elva could feel her knees weaken.
Alden’s eyes widened as he took her in. He smiled at her softly and offered her his elbow.
“You look beautiful, niece. Just like your mother,” His voice was full with emotion. The pull in his words was almost sad, just as devastating as the look in her father’s eyes.
Elva could only smile even as she continued to tremble. She took his elbow but he pulled her to a stop, not letting her cross the barrier. She looked up at him, questioning his intent.
He looked to the door, listening for a moment, before hesitantly looking back at her.
“I told your father, you know. Begged him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I begged him to find another way.”
Her heart clenched, “You?”
He nodded, defeatedly.
“My father told me today that he would ask the Jarl to find another way. That he would rather die than send me off.”
It was extremely painful to realize that the only reason her father had finally doubted his decision was because of her uncle, and not because he had a genuine change of heart.
Alden clenched his jaw.
“Does father even love me?”
“Oh, Elva, he does.”
“But it was so easy for him to agree. To give me away. And then to not regret it? To not change his mind? For seven years?"
Alden pulled her into a tight hug, “Your mother’s death was- It changed him completely. Sometimes I do not even recognize my own brother.”
Elva pulled away, “He blames me, doesn’t he?”
“He doesn’t want to.”
But he did. Elva knew as much, though she never wanted to admit it. Her uncle confirming her suspicions was a wounding blow.
“Give me the word Elva, and I’ll help you. I’ll take you far from here. We can leave out the back.”
Elva reared back, “They’d kill him.”
“He doesn’t deserve your loyalty, Elva. Father or not.”
A sour explosion of suspicion went off in her chest. Alden had never spoken of her father like that. The words coming from his mouth felt foreign, especially combined with the hateful darkness in his gaze.
“H-he’s your brother.”
“One day you’ll understand.”
“That blood is the only reason why my brother still breathes.”
Elva gasped, pressing her hand to her chest. Had she been so oblivious to the hatred he harbored for her father? Did that hatred also apply to her?
She took a step back, “You want him dead?”
He frowned, swallowed the lump in his throat and shook his head, “No, not anymore. There was a time that I did. And I would have killed him. If your mother hadn’t stopped me.”
Alden sighed, "It's-"
Elva jumped, startled by the loud knock on the frame of her door that interrupted Alden's words. Her heart was hammering in her chest and she was about to slam her door on whoever had stopped her uncle from spilling dark secrets.
But her face blanched when Aart, her father's right hand man stood in the door with a solemn look. He narrowed his eyes at Alden before softening his features as he looked at Elva.
"It's time, my dear.”
She exhaled shakily, glancing at Alden with a glare that she hoped was wounding. Their conversation was not over.
"Can I have a few more moments with my uncle?"
Aart stiffened, shocked at her request, "Absolutely not."
Elva frowned, looking between the two men. They stood awkwardly, as if they hated each others presence. It was only now that Elva realized she had never seen them together in the same room, in the same conversation. They avoided each other.
Aart cleared his throat, "I mean to say that the Jarl is definitely not a patient man. He is requesting your presence immediately, and if we make him wait any longer, I am afraid there will be repercussions."
Elva nodded, leaning toward Alden and kissing him softly on the cheek, "We'll speak soon then, uncle."
Alden caressed her cheek, "I hope so."
She took Aart's hand, leaning into him because her legs were shaking. He felt her sweating palms and offered a reassuring smile.
Elva exhaled loudly, “Let’s get this over with.”
Her stomach had not stopped churning since she put on the dress, and now she was more than eager to make it stop. She wanted all of this to be a dream. She wanted to wake up.
But she didn't.
And she wouldn't.
She made it all the way to the hall where her father and future husband stood.