The Steele Wolf, p.5Chanda Hahn
“Thank you, Hemi. You are indeed a loyal warrior and one that I would like to call my friend.”
His large face beamed with happiness and he stood up and ambled away, but not before I caught his quick look to the mountains. I knew he knew where my father went, and if Hemi was worried then I knew I had to worry.
“Is it true that you turned down Fenri in favor of a Kragh Aru?” Siobhan asked. Her hands deftly parted my hair and began to braid and arrange it upon. She reached for another pin and gently tucked a stray piece of hair in place. I looked up in the mirror and met her amazed look and shrugged.
She had come over to help me get ready for the ceremony and had been very careful to avoid the topic of marriage for the first hour but not anymore. Her questions flowed as swiftly as the Kirakura falls.
“I’m so envious. Did you see how many people showed up to compete for your hand? I can’t imagine what it must be like to have that many people wanting to marry you.”
“Well...I never thought this many people would come.”
“Of course they would come. But I have to ask you; did you not like any of the men in our own clan? Or are you just trying to make Fenri jealous?”
I was at a loss for words. “Fenri is striking, but I’m not sure if we are right for each other.”
“Not right for you, Thalia! He is the most attractive man here! You should just be happy that your father chose someone for you that was your age. I happen to think he is…” her comments dropped off and I could see a faint rose color appear at her cheeks.
My eyes opened wide as I realized my cousin had a fondness for Fenri. How could I have been so dense? Maybe that was why she was friendlier to me, because I chose the tourney instead of Fenri.
She dropped her hands into her lap and swallowed. “Well, who am I to say what you should do. You’ve already made up your mind…but do you think you can go through with it? I mean marry the winner? What if it’s a total stranger?”
I sighed and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes sparkled with the slightest bit of fear and excitement. I stood up and smoothed out any wrinkles in my dark blue wool dress. White fur lined the high neck collar and short sleeves. My hair arranged in twists and braids upon my head and paired with my mother’s silver wolf armbands, made me look exotic, powerful, and regal. The only hint of my worry was my slightly swollen lip, which I had been biting for the last hour.
“I keep my word, cousin. I will marry whoever wins the tourney tomorrow.” I said with false bravado. “Let us worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Tonight is for celebrations and dancing.” I grabbed her hand and pulled her to my armoire where I pulled out a pair of beautiful gold bracelets. I put them on Siobhan’s arms and gave her a quick hug. “Let’s enjoy tonight.”
We left my home to walk the streets heading towards the main square. I felt a pang of loneliness as I realized how similar this felt. Did I not just walk like this a few months ago with my friend Avina? Could I really cast my friends aside that easily? What about Joss? I would be forced to wed someone else. Was I really ready to gamble so much, to try and prove myself? My nerves got the better of me and I stumbled. Siobhan caught me.
“Are you okay, cousin?”
“No. Yes…. I don’t know. Maybe I should speak with my father.” I raised my head and scanned the crowd looking for him.
“He’s over there,” Siobhan pointed to the main hall and sure enough I saw my father duck into the building.
The main square was alight with colorful paper lanterns, music and dancing. Women walked around with trays on their hips, selling food. Children ran between them playing games. Men were in smaller groups off to the side sparring and wrestling with each other testing out the competition before tomorrow. Everyone was happy, excited and drunk. Everyone but me.
We made our way through the crowded streets and I felt someone press in close to my side. I looked up and saw Hemi. His face was stern as he gently touched my elbow and led me into the main hall.
Inside the hall a giant silver shield hung from the rafters and a hammer lay next to it. It was tradition that whoever wanted to enter the completion would do so by striking the mighty shield. A line had already begun to form before the shield. The warrior would step up, hit the shield and then come and speak an oath to the woman whose hand they hoped to win.
My lips felt dry and I kept trying to wet them as Hemi led me to the front of the hall. My palms were sweating and I found myself digging my nails into Hemi’s arm. I saw my father standing in front of the large stone fireplace with two high back chairs next to it. Bearen somehow had come back to the village without my knowledge and found time to change for the festivities.
His large sword leaned against the chair, and I counted at least two other blades on his belt. A glance behind the chair showed me another axe hidden within a few feet. His eyes darted warily between the clansman and I felt myself tense up. He was worried and I wasn’t sure why.
Slowly, I turned to sit down on the high back wooden chair, like a queen, as my father came over to address the room. All of the warriors, women and children, gathered as close as they could into the room. Others waited outside the windows and in the square to hear my father’s announcement.
Bearen stood tall and proud. He turned his piercing eyes upon the men in the crowd and spoke loudly, “Tonight is a night for many celebrations. Many of you have heard how my daughter was kidnapped in the dark of night and we thought we had lost her. Someone tried to steal that which is most precious to me. But by sky above, we got her back and I can’t bear the thought of losing her again. So I have called the strongest warriors from our clan together to issue a challenge. A challenge that goes back hundreds of years. The warrior’s test. The Kragh Aruuuu!” He raised his fist into the air and howled the last word. The room erupted into howls of encouragement, mimicking the Aruuuu call.
Bearen continued, “This is also a test to find the fiercest and boldest among you who will be worthy to protect my daughter from all that hunts her and so the prize for the winner will be…my daughter as your lifemate. So without further delay, because we all want to get to the mead as soon as possible, let the challengers come forth.”
The men began to stomp their feet on the wooden floor. It was fast and matched the pace of my wildly beating heart. There was more howling, and I scanned the men’s faces trying to read their expressions when they looked at my father and me.
The first warrior, a young man with curly hair stood up and used the mallet to strike the shield.
Clang! Roars of approval moved through the hall. He came forward and knelt in front of my chair to pledge his oath to me.
I was taken aback by how young he was; he had to be younger than me. His green eyes twinkled with excitement and hope. I just prayed that my stupid plan wouldn’t get him killed.
“I’m Arthur and I choose to fight for you.” He grinned and pounded his chest playfully. “Min hjart en sterkur,” he recited. ‘My heart is strong.’
I was proud that I remembered the correct reply. “En meja min sver vera sterkur.” ‘But may your sword be stronger.’
He bowed low and I could feel the heat rush to my cheeks. The room erupted into whistles. I spared a look toward my father and he shook his head in disappointment. He knew and I knew that the boy wouldn’t win.
Clang! The shield rang again and another warrior came forward to declare his intentions. Some of the men looked me over appraisingly while others winked at me. A few were old enough to be my father; some were missing teeth and more than a few needed baths.
I was quite shocked when a familiar face rang the shield and knelt before me. His long black hair draped past his shoulders, and his eyes looked black by the firelight. My cousin, Bvork smirked at me and made a deliberate show of reaching for my hand to plaster a kiss on it. I quickly pulled it away and wiped it on the front of my dress, hearing a few laughs follow as he sauntered away. I leaned over to Odin who had moved to stand next to me.
“I did what you asked. I looked into the rules and nowhere does it state who can and can’t compete in the Kragh Aru. It’s what you were personally counting on.”
Sighing, I mentally wished that I were back in Calandry and taking classes again. My troubles there seemed so much easier than the trouble I was causing here. I was actually beginning to miss Syrani and her awful barbs.
The next clansman who was presented stood before me had a slight accent as he pledged his vow. Actually, I had heard quite a few variations on the pledge. I smiled widely when Fenri stepped forward and kneeled and grasped my hand. “My heart is strong.”
“But may your sword be stronger.” I smiled back and reached for his hand delaying him. I leaned forward and whispered urgently, “Do you think you can still win?”
“Are you changing your mind? You could have had me without the tournament.”
“No, I’m not changing my mind,” I answered.
“Then what choice do you give me? I have to win.” He pulled his hand roughly out of mine and moved away.
I felt a little guilty at what I was putting Fenri through. A slight cough made me realize that it was time to move on.
The grey haired and the bald Stahler men came, rang the shield and pledged followed by another clansmen whose furs were dirty and his helm covered his head and most of his face. He slurred through the vow as if he was drunk and then looked at me with a sneer in his voice. “This is what I traveled all this way for? This is the prize?” He hiccupped and started to fall over. “What a waste.”
I felt my hand pull back to slap him, but Odin caught me and sternly told him to move on. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he made his way back to a corner by the other two men. I realized I recognized him as the drunk Stahler and I decided I needed to keep a closer eye on those three.
The shield rang over and over. Sometime during the procession someone started playing the drums. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, trying to hide from the rhythm and the rush of feelings and emotions that were rolling over me. I could feel them: excitement, joy, hope. But then others came, darker ones: lust, hate, revulsion.
I opened my eyes and saw the piercing gaze of the Stahler men and I almost choked. I scanned the crowd again and met more angry eyes, but these were coming from my own family members; my Uncle Rayneld and my cousin Bvork. Fear boiled up from within me and I tried to push it away. I desperately needed the noise to stop.
My nails gripped the armrests of my chairs and felt myself start to lose control. My head started to throb and I just wanted the noise and pain to cease. Someone was laughing at me. Or they could have been laughing at someone else but it felt like it was directed at me. Another warrior rang the shield.
How many more could there possibly be? I barely made it through reciting my line, before the buzzing in my head got louder. It was finally over and I could breathe, but barely. It was time to go outside and do the last thing I felt like doing. Celebrate.
I felt odd. I was swimming in a sea of faces. Many of them called to me, wishing me well. Others were warriors looking to get my blessing or a token to wear tomorrow. But they were all strangers. My face was stiff from pretending to smile, and my heart was weary with grief. I could feel the pressure build in my mind and I needed to escape. Thankfully, Fenri appeared and pulled me into a dance.
“It seems that you needed rescuing from yourself. You look like the earth is about to swallow you whole.” Fenri smiled and took my hand, guiding me along side him. I watched his feet carefully and mirrored him.
“You have no idea how close you are to the truth.”
He winked at me and I smiled. I felt the load on my soul lighten. Fenri spun me and gripped his hand around my waist to steady me when I overturned. I threw my head back and laughed.
“You looked beautiful tonight, in the main hall.”
I felt my cheeks redden. “Thank you.”
“No, I mean it. It will be an honor to fight for your hand tomorrow. I just wish…No, what I mean is…”
“What?” I asked him. Coming to a halt in our dancing, I pulled him to the side so we could focus on each other. We began to walk away from the center of town and down a rarely used trail than led into the forest.
Fenri seemed frustrated. “I’m sorry for what happened to you. I feel like it was my fault. Maybe if I hadn’t been distracted that day, you wouldn’t have been kidnapped. I feel responsible because I should have been watching over you like I had since we were kids. You disappeared and ended up in Haven in the midst of all of those Denai. We were prepared to take you back by force, but you came willingly. Only you came back different. To protect your secret your Father arranges a great lifemate for you…who you rejected, and now this…The Kragh Aru. Out of the blue you are willing to give yourself away to the winner.” His words slowly slipped from playful to ice cold.
“No…Don’t say my name like that.” He dropped his fists to his sides and looked at me like he was the one who had his soul ripped out. “I’m tired of pretending everything’s fine when it’s not. Tell me. What is wrong with me?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Why won’t you become my lifemate? We could have been good together. We were friends growing up, or at least I like to think we were friends. I know you came back different. I saw how you saved your father and whisked arrows in the air without bows. You see I’m worthy to keep your secret.” He turned and began to pace back and forth.
“Yes, you are.” I reached out to touch his shoulder but he shrugged me off. Embarrassed, I gripped my skirt and waited.
“Thalia, people know that your father chose me for you. We both thought you would accept. And since you didn’t, it makes me look bad. It makes me look weak in the eyes of the clan.”
“So this is a pride thing. You’re upset because of how this makes you look in the eyes of others.” I wasn’t expecting this from him and it was making me angry. My temper was something one didn’t mess with.
“Well that’s not good enough of a reason. I want someone strong, someone that can defend my clan.”
“Thalia, I’m one of the strongest men here and worthy to lead the Valdyrstals. I thought that’s what you wanted, to keep the leadership out of your uncle’s hands. Well, you had the answer. You had everything you could have wanted but you threw it away…and for what?” He pointed to the crowd of warriors at the side who were sparring and setting up their tents in the field behind. “For this?”
“No, for a chance to be free,” I answered, knowing he wouldn’t understand.
“That’s not freedom, Thalia. That is responsibility. Leading a clan is a lot of work. In our province, in our clan, we rule.”
“No, Fenri. My father rules with the elders. And the way you’re acting makes me think that you aren’t ready for that responsibility.”
“And some stranger is?” he argued. “I love this clan; I would die for any of them. I would die for you, so why don’t you want me?”
“It’s not like that.” I tried to console him and I could feel my answers were breaking his heart in two. How could I tell him that there was someone else? That I dreamed of another?
“Then tell me what it is like. Tell me so that I won’t go into tomorrow knowing that the person I love, the person I would give everything for, will reject me in the end.” He turned suddenly and grasped me by the shoulders. I could feel his warm breath brush across my cheeks.
My heart started pounding in my chest, and I felt dizzy and weak. Fenri just admitted to loving me. My mouth felt dry and I tried to speak. He looked into my eyes and I felt my cheeks burn with embarrassment. He saw my reaction and mistook it for favor.
He leaned in to kiss me. It caught me by surprise. The kiss was firm, aggressive, demanding. I expected it to be earth shattering or to feel something. But there was nothi
The sound of branches snapping made us jump apart and I looked around guiltily, as if I had been caught doing something wrong. Well, maybe I had. I used the back of my hand to wipe at my mouth and Fenri turned to stand in front of me.
“Who’s there?” he called out.
“I am, numbskull,” a man called out of the bushes and half fell, half stumbled as he came into view. “You’d think a guy could find a place to relieve himself in quiet without being interrupted none." It was the drunk Stahler. I felt my chin rise in disgust. When he saw me he perked up and ambled over.
“I never got my dance with da girl. I think she owes me a dance. Don’t you sweetie?” He gripped my wrist roughly and pulled me after him.
“Don’t touch her!” Fenri roared out and knocked his hand away from me.
“Ay, that’s not nice. You out here sneakin’ kisses in the dark and all I want is a dance. Seems kinda unfair to me, since she could be mine come tomorrow. Unless she is giving everyone free kisses.” I was surprised when he didn’t back down from Fenri.
“I’m warning you, move away,” Fenri threatened.
“Not without me kiss. Seems like maybe I should be tell’n her father about this. Could cause quite a stir among the men. Might even cause a fight between neighboring clans.” He patted his vest and glared between Fenri and me.
“I’m not kissing you!” I spat out.
“If it’s a fight between clans you want, then you’ve got one.” Fenri pulled his sword from his side trying to intimidate the man into backing down.
“Stop it!” I yelled. “Save it for the tourney.”
Fenri started to lower his weapon but a knife appeared out of the drunk’s sleeve and in an instant he had it at Fenri’s throat.
The Steele Wolf by Chanda Hahn / Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes