The Heart of Sorrow’s Keep
By Brenna Hanson
Date: August 22, 2018
Ch. 1212

Goosebumps shimmered over my body in the cold air at the edge of the woods. My breath steamed in nervous clouds. Each step of my bare feet took me farther into the forest. Each step took me farther from the castle that had been my home and the people I loved most in the world.
The day’s last rays of light turned the sky blood red through the empty branches. It painted the sky in tribute to everyone who had died in this horrible war. It touched my bare skin washing over the paleness of cold with the flush of life.
Each step was one step nearer my destiny. My heel crumbled the dead leaves of the past beneath it and churned them into the earth that fed the trees. I was afraid that I, too, might be walking to my place within the earth. Still, I planted my feet and moved forward.
Halfway to the clearing that drew me, a nightingale trilled sweetly. Then another joined the first. Finally, a third added its song. The notes wrapped around me and my fear melted. In its place, a serene glow sprouted and grew. It danced through me as if to the song of the night birds. For the first time since I had heard the prophecy spoken, I knew that I was strong enough to see it through.
My steps grew eager and light. I spun through the forest, my hair lifted by the chill breeze to tangle and snag with the tiny branches that reached for it. When I came to the center of the clearing, I threw my head back and laughed as tears ran down my cheeks. I reached my arms toward the heavens and drank in the last of the dying day. I felt the heavens reach back. My mother’s delicate hand swept my hair behind my ear as she had so loved to do in life. My grandmother bestowed a kiss upon my brow. Back along the generations of my mothers and their mothers, each stepped forward to pour her love, hope, and strength into me. Finally, the last stood before me. She was clad in robes of thick fur and ornamental feathers. She laid her hand upon my heart and smiled.
Then they were all gone and I was once again alone in the clearing. I felt charged as if touched by lightning. My grandfather had called me the Heart of Sorrow’s Keep, but now I knew that I had become The Heart of the World. Inside of me bloomed the love of lifetimes. I could barely contain it within my cold skin. It amazed me that I could stand so still when everything in me wanted to leap and dance for joy.
I knew that a contingent of guards stood concealed in the trees behind me. Harold would only agree to my going if he could send them. After all, he reasoned, the prophecy could go awry as they sometimes do. Someone needed to be there in that event to save me. I nearly laughed at the thought as I heard them rustling awkwardly where they believed themselves hidden. There was no power on this earth that could stand against me now. I wondered absently if they could feel the change in the daughter of the fallen king’s favorite courtesan. I wondered if they understood the queen I had become right before their eyes.
As twilight turned the sky to violet, a stream of silent torches drifted toward the clearing. They moved as if ghosts held them aloft. Not a sound of movement gave indication otherwise. As they drew closer, the men who clutched them in ash-covered hands manifested in my vision. Their skin was the color of dark wildflower honey. Tangled black hair was tied with grass or woven around bird bones and bright pebbles. The pelts they wore for warmth were sewn to let them move as freely as if they wore nothing at all. Green eyes like jewels stared out of every solemn face. They circled the clearing on silent, dancing steps twirling the torches in a mesmerizing display of light and shadow. Faster and faster they moved weaving in and out of the trees and each other until the scene blurred. As one, they stilled. Only their clouds of breath proved them for creatures of flesh and blood. My enemy - my future - had arrived.
Had I not been overflowing with the love of my own past ghosts, I might have trembled in fear. Their silent, unwavering stares might have shaken my nerve and sent me running into the forest toward my home. Had I been the girl I was even that very morning, the future would have been lost as I faced these people who had slaughtered so many of my loved ones in the past months. But, I was more now. So very much more. I met their silence with my own and waited.
Finally, he came. He wore a crown of thistles and lavender upon his head and walked with the wild pride of the newest king of The People of the Trees. His furs were rich; his leather boots soft and supple. The bow he wore slung across his back caught the torchlight and held it in a warm glowing arch. He met my eyes and cocked his head to the side assessing my worth.
I stood for a long moment assessing him in return. Then I allowed the smile that I had felt growing in my heart to spread to my lips. I held my hand out, palm up in an invitation for him to take it.
When the grin blossomed on his lips, my heart skipped a beat. He was beautiful. Wild, and beautiful, and I was sure that I could spend the rest of my days watching his eyes twinkle in the firelight as if he held all the joy in the world inside of them. His hand slid into mine. I felt callouses beneath the paint and had an almost undeniable urge to bring it to my lips and kiss the roughness of his palm.
He motioned a child forward from the protection of the circle of his men. The boy stepped to him carrying a robe of thick fur. It was adorned with bright feathers. The last time I had seen it was upon the spirit of a princess from the past whose blood ran through my own veins. The king took the robe from the boy’s hands and spread it open before me. He inclined his head in acknowledgment that we would be equals.
I turned, letting him wrap the thick fur around my cold body. He tied the leather thongs of the closure in an intricate knot. A wedding knot my mind suddenly saw and my heart fluttered with strange anticipation. When he was finished a wave of light burst forth through the clearing. It traveled out through the trees and far beyond the reach of my own eyes. The land shone under the bright light of a summer day. As it faded, the light pulled a gentle sigh from everyone it had touched.
The circle of warriors came one by one and laid their arrows at my feet. When they were done, they took their places back in the torch lit circle. Then my own guard, sent by the new High King of the lands west of the Snow Mountains, Harold, my beloved half-brother and near-twin, walked forward and knelt before me. They promised their swords to my aid if the need should ever arise in solemn, binding oaths. Then they walked back to Stonewood Castle to tell those who would listen what they had seen in the clearing that night.
Peace had been restored to our lands. Just as long years ago the daughter of another king had stood in this place and been the gift that Fate demanded, I had become the bridge between two great nations. I hoped I was strong enough to carry the weight of this new future that was being born through a joining of two disparate peoples. I looked into the eyes of my strange, new husband and felt the love of all of my mothers riding in my heart. He took my hand in his once more and I knew that no matter the weight or work ahead, we would be united in joining our worlds into a land that would not only stand against the ages but be a standard by which rulers far in the future would judge their own achievements.

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