Soul of the Wild Wood
By Brenna Hanson
Date: July 25, 2021
Ch. 55

Nettle woke me late in the afternoon. She stroked the hair away from my forehead in the same comforting way I saw Bright Eyes sweep Nettle’s own hair from her brow. It was the same way my mother, Lily, had glided her fingertips just above my eyes to tuck a stray lock behind my ear every day that I could remember until her death. I missed my mother with the sweetest of aches. Somehow, this child’s gentle touch made that ache lighter.

Are you feeling better? she signed.

Very much, I signed back and realized it was the truth. Hungry.

The girl smiled and leaned back so I could see the tray sitting on the trunk beneath the window. The mug of tea still steamed.

Mama sent it, Nettle signed. She said healing a heart is hungry work.

She’s right, I signed. She’s a smart woman.

That’s why she runs the Great Hall, Nettle signed, and takes care of our queen.

I got up to bring the tray over. When I settled back against the furs, I patted the spot beside me and Nettle climbed in. It had become our habit to cuddle and share meals. At first, Bright Eyes had scolded the girl for treating me so familiarly. Once I could explain that Nettle reminded me of my little sisters who were so far away, Bright Eyes softened and added extra to the tray.

She does an amazing job at both, I signed.

River will be here soon, Nettle signed. It will be hard for me to explain what you must do tonight. I don’t have enough of your words, and you don’t have enough of ours. Mama will come with her to help you dress and do your hair. She likes to do your hair. She says it reminds her of the night sky when the summer breezes blow.

I laughed softly. The words painted a much prettier picture than I felt my hair looked after my nap.

Where is King Ember? I signed. I smiled at the little thrill the motion of his name brought me.

He is in the men’s quarters, Nettle signed. Mama says he won’t move in here until after the Courtship time as is proper.

I wasn’t sure what that meant but didn’t have the signs to ask for more details. Besides, I doubted Nettle would be able to explain sufficiently for me to really understand. All I could guess was that my husband would not be sharing my bed right away. I wasn’t sure whether to feel upset or relieved. I knew the general workings of a marriage but my education in the ways of couples had been cut short by the war before it had really begun. The only experience I had with a man who was not my family was batting my eyes at the castle guards or fluttering my fan at the single noblemen who would sometimes visit. The thought of being alone with a man who was not my blood relative made me blush.

Nettle giggled.

You like him, she signed with a teasing grin. You think King Ember is cute like a puppy.

I blushed deeper. It wasn’t a puppy I likened my husband to nor was the word that came to mind cute. King Ember was a hunting cat if ever I had seen one. He stole my breath away when he looked at me.

Bright eyes came in and saw my pink cheeks. She gave me a questioning look.

Queen Natalia thinks King Ember is cute like a puppy, Nettle signed with another giggle.

Bright Eyes raised an eyebrow at me. I made the sign for a hunting cat instead of the one for a puppy. Bright Eyes let out her own laugh of agreement.

When River arrived a few minutes later and sent Nettle off on errands, I asked my questions in a combination of signs and words.

“Ah,” River said. “I should have thought to tell you before. I forgot that our ways and your ways are so different.”

Bright Eyes signed, Courtship is beautiful. It should be everyone’s way.

But what does it mean? I signed back.

Bright Eyes explained. River only spoke when I could not understand.

Our people, Bright Eyes began, have many villages. This makes us strong and lets us trade goods so that we all prosper. Often, our men and women meet and fall into the First Love during these trading trips. Their hearts fill with each other to the point that they cannot imagine being apart. They demand to be married and so they are. But the First Love is fragile for all of its needs and demands. Many times it does not last more than a short time. If nothing is there to take its place, the marriage fails and the couple separates to go back to their original villages. Before Courtship, children were often left with only one parent to love them. The other had to suffer the loss of a child they loved, as well. The decision of which parent should raise the child was difficult for our elders to make. So, long ago, our ancestors made a way to help prevent this. According to the custom of Courtship, a couple does not share a dwelling until they have been married for a year and a day. The last month of that time, they sleep in the same room but have an escort sitting between their two beds. Many marriages are not strong enough to last through snoring.

I gave an incredulous laugh.

“My first marriage failed for that reason,” River said. “He said he’d never be able to work on as little sleep as my snoring allowed him. It was a good thing in the end as I found my heart’s love in Bright Eyes’ grandfather. Besides, the first one ground his teeth at night and chewed like a cow during the day.”

Bright Eyes went on, During Courtship, a newly married couple works together and plays together. They celebrate and mourn together as the time calls for. The whole time, they earn the right to live in each other’s hearts.

Don’t forget the gifts, River signed. She was fingering the pretty pendant she wore on a thong around her neck. They may not be the biggest part, but they are often the biggest tell.

The gifts given during Courtship are meant to show the growing understanding of each other’s spirit, Bright Eyes signed. I knew my own Black Fox had learned my soul when he brought me a heavy pin made of hardwood that he had shaved and sanded smooth.

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