Soul of the Wild Wood
By Brenna Hanson
Date: August 22, 2021
Ch. 99

Two days later, I was on my way to Stonewood Castle to lay my own father to rest. King Ember walked beside me. His constant vigilant watch over the surrounding forest made me wonder if he was wary of the greeting he would receive when we arrived. He proved my study of his mood wrong by signaling part of our escort to follow him into the trees. Sometime later, they returned carrying the field-dressed carcasses of three good-sized deer. Ember came directly to me. He took my face between his blood covered hands. Then, for the first time, he touched his lips to mine. He was gone just as quickly to help his men build a litter for the deer. They attached it to the grain wagon where River rode in relative comfort as I stared after him.

A gift for your people, River signed. Then she laughed. Although that kiss was yours alone.

I touched my cheek and my fingers came away red. I left the blood where it was. It tied me to the hunt and to my husband – and it hid the blush his kiss brought to my face. As I took my spot at the head of the procession again, more than one of the warriors in the line gave an approving nod.

The greeting at Stonewood Castle was tense. Although word had been sent regarding the number of our escort, it was obvious that twenty men who had so recently been among those slaughtering the kingdom’s farmers and soldiers were not welcomed with open arms. At the gates which had held those inside in starving captivity until just a few short weeks ago, Ember signaled a halt. He ushered the cattle-drawn wagon full of grain and its extra sled of venison forward. Then he dismissed nearly all of the accompanying warriors. They made the sign of farewell and strode confidently back down the road. The castle guards struggled to watch the departing warriors without seeming suspicious of them. The villagers who usually lined the road through the outer town were absent. I wondered if they had been asked to stay home or if they hid.

Harold pushed his way through the guards surrounding him to stand in front of me.

“From the deer,” I said at his look of concern for the blood on my face.

He nodded and we began the formal greeting required of us as the Council watched from behind the line of guards.

“Greetings King Ember and Queen Natalia,” Harold said. “It is with a glad heart that we welcome our sister and her new husband to Stonewood Castle. Circumstances may be sorrowful, but today marks a new, bright future for all of our people. Please, enter the heart of my kingdom in peace and love. Give honor with us to those who paid the highest price for this new day. Then, we shall celebrate our new beginnings.”

River, who translated Harold’s words to The People of the Trees still in attendance turned to provide the same service for the two kings. Her voice carried King Embers words to Harold’s ear. I found myself wishing I could have filled this need but knew that I was too young in the language of hands to do the job.

“Greetings, High King Harold,” Ember said surprising me. It was the first time I had ever heard him speak. His voice was beautiful, deep and resonant. The sound filled my ears and spread over my heart. I broke formality and looked over at him with a delighted smile. The twinkle in his eye was his only acknowledgment. He continued his greeting in sign. We thank you for inviting us to share both in your grief and in your joy. The costs of this new day have been many and terrible. Let us all hope that the future bought with the blood of our fallen sees Fate smile down upon it. Please accept these gifts that we may feast together and begin to form strong bonds between our people.

Ember and I were then shown to Queen Mara’s former suite. I would have rather been in my old rooms or even my mother’s quarters but that was not to be for a visiting queen. It took some time to explain to the steward that King Ember and I did not yet share a room as was custom among The People of the Trees. As the staff scrambled to find and prepare suitable rooms, Ember touched his fingertips to the flaking blood on my cheeks and dropped the softest kiss upon my lips.

Thank you, he signed with a look toward the handprints.

I was still reeling from the kiss and battling inside about asking him to break tradition and stay with me when he signed the word for horse and asked me to speak it. He practiced it a few times, his voice making my inner battle harder, then kissed my brow and jogged off to ask directions to the stables.

I was still standing in the doorway staring down the now empty hall when Harold came to find me.

“What’s this I hear about separate quarters?” he asked leaning around me to see what I was staring after. Seeing nothing, he waved his hand before my eyes and asked,” Natalia? Are you in there?”

I turned and met his worried eyes. A surprised laugh escaped me and I said,” I think…No, Harold, I know…”

“What do you know?” Harold asked.

“I love him,” I said. “Harold, I love Ember. He just walked away to find the horses and I already miss him. The space beside me feels…empty when he’s not there.”

I grabbed Harold’s hands and pulled him into the room to a chair.

“There is so much to tell you!” I said. “Where’s grandfather? I want him to hear, too.”

“Marcus the Humble collected a bevy of maids and went back to Sorrow’s Keep. He claims it requires a different name now. Which also means it should ‘sparkle like new’ in his words.”

“That sounds like him,” I said. “I pity the maids. The only way that tower will ever be tidy is if Marcus is locked out of it. Still, I wish he was here.”

“I’m here!” Harold said. “I’m here and waiting for you to explain why you showed up caked in blood. Or, you could start with why you aren’t sharing a room with your husband. Both seem to contradict your declaration of love for the man. I’m not sure whether to believe your smile or have you locked in the tower until you come to your senses! And what’s with all of the hand flailing? Do you even know you’re doing it?”

“It’s the language of The People of the Trees,” I said. “They don’t have a spoken tongue although I believe they once did. River told me that the people do not speak because that is the way of the forest. I didn’t understand at first, but I think I’m starting to.”

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