Back in the Great Hall, the guests had become louder and more lively than before. Many were dancing to the bright music and those who were not dancing were talking and laughing so loudly it made Glaciem want to press her hands against her ears to block it all out.
As she made her way to the table, she saw Bick was no longer in the seat next to hers as he had been before, but rather had gone to the far end of the table to sit in Narratus’ empty chair. She could not help but notice the glances passing between him and the First Hominem as she drew closer.
After the First Hominem had left, she had stayed in the hallway alone for as long as she dared. She could not believe Bick would have asked for her hand. Perhaps the First Hominem had only said it to play a game with her after all. Perhaps it truly had been a test the sincerity of her acceptance to wed Alexandros.
But for him to have done so would mean he would have lied. He would never have lied, not even for the sake of manipulating the circumstances in his favor. It would be in direct conflict with the Laws of the Village.
She realized his bitterness towards her was in all likelihood genuine. The First Elder had never shown favoritism towards his only son and indeed was more strict with him than any other. It was generally assumed that Bick would eventually take his place as First Elder and great pains had been taken to ensure his son upheld the Laws of the Village in all things. Now that Bick had disappointed him in attempting to sway his decision as an Elder, he would be even more strict than ever.
And I will no longer be free to support Bick.
As she was thinking, Alexandros appeared and took the seat beside her. Though he did not speak, he gently pressed her hand with his own as he sat down. She could feel the tremor in his fingers. He was nervous, but she admitted to herself that she was no less nervous. The night was coming to an end, which meant the ceremony would begin. The day she had pushed from her mind so many times before was now standing defiantly before her, and there was no escaping it for either one of them.
The First Hominem stood from his chair and raised his hands for silence. His eyes briefly flashed towards Glaciem, his gaze watchful and imposing.
“Friends.” He began, his voice powerful enough to cut through the noise of the crowds with ease.
Everyone stopped dancing and talking as the music faded. The Great Hall was more quiet than it had been all night. Glaciem’s heart jumped from her chest to her throat. It was time.
“Friends.” He said again, his blue stone gleaming as it swayed against the black of his robes. “We come now to the moment we have all anticipated after many years of preparation. The betrothal of our beloved Glaciem, Blessed Daughter of the Forest, is at last upon us!”
Glaciem snorted. Alexandros looked at her with a raised eyebrow, but she ignored him. She looked around, though the applause came from every corner of the room, it could not mask the reserved looks of some of the guests. Every man and woman attending tonight might have come to congratulate her earlier, but to many, she was still an outsider. Until she had married, this ceremony would mean nothing to them. Probably, they did not believe anything would come of the grand feast and she would remain nothing more than the Elders’ favored oddity.
At the end of the table, she could see Bick. He was not clapping. His chin was resting on a fist and he was looking intently back at her. She smiled weakly at him, desperately wishing she could turn back time to earlier that morning, when she and Bick were alone and climbing the Border Tree as though it were just another ordinary day. Bick nodded back and Glaciem knew he felt the same way.
“This ceremony is one held in honor of any couple soon to be married,” The First Hominem continued, “Though, perhaps not in so grand a fashion. Tonight, in particular, is of great importance both to the Village UnNamed and to the Valley as a whole. Never before has a Child of the Forest and Wielder of the Elements been married to a mortal human.
“This is especially significant because Glaciem is the last keeper of the Forest, she alone is left of her race. For her, to marry is to continue! In permitting her to join with one of our own, I ensure the survival of the People of the Earth, for her lineage shall continue in the children to come. This night is significant for our Village as well because this bond will bring peace between us and the Old Forest, ensuring Its protection over our home forever. This night marks a new era of humanity!”
Shouts of affirmation and approval rose from the crowd, now less skeptic upon hearing their leader’s confidence.
“There is but one thing left to do so that we might form the unbreakable bond between the Elemental and the Village.” One of the Elders spoke, not as loud as the First.
Glaciem leaned over to see. It was the Sixth Mulier. Her stone was green. She was the Keeper of Dynasties.
Alexandros leaned towards her, whispering quietly, “What else needs to be done but to officially announce the betrothal and perform the binding ceremony? Is that not all that’s required?”
She shook her head; she did not know.
The Keeper of Money and Debt, the Eighth and Ninth Muliers, stood up from their seats and leaned forward to speak. They were older and their voices not as strong. The orbs about their necks were the only ones not made of stone. The Eighth Mulier’s was made of pure gold and the Ninth’s of pure silver, both smooth to the touch. The necklaces hung heavily from their necks, the weight of the metals pulling the chains down into the folds of their fragile skin.
Glaciem had never spent much time with them. She distrusted their ever shifting eyes; eyes that always seemed to be carefully watching lest they miss any unpaid transaction. The fact that they were the ones now speaking told her she was obliged to clear her accounts with them. She wondered what exactly it was that she owed.
The Ninth Mulier cried out in her pale, thin voice, “Glaciem will forever be tied to the Forest; It runs deep within her veins. She is the very beat of Its heart and It the breath to her Spirit. Though we know she will always remain a Child of the Forest, we wish for her now to complete the final task that all must complete before they are granted the right to dwell within the Village UnNamed forever. She must, according to our Laws, forsake her past and vow her loyalty to us as our guardian and protector against whatever evils that might befall our Village and Valley.”
They glanced at Glaciem who, though still uncertain, nodded her assent to them, avoiding the First Hominem’s stare. As guests applauded lightly at this, she felt her shoulders curving inwards in apprehension. She did not like the turn of the conversation and felt whatever was left to be said would not be pleasant to hear. She knew, according to the Laws of the Village, she would be obligated to revoke any claim to her heritage, as all had who lived here and were betrothed. She did not think it would have been possible, however, for her to do so considering her race. Nor did she think they would ask it of her in as absolute terms as they had required of others. Her stomach twisted uncomfortably.
The Eighth Mulier returned her nod and continued, speaking directly to her instead of to the whole room, as the Ninth had done. “As a sign of your fidelity to the Village, we require but one thing of you, Glaciem.”
She looked at them and asked cautiously, “What is it you require of me?”
The Elders all stood in unison to join the Ninth and Eighth. The First Hominem raised his arms and gestured towards the doors of the Great Hall.
Everyone turned to look. As the doors were opened wide, eight guards entered, four on each side of a large item they carried between them. People strained their necks to look over each other as the object was slowly brought to the front of the room in front of the Elders. The guards allowed the thing to drop onto the table and it echoed with a great thud that filled the quiet Hall. As it settled, the table creaked under its weight. Chains slid down to the floor, rattling noisily as they did. Glaciem’s breath caught in her throat. She clenched the arms of the ceremonial chair tightly.
It was her coffin.