Robert N Stephenson
From the flower petal to her lips, from her lips to the finger’s tip and the finger’s tip to the bowl of honey seed oil. A stroke of herb across her brow and a low face bow brought the ritual to an end.
“There, it is done.” Wensay stood from her kneeling, straightened her green, braided tunic and re-arranged her flowing, red skirt.
“Will it work?” asked a young man in Tantieri finery. His smooth, white face held a stern grimace, while one hand gripped the polished ball of his sword’s grip. In the other was clenched a silk purse of gold coins.
“It will bring you what you desire, what you need at this time.” Wensay smiled, her features a crinkled concoction of the human face. She waved a bony finger at the bowl resting on a patch of rose petals and rosemary sprigs. “My part is done; it is now up to you.”
“I say you are a charlatan, old woman!” The Ve’ tanti threw the purse at Wensay. She let it land at her feet, making no attempt to catch the small fortune. “I will ride to the palace this very day and speak with the De’liassi Grai.” The Ve’ tanti half drew his sword. “If what you say is nothing but the mutterings of an old woman, I will be back before the morrow.” He slammed the sword back into the scabbard.
Wensay looked at the bag of coins at her feet. “Gold is the language of all the houses, especially the house Tantieri, and its words are always thrown at the feet of the servants, the slaves. I am neither.” Wensay’s eyes glittered with intent.
“Enough, word weaver!” The Ve’ tanti stamped from the mossy clearing to his horse. He had tethered it at the very edge of the small patch of forest, the horse would come no further, and Ve’ tanti Jashion now wished he had followed the horse’s instincts.
Wensay walked away from the coins and vanished into the fine wisps of mist that hung like a spider’s web between the trees. “You will return,” she laughed, with the softness of fog drift.
Ve’ tanti Jashion, of Hunder, rode through the cool of the winter’s afternoon, whipping his horse with little care for her hide. Father warned me of Word weavers; he murmured through gritted teeth. They lie for their pay and then cast curses in return. Jashion rode over the open fields, ignoring the waves and laughs of the field farmers. They openly displayed disrespect for a House, but he had no time to stop and rebuke them. Why do Word weavers have to live in such secluded pockets of forest and always so far from traffic routes, Jashion cursed? He also cursed his mother’s insistence at seeking out the old woman, Wensay. Why couldn’t he just take the De’liassi for his bride and be done with it? Who needs the customs of love bonds? His father had stolen his mother from the Drass, why could he not do the same?
The castle Quiatra came into view as he raced over the tall grassed hills that bordered the highlands of House Quiat Lassi. Like sentinels, the great monolith’s three spires protruded above a low, dark cloud. Jashion smiled with knowing. Har Peddria would be at this very moment sitting in his cubicle, drunk with wine. His daughter, the De’liassi Grai, would be walking with her mother, the Lassai, in the palace gardens, so well did he know the routines of the palace. So easy it would be to simply snatch Grai and take her back to his own lands. Peddria would complain, but nothing more and he would have his bride. A forced seal of union was still a union as a new treaty would also be binding.
With the solid thud of hooves on wood, The Ve’ tanti crossed the bridge over the mote of jagged, stained rocks. It still bore shields, spears and swords of vanquished invaders, their dry bones like mortar between the stones. A not so subtle warning left by a yesterday Warrior. A Warrior, who could, himself, barely raise a hand in his own defence.
Jashion rode across the flagstone courtyard to the common hitching rail. The sound of horse hooves are loud in the confines of the aged stone walls. He dismounted with the swift actions of his youth and bound toward the gardens, his sword banging with loud clanks against his dirty armour. He ducked under the garden’s entrance arch and stepped into the colours of the Royal garden.
“Ve’ tanti!” exclaimed the Lassai, sitting on a cut stone seat in the centre of a low rose bed. “What brings you to us with such haste, and in armour?”
“Forgive me, Lassai, I have ridden the day and have just this moment arrived.” He hoped this would explain why he had not yet changed his garments as custom ordained. “I come for the De’liassi, Your Highness.” Jashion bowed deeply, his eyes focused on a spot on the dented armour of his right boot.
“Ah, I see, young Ve’ tanti.” The Lassai laughed a soft, careful laugh. “Please stand, young Jashion. You will find Grai in the hothouse; it is strongly fragrant at this time of year.”
Jashion stood and nodded. The Lassai looked very much like an older, Grai, though a little heavier, with silver streaks lining her once dark hair.
“I come for her hand, Hour Highness,” he said with stiff formality.
“I am not the one you need to ask, Jashion.” She smiled her face a bright light in the gloom of the cloudy day. “Go to the hothouse and speak your words there, and then, on your return, we might discuss this business about hands.” She waved him away and turned her gaze to a collection of small buds in her lap.
Jashion, with quick, steady steps made his way to the overgrown walls of the hothouse. It stood in the corner of the garden as a glass and stone monument to a bygone era. As he approached, he could hear the soft singing of the De’liassi, wafting on the breeze. It was a sweet sound, full of joy, happiness and he could smell the faint aroma of honey. Taking a deep, reassuring breath, he walked into the warmth of the semi-closed courtyard to find himself surrounded by brightly coloured blooms and the strong scent of flowers. “De’liassi!” he said, his voice low so not to startle her with his sudden appearance.
“I am behind the primulas, Jashion.” Her soft voice caressed his ears.
Jashion looked at the huge array of flowers before him but knew none of the blooms names. “I do not know this bloom, De’liassi.” How did she know it was me? He mused as he was slowly overcome by the sweet scents of the garden.
“Grai, please, Jashion,” her sweet voice admonished him. “I like you to call me Grai. I am behind the stone pots shaped like sleeping dragons.”
Jashion unfastened his sword belt and placed the weapon against the entrance wall; it would not do to propose with a weapon of war close to his side. He rounded the pots and found the young woman seated on a mat of moss, her fine fingers tending a stunted plant in a pot. Spread out around her, like a red carpet, was the finest of the dress maker’s art.
“I think this one will die before it has the chance to flower.” Grai lifted her beautiful green eyes to stare at Jashion. “Isn’t it sad that not all buds bloom?”
Jashion was stunned by her beauty, her fierce red hair and a smile that could slay any foe, any dragon. “I…I…” he stammered, then dropped to one knee.
“I see your reason for coming unannounced is of great importance, Jashion.” She smiled wider, and pinkness stained her cheeks. “But we have yet to court, and your gesture now comes as a surprise.”
“I wish you to be my wife, Grai; I have come seeking your hand in marriage.” Jashion felt odd, uncomfortable. A lump as big as an apple formed in his throat and his eyes felt drawn to the shimmering of Grai’s dress.
De’liassi Grai stood, straightened her tight green bodice and flung her heavy skirt out around her. “Have you spoken to my father, Peddria?”
“No.” Jashion prayed that the Word Weaver was right in her mutterings.
She smiled again, this time there was great joy in her eyes. “Good. For I am the one from whom you need permission, not my father.”
“But he is…” Jashion started.
“Yes, yes, but it is not he who will share your bed.” Grai stepped to Jashion, took his hands in hers and helped him to stand. “I feel a compulsion, a need to say yes,” she said with a soft caress of his hand. “I will gladly be your wife, Ve’ tanti Jashion.” She kissed him once on the cheek, released his hands and stepped back. “Go tell my father.”
It worked; Jashion cried in his mind, the Word weaver has fulfilled the bargain. “I will go and tell your father the news.” Jashion turned to walk away.
“Be sure to ask for a suitable gift,” Grai called, “I have a weakness for gold.” She laughed.
Jashion ran to the Peddria, forgetting his sword in his anxious haste.
Grai retrieved the forgotten weapon and kissed its sweat-stained grip. “Though your enemies may fall to your will, I will not.” She whispered the words, and then placed the weapon back in its resting spot. “When you are Tantiari…” she smiled, letting the last words whisper away on the honey-scented air.
Two Years Later.
The war with the Urlich is over, and Jashion is now head of House Tantiari.
Tantiari Jashion, of Hunder, straightened his Royal Robe and stepped out onto the balcony of the palace. Scattered before him stood his army of Warriors, archers and pikemen.
“I want to thank you for the bravery you bestowed upon the House Tantiari during the time of war,” he began. “Our lands are now free from the hordes of Urlich and our homes safe for our families.” The gathering roared approval. “Go, men, go to your homes, your wives, your children, go. For we, the victors have purchased peace with the blood of our brothers.” The crowd roared again. Jashion waved his hand and stepped back into his chamber, closing the thick wooden door behind him.
“You said that well, Jashion.” Grai sat in her sewing chair in one corner of the chamber.
Jashion looked to his wife, his Tantasai, and felt a deep pain in his heart. In his two years of marriage to his love, they had not yet shared his bed, not yet consummated their bond. He could have cast her out, disowned her, but he could not bear the ridicule she would receive. The shame on her would be double to him. He hoped that one day soon things could be as they should be and that together they could raise an heir to the House.
“My father would have said more,” he whispered, as he sat on the corner of the bed. He rubbed his hand over the soft fur covering and thought of his Tantasai’s fair skin.
“He died in battle Jashion that said more than mere words. It is you who must now lead the people.” Grai’s words were soft, but they wielded a power that always consumed Jashion.
Jashion fidgeted with the gold band around his finger and remembered the wedding day. The day Grai became his wife, the day he got all he had paid for. Except. He looked at Grai sitting quietly in the shadows of the room. Her slender fingers are sewing tiny clothes for a child. If this was the first such garment then he would be joyed at the prospect, but Grai had a chest full of such sewing, and the vision of the garment only brought him greater pain. “Will you come to our bed this evening?” he asked, looking down at the bed.
“I cannot, Jashion. Until my mother’s gold band of union is found, I cannot share my gifts with you. It would be wrong in the eyes of House Quiat Lassi, wrong in the eyes of my father.”
Jashion flicked the edge of the gold ring of marriage with his thumb-nail, he wanted to cry but bit his tongue to stave off the tears. The wedding day, the happiest day of his life, was also the saddest of all his memories. Only moments after being united before the joined Houses, Grai’s wedding band slipped from her finger and fell into the grid of the palace dungeon as they paraded the courtyard of castle Hunder. Two years of searching the darkest reaches of that dungeon had found nothing.
“I must go out for the day, Grai,” Jashion said, standing up and removing his heavy robe. “I will return with the new day’s sun.”
“Will you pass by the village of Grenwellen?”
Jashion felt the stab in his heart. “I have no time to gather more material for your sewing, Grai.” He swallowed his hurt and left the room. Still wearing his ceremonial armour, Jashion rode from the castle, his hand patting the neck of his longtime horse. “Let us find that forest, old friend,” he said, as the horse galloped across the open land.
The rain was still falling by the time Jashion had located the small forest of the Word Weaver. It looked as much as it had the last time he visited this place, only now it was dripping with winter’s rain and the tears of his soul. His horse secured, he stomped through the narrow patch of trees to the clearing and stood looking up at the dark sky and its watery promise.
“Word weaver!” he bellowed.
He heard nothing but the distant rumble of thunder and the splashing of raindrops on the mossy ground. The cold penetrated his armour with life begging fingers.
“Wensay, come, I order you!” he yelled again. Nothing. He marched about the small clearing and came upon the bowl of honey seed oil. It sat as it had when he last saw it, surrounded in rose petals and sprigs of rosemary. Jashion stepped back from the bowl, his heart thumping, his mind fighting with images of the past. “This cannot be! Word weaver, come, please,” he cried, fear gripping his mind. He felt something under his foot as he stumbled backwards, away from the bed of rose petals. Jashion knelt on the wet ground and pulled up tufts of moss until he found a collection of gold coins. The same gold coins he had thrown to Wensay for her weaving.
“You have returned,” Wensay’s voice startled him. He went to stand but fell backwards to land sitting, looking up at the wrinkled old woman.
“I have come about my wife, Tantasai Grai.”
“You are Tantiari now,” Wensay laughed.
“I would give all of it away for the love of, Grai.” he blurted, surprising himself. “I love her dearly, but she cannot share my bed.”
“Ah,” Wensay said, looking at his hand full of coins. “You wish to purchase this also. It is fortunate that your previous payment did not cross my palm. Isn’t it, Tantiari?” She smiled wide, but he saw no joy in the eyes.
“I will give you ten times this if you can help me.” Jashion’s voice cracked with desperation, and his mind threw his father’s taunts at him. “I love, Grai, so deeply that I can barely sleep without her invading my dreams. I wish that your weaving was not the reason she is with me.” Jashion looked at the coins; he felt dirty with what he had done to get his bride. “Gold cannot buy everything.” A tear hovered at the edge of his eye.
“Hand me those coins, Tantiari.” Wensay reached out her hand to him.
Jashion struggled to his feet and stepped to the Word weaver and laid the coins, with care, in her bony hand. “Forgive me, Wensay.”
“You are forgiven, Jashion.”
Jashion looked up at the Word Weaver, in her gnarled aged hand rested the gold band that Grai had dropped into the dungeon. “How did you…”
“It is easy to enter the dungeon with a key.” In her other hand, she revealed a large key. Wensay’s pale blue eyes softened and some of the deep wrinkles of her face faded. “There is no such thing as a word weaving for love, Jashion, but only love itself. Like gold, it is to be handled carefully, tenderly. Never to be thrown at one’s feet.” The point of the remark was sharp, and it entered Jashion’s heart as a pain.
“The honey seed oil, the ritual?” Jashion questioned.
“Ah, yes,” Wensay laughed, her high cackle echoed around the trees. “Syon!” she called. From under a low bush sauntered a black cat, its eyes ablaze like yellow fire. It sat by the bowl and began to lap at the oil. “His favourite tonic, he is old.” Wensay smiled, her wrinkles deepened.
Jashion didn’t know what to say, what to do, his belief in the spell working was not true and his confidence on that memorable day felt shattered, and yet in some small way, it was also strengthened.
“You found the love as I had promised, Jashion. It was not made of magic but of your own desire.” Wensay dropped the ring into his hand. “You might as well take this as well.” She handed over the dungeon key. “I have no need to see the inside of that place again.”
Jashion slipped the ring and the key into his purse and secured it beneath his armour. “You are wise for a Word Weaver, Wensay.”
“I simply lie for my pay and cast curses in return.” She smiled again, a dark joy lighting her eyes.
Jashion felt ill; the words were his father’s.
“Go, young Tantiari, give Grai back the band of love. There will soon be many little ones to wear the fruits of this two year’s labour.”
Jashion, enlivened with new hope, ran to his horse and rode with haste back to his Tantasai.
Wensay watched as Jashion rode into the evening rainstorm, her face slowly changing into the face of Grai. With a wave of her hand the cat vanished. She turned, walked to the bowl, picked it up and drank deeply. “It was your love that needed winning, my young Ve’ tanti,” she whispered, wiping a drop of oil from her lips.
As the Tantiari rode to his love through the thickening mists, Grai and the forest faded to become the field of barley it had always been. A farmer stood in the high stalks scratching his head at the actions of the strange Tantiari.