They ate fish for supper, and Tanuvia was in rapture over the way Gem cooked it with a skin so crisp it peeled in one piece from the sweet, delicate flesh. After supper, Gem went to the barn to work on the chair but wasn’t gone long.
“Sir.” He stuck his head into Bragi’s room. “Would you like to try it?”
“You’ve got it? I thought you went to work on it.”
“I did and now it’s done. I tried it myself, and it’s sturdy enough for my weight. Should be for yours.”
Tanuvia studied the chair. Though not mechanically inclined nor especially astute, she understood the grips at the back were for a second person. She grasped hold of the handles and pushed the chair to the bedroom door.
She smiled, pleased with what she perceived. “Da. I can push you like in a cart. We can go anywhere.”
Bragi laughed. “Tanuvia, you’re a jewel, you know that?”
“Bring it through, Curly. Let’s see if I made it narrow enough to fit the door. He needs room for his hands.”
They tested first from the bed, determining what Bragi could manage with his limited ability to twist and balance. He could do it, set the brake and lift himself into the chair alone. He wheeled through his door into the common room, right to the table, rolled until his legs fit under, reversed, and spun about.
Gem had set him free.
Tanuvia went to her knees beside her father’s new chair, kissed his hand, and bowed her crowned head over his lifeless legs. “I love you, Da. You gave me life and give me all your love, and I’m so happy for you. My heart feels like it’s going to burst.”
She raised her glossy, jade eyes to Gem, who towered above. “Thank you. You have my deepest gratitude for what you’ve done for my father. I’ll never be able to repay this debt.” She clasped his hand, kissed his roughened knuckles, and pressed her cheek to the back of his hand.
Reverently, his fingers brushed her curls. “Please get up, Curly. You don’t owe me. A man does these things to be whole, to be right. Ask your father if you doubt me.”
“He’s right. It’s what a man has to do, but I don’t expect you to understand. Let’s just be happy tonight.”
“Oh, Da. I am.” She rose to her feet and kissed his cheek above his gray beard.
Later, it was strange for all of them when Bragi announced he was going to bed and no one need jump to help. He grinned, set muscle to the handles on the wheels, and wheeled himself to his bedroom, master of his domain. Gem laughed with satisfaction as the man took charge of his home again.
He turned to Tanuvia, still gazing in awe at the spot her father had vacated. “Well, I’m going, too. I’ll be in the barn if you need me.”
“You’re staying? But the chair is―”
“I didn’t stay for the chair. I stayed for you with your father’s permission.”
“What about my permission?”
“I’ll go if that’s what you want. Say you don’t want me here, and I’ll go. I swear. But I’d rather not.”
“I want to make a deal with you.”
“Muninn and I made a deal last night, and I want to make a deal with you.”
“Alright. What’s the deal?”
“If you tell me why you don’t trust me, you can sleep in my barn—tonight.”
“I can’t make that deal. I’m not ready. How about I tell you one thing about my life in the north before I came here? Will that pay my rent?”
A mischievous light came into her green eye. “It depends. Tell me, and I’ll decide if it’s enough.”
Gem chuckled deeply. “That sounds like a bad bargain for me, but it’s worth it because I prefer our courtship to be merry.”
“Did I forget to tell you that part?” Gem laughed as he went to one knee by her chair. “Curly, will you have me as suitor?”
She was quick to answer. “Gem, I can’t.”
And he was quick to be hurt. “But why?”
“You know why.”
“I don’t. I want to court you and thought you cared about me.” The young man hung his head. “I don’t understand, but I’ll go as I promised.”
“You must understand.”
“Will you tell me?”
“Gem, it’s so plain. I…it’s not possible. Can’t you understand?”
“Curly, how do I do that? Am I supposed to guess? Or does Muninn know? Can I ask him?”
“Don’t guess. That’s awful. Oh, I’m sure Muninn knows. It’s like him to know these things before I do. But don’t ask here, not in front of me.”
“Will you not refuse me yet?”
“I suppose that’s reasonable, but you must make the deal before you may sleep in my barn.”
“Hm. You make me suspicious accepting so eagerly. Remember it must be worthy of a night’s rent.”
“Well, let me think a moment.” He grinned and made a show of trying to remember. He scratched his head and tugged on his chin with its few, stray hairs. “What if I told you the names of my Mam and Da? Kor and Lorn.”
“I’m sorry they’re gone, Gem. I know how that feels.”
“We have that in common, don’t we? Do I earn my room?”
“You have my permission to stay the night in the barn.”
“Thank you, Curly. I’ve never been granted a grander favor.”
“I didn’t say you could court me, so save your pretty words, Northerner!”
It was good to see Tanuvia smile. Despite her fears, she handled him well, which I should have anticipated, but didn’t because I’d been thinking of her as a victim. Shame on me.
Before Gem left, he summoned me with great seriousness, which both terrified and pleased Tanuvia.
“I’ll open the door for you, Muninn—after.” After her bath she meant.
Playing liaison between lovers, I cawed to acknowledge her invitation and fluttered after Gem. Damaged and confused lovers with no one to guide them. Aetref had pain of his own, and Bragi’s hopes and fears were as fraught with fate as his daughter’s.
In the dark barn, Gem climbed the ladder to the loft where a row of windows was open to the night air. He had raked together a bed of straw, covered his bedding with a blanket, and salvaged a basket to keep a few, personal belongings; a comb; a spare pair of briefs; a pair of stockings; a pot of soap; and a stoneware cup, almost more than he had at the house in Ruski. For meals, he availed himself of the fireplace and table of Bragi and Tanuvia. Though the walk to and from town each dawn and evening added to his labor, it was a comfortable existence by previous standards.
He sat cross-legged on his blanket, savoring a breath of wind through a window. Light from a slice of moon made his dark skin glow like copper. “What do you know, Muninn? Answer me plainly if you can.”
I flew to the railing of the loft from where I looked down to the dirt floor and stalls.
Below is where she was raped. Would you like me to show you the spot? How can you ask her to forget so soon?
“I don’t. I only want to ease her burden. We could be happy and think of the future instead of the past.”
It’s not her past. It’s with her now as she bathes in the dark, afraid of what she sees in the window.
“I hate that she’s alone in this. She needs someone. Tell me how to win her permission to court, Muninn.”
You can’t win anything from Tanuvia, nor earn it. She’s not a prize, a mountain to climb, or a battle to conquer.
“I know. She’s a goddess, and I’d offer myself humbly if I knew how.”
Then I’ll tell you Tanuvia’s greatest fear and why she refuses. She fears she’s with child, and she’ll never bind herself to any promise as long as she remains bound to Grantham and his seed. She honors the issue she despises. That’s the goddess you worship. It’s what I’ve learned through Tanuvia. I still wait to learn of the god your people worship. I wonder if he really exists or if you’re all deluded and there’s only this, a goddess, to whom you owe your lives and well-being. If so, every man should be on bended knee to the Goodfolk women of this land, groveling for their favor. Without their strength and beneficence, you’d all be lost, a race extinguished and forgotten.
Gem sighed deeply. “Well, I asked you to be plain, and you couldn’t be plainer than that.”
What will you do?
“I’ll do what a man must. I wrangled with that decision once and chose to live.”
Maybe Tanuvia understands these ravings, Gem, but I don’t. What decision did you wrangle?
“The same one as Tanuvia, and I hope she can come to the same result, that we might be happy.”
Who isn’t being plain? If you can’t answer a direct question about your past then answer me plainly about what you intend with Tanuvia. Are you going to ask her again to court? Or will you leave her in peace?
“There’s no peace for us apart.”
That’s rather melodramatic.
“But true. Thank you, Muninn, for pointing that out. The plain answer is I’ll ask her to court and, that way, leave her in peace.”
I cawed loudly in irritation, and Gem laughed merrily as if mad.
I may not be able to fend a physical attacker off Tanuvia, but I’ll protect her any way I can. Tell me what you’ll do.
“I won’t harm her, I swear, and I’ll come humbly, but I do plan to ask her again. I want her to know something, but I want her to know it from me, not from her raven.”
I’m not Tanuvia’s raven.
“I don’t mind that you’ll eavesdrop, but I, not you, will tell her.”
Then we may be at odds because if you frighten her, I’ll advise her against this courtship, and she might even listen to me for once.
“This is between god and goddess, Muninn. Don’t interfere.”
I won’t if that’s true. But what if you, like Grantham, think more of yourself than you are? You have a past you keep secret, and that worries me more than it does Tanuvia. Her own misery is so deep she can’t see clearly from the abyss. I can.
“You’ll have to trust me, that’s all, as Tanuvia must for a while. My hope is that trust will extend so far, someday, that we may be consorts.”
A lofty goal, but I mistrust your reasons because I don’t know what you hide, and I think you move upon Tanuvia when she’s vulnerable.
“What else can I do? It’s when she’s vulnerable she needs me most, and I can hardly refuse to offer my strength. Though it may not be true for ravens, that’s how it is for Goodfolk.”
Raven males are devoted mates. Why did Goodfolk insist on doubting the species?
“Oh, I’m sure they are, you are. You’re devoted to Tanuvia, and I appreciate it, but she needs a man of her own kind.”
Didn’t I bring you here? At least, my motives are pure, and I want only for Tanuvia to be safe and joyful without any reciprocation. I can’t say the same for the beasts who’ve come knocking at her door and shouting at her window.
Gem clenched a fist. “I’m not Grantham.”
No, but she’s been hurt so badly an echo of that day could harm her. You’re a man and inherit the damage a man has done.
“I know it better than most, I assure you. I’ll be cautious. Will that appease you?”
It would even please me. I’m not against Tanuvia finding happiness with you, and I’d aid you if I could, which is why I speak bluntly.
“I appreciate she has a champion. But I’ll prove myself. You’ll see. I have to—or die.”
I did not like his overzealous declarations. I’d heard them before with Grantham and been taken in. Tanuvia had not, but that was before. She was now more vulnerable and more wary at the same time, a madness inflicted upon her through no fault of her own.
She waits for me.
“You go to honor the deal with her? What agreement?”
I let her talk of that morning, and she agrees not to drink the laudanum in her cupboard.
She can’t sleep. She sees his face when she closes her eyes.
“I’m going to remove the laudanum, Muninn. You can tell her I did it or not.”
I won’t tell her. If she doesn’t look for it, she’ll never know, and I might have asked you to do it anyway.
I didn’t wait for his reply. It was a relief about the laudanum and the best solution, although I ‘d continue to honor my agreement. Not because I didn’t want Tanuvia to know about the drug, but because I thought she’d found relief in talking.
The door was ajar, and I flew in, practicing the owl’s art of silence.
“I heard you.”
The room was filled with the unique woodsy-sweet fragrance of Tanuvia after a wash. If that aroma could be replicated and bottled, there were realms where a man could get rich selling her scent.
I cawed softly into the darkness. If the window was open, I don’t think you would.
“But it’s not.”
No, it’s not, and that’s a shame.
“What did you and Gem talk about?”
You, of course.
“I’m too tired to banter. If my fate is known to you, please tell me. I’d like to know if I live or die.”
You’re as melodramatic as he is. No one is going to die, and your fate doesn’t depend on Gem. You’re a strong and deserving young woman. You’ll do as you like with the rest of your life.
“Muninn, I can’t accept a man, and you know it.”
I know, Tanuvia. I explained your fears to him, and he respects them, but he’ll ask again. He thinks he’ll tell you something that will change your feelings, but he wouldn’t tell me what it is.
“Tell him not to ask me. I can’t stand to refuse again.”
But you agreed. What other course does he have but to ask again?
“He could choose not to ask.”
Sure she was being intentionally dense, I cocked my head and mocked her. I suppose there’s that. Perhaps he hasn’t thought of it… Or, perhaps, Tanuvia, he’s in love with you!
“I don’t want to think about it. It frightens me.”
Why don’t you try to sleep?
“I was trying while you were gone. I can’t close my eyes.”
Would you like to listen to the ocean waves again?
“Ai. That was nice before.”
If you are enjoying this story, you might like more of my stories at Muninn’s Memories.