Cool morning air touched the young woman’s face as she stepped outside to start her tasks for the day. “It is going to be a wonderful day today,” Anna thought and took a few moments to listen to the twittering birds.
“Don’t dawdle, Anna!” a voice called from inside the house.
“Straight, Zarit,” Anna replied, “I was just going to feed the goats.”
“Hurry up! You have to make the bread!”
Dutifully, Anna complied. It was her handfasting day and tradition required that she prepare the bread, which was to be shared at the ceremony. Anna smiled inwardly as she thought of her beloved, Sarim. He was a traveling merchant, who had passed through her village six times during the course of the year, stopping each time for a sennight. Riverrun, as they called the village, was about halfway between Tench, Sarim’s hometown, and Dargon, and provided an ideal place to interrupt the long journey. He had brought beautiful cloth from Dargon, as well as kettles, knives, and other household items, which he sold and traded for local goods such as baskets and grain. Anna was sure her romance had not gone unnoticed. Jerel and Zarit hadn’t mentioned it once, but increasingly sent her to trade with the merchants.
A deep feeling of love rose in Anna every time she thought of Zarit and Jerel who had taken her in when her guardian, Tobias, had passed away. The couple had treated her as if she were their own child, not like an orphan who should be grateful to have a place to sleep. Over the years, Zarit and Jerel had buried five infants; none of the babies had lived for more than a sennight. Anna could see grief and sorrow in Zarit’s face every time she aired the little blankets and clothing so the moths would not make a feast of them.
“Sarim, when will you come back to me?” This question had haunted Anna since the day they had bid their farewells last autumn and he returned to Tench. He had promised to be back when the roads were free of ice again. Winter had never seemed so long. Finally, the ice had thawed more than a fortnight ago. Anna’s heart ached to see Sarim again. Every time she had closed her eyes and thought of him, her body remembered his embrace and her lips his soft kiss good-bye.
“Anna! It’s time!” Zarit called out, “Come inside and make the bread!”
“Coming!” Quickly, Anna finished feeding the goats and opened a gate, which would allow them to enter a small enclosure behind the house.
“Daydreaming again, aren’t you?” Jerel laughed, when she entered the house. He was sitting at the table, sipping from his mug. Anna blushed.
“Straight!” he grinned, “I better go outside and set up the altar and clear the site.”
“Make sure the altar’s facing east, Jerel” Zarit reminded him.
“As if I would forget,” Jerel mumbled and left.
“Anna! The bread!” Zarit spoke up again.
“I’m working on it, Zarit,” Anna said as she gathered the ingredients for her handfasting bread.
“You need flour, salt, honey, –”
“I know, Zarit,” Anna interrupted, “I have it memorized. You made me!”
“Straight! And you better get it right!”
“I will!” Anna measured the ingredients for the unleavened bread and mixed them in a bowl. Her thoughts drifted again to Sarim. She had just finished doing laundry the day he had finally returned.
“Sarim! Where did you come from? I didn’t hear you coming.” Overjoyed, Anna had wrapped her arms around his neck.
Gently, Sarim had taken Anna’s face in his hands and kissed her. “I missed you! And to answer your question, I arrived early this morning and took care of some business.” He had picked up her laundry basket. “Come, I have something to show you and much to tell.”
“Where are we going?
“Let me surprise you,” Sarim had answered, smiling at her, “You’ll like it!”
“I love surprises!” She had cried joyfully and followed his lead towards an unplowed field with an easy spring in her step.
“This morning I arrived with my brother’s caravan. I bought this field plus some of the adjacent forest. I had spoken to old Marten last fall about buying part of his land and he’d agreed. By summer, I will have a house of my own here and a harvest to look forward to.” He had turned around and looked directly at her, a broad smile on his face. And then his expression had changed. Anna had noticed the longing in his face as he reached out for her, drawing her close.
“All winter long, I have been thinking about you, dreaming about holding you, making you mine. I couldn’t wait for the roads to clear. My father noticed my restlessness and finally I confided in him. We talked for a long time and reached an agreement; my younger brother will take over the trips to Dargon and I will settle down here, eventually establishing a trading post. That way my brother won’t have to stay here and trade; he’ll just pick up and drop off wares to exchange. My father is too old to travel, so he asked that I bring the woman I love to meet him.” Sarim had slowly let go of his embrace, taken her hands in his and looked straight into her eyes, “I am very much in love with you. Will you be my wife, Anna?”
Anna had held his gaze and nodded. Inwardly, she had wanted to scream for joy and cry at the same time. It had taken all her strength to express her feelings and give him an answer. “I too have been waiting for the roads to clear, hoping you would come back to me soon. Winter seemed too long, and spring so far away. At night, I dreamed you were there, holding me, keeping me warm. My heart longed for your return. And now you are here, making my dream come true. I love you, Sarim, and shall be your wife.” She had put her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately.
“Anna! There is no need to beat the dough. You kneaded it enough.” Zarit shook her head and began to place items for the altar in a basket.
“Yes, Zarit,” Anna replied, formed a round loaf, and placed it on a row of stones above the fire to bake.
“I’ve laid out your dress. It’s time to put the final stitches on.”
“Isn’t it a bit early? The ceremony won’t be until this afternoon.”
“It is not too early!” Zarit insisted. Anna sighed inwardly. She would have rather waited until it was time to actually put the dress on and leave. Anna reached for a wooden box, which contained her sewing needle and thread. Skillfully, she applied the finishing touches to her dress, then spread it out on her bed and admired her work. The dress was dark green with puffy sleeves and a triple-layered skirt. A light-grey collar and a belt of the same color completed the dress nicely. Anna had used the rest of the grey fabric to sew an underskirt and make a few ribbons for her headpiece. Originally, Anna had wanted a different color for her handfasting dress, but Zarit would not hear it. She had reminded her that it was a tradition among her family to wear a green dress on their handfasting day. “You’re my only daughter, Anna,” she had told her, “Who is going to uphold the family tradition if you’re not doing it?” And Anna had given in.
“Anna! Don’t forget your bread!” Zarit called, sounding exasperated.
“I’m coming, Zarit.” Tearing herself away from looking at the dress, Anna left her room. A sweet smell enveloped her almost immediately. She took a deep breath in, then went to check on the bread.
“It’s done, Zarit! It’s done!” she called out excitedly.
“Then take it out and put it next to the window so it can cool off.”
Careful not to burn herself, Anna removed the bread, placed it on a platter, and set it next to the window.
“Done, Zarit. Is there anything else I need to do? Anything I can help you with? I cannot remember if there was something else.”
“No, Anna, you’re all done. Go and wash up and then rest.”
“As if I could rest,” Anna mumbled as she walked to her room. A washbasin was already set up for her on a small table. “Zarit thinks of everything!” she thought and methodically reached for a cloth and towel.
“Are you ready, Anna?” Jerel asked a few bells later, knocking on her door.
“I’m ready.” She replied from within. Anna opened the door smiling at him. “Time to leave?”
“Straight!” Jerel held out his hand and led Anna outside. Holding her head up high, she followed Jerel. Torches arranged in a circle lighted the area for her ceremony. The altar was set at the east border of the circle underneath a rising Nochturon. As Anna approached the altar, she quickly glanced over the items laid out. A small sigh of relief escaped her. Everything was there: the bread she had prepared, a chalice with wine, a bowl of water and one with salt, a red candle, a censer with herbs to burn, and two garlands. Anna barely noticed the people who had gathered to share her ceremony; she only had eyes for Sarim, who already stood next to the altar, waiting.
“Friends,” Jerel called out. “I present tonight my daughter Anna and Sarim Molag from Tench. Both have expressed their desire to be handfasted tonight. They will be partners, friends, and lovers for the duration of thirteen cycles of Nochturon. If they feel that after thirteen cycles each other’s company is no longer desired, they will part ways, honoring the other’s choice. However, parting is not the intention of this couple. So let us proceed with the handfasting of Anna and Sarim!”
Zarit stepped forward and lit the red candle. She turned and faced Sarim.
“Sarim, do you join us here of your own free will, to acknowledge before the people of this village the bond that is shared between yourself and Anna?”
Sarim looked at Anna and smiled. “I do,” he answered.
Zarit nodded and continued, “Then answer this challenge: Will you, Sarim Molag, care for this woman, working to meet all her needs? Will you forbear her in her weakness, care for her in sickness, and be kind to her always?”
“I will,” Sarim said loudly.
Zarit reached for the chalice, holding it up high for all to see, then addressed Anna. “Anna, do you join us here of your own free will, to acknowledge before the people of this village the bond that is shared between yourself and Sarim?”
“I do,” Anna replied.
“Then answer this challenge: Will you, Anna, care for this man, working to meet all his needs? Will you forbear him in his weakness, care for him in sickness, and be kind to him always?”
“I will,” she answered, blushing.
“Then share this wine …” Zarit handed the chalice to Sarim. He took a sip and passed it on to Anna, who followed his example.
“… and share this bread.” Zarit picked up the loaf and gave it to Anna in exchange for the chalice. Anna broke a piece off and held it up so Sarim could take a bite. Then Sarim took the bread from Anna, broke off a piece and held it so Anna could take a bite.
“Now that you have shared bread and wine, take these garlands as a sign of your union,” Zarit continued and handed each a garland. Sarim took the garland and placed it around Anna’s neck.
“Take this garland as a sign of my love,” Sarim said, his hand brushing against Anna’s cheek. Anna smiled and hung the garland she was holding on Sarim’s neck.
“With this garland I pledge my life and love to you,” Anna responded. Sarim took her face in his hands and kissed her. Anna felt his gentle touch and kiss vibrate through her entire body. All she wanted now was to be alone with him.
Cheers accompanied the young couple as Sarim led Anna away from the altar. As they walked towards their new home, Sarim spoke softly. “I cannot wait for you to meet my parents. We’ll be leaving day after tomorrow with Ezra’s caravan.”
“So soon?” Anna said, surprised, and stopped for a moment.
“I’ve talked it over with Jerel,” Sarim answered. “That way, we’ll be back before the harvest.”
“Straight,” Anna replied, “But …”
“But,” Sarim interrupted her. “Tonight I have something else in mind.” He picked her up and carried her into their house.
The journey to Tench had been slow. It had taken them almost two months to reach their destination, stopping to trade with villagers along the way. When they finally reached Sarim’s family, they received an overwhelming welcome. Friends and neighbors alike arrived to celebrate Sarim’s and Ezra’s safe return. Within a bell of their arrival, Anna had been introduced to everyone. Soon she was looking for a place to rest, exhaustion displayed on her face.
Sarim noticed her distress and intervened. “Mother, father, it has been a long trip for us and Anna hasn’t been feeling well the last few days. I think she could use some rest. We both could use some rest. Our friends will understand. I’m sure Ezra has business to discuss with you, father.”
Thankful for his assistance, Anna followed Sarim’s lead into the house. She noticed the rather spacious room had a large fireplace with a kettle hanging over it. An odd smell emanated from it. She placed a hand over her nose.
“You’ll get used to it. My mother keeps a brew going at all times. We’ll have some in the morning,” Sarim chuckled, noticing her gesture. “My parents’ room is to the right; next to it is the room in which my father keeps his scrolls.” He pointed to a small space partially hidden by a curtain. “Ezra and I shared a room. Tonight, he’s going to stay with the wagon. Now the room is ours,” Sarim said as he opened the door to a small room. Anna took a look around. It had a small window, a bed with clean linen, a chair, a large trunk, and a table with a few scrolls on top.
“And tomorrow I’ll have a surprise for you,” Sarim whispered in her ear, barely containing his excitement.
“What is it?” Anna inquired, her curiosity spiked. Sarim just smiled, helped her out of her dress, picked her up, and laid her gently on the bed.
“Tomorrow!” He pulled the covers over her and kissed her good night.
The next morning, Anna woke up feeling sick. She had slept well enough, yet the moment she sat up to get out of bed a wave of nausea hit her. She took in a deep breath and fought the urge to vomit. Concentrating hard not to heave, she dressed and left the room to step outside, hoping some fresh air would help.
“Good morning, Anna. You’re up early. Did you sleep well?”
Anna turned and saw her father-in-law sitting at a table covered with scrolls.
“Yes, thank you,” she replied. “I was just about to step outside for a moment.”
“May I accompany you?” he asked, getting up.
Anna managed a smile. “Yes, please.” She waited until her father-in-law reached her. He walked slowly, using a walking stick to support his weight. His right leg seemed to hurt.
“I injured my leg in a hunting accident,” he said before Anna could ask. She acknowledged his comment with a nod, fighting another wave of queasiness. It seemed like an eternity until he opened the door and the two stepped outside.
“This is the best time of the day,” he said without looking at Anna. “I like to see the sun come up over these trees.” He pointed in the direction of a group of a dozen tall birch trees and several saplings. “There is a tree for every girl and woman in the family. Something one of my ancestors started.”
“What a lovely tradition,” Anna remarked. “But why only for the women?”
“Did Sarim tell you about the curse on the women in our family?”
“He might have,” Anna responded slowly, not remembering having heard about a curse, but not wanting to appear ignorant. “I don’t remember. Would you tell me about it?”
“I will tell you the story, but first, would you go inside and get us each a mug with brew from the kettle over the fire? My wife makes this brew for breakfast every day. It’s quite sustaining.”
Anna did as she was asked. The smell of the brew sent another wave of nausea. Returning with two mugs of brew, she handed one to her father-in-law and followed his invitation to sit next to him on a bench next to the house. “Drink! It will bring some color to your cheeks.”
Obediently, Anna took a sip then another. The brew tasted somewhat bitter yet was sweet. Much to her surprise, her nausea subsided.
“The curse is an old one, that is, if it is even a curse and not just circumstances and coincidences. If I were to believe my brother Drew, our entire family is affected.” He took a sip from his mug.
“What happened?” Anna wanted to know.
“This all happened about five or six generations ago. Zenia, the sister of a direct ancestor of mine, drew the wrath of a mage when she married another man. The mage put a curse on her that supposedly followed her descendants. As far as I remember, only the women were affected.”
“What kind of curse did the mage put on Zenia?”
“Hold on, child. It has been so long and my memory is not the best anymore.” He turned and looked directly at Anna. “It is best you learn everything. Do you know how to read?”
“I do not read well. My lessons ended when my guardian died many years ago.”
“You had a guardian? What happened to your parents?”
“I never knew my father,” Anna admitted. “And I don’t remember much of my mother. She died when I was little. Tobias, he was my guardian, took me in after my mother’s death and made sure I was well. He died many years ago. His friends Zarit and Jerel took me in afterwards. They are the parents I remember and love.”
“What do you remember of your mother?”
“Not much. She had hair the same color as mine. She was very pretty and loved me.”
“How old were you when she died?”
“I don’t know. I was little then. We traveled a lot. My mother died not long after we moved into a small village somewhere near the northwest end of the Darst Range.” Anna shuttered briefly. More memories surfaced than she cared to remember and was willing to share. She closed her eyes for a moment trying to forget the last image of her mother.
“What else do you remember?” His voice was harsh and forceful. Anna felt his questions were more an inquisition than general interest and hesitated.
“Talk child! I need to know!” He grabbed her arm and held it tight. Anna winced.
“Please,” she pleaded. “Let go of my arm. I will tell you, but let go. You are hurting me!”
He let go of her arm. Anna rubbed the sore site and then blurted out. “I was only a little girl.” Tears welling up in her eyes, she continued. “Mother was in stocks. I don’t know why. She sent me to our house and told me to wait there, but she never came. And then men came and burned the house and I ran.” Anna’s voice had gotten softer. As she spoke the whole array of memories long buried resurfaced. Suddenly, she remembered every detail. That night her mother had picked her up and ran to try and save them. They had sought shelter under a tree and her mother had left her there. Anna remembered she had managed to find her way back to the village. She had discovered her mother in stocks and attempted to cut her loose. In the end, her mother had sent her away with the warning to hide from the villagers.
All the pain and agony over her inability to save her mother and the subsequent loss resurfaced in Anna. Crying, she ran towards the birch trees. Not knowing where to go from there, she stopped and leaned against one of the trees, sobbing.
“Anna,” Sarim called softly. She felt his hand on her shoulder. Anna turned and placed her head on his shoulder, calming herself in his presence.
“What happened?” Sarim inquired as he helped her dry her tears.
“Please, can we talk about it later? I don’t feel good.” Anna felt the blood drain from her face. Suddenly, the day’s light turned into darkness.
Anna woke and found herself in Sarim’s room, a cold cloth on her forehead. His mother was sitting by her side.
“Feeling any better?” she asked and Anna nodded.
“How did I get here?” Anna asked confused to be inside.
“Sarim carried you. He caught you just in time. I will let him know you are awake again.” She got up and walked to the door. Turning, she looked at Anna. “Do not try to get up.”
“But –” Anna began, but was interrupted.
“No arguing. I will bring you some soup.”
Anna watched her disappear through the doorway and tried to sit up. Darkness encompassed her again.
Anna woke to the sound of loud, angry voices outside. It took her a few moments to realize that she heard Sarim and his father arguing.
“Father, this cannot be,” she heard Sarim say. “She cannot be Meg’s daughter. You said yourself that she ran away and no one heard from her again. For all we know she may have gone to Magnus or even further away and is happily married with lots of children.”
“Do not be blinded by love, my son! You just read through the scroll yourself. Every time you returned from Dargon the past few years you complained that Drew was not letting up, insisting that Meg had been survived by a daughter named Anna, and that the girl was being raised by a man.”
“What makes you think that Anna is who *you* think she is?”
“Do you not see it? The resemblance to Zenia in the painting, the painting you keep wrapped up in your room? The red hair and green eyes? And remember I knew Meg when she was young. My parents raised her after her mother died. Anna looks quite a bit like Meg and she lost her mother, too, when she was young! Drew said he had found out that Meg was killed.”
“Drew also said that he thought her daughter had died.”
“But that is where you are wrong. Drew said he had talked to her guardian and told him the story of our family.”
“Then Anna should know the family history. Before you spoke to her, she probably never heard the name Zenia.”
“Son, do you realize the chance you are taking by marrying her? If there is anything to this curse then …”
“*If* there is anything to this curse,” Sarim interrupted his father. “You said it yourself. If! I for one do not believe in it.” Sarim’s voice sounded bitter. “If there is anything to this curse, father, then it will end with Anna and me. She will die, I will die, and if we have a daughter she will not survive either. The curse will be broken! That should make everyone very happy.”
Anna had heard enough. She pulled the blanket over her head and curled up. Her father-in-law was right. She was Meg’s daughter and there was a curse on her. Little bits of memory fell into place as she remembered the day men came to Tobias’ cabin and took her forcefully. The man who had rescued her called himself Drew Molag. Until this day, Anna had not put any thought to the fact that her last name was now Molag as well. Slowly, she put all the pieces together and understood the consequences.
“Oh Stevene, is there anything I can do?” Anna prayed silently. “Give me strength to do the right thing.” She forced herself out of bed, straightened her dress, and was about to leave the room when Sarim entered.
“What are you doing up, my love?” He sounded concerned.
“I am fine now. I …” Anna stopped uncertain if she should continue.
“Yes? What is it?”
“I …” She swallowed hard. “I heard you and your father arguing. Sarim, what if there is a curse on me? I …”
“Anna,” he pulled her close. “I do not believe in this curse. It is just an old family tale. I am sure my uncle greatly exaggerated and my father is beginning to believe it in his old age.”
“Would you show me the picture your father was talking about?” Anna asked, suppressing tears welling up in her eyes. Sarim opened the trunk and pulled out a well-wrapped package. Carefully he took the cloth away and held up a picture. The paint was old and peeling off in several places. It was a portrait of a young woman with red hair and green eyes.
“Who is she?” Anna wanted to know.
“That is Zenia, one of my ancestor’s sisters. She is the one said to be cursed when she refused to marry a mage. I never believed that story, but one of my uncles thinks she is the reason why none of the girls in our family lived.”
“Did you have a sister?”
“I had a younger sister. When we were little we would climb trees and my sister insisted she could climb higher than anyone else. One day she slipped and fell off the tree. It was an accident.”
Anna noticed the sadness in his eyes and kissed him softly. “I am sorry. Did your uncle have any daughters?”
“He had several daughters. None of them are alive though. Some died in accidents and two of them died of illnesses.”
“What a tragedy.” Anna spoke softly. “What happened to Zenia?”
“According to my uncle, she had a daughter. It’s all written in a scroll my father keeps. He knows the story and can tell it much better than I ever could.” Sarim paused for a moment, looked from the painting to Anna and back to the painting. “You know, you look a little like her.” He placed a kiss on each of her eyes. “Same green eyes and red hair.”
“But Sarim, speaking with your father made me remember. And you should know this.” Anna pulled away from Sarim and gestured for him to sit down. He pulled the chair up to sit down and Anna seated herself on the bed. Without being interrupted she told him all she remembered of her mother, her childhood, and how she came to live with Zarit and Jerel. “Do you still think there is no curse?”
“What you have been through is more than anyone should have to endure. But I still do not believe in a curse and neither should you.” He got up and left the room.
Anna could not shake the feeling that there was something he had not told her. She felt confused and sad. Her mother-in-law brought a bowl of soup and left the room without saying a word. Anna’s mood didn’t improve. Feeling like an outcast, she lay on the bed and brooded over her situation. Thinking about her nausea, she counted back the days since she last had to deny Sarim his right as a husband. With a smile on her face, she placed one hand on her abdomen. “I will keep you safe little one.”