Excerpt from Guardians of the Light

Chapter 1

"Emerin," my mother's lively voice floated through the door, setting my teeth on edge. "Emerin, come out of there. It's almost time to go."
I took a deep breath and mustered up enough strength to answer with a pleasant tone. "I'll just be a minute, Mama. I'm still putting on my dress."
"Well, we don't have much time. Do you want me to help you?" She seemed so happy and it was grating on my last nerve.
"No, no," I stammered, "I can do it myself. I'll be out soon; I promise."
I didn't want her to see that I was already wearing my dress, my hair was done, and I was completely ready. There was nothing left to do now but leave, and since I was embarking on the worst day of my life, I felt the need for some procrastination. I gazed out my tiny window, and, as I often did, lost myself in the impending sunrise. 
The air was still that morning and the grey sky hung heavy over the tops of the mountains. I watched the first rays of light creep up over the craggy peaks, playfully bend around the hills and cheerfully reflect off the dew that covered the valley. As the sunlight reached our small village at the foot of the mountains, it glinted off the roofs of the shabby houses which were arranged in rows that weaved their way in and out of the trees. Near the barns, the farm animals stirred restlessly, turning their heads to face the first light of the new day. Otherwise all was quiet amongst the cluster of buildings that nestled in our valley. Only the soft yellow glow from each window indicated that there was any life inside. 

The silence was shattered as the loud peal of the church bell cracked through the still air just as the sun's rays had broken through the grey dawn. I jumped slightly in response and then watched intensely, knowing it wouldn't be much longer now. Doors began to open and people straggled through them into the ever-increasing sunlight. The villagers greeted their neighbours enthusiastically and chatted amongst themselves before stepping onto the winding pathways that led to the church. 

They were dressed impeccably in well-ironed clothes reserved for special occasions and covered themselves in thick wool shawls and fur wraps to defend against the morning chill. Families walked together through the brisk air, marching next to the fences and through the trees, the children playing games along the way. The trails led past more houses, including my own, and I watched as my friends and neighbours marched by, radiating a joy that I wished I could feel. 

"Emerin," my mother crooned softly as she opened the door. "Come on. We really have to go now, or we'll be late and how would that look?"

I sighed heavily and peeled my hand from the window sill that it had been clutching. I turned toward the door and climbed down from my bed carefully so as not to wrinkle my good dress. The door creaked as I opened it, revealing my mother standing there with her hands on her hips. I glanced at her briefly and tried to manage a sheepish smile. She looked me over with meticulous care, taking in every inch of my hair and outfit to make sure that I looked acceptable. 

"There now, see, look how beautiful you are," she gushed as she adjusted the comb which brushed back long strands of my hair. "I know it doesn't seem like it now, but it will be all right. The elders do know best and they can best decide what will make you happy."

"I guess so." I almost choked on the words. With the weight of heavy doom pressing down upon my shoulders, I pushed myself to move forward and follow my mother out of the bedroom. My legs barely felt light enough to lift, but somehow, I managed to drag myself through the living area and out the front door into the crisp air. My mother came up behind me and wrapped a thick wool shawl around my shoulders.

"You’ll need this for the walk over; it's quite a chilly morning."

I agreed. This was the summer that had never really arrived, even though it was more than half over. 
Usually, by this time of year, the heat was heavy as soon as the first sun's rays were upon us. But now it seemed like every day was just a little colder than the last and no one could understand why it was happening. The elders assured us that weather was just strange from time to time, and there was no need to worry about anything but the bad crop year we were sure to have. However, I felt there was more to it than that, for reasons I could not understand. 

As we reached the pathway, I saw my father engaged in small talk with the other village farmers. He was chatting in his loud, easygoing manner, but broke off in mid-sentence when he saw me approach. 

"Emerin, darlin'! Well, don't you look gorgeous!" His glance flew to my mother. "Would you look at our beautiful girl; I'd say the apple don't fall far from the tree now do it?” He shot her a broad smile and a wink. My mother smiled and blushed. Sometimes they were so embarrassing. He was right though, about me looking like my mother. I had the same small frame, same blue eyes, same chestnut hair falling in waves down my back, even the same tendency to blush.

"Well come along now," my father drawled as he lit a cigarette. "We sure don't wanna be late, especially today of all days!"

He turned and walked down the path, expecting us to follow without question. And we did, me reluctantly, my mother enthusiastically. She draped an arm around my shoulder and gently, but firmly, steered me in the direction of the crowd. Not only could I feel my heart pounding, but now I began to hear it thumping in my ears as well. 

We joined the sea of villagers who trod the well-worn path, their trudging footsteps echoing in my ears along with my heartbeat. Each time we passed a fork where our pathway met another, more people joined us and the sound magnified in volume, loudly marching me to my tragic destiny. As each new wave of villagers joined us, their attentions would immediately turn to me. 

"Oh Emerin, you look beautiful...congratulations honey!"

"My goodness, so grown up now. We were praying for you last night, sweetheart."

"This must be so exciting for you! I remember my special day, just like it was yesterday."

Their voices buzzed in my ears from both sides like annoying insects that I wished I could just swat away. I tried to smile, however, and receive the comments with grace, though inside I wanted to yell at them to leave me alone. Didn't any of them realize how hard this was? As if he could hear my thoughts, my father turned to face me with a smile.

"Now Emerin, honey, I know that you haven't exactly been looking forward to this, but you know that it will all turn out for the best. After all," he shot my mother another glance. "Just lookit how lucky I got."

My mother grinned as she looked at him. "I'm the lucky one," she cooed.

Sheesh. Were they trying to make me feel worse? But I forced a smile, bigger than I ever thought I could manage that morning and lifted my head from the dirt path where I'd been staring. 

"I know," I said. "You're right. It will be fine." I hoped that sounded convincing enough, and then maybe they'd all leave me alone.

A group of children skipped around me and chased each other down the pathway. I gazed at them with envy, knowing they were free to do as they pleased for at least a few more years. But like everyone in the village, their time would come eventually. I looked beyond their bouncing heads at the golden stalks of wheat and fields of corn in the distance. My gaze then travelled further, to the craggy mountains which often beckoned me to walk toward them and cross over to the other side. I tried to keep my mind calm by thinking about what strange and exciting things might be waiting over there.

We rounded the last bend in the path which led through tall clusters of sholberry bushes that were beginning to bear fruit. The next few weeks we would be busy picking sholberries, canning sholberries, and baking sholberry pies, as we did every year. Only this year I would have added responsibilities, as well. I stared past the bushes and toward the clearing on the other side as the church came into view. There were already so many people there. I could tell when I was close enough for them to recognize me as, one by one, their faces began to light up. 

I had known what to expect, as I'd seen the way the other girls had been treated over the years; however, it still didn't prepare me for the overwhelming feeling of being descended upon by a rush of excited women. As we approached the church, they ran out to meet me, chattering enthusiastically, admiring my dress, touching my hair. I wanted to burrow into the ground right where I stood on the dusty path.

"Oh Emerin, you look beautiful! I love your hair...some young man is going to get very lucky today!"

"Your dress is amazing. Did you make it yourself?"

"Wow. I can't believe you're seventeen already; seems like just yesterday that you were crawling around on the church steps..."

My mother and father beamed with pride and greeted all of my well-wishers with warmth and happiness. It was just as much their day as it was mine, I guess. But I couldn't shake that nagging feeling in the recesses of my mind that they were happy to be getting rid of me. I had never tried to be a difficult child, but nevertheless, over the years I'd caused my parents quite a lot of grief and embarrassment. 

Mrs. Grell, the reverend's wife had been talking to my mother and was the last to approach me. "Emerin, how are you feeling, love? I know you must be nervous, but it's exciting too right? I remember the day that I found out I'd be marrying Reverend Grell...well, it was about the most exciting day of my life, it was! I remember it was in the springtime, but oddly enough it was warmer than it is today. Brrrr...I do not know what's going on with this weather, do you? Anyway, my mama had helped me make the most beautiful fluffy violet dress, with white lace trim and I felt like a princess from a fairy tale, I did..."

Mrs. Grell loved to talk, and though I tried to be polite and listen, my mind started to wander. It was all I could do to keep eye contact and nod in the right places. I spotted my best friend Jalya on the other side of the church steps, and wanted nothing more than to go and talk to her instead. Jalya saw me too and smiled sympathetically. If anyone understood how horrible this whole thing was, it was Jalya.

"...and though it took us a while to get to know each other, we've been ever so happy," Mrs. Grell droned on and on. "And sometimes we...oh my goodness, Emerin, people are starting go inside. We'd better go find our seats!"

Though I was reluctant to enter the church, I was relieved to be getting away from Mrs. Grell; no one wanted to be on the receiving end of her chatter. I wondered if Reverend Grell was as happy with their match as she claimed he was. Feeling a little lighter now that there was no longer anyone hovering over me, I bounced over to Jalya. She was standing next to her father, who was chatting up some of the ladies. 

"All I'm sayin' is I don't think the elders always get it right," he said, as the ladies exchanged uncomfortable glances. Even though it was first thing in the morning, I could tell he had already had a few drinks. "I'm hopin' they make a better match for that little girl than they did for me..."

"Papa!" Jalya snapped.

"Oh, now darlin', I know you don't like to hear it, but you know I'm right..."

Jalya was no longer listening. She turned from her father with a scowl on her face and saw me coming. Her face softened as she left them and greeted me with a big hug.

"Are you okay?" she asked as she studied my facial expression. "Nope, didn't think you would be. When I saw you talking to Grell, I thought I'd never seen you look so sad." She looked around deviously, then put her arm around me and began steering me to the side of the church. "Come on, I've got something to tell you."

"What...now? Jalya we have to go inside."

"Oh, it will take forever for everyone to get inside. They won't miss us for a few minutes."

"Right. No one will miss me. I'm all anyone's noticing this morning."

"It will just take a second. Come on...what I'm about to tell you...no one else can hear."

Jalya sounded so intense, and I couldn't control my curiosity, so I decided being a few seconds later wouldn't hurt. One last glance over my shoulder revealed my parents laughing cheerfully with a couple of furniture builders from the other side of the village. They didn't seem to be in a hurry to go inside, so why should I be? I nodded toward Jalya and we quickly ducked around the side of the church where we were alone with rows of tombstones. I cringed and tried to look past them and fixate on the cows grazing in the fields beyond. I never liked the village graveyard. 

"Ugh, it's creepy here. So what is it? What's so important?" 

"Okay, I heard something that might make you feel better about your matching day."

"Hmmm, I doubt it, but go ahead."

"I heard the elders say that they were matching you with Lenal Hendleman!" Jalya's voice rose into a squeak when she said the name.

"Lenal!" I almost shouted, and then peered around the corner of the church to make sure no one had heard. Lenal Hendleman had always been the best looking boy at our school, and he at least seemed nice guy. I felt a little better for an instant, then I remembered who I was talking to. Jalya always thought she knew more than she did. "Jalya, where did you hear this?"

"Well, I was visiting Mama last night, and when I walked by the church, I heard voices, so of course I stopped…"

"Wait, wait, so you were eavesdropping? Oh Jalya, you didn't get caught did you?"

Her honey-blond curls swung from side to side as she shook her head. "You don't see any bruises or black eyes, do you? Of course I didn't get caught; I never get caught...you know me."

"Yes, exactly," I took a quick peek around the side of the building to see if my parents were still there. They appeared to be done talking and were looking around anxiously, presumably for me. Everyone else was walking into the church and soon there would be no one left outside. 

"Jalya, everyone's going in now. We have to go; my parents are looking for me."

"Okay, okay, let’s go. I just had to tell you." We nonchalantly wandered back to the front of the church, like we had been there all along.

"I know, but you shouldn't be sneaking around like that. You'll get in trouble, not just with your father, but with the church too. They might send you to live with your mother."

"That might not be so bad. She's doing pretty well."

"Don't say that."

"But Emerin..."

"Shhh," I said as we came within sight of my parents. My mother looked angry and tense and my father just shook his head. As they turned and went into the church, I knew what they were thinking.

"Haha, I think they thought you wandered off again," Jalya chortled, as if reading my mind. "They must be relieved now!"

"Probably," I agreed. "Relieved and angry with you for leading me astray." We climbed the church steps and I felt my stomach tighten into knots once more. As we walked through the huge, carved doors, all eyes immediately flew in my direction and stayed there...watching...judging. I fought the urge to turn and run.

"Don't worry," Jalya said, and looked across the room to where Lenal Hendleman stood, talking to some other boys we had known in school. He really was handsome, with his piercing blue eyes and muscular arms earned from years of work in the fields. "Wouldn't be so bad would it?" 

"Are you sure you heard right?" 

"Pretty sure; well, almost sure. Come on Emerin, he's gorgeous, you're gorgeous, you're about the same age, and you're both from farming families. It would be perfect. He’s been eligible since the spring, but they would never have matched him with Kaird Lemmitt. She's definitely not pretty enough..."

"Jalya, don’t be mean.” My eyes searched the crowd for the plain-faced girl who’d been the victim of our village’s last matching day. “How can you even say that? Kaird's so nice."

"Nice maybe, but definitely not a good match for him. I'll bet they were saving him for you."

"Yeah, either that or they wanted to marry her off to Pindar, because he's older," I reasoned. "Look, I guess Lenal would be the best choice out of all of them, but I'm not going to get too excited until I know for sure."

I watched the antics of the eligible men in the group, punching each other and laughing like a bunch of fools. My glance fell on chubby Bainie, whose breakfast was still clinging to the corners of his mouth. Bainie had been old enough to marry for years, but had yet to be chosen for anyone. God forbid it was him! Suddenly hopeful that Jalya's hearing was as good as she thought it was, I turned back to my friend. 

"So, um, what else did the elders say?"

Jalya opened her mouth to answer, but before any sound could come out, the deep voice of Reverend Grell boomed across the pews, and silence fell over the crowd.

Chapter 2

"Welcome everyone to our very special Sunday service." The reverend smiled warmly as his eyes scanned the congregation. "Please take your seats; we have a lot to do this morning."

There was much shuffling as everyone found a place to sit. Jalya and I sat together, as we always did, next to Salare, a girl who lived a few houses away from me. The reverend waited patiently behind the altar for the crowd to settle. My eyes scanned the room nervously, observing all the single young men. I had known each one of them for most of my life, since we had all been in school together for ten years. During those years I had fancied a few of them and dreamt about marrying one after another.

However, faced now with the reality of being bound to one of them for life, I didn't think any of them looked good. As I watched the boys squirming uneasily on the pews with mocking smirks on their faces, I doubted that any one of them would ever grow into a good man like my father. I resigned myself to the hope that I would at least get one of the better looking ones like Lenal.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement at the front of the church and turned to see that Reverend Grell had left the altar and was speaking with a man whom I had not noticed when I first came in. Though how I could have missed him was a mystery. Not only had I never seen him before, which was an unusual occurrence in our small community, but the man himself was just so strange looking. He was dark, with black hair and tanned skin, though not the sun kissed kind of tan that came from hours of working in the fields, but rather an even tone that stayed all year long. As his eyes flitted over the crowd, I was sure that they were also dark, rather than the blue-green colour that was typical of those in the village. In fact, there had never been anyone in Carper's Village with brown eyes except for Ashel, Jalya's younger brother.

When Ashel was born, that one feature was noticed right away: brown eyes! I was too young to remember the event, but I had heard tales of the uproar it created in the community throughout my entire life. Blue eyes, green eyes, either was acceptable, as was any mix of blue-green, but never brown. This meant the blood of an outsider, that Jalya's mother Hallen had been unfaithful. Special meetings were called and the elders discussed what to do about this abomination for weeks. It was finally decided that she and her son must be removed from the community. Early one morning, before the others rose, members of the church clergy entered Jalya's house and forcibly removed Hallen and Ashel. She was allowed to grab a few belongings before they were taken by horse and cart to the forest just outside of the village.

It was expected that they would be taken away or killed by someone from the Twelve Clans. The clans were tribes of nomadic woodland people that occasionally wandered close to the village. It was the general opinion of our people that the clanspeople were dirty, sadistic heathens, though I had never seen evidence of that. However, the stories we were told of their atrocities had haunted our dreams since childhood. And Hallen and her baby had been thrown right into their territory.

Even if Hallen managed to keep out of harm's way, she and Ashel would almost certainly starve to death. They weren't allowed back into the village for food and no one could take it to them without bringing the same horrible fate upon themselves. But somehow Hallen and her son survived in the rugged landscape. She built a small cabin on the outskirts of town, just far enough into the forest to avoid trouble from the church. This allowed her to be close to Jalya, so she could remain in contact with her as she grew up.

After the banishment of his wife, Jalya's father became very distant and withdrawn, just barely seeing to her basic needs. By the time she was three years old, Jalya was mostly raising herself. She spent a great deal of time at my house, where my mother would make sure she was fed and washed. Then eventually she began to wander off to Hallen's house in the woods. Most everyone in the village knew that she was sneaking off to visit her mother, but they turned a blind eye to it.

As I grew older and had more freedom to explore on my own, I would often accompany Jalya to visit Hallen and Ashel, despite several warnings and finally punishments from my parents. I became quite close to them over the years and wished pitifully at this moment that Ashel was the one with which I was to be united. Even though he was almost two years younger than I was, he would still make a better husband than the flock of unsophisticates that sat inside the church. Unfortunately Ashel would never be given a wife, not in this community anyway.

My thoughts were interrupted by Jalya's sharp whisper. "Who is that well-groomed fella talking to the reverend?"

"I have no idea," I responded, turning my glance once again to the mysterious stranger. "I was just wondering that myself. He is dressed up rather nicely, isn't he?"

"It's not hard to look good next to the men in this town. I wonder if he's here looking for a wife...might be a little old, but nice to look at, nonetheless. I'd love to marry a man that would take me away from this place."

"You just want to marry him because he has brown eyes; that would really piss off your daddy!"

"Emerin!" Jalya laughed at my crude language, something that was distinctly frowned upon at any time, but especially in church. "Yeah, it really would, wouldn't it!"

At that moment Reverend Grell broke off his conversation with the handsome stranger and returned to the altar, silencing our giggles with his baritone voice.

"Quiet please, everyone...we are ready to begin the ceremony," he waited for the crowd to settle before continuing. "Today is a very special Sunday. As you all know, when a young lady in our community turns seventeen years of age, she is united with an eligible young man. The elders deliberate extensively over these engagements to find the best match for each of you. This week we turn our attention to Emerin Gareth. Today she, and the rest of our fine congregation, will find out who the elders have chosen to be her husband."

The reverend gestured dramatically at the crowd with a sweep of his arm. The church pews creaked as everyone turned to look at me once again. I stared at my shoes, hoping no one would notice the redness that I could feel creeping across my cheeks.

"But who will the lucky man be?" he questioned, darting his wild eyes toward each of the young men. "Which one of you will get to spend the rest of your life with this beautiful young woman? A very good question, isn't it Bainie?"

The reverend's lively eyes stopped to rest upon Bainie, who was struggling to open the string knot of a well-wrapped package, trying desperately to get to the food inside. This was typical church behaviour for him; it seemed he couldn’t go anywhere without a bit of his mother’s baking. When he felt everyone in the church turn toward him, he dropped the morsel onto his lap and smiled sheepishly.

I gripped the sides of the chair as the panic welled up in my throat. What if it was him? I couldn’t sit in church every week next to an uncontrollable eater and our probably equally fat children. I felt tension building in the back of my neck and that familiar dull ache growing behind my left eye that signalled a headache was on its way. I'd been having a lot of those lately and they had been steadily getting worse each time. As the reverend droned on about the virtues and tribulations of marriage, I took several deep, shaky breaths and fought the urge to flee the church. Jalya, apparently noticing my distress, grabbed my hand, wrenching it from its place on the chair, and squeezed it tightly. We both looked up as the reverend paused in his speech and gazed playfully into the crowd.

"Well, I won't keep you all in suspense any longer," he said. "Emerin will be united with Polin and Germand's son, Callum Rony!"

With a dramatic flourish, Reverend Grell swept his arm across the altar in the direction of Callum, a man who was two years older than I was. I knew him, as I knew everyone in the village, but not very well. My heart pounded heavily as I looked at him now, carefully studying his features...too tall, a little on the thin side, too many freckles, and his nose...something just was not right about his nose! 

What were the elders thinking? I swallowed hard as I tried to focus on the positive aspects of this situation. After all, it could have been worse. I looked over at Bainie, who had now successfully unwrapped his package and was cheerfully eating an oatcake, happy that the crowd's attention was no longer directed at him. It could have been so much worse. This realization did nothing to soothe the growing pain in my head, however, and I winced slightly as the light from the window hit my eyes.

"The two of you will pass the next few weeks getting better acquainted with one another," the reverend continued. "You will spend much time alone together to ready yourselves to be husband and wife. Callum will be spending more time with his father, as he continues to hone his farming skills. Emerin will spend extra time with her mother learning how to be a good wife and mother and how to best tend house and raise children. You will shrug off the innocence of childhood, and prepare yourselves for the responsibilities of your adult roles. It will be a time of incredible transition, and amazing growth." He smiled at both of us in turn, a mocking smile I thought. He knew exactly how bad it would be.

"Beginning next week, Emerin and Callum will also take marriage classes together with me, every Sunday after church. Marriage is a sacred union that the church does not take lightly. We must see that you are adequately prepared before the ceremony, which will be held in exactly six weeks’ time, after our Sunday service."

Farming. Callum was from a farming family too. I assumed that Jalya didn't think of him when she was assessing who the elders would pick for me. I turned to glare at her, but I couldn't manage any look that required more energy than sadness. Jalya looked at me and mouthed the words, "I'm sorry." It was all I could do not to cry, yet I tried not to show it, as everyone was looking at me yet again.

If Callum had any feelings, positive or negative, about the situation, he wasn't letting them be known. His face betrayed no hint of emotion, except a small grin at whatever it was that his friends were saying to him. I cast a sideways glance at my parents and found them still smiling. It figured that my father would be happy with me marrying a farmer; he'd have lots to talk to him about, I supposed.

Now that the sermon was over, everyone in the church seemed to have something to say and the buzzing of a hundred conversations reverberated in my ears. My head throbbed with the sound, as if keeping time with my beating heart. Of course, everyone kept looking from me to Callum and back, judging for a reaction. I did my best not to give them any, hoping that I was not too obviously wincing in pain. Reverend Grell stood at the altar and waited for the madness to settle.

"All right," he boomed, silencing the last stray chatter, "now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's on to our next order of business." He turned and gestured toward the mysterious stranger. "This is David Harris of Nebril City. He will be here for a few days, selling his wares to the good people of our village. He has cookware, building materials, clothing, tobacco..." He stopped to nod at my father, who grinned ecstatically in response. He had been running low. "...and many other essentials that you may be in need of. So don't be shy, come and see him after the service to see what he can do for you."

Jalya and I exchanged glances and seemingly came to the realization at the same time. Of course this man, David, was a Nebril; he had the look. Nebril City was a huge settlement that lay far to the other side of our eastern mountains. From what I'd heard, to get there meant travelling through a dense forest with many dangers and crossing the turbulent Nebril River on the other side. Occasionally, one or two Nebril would pass through the village, selling items that we did not make ourselves. It was quite rare, however, as the trip from their city was so long and arduous, they didn't want to make it too often. But what everyone did notice during their visits is that they all had a look that was quite different than ours. They were taller generally and thinner, with long faces, dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. This man fit that description precisely.

Reverend Grell began his sermon, but, with all that was going on in my head, I could not pay attention. So rather than listening, I began to consider my options. I figured David must have a cart where he kept all his merchandise. Maybe he would let me hide in it somewhere and I could go with him to Nebril City. He would know how to navigate the forest and all of its dangers. He would certainly know what lay on the other side of those hills.

I wondered what the city was like and tried to imagine myself living there. I'd heard there were places where they served you food and other places where people put on shows. Some people said that the Nebril never die, that they live forever, though my mother always said that was nonsense. Maybe Jalya would want to come with me; she was always talking about getting out of the village. Maybe Ashel, and Hallen too. Wait, that might be too many people to fit in his cart...

A sharp nudge in my ribcage rudely interrupted me from my thoughts. Jalya grinned at me. 

"Daydreaming about Callum already, eh? Oh, I'm sorry Emerin, that's not even the least bit funny, is it? And I'm usually right about what I hear. Well, what we need now is a plan...hey, maybe we can stow you away in that Nebril man's cart!"

I couldn't help but laugh. Jalya and I were so in tune sometimes. Then I realized that everyone was rising from the pews and talking amongst themselves. I had mentally missed the entire sermon, though certainly not because I was thinking about Callum...not in a good way anyway.

Salare wiggled in her chair. "Oooh, I have to go talk to that foreign salesman," she gushed, "but I'm nervous; he's so handsome." She turned to Jalya. "Do I look all right?"

"As pretty as ever," Jalya said, with just a hint of sarcasm.

"Good. I'll tell you what he says later if you want." She turned to go, then turned back. "Oh yeah, and congratulations on what’s-his-name, Emerin." Then she was off, flying to the front of the room, her skirt swirling out on the floor behind her.

"Uh, thanks," I mumbled, not sure whether or not she actually meant to be sincere.

Jalya glared after her. "Isn't her birthday coming up next? She'd better not get Lenal!"

"Come on," I said, disgusted. "Let's just get out of here." I didn't want to think about matching day any longer, anybody's matching day. I just wanted to get on with my day and forget about the prospect of becoming Callum's wife for as long as I could. In the corner of the church, my parents were chatting again. Between my upcoming marriage and the strange visitor from the city, I was sure that they would have a lot to talk about, which meant that I would probably be here forever.

"Let’s go outside and wait for them," Jalya suggested, looking in the direction of her father. He was talking to Miss Telly who worked at the trading post, and who also happened to be a widow. "Ugh, he's always looking for a new wife...making sure Reverend Grell sees him talking to her too, so maybe he'll grant it. Like anyone would want to be with a drunk like him."

Jalya turned and walked toward the door without waiting to see if I followed. I couldn't blame her for the resentment she held for her father, and for the whole town for that matter. I pushed my way through the crowd, attempting to make it to the door as well, when I heard someone calling my name.

"Emerin, Emerin, are you listening to me?" It became apparent that it was my mother's voice, so I pretended I didn't hear, because I really wanted to be outside and away from all of the prying eyes. 

Unfortunately, she was just as determined and squeezed between the people that were blocking the aisle so she could reach out and grab my arm. "Emerin! Did you not hear me?"

"Mama?" I feigned surprised. "Oh, no, I didn't. I'm just meeting Jalya outside. She seems to be upset about something and I think she needs to talk..."

"I'm sure Jalya will be fine. You can talk to her later. Right now I have some people I want you to meet."

I groaned on the inside, as I followed her back into the crowd, feeling what little good spirits I had about this ordeal finally being over slip away. All that was left was the incessant pain in my head. My mother led me back to my father and another couple.

"Here she is!" my mother exclaimed nervously. "Emerin, I want you to meet Germand and Polin. These are Callum's parents, honey."

Again, the urge to run, yet my legs and arms felt frozen. My arm felt about fifty pounds when I lifted it to shake hands, first with Polin, then Germand. Polin was delicate looking and would have been quite pretty, except, well, I saw that Callum had inherited his nose from her. Germand was muscular and gruff, much like my own father, except he seemed more serious. They were warm and polite as they greeted me, and I tried my best to smile through the pain that was now overtaking the left side of my head.

"Nice to meet you," I croaked.

"Are you okay, my dear?" Polin asked with what seemed to be genuine concern. "Don't worry; our son really is a nice boy and good around the farm, too. He'll be a good provider and a good husband. You'll see." She turned to my mother. "Everyone is nervous on their matching day."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sure he is. I just have a bit of a headache, that's all."

Polin and Germand exchanged concerned glances, then looked back at me with identical fake smiles. I knew they were just as disappointed in the match as I was. Their daughter-in-law was going to be weird Emerin with the headaches, Emerin who wandered off toward the mountains in a trance. The whole village knew; I had left class, church, and community events with no apparent reason. I'd even wandered off in the middle of the night unannounced. The urge to wander always accompanied these headaches, but as I grew older, I became more able to control it, and I'd been running away less and less.

Some of the elders thought that I had been bewitched, perhaps by a wild wood clansman during one of my visits to Hallen and Ashel. I thought this was ridiculous and so did my parents, but that didn't relieve the embarrassment and social stigma that came with having me as a daughter. They were probably thrilled that the elders had agreed to marry me off at all.

"Well, Emerin darlin', sounds like what you need is some fresh air," said my father, just a little too enthusiastically. "Your mother and I are going to go to Germand and Polin's house for some tea. We thought that you and Callum could talk on their front porch, y'know, now that it's warming up and all...get to know each other a little better."

I turned to my mother. "But Mama, Jalya..."

"Oh, don't worry about Jalya now. She'll be fine. You can go visit her this afternoon...if she's home that is."

Seeing absolutely no way to get out of this, I kept quiet and decided to just get through it somehow. Who knew, maybe Callum would be nice and we'd get along. It might not be so bad. Germand motioned to Callum who was still across the room, talking amongst the mob that had gathered around David the Nebril. An irritated look crossed his face and he and his strange looking nose fought through the crowd over to where we stood. When he saw me standing there he smiled, but I could tell it was the same kind of forced smile that I'd been decorating my face with all day. His eyes were a really nice colour of deep green. Well, that was something at least.

"Hi, uuh, Emerin," he stammered.

"Hi, Callum," I replied, and could think of nothing else to say.

"Well, let's be off then," Germand growled. "And Callum, I don't want to see you talkin' to that city boy again, y'hear? You don't need anything he's sellin'"

"Yes, Papa."

"Those Nebril, they bring nothing but trouble." With that he turned and walked out the door of the church. He didn't have to fight his way through the crowd like everyone else; it just sort of parted for his massive frame. The rest of us were left with nothing to do but follow.

Once out in the sunshine, I could feel that the air was getting warmer and I no longer needed my shawl. My parents walked ahead with Polin and Germand, so I had no choice but to walk behind them next to Callum. Jalya was standing next to the river, talking to a couple of boys. She saw me leaving the church with Callum and her initial look of confusion quickly changed into one of disgusted understanding. She knew what was expected and that I had no choice. 

It was my turn to mouth, "I'm sorry" in her direction, and she waved in response. I turned my head back toward Callum and my future, the throbbing in my head having, fortunately, subsided slightly. He was a little too tall, but who knew, maybe I would like him. Maybe he'd even be the man of my dreams.

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