It was curious, to notice the things a person remembers.
The sound of her shoes climbing the steps was so familiar. The hollow thunk of each footfall, even the tempo with which she ascended; it was the same as when she’d been a child, then an adolescent, then a young woman. Her feet had barely touched these stairs for more than three years, yet within the span of a few seconds, her mind was hurtled back to her youth and the feeling of being home.
But there was little warmth in her breast when she lifted a fist to rap her knuckles on the door. Less warmth still as she stood and waited, then wondered why she was waiting at the door of her own childhood house. Her fingers fidgeted towards the latch, but she withheld. And soon enough, footsteps approached from within.
“Ah.” The single word was the only greeting she received when the door swung inward, and the woman of the house laid eyes on her guest.
Brynleigh looked up at the figure standing on the threshold. Cwenhild’s wheat-gold hair had gained more strands of milky-white, and the creases at the outer corners of her deep, blue eyes seemed a little more defined. Brynleigh smiled, a tight, polite stretching of her lips. “Mother,” she said quietly.
“Hmm,” came the reply, and the woman retreated, turning and striding away, leaving the door open. Brynleigh climbed the final step and followed into the house, closing the door gently behind herself.
She walked the well-known path along the short corridor. The floorboards were shiny from decades of use that once included a pair of bare feet that often ran up and down during the summer months. Through another doorway, into the wide kitchen that stretched along the back of the farmhouse. Cwenhild was already standing by the gaping hearth, stoking the flames that licked lazily at the half-charred logs, with her back to her daughter.
“Are you well, Mother?” said the younger woman, sinking onto a wooden stool beside the long table.
“As well as ever,” her mother answered, giving the fire a few extra prods.
Brynleigh pressed her lips together, falling silent for a few seconds. Niceties seemed pointless, so she took a breath and plunged ahead without them. “Why did you not come downstairs when we visited?”
Cwenhild finally turned, though only partway. Her eyes wandered about the shelves and cupboards against the wall, while she brushed her palms over the apron covering the front of her dress. “There wasn’t anything to come downstairs for, really.” Her tone was plain, frank.
“Then you didn’t have a headache,” said Brynleigh, without any surprise in her voice. A gentle sigh followed, and her fingers drummed softly against the table’s wooden grain. “You would like him.”
“I’m sure I would.” The older woman reached for a large crock on a high shelf, lowering it carefully. “And if there is to be a wedding, then I will meet the man.”
Her daughter looked up with wide eyes. “Only then? Only if there is to be a wedding?” She stared at her mother for a long, thick pause. “Is he unworthy of you until then?”
Cwenhild gave a sigh of her own, harsher and sharper than her daughter’s had been. She set a hand against her hip and turned at last to meet the younger woman’s gaze. “Are you going to marry him?”
Brynleigh’s eyes only grew wider still. Her mouth tensed, the corners of her lips faltering downward. “I...I don’t know,” she stammered quietly. “That’s what courting is for, after all?” Her fingers fiddled more urgently with the edge of the table.
Cwenhild did not seem put out by this reaction one way or another. She simply waved a hand at Brynleigh and said bluntly, “That is why I did not meet him.” Having stated her thoughts, she turned away again, prying the lid from the crock.
“I don’t understand,” Brynleigh said in a low voice.
Her mother paused in her actions. Holding onto the crock still, she exhaled another breath in a weary fashion. “There is no point in my meeting a man you are merely interested in, Brynleigh. He did the right thing - the honorable thing - in coming to present himself to your father. But it is merely a custom which requires such a thing.” Her voice strained as she pried again at the lid, which seemed to be stuck. “Unless he gives his intention to wed you, and you agree to it, then he is free to disappear and become nothing to us again.”
“He will not do that!”
Cwenhild halted again, turning to set her cool, sharp eyes on her daughter. “Are you in love with him?”
Brynleigh’s mouth dropped open a little. “I...I…” She frowned at the sound of her own stuttering, despising the way it made her seem indecisive and unsure. Sucking in a quick breath, she stated more firmly, “I believe so.”
“You believe so,” her mother parroted. Her manner was not mocking, yet Brynleigh felt a cold sting in her breast at the sound of the words.
A silence followed, wherein mother and daughter faced each other. Cwenhild’s hand lingered on the crock lid. Brynleigh’s fingers twitched on the table. The older woman’s stare was steady and unflinching, but her daughters’ eyes were restless, flicking to and fro about the room.
“You would not have said any such thing about your first husband,” Cwenhild said lowly, breaking the quiet.
It was like a hole being punctured in a waterskin, and the contents slowly draining. The young woman’s eyes fell away, her shoulders slumped, everything about her seemed to wilt. “That’s not fair,” she murmured.
“It is not unfair,” her mother replied softly. The crock lid finally relented with a loud, popping sound, and Cwenhild set it carefully beside the container. “The truth is not fair or unfair. It simply is.”
Brynleigh said nothing in answer, for there was naught to say. She remained sitting in the same, hunched-over manner, staring down at her hands.
Her mother carried on, moving about the kitchen, stepping around her daughter, talking as she worked. “Some people marry for convenience. One has something the other needs. Others marry out of desperation, or loneliness. People who do not wish to grow old and die alone, or without producing an heir for the family; things like that.” Her cerulean gaze swept over Brynleigh. “If you were in love with this man, you would know it, and so would we. Just as we knew when we received your letter from the north, years ago.”
“It’s not that simple, Mother,” said Brynleigh, in a voice barely above a whisper. “I do...love him.”
The older woman paused in her brisk stride, stopping just beside her daughter. She regarded the bowed head and slumped shoulders for a moment, then laid a hand on Brynleigh’s arm. “You love many people, child. Your heart is too big for its own good. But that’s the not the same as the love a woman holds for a man she wishes to marry, is it?” Cwenhild tilted her head, trying to find her daughter’s lowered eyes. “A woman on the brink of wedded bliss doesn’t look like this, does she?” She moved her hand up, so that her fingers touched Brynleigh’s chin.
Brynleigh’s face came up slowly. “It’s too soon for such things,” she said solemnly. “He’s only asked for father’s blessing to court me.”
“Hmm,” said Cwenhild with a thoughtful nod. She stood for a time, studying her daughter’s grim expression. “What is it that you’re waiting for, Brynleigh?” Her voice when she spoke again was hushed and pensive. “You were married less than a year. It has been two years since you lost him.” She leaned in slowly, peering probingly into her daughter’s sapphire eyes. “What do you keep waiting for?”
With her jaw tightened and trembling, Brynleigh forced herself to hold her mother’s piercing stare. “I don’t know,” she mumbled. “To...to feel the same way again?” Her pale brows lifted, and her head began to shake slowly. “I know it’s not possible. I know it...it can’t happen like that…”
Cwenhild waited, patient and stoic, unmoved by her daughter’s emotion. She stood beside the young woman, her fingers now resting on Brynleigh’s shoulder as she listened.
“That’s just the thing, Mother,” Brynleigh went on, her voice breathy and quaking. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be waiting for. What I’m supposed to look for, to expect, to... how am I to know when it’s right? What feeling am I supposed to be looking for? If I can’t...if it can’t be as it was...then what is it supposed to be?” Her voice cracked at last, and her eyes flooded with tears. She gave a sharp sniff, pulling away from her mother and turning her face to the side.
A deep breath was pulled into Cwenhild’s lungs. The woman shifted her gaze to the nearby window. There was little trace of any sympathy for her daughter’s tears. “I won’t pretend that I know what your heart feels, child. You are a dreamer, like your father. Like a boat on a river, swayed by every little current.” She glanced at Brynleigh again. “It is rare enough for a person to find love once. The kind of sweet, dreaming love that you felt for your husband. I do not think it will happen again.” Her fingers squeezed the younger woman’s shoulder.
The words felt like a cold wave. Brynleigh tensed under them, and the press of her mother’s hand was not a comfort, but a hindrance, a suppression. “Perhaps,” she muttered quietly. “Perhaps not.” She slid off the stool, and out from beneath her mother’s touch. “I wanted to know why you spurned us. And you have answered me.”
Cwenhild swiveled her body slowly as Brynleigh stood up. She faced her daughter squarely, loosely clasping her hands together. “You are the only person who has to live with your heart, Brynleigh,” she said. “You can choose to face the things you feel, and learn to live with them. Or you can choose not to.” She paused, then sighed lightly before speaking in a gentler tone. “Whether you do or do not marry again, I only wish to see you safe and provided for. I care little for whether you live in a haze of ecstasy and mirth or not. I do not think such an existence is very practical, nor would I see you pining for the rest of your days over what cannot be given to you.”
Brynleigh roughly brushed a lock of hair behind her ear, frowning. Resentment throbbed behind her breastbone, wishing to manifest and be made into words. But as she looked at her mother once more, she glimpsed behind the cool, sensible facade a wisp of sincere concern. And she understood that, no matter how hard and unfeeling the words sounded, they were spoken honestly and without malice. And she could not find it in herself to be angry. “Ferthu hal, Mother. Until we meet again,” she murmured, giving the woman a single, slow nod of deference.
Cwenhild stood yet in the same spot, tall and solid, a sturdy woman of the Mark who had weathered many storms of both life and heart, and would weather many more. “Goodbye, my daughter.”
A few seconds ticked past while Brynleigh beheld her mother still, words heavy within her, but the moment did not feel right to speak them. She turned abruptly and strode from the room. Already her thoughts were wandering beyond the farmhouse door, across the plains, hurrying over long miles towards something far away.