The scorn pole was a waste of flesh, of both men and horse. Waltraud raised her eyes up to sneer at the decapitated horse's head, the blood sliding down the slender ash pole alighting the morning air with a smell that had stirred her from sleep. It had propelled her into dreams of war, twisted and broken memories of battle playing across her mind. Her mouth tasted once again the blood of the prince and king, and the feel of their bodies breaking beneath her teeth had roused her to chase after the nostalgic taste. She had risen from bed to look out her window. They had fallen upon the glassy eyes of the slaughtered war mount, a gesture meant to frighten and shame her.
And she had laughed at such desperation.
At the foot of the pole, smothered beneath the pouring of blood from the horse's head she found the runes meant to curse her pending marriage and existence. Beneath those symbols were the last lingering traces of the smell of fear from the palms of the man who had raised the pole. Further buried, the deepest of all, was the smell of the old female hands that had carved those letters against her.
She knew the godi, the very one that had blessed the marriage she now cursed. The man was like the wolf that had protected the king, known yet unknown. Someone she had never paid enough notice to link a scent with a face, just one scent in a torrent of hundreds. Waltraud narrowed her eyes, a paid man surely, and one purchased on the advice of the wolf who knew of the Beast's abilities. The king had never been so careful before with his treachery. She licked her jaws, and tonight, at the marriage feast, the king and godi would die.
And the wolf, the wolf…the wolf would surely reappear.
She had smelled the cloak that had harbored her opponent again and again until the smell withered away upon the air. A familiar scent that had faded from the halls as Waltraud worried the single token she had of her rival. The wolf was gone from the castle, and had revealed herself to none but the one she had called "sister".
The smell of woman and bitch, she had even stood naked beneath the cloak until she had attacked. She had come to the grove knowing Waltraud would be there, her equal adversary. If not for the princess Waltraud would have showed the wolf her true self, the breadth of her jaws and the sharpness of her teeth. The final battle was coming and somewhere deep inside ached an ardent anticipation for a fight that would be unlike any she had fought before. She had never fought someone who was like herself, magnificent, vicious, and beastly.
Yet for the first time she felt a terrible anxiety at the thought of battle. She didn't wish to kill this wolf, and the part of her she felt yearned for the wolf's blood frightened her. Why should she kill this person like herself when she had never known any before? Why should she feel a need to annihilate that existence when she had no true idea why she and this wolf existed?
Lady Röselein had reassured Waltraud's doubts with the belief that she had been created to fulfill the destiny of the House of Wulfstochter to rise again. Her family had always held the wolf in high esteem, and surely it was the work of the gods that she should find one to serve her. It gave their struggle divine precedence, and they had used it to raise men and arms. Yet if such a thing was true, why should King Ludwig have also found such a creature?
Waltraud had kept these insidious thoughts from her mistress when they had convened about the battle in a secret oubliette within the estate of Lady Röselein's remaining family. To her lady the existence of the other wolf was a sacrilege, and one Waltraud must annihilate.
"But, my lady, how could there be another one like me?" Waltraud had at last asked in desperation after she had described how she had been foiled in her murder of the king.
"She isn't like you," Röselein hissed through clenched teeth. She shook her head and spread out her braids in a disgusted flick of the hand. "I don't know what sorcery has allowed that wench to walk on all fours like you, but she is nothing of the like. There is none like you, my Beast, for you alone serve me."
Waltraud had nodded, trying to accept these words as comfort. She was in the right, thus she was the destined vanquisher of a false foe. Yet in her chasm of doubts she fell when she recalled how she had been called "sister", a sibling, one of the same flesh and blood. "Grimhild" was a name unknown to her yet one that seemed complementary to her true self. Why had the wolf called her that? Called after her like a lost love?
I would like to know that wolf's name, was the most troubling thought of all. For that name could only complement hers. Within that name would be the truth.
And that truth was known the same night she confronted another.
"Have you decided?" Her lady had asked over her wine glass, her shadow long against the distant wall of that secret chamber as the fire roared furiously with the wind screaming over the roof of the old home. "What to do about the Parsi princess?"
Waltraud turned towards the flames, seeking no warmth and only distraction from something burning far hotter within herself.
In the past weeks they had spent nearly every hour of every day together. The princess was teaching her how to be a stateswoman. Waltraud was slowly learning the speech and writing of the Parsi court, getting a taste of its laws and customs. It was a massive task she approached with finesse and devotion. Her bride had clapped her hands in praise every time she mastered a new word or concept.
Roozbeh had proven to be a strict and capable teacher. Waltraud could believe even a wild wolf could learn to be a queen beneath his tutelage. He did not adhere to the method of memorization alone but believed the best way to learn was to engage in the subject matter. So far they had played out hundreds of court related scenarios with Waltraud speaking very clumsy Parsi, and managed to singe a bed sheet during a demonstration of Greek fire. In those hours the animosity between the mentor and Beast diminished as they found a common interest in knowledge.
Perhaps the man had been surprised a foundling could harbor such curiosity about the world, but such knowledge allowed Waltraud to engage in a small world of fantasy. It was an indulgence she had never been allowed before, to think of another life besides the one she lived. Though such things must belong to a delusion, she welcomed the distraction, especially as her grief for Ernst pursued her across her dreams every night.
She had had no contact, no word of her lost companion. She could have none; she had given him up knowing so. In freeing him she had resigned any right to know his fate. She could only hope their strings would be woven together again, one day. And the anxiety of this lack of knowledge had let her sleeping mind create a thousand horrific scenarios.
And what did the princess dream of, when she intended to share her bed with a wolf?
"I will marry her," Waltraud said simply.
"And…will she survive the wedding night?" Röselein pressed. Waltraud didn't answer and only looked at her lady's intractable expression of possession. The fallen princess' self-satisfied smile turned cruel as it opened to reveal her own fangs in the firelight. Fangs that were far smaller than Waltraud's, but just as sharp and deadly. "You cannot leave me until you accomplish what you promised me."
"I know." By her blood she knew it. Waltraud at last raised her head. "If she lives…is dependent on how useful she may be to us."
"My Beast." Lady Röselein had laughed in great satisfaction.
That girl appeared by her side, occupying the void Ernst had left. Her eyes were wide over the edge of her veil as she raised them up to look upon the mounted head. Waltraud could imagine the grimace twisting the princess' lips, and she pulled up the scarf she had been given by the other woman. She hid her expression and let the choking smell of blood be swallowed by the fragrance of her bride. The turgid scent of sour sweat, aromatic roses, and acrid hormones; this was the smell of the one who would stand by her side until the day she died. Her mistress' scent left her nostrils, and Ernst's had faded with the wolf's. Waltraud closed her eyes; all that was around her was fear and desire, the aroma of war.
"What is it?" The princess asked after she had taken in her full horror.
"A curse upon me." Waltraud opened her eyes and kept them upon the dried blood clotted around the pole. "It is to show their scorn in their belief that I desecrated a sacred place with weapons. It is facing my bedroom window and is carved with all sorts of evil letters."
The princess scoffed, "you would believe in such a thing?"
Waltraud moved her head to avoid the eyes of her bride and instead look into the eyes of the other horrified onlookers. None dared to meet the gaze of one damned by the gods. They looked away the second her eyes reached for theirs, closing her off from the world of the living. Everyone was wishing her death, for this blight to be removed before she devoured them all.
And she at last looked into the eyes of the one who would acknowledge her even as she landed at Pitfall. The princess met her gaze steadily, unafraid of any world where they alone would dwell. Waltraud looked away; perhaps the other wolf was the one who stood by her side.
"I am damned." She admitted. It was only true and always had been. It was why she had been able to commit such sacrilege at all. She flinched when the princess suddenly grasped her arm. She squeezed it harshly in outrage and her body became as rigid as a serpent about to strike. She looked ready to spit venom from underneath her veil.
"Waltraud, listen to me, don't think such things about yourself! Everyone has the hope of redemption. My God Allah is a kind and forgiving God who smiles upon the righteous. If you are truly willing to repent, you can find his grace." The princess made a small pleading sound at Waltraud's incredulous look. "If only I could make you see-!"
"I don't trust any god." Waltraud shook herself free. And she certainly would not beg for anyone's forgiveness for what she had done. Her regret belonged to herself, and she would trade it for no prize. The princess gave her an eviscerating gaze of remorse that Waltraud sharply turned from.
It feels like…she truly thinks that. She met Roozbeh's gaze and suppressed the urge to shatter his glare with her fist. In frustration she stalked out of the courtyard and left the scorn pole behind. Let the curse stand; it would change nothing at all for someone who had been born damned. She had always known to give life to Lady Röselein's wish she would have to give up her very soul.
I am not human after all.
Two pair of footfall followed her, the chain she could not now escape and more distantly the man she would have to kill when she broke it. She let them both chase her up the stairs to the rose garden that was nothing more than a tangle of thorns in the cold winter air. Waltraud stood at the edge of the castle roof and looked out upon the horizon that engulfed all the false king ruled. The city of Berlin shivered before her, a great twisting mass in a sea of fog. Its spires and towers arched like the broken bones of a slain dragon and the smell of its life was the rotting blood of the monster. She raised her head to look upon the great forest that lay beyond the gulf of civilization and for a few seconds her mind reached for that great dark space of safety and tranquility.
Her reminiscence ended when the girl stood by her side again, on the very edge of Pitfall. Waltraud watched the easy flight of swans overhead as the princess watched her with crushing determination.
"Hey, have you told your people yet, about us?" she asked as she recalled the dream of the past two weeks.
"Yes." The princess answered stolidly and let her words hang upon the frozen air. Waltraud could only at last laugh at her fortitude, on the cusp of their binding.
"In all this time, you still haven't asked," Waltraud explained to the mollified princess, one finger upraised even in clarity. "Why?"
The princess stepped back instead of answering with a denial of any kind. Waltraud smirked and followed up her attack.
"Why haven't you asked yet how I heard the arrow that day I was nearly killed? Why I am so much stronger than I should be? Why I kill with my teeth? Why I should be damned?" The Beast gave a hysterical laugh that the princess flinched at but didn't look away from. She continued to stand in muted courage, even as her knees shook and the smell of fear began to lift off her body.
"Why…." Waltraud chortled as she removed the bandage upon her wrist and let it fall away. "I should have no scar at all, when you will always carry mine?"
The princess looked upon her whole wrist and at last broke. She reached for the small span of flesh and fell before she could reach the threshold of reality. She didn't hit the ground however and caught herself with a steadying step. She gasped and wrapped her arms around her waist as she absorbed the full impact of the blow. She looked up however even with her eyes full of tears.
And Waltraud knew if she had been betrayed, if the girl did truly know the truth, she would have no choice but to kill her now, and her man too.
"I never asked….because it didn't matter! Lady Waltraud, whatever you are, it doesn't matter. I know one day I will see what you are, and it still won't matter, even then. I have chosen you and I will not break that vow!"
Waltraud staggered back at the assault, she had not expected to be told such a thing, but she knew the words could only be true. The princess was as single minded as she, and reality didn't matter at all in the realm of desire. She looked at the crying young woman before her, and felt tears warm her face as well.
"Oh, my love," the princess sighed and reached for her wet cheek with gentle fingers. She had not forgotten her fear by her trembling, but she would reach for the Beast across any void. "Why are you crying too?"
"I don't know." Waltraud admitted. Frustration tore at her chest, anxiety sliced across her innards, and fear choked her heart. It was a wrenching ache with no locus but the woman before her. She recalled their kiss and the promise for her happiness.
Her fists clenched with the thought, because one day I will have to show you my true form, and you'll suffer for it. And there was no comfort in the callous thought that Parsi had chosen this for herself. There was no space within Waltraud any longer to be bitter at her, consumed in this moment of remorse.
She only continued to weep and let her bride dry her tears. Below the scorn pole was removed and the evil runes were scratched out. Waltraud knew however neither curse nor benediction changed anything. For fate was the strongest will of the universe and hers had been decided long ago.
Grimhild was surely a name that carried an unfathomable destiny, and only one who knew it could know what it truly was. Yet, like her bride, as much as she wished to see that true form, she also wished to ignore all the warnings that went with it. Let that terrible day never come.
Yet, she would greet it with open arms, and let it consume her down to the very last bone.
Fozhan was aware she had signed her death warrant as she put her name on the letter to her father. It was the announcement of her marriage, meant to arrive the very day of the act. It was after Waltraud had confronted her about why she was walking into this union blind. It was because nothing could undo this, even her human fear or doubts. She had made her choice and in honor and dignity must accept its tribulations and consequences.
I will save you and my people, was her rallying cry against the vision of the Beast of Ländle. Her sense railed against the idea of a skin-walker. She had been raised in the coevals of great philosophers who said logic governed this world, and God himself was the epitome of sense. Why would such a God expose men to such beings?
"This is a fearful and superstitious land, my lady," Roozbeh had reminded her as she fretted in bed one night after a nightmare of howling wind and blood. "Whatever they don't understand, it becomes the Other."
Who could understand a being as magnificent as Waltraud? What else could pitiful men turn a great and deadly woman into but a snarling beast? No, Waltraud was surely human. She must be. Demons only belonged in men's minds. Man was the origin of all, and God was the origin of man.
But, as she recalled those jaws dripping with blood, she knew she had given herself to something great and terrible. Anyone could see how those blood-stained teeth had inspired such horrid stories. Waltraud had wept, not in regret, but in fear. And fear of seeing what she truly was.
And in that moment Fozhan had reached for her, and had promised to never look away. That was why it didn't matter, would never matter. Fozhan knew what Waltraud was, and what she was capable of, for good or for evil. And for this she had signed her death warrant. For if she was wrong after all, and the wolf instead devoured them all, she would deserve nothing less. It was the only way she could justify her actions to anyone.
And with such a sword hanging above her head, she planned her wedding.
It would be a simultaneous affair of East and West, fitting for such a uniting marriage. First there would be the ceremony of Fozhan's homeland with the men and women sitting separated. Then would come the pagan rite and the dance and feast. Waltraud's people called for a great hall, for the day to be on that of the storm god's, and for there to be flower garlands everywhere, even in winter. Only petty details would be different between the ceremonies. The wishes for long life, happiness, children, and appeals to divinities would remain the same in any context. The celebration would be constant, the feasting, dancing, and good wishes. In this Fozhan exerted her influence. Let the silk flower garlands be of the tulips and roses of her homeland, let myrrh burn from the lamps, and let the food be picked by her cook. Let the Alemannians keep their beer, she would drink gentle light wine.
Waltraud was not necessarily disinterested in such plans as much as perhaps overwhelmed. She sat in silence during the marriage negotiations, though she had indicated she would accept the final terms against other spouses, and the agreement to never to return to Alemannia when she left it. She was happy to leave such strategy to her bride and instead continued to learn the Parsi alphabet. She only suggested the older east hall with its impressive stained glass window be used instead of the current dining hall. Fozhan had readily agreed to the idea, marveling that such a magnificent art of her homeland had also come to Alemannia. Waltraud had smiled and reminded Fozhan the window faced west, so that the setting sun would full the colored glass to its burning apex.
Three days before Fozhan became a woman for her love. The hair was plucked from her body, with only a cushion remaining between her legs. It was the last shred of her girlhood, and it was shorn away by delicate turns of thread. She admired herself in a mirror before she was dressed, and wondered how it would feel to have palms slide down her bare skin. And she felt as though she was something mighty in her newly exposed body. She recalled Waltraud standing nude before her, drenched in sunlight, and knew that feeling now as well. She hoped however the Alemannians didn't remove their body hair before marriage as well, for Waltraud had had the most sleek coat of fine black hair upon her legs, and a graceful line of hair that flowed down from her abdomen to between her thighs. And Waltraud had stood as mighty in the wilderness with her coat as Fozhan had before the mirror hairless.
And then the day came.
It broke with a thunderous crash. The clouds rolled in with a booming melody and hovered dark and imperious over the Behrschloss. The resident seers debated if this meant Donar had given his blessings for the marriage or was warning of further catastrophe. As the evening drew near however the cloud released only a gentle and soothing rain onto land and Fozhan felt the grace of Allah in every drop. Listening to the tender hymn and imagining the blood being washed from the Donar-stone she was bathed and exfoliated. The Alemannians had their own preparations and she did not see a glimpse of her bride nor Lady Röselein the entire day. All the better, for her stomach churned in anticipation.
She dressed in her bridal outfit when the henna on her hands had dried. She had chosen white to heighten the darkness of her hair, the warmth of her skin, and the shinning of her eyes. The only colored threads were the delicate arabesques of birds following the flight of the simurgh, her family's symbol, across her legs, thighs, and waist. The great phoenix spread his wings at the apex of his heavenly flight just below her breasts. It had been her mother's dress, it had stayed locked away in a cedar chest for decades. When it had been exhumed it had wafted the perfume of the clandestine, thick and heady. As Fozhan let her hands trace across the elegant silk she recalled the feeling of the sultana's hands, comforting and engulfing.
"Oh mother, let me be as wise and brave as you were." She whispered where her mother's lap had once collected, her words only heard by herself and whatever spirits remained behind.
She forgot her father, her letter, her family, and her duty. For a day Fozhan let herself only the simplest pleasure of a bride, one of hope. She lost herself in the heady bliss of felicities; even aware they were largely false, given upon the tongues of strangers who were too afraid of their king to unfurl their sneers save in private. Roozbeh and her ladies however put aside their misgivings and made every effort their mistress should be kept in happiness for this day. They dressed her lovingly, sang old wedding songs as they perfumed her hair and draped her breast with pearls and rubies. Roozbeh escorted her proudly down to the hall and held a cloth over both of their heads for the short walk across the courtyard.
Outside the hall was the pavilion for the men, as the women had the honor of sitting inside and closest to the couple. Here the boy from the day of the duel handed Fozhan a small bouquet of daisies, probably picked by his small hands. He blushed at her words of gratitude and Fozhan kept the small blooms at the head of the great bouquet she had accumulated in her walk down the carpet across the courtyard. She smiled to hear the great clashing of drums and horns by musicians outside the hall; though the songs were different the noise was the same, joyful and clamorous.
She was lead down the aisle left open by the women. She sat before the large mirrors and candelabras the occasion called for. Her ladies stood around her to hold the green cloth over her head and that of her bride. Fozhan smiled at the waiting holy man.
He was the Sufi Abbas son of Jamal. Fozhan had taken him as part of her retinue as both holy man and poet, and likely with her father totally unaware she had intended him to perform her marriage ceremony. He was liked by the Shah, as a man of words, but not of the book. Fozhan would make the argument however words were a craft employed by both the basest lecher and the most inspired imam. And that this contrariness pleased Allah. Fozhan smiled at her handsome poet who she dared not allow into her own quarters but would listen to for hours. It was the sort of cautionary relationship that well defined hers with Waltraud. She adjusted the gossamer veil that concealed her face and sat in tranquil humility before the Alemannian court women.
And her bride appeared only a moment later.
She at first saw only the oiled leather boots that enclosed her loved one's calves. Eventually her lowered eyes took in the woman's supple thighs, striding out of a long coat of mahogany damask embroidered with delicate gold trim. Her sleeves reached her knees and a flare of yellow undershirt was seen when they fell to pool around Waltraud's elbows. The other woman sat before her with a small smile. Her fingers didn't reach for the veil that enclosed her bride's face but only for one of the small daisies gathered at her breast. Fozhan let her fingertips brush the incline of Waltraud's wrist, where no scar existed, as if no wound had ever touched it. Fozhan didn't raise her head to look for Lady Röselein, nor Roozbeh, nor the king, nor anyone, she let herself be lost in the miniscule gesture of tenderness, and hoped Waltraud had also found the peace to do so.
As the Sufi began to recite his sermon about the importance of marriage, in Parsi for nothing could be done about the language barrier, Fozhan kept her eyes on her bride's face. The woman betrayed no feeling of misgiving in her expression, only a sort of reserved determination. It was not a look of hope or joy and Fozhan's heart trembled. She knew the importance of maintaining a detached presence in front of so many, especially when many were hostile. But could she not, just once, meet her eyes? Even through the veil and the animosity of their audience? What was Waltraud thinking about, as she watched the simurgh shiver every time Fozhan breathed?
So intent was she that Abbas had to gently touch her elbow to prompt her to answer his question if she consented to the marriage.
"Yes." She would not hold her tongue for the customary three times. After all she had asked Waltraud to this marriage when she had challenged her. The same effect as a usual ceremony was reached as Abbas did have to ask Waltraud three times if she consented in his heavily accented Alemannish. Though Waltraud merely looked confused at what she was being asked and not like she intended to imply she had the freedom to refuse the marriage.
"I offer this to you," Waltraud again stumbled over her words and gestures in the unfamiliar ceremony but offered the mahr after removing it clumsily from her coat. It was an arm band, so common to the Alemannian court, and carved with a wolf's head. Not the raven of the Anselmlungs then. "As my wife."
Fozhan bowed her head and accepted the piece of jewelry. Yet if this marriage would be like no other, neither would be the binding.
"And I offer you these," Fozhan removed the ruby earrings from her ears. "As my wife."
Waltraud hesitated, but offered an open palm. She had no true idea that usually only one party in a wedding ceremony was offered mahr, and she appeared happy to follow her bride's lead. Fozhan only shook her head and reached up to pierce Waltraud's ears.
"As I will always wear your mark, you will wear mine." She said softly as Waltraud's blood clotted on her fingertips. The other woman didn't even flinch, and she only continued to stare at Fozhan in a subdued shock. A woman laughed and it proved to be Lady Röselein, resplendent in red silk and white silk roses, from her position near her daughter's side. Waltraud glanced back at the sound but when she looked again at her bride she at last smiled in true pleasure. It was brittle, regretful, but there as blood slid down her neck.
The marriage contract was then signed, and the ceremony completed. Fozhan gently put a small drop of honey upon her bride's lips and the gesture was shyly returned. Waltraud gently pulled her to her feet and pointed.
"The godi." It was the same old woman who had augured the date of their marriage. She was approaching from the west end of the hall, drenched in the fractured colors of the dying sun, behind her followed two handmaidens holding a garland between them. Waltraud's eyes narrowed and her lip slightly rose in a snarl. Fozhan knew then this must also be the person who had carved those evil symbols upon the scorn pole. Was she not also a favorite of the king? The person who had cursed their marriage would perform it.
So, in the end, this union would mean nothing to the Alemannians at all.
If the woman saw the angry expression she ignored it. It was gone as soon as it had come before their piqued audience. The godi merely raised her hands and turned towards the sun. The women kept the men away as a goddess was invoked and continued to keep them at bay as the garland was wrapped around the hands of the couple. Was this part of the ceremony? Or had the Alemannian women simply come to enjoy this new sense of power in solidarity? Fozhan turned away as the garland was removed after a sonorous chant.
"I promise to love, cherish, and honor you," Waltraud promised again.
"I promise to love and honor you, and always remain at your side." Fozhan promised again, and forever.
A cup was offered and after some delicate maneuvering she and Waltraud managed to both sip out of it at the same time. Fozhan tried to not make a face at what tasted like wine mixed with honey and fresh blood. With that bitter taste upon her tongue Waltraud leaned in to kiss her and complete the ceremony.
The kiss was controlled, as respectful and graceful as removing the veil from Fozhan's face. It was nothing like the one where Waltraud had stood naked before her, wild in gratitude and bold in passion. It was not an act however and for Fozhan's benefit alone. They parted, and Waltraud had never looked so beautiful with the light of the sun drenching her in warm hues of red and orange.
The first cheer was from Lady Röselein, and at last the men were allowed to flood in and add their voices to the surge. For a few seconds more Fozhan held Waltraud's gaze, but at last she was torn away by her mistress, but for the last time. Waltraud was returned some time later to sit at her bride's side and receive the congratulations of each member of court before the feast began. The last one to offer his blessings was the Sufi; already well into a cup.
"Let me address the court," He said in his broken Alemannish. He turned towards the assembled party from his high place before the couple's table. "I have made a ruba'i for the couple. And the very good Sidi Roozbeh made it into Alemannish for me."
As he took out the piece of paper Waltraud asked, "Your holy man writes poetry?"
"Oh yes, he is the best of my court." Fozhan beamed.
"Ah. I guess all poets are lushes." Waltraud shrugged and Fozhan bristled. Abbas cleared his throat however and began to read before Fozhan could correct the view.
What need does a raven have for a dove?
When she can fly just as well above?
Alone, unfettered, and content?
But what keeps her from falling? Love.
Oh but how does a raven
Pluck a dove?
She can always fondle, push, and shove
But no egg results from the love
Not to be outdone however Abbas quickly recited another verse in Parsi, which Roozbeh translated for him in a booming voice.
The fly is the most jealous of all
For he is small
And he can buzz all he wants
For none will ever feel him at all
"If you do not have that man silenced and punished immediately I will do it!" She snarled at the monarch who sat only one table away from her, well able to hear all.
"Calm yourself Lady Waltraud," the man soothed as if she was being terribly uncouth. "It is already done. There is no need to make a fuss."
Waltraud opened and shut her mouth in a rage. Nevertheless as no verse countered the Sufi's second one she at last sat down. She was inconsolable, to Fozhan's distress she began to drink heavily in response to the snickers and smirks of the court. It was such a wide change in character that Fozhan could only look on in wonder. Never before had Waltraud seemed to be so moved by other's opinion of her. Yet perhaps the scorn pole had scared her more deeply than she had admitted and the fresh humiliation had at last broken her.
"Don't take it so hard," Fozhan softly urged after the third cup. She put her wrist onto Waltraud's in an effort to calm her. "It doesn't matter; soon we'll be far away from here."
Waltraud paused at the words, but said nothing to compliment or deny them. She only looked away and signaled for another drink. Fozhan would not be ignored.
"If you are so drunk that you vomit, don't expect to be allowed into bed tonight!" She warned with a glower. Waltraud choked on her drink.
"Never, never!" she groaned, though what she was refusing was unclear. Fozhan leaned in.
"Would you not even dance at me?" she sighed.
"…I feel ill, my lady." Waltraud admitted after a pause. She leaned back in her seat and dropped her head. "Please excuse me."
"What choice do I have?" Fozhan huffed and turned away as Waltraud left the festivities not even an hour after the wedding itself. Roozbeh walked up on seeing the other woman's departure and took the seat next to his lady.
"Is she really leaving so soon?" he asked lowly in Parsi.
"She is ill from her drink." Fozhan glowered at her hands, the dancing couples before her a hateful blur. Roozbeh said nothing and merely put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Fozhan was grateful if he spared her another lecture about her choices in life.
"You saw that scorn pole," Fozhan reminded him. He only nodded as she looked up at him. "How can these people do such awful things to each other? She says it damned her."
"All people can do terrible things to each other. Do not forget the intrigues of the court." Her mentor sternly reminded her. Fozhan shook her head.
"But a soul, they could never even touch a soul." She insisted in her disgust.
"Take comfort in the idea that you will be removing her from this place. She may well improve in our homeland." They were the first hopeful words he had ever spoken about Waltraud. He smiled at her look of wonder. "What is done is done, and now we can only make the best of it."
Fozhan knew this was resignation speaking, but resignation was not the loss of determination.
"I should go to her, something is simply not right." Fozhan decided. She glanced at the crowd. "It is not as if any here would miss me now that she has left."
"Will you return?" he asked.
"Perhaps," Fozhan adjusted her veil. "I already told her if she vomits she may not share the bed."
She smiled at Roozbeh's incredulous look. "I shall take a woman with me, stay here and keep an eye out till dawn."
He bowed his head in supplication and returned to his previous seat a few tables down. Fozhan summoned Laleh from the same table. The girl followed behind quickly and pursed her lips when she saw her mistress' tense shoulders. She bowed her head and followed the princess in silence to the marriage bower. The Alemannians raised their drinking horns to her as she passed in some uncouth gesture. Despite their smirks Fozhan walked with her head held high and her shoulders back. She paused however as Lady Röselein appeared before her. The older woman bowed lowly.
"My lady, please do not leave until I get a chance to at least speak with you." She asked.
"Speak freely." Fozhan allowed, surely whatever her mother-in-law could say could not compare to the embarrassment she had already suffered.
"I only ask that you treat her gently, Waltraud is so very dear to me, and her happiness has been my only wish. Please excuse her if she had wedding night jitters." Röselein rose with a flourish. "And know I would have never given her to any other."
"Thank you for your words, my lady. I am honored to join your house." Fozhan bowed in mutual respect. She was allowed to pass, yet even as she exited the hall she felt Lady Röselein's eyes upon her, lapping up every footfall as if it was a drop of blood. She had felt the same eerie feeling when the marriage contract was being negotiated and every day she'd had to sit across from Waltraud's guardian. It was a superior look of vicious amusement and Fozhan felt as if she could feel the trap springing shut.
This place! Had always had such a suffocating feeling. She briefly braced herself against a cool stone wall as they left behind the courtyard and began their ascent to the second story. The ceiling above was already lost in darkness, not even the torch light could pierce the thick veil of night. It felt as if that distant surface could shatter and break and kill all below.
"My lady?" Laleh gently put her hands on her mistress' waist as Fozhan wrapped her arms around herself.
"It is nothing. I am sorry. My dress is thin, and I wish to get out of the cold." She explained and the handmaiden accepted this with a nod.
Are you nervous, my love? It's all right, I am too. Fozhan gave a small smile as she pulled her embrace tighter around herself. At last they united, at last they stood in solidarity. Two equals who could never be driven apart. Now, and only now, could she see Waltraud as she truly was; her one and only. And now she had been given the means to set the Beast free.
"You may leave now. Do whatsoever you wish until dawn," Fozhan excused her woman. Though she knew none of her retinue would allow the sanctity of this night to be compromised. Nevertheless Fozhan personally had no greater expectation than to dry a few tears. Let all of what was petty wait until a time when it could be enjoyed.
She didn't light a candle? Fozhan tensed as darkness surged out of the doorway and engulfed her as she shut the door behind. She strained her eyes to see in the weak light with the sun just gone from the horizon. She slowly moved towards the bed, barely outlined in the twilight. That must be where her bride was.
"Waltraud?" she called lowly. A sound like a hiss answered her and she paused. There was a scurry of movement across the floor. The kitten meowed and Fozhan nearly collapsed at the tiny sound.
"Blackie!" she cried. The kitten's eyes reflected in the darkness and Fozhan became aware the feline had perched upon a pile of clothes. She reached down and pulled up the shirt; it was bright yellow.
"Waltraud?" she called again. At last she was answered. A tall shape stood up on the far side of the bed.
"Oh," Fozhan sighed, recalling Waltraud was still quite drunk. She had even undressed? The woman took a step forward only to be stopped by the smell of smoke.
"What?" she began to ask as flares began to flicker across Waltraud's form. Fozhan fell speechless as the other woman reached up towards her face. With a shrill sound of tearing Waltraud's head was ripped apart. From beneath the smoking shreds of flesh a wolf's head emerged.
Fozhan felt herself struggling to scream, speak, and even breathe. She felt the world begin to spin as Waltraud continued to rip her very body apart, with hands that were not human, with beastly strength, to reveal something beneath that was monstrous. The discarded flesh smoldered and at last burned away to ashes. The self mutilation lasted for only seconds yet the horrific ordeal stretched into hours in Fozhan's mind as she felt every shred of flesh be lifted from her own bones.
And then the wolf stood before her, as she truly was, a great beast.
She was large; she gazed over the rim of the bed with ease. She was magnificent in her vicious symmetry and beautiful with her great glowing eyes. She was terrifying with her snarl of sharp fangs. She leapt over the bed in one simple arabesque, a perfectly coordinated killer.
Fozhan was clumsy prey. She leapt back into a night table at the lunge. She fell with an excruciating gasp against the wall, one leg of the table painfully shoved into her back. The wolf snarled again and opened her jaws to show the princess her death.
The cat, quite unconcerned about what was going on, after all, she could have only known all along what her mistress truly was, chose that moment to jump into Fozhan's lap. She blinked at the wolf and the beast hesitated at such indifference. In that one second of lassitude, Fozhan reached out towards life.
"Oh no, Waltraud," her hand shook yet she still sought to touch that black fur and look into the eyes of her bride. As her fingertips made contact with the thick coat, as she felt warmth seep into her fingers, she knew this could be no dream or illusion. She felt tears begin to flood her eyes.
"I wanted to see, I wanted to see you as you truly were! But I didn't! I didn't-!" She gave a scream of agony as her world fell around her. The wolf raised her head and stepped away. Fozhan put her hands on her temples to silence the reverberation of the world shattering. She lifted her head in time to see the wolf break the window and leap into the night.
"Wait! Wait!" She pleaded as glass shards ignited the air. The wolf ignored her however and disappeared by the time Fozhan reached the window.
"WALTRAUD!" Fozhan screamed into the darkness. She reached into the void her beloved had left and tried to pull anything back. Her hands remained empty, save for the memory of the fine and warm fur tickling her fingertips. Her breast heaved and her throat ached as she gave one last painful expulsion of emotion.
"I am afraid! Yes! I am afraid, but not of you….my love…." She sobbed. She had only cried out at the cruelty of it all! Yet even weeping she kept her head held high, knowing there was only one thing she could do.
Find her, and never let her go ever again