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Quest's End

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It's not till the very last moment that he sees what she is. By then, it's far too late.

She's watched him. She's waited. She's not patient by nature but she's learned it, she's practiced it, until you wouldn't know how it gnaws at her insides that she has to wait. You'd think she's calm and placid and impassive as the mountain where she lives, that she has all the time in the world and the hunger and the solitude of her existence affect her not a whit. But they do. They do.

When he comes there, when he finds her, she knows that he's the one because she's been hidden so well that no one else could ever find her except for him. He's come through the trials and the quest he set himself so long ago, and her sisters, as they died, pointed him along his winding way, Första to Femtonde; he's ridden through the woods and over the hills to the tall, bare mountain where she is, where she's waited for him all this time. He alone has wanted her more than any other man. She knows that as well as he does, and understands its meaning better.

When he comes there, he takes her by the hand and she needs every scrap of her will to go and not to end it then and there, but that's just not the plan of things. He thinks he's thrilled, but he doesn't know what that is. She knows. She's anticipated this for years, in her home in the hills, in her cave in the dark, in the blood and the filth and the cold that makes her bones ache and her teeth grind. But she meets him at the cave's mouth in the sharp light at dawn, when she's sloughed off the muck and she's beautiful, and so he doesn't see. All he sees is the maiden. The last one. His quest's end.

He thinks she doesn't recognise her sister's blue cape when he sits her on it; Femtonde was the youngest and the sweetest of them, the most trusting one of them, because she always is, despite it all. He thinks when they ride away that she doesn't recognise her second sister's bridle, doesn't see that the saddle belonged to Tredje, his saddlebag to Fjärde. Perhaps he thinks she's wild or she's mute or she's simple, that she doesn't understand the things he says or what he means to do with her because she's lived so far from men, because she has no clothes to wear, because she's scrubbed herself clean with melting snow and let the sun dry her skin rather than indulging in the day's usual civilities. Perhaps he thinks the fact she hasn't struggled like the others did is his reward for a job well done, for a quest completed. It isn't.

Many men have set out along the way to find her, but the way is long and hard and punishing. As they ride, his arms about her waist, his breath hot at her neck, she knows Brun is not as young as he looks; after all, he's had her sisters. She is the last and Brun thinks he's thrilled because he thinks that he's succeeded and this one last maiden will make him a god amongst all other men. Perhaps that's true, and if he had her, if he took her life, if he spilled her blood onto the ground, he'd live forever. That's the legend, after all, that sets men on their way to find her. But what he feels isn't the thrill of success.

They stop. She knows the place because she's been here before, a long time ago, before the snow and the ice and the dark of the cave where she's waited, and she thinks maybe the grass there grows so long the way it does because her sisters' blood is in it. She's a maiden still, and she understands he means to take that from her; this is why she lies down on the grass, and then he lies down with her. He strokes back her golden hair. He wants her. He's always wanted her. For a century, he's wanted her. She's life itself confined inside a woman's body, so he thinks, like sweet wine inside a skin, and all he has to do is puncture it. He doesn't know.

It's not till the very last moment that he sees what she is and by then, it's far too late. As the sun sets, as the sky bursts, she smiles; he's already too deep beneath her spell to waken from it fully, but he sees, she knows that. He sees the sun's dying light through the rain shine gold against her needle-sharp teeth, sees her cut off her wild gold braids to bind his hands and feet, sees her move like an animal, like a force from the gods, and in the wind and the rain as the sky bursts above them, it's then that he knows. Brun has a knife, but she doesn't need to use it - as the rain washes her skin of the dirt his hands have left on it, as she shines gold in the day's last light, she plunges her knife-sharp fingers straight down into his heart. It's then that he knows: she didn't need to struggle. He's been hers all along. He's her reward, for all her patience.

She's life, yes, but she's the thrill of life lived at the edge of the precipice, and in his blood, in the thunder and the lightning and the flesh and bone, all her fifteen sisters will be born and live again. She's life, yes, but life is only part of the equation. Life is only one side of the coin.

Brun will sleep alone tonight, a fourth northman rotting to bones up in the hills. In a thousand years or more, another one will come. In a thousand years, another one will want her. Another one will find her.

She'll be waiting.