The Bride in Furs
In the middle of town there is a house, and in the courtyard behind the house, there is an apple tree. It grows above an old cracked fountain, the dry basin half-clogged with dead leaves from seasons past. In the spring the tree puts forth pink-white flowers, all up its branches to the very top of the tree, where there is a single blood-red blossom. And in the fall, it puts forth rich red fruit up to the top, where there is a single golden apple.
They will tell you this is because a woman is buried there, at the roots of the apple tree. What happened to her, that woman ... what you hear depends on who you talk to. Mal the butcher says it was a girl who killed herself of a broken heart, opened up her veins and spilled blood as red as apple skin on the tree's thirsty roots. Ostra who runs the laundry says it is nothing of the sort, she was killed by a husband who beat her and struck her head on the side of the fountain, and it ran dry in that instant and has never worked since. And Calmarie, who lives and works in the house at the bottom of the street, looks you in the eye, with eyes that make you shiver, and says that this woman was a working girl like Calmarie, nothing to do with the people in the house at all, and she went to the courtyard with the first quickening of a baby in her belly and drank a tea that the old women told her about. But the tea made her ill, and this girl's life poured out of her, and now she is buried under the roots of the tree with a thing that is not a baby, no matter what men try to tell you.
In any case all of this happened long ago. Nowadays it's common sport for children to climb into the courtyard and steal the apples, swarming like squirrels up the gnarled branches. But they all whisper stories to each other, about the house and the old man who owns it and the single gold apple, and no one climbs to the top of the tree. No one eats the golden apple. It hangs until it falls. Its overripe flesh breaks open on the ancient paving stones, and its juice seeps down, down, to the roots of the tree and the secrets that might be hidden there.
Into the house with the courtyard and the apple tree, there comes a bride.
She is from the north, dressed all in furs. She brings with her all the things that a bride should have: a bow carved with prayers in the old whisper-language (to hunt meat for the table), a set of small bronze knives (to cut up meat for the table), and a long knife sheathed in dragonskin (for keeping husbands honest). She brings with her two strong-legged hunting dogs, and a white wolf pelt to lay upon the bridal bed, and a red deerskin to wear on special occasions.
In this house in the middle of the town, she opens all the windows, letting light and air into stuffy rooms with furniture that is decades out of style. She crouches on the roof to see how far she can see. She walks in the courtyard and looks up at the apple tree, with its small green fruits.
Her elderly husband is a merchant and spends most of his time abroad, which is how he met her in her northern homeland. But that suits the bride just fine. She engages a tutor to teach her to read and write the local language. In the morning she goes running in the streets to keep herself fleet and fit. The dogs run with her. People stare. In the afternoon, she practices with her bow in the courtyard. She climbs the apple tree, nimble as the alley children, and ties bits of ribbon and leather on the branches to serve for targets. She cleans the dead leaves out of the fountain's empty basin, but it is well and truly clogged. Or perhaps the water to this courtyard was shut off long ago. In any case, it does not flow.
One day there is a girl sitting on top of the courtyard wall. She is Mal the butcher's youngest daughter, and she is wearing her older brother's castoff trousers, patched and worn. She watches the bride from the north shooting arrows at twisting, dancing targets hanging from the apple tree's branches, and she says, "Teach me to do that."
So the bride stands behind her and places the bow into her hands, shows her how to nock the arrow and how to draw the string. The girl's arms, though thin, are strong from helping her father wrestle pig carcasses on the butcher block. Her first shot goes wide. Her next is much closer.
"You learn quickly," the bride tells her, in speech that is accented but comprehensible.
"I'm not supposed to talk to you, you know."
"I know," the bride says.
There is nothing so appealing to children as the lure of the forbidden. Soon the butcher's daughters, the blacksmith's daughter, and the sons and daughters of Calmarie's working ladies are taking lessons in archery and knife-fighting and tracking in the courtyard. Most of them are girls because the boys are embarrassed to take fighting lessons from a woman, especially one who is not so much older than themselves. But some of the braver boys sneak in too.
Their parents threaten to beat them. The respectable working people of the town appoint Mal, the great-armed butcher, from among their number to speak to her. The bride answers the door dressed in her furs, casually sharpening her long knife as if interrupted in the middle of a task that she does not intend to stop. Mal goes away flustered. The lessons continue.
Something obviously must be done. Where is her husband? Why does he do nothing to control his wild bride? New whispers circulate around the public fountain and the laundress's front step. Perhaps the apples are looking especially bright this year. Perhaps new blood has watered the roots of the apple tree. The house is very large and was grand, once, in its day. The merchant has no children. It is all quite easy to understand.
The situation is brought to the magistrate, but he makes excuses about visiting her, in her house with its thick walls, with her hunting dogs and her bow that never misses a shot. Well, perhaps she will come to him. He sends a courier with a summons on heavy, cream-colored paper, sealed with the town stamp.
It so happens that the magistrate has a daughter named Esmery. Once, not so long ago, she ran wild in the streets with her short skirts hiked up to expose her long brown legs. Now she is of marrying age, and she must wear long layered skirts so that men will like her. But she does not like any of the men that her father has brought to her. From her bedroom window, she can see the top of the apple tree behind the merchant's house, where the single apple is starting to blush gold. She hears the talk of the children, mostly girls, who gather in the courtyard and learn to fight from the woman in furs.
Every morning she watches for the bride from the north, who always runs the same way. If Esmery is at her window, and if she is not distracted by a maid or a tutor, she will see the bride for an instant, fleet-footed, dark hair streaming behind her like a flag. And sometimes, the bride looks up at her as she pounds by, fleet and graceful as a wild deer, and smiles.
If Esmery were a few years younger and still possessed of her younger self's freedom, she would be in the courtyard in a heartbeat, learning to aim a bow and wield a knife.
But Esmery has not forgotten how to run. When her father sends his man to the merchant's house, Esmery sheds her heavy skirts and slips out the window. She drops lightly in her bare feet to the top of the wall below her window, and then she is down and into the alley. She stretches out her long legs and she runs. One might take her, at a glance, for the slim-legged girl of twelve, not the young woman of nineteen.
She pulls herself to the top of the courtyard wall, just as she used to do when she would steal apples from the tree. It is autumn now, and the apples are ripe, all the red ones and the one golden one at the top. Esmery spares them barely a glance and calls instead for the merchant's bride in furs.
"Sit," the bride says, taking one look at her flushed face and dusty feet, and gives her a drink of water and a red apple from the tree. "I know you. You are the one from the window."
Knowing that she has been seen, and remembered, makes Esmery blush up to her hairline. "My father's man is coming for you," she says. "My father does not like to be told no."
"I'm not afraid of him," the bride says, and smiles lazily. "I've hunted wild bears. He is not a bear."
"No, but bears can't plot against you."
The bride thinks about this, then kisses Esmery swiftly. No one has ever kissed Esmery before. None of her slow-witted suitors ever made her feel like she does when she touches this strange wild woman in furs.
"Tell me something," says the woman in furs. "If I asked you to come away with me, would you?"
Esmery's head is spinning. It's too much, too quickly. "Come away where?"
"Anywhere. North. Somewhere that isn't here."
Esmery thinks of her father, and endless lessons, and suitors who are dull as the dirt beneath her bare feet. "Yes," she says. "Yes, in a heartbeat."
"Do you trust me?"
"Yes," Esmery says.
When the magistrate's man arrives at last with his folded, cream-colored paper, Esmery is gone and the woman in furs says, "I have heard that your master is seeking a husband for his daughter."
"I do not think that is pertinent to --"
"Just listen," the bride tells him. "I would like to make an offer to your master. I have heard of his daughter's rare beauty."
The courier nods, for yes, his master's daughter is very beautiful.
"And I know that her father seeks to find someone to wed her, but none of her suitors are good enough, and of those who are good enough, she will not take any of them."
This, too, is true.
"I would like to offer your master the use of my apple tree." She points into the courtyard behind her. "Tell him that whoever shoots the golden apple from the top of the tree may have his daughter's hand in marriage. This is a feat that must surely impress her."
It is really a good offer. The courier takes it back to the magistrate, who is skeptical. "What does she want in return?"
"She asked for nothing."
Unlikely. But still, it changes nothing, and perhaps it would make his daughter cease her choosiness, and select a man from the ones who come seeking her hand.
Word goes out throughout the town, through the surrounding fields and villages, that all suitors for Esmery's hand should come to the merchant's house three days hence.
Three days later, a crowd throngs the courtyard under the apple tree. All the young men from the best families have come. Esmery is there, too, in a demure green gown.
The magistrate stands before the crowd and holds out his hand. "To whoever shoots the golden apple from the top of the tree, I offer my daughter's hand and the finest horse from my stables to carry her to her new home."
The horse, a beautiful gray charger, is brought out to be admired. Esmery stands to be admired, too, very like the horse. But when the bride walks forth in her finery, Esmery thinks her heart might have stopped in her chest.
The bride wears her red deerskin, tied in such a way that one of her shoulders is bare. Her legs are bare too, long and lean. She carries her bow, and her long knife hangs at her hip. Everyone stares. The children watching from the top of the wall cheer, then fall silent at their parents' glares.
Esmery leans forward and wishes that she could touch the smooth brown skin; then she is shocked at her own boldness.
And so the contest begins. Lots are drawn to see who will fire the first arrow. It looks very easy. But one man after another sees his arrow clatter uselessly to the cobblestones.
And this is no surprise to the bride in furs. The previous night, she climbed the tree as swift as a squirrel, and tied the golden apple to its branch with a firm twist of leather. No matter whether their arrows strike home or not, no one can dislodge the apple.
At last all the suitors have tried, and they stand looking humbled and disappointed. Then the bride in furs steps forward. "It is a very difficult shot, I see," she says. "May I try?"
There is some laughter. The magistrate cannot resist the desire to see her humbled in front of all her adoring students. "Certainly," he says, waving a magnanimous hand.
So the bride in furs draws her most special arrow, with all the secret names of the wind written upon its shaft. She aims it not at the apple, but a few finger-widths above, where the knot is tied. Her aim is perfect. The knot separates and the golden apple falls down, down, to be caught in the bride's outstretched hand.
She turns and present it to the astonished magistrate with a bow.
Recovering, he wheezes, "You cannot wed my daughter. You are not a man!"
"You said that any who shoots the apple from the tree may wed her, my lord," the bride in furs tells him. "You did not say they must be men."
His astonishment cannot hold for long. The bride springs to the back of the gray stallion, and holds out a hand for Esmery, who without hesitation allows herself to be drawn up. The golden apple falls at the magistrate's feet. The bride wheels the stallion about, and as she does so, the apple tree tilts and begins to fall. She had spent most of the night very carefully cutting through its great gnarled trunk, and then just as carefully removing all evidence of this deed. The tree's weight was so delicately balanced that only the golden apple held it in place. Now, it tips and falls, as the onlookers flee, and rips a hole in the courtyard wall, letting in a spill of morning sun.
The gray charger leaps over the apple tree with the two women on his back, and his hooves pound the cobblestones, carrying them away. The bride gives a shrill whistle, and the two hunting dogs spring out of the alley to join them, one on each side.
"They will be after us," Esmery gasps, leaning on the bride's shoulder and clinging with both hands around her waist.
"I enjoy a chase, don't you?"
"But—what of your husband?"
"Come north," the bride says, "and meet him yourself. He is an interesting man. He loves to travel and says this town is a cage for him; he has little use for his house here, but I wanted to see for myself. He is, I think, the sort of husband who would not mind if I bring home a bride of my own. If you want to."
Esmery's answer is a wild, joyous cry. Her heavy green skirt flows over the horse's powerful haunches, threatening to slow them down, so she takes the bride's long knife and cuts it away, leaving only a short ragged fringe that barely covers her lap.
"Where are we going?" she asks as the horse thunders out of town. He is not even breathing hard yet.
"North," the bride says, and they race away under the risen sun, as a ragged scrap of green fabric flutters to the road behind them.