Gwendolyn had spent two days in a row idling in the old, weathered castle, gifted to her husband along with her hand in marriage. The bedroom, in the style of the Aesir, could barely be called a room at all, with how it led straight out to the balcony. She supposed it was a small mercy that most married couples enjoyed similar quarters. Either that, or the most cruel of torments. Even with their wings clipped, a fate she’d blessedly avoided, the Valkyrie were people of the wind and sky. She wondered how many of her wing-sisters suffered such fates, toiled so uselessly for the happiness of another.
Never, not once, had a man offered the happiness the Aesir women were told to serve on a silver platter. A memory flashed: pink feathers wilting as a life ebbed in her arms. Griselda had known. She’d been the spearhead of change, the voice of honor for the warrior women used up and tossed aside like objects. She’d understood something Gwendolyn herself had never come close to in her father’s halls: the Valkyrie were not tools.
Unfortunately, Gwendolyn thought with a twist in her gut, she still believed that princesses were.
“My lady?” Myris called. “You’ve returned. Forgive me, I did not see you arrive.”
Gwendolyn cast aside thoughts of her late sister. “Think nothing of it,” she said, smiling tightly. The only kind of smile she ever really wore. The pooka peeked around the corner, saw Gwendolyn sitting on the balcony edge, fully armored, and let loose the tiniest sigh. “I grew tired of idling, so I went to buy ingredients.” The Pooka Village did not seem to care if she was a Valkyrie gone rogue. They were...kind.
Myris came onto the balcony, furry eyebrows raised. “Ingredients, my Lady? Do you plan to...cook with them?”
Gwendolyn tossed Myris a look over her shoulder, some cross between ire and hurt. “Should a Lady not provide a meal upon her husbands return?”
“Yes, but...Princess, this is…” Myris looked at the ‘ingredients’ strewn across the floor, expertly crafted into small, effecient little packages. Battlefield food. Finally, she shook her head and laughed softly. “Well, I suppose the Shadow Knight would find no issue with this.”
Gwendolyn’s cheeks warmed, but she cocked her head, curious. “Should I have done something...differently?”
“Oh, well, perhaps it is not my place,” Myris said softly, seeming to remember herself.
Gwendolyn stared a moment longer, watching the Pooka who’d remained loyal to her through banishment, both unwilling and chosen. She noted the tiny rabbit paws twiddling nervously together, the way Myris never quite met her eyes, and came to an understanding she couldn’t name. “Myris,” she said firmly, hopping off the ledge, light as a bird. “I wish for you to speak to me as you would...someone of your own station,” she tried.
“Princess?” Myris asked, confused.
“I,” Gwendolyn started, then choked on her words. “I was thinking of...my sister, you see.” She did not cry. She didn’t really know how. “I’ve been troubled, lately, by the thought that perhaps she knew something I didn’t.” Once, long ago, she’d seen Griselda draw a feathered archer into her arms when she thought no one was looking. Gwendolyn, as a child, had taken to haunting the long, cold halls of the upper Royal Wing in those blur of days after the loss of their mother. The faint, hazy memory of warmth ended around then, but she’d seen Griselda embrace that archer, then say something that made the warrior blush. She’d thought it was because Griselda was so much older than her, that’d she’d come to understand in time. She hadn’t. Not while serving as a Valkyrie.
“What do you think she knew?” Myris prompted, dropping her guard.
“That warmth is not a disease,” she said softly, returning to the present. “Or a weakness. That all of us, the Valkyrie, are worth more than we were taught to believe. So, you see, Myris, I’m grateful for all you’ve done for me, and I want, um..” she trailed off. It wasn’t like her to stumble in speech, but then, what was like her these days? “I want to..you are my only family now. The only piece left from that time. And even though it was awful, I can’t let it all go, I…” She steeled herself against Myris’s wide, wide brown eyes. “I want to be better than my father. So please...if you can bear it, treat me as you would a friend.”
Myris’s face twisted up, and Gwendolyn’s stomach cramped. Had she overstepped? Then the little rabbit woman rushed forward and seized Gwendolyn around the waist, holding her tight, though her paws did not connect. Gwendolyn froze. A hug. This was a hug. Slowly, awkwardly, the warrior’s arms came to rest on the Pooka’s back.
“You,” Myris said, “have always been precious to me. I’m proud of you, Princess.”
The memory of warmth reached for her from the past with its painful, breath-stopping teeth. Gwendolyn let it, let Myris remind her of a mother whose face she could not recall, let herself be accepted. She didn’t deserve this. She wasn’t like Griselda, who’d known, who’d tried. Still...maybe she could make up for it, just a little, with the pieces she had left.
“Thank you,” Gwendolyn whispered, voice thick. “For all of it.”
“Yes, well,” Myris said, wiping her eyes, “it is my job, after all. Now, about these...ingredients.”
An hour passed as Myris explained the basics of the wild world that was home cooking. Gwendolyn sat on the edge of the bed, perplexed and admiring, as evening faded into a wheel of stars and moonlight. It was then that Gwendolyn got the courage to ask a favor.
“You want me to...make you look right?” Myris repeated, confused. “Do you think you look wrong?”
Gwendolyn looked down at her shining, brilliant feathers and armor, at her long legs and pale, lithe muscle. Honestly, she wasn’t stupid enough to think she wasn’t attractive, but she’d never seen it as a good thing before. In fact, thanks to the leers and calls both on the battlefield and off, she never wanted to think of Odin’s Witch as the sort of beautiful those men sought for their wives.
Now, though. Well. Now might be different. “I want to look right , like a wife should,” she said, a bit embarrassed. “And I don’t have the faintest idea of how to do so.”
“Somehow, I think the Shadow Knight is alright with the way you wear ‘ wife’ as you are,” Myris said, amused. Gwendolyn blinked. She hadn’t known her handmaid had dry humor. “But I can help you learn to find your own comfort outside of the armor.”
When all the pins were removed and her hair fell in loose waves, when all the armor was stored carefully beside the bed, when her wings were naked against her hips, Gwendolyn shivered on the balcony and did not put on her noble, courtly blue dress.
No, that was a thing of her father’s choosing, and as such she couldn’t bear to throw it out, but...it was a symbol of ownership, of a spell that’d never existed. Lies and shame. Instead, Myris helped her into a different gown, one she’d never worn before. She knew without looking that it was perfect.
Oswald frowned at the base of the castle. He’d been chasing bandits off from the surrounding area, trying to create a sanctuary for his...wife. It still felt surreal to even think the word, like acknowledging the blessing tempted the world to snuff it out. But Gwendolyn, he thought fondly, hadn’t cared what the world threatened. She’d come for him, more than once. Come for him without even knowing that he’d done the very same for her. The memory of seeing her take off against Leviathan still filled him with dread, the taste of copper in his mouth, but gods, she’d been incredible, hadn’t she? Was it alright to let her protect him? Was it wrong to feel such fierce pride that a woman like that chose him?
Probably. He had no idea what being a friend meant, let alone a husband. Oswald hesitated at the stairwell, waiting in the darkness with empty hands. He hadn’t brought her so much as a token today. Was he worthy of entering their chambers empty-handed?
Easy, he told himself. Let her be your judge. So he stepped out of the shadows and into the starlight.
And stopped dead.
There she was, the bird incarnate, sitting on the edge of their bed in clothing he’d only seen briefly when examining the closets. He had a need to look through everything in a new environment, but it’d just been a dress at the time. Now…
Gwendolyn turned, her eyes dark, and rose. The dress was a gradient of the deepest blues and purples like the sky at dusk, and it fell in rippling, elegant waves down her body. Slimmer than court style, and, wonderfully, had slits cut for her wings to slip through. It was so much freer, so much more her than the stiff formal gown that’d stuffed those feathers into submission. The dress was sleeveless and, he noted, backless, the sharp points of her shoulder blades fully visible. She hadn’t turned. And, once his sharp eyes bothered to catch up after admiring her, he noticed her fingers curled ever so slightly. Anxious?
“Gwendolyn,” he greeted. “And Myris. I trust you’re both well?”
“We are well, thank you,” Myris curtsied, a soft smile on her face. Oswald had liked her the moment he’d seen how she treated Gwendolyn, so he tried a small smile himself, made easier when Gwendolyn turned to face him.
“Yes,” she confirmed quietly. “We’re well. And yourself?”
Ah, he thought, I’m hopeless against her. “I’m well.” He ran a hand through his hair and held up a long finger: one moment, please. Then he began the process of taking off his armor.
Myris looked a bit pained, then huffed a laugh, passing him to leave the balcony. “I’ll leave you two be. Call if you have need of me.”
“Of course. Thank you, Myris.” When his armor was off and carefully laid beside Gwendolyn’s, he pulled on his black slacks and slung a white shirt on loosely, not bothering with the buttons. He noticed, then, that she had turned back toward the balcony, looking at anything but him. “Is everything alright, Gwendolyn?”
She half-turned toward him, a delicate blush across her cheeks. He felt this detail, so small and easily ignored, was visible to him in brilliant focus. “Everything is perfectly fine,” she said, sounding stiff. His eyebrows creased, and he crossed the room and stood beside her.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve seemed strange upon my return,” he said softly, letting his fingers fall on her bare shoulder. She flinched, and he yanked his hand away. “Gwendolyn, if I’ve done something, please--”
“Are all the Vanir so liberal with their affections?” she blurted.
He blinked. Then blinked again. “Why?”
“You touch me so casually,” she whispered, drawing into herself. It hurt his heart to see it, even if he didn’t understand why and, he realized, that frustration was beginning to feel more important. “You...undress down to undergarments in front of others, if they happen to be around. That night when we spoke, when you held me, I…um…” she trailed off, looking away.
Oswald needed to hear the rest, even if the mention of their confessions made a gentle smile spread across his face. “You what?”
A pause. Then, “I thought it meant something to you,” she muttered.
His smile died. Struggling to speak, he managed a strangled “ What?”
Her shoulders tightened. “Did it truly mean nothing, then?”
What? What? What? Oswald moved without thinking, taking her by the shoulders and turning her to face him. “Gwendolyn. Nothing I do, regarding you, is meant without meaning.”
She bit her lip. He couldn’t help but see. Her every moment seemed of vital interest. On impulse, barely aware of the motion, he tucked a strand of loose white hair behind her ear. He was watching her face close enough to see the confusion, the alarm. “That!” she breathed. She stepped out of his hold. “Meaningless touches. Wandering hands! What are you thinking?”
He was at a loss. “That I want to touch you?”
Her expression closed off. “Clearly. Well, I suppose I understand the duties of my role.”
“Wait,” Oswald said, holding up a palm. “Something is going amiss here. Is it...wrong, to want to be close to the one you love?” he asked, as if unsure.
“I put on this dress,” she said, looking stricken, “for you. I wanted you to see. To notice. I wanted to make you come closer, but now that you have, I’m--”
He was frozen, terrified to make the wrong move. “What?” he asked, bewildered.
“I’m afraid! ” she exclaimed, and strode off to the balcony edge. Her hands gripped the rail. “There it is, for I swore to show you everything I had to give: fear, a warrior’s shame, what should never be admitted!”
Ice crawled through his veins, making his voice sound far away. “Gwendolyn,” he said very softly. The shadows below his feet felt heavier. “Are you afraid of me?”
She whirled toward him, eyes wide. “What? Oh. Oh, Oswald, no, not that,” she rushed. “Never that.”
Relief, all-consuming. “Then what? Please.”
She stopped, took a deep breath. Then, her courage gathered, Gwendolyn spoke. “The Aesir...we do not touch for no reason. We certainly never undress in front of anyone aside from our spouses, and, women, you see...have a duty, to their husbands, and I wanted to be a good wife, but I’m afraid.” Indeed, her hands shook slightly. “I’m not ready for--you know--it still feels like a shameful--”
“Gwendolyn.” He walked up to the railing, rested his elbows on it and leaned forward. Something told him that touching her would be anything but reassuring at the moment. A cool breeze blew his hair back, and he squinted against it. “We’re not going to do a thing you don’t want. I thought I told you when we met that you are not an object. That I will never allow anyone to treat you as one.” Including yourself, he thought.
“I know,” she said quietly, regaining her composure already. “Forgive me. There is...much to address, much to unlearn, about marriage.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” A quiet moment. Though he longed to touch her, he knew better.
“What was it like? For you?” she asked hesitantly. Like she thought it might be rude.
He understood what she asked. “The Vanir are, as you said, a liberal people,” he started. She blushed, and he smiled, lopsided and good-humored. “Touches are like words to them; they think nothing of it. Bodies are temporary, fleeting things, nature given form as flesh, and they are not shy about the details. I did not realize...that how I was acting made you uncomfortable.” Her, and everyone else in the castle, Oswald realized. For some reason he felt more worried than embarrassed.
“Oh,” Gwendolyn said. “ Oh. Thinking back on how they looked in combat…” she put a palm to her forehead. “Oh, gods, what a fool I’ve acted.”
“Never,” he said firmly.
She looked at him sidelong, through her lashes. “When you speak of the Vanir...you say ‘they’, not ‘we’. Were you not…?”
“I was raised among the Vanir,” he said quietly, “but not as one of them. Melvin, my adoptive father, crafted me into a tool that needed him for any warmth, any love.” He paused, his throat constricting, and, surprising him, she reached out and lightly put her hand on his. He searcher her eyes and found no fear, so he continued, “The fairies shunned me, even as a child. Because of what Melvin made me, and then because of the power. I was never touched, and when I touched others, they recoiled. Eventually I stopped trying, but the instinct, that piece of the language I was raised with, it’s...strong.”
“That’s why,” Gwendolyn realized, putting more pressure on his hand. “That’s why you wanted to give me my freedom right away. To make the choices you didn’t have. Because of Melvin. ” A sudden bite at the name, the backbone of steel returning.
“That sentiment is mutual,” he said lowly. “And returned, when I think of Odin.” He put his other hand over hers.
The starlight made her face so lovely, he thought. A random impression, drifting in and out of his mind. He’d said he loved her. He’d said that, and he’d meant it, meant it with everything left of his wretched soul. But love was not just a statement, he was realizing. Love was not just that he had fought for her, that she had been his hope when he had nothing left. There was so much about her he did not know, did not understand. The pain that made them kindred spirits could tear them apart if they didn’t make an effort to know the other, so that they may prove what they said that night under the same stars.
“I will try,” Gwendolyn finally said. “To speak the language of the Vanir. I want to. It...sounds beautiful, honestly.” She smiled, blushing lightly, and his heart squeezed in response.
“We...will take it at your pace,” Oswald told her, taking her hand in both of his. It was so small, so petite, but he felt the hard callouses against his own. “You must tell me if I am overwhelming you.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “Alright. Yes, I can do that. You, then, must tell me if I am making you feel alone.”
“Mmm. Agreed. Gwendolyn,” Oswald said plainly. “May I kiss your hand?”
A brilliant blush across her entire face. Clearly such stark language had never been used around her--at least, nothing so innocent, he realized. Perhaps she’d heard nothing good from men in her entire life. With that in mind, he thought it best to be clear and concise, to respect her boundaries.
“Yes,” she agreed, her pale face pinker than ever.
So he kept her hand between his own, brought it to his lips, flipped it over and kissed the calloused palm, lingering there. He could sense her pulse, couldn’t help but lay a gentle finger against it on her wrist, feeling it flutter. Always, his vibrant bird. He released her hand, eyes flicking down to hers, and whispered, “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” she repeated. And smiled. A real, easy smile. For him.
Still, even in that warmth, an anger simmered under his skin. It stirred the shadows, fanned the embers in his soul. Gwendolyn had been raised in a world that told her touch was shameful? That she, a proud warrior, his equal, should shelf the mighty Psypher and become the plaything of a lesser soldier when she was spent? Had the Aesir no respect ?
But. For her, he let the anger pass, focused on the tingling of his lips from her palm. Right now, the time for violent acts to prove their love had passed. Right now, they needed to speak. Often, and openly.
A moment passed; his eyes flicked around, a habit to scan for threats, and he noticed the little wrapped packages and bent to pick one up, cocking his head at it. He unwrapped the string and a perfectly arranged field nutrition meal was unveiled.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asked, confused.
“Oh. Well. You see.” She was buying time, Oswald realized. It was incredibly endearing. “I had meant to cook you a meal.”
He raised a brow. “More ‘wifely duties’?
She smacked him, gently. “Leave it be. I did not know. Myris explained proper house cooking to me hours later, I’ll have you know. I never needed the knowledge before and--”
“No,” Oswald interrupted, a grin growing on his face. “This is perfect. Just as it is. Thank you, Gwendolyn.”
She blinked, then smiled. “I hope you find some use for it.”
They stayed that way for some time, basking in the glow of each others’ company, the knowledge that someone cared, someone waited, someone noticed. Then, when she grew tired, he left her, knowing she wasn’t ready to change into sleepwear before him, knowing she wasn’t yet ready to share the bed. Even if he really hadn’t intended anything more than sleeping. Gods, he hoped she knew that.
Oswald fell asleep in the spare guest chamber, a smile stuck on his face. Tonight, he realized, they’d taken a real step toward each other as humans.
It was enough.
A week passed, then two. Gwendolyn and Oswald talked. They talked about their pasts, their childhoods, lonely as they were, and the many, many losses they’d endured. They talked about that gaping void that still existed in their hearts; they admitted they still loved their fathers, their homelands, somewhere deep down, though Gwendolyn felt Oswald had more fully let go of Melvin than she had managed with Odin. As they became closer, Gwendolyn did, indeed, begin to notice the more fey aspects about him: those intense eyes, revealing all or nothing, his light way of moving despite being rather strong, and his unabashed, blatant habit of staring , among other things.
She began to notice things about herself, too. Things besides the warrior, or the damaged woman. Oswald said she was graceful; he said she moved with a rhythm that reminded him of the fey Midsummer ritual dances. He noted with fondness, one day, that she seemed to really love baked fruit and, she realized with a start, she did. She began to take note of these things; began to catch her reflection and not harden her gaze against it.
And every day, the warmth she felt when she met Oswald’s eyes increased. Yes, this must be love. They were kindred spirits, so different yet so alike. She was even getting better at initiating touch, which she found she actually enjoyed herself. Just the previous night, she’d stood up tall to kiss his cheek, feather light, and he’d grinned like a fool. She had never seen an expression like that before.
She’d said she loved him, and she’d meant it. What she didn’t know was what to do with the feeling. It grew inside her, a living thing she could not contain, and threatened to shatter her carefully disciplined calm. What did one do when they felt this way?
A memory: Oswald’s arms around her waist, the night they’d confirmed their feelings. The way they’d leaned into each other, so natural, so easy, and the butterflies erupting in her stomach when he’d suddenly yanked her against his chest. Her own voice, telling him not to let her go.
And then she’d pulled away. How contradictory could she be?
“What are you thinking about?” Oswald asked. He had his chin propped against his hand, and he was lounging comfortably in the bed, watching her fiddle with her armor until her thoughts took over and she, somehow, spaced out.
Today, he was in his simple pants and shirt, and she was in a long blue skirt and blouse to work in. Her hair was braided and bound high up in its bun, the late morning light bouncing off the breastplate in her hands to blind her.
“Well,” Gwendolyn stalled. “That’s, well, I was thinking that I…”
He grinned, a little wolfish. “Buying time again, I see.”
She didn’t blush. She just raised her eyebrows at him, and he chuckled. “Alright, you. I was thinking about you.”
“Oh?” Oswald perked up, smiling at her. They’d gotten comfortable enough with each other to tease in a matter of two weeks. That was closer than she’d ever been with anyone in over twenty years.
She rose, placing the breastplate down gently. “I was thinking that…”
Oswald, keen as ever, sensed the shift in her tone from humor to thoughtful. He sat up, legs planted off the side of the bed, and watched her. Waited.
She blew out a puff of air. “I was thinking of the night we confessed,” she admitted. “I was thinking about how nice it was.”
Oswald’s eyes flashed but his expression revealed nothing. With a small smile, she realized he didn’t want to push her past her comfort zone. But maybe, sometimes, one should push their own limits. See what happened.
“This time with you,” she said softly, “has been like a dream. You are so patient, so kind, so gentle. I want to know more about you. I want to be even closer.”
Carefully, as if wary he was reading her wrong, Oswald said, “Gwendolyn, come here.”
Gwendolyn walked forward, wraith-like out of her armor, and stood directly in front of Oswald.
He rose, slowly, the way one does when they’re trying not to scare something away. Then, just as carefully, his gentle hands rose to cradle her face, those deep, crimson eyes searching hers before he planted a chaste kiss on the top of her head. She noted that he was just a few inches taller, that they fit together nicely. His fingers were cool and relaxed as they wove into her hair, and she felt rather than heard his tiny sigh of contentment.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Good,” she replied. “So very good. I was wondering if I might...return the favor.”
Oswald blinked, then blushed. She blinked owlishly, unsure of what to do with it.
“You,” Oswald said lowly, “may do whatever you want.”
So she put a hand on his shoulder, the other on his face and leaned over him, drawing him into a featherlight kiss. She pulled away after a moment, just enough to see him smiling with such fondness it made her chest constrict. He tugged her forward and she rested her forehead against his, happy to just be close like this. And suddenly, she understood. Understood why her sister had shown affection to the archer, understood what she’d been looking for when she watched her parents, understood what she was supposed to do with all that feeling building up inside her.
This. Speak, listen, try to understand, and allow herself to show how she felt.
“I love you,” Gwendolyn whispered. She meant it.
Oswald kissed her swiftly, then tugged her into his arms. “I love you too.”
She grinned, real and full, and he returned it.
That night had them in each other’s arms, pillows strewn and blankets tangled, breathing softly and deeply under the canopy. At some point in the dark, early hours before morning, Gwendolyn stirred and sat up, blinking against the full moonlight. She glanced down at watched Oswald for a few quiet moments, watched his chest rise and fall, watched the way his features evened out into smooth, innocent blankness.
Memories flickered by like impressions left by dreams, hazy and uncertain. A precious person becoming just a body in her arms. The Demon King’s fists raised above her in fury for what she’d done. Her ring on another queen’s finger. Her husband in the skeletal, possessive grip of the Queen of the Dead. Her breath caught, and she stared at Oswald. He was here. He was here, and it was alright. They deserved to be alright, didn’t they?
She leaned down and pressed a shaky kiss to his hair. He opened an eye--a warrior was easy to wake, of course.
“You alright?” he asked groggily.
“Yes,” Gwendolyn said softly, taking a deep breath. “Yes. Just...bad memories.”
He lifted his arm up sleepily, and when she just stared in confusion, snorted in amusement. “Come here,” he whispered, pulling her gently into his arms, his chin resting on her head. “Go back to sleep.”
To the beat of his heart, the bite of the memories faded, and Gwendolyn’s eyes fluttered shut. Unlike their normal warriors’ sleep, alert at the faintest of sounds, they fell into a true, heavy slumber. And it was enough.