Title: Mark Of The Laguz
Series: post FE10
Character/pairing: Lethe/Jill, Skrimir, Ranulf (mentions of Kyza/Ranulf and Lyre/Ranulf)
Author's note: springkink: Fire Emblem, Jill/Lethe; mating for life, marking - Laguz do not play games with love. Jill gives herself and is claimed . Contains ritual scarification.
Jill held tight to her spear as she watched for the next attack. She saw it out of the corner of her eye, a tawny blur hurtling her way. She lifted and held her spear horizontal to take the brunt of the blow as the laguz leapt towards her. The cat growled and changed tactics, trying to get to her flank as Jill held steady to her spear and guarded herself. She couldn't hold back the sheer power of the laguz slamming against her, and in a second it was all over as Lethe pushed her to the ground, knocking the wind out of her in one beautiful blow.
The cat let out a victory cry and stared down at her with intense purple eyes. Jill bared her throat in a sign of submission. The laguz licked her throat, and Jill couldn't help but laugh at the rough sensation. Lethe was gorgeous in laguz form. Lithe and powerful, her coat shone and you could just see the muscles ripping underneath. Even back then, when she thought laguz were beasts barely capable of sentient thought and fueled by bloodlust, she'd thought Lethe too beautiful to mirror everything she'd been told about laguz. In fact, it'd been one of the things which had put her on the path to change.
"You win this one, I almost didn't notice you," Jill said.
Lethe was still on top of her, pinning her down. Slowly her form changed into the more beorc looking shape. This side held the same fierce beauty.
"That's how it's supposed to be," Lethe said. She did not roll off, but instead kept Jill pinned down. Her gaze was intense, full of rage and passion. Scrutinizing her, it was hard not to flinch under a look like that, but Jill had accustomed herself to Lethe's thorny nature.
"You know, I could stay here all day, but we've got things to do," Jill said. "Or, at least I do."
"Is it time to feed your beast?" Lethe asked.
"No, I already gave him that deer you were nice enough to catch for me," Jill said. "Thanks for that, it'd be bad if he ate any of the farmer's cows around here again."
Lethe's ears were flat against her head. She narrowed her eyes, and hissed at Jill.
"What is it, Lethe? You can't hate cow meat that much, you've eaten plenty of it," Jill said.
"No, it isn't about the lumbering beasts! It's about the deer. Do you mean to play games with me, beorc girl?" Lethe said, her voice a low growl.
"What?" Jill said. "If you mean the training, then I was just a little off today—"
"I do not mean the training," Lethe said. She glared down at Jill, and then pushed herself off. She began to pace, agitated. Jill hadn't seen her like this in a while.
"What is it?" Jill said.
"Five times I have brought you meat, and five times you have given it to that dragon beast of yours," Lethe spat out. "I built you a den, and you did not use it. And yet you profess affection towards me. What kind of cruelty is this? Are you toying with me for your amusement?"
Jill shook her head. "I don't understand. Are you saying that this has been some kind of courtship?"
Lethe snorted, but didn't reply.
Jill pushed the hair which sweat had stuck to her skin out of her face. "Lethe...listen, I'm not laguz. I know this all seems really obvious to you, but I still don't know all your culture yet. I'm still learning all this. I didn't know that any of this was you courting me, considering we're already together. I thought you were just being nice and making dens for my wyvern, and bringing him food so I wouldn't have to."
Lethe scrutinized her, and finally let out an annoyed breath, her tail twitching in irritation one last time.
"I do not play around with matters of the heart. If you think all of us are like Ranulf, you're mistaken. I have already petitioned the king for permission for you to be my mate."
Jill had learned a few things about laguz culture, even if Lethe was terse about the matter. And well, most things. Actually, she'd probably learned more from Ranulf, though with him you could never be certain how serious he was being. What she did know was that the culture of Gallia was rigidly militaristic, something she always had to remind herself when dealing with Lethe.
"And what did he say?" Jill asked softly. She stepped closer to Lethe.
"I am to come before the king for the final say, and bring you with me," Lethe said.
Jill knew this was no minor thing. Lethe could very well lose her status in Gallia–and that wasn't even the worst possible scenario. She could be thrown out entirely, or treated as a traitor. Yes, laguz and beorc sentiment wasn't quite so bad as it once was, but there would be a long ways to go before the hard feelings would be set aside entirely. Laguz which once thought of her as a friend could very well scorn her now.
Lethe could've avoided the trouble, not petitioned to make it official. This way, they could possibly be ostracized by both cultures. They could always seek asylum with the Greil's Mercenaries, she supposed. But, she knew better than to suggest Lethe stop—with Lethe, it was always all or nothing. Any suggestion otherwise would be offensive to her.
"You would've done that for me? Given up your whole country...for me?" Jill said.
"Have not you already done the same? You left Daein and its ways long behind. The soldiers would scorn you if you tried to join them again," Lethe said.
"I wouldn't want to. I've already turned away from that long ago," Jill said.
Jill closed her eyes for a moment.
Oh, father, I wish you could be here, she thought.
Her grief came in starts and stops, it was the scar which was always with her. Lethe, having lost comrades and family of her own, laid her hand on Jill's shoulder.
"Perhaps I have been too harsh and assumed too much. You know how brash I am," Lethe said.
"It's okay. I don't know all your cultures, so you'll have to teach me, but...I'd be happy to be your mate," Jill said.
She took Lethe's hands in hers and kissed the back of them. Slowly, Lethe's tension began to ebb away.
What Jill knew of Gallian culture, their marriage ceremonies were quite different from the beorc ones. Lethe had sneered at some of the beorc rituals, from the puffy white dresses to the big cakes, and hinted that Gallian marriages were hardly so domestic.
What she didn't know was what the meant, but Jill figured she'd learn what that meant quick enough.
Jill was filled with fitful anticipation that made it hard to sleep and focus. Time passed quickly, unnoticed by her. She hadn't been this nervous since her first mission, which turned out to be a rather safe, boring guarding duty which not very much happened, though in her young mind, Jill had figured she'd fend off a laguz attack singlehandedly for sure.
Lethe had turned quiet and reflective. Someone who didn't know her might have thought her sullen, but Jill knew her nuances enough to realize she was simply reserved, and perhaps pensive.
It was a big step, for both of them. Marrying Lethe was as good as throwing away any Daein citizenship she had, and Lethe could lose her status as a laguz warrior.
She reached out to touch Lethe's arms, feeling the lines of the scars upon them.
She'd always admired Lethe's scars, both from battle and the ritualistic designs across her arms. There was the crest of Gallia carved in her skin on her forearm, along with other symbols she did not recognize.
She'd traced the lines with her tongue, her fingers and felt them against her skin so many times. They were a rough reminder of the battles Lethe had been through, and the difference of the Gallian ways and her own.
"What do they mean?" Jill asked. She ran her thumb down the line of the Gallian crest.
"They all have different meanings. Loyalty to my king, my clan, number of victories and my place in Gallia."
Some seemed mere decoration, like the beautiful swirling lines down her arm, like a wave of ink marred into her, though Jill did not say this aloud, for Lethe was harsh towards anything she viewed as frivolous.
"But your right am doesn't have any at all," Jill said.
The only scars on that arm were from battle, rough cuts and gashes which had healed, but left their mark all the same.
"Because I have no mate," Lethe said.
She was about to speak when Lethe raised her hand. "Because I officially have no mate. That is about to change."
Jill could only imagine how painful the marking would be.
"Is that the Gallian marriage ceremony?"
"Part of it," Lethe said.
"Ah..." Jill fell quiet. If their marriage ritual was so quiet, no wonder Lethe had sneered when Elincia had wed, happily laughing and feeding cake and walking out into a rain of thrown rice.
Lethe was still disdainful of beorc things, even if she was getting better about it. Though at times, the softness slipped out, and Jill knew that the disdain was in part a mask, or a coping device of a soldier.
"Wherever you go, I'll go, and whatever it takes, I'll do it," Jill said.
Lethe's expression softened for the first time that day. She took Jill's hand in hers. "Consider it a promise, for I will do the same, even if it takes my life."
Jill leaned against Lethe, against the unmarked arm and closed her eyes. In just a few hours, they'd be in Gallia and before the king himself. She couldn't sleep, but at least she could make a show of resting.
Wherever she went, it seemed someone believed her a traitor. Lethe walked with her shoulders back, her head held high. She returned as a proud warrior, refusing to take any shame in this matter. Jill took a long breath and stepped down from the carriage. She had chosen to leave her wyvern behind under Mist's care, given that the laguz were still nervous with them, as they associated them with Daein raiding parties. She tried to emulate Lethe's stance. If she gave any quarter, she would be labeled a weak beorc.
She was aware of eyes upon her, and couldn't help but look. Beast laguz had gathered around them, their gaze both curious and hostile at once. Children hid behind the skirts of their mothers, and warriors held a little too tight to their mates, their eyes narrowed in a challenge.
"Don't you have duties to be attending to?" Lethe said, her voice dripping with disdain. She stared them all down, and Jill wondered if she really would fight every single person there for her honor.
A blue cat stepped forward, and the laguz warriors and people stepped back as he approached. He transformed to human form as he walked towards them, and in a moment she recognized Ranulf, Ike's friend and now the assistant to the king.
"—I see our guests have arrived. Look at our little prodigal daughter! I never thought I'd see the day you take a mate, and what a pretty one, too."
"You better not be seriously flirting with my mate, Ranulf," Lethe said.
"Nah, I'm just stating the obvious," Ranulf said. "Why don't you follow this way, so you don't singlehandedly try and start a war. Again."
His tone was light. Jill studied him, tried to see if this was just a mask to hide away his true feelings of displeasure, but she saw no tightness in his smile, or tension in his shoulders. Maybe his time working with Ike really had changed him as much as it had changed Lethe.
They walked towards the grand hall, which held the throne of the king. The buildings of Gallia were made from the wood of the forests, and stone from the rivers, and had little in the way of decoration. Gallian warriors had guarded the entrance, two tall, burly tigers with rippling muscles who looked like they could rip her in half without even breaking a sweat or transforming.
Skrimir sat, imposing in the throne, the remains of his last meal pushed aside. Lethe had informed her once that it was considered an honor in her culture to leave the bones after a meal, as it signified that the warrior themselves had made the kill. The more bones, the more prowess as a hunter and warrior. Skrimir's hall looked like a graveyard. It did little to ease her anxiety, even as she knew hers would not join them.
"Well, well, little Lethe. You return to us."
Skrimir's voice was a deep rumble that filled the hall. He was enormous, ripping with muscles and weight that rivaled even her wyvern. She had fought in battles with him before, but never had she been this close.
"And who is this you bring to us? Speak up, now, beorc girl."
"I am Jill Fizzart," she said.
"Fizzart?" Skrimir said. "I do not know of this line."
"She was a Daein soldier," Ranulf said.
"I..." Jill cleared her throat and spoke louder, as firm as she could. "I have given up my heritage, and turned to fight for the Crimean army before."
"But you returned," Ranulf said, not unkindly. As advisor, his witticisms were tolerated, even encouraged. Now as he surveyed her, his grin had a slightly harsh edge to it, like he wasn't quite as carefree or laid back as he let on.
"Is this true, beorc girl?" Skrimir said.
"Yes, I fought for Lady Micaiah, but she is a laguz ally—we fought right beside Tormod and his forces to free laguz from the curse of being a Feral One. I would never work to enslave your race...those days are long behind me," Jill said.
"And what do you have to say, Lethe?" Skrimir said.
"She is a soldier who fights with honor. Though she was an enemy when we first met, she has changed and will aide the laguz with all the strength she possesses."
"Any beorc to win over Lethe has to be quite the girl," Skrimir said thoughtfully.
"I'll say," Ranulf said. "I'm glad I didn't bet any money on that outcome."
Lethe frowned at him, and he grinned back at her. Jill had come to realize their friendship was about half pigtail pulling on his part, and knew it not to be tension or attraction, but an almost sibling-like relationship between them.
"And what do you say, Ranulf?" Skrimir said.
"I'm making the decisions again, boss?" Ranulf said with a sigh.
"Of course you're making the decisions for me! It's nearly dinner time, do you expect me to think on an empty stomach?" Skrimir bellowed.
Jill tried to hide her smile. For a minute, she thought Skrimir had really grown up from the brash lion she had fought battles beside, but it seemed he hadn't changed that much after all.
"Uhhhh, this is probably going to come and bite me in the tail, but I'm not opposed to it. They aren't going to be having any...you know, it could be a step forward in diplomacy with the races, and anyone who can make miss crankypants here smile is good with me."
"Miss crankypants? Hiss, go scratch yourself, Ranulf!"
"I'm too busy to scratch myself these days, so I have Lyre do it for me," Ranulf said with a wide grin.
"You did not just go there—"
Skrimir laughed. It boomed and echoed through the hall. "Look at you two, fighting like a pair of litter mates! Lethe is ever the spitfire! Though you forget that Ranulf is my assistant, now. You're supposed to respect him, it's my job to ignore his plight and disrespect him."
"And does he ever," Ranulf said.
"I am sorry, my king. Even as your assistant, he remains as insufferable as ever," Lethe said.
"True, true," Skrimir said.
"Hey, I'm still here," Ranulf said.
"That you are. Why haven't you started the festivities, yet? This calls for a celebration! Bring the fatted pig, I need a snack before I address the assembly!"
"Right on it. Congratulations, ladies. The king has spoken," Ranulf said.
Lethe bowed, and Jill followed suit. Then they walked out of the grand hall. Lethe didn't even wait until she was out of hearing range before the she started to vent.
"Crankypants? I can't believe his nerve!"
Jill touched her arm. "Don't let him get to you, that'll only encourage him to tease you more."
"Of course I know that," Lethe spat out.
"And he annoys you every time, huh?" Jill said.
"Every damn time," Lethe said between gritted teeth.
Jill giggled. For the first time since the trip, she felt a little less tense about the future. Whatever came, Lethe wouldn't have to give up her homeland for her. She rested her head against Lethe's shoulder, turning the anteroom into their own hideaway, even as the guardian tigers looked on with their impassive, expressionless faces.
Lethe's expression softened as she looked down to Jill.
"I thought that would take a lot harder," Jill said.
"As did I. I do not know that our last king would have accepted it," Lethe said.
"King Skrimir has learned a lot by fighting with the army," Jill said.
Lethe nodded. "That he has. You should go sleep. Quarters will be provided for you. There are some things I must prepare for in the traditions."
"I'm too nervous to sleep," Jill said.
"Then go to Kyza. He will be your ally, and will not be hostile to you or make you feel unwanted. He'd support anything Ranulf does, and Ranulf has given his support to you," Lethe said. "Look for him down in the offices of the barracks."
"All right," Jill said. "Good luck with your...whatever it is."
She knew instinctively that this was one of those things that Lethe wouldn't be talking about. In the time she had known Lethe, she'd grown to sense Lethe's moods, and this one was definitely iron warrior maiden.
She transformed before Jill, a tawny cat that sprung up and away.
Lethe had instructed her to be at once proud and without direct aggression; to lift her head as if a warrior, but not meet the eyes or any challenge of the laguz around her. It was a delicate balance, but Jill thought she managed it by lifting her chin defiantly, her gaze higher than the laguz.
Kyza was pouring over a parchment when she arrived. She rapped her hand against the side of the open door.
"Lethe told me to come to you," she said.
"Did she, now?" Kyza said.
It seemed rhetorical, so Jill didn't bother answering.
"Come in, come in," Kyza said. He gestured to a seat, and she took it.
Kyza wore a spotless uniform of blue, his hair slicked back. He smelled of some oil, the type she could not quite discern, and a faint aroma of herbs and flowers. A faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and unlike Ranulf, she didn't question whether it was a mask.
"You're both going to be the scandal of the century," Kyza said genially. "They'll be talking about you well into the next era."
"I suppose that's the price to pay for being a trailblazer," Jill said.
"And quite! I didn't quite believe it when Captain Ranulf told me!" Kyza said.
"He told you already?" Jill said. It couldn't have been ten minutes since the hearing.
"He's a terrible gossip, you know. He tells me everything," Kyza said. He smiled smugly at this last part.
"And Lyre, too, apparently," Jill said.
Kyza's mouth twisted into a sour line. "Yes, her too."
Realizing she'd been accidentally gone into tense territory, Jill quickly changed the subject.
"I see you're a very hard worker. Ranulf must appreciate that," she said.
Kyza puffed up with pride. "The hardest! I have set records for how much paperwork I can accomplish. Ranulf even gave me a medal and a scroll for my efforts."
"Then you know a lot of the lore?" Jill asked.
"Yes, you've been wanting to ask something, haven't you? You're still technically an outsider right now, but I'll tell you what I can."
Kyza pushed aside his paperwork and gave her his full attention.
"Do you think anyone will riot tonight? To stop the ceremony?" Jill asked.
"Oh, no, nothing like that. They might disapprove, but our king's word is law. If they don't like it, they can challenge him or leave the enclave, but to do so...it's hard for a laguz. Perhaps you don't know, being a hu—ahem, a beorc and all, but to us beast laguz, connection is everything. To be cast out of the kingdom is practically a death sentence. The ones that do are marked with their shame, and even laguz from other tribes will have nothing to do with them. And to challenge our king, well that's a definite death sentence. Nobody but the strongest lions become king, and King Skrimir is in his prime. No other Gallian warrior could even match him."
Lethe had risked all this for her. A surge of feeling ran through her as she remembered Lethe's intensity, her devotion. She was willing to risk her life, her honor, to go against everything she had been trained and lived through for her.
"So even if they hiss, they won't do much. Lethe was the lippy one who'd go up and hiss at the beorc, the rest probably won't even go near you."
"Thank you, Kyza, it's a real comfort to know all this. Can you tell me more about the wedding ceremonies of Gallia?"
"I'm sorry, I can't at all. Ranulf commanded me to keep it a secret, and I always listen to his commands," Kyza smiled in a lovesick manner at the last part.
"Well, it was worth a try," Jill said.
"I can tell you about heron marriages, though. In my studies I learned enough of the ancient language to go by, and I had a very nice chat with the heron princess. She told me some fascinating things about heron wedding dresses," Kyza said eagerly.
Jill pushed herself up from her seat. "Another time? Lethe wanted me to take a nap before the festivities, and it'd be no good to have her cranky at me on our wedding day."
"Yes, we do things quickly around here. No weeks of waiting. Sleep well, beorc girl."
"Thank you, thank you for everything," Jill said.
She took a glance over her shoulder before she left, and saw that Kyza had already returned to his paperwork.
When Jill awoke, the day had grown dark. She pushed herself up, to find that Lethe stood by the bedside.
"We're to get changed before the opening statements," Lethe said.
"Oh...er—" Jill yawned, and rubbed at her eyes. "You should've woken me."
"I wanted you to have your rest. Besides, you looked so peaceful," Lethe said.
Jill pushed herself up, her foot hitting against her breastplate as she did. "I'm a soldier; I'm used to getting woken up at odd times."
"I know," Lethe said. "Let me spoil you at least on your wedding day. I'll make sure to wake you up before dawn for training on every other day to make up for it."
Jill laughed at this. "You never change, Lethe."
"Would you want me to?" Lethe said, her voice dipping into harshness.
"No. Then you wouldn't be the woman I fell in love with," Jill replied.
Draped over the bed were two similar dresses of white tanned hide between many flowers. She bent down, and removed her armor, and on her side Lethe began to do the same. The dress fit snugly about her chest, it was smoother than it looked and sleeveless. The bottom train of the skirts fell lose around her waist, and was designed with the crest of Gallia burnt onto it. It still smelled faintly of wood smoke, and freshly tanned leather.
Lethe's was nigh identical, only with a design marking her status as a Gallian warrior woven into the crest.
"Are you finished?" Lethe asked.
"Then it's time for the flowers."
What Jill had thought was just a group of unrelated flowers laid for decoration she found was actually a pair of flower crowns which had been strung together and waited for someone to wear them. Lethe placed one on her head, and put the other in Jill's hands.
She rested it on Lethe's head, careful to not squish her ears. Lethe sneezed, and Jill giggled.
"Do you think this is a laughing matter, beorc girl?" Lethe said. Her frown was so deep as to be comical, a sure sign that Lethe was teasing her. It made Jill laugh all the more.
"Yes," Jill said. She leaned in to kiss Lethe's nose.
"Hmph. Let's go," Lethe said.
She took Lethe's hand again, and they walked out to the scrutiny of the crowd around. Fires lit the land of Gallia. The largest was a huge bonfire in the middle of the settlement, in what Jill could only figure to be a square or gathering point of sorts. Whole fatted pigs roasted on large spits, and there was huge amounts of firewood stacked at the base of the site, feeding the flames.
There were so many people, perhaps all of Gallia was there, she couldn't begin to even count the heads. She only recognized a few faces in the sea of blank, guarded faces. Kyza smiled and nodded to her, and it lifted her spirits somewhat.
They walked out to in front of the fire, before the massive throne made of wood and gold which Skrimir sat upon. Ranulf leaned against it, a scroll in hand.
"Ready?" Ranulf said.
Jill didn't trust herself to speak, so simply nodded.
"We are. Begin the proceedings," Lethe said.
Ranulf began to read off a parchment. Through the din, Jill couldn't quite catch was he was saying, until a sound of pounding came, and the crowd fell entirely silent.
"Today, we bring together two cultures. Our most hardened beorc hating warrior, and a former enemy. Today, we show that change isn't just ideals of the beorc nobility, but a possibility."
Ranulf pulled down the parchment and nudged Skrimir. Skrimir stood up to his whole height and began to address the crowd.
"If anyone feels this ruling is unjust, as the code of Gallia states, they may challenge me now," Skrimir said.
Skrimir stared down around at the crowd. He was a full head and shoulders above even the largest tiger laguz in the group. No one moved. No one spoke. It seemed like no one even dared breathe while the Gallian king stared at them, fully willing to tear them apart with his claws.
"No one? Then by the power of Gallia, I decree this shindig started!"
"That's not the order goes," Ranulf hissed.
"Mine is better!" Skrimir said.
The laguz were dressed in their finest skins. So many of them had the same marks that Lethe did, plenty on both arms, but many with only one arm patterned.
Jill felt arms about her neck, a quick embrace, and looked back to see a face very like Lethe's own. She hadn't expected such an enthusiastic greeting from her sister-in-law.
"Oh, that's so pretty! I always love a wedding," she said.
"Lyre, right?" Jill said.
"Yes, that's me. I'm so happy Lethe brought me another sister! I bet you'll be a lot more fun than Miss Stick In The Mud ever was."
"Lyre!" Lethe said.
Lyre stuck out her tongue. "It's true."
"You don't mind?" Jill asked.
"Anyone who can make Lethe happy is fine by me, because trust me, she is hard to make happy. Besides, it means less competition for Ranulf."
Lethe snorted. "As if I ever was in running for him."
"I already have enough competition as I do," Lyre said. Her expression darkened as Kyza wove through the crowd.
"It's starting. You're to both come to the circle," he said.
"I suppose Ranulf told you that," Lyre said. Her tail twitched in irritation.
"Yes, because I was actually working. He depends on me," Kyza said.
"I was greeting my sister-in-law!" Lyre protested.
"Those who nap away the day miss the prize kill from the hunt," Kyza said, quoting an adage she'd heard Lethe use before.
"Oh, hiss, scratch on you!"
"Scratch on yourself," Kyza shot back.
Lethe took Jill's hand and lead her through the crowd, the sound of Lyre and Kyza's bickering behind them, and falling into the din.
A pounding sound came again, and the ceremony went on. Several laguz orderlies came through, carrying several deer, a wild boar, and a few quail. They were laid out as an offering before her.
"I caught these. I will provide for you and protect you," Lethe said. In the glow of the firelight she looked so fierce and beautiful in her Gallian wedding dress.
"And I will protect you as well–I'm not going to just be some wench in the kitchen, you know," Jill said.
"There is nothing as beautiful as a marriage of two warriors," Skrimir said. He lifted up a massive hand in a dramatic gesture.
"Lethe, fine warrior of Gallia, you know what is to come. But Jill, you are new to our ways. Let my assistant explain it to you."
Ranulf stepped forward and showed his marks. Only one arm was scarred with a shade of blue underneath, but his were different than Lethe's, more ornate with a large crest of Gallia on his upper arm that was unlike the others she had seen.
"I've seen you fight before and take wounds like it was nothing, and I hope that strength is with you today, as I gotta admit, this is no cakewalk. Our creed is 'loyalty without blood is worthless.' To be marked is to prove your strength, your worthiness not just to your clan, but your king."
The parchment rustled, and he fixed it, and continued reading.
"Once you are marked, you will be considered a part of Gallia. You'll be subject to our laws, and answer to our king. Anyone who crosses you will be subject to the laws of Gallian arguments, as well."
He lifted his arm to display his own scars, both from battle and the ritual scarification of Gallia.
"The right arm is for king and country. It shows where we come from, burnt into us so it can never be forgotten. The pain is to remind us that life will be hard and a constant battle, and those who can't withstand it aren't going to survive. The right arm is for the mate we have chosen, and to remind us that to be joined with someone will be a struggle, worth enduring pain for, and not something to jump thoughtlessly into."
The pounding sounded up again, and a roar split the night.
"You're going to have a lot to cover," Ranulf warned. He wasn't acting the king's assistant now, but a friend. "It's gonna hurt a lot. Are you up to it? Will you join our clan as Lethe's mate?"
All the gazes of the laguz were upon her, burning into her with hostility and suspicion. She might never be truly accepted by them. Gallia was foreign to her, beautiful and yet so very harsh.
But she was a Fizzart, a Daein warrior woman who had braved winters and turned on her own people. She was strong enough, and if Lethe accepted her, then it didn't matter.
"I will," Jill said. She lifted her chin, as if to withstand any censure laid upon her.
Another series of roars, and she was lead away with Lethe just beside her to a place between the large fires in the middle of the square, to two bloodstained chairs designed with the same sweeping, curling pattern. Laguz were beside her, carrying small knives which she saw them put to the flames. A rush of panic came up in her, but she shoved it down.
She reached out, desperate until her hand was in Lethe's. This was all she needed. As the sound of drums and roaring increased until it felt it was just a throbbing between her head, she clung tight and felt steadied, loved.
The first spike of pain was blindingly intense. She bit at her lip so hard she tasted blood, and closed her eyes to block out the stinging smoke. If she let go, she would never stop screaming, and she would shame herself. She'd had more painful times. The time she had to watch her father die on the fields of Talrega, her on the opposing army, the loss of her mother at a young age, the time an enemy wyvern rider had stabbed her in the guts, and Mist had barely made it in time before she had bled out.
Each cut burnt and ached as they carved out the beautiful deigns on her. Unlike Lethe, who only had her left arm to be marked, she had both at once. From each side, they cut away skin and burnt and inked her. She held so tightly to the side of the chair with one hand, to Lethe with the other that her hands trembled.
Liquid heat seared through her arms, stinging in the night air. White dots came before her shut eyes, the pain so intense that she felt woozy. Time passed, but how long, she couldn't say, lost in the pain and the dark, with only the touch of Lethe's hand about hers to guide her.
Finally, there was no longer the touch of heat. An attendant covered a salve over her arms, and the pain was dulled, somewhat. The knives had been set aside. Her arms were a bloody mess, now, but once it had healed they would be beautiful and ornate.
Jill dared to open her eyes to the crowd around her. Ranulf gave her a thumbs up. Lethe let go of her hand to allow the bandaging to begin on both of them.
"You were very brave," Lethe said. "You did not even cry once."
"I did my best," Jill said wearily.
"You are now my mate–my wife. I consider you not simply beorc, but my own flesh and clan. You are a laguz born to another parent. You have spilled blood and hunted with us, protected and fought and become marked. To take this mark is for life. This kind of mating bond, there is no end to. Not everyone dares to take it, but I would risk it all and more for you, my mate. There is not an army or a force which I would not fight for you."
Words fell short, but she choked out an I feel the same. It wasn't enough, but it was all she had.
When the bandaging had finished, she held tight to Lethe's hand once again as the festivities continued around them. She was too tired and sore to enjoy the feasting of her wedding or even think of a wedding night, but something in her felt calm. She did not know all of laguz culture, but she would learn. Lethe had taken her in when she had no family, risked her life to take her into her clan. After many years of wandering and switching sides, she finally knew where she belonged.