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Pulse of my Heart

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It was a great sword, longer and lighter than most, designed to be wielded by a man who danced around his foes like a whirlwind give human form. Its handle was made of deer antler and wrapped in leather, soft and smooth to the touch. Comfortable. The blade was double-edged, tapering to a wicked point that sliced through flesh as though it were warm butter. Blood, brown and flaking away with age, decorated the long, gleaming steel. She could not bring herself to wipe it away.

She carried the sword with her always, a constant, dragging weight at her left hip. She blamed the sword for her journey, although in truth it wasn’t the cause. But it was easier to keep going when she had something to remind her, something to push her on through the long years and smoky taverns, across the rolling seas and down the long hills. And keep going she did--through driving snows and waving wildflowers in the sun, on the back of a tall mare whose gray hide faded slowly to white as she trotted the years away. Belted at her hip, always, was the sword.

She slept with it beside her pillow on the rare days the inns had beds available, or with her arms clasped around it when she curled up by the hearth in the great common rooms among the snoring of men and the crackling of fire. On those nights, she polished the gleaming blade in the firelight, carefully avoiding the fragile old blood, and no man ever troubled her. It was the only time she took the sword from its black leather scabbard.

This would be another night she polished the sword before falling into a restless sleep, in some nameless, smoky tavern like the thousands of others she had slept in over the years. She wasn’t even sure why she kept traveling anymore, if not for the simple fact that she could never return home. She had left a beloved chieftain, traitorous bastard that he was, in a heap at her feet one cloudless starry night, so many years ago, for the crime of turning her heart to stone. It’s the clinking silver from his hoard that she’s used to fund her travels. It wasn’t won by his sword, anyway.

She’s fixed every detail of that night in her memory, in the increasingly vain hope that she’ll do its retelling justice someday. It was the sword and the gray mare that kept her going when she considered simply laying herself at the foot of a towering old oak and letting either Jesus or the fair folk take her. But there was no one else to care for the tall horse with her sweet brown eyes and arching neck and her name for an old goddess of war, and whoever stole the sword from her body would surely clean the blood from its blade.

And so on this night she finds a tavern in some nameless burgh in a kingdom of fertile valleys and grazing cattle. She’s halfway through her stew when she hears familiar laughter rising like a ghost from a grave on a moonless night, and her blood runs hot and cold all at once. It takes her desperate, searching eyes only a moment to find him. He looks like she imagined he would, the weight of years sitting light on his shoulders. He wears his hair now the same way he did then, and her chest is suddenly so full of wet wool she can barely draw a breath. She remembers the first time she saw him, how the handfuls of water he scrubbed through his black hair ran pink with blood as it streamed down his lean, muscled back. How her chest felt the same then as it does now.

The sword leaves its scabbard with a soft hiss, and although her knees shake as she crosses the tavern, her hands are steady when she reaches her target. The wicked point rests at the notch of his collarbone. Movement catches her eye as the man to his left--short black hair and snake tattoos curling above his ears; she registers him immediately as a Dane from her travels to that frozen land--brandishes a dagger. She ignores him, and a flake of the old blood drifts down to the breast of Finan’s leather jerkin.

“Dia duit.” It was the first thing he said to her that afternoon long ago, water sluicing down his broad shoulders and lean chest, the waist of his brown wool breeches blackened with moisture. His voice was smooth then, silky with confidence, like he knew from her wide, stricken eyes that he’d already won her. Now it’s low, rough with uncertainty and longing. He clears his throat. “Come to fulfill your marriage-vow, Aoife? Ye did promise to run me through with my own sword if I journeyed somewhere ye couldna follow.”

“And yet I have followed.”

The sharp-faced Dane stands so abruptly he knocks his ale over. He claps a hand on Finan’s shoulder, mutters something about a wife, and is gone with a graceful swirl of his black cloak. “People are starin’, cuisle mo chroidhe, so run me through or put the blade away.” She watches the ale spread across the table and drip onto the floor for a few moments before sliding the blade back into its scabbard.

“I killed him.” Her voice is matter-of-fact, blank as stone. “Cían.”

“It’s his blood on the sword, then?” He brushes the flake absently from his jerkin with a flick of his blunt finger.

“I saw him hit you from behind. Saw him laughing as the Norsemen dragged you to their dragon-ship.” She doesn’t mention the way his head lolled, chin on chest, body gone boneless, feet dragging through the coarse sand of the beach, through the breaking surf, and heaved carelessly into the belly of a waiting ship.

“I knew he was behind it. I just didn’t know he had the courage to attack me himself,” Finan muses, looking thoughtfully up at her. “So he staged the whole battle, then?”

“All of it a scheme to be rid of ye, so I dug up his hoard and killed him. There were no clouds that night, and his blood looked black as his heart when I left him there on the floor of our house.”

Finan raises his eyebrows, face suddenly stern. “What was that bastard doing in our house, Aoife?”

She hasn’t felt shame over this in many years now, although she burned with it at the time and she burns with it now. Over the years, this is a memory she’s glossed over--the way she smiled at the man who betrayed her husband, the way she whispered in his ear and trailed her fingers over his throat while she dreamed of strangling him. The way he came to her after the battle and grabbed her by the hair, shouted at all his assembled men that she was his now. That he had sent Finan away for the crime of marrying the woman that should have been left for his chieftain.

His eyes are fastened on her, pinning her beneath the weight of her long-forgotten shame. “I was not strong enough to kill him without him trusting me first.”

“Damn ye, woman! Did your promises to me mean nothing once I was out of sight?” She flinches as if his words leave bruises on her skin.

“I saw your face every time I looked at him, and every night when I close my eyes. I’ve kept my marriage vows, cuisle mo croidhe, but have ye?”

He holds himself stiff and sharp as steel under her questioning gaze. “I’ve never lain with another woman, if that’s what yer askin’. I remember my promises.” He reaches toward her, briefly, then lets his hand drop, and his voice breaks in a wracked half-sob as he continues. “I’ve dreamt of ye all these years, and now that you’re finally before me, I’m afraid I’ve finally lost my mind.”

“I thought I would never see you again,” she admits, finally letting herself feel something. It’s a giddy sort of terror, like if she reaches out to touch him her hands will pass right through. For the first time since that morning so long ago, her heart doesn’t feel like stone. It feels like flesh, like a pulsing ache so thick she can barely breathe, and it feels like coming alive, like clawing out from dark, crushing dirt. She can barely get his name out through the throbbing, writhing thing her heart has become. “Finan.”

The breathy sound of his name breaks some type of spell, or maybe casts it. He stumbles around the table, not even noticing when he blunders into a bench and causes the men sitting on it to shout. His arms come around her, crushing her, drowning her in the scents of smoke and ale, and it doesn’t matter that she’s been wandering for nearly a decade. Coming home, feeling the pulse of her heart, was worth every step.