Liulfr & Branwen

Our very first story with a new member of the team. Introducing *drum roll* Billie Sheen!

Chapter One

He was back again, a happy smile pulling at his lips when she turned from her garden to look at him. He always came back and it was starting to get a little annoying. She had never met a being as persistent as this wolf. “What do you want?” She asked as she turned back to her garden, pulling away the weeds.

“Come now Branwen, don’t act so cold, I only want your happiness.” He replied as he took a seat on the ground next to her.

“Then go away wolf.”

“Come now, call me Liulfr like the villagers.”

“No, now leave, I’m busy.”

He laughed, a sound she had to admit she enjoyed. “I still haven’t found him.”

“Really?”

He nodded. “But I will, I swear. It’s going to take quite the man to keep up with you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Take your sermon elsewhere wolf, you know my feelings on the subject. I don’t believe in soul mates. When people desire something they take it, men seduce married women and vice versa. True love doesn’t exist.”

He laughed again. “If only you could see the faces of those I have matched.”

“Using magic to bring two people together is hardly fair. What if the spell wears off, what will you do then?”

“There is no spell Branwen, only truth and I open their eyes too it.”

She snorted. “Whatever you say wolf.”

She got to her feet and picked up the weeds, taking them to the barrel of compost she had started. She would put it back into nature once it was thoroughly degraded. She turned back around and Liulfr was standing there, the same sweet smile on his beautiful face. She turned away, heading into her house and he followed uninvited as usual. “Tell me what you love most.” He said as he took a seat at her kitchen table.

She pulled two cups down and sat them on the counter then grabbed her tea pot and filled it with water. Even though he annoyed her, she still felt she should be hospitable. “I already have.”

“Yes, but I need to be able to find the perfect match, so tell me again.”

She lifted one of the small, linen bags, which held her favorite herbal mix of rose hip and violet petals from the row of smooth, wooden hooks fastened along the side of the cupboard above her head, pausing for a moment as she remembered how pleased she had been with her father’s praise of her five year old”help” with the project, the memory flooding her with warmth as if it were yesterday. She heaped two spoonfuls of the mixture into the teapot and set it onto the hot coals at the front of the fire hearth. Taking a deep breath, she turned to face Liulfr, who was watching her intently. When their eyes met, his gaze seemed to bore straight through her soul. Disconcerted, she glanced out the window, brushed a stray lock of deep brown hair from her forehead, moved to the other side of the table, sitting in the chair with an air of impatience.

“The smell of the earth after rain – especially on a hot, summer afternoon.” A smile played at her lips. “I love that. Will that help you in your search for the Perfect One?”

“It might. What else?” his voice was low and even.

She considered being evasive, but knew he would persist till he got the answers he sought.

“Courage.”

“Yes, I remember that one.”

“I’d love someone passionate, intelligent. Curious. Playful. ” The words tumbled out in quick succession, sounding more like accusations than descriptions. “And don’t forget laughter – he would have a fine sense of humor. And since you are making this ridiculous list, as if all these qualities could actually exist in one “soulmate” – add loyalty and listening, and compassion, and skillful mastery of the Sacred Arts.”

The kettle whistled, and she moved to the hearth.

Liulfr smiled as he watched Branwen go prepare their tea. She was frustrating at times with her stubbornness but by the same token it was adorable and entertaining. She was a challenge, somthing he didn’t face often in his long life. He admired what she wanted in a man as well. Most women would have described somthing about looks when describing her dream man but with Branwen it was all what she wanted him to be on the inside. It was yet another way she was a rare flower in the field of women. He felt whatever man he found for her would be extremely lucky, albeit ready to pull his hair out half the time. Branwen set a cup in front of Liulfr then retook her seat.

“are you leaving after tea?” she asked and Liulfr chuckled “I’d hate to drink and run”

“wont offend me any” his smile widened. “you can’t dislike me this much? You seriously mean you don’t enjoy my company at all?”

“Maybe if you’d stop with all this soulmate stuff I would but its mostly what you bring up”

“what would you like to talk about?”

“anything but that”

“then please, start a conversation of your liking”

“don’t you have magic to cast somewhere?”

“I’d rather be here, you’re a very interesting woman Branwen”

She narrowed her eyes at him and his smile simply widened. He was not at all deterred by her sour attitude. She let out a small little huff and took a quick sip of her tea. “I helped a woman give birth yesterday.”

“Must have been exhausting, your face says it was a hard labor.”

“It was, the poor baby was turned sideways and the mother was in a panic, even her husband could not calm her.”

“What happened?”

“I made her something to help calm her nerves and told her to breathe. I managed to get the baby turned and she gave birth to a beautiful little boy.”

“You really are amazing.” The sincerity in his words made her heart do a little dance in her chest, one she made a point of ignoring. They sipped on their tea in silence, Branwen glancing over the rim of her cup at the wolf sitting across from her. He was incredibly elegant and beautiful, his eyes the most wonderful shade of crimson and his hair as black as obsidian. He had this otherwordly glow about him and the energy about him was always so serene, no wonder people trusted him.

“So, where will you go to look for my perfect match?”

He shrugged. “Here and there. I have many worlds to visit and many men to look over if I am to find the one destined to be yours.”

“You’ll be gone forever.”

He chuckled. “Well good thing that is not a problem for either of us beautiful raven.” He took the last sip of his tea and stood, adjusting his clothes and smiling warmly at her. “I’ll return with him as quickly as possible.”

“Now? You have no supplies.”

“I may be one who guides two hearts together, but I am very capable at hunting.”

“What about herb gathering?”

“I’ll manage.”

“In other worlds?”

He chuckled. “You almost sound concerned.”

She blushed. “Well of course, wouldn’t want you poisoning yourself.”

“Then what do you suggest, sweet little Branwen?”

“Well, I could go with you. Besides, I’d like to see your magic in action. I’m sure it’ll be interesting.”

The wolf felt a stirring deep within, though his demeanor evidenced no outward sign. He had never once thought of taking someone on a journey with him, and yet, suddenly it seemed like the most natural unfolding of events he had ever experienced. With deliberate and practiced calm he met the questioning gaze of the Beautiful Raven who now sat poised on the edge of her rough wooden chair, an air of excited, yet somehow sweetly humble, expectancy, shining, luminous and lovely on her upturned face.
Inwardly groaning with an alarming surge of emotion, Liulfr brusquely asked, “Are you quite certain you are up to the challenge of such a journey, my dear? I haven’t the time to bring you back, should you find yourself burdened or overwhelmed by the demands of inter-planetary travel, time and space distortions, not to mention the culinary oddities one is bound to run across within the varied species and cultures of this immense galaxy. Have you, Branwen, a healthy appetite and strong stomach?”

She felt the heat flood upward to her face, but for once, found herself responding with a sense of being on equal ground with the wolf. She shrugged her shoulders, stood up and calmly replied, ” Forgive me if I have overstepped my bounds in making the suggestion. I would never want to burden you, Liulfr.”

“Well, no, of course, I didn’t mean… you are welcome, Branwen.. I would, of course, enjoy a traveling…” The wolf paused, breathed in deeply, gathering himself, calm and serene once more.

“I would be honored, truly, to have you accompany me on such an epic journey, Branwen. He paused once more, to check the unfamiliar sensation of emotion welling from within. ” Would you consent to be my companion upon this unknown, uncharted adventure?” Then, softer, “I want you with me…please.”

Branwen, not trusting her voice, simply nodded assent, and stepped closer , facing him squarely.

As their eyes met, something unfathomable flashed between them, intense and challenging. This time, Liulfr felt his poise slip, and was first to glance away – seeking a distraction to focus upon, conveniently provided by the sound of two voices, raised in apparent disagreement, becoming louder and louder as the two men to whom the voices belonged appeared on the path, just north of Branwen’s cottage, moving as rapidly as they were talking, coming into view through the small window near the table.

As they drew a bit closer Branwen could see one of the men had a boy who looked to be about twelve hanging limply on his back. Rushing past Liulfr she bolted outside to see if they were looking for her. The men who were once arguing non stop paused when they saw Branwen coming. “are you seeking me?” she asked when she came to a halt before them. “yeah, this idiot got our younger brother deathly ill! He can barely even talk thanks to this lug head”

“it wasn’t I, he probably got sick when he was out with you yesterday! Incubation period!”

“Incu what?’

“just shu” the taller of the two started but was cut off by Branwen “take him into my home and lay him down. We can’t waste time playing the blame game and regardless of when its nobodies fault when somebody catches somthing unless they deliberately made him ill which I’m sure isn’t the case with either of you. Go now and I refuse to hear any more bickering.” They nodded their agreement and the brother carrying the young boy ran inside her home. “where has he been and what are all his symptoms?” she asked the remaining brother. This was the shorter of the two. He had light brown hair and green eyes that Branwen saw held deep concern for his brother, even guilt that it might really be his fault.

“I’ve taken him into Black Bear woods, through Fleur Valley and up the Warring Mountains. I was just trying to show my brother some adventure. He works so much. Our pa told me not to take him but we went anyway.”

“where has your other brother taken him?’

“Just out hunting”

“where?”

“didn’t ask precisely mam”

“then I’ll ask him” she answered with a hint of annoyance. She quickly returned to her home and ran inside where Liulfr was wiping sweat off the boy with a cool rag. “what’s all going on with him Liulfr?” she asked.

“He’s soaked in sweat, his skin is clammy, and his breathing is labored. He also has an irregular heartbeat and he keeps groaning like he’s in pain.” He leaned in close to the boy and sniffed him. “There is something off about his scent, but I cannot determine what it is.”

“I need you to search his body for wounds while I try and figure this out.”

“Anything you need, I will gladly do.”

She felt a fluttering in her chest as she turned to the other brother. “Tell me where you took him hunting.”

“Out to Istria Valley, you know the place with the pink flowers that grow up to your thigh. The deer love them because they taste sweet. We killed a deer out there, he helped me field dress it and carry it out.”

“Did you find any wounds Liulfr?”

“No wounds, but he does have a rash on his legs.”

“Up to the thigh?”

“Yes.”

She sighed her relief as the other brother walked in. “He’s allergic to the flowers, severely allergic.” She went to work making a tea for him to drink and a rub for his rash. Liulfr watched her as she calmly worked on the life saving tea that would relieve the boy of his illness. She was incredibly beautiful, her form moving around the kitchen, scooping herbs into her mortar and mashing them into a fine powder. She mixed in oils, turning them into a paste and then scooped it into a container. When the hot water was done boiling she made him a cup of loose leaf tea. Some of the ingredients he recognized and others he did not. She brought the drink over, steam rising off the cup. “Heal this boy, make him strong.” She said softly. “Lift him up.”

Liulfr lifted him up into a sitting position and tipped his head back. Branwen pulled his mouth open and poured the tea into his mouth, rubbing his throat as she coaxed him to swallow. They watched his adam’s apple bob and they both gave a sigh of relief. Once he had ingested all the tea she had him lay the boy back down and retrieved the ointment. She rubbed some on his rash then closed the container and handed it to the oldest brother. “He should wake up once you get him home, but he’ll be drowsy and probably confused. I want you to have him put this on the rash once a day until it is gone. There should be enough.”

“Thank you so much.”

Chapter Two

The younger of the brothers sitting at the table, with his head bowed, shoulders hunched in deep concern, stood and addressed Branwen. “How can we repay you for saving our Zedrien?”

“I do not charge for my medicinal ministries. My skills come as a gift to me, and are freely given to all in need. Your continued care of your brother, his return to full health is payment enough.”

The older brother untied the satchel that hung from leather straps on his belt,drawing from it a small, intricately carved object. He handed both to Branwen. “Then we shall give you a gift. This flute was carved by our father’s father. It has magic in it, granted by the Elders, as reward for our family’s service to the Council.”

The younger brother spoke again. “You may know our family name. We are of the Sun Ring lineage, of Zuesian descent. I am Zulor, my older brother, Zebrim.”

As one, Liulfr and Branwen, drew in a breath of surprise and awe. The Sun Ring name was known throughout the galaxy for honor and bravery; warriors of the Council, defenders charged with the responsibility of safe-guarding the ancient writings holding the spells of the Sacred Arts.

As Liulfr bowed in deference to the men, Brawen said,” I am honored you trusted me to care for one of your kin.”

“Your name is also known far and wide, Brawen. Your knowledge and skill are much respected” Zebrim smiled. “We did not come to you by chance.” He motioned to the flute. “Please accept this token of our gratitude. The magic in it can only be accessed by one with Passion in the heart and Truth in Speaking.”

Zulor said, “The magic melody of this flute will sound only in time of great need, for a specific purpose, which the player must intuit in giving life to the notes. It has been used only once, by our grandmother. She would be pleased to know you now carry it with you.”

“Then, I accept both the gift and the honor. I will treasure it always”, Brawen placed the flute back in the satchel and drew it closed, retying the long straps and hanging it around her neck. “I will wear it close to my heart”

The men nodded their approval. As Zebrim took his youngest brother in his arms, he turned to Liulfr. “We know you as well, matchmaker.” With a broad smile that danced in his eyes he asked, ” Are you here on business, to perform your magic for this special woman, or perhaps just to relax and enjoy such delightful company?”

Returning the smile, and glancing at Brawen, who had shifted her stance and seemed deeply preoccupied with straightening her clothing around the satchel, Liulfr responded, ” I suppose one could say I am here for a little of both. Branwen has shared both tea and lively conversation, and has in fact agreed to accompany me on what I suspect will be a most productive and unusual adventure, as we search together for that Special Man who is her fated match.”

“And I suspect that journey may take you to the edges of the galaxy and back again”, laughed Zulor, “Might just be the test of all test of your magic and skill, finding a man to match the brilliance of Branwen.”

Branwen raised her head high, and with a pleasant but firm tone in her voice, said,” Gentlemen, much as I enjoy being discussed as if I weren’t even in the room, I must beg your indulgence. I have a journey to prepare for, which as you have so knowingly pointed out, might be a very long one. I do need some time to gather what is needed.”

As his brother stirred in his arms, Zebrim said, “Yes, and we have a lad that must needs be in a proper bed. Shall we, brother?”

“yes, thank you again miss Raven” Branwen smiled and gave a small nod as the men left her home. “I’m glad we hadn’t gone anywhere yet” Liulfr said once they were out and on their way back down the dirt path. “me too, the people manage without me when I travel though. Many men and women or somwhat near by who could have deduced what was wrong with that boy. Though with how severely allergic he was to those flowers I’m not sure how much further he would have made it. Thank goodness they hadn’t taken him hunting when he was younger or his small body might not have been able to take it as long as he did.”

With that Branwen began putting what she felt were essentials for the journey in a small, brown backpack. As she put herbs in Liulfr asked “what are those for?’

“some or for healing incase one of us catches an illness or we stumble upon sombody I can help while others are for cooking. Plain meat is edible if we need to hunt but it would be better to have some seasoning” He watched as she continued, throwing in only two changes of clothes and a couple more minor things before slipping the backpack on. She walked around her home to be sure there was nothing else she wanted to take before turning her gaze to Liulfr “I’m ready if you are dreamer”

“dreamer?”

“well, you live in a fantasy world where true love exists so I consider you a dreamer” she answered with a teasing smile. Liulfr chuckled “you will make my travels far better Branwen. Would you like to stop in town and have a meal before we head out?”

“sounds good, I particularly enjoy Katrinas cooking if that would sit well with you”

“magnificent, lets go”

Their walk into town was incredibly peaceful, Liulfr’s voice wonderfully soft as he talked about the many couples he had brought together. He seemed to have a fond memory of every single one and had forgotten none of them. His smile was warm and came easily to his face, knowing very well that she didn’t believe that so many could fall so easily in love. When they made it to Katrina’s they found a place to sit and were immediately brought cups of tea. “The usual for you both?” They both smiled up at the woman who had come to serve them and nodded. She hurried off and they sat in silence for a few moments.

Branwen studied the wolf as he studied the other patrons, watching as his eyes seemed to see into the very souls of those around them. His crimson gaze was so steady, yet held a softness about it. “That one there needs work.” He suddenly said, his voice warm.

“That one?” Branwen asked.

He gestured to a young man sitting quietly in the far corner, a book in his hands, a glass of water poised at his lips. “Humans can be so silly sometimes, unable to see what is around them.” He stood from his seat and she watched as he crossed the room and sat down across from the young man. It immediately caught his attention and he glanced up from his book. She could not hear what they were saying, but she could see the young man’s demeanor change as he listened to Liulfr speak. The wolf reached across the table and patted the boy on the shoulder, a gesture that to many would seem like one of camaraderie, but to Branwen it was a touch full of purpose. She could sense the magic as it passed from wolf to boy. The boy said something that by the movement of his lips, looked like a thank you and Liulfr got to his feet and came back to their table just as their food arrived.

“What did you do?” She asked.

“Opened his eyes and gave him the ability to see The One. He’ll find him or her easy enough now that he can see.”

“No love spell?”

“I do not weave lies my sweet little raven, a dishonest love is not love at all. I simply guide them in the right direction.” He smiled at her. “Never in a million years would I tell you a lie.”

She gave him a long, thoughtful look.

“I believe you.”

Liulfr felt his heart constrict as she spoke with such directness and simplicity. For perhaps the millionth time, he thought about this woman who sat before him – strong, independent, yet somehow fragile in her denial of “true love”. He knew from wisdom gathered over so many years, that the heart hides from that which it longs for most. Where would he have to go to find a man worthy of such a woman? How could he best accomplish this most challenging task? Of all the matches he had ever made, he sensed that this one would be unique, almost beyond his skill at matchmaking, because for him, this one had become deeply personal.

Revealing nothing of his thoughts, Liulfr smiled, and said,”Thank you. You will never be sorry. I give you my word.”

He paused, then added, “Shall we go? Are you ready to begin our epic adventure?”

“Wolf, forgive me, Dream Wolf – I have never been more ready in my life than I am for this!” She laughed, a deeply melodic and full bodied sound, arising as if from deep within a soul filled with joy. “You have no idea how excited I am. I haven’t traveled in years, and am so much looking forward to the sights, the sounds, the unknown adventure of it all. Even, given that I am traveling with you”, she said teasingly.

“I will be a gentleman, and refrain from besting you with a witty comeback, given your present exuberance”, laughed the wolf in reply. ” I certainly am enjoying your attitude of enthusiasm, Branwen. Seems I have a bit of insight after all. For so long you have kept yourself closed off and distant, but I KNEW there was a Free Spirit hidden in there somewhere! Thank you for letting her out.”

“I’ll give you credit – this ONE time, Liulfr. And yes – the thrill of unknown adventure, even if it is couched in this silly search for my ONE and ONLY, causes me to feel in high spirits for certain.”

She reached into a pouch hanging from her leather belt. “Will we use magic tokens to move about the galaxy? I brought mine, not knowing your protocol.”

“Wise as well as witty. I had completely forgotten to ask you if you had the Tokens of Travel. Yes, we will be using them, five in all. You have enough?”

“Oh, yes, I have enough. My journeys have taken me to the ends of the Realm, in search of useful and unusual medicinal plants. The Council has been very generous in providing me with the spells of token magic to access the hidden and strange places of this galaxy. I might even have visited in places foreign to a well seasoned traveler such as yourself.”

“Which may just prove useful”, mused the wolf, more to himself than aloud. In a stronger voice, he announced, “Well, then, let us hasten to the Transformation Trees, and begin our noble quest!”

Just as before, their walk was wonderfully peaceful, a soft smile always on Liulfr’s face. The sky was dimming by the time they made it to their destination, a small path made of stepping stones that disappeared into the forest. It was shaded by the trees around it, so it was cooler, but still comfortable. “I’ve always loved this place.” Branwen finally said, breaking the silence.

“You can really feel the magic.” Liulfr replied, his lips pulling up into a mirthful smile. “I remember when the humans used to dance around the Transformation Trees, even now they still treat them like sacred shrines. I danced with them a few times, sometimes even nude.”

She reached out and tugged one of his wolf ears, making him chuckle in amusement. “Like I needed to know that wolf.”

“You have danced nude beneath the moonlight, felt the heartbeat of the earth thrumming beneath your bare feet or the brush of the wind on your skin?”

She blushed. “No.”

“It is quite exhilarating. I did some of my best matchmaking on those nights. Humans are so open at times like that.”

She cleared her throat. “Where are we going first?”

He laughed and patted her head. “Did I embarrass you little raven?” Her non answer was all he needed. “We are going to Scodra.”

“I haven’t been there is a long time.”

“It’s still as beautiful as ever, though some of the cities have changed. We can sleep once we get there and start our search in the morning if that is alright with you.”

“Of course, whatever you think is best. After all, you are the love expert.”

He smiled again, this one seeming playful. Having Branwen by his side to talk to was more fun than he realized it would be. Seeing her was always amazing but he was used to traveling alone, or so he thought. He knew having her by his side for this was going to spoil him and he’d have to find a permanent partner to help him find matches. They walked up to one of the trees and Branwen drew one of her token out of her bag. Without missing a beat Liulfr grabbed what small portion she left for him to hold and began chanting with her. When their chant was made complete they pressed the token into the bark of the tree and soon felt their bodies journey from one world to another take place.

It wasn’t a good feeling but nor was it bad for either of them. Liulfr had more experience traveling than Branwen but each had plenty to not feel sick or light headed after the journey. Liulfr gave Branwen silent praise as they began walking again. He had found yet another way she was absolutely astounding. Not a single syllable did she get wrong as she spoke the words of travel and that was important in any traveler. You say but a single word wrong and you could end up some place entirely unexpected. He thought to himself “but this is Branwen, my impossible woman to match. Of course a woman as amazing as this travels perfectly”

Scodra’s landscape was still as gorgeous as ever. Right now in the fading light its grass and leaves were shades of blue and purple with oranges and reds along the edges. When the sun was completely gone, they both knew it would be the deepest shade of indigo. “We’ll stay there.” He pointed at some lights in the distance, no doubt the gas lamps of a village and a smaller one by the count of the glowing orbs.

“Have you been there before?” Branwen asked as walked next to him.

“It’s probably the village of Hoda. If I’m right there should be an apple orchard on the other side. Did you know they stay red all the time?”

“The apples?”

“Yes, a beautiful, tempting red that draws you in and they are delicious.”

“I’ve never been to Hoda itself.”

“You’ll love it, the people are wonderful and strong, kind and honest. I’ll get you one of their apples.”

She let out a little laugh. “They won’t be mad at you for picking their fruit without permission?”

“The people know me.”

“Of course they do, why wouldn’t they.”

He reached over and brushed his knuckles over her cheek with a laugh of his own. “Don’t sound so irritated little raven, I have been to many places and you will meet many people who know me. I’m sure we’ll meet many who know you as well.” He dropped his hand back to his side. “A beautiful and brilliant healer like you must be known far and wide in many dimensions and universes.”

“Probably not as wide as you but people do travel great distance to see me. At least in my own world the ill come to me for help.”

“Like that boy today. They would have lost their brother if it weren’t for you. He was barely there even as they arrived at your door”

“I really am glad we hadn’t left yet.” he smiled “lets walk through Hoda and we’ll get some of those apples.” As they walked Liulfr spoke again “I honestly do enjoy how truthful you always are.”

“How do you mean?”

“well, instead of being bashful and going no I’m sure not many know of me you were proud of who you are and said why yes they do” Branwen blushed “some may have called that braggy”

“It wasn’t anything of the sort to me. I know no matter what we’re talking about you are expressing the truth and how you feel. You don’t meet many people like that”

Branwen was silent for a few seconds, then in a quiet, hesitant voice said,” Thank you for bringing me along, Liulfr. I am sure you could have taken the journey and accomplished your tasks without any input or assistance from me.”

The wolf considered her with a sideways glance, then spoke, his own voice a bit husky. “It’s true that I have always traveled alone. I am intense and focused as I begin my work. It matters a great deal to me to see matches made that are meant to be, that will stand up to the circumstances and life events that may occur for each relationship that develops out of my pairing of two individuals.”

“But your presence, your companionship seems natural, beautiful, laughing Raven.” He smiled. “And somehow I doubt I could find the One who will truly meet your standards and win your approval, without you having had at least the opportunity to weigh in with your truthful observations, and shall we say, forthright opinions.”

They had arrived at the edge of the orchard. Branwen gasped in awe as she beheld row after row of mature apple trees, each of the branches laden with exquisitely beautiful,deep red fruit, bowed and hanging low, almost seeming to groan under the weight of their bounty. Liulfr reached out to the nearest tree and plucked a perfect fruit from underneath the dark green foliage.

As he extended his hand to offer the fruit to his companion he laughed out loud at the look of anticipation on her face, her eyes wide and eager. “Now, this is an apple of Hoda. I must tell you before you bite into it, that you will be ruined for apples from henceforth. No other apple will ever satisfy as the fruit of these trees. Because, of course, the Hodaians have used their unique tribal magic to collectively infuse their orchard trees with the properties of perfection.”

Branwen took the proffered apple, but just as she drew it to her mouth, Liulfr lifted his hand and said, “Wait.”

She looked at him questioningly. He smiled , ” The first time one partakes of the fruit of the trees of Hoda, it is customary for one to make a declaration of sorts to the trees, to share something of oneself with them, in expressing gratitude for their gift of savory pleasure . You may speak it silently, but I personally believe the trees love to hear the voice of the declarer – for them it is like song on the wind as it rustles through their branches, all the way back to the farthest reach of the orchard.

Branwen turned to face the trees, lifted the apple high in the air, and with a strong, impassioned voice, declared,” I am Branwen, Laughing Raven, Teller of Truth, Keeper of Magic. I thank you for this gift of taste and moment of magical memory, which I shall carry with me forever forward.” As Liulfr nodded approval, she bit into the apple, juice slipping down the corner of her mouth.

As the incredible taste of sweetness hit her tastebuds, and the aroma of the crunchy fruit fill her nostrils, she let out a peal of delight. “Oh, my, she gasped, “oh my!”

She impulsively lifted the other side of the apple to the wolf’s mouth. “Now you,!”, she almost commanded. “I want to hear your declaration, and share this with you – I don’t care if you have already declared yourself to the trees here -I want to know something of you, now!”

Liulfr, turned to face her fully, placed his hand around hers on the apple, then lifted his eyes to hers, held her gaze as his rich voice resonated upwards in the gentle breeze. “I am Liulfr, Dream Wolf, Walker on the Path of Heart, Keeper of Monogamy. I gratefully share this gift, now, and create this memory of magic with Laughing Raven, my friend and companion on this most promising of journeys.”

Stepping closer to Branwen, he lifted their joined hands, cupped around the apple, to his mouth and bit deep into the fruit, smiling broadly at her, as juice now trickled down the side of his mouth as well. An extraordinary sensation of complete culinary satisfaction flooded through him, as he swallowed the bite in his mouth.

“Oh, yes.” He laughed aloud. “Oh, yes, my lovely, laughing Raven – we are indeed a pair, are we not?”

A lopsided smile painted it’s way across Branwens face “that we are wolf” she gave him the apple and continued “we should find our Inn”

“these apples are far too precious for you not to enjoy a full one” he kept the one he had taken for her then gave her another “eat, enjoy and only then will we find our place of resting sweet Raven”

“I am not so sweet”

“You have great care for others. You are sweeter than you realize.” She wondered what this man was doing to her. Howhe embarrassed her so and made every word mean so much more than what she normally heard when it was spoken. Liulfr was an amazing and interesting man and that in itself was embarrassing since she was only just realizing how much so. They finished the succulent fruit then she allowed Liulfr to guide them to a nice place to stay for the evening.

As they reentered the town many men and women passed them by, going about their business as if they werent there despite the fact the two of them stuck out like a sore thumb. It was mainly her partner, her wolf with the deep black ears. She paused her thoughts for a moment. Had she just thought of Liulfr as hers? Her heart stuttered “thank god he cant hear my thoughts” her inner voice said gratefully.

Just as Liulfr had predicted they didn’t expect a dime from him and were given the best rooms they had open. He had planned to walk Branwen safely to the luxuries of her room that night anyway but it was made easier since she was given a room right next door to his. “sleep well dear Raven. Feel free to wake me at any time”

“same for you” she said, wanting to hug him and decided to indulge on that want. She had never been very affectionate with him so Branwen wrapping those exquisite arms around him was a pleasant surprise.When she let go they both felt warm and as if butterflies were fluttering around their inards “goodnight” she said again then pushed open her door.

Chapter Three

A smile flitted over Liulfr’s lips as he went to his own room and his heart gave a tat too of happiness at her wonderful show of affection. He was making progress with his stubborn raven. Being emotionally open was important when finding love, you had to be able to show the other person the very core of your being. You had to be able to share your doubts, your hopes, dreams and vulnerabilities. He tugged his clothes off and flopped down on his bed, giving a little chuckle, thinking her sweet side was just as lovely as her stubborn one. She was someone who deserved the greatest love in any universe and he wouldn’t stop searching until she was the happiest one woman in the world.

Branwen’s face was still burning hot as she lay in her bed, her pillow hugged to her chest as if it could muffle the sounds of her ever excited heartbeat. She didn’t understand what was wrong with her, what that silly wolf was doing to her. It was almost like his constant talk of true love was getting to her, was spreading through her like some sort of infection that had no cure. She groaned and stuffed her face in her pillow, trying not to think about his eyes staring into hers while he bit from her apple. They were so intense, like two beautiful rubies looking right into her soul and that unnerved her. How much could he read? She wondered silently. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself into sleep and only woke when she heard the sound of knocking.

“Who is it?” She asked, her voice sounding sleepy.

“It’s me.” Liulfr’s voice said from the other side and she jumped up, grabbing her clothes and pulling them quickly on. She pulled the door open and he smiled sweetly at her. “I guess I’ll have to find a man who finds your half awake face as adorable as I do.”

“Shut up wolf.”

He chuckled. “Would you like a few minutes to bathe and right yourself? I can wait for you right here then we can get breakfast. I was thinking apple pie.”

“Pie for breakfast?”

“Why not?”

Branwen quickly poured water from the wooden bucket into the basin that sat on the small, wooden table near her bed. She splashed water onto her face, used the dark linen cloth hanging from the hook above the basin to wipe the dirt and traces of sleep from her face. The coarse fabric, left a blush of rose on her freshly scrubbed skin.

She pulled open her knapsack and drew a clean tunic from it, shrugged off the wrinkled, soiled one she had slept in and slipped it over her head. Her hair, which had been wound in a tight braid for sleeping, came cascading down as she undid the tie that held it all in place. Using her fingers, she worked her way through her dark, thick hair, allowing it to flow around her face, all the while pretending she wasn’t taking extra care.

She pushed hard and opened the heavy, oak door, made heavier still by the decorative iron cross work and latch attached to it, and stepped into the hall, dimly lit by filtered light streaming through a small window covered with a transparent oilcloth at the top of the stairway.

Liulfr had been leaning against a roughhewn, wooden table outside their rooms, examining the pewter candlestick holder, which was covered with intricate, carved markings. As Branwen stepped from her room, he glanced up and took an involuntary breath. She was so unassuming in her manner, so unaware of her effect, her beauty, her life spark,which seemed to fill the hallway with a palpable electricity.

“You look…refreshed. He stumbled over the words, then took a breath.”And, I might add, lovely as well.”

She made a motion of impatience with her hand, waving away the compliment, but couldn’t keep the flush of pleasure at his words from rising to her cheeks. Momentarily flustered, she offered the first explanation that came to mind, “Well, wolf – one must be prepared for all possibilities, yes? What if my One and Only should be seated at this moment eating porridge and bacon, drinking mead? I wouldn’t want to ruin your chance at matchmaking magic by showing up dirty and unkempt.”

“My dear, I don’t think you need have any fear or concern about your ability to make a favorable impression. But alas, I am wounded, for a moment I thought it was for my personal viewing pleasure that you took such care.” He grinned at her unconscious bristling which caused her to lift her head high, and draw herself up.”Now, now, Branwen, Come, let us go down and see about that pie. Apple wasn’t it?

With uncharacteristic flourish, he offered her his arm, and said, “Upon reflection, I agree with your foresight here. We could accomplish our most important task in swift fashion here, before we spend so much travel time together that we bring out the worst in one another.”

She glared at him,but took his arm, lightly resting her hand on his elbow. With a twinkle in his eye he said, “But of course then you would be deprived of the continued companionship and scintillating conversation of yours truly.”

She couldn’t help herself. Branwen burst out laughing. “Dream Wolf, you surprise me – in all the visits you have made to my home, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you make a real joke. It’s actually enjoyable, having you relax a bit.”

“Well, even I, brave and mighty in spirit though I am, was loathe to cross the all business and brusque manner of the ever stern and always suspicious Branwen.” He felt her stiffen.”But you must have known I enjoyed your intelligent and sparkling company, nevertheless, else why would I venture to risk myself repeatedly?”

She was quick with a response, joining in the light mood, and laughingly replied,” My tea. Best around, and you know it. Had to be the tea.”

Both of them, smiling and relaxed, descended the stairway that led to a large open room, smoke filled and noisy with the sounds of people busily engaged in the simple pleasures of eating, drinking, and loud conversation.Wafting on the air was the delicious aroma of roasted meats, fresh baked breads, and mead dispensed from large open barrels standing in one corner, at the end of the wide plank tables which had been sandwiched on either side by a series of narrow benches and short, wooden stools.

Liulfr waved down a woman holding two cup in each hand and asked for a whole pie. She looked confused and he smiled warmly, repeating himself and asking for two forks with it. The woman continued on her way and he rested his chin in his hand, his lips still pulled upward as he looked at Branwen. “A whole pie?” She couldn’t help but ask.

“Of course, it’s alright to indulge sometimes and since I don’t come here often enough to ruin my love of their apples, I want a whole pie for us to share.”

“You’re a strange one wolf.”

“Aren’t we all?”

She rolled her eyes and he gave a little chuckle which made her heart do a little dance in her chest. She tried not to look directly into his eyes as they waited patiently for their food and when it came he handed her one of the forks before digging in to the still warm pie. He finally dew his eyes away from her and she dared to watch him as he watched the throng of people. He seemed lost in thought, his eyes moving from person to person, searching. It took her a moment to realize he was looking for her other half in this large, bustling crowd.

“Do you think it would be so easy?” She asked under her breath and his eyes jumped to her face, making her blush.

“Of course not, but it doesn’t hurt to look.”

“Ah…how did you…?”

He pointed at the wolf ears atop his head. “I can hear anything with these.”

“Even in this noise?”

“Of course.” She grew embarrassed as she wondered if he had heard the loud thumping of her heart when he showed her affection. If so he had said nothing about it. She hoped he hadn’t noticed. “What you have to say is always important to me Branwen, so I used my ears to isolate you and block everyone else out.”

“Important?”

He turned his full attention to her. “What you love most, what you want and need, every word you utter no matter how happy or irritated, is important to me. To find the one who will love you unconditionally, who will give himself to you and who you can give yourself to without reservation, I must know you as a person, the perfection that is you sweet raven.”

Branwens voice was tremulous as she responded “I see” her embarrassment was just another way he found her beautiful. He smiled, showing every bit of adoration he had for her in it. “I am merely searching out men to look into for you. So far none are worthy of you in the slightest.” he sighed “I promise you I will not fail though” He ate a little more, catching his own feelings of joy he saw nobody in the crowd. He was far too experienced in love not to notice that after all these years he was falling in love for the first time in his life. Branwen was more amazing than he could ever dream up and he wanted her for himself. He didn’t want to be selfish with her though. If there was a better match than he, he would find it for his raven.

There was but one slice left and neither of them could find the room in their stomachs for it “a whole pie was far too much” Branwen said and Liulfr answered “then we can just enjoy eachothers company until one of us can stuff that piece down. The pie here is too magnificent to waste dear Raven”

“you don’t want to be looking to rid yourself of me?”

“I will never tire of your company. I’d much rather just sit and talk, talking would help me anyway. Tell me about anything you wish to. Memories, hopes, wants, dislikes. It will all aid me in my search”

“what about you. I have found myself very curious as to your life”

“I’ve spent a majority of my adult years helping others find love so there isn’t much to tell”

“you still do things inbetween”

“true”

“Have you ever been in love?” she asked and he paused. He had always answered everything right awway, as if all their conversations were scripted but this time he didn’t know what to say. He loved her but was it right to reveal that already? “Liulfr?” she asked and he knew he had to admit he was falling in love with her. She valued honesty highly and would be cross with him if she found out he had omitted such information.

“well my sweet Branwen…I fear I’m falling in love with you and I’ve never loved anybody before.”

As Branwen drew in a breath so sharp it nearly choked her, she dropped her fork. It seemed to twist and turn in the air for an eternity, and they both watched it’s slow motion descent to the table where it clattered and skidded off the table to the floor beside Liulfr’s boot. He reached down and picked it up, raising his eyes to meet the burning gaze of the woman to whom he had just revealed himself. As their eyes met, the electric charge of emotion that passed between them was so strong he felt himself dizzied and faint. He set the fork down beside the remains of the pie, and placed both hands on the table in an involuntary effort to steady himself.

“Breathe, woman”, he urged, gently, his voice barely above a whisper. Had he gone too far, he wondered? A flood of self doubt began burning deep within his being, constricting his chest, and he maintained eye contact with superhuman effort.

Branwen, her senses reeling, took a deep breath, and then, to his amazement, reached across the table and covered his hands with both of hers, as she burst out laughing. “Oh, my Dream Wolf, oh my wonderful, incredible Liulfr,” she managed to blurt out, as the laughter began to subside. “Forgive me – I am not laughing at you. I am so happy right this moment I could jump up and dance on this table!”

He considered that for a moment, and the mental vision of her dancing for joy in front of him was just too much. He threw his head back and began to laugh himself. The tension between them broke and a warmth of feeling began to spread over them both, as she broke into peals of laughter , this time their laughter mingling, his fueling hers, hers flowing into his, until, with tears now streaming, she drew back her hands, to wipe her eyes and gasped, “Please, stop, you have to stop. I can’t breathe.”

A man sitting at a nearby table,who had been observing them raised his mug in one hand and waved the other at the serving girl and shouted, “I’d like some of that pie, girl!” “And see if you can’t find me a companion as lovely as this one here to share it with”, he added, pointing to Branwen.” Speaking directly to Liulfr he commented “Ye be one lucky man, my friend. I drink to you!”

Reaching out and taking Branwen by the hand, Liulfr raised her fingers to his lips, gently kissed them, and said, looking into her eyes,”I am indeed,sir. You have no idea.”

Smiling at him, she replied,”Wolf, I pray that assessment has longevity. We’ve only just begun our journey, remember?” Her voice, though teasing in tone, was soft and rose into a question. He felt, in that moment, her need for reassurance, knew she was also giving him a gift, letting down the guarded manner that had always kept her slightly distant, emotions buried. He felt a surge of relief mingled with gratitude, which gave rise to a simultaneous fierce and tender swell of protectiveness. And love. He marveled to himself at the energy, the excitement, the warmth flowing through his body.

“Branwen.” She felt herself respond as he spoke her name,again, her heart pounding at the urgency expressed in his voice. “Branwen, I will treasure this moment – I will treasure you, forever. I pledge my love, my loyalty, here, now, and promise you this above all else. My love is real. Never doubt, Laughng Raven, never. If you will have me, I am yours.”

Her response, intense and swift, was simply, “Yes” She held his gaze, and then she spoke again, this time her words delivered with a smile so beautiful it made him ache inside, “Yes, Dream Wolf. I will have you. I will love you, I am yours. We are. Now and forever, we are.”

~ The End

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