The day was sunny and warm, the perfect wedding day, Ivanna thought. Standing next to Lotar, she looked around at the assembly of people waiting to watch their marriage. She stole a glance at Lotar, the man she was about to marry. He seemed calm, his face relaxed and his tunic immaculate. Ivanna nervously brushed the skirt of her dress. She wished she were as calm, as certain as he.
She sighed slightly as the rector began the opening words of the wedding ceremony. Two years ago, she never would have expected she would one day be standing here with Lotar. She had told Tastron she would marry him, but he had died in the war – the war that had been raging in their country for nearly a thousand years. It had taken a long time to heal from that, but she had finally accepted that Tastron wasn’t coming back. Through patience and much effort, Lotar had finally won her affection. She didn’t love him the way she had loved Tastron, but maybe it would be enough.
Her eyes unfocused as she looked at the hills that lay blurry on the horizon. Was it just her imagination, or was there a small black spot there, a rider swiftly approaching the village? She squinted. Yes, something was there. But she wasn’t sure what.
Ivanna shook her head to clear it as Lotar reached out and took her hands. His hands were very nice hands she thought, not sweaty or clammy or dry like some people’s. She gathered the courage to look up, to look into his eyes. They were happy and hopeful, and his lips lifted into a smile. She gave him a small smile in return.
The rector, a slight, elderly man with a wispy beard, cleared his throat. “Ivanna Kira Everin, do – ”
“I’m sorry.” It took Ivanna a moment to realize the words had come from her own mouth. When this realization had come, she took a deep breath and repeated them. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
The rector blinked at her. He had performed more than a few wedding ceremonies, but this had never happened before. “You can’t what?”
Ivanna turned to Lotar, and her next sentence came out painfully. “I’m sorry. I can’t marry you.”
Wordlessly, Lotar dropped her hands. He stared at her for several moments, and when he spoke, it was so softly that at first she wasn’t quite sure if she hadn’t imagined it. “Why not?”
“I…” Ivanna swallowed hard, forcing down the burning in her throat. “I don’t love you. I’m sorry, Lotar. I wish I could love you… but I can’t. Not the way I should. I thought maybe I would be able to, but I’m not. I don’t… I don’t want to sacrifice your happiness for mine. But, neither of us will be happy in a marriage without love.”
Lotar stared at his hands. “It won’t be a marriage without love,” he whispered. “I love you, Ivanna.”
“I know,” she said foolishly. “I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to do this. But I can’t marry you. I would only break your heart because I gave my heart to Tastron, and I don’t know how to take it back.”
A few yards behind the back row of the audience, a man slid off his horse. Ivanna didn’t notice him, but if she had, she would have known he was the rider that she had seen in the hills. With mingled interest and bewilderment, he surveyed the scene in front of him.
Ivanna continued, “I know he’s dead now. And I know I’m released from my betrothal to him because of that. But I love him still, and I can’t promise to love you forever as long as I do.”
“I understand,” Lotar said quietly. His voice and face were very calm. “I release you from our engagement.”
Even though he was outwardly calm, he was aching inside. He had always known that she did not love him. But she tolerated him, and he thought that sometimes she enjoyed his company. And he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved her and would do anything to make her love him. But now… she stood here in front of their entire community, telling him she did not love him, had never loved him, never would love him. And he loved her enough to be willing to let her go.
Ivanna choked up a little and had to pause for a moment before she could speak again. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t do this if there were another way. And…” She buried her face in her hands, unable to go on.
Her head jerked up from her hands. She would have known that voice anywhere. “Tastron?”
“Yes.” Walking towards her, between the crowded rows of chairs, was the rider she had seen before the wedding had begun. Before she had not recognized him, but now she did. It was Tastron. He reached her, and she fell into his arms, holding him tightly. His embrace was the opposite, very gentle and very tender.
And then, suddenly, everything around them burst into motion. The people were all talking, some excited, most simply shocked. Lotar’s father was on his feet, shouting and waving his arm in Ivanna’s direction. Tastron’s mother was sobbing, pressing her way through the crowd to her son’s side. Ivanna’s father, Teise was standing on his chair, holding up his arms for silence. Slowly, the crowd quieted, and Teise spoke in a loud, clear voice.
“I think what we ought to do first of all is thank God that Tastron has returned to us alive. My daughter was not the only one in this village who loved him deeply. He has many friends among us, as well as his family, and he was like a son to me.”
The assembly murmured in agreement, and they clasped hands with the people around them, bowing their heads as Teise again spoke, his voice still clear, but now hushed and reverent.
“Father, we thank You that You have taken the sting out of death for all who call upon Your name. And we thank You for today restoring to us Tastron Herave. We know Your ways are beyond our understanding, and when we thought You had called him to You, we believed You had a reason. But we thank You that You have allowed him to stay with us a little longer. Grant that he may use his life wisely and follow Your will. Amen.”
Amen. The word echoed through the crowd, and Ivanna whispered it with an overflowing heart and overflowing eyes. Tastron squeezed her hand tightly, and she blinked away her tears and lifted her head.
Teise cleared his throat. “And now we are left with the question of what to do next.” He glanced at Tastron.
Tastron inclined his head questioningly in return. “I still have your permission to…”
Teise nodded. “Of course.”
Tastron turned to Ivanna. “Do you… do still want to marry me?”
Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “Did you not hear a word of what I said a few minutes ago?”
“I’ll confess, I was so glad to see you again that I missed much of what you were saying.”
The glimmer in his eyes told her he was only teasing, and she laughed. “Do you need me to say it again?”
“It’s hard to pass up a second confession of undying love. But unfortunately, it would mean delaying the wedding.”
Her hand went to her mouth as a delighted laugh escaped her lips. “You mean… right now?”
“I don’t see why not.” Tastron glanced at the rector. “If you don’t mind?”
The rector shook his head with evident exasperation at the antics of young people these days. “If you want to get married, you’ll have to do it now. I’m not interrupting my afternoon nap for another wedding ceremony.”
Tastron shrugged at Ivanna. “Looks like it’s now or never.”
Her face broke into a smile. “Then let’s do it now.” She squeezed his hands as the rector once again began the opening words of the wedding ceremony. And she knew that this time, there would be no interruptions.