She shines in a world full of ugliness.
In those days men had to pay a dowry to the temple for every maiden they married. For Mono, it was said, the Lord Emon would accept no less than the pelt of a white stag, unblemished and whole without a single fault marking the milk-white skin.
Mono, you see, was a temple maiden, one of the purest creatures the Gods had ever set their hand to making. All women were special in the village, for they brought life into the world and sustained it. Temple maidens were nigh-sacrosanct, untouchably delicate flowers that grew behind the walls of the shrine. They could marry, yes, but the dowry was usually so great that no mortal man had a chance of paying it. Many ran away to be with their forbidden lovers, only to be tracked down and returned to their stained-glass prison within a day. Most of the young fellows of the village knew their place and married good wholesome girls with wide hips, the daughters of farmers or soldiers or merchants.
There was one young man who did not give up so easily, however. He was a hunter, tall and willowy with a lean body that seemed to be made out of whipcord and sinew. The ladies of the village eyed him appraisingly and made flirtatious gestures whenever he rode his steed past their houses, but the stoic eyes glimpsed not at their blushing faces. Only one visage made his own soften, splitting into a tender smile whenever they happened to pass on the street. The two tried to hide what was happening, but it was obvious to everyone who saw them that the temple maiden and the hunter were falling desperately in love.
They met in secret under the moon, and when these clandestine couplings occurred he called her his little flower. For a blossom she was, a beautiful pale thing that only came alive in the silvery light of the night. Eventually though the hunter had enough of skulking and sneaking, and when this happened he went to Lord Emon and asked for her hand in marriage. Emon laughed long and hard at the proposal, and then not unkindly told him that an orphaned wandering hunter, even one so obviously skilled as he, had about as much chance of obtaining Mono as he had of roping a falling star by the tail.
The hunter took this as a challenge, and early the next morning he disappeared from the village. Some said Emon's sentence had driven him away; others said he was merely a coward who didn't have the courage to face his love after losing her hand. None of these, of course, were true.
He rode through hard rain and mud that sucked at Agro's hooves and fetlocks. He rode through the leafy branches of trees that seemed determined to scrape him from the saddle. Occasionally he would alight from his mount and study the ground carefully, fingering the faint imprint of tracks in the sandy soil of a creekbed. The hoofprints were splayed and deep, and this pleased the hunter greatly for it meant his quarry was fully-grown and great in size. It would be a fine pelt, if he could ever catch up with the beast to draw a bead on it.
Several days passed without any sign of the hunted, and then on a day when the sky was leaden with unfallen snow it finally appeared, milk-white against the darkness of the forest - a great white stag with a neck almost as thick as Agro's, cornered and exhausted against a sheer rock face. As the deer turned and rattled its points at the two, the warrior took careful aim at one liquid-black eye and nocked an arrow, murmuring words of thanks to the animal as he did so. It seemed almost a shame to kill this rarest of forest dwellers, but what must be done must be done. He did all things for her.
The whiteness of the stag for the gleam of her smile. The lunar paleness of the pelt for the milkiness of her skin, satin smooth against his own. Was there any more fitting way of acquiring his little flower than this? Had a more appropriate trade ever been made?
Emon's face was unreadable when the hunter rode out of the woods on his horse, mud-encrusted and filthy. The look in his eyes when the deerskin was produced and triumphantly handed over, however, could hardly be mistaken for anything but shock.
Never had there been two creatures as deeply in love as the young couple who lived on the outskirts of the village. Some said they sang like birds in the morning; others insisted they danced under the stars together late at night by the river, their laughter joining that of the flowing waters that rushed and bubbled nearby. One old crone on her way back from the local market swore she had seen them there together with her own eyes, the young man's hands encircling his wife's slender waist as he lifted her off the ground in joy. The old woman had left them to their night reverie, intoxicated with the beauty of the world and with each other.
For once the gossip of the village rang true; the hunter loved his wife with a fervent passion that bordered on the religious. She was the summer wind to him, the breath of life, as essential to his being as air or water or sunlight. And there was no doubting that she loved him in return. When purple shadows stole over the land and turned the windows of the houses to warm orange squares of firelight she could always be found on the cabin's front step, sitting patiently in wait for her love's return from the hunt. When the sound of Agro's cantering hoofbeats echoed down the lane she flew like a bird to his side, picked up and spun as easily as a feather when he finally dismounted.
There was some skepticism that a couple so young could sustain a marriage, even in those days of early weddings and betrothals. If the two heard these scornful words they heeded them not; indeed it seemed that their love for one another grew with each passing day. The girl's face was like that of an angel's, and when she walked to market or the well to fetch water people stopped and stared, entranced by the change that had come upon her since leaving the temple. If she had been beautiful before she was radiant now.
But all things must pass, and each beginning must have an end. The hunter had to go on a journey that would take some days, and so he kissed his beautiful bride goodbye and rode away down the trail, never doubting for a second she would be there to greet him when he returned. That would be as unthinkable as the sun ceasing to rise in the east, and so the young man gave no great thought to such unfounded worries.
She watched him until he was no more than a black speck on the horizon and then she turned away and returned to the house alone. It was the last time she ever laid eyes on him in that lifetime.
Nearly a moon passed before the young man returned, covered with the dust of the trail but strangely triumphant in his bearing as he guided Agro through the blue light of dusk. The reason for both his journey and his good nature were connected; unbeknownst to his wife he had travelled to a market far across the mountains to retrieve his belated wedding gift to her, a delicately woven blanket with intricate designs of great beauty embroidered into its surface. The hunter had purchased it with all the coinage he had from a leather-skinned old gypsy woman who had set up shop in a shadowy corner of the bazaar, and the entire journey home his mind had been filled with images of what her face would look like when she was presented with this most precious of gifts. It was all for her, everything was for her. Every breath he took and every move he made was because of her.
But the only witnesses to his homecoming were the first stars of the evening; the hunter's wife was nowhere to be found. The little ivy-covered cottage lay cold and empty, the door hanging crazily by one hinge. There was a mark roughly hewn into the wood as if by a sword, the mark of the temple, and when the wanderer saw it he dropped to his knees in the dust with a groan of anguish.
He cried out to the gods in his hour of grief, but the gods did not respond.
Two people died that night: a young maiden plucked from her home to be sacrificed, and the husband who had not been there protect her when he had devoted his life to doing so. When he stole her body from the temple for a second time and rode off into the blackness of the midnight hour, it was not really life he went seeking, although there was the buried and faint hope deep within that the stories were true.
It was suicide.