Dinner that evening was a loud and messy affair. The men from the hunting party told story after story, always laughing and clanging their cups together. It was easy to spot the eligible men, for all the younger girls sat around them and soaked up every word they said. Bane sat with a woman who was likely the tallest in the entire clan. Her belly was protruding far enough to know she was with child, and from the looks of it, the baby would be born any day. I was fascinated, watching her. It was rare to see anyone pregnant in the Mountain. I was sure my family had the most children of any couple. Here, though, it wasn’t unusual to spot a family with five or six children, their cheeks ruddy from chasing one another around the long tables. Jon had also introduced me to a new animal; the dog. One had run up to me after the hunting party returned, small ears pointed, fluffy black and white fur, and a curly tail. It fit the description of a bear almost perfectly, so I’d screamed and jumped behind Jon, causing everyone to laugh heartily. To my defense, this dog was huge, and aptly named Bear. He now lay by Jon’s feet, licking up the food he pretended to drop.
Rose still kept shooting glances up at the table where we sat. Jon talked with Thran mostly, in hushed and aggravated tones, and the seat to Thran’s left was conspicuously empty. Meleryn was missing. I knew she would have a say in my trial tomorrow, and I knew it wouldn’t be positive.
Jon stood, stretching out. I took this to mean we were leaving for the night. I stood, too.
“Come on, we’ll go and listen to the stories of the hunt.” he pushed a cup into my hand. The amber liquid sloshed and trickled down my wrist. He raised an expectant eyebrow at me. I jumped and quickly brought the smelly drink to my lips, the foam caressing them. I drank slowly and deeply, the bitter taste on my tongue not one I enjoyed. My face scrunched up, but I kept drinking. Jon raised both eyebrows in surprise when I finished the drink. I wondered if it was some ceremonial initiation. I hoped I had passed. He suddenly started to laugh.
“What?” I growled.
“I canna believe it! The whole thing!” he seemed proud.
I burped, covering my mouth in shock and horror. “What is it?” I began to feel a tingling sensation in my face.
“It’s ale, it makes ye drunk.” he tried to compose himself.
“Drunk?” I could feel it in my legs as well. I didn’t like it.
“Yes, you’ll understand soon enough. Don’t go drinking that all the time, ye hear?” his tone became a bit more serious.
My stomach churned. “I won’t.” I agreed wholeheartedly.
We made our way out into the darkness and frigid air. A fire blazed in the middle of a wide circle that everyone was gathering around. We sat on a log, letting the fire warm us. My stomach burned and I felt sick, but I ignored the unpleasant feeling. Bane suddenly collapsed into the empty spot next to me with a large mug of ale. A few other men I didn’t recognize sat on Jon’s right. Bear trotted happily behind Jon, his allegiance clear.
Echoes of “Do you remember?” and “At the battle…” rang around the circle. I tried to keep pace with all the stories, enchanted by each tale. Jon would often join in with his own account of how something had transpired.
“The best fight was against the nomads to the East,” Bane started quite loudly, commanding all of our attention. A few men nodded in agreement while others raised their cups and drank deeply.
“What happened?” I asked without thought. Everyone stopped their movement and stared at me. Even Jon seemed surprised. Bane continued on unpertrubed, likely happy for the new audience.
“Let’s see,” he stroked his beard in thought.
“We was at the foothills, and they had captured Meleryn.” here, he rolled his eyes and Jon chuckled.
“I remember that.” Jon nodded. Bane continued.
“Always lookin’ for a fight, that one. She went and got herself taken prisoner. So naturally, we intelligent men devised a foolproof plan,” everyone around the circle laughed heartily, already knowing where this story was headed. A large jug was now being passed around the circle, each person taking a long pull from it.
“We sent young Bjorn to…talk with the leaders.” A young handsome man with a broad, easy smile held his cup up to Bane.
“Their leader was poisoned within fifteen minutes, and everythin’ was goin’ well. Until Bjorn went to sneak out the back tents. He scared the entire flock o’ sheep, and they went runnin’ all over the place, makin’ a racket. Our mission went from freeing one prisoner to two,” Bane laughed, holding up two fingers while his elbow rested on his knee.
“Now, these nomads are quite dull,” he tapped his temple and glanced at me, indicating their stupidity for my benefit.
“So we found some extra cloth and put Jon on my shoulders to make us look like a troll with his two heads, an’ we stumbled into that camp and all hell broke loose,” everyone shook with laughter. The jug somehow suddenly appeared in my hands. Jon nudged me in encouragement. It smelled like fire, but I drank it anyways. It burned down my throat any into my chest.
“Whiskey,” Jon whispered to me. All I could manage was a nod and a cough. Something else to make me drunk, apparently.
“Well, we finally found Meleryn, and the little she-devil was so angry she set fire to all their tents and winter stock. And now we call Bjorn the sheep-whisperer!”
The entire circle erupted with laughter, and deep in my belly I felt an unending happiness. The fire danced across all the men’s faces, some scarred, some old and some young. Yet all were relaxed. They had no pressure to pretend like we did in the Mountain, no pressure put upon you to be who you weren’t.
“So, any stories from the Mountain?” Bane winked at me. My throat suddenly became dry and my hands shook. Every eye was on me.
“Uhh,” I racked my brain for some comedic event, but could only remember my fall thanks to the fuzziness brought on by the drinks. Everyone waited quietly. I smiled shyly as I remembered a story about my siblings.
“Well, my siblings and I like to play this game where we hide from each other, and one time my brother Benji convinced me to hide in the bird cage. They all escaped, but not before attacking him. He ran all over our home screaming and everyone thought we were under attack.” I chuckled, the story making me feel nostalgic.
No one laughed, making me even more self-conscious. Bane erupted in laughter, saying “Well sounds like we can call him the bird whisperer!” everyone laughed at that, easing the tension for my benefit.
The men and women around the fire began to stand and slink off in clumps, heading to their respective tents. Jon moved to chat with Bjorn, leaving me next to Bane, who continued to drink heavily with no apparent effect.
“Yer lucky,” his deep voice was quiet, something I didn’t think was possible. I turned to glance at him. He stared across the fire to Jon, animated in talking with his friend.
“How do you mean?” I asked. He drank deeply from his mug.
“Jon’s a good man. Better ’an any of us.” he kicked at the dirt, and I gathered he wasn’t one for sharing anything with a semblance of emotion.
“He is a good man,” I smiled.
“Brave, too.” he muttered. Oh, how I knew that! I thought, a bit bitterly. I laughed quietly.
“Brave to a fault it would seem.” I answered. Bane laughed, his whole frame bouncing as he did so.
“I rescued him once. Most nomads around here are duller than a blunt blade,” he explained, glancing at me sideways. “But this time was different. Jon had crossed a border and they says he committed murder. They was gonna hang him.”
My stomach clenched at the thought of Jon being hung. He had explained it to me once, though I had already known what it meant.
“What happened?” I whispered, glancing at a carefree and very alive Jon, his black curly hair shiny in the firelight.
“Thran and Meleryn and I went to bargain for him. He had killed someone, but it was in self defense, ye see. But they took our bargain, wi’ him standin’ right in front of us. Before they let him go, they…” he trailed off, rubbing his face and scratching his beard.
“What did they do?” I was suddenly nervous.
“They accepted our bargain on the condition that he still be punished, be made an example of in front of us and their people. We had no choice I s’pose.” he muttered, clearly ashamed.
I waited on edge for him to continue.
“They branded ’im with a hot iron down the backs of his legs. Shattered his foot with an anvil. It was that or lose an eye and a hand. He had the choice.” Bane stared at Jon now, and I understood the look of respect he gave him.
“He didn’t beg for mercy, he barely made a sound, only when they broke his foot.”
I felt sick. I took deep breaths to calm my churning stomach. My heart sank to my toes it seemed.
“He was only seventeen.” Bane smiled a small smile, almost hidden by his massive beard.
“Why did he choose that punishment?” I asked.
“Well, he’s a mercenary. He needs both o’ his eyes and hands.” he chuckled. “Aye, he did it to save Meleryn, too. They took one look at her, and the leader said he could walk free of any harm. If they let Meleryn marry his son.”
My brows creased. Almost any man I knew would have chosen that option.
“When it came time for his punishment, Meleryn begged him, kickin’ and screamin’, to let them take her. I remember him standing still as stone and tellin’ her to leave.”
I sighed heavily as this story sank in.
“Jon keeps his promises, fiery woman. Ye can trust him wi’ your life.” Bane set a heavy hand on my shoulder, peering into my eyes. He patted it and stood, lumbering away into the darkness as Jon stared expressionless at me.