After leaving the warmth of the fire, Miss Meerie lumbered up to Jon and I (quicker than I thought possible), saying Thran wished to have me stay in the castle that night. Something about making sure I didn’t disappear before my fast approaching trial. Jon had only rolled his eyes in response, and we changed our path.
“I’ll see ye in the mornin’.” he yawned at the entrance. I nodded, attempting to hide my nerves.
“Don’t be afraid, Elise. I won’t let anything bad happen to ye, alright?” his dark eyes were tired but sincere. I remembered Bane’s story about Jon, how I could trust him.
“Thank you,” I smiled fully up at him. He reached out to my face, his hand faltering. He rested his hand on my arm instead, giving it a reassuring squeeze, and turned and disappeared into the night.
A heavy, warm hand shook my shoulder. I turned and buried myself further into the warmth of the luscious bed.
“Oh no ye don’t!” Miss Meerie’s voice drifted to me from far off. I groaned in protest, too tired for real words.
“Yer trial is before dawn, missy. Best be gettin’ up and on wi’ it!” she said cheerfully and more clearly. My eyes opened to a darkened room. The sun was still far from rising. I groaned again and sat up.
“Hurry now!” she clucked, running about the room, stoking the fire and carrying a jug and basin. “Once the sun rises, our celebration begins, and I don’t think the gods would be too pleased if we missed that!” she chuckled. I crawled from the sanctuary of the bed, only to be accosted by Miss Meerie. She stripped me down and handed me wet rags to clean myself, while she combed through my wild, long hair, and braided it down my back.
My heart rate increased the more I woke, with the realization of my trial setting in. I began to shake.
“Here deary,” she held up a beautiful dress for me. I stepped in and she tied up each layer, standing back to gaze at me. “There,” she breathed, clasping her hands together. The dress fit my shape perfectly, the linen thick and warm, well suited for this climate. The hues were muted greens and browns, with white skirts peeking out between the more colorful fabrics.
“It was my daughter’s. I think ye should have it. Now ye look like one o’ us.” she beamed with pride.
“Thank you,” my voice shook.
“Best be off! Follow me, they’ll be waitin’!”
We rushed along the dark, cramped hallways until we were in front of the doors to the mess hall. Jon stood there, dressed in black with furs draped about his shoulders. The tension in my body eased at seeing him. He wore his curls pulled back, showing his striking facial features. He was an impressive sight to behold in his more formal regalia; his broadsword glinting at his side, his hand resting on the hilt. My stomach flipped.
Miss Meerie ambled away after fussing over my hair, leaving us alone in the quiet entryway. Jon approached, smiling slightly, one corner of his mouth twitching up.
“If it weren’t for your damn hair, I’d believe ye were one of us.” I didn’t know whether to be delighted or insulted at his comment. He reached out to my hands, no hesitation this time. He clasped both of mine into both of his. They were rough and warm.
“Yer shaking like a leaf,” his dark eyes searched mine. I shrugged, unable to speak.
“The worst they can do is enslave you, Elise, and that won’t happen.”
“What about my family?” my voice cracked with nerves, my eyes flicking up to meet his. I’d never given much notice to how tall he was; shorter than Thran and even shorter than Bane, but tall to me. He was already shaking his head.
“Your family is as safe and far from their reach as possible. No one is stupid enough to challenge them. Well, maybe Meleryn, but that’s besides the point.” he joked, his smile warming me. I could hear the doors begin to groan. Jon dropped my hands and stepped back. I turned my head as the doors opened to my fate.
I stood alone in the middle of the mess hall. Every table had been pushed aside. The high windows behind Thran’s table showed no hint at sunrise. The fire to the side roared, though I felt no heat. I hid my shaking hands in the folds of my new skirts. The stone floor beneath me was still dirty from the night before. My head snapped up as Thran entered from the right side, followed by Meleryn, Bane, four men I didn’t recognize, and the gray haired woman who had hissed at me. My odds looked bleak. Each was dressed formally, like Jon. I wondered exactly what enslavement entailed. Jon was the last to enter, his shoulders squared and his jaw set. Each sat in their respective seats, chairs scraping on the stone beneath them.
Meleryn openly smirked at me as she settled into her chair, slouching down as if this were a bore to her. Heat flooded my veins, giving me some strength. Bane smiled, his thick beard rising with the action. Thran, seated in the middle, remained stoic as ever. His cropped hair did nothing to hide his pointy ears. The only tell of his emotions was the way his forehead crinkled in thought.
“Let’s begin.” he stated. Jon stood.
“I am recusing myself from this trial for obvious reasons, and instead will stand as advocate for Elise.” my heart hammered. I could barely hear as it pounded in my ears. Everyone seemed to be expecting this, though. I relaxed a bit. Jon moved off the platform to stand behind me. He stared levelly at me as he brushed past. I tried to draw strength from him.
“State your name and status.” Thran commanded. I cleared my throat and stared back at him.
“Elise, Eleventh Tier.” I said clearly. Meleryn glared. I just had to pretend to be brave; they wouldn’t know the difference.
“Your father’s name?” Thran asked.
“Magnus.” I answered. Meleryn snorted.
“What does your status in the Mountain indicate?” he seemed bored, but his eyes danced as I stood alone beneath him. Hate surged through me.
“My grandfather is the ruler, my uncle next in line.” I said simply.
“Does your uncle have children?” Meleryn’s voice cut through the silence, her tone dripping in false interest. I understood quickly what point she was hoping to get at.
“No.” I stared back at her. She snorted again.
“So after your uncle and father die, this means rule would be passed to you?” her tone was demeaning.
“Yes.” I said through clenched teeth. Well, rule wold be passed to my husband, I thought. I was only important because I carried royal blood. She smirked at me, then turned to Thran.
“I think our decision is made.”
“Mel,” his voice warned. Her hand shot out, her long finger pointing menacingly at me.
“Her family is responsible!” she nearly screamed.
“Meleryn, one more outburst—“ Thran’s warning was cut short.
“Her vile grandfather held hot irons to our brother!”
“Meleryn!” Thran yelled. I jumped, and my stomach twisted at this news. My grandfather was responsible for Jon’s torture? Bane put his great head into his hand. She stood, continuing to point at me.
“We should send her pretty little head back to the mountain as repayment!”
Thran stood, too, menacing in his height. Meleryn was unabashed.
“Last. Warning.” he seethed. They stared at each other, Meleryn finally backing down.
“Elise,” Thran was clearly exasperated as he sat heavily into his chair, trying to regain control over this trial. “What do you know of your grandfather’s military?”
“Military?” I tried the word on my tongue. “I’m not even sure what that is.” I muttered. Meleryn snorted yet again, slouching in her chair. I wondered how her disrespect was tolerated.
“How did you get here?”
“I was…playing a game with my brother and sister and I….well I found this hidden door and…fell.” I realized how unrealistic my story sounded. Thran only nodded slightly.
“Who found you?”
“Jon.” I said simply. Thran nodded again, slowly. His shrewd eyes searched mine.
“What did he do with you?” Meleryn’s eyes blazed as she asked her question. My brow furrowed.
“He…took care of me.”
“And?” she smiled wickedly.
I shook my head. “Nothing. He was kind to me—“
“I think the truth is plain, Thran. Jon couldn’t take her back home, because he took her innocence instead.” She hissed.
White hot anger and embarrassment flooded my veins. Some men nodded and shrugged at the plausible story. I felt my neck and cheeks grow hot.
“That’s a damn lie!” I yelled, my fists now shaking in anger at my sides, my voice echoing off the walls. I realized what my outburst might cost me. Meleryn’s eyes became devoid of emotion. She wasn’t expecting me to defend myself.
“My falling from the Mountain was an accident.” I seethed. “Yes, I have a high ranking status, but no, it doesn’t mean a thing up there because I am a woman. I don’t know anything about their politics or plans, and I’m disgusted at hearing what they’re capable of, but I am not responsible for my family’s misgivings.”
Thran hid his smirk behind his hand while Bane beamed.
“Are we done?” I asked through clenched teeth, balling my skirts in my fists. I had been pushed well beyond my limit.
Thran nodded, still hiding his smile.
“We will deliberate and have an answer at tonight’s feast.” Everyone on the council stood.
“Meleryn,” Thran called. She stopped and faced her brother.
“Due to your outbursts and obvious hatred, you’re removed from the council regarding this issue.” My heart soared. She smiled down at me, turning my blood cold. Revenge was in her eyes.
“That’s alright. I’ll find another way to send her family my regards.”
I felt Jon’s hand at my elbow. I turned to him, relieved to see his small smile.
“That didn’t quite go as expected.” he breathed, turning to escort me out of the mess hall. The sun was just beginning to turn the distant skies a deep blue.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. He shrugged.
“It was about time another woman stood up to her. No one ever does.” he laughed.
“Jon,” I stopped walking, and he turned back, puzzled. “I’m sorry for what my family did to you, I had no—“ the look in his eyes made my apology stop short.
“It’s not your fault.” he said simply. I gathered it was something he wasn’t ready to share with me. “Come along, we’ll be late.”
We gathered in a large group in a clearing away from all the tents, all facing the East. The morning was dewy and cold, my breath visible. The crispness nipped at my nose. The sun was still slowly making its ascent, seemingly unwilling to rise from the darkness. Stars still twinkled brightly, the moon still visible. Thran moved to stand away from the group, the elderly woman from the council following him. In the dim light, I could make out a tall, flattened stone. It rose nearly as high as the surrounding trees, though it was alone in the clearing. Thran and the woman faced this stone. He dropped slowly to his knees in front of it. As the brightening of the morning cleared my vision, I could see strange carvings on the stone. The old woman moved between Thran and the stone, a visibly dull dagger in her hand. In a surprisingly clear voice, she began to speak, though her words were strange to my ears. The words, though foreign, were beautiful.
“She is asking for protection,” Jon whispered, breaking my trance as I jumped. I couldn’t peel my eyes from the scene before me. She raised the dagger with both her hands, still talking. A few more women moved forward in the crowd, but I recognized none. They each wore frightening masks carved from wood; teeth bared in a snarl, horns protruding from the skulls. I felt uneasy suddenly.
“She asks for our land and women to be fertile,” Jon’s voice remained hushed so as to not interrupt anyone around us.
She brought the dagger down as Thran reached out an exposed wrist to her. She deftly cut it as the sun rose still higher. I squirmed at the sight of his blood. He stood, moving to place his bleeding wrist onto the stone. The women began to chant in unison as a bull was led through the crowd. I remembered what Miss Meerie had said about sacrificing a bull. My mouth ran dry. The chanting became louder. Thran raised his other wrist, only to have it sliced open in an identical fashion. Bleeding, he placed it next to his other mark. Somewhere behind us, men’s deep voices hummed, and the guttural sound of drums began to build.
“She thanks the gods for a fruitful and blessed year, and offers them a sacrifice, so we may have another good year.”
The women’s chanting turned to high, tragic and melodic notes. I couldn’t tear my eyes away if I wanted to. Two men pulled the ruddy bull forward, one on each side. The old woman handed Thran the ancient dagger, still speaking in strange tongues. He turned, raising it. I suddenly reached for Jon’s hand in the still moment before Thran brought the dagger across the beast’s broad throat. Jon squeezed my hand in response as the animal fell. Bile rose in my throat. The sun finally rose past the trees. Every sound stopped, every breath was hushed.
In the distance, a single crow called.