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Chapter 12

Every table from the mess hall had been carried outside, placed haphazardly wherever there was flat ground. A roaring fire was in the center of the organized chaos, the recently sacrificed and butchered bull turning on a spit above it, the juices dripping and sizzling on the hot rocks below. I felt faint.

Jon and I sat at a table by ourselves. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their most colorful clothes; mostly reds, blacks, browns, and greens. The men wore swords on their hips, displaying them proudly. The younger girls were adorned with white bonnets, the older girls with intricate braids in crownlike fashions around their heads. A clump of girls had gathered to weave tiny flowers into their braids. I spotted Rose chatting with a bored-looking Thran, one of the carved wooden masks from the ceremony tucked under her arm. There was an air of easy happiness that brought a small smile to my lips, despite the horrific ceremony I had witnessed earlier. The day had started out sunny, but clouds threatened rain in the distance. Many young women made their way by Jon, glancing slyly at him. It was easy to see he was the most desired, eligible man here. He paid them no mind. The dog, Bear, trotted up to Jon, who gripped a fistful of fur and neck, shaking the animal. A low, rumbling growl emanated from his chest. I backed away, but Jon was smiling.

“It’s good for him to know who’s in charge,” Jon’s eyes flashed to me, a playful smile on his lips as Bear nipped him playfully.

“He’s yours, then?” I inquired, easing back into my spot. Jon nodded.

“Raised him from a pup. I take him with me sometimes, but Bane wanted him for hunting this year.”

As if he was listening in, Bane sat heavily next to me, the bench groaning under his immense weight. He smiled, though his mouth was hidden in a mug. I felt this was more common than not.

“Damn dog,” he muttered. Bear made his way over to me, sniffing at my skirts. I held out my hand slowly, not so intimated anymore. Instead of simply sniffing my hand, he put both front paws on my knees and stared at me, tail wagging. He was surprisingly gentle for such a burly animal. I scratched behind his ears, while Bane’s laugh shook the entire bench, causing me to bounce.

“Well, I’d say he’s a good judge o’ character. Growls like he sees the devil himself whenever Meleryn’s around.”

Jon laughed, snapping his fingers. Bear hopped down, trotting off in search of scraps. I dusted off the massive paw prints.

“Yer lookin’ a bit green around the gills, fiery woman,” Bane laughed again. I was confused at his turn of phrase. Jon hid his smile in his mug now.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I take it you’ve never seen anything like that before, eh?” he raised his ruddy eyebrows at me. I shuddered as the unpleasant and suppressed memory resurfaced.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Ahh, you’ll get used to it.” he waved a giant hand. Jon only stared at me, seemingly searching for my thoughts. I knew there could never be a secret kept from him; he could read me better than I could myself. It was unsettling at times.

“So,” Jon said, breaking eye contact and looking to Bane. “What do you suppose the verdict will be?”

“Ye know I’m no suppos’ta talk of that,” Bane winked, though, clearly not one to follow rules. “I think the outcome is better than expected. No enslavement, but Thran will insist on keepin’ a close eye on this little devil.”

Devil was a new term to me, but I decided to ask later what it meant. I gathered it wasn’t exactly and endearing term, since Bane had also applied it to Meleryn.

Jon nodded. My heart clenched. Once again, home seemed to disappear from my grasp.

“What are ye two handsome men boring this poor young lady with?” Bane’s wife waddled over, hand across her immense belly. Bane stood, offering his wife a spot next to me. She was nearly as tall as him, with long, amber colored hair. Her eyes were almost red in color. She was strangely beautiful and powerful. Jon nodded to her, smiling with respect.

“Elise, this is my fiery woman, Freyja.”

“Hallo,” she nodded to me, easing cautiously onto the bench, still holding her protruding stomach as her other hand sought the support of the bench.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I smiled, unable to tear my eyes from her. She seemed to notice, but didn’t mind.

“Not many children where yer from, eh?” she teased. I blushed, shaking my head. She rubbed her belly lovingly, Bane resting his hand on her shoulder.

“It’s our first.” she smiled, her cheeks dimpling.

“First o’ many!” Bane laughed as she hit him gently with the back of her hand.

“We’ll see about that. I may need a new man if ye keep drinking like a fish.” she scolded.

“Ye know Bane needs ale to survive,” Jon joked. Freyja rolled her eyes, then jumped suddenly, hissing. I jumped, too, worried as she gripped the table. Bane chafed her shoulder as color returned to her once-white knuckles.

“He’s kickin’ me all the damn time now, mostly my ribs.” The pain eased from her face, and she gripped my wrist suddenly, pulling my hand and placing it on her stomach. It only took a moment for the child to kick again. I pulled my hand back with a small gasp while the men laughed. I couldn’t imagine bearing a child, although that would have been my immediate duty once married. Fascinated, I tentatively reached out again, searching Freyja’s eyes for permission. She smiled in encouragement.

This time when the child moved, the motion felt more fluid and round.

“I suppose it’s his rump or his head. Knowing his father they are one n’ the same.” Freyja grinned.

“You’ve got that right,” Jon held up his mug to her in agreement, smirking at Bane. A few children ran by our table then, shrieking in delight as an older, gangly boy chased them with some sort of slimy creature in his hand.

“When do ye suppose Thran will marry?” Bane asked, sitting back down, glancing at Thran, who was still being held captive by Rose. It seemed she had moved on to the next brother. Jon’s face went blank.

“Hopefully not soon.” he muttered, casting his eyes down to his hands. He sat forward, arms resting on his knees. He brought the mug to his lips again, drinking deeply.

“Why?” I questioned, truly curious. Jon shot a glare at me as Bane and Freyja laughed.

“Once Thran marries, it’s Jon’s turn.” Bane chortled.

“He’ll let you choose yer woman, Jon. He canna say no,” Freyja said soothingly.

“He can, and he’ll end up choosing for me since I’ll no choose anyone.” he bit back, his accent thicker in his embarrassment. Freyja and Bane didn’t seem upset in the slightest at his attitude.

“I was supposed to be married before I fell,” I glared at Jon. His eyes snapped up, quickly searching my face. “And I’d never met him before. It could be worse.”

I was surprised by my anger; Jon was pouting for no reason. He had a choice; I did not. Instead of biting back with a reply, Jon sat a moment before he spoke.

“I suppose yer right.” he smiled.

“I like this one more an’ more!” Bane reached around his wife to clap me on the back. I nearly fell off the bench.

We chattered idly for a while longer, until Jon stood and stretched. The sun seemed to be at its peak, but its warmth felt distant. He jerked his head to the side, indicating I should follow. Bane and Freyja were occupied, his massive hands splayed over their unborn child.

We wound our way through the throng of people, no one seeming to pay me much mind. I stopped at the edge of the trees as Jon continued. He turned and beckoned me with his hand, a playful smile on his lips. I gripped a tree limb and pushed myself forward, trusting wherever Jon would lead me.

We sat side by side in front of the river. I’d never seen a body of water so large before. I was, once again, entranced by the beauty of this world. Jon picked up rocks, throwing them in high arcs. They scattered the surface of the water, the sunlight sparkling when he did so. This river was slow and wide; Jon said many people would swim in it.

“I suppose I’ll have to teach ye to swim, once it warms up.” he threw another small rock into the middle of the calm water.

“Is it difficult?” I asked, hugging my knees against the chilly wind. He shrugged, staring across the river and into the rolling hills beyond. There were less trees that way, replaced by lush green grasses and stony outcroppings.

“No, maybe a bit frightening at first. But I don’t want ye drowning on accident,” he smiled sideways at me, sensing my confusion.

“Drowning?” I questioned.

“Aye, yes. When ye can’t reach the bottom, and ye can’t swim, ye sink and the water fills yer lungs and ye die.”

I stared back at him wide-eyed, glancing cautiously at the water. He chuckled, but his smile faded.

“I don’t think it would be a bad way to go. Probably peaceful.”

My brow furrowed in worry.

“I know you don’t want my pity,” I began, trying to find the right words.

“No, I don’t.” he smiled at me again, and my heart fluttered. His deep brown eyes searched mine. I felt exposed and skittish under his stare, but excited and calmed at the same time. He glanced back to the river. I was surprised and pleased at how Jon’s closed-off attitude was waning.

“What your grandfather did was no your fault. I’m not about to hold ye accountable for something ye didn’t do.”

I looked away, out across the water as well.

“No, but it makes me ashamed of who I am.” I plucked a piece of grass, pulling it apart.

“Elise,” his voice was sharp. My head snapped up to meet that gaze that made me freeze and melt all at the same time. Did he feel the same? It was something I’d never ask.

“Never say that again. You are not the sins of your fathers.” he spoke curtly and clearly. Although I didn’t quite understand his meaning, I figured what it meant.

“What am I, then?” it was something that had bothered me greatly since my fall. What was my title amongst these people? Out in the world?

“Ye are Elise, and yer a free woman now.” his heavy brows pulled together.

“Sort of,” I amended. He snorted quietly, a small laugh mixed with his exhalation.

“Aye, sort of.” he threw another rock, deep in thought. I let him be for a moment, trying to unravel my own feelings. After adding up my jealousy of Rose and the other girls, my fear of being taken away from Jon’s protection, and the way I felt when he looked at me, I began to realize what it meant. Love wasn’t the same in the Mountain. We loved our family, our friends. But my father and mother, grandparents, uncle and aunt—none of them treated each other the way Bane and Freyja did. Their love was unmistakable.

I wasn’t foolish enough to think I loved Jon; love seemed to require much more than attraction. But I definitely was developing strong feelings towards him. My heart ached, wondering if he could feel the same. It seemed utterly impossible. Thran and Meleryn would never bless us, even if Jon did feel the same. I was still an outsider, likely not deemed worthy or fit for marriage out here. It was ironic; I’d never wanted marriage in the Mountain, yet I was one step away from it. Out here, I’d found someone I desired greatly, and I knew I could never have it. This was one secret I hoped Jon would never be able to read on my face.

“Best be getting back soon, before the feast starts.” I jumped at his calm voice. We stood, me brushing the dead grass off my skirts, Jon straightening his sword.

“Stick close to me tonight, alright?” I pushed the fluttering in my chest away, reminding myself it would never happen.

“Why tonight?”

He smirked. “Yer a pretty young woman, and every man here will have had more than enough to drink. It makes them more bold.” he winked. I nodded, not about to protest the arrangement. Jon reached for my hand, gently towing me behind him and through the trees. Where our hands touched, it seemed a small fire burned between us.

Jon stopped suddenly on the trail, dropping my hand as we heard hushed voices. He grabbed my waist, pulling me off the trail quickly, into a thick clump of bushes. We crouched in hiding as a man and woman giggled their way by us, already clearly drunk. They were both in various states of undressing. I recognized Jon’s friend, Bjorn. The woman he was with had tousled, light hair and a fair complexion. They embraced and kissed passionately. My cheeks grew hot as I looked away. Laughing, they stumbled on. Jon chuckled, pulling me up.

“Embarrassed, eh?”

“No,” I answered hotly, dusting my skirts off and feeling my neck flush as well.

“If it helps, they are recently wed.” we continued up the path side by side.

“I’m just not used to it is all.” I muttered. He laughed again.

“I’m not saying ye have to be used to it, Princess. But it’s no a bad thing out here like it is in the Mountain to express yer feelings.” he explained, making me wonder if he could read my mind. He continued. “Elin was married to Bjorn’s older brother.”

I shot Jon a look of surprise mingled with confusion.

“What happened?” I asked, curious.

“He died in battle a year ago. It is a binding and sacred tradition of our people. Should the man die, his woman must be wed to his next of kin, so she may not become poor and her children starve.”

Though tragic, I found the sentiment rather beautiful in a way. This one tradition, at least. I could do without the slitting of animal’s throats in front of a chanting crowd. We found our way back, the sun dipping low in the sky. Miss Meerie fussed about, carrying all the food we had prepped to the tables, which bowed under the weight. Tonight, there was no head table. Jon and I returned to our spot with Bane and Freyja. Drinks were passed around, and it was easy to see who had already drank their share. A few men were propped next to the barrels of ale, snoring loudly. I sipped at my ale, finding the taste more tolerable and less shocking than my first try.

Without a signal from anyone, the crowd simply began to eat. More cautious of the richness of their food, I ate slowly. Bjorn and Elin, breathless and hand in hand, returned to the feast. I glanced at Jon, who was chewing and holding his mug close to his lips. He smiled and laughed at some memory. Freyja held her stomach again, groaning before chuckling as her child kicked. The tension from the day eased from my shoulders, and I began to giggle at stories the more I drank. Jon’s cheeks became rosy. I was enjoying myself, my tentative freedom, and the easy way these people lived so happily.

Laughing and holding my mug for more ale, I felt eyes on me. Glancing across the clearing in the dim twilight, Thran stared back at me.

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