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Chapter 13

Our stomachs laden with food and drink, we lounged about in contentment. It was nearly impossible to keep my eyes from sliding closed. I yawned, covering my mouth. After the ale came whiskey once again, and everyone had indulged a little too much. Some people became loud and rowdy, while others sat and smiled.

“Don’t worry, the most anyone does tomorrow is stand to take a piss.” Bane laughed, Freyja rolling her eyes. Jon sat in the dirt, leaning back against a log. His fingers were intertwined behind his head as he stared dreamily into the fire. Sleep seemed to be the only thing on everyone’s mind.

Thran approached, causing my heart to lurch and my mind to clear quickly. Jon didn’t budge.

“We’ve reached a verdict.” he stated simply, glancing quickly at me before glaring at his brother. Jon peeled his eyes open.

“And?” he sounded disinterested, already knowing thanks to Bane.

“She stays as a free woman.” Thran turned his gaze to me, smiling a cold smile. “You can continue to work in the kitchens to contribute to our society. Know you’ll likely be watched closely for a while.” I smiled in return at the good news; Jon snorted.

“Who’s your chosen guard dog?”

“It will vary.” Thran said. Jon nodded slowly.

“Send Meleryn away, while yer busy playing leader.” Jon finally looked up at Thran, an unreadable look in his eye.

“She left sometime after the trial.” Thran responded.

“Good.” Jon moved to push himself up. I followed.

“Thank you.” my eyes swept to Thran, who was already staring at me. His smile made my stomach uneasy.

“You’re welcome.” He nodded once. Jon grabbed my elbow roughly, towing me away and towards my tent.

Jon left after coaxing the dead fire to life in the corner of my tent, exiting to help move the tables back into the mess hall. I’d peeled off my layers of clothes and crashed into bed, asleep at once. I had strange dreams all night, hearing the high, melancholy voices of the women near the stone. I saw the circular, winding and intertwining carvings, and moved to them. It felt as though I were pulled by an unstoppable force, completely entranced at its will. I reached my hand to just brush my fingertips over the rough, ancient stone. When I brought my hand back, it was covered in blood.

I awoke with a start, sitting up quickly with a sharp intake of breath. My pounding heart began to slow its pace. The walls of my tent were light, indicating it was already well into the day. My mouth was dry and awful tasting, my head aching. Jon had warned me this would happen the more I drank. He’d called it a hangover. He’d taken my mug away last night, promising he was saving me from worse. I believed him now.

I sighed, dragging my hands along my face. It was much more chilly than yesterday, and I could hear the faint sound of raindrops on the canvas roof. I pulled the fur blankets up to my chin, realizing I’d undressed and fell asleep nude. I lay down, the bizarre dreams coming back to me. I held up both hands in front of my face, inspecting them for blood. There was none. I sighed. This place was taking its toll on me, mentally and physically.

I thought back over my trial, to Meleryn, thankful for the news she had left. What she’d implied about Jon and I made my insides roil. It angered me that she had accused me of such a thing. I wondered how Jon had felt.

Not wanting to sit in a stupor all day, I pushed myself up and dressed in my same outfit from the day before. It hadn’t stood out nearly as much as the other girls’. I felt re-wearing it wouldn’t be an issue. I washed my face in the basin, the iciness of the water clearing the tiredness from my eyes, and loosed my hair to hang wavy down my back. The small mirror comforted me; I was still myself. My cheeks seemed to have lost their girlish plump in the month or so since my fall. I was thankful to appear stronger now, if only a little.

I pulled on my boots and exited. The day was gray and dreary, but somehow comforting to me. Being below the clouds felt more natural somehow. My hollow stomach led me to the mess hall. It was my first time walking about without an escort. It felt odd, but I relished the temporary isolation. Again, it was something I’d never had before. A few other people were milling about, doing small chores. The castle wasn’t nearly as loud as usual; I hoped there was food.

I stood at the entrance to the mess hall, spotting Jon hunched over his bowl of stew. A middle aged woman sat across from him. She was thin, which seemed unusual for people out here. Her hair was light, too. Red mingled with blond. Everything about her was odd. I moved forward from the shadows, Jon’s head snapping up. The entire mess hall was gray and dreary, matching the weather outside. Without many upright attendants this morning, the fire was only glimmering embers. He didn’t smile, though his eyes were kind. I sat timidly next to him, the woman’s eyes gliding over me. Something about her reminded me of my dream. Jon cleared his throat.

“Elise, this is—"

“Vala,” the woman said, interrupting Jon. His look soured. He didn’t like her.

“She’s a seer.” he finished, biting off a chunk of bread. My stomach growled. He glanced at me sideways, reaching for a plate full of food. I realized it was to be his second helping, and he was kindly giving it to me.

“What’s a seer?” I asked. The woman, Vala, smirked at me.

“Ye saw me coming.” her voice was raspy and fluid at the same time.

Jon glanced warily at me, then back to Vala. She rolled her eyes.

“In yer dream last night. Let me see yer hands,” she nodded to my hand, currently occupied with feeding myself. I set the hunk of bread down, wiping the crumbs hastily off, before I stretched my hand across the table to her. She grasped it quickly and firmly, her gray eyes scanning it. My eyes darted to Jon, his expression stormy.

“Did ye see blood?” she asked, her eyes flicking to mine. My blood ran cold. How did she know?

“Y-yes,” I stammered. She nodded knowingly, patting my hand and letting go.

“What does that mean?” Jon’s deep voice was hushed. The woman merely shrugged, leaning back.

“It could mean a few things. She will be responsible for bloodshed, her bloodline will conquer your people, or she will one day lead, but not without first getting her hands…dirty.” she smiled wickedly. Jon burst out laughing, clearly disbelieving her every word. I still felt the cold chill of premonition tingle up my spine.

“And your dream, Jon?” she held out her hand, waiting for his. Her eyes were outlined in thick, black charcoal it seemed. He rolled his eyes at me and placed his hand in hers.

“Ye will marry, and soon, though ye will not want it at the time. This marriage will alter the course of the clan.” he withdrew his hand quickly, a tinge coming to his cheeks.

“How do you know this?” I asked, fascinated.

“It was a gift from the gods, passed down through my mothers before me.” She stood to go, turning to me.

“If ye ever have need of me, and I suppose ye will before long, I live in the cottage across the river. Jon can show ye before he leaves.” And with that, she seemed to float away, leaving me breathless.

“You’re leaving?” my heart sank. Jon only shrugged.

“I asked to leave as soon as we got here. Though Thran hasn’t released me yet. I suppose she was just seein’ the future,” he winked. He pushed my plate towards me, and we resumed eating.

“Who is she really?” I asked, my appetite lost. He glanced at me, his mouth full of stew and bread. He thought a moment and swallowed.

“No one really knows. Her family has been linked to our clan for centuries. They write about these women in our books and histories, ye see. They are highly regarded,” a few people skirted past our table, Jon lowering his voice.

“Thran believes every word that old witch says.” I could hear the contempt in his voice.

“And you don’t?”

He shook his head, sitting up a little straighter.

“I suppose I’ve seen more of the world. Everyone has different beliefs, so who is really right?” he reached for his cup. I still couldn’t shake the eeriness she had cast over me. A few men entered, clearly burdened with purpose. They paused in front of us.

“Thran wishes to speak with ye.” One man had a thick, brown beard and large belly. The other was small and shifty eyed. Jon stood, sighing heavily.

“Both o’ ye.”

I swallowed the hot stew too quickly, nearly choking. What more could Thran want with me? I stood obediently, following Jon. We wound our way to Thran’s meeting room, three levels above. The men opened the door to the stuffy room, and we entered. Thran sat at his desk, scratching out a letter. The door closed behind us four, a heaviness settling in the air. Thran didn’t bother to look up as he spoke.

“I’m sending you and a hunting party after Meleryn.” Clearly, he meant Jon, who crossed his arms defiantly.

“No.” he answered curtly. Thran glanced up, his eyes angry.

“You will do as I say, or I will not permit you to come and go as you please anymore.” Jon’s back went rigid.

“How do I even know where she went?” it was an astute question, but Thran wasn’t easily swayed.

“I’ll give you one guess. Best pack and be off, before she crosses the border. If she does that, war will reign down on us.” Thran set his jaw. Jon uncrossed his arms. I gathered Meleryn would be headed to Mount Tier. My heart fluttered at the possibility of going home, of seeing my family.

“Fine.” he seethed. He turned to leave grabbing my arm.

Thran cleared his throat, and the two men stepped between us and the door.

“I thought you might assume she’d be going along, but I cannot take that risk.”

Jon whirled around, pure rage emanating from him. He shook with it.

“She goes with.” he said through clenched teeth. Thran smirked, pushing back his chair to stand as he rested his palms on his desk, leaning towards us.

“If something goes wrong and they take her, they’ll either kill her or have her lead them to us. I will not risk our clan because of your little crush.”

I felt myself go hot in embarrassment as Thran stated the obvious.

“She stays.” he said with finality. Jon considered a moment.

“If anything happens to her, if ye use her in any of yer little schemes, I’ll kill ye myself.” Jon’s words made me shudder in fear.

“Careful, now,” Thran said. “This is a time of war, and threats, even idle ones, are serious.”

“Then I’m glad we’re on the same page.” Jon turned on his heel, storming out and leaving me to run after him. I felt sick. My only real protection was being sent away. How long would he be gone? How long before his people turned on me?

“Jon!” I called breathlessly, trying to keep pace in the cramped, dark halls. He turned suddenly, causing me to nearly knock into him. He seethed in fury, his chest heaving with the exertion from it. His eyes were charcoal black in the dim light. I hoped to never see him this angry again.

“He’s planning something.” he growled.

“What?” I asked, utterly confused and helpless.

“I’m not sure,” he breathed in frustration. “Just…lay low while I’m away, alright?” I nodded quickly. His eyes flicked between mine. An unfathomable expression crossed his face.

“Damn it all,” he muttered, grabbing my arm and pulling me to him. I inhaled quickly, my eyes fluttering closed, as his lips crashed onto mine.

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