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Chapter 14

“I’m sorry.”

Jon’s last two words to me before he’d left bounced around in my skull. What exactly was he sorry for? The kiss? Thran’s sending him away? Or this mess in its entirety? My rattled mind couldn’t handle the questions, so I’d decided to lock them away until he returned. In the meantime, I’d have to keep myself busy. And that’s exactly what I did.

Jon had left Bear behind, the dog following me everywhere, even sleeping at the foot of my bed. His presence did offer a bit of comfort. Sometimes I’d catch myself talking to him, his head cocked to the side as though he understood me. I busied myself with stitching the holes in my clothes; once those were mended, I offered to stitch other people’s clothes for them. It became a welcome distraction during the long, wintry nights.

It still hadn’t snowed, though Miss Meerie believed it would any day. Every morning, the usual dew was instead crisp frost that crunched underfoot. I knew I was being watched by Thran’s men; every few days there seemed to be someone new. I listened to Jon’s advice and kept to myself, working in the kitchens for long hours, retiring by myself at night.

Though I tried not to count the days, I knew Jon had been gone nearly a month. He’d only taken Bjorn and a few other men with him. Bane was forced to stay, as Freyja was due any second it had seemed. The day she gave birth, Miss Meerie had charged into the kitchens, grabbed me by my apron, and towed me to their respective room in the castle. Since Bane sat on the council, they could live in constant warmth.

I’d stared wide-eyed at Freyja, wondering if she would die. Surely, someone in that much pain must die. Her face had changed shades of red, going darker with every passing minute. She refused to cry out. It was then that I had discovered Freyja was a real warrior; she’d been to bloody battles and back. My respect for her soared. She had squeezed Bane’s hand so tightly he’d yelped. Eventually, the cries of the newborn babe was heard throughout the castle. I was stuck in awe for days afterward at the miracle of life. They’d named their first boy Jon.

More days had passed, and I’d developed an interest in learning about crops. Miss Meerie promised me the chance to work in the gardens once the big thaw began. She started to teach me remedies and uses of different plants. I shared what little knowledge I had with her. Freyja and I took to walking by the river each afternoon, little Jon clinging to his mother’s breast against the cold. Freyja showed me where Vala lived; a quaint stone cottage surrounded by a currently dead garden.

“She makes potions,” Freyja had told me, explaining what sorcery and witchcraft meant. No one seemed too keen to bother Vala. On our way back up the path, we’d witnessed Thran slinking through the woods to knock on her door.

It finally snowed on a night their people called Winter Solstice. There was another massive feast, dancing and drinking. Jon had now been gone almost two months.

“This is the longest night of the year,” Freyja muttered to me, our eyes watching the dancers in the middle of the mess hall. I couldn’t help the constant ache in my chest anymore, the longing for someone who wasn’t mine. Freyja and Bane seemed to notice, and kept offering me drinks. Thran continued to watch me through the crowd.

“Why is this night so important?” I questioned, cradling a sleeping little Jon.

“Weel,” Bane scratched his beard in thought. “Since it’s the longest night, I think many o’ our ancestors died because o’ the cold. So now we stay awake and dance instead to stay warm.” he laughed his usual, raspy chuckle. I doubted that was the real reasoning behind the festivities, but his joke lightened my mood, and I laughed, too.

Rose danced in the middle of the floor with a younger man; she’d been positively distraught after Jon had left, but seemed to be recovering quickly. Children ran around the tables with boughs from trees, hitting each other, the dogs chasing after them. Bear lay at my feet, whining quietly. I could tell he missed Jon, too. I gently handed little Jon back to Freyja, standing to take my leave.

“Off so soon?” Freyja’s eyes were troubled. I nodded, faking a yawn.

“I’m just tired from preparing the feast,” I lied easily. They glanced at each other, and I waved a small goodbye. Bear stood and trotted along beside me, into the frigid air. I clutched my heavy shawl tighter about my shoulders. My tent stood alone, surrounded by a few tall trees. It was dark. I sighed heavily, knowing I’d have to start up my fire. I’d become quicker at it, but it was still frustrating from time to time. Nearing the entrance, Bear stopped in his tracks, hackles raised as a low growl emanated from his throat. I stopped short, my breath leaving me in a puff of white. Bear continued his threatening growl as I slowly backed away. The light from the castle barely touched where I stood.

“All alone, eh?” a voice came from behind me. I whirled around, but Bear still faced my tent. There must be more than one person here, I thought quickly. My heartbeat pulsed heavily through my veins.

“N-no,” I stuttered, out of cold and fear. Bear’s growl turned to a snarl as someone else approached.

“Shut yer dog up, or we’ll do it for you.” I could barely make out the shape of the man in front of me, his back illuminated by the dim lights of the castle.

“He’s not mine,” I pleaded, my hands up in surrender. My mind wildly groped for an escape, or a way to defend myself. The knife! I thought suddenly. My hope flittered away as quickly as I’d thought it. The knife was in a trunk in my tent.

His hand shot out, grabbing a fistful of my hair, yanking me to him. I gasped, searching for enough air to scream.

“Make a sound and ye die.” I felt his dagger against my neck. Bear began to bark, a deep and booming sound. I prayed it reached someone’s ears. Another shadow approached, but Bear held his ground. I began to kick, hoping to connect with some limb, but the steel pressed harder against the soft flesh of my neck. I whimpered. The other man laughed. I didn’t recognize either of their voices or builds.

I was suddenly thrown to the ground, a knee pressed into my stomach, the wind knocked out of me. My eyes watered.

“This is the Mountain bitch we heard of,” the man holding me down said to his friend. He grabbed a fistful of my telling, red hair, bringing his knife to it and slicing through a chunk of it. He shoved my hair hastily in a bag by his side, sheathing his dagger as he pushed my skirts up.

Again? I thought. What was with men out here? This time, though, I knew I didn’t have Jon to save me. The man bent his head to me, reeking of alcohol and salt. He began to kiss me sloppily, and I finally mustered the courage to scream. He struck me across the face, knocking me senseless for a moment, my head turning to the side where Bear was. He leapt at the other distracted man, catching his knee in his massive jaws. The man screamed in pain. Sounds of tearing flesh and clothes met my ears. My assailant hastily continued, the hatred in his eyes spurring him onward. I kicked and thrashed, but he easily overpowered me.

I heard thundering, running footsteps then, and he was thrown off me. Whoever had come to my rescue held torches, lighting up the darkness. Everything seemed to still for a moment as I gathered my wits. Bear had the other man on the ground now, ripping at his arms, moving angrily towards his face and neck. The man screamed in agony, bringing me deep pleasure. Bane stood above me, holding my assailant with one hand clamped around his throat. His legs dangled and kicked, a few feet off the ground.

“Don’t kill them yet,” my eyes snapped to Thran, the fury in his eyes clear even in the darkness. Freyja rushed to my side, pulling my skirts down for me, cradling me. The man Bane held nearly had his pants off. I realized how closely I’d reached the brink of rape and death once again. I began to shake. The screams behind me quieted. I turned as Bear trotted up to me, his snout covered in crimson blood. His tail wagged slowly. I reached out to him, grabbing a fistful of his fur, pulling him to me as I buried my face in his great neck, crying for the first time since I’d come to this place.

I was beginning to hate Thran’s stuffy meeting room. It seemed I was only ever in there for something bad. Miss Meerie fussed over me as I sat facing Thran, his hands folded on his desk. His knuckles were white. Bane and Freyja stood behind me, Bane gripping my assailant’s shoulder tightly. The other man’s chances at life looked bleak. Bear sat at my feet, licking blood off his paws.

I held a rag to my bloody and swollen lip as Miss Meerie placed her heavy hands on my shoulders. It was easy to see where Bane received the majority of his features. Thran’s eyes moved between me and my attacker.

“Where are you from?” he asked curtly. The man stayed quiet. I couldn’t muster the courage to look at him. Thran sighed, rubbing the creases in his forehead.

“I’ll assume you’re from one of the Isles, considering the stench of a sea port on you. Who sent you?” Thran seemed to hide his accent; a peculiar trait. Again, the man stayed silent.

“How did you know she was here?” Thran asked.

I jumped as the man’s voice sounded behind me. I turned to face him, not so afraid now that Bane was holding a knife to His throat.

“There’s a pretty price for her. I’ll split it with ye if ye let me have her,” he said through rotten teeth. The knife in Bane’s hand pressed tighter to his throat. Thran sat back, glancing to me.

“Elise, it’s your decision what we do with him. Keep in mind, more will follow, unless we make an example of him,” Thran inclined his head to the corner where he stood. I swallowed audibly. Though hatred and fear coursed through my veins of more men like him coming for me, I couldn’t sentence someone to death. I considered a moment, pulling the rag from my lip.

“Let him go,” I croaked. Everyone in the room seemed to gasp. Miss Meerie clenched my shoulders in her shock.

“Ye canna’ let him go!” Bane growled angrily. I turned to face them, reaching down to wind my fingers through Bear’s thick fur. I glared.

“Let him take his mangled friend back as a warning.”

Bane smiled wickedly, Freyja’s eyes becoming cloudy.

“There’s still a high risk for more attacks,” she pointed out. Thran stood, nodding.

“Yes, and that is something Elise and I must discuss. Bane, send these two on their way with our warning.”

Everyone shuffled out at his command, leaving us alone. I squirmed under his gaze. He moved around to the front of his desk, leaning back on it.

“What must we discuss?” I asked, truly scared of what may come. Thran’s eyes danced.

“You’re a danger to us if this keeps happening.” he said simply. I fiddled with my hands.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, casting my eyes downward. Thran’s hand dipped under my chin, lifting my eyes to meet his. My stomach churned at his touch.

“I can help you,” he smiled, but I saw the motives behind that grin. My eyes narrowed in suspicion.


“I can protect you from harm. Give you nearly anything your heart desires. You’re a beautiful woman, Elise, every man here thinks so and yearns for you greatly.”

My cheeks warmed.

“But I always win,” he whispered huskily. It was a threat as much as it was a statement. Fear coursed through my veins for the second time tonight. He stood suddenly, releasing my chin. He towered over me menacingly.

“You will marry me, Elise, or be removed from our protection and cast into the wild.”

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