I stumbled and backed out of the room quickly, feeling as though I may vomit.
“Consider it,” he called after me as I fled. I had no notion of where I was headed, only that I needed to be lost, needed to be somewhere Thran couldn’t find me. What about Jon? My heart ached at the thought as I flew down the dark corridor. I knew it was hopeless; no one could know when or if he would return, and I knew better than to use it to dissuade Thran. I somehow understood that winning me from Jon was Thran’s greatest prize.
I stopped suddenly, too lost to continue as I slid down the wall to wallow in my unfortunate circumstance. I’d almost been wed before, but Jon had changed my outlook on every aspect. My heart desired Jon, plain and simple. If I said no, and Thran threw me back into the wild, I’d survive a few days at most. And with a price now on my head, I may not even survive that long. I beat my fists on the rough stone floor, tears cascading down my cheeks in frustration. He’d backed me into a corner with no real option but to consent. My skin crawled as images of our wedding night danced behind my eyelids.
I knew there was more than lust behind Thran’s motives; to marry me would be to bind his clan to the Mountain forever. I finally realized just how important I was to everyone out here. I was a pawn, the last key to gain riches and resources unimaginable. To bind clan Macdara and Mount Tier would create a nearly unstoppable force. My mind turned over and over for hours. Like a cat chasing a mouse, my solutions scampered away before I could reach them.
I heard light footsteps as dawn began to break upon another cold and snowy day. The longest night of the year was over.
Vala slid down the wall next to me, her gray eyes unleashing their tranquil beauty on me. I had no strength for words.
“You are troubled.” she stated. I only stared back at her. She reached for my hand, but I pulled hastily away, not wanting to hear what she thought my future held anymore. I’d made my decision, and the pain that followed was my own choice.
She deftly grasped it anyway, startling me. Her eyes rolled back, her head thunking against the stone wall behind her. She hissed at unseen monsters. She withdrew her hand as though I were on fire, her eyes now wide.
“What have you done?” she whispered. I glared at her.
“I have no choice,” I growled, my blood boiling. She smiled suddenly, a look so evil I shuddered.
“Have you ever heard the tale of how our people came to be?” she asked, her eyes glinting. I shook my head.
“There was a pack of wolves, strong and fierce. They roamed the land and took whatever the gods presented them with. One of the gods became jealous of his younger brother, who loved the wolves and gave them whatever they needed.
The god devised a plan to kill the wolves one by one, but do so in a way that would cause no suspicion from the other gods. To the alpha wolf, he gave a strong potion that made him lust for power. The wolf, deceived by the potion, led his brothers in a fight against another pack. A few wolves escaped, but the alpha perished in his quest for power. The wolves lived in peace for a generation, calmer than before. Until the god became jealous again, poisoning the new alpha, who repeated the mistakes of his ancestor.”
I stared at Vala, absorbed in her storytelling. It was confusing, to be sure, but I was an outsider to their customs.
“So…your people came from…wolves?” I asked, not sure I had her meaning correct. She shrugged.
“Our ancestors have come from many places, and there are a great many stories to explain why we ended up here.”
“Then why is this one so important to you?” I sighed, not in the mood for riddles.
“Perhaps this god has become jealous once more, and the course of your future is not as sure as it may seem to you.” she pushed herself off the floor, leaving as quietly as she’d come.
A few days after everything settled, I found myself outside Thran’s door. Every time I raised my hand to knock, I hesitated. Though my course was decided, it didn’t make expressing it any less difficult. I took a deep breath, wiping my sweaty palms on my skirts, and raised my hand once more. The door burst open suddenly, as though Thran knew I was there. His broad shoulders blocked the doorway entirely. He tried and failed to hide his vile grin.
“Have you considered our…deal?” he asked, his voice dripping with honey. I began to rethink everything, standing in his presence once more. Thran, though more handsome than anyone here (aside from Jon), was equally as hideous because of his scheming and selfish heart. I set my jaw.
“And?” he quirked an eyebrow.
“Yes.” I seethed, though he knew already what my answer would be.
“Perfect. We’ll be married in one week. That should give Miss Meerie enough time to gather important witnesses and prepare enough food.”
I shuddered. One week. I realized how little I knew of their traditions when it came to marriage. I’d have to ask Freyja.
“Fine,” I muttered, turning to go. He grabbed my chin, forcing me to face him once again.
“I’ll expect a better attitude once you’re my wife.” his eyes blazed. I felt tears threaten to fall. He dropped his hand. “I’ll have your things moved to the castle. You’ll be staying near me until our wedding.” he smirked. It was all I could do to nod before I turned and nearly ran from him.
I spent a good deal of my last few free days crying. I sat by the slowly winding river where Jon had taken me, holding my woolen shawl tightly about myself. The last words my grandmother had spoke to me echoed in my mind repetitively.
“What if I run out of things to give?” I’d asked.
“Then what good are you?”
Bear sniffed around the bushes, which were covered thickly in frost and snow, their laden boughs bending to the ground. I didn’t mind the cold, having lived high in the Mountain my whole life. The far expanse beyond the river was blanketed in the white puffiness. Everything was hushed and calm.
Bear’s head jerked up, his ears tilting forward as someone approached from behind. I knew who it was without having to look. Freyja sat next to me heavily, sighing. This was the only place I still had to myself.
“Talk to me, woman.” she bumped shoulders with me. I knew I needed to talk, to let my emotions out before I caved in on myself. I played with a strand of my red hair. It had grown long and wild in my months out here.
“I can’t stand him,” I muttered, my eyes moving out to the rolling hills. She snorted.
“I don’t think many o’ us can. He blackmailed ye, then?” she asked. I wasn’t sure what blackmailed meant, but I figured it was whatever Thran had done to persuade me to marry him. I nodded in response.
“Bastard,” she whispered, lest someone overhear and have us killed for treason. “I wish I could help ye, but once he’s set his mind, there’s no stoppin’ him.”
I picked at a stray string on my skirt.
“I gathered as much.”
“Well, what must ye know before yer wedding?” she had a habit of cutting right to the core of any conversation, which I’d learned to appreciate. I laughed bitterly.
I heard her sharp intake of breath. “Weel, best get started then, eh?”
I turned my small smile to her.
“There will be a ceremony, between you and Thran, and witnesses from other allied clans. I’d wager our whole clan will be there. Ye make yer promises to each other, kiss, and then begin the celebration feast.”
“And?” I questioned bitterly.
“Ehhh, well, you’ll retire sometime later to yer chambers, and consummate yer marriage.”
“What if I refuse?” I asked, grasping at any way around the worst part of this arrangement. Freyja’s cheeks reddened, and not from the cold.
“Ye canna refuse yer husband. Yer marriage has to be real.” her brow furrowed. “I suggest ye drink whisky, and lot’s of it, so ye don’t have to remember it too much.”
I bit my cheek to keep from crying again.
“So that’s it? I’ll spend the rest of my life drinking whisky to bear his touch?”
“It’s no so bad,” she nudged me lovingly.
“But you love Bane.”
She laughed loudly, scaring birds from their hiding spots in the tall tree limbs.
“At first, I wanted to kill the bastard every night.” her reddish eyes seemed to dance at the memory. I was stunned.
“Because, I wasna’ ready to be wed, to have to answer to someone else, but my father was dying, and I needed a man to help me survive the winter. So Bane and I were wed, right before my father died. We fought like cats and dogs for weeks,” she chuckled at the memory.
“I’ve fought in battles, and I knew how to care for myself, ye know? But Bane wanted to take that role. I threw many jugs at that man’s damn head, until we learned to work together. I love him deeply now, ye see that.” I nodded, envious of their obvious adoration for one another.
“Just tolerate him when he’s around, for he won’t be there much. He’s busy, so yer lucky in that manner.”
“What about Jon?” the words rushed past my lips without warning. I peeked at Freyja, whose eyes became saddened.
“Yer not betraying him, but ye need to let him go, in yer heart. It will be best for the both of ye.” she shook her head, her amber hair swishing with the movement.
“I don’t want to.” I stared across the river again, wondering how far I could run before they caught me.
“Then keep him, locked away in a secret place, but don’t let the thought of what may have been ruin ye.” with her last words, she stood and left quietly. In the distant, white sky, I counted seven crows fly by, their outstretched wings black as the darkest night. I stood, saying goodbye to Jon in my heart.