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Chapter 16

The smell of roast chicken and creamed potatoes filled the cavernous kitchens and mess hall. Evergreen garlands wound around staircase railings and hung decoratively from the massive fireplace, emitting a piney scent. The edges of the windows were thick with frost, framing the wintry landscape outside. The floors were swept spotless, dogs shooed away, lest they track in debris. The clan lands crawled with new faces, every one of them fighting for a chance to catch a glimpse of the Princess from the Mountain. I took to hiding in my new room amongst the bustle, staring out the window as the next snow storm rolled in. Tonight, we had celebrated the gathering of witnesses from other clans. Tomorrow, I was to be wed to Thran. My hope of escape dimmed with every passing hour.

Miss Meerie had consulted with me, asking which dishes were my favorite, which I wanted served at each respective dinner. I’d told her whisky. She’d pursed her lips in response and turned away, too busy to deal with my sour attitude. It was no secret I was miserable; then again, no one seemed to find it unusual given my circumstance. I often found myself wondering which fate would have been better; to live a simple existence in Mount Tier, or to live amongst these clans, abiding by their will. It was a conundrum I had no intention to solve.

I sat at my vanity, not unlike the one I used to have at home. I could only stare at my shell in the mirror; my spirit was broken. I combed through my fiery hair until it was silk. Night had fallen early as it did this time of year, causing my chest to ache with the anxiety darkness brought. Dressed in my nightgown, I reached for my lighter, green plaid shall. Quietly pulling open my door, I peered out into the darkened hallway. No one stood watch; there was nowhere for me to go now, anyways. I pulled the door closed behind me, my bare feet padding softly on the cold ground. I found if I walked throughout the night, I’d be able to sleep in the wee hours of the morning. I tried not to think of anything as I walked, instead listening to my heartbeat and the occasional disturbance in the otherwise sleeping castle.

I rounded a corner, still unsure of where each hallway led. I would have jumped from fright at the sight of another person, had I cared at all for my well being anymore. Instead, I stopped and stared at the ghost in front of me. He turned to face me full on, his deep brown eyes alighting like flame to kindling as they fell upon me. The secret I’d pushed deep into my heart sprang forward in an instant.

“Elise,” he breathed, his dark curls a halo around his beautifully pale face. I reached out a hand to the nearest wall, feeling faint. He rushed to me, steadying me in his strong and gentle embrace.

“It’s alright, I’m here, I’m back,” he gushed.

“Jon?” I whispered, my hands surrendered on his sturdy chest. He was no ghost.

“Jon?” another, deeper voice called from behind us. Jon slowly pulled himself away from me, stiffening as Thran approached. I couldn’t tear my eyes from him. Jon’s eyes narrowed slightly as he released me, the firelight from the torches along the walls casting eery shadows upon his face. Thran replaced him, his touch chilling me. Realization began to dawn on his face. He looked as though he’d been stabbed through the gut.

“When did you return?” Thran asked with fake cheer, gripping my waist tighter as he spoke. I leaned away from him, casting my eyes anywhere but Jon’s tragic face.

“Just now.” he breathed.

“Such excellent timing,” Thran’s voice was dripping in sarcasm.

“Yes,” Jon growled. “We found Meleryn, in the opposite direction ye’d told us to go.”

My eyes snapped up at this. Everything had been plotted by Thran in order for him to blackmail me into marriage.

“I heard there was to be a wedding tomorrow.” Jon turned his livid glare to me. My eyes pleaded with him, but I knew his forgiveness for this betrayal would never come. Now, more than before, I wished my fall from the Mountain had claimed my life. I couldn’t bear knowing I’d betrayed Jon in this way.

“Yes, brother. Elise and I seemed to have…bonded, in your absence.” Thran pulled me closer still. Jon sneered down at me.

“Yes, you two seem very happy together.”

Tears sprang into my eyes, pooling before a few escaped. I turned my gaze to Jon once more, pleading with him silently.

“Well, brother, best get some sleep before the celebration tomorrow. Perhaps you’ll find a wife, too.” Thran tugged at my elbow, forcing me to turn. With a threatening arm around my shoulder, we began to walk away. I turned to look back at Jon. He stood in the middle of the hall, completely defeated.

“I’m sorry,” I mouthed to him before we turned the corner.

“Ye may kiss yer bride!” the elderly gray haired woman said with too much enthusiasm. I knew she still hated me. The entire crowd erupted in applause and cheers, their faces alight with the glow of all the firelight in the mess hall. My stomach lurched as Thran pulled me close, his lips colliding with mine for the briefest of moments. As he pulled away, my eyes peered over his shoulder to rest on Jon. Bane stood just behind him, a sour look on his face. Jon had a black eye; Bane bore multiples scratches across his cheeks. Freyja had confided in me that Jon, infuriated at the news of our marriage, had gone on a drunken rampage last night. Only Bane had been strong enough to stop him.

Thran turned us to face the cheering crowd. Hand in hand, we wound our way through the throng of people. Women handed me homemade gifts, men clapped Thran on the back. Many women whispered advice on how to conceive a child quickly, to which Thran would laugh heartily. I was in shock. It was impossible for me to take in the entire atmosphere, overwhelming as it was.

I was married. The thought was foreign to me, as it still should be. I doubted the newness of it all would wear off anytime soon. I had been given the most luxurious gown by Miss Meerie; deep, emerald green with a dipping neckline, embroidered with thousands of leaves that seemed to glint whenever I moved.

“Ye need to show off yer womanly figure!” Miss Meerie had said. I felt rather exposed as all the men’s eyes raked over my body. They wouldn’t dare touch me now, though. That was one aspect of this marriage to be thankful for. Except, I’d still be prey to Thran.

“Congratulations,” Vala floated up to Thran and I. I smiled at her; although she was strange to me, she’d attempted to help console me. Thran’s eyes darkened. She reached to stroke my blazing red hair, braided intricately and adorned with small white flowers. I had no idea where Miss Meerie had found them.

“Thank you,” I said. Her gray eyes were encased in more black than usual. Thran tightened his grip on me. She smiled wickedly as he pulled me away to the next clump of overly happy people. Freyja continued to bring me mugs of ale or whisky throughout the night. Men and women danced and sang, children smiled up at me, calling me a goddess, which I figured was equivalent to princess. Fiddles and drums and flutes played the music of their people, causing eruptions of cheers once one song ended. Their music was tragically beautiful to my ears, fitting, I supposed, for how I felt. I finally escaped from Thran, engrossed as he was discussing war tactics with another clan leader. Upon hearing him utter my name mingled with Mount Tier, I’d become disgusted. I hid behind a pillar, downing my glass of whisky, my pale hand shaky around the ornate glass. A dark figure emerged before me, my head swimming.

“What did I tell ye about hangovers, princess?” Jon asked, his voice tight. My eyes found his. I glared at him.

“I don’t care anymore.” I fought to be sure I didn’t slur my words. His eyes were pained, a deep purple bruise under his left one. His hair was tied back, his face scruffy. He wore black and grey, his sword at his side. Silver buckles shimmered here and there on his body.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t give ye a chance to explain the situation before I jumped to conclusions.”

I teetered, my feet seeming to fail me. Whisky made me want to tell Jon everything and slap him at the same time.

“You left me.” I growled, leaning heavily on the pillar for support.

“Aye, yes, a mistake I’ll never forgive myself for.” he unleashed his gaze on me, causing me to nearly topple over. His hand shot out, catching me before I fell and made a fool of myself. He glanced around, making sure no one was witnessing my falling apart. A new song started amidst cheers, and nearly everyone rushed to the middle of the floor to dance.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his face closer to mine. I wrenched my arm away from him.

“And now I have to…to sleep with your brother…and…and be his whore for the rest of my life!” my vision swam. I realized I was crying. Jon looked as though I held hot irons to his legs; I’d replaced my grandfather, only my torture was much, much more effective.

He grabbed both my shoulders tightly, giving them a slight shake. His face, inches from mine, was as livid as a wild animal’s.

“Ye think I havena’ considered that? That he will…that you…dammit!” he seethed, his lip curled in agony, his face contorted in pain and outrage. The whisky caused my tears to flow freely, and I hiccuped.

“I don’t want to, Jon, I don’t want him!” I blubbered like a child.

“Shh, Elise, I know ye don’t,” he wiped my tears with his thumbs. “Calm down, or someone will see,” he whispered. I took a few, shuddering breaths. Thran decided to find us, then. His eyes narrowed as Jon backed away from me. He held out his hand to me. I had no choice but to obey.

“Come, wife. It’s time we thank our guests and retire for the night.”

A chambermaid had come into our cavernous room, loosing my gown for me before backing out hastily. I sat on the edge of the colossal bed, waiting for Thran to appear. My hands glided over the rough, cold fabric of the burgundy bedding. Chairs and tables were scattered about the large space, a dying fire to one corner. Curtains hung over the windows, caging me in. I jumped as he moved silently from the doorway, carrying a flagon of wine encrusted in silver, gifted to us from some guest. Thran had also been enjoying his drink this evening. He set the wine on the table, moving his long fingers to undo the ties on his shirt. My hands began to shake steadily. His shirt fell to the ground, laying in a pool of crisp white at his feet. His chest and stomach were muscled and smooth. He moved to stand in front of me.

“Stand,” he commanded. Gulping, I obliged. “Undress.” his eyes were clouded with drink, holding nothing but lust. I shook all over, reaching to my shoulder to pull my shift down. He stared at my body through the thin fabric. He reached towards my breast, his fingers dancing above the cloth. My eyes closed. I bit my cheek. I wouldn’t cry in front of him. He gripped my sleeve suddenly, yanking the collar down and exposing my chest. I covered myself instinctually as my shift fell to the ground. He grabbed my wrist, pulling it away to reveal myself. I stared levelly back at him, hatred pooling in my gut. He grabbed my face roughly, pulling me to kiss him. His hands roamed over my body as he pushed me back onto the bed. I shook my face free, gasping for a breath. I pushed against his chest.

“Stop it,” he growled. I brought my knee up quickly, and he recoiled, howling in pain. “You bitch!” he yelled, slapping me across the face hard enough that I saw what could only be described as stars. I stared at the canopy of the bed for a moment, stunned, a stinging line cut into my cheek. He grabbed my cheeks with one hand, pulling me within inches of his own face. His touch made the cut burn.

“You’re mine, and you’ll do what I want!”

He pushed himself back on me, and I screamed in his ear as loudly as I could. “Help!” I hoped the entire castle heard. Angered even more, he began to hurry the process. I pushed and kicked with every ounce of strength I had. He gripped my throat, giving me flashbacks of the man near the Mountain. My vision swam.

“Wake up,” he growled, shaking me. He pushed himself off me. Clearly, he wanted me to remember this night. Naked, he made his way to the table, reaching for the wine. I gasped for air. He gulped an unhealthy amount, then returned to me, pinning my arms above my head. His dark eyes were determined. I let go, unable to fight any longer. Nothing happened.

His grip on my wrists loosened, and his face turned bright red. He stood, stumbling back from me, crashing into the table and causing the water basin to fall to the floor and shatter, the shards scattering across the surface. His face turned from red to purple, his eyes bulging. I screamed again, though I had no voice left after he’d crushed my throat. His entire body convulsed, foam erupting from between his lips. I stood and stumbled away, my back hitting the chilled wall near the bed. Someone pounded at the door. Thran clawed at his throat. The door burst open, fragments of wood splintering and cracking, as Bane hurled in. Thran collapsed, still convulsing.

“Send for help!” he roared, rushing to Thran’s side. He twitched one last time as his eyes rolled back to stare at nothing. Thran was dead.

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