Note from the author:
Hey! Just wanted to pop in here real quick and say I appreciate everyone reading my work! It is so gratifying! A little about myself: I am an English Literature student in college with a passion for reading and writing. I get busy, but I try to update every day or every other day. I will also be uploading another story I’ve been working on within the next few weeks (yay editing!) and I hope everyone enjoys that one too! If you feel up to rating, sharing, liking, commenting, etc. it is always so appreciated! When I see people reading/sharing with others, it somehow makes me write faster… :) Ok, back to the good stuff…
A barrage of burly, bearded men flooded our room. Shouts and angry voices, combined with the clanging of steel swords, made the chaos unbearable. Jon pushed his way forward roughly, his gaze falling upon his deceased brother. Some sort of emotion flicked through his eyes briefly, but he set his jaw, turning to the crowd of rioting clansmen.
“Everyone out!” he bellowed. The men quieted, glancing at one another. With Thran dead, rule passed to Jon. That knowledge began to show on everyone’s faces as they obeyed their new leader. After all the men shuffled past my naked form, their eyes quickly peeking at me, the room became silent. Jon’s eyes fell to me. He cursed quietly, undoing the fasten at his neck and whirling his cloak off. I felt the heavy warmth settle on my shoulders. I stared past him, to Thran’s dead body. The images of how he had died were forever ingrained in my mind.
“Elise,” Jon’s voice was soothing and far away; he seemed more concerned about my well being in this moment. Perhaps because I was still alive; there was nothing left to do for Thran.
“Poison,” Bane stood, voice stiff with emotion. Jon reached for my face. I shied away from his touch, startled. His hand fell.
“What happened?” he asked. I could only stare at the body on the cold, stone floor. “Elise, we must know what happened, or everyone will assume ye did this.”
My eyes snapped to his. I began to shake steadily.
“I didn’t do it.” I croaked.
Jon turned to Bane, who shrugged one, heavy shoulder.
“Tell me what happened, then.” he demanded.
“He was angry.” I muttered, my eyes transfixed on the perfectly still body.
“Because he slapped me and choked me and I passed out. He wanted me awake.” I glanced at my hands, suddenly mesmerized at how they shook. I heard Jon’s breath leave his chest.
“Ye screamed…for help…” Bane murmured. I shrugged.
“I just wanted him to stop.” the shaking began to spread throughout my body.
“Then what?” Jon asked with quietly controlled rage.
“He drank the wine and came back to bed and…” I shrugged again, my eyes wandering to Thran, searching for any sign of life.
“She’s in shock,” Jon said from somewhere above me.
“Aye, she is. This wine bottle, it has a crest on it. Crows.” Bane held it up for inspection. The light sparkled off the silver. I began to laugh, then, snapping their attention back to me. I couldn’t pinpoint what was so hilarious, but I felt the crazed urge to laugh. Freyja and Miss Meerie rushed in, and I doubled over as I continued to wheeze in laughter. The last thing I recalled before slipping into oblivion was Freyja holding a small bottle to my lips.
When I came to, I was dressed in a shift and propped stiffly in a bed. The room was darkened and stuffy, the smoky smell nearly choking me. My body and head ached; between copious amounts of alcohol, being battered around by Thran, and subsequently watching him die, I figured this pain was acceptable. I pushed myself up, my head pounding. Something shuffled in the corner as I moved.
Miss Meerie emerged from the darkness, a damp rag clutched in her pudgy hands. She mopped at my cheeks and forehead, easing the pain substantially. The rag was aromatic; some herb I couldn’t quite identify at the moment. Her plump face was creased in worry.
“What happened?” I choked out. I was going to lose my voice for good if people kept trying to strangle me. Her eyes were sorrowful.
“Yer safe now, time to rest and heal.” she said curtly. Her voice had an edge to it.
“Who killed him?” I asked, insistent on some answers. She sighed heavily, settling into the chair next to my bed. I didn’t recognize the room, and though it was dark, it was much more pleasant than any I’d stayed in.
“Vala,” she spoke the name, my mind taking its time to recall her face. Shock ran through me once it did.
“Why?” I breathed. She patted my hand in comfort.
“Apparently, her and Thran were lovers, and when he decided to marry ye…weel, she wasna’ too happy wi’ him.”
I stared back at Miss Meerie. Vala was the god, killing the wolf drunk with lust for power. Thran would have stopped at nothing for that power, meaning he’d marry me for advancement while scorning his lover. I shuddered, silently thanking whatever gods these people prayed to that Vala never saw me as the issue.
“Where is she?” my hands shook.
“Oh dearie, I’m so sorry! Yer poor husband, and on yer weddin’ night too!” she mistook my question as concern for Thran as she stroked my hair. “She fled before anyone could catch sight o’ her.”
It seemed I had escaped a few terrible fates that night. It felt so long ago.
“What day is it?” I moved, pushing myself up further.
“Ye slept the entire night and next day away. Tis’ nearly dawn now.” a few wisps of her fuzzy gray hair strayed from their place atop her head.
“Where’s Jon?” I inquired. Her eyes darted from my face; she was hiding something.
“Weel, he’s been very busy since Thran passed. They laid him to rest with his ancestors just last night, and now…weel he has to take control of the clan.”
I nodded. The one thing Jon never wanted had suddenly been forced upon him. At least he now understood what an arranged marriage had felt like. She patted my leg, standing.
“I’ll get ye some broth and bread. Rest up, ye need to heal.” she said from the doorway. Something was off about her demeanor. It had to be upsetting, to have your clan’s leader murdered in cold blood the night of his wedding. Perhaps he should have been a better man.
Confined to my new room, my only visitors were Freyja and Miss Meerie. They continued to fuss over me, insisting I needed time to heal. Freyja tried to coax me into opening up about my wedding night, what had happened before Thran had been poisoned. I’d told her I wouldn’t speak of it; they were memories I’d rather tuck away and forget. Every time I asked of Jon, they told me he was too busy at the moment, that I needed to rest and he needed to assure his leadership and alliances. After three days, I was at my wit’s end. My physical wounds had healed in the time I’d been asleep. My mental wounds would take longer, but sitting in a stale room wasn’t going to help me.
I threw my book down, glaring at Freyja, who sat nursing little Jon. I stood, moving to the door.
“Elise!” she yelled.
“I’m not staying.” I whirled to face her, livid.
“Ye can’t, not now, just trust me!” she pleaded, standing and bouncing little Jon as he began to fuss. I ripped open the door, only to be greeted with Bane’s massive back.
“Move.” I demanded. He turned, peering down at me and quirking an eyebrow.
“Someone is fiery,” his eyes flashed to Freyja.
“Bane, she can’t…” she moved closer to me.
“I think ye women are full of sheep shit. She’s a grown woman, let her be.” Bane’s voice was quietly commanding.
“She can’t know yet.” Freyja hissed, her eyes blazing.
“Know what?” I nearly yelled, exasperated. They ignored me.
“There wasna’ any blood, ye dull woman!” Bane retorted.
“There doesna’ have to be, ye foolish brute!” she responded.
Bane rolled his eyes theatrically, crossing his arms.
“Resortin’ to name calling again, eh? Just like when we was first married—“
“Know WHAT?” I thundered, finally gaining their attention. I felt guilty as little Jon began to cry. Freyja bounced him more, glaring pointedly at Bane.
“These women think ye may be pregnant.” he jerked his head to his wife.
“P-pregnant? How?” I felt the as though my breath had left me for good. Freyja’s eyes bulged as Bane laughed.
“I’d say the same way as any o’ us. Just because Thran was the leader doesna’ mean his prick was gold-“
“Bane!” Freyja hissed. I crossed my arms.
“I know how.” I growled. “I just meant…well…” memories of that night flooded back. I thought for sure everyone knew we hadn’t consummated our marriage before Thran had died. Apparently not everyone was on the same page.
“We didn’t quite…get that far…before he…died.” I finished, my cheeks blazing hot. Bane suddenly roared with laughter, Freyja closing her eyes as relief washed over her.
“Told ye so!” he rasped between laughs.
“Elise, I’m so very sorry, I tried to ask but ye never wanted to talk of it and—“ she cut herself off.
“Why does me being pregnant matter?” I asked, my brow furrowing. Bane sobered, his face becoming serious. They were still hiding something from me. He scratched the back of his neck as Freyja pursed her lips at him.
“Eh, well, because yer not eligible for marriage while yer carryin’ a child, that’s all.” he finished. I didn’t understand why that needed to be kept so secretive.
“Well, I’m not marrying anyone, and I’m not pregnant.” I said defiantly.
“I think it’s time ye talk with Jon,” Bane muttered, Freyja nodding in agreement.
“Why?” I asked slowly, suspicious now.
“It’s no fair to keep secrets from someone who doesna’ know our customs,” Freyja spoke to Bane.
“It’s Jon’s place to tell her, when he’s ready.” Bane shrugged.
“Tell me what…?”
“He’d never tell her, ye know that as well as I do!” Freyja took a menacing step towards Bane.
“Weel, he’ll have to soon, because the council will demand it, ye know that as well as I do.” Bane mocked. If their first year of marriage was anything like this bickering I was witnessing, it was a shock to know they never killed one another.
I stamped my foot, commanding their attention once more.
“Tell me.” I fumed. Freyja sighed, her eyes searching mine.
“Since yer husband died, and since yer no carryin’ a child at the moment, ye must be wed again, and soon, according to our tradition.”
My stomach lurched, and I reached to the doorframe for support. I suddenly recalled Jon’s explanation of Bjorn and Elin in the forest…
“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.”
“W-what? To who?” I stammered, though I knew the answer.
“To the deceased’s next of eligible kin.” she spoke quickly. “The council will demand it. If neither of ye consent, ye can be killed or ye can be exiled. The men are required to care for the women in this way.”
Everything clicked quickly into place.
“We’ll make sure no one poisons Jon on his wedding night,” Bane nudged me jokingly. I could only stand still, my mouth opening and closing as words failed me. My heart had been wrenched from me once before, and now that it was freely offered to me once again, I didn’t want it. Not like this. Aside from shunning responsibility and leadership, Jon had made it clear he didn’t want to marry. Now, I was the factor causing his nightmare to exist. Once again, I had been backed into a corner with no discernible option other than to comply.
“The council will meet tomorrow, then. I’ll tell Jon it canna’ be avoided any longer.” Bane spoke, turning to leave. I stood in the doorway, still grasping for the right words. Freyja came to stand by my elbow. My mind raced as I pieced all my fears together.
“At least it’s Jon,” she whispered. “Ye know he’d never hurt ye like Thran would.”
“I know,” I sputtered. She rocked her peaceful, sleeping child, clearly loving him in a way unknown to me. My mind wandered back to my parents.
“I suppose I’m just worried about what will happen once my family discovers I married the man they once tortured.”