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Chapter 19

We lounged around a small fire in the woods, sharing a flask of strong whisky. The sun was beginning to set, the bright orb low on the horizon. Frig and Meerie chattered in their ancient language; I listened intently, entranced by how their words flowed, how their tongues curved around certain sounds. It was beautiful.

The purifying ceremony in the cave had been simple; we reflected on our pasts, letting them float away with the steam. Frig had prayed over each of us one by one, using soot from the torch to place strange markings on our faces as she spoke to the gods. Now we gathered to relish in our freedom as women instead of girls. My mind kept wandering to Jon, to our wedding. There was so much I was afraid of, yet so much I was ready for. My conflicted and jumbled thoughts scampered about like a rabbit until Freyja told us it was time to leave.

Bear greeted us upon return, bouncing up to me through deep snow and happy as ever. Very few people milled about in the frigid night air; Raina, Bre, and Rose quickly scattered to their respective homes. I wound my fingers through Bear’s fur, following Freyja to the castle. Torches lit the darkness now; Jon had commanded the borders of their land to be watched day and night. No one was allowed in or out without first being checked. Word had travelled that the price on my head had doubled. I shook the apprehension from my shoulders; there was nothing I could do to stop anyone from coming for me. I could only deal with them once they presented themselves.

I caught site of Jon as I was entering the castle; he was flushed despite the cold, wearing nothing but his shirt and pants, carrying a long object draped in cloth. It seemed his ceremony had been successful as well, albeit a bit more physically challenging. He seemed preoccupied, though, and Freyja’s voice beckoned me into the castle. I was supposed to eat and sleep before my long day tomorrow. Bear whined at the door, torn between Jon and myself. I rolled my eyes at him, patting my leg. He didn’t hesitate to bound towards me, curly tail wagging. He knew who would likely feed him a larger portion for dinner.

Freyja had hot stew and mulled wine sent to my room, saying goodnight at my door.

“Yer a woman now. Well, almost.” she smiled, squeezing my arm. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just nodded.

“Don’ be afraid of Jon. He’s no like Thran.” her reassuring words said, she left. Bear lay in front of the fire, looking like the rug in Thran’s old meeting room. My stew and wine sat untouched, my mind too anxious to make my stomach hungry. I sat and brushed through my fiery hair again and again—a new nervous habit—wondering how Jon was handling his own anxiety. I knew he had to be nervous, even if only slightly. I sighed in exasperation, slamming down my brush. I knew I wouldn’t sleep.

Once again, I wrapped my shawl about my shoulders and took to the hallways. I ended up in the mess hall by chance, through a back stairway. The open room was glowing in firelight, but thankfully empty. Miss Meerie had it decorated appropriately for our wedding; more evergreen garlands and tiny candles still unlit. I turned quickly, hearing someone behind me. Jon materialized from the shadows, his eyes nearly black. My hand fluttered to my hammering heart as a small smile played at his lips.

“Tryin’ to run away, eh?” he said, a teasing note to his voice.

“Yes, in my nightgown.” I bit back sarcastically. He took a step forward, reaching for my hand. My heart thumped as his warm hand enveloped mine. He towed me forward to the fire, pulling me down onto the bearskin rug in front of it, promptly releasing me.

“How was yer ceremony?” he asked as we sat in front of the blazing warmth. My eyelids began to feel heavy. I shrugged.

“Different, I guess. I’m still learning your ways.” I answered, looking to him. My stomach flipped at the proximity of him and the knowledge of what tomorrow would bring. I cleared my throat. “And yours?” I asked as a distraction.

“I’ll no be doin’ that again anytime soon,” he chuckled, causing me to laugh. His open hand revealed bubbling blisters from the shovel. I wondered idly how he had managed to dig through frozen ground. He sighed, peering back into the fire, the noise catching my attention. “You’ll be my wife tomorrow, Elise.”

There it was. The words were out, the truth we both knew existed but weren’t ready to acknowledge.

“Yes, and you’ll be my husband.” I said, glancing down at my folded hands.

“Ye can ask me anything, ye know, and I’ll tell ye the truth. Ye must have questions,” he said.

I was shocked, my eyes snapping to his. His face was even more scruffy, his black curls wild about his flushed face. He was offering himself to me. Not in a physical way, for we both knew that came later. No, he was offering me a glimpse into his soul.

“I don’t even know what to ask.” I shook my head, smiling the slightest bit at his gift. His eyes stared deep into mine, holding me steady. A few immediate questions bubbled forth.

“Where is your sister?” to my surprise, Jon burst out laughing, the sound bouncing off the walls, causing a panic to rise in my chest. I didn’t want him to alarm anyone. Then again, he was now the leader of Clan Macdara. He could do whatever he wanted.

“I bear my soul to ye, and ye ask about Meleryn?” he laughed quieter while I glared, raising an eyebrow, waiting for his answer. “Aye, well she went to the Isles. We met up, and I told her to kill anyone who thought of coming to kill ye. She came ’round to my reasoning and logic eventually.” he smirked. I was surprised, wanting to know more, but deciding that questions should be limited to Jon only for the time being.

“Do you…want to marry me?” I gazed up at him from under my lashes, nervous as the words trickled from my mouth. A log rolled off the pile in the fire, causing a dusting of sparks to fly upward. His face became unreadable in an instant. I regretted my question, quickly looking away. His hand found mine, causing me to look again on his face.

“Aye, I do.”

“Why?” the question rushed past my lips. His cheeks flushed.

“Don’t ye understand I want ye? All of ye? Because I’m selfish. And stupid, but that’s besides the point.” he laughed, but remained somewhat stoic. I waited for him to continue, my brow furrowing. He growled in frustration, pulling a hand roughly through his hair.

“Of course ye don’t get it,” he muttered.

“Then tell me.” I demanded, narrowing my eyes at him. His lips pressed together as he stared at me for a moment.

“I knew I was gettin’ attached to ye, even more so after we ran from those men in the forest. I wanted to protect ye, because I was beginning to feel like ye were mine, like I had something I could call my own. Thran always got everything he wanted.” he said.

“So I was a prize to you?” I asked, a bit disgusted and taken aback.

“No! No, Elise, ye could never be somethin’ as simple as that. Not to me. I wanted to make ye happy, to make ye smile, and to always be the one who did that.” he explained, continuing. “But I still feel selfish, because I want ye so badly, when I don’t know if ye want me the same…” he trailed off. My gut twisted.

“I…do.” I whispered, feeling conflicted. How could we want each other and still feel that way? He smiled broadly.

“That makes me feel a bit better,” he smiled lopsidedly. “When I found out Thran was forcing ye to marry him…” he muttered, his teeth grinding together.

“It’s alright, it’s over.” I said in a hushed voice to calm him.

“I know ye must be…nervous, about tomorrow…because of how he treated ye…” he trailed off, quickly changing the course of our conversation yet again. It was my turn to blush. I picked at a few stray twigs in the fur of the rug.

“Elise, I don’ want ye to be afraid of me.” his voice was sincere, husky, as he whispered. I couldn’t meet his eye. “I’ll no hurt ye, I promise,” his fingers delicately brushed my jawline, causing my eyes to flutter closed as my stomach rioted with butterflies. I opened my eyes to gaze at him.

“I won’t know what to do.” I said honestly, smiling and blushing even more. Humor seemed the best way to approach my lack of knowledge.

“Aye, no worries princess.” he smirked darkly.

“Have you…you know…” I trailed off as his hand dropped from my face. His eyes stormed over. He nodded once. I wasn’t surprised or shocked, but more thankful. At least he knew what to expect.

“I was sixteen,” he began, freely offering me an explanation. “I met a girl in a port town. I thought I was in love with her,” he snorted, turning to face the dancing flames and tossing a twig to its death.

“We booked passage to the Isles. I thought I was savin’ her from her father. She said she loved me. I slept with her. Once we reached the next port, she disappeared. All she wanted was free passage to the next town.” he finished, his face devoid of emotion. My heart sank for him.

“I know now what the difference is between love and lust,” he glanced at me sideways, and I smiled slightly.

“What is it?” I asked quietly. He looked back into the fire.

“When ye lust, ye only want her body. When ye love, ye want her entire soul. Forever.”

I blushed deeper still, biting my lip to hide my smile. Despite the circumstances, it seemed I was more than lucky to be marrying Jon. More questions began to develop in my mind.

“Weren’t you lonely ever? In the forest?”

He only shrugged one, rounded shoulder in response.

“Nah, I decided after that devilish woman manipulated me that it’d be better to be alone than have yer heart ripped out more than once. I grew up quite a bit after that. Thran always threatened me with marriage as a way to make me stay here, so he could use me, but he never had the gall to follow through.” he explained, leaning back on his arms. “He needed me in the forest, protectin’ our lands.” he smiled again.

“And then ye practically fell out o’ the sky and into my life. Gods, I hated ye for it.” he chuckled, his flat stomach bouncing. I laughed, too, knowing how difficult I had been in the beginning. I waited for him to continue, enjoying how at ease he was in this moment.

“Here I was, fine on my own, and then I have no choice but to take care of ye. And gods, the questions ye asked. About everything ye saw! Nearly drove me insane.” his eyes danced as he grinned at me, and I gasped, feigning hurt.

“I was only trying to learn!” I shot back as he flinched out of the way to avoid my playful nudge.

“But I loved that about ye. Yer curiosity and willingness to adopt our way of life. Most people would complain and gripe and stop at nothing to get their royal life back. Ye didn’t seem to mind too much, though.” his tone became more serious as he stared at me, the firelight casting long shadows behind us and warming the hue of his face. It was my turn to be introspective, to figure out why exactly I hadn’t tried harder to get home. His unasked question hung in the still night air.

“I like being free,” I whispered, staring again at my hands. “I like knowing there is more beyond the confines of my upbringing.”

“Ye are free, Elise, in every aspect I can give ye.” I caught the twinge of sadness in his voice, causing me to look at him.

“I know being married means yer bound to me for life, but within that I’ll let ye do as ye please.”

I positively beamed at him, my heart lifting considerably.

“Besides,” he sat up, stretching his hands to reach his dirty boots. “I’ll no get between ye and what ye want. I see yer fire growin’. Yer learnin’ to think for yourself.” he smiled.

“I suppose that’s both good and bad for you,” I teased. He sighed, laughing.

“Aye, seems I’ve shot myself in my own arse, but I’ll have ye no other way.” he pushed himself up, extending his calloused hand to me. He stared down at me, his face closed off once more. He pulled me to my feet.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I whispered, my nerves returning at the thought. One corner of his mouth twitched up.

“Aye, I’ll be there.”

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