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Chapter 20

I sat as straight as an arrow as Freyja and Bre fussed over my hair. Miss Meerie could be heard shouting orders all the way from the mess hall. Raina chattered excitedly as she tucked small flowers into my crown of braids. The excitement in the castle—and throughout the clan, for that matter—was palpable. It seemed everyone was more keen on my traditional marriage to Jon than my hasty one to Thran. I peered at my steadily shaking hands as the girls giggled loudly, having drunk their fair share of whisky already. Also unlike my wedding day to Thran, I couldn’t bear the thought of downing the fiery liquid without bile rising in my throat.

My dress was also traditional; red, black and white, adorned with thousands of small jewels. Thankfully, it was modest. Not that it would matter later, anyways. The thought sent a wave of nervous nausea over me. My wide blue eyes stared back at me in the mirror. Raina and Bre held hands, dancing to unheard music behind me as Freyja laughed. I exhaled heavily, trying in vain to steady my nerves.

Thankfully, the day was bright with no threat of snow. Jon had demanded that, in sticking with tradition, we be married outside. The festivities could then commence inside the castle at everyone’s leisure. In two days, we were leaving for a port town called Reyka. Freyja had attempted to explain what the sea was, to capture just how vast the water could be as it met the horizon. She had given up, saying I’d have to experience it for myself.

A loud knock sounded on my door, causing Bear to huff out his deep bark as I jumped. Freyja moved to answer it, though we all knew it would be Bane.

“Alright, wild women, time to tame the fiery one,” he laughed from the door. I shakily stood, wiping my sweaty hands on my skirts. Bear trotted out, followed by Raina and Bre. Freyja and Bane stood, smiling encouragingly at me. I held out my hands.

“Do you think I look alright?” the words rushed out of my mouth in a jumble, causing Bane to laugh.

“Fiery woman, Jon will no care how ye look dressed, trust me.” he chortled as Freyja hit him. I felt the color drain from my face.

“Don’ listen to him,” Freyja soothed, grasping my hand and yanking me into the hallway. “Ye canna’ be late for yer own weddin’ woman! Ye look beautiful!”

My escorts pulled me through the castle and to the mess hall. Nearly the whole clan seemed to be packed inside, waiting for me. Freyja let go of me and pushed ahead, the crowd parting for her. Bane was to be the one handing me off to Jon. He tucked my hand in the crook of his elbow, patting me gently with his massive paw.

“Just remember,” he leaned sideways down to me to whisper out of the corner of his mouth. “Jon is probably shittin’ himself with nerves.” he laughed loudly, causing me to smile a bit. We began to walk forward, to the great doors. Everyone parted for us, clumping back together after we passed. All their faces became blurred. I focused on the rapidity of my breathing, trying in vain to slow it down so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by passing out before I reached the end of this walk.

I didn’t seem to feel the coolness of the air; I only felt the warmth of the sun, temporarily blinded by it. The crowd followed us, whispered voices excited as we neared the stone in the clearing. I clung to Bane for support the closer we got.

Frig stood near the stone, but my eyes could only focus on Jon. He stood to the side, turning to face me full on as we made our way closer. He stood tall, shoulders squared and jaw set. His hair was pulled back, his facial hair now cleanly cut. His broadsword hung diagonally at his side, his left hand resting on the hilt. He wore all black with leather across his chest and the furs of black foxes on his shoulders. The crest of his clan glinted silver above his heart, pinned there delicately. Though his face was stoic and austere, I could see the way the corner of his mouth twitched up, the way his eyes lighted as they fell upon me. I took a shuddering breath as we halted. Bane bowed, myself following suit, as he gave my hand to Jon.

He pulled me to him, forever anchoring myself to him, our lives nearly intertwined. I stared up at him, feeling slightly more steady under his gaze. He held both my hands, warming them in his. Frig began to speak their ancient language. I couldn’t tear my eyes from Jon, nor could he from me. My heart thumped slowly but heavily against my ribs. Jon parted from me suddenly, backing away and drawing his sword. I glanced around, but no one seemed surprised by the act. He placed the point of the sword on the ground, both hands wrapped around the pommel as he dipped onto his knee. Frig continued to speak.

“I am giving ye the protection of my ancestors, and of myself as well,” Jon whispered, barely above Frig’s voice. He was interpreting for me. This was the sword he’d retrieved from the grave, then. He stood suddenly, reaching for me and wrapping his hand around my forearm, pulling me close.

“Grab my arm,” he whispered. I quickly obeyed. He handed me the sword, nodding to me in encouragement. “Ye must take it,”

I wrapped my small hand around the pommel as he let go. The sword nearly fell, as I wasn’t expecting the weight. He pulled me even closer to himself, our faces inches apart.

“Elise, if you’ll have me as yer husband, I promise to protect ye and to cherish ye, until I breathe my last breath.”

I gathered his vows weren’t necessary, but spoken for my untrained ears. The knot in my stomach swelled and exploded.

“I will have you,” I whispered back. “Until I breathe my last breath.”

His eyes searching mine for silent permission, I closed mine in assent. I felt his lips on mine for the second time, though the fire between us now seemed to have grown vastly. Cheers erupted, pulling us apart from one another. We both smiled and laughed, nervous but thankful the attention given to us was likely to dissipate as everyone moved to drinking.

And drink they did. Music and dancing and laughter filled the mess hall. Stories were told, congratulations were given, and everyone seemed truly happy. It was nice, for a change, to have something go according to plan. I wondered how long it would last.

Freyja and the girls dragged me to the floor, demanding I learn to dance like a real clanswoman. The music was upbeat, drums bellowing out a tempo for us to move to. The nerves from my wedding died away with my laughter, my spirit light and free. The only one not calming down was Miss Meerie, but I figured this was her sort of fun, and let her be. Jon leaned against a pillar with a mug of ale, smiling and joking with his friends, his eyes flashing to mine every so often. My braids began to fall loose the more I danced and laughed.

“Make sure ye kiss his neck tonight! That’ll do him in!” Elin, Bjorn’s wife, giggled as we swung in a circle.

“No, make sure ye grab that round arse of his and tell us how it feels!” Raina laughed. I felt my face grow absolutely red, but I couldn’t help the grin.

The hours ticked by rapidly and night soon fell. I had kicked off my shoes at some point during our dancing, my feet aching. People began to filter out, stumbling drunk but still cheery. Others sat and joked, still eating the meal Miss Meerie had overseen.

Jon was beside me suddenly for the first time in hours; he’d let me enjoy my time, but I knew the end of the night couldn’t be avoided. He handed me a small flask.

“Ready, princess?” he smiled kindly, reassuringly. I took the flask, nodding as I drank enough to calm my nerves. I turned to head for the stairs, but Jon grabbed my hand, towing me instead towards the doors. My brow furrowed in curiosity.

“I’d rather spend our first night somewhere more…personal.” he pushed open one side of the doors, blasting us with cool, icy air.

“My shoes—" I began to turn back. Without missing a beat, Jon bent and scooped me into his arms. I wrapped one arm around his neck and shoulders, the whisky beginning to take effect and do its job. We walked into the darkness, the snow crunching under Jon’s feet. I could feel his steady heartbeat, smell the woodsy scent that emanated from him.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Nervous, princess?” he joked. I rolled my eyes.

“What about your six witnesses?” I said shrewdly. He chuckled darkly.

“They know where to find us.”

It was my turn for my heartbeat to pick up its quickened pace. In the distance, I could just make out shimmering lights in a clump of trees. We were on the edge of the clan’s living area, almost to the woods. We broke through the trees and into a clearing. A tent stood, lit by thousands of small candles. The snow twinkled and sparkled in the flickering light, the whole scene peaceful and serene. I stared at it; the place felt mystical, hidden away from everything.

“Do ye like it?” Jon whispered apprehensively. I could only nod, still mesmerized by the sight. He began to move forward again, setting me on his knee as he pulled the tent open. He whisked me back up into his arms and entered, finally setting me down. The walk hadn’t tired him in the slightest. Inside was more of the same; seemingly thousands of small candles, the floor covered in pillows and furs and blankets.

I turned to face Jon, who was tying up the entrance to our tent. I wrung my hands together, my nerves returning. He faced me, smiling easily.

“I forgot to tell ye how beautiful ye looked today.” he said sincerely, his voice lowered and husky. I blushed.

“Thank you. You didn’t look too bad yourself,” I teased. He smiled, rolling his eyes as he moved towards me. My breath caught in my throat as his hands fell to my waist, turning me around.

“Ye don’t need this,” he whispered, beginning the process of untying my wedding gown. Nerves kicking in, I turned back quickly to face him, my hands falling on his chest. He shook his head back and forth.

“I’m no meanin’ to rush ye. Ye just look like ye cannot breathe.” he chuckled. I smiled timidly, turning back around.

“Besides,” he said, his fingers deftly untying the knots. “I’ve seen ye naked before.” his chuckle rumbled in his chest.

“That was an accident,” I hissed, shuddering as his warm fingers trailed along my exposed spine.

“Aye, one o’ the best accidents ever.” he teased.

Jon!” I hissed in embarrassment. He turned me back around, my gown falling heavily to the floor, leaving me in nothing but my shift. It was easier to breathe. I began to shudder as the chill set in. His eyes searched mine.

“Yer afraid of me,” he said.

“No. Just cold,” I whispered. Without breaking eye contact, he began the process of removing his sword belt, vest, jacket and furs. Everything thumped to the floor. He stood before me in nothing but his long shirt, his hard muscled legs pale in the flickering candlelight.

“I won’t take ye, no yet,” he smiled one sidedly. I hugged myself to keep from shivering, thankful he was willing to stall for my sake. He turned to grab the pillows that sat behind him, and that’s when I saw the rippled and scarred flesh of his burned legs. My hand flew to my mouth as I gasped. He turned back to me, worry etched into his eyes. I blinked a few times, but the evidence of his torture stood clearly in my mind. Realization dawned on him, and he smiled.

“It doesn’t hurt, not anymore at least.”

I shook my head, feeling tears threaten.

“Don’t pity me,” he muttered, looking ashamed.

“I don’t pity you. I’m angry.”

His eyes flashed to mine, an unreadable look on his face.

“Aye, I suppose I’d be angry too, if I were in yer place.” he nodded tersely, reaching for the flask and handing it to me.

I shakily took another drink, this time to soothe my quiet fury. He reached for the flask, taking it from my grasp and setting it aside. He knelt down, staring up at me and gently pulling me with him. I lay down on my side, facing him, as he threw blankets over the both of us. Smiling, he pushed my shoulder down so I was laying on my back. My nerves shifted again. My eyes fluttered closed. And he laughed.

My eyes flew back open to glare at Jon as he sat up on one elbow, staring down at me.

“I’m sorry,” he waved dismissively.

“What’s so funny?” I growled.

“Ye just looked like ye were playin’ dead, that’s all.” he laughed louder, bobbing with the movement. I rolled over, facing the tent wall, mumbling under my breath. I felt his arm wind around my waist then, and he pulled me sharply to himself. His body was exuding heat, and I was silently grateful.

“Is this alright?” he whispered, holding me close. I nodded. It was comfortable—reassuring even—to be held tightly in his embrace.

“When yer ready,” he said calmly.

We lay in silence, the only sound being our heartbeats and the rush of the nearby river. After a while I feared Jon had fallen asleep. How was I supposed to know when I was ready? I turned to glance at him, and his eyes fluttered open.

“I don’t know how to initiate this,” I admitted sheepishly. He grinned, pulling me to him and tenderly kissing my forehead.

“I know ye don’t,” he smiled as my stomach fluttered. “Do ye think yer ready to try?” he whispered, his hands beginning to grip me tightly.

“Yes,” I breathed, intoxicated by our proximity.

“Do ye trust me, Elise? I’ll stop anytime ye want, alright?” he said, his lips finding their way to the spot below my ear. A small, involuntary moan escaped my lips. He pulled back suddenly, the hunger clear in his eyes.

“I don’t think I want you to stop.” I whispered, grabbing his face in both my hands and pulling his lips to mine.

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