Early morning light seeped into our tent; chilly, blue hues. Goosebumps rose across my exposed skin. I was laying on my stomach, as usual, my arms folded under the lush, feathery pillow. Sleep threatened to overtake me again, if not for the brisk air. I stretched my arms above my head, adjusting my lower back and hips. A dull soreness emanated from a single spot on the lower part of my spine. I pushed myself up quickly on my arms, the movement making my head rush. I was naked.
Memories of the night before came flooding back to me in torrents. I cautiously glanced to my left, seeing the source of my achy muscles. Jon lay peacefully, on his back with his hands clasped on his chest. His mouth was slightly parted. He breathed evenly. I laid back down, a small smile tugging at my lips. I felt somehow different, yet somehow the same. Either way, Jon had changed me.
We had both been nervous, fumbling and giggling often. It hadn’t been as awkward as I’d expected; there was so much else to focus on, I’d had no time to fuss over my appearance. I smiled as I stared at his carefree face. He was so handsome to me, even more so now, it seemed; dark hair and eyes with pale skin, his few chest hairs black against the alabaster. His full lips, the small, nearly unnoticeable scar near his thick brow. I wanted to memorize him, all of him.
My mind shifted to his scarred legs; the healed skin was thin and pinkish, his long tendons more visible than should be normal. I wondered how he’d not died of the burns, or at the least died of fever afterwards. The backs of my legs prickled as I imagined the pain he’d endured for simply protecting his life.
I felt bound to him, connected in a way I never knew existed. I wanted to protect him, fiercely and loyally. The thought burned through me, startling me at its veracity. The idea of seeing my father unsettled me, knowing what my family had done. Yet Jon was adamant about their traditions, and I wasn’t one to argue that point. I was actually looking forward to leaving behind Clan Macdara lands, of being able to experience more of this world. Even if it meant facing my past with new knowledge.
My heart stuttered to a stop as I heard shuffling and mumbling outside our tent. I reached quickly for the dagger Jon had abandoned the night before, pulling it close to my bare chest. The voices became louder; Bane. I sighed quietly, setting aside the dagger and listening intently on their conversation.
“Do ye really think they…” a voice muttered, the end of the question too low for my ears.
“Aye, didn’ ye hear him huffin’ and puffin’?” Bane’s voice was louder, laughing as usual. The other voice mumbled something in reply, the sound muffled by the noises of the river nearby. It seemed witnesses had been present. I dragged a hand along my face, completely embarrassed.
Jon shifted beside me, causing me to turn my attention back to him. His brow furrowed in his sleep, a look of deep concentration etched into his features. His eyes sprang open suddenly, roving around the tent before settling on me. He smiled ruefully.
“Mornin’ princess.” he rasped.
“Good morning,” I whispered back, not wanting anything else overheard by our spectators.
“How do ye feel?” he said, unable to hide his smirk. I narrowed my eyes at him accusingly.
“Sore.” I said. He laughed, rolling onto his side to face me.
“Aye, I’d be ashamed of my manhood if ye weren’t.”
Laughter erupted from outside our tent, causing me to groan loudly and bury my face in my pillow. Jon chuckled beside me. His hand snaked it’s way under the thick blanket, coming to rest on the spot were my back ached the most. He applied pressure with his thumb, soothing the tension. I sighed in contentment.
“Elise,” he whispered, his voice closer to me than expected. I peeked at him from under my arm. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“What?” I said, my voice muffled by the pillow.
“Did ye at least enjoy it? A little?” his eyes were piercing. I buried my face once again to hide the blush.
“Yes.” my suppressed voice answered. He laughed again. My head popped up as I bit my cheek.
“Did you enjoy it?”
His face shifted emotions a few times. He nodded.
“Aye, very much so.” his brow pulled together.
“Why do you look like you’re lying?” I questioned, feeling my stomach knot.
“I’m no lyin’,” he smiled. “I just…ah dammit.” he ran a hand through his hair. “It scares me is all, gettin’ so attached to ye. I’m no good at sharin’ myself. But I want ye even more now.” he explained, his hand moving to rest reassuringly on the middle of my back. Though slightly confused, I thought I could understand some of his apprehension.
“Enough with the talkin’!” Bane’s voice called to us, causing me to redden while Jon burst out laughing.
“Ye can leave us be now, ye great oaf!” Jon yelled back, a lightness not usually heard in his voice. Chuckles mingled with the sounds of feet trudging through snow indicated their leaving. It seemed we were finally alone. Jon smirked at me, the same hungry look in his eyes as the night before.
“Soooo….” he said, giving me an obvious look. The butterflies returned in full force as my hands began to tremble. I sat up, pulling the blanket with me to cover my chest. My hair fell across my shoulders, causing me to shudder. Jon’s rough hand wound through the hair at my neck as he pulled me close, our lips nearly touching. Fire seemed to erupt wherever our flesh met. I peered into his eyes, biting my lip. We were so close I felt I could see the depth of his nearly black eyes, encircled as they were by thick, long lashes. In the lowlight, it almost seemed as though he had no pupil. It didn’t unnerve me, his eyes. It enchanted me, luring me deeper into his gaze. Those eyes held so much I’d never see. My heart lurched, seemingly struggling to be free of the confines of my ribs and as close to his own steady heart as possible.
“What is it?” he smiled, our noses touching.
“I never expected to feel…any of this, towards anyone.” I said.
“Aye, I didn’ either. But I’m thankful for it.”
“I’m glad I fell to you,” I whispered, the truth spilling from me. His grin widened as he kissed me deeply. He pulled me forward, causing me to tumble onto him. We giggled, though our kissing quickly resumed. The sun rose higher, but for the moment time stood still.
Saying our goodbyes was tougher than expected. I’d forced the tears from my eyes, especially in front of Bane and Freyja. Miss Meerie had become a blubbering mess, fussing over the both of us as we swung up into our saddles. I’d been given my very own horse, whose name was Arion. He was an odd shade of tan mingled with orange, his mane white as snow. Him and Angus didn’t seem to get on well, constantly nipping at one another’s necks and rumps. When Jon had demanded we leave Bear behind, I’d outright threatened him. Jon had grumbled something about being sorry he’d taught me to think freely. Bear now happily bounced beside us, a sour look on Jon’s face while Bane’s laugh echoed in the clearing.
“Isn’t marriage wonderful?” he’d laughed.
We trotted away, back into the woods that had once been so foreign to me. Jon had told me we were headed southeast, to the port town of Reyka. From there we would book passage on a ship to take us back north, to the lands surrounding Mount Tier. He’d said this way was quicker and much less dangerous, even though it felt like we were backtracking.
The day was cloudy and cool, though it seemed the snow was letting up. Jon breathed deeply as we rode quietly through the woods, our horse’s hooves sloshing through mud and slightly melted snow. Bear panted ahead of us, ears pointed forward in alertness.
“Feels like spring is comin’.” he said cheerfully. I shifted in my saddle for the millionth time, Jon taking notice and smiling slightly. “Sorry ’bout that, princess.”
I glared at him. Riding was uncomfortable anyways, even more so now considering what physical pursuits Jon and I had undertaken the last few days. His teasing voice made me want him to suffer as well. How was it fair that I was the only one in discomfort, while he’d gotten to enjoy himself with no repercussions? I turned away from him, my cheeks ruddy with the heat of anger. He chuckled quietly beside me. A light rain began to fall, making me thankful for the layers Miss Meerie had insisted I wore.
We stopped for the night, setting up a small camp under the protection of hefty tree boughs. Jon hobbled the horses while I coaxed a fire to life with kindling brought from home. My heart ached quickly at the thought of home, and how it had changed so rapidly. I sighed, brushing the sad thoughts away.
Later, we lay curled by the fire, warming each other against the icy breeze. Jon’s cold nose found its way to my exposed neck, causing me to shiver as he began to kiss me. His hand roamed to my hips, pulling me even closer. I snorted out a laugh, causing him to stop short.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Just the fact that you think you can enjoy me after making fun of me all day.” I smirked.
“I…I was only teasin’ ye!” he sputtered. I bit back my laughter, realizing I held something he desired greatly, and that I could use it to my advantage from here on out. Perhaps being a woman wasn’t so bad after all.
“Weel,” I teased, mocking his accent. “I’m a bit too tired tonight anyways. But you can try again tomorrow. No promises, though.” I turned my face to him, smiling wickedly at his bewildered look. He narrowed his eyes at me, grinning slyly.
“Damn ye woman,” he breathed. “I’ve taught ye well.”