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Chapter 22

“Woah,” I breathed as we crested the last hill. Our horses quivered with excitement, knowing fresh hay and a few night’s rest was near. The air had cooled considerably once again, causing the slush to turn dangerously icy underfoot. We’d had to wrap Bear’s paws in scraps of linen to prevent injury. The weariness of the last few days settled onto my shoulders heavily as I stared down at Reyka.

There were wooden buildings everywhere, smoke pouring from chimneys. Shouts and the clanging of hooves on the cobblestone roads made their way to my ears. Beyond the expanse of the largest accumulation of people I’d ever seen was another sight I was ill prepared for. Water. Water so dark and foamy, stretching to the horizon and beyond. My heart swelled in my chest at the view. I suddenly felt much, much smaller. Strange, massive rocks jutted straight up out of the water, which crashed angrily against them. The noise was altogether soothing and foreboding. Strange, white birds called high pitched sounds high above, circling on the icy wind. I spotted what could only be the ships Jon had described in detail for me, but his words did not do them justice. They, too, were much larger than I could have ever imagined. Their spine-like masts protruded from the hulls, ropes and sails furled precariously all about them.

Arion shifted his weight, snapping my attention to Jon, who was starring at my reaction. I realized my mouth was agape and shut it quickly.

“Beautiful, eh?” he asked against the wind. I could only nod, not wanting to tear my eyes from the surreal scene just yet. “You’ll hate it once yer on the water,” he chuckled, nudging Angus forward, down the dicey, sandy hill. I nudged Arion, still trying to become accustom to riding on my own. Being in command of a giant beast was unsettling at times. New smells were carried to my nose on the breeze, fish mingled with something else. The air was surprisingly refreshing.

“Stick close, and no talkin’ to anyone, ye hear?” Jon called from in front of me. I rolled my eyes at his back. He had warned me of people called pirates; they roved the seas and land, stealing and killing. You could hire them to sail you places, though it was risky. He’d told me to identify them by their dress; usually colorful and adorned with the jewels they’d stolen. Ironically, we were supposed to find a pirate by the name of Fletcher. Apparently, Jon trusted him enough to take us north.

We wound our way through the bustling streets. I self-consciously pulled my hood up and over my hair, though I began to notice every shade imaginable on the clusters of people. No one stared wide-eyed as they had when I’d come to Macdara; everyone was too preoccupied pushing carts or selling stale loaves of bread or slimy, silver fish. The town was chaotic and tiresome after my time spent in the clan and Mount Tier. Our horses clopped by a building with its door wide open, scantily clad women pouring out of the entrance and batting their lashes at passing men. Jon stared straight ahead, though one girl nudged her companion, mouth agape as the other whispered something. I glared down at them, but they didn’t take any notice.

We stopped near the end of a street. A sign hanging above the door with a mug of golden, frothing ale carved into it told passerby it was a tavern. The cool rain misted our faces, plastering my hair to my cheeks as the wind whipped past. Jon dismounted easily, while I was rather clumsy in my haste to be done riding. Jon caught my arm before I could tumble into the grimy water beneath our feet. His face was closed off once again. Having been near him for some months now, I could see the subtle changes beneath his mask of indifference. Now, he was nervous. He tied our horses to the rail and moved to pushed the tavern door wide open. Warmth and cheerful laughter greeted us. With a deep breath, I moved over the threshold and removed my hood. A few grubby men turned to stare, their faces covered in impressive beards, their shirts tight against protruding bellies. Their stares no longer bothered me as they once had.

I followed Jon’s quick steps up creaky wooden stairs. Though the tavern was warm, it was just as gray and drab as the day outside. Jon’s sturdy boots clumped up the stairs, warning whoever was above of our imminent arrival. We paused in a hallway with a single window, the cold light seeping in. Jon turned to glance down at me, his shifting eyes showing nothing.

“Fletcher is…well, he doesna’ like women on his ships all that much. I’ll have to bargain with him to secure our passage. Best to keep quiet.” he winked at the end in an attempt to lighten the mood. Annoyed, I nodded sourly, pressing my lips together. Without knocking, Jon pushed the door open wide with a resounding bang as it hit the wall behind it. We were greeted with low, orange light and enough smoke to choke me. I waved a hand to dispel the thick swirls as I moved forward. As my eyes adjusted to the inky darkness, I saw the room held a few scattered chairs and tables. There were three men in all, though it was easy to determine who Fletcher was. He sat, leaned back precariously in his wooden chair, a sloshing mug of ale in his fat fist. He wore a deep red, stained shirt and midnight black boots that his pants had been slovenly shoved into to prevent them from getting wet. His long black beard was impressive as it lay across his fat gut. Black and gray hair tumbled long from his head and over his shoulders. His fingers were ringed in gold and gems. The main aspect that drew my attention were his eyes; blue and cold and depthless as the seas he roved. Over his left eyebrow and down into his cheek was a pink, swollen scar. It only added to his intimidation.

Time seemed to pause for a moment as everyone held their breath and the men sized one another up. Fletcher’s two guards moved slightly to position themselves in front of him while reaching for their weapons. A fat fist slammed onto the table, causing a jug to teeter and slosh ale across its scarred top. The two men abandoned their weapons and stood aside. Jon stared menacingly down at Fletcher.

“Ye fucking bastard!” Fletcher yelled. I choked, suddenly worried we’d never leave this room alive. My eyes searched Jon’s face imploringly. The corner of his mouth twitched up.

“Missed me that much, eh?”

My head reeling, the men both moved toward each other and clasped hands, Fletcher hitting Jon’s shoulder jovially. I felt myself relax as they exchanged pleasantries. I glanced about the sparse room, realizing this was a place people could pay to stay the night. It was a new concept to me, one Jon had explained on our journey here.

“And who’s this?” Fletcher asked. I realized attention had fallen to me. I squirmed under his blue gaze.

“This is Elise. My wife.” Jon said, his smile warm as his eyes fell to me. Fletcher’s eyes stormed over.

“Seems yer from the mountain, huh?”

Jon’s eyes were encouraging. I nodded in response. The pirate sucked in a breath through tight, chapped lips.

“She’s a beaut, to be sure, but ye should have killed her when ye had the chance.”

My stomach churned while my blood began to simmer.

“Ah, she means no harm,” Jon defended lightly, trying hard to dissuade the tension of the situation. Fletcher glared at me.

“I don’t trust no one from that damned mountain. She could be a spy.”

“A spy?” I spat. I felt four pairs of eyes land on me. Fletcher smirked. I’d walked into his trap.

“She’s no spy,” Jon assured.

“And I assume ye want passage up north?” Fletcher growled.

“Aye, I do. Ye owe it to me and ye know it.” Jon stood to his full height, his eyes adopting their menacing black.

“I owe ye, but I ain’t taking that with us,” he pointed a grubby finger at me. I bristled.

“I have a name.” I seethed.

“Elise,” Jon warned quietly.

“And what name would that be? Mountain Whore?” Fletcher’s face reddened in anger. Before Jon could retort, I stood to my full height as my grandmother had taught me, an air of royalty winding itself within my words.

“I’m no whore, but I am the heir to Mount Tier, and I’ll not be talked to in that way.” the room was hushed and tense, but I continued. “I fell from the mountain and have learned to survive. I was forced to marry Thran because he sought to use me as a pawn. I have no desire to rule or return to the prison of the mountain.” my fists shook. Jon smiled slightly with pride.

“Ye see, Fletch?” Jon encouraged. He pursed his lips in thought, stroking his wiry black beard.

“I never thought ye’d bed a mountain woman, after…” he trailed off, cocking a bushy eyebrow and nodding toward Jon’s brutalized legs.

“It’s no her fault. I’ve grown…very fond of Elise during our time together.” Jon explained. I blushed at his honesty and the freshness of the new stage in our relationship.

“Aye, well if ye trust her, I suppose I trust yer judgement.” Fletcher still squinted at me in suspicion.

“Thank ye,” Jon said.

“Don’t thank me yet,” he responded, a heavy air settling again about the room. The two guards shifted almost excitedly. The back of my neck prickled. “Ye want passage north, and I’ll give ye that. I owe ye. But I only owe one,” he held up a finger swathed in gold and rubies. “Since ye have a woman, and a mountain woman at that, I’ll require extra.”

Jon glared, but seemed open to bargaining.

“And?” he asked coldly.

“I need ye to kill someone.”

“Jon!” I hissed, traipsing through the slushy street and back to our horses. Night was beginning to fall upon Reyka. Jon squelched ahead angrily.

“Dammit Jon look at me!” I yelled. He wheeled around, his face murderous, which seemed fitting. “I’ll be fine, I can take care of myself—“

“Elise,” he said, exasperated, as he pinched his nose and closed his eyes. Jon had had no choice but to agree to Fletcher’s terms, meaning he’d have to leave me behind for a few days to carry out his end of the bargain. I crossed my arms, disappointed in how little faith my new husband had in me. Had I not proven myself capable? Perhaps not to the extent Jon wished, but then, he’d lived out here his whole life. I sighed, uncrossing my arms to grip his forearm. He opened his eyes and smiled a bit.

“When we met, what was your job?” I asked. He rolled his eyes. “Answer me.” I glared.

“Killing people,” he said, unperturbed. Though his title as mercenary unsettled me, I had to come to terms with it. He was doing what he deemed best to keep his people safe. This situation, after it had been fully explained, seemed no different, meaning Jon couldn’t weasel his way out of agreeing. A single man had been responsible for the deaths of five young girls around Reyka. One had been a daughter to Fletcher’s guard. Murdering in any capacity still never settled well with me, but I understood the need for righteous vengeance. It was a dark part of every human that existed deep within, clawing its way out when self preservation was at stake.

“I’ll be fine for a few days.” I raised my eyebrows at him.

“I’m no worried about ye, just everyone else in this damned town.” he admitted.

“Well,” I reached up to grasp his scruffy, warm face between my hands. I looked him straight in the eye, and in the dying light his eyes were warm with tones of copper. “If anyone tries to harm me, I’ll make sure to leave them alive enough for you to deal with upon your return.”

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