I sat at the round table, chewing my lip and staring at the small tinctures Vala had given me. The bottles were dainty in the sunlight streaming in. One for the sickness, another the color of rust to boost my blood supply, and another to soothe frayed nerves that smelled close to peppermint and lavender. I wasn’t quite sure they were frayed—more like singed beyond repair at this point. My heart felt simultaneously heavy and light; I needed to find my husband yet I also was carrying life within me. What a peculiar, magnificent feeling it was. The smile that hovered at the corner of my lips felt permanent, ready to be shared with anyone who happened by.
The door flew open, banging against the wall and interrupting my musing. Bear jumped up and growled at the sound, before calming after realizing it was just Meleryn. The smell of bread and stale ale drifted into the room with the sounds of men’s voices and clanking dishes. My hands began to tremble in anticipation of the news I’d have to deliver to her; how would she react? I turned slowly in my chair, giving her a wan smile.
“Weel?!” she breathed, her plump cheeks ruddy, her short, dark hair falling into her eyes. Thaniel stood behind her, amused. I felt the smile on my face grow. Tears brimmed my sapphire eyes.
“I’m pregnant.” I said. Her eyes flashed, changing emotions so quickly it was impossible to decipher them all. Despair, fear, anger, sadness, acceptance, and finally happiness. She let go of the door jamb, her hands falling limp at her sides. A shiny tear rolled down her cheek.
“Jon will be so happy,” she whispered, rushing to me and pulling me from the chair and into a tight embrace. Bear barked happily between us. “I’m so very sorry about what I said to ye at yer trial, I was just tryin’ to protect my family and—“ I pulled away, cutting her off with a look.
“You’re forgiven, of course.”
She held me at arm’s length, inspecting me.
“Aye, he’ll be a tough lad, like his father.” she said. I laughed.
“So he’s a boy already?”
“Oh aye,” she nodded seriously. “He’ll have his father’s black hair and his mother’s blue eyes, and he’ll be a warrior more fearsome than Bane.”
I heard Thaniel give a snort from the doorway. Mel turned to glare at him.
“I owe ye a swift kick in the arse, ye damn fool.” she growled. He shrugged.
“I’ll let ye give me more than that.” and with a wink, he disappeared.
“I’m going with, and you’ll say not a word more about it.”
“I’ll give Jon some credit, yer as stubborn as a damn mule.”
“It’s settled, then.”
“No, ye canna go traipsing around dangerous woods full of thieves and clans people from Borthwick all while carryin’ a child. I’ll no let ye. Jon’d kill me.”
“You say that quite a bit.”
“’Cos it’s true!”
“I thought you were a fierce woman warrior who didn’t care to listen to the demands of men.”
Mel threw the door open in defeat to a bemused Thaniel and Bear. He shouldered his pack, sheathing his dagger. I grinned, knowing just how to bend Mel to my will.
“Fine, dammit.” she growled, tossing her pack over her shoulder as well. I’d be damned if I let them search for Jon and leave me in this room to worry night and day. I reached under the bed, pulling a worn leather bag out from its hiding place. I knew once Mel confirmed my pregnancy that she’d not let me come in search of Jon, so I’d prepared for every possibility. It had gone much smoother than the other options I’d conjured up in my mind.
I felt the soft, scratched leather under my hand. It was Jon’s satchel, one he’d always have attached to Angus. I could picture it clearly as he and I had hiked through the woods. It felt so long ago now; I had just been a child when I fell, a child that was ready to be married off, live a simple, meaningless existence, and die an early death. Now I felt I’d been reborn as a woman, and not just any woman; the wife of a fearless yet gentle leader, the man who’d let me become who I was meant to be. It was one of the greatest gifts Jon had ever given me—the power to find myself.
Meleryn turned to me, tossing me a bundle of cloth wrapped in twine. I caught it with one arm, the weight surprisingly heavy.
“What’s this?” I said. She smirked.
“Somethin’ to help ye blend in.”
I unwound the ties, clothes springing forth. A long shirt, a belt, and trousers. I hid my wavering smile. Mel wanted me to fit in.
“Thank you,” I said, fingering the sturdy cloth. She nodded and disappeared down the stairs. Thaniel stared at me, a few dirty blond hairs straying from their usual prison at the nape of his neck. His tanned, handsome face seemed to change constantly, never staying on one emotion. It was his camouflage, and it was unsettling. My stomach twisted in warning. I knew he was only here because it benefitted him in some way. I smiled, though I knew it didn’t touch my eyes. I closed the door, fingering the bottle of poison in my skirt pocket that Vala had also given me.
We trudged on through the muddy ruts in the road. Spring was here, but spring was still cold. Fog clung to the tall, sweeping evergreen trees each morning, our breath coming out in visible puffs. The views were indescribable; mountains swathed in green and enrobed in white clouds, gray and black rocks cutting through the dense colors, wide open fields with swaying grass as far as the eye could see. We’d set out northeast of Baldera, along a coastal trade route. Having given our horses to Remi and Mac, we had no choice but to walk. Mel insisted this would make us less susceptible to thieves if they thought we were poor.
Bear was ever-present at my side, more protective than usual. The days spent squelching through the mud were arduous and long, and by night I could barely eat my meal before falling fast asleep. The sickness seemed to have waned, thanks to Vala’s concoction. Each small village we came to were pleasant enough, offering us a bit of food and shelter in their stables. Thaniel seemed to disappear during those times, slipping away for fear of someone recognizing him. We asked everyone we came across if they’d seen a man with curly black hair and black eyes, though no one had. Each night I went to bed more frustrated than the day before. Each day brought us closer to Borthwick and the dangers that place held.
I peeled off my boot, stretching my aching back. Mel poked tinder into the small fire, while Thaniel melted into the trees to hunt.
“Do you think he’s alive?” I said quietly, unable to hold my concern in any longer. Meleryn stilled. Her black clothes were covered in brown mud. She set her jaw.
“Aye, I believe so.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked. Her head snapped up.
“Have ye given up hope already?” she said gruffly. I narrowed my eyes at her.
“Well, quit askin’ me those kinds of questions then.”
I glowered at her. The chill of the night had set in, the hoots of owls and the calls of elk could be heard echoing throughout the forest. Thaniel returned with a rabbit and a quail. We ate in silence, each of us withdrawn. Thaniel cleared his throat.
“I was imprisoned with Jon, once.” he spoke to the tops of the trees, outlined by the night sky. My heart rate increased.
“Where?” Mel asked disinterestedly, still chewing the tough, overcooked meat.
“An encampment near Mount Tier.”
I glanced at Meleryn, knowing where this story would lead. We didn’t speak.
“They had us for weeks it felt, chained to a log pole, sittin’ in the mud. I’d been caught stealing jewels and information, he’d been caught sneaking through tents.” Thaniel snorted, reaching for his flask of whisky that we’d seen every night. He’d stolen some from every village we came across.
“They brought prisoners out each day for questioning, giving them lashes or beating them, then returning them to the stocks, we called it. We became tense friends, ye could say. Jon is wholly good, and I…well, I like to ride the line.” he grinned up at the stars, talking more to himself than to us. He tipped his flask back again. His blue eyes weren’t the kind of shade that was deep, but more icy, like the tips of waves in the sea during the harsh winters.
“They killed my family, ye know. All o’ them. My little sister, my kid brother who always followed me around. My mother and father. It was rare to have an entire family intact, ye know? But they came to our home and burned it to the ground because my father was charged with starting a rebellion.” he snorted. “It wasn’t even my father who had started it, ye know? It was me, a rowdy boy who thought he was a man and thought he deserved everything without havin’ to work for it. My stupidity killed them all.” he sighed, taking another pull. My hands trembled.
“My sister, well, they took her, so ye know what that means. She’s probably some high lord’s whore, or dead. I’d rather her be dead. That’s what I think in my mind. My brother, they hanged in the courtyard of our small village. He was ten, wearing the new shoes my father had worked so hard to afford. My mother was too old to be of much use, so they burned her at the stake. And my father,” he swirled his flask of whisky around. “My father they had drawn and quartered. And I, the coward I am, fled.”
My stomach churned, bile rising in my throat. I calmed my breathing, willing myself not to be sick.
“So, when I finally grew a pair o’ balls, I marched to Mount Tier, to kill the king. They caught me and threw me in the stocks with Jon. We promised that if we ever escaped, we’d burn them all. The next day, Jon was gone. I met him on chance a year or so later, he told me of his scars, of the torture. I knew he would never tell anyone something so personal, unless they’d been to hell and back with him. I may not be a good man, I may have my vices and shortcomings, but I know one day I’ll watch that mountain burn, and it’s vile people with it.” he tipped back his flask once more, draining it, the firelight glinting off the shiny, dented metal. Tears pooled in my eyes. How could I reconcile who I was now, and who I had been born?
Mel kicked at the dirt, her elbows resting on her knees. A heavy quietness settled over our small encampment. I mulled over the horrific story. I heard a high whistle then, like the one Jon had taught me so many months ago. My heart reacted before my mind, my head snapping up. It could have been only a bird, but I felt it was something else. Mel stood, pulling her dagger. Thaniel sat forward. Bear took off without a sound, leaving me grasping after him. Meleryn and Thaniel whirled at a sound to our right, leaving me defenseless for a brief moment. I felt cold steel against my throat. My gasp was just audible enough to catch their attention, and I prayed it wasn’t too late. A gruff voice sounded at my ear.
“There ye are, ye fiery woman. It’s been way too damn long.”