“Bane!” Meleryn and Freyja’s voice called at the same moment. Meleryn’s was ecstatic, Freyja’s reprimanding. The knife disappeared from my neck, but my throat instead constricted tight with tears. I turned and flung my arms around the giant, a wave of hundreds of emotions cascading over me. He patted me on the back, chuckling in surprise.
“Missed me that much, eh?”
I felt someone at my elbow and turned to see Freyja. I leapt to her as she embraced me in a warm hug.
“What are ye both doin’ here?” Mel’s voice was light, happy.
“We caught up with that little runt Remi on the road. We’d already set out to search for ye, after Freyja had a dream.” Bane explained.
I stepped back, looking at the two. They were weary from travel, covered in dust and mud, twigs in their hair but smiling nonetheless. The firelight danced upon us all during this happy moment.
“A dream?” I asked, wiping the tears from my cheeks. Freyja gave me a queer look but said nothing about my unusual display of emotions.
“Aye, I saw a storm and a beast swallow a ship, and I made Bane leave wi’ me the next day.” Her forehead creased. Thaniel moved in my peripherals.
“Not so fast,” Bane placed a heavy hand on his shoulder. Thaniel’s look soured. So many questions were flying through my mind.
“Where’s little Jon?” I asked. Bane chuckled.
“The lad is wi’ my mother. She intends to fatten him even more than we already do.” Freyja smiled down at me, and I could tell she knew my secret. I began to blush.
“Any word of Jon?” Meleryn asked, her husky voice tight. Bane sighed, shaking his head.
“Thought we had a lead, but it was a false trail. He’s no been anywhere near Macdara.” My heart sank at the news, but I knew our chances were better now that we had Bane and Freyja.
“We can push on tomorrow, then.” Mel said.
“Aye, and I’ll teach ye yet again how to hide yerself when makin’ camp. We saw ye from miles away, ye dumb brute.” Bane scolded. Meleryn rolled her eyes as he chastised her. I felt Freyja’s eyes still on me, searching me.
“There’s something…off about ye…” she said, studying me. My neck grew hot. Thaniel snorted.
“What’s so funny?” Bane asked, shaking Thaniel. He shrugged, his mouth turning down in a mocking manner.
“I, uh…well…I’m pregnant.” I said, twisting my hands together nervously. Freyja’s eyes widened as Bane laughed loud enough to wake the dead.
“Jon sure doesna’ waste any time!”
“Bane!” Freyja yelled.
“What woman?” he laughed.
“Ye held a knife to her throat!”
“Oh aye, she’s fine though. Would take more ’an that to kill this fiery woman!”
Freyja growled. “Ye great oaf.”
“I’ve been called worse, and all by you, my dear.”
“We have to take her back home, now!” Freyja said.
“No!” Bane, myself, and Meleryn spoke at the same time. Freyja’s eye twitched in irritation. We each glanced at one another cautiously, worried about her reaction.
“Ye know as well as I do that Jon would want her safe,” she shifted her stance, crossing her arms.
“I think the more important question at the moment is who’s this fella?” Bane shook Thaniel’s shoulder again. He glowered.
“His name is Thaniel. He was imprisoned with Jon near Mount Tier.” Meleryn spoke, surprising me. She glanced nonchalantly at him.
“How well do ye know him, though?” Bane squinted, peering more closely at Thaniel. He smirked.
“Ah, she grabbed a fistful of my manhood the other day, so I’d say she knows me pretty well.” His bright white teeth flashed in the darkness.
Bane’s eyes bulged, his shoulder shifting to throw a fist in Thaniel’s face.
“Cut it out! Both of ye!” Freyja spat. Bane grudgingly obeyed, relaxing his stance and letting go of Thaniel. He rubbed his shoulder and moved out of Bane’s reach.
“Explain.” Bane crossed his burly arms over his barrel-like chest. Thaniel squinted sarcastically.
“’Tis true. I was imprisoned with Jon, we became friends. They forced us to fight for entertainment. He bested me, refused to kill me. They tortured him the next day.”
Bane and Freyja exchanged a glance, backing down a bit.
“He’s helping us find Jon, because he has information for him.” I added for his benefit.
“Thank the gods we found ye, ye motley crew.” Bane huffed, setting himself on a log. The tense introductions over, we settled back down to tell one another of our travels.
“How are ye feelin’?” Freyja asked quietly as we picked our way past the ruts in the road. We were two towns away from Borthwick, the trepidation thick in the air. I considered a moment before answering, deciding to be honest with my friend.
“Not too well. Tired all the time, still sick.” I said. Freyja glanced at me with nervous eyes, only causing a slight panic to rise in my chest. Meleryn and Thaniel rode ahead of us on the horses our other companions had brought with. Bane laughed with them, pushing forward as the trees thickened around the road. Bear made a habit of running ahead, then turning and waiting for me to catch up to him.
“How far are ye?” She asked.
“Vala thought a little less than three months.” I smiled, placing a hand over my belly. I’d explained the midwife fiasco over the fire the night before, Bane being the perfect audience all on his own. He loved anything ironic.
Freyja sucked in her lips, thinking. “I was sick for a while with little Jon, though every woman is different. I beg ye to rest a while in the next town. Ye’ve been worried sick about Jon and no eatin’ properly or sleepin’ well.”
I nodded, the idea of a warm bed making my eyes droop prematurely. A light rain began to seep through the boughs of the lush green trees. Bane erupted in laughter ahead of us once more. I caught Freyja smiling as she stared at him. Mel and Thaniel seemed to be entertaining the giant with competing stories.
“Do you miss your baby?” I asked. She scoffed, still staring ahead.
“More than I could ever explain to ye.”
I figured I had some idea of what a mother’s love for her children entailed. It was a fierce feeling, a force that would drive me to any length to protect what was mine. I never knew I could feel this way towards another being. It was vastly different than how I felt for Jon, though both emotions were strong. The fact that it was a product of Jon and I and our new love for one another made it all the better.
“I should tell ye, Jon’s cousins came to visit the clan…” she trailed off. My face contorted in confusion.
“His family from his mother’s side, to the south of Macdara. She was from another clan, wed to his father to ensure an alliance. Jon’s always thought poorly of his cousins because they aren’t much for fightin’.” She laughed.
“How long did they stay?” I asked, curious now to know Jon’s family extended beyond his sister. Though, being Jon, I could see why he wouldn’t be keen to share with me a weak side of his family tree.
“Oh, they’re still there. Just his cousin Kristjan and his twin sister, Katrin. They wished to meet ye, and extend well-wishes for the new clan leader.” She smirked.
“I hope to meet them someday,” I smiled diplomatically.
“Aye, they’re good people. It’s the other cousin ye must keep an eye on.” There was a warning in her voice. My boot slipped through a deep patch of mud, squelching loudly.
“Eva. She’s…cunning.” Freyja struggled for words.
“Good to know, though, who’s in charge while you’re all away?”
“Well, Bjorn mostly, and Frig. No one will dare usurp Jon’s role. They love him too much.”
My heart swelled with pride. The horses ahead began to stamp their hooves and pick up the pace, smelling fresh hay. My feet ached to be free of my boots. A clap of thunder and a flash of lightning propelled us onward towards shelter.
Meleryn tended to the horses while Freyja and I sat in the cramped tavern, my cold fingers wrapped around a warm mug of tea. Bane and Thaniel had gone ahead of us to begin drinking with the locals in order to gain their trust and ask around for Jon. I’d learned that the townspeople were very wary of any travelers.
I’d eaten my fill of bland vegetable stew and day old bread by the time Meleryn plopped herself on the bench next to me. She ripped off a hunk of bread, reaching greedily for the wine. She smelled of horse and manure, straws of hay littering her garb. Freyja gave her a reproachful look.
“Wha’?” She asked around a mouthful of food. “I’m hungry.”
Bane laughed in the corner of the tavern as he stood, pretending to teeter over to us. Thaniel stayed put, paying us no mind.
“Well?” Freyja breathed as he sat next to her. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“Aye, they’ve seen Jon, not two weeks ago.”
My heart soared, my throat tight with tears.
“Where? Who saw him? Where is he now?” I asked breathlessly. Meleryn gripped the table.
“They was some of Thaniel’s old crew mates. Said Jon and two others washed up on shore, that three other men had perished at sea.”
Freyja was somber, leaning towards Bane to capture his every word. My heart hammered.
“They said he stayed here a while, but moved on to try and find ye,” he nodded to Mel and I. “They said Jon wouldna’ tell ‘em which way he was goin’.”
“He wouldn’t go further north to Borthwick,” Mel said. Bane nodded.
“Aye, he’d likely go south, which means we already shoulda’ run in wi’ him, if he was traveling by road. So that leaves us with two options. We missed him, or he was caught.” Bane’s eyes held no trace of their usual laughter. My mouth ran dry. Freyja shook her head.
“So now what?” I asked.
“Thaniel, Mel and I will set out at dawn and head north, see what information we can gather without causin’ too much suspicion.” Bane said.
“We’ll stay put in case he comes back,” Freyja said, staring pointedly at me. Although I wanted desperately to continue to search for Jon, I knew my body and child needed rest. I nodded tersely at her suggestion.
Bane slapped the table and stood, making his way over to the inn keeper for more ale and food. I sat, transfixed at the thought of seeing Jon. He felt so close now, though I worried he’d be taken away just as quickly. I absentmindedly ran a hand over my stomach. A sharp pain jabbed through my lower belly, causing me to hiss and jump in pain.
“What is it?” Mel asked, eyes wide with concern. I dismissed the pain.
“Just a cramp,” I waved. Freyja didn’t seem too worried.
“Aye, I remember feelin’ that too. Yer body is tired. Ye need sleep to grow a little one.” She smiled warmly, towing me up. We made our way to the stairs. I felt eyes on me once again, and I knew it to be Thaniel. I glanced in his direction. He watched me ascend the stairs over his mug of ale, his tanned face glowing in the firelight as his light blue eyes showed unfathomable thoughts. I felt the jabbing pain once more, my heartbeat rapid with worry of the unknown.