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Chapter 33

I sat in the straight backed chair, wearing my finest dress. Cleansed, my hair nearly to my waist, braided neatly. The sun shone brightly through the small window, the sounds of the town below barely audible above my companion’s constant chattering. It had been two days since I’d lost my child. Two days spent planning relentlessly the rescue of my husband. I had not said a word, only listened and nodded when appropriate. I caught the cautious glances thrown my way now and then; the only one who didn’t look on me with pity and sorrow was Thaniel, and I became ruefully thankful for his attitude.

Our worst fears had been realized once again; Jon had indeed been captured by the people of Borthwick, held prisoner until his trial. Tomorrow at noon, in their town square, there was to be a parade of sorts to celebrate the ending of his life. The town we were in hummed with quiet excitement from some of its inhabitants. The only thing we could do now was plan on freeing him, though the task was not only monumental, but impossible.

“If we start a riot right when they go to hang him, there may be just enough time to cut him loose.” Bane explained for the thousandth time. I barely listened, facing the window while everyone else worked day and night to come up with a solution.

“There’s no enough of us, Bane,” said Freyja, clearly exasperated.

“We canna leave him to die this way.” He growled. The sound of a fist hitting the table barely startled me. I brushed my fingers through Bear’s soft yet bristly fur. They’d found Jon, thanks to a friend of Thaniel’s who had a tense relationship with a prison guard in Borthwick. They played dice from time to time, and the topic of the captured clan leader was all anyone could talk about.

Even if we somehow managed to rescue him, how would I be able to face him, tell him the news of his child and her fate? The thought alone evoked some sort of emotion within me, and though it wasn’t good, I was thankful to feel something.

Bane, Freyja and Meleryn had each taken turns, giving me their condolences, crying, patting my arm sympathetically. I didn’t want to hear any of it. I began to wonder if falling from the mountain really was a good thing. Perhaps staying there and living a meaningless, less painful life would have been better. But the thought of Jon always hit me with a veracity I’d never known before. We were meant to find one another, to be together, so how could I reconcile my two opposing emotions?

“You’ve been awfully quiet today,” Freyja placed a hand on my shoulder. She’d said this to me multiple times each day. “Any ideas for us?” She asked, trying in vain to include me. I shook my head, standing to leave. I needed air.

“Where—” she began to ask.

“Leave her be.” Bane said.

The day was warm with a slight breeze. Bear and I walked through town, past the outskirts and into the forest. I sat under the shade of an evergreen, peering through the brush and just spotting the edge of the sea. I knew I had been followed, so it was no surprise when Thaniel materialized out of the ferns. His eyes glinted as he smiled, plopping down next to me.

“At least all ye have to worry about now is Jon,” he said, leaning back. I felt a small fire within me at his unkind words. I didn’t respond.

“So, what? Yer goin’ to sit and stare all day and give up because somethin’ bad happened to ye?”

I turned to glare at him, feeling the ice in my stare.

“There she is.” He smiled wickedly.

“Leave me alone.” I said.

“Nah, ye see, ye need to learn that life isna’ always about you, sweetheart,” he sat forward, quirking a brow at me. The scar on the side of his face moved with the motion.

“I know that.” I spat.

“Then quit actin’ like a damn spoiled princess and help us. He’s not my husband.” He bit back.

“I lost our child.” I seethed, tears threatening to spring forth. The emotions I’d tried to keep controlled for the last few days were beginning to bubble up.

“Aye, ye did, and so do many women. I watched my mother burn, my father ripped apart, my baby brother hanged. And here I am,” he smiled, motioning wide with his arms.

“Why are you even helping us?” I said, gritting my teeth against the tears. He shrugged, wrapping his arms around his knees and leaning forward.

“Somethin’ interesting to kill the time, I suppose.”

I could tell his answer was honest. I began to slowly appreciate him again, how he hadn’t treated me with pity, instead treating me like anyone else.

“The way I see it, ye can sit idly by and let life happen, or ye can make yer time here worthwhile. I wish someone had told me that, before it was too late.” His ocean eyes stared into mine. He stood, trudging away before I could say another word.

Everyone’s heads snapped up as I entered the room, all their stares skittish, save for Thaniel. I made my way to the only empty chair, turning it to face the rest of the group. I sat expectantly. Meleryn smirked.

“We have a plan.”

“Alright,” I said, squirming in my seat under their gazes. I felt uncomfortable, knowing how I’d acted the last few days. I doubted they’d blame me for it, though.

“We’ll join their festivities, spreadin’ out through the crowd. Once Jon is up to be hanged, we’ll cause a riot from all different directions. I’ll cut him loose, and we can fight our way out through the confusion.” Bane explained. I sucked in a deep breath, pondering. It didn’t take a militaristic mind to see the numerous flaws in this plan, but I had nothing else to offer at the moment.

“I suppose we’d better move along, then.” I said. Everyone smiled. Thaniel stood in the corner, conveying to me what I was feeling; we’d fail, and we’d all die. The only difference was plain to see; Thaniel and I didn’t fear death.

We set out, following the road that led to Borthwick. By nightfall, the turrets surrounding their castle were visible. We made camp in the woods, the fear palpable. We’d come across numerous others who were staking out spots for the night, excited for the entertainment tomorrow would bring. We’d left behind any trace of Macdara; our crests, daggers inlaid with inscriptions, jewelry. We rehearsed our roles, backwards and forwards a thousand times, then a thousand more. I didn’t miss the fact that I had been given the simplest of tasks; wait in the back of the crowd for Jon, causing a scene if the others’ attempts failed.

Thaniel left us as night fell, going through the gates under the pretense of playing dice with his acquaintance. He hoped to bribe him with all the money we had left. It was a pitiful amount. Bane and Freyja left to take a walk, though Meleryn and I knew they’d be enjoying likely the last night of their lives together, mourning for their son who’d never know his parents. I stared at the fire, picturing within it all those who sought to do us harm. I pictured Hector, the other men who’d come to kill me, the men in the forest when Jon and I had first met, Thran, my grandfather. Hatred seemed to fill the void most of all. If that was the only thing I had left to cling to in the coming hours, I prayed it would be enough. I prayed I’d be strong.

Meleryn sighed, throwing twigs into the fire. Unseen people all around laughed and played string instruments, celebrating the eve of such an event.

“I’ve never really said I’m sorry…” Mel said, not looking me in the eye. I didn’t speak. She continued to twist sticks in her hands.

“I hated ye, because ye were different, and because of what yer family did to Jon. But when he found me after I ran off, when I saw the look in his eyes as he talked of ye, I knew he was in love.” She sniffed, rubbing her nose across her sleeve.

“And then, when I found him again, he told me to do anything I could to keep ye safe. I was wrong, thinking he’d loved ye before. I really saw it then. So I found ye and began to see the same look in yer eyes. I don’t understand it, yer love for one another. It baffles me. He wouldna just do anythin’ for ye. No, he’d level mountains and cross seas of fire just to be with ye, and you with him. Gives me some bit o’ hope that this world is alright.” She said, a small smile on her lips now. I hadn’t realized that tears were leaving my cheeks wet until a breeze hit my face, causing me to shudder.

She stood, stretching her arms above her head and groaning. A lone wolf howled in the distance, causing Bear’s ears to perk up. Meleryn truly smiled now.

“Every time I hear a wolf, I think of my father.” Chills ran up and down my spine. No fire would be hot enough to warm me tonight.

“Best get some sleep,” she turned, heading to her spot in our camp, leaving me with my thoughts.

I spent the majority of the night staring at the stars peeking through the canopy. They flickered and shimmered but never dimmed. The night lasted an eternity. When I did fall into a fitful sleep, all I saw were blue eyes and red hair, though it wasn’t me. I wondered if my brain was giving me images of my unborn child, grown and healthy and flourishing, giving me something worth looking forward to as I died.

The stars finally began to dim, the world hushed, holding its breath before the sunlight streaked across the sky. My hands were frozen stiff, despite being wrapped in a pair of Jon’s gloves all night. A steady nervous shaking set in. Bane and Freyja walked back to camp, hand in hand but somber. Freyja’s eyes were brimmed in red, no trace of laughter on Bane’s face.

Thaniel lounged by Meleryn, the only one who seemed content.

“Did the bribe work?” Mel asked. He shook his head. My spirits fell even further. We packed our few belongings. I took a length of rope, tethering Bear to a tree.

“Stay,” I commanded, moving away. I hoped he’d be able to escape when he realized I wasn’t coming back for him. He stared as we walked away, his tail wagging slowly before it slumped. I locked away my sorrow, saving it for another time.

We joined hundreds of people on the road; men, women, even children hoisted high on their father’s shoulders. It disgusted me, knowing the source of their excitement. The day was bright, warm despite the breeze rolling off the sea. We passed a wide expanse of water, a river that melted into the Rån.

The closer we came to Borthwick, the more crowded it felt. We’d thankfully left our horses in the last town, knowing we’d be scrutinized further if we had them in tow. Tents were set up along the road into the main hub, vendors selling hot food or mugs of ale. My stomach churned in anger. Though my hair marked me as a mountain woman, no one seemed to notice. There were a great many others with shades stranger than mine. My heartbeats hammered in my ears as we came upon the entrance to the massive courtyard. Guards stood above on the turrets, scanning the crowd with their bows and arrows ready. Men holding broadswords shoved people around, checking for weapons. We made it past unscathed.

Emerging into the courtyard, my mind was ill prepared for the sheer size of the space. Hundreds of people stood shoulder to shoulder, jostling for a better view. Thaniel grasped Mel’s hand, taking her to the right and disappearing from us. Bane nodded to me, Freyja squeezing my hand, as they moved through the crowd to the left. I stood back, high up enough on a slight hill that I had the best view of all. I stared down at the wooden platform, at the hangman’s noose. Three guards stood watch, pushing spectators away who got too close. My eyes scanned the crowd, searching for anything familiar.

Above me, to my left, was a great wall for Borthwick’s royalty. No fanfare announced the entrance of their leader; he simply emerged, tall and straight backed. He was nearly the height of Bane, though more slender, his shoulders broad and covered in bear fur. His gaze was bored as he watched his people, his brown hair glinting in the sunlight. His eyes fell to me, holding my stare. No emotion reached those dead eyes, and I gave none back. Bane had said he was new to his role, his father having just died a few months ago. Rumor had it he was more heartless than any before him.

Drumming began, snapping my attention back to the gallows. I wondered how many tortures I’d have to witness before the grand finale. They marched eleven men out, though Jon was not amongst them. They’d be saving him for the theatrics of it all. The sun glared down, at its highest point. The executions began.

I sat through scream after scream, hearing men beg for mercy, hearing the jeering crowd laughing at their supposed weakness. The sixth man made not a sound, causing the crowd to become angry and restless. Their leader smiled, clearly appreciating that man’s strength. Time and again, I willed myself not to be sick. Women fainted or vomited, men left with ashen faces. This spectacle was not for the weak of heart.

Finally, the eleventh man gave up the fight, receiving mercy in the form of a sword to his neck. The crowd cheered. Guards were changed out, having stood watch for hours. I spotted Bane and Freyja, and Mel with Thaniel, preparing myself for the fate I had just witnessed eleven times over.

Fresh guards appeared, with a new executioner as well. The crowd stilled. I saw a flash of brilliant red hair, the only person pushing forward to get a better look. Jon appeared, flanked by two guards. My heart stopped. The sun shone off his beautiful black curls, his skin clear of any injury. They’d kept him in good health for this. My heart ached, my fingers twitched, wishing to wind around his hand, to hold him close, to feel his breath on my face before he kissed me. He mounted the steps, his shoulders squared. I knew I’d see him again when this was all over, that we’d be together in the halls of his father’s.

The leader of Borthwick leaned over to get a better look, clearly interested in this spectacle. The executioner stood tall, yelling out over the hushed crowd.

“Jon, the leader of Macdara!” his voice echoed around the turrets as the crowd began to cheer. Jon’s face was devoid of emotion. The burly executioner placed the noose securely around Jon’s neck. Any moment now, the riot would begin. I leaned forward onto my toes, ready to run. I glanced once more at their leader, feeling his eyes on me. He smiled with malice, turning to give the executioner the signal to begin. I didn’t care that he’d spotted me. They reached for Jon’s wrists, taking off his shackles. The crowd held a collective breath.

No movement happened for the longest few moments. The crowd became confused, irritated. A guard at the front of the platform grasped at his throat, gagging loudly, his face turning shades of purple as his eyes bulged from their sockets. His companions rushed to his aid. The executioner fell to the ground, now clutching at his throat. Guards all around began to drop, causing mass confusion and hysteria. I watched as their leader stood, livid, his face red. Before my mind could fully react, I darted forward to Jon. Bane had already mounted the platform, cutting him loose. No guard seemed able to fight, each dropping, one after another. Screams of terror rose through the crowd as regular townsfolk began exhibiting the same symptoms. Bane rushed forward with Jon, everyone too afraid for their own lives to care much about him anymore. I heard Meleryn screaming at me to run, seeing more and more guards stream into the courtyard.

I turned, fleeing, feeling her at my side. Through the front gates, back down the now-empty road, past the carts holding the recently tortured and disemboweled men. No one came for us, not a soul pursued. The screams of the dying were all that was left.

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