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Chapter 34

I was drowning. The frigid water around me pressed tighter the further I sank, hugging me in an embrace unlike any other. No sound or light could penetrate the water’s surface, giving me the only true isolation I’d ever had in my life. My heartbeat rushed in my ears. Any attempt to fight the inevitable death would be futile, as I’d never learned to swim. And so, I let the silky water consume me. It was peaceful, dying. Strange, how I’d used to view death, though now every last breath pulled me closer to my child—my singular, greatest desire now that I knew Jon had a chance at life. I could let go, could be content with my fate. I didn’t view myself as a coward for escaping the conversation of my miscarriage, only seeing this as an unforeseen and unfortunate circumstance. I hadn’t intentionally run off the ledge, after all.

The pain I felt now as my body was utterly deprived of oxygen was nothing compared to the grief I’d quietly endured recently. I closed my eyes, my head pounding, searching for air it would never find. Go, a quiet voice in my head thought. Just let go.

I felt a persistent tugging under my arms, a force slowly pulling me up. The weight barring down on my chest lifted, and my body rebelled. Sensing the change in pressure, my lungs reached for a breath too soon, causing water to fill the empty cavities in my chest. Black spots dimmed my vision as sunlight flickered down through the water.

I swatted away the face that swam before me, angered that my peace was being interrupted in such an intrusive way. I felt sturdy hands on my chest, pressing down in a quick, sharp rhythm. Ah, my body seemed to say, this will help. A cascade of water spewed from my mouth, leaving my throat ragged and raw. My senses slowly returning to me, a chill set in. I coughed and sputtered, hearing an unfamiliar voice above me.

“Oh! You’re alright, thank goodness,” he breathed, his voice smooth and melodic. I pinched my eyes shut, opening them again and commanding them to focus. The world was still blurry, though I could see colors melting into one another.

As my eyes adjusted, I began to piece together the beautiful face hovering above me. Eyes as blue as the sky on a late summer day stared at me in concern, deep set under brown brows that were thin for a man. His skin was pale, clear of any scars or blemishes, though a small dark mole sat on his left cheekbone, his nose thin and pointed slightly. His lips were full, surrounded on both sides by lines cast from smiling often. His brows were knit together, tipping up in the center to show his concern for my well being. I’d forgotten to breathe.

“That was some fall, and right into the river. I am pleased that you seem well enough,” he smiled, his white teeth contrasting with his long, dark hair. It dripped with icy water, coming loose from its tether at the nape of his neck. He spoke like someone from the mountain. I peered at him anew, astonished. He wore light blues and whites and tans, richly embroidered with flowers and vines, though it was now ruined after him rescuing me.

“T-Thank you,” I stuttered, my lips trembling from the cold.

“Here,” he reached behind my shoulders, helping to prop me up and gather my wits.

“Who are you?” I asked, perplexed and frightened.

“My apologies,” he said, dipping his head in greeting. “I am Charles, Tenth Tier.”

My heart stuttered to a stop as fear gripped me. I made to move, to escape, but he pressed my shoulder back against the rock behind me.

“It’s alright, Elise, I know your husband, Jon.” He smiled even more widely than before.

“H-How?” I trembled.

“Well, it’s quite a long story, but we’ve been friends for some time now.”

“B-But you’re from the M-Mountain,” I shook. He chuckled lightly, a genuineness emanating from his being.

“Yes, bit funny how things work out sometimes, eh?” He said playfully. His face fell as I failed to respond. His name, his status, everything about him became familiar the more I thought on it. Why hadn’t Jon mentioned him before?

“You…I’ve seen you before. I know you, somehow.” I pondered aloud. His cheeks became tinged with red.

“Ah, yes, well I am a Major-General in your grandfather’s military, though the specifics are a tad muddled…” he trailed off, glancing at me nervously. My gut twisted upon hearing about my family. Too many ghosts were present with me today.

“How are you friends with Jon?” I asked, my voice a bit too harsh. He didn’t seem to mind. He wiped the back of his neck, searching for words.

“I, well, I met Jon when he was a prisoner. I advocated for him to be released, as did your father, though the two had never met. We believed an alliance was better than the alternative. After that decision from your grandfather I…I began to change my stance on everything I’d once known.” His eyes were earnest and sincere. My mind reeled at his defiance, though, and I wondered how my grandfather had not discovered Charles’ leanings. I licked my lips, tasting fishy river water.

“I owe you thanks, for rescuing me.” I said. He smiled, the sides of his mouth dimpling with the motion. He nodded once, causing flecks of icy water to drip from his once-perfect hair. I continued to stare in confusion, though, and I knew he sensed it.

“You—” I began.

“I was supposed to marry you, Elise.” His cheeks now burned as my gut wrenched. My head spun, trying in vain to wrap around what it was he was telling me.

“Wh-What?” I trembled.

“Your grandfather told everyone you’d died. Your father sent me out to search for you, and I crossed paths with Jon once more. He told me you were alive, and I passed the knowledge to your father.”

So many more questions fought for control in my mind, leaving me staring at him with what I knew was a blank face.

“I’m sure Jon will give us time to catch up on the specifics.” He said. Jon.

“How did you find me? I mean, us, we were running and I lost track of everyone and—” I cut myself off, trying to gather my jumbled thoughts. After we’d fled, we’d not stopped running for fear of pursuit. I remembered hearing shouts behind, turning to see who it could have been, and running right off the steep bank and tumbling into the deep, slow river.

“I was there, in Borthwick by chance, discussing military tactics with an ally. I began to hear about Jon of Macdara, that they’d captured him. I knew I’d have to try something to save him. Before his trial, I acted as advocate on his behalf, offering their leader most of my wealth. He declined. He’s not one for making deals.” Charles explained. The image of their leader swirled in my mind, accompanied by a blind, pulsing hatred.

Elise!” Shouts sounded on the hill above where we sat. Charles turned sharply, an eagerness glinting in his eyes. My heart leapt as I stared at the tree line, watching as Jon’s figure emerged.

“Jon.” I breathed, struggling to stand. Charles went rigid upon seeing him. He crashed through shallow rivulets of water that emptied into the wider part of the river, displacing smooth round rocks that clacked as they were jostled together. The clouds above parted for a brief moment, casting Jon in golden light. I stumbled forward, my legs tangled in my drenched skirts. He ran over the rocks with deft precision, finally closing the distance that had been between us for what seemed an eternity.

He caught me in his arms, his hands gripping my face. We stood still a moment, savoring the way our anguish disappeared at one another’s touch. His eyes were as black and depthless as I remembered, his body just as warm and solid and alive under my hands. Without wasting another second, he pulled my face to his, our lips meeting as though they’d only been apart for a few hours instead of weeks.

He pulled away, staring at me again.

“Gods, I thought I’d never see ye again, princess.” He whispered. I felt tears flood my eyes, realizing the emotions I’d locked away. I let them flood forth, knowing my husband was alive, his flesh just under my hands.

“Elise, I love ye,” he said, pulling me close, kissing my forehead.

“I love you,” I whispered back, burying my face in the crook of his neck. A small nagging feeling tugged at me inwardly, causing my heart to feel withdrawn in what should have otherwise been a celebratory moment. Our child, I thought. Jon pulled away slightly, hearing the shifting of rocks. Charles stood at our side. Jon smiled at him like he would an old friend.

“I must thank ye. Ye helped save me, and saved my Elise,” Jon bent and kissed my cheek, chaffing my arm. I caught the faltering smile Charles had plastered to his face as he stared at us. I wondered if Jon knew Charles would have been my husband, had I not fallen.

“Of course,” Charles shook his head, dispelling the fake smile. I stared at him, trying to figure out what he was feeling.

“We’ll need to move, to find suitable lodging away from certain eyes.” Charles said.

“Aye, we will,” Jon nodded, reaching for my hand and squeezing it. My stomach knotted, afraid for what was to come.

I sat in the steaming tub, swirling the hot water with my hands. We’d found refuge a few towns south with those who were allied to Macdara. Everyone had collapsed in a heap, unsure of what to do or feel, now that everything we’d been preparing for had ended. Jon had called off all talk of anything important for the time being, demanding whisky for himself and a hot bath for me.

I stared ahead into the fire as the door to our private bedroom opened and shut softly. I felt Jon’s rough, warm hand on my bare back, heard the scrape of the stool as he drew it close to sit by me as I stewed. He brushed my long, wet hair away, exposing my shoulder as he bent to kiss it tenderly. I leaned into his touch, but still felt restrained by the secret I held.

“Elise,” he whispered, his deep voice husky. I didn’t have to respond.

“I know somethin’ is heavy on yer mind and heart.” He said. I brought my hands above the water, staring at my palms, the same shape and texture they had always been. How had Vala known? He sighed when I didn’t acknowledge him.

“I know it must be hard—strange, having been apart for some time, the uncertainty of it all…” he trailed off. I turned to look at him, sorrowful for how unsure he was in this moment. His shrewd eyes seemed to sense what was hiding behind my mask, though.

“I know that…women have secrets, sometimes, that they no wish to share wi’ anyone. I suppose I do, too,” he said, trailing his fingers down my spine.

“Yes,” I whispered, shivering at his touch. He nodded.

“Ye need not share, if ye do not wish, for there are some things in my past too dark to be brought to life again, too fresh to be properly talked of.” He said. How was it that this man understood everything I was feeling, seemed to know what I was thinking? Tears fell one after the other in wet lines down my cheeks. I stared at him, at his charcoal eyes enrobed with thick black lashes. His scruffy face not yet shaven, his dark curls unruly and wild. I reached up, tracing a wet thumb over his plump lips. I felt his breath on my hand as his eyes closed. I knew he desired to be close with me, to feel the connection we’d lost. I wanted it too, though I knew what was in the way. If I waited to tell him, I wouldn’t be able to bear his touch, to rekindle our love. The war within myself raged.

“Jon,” I whispered, cupping his cheek. His eyes opened slowly.

“Ye can tell me, I sense the change within ye.” His voice was hushed. Tears now flooded, dropping into the warm water below.

“We had a child,” I said, staring him in the eye. He shifted, the flicker of excitement diminished quickly with his keen wits. “I lost her. I am so…so very sorry, to have not been able to make you a father.” I dropped my hand, letting it splash back into the water. He said nothing. I sobbed quietly, the anguish hitting me anew. Now that I knew what drowning felt like, I could compare the way sorrow rushes over you to the feeling over water pulling you farther down.

“I am so, so sorry, Jon.”

I felt his hand on my neck, gripping it, causing me to stare upon him once more. Though his eyes were wavering with fresh tears that I knew would never spill, he beamed.

“Ye have nothin’ to be sorry for,” he whispered, grinning, his lips quivering.

“Wha—” I began.

“Elise, even the thought that ye could make me a father is enough. I’m heartbroken, truly. I’ve never felt a pain so searing in my heart, but you, you are my love and will make me whole again. There is nothin’ in this world that would stop me loving ye, I swear it.” He bent down, his lips gentle against mine. The blockage in my heart seemed to crumble. He pulled away, winding his fingers through my hair.

“I’ve loved ye more than I thought I could love anythin’, and here ye go again, makin’ me love ye even more. Ye’ve given me life, Elise, and one day we can have that again.”

I nodded, my small sobs echoing in the dainty room.

“Ye said it was a she?” He whispered. I nodded.

“Aye, I feel it, too. She’d have been a beaut, like her mother, and reckless, like me,” he smiled ruefully, wiping the tears from my cheeks.

“What’d ye name her?” He asked, causing my heart to stutter at his uncanny ability to seemingly read my thoughts. Though it had been a secret I’d wanted to keep locked away, my heart pushed me to tell him, so we could both share in the perfection that was our child.

“Gloria, after my grandmother.” I whispered. He smiled one-sidedly, snorting softly.

“I hear she’s a formidable woman. It suits our daughter’s memory.” He nodded. My heart felt free for the first time in too long as I stared into the understanding eyes of the man I loved.

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