“Yer leavin’?” Jon said without surprise. We sat in the empty and cramped dining room at a small round table. Dawn had just barely broke over the horizon. Though everyone was exhausted, we’d all seemed to have awoken early, sensing the shift in the atmosphere. Just the three of us sat down, warmed against the morning chill by the hearth. Bane nursed his celebratory hangover with a mug of ale. Hair of the dog, he called it. Bear hadn’t left Jon’s side for an instant since his return.
“Aye. The woman misses our little ’un.” He explained. Jon cast a surreptitious glance my direction, causing my stomach to flip. We’d gone to bed, me crying quietly as he held me. It was enough for now to just be near one another. I hoped the awkwardness of getting to know each other again would fade. He squeezed my hand under the table, the pressure comforting. Freyja was out in the woods, praying to the gods for their safe return. Meleryn, Thaniel, and Charles were up but had yet to be seen. I knew today would involve much planning and talking, and I tried to mentally prepare myself.
The door that led outside opened with a sound of creaking hinges. Charles appeared, dressed finely, his hair neat once more, his blue eyes lighting up the dark room. He held a white handkerchief to his bottom lip.
Bane grumbled something unkind and hid his words in his mug. Charles sat to Jon’s left, smiling through the pain of his swollen and bloodied lip.
“What happened to ye?” Jon asked, barely containing his grin. Charles glanced at Jon’s hand on mine, a flash of jealousy clear in his eyes. My heart beat a bit faster at the look and the unknown knowledge Charles held.
He waved the handkerchief dismissively.
“Thaniel discovered who I really was. I suppose he does not like the idea of his former prison guard consorting with his people.” Charles smiled despite the protuberance of his bottom lip. Bane mumbled something else, unheard to our ears, though we knew it was far from nice.
“Ah, he just needs to learn whose side yer truly on,” Jon chuckled. Charles nodded once, his eyes not leaving Jon’s face. There was jealousy mixed with admiration. Perhaps he was upset that he’d never had the chance to marry me, and held contempt towards Jon. I expected Jon to be cordial to anyone from Mount Tier, as he’d proven he wasn’t the prejudiced type. I never expected him to be friends with anyone else from my home, though. I felt unsettled.
“I’ll go check on my woman,” Bane stood, taking his mug with him. Charles’ eyes followed him out the door, which slammed shut after his exit.
“Seems none of your people particularly enjoy my presence.” Charles joked.
“They have good reason not to.” Jon stared levelly at him. Charles dropped his gaze briefly and nodded once.
“So, what news?” Jon asked. Charles sighed heavily, but smiled all the same, the lines at the edges of his mouth becoming parenthesis around his grin.
“Not much. The military seems stagnate at the moment.” Charles said.
“What of my father?” I blurted, unable to contain the question.
“He’s well,” Charles smiled, his blue eyes sincere. My heart lightened. “Your uncle and aunt’s health is failing quickly now. Your grandmother is still as austere as ever. I know not of your mother and siblings, but I’d assume they’re all in good health, or I’d have heard otherwise.”
I felt tears in my already cried-out eyes.
“Thank ye,” Jon nodded, squeezing my hand again and moving to clap Charles on the shoulder. He blushed in response. “Charles advocated for my release from Mount Tier.” Jon explained to me.
“So he told me,” I said, giving Jon a courteous smile. I leaned into him, feeling the warmth he always exuded. Charles averted his gaze, staring at the beams above his head.
“We can talk more later, if ye’d like.” Jon said, sensing his unease.
“Yes, let’s.” Charles smiled and stood.
“If ye see my sister, tell her to quit hidin’ from me.” Jon said. Charles chuckled unconvincingly as he left.
“Jon,” I began, once we were alone.
“Ye sound serious, princess,” he smirked, pressing his thumb between the crease in my brows. I smiled briefly.
“I, well, when Charles rescued me yesterday, he told me—”
“That he was yer betrothed?” His eyebrows quirked up, his easy playfulness winding its way back into his smile.
“How did you know?” I breathed, perplexed.
“He made mention, when I was prisoner, that he would marry the daughter of royalty. When I met ye, I put it all together.” He shrugged a muscled shoulder.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I growled, not truly angry. It would have been nice to know how much Jon knew, so I wouldn’t feel so stupid and left behind when other’s approached me with this kind of news.
“I didna think it important when we were escapin’ murderers.” He teased. My heart ached in longing, having been cautious to see if Jon was the same man I’d married, or if this prison sentence had altered him at all. I should have known he’d never let anyone have the satisfaction of changing him.
“Besides, princess,” he leaned in and kissed my forehead. “That marriage wouldna go very far.” He grinned impishly.
“And why’s that?” I glared, taking offense. His full lips quivered before he could no longer contain his laughter.
“What is so funny?” I leaned away from him, wondering if he was mocking me somehow. He quieted down, sobering his mood.
“Charles…well, uh,” Jon positively blushed. I squinted at him and crossed my arms, waiting.
“He, uh, prefers the company of other men.” He peeked at me from under his thick lashes. I was instantly confused.
“Ye heard me correct. He isna’ attracted to women, sexually. He must hide that preference, though, or he’d be hanged as a traitor.”
My mind reeled. I’d never heard of men attracted to other men. I suppose Jon had given me the answer why, though.
“But he’s Major-General in my grandfather’s military.” I said. Jon shrugged.
“Aye, he’s got a damn good mind for war, and a pretty face to flash around, too. I think that’s what originally moved him to save me,” he chuckled, rubbing his own hairy, rugged, beautiful face. My heart rate picked up as I stared at him. I shook my head to clear my thoughts.
“You mean, he finds you attractive?”
Jon snorted. “Well don’t sound so shocked,” he winked, wrapping an arm about my shoulders and pulling me close. “Best keep that knowledge to ourselves, hmm?” He said. I nodded, stewing over this revelation.
We later said our goodbyes to Bane and Freyja, wishing them well on their journey home. It was time for the rest of us to regroup, to begin planning for the threat of imminent war. Jon, Meleryn, Thaniel and Charles talked for hours. I sat and listened, absorbed at first. It was clear I was of no use for them as the day progressed. Sighing, I slipped out of the cottage, Bear on my heels.
It was dusk, still a bit chilly as the breeze came down the mountains, but summer would be here, and soon. I sat a ways from the stone cottage in the shelter of the trees, watching the smoke pour from the chimney, listening to the voices rise and fall from within. My heart was content, knowing Jon had not turned into some other person in the absence of each other. I marveled at his ability to remain himself in this constantly shifting world. My stomach rioted in anticipation, wondering if tonight we’d have a chance to be alone. I ached to be near him, to feel the safety of his embrace, to give him everything I had in this world to offer.
Bear’s ears perked up, his hackles rising. I gripped his scruff, rooting him to the spot as a hooded figure appeared at the cottage. They waited, moving lithely through the undergrowth, unit they were at the window. They crouched beneath it, listening. It was too skinny to be a man, but tall for a woman. My breathing hitched. Bear growled, propelling himself forward and dragging me with him. I spit gritty dirty out of my mouth, snapping my head up to see what would happen. The intruder fled, quick and quiet as a ghost. The only thing I saw in the twilight was a flash of bright red hair.
I tramped down the hill, angry, dusting my bodice off and spitting out more dirt. Bear panted at the door, clearly impressed with himself.
“You dumb brute,” I growled, though I knew he was only protecting us. I tried to clear the images from my mind—the hazy red haired woman who’d told me to sleep, the other woman pushing her way forward as Jon was about to be executed, and now this. All added up, it seemed someone wanted to kill Jon, or at the very least obtain information about Macdara. I was stumped, wondering if my recollections were correct, or simply my mind filling in the gaps of stressful moments.
The door opened to reveal Jon. He gave me a quizzical look, but I only shook my head in response.
“This one took chase of a rabbit and dragged me along for the ride.” I lied, glaring pointedly at Bear, who tilted his head to the side. Jon reached down and grabbed his scruff, pulling him up onto his hind legs. His face was livid, and my heart lurched.
“Good boy,” he cooed, shaking Bear, who placed his massive front paws on Jon’s chest. He leapt up and down on his hind legs, trying hard to lick his face. I rolled my eyes and shoved past them.
After a hot meal prepared by the landowner, we said our goodnights and made our way into various spots to sleep. Still having command of the largest room, we were blessed with a vanity. Jon sat with a straight edged razor in front of the mirror, shaving the scruffiness away but leaving some facial hair along his jaw and chin. It suited him.
I sat propped up in bed in my shift, reading a book about local plants. It seemed good knowledge to possess. Jon stood, blowing out the candle and moving to check the bolt on the door. I knew Bear was on the other side, hearing his pitiful whine. Served him right.
He moved to the end of the bed, blocking out the firelight. I put my book down, ready to snap at him, when I noticed he’d removed his shirt. My mouth ran dry, my nerves on fire. He smirked down at me.
“Now what’s a beaut like ye doin’ all alone with a savage like me?” He teased, though my heartbeat felt much more serious as it hammered in my chest. I opened and closed my mouth, searching for a witty retort but coming up with nothing. I set my book on the small side table and pushed my hands under the covers to hide their shaking. He leaned over, placing his hands on either side of my legs, still a fair distance from me. His presence was intoxicating all the same. His shoulders were rounded in thick muscles, his forearms lined with visible tendons. I remembered the first time I’d come face to face with Jon, how I had thought he really was a savage. He simply looked the part; rugged, swathed in muscle, dark brooding eyes that were alight with a certain playfulness, and a commanding aura.
“Afraid of me, princess?” He whispered, standing straight and gripping my ankles. He tugged me down, eliciting a yelp of surprise. I lay flat on my back as he now hovered above me. I glared at him.
He quirked an eyebrow.
I nodded, sensing the challenge in his voice. I moved to pull my shift down, but he clamped my wrist in his rough hand, pulling it back up and above my head. My chest heaved, heat rushing to my face and neck. He bent to me, placing a trail of kisses along my neck, gripping my other wrist and sentencing it to the same fate as the one above me. His long torso stretched above me, heat pulsating off him. He pulled away.
“What about now?”
I shook my head, less convincing this time.
“I thought I taught ye how to defend yerself?” He smirked, his face inches from mine. My mind went blank with longing. I could see it in his eyes, too. He climbed forward, straddling me.
“I remember the first time I did this to ye.” He chuckled. My brow furrowed.
“In the forest, I held a knife to yer throat because ye scared the shit outta me.”
We laughed together in memory of that moment. His eyes clouded over, serious once more.
“I’d never admit it to ye, but I wanted ye so bad from that day onward. To feel ye, angry and squirming beneath me.”
I did just that, hearing him tease me. I huffed, struggling against his weight and strength. He smiled wickedly.
“I wanted ye all to myself, to hold ye tight,” he bent forward, planting a kiss on my lips that stopped my struggling and my very breath. “To feel ye lose yerself because of me.” He kissed me again briefly, pulling away long enough to gaze at me with an animalistic hunger in his eyes.
“I am a savage, princess, after all.”
“Jon,” I breathed, my eyes fluttering closed as we became one once more.