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Chapter 38

“I don’t think I want you to stop.” I whispered, grabbing his face in both my hands and pulling his lips to mine. A low rumble sounded in his muscled chest as he gripped my hips and tilted them to meet his. He pushed in slowly, carefully, his face becoming deeper shades of red with every passing moment. The pain wasn’t nearly as awful as had been described to me by some of the other girls. It was uncomfortable—odd, even—but not horrible.

“Is this alright, princess?” He asked, continuing his rhythmic moving. I’d forgotten for a moment what exactly it was we were doing. I felt the blush in my cheeks deepen as he stared at me, his brows pulling together in concern.

“I’m hurtin’ ye,” he said, slowing. I shook my head quickly, laughing nervously.

“No, no, it’s just…better, different than I thought it would be.” I smiled. He bent to kiss my forehead, laughing too in an attempt to brush aside the awkwardness. He buried his face in the crook of my neck, nuzzling me as he laughed. His weight on my body was warm, comforting, a strange pressure inside me building.

“Mmm,” he growled, moving quicker now. “Ye can touch me, ye know. I’m no a troll like Bane.” He joked, pulling away to look upon me once more. I burst out in laughter, interrupting his rhythm once again, but taking his advice. My shaky hands reached for his chest, just barely brushing over the warm, tense surface. His heart hammered beneath my fingertips, and he sighed in contentment. He looked to the tent ceiling, closing his eyes. My hands explored, down his taut torso, to his thighs, to his lower back.

I moaned, feeling that pressure grow again. I gripped him without knowing I did so, causing him to bury himself completely within me. I gasped at the release I felt, like a tether snapping as waves upon waves crashed over me. I could barely think straight.

Jon groaned before collapsing gently onto me, rolling to the side as our legs remained tangled. He smiled, reaching for my face, brushing my cheek with his thumb.

“Woman, I think I am hopelessly fallin’ for ye,” he said, his eyes radiating to me the plain truth he could no longer hide.

I awoke with a start, my heart hammering, my skin damp with sweat. I placed my hand across my face, pushing my hair from my sticky forehead. It was night, dark with no visible moon. I took a moment to collect my thoughts.

Jon and I had spent the remainder of the afternoon at the river, talking and laughing. It was easy to forget the revelations I’d had, about him possibly lying to me, and about the mysterious missing bottle of poison. My mind was clearly overworked, so it had given me dreams of our wedding night, a time that seemed so very far away now. How I wished we could go back.

I turned to gaze at Jon, pale in the darkness of the dying embers. His chest rose and fell rhythmically, his face years younger in sleep, deprived of all the responsibilities he shouldered each day. We were to set out in two days back to Macdara if we heard no word from Charles. My heart felt lighter at the very thought. I longed to be back there, in the simple times, working in the kitchens with Miss Meerie, holding little Jon, enjoying the company of friends. I knew Jon desired it, too, and he was bound by duty to serve his people. We were so close to going home, to getting away from the folly journey that had nearly separated us forever. There were many things that had happened since we left that I would like to tuck away, to never remember.

My heart still pulled away from Jon, though. Charles’ warning, coupled with my knowledge, settled heavily into my stomach, causing a slight distance between Jon and I. I knew he felt it, though as perceptive as he was, he never questioned me. This led me to believe one of two things: either he assumed it was about our child, or he truly was hiding something from me that he still didn’t wish to share. I hoped against all hope it wasn’t the latter.

Jon stirred in his sleep, snoring softly. Too anxious to sleep, I stood and reached for my shawl. The door creaked slightly as I opened it, causing me to panic. Jon stayed still. I exited quickly, patting my leg at Bear who had been asleep outside our door. He pushed himself up and followed me down into the kitchen. A lone figure sat in front of the fire. He turned to me, his dirty blond hair free from its tether. It flowed down his back like the magnificent mane of a great stallion. The dim firelight cast an eery shadow along his scar. He smirked.

“Oh! I’m sorry,” I muttered, turning to leave.

“Ahh, nonsense,” he patted the empty chair next to him. I made my way over, unsure if I really wanted to be there. He brought his dented silver flask to his lips, drinking deeply. I sat. He wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve, staring into the fire.

“What’s up yer arse lately?” He asked, his eyes glinting as he turned his head to me. Bear sat at my feet, easing down to the floor to sleep.

“What do you mean?” I said, perplexed. He rolled his eyes, taking another long pull.

“There’s somethin’ yer hidin’,” he said, crossing his booted feet and leaning back.

“I am not—”

“Ye may have Jon fooled, but not me. Ye don’t trust him, is that it? Angry he floated away on a dingy?” He laughed, causing my anger to rise.

“I do not—”

“Save it, woman.” He laughed. “I don’t care enough to get too involved, but that damn Mel has me wrapped around her finger. ’Course, she’d cut me down faster than even Jon would if I so much as looked at another woman.” He chuckled. The whisky caused his truth to come pouring out. I smiled, simmering down for a moment, casting aside my issues as I focused on Thaniel.

“So you love her?” I asked, leaning forward to the fire, chilled by the night air that seeped through the shutters. He stared straight ahead, drinking again.

“Aye, I think I loved her the moment she grabbed me.” We both laughed at his long-running joke.

“Damn it all,” he muttered, leaning forward. “I never meant to love.” He stared at his hands, at the dented flask. I felt myself smile.

“Neither did I.”

He shifted to stare at me.

“Love includes trust, Elise.”

I felt my heart sear painfully.

“I know.” I mumbled, ashamed at myself.

“It also includes tellin’ the truth, no matter the cost.”

My eyes snapped to his, seeing the pain there, the conflict. He knew what Jon wasn’t telling me. My emotions ran rampant.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, my voice shaky as I threw my empty hands up. He held up his flask.

“My solution is to drink until the problem solves itself. But it wouldna hurt to just demand the truth from him.”

I grabbed the whisky, putting it to my lips and feeling the fire burn down my throat. Grimacing, I handed it back to him. He chuckled.

“Way things are goin’, we’ll all be dead come winter anyways. May as well get what ye want before ye go.”

Thaniel’s bleak stance on life was not one I subscribed to, though he did have some sound advice hidden within it.

Bear stood from a dead sleep, his claws digging loudly into the wood floor. His hackles raised as he trotted to the door, a low growl rumbling in his chest. Thaniel stilled, holding his arm out across me.

“Go wake Jon, quiet.” He said, his voice even. I stood, edging to the stairs as Thaniel drew his dagger. I backed away as he moved to the unperceived threat. I felt a warm, rough hand clamp over my mouth, a sturdy arm wind around my midsection. I jumped and yelped, though it was muffled by the hand.

“It’s alright, princess,” Jon’s voice was at my ear. I relaxed immediately in his embrace, though I began to shake. Thaniel peeked out the small eyehole in the wood door, holding his hand out to us. Bear growled even louder.

“Borthwick,” he whispered, causing my heart to stop. Jon gripped me tight, pulling me off my feet and back to the front of the fire. He let go of me, falling to the floor and throwing a tattered rug aside. Under it lay a latched door. He pulled it open, nodding to it. Without hesitation, I went down into the darkness, followed by Jon.

“I’ll get ye when they leave,” Thaniel said above us, closing the door, pulling heavy objects over us. Jon sat, pulling me into his lap. We were in an all-too familiar scenario once again—cramped in the darkness, hiding from those who sought to do us harm. It seemed the theme of our relationship at this point. The thundering of hooves broke the serenity of the night. Bear barked, deep and booming. I prayed Mel would stay hidden while Thaniel dealt with it. I prayed they wouldn’t recognize him. I prayed to gods that I didn’t know were real or not.

A pounding came at the door, and I felt Jon’s heart beat against my back. There was a fear instilled within him, demons from his imprisonment he had yet to expel.

“Open this door at once!” A voice yelled.

“Can’t a man put on his trousers before he is accosted in the middle of the damn night?” Thaniel growled as he opened the door, then asked, “What’s this?”

“A letter of most importance from King Viktor of Borthwick.” The voice said.

“So he’s gone and made himself king now, has he?” Thaniel bit back.

“Watch it, peasant.”

“Darling, whatever is it?” Came a sickly sweet and fake voice. Meleryn. I felt Jon stifle a laugh as he held me tighter. I leaned my head onto his shoulder, my forehead in the crook of his neck.

“Just some rangers, I’ll be back to finish what I started,” he called, causing Jon to stiffen in anger at his jest. It was my turn to stifle a laugh.

“Is this an invite to his coronation? Should I bring a gift?” Thaniel said, his voice light with laughter.

“It’s for Elise of Mount Tier, we had word she’d been spotted along this road. If ye find her, make sure she gets this.” The gruff voice answered. I shook all over with fright as I remembered their leader, the way he’d locked eyes with me on the day of Jon’s would-be execution. Premonition curled into my gut. The door slammed shut, the bolt slid back into place. We waited until we could no longer hear horses before Thaniel pulled us from our hiding spot. He held out the scrolled letter to me. I reached for it, slowly. Everyone pulled in closer, Jon gripping my arm.

I broke the red wax seal of a stallion, unfurling the stiff paper. Everyone read, holding a collective breath.

“That’s it?” Mel said.

Thaniel’s face held confusion, too.

Join me for a game of wits,

For I hear you’re fairly good.

If you do not happen to succeed,

You’ll forever wish you could.

“It’s a riddle,” I muttered.

“Why does he want ye for a game of riddles?” Thaniel asked. I opened the letter further, a lock of silky brown hair falling to the ground. Jon took a step back, his face contorted into a fear I’d never known existed. His eyes were focused, pinpointed and fixated on something, memories we could not see. Mel bent to retrieve the hair, holding it up to the light.

Charles,” Jon whispered in anguish.

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