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Chapter 39

“Jon,” Thaniel reached across the empty space to him. Jon shrank into the shadows, his eyes coming back into focus to glare pointedly at me.

“Yer no goin’.” He growled. I pulled my shawl tighter about me, realizing for the first time I was only in my shift. Jon’s piercing gaze had made me suddenly self-aware. I crossed my arms. The fire crackled in the heavy silence.

“I will be going. Charles has risked his life for us, and you most of all.” I saw in Jon’s black gaze that my double meaning had not been missed. Mel and Thaniel exchanged a weighted glance.

“I agree with her. She goes.” Thaniel said. Mel’s hands fell limp, her voice lost.

“Don’ ye dare—” She began.

“Not for the sake of a man from Mount Tier, but for a chance at true freedom. If we succeed, Charles will be even more indebted to us.”

“Thaniel, ye don’t know what it is yer sayin’—” Meleryn said.

“I do, though. I’ve been waitin’ for someone to follow, someone with the same fire in my own heart, to bring them down for what they’ve done. And now I see it wasn’t you, Jon. It’s her,” Thaniel pointed to me, causing my heart to flutter into my throat. All this time, away from my home, floundering in their world and feeling useless—and now this. I held the answer. This one choice I had now would change the course of this world—and surely our fates. My eyes pleaded with Jon. He shook his head, trembling, a fear within him I’d never known could exist. Whatever had happened during his imprisonment, it was enough to nearly crush the strongest man I knew.

“Jon, if not for your people, then for me, please. You know it’s the right course.”

He continued to shake his head, his pinpointed eyes glossing over with emotion.

“Ye have no notion of the evil in that place. I canna sentence ye to that same fate. Everything I did there was to protect ye,” he whispered, shifting slightly.

“What do ye mean?” Mel said, her voice low, angry.

“Things I’ll no speak of.” Jon said, shaking slightly. If the mere memory of Borthwick was enough to cause him this much turmoil, then what had I jumped into? Thaniel moved in front of me and Mel, to stand before Jon. He held out his wrist, rolling up his sleeve as he stared levelly at Jon. I peeked around him to see what it was he was exposing.

There was a brand of sorts, mottled and burned beyond recognition, but in the shape of a circle.

“I vowed never to speak of it, after I was freed. Death would have been preferable to what I endured.” Thaniel said. I wracked my brain, trying to remember if I’d seen a similar mark on Jon after his rescue. He leaned forward, recognition dawning on his face.

“Ye never told me,” Jon said. Thaniel rolled his shirt sleeve down.

“Never meant to tell anyone. I cannot sentence another man to the same fate, even if he is from the mountain. He’s done nothin’ to deserve it.”

Jon trembled, glancing at me, the walls he’d constructed finally beginning to crumble.

“I did it all to save ye.” He whispered, causing me to feel a chill as though ghosts were lurking just beyond the veil.

“What, exactly?” My voice wavered with nerves. Jon swallowed, tilting his gaze to the ceiling.

“I fought for ye, hurt innocent men. They told me if I didn’t that when they found ye…” he trailed off, unable to look upon me. My stomach plummeted. I felt Mel grip the back of my arm. Thaniel remained stoic, reliving his own nightmare in this moment.

He would find women with red hair…torture them in front of me until all I could see was yer face instead of theirs.”

I felt tears slip down my face, though I stood firm. While I’d been enduring my miscarriage, alone and frightened, Jon had been enduring his own unimaginable torture.

“I was ready to die, the day of my execution. Ready to be in the halls of my fathers, if it meant I’d no lead them to ye.” He finally looked down into my eyes. I could see him healing right then, stitching himself back together. I knew it wouldn’t be the last time. He reached for me, caressing my cheek wetted by tears.

“I’d have died long ago if it weren’t for yer face, pullin’ me back from the ledge every time I wanted to end it. I’ll never reconcile what I did.”

“Jon,” I whispered, reaching to place my hand over his. My heart ached more with each thump. I heard Meleryn sniff behind me.

“Nor will I, Jon,” Thaniel said, reaching for his abandoned dagger. “So what will it be? Remain here and forever regret it, or fight against those demons in yer head?” He sheathed his dagger with a menacing sound.

“I canna change the past.” Jon said, staring at Thaniel.

“Aye, but ye can make ’em pay.” He grinned maliciously. Jon’s eyes shifted, until that devious glint found its way back into those depthless orbs.

“Save Viktor for me.” His lip curled back, a look on his face like none I’d ever witnessed. It chilled me to my core.

I sat by the river, reading the scroll time and again, rehearsing any riddle I could remember being taught. The hatred that welled within me would spike and ebb. Jon had endured too much. I knew his explanation had been brief—too brief. There was more, more he wasn’t ready to tell. I wanted nothing more than to watch those who’d hurt him suffer. The thought frightened me with its veracity, though I knew I was changing, my character altering itself to survive in this harsh world, to protect the man I loved.

I worried constantly for poor Charles, wondering what he was going through as we made preparations to leave. Would he be the same after? Would we live? I’d felt so useless until this point; I’d never had much to offer that was useful, unless you counted stitching clothes or cleaning and preparing food. Now, it all depended upon me. I was realizing a small taste of what Jon held upon his shoulders each day. I hated it.

The wind blew, causing the trees across the river to rustle softly, their new, bright green leaves catching my eye. Everything was lush, verdant—the rebirth of the land. The river wound lazily by, the fish catching the afternoon sun and glinting as they darted back into the depths. Jon and Thaniel were prepping us for departure, while Meleryn wrote letters to be delivered to Macdara. I breathed deeply, adjusting myself to this newfound responsibility.

A flash of red across the river caught my eye. I found myself standing, keeping my eyes on it, before I ran to over the rocks to the small wood bridge. I threw aside sharp branches angrily, trying to hurry my pace so as to not lose her.

“Stop!” I called. The woman wore all black with a hood, but her fiery hair fell to her waist. She stopped, causing me to halt as well. Fear coursed through my veins. She turned her torso slowly, revealing a pointed nose, plump pink lips, freckled cheeks, and wide sapphire blue eyes encircled with dainty wrinkles from the sun.

I felt as though I’d truly seen a ghost. The wind was knocked from my lungs, the scroll falling from my grasp. Time stopped, my heart rushing in my ears. She was afraid, too. Slowly, she raised a finger to her lips, telling me to stay silent, before she turned in a flash and disappeared. I ran forward, losing sight of her all too quickly.

“Dammit!” I growled, kicking the dirt. A small sound came to my ears from the ground, like an empty glass clinking against a rock. I glanced down, stooping to pick up the impossible.

The vial of poison Vala had given me was empty.

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