“My…mother?” The question tumbled out before I could stop myself. I pressed my lips together immediately, watching as Viktor raised his eyebrows. Why would he ask that? Why was this question a riddle to me?
“I’ll call that a simple clarifying question. Yes, who is your mother?” He asked again, sounding out each word as if I were dumb. My heart hammered. It was simple—too simple. It took all my strength not to blurt her name, Elaina, a name that evoked many conflicting emotions in my heart. Viktor would never give me such an easy riddle, I could see it as his eyes danced, as he hummed with giddiness. My eyes roamed over the space, to the ceiling, to the fire, to the window. My brain hurt as I sifted through my options quickly. I caught movement of Charles. He took another small step forward, and it was then that I could barely see his lips moving; he was attempting to mouth the answer to me. I squinted, continuing to move my eyes about the room so Viktor wouldn’t notice me staring past him.
The manservant’s eyes had widened as well, his muscular frame shifting closer to Viktor. My heart stuttered to a stop as I realized why he was so familiar; Bjorn. He’d disguised himself well, growing out his beard and hair, dressing far different than he would in Macdara. I’d never been close to Bjorn, only talking a handful of times, so it made sense as to why I hadn’t recognized him immediately. How had he come to work for Viktor? Was he a spy, as Charles was? I lurched forward, wishing to reach to him, to the last bit of hope in front of me. He sensed my recognition, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. I sat back, a cold sweat breaking out across my skin. Too many things were happening, with too little time left to process it all.
“Tick, tock,” Viktor said, his eyes wide with excitement. I marveled at how his lengthy, deep brown hair stayed slicked back across his head so perfectly, my mind latching onto anything as a distraction during this stressful moment. Charles became more animated behind him. I tried to focus, to rationalize.
No…Not…Mother. Those were the only words I could decipher from this distance. My time was nearly spent. If I failed with my answer, I prayed Bjorn would be on the right side of this outcome.
“My mother is…not my mother.” I answered, the words past my lips forever, sealing our fates. Charles stilled, a small smile of triumph on his lips. Viktor’s entire frame became frozen, his eyes storming over with a rage that was unlike any I’d seen before; he’d lost his most tantalizing prize. My mind reeled, still trying to figure out why that would have been the answer. I trembled all over with a fresh wave of adrenaline.
Viktor stood, whirling around. My eyes were level with his hips.
“You,” he seethed, staring straight at a red-faced Charles. Before Viktor could reach Charles—his intent clearly to kill—Bjorn pulled back, then threw himself forward with all his mite, his fist hitting Viktor clean on the temple. The giant fell to the stone floor, his skull cracking against the hard surface for the second time, his perfect hair finally falling astray. I stood, gasping, breathing so quickly I believed I would faint. Bjorn rushed to my side, grabbing me.
“Ye must go, now!” He urged, pushing me to the door. He threw a hidden knife to Charles, who caught it deftly with his bound hands. He swiftly cut through the rope with ease, as if he’d practiced this move many a time, rushing to my side.
“Take her down the servant’s stairwell, it will lead ye to the forest.” Bjorn breathed, his cheeks rosy as he stared down at me. Charles tugged at my arms, but I was rooted to the spot, staring down at the sleeping giant.
“Where will you go?” I asked, looking back to Bjorn, my heart soaring with gratitude.
“I’ll meet up wi’ ye soon, I must lead them away, before he wakes.” Bjorn pushed me again to the exit.
“You should just kill him.” Charles seethed.
“And bring down all of Borthwick’s wrath upon Macdara?” Bjorn nearly yelled, his cheeks reddening even more. “No. Go, run!”
Charles and I fled, Bjorn staring solemnly after us as we ran.
The woods were eerily quiet as we picked our way over fallen branches. The adrenaline was wearing off, causing me to feel lightheaded and sick. Charles appeared to be feeling the same as well. Charles halted us, gasping for breath.
“Where…is Jon?” He breathed.
“He said he’d be near this area, and so did Bjorn.” I said, glancing around through the thick, dark trees. Charles bent at the waist, his hands on his knees as sweat streamed down his face. Whatever tortures he’d endured had taken their toll physically.
“Why did Viktor ask that? Why was that the answer to the riddle?” I asked, too eager to wait for more answers. Charles stood straight, suddenly apprehensive. He wiped the sweat off the back of his neck.
“Uh…well, I didn’t know the answer. I guessed it, after overhearing Viktor speak of certain things.”
“You…weren’t…completely sure?” I said quietly, anger burning in my chest. “You could have gotten us killed!” I yelled. He shied away from the stick I flung at him.
“Elise, I told you someone was lying to you about something, and when I overheard Viktor, I put it all together!” He explained, dodging me as I swiped at him, coming up with only air.
“Then explain to me what the hell is happening!” I nearly shrieked. I couldn’t contain my emotions any longer; I knew I’d been lied to—taken for a fool—and it was time I fought back.
There was a crashing through the brush to my right as Jon came hurling out of the darkness. Though my heart leapt to be in his arms, I wanted answers above all else. I’d risked my life, my virtue, and others’ lives without the proper knowledge.
“Elise,” Jon breathed, pulling me into his tight, familiar embrace. His heart thumped steadily in his chest. For a moment, I wanted to give up, to ignore the urge to fight. I felt safe in his arms, at peace, but I knew I could never truly have it if I didn’t have trust. I pushed back, glaring at his innocent face.
“Who is my mother?” I growled. I watched as his eyes shifted, as he tried to adopt his menacing mercenary air, but he’d finally met his match. If he was a fearsome storm, then I was a raging fire. I heard our companions close in around us, but I focused only on the source of my anger.
“Answer me.” I said, a deadly calm overcoming me. A look of pure defeat crossed his features. He glanced about our circle of friends, family, people who had been saved because of myself and Charles, because we were willing to put others before our own selfish needs. Hatred burrowed itself into my heart, hatred towards the man I loved above all else. I suddenly and irrationally wanted to blame him for my miscarriage, for all the times I’d nearly died, for making me love him. I listened as everyone retreated, leaving us alone.
“Elise,” he began, stepping back from me, sitting on a rock as he wiped his hands over his face. I crossed my arms, staring down at him, relishing his guilt. I could barely see him in the dim light of the forest, the moon only half full.
“You’d better tell me everything that you’ve been lying to me about, and then I will decide whether or not I will leave with Charles and return to my family.” My voice was even, though my body shook. His head snapped up, and through the darkness I could see the pain in his eyes. It wasn’t an idle threat, and he knew it.
“You’ve changed, Jon, ever since you returned to Macdara and found out Thran and I were to be married. I brushed it off, thinking it was sorrow at losing me to your brother, and then he died and I just let it all go. Because then it was the two of us. And I trusted you with everything I had to offer.” I said. The darkness seemed to swell as I glared down at Jon. He sat forward, squaring his shoulders as he began his explanation.
“When Thran sent me off on that false trail to find Mel, somethin’ did happen.” He ground his teeth together, his fists balled, knuckles white.
“I couldna tell ye, because if ye were ever caught and tortured, then our last defense would be known. Not even Bane knew of this.”
I stared, wide eyed.
“We were caught in a snow storm, and we ran blind right into a trap. We were captured by a clan no one had ever known existed. We were brought before their leader, and she gave the order to have us executed. She was ruthless, seeking vengeance on those who had wronged her family, her people. Even though we were from Macdara, she was bloodthirsty enough to want us dead. She had the most brilliant red hair I’d ever seen, besides yours.” Jon’s eyes were pleading with me to stay silent and to listen. My heart hammered, my hands shook.
“I told her we’d give ‘em anythin’ they desired. She only scoffed at me and said they had everything they needed. Except one thing. She only said it in passing, more as a joke. Gods, her eyes were as blue as sapphires,” he said, shifting on the rock.
I swallowed hard, a tingling sensation crawling up my spine. The truth of my world began to slowly splinter. The wind blew the tree boughs, and they scratched quietly against one another.
“She said she wanted her only daughter back.”
His eyes burned into my soul. I shook my head. The splintering of my world grew, crackling like shattering glass. He nodded.
“She’d become pregnant by her lover, a man from high up in Mount Tier, third in line to the throne. To save her life, he took the child and banished her, lest yer grandfather have her killed. The woman ye believe to be yer mother was wi’ child at the very same time. Her babe died at birth. You took that child’s place. No one knew the truth but yer father and real mother.”
I backed away from Jon, continuing to shake my head as tears escaped my wide eyes.
“I told her I had her child, her only daughter, that I’d been keeping her safe. She let us go, she promised to join the rest of the clans against the imminent war of the Mountain.”
“No,” I breathed.
“It’s not possible.” I shook my head against the onslaught of emotions. It simply was not true. Elaina was my mother. We never got along as well as my father and I…but she had to be my mother.
“Aye, I didna’ believe so either at first, but it is all true.” He stood, reaching for my hand. I let him, too consumed in my thoughts to feel the rough, warm touch of his familiar hands. He sighed in relief.
“None of this changes the way I feel about ye,” he brought his warm forehead to mine. I felt as though we were on the ship again as the storm raged around us, with me at the center of it all. The red haired woman. The ghost just out of my reach. She was real. I couldn’t even muster the strength to be angry with Jon anymore, not when my world was falling apart once more. She was there, stealing the bottle of poison as I lost our child. She was there, in the crowd at Borthwick, silently killing the guards and townspeople to free Jon. She had followed us to safety, had ensured we would survive. But what kind of mother comes within feet of her own child, her own flesh and blood, and has the audacity to turn and flee?
“I’ve seen her.” I whispered. Jon’s arms wrapped about me. I brought my hands up, staring at them, seeing them anew.
“Gods, princess, yer cold as ice.” He said, chaffing my arms, kissing my forehead.
“Why wouldn’t she come to me?” My voice was nearly carried away on the wind. “If I’m really hers, how could she stay away?” I asked. Jon brought his hands to my face, cupping my cheeks as he tilted my head to stare into my eyes. He sighed, his full lips pressed into a thin line.
“Because, she doesna’ know how to be a mother, Elise. She was robbed of the chance, much like you were.” He swiped my tears with his thumb. I shook my head.
“No, I may have been robbed of that chance, but I still know in my heart that I would level mountains for my children.” I said. Jon looked away, lest I see the tears in his eyes that he thought of as weakness. He pulled me close, folding me into his chest once more.
“I beg of ye to forgive me, princess. I did what I thought was right at the time.” His voice was gruff. I could feel the worry he exuded as he trembled, fearing I’d leave him forever. Part of me still desired to make him suffer for how he’d betrayed me. But a much larger part of me remembered our parting during the storm, of having to let go of my heart and soul. I knew I couldn’t bear that pain again.
“I forgive you,” I whispered, my tears overcoming me as I gripped his shirt and cried. He slowly ran his hand up and down my back, over my hair.
“What’s her name?” I asked, gripping him hard, for he would always be the force that tethered me to this world.