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Chapter 43

I awoke to the crackling of a small fire and the dimness that twilight brought with it. We lay on our own little beach, still entangled in one another. Jon’s heavy hand was set on my lower back, reassuring me of his steady presence. I yawned and propped my head up, shivering despite wearing his long shirt. He smiled at me, a small, sad look. He reached up to brush my face with his knuckles.

“Gods, I’m a lucky man,” he whispered, leaning in to kiss my forehead. I blushed. The anger in my heart had nearly dissolved, but I was thankful for it all the same. Jon needed to realize I was capable of handling whatever secrets he held, for I had given him the courtesy of always being honest, even when it hurt.

“Aye, ye are,” I said, attempting to mimic his accent. He threw his head back and laughed heartily, the sound echoing off the tall trees. The quiet rush of the river engulfed any other noise around us.

“Startin’ to sound like a real clanswoman,” he said, his rough hand sneaking down to my rear. “Makes me want ye all over again,” he lifted the hem of the long shirt, baring my rump to the wild.

“Not so fast,” I said, reaching around and gripping his wrist. He frowned. I leaned in, our lips almost touching. “I’m quite ravenous.” I winked. His face shifted, darkening like the sky above. My brow furrowed as he glanced down at the ground, searching for the right words.

“There’s somethin’ I must do first, princess.” He said. I could hear how the words stuck in his throat. I shifted, propping myself up more.

“I must…tell ye, of the things that have happened to me. Or I fear my soul will never truly be yours.” He whispered, his voice gruff. My heart thumped faster. He looked to me, his black eyes full of the horrors of his past. I nodded once, allowing him to continue without my input. I knew what it felt like, the need to speak and to have someone you love absorb the sorrow and the pain, because you cannot bare it on your own.

“He…Viktor, he used other women…to break me.” He whispered. I felt the tightness of my throat, knowing tears were coming but knowing I must be strong for him in this moment. I nodded again, having already heard this from the mouth of the most vile creature. Jon stared at his hands.

“I tried everythin’ I could to save them. I hate myself, for not bein’ able to do anythin’ but scream in that damn cell he kept me in.”

I wanted to reach out to him, to touch his face—to show him I was there, but I couldn’t.

“Viktor would rather torture people’s minds, not so much their bodies. He found one woman, with red hair. From the distance I thought it was you. I nearly killed myself to get to ye,” he whispered, his eyes flashing up to mine, engulfing me in their depths.

“He left her, dying, just out of my reach. He told me that when he found ye, he’d do worse,” he swallowed hard.

“I’ve known every form of torture there is. Burning, breaking, beating. I can handle it all, but my body means nothing without my heart and soul. And the thought of havin’ ye taken from me in that way was enough for me to wish for death.” He said.

I hadn’t realized I was crying until my tears landed on my arm.

“I’m a coward, wishin’ for death, when you were out there tryin’ to find me, while innocent women died before my eyes. While ye lost our child,” he reached for my face, and I leaned into his warmth.

“Everythin’ I do is to protect ye, but I can’t do it alone anymore, princess. I know yer strong enough, and I’ve failed ye by not seein’ that sooner.”

“Oh Jon,” I whispered, reaching up to his face now, feeling the warmth of his cheek. “No matter what you do, you could never fail me.” I said. He smirked his infamous smirk, casting his eyes to the ground.

“I have failed ye, but I am goin’ to set things right.” He said, straightening up. My heart stopped at his words, premonition tingling through my veins.

“Come, there’s someone ye need to meet.”

We carefully made our way through the darkened woods, Jon gripping my trembling hand. Whether I was ready or not, I was about to meet the ever-present ghost of my past and present.

“Boo-dik-uh?” I questioned for the thousandth time. Her name was strange on my tongue, but evoked strong and relentless emotions. Jon snorted softly.

“Aye, princess.”

“Boudica.” I whispered to myself. I knew I wasn’t prepared to meet her, but I had a deep need to do so. To see if she truly was my mother. I could picture her clearly, leaving me hints, leading me to her. There was a small circle of light ahead, a fire in a clearing deep in the woods. I stopped, Jon still walking ahead. He turned when he felt the tug of my hand.

“I…I…” I stuttered.

“Ye don’t have to meet her, if yer no ready,” he said, taking my face in his hand.

“I am, it’s just…”

He quirked an eyebrow.

“My life is about to change, forever. Shouldn’t I be more intentional about this?” I asked, staring up at my husband. He smiled softly, leaning down to kiss my forehead.

“Yer bein’ plenty intentional. Everything she has done in her life was for you, Elise. She loves ye more than the world, but I think it will take ye both some time to learn to trust one another.”

I chewed my lip, nodding absentmindedly. He gave my hand a slight pull, continuing us forward. We broke through the trees into the clearing. And there she was. I still wasn’t prepared for the sight of her. The ghost. She stood across the fire, wearing black from head to toe. Her tall boots were scratched but shiny in the firelight. I could see her shaking hands from where I stood, though she tried to hide them. My heart clenched. Already, our mannerisms were alike.

Her fiery hair flowed free to her waist. She was taller than me, slender, her eyes blue and crinkled around the edges. Her skin was pale and clear, her lips parted. I let go of Jon, walking forward without realizing. She did the same, skirting around the small fire. Finally, we stood within inches of one another. Any doubts I had in Jon’s story of my true parentage fled as I stared into her eyes. The strange gap in my life that had always existed with no explanation seemed to fill in that moment, and everything made sense. The way my father doted on me, the way my mother and I had never truly gotten along, the way my grandmother smiled slyly as she looked at me.

She reached out a hand, her fingertips just brushing my cheekbone. My eyes fluttered, tears sticking to my lashes.

“I know those eyes,” she whispered, her voice clear and strong and melodic. I could only nod slightly, not trusting my voice to be as robust as hers. She held out her hand, opening her fingers to reveal something shiny and silver. I glanced down, my eyes catching the glint of the circular crest. A proud mare stood in the center, her front hoof raised, encircled by endless knots. My chest seemed to swell with pride.

“This is yers,” she said softly, grabbing my wrist. I opened my palm as she placed it in my hand, the crest warm from her touch.

“Elise,” she said, smiling slightly, the corner of her mouth dimpling much like my own. My heart couldn’t seem to settle on one emotion.

“Yer father gave ye that name. It suits ye, even though it’s a mountain one.” She said. I felt my eyes water at the mention of my father. I wondered how deeply they had loved one another—and if they still did. Her smile faltered.

“I…I want ye to know that I…I tried everythin’ I could to save ye, to give ye the life of a free woman.” She said, her tongue curling around the ‘r’ consonants, her accent much deeper than Jon’s. I reached to her, slowly, still unsure she was real. I placed my hand on hers. I felt her pulse beneath my fingers.

“I forgive you.” I whispered, knowing she was seeking absolution for her sins. Her hand flew to her mouth, tears springing forth. She glanced past me, to Jon. I felt him at my elbow. I tried to draw steady strength from him.

“I owe ye my life a thousand times over,” she said, reaching for him. He leaned past me, engulfing her slender hand in his.

“I made a promise,” he nodded to her. “I gave ye my word and I always keep it.”

She let go of any inhibitions she may have had and pulled me into her arms. I slowly returned her hug, the embrace feeling more natural than I thought would be possible. She brushed her hand over my hair, the exact same shade as hers. Father’s hair was dark, deep red. Mother’s was light, nearly blond tinged with strawberry. Both parents who raised me had eyes the color of an orange sunset, just before dark.

“Yer as beautiful as the day ye were born,” she sniffed, pulling me back to stare at me. “I labored with ye for two days, ye wee faery.” She smiled. I was unsure exactly what a faery was, but I sensed it was an endearing term. I heard Jon snort beside me. I resisted the urge to step on his foot.

“How is any of this possible?” I shook my head, stepping back a pace, overwhelmed to the maximum extent. Jon nudged me forward.

“Let’s sit and talk, eh?”

And so we talked. For hours. Until the sun was peeking above the horizon. I’d been awake for nearly two days now, having only slept a handful of hours in between the most important points of my life.

My true mother had always been a clanswoman, daughter to the leader of the most powerful clan in existence at its peak, during her teenage years. She’d met my father at the age of fifteen, while he was on a raid. They fell for one another, were married in secret. My father was betrothed to another, Elaina. He tried to persuade my grandfather to postpone the marriage, but he refused. He then tried in vain to have it annulled, which only caused my grandfather to become suspicious. To save Boudica, he vowed never to see her again. Only she had become pregnant. As Jon had said, I replaced Elaina’s dead child, and no one was the wiser. My real mother admitted to the hatred that had grown in her heart, towards my father, then my grandfather, then the entirety elf the mountain, until she hated the world.

“My clan dwindled to near nothin’ after yer tyrant grandfather killed my father and brothers in battle. I was too young to have a mind for war, but I learned. We retreated into the abandoned mountain, ye commoners call it Phantom Peak,” she laughed. “Anyone who comes near enough dies swiftly. We’ve the best archers in all the land. We’ve been training, growing our numbers. We’ll be the fiercest in the land again, soon.” She said. Chills ran up my arms. Jon’s grip on my knee tightened. I felt delirious due to my sleep deprivation, and he could sense it. He wrapped his muscular arm about my shoulders, causing me to lean heavily into him. My eyes drooped.

“I’m sorry for keepin’ ye so long.” She said, her voice lower. I yawned, waving a hand.

“When I wake, you’ll still be here?” I asked, staring her in the eye. She nodded once.

“Aye, that I can promise ye.”

“Good.” I said, leaning into Jon’s embrace and closing my eyes. Sleep nearly overtook me, if not for the soft jostling of Jon’s movements as he continued talking with my mother.

“Yer a good man, better than any I would have picked for my only child.”

“My father raised me well, my mother too.”

“I still hate him for takin’ her from me like that.”

Jon moved slightly, but I pressed in closer to him, searching for the heat he always emitted. I slumped further, Jon gently guiding me down so my head rested on his lap. He stroked my arm, my hair.

“Ye love her.”

“More deeply than ye can imagine.”

“I must admit I didna’ believe ye when I first met ye. I wanted to drive my sword into yer heart for givin’ me hope where I thought there was none.”

Jon chuckled, the sound my lullaby. The steady pressure of his hand roaming over me brought with it an unending peace.

“I’m glad ye didn’t kill me. Yet,” I could hear the smile in his voice, which caused a small grin to creep onto my face.

“No, not yet. But I see it now. How she loves ye, too. I feel better, that she fell from my hands and ended up in yers.” I could hear her voice become tight with unspent tears.

“Thank ye, for meetin’ us, for giving her what she needed.”

“I think I may have needed it more.” There was a slight pause as I felt the sun crest the distant hills and warm my face.

“War is comin’.” She said. “Will ye be ready to risk it all again?”

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