Fallen

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Chapter 44

“Fuck it all!” Thaniel yelled, throwing his broadsword into the dirt, rubbing his sleeve across his bleeding lip. The dust puffed up around the disturbance of his sword and drifted away on the breeze. Jon and I laughed as Meleryn smirked triumphantly at him. Boudica stood with her arms crossed, amusement clear in her bright eyes.

Getting to know her over the last week was a strange process—slow, to be sure. There was a wall between us that neither wanted to tackle quite yet, but we were at least cordial. During the day we paid our dues by helping James work the fields and Annie cook in the kitchen. By nightfall we ate around a roaring fire, the cottages too cramped to fit everyone now. I’d become much better at holding my whisky as well, much to Jon’s chagrin. Boudica would disappear each night to camp by herself in the woods.

Charles was recovering physically, though we all sensed he’d have a mental breakdown sooner or later. Jon took to talking with him each day. We knew he’d have to stay strong and return to the mountain soon, leaving us worried about his capacity to keep his secrets.

Although Thaniel had sworn he’d leave once he was able to pass information along to Jon (the information turning out to be the whereabouts of my real mother), he hadn’t yet. He seemed keen on staying, training each day for battle. I thought his decision mostly centered on Meleryn. Their relationship was slowly blossoming, each one letting go of their need to be in control and learning to rely on another person.

We were waiting on Bjorn now; once he arrived with news, Jon would make the decision on whether or not we left. I could see the longing in his eyes to be home, to be surrounded by his people. Boudica would become angered if he even hinted at leaving, although he’d promised to answer the call if it came down to war. I began to see just how bloodthirsty she truly was, Jon saying she was blinded by hate, which would be her downfall.

Each of these lives became constant worries, etched into my skin between my brows, laying heavy on my shoulders. It was impossible to not obsess over every minute detail. Jon and I recognized the tension in each other, but being unable to cope with our own issues meant we couldn’t help the other. We both knew the answer, deep in our hearts; we needed to go home.

“Why don’t you fight her, if ye think it’s so damn funny!” Thaniel called. I watched as Jon shrugged nonchalantly, throwing his leg over the wooden rail and jumping into the paddock they had turned into their fighting pit. Thaniel picked up his sword, shoving it in his sheath as he moved to the small crowd that had gathered. Mel’s eyes betrayed her fear as her older brother stood before her. He wore black trousers and sturdy brown boots, his white shirt slightly open, revealing his hard muscled chest. His hair was the longest it had been since I’d known him, though the curls hid its true length. He had it pulled back, revealing his freshly cleaned and trimmed facial hair. With not a smile in sight, he morphed into the mercenary I’d met nearly a year ago now. I was reminded why I had feared him at first. The sun streamed down in the clearing, all of us flushed, our skin receiving its first burn of the season.

Jon drew his sword slowly, testing the weight of it. My heart hammered, I held my breath. Without warning, he brought the sword up and then down towards Mel. I gripped the rail, fearing for her. She raised her sword just in time to block the blow. Jon’s eyes held no mercy as he continued to swing at his sister. All she could do was defend, her hair plastering to her sweaty, flushed face. He was relentless, his moves agile and swift. Meleryn threw everything she had at him, which only succeeded in tiring her out quickly, angering her. A ghost of a smile crossed his face as he noticed her shift in moods.

I felt someone to my right, knowing it was Charles without having to look. Everyone watched in awe at the work of art being played out before our eyes. It had been months since I’d seen Jon fight; it made me simultaneously admire and fear him.

He showed no signs of tiring, though Mel was diminishing even more quickly now. Blow after blow she blocked or dodged, gaining nothing but a bit of time. Finally, without compassion, he came at her full force, sweeping her legs. She thudded onto her back in the dust, dropping her sword. Jon held his poised precariously above her throat and finally smiled. She let out a growl that rivaled Bear’s, kicking at him in frustration as he backed away, laughing, wiping the sweat from his brow on his sleeve.

“Remember, Mel, I taught ye those moves,”

Charles leapt over the fence in a flash then, darting to Mel’s discarded sword and picking it up. Jon turned just in time to block his advancement, the metal clanging, the sound echoing across the clearing. They were locked, pushing back against one another. Charles’ hair started to come loose, but I could still see how his eyes glinted in a sort of euphoria as he smiled. It made my heart happy, to see he was recovering from his dark times in Borthwick. Jon smiled back, though it held a threatening undertone; he would win, because he couldn’t stand to lose.

Unlike the spar with Meleryn, or even Thaniel, Jon and Charles moved lithely, in sync, dancing around the open area. Their swords sparked as they hit, showing the force with which they fought. Charles pivoted, leaving Jon reaching for him and coming up empty, nearly falling on his face. Jon turned just in time to fall to one knee and deflect Charles’ next blow.

They fought for much longer than anyone anticipated. Thaniel began to cheer for Charles, Mel following suit. I was too entranced to make a noise or tear my eyes from the scene before me. In an instant, without anyone noticing exactly what caused it, Jon fell, splayed out across the dirt, his sword scattering a few feet out of his reach.

Dammit!” He yelled, his voice holding enough anger to shake the trees. Perhaps it was because I was closer to Jon than anyone else, or perhaps it was the small smile only seen within his eyes that tipped me off to his planned defeat. Charles smiled broadly, having bested the man who could win any fight. I could see in his eyes that this was the beginning of his healing. Boudica turned and left without a word, her face cold as stone.


Dinner that night was more tense than usual, Boudica excusing herself and taking her food with her. Jon rolled his eyes at her back. Her prejudices towards anyone from the mountain were clear. Charles continued to beam throughout the day, talking of the fight with the same excitement he’d had while it was happening. I admired Jon for slyly giving Charles a chance, knowing how it would make him whole once again.

Everyone ate their fill of roast chicken and vegetables, passing around the decanter of whisky. I leaned against Jon, scratching between Bear’s ears; it seemed he had finally forgiven us for leaving him. He perked up, Jon taking notice and pulling his dagger slowly from its sheath. Thaniel and James did the same. Bear barked once, his tail wagging. Through the darkness at the edge of the fire’s glow appeared Bjorn. Everyone relaxed. Jon stood and made his way over, clasping hands and hugging briefly. Thaniel, Charles, Mel—everyone greeted our secret savior. He’d trimmed his beard to its usual length, having chopped his hair as well.

“Finally,” Jon said, smiling.

“Aye, ’tis a long way back when yer always coverin’ yer arse!” He laughed, coming to sit between Jon and Charles.

Laughing, Mel picked up the platter of food, passing it to Bjorn.

“Thank the gods,” he smiled. After eating his fill and exchanging pleasantries, Jon directed his attention to the pressing matters.

“What news?” He asked. I could see the silhouette of Boudica near the tree line, keeping her distance but curious all the same. She really was a phantom.

Bjorn sighed, scratching his beard.

“Mount Tier is allied with Borthwick.” A collective hush overcame our group. Perhaps it was because I was an outsider, but I felt no shock. Everyone else seemed beside themselves, though.

“What?” Charles said quietly, perplexed. Bjorn nodded solemnly, his lips pressed thin.

“Seems after Viktor’s father died, he wanted as much power as possible. His best bet was to ally with the mountain. Their numbers are…” he trailed off, shaking his head as he puffed out his cheeks. Jon remained stoic beside me.

“They are planning a foreign invasion of the kingdom of Norm, the island. But the mountain has its sights on this land. War will come, maybe not as quickly as we think, but it will come all the same.”

Thaniel’s hand moved around his mouth. Boudica moved forward.

“They know about ye,” he called across the fire. “About yer people, about yer army. They may not know specific numbers, but they have an idea and they are preparing to deal with ye.” Bjorn said, his voice carrying over the crackling fire. Annie took a long pull from the bottle of whisky.

“How?” Boudica’s voice floated on the breeze like a ghost. Bjorn shrugged.

“Yer lover must have been broken and told his story. Eli, yer grandfather,” Bjorn tilted his head to me. “He told Viktor who yer true mother was, in order to track her down and root her out. But the idea of toyin’ with ye was too tempting, so he sent for ye, to play yer game of riddles.”

Jon and Charles stiffened, remembering their own personal traumas.

“I’m sorry, Jon, Charles,” Bjorn said, his voice quiet as he cast his eyes down.

“Jon, I didna’ know he had ye prisoner, otherwise I’d have called off this damn mission and did everythin’ I could to save ye.”

“I know.” Jon said, his voice full of the forgiveness Bjorn was seeking. He turned to Charles.

“I’m sorry to you, too, Charles. I never knew ye until it was too late, and by then I could only pretend I didna’ know ye.”

Charles swallowed, his blue eyes glossy with tears. He nodded, unable to speak.

“Viktor believes me to be dead, though he’s far too cunning to believe it for long. Part of me thinks he knew I was playin’ spy all along. He likes to…torture people, in that way. Always one step ahead. I saw him do things I thought no man would ever be capable of…” he trailed off, his words causing me to shiver as I remembered how close I’d come to being claimed by him.

“So what now?” Boudica asked, moving closer still, her arms crossed. Bjorn looked to Jon.

“My leader has the information he sought, and now he will decide what is best for our people.” Bjorn smiled a bit, turning to Jon. I noted how angered Boudica became at the respect given to my husband. I gathered she was used to being in command.

Jon sat up straighter, his jaw set. I knew in my heart what his decision would be before he said it aloud.

“We go home, to Macdara, and spend whatever time we have left preparing for war.”

I beamed, my heart as happy as it had been since the day we left. It didn’t matter to me that we were still on the cusp of war; at least we could wait out whatever storm there would be, surrounded by our friends—our family. Mel smiled, elbowing Thaniel, who rolled his eyes but grinned all the same. Bjorn nodded, his grin contagious.

“And what of my people?” Boudica hissed. A pit settled in my stomach as her true self began to show.

“I suggest ye do the same. Yer more than welcome to bring them to our land, to prepare wi’ us.” Jon said, an edge to his voice. She seemed taken aback at his kind suggestion, not used to others extending their grace to her. She had clearly been hardened by the world, by her circumstance in life. I felt bad for her, but also felt it wasn’t my place to attempt to fix it, either.

Bear barked, prancing around the fire, picking up the excitement that was tangible through each of us. I beamed up at Jon as he pulled me close, his sturdy arm around me. He smirked down at me.

“Are ye ready to go home, princess?”

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