We passed through the log archway with the animal skull (I now knew it to be that of an elk, its antlers pointed and spreading wide), our horses giddy at the smell of hay. Crows cawed, perched atop the weathered wood. I used to find them unsettling, their black feathers and eyes rather ominous, but now I’d come to understand their intelligence, hence the reason for them being part of Macdara’s clan crest. Jon and I sat astride the same horse, coming back to Macdara the way we had first come in. My heart seemed to let go of its worries as soon as we crossed into our land, releasing them to the wind. The smile on my face felt permanent. Jon bent his head and kissed my cheek, the hair of his face gently tickling mine. I leaned back into his chest, sighing. I knew we’d soon be accosted by Miss Meerie.
The clans-people heard the commotion, peeking out of their tents and stone cottages. Smoke drifted lazily upwards, the gray sky drinking it in. Dawn barely crested the distant hills. Our proud brown stallion pranced his way into the middle of the clearing, Jon turning him wide. He was given to us as a gift from James and Annie, who’d promised to answer the call for war when it came. Mel and Thaniel pulled up beside us, Bjorn already dismounting. His wife, Elin, was with child, and he wanted nothing more than to be back at her side. People emerged in clumps that defined their families. Bear barked and ran full-speed to the castle, smelling his favorite treats. I could make out the giant form of Bane in the distance, Freyja next to him, holding a squirming bundle. The doors to the castle opened wide, and Miss Meerie picked up her skirts to waddle out as quickly as possible.
I felt a pride in my chest, pride that had everything to do with Jon. We’d set out so he could return me to my home, knowing full-well what dangers lay ahead—not knowing how deeply our love would grow. Instead, our journey was wrought with peril and decisions that would define the course of our future forever. Rather than breaking under that pressure, he’d risen into the leader he was always meant to be, the man his father and mother made him. Thran nor Meleryn would ever be able to command Macdara as Jon would, and we all sensed it.
Everyone crowded around us, our horse becoming jittery and nervous. I saw new children I didn’t recognize, and old, familiar faces. No one spoke. I felt Thaniel and Mel’s nervousness. What were they all thinking?
Soon, the entire clan stood circled around us. I felt Jon shift and square his shoulders. Bane was the first to move, placing a fist over his heart and bending down onto his knee. Freyja followed, and soon the rest did as well. Even tiny, old Frigg kneeled before us. The golden morning sun burst over the hills and through the trees, blindingly bright and brilliant, as everyone bent onto a knee. I felt tears pool in my eyes as his people—our people—paid homage to their beloved leader. It gave me hope for the future, that they would follow him into any battle, trust in all of his decisions.
I jumped as Jon spoke behind me, their ancient language still so very foreign to me. His accent wound around the words, his deep, husky voice beautiful and melodic. His voice rose, the people nodded, some repeating him, some with tears in their own eyes. Our horse turned broadside, anxious at this display, trained for war. Jon let go of me and raised his fist. Mel repeated his motion and words. The crowd stood all at once, chanting repetitive words as their tongues curled around age-old sounds. They began to cheer as Jon jumped down from the horse, reaching to pull me with. Hand in hand, we made our way through the cheering clan. Men who had been weary of me before now clapped me on the back and smiled, women who had outright hated me now handed me flowers, touched my hair, hugged me tight.
For the first time in my life, I felt as though I were home.
The celebration that followed rivaled that of our wedding. I was introduced to Jon’s cousins, pulled in every direction to speak with each person. It seemed Rose was also with child, Elin a bit farther along than her as they chatted in the corner, hands over their bellies. The jealousy I felt this time had nothing to do with Rose’s appearance. I gripped my mug of bitter ale, now preferring whisky instead. We stood, cramped in the stifling castle, as Miss Meerie whipped up a feast to feed an army.
Everyone eyed Thaniel with suspicion, though not with as much scrutiny as they had me. I nearly dropped my mug as someone hugged me tight from behind.
“Freyja!” I exclaimed, turning and throwing my arms around her, sloshing my drink everywhere.
“How are ye?” she breathed, pulling me back to examine me.
“I’m well, how’s little Jon?” I asked.
“Ahh, the little runt is always causin’ us trouble now!” She smiled, her eyes trailing to my right. I looked over, not quite recognizing the girl beside me.
“Remi?” I said, stunned. She beamed.
“Yes,” she threw her arms around me as well. She was no longer a frail, frightened child. She’d flourished here, likely due to Miss Meerie’s use of butter and bread. I squeezed her tight, remembering the trials we’d been through together.
“How have you been?” I said, staring at her. She’d grown taller and had begun to fill out.
“I love it here! Miss Meerie has been teaching me to cook and clean, and, well and I met this boy…” she trailed off, blushing profusely. My heart constricted with emotion. The thought that she could now have a normal life with someone her own age made me happy to my very core. I still quirked an eyebrow at her, as any older sister figure would.
“Well, Jon and I will have to meet him.” I said. Blood drained from her face as Freyja burst out laughing.
“Aye, ye will, but he’s a good lad.” Freyja said, winking at Remi. I heard Miss Meerie then, shoving people aside. I braced myself as she barreled towards me, her skirts swishing to and fro.
“Oh my deary!” she pulled me into her bosom, hugging me tight enough to cut off my air supply.
“Oh ye’ve lost so much weight! Ye need to eat a proper meal tonight, and I’ll fix ye something special for tomorrow as weel!”
I could only nod as she swayed us side to side. Freyja and Remi giggled at my reddening face.
“Mother, yer killin’ the poor girl,” Bane said, placing his heavy hand on his mother’s shoulder.
“Ach,” she said, letting go and flicking her wrist at him. I gulped in as much air as possible before Bane stooped and picked me up off the ground, squeezing me even tighter.
“I missed ye, fiery woman!” He bellowed. “But I mostly missed hearin’ Jon huffin’ and puffin’ and tryin’ his hardest to give it to ye—”
“Bane!” Freyja shouted over the din of the crowd, her face red with embarrassment and a bit of anger. He laughed, setting me down. I swayed on my feet, dizzy with lack of oxygen.
“I raised ye better, ye great fool!” Miss Meerie swatted at him. “Now go tell everyone that the food is ready!” She commanded, following Bane through the throng of people as he yelled about the impending meal. My heart full, I followed.
“Jon,” I moaned, gripping a fistful of his freshly-cut, curly hair. Instead of taking a room in the castle, he opted for the tent by the river where we had spent our first night as husband and wife. So much had changed between that span of time, but one thing remained constant, steady; our love.
“Mmm?” he asked, his mouth a bit too busy to form actual words. His rough hands explored my body as his head dipped back down between my legs. I gasped, gripping his hair tighter, quaking and trembling, my calves rubbing against his back. I heard his satisfied chuckle as he trailed kisses up my stomach, peering at me with his devilish smirk.
“Glad to be home?” he teased, resting his chin lightly near my belly button.
“Very,” I whispered, wanting him even more now as the familiar euphoric feeling spread through my veins. I reached for him hungrily, wanting to start again, but he shook his head.
“We have all day,” he whispered. “And I intend to make full use of our time.”
My stomach rioted with butterflies at his words, anticipation burning within me. He’d promised me a full day of nothing but us, alone and unbothered by the cares of the world. He lay back on the furs, stretching his arms above his head, his torso pulled tight. I blushed as I stared at the man who was mine. I rolled over onto my stomach, laying my chest against his. He smiled, reaching down to caress my back. I sighed, laying my ear across his thudding heart, memorizing every heavy beat it made.
For a while, we stayed still. I tried not to think of the future, of the looming threat on the horizon. I knew nothing of war, though I knew how evil men could be. What would I do if Jon died? The thought hit me square in the chest. I’d lost him once, but I’d still had hope that he was somehow alive. Death in battle was final; there was no hope after that. I felt tears in my eyes and I tried to sniff them away before he noticed.
“Princess?” he said softly, his hand moving to rest on my lower back. Dammit.
I sat up, staring into his depthless eyes. His face became concerned in an instant. I felt horrible for ruining our moment. I stared at the wall of the tent, painted golden in the afternoon light.
“What is it, Elise?” he breathed.
“I’m just…scared, of the future. Of the possibility of losing you.” I said, wiping angrily at my eyes.
“Oh Elise,” he whispered, leaning up to kiss my forehead. He pulled back and smiled. His eyes searched mine.
“I’ll always find ye, and ye will always find me, life and death canna separate us.” He said.
“But it can.” I refuted. He shook his head.
“Life is just one part of our existence, and our souls will always be connected. Someday death will come for us all, whether we are young or old,” he tucked a strand of my fiery hair behind my ear.
“So we must enjoy every moment we have now, and rejoice when our souls will meet again in the halls of our fathers.” he smiled, brushing his thumb over my wet cheek. The constant rush of the river and Jon’s words seemed to calm me. He leaned up, crashing his lips onto mine, his hands roaming to my hips as he pulled me on top of him.
“Ye know how very deeply I love ye in life,” he breathed, pushing into me. I closed my eyes, relishing our otherworldly connection. I slowly moved my hips, opening my eyes once more to watch his face.
“And I’ll love ye even more deeply in death.”