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Chapter 48

I was used to life on the road now. Used to the chilly nights, the tasteless food, the frigid washes in rivers or creeks, the smell of dinginess that followed everyone around. Each day brought us closer to our destination, each day bringing me more doubt at our plan. I was nearing my year mark of being out here, out in the savage lands beyond the safety of the mountain. Funny, how I felt more secure under the trees and the stars than I ever did, choked by wealth and privilege in the mountain. Strange, how much had changed in such a short amount of time. If I’d been weaker, it may have crushed me altogether.

We’d parted from Thaniel and Meleryn after they’d been given a temporary marriage blessing by Frig. Their plan was to inform Boudica before heading to the nearby port towns, gathering a crew willing to sail to Norm. Since Thaniel was a revered seafaring-man, that aspect would be easy. Convincing Norm to join our fight was another hurdle standing in our way of peace.

Charles rode ahead, his sole purpose to save what remained of my family. There was no sadness in my heart, knowing my grandfather would meet his demise. My heart felt as though it were stone against those who sought to destroy my source of happiness. The nagging feeling in my gut grew more persistent each day, reminding me of the frailty of life.

We were so close now, close enough that I recognized the clump of rocks where Jon and I had spent the night in hiding. My chest tightened painfully as my horse skirted past the cave, Jon glancing at me, his eyes conveying every emotion I was feeling. Everyone grew quieter each night, grew more distant from human interaction. The unknown has a way of causing people to separate and seek solitude in order to reconcile the inevitable; some of us would not escape this war with our lives, but that was the price we must pay for our freedom, for peace.

Bane stoked the fire, causing sparks to fly to the stars and disappear in the night sky. I longed for home, for Bear, for Freyja and Miss Meerie. We’d brought less men than originally planned; only Bane, Jon, Charles, and Jon’s cousin Kristjan had been selected for the journey. It made our travel far swifter, less attention grabbing.

I leaned into Jon’s side as he wrapped his sturdy arm about my shoulders. Bane drank deeply from his flask, not uttering a word. Kristjan sat on a log, arms across his knees as he whittled a tiny wolf figurine for his daughter back home. His hair was dark and curled like Jon’s, only his eyes were grey. He was taller as well, with a slight build, but was an excellent archer, hence why Jon had brought him along.

Jon traced patterns on my arm, attempting to calm my nerves, though we both knew it was useless at this point. I was thankful he’d not argued when I’d said I was coming along. My family needed someone they recognized as they fled the only home they’d ever known. I smiled to myself, thinking of Anna and Benji, of how much they’d have grown in my absence.

The fire crackled, lulling me into a peaceful oblivion. I shuddered awake, not having quite been asleep, as Jon’s touch stopped. My eyes sprang open, roving the darkness. The horses were restless, snorting, twitching their ears back and forth.

“Jon—” I whispered, fearing the men that hunted these forests. He clasped a hand over my mouth, drawing his dagger slowly. Bane and Kristjan did not move, though in their eyes I saw they understood someone was near. I felt the cold hilt of the dagger pressed into my hand, Jon’s black eyes meeting mine, conveying to me what I’d have to do. I nodded slightly as he removed his hand, reaching behind himself for his broadsword.

In a flash, he threw me forward, simultaneously drawing his sword as he whirled around to face the dark forest behind us. Bane and Kristjan leapt forward, weapons in hand. The crash through the brush was proof that we’d been watched by someone. Gripping the dagger with all my mite, I turned on my knees as the men rushed into the darkness.

The piercing scream of a girl tore through the calm of the night.

“Who are ye?” Jon seethed, pointing his sword at the man’s throat. He was beautiful. There was no other word to describe his looks. He stood taller than Jon, broad shouldered and lean with muscle. His red hair was curly, falling nearly into his eyes, though it framed his sharp jawline perfectly. His nose was short, sharper than his jaw and pointed chin, his bright blue eyes the perfect almond shape. I tried not to stare as the man smirked, long lines forming around his lips at the action.

“Name’s Killian, and I wish ye no harm.” He said, his voice deep, melodic.

“Aye, and where are ye from, Killian?” Jon asked. Killian’s face faltered a bit.

“The Blood Brotherhood.” He said. Bane moved forward threateningly, holding the arm of an even more beautiful girl. Their looks seemed to stun our bedraggled group. She was short, thin but with curves every woman desired, her blue eyes round in their wideness, her cheeks plump, her nose short. Her long, deep brown hair was braided down her back, the end sweeping across her rear.

“Kill him, save the girl.” Jon said without emotion. Killian’s breath left him as he struggled in Kristjan’s grasp, his eyes pained.

“No,” he said, clenching his teeth. The girl pulled against Bane, reaching for the man. Confusion flashed in Jon’s eyes.

“Ye…love…each other?” He asked, staring between the pair. Killian set his jaw, staring at the young woman. He nodded once sharply.

“Aye, I do. We escaped the Brotherhood. I had no choice, after I’d killed their leader.”

Bane’s eyes widened as he let out a low whistle. He let go of the girl, who ran to the man and wrapped her arms about him, shaking in fear. Jon nodded to Kristjan, who released his hold. Jon lowered his sword, staring quizzically at the man.

“Explain.” He barked. I moved to him, placing my hand on his arm to calm him, having no idea what this all meant. The man, Killian, wrapped an arm around the woman, concern clear in his eyes.

“I was born into the Brotherhood, forced to claim this one or watch her torment and death. I faked the claiming, and things became too risky. I killed our leader, and we fled. The Brotherhood has joined forces with Mount Tier. We have no desire for that alliance. We wish to be free,” he explained, chaffing the girl’s arm. I peered up at Jon, his smile slowly growing.

“I’m Jon of Macdara.” He said. Killian’s eyes widened as he glanced down at the woman. Her eyes filled with happy tears.

“This is Emmelyne,” he said proudly. “She was orphaned and taken hostage by the cult clan of Dal. We believe her true parentage resides in Macdara. We wished to seek refuge there.”

My skin prickled at the uncanny coincidence. Bane grinned, letting out his famous, raspy laugh.

“Of all people!”

I smiled kindly at her timidness, her eyes darting around the group quickly.

“I’m Elise,” I offered. She smiled as she cast her eyes down.

“Elise?” Killian asked. I nodded, blushing.

“Yer from the mountain?” He said, breathless. Jon wrapped his arm protectively around me.

“Aye, and my wife too, it would seem.” The threat was clear in Jon’s tense voice.

“No, I didna’ mean to offend ye, it’s just…yer all anyone in the north can talk about. They call ye the answer to the prophecy.” He shook his head, staring into my soul. Once again, I felt the tingle of premonition. Bane laughed again, causing our horses to snort.

“What does that mean?” I glanced from Killian to Jon, who seemed just as confused. Killian’s face fell as he glanced at each of us in turn.

“The prophecy? No?” He asked. No one moved. He sighed.

“Perhaps ’tis just a northerner thing, but for centuries there’s been a prophecy about a fiery woman who will bring peace to the lands.”

“This woman only seems to rile people up,” Bane laughed, his arms crossed, his thumb jutting out to point to me. I glared. Killian shrugged.

“Whether ’tis true or no, it was clearly fated that we’d meet.”

Jon smiled, the tension in his body gone.

“Aye, ’tis. And maybe, just maybe, ye two would be willin’ to help us fulfill this…prophecy.” The look on Jon’s face was dark, though Killian’s returning smirk seemed to rival it.

“Oh aye, I’d do anythin’ to reign fire down on that mountain.”

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