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Chapter 49

“What is the Brotherhood?” I asked, staring at Killian and Emmelyne across the fire. His motions ceased, the speared rabbit on the spit dripping, the small splats sizzling on the hot rocks. Emmelyne kept her gaze down, her lips always parted as if she wanted to speak but was afraid to. I studied her. Without moving his head, his eyes flicked up to me, his mouth quirked as if trying to hide his smile. Bane chuckled, crossing his arms and leaning back against the log. Kristjan had started to whittle once more, though he now stilled.

“We—they—are a group o’ men, who pillage towns for their women and riches.”

I felt the confusion on my face.

“It’s no a simple as that,” Jon said, leaning forward to rest his arms on his knees. His gaze was dark as he continued.

“They roam the lands north and southwest of Mount Tier, raping and killing and stealing.”

My heart sank as I glanced to Emmelyne. Killian sat back, glaring.

“My mother was a claimed woman, making me born into the Brotherhood. I knew no other way o’ life than that, and what little she could teach me of her clan. I’ve never hurt Emmelyne in any way. Or any woman, for that matter.” He defended.

“It’s true.” She whispered, her eyes staring pointedly at me.

“I believe ye,” Jon nodded to her. She flushed and turned to Killian. He stared at her with love so pure it almost hurt to witness. I subconsciously leaned into Jon.

“So, we have yer word that ye will help us?” Jon changed the subject. Killian nodded.

“Aye, we’ll continue south tomorrow and find this…Boudica. Should be easy enough to explain the Brotherhood’s plan of attack.” He shrugged.

They were to find my mother, who would likely be marching her army north along the same road. The Brotherhood had been instructed to ambush her before turning their sights on Macdara, meeting up with the armies from Mount Tier and Borthwick. Killian didn’t spare any details as he recounted how effective they would be, how their numbers had swelled into the high thousands in recent years. I shuddered, worried that he’d somehow not make it to her in time and all our plans would be void. Strange, how so many minuscule things had the strength to ruin everything.

I lay on my side, Jon on his back but with his heavy hand on my hip, a constant reassurance that he was there—alive. I stared across the dying fire to Emmelyne, who was wrapped tightly in her lover’s arms. All the men around the fire snored lightly, save for Kristjan. It was his night to keep watch. My heart stuttered as her eyes flew open, as those wide blue orbs stared into my own. She had a strange, frightening beauty to her, as though she wasn’t quite from this world.

Her eyes conveyed to me her own fears, that she’d lose the man she clearly adored, that we’d die, that our people would perish. I felt the weight settle onto my chest, crushing the air from my lungs. It was fear that pulled me up short; not fear of any pain or physical harm that could be done to me, but to those I loved. I’d already endured the worst pain I could.

Emmelyne smiled suddenly, her lips twitching into a smirk. I’d never thought she was capable of smiling that maliciously. My brow furrowed in confusion. Birds began to call to one another as the distant black skies turned to deep blues. Ravens.

“The sun will still rise, the people will forget and move on, and no one will ever know the true sacrifice we made to preserve the goodness of this world.” She whispered. Her words pierced me. Jon’s grip on me tightened as he stirred.

She was right. Whether we lived or died, eventually people would forget; they’d forget our cause, our clan—our very names. But we each had something—someone—worth fighting for, a life worth preserving. Without the love I had for Jon, I’d have succumb to the evils of this world long ago. The sun rose higher still, and in the distance, the snowy peak of Mount Tier was visible.

We said our goodbyes to Killian and Emmelyne, giving them two horses, Jon rehearsing the instructions with them over and over until Killian could only roll his eyes in response. If we made it through this war, I could picture them being close friends. Bane kicked dirt over the coals of last evening’s fire, his face closed off. We gathered what essentials we needed, turning our remaining horses loose, knowing they’d find their way home. We’d be to the gates by nightfall.

From there, I was to find Charles, who would sneak me inside and show me the way to the Twelfth Tier. I’d never been to the bottom Tiers before, and I knew not what to expect. As Jon, Bane and Kristjan lit fires around the base of the mountain, I’d show my family the only escape I knew; the tunnel. Jon had assured me he’d clear the landing this time around.

“’Tis been a year, princess. A year this very day.” He said. We walked ahead of the others, seeking spare moments of solitude to find our strength in one another. I felt my heart clench at the irony.

“So much has happened,” I said, kicking a few rocks along the dirt path. He reached for my hand.

“Aye, and I’m so very thankful for it all. Even the bad,” he said, squeezing, his hand so warm around mine.

“Would there still have been a war?” I questioned. He was thoughtful, staring ahead.

“Aye, it may no have happened the same way, but it was always going to happen.”

I nodded, stuck in contemplation.

“You’d have killed me,” I teased, staring up at him. He shook his head, his eyes glinting as he smirked.

“No, I’d have kidnapped ye and kept ye all to myself,” he stopped and scooped me into his arms, causing me to yelp.

“I’d have swept ye up, and told ye to think for yerself and keep me on my toes,” he said, staring into my eyes with that playful smile I loved so much. He walked on as if I weighed as much as a bag of feathers.

“And then what?” I quirked an eyebrow, a smile working its way onto my face. He thought for a moment, his dark curls playing in the wind.

“Weel, I’d have married ye, of course,” he said, as though it were obvious. I rolled my eyes.

“Of course.” I said.

“And then I’d take ye into my arms and never let ye go.” He said. His face became serious in an instant, his motions ceasing. He stared at me, and for the first time I caught a glimpse of the fear he always kept buried deep within. He didn’t want to fathom life without me, either. I reached up, cupping his cheek. He kissed my palm, moving us into the brush. Butterflies flew into my stomach. Bane and Kristjan walked by as if we weren’t even there.

We knew our hours together were limited, sensed that this action would splinter and cause thousands of unknowable reactions. There was an urgency in both of us to be as near one another as possible, before the end of all things we knew.

He kissed me eagerly, passionately, his rough hands pushing my skirts up and out of the way. The bracken underneath poked and prodded at me, but it was easy enough to ignore as I focused all my attention on remembering every detail of this moment. The sun beams trickled down through the trees, the dust caught within the light making it sparkle and shimmer. It was warm on my face. I remembered seeing trees for the first time a year ago, remembered meeting the man who I’d decided to trust with my life. I would never regret that decision.

He’d given me hope, safety, love, affection, kindness, laughter. He’d given me a child, in turn giving me loss and grief that I never would have reconciled, had it not been for him. He’d taught me how to think for myself, how to be free and use my voice, how to ignite the flame within my soul and let it run wild.

In his eyes, I saw the love he’d been waiting to give, a love I never thought could exist within the confines of my upbringing. His hand wound into my hair, roamed over the back of my neck, down my spine, pulling my hips up to meet his as he pushed into me. I lost myself, winding my hands into his hair, tracing the muscles of his back, of his scarred legs, gripping him tightly, pulling him ever closer. We needed one another. We always would.

He kissed my neck, my collarbone, my jawline. I recounted our wedding night, grasping onto the moment where we’d been bound forever. I remembered how he’d looked, dressed in his formal regalia, standing at the stone as the sun shone upon him, the most handsome sight I’d ever witnessed. I moaned into his neck, pulling myself closer.

“If I die,” he began breathlessly, his cheeks ruddy from exertion. I pulled away, placing my fingers over his mouth.

“You’ll not die.” I said with finality. His eyes became pained, causing my throat to feel tight with tears.

“If I do, I want ye to know…that…ye were the best part of my life…that I’d never take anythin’ back.” His eyes were the most sincere I’d ever seen. Tears escaped, rolling into my hair.

“Shh, ’tis no time to cry,” he said, bending to kiss me, quickening his pace, causing me to momentarily forget my sorrow. I moaned into his chest, reeling as I rode the waves of pleasure with him. Breathless still, he rolled off me and pulled me into his arms, kissing the top of my head.

“I love ye with my whole being.” He said. I snuggled closer, a gnawing sensation in my gut.

“And you know how deeply I love you.” I said. I traced patterns along the top of his chest, visible and bared, his shirt having fallen open in our hasty lovemaking.

“Ye need not be afraid,” he whispered, chaffing my arm.

“And why’s that?” I asked, craning my neck to look up at him.

“Because, I don’t plan on dyin’. Who else would be able to warm yer bed as well as I?” He joked. His chest rumbled with laughter as I buried my face into his shirt.

“I think the real question is: who will make me blush as much as you do?” I corrected. He rubbed my back.

“Aye, that’s a good point. But I like to think o’ myself as quite good at making ye feel that pleasure,” he rolled us so I lay on my back once more, his face above mine as he propped himself on one elbow.

“You already know that answer.” I growled playfully.

“Do I?” He quirked an eyebrow, and I readied myself for his next plan of attack.

“Yes,” I said, pulling his face to mine, our lips connecting once more.

We stood, hand in hand, in the tree line at the base of the mountain. From this point, I couldn’t crane my neck back far enough to see the peak, only the sharp jutting of rocks out of the ground as it rose steadily to the sky. It was cold here, in the shadow of the mountain, the kind of cold that seeped into your soul—the kind of cold accompanied dread. The gates were visible; huge wooden doors barred with rusted steel. Charles would appear any moment, and I’d part from Jon. My heart wasn’t ready.

I had braided my hair down my back; it had grown much in this year, sweeping to my hips, heavy and thick and fiery as ever. I wore all black; skirts, corset, woolen scarf and gloves. The crest of Macdara glinted, pinned above my heart. Ravens circled above, their black wings outstretched against the pink and orange sunset. My gut twisted again. Bane and Kristjan shifted nervously, though Jon held steadfast, my anchor in this moment.

There was movement ahead to our left, the shape coming into focus slowly. Charles. I turned to Jon, my hands on his chest as he wrapped his arms around me. His eyes were dark with worry.

“Are ye sure, Elise?” He asked again. I nodded. I had to save my family.

“I love you.” I whispered, unable to tear my eyes from his.

“I’ll be waitin’ for ye at the bottom again, princess. Always.”

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