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Chapter 50

I ran my hand along the rough, inner stone wall of the mountain, the rock icy to my touch. In my other hand, I gripped a flaming torch, though it did little to penetrate the never-ending darkness. The smell was familiar; rock dust and some sort of deep, earthy scent. The stairs were treacherous; Charles had warned me that many servants died along this route to the top, making it a desolate, winding road.

“This is where I’ll leave you.” He’d said at the bottom of the stairs. Fear had gripped me as I’d turned my gaze to the steep, black climb. I’d never been to the bottom tier; it was lively, bustling, men shouting orders as the women rushed around with carts full of rocks. Charles had given a name to their unending task—mining. Once my grandfather had discovered our mountain was home to gems galore, he’d exploited those riches. No wonder he was the wealthiest man in the world.

It would take me the entire night to make it to the top, assuming I only stopped a few times. Adrenaline surged through my veins at the time restriction; this had to be perfectly executed, or we’d all die. I much preferred descending now that I’d experienced both, and I was thankful for the strength and endurance I’d been able to build in my time away. My head became light, woozy, the higher up I climbed. I’d been warned of this as well; the oxygen was thin up here. I prayed my lungs would remember where I’d been raised and adjust quickly.

Every heavy heartbeat had one name attached to it; Jon, Mel, Thaniel, Bane, Freyja, Miss Meerie, Magnus, Anna, Benji, Gloria, Elaina, Boudica, Remi, Charles. I had no room for failure when all these lives depended upon me. The last steps were finally within sight, my chest heaving, my breathing ragged and rattling. The coolness of the morning blasted my face, freezing the sweat. The sun was turning the horizon grey. The balcony. The birds. The dining room table. Everything sat still, seemingly untouched since my disappearance. I leaned against the doorframe for support, taking a moment to catch my breath, to let my emotions sweep through me.

From the darkness came a subtle movement. I whipped my head to the sound. The outline of a giant was silhouetted against the dawn.

“Welcome home.”

I’d have recognized that voice anywhere. My hot blood ran cold as I froze. I stumbled back a pace.

“Wh-what are you doing here?” I rasped. He took a step forward, the dim torch I held lighting upon his menacing features. He smiled wickedly. He wasn’t suppose to be here. My grandfather should have been in bed, asleep…but him….

“Happy to see me?” He spread his arms wide.

“They should have killed you when they had the chance.” I seethed, the memories of what this man did to my husband rushing to the front of my mind. My fingers twitched, longing to plunge a dagger into his heart. I’d killed before to protect myself, and I knew I’d kill again, given the chance.

He clucked his tongue, smiling.

“You really should treat me better, Elise, it will make our lives so much easier.” He took another step forward, causing me to back up.

“Where’s my grandfather?” I shook, holding the torch in front of me defensively. He smirked.

“You see, there was a little…mix up, with the planning. Please don’t fault young Charles. He only did what I asked of him.”

I felt my jaw go slack, my heart sink deep. Betrayed. We’d been betrayed.

“Your grandfather agreed, once he knew you intended to steal away with his family in the night. In return for such information, he made me a promise I couldn’t refuse.” He smiled, his eyes glinting in the firelight.

“You’ll marry me, Elise. Your marriage to that savage isn’t real, we all agree. Your poor mother, she about fainted when I’d told her how you’d been taken, violated,” he took a step forward as my mind reeled, trying in vain to wrap around his words and put the pieces together.

“Well, your adopted mother, that is.” He smirked. His deep brown hair was slicked back; he was perfect in every aspect, while also being simultaneously disgusting.

“I’ve had the privilege of meeting your siblings. Young Anna…so pure, innocent…” he trailed off, causing my gut to wrench at his implied threat.

“Your grandmother, well, now I see where you get your tenacity,” he took yet another step closer.

“I’ll kill you, I swear.” I said through clenched teeth, feeling myself tremble in fear and anger. The sun still rose. My time was dwindling. The bottom tiers would be catching fire any moment. That is, assuming Charles hadn’t killed my husband. How I longed to watch him suffer at my hands for his betrayal. My mind grasped for a rational thought; why had he done this? What exactly did Viktor know of our plans? I had to assume Charles had told him everything, had planned this for Viktor, but I knew I must feign innocence and not let on to any truth. I had to get my family out of here, and soon.

“You’ll learn to obey me, darling.” He said. He lunged at me, gripping my arm, shaking the torch loose. I let out a piercing scream, praying my family would awaken and flee, though I knew it would not be that simple. Viktor growled in my ear, his lips far too close to my flesh. He pulled me to him, his thick arm around my neck, the other pinning my arms to my sides, moving us forward and into the middle of the grand space. I wriggled and squirmed, only managing to ensnare myself further.

There came a light slap of bare feet on the smooth stone floor. I knew the sound well. Benji rounded the corner, his wild red hair a halo about his face. He stuttered to a stop, rubbing the sleep from his eyes to stare at me. I felt hot tears coat my cheeks. He was a young man now, the traces of boyhood diminishing before my very eyes. His face paled as he recognized me. I smiled, felt it wavering on my face as torrents of emotions crashed over me like the sea beating upon the cliffs.

Before Viktor could react, even lighter footsteps echoed through the stark, cold dining room.

“Benji, what on earth—”

My mother, arm in arm with Anna, appeared at my brother’s side. They pulled up short, my mother eliciting a small gasp. Anna’s eyes widened. The subtle nuances of girlhood were leaving her, being replaced by traces of womanhood. She was as beautiful as I remembered. I moved to them, though Viktor’s arms rooted me back to reality. My mother’s eyes flashed to him in a blazing stare.


“I apologize, Mistress Elaina, but your daughter is quite inconsolable after her time away. I doubt she’ll remember how to act a proper lady, after so much time amongst the savages.” He spat. I shook my head quickly.

“Mother, no, I—”

“Quiet!” Viktor yelled, his deep voice booming in my ear and echoing around the walls. My family jumped. I continued to shake my head, silent tears cascading down my cheeks. I needed them to flee, to find the tunnel, but I had no idea how. Hope dwindled.

“Let my daughter speak.” My mother seethed, pulling Anna close and reaching for Benji. I could feel the anger emanating from Viktor, feel the sneer he wore on his face. He gave me a slight shake, though he held fast to me.

“Speak, then, darling.” He drawled. I glanced past my family to the sunrise. We had maybe two minutes.

“I love you all,” I started, my voice hoarse. “I’m no savage, and I married for love.” I watched as their eyes widened in shock, all of their expressions matching.

“Remember the day I…disappeared?” I asked, staring pointedly at Benji. He nodded slightly. I prayed he would understand what message my eyes were conveying.

“We played hide and seek, and I found the best spot…you know, where we used to search for gems as children…”

His face held no expression. My heart sank.

“Well, that’s where I hid. I’ve found it to be the best hiding spot, when life is too overwhelming…”

His eyes flickered. My hope soared.

“I’m sorry, for leaving you all,” I whispered, looking to Anna and my mother. Their faces were tear streaked as well.


“She’s unwell,” my mother said, knowing my question before I asked it. “Our healer’s believe she will not survive the winter, in her condition.”

I nodded once, stowing away the grief that washed over me. I wished I could see my grandmother, before the end.

“Come, dear, Charles will have our horses ready and he will escort us back home.” Viktor moved to pull me away, but I stood firm, catching onto the meaning of his words. I felt a small smile grace my lips. This was all Charles’ plan, every ounce of it. I needed to get away from Viktor somehow, get my family to run. I tugged against him, reaching for my family. Anna stretched to me, but Benji pulled her back sharply.

Run,” I mouthed, my eyes pleading with them. Benji continued to tug at Anna, though her and my mother only stared, blank and confused and hurt. The mountain trembled, then, a great beast waking from its ancient slumber to shake off the sleep. The sound came to us, muffled, distorted, though still loud. Viktor stilled. My mother seemed to understand now the severity of this moment. Benji ripped Anna from her arms, pulling her to the stairs that would lead them to safety.

“We are leaving!” Viktor screamed, suddenly losing his composure and carefully constructed self control.

“Let her go,” my mother’s voice was quiet, deadly, the first time I’d ever seen her true strength reflecting back at me. Viktor took a step back, back to the doomed staircase that would lead us to destruction and fire and death.

“Go, mother, there’s no more time!” I pleaded, struggling against his iron strength. She shook her head, her light red hair swishing with the motion.

“I can’t leave you,” she whispered, reaching to me.

“Please,” I begged, shaking my head as we backed away further.

“What have you done?” Viktor roared, the smell of smoke winding its way up to the Eleventh Tier. There came another sound then, this one sickeningly familiar to my ears. The sound of a knife slicing through flesh, piercing muscle, grating against bone. Viktor’s arms fell slack around me as his body went rigid. He howled in utter pain. I rushed forward to my mother, who caught me in her arms. When I turned back to stare at the scene unfolding, my heart soared. Viktor sank to the ground, writhing in pain, screaming as he twitched, trying to pull the knife from his back. As he fell, the small form of my grandmother was revealed. Blood staining her dainty hands, she smiled ruefully at us.

“I’ve been waiting to do that,” she said proudly as she stepped around Viktor, making her way to us. I pulled her to me, gripping her in an embrace I wished could last for all eternity. My child’s namesake had saved my life, my family's lives.

“No time,” I said, pulling away, pushing my mother to the stairs, the thick smoke beginning to swirl around us.

Anna and Benji were waiting at the small door, having pushed the bed out of the way. Grandmother smiled.

“I always figured that’s how you did it.”

“It wasn’t intentional,” I shook my head, gripping her hand. She only winked in return, leaning close to me.

“I hope he’s handsome.”

I blushed profusely, though smiled all the same.

“He’s…I love him, deeply.” I said quietly, staring into her wise, light blue eyes. She smiled, though I felt her frailty, saw her paleness.

“So we just…jump?” Benji asked. My head snapped back to reality, to the task at hand.

“It’s more of a slide. Jon is waiting for us at the bottom, we need to hurry,” I urged, moving forward with my grandmother in tow. Mother and Anna seemed skeptical.

“I survived,” I shrugged. Benji smirked.

“I’ll go first to meet these savages.”

Before I could scold him, he threw his feet into the tunnel and disappeared from sight. He was too adventurous for his health. My mother screeched, diving forward.

“Go!” I encouraged. “We have no time left,”

Trembling, Anna timidly stepped forward, sitting at the entrance. She glanced back at us.

“They won’t hurt us?” She questioned quietly. I smiled, gripping my grandmother closer.

“Not at all.” I assured. She nodded, facing the darkness. With a deep breath, she pushed herself forward, sliding from our view.

“Go, mother, I’ll follow.” I said. She could only nod, clearly fearing for her children’s lives. She disappeared from our view as the sun broke through the clouds.

“Alright, I’ll be right behind you,” I said, urging my grandmother forward. She stood still, cemented to the floor. I whirled, staring down at her. She smiled an ancient, withered smile. My heart sank.

“I’ll not survive.”

“Yes you will.” I ground out, stubborn tears forming in my eyes.

She shook her head, reaching up to cup my face.

“Elise, I can go now, I can die peacefully, being here with you of all people.”

“No,” I shook my head, tears pouring from my eyes. Another boom echoed through the mountain, this time causing a few rocks to scatter and fall from the ceiling.

“I waited for you,” she said, smiling. “I waited to see you one last time, and now my heart is full.”

I couldn’t leave her. I couldn’t…but in my heart, I knew she was right. I smiled.

“I had a child. We lost her, though I named her for you,” I said, gripping her hands in mine. Her eyes sparkled with pride and tears.

“Ah, she will greet me in the halls of our fathers, then.”

My heart stuttered to a stop at her words.


She nodded.

“I am and always will be a clanswoman. And now you are, too.”

I held a hand to my mouth to stifle my small sob.

“You are so beautiful, Elise. I see life within you, and you’ll carry me forever, I know it,” she brushed her thumb across my wet cheek.

“Now go,” she commanded, using her authoritative voice I knew all too well. I embraced her tightly, wishing once more that this moment could last forever, that we could be stuck here.

“I love you,” I whispered.

“I love you, my dear Elise,” she said, pushing me to the tunnel. I readied myself, turning back to glance upon her once more, committing this sight to memory. The sun shone golden and red upon her. She was happy, at peace. It was more than I could have asked for, at the end of all things. She nodded. I pushed myself forward, into the darkness once more, knowing now that eventually there would be light to blot it out.

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