All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter 8

We rode for a while, the area becoming less and less forested and more flat. The day had turned rather dark and cold; it matched everyone’s mood. Jon, although right behind me, felt as distant as ever. The girls’ bodies were covered in blankets and draped across a white horse’s back. A hand hung limply from under the thick checkered quilt. I bit my tongue to keep tears from falling, my vision suddenly blurry.

All the men were quiet, but their eyes kept flashing to me with great curiosity. None looked as though they held any hostility towards me, which I took as a good sign. Eventually, I could see smoke rising in the distance. The last of the tree limbs gave way to a large, open area. We passed beneath logs that formed an archway, what looked to be the skull of some animal in the middle. I knew better than to ask Jon what it meant at the moment.

I didn’t quite know what to make of any of it. There were structures made of tough fabric, and others that were made of stone on the bottom and wood on the top. There were little fires all around, and people came out of the structures to peer curiously at our arrival. The women all wore skirts in dirty white or colors that matched the earth, and their hair was either wild and flowing free or braided down their backs. Their faces were closed off as they stared at me. Some glared, and one old gray-haired woman bared her teeth at me as we made our way past, into the middle of the area.

An earsplitting shriek made me jump, and a woman ran towards the horse carrying the dead girls. She grasped at their lifeless hands, unable to contain her sobs. A stern looking man came up behind her, attempting to console her. She turned and sobbed into his shoulder. His face remained stoic. I hadn’t noticed that we had stopped moving. Jon slid down, helping me after him. The man who had eyes like Jon’s thrust his head towards the largest structure, and we followed him to it. This one was mostly made out of stone, from what I could gather. It was massive; as tall as it was long. It was the only thing I’d seen that somewhat resembled my home. Smoke rose steadily from a long rectangle at the top. The door before us was wide; dark grained wood that had obviously weathered a few storms. Strange, circular symbols were embossed above the door, almost hidden to the weary eye. Before we entered, I felt my first ever rain drop on my cheek. I peered up at the sky. I didn’t know whether these people believed it was a good or bad omen. It only snowed on the mountain, and always below us.

Inside was dark but warm, my eyes adjusting to the lowlight. We followed silently down a narrow stone hall adorned with torches every few feet. My heart ached. Home, I thought. There were many noises bouncing off the walls, voices and clanging of metal and thuds. Whatever this place was, it was busy. We came to two more double doors that stood open, exposing a grand room lit by a massive fire at one end. There were long tables with benches, and at the head of the room, a short table facing the rest with fewer chairs. It was raised above everything else. A silent symbol of status. We were led through this room, to the right and back through even more doors, the smallest I’d seen yet. Eventually, after three flights of stairs, we were in a small room, the high windows open to the stormy day.There was some sort of large, furry animal on the floor, acting as a rug. Perhaps it was a bear. A fire roared in the corner, the room too stuffy for my liking. Strange paintings lined the walls, along with decrepit books.

“So,” the man sat at a desk, not unlike my father’s, and commanded our attention. He motioned for us to sit in the two chairs opposite him as he pushed papers out of his way. It was strange to sit in a chair after my time in the forest. I obeyed, while Jon just crossed his arms defiantly.

“What do you want, Thran?” he growled. This man, Thran’s eyes narrowed the slightest bit.

“I want to know the story of this—“ he motioned to me, “brother.” Thran stared levelly at him. I glanced up at Jon. They were brothers.

“I found her in a pile of rocks at the bottom of the Mountain. She doesn’t remember how she got there. I took her in, call it compassion or stupidity. End of story.” I felt uneasy at Jon’s lie.

“Is this true?” Thran asked me. My eyes widened and my heart thumped as he addressed me so directly. It wasn’t done that way in the Mountain. Women were to keep quiet. I looked at Jon, then back at Thran. I nodded slowly. He didn’t seem to believe me.

“What’s your name?” he questioned.

“Elise.” I muttered, wringing my hands together nervously in my lap as I bit my lip.

Thran stared at me, and I could feel his mind working hard as he did so. I decided I didn’t like him.

“You can have the tent farthest to the south. You’ll be left alone there, I assure you.” he said, obviously releasing us. Jon grabbed my arm gently, tugging me up. We made our way back outside into the cold and to Angus. Jon grasped the reigns and lead him towards a long structure.

“Stable.” he muttered before I could ask. I closed my mouth and nodded. I followed and watched as he stripped Angus down and turned him loose into a fenced area with other horses. He left the saddle in the stable, but carried everything else back to this tent. It was quite a ways from everything else, and I was thankful we were away from all the stares. If my pale, freckled skin and bright red hair wasn’t enough to mark me as different, then my demeanor would quickly let people know I was an outcast.

He held the fabric open, and I crouched to make my way inside. It was much more spacious than it appeared, and the floor was covered in soft furs and raised off the ground on a sort of wooden platform. There was even an area for a fire and a large bed like mine at home. I smiled slightly at the welcome luxury, looking to Jon. My smile faded when I saw his expression.

“What is it?” I asked quietly.

“Not right now, Elise. I just want to sleep.” I was sort of stung by his answer. He dragged his hands across his face and sat on the floor to peel off his boots.

“Take the bed and go to sleep.” he said as he broke kindling and began making a fire.

I sat on the edge of the bed and watched him. He fell back, laying close to the fire, clearly exhausted. My mind was too busy with thoughts to want to sleep. I took off my boots and pulled the blanket around my shoulders. Before I knew it, I, too had fallen asleep.

I awoke sometime later to Jon shuffling around. I felt I had only been asleep for a few minutes, but I could tell it was darker outside. There was a strange sound of something hitting the tent. My brow furrowed and I sat up, rubbing my eyes. Jon didn’t seem worried about the noise.

“Here,” he tossed me a heavy piece of clothing. “It’s raining.”

“Where are we going?” I questioned, putting my arms through the holes. The coat was heavier and sturdier than any I’d ever worn before.

“To the mess hall for dinner.” he pulled on his boots and put his own coat on.

He held open the tent door, and I peered out. The landscape had drastically changed since I’d been asleep. The clouds were dark and ominous, and rain beat down onto the ground harder than I thought it ever could. The water mixed with the dirt and stuck to everything. People were rushing towards the large stone building, holding their coats above their heads to keep the rain from hitting them. I stuck my hand out, letting the water bounce off my skin. It didn’t hurt. Jon nudged me, and I moved out. I didn’t bother to cover my head, but instead stared up at the sky. It was much colder than I thought it would be.

“Hurry,” he grabbed my elbow and steered me in the right direction. As closed off as he’d been since we arrived, his voice seemed a bit lighter now. My boots made a funny noise as we ran along, nearly getting stuck in the sticky substance. Once we entered, I was almost soaked through and freezing. I didn’t know how I felt about rain just yet. I was thankful for the warmth in the long space. It was loud, people yelling and dishes banging. There was lots of laughter. My eyes wandered up to Thran, sitting in the middle chair at the table facing the rest of the crowd.

People stared at us, some pointing. The children’s eyes became wide as I passed by, making me self-conscious. Mother’s glared and held their children close, but the men still just looked curious. Once we were at the front, we went up and were seated by Thran.

“Glad you could make it,” he held up a cup that was nearly overflowing with a smelly, amber colored liquid. He sounded anything but glad, and his eyes betrayed his emotion. Jon just nodded and sat by his brother. As much as they were similar, they were also opposite. I sat, suddenly in awe of all the food in front of me. It was never this abundant at home, and there were no utensils here. I glanced nervously at Jon, seated to my left. I was at the end of the table. He held up his hunk of bread discreetly and dipped it into his bowl. I followed suit, my stomach so hollow it was eating itself. The food smelled more amazing than anything at home as well. Bite after bite, the flavors were enough to convince me that I never wanted to go back to Mountain food. Someone floated silently by and filled my cup. I greedily reached for it, absorbed in my messy eating. Jon’s hand made it there first.

“Not tonight,” he smirked, grabbing it and downing it himself. I was puzzled, but settled for water instead. I could see why everyone was laughing and having such fun. People played strange instruments in the corner, providing us with lighthearted music. The food was rich and unending, which was enough to make anyone happy. The men that drank the amber liquid seemed to be having an even better time. I felt something inside me, then. A sort of twinge. This was the freedom I’d never experienced. I’d always been confined by rules and structure, never able to express myself or my opinions for fear of punishment.

I found myself desperately wanting to learn now. Where exactly was I? Why was my stature in Mountain society important out here? And why was Jon hiding so many things from me? I’d always been intelligent, too questioning for my family’s liking. I felt a fire growing within me, a thirsty sort of fire that would only be quenched with knowledge. I decided I would need to be bold. Though being bold was something I had learned to repress, I felt it simmering under the surface, ready to come back as soon as I demanded it of myself.

Someone nervously approached Thran, standing below the platform. My reverie dissipated. It was a young girl, close to my age, with long brown hair and dark eyes. She was slender but strong. Everyone in the hall quieted. I leaned forward subconsciously. Jon’s hand tightened on his mug, and his eyes flashed sideways at me. This girl meant something to him.

“Thran,” she said in a clear voice, bowing a little. He smiled wanly and motioned for her to continue.

“My mother died in child birth this last year, and my father canna support all of us children. May I work for you to ease some of our debt?” her eyes flashed up to Thran.

“Of course, Rose. I’ll make sure your family has plenty to eat throughout the winter as well.” she beamed up at him, and her eyes suddenly flashed to Jon with a peculiar look. I narrowed my eyes at her. I felt protective of him suddenly, and it made me heated. I’d never felt such a hot rush of emotion before.

A man behind Thran was quickly scribbling down what was being said. I watched as an elderly woman approached the table now with her own request. This went on for an hour or so. People coming up to Thran with complaints or requests, the man behind him jotting everything down. Jon stayed silent and unemotional as usual. It was odd to me, to see common people addressing their leader so fearlessly.

Things were beginning to quiet down when Jon stood. I automatically stood, too. He pressed my shoulder and I sat back down, confused. He walked around to the front and approached the table. The entire hall was utterly silent.

“Thran,” he began, his voice strong and deep. If Jon was good at hiding his emotions, his brother easily surpassed him.

“I’ve done all that you’ve asked of me, and I still swear my loyalty to you, brother. During my time away, I discovered Elise.” he nodded towards me, and my stomach dropped. Every eye was on me, and the room became even quieter.

“I wish to grant her all the freedoms of our people, to let her learn and choose her own fate.” he stared steadily at Thran, whose facade was fading. My heart thumped anxiously as my mouth went dry. I gathered that what Jon was asking was not expected and not safe. Thran cleared his throat and sat forward, clasping his hands together on the table.

“You know our laws, Jon. She is to be questioned about what she knows, so we may protect ourselves and our way of life, and then we will decide what to do.”

My eyes widened in fear. Jon stood steadfast.

“She knows nothing.” his eyes blazed, the fire reflected within them. The fire that burned within him becoming visible.

“We will find out, but I assure you it will be dealt with fairly.” Thran seemed to close off the argument. Jon, however, wasn’t done.

“I also wish to continue onward this winter, to travel west.” At this request, people began to murmur to each other. Thran nodded almost knowingly.

“I will grant your wish, but you will not go alone this time. I will select a party to go forth with you. If you do not return by summer’s end, we will assume the worst and not send anyone after you.” Thran’s demeanor now seemed to close off all discussion. Jon looked rather displeased, but nodded. He bowed a little and moved back to his seat, quickly grabbing his cup and swallowing its contents before reaching for more.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.