Thran clapped once, and the music began to play again. More food was brought out and placed in front of me and on all the tables. I recognized peaches, and my mouth watered. Although my stomach was bursting, I began to eat again. Jon began to quietly give names to people, instruments, foods, and everything else that was foreign to me. It was overwhelming, but I found that I desired to learn more.
After stuffing myself until I was sick, we made our way out into the frigid air. It had stopped raining and the sky was completely black. I followed the shadow of Jon’s back, leaving the rowdy laughter behind us. I heard someone approaching us quickly, boots squelching in the mud (Jon had explained rain and its aftermath over dinner, and also given names to the numerous structures), and we both turned to see who it was. I noted Jon wasn’t nearly as tense here, surrounded by people he seemed to know and trust. I squinted into the darkness and recognized Rose. She was breathless as she stared unashamedly at Jon.
“I thought ye might need these,” she held out a bundle of clothes to me. “I’ve grown too tall, but they should fit ye just fine.” It was hard to hate her when she was being so nice. I smiled and nodded.
She nodded in return, her eyes flashing to Jon again.
“Well, I suppose I’ll be seeing ye around here more.” she smiled shyly. What was she up to? I wanted to throw the clothes at her face and stomp away.
“Not for very long.” Jon’s tone was curt but polite. Her smile faded a bit.
“Goodnight.” Jon said, reaching for me to prod me along.
“Goodnight.” her voice was full of longing. I wasn’t used to this emotion, so strong and fiery through my veins. Jealousy. The only times I remembered being jealous were as a child, when my mother doted on my siblings more than me, but I eventually grew out of it. The emotion was never this hot before, though.
We made it back to the tent, peeling off our boots and stockings before entering. My stomach was so full I felt a tad disgusted with myself, but my body and mind hummed contentment. Jon stoked the dying fire, the warmth felt almost immediately. I sat on the edge of the bed, tugging at the frayed hem of Jon’s shirt and setting Rose’s old clothes behind me. My thoughts drifted back to the meeting at dinner, and a jolt ran through me. I was to be questioned, about what exactly I did not know.
“Jon, what does Thran want with me?” my voice was steady but hinted at my slight fear of his domineering older brother. Jon’s shoulders heaved with an intake of air as he turned to me. Even he seemed confused.
“I’m not exactly sure. But my brother is not someone to…underestimate.” his answer was anything but reassuring.
“What will the questions be? I don’t know anything about the politics on the Mountain, women weren’t allowed—“ he was already shaking his head.
“That won’t matter to Thran, or anyone on the council. They are going to be suspicious of you for a very, very long time. So best to lay low for a while. I’ll make sure to find ye a task that keeps ye out of the way.” his accent always became thicker the more tired he was. My nerves turned my full stomach into a stone.
“You’re safe as long as you’re with me, that I can promise ye. Just keep your talk of the Mountain to a minimum and try to fit in.”
I swallowed my questions and nodded, but one still forced its way through my lips.
“Where are we?” I questioned. His dark eyes became stormy and playful simultaneously.
“Macdara.” he said, his accent thick as it wound around the word. “It’s not so much a place as a…nomadic clan—group of people who are led by my brother.” my brow knitted together at this foreign concept. He sighed heavily, almost smiling at me as he settled in to explain.
“We travel from place to place, based on the season. Though, the last five years or so, Thran has decided to settle more permanently here. Our ancestral land. This place is sort of…sacred to us, I suppose.” he lounged by the fire, leaning back on his muscled arms casually. I was entranced.
“When the wars ended and your people took control of the mountains, shutting us out to die, we learned to survive. We built villages and ports, but there were many battles for land. It was ugly for a while. I suppose things are calmin’ down a bit now, so we can settle down here. Our great-grandfather built that…castle, if ye could call it that.”
“Castle,” I attempted the strange word. Jon smirked and nodded. “Where are your parents?” I felt my face scrunch up in question. Jon gazed into the fire.
“My father died in battle when I was twelve, leaving Thran in charge. My mother died from fever when I was five or so, along with two of my siblings.”
My heart sank for him. I couldn’t empathize with him, not having faced any real difficulties in my life before. I knew he wouldn’t want my pity, though, so I tried to remain casual.
“And what about you? Where do you fit in?” I asked, hoping to finally learn some of the mystery that was Jon. He sighed, turning to stare levelly at me.
“I’m nineteen now, second in command after Thran. I do not wish to wield any sort of power or responsibility. He lets me be, for the most part. I haven’t been home in nearly six months.” he snorted quietly.
“My brother and I don’t see eye to eye on many issues, and it’s easier if I’m gone, keeping the evil at bay.”
“Don’t you get lonely?” I questioned without thought. To my surprise, he laughed genuinely.
“Aye, yes I do sometimes. But it’s better than having to listen to someone snore loud enough to wake the rocks!” he laughed harder and dodged the bundle of clothes I sent flying his way. I couldn’t help but grin at his humor.
“I suppose I’ll leave ye to get some sleep.” he stood, stretching his arms high above his head. Leave me?
“Where are you going?” I was panicked, remembering the hostility with which this clan regarded me.
“I’ve a room near the stables. Don’t worry, no one will bother ye, because no one wants to deal with me if they do.”
The next two days flowed rather easily, much to my surprise. Jon found work for me in the kitchens of the castle. It was there that I met Miss Meerie, an older woman who was in charge of all the food. She seemed to adore me, unlike most women here.
“The women don’t hate ye, dear, they are just suspicious, that’s all!” she laughed heartily, her arms covered in flour. We were rather busy preparing a massive meal for tomorrow evening. All the hunters were to return and there was to be a feast to celebrate.
I blushed, happy to hear I wasn’t hated. Rose, though nice enough at first, had quickly turned bitter towards me. She was busy chopping onions behind me, every time I spoke her knife came down a little harder than necessary on the wooden surface. I concentrated on rolling the dough for the pies we were making. I’d discovered a new favorite berry called the huckleberry. Miss Meerie had snuck me an entire bowl to take to my tent.
The kitchen, though massive, was also crowded. Herbs hung from the ceiling to dry, the great hearth constantly burning bright and staining the stone slabs charcoal. It was hot and stuffy, and the sleeves on Rose’s old dress kept rolling back down my thin arms. I found I tired easily from the work, but I refused to show it. Everyone in the clan seemed to have a job, and in turn everything moved smoothly.
“What exactly are we celebrating tomorrow?” I asked to her full figure. She taste-tested everything, and it was easy to see why she was so happily plump.
She stoked the fire, then went back to kneading the bread dough.
“Weel, right now we are in a sort of transition season called autumn,” she explained, quirking her head and raising her eyebrows at me. “We have to prepare for the winter months, so every autumn we have a celebration of sorts, praying to the gods to provide for us.”
“Gods?” I was immediately confused.
“Aye, ye can’t see them or hear them, but they are out there, listening. If we make them happy, they’ll return the favor, ye see?” I nodded despite my utter disbelief.
“So you give them things?” I questioned, rolling my sleeves back up.
“Aye, yes. We sacrifice a bull each year, and there’s a dance as well.”
“Interesting,” I muttered, as I began peeling the peaches for the pie filling.
“You mean you don’t have gods, Elise?” Rose snickered. I turned to find her giggling with one of her younger friends. I bit my tongue and tried to remain kind. It was difficult to learn to cope with my jealously and hostility towards her. I’d been comparing myself to her; she was tall and strong, with plump pink cheeks and full lips, long and thick brown hair, and the figure of a woman. I felt rather ugly compared to her. My mind wandered to Jon. I was beginning to realize the extent of my jealously, and I didn’t like it.
“No, we don’t. I suppose the closest thing we have to the gods would be my grandfather. He decides everything. My uncle and father help him, of course.” it saddened me, thinking about my father. As distant as he sometimes felt growing up, I’d always seemed to get along with him the most. Mother barely seemed to tolerate me, loving Anna much more. I tried not to talk much of the Mountain, at Jon’s request, but people were awfully curious.
Jon entered the kitchen suddenly. I froze, watching with envy how easily he carried heavy sacks of grain.
“Got any food? I’m starving.”
I chanced a glance at Miss Meerie, and she winked and turned the other way.
“Yes, here.” I handed him an apple and a hunk of bread and cheese. He locked eyes with me, and squinted.
“Ye have something on your face.”
I blushed quickly, moving to wipe it off. He was quicker, brushing his pointer finger on my nose. I furrowed my brow at his small smile.
“What?” I asked, confused. I then noticed his finger, covered in flour. I glared playfully, taking aim and throwing a ripe peach at him. He caught it deftly. Rose began to talk rather loudly to her friend, trying to take Jon’s attention. Jon made a face at her back and bit into his apple, backing towards the door. With him gone, a heaviness settled into my chest. Besides Miss Meerie, he was my only friend here.
I began to fret about tomorrow, knowing my trial was at dawn. I doubted I would sleep at all tonight. I had been wondering if my family would ever look for me, or if they would figure out I had fallen. A small part of me ached to be home, but another part of me had grown accustom to my new found freedom.
Suddenly, horns sounded in the distance, and everyone in the kitchen dropped what they had been working on. I became nervous, wondering if something bad was about to happen. Miss Meerie grabbed my arm suddenly, making me jump. She had a broad smile on her face.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The hunting party has returned!” she beamed, towing me out of the kitchen and into the fresh, brisk air. The sun was rather blinding today but there was a crisp chill to the air.
Horses stamped their hooves into the soft ground, snorting, excited to be home. There were laughs and smiles and loud talking. Children screamed happily and ran to their fathers. Rose was hugging a man with the same color hair, all of her siblings clinging to his legs.
A tall, giant of a man nearly picked Miss Meerie off the ground in an embrace. His face was covered in a thick, almost-red beard, and his hair was wild and long. He must have been her son. I noticed Jon and Thran moving through the crowd. The clan was so much larger than I had ever anticipated. All these people, living in harmony, while the people on the Mountain turned away. It seemed unfair and wrong, but at the same time I felt the clans were better off. They were happy, something that seemed rare in Mount Tier.
A brilliant white horse galloped into the cluster of people, children jumping out of the way. The woman astride jumped down before the horse had come to a complete stop. She was tall and angular, fierce and deadly. Her black hair flowed to her waist, braided loosely. Her blazing blue eyes fell onto me, and her lip curled back in anger. Thran was suddenly at her side. He went to embrace her, and she shoved his arm aside. The argument that ensued became louder as everyone else quieted down to listen. Her arm shot out, her long finger pointing at me as she growled something at Thran. Jon quietly approached, and her wrath soon turned to him.
He laughed in her face, Thran easing into a lighter attitude alongside his brother. Her face reddened, turning her dirty cheeks splotchy. She stomped away, and everyone resumed greeting the hunters. Jon made his way over to me.
“Who was that?” I questioned quietly, staring up into his deep brown eyes. I could tell he was agitated. His mouth twitched unhappily.
“My lovely sister, Meleryn.”
I was, oddly, becoming used to being hated out here. I still couldn’t fully comprehend why, but I accepted it because I realized I was an intruder, an outsider in their land. This place was much too amazing to let others ruin it for me, though. A hulking figure towered over me suddenly, blocking out the sun. Miss Meerie’s son. He reeked of something unidentifiable and probably long dead. He stared down at me and I felt I should either hide or run. Instead, I stood and stared up at him, never having seen anyone so monstrous before. He suddenly beamed down at me, his teeth glimmering through his beard.
“Hallo, fiery woman!” he spoke loudly, his voice so deep and booming that I was sure it echoed across the entire forest and back to Mount Tier. I smiled timidly up at him, taking the gargantuan hand that was presented to me in greeting.
“My mother jus’ told me all abou’ ye,” he said, his hand rough and warm around mine. “Fell from that godforsaken place, eh?” I knew he meant the Mountain. I nodded. His shrewd black eyes scrutinized me. He suddenly broke out into his smile again and laughed heartily.
“Glad yer here, then, and one o’ us now! My name’s Bane, and I haffta protect little runts like you and this one here!” he clapped Jon across the shoulder hard enough to make him stumble forward. I laughed, and Jon smiled rather effortlessly.
“I missed ye Bane, ye bastard.” Jon returned the shoulder clap, but his had no effect on the giant man.
“I fancy a pint and a seat. Yer woman, er, uhh…” he trailed off, peering at me quizzically. I understood he wanted my name.
“Elise,” I spoke, remembering to eliminate my status.
“They come up wi’ the weirdest names!” he laughed again.
“Not nearly as strange as yours,” I fired back. Everyone in the vicinity stopped and held their breath. Bane and Jon stared back wide eyed. I wasn’t accustomed to speaking my mind so freely, and I worried it had just cost me.
Bane’s face suddenly broke into a huge grin, and he laughed hard enough to wheeze. Everyone around us exhaled and laughed a bit too. I smiled, feeling the tension ease. Until I peered over at Meleryn by her horse, glaring at me with death in her cold eyes.