We crossed into the Blood Brotherhood lands a week later at dusk. The real test was just beginning. Emmelyne’s head thumped against my shoulder, her having fallen asleep during the last few miles of our ride. The men who had been left behind came out to greet us, their women shadowing them. The lands were thick with snow and ice, and I dreaded having to clear a path to my tent in the dark. I sighed, knowing I was home, though that word was a loose term to me. This place never evoked that feeling of sanctuary and peace that a home should.
Murdoc dismounted, his woman—Ama—ambling through the snow to greet him with a broad smile on her face. Her skin was deeply tanned, her long hair black as night and woven with strands of silver. She was from very distant lands, not even able to speak our language when she was first claimed. The love and admiration in her deep brown eyes was clear, though, and Murdoc had garnered enough respect that the men would extend it to his woman as well. In her ancestral lands, she’d been blessed as a healer. She was a deeply spiritual woman, still praying to her old gods. I’d seen things happen, things she caused that had no earthly explanation. Emmelyne reminded me of her in that way.
I jostled her gently, making to wake her without causing a fright. She inhaled sharply through her nose, her back going rigid as she sat up straighter and peered around.
“Welcome home,” I whispered in her ear. She scanned the darkening area, a slight tremble settling in. I nudged my mare forward, proceeding to the clump of tents furthest north. Agnar trotted into view, blocking my intended path. Emmelyne recoiled sharply, her back thudding my chest. I let go of the reins on one side, wrapping my arm about her waist.
“Surprised she survived the trek, tiny as she is.” Agnar said. His eyes glinted mischievously. I knew he still greatly desired her.
“Must be from good stock.” I said, my voice sounding sour, even to my ears.
“Aye, or ye were too easy on her,” he glared. Emmelyne shrank further into me, Ari shifting beneath us, annoyed at our delay. I snorted derisively.
“I’ll do as I damn well please with the woman I’ve claimed.” I growled. It was a gamble, to be sure, to come off that hot towards Agnar, but I just couldn’t seem to bite my tongue. His eyes narrowed.
“Best keep her close, she’s a beaut amongst brutes.” He warned. Emmelyne’s hand gripped my arm as Agnar trotted by.
“Ye get it now?” I asked to her back. She only nodded in return. I veered us off the beaten path, to the area I called home. Murdoc’s stone cottage was nearby. We’d been in the process of building me a cottage as well, before the wintry storms put a stop to our work. My tent was within view, the path already cleared. Ama, I thought with a smile. I hopped down, turning to pull Emmelyne next to me. Our eyes met briefly as I held her, before she took in her new surroundings. In the failing light, the scene was rather peaceful. The setting sun bounced off the snow, causing it to sparkle. The tall trees swayed slightly in the breeze. The creek still gurgled its song nearby, out of site but ever-present. My tent was longer than it was wide, but rather spacious for something so simple. Gripping her hand, I led her inside.
It was frigid, but nothing had been disturbed during my absence. Murdoc and I had built the log pole bed frame from scratch last year, and then sanded the table and chairs that stood off to the side of the stone hearth, trying to pull together a home-like atmosphere for me. The flooring consisted of raised planks, so the ground beneath wouldn’t flood us out in the spring. I moved to the hearth, noticing Ama had already brought in dried wood and kindling. I coaxed a small fire to life, giving light to the space and warmth to an exhausted Emmy.
Satisfied, I stood and faced her. She stayed by the entrance, wringing her hands together, clearly keeping the exit close to her. My heart fell, sensing how she still didn’t fully trust me. As if she expected me to turn on her the instant I had her in my lair. I motioned her forward. She obeyed, though slowly.
“I’ll have to take Ari to the stables, but that will give ye some time to yerself,” I said, smiling down at her. Her cheeks were still flushed from the cold.
“Ye will be safe, in here, and with me.” I said quietly. She turned her tragic eyes to me. I wanted nothing more than to reach out to her and pull her into my arms, to comfort her, to make her feel secure, but I knew it was folly. She’d have to come to trust me and this small safe haven on her own.
“I’ll bring yer things in and find ye some food, alright?” I asked, nodding to her. She smiled quickly before it vanished, her eyes silently falling to the bed.
“It’s warm,” I said, tilting my head to the feather mattress and furs. “Ye can have it and get some sleep. I know yer tired.”
“Thank you,” she said, fiddling with her hair. I nodded, moving to leave before I said or did anything that would frighten her further.
The chill dusk air seemed to clear my thoughts a bit as I pulled Ari to the stables. Murdoc and Ama, hand in hand, were coming up the path as I left.
“May I see to your woman?” She asked quickly. Murdoc rolled his eyes at her apparent concern. I chuckled.
“It’s good to see you, too, Ama.” I joked. She waved her hand dismissively.
“You’re as wily as a bobcat. I never fear for you. But now, I must see this beauty everyone speaks of.”
Ama, like my mother, was a kind and gentle soul. She hated how the women were treated here, doing her best to silently help as many as possible in any way she could. I felt as though she believed I’d hurt Emmelyne. I glared at Murdoc. He alone knew our secret, but I figured he’d at least enlighten his woman, so she wouldn’t think so lowly of me.
“Aye, ye can go to her. She’s a bit overwhelmed, I think,” I said, scratching my neck. Ama reached for my hand, her own warm and soft. She wore a turquoise bracelet, a nod to her homeland. Her eyes closed briefly, as though she was reading me. I was used to this, though. Her cheeks dimpled slightly as she smiled. Murdoc crossed his arms, impatient.
“You’re a good man, Killian.” She whispered. I felt my neck grow warm despite the ever-descending sun.
“I’ll see to it that she sleeps peacefully.”
“Thank ye,” I said, a bit breathlessly. I hoped Ama could conjure up something to stave off Emmelyne’s nightmares.
“I’ll be back after a bit,” I said, tugging the bridle. The sun finally sank below the distant mountains, bathing us in a serene, blue darkness.
Murdoc, Ama, Emmelyne and I ate a quick meal of stew before parting ways for the night. I was happy, seeing how drawn to Ama Emmelyne was. It gave me hope, that she could find solace and a friend here.
“Take this in your tea before bed,” Ama said, pressing a bundle of herbs into Emmy’s small hand. She opened her palm to stare at the gift.
“Thank you,” she whispered, smiling. Murdoc put his hand on Ama’s back, ushering her out.
“Come on, woman, I’m exhausted.” He grumbled. I tied up the tent after they left, sealing us in against the cold for the night. Emmelyne stood near the bed, dark circles under her eyes.
“Do ye want me to make ye some tea?” I asked. She glanced down at her gift, biting her bottom lip. She nodded, holding her hand out to me. Finally, I thought.
“Go on, get in bed little faerie, I’ll bring it to ye.” I said. She smiled slightly at her nickname. I set the kettle over the fire to boil, rummaging in my hutch for a suitable mug. My back stiffened as a woman screamed in the distance. I stood, placing the mug on the table. Emmelyne was fussing over the ties on her bodice, her hands shaking now. She sighed in frustration, paying me no mind. I smirked.
“Here,” I said, holding my hand out to her. She stilled, blushing hotly. She hadn’t had to undress much on the road, so she hadn’t needed my help before. Now, she was stuck, and she knew it. She pulled the outer layer off, kicking it aside as she turned around, pulling her hair away from the impossible ties.
“I should just cut through all these damn things,” I grumbled, unsure of where I needed to begin. She snickered quietly, though she was trembling with nerves. I reached for her pale skin, my fingers itching to caress it, but I settled on brushing the loose strands of hair away from her neck. She shivered at my touch, but didn’t shy away. I tugged on the ties, though nothing happened.
“You start from the bottom when you untie,” she instructed, a small smile in her voice despite her fearful demeanor.
“Thank the gods I was born a man,” I muttered, hearing her small laugh again. My heart leapt. I found the ties near the top of her round rump, my resolve diminishing more with each passing second. I swallowed, though my mouth ran dry. I tugged and pulled the damn impossible strings until she was freed. She breathed deeply, letting the corset fall. In the dim firelight, I could see the outline of her body through the thin shift. I ground my teeth together. She turned to me, smiling, unaware of what this was doing to me. I was as unraveled as the ties on her corset.
“See?” I held my hands up. Her eyes clouded over for a brief moment.
“I…” she began. I waited on edge for whatever she had to say. “Thank you,” she whispered. I smirked.
“Aye, yer welcome. I’ll fetch yer tea,” I turned back to the hearth, but her small hand grasped my forearm. She let go as I whirled back around. She looked deeply troubled.
“Where will you sleep?” She whispered. I shrugged.
“I’ve slept on rocks and frozen ground. The planks will be a relief from that,” I teased. She shook her head.
“This is your home.”
“’Tis our home, now, and I’ll not make ye sleep next to me if ye don’t want to.” I said. As if on cue, another scream pierced the night. This, I was used to. Emmy jumped, subconsciously moving closer to me.
“Will you…” she said, her face and neck flushing deep crimson. I quirked an eyebrow, waiting. She was unbearably adorable when she was so flustered.
“Stay close?” She whispered. I tried to hide the smile at the edges of my mouth. I nodded once.
“Aye, I’d be glad to. Yer sayin’ I can sleep on a featherbed, hmm?” I teased, watching her blush anew. She looked anywhere but my face, nodding quickly. I gathered she was simply afraid, of this entire situation, and right now I was the lesser of two evils. I reached out, cupping her chin and tilting her head up. Her round blue eyes stared into mine.
“I’ll protect ye, I swear it. I’ll no let any harm come to ye.”