Over the next three days, we fell into a tenuous routine. Murdoc and I worked on clearing as much snow and ice from our homes as possible before the next storm rolled in. We continued to stockpile firewood and kindling, setting snares in the woods for fresh meat instead of the tough, dried venison found in the mess hall. Emmelyne became Ama’s shadow; they spent their days back and forth between homes, tidying up, cooking, sewing, chatting in subdued voices, likely spilling some secrets as women tend to do. I’d catch Emmelyne laughing and smiling when she was around her new friend, and it gave me a sense of peace.
By nightfall, we’d collapse in exhaustion. Whatever concoction Ama had made for Emmy’s tea seemed to be working wonders; she hadn’t woken screaming since we’d arrived home. She was still skittish around me, however. She avoided too much conversation or eye contact, which was a bit disheartening, but I constantly reminded myself of what I’d done to this poor girl. No matter how anyone viewed it, I’d uprooted her from a life she was comfortable with, even if it still wasn’t purely good.
A pit began to settle into my stomach, knowing I’d have to travel to visit Maeve’s family soon. I found myself not wanting to go, simply out of selfishness. Emmy had called to life my deep, inner thoughts on the entire matter. I’d loved Maeve with everything I had, even considering marriage, which is not something men of the Brotherhood do. More than once, we’d fought about her quitting her job as a prostitute, her knowing full-well I could support her entire family alone. She’d outright refused. I argued she could still hold a job if she so desired, as a cook or seamstress, considering perhaps it was her independence she didn’t want to lose. But she would only laugh bitterly in my face and refuse the help I extended to her. Part of me wondered if she liked being a prostitute.
As the dawn rose, bright and clear and golden, I stared across the bed at Emmelyne. I’d never shared a bed with another woman who I hadn’t been with intimately. Somehow, though, just sleeping near her felt even more intimate than anything physical. Like she was trusting me in her most vulnerable hours to keep watch, to keep her safe.
She sighed heavily in her sleep, something she did often, a little crease between her brows deepening. I smiled at her. I longed to reach across the bed and bridge the gap between us, to simply caress her rosy cheek, to feel her soft skin. How had I fallen for this woman in a matter of seconds?
With Maeve, I’d thought it was love at first sight. Now, experiencing these new emotions with Emmelyne, I knew what I had felt was only heady lust. I did love her in the end, deeply, but there always seemed to be a catch with her. She could never fully give me her all, which was my only desire. With Emmelyne, her all was what she had to offer, and she couldn’t seem to hide anything from me.
I sighed, frustrated instead of relieved, feeling a sense of duty settle onto my shoulders. I’d have to leave today, have Murdoc keep an eye on Emmy. If I left soon, I could make it back before nightfall. I’d give Maeve’s family extra, so I wouldn’t have to visit until spring or summer. I could buy some time, then, before I decided how I wanted to move forward.
Emmy sighed again, curling onto her side, bringing herself unwittingly closer to me. In her arms, she clutched my plaid. My hand stretched out and caressed her cheek of its own volition. She stirred, her wide eyes slowly blinking open. She stared at me for a moment, realizing who’d woken her.
“I’ll be leavin’ for the day soon, but I’ll be back come nightfall,” I whispered, my thumb brushing her cheek one last time before I pulled my hand away. Her eyes became worried.
“You’ll stay with Ama and Murdoc, and stay out of sight, ye hear?” I nodded once to her.
“Yes,” she whispered back, casting her eyes down and gripping my plaid tighter.
“Are ye worried?” I felt my brow furrow. Her eyes glanced back to meet mine.
“What if you don’t come back?” She said. I smirked.
“Don’t fret about that,” I said, sitting up and giving her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. As soon as my bare feet hit the ground, I regretted my decision. The thought of Emmelyne nearly pulled me back to bed, but I had to get this out of the way and off my mind so I could more clearly understand my new feelings. She shut her eyes tight against my nudity, making me chuckle as I threw my shirt over my head.
“Ye can open yer eyes now, ye wee faerie.” I said. Blushing, she obliged. Having grown up, surrounded by men from the Brotherhood, nothing with any sexual connotations bothered me. I often forgot how Emmelyne was raised. I pulled on my sturdy trousers and sat heavily in a chair, pulling my boots to my feet. She sat up in bed, watching me intently.
“Where will you go?” She asked. I fastened up my boots.
“I have some…money I owe to someone. If I pay them enough now, I won’t have to go again until much later in the spring.” I explained with brevity. I sat forward, holding my coat in my hands as I stared back at her. She curled a lock of hair around her fingers. I could feel the worry emanating from her, which made me feel at least as though I was liked by her now.
“I’ll send Ama yer way,” I said as I stood. She whisked the heavy blankets from her, her small feet padding across the floor in a hurry. Her actions were strange to me. She stood before me, blocking my path, wringing her hands together. I sighed heavily.
“I don’t…feel good.” She said. I raised my eyebrow, sensing her tactic to get me to stay. I crossed my arms.
“Ye don’t, eh?” I asked. She shook her head quickly.
“And what exactly are ye feelin’?” I teased. She shuddered before giving me the final blow.
“Something will happen when you’re gone.” She said. My hands dropped to my sides.
“What do ye mean?” I asked.
“Well, I mean, I feel like something bad will happen.” She explained.
“Mmm. To whom?” I said.
“I’m not sure,” her brow furrowed.
“Did ye have a vision, or are ye just scared of me leavin’ ye for the day?” I said, feeling hollow inside. Of all women, why did I have to find the one who had these sort of premonitions? Premonitions that I wasn’t even sure were real?
“I…I can’t tell,” she whispered, shuffling nervously. I was proud, to be sure, that she had even voiced her concern in the first place.
“Weel,” I said, sighing. “I’ll make ye a promise, then.”
Her eyes were bright as she stared at me.
“I’ll return, and then tomorrow I’ll take ye somewhere special, just us, hmm?” I asked. She chewed her lip as she considered, but she eventually nodded.
“Alright,” she relented, stepping aside. I reached for her arm to give her a reassuring squeeze, not wanting to cross any boundaries as far as physical touch was concerned.
“I’ll be back at dusk, and I’ll tell Ama to come and find ye.” I said. Her look was unreadable as I left.
Morna and her children were delighted as always to see me, accosting me with stories and asking me to stay for supper, which I politely refused. Morna had argued with me over the gems and coins I’d given her, but she had eventually relented. I left on horseback with plenty of time to spare, anxious to get home—to see Emmelyne. It was then that I knew I was completely absolved of my duty to Maeve’s family. I’d visit them once more in the spring, and tell them I was leaving for distant lands. It was time I moved forward with my life, instead of clinging to the ghosts of my past. It wasn’t fair to my future.
I stopped at a local shop in a nearby town, searching for some sort of small gift to give Emmelyne. The shop owner kept shooting me weary glances, clearly afraid of me. I ran my fingers over the spines of old, dusty books, seeking anything I was familiar with. My mother had saw to it that I was raised with an education, Murdoc taking over after she’d died. If Emmelyne couldn’t read, then I’d teach her. I settled on a book I remembered that told of ancient knights from a far away kingdom. It was as much history as it was fantasy, and it was long enough to get us through the cold, wintry nights.
I tossed the man a piece of silver, paying much more than the book was actually worth. The look on his face brought a smile to mine. Snow began to drift to the ground in lazy spirals as I mounted Ari, urging her to hurry on home. A feeling of deep rooted dread settled into my stomach as I crossed the border. Nearing our homestead, I could just make out Ama running to me. I spurred Ari into a gallop, meeting Ama and jumping down before my mare had slowed completely.
Her face was flushed with fright and worry.
“Where is she?” I growled. She could only raise a shaky finger to point into the clearing. My blood curdled in my veins. The clearing was where men trained for raids and war—but it was also where challenges for property took place. Drawing my sword, I sprinted to the clearing. A small crowd had gathered. Murdoc stood, dagger and sword drawn, facing off against two young lads barely old enough to begin raiding. I recognized one from our most recent trip, knowing it had been his first. Emmelyne was on her hands and knees behind Murdoc, her hair flying loose of its braid, a bright red cut etched across her cheek.
The greener the boys, the more foolish their bravado. I joined Murdoc’s side, evening the odds against the two who stood before us. One had spiky black hair, the other was dirty blond and barely able to grow a proper beard. I pitied them, feeling the rage swell within me.
“Cuttin’ it a wee bit close, lad,” Murdoc said, backing up a pace. This wasn’t his fight to begin with. If those boys had known better, they could have simply taken Emmelyne, since I wasn’t there to protect her. I was more enraged at myself than anything.
“Aye, but I’ll handle ’em now.” I said. I heard Murdoc sheath his sword as he backed into the crowd, the snow crunching under his feet.
“Stay put, little faerie.” I commanded. It was paramount that she was visible to the crowd, a tangible prize to be won. If she ran off, my chances of saving her were gone.
“Give us yer wee whore,” the black haired boy spat. I smirked.
“Oh, aye, I will if ye can grow a single chest hair.” I called. The crowd jeered and laughed at my jab. The boy reddened in hot anger. His temper would be his downfall. As much as I detested my father, I was thankful for him training me to fight at such a young age, for teaching me to keep my anger in check and my head level, ensuring the victory was always in my favor.
The boy lurched forward, his move easy to deflect.
“Which one of ye cut my woman’s face, eh?” I called, letting my anger be known. The boy jolted forward again, this time with much more force. I turned at the last moment, catching him in the back with the hilt of my dagger. He howled in pain and rage as the steel connected with his spine. I could see Emmy once more, her eyes wide, her hands trembling. The blond haired boy yelled, moving in for the kill now. I whirled, our swords connecting. They couldn’t touch her until they defeated me, though I was worried more would join in the fight as the crowd gathered.
The sound of steel clashing rang through the trees as a golden sun began to set. I fought them both with ease, sensing their moves before they even knew which they would choose. Tired of playing at being a knight, I zoned in on the black haired boy first, rushing at him so quickly with my jabs that he fell back. I brought the point of my sword to his neck, then lowered it to his manhood. His face became ashen.
“If ye so much as dream of her face, I’ll find ye and root yer cock out, root and stem.” I growled. I whirled as his friend dove for me, having abandoned his dagger and opting for fists. I didn’t have enough time to duck, so he was able to land his first right hook across my jaw. My vision blurred briefly, my eyes watering, but I pinpointed where he was and tackled him to the frozen ground. The air whooshed from his lungs as we wrestled for control. The lad was big, strong, but I was wiser and faster. He was able to land a few more excellent punches, until I wrapped my body around his and pulled his arm tight. He cried out in agony but refused to submit. I was beyond mercy either way. I pulled until I felt the shoulder joint pop, hearing his screams. I laid back, sweating in the snow, turning my head to Emmelyne. I reached out my hand to her, and she quickly scrambled to my side.
I sat up, tucking her shaking frame under my arm, cupping her face with my swollen hand. I sighed in relief, feeling her in my embrace. The men that had gathered chuckled at the ignorant boys, shaking their heads as they walked off.
“No beauty is worth the beating that Dougal’s son can give.” I heard one man laugh to the wounded lads. Murdoc made his way to me, extending his hand. I gripped it, letting him help us to our feet. I winced as a pain blossomed in my ribs. I held fast to Emmy.
“What happened?” I growled. Murdoc pressed his lips into a thin line.
“They were waitin’ outside yer tent. Ama and her left to come to supper, and they attacked.”
“Thank ye, truly. I owe ye.” I said a bit breathlessly. He smirked.
“Aye, ye do, ye damn fool,” he reached out to slap my shoulder, then turned his gaze to Emmelyne, his eyes softening drastically.
“Are ye alright, wee one?” He asked. I gauged her reaction. She glanced at me, eyes wide. I gripped her ever closer.
“Thank you, yes.” She said in a timid voice. Murdoc reached out and brushed her cheek, his smile warm, before he turned and left. It was uncharacteristic for him to show any emotion such as that. My heart felt full at his gesture.
“Let’s get ye inside,” I suggested, turning to leave. She stayed rooted for a moment, causing me to look at her with concern. Her bottom lip quivered as tears pooled in her eyes.
“They could have killed you,” she whispered, clearly more concerned for me than herself. I scoffed.
“Did ye not see how easy that was?” I asked, grinning. She licked her lips and shook her head.
“Ahh, hush now,” I said, pulling her into a hug, cradling her head in my hand. She let her undamaged cheek rest against my chest, let herself be comforted, if only briefly. I rested my chin atop her head, scanning the trees for anymore threats. Worry grew in my gut, though, knowing that was only the first wave of those who sought to claim the woman that was mine.