The storm left with it over eight inches of snow. I had promised Emmelyne a small trip, and to get her mind off her nightmare from the previous evening, I made good on my word. Ari pushed through the snow along the deserted path, snorting, angry that she had to work in these conditions. The trees were covered in frost, everything hushed in the serene wild. We’d checked snares, coming up empty. I knew we’d have to feast in the mess hall now, though with Agnar gone, I knew she wouldn’t feel as uncomfortable.
“So you’ve been fighting your whole life?” She asked. I’d devised a game to pass the time; we’d take turns asking and answering questions about each other, attempting to get to know one another better.
“Aye, I began training when I was five. My father wouldn’t let me touch a weapon until I was eight or so. Had to learn to read and write and speak in other tongues. He said he wanted me to be smart, not just a brute.” I explained. I watched as the back of her head bobbed. It was nice, being able to ride with her again, knowing her faith and trust in me was growing more each day.
“Do ye remember yer parents?” I questioned. She shook her head.
“I remember very little of them, and only that we’d been traveling from our home land when they died. I was taken in shortly after.” She said.
“Mmm,” I answered, pondering. “Where are ye from originally?”
“That’s two questions in a row.” She said, laughter in her voice. I smirked at her wit, squeezing her tight, bringing my face closer to hers.
“And you’ll answer, or I shall throw ye in the snow.” I teased as she squealed. She quieted as she thought.
“Honestly, I can’t remember. I can picture a castle and some cottages, and a wide river, but I was too young to focus on other details,” she shrugged.
“Well, ye speak like yer from the mountain.”
“The people of Dal always tried to breed the natural accents out. Elijah said they sounded barbaric.” Her voice quieted. A small bird flitted by, chirping to its companions. I tried to push my anger away, reminding myself he had died a horrible death.
“What was…she like?” She said timidly. I stiffened, knowing of whom she spoke.
“Umm, well…she was blond…” I stammered. Emmelyne waited for more. “She, uhh, was kind to me, about where I was born, and I was kind to her, in regards to her…profession.” I said.
“She was allowed to work?” Emmelyne asked, perplexed. I bit my cheek, wondering how much I should divulge. She deserved to know the truth of how the real world worked, even if there were dark spots.
“Aye, most free women must work to maintain a household. Maeve’s father had died, leaving behind a widow and five children. She…sold her body, to men, for profit.”
It was Emmelyne’s turn to freeze.
“How do you mean?” She questioned.
“There are places—brothels—in towns mostly, where women live. Men come and pay a fee and, well, have sex.” I shrugged. She shuddered.
“Is…that how you met her?” Her voice was quiet. I chuckled darkly.
“Ah, no. I met her in a tavern. I had no idea what she was until later.”
Emmelyne was quiet again, digesting this information. Snow slipped from the boughs of the trees, thumping in the forest like giant’s taking huge steps forward.
“I know ye’ve never been wi’ a man, but have ye ever kissed one?” I said lightly, loving to tease her. I watched as her neck grew hot, her pulse beating just under her smooth, pale skin.
“Of course not.” She defended. I laughed.
“Ye had to have been attracted to someone, yer a young woman,” I said, scoffing. She shook her head.
“We were mostly kept apart from men. And those of us that did marry often married men much older.”
I made a sound of disgust in the back of my throat.
“Were you just with Maeve, then?” She asked. I knew she was somewhat wounded at my chiding. Now it was my turn for embarrassment.
“Uh, no.” I said bluntly.
“Oh,” she answered.
“Do I repulse ye?” I asked, feeling defensive for my actions. She shook her head quickly.
“No, I’m just not used to people being allowed such freedoms.”
“I suppose yer right. It’s hard for me to understand yer point o’ view.” I said. The sun streamed down upon the snow, tricking us into thinking it was warmer than it truly was.
“My father caught me, once,” I offered, chuckling at the memory. I had been fifteen. She was a young girl, born into the Brotherhood as well, and we both knew she was to be claimed soon. So we’d exchanged our virginity, me taking her innocence out of pity mingled with lust, only we had kept up with our rendezvous even after the initial deed was done.
“What happened?” She said. I stared off ahead, remembering the embarrassment as though it were yesterday.
“I was an idiot, sneakin’ her into our home. I thought my father would be gone, but he’d forgotten somethin’. He found us right in the heat of the action, the poor girl bent over his bed and my breeches around my ankles,” I laughed, surprised when I heard her giggle as well.
“I was given a beating I’ll not soon forget.” I said.
“So, how does that work?” She asked, shifting in the saddle.
“What?” I blushed, not wanting to explain the mechanics of sex to her at the moment.
“You can…sleep with women that aren’t yours?” I heard her confusion.
“Ahh, I see,” I said, relieved. “Ye canna claim a woman until yer first raid, and ye can only claim a women from a town ye’ve pillaged. The women that are born into the Brotherhood may also be claimed, but usually the father chooses a man for his daughter instead.”
She nodded. We were close now to my hidden spot. I pulled Ari to a stop, throwing my leg over and hopping down into the snow. I reached for Emmy. Her face was flushed from the frigid air. I jerked my head in the direction we were to go, a bit uphill.
“This way,” I reached for her hand, holding the reins in the other. I kept my pace slow to account for her small stature and lack of strength. I could just make out the clump of jagged rocks and hear the gurgling of the creek. We broke through into the small clearing near the water. I led Ari over for a drink before tying her to a sturdy branch.
“Come along,” I prodded, towing Emmelyne to the cluster of rocks. There was an entrance into the dark, steamy cave, just wide enough for a person to squeeze through. She turned her wide eyes to me, perplexed.
“Do ye trust me?” I asked. Her lips parted, but she nodded. I crouched down, feeling around the ground for my abandoned torch. It took a moment to get a spark hot enough to light it. I smirked at her, gripping her hand and pulling her into the darkness after me. The slope was slick, the air still and humid the deeper we traveled underground.
“What is this place?” She whispered in awe, her voice still echoing off the slimy black walls.
“’Tis a cave. They are all around here, full of hot springs. Some are above ground, but those ones are always…occupied.” I explained. I’d run across too many pairs of lovers in those pools. This one seemed completely untouched. I’d found it by accident one afternoon on my way back from Maeve’s. I’d kept it solely my secret, until now. I’d only shared it with Emmelyne because I wanted to see her face light up at something so new and beautiful.
The cavern opened up, the steam nearly choking us. It cleared away, exposing a deep pool of hot water. We skirted around it, able to fully stand. My destination was at the back. Her eyes were wide with wonder. I stopped before the next entrance, handing her the torch.
“Go on,” I nodded to the cavern. She was afraid.
“I’m right behind ye,” I encouraged. She bit her lip, curiosity winning. She took two steps in before she gasped. I smiled, wishing I could see her face. The entire cavern was crystalized, the shapes shimmering and sparkling in the torchlight. She reached out a hand to touch the wall. Ama had told me once that crystals were somehow special in her religion, so I’d harvested some and brought them back to her. She’d been overjoyed, but nothing compared to Emmelyne’s awe in this moment. She whirled to stare at me.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed, eyes wide with adoration.
We basked in the warmth of the cave for hours, Emmelyne peeling off her boots to dangle her feet into the hot water. I continued to explore new passages, finding two more caverns full of crystals. This place always felt ancient, sacred. I was just exiting another tunnel, Emmelyne within my sight. I paused, drinking in her beauty, pressing my hand to the wall to steady myself. She was still so unaware of the effect she had on me; I was completely under her spell. My desire for her grew, reaching a new peak. I ached to lose myself in her, but I knew it wasn’t right; it had to be her own choice.
She sat, her knees tucked up under her chin as her arms encircled them, staring at the sparkling ceiling. The torchlight threw strange shadows along the way, but bathed her face in its orange glow. How I longed to feel her cheeks beneath my hands, to pull her lips to mine, to feel her gasp at the fire between us. The night before, holding her, comforting her, had been my downfall. I pushed forward, clearing my throat. Her eyes snapped to me and she smiled.
“It’s so peaceful in here,” she said.
“Aye, ’tis.” I answered, sitting next to her.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her eyes sweeping up to meet mine. I nodded.
“Can you swim?” She asked, brow furrowing. I chuckled.
“In here or in general? Because I can, and I have in here many times.” I rested my arms across my knees.
Her look soured.
“I can’t. I’ve always wanted to learn, but…women weren’t allowed.” She explained. I scoffed, though an idea struck me.
“I can teach ye.” I said.
“Now?” She laughed, unsure.
“Why not? ’Tis warm enough, and not deep enough that I canna touch the bottom.”
“Really?” She whispered, her eyes sparkling in the torchlight. I nodded, smirking.
“Ye can strip, or I can give ye my shirt, if ye need it.” I offered, not wanting her to feel as though I’d planned this to see her nude. She blushed, chewing her lip, her bravery peeking through.
“Thank you, but I’d feel guilty, if I took your clothing. You’d freeze on the ride home.”
“Aye, I’m glad ye said no,” I laughed, smiling as she giggled, hiding her face. I stood, holding my hand out to her. She slipped hers into mine without hesitation. I pulled her up, helping her to unfasten her dress, before I turned and stripped. I waded into the boiling water, sighing as my muscles relaxed. I kept my eyes on the far wall, giving her privacy. I heard her scuffle closer.
“Ye ready?” I asked, still not looking her way.
“Yes,” she whispered. I could hear the nervousness in her voice.
“I’ll no stare at ye, or let ye drown.” I said. She snorted softly.
“I know,” she shuffled ever closer to the edge. I turned to gaze up at her in the darkness, barely able to make out her silhouette in the bouncing light from the torch.
“It’s shallow at first, but it drops off quick.” I warned. The water where I stood was up to my chin. I wasn’t brave enough to venture further into the dark cavern, not wanting to get sucked into an underground river. She slipped into the water, wading slowly to me, covering her chest. Once she was up to her chin, she stopped. I was already overheating, but I knew she was likely the perfect temperature for once.
“Now what?” Her voice was shaky. I reached my arms to her, the water splashing.
“Ye move yer arms like so,” I demonstrated. “And yer legs in opposite time of one another. Take a breath and relax.” I instructed. I heard her sharp intake as she propelled herself toward me, water droplets splashing my face. She began to sink almost immediately, but I grasped her forearms, holding her head above the water. I laughed, the sound booming through the cave.
“Did I get it?” She asked breathlessly as I held her at arm’s length. Her face was flushed, excited, devoid of any care in the world. I chuckled.
“Not quite, but I’m impressed all the same,” I said, backing up and pulling us deeper. I managed to fight my urges and keep her far enough away that our bodies never touched.
“I’ll let ye go, try and tread with yer arms and legs,” I suggested, loosening my grip. She panicked for a moment.
“Killian!” She hissed, her chin dipping below the water, her eyes wide. I grinned.
“I’ve gotcha, ye faerie, just let go and relax, hmm?”
She nodded, taking another deep breath as she let go. She bobbed for a moment before she began to sink.
“No panicking, just tread yer rhythm, and the water will carry ye,” I said, backing away a step, forcing her to figure it out on her own. After a few more moments of struggling, she seemed to find her sense of rhythm. She beamed at me, all her white teeth glistening in the dark.
“I’m doing it!” She called. I was simultaneously proud and in awe of her bravery.
“Swim to me,” I said, waving her over. She stuck her tongue between her teeth, concentrating, still bobbing low at some points, but she paddled her way to me. I reached for her arms again, giving her a respite.
“You’ll be a fish in no time,” I smiled down at her. She stared up at me, grinning from ear to ear.
“I like this.” She said. I felt my brows knit together.
“Being able to learn new things,” she explained, blushing.
“I’m proud of ye, for takin’ a risk.” I smiled, pulling her a tad closer, swinging her around so I could back out of the water a bit, already hot enough.
“Thank you,” she said, casting her eyes down to the inky black water.
“Do I no bother ye, anymore?” I quirked an eyebrow, knowing she would understand my question. She’d always refused to look at me, and though I knew it was because of her upbringing, it still had the capacity to bruise my ego.
She bit her lip and peaked at me, shaking her head. I smirked.
“About time,” I teased. “What made ye change yer mind?”
“I…trust you.” She whispered, though her voice still echoed. She drifted a bit closer, her proximity nearly overwhelming me. I nodded, chewing the inside of my cheek raw. My shoulders and chest were finally above water, the chill air clearing my muddled senses. Emmelyne was able to stand. I promptly let go of her, backing further away.
“It’s bloody hot in here,” I smiled.
“It’s perfect,” she grinned, bending down to cover her neck, her hair flowing weightlessly behind her. I made my way out clumsily, trying to hide the fact that this situation was becoming quickly intimate for me. Again, I was only a man, being unwittingly tempted by a beautiful woman. Emmelyne followed, covering her chest. In my haste, I kicked the torch, hearing as it plunked into the water and sizzled. We we left in the pitch black. Emmelyne yelped, which only caused me to laugh at the irony of the moment.
“Here, follow my voice, I remember where our clothes were and how to get out.” I said. I heard her slowly approach, reaching out my hand to find her. Her fingers brushed my chest instead, though. She was much closer than I had thought.
“Oh!” She yelped. I sensed her falling, and I threw myself forward to catch her, but I misinterpreted our distance once again. Our chests collided, slapping together in their slick wetness. I wrapped an arm about her, knowing we were both doomed to fall. I cradled her and turned at the last second, taking the brunt of the impact with my shoulder, feeling her land on top of me.
“Oh!” She gasped again. I could only laugh heartily at our circumstance. We stayed still for a moment, gathering our wits. Her hands were splayed on my chest, our breaths indicating that our noses were nearly touching. She breathed quickly, her breasts pressed tight to me, my right thigh wedged between her legs.
“K-Killian?” She trembled on top of me.
“Hmm?” I asked, willing myself to think of anything that was not a turn-on.
“Are y-you alright?” She squeaked. I laughed again.
“Aye, I’m better than I have been in years.”