We made it back to the lands of the Brotherhood just before the sun dipped behind the clouds. Rather than the ride home being awkward, I found we laughed often, more at ease with one another after our naked spill. I had wrapped Emmelyne tight in my plaid against the wind, her hair still wet, her body having acclimated to the warmth of the cave.
“’Tis all yer fault, ye clumsy faerie,” I joked, wishing I could see the blush rise in her cheeks again.
“You kicked the torch into the water.” She pointed out.
“Hmph,” I muttered, silence befalling us as we drew nearer the stables. I heard the clanging of steel before I saw it. Emmelyne’s head whipped to the noise. In the center, two men fought, a battered woman behind one of them. Our reality pulled us back down from our moment of joy. I dismounted, pulling Emmy with me.
“Stick close, ye hear?” I whispered. She nodded soberly. Once done with Ari, we exited. I spotted Murdoc and Ama making their way down the path to the mess hall, ignoring the fight still raging. A large crowd had gathered. I paused, attempting to decipher who it was that would be risking their life to steal a woman. I’d always thought those men were foolish. The man trying to win claim of the woman was advancing quickly. I could sense what was about to happen. I gripped Emmelyne’s upper arm, turning her quickly to face me as I kept my eyes on the scene. The man fell, a glinting sword driven straight into his gut. Before the woman had time to react, the victor was upon her. She screamed as he fisted her hair and pulled her to her feet.
I glanced down at Emmelyne, my face devoid of emotion. Her bottom lip quivered. I wondered idly, then, what it must be like as a bystander, knowing on another level the fear that that woman was going through. I brought my thumb up, tracing it over her lip, resting it on her cheek. She shuddered at my touch.
“Yer mine, hmm?” I nodded to her, reminding her of my promise.
“Yes,” she breathed, her saddened eyes fluttering closed against the screams.
The mess hall was loud and raucous, crowded and smelly. Dogs nipped at one another over scraps falling to the straw-strewn stone floor. Candles burned bright, the wax bubbling down and dripping onto the once-shiny metal. Dishes clanked, whisky and ale was passed around and around again. Rollo waved us over, his youngest conquest sitting on his lap. His other woman had just given birth to a fat baby boy. I’d never seen Rollo more proud. I sensed his joy of being a father to such a beastly child made him yearn for another. I felt pity for his brown haired lass.
Emmelyne dragged her feet, her free-spirit growing a bit too much in the presence of others. I pulled her close, whispering in her ear.
“Remember yer role, eh?” I pulled away to see if she understood. She cast her eyes down, nodding. I sighed, swinging my leg over the bench and settling in. Murdoc and Ama sat across from us.
“We owe ye congratulations,” Murdoc held his mug up to Rollo, who beamed.
“Aye, thank ye, he’s a brute like his father, for sure!” He laughed, bending to plant a drunken and sloppy kiss to his woman’s lips. She remained stoic. Emmelyne peered around me to stare at the young woman, them being so close in age.
I pulled food to us, famished after out trek today. I sensed Emmy would be stubborn and not eat, so I prepared to battle with her on that front. She continued to stare, though, fixated on the woman. There was nothing that particularly stood out about her; Rollo had claimed her almost a year ago. She had brown, curly hair and hazel eyes, a bit thin and gaunt, her skirts and bodice tattered. Perhaps Emmy realized how well off she was with me.
“Eat,” I urged, surprised to see there were roast chickens and pig alongside other dishes tonight. She listened, digging in rather ravenously. I smirked, reaching for a mug of ale.
“How was yer day?” Murdoc said, raising an eyebrow, pressing his lips together. I drank deeply to hide my smile.
“Rather wet,” I said, hearing Emmelyne cough and sputter. Murdoc glanced to her, then to Ama, seeing if he’d misheard what I’d said. Ama only smiled slyly.
“Hmm,” he said in answer, staring me down. I knew what answer he was seeking. I shook my head quick, winking. A small smile played at his mouth. I knew Murdoc was proud, in a sense, that I’d risen above my circumstances and treated Emmelyne so well. If it weren’t for him teaching me right from wrong, I’d have been like Rollo, or far worse.
Throughout our meal, Emmelyne kept leaning around me to stare at Rollo and his woman, Ann. I glanced between the two, seeing Ann’s eyes widen, staring pointedly at Emmelyne. Heat flashed through my veins as I realized what the two women were communicating with only their facial expressions. I leaned forward, cutting off Emmelyne’s view. She peeked up at me as I raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t ye fall into that mess,” I warned. Her lips parted, her eyes confused.
“I…I think I know her, I’ve seen her before,” she explained quietly, leaning forward to compensate for the wall I’d made between them. I was instantly shocked.
“Where?” I asked, my elbows resting on the table, my hands clasped in front of my face. She shook her head.
“I think…in a dream…” she trailed off, biting her lip. I was simultaneously relieved and put on edge.
“Well, stay away from her. She wants ye to rescue her, and there’s no way I could pull ye out o’ that mess.” I said. She stared, wide eyed, but nodded. We resumed eating, Ama and Emmelyne whispering quietly to one another out of respect for the men, so as to not draw attention to themselves. Women were supposed to be kept apart, lest they rise up in rebellion. I’d seen it happen more often than not, and the punishments doled out were horrific.
My musing was interrupted as shouts broke out near the front of the mess hall, close to the roaring fire. Too late, I figured out what Rollo’s woman had been trying to convey to Emmy; run. She must have known, then, what the other women were planning, and didn’t want any sort of blame to fall on either of them. I gripped Emmy’s arm, towing her up. Murdoc did the same with Ama, but the chaos was already reaching its peak.
Women turned on their men, throwing mugs, using blunt knives to stab at them, some only using their hands and legs to bring damage to those who deserved it. Rollo pulled Anna up as well, all of us leaving, wanting no part in the bloody aftermath this little revolt would cause. We shoved our way outside as other men threw their shoulders at us, attempting to join the fray. I wrapped Emmelyne into chest, using my body as a shield against the riot. The night was frigid, calm, though shouts and screams made their way past the thick stone walls and to our ears.
“Are ye alright?” I asked breathlessly, moving her in front of me. She was clearly shaken up, but nodded all the same, her eyes still trained on the entrance to the mess hall.
“Fuckin’ women,” Rollo growled. Agnar being gone, he was left in charge.
“Take her back so I can put a stop to this madness.” He commanded. Murdoc nodded, turning to me.
“You’ll take Ama, hmm? I’ll come get her when I’m finished.” He said quietly. I nodded, reaching for her. She turned, squeezing Murdoc’s hand as they stared into one another’s eyes before parting.
We made our way through the snow, back to our homes.
“What will happen to them?” Emmelyne whispered, staring up at me, her eyes almost crossed. I sighed. The truth was always the best approach.
“They will die, eventually. Most will be either burned at the stake or left tied to a tree to freeze.” I said. I felt her spine go rigid as we crunched through the snow.
“Best stay out of the clearing for a while,” I said, giving her a squeeze. She looked confused, but Ama cut in.
“They will be made examples of, for the rest of us. We will see them, each day, watch as they slowly die.” Her voice was hollow, ancient and wise. Finally to our tent, I opened it for the women, ushering them inside.
“Go on to bed, Emmy,” I urged, wishing to sit outside for a while. She nodded, giving me the space I desired. I nodded to Ama, taking my leave and setting up on the steps to act as sentry for the evening. The quiet cadence of their voices wound their way to me, causing me to smile despite the atrocious events unfolding. I’d never seriously considered leaving the Brotherhood until this moment. I’d always known this wasn’t the life Emmelyne deserved, that I could risk it all and somehow give her the world. A life where we could be free, free of this pain and suffering. I knew I was hopelessly in love with the damn girl. And I knew I had to do anything I could to give her a normal life.
I stared at my calloused hands, seeing the many small scars across my large palms. Hands that had killed countless men, hands that had given hope to the poor and starving, hands that had loved. I buried my face in them against the cold and the bright flash as the first pyre was lit. I sat for hours in the icy air, my body rigid, my mind on overdrive, seeking a solution that seemed just out of reach.
I remembered, with a flash of heat through my body, what Emmelyne had felt like pressed up against me, her naked body warm and soft. I smiled at her timidity, at the fact that she was trusting me. The way she had looked in the water was enough to do me in. I wanted to always see her like that, to see her free and able to explore this new world. She’s been thrown from one extreme to the next, and I needed to find her the safest spot in the middle of it all.
I didn’t jump as I felt a hand on my shoulder. I pulled my head from my hands, ruffling my ruddy curls, as Ama sat next to me, sighing deeply.
“Someday,” she whispered wisely. I didn’t have to look at her to gather what she was referring to. I nodded.
“Aye, someday. Soon.” I corrected.
“Hmm,” she hummed, musing. I glanced at her, at the small smile on her lips.
“Did Murdoc ever tell you of how we met?” She asked, staring dreamily at the starry night sky.
“No.” I said.
“He came to our lands, across a vast sea. His leader at the time loved using ships to expand his conquest. He found me, the elder’s only daughter. He fell to his knees, in love with me the first moment he laid eyes on me,” she said, slightly rocking from side to side. I wanted to burst forth with laughter, unable to picture Murdoc being so romantic.
“He let my father go, told me what we must do. I told him no,” she peeked at me, smiling a bit wider. I snorted, enraptured in this tale. Murdoc and Ama’s life together was never a topic of discussion, and we all knew it.
“He asked what it would take for me to agree. I told him he could have me, only when he became a true man.” She said.
“What did he do?” I asked quietly. She turned her gaze back to the stars.
“Their leader was killed by our people. Murdoc was chosen to take his place. He told his people to leave, saying that our land was cursed. They obeyed. When it came time for him to be voted in as true leader, he shunned the power. My father blessed us, seeing how deeply I felt for this stranger, and he brought me home, knowing our chances were better here.”
I was left in utter shock, my reverence for Murdoc growing exponentially.
“I see it, in her eyes and in yours,” she said, leaning closer to me. I stilled.
“You’ll have more trials than not, but you’ll find one another.” She said, being enigmatic as ever. I sighed, staring back at my hands.
“I’m not even sure how to proceed with something so…fragile,” I admitted.
“You know the difference between right and wrong.” She said. I shrugged.
“Do I?” I said bitterly, angry with myself for who I was.
“If you didn’t, that girl in there wouldn’t be the same. Give yourself some leeway.”
“I feel so…dirty, guilty, when I think of her…” I said, speaking to life the feelings I’d buried. Ama laughed quietly.
“You are first and foremost a man, Killian. It’s how you choose to act on those impulses that defines what kind of man you are.” She said.
“Will she ever want me, though?” I whispered. Ama patted my shoulder, causing me to peer at her.
“She already does, in her own way. She wants you by her side, to protect her, to comfort her. And her desire will only grow with time,” she patted my broad shoulder, standing as a dark figure trumped down the path, sour and crotchety as ever. I stood, greeting him.
“Ready, my dear?” Murdoc said, holding out his arm. Ama cupped my face, planting a kiss on my cheek, before turning to leave. I watched them go into the night, hearing Murdoc grumble: “Ye never kiss me that way.”
I laughed, turning to head inside. In the dim light of the fire, Emmelyne slept peacefully, her long hair in loose waves across her pillow. I walked forward, bewitched by her ethereal beauty. I stripped quietly, throwing back the covers to burrow in next to her. She shifted and mumbled in her sleep, turning her back to me.
“Killian?” Came her drowsy, tired voice. I placed my hand on her shoulder, realizing it was bare.
“I’m here, wee one. Get ye back to sleep.”
She mumbled more nonsense, rolling onto her back, snoring softly. Our trek had clearly tired her. I noticed her abandoned shift, strewn across one of the chairs. The fact that she now trusted me enough to sleep next to me nude was a momentous step forward. I smiled, settling in. I yearned for her deeply, but perhaps waiting for something as pure as Emmelyne would somehow grant me absolution for my past sins.