Emmelyne walked close enough to me to be my shadow. I watched her expressions, committing them to memory. Her eyes betrayed her stark fear, widening ever further at the array of bloodied, brutalized bodies and burned cottages. If the sight didn’t already overwhelm her, the stench surely would. Rollo and Murdoc followed behind, casting their glares to those who stared too long at her.
She wore my plaid shawl diagonally across her chest. It brought a small smile to my lips; the shawl was from my mother’s clan, the colors a bit faded now. I remembered her, on the edges of my mind, teaching me how to fasten it like the men of her clan. Emmelyne had stared at it, touching it with her dainty fingertips, unused to such colors; the greens were deep, like a forest, the blues navy like a bottomless lake. She only had a thin white shift left to wear, so I’d thrown the plaid about her and fastened it, cloaking her in the clan that ran through my veins and gave me some pride in who I was.
I moved behind Emmelyne, guarding her back the closer we got to the mess hall. More men were milling about, the smell of warm bread and roasted meat overpowering the smell of death. I bumped into her as she stopped, causing me to grip her upper arms to steady ourselves. Confused, I followed her stare. To the right of the long mess hall was a thin, towering rod, spearing the severed head of a man with greying hair.
She turned to me, her eyes dark.
The mess hall was filled to capacity. I’d hoped to hide in the back, lingering out of Agnar’s sight, but he’d spotted us as soon as we’d entered, clearly waiting for our arrival. We were stuck seated at the front table, right under his filthy gaze as he sat upon his throne. Emmelyne kept her eyes down the entire time, though I noticed how the women cast surreptitious glances at one another, sizing up the damages that had been dealt to them. It became clear, the jealousy and contempt in the other women’s eyes as they stared at Emmelyne’s unbruised and unblemished face.
The men were loud and riotous, having become bored with their conquests. This (I knew from experience) was when they’d start fighting one another to steal women that appealed more to their preferences. I saw the lust in Agnar’s eyes as he stared at the trembling girl next to me, his own woman sitting on the ground at his feet.
Murdoc shoved a mug of ale my way. I gripped the handle, hoisting it to him in thanks, before drinking deeply. It was bitter, their brewers obviously not very good at their job, but it was still ale. Rollo ripped hunks of meat off the roasted chickens as they were passed around, acting as though he’d never eaten. I grabbed bread and a drumstick, pushing the plate to Emmy. She only stared at it. Knowing I had to keep up with appearances after a kick under the table from Murdoc, I wrapped my arm around her, pulling her close. I bent to her ear.
“Eat, please, ye need yer strength.”
Shakily, she raised her hands to the table and took timid bites of bread. Agnar’s eyes followed her every move. I knew he was scrutinizing her reactions to me, gauging her fear, measuring it to other claimed women. I ate my fill, knowing the journey back home would consist of stale bread and moldy cheese and whatever animal I was able to trap.
I felt a heavy shove from behind as a body collided with mine and Emmelyne’s back, causing me to slosh ale over the table. Murdoc stood, his lip curled back, as he drew his dagger. Emmy gasped; I noticed the grubby hand groping her chest. I whirled, catching the drunken man off guard with my speed, my fist colliding with his jaw. He teetered back, blood pouring from his mouth, before he fell to the ground with a resounding thud. Everyone around us quieted for a moment as I seethed; I’d passed my first test.
I sat back down—the bench shaking with the force—trembling with rage. I propped my elbows on the table, clasping my hands together near my face, watching them shake.
“Easy, lad,” Murdoc said, taking his seat as well. Rollo snorted next to me.
“That was easy.”
I remembered Emmy by my side, the reason I’d now be forced to fight on a likely daily basis. Her eyes were wide, her mouth agape, as she stared at her lap.
“I-I’m sorry,” she muttered, quivering. I felt the sneer on my face, felt the weight of Agnar’s eyes again, waiting to see how I’d punish her for something that wasn’t her fault. I gently wound my fingers through her silky hair at her scalp, forcing her to look up at me as I bent to her ear once more.
“’Tis no yer fault, ye faerie. I’m sorry I have to do this to ye in front o’ him.” I whispered. She made a small sound that I knew to be understanding. I let go of her, my hands lingering in her soft hair, wanting to wind themselves back in, to cradle her close. The searing jolt flashed through me. I knew I couldn’t win that battle against myself.
The rest of the feast was quiet, no man willing to challenge me openly again. The men of the Brotherhood became more rowdy as a cask of whisky was rooted from someone’s cellar. Emmelyne’s eyes continued to widen as she witnessed what happened after a raid. Fights broke out amongst drunken and jealous men, women wailed, some trying to escape. I wrapped my arm around her once more, resting my hand on the side of her thigh, more so to comfort her this time.
Unable to witness her shattered expressions anymore, I knew I needed a way for us to leave. Agnar was distracted for the moment with his woman, but his eyes danced delightedly as the chaos swirled around him.
“Emmy?” I whispered in her ear. She looked up at me, her cheeks blotched with red.
“We’ll leave, but we must…make a scene of it,” I jerked my chin to Agnar. Her lips parted as she nodded. I felt my face redden as I pulled her onto my lap, swinging her up into my arms as I stood. As I turned us to leave, I saw Agnar push his woman away.
“Fuck,” I muttered.
“So compliant already,” Agnar said breathlessly as he stood in front of us. Emmelyne turned her torso away from him, seeking safety. I felt her hand curl into a fist on my chest.
“Aye, ’twas easy enough to tame a virgin.” I said. Agnar snorted, reaching for her chin. He grasped it roughly, forcing her to turn her tragic gaze onto him. The hand that wound behind my neck and rested on my other shoulder squeezed me tight.
“Care to share?” He asked. I felt my gaze turn deadly. He’d been consuming too much whisky, causing him to be even more brazen. In a flash, he ripped her from my arms. Without hesitation, I dove for him, seeking to kill. Emmelyne screamed as her shift was ripped down the middle. I reached for her, yanking her behind me as more men prepared to pounce. I brandished my dagger, pointing it at a laughing Agnar.
“Just testin’ ye.” His eyes gleamed with drink. Emmelyne gripped my arm, her nails digging into my flesh in terror. I shoved past him wearing a menacing sneer, feeling Emmelyne and Murdoc follow.
The fresh air did nothing to help clear my head.
“Lad…” Murdoc said, causing me to whirl on him in anger. Emmelyne shivered at his elbow, clutching my shawl to her chest to cover her nakedness. My anger dissipated.
“Ye knew it would be this way,” he continued, crossing his arms. His lengthy brown hair with its silver strands was always tied neatly at his neck. No one challenged him either when it came to shearing his locks.
“That doesna’ mean I have to like it.” I growled.
“Ye know I’d…help ye, if it came down to it.” His voice was quiet, barely heard over the wintry wind. I caught the subtle hint he was playing at. I nodded.
“Aye, I know ye would. But I’ll no ask that of ye.” I said. I reached out my hand to Emmy, who surprisingly came near me, grasping my hand without hesitation. Perhaps she finally understood that I wasn’t the bad guy.
Back in the cottage, Emmy slept on her bed, albeit fitful. I sat in front of the fire, stitching the only article of clothing she had left. The tear was long, right down the middle of the thin fabric, and my stitching was clumsy at best. I held up the finished piece, deciding that maybe stealing some clothes wouldn’t be the worst idea. I threw it aside, glancing back at the bed as she rolled over, mumbling. She was tangled in her blankets and my plaid. She clutched the cloth to her bare chest. I smiled, the sight warming my hardened heart.