I stared down at Emmelyne beneath me, her hair splayed across the featherbed, her cheeks tinged with pink, her skin glowing ethereally in the firelight. Her blue eyes blazed with a hunger I’d not seen before, only enticing me more. I watched my trembling hand as my fingers slowly pulled at the ties on her bodice. She smiled in encouragement. How I’d longed for this moment, for her to give herself to me, and I to her. It was more than a boy’s lust that I felt for her; it was a man’s need for a woman, to protect her and cherish her and give her your entire self, because this world is too dark to go it alone.
Why was I afraid? Surely of rejection, of her someday growing bored with me and leaving. Afraid I’d have to share her with another, and another, and yet another…
No, I thought harshly. I’d never have to share my love like that again. We’d be bound, her and I, to each other and none else. This I knew in my heart’s core.
I shuddered as her dainty hands found their way up and under my shirt, trailing along the muscles of my stomach, my chest. Her touch seemed to calm me and excite me at the same time. I pulled open her bodice, unable to delay any longer. I bent down, my eyes holding hers, as I placed an eager kiss on her soft, full lips. She responded, mimicking my motions, still so new at this aspect of life.
The kiss only confirmed my suspicions; that I was hopelessly in love with her, that I’d cross seas and mountains for her. I cupped her face in my hand, holding her close.
Her kissing ceased in a flash. I pulled away, afraid I’d crossed some boundary. Her eyes were terrified, wide as the night I’d claimed her. Her bottom lip quivered as her hands rushed to cover her exposed chest. My brow furrowed in utter confusion.
“Ahh!” I hissed, feeling a searing jolt flash through my head. I felt it would split in two at the veracity of the pain. Many images flashed before my eyes, then, so jumbled and quick I couldn’t focus on one, and the pain only increased. I saw mountains, stormy seas, flashes of fiery red hair in the wind, black eyes, heard the screams of the dying and tortured, saw Emmelyne walking barefoot in the snow, her dressed tattered, her face wet with tears and blossoming with bruises, saw gems and wealth galore, saw Mount Tier burned to ashes, saw Emmelyne stiffly undressing back home in my tent, her shift stained with blood.
With another hiss, the pain ceased, leaving me weak and breathless. A piercing scream sounded, and I opened my eyes to darkness.
I rolled over in the small tent, feeling Emmelyne thrashing beside me in her sleep. My brain felt muddled from the dream-turned-vision-turned-nightmare. Back to reality, I realized she was having a nightmare as well. I moved to my knees, clamping a hand over her mouth. Her screams would attract unwanted attention in our encampment. Perhaps being on the road was messing with both our tired minds.
She continued to jerk around, leaving me no choice but to pin her down with my body.
“Emmy!” I whispered harshly. Her blue eyes sprang open, roving around the tent in fear before they fell upon my face. Her chest heaved with deep, rapid breaths beneath me.
“Will ye stop screamin’?” I asked, quirking an eyebrow. She stilled for a moment before nodding. I removed my hand, but stayed on her, chest to chest, our faces inches apart. It was impossible to not remember the dream I’d just had. I felt a wave of nausea.
“Are ye alright?” I said. She took a deep, shuddering breath before nodding. I rolled off her, sitting up and dragging my hands along my tired face, feeling stubble along my jaw. We’d been on the road for two weeks now, and the snow pack was moving further south, causing us to be delayed more than once. I chalked up our nightmares to sheer exhaustion.
I peeked at her from between my fingers. She was sitting up, adjusting my plaid about her shoulders. It seemed she’d taken over that article of clothing, but I didn’t mind. I’d found her some clothes to wear, dark hues this time, though the bodice was too large for her frame, the skirts a bit too long. I sighed, yet again caught off guard by her beauty in the early dawn hours. She’d let her hair loose for the first time last night, her brown locks falling in silky waves down her back.
Her eyes flashed to me, then darted down. I felt myself blushing as she caught me staring.
“What were ye dreamin’ about?” I asked to divert her attention. She stilled.
“Many things,” she shrugged. I gathered she wouldn’t want to share. I didn’t, either, so I let her be. I found it odd, how often she had such vivid dreams. I’d had to wake her nearly every night on our journey home, and now it seemed I was being plagued as well.
“We’ll be home in a week or so, then we can get ye some proper clothes and rest. And food,” I added, watching as she smiled timidly, staring own at her hands. She wasn’t one for much conversation, though I never expected her to want to share any part of herself with me. But it seemed she’d grown to trust me, if only a little. She really had no choice in that matter; she depended on me for everything, from food and shelter, to protection and companionship. She seemed to be gaining trust with Murdoc as well, but not Rollo. Every time he came near, she’d shy away behind me, or seek shelter in our tent. I knew it was because he resembled his brother.
She shivered, making me realize how cold it was. It must have snowed during the night. She pulled her blanket up and tightened my plaid once again. I smirked.
“Here,” I held out my hand, motioning her to come near me. Every day we rode together, my arms holding her tight to me for hours. I’d come to enjoy the arduous trek home for that reason. Casting her eyes down, she scooted closer. I wrapped my arm about her shoulders, chaffing her arm.
“Don’t ye worry, I’ve a small hearth at home, so ye won’t have to suffer in the cold like this.” I said lightly. She leaned into me slightly. I knew she was still afraid of me, afraid of any close contact, but I’d proven I’d never hurt her. I watched as she fiddled with her hands—her nervous habit. I found it rather endearing.
“I don’t like him,” she whispered, a tremble running through her. I stopped rubbing her arm, studying her body language.
“Your big friend,” she said, glancing up at me, biting her lip.
“Agnar is no my friend.” I said, confused. She shook her head.
“The one who looks like him,” she said, a steady quivering setting in. I put it together, then, who she’d been dreaming of.
“Ah, Rollo has his faults, but he’ll no hurt ye. He knows I’d kill him,” I chuckled, pulling her closer.
“Do we have to go back…there?” She asked. I gathered she meant the Brotherhood lands. I nodded.
“Aye, ’tis where my home is, for now. And it will be yers, as well.” I said, my heart falling at her expression. I couldn’t force her to like my decisions, couldn’t force her to be happy, but if I let her go now, her life would be void and in constant danger. No man would marry a woman who’d appeared to have been claimed, and no man would believe her if she told them otherwise. I was her best chance at survival.
“Come along, we’ll get some breakfast and break camp. We can get ahead of the rest and make it to a tavern for the night, eh?” I asked. Her face lightened a bit at my proposal.
Murdoc had already broken his camp, not one for wasting time.
“I’ll accompany ye,” he said, throwing his saddle over his horse’s back. I followed suit, tightening the cinch. My reddish mare swayed, bringing her great head around to stare at me. I ruffled her mane. She snorted, her breath a white puff in the chill air. Emmelyne had grown rather attached to her, but was unable to pronounce her name. I’d borrowed the word from my mother’s clan language, the sound ancient and difficult. She’d settled on calling her Ari instead.
“I could use a good drink and a decent meal,” he grumbled. I smirked.
“Aye, must be difficult on the road for ye, as old as ye are,” I dodged the water skin he threw at me, laughing.
The day was dreary, the clouds heavy and thick with snow, the ground covered in frost. We’d need this early start, to get ahead of the storm and hunker down as it rolled past. I wanted to give Emmelyne a break as well, some time to continue adjusting.
“So,” Murdoc said, checking the straps along his saddle. “Why does yer woman keep waking the entire camp in the middle o’ the night?” He asked, staring pointedly at me. I glared.
“I’ve no lain a hand on her,” I growled, checking my straps as well.
“I never said ye did,” He said, raising his eyebrows, his thin lips engulfed by his beard.
“She has nightmares.” I explained. He nodded.
“She’s a faerie.”
I rolled my eyes at his old superstition. Faeries were powerful, akin to seers and witches, able to have visions of the past, present, and future. Able to give prophecies and curses. I never believed in such nonsense, though Murdoc did.
“She’s just exhausted and tryin’ to adjust to this new life,” I argued, reaching for the reins.
“Hmph.” He responded.
I clicked my tongue, bringing Ari around. Emmelyne sat on a log a ways behind, tying up her boots. I brought my horse to a stop in front of her, watching her, the beginning of my dream coming back to me in a flash. I suppressed the images, forcing myself not to think of her in that way. She stood, dusting the fresh snow off her skirts.
I reached for her, helping her into the saddle before I swung up behind her, wrapping my arms about her. She was warm in my embrace, safe. Murdoc ambled ahead, his horse’s tail swishing a few times, angry at having to continue this trek. We left behind the sleeping Brotherhood, the tightness leaving my chest as we did so. Freedom was unknown to me, but I would often get glimpses of it. If I deserted now, they’d never stop hunting us. I couldn’t put Emmelyne in that kind of danger. The bloody visions from my nightmares were on the forefront of my mind as we wound our way deep into the forest.
The townspeople must have been warned the Brotherhood was near; every man and woman glanced at Murdoc and I with fear plain as day in their eyes. The storm was finally hitting—huge, puffy snowflakes snaking their way to the muddy ground. Emmelyne stared at the people, at the buildings and shops and taverns. I doubted she’d ever seen another sight in her life, having been raised and brainwashed in that hellhole Dal.
Murdoc chose an inn at the edge of town as the sun began to set. We hobbled our horses and gathered our things, heading into the warmth. As the door closed behind us, every head turned to stare. Murdoc rolled his eyes and made his way to the barkeep, asking for rooms. The man nodded quickly, muttering there would be no charge.
“Ye hear that laddie? No charge!” Murdoc said grumpily.
“No charge?” I asked sarcastically.
“Aye, that’d be what I said, or do ye need me to clean out those ruddy ears of yers?” He leaned against the bar, smirking at me.
“Nah, I hear just fine,” I said, winding my way to him, gripping Emmelyne’s hand. I stared down at the young barkeep.
“Tell ye what,” I whispered to his shaking form. “I’ll double yer pay if ye can have food and drink sent to our room, and the best seamstress in yer town. Deal?” I quirked an eyebrow. He began to stutter. I stopped him, pulling a small sapphire from my pocket and presenting it to him. His eyes widened. A gem like this would feed and clothe his family for a year. He slowly took it.
“Thank you…thank you,” he continued to mutter.
“Remember,” I tapped my nose. “Best seamstress for my woman, and nothin’ less.”
He nodded, glancing past me to stare at Emmelyne, drinking in her beauty. I knew she’d be blushing at this attention. I felt a glare creep onto my face. Murdoc slapped my shoulder.
“Our rooms?” He prodded. The young man scrambled around to us, leading the way up the rickety stairs, to the two largest rooms in the establishment.
“I’ll have them fetch ye food and drink and a hot bath straight away, milords!” He said as he scurried away. Murdoc ‘hmph’ed’ and left us in our spacious room. A fire burned bright and warm to one side, a grand featherbed dominating much of the space. I felt a chill of premonition, recalling my dream from the night before. Emmelyne moved to the bed, her fingers trailing along the soft cover. I could tell she was happy. She turned to smile at me, a small upturn of her full lips.
I shut the door, sliding the bolt into place, as I removed my sword belt and outer layers to settle in for the night. She watched me with cautious, curious eyes.
“I’m your woman?” She whispered as I sat heavily onto the creaky, wooden chair. Her words caught me by surprise.
“Aye, ye are,” I said nonchalantly, pulling off my boots.
“But…we still haven’t…” she trailed off, standing to face me, her hands gripping the bed frame behind her. I smirked.
“No, are ye suggesting we should? I wouldna complain,” I teased. She blushed, her eyes wide.
“No, no…I just mean…you’re so kind to me, to take it upon yourself to do things for me. I was always taught that…well, only husbands would do that.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Well, I don’t have to be yer husband to be a good man to ye, hmm?” I said. She nodded slightly.
“Ye know what I promised, and I keep my word,” I said, standing to move in front of her. She shrank back slightly.
“Unless ye want to be someone else’s?” I raised an eyebrow, teasing her. Her eyes widened in fear as she shook her head. I smiled.
“I…I don’t want that,” she whispered, unleashing her icy blue stare on me. My heart clenched.
“Good, because I don’t intend on sharin’ ye.”