After a lengthy visit from the seamstress came an immense dinner comprised of thick beef and vegetable stew and two loaves of bread. We both ate rather greedily, though Emmelyne scrunched her nose in distaste after a sip of mulled wine. Murdoc ate with us, conversing lightly, though she still wouldn’t say much. I chocked it up to the way she’d been raised by religious zealots, hoping that in time she’d allow herself the small bit of freedom I had to offer. We left her to wash up in a hot bath after dinner as the wind outside the inn picked up. The snow storm was finally hitting in full-force, and the town reflected that.
I sat in the creaky wooden chair, boots propped on the dirty table, eyes heavy with sleep. I’d given Emmelyne free reign of the bed, warmed at how delighted she was, though I was now questioning my decision. The idea of sleeping on a soft mattress was too tempting to pass up. I stood quietly, sauntering over to the side least occupied. She slept on her back, an arm above her head while one rested on her stomach. Her loose braid hung off the edge, her mouth parted slightly. It was the first night she’d not screamed in her sleep, and I was silently grateful.
I raised and lowered my arms nearly ten times to take off my shirt, sweat pooling between my shoulder blades in the stuffy room. I’d always been hot-blooded, used to sleeping in a tent on the road rather than a room with four insulated walls.
“Fuck it,” I whispered, too hot and tired to care if my nudity embarrassed her. She was asleep, anyway. I pulled my shirt over my head, rustling my ruddy, curly hair back into place as I dropped the cloth to the floor, reaching to tug off my boots and hide my dagger within reach. Standing straight once more, I reached for the ties on my breeches, too far now to let shame spurn me from a night in a bed. I sighed in relief as I kicked off my pants, finally beginning to cool. I pulled back the covers on my side, deciding a pillow between us may prevent any ashamed outbursts should she wake before me.
Finally, I rolled into bed, sleep overcoming me almost immediately.
“Killian,” a small voice whispered from far away. I felt cool, comfortable, exhausted. I ignored the voice.
“K-Killian,” it came again, sounding more urgent and frightened. Still, I pushed it away as though it were an annoying gnat.
My eyes snapped open, my hand curling around the hilt of my dagger, as icy fingertips lightly brushed the ruddy hairs of my forearm. I whirled, completely awake, albeit very disoriented. The light from the fire was nothing more than an orange glow, the howling of the wind engulfing every other noise. My eyes finally fell to Emmelyne, her face wrought with fear. She opened her mouth to speak once more, but I clamped my hand over her lips, hearing the disturbance below our floor that must have woken her.
She trembled beneath my hand as I strained to hear what the muffled voices were saying. I heard a few cries, some more scuffling. I had an idea of what it would be. I locked eyes with her.
“Stay put.” I commanded in a whisper. “Bolt the door and don’t open it ’til ye hear it’s me, understand?” I instructed. She nodded. I whisked my hand away and stood, remembering all too late that I’d chosen to sleep nude. I had no time for embarrassment as I reached for my shirt. I caught her eyes, wide and staring clearly below my waistline. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen it before, and much closer at that, but for some reason her embarrassment irked me.
“Do ye mind?” I growled, pulling my breeches up and fastening them hastily. Mouth agape, she turned away, slapping her cheeks with her hands at realizing she’d been caught staring. Dagger in hand, I advanced to the door, the quiet voices turning to shouts below us. I pried open the door slowly, poking my head into the hall. Murdoc was doing the same. I caught his eye as he nodded, letting me know he had my back. I turned to glance behind me, seeing Emmelyne on her hands and knees at the edge of the bed, her cheeks stained red, her curious eyes following my every move.
“Stay put.” I said again, closing the door on her. Murdoc and I made our way down the stairs, coming upon a rather grizzly scene. Robbers.
Unlike the Brotherhood, these men band together in small packs, working their way from one town to the next, feigning innocent travelers who would turn vicious as night fell. The barkeep was propped against the bar, beaten to a pulp, moaning slightly as a grizzled man searched his pockets. The chambermaid was held tight by another man, his eyes glinting at the prize they’d found. Their heads snapped up as Murdoc and I made our presence known. The wind outside threw the shutters against the tavern in angry bursts.
“What have we here, lad?” Murdoc said, tossing his dagger from one hand to the other.
“Easy pickins’ if ye ask me,” I answered, smirking at the men, their eyes betraying their fear. People always seemed to know we were from the Brotherhood, even though we wore nothing of distinction. Perhaps it was the confident way we carried ourselves.
“Ah, fuck off,” the older man said, standing straight, holding in his hands the barkeep’s bag of coins. The other man, too afraid to back his friend, let go of the woman. Her eyes bulged as she stared at us, likely wondering which group would have treated her more gently. I caught her eye and jerked my chin toward the stairs. Chest heaving, she picked up her skirts and scampered away without hesitation.
“Murdoc, would ye care to take back the coin we so honestly paid?” I asked, my eyes not leaving the leader’s face. Murdoc moved in front of me, and I could see the giddy glint in his eye. Before he could advance any further, a small gasp from behind caught my attention.
I whirled around to face the stairs. A third man pushed forward into the middle of the tavern, Emmelyne wrapped tight in his arms. I forced my face into its casual smirk, not betraying how much this girl already meant to me. He pressed his dagger to her delicate throat. Her breaths were hitched, her eyes holding nothing but dark fear. The grimy man smiled, revealing his missing teeth.
“She’s a pretty lass,” he said, dagger traveling down her throat, slicing through the ties of her shift. I inwardly rolled my eyes, thankful she’d have new clothes by the end of this week.
“Aye, she is.” I nodded to the man, trying any tactic available so as to not provoke him.
“They…They’s from the Brotherhood!” The younger man whispered, turning tail and running out the door. Smart boy, I thought. The two remaining men sneered after him. My eyes caught the flash of a smaller knife on the table nearest me. The perfect size for throwing. I approached the man holding Emmelyne as Murdoc moved behind me. Her gasps were ragged, frightened.
“Hush now, love,” I said to her, tilting my head to the side. She stared at me, slowly comprehending and mimicking my motion, tilting her head out of the way.
“Ye know I don’t like sharin’ what’s mine,” I said to the man, holding his gaze. I surreptitiously swiped the knife from the table.
“But if yer willin’ to pay…” I said, shrugging. The man nearly drooled in excitement.
“How much?” He asked.
“Hmm,” I said, readying the small knife in my large hand. I glanced at Emmelyne once more. She craned her neck as far from the man as possible. In a flash, I flicked the small piece of steel, hitting my target with deft precision. The man bellowed in pain, his scream rivaling that of the storm outside, as the hilt of the knife protruded grotesquely from his eye. Emmelyne fell forward as he shoved her. The other man was quicker, his hand clasping her braid and yanking her to him, his hand reaching to crush her windpipe, her feet dangling off the ground. He reeled his fist back as I shoved chairs and tables out of my way, but I was too late as I heard the sickening sound of flesh and bone connecting. Her face seemed to crumble in pain as his knuckles hit her angelic face. I dove for the man, tackling him, forcing him to release his grip on Emmy. She fell to the side, coughing, crying.
I straddled the man, discarding my dagger for a tool much more satisfying. Rage burned through me as fist connected with face over and over, his bones caving in beneath my powerful and repetitive blows. I’d always had a dangerous temper, something I knew I’d inherited from my father, but I could only let it rush though me now. The man coughed, his blood spattering my face, but I couldn’t stop myself.
I felt Murdoc’s hand on my shoulder, pulling me away, heard Emmelyne’s frightened and pained cries. I fell back, my anger dissipating, my knuckles already swelling. My eyes settled upon her, noticing how she shook with fear, a bruise blossoming along her cheekbone. She was afraid, but not of these men. She was afraid of me.
I scrambled off the man, using my sleeve to wipe the blood from my face. A new anger surged through me, then. She’d disobeyed me. I turned my stare to her. I knew she recognized now that my indignation was focused on her alone. If she’d stayed put, she’d not have risked her life in such a brazen way.
I reached for her upper arm, yanking her up to me.
“I told ye to bolt the door,” I hissed. She cowered for a brief moment before her eyes blazed to life, her own anger replacing her usual fear.
“I don’t have to do what you tell me.” She seethed. I stared her down, sensing her challenge, knowing she’d been letting this build for some time now.
“Oh, ye don’t, eh?” I asked. I felt Murdoc behind us. This was something I didn’t need an audience for. Gripping her still, I pushed her in front of me to the stairs.
“Leave us be.” I said to Murdoc without turning to see if he agreed.
Back in our room, I released her and bolted the door. She stumbled forward, catching herself on the bed. Tears flowed down her cheeks. I prepared myself for her outburst, knowing it was time. I took a deep breath, telling myself not to say or do anything I’d regret. She’d know what her disobedience had cost her, but I knew she also needed to vent her anger at me for taking her life away from herself.
“I hate you!” She screeched. Her words burned through my chest more fiercely than I thought they would. I stood stoic, waiting for more. When I said nothing, she picked up her boot and threw it at my face. I dodged it, hearing it thump against the door. This angered her more. She wanted to hurt me. And oh, how I wanted to hurt her back. She moved to stand right in front of me, continuing to berate me.
“You’re a horrible, filthy person who has to…steal money and women because no one else will bed you!” She yelled, her face a deep crimson. I felt myself snapping in two at her untrue words.
“You’re all disgusting and I hate you and I want to go home!” She hollered. I stood still, though I began to tremble in anger. It took all my strength not to grab her and shake some sense into her.
“I am not your woman!” She screamed, using both of her hands to shove my chest. I barely moved, but her words were finally enough. I felt the menacing sneer on my face, felt my rapid breathing in and out through my flared nostrils. I’d risked everything to save her, and she would know it before the end. My hands shot out, gripping her arms as I backed her against the bed post. Her blue eyes flashed in fear.
“You’ll no speak to me that way.” I seethed. She inhaled quickly before spitting in my face. It took every fiber of my being to not slap her. Instead, I bent my head to be eye level with her, trembling with quiet rage, my fingers digging into her soft flesh.
“I could have really claimed ye, ye know. Taken yer innocence in front of a crowd of lusting men. Or I could have let Agnar have ye. He would have raped ye over and over and over, then beat ye for good measure, and then he’d have shared ye,” I gave her a slight shake, watching as her eyes filled with tears, as her bottom lip trembled.
“I could beat ye senseless now for disobeying me. I could force myself on ye whenever I feel the need. I could overpower ye so easily it wouldn’t even be fun.”
Her cheeks became wet with tears as I spoke the truth.
“Count yerself lucky that it was I who found ye. Because I’m no that kind of man, and ye know it, and that’s what makes this all the harder for you. You can’t hate me, no really, because I havena’ done anythin’ to ye.” I said through clenched teeth. She shuddered, seeming to relent, but I wasn’t finished.
“I’ll not tolerate disobedience, especially when you risk your life as well as mine. Best appreciate our time together, here, while we wait out this storm.” I warned. Her eyes flicked between mine.
“Why?” She whispered.
“Because when we leave, you’ll no be riding with me.”
“No!” She gasped, lurching forward. I held fast to her and to my punishment, as much as I already didn’t want to follow through.
“Please, I’m sorry—” she began. I shook my head.
“It’s no what ye said to me that’s making me punish ye, for I can handle that,” I said, straightening up. “It’s that ye need to learn there are consequences in my world, and none of them are particularly pretty.”
She shook her head, trembling.
“You’ll ride the rest of the way home with Rollo. Ye can still sleep in my tent, but you’ll no get off that easily. Understood?” I nodded sharply. Her face was completely crestfallen, making me regret my decision immediately. But I had no other choice. Emmelyne needed to learn to trust my decisions.