Chapter 46

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It's a totally tight-lipped, hush-hush sort of ordeal. The kind that none of us at that table are to speak of until more arrangements have been made, and then the public will be informed. That means Connor will not be crowned king for another few days. But we've made it.
Finally, the king is out of our way. It's hard for Connor of course... the man has destroyed his entire life, but in essence, he's still killing his own father. I, obviously, feel little to no remorse for the mysterious death of king Thomas. The man wanted to kill me for not having a baby, for God's sake. But now Connor is going to be king. Now he's finally going to be able to change everything, and drag Clockman out of it's grave and reinstate it to all it's former glory.
It's almost too good to be true.
Is it?
I know Connor has finally conquered his emotions about his father, though, when he addresses me during a quiet breakfast a few days later.
"We're going swimming today." He states openly. I stare at him.
"What?"
"I said we're going swimming today." He repeats. "You know, like, in water."
"Yes, Connor, I know what swimming is. But why...?"
He shrugs. "Gregory found some forest pool of some sort, a bit down off the main road. Told me about it yesterday."
"So is he coming?"
"Him and his new girl." He rolls his eyes. By now, I'm accustomed to Gregory's constant string of lovers. A new woman every week, apparently.
"What should I wear?" I eye him nervously.
"A brassiere." He says pointedly, and I feel myself blushing embarrassedly. Yes, that did make things just a tad awkward... on the other hand, now I have shirtless Connor to look forward to today.
We meet Gregory and this new woman of his out by the stables. They're already mounted on a horse, him holding her from behind as she giggles needlessly. This is going to be annoying.
They look up as we approach across the field. We turn to rope in separate horses, but Gregory calls out;
"You won't be riding the same steed?"
Connor glances at me. Asking without words. I shrug, and he saddles his favorite black horse up. I hop up, and he leaps on behind me this time, his legs bracing themselves over mine and his chest pressing gingerly into my shoulders.
His hands slide beneath my arms to grab the reins, and he spurs to horse over to Gregory, who does the honors of introducing us.
"Ah, this is Melody," He purrs to the woman, a thin, blond, giggly wisp of a girl. "Melody, Connor- the good prince of Clockman- and his wife, dear Hollie."
Her foolish smiles drizzles as she looks me up and down, eyes hardening and becoming cold. Connor picks up on this too, inching forward slightly and gripping his legs around me more protectively.
Then we're off and riding. Trotting at a steady pace down the path. All the while, I swear Gregory never stops flirting with Melody. It's annoying.
"God," I murmur to Connor, and he leans over my shoulder to hear me. "are we that bad?"
"Oh, no," He shakes his head, "definitely worse."
"This way!" Gregory calls back to us at some point after we break off from the main wagon trail, and have been meandering down the thin forest trail for some time. Connor slows our horse and follows him carefully into the bushes.
"You sure you know where you're going?" I holler up after we wander along for another couple of minutes, seemingly heading in no certain direction.
"I never get lost!" He yells back, just as we force the horses through a particularly thick spot of bramble, then suddenly break through the thicket, and find ourselves in a wide clearing.
My breath is taken away.
The sun gilds the surface of the deep, clear pool a molten gold, the little spring at it's head bubbling cheerfully and churning with white waves as it tumbles off a low stone cliff nearly twenty feet, splattering in on the blue mirror below.
"How'd you stumble by this?" Connor says in awe, still taking in the scene.
Gregory shrugs. "Out on patrol."
We tie the horses to the nearest tree, and begin the laborous scramble up the rocky slope. Hand over hand, fingers grasping at cracky holds and feet skidding down smooth, weather-beaten stone as the waterfall rushes down with a roar to our side.
When we reach the top (Connor first, pulling me up after him, then Gregory, with Melody making her slow way up) the men immediately shed their shirts and boots. Gregory (predictably) 'helps' Melody out of her dress.
Connor doesn't bother to offer, because he respects my space, which I appreciate infinitely. Him and Gregory stand at the edge of the cliff, peering down at frothing throttling waters below and commenting on who would do a better cannonball as I manage to slip out of my dress. Thank God I remembered to wear a simple one I could manage on my own.
I feel naked once I remove all garments but for my underwear and brassiere. Melody looks completely at peace, though, despite the fact that her rips stick out in her sides, and I can't look uncomfortable in front of her. It's a pride thing, I suppose.
"Hollie, are you rea...." Connor glances over his shoulder and his eyes find me, his voice trailing off. His arms are limp to his sides, and he stares at me with a strange look in his eyes as I walk forward. He gulps, several times, Adam's apple rising and falling, and his face grows redder every second.
"Connor?" I wave my hand in front of his eyes, and he snaps out of it and stares ashamedly down at his feet.
"Alright!" Gregory claps his hands together excitedly, as we line up on the edge of the cliff. The wind rustles in the forest around us, tickling the leaves and singing through the grass, and the waterfall roars to our side, splattering far below in the deep pool. "We going to jump?"
"Hell, yes." Connor reaches for my hand. I hesitate a moment, before clutching it firmly, feeling the scars and muscles bending beneath my fingers.
"On three, then?" Gregory grins over at us. My toes wriggle on the edge, sending tiny specks of gravel plummeting over the edge and falling to the water in seven tiny targets. "One. Two. THREE!"
We launch ourselves off the cliff, flying through the air. Laughter. Connor's rich, hearty barks of joy as we free fall. My stomach flies into my throat. Then we hit the water a split-second later.
We don't hit right, of course. Our knees smack the surface hard, sending a numb wave of shock up our bodies and temporarily immobilizing us as we sink quickly through the dark depths. Bubbles and cool water everywhere, freezing my flesh and encasing my body. Then my head resurfaces, and I gulp in a deep breath.
"Whhoooo!" Connor crows triumphantly, punching the air with his free hand as our heads break the surface. He turns to me, an immense grin taking up his entire face.
I can't help but grin back.
Then his hand slips out of mine and he dunks me back under by the shoulders.
I take a deep breath just before I go under. I blink quickly as the coolness presses on my eyeballs, and before me I can only see Connor's treading body, his naked chest. With a strong swipe of my legs, I rise back up and grab his shoulders, half pulling myself out of the water until I weigh enough to push him down under.
I duck down as well, and gurgling water fills my ears yet again, a pleasant pressure pressing in on me as I splay my arms to dive down a little further to him. Through the blurry water, I can make out his grinning face, hair swirling around him like a halo of sunshine.
Then he reaches out and grasps my shoulders again, not pulling me down now, but towards him. Then our arms are locked around each other, spinning and revolving in that bubbly underwater world, and our mouths are suctioned to each other's.
We share oxygen as his hands caress my body, stroking slowly down my bare skin, and I reach around him and touch the formed muscles of his back, tensing and bunching as he holds me with more passion still. Bare skin against bare skin, the water an invisible layer between us, restricting us from our own desire. Our legs entwined, his hands holding my thighs and hips and waist, our mouths locked together, it might never end-
I'm startled by sudden movement in the upper corner of my vision. I jerk back from Connor, and the air we'd shared disappears upwards in a large bubble, sucked from our mouths. We both stare at a hysterical Gregory, pointing us out to his girlfriend. I realize we've nearly sunk to the bottom of the pool, and we kick quickly back up as our lungs begin to compress inwards from lack of oxygen.
We break the surface, coughing and spluttering. Perhaps making out under water isn't the best idea after all.
"I thought you didn't roll like that, Connor?" Gregory guffaws as we paddle breathlessly to the shore. We slouch on the long, cool grass, and I look over at Connor's increasingly scarlet face.
"At least we're married." I retort, and Gregory blushes now.
We jump off a few more times. Clambering up the cliff, throwing ourselves off the edge, and finding the most creative ways to slap the water and make our eyes tear up, laughing jubilantly all the while. I realize I'm enjoying myself, actually. I'm having fun.
How long has it been since I last heard that word?
"Better start heading back," Connor sighs at last, as we lay side by side in the grass, soaking wet, and watching the clouds pass us by. Not a care in the world. Not for the moment, that is. "It'll be dark soon."
We saddle up. We head back up the cliff again to fetch our clothes (in retrospect, it was a bad idea to change at the top in the first place), and I can't slip back into my tight dress with my wet underwear.
"Here," Connor thrusts his dry shirt into my hands, and I slide it on over my head, letting it fall loosely down to my mid-thigh, the sleeves dangling off my hands.
Soon, we're back on our horses, following Gregory's lead as he leads us back to the path. At least, we hope that's where he's going, but nobody really has any idea.
While we meander aimlessly through the forest, I'm all too conscious of Connor sitting topless directly behind me. His hips adjacent to mine, and his knees tucked over mine, his hands resting on my hips with the reins woven between his fingers. Not that I notice any of it... not the warmth of his breath on the back of my neck, nor the vibrations his voice sends through his chest into my back and up my spine.
"Gregory..." He says. I shiver, the power in his voice almost overwhelming. "are you sure this is the same way we came?"
"Connor!" Gregory glances back over his shoulder some way ahead, Melody cooing in his arms. "Have faith in me, friend! I never get lost!"
I reach down and gently run my fingers over Connor's rough hands as I take a deeper look into the forest. Searching for a familiar stone, a recognizable tree trunks, something.... My breath catches.
"Connor." I whisper, making sure Gregory can't hear.
"Mmm?"
"Look at that tree." I point at a trunk as we're passing, and he squints into the forest gloom. I can feel his heart skip deep in his chest.
"Damn it all." He mutters. The slash in the tree is unmistakably the same one that he put there himself a couple of nights ago. "Um... Gregory?"
"What is it now?" He scoffs with mock impatience.
"Hey, I think, um, that it might be a good time to look for a different trail-"
"We aren't even on a trail-"
"Precisely my point." He says nervously. We pass another cut in the trees. We're walking right towards the tied up king.... "Really, I think perhaps I should take the lead-"
"You have a terrible sense of direction, no offense meant, sire."
"But I think we're going the wrong way-"
"So what?" Gregory shrugs. "We could all use a little bit of adventure."
"Gregory," I say warningly. Another marker. "I really think we should try turning around. Now."
"What is it with you?" He snorts. "Afraid of the dark, are you?"
"We know a different way-"
"Yes, but this is the right way-"
"But we haven't passed that rock before-"
"Alright. I'm taking a different path."
"I thought you said this wasn't a path?"
"I-well, I-"
A moan breaks the air. Both horses stop in their tracks, and silence fills the woods.
"What... the hell... was that?" Gregory stares at us over his shoulder.
"We need to go." Connor says stiffly, tense behind me.
"No! We need to find out what that is!"
Before we can argue, Gregory has spurred his horse forward, and we have no choice but to trample through the brush after him.
"I think it came from over here-" Connor suggests, but Gregory shakes his head up ahead.
"No... no, I'm sure it was this way-"
The moaning grows louder, muffled groans that grow increasingly more human as we come closer and closer to the source. Connor's hands fidget with the reins. There's nothing we can do to sway Gregory's path, and he's determined to reach the source of the commotion. All we can do is follow, and hope he gets lost. But we follow the trail of sword-cut trees, closer and closer to the king of Clockman, who we ourselves left for dead.
And then Gregory pulls his horse to a halt up ahead. I hold my breath.
"Christ! It's Thomas, Connor! Get over here! I found the king!"

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