A week had already passed as they traveled eastward. They were headed toward the coast to a ship which would carry them to Avestitia. Many times during their travels, Kiaran had found Davin watching her through campfires, or Alana telling old stories, or even Torin laughing and telling tales of their training within the City of Rishana.
At times, Kiaran was overly aware of what she was doing. She could feel eyes fixed on her every move, and this night was the same. Davin wasn't the only one who watched her. The other soldiers did as well. It was odd, she was unusual to see. None of the men knew Torin beforehand, but knowing his relation to Davin, they were surprised by his appearance.
Kiaran sat between Stella and Torin at a separate, small fire with a few other soldiers. The flames illuminated her skin, causing her to glow like a golden queen. Her gaze moved past Torin to the circle of people at the other fire beside them. Davin had glanced to her, but continued his conversation with the laughing Alana. Kiaran’s face flushed slightly as she leaned forward a bit, Torin blocking his view of her.
“Is everything alright?” Torin asked.
“Aye, just tired,” she answered.
Soon, everyone was asleep either in tents or wrapped in blankets beneath the stars. The moon lit up the dew drops upon the plants. The cool breeze brushed over Kiaran’s skin as she slept. A small, silver creature crept through the darkness. It nuzzled her fingers, making her hand flinch. Again, it nibbled her skin curiously. Kiaran flinched awake, her eyes staring into the orange, glass-like eyes of the small dragon. Its face was narrow and smooth, looking like it was covered in a coat of silver paint.
Her heart raced and she sat straight up, scooting away. It was long and slender, though only about half the length of her arm. The scales looked like little silver pebbles. There were small horns framing its face and lining its spine. It flickered its wings as it sat down, wrapping its tail around its feet. She crawled across the twigs and dirt of the forest floor until she reached Davin a yard or so away.
Grabbing hold of his shoulder, she shook him awake. He grunted as he rolled over, forcing his eyes to open. The fires were nearly out, allowing very little light to shine on her. He stared at her, confused, and then he saw her wide eyes. He sat up quickly as she pointed. His gaze followed her finger to the small, patient dragon.
“What is it? A dragon?” she whispered.
He nodded in disbelief, his mouth agape and his eyes wide. The creature fidgeted and Davin spoke hesitantly, “Reach out to it.”
Her brows lowered as she clenched her fist. “Why?”
His face was stern and curious as he continued to look at the dragon. Sighing, she lifted her hand and stiffly reached out. The dragon slinked back, lowering its head nervously.
Davin touched her arm and she drew back. He gently rested his hand on the back of hers and turned her hand upwards. Slowly, he guided her hand toward the creature. He placed his free hand on her back and she tensed up. He glanced to her as she stared at the dragon.
She leaned forward with him and he slid his hand up to her elbow and then released her. Her fingers were inches away from the shiny scales. It brought its nose to the tips of her fingers and sniffed. Instantly, it pulled itself onto her arm, climbing toward her shoulder. Its claws were small and sharp, but she was not scratched.
It rested its front claws on her shoulder and wrapped its tail around her arm. Its nose tickled her skin as it sniffed her cheek and hair. She cringed, holding back a nervous chuckle.
Davin stared in awe as it gently touched its nose to hers. Their eyes locked, and for a moment, it looked as though they were connected on a much more powerful level. Softly, its nose moved to her lips and it felt as though there was a shock as it touched her. A gravely purr came from deep within its chest. Kiaran quickly looked to Davin who smiled brightly.
“This is amazing,” he breathed.
The small creature hid its face beneath her hair, its hot breath warming the nape of her neck. Fireflies blinked in the air around them, the sky growing the faintest shade of pink. Davin stood, adjusting his tunic. Kiaran remained sitting on her knees, holding her arms stiffly as the dragon lied across the back of her shoulders. Its chest vibrated as it continued to purr and let out a few, happy chirps.
“I can’t believe this is a dragon,” Kiaran whispered as she stood with him. “A dragon...I wasn’t sure they were even real until we found some carcasses from a battle.”
“You’ve seen some?”
“Dead ones,” she lifted her eyes to his. “...Have you encountered any?”
He shook his head, keeping his voice low. Running a hand over his head, he inhaled deeply and said, “I’ve not been in many battles with the Avestitians...Murock said Alana and I were too valuable to lose to them.”
“So he knew that fighting them was futile?” she asked with a bit of a scowl. He lifted a shoulder then nodded, keeping his gaze on the odd little creature. The little dragon trilled, flexing its claws gently on her shoulder.
He looked to the sky as the sun slowly began to rise. “Let’s get ready to go...” He shifted his attention to the little, silver dragon and smiled. “Looks as though you have a new companion.”
“I do,” she smiled back.
As they traveled, Davin watched his brother converse with Kiaran. The little dragon was latched onto her shoulders, its tail swaying side to side. Kiaran had a wide grin, her eyes bright as she listened to Torin talk. Stella rode on the other side of him, also listening.
It was hard to tell when he had become so savvy with women. Guilt flooded through Davin…Perhaps it was not so horrible for Torin to have followed Kiaran. He was not as foolish as he believed. It seemed Torin had finally grown into a man.
However, his only concern was his very slight jealousy. He nearly laughed at the thought. But...What was it? He wanted to speak to Kiaran. He wanted to have her attention. Not his younger brother.
He felt eyes burning into him. Looking over, he locked gazes with Alana. “Kiaran, apparently, is not the only one who has changed.” She gestured toward Torin.
“He is so busy trying to woo Kiaran that he doesn’t notice any other women who throw themselves at him,” he jested. “What is the story of that…Stella?”
Alana swayed with her horse, watching the newcomer. The sunlight was broken through the leaves above them, glowing on her skin and bits of armor. The sounds of horses and a few dogs and talking soldiers filled the air as they marched. Stella was the perfect example of a beautiful woman. There were no tattoos and hardly any scars on her body, and she hardly acted like a Zeil.
Shaking her head, she answered, “I am not sure if there is one. When I asked, Kiaran simply said that she came from a similar background as her own.”
Kiaran glanced at them, the wolf fur brushing her cheek. Just as she expected, they, too, were watching her. The dragon sniffed the air toward Torin who watched her quizzically. She smiled a little and slowly faced forward again. That simple, small smile was enough to light Davin’s chest ablaze.
“It amazes me how this dragon came to you,” Torin said. “Will you name it?”
“It would be hard to base a name on its gender,” Kiaran replied with a small grin.
“What is its gender?”
“I don’t know,” she laughed. “I don’t feel that it should be named, but it should be called what it is.” He stared blankly, unable to comprehend her. She was not so sure if she understood it, herself. “We--we seemed to have connected in a way that is hard to explain. I feel as if it can communicate through emotions and feelings without using any words. But its…name is hidden,” she spoke slowly as she began to figure it out.
“It has a name already, though?” he pressed.
“Perhaps…but I am yet to know it,” she shook her head. “I am nearly as confused as you are. It seems as though a dream to be honest.”
Her eyes drifted past him to Stella who glanced between the Holloway brothers. There was something in her that made Kiaran uneasy. She could not trust her alone and decided to keep her within sight--just to be sure. It was highly unlikely that her assassin had such a change of heart.
“Kiaran?” Torin leaned in, “Is everything alright?”
Nodding, she said, “Perhaps I could use a drink.”
“Perhaps,” Stella agreed.
The sky grew dark with rain clouds as they traveled. The wind was picking up slightly as they moved through the trees that became gnarled and twisted. Everyone’s voices quieted as they grew tired. Even the few dogs they brought along were silent. In the far distance, Kiaran could barely see a figure heading toward them. She squinted and leaned forward to find that it was a carriage.
As they neared one another, the driver slowed his horses to a stop. He stood, saying, “Lady Coralea wishes to speak with the leader of the Zeil. It seems you may be a part of them, seeing as how you are not so far from their tribe. And if not, do you, per chance, know the way?”
Kiaran watched curiously as he opened the door for the Lady. An elegant, old hand took the man’s and she stepped out. Her light skin was nearly as white a snow compared to her black dress. A black hat covered her gray hair, a veil resting over her eyes. Wrinkles lined her eyes and mouth as she looked up. She walked by Kiaran and Stella, nearly making a face at them. Thus, she moved to Torin. Kiaran’s brows lowered, her arms folding across her chest.
“She is who you search for,” he pointed with his chin.
Slowly, Kiaran looked over to her as Coralea approached. Without the slightest sign of respect, she said, “I am in search of Kane; I am sure you are aware of him."
“Why do you need him?” Kiaran interrogated. The dragon adjusted its footing as it growled lowly. Shrugging the shoulder it was perched on, she hushed it.
Her eyes burned into the dragon as she answered, “He has stolen something from me years ago.”
Kane? He was not a thief--that much she was aware of. “What he has done before becoming a Zeil is unimportant to me. Kane is a good man and you may not have him,” she replied, unwilling to climb from her horse. The woman hardly deserved such respect.
The woman scowled as she raised her voice angrily. “I will not allow that--that man to get away with what he's done.”
She slid from her horse, the dragon leaping to the saddle behind her. Her hand shot to Coralea’s, lifting it to their sights. Expensive rings were wrapped around her fingers. “I believe you have enough riches as it is, Madam. If you learned the one important thing that the Zeil live by, you’d be a much happier person.”
Ripping her hand from Kiaran, she growled, “And what might that be?”
It only seemed to anger her farther. “I seek no forgiveness or happiness. That has been forever gone. Tell me where to find him or I shall take matters into my own hands,” she barked. Her driver lowered his eyes solemnly. Kiaran raised a brow, unconvinced. She thrust a fist through the air and shouted, “That one man has put your people at risk. Why protect him?”
She stood more alert, saying, “He is my family.”
The woman stormed into her carriage and slammed the door. The man silently took his seat and moved on. Kiaran sighed as she rested a hand on the cool saddle. She could feel eyes burning into the back of her head as she mounted the horse.
As they moved on, Davin looked to Alana. “Why would she put the tribe in danger for one man?” he asked lowly. “Family or not?”
“I am sure she has a reasonable answer,” she replied. She seemed to silently command him to ask her himself.
He nodded as he led his horse forward. Sometime that evening, he sat with Kiaran, both of them quiet for a moment. Then, he asked, “Why did you endanger your tribe for him?”
Her cool eyes met with his as he awaited an answer. “You did not hear me?” Sighing, she shook her head, saying, “Whatever he did, whoever he was prior to becoming a Zeil is unimportant to us. He has changed and should not be judged on a past mistake. The only one hurting now is the one who is unable to move on.”
She knew exactly what she was saying. He could see in her heart that she was right. Looking to Torin, he could see his change of heart as well. He had become a man all at once, it seemed. They have changed so dramatically in such a short amount of time.
“I understand,” he nodded slowly.
Nights had passed before they reached their first town. It was small enough not to worry about guards looking for the fugitives. However, it was too small for the entire army to move through unnoticed. The rain was coming down rather roughly, the sun hardly able to peak through the clouds. Most of the army posted tents in the nearby forest while the rest of them went into town.
Kiaran sat in the moist dirt, leaning against the inn. The roof above her kept only some of the rain off of her. The cold drops running down her skin were relaxing. Her fingers fiddled with the dragon’s tail as it slept underneath her vest against her belly. The sound of the raindrops was becoming louder as they fell harder. She closed her eyes as she nearly fell asleep.
Alana’s voice broke through the air, “My dear, why do you not come to your room to rest?”
“I have grown to enjoy the fresh air,” she grumbled. “Besides, I need stillness.”
“Oh, well, do you mind if I bother you for a moment?” she asked.
“Not at all, Alana,” she smiled as she opened an eye. “I hope you don’t mind the mud.”
Alana remained standing as she leaned her back against the wall beside her. “I believe Ritiann may be able to assist us. She rules Avestitia wisely. King Murdock will be brought down.”
“Who will replace him?”
“We will find that out at a later time,” Alana sighed.
“We cannot go into this blind. We need some sort of plan, Alana. You of all people should know this. If we take out the king, and we do not have one to replace him, there will be chaos.” Kiaran looked up at her. “Who do you believe should be king?”
Her eyes lowered as she was filled with disappointment. Kiaran stood, saying, “There are only a small, set number of people who are able to take control and keep it.” She rested a hand on her arm, continuing, “Alana, you are powerful, intelligent, and good of heart. If anyone could deserve this position, it should be you.”
“We shall see,” she chuckled nervously. “Come inside and enjoy yourself.”
A screech for help came from a few streets away. Kiaran’s ears sharpened as she listened closely. She turned, walking into the road. A man ran their way, a woman with them. She held her muddy skirt from the ground as she cried. Others from inside the inn came out to see the commotion.
The man stopped just ahead of them, panting, “Our daughter was kidnapped by the Morinnan Tribe…” Kiaran and Alana glanced between them.
“They are going to sacrifice her to the Great Cave-Dweller,” the woman said. “Please somebody help our Imani.”
Alana stood forward, her voice strong, but gentle, “I have a strong, capable crew with me to help your daughter. Imani shall be in good hands.” She rested a hand on the mother who began weeping again.
They gathered up their crew and headed toward the hills where a trail of smoke rolled into the sky. “Who are the Morinnans?” Kiaran asked.
“You shall see,” was the only response she could get from Alana.
The hike through the woods was rather treacherous, their anxiety only expanding. Kiaran gripped trees tightly, pulling herself up the steep incline. The mud at her feet made it all the more difficult to travel. The rain fell harder, masking her hair to her face.
She squinted her eyes as she looked to her side. Torin also used the trees to climb the hillside. His hair was streaming with water, plastered to his skin, rain dripping from his nose as he focused on his climbing.
Soon, the only sounds came from the rain pounding on everything around them. Kiaran’s heart thudded harshly inside her as she grew more nervous. Thunder cracked and Kiaran’s heart nearly burst. Torin’s eyes flickered to her and she looked forward again. He knew of her fear, and she hated it so much.
The earth gave way at her feet and she slid downhill. Her body slammed into Davin, knocking him backward slightly. With one arm, he wrapped it around a tree, and the other, he grasped her tightly, lifting her back up.
Her body was pushed tightly to his armor, their faces close together. The rain poured between them as they locked eyes. Instantly, she pulled away, thanking him, and rushed back up the hill.
The sounds of chanting echoed with the rain like whispers. Her skin crawled as the voices grew closer. Silently, they made their way through the trees and brush, the land growing flatter. One of Alana’s men, pointed past the line of brush, saying, “Looks as though they’ve already offered her up.”
Alana looked over the leaves, shaking her head. “They tossed Imani into the cave to fend for herself,” she said. “The Cave-Dweller doesn’t eat the dead...”
Kiaran looked past Alana to the cave, surrounded by ivy. “I’ll search the cave for the girl,” Kiaran said. The clearing was empty of people, just a smoldering lump of an old fire. The sounds of the chanting continued as the people trailed off into the woods.
“I’ll join you,” Davin replied.
She impulsively looked to Torin who gazed at her through the raindrops. Her eyes softened, knowing it’d be best for him to stay with Alana. Before she could say anything, Alana spoke, “That is good. Torin, I need you and the other archers to watch the campsite as a few of us go see where the Morinnans are going.”
“Yes,” he nodded. Then, “Be careful in there, Kiaran.”
The corner of her lips curled into a smile as she nodded.
They silently walked into the entrance of the cave. She wiped a hand over her face, shoving the wet hair out of her eyes. Davin lit a torch, asking, “Are you ready?”
“As I shall ever be,” she shrugged. Her accent became very strong in that one sentence. It did not sound anything like the Kamonian intonation. It was soft, beautiful and flowing. He eyed her curiously for a short second, then shook it off and focused on the task.
The cave was much quieter than expected, their steps echoing between the stone walls. The wind howled lowly throughout the caverns, chilling Kiaran to the bone. “Imani?” Davin asked lowly. “Are you in here?”
Her little dragon climbed from inside her vest, his tail around her neck. It seemed as though it were warning her, a deep feeling of angst washing over her. Kiaran shot a hand up and they paused, listening carefully. “Imani?” she asked sternly. “We are here to help you.”
There was a stifling cry as she shouted, “I am here!”
A young girl ran to them, wrapping her arms around Kiaran’s waist. As she embraced her, the girl continued to pull Kiaran toward the entrance nearly a half a mile away. Davin gripped the girl’s hand, attempting to calm her.
The little creature growled as it tensed up. She could feel only fear and defense from him. Slowly, she turned around toward the deepness of the cave. Locking sights with a huge pair of golden eyes. Yellow fire licked at the massive dragon’s golden-scaled lips as it snarled. Davin turned and saw it as well. It felt as though time itself had seized. Suddenly, its mouth opened and fire raged from its throat.
The three fell to the ground, the flames just missing them, though the heat rolling over them was suffocating. The water on their skin evaporated from the heat. The flames came to a stop, disappearing above her, leaving a still picture in the dark. Kiaran stood, ready to draw her swords. Davin kept over Imani as the dragon lifted its head.
No, something seemed to tell her, No, again it came. Within that second, the dragon leaped over them, its foot long claws slamming into her head.
She crashed to the ground, momentarily stunned. Her face felt like it was on fire, hot liquid burning her skin as it poured across her face. Her hands shot to her face, panic rising within her.
Her skin was pealed over an eye, blood pouring everywhere. In a panic, she replaced the skin to where it belonged, her hands shaking violently as she looked through her good eye at the dragon. It took flight, shooting out the entrance with ease. Its golden scales shimmered brilliantly as it disappeared from sight. Globs of blood fell from her face, pooling on the dirt ground.
Davin stared in horror as he held the girl too tightly. Imani gasped as she began wailing. He left the girl, grasping Kiaran’s hands that were clamped over her face. She grew incredibly weak as she rested her head on the cool floor, dirt collecting in the blood on her cheek. He faced the entrance and shouted, calling for help. He used a hand to stand Imani up and pointed to the torch on the ground. “Go, you have other soldiers outside waiting on you.”
She snatched up the torch and took off running. Instantly, he lifted Kiaran, as if a child, and rushed toward the forest. She began weeping, the pain unbearable. He held a hand to her head, pushing her against his chest, the metal of his breastplate surprisingly cold and relaxing. “You’ll be fine,” he said uneasily.
Torin ran over, his wide eyes on her. Stella looked over and gasped as she grabbed Alana’s shoulder, her other hand gripping the girl's hand. The sounds, shouting, rain, and wind were too much for Kiaran. It almost seemed to blend into each other, sounding fuzzy and blurred. Kiaran could no longer keep her eyes open as she bobbed with Davin’s body while he raced to the town.
Her hot blood ran over his gloves, staining them. Davin’s heart raced as he pushed forward, careful not to fall down the steep hill, a few pairs of hands keeping him up as they slid. It could not have taken any longer for them to reach the town, people running to them. They cheered as the child was reunited with her parents. Davin pushed through the crowd who hushed as they saw Kiaran’s blood and her limp body.
He fell to his knees, muscles aching. He rested her on the ground, keeping her head to his chest. Putting his lips to the top of her head, he said, “We made it, stay with us.” Her hands were still over her face as she blacked out.