By the time morning came, neighbors had found the source of Nathanial’s screeching through the night. They burst into the house, knowing who was at fault. The savage woman had to be behind it. A few Kamonian soldiers accompanied them, along with one foreign soldier whose armor gleamed brilliantly against the sunlight behind him. Once the group found her, they were appalled. She sat, holding the young, dead girl. Another murder.
Instantly, two of the Kamonian soldiers snatched her up, Grace’s body tumbling to the floor. They tied her wrists together tightly behind her back as they dragged her backward toward the door. The sting of her sliced hand simply reminded her of her life. This only depressed her further. A trail of blood was left behind, her left leg burning.
She kept her gaze on Grace, no life left in her own eyes. She did not struggle as they dragged her outside to the horses. A Kamonian soldier put a bag over her face to hide the hideous monster from everyone. She was forced into the small cart surrounded with iron bars which was attached to two horses. Her knees slammed into the wooden floor, splinters lodging into her skin. Her feet were still hanging out of the door, so he pushed her inside. Knocking her head into the metal bars, she simply curled up and rested her forehead on her knees. She made not a single sound.
She did not fight, and could no longer cry. There was nothing now. Grace was dead and so was the monster. Her fingers tightened around the bloodstained, blue ribbon she snatched from Grace’s hair. A tear escaped her eye and rolled down her cheek. The cart jerked forward as they moved toward the city.
The foreign soldier spoke with a smooth, deep voice, hardly heard over the horses and the shifting of the soldiers’ armors. “Why does she have that sack over her head?” he asked.
“Our king wishes no one to see the face of such a gruesome outlaw,” another answered.
A few hours had passed and she could hear the horse’s hooves step over the stone roads. People’s voices echoed between the buildings as they moved through the streets. Groups would hush and she could feel their eyes burning on her. The horses came to a stop and she listened to the men’s boots drop onto the ground and make their way to her.
The key unlocked her door and a hand reached in. Grasping her by the arm, he yanked her out and she fell to the stone floor. She felt the cold, smooth stone as she landed on her side, her legs crashing to the ground. Her blood smeared on the stone, leaving stains.
The men around her shifted quickly and it grew quiet. Warm hands grasped her upper arms and gently pulled her onto her feet. The kind touch swelled her heart, causing more tears to form. If only she had that sort of touch in her life. If only Grace had that kindness as well. Then, two stern hands took her from him and led her away. She could feel the coldness of the indoors, away from the sun.
They headed down the steep, damp steps. Every so often, her foot would slip and they would yank her back up in aggravation. Finally, they came to a stop and one man ripped the sack from her head. Her hair fell wildly around her face, almost completely untied. The lighting was dim to none in the prison as he shoved her into the cell. Her hands were still bound behind her back, the rope burning into her wrists.
“She is still bound,” the foreigner said, gesturing to her. He was broad and taller than the others; his armor was exquisite, shimmering blue and gold in the dim light.
“I am not taking a chance with that one,” the man huffed in response.
Growing aggravated with the man, he snatched the key from him. Kiaran stood in the stone cell, watching him carefully. He was young and especially brave to trust her. Entering her cell, she held her ground, her silver eyes burrowing into him.
Taking out a knife, he moved to her back and held her hands to himself. He sliced the rope and unwound it from her wrists. For a powerful soldier, he was really quite gentle with her hands. Once he finished, she turned around to face him once again. His dark eyes lined up with hers momentarily before he looked away, sheathing his knife.
He held her forearm and pulled it up so he could see her hand. She kept her fingers rolled into a fist. Blood stained the skin between her fingers and ran down her hand to her wrist. Finally, she hesitantly uncurled her blood-covered fingers. The cut was clean and all the way across the palm of her hand. The soldier looked to the men outside the cell who impatiently waited. He reached into a pocket and retrieved a bandage.
She stared at him oddly as he began wrapping it. The fabric was tight, sending pains up her arm. Cringing slightly, she looked aside. Such kindness from a stranger was…unusual, needless to say. It almost frightened her. If her own guardian could not show love to her, how could a stranger?
Their eyes met again and he let her hand go. She watched him as he walked to the door. Once he exited the cell, he flashed a quick, sympathetic smile to her. Sympathy was the last thing she needed. Sympathy was not going to save her. It grew quiet as they walked down the hall and into the darkness.
Backing up into a corner, she leaned on the wall and sat in the shadows. She held her hands to her face. There was no hope…No hope for her freedom…She was free for the night and then…she was there. Imprisoned once more. And likely, she would be due for an execution the next morning.
Hours later, two people came to her cell. It was the foreign soldier and his upper in command. A woman. Her bright red hair was pulled back tightly in a braid that rested over her heavily armored shoulder. They both wore blue and gold armor, each heavily armed. The woman’s green eyes blazed through the darkness at Kiaran. “What is your name, my girl?” the broad woman asked. Her voice was commanding, but almost…kind.
“Kiaran,” she replied coolly as she stood sleepily.
The two watched her and finally the woman said, “I am Alana Doust and this is Davin Holloway. We hail from the kingdom of Rishana. We are under attack by a neighboring kingdom, Avestitia and desperately need assistance. So we recruit warriors, fighters who are willing to aid us.”
Kiaran was in shock, she denied the thought that they even considered her. And yet, they were asking for her help. “Even if I am a murderer?” she asked in faint awe. “Criminals?”
“Only on rare occasions,” Davin said. “We’ve asked around, and you seem to be an extreme fighter.” He paused, eyeing her before forcing himself to continue, “Besides…I do not believe you killed the girl. The blood that was on you was only from holding her.”
Tears formed in her eyes. Someone actually gave her the benefit of the doubt. She tightened her grip on the ribbon still in her fist. The silence grew longer as she had no reply. Inhaling deeply, she blinked her tears away.
“Will you aid us?” Alana asked. Kiaran nodded her head. “Good. Davin, escort Miss Kiaran to my chambers. I will get her some things ready for our leave.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded as she handed him the key.
The woman walked away, power in her stride. Kiaran knew to trust in this woman, there was something about her.
The key clanked in the metal as he unlocked the door. They did not exchange words or looks as he held the door open for her. Once she stepped into the hallway, he rested a hand on the back of her shoulder to lead her. Instantly, she grabbed hold of his finger and twisted. His arm flexed as he pulled away from her.
“I apologize,” he said blandly.
She realized she could have fractured a bone and for no real reason. Shaking away her remorse, she considered him lucky. At least he still had his little finger. He kept his eyes forward as they made their way up the dark, narrow stairs. She walked a few steps behind him, limping a bit. Reaching the door, they exited into the kingdom.
The beautiful blue moon lit up the city, with thousands of stars to keep them company. It brought a tiny grin to her lips. She had only seen this city once many years ago, and it was the uglier side of town. But in the darkness of night, it was silent and glorious.
Davin saw the wonder in her eye and smiled as well, his teeth white against the dim lighting. The city was marvelous and massive. Books lined the window of the building across the street, catching her eye. She gazed at the dusty window as they walked by.
“You enjoy books, do you?” he asked.
“Do not be amused, soldier,” she said shortly. “I passed time with training and reading.”
“I have done the same, myself, Kiaran.”
She looked at him, her eyes cold. The hard stare sent his eyes away, looking down to her hands. He caught a glimpse of the ribbon dangling from her worn fist. “Keepsake?” he asked as he pointed to it. She did not reply as she moved it from his sight. “May I?” He gingerly reached out. She stared at his upturned hand and finally gave it to him.
Before she could pull her hand back, he held her by the fingers with his free hand. Two thin scars rested atop her rather elegant hand, reaching the bone angling from her wrist. Other light scars lined her knuckles from fighting. Finally, he tore his attention from her scars. He wrapped the ribbon around her wrist and tied a bow. As he let go of her, she quickly drew her hand away and stared at it.
“Uh-thank you,” she said softly.
They soon reached Lady Alana’s chambers, entering silently. Alana led her to the bedroom where it was dark and cool. It was quiet there, a change of clothes laid out on the bed. A blue tunic, black leggings, and shiny boots awaited her. A sword and knife rested beside the belt on the table across the room.
She stood at the window, opening it to breathe in the crisp, autumn air. So fresh…and free. A smile broke across her face. Then, she cleaned up and dressed in her surprisingly comfortable uniform. Looking at her weapons, she had no idea how to equip them.
Hesitantly, she went to the door and opened it a crack. Alana glanced over her shoulder and walked to her. “Does the clothing fit?” she asked.
“Yes, but…” she showed her the weapons and the woman understood.
Stepping into the room, she took the belts and showed her how to put them on. “I take it you’ll need training with your weapons?” she asked.
“Yes, but I am very good with my hands,” Kiaran stated. She would never disappoint. Everyone was always pleased with her combat.
“I’m sure,” Alana replied, “But you will need to learn how to use them.” Taking a step back, she looked her over. Her face was healing still and her hair was a mess. Alana hesitated but asked anyhow, “Is it too much to ask what was going on between you and the man you killed?”
Kiaran stared at her, unwilling to speak. “It is...complicated.”
“I understand. If you need to converse, I am willing to listen.” Her generosity and kindness bewildered Kiaran. The woman’s gaze moved down to Kiaran’s wounded leg. “You have been limping. Are you wounded?” She nodded her head, lowering her eyes. “Well, I should see to that, then.”
She made Kiaran sit on the bed and remove the boot. Pulling her pants to her knee, she revealed the poorly bandaged gash. Alana shook her head as she pulled the stained wraps from her calf. After pouring some alcohol over it, she re-wrapped it and said, “You will heal.” Then, “Well, Kiaran, I have a bag packed for you. It has everything you shall need for the journey. We should go now.”
“Now?” she asked, puzzled.
“Yes, we need to get to Rishana as quickly as possible. Can you ride a horse?”
Kiaran opened her mouth to answer, but paused. She had never ridden a horse before. She shook her head and a minute smile broke across Alana’s lips. It was nearly heartwarming to see it. They stepped into the main room where Davin awaited them. “That is fine,” Alana replied. “It is not uncommon to find someone who cannot ride.”
“Aye,” Davin agreed as he stood from his chair, “It is easy to learn especially if you have the right horse.”
They lifted their packs and were on their way to the horses’ stables. Torches and lanterns lit their way down the streets. It was peaceful and rather quiet. Kiaran’s eyes wandered to Alana, her face fierce and beautiful, much like that of a lion. A terrible concoction. She, neither, was thin nor delicate. Both of the women were strong and tall, but still somewhat feminine in their own way. There were a few silver hairs through Alana’s braid. It threw Kiaran off guard, believing she was younger than that.
She, then, looked to Davin. The expression upon his face was new. It was determination and almost anger. His eyes were steady as he kept them forward. Her gaze drifted to her hands that were glowing blue under the moon and scarred by the past. Her heart sank and she was swallowed whole by her depression. Damn…depression was never her strong suit.
It was not long before they reached the stables. An overweight man with a slight hump for a back awaited them outside the massive barn. His balding head shined in the light of his lantern. Alana handed him a pouch of coins. Looking at it, he nodded his head and slowly waddled away.
Alana’s gloved hand grasped the door handle and pulled it open, the light pouring onto them. Another young man was inside, smiling as they entered. He looked much like Davin only thinner and slightly younger. He wore light leather armor versus the metal suit the others wore. The only thing he wore to resemble his relation to the soldiers was a matching, blue cloak with a golden broach.
Three horses had saddles on their backs, ready to go. Noticing Kiaran, the new man looked to Alana and said, “This is the new fighter?” His voice was smooth and easy to listen to.
“Yes,” she answered, “This is Kiaran, a splendid fighter.”
“What weapon, may I ask?”
“Her hands,” was her reply as she looked to the other horses. “Kiaran, pick a horse and we will be on our way.”
Davin joined Alana, attaching their packs to the saddles. Kiaran walked slowly from stall to stall, her mind at a loss. Tears scratched at the back of her eyes, her lids burning. Wiping a hand over her face, she inhaled sharply. Grace tugged at her heart as she was escaping the country and her past. But the child never had that chance.
She paced the barn, inexperienced with the large beasts. She knew nothing of horses, how was she supposed to choose one? The new man walked to her, his hands behind his back. She stared at him from the corner of her eyes. Without her needing to say anything, he said, “I am Torin Holloway.”
“Davin’s brother?” she stated rather than asked.
“Yes,” he smiled warmly. His eyes were a stunning green, seeming to shine in the dim, flickering light. “Lady, I believe this is the horse you want,” he said as he guided her past the lazy brown and white horses. In the last stall stood a powerful, black horse. A streak of white hair ran through its mane, nearly glowing. It was glorious, needless to say. “Is he to your liking?”
She nodded as she replied, “It’ll do, I suppose.”
“Aye, it’ll do,” he laughed. “He is the most beautiful, powerful horse I’ve come across yet.”
She watched him put the reins on the horse, being gentle with the beast’s head. A heavy blanket hung over the stall door, beautiful colors stitched into the fabric. He took it and covered the horse’s back. He, then, placed the saddle over the blanket, strapping it in place. Reaching a hand to her, she stared at his fingers. Once her eyes met with his, she realized what he wanted. Hesitantly, she handed him her bag and he attached it to the saddle.
They walked their animals outside and mounted them. Kiaran stared at her horse and tried to climb on top of it. After a few humiliating attempts, she accomplished her task. The men’s snickers caused her to glare at them and they grew quiet. No matter how quiet they were, there was no way they could hide their smiles.
Her horse stomped, ready to take off on her command. Its hooves moved restlessly, its muscles aching to run. Alana steered her horse to Kiaran and showed her how to use the reins. The horse jerked her forward as it began to walk. It was going to take some time adjusting to this. Patience was not one of Kiaran’s qualities.
Her stomach began knotting up from her nerves. The thought of beginning a new life in a new kingdom was hard to grasp. As her heart raced, she held her bandaged hand to her stomach. Change…a change in her life that was possibly going to be amazing for her. It was impossible to fathom.
Hours passed and the sun began to rise through the trees at the horizon. Kiaran’s head bobbed with the horse as it trotted along the trail through the woods. A cold breeze chilled her to the bone, waking her body once more. Her tired eyes looked from person to person. Alana and Davin led the way, leaving Torin behind with her. His white steed walked beside her, its head low.
Everyone was silent as they rode. Kiaran heard running water in the near distance, birds singing around them as they traveled south for the upcoming winter. Alana said, “We should rest now. Our horses need to hydrate.”
They climbed off their horses and took their packs off them. “Kiaran, would you assist Davin by bringing the horses to the stream? Meanwhile, I’ll start a fire and Torin will hunt,” Alana said, her voice seeming to be sleepy. Kiaran nodded in response.
She took the reins of her and Alana’s horses. They were both large and powerful animals, making her feel smaller than usual. Following Davin, Kiaran’s wounded hand began to ache and her calf pulsed. She adjusted her grip on the reins as they reached the creek of silver water. It rushed over large, brown rocks, the water rippling serenely. As the horses drank from the water and ate the scarce grass, Kiaran sat against a tree. Davin followed suit, leaning against a tree next to her. They were several feet apart, but they could see each other very clearly.
The wind shoved between them, weaving through the trees of the forest. It cooled her skin as she closed her eyes, the patches of sunlight hot on her. Davin found himself gazing at the young, battered woman. Her arms were folded across her chest lazily, nearly asleep. The blue ribbon on her wrist stood out against her dark clothing. The blood was staining through her bandaged hand. Leaning toward her, he scrutinized the wound from where he sat.
Her eyelids slit open, the silver of her iris looking to him. Dark strands of hair brushed across her face, falling to the side of her bruised cheek. Her eyes closed once more, and her head began to roll slightly as she dozed off. It nearly broke his heart to see her sleep. She was torn up, beaten and abused but was still able to fall into slumber. What a strong heart she must have. He leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes as well.
Decades ago, Kamoni had taken up the game of gladiatorial fights to distract them from their war against Rishana. Davin hardly believed it was still being practiced and was disheartened to think of her being a part of such a malicious practice.
“I did not kill Grace,” her voice broke through the air softly.
He looked to her, their eyes locking. “What?”
“The little girl…I did not do that.”
His words refused to work for him, his mind running too quickly. She was strange. He could speak to the most beautiful women in the world…the most powerful men of the kingdom…and yet he could hardly speak to Kiaran. He did not know what to say.
“I have kill many men…young men,” perhaps that was the base of his fear, “But I would never kill a child…Especially Grace.”
He could see the years of pain in her tired eyes. “I’m sorry,” he found himself saying.
Her face twisted quizzically. “Why is that?” Her voice was flat. An apology? He had severely confused her.
“I’m sorry about what you had gone through. As bad as it was, you still managed to pull through,” he continued as he stood. “That takes courage; I am inspired.”
Blood reddened her cheeks as she stood with him. “I suppose the horses are ready to return?” she finally spoke.
“Aye,” he grinned, noticing her astonishment.
Once back at the camp, Torin already had two plump rabbits over the fire. “You have returned,” he said as he stepped away from the fire.
Kiaran remained silent as she walked to the blaze. Torin watched her from the other side of the warm flames. “So, Alana told me that you do not know how to use a sword,” he said. She shrugged a shoulder in response. “I’ve never been a swordsman myself,” he held up his bow and continued, “I am an archer. That is why I hunt.”
Kiaran slowly nodded her head, paying little attention. The smell of the cooking meat triggered her stomach to growl. Finally, after a long while of waiting, the food was ready to eat. They ate in silence, the only sounds coming from the crackling fire and the surrounding wildlife. Birds sang sweetly as the cool breeze rustled the autumn leaves. After eating, they spread out around the fire to rest beneath their blankets.
Hours passed and the sun was gone again. The ground became cold, but the flames licked toward Kiaran, warming her. Her gaze landed on the fire as her body begged for slumber. There was too much racing through her mind to allow sleep to come. Glancing about, she saw everyone was asleep. Everyone fell into slumber but her; her mind was interrupted with curiosity and anxiety. Sitting up, she fed some dry twigs into the flames. Her suntanned skin glowed orange next to the fire. She drew her knees to her chest and embraced them. Resting her chin on her knees, she sighed.
There were only a few bugs chirping due to the nearing frost; most of the birds had already flown away for the season. Kiaran rubbed her hand across her forehead and over her hair. Stopping at the tie, she tugged at it. Her hair came loose and draped over her shoulders. Her bangs masked most of her face as she cried. It hurt; her heart hurt worse than any fight she had been in. Any broken bones, slashed skin, or pulled hair felt like nothing in comparison. Sniffing, she wiped at her damp cheeks. She knew there was only one thing to relieve the pain…temporarily.
Far into the forest, away from her new, possible allies, she began beating trees. The tall, concrete opponents stood still as she slammed her fists and feet against the rough bark. Sharp pain jolted through her arm, the wound in her hand reopening and the gash in her leg throbbing.
Ignoring them, she continued to fight. Her boots ripped the bark from the trunks. However, the bark ripped skin from her fists. Blood crusted across her swollen knuckles and she finally froze. Eyes drilled into the back of her head. Swinging around, her eyes met with a golden gaze from within the trees. An owl perched on a high branch, watching her closely. She laughed at her edginess and sat down for a rest.