It was morning once again and they readied their horses. “We must make haste,” Alana urged them into a rushed movement.
Torin was putting his last pack on his horse and he glanced over his shoulder. Kiaran was having trouble getting her bags on the saddle. Finishing his knot, he walked over to the horse to assist her. Her eyes remained on his hands as he took the bags from her. She scrutinized his fingers as he tied them all in place. Kiaran mounted her steed, holding the reigns uneasily.
As he turned to leave, Torin’s eyes moved to her hands. Noticing the blood and bruises, he took a hand in his. Instantly, she twisted his backwards and let go, pain shooting up his arm.
“Yes, Torin, you may not want to do that,” Davin grinned.
He rubbed his wrist and spoke, ignoring his brother, “What happened to your knuckles?”
Davin’s eyes moved to Kiaran who shifted her body. She looked away, her chin held high though she seemed a bit embarrassed. “I fought the trees,” she said lowly, knowing how ridiculous it sounded.
“Let us move on,” Alana spoke loudly as she mounted her horse, “The war won’t await us.”
It took a short amount of time before they neared a small town. A tall, wooden fence surrounded the village, leaving only one entrance through and an exit leading toward Rishana. A group of five large men stood at the entrance. They were thugs, but well-armed. The largest man stood forward as they neared. The sun glinted off his naked head, giving a menacing glow about him.
“To enter our town, we’ll take a small donation,” his accent was heavy, the vowels over-pronounced. “The horses will suffice…and some coin if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind,” Kiaran spoke without realizing it.
The men burst into laughter and the leader walked to her. “Excuse me?” he hissed. His lips twisted into a frown, his eyebrows drawn low.
“It is not a donation if it is forced to be given. It is payment to enter a town which is not even yours,” she spoke, surprised by her coolness. “Let us pass,” she demanded much more sternly.
Instantly, she was torn from her horse, her boots slamming onto the ground. Davin began to leap down, but Alana held out a hand so he would wait. She was curious. It was possibly the worst mistake that man had ever made in his life. Alana nearly laughed to herself.
Like a snake, Kiaran’s fist struck at his face, knocking his head back. The sword on her hip weighed her down, making her usual movements clumsy and off balance. She kicked his feet from beneath him awkwardly. Her moves were unimpressive, but successful. Two of his men were already at her, their weapons high above their heads. She slammed her elbow into a man’s face and whipped around, snapping her fist into another man’s nose. Dazed momentarily, they swung blindly as she dodged, moving away while flexing her tender fingers.
A man tackled her to the ground, knocking the air from her lungs. Face to face, she grinned at his ugly mug just before head butting him. He was knocked out cold and she rolled him off of her. She stood, dusting off her clothing with a low, steady laugh. The others hesitated before running at her once more. Chills ran across Davin’s skin as he grew anxious. Alana turned to him, holding a hand toward him to calm him down.
For the first time in her life, Kiaran drew her sword. Instantly, the men stopped. Her demeanor gleamed as she squared off her shoulders and tilted her chin up. The leader began to speak, possibly a bargain, but she was not willing to listen. Pointing her sword at him, she barked, “Get out of here. I don’t want you here anymore.” They stared at her. “Are you deaf or simply dumb?” she growled, annoyance tainting her voice. They began to gather their stolen goods and she snapped, “Leave it.” Hesitantly, they obeyed, dragging their unconscious oaf with them.
Sheathing her sword, she climbed atop her horse once more, flexing her fists. Her comrades’ eyes were glued on her in astonishment. They could see the excitement on her face. “They were bandits,” she shrugged. It felt nice to fight for a reason…and not…killing. Torin shook his head, laughing. The others remained speechless.
Quickly, they made their way through the small village, the townspeople eyeing them timidly. Torin kept gawking at how she handled the men as if they were children. Most amazingly, she was without any wounds. “Trees scarred you better than they could,” he laughed.
She concealed a smile as they rode. She felt respected. That was good.
It was cold as the moon took the sky from the sun. Kiaran sat across the fire from Davin, the others asleep. She hugged her knees as her gaze drifted through the fire to him. A golden glow warmed his skin, accenting the dark hairs bearding his face slightly. His deep brown eyes watched his hands as he twirled a blade of grass in his fingers. He was very much the sort of knight she had read about so long ago. Handsome and kind. The thought sent a quick stabbing through her heart and she looked back down.
“Your fighting is impressive,” he finally said, tossing the grass aside. She shrugged, knowing it was true. “It could have been taken care of without violence,” his tone hoarsened slightly.
“What?” her voice was tense.
“You cannot go about causing havoc,” his eyes met with hers, “You could have been seriously injured.”
“I doubt that,” she huffed as she looked aside.
“Listen to me,” he demanded. Her brows lowered; she never took kindly to orders. Especially not while she was free. “Just try to be careful, Kiaran.”
After a pause, she said, “I didn’t begin the fight; I merely declined the opportunity to donate. He pulled me from my horse.”
“I suppose that is true,” he sighed. “I apologize for seeming rude. I just hope you’ll be more careful from now on.”
She smiled against her will and said, “I forgive you.” He smiled back. It was a beautiful smile, so soft and warm…and happy. Quickly, she tore her gaze from him. What attracted her to his smile? Shaking her head, she closed her eyes, ignoring every feeling she had just had…whatever they were.
“I didn’t realize Kamoni still practiced those fights,” he said. She kept quiet, her eyes reluctant to return to him. Her silence was enough of a response. “Did you do them often?”
“Very often,” she mumbled. It was quiet for several minutes. “Most of the cities have outlawed the deaths, but the fights still go on...No one ever cares if you kill your opponent...As long as the show is good.”
“That’s--” he cut himself short, unsure if using the word “disgusting” would disrespect her.
“It is nasty,” she agreed. She rested her cheek on her crossed arms that rested over her elevated knees. After a few silent minutes, she finally asked, “Do you believe our creator will forgive me?”
He watched her turn from angry, to proud, to happy, and…disheartened. “Forgive you for what, exactly?” he asked. She kept her gaze low and away. Something urged him to move next to her; and he did. They sat side by side in silence. He knew what she wanted to be forgiven for. “From the stories I’ve heard, that man was rather evil. I believe it is impossible to refuse you forgiveness,” he answered. “I can see it, you are a good woman.”
It warmed her heart to finally hear kindness toward her. “Thank you,” she breathed in astonishment.
“Now,” he tried to change the mood they had slumped into, “I’d feel better about your fighting if you could use your sword for more than intimidation.” She looked to his grinning face. “Do you want to learn tonight?”
Without a second’s pause, she said, “Yes.”
“Come with me, Kiaran,” he stood and held a hand to her. She stared at it for a moment, but did not take it. Standing on her own, she followed him a distance away from the camp. “I just would like to give you a warning…”
“What would that be?”
“In Rishana, the men tend to discriminate against women fighters. So, if you dislike that sort of thing, you must grow a tolerance for it,” he said. “They don’t mean to be rude, it’s just all they know.”
“Women are not so common around here, either,” she shrugged, “I’ve never fought a woman before. In fact, Alana is the only woman fighter I’ve come across, yet.”
“Alright,” he began as he took a deep breath, “Let the training begin.”
He went about teaching her the correct stance and the proper way to draw her sword. She grasped the hilt of her blade. Clumsily, she drew it, the metal hitting the dirt. Davin held his laugh as she growled. “Try again,” he snickered.
It took several tries, each attempt made it harder for Davin to keep a straight face. Finally, she succeeded. The sword rested firmly in her hands, the point of the blade facing Davin. “Come at me,” she said.
“No, I believe it is time to sleep now,” he said, “You know how to draw and hold your weapon. But right now, sleep is needed more than combat.”
“Just show me one thing,” she said, her eyes pleading.
Rubbing his gloved hand over his jaw, he sighed with a small grin. “Don’t think you can charm me into doing what you want all the time. It’ll only work on occasions,” he replied.
She became puzzled, not believing that she charmed him at all. Kiaran was not a charmer, she was fully aware of that. Finally, she spoke, “Let us get back to training.”
“Aye,” he nodded as he drew his own sword. He looked powerful with his weapon. Kiaran, she was a weapon, her entire body was lethal. “Just imagine your blade is an extension of your arm,” he began.
“Without a fist,” she whispered to herself.
“You are correct,” he laughed, “But, obviously, you would not jab the way you would your fist. You want to slice as well; swing your blade as I do.”
He, then, swung his sword about impressively. She tried to repeat his movements, but she was off footing. She practiced for several minutes before growing agitated. She sheathed her sword harshly. “It really wasn’t too far off,” he tried to calm her. “It’s best not to practice while you are angry. Besides, we need a few hours of sleep anyhow. We’ll be arriving to Rishana tomorrow, and in a few more days, the City.”
Suddenly, a rush of adrenaline washed over her. Her heart pounded and her skin grew cold. It was so soon to begin her new life in a new country. He noticed her nerves and said, “No need to worry; Rishana is not so bad.”
Without a reply, she turned and led the way back to the campsite. Davin rushed after her. Her long, quick stride was more feminine than he had remembered. She glanced over her shoulder and he noticed her face was healing well, and rather quickly. Her eyes were glued on him, just like his were on her. Once he noticed, he flushed slightly and looked down. She slowed her pace until he walked beside her. “Why do you stare at me?” she asked bluntly.
He thought for a moment, puzzled, himself. “I’m trying to figure you out,” he finally answered.
“What is to figure out?” she asked. “I am a woman who fights better than any man. I am a weapon, nothing more than that…not to mention I am a walking bruise,” she ended with a short laugh.
“I don’t think you are so simple,” he shook his head. “I believe you have emotions; I believe your heart is stronger than your fists…maybe,” he grinned. She gazed at him in disbelief. “Kiaran, your eyes are most stunning…it reminds me that you, too, are human. You are not simply a breathing weapon.”
Davin grinned slightly as Kiaran grew red, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. He was good with words and he knew how to use them. Her eyes moved to the ground ahead of her, her smile still bright.
Kiaran’s scraped up hands caught his attention as her skin glowed under the moon. He had the sudden urge to hold one of them. If he attempted such a thing, she might have broken his off, however. Her long, dark hair swayed from the ponytail in the gentle wind. He smiled.
They reached the camp and Kiaran lifted her eyes to Torin who waited impatiently. Her smile melted away as he glared at Davin. “What were you two doing?” he asked lowly. It wasn’t a scolding question like from a mother, but a hint of discomfort was in his voice. Kiaran frowned at him, not liking his tone, regardless. “What were you doing?” he asked more curiously, this time.
“I was training her to use her sword,” Davin answered shortly, “What does it matter to you, Brother?”
“I believe you were doing something else,” he snapped.
Kiaran remained silent as she watched the brothers growl back and forth. There was something else in the conversation that she could not figure out.
“She was smiling rather largely when you returned. How did you manage to do that from simply training?” his green eyes shot daggers.
“I was being nice,” Davin said plainly. “It is bound to make anyone smile.”
They glared at one another, a dispute among brothers. Kiaran rolled her eyes and huffed, “Why are you so angry? That is all we did. What else would we do?” After no reply, she growled, “I am going to sleep.”
The horses moved uneasily along the narrow path between the thin trees. Alana noticed the silent hostility between the Holloway brothers. It was obvious that Davin and Kiaran were growing a small bond. Torin was jealous, and it was clear as crystal. The young woman was the only woman they had recruited, and she was very much different from the others. She seemed like someone they could bond with. Someone with hidden power.
Alana had to wonder how things would go once at the castle. They were going to separate their ways and meet up weeks later. Kiaran could never trust the people she would be with. It was hard to tell if she trusted them as it was.
They stopped for a lunch break and Alana called Kiaran to join her in solitude. “I want to tell you what will happen once we reach the City,” she began. She was sitting in the shade, food in hand as she spoke. “Davin and I will be on our way to Fort Hillforn in the east. Torin will be training in the archer division in the City of Rishana, and you will be with the warriors.”
Kiaran watched her as her heart began to slow. It was not betrayal, she hardly knew them…but it felt somewhat like it. How was she to live on her own in a kingdom with all new people and laws? She was unable to behave normally in society, let alone in a whole new nation. Years of being a fighter had shortened her tolerance to stupidity and the only people she knew were about to leave her. It was overwhelming. Holding a hand to her churning gut, she said, “When will you leave?”
“I am not so sure,” she shrugged, “a few days after we reach home. We will reunite in a few weeks or so. Until you and Torin are ready for combat. Then, you will join us.”
Kiaran knew she was not ready, not with a sword. “Alright,” she nodded. How bad could it be? Alana patted her shoulder as they finished their food. Soon, they joined the men back on the trail toward Rishana.
As the sun began to lower, Kiaran found herself training with Davin once more. After an hour and a half of failing they sat side by side, breathing heavily from the exertion. They both had their hands planted to the ground behind them as they reclined slightly, looking at the purple and dark blue sky filled with diamonds and a few translucent clouds of white. Kiaran allowed her gaze to drifted over to Davin and she was surprised. He had the same troubled look she had often found herself baring. He stared in the distance with a tight jaw and deep set eyes.
She looked back to the sky, wondering what all he had done to have that sort of expression of pain. Her eyes flickered to him two more times, but she forced her mouth to remain clamped shut and finally forced her eyes to keep forward.
“You mentioned a god,” he said.
“I did,” she breathed.
“Do you believe in him then?” He kept his eyes on the sky. Kiaran drew her knees up a bit as she sat up, folding her arms in her lap as she watched him.
She nodded and said, “I think so. I believe something exists...If not, then people like my keeper would never be punished the way they deserve. No matter the punishment man might have for man...it is never good enough. Not for Nathanial.”
“He got off easy, I agree,” he muttered. Her heart pained her. Davin did not even know what all the man had done, yet he hated him as much as she did.
She lowered her eyes, then looked back to the stars. It grew silent between them, though his company allowed her to feel comfortable. Oddly enough, she was comfortable...
As they rode along the narrow path, she found herself looking to Davin and Alana continuously. She was not able to shake the feeling away. She missed them already, but knew she would be over it soon. Things would look up as soon as she settled down. The feelings flooded in, still—she never should have gotten to know them. It was breaking her heart. Damn…her eyes grew misty and she wiped at them viciously.
The sky was silver and the dry leaves rustled all day. A storm was rolling in. It never failed to flabbergast her how the weather coexisted with her heart. A cold rain drop fell upon her skin. She could still feel it, and therefore, she was still alive. It was time to move forward. It is not the end until she was dead. And she was beginning to feel that death would never come.
Against the rain clouds stood a city as tall and wide as a mountain, a castle placed in the center. Kiaran’s jaw dropped at its beauty. It was made from dark, nearly black stone, blending in with the gray, misty sky. Green ivy weaved its way up the stone walls. The windowpanes were golden, the glass as clear and clean as water. A deep trench full of dark water surrounded the walls. The city was indestructible. Impregnable.
The others were amused by her amazement. There were no words spoken as they journeyed over the drawbridge. Men in armor and equipped with large swords watched them carefully. Alana held her head high with the appearance of power and confidence. The brothers looked relieved to be home, and held their heads high as well. To work with Alana seemed an important thing. Respectable, even.
A homely looking man met them at the entrance. A young boy stood just behind him, intimidated by the warriors. “The boy will take your horses to the stables,” he said. They climbed off the saddles and the boy took them and left. “So, Lady Houst, how have things been?”
“You know I cannot share anything until after I speak with King Murdock,” she replied kindly. “It has been interesting.”
“More so than usual?” he laughed.
“You could say that,” she smiled.
They walked together toward the castle. People in the streets greeted them, greeted everyone except Kiaran by name. Women in frilly dresses waved at Davin mostly, some silently gawking at Torin. Torin simply blushed and looked aside and Davin ignored them fully, his mind lost in deep thought. Kiaran gazed at the beautiful city, thinking it could never be any more glamorous.
Just then, they entered the king’s courts. A dark blue and golden carpet lined the floors and stairways. Nice lanterns lit the way upstairs where they walked. Painted portraits hung on the walls of the hall as they reached the throne room.
Entering through the massive doors that marked the throne room, the riches were overflowing. Gold-framed paintings, gold candle sticks and a gold and ivory throne where the king was sitting. Kiaran expected an old, chubby king with a warm smile. However, King Murdock was nothing of the sort. He was young with dark hair and a sort of smirk on his lips. Something about that smirk…it made him seem untrue. Kiaran did not trust him at all.
“Welcome back,” he said, his voice booming, “Tell me of your travels.”
“It is scarce out there. Not many people are willing to separate from their families for us,” Alana explained. He stood and joined them as she continued, “It is too difficult for people to make a living, let alone train to fight. Kiaran was the only one capable of pulling her own weight. She was going to be hanged, but King Rolland released her into my custody.”
King Murdock stared at Kiaran, his eyes hard. “What is her story?”
“She was charged with murdering two people,” Alana answered.
Alana’s eyes glanced to Kiaran, and she hesitantly answered, “Her adoptive father and his daughter…Her past is quite impressive considering her training skills. He held a fighting arena and Lady Kiaran fought and won every battle--else risking her life. She spent her time earning him a good amount of coin, I am to understand.”
“Why did she kill them?” he asked blankly. There was no emotion on his face, as if he did not care although he had asked.
Kiaran frowned, unhappy with be talked about and not to. “He deserved it,” she grunted, answering for herself.
Everyone stared at her and the king asked, “Excuse me?”
“He beat me and Grace. He tortured us. The man killed her from rage because I was not there to stop him.”
“So, in a way, Grace is dead because of you?” King Murdock stated.
Kiaran began to snap, but she stopped when Davin’s eyes glanced to her. He, then, looked to the king, appalled. They all were. What right did he have to say such a thing, even being a king? Kiaran’s face and eyes burned.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to speak with Lady Houst in solitude,” he said as he turned and walked to his throne.
Kiaran bit her tongue as she fought every urge to kill him. Killing was not her life anymore, and she certainly was not going to continue that route. Her fists clinched at her sides as her mind raced to murder him. Her old ways were leaking into the present. Davin leaned over and whispered into her ear, “Let’s go.” He held her elbow and led her out the door along with Torin.
Once the door closed, Kiaran ripped her arm away from him. She wanted to run outside, but she had no idea which way to go. Holding her hand to the side of her face, she rubbed her temple, hiding her teary eyes. She felt the brothers watching her. Davin’s hand rested upon the nape of her neck. She tensed under his touch, her eyes closing tightly.
“You did not cause Grace’s death,” he said sternly. When she did not react, he tugged on her, saying, “Kiaran, he is ignorant.”
After rubbing her damp eyes, she looked to the men who were surprisingly sympathetic. “Let us go to the pub,” Torin suggested.
Davin shrugged, saying, “Sounds like a good idea.” His hand stayed at her neck, her tresses brushing across his bare knuckles. But as they moved, he dropped his hand. He escorted her out of the castle, Torin at their side.
The cold air hit her and she felt somewhat better. At this point, the rain was falling quickly, splashing everything that stood uncovered. They walked down the street a little ways until they came to Cotton Pub. Torin held the heavy oak door open, leaning it against his back as Davin walked inside. He reached a hand out, gesturing for Kiaran to enter. She stared at his hand as she timidly entered ahead of him. He smiled, following shortly behind. He moved ahead of her to lead her to a table while Davin walked to the bar to order their drinks.
Sitting at a booth, Kiaran held her hands together in her lap. The bandages around her hand were loosening and stained badly. Torin sat silently beside her, watching her hands as she twiddled her fingers around a fringe of the bandage. The blue ribbon around her wrist was bright, catching his eye. “Why do you wear that ribbon, if I may ask?” he asked lowly.
She wrapped her hand around it and slowly looked at him. His face was soft and not a hair on his chin. The light from the window beside them shined on his skin. His bright eyes curiously gazed at her. “It was Grace’s,” she answered.
He nodded slowly, keeping silent for a moment. “You loved that girl, did you not?”
“Of course, she was my sister,” she said. “She was only a little girl.”
There was a silence about them; the sound of the crowd surrounded them as they clanked their cups together and laughed and sang. “I want you to know,” he began, his voice low, “You may always talk with me if you wish.”
He sounded very sincere, making her feel rather secure. “I shall keep that in mind,” she replied, keeping her face stern and blank. She wiped a hand over her hair, pulling the rainwater away from her face.
A smile broke across his lips, so wide and…innocent. She could see the kindness of his heart in that smile, in his green eyes. “Kiaran, live for Grace. Let that ribbon be the symbol of what you stand for.” She gazed at him, his words only making sense to her. “Do not allow her death to break you down, but build you up.”
At that moment, Davin returned with large mugs of ale. Sitting across from them, his large smile was beaming. Kiaran looked at her ale as he sat it in front of her. The bitter smell twisted her gut as she grimaced slightly. Her mind wrapped around Nathanial, his nasty lips drinking from his cup constantly filled with ale. Night after night, it would vapor from his mouth as he spoke.
The brothers gulped the beverage like it was nothing. Hesitantly, she put the cup to her lips. The taste was as horrible as the smell. Instantly, she spit it back into the mug. “That tastes like horse urine,” she gasped.
Davin laughed and Torin said through his hilarity, “You’ve tasted urine?”
Rolling her eyes, she could not help but grin. “It is how I imagine it would taste.”
A thin, short woman raced to the table, her ruffled skirt bunched up in her hands. Her spirals bounced over her bare, narrow shoulders, her cheeks a soft pink. The dress was tightly laced to her body, the skirt poofing around her legs. Her pink lips curled into a smile as she chuckled, “Welcome back.”
The brothers were in shock as they gawked at her. Kiaran felt the slightest bit insignificant, sitting beside this beautiful woman. She was so dainty and feminine. “Mya,” Davin finally got out, “You’ve changed since I was here last.”
“It has been two years, dear,” she said, her voice smooth as ice, “Working here has done wonders for me.”
Kiaran watched their young friend. Her silver eyes shifted between the brothers. They continued with small talk and she lost interest. Weather, gossip of others having children, and the weather again. Kiaran stood, Mya growing silent. Kiaran was at least six inches taller than her. She was dirtier and larger than the young lady. Feeling like a barbarian, she made her way out the door.
The fresh air was exhilarating, clearing her cluttered mind. Leaning on the pub’s wall, she took a deep, calming breath. The rain barely missed her as it cascaded off the roof above her.
“Kiaran?” Alana’s questioning voice broke her meditation. “Where are the boys?”
“Inside,” she pointed her thumb toward the door.
She began to enter, but turned back to her. “I want to apologize on behalf of King Murdock. Even he did not have the right to say such a thing,” she said softly.
“I will not be satisfied unless he asks for my forgiveness, which he does not deserve,” she grunted.
“He deserves very little, and yet look at his power,” Alana huffed. She looked to the castle, distaste in her glare. “The idiots who are on the throne…only because they were born into it,” she breathed.
Kiaran withheld her smile. Seeing Alana hate authority was a shock, but exciting. “Why work for him?” she asked.
“I work for the kingdom, not the foolish king. My goal is to protect the people from the Avestitians,” she explained.
Smiling, Kiaran said, “That is honestly rather inspiring, Alana.”
After a pause, she said, “Thank you…Now, we are having a feast to welcome you. King Murdock wishes you will wear a dress.” With saying that, she rounded up the men and they went to their chambers.