Kiaran soaked in the hot bath water, detangling her hair with her fingers. Alana shuffled through the next room, her shadow cast along the doorway each time she passed it. “What color do you want to wear?” she asked loudly.
Shrugging, Kiaran replied, “I don't know.”
“We are near the same size…” she began, “My dresses should fit you just fine, dear. The skirts were just a bit short on me but should match your height rather well.” Her voice continued to fill the chambers as Kiaran’s mind wandered.
Alana reached the doorway, holding a deep blue dress with golden threads. It was beautiful as she held it to the light ahead of Kiaran to compare it to her. Kiaran’s stomach knotted as she grew nervous. “It is perfect, Lady Kiaran,” she smiled.
“Why must I dress up?” she finally sighed. “I am not the type of woman to be wearing frilly dresses.”
Alana chuckled, “Are you nervous?” Hanging the dress to the side, she went to work on Kiaran’s hair. She rolled strips of hair all the way to her scalp, pinning it in place to dry. “Kiaran, it is normal to be nervous. You’ve never dressed like this have you? It is new and you will be in front of about one hundred men and me. In a dress, they will see you as a delicate lady. It is hard for you, is it not?”
Shrugging a shoulder was enough of a response.
“Aye,” she laughed, “Love, you needn’t worry. The only thing those men will be focused on is their food.” She snickered and snatched up a fluffy towel. Holding it out, she said, “Climb on out, dear.”
Kiaran slid into the dress, the silk so soft against her skin. Alana adjusted the lace up the front of the corset. She tied a bow at the top, the smallest amount of her chest bare. The sleeves were tight, all the way to her knuckles. Holding a hand to her chest, her fingers at her neck, she looked to her reflection. Her arms appeared slim in the tight cloth; her body was…so feminine.
Then, Alana painted her lips a glossy red and lined her lashes with black oil. “Lastly, your hair,” Alana said. She let Kiaran’s hair down, cascading over her shoulders in large spirals. Alana threw it up in a twisted bun; a few spirals left down to frame her face. Her hair was the deepest black, helping her eyes shine all the brighter.
Alana stepped away to find a pair of shoes. Kiaran continued to stare at her reflection. She was beautiful…Never before was she so elegant. It was amazing what a silk dress could do. Alana returned with a pair of high healed black shoes. She helped the young woman put them on. Standing, she stumbled as she attempted to walk. Quickly, Alana changed into a green dress with shorter sleeves. Soon, they were on their way to the dining hall.
Alana and Kiaran neared two, massive oak doors marking their way into the dining hall. The Holloway brothers stood just ahead of them, waiting. Their hair and skin were clean, their clothes new and slick, and they were incredibly handsome. The small woman, Mya, stood with Davin, her arms wrapped around one of his, though he seemed rather absentminded. Her cheeks were bright pink as she gawked at the broad man. Torin’s eyes met with Kiaran’s, and his jaw nearly dropped. Davin followed his gaze and his breath was taken.
The only sounds were from the ladies’ feet as they walked to them. “She looks lovely, does she not?” Alana smiled at the men.
“That she does,” Davin said coolly, as if he were not attracted or impressed at all.
Kiaran’s cheeks flushed against her will. Realizing this, they reddened even further. Her hand moved to Grace’s ribbon beneath her sleeve. Tearing her eyes from Torin’s, she looked over to find Mya glaring at her. The sight nearly made her grin. Torin’s hesitant voice broke into her thoughts. “Kiaran, would you like to accompany me to this dinner?”
He held his arm out, and she simply stared at it, her mind racing to see what was going on. She hated to be treated so differently simply because she wore a dress. “No,” she shook her head. Torin was shot; his jaws clenched as he stood taller, his eyes looking aside, masking his hurt. She felt guilty; sighing, she said, “I do not enjoy being treated differently because of this dress.”
“I would have asked you regardless,” he mumbled.
Alana looked to Davin, asking, “Do you know where Brice is?”
“Inside,” he replied, pointing a gloveless thumb to the door.
“Well then, shall we enter?” she said, looking to everyone.
The five of them entered the monstrous dining room. Two, very long tables lined the room, plenty of men sitting at them. Up a few stairs was a smaller table where King Murdock and a few others sat. They followed Alana to the king’s table. They each took a short bow and sat. Alana sat next to a tall, broad man with a beard of silver and black. Kiaran sat between Mya and Torin. She inspected Brice and Alana for some time before figuring it out. They wore matching wedding bands--a custom across Rishana and parts of Kamoni for marriage. Across from them sat a young couple, the lady nearly identical to Alana.
“Is Alana married?” she asked quietly to Torin.
“Aye,” he snickered, “and that is Tosha, her daughter.”
Raising an eyebrow, she sat up tall and stared at her food. Grasping her fork, she broke the food up, figuring out what to eat first. In all reality, her nerves were too shot to eat. Torin pointed to a diced potato with his silver fork. “You may like that,” he said.
She shoveled it into her mouth. It was amazing, so she continued to pile it in. Never before had she had anything with such spices and flavors. The king stood and everyone hushed and watched him.
Her gaze shifted to the table on the opposite side of King Murdock. It had a five men, most of them scarred and rough to look at. Torin noticed her curiosity and he said, "Those are his other recruits. They've come from across Rishana, a few of them old sailors. They're rough."
"I can tell," she mumbled. She lowered her gaze again. She would fit in well, it seemed.
“We have yet another new recruit,” the king began with his powerful voice. “She has high promise in the safety of our kingdom. She has a very powerful past that will push us forward.”
He held his hand toward her and gestured for her to stand. Her mouth was still full of food as she paused. Hesitantly, she stood, her nervous eyes looking at the men who stared at her. His hand was still outreached and she slowly took it. His dark, piercing eyes met with hers as he led her over to his side. She quickly swallowed what food was left in her mouth, nearly choking her.
It felt as if her corset was constricting her. The layers of skirts scratched at her legs. Her free hand rested on her belly as she took a deep, calming breath...It was supposed to be calming, but rather it worsened her feeling of suffocation. “I expect her full cooperation as I expect every one of you to respect her, even if she is Kamonian.”
Her sharp eyes shot at him, wondering if his remark was prejudice. If it was, it would take a bit more to anger her. King Murdock was already on her bad side, so her anger caught up to her more quickly than it should have. “And I expect you to treat your king the way he deserves,” she added, her voice harsh.
“Thank you,” he nodded once.
She glared at him as her mind begged to be spoken. The king’s hand tightened around her hand, his skin like fire. He outreached his arm as she walked to her seat. Letting go, they sat down. Her wrathful eyes stayed on her plate of food. She could feel everyone staring daggers into her. “What?” she hissed. “He took it as a complement.”
“You may not be so lucky next time,” Davin huffed as he erected his back, going back to eating.
The remainder of the dinner consisted of loud chatter, music from across the room, and clattering of dishes. Kiaran grew uneasy. She couldn't eat and her mind rushed. Finally, it was the end, and everyone was preparing to leave.
Alana seemed to notice her discomfort and offered to take her to her chambers. Quickly, Kiaran agreed, following her from the dinning hall and to the corridors where she was to stay.
Once she was stripped of her dress and lying in bed, she found it impossible to sleep. She stared out the window to the stars, her heart aching. Something was going to ruin this for her. She could feel it.
This wasn't her place.
When she did finally sleep, it wasn't for long before she woke to sunlight in her face. Kiaran rested in her bed, still in her night clothes though she had been awake for quite some time.
There was a knock at the door and she sighed. Forcing herself to get up, she dragged her feet along the floor to answer the door. It creaked, a small line of light flooding the room from the hallway where Alana stood. She was dressed in armor, her red spirals tightly tied to the back of her head. Kiaran allowed her in and they sat in large chairs.
“Kiaran,” Alana began, “Davin and I are escorting a small army to Fort Hillforn. We will stay there to train ourselves and others. We…will not be returning for eighteen months. You and Torin should join us at the fort before that long, however.”
“You are leaving this morning, then?” she asked.
“Yes,” she nodded. “Do you wish to come say goodbye to Davin?”
“No,” she rubbed her tired eyes, “Just tell him good luck…Good luck to all of you.”
“Very well, thank you Lady Kiaran.” Alana bowed for a moment. Standing, she said, “Torin will be here to take you to the training grounds soon. So, I’d advise you to get dressed.” On her way to the door, she smiled and said, “Goodbye.”
Once she was gone, she quickly dressed into a tunic and leggings with boots to her knees. Standing at the mirror, she pulled her hair into a ponytail. Her curls were becoming limp from sleeping on them. She stared at herself, thinking of how her life had drastically changed in only a few nights. Poor Grace was left behind, never feeling the warmth of kindness. Feelings swarmed her. She was engulfed in emotions other than just anger. Suddenly, King Murdock took her thoughts, and there it was: anger. It was swelling within her. The king was not a good king.
A knock at the door alerted her. Answering it, she forced herself to say hello.
“Good morning,” Torin smiled. “Are you ready to train?”
“I suppose,” she sighed. On her way out, the door closed with a loud clank.
The expression on her face said otherwise. He could tell something was wrong. As they walked, he asked, “Kiaran, what is on your mind?”
When she had not reacted, he knew to keep his mouth closed. Her eyes glared ahead of them, her back erect and her shoulders squared off. She was back to herself, quiet, reserved, angry. She felt normal again. Sunlight poured through the tall, narrow windows. Kiaran’s muscles tensed for a moment as she ached to be outside. It looked like such a warm day.
They came to the large doors that led to the outside. Cold wind hit her, catching her breath. “It should warm up,” Torin said softly.
She walked alongside Torin through the streets when Alana’s daughter rushed up. Her skirt was clutched into her fists. Her skin was reddened from running through the cold wind. “Torin,” she panted, “Where is my mother?”
“I believe she is on her way out the East Gate,” he answered slowly as he glanced to Kiaran.
“Aye, Sir, thank you,” she nodded and raced away with a big, yet nervous smile.
“I wonder what that was all about,” he muttered.
Finally, they reached a huge, octagonal building with a roof only over the stairs and benches surrounding a dirt field. Climbing the stairs into the wooden structure, the sunlight disappeared. Soldiers practiced on bare dirt, the sun casting rays of light upon them as the arena surrounded them. The sound of metal clashing and the shouting of men were relieving to Kiaran. Torin smiled as he watched her gaze at the swords glinting in the sunlight. Inside, surrounding the exposed arena were off duty soldiers and bystanders.
Torin touched her arm and her eyes shot to him. He was caught in her gaze, pausing before finally gesturing to follow. He guided her to a large man. His arms were crossed over his broad chest, watching the men train. “Sir, this is the new recruit, Kiaran,” Torin spoke.
The man looked to them, a pink scar stretching from his eye to his thick beard. “Get your weapon and go,” he said shortly, aiming his pointed finger to the dummies.
Kiaran turned around to the racks of weapons behind them. The torches provided little light to see them clearly. Swords of many shapes and sizes were on the racks, but she finally found a decent one for herself. It was light and of medium length with a slightly longer hilt, long enough to fit both hands when necessary. Turning around, she faced Torin who looked at her weapon.
“I will be at the archery training arena right next door,” he said. “I’m training a new group of recruits.” She nodded and he added, “Walter will only respect you when you prove yourself…Good luck. I will see you this evening.”
She waved as he left. Once he was gone, she walked to the stairs. Her stride was more of a strut, the shining blade held at her hip. Her confidence was evident as she made her way to ground level. However, she grew uneasy as her boot touched the arena’s ground. Dust flew up from her steps, reminding her of her past fights.
A row of skinny, straw dummies waited in the center of the circular arena. Her insides ached slightly as she thought of the skinny boys she had fought for Nathanial. She remembered each bone that she had broken, each neck she had snapped…
Reaching one of the dummies, she had no idea how to use her weapon to its best potential. She stared at the dummy just before her, curious as to how she should approach it. It seemed an ill joke to have the practice posts covered in old clothes, bits of material hanging from the sown ends. Rather pathetic opponents...She allowed a short, small grin, but it quickly faded.
Her eyes moved to the sweating, panting men to her side. One had a massive ax, taking slow but powerful hacks. The others were quicker with their swords. She watched their feet, studying them. Their movements, then, became predictable and her confidence soared. The sun glinted off the metal as they swung their weapons through the air. This was something Kiaran could grow accustomed to.
Kiaran faced her dummy, thinking carefully. Quickly, she lifted her sword, both hands grasping the hilt. In a single swipe, she sliced the cloth of the dummy’s body. The impact knocked her off balance and she fell backward, slamming into the dirt. Embarrassment left its trademark upon her cheeks as dust clouded around her. Aggravated, she stood back up. She had misjudged the distance between her and the target.
Once again, the sword was swung. The blade was wedged into the center of the dummy, the post holding it effortlessly. She tugged at the sword, but it was stuck. Putting her foot flat on the chest of the dummy, she attempted to jerk the blade out. She stumbled backward, but kept herself from falling. Battling with her wedged blade grasped the men’s attention. They grinned and pointed, whispering to one another as they circled her.
Tossing her arms into the air, she growled, “What?”
The closest, arrogant man approached her, everything in his demeanor irking at her. There was a smirk upon his lips as he replied, “Woman, you cannot fight. Go back home to the lazy and the criminals. You do not belong here. Go and bare some pathetic man many children as you should and keep to the cooking and cleaning.”
It hit her gut hard and she growled, her voice powerful and angry, “You may believe that, but you may kiss my ass.”
The look on his face burned into the very center of her being and she could no longer contain herself anymore. Moving only her leg, she lifted her knee to her chest, aiming her foot at him, and kicked his sternum. Everyone stared in shock and excitement as the man stumbled backward.
Tossing aside his weapon, he charged at her. She grinned, arrogance now apparent in her. He punched, she dodged; he swung his fists so slowly. Ducking low, she jabbed a quick punch to his stomach and he grunted. Spinning around him, she twirled on her heals with him and kicked his buttocks. He fell to his face, dirt lining his eyes and nostrils.
Laughing, she said, “You best learn about your opponents before pissing them off.”
He stood up, dusting off his eyes in anger. Beginning to charge after her, he was blocked by the axe-wielding man. “You lost, accept it,” the massive man said. Growling beneath his breath, he resentfully left, fishing his sword from the ground. The man faced her and said, “I am Brick.” He stood easily a foot over her with twice or even three times her width. His hair was dark and shaggy, though cut close to his head. His skin was darkened by the sun, his smile was white against his lips.
“I can see why,” she replied in astonishment.
“You are some fighter, girl,” he laughed. She stood still, her shoulders squared off and her mouth pressed into a thin line? He continued, “Practice, missy, and you’ll be the best swordsman in all three kingdoms.”
“I do not need a weapon,” she huffed.
“I would not believe so,” Walter chimed in as he walked up. “I do not allow fighting among allies unless it is practice. Because you are new, I will allow it, just this once.” She nodded and he said, “You must reply and call me Sir.”
“Yes, Sir,” she forced herself to spit out the words.
“Good, now, proceed,” he said as he turned and left.
Kiaran faced the dummy, staring at it. Brick’s beefy hand grasped the hilt of her sword, plucking it with ease from the wood. He handed it to her and she stared at his hand. Grinning, he said, “You loosened it for me, yes?”
“Thank you,” she finally replied as she took it from him.
“You are welcome,” he said with a smile, “Now, get to training.”
After hours of practice, Kiaran was sitting in the dust. Sweat dripped down her face as she breathed through her mouth, her heart pounding heavily within her chest. The only people still there were sitting in the arena under the roof, relaxing after a long day’s training. She listened to Torin’s boots as he neared her. “A good practice, I take it?” he asked.
As she stood, she said, “It didn’t change much of my abilities. I am still useless with a weapon.”
They walked out of the arena, the sun setting. “It takes years to perfect your skills,” he explained, “I am sure you are doing fine.”
Weeks of practice flew by and, already, Kiaran was one of the best warriors in the city. Men from nearby cities would come to spar with her, expecting to see it as a rumor. Nearly every man she battled lost easily, all while she wore a smirk on her face. Always fighting for herself…It was the only thing she was comfortable with. However, the problem was that she was accustomed to using her fists and feet in battle. Continuously, she would punch or kick between swings. Although she was unpredictable, it kept her nearly unarmed, which defeated the purpose of her weapon.
Kiaran sat in Cotton Pub with Torin at her side and Brick across from her. Laughter filled the air after one of Brick’s endless jokes. She had never felt so happy or at home before. She looked between the two men, smiling.
"That man," he discreetly pointed past them, "is called Hallar." Kiaran glanced over her shoulder to a large, scarred man, his hair in a messy tie. "He was the king's first recruit from the northern border. I don't think anyone knows if he is actually from here or not."
"I take it he is powerful?" she questioned.
"Very. His five recruits are your superiors, Kiaran," he answered. "They should be very powerful."
She watched him a moment as he paid for his ale and left. She faced them again, saying, "Why haven't I met these men, then? I've only ever seen them around."
"I don't know," he shrugged. "The king does things in odd ways." he sighed, leaning back. “On another note...I was told that you two are…romantically involved?”
Kiaran blushed as she looked to Torin. He laughed, and their eyes met. It was an awkward laugh, not knowing how he was to reply. Turning to Brick, she said, “I am in no relations with anyone, Brick.”
“The rumors spread around here are one too many,” he shook his head, “I was afraid that you were getting yourselves into something bad.”
“What do you mean?” Torin asked.
“Relationships are never good between soldiers. That is a fact, son,” he replied. “Anyhow, I believe we should get some shut eye before tomorrow’s practice, aye?”
They nodded their heads, being less amused and far more serious. Standing, they walked out the doors, Brick going the opposite way as them. They walked through the quiet streets, the moon lighting the path vibrantly. “Another day we’ve managed to pull through,” Torin said. “Good night, Kiaran.”
“Good night,” she smiled weakly as they separated for bed.