The next afternoon Kiaran stood in a painted ring within the arena, her inner-city opponent facing her. Walter stood nearby with other onlookers. He barked commands from where he stood. With his coaching, she learned quite a bit of techniques from him. The two fighters advanced to one another, following Walter’s orders.
Fighting, Kiaran felt in control. It was most comfortable to her. The only thing better was finding a book with a deep story to draw her in. One so she could forget who she was. But she hadn’t found one yet. not one like the book she had left in Kamoni.
She swiftly tripped the man and held her blade to his throat as he slammed to his back. Laughing, Walter said, “Kiaran is victor.” She nearly cringed, as if Nathanial stood just before her. But she blinked away his ghost. Walter's teeth gleamed behind his thick beard. A scar weaved through his facial hair, stretching down his jaw and reaching his collarbone. She hadn’t noticed it before, his shirt collar usually standing tall.
She allowed her smile to grow as she sheathed her sword. Holding her hand out, they grasped one another’s wrists and she pulled him to his feet. “You are some woman,” he gasped.
“I am a warrior,” she corrected….all she ever was, and ever would be.
“Absolutely,” Walter added.
A scrawny man dressed in silks and gold approached them. “Lady Kiaran,” he said, “King Murdock wishes for your company.”
She stared at him, unwilling to go. “Now?” she asked flatly.
“Preferably,” he grunted, “Follow me.”
She looked to Walter and nodded a goodbye as she followed the little man. He was shorter than Kiaran, his stride much smaller. She had to walk slowly to stay with him. Rather than going to the throne room, he led her to a large garden with several paths, small ponds, and bridges. A few bushes with red branches were the only colors within the winter garden.
Beneath a leafless tree awaited the king. He stood beside a small, stone bench surrounded by dead flowers. The black and golden clothes he wore made him appear very handsome…and very menacing. His hair was slicked back, his face shaven clean of hair. The man left when the king looked to him, nodding.
He held his arms behind his back as Kiaran reluctantly approached him. Against what she thought, she forced herself to bow and stood back up. “Walk with me,” he said coolly. He held an arm out, but she ignored it, refusing to lock arms with him. She walked beside him through the naked garden, sweat still on her face. “You seem as though you will turn out to be one of my best recruits. How is your loyalty to others?”
“So long as you do not cross me, you have nothing to fear,” she answered. “I do not kill for enjoyment, but simply necessity.”
“I am glad to hear that,” he smiled as they came to a stop on a small, arched bridge. The cold wind weaved between them as he stood closely to her. “I want you to be my queen.” She choked, her eyes bulging as she stared in disbelief.
“No, it cannot be me,” she shook her head. “I am a very low class fighter who hates dresses and jewels…besides I am from the dirty country of Kamoni, remember?” she said sternly. “I will never be the right sort of woman to rule a kingdom.”
“I will do the ruling and you will take charge of battles. With my royalty and your skills, our children will be perfect rulers,” he said.
That crossed her. She glared at him. “I will not have children. I am not a suitable mother,” she snapped.
“We have maids, my dear.” There was a long pause and he said, “Think about it, Kiaran. If you do not, I will be forced to return you to Kamoni where you are destined to hang…I cannot bare the heartbreak of denial.”
He…sounded sarcastic….disturbingly so. She stared at him with the strongest eyes, her lips in a thin line. “You threaten me if I refuse your proposal?” Guards were alerted by her tone of voice and faced them. Her eyes shifted from the randomly placed men. “I will not sway beneath your power-crazed mind. I will not marry you.”
“I will let you think it over tonight,” he sighed. “I will see you tomorrow.” He walked away, his guards following him discreetly.
Rage boiled her blood as she stormed away. Before she realized it, she was running down the streets, straight back into the arena. She raced by the few men in the structure, ran down the stairs, and across the ground. Drawing her sword, she lunged at a straw dummy and sliced an outstretched arm right off. With a loud growl, she shredded it.
She stood silently, breathing hard and attempting to calm down. She kicked the remainder of the dummy to the ground, dirt clouding about, filling her lungs. She coughed and cleared her throat, her fingers tightening around the hilt as she sheathed it. Her muscles were tender, sore from the exertion.
“Damn him,” she hissed. “He can forget about me,” she growled as she kicked the dangling head off the dummy, sending it across the ground like a child’s ball. It was hard to tell if the sparring was fueling or dousing her anger.
Her glare moved to Torin who stood behind her. He gazed at her quizzically and asked, “What’s going on?”
Her face twisted into nearly a snarl. Turning for the exit, she stormed away, Torin at her heals. “Your king,” she growled lowly, watching the others who might hear, “is a pig.” He leaned in, looking frustrated. “He threatened to send me home if I don’t…” she trailed off, unable to say it.
“If you don’t what?” he pushed.
“Marry him,” she spat, “marry him!” His eyes widened and she continued, “He believes we would make perfect offspring with my skills and his blue blood—I’d think not.”
“He…wants to marry you?” he was still in shock.
She shot him a murderous look as she retorted, “Yes, but I refuse.”
“Wh-what happens if you refuse?” he asked quickly.
“I am sent to Kamoni, to my certain death. He said he could not bear a broken heart.”
Instantly, angrily, he said, “That is not right, he cannot do that.” Kiaran glanced about, guards watching them from their posts. She looked sharply at Torin, who noticed them as well. “It is wrong,” he whispered as they walked toward Cotton Pub. “I will not let it happen to you.”
Her heart skipped and her mood changed. He was concerned about her and did not doubt her. “You will help me?” she asked.
He placed a hand on her back just below her shoulder. “You are my friend,” he said sternly, “I would love to help you.”
A smile spread across her face, a sign of relief. Hesitantly, she nodded her head, saying, “Thank you.”
He, too, smiled brightly and they made their way inside the pub. Sitting at a table, they were silent as they pondered on their predicament. Mya carried a couple of mugs to them. She was smiling and happy although she could see they were not. “How are you two tonight?” she asked.
“Well, considering,” Torin nodded.
“I am glad to hear,” her shoulders bounced excitedly. “I hear Davin may be home soon, is it true?”
“It is a rumor,” he said. “They will not return for several months.”
“Oh,” she breathed, “I cannot wait until he and the others return,” she said. He had not reacted and she said, “Davin is a fine man; I am sure you know, he is your brother, after all. Such a brave—”
“Hush, woman,” Kiaran barked. “Torin does not need to be bothered with your wooing of Davin. It is irritating to say the least.”
Mya stared, her jaw dropped. She spun around and stomped off. Torin snickered as he watched her. He wondered how she knew him so well. Perhaps it was obvious...If that was obvious, maybe she knew how much he felt for her. His heart throbbed as he watched her pretty face, her beautiful eyes that inspected the ale. He felt like he loved her, but it was difficult to tell. It was easy for him to grow attached to a lady, but he felt this was something else. It was too early to say.
Kiaran touched the foam of the beverage and then she pushed the mug aside. Her angry eyes looked up and met with Torin’s green, lively ones. She chewed on her lip a bit, feeling a bit sore from the cold air. She grew anxious under his heavy gaze. “What?” she asked lowly.
He stuttered momentarily, tripping over words to find the right ones, “We need to make a plan. How do we keep you free from marriage without going back to Kamoni?” She shrugged. “How long do you have before deportation?”
“Tomorrow,” she said solemnly.
He cursed beneath his breath. Leaning over the table, he gestured for her to do the same. Their faces were inches away and he whispered, “Do not worry, we will figure out a solution. I will come to your chambers tonight where we can plan.”
She nodded and leaned back, slouching in the booth. “This will be treason,” she said softly. “Are you positive? He is determined...I’ve noticed a few guards following me since our...talk.”
“Absolutely,” he answered quickly. “You would do the same for me, would you not?”
Staring at him, she considered it. “Of course,” she sighed, knowing he was right. There was something about going against high power that gave her a rush. It pumped adrenaline much like fighting.
After a moment, Torin said, “Did you say he couldn’t handle the heartbreak?”
“Yes,” she nearly asked.
“That is hard to believe,” he muttered. Her cold eyes glared at him and he hastily corrected himself, “I mean that he does not have a heart to break. There is no possible way he can love anyone…Why exactly does he want to marry you? Is it really only because of offspring?”
She shrugged, wondering the same thing. “It is not important; we need to figure out how to solve this problem.”
“And we will,” he patted her hand, “I promise.”
It was late in the night, the guards nearly asleep at their posts throughout the corridors. Torin moved silently, keeping his head low. Kiaran, the infamous fighter, needed his help. Soon, he came to her door and quickly entered. Once the door was closed, he locked it securely.
Her chambers were darker than the hallways. A single lamp was lit in the room just through the door beside him. He walked to the sitting room and saw her standing at the tall, open window. She wore a heavy cloak with light chainmail and a tunic. Her pants were tucked into her boots. The moon cast a silver blanket of light upon her. Her hair was tied tightly against the back of her head, falling down past her shoulders in one long ponytail. Strands of hair sat against the frame of her face.
He stood in the doorway, gazing at her. All she ever wanted was to be free, he could see it. The way she looked upon the open world ahead of her. He meant nothing to her, just a way to escape. Her hand pushed her hair from her face and he saw her ribbon. It was so elegant compared to her clothing and lifestyle. She looked to him, her expression very serious.
“I believe I have this under control,” she said, “I do not need your help.”
He clenched his jaws, his brows low. “I want to help,” he replied.
“I do not need it, and I do not want you killed for this crime. It is my problem to sort out, not yours,” she said sternly with an unrecognizable, very faint accent. He hadn’t noticed it before, and it was somewhat familiar.
“You do not see, Kiaran,” he pushed, “the problem is for the entire kingdom. He is a tyrant and needs to be taken from the throne.”
“Simply because I refuse to marry him?” she grunted. “I do not believe so.”
“If he is willing to kill a woman of such a thing, imagine all the wrong he has done to everyone else.”
“That has nothing to do with the situation,” she muttered.
“But it does,” he growled, “Let me come and we can travel to Fort Hillforn. Alana and Davin will help us,” he said. “Murdock has done worse things in the past, and he will continue it. Now that you are against him, maybe we can have a better chance of stopping his reign.”
He was desperate to come and she did not understand why. Walking to him, she firmly placed her hand on his shoulder. Once their eyes met, she nodded. “We will do this, but we do it on my terms.” He grinned and they sat in chairs across from each other. “Once we get out of here undetected, we get into the armory of the arena—get what we need. Then, we gather our horses and sneak to the draw bridge. You tell the man to lower it and we get out.”
“Wouldn’t it be suspicious if they see us running away? They’d sound an alarm,” he replied.
“I will disguise myself as another man.” Instantly, he snickered. “What?” she snapped.
His face turned bright red as he gestured toward her chest, “Well, you have a womanly…figure.”
She frowned as she pulled her cloak over herself. Her face was flaming red as she glared at him. His smile fell from his face. “That is why I wear the cloak,” she huffed.
His eyes tore from her glare and looked aside. “And after we escape?”
“Once we flee the walls of this place, we move as far and as fast as we can,” she shrugged. “Going to your brother is what they will expect. I have bags packed already,” she added as she pointed across the room. “Perhaps...I could find a small town to live in until Murdock gives up his search...”
“I hope so,” he said lowly.
She hesitated, but asked one last time, "Are you certain?" He watched her, nodding once. "When you aid me, you have no chance to come back. This will no longer be your home."
"...I don't feel that it ever was to begin with," he admitted lowly, sending chills though her heart.
As silently as possible, Torin crept out the door, Kiaran close behind. The second he stepped out of the room, he pushed the door nearly closed behind him, cutting Kiaran back into the room. His hands remained on the knob against his back. Kiaran leaned against the door, listening as the light fell on her from the small opening. Two guards neared him, one saying, “Halt. Why are you in the room with King Murdock’s betrothed?”
Kiaran leaned as far to the crack of the door as possible to hear them. It seemed like forever as Torin tried to come up with an answer. “How is she?” the second asked. “I’ve wondered that for some time now.” She cringed, ready to thump his head with her hard boots. The tone of his voice was bitter with a slight laugh behind it.
“Well, she’s the best I’ve had,” Torin smirked, and she frowned further.
She heard the scraping of metal as they drew their swords. With inhuman speed, she got out from around the door and snapped a punch at the first man’s face. He crashed easily. She slammed her foot to the other man’s chest and he fell to the ground, shouting. Other guards ran from around the corner. Snatching the dropped swords, she tossed one to Torin.
“Change of plans,” she said as they dashed off.
Bells rang through the city as torches lit up. Kiaran looked out the windows they ran past. Some soldiers ran the streets with torches and horses. A group of men were just down the hall. Why were there so many people after only her? It was baffling.
Torin raised his sword to fight, but Kiaran tugged on his shirt. “No,” she grunted as they weaved straight through the guards.
They ran up the stairs and weaved through anyone they came across. They were much slower than Kiaran and Torin who easily darted from them. On the top floor, they ran out the door onto the parapet. Looking over the side at the moat, Kiaran said, “Jump.”
She tossed her bags over, landing on the other side of the moat, barely in the water. “Jump?” he asked as he followed suit.
“Jump!” She grasped his arm and she leapt over the edge just as the guards caught up with them.
Torin tumbled over the edge with her, his knees hitting the stone. She slammed into the wall as they fell. Turning herself in mid-air, she kicked her feet off the stone, hurling them away from the wall. Finally, they plummeted to the freezing water below.
Fighting against the water, they rose to the surface, gasping. Quickly, they swam to the shore, snatching up their bags. Archers lined the top of the high wall, aiming at them. Kiaran cursed under her breath, grasped his arm again, and ran for cover. The forest was near, but not near enough. A shower of arrows fell upon them. With a stroke of luck, or blessing from their creator, they escaped into the forest unscathed.
They ran, panting, freezing, blind. Kiaran's feet became lethargic, tripping slightly as she tried to keep up. She felt a sharp pain in her neck as her body warmed. Far enough into the forest, she collapsed to her knees, catching her breath.
Torin sat down, shivering violently. “If the guards don’t kill us, the cold will,” he said shakily. “I will get a fire started.”
As he collected dry branches and leaves, Kiaran felt warm liquid covering her neck. Her hand shot up to feel what it was. Hot blood poured over her skin and through her fingers. An arrow had shot through her, leaving a large wound on the side of her neck. She tightly held her injury as she opened the heavy bag. “Torin,” she called out, her voice weaker than usual.
He looked toward her through the darkness. “What is it?” he asked.
“I’m wounded,” she forced her voice to be louder.
He rushed over, dropping the load of sticks beside them. Landing on his knees next to her, he looked her neck over. His warming hands touched her neck beneath her jaw, making her look up. “That’s quite a bit of blood, but the wound is not too deep. It can heal with only a few stitches thankfully,” he said lowly.
He pulled his top shirt off and cleaned off her neck, the cold, damp shirt freezing her further. Taking her hand, he placed it against the shirt, holding it tightly to her neck. “Keep it tight, Kiaran. I need a fire to see while I stitch you.”
Soon, he had a fire going, the heat waving from the flames. He poured some alcohol over her wound to clean it. She growled as he apologized. Carefully, he strung the thread through the needle and went to work. She cringed, keeping her eyes closed as he stitched her flesh back together. Her blood washed over his fingers, making it difficult to hold the slick, metal needle. Once he was finished, he wiped his hands clean. Finding some liquor, he poured it over her neck and she yowled. “Sorry,” he breathed.
With caring hands, he wrapped her neck with clean bandages. She had not said anything and was beginning to worry him. “You’ll be alright,” he said, “You’re alright.” They sat beside one another in the cold, their clothes and hair dripping with water.
“Kiaran.” She turned her head, hair sticking to her face with water and blood. Her eyes were tired. For once, she looked weak, defenseless. He moved the hair from her face, feeling her paled skin under his callused fingertips. Quickly, he removed his hand and said, “I’ll find us some blankets.” She nodded and he moved to the bags.
She reached into a bag to retrieve mostly-dry clothes to change into. Her eyes drifted to Torin as he began tossing things aside. Her heart raced; the way he touched her face, the concern in his eyes, it made her feel loved. Loved? Did he love her? She shook her head and held her wrapped wound, looking to the bag once more. Love is such a strong word. It means so many things.
His face and arms glowed under the faint, orange light. Once finding some blankets, he grabbed some new clothes as well. Silently, they turned their backs to one another and changed their clothes. Kiaran tossed her chainmail to the side, placing her boots near the fire. Once facing each other again, Torin took their clothes and hung them on branches near the fire.
Kiaran was sitting down; her feet were wrapped in a blanket facing the fire. Torin joined her, sharing the blanket with his feet as well. “How far is Fort Hillforn?” she asked. Her voice was flat and seemed lost.
“Too far, I believe,” he sighed. “With very little supplies, no weapons, and no horses, we won’t make it anywhere.”
“What should we do?” she breathed.
This was eating her inside out, and she was asking him for advice, for help. It was backwards. “I…am not sure,” he answered honestly. “For now, let us just attempt to make it through the night.”
“It won’t be worth it if we die tomorrow,” she sighed.
There was a short while of silence before he replied, “Do not be thinking that way. We will be fine.” He nodded his head. For reassurance, he said, “We’ll be fine.”
There was a long silence.
“Why did he want to marry me?” she scoffed. All of this just because he wanted to marry her. How idiotic.
He hesitated as to think and said, “Perhaps he was afraid of your strength. As his queen, you are watched closely and cannot harm him. He would have the most powerful woman at his side…also for intimidation purposes. No one would dare touch him.” Watching her, he noticed how tired she was. “He may have tried to use you, Kiaran, but you are a lovely woman. You are not just a warrior.”
She leaned against her knees, rubbing her hands over her face, breathing steadily. “Can life never be easy?” she whispered to herself.
He felt so useless, unable to help her. The urge to wrap his arms around her was powerful, but he fought it off. The thought of Kiaran resting in his arms made him feel important.
Her eyes moved to him finally. Her breath clouded from her lips as she spoke softly, “I…am thankful you are with me." He smiled, but it was forced and her lips remained in a tight line.
She looked back to the flames, growing sleepier by the second. “I am happy you think of me as a friend,” he said, “I was afraid you would only befriend Davin.”
“He seemed more mature,” she explained, “Perhaps that is why.”
“Is that what you like about him?” he asked.
She sighed, but answered, “He was kind to me, treated me like a human from the beginning…He was first to ever treat me like a person…”
Although he was warm all huddled up to himself, he forced his arms away from his body so he could spread his blanket over both of their shoulders. They sat against each other, the warmth of their bodies fueling one another. He gazed into the flames. Kiaran’s body grew heavy, leaning against him. Glancing to her, he saw that she was asleep. Slowly, he wrapped an arm across her shoulders. His heart swelled as he closed his eyes.
Her body tensed as she sat back up slightly. He began to move his arm, but she said, “No, you’re too warm.”
Torin snickered as he continued to hold her. Without looking to her, he said, “Can you tell me about your past?”
Shrugging, she asked, “What do you want to know?” He, too, shrugged. “Well,” she thought, “I was forced to sleep with the man who adopted me. His wife died in child labor with their only, actual child.” She paused, thinking of the nasty man. “He…” clearing her throat, she continued, “He abused me,” she bit her bottom lip, the torture hurting her.
Torin’s brows lowered as he watched her. Her face turned back to the strong-willed woman he knew as she blinked away her sorrows. “Ever sense I could remember, he trained me to fight. He had an arena of his own…I killed a men because if I didn’t…Nathanial…” she trailed off. “He abused his daughter at a much younger age.” She touched the ribbon around her wrist. “I killed him. His dogs that I trained killed him.”
There was nothing to say, really. All the words were caught in Torin’s throat. Finally, he asked, “He abused you?” He wanted to know how awful, but his curiosity was going to kill her.
“He abused me in any way you could imagine,” she whispered.
His heart shattered as he watched her reveal her life. Holding her tightly, he said, “I am sorry about that.”
“Well, it is over now, and Grace is no longer with him.” She gripped the blanket tightly, hiding her face in her knees.
Nothing else was said as the night grew on. They simply remained silent and eventually slept.