The sound of birds woke Kiaran from her light sleep. Her eyes remained closed as she put her hand to her throbbing wound. They had survived the night.
The rush of realization shot her awake. She forced her eyes to open as she sat up. Torin was already packed, sitting across from her, putting the fire out. Smoke rose from the sticks as he kicked dirt over it. Then, he knelt in front of her and handed her a piece of bread. “Good morning,” he smiled.
She nodded and took the bread. It was odd that he seemed so relaxed. Happy even. Looking up, her gaze landed on a saddled horse, grazing just behind Torin. She dropped her bread as she stood, dusting her hands across her pants. “What is that?” she asked.
Grinning largely, his teeth shined brightly. “A horse,” he replied. He handed her chainmail and boots over and added, “Put these on and come with me.”
She rushed to put them on and followed Torin through the trees toward the horse. Her gaze followed his, only to meet with Walter, Brick, and two other men. Her blood raced hot through her body. All her muscles tensed up and she turned to Torin. “Traitor,” she hissed. She fought away tears. How dare she trust him? No one was worth the trouble.
The men shifted on their feet, their expressions turning uneasy. “I have not betrayed you,” he said, his voice soft but stern. Her frown turned to a snarl. “They are here to help us escape.”
Taking a deep breath, she looked to the others, unwilling to trust them. “Why would they do that?” she questioned.
“The king said you and Torin were traitors and escaped last night. He claimed you threatened to kill him and seize the kingdom for your own. He called you hatred, a monstrous killer whose life needed to end,” Walter said.
Her eyes burrowed into his and she finally nodded. The expression on her face was unable to hide the hurt that King Murdock had caused. “Is there anything else to your story?”
Shaking his head, Walter replied, “After getting to know you, I find it hard to believe you are a murderous fiend. You have no reason to kill him…But I am curious…Why would he target you for such a thing? What did you do?”
She explained to him what happened. He thought upon her story and then shook his head as he rubbed his chin. “As he ages, he becomes more insane.” She frowned and he added, “Not about marrying you, but about killing you.”
Rolling her eyes, she asked, “How did you find us?”
“Before dawn, Murdock sent men out to find you. By a stroke of luck, we were the group to come across you.” He walked to her, weary of their surroundings. “We have been working with a group of rebels and learned to hate Murdock. You just may be our key to victory, to end his reign.”
“I just don’t understand,” she mumbled, shaking her head. “All of this because he wants a wife?”
“You’ve seen how impossible he is,” Brick grinned.
“I am sure there is more to it,” Walter agreed.
“No, I don’t understand why you are willing to help me. Even go beyond helping,” she stressed.
“We have already been planning his...end, if you will,” Walter explained. “Now, I simply ask for your help.”
She watched him, her eyes glancing over to Brick. Then, she nodded.
“We stole a horse for you,” Brick added as he walked over. His massive body towered over them. “It is the one you came in on.”
“And weapons,” Walter grinned.
He sat his pack on the ground. Opening it up, he pulled out a set of weapons wrapped in a velvety blanket. Carefully unraveling it, he revealed two, small swords. The sheathes were black with gold thread designing it beautifully. The hand crafted hilts were gold, shaped like dragon heads, the wings as guards. Sapphires were in the eye sockets of the dragons, their open mouths holding gold rings with small chains hanging from the hoops.
Her eyes widened, expressing her shock at their beauty. Walter grinned as he said, “They were crafted by Avestitians. Although we are at war, I could not pass up their perfect smithing. I’ve saved these swords for some time now.”
He lifted a sword and unsheathed it. The blades were sleek and black, shining excellently beneath the sun. She smiled as he sheathed it and handed them to her. “They are rumored to be made of dragon bone.”
“Thank you,” she said as she locked eyes with him.
He nodded and looked to Torin. “I have yet to forget about you, boy,” he said. “It may not be as special, but it is impressive.” Walter, then, reached out to Brick who handed him a large, sturdy bow with a quiver full of arrows. “You may only be an archer, but you are a damn good one,” he mused.
“Thanks,” he laughed as he took them.
“You’re no good at close range, so stay with the woman,” Walter laughed. “Here are a couple knives for each of you.” He tossed it to Torin and he barely caught it. Tossing the second to Kiaran, she easy grasped it and attached it to her belt, opposite the swords.
They put their bags on the horse, getting ready to escape. Walter gave them strict directions to follow. “The rebel camp you need to go to is called the Zeil. Ask for Fargo and tell him I sent you. They will help you.” He turned to Torin and asked, “Do you know where Eava’s Drop is?”
“Go there and you will find a large rock with crevasses in the shape of a griffin,” he explained, “Wait there and someone shall find you.”
Kiaran looked to Brick and made her way to him. He rubbed his dark, thick hair as he rested his other heavy hand on her shoulder. “You were beginning to grow on me,” he sighed, “I shall miss you.”
“I’ll miss you as well,” she smiled back. She looked past him to the two strangers. “Who are they?”
“Allies,” he said, “My brothers.” Pointing to the broad blonde, he said, “Nicolai,” and the broad red-head, “Aaron.”
Walter walked to Kiaran and said, “The next time we meet, Murdock will be losing his crown.” Kiaran nodded and they shook hands. “Good luck to you.”
“You as well,” she said.
“Wait,” Torin interrupted, “What about Davin and Alana?”
“What about them?” Walter asked.
“Do we involve them in any way?”
Walther thought for a moment. “I will worry about them. As of now, you should worry about what Fargo wants of you,” he answered.
Hesitantly, they agreed, said their goodbyes, and set off. Torin took the reins in the front as Kiaran straddled the back end of the horse. She clenched the sides of his coat as the animal sped through the forest.
The cold air rushed along her skin, chilling her. Nothing could ever be simple, everything rolls downhill for her. She simply wanted to fight in battles and earn a place to live. Spill blood for a reason. It was killing, but killing was all she knew. King Murdock had other plans for her. Everyone had something in store for her whether she agreed or not.
It was growing late into the night and the horse still pushed on. Torin looked over his shoulder and spoke loudly to be heard over the wind, “We must stop or we’ll kill the horse.”
“We need to get to the rebels as soon as possible, keep going,” she urged as her arms tightly wrapped around him.
He slowed the horse as she glared at him. “Kiaran, we will kill the horse. How else would we reach them?”
“Keep going,” she pressed.
The horse stopped and Torin twisted around to face her the best he could. “I know you are worried, but think rationally. I need your mind to be clear. Help me out here.”
She looked away, knowing he was right. She slid off the horse as it panted and shook its head. Walking to its face, she gently rubbed a hand over its main and down the center of its nose. Such a majestic animal. She nearly killed it. Sighing, she rested her forehead on its nose, its hot breath on her face.
Torin rested a hand on her shoulder. Raising her head, she looked to him. He was a silhouette against the dark blue sky. The moon was nearly gone, the stars providing most of the light.
Howls filled the night air, raising the hair on her skin. The horse grew nervous, stamping and backing up. Torin grasped her by the waist and tossed her onto the horse. She held his arm and pulled him up as he grabbed the reins. The horse galloped away, weaving through the black trees. Kiaran’s heart pounded. How was the horse missing every tree? All she could imagine was slamming into a one and falling to the ground, crippled.
Wolves ran after them, snarling and snapping at the horse’s hooves. Drawing a sword, she sat backwards on the horse, her free hand grasping Torin’s shirt for support. She slashed at the beasts to no avail.
Her body was reluctant to her idea, but she stood and leaped from the horse. Torin shouted as he turned the animal around. His heart was in his throat as she rolled on the ground, surrounded by the beasts. The beat of his heart was synced with the horse’s hooves as he raced back.
He whipped out his bow and drew an arrow, aiming at the first wolf. Kiaran swung her blade, drawing the second sword. There were at least five wolves, hungry for her flesh. Turning to a wolf she slashed at it, its hot blood staining the ground. An arrow pierced through its head and it fell over, dead. As she aimed for another, an arrow killed it as well. A third fell dead and the others retreated.
Torin leapt from the horse as it slowed to a trot. Running to her, he pulled her up by an arm. Blood soaked her clothes, but she was merely scraped up. Nonchalantly, she wiped dirt and leaves from her cloak as he looked her over. “What the hell?” he growled.
Her eyes darted to him innocently as she picked leaves from her hair. “What was that?” he barked. There was no reply and he sighed. His tight grip on her arm finally let off as he turned back to the horse. He pulled the bags from the horse’s back and tossed them to the ground.
Soon, Torin had a fire lit and they had burried the dead wolves to keep from attracting animals. They sat across from one another, the warmth of the fire washing over them. Kiaran’s eyes landed on Grace’s ribbon. That little girl’s brown eyes came to mind as they often did and her heart sank. Grace was always so sad, her eyes always were frowning.
“Gracie,” she breathed, “The poor child never lived for herself.”
Torin did not expect to hear anything from her, least of all about her horrid past. He looked over the fire to her. The shadows across her face only deepened the misery in her. Her gaze met with his and she said, “I…hope you understand why I thought you were my traitor.” There was no answer as he lowered his gaze. “I never was able to trust anyone. I was always used for others’ advantages.”
“I thought I was your friend,” he replied lowly.
“You are, that is why it hurt me so,” she snapped.
It was once again silent. Her eyes burned, and she was shocked when she wiped them…Tears. She was crying and had no reason. The thought of a friend turning against her hurt horribly. There was no possible way she would allow herself to fall in love. It would be unbearable. If she could hardly stand the betrayal of a friend, imagine how badly it would feel from a lover. She took a deep breath to calm her shaking insides.
The trees above her broke the sky into fractures. She stared at it, lost in thought. Torin watched her for a moment and moved to her side, ingesting the beauty of the sky with her. Patting her shoulder, he spoke softly, “It’s alright, Kiaran.”
Their ears perked to the sound of an approaching horse. Kiaran quickly stood, drawing a sword. Torin stood with her, both glaring into the darkness.
The figure of the horse slowed to a stop as a man left it. He approached them almost in a jaunty manner. He was tall, somewhat thin, his arms seeming a bit longer than his frame needed. His long, dark hair fell down his shoulders in messy waves.
“Ralner,” Torin said under his breath. One of the king’s recruits.
“I am here for you, Kiaran,” he pointed at her with his blade. “I don’t care about you,” he shifted his gaze to Torin.
“If you are here for me,” Kiaran stood forward fearlessly, “then come on. I don’t have all night.”
Instantly, he darted for her and she sidestepped halfway around him. In doing so, she swiftly sliced at him, but he, too, dodged it. As she was coming out of the swing, she followed through with a solid kick. One which caused him to falter.
However experienced he was as a soldier, he never had to fight like Kiaran. To survive every week by killing--and from a young age at that. To taste blood and find it normal. Nearly refreshing when its the blood that was long past due.
This man did not know.
Savage and without care, she fought. They were too quick for Torin to follow, but he saw blood soaking the man’s coat. Then, finally, Kiaran had him down.
Ralner fell to his knees, struggling to breathe. Kiaran stood a few feet before him, so casual. Kneeling, she leaned into his view. The look in her silver eyes was daunting.
“You were a fool to come alone,” she nearly whispered.
Then, she stood, cutting right through him. Her blade plunged through the back of his shoulder, ripping right through his chest. His breathing was ragged and quick, his eyes wide. As blood pooled from his wound, his face paled. He fell lifeless, shadows flicking across his twisted face.
Never had Torin seen that side of her. She turned around, seeming stunned that Torin still stood there. As if reality had just touched her. Sheathing her sword, she inhaled sharply, looking away. Hiding her shame.
“...Kiaran...” he breathed.
“There are more to come,” she said lowly. “We should go.”
The next evening, they pushed on through the forest. The trees were becoming smaller and farther apart as they neared a field. They had no other encounters, and it seemed they were safe for now.
The way she had killed that man was...distracting. The ease, the smooth voice as she spoke to him...She was a mystery to him. And to feel her against him on the horse made him uneasy. Admittedly, Torin had never seen a dead man before. Not so close, anyway.
He blinked the memory away to see what stood before them. Ahead was a vast prairie, the grass a bronze color. Mountains reached the clouds in the distance, towering like purple and blue walls against the setting sun. Pine trees were scarce through the fields. A wide river ran between them and the mountain range.
Kiaran smiled; the view was a perfect picture of her freedom…and hopefully her future, serene life. Torin smiled as well when he saw her face. She was so happy and he could not resist smiling with her.
“Beautiful, is it not?” he asked.
“It is,” she nodded.
Torin brought the horse to a stop and they climbed off. They gathered sticks and met together by the animal. He showed her how to get the fire started. She held the sticks and went to work. Torin snickered as she went about it incorrectly.
He knelt over her and adjusted her fingers. Her hair brushed the side of his face and he smiled. “Now you got it,” he said. Standing back up, he added, “I shall return shortly with meat.”
“Take your time,” she huffed, “This fire may not be ready by the time you come back.”
“You are doing fine,” he laughed.
She listened to his footsteps disappear back into the forest. Her gloves protected her skin from rubbing raw as she rubbed the sticks together. After several, grueling minutes, smoke began to roll from the bundle of leaves and she smiled. Rubbing them harder and throwing more leaves atop it, flames lifted. Carefully, she lifted the embers and placed them in the pile of sticks.
She was proud of herself, but wanted to be more of a help. Grasping the reins of the horse, she led it across the plane. Soon enough, she came to the wide, but shallow river. It was very clean; the white rocks at the bottom highlighted the silver fish weaving through.
As the horse drank, she filled their waterskins to the brim. Sitting in the grass, she watched the horse step into the water, drinking huge gulps. Its hair shined a deep black as the sun highlighted the horse.
The sky turned dark and small stars dotted the sky, providing enough light to make her way back to camp. Torin was still gone, which was expected considering he was hunting. She unpacked their blankets and spread them out on the frosted ground.
Watching the fire, she hummed a song Nathanial’s wife used to sing as she cooked. She was a kind woman, from what she could remember. Her voice was mellifluous, echoing softly. Though she couldn’t remember the words, she sang the notes softly to herself. Quickly, she hushed as she heard Torin returning.
She turned around just to see him trip out of the brush, nearly falling. In his hand was a large squirrel. “This is all I could find,” he panted. He tossed it to the side as he sat next to her. He wiped his face with his bicep as he caught his breath. His eyes met with hers and he smiled. She returned the smile and he said, “You have a beautiful voice.”
She blushed as she bit away her smile. “Thank you,” she mumbled.
“I am thirsty,” he sighed. “I saw a river that way,” he pointed. Without saying a word, she handed him a waterskin. Lifting his brows, he said, “You already did everything? All I did was catch a lousy squirrel.”
She stared at his face, each day he looked more like his brother. However, his hair was lighter, nearly blonde. His vibrant eyes met with hers. “What is it?” he asked.
“You look much like your brother,” she said.
“Oh,” he sighed. “Well, I am going to skin and cook this thing,” he stated as he snatched it up.
Soon, the meat was over the fire. Torin glanced at Kiaran several times. “Do you have something to say, or am I just that beautiful?” she mocked, but still with a flat tone.
His blush caused her to blush as well. Perhaps it was best she did not say that. “You are growing a sense of humor,” he finally said.
“I’ve always had one,” she corrected, “I never had any reason to use it.”
“Why do you now?”
She shrugged, “I suppose I am comfortable around you.”
Smiling brightly, he said, “Good, good.”
It was quiet for a while as they listened to the fire crackle. She could feel him glance to her too often. Her skin grew hot. She could feel the way he watched her what he thought. How could she be so cold? How could it be so easy for her to kill him?
"If I didn't kill him, we were done," she said defensively.
"Ralner," she spat. "If he survived, he would have found us or sent someone else after us."
"I know," he said simply.
She nodded once, as if securing their conversation. "...I didn't realize it weighed on you like it does," he said lowly.
She flushed slightly. She had no remorse for killing Ralner. There was nothing wrong with it at all. She was more concerned with how Torin viewed her. That was enough to brighten her cheeks to a near-full red.
It grew quiet again, Torin knowing she'd not admit to such a thing. Fiddling with his gloves, he finally forced himself to ask, “Will you train me to fight?”
“I’ve never had much skill in combat,” he explained. “I do not want to be only a hunter to you. I don’t want you to have to protect me.”
“You may endure several bruises and quite a bit of pain,” she warned him, lifting a brow.
“I’m willing,” he said.
“Hm,” she smirked, “Brave.” Standing, she tossed her swords onto her blanket. “Hand-to-hand, no weapons,” she said.
“Alright,” he grunted as he stood.
Kiaran led him away from the fire. “Standing is for balance’s sake, please,” she said.
She stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders to straighten him out. A hand moved to his mid back, pushing it so his chest was broad and his back sturdy and straight. She could feel his muscles through his shirt which was stained with her blood. Her hands hesitantly moved to his hips where she squared them off, her fingertips digging into him. With a foot, she directed where his feet should be. “Stand like this,” her voice was strong.
She walked around him to face him. Her eyes met with his as he smirked at her. Tearing her sight from him, she put a hand on his chest and shoved. He did not lose his balance. “You see? Balance is key.”
She readied herself and said, “Throw a punch at my face.”
“Do it; do not hold back,” she replied.
Hesitantly, he did so. With amazing speed, she knocked his fist off course with her arm and threw a punch right past his ear. “I will not hit you, so imagine this is your face.”
“Well,” he sighed as he readied himself. “Train me; as you see I need it.”
Laughing, she replied, “You must always start somewhere, Torin.”
She showed him how to block and punch correctly. She threw her fist and he blocked and punched beside her ear. “If I can avoid it, I will not hit you either,” he said.
They gradually became faster, until the smell of burnt meat reached their nostrils. Torin cursed and Kiaran laughed as they ran to the fire. He snatched the meat off the flames and inspected it. Kiaran sat closely to him, still wearing a slight smile. He cracked a wide grin and said, “Why so smiley?”
She shrugged and looked at the meat. “I suppose I am…happy.” When she said it, her smile widened and she chuckled. It was somewhat embarrassing, her face turning red. Clearing her throat, she said, “Fighting cleans my head, calms me down.”
“Being calm and being happy are two different things,” he pointed out, “And, dear, you are elated.”
“Yes, well, is the food fine?” she huffed.
He nodded and handed her the stick. She took a large bite and handed it back. Sharing the squirrel in silence, the food seemed all that much better. “Kiaran?”
“Yes?” Her eyes moved to him. His eyes were on his food with a very serious look.
“Would you like to continue training after we eat?” he asked.
“Maybe for a short while. We need rest and it takes years to be a great fighter. You do not want to rush yourself,” she replied. She moved a hand to her bandaged neck, rotating her shoulders slightly.
"Does it hurt?" he asked.
"Not any more than what I am used to," she replied.
Soon, they were back into the field--after waiting long enough for their stomachs to settle.
He blocked many of her punches and she smiled. She was proud of him. Still in mid-fight, she took a step back, tripping over a large rock. Instantly, she grasped Torin’s arm, and he fell with her. His body crashed upon hers and she lost her breath. “Sorry,” she grunted, pushing on his chest.
He fidgeted, rushing to stand. It was too much to be that close to her. Taking hold of her hand, he pulled her up with too much strength and she bumped into him. Holding back no longer, he smiled at her, smiling at the closeness between their bodies, his fingers still wrapped firmly around her wrist.
Kiaran grew uncomfortable as she pulled her hand from his. Feeling emotionally vulnerable, she stood strong to mask herself. Shaking her worry away, she knew he was a friend; it was safe to be with him.
As she looked away, Torin gently took a large leaf from her hair and tossed it aside. The stars glowed on her as she looked back to him. Her silver eyes were surrounded by thick, long lashes as dark as her black hair. He no longer could hide it.
He pressed his lips to hers, his heart racing in his chest. The second their warm lips touched, Kiaran punched him in the gut. He doubled over and she fought every urge to slam her fist into his face. Instantly, she stormed back to camp in shock. Grasping each corner of her blanket, she dragged it to the other side of the fire, as far as possible from Torin’s.
Her face burned as she wiped her mouth, sitting on her blanket. Memories shattered her heart, Nathanial’s hands all over her. She fought so hard to keep from crying. No tears formed, but her breathing was shallow and shaky. “Damn it,” she choked as she hid her face in her hands. She slammed her fist into the ground beside her.
Torin remained in the shadows, ashamed of himself. He tore his gaze from her and turned around. The black mountains made him feel as small and insignificant as a pebble. How could he do that to her? Grabbing a rock, he threw it as far as he could see. He fell to the ground, elevating his knees slightly as he ran his hands through his hair. “She hates me,” he whispered. He held his stomach, a bruise blossoming beneath his skin.
Suddenly, he realized what was wrong. Nathanial. He ruined her life, anytime she was kissed or touched…she thought of him. “Bastard,” he spat.