Kiaran had awoken first, seeing that her companion was still fast asleep. She crept over to him, slowly and silently. She took his bow and three arrows. It was time she had attempted to hunt.
She walked in a reduced, cat-like stealth, looking for any small game. Freezing, she saw a few rabbits in the distance. Glancing between the bow and the animals, she got an arrow drawn back. Releasing it, it flew through the air, missing them by several feet. Her eyes widened at her horrible aim. Quickly, she shot again, missing just as badly.
They scattered, but one ran her way. Cursing, she dropped the bow, the last arrow still clutched tightly in her hand. With abnormal speed, she charged after the rabbit which headed her way.
Diving, she skidded across the dirt on her chest. Somehow, she snatched the rabbit by its tail and stabbed the arrow through its heart. She stood, wiping dirt from her clothes. Likely would’ve been easier to just snap its neck...As she walked back, she found his bow and got back to camp.
Torin stirred, the smell of roasting meat waking him. He grunted as he rolled over, squinting at the fire a few feet away. The food hung over the flames on a stick, nearly completely cooked. He sat up and looked to Kiaran. She smiled triumphantly and said, “I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed your bow.”
Shrugging, he pulled his shirt together and buttoned it. He rubbed his jaw as he said, “It is nice not having to hunt for a change. With Alana, I was never much help, so she sent me to hunt every time.”
“It was not as difficult as I had imagined,” she said.
Her eyes gave away her lie and he grinned largely. “I caught it and used an arrow by hand,” she huffed.
Laughing loudly, he said, “Oh the sight! I wish I could have seen it.”
“Your laughter would have scared them away,” she retorted.
Once his cackling subsided, he said, “Thank you for the meal.”
“You’re welcome,” she nodded while she removed the food to share with him.
After their meal, they sat on a blanket. Kiaran leaned on her hands as Torin rested his elbows on his slightly elevated knees. The horse stepped ahead as it grazed the dry grass. Torin pointed to one of the mountains and traced it in the air with his finger.
“That mountain…does it not look like a woman to you?” She narrowed her eyes as she looked at him curiously. “It looks like a lady from the waist up at the side.” He was right; it was curvy like hips. “It reminds me of you.” She remained silent as he continued, “A woman of rock: strong, independent, and the only one of her kind.” Her face softened as he turned to her. “I will not lie, Kiaran,” he began, “You are the closest person I’ve ever been to. Even my brother is not as good a friend.”
Her heart sank into her stomach as she realized he must have loved her. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Trying again, she said, “You are my best friend as well, Torin.” And she was nearly surprised to hear herself saying it.
“Good,” he smiled, his voice much less serious. Standing, he held out a hand, saying, “May we train, Lady?”
Grabbing his wrist, she pulled herself up, sighing in relief. “Of course I shall beat you into a pulp,” she mused.
“Once again, you are hilarious,” he fake laughed.
“And no more calling me Lady.”
Kiaran tossed her cloak to the ground and sat her swords on it. She, then, walked after him, ready for a painfully physical release. Looking over him, she rolled her eyes. “Torin, stance,” she ordered.
“Oh,” he breathed as he repositioned himself. And, thus, they trained.
They traveled two, slow days through the valley between the mountains. It was late in the evening once they left the valley. The darkening sky proved to be heartwarming as Kiaran grew exhausted. The horse carried them into another, small field, revealing the evening sky more clearly.
“There it is,” Torin pointed, “Eava’s drop.” Two, flat mountains stood in the short distance. “It might only take us a day to get there.”
“Do we need to climb it?” she asked. Her chin nearly rested on his shoulder as she grew tired, looking ahead of him at the mountains.
“Yes, but it is not so difficult,” he replied. “After getting to this mountain, I am more than ready to sleep tonight.”
“Aye,” she nodded in agreement.
They reached the base of the mountains and decided to call it a night. A fire blazed between them as they nibbled on bread. Soon, they were fast asleep. Wolves howled and owls sounded through the night. As the sun rose, birds chirped and Kiaran awoke. She and Torin sat up, ate a quick meal, and they were off. Torin held the reigns in one hand as they walked. They were nearly killing the poor animal with the extra weight and little rest.
Kiaran walked a little ways ahead through the thin forest. Stepping over fallen branches, she thought about the Armogot. She knew nothing about them. “Torin,” she began as she looked over her shoulder, “Tell me about the Armogot.”
“Well,” he began slowly. “It was around thirty years ago. Murdock’s father was king at the time. Greedy sod he was. The Armogot were the natives of the south half of Rishana, living in these mountains. There were valuable materials in the mountains, and the king wasn’t about to let it waste away. When the Armogot refused to give away their home, he slaughtered them. A few got away and escaped further south.”
Her pace slowed to a stop as she looked through the trees behind her. The mountains stood as a colossal monument to what the horrible ruler did. Torin followed her gaze and sighed. “The sins a king can get away with,” Kiaran shook her head.
“Murdock’s reign is coming to an end,” he reminded her, “He has mutilated his position enough.”
“Who will replace him?”
He raised a brow, saying, “I have no idea.”
“Does anyone know?” she questioned. He shrugged, his expression showing his worry. Sighing, she turned around and continued their quest.
Finally, after a long, steep hike, they were atop the cliff. A rock near the size of their horse caught Kiaran’s attention. Crevices from erosion and green moss formed an etching of a griffin standing on its hindquarters. Pointing to it, she said, “We are to wait here, yes?”
“Aye,” he nodded as he followed her. Sitting at the base of the boulder, they ate the last of their bread. “Perfect rations, eh?” he snickered.
“Yes, if they find us by the end of the day that is,” she replied.
A few hours irked by, the sun setting. Kiaran rested her forehead on her knees, nearly dozing off. Torin leaned his head on the stone, sighing. His eyes shifted to Kiaran against his will. It seemed he may accept being only a friend. She was reliable and trustworthy…Why ruin what they already have? If she were to love him, he would gladly accept. Until then, however, they were simply friends. For once, he had not felt alone.
Slowly, Kiaran lulled to sleep, the world seeming to slip away from her.
Kiaran awoke by being kicked to the ground at Torin’s feet. Torin had an arrow drawn back, aiming at the men facing them. She turned around, still on the forest floor and narrowed her eyes through the darkness. The moon illuminated the forest very little, but enough to see. A man stood in the shadows with a spear in one hand. A second man stood with him, an arrow aimed back at Torin.
They each had sleek, black hair, their skins dark tan. Bright blue eyes stood out upon their faces. Fur-lined clothes covered their bodies, gold jewelry on one man's ears and around his neck.
The larger man had gold and leather bracelets and a chain around his neck with painted beads. The larger man pointed his spear to Kiaran, pressing the cold point to her chest. “Who are you?” he asked sternly, his eyes on Torin.
“Kiaran,” she replied fearlessly, “Walter sent us.”
His eyes narrowed and he looked to her. “The woman speaks? It is unusual for your kind to allow women to lead.” He looked to his companion as Kiaran frowned. “Follow us,” he grunted as he turned and walked.
Torin pulled her up by her arm and he quickly retrieved the horse. They followed the man from a few feet behind. “Was I asleep for long?” she whispered.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “I fell asleep as well.”
Coming to a four foot drop, the two men leaped off. The man with the spear turned to Kiaran, holding a hand out for support. Ignoring his gesture, she simply did as they had. Torin glanced around, hoping to find a way to get the horse down. Sighing, the larger man pointed to him and called for his friend, “Noro.” Noro climbed back up and led the horse away. “He will meet us at camp. He is taking the horse to our stables.”
They followed him down the steep structure. Through the naked trees she could see a number of fires with small homes standing side by side. They were tall and narrow, made from sturdy wood. Rather than having doors, heavy, brightly colored blankets were slung across the doorways. Less than a mile out was a large lake.
Her heart fluttered as she wondered how everything was to play out. Would she gain respect and have a home of her own? She pointed to the camp to show Torin. He nodded, anxiety on his face. She rested a hand on his back as if to say everything would be fine.
Their legs grew weak, but luckily, they reached the camp. Women and children stood aside, gazing at them. Men glared untrustingly. They came to a home that was separated from the others, facing the rest of them, as if to overlook the entire tribe. A colorful, heavy blanket of oranges and reds covered the doorway, keeping the warmth trapped inside.
The man unhooked a bottom corner of the blanket and lifted it up, allowing them to enter. The heat hit Kiaran as she stepped inside; it was surprisingly warm and welcome. Faded, colorful rugs were placed on the floors to add to the décor.
An old man walked to them, his hair white and fuzzy, and the top of his head bald. His beard reached his mid chest, beads and thin braids throughout it. A gold medallion was chained around his wrinkled neck, beads and a wolf tooth hanging with it. The vest he wore was made of a wolf pelt, hanging far past his glimmering belt of gold and gems. He was hunched over, forced to use a cane for balance. Gold ringed around nearly all of his fingers and hung from his droopy ears. His skin was wrinkled and pale, but his eyes were bright and…innocent.
“What brings you to us, children?” his raspy voice asked kindly.
“Walter sent us to meet with Fargo for aid,” Kiaran answered. Her eyes and voice made her seem to be nearly a new person. She was softer; the sight of the old man made her feel calm.
“Walter,” he grinned. He coughed heavily as he laughed. The large man reached for him. Raising a hand, he said, “I am fine, Kane.” Turning his attention to Kiaran, he said, “I am Fargo, dear girl.”
Staring at him unexpectedly, she was unable to smile. She anticipated a man near Walter’s age, much stronger and mo durable. “Fargo, I am Kiaran and this is Torin Holloway. We have recently discovered King Murdock needs to lose the throne. We are fugitives and we hoped for your assistance.”
“Come, sit,” he gestured to some small, wooden chairs. Hesitantly, they sat across from the frail, old man. He sat on a little couch full of bright pillows and heavy blankets. Leaning on the pile of pillows to his side, he said, “Tell me, Lady, how has King Murdock lost your trust?”
Kiaran paused, Torin awaiting her answer as well. She explained the marriage proposal and Fargo gazed at her in deep thought. “Why are you doomed for a hanging in your home country?”
Sighing deeply, her gaze moved to her hands. “I was accused of murdering two people,” she answered softly.
“Did you do it?” She stared at the old man in wonder. He waited patiently for a response.
“I killed one of them,” she said. Torin opened his mouth, wishing to explain further, but she shot him a glare and he hushed.
Nodding, Fargo said, “If Walter can trust you, you must have some reason for murder.”
“She did,” Torin said. He wanted people to know she was not a cold blooded murderer. She had a heart that deserved to be seen by everyone.
“First order of action: Rest, my friends,” he said. “Then, tomorrow, you will see Raven about a change of clothes. As of now, you will be here for a long while for training and, well, a disguise.”
“We’ve trained at the city for weeks already,” Kiaran frowned.
“No, no,” he held up a hand, “Training to become one of us. Becoming a Zeil. We behave, fight, and think differently from anyone else. You must learn it to convince everyone you are one of us.”
“Either way we’d be wanted,” Torin said.
“In their eyes we are only a tribe. Our rebellion is secret,” he answered. He coughed into his hand, fluids rumbling deep within his chest. Kane stood by the doorway, looking larger than ever. He watched Fargo, concern on his face. “I trust Walter; therefore, I put trust into you, Kiaran and Torin.”
“You will not regret it,” she assured him.
Smiling, he nodded and then turned to Kane. “Please take them to Raven and Connie,” he said.
They followed the large man back into the cold. Snow glided through the air, softly covering the ground. A small group of people were gathered around a fire. As they neared, two children ran to a woman who held their shoulders. Another woman and two younger men stared at them. “They were sent by Walter,” Kane said. “They are soon to be fellow Zeil.”
The mother nodded and said, “I shall house the girl.” The snow melted on her black, silky hair that rested far past her shoulders. Her upturned eyes looked to Kiaran. Her cheekbones were high and elegant, emphasizing the beauty of her narrow eyes. Beneath her left eye was a line of dots tattooed from the inner corner of her eye all the way to her ear. The gray, fur vest she wore stopped at her belt which wrapped around her thin waist. Her dress was white and thin, reaching her knees. A slit was in the side of the skirt, all the way up to the belt. Wrapping around her thigh was a simple, line tattoo that had a break in it.
“That leaves me with the man,” the blonde woman said. Her long, curly hair was much different from the other woman. Her eyes were round and brown, her cheeks full. The brown, fur coat she wore hid most of her clothing from them.
“Sister,” one of the men said, “can you trust him?” They both watched her closely.
“Brothers, we can trust Walter. And we can trust Fargo,” she replied. Turning back to Kiaran and Torin, she said, “I am Connie, wife of Don. These are my little brothers, Ark and Jon.” Her brothers were tall and blonde, as well. Tattoos marked the left side of the men's necks, reaching from jaw to the collar of their shirts. They were nice designs, not making anything in particular.
“I am Raven,” the other woman said. “This is Tonna and Narhlo,” she gestured to the young girl and boy. The girl, Tonna, was around Grace’s age, the boy a few years younger. They looked very much like their mother; however, Narhlo’s hair was as black as Raven’s, but his eyes were much lighter, almost a silver. “Our husbands are at battle with the Avesitians in the south. That is why most of our tribe is missing.”
“They are much too close to our tribe,” Ark said.
“Well, ladies, this is Kiaran and this is Torin,” Kane said as he held their shoulders. “I must return to Fargo.”
“Yes, how is he?” Connie asked hopefully.
“Not so well, I am afraid,” he answered softly.
“I see,” she breathed. “Torin, come with me, please.”
Torin stared at Kiaran who returned the gaze. Nervousness struck him, unwilling to leave the only person he knew. She gently touched his arm for reassurance. “Good night,” she said. “I will see you in the morning.”
Shocked by her kindness, it took him a moment before he nodded. “Yes, good night, Kiaran.” Soon, he and Connie and her brothers were gone.
“Let us rush to bed, children,” Raven said. She touched their heads as they rushed toward the house beside them. Kiaran silently walked with her away from the fire. “I take it you will be here for some time?”
“As long as it takes to become part of the tribe,” she answered.
“Once you become a Zeil, you plan to leave? I am afraid that’s not how it works,” she said. Her voice was flat and somewhat harsh.
She shook her head, “I don’t wish to put you in harm; I need to leave as soon as possible.” Laughter from the children reached their ears from inside the house. “You’re children are…cute.”
Raven seemed angered by her presence. Kiaran knew she would feel the same if she had a stranger to support suddenly. “I will not be a bother. I can be useful,” Kiaran said.
“There is no denying it, girl, you will be in the way. The newcomers are always in the way until they adjust to our seemingly unwonted ways,” she replied. Her features were similar to a feline, especially her eyes. “You will soon get the idea of our ways and earn a home of your own.”
She nearly smiled at the thought of having her own home. Soon, the dream vanished. She would never be able to settle down, no matter how badly she wanted to. Something would always prevent her from being happy and free. But really, she didn't know how to live like that.
Once reaching the blanket over the doorway, Raven grasped a corner in one of her fists. A beautiful tattoo marked the top of her hand. “You will not sleep in my home smelling like dirt and blood. I will heat up some water for a bath,” she said.
She followed her inside and Raven turned around, reattaching the corner of the blanket to the nail. A very small smile curled Kiaran’s lips as she said, “Thank you.”
Raven glanced to her neck, asking, "Wounded?" Kiaran nodded. "Does it need tended to?"
"Probably need to remove stitches soon, but that's it," she answered.
Raven watched her a moment, then led her away. She helped the woman put buckets of water over the fire until they were hot. With thick rags, Kiaran carried the hot water to a tub in the back room. After some time, the tub was filled with steaming water.
She tossed her cloak and boots aside. Carefully, she placed her swords with them. Turning around, she watched Raven approach her with a pile of clothes. Finally, a nice, hot bath. Then, to top it all off, a bed to sleep in!
Her bed was soft, the blanket thick and warm. Sleeping was easy, but waking the next morning was anything but. Once she was up, she threw her hair into a ponytail, stepping into the main room where Raven waited.
"Come with me," Raven said.
Kiaran followed her to a fire where Connie and Torin awaited them. As they sat down together, Raven said, “I shall give you the lessons of the Zeil.”
She wasted no time as she grasped the collar of her shirt and lowered it past her collarbone. She revealed a tattoo over her heart. It was a circular band with beautiful, detailed designs, the center of the circle bare. It was just over her heart. “This resembles the Zeil. It is a circle to show that once you are a Zeil it lives within you forever; there are no endings, no changes, we simply are Zeil.”
She, then, rolled her left sleeve up to her shoulder. A band was tattooed around her arm, a lacy, delicate design. “This signifies marriage. If there is more than one band that does not mean someone has several spouses. It only means they have been remarried.” She revealed her other arm, two bands stretched across. They were just simple lines. “And these are for my children. If a child or husband or wife has died, a line would be marked through it.”
Kiaran listened intently while Torin looked to the others as they worked, wearing their tattoos proudly. “We even have a mark for those we have killed,” Raven continued lowly. Kiaran’s heart sank. “A black line wrapped around our thigh with a space in it. The break is to remind you of the end.”
“What happens if you’ve killed too many men?” Kiaran nearly whispered.
Raven eyed her skeptically, slow to answer. “You are marked for every person you kill, regardless of the reason. We believe murder is a very last resort. If you are in battle, however, you will have a band for each day of battle, and if you remember, a dash will be marked for each individual you had slain. You will be marked for only those who are killed once you become a Zeil. You are only seen for what you do as one of us. That is what is important to us. Your past does not matter so much anymore.”
A chilling breeze ran through Kiaran as she stared at Raven and Connie. “Our tattoos seem to be a journal that we may never hide. It tells our stories if you look hard enough. Marks upon the cheek indicate a warrior or hunter. Marks on the hands means they use their hands for work like a blacksmith or tailor. If someone scouts into the wilderness, they have tattoos on their feet. A warrior also has a design across his shoulders or back to name his weapon of choice,” Connie added to the lesson.
“You don’t tolerate secrecy here do you?” Kiaran asked.
Raven shook her head and replied, “I believe we do have some privacy. However, we are all family and do not hide much of anything from one another.”
“You have remarkable standards to live by,” Torin said.
Kiaran nodded in agreement and looked past the homes to the old, small mountain. “Why is that called Eava’s Drop?”
Raven stared at her, stunned by the question. “Years ago, a woman named Eava had escaped the City with a small number of rebels. They were the first generation of our tribe, along with a few Armogot who were left alive. They began to settle in the thick forest over there,” she pointed to the base of the mountain where the lake and forest came together. “The king had no idea that they were hiding there. Eava had a meeting with some soldiers and advisers at the rock with the griffin. Things were said, she didn’t reveal her family, and she was tossed to the lake below and perished.”
“She was brave,” Kiaran replied.
“I believe so too,” Raven nodded.
Snow fell gently around them, their breath clouding from their mouths and noses. When do we get our tattoos?” Torin asked.
“Once you speak to Fargo. He will either accept or decline the marks you want. Some people want more impressive markings than they have earned,” Raven said.
“Well, we will not burden him quite yet,” Kiaran remarked. “Not until we know where we belong.”
Connie’s brother, Ark, made his way over. A bow and quiver was strapped onto his back, a spear in each hand. “Raven,” he nodded a greeting. Looking to Torin, he said, “We’re heading out to hunt. It is usually a two night task.” He handed him a spear as he stood, “Tell your lady goodbye and let us fetch your bow.”
Torin’s gaze moved to Kiaran and he smiled awkwardly. “I’ll see you soon,” he said.
“Goodbye,” she replied.
He watched her for a moment before following Ark away. Kiaran’s eyes followed them as they made their way through the village. She smiled. It was nice to have a friend. “He is an odd man.”
“Why is that?”
“I am afraid he believes he is in love with me,” she ended with a snicker. “No sane man would be.”
Raven laughed for the first time. “Perhaps you are too harsh on yourself,” she suggested. Kiaran shrugged, not sure Raven was right.