A few days past once more, the sun setting in the distance. Despite the time, the caravan continued to travel forward. It wasn't necessarily too dark to travel, but something felt wrong. Kiaran grew tense; it seemed an ill idea to keep moving.
Ryker’s stride slowed and became more sluggish. Hoisting him up, she sat him on the back of a cart, saying, “We should be stopping soon. Just sit and rest your legs.” He nodded and she walked away.
Brinden was at the front, talking with several men who often accompanied him. He looked exhausted, stressed, and ready to break. He ran a hand down his face as he squared off his large shoulders.
Kiaran quickened her pace to him as the shadows of the trees fell upon them. She could feel something ominous. Something in the shadows, watching. It made her blood cold under her skin.
Once reaching him, she had no time to say anything. He faced her and sharply asked, “What?” She lowered her brows at his attitude and he inhaled deeply. “I apologize, what do you need?”
“I believe we should set up camp,” she said strictly. He looked at her strangely, and she added, “It is becoming dark. I assume that bandits are drooling at our caravan from the trees as we speak.”
“Do you often fear bandits, Anika?” he asked. She narrowed her eyes at him, questioningly. Before she could answer, he said, “There aren't bandits in the area--at least not enough to target such a large caravan." He gave her a reassuring smile, adding, "We've got nothing to fear."
But something scratched at her. Something in the pits of her stomach told her to stop the caravan. Brinden faced forward once more, believing their conversation had ended.
“Brinden,” she confronted. He looked to her as they walked. “I understand you are stressed, but this is something I have always been good with. I can tell...something is going to happen tonight.”
His eyes moved past her to the others who walked behind them and the ones that rode in the carts. His chest expanded with a deep breath as he said, “We will stop for the night.”
Though they were stopped, Kiaran still felt ill at ease. She shook a blanket in the air, flipping the dirt off of it. There was a large pile of them sitting beside her. She took the duty to ready the bedding for the elderly.
Ryker stood beside her, shaking a sheet as well. Being much shorter, he had a difficult time keeping it off the ground. He seemed to only make it worse. She folded the blanket and sat it aside, taking his from him. She shook it off as well and put it back aside.
This was what it must have felt like to be a wife. To be a simple villager, a mother. Shaking dirt from blankets and caring for others. Aside from the edginess which made her stomach ill, it was oddly comforting.
Britta walked to them, her arms folded behind her back. The purple sky was dotted with little, white stars, a few clouds brushed into the sky like paint. She pushed some hair behind her ear as she smiled at them.
“Can I help?” she asked.
“It would be welcome,” Kiaran nodded.
Britta stood beside Ryker, taking a sheet in her hands. She was taller than him, making it a bit easier for the task.
Laughter poured out from a group of girls and boys near Britta’s age. Kiaran glanced to them and back at Britta. They were simply toying around, yet Britta was working, undauntedly.
Pausing, she watched Britta work.
“Why do you not keep with the others of your age, Britta?” Kiaran asked.
Her smile seemed to droop slightly as she kept her eyes on her hands. Pushing hair behind her ear again, she shrugged. “I don’t like them.”
Kiaran looked to the group again and her jaw clenched slightly. “Ryker, help her for a moment,” she said.
“Yes,” he nodded.
Turning, she walked toward the group. Her fingers flexed into a fist, and she forced her hands to open up. She had to be careful about keeping her muscles relaxed.
Once she stood ahead of them, they all faced her. There were three girls, one of them Minda and two boys. They all faced her, silent with quizzical eyes.
“Why aren’t you working?” Kiaran asked flatly.
“Excuse me?” Minda grunted.
Kiaran’s eyes narrowed as she erected her back slightly. Her body shifted as she said, “You have no reason to be lounging around. Quit being lazy and help the others get ready for the night.”
“Why?” another girl asked, her voice annoyingly high pitched. It made Kiaran want to hit her.
“Because expecting others to work for you will get nowhere in life,” Kiaran barked. “You cannot sit around and expect to be given everything you want. You are not children anymore. Do you want to be? My child is more respectful and works harder than the lot of you put together,” she shot a hand through the air, pointing to Ryker.
No one said a word, they simply stared at her like she was mad.
Britta watched Kiaran for a moment, and looked back to Ryker. He focused on the sheet, trying to spread it between his arms, shaking it. “Your mother seems...strict,” she said.
Kiaran’s voice flowed through the air, the words inaudible. “She is,” he shrugged.
“Does she ever hug you?” He looked oddly at her and she hesitantly continued, “I have just never seen her act...affectionate toward you.”
His chest puffed out slightly as his brows lowered. Becoming defensive of Kiaran, he said, “Just because she doesn’t coddle me does not mean she isn’t a good mother. I know she loves me, and she does everything she can to make sure I am protected. She may not hug me, she may not kiss me, and she may not sing me lullabies, but I couldn’t ask for a better mother. She is all I was given, so I will gladly accept that.”
Everything that he spoke was the absolute truth. She was all he was ever given. His real mother gone, he was forced without her for years until he met Kiaran. She may not have the right prerequisites, but she should suffice. He, though, did not want anyone else to take that place but her. She was just right.
Britta lowered her eyes, guiltily. “I wasn’t saying she was a bad mother,” she said softly.
Ryker tensed up slightly, replying, “I know...Nobody seems to understand...She has gone through a lot, so she is...distant.”
Something rustled in the brush behind them. The two froze, listening. Britta’s hands tightened on the sheet at her waist. Ryker whipped around, facing the sound, his body tensing.
Kiaran needed to get back, he knew it.
Something moved again and he stepped backward, keeping in front of Britta. Clay climbed up Ryker’s boots, holding his feet to the earth like stone. He shouted as he tried to move.
Kiaran looked to them in alarm. A man ran at them, snatching up Britta. As she screamed, he carried her off into the woods. Was he a slaver?
Instantly, she darted forward. Her speed seemed inhuman, her feet carrying her as briskly as a wolf on a chase. As she passed Ryker, he shouted, “They have magic!”
Kiaran took note of his words as she raced into the trees, leaping over the shrubs. She reached for the sword missing from her hip. With a scowl, she ducked under a row of branches. She snatched up a fallen branch for a replacement.
She jumped from the three foot drop off where two men struggled with the girl. Without a second’s pause, she swung a leg through the air and kicked the taller one aside.
The second her foot hit the ground again, she slammed the branch into the other man, hitting his shoulder. The branch splintered into several shards. Tossing the chunk of broken wood aside, she thrust a fist into his face.
The taller one ran at her and she easily dodged it. As he passed her, she kicked a foot into his hips, knocking him to the ground.
Britta was crying, holding her arms across her body as she stumbled backward, falling to the dead leaves and dry twigs. This enraged Kiaran. She could see the rips in Britta’s blouse and her loose hair which was once pulled back. No longer was she going to withhold her rage.
Kiaran perched on the man, and punched his head as he scrambled to block or escape. She lifted her second fist high into the air and brought it down with such great force, it was enough to kill him. Blood spilled out and onto the ground. It stained her knuckles, dripping down her fingers.
The crack of his skull, the coppery stench of blood. It was all too familiar. It was sickening at how soothing it was to her.
Clay climbed its way up Kiaran’s legs as she remained sitting on the man’s stomach. She was unable to stand.
“No!” Britta cried out.
Kiaran dropped, covering herself as the other man tried to attack her. Before he could lay a hand on her, Britta’s father tackled him into a nearby tree. The man was knocked so hard, he lost all the air in his lungs.
Taking the man in his massive hands, he thrust him aside. When he fell to the ground, Brinden slammed his foot into his throat, killing him.
Kiaran stared at him as his enraged eyes moved to his daughter. The second he took in her view, his entire face melted away. He frowned heavily as she covered herself, keeping her head low. Kiaran gripped at the clay on her legs, trying to break it away.
Brinden moved to Britta’s side and knelt beside her. “Are you hurt?” his voice was soft.
“No,” she whimpered.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“No,” she cried, tears streaming down her face. Choking away her tears, she said, “Father...help Anika from that dirt, won’t you?”
He paused, not wanting to leave her side, but nodded. Sitting on one knee, he wrapped both hands around the dirt that clung to the back of Kiaran’s calf. Squeezing tightly and quickly, he snapped it into several chunks. He did the same to the other leg and stood.
Kiaran brushed the dirt off and he helped pull her up to her feet. His eyes moved from the dead man at her feet to her face. “You were able to kill this man?” he asked.
“I did so, yes,” she said nonchalantly. Hatred still flowed in her, reflected in her stance and her expression. He stared at her for a moment and she asked very quietly, “Shall I speak with your daughter? This is a sensitive matter. Maybe look for more. I think they’re slavers.”
His eyes moved to Britta as he stood still. He watched her for a long time before agreeing. She waited for him to walk away before she moved to the girl.
Sitting beside her, she wiped the blood from her knuckles. “How were you able to fight them so well?” Britta asked, her voice shaking.
“You cannot tell anyone about that,” she said. Britta looked to her, confusion in her eyes. “My husband taught me long ago...But this cannot be known by anyone, understand?”
“O-okay,” she nodded.
The cold wind pushed by, chilling Britta. Kiaran removed her shawl and wrapped it across her shoulders. Her dress was nearly torn off her chest and down her left side. Bruises lined her ashen skin, darkening as time passed.
Kiaran brushed Britta’s hair out of her face, letting it fall down her back. She moved so gently, it was opposite of the fights she done so often. Her hands shook as she held back her anger and fear.
Her brows creased, thinking of the first night Nathanial actually forced himself on her. He had done so much before that, but the first time he forced himself inside her...It was horrifying. Still at that moment, thinking about it was nauseating.
Britta cried again. They had not gotten far with her, just killing her sense of protection. The shawl was wrapped around her hands as she held them to her face, soaking up her tears.
Kiaran wrapped an arm around her, pulling her against her chest. “I know exactly what you are feeling right now,” she whispered. “It will not always be so painful.”
She drew her knees up, holding them tightly together as she cried heavier. Kiaran rested her chin atop Britta’s head. “Cry all you need, child.”