Nightmare or Omen?
The air was rather cold, the sun muffled by thin, silver clouds. Kiaran sat with Nila as they watched Ryker paint. His canvas sat on a wide easel, a brush in his hand. The woman sat in the grass beneath a large tree, Kiaran right beside her.
Ryker’s canvas was facing away from them as he focused on his paints. He held the brush that was damp with orange, staring at his work. Scratching his head, he wiped some of the paint into his hair.
Nila smiled. “I was never able to have my own children,” she said.
Kiaran looked to her, watching her admire Ryker. “You have a miracle, Anika,” she said.
“He is a good boy,” she agreed. She took hold of the black shawl lined with gray fur, pulling it across her chest as the cold wind picked up. “I would adopt, but I’d be afraid to lose them to the queen.”
“What do you mean?” Kiaran blurred out.
She lowered a brow, looking to her. “How do you not know?” she asked.
Shrugging a shoulder with wide eyes, she said, “I was only taught a few things at home.”
Nila laughed and faced Ryker again. “Well, Sterjia wants an unbelievable amount of money for adoption. And if you do not pay it, she will take that child.” She looked to her upturned hands, whispering, “Right from my hands...”
“Did this happen to you?” Kiaran asked softly.
Her brows lowered and she said, “Once, I had a little boy...His mother gave him to me to care for...Sterjia demanded more money than we had and then stole him from me. Ripped him right from my arms...” She paused, the terror of the memories washing over her. “Do you want to know the horror your queen causes?”
Your queen...Was she not Nila’s queen? Kiaran could see the rebellion in Nila’s heart. “What is it?” she breathed.
“When the man yanked him from my arms, his leg was dislocated and he broke his ribs in the struggle.” She forced her eyes to lift to Ryker as he painted. Tears shimmered in her eyes and she added, “He struggled to breathe. And as he fought, somehow...that monster managed to kill him...Right in front of me...”
Kiaran felt tiny, unable to say or do anything for comfort. Ryker looked up, saying, “Mom?”
“Yes?” she looked to him.
“Are you alright?”
Kiaran watched him for a moment before saying, “Yes.”
It was silent between them as the birds hopped about. Kiaran watched the sparrows, leaning on an arm, her hand feeling the cool grass. “I can see pain in your eyes as well,” Nila spoke softly. “What has happened to you?”
She wouldn’t allow herself to look away from the birds. “My husband,” she spoke slowly, hoping to avoid revealing too much, “His job slowly killed him over the past year.” Her eyes lowered, her heart aching slightly. It didn’t seem as drastic as Nila’s story, but Davin was breaking her heart. “He was a guard,” she said softly, “and every day he came home, I could see his spirit breaking little by little. Until finally...He was killed out at work.” It felt as though she spoke of herself, intertwining her own experiences with Davin’s.
“I am sorry,” Nila said. “That is difficult.”
“Life is difficult,” she shrugged it off. “We can get through it,” she looked to Ryker. They would have to get through it.
“You have a strong heart,” she said.
“I suppose,” Kiaran replied. She disagreed, though. It wasn’t a strong heart, but a stone one.
That evening, Kiaran slept restlessly. Her mind was haunted with strange feelings and disturbed images. Finally, her dreams broke to reality. The sounds of something scratching in the next room perked her ears. Her heart sped as she leapt to her feet. What was it? She barged through her door and ran to Ryker’s room just beside her.
She paused at his door. Something felt ominous. Holding the knob, she pulled the door open and walked inside. The stench of decay filled her nose. The moonlight poured in, shining on a room smothered in blood.
“Ryker?” she could hardly get out.
“Mom?” he croaked.
Ryker sat on the edge of his bed, his head hung low, his entire body drenched with blood. His arms limply lied across his lap, his feet dangling just above the floor. Blood dripped slowly off his toes to the wood beneath.
Her breath quickened and she was unable to move, unable to speak. Her heart ached, her stomach was ready to clear itself of any substance that might be in her. Though it might not have moved through her collapsed throat.
“Mom,” he croaked again, “I think I’m dead.”
“No,” she cried, tears forming. Running to him, she fell to her knees and gripped his head in both hands. She lifted his face to see that his eyes were missing and blood ran from his lips and down his chin like vomit.
“Ryker,” she choked as she dropped him, stumbling back.
He fell onto his side on the bed, limp like a doll. “Mom?” he repeated, “Mom...I think I’m dead.”
Laughter slowly started to fill the room and the air grew heavy and thick. She tried to stand, but slid in the blood, falling back to her knees. The laughter picked up as Ryker continually repeated his words.
Finally, everything grew silent, and the laughing voice spoke sternly, saying, “You are heading down the wrong path, Kiaran.”
Kiaran shot up in her bed, her heart beating unrealistically fast. She ripped the blankets from her and raced to Ryker’s room. Was that a dream? She grabbed the door knob and pushed the door open. That was the only difference in the dream and reality, the doors were different. She pushed, whereas she had pulled in the dream. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.
Inside, it was calm, bloodless. Ryker slept beneath his blankets. Kiaran rushed to him and yanked the blanket down to see him. He flipped onto his back, rubbing his eyes vigorously. “Kiaran?” he asked softly. “What’s wrong?”
She pulled his shoulders so he would sit with her. Instantly, she wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace. His hair smelled clean as it brushed across her face. Tears ran down her face as she held her breath. “You aren’t dead,” she breathed.
“What?” he asked, his fingers gripping her gown at the sides. “What is it, Mom?”
“I think we have been figured out, Ry,” she whispered. “I think Sterjia knows.”
“What? How?” he pulled away.
“I don’t know,” she shook her head. “But we need to be careful.”
The next morning, Kiaran was very quiet and kept her head low as she cleaned. It had been just over a couple of weeks since they arrived in VinCar and she had learned very little about the castle. She hoped that she would be able to visit it and then sneak back to Estiahn’s home with a plan.
Her fingers tightened around the rag she used to clean the shelf. She scrubbed harder as she felt rushed. She needed to get back to Vintar. She needed to get Ryker back to Vintar.
“What in the hell am I even doing?” she hissed very quietly to herself, near to tears.
At that moment, her ears perked as footsteps clicked toward her. “Miss Anika,” Nila’s voice cut through, “We are going to the castle so I may pay my taxes. I hate it when the collectors come to my house.”
“You want me to come along?” she lowered a brow in surprise. It seemed simple enough a task.
“You’ve only been there once, yes?” Kiaran nodded. “It really is a nice thing to see and most people don’t get to go in. So, it would be a story for your grandchildren,” she ended with a laugh. “And your son may join us as well.”
“Wonderful, thank you,” she bowed for a moment.
That afternoon, the three of them walked to the castle that stood not too far from Nila’s home. The streets were busy, everyone rushing around and shouting to one another. Ryker stood closely to Kiaran, nudging his shoulder against her. She sat her hand on his shoulder as they walked.
They came to a rather large gate that allowed them within the walls of the castle. Once within, there were three walls, one behind them, and one on each side. Ahead of them was a wide field of yellowing grass and a few trees. The walls were all high with dark shingles and tall, narrow windows. It was beautifully built.
However beautiful it was, all glory of the castle disappeared when they laid eyes on the gallows in the center of the area. Sitting on the cobblestone ground was a tall and wide platform, large enough for ten people at a time to be hanged. However, it faced the beautiful open field, as if mocking the dying to see the freedom that lied only a mile ahead.
Ryker stared at it with wide eyes, never seeing anything of the like. Kiaran tightened her fingers on his shoulder, breaking his focus. He blinked and looked back to her.
She watched his bright blue and green eyes stare at her. All she could see was the dead Ryker from her dreams. Her blood ran hot and her brows drew low.
“Mom...” he breathed and her heart broke. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she shook her head. The area was rather empty and silent, the wind cold and uninviting. “Come on,” she pulled him, following Nila.
They walked up the tall set of stairs to the front doors. As they walked inside, Nila’s heals clicked across the stone, echoing softly. It was discomforting how quiet it was even within the castle. Either Sterjia liked her privacy or people hated her.
They walked farther, rounding the corner. Ahead of them, the hallway doubled in width, one wall lined with open windows. The sun shone through beautifully, casting long, low shadows.
Across from the windows were nice little benches made of iron. Nila’s feet carried her quickly down the hallway, the others following more slowly. They stared at their surroundings, taking in everything they could.
Before they could reach the end of the hall, a woman walked out of a doorway and into the same hallway. Kiaran froze, Ryker glancing between them anxiously. Nila and the two others in the hall bowed to her. Ryker bowed and Kiaran froze, her eyes stuck on the queen.
She wore a thin, black dress, clinging to her body. Her hair was slicked back and ran far down her back. Upon her head was a thin band of silver with ivory carved into thorns, spaced out an inch from each other. Her blue eyes were lined in purple paints, her lips a dark red.
Kiaran’s lungs filled with lead. That woman, the Queen, was able to kill her without having to lift a finger...
The queen’s eyes glanced their way and Kiaran forced herself to bow. Sterjia continued her strut down the hall. Once she was gone, everyone stood once more and continued about their business. “That was the queen,” Nila smiled, “She is something else, is she not?”
“That she is,” Ryker nodded.
“Anyway, we should hurry. I hate being in here,” Nila said.
“So do I,” one of the working men grumbled beneath his breath as he swept. Ryker grinned at his remark and the man grew tense.