Finally, Nila had payed her taxes, and they had left the castle and left the gates. They were back into the city just outside the walls. The autumn sun warmed their skin as they walked the streets. Nila paused, saying, “I need to buy some more flour from Margret. If you want, you may spend some time in the markets. Just come home whenever you feel.”
“Thank you,” Kiaran lowered her head in respect.
“Of course,” she smiled. Looking to Ryker with warm eyes, she handed him a gold coin. “Why don’t you find something fun?”
“Alright!” he perked up. “Thank you Miss Nila!”
“Of course,” she laughed, “Have fun; you two have been busy. You deserve an evening to yourselves.”
Once Nila walked away, Kiaran strolled down the street, Ryker bouncing at her side. Every stand they passed, he pointed, saying, “Oh, maybe I should buy one of those!”
Kiaran was still unsettled by Sterjia’s presence. The woman never looked her way; did she know who she was? Did she even get into Kiaran’s dreams or was it just a nightmare? The world around her seemed to shut down as she grew lost in thought. She walked blindly ahead, paying no attention to anything around them.
Suddenly, the marketplace grew quiet. In the distance, an army marched over the hills, heading back to the palace. Once the army was spotted by the citizens, they quickly went back to work. However, they were quiet and quick to finish so they could leave.
It seemed the city was not comfortable with its own army. That thought left Kiaran on edge, every inch of her body tensing with anticipation. Something itching just under her skin. Like a warning.
“Anika?” Brinden stepped in front of her, but she did not acknowledge him.
“Anika...” he touched her shoulder and her eyes shot to him. They were such deep brown eyes and no matter how angry she was, they were always so warm to look at.
“Oh,” she snapped back to reality, “Hello, Brinden,” she said.
“How are you doing with Mister Marco and his wife?” he asked.
“Fine,” she nodded, her eyes darting from person to person, and stand to stand.
“Are...you doing well?” he asked.
“Aye,” she nodded again. “I just...never realized how menacing Ster--the queen looks in person,” she shrugged.
“I’ve not met her yet...luckily,” he groaned. “She is unpleasant to live under...”
Ryker stood near them, watching silently. His jaws tightened slightly, Brinden glancing to him. He was a tall, handsome man with a broad chest and shoulders. His jaw was strong and covered with a trimmed beard. He ran a hand through his blonde hair, looking back to Kiaran.
“Work is going well?” she asked.
“It is,” he nodded. “Keeps me busy. I like it though, keeps me from getting bored.” It grew silent, Ryker’s glare becoming more potent. “Well...” Brinden drew out, wondering how to word his sentences. “I’ve seen you and your son out in the yard with Miss Nila. You seem to have a pleasant place to stay.”
“Aye, we do,” Ryker cut in.
“Ry, go find something to buy,” Kiaran grunted.
“Fine,” he huffed. He walked to the next stand, poorly acting out his excitement for the things they were selling. He attempted to glare at Brinden, but was rather nonthreatening.
“I was hoping you might join me this evening,” Brinden threw out the words. Kiaran’s eyes shot to him and she paused. “It would be nice to catch up, and I realize you don’t really know anyone here...”
“...Um,” she tried to think, but was unable to say anything other than, “Alright.”
He smiled, saying, “It’d be nice to spend a little time with you again.”
“Right,” she breathed.
“While you’re in town, you should stop by the inn where Britta is working. She’d love to see Ryker.”
“We’ll do that,” she nodded.
Soon, Kiaran and Ryker made their way to the inn that Britta worked at. They stepped inside and found a seat at a table. A barmaid walked to them, asking, “What can I get for you?”
“Actually, I was wondering if you knew how we could get a hold of Britta?” Kiaran said.
“Ah, yes, she is another server today, so I’ll get her for you,” she bowed and dashed off.
Kiaran and Ryker sat across from one another silently. Ryker was sulking, his eyes staring at his hands in his lap. “So,” Kiaran tried to brake the awkwardness, “What did you end up buying?”
He shrugged, lifting his gaze. He froze, his expression shifting completely. Kiaran followed his gaze to Britta as she walked toward them.
She wore a simple dress and apron, her hair in two buns on the back of her head. She smiled at them excitedly, waving a hand at them. Kiaran smiled sadly as Ryker stared with wide eyes. He had such a deep love for her, and it was going to kill him when they left.
He stood from his seat, saying, “You look nice.”
She chuckled shyly, saying, “I’m wearing worse clothes than when we left our town.”
“Well,” he stammered, “I mean to say that you look happy...”
“I suppose I am,” she gleamed. “I am overly happy to see you come visit me.”
His cheeks flushed slightly and Kiaran grinned. “I am sorry we haven’t visited before today,” Kiaran said.
“Oh, no it is fine,” she shook her head, “My employer keeps me far too busy to have visitors during the day.”
“Oh, are we interrupting, then?” Ryker asked.
“No, no,” she continued to smile. “You are fine. Please, Ryker, sit back down.” He sat down and she took the edge of the bench beside him. He scooted across the booth, allowing her to sit more comfortably. “Are you happy living with Nila?”
“Yes,” Ryker beamed.
“I was told she is a remarkable artist and very sweet,” her eyes met with Kiaran's.
“It is true,” Kiaran agreed.
One of the innkeeper’s daughters walked by, gesturing to Britta to stand. She did so, standing from the table. “Well, I suppose I’d be getting back to work...Please, come visit more often,” she said with a small smile.
“We will,” Ryker stood with her.
That evening, Nila stood with Kiaran in her room. “It is exciting to go out with such a fine young man,” she squeezed her hands together at her chest. “It is the man working for Brohn next door, yes?”
“Aye,” Kiaran nodded. “Brinden.”
“I see,” her grin widened. “A handsome man, Anika. You should wear something very nice.”
Kiaran took in a breath, looking the opposite of excited. She touched the handles of the drawer on her dresser, the glass-flower just behind the wood. Nila rested a hand on her shoulder and spoke softly, “How long ago did your husband die?”
“It seems like it was just yesterday,” she muttered.
“Hm,” she smiled sympathetically. “Perhaps you shouldn’t wear something too nice then...” It was a light attempt to get a smile out of Kiaran--and somehow, it worked. A light grin appeared on her lips and Nila smiled again.
“I just don’t feel comfortable leaving Ryker behind,” she added.
“He will not be alone, I’ll be here with him,” Nila pointed out.
That only seemed to worsen the pit in her stomach. There was no protection for the boy...
“Please, go, Anika. Enjoy your evening,” she pressed.
“Aye,” she nodded. “Thank you, Nila.”
It felt rather odd to be going on a date in these circumstances. There was no threat of death, no fear of someone trying to go against her...The only thing she had to worry about was Ryker’s attempt to argue her out of it.
Once she was dressed in a nice outfit, she made her way down the hall. Before she could reach the stairs, she could feel Ryker staring at her from behind. She paused, sighing, and then faced him.
“You shouldn’t do this, Ki--” he hesitated, “Mom.”
She lowered her brows and said, “Ryker, I am not ever going to marry Davin, so why push this so hard? I am not even courting this man, I am just enjoying the night.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t realize that. He thinks you’ll be here as long as he will,” he said.
Something inside her agreed with Ryker. That was unfair to drag this man around only to disappear once she learned what she needed to know. “It would look suspicious if I ignored a handsome, single man who was interested in me,” she finally admitted. “Someone would be curious as to why a widowed woman of my status would turn down an unmarried man’s attention.”
“That isn’t right,” he huffed. “But, have fun if you can, Mother.”
“Ry, I’m sorry,” she sighed. He continued to glare at her and she threw a hand into the air, saying, “We’ll be home before you know it. Don’t worry so much, child.”
“Right,” he grunted.
There was a knock on the front door and Kiaran went to answer it. Her fingers wrapped around the handle of the door and she paused.
This was unfair.
Pulling it open, she found Brinden wearing a surprisingly nice suit, his hair clean and his smile beautiful. She stared at him for a moment, frozen in place.
Slung across Kiaran’s arm was a coat lined in black fur, and she pulled it on. The sun was setting just behind him, making him all the more glorious to look at. The cold, late evening wind pushed past her and inside.
Stepping onto the porch, she closed the door behind herself. Buttoning up her coat, she walked along side him down the sidewalk. It was silent for a moment, neither of them knowing what to say. “You look lovely,” Brinden finally said.
She forced a guilt-filled smile. They passed through the open gate and headed into the town. Perhaps...the boy was right.
They walked down the road between buildings. Most of the crowds were inside, ready for dinner. The cool breeze picked up and Kiaran crossed her arms over her chest. Brinden placed his hand to her back, guiding her. Her back tensed at his touch, but she tried to behave appropriately.
“I thought it would be nice to enjoy a hot meal together,” he said.
Her nerves twisted her stomach, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to eat. Her eyes shifted to him and she continued to grin awkwardly. “Alright.”
“You don’t want to...do you?” he smiled, though he was not happy.
“Oh, no,” she shook her head, “It would be nice...”
Her face was as much a lie as everything that came out of her mouth. Her face felt like glass, glass that was warping in heat and ready to crack with the next cold wind. She hoped that he wouldn’t see it, yet she knew it was painted across her face.
“Anika...” he stopped walking. They stood motionless, the wind pushing Kiaran’s hair across her somewhat rounded cheeks. Her fingers tightened around the ends of her sleeves.
He leaned in to be eye level with her. She could read in his face, the trust he put in her. The fact that he never pressed for answers when she fought those men in the woods. It was an unnatural trust that most people would have to form over much more time.
“Thank you,” he said softly. She gazed at him in awe. Thanks? For saving his daughter? “And...whatever happened to you...whatever is happening. You can tell me. You don’t seem well.”
She closed her eyes and took a breath in. What he did not realize was that everything she had ever told him was a lie. She couldn’t tell him anything. Opening her eyes, she smiled. He was puzzled. “I saw Sterjia for the first time in person, is all...”
“The queen?” he breathed.
“Aye,” she nodded, “She is rather...intimidating.”
“That she is,” he nodded. He erected his back, watching her closely. “Is that all that is on your mind?”
She inhaled deeply and nodded with a forced smile. “Let us eat,” she said with a bright tone.
They walked to a large tavern, the windows glowing golden. The sky was dark, the sun nearly completely gone. The muffled sounds of music and voices touched Kiaran’s ears as they made it to the door.
Brinden opened the door, holding it for her as she stepped inside. The warmth hit her like a wall, the sounds so bright and happy. Laughter burst from a few tables as they spoke with each other. Things seemed to be going well for the people. At least the ale was good.
Brinden walked in with her, the heavy door closing behind him. Finding a table, they sat across from each other. Kiaran’s fingers gently tapped the edge of the table, her eyes on her fingernails as the light shined across them.
The only thing she could think about was that voice in her dream. You are heading down the wrong path, Kiaran...Was it Sterjia? There was no conceivable way that she had imagined that horrid dream on her own. All of that blood and the agonizing laughter that swarmed the dark room...
“There is something else on your mind,” he sighed. Her eyes shot to him. “I did not mean for this to be uncomfortable for you.”
“I know,” she replied, “And it isn’t.”
He kept his eyes on her for a moment and asked, “Are you feeling alright?”
“I didn’t sleep well,” she shrugged.
“I see,” he hummed.
As they ate, they shared stories about Britta and Ryker. Finally, Kiaran’s mind seemed at ease and she was able to laugh with him. The room was much less chaotic, some of the people gone. The music was relaxing, a few people dancing together.
Brinden stood, rounding the corner of the table. Standing at her side, he held a hand out. Her face flushed, her heart aching. Whatever he was about to say, she prayed that he wouldn’t...
“Would you like to dance?” he asked.
Reluctantly, her eyes slowly moved to his face, her brows creasing slightly. Her blood ran cold and she could see the expression on his face drop. Her gaze moved past him to the couples who danced. They wore worker’s clothes and had nothing fancy on. The way they looked to their spouses was romantic and deep...She could feel a frown digging across her lips and her brows were as set as stone.
“I don’t know how,” she finally answered.
Brinden put his hand back to his side, lowering his gaze. Sitting in his seat once more, he kept his eyes on her as she watched the dancers. “You still have him on your heart, don’t you?” he spoke softly. Her gaze moved over to him. “Your husband.”
She looked to her hands that folded in her lap. “He is,” she was hardly able to get the words out. Her husband...all she could do was picture Davin. Is that what she wanted?
What sort of a question was that? She nearly scoffed--of course she did, but how possible was it? That was the real question. She frowned further. But did she want him as a husband? She couldn’t bare to be a wife.
“How long has it been sense he died?” he asked even softer.
“Soon enough that I still crave his presence,” she replied, her heart shattering. That was oddly true.
“Oh,” he breathed, looking out the window beside them. “Well...I will respect your space, Anika. I won’t try to steel his place...”
“I know." Looking to him, she said, “Shall we walk? It always clears my head.”
“Sure,” he nodded, standing with her.
They left the building once more, the cold refreshing her skin. They walked in silence down the road, the black sky above them speckled with stars. Kiaran watched the sky, feeling comfortable for once. She felt comfortable with who she was, even if it was fake.
“How long has your wife been gone?” Kiaran asked.
“A few years,” he replied. Her eyes moved from the stars to his face.
“...How did she die?” she finally asked.
“Honestly...” he trailed off, lowering his head, “Not many people know the truth...But she was tired of her past that pulled her down...She was bound by it...And one morning...She finally ended her own life.”
Her heart shattered. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear at all. Why would anyone take their own life? She wanted her life, even in the most dire of times, she was never able to do it. What was so bad that she had to die? Finally, she forced the words past the heart in her throat, “I am sorry.”
It was silent, uncomfortably so. “The worst part of that is knowing that she couldn’t trust me to help her through it,” he said.
With each word, she seemed to grow a little smaller. The air seemed to freeze between them and she felt utterly alone. Her eyes lowered and her blood slowed.
Brinden watched her walk, her body language showing her distress. He could see the way she held her fingers together, the way she kept her eyes on the road, and the way she kept to herself so closed. She looked as alone as she felt.
Gently, he held his arm out for her to hold. She stared at it for a moment before locking arms with him. She never felt more hollow.
“I will escort you back home,” he said, his voice as soft as the wind. She wanted to apologize, but her throat seemed swollen shut. She simply breathed in, filling her lungs with cold air.
Like a sudden shot to the head, her skull seemed to crack. Freezing in her tracks, she shot a hand to her face, digging her palm into her eye. The shot of pain waved through her again and she nearly doubled over.
“Anika?” His voice was distant and the view of the town around them changed. Everything was darkened and the ground was covered in deep, deep red moss. Taking a step back, her boots squished in the moss, blood soaking the dark brown leather of her shoes. No matter how much she blinked, the vision continued to roll, as if she had never closed her eyes...Like a dream...
The sky was thickened with darkness and soft, hardly noticeable hue of reds. The trees were stripped of their flesh-like leaves that flew through the air, disappearing before they hit the ground. Looking over, Brinden was replaced with Ryker. He watched her with darkened eyes...He was clean, though. No blood this time.
His hand hesitantly lifted toward her, his brows drawn low. She took a step toward him, but stopped. Her muscles refused to work for her.
“Mom,” he croaked.
Blood began running from his hairline down the side of his face. He began crying and choking, thick blood running from his mouth.
“Ryker,” she gasped, trying her hardest to move toward him.
That same voice cut through the air like ice, saying, “Kiaran, you think you can stay...That is cute. But...Do you not have your own country to rule?”
“Sterjia!” she growled.
“I have your mind, Anika,” she mused, “I can manipulate you all I want from where I sit.”
“Mom,” Ryker croaked again. He was sobbing, his own blood covering his body.
“Ry, I’m right here,” she tried to walk to him, but her muscles fought back. “Come to me!”
“I can’t, Mom,” he cried, “I am dying again.”
“I can kill him from where I stand,” Sterjia’s voice mocked.
“No,” Kiaran breathed.
Firm hands gripped her by both arms, jerking her forward slightly. Suddenly, she came to, seeing her real surroundings. Brinden stared at her in alarm. “What happened?” he asked.
“I...” she nearly began crying, Ryker’s body taunting her. “I need to get home,” she gasped. “I have to see him.”
“Your son?” he asked.
“I think he’s in danger,” she said, her voice still winded.
He darted after her as she ran up the road toward Nila’s house. Whatever was going on....She had to keep Ryker alive. Her legs carried her at an unbelievable speed, even up the hill the house sat on. Her body was still in great condition, running with everything she had.
They reached the iron gate and Kiaran grasped it in both hands. She swung it open and barged through. “Anika!” Brinden shouted after her, “You must calm down.”
She ignored him and darted into the house. Inari walked by, carrying a basket of breads. She tilted her head at Kiaran as she panted, facing her. “Are you well, Anika?” she asked.
“I...Is Ryker alright?” she asked.
“He is,” she nodded. “Playing his lute in the ballroom with Nila.” Her eyes moved past Kiaran to Brinden who stood just outside the door. He watched, worry swallowing him whole.
Inari leaned in toward her, asking at a whisper, “Shall I see him gone?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but paused. Shaking her head, she walked back out to him. Inari walked out, closing the door behind her. She kept her eyes on Kiaran as she walked by, heading toward the gate to get home to her family.
Once she was out of earshot, Kiaran looked to Brinden. “I am sorry,” she sighed, “I have been having these awful dreams about Ryker...”
“Did you have one while we were walking?” he lowered a brow.
“Kind of,” she shrugged. “Except I was awake,” she pointed out.
“That seems more like a vision...” he thought aloud.
“Well,” she stepped back, placing her hands on the knob that dug into her back. “I am sorry, Brinden.”
He finally lowered his eyes, saying, “I hope everything is alright.”
“Me too,” she breathed as she went back inside.