It's Never an Easy Travel
Stella and Ryker were ahead of the group, behaving like children. They walked together, telling stories and admiring the wildlife around them. Their horses walked along side them, whipping their tails about as the flies darted for them.
Kiaran sat on her horse, all while hoping Davin was well. It was nice to see Ryker enjoy himself for once, but it couldn’t outweigh her worry.
Torin was mounted on his own stead beside her, watching them as well. “You put a good impression on the boy,” he said.
Her gaze moved to him. He hadn’t spoken much at all to her over the few days of their journey. His body swayed with the horse’s trot. His stunning, green eyes stared her down, his face stern...He appeared much less like a boy as he became a stronger man. He was always a man..but she wasn’t able to see it before. Perhaps it was the married life that changed him. Fatherhood, even.
“He is easy to impress,” she finally replied. “The boy had no mother, so he clings to me.”
“He is lucky to have you,” he responded, “You would be an excellent mother.”
“Aye,” she scoffed in heavy sarcasm. “Because I am the nurturing type.”
Kiaran’s horse flicked its ears as its heart raced momentarily. Being a Drakeling, she was able to bond more closely to her horses than what seemed humanly possible. She could tell that the horse had heard something stalking in the wilderness around them. But what was it?
Something shot from the trees at a low level, tackling Ryker and darting straight into the trees on the other side of the road. Stella was knocked aside, shouting in shock. Before Kiaran had time to react, another black figure darted through the trees, slamming Raven from her horse.
The animals began to panic, backing up. Torin’s horse thrust its front legs into the air, tossing Torin from the saddle. He slammed onto his back, rolling away hoping to avoid getting trampled.
Kiaran drew her sword, but she was knocked off her horse, landing a few feet away from Torin. An awful sound pierced through the air, ringing through their heads. They wrapped their arms around their heads, avoiding the painful sound the best they could.
The horses all darted forward, escaping the forest. The sound stopped and it was unbelievably quiet. Kiaran's ears buzzed loudly. She pulled her arms down, scanning the area for the attackers.
“Kiaran!” Torin shouted as he tackled her to the ground. His arms wrapped around her body, his hands flat to the dirt road. His chest slammed against her as he landed atop her. The flower in her hair shattered into several, crimson and white shards.
The black figure dove from the trees at them. Kiaran’s eyes widened. She could see it. It was the size of a large vulture, its wings black and feathered. Its head was naked, massive, round eyes in the center of its face. Rather than having a beak, its mouth was stretched out like a muzzle, hardened by bone beneath the skin which stretched too tight.
Opening its mouth, its purple tongue shined with white spit as the sound pierced through them again. Kiaran could feel her heart slamming in her chest. Her fingers gripped at Torin’s shirt as she growled in pain.
Its massive talons dug into Torin’s back, thrusting him aside. As his body rolled away, the thing slammed itself onto her. Its talons gripped her arms in place at her sides. Sitting on her chest, it lowered its long neck.
Its skin was gray, the black feathers thin and spread apart across its bony body. Its wings tucked in as it tilted its head. Each eye was the size of a grape fruit, the yellow irises were massive, constricting slightly as it looked her over. It chattered its teeth together, its beak-like snout snapping in the air.
Her breath came short as panic washed over her. What was this thing? Suddenly, its mouth opened abnormally wide and lunged at her face. Before it could make contact, Raven had cut its head off. Its head rolled across the ground, dirt mixing with the bloody trail it left. It bounced to Torin who kicked it aside in a panic.
As Raven kicked the body off of Kiaran, Stella pulled her onto her feet. “Where’s Ryker?” Kiaran whipped around.
“One of those things took off with him,” Raven panted.
“Damn it,” she hissed as she snatched up her sword.
Raven knelt by Torin, looking over the wounds on his back. Another creature dropped from the trees and Kiaran sliced through its body before it could touch them. They stared at her and she said, “Take care of each other, Stella and I are going to find Ryker.” With that, she darted away, Stella at her heals.
The forest became thicker the farther they traveled...and it got more silent. The only sounds came from them as they trudged through the brush, not even birds made a sound. “What were those things?” Kiaran breathed.
“I think they are rithen,” Stella answered.
Kiaran was shocked. How would Stella know what they were? They seemed like something from a bad fairy tale. “What is a rithen?”
“There are several back stories to how they came about,” she began. “My favorite, though is the idea that they were created. A man was gifted with magic, but cursed with curiosity. Morbid curiosity, might I add. He was young still. Unmarried. His mother was old and widowed and needed to be cared for. So the man allowed her to live with him on the condition that she might not speak to any visitors or tell others what he did in his house.
“Often, he studied many forbidden books and was interested in unusual things. Well, one night...he became desperate. He knew what to do." She paused so they could listen. Still hearing nothing, she continued, "His mother was sick, and nearly dead. Her only wish was to fly forever so she might escape her estranged son. To fulfill her wish, he had combined her with a bird. Their bodies molded together to create the rithen. Now, the reason they target young boys is to find the one that best resembles her son so she might recreate him the way he was supposed to be.”
“She wants to start over?” Kiaran asked, appalled, “She messed up her first son, and wants to try again...”
“That is the story,” she shrugged. “I never in my wildest dreams would think they were real.”
“Strange things are only beginning to happen,” Kiaran breathed, “I can feel it.”
They continued to search and she asked, “Where would they be? In a nest on the top of a highest cliff? That seems to be our luck, doesn’t it?”
Stella grinned. Her hair framed her heart-shaped face as her eyes kept to the trees, watching for more rithen. “I have no idea,” she sighed.
At that point the silence was finally broken by a muffled cry in the short distance. Another short shout came from another direction. “Where is it coming from?” Kiaran hissed.
His voice moved, as if the thing was still carrying him through the trees. Another cry, and Kiaran pulled a dagger from her boot. Before the cry could disappear, she threw her dagger toward it.
The thing screeched and fell with a heavy thud, crunching dead leaves beneath it.
Kiaran charged for it, her sword drawn. The rithen was thrashing about on the ground, the dagger stuck in its torso. Blood soaked the ground and the black feathers, its gray skin quivering. Its large eyes darted around, crying out with Ryker’s voice.
Kiaran’s stomach flipped. She had a deep feeling that it wasn’t actually Ryker’s voice that whole time. There was a slight difference in its tone and Ryker’s voice. Clutching the rithen by its throat, Kiaran narrowed her eyes, gazing into its eyes. Her fingers tightened around it as she connected minds with it.
It was not as intelligent as a dragon, but much smarter than a horse, causing the bond to be rather difficult. “Where. Is. The. Boy?” she demanded, her voice deep and terrifying.
Dipping into its mind was her worst decision to have made. It was twisted and dark, swarming her mind like a disease. The only thing she could see was a dark cave. That was the most of an answer she could get.
Standing, she instantly tossed the rithen aside in quite a panic. “He is in a cave.” Glancing to the creature again, she said, “It doesn’t help much, but it’s better than nothing.”
“Can we do it alone?” she questioned.
“We’ll have to,” she said lowly. Torin was wounded and would simply slow them down, and Raven had to protect him.
They rushed through the woods, leaping over fallen trees and dodging low-hanging branches. They stopped at a wide, yet shallow brook, a small cave entrance just on the other side. The sounds and voices echoed softly out into the wilderness around them.
Kiaran stepped into the water, snatching up some of the large rocks. Swiftly, she threw them into the cave. The rocks bounced off the walls, the clanking of them echoing loudly.
A few rithens darted out like quick shadows, flying into the sky. Kiaran and Stella drew their swords, standing on either side of the cave entrance. Plant leaves brushed across Kiaran’s boots as the wind rushed by. Leaning down, she took a few more rocks and launched them inside.
Several more of the creatures darted out. As they did, however, the two women hacked them out of the air with their blades. The screeching alerted the others, and they flowed out like angry bees. Kiaran and Stella swung their swords, bringing more to their deaths. It seemed endless, near twenty of them already dead, and another twenty surrounding them.
Kiaran stood, breathless, Stella panting beside her. The bird-like creatures hovered around them, mocking them with random sounds. Nurra found his way through the mess to his human’s feet. He climbed up Kiaran’s body and sat on her shoulder.
“Nurra,” she said, “Halem uvara.” Breathe fire.
Following her command, he breathed in heavily and roared, fire ripping from his lungs. The flames lit up the feathers of the few rithen around her. As they screamed and flew about, they caught others on fire. As they fought away the flames, Kiaran ran inside the cave in search of Ryker.
“Ryker!” Kiaran barked, “I am here for you.” She looked about as they passed several short passages. The stench of excrement and rotting food twisted Kiaran’s insides. It was disgusting.
“Kiaran,” his little voice choked through. She narrowed her eyes, staring through the darkness. Against the wall several feet ahead of them stood the young boy. His eyes burrowed into her as he cried out, “You must leave!”
Suddenly, Ryker was yanked backward and a tall, gruesome figure stepped ahead of him. It was tall and awkwardly shaped, its legs knotted up at the knees. Its wings, missing several feathers, stretched out from its back. Long, skinny arms hung from its knobby shoulders. A wrinkled, gray-skinned face watched them with massive, round eyes. Scraggly hair ran from the top of its head down its shoulders and back, shining silver in the faint light from the entrance.
“It is the first,” Stella breathed, her voice quivering slightly. “The first rithen.”
It darted toward them, its claws lashing forward. Kiaran dropped, dodging it with ease. With one fist, she jabbed her dagger it into the creature’s ribs, using the sword in her other hand to swipe at its knees. It fell, twisting toward her. Its arm swung at her, but Stella stabbed at it. Blood ran down its sides from the wounds and it faced her.
Stella held up her blade for protection as it attacked. Kiaran stood and her leg cut through the air, slamming into its head. It doubled over and she swiped her blade straight through its neck. As the body fell, Kiaran whipped around and snatched up Ryker’s hand. The three of them ran out of the cave and dodged through the flaming birds.
Soon, they were far enough away that the scent of burning flesh was out of their noses. Stella dropped to her knees, catching her breath. Kiaran sat against a tree, leaning her head on it as she panted. Sweat dripped from her face, reminding her of the heat in Kamoni. The heat that scorched her skin as she killed so many men for her keeper. The sweat that drenched her body lined in bruises and heavy wounds. The scent of ash and burnt flesh reminded her of Davin’s abduction.
A whirlwind of emotion attacked her and she quickly had to brush it all away.
Ryker held a hand to his chest as he breathed heavily, his eyes still full of tears. Kiaran watched him, her heart swelling. Instantly, she pulled him to her chest, wrapping her arms around him. His hair brushed across her soot-covered face. Closing her eyes, she breathed steadily to calm herself. “You are too often taken away, boy,” she said.
He burried his face in her shirt, ignoring the blood that stained it. “Thank you for saving me...again.”
She let out a short laugh and let him go. “I suppose we should get back to the others...”
Once back to the road, they found that Raven had already rounded up their horses. Torin sat with his removed shirt in his hands, twisting it anxiously. Kiaran moved to his side, looking over the wounds. Blood poured down his back, staining his pants. The wounds were short and deep, his flesh cut cleanly.
Sitting beside him, she lifted a hand to touch his skin, but paused. His green eyes drifted to her, pain surging through his face. Looking to Ryker, she said, “Ryker, come heal him. It would take far too long to heal naturally.”
He nodded and made his way over. He sat on his knees behind Torin and placed his hands over the hot, bleeding wounds. Torin’s eyes never left Kiaran’s as Ryker healed him. The pale light disappeared and the wounds were gone, leaving just trails of blood behind.
He shrugged his shoulders and stood up straight. Surprise washed over him as he looked to the boy. "You really can heal, huh?" he asked. "That is amazing."
"It has its uses," Ryker replied.
"Thank you," Torin said.
"You're welcome," Ryker smiled.
Torin stood with Kiaran. “Come with me,” he said lowly.
She followed him aside where the others would not be able to hear. “Are you feeling well?” Kiaran asked slowly.
He smiled slightly, handing her a shard of the broken flower. She held the cold, sleek glass, looking it over. “I...just wanted to apologize,” he finally got out.
She stared at him. His tanned face was stern, the tattoo of an arrow down his left cheek catching in the sunlight. “Why?” she finally asked.
“I’ve kept...reclusive,” he replied.
“Why is that?” she asked. “If I remember correctly, you were rarely ever silent.”
A soft smile crept across his lips as he looked aside. The muscles on his body tensed slightly as he grew uncomfortable. “I am trying to avoid falling in love with you again,” he said bluntly.
Kiaran’s face flushed slightly and he continued, “It doesn’t matter if I am or not, I don’t want to lose you...” His fingers flexed around his shirt. “When I shielded you from that...thing...it reminded me of our time before, when it was just you and me.”
“Torin,” she huffed, tearing her gaze from him.
His heart sank, knowing it was always going to be this painful being around her. Hoping to break everything he was feeling, he turned and walked away, pulling his shirt back on.
Why did things have to be this way? Without realizing it, her gaze followed him as he joined the others. She had to wonder...if things were different, would she have chosen to stay with him? Would it have been mutual?
Shaking her head, she ignored the thought. There was no point in wondering such a thing.
That evening, they took a long, well deserved break. They set up camp before sundown and agreed to rest until midday. Ryker decided he needed to know how to set up a tent. Thus, he helped Kiaran with hers.
Stella, crept towards Torin as he prepared a fire. She crouched beside him, helping as she spoke. "Have you heard anything...?"
His heart sank. He knew exactly what she was talking about. He shook his head. "Brick knows. He is close to Walter, so he can get in and see what's going on. Maybe try to keep her safe," he replied.
"Good," she nodded once.
It was quiet for far too long, though it were only a string of seconds. Finally, he got the fire started and faced her. "If he does anything to her or to that baby, Davin will kill him without thought."
"I know," she whispered.
"And if he doesn't come back, I will," Torin made that quiet promise.
Stella watched him with weary eyes and a deep set frown. Torin wasn't a killer. But she knew that if Davin didn't return, it was Walter's fault. And if Walter harmed the child...Torin would turn into something quite vengeful. Quite frightful.
She placed her hand on his shoulder, their eyes meeting. Taking a deep breath to stable her nerves, she said, "Torin. Do not let this world change what you are."
He looked away, reluctant to agree with her. "If I am to survive in this world, I have to change with it."
They finally breached the walls of the small city, Revin. It was just off the large river that stretched all the way to Fort Hillforn. The people of the city were busy with their markets and restaurants, giving little attention to Kiaran and her comrades as they moved through.
Near instantly, the streets became packed with people. They seemed on edge, rushing from stand to stand, buying food and supplies. It was a very busy town, surprising for its size.
“There is an inn,” Stella led them into a tall, yet narrow building. Once inside, the crowd’s voices were muffled. The door closed with a heavy clank behind them, the floors creaking slightly as they walked across the room.
Nurra clutched Kiaran’s shoulders tightly, trying his best to hide beneath her hair. Her heart sank as she pulled her hood over him and her head. She had lost her cloak that Arrimen had made for her in the bloody lake. With the colder weather coming on, she would miss it.
Nurra looked at her sadly, agreeing that it was irreplaceable.
“Too bad, huh?” she spoke softly to him. Torin looked at her oddly and she grinned. It had to look strange, as if she were speaking to herself.
As a man walked to the counter, Stella stepped forward. Her hands rested on the table. The man looked at her oddly--she was dressed conspicuously, not just a regular woman.
“May I help you?” he finally asked. The light glinted off his bald head, his brows drawn low. He appeared to be a bit prejudice. Possibly against the tribe members who rarely left their territory to venture into cities. Most people tried to avoid anyone with Zeil related tattoos or clothing.
“I’d like to have some rooms, please," she said.
He leafed through his book curiously. “Aye, well we have that, and it’ll be quite the amount of money, considering its the last of our rooms. Unless you want to share with the others.”
Stella faced Kiaran who sighed. A gold pendent embedded with a few opals and rubies was used to attach the snow leopard fur to her shoulder as it slung around her like a shawl. Removing it, she dropped it onto the counter. “That should cover it, wouldn’t you think?”
He yanked it up, staring at it in awe. “This is a strange crest...A dragon’s head, eh?” His eyes lifted to her, spying the little dragon draped across the back of her shoulders, peaking through her hair. “Oh. Oh! You are of Avestitia,” he barked. “Well, it shall cover the rooms and a free meal for each of you as well.”
“Thank you,” Kiaran said as he handed her the keys. It should have covered more than that, but she let it go.
“Please, enjoy your stay.”
That night, Stella and Kiaran shared a room while Raven slept alone and Ryker roomed with the only other male of the group. Kiaran sat cross-legged in the center of her bed, staring out the window at her side, gazing upon the silver clouds that floated by the moon. Stella sat on the edge of her own bed, pulling her socks off and tossing them aside.
“I am surprised this little town even had an inn,” Stella spoke casually, trying to lighten the mood a bit.
“It has a direct connection to the largest fort in Rishana,” Kiaran replied without looking at her. “The river takes the men directly through here when they’re on a march.”
She watched Kiaran for a moment before asking, “Are you doing well?”
“Aye,” she said softly, keeping her attention out the window.
Stella’s hands rested on the edge of the mattress beside her legs as she leaned forward. “Kiaran...” her hair fell into her face, her voice very soft and serious, “I’ve known for a long time that you and Davin had feelings for one another...”
“I don’t wish to speak of it,” Kiaran huffed.
“It is killing you,” she breathed, a sympathetic grin taking over for a second. “You want to talk about it, it’s killing you. I’ve seen those eyes before...”
She slowly looked over to her curiously.
“My sister...back in Kamoni had that same look...” She exhaled heavily as she looked aside, continuing, “I regret that I did not make her talk to me.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know,” her brows creased as she rested her chin on her shoulder, “The man she loved was pulled into war and likely killed. She was crushed...and our mother made her marry another man. That killed her...” It was silent for a long time before she said, “I was gone before I could talk to her...I wonder if she is still alive...she spoke of her end as if she anticipated it...I worry that she took her death into her own hands.”
Kiaran lowered her head, closing her hot lids. She didn’t want to talk about it...but it was scratching at her heart and her mind and sometimes...it would be best to just let it out. She held a hand to her eyes, trying not to cry...trying not to let Stella see her weak.
She hated being weak, but that’s all she ever was. Anytime she felt so weak, she'd let one thing stand out: Her anger. It masked all the hurt and all the numbness. It made her look strong. Appear powerful. But she wasn't.
She took in a long breath and said, “I will be fine, Stella.”
“I hope you are right,” she sighed as she tossed herself onto her back.
After a few minutes, Kiaran tried to switch the subject around, asking, “So what about that you, Stella?”
“What about me?” she replied.
“Do you think you’ll settle down? Have a family?”
She laughed, her eyes staring at the blank ceiling above them. “I would just be happy to find a man who’s company I can enjoy.” Her hair fanned out across the blanket she lied on. It shined like gold in the candlelight. “I actually hope to stay with the Zeil. Help them...Maybe make up for some past mistakes, you know?”
Kiaran nodded quietly. “Yeah,” she breathed.
“So,” she cleared her throat. “Tell me about Ryker. He looks a lot like you...”
Kiaran eyed her cautiously. Could she already know of their relation? Perhaps it wasn’t as dire to keep it from her, seeing as how Ryker already knew. “In truth, he is my nephew,” she said.
Stella smiled a little. “I see the way he follows you so closely. Like a mother to him.”
That thought was heavy on her. That boy deserved a better mother than she could ever be.
In the next room over, Ryker sat on the edge of the bed beside Torin’s feet as he rested beneath the blankets. He glanced over his shoulder to see if he was still awake. Torin’s wild hair rested against the pillow as his eyes stared forward.
“How long have you know my aunt?” he asked lowly.
He rolled onto his back, facing the boy. “A couple years now, I suppose,” he said.
“Did she always act this way?” he continued.
“In what way, exactly?”
Ryker paused, wondering how to word his thoughts. “Distant.” He paused a moment more, “She seems like her thoughts overwhelm her at times, yet she says nothing at all.”
“Aye,” he sighed, “She’s always been like that. With the past she was cursed with, she could have been much worse.”
“She has a good heart though,” Ryker replied. “I am glad she is my aunt and not anyone else.”
Torin moved back onto his side, staring blankly ahead again. Ryker frowned slightly as he watched him. “Is something wrong, Torin?” he asked softly.
“No,” he said. Leaning up, he blew the candle out, saying, “Go to sleep.”