Over the next few days, Keira did her best to avoid the others, taking to eating all of her meals outdoors. She would help with the chores, the food preparation, and then find some excuse to leave, filled with the overwhelming desire to escape the prying eyes and overly sympathetic glances.
One night, dinner prepared, Keira ventured outside to find her horse, Cerise. The chocolate mare nuzzled her arm. Cerise never looked at her differently, never questioned her or asked for more than she was willing to give. At that moment, Keira wanted nothing else.
Cerise nuzzled her gently in search of the carrots she knew she would find in her pockets. Keira smiled, quickly fishing one out.
“Keep feeding her like that, and she’ll be spoiled for sure.” Nazor’s voice came from over Keira’s shoulder. Keira started and had to grab onto the fence post to keep from toppling over. This in turn was met by Nazor’s warm chuckle.
“I’m sorry, I did not mean to distract you.”
“No?” Keira asked, the weight of her annoyance buoyed by her embarrassment. “Why are you here?”
Nazor didn’t answer this, merely sidling up to the railing. She stirred her own stew thoughtfully, obviously in no hurry to break the silence.
“It’s never easy, you know,” she said finally, “letting a person in, sharing those parts of ourselves we would much rather keep buried and forgotten.”
Keira took a deep breath. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
Nazor picked at her food silently before responding.
“I’m not asking you to. I’m merely telling you that it’s easy to think that because we have spent our entire lives hiding, that we can continue on in much the same way indefinitely.”
“I’m not hiding,” Keira said. “I just—I don’t know, I just don’t want to—well, I’d rather not be sick every day is all,” she finished lamely.
Nazor snorted at this. “Yes, I’m sure the nausea is the crux of the problem here.”
Keira shifted uncomfortably, refusing to meet Nazor’s gaze.
Nazor sighed, then continued, unperturbed, “These are dark and dangerous times, Keira. It may not seem it, but there is unrest in these lands. The people are unhappy, the nobility too greedy, and the royalty too weak. Chaos is looming, Keira, and we will need your strength if we are to see order restored. You have a purpose—”
“Just stop with the whole purpose thing!”
Nazor looked taken aback and met Keira’s icy glare with a look of curiosity tinged with satisfaction, as if confirming some long-held suspicion. “Why?”
“You, Danny, everyone keeps talking about my purpose like it’s this great and undeniable thing, and, well . . . maybe I don’t want whatever this damn purpose is!”
Nazor cocked a head at her but spoke firmly in reply. “Want it or not, it is yours. We cannot avoid the path that destiny has chosen for us.”
Keira snorted in disgust. “And you’re just ok with that?”
“Whether or not I am is of no concern.” Nazor gave her a long, hard look. “Do you think I chose this life, Keira? Do you think I wanted this?”
Keira paused. She’d honestly never really thought about it. Nazor just seemed so perfect for this world.
Nazor shook her head, staring down at the ground before murmuring quietly in reply, “I had my own life, too, my own family, a daughter whom I loved. And all of that was taken from me by the specter of war. The civil war that crippled my country was certainly not something I wanted. I fought against it, knew how it would end. It could bring nothing but trouble, and I was right.”
Keira had no idea what to say, and they were silent for a while.
“We do not choose the lot we are given, Keira. Chaos, order—either way, even the best-laid plans have a habit of unwinding.”
Keira looked up into Nazor’s piercing dark gaze, which saw all too much, and quickly glanced away.
“I know you miss your life, Keira. But the life you were given was not a fair one either. You didn’t ask for the troubles that sought you out. But you faced them nonetheless.”
Keira fought desperately against the wave of emotion that threatened to come crashing down on her. Nazor was right. Her life had been far from fair, but it had been hers to live. Even if her mother could have . . . what? Been different, made different choices? Keira shook her head. She knew that Tammy had been given a crappy lot herself. She knew that pain and suffering were at the root of all her mother’s problems, and therefore her own as well. Like any teenager, Keira had gone through her resentful phase. But at the end of the day, she knew her mother loved her, that all the words of advice, and even the biting criticism, hard as it might be to hear, were for her own good.
Keira eyed Nazor carefully. “So that’s it then? I have a duty to fulfill because I’ve been chosen for a great and noble purpose?”
Nazor snorted. “You are not the chosen one, Keira.”
That caught her up short, and she glanced away, abashed, as Nazor continued, “You have been chosen to be a part of something greater than yourself, chosen to serve a greater purpose, a pure ideal. It is not something you can do alone, much as you might like to.”
Keira shifted uncomfortably, absently twisting her fingers into Cerise’s thick mane.
“I know it is hard to let someone else in, Keira, but it very well may be the only way forward. You may not have chosen this path, but it has most certainly chosen you.”
And with that, Nazor turned and strode back toward the farmhouse, leaving Keira alone with her thoughts, much as she might have liked to avoid them.
The next day, Keira found Danny mucking out the stables and sidled up to lean against the doorframe, watching him. She said nothing, and he didn’t press her, content to work silently under her measuring gaze.
He’s a good one, Keira decided, watching him pause to offer a treat to the horses. She didn’t know much, but she knew that Danny O’Leary had a truly good heart. She couldn’t say precisely why, but she knew that for certain.
“Look, Danny,” she began. He immediately stopped what he was doing to look up at her, and she felt her stomach flip-flop at his earnest, green-eyed expression. Shaking her head, she pressed on, “I’m sorry I wigged out on you the other day. I just wasn’t prepared for—whatever that was. I’m not used to being . . . seen . . . like that. I wasn’t expecting it.”
“I would never ask you to do anything you weren’t ready for,” Danny said hurriedly, leaning his shovel against the stable wall as he moved toward her, eyes bright and searching.
“I know that, Danny, I just—” Keira paused, glancing at him. She felt her lingering doubt begin to melt away at the sight of his eager, earnest face. Could she trust him? Could she trust this man she still barely knew? She honestly didn’t know the answer. But something told her that she had to try, that he deserved a chance. She gritted her teeth before looking him square in the face.
“I’m not promising anything,” she told him. “But I’ll try. I want to try again.”
An earsplitting smile lit up his face, even as he tried, unsuccessfully, to hide it. “Of course, whatever you need.” He nodded somberly, and Keira laughed at his expression.
She waved a hand toward him. “Well, I can’t be any worse at it than swordcraft,” she said. Danny nodded, considering.
“That’s fair. You are pretty terrible.”
Keira shoved him, gasping in mock outrage, and they both laughed.
They were interrupted by Nazor’s sudden arrival on horseback from the road leading to town. She quickly dismounted as soon as she reached them, a grim look on her face. Behind them, Elliott emerged in the farmhouse doorway and quickly approached.
“The baker’s son, Errol, was accosted on the southern road, held up by thieves claiming to be lawmen sent to collect the baker’s unpaid taxes. They beat the poor lad within an inch of his life.”
Keira gaped at her. “That’s horrible!” She glanced to Danny, normally so self-assured, but even he looked shocked.
Nazor shook her head, turning then to Elliott. “I doubt they acted alone. We should send word to the Legion.”
Elliott nodded, considering. His mouth was set in a thin line, and his eyes looked wary. “Indeed. It would seem that the rising unrest has finally reached Abalás. It’s time we involve them.”
* * *
See where the story continues in Chaos Looming, Book One in the Legion of Pneumos series.
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