Tones of orange, yellow and green colored the trees growing on the hills surrounding the valley. The air cool, calling for a warm wool scarf around the neck, a warm coat, perhaps thick socks, but the weather wasn’t there yet. Kian stared at his bleeding right index finger. His hands were numb from the cold. His upper arms burned, his shoulders ached, and he wished he had on warmer clothes.
Kian winced at the command. Biting his bottom lip, Kian glanced at the man sitting on a boulder to his left. Dark eyes captured his, the promise of pain so clear in the older man’s gaze if he failed to heed the order. Kian swallowed hard and brought his attention back to the bow he held.
“We don’t have all day.”
Kian took an arrow from the quiver on his back and fitted it on the string on his bow. He lifted his arms, taking aim, drawing the arrow back with a wince, the string digging into his skin. Tears stung the back of his eyes. He bit his lip hard and focused on hitting the circle drawn in the pile of hay ahead. He let the arrow go, his hundredth in the last two hours. He struck the middle of the circle with precision. He glanced at his master for approval.
“Again,” the old man said. “Do it faster, Kian.”
A hot flash of resentment swept deep inside him. Kian bit his lip harder, drawing blood. He reached for another arrow, and fitted it on his bow. This time, he aimed at his master, aimed and let the arrow fly not caring that the string cut deeper into his fingers. He stood still when his master caught the arrow with a deft sweep of his hand.
“Anger,” his master mused. “Good. Focus it. Use it to hone your skills. Again.”
Kian sighed in exasperation. He was six years old. All he wanted was to sit on the river bank and catch fish like the other boys from the village across the river did. Perhaps jump in for a swim. When he was tired, he would lie on his back on the bank and watch the clouds. Instead, he was stuck with his grandfather, training over and over. Kian reached for another arrow and let it, along with his resentment, fly at the pile of hay
Kian hadn’t eaten in two days, one hour and thirty minutes. Kian’s stomach growled, hunger pangs making him weak. Kian took another step forward, biting the wool scarf wrapped around his face, every breath labored. He was freezing. The snow kept falling: unrelenting fat flakes, piling faster than he could descend the mountain. The terrain was steep. His progress slow as he navigated along a thin ledge to get to the lower ranks of the mountain. He took another step, his foot coming down on unsteady ground.
He lost his delicate balance and fell hard. Fingers digging into the snow, he fought to stay on the precarious path as he rolled. A sharp rock dug into his left side, and stopped his fall… right at the edge. Kian lay still, glad for the extra padding in his hiking jacket, the rock hadn’t damaged him, yet. One glance below and he froze. It wouldn’t be in his best interest to fall unless he wanted to look like minced meat. There was a bed of jagged rocks below. Closing his eyes, Kian pressed his face into the fresh snow, his heart pounding hard.
Adrenaline coursed through him, the feeling welcome…familiar. At fourteen, the only son in his family, heir to his grandfather’s seat in their clan, he spent every minute of his days in danger. His grandfather thought training him, and pushing him to the limit would give him survival skills. Staring at the jagged rocks below, Kian thought, after all his grandfather put him through, falling to his death now would be a disgrace.
Kian let out a soft breath, and rolled to his right fast, careful to keep rolling until he got to the wall of the mountain. He used gagged rocks jutting out to help him up. Once steady on his feet, he continued his descent. Patting his left breast, he nodded in relief at the feel of the white crystal rock he retrieved from a cave at the top of the mountain. His grandfather’s newest challenge. Kian hoped the crystal was worth the trouble. His stomach growled and Kian sighed. If he hurried, he might find Alora cooking rabbit stew in the kitchen, but only if he hurried….
Kian spat out blood, gasping for air, his fingers digging into the thick arm locked around his neck. The hulk of a man behind him was determined to crush his throat, stop him breathing. Kian closed his eyes and wondered at the gift his grandfather had given for his seventeenth birthday.
Did others get such violent gifts?
Kian opened his eyes, his gaze taking in the mass of men shouting encouragement to his opponent. He was in a ring at an underground club. The club owner was taking bets on the sidelines. Kian’s grandfather sat untouched at the balcony area above the ring… watching…assessing… Kian gave up on the thick arm around his neck. Instead, he jabbed his fingers into his opponent’s eyes, his attack fast, the strength and force enough to surprise. His opponent loosened his chokehold. Kian dropped down, escaping the man’s arms. He got to his feet, punched his fists into the man’s left side, twice. It wasn’t enough to bring the ugly bastard down. His attacker lurched toward him, strong arms grabbing Kian’s hips. Kian was lifted into the air. Kian knew if the big man dropped him, he would break a bone.
He didn’t need that kind of pain. Using the momentum, moving with speed honed from years of climbing mountains in winter, Kian maneuvered until he was straddling the big guy’s shoulders. Locking his arms around the man’s head, he slammed his palm over his opponent’s mouth and nose. Kian tightened his thighs around the big guy’s neck, contracting his muscles tight; he clung, refusing to move. Rough nails dug into his arms, his fingers, Kian closed his eyes and listened to his opponent scramble for air. He refused to move until the big guy stumbled and collapsed to his knees. Kian jumped off and watched the man fall on the floor, face down.
The change in tide silenced his audience.
Kian stood staring at the man on the floor. His opponent wasn’t dead; he hadn’t gone that far, but it was close enough. Shouts of surprise and outrage filled the tent and Kian looked up at his grandfather. He got a single nod from the old man. With that, Kian turned and left the ring. Two hours later, Kian was back in the clan compound in the valley. He sat on the floor in his room, unable to hide his smile. His grandfather’s gift for winning the fight was an iPod with one song: Coldplay’s Yellow. “Enjoy it while you can,” Alora said as she bandaged Kian’s right upper arm. Alora had come to stay in the compound three years ago. She hated his grandfather. Kian still didn’t know why. “Why are you always so angry?” Kian asked, focusing his gaze on Alora.
She was pretty. He didn’t know too many women but he imagined Alora’s smile was one of a kind. From the books he read, her figure would be considered stunning. She had perfect curves; her plain green dress clung to perfection. Her dark hair was her most fascinating feature. She kept it in a tight ponytail. Some days though, she let the thick mass fall down her back, and he got the strong urge to sink his fingers into it.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Alora was saying, finishing with his bandage.
She gathered her medicines, placing them back in the basket she brought with her. Kian noticed her trembling fingers and took her left hand. “What’s wrong Alora?”
She met his gaze. Her brown eyes filled with tears. Kian frowned. His vision blurred and he blinked to clear it. Alora’s tears slid down her cheeks. His breath caught when he recognized guilt in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “You don’t deserve this because you suffer more than others realize. But…Raja must end with you. Without you, your grandfather has no future. You have to die.” His vision was getting worse, he was dizzy and he couldn’t seem to hold on to Alora’s hand. She got up fast, taking her basket with her, she ran out of his room.
Darkness took over.