Over sheltered by superstition, all the people living in the village were so unaware of everything around them. In their minds, the forest wasn't a place of nature's beauty; it was a damned cesspool of evil. Fate was witchcraft. Adventures were not ventured and anything that didn't go by their standards, unwelcome.
These are probably some of the reasons that Kira left when she could.
As Kira took her last look at her home, she didn't feel as if she would ever miss it. The tiny hut, whose roof leaked and had no glass in its windows, was nothing more than a burden on her spirit. It had never really felt like a home at all-- she knew that it never would. Nothing was holding her down in the painfully small and dull village. She was ready for something new. Was that such a bad thing to want?
According to everyone on the village, besides herself, yes. No one had ever left the village. It was forbidden, in fact, to leave. It seemed as if people were tethered there for all eternity, and no one knew exactly why. The minister, who acted as a leader for the entire village, gave the excuse that there were mysterious things-- beyond the wildest imaginings-- lurking in the trees which surrounded the village, and that the devil owned the woods. Kira had never believed a word of it, even when she was a child.
And as far as Kira was concerned, she's rather die trying to get away than live in that nightmare of a town. She knew that what she was doing was potential suicide, but she was finished with the village. It may have held all her memories, but they mostly consisted of broken dreams and misery. So, she packed up everything she had to her name, which was not much, indeed, and split.
It was nighttime, the bright moon high in the sky, looking down on her like a great, gleaming eye. A couple wispy grey clouds hung in the sky, like a defect on the perfect night. A slight breeze was pushing the late summer air around, and every now and then, Kira would hear something move in the trees and bushes every so often,cut she paid it no attention.
She was not the least bit frightened. Her strides were even and confident as she walked, in no particular direction, through the trees. She didn't know what she might encounter on her way to where ever she was going, but she had a couple daggers hidden on her person; one was in her left boot, and the other was stuffed into front of her shirt, which she had stolen from the laundry line. She was dressed in men's clothing, she thought it would make her journey much easier than if she'd worn a dress. She wore a long cloak over her to shield her from the cold and to hide her figure. In anyone saw h, she wanted to make sure that they couldn't tell she was a woman.
She was also armed with two daggers she had made herself just for the occasion. Her father had been the blacksmith in the village, and quite a good one, when he wasn't drinking. Without a son to take over his legacy, he had settled to teach Kira all the skills and tricks of the trade. She was nowhere as good as her father, and she didn't much like the craft, but the blades sufficed for her journey. Well, she hoped they would, at that.
Pulling her cloak around herself and pulling the deep hood over her head, she looked up at the stars and made sure she was walking in the same direction. The last thing she wanted was to get disoriented and walk around in circles. And she very much did not like the thought of accidentally walking back to the village.
The forest was much more clam than she thought it would be, the only sound besides the odd rusting of leaves were Kira's footsteps. Perhaps it was all the stories she had been told in her youth, but she always perceived the woods to be packed with wild beasts and monsters. After a good hour of walking, Kira came to the conclusion that those stories had been rubbish; they were nothing more than make believe tales to frighten the villagers to stay within the village boundaries.
Why did they want to keep people in the village so badly? Kira had asked herself the same question many times in her life.
Just as Kira stopped to adjust her cloak, which was tied a little to tightly around her shoulders, she heard a faint noise. She had to stain her ears to hear it, and at first she wasn't sure if she was imagining it or not. She stood very still, and as time passed, the noise grew a little louder. Soon she could tell that it was a voice, a melody. Someone was singing, although she couldn't tell what they were saying.
By the time she realized that it was coming towards her, it was too late to run, that would hear her for sure.
A wave of panic passed over her. This was the moment she'd played with in her mind a million times while getting ready to leave. This was her first encounter with a stranger, perhaps not even a human being. This could be her end.
She stood stock still, hoping that whoever it was didn't see her and walked right by. A dim light was accompanying the singing, which was becoming more clear now, on her right. The song sounded happy, but sloppy. Whoever was singing was either trying to be funny, or simply a horrid singer.
Kira stepped as quietly as she could behind a tree, hoping it would shield her from the view of her guest and pulled the dagger from her shirt. Whoever it was, they were not trying at all to be quiet. She could just make out their crashing footsteps under their drunken singing. She could hear the words of their song now, but they weren't something a lady would repeat to anyone.
Kira guessed by the ruckus that there was more than one person. The voice belting out the crude song sounded male, and there was a chorus of giddy laugher during the versus of the song.
Kira's heart was pumping wildly inside her chest, something had risen in her throat, making it hard for her to take a full breath and her palms here slick with sweat. The dagger slipped a little in her grip, and she tightened her hold on it. She worked hard to stop her breath from coming out in pants, thinking that they might give her away.
The singing stopped abruptly. A voice spoke.
"Well, gentlemen-- should we stop and call it a night?"
Kira couldn't tell exactly how close they were, but she imagined that they weren't far at all, perhaps even right on the other side of the tree which she was hiding behinds.
There was a chorus of agreement and the footsteps stopped. It sounded as if there were four of five other men along with the first. There was the sound of belongings being thrown onto the ground, and someone commented about building a fire.
"Josse," said a deep voice, in a quite monotone fashion. "Do you reckon we'll even find the boy?"
A muttering sounded from several of the men. They all seemed to be thinking along the same lines.
Someone cleared their throat, and the mumbling stopped instantly.
"That is not for us to decide, really," said the first voice, the one that seemed to be the leader of the group. "He must be of some use to Firenze, or else we wouldn't be out here looking for the sap."
"But what do you think?" said a third voice, which sounded a great deal higher than the rest. Kira pictured that it belonged to a younger man, maybe only a boy. "Will we find him, or do you think something has already done him in?"
There was a pause, and then the first voice, the one belonging to Josse, said "My guess would be that he is still alive." His tone was thoughtful. "He did have some training after all. But my question would be why he ran away in the first place."
Another muttered agreement from the group.
"As you said, Josse," A wheezy voice said. "Firenze must want him for something. He must have some importance. What, I wonder?"
"He'll have his reasons," commented the deep voice again.
The sound of crackling fire was the only sound that filled the area for a moment. Kira wondered for the slightest second what they were talking about, but then reminded herself that she was possibly in great danger. Although the men didn't sound very threatening, she wasn't sure what they would do if they found her.
An owl cried out in the night, and one of the men yawned deeply. "It's been a long trek, gentlemen, and I think I'll bid you goodnight. We need to be up shortly after dawn tomorrow to keep looking." It was Josse speaking again, in his leaderly voice. "Time is of the essence."
"Hear,hear," commented one of the men. No one spoke again after that. The fire they had lit crackled on, and the men, one by one fell asleep by the fireside. Kira vowed to wait a while for them to fall asleep before sneaking off. She didn't know exactly how many men there were, and she didn't want to risk leaving while some could still be awake. So she slid down the trunk of the tree into a sitting position and waited.
One of the men began to snore quietly. Kira concentrated on the rhythm of his breathing, trying to tell how fast time was passing. Breathe in... Then out. In... Then...
Kira was woken with a start. The misty light of dawn was filtering down through the canopy of leaves overheard. Someone's voice had broken the quiet of the forest, causing Kira to jump out of her light sleep. She knew the moment her eyes snapped open that she had made a mistake. She'd fallen asleep against the tree while waiting for the men to do the same.
One stood before her now, the point of his sword at her heart, hovering over her cloak. He looked down at her with huge eyes, disbelief on his unshaven face. His eyebrows had disappeared into his fringes, which were greasy and overgrown onto his forehead, almost falling into his eyes.
"Who are you?" he bellowed in his deep, raspy voice. "State you purpose!"
Kira's heart was pounding in her throat. She opened her mouth, but could not manage to speak. Her chest had a horrible pressure on it, as if something were squeezing it tightly. She was frozen to the spot, her eyes glued to the face of the man before her. He stared wildly at her for another moment, then looked to her side. One of the others had come around to see what was going on. This man was much younger. He looked to be only about fifteen, his face still childish and bare. He eyed Kira with the greatest interest.
"Speak or die," commanded the older man again, prodding Kira in the chest with his sword, not hard enough to cut. She looked back in his direction and let out a trembling breath. It was the closest she could manage to speech.
The younger boy leaned over a little and tried to looked under Kira's hood. He didn't look angered or frightened at all. He seemed curious about her.
"Maybe they don't speak our language?" suggested the boy, looking at the man with his bright, excited eyes. He had a liveliness to him that seemed only right for a boy to posses. Oddly, it calmed Kira that he was there. Something about his youth and the fact that he was not outraged soothed her.
"Impossible," the older man growled back. "Our language is the only language which lived after the Turning. You know that."
Some of the excitement drained from the boy's face at that, but he still went on insistently. "Maybe they're part of the... You know..."
"In that case, they have been quite foolish," commented a third voice, which sounded like the man called Josse, and a third figure came into Kira's view. He was taller than the other two, and very built. His very appearance demanded respect and authority. He looked down on Kira, and to her relief, he did not look angered with her either.
"Lower your sword, Fionn." he commanded. Fionn, looking a little disappointed, did so, but kept his sword unsheathed.
Josse knelt down and looked, just as the boy had, under Kira's hood. It was quite a deep hood, so Kira was sure it shadowed her face. She had remained entirely still the since she's been woken, and her body was shaking with the effort to stay still.
"What's your name?" asked Josse, not in an unfriendly tone. "Can you at least tell us that?"
Kira remained silent. She was terrified beyond measure, and could not seem to form words with her mouth. She simply stared right at Josse, who was looking keenly at her.
After a minute of silence passed, Josse raised his hand very slowly, as if he were dealing with a frightened animal. He reached cautiously towards Kira's face, but she was petrified to the point where she couldn't even move. Her dagger lay on the ground beside her. It must have slipped from her hand as she'd slept.
Her eyes followed Josse's scarred, dirty hand until he touched the fabric of her hood, and drew it back steadily from her face.
The three men stared at her with wide eyes and blank expressions.
"A girl? What's she doing out here, alone?"
"She could be something else in disguise..."
"She looked just like the lost lad," said Josse, louder than the other two.
This comment caused the other two to fall silent. They all looked at her quizzically, searching her face for some sort of answer. Finally, the boy nodded his head and looked over at Josse.
"She does bear an odd resemblance," he looked back at her and knelt down in front of her. "She doesn't look like she's half as dangerous, thought. That's assuming she is human. However," his eyes darted down to the dagger, laying at Kira's side. "She is armed."
"So she's not completely a fool." Fionn commented and sheathed his sword. "What are you doing out here alone, girl?"
Kira still said nothing.
"Not a talker, eh?" commented Josse, who was still knelt down on her one side, looking at her curiously. "Well, maybe she needs a bit of tempting. Bring her around to the fire, and show the lady some hospitality."
At this, the boy stood up from his kneeling position and moved closer to Kira, slowly and watching her face intently. She looked directly back at him, looked into his eyes and decided that he was alright. He didn't appear to be about to hurt her or have an evil about him. She let his take hold of her elbow and pull her gently to her feet.
He led her around the tree and Kira saw that there were two other men sitting around a low burning fire. They looked dreadfully tired with dark bags under their eyes, and were staring into the embers. Kira guessed they had stayed up as guards during the night or had had a little too much to drink, maybe a combination of both. Either way, they didn't seem very worried or interested in Kira.
The boy sat her down on log beside the fire. Kira looked around at the three men around her who were paying her attention. Josse had sat down on an upturned pale opposite her and was helping himself to some bread and taking a long swig from a flask which he produced from the inside breast pocket of his jacket. He was dressed quite particularly, as were the other men in his company. They all wore the same grey, tough material jackets with metal plated armor covering their shoulders, wrists and torso. Their trousers were a slightly lighter shade of grey, but made from the same material. High brown boots fitted closely reached halfway up their calfs and looked sturdy with their many buckles. Kira had never seen anything quite like it.
"Can I offer you something to eat or drink, my lady?" asked Josse, his tone light and friendly. Kira shook her head. She looked over at Fionn, who was staring back at her. His expression was strange; it was a look of disapproval on his face, yet his eyes told a different tale-- they looked questioning.
"Put the kettle on Nicholas, if you please?" said Josse. " We'll need clean water for today. I'm all out."
The boy, Nicholas, bound forward and went through a traveling bag to produce an old kettle. He then strode off into the trees again, Kira guessed he was going to find a steam to fill it up with.
"Well, then," Josse turned his attention back to Kira. "Please, won't you at least tell us your name? We aren't meaning to intimidate you, Ms...."
"Greene. Ms. Kira Greene."
A look of satisfaction crossed Josse's face. He had finally coaxed Kira into speech. Kira was surprised with herself for having spoke. She hadn't meant to, but the words just slipped from her mouth.
"Ms. Greene, what exactly are you doing in these woods, unaccompanied? It's rare we see people alone around here, and a lady, at that..." he trailed off and was looking at Kira with a silent amazement.
"If you must know..." Kira said quietly and looked down at her hands. She couldn't believe she was explaining this to someone so soon. "I've left my village in search of something better."
"So you've run away, then?" Fionn said apprehensively.
Kira thought about it for a moment. "Yes, I suppose so, sir."
"Why on earth have you done that?" he demanded. His eyes were on fire, his temper raising with every word. "The forest is no place for a girl such as yourself to run around aimlessly. What were you thinking, girl?"
Kira's mouth opened slightly in surprise.
"Fionn! You mustn't address a lady in such a tone. Show a little respect!" Commented Josse a little crossly. He turned to Kira, and Fionn stormed off into the trees. What had she said to trigger such a reaction, she wondered? And above that, why did Fionn care? He didn't know her the slightest, and she was not his responsibility.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Greene. He has a... Slight temper problem." Josse laughed humorlessly and scratched the back of his head awkwardly. Beams of early morning sunlight were now breaking through the trees and dancing over the forest floor. It lit up Josse's hair, highlighting the red in his brown locks. Even though he was dirty and scarred, he was still quite handsome.
"Well, I won't ask you to tell my why you've left home, Ms. Greene, but I would like to know where you plan to go. This forest can be a dangerous place. It's not a place for a young lady like you to wander alone."
Kira nodded and sighed. "I left, sir, because, well, I was miserable." She said simply. "We were forbidden to leave, but no one respected me the least. I was known as the scum of the village, and I knew that my life would amount to nothing if I remained. So," Kira gestured to the trees around her. "Here I am."
Josse's eyes had a sudden spark of excitement in them, but pity as well. "You were forbidden to leave?"
"Amazing!" Josse cried. "I've heard of isolated villages such as yours, but I never imagined I would ever meet someone part of one."
"Excuse me, sir?"
"An isolated village," explained Josse quite energetically. Kira noticed the the two other men sitting by the fire were now listening to Josse and her speak, and were looking at her with some interest. "Is a place that is cut off from the influence of the outer world. It is strictly forbidden for pupils to leave, as you already know, and not many people are accepted in. They are self reliant and simple places."
Kira thought about that. It sounded just like her village. No one was ever allowed into the village, not even venders. They grew all their own crops and raised their own livestock. Everything was made in the village and everything always stayed the same.
"But wait a moment," said Kira uncertainly. "There are places that have different rules? Where people can come and go as they please?"
"Yes, of course." Josse answered and looked like he wanted to laugh at Kira's amazement. "Isolated villages are about the only places where leaving is forbidden. The rest of the world is very free, indeed. That must be strange to you, isn't it?"
Kira nodded. Her whole life she'd grown up thinking that life in the village was normal, that everywhere had the some rules. But now that she knew that was not so, she almost felt foolish. Of course it made sense that people should be able to live their own lives the way they want, that was half the reason she'd left.
"I haven't a clue where I'm headed, but I know anywhere is better than the village, sir." she told Josse. Nicholas returned at that moment, the kettle in hand. He set it on a rock very close to the coals of the fire and looked up at Kira, smiling. He had a cute face, as if he hadn't quite lost his childish features yet. Kira guessed he was fifteen, two years younger than herself. She was amazed that he was traveling with these men at such an age. None of the boys in her village would have been working at fifteen.
"You've got her talking, then, have you?" he asked giddily as he took a seat leaning up against a tree.
"Yes, she's told me she's left her isolated village and is looking for something new," commented Josse. "A brave move, don't you think, Nicholas?"
There was a joking tone in Josse's words that made Kira wonder what he'd meant by that. She looked at Nicholas, whose cheeks had flushed slightly. He laughed halfheartedly, a little embarrassed.
"Yes, I suppose so..."
"Little Nicky here was trying to enter an isolated community, you see," explained Josse. "Had a little bad luck with the guards, though. Almost got himself beat to a pulp. I found him laying in the woods, quite pathetic looking, actually. That's when he joined us."
"And who are you, exactly, sir? Did I hear you were looking for someone?"
Some of the enthusiasm drained from Josse's face at that. "Well, we are part of a group of soldiers called the Colony. Out leader and mentor, Firenze, has sent us on a search for a missing recruit. Vanished not even a week ago, and we've been sweeping the woods for him." Josse sighed solemnly. " We haven't had one sign of the chap yet."
"Do you think he has ran away?" asked Kira. Having run away herself, she was curious.
Nicholas spoke first. "I doubt that." The subject seemed to have a great affect on him. "He was only a few years older than I, so we trained together with the Colony. He loved it there. He was quite a good fighter, too. I don't think he would have had any reason to leave that behind. People loved him."
If Kira wasn't mistaken, she swore she heard a hint of jealousy in Nicholas's words. It was very subtle, but she heard it.
"And did you say I looked like him?" Kira directed that question at Josse.
He nodded thoughtfully. "Well, a little. I didn't know him that well, but you have got the same hair colour."
"I knew his quite well, and you do look quite a lot like him." Nicholas commented, looking into the coals of the dying fire.
Kira thought back to something her father had told her once, after a couple too many drinks.
"Kira, sometimes I look at you and I just see your mother. You are like a reflection of her. But he... He looked like me,".
Kira had never thought much of anything her father rambled while drunk, but that one had stuck in her head. She'd never met her mother, and she'd assumed she was dead. It was the only reasonable explanation for her absence. Every time Kira tried to ask her father about it, he would go silent or change the subject.
But his words echoed in her at that moment. "He looked like me,".
"I don't know how that is possible," Kira said, despite her wonderings. "I don't have any brothers. Maybe it's just a coincidence?"
Josse shrugged. "Well, either way..." He trailed off, grasping for a way to word his thoughts. "Firenze doesn't believe much in coincidences. And neither do I."
Kira said nothing. Josse's tone had changed dramatically. Before he had been calm and cool. Now, he looked indecisive and uncomfortable. Kira wondered what was on his mind.
"Ms. Greene, I know you're intent on getting away from your village," Josse said slowly. "But the forest will not be friendly to you once we part ways. There are creatures in here beyond even our knowledge, and I'm not sure it's a very brilliant idea for you to go alone."
Kira looked over at Nicholas, then to the other two men. They all looked about as lost as she did.
Josse went on after a moment. "What I'm trying to say is that I wish you to accompany us. You bear, as Nicholas said, a great resemblance for the missing lad. And even if it is a coincidence, I feel the need to report about you to Firenze. And I don't think leaving you to amble around these woods is much of a better choice for you. Do you understand me, Ms. Greene?"
Kira took a moment to let what Josse had said to sink in. He was asking her to go back with them to this Firenze man. All because she looked like a missing soldier. At first she thought it might be a good idea, but then, if she did go, she might be trapped again. What if this his place was worse than the village? What if she had something to do with this lost boy? She didn't want to be wrapped up in that. She wanted to be free.
She looked into Josse's eyes and said very steadily, " I understand your concern, sir, but I left my village for a reason. I left to be free and to fend for myself. If I didn't think I could handle it, I wouldn't have left. I mean no disrespect to you or your cause, but I think I'll make my own trails."
Josse's face was impassive as she told him this. She had been frightened as the words tumbled over her lips. Up to that point, Josse had been understanding and very kind to her. She hoped that her denial wouldn't offend him and put him against her. As she watched, understanding washed over Josse's face.
"I know where you're coming from, Ms. Greene," he said hesitantly. "But I am going to have to insist that you come with us. If you do have some kind of link with the lost one, I can't let you slip away. Nicholas," he said, turning to the Nick. "Please take her arm. We'll be leaving soon."
Kira's head snapped around to gaze at Nicholas. He was on his feet, and taking a hesitant step towards her. Kira stood as well, her eyes fixed on Nicholas. The other three men were watching her closely, waiting for her to move, waiting for her to run.
"Ms. Greene, please," Said Nicholas, ever so gently.
Kira eyed him thoughtfully. He might have been younger than her, but he looked much more abled than her. He would probably be faster than her if she ran. But she wasn't about to let these men control her life. She'd had seventeen years of that back in the village.
Nicholas held her lightly at the elbow once more.
"Well, alright. I shall accompany you to this Firenze person." Kira lied. She used her most convincing voice that she could muster. "I suppose if I go with you gentleman, it will save me time. I would probably get lost if I tried to navigate the forest on my own."
"Brilliant!" exclaimed Josse, who got to his feet than. "Willwick, Yash, gather up the rest of the things. I'm headed off to find Fionn, that bloke."
With that, Josse disappeared into the trees and the two tired looking men got to work gathering the belongings of the group, which had been scattered all around the small campsite. Kira looked back to Nicholas. He was giving her the most curious look.
"You're kidding, aren't you?" he asked under his breath. Kira nodded, hoping she could trust him. To her relief, he nodded back, a look of understanding in his eyes. "I thought so."
"I mustn't forget my dagger," said Kira loud enough for the other two men to hear her. "I've left it behind the tree. Let me just get that..."
Nicholas led her around the tree, and knelt to retrieve her dagger for her. She tucked it back into her cloak and gave Nicholas a look of thanks. He only nodded and pointed west. "Head that way and you'll come along a village called HighHaven before night fall. And here," he reached into his trouser pocked and pressed something into her hand. "This is a compass. It will tell you which direction you're headed. Just keep walking west and you'll do fine."
Kira looked Nicholas right in his blue eyes. Unlike the other men, his face and hair were clean and he was clean shaven. Kira wondered if he even had the need to shave yet, being so young. Either way, he was an honest, kind boy that Kira vowed not to forever. She knew leaving the village would allow her to meet good people. She hoped he would be the first of many.
"Thank you, Nicholas," she breathed, and wrapped her fingers back around his hand for a moment. He was looking back into her eyes and he smiled ever so slightly. Kira had already admitted to herself that he had a boyish cuteness to him, but when he smiled, she could see the man that he was growing into.
"Good luck, Ms. Greene,"
"Kira-- Call he Kira."
"All the best, Kira."