242 Marian Era (M.E.)
The heat washed over her, falling in waves that pushed her deeper into the mud of the jungle floor. Keira drew a ragged breath, feeling the moisture of the air settle heavily in her lungs. Any minute now. A mosquito buzzed incessantly around her nose, and it took every ounce of her deeply held willpower to resist the desire to swat at it. Instead, she held perfectly still—muscles tensed and ready to strike.
She glanced at the Bellators that surrounded her—statues in the midday heat. Red cloaks abandoned and faces smeared with camouflaging mud, they crouched in perfect silence, awaiting a quarry that had yet to show its face. Her heartbeat thrummed in her ears; the familiar tang of adrenaline settled on her tongue. She let it wash over her, pushing down every thought and jagged memory along with it. There was nothing beyond this—the hunt. She reveled in it.
And yet still they waited, the lingering seconds stretching into even longer minutes. The marauders that had been terrorizing the Southern Shield for months had embedded themselves deep within its tropical jungles, carving out fortresses that were impenetrable to any outward assault. In truth, they had no reason to face the Bellatorio on equal terms, not when they merely had to wait.
The gentle cracking of a twig immediately grabbed her attention, and her ears perked to catch the spongy sucking sound of the muddy jungle floor, confirming her suspicions; someone was out there. Her fingers twitched toward the sword at her belt, but she resisted the urge. She couldn’t give away their position until the last possible moment.
Keira could feel the tension in the air, a palpable thrill that coursed through her body.
This is it.
Slowly, ever so quietly, she allowed her fingers to inch toward her gilded hilt, the cold steel of its pommel firm under her curling fingers. Still more twigs snapped, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise.
They’re practically on us.
On instinct, Keira reached within herself to feel the pulsing ball of energy behind her stomach. She flitted on the edge, desperately wanting to send feelers out, to calculate how many of them there were and find out their strength. But an all-too-familiar sensation of panic bloomed in her belly, and she quickly released the ball of energy. I can’t, she thought, not without—
She bit her lip. It didn’t matter. Besides, her pneuma still required a whistle to guide it. To cast it out required sound, and sound was the one thing they could not afford, not yet, at least.
Another moment passed, and then a strangled roar emerged from her compatriot only a few yards away, quickly followed by the cries of the entire patrol. Keira surged to her feet, meeting the startled eyes of a frightened marauder, who barely had time to react before her blade pierced his chest and he crumpled to the ground.
From the corner of her eye, she noticed one young Tiro cry out as he stumbled, crashing to his knees. The marauder he’d been skirmishing with let out a strangled yell of triumph as he lunged toward the fallen Bellator.
Keira leapt over her fallen comrade, barely registering the sharp ring of metal as her sword collided with the marauder’s blade. She was close enough to see his yellowing teeth, to feel his stale breath. Spittle flew from his mouth, and her stomach lurched as it struck her face. She ignored the sensation and disengaged, repositioning to come at him again from the side.
He parried, and she deftly twirled their blades through the air in a shearing clang of sliding metal—making a full arc before they released. She staggered back, trying to regain her footing as she glared at the hulking man.
A flicker of movement made her drop to a crouch as the whistle of an arrow hissed just overhead. Glancing around, she couldn’t make out a likely source in the mayhem of clashing blades, the Bellatori patrol fully engaged now against the marauders.
Spinning back to her initial quarry, Keira found him gone, disappeared through the dense overgrowth of jungle. She swore and started after him.
She’d made it about three steps when the cry of a young Bellator drew her attention, and she watched as he collapsed to one knee, gripping a deep slice to his side as his assailant’s blade arced up and over—coming in for the kill.
Keira’s legs moved of their own volition, and she lunged forward, slamming her shoulder into the marauder. They tumbled to the ground in a heap, and Keira squirmed, desperate to disengage, before a crushing blow to her abdomen knocked the wind out of her. She rolled, dry-heaving her nonexistent breakfast as she scrambled to her feet. She barely got her sword up in time to parry as the man surged toward her.
Their blades met with a force that sent an ache through her arm, her fingers instantly going numb. She dodged to the side, aiming for his exposed flank, but he was too quick. He spun with her, forcing her back until she felt the press of gnarled bark against her spine. She let him advance, waiting for the last possible moment as a cruel side cut flew toward her. She dodged, letting his blade slice deep into the tree, where it lodged. It was just a moment before he wrenched it free, but it was one moment too long.
She slammed into him, thrusting her dagger into his belly once . . . twice . . . before he collapsed in a heap, blood gurgling from his throat.
Keira stood, chest heaving as she stared down at him, his eyes slowly dilating into the ghoulish surprise of death. But in her mind, she was seeing another body—face swollen and hair matted with blood . . . Danny.
Keira squeezed her eyes shut, willing the image to burn free of her retinas, and her breath came in shallow gasps. She forced her body into submission, breathing through pursed lips as she steadied her shaking hands on the tree beside her. When she had control, her eyes flickered open—darting around as she searched for whatever threat beckoned. But from where she stood, all the marauders lay dead—their bodies already being looted by the surviving Bellators. Whoever remained must have fled for safer ground.
She turned to find the young Tiro she’d saved staggering toward her, arm still gripping his side as he stared at her in wide-eyed gratitude. Keira felt a flush stain her cheeks, and she waved him off, turning to stalk away. His face fell as she slid past, but she kept moving. She felt her adrenaline fading and moved faster, desperate to outrun the hollow exhaustion she knew would follow in its wake. She pushed aside the underbrush until she could just make out the muddy tracks left by the fleeing marauders.
“They went this way!” she called, before taking off through the dense vegetation, not caring who, if anyone, followed her.
Branches tore at her clothes and hair as she pushed her way through the underbrush, leaping over snarled roots the size of her thighs that snaked up from the ground. Somewhere in the back of Keira’s mind, she wondered if she was even headed in the right direction, or if she was only pushing deeper into the heart of the jungled island. She wasn’t sure she cared. The adrenaline in her stomach burned out any doubt or worry before it could take hold as her legs carried her forward. She was beyond worry.
Crashing through a wall of foliage, Keira stepped through to dazzling tropical sunlight. She blinked against the rays that reflected off the white sands and shielded her eyes, scanning the horizon for any sign of the fleeing marauders.
Footsteps trailed away from the jungle’s edge, making for the port town of Albé. Cursing, Keira started toward the village, fighting the drag of her boots as they sank into the powderlike sand.
Reaching the edge of the town, Keira slowed to a walk, not wanting to attract undue attention, but she soon realized the effort was pointless. With her pale, sunburnt skin and blue eyes, not to mention the sword strapped to her hip, she couldn’t have been more conspicuous. Keira kept her head down as she moved along the streets, but she could feel the islanders’ dark eyes following her, narrowed and tense.
A figure crossed her path and Keira tensed, reaching instinctively for her sword. But it was only a middle-aged woman, slobbering baby bouncing on her hip as she looked Keira up and down scornfully. The woman eyed Keira’s sword, and she quickly dropped her grip on its hilt.
Relaxing, the woman sidled closer, speaking in a hushed murmur. “The one you be looking for? He came tru’ not ten minute before you, be making for the stables right off.”
Keira glanced around eagerly. “Where are they, then?”
The woman pursed her lips and raised her dark eyebrows pointedly at Keira’s waist satchel. Keira’s eager grin twisted into a scowl as she fished out a handful of penarii, the copper coins that saw most business done on the islands. She dropped them into the woman’s palm, who pocketed them with businesslike efficiency before gesturing to the west.
“You be following this road, but stop before you be reaching the blacksmith. The stables being just to the right.”
Keira turned to thank the woman, but she’d already pushed past, baby still bouncing on one hip, her other arm firmly wrapped around a large basket. Tightening her sword belt, Keira set off at a near-jog down the road the woman had pointed to, hoping she wasn’t already too late.
The stable itself was an airy building, built on strong balsané wood stilts to elevate it above the ever-present threat of flood. Keira peered past the half dozen horses tied under the three-sided exterior overhang toward the open door beyond. Inside, the stablemaster argued with a man whose back was to her. She froze. Though he wore a cloak with the hood pulled up, her gaze traveled down to his boots, to the thick jungle mud caked up the sides.
She broke into a run.
Maybe it was the sound of her footsteps, or the slide of metal as she unsheathed her blade, but the cloaked man suddenly turned and caught her gaze. It was him.
Shoving the stablemaster aside, he made for the row of horses tied under the overhang within the inner corral.
Oh no, you don’t, Keira thought, veering toward a horse that stood tied outside a nearby building. Keira saw the marauder’s knife flash as he unfettered the reins of a sorrel mare and leapt onto its back. Wheeling the horse around, he barreled toward the open side. Keira was still a few yards away from the nearest horse, but as she glanced toward the entrance to the stable complex, she felt the breath punch out of her in a whoosh.
There was only one way in or out of the corral, and a group of children crouched just beyond, their view of the marauder blocked by tall hay bales as they skipped smooth pebbles across a circle drawn in the sand that blew across the wood planks of the street. From the angle of the doorway, Keira knew there was no way the marauder would see them in time. She had a moment’s indecision as she glanced at the waiting horse in the opposite direction. Then she was running.
The children shrieked as she came upon them, but she ignored their squeals. Scooping up the two smallest children in one arm, she yanked a slightly older girl to her feet, hauling them all out of the horse’s path.
The two youngest came willingly enough, no doubt stunned by the shock of it all, but the oldest writhed and kicked as Keira dragged her out of the road.
“My necklace!” the girl shrieked, wrestling her way out of Keira’s grip and dashing back toward the circle. She lunged for the glinting object that lay amid the stone as the marauder’s horse came barreling toward her.
“What are you doing!” Keira cried. Dropping the squalling children, she lunged for the older girl—tackling her just as the sandy circle erupted under flying hooves.
It took a moment to disentangle themselves. Coughing, Keira shot a rueful glance at the marauder’s back before rounding on the girl. Rising from the ground, the girl brushed sand from her dress and carefully peeled open her fingers. Cradled in the center of her palm lay a perfectly spiraled sea shell fixed to a broken piece of twine. Keira glanced at it, noting the speckled rose pink that stood out against the girl’s warm brown skin. It was beautiful, Keira had to admit, remarkable in its perfect symmetry and the way the sunlight twinkled off the grains of sand embedded in its surface. But it was certainly not worth dying over.
“What on earth were you thinking?” Keira asked, glaring at the top of the girl’s head, where strings of dark brown curls escaped her twin braids. The girl met her gaze, glaring right back with the most piercing eyes Keira had ever seen.
They really were extraordinary, their shade almost white-green, the color of seafoam or a choppy wave. They’d be a unique feature in any company but were striking among the Udánma, the native people of the Southern Shield. Keira knew they took pride in the dark warmth of their eyes, often ringing their lids with light hues to make them stand out all the more.
“You really should be more careful,” Keira said, shifting awkwardly as she realized she’d been staring at the girl for a bit too long.
The girl glowered back, either not noticing the pause or else too used to gawking to care. She muttered something in the native language of the islands that Keira couldn’t understand, although she definitely picked out the word grelún uttered with a surprising amount of condescension for someone who likely still had some baby teeth.
Keira was about to reprimand her again when the girl spun on her heels and scampered away, gesturing at the two younger children, who quickly chased after her.
Jaw clenched, Keira glanced back in the direction the marauder had gone but saw no sign of him. Great, she thought, no doubt spreading word of our camp position.
Keira stretched, feeling the adrenaline eking out of her muscles as a familiar wave of exhaustion washed over her. With it came the emptiness, that hollow void and accompanying panic she kept at bay through sheer force of will and the ever-present distraction of combat. She quickly shoved the feeling away. There was still a job to do, and she clung to that thought. She had to warn the Bellatorio. The next attack would be swift and precise. Pneumos help them if they were caught off guard.
Night had fallen like a thick wet cloak over the jungle camp by the time Keira returned. The Bellatori camp itself was always a bustling hive of activity, especially in the evenings, when young women from the surrounding villages found their way to the gates in search of drink and merriment, but most of all coin. Not interested in any of the above, Keira pushed her way through the throng, ignoring the drunken shouts and averting her eyes from the tangles of limbs she glimpsed in the shadows between tentpoles.
She passed by the infirmary and saw the Bellatori healer, Argus, wringing bloody water from a pile of rags. She paused.
“Need any help, Argus?” she asked, ignoring the protest of her aching muscles. Ever since arriving in the Southern Shield, she’d naturally gravitated toward the infirmary. She helped the healer Argus in whatever way she could—determined to keep busy and remain useful. But she’d be lying if she said there wasn’t a sense of familiarity in it, a tie to her old life in her own world, where she’d thought she just might end up a healer herself one day. But that was a long time ago.
“No, no, Keira. I appreciate it, but I’m almost done.” Argus’s smile shone as sweat dripped down his dark-skinned face. “Besides, from the looks of it, I’d likely end the night sweeping your raggedy bones off the floor. Go get some sleep, girl. You look like horse shite.”
Keira snorted but waved a hand in acknowledgment. Pushing on methodically, she went in search of her tent and the waiting cot within but found herself waylaid by a tall figure.
Keira tensed instinctively, her fingers twitching toward her hilt, but paused when she registered the familiar face—the young Tiro she’d saved from an early grave in the afternoon’s attack.
“Glad to see you made it back all right,” he said, smiling shyly as he rubbed the back of his neck. “We tried to follow you but lost your trail in the overgrowth. Did you catch that last marauder?”
“No,” Keira replied shortly, glancing over his shoulder. So close, she thought. Ten more yards, and she’d have been home free. She realized then that he was still talking.
“Sorry, what was that?” she asked, brows furrowing as she registered his rising tone. He’d clearly asked her a question.
“I was just wondering if you’d care to join us. Some other blokes and I’ve found where Cook keeps the good mead. Though if we don’t hurry, I doubt Stanus will leave us any at all.” He trailed off and shot Keira a half grin.
The brusque brush-off she’d been rehearsing caught in Keira’s throat as she stared at him. As the lowest ranking soldiers in the Bellatorio, Tiros were generally close in age to Keira, but she couldn’t help but think they all looked little more than boys—too young to be fighting an unwinnable war and far too young for the death that no doubt awaited them. This one was clearly a downlander, as evidenced by his arched syllables, olive skin, and dark features. He looked nothing at all like . . .
Keira closed her eyes, beating back the memories with all the strength she could muster, though she could feel the dam she’d built around the lapping waves of sorrow weaken. He’s not him, she thought fiercely. He’s not.
“I’m sorry. Have I said something wrong? I really just wanted to thank you. You know, for saving my arse back there.”
Her emotions better controlled, Keira opened her eyes and gave the young Tiro another once-over. She remembered him from around camp, knew they’d been on several patrols together. But what was his name? Anton? Crispus? Maybe Jovian? She shook her head. In truth, she’d made a distinct effort not to learn any of their names. Why bother? Not when any of them could end up on the wrong end of a spear the next day. No, it was better not to get too attached.
The young man’s brow furrowed now, and he shifted his weight awkwardly. Clearly, she’d taken too long to respond.
“You’re welcome,” she said finally. “And thank you. I appreciate the invitation, but honestly, the only thing I want right about now is to be horizontal.”
Offering a small smile in apology, she turned then to go. He caught her arm, and she froze. His touch was light, but it brought with it no end of memories, and she slowly but resolutely pulled away.
“How about tomorrow, then? Breakfast, perhaps? One of the village ladies always brings a warm egg stew to sell in the morning—eases the headache after the night’s merriment.”
He offered another half grin that surely made all the village girls’ hearts melt. Keira pressed her lips together in a thin line.
“No, thank you.”
And without further explanation, she pushed past his confused expression and made for her tent and the solitude she craved.
Once inside, she leaned one hand heavily against the tent post, in a single breath releasing all the tension she’d kept pent up inside since the attack that afternoon. As she felt it leave her body, her shoulders slumped, and she collapsed onto the bed. In its wake, the weight of something else fell firmly into place—silence. Though she could still hear the revelry outside, inside her haven, all was still and quiet. The belongings she’d arrayed so precisely behind her lay exactly where she’d placed them. She was alone, and that was right where she needed to be.
One after the other, she kicked off her boots and placed them at the foot of the bed, arranged so she could slip her feet in at a moment’s notice should she need them. Steely gray eyes flashed in her memory—Gaius Flavius’s regimented precision as he arrayed every article of armor and weaponry at precise intervals around his cot. She shook the thought away and unstrapped the sword at her hip. Laying it across her thighs, she reached for the worn rag and began rubbing methodical circles into its surface, until it reflected her weary expression. Nazor’s velvety, stern voice echoed in her memory, chiding, “A warrior is only as good as her worst-kept weapon.” Keira swallowed and pushed the sword aside, rubbing her temples as if to burn the thoughts away. Then, carefully unstrapping each piece of leather armor, she eased it off her aching muscles. Reaching for the rough horsehair brush, she briskly cleared the dirt from each piece, chipping away the caked mud with her knife as she ignored the growing wave of nostalgia.
A toothy half grin. Soft, olive-green eyes looking up at her beneath a flop of sandy-blond hair. Danny.
Keira closed her eyes, forcing herself to breathe normally—in through her nose and out through her mouth. But she couldn’t fight the sting that came to the corners of her eyes or the burning in the bridge of her nose. She swallowed a choked sob. Oh, Danny, she thought. Why did you have to leave? You promised you never would, promised you’d always be here.
More memories flashed in her mind’s eye. Elliott approaching her, face splintered by sorrow, speaking words she couldn’t quite comprehend. The buckling of her knees as she sank onto icy flagstones, and Elliott’s arms tight around her shoulders as the words she couldn’t quite believe echoed in her mind. He’s gone. He’s really gone.
In the weeks that followed the riots that had first taken him from her, she’d known logically that the chances he’d simply wake up one day were growing slim beyond measure. But what currency had they been dealing in, if not slim chances and desperate hopes? So when Danny had finally slipped away, it had been like having all the oxygen sucked from her body. The tether that had for so long held her to this world had vanished in an instant, and she’d found herself adrift in a sea of sympathetic glances and unsolicited words of consolation. It was for the sake of her own sanity that she’d escaped on the first Bellatori transport ship leaving Crîd Eálas, barely waiting for Landry’s hesitant permission to join his soldiers in their campaign against the marauders harassing the Southern Shield. All she’d known before arriving was that it was a way out of the capital—promising combat and no end of nights spent far too exhausted to dream. That was certainly enough for her.
Now, pressing the heels of her palms to her closed eyelids, Keira compelled her breathing to slow, forcing her head above the waves of grief, refusing to let it suck her down into its icy grip. Crawling under the thin blanket of her cot, Keira bolted the door against the memories that threatened intrusion and slipped into a fitful sleep.
The next day, Keira emerged bleary-eyed from her tent to find the camp already rolling into motion, wide awake despite the night’s merriment. All around her, Bellators saddled horses and stoked fires. Keira spied Centus Arennius barking orders as he reviewed his troops. Shrugging on her own leather jerkin, Keira headed for the wiry Centus, who didn’t bother looking up from the scroll he was reviewing as she approached. She cleared her throat.
“Yes?” Arennius asked, eyes still trailing one finger as he scanned the list of rations.
“Is there a patrol going out, sir?”
Arennius made a grunt of acknowledgment. “To Albé. After yesterday’s attack, it seems unlikely the marauders came upon our position by chance.”
“You think we’ll find them hiding in the town, then?”
“Probably not,” Arennius replied mildly. “The rats have all scampered back to their hollows by now. We’ll not find them until they’ve had time to lick their wounds, reemerging only to bite our heels when we’ve stopped looking.”
Keira’s mouth twisted in distaste. “Then why are we going to town?”
Arennius finally glanced up, offering her a considering look. “Because the marauders must get their information from somewhere. And the town is the most likely source.”
Keira nodded, moving to grab her horse as Arennius added, “Well done yesterday. You’ve . . . done well here. I won’t pretend I wasn’t doubtful, bringing an untrained civilian along, but you’ve proved yourself a genuine asset on the battlefield, and Argus speaks highly of your work in the infirmary. We’re lucky to have you here.”
Keira blinked at him in surprise. She’d felt the wary glances when she’d first arrived—the unwelcome tagalong to the centurium. So she’d stayed out of the Centus’s way, happy to do her job quietly and unobtrusively. “Thank you, sir,” she said, feeling a blush creep over her cheeks.
Arennius cleared his throat, shifting awkwardly, and she spared them both further embarrassment, offering her excuses as she ran to saddle her own horse. She was happy to be thought useful, though. And despite herself, she was rather fond of the usually taciturn Arennius. In his stalwart way, he reminded her of her old friend Gaius Flavius, who she and Danny had accompanied to Mount Ánghen to retrieve now-Regio Landrianus. Landry had been little more than a spoiled princeling back then, but Flavius had taken his duty seriously—so seriously he’d died defending him when his own Centus betrayed them. She missed him. She missed all of them.
Wheeling her horse around, Keira considered Arennius’s earlier statement. There was little doubt many within the local town would like to see the Bellatorio discharged from the islands altogether. After all, tensions ran deep between the military and the islanders. The Shield Wars were only a few decades past, and stories of the sickness and death that had resulted were still widespread. But side with foreign marauders raiding and pillaging their shores? Keira thought it unlikely.
Still, it was probably worth asking around town to see what strangers had ventured there of late. The islanders were naturally distrustful of outsiders, and a foreign marauder would not have gone unnoticed should they have ventured to market for supplies. Of that she had little doubt.
The Bellators weren’t exactly well-received. Walking through town amid the rows of red-cloaked Bellators, Keira could feel the eyes of the people following them, some merely distrustful, others outright hostile. Though they’d dismounted, they still looked every bit the conquering army. Which, Keira thought, they sort of were. She ignored the grating feel of the thought and focused on observing her surroundings. Albé was a bustling port town, with the largest docks on the island of Tibolé—the largest island in the Southern Shield archipelago.
This town has prospered, she thought, remembering stories of the devastation wrought by the Shield Wars on what were then only small villages on these islands. Their fortunes were now tied to the trade that ran through this port. The marauders were a threat to that.
They couldn’t possibly be feeding them information, she decided. No matter how much they might hate the Bellatorio, she suspected their self-interest would win out in the end.
A commotion at one of the market stalls caught her attention, and she turned to see a young, red-faced Tiro arguing with a shopkeeper, presumably over a price he felt was too high. The shopkeeper murmured something to his companion in the island dialect, and the two chortled.
“’Ey! What you sayin’ then?” the Bellator demanded of the shopkeeper. He was one of the young Tiros, and an uplander by the look of his freckled face and copper hair—his cheeks were turning a matching shade by the second.
“Nothing, nothing! Only happy you being so hungry before even midday. But I’m sorry to say, my prices being set.”
The shopkeeper smiled serenely as his companion hid a smile behind a hand. They clearly had had a laugh at the Tiro’s expense. By then, the commotion had caught the attention of the other Bellators, and a small crowd had formed. The young Bellator’s friends began egging him on, and Keira could see the tension building. She stepped forward.
“Is there a problem here, Tiro?” she asked. The young man looked undeterred but paused, eyeing her. Keira might not have had any formal rank in the Bellatori power structure, but her reputation preceded her, both for her actions in the capital and since arriving on the island. And if there was one thing Bellators respected, it was martial competence.
“No, ma’am,” the Bellator said finally, his words cutting through the palpable tension. Then he turned back to the shopkeeper. “Damn clambacks,” he growled. “Sneakin’ snakes, all of you.”
Keira pursed her lips at the insult but let the young man walk away, glad not to have had to break up a violent encounter. Ironic, she thought instead. An uplander, who likely suffered regular taunts from his Bellatori comrades for his own heritage, feeling entitled to degrade someone else for theirs. She shook her head.
Feeling suddenly exhausted, Keira turned and began making her way farther down the street. She’d stopped to admire a leatherworker’s intricate designs when shouts drew her attention down a side alley off the main street.
Not again, Keira groaned inwardly.
But as she jogged down the road, she realized the noise was coming not from the Bellators but from a gaggle of islander children, who’d gathered around something hidden at their center. Their ages varied widely, but Keira spied at least a couple teenagers in their midst. As Keira pushed through the throng, the children parted easily, their jeers cut short in surprise at the sudden appearance of an outsider. When she finally made it to the center, she found two older boys—one holding a small girl and the other waggling a jeering finger at her.
“These other grelún be coming to take you back, eh, grelún? You glad to be going back to your proper home?”
The girl’s head shot up then, and Keira was shocked to see light seafoam eyes staring back, white-hot in their fury as she leveled the older boy with a withering glare.
“At least I not being dumb enough to think the world be ending at shore’s edge.”
The older boy’s cheeks flushed, and he took another menacing step toward the girl. To her credit, she didn’t flinch. But Keira saw the flash of fear in her eyes and decided that was enough.
“All right, then, you’ve had your fun. Now get out of here.”
The older boys spun toward Keira. They were a head taller than she, and there was a time when she would have been afraid of them. But she was a different person now. She leveled them with her best “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves” look of reproof, but the two of them didn’t look anywhere close to abashed. The silence filled with loathing, and the two merely glared at her. It took a flick of her fingers toward her sword for them to take the wisest course of action and let the young girl go. Surprised, the girl crumpled to her knees.
“Come on,” said the older boy, dark eyes haughty and cruel. “Leave the grelún with its proper family.” The crowd of children laughed as they melted away up and down the alley on either side.
Keira turned then to help the girl up and found her already on her feet, tiny hands balled into fists as she glared up at her, eyes glinting with tear-filled fury.
“Why you be following me?”
It took Keira aback, and she was instantly defensive. “I’m not following you. In case you didn’t notice, I saved your butt! Were you looking to be on the wrong side of a black eye? Or worse?”
“I didn’t be needing your help,” the girl said, swiping furiously at the tears that rolled down her cheeks.
Keira snorted. “Could have fooled me. You sure have a nasty habit of getting yourself into trouble.”
The girl’s lips pursed, and she glared back at Keira. Her appearance was striking; dark brown hair that displayed the golden highlights of a long-term affair with tropical rays fell in waves around her shoulders. The girl murmured something in the island dialect as she brushed the dirt off her bark-cloth dress.
“What was that?”
The girl’s eyes shone with dislike, and her mouth kinked into a small smile. “I be saying it be just like a grelún, sticking her nose in where it not being wanted.”
Keira’s own eyes narrowed. “Grelún, huh? If I’m not mistaken, that’s exactly what those boys called you. What does it mean, anyway?”
The girl’s grin twisted into a scowl. “It be meaning ‘outsider.’ And now, thanks to you, I being even more grelún.”
Keira felt a seed of guilt twist in her stomach, and she pushed it down. She would not be manipulated by a little kid. “Why would they call you an outsider?”
The girl’s shoulders slumped slightly, and she murmured, “It don’t matter. Only fools and sloths be caring for such things, make themselves feel more important.”
Her words held the authority of ones said by someone she respected, but a note of doubt crept in at the end. Keira crossed her arms, cocking her head slightly as she leveled the girl with one arched brow. “You’re pretty smart for a six-year-old.”
The girl’s head snapped up. She straightened, drawing herself up to her highest height of nearly four feet.