A clump of grass flew into the air; the force of the foot that had kicked it sending it far from its original position. Neal glared at the offending piece of earth as if it was the reason for all of his problems in the world, then his eyes softened and he slowly fell to his knees.
Finally away from all of the prying eyes of his once beloved home, Neal was able to simply sit down and the horror of it all wash over him once again without the fear of someone finding and attempting to comfort him. He knew that his friends were likely feeling sadness as well, but Neal couldn't help but feel that their pain was nothing compared to what he was feeling. He had lost his best friend, his confidante; the person whom he knew would always have his back.
His father was always saying that 'time heals all wounds' and that everything would be alright in the end, but Neal couldn't see how, nor could he see that everyone around him was simply trying to help; that they didn't intend to seem clingy and over-protective of him. The only consolation he had was Roald. Whenever he was there, he didn't try to say anything, didn't try to make it seem like everything was alright, he was simply there; a constant, unwavering presence. But still, there was nothing like the comfort of your own thoughts and solitude.
Though he didn't let it show, Neal was actually quite worried about going back the castle to train; he didn't know if he would be able to look Lord Wyldon in the eye and not jump up to strangle him. Not to mention the fact that he would have to face the emptiness of Kel not being there, and to top it all off, Neal wasn't sure he wished to continue his dream of becoming a knight of the Crown for Queenscove.
He was struck out of his musings by a trembling of the ground. Startled, Neal squinted off into the distance and saw a lone horse and rider nearing closer and closer. Try as he might, he couldn't make out who it was or even their rank. But as the mysterious rider drew closer, Neal quickly figured out who it was.
He stood, fury flashed in his eyes while rage pumped through his veins. By the time that King Jonathan of Conté reached him, he was a hurricane of unpleasant feelings. The King slowed down, his eyes stuck on Neal. Jonathan hid his surprise from the sight in front of him. The boy that he had seen grow up over years of visits to the castle was gone. Instead, there was a young man with a gaunt face from lack of eating and eyes filled to the brim in anger.
Neal was also shocked; the King's face was worn and tired from sleepless nights and there was a longing stance in his posture... he had missed his family. But Neal quickly dismissed that small feeling of guilt and sympathy that was rising up in him and resumed to his more powerful and dangerous feelings.
After a moment, Jonathan quietly dismounted his horse and slowly and cautiously made his way over to Neal, as if approaching a wounded animal. Neal, for his part, stayed perfectly still until the King was standing right in front of him before making his move. With a glare that chilled Jonathon to the bone, he spoke.
"Why?" It was a simple question with so many different possible answers behind it and almost impossible to understand, but Jonathan easily grasped its real meaning. Sighing, he reached up and ran a hand through his already wind-mussed hair.
"I don't know," he confessed under his breath, Neal had to struggle to fully hear him. He continued to watch in shock as his ruler, dressed in ordinary clothes, sank down onto his knees in a position much like Neal had been in before. "I don't know."
The first thing Kel noticed when she woke up was that she was lying in a strange sort of large tent and that it sounded like she was outside. Jumping up, and managing to hit her head on the wooden pole that was keeping the tent up, she looked around in confusion. Then, she heard a bell loudly clang, and the memories of the previous day came back to her. Rubbing her aching head, Kel proceeded to stick her head out of the tent flap, and then followed it with the rest of her body.
As before, everyone else was already waking and getting out of their own tents and even though the sun was only just rising, their eyes were clear and sleep-free. One thing was different, however; none of them offered any gentle smiles or any kind looks. Instead, Kel received many expressions of confusion, and some of extreme dislike. For an instant, she was confused. But then she saw many people make a small half bow before they continued with their morning activities. Looking to where they were all making the gesture, she saw Taine walking into the camp.
Suddenly, the memories of the previous day came back to her, including the gruelling practice with Taine. Kel also realized why many people were angry at her. She though back to how Resh and Deni had acted yesterday when Taine had picked her as well as many other children to travel with them to learn more about their arts; how surprised they were that she knew Taine and that he had picked her when he had only known her for less than a day.
Kel quickly spotted Deni and Resh over on the edge of the camp. They, like everyone, were already getting started on the morning chores before breakfast. She made her way cautiously over to them (she worried that they might think the same thing), to figure out what her jobs would be for that day. Her worry was short lived.
When she reached them, they were both laughing as hard as the three of them had been the previous day. When they saw her, they didn't hesitate in including her in the joke.
"Kel," Resh gasped for breath between chuckles, "You should have seen Kaj's face! He was..." He kept laughing so hard that he wasn't able to finish his thought. Deni, a little better off than her best friend was, continued for him.
"Kaj was very angry when he found out that Lord Taine was training you, and was ranting about it to anyone who would listen," She explained to Kel, grinning the whole time. "The moment he stopped to take a breath, Resh put in his two cents." Deni let out a giggle, but at Kel's impatient look, she regained her composure and kept going.
"He walked right up to Kaj and said, with such a look of surprise on his face that even I believed him, 'You don't know, Kaj? Kel is a trained assassin! One of the best from Shang! My Lord asked her here to help train us, but he wanted to test out her skills first... I thought you knew; everyone else did.'"
Not able to hold out any longer, Deni joined Resh it laughing outrageously while Kel allowed herself only a small grin. But even that faded after a moment. Deni was the first to notice that their new friend wasn't laughing with them, and quickly calmed down, punching Resh gently in the shoulder to get him to do the same. Once they were both looking at her with no distractions, Kel opened her mouth.
"You guys don't mind?" She asked warily, watching their faces closely for any wrong emotion, "You guys aren't angry that I'm being trained by your Lord, or that I'm going to travel with the few of you?"
All three of them were quiet for a moment, and Kel kept a close watch on both of them, worried that she would lose the only friends she would probably make there. She need not have worried, however.
"I find it strange and confusing," Resh started out slowly, rolling the words around his mouth carefully before setting them loose, "but I wouldn't say that we're angry. Quite the opposite, in fact."
"Exactly," Deni put in, "we might not understand our Lord's reasons for letting you come, let alone for training you personally, but I'm happy that you're coming to travel with us. And I trust that you'll tell us in time what this is all about."
Resh nodded his head in solid agreement before his expression turned to one of apprehension. He looked at Kel closely before asking sceptically, "You're not really Shang, are you?"
After that, the morning passed quickly. One thing that she noticed, however, was that Taine was nowhere to be found. Brinan was overseeing and often helping in the work of the people, but not once did Kel see Taine during the morning work.
Lunch was a blur and before long, Kel was once again standing in the middle of the practice courts and watching both Deni and Resh running off to join their skill members, shouting goodbyes over their shoulders. The moment they were out of hearing range, Kel saw a dark shadow fall over her. Turning around, she was not in the least surprised to see Kaj standing there, his stance one of confidence and pride.
He looked down at her with an expression of mixed scorn, apprehension, and disbelief. He kept on looking at her, as if attempting to read her mind, or figure out her deepest darkest secrets. Finally, he appeared to have made a decision.
"You're no Shang," he stated rudely, "you probably can't even fight. THAT's why Lord Taine took you from practice courts, because he doesn't want to embarrass you," He gave a small smirk and without warning swung out his fist towards her face. Instantly, all of Kel's training from both the Yamani Isles and The Palace kicked in. With barely any visible difficulty, Kel ducked the punch and, anticipating the one that followed, neatly stopped it with her own hand.
Kaj's face rapidly turned a light red by having his attacks so easily stopped. Furiously, he lashed out;
"The only reason you're here is because you have nowhere else to go... who would want you anyways? You're probably your father's bastard."
To Kel, everything froze. Blood pumped in her ears and no amount of her calm facade could stop her from feeling her anger well up inside of her, and for the first time in a long time, she let that anger show in her actions.
Barely even registering what she was doing, Kel grabbed that hand that she had stopped and pulled it forward with a strength that surprised Kaj. Once he stumbled, off balance, she quickly swung her right leg in front of his, causing him to immediately trip and commence his fall. Before he could hit the ground, Kel flipped him over her hip so that he hit the ground with more force.
Kaj found himself on his back, with an aching pain spreading everywhere in his body like a wildfire without restraint. He was staring up, and could see Kel's face above him. Her face was completely devoid of emotion, except for her eyes, which held such a cold fury that sent chills down his spine.
Kel leaned down until she was closer to his face and so that he would be able to hear her clearly if she whispered.
"Never," she stated under her breath, "ever, insult my parents again or I swear upon the Mother Goddess that I will make you pay." Kaj gave a stuttering reply that Kel didn't even bother listening to. Standing up, she looked around and immediately, reality caught up with her. Everyone single pair of eyes in the practice courts was focused on her. Deni and Resh were there and were staring at her with both awe and some fear, as was everyone else.
Unclenching her fists which she hadn't even realized she had formed into fists, Kel took an unsteady step away from the young man lying on the ground in front of her. Conscious of the looks she was receiving, Kel felt the emotions welling up inside her become too much. With one last glance around the practice courts, Kel turned and ran into the woods which had become her sanctuary.
Arriving at the place where she and Taine had been the afternoon before, Kel leaned her back against one of the ancient trees and slowly slid to the ground. With no tears in her eyes, Kel covered her head with her arms and simply thought.
Unbeknownst to her, in the hollow log across the clearing where she and Taine has decided to stash their swords so that no one would know what they were doing, Hope's unearthly blue glow faded ever so slightly until there was nothing. But on the right side of the hilt, there was a marking that hadn't been there before. It was the mark of the Great Mother Goddess, but more importantly, it was the mark of her vow. Hope had heard its Master's promise, and so had the Goddess; both of them were ready to keep it.
Kel remained where she was until another shadow fell over her hunched form, but this shadow was familiar and she recognized it right away. Looking up, she was not at all surprised to see Taine standing over her. She was relieved to see that there was no judgment in his expression, nor did he seem angry at what she had done.
"Well," he started, breaking the comfortable silence that had grown between them, "that was interesting." Kel chuckled lowly before lapsing into silence once more. Taine sighed and sat down on the grass beside the young girl and tried to find the right words to say.
"It's impossible to remember the people you love who have passed each minute of every day," he stated finally, causing Kel to look at him in surprise. "We all forget sometimes, but then something happens that makes us suddenly remember and feel the pain." Taine was still staring into space in front of him, while Kel was looking at him closely, not sure if he was talking about her or himself. Quite suddenly, Taine turned his head around to face her, and he gave a small up-turning of his lips that made a sort of sad smile and said, "Better by far, you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad." Kel tilted her head slightly to the right in the universal sign of slight confusion.
"That makes sense," she said slowly, "but sometimes it's so hard to just keep going like nothing has happened when so much has that it's changed your life forever." Taine nodded in understanding.
"It is," he agreed wholeheartedly. "I'm not saying that it's easy... it's not, it often feels impossible, but that's the fun part of it. You've got to keep at it." The two became silent while Taine let the young girl have a few more moments to grieve. He took a quick glance at her and was not at all surprised to see her eyes shining brightly with unshed tears. He could see quite clearly that Kel was trying hard to fight them, but nonetheless, one treacherous tear slid slowly down her cheek. Kel furiously raised her arm and attempted to brush the wetness away but stopped as Taine caught her wrist gently in his own hand. Surprised, Kel's head shot up to look at him and saw a sort of understanding taking over his features before he spoke
"It's all right to cry," He assured her quietly, "it doesn't mean you're weak, or that you're a silly little girl. It just shows that you're human." Kel gave a slightly watery chuckle before a few more tears fell from her eyes. Taine sighed loudly and lifted his hand in the air and gently placed it on Kel's shoulder in a silent comfort.
They sat like that for awhile more, Taine's strong hand resting reassuringly and comfortingly on Kel's small shoulder, letting her know that he was there. Finally, Kel's eyes were dry and had the usual determined, iron will shining through them. Taine saw this, and though there were still tear tracks glistening on her face, he knew that she was alright. Retracting his hand from her shoulder, he slapped his knees gently before getting up.
"Enough mourning and wallowing," he proclaimed, "are you ready to continue on with your training?" Kel stared up at him, squinting her eyes in an effort to block the sun from her eyes before she focused on Taine's hand that was being offered to her. Smiling slightly, she grasped the hand and allowed Taine to pull her easily up.
"Definitely," she said with a glint in her eyes. "Let's get all sweaty and dirty!" Taine gave a bark of laughter, his face actually contorting into a smile that for a moment left Kel staring at the sense of belonging that it had on his face.
"You asked for it," was all he said.
The sun was setting, and a fight of dominance broke out between the periwinkle blue of the day and the inky blue-black of the night, creating a mass of swirling pink, purple and orange all around the blood red sun. The clouds were retreating ever so slowly and the stars were beginning to show around the threads of the satin sky.
Far below, a lone figure moved silently across the darkening training field. The silhouette crept stealthily to the trees bordering the woods, turning her head swiftly to each direction every few feet before moving further and further into the shadowy forest. Suddenly, a crash shattered the growing silence, and the unknown figure slumped in defeat before hissing,
"You great, lumbering oaf! This was YOUR idea and yet you're going to get us caught!" She turned around to see the grinning face and sighed, knowing that she couldn't resist his puppy-eyes, and settled for simply hitting him roughly on the shoulder. "Just be quiet, Resh."
"That's why I brought you along, Den! You'll make up for my lack of knowledge with your amazing quiet skills!"
Deni turned and continued on her way, trying to ignore the continuous noises coming from her friend behind her. The two moved quickly through the woods until quite a different noise caught their ears. They both froze and turned all of their attention to listening. After a moment, they could tell what they were hearing.
"Voices," Deni whispered, her voice barely loud enough for Resh to hear, but he did.
"No, really? I had no idea, I actually though that it was a couple of lions having a-ow! Will you ever stop hitting me all the time?"
"SHHHH!" was the only reply that he received. Grumbling under his breath, he followed Deni as she dropped to her knees and commence crawling through bushes and past trees. It was not long before they could distinctly tell whose voices that they were, along with the sounds of metal hitting metal. But before they could even look into the clearing that was now before them, a rustling to their right alerted them to company.
The two friends both tensed, sure that they were about to get caught as a third figure emerged from the underbrush.
"Brinan?" They whisper-yelled together. The second in command of the camp started in surprise at seeing the two young campers in the same position that he was. However, he quickly hid his surprise and instead, with a twinkle in his eyes, raised a single finger to his lips in a gesture of silence before rising slowly so that his eyes could see over the bush that all three were hiding behind. Resh and Deni quickly mimicked his actions.
There, they watched in open mouthed and wide eyed shock as Kel collapsed to the ground. But instead of lying there, she raised herself on her arms alone and continued on until she was doing push-ups with determination and vigilance. There was a light sheen of sweat on her face and though she did not halt in her activities, her arms trembled a little bit with each surge of muscle demonstrated. Finally, she collapsed on the ground, exhausted and they heard a deep, gruff laugh which made them remember the other person in the clearing.
"What? Tired already? You were still going strong by this time last night." He chuckled, sure that she was worn out from last night and not wanting to repeat that experience. Kel rolled over so that she was on her back and looked up at her mentor, narrowing her eyes until she was looking at him with a fearsome scowl. It did not have her desired effect as Taine just gave a loud guffaw at her antics.
"Would you like to be doing all of this with me, then?" the young girl demanded, her face becoming a mask once more. Taine's smile faded too as he vehemently shook his head, causing Kel's lips to twitch with the desire to smile. They both looked at each other seriously until their straight faces crumbled and they dissolved into quiet laughter.
Brinan's eyes were wide with amazement as he watched his childhood best-friend smile and laugh like he hadn't in years. For the first time in a long time, Brinan saw Taine actually enjoy himself, be the real Taine instead of the serious leader of the camp. This was the Taine whom had not lost anything in the world, and seemed like he had nothing to lose. Brinan turned to look at the young girl who had so easily taken a place in Taine's carefully guarded heart and was showing him how to live again. As he watched the two enjoy themselves, he couldn't help but notice that Kel, too, looked different than she usually did. There was a certain light in her eyes that made her seem so much younger, so much more like the age that she really was.
Deni and Resh had both seen Kel laugh, but it was always light, and never had she laughed before the other two had—as if she wasn't sure how to do it on her own. The Kel that they saw before them was absolutely carefree and was lying on the grassy ground and seeing every little joy there was in the world... not to mention that the Lord Taine was there and chuckling wildly along with her.
There was something about the odd pair, the great Lord and the young girl, sharing a private joke together that made Resh want to jump in and join them. Resisting the urge to do so, Resh shifted from foot to foot for a quick moment before resuming his previous position. But his sudden changing of weight upon the forest floor was all it took to send a twig snapping, it's sound reverberating like a gong throughout the clearing.
Instantly, Brinan and Deni turned to glare at him with panicked eyes, sure that they were all going to get a very sound talking to from their Lord. But to their immense astonishment, neither Kel nor Taine jumped up and demanded that whoever was there come out. Instead, their laughter died down at quite a natural pace before their masks resumed for real. Turning to look at the exact location of the three eavesdroppers, he said calmly,
"Brinan, don't you have work to do? And you two should be in bed, Resh, Deni." Sheepishly, they stood up from their hiding places and saw that the people that they had though they had so fooled did not seem in the least alarmed, and they had known their names.
Shaking the feeling of being a schoolboy caught doing something he shouldn't have been, Brinan took the liberty of taking a look around the clearing that Taine and Kel had claimed as their own. Before, he had only been focusing on them, but now he could see weapons carefully leaning up against an old oak tree. Two gleaming swords were what caught his attention and he stared unabashedly at them, waiting for his friend to explain why they were there.
Knowing what his second in command wanted, Taine quietly went over to the blades and picked up both swords. He looked them both over, his sharp eyes searching for any serious mark of dent that would make them incompetent for any proper use. Once he was satisfied, he carelessly, or so it seemed to those watching, threw one of the swords to the right.
Deni and Resh gasped as the steel flew at a lightning pace past them and into the ready and waiting hand of Kel. Seeing their stunned expressions, Kel lightly flipped Hope over the back of her hand and caught it again in a move that she had mastered as a child. Then, in the same fluid motion, she sheathed her blade safely at her waist.
Brinan turned around to face Taine, who was watching with a slightly amused look on his face before he faced his long-time best friend and two of his campers.
"I trust that the three of you can keep a secret?"
Hey everyone! I know, I know...it's been a long time. But, hopefully I've made it up to you with a long (long for me,) chapter.
"Better by far, you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad." Anyone who knows what this is from, review (please don't cheat and look it up on the internet!) and within the week I will give you a sneak peak of way into the future when Kel and Neal re-meet! Tempting? Uh-huh!
An amazing job by my beta, as usual. So a great big thanks to my spectacular beta, xxTunstall Chickxx!
Disclaimer: I am NOT Tamora Pierce.