"It'll be all right," a young woman promised, "We're almost there."
"Rest already, Keara," a brawny, older man said, "I'll keep watch while you and the children sleep."
The young woman obediantly settled herself between her two, small children. "Thank you, Gavin," she sleepily responded, "but you know I haven't slept well in the last two years. When I close my eyes, I see that horrid beast that murdered Tavis."
"You must sleep tonight, my queen," Gavin rejoined from his post on a small hill, "Tomorrow we will meet with the Alliance. And I am here to protect the three of you at all costs. It's my duty."
Keara smiled at her ever-faithful guard. Her deep blue eyse reflected the small fire Gavin built to keep them warm as the night blanketed them with cold air. Keara brushed her young daughter's auburn hair from her face as she watched her little ones sleep so peacefully. Then slowly, her eyes closed and she drifted off to sleep.
Gavin nervously ran his fingers through his short, dark hair. His brown eyes were alert. One hand rested comfortably on his sharpened sword just in case he needed it. Behind him, Gavin heard leaves cruching beneath someone's feet. He took a quick glance at the ones he swore to protect before turning his attention back towards the sound.
A young, blond man and his bald companion stepped into the clearing. They appeared to be hunting.
"Who goes there?" Gavin called, awakening Keara and her children.
"Who are you?" the young man asked, "Why are you here?"
Keara stood and walked towards the men. "I am Keara," she replied, "We're looking for a man named Conor. He leads the Alliance."
"Where have I heard that name before?" the bald man wondered aloud, "Keara?"
"Perhaps it's because I was taken as a child by the Romans. A slave helped me escape. Upon my return, I married the eldest son of the first tribe to find me. Shortly thereafter, his father died and my husband, Tavis, became king. Two years ago, however, Tavis was murdered by a strange beast. I took one of my guards and my children and we ran," Keara explained, "So, how can we help you?"
"We should be asking you that question," the young man replied, "I'm Conor - the man you seek."
"Conor," mimicked Keara's son.
Conor knelt down and the children made their way towards him. "Who are they?" he requested as they welcomed him with hugs.
"These are my babies, Maeve and Kern," Keara answered, "and this is my guard, Gavin."
"Who is he?" roughly asked Gavin, nodding towards the bald man with Conor.
"Conor's friend, you sodhead," the bald man replied, "My name is Fergus."
"You shouldn't be sleeping out in the open like this," Conor stated, "Come with us. Tomorrow morning you can meet the others." He was carrying Kern.
"I wouldn't want to impose," answered Keara.
"Hush, lass," Fergus scolded, "This is no place for you and two babies to sleep."
Sighing, Keara lifted Maeve. "All right," she agreed, "We'll go." Once inside the Sanctuary, Conor showed them where they could sleep. As soon as Keara had tucked her children in, they were fast asleep again. Gavin, too, was asleep soon after he had laid down. Keara sat upright an dstared at the fire several feet away instead of sleeping.
Conor looked over from his seat by the fire. "Poor woman," he whispered, "She can't even sleep in here."
"Knowing there's a monster out there who slaughtered her husband can't be easy on her, Conor," replied Fergus, "Go see if she needs anything, lad."
Conor nodded and made his way towards her. He sat at Keara's feet. "What's wrong?" he asked in a whisper.
Keara avoided his eyes. "I can't sleep is all. Nothing for you to worry yourself about."
Conor stood up and held out his hand. "Come on," he coaxed, "Take my hand."
Keara cautiously held out her hand, then slowly placed it in Conor's hand. He helped her to her feet. "What do you want with me?" she asked, studying his face for an answer.
"Just come with me," he gently ordered, "I'll protect you. I swear it."
"Where are we going?"
"For a walk," Conor asserted, "so we can talk about what keeps you awake at night."
"Beautiful night, isn't it?"
"I thought we were going to talk about what keeps me awake at night," said Keara. She was almost hidden in shadow.
"I thought I could take your mind off of your nightmares by talking about other things," Conor replied, "I'm sorry."
She stepped into the dim moonlight. "I was there, Conor," announced Keara, "I watched that beast kill Tavis." She paused and took a deep breath. "Every time I close my eyes, I see it happen all over again."
"What happened?" Conor solicited. His eyes narrowed to concentrate on Keara's face as she answered.
"We were out for a walk," she began, "It was the first time in months we had time alone. I don't recall how far we were from our village. Then something suddenly jumped out of the woods. It knocked Tavis down and they struggled. It had these enormous claws. I saw them come down on Tavis and screamed. It stopped to look at me and Ifroze."
"What did it look like?"
"Human," continued Keara, "It looked human. I don't really remember the face because I was so focused on its eyes. It growled and I took several steps back. I couldn't run. I could only watch. When it finished, it took off into the woods."
"What else?" Conor pried, "What happened next?"
Keara closed her eyes. A single tear fell. "I walked over to Tavis," she concluded, "His body was torn to shreds. I broke down into tears. I marked the spot with a piece of my dress tied to a broken branch. Then I ran back and took Gavin to help with Tavis's remains. A few days later a man named Longinus came to our village. He told me I was in great danger so I left. We've been traveling for about two years now.
A few weeks ago Longinus was in a village we were passing through. He told me to look for you, that you could protect me from a coming danger." Keara opened her eyes and stared up at the sky.
"What kind of danger?"
Keara sighed and turned her attention to Conor. "Longinus didn't say. That's what frightens me, Conor."
"Let's talke about a happier subject," Conor said.
"Such as?" They stopped walking.
"Your children," suggested Conor, "Tell me about them."
Keara smiled. "Maeve looks just like Tavis, more so than Kern does, " she stated, "Maeve is three now and Kern is two. Kern can already walk and mimick simple words and phrases. I'm so proud of him! Maeve's been talking for a year now. They're both getting so big already."
"Has Kern ever said names before?"
"No, not until today when he said yours," Keara said, "Up until today every male had been 'da' and every female has been 'ma'. It surprised me when he said your name."
"I feel.... privileged that Kern said my name," Conor expressed, "Should I?"
Keara smiled. "Yes, you should. You have every right to."
In the distance something howled.
"What was that?" fearfully asked Keara, steppping closer to Conor.
Conor stepped behind her. "A wild dog," he guessed. Conor wrapped his arms around her shoulders. "Remember I swore I'd protect you."
The wind picked up and Keara shivered. Strands of her ginger-brown hair flew into her face. Turning in Conor's arms, Keara suddenly realized how much taller Conor was compared to her. "I'm cold," she asserted, "Can we please go back?"
Conor gently brushed the hair from her face. "You have such pretty eyes," he absently said. Realizing her question, Conor nodded and replied, "We'll go back right now." He then took her hand and led Keara back.
"Who are our guests?" Catlin inquired.
"They came in last night," Conor replied, "They want to join us."
"What tribe?" Catlin asked.
"None anymore," answered Conor, "She left shortly after her husband died, took her children and guard with her."
"Who was her husband?" Tully asked. "Tavis," Conor returned, "Her name is Keara. Her guard is Gavin and her children are Maeve and Kern."
"Wasn't Tavis murdered by some monster?" requested Catlin.
"Yes and Keara was there. She's afraid it's after her now."
"Isn't Kern the rightful ruler of their tribe then?" Tully asked. Conor considered it.
"I suppose so, but she never mentioned it," he answered, "Besides, he's too young. Kern's only two." Keara cheerfully walked over.
"Hello, I'm Keara."
"Keara," Conor said, "you remember Fergus. These are my other friends, Tully and Catlin."
"Conor told us about your husband," Tully stated, "I had heard stories."
"Isn't Kern the tribe's ruler then?" Catlin suddenly asked.
"No, his tribe is different," replied Keara, "Once Maeve was a year old, Tavis had to name an heir. Tavis named his old friend, Kameron, since he refused to take the risk of naming our unborn the heir in case it was another daughter."
"Couldn't you challenge Kameron's rule?" Catlin solicited.
"Kern is too young," answered Keara, "and it's too much of a bother. Kern never had a chance to learn to be a leader from his father."
"What about when he's older?" Conor asked.
"Tavis was a poor ruler," explained Keara, "No one wants Kern to rule them. They're too afraid Kern will turn out like his father."
"If he watches Conor, Kern will be a great ruler someday," Fergus replied. Conor raised an eyebrow at the statement. Keara smiled.
"Even so, they wouldn't want us back. We abandoned them." She whispered to herself, "Twice a traitor."
"It was for a good reason," Fergus stated, "It was to save your life and the lives of those children over there."
"What did you whisper, Keara?" Catlin asked. "I said I was twice a traitor to my people," she replied, "I'm sure you heard the stories."
"Stories?" Conor asked, "What stories?"
"The would-be Roman princess snatched from her tribe as a child," Keara began.
"Never," Tully said.
"Me either," added Fergus.
"I have," Catlin stated, "It was you?" Keara nodded.
"I was taken when I was 4 and the Roman destroyed my village. They tried to teach me their ways, but I was stubborn and refused to learn. Despite that, a king named Avel had me meet his eldest son, Nikos. I was 13. They told me I had to marry Nikos or they'd kill me. I turned to one of Avel's personal slaves. He helped me get on the first ship home. That's when I met one of Tavis's guards, Carlin. He brought me to their village. Tavis never wanted to marry me, but he grew accustomed to me within a year. He came to tolerate me enough to marry me when I turned 16. Days after my 17th birthday, Maeve was born. Weeks after her first birthday, Kern was born."
"Then Tavis died," added Conor.
"Yes," Keara sadly said, "Not even Gavin knows all that about me. I've always been too afraid to tell anyone." Fergus went over to place his hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I'm sorry. I just get a little defensive."
"Can you fight off an attacker?" Tully requested. Keara shook her head in response. "I could teach you how to use a bullwhip like mine," he offered, showing her the whip.
Keara frowned. "Gavin wouldn't like that too much. He swore to defend me until he died. I don't think he'd like the fact that I could defend myself."
"He doesn't have to know," Catlin persuaded. Keara sighed.
"Let me think about it," she stated before walking away. Conor caught up with her.
"Where are you going?"
"For a walk to think," Keara rejoined.
"Alone?" Conor requested, "Is that safe?" Keara sighed and smiled.
"Come on, prince," she pronounced, "You can come along to protect me."
"Good," he said with a triumphant nod, "I'm glad you see it my way."
"Do you think I should?" Keara asked as they walked.
"Do I think you should what?"
"Have Tully teach me to use a bullwhip," Keara said, "Should I learn to fight?"
"What do YOU think you should do?" Conor returned.
Keara helplessly sighed. "I don't know."
"Forget about what Gavin would think for now," Conor announced, "Who will protect you if Gavin dies?"
"You and the others."
"What if we're not there when you're in trouble? What will you do?" Keara stopped walking.
"I'll be made a slave or killed."
Conor stopped walking and turned towards Keara. He cupped her chin in his hand. "Little one, you need to learn how to fight in case anything happens to us," Conor stated, "How ill you ever be safe if you can't protect yourself?"
Keara backed away. "I'm still not sure, Conor." Conor suddenly froze and listened. Someone was coming.
"Stay close," he ordered, "I hear something." Keara stepped behind Conor.
A stout, sterdy man on an equally strong horse came into the clearing. "Tell me, lad," he called, "Have you seen a young lass with 2 children pass by?"
"Perhaps," Conor replied, "What's her name?" The man rode closer.
"Keara," he answered. His eyes narrowed. Conor wasn't sure what to do next. Keara then stepped out.
"Take my ring," she said, pulling it off her finger, "Take it, Brody." Brody dismounted and stepped towards her.
"That's not what you owe me, wench," he grumbled. Brody seized a handful of her long hair. "You know what I came for."
"Take your flithy hands off her," barked Conor. He drew his sword and rested it on Brody's shoulder.
"For luck," Brody muttered, kissing Keara. Then throwing her to the ground, Brody drew his own sword. "You'll be a dead man, lad."
The two began fighting fiercely over Keara's surely tainted honor. She pulled herself up and sighed at the sight.
"Stop it, both of you," she cried, "Stop it now." Conor stopped and turned towards her. Brody seized the opportunity and knocked Conor onto his back. He stood over Conor with his sword on Conor's throat.
"All right, Brody, enough," Keara pronounced, "You can have me if you let Conor live."
"Conor, eh?" Brody laughed, "You're too weak to lead anyone, lad. Too weak."
Brody crossed over to Keara and savagely jerked her towards his body. "Why don't we let Conor watch?" he said, "Maybe he'll learn something." Brody slid the straps on Keara's dress down and kissed her bare shoulders.
Conor was still laying on the ground. Brody had knocked the wind out of him and Conor needed to catch his breath again.
Seeing this, Keara kneed Brody in the groin. As she did, Conor got up. While Brody bent over in agony, Keara kicked him in the face and knocked him to the ground. Quickly, she pulled up her dress straps and picked up Brody's sword.
"I'll give you a few choices," Keara asserted, placing the blad on Brody's throat, "Take my ring and go home; don't and die; or get out of her before I kill you." Brody fearfully pulled himself up. He dashed to his horse and quickly mounted it.
"Don't forget this," Keara said, handing Brody his sword. He nervously took it and rode off as quicky as he could.
"Not too bad for someone who can't fight," Conor mused. He smiled through the slight discomfort and placed his arm around her shoulder. "Now maybe you can help me home."
Keara giggled. "Certainly, my warrior prince," she jested, "Certainly."
"Tully," Keara called, "I've made my decision."
Tully walked over from the table he had been working at. "I knew you would," he replied, "so I made you this." Tully handed her a smaller version of the bullwhip he used.
"You never let her tell you her decision," Fergus said, "How do you if she wants to learn?"
Keara took the whip. "Give me a minute to change," she pronouced, "then we can start my lessons."
Once Keara had gone, Fergus asked, "What happened out there, boy?"
Conor shrugged. "We just talked about it."
"What happened, Conor?" Fergus asked again.
"Ask her yourself," he replied, "She'd know better than I would."
"I don't care WHY she decided to learn to fight," Tully asserted, "I'm just glad she decided to learn."
Catlin made her way towards the men. "Did Keara make her decision yet?"
"You'll see," Tully replied, "Here she comes now."
Keara uncomfortably walked over. "Well, these pants fit me," she said, "but this shirt I borrowed from Gavin is too big." She pulled it out to prove it.
"Tuck it in, lass," Fergus suggested, "It'll stay out of your way then."
Keara rolled her eyes. "I'll just have to make a smaller one from myself later," she stated.
"Until I can get you some smaller shirts," Conor added with a wink and a smile.
"Don't push it, prince," she softly jested. Then Keara turned her attention to Tully. "I'm ready to learn."
"Let's go outside," suggested Tully, "so Gavin doesn't see us."
Keara nodded and followed him outside. Once they were gone, Catlin turned to Conor. "What happened out there, Conor?"
"We were attacked... sort of," Conor replied, flustered, "Ask Keara. She would know better than I would." Then he walked off.
"When Keara gets back, let me know, Fergus," Catlin requested, "I think we all need to sit down an really talk."
Fergus nodded. "I agree," he added, "Conor seems blinded by something about her."
"Well, Keara's his age, beautiful and has been through similar things," Catlin replied, "Don't you get it?" Fergus shrugged in reply.
"He just might be in love," Catlin said.
"We need to talk," Catlin stated once Keara and Tully had
"We sure do," Gavin angrily added, "What are you doing? You don't need to learn to fight! That's - "
"Yes, I do," Keara calmly replied, "Don't ask me why; just understand that I do."
"Keara, we really do need to talk," said Catlin, "You, me, Conor, Tully, Fergus and Gavin."
Keara looked a bit alarmed, but she agreed. The four walked over to the small hut where Conor and Fergus were waiting.
"What's this all about?" Conor asked.
"Keara, what happened out there that made you decide to learn how to fight?" Catlin asked as they all sat down.
"A man, Brody, had come after me," explained Keara, "He and Conor fought until I decide to give Brody what he was after. I figured Conor would get up and rescue me, but when he didn't, I fought off Brody well enough to scare him off. That's when I realized I needed to learn how to fight."
"What was he after?" Catlin requested.
"Me," Keara simply said.
"What?" Catlin asked. She was now completely confused.
"Keara used to sleep with the important men in a village to get us passage," explained Gavin, "Sometimes it's all we had."
"Brody is the prince of the O'h-Ir tribe," Keara added, "but he had been gone when I had passed through. He felt I owed him what I gave the others for passage."
"Tell Gavin what happened to you as a child," Tully suggested, "He should know."
"When I was four, the Romans burned my village. I was palying with a friend from another village. She saw the smoke and went for help while I walked back home. A guard came by and told me the Murtagh tribe had destroyed my home and family," Keara explained, "and I believed him. The guard also told me I was in danger and he could take me to a safe place."
"Where did he take you?" Gavin asked.
"He took me to a ship and I went to Rome," she continued, "I was given as a gift to a king named Avel. He had some of his slaves try to teach me the Roman ways, but I refused to learn. At thirteen I was sent to met Nikos, Avel's eldest son, and we were to marry. I refused and they threatened to kill me so I turned to one of Avel's slaves for help. He got me on a ship returning here. There I met Carlin, who took me to his village."
"Which is where you met Tavis and married him," Gavin added.
"Well, that's the thing, Gavin. Tavis never loved me," Keara said, "It took him a year to be able to tolerated me and another after that before he'd marry me. It truly surprised everyone that we had Maeve. You didn't come along until Tavis and I married and you were never there to see him hit me or hear the names he called me. It got worse after Kern was born. Every night I hoped Tavis would die. Then, on the one night I hope Tavis would live, he was killed. My wish came true, but the gods made sure I watched it happen."
"So did you ever meet Longinus or was that all a lie as well?" Gavin angrily requested.
"I didn't tell you any of this because I was afraid of how you would react," Keara cried, "and here you are yelling at me for finally telling you the whole truth."
"Thank you so much for coming clean," Gavin shouted, "Now tell me if you ever met Longinus in the village either time."
"Both times I met him and each time he told me I was in danger," she said, "I swear it."
"How can I believe you when everything else you've said has been a lie?" Gavin replied, "How can anyone believe you?"
"She never lied to you," Catlin pronounced, "Keara just never told you everything because she needed you on her side to protect her and her children."
"I'm leaving," Gavin answered, "Keara has all of you now and the children will be well taken care of here. I, however, can't stay here anymore so don't try to stop me." He turned to leave.
"We won't," Conor responded, "We can't make you stay any longer than you want to. Have a safe journey."
Gavin turned back, surprised by the repsonse. "I - I will and perhaps I'll visit soon, " he said, "I'm sorry, Keara."
Keara slightly smiled and hugged her old friend. "I understand, Gavin," she stated, "but my babies won't."
"Tell them - "
"No, not this time. You explain to them. They know what I went through and they don't care. Their love is unconditional, but sometimes an adult's isn't. Explain that to them, Gavin, and tell them good-bye," Keara commanded, "It's the last order you'll ever have to take from me."
To Be Continued...