At the base of the Kiertsk Mountains was a small village. It was situated in a flat clearing that bordered the rocky slopes and was made up of a few wooden, jagged buildings. Surrounded by dry plains with sparse, brambled plants, it appeared grim compared to the lush, pine forests they were exiting from. And yet, it warmed Rieka’s core.
Rieka knew the village would be there. It was their last destination before they began the treacherous hike towards Zvezny Pyk. Yet, seeing it was far different than knowing of its location.
Being the poor village it was, the homes were small and well-worn, with steeply sloped roofs layered with shingles to handle the winter storms. Thick chimneys issued plumes of smoke despite the mild noon sun warming the earth. Farms that more closely resembled gardens were plucked clean of their typical crop of potatoes, garlic, and carrots. With winter nearing, Rieka knew the village was preparing for the long and brutal season to come.
Winter preparations were extensive and crucial. While Aryotsk was riddled with merchants, trade, and in close proximity to the Adrazhe Lake, they never worried about a shortage of food when the thick snows came. But, the small villages endured far more.
Rieka’s eyes trailed to the tall silo that was no doubt filled to the brim with rye. Due to the distance, she couldn’t see the stands set up for fish to pickle and meat to dry, but she knew they were there. In these months, the villages would stink of salt, vinegar, and meat for weeks.
While the capital had brought back memories she had locked away, the village—stars, she didn’t even know the name of it—was like ice-cold water upon burning skin.
“We should stop there for the night,” Rieka found herself blurting, nodding towards the village.
All eyes turned to her in bemusement. Even Rieka didn’t know why she said it. It didn’t make sense, not when they stood out as such, but she needed more than a brief conversation with a shop owner. She wanted—needed—to eat a rural Styrkish meal. She needed to wrap herself in a handmade quilt. She needed to see the winter preparations one last time.
Rieka shook her head. “Nevermind. That was a stupid idea. Let’s keep moving, I’ll get the supplies, then we can camp out in the trees like normal.”
“No, no. I like this idea,” Ren said. “I, personally, would adore a bath.” He lifted the collar of his shirt and sniffed, cringing.
“I would enjoy it if you bathed as well. Your stench has been making me gag for the past week.”
“Have you been imagining me bathing all this week?” Ren asked, placing a hand on his chest.
“Don’t flatter yourself. Although, I have imagined killing you.” Rieka shot him a satirical grin.
He smirked. “What is it with you and murder?”
“Stop,” Kai said. “We need to focus.”
“I do not see the harm in stopping,” the prince said with a shrug. “It is a small village, and it will only be one night.”
Rieka nodded in casual agreement, holding back the breath of relief that pressed against her lips. It was a single village. One as foreign to her as the city of Reindale had been long ago. Yet, from outside appearances, it could’ve well been her own home.
The hike to the village wasn’t a long one, and they arrived before the sun began to sink into the horizon. Their horses drew attention to them more than their travel-worn appearance. In rural Styrka, horses were rare. Even the wealthiest of the town could only afford a singular mule at best. All money went into food and amenities rather than transportation.
Horses or not, they would’ve stood out no matter the situation. Visitors, let alone foreign visitors, were unusual, especially in the fall months. But fortunately for them, small villages also never turned down spare coin, so any bed and meal would be provided as long as they had the money to pay for it. That is, if the villagers weren’t notified of the theft they had pulled in the capital.
As they first entered the village, she realized there was no need for concern. Instead of drawn weapons in their wake, there was only silence. Rieka glanced around at the citizens and homes. It could’ve been an exact replica of her own childhood.
Children stopped in their games of toy swords and marbles to stare at them, their eyes round with awe and excitement. Men and women alike were busy with their long list of chores from salting dried meats to beating rugs and quilts. Unlike the vibrant colors that were displayed in all of Aryotsk, colorful garments were few. She spotted an occasional tapestry beyond an opened door of a shop or a red gown hung to dry, but much like horses, colorful cloth was a luxury and only used in ceremonies and festivals.
Rieka stiffened as a young woman passed. Her brown hair was braided in a thick coil down her back, and she was dressed in a ragged, brown dress with a plain hangerock draped across the front. She had a barrel propped on her hip, and as she passed Rieka, she glanced up and met her eyes.
Rieka turned away. It wasn’t Tanya. She was stupid to think that it was. Tanya was back in the capital, achieving her dreams far from the small village she had always wanted to leave. But Rieka could never think of Tanya as the married councilwoman dressed in an embroidered red gown. She would always be the village girl with dirt on her cheek and tears in her skirts.
There was only one tavern in the village, which they stopped before. No one frequented it other than the owner, the villagers being far too busy to lounge around with a mug of ale. Rieka ordered the others to stay with the horses as she strode towards the entrance. The chilled knob was cool on her skin, and she paused before opening the door. She could smell the sour scent of ale from within. She remembered nights in her early teens spent in a tavern with Tanya. They would drink until they were red-faced drunk, shouting jokes at anyone nearby.
Rieka shook the memory from her mind and opened the door.
Warmth enveloped her as she stepped inside. Her eyes found the furnace situated on the right wall, embers glowing within.
“Hello?” a man said in Styrkish. He wandered from the back room, wiping his hands upon a stained apron. He was typically Styrkish from his long nose, square face, and full beard. He had the face of many within her own village.
But it was his hair that she found herself staring at. She had grown used to the hairstyles of Arlan. The way the women slicked back their hair into restricting buns or the men cut it short. It was so unlike the thick coiled braids swinging down the man’s back. His hair would appear barbaric to a nobleman of Arlan, but to the rural Styrkish, it was a symbol of strength and prosperity. She had forgotten—no, she could never forget—but she had grown alienated to Styrka’s style. To its culture.
The thought struck her core, a needle of pain and shock piercing her gut and staying there. Styrka was her home. It was her identity. To feel apart from it was to feel apart from herself. It didn’t make sense.
The thought of her losing her culture was like the thought of death. Worse. She had already lost her honor and place among her people. She had already lost everyone she once held dear. She couldn’t lose her culture. Her sense of self.
Rieka silently scolded herself. She was being pathetic. She needed to focus, and the man was now staring at her in question. Rieka cleared her throat. “Me and my…” She paused and cleared her throat again, her voice having sounded as a quiet rasp. “...companions need food and board for the night. We have money to pay.” Rieka lifted the pouch of coin the prince had given her.
The man lifted a bushy, dark brow. “How many?”
“I only got one spare room here, but if you are all okay sharing, it’s yours if you pay.”
Rieka nodded. “And where should we go to bathe?”
The man’s brow only lifted further as he scrutinized her disheveled appearance. “I’ve got buckets of water for use, but Yana could get baths drawn for you. She’s the house at the end of this street.”
The man named his sum for their stay, and as she shuffled through the coin he asked, “Where are you all traveling from?”
“You’ve come a long way. Where are you headed?”
Rieka finally counted the right sum and set it upon the counter. “I don’t see why that matters.”
“Just making conversation,” he said with a shrug as he swept the money into his hand.
“How much do you charge for ale?” Rieka said instead of responding to his obvious attempt at prying. The man named a sum. “Good. I will be needing some when I return.”
Without allowing him time to respond, Rieka turned on her heel and stalked from the tavern, the door snapping shut behind her. The chilled afternoon air cooled her hot skin, and she sighed, her breath puffing out before her.
“So?” Kai asked as he rubbed his hands together in an attempt to warm them.
“Yana can provide us with baths. Her house is at the end of the street,” Rieka said.
“The woman who lives at the end of the street.”
“Wow,” Ren said with a slow clap. “Way to dive into specifics.”
Rieka rolled her eyes. “Let’s just go.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice.” Without another word, he marched towards Rieka and hooked his arm in hers and attempted to drag her towards Yana’s home. Rieka shoved him off and kicked his back so he stumbled several steps forward. He caught himself before face-planting into the muddy road and turned to shoot her a wild grin.
“Stars,” Rieka muttered under her breath and turned to tie her horse to the post before the tavern. With her horse secured, she stalked after Ren. He stood at the side of the road, his eyes wide and hungry on the passersby. When Rieka was beside him, she reached up to clasp the collar of his coat. “Steal one thing from these people, and you will lose a hand, hear me?”
Ren’s dark eyes glittered with mischief. “Which hand?”
Rieka narrowed her gaze.
“What? It’s an important question.”
“Fine. Both hands.”
Ren feigned a pout. “Well, that’s no fun.”
Rieka released his collar and shoved him back. To his credit, he only stumbled a step before righting himself and straightening the lapels of his worn coat as though it were a fine piece of clothing.
“We are going to stay here and eat before,” Amani said, her voice fading into the wind. Annoyance prickled at the back of Rieka’s mind at the sound of it. The meekness. If she had something to say, why didn’t she own it?
“No one cares what you do,” Rieka spat.
Amani’s brows drew together, but she didn’t retort. Shadya lurched forward, her fists clenched. Amani merely held out her arm, stopping her.
“We should go in groups,” the prince said. Rieka turned to find him curled into himself from the cold. He was going to freeze to death in the Kiertsk Mountains, she knew. “Our belongings will be protected that way.”
“No one wants to steal our money,” Rieka retorted.
“Anyone desperate wants to steal our money,” Ren said.
“The Styrkish have morals.”
“Really? Was it their morals that scared you away? I guess that’s understandable. I’m not a huge fan of morals myself.”
“No, and if you say one more word, I will remove your head from your body.”
“So grumpy,” Ren said with a huff. “And all these violent threats are getting—”
Rieka lunged. Before she could get her hands around Ren’s scrawny throat, Kai’s arms were wrapped firmly around her waist. Rieka reared back and attempted to stomp on his foot, but he spread his stance. If they didn’t have the attention of the full village before, they did now. Whispers started, the hissed gossip passing from villager to villager in a matter of seconds. It wasn’t wholly uncommon for fights to happen in the streets, but a fight among foreigners, one of which is Larabosi… That was rare. Unheard of.
Rieka relaxed, her glare softening as she watched the villagers. Kai released her, backing away a step. Ren only grinned. “I was going to say, before you so rudely interrupted me—”
“Let’s go,” Rieka snapped and began marching off down the street.
“And there she goes again with the interrupting!”
“Ren, keep your voice down,” Rieka hissed. “There’s no need to draw more attention.”
Because if they began looking closer… They might not only realize that their city was populated by criminals, but also by an exile. She didn’t know which would be the more unfavorable of the two..
“They’re only staring because they’ve never seen a face as beautiful as mine.”
Rieka’s fists clenched so hard she pierced the skin of her palms with her nails. “This isn’t a joke, Ren. None of this is a joke.”
“Everything can be a joke,” he argued.
“Not this.” No, Styrka wasn’t a joke. Her banishment wasn’t a joke. Her dishonor wasn’t a joke. Stars, she wished it was.
Ren, astonishingly, fell silent.
Kai, Ren, and Rieka made it to Yana’s moments later. When they reached the front door, Rieka paused, her hand hovering over the cracked wood. Warm light poured from the windows, calling to her. Promising warmth, comfort, and rest. But she paused, her eyes on the mat beneath her feet.
The memory came before she managed to squash it.