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Warrior of the Wild(3)
Tricia Levenseller

“Hitch the wagons together,” Peruxolo orders.

My father and the others remove the nocerotis from each wagon, yoking them all together in front of the first wagon. They connect the wagons in one long train. Peruxolo sits at the head of the reins and slaps them down on the hides of the wide beasts in front. So very slowly, all those goods, the wealth of seven different villages, roll away.

My whole life, I have heard whisperings about the god Peruxolo. He moves objects without touching them. Kills men who displease him with a look. Floats above us in the air. Sometimes the ground shakes when he walks. He has even been known to kill entire villages. Only twenty years ago, the Byomvar village was eradicated in the short span of a week when they failed to meet the requirements of their Payment for the second year in a row. They all grew sick until their bodies collapsed.

Peruxolo appeared hundreds of years ago in our lands and made it his home, demanding tribute every year in exchange for not slaughtering us all where we stand. His power is unlimited, he himself is immortal, and we have no choice but to abide by his wishes.

We’re taught to pray for Peruxolo’s mercy each night, but I do not. My prayers are only for Rexasena, the high goddess. She is an unseen deity who lives in the heavens. But I feel her all around me. In my sisters’ laughter. In the sun’s warm rays. In the peace I feel inside. She encourages goodness and kindness in this life so we may experience bliss in the life to come. But Peruxolo? He is a bane on the mortal realm, making us suffer unnecessarily for his own gain.

“Let’s go,” Torrin whispers. “Your father’s leaving. We should try to beat him home. We don’t want him to notice you’re missing.”

I nod and let Torrin lead me back the way we came. Despite the dangerous terrain, my thoughts circle around that girl in the last wagon. I wish I could help her. But to do so would be to doom the entire Mallimer village to a worse fate. We have no choice but to let her go.

I shiver from the thought of the death that awaits that girl.

“What’s wrong?” Torrin asks as we dodge another tree branch. “Did you see the gunda?”

I nudge him with my shoulder. “The gunda isn’t real.”

“How would you know? You’ve never been out in the wild before.”

“It’s an imagined monster meant to scare children away from the dangerous wild.”

“Don’t shrug it off until you see one.”

“You do realize the flaw in that logic?”

He grins, and I look away so as not to be caught staring at his mouth.

“Come, now,” Torrin says. “You’d love to stride back into the village carrying the gunda’s head. Imagine the look on Havard’s face!”

I know he’s trying to make me feel better, and I let him, because I want to feel better.

“Imagine how spent we’d be then before tomorrow’s trial,” I say.

“Worried you’ll fail?” he teases.

Though we’re both eighteen, we will not be considered adults by the village until we pass our trial. It is a dangerous challenge filled with ziken, the same creatures that roam these very woods. And the consequence for failing is no small thing. Tradition dictates that those who fail face banishment and the mattugr. It is the absolute worst disgrace to be bestowed by my people. If any individual isn’t excelling in their profession, they’re smart enough to switch to something more befitting their abilities before the year of their trial.

“If I were to fail,” I say, “who would trounce you so thoroughly during training drills?”

“An excellent point. We’d best stick together tomorrow, then.”

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing the word we leave his lips.

After tomorrow, things are going to change. When I beat my trial, I can finally move out of my father’s house. I can see Torrin whenever I like. No more sneaking around because Torrin is afraid of my father.

And I’ll finally be free of my mother.

A sharp yank snaps my head backward. I think I’ve caught my hair on something, until I’m suddenly spun around, and a powerful pain shoots clear to the back of my skull, starting at my right eye.

I barely manage to catch my balance as my hands fly over my eye. Then I hear quiet laughter.

It would seem that Torrin and I were not, in fact, the only ones to sneak out tonight.

“Something in your eye?” Havard taunts as he shakes out the fist that struck me. That sends his accomplices, Kol and Siegert, into a fit of laughter.

I wipe at my watering eyes so I can properly see the threat, but my right eye appears to already be swelling shut. I can’t believe I didn’t hear Havard coming. I was too distracted thinking about Torrin.

“Go back to the village, Havard,” I say. “I beat you at every fight you instigate. How could you think this would be any different? Are you so fond of pain that you now seek me out for it?”

An unkind thing to say, for sure, but sneaking up behind me to strike was low of him.

Havard rips his ax from off his back and advances toward me. “Let’s have it out here, then! See how you do against a real weapon.”

The shout sends bats sailing upward from the trees, their chirping and clicking following them into the night, and I hope no ziken were near enough to hear Havard’s outburst.

I pull my ax from my back, preparing to defend myself against Havard and his friends. Torrin does the same beside me. We spread our legs apart, one foot forward, in a readying stance. Kol and Siegert mirror their leader, advancing in a straight line.

“Rasmira.”

Everyone freezes at the new voice.

Havard’s shout didn’t alert the ziken.

It brought my father.

CHAPTER 2

My father, Torlhon Bendrauggo, is flanked by three other warriors from our village. He surveys the scene quickly: Havard, Kol, and Siegert charging toward us with their axes as Torrin and I are about to defend ourselves.

“You’re injured,” Father says, as though I maybe hadn’t noticed the flaring pain in my head. “Which of these boys hit you?”

“Master Bendrauggo,” Havard starts as he hides his bloodied knuckles behind his back, “we—”

“To the village. Your excuses can wait until we’re out of the wild.”

No one dares to argue. Five axes are returned to their owners’ backs, and we’re shuffled along with my father and the guards dispersed among us—as though we’d try fighting one another with them here.

It is a long trek back to the village boundaries. We take the road this time, which is much easier. We need not worry about brushing against stinging agger vines, skimming poisonous yoonbrush needles, or getting a foot stuck in a snaketrap plant.

When at last the road dumps us into the village, Father rounds on the boys behind me.

“Since you four seem to think you’re already men, you can take watches tonight. Show us your prowess at protecting the village.”

Havard won’t look my father directly in the eye as he asks, “For how long?”

“Until you’re needed for your trial.”

There is the punishment. No rest before the most important day of our lives.

“What about Rasmira?” Torrin asks.

“That is none of your concern. Now stay here. If I hear word from any of your parents that you returned in the night, it’s banishment and the mattugr for all of you.”

We are all silent at that.

In the old language, mattugr means “might.” But it has no implications of strength. No, the mattugr is a challenge. If one has been issued the mattugr, it is because one has lost all honor, and the only way to redeem oneself is to attempt the challenge given. Attempt, because the quest is always something that is meant to end in death.

A mattugr has never been issued from my village during my lifetime. But I have heard stories of challenges given in the past.

Walk for a thousand days without pausing to sleep or eat.

Jump from the tallest peak and land on your feet.

Sleep for a night at the base of a pool of water.

Other challenges are less obvious in their implications of death, but they are no less deadly.

Kill the gunda and bring back its carcass.

Take a tooth from the mouth of a living mountain cat.

Face the ziken without a weapon.

That my father would threaten us with the mattugr—

He is furious.

“Rasmira, follow me.” Father turns on his heel and leads me deeper into the village. All is quiet, for all are asleep save the warriors left roaming the outskirts, watching for danger.

Father marches right through our front door without bothering to check that I follow still. I’m half-tempted to make a run for it. Mother’s likely still up.

But I follow through, and the metal door doesn’t make a peep on its hinges as it closes behind me. Very little is built out of wood, for it soon becomes brittle and fragile once the ground no longer nourishes it. The wagons carrying the god’s spoils will crumble in a few days.

Our home is the largest in the village, with a massive receiving room. It’s bedecked with the finest decorations to show our standing: furniture handsomely crafted out of marble and cushioned with bird feathers, mounted horns from various beasts my father has killed, jewels cut and crafted into the most beautiful designs.

My mother and sisters come running into the room at the sound of the front door closing.

“You’re safe,” Mother says. “Bless the goddess!” She tries to throw herself at my father, but he stays her with an upraised hand.

“Did you know Rasmira had left the house?” Father demands.

Mother finally takes notice of me standing behind Father. She debates for a moment. I can tell she wants to lie, to say she did know. But to be caught in a lie is a grave sin.

“I hadn’t! I thought her in her room.” That’s probably not entirely true. I doubt she thought of me at all.

Father looks pointedly at the three girls standing beside her. “Tormosa, Alara, and Ashari are not in their rooms.”

They are second, third, and fourth oldest, respectively. Salvanya is the oldest and already married and living in her own home. Irrenia is number five, but it would appear she isn’t home yet.

“You know how Rasmira is. She keeps to herself! How was I to know?”

“Rasmira is important,” Father begins. I close my eyes, dreading this turn. I know that when I look at my mother, she’ll be livid. “She will be a warrior and will protect this village. She will lead our people after I am gone. Already she is the best of the apprentice warriors. Who else will carry my legacy but her?”

The last line was too far. Mother shrinks back. She never wanted to have children. I know because she’s said so more than once. She’d hoped to give Father a male heir and be done with it. But then girl after girl after girl was born. Six of us. My birth was the most difficult, and now she can’t have any more children. A blessing for her, but something my father is always throwing at her, as though it’s somehow her fault.

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