Home > Warrior of the Wild(5)

Warrior of the Wild(5)
Tricia Levenseller

Black leather coats the handle, giving me a perfect grip.

“It’s exquisite,” I say. “Thank you.”

“You haven’t even seen the best part. The bladesmith has added a new feature.” Father extends his hand, reaching for a notch I hadn’t noticed along the handle. He presses it down.

A metal spike springs from the tip of the shaft, right in between the blades.

I gasp in excitement. “This is wonderful.”

“Only the best for my daughter.”

I set the ax down to grip my father in a hug. He pats my shoulder once before holding me back at arm’s length. Warriors do not embrace. Men do not like long hugs.

For the hundredth time, I wonder why I can’t be a warrior and a woman.

But I don’t let Father see my disappointment. I lift my old ax from my back and replace it with the new one.

“It looks good on you,” Father says. “Now come. We’re due at the amphitheater.”

We jog past many townsfolk on their way to the trial: miners with soot-stained hands, broad-shouldered builders, hunters with throwing hatchets hanging off belts at their waists, jewelers wearing their best pieces as advertisements, healers heavy-laden with slings of bandages, ointments, and other remedies.

Today no one has to work. Today is a day of trial, and all the apprentices who have turned eighteen throughout the year will get to partake in the individual trials of their trades. The whole village shows up for the warrior test—even those who don’t have children participating. Simply put, ours is the most exciting to watch.

I’m sure my mother would prefer to stay home, but she wouldn’t dare disappoint Father by not showing up to give her support.

An arena is located on the most eastern edge of the village. An amphitheater was carved out of rock hundreds of years ago; in the center rests a maze built of rock and metal.

Most of the village has already gathered. Old men with metal staffs hobble up the stairs. Children cling to their mothers, anxious over the close proximity of the wild resting beyond the inna trees. Warriors who have already passed their trials stand guard at the tree line and around the maze, ready to step in should any of the beasts inside get loose.

I should probably be nervous, but I’m not. I have fought the ziken before during training exercises. And it’s hard to be scared with the heavy weight of an ax against my back.

Father separates from me once we reach the ground level of the maze to talk with Master Burkin about the trial. As I watch him go, I see movement out of the corner of my eye. Irrenia is waving wildly to get my attention from up in the amphitheater seats. I return the gesture, happy that she’s here. Mother and the rest of my sisters are there as well, seated beside her. Salvanya and her husband, Ugatos, stand and offer brief waves. Tormosa, Ashari, and Alara stand as well to show their support, and the latter puts her fingers to her lips to give off a loud whistle. Only Mother is seated and purposefully looking away from me.

Someone nudges my shoulder.

“Are you nervous?” Torrin asks.

“Torrin, I’m so sorry. How are you feeling?” His eyes are rimmed with sleepless red, and his body sags with exhaustion.

“Never better,” he says, completely undaunted. “Think nothing of yesterday. I’d do it again to spend more time with you.”

My face warms at the words. I answer his initial question. “I’m not nervous. Are you?”

“Of course. Everyone’s watching. Your father’s watching.”

I know he says this because my father is the most important man in the village, but part of me hopes it is also because he plans to court me after the trial and he wants to make a good impression. Especially after last night.

I remember my resolve to kiss him after the trial, and my heart does a flip in my chest. It must be a private moment. I don’t think I’m brave enough to kiss him in front of the others. And if he rejects me, then I don’t want anyone to witness that, either.

“You’re staring at me,” Torrin says.

“You’re the only thing here worth looking at.” I’m surprised by the brazen words after they’ve left my mouth.

But Torrin doesn’t tease me for them.

“That’s not true,” he says, locking eyes with me.

For the first time today, a bit of nervous energy stirs in my belly. I laugh off his comment.

“Warriors, quiet yourselves!” Master Burkin calls, silencing our chatter. “There are various entrances to the maze, so I will be spreading you out. Follow me. Be ready when the doors open, but don’t enter until you hear the horn blow.

“The rules of the trial are simple. The hourglass will turn. By the end of the hour, you all must have killed at least one ziken and you must avoid being bitten. Anyone who fails to meet both requirements will face banishment and the mattugr.”

A spike of fear ripples down the assembled warriors.

Burkin turns. As one group, we follow. A foot blocks my path, but I jump over it before I can trip.

“The maze is a dangerous place for a rat,” Havard says. “There’s more than ziken to worry about in there.”

I narrow my eyes at Havard. It would be just like him to spoil this for me, to try to get me banished and left to die outside the village.

“Tell me, Havard, will you be able to see the ziken charging at you past your broken nose?”

It’s swollen to twice its usual size and bent horribly to the side. I hadn’t realized I’d kicked him so hard during training yesterday, and it must have been too dark last night for me to notice.

Havard scowls at me. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”

He walks off. Torrin steps in front of me before I can get any ideas to follow.

“You four, enter here,” Master Burkin says. He starts divvying us up, putting three to four people at each entrance as we circle around the arena.

“Rasmira, Torrin, Siegert, and Kol, you stand at this door. Best of luck, Rasmira, though I know you don’t need it.”

“Thank you,” I say flatly, irritated that he hasn’t given anyone else the same good wishes.

A look of frustration crosses Torrin’s face at the words. Before I can say anything to try to make up for what I cannot control, the look disappears.

“It’s a lot different viewing the maze from this angle, isn’t it?” Torrin asks as he pulls his ax off his back.

The rest of us do the same. Siegert and Kol glance at me with cruel smiles on their lips, as if they know something I do not.

“The walls seem higher,” I say, avoiding their stares.

The metal door starts to lift, pulleys screeching as it heaves upward. While we wait for the horn to sound, I take another chance to survey the crowd. My father has joined the rest of my family. Their eyes are all on me. Now I really feel waves of tension. Mother is watching me. I can’t mess up. Even if it’s impossible, I have to try to make her proud. I cannot be hated by her my whole life. Once I pass my trial and become a woman, I have the option to live in my own home. She’ll have Father at the house without me. She’ll get the attention she craves from him. Goddess knows I receive too much of it.

Everything will be the way it should have been from the beginning.

The deep blare of the horn sounds above the chatter of hundreds of voices. My stomach plunges to my toes, and Torrin and I are off.

The ground is uneven. I lift my feet high above the rocks as I run to avoid tripping. Some grass cracks through in places, breaking up the ground further. Siegert and Kol race against us. At the first fork in the maze, they veer right while Torrin and I head left.

I relax a little once they’re gone. It’s easier to focus when it’s only me and Torrin. Now if I could just forget the fact that my mother is watching me from the seating above the arena …

Low shrieks sound throughout the maze. Someone has run into the ziken already.

“Come on,” I say, excitement pulsing through my veins. Torrin quickens his pace to keep up with me. We turn right, left, left, right, plunging as deep into the maze as possible, listening to the hungry calls of the ziken.

We take one more turn before a flash of black streaks across my vision.

“Finally,” I breathe.

The ziken halts and turns as soon as it hears us coming.

When standing on all fours, most ziken are between two and three feet tall. Instead of fur, they have a shiny black exoskeleton, as thick as any armor forged by man. Their eyes bulge outward, like an insect’s, and I can see my reflection multiplied a hundred times in the faceted eyes of the beast before me. Its legs end in sharp claws, and its mouth unhinges to let out an unsettling cackle. Bulbous red-orange eyes fix on me, and then it flies toward us at a gallop, tail whisking behind it.

“I’ve got this one!” I shout to Torrin.

I sprint headlong toward the ziken, holding my ax so it is parallel with the ground. The creature never wavers in its direct path to me. I hear my blood in my ears, see my breath pool out of me in the cool morning air.

I dare a glance up into the stands, unable to help searching for the look on my mother’s face. Will she seem anxious or eager? Will she be watching me at all?

But what I find is worse than all the options I’d considered.

Indifference.

If I win my trial, I will be a woman, finally able to leave her household and live on my own. She never has to see me again.

And if I die or lose, I will also be gone from her sight forever. Either way, she wins.

I return my gaze to the creature just in time. A jolt runs up my arms when we make contact, my ax connecting with the creature’s neck. I’m bigger, stronger, and the ziken skids backward, its neck trapped in the space between the ax blades. A sharp crack ricochets around me as the tips of my blades connect with a stone wall of the maze.

My finger slides across the switch, and the spike drives from the tip of my ax, piercing the creature’s neck. With the ziken’s next cackle, brown blood bubbles from its throat.

I brace a foot against its body and pull my ax free, a liquid slurp coming from the wound as I do so. I flip the switch again, allowing the spike to slide neatly back into place. The ziken falls to the floor, blood oozing from the wound. But almost instantly, the skin starts to heal over. Before it can recover, I lift my ax above my head and bring it down on the creature, successfully severing the head from the body—the only wound the beast can’t recover from.

Blood drips from my ax as I look up into the seating once more. My father stands and clashes the rod of his ax against the ground in approval. Everyone in the crowd stomps their feet. My eyes seek my mother’s face. She still watches me, and I swear I see the almost-imperceptible movement of a nod. If it was a nod, was it one of approval? Was it her face turning downcast in disappointment? A physical sign of her resigning to her fate?

I am a skilled warrior. She knows I will not fail. She will have to walk this world knowing I’m in it, too, somewhere, keeping her husband from her as Father trains me, dotes on me.

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