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Warrior of the Wild(6)
Tricia Levenseller

“Well done,” Torrin says, pulling my attention back down to him, “but the next one’s mine.” The eagerness is apparent in his voice.

“Of course. I bet I can kill more than you by the end, though.” We’re running again, searching right and left for more signs of the creatures.

“Are you willing to wager on that?”

“Of course.”

“All right, what do you want if you win?” he asks.

I know what I want, but I’m still not brave enough to ask for it. No, I will surprise him with a kiss after the trial. “If I win, you have to clean and polish my ax after the trial—and every day for the next month after we start taking rotations guarding the village boundaries.”

“That is easily doable.”

“What do you want if you win?” I ask.

“That’s—”

A ball of smooth black skin attaches itself to Torrin’s back. For a moment, I’m unable to move, horrified by what’s in front of me. He can’t be banished. I need him.

A second later, I’m launching myself forward. Grabbing the ziken with my bare hands, I tear it from Torrin’s back and throw it in the opposite direction. The beast is heavy; it doesn’t sail more than a few feet. But by then, Torrin has turned around, fire in his eyes, ax straight. He takes a swing at it, severing off an arm and biting into the neck. With a second swing, he detaches the head.

“Torrin,” I say, barely above a whisper, staring at the little drops of blood falling from his neck. He probably can’t hear me over the sounds of the audience’s loud exclamations.

“It’s okay. Those are claw marks. It didn’t bite me.”

I don’t dare believe him without checking. I inch down the armor at his back to get a better look at the exposed skin of his neck. Yes, claw marks. And he hasn’t started shaking from the venom spread through their bite.

I sigh in relief.

“Did you honestly not believe me? Or were you simply desperate to see beneath my shirt?”

I glare at him. “Don’t you scare me like that again.”

“It’s all right. I won’t. Come, now. We’ve done the hard part. All that’s left to do is survive without sustaining a bite. Let’s go on.”

We’re running again. Despite the previous scare, we’re still eager to reach more of the deadly beasts.

“What were you going to say?” I ask. “What do you want if you kill more of them than I do?”

“That’s easy. I want you to put in a good word for me with your father.”

“Oh.” It makes sense, I suppose, but it bothers me that he wants to use me like that.

“Get that frown off your face, Rasmira. I want you to put in a good word for me so he’ll give me permission to court you.”

I nearly drop my ax.

“Don’t look so surprised.”

“I’m disappointed that I have to let you win now.”

He smiles at me, and it makes the future seem so bright. I don’t even care if I have to deal with my mother’s hate. My teacher’s false praise. My father’s single-minded adoration. As long as I can protect this village, spend time with my sisters, and have Torrin, I don’t need anything else.

We round another corner and stop dead in our tracks.

Five ziken beasts block our path, almost as if they were waiting for us.

They cackle at the sight of us, and the sounds send a shiver down my back.

“The one in the middle is enormous,” Torrin says.

My grip on my ax tightens. “Then I’ll kill it and leave you to deal with the hatchlings.”

Torrin snorts. The others can hardly be called newborns. They are only marginally smaller.

“The sensible thing,” Torrin says, “would be for one of us to take on three, and the other to take on two, including the big one.”

“I don’t think they’re going to give us much say in the matter.”

As if in agreement, all five of them race for Torrin, clinging to the left side of the path where he stands, instead of spreading to the right side where I am.

I try not to be offended. He is taller, bulkier. And while I am certainly no fragile or dainty thing, I must not look as threatening.

How very misguided of them.

“Rasmira, get over here,” Torrin says. It’s not fear in his voice. Mostly anticipation, but he doesn’t like his odds five on one.

“Perhaps I should just run. I need only be faster than you.”

Torrin gives me a gesture, and by the gasps in the audience, I can tell at least a few people saw it.

I laugh and leap to his side just as the horde reaches us.

They pounce, hind legs sending them flying through the air, jaws unhinging, teeth flashing in the light of the sun.

I hold my ax out in front of me, turn it sideways, and use the length of the rod to connect with three separate ziken, careful not to let teeth get anywhere near where my hands are spaced apart. I skid back across the rocky soil at the impact. One of the beasts takes the rod in the mouth, another at the neck, and the third—the monstrous one—hits at the knees and continues sailing over my head.

Brown blood smears the rod from the ziken who took it in the mouth, but that particular beast finds its feet and licks its lips, as though even more crazed by the taste of its own blood. A tooth flicks to the floor as it roves its mouth with its tongue. A canine. Good.

I bring my ax down on its head, the sharp blade sinking in deeply, right between the beast’s eyes. Before I can pull it back out, the monstrous ziken charges me again, this time from behind.

I spin my body around, bringing both ax and impaled ziken with me. The two beasts collide, and my ax finally dislodges from the first one’s head as both beasts are sent flying off to the left.

The final ziken, the one that took the rod to the neck, is still wheezing on the ground. I step up beside it, raise my ax high in the air, and bring it down across its neck. The head rolls off to the side, brown liquid spreading across the rocky ground.

Another loud whistle rises up from the stands.

I look up at Torrin. He’s swinging his ax back and forth, keeping his two ziken at bay.

“They’re both still alive?” I ask. “Come, now, Torrin, I’ve already killed one, and I got stuck with three of the beasts, as well as the large one that made you piss yourself.”

“Then give yourself a pat on the back!” he shouts back to me.

I laugh and turn, ready to meet the two beasts that have found their footing once again.

My hands tighten around my ax, loving the feel of the leather-laced handle. I feel powerful when I hold it, unstoppable, even. My blood sings in my veins from the thrill of battle, and I eagerly await the next onslaught.

The ziken that took my ax between its eyes has already healed itself. Its armored skin has reconnected so perfectly, one wouldn’t be able to tell it was ever injured.

And the large one—its eyes flash orange with the direct sunlight shining on them. Thick droplets of saliva hit the ground as it licks its lips.

“Come take a bite of this,” I say as I swing my ax at it.

It dodges to the side before taking a swing at me. One clawed foot connects with my breastplate. Sparks rain to the ground at the contact, and the ziken cackles menacingly at the sight. It’s startled by the hot sparks, and I use the beast’s confusion to send another swing its way.

My ax embeds into its shoulder, and I yank it back out as the other ziken decides to pounce again. In the same motion, I swing my body around, connecting with the smaller ziken’s side.

I remove its head with the next swing.

That leaves the big brute. It eyes me warily, takes in the dead ziken we’ve already dispatched—

And runs off down the way Torrin and I just came from.

“Get back here!” I yell as I bound for it.

Torrin catches me by the arm and halts me. “Leave it, Rasmira. Let’s see if we can reach the middle of the maze before the time runs out!”

I wipe my bloodied ax blades on the leather covering his greaves.

He leaps backward. “Disgusting.”

I grin. “Race you there!”

It doesn’t take long to reach. The middle of the maze is a vast opening. It seems that everyone else has already arrived, and they’re all battling their own ziken—some taking on two or three at a time.

Torrin takes no time at all to launch himself into the fray as if he didn’t sustain an injury. I hop in after him. The hourglass must be done soon, and I don’t want to waste a minute of this experience. It’s an opportunity to show everyone what I can do.

The ziken are everywhere. It’s a wonder we ran across any in the maze. But they are no match for us. We have been trained for the last ten years to do one thing: kill them. They don’t stand a chance.

Axes swing. Heads roll. Brown blood flies everywhere. It’s disgusting and thrilling and freeing. I don’t care that I’ve got blood in my hair, that Havard will probably pass his trial and continue to cause trouble in my life. I don’t care if my mother still doesn’t approve. In just a few more seconds, I will be a woman. I will be free from my father’s household. Torrin will court me.

Everything will be different.

I step onto a loose head and nearly lose my balance. I huff out a laugh before continuing onward, swiping at the nearest beast to me.

Torrin sidles up next to me, holding a ziken head with one hand below its mouth and the other at the apex of the head. “Rasmira,” he says in a childish voice, moving the ziken’s mouth so it looks like it’s speaking. “Torrin has killed eight beasts. How many have you killed?” His puppeteering act draws a laugh from me.

“Just because we have to kill them, it doesn’t mean—” I start.

A loud howl rises above everything else. The entire crowd leans out of their seats, straining to get a better look.

Over on the far edge of the maze’s center, Havard battles with his own ziken.

Did he get bitten? I wonder with equal parts eagerness and pity.

No. It is merely a battle cry. Undoubtedly an intentional one so everyone can see him swipe the head off the largest ziken in the maze, the brute I faced earlier. It must have found its own way to the center. The crowd’s quiet anticipation allows us all to hear the ziken’s head bounce onto the stone floor.

A sharp pain takes hold in my left forearm. I suck in a breath and look down only to find nothing there. I look around me. There are no ziken nearby. Yet, as I squint at my arm, I can see—

No.

How can it be?

My first instinct is to look up into the stands to check if anyone saw. But everyone is still awing and clapping over Havard’s kill.

Everyone except my mother, who watches me as if I’m the only person out here.

I start to panic. I don’t understand. What happened? Where did the teeth marks on my skin come from? The leather is torn there, right in the gap between the two sheets of armor. How—

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