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Warrior of the Wild(8)
Tricia Levenseller

She forces a smile and hands me a canister. I take it, open it, and sniff at the contents.

“Ugh. It’s brown. Is it dung?”

“No. It’s much more useful than dung. I’ve been experimenting.”

“With dung?”

“No! With ziken blood.”

Now she has my attention. “You didn’t!”

Her tears disappear. The healer in her comes forth. “I did. If you’re injured out in the wild, smear this cream on the wound. It will heal most cuts and scrapes instantly. It won’t mend broken bones, and it won’t re-form lost limbs. I can’t figure out how they manage to grow those back. I’m still working on it, and I have much to figure out, but—”

I embrace her before she can finish. “It’s wonderful. I’m sure it will help.”

Maybe I’ll last two days out on my own instead of one now.

Hurt spreads through my heart as I hold my sister. My hours with her are numbered, and I don’t know how I’ll possibly let her go.

* * *

UNSURPRISINGLY, I CAN’T SLEEP. I’m half-tempted to leave while everyone dreams; that way I don’t have to face them all in the morning. But if I don’t stick around to hear what my quest is to be, I’ll have no hope of returning home, no chance of redeeming myself so I can enter the goddess’s Paradise.

There’s also no chance I could leave without waking Irrenia, who refused to sleep in her own bed despite my protests. She said she was going to stay by my side for as long as she could.

Bugs chirp loudly outside my window, counting down the seconds until I have to leave the safety of the village.

I try to close my eyes, but when I do, I see my father’s face. That look of disappointment. Of embarrassment. Of anger. All of it for me.

Could I have misread his face? Surely he was only surprised? My father couldn’t have really turned against me so quickly, could he? Not after all the years of training. We’ve grown so close in all that time.

I remember the day when things finally changed between Father and me. It was ten years ago, and it was the same day I realized my mother would never love me again.

My whole life I’d been mocked for my bulkier form. Even when I was so young, I knew I was different with my short torso, wide shoulders, muscled figure. I knew that I didn’t look like my sisters, and all the village kids my age would tease me for it. My father barely looked at me back then. I was daughter number six. His sixth disappointment. He never had time for me.

I was sick of it. Sick of being told I wasn’t pretty like my sisters, sick of being told I took more after my father, sick of my father not paying attention to me.

At the end of the year, all the eight-year-olds were lined up and told to declare their professions. Father had every child come up to the village square one at a time and state what they would do for the rest of their lives. Then they went to stand with the masters of that trade.

When it was my turn, when my father finally looked at me for the briefest moment and then looked heavenward, as though he were embarrassed to even acknowledge my existence, I said, “I will join the warriors.”

I remember being surprised by the words. I’d thought for sure I would join the jewelers like my four eldest sisters and mother. It’s what I’d been planning.

But then my father looked at me. Really looked at me.

“Rasmira, don’t waste our time. What is your real choice?”

I stared him down, held myself as high as I could. “Give me your ax.”

While much scoffing and laughing came from the villagers, my father listened. He took that ax from off his back, an ax that Irrenia and Ashari couldn’t hope to heft an inch off the ground, and handed it to me.

I took it. I lifted it high. And then I threw it. The ax embedded firmly into the nearest tree with a satisfying twang.

I couldn’t remember anything feeling so right. While I enjoyed jeweling immensely, I realized that I wanted this more. Especially with the way my father was now looking at me.

I said it again. “I will join the warriors.”

Father escorted me himself over to Master Burkin. As we walked, he said, “You’re to listen to Master Burkin in all things. If you can prove yourself, if you become the best, I will make you the next ruler of this village.”

All my father’s attention suddenly became mine. He watched over me, trained me, talked with me, loved me in his own way. Mother lost her husband to me. Because I was like him, he loved me more. And once she realized things would never be the same for her, she began to treat me the way Father did her.

I was ignored, ridiculed, held to different standards. I was always a disappointment to her.

I took comfort in my prowess with the ax, but that only drove me further and further away from her.

I did nothing to deserve my mother’s hate. How could I help the way Father reacted? I used to try to ignore him as he did Mother, hoping he would understand and start being kind to her again. But that only resulted in me being neglected by both of my parents, and I couldn’t stand that.

Apparently, I drove my mother so far away that she would rather lose her immortal soul than finish out her mortal life with me in it.

But not Father. I’m his pride and joy. He won’t send me into the wild with an impossible task. He can’t. He needs me to carry on his legacy. He needs me to be the next ruler. He won’t allow the council to assign me too harsh a task. It’ll be something difficult but doable. Something I can accomplish and, once done, return with glory.

Only that thought is what finally lets me drift off …

* * *

I’M HYPERAWARE OF MY surroundings as I walk to the village square, my pack and ax strapped to my shoulders. Irrenia walks beside me, but she doesn’t say anything. What do you say to someone who’s about to go to their death?

I shake away the dark thought. Not death. Father will help me. He loves me. He’ll make the council see reason.

The air feels unnaturally cool this morning, raising bumps along my skin underneath my furs. I notice the coarse grass swaying in the wind, rocks skittering out of my path as I walk, the buzzing of insects in the early morning.

Irrenia places her hand on my arm and gives it a squeeze, offering me strength, as people start to stare.

“It doesn’t matter what they think. The goddess knows what really happened. You will not lose your place in her Paradise. Because your place is right next to mine. I cannot live happily if you are not there.”

“Thank you, Irrenia.”

“You will try, won’t you?”

“Try what?”

“To complete your quest. Whatever it is. Promise me you’ll try. You have to come home to me.”

She’s on the verge of tears again, so I say, “Yes, I promise. I’ll try.”

But even as I say the words, I wonder if I’m lying.

* * *

“RASMIRA BENDRAUGGO, daughter of Torlhon, come forth.”

That’s the second time my father has addressed me this way. As though he is not Torlhon. As though I am not anyone or anything to him. It must be an act. It has to be. I kindle the hope inside me. He’s putting on a show, trying not to express favoritism before he gives me my mattugr.

It would seem that everyone has come out to watch my banishment. Kol, Siegert, Havard, and Torrin push their way to the front of the crowd. They share a bag of myrkva seeds between them, cracking the shells with their teeth and spitting them to the ground, as though I were some sort of summer play about to start.

How is it so quiet? Even children don’t speak as everyone stands in a semicircle in front of me. There is nothing but the crack, crack, crack of those damn seeds.

I step forward, turning bright eyes to my father.

“Rasmira—” There’s a hitch in his speech, his voice breaking for the briefest of moments to show his emotion.

I make the mistake of glancing to his left, where my mother stands. She tries to hide the smile on her face, but I see it clearly. She couldn’t be more thrilled by the whole situation.

“Rasmira,” he tries again, “you are my daughter. I taught you myself. You’ve had the best training under Master Burkin. You may be a woman, but you are held to the same standard as everyone else your age. You have had many female ancestors who have passed their trials. There’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t have.

“You made a statement by entering that maze. You told everyone that you had the confidence to succeed. That you deserved to be a warrior.

“You lied. And as my daughter, you’re being appointed a special quest.”

My back straightens. This is it. He’s going to spare me. I’m going to be given a special quest, one actually capable of being accomplished.

“For centuries,” Father says, “we have lived as the hunting tribe. We are responsible for supplying the meat for Peruxolo as our yearly tribute. Our children starve as a result. Our hunters exhaust themselves. Our habitat spreads thin.”

He’s lost me. Am I supposed to get more food for the village? I can learn to hunt. If I can take out a ziken, how hard could it be to catch a valder?

“And so,” he continues, “for your mattugr, you are tasked with killing the god Peruxolo.”

* * *

THEY WANT ME TO WHAT?

I repeat the words three times in my head before they take root.

“Should you complete your mission, you will be granted the highest honor available to a mortal. You’ll be welcomed…”

I stop listening. Nothing else matters. He couldn’t say anything to lighten the revelation.

The most powerful being in our land, and I’m supposed to kill him.

My father must truly loathe me to demand such a mission of me. He’s ensured that I will never come back home. Surely an immortal cannot be killed.

“… time for you to leave now,” he says. “You’ve had plenty of time to say your good-byes. Go now or face eternal exile from Rexasena’s Paradise.”

I don’t dare look at my mother. I don’t want to see the joy that lights up her eyes. I don’t want to see the faces of those I trained with ever again. It’s bad enough that each step I take is echoed with the cracking of a nutshell. So I look to the one group of people I still can count on. Salvanya, Tormosa, Alara, Ashari, and Irrenia. My five sisters huddle together. Tears on their faces. Love in their eyes.

That is the last image I see before turning my back on my home.

The last image I see before I leave my life and brace myself for death.

PART 2

THE WILD

CHAPTER 5

Birds squawk loudly from the inna treetops. I focus on their drab brown-and-gray wings. I imagine that I can fly and take myself away from this horrible place.

The last time I walked this way, I was with Torrin.

I’ve kept to the road. It doesn’t seem as though I’ve been walking long, but I’ve already reached the clearing where our village paid tribute to Peruxolo just two nights ago.

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