An ax swings for my head.
The dull training weapon may not be enough to decapitate me, but I know all too well the sharp sting of metal on skin.
A whoosh of air sails over my head, and while I’m still crouched, I thrust my ax straight out so the blunt tips of the double heads whack right into Torrin’s armor-clad stomach.
He lets out a sad breath of air. “Dead again.”
Ignoring the instinct to correct his form, I opt for a quick “Sorry,” as he rubs at the spot where I struck him.
He grins at me. “If I had a problem, I would find a different sparring partner.”
That smile of his sets my stomach to fluttering. It gets more and more charming every day.
But shame spreads through me when Torrin’s eyes raise to my hair. He hasn’t said anything about it, and I’m in no hurry to offer an explanation for its shorter length. Thankfully, Master Burkin strides over to us, saving me.
“Well done, Rasmira,” he says. Then to Torrin, “You’re too slow on the recovery. Unless getting eviscerated was your intention?”
A look of annoyance flashes over Torrin’s face, but it disappears as quickly as it comes. “Maybe it was, Master Burkin.”
“And maybe you’ll fail your trial tomorrow. This is the last day for me to shove any more training into your thick skull. Let’s pair Rasmira up with another boy so you can watch.”
Being put on display is the last thing I want. It separates me even more from the rest of the trainees. I already receive more attention, receive the highest marks. It’s as if my instructor, my father, and everyone else are trying to make life harder for me.
Burkin searches through the other pairs practicing in the training house. “How about…”
Not Havard. Not Havard. Not Havard.
“Havard!” Burkin calls on the second-highest rank in our training group. “Come pair with Rasmira so Torrin can observe how to properly recover from his own swing.”
“I know how to recover,” Torrin says defensively. “Rasmira is just fast.”
“The ziken are fast, too,” Burkin says, “and they will not have blunt claws for weapons. Now watch.”
I’ve spoken to my father about Burkin belittling the other students in order to raise me up. Complained profusely.
Nothing has changed.
So I’m forced to face off with Havard. He’s the biggest boy I’ve ever seen, with a scowl across his lips to heighten the effect.
No one ever did like being second best.
Then again, perhaps no one ever hated being first more than I.
I swing for Havard’s head, just as Master Burkin wants. Havard ducks and thrusts out with his ax just as I did before. With the same momentum of my initial swing, I curve my blades around, effectively blocking the jab toward my stomach.
“Perfect,” Burkin says. “Now step it up, Torrin. Else tomorrow will be the last day any of us sees you alive.”
And with that, Burkin stomps off to find other students to nag.
“Doesn’t he realize how hard it is to take this seriously when it’s the last day of training?” Torrin asks.
I’m about to respond, when a blur streaks toward me out of the corner of my eye.
I throw my ax up just in time.
It would seem that Havard isn’t done with me yet.
“Something is different about you,” Havard says, looking me up and down. The motion makes me feel dirty.
But then his eyes fix on my hair.
He laughs once. “You’ve cut your hair. Were you trying to make yourself uglier? Or does Torrin prefer it this way?”
I shove at our joined axes, sending Havard back a step. He has a knack for finding just the right ways to bring me down low. My eyes sting, but I have long since learned to control tears.
My father cut my hair last night. It used to flow down to my waist in blond waves. I loved my hair, despite the fact that it’s more white than golden, like my mother’s and sisters’. But now it barely reaches my shoulders, just like the rest of the men wear their hair.
I know that if my father could somehow force me to grow a beard, he’d do that, too.
My knuckles whiten where they grip my ax.
Havard notices. “You’re going to strike me?”
“I’m considering it.”
He snorts. “How would it look if the village leader’s daughter started a fight the day before her trial?”
“Like she got pissed off by the village idiot.”
His eyes sharpen. “You want to be very careful of what you say to me, Rat.”
Rat—his charming nickname for me. Havard has been using it since I was eight. He said I scurried like one every time I tried to find my feet after he’d knock me down in training.
And when I would come home covered in bruises from my shins to my cheeks, Father began training me at home, too. For the last ten years, I have learned very little other than how to handle an ax.
But that is why I’m the best.
Because I know he’s not expecting it, I fling my fist at Havard. His eyes were trained on my ax, not my free hand. The blow catches him on the chin, and I’m pleased by the way my knuckles smart. It must mean I hit him hard.
Havard cannot keep challenging me. I have to put him in his place. For one day, I will be his ruler, and if I cannot keep one bully in line, I’ll never be able to look after a whole village.
When he sends a returning fist my way, I move to block it with my ax.
But he uncurls his fingers, wraps them around the shaft, and traps my ax in place. After dropping his own weapon, he sends his now-free hand toward my face. I feel my skin split across my cheekbone as my face wrenches backward.
“Havard! No fists! You will apologize to Rasmira.”
Havard is furious at being caught when I wasn’t. Rage fuels him now—he’s past the point of listening. Past the point of being sensible, which is right where I want him.
He picks his weapon back up and flies at me, ax, legs, and arms swinging intermittently. I block each attack one after the next, just waiting, waiting, waiting.
After a sweeping move meant to cleave me in two from head to toe, Havard’s ax nicks into the dirt floor.
I’ve already sidestepped it, and now I sweep his legs out from under him, landing him on his ass for the whole room to see.
“Quicker on the recovery!” Burkin barks out. “By the goddess, do none of you listen?”
Some of the trainees laugh, but I barely hear it. My entire focus is latched onto Havard lying on the ground.
I kick his weapon far from his reach, then lower my ax to Havard’s neck so the two blades rest on either side, pinning him to the floor.
“Dead,” I say. And then lower, so only he can hear, “Challenge me again, and the next time we face off, it won’t be with training weapons.”
Havard answers with a disturbing smile. “You won’t live long enough for us to face off again.”
I kick him, send my leg straight down into his stomach. “And you need never rise from this floor. Apologize if you wish me to free you.”
Once he catches his breath, Havard tries to use his hands to thrust my ax away from himself. I kick him again. This time my heel comes down on his nose.
Burkin does nothing. Will never do anything, because I am my father’s daughter. Displeasing me would displease Father.
A little voice scratches at the back of my mind, warning me that incensing Havard is no way to earn his respect and loyalty. I’m abusing my own power.
But a much more prominent voice practically shouts, Make him bend.
Finally, through a blood-soaked face, Havard says, “Apologies.”
I let him up, and training resumes.
TORRIN WALKS ME HOME, as he’s done every day for the last month. Though now it feels as though he’s always been by my side, we only became friends about six weeks ago. Before that, he was part of Havard’s group, just another face in the crowd of my tormentors.
I remember vividly the day everything changed. Havard thought to gang up on me with the help of his best friends, Kol, Siegert, and Torrin. But instead of siding with Havard, Torrin helped me fight them off. Afterward, Torrin begged my forgiveness for playing the part he had the last several years. He said that as our trial had grown closer, he’d given some serious thought to what it means to be a warrior. “It never sat right with me—the way Havard treats you,” he said, “but rather than face what I believed to be wrong, I did the easy thing. I don’t want to be that kind of man. I know it’s too late to take back what I’ve done, but I’d like to start changing now. I hope you can forgive me for the past.”
I didn’t think I was the forgiving type. I didn’t think I believed people could change. But as I watched Torrin start living his life separate from Havard, I started to become closer to him. For the first time, I had a friend. Someone who didn’t hate me for what I couldn’t control, for being my father’s daughter.
Now Torrin gently touches my cheek where Havard struck me. “We need to get this looked at right away.”
I’m torn. I want to shrug him off because I don’t need him fussing over me. He would never treat a male warrior this way. And yet, I don’t want him to stop touching me.
“Irrenia will do it when she gets home,” I say.
“Even with the cut, you’re still lovely. How do you manage that?”
I have received praise for being brave and strong, for having impressive aim, for holding my ax properly.
But no one has ever praised my looks.
A blossoming warmth spreads inside my chest, traveling upward. It envelops the pulsing sting in my cheek.
I have no idea how I’m supposed to respond to something like that. How do women handle such praise? Saying thank you doesn’t seem right. Especially when I don’t agree.
Thankfully, Torrin saves me from having to respond. “I overheard some of the trainees talking about sneaking out tonight to witness the Payment. Do you want to go? Not with them, obviously. With me. Separately.” He takes his hand back, and we continue walking toward my home. He moves slightly closer to me so that our arms brush as we walk. It’s such a subtle change, but I notice, as if he’d bounded into me headlong.
At this point, I’m convinced I would do anything as long as it means spending more time with him.
“Sure.” I try to sound as though I couldn’t care either way. I hope he doesn’t realize just how good it feels for me to be around him. While I’m almost certain he feels the same way I do, it’s impossible to tell for sure. But why else would he look for reasons to touch me? Why would he try to spend as much time as possible with me outside of training?
But if he does like me, then why hasn’t he kissed me yet? Maybe he is just as nervous as I am. Maybe it’s his first experience with courtship, just as it is mine. I’ve never seen him with another girl.
We pass through the streets of Seravin. Homes made from rock slabs line either side of the street. The gray-black stones have been painted over with deep azures and muted greens—the colors of the sky and sparse grass that breaks through the rocks. To the right, a cart is being heaped with chunks of meat to be presented for the Divine Payment. Two nocerotis, large beasts with sleek hides and two horns jutting out of the tops of their heads, are attached to the front, ready to pull once smacked on their hindquarters. Children, too young to begin training for a specific trade, play a game of pebbles in front of their homes.
And all the while Torrin’s fingers are inching closer toward mine.
“I hope this year’s Payment doesn’t require us to skip meals again,” he says as he watches hunters layer more and more valder into the cart. Each one is the length of two handspans and has enough meat to fill a small family. “There were several times during training last year that I thought I would pass out.”
My chest tightens at those words. Peruxolo, the low god, demands payment each year. He collects different resources from every village. Ours is responsible for providing him with the best game. Our hunters are the most skilled of all the nearby villages. Even still, there is not always enough meat to go around.
Sometimes the Payment is so great that some in the village must go without food for days at a time. Parents and older siblings, like Torrin, skip meals so the younger ones can fill their bellies. Because of who my father is, my sisters and I have never had to go hungry. Other families are not so lucky.
Hunger is a better fate than facing Peruxolo’s wrath, but I still feel sick to think of people starving.
“You will not go hungry during this Payment, Torrin,” I say as I take his hand in mine. “I will make sure you and your brothers are fed each mealtime. My family always has more than enough food.”
Torrin turns toward me, a peculiar expression upon his face. Confusion? Guilt? No, perhaps just surprise?
“You would do that for my family?”
“Of course I would.” His intent eyes make my insides squirm. I try to lighten the air. “Because I don’t want to be seen with you if you don’t keep up your impressive physique.”
He laughs, and the action makes me smile in return.
We’ve reached my home now, and Torrin releases my hand. I try to keep from frowning until I realize his face is approaching mine.
This is it, I think as my heart begins racing. He’s going to kiss me.
And he does.
On the cheek.
I don’t break eye contact as he pulls away. Maybe if I just look at him longingly, he’ll see what I want and he won’t be afraid to give it to me.
He looks back at me, his eyes deepening again. I think he might be reading my mind.
“I’ll pick you up tonight outside your window so we can witness the Payment. I can’t wait.” He rubs his thumb against my lips before departing.
But it’s still not a real kiss.
I NEARLY FALL OUT of bed when knuckles rap against my bedroom window. Of course, I’ve been expecting Torrin, but I’m not used to sneaking out at night. I may be excited, but perhaps a bit anxious as well.
I’ve never left the boundaries of the village before.
When I rise and go to the window, Torrin has his face squished against the glass and is making a funny face.
My lips tilt in a smile as I open the window.
“Ready?” he whispers.
“Yes.” I grab my ax—a sharp blade meant to do damage, not a training weapon—from beside the window and sling it through the strap on my back. Then I lift myself through the window one leg at a time.
Torrin doesn’t waste any time at all lacing his fingers through mine. My home is among those at the edge of the village boundaries, so it isn’t long before we are in the wild. We take the rough terrain at a steady jog.
Everything in the wild is dangerous, including the ground, which is composed of broken-up rocks teetering against one another. It’s difficult to find even footing. Any step could result in a twisted ankle, and rockslides are frequent. Though a more traversable road wends through the wild, we can’t risk taking it, else we might be seen by the adults tasked with delivering the meat to the god.
We have to give the inna trees a wide berth. Their branches grow to a couple feet in length and naturally sharpen into deadly points that can pierce through our armor if we aren’t careful.
As we walk, a lonely valder blurs across our path. As soon as I blink, it’s already moved on. The valder are our main source of meat, but they run so fast, they’re easy to miss. Our hunters are trained to be quick with their throwing hatchets—the only weapons that can be thrown fast enough and hard enough to catch them. I’m shocked to find one so close to the village. It’s as if it knows it’s not in danger now that all the meat has already been collected for the Payment.
As we veer around another tree, a distant cackle carries to us on the wind.
That’ll be the ziken.
They’re the reason we need to train the best warriors. With their paralyzing venom and ability to regenerate lost limbs, the ziken are formidable foes. The beasts love nothing more than the taste of human flesh, and they know exactly where to get it. That’s why we always have warriors scouting the perimeter of the village.
As soon as Torrin and I pass our trial tomorrow, we will join the ranks of warriors and be charged with the village’s safety. Our lives will be consumed with killing the beasts.
I wonder if any will come out to play tonight.
TORRIN AND I STAND in the shadows of the trees, waiting for the god to appear.
In the clearing ahead of us, seven wagons wait in a line, heaped with various goods: precious stones and gems, fine clothing sewn with metallic hems, preserved fruits and pickled vegetables, flasks of fresh water from the Sparkling Well, herbs and medicines, fresh and dried meat—and in the final wagon …
I cannot bear to look at that last wagon.
“What do you suppose the god looks like?” I whisper.
“They say he never shows his face,” Torrin whispers back.
“Maybe he doesn’t have a face.”
“Maybe his nose is embarrassingly large, and he doesn’t want anyone to know.”
My lips twitch, but I cannot manage a smile with the threat of danger surrounding us.
The light of the full moon makes it easy to spot my father standing next to our wagon. The nocerotis are harnessed to the front. They are restless, sensing the tension of all the men waiting. My father reaches out a hand, patting the rough hide of one of the beasts.
I wonder if the god isn’t watching them, relishing their discomfort. In making them wait.
“You don’t think he knows we’re hiding out here?” I ask.
I shake my head. “The god.”
Torrin doesn’t say anything for a moment. “Havard’s boasted of sneaking out before to witness the Payment, and he’s still alive.”
“Maybe we should turn back,” I say.
“Rasmira—” Before he can say anything else, the heads of all the nocerotis snap to attention, focusing in the same direction. The fidgeting of the leaders stills, and many of their faces go pale.
My father is the most skilled warrior I have ever seen. How terrible could the god be that even he would be afraid?
Tree branches on the opposite side of the clearing rustle, and it takes me a moment to notice the hooded figure in black furs and armor.
Because he isn’t on the ground.
He’s floating in the air.
A cape drapes across his shoulders and hangs just above his boots. He’s impossibly tall, yet slimmer than I imagined, even with the furs giving him extra bulk. Over his right shoulder, I spot the head of an ax.
The only uncovered parts of Peruxolo’s body are his hands, which are … surprisingly normal. He has, at least, the hands of a human, but what lies beneath that hood?
Every leader in the clearing drops to their knees. The god does not approach them, though his voice is not difficult to hear.
“The gems are few tonight,” he says, a deep and cruel rumble that I feel in my bones. A man stands from his kneeling position, presumably the village leader responsible for providing the gems.
“My god—” He is cut off by a raised hand.
“Come forward,” Peruxolo purrs, and just by the tone of it, I know something awful is about to happen.
The leader hesitates, and I can see him swallow from this distance.
Peruxolo cocks his head, and that is all it takes for the leader to obey.
“That’s enough,” Peruxolo says after a moment. And the man opposite bows his head to the ground.
I know already that he will not rise again.
With a single flick of Peruxolo’s wrist, the bowing leader topples over, blood pooling around him, choking gurgles coming from his lips.
We’ve been told stories since we were children of the god who can kill without touching his ax, but to see it …
Torrin trembles slightly beside me as the leader goes still and silent.
“I trust that someone will let the Restin village know I expect double payment on their gems by next month.”
The guards who accompanied their leader from Restin start to move toward the body.
“No,” Peruxolo drawls out lazily. “You will leave him for the ziken to feed on.”
It’s a shameful thing. Our people are buried under rock so thick that no animal can desecrate their bodies.
Almost without thinking, I grab Torrin’s hand. His fingers curve around mine, and I look down at the sight of our joined hands. A rope bracelet peeks out from beneath his sleeve, lengths of his little sister’s hair woven with the reeds—the child his mother lost at birth last winter.
Despite the danger, my racing heart calms somewhat at the sight.
“If I don’t receive double by next month,” Peruxolo says, “I’ll pay a visit to the village.”
Everyone in the clearing cringes at those words.
“Back up,” he continues. The leaders and guards do so, stepping away from the wagons. Only then does Peruxolo descend. He curves through the air in an arc before bending at the knees to catch himself on the ground. He rises, head held high, hood still firmly in place.
Peruxolo climbs into the last wagon in line.
He leans down to examine the drugged girl lying across the floor. He places a thumb and forefinger on either side of her chin, turning it from side to side as if she were a doll.
“She’s pretty. She will make a fine sacrifice. At least I can count on the Mallimer village to do their part each year.”
The Mallimer village leader nods. Actually nods. As though he’s done some great service.
My father turns away from the scene. Does he imagine how it would feel if one of his own daughters were taken? I know how much our people suffer, because I see the shrunken bodies and hollow cheeks that follow the Payment each year. But now I’m reminded how some villages have a heavier Payment than we do.
“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.
Everyone freezes at the new voice.
Havard’s shout didn’t alert the ziken.
It brought my father.
Copyright © 2019 by Tricia Levenseller