The assignment still scares me. You would think that three years of training, preparation and anticipation I would feel ready. I should be out celebrating with my fellow graduates; placing bets and winning challenges. Instead, I stand in the Oak Garden, trying to concentrate on my breathing. Trying not to think about what lies ahead.
I inhale deeply.
The Oak Garden, I think to myself, trying to keep my mind busy. It is not a garden of Oaks, rather a garden named after the single Oak tree within it. The tree is not even in the center. This is not the first time I have had this thought and I smile at the feeble attempt to occupy my mind.
The garden is kept green by the river that runs through our semi-desert city and is cared for by devoted gardeners.
‘One last tour of the gardens?’ calls a mocking voice.
‘It soothes me,’ I reply, not turning to face my mocker.
‘Yes... You know we graduated a week ago. We have complete freedom to go wherever we choose. And every day now you have chosen to return to the only place they ever permitted us to go. How... rebellious of you.’ I do not reply. Instead, I bend to smell the flowers growing at my feet. ‘You are either a lackey or a rebel in the truest sense. But still, “sniff the flowers, for tomorrow we die...?” Surely you have more sense than that.’
‘I am not sure any of us have much sense. After all, tomorrow could just be another day. We still have the power to change it,’ I reply. Ian chuckles.
‘What are you doing here Kara? You’re not nervous, are you?’
‘Aren’t you?’ I stand and tuck a strand of hair behind my ear.
‘Fear will render me useless when the time comes, now is not that time.’ I smile at him.
We are taught from a young age to overcome fear. Most, however, would agree that Ian was born without any to begin with. But it is a different type of fear that drives me here today.
‘I am not afraid of dying.’
‘I know,’ he replies. He knows what I am going to say. I say it anyway.
‘Aren’t you afraid that we will fail? Better students than us have failed.’
‘See, this is why you shouldn’t drink before noon.’ I frown.
‘I haven’t,’ I reply. Ian becomes serious.
‘See, this is why you should drink before noon.’ I roll my eyes and we turn to leave.
‘I have anticipated the trail for years. Last week I couldn’t wait for it to start, and today I am in a garden, hoping the hours will stretch.’ I sigh. ‘Does that make me a coward?’ I ask. Ian frowns and shakes his head.
‘Do you want to do this?’ He asks me, his voice the beautiful baritone that has calmed me many times before.
‘Yes, but that is not-.’
‘Will your fear stop you?’
‘No,’ I reply sternly.
‘Are you able to do this?’
Of course I am able. I have been training beyond what should be humanly possible. Held out when others have given up and completed what many have failed.
Yet I hesitate.
‘No,’ I answer and then shake my head.
Is that statement admirable, or reckless?
I decide to see how long I live before I make any conclusions. Ian nudges me with his shoulder.
‘People may fail,’ he says, ‘but we are not “people.” Stop over-thinking and drink...’
‘...for tomorrow we die,’ I finish with a smile. Ian always manages to get me out of my head.
We look out over the garden, the lush green contrasting with the desert beyond. We leave the balcony in silence; a show of respect as we say goodbye, and thank you.
‘I have a surprise for you,’ Ian says and I reflexively reach for my sword. Ian laughs and points to the far side of the garden. I look to where he is pointing and see a familiar figure leaning against a wall. My heart races and I run towards my older brother.
‘Kyle!’ I say hugging him tightly.
‘Hey, Kara,’ Kyle says returning my hug. I am embarrassed to feel tears welling up in my eyes. I have not seen my brother in a year and my parents in two.
‘What are you doing here?’ I ask, not letting go.
‘I am here for your initiation,’ he says and I can hear his smile.
When I finally step back I look at him.
At nineteen, he is two years older than me and almost a foot taller than last I saw him. His kind eyes the only thing unchanged.
‘You’ve gotten so big,’ I say finding a seat.
‘What about you? You grow more beautiful every time I see you. Scarier too, though I suppose you have to be to enter The Mourn. Scary, that is,’ Kyle says. I beam at him. No matter how much I train, I always feel like a little sister around Kyle.
‘Where are mom and dad?’ I ask. Kyle’s expression gives me the answer and I feel my smile fade before I can stop it.
‘They are busy. You know how much work the farm is,’ Kyle explains without conviction.
I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear.
‘Amazing how sending a letter once a year can be such a burden. I suppose they sent you here with their pardons,’ I say. Kyle looks uncomfortable.
‘They don’t know I’m here,’ he says. I shake my head and turn to wipe away an unwelcome tear. ‘You know they love you,’ he says.
‘And do you imagine that it gives me any sort of comfort? It adds to the pain,’ I say and shrug. ’I love you, just not enough.’ I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and look at the sky trying to recall their faces. The distorted shapes swim, eluding me until I shake my head.
‘Kara, this cannot be a shock. After what happened to Kelly…’ Kyle trails off. ‘They never wanted this for you,’ he says.
‘They sent me here!’ I say, indignant.
After my sister was killed by an outlaw, my family fell apart. My parents became overprotective, my brother became distant, and I became angry; lashing out and even becoming violent, all to hide the fact that I was terrified. It was finally decided that the best option for everyone was to send me to be trained in combat. And one thing led to another.
‘You were sent here to train as a Blade, not to go through The Mourn,’ says Kyle. His tone makes me look at him.
‘And you. Where do you stand?’ I ask. He shrugs.
‘None of us wants to lose you,’ he says. ‘Father thinks that if they were to be present at the ceremony, they would be endorsing your choice.’
‘You showed up.’
‘I don’t condone your choice. But if it were me, I’d want someone here,’ he says. He looks conflicted, and I suppose that I can understand why. I put my hand on his shoulder and he gives me a dazzling smile which I cannot help but return.
I hate that I understand why my parents did not show up. Their reasoning, however, is not the issue. The fact that they thought only of themselves and what would be hard for them is unfair and I will not pardon their selfishness. Though I will forgive them.
‘Have you seen the castle?’ I ask and he perks up.
‘No,’ he says and we stand.
The Ceremony is tomorrow night and today is the only day I will be allowed to roam the castle with an unauthorized civilian. We catch up with an odd sense of ease, conversation slow at first but never uncomfortable. Ian acts as a guide, pointing out areas that I have faltered or failed.
The staircase I fell down in our second year, the door I ran into in our third year and the wall I walked into while I was reading a book that I was not supposed to have taken out of the library. I had to clean the library for a month because I got one tiny drop of blood on the page. The only reason I was allowed to get medical attention was because the librarian feared I might taint more books.
We show Kyle our classes, dorm rooms, and training grounds. Kyle tries a few of the obstacles outdoors and does well, but he is outstripped by Ian and me, who could do it in our sleep - and have. At dinner I introduce Kyle to the rest of my friends; Ursula, my best friend beside Ian, and Jeremy, a goofy redhead with the face of an angel and a taste for small crimes he deems illegal for “petty reasons.” We reminisce and update until the middle of the night and go to bed only because we know that we are going to need our rest.
I go to my room and, like every time one of my family visits, I think about my sister.
Kelly was my favorite person in the world.
She was a year older than me but felt like my twin, my soul mate.
I think about my parents, angry that they did not show up, and depressed because I miss them.
I love being a blade… I think and then smile.
An official blade. It feels unreal, how far I have made it.
I love being a blade, but I cannot help wonder how different my life would have been if Kelly had lived. Though it takes a certain temperament to join this program, I wonder if I would have been as driven to join if Kelly had lived.
It also takes a certain kind of crazy to attempt The Mourn, yet I have always seen it as the logical next step.
Why join if not to conquer?
Why fight if not to win?
All the same, I now wonder about my motivation.
I thought I was doing it to prove a point and to show my strength. Now I wonder if it is to hide my weakness.
‘I miss you,’ I whisper into the night, my words joining the countless prayers and wishes that float in the desert sky.
The next morning is the annual fitness run and though it isn’t mandatory, almost the entire class is present. Most students are recruited in the last few months of the year and some have already left for their new posts. I myself was recruited to Lac Lean, one of the most beautiful harbor cities in the kingdom. I turned it down for a chance to face The Mourn and serve the king himself.
Trash talk abides as we stretch and get in line for the drill. We wave at the children that have flocked to watch us and enjoy, for the last time, the sounds of the city.
The sun beams down from a clear sky.
As this is not a closed event, there are a few civilians in our midst who will try and keep up. We smile knowingly at the city-dwellers attempting our 10km obstacle course. Lin, a regular who has run the course every year since I can remember, is standing with a few of the graduates.
Though we are not a superstitious group, every graduate to run the race for the past twenty years has shaken Lin’s hand for good luck.
I go in for a hug, just in case.
I run this course every year, but I cannot help hoping that this one is special and that it will serve as the closure I need to feel ready for the trail. Kyle has wisely chosen to sit this one out.
He is waiting near a mud pit that the towns’ people have made.
Taking off, Ursula and I run in unison. The course runs through the city and then around its southern wall, making a semi-circle.
The tenth obstacle has us leopard crawling through mud and the city people have their fun by baptizing us with powder or feathers. Dogs caught up in the excitement join in, barking happily as bystanders offer us beer instead of water.
I readily stop to drain a cup as I unstick the muddy shirt from my stomach and then kiss the old lady serving us on the cheek.
Less than halfway through we have outrun most of the civilians. I count ten - some barely keeping up - and I wonder how many of them will at the ceremony tonight. I try to fix their faces to memory, though it is unlikely I will see them again.
Although it is an unwritten rule to pace oneself for this last course, we are still the blade, and competition runs through our veins. We hit the six-kilometer mark and the graduating class picks up speed, leaving every civilian behind within minutes. When we cross the finish line we cheer and scream and dance. Hugging and slapping and shaking hands.
We did it.
We are Graduates.
We are The Blade.
I am a warrior through and through. I can run drills with the best of them. I have endured hours of torturous exercises that would break most men and emerged victorious.
That being said, Ursula and I go to wash up the second we leave the finish line.
You see, we have mud in our hair.
My auburn hair falls to the small of my back. Now it is caked with mud from root to tip. Ursula has it worse though.
‘Right, I am going to kill a few towns’ people tonight,’ she moans cleaning dirt from her dreadlocks. ‘It is the perfect time; we will be gone by tomorrow. The question is: how many murders will be enough? We won’t have enough time to get to them all by sunup, so we need to set a goal. Kara, are you listening?’ she continues, wailing anew when she spots more powder.
‘Yes, murder, mass murder, rivers of blood. Can you hand me the soap?’ I say scrubbing my forearms.
Half an hour later we meet the boys on the city wall to watch our home one last time.
Two hours before the ceremony begins we get dressed in barely suppressed anticipation.
We will be wearing full battle armor; sandy brown leather with light (in both weight and color) chain mail, brown leather boots, and fingerless gloves.
During training, we specialize in assorted weapons and have these with us for the ceremony. Ian specialized in axes and has both a tomahawk and double-bladed ax holstered to his uniform.
I prefer a sword and throwing knives and have these strapped to mine.
We will be assembled and lined up fifteen minutes before the ceremony starts. We are, after all, the most disciplined branch of the military.
Our military has several branches.
The first is called The Shield.
These soldiers take up the positions of sentinels, guards and footmen, unless, of course, war breaks out.
The second is The Blade.
They are rained from a young age to become masters of strategy and battle. The training is three years and every year hopefuls are brought to Castle Forge for training. During initiation week, about a quarter of these applicants drop out. Before the second year, another quarter quits. Those who survive the training become The Blade, the best soldiers that the military has to offer.
The most respected branch of the military is The Chain, and are the royal families’ personal army. They are trusted with the most delicate tasks and responsibilities. Although they work as bodyguards, messengers, and spies, they are the most dangerous militia in the kingdom and are feared throughout all the known lands.
Today I hope to join them; that is if I do not fail the initiation.
We reach the Great Hall to find people gathered in groups, either laughing excitedly or sitting in silence. The final obstacle course is designed to work off nervous energy. The Mourn, however, is both dangerous and ruthless and one can understand those who sit in pensive silence.
I look around the room. Although it is still early, less than half of our class is present.
‘Our chances of being grouped together seem good; not many want to advance,’ muses Ian.
‘You can’t blame them. After three years of training, we are opting for another, more brutal one. And that is if we make it across The Mourn,’ I reply. Secretly though, I am shocked at the small number gathered. Most of the students had bragged about going through the initiation.
I suppose brave words come easy at dawn. The setting sun tells a different story.
I feel better about myself. Although I am nervous about the trail, I am anxious about failing it, not attempting it in the first place.
Our conversations are about the rumors and reports of trails past. Ursula and I exchange goofy grins whenever we make eye contact.
Is this how regular girls feel about boys?
As time passes people begin to relax and a nervous gathering begins to buzz with excitement. Small challenges and old rivalries arise as more people start pouring in. Spectators line the walls, wanting to see those attempting the infamous trial and The Assignment Ceremony that starts it off.
The Assignment Ceremony is a drawing of names that places volunteers into random teams.
It is said that the gods that watch over our training have a hand in this lot, and they decide our fate as we leave them to serve new masters.
The last rays of the sun fade, leaving us amongst the dancing shadows cast by the torches that light the hall. Dark spirits come to join the celebration - or dance on our graves.
Someone calls for attention and the hall goes quiet as we file in order, Kyle finding a spot close to the stage. When Master Ramous steps on stage I find myself holding my breath.
Tipsy as some are, the tension in the room is enough to silence any onlooker, whatever state they might be in.
The masters gather behind dark tables on the large stage as a bowl and leather bag are set up in the center. I suppress a smile and peer at Ian. This is it, I think.
‘Warriors!’ calls Master Ramous, ‘At ease!’