Leaning over, I see it’s a thirty foot drop. My boots grip the rough bark of the tree, as I turn towards Darkness. She walks slowly, her long dark mane hiding part of her head.
“Darkness,” I call and clap my hand against my thigh. “Darkness, come.” My gorgeous black Friesian trots over loyally. She stands proudly beneath me.
“This should be interesting.” I mutter to myself and jump off the tree branch. Somehow, someway, I land on her back. I pretend not to feel it in my thighs. I smile to myself and pat Darkness on her well-muscled shoulder. “Good girl. Let’s go home.” I reach up and grab my bag from a tree branch, slinging it over my shoulder. I twist her mane into my hands. As soon as she feels me settle into our normal position, she takes off. The steady thump of her hooves on the forest floor and the wind racing through my hair remind me. This is home. I let out something kind of like a laugh and a shout at the same time. Almost naturally, my hands fly out, brushing the deep green leaves beside me. Darkness and I have worn such a path over the years that sometimes you can even see where my hands might have traced the branches of the trees into a clean space.
We run for a little while, until I stop her when we come to the stream. I hop off her back, smooth her mane and let her raid the bag of oats while I sit to drink. I scoop up a handful of water and splash it onto my face, letting it wake me up and fill me with the energy of the woods. My mother is always harping me about boiling water from the stream first, but I honestly don’t care. It doesn’t taste right after you’ve sucked the forest out of the stream.
After I’ve finished, I take out a knife. It’s long and sharp with a black handle. I grip it well and turn towards the fruit trees. There, at least 50 feet above me, are huge ovular fruits, a little smaller than a watermelon. They have a hard, dark red exterior, but I know that when you cut into it, you’ll find the most delicious juice you could ever taste. The meat of the fruit tastes like the juice, and is paler red than the rind. If I can get a good aim here...
My hand twitches. I see a silver and black blur and hear a big THUD! There, on the ground in front of me, a branch loaded with the large delicacies lies. Giving myself a silent cheer, I pick the fruits off the branch one by one and load them into the bag.
I come to a clearing in the woods. A huge wooden cabin stands proudly among the evergreen pine trees. My house. My home. I slide easily off Darkness and lead her to the side of the house. I take a length of rope and tie it loosely around her neck. I then attach it to a longer rope and wrap this end loosely around a pipe coming from the house. I don’t have to, but Mother wants me to. Just in case.
I pat Darkness softly and turn. I walk up the steps to the door. As I open the door, I catch a whiff of herbs, soft cheese, warm bread, and wild flowers.
“Mom? I’m home. Dad?” I call out and unlace my boots, placing them by the door. I hear a soft rustle and see her. My mother. She walks to me, arms outstretched. I give her a hug in return. Her deep brown eyes and caramel colored hair contrast with the age lines around her mouth and eyes. She smiles.
“How are you, Amaris?”
“I’m fine, Mom. How’s Dad?” For a moment her smile falters.
“Oh, he’s awake. Would you like to-” I brush past her and walk swiftly into the den. My father lays on the couch, wrapped in blankets.
“Amaris,” He smiles and reaches for me. I go to him immediately. “What did you find today?” He asks. I take his hand and kneel beside the couch.
“Well, I did find some of the scarlets.” I say, referring to the nickname of the red fruit. He frowns a little, as he always does when I tell him what I found.
“That’s good, I suppose. How’s Darkness? How are you, my dear?” His smile returns.
“I’m all right. Darkness is good. Nothing new, anyway. How are you feeling?” I say and direct the conversation back to him.
“Oh, I’m fine, dear fine. Especially now that you’re here. I-” He freezes. I close my eyes and squeeze his hand as the hallucinations take over my father.
He begins to shake. I press my forehead into our entwined hands and hear him start to mutter. Before I know it, tears are rolling down my cheeks. I wipe them away, let go of his hand, and run into my room. I hear my mother behind me, begging for his sanity. My door slams shut. I look in the mirror. My somewhat bloodshot eyes are a swirling combination of blue and gray. In contrast to my eyes, I have very long brown hair, so brown it looks black. After taking deep breaths and calming myself down, my appearance has returned to normal. My mother says I have “soft features” and that I have a short torso and long legs, which is why I run so fast. Frankly, I don’t pay any attention to that sort of thing.
There’s a banging on the door. Acting on instinct, my hand lashes out and grabs my mahogany bow. The other hand clutches at a knife concealed in my jacket. The sound of my own breathing fills my ears as I press against the door, listening to what happens below. My mother opens the front door.
“Hello--” Her voice trails off. “Oh my... Can-...can we help you?” She stammers. I hear the thumping of heavy boots. I wrench open the door and fly down the stairs, taking my bow with me. I stop in my tracks as I reach the bottom of the stairs.
Mom?” I ask. She glances over at me nervously.
“Amaris!” She hisses and gestures up the stairs.
Three men, clad in heavy black cloaks cross the threshold of the home.
“Amaris Kade. Amaris Amber Kade. Step forward.” I sigh and ‘step forward’.
“Yeah?” I say in something like a bored tone. “Have I done something?” The men step forward. I pull out the knife. One of them smirks.
“You don’t think I could use this?” I say defiantly. “Listen, sir. I don’t know who you think you are coming in this house like that, but it’s not okay.” The same one laughs. He comes towards me and I duck under his outstretched arm. I react instinctively and rake my knife down his bicep. He howls in pain. My mother looks horrified. She and the other two fools run for me at the same time. My mother, for my safety, the men, for who knows what. Unfortunately, the cloaked men are faster. They each grab an arm. Somebody pulls the knife from my hand. I feel a heavy boot on my knees and they give in. I hate it. I am on my knees in front of my mother. She yells in surprise and anger. The one I stabbed gets up and grabs my mother by the shoulder.
“She’s been drafted.” My mother fights against him. I can’t do anything.
“What?!” I splutter. “No! Mom! Dad! Stop!” The two men behind me tie my hands and ankles together. My mother meets my eyes. Something inside of her has broken. A brother and a sister. A son and a daughter. Lost to war.
My brother, when he was fifteen, was drafted. I was three. I don’t remember any of it, but my mother told me the majority of the story. So, according to her, he got a letter saying that he was to become a part of the army. He was drafted. My mother said that when he got the letter, he didn’t say anything. He just packed his stuff, gave my mother a hug and a kiss and my father the same. He told them he loved them, and then he left. He died a few weeks after that.
All that I remember of my brother, is perhaps a smile, and the feeling of a hand on my cheek, a whisper that I was the greatest sister anyone could have. It makes me want to laugh and cry and smile and yell all at the same time.
The harsh thin rope cuts into my wrists and ankles as I struggle to be free.
“Let... me...go...” I breathe and attempt to break away from their iron grip on my arms. They lift me to my feet roughly. The other lets go of my mother.
“She may survive. She may not. We’ll see, won’t we?” He grins evilly and nudges my shins with his boot. “Come on.” He turns back to my mother. “Visiting days are the last Friday in each month.” Without another word, they lift me again and half-drag, half-carry me to four dappled gray horses. My mother runs out of the house, crying.
“Amaris!!” Her voice is fraught with despair and fear. One of the men waves his hand at her and she goes flying through the air, back into the house. Somehow, the door closes behind her.
“Mom!” I scream, and then everything goes black.
I wake up. The first thing I notice is the fact that I’m strapped to a horse. The next, is that the three cloaked men and I are in front of a very tall iron gate. Behind the very tall iron gate is a series of three towers. That is about all I can see, given the fact that half of my vision is obstructed by this horse’s neck.
The gate swings open. We walk forward until we reach the towers. I am untied and lifted off my horse. I instantly feel it in my back and my hips. One of the men stands me on my feet. They prod me towards the doors, but as soon as I take a step, I fall on my hands and knees. The same man, I think, sighs and stands me back up. I take slow, tentative steps, and seem to manage.
I am taken into something like a lobby. A rather crabby looking lady behind a black desk eyes me warily.
“Kade?” She asks the men.
“Amaris Amber.” One of them confirms. She nods and writes something down on a long roll of paper with a wicked looking black quill. After, the men take me up several flights of spiral stairs. By the time we reach the top, my legs have been reduced to jelly. A single black door is the only thing up here. One man reaches forward to open the door. I see a heavy cotton wrap around his arm, stained with blood. It makes me smile. It makes me sad.
I am shoved into the room. The door closes behind me. I stand in front of five people. They look at me with expressions of confusion and shock. They are all girls that look about my age. One of them, with honey blond hair and soft brown eyes runs towards me. She grabs me by my arms and attempts to lift me up. I am suddenly aware that I’ve started to fall.
“Come on!” She says to the others. They all rush forward and lift me up. I am carried onto a soft white bed.
“Oh, my...” I hear one say. My eyes begin to droop. I beg for consciousness as a wave of nausea rolls over my nerves and stomach. I think I gag a little, and my arms suddenly go numb. A girl to my left, with fiery red hair and sea green eyes, runs a gentle hand over my forehead. She closes my eyes with her thumb and forefinger and whispers to me.
“Sh...” I hear her say something else. “Why would they bring her in like this? Is she on the list?” That’s the last thing I hear.
When I wake again, all I can feel is the pain in my stomach. Something like hunger...
“How are you feeling?” The girl who helped me first speaks.
“I’m alive.” I say and attempt to sit up. I sit in a pristine white bed, in a large, airy room. The ceiling is fairly high, and windows cover the right side of the room. To my left, another set of beds is lined against the wall, which happens to be circular. In fact, the whole room is a circle. Next to the beds are two large doors. A closet, perhaps? Across from myself, I see a kitchen, complete with a pantry and several cabinets. The sight of it makes my mouth water. “Who are you?” I ask her. She smiles with not just her mouth, but even with her cocoa brown eyes.
“I’m Willow. You are?”
“Amaris.” I answer, almost angrily. “Where am I? Where is my family?” She sighs and sits at the edge of my bed.
“Your family is at home. They can’t be here with you. You’re in Training. For the army. You were drafted, right?” She says.
“Yeah. But not in the usual sense. Those men just showed up to my house and brought me away. I stabbed one of them in the arm.” She smiles a little, but then frowns.
“You never got a letter?” She asks incredulously. I shake my head.
“Is that bad?” She hesitates. I can see that she is choosing her words very carefully.
“Not necessarily. I suppose I should start at the beginning. So, there are four Territories. Gamma, Beta, Omega, and Delta. We live in Delta. Delta and Omega have always been allies. It’s the same for Beta and Gamma. Delta is incredibly strong, especially in its military. Omega is full to the brim with resources. Gamma is similar to us, although in the past, we’ve been stronger. Beta is a mining Territory. But you know all this.
“Lately, there’s been a lot of arguments among the Territories. The allies remain allies, however. It’s all between Delta and Omega, and Gamma and Beta. A while ago, a list was made. The list contained very strong individuals that were to be drafted and used as military leaders. People who are on that list, when drafted, have to be brought here directly. We think that’s why you’re here, and why you’re here like this.” She looks at me apprehensively, as if to see if I understood what she told me. I nod slowly.
“Okay. Who’s ‘We’?” I ask, looking behind her. “Those girls before?” Willow nods.
“They’re my, roommates. I guess yours too, now. Everybody who’s drafted gets assigned to a room with a bunch of other Trainees. You live and train here until you get assigned somewhere else. To fight.”
“One other thing,” I say, because I can’t ignore what’s on my mind. “When they came to get me, my mother tried to stop them. She ran out of the house. One of those cloaked men that brought me here did something very strange. He waved his hand at her and she went flying back into the house and the door slammed shut behind her.” Willow raises an eyebrow.
“Their Gift. It’s Air. The Gift is something you get when you arrive here. You are taken to the Gift Room and the Enchanter has you hold a certain crystal. There are five crystals. One is blue. That’s for Water. One is clear. That’s for Air. One is green. That’s for Earth. One is red. That’s for Fire. The last is black. That’s for all of them. It’s possible for somebody to get that, but it never happens. It’s also possible to have two crystals. It’s not very often, though. And those cloaked men are Enforcers. They literally enforce all rules. They are also used for that too. Getting people from the list.” Suddenly a clear smooth voice speaks from everywhere and nowhere at once.
“Amaris Kade to the Gift Room, please. Amaris Kade to the Gift Room.” Then it’s gone. Next to my bed, a swirling blue light appears on the floor. I look to Willow.
“It’ll take you there. Just put both feet on it.” I nod, and get up. I suddenly notice my wounds. Cotton wraps around bloody wounds on my arms and legs. Small gashes on my head have been stitched up, and I note the swollen black and blue of my ankle. I then realize my clothes are different. I wear a soft green shirt with smooth black pants. “Did you...?” I look to Willow. She nods. I look at myself, speechless. She did all this for me.
“Your new roommates helped.”
“Thank you. Really. Thank you so much.” I manage to find my voice. She smiles and waves me off.
“Go, you’ll be late.” I smile back and step slowly onto the blue light, and I am transported through the swirling vortex.
I stand in the center of a small circular room. The lighting is dim and has a slight blue quality to it. Five wooden stands circle me. I see the crystals Willow described. A bright fiery red and orange crystal. A beautiful azure blue crystal. A deep forest green crystal. A slightly milky yet translucent crystal. A glittering black crystal. Light seems to ebb from the crystals and shine around them.
“Hello, Amaris.” I see an older man, robed in white standing about twenty feet in front of me. He has a long white beard with shoulder length white hair. His watery blue eyes smile kindly into mine.
“I am the Enchanter. You may call me Kiamos, if you like. Please, sit down.” He gestures to the ground and I sit, crossing my legs. He walks towards me and sits across from me. “I am going to get a read on yourself, and your personality. Then, I shall will the Gifts to choose you.” I nod. He takes my hand in his and looks into my eyes. “Hmm...” he mutters. “Interesting. Defiant. Fierce, yet vulnerable. Kind. Clever, no doubt. Graceful, skilled. Arrogant, yes. Funny, compassionate. Perhaps...” Around us, the crystals begin to float off of their pedestals and rotate in the air around us. He lets go of my hand and closes his eyes. The crystals begin to spin, faster and faster and faster until they become a multi-colored blur. My breathing quickens and the Enchanter seems calm.
“Hold out your hands.” he says calmly. I do as he says, and close my eyes. It feels natural. The whirring sound of the crystals fills my ears. Something cold and smooth presses into my hands and the whirring suddenly stops.
“Open your eyes.” The Enchanter commands and I oblige. I hesitate to look down. “Go on,” he smiles. “You can look.” I nod and look down at my ringed fingers and bruised hands. In my palms, rests a shiny, pitch black crystal. It reflects light in a thousand different places. My heart pounds. I look up at Kiamos. He smiles softly.
“Your Gifts are Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Congratulations, Amaris.” I grin hugely.
“Excellent. Thank you.” The Enchanter takes the crystal from my hands and rubs it in his. He murmurs a few words in some kind of language that I don’t understand, and then he holds the crystal out to me.
“Touch it now.” He says. I nod, and touch my index finger to the crystal. As soon as my finger touches the smooth stone, I feel a searing heat, a blistering cold, and a brilliant white light shines all around me. I feel the Gift fusing itself into every cell, every pore in my body. Then, I’m not there anymore. I’m back in my room. Willow and the other girls stand around the two doors that hang open. They appear to be thinking.
“Hey,” I say. “I’m back.” They all turn towards me. Willow grins.
“How’d it go? What color did you get?” She asks eagerly. I sit on one of the beds.
“It went well. I got black.” Her jaw drops. I grin. “Yeah, I know. I’ve got all of them. I even think I could try it out. Somebody toss me a glass.” I see a girl with black hair, fair skin, and dark brown eyes run over to the cabinets, dig out an elegant looking glass, and throw it across the room to me. I reach up, catching it by the stem in one hand. I turn it right side up and concentrate on glass filling with Water, smooth sweet, clear Water. It does. I laugh. “This is so cool.” The girls smile easily.
“We need introductions.” Willow said. “You know me. My Gift is Air.” She turns to the others. The red-head who closed my eyes when I first arrived speaks first.
“I’m Eira. I have the Gift of Fire.”
“I’m Jette. I have the Gift of Water.” The girl who got me the glass.
“I’m Alysia. I have the Gift of Earth.” A brown haired, brown eyed girl with fair skin and a sweet smile.
“I’m Lysandra. I have the Gift of Air.” A girl with hair so blond, it’s white and blue eyes.
“I’m Krim. I have the Gift of Fire.” A girl with caramel hair and green eyes. I speak.
“I am Amaris. I have the Gift of all Gifts.” I grin. Krim smiles.
“I have a feeling that we are serious contenders in Training.” I guess she sees my confused face, because she elaborates. “In Training, we have practice fights and competitions sometimes, and we train for war. Each team, -- you and your roommates-- goes up against another in a competition. They’re usually with our Gifts. Whoever knocks the other team out wins. I think we are so winning this time.” She gives me an easy grin, which I return. I could be happy here. I could be content. I could have friends outside of the people I meet at the market. I could meet somebody like my mother always told me to. I could... my mother. I could die. My mother would be torn apart. Her two children gone. My father. I don’t even want to think about what my father would do, what he would say, what he would think about...
I feel a slight shiver run up and down my body. A whisper of a breeze trails across my cheek and brushes my hair from my ear. I hear, very faintly, a voice.
Trust Kano. Trust your friends. Use your power. But think first. Remember your fight and your enemy. Be sure to reach them in time. I believe in you.
Then, nothing. Glancing quickly to the right, where I heard the voice, I see nothing too. But I feel a presence. Adriano. My brother. Something wet falls onto my hands. It may have been mine. It may have been a tear. His words confuse me. Does he want me to be happy here? Should I forget about my parents? I am not sure what to think.
“Let’s head down,” Alysia says and starts for the door. I follow, slowly. I look back. Nothing.
We enter a large, airy room, circular like all the rest. Lining one half of the wall are weapons. Lots and lots of weapons, in all shapes and sizes. Swords, axes, bows, arrows, knives, daggers, shields, too many to name them all. I smile. The other half of the wall is covered in targets, I assume for archery and knife throwing. In the center of the room is a small platform. I see a stiff looking man, rough, beefy, almost. His eyes are small but sharp. He has a goatee and tight black hair. He is dressed in what appears to be a standard uniform; a forest green shirt with black pants and a black jacket.
“Make sure you aim! If you hit me, YOU’RE NOT AIMING!!! FIRE!!!” he bellows, and several people along the weapon side fire dark brown arrows from white bows. They fly beside the man in a frenzy and there is a series of thwacks. The arrows have pierced the targets. Accept for one. The shaft of an arrow sticks out from the man’s arm. Blood slowly seeps through his jacket. His beady eyes glare at the students as he yanks the arrow out of his arm.
“You.” He points at a weak-looking boy, about 12 or 11. He trembles and tries not to look him in the eye. The man walks forward calmly and stops in front of him.
“Iven. Did you shoot me?” His voice is oddly level. The boy hesitates, begins to shake his head, and then nods, shakily, slowly. The man gives a curt nod. “Iven, I would like you to go stand on the podium. Give me your bow.” Iven hesitates again.
“I’m sor--” Iven begins quietly.
“GO!” The man yells. Iven yelps.
“Sir, I’m very sor--” The ground lunges up from beneath him. Iven goes flying through the air and lands on the podium. He lands with a SMACK! Behind him, a large rocky spike has driven its way up through the floor. The man holds his hand over the floor. The spike retreats and the floor patches itself up.
“Hey!” I hear somebody shout. I am suddenly aware that it’s me. “He apologized! Leave him alone!” The man laughs. The other people standing around him glance back and forth at us nervously.
“Alright then. What’s your name?” He asks me, once he stops.
“Amaris.” I say defiantly. “Yours?” The man smirks.
“You may call me Master Remo.” He says.
“And you may call me Lady Amaris, or Lady Kade. Whichever you prefer, sir.” I curtsy slightly, and grin. This earns a laugh, mostly from the guys. Iven gets up and brushes himself off. Master Remo looks furious.
“Amaris. Take Iven’s place.” His eyes are cold. I curtsy once more.
“Certainly.” I skip up to the podium. Iven rushes back to the others. I step up and face everybody. I give my friends a little wave. Krim is laughing. Willow, Alysia, Lysandra, and Jette look horrified. Eira grins. Master Remo takes the bow in his hands and puts an arrow in place. He draws the string back. He lets it go. The arrow comes hurtling straight at me, at my chest. I instantly put my hand up. A wave of Fire spreads across my hand and in front of me, creating a shield, a shield made out of Fire. The arrow hits the shield and bursts into flames. The ashes scatter across the floor. Somebody starts clapping. It’s slow, but not mocking. I turn to see where it comes from. A tall, dark haired boy with light blue eyes brings his hands together slowly. His eyes are like glass, but with a delicate coat of blue. Beautiful. And, not to mention, he’s very attractive. I grin, and give him a jaunty wink. He smiles. Master Remo, on the other hand, is as cold and mean looking as ever. But his eyes betray him. His eyes seem to be pleased, amused, happy. That can’t be good.
I take a bow and step off the podium. Laughing, I join the girls.
“That, was beautiful.” Krim says, tears from laughter sliding down her cheeks.
“I have no words.” Lysandra says, looking appalled.
“Well, I do! How could you do that? Are you insane?!” Alysia exclaims. I nod and smile.
“Probably.” Willow just shakes her head.
“Class dismissed!” I hear Master Remo’s gruff voice from a smaller room on the side. “Iven, Amaris, Kano, stay after a moment, please.” Kano! I whip around and see Iven, and the boy, the one with the eyes like crystal. What my brother said, to trust him... I decide to like him immediately. I wave a brief goodbye to the girls and fall into step with Kano.
“What does it mean, him keeping us back?” I ask him. He shrugs with an easy grin.
“Usually he’s mad about something. No big deal. Ah, that, whatever...that... was, was absolutely genius. Nobody I know, except you now, could ever stand up to him like that.”
“Thanks.” I say. “It was fun.” Kano smiles.
“So, you’ve got a Fire Gift?” He says. I shake my head. Kano raises his eyebrows. “Then, what Gift do you have?” I smile back.
“The Gift of all Gifts.” His jaw drops.
“No!” he exclaims.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m still getting over it too.” We enter Master Remo’s office. It’s small and cramped, with a wooden desk and three squashy chairs.
“Sit,” Master Remo says gruffly. He’s wrapped his arm up in cotton. I sit in the middle, with Iven and Kano on either side of me.
“Iven, you’ve got extra lessons with me after Training for a week. I will teach you to hit a target, if it’s the last thing you do.” Iven nods hastily. “Go.” Iven thanks Master Remo and walks out quickly. Master Remo turns to me.
“You’ve got all the Gifts, don’t you?” he questions me. I nod. He smiles, he actually smiles! “Excellent. Kano, I want you to be at her side 24/7. Almost, anyways. Show her the ropes. I need you to be her guide, and somebody to help her out. Got it?” Kano and I nod in unison. “Good. Amaris, because today you didn’t know how things are run...” he seems to have difficulty getting the words out. “I have decided to dismiss you from punishment. You may leave.” We stand up together and leave. As we exit, Kano gives me a good natured shove.
“I hate you.” He says playfully.
“What did I do?” I say with a laugh.
“He likes you! And he doesn’t like anybody!” Kano says.
“Likes me?” I say incredulously. “He tried to kill me!” Kano shakes his head.
“No, he knew you would defend yourself.” I shrug.
“What can I say?” I shrug with a grin. Kano laughs.
“I’ll show you around.” he says. “Is tomorrow alright? After breakfast?” I nod. He smiles.
“Would you like to walk with me upstairs?” I offer. He nods.
“I’d like that.” We walk together in silence up to the rooms. He stops at the room just under mine.
“This is mine.” He says.
“Oh! I’m right above you!” He smiles.
“Don’t stomp too loudly, okay?” I grin.
“Welcome to Training, Amaris.” he says a little sadly. “I hope you and I stay here for a long time.” I nod, because I understand what he means. The alternative is fighting. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He brushes his dark hair out of his eyes. I reach forward and put my arms around him. He responds naturally by doing the same. I stand there with him, resting my head on his chest as long as I dare. Our bodies seem to sync our breathing and it fills my ears. I pull back and see his face full of emotion.
“I want to fight, Amaris. That makes me sad. But I don’t want to fight. I have a family that I love, and that loves me. That makes me sad too. But you’re here. And that makes me happy.” I understand completely. We have only just met, but it feels like I’ve known him for a long time. We seem to just... get each other. A soft wind rises from downstairs, a warm, happy wind.
See? Remember the fight, Amaris. Ask for it if you need to. I’m counting on you. You must bring Kano with you. Please, sister.
Adriano. What does he mean? Should I ask to fight in the Army? With Kano? I close my eyes tight and then open them, letting the confusion pass. I want so badly to be angry and upset. But Adriano’s words seem to say that I need to belong. I don’t know what to think. I look at Kano’s eyes. I see that he feels what I feel. A sense of familiarity.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Amaris.” Kano hesitates, as if he wants to say something more, but shakes his head, smiles softly and gives me a brief hug. He opens the door to his room, and disappears inside. I climb up the last few stairs to my room and enter. I smell food. Not just any food, but hearty, filling food. I spot a stew cooking in a pot on the stove. I smell something sweet baking in the oven. A cake? Lysandra tends to the kitchen as I collapse on my bed. Willow, Alysia, and Jette appear to be discussing something heatedly, while Eira and Krim are laying on the floor, looking down at something. I cross to them and look at what they are focusing on. A hole, about a foot and a half across, is burned into the floor. They are talking to the boys below.
“Hey, Odin!” Krim calls down to the guys.
“Hi, Krim.” Somebody calls back. “Hi, Eira. What’s up?”
“Is Rabi there?” Eira asks.
“Yeah.” The boy named Odin replies. “Hey Rabi, your girlfriend wants to talk to you.” I glance down and see Rabi, a shifty looking blond haired, green eyed boy staring up at us.
“Hey, Eira. Want to come down?” he grins. Eira laughs.
“Sure.” She grabs a hold of the edges of the hole in the floor, and drops down into the boys room. Krim laughs.
“Hey, Kano! Want to come up?” I hear Kano’s voice.
“No thanks, Krim.”
“C’mon, Kano! Don’t you want to hang out with me?” I hear the flirtatiousness in her voice. As much as I like Krim, I roll my eyes. I walk over to Willow as Krim drops down into the hole.
“I’m saying, she and Rabi have to break up soon. She has to figure it out soon, right? Amaris on the other hand, who do you think she should go with? Maybe Anno? They would look adorable together. And he’s gorgeous--”
“Talking about me?” I grin and sit next to Willow. She blushes.
“We were just talking about your date for the Annual Ball and who we should set you up with.” I sigh.
“Willow, I will not, no matter how fancy this Ball is, have a date.” Willow looks confused. “I just don’t like dances. I...” My voice trails off as I search for words.
“You’ve never gone to a dance, have you?” Alysia says accusingly. I nod.
“Problem with that?” I argue. Alysia sneers.
“No.” she says. “But it’s kind of pathetic.”
“Alysia!” Jette says, looking aghast.
“No worries, Jette.” I say calmly and lean in close and grab Alysia’s collar. “Listen, hon. I don’t know who you think you are, but I know who I am. So I wouldn’t talk to me that way, if I were you. I could throw you up into the air a thousand feet high, bury you in the dirt, take you out and burn you alive and then wash the ashes away if I felt like it.” I let go of her collar.
“Now I see why you’ve never had a date to a dance.” Jette teases. I smile a little. Alysia scowls.
“Dinner!” Lysandra calls. I stand to see a table by the kitchen covered in food. A large pot of stew, a warm loaf of bread, a basket of muffins, and some kind of roasted bird. It reminds me of what my mother would make at home. My mother.
When I was 11, my father became sick. We were riding in the woods, when he froze up and fell. I, acting on instinct, grabbed my father and tried putting him on Darkness’ back. He shivered slightly in my hands. He curled up against Darkness’ body, as I mounted his horse, Raven. I looked around frantically and called Darkness. In a haze of green and blue, the forest swirling around me in delirium, I grasped the collar of my father’s shirt in my hand. With the other, I held onto Raven’s mane. I started to ride, Darkness and my father directly next to me. I was crying. When we reached the house, I screamed for my mother. She came outside in a panic. We left the horses in the yard as we carried my father into the house together, and rested him on the sofa. I remember it like it was yesterday. My mother knelt at his side. I, unsure of what to do, knelt and tried to help. My mother shoved me away. she told me to stay back, and that I’d only make it worse, and hadn’t I done enough already? I fell back onto the floor. My mother glanced back at me. The regret in her eyes was slowly replaced by despair, fear, anger, and grief. I ran out of the house.
In the months that past, my mother remained cold and distant from me. I was determined to do the same. I didn’t talk to her. She didn’t talk to me. I practically lived in the woods. I attempted a few times to break the barrier, but the response was the same as ever. Except one time.
My mother asked me what happened in the woods that day. Where did we go. What did we touch. Did I harm my father in anyway. Did we meet anybody. Why didn’t I get home sooner. Why didn’t I stop my father. Why was it my fault.
That put me over the edge. I shut out my mother completely. From time to time I asked myself that question on the occasion. Why was it my fault? Why did my mother blame me? She has tried to “mend” the relationship, but I brushed her away. Sometimes I miss her. Sometimes I hate her. All of the time, I’m confused.
After dinner, we go to bed. I lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Thoughts swirl around in my head and get jumbled into a confusing ball of anxiety and anger. Adriano tells me to settle in, even to ask to fight. I tell myself to get home. Logically, once you’ve served enough time in the Army, you’re allowed to go home.
Exactly. And you might just save Territory Delta. And, Kano likes you. I heard his thoughts just now.
I sit bolt upright in bed. How could he hear thoughts? I look around.
Well, I was never supposed to tell anybody, but the Enchanter gave me a Gift to hear people’s thoughts. He said it would help someday. Guess it does now. But yeah. Kano likes you as a friend, I think. He... hang on... He thinks you are interesting, you’re pretty, you don’t know how to shut your mouth, and you smell nice.
I am communicating with my brother. I am communicating with my brother. Wow.
Yes, let’s please not state the obvious.
I lie back down slowly. I’m pretty? And I smell nice. Huh. Wait, I don’t know how to keep my mouth shut?!
He has a point.
Shut up. I get up and out of bed. I walk over to the hole in the floor and look down. I see Kano sitting on his bed with his hands behind his head. Thinking, I guess. About me. I go back to bed.
Amaris, I just want you to fight. I know you can help. I know you can stop this war. You ARE a fighter. I just want to help you..... Good Night.
When I wake up, it’s because I’m being shaken by Willow.
“Come on! It’s time to go!” I stand uneasily and pull on a clean pair of black pants, and a tight blue sweater. Willow stops me before I walk out the door. She runs her hand over my head and a current of Air runs through my scalp, separating each strand of hair. My hair slides easily down my back in a sleek, untangled, glossy curtain.
“Thanks,” I mumble and rub the sleep from my eyes. We decide to slide down the banister instead of climbing down all of the stairs. When we reach the bottom I ask, “Where are we going?” Willow points ahead of her. A crowd of people stand in the courtyard. They are huddled around the podium that stands in the center. Master Remo and a few other people stand on the platform.
“We’ve decided on our Tournament for this year.” Master Remo says. “Instead of teams, the Masters and I have picked one person to represent each team.” There are exclamations of excitement, relief, disappointment, and happiness. “Before you get too excited, you will also be allowed to pick one person to represent your team. Your team with have two people to contend in this Tournament.” More outbursts ensue. Mostly excitement, I note. “The actual Tournament will be a sort of combined activity, fight, thing,” he says, stumbling over his words. “There will be an Archery competition. There will be a Climbing competition. There will be Riding, Swimming, Running, Fighting, Gifts, Heat, Diving, and Survival, among others. The best scorers win. You’ll find out more as the Tournament progresses, but now, Master Shouma will announce our picks for each team. You and your team will each have one week to decide your representative and formally confirm who that will be.” Master Remo steps back. A small, shy looking woman in deep green robes steps forward. Her dark hair is pinned up carefully, and her large, observant green eyes sweep the courtyard.
“Yes, um..” She hesitates briefly, and then continues. “Right. The girls first, I suppose. Tower One. Floor One. Wera. Floor Two. Emmaline. Floor Three. Keira.” It goes one like this until she finally reaches us. “Tower Three. Floor Twenty. Rabi. Tower Three. Floor Twenty-One. Amaris. That is all. Thank you.” People begin to disperse. I get a few pats on the back and several nods. How do people know me already? I feel a hand on my shoulder. Kano. I turn, and see his beautiful eyes gazing into mine.
“Congratulations,” he says with a smile.
“Thank you,” I say and return it slightly. “To you as well. For not getting picked.” He laughs.“They’re not that bad. There’s a lot of pressure, I guess. But it’s a lot of fun. Within the first couple of round, a lot of people get eliminated. It gets pretty interesting. I wish you the best of luck, Amaris.”