By Kristen Strmel
I was 6 during my first spar. Mother had wanted it later, Father earlier. I used to hear them at night arguing over it. They were always quiet, but I tended to overhear things I shouldn’t have, for better or worse.
I was a child, thin as a stick, but my partner did not go easy on me. Father must have instructed him not to. He was tall and broad, clad in the black and gold that was our family’s sigil, and held a lance as long as my arm. The sunlight slid over his chest plate as he crouched down, pointing a blunt gray tip at my heart. I welcomed him. I was 6, and my father wanted a soldier, and I wanted that too.
The way he rushed at me, I wondered if it was all just a lie, if I was actually an enemy and not my father’s daughter. Or maybe this was a big test and the man was actually bad himself, and Father wanted to see if I could figure it out. I had no time to. All I could focus on was blocking his attacks. Time and time again our lances clacked together, ringing through the courtyard. Sometimes I jumped away and spun around, waving my own lance back at him; other times, he’d catch his tip on my too-wide shoulder-piece and toss me into the dust.
There, in the courtyard of our great estate with cuts on my palms and dirt caked in my hair, I made the first of the only two mistakes I have ever made in my life. I began to cry and beg for it to stop. “Papa. Papa. No more, please make it stop. I’m so tired.”
I looked over at him as I said it, and even as a child I knew what I had done. Father’s face was hard, the skin stretched over his bones. He shook his head. “You haven’t finished your training.”
“But Papa, I’m tired.”
“What happened to the girl I knew just before? You said you were going to win.”
I remembered those words and turned to face my opponent. He crouched back down like a predator preparing to pounce, but I wasn’t afraid. I was going to win, just like I said I would. Then I took a step forward to mirror his pose, and my legs burned so badly I thought they might be on fire. I fell to my knees, gasping as they hit the sand. It was hard instead of soft, and my kneecaps felt like they’d split in two.
There was a rush of movement to my side. I didn’t have time to turn before Father was there. He pulled me up roughly and whispered right into my face. “Emagen, do you remember who you are?”
“I’m Ograe,” I whimpered. “Ograe, I know.”
“You are an Ograe. And does an Ograe give up just because she’s tired?” Father clutched my shoulders with his broad hands. Even crouched down, he seemed far larger than my partner could ever be. I was just a speck of sand in the dust in this courtyard, here to be batted around.
“They don’t,” I tried to say, but there was a fat wad in my throat and I started sniffling, even though I told myself that I wasn’t ever going to do anything like that out here, not in front of Father.
Father waved a hand at my partner, and he straightened up, lowering his lance. I wanted to see if it was a trick, another test, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from Father’s, deep and blue and cold. I don’t know what would have happened if Mother hadn’t rushed out. Her hair was flying everywhere, and her eyes bulged out like balls. “Gods, Lynneth, you actually did it? She’s only a child. Come here, sweet Emagen, you need to be cleaned up and checked—”
“She is an Ograe, and she will not be a child forever,” Father said. “Do you plan on stopping this?”
I spoke up before anyone else could. “No, I’m not a child.” And my little hand clenched up and knocked Father in his face.
I don’t know if I really hurt him. All I remember is Mother’s sharp gasp that cut off like she was being choked, how the guards stiffened. Father’s head lolled back just a little bit and then returned to normal. He looked me right in the eyes, nostrils flaring, and gave the tiniest of smiles. “My daughter.”
The second time, I was 14 and had grown a bit smarter. We’d gotten back from the Institute on Ivoria a few days before, and I still had the faces I saw there on my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’d visited that place, but now I was old enough now to understand some things, and they had me thinking.
My footwork was off. I wasn’t holding my lance properly, didn’t have a good grip. My partner threw me to the ground again and again, sending me coughing in the dust. I was quick, but he was just as quick—for every parry I made, he slipped in or around, poking at my back and ripping my legs out from under me, until it seemed like I’d never stepped into a training ring a day in my life.
This was unacceptable. An Ograe could not afford to put on such a poor performance, especially before their Trial. I needed to focus. Try as I might, my thoughts kept wandering back to what I saw in the Institute. Brown robes, white robes. Strange faces. The people there were every bit the warrior I was. Would they have been so easily distracted? Did their fathers watch
them like this? I didn’t know and didn’t have the time to find out, because my partner nicked the side of my cheek, and I tumbled over.
After the 20th time, I looked over through glazed eyes and said Father’s name.
His face was cold. “Again.”
I stood up and wiped the blood from my nose. How could I have said something so stupid? This was my battle, my task, and no one else’s. I sprang forward and landed a good hit on my opponent’s chest, but he swept my legs out from beneath me and I fell yet again.
Father said nothing, but I could feel his eyes on me. I was 6 again, with tears drowning out my sight. No, that wasn’t right. Even that little girl would have never let herself be so distracted. This was the greatest mistake I could have made.
My partner dashed forward before I could move and slugged me right in the cheek. . I staggered away and spat blood. “Father—”
“You never allow yourself to be hit like that. What’s your explanation?”
“Do you think the battle is over?” Father nodded to my partner, and he charged at me.
I brought my lance up just in time. My opponent charged, stopped, feinted. I raised my lance, froze, brought it back to guard my chest as he darted in again. I shook my head, let the tears fall away. Father was right. The battle was never over, not for an Ograe. It was how we managed to survive for all these years, in the vast woodlands that we held. It was why the other houses bowed to us. And I would damned if I let our legacy end with me.
“You have two years,” Father said, his voice carrying over the clash of our lances like they were nothing. “Two years before your Trial. Do you intend to let your opponent dominate?
“If you cannot master your mind, it will master you.”
My lance was soaked in blood. It had stained my gloves right through to the other side. I curled my hands around the handle, cringing at the wetness.
It was too late to go to the lake and clean it. It wasn’t far from this tree hollow, but night was falling fast. Already, the last streaks of dusk were fading, melting away into a navy blue that swallowed up the treetops. There could be no telling what sorts of things lurked at the lake come night, but if they were anything like that wolf pack, I wanted no part of them.
This hollow’s opening was small enough to keep them from getting in—at least, not more than one at a time. I’d needed to crawl through on my stomach myself. If they were lucky enough to find me, I would use the opening as a chokepoint. Stab at one or two, and hope that this time, they’d flee for good.
My gloves were useless at this point, with the way the blood had softened them. It wouldn’t take much to tear them now. I pulled them off and brushed my hand over the damp earth, letting the dirt seep into the wrinkles of my palm. The hollow was surprisingly small for a tree so large. No matter how far back I’d craned my head, I couldn’t see the top. Maybe its branches actually were scratching the sky, like Mother always used to say.
I leaned back against the bark, sighing. How stupid of me to go after that deer. It was just like Father said: where deer are, wolves are sure to follow. Packs like those had been the bane of many an Ograe on their Trials. Father had had a run-in with them on his own Trial, or so he said. I couldn’t imagine what else could have made a large scar on his arm. Mother had gone pale when he decided to show it to me, shortly before my first spar. “She doesn’t need to see that.
She’s a child.”
“Oh, but she does. One day, she’ll have her own Trial. She needs to know what’s out there. Right, Emagen?” He loosened the cuffs on his left sleeve and rolled it up. There was a thick, crescent shaped scar in the center of his arm. The skin looked faded and stretchy. I poked at it. “How’d you get that?”
“Foolishness,” Father said. “I wandered too close to a fresh kill. Wolves are very protective of their prey.”
“I don’t understand why you have these dreadful Trials,” Mother said. “You want to train her for this?”
“Well, Emagen?” Father kept his eyes on me. “What do you think?”
I frowned and pressed my little fingers against his scar. “Does it hurt?”
The smell of wet soil and bark brought me back to the present. There was no escaping a smell like this—it invaded my nose with every breath I took. I lifted my shirt over my face, then dropped it. No helping this. I would just have to get used to the smell.
Besides, there were perks to this place. Such a powerful smell should have helped to hide my scent. That was especially important, seeing as I’d run downwind from the pack. Even a mite of my scent would easily carry over to them, and now that night was falling, they wouldn’t miss the opportunity to ambush unsuspecting prey.
It was better to be safe than sorry. I grabbed fistfuls of the dirt and rubbed it over my arms and legs and chest. A few splinters managed to worm their way into my palms, but none so deep that I couldn’t pull them out.
I needed to rest now. I had enough water to last me until morning, and the fish in my pack would last for a day or two, if I was smart about it. Only an absolute idiot would wander around this forest in the dead of night. I’d start out early in the morning. Hopefully, I would make it to the end of these woods by nightfall tomorrow. From there, it was only a half-day’s distance to our estate, where Father would surely be waiting. I’d be exposed out on the plains, but at least nothing would be able to sneak up on me.
I curled up in the far corner and laid my head over my hands. The earth made a comfortable enough bed. Sleep tugged at my lids, but every time I closed them, they opened again. Not good. I needed to have my wits about me if I wanted to make it out of here in one
Try as I might, I took to thinking instead of sleeping. My mind showed me the Institute on Ivoria, with its thin brown spires stretching taller than any tree in this forest. How old was I when I first went there? 8, maybe 9? Mother had already left by then. If she was still around, she might have liked that Father took me there. Or maybe not, considering the way her smile on her face always vanished whenever Father brought up things like that. Maybe that was what she and Father always argued about on the nights I hid in my room and pretended not to hear.
Father wrapped an arm around my shoulders as we walked into the Institute. “The home of the Militia. Protectors of our realm.” His lips bent down.
“You don’t like them?” I asked. He hushed me.
There were people of all shapes and sizes walking through those halls. Some had on fancy uniforms with shining golden labels in languages I couldn’t read. They carried swords and lances and things I’d never seen before on their belts. The youngest people there looked a few years older than me. They didn’t have uniforms on, just plain brown and white tunics like the ones I always wore when training. Theirs looked a lot cleaner. I wanted to run over and ask how they kept them so clean and if I could maybe join them, but Father’s arm was around me like a vice, and I knew he’d give that look if I did.
Father told me to pay attention to the people he spoke to, with that same hard look on his face. I wondered why. Maybe he didn’t like how far we had to travel? Ivoria was halfway across the world, farther than even the giant forests that surrounded our estate. It had taken us two weeks to get here (or so Father said; I was paying more attention to every little thing we passed to keep track of the time). And the city, too! There were buildings on every street, far taller than any I’d ever seen. The streets were clogged with people moving this way and that; if I hadn’t held on tight to Father’s hand, I would have been lost in a second.
Maybe Father just didn’t like the big city. Maybe the Institute annoyed him because it was so massive. If he didn’t like it, though, why would he even come? The only thing he had to say about that was that there were people here he needed to speak to, and I should listen. So I tried to, I really did, but I kept seeing everyone passing by and the statues in the corner that looked big enough to pick me right up, and I barely heard anything except words like “treaty” and “negotiations” and “family.” All I could pay attention to were those golden labels, and how they would look on me.
“What did you think of them?” Father asked me later.
“I think I want to be one of them,” I said, beaming. “Can I be? I train so much.”
Father stared at me for a long, long time. “Emagen, you will never be one of them.”
I didn’t understand. Wouldn’t he be proud of me if I wore one of those golden labels and
walked around in the Institute with its statues big enough to pick me up? Did he really hate this place so much? “Why?”
He knelt to look me in the eyes. “Because those people are fools. They know nothing of hardship, there in that pretty temple. They claim to protect us, but do you know who does? We do.” He tapped my chest so hard I wobbled. “Remember that. When you face your Trial, no one will be there to save you. Only you can do that.”
He wasn’t lying. If he had been, I never would have made it this far. I wouldn’t be sitting here in this hollow with my lance by my side, scanning the darkness for movement. If I’d thought someone would be here to save me, I would have been dead two hours ago.
Something growled outside. I flew up, scrabbling for my lance. Had the wolves found me after all?
Things were still. Too still. A tiny shaft of moonlight flickering through the opening was all that illuminated the hollow. I crept toward it, not daring to take my eyes away. Another growl came, closer this time. I clutched my lance in my hands and moved closer in turn. It was a good thing I knew to wait here with my lance, poised like I was the predator instead of them. Father was right. The people at the Institute would never know anything like that, because they didn’t send their children out to face Trials. It was different here, on our side of the world. This was how we saved ourselves.
Maybe Mother didn’t understand that. That must have been why she left. I wished she was here so I could ask her, but she would never get through something like this, in a tree in the woods with wolves sniffing and snapping all around it. There was no one here but me, alone, just like Father said I would be. I crouched low, raised my lance up, and waited.
Kristen Strmel lives on the outskirts of New York City. She keeps a notepad and pen inside her pillowcase so that she can jot down her ideas in the dead of night before she forgets. She has a love of classical history, which often inspires her stories.