Chapters 1 - 5
CHAPTER ONE: JAR OF STONE
Slave. She cringed as the word ricocheted through her mind, a testimony of her unfortunate status. Of course, everyone in Olleb-Yelfra suffered the same endless beginning, born with the weight of shackles until their eighteenth year. Get in, survive, and get out. That was the only thing on everyone’s mind in her world.
Arianna knew only the tiniest of threads needed cut to rip away all she had worked for since she stepped foot in her prison, the City of the Four Corners. There were so many ways to die in that dreadful place, so many ways to fail. So she trained hard, holding tight to her thread of life.
She scrunched her eyes closed as her roommates roused her awake. “Just five more minutes.” She buried her face in her pillow, trying to block out the world.
A bell sounded, and, even from the city center, the echoes of the brass rang out loud and clear. She groaned as the sound filled her head, heralding the start of another dawn she couldn’t escape.
“You heard the bell. Now, get up! Ten minutes to get in line, or it’s the Pit!”
Arianna rolled her eyes at the regulator harassing the girls out of bed. Ticking down the days in her head, she took deep, long breaths. In just a few months’ time, her eighteenth year would pass, and she would become a contender in the Free Falls Festivals. She took another deep breath. Just a few more months.
She pushed the covers to her feet and sat up in bed, stretching her sore muscles. A shudder rolled across her skin at the sudden temperature change, or was it the thought of the Free Falls that made her shiver? It was such bittersweet thought. Arianna knew what the festivals stood for; ‘Free’ for the slaves who earned their citizenship and ‘Falls’ for the ones who died. If she was honest with herself, she knew most people would never earn their freedom. Olleb-Yelfra existed on the backs of wise, able-bodied citizens because the Free Falls weeded out the weak ones, or so claimed the King. But really, who was ever truly honest with themselves these days?
She shook her head and pushed aside her nerves for later. Today, she needed to focus on her training with Solomon. She relaxed a little, thinking of her master, of the man who would make sure she could survive the festivals.
“Get moving,” said the regulator in a tired voice. Arianna climbed down from her bunk, the wood floor chilling her toes as she dressed quickly. After pulling on her boots, she moved to where cloaks hung on a wall near the door. A deep red colored the fabrics and silver numbers embroidered the shoulder of each. Arianna searched for hers. There… number twenty-two. Her mouth set into a grim line as she studied the number, her hand stroking the old cloth.
My name is Arianna Belvedor. She yanked the robe off the hook and draped it around her shoulders so she didn’t have to stare at the number another moment longer. The heavy fabric warmed her skin, sweeping the floor as it fell down around her body. Floor boards creaked as the thirty other girls that shared the household assembled at the door. Arianna fell in line behind the regulator. “Let’s go.” She didn’t want to, but he pushed open the door, and they marched out into the cold, one by one.
There was no preparing yourself for that kind of cold, the sort that finds its way into your bones and sores your eyes. Snow bit at her skin and dotted her dark hair white, the same as any day. She pulled her hood around her head to shield her face as she gazed towards the sky. Morning dawned behind the gray clouds, but no sun could be found. Not shocking in the least as the sun was quite shy in these parts. Lowering her eyes to the ground, Arianna wished for just a little proof that the yellow bulb of light still existed behind the gray. As much as she disliked a cloudy sky, the view of the ashen-faced mountains that encased the Four Corners made her sick. Not physically sick, but imagine being forced to stare at the same, dull backdrop all day, every day, for a lifetime. That’s how she felt… if one can imagine.
The mountains that made her cringe so very much were impossible to ignore at almost any moment spent outside. They trapped the city in a wide, jagged cage with perilous peaks reaching towards the skyline like a claw, locking in the gray and barring out the sun. It created the perfect prison, and it earned the city a nickname, ‘Jar of Stone’.
Thousands of other slaves marched, in silence, alongside Arianna under the darkened sky, under the watch of the mountains, the snow turning brown under their boots as they slushed to the beat. In a crimson flock, they passed the many crumbling buildings that made up the small district until a deep hole spread out before them. Arianna stiffened.
The slaves maneuvered around the Pit with ease, their breath hitched in their throats out of respect for the deceased slaves. Arianna glanced down as they passed. Why did she always have to look? She strained to see so far down with no help from the imaginary sun, but she glimpsed some of the skeletons glinting in the dark. Needle-like rocks and the rotting bodies of young slaves who disrespected the law lined the bottom, putting on a very memorable display for any slave who considered straying from obedience.
“Hey! You wanna join ‘em?” Like Hell she did.
Arianna jumped as the voice shattered the silence. The fearful eyes of her peers watched as a regulator came to her side, grabbing hold of her arm and halting the line behind them.
“There somebody down there you’d like to see, twenty-two?” She could think of a few names.
The regulator moved closer so that half her body hovered over the Pit as his fingers dug deep into her skin. If he let go of her arm, she would surely fall to her death. Arianna’s eyes widened as she looked down, her curiosity fleeting away in terror as the sunken faces of the dead stared back. From this angle, she could see the bottom of the Pit with more clarity. She prayed, oh how she prayed, not to get any closer to that fate.
The regulator stepped back and let her go as a throaty laugh escaped his lips. She looked up, and he raised an eyebrow at her, waiting for an answer. She flinched and shook her head. “No.” Her whisper was sucked down into the darkness of the catacomb beneath her, and every time her heart beat she thought it might jump right out of her chest to follow.
“Then eyes forward.” He poked her in the shoulder, on her double-digit identity, gesturing for her to keep walking. Her knees shook as she moved her feet, one after the other. She lowered her head to the ground until they arrived at the city center — the Square.
They passed under a low bridge, and a wide, open area stretched out around them, slaves pouring in from all sides. High stone steps encircled the area, creating an amphitheater-like structure with pillars at the top. Arianna found the nerve to lift her eyes from the ground, and she peered to the sky, past the crumbling pillars and past the people below.
Wind pounded against a raised flag that rose high above the crowd at the front. She studied the embroidery while she waited for instructions. Faded reds, blues, purples, and greens weaved into segments. She knew them by heart all too well. They formed a circle which signified the emblem of the Four Corners and the four districts within the city.
Like any other day, the regulators ushered the slaves into lines facing an elevated platform, a wide, black-marble structure which towered over the crowd at the front of the amphitheater. Today, Arianna stood in front, wishing she could be anywhere else. She raised her eyes to the stage as General Ivo surveyed the red sea of prisoners from under his hood.
She saw them, his dark eyes that matched so well the ruthless demeanor of his character, and a scar. It slashed across his cheek like a worm etched through his white skin. The sword at his belt swayed as he paced, revealing the promise in his glare. His black robes, lined with red fur and emblazoned with the golden snake of the King’s crest, swept the floor at his feet as he stood waiting.
Behind him, a large image created the backdrop on a black wall. The same golden snake intertwined itself between two blazing swords, the symbol of Arianna’s district. She always saw that symbol as such a brilliantly clichéd idea, to use swords to depict the Warrior’s District. What a superficial view of what it takes to be a fighter. Well, that’s what she thought anyways.
A low hum buzzed through the crowd until General Ivo raised his hand. The slaves were silenced in an instant. Arianna’s lips zipped tight, her arms flat at her side. The general walked forward, preparing to speak but stopped as something caught his attention. Was he looking at her? No, but his gaze burned straight through her center.
Arianna’s ears perked up to a whisper coming from behind her in the crowd. She bit her lip as the hushed voice instantly vanished. Too late. Nothing went unnoticed under the general’s watch, and right now his eyes stayed unblinking. Arianna tried to quiet her pounding heart, hoping no one else could hear as a stone-faced regulator moved towards her from his post at the front.
She flinched as he stormed past her, yanking a small girl from the crowd by her collar. Arianna recognized the girl as a sixth year as she kicked and screamed all the way to the stage. The regulator looked to the general as the girl squirmed under his hold, and Arianna held her breath along with the rest of her peers.
General Ivo gave a nod of command, that sinister, ‘you-know-you’re-done-for’ nod she’d seen so many times. The regulator grinned. “Show some respect,” he said, his voice low as he locked eyes with the terrified child.
The girl’s cries drowned out his words for the most part, but Arianna stood close enough to hear the tragic ending they promised. Some days General Ivo gave second chances, but today he seemed to be in as foul a mood as any as he ordered her off to the Pit.
She felt others around her fidget as the girl was dragged away from the Square. Nobody dared make a sound, not a peep from anyone as the girl’s pleading tears left a trail behind her. Arianna closed her eyes, shaking her head at another wasted life. The girl should’ve known better.
To be honest, she couldn’t help but feel relief when all was said and done. I’m still safe. I’m still here. Her eyes flew open just as the general reappeared, front and center, as if nothing at all had surpassed. His calm demeanor baffled her because inside her own head she was screaming. It was a silent scream that echoed into every corner of her mind until she felt numb and the voice died away.
Then she felt her whole body come alive, alert, as if someone had just called her name. It’s the way you feel when you know someone’s watching you, as though her body could sense the glare of eyes on her skin. She looked to her left and saw the culprit, the eyes. They were Liam’s, and they looked worried. She nodded in reassurance to her friend who worried for her. They looked out for each other, and it made life easier that way.
General Ivo raised his right hand and bent to his knee, stealing back Arianna’s attention. The crowd mirrored his movement as he balled his hand into a veiny fist and placed it on his chest above his heart. “Hail to the King! Hail to Lord Devlindor.” His voice, such a terrible one, made her want to stick her fingers in her ears, but she straightened her back and repeated the daily verse along with everyone else.
Arianna’s words melted in with the other mechanical voices around her. The phrase tasted wrong on her tongue. She hated lying, and she hated King Devlindor. Her loyalty to someone who squeezed so tightly at her life made her dizzy, but she didn’t have the leisure of choice, not in this world.
“Dismissed,” said the general as he turned and headed off the stage, down the long staircase. The crowd dispersed to their daily routines, and a dull chatter filled the air as Arianna headed to breakfast. She walked by the Pit on the way, but she didn’t dare look down.
CHAPTER TWO: MASTER BELL
The day dragged on. It dragged on, and on, and on, and on just like every other day in the district. For a few hours Arianna sat in different lectures learning, or, better put, daydreaming through the history of the King’s many accomplishments, of great battles won and his long-standing reign of the Olleb. Her mind wandered so far off at times that she could swear she lived like a royal or was knee deep in the mud, fighting for her people with a shield and sword in hand.
After emerging from her all-too-vivid imagination, she spent the rest of the day losing duels to Solomon during training, too many to count on her fingers and toes.
“You mustn’t falter again, Arianna!” screamed Solomon over the clashing of metal. Sparks flew as he danced around her in intricate circles. His sword cut through the air with skill and thwarted each attack she attempted. “I demand your attention! Your enemies demand your attention!” His sword landed hard on hers, and she faltered under the pressure. “Draw your mind to the battle at hand, and leave your thoughts for a more appropriate time.” With one hand behind his back, he never took a hit.
Arianna jabbed her double-swords at his midriff, but he swatted them away with little effort. She lost her balance and fell to her knees on the stone floor of the sparring room, the impact jarring all the bones in her body. Solomon lunged forward, brandishing his sword. She tried to stand up, but not quickly enough. Her body stilled as she felt the familiar cold steel at her neck. Sweat dripped onto his blade, and she wiped it away. “Yield,” she said. Her swords fell to the floor, the sound making her wince. Another battle lost to Master Bell.
Solomon laughed with an energy that boomed off the stone walls.
“I see nothing funny about another loss,” said Arianna, trying to keep her cool as she pushed aside his sword.
“No, of course not. I was merely contemplating the choice to switch from wooden blades to steel,” he said. “Dear child, I feel as if I could give you a sword with a mind of its own and it still wouldn’t puncture my skin.” She wished for a sword like that.
Solomon flashed his pearly teeth and leaned against the far wall, folding his arms across his chest.
Arianna’s nonchalance wavered as he paraded his victory in her face, and, in one swift movement, she got to her feet. Tightening her grip on the hilt of her blades, she shifted her feet to a wide fighting stance. Directing her swords at Solomon, she felt the adrenaline course anew through her veins as she challenged him, her master. The steel felt too heavy in her hands, and her muscles ached from so much training. Still, she found determination from somewhere, even if the effort was a bit futile at this point. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, letting the air revitalize her body.
“Again!” She lunged forward to attack. Solomon answered with a bow, such a gentleman he was. He side–stepped her attempt and slapped the flat edge of his steel on her back. It stung, pulsating across her skin, and she stumbled forward into the full-length mirror near the wall. A large crack spread down the middle, reflecting a broken image of the warrior’s crest on the opposite wall and a distorted reflection of her.
She regained her balance and steadied her swords once more, crossing them at her front. Solomon beckoned her forward, and the clashing of metal continued.
“Why have you chosen me as an apprentice, Master Bell?” said young Arianna as she knelt before the stage in the Square. The muddied ground dirtied her hands and knees.
She just finished a successful practice duel with a boy from her group, but it surprised her when Solomon declared his decision in front of the panel. Slaves hardly ever got chosen for private training before their fifteenth year. Besides, Arianna thought it obvious that her dueling partner had let her win. After all, Liam always took it easy on her.
As soon as the question spilled from her mouth, she regretted it. A hooded regulator hovered over her with his hand raised, ready to strike. Before his palm could reach the skin on her face, her reflexes took over, another thing she would soon regret. She jumped up and side-stepped his hand.The regulator faltered under her maneuver and tripped sideways. Her twelfth-year peers gasped at the scene, and her face paled in horror.
More regulators closed in to drag her away, and sweat beaded on her forehead as they clutched at her arms. Before they could remove her, Solomon Bell raised his hand in an order of halt. The regulators gave their distance to Arianna, and she fell to her knees in shame and relief.
“Let her be,” commanded the master swordsman. “She has made only a small offense. It’s nothing to get excited about. Besides, I will enjoy teaching her the hard lesson of respect in training tomorrow.” Arianna lowered her head, afraid to look him in the eyes for fear they would match the threat in his voice.
“Please, forgive my offense. I meant no disrespect, Sir,” she said in a small, shaky sound. Her eyes studied the ground.
“Look at me when you speak, girl,” he said in a menacing tenor, so she lifted her head in obedience.
There was no hint of anger on his face like she anticipated. His eyes gave her a strange sense of reassurance and warmth. He strode down the stone steps from the evaluators’ stand, and, for a moment, Arianna thought him a king.His white, velvet cloak sparkled in the daylight; rubicund silk trimmed the edges and lined the inside. On the back, embroidered in the same shiny thread, the crest of the district completed his regal appearance. He lifted her to her feet by the elbow and whispered something in her ear.
His words were quite unexpected and ones that she would never forget. “I chose you because you’re worth choosing,” he said.Immediately tears began to well in her eyes. She had never been worth anything to anyone in her life. “You are dismissed. Your lessons begin at dawn,” he said with finality.
“Solomon, friend, it pains me that you worry so much. You know you’ve taught me well.” She sprung forward again. “You get so angry when only my mind has faltered, yet not the blade in hand.” She smiled. “Am I not match enough without adding my intellect to the battle?” Solomon stopped attacking, his black skin glimmering with sweat.
Swords swinging at her side, her eyes steadied on her trainer. She tried to look brave, but he intimidated her. Could he tell? Although somewhat humbled by the bad knee gained during his time serving the King, his skill never faltered. He cleared Arianna by a full shaved head, so she looked up to meet his gaze.
He could pass for forty, but his eyes gave him away. In Olleb-Yelfra, people could live a very long time. No slave knew the age of any of the elders that ran the district. Why, even King Devlindor had just celebrated his third century, and his portraits still looked youthful. For all she knew, Solomon could be one hundred and fifty. He claimed twenty-nine, but Arianna knew better. His wisdom far outreached such a small number.
His dark eyes trained on her, calculating her next move. “If you were any match at all, dear girl, I might actually make an effort,” he said. “I would return us to the wooden blade for fear you might cut out my heart.” He returned her smile, and she paled. “But, alas, you’re neither match nor worthy opponent for an old cripple like me.”
With no time to react to the sudden whip of his sword and rapid maneuver of his leg, bad or not, Arianna lay flat on her back once again. All traces of humor left her face as Solomon looked down upon her. His sword scratched at the fabric above her heart, and Arianna sucked in her chest.
“Let me up you old fool!” she said. “Will you never give me credit for my skill?” She felt the heat rising in her face, her hands shaking.
“I’ll give you credit for your skill once you win a battle over me.” He walked to the bench on the far side of the room and sat down. A barrel of weapons stood by his side, and he switched his sword for an axe.
“I’m a warrior! I’m tired of these games,” she said. “What more could you want me to prove?” She looked away, balling her hands into fists.
“Arianna Belvedor: a skilled slave of Warrior’s District.” He spoke slowly as if talking to a child. “Perhaps you are the most talented, disciplined fighter of all the children whom train within the city. But that is all you are and all you fight… children,” said Solomon, a fire growing in his eyes. He cupped her chin in his hand, demanding her gaze. His calloused palm felt rough on her skin, and she could see dark scars on his fingertips. “If you want to live longer than a day as a citizen of the Olleb, then you must learn to think outside of this childhood.”
Arianna tried to pull away from his firm grasp, but he continued. “Master, I’m not a ch—” She stuttered as his voice drowned out her words.
“Your eighteenth year is upon you. You must be prepared! Beyond these mountains is a land more vast and dangerous than you could possibly imagine. These dangers will not stop the tip of their swords at the nape of your neck. They will drive it through your skin until your blood stains their hands and your life leaves your eyes. They’ll show no mercy to a young woman who hasn’t had the chance to learn the trickery of the world, and that’s why I push you so hard!” He let go, staring her straight in the eyes. “You’re no warrior yet.”
Arianna flinched at the harshness of his words. They painted a vivid picture. From the life she knew, she didn’t expect the outside world to be much different, but still… she hoped.
“Master, I know all this,” she said in a small voice. This wasn’t the first time she heard this speech.
Solomon scowled. “You know nothing! You’ve won many battles over your matched opponents but never killed more than a beetle under your feet. Heed my warning, child. You may be granted freedom for the skill you show in practice, but can you live long enough to enjoy it?” She hoped so. “The land beyond here, which you call freedom, is no kinder place than this children’s nightmare you’re locked in. It will demand the skill of both your body and mind if you’re to survive its battles.”
Arianna could not help but feel weak and small in his presence as he turned his back on her. She stood frozen, his voice ringing in her ears.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a gentle voice. She stored his words in her heart for she knew her master truly wished for her survival. She trained hard for him, even if she didn’t know her destiny yet. Not knowing what else to say, she picked up a single sword and steadied it in his direction. Besides, he called for action, not words, and this she could deliver with spirit.
Solomon turned to face her, taking her in. He let a familiar smile flitter across his lips. Before him stood the same young girl he first looked upon five years earlier, yet somehow she’d grown. Her short, chocolate curls now grew past her chest, and she tied them to the side at her neck. Her thin arms and legs were now lithely muscular after so much practice. Even her boyish features had curved and smoothed into an attractive young woman. Not quite, but almost there… almost a warrior. She looked fierce, her sword hand steady as a rock.
“What I want is for you to show me what you’ve learned from all these years of practice,” said Solomon. He raised the axe, gripping tightly on the hilt. He matched her stance and beckoned for her to attack. “Show me that you’re a child no longer, and I’ll show you a warrior’s respect.”
Arianna gave a smirk and nodded at his challenge. With that, they lunged forward, the explosion of metal deafening and sweet to their ears.
CHAPTER THREE: A UTOPIA
“Arianna, can you hear me? For bloody sakes open your eyes, girl!” The voice seemed familiar, but it sounded muffled and distant like someone speaking to her through glass. Am I underwater? Someone tried to reach to her from the surface.
She sprung her eyes open to analyze the situation but saw nothing more than the vast expanse of the cerulean sea around her. Yes, it was water or some sort of blue liquid. It encased her naked body and entangled her long, wild hair. It felt peaceful, warm even. Though, the calm made her feel alone.
Is this freedom… death maybe? She couldn’t decide. In comparison to her caged life as a warrior-slave, she couldn’t help but think that maybe it might be better to just stay there in the depth of nothingness.
She did stay. She floated for what seemed like hours, making no attempt to leave. As she waded through the liquid blue, she noticed the faintest of lights in the distance, so faint she wasn’t sure if it really existed. Then again, she wasn’t quite sure if she existed. As the nimble glow grew brighter, she couldn’t resist the temptation to find out where it came from and what it was.
She swam, following the trail of golden glitter. Deeper she went until the liquid turned to a dark sapphire. Familiar chills started to creep under her skin and curl around her body. Still, she swam deeper. To her shock, the trail vanished before her eyes and left her with only darkness as a companion.
“Arianna, come back!” The voice boomed in her ears, rippling the liquid about her skin. She felt her body reverberate like a shock of lightening burning straight through her bones, and she began to choke on the watery blackness. It poured into her lungs and burned her eyes and throat. She tried to scream for help, but her voice came in the form of bubbles as the liquid filled her body. No use to struggle. She just let go and closed her burning eyes, leaving the nothingness behind.
“There’s my girl. Good as new, aren’t ya?” Arianna blinked open her eyes to find Solomon hovering over her looking relieved.
She felt miserable. Pale lavender walls stung her eyes as she studied the room around her. A large cabinet situated in the corner and a couple of chairs lined the wall to her left. On the other side, she saw a small stove. Arianna recognized it as her Well Room connected to the sparring area. Shifting her eyes, she saw Solomon leaning over her with his hands on his hips. A triumphant smile formed on his face.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I won…” Of course he did. “But you sure did put up a Hell of a fight!” He patted her head, and she grimaced.
“Surprise, surprise.” She raised her hand to her pounding head. To her horror, she felt a large lump growing above her eye.
“You were out for a while this time, Ara. It’s nearly nightfall.”
“Yeah, well I suppose after the hundredth concussion, I might stop waking up as fast. You’re lucky I even came back this time. I almost decided not to.” She smiled to hide the truth of her words.
“Arianna, I’m not at all worried about your physical health, although maybe I will stop going for the head if I want you to remember anything I’ve ever taught you,” he said.
Arianna almost chuckled, but it hurt too much to laugh.
“To be quite honest, it’s your mental health that bothers me.” His tone grew serious, and Arianna knew he wanted to lecture her again. “I know you’ve been having strange dreams. I heard you just now, mumbling in your sleep.” He paused, lost in thought as a wry smile twisted on his face.
“Solomon, why do you worry so much, really? It was just a dream. Lighten up.”
“Never take a dream lightly,” he said, wagging his finger. “A mind is a mystery to both man and magic. Therefore, it must be respected.”
Arianna’s eyes widened as the word ‘magic’ rolled off his tongue. The King forbade anyone, citizen or slave, to delve in fairytales such as these. Severe punishment answered to those caught with an imagination outside the law. “Master… what do you mean? That word is forb—” She tried to speak, but Solomon paid no mind, continuing his sermon.
“Our minds are what make us unique,” he said. “It’s why we choose the paths that we do. Your mind knows more about you than you do yourself, and it holds the key to your past, present, and future. If you respect that, then you can open up doors you never deemed possible.”
Arianna tried to speak up again, “But you said mag—” Solomon held his finger to her lips, and she swallowed her words once again.
“Ara, listen to me,” he said. “Your mind never sleeps and that is why you dream. If you pay more attention to both worlds, rather than just the physical one, you may be in for a surprise.” Reassured that he answered all of her questions he relaxed in a nearby chair, sipping at a cup of tea.
His words of wisdom always left Arianna dizzy, and sometimes she wondered where they came from. “Master Bell, your insight is very… refreshing,” she said with a sincere smile.
“Good,” he said, returning her grin.
“Well, if my mind really is giving me a vivid glimpse into my soul, then please stop giving me such terrible whippings. One of these days I’m going to stop working,” said Arianna, massaging her temples.
“You’re probably right.” He threw his head back in laughter, startling Arianna into a fit of giggles.
Lowering her voice to a whisper, she was determined to ask the question burning on her tongue. “Now, what is this about mag—?”
“Welcome back,” said a woman. She waddled into the room and planted a routine kiss on Arianna’s sore head. Arianna pouted at the interruption. “It’s good to see you too,” said the woman, placing her hands on her hips.
Solomon raised an eyebrow as he surveyed Arianna, and she caught his eye. After a moment he shook his head in warning, as if reading her mind. She decided to save it for another time. Knowing it unwise to divulge such a taboo word from her lips with her caretaker now in the room, she swallowed it for later.
Caretaker Cyn came as one of the perks of having a private trainer like Solomon Bell. She dressed in long, silver robes that clung to her plump body. Stitched above her chest, a tiny, gold snake ensnared a red heart. As she bent over Arianna, examining her wounds with gloved hands, her hair waved in auburn locks to her shoulders, tickling Arianna’s cheeks. A soft smile spread across her lips at the sensation, and Cyn gave her a wink as she began to daub medicines onto her skin. The gashes burned at the contact, making her wince, but she could already see an improvement. “Ouch, that stings,” she said, clenching her fists.
“It’s almost over, dear,” said Cyn. Arianna nodded for her to continue as she bit her lip, trying to take her mind off the pain. New pain she just never got accustomed to… no matter how familiar the sting was.
“Solomon, I’ll not have you banging this girl around anymore. She’ll be dead before the Free Falls if you continue at this rate,” she said as she smeared a sticky green ointment over Arianna’s bruises.
Arianna tried to suppress her smile, thinking it funny the way she spoke to Solomon Bell like a child.
He frowned. “Alright, Cyn, I’ll let up a bit. I just want her to be ready for what’s coming.”
“Well, she won’t be ready if she’s lying in a hospital bed bleeding out the side of her head, now will she?” she said, her shrill voice making them squirm.
“Humph… I said I’ll lighten up. Now you lighten up, woman!”
Solomon and Cyn continued like that for another hour until all of her wounds had healed. As they bickered, Arianna peeled away the dried ointment. The bruises vanished to perfection, the aching gone. She swung her feet to the floor, stretching her muscles. Under Cyn’s scrutiny, Solomon gave her the rest of the night free, so she had a couple of hours to kill before curfew. Pulling on her cloak, she rushed out of the Well Room. It was wishful thinking that Solomon would ease up on her training, and she knew she’d be back there soon enough.
Having unscheduled breaks in her day didn’t happen very often, so she planned to take full advantage of it tonight. Deciding to head to her favorite spot in the city, she walked out of the sparring room. Standing in the Dueling Arena, a huge, open area covered with a dirt floor spread out before her, and the smell of sweat filled her nose.
Red-bricked walls rose high above her head, encircling the entire place, and lanterns glued to the walls. They flickered in the subtle wind, giving the space a soft glow under the clouded night. Behind Arianna, about sixty doors lined a wall that led to other private sparring rooms much like her own.
As she walked away from the rooms and towards the barred gate on the far side of the arena, she passed many people in group training sessions. Masters yelled commands at the top of their lungs, and she could hear the battle cries and grunts of those dueling. Some slaves conducted drills and ran laps around the grounds; others battled with a myriad of weapons. They wielded swords, axes, flails, daggers, and bows, some using only their fists. Slaves of all ages littered the arena. They lay wounded, dead or fighting, just another day in the district.
Arianna pushed open the tall gate. Her skin shivered as her fingers touched the cool steel, so she pulled on her leather gloves and slipped out. The Warrior’s District wound like a giant serpent that coiled into itself, the path to the right leading to the Square. She turned towards the left.
Walking towards the west side of the city, Arianna passed the Well Center, which looked like a warped sphere pressed into the ground. She saw caretakers, like Cyn, running in and out of the graying-lilac building, caring for the injured. Further up the road she passed the Dining Hall, a long, rectangular structure made of a dull stone. The food they served there replicated the same lifeless color as its exterior, and Arianna scrunched up her nose as the scent of mush filled the air.
She strode past more rundown buildings towards the edge of the city, and she walked by the underpass of the mountains. As they loomed above her, she lifted her eyes to their snow-topped peaks. Rumors declared it a dead man’s journey to try and trek over Blancoren, so people always went under.
Each district within the Four Corners had access to an underpass, so the districts could receive provisions from other cities. Hundreds of paths under the mountains created the maze of the Vanishing Tunnels. She knew the story well. With only one way in or out of the labyrinth, elders held the only maps. No slave ever tried to escape… not unless the rumors were true about the one-year anniversary of the Four Corners at least.
Arianna passed the guards who blocked the tunnels, day and night, and walked along the mountainside. If she continued in a circular path along Blancoren, she would eventually end up back where she started. She passed some of the barracks where she and the other slaves slept. Hundreds of them stood against the wall of the mountains. Mounted on wooden stilts high above the ground, they seemed to sway in the wind.
She circled the quiet street. Feeling a little anxious as she always did when she snuck away, she ducked under the barracks and out of sight. Everyone was still busying about in the center of town, so she felt safe enough from prying eyes. After about fifteen minutes of walking underneath the houses, the smell of rotting wood began to sting her nose. Her fingers traced the frozen mountainside until they found a particular stone, the size of a small child, which wobbled under her touch.
Pushing her fingers on the stone, it fell inward, landing with a thud. Her mind lurched backwards as she placed her hand in the center of the cold rock, remembering the moment which had led her there so long ago.
“I’m trying, really I am,” she said, breathless.
“Not hard enough!” screeched her trainer. “Pick up your damn sword, you lazy excuse for a girl!”
Another swing came at her head, but she lifted the heavy, wooden blade. She moved quick enough to block the strike, but the weight of the blow left her back on the ground, sweating in panic. Mud covered every inch of her, and a large gash bled above her elbow.
“Come on, get up!” said her opponent, a boy in her ninth-year group. Everyone always praised his skill. “Practice makes perfect.”
His sword pointed at her face, waiting for her next feeble attack. He looked like a real warrior standing over her then, a scar across his chest.
“I swear on the High King, if you don’t get back on your damn feet, I’ll have you thrown in the Pit, twenty-two,” said the trainer. The man stayed faceless in her memory, but his voice sounded cold and rigid.
Nothing scared her more than the Pit. No slave could survive that punishment. Even with the fear of that fate weighing on her, she knew she couldn’t win this battle.
“I can’t… I can’t fight anymore. I’m not strong enough,” said young Arianna. “I yield.”
Her sword dropped to the ground. The other slaves in her group laughed, all except one, a flaxen-haired boy who just stared in the other direction. Liam.
“You’re pathetic. Absolutely not worth a single second more of my time,” said the trainer. “In this world, you earn your freedom! You’ll be lucky if you ever even see a glimpse.” She prayed for that luck.
He turned and walked out of the arena with the others at his heels, leaving her alone with the boy who mocked her with his smile. As beautiful as he was, she hated him then. “Next time at least make it a fight. You’ll be dead and buried in the tombs before you reach your next ceremony,” he said with a smug smirk.
The boy slung his wooden sword to his side and then spat at her feet. He left her there alone, whistling the tune of the Free Bird as he went.
A few weeks later, he died
“This is the destiny you choose if you forget your place here,” said General Ivo. “Look upon the child that was destined for greatness. Now he’s nothing more than a rotting corpse. May freedom find you in death,” he said with a sinister smile as he dropped a single white rose into the Pit.
Arianna had never before seen such a beautiful flower outside of books and scrolls. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the darkness as it swallowed up the rose. She wondered at that moment if the general spoke the truth.
Would his soul be set free even though he died a slave? She hoped not. She hated that boy even in death.
“Mark my words,” said the general. The entire crowd silenced in order to hear. “You are nothing more than a number here, and I’ll not hesitate to snuff out the slightest hint of defiance inside of these walls. Dismissed.”
The crowd dispersed to get back to their duties, and Arianna found the motivation to train harder.
As Arianna climbed through the hole in the mountainside, she reflected on the emotions of that day in her past. The embarrassment she felt, and the humiliation that had led her to hide under the barracks all came back to haunt her now.
Desperately wishing for a way to escape the little boy and the taunts of her ninth-year peers, something had answered her prayers all those years ago. When she had leaned her small body against the loose rock, she revealed a secret like none other. Now, at seventeen, she had traveled there countless times.
Replacing the stone in its rightful stance, she became blinded in momentary darkness. After a few moments, the ceiling of the hidden cave began to glow like sparkling red and gold lanterns hung just for her special arrival. Millions of firebugs hummed a few feet above her head, guiding the way to her destination. The light they surrendered swirled all around her, buzzing with electricity.
As she traveled down the long, narrow passage, the air grew warmer. She removed her heavy cloak and clothes, stripping down to her undergarments. Here she was simply Arianna.
After a few minutes, the tunnel grew wide. A large opening spread out before her, lit even brighter than the entrance. “My paradise,” she said as she took in the brilliant backdrop.
Standing at the mouth of the cave, the area opened into a huge dome bigger even than the Dueling Arena, and firebugs covered the walls and ceiling. The top of the cave jutted down like inwardly built crowns, sparkling with dripping water, and massive, glittering, green stones projected from the walls and sat in the large lake that submerged the center of the floor.
As she moved further in, she saw a small cliff protruding from the side of the cave where foot holdings led up to the top. Arianna circled the cavern, climbing to the top of the cliff as usual. From up here she could see other twisting tunnels on the far side of the cave, but she had never found the guts to venture down any of them.
Her eyes transfixed on the water pouring from an unrevealed source high above her head. As it crashed to the pools below like thunder, she let it flow between her fingers. Then, turning around to face the edge of the cliff, she pushed her heel down with all her strength and sprinted forward.
The ground disappeared, and her body reveled in the rush, in the adrenaline, as she fell through the air. Nothing else mattered until her feet collided with the pool of water below. Waves splashed all around her body, engulfing her in a sweet sensation as she plunged down through the water.
Making her way back up for air, she reached the surface, willing her body to float around the giant pool. The temperature grew much hotter in the middle, and her tense muscles started to relax with the heat. The waterfall thundered down the cliffside behind her, creating more waves that rippled under her skin. She closed her eyes, imagining that the world outside the Four Corners must be this peaceful and serene. This utopia had birthed a fighter. It gave her motivation for a future such as this.
As she floated there, her mind at ease and dancing with thoughts of battle, she heard a subtle splash at the opposite end of the springs.
With swift reflexes, she let her body be immersed into the water. All but her nose and eyes melted into the pool as she tried to blend into the shadows, her curly locks drifting in a dark train behind her like a lethal creature lurking in the depths.
She stilled as she heard more splashing noises begin in the distance. Trying to see what caused the disturbance without getting too close, Arianna stayed stone-still for fear a monster roamed the surface. Even though the law forbade that kind of imagination, stories still got around the district through whispers and gossip. Every slave heard their fair share from the older years, and at bedtime they had exchanged the tales with the regulators out of earshot.
Now, as she waited, she recalled these childhood nightmares. The stories of scaly creatures that prowled dark waters and ripped apart the bones of careless wanderers burned in her mind. Her fear grew palpable, thinking of Solomon as these fables clawed their way into her thoughts. Of course… he’s always right.
If she was truly honest with herself, which came on odd occasions, Arianna could not form a true picture of what the real world might be like. Surely not filled with the creatures of her imagination? No way to be sure of what she might face, she held her breath, careful not to make any sound.
Determined for answers, she waded closer.
Impossible. Her eyes widened for only a moment before the rest of her body slipped underwater.
CHAPTER FOUR: GHOST
Deeper and deeper Arianna drifted under the dark waters. She hoped her movement wouldn’t stir any attention from the surface, but she needed a closer look to be sure that what she saw was no illusion. In her district, the regulators rationed water for drinking and bathing purposes only, but swimming came naturally to her. Many years she had practiced moving herself through these hot springs.
She kicked her legs hard as she moved in the direction of a massive jade rock sunken in the water near the bank on the other side. As the warm liquid massaged her skin, her thoughts reeled with the unpleasant possibilities of what she might soon encounter. How could she feel unsafe here, in the place that was her own? Without a sword, she was vulnerable and exposed to danger, to a threat that was never supposed to be.
She carried only a small dagger strapped to her thigh—a gift from Solomon on the day of their first lesson and something she made sure she was never without. She knew nothing of treasure, but this was hers. Patting its sheath, she made sure it wouldn’t fall loose in the waters. If she didn’t reach the safety of the rock soon, she’d have no other choice but to resurface and face the danger.
Maybe she could convince the illusion she’d created to disappear, to go back to where it came from? No use. Her mind continued to suit up for battle. Struggling for air, her lungs started to tighten and her muscles tensed, begging her to breathe. Just when she felt likely to drown, her hands grasped the giant rock, and the rest of her body came to rest on the smoothed sides. Arianna pushed upward with her legs and surfaced.
She inhaled the cool air in a gasp that filled her shrunken lungs with much needed oxygen, and it flowed back out of her body in a long exhalation. As the air left her lips, she let out a sigh of relief, clasping her hand around her mouth all too late. Did it go unnoticed? She prayed so, less the monster of her imagination really lurked ahead.
In silence, she listened to her surroundings. Nothing. No sound but for the firebugs glued to the walls. What she thought she saw, just moments before, had vanished. She closed her eyes, relaxing a bit. It’s nothing.
Moving around the stone to the shallow part of the water, she rested her feet on the muddy bottom. “The dark does play tricks,” she said as she went to exit the waters.
“Indeed it does.” The words startled Arianna so much that she slipped backwards into the lake, stirring the mud all around her. Pulling her dagger from its sheath, she waved it in all directions, targeting the unknown voice. It felt too light in her palm, but she knew that its sharp blade proved a lethal threat to anyone who found it in their back. This she knew reassuringly well.
Its blade sparkled like tiny black diamonds in coal, and a bright blue metal inspired from the sea and the sky in a tangled battle formed the hilt. Traces of deep violets and greens laced the blue as an elaborate outline of a winged beast or god (to which, she was unsure) made up the guard. Finally, a large black jewel encircling a slither of bright yellow, like a captured lightning bolt, completed the pommel.
“Who are you? Show yourself at once,” cried Arianna, tightening her grasp on her weapon. The firebugs occupying the stone took flight in a cloud of golden light that momentarily disarmed her, scared her. For the first time, she felt her life to be in true danger. Of course, she engaged in many battles over the years but always during practice, and every time she had been prepared. This was different. This was real, and she had no idea what to expect.
“But I’m not hidden. You simply can’t see me because you’re not looking right,” said the voice with a delicate laugh. It belonged to a girl. This revelation did not ease her mind or body in the least. Who is this ghost?
Arianna turned in circles, trying to locate the source of the voice, but she saw no one.
“Still haven’t figured it out?” said the girl.
As soon as the girl spoke, Arianna let her dagger fly through the air towards the sound. She heard a loud splash in the water where it landed.
“Well that was a wise decision.” The ghost girl snickered.
“Face me, you coward!” Arianna turned in circles.
“You’re the one acting out of fear. Your startled heart has lost you your knife.” Arianna struggled to keep a hold on her temper.
“Enough games,” she said. “Come out from the shadows, and I’ll show you my heart!” Arianna threw her arms out wide in challenge, her impatience at an end.
“If you wish,” replied the voice, softer and more threatening than before.
Arianna lunged past the boulder to meet her opponent. Her movement stirred the mud even more, clouding the pool. Again, she found nothing. Splashing her hands in the water, she searched blindly for the dagger until she felt her fingers slip on the cold steel of the hilt. Grasping for it, she pulled it up from the springs.
“Too late,” said the honeyed voice that haunted the cavern. “Let the water claim your weapon, or I’ll claim your life. I offer no other choices.” Arianna could feel the glare of eyes on her back.
This girl… or ghost, whatever it claimed to be, had cornered her. Arianna stood stunned, waylaid by a voice. Nonetheless, Master Bell taught her well in all areas of battle, of conflict, so she pulled a piece of his advice from her mind.
Never bargain with your life. It’s always an unwise gamble if in fact the right hand leaves you lucky and the left leaves you dead.
Remembering Solomon’s words, she could now see the wisdom in what was once just a hypothetical situation. For all she knew, this ghost girl could have a sword an inch from her back. On the other hand, she could be playing tricks. Arianna wanted the truth of the matter before she gave up her dagger, her dignity, but her master had warned against it.
If it’s your weapon or your life, choose your life. Maybe then, you’ll live to fight another day.
In a slow gesture of forfeit, the black-stoned blade sank back to the floor of the springs, and Arianna raised her hands above her head as she did so often when defeated during duels. “Yield.” Such a sour tasting word.
“Turn around.” Arianna’s face flushed at the command, her fear replaced with pure animosity towards this cowardly ghost as she turned to face the opponent who claimed victory without a fight.
Arianna was stunned when she laid eyes on the girl behind the voice. Ghost? Sword? Not in the least, but still, a dagger would have done her little good here anyhow, assuming this girl was quick with a bow. Her brow furrowed as she stared at the sharp point of a long arrow, and the archer behind the bow surprised her just as much.
Arianna surveyed a girl who stood at about the same height as she, maybe an inch taller. Lean muscles tensed as her opposer tightened her pull on the arrow. She seemed well trained with her weapon.
Long arms held the bow and arrow steady at Arianna’s waist. She pulled the string back with her elbow extended at exactly eye-level, with perfect form. Arianna didn’t know much about wielding a bow, but she knew enough. This mystery girl had a sharp aim.
In the Warrior’s District, the law required slaves to learn and accomplish the basic skill-level for at least three weapons. Arianna chose archery as one of her three but never took it past the early stages. She left the bow to practice the mastery of her swords, like most of the slaves did. People teased archers during their training. Some said they would never need to show up for battle since they could fight from a high ground or in the safety of the trees.
Either way, Arianna found herself without bow, without sword, and without dagger… no battle to be fought. If she made one wrong move, she would end up with an arrow in her belly. As miserable as life proved day in and day out, she refused to let hers end in the depths of the mountains.
“I said I yield, ghost,” said Arianna in an icy voice. Her body slumped in defeat, and she narrowed her eyes in contempt as a last resort scare tactic.
“Very well.” She eased her stance and lowered the weapon. “But if you try for your dagger again, I will release my arrow.”
“And if it missed my heart and fell to the water to lie with my dagger, then where would we be?” She stared ahead in defiance, rivaling with undisciplined arrogance. The girl glared back with large, pastel blues which stood out bright against her porcelain skin.
“I never miss a target.” Of course she didn’t.
She seemed so delicate though… with cherry-colored cheeks and straight, sun-yellow hair sweeping just past her shoulders. The several untreated bruises up and down her legs and stomach may have also proved her theory, if not for the bow and arrow attached to her arm.
“So, now what?” asked Arianna. She began to fidget, her arms still raised.
“Now, we talk.” The mystery girl lowered her bow a bit. “Tell me no lies. Who are you, and how did you find this place?”
“I should ask you the same thing.” She took a slight step forward. “How did you evade my sight so easily?”
The girl stiffened, aiming her arrow just inches from Arianna’s heart. “I think I’ll be asking the questions here… if that’s okay with you?” Arianna stopped dead in her tracks.
“Mind if put my hands down at least?”
“Fine by me.” She nodded, her expression still wary.
Arianna rested her tired arms at her side and began to answer the questions. “My name is Arianna Belvedor. I’m a slave from the Warrior’s Distri—”
“A slave of the Jar?” The girl’s face lit up as Arianna’s words caught on her tongue. “How did you find these caves?” she asked.
“Well, that’s somewhat of a long story,” said Arianna. She hated being questioned like a child by someone who could not be much older than herself.
“Give me the short version. I don’t have much time. Does anyone else know of this place?”
“No, but then again, I thought it was my own secret. Now I see I was mistaken.” Arianna sighed, gesturing to the girl with a wave of her hand. “I found these caves when I was young, and I’ve been coming here since my ninth year,” she added.
“Well, it’s no wonder that we’ve never crossed paths.” She nodded to herself, understanding something Arianna did not.
“What do you mean?”
The girl cocked her head to the side. “Have you never ventured the tunnels that line the walls here?”
“No, just the one that leads me back to where I come from. I never have enough time to venture.”
“Well, I’ve gone many times. I even mapped some of them out so that I wouldn’t get lost. There’s quite a lot hidden down here, but I’ve never found a way out…” said the girl.
Arianna perked up, all ears now.
“Don’t you realize?” said the girl, noticing Arianna’s dumbfounded expression. “We’re in an unmarked part of the Vanishing Tunnels!” Her face glowed at the affirmation.
Arianna always suspected this, but she never proved the theory as curfew always prevented her from exploring. Maybe naivety poisoned her mind before, but now the magnitude of her betrayal of the law scared her more than ever. She knew that entering the Vanishing Tunnels was a declaration of an escape attempt from the city. If anyone found out, she would face the death penalty, the Pit.
The ghost girl lowered her guard and began moving away towards the bank. “Wait!” said Arianna, wading after her. “Who are you? I have a right to know.”
The girl ran her fingers through her hair. “My name is Lessa… Lessa Thur,” she said as she yanked on a long, blue-hooded robe. Arianna saw just a tiny bit of fur lining and a number embroidered at the shoulder in silver. She recognized those robes. She owned the exact same in red.
“You’re a slave too, aren’t you? I knew it!” she said, pointing her finger. Her mouth hung open at the dangerous confirmation. Rule Number One: All slaves are forbidden to interact with those from another district. Of course, no one paid much attention to this rule. It was unimaginable, given that no one could ever escape the Four Corners, let alone their districts. But now…
“Yes,” Lessa said, inching back towards the tunnels.
Arianna’s mind reeled with questions as she pulled on her own clothes and robes. She wanted to know everything in an instant. How did she find these caves, and what was her district like? What year did she claim? Before Arianna could even form a question on her lips, Lessa disappeared into the blackness of the tunnels.
“Wait! Come back!” Arianna’s pleas were lost as she ran after her. Half a dozen tunnels opened on this side of the springs, and Lessa vanished into one… but which?
She leaned against the stone wall, shaking her head, unsure. Was that real? Awestruck by the events, she felt a myriad of emotions play around her head, struggling to comprehend them. With her back against the stone, her body began to vibrate with the walls of the cave. They felt alive.
She placed her hand and her ear to the wall, waiting again for the sensation. After a minute, the long vibrations shook her once more. Her expression fell, and her heart started racing alongside her mind. “Oh no, the bell!” she said, pushing her body off the wall. She only had eight minutes left.
With all that had happened, she let curfew slip her attention. She needed to be in her quarters by the tenth ring or… She gulped. Let’s not think about or. Tying the belt of her cloak tight around her waist, she donned her boots and dashed to the other side of the hot springs towards the entrance of her district.
That was two. Dirt and tiny pebbles fell free from the ceiling of the caves with the vibrations of her timer. She pushed her legs faster. Three. The firebugs started to buzz in uproar from the disturbance as she tried to fight gravity with her feet.
Four. Rasped breaths strained her lungs. The weight of her robes and wet clothes slowed her down. Five. She could see the exit up ahead, the vibrations stronger now. The faint light of the city spilled through the cracks in the loose rock. Six. She slid the stone door to the side and slipped out unnoticed. Seven. The vibrations shifted to a sound that echoed through her ears in a low hum as the bell slowly sang. Three more minutes to go. She never stopped running. Her lungs burned from the chalky air, hair clinging to her face and clothes dripping with sweat and water.
Eight, almost there now. Others raced around the city in all directions, all with the same goal. She lost her footing as a boy collided into her, tumbling through the snow and scraping her knees and palms on the icy ground.
She locked eyes with him for only a moment then pushed back to her feet without a second thought. She ran faster now. Nine. The threatening voice of the Grand Bell enveloped her body, but she could see her barracks nearby. Her feet thundered on the ground, a cloud of dust racing behind her.
Ten. The door stood open. She leapt the stairs in two bounds and landed piled on the floor next to the other girls that cut it too close. The regulator slammed the door shut, locking them in and the late ones out. She made it.
As she lay there panting, she wondered if the boy had made it back as well. Would he be missing from lectures tomorrow? If so, his body would be at the bottom of the Pit by morning, so she would see on her way to the Square. She tried not to care, but she did.
After a moment, she regained her energy and walked to her bunk where her roommate, Pippa, sat waiting to scold her on curfew again.
Arianna cocked her head to the side, studying the freckled girl as she babbled on about the regulations. Then, to Pippa’s surprise, she embraced her in a long hug. Arianna’s relief turned into a fit of infectious giggles, and soon the whole room stirred in rare laughter. Nobody cared why. The girls just needed a laugh this night.
After undressing and washing for bed, Arianna tried to free her thoughts of battles won and lost, or dying in the mountains, or the festivals inching nearer. Now, there was only one thing that pressed on her mind… Lessa Thur, ‘Ghost Girl’ of the Four Corners.
Trying to coax her mind to sleep, she continued to think at a stubborn pace. She saw hundreds of colored images swimming around the back of her eyelids like a pond of dancing fish. Lessa Thur with a bow on her back, Solomon with his sword at her neck, the waterfalls in her secret cave. It felt like she had only just fallen asleep when a nightmare snapped her wide-awake as she found herself tangled in the blanket wrapped around her like a prickly cocoon.
The bitter air had dried her throat, and unbidden tears streaked her face. She clutched at her chest as her heart thrashed against her ribs, her mind clinging to the already fading dream of her mangled body and chilling black eyes. She looked around the silent room to see if her roommates stirred at her disturbance. Some gazed at the ceiling, lost in their own thoughts, but most still slept.
She sat up in her bunk only to be confronted with a pair of squinty blue eyes framed in an upside down freckled face and a mop of brown hair. “Nightmare?” asked Pippa.
Arianna gave a weak nod, wiping away the remnants of her tears with the blanket. She felt no shame. All of the slaves experienced nightmares too. Although, she wondered if it was normal to have the same one so often.
Pippa gave her a warm smile. Out of all of the girls she roomed with, she liked her best. “Me too,” she said with a yawn.
Pippa crawled back up to her bunk singing a lullaby that Arianna knew well.
I see you down below
As I’m flying in the sky
Up above the mountains
To the other side
The air here is sweet
And it’s warmer by the sun
Nobody can catch me
No one, no one
Even if Pippa did talk too much, none of the girls bothered her when she sang. Not so deep down, everyone wished the song would come true.
Can you see me so far up?
As I’m soaring ‘cross the sea
Higher I go
No jar can keep me
My hope keeps me lifted
My wings help me fly
I am free
I am free in the sky
As the tune continued, Arianna heard someone sniffle from across the wide room. She sighed, knowing they all faced the same struggles in their nightmarish reality.
Now I only see ahead
As I’m sailing with the clouds
Drifting with the wind
Happiness I’ve found
Free and alive
Goodbye, I’ve left my past behind
It is my dream
Finally, I am free
She lay back on her pillow and tugged the blanket to her chin, letting the song wash away the dark fragments of her nightmare. The Song of the Free Bird always drove the fear away, her hopes lifting and soaring with the lyrics as she vowed to one day be liberated of her cage. Just like the little bird in the song, she would one day taste her freedom.
Soon, she drifted back to sleep, a dreamless and peaceful one. She welcomed the rare peace of mind, and, for the moment, at least she felt safe inside her head.
CHAPTER FIVE: SUNDOWN
Arianna woke to the bell the next morning, and she let out a yawn. She felt hazy, as if still in a dream. “Did I only imagine her?” she said with a queer smile on her face.
“Imagine who?” said Pippa. She startled Arianna out of her trance, her eyes reminding her of Lessa’s as they looked down at her with a burning curiosity.
“Don’t worry about it!” She didn’t mean to snap at Pippa, but the secret scared her just as much as it excited her. No one could ever know about her encounter, about any of it.
“Well, sorry…” she said, “but if you don’t want people to ask questions, then maybe you should watch what you say in your sleep. You mumble about the most interesting topics.” She rolled her eyes and disappeared back onto her bunk.
Arianna pouted, sliding out of bed and yanking on her robes. “I’m off to breakfast. See you later,” she said, storming towards the door. Do I really talk in my sleep?
“She’s right you know,” said a voice that made Arianna’s skin crawl just as much as General Ivo’s. She turned to find Grinda Risso still in her bed clothes, resting on her pillow with her arms behind her head, her lips twisting into a smile. Her friend propped up on the other side, tending to Grinda’s cloaks like a slave to a slave.
“Mind yourself, Risso. I’m in no mood to play games with you today,” said Arianna, tensing up at the sight of her.
Grinda sat up in bed as her minion began brushing her silky, black hair as per custom each morning. Arianna glared at her rival with as much disgust as she could muster so early in the morning. It annoyed her to no end that there was something dangerously appealing to her. Grinda Risso or, more appropriately, Red Risso, was one of the fiercest slaves in the district, not to be trifled with. The two girls had always butted heads since they both claimed private masters of an exceptional sort, and Arianna knew she couldn’t wait to sink her teeth into her.
“Oh, bother, and I had rather hoped to play today,” she cooed, flipping her hair back as her friend slaved to comb out the tangles. “I do apologize, little Ara. I did forget that you were… how should I say? I suppose, unable to make your own decisions regarding playtime.”
Arianna fumed. “I can practice with whomever I want,” she said through her teeth as she tried to keep calm.
“Well, it’s just been such a long, long time since I’ve put in my request with your master. Does he still refuse to let us duel? It’s too bad you’re treated like a slave and a child. It must be terribly boring to be so sheltered,” she said in a voice so smooth and so sharp that it began to pierce straight through Arianna’s nonchalance.
She tightened her grasp on the edge of the door. Solomon wouldn’t want her to mix with Grinda Risso so close before the Free Falls Festivals. She turned to leave, respecting her master’s wishes.
“That’s what I thought,” said Grinda. Her laugh made Arianna’s emotions twist and convulse as she struggled to keep calm.
“You want a duel? Fine!” Stop talking, stop talking. “Meet me in the Square at sundown. Don’t be late.” She locked her gaze on dark, gray eyes that smiled in victory. Too late.
A fire burned inside Arianna that yearned for Grinda’s head, and the words had just slipped out. She had invited Red Risso to a Warrior’s Challenge. Of all people… really?
Grinda flashed a toothy grin at Arianna’s words. “Don’t forget your swords, Ara, or your skill. I’ve been practicing.” She winked.
Arianna’s heart dropped into her stomach. What have I done?
She recalled a regulation which forbade intentional killing during a training duel, but accidents did occur and the general almost never penalized for it. He didn’t care.
Since being chosen as Solomon’s apprentice, she only ever trained with him or a few trusted friends. They always took extra precautions not to cause drastic injuries to one another when they dueled. Grinda knew no such boundaries. A Warrior’s Challenge often ended fatally for one opponent or the other since slaves extended them in order to prove their skill in front of the town.
Several of Grinda’s opponents had suffered injuries so catastrophic that the Well Center could do nothing for them. Of course, her master always passed the losses off as accidents, and Grinda never received more than a simple slap on the wrist from the regulators. They enjoyed the battles with bloody endings the most.
Arianna hated to socialize with her at all, but sharing the same quarters made it very difficult not to cross paths. Solomon would be irate, but not even he could halt a Warrior’s Challenge. If she wanted to keep her respect in the district, she would have to honor the challenge and put up a damn good fight.
The threat trailed behind Arianna as she let the door slam behind her, snow sprinkling from the rooftop. With long strides, she soon found herself at the bottom of the wooden stairs, jogging towards the Dining Hall. When she reached it, she saw her usual breakfast buddies lounging in the scattered sun.
A short, chubby boy, just two years younger than she, swayed back and forth on his feet. Arianna sometimes practiced with him on her down time. His form lacked skill, and she wanted Noah to have the best chance at his freedom card when the time came. He deserved something good after his time here.
“Mornin’ there, Miss Belvedor.” He bowed as she came nearer. “Breakfast awaits us. What do you think we’ll be eating today?” He chuckled, holding the swinging door open. Arianna didn’t crack a smile.
“Not today, Noah.” He frowned.
“Morning,” said another boy leaning up against the wall of the building. His blonde, wavy hair always caught the sun on the miraculous days when it decided to show. Today he didn’t wear his red cloak, revealing his tanned skin. He wore only black pants and a white shirt which stretched tight around his body. She blushed. Still, after a lifetime of friendship, she never got used to his allure.
“Morning, Liam.” Her head cocked to the side as she surveyed him. “Where are your robes? You’ll freeze.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said with an infectious grin. “I was getting some early practice in.” He feigned wiping sweat from his brow. Liam Black, another skilled slave with a private trainer to his name.
“Hungry?” he asked. He raised an eyebrow at her and Arianna looked away. She didn’t want him to know about the challenge.
“Starving…” she muttered as she sauntered into the building. Her friends followed at her heels.
“Been enjoying the sun have you?” asked Noah. “It’s not often we get a day like this.” He piled a glop of food on his plate, the same food as they served every morning.
Today, bright sunrays chased some of the gloom away so that even the air warmed a little. Regardless, Arianna felt sick in the pit of her stomach and cold all around.
They grabbed their trays of food and walked to a wooden bench in the middle of the empty room.
“Ara, what’s wrong? Why so quiet?” Noah asked, tearing at his stale bread. The freckles on his face mixed with the crumbs, so she couldn’t tell one from the other, and his orange, shaggy hair suggested he did little to cure his bed-head this morning. She shook her head, locking into his bright green eyes.
“Oh, Noah,” she sighed. Too many thoughts raced through her brain. Her head sloped to the side to relax on one hand as she stirred the cold slop in slow circles. Liam didn’t look up from his food, but she knew he was listening.
“I just had a really taxing morning. That’s all,” she said, unwilling to relay the full details of her morning’s events.
“Why is that?” asked Liam as Noah looked up from his scattered meal. The two sat across from each other, and she smiled knowing that Noah also had Liam as a friend to lean on.
Liam always tried to protect them both when he could. During a duel, he wouldn’t even let the backside of a wooden sword meet her skin. He cared about her, and she trusted him. Still, she didn’t have the guts to ‘fess up. His hazel eyes bore into hers, demanding answers. “Well?”
“Nothing… it’s just Risso. You know how she’s always trying to cause trouble with me. It’s Hell living with her, really. She’s completely cruel, and she needs a night in the Pit, if you ask me,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. She tossed her spoon aside, not bothering to attempt to stomach the food.
Liam seemed content with her answer as she watched him relax. She chewed on her lip, still feeling nervous. Noah already scraped at the bottom of the bowl, feigning to listen.
“What did the wench say this time?” asked Liam. His eyes narrowed in distaste as he braved the food in front of him.
“Just the usual vicious snake bite… You’d think I’d be used to it by now. She always gets under my skin,” replied Arianna, avoiding too many details.
“Well, just let her be,” he said. “In three months we’ll have the Free Falls, and then you may never have to see that snake again. Besides, you know she’s just envious that Solomon chose you over her. It’s about time she let it go.” Arianna blushed at the honorable mention, recalling how he let her win that duel in front of the panel. Liam was her truest friend.
“By default, you’re the best,” Noah said, nudging Arianna in her rib cage with his elbow. “Cheer up, Ara! The sun only shines on great days.”
Liam stood up to empty their meal trays just as Grinda and her entourage walked into the Dining Hall. Arianna gulped as she saw Liam relay a few short words that made Grinda grimace. She wondered what he said.
Grinda led her group to an empty bench within eyesight of Arianna and Noah, mouthing the word ‘dead’ through bared teeth and pouty lips that looked as if painted in blood. Arianna put on a brave face as they studied each other.
She deemed Grinda’s appearance a perfect match for her menacing character. Jet-black hair curved at her shoulders and her bangs swooped at her eyebrows, standing out against her red cloak. She wore a permanent scowl on her chiseled face, and her skin seemed ghostlike. Nevertheless, her body looked strong and supple, like a warrior-slave capable in a fight.
Arianna saw Grinda put on a show many times during other Warrior’s Challenges. She almost always walked away unscathed. Her ferocity and fearlessness unnerved her opponents and made them doubt their skill. Will I doubt my skill? Arianna shuddered. She hoped not.
As she stood to exit the hall with Noah and Liam, Grinda turned her head to throw a malicious smile their way. Everyone at her table started whispering, snickering, and she cringed knowing the whispers to be rumors of the oncoming mêlée.
The gossip would spread like wildfire through the district, so Arianna rushed to tell Solomon before he learned the news from somebody else. People would fill the entire Square tonight for this Warrior’s Challenge. Red Risso versus Arianna Belvedor at sundown. She took a deep breath. This would be a bloodbath.
Arianna liked the notion of being labeled the best, but it didn’t bother her as much as winning her freedom. Grinda, on the other hand, prided her skill above all else. I’m just as skilled. Her confidence started building, her mind boosted with encouragement. I can put her in her place… or in the ground. She smiled, straightening her back. Liam’s right. I’ve been trained by Master Solomon Bell.
“See you soon,” said Arianna, waving and flashing a smile. She headed off towards the Dueling Arena with a little jolt of hope.
Minutes later she came upon the gargantuan gates of the arena and stepped through. She hopped around the hundreds of duelers and pushed open the door to her private area. She hung up her cloak and began to warm-up before practice. Lowering her hands to the floor, she stretched the muscles in her thighs. Something didn’t feel right. Her eyes traveled up her leg to find the leather sheath strapped to her thigh like customary except for…
“My dagger!” she said, slapping her hand to her head. She slumped down on the floor and buried her head in her hands, her hope receding. “How could I have been so stupid?”
She couldn’t remember a more ill-fated day granted to her. To top it all, the clouds fought away the sun, and they looked ready to burst at any moment. She lifted her head to the small window as lightening slithered through the clouds in thin sporadic lines like snakes through dust. A loud clap of thunder shook through to her bones. Her heart pounded as the on-coming fate she planned for herself settled back in her nerves.
“What have I done?” she whimpered as she moved to shut the door to the sparring room.
“I don’t know,” said a deep voice. “What have you done, Arianna?” She jumped back, startled as Solomon towered over her like a giant in the doorway. His expression looked violent. He knows.
“Master Bell… I’m so sorry. I should’ve just walked away. Everything is going so wrong.” She sat cross-legged on the floor and let her face fall to her hands.
“Tell me that what I’ve heard is false! Did you challenge Grinda Risso? Do you have any idea of the trouble you’ve caused for yourself?”
“I know. I… I—”
“The Free Falls are only a few months away! If she slights you in front of a crowd during a Warrior’s Challenge, then you’ll lose all of your honor and never be given a decent placement after the festivals. That is if you survive.” Solomon began pacing.
Arianna said nothing, his words sinking in as he continued.
“On your twelfth ceremony you showed promise in front of the panel. I chose you as an apprentice because you exhibited a passion for battle like I have only ever seen in myself.” His hands began to shake and his voice grew louder. “Because I saw this in you, because I said it was so, you were given a chance to prove yourself, an opportunity that few others have earned. But by gods, Arianna, that does not mean that you’re unsurpassed! You could be throwing away your one chance at a future.”
Arianna felt so lost. She knew it was all a mistake. “If I could take it back, I would.”
He held his hand up for silence. She would not test him.
“You have willingly signed up for a fantastic failure. Pray that luck is on your side tonight because if you’re bested in front of the thousands in this district, you’ll never be taken seriously as a warrior of the Olleb. If you manage to earn your freedom, you’ll just find another type of slavery waiting for you outside these walls.”
“Master, please. I didn’t mean—.” Her voice barely passed her lips, and she couldn’t meet his eyes as he glared down at her.
“You’re a fool, and you will either win or die tonight.” He shoved her aside and slammed the door to the training room in her face.
She felt complete fear wash over her in that moment, as if living one of her nightmares. Trying to remain calm, she decided the sky would curtail the tears that welled up inside her chest and pressed against her heart, no need for them to fall twice. She didn’t have time for that. The clouds only sprinkled now, but she knew there would be a storm to come later.
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