Miran slowed down without her companions. Even so, she got within sight of Coghlan Castle with days to spare before Entry Games. She camped on the edge of a field, estimating that it was about five miles over rolling hills to her destination.
From the people who passed by, also on their way to the Entry Games, Miran learned the exact day of the opening event. She planned to hike in on the day of.
She'd grown partial to the quiet of the woods. She enjoyed the solace and freedom to practice her moves, over the stares she'd get if she went into town.
She wasn't sure she was ready to go back to the hubbub of a city.
She intended to prolong her return, if at all possible. Miran grinned at herself as she packed up for opening day, reflecting on why she'd chosen to stay in the woods. She sounded like Nessa.
She let out a sort of sigh, something between a prayer and a wish that she would do the redhead proud and win a position with the Academy. The only thing that would make it better, Miran thought, was if Nessa could witness the event with her own two eyes. Nessa was a good teacher. She deserved the satisfaction of watching Miran demonstrate how much she'd learned.
It was for the best that Nessa wasn't around. Nessa didn't want to go back to the city and Miran now understood why. She was truly at home in the woods.
Miran stared off into the distance, facing a southwestern direction. She hoped Nessa had managed to lose Hunter now that she was on her own.
As the girl's thoughts turned to her own big day ahead, she heard the pitter-patter of feet loping towards her.
Miran was cautious as she turned her head toward the sound. She didn't want to spook whatever was drawing near.
That was one highlight of traveling solo: she'd seen a lot more wildlife.
Miran saw a creature bobbing towards her through the brush. She could make out scarlet fur and wondered if the deer of Cataire were normally of such a reddish hue.
As the animal closed in on her position, Miran realized the cadence was wrong. She was being approached by a two-footed creature with strong legs and sure feet, coming at that speed.
The build that pushed into the Miran's camp was small, yet sturdy.
Miran might have convinced herself she'd imagined the whole thing, if it wasn't for the eyes. You couldn't replicate the intensity of those eyes.
"What are you doing here?" Miran gasped as Nessa Lightfoot shook off the early morning dew with a rare grin on her face.
"I decided I had a vested interest in you," Nessa responded with a shrug. "I was curious, after all the work we put in, to see how things turned out."
It was what Miran had hoped for. Not only for the same reasons, but she'd missed having a travel companion.
As it was, the dark-haired girl could only gape. "Are you mad?" She managed at last. "I thought you ran away with no intention to return?"
"It's true," Nessa allowed taking a seat and taking a swig of water from a 'skin buried in her pack. "But, I was also thinking that no one would be looking for me in Fresia after all this time. No one knows where I am and, it's the last place Hunter will think to look for me."
"The place is going to be full of Peacekeepers! And Trainees! Someone is going to recognize you!"
Nessa waved this worry away as she stowed the water back into her pack, "There are ways around that."
"What about Hunter?" There weren't ways around him. He was a hard one to shake. Miran had been along for the ride when Nessa had tried.
Nessa imparted another grin on the girl, "He's gotta be a week behind by now, even if he tracks at night. By that time, the Entry Games will be over and I'll be gone."
"You seem real confident about that," Miran noted, a mix of suspicion and puzzlement. The whole time Hunter had been on their trail, Nessa had known, and she'd known that he was gaining. How could she have acquired such a lead in such a short time?
"I don't want to spoil things by telling you the details. This is your big day!" Nessa peered across the hills at the sun rising over the mountains and then down at Coghlan Castle and surrounding town of Fresia. "Don't you have some place to be?"
"I still think you're mad," Miran said, having the last word in the conversation as she pulled her pack on her back.
She marched out of the cover of the trees, leading the horse. Nessa followed after her and soon, their feet were soaked through from the dewy grass of the fields as they ambled down the hills and into the outskirts of Fresia.
The Outer Wall was something of a legend. Some claimed it had never been breached in any of the wars. That was back when the population was smaller and all the occupants of the city lived inside its walls. That was not the case now. People spilled out of the gates, occupying small huts and houses and working the surrounding land. Inside the Outer Wall were merchants and tradesmen and who knew what else.
The Inner Wall enclosed Coghlan Castle, home of the High King, ruler of Cataire. If the Outer wall was breached, the Inner wall was the last line of defense.
Between the two was the Peacekeeper Academy.
Once you passed through the residences and shops on the south side of the city, you encountered a courtyard with training yards abutting it. Both the barracks and the classrooms of the Peacekeeper Academy were built along the Inner Wall.
Nessa didn't go that far. She knew better than to tempt fate as they neared the outer wall.
By the time the girls reached it, Nessa had wrapped her head in a length of brown cloth. The only part of her face exposed were those amber eyes. The combination of the headwrap and her eyes would lead people to believe she was from Rona, not a runaway from Cataire. In Rona, such headgear was commonplace to protect yourself from getting the desert sand everywhere. It was also very in fashion right now. If there were any other people from Rona around, Nessa would not be out of place.
Just outside the wall was a Zevers caravan. Surrounding them were an assorted number of tents, filled with people just in town for the Entry Games. Most were merchants with wares to sell. Some were families who couldn't afford, or didn't want to spend the money to stay inside the walls.
Nessa planned to make her bed with those outside the wall. She didn't want to add unnecessary risk by finding a place to stay inside the city walls.
Miran seemed to be considering a stay outside the walls as well. "It's been weird camping without you," the girl admitted. "Where should we set up?"
It was hard to choose a spot. There were no trees to hide in this close to the city.
Nessa approached the Zevers to discuss sleeping under their caravans in inclement weather.
The elder Zevers who make the decisions for their respective caravans took in Miran's almond-shaped eyes and Nessa's headdress and recognized that the women were far from their homelands. They welcomed the girls into their midst and even provided them with a tent.
Miran clasped her hands together and bowed to express her thanks.
Nessa was rendered speechless.
It was so much more than she was expecting.
Inside a tent, they would have so much space for their gear. Nessa wouldn't have to to hide behind her headscarf inside the safety of the tent.
Nessa offered to help out to repay them for such a kindness.
"To be honest," a scruffy-looking man with grey in his beard said, "it's been taking up space in my caravan for months. My wife picked it up when we were in the flat lands of Byard because she claimed it was too hot in the house." He chuckled, "It was such an affair to set up every night that she soon tired of it."
Nessa understood why as she and Miran toted it over to an untrampled part of their camp. The thing was much too large for two people. It could easily house the horse and all their gear.
The girls wasted no time setting it up.
Once it was sturdy, they threw their packs inside.
"You should go check in," Nessa said. While she was around for moral support, she had no intention of going into the city—not without a really fantastic disguise.
Miran looked unsure.
Nessa grinned, "You've walked way too far to back out now." She gave the dark-haired girl directions to the courtyard of the Peacekeeper Academy. From there, Miran would be able to check in and get any gear she didn't already have.
Since the Academy wanted everyone to have a shot, they provided gear to those who could not afford it. Last year, it had involved tilting saddles and lances, and the armor to go with it.
"What do I say?" Miran was suddenly meek.
"That you came from Tolin," Nessa grinned. She'd explained a hundred times that anyone could try out for the Entry Games, from royalty to farmboys. There were hunters and woodsmen from Magen who were looking to improve their way of life. Nessa couldn't recall anyone as exotic as a girl from Tolin, but she was sure there had to be. "They'll tell you what the events are so you can get the proper protective equipment."
Miran nodded and Nessa watched as the tall girl weaved out of the Zevers camp and through the gates, into the city.
Nessa made herself busy, unpacking and looking over their supplies. She'd moved too fast to eat for most of the her journey. Her body was regretting that choice now. The elation of finding Miran was wearing off too.
After exploding the contents of both packs over the interior of the tent, Nessa curled up and took a nap.
"You weren't kidding," Miran said as she marched in. She was referring to the fact that anyone and everyone really did turn out for the Entry Games. "I saw a number of clan royalty and nobles as well commoners."
Nessa nodded from her position in the ground. She was awake now, thanks to Miran's entrance, but groggy.
People from all walks of life came together under the roof of the great equalizer: the Peacekeeper Academy. Some definitely had an advantage. The progeny of former Peacekeepers had the bloodlines as well as training. Nobles tended to have a strong base of training. Commoners had a lot of heart and a lot of potential. Some showed natural skill.
"Entrants are to meet in the training yards at noon to be seen by the masters and introduced," Miran reported back.
Nessa sat up and tried to read the expression on Miran's face, "Are you excited?"
"Nervous," Miran admitted. Mostly, she just couldn't believe that she was finally here. That she was actually going to compete in the Entry Games. It seemed so surreal. All those months ago in Tolin racing for her life, seemed like a bad dream compared to this reality.
"You'll be fine," Nessa assured the girl. "The thing that'll set you apart is that you have a wonderful way of not showing any emotion. That'll come in handy. The masters will like that. And the other kids will leave you alone because of it. The Entry Games are rough. Young people have come from all over to prove they're the best. They're not here to make friends. Remember that. They're dangerous."
Miran nodded and busied herself around the tent, killing time. A little while later, she decided it was close enough to noon to head out.
When she returned to the training yards, it had undergone some changes. Before, the place had been full of unorganized people bustling about, with stands for spectators lining the edges. There had been a man at a table littered with paperwork. He was gone now.
Now, there were groups of young people standing off to the side. A roughly constructed dais was on the edge of the yard. Miran hadn't noticed it before. A number of men of various ages were seated on the dais, shaded from the sun. Those must be the masters, Miran thought to herself. They were who she had to impress.
There certainly were a lot of them.
A herald caught sight of Miran and flagged her down. He placed her in a group of older youths, aged sixteen and up. They were the smallest bracket by far.
The heralds started at the bottom of food chain. The first group was aged ten to twelve-there had to be over a hundred. Then was the thirteen to fifteen bracket. The oldest kids were last, and Miran was last of all, thanks to her place of origin.
"Miran of Rakesh, please step forward."
Whispers raced through the stands. Rakesh wasn't a town in Cataire, some noted. Those with better schooling whispered back, "It's the capital of Tolin."
Regardless, everyone leaned in closer for a better view of the foreigner, a tall drink of water with flowing black hair, exotic skin tone and almond eyes.
Occasionally, foreigners fought in the entry games. They were mostly hunters and trappers from the border of Magen who wanted to improve their quality of living. Tolin was a long way to travel, considering outsiders didn't tend to test well.
There was the matter of her age as well. She was in the oldest bracket of try-outs. If she successfully navigated the Games, she would be the oldest inductee in Trainee history.
The other Entrants were wearing their family crests, or their very best clothes. Miran tried not to look down at herself. She'd been wearing the same clothes for months now, the shorts she'd acquired in Tolin were threadbare. Her shirt was worn through in places, thanks to her pack.
She looked more than a little rag-tag in her secondhand gear, but there was something in her presence as she strode forward and nodded politely to the masters. Trainees were often loaded down with gear so weren't expected to bow, as long as they showed deference, Nessa had said.
Maybe it was her stately figure, tall, with exquisite posture. Maybe it was the fierce expression on her face—the one that said she had something to prove. She would be one to watch.
A balding master nodded in return and Miran stepped back in line and waited for whatever was to come next.
In the bracket next to her, a boy was telling his brother who all the masters were. Miran listened in.
The master who had nodded to acknowledge her was Master Muski.
He had Miran's full attention.
With his build, he would have been a formidable fighter in his day. Miran amended that thought. If he was a master, he could probably still do some damage.
The boy was going on about him still: "...he can wield any weapon with ease. The entrants who catch his eye are always selected, though he has a preference for women."
Miran turned back to Master Muski. He looked about to speak.
"The first activity," Master Muski announced, "will be the footrace."
Miran couldn't help but grin. She'd been hiking for months. Her legs were more than up to the challenge.
Muski carried on with the rules and expectations, but Miran wasn't really paying attention. What was there really to know? The race would start tomorrow at sunup. Despite the twenty or so youths in her bracket, they were all going to race at once. It was going to be chaos. Dangerous chaos.
The run was five miles. "Just a good stretch of the legs," Muski ended with a smile. In light armor of course.
Miran collected the armor and returned to her tent. She reported to Nessa the next day's event.
Nessa grinned, "You'll do well."
Despite the assurance that she would do well, Miran couldn't settle down.
Nessa sensed that.
The girl was pacing and it was getting on the redhead's nerves. "Will you sit down?"
Nessa decided to send the girl out to find food.
By the time Miran returned, it was an acceptable time to make dinner.
The evening was filled with a tense silence. Nessa wanted to say something to soothe the girl's nerves, but it had never been among her strong suits.
Miran decided to crawl into bed not long after clean up. She knew she wasn't going to to sleep well. She thought that by attempting to go to sleep early, she might actually get in the hours she needed to function by increasing the amount of time she lay there, looking up at tent ceiling.
"This seems an appropriate time to remind you of what you're getting into," Nessa remarked, curled up in the corner.
They'd talked about the history of Peacekeepers and the origin of the Academy on their long walk east. Nessa recalled the times Hokan had told her the story of the ranks of strong women who became Peacekeepers as a way to calm her down and get her to sleep when she was still a wild thing from the mountains.
"Long ago, Cataire wasn't a kingdom. It was a bunch of disorganized clans. Some roamed the mountain meadows, keeping livestock—like the people of Byard. Others carved their homes out of mountains. They made great caverns and gained prominence for their skill as artisans. Still others lived on Cataire's eastern border with the sea, making their living by fishing and pirating.
"It was a wild, mountainous land, considered by the Lower Nations to be part of Magen. The people of the Norchii Mountains, as they were called back then, spent a lot of their time fighting each other. The people of the meadows fought over grazing rights. The people of the mountains fought with other mountain clans for weapons and smiths. They also had a school there, for magicians. Folk claim that the Norchii had the most dense population of people with a knack for magic.
"They were called a variety of things across the nations: sorcerers, witches, but in the mountains were called magi. They had their own school.
"They claimed the magic was in the mountains and it affected different people over time. Some could converse with their stock. Others could see in the dark. Some could changed the weather. The possibilities were endless.
"In the Southern Nations (a term Catarans use to refer to any country that is not Cataire), magic was being exterminated. There as weren't many in the other countries so it was easy to turn people against them and round them up. They pushed into the Norchii Mountains, looking for the school.
"When they found it, a battle broke out. It was the magi against the invaders. Some had the magic to fight back. Others didn't. The ones who couldn't were slain. The ones who could, couldn't make their stand forever.
"One girl did. Her name was Jora.
"Jora had a twin sister. She wasn't training to be a magi. Jezebel was living out in the alpine meadows. She was rumored to be a reindeer whisperer. Others claimed she could see in the dark.
"The two girls were the result of a happy union between a herdsman and a metalsmith. They were raised in the mountains by their mother until she deemed them old enough to join their father. At the time magi began being accepted to the University, the sisters could decide whether they wanted to return to the mountains or stay with their father. Jora decided to attend the University while Jezebel stayed with her father. That was why the sisters were not together when the invaders sieged the university.
"The only reason they captured Jora was because they wore her down. The man who led the attack, a general by the name of Rasul, realized the importance of such a powerful magus and decided to use her to take her over the continent.
"Their mistake, of course, was their failure to eradicate the rest of the people in the Norchii Mountains. Granted, it would have been hard to do, but the fact remains that they didn't. They left Jezebel alive, and when she figured out what they had done, she went to get her sister back.
"In doing so, Jezebel dissolved the unified nations and returned things to the way they were. She and her sister returned to the Norchii Mountains, where the survivors decided to band together and form a country and a plan for what to do if such an invasion were to happen again. The leaders of the remaining clans decided to create the position of High King to oversee international affairs, while the lesser kings were allowed to keep their rights.
"To repay Jezebel for all she had done, the High King appointed her the first Peacekeeper. She was employed by the High King to keep the peace. When life returned to normal, the clans started squabbling with each other again. The High King sent Jezebel to the clans to quell the disputes. She had already made quite a name for herself, so the problem tended to sort itself out long before she got there.
"The people gave Jezebel her Given Name. In the old language, she was called La Lunahai. In Lowlander, a rough translation is 'the shadow cast by the moon'. Now, they refer to her as Shade, or Shade of Night."
"What about the sister?"
Nessa nearly jumped out of her skin. Miran was being so quiet, Nessa had assumed the girl was asleep. "What about the sister?" Nessa responded.
"Well, she was responsible for the takeover of all the nations. Was she punished?"
"Punish the only magus left on the continent? The sister of the first Peacekeeper?"
Miran seemed to realize the foolishness of this statement. She changed her question, "How did the Academy start if there was only the one Peacekeeper? Why did they decide they needed so many?"
Nessa laughed, "Clan kings liked the idea of someone with a reputation that could keep their people in line. When the sisters got into a position where they could no longer freely roam the country, the High King asked them to train the next generation. Any clans who wanted a Peacekeeper were to send a girl to be trained to Fresia."
"Only girls?" Miran wondered.
"The sisters didn't trust men. They felt that women were more reliable, more prone to seek the truth and do what was right."
Miran made a face, "They must have been wronged by a lot of men."
"I think it was also a way to balance power. The High King and most lesser kings are positions that can only be held by men. I like to think that by making Peacekeepers women, they were evening the playing field."
Miran gave this statement some consideration, "Women can't rule here?"
Nessa shook her head.
"In my country, women are the rulers. The only men to take the throne are regents—if the queen dies in childbirth. They relinquish power whenever the next in line feels ready to reign."
Nessa nodded. Hokan had taught her as much. Maybe that was the reason she'd run to Tolin without looking back. A part of her hoped that in a nation ruled by a women, she could find solace there.
Miran seemed to be making some realization in that direction, "...but Peacekeepers are revered. They rank higher than clan nobility..."
"Because they're appointed by the High King," Nessa responded with a nod. "They're highly trained individuals. To treat them with any less respect would be a foolish decision."
Miran suddenly had a thought, "You said that the sisters chose only women to be Peacekeepers." She'd seen those competing to be in the Entry Games. There were boys as well as girls. Coursers were men too. They were supposed to failed Peacekeepers.
Nessa nodded, "After the last continental war, the masters at the Academy realized they needed to change the way they ran things. Coursers were traditionally a role held by men and it had created a dangerous rift that might have come to a head, if Rona hadn't decided to take over everyone."
Nessa was silent.
"If it's only a recent change," Miran continued, "why are all the masters men?"
"Not all of the masters are Peackeepers. They are simply the best in their field of study."
"And yet, none of them are women." Nessa didn't speak up because she knew Miran wasn't done, "It doesn't really send a positive message."
Nessa stretched out her legs and tried to think of a way to change the turn the conversation had taken. Her plan was to lull Miran to sleep with words. Instead, she was asking questions, questions a local wouldn't ask about because they knew. Everyone knew why the masters weren't women. It was the dark side of the job, the one no one talked about. It was the reason she had run away.
Nessa didn't want to tell Miran. She didn't want Miran to change her mind about this whole thing. They'd come too far. She also didn't want Miran to go in not knowing the truth about why there were no lady masters.
"Peacekeepers are in the service of the High King. They go where he tells them, they do what he tells them..." she began.
"What does that have to do with—?" Miran interrupted.
"Everything." Nessa fixed the dark-haired girl with a look. She only continued when Miran turned to meet her gaze. "Do you know what it means 'to be retired'?"
The look Miran gave the redhead indicated she knew another definition for the term.
"As a Peacekeeper, you are a slave to the High King," Nessa explained. "Yes, you get status and schooling, but is it worth the cost? When the High King decides Peacekeepers—women Peacekeepers—are past their prime, he retires them."
"It sounds insidious."
"It is. Peacekeepers don't breed at random. In fact, it's prohibited. That's what the masters tried to change after the last continental war. Back then, when you got Retired the High King handpicked a male to reproduce with you."
Miran gaped at Nessa, unable to believe what she was hearing. And yet, she knew it to be true. It had to be. Nessa couldn't tell a lie, unless it was a lie by omission. She was coming clean tonight.
Miran wondered now what was really behind Nessa's run from this country all those months ago. She could understand a small measure of why the redhead didn't want to come back. "How-?"
"How did the women feel about it?" Nessa guessed the Tolinese girl's question. "That's a great question. For some, it worked out fine. They didn't care about monogamy or romance and did their duty. The ones who cared about love petitioned the High King with a mate of their choosing.
"There were others who didn't like the idea of Retirement. Not everyone wants to settle down and raise a kid. They didn't have a choice in the matter, it was their way to repay the king for the schooling and social status. It was the ones who refused to be dominated by a man who gave them trouble."
"What happened to them?" Miran was breathless. Part of her didn't want to know, and yet, the rest of her had to know.
"Coursers," Nessa spat. "When a Peacekeeper was informed that she was going to be Retired and didn't want to lie down and take it, she would run. Coursers were what the men were called who chased down the Rogue Peacekeepers. Sometimes the women evaded capture. Sometimes they took their own life. Other times they killed the Courser who was sent after them."
"What would happen then?" Miran wondered.
"Coursers were sent until one succeeded—the one who could overtake his quarry was considered worthy enough to be the mate."
"That sounds terrible," Miran said.
Nessa nodded that it was. "After the war, they tried to change things. By admitting both boys and girls to be Peacekeepers they allow for a more conventional romance to blossom. They're still working out the kinks."
Miran nodded, trying to process all of this.
"Do you remember Cas and Tor?" Nessa asked suddenly. She didn't wait for an answer, "Their mother killed herself rather than to see her girls suffer the same fate as her. That's why they dropped out of the Academy."
"Why did they even go to the Academy to begin with?"
"They have to. Daughters of Peacekeepers are required to participate in the Entry Games. It's why they exist. It's the Peacekeeper's duty to perpetuate the next generation," Nessa made a face.
They were silent for a time as Miran digested all this information. "You told me that Coursers chase down Peacekeepers who go Rogue. You said it only happens in times of war."
Nessa hung her head, "I lied." Peacekeepers were too well-trained to be cowards or desert. Miran knew that now.
"Peacekeepers go Rogue after the High King informs them that they are to be retired," Miran said and then fixed Nessa with a curious look, "Was Hunter your-?"
"No. That was the way they used to do things. They've changed that now. Now Coursers have jobs of their own, going where Peacekeepers cannot.
Miran didn't know what to say to this. She'd seen the way Hunter acted around Nessa. There was something there.
"We got off topic you know," Nessa said after Miran was quiet for a time. "The reason there aren't any women masters is because they're all busy rearing children."
"You answered the question, just in more detail than you intended," Miran sent the girl a grin.
"I wanted to let you know what you're getting yourself into."
"Do you think I will stay here and get a placement—if I even get accepted into the Academy?"
"That's what most do," Nessa said.
"But there are others, nobility and such, that only stay for a couple years and then leave, no strings attached."
"They pay their way," Nessa said.
"That's what I will do. It was my father's dream for me to attend the Peacekeeper Academy—to learn some place where women flourish and are revered. To grow up somewhere where I could have women role models."
"Sorry you were disappointed."
"Not a hundred percent," Miran grinned. "I found you."
Nessa's response was a shy smile. She wasn't accustomed to praise.
Miran grinned back, "If I get into the Academy and you don't get caught in the meantime, will you come back to Tolin with me when I'm done?"
Nessa's face brightened, "You bet."
The girls fell silent and Miran drifted off to sleep. Nessa wasn't long behind her. She had a lot of sleep to catch up on.