Chapter Seven- VERA
A brilliant shade of violet looks at me from my reflection. I should be excited. But I’m not.
I’d awakened in a pool of my own sweat, terrified of what I would see. So now, as I look at my reflection, it reminds me of the binding contract, of the noose tight around my neck.
Everyone will know of the change by looking at me. What they won’t know, is that a strange hum encompasses my body, forcing it to cooperate. I’m curious to know what gift this might be. So, too, will the king.
I dress quickly, suppressing this new sensation. It won’t be long before the king learns my eyes have changed. Until then I’ll enjoy what time I have left.
My first stop of the morning takes me to Zyrik. I peek my head inside and see his bed empty. My first instinct is to panic, thinking the king has taken him. But I remain calm and step further inside. Zyrik suddenly jumps out from behind a chair, throwing small pieces of paper in the air. Relief escapes my lungs in a burst.
Zyrik runs towards me and jumps into my arms, squeezing his arms around my neck.
He pulls back to look at me. Fear takes hold of him and he wiggles out from my embrace and retreats to the back of the room.
“It’s okay, Little Rik. It’s still me. I got different colored eyes for my birthday. Do you like them?” I turn my head side to side.
Zyrik squints, his tongue slightly pushed out. Seconds later, he comes running back.
“Oh, you are getting so big.”
He puts his hands on either side of my face and peers into my eyes. He moves my head in small movements, looking from every angle.
“Do you like them?”
Zyrik shrugs his shoulders.
“Yeah, me too.” He releases my face. “So, what are you doing today? Anything exciting?”
He points over to his chest of toys.
“That seems like fun.”
He nods and smiles. He points to me, then to himself, before motioning over to the chest.
“I wish I could stay and play, I really do. But I’m going to be extra busy today. But, I promise I’ll come see you later. You must promise me that you’ll stay out of trouble.”
His blonde curls bounce as he makes a crisscross over his heart with a finger. Kissing him on the cheek, I let him go.
How I wish I could stay with him, away from what the rest of this day will entail. Unfortunately, I can’t hide so easily. Especially from the king and his dumb councilmen.
Already the castle is awake, and busy with the final touches for my birthday celebration. Curious eyes find me, and I duck my head. I just need a little bit longer to enjoy this day without them wagging their tongues.
I pass through the stables and look up to the arena. I sigh. The biggest challenge will be avoiding thousands of assassins. If only I could wear a mask. Wisps of white clouds form neat lines above, dragged by a wind I can’t feel.
Halfway up the hill, a shout disturbs my thoughts.
Nate, Karl, and Murrow are running to catch up. They must’ve just completed a shift. They are dressed out in their black threads and leather armor, all of them holding their red masks. Then it dawns on me.
Today is also the day for The Silent Trials. Which means not only do I have to avoid thousands of assassins, but also the king and the people of Dryden. This won’t be good.
My mood plummets.
Nate is the first to see my expression. “You forgot...” He stops mid sentence on seeing my eyes, while Karl and Murrow groan as they lag behind.
“You know, Vera, it’s not that hard to remember,” Murrow blurts out.
Karl punches him in the arm. “Easy Murrow, or you might find something important cut off one day.”
They finally catch up and notice Nate’s silence. Both finally look at me, and their mouths fall open.
“Does this mean you have the gift?” Karl asks.
“I’m not sure what the gift is yet. But I’m sure if I don’t find out soon, the king will torture it out of me.”
We continue to walk towards Graves Hill. They wish me a happy birthday and don’t say any more about my gift. I’m glad they don’t make a big deal about it; it’s one of the many reasons they’ve been my friends this long--they know when to shut up. Instead, I fill them in on the contract I signed.
“It’s not right,” Karl grumbles. He runs his hand through his ash brown hair, but it falls right back over his protruding brow.
“It’s beyond not right. You know how many times we’ve planned the king’s death?” Murrow complains.
It’s true. We’ve spent many evenings contemplating hundreds of different ways to kill the king. We even all agreed that I would be the one to give the final blow. So much for wishing.
I take note of Nate’s silence. “What’s wrong with you?”
He shakes his head and frowns. Kicking a rock off the path, he finally answers. “How much longer do you have to suffer, Vera? I hate all this, and you deserve so much more.”
I remember when Nate first arrived at Graves Hill. He’d been ripped from his family at the ripe age of eight and forced to become an assassin. He later found out his parents were killed for trying to stop his abduction. I was the one who comforted him when he couldn’t function during our training. I shared my own story and told him we had to do what they wanted to survive. We have been best friends ever since.
My throat clenches. “Thanks, Nate.”
We hear the sound of the drums starting as we enter the arena. Today everyone will be dressed out and wearing red masks. There is nothing more daunting then a force of uniformed Silent Watchers. This is why the people fear them.
In the center, ten whipping blocks are lined up along a wooden stage. Two assassins paces back and forth, holding the whips they will use to inflict pain. Just by the arrogant struts of one of them, I know it is Kah. Bastard. Not only is he to be exempt, but he is ruthless with just the flick of his wrist.
It’s lucky for me it’s my birthday. So I, too, am exempt. King Kgar likes me healthy for the evening’s celebration.
“Where are you guys today?”
“Not the cages, thank the Maker.” Murrow says in relief.
Murrow and the others slide their masks on. I wave goodbye as we go our separate ways.
The Silent Trials follow the same rules as on any other day. Except that for today, it’s a tournament. The assassins have been split up amongst all the different stations. You don’t want to be assigned to the cages.
Today, the cages can seal one’s fate to the mines. Ten sparring cages have been built in front of the king’s platform. If you lose, the king decides your fate--a whipping block or the mines. No one wants to go to the mines.
This whole event is entertainment for the people. King Kgar knows he must give something to them. This is how he does it. Bets will be made, and coin will flow at a cost to the participants.
I run for the furthest cage, away from the king and his ever watchful Woman of the Scree. My stomach tightens as I see those two in the stands. Fortunately, they haven’t seen me--yet.
Captain Leech stands inside a cage and is already choosing the first two fighters. Unlike Ryker, his matchups aren’t out of spite. The drums cease beating, casting silence over the entire arena.
Bellek steps onto the whipping block stage, his red commander cloak demanding our attention.
“Let The Silent Trials begin!”
The crowd roars and the wagers are offered.
Hours pass by with fight after fight. Most losers go to the whipping block, but it’s worse for those few sent to the mines. I watch as an assassin hands over his red mask and then steps into the back of a wagon, one that will take him straight to the mines in Wolfmere Peaks.
All of our lives we’ve been taught to not fear the Peaks, but old stories circle around. All of us know about the magical creatures that once lurked in the mountains. Rumor says nothing has been seen of them since the magic was taken. But some claim to have seen monstrous shadows at dusk that resemble nightmares. With our mines located at the edge of Wolfmere Peaks, we never know who makes it to the mines. We do know that not everyone returns.
“Slyk and Marcus!”
My eyes snap into focus hearing Marcus’s name. With everyone wearing masks I wasn’t aware he was around.
My heart thumps hard inside my chest. Not from nerves, but from the thrill of seeing him fight. Marcus is one of our top fighters. His skills are what drew me to him to begin with.
Slyk is another one of Captain Ryker’s cronies. His slim frame and elongated neck give him the impression of a weasel. Marcus towers over him, flexing his arms. As always, overly arrogant.
Captain Leech signals them to start. Marcus immediately goes for Slyk’s legs. Slyk is ready and pivots back, coming down hard with his elbow, aiming for Marcus’s back. Whipping around, Marcus catches Slyk’s elbow and punches him hard in his face.
They fight hard for long minutes, neither one weakening. Eventually, they both end up on the ground. Slyk wraps his legs around Marcus, pinning him in place. Each time Slyk throws a punch, Marcus blocks him. Soon enough you can sense Slyk’s frustration.
Marcus thrusts his hips up hard causing Slyk to loosen enough for him to escape. They scramble around, sand flying everywhere. Each tries to get a grip on the other. Suddenly, Marcus gets a hold of Slyk’s arm and pulls it between his legs and falls back. A loud pop is heard. Slyk yells out in pain.
Captain Leech calls the fight. Marcus drags himself up, exhaustion marked in his heavy breathing. He turns to exit the cage, leaving Slyk to cradle his arm.
But Slyk makes a movement that I can’t ignore. A flash of silver comes up in his good hand. He wasn’t supposed to have any weapons on him! Panicked, I look to Marcus who has no idea his life is in danger.
I imagine Slyk’s arm breaking in half. At the same time, I throw a knife of my own. A pained cry escapes his lips as I watch his arm snap in half, his bone popping out through the skin. As this unfolds, my knife pierces his eye.
The assassins around me take a step back, exposing me for my crime. The audience, however, sees entertainment and their cheers only get louder. My problem now is I’m in full view of King Kgar, and I’m sure he has witnessed everything. Including the use of my gift.
A messenger is sent to determine my fate.
Slyk’s body lays lifeless. His arm is a mangled mess. Marcus stands outside the cage. He shakes his head. The men around me start to fidget, having witnessed something they have never seen before. I too am unsure what to think.
The messenger finally comes back and delivers the word to Captain Leech. I wait. Leech turns and twirls his hand in the air.
I’m yanked by my collar by rough hands that couldn’t care less about being subtle. I look to the king. His face has no expression as his dark gaze locks on mine. Unable to keep my balance, my feet stumble over themselves as I’m dragged to the whipping block. Kah grabs me from the Watcher and throws me up against a post. He straps my hands up to the metal ring, then unhooks my bodice in back. A knife slices through my black threads. Punishment is to be on bare skin.
I know the lashes will flay my back open, and my body slightly trembles at the thought. But I hold my head up high, too proud to let them sense my fear. If this is what the king wants, then this is what he will get.
Kah grabs his whip and smooths it out. Even with his red mask on, I sense his smirk. I skim the crowd and my eyes fall on an assassin wearing a red cloak--the Commander. Will he save me?
Goosebumps form over my entire body with my skin suddenly exposed. Holding my breath, I brace myself for the oncoming pain.
Crack. I grit my teeth, biting down on the sharp pain. I keep my head held high.
Crack.Crack. My body arches and warm blood travels down my back.
Crack. I scream. The lash hits across my ribs, the sting shoots through my body. As the lashes continue, tears escape down my face. I can’t control them.
Crack. My legs finally give out and my back is on fire.
Crack. Crack. Small black dots fill my vision.
After the last three lashes are given--my world turns to darkness.
I wish I were dead. It would be better than having the fire of pain covering my back. Trying to gather my senses, I become aware of a bubbling up of water. I open my eyes. The Scree’s head is bobbing above a pool of water. The bath house, I realize. It’s where all the assassins come to bathe. The cave is near Graves Hill, built around a hot springs.
The Scree’s mouth curves up into a sly grin.
“Vera, Vera. A girl who can sure make an entrance. Did you know that I felt your gift the moment you used it?”
I don’t respond.
“Yes, it was quite a lovely thrill. It didn’t surprise me that your first time using it would end up killing someone. I always knew you were a vicious little vixen. And to protect a boy?”
I refuse to take her bait.
The Scree laughs. “Oh Vera, I can smell him on you. To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed. I was sure your lover would be the tall blond I saw you entering the arena with earlier. Now he is an attractive assassin, hmm?”
Anger rolls through me--stupid bitch.
The Scree glides through the water, coming over to the edge where I am lying. If the pain weren’t so paralyzing, I would move away. She slowly stands and I see that she is naked. Unable to move my head away, I close my eyes--it doesn’t help. The image of her perfect breasts and tiny waist are imprinted inside my head.
I flinch when she touches my back.
“What the hell are you doing? Get off me!”
“Shhh. This will only take a second.”
The pain begins to fade and I realize she’s using the Enchanter’s magic. The king must’ve sent her to put me back together. He knew this lashing would put me out for days. Yet he allowed it to happen.
Her hands retract and she splashes back into the spring. I open my eyes. With my pain now at a dull ache, I push myself up. I too am naked. I slide into the spring, trying to hide my flawed body from the Scree--but she’s already seen it.
“The Enchanter could fix those grotesque scars of yours. For a small price, of course.”
I ignore her jab and wade away from her, moving towards the opening of the cave. I have no interest in entertaining her, or accidentally spilling anything that could get my friends in trouble. The Scree is a creation of the Enchanter. She has zero empathy for human life. She lives only for the Enchanter, and I have no desire to let him into any of my world.
“You know, your gift is interesting. Did you know it’s the gift from the North?”
“Your mother was from the North. Oh! You never knew your mother did you?”
I swallow a lump that forms in my throat. She knows very well I never knew my parents. Because of her magic-hoarding master and his stupid prophecy, I never got the chance to have a family.
Done with her torturous conversation, I jump out from the springs, and run out--not caring that I am naked.
Entering my chamber, I see a package lying on my bed. It’s from the king, as is such a package every year.
Opening it, I find a beautiful white gown folded neatly inside. I lift it up. Tiny diamonds are scattered over the entire gown. I let the satin fabric drop down to the floor, revealing intricate designs.
The fabric alone must’ve cost a fortune. It has to have come from the North. That’s where all the expensive fabrics come from-- silk and satin in particular. I think back to what the Scree had said. My gift is the Northern magic--Northern like my mother. I shake my head, pushing away the sadness that tries to surface.
I step into the gown and pull it up around my neck. I step in front of my mirror. It is truly the most beautiful gown I’ve ever seen. The dipping neckline shows off parts of me in a way that makes me look stunning. I look like someone else entirely.
I turn around and look over my shoulder, pulling my hair aside. My skin screams red. Ugly welts overlap one another--a reminder of the stupidity of my decisions. The Scree could’ve made them disappear in her healing, but she stopped short on purpose. She loves control.
I spend the next hour soaking in the tub, letting my hair hang over the edge to dry. I still can’t believe I was able to do that to Slyk. I might not have been excited about my gift earlier, but the reality of what I can do is quite invigorating. If I concentrate, I can still feel the subtle hum over my skin.
I’m surprised I don’t have the gift of healing. It’s what the West usually inherits from their Guardian--at least they did centuries ago. And as far as I knew before, I was from the West.
A knock comes at my chamber door. Great. The chambermaids have arrived. I am instantly annoyed.
Every year the king sends these maids to gloss me over for the evening. They paint my face, fashion my hair in the latest style, and powder my body in glitter. It’s embarrassing. The assassins who get a glimpse of me, they rag on me the whole next week.
I dry myself off and answer the door.
“I’m all yours.”
They rush past me, and the giggling starts. I grit my teeth and do my best to shut them out. Let the torture begin.
I walk carefully down the corridor, trying not to trip over my gown. The chambermaids decided to leave half of my hair down in hopes of covering the fresh marks across my back. A hush went through the room when the chambermaids first removed my garments. You would think they’d be used to my scarred body by now. But each year, it’s the same.
Bellek is waiting for me at the end of the hall. As always, when he sees me all dressed up on my birthday, he bows.
This time, I curtsy.
“Wow. A true lady!” He pulls a wooden box out from behind his back and hands it to me. “Happy Birthday, Vera.”
I hesitantly take the box. He has never given me a gift before. I unlatch the lid and open it.
Lying inside is a warrior’s necklace. Hanging from a large knot on a leather cord, are three small grey stones and a feather from a Kepper, our most feared bird of prey.
“It’s beautiful!” I gently caress the red feather.
A Kepper is a dangerous beast that can easily rip you to shreds with its razor sharp talons. But they are beautiful birds, red with black masks that extend to their beaks. To capture just one feather speaks volumes about the type of warrior you are.
“I knew from the moment you were able to walk that you would be a warrior,” he says. “You might not go out to fight in battles, but the true battle is inside this place and inside yourself. These are battles just the same. I’ve watched you become a strong and fearless young woman, and I’m proud of you.”
His words touch deep. The love and respect I have for him is real and I wouldn’t be who I am without him. I wish I could embrace him this once, but I’ve already pushed the limits for one day.
“Thanks, Bellek. Your gift couldn’t be more perfect. Do you think I might get one more thing from you?”
His brow raises in question.
“Walk with me to my party?”
If I am going to spend time with a bunch of rich kiss-ups, I can think of no one better to go in with.