By Will Greenway
On Aarlen’s eleventh birthday, Father gave her a sword and said by the time a year passed she would take a man’s life with it. Now, the bone-colored courtyard walls seemed to close around her. She gripped the sword’s hilt. The cool metal numbed her callused hand. The rankness of smoke and decay hung in the air. Father’s words of a year ago gnawed at her. Today was Aarlen’s twelfth birthday.
Studying the crenelated walls veined with crimson, Aarlen wondered how far she could get if she climbed over. Her back burned with the memory of her last attempt to escape FalconHall. Steel lashed through her mind. She shivered.
Guardians dressed in Father’s ash-gray livery stalked the battlements. FalconHall’s sentinels were more to keep people in than to repel enemies.
Aarlen glanced across the cobbled yard to the barracks. The sword master would soon come to test her. She stretched to get the kinks out of her muscles. She needed to be limber to perform the torn’fratar properly.
She saluted as one of the officers crossed the yard. At her motion, he stopped, his dark eyes even with hers. Since Father’s red-suited alchemists began injecting her with their potions, she’d grown through four sets of clothing and could look most men in the eye. He frowned and strode away. The sight of her seemed to trouble the guards. Aarlen had asked why, but none would speak to her.
Sighing, she ran her fingers through the spectral-white strands of her hair. Before Father sent her sister away, it had been brown. She wished Marta were here. If she hadn’t been so dumb and clumsy— Three summers had passed since the bad day in the vestibule.
She’d knocked over a vase where the two of them were playing. Marta tried to catch it, but it broke into a million pieces.
Father found Marta crying, and Aarlen trying to put the porcelain back together. He cursed at them. She had tried to tell Father that Marta didn’t do it, but he hit Marta with his rod anyway. Aarlen tried to make him stop but he knocked her down and ordered a servant to take her upstairs.
The girls had made Father so angry he sent Marta away. She asked Mother where Marta had gone. She said Marta was with the creators now. Aarlen never saw Mother after that. She guessed Mother joined Marta with the creators. The servants put wreaths of flowers around the manor as going away decorations.
Aarlen remembered the smell of the blossoms. The decorations stayed until they became sad and dried up. The flowers missed Marta too. Father was angry all the time after that. He gave up hitting her with the wooden switch after breaking two of them.
Marta, I wish you’d come back. I don’t want to kill anybody. I only want to go to the creators to be with you and Mother.
A twinge shot through Aarlen’s spine. Father always caught her. Sometimes her body ached for weeks. In her mind’s eye she saw that slender shaft as it hissed through the air; heard and felt the crack of metal on flesh. Her hands knotted into fists.
She stretched. Something warm caressed her ankle, Fennel, a big gray-and-white manx-cat who hunted FalconHall’s vermin. She scratched behind his tufted ears and under his chin. He blinked with big gold eyes and gave her his funny cat smile.
He reminded her of another cat, Jacques. Aarlen wished she could undo the bad things she’d done; on that day especially.
She remembered sitting near the balustrade at the top of the marble steps that ran down into FalconHall’s main colonnade. She wore her favorite dress, black velvet that hung loose on her pudgy body. Jacques, the manx who terrorized the manor’s many rodents, struggled to get away from her. Aarlen’s grip loosened as she paused to sniff the scents of cinnamon and spice wine wafting up from the kitchens.
Jacques broke away. His movement startled her. She lunged and caught his leg. The cat hissed and folded on itself. Its claws flashed and grooved the flesh of her hand.
She yelped and flung him away. A thud, followed by the cat’s yowl and silence. Aarlen examined the scratches that had joined the bruises and welts on her arm. The cutting pain felt like a whack from one of Father’s straps.
A movement made her look up. Jacques lay on the marble twitching. His legs clawed the air as though to rend an invisible opponent.
She hadn’t meant to throw him so hard. Since the men in the red suits started dosing her with potions, nothing worked right. She swelled up and hurt all the time. She couldn’t walk without tripping. Her arms and legs felt too long. Things broke in her hands.
She was simply too dumb and clumsy. That’s why Mother cried so much and why Father always smelled of Darmack juice and screamed about worthless women. Maybe if she’d been smart like Marta, Father wouldn’t have hit them with that rod.
“What was that sound?” Father boomed.
Aarlen’s heart raced. She glanced at Jacques lying on the floor with a smelly yellow puddle growing around him.
She rose. Her legs trembled. Should she run? Father would find her. He always did. He’d hit her worse if he had to search. It was her fault. Dumb and clumsy… She didn’t mean to hurt Jacques.
Father stepped out of his chambers, a frown etched on his stony face. He looked at her and then saw Jacques. His dark eyes ignited.
“What is this?” he blared. “Our best mouser. Can’t you even play with an animal without killing it? Stupid brat! After all the gold I’ve spent on you, this is your thanks!”
A chill rushed through her. “No, Father, I didn’t—”
“Don’t talk back to me!”
His palm felt like rock as it exploded against Aarlen’s cheek. Holding her face she realized she lay on the floor. He loomed over her, a giant with meaty fists. He pulled a rod from his belt. Polished metal glinted.
“Boy or not, you’re designed to be soldier,” he roared. “Soldiers follow orders. As Hecate is my witness, you will learn!”
The rod came down. She didn’t know how many times except to know that it hurt enough to make the world go away.
When the blackness faded, she could still hear her father screaming at the servants. Why was she so stupid? Why couldn’t she make father happy? She couldn’t help not being a boy. The shame burned as much as the bruises on her body.
Aarlen rose, her back and legs burned but not as much as some other times. She’d been bad. She needed to go to the safe place now.
Limping downstairs, she went to the kitchen. The cinnamon smell grew along with the aromas of stewing meat and vegetables. She wove around the cooks and their assistants to the cold locker. They never looked at her. Father had told them not to.
She pulled the bolt on the door then entered. Inside, it felt frosty and damp. The odors of raw meat and cheese hung heavy in the air. Aarlen welcomed the darkness and nestled herself in the corner between two slabs of ice. Each week the servants brought back these blocks from the green caves to the north. The ice felt good against her injuries. Soon it would make her numb.
Someday she’d be a soldier and even Father’s metal rod would break on her back. Until then, all she could do was huddle in the darkness and drink in the warmth of the ice…
The slam of the barracks door made Aarlen straighten. She glanced back and saw the master approaching. Standing at attention, she realized she hadn’t visited the safe place for several ten-days. She might be going back soon.
The master’s wizened face looked as if it had been made from wrinkled parchment. He walked with a limp and spoke as if he couldn’t get enough air. “Establa presenta,” he said in the fighter’s cadence.
Her chest tightened. Aarlen drew the sword and saluted. The metal glinted. With this weapon she could sunder a sapling as thick as her leg.
“Today we see if you have mastered all the forms of torn’fratar. You will begin now.”
Aarlen swallowed. She saluted again and began. Her heart thundered. The sword whistled as it slipped through the air. The blade dances were like a safe place she could hide. No pain or fear could reach her when she merged with the steel.
The world dwindled until it became nothing but the whirling edge and the scrape of feet on stone. Cover and lunge, she danced as the wyvern, shielding wings and paralyzing sting. Slash, slash, slash, she drove forward in the form of the unstoppable rhinotaur. Sway and strike, she performed the sinuous ballet of the serpent. The dread in her mounted. Where was Father?
She finished the last of the torn’fratar, then stood at attention until the master grunted that he found the demonstration adequate. Aarlen let out breath and wiped the sweat from her brow. Now she could hide.
“Aarlen,” Father’s deep voice called.
She stiffened. She should have performed the exercises faster. Dumb and clumsy, Aarlen. Too late now, she couldn’t get away.
She performed a perfect s’rat, the ritual sheathing of the sword and bowed to the master. The swordsman returned the bow and left. Aarlen faced Father’s stony visage.
He strode across the courtyard, his shadow blacker than the others. A cloak the color of blood trailed behind him and the platinum falcons on his surcoat gleamed. Two guardsmen dragged a struggling man.
Aarlen’s stomach turned to lead and her throat constricted.
Father stopped in front of her. Even though less than a handbreadth now separated them in height, his presence still made her tremble. He carried the polished steel rod in his fist.
“It is your birthday.” Father’s voice was as cold as an arctic storm. “Now you will be blooded.” He gestured to the man. The peasant froze and stared. His face and clothes were filthy. “This man has stolen from me.” Father narrowed his burning eyes. “Kill him.”
Aarlen gripped the hilt of her sword. If she pleased Father he wouldn’t hurt her. It would be easy. She’d shattered wooden practice dummies with a single blow. One clean stroke, that’s all Father wanted.
The man’s pale blue eyes widened with panic. He smelled of perspiration and urine. His breeches were moist in the groin.
Father folded his arms. The rod glinted. A sheen of blood glistened on the metal.
Aarlen pulled the sword. It hissed from the sheath. She readied it in the kan’cora, the dragon stance, prepared to strike death with wing-spurs, claws, or deadly bite.
“Please,” the man blubbered. “I only wanted to feed my family. I have two daughters…”
“Silence!” Father roared. He gestured. “Execute him, Aarlen.”
The guardsmen took the peasant’s arms and held him rigid.
“My daughters… I only wanted food for them…”
Father had never risked anything for her. The rod gleamed. Her heart raced. He wanted her to butcher a man who had tried to feed a family. If she didn’t do it, Father would whip her and slay the man anyway.
“Aarlen.” She heard the menace in his voice.
It would never end; Father, the rod, the killing. Soon she wouldn’t be able to hide, even in the forms. She could feel her world dwindling. She imaged the safe place in her mind; the cool cool ice against on her back.
Maybe Father would send her to be with Marta.
The sword clattered on the paves. Her voice sounded tiny. “No.”
Father’s face turned red. “Pick up that sword, Aarlen.”
A chill enfolded her. Aarlen hid in the focus of steel. She raised her voice. “No.”
“How dare you—” Father roared.
“No!” she yelled.
“Little witch!” She heard the whistle of something moving fast then felt an explosion of pain from the side of her head. She staggered and tasted blood. He struck her again in the ribs. Aarlen gasped. Ice was hard and felt nothing.
Ice and steel, the rod would break on her back.
So, Father had designed a soldier? He would see one.
She captured his hand on the next swing. His other fist caught her between the eyes, sending colors spinning through her vision. She reeled but straightened. Ice and steel; pain meant nothing now.
Aarlen ripped the rod from Father’s hand and brought it whistling against the inside of his knee. She heard a hollow crack.
Father screamed. The sound scared her. She’d never heard him make that sound before. The metal flashed, this time against the hand reaching for her sword. He howled and ordered the guards to stop her.
The men didn’t move.
He yelled obscenities at her. When she cursed in his hearing, that wicked rod came crashing down on her backside. Five lashes for a bad word.
She whipped it home. The fleshy impacts and the answering cries made her ears hurt. He tried to crawl away.
Aarlen kicked him in the side. As he writhed and moaned, she ripped the falcon crest off his surcoat. The image of the remorseless hunting bird felt good in her hand. Father cried with each new blow.
He wasn’t used to the rod. He didn’t bruise. He bled. She clenched her fist around the steel.
Father would bleed a lot…