A rabbit will always run in a circle if you chase it. This is of no use to a lone hunter; a rabbit could easily outrun Jorek even were she well-fed and rested. But if Tiren-pa could hobble out to the other side of the stand of saplings while Jorek flushed the rabbit and chased it around the trees, then one quick blow from Tiren-pa’s staff meant they’d both eat for the first time in three days.
That was the plan, anyway. But as the rabbit came around the thicket, Tiren-pa flinched from the sudden weight on the bad ankle. The rabbit dodged the whirling end of the staff and plunged into the undergrowth. Tiren-pa overbalanced, stumbled, fell heavily, and lay still.
Jorek picked her way over. Close up, she could see that Tiren-pa was weeping, softly. There was more fluid seeping from the wound in her temple. When Jorek sat down, Tiren-pa began to moan.
“We almost had it that time, m’lord,” said Jorek. She patted her oathsister on the shoulder. “We’ve got the timing down.” She slipped her hands around Tiren-pa’s upper arm and began to help her up. “Next time, we’ll have it.” They’d better: it would be full dark any minute, and they’d never see the rabbit this deep in the trees.
“Three times,” muttered Tiren-pa. The slur in her voice was a little worse than before.
“I can’t do it.”
“Yes, you can. Just focus.”
Tiren-pa licked her lips, controlled herself, spoke as deliberately as she could. “Go home. Get my sire.”
The eye on the hurt side had a smaller pupil than the other. Jorek was no Elder, but she knew that couldn’t be good. “I’m not leaving you. My own sire would kill me. Great Mother, yours would kill me. We have to eat. Come on, get up; I need your help. Fourth try is always lucky.” With great effort, she called Tiren-pa to her feet and back into position, then crouched in the grass to await another rabbit.
And so did they wait, Jorek in the grass trying to breathe quietly, Tiren-pa standing, sometimes swaying, in the shadows, lopsided, most of her weight on the staff. Jorek counted for a filled-fours of slow breaths, then another, then lost track. The moon was a full span above the undergrowth, and even Jorek was ready to give up, when she heard a rustling in the grass. She shifted just enough to get a good look at the fat rabbit before she launched herself at it. Around the stand of trees they went, the rabbit almost silent, Jorek losing ground but keeping up the pressure by shouting. The rabbit rounded the corner, and there was Tiren-pa, grim-faced, squinting, swinging the staff with all the force she could muster. The tip caught the rabbit on the foot, and as Tiren-pa lost her balance, the rabbit stopped, just for an instant, the hurt leg held off the ground. Jorek hurdled Tiren-pa and dove at the rabbit, hands contorted into claws. The rabbit saw her coming, and tried to jump, but only managed a hop. Jorek caught it by the good leg as she crashed to the ground, then sprang at it again as it hopped away. She was focused upon nothing but her prey as she leapt upon it again, got it by the back, stood up and used her other hand to twist its head. The rabbit squealed as she snapped its neck. Only then did she realized she’d skinned both her knees.
Tiren-pa sat up. “You…” The words couldn’t come out, so she applauded.
“We did it, m’lord.” She followed Tiren-pa’s gaze to her knees. “I’ll wash them in the creek, and find milkleaf. Can you make it back to our cave alone?”
Tiren-pa actually smiled, for the first time since she got hurt.
Jorek took care of her knees at the creek, then went to skin and gut the rabbit. She took her oath-knife from her belt and cut it down the belly, letting the guts spill for the birds. But mixed in with the viscera were small round blobs, each half the size of her fist. She bent down to investigate, then felt her empty stomach lurch and her throat fill with bile as she realized that the blobs were baby rabbits, still unborn, naked and glistening in the moonlight. She heaved a couple of times, but there was nothing in her belly and hadn’t been for two days. She calmed herself; it’s not taboo anymore if you’re starving, and surely the Mother meant for the rabbit to feed them.
Best not to say anything to Tiren-pa.
Back at the cave they found, Tiren-pa had a merry little fire going. All those boring camping trips this year hadn’t been such a bad idea after all. Tiren-pa spitted the rabbit and kept it turning while Jorek gathered more wood, then the girls tore the carcass apart and devoured it while it was still only just warm in places. They gnawed on the joints, cracked the bones, licked their fingers, while without stopping even to breathe. When there was no more to be had, Tiren-pa curled up and went to sleep. Jorek tried to, but sleep wouldn’t come: something smelled not quite right. She built up the fire, used her knife to scrape the rabbit’s skin, dried and cured it over the fire as best she could, then used the knife and several of the thongs around her wrist to sew the skin into a crude cap with the rabbit’s puffy tail at the top. She put it on the head of the sleeping Tiren-pa, adjusted it and smiled. Nothing like the crown she’d wear one day, but it covered the nasty head wound, made her look whole again.
Jorek snuggled up to her lord and oathsister, and said a quick prayer of thanks to the Mother and to the rabbit. She thought about the rabbit running in a circle and then remembered that Rabbit was the first sign of the zodiac. Was that why, because it ran the circle of the year? When they got back, she’d have to ask Elder Zurel-ko. She imagined their teacher’s droning voice, and she must have slept, because the rains awoke them both before dawn, and did not stop. And so passed the fourth day, and the fifth day and of the sixth, of the three-day trip that was supposed to mark their passage from childhood.
They’d come up the ridge to the campsite in the fading gleam of twilight, Jorek on the front of the last horse with Tiren-pa behind her, arms around her waist, half-dozing on her shoulder. In front of them was Buvel, short and scrawny, stiff and upright, trying not to hold onto Virek, who had already elbowed her twice in the head. Leading the company was Wulimon, alone on her horse, tall and strong at four four-years, armed with bow and a sword, three rings of ink on her upper arm marking her as bulin, three red feathers in her warrior’s braid, the very image of what Jorek knew she would someday be.
They’d always been for, Tiren-pa and Jorek and Buvel and Curuwel the strongest, camping once a season with Jorek’s and Buvel’s sires, who would bring wine and tell war stories to each other once they thought the girls were asleep. But as they were passing the watchtower that marked the border of city and country, Elder Zurel-ko came running up to them, with the Duke right behind her looking furious. Tiren-pa ducked behind Jorek, always wary of her sire’s rage, but Elder Zurel-ko was the target of the Duke’s wrath. The Elder just smiled, beckoned to Wulimon and exchanged a few words with her, then told Curuwel to get down and help Virek take her place. The Duke was red-faced, but Elder Zurel-ko said something Jorek didn’t understand about drawing lots, and up Virek went.
As they picked their way to the edge of the fields and into the forest, Virek threw a rock at a squirrel. Jorek could hear Tiren-pa sniff with disdain from behind her.
Jorek shrugged. “She’s no Curuwel, but she’s good to stand beside in two-on-two combat.”
“She lacks respect. But what would you expect? She’s darek.”
“She’s kulik. Her mom made our oath-knives.”
“She’s darek. A jumped-up servant. Mother said she only got the job because the real blacksmith died of the fever. They tattooed her, and they let her pay the marriage price, but darek she was made, and darek she always will be.”
“Really?” Maybe that was why Virek was so willing to stick a knuckle into your ribs in wrestling matches. She didn’t look darek, but neither did her mother, who cringed to nobody and was probably stronger than Jorek’s own sire, though never blooded in battle.
Once their bellies were full of dried salt beef and bread already gone stale after two days on horseback, Wulimon reached into her pouch and withdrew a bone tube, then took from this a rolled piece of parchment. She tilted it awkwardly, to let the firelight catch the faded ink. “The Elders said I had to read this to you. Each of you has… passed her third four-year this season. You’ve already shown your… prowess with sword and… oh, with strength and dance. Now there’s one final test of your bodies, that of… of…” Wulimon crouched down to hold the parchment closer to the light. “That of… Great Mother!”
Buvel crept over and looked at the word. “Endurance.”
“Of course. Ugh, reading.” Jorek could sympathize: letters on a page always swam around and changed places, unless Elder Zurel-ko was there, softly encouraging her. Wulimon continued: “The Mother gives, and the Mother takes, and you must…” She thrust the parchment at Buvel. “Here, you read it.”
Buvel’s high, clear voice sang out. “You must demonstrate your respect for the Mother by walking her paths. Three days of food you will have, and you will walk back to the temple. And if you return, then the Elders shall examine your minds, and…”
“Wait,” said Tiren-pa. She looked at Wulimon. “You’re not coming with us?”
“I stay here.” She followed Tiren-pa’s confused gaze. “And the horses stay with me.”
In the morning, Wulimon roused them. “Here’s a full water skin and a pouch of food for each of you. I am forbidden to interfere, but as long as you promise not to tell the Elders, I’ll give you one piece of advice.” She took their silence for assent. “Speed matters. You don’t have to run, but don’t tarry.” They all had questions, but Wulimon folded her arms, shook her head, refused to answer.
Finally, Virek shrugged. “What are we waiting for?” Without looking at the others, she slung her pouch and waterskin over her shoulders and strode off down the hill. Tiren-pa looked at Jorek and Buvel. “Can you believe her?”
Buvel kept silent, and followed Virek. “After you, my lord,” said Jorek to Tiren-pa, who grumbled, but went.
They passed a beautiful spring morning walking the trails; sunlight filtered yellow-green through brand-new leaves. At midmorning, Tiren-pa sighed. “Let’s rest for a bit.”
“Let’s get going,” said Virek. “At this pace, we’ll be almost halfway back by dusk.”
“Do be quiet. The Elders are not going to rank us.”
Virek rolled her eyes. “You really don’t know what this is about?”
Tiren-pa’s nostrils flared. “Enlighten me, thrall.”
“You think that this is all a game, don’t you? You’ll get back and they’ll put four rings on your arm and call you tekim, because your mother’s the Duke. But you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter who your sire is, or who mine is, or even used to be. You have to pass all the tests to be tekim.”
“It’s true,” said Buvel. “I’ve read almost all the Scriptures, now.”
“Well, then,” said Jorek. “Let’s get going.” Now she was really starting to dread the reading test. When Buvel stopped to squat in the forest, Jorek used her oath-knife to cut a stout branch from an oak, then stripped the twigs and bark from it to use as a walking stick. Virek watched her, then did the same.
When it was well past noon, they finally stopped for lunch. Virek gobbled her food and bounced back to her feet. “You’ve rested enough.”
“I want to sit in the sun for a few moments,” said Tiren-pa. “What I’d really like is a cup of punch.”
“You might know your whole bloodline, but you’re stupid.”
“I’ll have you whipped for that.”
Virek made a face of exaggerated patience. “What’s in the middle of your sire’s front garden?”
“Why… Two apple trees. They’re for my sisters.”
“What happened to them?”
“They died of fever; they’re buried there. Show some respect.”
“Your sire lied to you, Little Prince. Remember when we were little, and they made us all run and dance and sing in front of the Elders?”
“The Rose Games,” said Jorek.
“Those were tests, too. Body and mind. And if you failed both? They made your sire smother you and bury you under a fruit tree. You can’t weaken the tribe, even if you’re the Duke. That’s what happened to your sisters: they were weak, and stupid, and that’s why you get to be the heir.”
Tiren-pa snapped to her feet, oath-knife in hand. “Lies!”
Virek’s squinty eyes glared back. “This set of tests, if you fail, they just make you a servant. Well, they smother the males. But girls become darek.”
“Like your mother.”
“Like my mother used to be. And like I don’t want to end up. So let’s go, and you can nap in your shady front garden after we return.”
Jorek looked at Buvel, who nodded. “It’s true, about the trees. Elder Zurel-ko gave me such a whipping when I found out.”
“Very well,” said Tiren-pa. “We’ll walk quickly, lest I end up a drudge, tilling my mother’s fields.” She tossed her empty water skin to Virek. “Here, fetch water for us.”
Virek made no move to catch the skin. “I’m not your servant.”
“Fetch.” Tiren-pa drew breath to say something else, but the thick end of Virek’s walking stick knocked all the breath out of her as Virek poked it hard into her chest.
Tiren-pa’s mouth worked like a fish’s as she stumbled backward, arms wheeling. Her heel caught a space between two rocks, and all three of the others watched in horror as she fell backward. The ankle twisted and cracked; her temple struck another rock, and blood poured forth. Tiren-pa moaned, then puked, then lay still.
Buvel froze. Jorek rushed to Tiren-pa and daubed at the head wound with her fingers.
She looked up at Virek, who looked green. “Help me,” said Jorek.
Virek dropped the staff and bent down to help Jorek with Tiren-pa to her feet. Halfway
through this, Tiren-pa moaned again. “Get her away from me!”
“It was an accident,” muttered Virek, but she backed off.
Jorek got a shoulder under Tiren-pa’s arm and got her up on one foot, leaving the hurt one dangling. “Go back to the camp. Get Wulimon, and a horse.”
“She won’t help,” said Buvel and Virek simultaneously. Buvel continued, “She’s forbidden to. She can’t even leave the camp for four days.”
“It’s a test of endurance,” said Virek.
Jorek said, “Then… then, Buvel, you’re the fastest one here. Go all the way back and find my sire. She and the Duke will bring horses.”
“I don’t think they’re allowed to help, either,” said Buvel. But after one look at
Jorek and Tiren-pa, she shrugged, grabbed her pouch and skin, and scampered off.
“Come on, Virek,” said Jorek. “You get one shoulder, and I’ll get the other. No, let’s bind her ankle, first.”
Virek paused a long time before speaking. Finally, she said, “I don’t think so. They’re not testing us as a group.” She began to walk away.
“Yes. You should, too. You fail this test, you can’t be a leader or a warrior. And I don’t think you’d be much of a scribe or artisan. Leave her here: she can tell the bears and foxes to fetch water for her.”
“She’s my oathsister. I can’t.”
Virek shrugged. “I can.” She tossed Tiren-pa’s water skin to Jorek. “Do you really want to be a servant?” Jorek had no answer; Tiren-pa puked again, and sagged to her knees, and so it was that Virek had been gone for over an hour before Jorek noticed that she’d taken the rest of the food and water with her.
On the seventh day, they made at least five miles by Jorek’s reckoning. Three days waiting for the rains to stop had mostly healed Tiren-pa’s ankle; she could probably outrun Jorek, now. But the head wound was beyond Jorek’s ken: it still leaked fluid from underneath the crude and ill-fitting rabbit skin. Tiren-pa was lost somewhere in the forest of her mind, sometimes coming out to say a few garbled words, but mostly she was as a child of age for the Rose Games, eager to please but unable to focus for long. Jorek let her move at her own pace, while she foraged on the margins of the trail for anything edible; but there wasn’t much. The best she could do was some tiny, half-formed pepper roots, which would have been next to inedible back at home, but weren’t so bad after almost an eight-day with nothing but half a roasted rabbit. She wanted to let Tiren-pa walk ahead, while she set snares in the forest or waited for something to come within range of a thrown rock, but the first time she tried it, Tiren-pa panicked and started moaning so loudly as to scare off anything for half a mile.
Late in the afternoon, senses sharpened by hunger told Jorek that someone was following them. She fretted for an hour as they slowly crossed an area of open grassland, until they got to a climbable tree. Once up in the branches, she breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Wulimon, riding one horse and leading the other two.
When Wulimon saw them as she rounded the bend, her face drew back in shock and she spurred the horses forward. She looked down at Tiren-pa, who stared back, licked her lips, and marshaled her willpower to speak. “Take me… to my sire,” she said with a slur.
Wulimon looked shocked, scared, nothing like a warrior. “What happened?”
“She… she fell.” Jorek tried to pull back the flap of the cap, but the blood and fluid had dried and held fast to Tiren-pa’s scalp. “Help me get her up on the horse; I’m so hungry I don’t think I can lift her.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Please. I beg you. We’re starving.”
“I can’t. It’s forbidden. Elder Zurel-ko told us they’d hang us, and she was serious. I’m not even supposed to talk to you. What happened? Where are Buvel and Virek?”
“They went on ahead. They’ve probably been back for days.”
Tiren-pa reached out to grab onto Wulimon’s saddlebags. “Home.”
“I can’t. I truly can’t. I’ll ride all night, and tell the Elders: they’ll send someone to help you. But keep going.” She looked down at Jorek, her eyes wide with fear and sadness. “I’m sorry.” She reached into her saddlebag, took out a fat pouch, looked around her as if to make sure nobody else was watching, then turned it upside down and showered the trail with dried beef and stale bread. “You need it more than me.”
Tiren-pa dropped her staff, sat down, began stuffing herself.
Wulimon patted the horse on its flank and rode off, leaving the other two animals. Jorek wanted to watch her hope of rescue disappear, but she could smell the dried beef. She knelt down, elbowed Tiren-pa out of the way, grabbed a piece for herself.
They made good time after that, walking all night in the light of the nearly-full moon. Jorek improved a little, though she still slurred and kept claiming she couldn’t see right. What little Tiren-pa could say centered around the vengeance she intended to wreak upon Virek when they returned.
They walked through the day and into the next night, ravenous once again, and after midnight they saw a figure on horseback; the torch she held lit the milestone that marked the outer boundary of the city. Together they ran to the stone, where Wulimon smiled down at them. She had fresh bread, and cheese, and a spare horse, and together they galloped down the moonlit road to the city walls, where Jorek’s sire’s mighty arms pulled her off the horse and embraced her. Then the Duke was there, barking orders, telling Jorek’s mother’s troops to carry Tiren-pa to the temple. Elder Zurel-ko was there, trying to get the Duke to listen to her, then asking questions of Jorek, but all the words blurred together as Jorek laid her head on her sire’s shoulder.
She awoke in the middle of the night, quite terrified after trying to carry Tiren-pa over the city walls, before she realized it was a dream. There was a plate beside her bed with bread and apples; she ate and slipped back into dreamless sleep.
She awoke again, in the predawn gray, when Buvel climbed in the window. “You made it,” she said. “I ran all the way, told them everything. The Duke told your sire to saddle up the troops, but the Elders stopped her. I wanted to go back and get you myself, but they made me read for them, and then they’ve been making me do weapons training ever since.”
“Weapons?” Jorek sat up, leaned forward, squinted at the upper arm that Buvel proudly showed her. There were four bands tattooed there, the skin skill still scabbed over.
“They made you tekim?”
“I know! I’m still shocked. I can barely lift a sword and shield, but I was the first one back. Your sire has two of the blooded girls making me do combat drills: I’m so sore it took me three tries to climb up here.” She shrugged. “At least if I fail in the Great Games, I can still be kurik.” Before Jorek could congratulate her, Buvel went on. “The scary part is? They made Virek tekim, too. I told them what she did; but the Elders said it didn’t matter. She was the fourth girl back, and she read perfectly and did sums, all with the Duke shouting in her face. The Elders shipped her over the mountains to Agarim. They said Agarim needed more young tekim, but I think they just wanted to get her out of–”
They both turned as the door opened. Jorek’s sire came first, dressed for temple, her captain’s helm under her arm, with Elder Zurel-ko behind her. Jorek’s sire pointed at Buvel. “I thought I told those lazy once-blooded to make you wear full armor until midsummer.” But the last few words fell on empty air, for Buvel had already dropped to the garden. “At least you’re awake,” said Jorek’s sire. “Elder Zurel-ko has bad news for you.”
“Is Tiren-pa all right?” asked Jorek.
“She’s.. physically fine,” said Elder Zurel-ko. “That fall she took? Normally, I’d say a few days rest and rich food will get her wits back.”
“But that’s the problem,” said her sire, grimly. “Isn’t it, Elder?”
“Yes,” said Elder Zurel-ko, reluctantly. “You see, Jorek, what you did was brave and loyal. The perfect example of the nobility we expect from the tekim. But… you can’t be tekim, now. Nor ¬warrior. The Scriptures are very clear; your little friend Buvel could tell you all about it. You have to return before the eighth day, and… it was well after midnight.”
“And apparently,” said Jorek’s mother, “there are no exceptions for bravery and loyalty.”
“We cannot weaken the tribe,” said Elder Zurel-ko wearily. “But don’t fret. You’ll spend a four of years as kurik, both of you, and then when the Great Games come, you’ll outclass all the other scribes in the physical arts, and we’ll put two more rings on your arm. When you’re my age, none of the other nobles will believe you when you tell them you failed the physical in the Lesser Games.”
“A scribe?” gulped Jorek.
“It’s honorable,” said Elder Zurel-ko.
“It’s temporary,” said her sire. “You did the right thing.”
“No, I mean… Mother, you know how I am with reading.”
“We both know, daughter,” said Elder Zurel-ko. “Worrying will make it worse. Come with us.”
Her mother handed her the rest of the bread and apples. “Eat as much as you can. Food will help you concentrate.”
In the temple, they bade her sit in the front pew while Elder Zurel-ko conferred with the rest of the Council. Jorek could see the great book on its lectern, open, waiting as if to devour her. Elder Zurel-ko left, and came back, leading Tiren-pa by her bare upper arm. Tiren-pa was still wearing the rabbit skin cap, though the rest of her clothing was rich linen and silk. She gave Jorek a lopsided smile as their gazes met.
The Duke followed them, furious. “I cannot be excluded. I am one of the Council by virtue of my title.”
Elder Zurel-ko replied, “But even the Council must follow Scripture, and none may test her own child. Now sit. My lord.” Under the glare of the other elders, the Duke pursed her lips and sat down, three pews behind Jorek.
Elder Zurel-ko led Tiren-pa to the lectern, then flipped pages in the book. “Read, daughter.”
Tiren-pa reached a finger out to the page. “Soon…” she said in a quivering, slurred voice, “it… came to pass… that…” she looked up “Mother?” After a long silence, Tiren-pa tried to continue. “The… largest… among the males… who… wore? The hide… I don’t know.”
Jorek suddenly realized she knew the passage. “Hide of a dragon,” she said under her breath.
“I just can’t,” said Tiren-pa.
Jorek tried to will the words into Tiren-pa’s mouth. …came to she who was most honored among the People. I choose you as my mate, he said, and you will have none other. And shocked was she, for then as now the People chose among the males. But Tiren-pa could barely say even every fourth word. Soon, there was silence, except for soft weeping from the lectern.
Finally, Elder Zurel-ko got to her feet. “I’m sorry, child.”
The Duke was on her feet in an instant. “Keep reading!” she snapped at Tiren-pa.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” said Elder Zurel-ko. The tribe must stay strong.” She looked at Jorek. “Could you read for us?”
“This is madness!” said the Duke. “She’s my flesh! She has the bloodline of kings.”
“Birth matters not,” said one of the other Elders. “Only strength.” She walked to the lectern and led a weeping Tiren-pa away.
“She’s ill,” said the Duke. “Give her an eight-day to recover.”
“The Scriptures are clear,” said Elder Zurel-ko. “Come, child,” she said to Jorek.
Jorek walked to the lectern, shaking with shock and fear. She saw the words on the page, and placed her finger on the parchment to hold them in place. It took her a moment to find where Tiren-pa had stopped. “Dragon” was an easy word. Moving her finger under each word as she’d practiced so many times, she read. The letters were dancing around, like they always did, but she knew the passage, and kept herself calm, and made herself point at each word to slow the dance as well as she could.
She refused him, laughing, for what he demanded of her was so outside the bounds of relations between the People and their males that she thought he jested. But serious was this dragon, and wroth at her refusal and her laughter, and so did he come upon her in the dark of the night with spear and club, took her by force, and laid upon her, and held her captive for far from her sisters until she was with child.
“Very good,” said Elder Zurel-ko. The Duke was on her feet again: she marched to the lectern. “She can’t read.”
“That was sufficient,” said Elder Zurel-ko.
“She’s reciting. Every child knows that passage.” She grabbed a handful of pages, flipped them over roughly, pointed at the top of the page. “Now read.”
Jorek tried, but it was hopeless. One of the prophets, talking about doom. The letters danced faster and faster, and the Duke’s hot breath was on her neck.
After an agonizing few minutes, the Duke said, “See? She failed, too.”
“You shouldn’t…” began one of the Elders.
“I’m one of the Council. You can keep me from helping my own sick child, but you can’t keep me from this.”
“Why are you doing this?” asked Elder Zurel-ko. “She saved your daughter’s life.”
“My daughter? I have no daughter. Tomorrow morning, you will shave her head and take her name away. Better you should bury her next to the others. This girl can’t read; and as you said, the tribe must stay strong.”
The Elders led Jorek away, to a cell under the temple. She could hear Tiren-pa weeping softly in a cell far down the hall, but all she could do was stare silently, unable to make sense of what was to happen to her.
Late in the evening, she heard the Duke, lecturing at Tiren-pa in the other cell. The voices were quiet at first, but as Tiren-pa kept responding by moaning, her mother’s anger caused her to raise her voice. “You’ll do nothing of the sort; no child of mine will end up a servant, no matter what those old dragons say about it.” Tiren-pa’s response was inaudible over the sudden clang of the door at the other end of the hall, then the Duke’s booted footsteps, then her terse: “Captain. Elder.” Softer footsteps and flickering torchlight heralded Jorek’s sire and Elder Zurel-ko, who crowded into her cell.
“I’m sorry, Elder,” said Jorek, feeling the heat of shame on her cheeks. “I tried.”
“Peace, child,” said her sire. “That woman has a bloodline but no heart. She thinks to use you to free her own child from servitude.”
“But we have other plans,” said the Elder. “Girls who fail both tests are given the opportunity to defend their honor.”
Her mother said, “It’s just a wrestling match. Throw the other girl from the ring, and they’ll mark you with two bands, apprentice you to the artisans.”
Elder Zurel-ko said, “Or to the priests, which is what we should do. I’ll personally make sure you learn to read, and do more besides. When the Great Games come, you’ll excel in both tests, and nobody will question us when we make you tekim.”
In the morning, the four-filled or so girls who’d failed both tests were assembled in the walled garden behind the temple, all in the gray linen shifts of the darek, but still with their hair. Jorek felt her skin crawl at the touch of servant’s garb, but it seemed to fit most of the other girls. Jorek was half a head taller than any of them, save Tiren-pa, who stood next to her, a little wobbly on the foot. She still wore the rabbit skin cap; it was beginning to smell from the uncured hide. She looked at Jorek. “I…” She cleared her throat and focused her will. “I’m sorry I brought… you here.”
Jorek patted her on the shoulder. “I couldn’t leave you behind. We’re oathsisters.”
Assembled across the ring from them were the Elders, and their sires: Elder Zurel-ko and the Duke were in the center of the ring. “Who would dispute our judgment?” asked the Elder in a clear voice. “Step forward and defend your honor.” Jorek stepped into the ring, along with Tiren-pa and five of the other girls. The others hung back, accepting namelessness as their lot in life.
“Come, come,” said the Elder. “That’s only seven; we need to pair you off. Who here will rise to the challenge?”
Little Qivol shrugged and stepped forward, trying on a brave smile. Jorek looked around her at those who’d stepped forward. She felt at ease; she’d wrestled all of them before, except Qivol, and won handily each time.
“That’s better,” said the Elder. The Duke counted out lot-stones until she had eight, then dropped them into the drawing jar with its narrow neck.
As the Elder shook the jar, the Duke said, “Whichever of you is chosen to challenge my child, need only step out of the ring herself, and I shall richly reward her.” She ignored Elder Zurel-ko’s glare of death. “You shall become Tiren-pa’s valet, and you shall never lack for food, shelter, comfort, or even respect.”
With a grumble of disgust, the Elder shook a stone from the jar. “Kivam,” she called.
She handed the jar to the duke, who shook out another. “Luvol.”
They cleared the ring for the two girls, who were about evenly matched but looked far too ill at ease to be warriors.
But the match was over quickly. Luvol rushed forward, tackling Kivam around the upper legs, knocking her down, then pinned her. She looked up expectantly at Elder Zurel-ko, who said, “You have to push her from the circle.” Luvol began to get to her feet; Kivam whipped around like a snake, got a shoulder under the back of Luvol’s thigh, sprang up and half carried, half threw Luvol from the ring, where she landed painfully on the gravel path.
“Impressive,” said the Elder. “Kivam, you will be banded twice and given unto the artisans, to be apprenticed as they see fit.” She waved at one of the other Elders and pointed to Luvol. “That one has no honor and now no name but darek. Shave her head and have her pick weeds in the fields.” Without pausing to breathe, she snatched the drawing jar from the duke and shook out a stone. “Number four. Tiren-pa.”
Tiren-pa stepped into the ring, head held high, planting the foot cleanly. The Duke took the jar and shook out a stone. “Why, it’s Qivol. Remember my words, girl.”
Qivol stepped in with a saucy smile. “Oh, I heard you, m’lord. I’d rather serve in a palace than weed a garden.” She grinned up at Tiren-pa. “Come on, let’s make it look real.”
“Hold!” cried the Elder. She grabbed the Duke’s wrist. “Show me that lot-stone.”
The Duke bristled. “You impugn my honor?”
“It is written that love for family often overcomes honor,” said the Elder. She and the Duke locked gazes. Finally, the Duke’s lips tightened and her hand opened. “As I thought,” said the Elder. “Lucky five. Jorek.”
Jorek felt the blood drain from her head, and she lurched. “Me?”
“I’ll go ahead,” said Qivol. But she stepped out after one look from the Elder.
The Elder beckoned Jorek to take Qivol’s place. “There have been enough irregularities already.”
As Jorek walked forward, she heard the Duke. “You’ll be one of us. You always have been. You’ll have a place of honor in our house.”
She turned to look the Duke in the eye. “I can’t. M’lord. There is no honor in darek.”
“Stop this foolishness, girl. Your mother serves me.”
“She’s tekim, and blooded. And you pay her. It’s not the same.” But all the breath was knocked out of her as Tiren-pa slammed shoulder first into her rib cage and shoved her backward. Jorek was too shocked to resist until she felt herself at the edge of the ring. She planted her heels and pushed back. She wriggled free of Tiren-pa’s grasp, then led her around the outer part of the ring, shuffling backward, Tiren-pa stumbling forward, with the bad foot on the inside, where she had to put more weight. Three times around, and it was easy to overbalance Tiren-pa and send her sprawling in the dust of the ring. Tiren-pa moaned, and slurred something Jorek couldn’t understand. But the Duke’s voice was clear. “Step out, girl! You dishonor me, I’ll have your sire whipped, and sent to the mines.”
“Enough!” cried Elder Zurel-ko. “Interfere once more, and the Council will have you hanged for disobeying the Scriptures.”
Jorek turned to face Tiren-pa, who had got to her knees. “Step… out,” Tiren-pa managed to say.
“I can’t. I won’t.”
“We can… still be…” Her lips worked to make the sound. “Oathsisters.”
“It won’t be the same,” said Jorek, as she walked around Tiren-pa’s back to place herself at the center of the circle. “I don’t think you can beat me.” Tiren-pa just growled and shot to her feet, then rushed Jorek. Jorek crouched and got ready to block or throw her, but Tiren-pa ducked to the side and whipped out her arm. Jorek saw the glint in the sun; she dodged to the side so that Tiren-pa’s oath-knife scraped a long gash in her side instead of catching her in the belly. She lost her footing, stumbled backwards, fell in the dust. She had an instant of wondering dumbly whether if they made her darek, she’d have to keep wearing the slashed and bloody shift, or if they’d at least give her a new one.
Then Tiren-pa leapt at her, the knife aimed for her heart. Jorek used one hand to grab
Tiren-pa’s wrist and drew her own oath-knife with the other. Tiren-pa landed on hands and knees, her free hand pinning the upper part of Jorek’s knife arm. But as she tried to push herself back off, the ankle gave out, and she fell forward, and there they were, chest to chest, face to face, Tiren-pa on top and Jorek on her back. For just an instant, Jorek thought everything was going to be all right; but then she felt the warm gush of liquid on her clenched right hand and remembered she was still holding her knife.
Tiren-pa’s brown, clear eyes were just a finger’s width from Jorek’s. Tiren-pa said, perfectly clearly, “Death before dishonor,” and then she leaned her face to the side, vomited forth a great draught of blood, pressed her cheek to Jorek’s, and grew heavy, and still.
It was barely dawn the next morning when they passed the milestone on the road leading south to Agarim, Jorek and Wulimon, both on horseback. Wulimon was saying, “Your sire is going to join us within the week. She’d rather be a lieutenant in Agarim than a captain under this Duke. I don’t blame her.” She looked at where Jorek was rubbing her arm, and smiled. “You’ll get used to it. You proved yourself a warrior, they said.”
And Wulimon was right; she’d probably get used to the three bands of tattoo, still freshly scabbed and gleaming with olive oil, and the two red feathers in her hair. But she’d be old and gray, and she’d never forget the look on the Duke’s face as they rode past her, while she was planting a third apple tree in her gar