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General Halvar placed a hand on my shoulder as the ship pulled into the harbor. “Welcome home, Asta.”
I winced at his touch.
“Do you remember why I brought you here?” he asked.
I looked up at the land mass before us.
Holger, the Island of Spears. I knew only rumors about this country. Their warriors couldn’t be defeated in battle, their population was larger than any other nation, and their schools offered the best curriculums. I used to think of it as a massive piece of land floating in the middle of the ocean, with foreboding clouds constantly roiling above. I used to have such an active imagination. The actual island was far smaller than I pictured. I could see the whole of it with a turn of my head. Food vendors along the pier called out to passersby, women shopped, children played and weaved around horse-drawn carriages. Laughter drew my gaze to a couple attempting to take a schooner out to open waters. Fishing ships heavily laden with full nets pulled in beside us. I could smell the dead fish from my place on the poop deck.
I swallowed the bile traveling up my throat. “I’ve been chosen for a special task.”
“That’s right.” The general finally released my shoulder and stepped around me. His mismatched eyes, one misty white and the other gleaming like liquid copper, bored into mine. “Are you ready?”
I cowered out of habit, but straightened when I realized what I was doing. “Yes,
A grin stretched the burned side of the general’s face. “Praise be to Dotharr.”
“Praise be to Dotharr,” I said.
I stared at the elbow he offered me for a moment, entertaining fantasies about grabbing it and tossing the general overboard. I forced myself to take the elbow and follow him across the main deck instead. He waited patiently while I lifted the skirt of my dress and stepped onto the gangplank. After two weeks of suffering in men’s clothing, I had been given a bath and a new dress this morning. It didn’t make up for what had been done to me, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly grateful. Suddenly, I was a lady again and not a prisoner. Letters along the ship’s hull caught my eye: The Great Disaster.
I remembered everything then with a sudden clarity that made me gasp. My family. My home in Kenshore. The raid. The fires. Being dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the ruins of my town and onto this vessel. I tore my gaze from the hull and blinked away tears.
“Something wrong?” the general asked.
I swallowed hard. “I was simply admiring the ship from this new vantage point, sir.”
The double-masted ship was painted red-brown, with cream-colored sails and a single red flag. A wooden carving of a scantily-clad woman with a devilish smile and an outstretched sword clung to the bow. The seamen scurried up the ratlines to secure the sails while the copper-eyed warriors clamored down the gangplank. I shied away from them as they passed.
The noises of the city and the light of the sun made my head pound. I kept my sensitive eyes half-lidded and fixed on the planks of wood that made up the pier. I had gotten into the habit of breathing through my mouth to avoid overwhelming my nose on the ship, but the open air helped minimize the potency of the different odors wafting toward me.
“Dotharr’s blessings might seem even more burdensome the deeper into the city we go,” General Halvar said. “But you’ll learn to better control your abilities at Dotharr’s Academy.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The last two men to disembark from the ship stopped beside us.
“Asta, you remember Tarben and Manning?” the general said, gesturing to each as he named them. “They will be your personal guards while I’m away.”
“D-Do I need protecting, sir?”
General Halvar chuckled. “You’re the first woman and outsider to be chosen by our Heavenly Master of Warriors. Until you’ve learned how to use your new abilities to properly defend yourself, you will most definitely need protecting. Come along now.”
I pursed my lips. Or you want to be sure I don’t try to commit suicide again.
An enormous carriage waited for us at the end of the dock. The driver leapt from his seat to open the door for the general.
Halvar helped me into the carriage before joining me. “To Dotharr’s Academy.”
One of my guards sat on my other side. The second sat with the driver up front. Then we were off. The air carried the scents of sweat, horse, earth, and smoke. I tugged the sleeve of my dress down over my palm and pressed it against my face, hoping the subtle perfumes the material had been washed with would dampen the intensity of everything else. The clopping of horse hooves, the shouts of vendors calling attention to their goods, the laughter of children chasing each other across the street, and even the grumblings of the men cleaning up after the horses assaulted me. If I tried to focus on any one detail, I felt that my head would explode. I allowed myself to become lost in all the sensory information to spare myself a headache. It worked for the most part.
There was very little green here. We stopped at a crossroads and there was a small park to my left, but it was nothing compared to the forests of Kenshore. My chest ached with longing and grief. We whisked by structures of marble, brick, and bath stone. Everything was so fine here, so modern and clean, compared to my home. General Halvar pointed out historical landmarks and spoke about them at length, as if giving me a tour. I nodded a lot, but hardly lifted my gaze from my shoes.
At last, the carriage stopped. The general climbed out and then turned to help me. I took in the grouping of buildings that was Dotharr’s Academy. It had high cement walls, with block letters and numbers along the top of each building, cobblestone walkways, and a fountain. Groups of young men walked around, journeying to their classes. Armed guards were posted along the walls. I gripped the general’s hand and stepped down. We walked to the main office where we were heartily greeted by the staff members working there. An errand man, a tall, lean gentleman with spectacles and dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, informed us that the director was overseeing a class somewhere on the grounds. He escorted us out of the building, across the square, and to a coliseum built around a sand pit. It was small as far as coliseums went; it seated two hundred, perhaps three hundred people. Two students were currently in a grappling match while the director and the rest of the class watched.
General Halvar didn’t need to wait for anyone, it seemed. The errand man walked right up to the director and announced the general’s presence.
“All right, enough!” the director shouted.
The two fighting stepped away from each other and looked up, chests heaving. A sea of rust-colored eyes turned to the director. I cringed.
“Warriors, we have a special visitor.” The director held a hand out to us newcomers, and smiled. “General Halvar, Defender of the Rock.”
The coliseum echoed with cheers and applause. The general walked out from the shelter of the entrance way, smiling at the young men around him. He was their hero. It made my stomach turn.
The general raised a hand for quiet and the shouts faded. “While conducting negotiations across the sea, I came across a miracle; an outsider with Dotharr’s mark. The people of Kenshore didn’t know whom they had ostracized. They considered copper eyes to be a curse from evil spirits. I couldn’t stand idly by and allow a potential warrior to live a life of poverty and banishment. So I took a respite from the mainland to deliver this new warrior myself.” He gave my guards a look over his shoulder.
I was shoved forward, beside General Halvar. The director took a step back in surprise. A new kind of silence took hold of the men in the coliseum. One of them rose and pointed accusingly. “Blasphemy! Dotharr would never choose a woman.”
“Three lashings for your disrespect,” the director shouted back. “Sit down before I make it five, Viggo.”
One of the young man’s peers gripped his elbow and yanked him back down to his seat.
“This is not a woman, gentlemen,” the general said. “This is a fellow warrior, blessed by Dotharr, possessing the same talents as any of you.”
The statement was met with silence.
I found Viggo’s face among the masses. He was olive skinned, no doubt from the many hours he spent training in the sun. His brown hair was cropped short. His copper eyes were narrowed at me. When standing, he had been tall and burly. Even while slouching now, he seemed taller than the young man sitting next to him. The friend who had pulled him back down to his seat was speaking urgently, but Viggo didn’t seem to be listening. Already, he hated me. As I looked into the faces of these warriors-in-training, I saw many more frowns of disgust. Viggo had just been the only one brave enough to speak his mind.
The general turned to the director. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to give Dotharr’s Miracle a tour of your fine establishment before I go, Endre.”
The director bowed his head. “Do as you wish, sir.”
The general smiled in thanks and led me out of the coliseum. Turning his head slightly, he said, “Errand man.”
“Bode, sir,” the man said, hurrying to keep up with us.
“Would you be so kind as to prepare a room for Asta, produce a beginner’s weekly schedule, and procure the necessary feminine products she will need during her stay?”
Bode shot me an uncomfortable glance. “Yes, sir. I’ll fetch a room key and meet you in the living quarters.”
“Good man,” the general said before Bode left us. “That over there is the Feasting Hall, Asta. Breakfast is served at five, lunch at twelve, and dinner at six. You will wake up on time or you won’t eat.”
My head bobbed without needing permission from my brain.
“You will be in your designated classes by the appropriate times or you will face the whipping post.” The general gestured to the post located before the fountain.
My eyes were drawn to it. Where I came from it was an instrument of torture, a
punishment reserved only for the worst offenders. Apparently, it was not so here.
“As you know, Dotharr’s anointed heal quicker than the average man.”
I grimaced despite myself.
He glanced at me, fighting a smirk. “But that doesn’t mean we are incapable of feeling pain. The whipping post, although barbaric, guarantees the lesson is learned and the wrongdoer is permanently discouraged from committing the same crime again. They won’t spare you because you are a woman, Asta. Nor should they. You need to learn, same as the rest. But I expect you’ll never have to be so punished.”
Goosebumps spread across my skin. I rubbed my arms in a useless attempt to get rid of the residual pain I felt.
The general ran a hand through his close-cropped black hair and continued. “Director Endre is very strict about the bedtime here. All lights must be out by eight sharp. By now I’m sure you’ve noticed there is a security team patrolling the grounds.”
I found three of these men marching across the square. I refrained from glancing at the only exit. “Yes, sir.”
“They, like your guards, are strictly here for your protection. They are some of the best graduates to have left this academy. No one and nothing can escape their notice.”
In other words, “Don’t bother trying to run away, Asta.”
We rounded a two-story building and entered through glass doors.
“These are the living quarters,” the general continued. “You’ll find nothing but the essentials here. The academy prides itself on rejecting luxury and teaching its students to live a simple, structured life that is free of unnecessary attachments. If you can’t contain your hair during your classes, consult the barber in the next building. I’m sure he’ll be happy to help rid you of it.”
I defensively clutched my braid.
We walked up several flights of stairs and found Bode waiting beside Room 310. He unlocked the door and pushed it open to reveal a small room. There was a single bed, a chest of two drawers, and a writing desk. There was also a window overlooking the square and whipping post. Three sets of folded clothes sat on the edge of the bed along with two pairs of shoes.
Bode waved a hand at the bed. “We have provided you with training clothes, lounging clothes, and a nightshirt. The jerkin, trousers, and boots are to be worn during training. I trust you can figure out what to do with the rest. Laundry is done every night after dinner. Your training clothes are to be dropped through the chutes located in the washrooms. They will be washed, folded, and left outside your room in the morning.” He turned to my guards. “The room beside this one will be shared by the two of you. I imagine there will only ever be one person sleeping at a time. The same rules apply.”
The guards nodded.
“And here is your weekly schedule along with a map of the grounds.” He handed me several folded pieces of parchment. “You are expected to memorize them. We can’t afford to babysit you.”
I accepted the pages with a murmured “Thank you.” He frowned down his nose at me and excused himself to attend to other matters. I glumly cast my eyes about the room.
Catching my reflection in the window, I shuddered at the copper eyes that stared back at me.
“Come, gentlemen,” General Halvar said, watching me intently. “Give the girl a moment of privacy to absorb all that has happened.”
My guards shuffled down the hall and out of sight without complaint.
I twisted the pages in my hands, avoiding the general’s gaze and my new harsh reflection.
Halvar clasped his hands behind his back. “You will do well here.”
It wasn’t meant to be a reassuring statement. It was a command. I had already been warned of the consequences of disobedience.
I swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
“You will advance until you impress your instructors,” he said as he stepped forward. “You will be nominated as a candidate for King’s Defender.”
My muscles grew tense. My lungs grew tight. I didn’t want him to come any closer but closer he came, until his breath fanned over my face.
He leaned down to meet my eyes. “You will serve the king to the best of your ability. You will become his greatest, most loyal guard. It’s the only reason you’re still alive.”
“I understand,” I croaked.
The general stepped back. “I will return in a year’s time to witness your graduation. It shouldn’t take you longer than that to achieve your goal.”
“Safe voyage, sir.”
He smiled. “Until we meet again, Asta of Holger.”
I waited until I couldn’t hear his boots slapping against the floor. Then I eased the door shut, leaned against the rough wood and laughed. It sounded hysterical, almost maniacal, even to my own ears. I clapped a hand over my mouth then, suddenly overwhelmed with grief. Because I wasn’t free. I would never be free of him.
Sliding down the length of the door, I sobbed as quietly as I could manage. The events of the last few weeks washed over me with their terror and grisliness. I allowed myself to mourn my parents, my sister, my fiancé, my friends, the servants who had so diligently cared for me, the quaint little town I had once hated, and the naïve, self-centered child I had once been.