Many were faint yellow, a few were black, some were green, but the dark blue ones were the freshest. After she shed her nightclothes, Riva inspected her bruises in the dawning light of her cell. This morning there was a scrape where her breasts were beginning to form. Soon her second winter in the Order of Jair would begin and the cold would hurt when she opened the shutters to examine her wounds.
A fist pounded on the door and Lehr said, “Riva, bring steel today. You’re battling another apprentice.”
A blade of fear ran though her stomach. “I’m near ready.” She was nowhere near ready.
She dressed quickly, barely remembering to loop the thick chain over her head and center the iron key on her chainmail tunic, where she had once worn the doll made from rabbit skin on the tether that her father made.When she opened the door Lehr must have sensed something wrong. He said, “Guardian Zan said you’ve used steel all week.”
“Just against him, and he won’t cut me.”
“Don’t worry.” That was what Lehr always said; fourteen year-olds thought they knew everything.
She whispered, “Please, you have to tell how not to get hurt.”“You know I can’t. Guardian Zan and the other priests won’t let me. There is a reason.”
“Lehr, please.” Riva hated to beg.
Lehr lowered his voice so the apprentices in the hallway would not hear. “Little sister, it’s just like I’ve told you with wooden swords; land more blows and you won’t take many. Think about cutting, not about being cut.”
When he called her “little sister” it made her heart ache--in a good way because she wished he was her brother, but in a bad way because he was not really her brother. But Lehr did not have a family anywhere, so she would never tell him to stop calling her “sister.”
Riva trudged along with Lehr on the way to breakfast and morning prayers.
Riva’s knees shook inside her chain mail leggings as she looked across the training room at the grinning apprentice. This room was too bright, though only lamps illuminated the plain square chamber, ten steps for a girl, corner to corner. Were the brown rust floor and lower walls dyed by blood? Tears formed in her eyes as she told Lehr, “I can’t do it.” Lehr looked at Riva just like Ma used to when Ma said stuff like, “I’m so proud of ya’ girl.” Wanting Ma made Riva feel even more like a baby.
Lehr said calmly, “You will do it. You’re twelve. You’re ready for steel. You’ve trained with steel against Zan.”
Riva whispered, “It was just practice. This is real. I’m going to bleed.”
“Training, Riva. Cut! You’re just an apprentice, but you have more of the God’s strength than any adept I’ve fought.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true! Focus.”
“Oh, my prayers,” she said, ashamed that she had forgot. When she breathed deeply, gripped her key, and said the prayer to call the God’s strength, she felt the warmth flow through her fingers and hands, tingle up her wrists and arms, and then spread across her chest and down to every part of her, enlivening muscle, bone, and sinew. Jair’s strength would not keep her from getting cut, though, so her knees kept shaking.
She blessed her sword and fumbled it back into the scabbard. Last of all, she prayed for focus, but focus did not come. She would have to be calm--neither angry, nor heartbroken, nor laughing--for the God to give her the focus which would make her sword as quick as her thoughts. She would die here and it would hurt.
Her opponent, Bartol, and his adept mentor stood at Guardian Zan’s feet and listened to the tall priest, giving short answers.
She was the only girl in the Temple of Jair. Boys were never afraid. They were too confident, like Lehr was now. Riva knew that the other adepts taunted Lehr because his trainee was a girl, but he did not seem to care. He bumped his fist against her shoulder and said, “Finish him quickly, little sister, so we can go hear the minstrel that arrived during prayers.”
Guardian Zan finished with the two boys and stepped over to Riva and Lehr. Riva tried to slow her breathing. She did not want to sob like a baby; she wanted Zan to like her. He was the kindest priest to her since he brought her to the temple two years ago. He was her father’s friend; but unlike her father, he would not tell her stories about when he was a tanner’s son or joke with her about how many children she would one day have or tickle her.
Zan put his mailed glove on her shoulder. “Are you prepared, Apprentice Riva?” His old voice sounded sweet as always.
“I’m not ready,” she whispered.
Lehr murmured, “She’s ready, Guardian.”
Riva shook her head and said, “I’m scared. I don’t have the focus.”
Zan knelt in front of her. She really wanted a hug. The priest said, “What would help you prepare?”
“I don’t know. Nothing would.”
Zan said, “If nothing would help you prepare, then you are as prepared as you will ever be. This is a lesson in combat. This is a lesson in pain. This is a lesson in death.”
Cool tears dried on her face. “If I die, how can I serve the God?”Zan smiled. “That lesson will come later.”
She clenched her jaw so that her face would not contort into hopeless crying. “You don’t care. The God doesn’t care.” Her opponent had probably heard her that time.
Zan stood and said, “Jair guard you.”
“And you,” she squeaked back automatically.
Zan walked to an empty corner and stood against the stone wall. He chided, “Adepts. We will stand here.”
She barely heard Lehr say, “Sorry,” as they walked over to Zan. She swallowed and looked over at Bartol, the boy she would battle. He was in ready stance with his glove resting on the hilt of his sword. Her knees shook less than before. It would happen. She closed her eyes and repeated the prayer of focus. She felt a little of the God’s influence meld her mind to her body; but she did not feel the certainty that came from true focus. When she opened her eyes Bartol grinned at her. He was laughing inside. A tickle of anger started in the back of her skull. But no. She must not give in to anger and lose whatever focus the God had given her.
She hoped that Guardian Zan would take some time to teach them a lesson before the battle, but he just said, “Begin.”