I stood before the great Stavis tree. My instincts told me it was the father of the forest. Ku’Aya was grinning at me again, but I didn’t look over at her. She had always been a strange one.
As an Aelacrin, Ku was just about average. Her green skin was still a little pale for her age, and the tufts on her small pointed ears were still coming in. She’d always been over-sensitive about her ears and wished they could be more slanted toward the back of her head, like mine. Hers pointed straight out from the sides of her face. Her signature Aelacrin mohawk was braided back and clipped with a bawl. The insect made me cringe every time I thought of it, but Ku seemed to love it. Aelacrins and their insects… I’d say that’s why they’re so despised, but I’d never tell Ku that to her face. She was the sensitive type, and besides, she looked up to me… sort of.
“What’s wrong, Ami?” she taunted from her seat, leaning against a brother Stavis tree. “The sword too heavy for you?”
I gave her a glare, squinting my eyes into the look I knew intimidated her. “I’ve told you a million times, call me Abirami.”
Her grin grew wider. “Whatever you say, Ami.” Her small, sharp teeth glistened in the twilight.
I stared at the falcata in my hand. It was true. Its weight was something I wasn’t used to. The city guards never used these anymore, not since the fall. It had been a rare find.
I started swinging it again, my stance wide and firm. The father of the forest was strong. It could take it. It was I that needed to get stronger… much stronger.
My mind focused on the task in front of me… stronger… Everything else faded away. I couldn’t get distracted now. They all depended on me: Ku, Menna, Setti, Gouyen… Semiramis.
I swung my sword again and again. The memory overtook me.
Father’s smile was sweet to me, and I couldn’t wait to see what he'd do next.
He thrust his sword forward. “Now, pay attention, my son.”
Father pranced around me, swinging his sword in quick, precise arcs in a flurry of action. He’s the strongest warrior in the kingdom, and I was enthralled with pride and wonder. I wanted to be just like him.
He had brown hair, unlike mine, which was black, but we both had heterochromic eyes: one cobalt blue, the other emerald green. His roughshod hair was short, except for the rattail he had braided halfway down his back. It swung back and forth as he smoothly transitioned from one position to the next. It was the Dance of the L’entia. A real treat.
The ancient fighting dance of the L’entia; Father had told me it was a lost art of the dying race of royals. He’d been the first bourgeois to learn it in countless centuries. Normally, it was forbidden for anyone besides a L’entian to learn such a skill, but King Sharrukin had been afraid for his race. So few remained, or so Father would tell me.
That always confused me. The elegant L’entia had no magic or special abilities, sure, but they lived so long! How could such a wise race of peaceful, intelligent beings come to the brink of extinction?
Father glided past me. He smiled and winked, then passed behind me. I giggled and turned to see his sword pass before my eyes. It made me blink. When I opened them, he was gone.
I shook my head to clear the memory. The falcata was resting by my side. I had to focus. I was here to practice, not daydream. Father never finished teaching me how to fight with the sword. I had to teach myself. Practice. It was the only way to get better. I started swinging my sword against the tree again. Each hit clanked loudly, and the energy reverberated back up my arm. I needed to get stronger. I needed to get faster. I needed to get better than this! I couldn’t afford to lose. Not again…
I took her by the hand and ran. There were screams coming from every direction. I was panicking. I needed to calm down. Where should I go? What should I do? She must be protected. Father would kill me if anything happened to her. My sensitive ears picked up footsteps, and I turned to face the intruder. The princess squeezed my hand and screamed.
Attack! Swing harder!
Panic set into my heart. Her scream still echoed in my ear. The intruder before me was Vaelintrien. How was that possible? I’d thought Galchobhar was the only Vaelintrien in the kingdom. In all my eleven years, I’d never seen another.
The Vaelintrien narrowed his eyes and grinned. His hand rose, and a sputter of flame grew to a burning ball of magic above his palm. My eyes grew to the size of the orvins kids played with in the streets. Still holding her hand, I turned and ran.
The roar of the flames grew as we turned and ran down a side hallway just in time. The fireball exploded against the wall behind us, and we fell to the ground from the impact. The heat burned against my back. I glanced behind me. It didn’t look like she was injured, and I wasn’t on fire. I got up on my knees, helped her back to her feet, and we began to run again.
I ran as fast as I could with the princess in tow. I couldn’t tell which was louder: my breathing or her whimpering. “Don’t worry,” I panted. “I’ll protect you…” I looked back into her tear-filled eyes. She was so pretty.
“...no matter what!” I added. We turned into the dining room to find Semiramis standing there.
Not good enough. Harder!
Semiramis grabbed the princess and lifted her into her arms. “Follow me,” she said. I trailed behind her into the dining room. The intruder was hot on our trail, and he’d been joined by a pair of Ceratecians. Oh, why’d they have to be Ceratecian?
I would have been too scared to move if Semiramis hadn’t grabbed my hand and pulled me along. Ceratecians were one of the most feared races in the entire kingdom. In fact, they were supposed to be exiled. What were they doing in the palace? But there really was a pair of real life Ceratecians behind me! It was unmistakable: the slimy, hairless, curved heads; the large, bulky bodies overburdened with muscle; the rows of sharp teeth in their enlarged jaws; the bony blades of flesh that protruded from their forearms… it was all there.
A fog appeared before us. Then the hallway exit into the ballroom misted and froze over. I managed to glance back as Semiramis continued to half-pull, half-drag me along. The Vaelintrien was there, at the back of the hallway. His eyes glowed a bright, heather blue. The two Ceratecians were still barreling toward us, full speed.
Semiramis turned and took us into the library. My mind churned and rebelled. I began to pull back, but she wouldn’t give. There’s no other exit from the library. We’d be trapped!
She ran to the back of the room, letting go of my hand.
“Semiramis!” I yelled.
“Over here,” she called out as she knelt on her knees and began fiddling with the books on the lower shelves.
I ran over. “What are you doing?”
“Quiet,” she ordered.
The two Ceratecians burst into the library. I threw my garb off and jumped up on the table in the middle of the room, transforming mid-air. I landed on all fours. Forgetting my dread for a second, I was proud of myself. It had worked, just as I’d practiced so many times with Father. I growled at the intruders, baring my canine teeth. The two slowed and cautiously began to circle - one on the left, the other to the right.
I glanced back at Semiramis and watched as she opened a hidden hatch in the lower portion of the bookshelf, revealing a passageway beyond. She began ushering the princess into the opening. I turned to face the Ceratecians again, certain of what I must do. I feigned a lunge at the intruder to my right, nipping at the air, then planted my paws with a twist, pounced into a turn, and lunged at the guard on my left.
The Ceratecian was ready for me. It threw a right punch. I barely had time to grin. His fist was clearly going to miss. Suddenly, an unseen force slammed into my side. I had forgotten about his bony forearm. It was too strong for me. I couldn’t push back. Pain, tremendous pain. I had to stop him. My teeth couldn’t reach him. I strained, but I wasn’t getting any closer. Then he began to move away from me. No, I was moving away from him. I flew across the room, my side burning with searing pain.
Ku was shouting at me.
As I snapped out of the memory, the father of the forest came back into view. Despite all my blows, not a nick was on it. I continued to hack at it with reckless abandon. I needed to get stronger. I couldn’t stay the same as I was. I must be able to protect them. I couldn’t fail again.
My arms worked quickly and succinctly. Every fiber of muscle in me converged on my swings. I was crying. Why was I crying?
I screamed and pushed myself to go faster.
“Abirami!” Ku grabbed and pulled at my arm.
I stopped, heaving with each breath. Blinking away the tears still in my eyes, I looked over at her.
“Why do you always have to push yourself so hard?” she asked. Her face was bunched up and frowning.
I looked down. A line of lighter blue marked how far down my tunic was soaked in sweat. Just how long had I been at this?
Ku punched me in the arm. Her fists were small, so it kind of stung. I placed my sword down and rubbed where she’d hit me.
“Stop scaring me like that,” she said.
The scar in my side began to bother me, so I rubbed it slightly too. “Sorry,” I muttered.
“Sheesh.” Ku laced her hands above her head and started walking back toward the hovel.
I sighed. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost myself in my ‘training’. Why did I do this to myself? No, I knew why. I wasn’t strong enough. That’s why.