Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Lady of the Ax (Full Story)

Today is the day of the Hunt and every student, teacher, and affiliate of Little Red’s Academy for Ladies of the Fray has dressed in their finest to attend the slaughter.

Pressed between Brina Dallow and Caryn Lee, I count to ten between each breath. The air is thick with sweat and perfume and the lavender mixture the attendants pump into the room to keep us calm. The room itself is large enough to hold all one hundred and sixty-four girls in the senior class and we’ve been seated in rows around a square practice mat large enough for four girls to use at a time. When our names appear on the monitor, we’ll be given five minutes to stretch and warm up before passing through the unremarkable black door on the only empty wall. Beyond the door is the Mimic Ring and inside that, our final test before graduation: wolves.

I’m not counting because I’m nervous, or, not only because I’m nervous, but because everyone else is so nervous I can practically hear them sweating. The only person in the room pretending she doesn’t have a care in the world is Macy Bridges. She’s seated as far away from me as I could manage, but she’s propped herself up on the edge of her seat and turned so that her voice reaches the greatest number of ears as she boasts the twelve wolves she axed in her last training session. It doesn’t matter that training wolves don’t hold a candle to the mimic wolves waiting for us in the ring; she’s commanding the space with pink, frosted lips.

“Little Whip says I’ll surely make Ladies of the Ax, but I just don’t know.” She says, brandishing Little Whipple’s nickname and false modesty like twin trophies.

“I hope to Red I don’t end up in the ring with her,” I grumble for only Brina and Caryn to hear. Brina grunts her approval, but Caryn offers only nervous laughter in response. She has no designs on becoming a Lady of the Ax, only on getting through the Hunt in one piece.

Of the four girls who enter the ring together, only one of them will emerge as a Lady of the Ax with the others becoming either Ladies of the Bow, Ladies of the Knife, or Ladies of Cunning.

More than anything, I want to be a Lady of the Ax. It has been the desire that pulled me from my warm bed before breakfast each morning for a pre-dawn run through the Cutter Wood, the goal that brought me to the practice ring when everyone else had retired for the evening. More than anything, I want to follow Little Red and trade my brown hood for crimson.

Four tones sound in a climbing, gentle chord, drawing all eyes to the monitor and Macy’s diatribe to a close. The screen glows red and no one breaths as we wait for the first name to appear in delicate, white script. I count my heartbeats and try not to think about the crowd outside the ring; all Academy girls in brown hoods like mine, Ladies of Cunning in cerulean blue, Ladies of the Knife in steely gray, Ladies of the Bow in ochre, and Ladies of the Ax in dark, bloody red. We won’t be able to see or hear them from inside the Mimic Ring, but we’ll know they’re there, watching through the dome of mirage glass, a brilliant and eager fire.

Silently, the first name surfaces through red pixels: Caryn Lee.

Beside me, she shudders and I reach over to squeeze her hand. Brina’s arm drapes over my shoulders as she presses her own hand against Caryn’s shoulder.

“I’m okay,” Caryn mutters, her voice belying her words with a weak tremble. “Really. I’m ready.”

The second name appears and it’s Sara Vickers. Already, I know they’re a good match. Sara is bound to go for the knives, and Caryn prefers the bow. “This is good,” I whisper and give her hand a shake for emphasis.

The third name appears and for a moment, I don’t recognize it as my own, but Brina smacks my shoulder in triumph and I let a smile tug my mouth wide. We’ve secretly hoped that one of us would end up in the ring with Caryn and it’s my name hanging below hers in letters far too refined for my own hand. But our cheer dies as soon as the fourth name appears on the screen. Macy Bridges stands to a smattering of relieved applause and stalks to the practice mat on her long, well-trained legs.

Brina catches my arm. “Get the ax, Lochlin,” she says with a hard edge in her brown eyes. I nod and Caryn and I approach the mat in silence to warm our muscles. Getting the ax doesn’t ensure your place among the Ladies, but it’s just about the strongest indicator there is.

I move with focus and intention through the stretches of my warm up and from them into the sequence of basic defensive postures we learn in our first years at the Academy. I count to ten twice between each, clearing my mind of everything but the task ahead: finding the weapons, getting the ax, killing the wolves.

One glance at Caryn tells me she’s tense, but focused. We aren’t supposed to be friends inside the ring. We’re supposed to worry about ourselves and about our performance, about keeping our own flesh away from the teeth of the mimic wolves, which, while not programmed to kill, will tear your skin just as easily as the real thing. But if Little Red had done as she was told, there would be no Academy for Ladies of the Fray and wolves would run rampant in our cities.

The four-note chord plays again and we move toward the little black door. Here, the air is spicy, alive with cinnamon and citrus as if we need help boosting our heart rates. Macy charges to the front of the line and turns to grace us with a mimic smile from her frosty lips. I try not to sneer immediately.

“Good luck, girls,” she says with a quick tug on her dark hair to tighten her bouncy ponytail. Only Macy Bridges would curl her hair for the Hunt, I think. “And,” she adds, all the false sweetness of her voice falling away, leaving only a threat behind. “Stay away from the ax, if you know what’s good for you, especially you, Lochlin Cowle.”

And with that encouragement, the little black door opens and we enter the Mimic Ring.
The second I step into the ring, a new smell hits me—the mimic wolves. They’re not in sight, which can only mean there are more of them than we’d ever imagined. Their fur is manufactured to smell just like the real thing—earthy, hot, and foul. It burns my throat and tickles my nose when I draw a deep breath and start to count. Thirty seconds before the four-note chord will tell us to begin.

I glance over at Caryn. Her eyes scan the clearing we’ve entered into. She’s looking for the bow. Temptation to help her find it tugs at my insides, but I have to get to the ax before Macy. Caryn will be fine.

The Mimic Ring is much like the Cutter Wood, enclosed in a high brick wall. The sky isn’t real, but it looks like a sunny spring morning. On the other side of those puffy white clouds sit our elders—the Ladies of the Fray.

I have no way of knowing how deep the wood goes or where the ax might be hidden. I pick out a spot on the far left where I will enter when we’re given the signal. Macy is to my right. The ax could very well be closer to her. She’s taller than I, and a fast runner. I’m nimble and light on my feet. We both have a good chance of getting the ax.

“Be safe, Lochlin,” Caryn whispers.

I nod and smile. The four notes play all at once and we charge the dark wolf-infested wood. I sprint through the trees, sticking close to the brick wall so not to lose my way and end up back-tracking. Footsteps fall behind me, too heavy to be Caryn and too slow to be Macy. Having Sara on my back is disconcerting—she’s loud and I’m not sure I trust her.

We aren’t friends in the ring. We’re not even classmates, we’re competitors. I push myself to run faster. Sara’s footsteps fade behind me, allowing me to breathe easier.

The wall curves, ushering me to the right. For a second, I lose my footing and slide down a small incline. The bottom is wet with mud and littered with wolf prints. The foul odor is stronger. I brace myself, scanning the trees for any sign of beast or Lady. It’s probably nothing, but I know they’re all watching and I have to be at my best.

Something shines to my right, the ax head I hope, but as I near it I realize it’s a dagger wedged into the trunk of an oak. Sara will find it if she’s still following, leaving the bow for Caryn.

A low rumble comes from deep in the shadows. I crouch down and grasp the dagger, just before a mimic wolf springs at me. One of the first things we learn at the academy is to never turn your back to a wolf. I dip, weave and thrust.

At about the size of a black bear, this wolf is smaller than most of the training wolves I’ve hunted in Cutter Wood, but no less determined to shred my hood and burry it’s teeth in my neck. One last thrust and the wolf falls dead at my feet, quickly disintegrating. Its ghastly scent is replaced by cinnamon and baked things, reminding me of Red’s famed basket. Another wolf howls, then another and another. I’ve got to get to the ax.

If I take the knife I’ll be able to defend myself, but I’ll leave Sara defenseless. If Sara can’t find the knife she’ll likely take Caryn’s bow. I jam the dagger back into the tree and leave it behind, hoping to outrun the other wolves.

The woods grow denser, leaving me no space to walk along the wall. The thick trunks and spindly branches push me farther into the wood where a new smell hangs on the breeze—coppery and sweet.

A wide pine gives me cover, a moment to catch my breath and strategize. Still no sign of the ax. I recognize the smell as blood, but I’m not sure if it’s real, or another illusion of the Mimic Ring.

The scream that rips through the forest is most definitely real. I sprint toward the sound of Caryn’s voice, then skid to a stop somewhere deep in the wood, far from the wall I’d planned to follow. Between me and Caryn stands a pack of twenty or so wolves, these as big as grizzlies.

“Lochlin! The bow!” Caryn shouts. She points to where the bow hangs from a tree branch. I could get to it and with Caryn’s help we could slaughter the wolf pack. I take a step toward it and something else catches my eye. Just beyond, my ax sticks out of a stump. If I go for the ax, I’ll be too late to help Caryn.


I glance once more at my friend and then back to the stump where my future lies wedged between splinters of rotten wood. I am destined to be a Lady of the Ax. I’ve dreamed of being cloaked in crimson, of hunting real wolves with the Ladies of my color.

A figure weaves gracefully through the wood toward the stump. I catch just a glimpse of Macy’s curled dark hair.

One of the wolves rushes at Caryn. The smell of cinnamon and sweets left behind by fallen wolves seems to call them in and make them ravenous. She fends them off with a thick branch, one that won’t hold out much longer.

The image of Macy’s frosted lips flashes through my mind, repeating her warning, “Stay away from the ax, if you know what’s good for you.”

I can’t let her win. I grab the bow and I sight my target—right between wide eyes.

After all, I have no friends in the Mimic Ring.
I force myself to stop and count. It would be so easy to let the arrow loose on Macy – not to kill, just to wound – just enough to keep her from grabbing the ax. But Macy’s surprised eyes remind me of what we’re taught on the very first day at the Academy and from every day there on. Little Red didn’t fight the wolf for glory, she fought to keep those she loved safe. Shoot Macy just to steal the ax and I’ll be banned from ever becoming a Lady of the Fray.

Macy’s lips pull into a wide grin as she realizes I won’t do it. She reaches for the ax and the desire to shoot her goes beyond wanting the ax for myself. I want to shoot that smug look off her face.

Caryn lets loose a scream full of terror and I forget about Macy – for now. The big wolf in front of the pack has Caryn on the ground, an enormous paw on each side of her body. I don’t even think, I just shoot. The wolf falls sideways, disintegrating before he hits the ground. The rest of the pack goes still, uncertain about what happened.

A distant howl pierces the air and the wolves turn their heads as one. Sara must’ve found the knife. The wolves take off into the trees and Macy smirks at us as she sprints after them. If I leave now I could tackle her and take the ax. Caryn grabs my arm. “Thanks.”

I can’t look at her. Even though I’m glad she’s still here, glad she still has a chance to become a Lady of the Bow, I’m watching my own chance disappear into the forest. I want to count to ten but there’s no time. “Let’s go,” I say. “Before Macy and Sara get them all.” If we don’t kill a wolf during our trial, we’ll be forced to become Lady’s Aides instead of Apprentices. It could take years to become a full-fledged Lady of the Fray.

Caryn is covered in the stench of wolf, her breath is ragged as she attempts to stand. I hand her the bow and quiver of arrows and her hands shake as she takes them. Even though we all know the wolves won’t kill, it felt like she almost died. More so than it ever had in practice.

“Come on,” I give her arm a gentle tug. “We can still catch up.” We head in the direction Macy ran. I try to listen for the wolves or maybe catch a scent, but the odor on Caryn is so overwhelming I can’t smell anything else, and her usually graceful way of slipping through the trees has been replaced with loud tromping as she rustles every branch and steps on every twig. If she doesn’t calm down she’s going to draw the wolves right to us and I am weaponless.

I need to get away from her. This isn’t a team challenge. “I think we should split up.”

“NO!” Her shout is so loud it echoes. She clutches at my arm and before I can pull away, I hear the rumbling of massive paws heading straight for us. Caryn’s eyes are wild with fear. Her grip on the bow is so tight her knuckles are white. I don’t understand why she’s acting like this. Caryn gets skittish around the wolves, but never when she has a bow and arrow in her hand.

The rumbling becomes a ground shaking thunder and Caryn leans closer to me, her fingernails cut into me through my sleeve. I can smell her sweat, she’s practically oozing the big wolf’s scent, which is strange. We’re trained to use our sense of smell at the academy – a wolf can hide his body, but not his scent.

Use all your senses, they would tell us. Think what would’ve happened to Little Red if she’d only relied on her eyes.

We learn to recognize each other’s scents so we don’t wound each other in the dark woods. Caryn’s is soft, like lilac and peach, even when she’s afraid.

The wolves burst through the trees on our left in a blur of black fur and glistening white teeth.

“Get back!” Macy shouts at us from our right. She jumps between us and the wolves, ax at the ready. Caryn pulls me away from the fray and I’m too angry to be scared anymore. This is supposed to be my moment.

Macy starts showing off, like those ridiculous anime movies where Little Red is always some cross between a ninja and a samurai, twirling and leaping and kicking as she swings her sword and slays a dozen wolves.

Macy wields the ax like a pro and the wolves drop one by one. Caryn doesn’t even fire off a single arrow, just clutches the bow to her chest like a shield. Sara is nowhere to be found.

As the last wolf retreats, Macy takes aim and hurls. The ax lands perfectly between the wolf’s shoulder blades and as he disappears in a scented mist, it drops to the ground near me. Macy smiles triumphantly, her hood already red with synthetic blood, but the trumpets don’t sound to signify that the last mimic wolf has been killed. She frowns and looks to the sky for an answer.

Mimic wolves. Named for the program that can create anything. Not just wolves. Medical schools use them to make bodies for practice surgeries.

An idea so horrible it makes me shudder, forms in my mind. They wouldn’t. I inhale sharply, searching for the faintest hint of lilacs or peaches but I smell only wolf, and cinnamon, and the garish perfume that Macy wears.

We are trained to trust our gut, our instincts finely honed to sense a wolf in even the most unlikely places. I take a deep breath and count to five. There are no friends in the ring.

I grab the ax with both hands and before I can stop to think, I turn and swing for Caryn’s tiny neck. Time slows. My name, in Macy’s startled voice, floats at me from behind. Caryn’s terrified eyes open so wide they’re in danger of popping out. I watch, mesmerized, as the blade inches toward her. A crimson jet of blood spurts from her neck when the ax makes contact and for one horrible, endless second, I’m certain I made a mistake. And then Caryn vanishes in a cinnamon-scented cloud and the world comes rushing back into focus. Cheers erupt from the heavens as the sky melts into a thousand multi-colored hoods over smiling faces and clapping hands.

“Ladies of the Fray,” a voice echoes from speakers everywhere. “Please welcome your newest Lady of the Ax, Lochlin Cowle!”

Photo by ®DS via Flickr Creative Commons.

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