Friday, January 23, 2009

A Lady of Cunning (Full Story)

Despising a color was a new experience for Macy Bridges. She couldn’t recall another time in her life when she’d found herself at odds with anything that couldn’t be considered competition. And yet she here she sat, despising a poor, defenseless color.

There’s no color as smothering as blue, she thought. Callous and deep as the dark sky, it’s impossible to escape.

Three days had passed since the Hunt at Little Red’s Academy for Ladies of the Fray. For all of that time, the cerulean blue cloak of a Lady of Cunning sat folded and scorned on the corner of Macy’s dresser. It didn’t matter that fewer Ladies of Cunning had been named this year than had been named in a decade. Ladies of Cunning weren’t iconic and their blue robes did nothing but make it clear how far they were from being a Lady of the Ax.

She knew the charge by heart: As Little Red uncovered the wolves disguise, it is the duty of a Lady of Cunning to see what others do not, to question what others cannot, and to uncover the lies that will harm. The words were a constant refrain in her mind. Each time they repeated, she found the words even more hateful.

The injustice of being usurped of her rightful title by sniveling Lochlin Cowle still prickled every time her eyes snagged on the cloak. She hadn’t even bothered to go in for a proper fitting. She didn’t expect to wear it much. Blue, she’d decided, made her skin look sallow, and it was common for Ladies of the Fray to go without their cloaks depending on their work. It would be easy to set it aside and forget the travesty that had befallen her. Better, she thought, to shove it into the darkest corner of her closet and hope the blue faded from neglect.

Most of the other girls had fawned over her, of course, many of them wishing they’d also been named Ladies of Cunning. They used words like “unique” and “elite,” but Macy knew it was all talk. No one in their right mind wanted to be anything other than a Lady of the Ax.

Still, she didn’t dissuade their praises. After all, it was better if they thought she believed it was true. No one needed to know she’d had to return the red leather boots she bought and no one needed to know she’d shed a single tear over her placement.

The knock at her door came as the sun was beginning to set over to Cutter Wood. The view from her fourth story apartment had once filled her with a sense of destiny and knowing. Now it was just the sun abandoning the world yet again to darkness and wolves. She drew the curtain, for all the good it did, and opened the door to find a young girl in the brown slacks and shirt she’d only recently left behind herself. A new recruit to the Academy judging by her height and the way her feet resisted holding still. She held out an envelop with Macy’s name scrawled across the front and said, “Little Bridges.”

Macy took the envelop with a nod and a curt, “Thanks,” and shut the door again.

She’d been expecting the letter, but not quite so soon. Most were given at least a week before receiving their first assignment, time enough to celebrate and move from the student wing to the quarters set aside for newly appointed Littles. Macy had barely started packing. Nothing seemed worth taking anymore. Everywhere she looked, little bits of blue stared back, from the background of photographs and tucked within pieces of jewelry, even her make-up palate was tainted.

Crawling into bed to tuck her feet beneath the covers, Macy paused before opening the letter. She wasn’t used to doubting herself. Three days ago, she’d have torn the letter open before the door clicked shut. It never would have occurred to her that she wouldn’t like what she found inside. Now, though, she worried that its early arrival was a bad sign. Had she performed so poorly in the mimic ring that they wanted to get rid of her entirely?

Better to know, she thought, tearing the letter open before she could change her mind.

She recognized the format of an assignment letter immediately, the page carried the signature scent of cinnamon and the ink was red. It was the letters themselves that didn’t make any sense. Macy read them again and then once more before allowing herself to smile.

Little Bridges, it began, Due to your exceptional record during your time at the academy and your exemplary performance during the final hunt, we request that you present yourself for early assignment. Report to Little Whipple’s office tomorrow morning by 7 AM. Sincerely, Fray Cole.

Macy barely slept, she was unable to still her thoughts long enough to drift off and when she did, her dreams were a press of blue threatening to swallow her up, spitting her back out when she refused to relax into them. It didn’t matter. When the sun rose, she was alert and fresh as if she’s had a full night’s rest. She only hesitated when it came time to don her cloak. She did it quickly, without looking in the mirror and headed out the door with her head held high.

The cloak whispered behind her as she walked and several passing students stopped to watch her pass. Macy kept her eyes forward to give the appearance of confidence, but also to avoid catching glimpses of the blue draped over her shoulders. This moment was very nearly a perfect one. If nothing else, she would be able to revel in the success of having been sent out on assignment before any of her classmates in spite of her status as a Lady of Cunning.

Little Whipple’s office sat in the corner on the ground floor with a view of the practice field out one window and the Cutter Wood out the other. The door was open when she arrived, the room humming in the tone of hushed voices. She paused to knock, but Little Whipple spotted her and waved her inside.

“Come in, come in. It’s good to see you,” she said without meeting her eyes. Little Whipple wasn’t known for her sentimentality. She’d congratulated Macy on the day of the hunt, but had been distant since then. Macy didn’t need to wonder why.

She stepped inside, moving to take one of the seats on the receiving side of Little Whipple’s desk. But seeing that one was already occupied by a boy only a few years older than herself, she stopped. The stripe of green running from the collar of his shirt down his right arm gave him away as a Clever Pan, but other than that he was a stranger.

“This is Clever Oliver Hale. He graduated from Pan’s School for the Clever two years ago and will be assisting you on this assignment. Hale, this is Little Macy Bridges, Lady of Cunning.”

“There’s no better match for a Clever than a Lady of Cunning,” he said. He had an easy grin, as Clever Pans should, inviting and playful. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Macy smiled, enjoying the way her stomach teased her voice when she said, “And you.” It didn’t matter what the assignment was, Macy thought, things couldn’t get any better than this.

“Ah, here we are. Come in, come in,” Little Whipple said, snapping her hand through the air.

So they wouldn’t be alone on assignment. That was disappointing, but Macy wouldn’t let that bother her. If there was one thing in which she had confidence, it was her ability to be charming. There wasn’t anyone else at this school who could diminish this experience for her. Not even, she decided, if it were a Lady of the Ax.

She turned. Saw the red cloak and the plain face above it. And wanted to vomit.

“And here is the Lady of the Ax who’ll be joining you,” Little Whipple continued. “Lochlin Cowle.”

The Ladies’ post was a Grandmother’s cottage in the heart of Cutter Wood. Lochlin and Macy, being both Ladies of the Fray, were to share this cabin until their assignment was complete. Clever Hale would be somewhere close by, perhaps in a Wood Cutter’s cottage.

Macy woke to find two letters placed upon the table in the modest little kitchen. One addressed to Little Bridges. The other, Little Cowle. The cottage was quiet, as Lochlin Cowle had already donned her red cloak and set out to find breakfast. A do-gooder, Macy thought. Perhaps she should’ve been a Lady of the Brown Nose, if there were such a title. Though Little Red would not approve, Macy snatched up Lochlin’s letter, and read.

There is a fox in cutter wood. You are to slay it, and return with it’s tail.

Slay a fox? Such a terribly easy assignment. A smile slid across her lips. Perhaps being a Lady of the Ax was not all it was thought to be. Iconic, yes, but nothing more than a slayer. She opened her own letter, the red ink a familiar and exciting find. The sight of it made her pulse pound.

There is a fox in Cutter Wood, much larger and more cunning than the wolves of the Mimic Ring. You are to assist in the capture of this fox.

Macy’s smile fell. Assist in the capture. The words made a vile sound in her head and laid heavily on her tongue. Assist. She was to assist the Lady of the Ax. Macy tossed her letter into the fire, watching flames consume the red ink.

The door opened and Little Cowle stood in its frame with two squirrels and a basket of robin’s eggs. “Is that my letter?” she asked, in her meek, quiet voice.

Macy stood, knowing she was taller than Little Cowle. She wouldn’t be looked down upon by such a girl. “Of course it is.” Macy’s arm extended only half way, and Lochlin had to cross the room to take the letter. Macy pretended to watch the fire as the other girl read her simple assignment.

“Right then.” Lochlin folded the letter and tucked it inside her cloak. “Can you skin a squirrel?”

Her breakfast was terrible. Gamey and wild, with bits of missed fur still attached to the meat. She had never skinned a squirrel, but she couldn’t have asked Lochlin for help. Macy Bridges was every bit as capable of wielding a blade.

“We should start with the eastern portion of the wood and sweep to the west, following the sun,” said Clever Hale. Macy wondered if his assignment was to assist the Lady of the Ax as well. Such a handsome and talented boy, wasted on a peasant’s task.

Macy’s eyes followed a murder of crows through the eastern sky, their black feathers nearly blotting out the early morning sun. “I agree with Clever Hale,” she said, hoping to be rid of Lochlin and alone with the boy.

“As do I.” Little Cowle fastened her ax at her hip.

Macy’s own hips felt bare, with nothing but a small blade dangling from her belt. Cutter Wood was cold beneath the trees and a light frost, the first of the season, covered the ground. Dead leaves coated in delicate ice crunched beneath her boots.

“Perhaps we should split up,” suggested Clever Hale. Little Cowle nodded, and Hale set off toward the North East alone, making it clear he did not wish to be followed.

Before Lochlin could speak, Macy said, “This way. I saw tracks.” Of course the only tracks Macy had seen belonged to the three of them. As she watched Hale walk away, something tickled the back of her mind. Instinct, maybe. Something about the way he slipped between trees, silent and swift. She remembered his easy grin and realized his movements were just as a Clever’s should be. Still, there was something there that she couldn’t ignore.

“I don’t see tracks,” Lochlin said, breath rising from her lips. “Where did you spot them?”

Macy scanned the ground hoping to find tracks of any kind, so that she could say she’d mistaken them for a fox. The group hadn’t come this way, but there was a boot print in the mud, half hidden by twigs and leaves. If Hale had gone the other way, who did this print belong to?

“I don’t see them here,” she said. “We must’ve passed them.” She covered the boot print with leaves, wondering if this weren’t some sort of test. Little Whipple would have known if there were anyone else in the wood today. She would have told them to be watchful. No one enters Cutter Wood without an assignment. If this were a test, Macy would surely pass without the aid of the Lady of the Ax.
Lochlin gave Macy a curious glance that was too polite to be a frown. “Well, if you’re certain, you should follow them.” She pointed toward a spot midway between the direction Clever Hale had gone and where Macy stood. “I’ll make my own search this way.”

“Agreed,” Macy said, with as much seriousness as she could muster. She was certain Little Cowle probably thought her daft, but Macy was too pleased to have the boot print all to herself to care. As she watched Little Cowle and her red hood disappear into the trees, Macy wondered if this wasn’t Little Whipple’s plan all along, a chance for Macy to redeem herself and show Fray Cole and everyone else that she was the one meant to be Lady of the Ax. For the first time since that horrible miscarriage of justice, when Lochlin Cowle stole the ax and the title out from under her, Macy allowed herself to imagine how good she would look in that red cloak. Red really was her color. It did nothing for Lochlin’s pasty complexion except to make her seem even pastier. She pictured her cloak next to Clever Hale’s green stripe. The contrast between the two would make them one of the handsomest couples in town. Macy could already feel the admiring glances as they walked hand and hand down Centre St.

But first, she had to win that cloak. As soon as Little Cowle was out of sight, Macy uncovered the boot print. She was certain they belonged to the fox. Macy thought of the way one of the wolves had been disguised as Little Lee during the Hunt. Macy would’ve won Lady of the Ax had she only discovered it and gotten to the ax first. It hardly seemed fair. Macy killed almost all the mimic wolves herself. Lochlin got only one. The one that looked and acted just like her best friend.

Macy would never admit it to anyone, but secretly she’d spent the last few nights wondering if she’d have had the courage to swing that ax full-strength at the neck of Teagan or Charlotte. She wondered if maybe that willingness to sacrifice and trust your gut was the real qualification for being a Lady of the Ax. And buried deep below those thoughts was one she kept hidden, even from herself. The thought that maybe the Elder Frays had gotten it right. Maybe she didn’t have what it takes to be a Lady of the Ax.

Now was not the time for pondering though. Macy straightened and pulled her cloak tighter around her to block the chill. She looked in the direction the boot print was pointed and realized she could see a trail. Little bits of fresh leaves on the ground where they’d been knocked off low limbs. Bent branches and cracked sticks showed her the way when foot prints did not.

Macy began to feel quite proud as she followed the trail of the fox deep into Cutter Wood. Soon she reached the clearing, and there in the center of it sat a large fox. Just as her note had described, it was larger than any fox she’d ever seen in real life. It had to be a mimic. Still, it was not too large to survive Macy’s blade. And Macy was as good at knife-throwing as she was at wielding the ax.

The clearing was silent. Macy listened for the sound of Little Cowle or Clever Hale approaching but heard no one. She was the first to find the fox. Perhaps she really was a Lady of Cunning as well as a Lady of the Ax. She couldn’t wait to see the defeat on Lochlin Cowle’s face when she brought the fox tail to Little Whipple and Lochlin stood empty-handed.

Macy crouched down and crept toward the edge of the clearing. She needed to get within throwing range, which for her, she thought smugly, was still quite far. The fox would not even see her before the knife pierced its hide. Macy took one last slow, deep breath and as she exhaled, she threw. The knife caught the fox in the neck and it dropped like a stone. She could not keep the shout of victory from her lips as she ran into the clearing. She would have to be quick now to get the tail. Clever Hale and Little Cowle would be headed her way now that she’d made her location clear.

It was the sound that caught Macy’s attention first. An unexpected whoosh , and then the clearing looked wrong. The fox too far away. It took a moment for the rest of her senses to catch up, before she felt the rough rope of the net. She was trapped. Dangling in a net two feet off the ground. Macy watched in utter astonishment as the fox disappeared in a poof of cinnamon scented air. “What?” She asked the space where the fox had lain, her brain still not catching up with her circumstance.

Laughter pierced through Macy’s confusion. Clever Hale and Little Cowle emerged from the trees together. It was Hale who was laughing, his easy smile now garish. Macy couldn’t believe she’d ever found him attractive. Lochlin was as serious as ever.

“Get me down!” Macy shouted. She knew her face had to be as red as Lochlin’s cloak, which only made her more furious.

“This was too easy,” Hale said, still grinning. “Even a real fox wouldn’t have fallen for this.”

Lochlin shook her head sadly. “Do you not remember rule number one, Little Bridges? Little Red didn’t fight for glory. Hopefully, you will remember this now.”

Macy burned with rage. She thought of her note, assist in its capture. How could she not have seen? The trail so easy to follow. The fox, just sitting there waiting to be killed. The shame of it all made her sick to her stomach. She would not let Lochlin or Clever Hale see that though. “Get. Me. Down.”

“I’m sorry,” Lochlin said from somewhere behind Macy, “I really am.” Then Macy felt a sharp tug as Little Cowle pulled her ponytail tight, and cut it off.

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