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.
Lacey's up next with Part 2 on Wednesday!
Photo by ®DS via Flickr Creative Commons.