As I stood outside, I felt the crisp January air graze my cheek. I stared up at the pale blue sky with a few wisps of clouds in the distance. We had to meet the council in twenty minutes and I had no idea where Joshua had disappeared to. I approached the edge of town, thankful for the first time in my life no walls or gates kept us locked inside. Leaving Shadow wasn’t much of an option as I had nowhere else to go. In the seven months I had been here, this place had become my home. I shuffled slowly through the grasses, watching as they rose in height with each step I took further into nothingness. From the distance I could hear the commotion of the town behind me, and as I moved further away the sound drifted into oblivion.
My feet crunched on weeds as I pushed my way through the waist-high grasses towards the river. It was rare anyone ventured outside of Shadow. In most cases leaving wasn’t permitted. Was I breaking the rules by being here? I didn’t know the answer to that question and hoped I wouldn’t find out. Bending down, my body hid among the grasses as I dipped my bare feet into the water. I shivered and grimaced, scrunching my nose from the sensation. As quick as my feet had dipped into the icy cold water, I pulled them out. With a slight splash I heard a rustling in the distance.
“Who’s there?” My voice echoed as I stood. I wasn’t afraid. Shadow was my home. Although I’d ventured from the town, it wasn’t far. I glanced in the direction of Shadow and could barely make out the community. Perhaps I’d traveled further than I thought.
The grass shifted in the distance and I felt my heart skip a beat. My eyes widened as I quickly took off for town. I ran as fast as my legs would take me. Gasping for breath, I refused to slow down. Whether it was an animal or an outlaw, I wasn’t waiting around to find out. Swiftly, I headed for Shadow. My knees lifted higher off the ground with each bare step I took. I didn’t turn around but I could hear the pounding of weight against grass. Whoever or whatever was behind me wasn’t small or light and they were gaining on me. I didn’t have time to scream as I felt a large body coming down hard on top of me. My face slammed into the grass, scratching my cheek as I gasped for breath. “Help!” The words barely left my lips as my head lolled up from the ground; someone ripped at my hair and slammed me fast back into the grass. I bit my bottom lip, tasting dirt as I jammed my elbow behind me. I had to think fast. I’d spent months in Shadow training and now was the time to use it!
“Having fun yet?” the voice echoed into my ear. The whispered breath made me shudder. I didn’t recognize the voice. Was I supposed to? I couldn’t turn my head around, no matter how hard I tried.
“Get off me!” I grunted towards the ground. I pushed my weight hard upwards but whoever had me pinned was twice my size.
“Try harder,” the voice answered as I used my leg to kick back and jabbed again with my elbow. I missed my shoes and the sheath with a small dagger I’d been carrying around. I wasn’t prepared for today. That’ll teach me.
My head lifted slightly off the ground, my eyes seeing the edge of the grasses and Shadow just a few feet away. I’d nearly made it back. Good or bad, this person sought our town. “Help!” I screamed again, hoping someone would hear me.
“Quit yelling.” A thickly whispered response rolled me onto my back as I felt a blade nicking at my neck. “Fight back,” she commanded, staring down at me.
“Margo?” I choked, shocked she was the one testing me today.
“We told you there’d be surprise training exercises.” She stared down at me. The fear that had been crawling through my veins simmered down. In all our recent sessions, the knives had been dulled. They were real and weighted but not meant to cause harm. This one didn’t feel dull.
“Okay, I failed.” I rolled my eyes, getting the point. “Now let me up!” I demanded, pushing at Margo to let her weight off me. She weighed more than twice what I did and didn’t budge. How was this a fair fight?
Margo laughed, “Come on, it doesn’t work like that. A real outlaw is going to cut you nose to navel.” She made a point of showing me with the tip of the knife against my skin. “Fight back.” Her eyes narrowed as she reached down into her own boot, unsheathing a dagger. “I’ll make it fair.” She offered me the blade.
With both hands free, I took the blade and rocked my hips to the side, knocking her off. I wasn’t sure she didn’t let me win that one, just to get the fight started. At the moment, I didn’t care. I knew we had a meeting with Chancellor Collins and time was running out. “Fair?” I huffed, finally able to stand. Margo loomed above me. I wasn’t afraid or frightened?only slightly intimidated?but I’d get over it. I exhaled a loud breath and leapt forward, my blade coming with me. Margo jutted out of the way, anticipating my move.
“Nice try,” Margo chuckled. Was she enjoying this? I knew it was part of the training requirements?be prepared for anything?but I didn’t even have my shoes on!
“Maybe I should try harder,” I mocked, eyes narrowing as I charged at her; this time she didn’t move out of the way. Perhaps she didn’t think I’d slam into her, full-force. Her body tumbled backwards and she slammed against the ground, the breath knocked out of her. I didn’t give her time to recover. She hadn’t afforded me that luxury when she pinned me down and had me eating dirt just moments ago. I grabbed her arm that was holding the blade, pulling it from her fingers as she struggled to catch her breath. With two knives, I made an X over her throat. “Call it!” I demanded, staring down at her.
Margo nodded weakly. “You win,” she rasped, coughing as I slowly moved off her frame.
As soon as I stood, I felt an arm ripping me away from Margo. “What the hell are you doing?” Jaxon demanded, grabbing the blade from my hands.
“It’s just training.” I gestured down towards Margo as I offered her a hand to help her stand up. “She started it. I was coming back from the river when she attacked me.”
Margo nodded, catching her breath. “It was a training exercise, Jaxon. You know we’re supposed to make sure Olivia’s ready for anything. No hard feelings.” Why would it be anything more than training? Margo never had a grudge against me. We’ve always gotten along.
Jaxon flipped the blade over once, then twice. “This isn’t a training blade. You could have easily gotten yourselves killed. You both are so stupid!” he shouted at us. “Come on,” he insisted, leading us the few final steps from the field as we walked down the street for the council meeting.