The wind blew through the small training ground, lightly lifting long black hair and sweeping it in front of violet eyes. The eyes narrowed, waiting for the hair to settle as muscles tightened in anticipation, pulling the bow string taut. A target stood about fifty feet away, surrounded by a litter of arrows that had missed their mark.
She knew she would not miss though. She never missed.
Her skill came from years of practice and repeated failure. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she blocked out everything other than the target. In a split second, she let the bowstring go. Her arrow flew with startlingly speed, finding its’ mark in the middle of the target.
Alena grinned in satisfaction, allowing her arms to relax once again.
Was she surprised? No. But she was extremely proud of her skills. She had been practicing with weapons ever since she was a small child. The bow was just one of the weapons that she had become deadly with. A much-needed survival skill.
“Alena! Could you let anyone else get a chance at feeling special!? I got an arrow on the third ring and was feeling pretty good. And then you step forward, all calm and collected, and show me that my confidence was all for nothing. Now I’m going to have to find a new thing to be good at. Maybe I can learn how to twist some straw together and make decorations.”
Alena smirked at her friend, Kaleck, who walked up to stand beside her, turning his own bow back and forth as if examining a foreign species. Alena smiled in amusement at her friend’s antics as she began rolling her shoulders to release the growing tension in her muscles.
“That sounds like a promising career. I just heard the other day how there is a deficit in twisted straw.”
“It’s a serious problem. Honestly, one of the greatest challenges that face our kingdom.”
They shared a look as they both moved towards the side of the archery zone where a water bin was set up. She laid her bow and quiver against the wall before submerging her hands in the basin to slowly wash the dirt off.
“You don’t give yourself as much credit as you should. You are amazing with the sword. And math skills!? Out of this world!”
“Thanks for throwing me a bone, I’ll just go do some math expressions in my cardboard box to calculate how much money that I, indeed, do not have.”
Alena snorted at Kaleck before splashing some water on her face. The cool liquid felt nice against her heated skin. Especially since they had been outside in the heat for most of the day. Alena allowed her eyes to wander over the training grounds to see most of everyone had already went home. Even though the yearly military entrance competition was approaching, not many utilized the public training grounds.
Since everyone within the city were given “equal” opportunity to dedicate themselves to the protection of their nation, training areas were scattered throughout the city. Each provided different types of weapons, mannequins, and targets. Since the training areas in the Southern district, where she resided with most of the other humans, had mostly weak training sticks, she traveled to the richer areas to practice. It was unfortunate, but the commute wasn’t too bad.
What time was it?
Alena looked up at the sky, and judging by the position of the sun, she assumed it was a little after noon. Which reminded her of the fact that she hadn’t eaten in quite a while.
As if her stomach had heard her thought, it rumbled in agreement.
Apparently, she was hungry.
“You want to go grab some khamp?”
Alena asked, knowing it was Kaleck’s favorite meal. She watched in satisfaction as his eyes brightened and he nodded energetically.
“I thought you would never ask! I was ready to eat four hours ago. If you hadn’t been so focused on becoming a warrioress, you would have noticed me munching on some bark in the corner.”
She snorted as they both returned their weapons to their designated storage areas before exiting the training yard and walking towards town. In their city of Barthamos, no citizen was allowed a weapon other than the military and other officials. However, that didn’t mean that the citizens couldn’t practice with weapons inside the training fields. And that was a routine that her and Kaleck had started since they had been young and vulnerable.
Alena had fallen in love with weaponry as soon as she picked up a dagger. She had loved the way she could maneuver the pieces of metal. Perhaps it was because it made her feel like she was in control. Or maybe it was her form of artistic expression. Some said fighting was a type of artform. More than likely she was drawn to it because it had been a form of survival. Learning how to use weapons meant she could protect and feed herself.
Alena shuddered when a flash of cruel eyes and dirty teeth flashed through her mind.
That had been a long time ago. She was safe. She would make sure she was always safe.
Every new weapon she had picked up had been a new challenge. As soon as she mastered one, she moved onto the next one. And now she could safely say that if she was ever in a situation, she could grab about just anything and use it in defense.
However, it did not look as if there would be any mass outbreak of war anytime soon. Because the kingdom was filled with citizens who knew how to fight, their city was well-protected. The most notable component to their defense being the king who was part of one of the strongest Metician clans. The Drykens were considered a formidable Metician breed with their enormous strength, speed, reflexes, sight, claws, fangs, and all sorts of other nifty abilities. Alena often wondered what it would be like to be one of them, to be born with natural abilities that gave you an advantage above others. They did not need to train for hours each day over the course of years to gain a measure of strength. They were born with deadly skills.
She may not have inherited skills, but she was proud of the progress she had made. How many Meticians could say they had spent months with little sleep and hardly any food? How many could feel accomplished when they reached a new benchmark of being able to lift an additional ten pounds? She guessed not many.
Did they take pride in every victory or were they desensitized?
As they walked and chatted about random topics, Alena studied her friend. Kaleck was human, just as she was, with shaggy brown hair that often fell into his hazel eyes. In many ways, her friend was quite popular with his toned muscles and soft features. He had the kind of eyes that made you feel warm and accepted. The fact that he trained on a regular basis also gave him that protector quality that most girls hungered for.
She was proud of her friend.
Alena had met Kaleck when they were small children. They had both been orphans who lost their parents long ago. That was how they had both ended up at the Serenity House. They had first met when Alena had fallen from the second-story of a building and Kaleck had been the one to take care of her. It was from that moment that they began talking and playing together. They had looked out for each other. And now, 15 years later, they were still playing together.
She smiled to herself as she half paid attention to what he was talking about. She and Kaleck had survived more things than most people. And Kaleck always kept a positive attitude through it all.
Most of the times she had been feeling lonely and depressed, he had shown up. Him and his huge smile, encouraging her to forget her sorrows and look forward to the future. That was partly why she was going to try out to become part of the military. It was a good opportunity for her to raise her status while doing something that she loved.
It was also one of the few opportunities open to orphans who came from no family.
What were her chances?
Did that mean she going to give up?
She laughed at a joke that she caught at the end of Kaleck’s long speech and hoped it appeared she had been listening the entire time. Alena knew the kind of patronizing speech she would get if he knew she had been zoning off while he was talking.
“Should we take the train to the South district? After working out so much it would be nice to have a little break.”
Ordinarily she would say no but decided she would agree with Kaleck on this one. She wanted to get as much exercise and training as possible but taking the train would save a lot of time. Plus, it would stop Kaleck from complaining.
“Yea, that sounds like a good idea.”
She smiled back as he beamed at her and they moved towards the train station. One of the biggest perks of taking the train was the speed. They were currently in the North district but could be in the South district in a matter of minutes. A distance which would take them over an hour to walk was cut down enormously.
The beauty of modern technology.
They each swiped their train card on the gate and rushed to get onto the south-bound train before it left. Because it was still early, there weren’t too many people on the train, only a few who appeared to be asleep scattered about the cart. She was grateful for the lack of people because there were times it would get so crowded that Alena would end up pressed against the glass.
Kaleck and Alena found a seat in the middle of the cart seconds before the train was pulling away from the station. The train built up speed fast enough to make the distance in minimal time. Alena watched Kaleck pull out his agenda and begin to look through it. She knew once he got into his planning mode that he would be unreachable until he set it aside. Alena turned to stare out the window, watching as buildings and mountains in the distance rushed by.
She watched the buildings slowly change from new and expensive to old and dingy.
While the North side was more spread out and upscale, the South side was the opposite. Because the North district was where the military and wealthy families lived, it faired far better than the South district which had orphanages, mills, bars, factories, and other things that the leaders thought would be better placed together and away from the rest of the city. It also wouldn’t do for the palace to look out over a city of filth and smoke.
Alena did not really mind, although the pollution could get quite bad.
People would often get sick from the gases that leaked out of the plants and the constant smoke that arose from factories. It was one of the reasons the area of town looked so dingy. Because no matter how much cleaning anyone ever did, it would just be covered in soot the next day.
“Did you know your birthday is coming up?”
Alena snapped out of her thoughts to give Kaleck a glare.
“Oh really? I had no idea.”
“I know, right!? Who would have thought! Well that’s okay, we can just cross it off here….”
She nudged him roughly and he responded by grinning widely at her.
She knew he was only teasing since birthdays were always a big deal between them. She knew he had probably been planning something for the past couple of months. Since neither of them actually knew their date of birth, they had decided to make up dates. They knew their approximate age so that made it slightly easier.
She tilted her head, smiling at him, “So what did you get me? World peace? A family? A kitten?”
“Well, I didn’t want to spoil it but…I carved some parents out of wood for you. Gave them disapproving expressions and everything.”
“What are they disapproving of?”
“Are you a doctor or married to a rich man?”
“Ah, point taken.”
“Exactly. How are they going to retire knowing their child is out there galivanting?”
“So, it’s a present of motivation.”
She watched as Kaleck’s expression go from playful to serious as he put away his agenda and stared ahead of him. It always unnerved her when Kaleck got serious because it was the opposite of his personality. Of the two of them, she was usually more realistic and practical.
“So, your birthday is in two weeks, but the recruitment competition is in one week? I guess that will be an early birthday present when you get accepted.”
Alena sighed, looking down at her lap as she felt uncertainty rush through her.
“I don’t know. You know how difficult it is to be accepted, especially for humans. I’ll probably just get my ass kicked. And that’s the more optimistic option.”
Kaleck turned to her, his eyebrows drawn down in a fierce expression.
“Don’t say that! You know you have more skill than most of those people in the military! And just because they have claws and super speed doesn’t mean they are better than you. If anything, that is an unfair advantage. You worked hard for what you have while they were born with theirs. That shows how much better you are.”
She laughed half-heartedly but gave him a small smile in appreciation.
“Thanks. I’m going to try my best… But what about you? Why aren’t you trying out? We could both be accepted and get to live the high-life together.”
He shrugged, appearing unconcerned, “You know I am nowhere near as good as you are. You may get your ass kicked but mine would be mutilated. I would be dead, and then where would we be? How would you survive without me?”
She nudged him again, laughing together with Kaleck, “You know that’s not true! We are about equal in capability. And we might as well get our ass kicked together. Then we can share the same icepack and it would cut back on waste. Think of the environment.”
Alena gave him a fake meaningful look and he played along by nodding and folding his arms across his chest.
“That is true. I never thought of the poor planet in all this…”
“Exactly! That is why you must also try out. It is only right.”
“I’ll think about it.”
She knew that was all the answer she would get for now. She felt confident that she could eventually wear him down. But, did she really want him to try out if he was that terrified?
The train slowed as it drew closer to its’ destination. She turned to watch as the train pulled into the station. The station’s appearance was evidence of the area it was in. Even the station had soot covering the few benches and gates that inhabited the large room. That was partly the fault of half of the station being outdoors and the other half was the result of poor upkeep.
Once the train came to a complete stop, her and Kaleck got out of their seats and exited. Now that she wasn’t focused on training, her hunger was demanding her full attention.
“If we don’t get to the restaurant soon I’m afraid I’m going to have to start eating you. I’m sorry Kaleck, but one of us must survive.”
“Why are you the one who automatically gets to live by eating the other one? I feel like there should be a vote or something. Or at least a discussion about who would taste better.”
“Well I am mostly muscle, so I think you win that round.” Alena poked his side, grinning as she gave him a playful look.
“Hey, just because I took a break from working out doesn’t mean I’ve gotten that soft! I still have these beauties.” He flashed her a grin as he raised his bicep to flex it.
Alena shrugged, “I don’t know why you’re raising your arm right now. I’d put those noodles down before they blow away.”
Kaleck glared at her playfully but lowered his arm, “You don’t need to be jealous.”
She winked at him, but her smile grew when she noticed they had finally reached their destination. She didn’t feel guilty at all as she rushed to the counter so she could order first, Kaleck mumbling behind her about manners and common courtesy. She gave him a look over her shoulder before ordering another large bowl for him and paying for both.
“You didn’t have to do that!” He protested once she turned around to face him again.
She shrugged, “It’s no big deal. I worked a little extra this week at the pub, and after I get accepted in the military I’ll have all the money I could ever want.” She winked, turning to accept the bowl handed to her by the shopkeeper and began to move towards an empty table. Kaleck sat adjacent to her, smiling as he inhaled the delicious aroma.
“Well thank you. I will get the next one! You know I don’t like you paying for me from your money earned at that pub. I’m just grateful you won’t be working there much longer.”
Alena didn’t say anything, but she understood his hostility well. She had gotten a job at a small pub in the South district about two years ago. And even though the job brought in good money, she had to deal with constant sexual harassment. And her top harasser was the owner. Alena remained silent for the most part because she wanted to keep her job but she narrowly escaped prying hands more times than she could count. And unfortunately, she couldn’t always get away. Although it infuriated her to no end, she knew there weren’t many other options. She needed money and working in one of the factories would deteriorate her health to the point she would never get out. So, for the time being, she kept her mouth shut and forced herself to smile.
Kaleck hated it and offered many times to go to the pub and teach everyone a lesson. He knew she didn’t need saving. He also knew she had her reasons for putting up with the behavior. But he also cared about her. She was lucky to have such a great friend.
She smiled at him as she enthusiastically slurped down a noodle.
“That’s the encouragement I need! And all the more reason for you to also enter the competition and join me as we adventure the world together!”
She paused when she noticed his expression droop. She internally sighed, feeling suddenly guilty. Even though she would love if he also tried out with her, she couldn’t force him. She knew he had a lot of fear about competing and that wasn’t something she wanted to push.
“Hey, even if you don’t join then at least we can still hang out, right? And once I get a house, you will be the first one I call for a roommate.”
Kaleck chuckled, “Thanks, but you and I both know you will probably be in some kind of shared housing situation. Get ready for those images. I bet you’ll see underwear stains everywhere.”
She shivered at the image, “I think viewing yours was enough to last me a life time.”
She laughed out loud when Kaleck glared at her over his bowl.
“You know I am a model of cleanliness!”
That was one statement she knew to be one hundred percent true. Kaleck was often the one who cleaned up after her. When they had first met as children, he had been horrified by her dirty habits. She couldn’t even leave a sock on the floor without him freaking out. Which was quite a weird thing for an orphan child to obsess over, especially considering they didn’t even technically have a house to clean.
“I guess this would be a bad time to tell you that you’ve had dirt smudged across your forehead for the past couple hours huh?”
She could barely contain her grin as she watched him frantically wipe at his forehead with his forearm.
“Did I get it?” He asked, moving his arm.
She nodded, “Yep. The world’s safe once again.”
He glared, “You let me go that long without telling me?”
“Yep, and it was really hard too with all the stares you were getting. I almost felt embarrassed for you.”
She put another bite of noodle into her mouth, half-listening to Kaleck ramble on about the friend code.
She wouldn’t say she was cruel. If anything, she was all about building character.
“Have you looked into other jobs?” She asked, interrupting Kaleck’s chastising tirade.
He stopped mid-sentence and shrugged, “I was considering trying to go into leather work, but you know how hard it is to get into the field without being related to someone. They’re not kind to outsiders.”
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You never know, someone may have no children or, even better, may dislike their kids and be looking for a perfect someone like you to come along.”
“Aw shucks, thanks for the confidence in me. It’s just a thought right now, but I was going to try to ask around.”
“I think that sounds like a great idea. I’ll do the same! I think I know someone who does leatherwork who comes into the pub…”
“That’s the type of person I wouldn’t want to work for.”
She nodded, “Understandable, but not everyone who comes into the pub is that bad. I’ll keep a look out for you. You’ve always been so helpful to me, I feel like it is only right that I return the favor.”
Kaleck nodded at Alena before they both turned their attention to finishing their meals so they could head back to the group house to get refreshed. Alena had to go to her job tonight and she knew Kaleck would probably immerse himself in another book or two. Her friend was quite the scholar and enjoyed expanding his knowledge in random areas. He had learned the art of rope tying, apothecary, and knew about three different languages. All from self-learning. Alena envied that ability. Her friend had an incredible mind. If only he had been born into different circumstances. He probably would have been the head of a business instead of living in a group house filled with about thirty children.
Yes, life could be unfair at times, but they worked with what they had.
As Alena slurped the last of her soup, she sent a silent prayer to whatever Gods were out there, asking for the strength to make it through the competition. It was her opportunity to become more. To get out of the hole.
It was the moment she had been waiting for and she couldn’t afford to fail.