|Her toes curled over the smooth rounds, gripping onto the water-beaten surfaces with all of her might. Arms thrown out for balance, the pads of her feet slid a fraction of an inch over the slick stone before stopping. It was no graceful landing, but she had managed to leap the gap safely. Though her heartbeat pounded in her ears, she wouldn't allow any fear to slip onto her expression when she turned around. |
Across the way was a seven-year-old boy, a practical mirror image of herself, save for his sheared, sun-bleached hair. The cut had been the only way to tell them apart for the early years of their lives, but with each passing season, the distinction between siblings grew more apparent, at least in temperament alone. At the top of her lungs, she hollered in competition with the breaking waves below, "Garo! Are you coming or not?"
He was chewing his lip, while his eyes focused on the depth of the space between them. "Gali, I don't think I can do it."
"You think, you think! You always think too much, Garo!" she cried back, throwing her arms in the air. Other children envied that she had been born a twin -- it meant they were lucky, the elders said, and especially auspicious being boy and girl -- but there were many instances where she didn't feel so fortunate. Instead, he always seemed to hold her back.
The thrill of adventure was dampened by his caution, and getting him to join in every little activity required some coercion on her part. She longed for the day that she would be allowed to explore on her own, without the burden of a timid brother. She inhaled sharply and softened her voice, coaxing him forward, "I made it, so you can make it, too. If you slip, I'll catch you. I promise!"
He remained unconvinced. "We shouldn't even be out here. Mama said--"
Her impatience grew, it seemed, in tandem with how cold, and wet she was from the wind and spray concentrated on this break. She huffed and rounded on her heel, placing her back to him, "Mama isn't here. And if you don't come with me, I'm going to leave you behind!"
The threat of abandonment had him going. In spite of his dismay, Garron readied himself for take off. "Fine. Don't let me fall."
She smiled. "I won't."
|"This has nothing to do with him," she snapped dismissively. Two years had passed since the tide had reclaimed his body, yet she still found herself living in his shadow. "And don't fool yourself. He would have gone to the monastery if you'd have let him. He was never made for warfare."|
She was met with a bitter laugh. "And you are, girl? You think you can fire one of your arrows into the heart of an enemy? A fish is not the same as a man. Nor is a woman."
It was a simple truth; she'd never raised arms against another person, never been put in a position to take a human life. There was no way of proving that she would be able to handle it. Yet the young woman bristled, voice rising with her temper, "Of course I can! You really think going was his birth right? That he would have done better in my place? I'm glad I'm not the same! Garron was weak, he wouldn't have survived it."
The chair scraped loudly across the floor as her mother leapt from her seat, hand flying forward for her face. Instinctively, Galia flinched, but felt nothing. Her mother's open palm hovered a finger's breadth from striking her cheek, her voice low and heavy, "Do not speak of your brother in that manner."
While the threat of being smacked lingered, Galia didn't retreat. She spoke softly, but with conviction, "It's not a lie, mama. I loved Garron and knew him better than anyone. He was no coward, but he wasn't a fighter. Just as I am no fish wife."
"You are not a soldier, either! You are--"
"I am whoever I want to be! They saw me shoot and they want me! You can't keep me here!"
"Enough!" A booming voice came from the doorway, causing both women to jump and turn around. "Both of you. This is senseless."
She didn't know how long he'd been standing there, or how much he had heard, but his grim disapproval was enough to quench her anger. Galia swallowed, only managing the faintest of protests, "Papa--"
He held a hand up, "Hush, girl. Sit down. Else I may change my mind." Obediently, she sat and waited for him to come closer. He stood between his wife and child, arms folded over his barrel chest. "I learned long ago that there's hardly any use arguing with you, Gali. You're stubborn, short-tempered and rash. And you would go without our blessing, anyway." Guilt was sinking in rapidly. She expected him to continue chastising her; surely she deserved it for giving in to her faults, and saying unkind things, true as they were.
But the old man placed a calloused finger under her chin, tilting her head up. "So it's better you leave us with dignity and purpose than in shame and regret." In his other hand, he presented a thin, small object wrapped in soft fabric.
Behind him, her mother whispered harshly, "Neron, you can't be serious. She's a sixteen-year-old girl. We've already lost--"
"Nothing that is given is lost, Mared. This is tradition. Escova calls for defenders, and our daughter is more than capable of answering. The whole is greater than the part," he reminded his wife gently, watching Galia unsheathe her gift, holding it with delicacy and wonder. The dagger was light, small enough to conceal in a boot, but sharp on tip and edge and made from solid metal. It wasn't a thing of ornate beauty, but that wasn't the point, nor was it important to her. It functioned, and it was hers.
He placed a hand on her shoulder, "You'll make us proud."
She smiled. "I will."
|She had him pinned by his thick neck and his arm contorted behind his back. Her mouth almost touched his ear, breath hot on his skin as she whispered dryly, "Go ahead. Tell the captain. Tell everyone in the barracks. Tell your mother. You were out of line toward a superior officer and you were punished for it. I'm sure that'll work out in your favor, just as well as your attempt at copping a feel, huh?" |
The situation was almost procedural at this point. No matter how many years she'd served and ranks she climbed, there was always at least one man, whether by dare or by sheer stupidity, fool enough to cross her in every new batch of trainees. If only she'd been born ugly or had been disfigured in combat -- only then, it seemed, would she be taken seriously.
Yet as aggravating and far too frequent as moments like these were in her career, it was still a better life than being a fisherman's wife.
Galia leaned forward, digging her elbow into a spot along his spine. He would have cried out if he could manage the breath. Her voice went from a cool purr to a gravelly hiss, "If you ever attempt to lay another one of your fat sausage fingers on me or any of your female colleagues again without so much as a 'by-your-leave', I will break it."
It was far from an empty threat. Still, she had to be certain that her point was being made. "But don't think for a second that I'll stop there. Oh, no, no." Feigned sweetness returned to her voice, grip tightening around the wrist she held captive. "Say, do you know how many tiny bones are in one hand?" He didn't answer. "No? By the time I'm through with it, you will. And then you won't be able to hold any kind of sword in your palm, steel or flesh."
She let up a little, "So, do we have an understanding, recruit?" He grunted. She hated having to repeat herself. Galia jerked his arm sharply. "Do we have an understanding?"
This time, there were words. "Yes, Sergeant Baryk." Satisfied, Galia released him, and stalked off to the corridor outside. "Wait," he said, giving her pause. Glancing back, he was rubbing his reddened forearm, staring at her sullenly. "You...you won't report me, will you?"
She smiled. "Maybe."
|Laughter boomed across the rocks. "A female warrior," it echoed. "Now I've seen everything."|