-In through your nose, out through your mouth-
She ran. The words of her mentor echoing within the confines of her mind. Hazel eyes half-lidded examined the possible routes before her, irises darting from side to side to seek out the best option. The heavy footfalls of her pursuer echoed in the vast forest, and Kassina could no longer afford the luxury of choosing the safest path. Leaves crunched and twigs snapped beneath her boot clad feet, but she paid them no mind. Her pursuer was well aware of her location, even if she had been completely silent; the pounding of her heart and the soft rhythm of her breath was a dead give away
-Stick to the shadows.-
The overcast sky revealed not a single ray of moonlight. The path before her was thick with shadows, leaving only the barest outlines of trees and brush to be discovered at the last possible second. A dash to the left to avoid a low hanging branch; a dart to the right to avoid a tree trunk all together, her body moved without relying entirely on sight alone. Her instincts had fully kicked in and she was forced to rely on all her senses. The sound of the wind rustling through the leaves, the texture of the ground beneath her feet, the scent of sap and blossoms, each providing her enough information to know what obstacles she was approaching. Darkness was her ally, and if she could not navigate through it, she was useless.
-Never look back.-
The wind whipped through her hair, causing it to fan out behind her in a banner of light brown curls. Mentally she griped about not being allowed to pin it up, but the rules were the rules and she was bound to follow them. She became painfully aware of a movement behind her, and the vibrations in her scalp alerted her to the fact that something had just brushed through the tips of her hair. She pushed herself harder, a sharp pain in her sides and the screaming of her muscles sounding alarms in her mind that she was pushing too hard, too fast, but it could not be helped.
“Careful Kassina, you’ll burn yourself out.” Came the masculine whisper behind her right shoulder, and the woman charged forward regardless of the warning.
‘Must not lose….’
-Never ignore a threat.-
The brush against her hair was the only lead she had on the proximity of her pursuer, but it was enough to know she needed to put some distance between herself and the male behind her. Even the small distance between them put her at risk; she needed a distraction, a trap, anything that would buy her some time before an attack could be made. Darkness was an ally, but in this place and time it offered her very little reprieve from the man following her; darkness was his ally as well, and he had been accustomed to the darkness long before she had even begun her training. Her opponent was wiser, but he was larger which meant that if she could not outsmart him, she had to find a way to bring him down.
She searched out with her senses, gauging the obstacles that were before her. The darkness was thickening in front of her, and she knew that she had to use this opportunity or her trial would end in failure. She raced toward the darkness, the shape before her grew larger and darker with each dash that she took. She could almost feel the solidness in front of her face, the darkness now overpowering her vision until all that was left was black. ‘Now!’ Her mind screamed and her body reacted, a leap to the right put her past the obstacle, with just enough time to avoid collision with the thick trunk of a tree, which from the scent radiating from the bark had to be some type of pine.
‘Did it work?’ The thump of a body impacting a solid wall and the muttered curse that followed informed her that it had, and Kassina used the small time that her pursuer was stunned to put a larger gap between them. She would have chuckled under normal circumstances; she had just used his own advice against him. ‘The bigger they are, the harder it is for them to stop.’ Her mind recalled easily, having heard the words countless times since she began her trials.
-Even when safety is looming; never let your guard down.-
Even the small deterrence was not enough to ensure her victory. She knew it had been well into the third hour of her trial, and she had been dodging and ducking her mentor for the entirety. He had the advantage; long stride, higher endurance, and years of practice. Kassina had only two advantages; a smaller stature and a will of iron. She refused to give up. If she had to run three days straight to pass this trial, she would do so and suffer for it after.
She did what she was trained to do. Avoid detection, avoid capture, avoid distractions; the rules of the family were a permanent part of her memory and she would live by them until her last breath. Kassina knew that the trial was coming to an end; her mentor let it slip when he inched his way closer. He had been waiting for the last second to push her to her limits, hoping that the hours of exertion would take a toll on her body and in the end she would cave in to the tearing sensation in her muscles and the fiery burning of her lungs. She felt all these things, but above all she felt exhilarated. The bright lights of the city were breaking through the unyielding darkness, and Kassina felt her exhilaration rise.
She was barely pulling in enough oxygen to keep her lungs from screaming in agony with each breath, but she managed enough to pull her through the distance between the edge of the forest and the city gates. Her sides felt as if someone was driving a stake through them, and the muscle in her legs were being raked apart, but she was not giving up. A growl of determination ripped through her throat and escaped her parted lips, the sound itself doing more to increase her resolve than the brightening of the air around her. ‘Almost there!’
She could hear the crash through the tree line as her cousin raced after her; determined to capture her before she could achieve her goal, but she ignored it. It was a distraction intended to cause her to panic and lose sight; she would not fall into the trap.
-When the job is done, then you rest.-
The city gates were looming larger and larger in her vision, and Kassina knew her victory was assured. Her mentor was behind her yes; but he knew he had failed in his attempt to capture her, she could tell by the slowing of his movement and the softening of his footfalls. That did not keep her from giving one final burst of speed. Despite the pain that was now overwhelming her senses and dulling her mental capacity, she pushed herself to her limit, her breath escaping her in haggard gasps. She closed the distance; mentally counting down the dashes that would bring her to the end of her trail.
‘Ten’ her vision began to cloud as salt drenched sweat trickled into her eyes. ‘Nine’ her ribs felt as if they were about to shatter, and her breathing increased to the point she feared she would pass out from lack of oxygen. ‘Eight’ her blood was boiling hot within her veins, causing her body to perspire in places she hadn’t even know could break out into a sweat. ‘Seven’ her right knee gave out on her, causing her to stumble lamely with the impact of her foot slamming onto the ground. ‘Six’ her determination faltered and for a single second she thought of collapsing on the spot. ‘Five’ she pushed through her bout of doubt, but the echoing of her possible failure taunted her. ‘Four…three…two…one…’ Her body was thrown through the city gates, and unable to maintain her course, she staggered drunkenly to the right, crashing directly into one of the thick metal support beams.
The impact only added to the pain that was coursing through her body, but she somehow managed to stay on her feet for seconds after the collision. Thoroughly exhausted, gasping for air, and drenched with sweet, Kassina dropped to her knees. A welt was rising on her brow just above her right eye from her encounter with the support beam, and thick crystalline tears streaked involuntarily down her cheeks. Hazel eyes clouded over and her vision began to multiply until she could only make out the vaguest of shadows. Blood poured from the corner of her lips from where her teeth had been ground into the sensitive flesh of her lower lip, but she managed to stay on her knees long enough to feel her cousin catch hold of her trembling form.
The pressure of his grip underneath her arms calmed her, and she allowed her body to collapse against his sturdy frame. Her dazed over gaze sought out her mentor’s face, but eventually she gave up the search only to reach up and grasp his upper arm weakly within her calloused hands. “Sil…” She gasped, pulling in the cold night air into her burning lungs. “licus…” she managed to speak his name in broken syllables and a breathless whisper.
She could feel her body being lifted, and her body finally caved into its need for rest. Before her vision could completely darken, she managed one final whisper. “I did it….”
Her body went limp, her head and arms dangling awkwardly in the position she was carried, her cousin chuckled thickly over her. “Aye my dear, you did it. Shame you nearly brained yourself doing it, but you did it.” The man gave a shake of his head, but the pride he felt for his student shone brightly in his dark brown gaze.
-Rest, and rest well. You never know when duty will call again.-
Kassina was aware of three things when she finally came to hours later; she was no longer dressed in her training attire, but in a thin, soft gown that lay gently over her battered form. The second was that she was cocooned in a soft white gauzy material that blocked her vision, but allowed the light to penetrate her closed lids. The third thing she realized that she hurt all over. The pain was bearable, but it unrelenting. Even the smallest twitch of her fingers caused pain to shoot up her arm and pulled an agonized hiss from her lips. ‘Thank goodness that’s a one-time event. I don’t know if I could run for non-stop for three straight hours again.’
Eyes fluttering open, her vision briefly clouded over as her pupils adjusted to the brightness behind her gauzy curtain. She was about to lift her hand to pull the gauze aside, when a voice penetrated the silence and stilled her action. “Do not move daughter, you’re in the chambers. The healer is tending to you. Rest now, and in the morning we will celebrate your accomplishment.”
Eyes drifting shut, Kassina allowed her body to sink further into the soft mattress beneath her back. “Yes father.” She replied, and complied with his command as the dutiful daughter she was. The man turned to leave the room, calling over to young woman. “Congratulations, Kassina. You are now among the ranks.” His only response was a soft snore and the sound of soft, even breathing.