Mira stepped forward, dry leaves and twigs crunching under her boot on the forest floor. She held her breath to catch every word said by the young man before the scraggly crowd.
“Today is the final phase of your trial period,” Ivan Fletcher called out the group assembled in the woods. He rested a hand on his sword hilt where it hung at his waist. “If you pass muster today, you’ll be one of us!” A roar rose from every throat, and Mira threw her voice in with the rest. Both her smarting shoulder and sore arm were a testament to how far she had already come—and she would make it all the way.
“To those who will join us, you will begin standing up to the tyranny of the Luminaries with us immediately; this has not only been your trial period, but your training as well.”
Mira glanced around at the remaining group. It was hard to fathom that only four days ago the initiates had consisted of fifty strong, while the original Defenders held steady at twenty-seven members.
Ivan hushed the group with a raised hand. “The final test is a simple one, but that makes it no less difficult than the others you have completed.”
Mira glanced around the camp, and her eyes immediately landed on Jethro. She wasn’t sure what the criteria were for choosing the new members of Ivan’s band, but she did know that she was the best for the job. Her experience over the last five winters had more than prepared her for this position￼ She folded her arms and turned her attention back to Ivan.
“To join the Greenthorn Defenders, you must be strong, courageous, honorable, valorous, quick-witted, and willing to uphold justice.”
His words made Mira’s skin burst into gooseflesh; she knew the tenets of the Defenders by heart.
“You have already demonstrated your intelligence and strength, but this final test will be a test of both your morals and your valor. There are ten of you left, but only three openings in the Defenders company. And in reference to that, I suppose I ought to warn you now”—he paused, grinning to someone in the crowd—“that we are not promising to select any of you.”
Mira felt like she’d been punched in the gut as a murmur began among the initiates. No, that wasn’t right. She was supposed to have a solid chance at this; compared to all these oafs, she was an easy choice for one of the spots, but compared to some nebulous ideal person? Heaven knew how she would measure up.
“The order of initiates coming for their final problem is as follows: Jethro, Lucas, Maynard. . . .” He continued on down the list of the remaining initiates, everyone in camp holding their breath. “. . . Johnson, and Mira.”
Mira rocked back on her heels. Dead last. That either put her at a decided advantage or an unfair disadvantage, and she didn’t know which she’d prefer. The reasons to prefer an advantage were obvious, but if she triumphed over every disadvantage thrown her way, the win would be more solid still.
“Jethro, your final problem starts now. You will follow me,” Ivan said. “The rest of you, wait at the camp until someone comes to fetch you.” And with that, the two men stalked out of the camp and deeper into the woods until they could no longer be seen.
As soon as Ivan was gone, the change was palpable. Everyone relaxed, huffing out breaths or sinking to the ground before the smoldering firepit or hunching their shoulders. Mira shoved her hands into the pockets of her tunic and leaned against a nearby tree.
The camp was well hidden from the village, but the warm yellow and fiery red tents popped out like wildflowers in a desert. Behind the line of tents for sleeping lay a bit of ground that had been worn smooth by constant use; even now, Mira could hear a couple men training in swordsmanship. Breakfast had been interrupted by Ivan’s announcement, but now the men were settling back down to finish their hunks of bread and wedges of cheese.
“What do you reckon the final test is?” one man sitting by the firepit asked. His voice was casual, but his shoulders were knotted with tension.
Another man answered, “I don’t know, but it can’t be any worse than that last one was.” Several people murmured in agreement, but Mira was not one of them. The last test had been one of mental agility, mere logic problems that she had been able to solve easily. She had a sinking suspicion, however, that the test that lay before her now would not be so clear-cut.
“It’s about our morals,” she said, surprising herself. The men around the firepit looked up at her with raised brows, and she rolled her eyes. “That’s what he said, isn’t it? It’ll probably be some kind of moral dilemma or something, to make sure we’re people of fine mettle.”
The first man who’d spoken—Maynard, she thought his name was—grunted and bit into a hunk of bread. “That may be,” he mused. He looked back at Mira from the stump on which he sat, then around the camp. “You’re the last lass left, eh?”
Mira pushed off from the tree and folded her arms. “So what if I am?”
Maynard shrugged. “It’s just odd, that’s all. Why do you want to be in the Defenders anyhow?”
Mira clamped her teeth down and tried not to give in to the indignation searing through her veins. “Why shouldn’t I want to be in the Defenders?” she shot. “Why shouldn’t I want to make Greenthorn a safer, better place for all who dwell there? Do you think because I’m a woman I shouldn’t want to be rid of the vermin in white armbands that think they can run the town, though they steal from all and do little for any?”
Maynard held up his hands in what she supposed should be a placating gesture. “Calm yourself,” he said, “I meant no offense. I merely meant that you’re awful young to have axes to grind in this fight.”
She unfolded her arms. “You’re mistaken. I have plenty of axes to grind.” Reasons, she thought grimly, that still keep me awake at night. She felt the memory surge to the forefront of her mind, overthrowing all else.
Mira closed her eyes and was instantly seventeen again.
She jolts awake to shattering glass, and the acrid smell of smoke fills her nostrils. She jerks up, surrounded by smoke pouring through the crack under her bedroom door, her heart hammering in her chest. Granna, she thinks. She jumps up, yanks the door open, and a wall of blinding heat slams into her. Raising her arm to her face, she forces her way into the cottage’s main room. Flames surge up every wall, devouring everything in their path.
“Granna!” she calls, choking on the thick smoke. Her eyes are watering, and she can barely make out her grandmother’s dark door on the other side of the room. “Granna, get up!”
A splintering sound cracks above her, and a beam from the ceiling crashes down, nicking Mira’s ankle. She screams, jerking her ankle away from the smoldering wood, and dashes to her grandmother’s room. Hands scrambling for the handle, she shoves the door open, eyes wild, searching for Granna in the darkness.
Her grandmother’s pale figure lays sprawled on the floor, trying to crawl out and dragging her useless legs. Mira can feel the blood pumping in her ears as she sprints, tripping on the footstool and crashing to the ground just beside her grandmother.
“Granna, please wake up,” she pleads. She snatches her grandmother’s shoulders and heaves her around. The smoke is pouring in stronger now, and with a glance out into the main room, she knows the front door won’t be an option for much longer.
“Mira.” Her grandmother’s voice is feeble, but it’s enough. She doesn’t have time to waste.
Mira snags the quilt off of her grandmother’s bed and rolls her onto it. With one look at the front door, she pulls with all her strength.
Mira opened her eyes, back at the Defender’s camp, and took a deep breath. That’s not happening. It’s over. She studied the ground and her mud-covered boots and kicked at the dirt. “The Luminaries have taken too much from me. It’s because of them that my grandmother starts every time there’s a knock at the door. We lost our source of income because of them, and we’ve spent the last five years working ourselves to the bone just to get enough food on the table to keep going.” She stuck out her chin and lifted her eyes to the man, looking him up and down. The sandy hair graying at the temples and his hands belied an age greater than his face let on. “I am sorry I snapped at you,” she admitted. “I’m just tired of being overlooked because I’m young or a woman.”
Mira stepped forward and sank onto the ground beside Maynard. “And you?” she asked, looking up at him. “What axes have you in this fight?”
Maynard sat forward on the stump, resting his elbows on his knees, and stared at the charred sticks in the firepit. “The Luminaries, vermin as you so aptly named them, took my family’s generational home and terrorized my wife. I don’t need any stronger reason than that.” His words were simple, but Mira could feel the weight behind him, and she softened.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. Then, stronger, she said, “No one else should suffer at their hands.” Everyone in earshot raised whatever they were holding in salute.
“Here, here,” several men said, and then silence settled on the camp.
Jethro returned and Lucas left, and a time later Lucas returned. On it went, the cycle of men leaving and returning until at last, Mira was next. A writhing pit of nerves roiled in her stomach like serpents, and she couldn’t join in the scant conversations around camp. She’d tried to talk to Jethro when he’d returned, but he hadn’t so much as acknowledged her presence—or anyone else’s, for that matter—since he’d gotten back almost four hours ago. She fared no better with any of the rest of them; when they came back, they didn’t speak a word, hardly looked at anyone, and strangest of all, some of them even had red, raw flesh on their wrists and hands.
At last, Gardiner tramped back into camp, his face expressionless, his wrists raw. He looked at Mira and jerked his head in the direction from which he had come. She jumped to her feet, checked that her sword was firmly in its scabbard, and strode to Gardiner. As soon as she was near enough, he thrust a string into her hands. “Follow that,” was all the direction she was given.
The string was long and thin and bright red, and it must have been tied to something very far away, because she could not see the end of it. Her heart hammered in her chest as she walked, moving hand over hand on the string, out of camp and into the unknown woods.
Her senses were hyper-alert, and she noticed every squirrel darting around behind her and every bird building a nest above her. Her boots seemed too loud in her ears, and she could do nothing to slow the quickening beat of her heart. What would she find? She knew she was good, the best of the initiates even, but the anticipation was killing her.
On and on she walked, turning twice when the string curved around trees. If it hadn’t been for the string, she knew she could not have found her way to wherever she was heading.
And then she saw it: a field stretched a hundred yards until a stone wall, at least fifty feet tall, rose up from the ground. She could see hoof marks in the soft earth and footprints moving in both directions. She kept moving, hand over hand, until she reached the enormous gate, stepped into the walled place, and realized what she was seeing.
Charred buildings rose up on all sides, and streets that must once have been heavily trafficked wove throughout the walled city. There were no sounds here, no bustling marketplace, no horses whinnying or children singing nursery songs, but the ghosts of those memories hung thick in the air.
Mira took another step, and the string ended, tied to the iron ring on the city’s gate. She looked around, trying to see something, anything that would tell her what she was supposed to be doing here.
With a deafening groan and earsplitting crash, the gate swung shut behind her. Mira shot forward, whipping her sword out of its scabbard, and jerked her head in every direction. She saw nothing, no one. She glanced at the gate tower, but she could make out no shapes in the narrow window. Perhaps her test was to get out of the walled city? Perhaps she had to find some way to make it out of here to prove that she could get out of any situation on her own.
She scanned the sheer stone walls. They were blackened with soot in places, but structurally sound. Her mind raced through every possibility of escape, but the way she saw it, there were only three options: she could go to the tower to open the gate, she could find some way to get over the wall, or she could go under it. She ruled out the gate first, because no doubt that was a trap; tunneling under the wall might be possible if there was some kind of moat or stream, but she hadn’t heard any sounds of water when she’d gotten here. That left getting over the wall.
She stepped toward the wall to examine the layout of stones so she could gauge its climb-worthiness, but a sound wafting on the wind stopped her dead in her tracks.
It was weak but growing, a sound of helplessness and despair—it was a child’s cry.
Mira looked all around her, but the sound must have been coming from further in the city. It could be a ploy, she reasoned, something to lure her away from the real task, something meant to pull her into a trap. But if this was, as she suspected, a test of her moral character, she could not leave an innocent in any kind of danger.
As soon as she turned away from the gate, the enormous thing rumbled open, giving her a perfect escape. She hesitated only a moment, checking the gate tower window once more; this time she thought she saw a flash of metal, like the hilt of a sword, but it disappeared before she could be sure. This is all part of the test, she told herself. I have to go on and prove I’m worthy. With a final glance at the open gate, Mira adjusted her grip on her sword and followed the child’s cry into the city.
The eeriness of the walled city only increased as she walked further in: scorched carts were abandoned in the middle of the road, every window had black streaks shooting out of it from where long-ago flames had licked up the walls. But the sight that turned her stomach the most was in the middle of the road where the scorched head of a child’s doll laid facedown in the mud.
Something terrible had taken place here.
“Hello?” Mira called. Her voice echoed off the stone buildings lining the street, but no one answered. The crying child sounded closer now, and it was easier to track. A few steps further and she realized it was coming from a sandstone hut to her left. Using the hilt of her sword, she carefully pushed open the solid oak door.
Rough hands jerked her inside, thrusting her against a wall and yanking the sword from her grasp. Before she could react, the door was slammed shut and darkness filled the hut. A lock slid into place, and Mira realized the child had stopped crying.
“Tsk, tsk,” came the familiar voice. Mira shot her eyes in every direction, but her eyes hadn’t adjusted to the feeble light offered by the grime-covered windows. “I thought that surely, of everyone, you might have been cleverer.”
Mira slowly edged her hand toward her sleeve, but Ivan finally stepped into the light, forcing her to stillness. She had to find a way out of this. There had to be something.
“I suppose you were the child I heard crying?” She was stalling, raking her eyes over every inch of the hut she could see. Stupid. She should have realized that the door was too solid to belong in this burned-out city. It had clearly been replaced, most likely for this very purpose.
“Of course I was,” he said, and mimicked an almost mock childish whimper. He threw her a mischievous smile. “And now you’re trapped. There’s nowhere to run now,” Ivan said, triumph edging his voice. He drew a knife and spun it around in his fingers, his eyes flashing over to her.
But instead of being intimidated, Mira barked a laugh, slapping her hand over her mouth to muffle the sound.
His smile wavered as she straightened with a grin. She shook her head, still smiling, eyes locked on his, and took a step forward.
“I have no reason to run.” Her smile widened as she took another step closer to him. Her eyes had finally adjusted to the dimness. She gestured around the room. “I’m not trapped in here with you.”
Quicker than lightning, she ripped the knife from his hand and pinned him against the wall, pressing the blade to his throat. Her eyes gleamed wickedly in the dim light, and she leaned her head in, close enough that her breath brushed against the side of his throat. His breath caught, and she pressed her knee to his thigh to hold him still. She brought her face around to his chin, teasing him before pulling back a fraction of an inch—just enough to lock eyes with him.
“You’re trapped in here with me,” she said. He swallowed, and when his Adam’s apple bobbed a bead of blood formed on the tip of the knife.
“Well, aren’t you full of surprises?” Ivan asked, but she saw his eyes raking the room, trying to find some way out of this.
“Is this your big conundrum?” Mira asked. She still didn’t understand what she was supposed to be doing. “You wanted to see if we had the mettle to stand up to even you?”
Ivan grinned and his dark eyes flashed. “Do you know what happened to this city?” he asked.
Mira paused, then shook her head. She released the tip of the dagger from his throat just enough that it wouldn’t prick him every time he breathed.
“This used to be one of Raina’s strongest mercantile cities, but then the king thought he should protect it, so he sent his brightest advisors here to keep it safe.” The faintest whisper of a memory brushed Mira’s mind at his words, like she might have heard this story before. “For months, the city became more productive and useful under their guidance and happily paid the salaries of these men. But then the advisors grew greedy and lax, and their prices became more exorbitant, their advice unfounded. It wasn’t long before the townspeople wanted to be rid of these advisors so they could go back to their old ways. They tried to be diplomatic at first, simply requesting the advisors leave the city or find different vocations.”
The story was becoming more familiar to Mira, and she thought she knew where it was going. Nevertheless, she listened with rapt attention.
“When the advisors did not leave or change their ways, the townspeople decided to stop paying the advisors’ salaries. This angered the advisors, and after a heated meeting with the town leaders, the advisors met in secret and planned their retaliation.” Ivan’s voice took a dark turn and his eyes flashed with a light Mira had never seen in them before. “That night, when the town was sleeping, the advisors sneaked through to every building and every street corner and doused them with oil. When the moon reached its zenith, the advisors lit the oil and locked the city gates, trapping the entire population inside.”
Mira felt sick. She knew how it felt to be trapped, to be unable to get out of a nightmarish situation. She could still feel phantom flames licking her skin as she had bent almost double, dragging her crying grandmother across the floor, trying to just get out. Since that night, she had spent every day ensuring that she would never face another situation unprepared again.
“It is said that the screams of the children echoed through the forest surrounding the city for years afterward. Many were able to escape with their lives, but nothing more; for thousands, all of their possessions were wiped out, their own faces and bodies scarred and disfigured. And the worst of it all,” Ivan said, his voice turning icy, “is that that the advisors spun the story so that they sounded like heroes who had squashed a rebellion. The king pardoned them their sins, distinguished them with a white armband and gave them a new name—”
“The Luminaries,” Mira breathed. The very people running Greenthorn, the people who had terrorized Maynard’s wife and taken his home. The people who had burned Mira’s home to the ground along with every tactile memory she’d had of her parents.
“A fitting name, is it not?” Ivan laughed wryly. “Of course, most of the original Luminaries have died by now, but their legacy lives on even if the names of the people who perished in this city and every city they’ve occupied since have been wiped from the earth.”
Rage burned through Mira, and she dropped the knife to keep her shaking hands from slicing Ivan’s throat. She stepped back from him and turned away. These men, these wicked men were the reason she and her grandmother dwelt in such poverty. They were the reason she herself had to fight down fear every time she closed her eyes and tried to sleep. They were the reason she was here now, trying to become a Defender, so she could stand up to their reign of tyranny.
“I want to end them,” she ground out.
Ivan leaned down and scooped up the dagger. “Then let us enter the final test.” He gestured to a door in the back of the hut. Unease flitted through her, but she stamped it down. She would do whatever it took. She was the best candidate for the opening, and she would get it no matter what.
With two sure strides she reached the door. She only took one breath before opening it.
The sight that met her eyes was one she had been expecting. A man with graying hair and frightened eyes was tied to a chair in the middle of a room that was closer in size to a closet than anything else. A gag was stuffed in his mouth and his nostrils flared with every breath, but the white band around his bicep almost gleamed in the dimness. Mira swallowed.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked. Ivan stepped up close behind her. She knew the answer before he said it.
“I want you to do justice.” He pressed the dagger into her hands.
Mira looked from the knife to the man tied to the chair before her. His pupils had constricted in fear, his chest rising and falling rapidly. He shook his head with feverish strength, pleading. This was a man who had taken so much from so many. This was a man that represented everything Mira opposed. He deserved punishment. He deserved to pay.
She took a step forward, and the man whimpered. Mira turned the knife in her hands, feeling Ivan’s eyes scrutinizing her every move. If she took this man’s life, she could join the Defenders. She could finally stand up and take action.
But another, smaller voice in her head told her that if she took his life, she would forever be bloodstained.
If anyone deserved to join the Defenders, it was her. She’d known that from the first time she’d picked up a sword in the training rink. She closed her eyes and released a steadying breath. What she had to do next would be painful and hard, but it had to be done.
She turned away from the man tied to the chair. “I won’t kill him,” she said. Ivan blinked.
“I told you to do justice.”
Mira’s shoulders slumped. If this was what being a Defender meant, then she’d spent the last five years training for nothing. “I cannot do justice to a man whose crimes I do not know,” she said. “How am I to know that he’s even done any wrong himself? Just because he wears the armband doesn’t give me the right to take his life.”
And there it was. She didn’t have the right.
But Ivan only grinned. “Mira Lightfoot,” he said, “you have proven your fortitude and moral character.”
Mira’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“We the Defenders do not execute any Luminaries; we subdue them, write a docket of their crimes, and ship them off to the palace for His Majesty to do with them as he sees fit. The more Luminaries we send to him, the more he has to justify their existence, and we believe the day is soon coming when he will see their corruption and dissolve them entirely.” Ivan slipped the dagger into a leather sheath at his waist. “We do not have the right to bear the sword. There are many times when showing mercy is much the harder task, but it is our duty, or else we would be no better than the Luminaries themselves. It is the choices you make, Mira, and the motivation behind those choices, that define who you are.” He looked at her, straight in the eye, and she felt her very soul was exposed under his piercing gaze.
“Welcome to the Greenthorn Defenders.” He held out his hand, and they shook. Excitement bubbled up in her chest.
She was a Defender. She couldn’t stop the grin from splitting across her face. When Ivan told her to head back to the camp while he readied the Luminary to be sent to the king, she couldn’t help but wonder at the change. She stepped into the sunlight and followed the road back to the open gate. She hadn’t become a Defender because she was worthy; she had become one because she knew she was not.
Mira passed through the gates and left the charred ruins behind her.