The Camaraderie

Whilst heading home from the gym, Hannah is stopped by three men she believes intend to attack her. She takes them down with ease, but then moments later finds herself accused of assaulting undercover police officers and tasered for failing to drop her weapon. She wakes up in a very different world: the language spoken is foreign, her real name is unrecognized, and even her body has changed. She soon learns she is a captive at the Camaraderie in Hellyn, which turns out to be a very long way from home.

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3. Hannah: There Are Two Syllables In Hell

With a jolt, Hannah opened her eyes to the urgent clanging of an old-fashioned bell sounding somewhere above her. It was impossible to ignore. In the dim light, she focused on a forked dark gray crack just visible in the paler gray ceiling. Seconds later white light flooded the room hurting her eyes and she screwed them up. Where was she? At first she had no idea but then the answer came to her. She was living at the Camaraderie of course. What was the Camaraderie? Now she was stuck for an answer. She knew where she was and that she was in her bedroom at the Camaraderie but couldn’t remember yet what this place was or why she was here. She searched her memories. What was the last thing she remembered? It was being tasered by a bogus MIT police officer. Was the Camaraderie a hospital? No, it was her home. That wasn’t true; the Camaraderie was not her home. She knew where home was, Magazine Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, so why had the thought occurred to her that the Camaraderie was her home?

A sneeze distracted her and she turned to look. Just stirring in a twin bed next to Hannah’s was a beautiful girl with waist-length gleaming black hair spread over her pillow. She had oriental looks, likely a mix of Japanese and Korean at a guess. The name Bella materialized in Hannah’s head. As their eyes met Hannah tried out the name.

“Hello. Are you Bella?”

The girl looked at her utterly confused.

“What did you say?” she asked, but she didn’t speak in English. Instead she spoke in a language Hannah understood perfectly well but couldn’t name. She replied in the same language effortlessly.

“I said, ‘Hello Bella.’ That’s your name isn’t it?”

“Of course it’s my name, silly,” said the girl smiling sweetly at Hannah. “What else could it be?”

“What language are we speaking?” asked Hannah.

Again Hannah was met with confusion and surprise.

“Are you teasing me, Azra?” she asked.

“No I’m not, and I’m Hannah, not Azra,” said Hannah immediately, and then she paused. No, that wasn’t entirely true; she was Azra and she knew it.

Bella looked at her puzzled.

“You were Azra yesterday,” she said with confidence.

“Well I’m Hannah today please,” said Hannah a little uncertainly.

“You don’t want to be the alpha any more?” asked Bella, transiently taken aback, and then apparently delighted. She gave Hannah a gloriously perfect, gleaming white smile. “Fine, but Mistress Fenny won’t like it. You can’t have two aitches.  Maybe Helga will swap with you and she’ll be Azra and the alpha. That would be funny! I’m sure she’ll love that but I bet Mistress Fenny won’t let you.”

Bella’s laugh was mesmerizing and Hannah was struck by how unbelievably stunning she was. It was hard not to stare as Bella was easily the most beautiful person she’d ever seen in the flesh.

Images of Mistress Fenny and Helga had popped into her mind as Bella spoke their names. Mistress Fenny was a tiny woman, always cheerful and glowingly positive and Hannah knew she liked her. Helga was, well, Helga, a beautiful dark haired girl, easily a foot taller than Hannah. She had green eyes, pale skin and dark brown hair. When she thought about Helga’s personality nothing much came to mind beyond ‘happy’. Vacuously chirpy seemed a little extreme.

“Can I go first?” asked Bella sliding her impossibly long and gorgeously shaped legs out from under the covers, planting them like a ballet dancer would, gracefully and delicately on the wooden floor. Hannah again tried not to stare.

She knew Bella was talking about the bathroom. As she thought about it she knew they shared a single bathroom and she knew what it would look like. It had a stone bath that took ages to fill. So long that by the time it was deep enough to bathe in, the once tepid water would be cold and neither of them would want to get in. She knew that instead, they both would make do with a flannel wash from the sink faucet. They’d laughed together over it. Was that a real memory? She was deeply unsettled. 

As Bella stretched and ambled into the bathroom, Hannah sat up on her bed and looked around. Everything was familiar and yet she was sure she was seeing it for the first time. There was an archway to the bathroom from their bedroom and no door, so Hannah could hear everything happening in there. There was no point being embarrassed or ashamed.

The eighteen square feet of shared bedroom was mostly filled by the twin beds, and there were closets in the walls, with sliding wooden doors. The room had a single window positioned between the beds, about six feet tall by three feet wide, and she got up and went to look out. She was about three or four stories up off the ground and to the left there was a buff colored driveway passing through a dense swathe of trees out of sight. Two figures dressed in dark clothing but too far away to tell more, were walking down the driveway towards the trees. In front of her a broad expanse of lush green lawn ended in a dense band of tall stone pine, needle-like cypress trees and other broad deciduous trees in full summer foliage. It was the start of a beautiful day with a pale blue cloudless sky.

Feeling claustrophobic and keen to breathe in the fresh air, she tried to open the window but it was locked. She could see the little mechanism that kept it from opening and jiggled it a little, but it wasn’t going to open without a key.

She studied her clothes. She was wearing a black, heavy cotton, short-sleeved, shapeless tent of a nightdress that reached her ankles. It was hideous. The same dress on Bella only reached her knees. Was that really the difference in their height?

She went to look in the closet and instinctively picked the left one, somehow knowing that was hers. Inside were a dozen black cotton shirts in a simple scoop neck style that tapered slightly towards the waist. Some were long sleeved and some were short. There was one black wraparound skirt that looked like it would reach below her ankles and there were half a dozen pairs of black pants that looked too long for her, baggy in style and gathered at both ankles, with a drawstring waist. Was it one-size-fits-all for the clothing?  It looked that way and she was definitely on the short side for it.

“All yours Azra,” said Bella coming out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel and brushing her hair as she walked.

“Thank you,” replied Hannah automatically. Clearly Bella was going to ignore Hannah’s request to be called Hannah.

She stepped into the bathroom and stood in front of the sink. There was a large mirror over it and she studied her reflection. Her face was familiar but looked unnervingly different. She looked older, her hair was at least an inch longer than she recalled and whereas she typically chose to braid it to sleep in, it was currently tied in two ponytails like a little girl would wear, with multiple bands along its length, presumably to stop it getting knotted. She looked more closely. Her eyebrows were plucked into delicate arcs and she looked a lot thinner in the face.

She filled the sink with lukewarm water and stripped off the black tent nightdress. That was when she got her second shock of the morning and it was far more severe. She studied the reflection of the naked girl in front of her. She had powerful shoulder muscles and biceps a man would be proud of. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on her and she was lithe and muscular from shoulders to calves. She even had a six-pack of abdominal muscles and her breasts were half their normal size. She looked like a hybrid man-woman, or like one of those female Olympic athletes. This was not how she’d looked yesterday when she’d got up to go to school and she began to panic. This had to be a horrible nightmare. She felt like she’d woken up in someone else’s body living their life; like she was suddenly the character in a movie or book who’d swapped bodies by mistake. The body she currently had belonged to Azra not Hannah and must have taken months to develop. To build muscles like this required extreme physical effort and it wasn’t possible it was her own body even though the reflection of her face in the mirror was familiar.

“Bella?” she called out. “How long have we been here?”

“Been where?” asked Bella from the bedroom.

“Here, living like this?” said Hannah.

“I don’t know. Ask Mistress Fenny, she knows everything,” replied Bella.

Hannah tried to think of the words for week, month and year in the language she spoke effortlessly with Bella but couldn’t find them.  Why did she have no concept of time measurement beyond minutes, hours and days in this language?

“What language are we speaking?” Hannah called out.

“Krikorian. Are you trying to trick me Azra? You’re being very strange this morning,” said Bella.

“No tricks,” said Hannah. Now she heard the word she recognized it. Of course it was Krikorian.

“You’d better hurry up or we’ll be late for breakfast. Come on!” said Bella.

Hannah quickly washed her face and ran the flannel around the back of her neck where she faltered as her fingers on the flannel ran over something smooth. She twisted around and looked in the mirror. She saw a silvery metal C-shaped band on the back of her lower neck stretching from the crests of her shoulders like a half-collar. She ran her fingers across it. It felt smooth and warm to the touch. She put her nails into it and it didn’t dent. She felt the edges, trying to lift it off her skin, but it was firmly attached and wasn’t going to come off. What on Earth was it?

“Bella?” called out Hannah again. This time Bella came into the bathroom. She was dressed in a black sleeveless tunic, a black skirt that reached mid-calf, and had her hair tied neatly in a ponytail at the nape of her neck.

“Yes?” She smiled sweetly.

“What’s this?” Hannah asked pointing to the thing on her neck.

 “It’s your Cam collar Azra. We all have them. They are the symbol of our service as Camista, remember. I know it can be really hard to remember things.”

Bella was clearly surprised by the question but happy to explain with the patience and tone of an adult talking to a simple-minded child.

 “Now you really have to get dressed Azra,” insisted Bella. “We don’t want to upset Mistress Fenny by being late for breakfast.”

Hannah could sense Bella’s anxiety at Hannah’s tardiness, so she battled her feelings of dismay and horror pushing them aside for a minute so they could instead focus on getting down to breakfast. Presumably that’s where she’d get some answers from Mistress Fenny and she was certainly hungry and could do with some food.

She dried herself quickly, left her hair in the odd ponytails since it didn’t look too messy and chose pants and a sleeveless tunic from the closet, slipping them on in seconds and grabbing the pair of soft felt slippers from the floor under her bed. They fit perfectly, were well worn and presumably belonged to her.

As Bella held open the door for her, Hannah instinctively looked for the light switch to turn out the light as they left. There wasn’t one. In fact there weren’t any electrical sockets in the room either.

“Don’t we switch out the light?” she asked.

“No,” said Bella laughing, all tension gone now they were headed out the door. “They come on and go off on their own. You really are out of it this morning, Azra. You’re going to have a tough day if we have to learn something new.”

“Bella, I don’t know why but I don’t remember anything about this place,” said Hannah as they made their way along a brightly lit corridor passing a dozen doors just like their own bedroom door. “I swear I woke up this morning here for the first time and yet you’ve told me I was here yesterday and somehow everything here feels familiar.”

“Oh,” said Bella in reply. She seemed at a loss for what else to say.

They reached the corridor end where a heavily battered, wooden, circular staircase headed both upwards and downwards. Bella led her downwards. The walls in the corridor and staircase were worn dark wood paneling, stretching from floor to ceiling and the place had an old-world, wood polish feel to it.

“Well you’ve been here as long as I can remember and this is our home and I’m sure it will all be fine,” said Bella eventually finding some placatory words. “It’s a lovely place to live and all the Mistresses are so sweet and kind. I’m sure it will all come back to you at breakfast.”

Bella’s pat phrases were not in the least bit reassuring, although Hannah was sure Bella was being sincere.

“Why are we here?” asked Hannah as they continued down past another landing and corridor without pausing.

“We’re training to serve Hellyn,” said Bella. “Do you really not remember that? They say it often enough to us.”

“Who do?” asked Hannah trying to stay calm. The word Hellyn had sent a chill through her soul like she’d been dunked naked into liquid nitrogen at the North Pole.

“The Mistresses of course,” said Bella. “Poor thing Azra, maybe you should tell Mistress Fenny you’re not well and that you can’t remember anything. She might be able to help you. I’m sure you’re not the first one to have this problem. She’s always telling us to let her know if we have a problem understanding anything we’re told.”

They’d gone down two floors by now and were heading along another broad dark red, wood paneled corridor again. Somehow Hannah knew that they were headed to a dining hall half way along the corridor on the left, and there’d be a kitchen behind it. A sick feeling churned up her guts as they entered the dining hall. Again it was familiar and yet she didn’t recall ever sitting and eating a meal here before. Like the corridors, the dining hall had wood paneled walls and no windows, but it reached double the height of a normal room. It was lit by dozens of large glass balls of light dangling from the ceiling by heavy gold chains. Two stocky, unbelievably long, dark wood tables were set at right angles to each other and each table had elegant craftsman-style chairs set out for about twenty; although the tables could easily seat twice that. The back wall of the dining hall made up the third side of the triangle and had an impressively large gray stone fireplace. Dominating the room and carved into the center of the fireplace above the mantle there was a black swan against a gold background, its wings outstretched and curled up towards the ceiling.

She followed Bella to a hatch in the wall behind one of the tables. The hatch was lined with tureens of food and Hannah followed Bella’s lead helping herself to the food laid out; bread, butter, green jelly and scrambled egg. Peering through the hatch she saw a large kitchen, about the size of her high school kitchen, but old fashioned with wooden tables and several iron ranges instead of modern stainless steel microwaves and ovens. She saw bulky, cream-colored ceramic sinks but there were no fridge-freezers or dishwashers in sight. Right now there were two young women in the kitchen, dressed in black and about her age, one hovering over one of the ranges, and the other loading up dishes with breakfast food.

She made her way over to the table already filled with a dozen girls all dressed identically to Bella. They looked mostly happy and she could see some smiles as they murmured to each other whilst munching their way through breakfast. She sat down next to Bella. As she looked around at the faces, she recognized each one and could name them.  Carla, who was African looking, Dana, Ellia, Faneula, Geeta who looked Indian, Helga, Ida, Karen, Marina, Nieve, Olivia, and Penny. It occurred to her that each girl here had a name from B through P. Lilly and Julia were in the kitchen. She was A, the alpha. She was Azra.

She stared at her scrambled egg. She was hungry but her appetite was blunted by the bubbling pit of anxiety in her stomach at having heard the word Hellyn from Bella’s lips. It was a very familiar word. Her grandmother had always insisted that Hannah would end up in Hellyn because the letter said she would. The way Grammy said Hellyn and the way it was written in English sounded nice, like someone’s name. The way Bella had pronounced it was Khell’n with the ‘Kh’ sounding like phlegm caught in the back of her throat and the ‘n’ right at the back of her throat too, and essentially inaudible, making it sound like a guttural two-syllable version of Hell.

Raised by her grandmother, Hannah had outwardly been a completely normal kid growing up in Cambridge; she played sports, went to the local elementary, middle and then high school. She had her favorite hobby, martial arts. She’d been helping Sensei Chris out for a couple of years teaching at his MIT Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class. He loved having her around because she inspired the women. She wasn’t at MIT herself, she was just starting her final year at high school and there was no way she’d be getting an undergraduate place at MIT; she didn’t go to the right school, her CV wasn’t that good and there was no money for it. This outward appearance of Hannah’s life had been normal, but in reality there was plenty of quirkiness lurking just underneath the surface and it was linked to that name, Hellyn.

Grammy wasn’t her real grandmother; Hannah was adopted when she was a baby too young to walk. Hannah had complained to her friends that all kids wanted to be adopted because their parents could be seriously embarrassing but no one beat her own Grammy at that. Grammy had been the world’s expert at winding up the teachers at parent-teacher conferences, telling them how inadequate they were and how they were failing Hannah, which obviously meant her teachers loathed her. Then there was the ritual humiliation if she was dumb enough to bring a boyfriend to the house and they bumped into Grammy. The story of baby Hannah’s arrival at Grammy’s house was an old favorite.

“A delightful wrinkly, pale, old white-haired man with gorgeous blue eyes knocked on my door one heavenly spring morning and handed over a Moses basket with you in it, my angel. You were a gift straight from God and I believe that it was Jesus himself who gave you to me.”

“Grammy, Jesus did not have blue eyes. He was a Semitic Jew with brown eyes, brown skin and brown hair.”

“Then maybe you are Jesus’s daughter, Hannah. Now be quiet, your friend wants to hear the truth! You were fast asleep with rosy pink cheeks and those cute brown curls! Jesus knew I wanted a child more than anything and I could never have had one of my own the usual way.”

At this point she’d have the full attention of Hannah’s latest flame who inevitably assumed he was dealing with a demented, religious nut-job of a grandmother and would be smiling politely. Meanwhile Hannah would be blushing crimson and signaling pointlessly to Grammy to tell her to shut up, to no avail.

“He gave me instructions on how he wanted his child raised and I’ve followed them to the letter,” she would say proudly. This always resulted in nervous looks from the boyfriend who naturally asked what she meant, thinking she was going to start spouting bible verses, and then Hannah would have to rapidly extricate them both from the living room and rush the boyfriend either out the house again or up to the privacy of their bedroom where they could chat in peace. The alternative was to hear about the letter that Hannah never wanted anyone to know about. That always remained safely hidden.

It was a brief, two-page letter in now faded blue ink from the person who handed over a baby they apparently didn’t want anymore or couldn’t afford to keep. The man certainly wasn’t Jesus, and the two-page letter wasn’t an abridged version of the New Testament. It wasn’t a self-help book on child rearing like the Contented Baby Book or Toddler Taming either, far from it.  As she got older Hannah wanted to forget this story, but Grammy wouldn’t let her and that was one source of tension between them as she grew and it was what made her different from other kids. Grammy always maintained it didn’t matter that Hannah didn’t have a social security number or legal status, but Hannah thought it did. Grammy might have been right in the end. She mulled over the contents of the letter with a new sense of urgency as she interpreted it from a different perspective, for the first time ever.

1. The child is a gifted linguist and must learn languages. Ensure she is fluent in at least four different languages including Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic language families.

Grammy did exactly as instructed. Hannah was enrolled in French immersion pre-school instead of regular kindergarten, and sent to Chinatown on Saturday mornings to learn Mandarin, when other kids were playing soccer and baseball. She learned Spanish and Russian as second and third Indo-European languages starting in second grade, and eventually Grammy even found an Arabic class to enroll Hannah in to satisfy the Afro-Asiatic request. There was always a foreign exchange student staying in their tiny three-bedroom home with its mud yard out back. In exchange for free board and lodging, they were tasked with helping Hannah become fluent in their native tongue, whilst babysitting with variable skill, so that Grammy could work long hours to earn enough money to pay for all the classes Hannah took. The exchange students always got the bigger bedroom, and Hannah got to sleep in the tiny box-room barely bigger than a twin bed.  At sixteen, only slightly bitter that she still didn’t have the real bedroom, she was both swearing fluent and more importantly conversationally fluent in French, Spanish, and Russian, mediocre in Mandarin and still appalling at Arabic. She’d never really enjoyed that one and Grammy had never found an Arabic speaking exchange student to live with them for a year.

2. The child must learn to fight and be able to defend herself.

This curious instruction proved infinitely more fun than learning five different languages. She started training first in karate, from the age of four, and then Mixed Martial Arts from six, (everyone called it MMA), and she had dabbled in other martial arts just to see what they were like. She’d tried Judo, Aikido and Taekwondo, but nothing beat the flexibility of MMA with its blend of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and kick boxing, for training her to handle any kind of attack. At sixteen, Hannah considered herself quite effective at defending herself, and handling most weapons from small knives to ancient swords and Bo sticks. She’d also learned archery and even pistol shooting, thanks to a heavily subsidized children’s class sponsored by the NRA. Those were the cheapest classes she took.

3. She will travel to Hellyn when she comes of age, to serve and fulfill her destiny.

There it was, Hellyn, the last of the three statements in the letter. It was a place and it clearly stated she would travel to Hellyn and serve to fulfill her destiny. Bella had just told her they were training to serve Hellyn. She’d never taken the letter that seriously and certainly had never believed that she might be whisked off to a place, without her consent and without warning. She turned to Bella beside her.

“Bella, did you also have a letter when you were a baby that told your parents how to raise you?” she asked.

Bella looked at her with a now familiar expression of confusion.

“I don’t know what you mean?” she said. Carla was listening in on the conversation sitting opposite them.

“Did your mother get given a hand-written letter that said you should be raised to speak multiple languages, learn to fight and that you’d travel to Hellyn to serve when you reached a certain age?” clarified Hannah.

“I don’t have a mother,” said Bella. “None of us do, we’re Camista.”

“Of course you have parents, even if they’re dead,” said Hannah getting a little exasperated by Bella’s inability to understand.

“No I don’t have parents and I don’t think I ever did,” said Bella. “That’s right isn’t it Carla?”

Bella turned to Carla for reassurance.

“We don’t have parents,” affirmed Carla. “Because we’re Camista. Only Gallorians have parents, Azra.”

Hannah half knew what Camista meant. She knew it was a female at the Camaraderie and that males would be called Camero. It was another one of those facts she had no recollection learning, but just knew. She even recognized the word Gallorian and she knew that she wasn’t one; she was a Camista, like a different race.

“Why does being a Camista mean that you don’t have parents?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” said Bella with a sweet smile. “But it’s not that important is it? We have each other and the Mistresses to ask for help and guidance. We don’t really need them, do we?”

Hannah was almost speechless. She wanted to scream with frustration.

“I have a grandmother, actually that’s not quite true, I had a grandmother, she died about a…a…” Hannah was looking for the word year in Krikorian but she didn’t know it. “She died about 365 days ago,” she finished.

“Gosh that’s a long time ago,” said Carla. “I’m surprised you remember her, I don’t remember that long ago.”

Hannah stared at Carla wondering if she’d heard correctly.

“Carla, how long do you think you’ve been here at the Camaraderie?” she asked.

“I’ve never thought about it,” said Carla with a sweet smile, surprisingly similar to Bella’s mesmerizing smile. “A long time I suppose,” she added. “I don’t remember how long, but I don’t remember being anywhere else either. I think I might always have lived here.”

“Me too,” added Bella, obviously glad to be able agree with Carla.”

“What, you grew up here? From being a baby all the way to seventeen, or however old you are?” asked Hannah.

“I don’t actually remember,” said Bella apologetically.

“Me neither,” said Carla. “Silly old me.”

“So you don’t have any recollection of living your childhood either here or anywhere else?” asked Hannah.

They both happily nodded in agreement. Hannah held her tongue. Bella and Carla were beginning to irritate her, but it was possible it wasn’t their fault, just as it wasn’t her own fault that she couldn’t remember living here herself. She suddenly had a cold surge of dread. She remembered seeing a TV documentary on a man who couldn’t make long-term memories, and every few minutes he saw everything and everybody as if for the first time. It was disturbing and tragic. She prayed she didn’t have the same problem. What if she’d woken up every morning for the last God-knows how long, unable to remember what happened the previous day? Did you get memory loss from being tasered?  Maybe it had damaged her brain permanently.

“Have I lived here with you, for as long as you can remember?” asked Hannah trying one more question.

“Yes,” replied Carla and Bella in unison and with utter confidence. They laughed with each other at speaking together and Hannah couldn’t help but smile at their amusement.

“Is that more than ten days?” she asked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Bella.

“More than thirty days?” she tried again.

“I don’t know,” said Bella, and she looked to Carla.

“I don’t know either,” said Carla. “I’m not very good at numbers. But it’s definitely more than ten days.”

Hannah sighed and started to eat her cold breakfast. It looked like Bella and Carla suffered from memory problems too, although they weren’t quite as acute as Hannah’s were.

She was just finishing her bread, washing it down with some water when a short, very petite woman floated into the dining hall. She was wearing a turquoise-green, silk, ankle-length dress, in multiple layers like an evening gown, and with her hair in an intricate array of loops and curls piled on her head; she looked ready to go to a Hollywood premier. She was beaming in obvious joyful excitement. She held a hand in the air and jangled a high-pitched hand bell. The dining room fell silent immediately.

“Good morning Camista,” she said.

“Good morning Mistress Fenny,” chorused the girls, all now sitting at the table.

“Are you all here?” she asked briefly counting the bodies at the table. “Wonderful!”

She sighed happily and clasped her hands together so the bell jangled slightly again.

“It’s a very special day today, girls. Headmaster Conway is going to be here momentarily and he’s going to speak to you. Please remember your manners and pay careful attention to what he has to say. I’ll announce the class schedule for the day as soon as he has finished.”

At that moment two men walked into the dining hall, one looked like a soldier; he had a stiff-backed military air, about thirty or forty years old, dressed in black long-sleeved tunic and pants tucked into black boots, clean-shaven but with shoulder-blade length blond hair in a ponytail, tied at the nape of his neck. By contrast the other man was a lot older, around sixty years old, equally tall and slim, with thin, white hair also tied back in a ponytail, and with a white, goatee beard. He was dressed in a thigh length, heavy black jacket and loose black pants. She recognized him as Headmaster Conway but she didn’t recognize the younger man.

Something inside her head told her to stand up. It seemed the same thought occurred to all the other Camista, as they simultaneously scraped back chairs and stood up in silence. The soldier stood rigidly at the entrance to the dining hall and Headmaster Conway came to stand in front of the fireplace next to Mistress Fenny. He had a broad smile on his face and Hannah studied him carefully. He had a distinct air of authority and confidence. If he was in charge, then he was the one who could answer her questions.

“Good morning Camista!” His base timbre filled the room, and then he paused, eyes sweeping slowly across them as the girls as one, chanted back to him. “Good morning, Headmaster Conway!”

All spoke except Hannah. As if he knew she’d remained silent, Conway’s gaze instantly rested on Hannah’s face and she glared back at him, anger rising in her, whilst wondering what he was thinking as he looked at her. She was itching to know. As she stared, she got a strange sensation that she was looking at a white shimmering wall that made his whole body disappear and she blinked rapidly, suddenly feeling dizzy and disoriented. The feeling was gone in a few moments and she looked down at the floor to regain her balance, taking hold of the table to steady herself with her hands.

She eventually noticed there was an uncomfortable silence and looked up again. Headmaster Conway was still staring at her, and this time she blushed, like she’d said something embarrassing, and quickly looked down at the floor again. He was making her feel very uncomfortable and she had the sudden desire to remain anonymous rather than attract his attention. She heard him clear his voice after a few seconds.

“Today is a special day for you all. I’m sure many of you woke up feeling a little different today, perhaps you will find you see the world a little more clearly as the day progresses; maybe you will see more alluring and vibrant colors around you or hear music a little differently, more intensely or with greater passion. Whatever you notice, rest assured it is a wonderful thing, and marks the first day of the second stage of your training.  Because it is this special day, and because I know for many of you, it will mark the start of a period that is…easier to recall, I have chosen today to remind you of your place in service to Hellyn, and of the opportunities that the Camaraderie offers to improve yourselves. The Camaraderie is a training school especially designed just for you. We exist purely because of you wonderful young women, and the young men who live alongside you. Its purpose is to train you, our youngest servants of Hellyn.”

As he spoke his eyes scanned the room looking for a few seconds at every one of the girls. Many met his gaze initially but then lowered their eyes as Hannah had done. Were they thinking the same thing she was? She noticed Carla beamed a smile at him that should melt his heart as his eyes lit upon her delighted and strikingly good-looking face.

“You have all been carefully selected for your exceptional skills and talents. Here, at the Camaraderie, we endeavor to enhance those natural attributes you are so fortunate to possess. When you graduate from the Camaraderie, I am confident that you will make me proud of you. You will have the honor and opportunity to serve Hellyn to the best of your ability, according to your greatest strengths.”

What exactly was he talking about? She had no idea. Was this the man responsible for kidnapping her and bringing her to this place? She listened in silence debating whether to remain mute, as some cautious, nervous voice inside her was recommending, or voice her objections to being kidnapped and demand answers.

 “There are still plenty of opportunities to learn, hone, and show off your skills, but now we are entering the second phase of your training here, we can begin to look ahead to your future.  At the end of your training, you will be placed into the homes of only the wealthiest, elite Gallorian citizens of Hellyn, where you will serve as needed, according to the skills you have gained here. It is a great privilege to be offered the opportunity to serve in the magnificent homes of our governors.” 

His gaze slid across the room again, smiling broadly at the gathering of girls.

“Hellyn thanks you for your selfless and devoted service.”

With that, he turned to Mistress Fenny, nodded and smiled at her and then swept from the room, taking with him about a thousand megawatts of light and energy as he left. Headmaster Conway was not a man with the emotional mute button pressed. She’d missed her opportunity to ask questions, but he hadn’t even paused after he finished his speech. He didn’t invite questions. She didn’t like the idea that her role serving Hellyn meant she’d be going to serve the wealthy and elite governors of Hellyn. That sounded really boring. There was no way she’d be doing that; she wanted to get back home and if she had to serve she would rather serve the United States instead, hopefully in exchange for help with funding a college degree.

She turned her attention to Mistress Fenny, who looked about to speak.

“Well, Camista, that was inspiring wasn’t it?” she said, again beaming with joy. “Now you can have your assignments for the day. Ida through Lilly you are in the laundry and Marina through Penny in the kitchen this morning. Bella through Helga, you are in entertainment class with me. Azra you are with Master Kenve in the gymnasium. After lunch, Azra, through Helga, you have massage with me followed by dance with Mistress Sayturrod and Skemtun.  Marina, Nieve, Olivia and Penny you will be in the laundry, and Ida, Julia, Karen and Lilly you are in the kitchens. Is that clear?” she asked smiling brightly.

“Clear!” came a chorus of replies from all the girls except Hannah.

Calling her Azra felt familiar and normal to a part of her, but she clung to the knowledge it wasn’t her real name. She was Hannah and nothing could change that. At the mention of Master Kenve’s name, Hannah had a vision of a gray haired man with a ponytail, and just as she had for Mistress Fenny, she had a positive feeling about him, as one of the staff here. She’d thought of the word teacher but she wondered if that was the right word. It probably was, since Headmaster Conway had referred to the Camaraderie as a school.

The girls were filing out of the dining room now, and she realized she was the only one assigned to go to Master Kenve’s class in the gymnasium. She had no idea where to go and what to expect. She went up to the still-beaming Mistress Fenny.

“Um, excuse me Mistress Fenny,” she started. “You know Headmaster Conway said we woke up feeling different this morning, well I woke up and I can’t remember anything, I don’t know where to go to get to the gymnasium. Please could you tell me?”

The startled expression on Mistress Fenny’s face was immediately replaced with a compassionate smile. No, a patronizing smile would be a better description.

“Of course Azra my dear, I’m sure you’ll remember as soon as you get going. I’ll show you the way, and afterwards you can just follow the Camero back for lunch here in the dining hall if you still feel a little lost. I know the first day can be a little bit of a shock.”

Hannah smiled. It seemed like Mistress Fenny knew exactly what Hannah’s problem was.

As she followed Mistress Fenny out of the dining hall, she realized after a minute, that she probably did know her way to the gymnasium. If she’d just let her instincts guide her, she would have walked this way. They walked the length of the corridor and took a left that led to a glass corridor linking the old building they were in with a much more modern large stone building, at least four stories high, which had a single row of windows set very high in the wall. Its design could have been a gymnasium in any high school, although the stones it was built from where much larger than any she’d seen in the past; roughly cut blocks of what looked like black-colored granite.

“Here you are, Azra,” said Mistress Fenny. “I believe that you usually put on a pair of shorter pants and tunic that are set out for you in the Camista changing rooms, and there is a pair of shoes and socks in there for you too that you leave in the changing room at the end of the class, before you change back into your regular clothes. There’s a towel there, if you need to wash afterwards. Master Kenve will look after you in the gymnasium.”

“Thank you,” said Hannah, pushing open the door Mistress Fenny had clearly indicated was the girl’s changing room. It had a bunch of squiggly lines printed on it she couldn’t interpret. “Are those the doors to the gymnasium?” she asked pointing to the double doors in front of them. The only other options were a couple of doors off to the sides, one with a squiggly line image on it too, and the other completely blank.

“That’s right Azra,” said Mistress Fenny, smiling uncertainly, apparently a little disturbed by Hannah’s lack of ability to recall ever having been here before. “I’ll see you in class this afternoon.”

She went into the changing room; it was lit by four glass ball lights high above her head and was like any old high school changing room, with wooden benches, dark red tiled floor, white ceramic sinks, toilets and a communal shower area. She noticed immediately that there was a pile of clothing on the otherwise empty bench, and she went to check it out. It contained a sleeveless tunic, a little different from the one she was wearing, and a pair of drawstring-waisted pants that would be three-quarter length on her and that were wide at the bottom rather than gathered like the overly long pants she was wearing. There was no clean underwear or bra and there hadn’t been a bra in the closet either. It didn’t look like she’d be able to rein in her breasts for vigorous exercise, not that she needed that anymore, now she was half the size she used to be. She quickly exchanged her pants and top, put on the socks and brown leather sneaker-like shoes, before heading into the gymnasium.

Cautiously pushing open the double doors, she took in the surprisingly vast gymnasium. It was twice the size of her school one and stretched up the height of the building, perhaps four stories high at least. It had a wooden floor, half covered in mats, dangling ropes from the ceiling, and something that looked like a climbing wall. In the far corner she spotted a man she instantly recognized as Master Kenve. He was carrying a large wooden box across the floor and he turned around when he heard the door opening.  He immediately turned back and continued, and she slowly made her way across the gym towards him.

“Good morning, Azra,” he said without looking at her as she was about half way across the huge gym.

“Good morning,” replied Azra automatically.

He put down the box and turned to face her as she walked the last few yards towards him.

“I...I’m afraid I don’t remember what you…what I…what I’m supposed to do,” she said.

“Well first of all, you address me as Master Kenve; you should say good morning Master Kenve,” he said sharply.

“I’m sorry Master Kenve, I didn’t mean to be rude,” she said apologizing immediately. She wondered why she’d had a good feeling about him in her mind when he seemed so scary now. He was huge, easily six foot four or five, powerfully built and very intimidating.

He smiled suddenly.

“It’s your first day at stage two today?” he asked.

Hannah chewed her lip for just a moment. “So Headmaster Conway said this morning, but I don’t actually know what that means, other than that he said we likely woke up feeling different. Quite honestly I’ve woken up feeling perfectly normal, but I feel like I’ve stepped into someone else’s life and body by mistake,” she said. “This whole experience is very surreal.”

Master Kenve laughed. “That’s the most I’ve ever heard you say. You certainly have woken up different this morning.”

Hannah looked at him confused.

“I’ve taken your classes before, right?” she said uncertainly.

“You most certainly have Azra,” he replied. “You don’t remember them?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said.

“Are you frightened of fighting?” he asked with a challenge.

She smiled. “Not at all. What style is it?”

Now it was his turn to look confused. “What do you mean, what style?”

“You know, Taekwondo, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Aikido, Karate,” she said.

“I don’t know what those are,” he said, looking a little put out. “It’s basic and advanced combat skills, with and without weapons.”

“Oh, that sounds fine,” she said, with a smile. She didn’t want to explain to him what all the different martial arts were if he didn’t know what they meant.

“You really don’t remember training with the Camero?” he asked, still a little uncomfortable. He seemed as disconcerted as Mistress Fenny was, that she didn’t remember anything.

“I’m sorry, I don’t, but I’m sure it will be familiar once we start,” she said trying to reassure him. She didn’t want him to doubt her ability, her pride wouldn’t let that happen.

“I’ve never had a Camista in my classes before. I don’t make any concessions for you, Azra. You keep up with the Camero or you leave my class.” The warning tone in his voice matched his serious expression, then it suddenly softened into a challenging smile. “Is that understood?” She got the feeling he liked her just as she instinctively had liked him.

“Absolutely,” said Hannah, with a grin. If she’d been keeping up with the Camero in his classes so far she was sure she’d be able to do it today. “By the way, my name isn’t Azra.”

His smile faded.

“So what do you think your name is, then?” he asked.

“It’s Hannah,” she said, with a warm smile. “I know everyone here wants to call me Azra, but it’s really Hannah.”

“But you’re not ranked eighth in the Camista, you are ranked first. You don’t want to be known as Hannah, you are an alpha. Azra is a much better rank than Hannah, it means you have leadership qualities,” he said and then he paused looking a little awkward. “Well, if you were a Camero it would mean you had leadership qualities and obviously you’re not the typical Camista…I mean you’re not…”

His voice trailed off as he didn’t want to explain what she was not, and she had no idea what he wanted to say, so she couldn’t help him out and supply the words. She looked at him curiously. He actually seemed embarrassed and she couldn’t help but laugh.

“Well, if you put it like that,” she said. “I guess I can answer to Azra.”

“You really are different, Azra. I expect a change in the Camero when they reach stage two, but I must say you really are a surprise. I hadn’t expected this.”

“Why am I here?” she asked.

He looked stunned by her question, but recovered rapidly.

“To improve the skills you already have, and learn new skills that will allow you to better serve Hellyn,” he said.

“What if I don’t want to serve Hellyn?” she said. “And I want to go home?”

His good humor instantly evaporated, like she’d made a tremendously bad taste joke.

“Of course you desire to serve Hellyn, Azra. You are a Camista, and it is your duty to do so. That is what you are here for,” he said. “And be very clear about this, the Camaraderie is your home, at least for now.”

She felt the chill radiating off him like a blast from a freezer door opening. It was a mistake to suggest she didn’t want to serve Hellyn if she wanted to stay in his good books.

“I’m sorry Master Kenve,” she said, instinctively wanting to preserve his positive attitude towards her. “Of course I am happy to serve Hellyn, it was what I was born to do and have looked forwards to doing this all my life. I was just…just playing with words, like I would test the weight of a knife or a sword.”

She spoke with as much sincerity as she could muster out of thin air, and she thought it was quite convincing considering it was a monumental lie. The wooden knives and swords that were in the box he’d put down on the ground beside him inspired her last words. They didn’t even make sense, but seemed to appease him. He smiled, apparently reassured.

“You should warm up, the Camero will be in shortly,” he said.

“What should I do?” she asked.

“You really don’t remember your warm up?” he asked, incredulous, then he closed his eyes. “I’m sorry, you have already clearly explained that you remember nothing of your training with me. That is unfortunate, but we’ll just have to see how you do, now you are at level… now you are at stage two. Take your shoes and socks off, you don’t need them, and start running around the gymnasium, the Camero will join you when they come in.”

She did as he suggested, running self-consciously in a large circle around the gym. He seemed to be ignoring her as he busied himself with a box of padded equipment, and she soon relaxed a little. It must have been at least twenty minutes before the boys started to arrive, and she was thrilled with her level of fitness. She wasn’t even out of breath or tired, and felt like she could keep up this pace for hours. The boys started running, too, joining her as soon as they stepped through the door, and a couple of them immediately picked up the pace, so she accelerated to keep up. Within a couple of minutes sixteen boys had joined the group, circling the gym, and Kenve moved to stand in the middle, watching them in silence. Another thirty minutes passed, and by then she was sweating profusely, desperately thirsty, and ready for a break, but there was no way she was going to fail to keep up with the boys after Kenve’s words.

“Halt,” called out Kenve eventually. The boys turned inwards and came to stand in front of him as a disorganized cluster, dripping sweat and breathing heavily, just as she was.

“Today we’ll start with a knockout, hand-to-hand, sparring contest; the winner stays in,” he announced. “Three minutes each round; contacts and take downs score points. No groundwork.” There were smiles all around.

“Pratik, you are paired with Igor, get your pads on,” he said. “Azra you will fight the winner, followed by Hal, then Orien and so on, so get ready.”

Azra watched as Pratik, an Indian looking man about her age, jumped up, and selecting items from a large wooden box, started putting on shin pads, MMA-style gloves, a groin protector and a soft-padded helmet, without a face guard. Igor was Caucasian with brown hair and pale skin and he donned identical protective equipment as quickly as Pratik. She went to the box too and started to put on protective gear, as did Hal. Kenve obviously didn’t want to wait around for you to get your kit on.

“Go!” said Kenve turning over a ridiculously large, glass, old-fashioned sand-timer about three feet tall. She turned her attention to Pratik and Igor to see what style of fighting she was going to be expected to do. It appeared to be a free for all, with no rules about zones not to hit. Direct strikes to the face were acceptable and the watching boys cheered attacks to the groin, the knees, and to the head. Hannah was only slightly put out. She’d never fought quite like this before, but she was more than willing to give it a go; she loved this sort of stuff.

Igor beat Pratik without difficulty. She noticed he was pulling his kicks and punches a little, otherwise Pratik would have a broken leg, and he could easily have been knocked unconscious by some of Igor’s head strikes. She stepped up ready for her turn. A breathless Igor barely had time to recover after Kenve had called ‘Time,’ before Kenve shouted ‘Go!’ and turned the sand-timer again.

She started offensively, going in with a flying kick rather than punches, given that he was at least a foot taller than she was. He was faster than he looked, and she managed just one contact out of several attempts, and had to dodge seriously fast to avoid his longer legs and arms. When she came in to attack again, he caught her with a hook to the head that made her see stars, and she wondered if she’d stay upright. He followed up as she paused, stunned, with a kick to her kidneys that had her on the ground, shocked by the disorientation and sudden dizziness she was feeling. She’d just lost two points and scored only one. She’d be out in the first match if she didn’t wise up. She needed to read him better and clear her head.

She staggered back up onto her feet and started dancing on her toes, keeping out of his way whilst she recovered her balance, remembering Sensei Chris’s advice over years of practicing with him. She focused hard on Igor, willing herself to read his body language, look for the openings and predict his attack. She saw another left hook coming, deflected it, and immediately attacked his exposed left flank, punching just under his breast at the least protected point. One point! Then he tried a right roundhouse kick followed up by straight punches to left, and right, aimed at her chest and then another left hook, again aimed at her head, but she knew that was what he was going to do and blocked them easily, before surprising him with another flying kick, straight to his solar plexus. This one knocked him off balance and he went down. Yes, another point! She kept her focus and more and more felt like she could predict what he was about to do, and could block or dodge out of the way, and then land more effective strikes. It was a fantastic feeling and she was so fit she felt amazing.

“Time!” called Kenve. “Hal, you’re up with Azra, Orien next, then Gavin, GO!”

The whole episode was repeated, only this time right from the start, Hannah felt like she could read Hal’s mind, and she knew exactly what he was planning. She found she could conserve her energy and dodge his attacks with ease, or feign her own and know how he would respond, and then catch him out without difficulty. The watching Camero had egged on Pratik and Igor when they’d fought, but after that, they’d been silent, watching with intense interest as she fought Igor and beat him. She won four matches in a row fighting Hal, Orien, Gavin, and Noor before she faced Fox, a huge African man. By this time she was physically exhausted and panting, with her heart pounding at close to two hundred, she was sure. The floor was treacherously slippery, soaked in her sweat and it was gross. She could read Fox’s intentions too, but she was too tired to go on the offensive and attack. She dodged his attacks not letting him score a point, but couldn’t herself score. When Kenve called time he declared Fox the winner for the number of attacks he’d made on Azra, even though none of them had taken her down, and she gratefully took off her pads. She’d had enough of this knockout contest. There was silence as Fox was declared winner and she got the feeling that nobody was thrilled Fox had won the match without actually scoring a point, even Fox looked a bit annoyed.

Kenve paused and ordered Blade to mop the mats of sweat and there were a few murmurings as he did so. Hannah picked up voices as the boys discussed the events so far. Her hearing was really good and she heard everyone’s conversation she focused on.

“I would have taken her down, no problem,” said Adam arrogantly. “She’s just a dodger.”

“You’re right. I’d have got her too,” said Jake, but he didn’t sound so confident.

“Hex Hellyn!” said Dex. “She’s sharpened up! What happened?”

“Something in the water?” asked Calib next to him. “Hal and Igor wiped the floor with her a few days ago doing this.”

She was reminded how thirsty she was.

“Please sir, may I get a drink?” she asked Kenve. He paused to consider her request and she was convinced he was about to refuse, before he changed his mind and relented.

“You have one minute. Use the water in the changing room.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said, and she jogged out the gym as fast as her exhausted legs would carry her. She slaked her thirst, slurping from the sink faucet.

When she returned, Fox was fighting Molyn and easily beating him. He then went on to beat Egan and Lesh, before Dex beat him, and then Dex beat Kurt, before losing to Calib. Calib beat Jake but then lost to Blade, and then Blade lost to Adam. Adam and Blade were extremely fast she noticed, and landed some viciously hard kicks and punches on each other. They weren’t holding back. They seemed to love it though and laughed throughout as they scored points off each other. She was quite taken with Adam. He was a handsome, blond haired and blue-eyed, incredibly well built man, over six feet tall, and he had a gorgeous smile. He oozed good vibes and she found herself physically attracted to him. As she watched him fight, she focused on his intentions and just as she had when she’d been fighting, she realized that she could read his intents and his reasoning. Was she really reading his mind?  She focused. It really seemed that way. She could see his lightning fast calculations of what moves Blade was likely to make, and he was constantly judging distance and looking for the opening in Blade’s defensive moves. He was thrilled when he won, but had expected it. He was alpha ranked and he knew he was supposed to win. That was how it worked. He was the best amongst them. He was the leader. 

Reading his mind, she saw how this was supposed to have worked; each of the higher ranking ones would beat the lower ranked one they fought and usually lose to the Camero even higher ranked. She’d messed up the system a bit. They were only supposed to stay in a couple of rounds if they fought as their rank dictated. Hal and Gavin were supposed to have beaten her, and Fox wasn’t supposed to have beaten Egan. Fox was better than Egan, but shouldn’t be, and Azra had just surprised them all, as Hal was supposed to have beaten her easily.

Finding she could read minds didn’t surprise her as much as it should have. So far, her day had been the most unusual in her entire life, and this was just one more bizarre discovery. She was already too exhausted to waste energy worrying about anything other than what task Kenve would set them, now that the sparring was over, and there were still several hours before the class would end at lunch time.

“Two minute water break, and then weapons next,” announced Kenve.

Hannah didn’t go out to get water with the boys and she found herself briefly alone again, with Master Kenve.

“That was a solid performance, Azra,” said Kenve. “Just what I expect from an alpha. Keep it up.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“Thank you, sir,” he immediately said. “Remember your manners, Azra.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” she replied instantly. “Thank you, sir.”

She focused on him and she found that she could also read his mind. It was fascinating. Whilst he’d been very understated praising her just now, in reality he’d been blown away by her sudden improvement in skill at sparring. It looked like she’d been at the bottom of the ranking system before today, and typically lost to Pratik. He was looking forwards to seeing if she had the same improvement in her skills handling weapons, or whether it was restricted to hand-to-hand work. She hoped she’d have enough energy to show her skills with the knife, and sword, and that the style would be familiar enough to her.

She didn’t have to worry; she got a long rest, as Kenve didn’t call her until most of the others had been called. He mixed the order up a bit more this time. It was the same process as before only she was called in when Dex had already fought Kurt and beaten him. It consisted of five attacks with the knife, each of which you had to defend yourself against and disarm the attacker. You lost the point if you failed and they got you. Hannah loved this type of fighting and had done it many times before. Since she could read Dex’s intentions with ease, she disarmed him every time, and although he disarmed her attacks, three of the five times, she won on points. She soon went on to do the same to Molyn and then Calib. Then, she fought Blade. He was the hardest yet. They were even on points; he disarmed her viciously five times in a row with little effort, and even knowing what he was going to do, it took a huge amount of effort to disarm him. She was very impressed. When they finished at a draw, Kenve called up Adam.

“Who would you like to fight, Adam?” he asked. “Azra, or Blade?”

“Azra,” announced Adam immediately with a grin. “She’s kick-ass this morning. It looks like fun.”

Everyone laughed, and for the first time, she felt the frosty, uneasy atmosphere towards her melt, with Adam’s expression of approval for her.

“Azra, you’re attacking first,” said Kenve.

She didn’t waste time and immediately lunged at him, but Adam was easily as fast as Blade, effortlessly disarming her. Again and again, he judged her attack perfectly. There was no feign she could do that would fool him. When it came his turn to attack her, his first attack was so swift and vicious, his thoughts blended with his actions, and he won the point easily; she failed to disarm him. There was a loud cheer. It appeared they all wanted Adam to win this match. His second attack, she saw coming a mile off and she blocked it, but got a vicious punch in the abdomen from his fist for it, causing her to double over in agony. She’d lost two points.

“I’m sorry,” said Adam immediately that he realized he’d injured her. “I didn’t expect you to move forwards.”

“It’s OK,” she gasped, winded and trying not to look green or throw up. His distress that he’d injured her was genuine and she was touched. After a minute she straightened up. She already knew Kenve well enough to know that an injury as minor as winding, didn’t warrant canceling the sparring match. He just waited patiently until a Camero was recovered enough to continue.

“Come on, Azra, get back in the fight,” called out Fox. “That’s the spirit! Don’t let him get you!”

She grinned at Fox and nodded at Adam to show she was ready to go again. He attacked again, this time more slowly, and she easily disarmed him and got a round of cheers from the Camero – her first one and her first point against Adam. Adam’s last two attacks were back to full force and lightning fast, both times he attacked without planning it so she was caught guessing. She failed to disarm him both times and they were met with loud cheers from their audience. She couldn’t help but smile at Adam’s delighted face as they fought; he was enjoying this match as much as she was, and there were no hard feelings when they finished.

He was breathtakingly attractive. It was disturbing that he hadn’t registered her existence before now, in part because she’d never been a challenge to fight in the past, and it appeared that she’d never even spoken to him before. He noticed how her smile lit up her face. She blushed as she read the thought and hurriedly sat down.

“OK, we’ll finish up with ropes; five times up and down. Let’s go!” said Kenve. “Last one to complete it, does sixty push-ups, followed by one hundred crunches.”

The Camero leaped up, startling an exhausted Hannah who’d hoped it was lunchtime, and she followed as they ran towards the ropes dangling from the ceiling. They were thick, easily a couple of inches in diameter, and immediately, the boys started shimmying up them, the rope wrapped over and under their feet as they almost bounded up the ropes. She’d never seen anything like it. She grabbed one herself and started to climb, wrapping the rope around her leg and between her feet, so that she could take some of the strain on her legs and not just her arms. There was nothing convenient like knots in the rope to help her grip; this was about pure strength. She had to assume she’d done this before and could do it now. She climbed as fast as she could, avoiding thinking about how high above the ground she was climbing, and what would happen if she fell; there was a padded mat beneath them, but it wasn’t going to stop her breaking a leg or her back. She reached the top long after the boys, and let the rope out to slide down letting her legs dangle. She went too fast and burned her hands on the way down. It was excruciating. She reached the bottom and looked up. She really had to do this another four times? She was exhausted. All the others were on their second climb already, a couple coming down again. She noticed that they kept their feet in the ropes when they came down too, to slow their descent.

Gritting her teeth, she started to climb again. Her burned hands were agony but she sucked it up and climbed. She came down more carefully second time and then wondered if she’d be able to climb again. Her shoulders were screaming, as were her red raw hands. She refused to be the weaker female and started again; every pull up was beyond painful and she had tears in her eyes with effort as she forced herself to keep climbing. She reached the top and her hands started to slide down the rope. They were bleeding and it was now too slippery to hold onto. She tried to slow her descent with her feet wrapped in the rope like the boys, and it worked a little, but she was now burning her ankle and shin sliding down too; she didn’t have it right. She moaned in pain as the rope slipped through her screaming burning palms. If she let go, she’d fall thirty or forty feet. She clung on as long as she could but her fingers refused to hold on to the source of such intense pain, and she felt herself falling. She was upside down briefly as her ankle caught in the rope, but then she was falling freely. How high was she? She braced herself to hit the ground.

The impact when it came was nothing like as bad as she’d anticipated. Master Kenve caught her, so instead of her head thwacking into the ground and breaking her neck, she just had her neck yanked hard and the discomfort of being grabbed around her body. He laid her on the ground and she gazed upwards in shock, having difficulty focusing on his face leaning over hers she was so stressed, her mind unable to process that she’d escaped death. As she lay still, she struggled to take in air, her body refusing to believe it was unharmed. She couldn’t breathe. She began to panic, not understanding why she couldn’t get any air inside her.

“Calm yourself, Azra,” said Master Kenve. “You’re not injured. Take a deep breath in and a long exhale.”

She heard him but she couldn’t control her desperate little gasps as she tried to suck in air through lungs that refused to obey her.

“BREATHE OUT!” he barked at her, now looking furious.

That didn’t calm her down in the slightest, her head was spinning and the world blackened around her.

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