"When I told you I was strong, and would not let someone break me, I didn't mean it as a challenge…" – Kat Church
I arrive at the Judgment House to find that I am the last one. I slink up to the other three, catching Beth's eye. She frowns and tilts her head to the side as if asking me what's wrong. I just shake my head seeing as how we are not allowed to speak unless spoken to by the Judges from this point on.
The four of us stand in a line facing a large, imposing desk where the Judges will be seated. I stand on the left of the line and to my right stands Anthony. Beside him is Beth and then Darren on the right end of the line.
Behind the four of us sit the parents and friends of the family. I can feel their excitement and it makes my stomach churn. I glance around silently, wondering if the two would-be assassins are in the room. Before I can think any further on it, a door on the far side of the room opens and men pour into the room. They stand tall with their shoulders back, hands on their swords. My eyes widen slightly as I take in the Warriors. I had not anticipated so many of them.
They march into the room and stand to either side of the large desk, their eyes hard. I count twelve of them and breathe a sigh of relief. Two assassins can't possibly take on twelve Warriors.
And then the Judges emerge and my heart stops dead in my chest.
The first to emerge is the Worker Judge. She glances at the four of us as she makes her way to her seat, her gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, her skin wrinkled and sagging. She looks like she has had a hard life and has loved every minute of it. She seats herself and folds her hands in front of her.
The next to emerge is the Traveler Judge. He is just as old as the Worker, but his shoulders do not stoop and his eyes are far kinder. He settles himself beside the Worker and folds his hands in front of him.
I throw a glance sideways and catch Anthony's eye. He smiles at me and I try to smile back.
The Hunter Judge steps forward, his face severe and hard. He looks at each of us before taking his seat and folding his hands in front of him.
The Healer Judge steps up next and she is, bar far, the kindest looking. Her gray hair is worn loose around her shoulders and she walks with a cane to her seat. Her lips quirk up in a smile as she looks at each of us before seating herself and folding her hands in front of her.
The last to emerge is the Warrior Judge and my eyes are riveted. He is just as old as the other Judges, but he's had lived the hardest life. Scars cross over his face and his hands and he carries a sword like all the other Warriors. His eyes are hard and calculating as he looks at each of us. He does not hide the fact that he is assessing us and he snorts before taking his seat, leaning back and folding his arms across his chest.
The break in the monotony startles me slightly.
"I am Dee," the Worker says, nodding her head.
"I am Caden," the Traveler rumbles.
"I am Legon," the Hunter says, glancing out at the audience. I glance over my shoulder and see my father nod.
"I am Karina," the Healer fairly sings.
"And I am Nial," the Warrior growls, glaring at each of us.
I know what is expected of us now and I start to shake. "I am Darren," I hear Darren say at the end of the line.
"Hello Darren," the Judges chorus.
"I am Elizabeth," Beth says softly.
"Hello Elizabeth," the Judges chorus.
"I am Anthony." I jump even though I had been expecting his voice right beside me.
"Hello Anthony," the Judges chorus.
I swallow hard. "I am Cindi," I say, my voice stronger than I anticipated.
"Hello Cindi," the Judges chorus.
And then it truly starts.
"We have looked over all of your documents that you submitted to us," Dee says.
"And we have taken great care to place you where you will fit the best," Caden continues.
"As well as taking great care to pair you with your best match," Legon speaks.
It seems they always talk this way, speaking in order. That's going to get old, fast. I zone out for a moment, thinking about what I had heard back at the willow tree.
It sounded like the assassins did not plan to kill the Judges at the actual Judging. But I knew that there was a celebration after the Judging and it would be only too easy to get a Judge alone. I felt a nudge to my side and looked up. Anthony shook his head and I blushed, trying to focus.
"We had some difficulties this year," Karina says. "There were those of you who would do well in multiple Paths and we took the greatest care in finding the one that was right for each of you."
"With that being said," Nial grunted. "Step forward Anthony."
Anthony swallows hard and takes a single step forward, out of formation. I can tell that he's nervous by his rigid stance and his clenched fists. I glance over at Beth and see that she looks rather pale.
"Anthony, we have reviewed your documentation and we have come to a decision. The Path that has been chosen for you was an easy one. Step forward to accept your gift and prepare to start your new life as a Healer." Dee says.
I can hear Anthony expel air and his shoulder visibly relax. He turns to Karina and steps toward her. She stands and holds out an old hand to him.
He takes her hand in his and she smiles kindly. "Welcome my brother," she says, giving his hand a squeeze before dropping his hand and reaching beneath the desk. She produces a staff made of dark wood, carved intricately. Gripping it in both of her hands, she holds it out to him.
Anthony takes the staff and dips his head respectfully, his grin in full evidence. He turns to face us and hold the staff up. "I am a Healer," he calls and the crowd cheers.
I can tell Beth wants to join them, but we must remain silent. Anthony returns to the line, gripping his staff tightly in his fingers. He looks ready to burst with happiness and I smile warmly at him.
"Step forward Elizabeth," Caden says. She takes in a deep breath and does as she is told.
"Elizabeth, we have reviewed your documentation and we have come to a decision. The Path that has been chosen for you was an easy one. Step forward to accept your gift and prepare to start your new life as a Traveler."
Elizabeth lets out a happy squeal, getting a reprimanding look from Nial. She barely notices as she rushes toward Caden. "Welcome my sister," he tells her. She takes his hand in hers and he smiles kindly before reaching beneath the desk to produce a cloak made of black silk. He passes it to her and she hugs it to her chest.
When she turns to face us, her eyes are large and full of tears. "I am a Traveler," she says bubbly, bouncing on the balls of her feet. The crowd cheers for her as she fairly runs to her place beside Anthony again. Unable to wait any longer, she throws the cloak around her shoulders.
There is hesitation next and the Judges all look at one another. Almost simultaneously, Darren and I peek at each other around Anthony and Beth, nerves written on both of our faces.
"Step forward Darren," Legon says. Darren takes a step forward, his head held high. "Darren, we have reviewed your documentations and we have come to a decision. The Path that has been chosen for you was a difficult one. Step forward to accept your gift and start your new life as…" Legon hesitates and shakes his head. "As a Warrior."
Darren stands frozen for a moment, as if he can't believe what he's just heard. Then he moves forward slowly to stand before Nial who is glaring at him heatedly. He does not offer his hand and the look he gives Darren is chilling. "If I had my way," he says loudly. "You would not have been placed as such. Do not disappoint us," he says darkly, reaching beneath his desk and producing a sword that glints dangerously.
Darren's cheeks turn bright red and he ducks his head as he takes the sword. His eyes are downcast when he turns around and I feel for him. "I am a Warrior," he says, moving across the room to stand in his spot.
The room is silent save for one woman clapping and whooping loudly. His mother. Damning the consequences, I stick my fingers in my mouth and whistle loudly, showing my support. Darren's head snaps up and he looks at me, confusion in his eyes.
"Cindi!" Karina admonishes. "This is your warning. Remain silent." I look up and nod once, but I can't help the shit-eating grin on my face. "Step forward Cindi," she says, shaking her head at me, her own lips twitching.
I take in a deep breath and do so, taking a single step forward. I am shaking where I stand, looking up at the Judges. "Cindi, we have reviewed your documentations and we have come to a decision. The Path that has been chosen for you was a tricky one. Step forward to accept your gift and start your new life as a Hunter."
I stand there for a moment, trying to wrap my head around it. A Hunter? Not a Warrior? I swallow hard and move forward, stopping before Legon. He smiles at me and holds out a hand. I take it and wince when he lifts an eyebrow at my obvious shaking.
"There now girly," Legon chuckles. "I don't bite."
"Legon," Nail hisses.
"Right, right, sorry," Legon grins. "Welcome my sister," he says giving my fingers a squeeze before reaching below the desk and producing a beautifully carved bow. He passes it to me and I nearly drop it.
I turn, not really even sure what expression is on my face. "I am a Hunter," I croak.
The crowd cheers.