The Maiden Warrior

By: Gema J. Gall

"Claire, go draw some water from the well outside of town," commanded Claire's mother.

"But mom it is the hottest part of the day," complained Claire.

"It wouldn't be if you'd get it in the morning," countered her mother.

"But mom, you know I hate getting the water," said Claire.

"If you want to be a shield maiden you have to be strong. And to get strong you need to fetch the water. Now go!" said Claire's mother.

Claire turned her back and rolled her eyes. Every time Claire did not want to do something her mother always reminded her of her dream to be a shield maiden. Then her mother could guilt Claire into doing anything.

A shield maiden was a warrior in training. Only girls were trained to fight. Fighting skills take a certain amount of discipline to learn, and also a lot of time. Girls reached maturity faster and therefore were the ideal candidates for training. Boys were to immature to learn these skills until it was to late. So they learned the basic skills that kept a village and homes running. But only promising young girls could become a shield maiden. Most rich people had paid to get their daughters to become shield maidens. Claire never liked this idea because her family did not have much money. It also seemed to be against the purpose of the training. Still Claire had hope. If a woman was a skilled fighter and fearless she would almost always become a shield maiden. Claire was already an expert at the bow and she was greatly improving with a short sword. When the trials came next year Claire would become a shield maiden, she just had too.

The trials were held once a year in the capital city, Elon. Girls hopeful of becoming shield maidens would travel from across the country to compete. Maiden warriors would be there too. A maiden warrior was a shield maiden who had completed her training and had proven herself worthy in the trials. Claire loved to watch the trials. She was fascinated by the skill and courage displayed, and next year she was going to compete. The trials this year were in a month, but Claire still needed one more year of training. Claire had made plans to see the trials with her family.

Soon young women would fight to become shield maidens. Shield maidens would fight to become maiden warriors. Maiden warriors would fight to see who would be on the Ruling Counsel for that year. Ultimately the land was ruled by Queen Jazzmira, but the Ruling Counsel were her advisors. The Ruling Counsel also decided which shield maiden each maiden warrior would train. Each maiden warrior had at least one shield maiden. The shield maiden would bear the maiden warrior's shield in battle, hence the name. The thinking behind this was that a maiden warrior would fight better to protect the untrained shield maiden. But unfortunately the maiden warriors that had bribed their way into the ranks treated their shield maidens like slaves. The number of wounded and killed shield maidens from the battlefield was higher than ever. That did not discourage Claire though.

"One day I am going to be a great maiden warrior. But first things first. Soon I will become a shield maiden," thought Claire. She grabbed the water bucket and left to the well. On her way to the front gate she saw her little sister playing with her doll in the front yard.

"Where ya going Claire?" asked Ellie, Claire's little sister.

"To get the water. I'll be right back," replied Claire.

"Don't be gone too long. You said you'd help me make a new dress for my doll," said Ellie.

"Don't worry," said Claire. Claire never understood how some of the village girls could almost hate their own siblings. Though she won't admit it, Claire really loved her little sister. It was just the three of them, their father died several years before. Claire's whole family was incredibly close.

Claire continued to the well. Their house was on the southern outskirts of the village and the well was on the northern end.

"I wish there was an easier way to get water," thought Claire as she head through the village. When she got to the well twenty minutes had passed since she left her house. She drew the water from the well and began to walk home.

On her way back to her house, Jarret, the blacksmith's son met her on the trail back to the village. He was running and breathing hard.

"Run, Claire! Come on, it is not safe!" he said between breaths. He began to pull her off of the trail and into the forest.

"What's happening Jarret? What's wrong?" asked Claire.

"Later. Climb this tree," he ordered. Claire quickly scrabbled up the branch, Jarret right behind her.

"Jarret what is going on?" Claire asked again. She had known Jarret since childhood. They were both close to the same age and had hung out together, even though he was a boy. He was always very serious and quiet. He never did anything rash. Something must be terribly wrong to cause him to act this way.

"Don't talk to loud," Jarret cautioned.

"What happened?" asked Claire, getting very annoyed. She had dropped her bucket and would have to fetch the water again.

"They showed up and made demands, impossible demands," said Jarret still in a bit of a daze, "when we could meet the demands they attacked. I ran..."

"Who made demands? Who attacked?" demanded Claire.

"The group of maiden warriors. They demanded money and more food then we could spare. They tried to force the grocer to give up his home to them for the night. We wouldn't, so they attacked. I ran," said Jarret.

"No one expects a man to be brave," said Claire, "but what happened to the village."

"I don't know," said Jarret. A thundering of hooves was heard. Claire peered through the foliage. Half a dozen maiden warriors were galloping away from the village. Their winged serpent crest worn proudly.

"They are leaving," said Claire, "I always knew it was a bad idea to let people bribe their way into the ranks. Those look like rich, spoiled aristocrats with a sword, not like a noble, hard-working maiden warrior."

"Don't underestimate them," cautioned Jarret, "they can still fight. They are still trained warriors."

"Let's go see if everything is okay in the village," suggested Claire.

"Do you smell that?" asked Jarret.

"Yes, it is smoke," said Claire, "but why?..." she trailed off.

"The village!" they both cried . They quickly hurried out of the tree. Claire looked north towards the village and saw a huge column of smoke rising out of the earth.

Claire and Jarret reached the village faster than they ever had. Several buildings were ablaze. The villagers were trying to put out the fires, or at least keep them from spreading to other houses. A rescue was in attempt to get a pregnant woman out through a window. Chaos was every where. Children were crying. People were running around frantically, looking for loved ones. Several of the healers were tending to the injured. The men were hauling water to extinguish the fire. The women were trying to bring order back. Jarret walked over and began talking to his older brother to find out what happened.

"They started the fire soon after I left," Jarret said soon after he returned to Claire, "The maiden warriors killed the grocer and injured several others..."

"What about my family?" interrupted Claire.

"I did not ask and I did not see them," responded Jarret.

"But what if.." began Claire. She ran through the village to her house.

"Wait! Claire it may be dangerous. Let's ask around," yelled Jarret but Claire was out of sight.

Claire reached her house, exhausted. What she saw broke her heart. Her house had been burned almost to the ground. A large blaze still continued along the back rooms.

"NO!" cried Claire. Her legs suddenly gave out on her and she collapsed, shaking badly. She did not get up, her mind had gone numb. That is where Jarret found her.

"I brought my older brother," said Jarret, "He can better explain what happened."

"After the grocer refused the maiden warriors demands," began Jarret's brother, "they picked someone out of the crowd and made the same demands. That person was your mother, Claire." He looked at Claire but she made no response. "When your mother refused they decided to make an example of her. They took her and locked her in your house. Then they lit it on fire. The grocer confronted them and said what they were doing was wrong. The maiden warrior leader killed him then, saying that men should learn some respect. They went crazy after that. They stole some of the town's best goods, then started more fires. That is when they left. We tried to help your mother, but we failed. I'm sorry Claire."

"And my sister," said Claire finally moving, "What happened to Ellie?"

"That is the worst part," said Jarret's brother, "The maiden warriors took your sister. They said she had too much potential to be raised in a backward town like this."

"She is still alive?" asked Claire. A look of vicious determination crossed her eyes.

"Those maiden warriors will pay for what they did," said Claire. With that she got up and began walking purposely towards the training field.

"What are you going to do?" asked Jarret.

"It is better you do not know," replied Claire.

"You are going to do something rash, I know it," said Jarret.

"It has to be done," said Claire, "I will save Ellie and avenge our town."

"You are going to get yourself killed!" exclaimed Jarret.

"I don't care. It is a risk worth taking," said Claire as they reached the training field. She began to go through the equipment choosing weapons and armor. She picked out a long hunting dagger, a bow and quiver of arrows, and a long sword. She grabbed some basic traveler's clothes. For armor she selected a pair of engraved armlets, a light chain mail coat, and a set of shin plates.

"What are you doing?" asked Jarret again.

"I can't tell you," replied Claire, "I need to travel light. No heavy weapons or armor. I'll carry minimum supplies." She began to pack a small knapsack with some cheese, bread, healing herbs, a blanket, some rope, and a canteen of water.

"Don't do this," cautioned Jarret, "It is suicide."

"Sorry, but I have to," said Claire as she saddled up her young horse, Midnight. "Good-bye Jarret." Claire turned her horse and galloped out of the town.

"Claire! Wait! Don't go!" Jarret called after her, but she was already gone.

Claire rode hard in pursuit of the maiden warriors. They had been very careless about hiding their trail, not expecting someone to pursue them so quickly. She trailed them down the road for most of the day. She did not even stop to eat. Late in the afternoon Claire came to a crossroads.

"Which way did they go?" Claire asked to herself. She bent down to study the tracks more carefully. There were trails leading both ways. Claire study the tracks for a long while.

"If my tracking and guessing skills are correct here's what I think happened, Midnight," Claire said to her horse, patting her on the neck, "Those maiden warriors came here and split into two groups, each going a different direction. Hmm. But only one group has Ellie. Which way did they take her?" Claire looked back at Midnight. Midnight pawed the ground and faced down the right fork.

"You think they took her to the right? Okay, it's as good a guess as mine," Claire said. She mounted Midnight and went down the right road at a fast trot. Eventually the rolling countryside changed to small hills and sparse pockets of trees. Claire could soon see a large forest in the distance.

"They went to Tzigane Forest. That's a very dangerous place. If Ellie gets hurt they are going to be in even more trouble," said Claire as she stopped to let Midnight drink. Claire bent down once again to study the tracks.

"Now this is odd," commented Claire, "There are more tracks here. It looks like the maiden warriors we are following have joined with another group of maiden warriors. I don't like this." Claire mounted Midnight and continued to ride after the maiden warriors and into Tzigane Forest. The sun was setting when Claire reached the forest.

"They have to set up camp soon," said Claire, "I'd better go in alone. I need to be quick and quiet. You wait here, Midnight." Claire tethered Midnight to a nearby tree where there was plenty of grass.

"Now don't fall asleep on me," said Claire, "I'm going to need you to make a fast escape." Midnight looked at Claire, chewing a mouth full of grass.

"I musta lost my mind," said Claire, "I'm in the middle of nowhere, on a suicidal task, and I'm talking to my horse. Great. Just great." Claire gathered her courage and started to move silently through the forest.

She followed the tracks to a small clearing. There Claire saw the maiden warriors camped out. There was two guards at one end. Three other maiden warriors were setting up tents and starting a fire. Claire crouched lower in the bushes. She looked closer at the maiden warriors. Three had the crest of a winged serpent, the crest of the maiden warriors that had taken Ellie. The other two had a wolf on their crest, they were the ones that joined later.

"Now what?" Claire asked herself, "I am definitely outnumbered, but they don't know I'm here. I also don't want to hurt anyone who wasn't involved, but if I have to I will. Above all Ellie cannot get hurt." Claire scanned the clearing again, looking for her little sister.

"D--- it," thought Claire, "I followed the wrong group. Now there is no telling how far away Ellie is. Still, those maiden warriors needed to be punished, they did kill mom." Thinking this brought fresh stabs of pain to Claire's heart. "I'll wait until night. Then...Then we shall see."

Claire slipped back to her horse, unnoticed. There she pulled out a small slice of cheese and some bread and ate. She realized how hungry she was. Claire quickly ate her meager meal. She put the rest in the saddlebag.

"There is no point in running on a full stomach," said Claire, "Besides, I didn't pack a lot so I'd better save some of the rations... Boy, I'm really losing it." The sun has long since set and the stars were beginning to show. Claire continued to rummage through the saddlebag. She pulled out her dagger, attached her sword to her waist, and made sure the quiver of arrows was firmly strapped on her back. She grabbed her bow in her right hand.

Taking a deep breath Claire started to head into Tzigane Forest. She moved silently and cautiously through the forest. She refused to be startled by the shifting dusk shadows. Claire went slowly knowing that silence was more important than speed. There was an owl flying silently overhead and the insects stopped their night chirping as Claire slipped by. She crept to the edge of the clearing and looked around.

Two different maiden warriors were standing guard and two more were talking around the campfire. Shuffling was heard in one of the tents and Claire assumed that the last maiden warrior was getting ready for bed.

"This is it. I have to do this," thought Claire as she crouched behind a tree. Her palms were sweating and she struggled to keep her breathing inaudible. Claire reached into her quiver and pulled out five arrows and set them on the ground in front of herself. She looked up again just to make sure none of the maiden warriors had noticed her presence. They hadn't. Claire picked up one arrow and rolled it between her fingers before fitting it into her bow.

"Aim accurately, shoot quickly," Claire cautioned herself, "Make your shot count and in the chaos run away." Claire cocked her bow and aimed into the camp. She choose the louder maiden warrior at the campfire, one wearing the winged serpent crest. She was the one Claire assumed to be the leader.

"One at the fire and two standing guard. They are the guilty ones and they are going to pay. I won't hurt the other two, I'll just concentrate on escaping," Claire thought as she psyched herself up. "What am I doing," said a small voice in the back of her mind, "This is suicide. You can't hope to win a fight against a maiden warrior."

"No. This is justice. You will win because you are fighting for your family," another part of her countered. Claire swallowed and tried to ignore the knot in her stomach. The forest around her had gone strangely quiet. Claire pulled back on her bow string, closed her left eye, aimed, and prepared to fire at the unsuspecting maiden warrior by the fire.

"You know if you keep both eyes open you can aim twice as well," said a voice from behind Claire. Claire tensed but managed to hold her arrow. She froze to afraid to turn around.

"This is it. My one chance and I blew it. I'm sorry mother," thought Claire as she braced herself for an attack.

Behind her she heard bushes moving. Another maiden warrior stepped in to the clearing, her back to Claire. The maiden warrior was tall, with long blonde flowing hair. She was on the thin side, but carried herself proudly. She had on the crest of the wolf.

"Oh no!" thought Claire, "She's going to tell the others. I'm going to die." Claire tried to swallow but her mouth had gone dry. She was to terrified to move, to afraid to even think rationally.

"Hey! The traps already caught something," said the new maiden warrior to the others. She threw two dead rabbits near the fire. "I reset the traps so we can have even more for breakfast tomorrow."

"Great, I am really sick of all this dried stuff," said the other maiden warrior with a wolf crest. The two began to skin the rabbits. The blonde maiden warrior never even looked back at Claire

Slowly Claire's mind started to register what was happening. "Can this be? I'm being shown mercy? Better not push my luck." Claire put her arrows away and began to head back to Midnight as silently as she had come.

When she reached the edge of the forest she was breathing hard and her hands were shaking.

"That was to close. I need to be more careful. But I won't waste my time with these people again. I need to find Ellie." Claire thought as she numbly unsaddled Midnight and curled up against a tree and went to sleep.

Early the next morning Claire woke and considered her next course of action.

"I need to find which way the other group of maiden warriors went," Thought Claire as she saddled Midnight. "They probably headed towards the nearest city. So, the nearest city on the other road is Drexel, so that is where I need to go. If I go along the western edge of the Tyzigane I should make up for the time I lost following this group." Claire mounted Midnight and started to travel east.

She traveled around the forest for three days until she came to the small village of Ashbury. She went into town to buy some basic supplies before continuing her trip to Drexel.

"I'll be wasting a lot of time if this turns out to be a wrong assumption," thought Claire, "I'd better be right. Either way I won't quit until mother is avenged and Ellie is safe." Claire continued to travel for most of the day. Close to early evening she came to a crossroads.

"Crap! Which way is Drexel again? D--- it! Maps were always my worst subject," thought Claire. She sat on Midnight and stared down each road for awhile, completely confused. Shortly, she heard the sound of several horses approaching.

"I should be able to ask these travelers for directions," thought Claire. She wielded Midnight around to face the new comers. Because of the sun she couldn't see their faces though.

A group of maiden warriors and their shield maidens pulled up along side of Claire. Claire gaped in horror as she recognized the winged serpent and wolf crest combination of the travelers. There were several more maiden warriors with them now and Claire recognized them as the other maiden warriors that had caused chaos in her village. Ellie was not with them.

"I'm dead," thought Claire, "They are going to kill me." Claire was hardly breathing. She had frozen and her palms were sweating. Her mouth had gone so dry she could not utter a sound.

"Hey you look lost," said a shield maiden with a wolf crest. Claire slowly nodded. She didn't trust herself to speak. She was a couple of hairs away from panicking. She gripped Midnight's reigns tighter and prepared to order Midnight into a gallop.

"I bet she is heading to Elon for the trials," said the blonde maiden warrior who had seen Claire in the forest. "She looks about the right age to compete. I'll bet you are going to try to become a shield maiden, right?" Claire gave no answer, just a hunted blank look.

"She must be crazy to be traveling alone," said a maiden warrior with a winged serpent crest.

"She can come with us," said another maiden warrior, "After all we are going to Elon too."

"That is a great idea," said the blonde maiden warrior, "Come on girl. If you stay with us you might make it to Elon in one piece." Claire stared at her in disbelief.

"Is she showing mercy on me again," thought Claire, "Is she just going to ignore what happened in the woods? Did she not tell anyone else what happened? Or is she the one who is crazy?"

"Do you think she is mute?" asked a shield maiden.

"No...I can talk," said Claire.

"Well that's good to hear," said the blonde maiden warrior. "Are you going to come with us, or are you crazy enough to go on alone?"

"I-I..." stammered Claire.

"Come on. We can give you a few tips before you compete in the trials," said a maiden warrior with a wolf crest. Claire still had a year of training before she'd be fully prepared to compete, although she didn't tell them this.

"Ah... Sure," said Claire. She moved Midnight into the procession. "At least this way I can keep an ear open for information about Ellie."

They started to move out, to the east and Elon.

"I can't wait to get into a real bed," commented a maiden warrior with a winged serpent crest.

"I agree. Sure there is a lot of honor in quests, but you sure do miss the comforts," another maiden warrior commented.

Claire stared at her in surprise. Quests were only given to the most deserving maiden warriors. A quest is was a group of maiden warriors would travel without their shield maidens to perform an important job for the queen or the church. They were often treacherous and many times a maiden warrior would get killed.

"Why would a group of maiden warriors with an honored task like that attack my village?" thought Claire. She did not have an answer to that question.

The group traveled at a leisurely pace for most of the day. The maiden warriors discussed their quest and the more experienced shield maidens excitedly chatted about their hopes for the upcoming tournament. A few of the younger shield maidens tried to carry a conversation with Claire, only to find it futile. Claire was lost in her thoughts and she eavesdropped on every conversation to find a word about Ellie, but she had no such luck.

"What am I doing? What game are these maiden warriors playing with me? Are they going to kill me or did the blonde one not tell them? What did they do with Ellie? Is she hurt? Where is she? Why do they want her? Why would such highly honored maiden warriors even attack a virtually defenseless village? Should I avenge my village and mother now? After they've shown mercy on me. But only the wolf crest have helped. The winged serpents deserve to be punished. But I can't pull it off. How far should I travel with these maiden warriors? How safe am I here versus on my own? What am I going to do?" Claire rolled these questions around and around in her mind, but did not find any answers.

Late in the evening, but still to early for anyone to consider setting up camp. The small procession was traveling through a large field. The grass was high and contained many thorn bushes. The group was forced to travel two by two.

The scout in the front raised her right hand, a silent command for the procession to stop. It did. The group began to look around and tensely reach for their weapons. Claire put her hand on her sword and scanned the underbrush. Nobody breathed, the whole group was full of tense anticipation. Nothing happened.

After a few minutes the group relaxed and started to travel again. The strain drained off of the faces of the women and they took their hands off of their weapons. Claire scanned the group, still gripping the hilt of her sword. She looked at the faces of the company. While most had relaxed the scout who had issued the warning was still grim faced and the blonde maiden warrior had not moved an inch. She was still very tense and had an iron grip on the hilt of her sword.

"Aaaiiyyyeee!!!" The brush around the party exploded. Several bandits sprung on the party. Claire's sword was drawn before she realized there was trouble. The maiden warriors, even though they were caught off guard, recovered quickly.

Two maiden warriors with winged serpent crest were double teaming the bandits that had charged the scouts. Together the four of the beat off their attackers and doubled back to help the others.

The shield maidens had formed a defensive formation around the two supply wagons. The shield maidens did not have any armor on, but because of their numbers, the bandits never broke through.

Claire wheeled Midnight around and cut down a bandit with a figure eight stroke. Everything Claire had trained for came back to her automatically. She used her feet to guide Midnight to the right, into a thorn bush. She didn't feel the pain. Claire slipped behind the bandits that were trying to attack the supply wagons and caught them from behind and completely off guard. Soon only a few bandits remained at the rear of the party. Claire urged Midnight forward and jumped the brush.

In the back the blonde maiden warrior was fighting alone. The three remaining bandits had her cornered against the back of the last supply wagon. She fought with expertise and before anyone could come to her aid one of the bandits fell, his horse bolted in panic. Claire quickly joined the battle and startled one of the bandits from behind. He lost control as his horse bolted and fell off in front of Midnight. Midnight shied, but Claire kept her under control. Midnight's front hooves came down, pinning the bandit to the ground. Probably, broke a few ribs in the process.

The blonde maiden warrior was fighting sword and sword with the last bandit. The bandit made a quick strike at her head, but she dodged it. The maiden warrior made a fake stroke left and caught the bandit in the right as he went to block it. The bandit was almost thrown off his horse, but managed to hold on. While still off balance the maiden warrior delivered a direct blow to finish unseating the bandit. He hit the ground with a loud thud and the fight was over. Claire looked around, breathing hard and barely believing what just happened.

"Is everyone okay?" asked some one from the front of the procession.

"Yeah, I think so. Everyone is okay back here," said the blonde maiden warrior looking around.

"We aren't so lucky," said a shield maiden from by the supply wagons. She pointed to another shield maiden who had been unhorsed. The girl was holding her side but the blood was beginning to seep through.

The maiden warriors worked together to clean up and tend to the injured. One wolf crested maiden warrior had taken a semi-major blow to the side and would need a good night's rest if she was to be able to ride the next day. The other injured was a shield maiden. She had taken a very serious blow to her stomach. The healer tended to her for almost an hour before she felt secure enough that the shield maiden would make it through the night. Only one bandit survived and that was the one that Midnight had pinned down.

Some disagreement followed about what to do with the remaining bandit. One of the winged serpent maiden warriors suggested just to let him die. Others suggested to treat him then turn him over to the authorities in the next town. What they finally decided to do was heal him and find out what he knew about the bandits and other attacks.

"They must be insane to take on such a large group of trained warriors," commented a wolf crest.

"Either that or desperate," replied the blonde maiden warrior. "They look half starved. Desperation drives people to do stupid things." The maiden warrior then walked off, lost in thought.

"So who is going to interrogate the prisoner?" asked the wolf crest as the blonde maiden warrior walked away.

"Channa is," said another wolf crest. Channa was one of the main leaders among the wolf crests.

"Did someone say my name?" asked Channa, joining in the conversation.

"We were just talking about the prisoner," commented a maiden warrior.

"Oh, yes. I was just going to question him now," said Channa.

"So soon after the attack?" asked a shield maiden, "Shouldn't you wait 'til he heals?"

"No," replied Channa with a hint of arrogance, "He'll be an easier target while he is still weak." With that Channa walked off to the tent where the prisoner was being held.

Claire watched her leave, disgusted. "She is not a real maiden warrior. She is one of those bratty aristocrats who have no idea what their responsibilities are. I pity that prisoner." Claire led Midnight to a tree and tethered her there. Then Claire walked off, trying to sort out the recent events.

She had walked a little ways and came to a small creek that ran through the meadow. Claire stopped there, enjoying the tranquillity. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to clear her head. When she opened her eyes and looked around she saw the blonde maiden warrior, soaking her feet in the creek. The maiden warrior looked back at her.

"You're a decent fighter. Have you ever officially competed?" the blonde maiden warrior asked Claire.

"Ah, no. I've never competed," replied Claire.

"Really? You must have some experience. You fight too well to be a complete rookie. And besides, no one would compete at Elon without some prior experience," said the maiden warrior.

"Um, no. I've never had any real experience outside of the practices at home," replied Claire. This brought back many painful memories. It also reminded Claire of her quest for revenge and the fact that the maiden warrior did not turn her in. Claire was still puzzled by her behavior.

"Then you must be a natural. But unfortunately no amount of raw talent will help you in the upcoming tournament. Your skills are coarse. I can teach you some finesse," responded the maiden warrior.

"Um, sure. I try not to refuse honest help," said Claire. She was still a little wary at the maiden warrior's bizarre behavior.

"First, hold your sword steadier. If it shifts in your hand you might end up hitting the enemy with the flat of the blade instead of the edge. Here, let me show you," the maiden warrior drew her sword.

"Come on, draw your weapon," demanded the maiden warrior. Claire did.

"Now watch. As you battle, no matter how tired you get, keep a firm grip on your weapon," the maiden warrior demonstrated this with a few strokes.

"Now you try," suggested the maiden warrior. Claire did and until the sun set the two of them practiced.

Claire and the maiden warrior returned to the camp exhausted. Claire was stiff and sore all over. She had spent most of the afternoon getting knocked around. The maiden warrior though, looked fine, like she had just come back from an evening stroll.

"I can't wait until I can fight like that," thought Claire, "Am I really going to try and become a shield maiden in two weeks? I am old enough, but I still have a year of training to go. But on the other hand, that maiden warrior can't tell. She thinks I am more than ready to compete. But you aren't here to compete," another voice chimed in, "You came to find Ellie and have revenge on those that destroyed your village. I know that. At the tournament there will be people from everywhere. Odds are Ellie will be there. And I can help her more if I am a shield maiden, not a nobody." That argument seemed to quiet all doubts in her mind.

Claire and the maiden warrior had just entered the camp when a maiden warrior with a snake crest ran up to the wolf crested warrior.

"You have to come, quickly," she said, gasping, "Problems...with the prisoner."

"What problems? Is he giving you trouble, Nikita?" the maiden warrior asked.

"No he's...He's dead. Someone slit his throat while the tent was empty," Nikita replied.

"What?! Impossible! Who would do such a thing?" demanded the maiden warrior, half shocked and half enraged.

"Don't know. The wolves want your input. They are meeting right now. I'm sure this girl can take care of your stuff," with that Nikita led the maiden warrior away. Claire watched them leave, glowering at the back of the serpent crest.

"How DARE she treat me like that. That arrogant witch! Another spoiled brat who doesn't deserve her honor. I am somehow going to figure a way to teach her humility," thought Claire. She stomped off towards the wolf crests' side of the campsite. She dumped the maiden warrior's things at her tent and went to find something to eat. She sat down near the fire and listen to the idle conversations that were going on around her.

"I can't believe that someone would just kill a prisoner in cold blood," commented a shield maiden.

"But didn't he deserve it? I mean after all, he was attacking travelers," asked another shield maiden.

"True, but he was weak and he was a prisoner. What kind of honor is there in that? The person who killed him won't even confess. That is very cowardly," replied the first shield maiden.

Claire rolled her eyes and turned back to her plate. It seemed that the maiden warriors weren't so great after all. They were beginning to confuse and frustrate Claire.

"I'm just going to find Ellie and return home. These people are ridiculous. Much worse they are either hypocrites or liars. They swore to uphold honor but are the most conniving people I've met. Even the boys at home weren't this bad," Claire thought as she ate absentmindedly. She didn't even notice when someone sat down next to her.

"Not again," that person muttered.

"Hhhm?" Claire said looking up from her plate. The blonde maiden warrior had sat down next to her.

"Not again," she repeated, "These acts of cruelty I'm hearing about more and more. I thought all the reports were over exaggerated. I never thought that I'd actually see this happen." She trailed off.

"What happened? What kind of reports?" asked Claire who was getting very confused.

"Oh, don't worry about it. It is not your concern," the maiden warrior replied. She got up and walked to her tent without eating anything. Claire watched her leave, her uneasiness continued to grow.

Claire got up and went to check on Midnight. She spent a lot of time grooming her horse, trying to sort out her thoughts. It didn't work. She returned to her tent and went to sleep. She had a dream but when she woke up it left her so fast she wondered if it had ever been there.

The group left early that morning. Claire rode out with them, wondering if she should go off on her own and look for Ellie.

"No," she told herself, "If I am going to find Ellie I need to find the maiden warriors that took her. Some of them are here. I stand a better chance of waiting for them to make a mistake and learning about Ellie that way. I'd be lost if I just roamed from town to town. Not to mention safety in numbers." Claire continued to travel with them, lost in her own thoughts. Occasionally a shield maiden would try and start a conversation with her, but she was to distracted.

The sun was high over head and Claire's eyes hurt from squinting. The day was just warm enough to make everyone sluggish, but not hot enough for anyone to get heat stroke. Claire rode on Midnight, her thoughts millions of miles away.

"Now what?" thought Claire, "Am I really going to compete? I've waited my whole life for this." The thought of becoming a shield maiden made Claire smile. "But what about Ellie? I have to find her. But I don't know where to begin looking. Maybe I'll hear something about her at the tournament. But then again, I might only want to go to the tournament to compete. If that is so I'm leaving Ellie in great danger. But she might not even be still alive." Claire shuddered at this hoping she was wrong. She pushed those dismal thoughts out of her mind.

"This is wrong," Claire thought, exasperated, "I should be competing next year with mother and Ellie watching. Not on a search for Ellie. Mother should be alive. I shouldn't be here, letting these maiden warriors think I'm something else." Claire rolled these thought around all afternoon. When the convoy stopped for the evening the blonde maiden warrior found Claire.

"Ready to practice some more?" she asked Claire. Claire was still sore from the beating she had taken yesterday, but her determination got the best of her. She agreed.

They walked away from the campsite. The maiden warrior drew her sword without a word. Claire did the same. They began their mock fight. Several strokes into it the maiden warrior could see that Claire was not focusing.

"Well if you're going to get worse after each practice we might as well not bother," said the maiden warrior sarcastically.

Perhaps it was the lethargic weather, or maybe the fact that Claire's thought were all in the same direction that Claire responded the way she did.

"I was just wondering why you didn't turn me in, back in the forest, that is," Claire said. The instant the words were out of her mouth Claire regretted them.

The maiden warrior gave her a strange look.

"Mostly a feeling in my gut," she replied, "But I'm sure you have a very good reason for wanting some of them dead. I've been hearing rumors that I hope are false." She looked Claire over. "So why were you after them?"

"Um," Claire murmured, not sure how she should answer.

"Don't worry. If I was going to turn you in I'd've done it along time ago," she said after seeing Claire's hesitation.

Claire took a deep breath and began to tell the maiden warrior her story. She didn't plan on telling her so much, but once Claire got started it was hard to stop. She told the maiden warrior everything. Once she was done she felt better than she had in ages. When Claire had finished the maiden warrior gave Claire a strange, unreadable look for a long moment.

"That's some story, kid," she said at last, "I probably wouldn't've believed you except you had to have some reason to try and attack a trained warrior. Either you're telling the truth or you're crazy. I'm guessing the first."

Claire said nothing. She was having second thoughts about how much information she had given. The maiden warrior looked her over again.

"It's getting late. We'd better head back," she said. They went back to the camp.

That night Claire tossed and turned before going to sleep. She dreamed that night. In her dream shadows reached out for her, trying to destroy her. She turned to get away from them and ran into a stone statue. Claire looked at the statue. It was made of white marble, but had a black streak down the middle. It looked like a human shape, but Claire couldn't make out any features. Then the shadows were on her. She struggled to get away. The statue pushed Claire away. Then the shadows swarmed over the statue they clawed and tore and the statue crumbled. Claire watched this happen, not fully understanding. She woke up shaking.

The group continued to travel towards Elon. Nothing exciting happened. If there were any bandits they must have had enough sense to stay hidden, because Claire saw nothing. Occasionally she would practice with the blonde maiden warrior. These practices occurred less frequently than Claire would have liked. She had made up her mind to compete. Claire poured most of her energy into these practices and was pleased with the results.

The maiden warrior's attitude towards her seemed to have changed almost unnoticeably. Claire felt like she was being watched but when she'd look up the maiden warrior would be preoccupied. Claire noticed that the maiden warrior would give her strange looks occasionally when they practiced. Also the maiden warrior seemed more distanced. Claire thought that she was just nervous about the tournament. Claire learned from one of the shield maidens that she was going to compete to be on the Ruling Counsel.

As a matter of fact everyone was acting weird as Elon drew closer. The shield maidens whispered in groups about the possibility of becoming a maiden warrior. Some of the older maiden warriors got a look of fierce determination that made Claire shudder. The blonde maiden warrior seemed to grow more distant. The leaders of the winged serpents got incredibly arrogant. Channa and Nikita, along with another winged serpent leader Laurel were making life unbearable for the younger trainees and Claire. Claire tried to avoid them, but in a group there size it was almost impossible.

"Now why did you that?" asked Laurel to a young wolf crest shield maiden as they were practicing. "That was a really stupid move. It would get you killed in a real battle." The shield maiden looked like she wanted to shove her sword down Laurel's throat. The other two were hassling a shield maiden who had just gotten unarmed.

Claire tried to keep her temper as she circled a winged serpent shield maiden that she was facing. They clashed a few times then the shield maiden disarmed Claire.

"That's real good, rookie," said Nikita, turning her attention to her new target. Claire pressed her lips together, determined no to say anything.

"Do you think she lost her tongue with her sword?" said Laurel, joining Nikita. Claire could feel her anger rising. Her face was bright red.

"Come here, Claire," said the blonde maiden warrior, coming to her rescue. "You should practice with the bow a little more." Claire picked up her sword and followed the maiden warrior, grateful for the escape.

"You know I'm best at bow," Claire said when they were out of hearing range, "but thanks for the escape."

"It never hurts to improve your strengths," the maiden warrior replied simply.

"What is their problem?" asked Claire, suddenly imagining filling those three maiden warriors with arrows like a pin cushion.

"I don't trust them," she replied. The maiden warrior looked back towards the practice field. Her face was a mask of disdain and distrust, but it was covered over by something unreadable.

"Well let's get to work. We'll be in Elon by tomorrow," she said. The finished the day stirring up small game and bringing it down.

The next day a cloud of tension fell on the group. Claire tried to think of the scenery so she wouldn't get sick. The shield maidens were jittery. The three winged serpent leaders were unbearable. The blonde maiden warrior was lost in her thoughts.

The sun was high over head when the blonde maiden warrior rode up next to Claire. Neither said anything. The rode side by side up the rest of the hill. When they reached the top Claire looked down and gasped.

"There she is. There's Elon," said the blonde maiden warrior.

That's all I have now, but there is more to come.