Left, right, left, double thrust, down echoed in Neala’s ears. Sweat beaded down the back of her slender neck like summer rain. Her arms burned with each swing of the oaken staff. Neala tucked into a roll, avoiding the swing of her opponents staff and changing sides with her sparring partner. Neala wiped away the droplets on her forehead that clung to her hair that resembled tree bark. She had braided it early that morning in preparation for the dawn training session, but it still managed to come loose around her temples. Neala’s partner, Kylea, raised her own staff, pocked with small cuts from many years of training. Kylea was only two years older than Neala, but was already a ranking officer from the Academy. Neala bristled, as she faced her age old friend, in anticipation of what the spar would determine.
Kylea rose from her crouch with a piercing hawklike cry of a whistle. The other fourteen groups of young women froze and rose into an attentive stance. A low breeze remained as the lone sound as their training area, a large flat field, and the only one embedded within miles of their forest. Kylea began to pace around each group, examining any cuts or bruises received during the lessons. Her long auburn braids swayed with each step. Neala admired the long tendrils of woven grass among her hair that held it away from her lean face. Coils of ivy curled its way through her braided locks. Her eyes shone as glittering green gems while she glanced over each pupil in turn. The triple striped woven sash of Keeper she wore over one shoulder, with only one higher rank available to our tribe, made each student pause in admiration. Neala’s gaze followed her movements that shown the hinting grace of a warrior and made her way back to their own sparing circle. Neala met Kylea’s eyes, which led to a displeasing look from her officer. Stars danced across her vision and the hint of blood tasted in her mouth. She shook her head, which was now on the ground. The stars cleared to reveal Kylea with her fist balled and flush from the hit.
Neala made no sound as she picked herself up from the grassy floor and resumed her pose, her eyes now ahead. She was not angry.
“You know better, Neala. Do not look an officer in the eyes unless you wish to challenge their rank,” she announced. Kylea and stepped away to face the others. “Today, my pupils, is the day you will challenge me however. You will face me one on one and earn the rank of Sentinel.”
A few of the other woman stiffened in anticipation. It was a celebrated honor and a symbol of adulthood among their people. To fight in the Great War and to aid the society was their duty; it was the duty of a Dryad.
And Neala, had failed this test for three straight years, possibly four years, but she would know this soon. Though, this was not due to her lack of skill as a fighter, or the lack of knowledge. Neala would succeed today. She would be the best fighter among this group and this had been the case in previous years. However, the problem always came at the base of the Great Tree, Yggdrasill. This was the sacred tree, the Tree of Life, to the Dryad women. One of its abilities was to glow in the presence of a pure soul, one that has no qualms within their life, no secrets to hide. Every year that Neala tried to approach the tree, it would never brighten with the pale light of the moon. This placed her in great shame.
Neala came back to her senses to find Kylea facing her with staff poised and ready. The fight had begun; Neala had to prepare herself before she received another bruise on her cheek. She wiped at the flecks of blood on her lip and crouched to mimic Kylea. They bore into each other and in one heartbeat the fight was unleashed.
Neala sat on the lanky maple stool with her chin resting on her hand and her arm propped on the sturdy matching table. Her eyes trailed the lines in the grain and it reminded her of the rivers in the mountains to the north. There cool crisp waters always rejuvenated her and Kylea when they use to go visit them in the Spring. They would lay on the large boulders that surround the cascading streams and watch the mortal men’s machines soar in the clouds. She thought they were called Aeroplanes, but she was not sure. Neala knew they flew to the large rock and glass cities, but the Dryad were forbidden to enter those domains. Last time they had been there was over four years ago, which now felt like a life time ago. Her gaze returned to Kylea and the bowl of steaming water she carried to the table. A small cloth of thin meshed fibers swayed in the bowl and grew darker with each second. She set the bowl on the table and stared at Neala with unwavering eyes.
“You don’t think you will make it tomorrow,” Kylea said. Each word biting of at the end as she wrung out the cloth. It was not a question, but a cold fact and Neala already knew that she would fail the Academy yet again.
“If you fail again, you know what will happen,” Kylea stated and applied the cloth to Neala’s cheek to dab away the splatters of blood.
Neala knew all too well what it would mean, that no one in over half a millennium had failed four times. A boundless shame would befall her, and she could be branded an outcast among her people. She did not hate the Academy for this or her people. Neala knew that it was her own doing, her own secret that would be her most beloved joy and her greatest downfall.
This secret would her death.