For more than a decade, Ivy Oliver has lived in a dark, crumbling orphanage where she was sent after her parents’ death. Her only hope for a life of simplicity and happiness is the trial, a test that frees her second form from where it’s been buried since her birth. That hope is dashed, however, when she transforms into a creature that rips her away from the only friends she’s ever had and ensures that her enemies are numerous. She is dragged unwillingly to a school that will discipline her in the ways of survival and defense. There, she makes both friend and foe. She discovers things she never knew about her past and her future. This tiny, insignificant girl is faced with a crushing destiny that might be too staggering for her to bear. She will have to abandon her shy, quiet demeanor and take on a fearless spirit if she wants to survive.
I awoke to darkness and silence, the cold biting at my nose and numbing my cheeks. I trembled under the thin blanket, the only thing I had to protect me from the bitter frost. I pulled it tighter against my small frame, but it was no use. If I wanted my body to warm up, I would have get out of bed.
Without stirring, I looked around the room. The eight other girls that shared it with me were sound asleep in their bunks. In the moon’s dim light, I could see the fog escaping from their mouths, like ghosts lingering in the air before disappearing into the coldness. To avoid making sound, I sat up slowly and slid my feet to the ground. I ignored the icy feel of the floor as I hurried to strike a match and set it against a candlewick for light.
The girl sleeping next to me shook in the cold. I tip-toed over to her, and laid my blanket across her body. Most of the girls were younger than me or new. I barely knew any of them, but the girl that I had laid the blanket over was the newest and the scrawniest. She would need the extra warmth more than any of the others.
I silently slipped to the chest at the end of my bed. It complained loudly as I lifted the rusted lid. I winced, afraid someone would wake up, but when no one stirred, I continued to pull out my warm winter clothes. I put on a long-sleeved, button up shirt, some worn out light brown trousers, a dark green jacket that had a few mysterious stains, two thick, leather boots, a pair of red gloves with several holes in the fingertips, and a woolen hat. I was grateful for the little bit of warmth that started to seep through my body, but I was still shivering with cold.
There was only one place in the orphanage that was warm enough to cut the sting on my cheeks, eyes, and the tip of my nose, and that was the kitchen.
Candle in hand, I crept to the door, shutting it softly behind me, and walked into a small, shabby sitting room. It was silent except for the haunting winds outside the shattered window. The only thing that let me know it was morning was the low coo of the winter dove, barely audible over the winds of a rising storm. I set a clipped pace toward the kitchens. Not surprisingly, it already had most of its staff up and working. I stood by one of the lit stoves. Just as I was starting to warm up, the head cook, Elna, stepped beside me, nearly scaring me to death. Her frazzled, gray hair stuck out in all directions.
“Good morning, Ivy!” she chirped, a wide smile spread across her face. Elna must have been in her late fifties, but she acted a lot younger than her years. It was one of the characteristics that made me love her so much. “I didn’t know you’d be up so soon, or I’d already have the hot chocolate made up for your birthday. As it is, it won’t be ready for a few more minutes.”
Hot chocolate was rare at the orphanage, but Elna had insisted on giving it to me every year after we met, which was almost four years ago. It had become a tradition, in a way.
“It’s really not necessary—” I started, but she cut me off by signaling to one of the kitchen maids and ordering her to bring the treat when it was ready. Then, not even acknowledging my protests, she turned back to me and asked quietly, “Are you nervous about your trial?”
I decided to abandon my argument. It was useless against Elna’s giving—but stubborn—heart. “Not yet,” I answered after a short moment.
She smiled at me as she lifted a lid off of a pot that sat on the stove. “When I had my trial, I was terrified. There were two other boys there that day… Unfortunately, I was the only one that managed to survive.”
I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to give that much away. It was forbidden for anyone under the age of seventeen to know anything about the trial, and both the talker and the listener could be imprisoned for such an offense.
Elna looked down at her creation and frowned. “Oh, I’ve burnt the porridge again.” The lid clattered onto the stove as she hurriedly stirred the goopy concoction, filling the air with a terrible smell.
I tried not to feel disappointed. The porridge was always burnt. Burnt or undercooked. I loved Elna, but her food was horrible. The other workers in our kitchens weren’t much better than her, but none of them knew what to prepare for when they were younger.
In all of the five kingdoms—Leviatha, Ginsey, Onwin, Pira, and Kislow—everybody is required to go to their region’s arena the week of their seventeenth birthday. By law, they are banned to enter the doors until then. For me, there are only two friends that are legitimate to watch my trial. Elna and Ayon.
Ayon is like my big brother. While he wasn’t an orphan, his mother was Madam Grant who was the main director of the orphan girls. Because of that, he was the only boy that was occasionally allowed to enter the girls’ side of the orphanage.
When it was Ayon’s turn to go into the arena, I had been devastated. I thought I would lose my best friend either to death or to an occupation that would take him away from Forlander. As it turned out, he changed into a horse and was therefore placed in the stables that his mother looked after.
It was hard to believe that I was the one going to the arena this time, the one that would discover what my second form was. My second form will determine what my occupation, and ultimately my life, will be like. If I had been a noblewoman, it would not matter as much. It doesn’t matter what nobles turn into because, in the end, they will always be a noble.
Long ago, the five kingdoms were ruled by a single young king, King Jaris, whose foolish decisions made him feared by his people. His second form was a dragon, and because he was a mighty beast, he thought that all other creatures were lesser than he. To make his power known, he changed the entire system of the government and replaced it with his own ideas, locking his people in a caste system that has stuck with them for as long as they can remember—that we can remember. Near the end of his life, King Jaris was overthrown, but his law is still inscribed on every courthouse, on every town sign, and on every school wall. Commoners must obey it, unless they have the favor of a nobleman.
Horses are always stable workers or carriage drivers and birds are tailors and seamstresses. Certain rodents, like Elna—a white mouse—are given the occupation of cooks and other kinds of servants. Furthermore, foxes and fierce birds are spies, canines and felines are soldiers, fish and other water creatures are sailors, and the list goes on. The poor can’t help but hate the system, and if we tried anything, the noblemen would have us arrested and probably flogged within an inch of our lives.
I can’t say that my life has been interesting thus far, but I can say that I am a good, law abiding citizen. Even though I don’t like the system, I will live with it. I have no choice but to live with it. Knowing this about myself, I can only hope that God will have mercy on me and grant me with a second form that will plow the path before me, like the men who spend every winter day shoveling snow off our roads.
The kitchen maid—the same one that Elna had given orders to earlier—interrupted my thoughts when she held a steaming mug of hot chocolate under my nose. “There you go, miss,” she said. No sooner than I had taken it from her hands, she hurried off to perform some other task that I had kept her from. A twinge of guilt settled in my stomach.
Elna had been thoroughly focused on spooning burnt bits of porridge out of her dish. She was mumbling to herself, but the words were too quiet for me to understand.
Since I didn’t want to disturb her, I snuck out of the kitchen through the door that led to the frozen world outside. I sheltered the drink from the sheets of snow and hastened to the stables where Ayon would be working. I entered and found him chipping the mud out of a horse’s hoof. He looked up and smiled. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”
“Morning,” I replied. I knew that he had already been up for an hour or more. “I brought you something.” I held out the hot chocolate for him to take.
He set down the horse’s hoof and walked over to me. “What’s this?” he asked, grasping the hot mug in his cold fingers.
“Hot chocolate. Elna gave it to me, but I thought that you could use warming up more than I could.”
He cupped his hands around it to warm them and took a small sip, handing it back to me. “Thank you.”
“How’s your morning been so far?” I asked, taking my first sip of the drink. It’s wonderful flavor rolled over my tongue and warmed me from the inside out.
He waved his hand around, gesturing to the run-down, drafty state of the barn. “As good as ever.”
I smiled pityingly at him, and sat on a stray chair that was placed next to a rickety table, taking another sip from the steaming mug. I had a few minutes to spare before I had to get back.
Ayon started working again. I watched silently as he finished with the mare’s hooves and moved on to brushing her coat. Dust flew off her back in clouds and she nickered happily.
As he brushed, he said, “You know, I haven’t forgotten your birthday. I’m just waiting for the celebration after your trial to give you the gift.”
Assuming that I live through the trial, I thought to myself. I hated that my birthday was on the trial day itself, which always fell on a Monday. Had it only waited one more day, I’d have another week before my time was up.
“You don’t have to give me anything,” I said, knowing how poor we all were. Gifts were rare in the orphanage, just about as much as hot chocolate.
“I know,” he told me. “But I wanted to.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but was silenced by the bell ringing in the distance. Time had flown by faster than I would have liked.
I looked at the big gray building, barely visible in the pale light and through the snow. “I’d better go,” I said. “My trial won’t be long after breakfast.”
He nodded to me. “Go ahead. I’ll be there, watching.” He continued to work on the mare as I left.
I tried to run in the knee-deep snow, but couldn’t manage to accelerate beyond a walking pace. Once I got to the stairs, I carefully climbed them. They were small and steep and the compacted snow didn’t help much. The covered porch finally offered my shoes a grip on the cement. I hastily opened the door to the main entrance and walked in, cold air billowing inside the small amount of time the door was ajar.
I heard a great deal of chatter coming from the girls’ dining room. That meant that I was late. Madam Grant would be harsh with me.
I peeked into the room and saw that Madam Grant was currently scolding a girl next to her, probably for her table manners. I tried to sneak to my seat at the end of the table. Unfortunately, Madam Grant noticed. “Ivy?! Where have you been?”
I grimaced. “At the stables, Ma’am,” I answered honestly.
The other girls averted their eyes, even the girl that I had laid the blanket over earlier.
Madam Grant’s sharp eyes pierced into me. “And would you mind telling me why you were at the stables? You most certainly don’t need a horse to get to the Arena of Trials.”
“I was, um…visiting a friend,” I said nervously.
She took in a deep breath, her mouth barely opening past a stern line. I knew the scolding was about to come. “Friendship is discouraged here, Ivy, especially with young men. You’ve known that since you could talk. We don’t even know if you’ll live through your trial yet.”
I lowered my head, my face feeling hot. Although I wanted to make it clear that Ayon and I were just friends, I knew not to argue with her. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered, hoping that she would move on.
She gave a curt nod. “Seeing as this is your last day here, I will let this slide. But mark my words; tardiness is not acceptable in the real world.”
I sat down, still tense, and began to force down my food. This was not only my last day, but my last meal before I had to get to the arena.
The custom for orphans and wards who are due for their trial is for them to pack up all their belongings, just in case they die. Then, their caretakers won’t have to bother with it. As for me, all my things were already in the trunk at the end of my bed. We orphan girls kept it that way, hoping, longing for the day that someone will take us in. Regrettably, no one in Forlander really had enough food to feed another mouth. Except for the noblewoman in the castle farther down the mountain…but we never saw or heard much from her. She already had a son and a daughter, and was too old to think about adopting anyway.
The breakfast porridge was bland and had the expected taste of ash. Some of the younger, newer girls had already turned their noses up to it and pushed their bowls away, but I had to keep my strength up. I forced it down.
Elna was perfect proof of how the kingdoms’ system didn’t work.
Once I had scavenged through the burnt bits to find any other edible morsels, Madam Grant noticed I was done and excused me by saying, “Go ahead and get ready for your trial. You should be at the arena in an hour to register.”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” I said for the third time.
I left the table, but I was already ready for the trial. I didn’t have anything that I had to bring. Perhaps Madam Grant was taking pity on me, if she had any pity in the first place. Maybe she thought that I wouldn’t survive. It was true that I was small and thin, but did I really seem that weak?
Because I had nothing to do but think, I decided to go to my favorite place to do it. It was all the way at the top of the stairs in the clock tower, where no one ever thinks to go anymore…except for me. I’m probably the only person who has ever thought of it as a place of comfort.
I started the long climb up the stairs, finding the exercise mildly enjoyable. I liked to feel my legs burning, because in the climate of our northernmost island, they never got warm. In the summer, the temperature only gets up to seventy degrees, and that’s just for three months. Then the temperature gradually drops back down until it’s below zero again.
The long stairway was very steep. The ugly peach colored paint was molding and peeling off the walls, littering the slightly damp wooden stairs with tiny light-colored specks and drywall.
Before the stairs ended, I was out of breath. There the clock was, same as always, rust eating through the devices and gears. The clock hasn’t been working for as long as I can remember. I found it quite ironic that the clock was stopped, because just like the clock, our village is stuck in a way of living until someone finally decides to fix it. The short hand was frozen between the eleven and the twelve, and the long hand was right above the nine. Eleven forty-six.
The only light came through a circular window at the other side of the room. I sat down on the ground and rested my back against the wall, watching out the window as heavy snowflakes fell.
Ever since I was a little girl—and whenever Madam Grant allowed any of us off the orphanage grounds—I’ve heard the village boys bragging to each other. They say things like, “I’m not afraid of my trial!” or “Monsters don’t scare me!”
Whoever the monsters are, nobody under seventeen knows. We may not even be fighting. At least, I hope not. From all the deaths, however, it’s probable.
Unlike those boys, I have had a hard time looking forward to the trial, and now here it is. It looms over me like a starving predator, and I’m forced to accept the fact that this could be the day I die.
I drew my knees up to my chest, staying that way for about fifteen minutes before I decided that it was time to leave. I wished that I could procrastinate, but I would get punished for being late. I walked all the way down the stairs—which was much easier than going up—and made my way out of the orphanage and into the blustery day. I could hardly see where I was going.
The harsh wind was merciless. The snow pelted my face in sheets. I shivered and draped my scarf over the bridge of my nose, but my eyes were defenseless against the frigid temperatures. They stung. Luckily for me, I knew the way to the arena by heart.
The arena, where people go in and may never come back out. It had happened to two girls at the orphanage last year. I count myself lucky that I hadn’t known them very well. I tended to keep to myself most of the time, and it rewarded me with the lack of tears.
But today, the tables were turned. I could be one of those girls, and how many would cry over me?
I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or anxious when I finally spotted the barely visible dome that surrounded the entire arena, protecting it from the weather. Nevertheless, I stepped across the magic threshold and instantly, the snow stopped blinding my vision. There was a large crowd already gathered around the entrances. As I walked toward them, I noticed that there were five participants. Me, two other girls, and two boys. I pushed through the crowd to get behind them. All the adults were gradually forming a different line—one that led into the stands.
The girl in front of me looked back, and sneered in disgust. She looked like she was born into a wealthy family. I was the opposite of that, and I hadn’t had the luxury of a bath for days. The other girl in line and one of the boys both looked like middle-class. The last boy, who stood in the front, appeared to be as poor as I was. When I peered closer, he looked kind of familiar. Then, I knew. He was one of the boys from the orphanage. I had seen him playing outside my window one day. That was as close as Madam Grant allowed us to be with each other, and even that was stretching the rules.
I kept glancing behind me to see if anyone else was coming, but apparently, I was the last one. It wasn’t unusual to have five participants. One week, there weren’t any participants. The most that was ever documented in Forlander was twelve, but only because it’s the only arena on the island.
After a little while, it was my turn to sign the form. I grabbed the feather with my right hand, dipped it into the inkwell, and signed my name. It was the color of blood.
The woman who sat there, bundled up in a dull woolen sweater and scarf, explained to me where to go and what to do. She didn’t even look at me as she spoke. She was too busy writing down something on a piece of parchment. “Your cell is number fourteen. It’s on the right. When it’s your turn, two guards will escort you to the center of the arena. Then, you may attempt your trial.”
I winced when she said ‘attempt’, but took a deep breath and continued to go where she had told me. The rooms were walled with stone, but the doors were made out of iron bars. A man stood outside of door number fourteen, and opened it when he saw me. The keys clanked against the metal.
I shivered. It felt like I was being put in jail. I stepped in reluctantly, and waited. I couldn’t hear anything that was happening in the arena. There was only the heavy breathing of the guard.
At about noontime, my stomach growled. I looked out at the guard who hadn’t even glanced at me for the duration of my stay.
“Do we get meals here?” I questioned hopefully.
“No,” he said, and continued being silent.
I sighed heavily, and rested my head back against the cold stone wall.
An hour after that, they came for me. “Ivy Oliver?” one of the guards, a woman, asked.
The man finally turned around and reached for the keys at his belt. They rattled against the metal again as the lock was disabled with a barely distinguishable click. I stepped out into the hallway and we advanced.
We weaved through dozens of rooms just like my own, further and further into the monstrous building. I looked over at the female guard. Her eyes were fierce and her jaw was set. She noticed me watching her, and she frowned further. She was only a little older than me. The trial was probably fresh in her memory. The older guard, a man, just looked bored.
I focused once again on the path ahead of me when we turned a corner and a blinding light shone at the end of the hallway. My eyes adjusted to it slowly.
A metal gate clattered as it opened upward, and the sound of my boots went from the click-clack of tile to the silence of perfectly trimmed, arena grass.