Chapter One(Picture of what Louanna looks like)
I catch the knife in my hand and blink.
The girl before me, Elizabeth I think she called herself, shakes the hand I had just sliced open at my face. I smile back at her, though I could still remember the grating of bones and metal, making her scream. I hide my shiver and step forward again. Her sweat dampened hair falls into her eyes, much as mine had done a few minutes ago. It’s obvious to the judges who watch that she is the stronger out of the two of us, and the faster, but I am still managing to hold my own. My throat closes at the smell of burning food coming from somewhere in the distance, my body has burnt off the last meal I ate.
I dive forward again, the knife clenched tightly, my eyes set on Elizabeth’s pulsing neck.
Elizabeth’s ready though, she brings her own knife up as soon as I’m in reach and drags in down the inside of my arm, the arm holding the knife.
I grunt and fall back, the wet liquid of my blood staining the blade that is already sliding out of my fingers. I try to catch it but it’s too late, the knife has fallen.
Now it’s Elizabeth’s turn to smile, her brown hair framing her face as she gives my arm a glance then turns to the judges.
There a two of them, a middle-aged man and woman, heads hanging down as they whisper to each other. The man smiles at what the woman says and looks up at Elizabeth, whose smile has grown larger the longer I stay down.
I try to pay attention, but my arm burns and I have to tear fabric off my pants and wrap it around my arm before I can look back up at them. The blood is already socking through the coarse white material, a sign that I’ll have to get help before I bleed out too much. I squeeze my eyes closed and listen to the blood pumping in my neck.
“Elizabeth,” the man who has been judging us says, “you have passed to the next level. As for Louanna, you will continue in White.”
I grit my teeth and stare at the white fabric around my arm. Another year as a White.
“Thank you, Judge,” Elizabeth says with a bow then walks to me and holds out her hand, “I’m sorry. We should get you to a nurse.”
I shuffle away from her and stand using my uninjured arm. “I can do it myself,” I hiss at her.
She stares at me for a few moments, her face paling. Then she turns and faces the judges, her back to me, as I wait behind her for the judges to give us leave to go. The midday sunlight dances over the distant trees and the people who rush around. There is dirt covering Elizabeth’s white pants and shirt but she won’t have to worry about getting the stains out, she won’t have to wear it again, she’ll be Brown tomorrow, living her life in brown clothes until she can raise herself to an even higher rank. Though she may not get any higher, considering how rare it is for Whites who have become Browns to even win. White’s don’t have enough training to beat those who trained their whole life to reach the king’s side.
“You may leave,” the woman at the judging panel says absently as she waves her hand in our direction. Elizabeth immediately turns away and prances toward the spectators who sit on the wooden planks that have been set up as temporary seats. There are only a few people watching, most people who come to this festival go and watch the good fighters, the fights that merit more than ten judges.
I walk in the opposite direction, toward the judges but that’s not where I’m going, I’m heading past there toward the tents that I will spend another year in. As my heart rate slows, knowing there is no excitement or celebrations for me this year, I remember the lessons our Matron, Hilda, had given me. It’s easier to get the stains out of the white if you wash it fast, she had always said as she’d scrubbed my clothes. She hadn’t washed my clothes in years, not since I had turned eight.
I glance over my shoulder to see Bess, another White, running through the crowd toward me. She towers over the other people, too tall for a fifteen year old. Even though we are the same age, she somehow has more than three feet on me.
“Did you win?” she puffs out when she finally catches up.
I cradle my injured arm over my chest and glance behind me. “Don’t worry. You have me for another year.” I don’t bother asking how her fight went because I know she would only shake her head and look down, ashamed. Bess had never cared to move up to Brown, and she wasn’t the only one. All White’s were forced to fight but many of them, either knowing they would lose or too scared, would not show and it was an easy victory for the other White. That was why I always showed, because one day my opponent wouldn’t show and I would be Brown.
I slip through the crowds and made toward a huge white tent to the back of the field, Bess plodding in my wake. The smell of fire smoke and of the farmer’s food makes my stomach growl but I continue on.
There would be food at the White Tent. Though it wouldn’t be enough for someone like me, who had just spent all their energy. The White Matron’s, when they had put there requests in for how much food they would need in a year, which they had done more than a hundred years ago, had been the amount of food needed for children. But as the White had introduced more young Whites in, less had left, most willingly choosing to stay White and barely any wanting to become Brown. Food was always running short, most of us had to hope that a farmer’s crop would be ruined and the farmer would have to give it to us because he couldn’t sell it. Most people called White a charity.
We walk past a stand where a man without his shirt on is cooking a whole pig. People line up and watch as he rolls the pig over the fire. I feel my mouth water as I watch, the pig and fire crackling in unison.
“Smell that,” Bess whispers into my ear from behind, she was also transfixed by the meat.
“What I wouldn’t do for a meal like that,” I say with a smile and glance at the man who spins the spit. His face was red from the heat of the fire and his bony back was covered in symbols and scars.
“Come on,” Bess says after a few moments of watching. “We better get back.”
I want to protest, to continue to smell the food and shiver at the heat, but Bess already has my uninjured arm in her hand. I let her drag me back into the centre of the pathway. We are jolted back every few steps but we continue toward the White tent. As we walk, I watched the other food stalls. “It all looks so fresh,” I whine at Bess like a child beginning their parents for food.
“And tasty,” Bess says, “but we can’t.”
“I don’t know why. Couldn’t we at least get money once a year?” But we’ve had this argument so many times that I don’t pay attention to what Bess will say. I scan the crowd and find myself watching as a huge man wearing silver armour holds a young man, maybe nineteen years old, but the shoulders. Other people have stopped to watch too as the huge man pushes the boy into the floor, his knee buried in the boy’s back.
I let myself wince and my legs stop moving, every part of me engrossed with the fight. I know the larger man in a Silver, a single rank under the king’s personal guard. I have never seen one before, they were never at these festivals, and if they were they would be up at the high, expensive end of the encampment. Even though anyone could go anywhere today, I had never dared go any further than the Brown’s fights, they were scary enough.
The young boy must have done something really bad to warrant a Silver chasing after him. I make sure my injured hand is behind my back, much like an animal wouldn’t want its predator to see it was weak, and step closer. Bess’s arm reaches for my shirt but I have already moved too far away and the gap between us is swallowed by people who have come to watch. With my small frame, much smaller then the bodies that have been toughened on farms, I manage to slip under arms until I am only a few metres away from the Silver and the boy.
The boy slams his fist into the side of the Sliver’s head. The Silver jerks backward, his neck cracking as the boy wriggles out from under him and kicks the Silver’s chest.
I wince and automatically step forward in repose. I want to route for the boy, whose is now determinedly standing with his fist raised in front of his face. The Silver has found his footing too and is now holding his bulging hands up.
The sun slides off the Silver’s armour as he throws his fist forward in a way that screams it could break ever bone it could connect with. The boy’s dark hair falls in his eyes as he ducks and spins around, landing a foot in the unprotected heel of the Silver. They both spin in time to face each other, circling and watching for a weakness. I keep my eyes on the fight even as people push into me from behind.
“Duck!” I shout as the Silver leans forward, his fist already balled and rising.
I swallow a hard lump and glance backward at Bess, whose head rises over the men and women around her. She wears a disappointed look, her hands beckoning for me to leave with her. Her eyes look frightened as they slide toward the way we had come. Then, locking back at me, she shouts something, but it’s lost in the roaring crowd. I shake my head, hoping she understands, and look back at the fight.
The boy has ducked, like I told him, and is now throwing his fists at the Silver, who catches them on his armoured arms. The Silver’s short brown hair is already glistening in sweat as the sun beats down on them. The boy, who wears only a greenish shirt and pants. The Silver pants and then his back straightens, almost unnoticeably.
“Look out! Silver’s going to punch!” I call to the back of the boy’s head.
The boy doesn’t even glance around, just ducks as the Silver’s fist misses and sails over his head with a force that would have left anyone unconscious.
The boy leaps forward and throughs a punch at the Silver’s face.
“Go for the neck!” I shout in exasperation. The boy’s fist has already connected and, like I had guessed, the Silver takes the blow as if it nothing had even come near him.
The next punch the boy does head for the neck. I smile to myself and lean forward in anticipation.
The punch connects and the Silver grunts, his face turning red as he tries to take in air.
“He’s getting tired!” I yell at the boy and find myself looking away as the Silver’s fist slams into the boy’s body.
There are a few angry calls from the crowd and I look back at the boy to see that he is now cradling his nose, blood pouring through his fingers. The Silver now smiles as he catches the boy’s hair with his left and hand and raises his fist with his right. The boy’s hands still hold his nose and I know, from experience, that he has no time to get the Silver off.
Without thinking, since my body has already been telling me that I’m on the boy’s team, I charge for the Silver. My left hand, the uninjured one, raises in a fist as I sprint to his unguarded back.
The Silver doesn’t notice as the boy’s eyes widen. He watches as I bring my fist down on the Silver’s neck in a move that would have knocked out any White and probably even a Brown.
The Silver slumps enough for the boy to rip his hair out of the man’s hold and move to my side, stepping away as the Silver stands up and glares at us both. Sweat trickles down his scared face and his eyes dance between us.
“Funny,” he mutters before running at me, his arm swinging wildly.
I push the boy’s shoulder just as the Silver hits my injured arm, making me squeak and push faster. “Come on, run!”
The boy glances over at me as we run forward, through the crowd. The farmers push and shove at us, either trying to get out of our way or trying to force us back into the fight. I catch Bess’ short hair in my peripheral vision but I don’t have time to stop.
“This way,” the boy pants. And even from behind, I can hear the blood in his mouth.
We race through the stalls as the boy leads me through paths. The smell of food hits me as we run past another pig spit but this time my stomach does not claw at me. My body is too full of adrenalin to even think about food. I let the beating in my head be the rhythm in my feet as we dash past the daunting colours. The colours are brighter here, as if we have moved further away from the White area and closer to the higher levels.
“Okay. We can stop,” the boy says as he dips under a bright orange drape that is hanging over a makeshift table.
I follow, but stay quiet until my breathing evens out. “Why was he chasing you?” was the first thing that I could think of asking.
“I don’t know,” the boy said as his eyes skirted around, not looking at me.
I frown at him but don’t pull him up on the obvious lie. I look down at my arm, which has begun bleeding more profusely than when it had first been cut.
“What happened?” he asks with relief, changing the topic.
I grab the fabric from the bottom of the pants and rip some more off. It was time for me to get new clothes, so it didn’t matter if I ruined these. I held the fabric and gingerly winced as the old fabric ripped away from the adhesive blood that had dried. The side of my cheek begins to bleed as I pull it further and further off. The blood drips on the floor before I have a chance of wrapping it up. In the end I let it drip. When the new bandage is securely in place, I release my cheek.
I look back at the boy and watch as he fingers his nose and winces when he pokes it too hard. His hair has been windswept, but his hair it still falls back into his eyes with sudden movements. I pass him some of the clean materiel that hadn’t gotten blood on it that came from my old bandage. He nods and takes it from me, dabbing his nose with it.
My neck screams as I continue to keep it bent to fit under the table. The adrenalin was slowing burning off and I can feel my body shaking. My breathing begins to glitch as I remember the first time I had had a fight with a White. I had been six and the other White had been much older. The fight had been broken up but when I had gone to sleep that night, the White had put me in a box and locked it. It had taken hours for them to get me out and I had never seen the White afterwards, though I had spent months plotting how to get back at her.
I rolled my hands into fists and gave the boy a smile.
“What’s your name?” the boy asks after a few moments of silence.
“I don’t want my name on attacking a Sliver,” I say bluntly and pick up the orange fabric to see outside.
I look left and right, watching for a few moments but the Silver doesn’t come charging down the pathway, not that I had expected him to.
“Then you should probably leave,” he says absently as he looks at the path, his shoulder touching mine as we try to squeeze out.
“That’s what I’m going to do.”
“Run. Try to catch up with your friend,” he says before I can say anything he is disappearing through the sheets of bright fabric.
I stand, but instead of following him, I start the way I came, looking around the corner before running down the pathways. I don’t know the way to the White tent, but as I run down the small spaces between the tents, I find myself getting deeper into the dirtier areas of the festival. Colourful fabrics turn into the smoke smeared browns and greys of the poorer farmers. I look up instead of down as I walk, looking for the top of the White Tent.
I don’t understand why I had done it, routed for the boy when the Silver was probably the one in the right. What would Bess think when I got to the White tent? Would she pretend it hadn’t happened?
As soon as I pass under a once white but now brown cloth that shades the front of a stall, I catch sight of the top of the White Tent. I don’t sigh in relief, though my feet had started hurting a while ago, I just kept walking toward the pure colour. I glance over my shoulder to check for the Silver, or any Silver, but the only people around are the poorest in the country. I notice a few Whites, some sweating and bearing injuries, a normal sign that calms me slightly. I won’t be the only person returning to the White tent this year. More than half of them have been sent back, but very few of them are older than me.
I pick up my pace as the sun lowers over the trees, I am only a little ways away from the White tent. All Whites have to be there by dinner if they want to eat. All the other people, the farmers and the higher ranks, will be up celebrating till tomorrow. It’s a two day celebration, and tomorrow will be the Blue’s fights, though today will be the what the lower end calls ‘the last day’ because only the higher ranks have enough money to celebrate for more than one day. Blue fights are always the most popular, and they are the only fights Whites are encouraged to watch.
I catch the flap of the White tent and give Hilda a nod as I slip into the huge room. There are many Whites, sitting and talking in the dining room, huge wooden tables spread over the red sand of the desert, but I immediately head for a backroom, the kitchen.
“Bess,” I yell over the clattering as soon as I make her out through the steam from the food. My stomach growls but I ignore it. She sees me and nods, though she makes no move to leave her cooking.
I walk past her and head to Maeve. Maeve is one of the only Whites who is old enough to have married and left. She’s also the only White I know who can find me something to relieve the pain.
“I’m not going to help if you continue to ruin your clothes,” Maeve says as soon as she catches sight of my arm.
I step closer and wrap my good arm around her in a hug. “Maeve, I can’t walk around all day with a blood trail.”
“But it wastes the clothes that any of the younger Whites could have worn,” Maeve says with a sigh before stepping away from the vegetables she had been cutting and toward the bench which I had only ever seen her medical items on, most people came for her help so it was widely known that this was ‘Maeve’s Bench.’ She pulls out a brown woven bag and digs through it as I sit in the dry red sand that has become solid from years of been walked on.
“It doesn't hurt anymore,” I say, anticipating the question she always asks. She smiles up at me, her black hair sliding back to show the scars she has accumulated over the years. I used to think we were the same person, we’d both sit up and talk about becoming Brown. We’d practice together almost every day. But after she had turned eighteen, she had been removed from all contests and now found satisfaction in helping others become Brown.
Though, I knew, deep down, she wanted to be back out there, fighting. Becoming a Brown.
“You know,” she says as she pours something on my arm. I wince as it seeps into the knife wound, making my arm numb. “I used to think being higher than White would give me a better life,” she says absently, “but now I’m this old, I know I would have a better chance of marriage if I had been Brown. You have to win next year, you have to get a life, get married to someone who can take care of you.” Maeve gave me a smile before grabbing a bandage out of the bag.
“I don’t want to get married. I want to be a guard,” I say. The bandage soothes the sting of the syrup she had poured on. I let my eyes wonder, looking at all the girls who rushed around the kitchen. It was probably a good job to have been given, better than mine. The girls were all young, younger than even Bess, Maeve was the oldest White I had ever met. I watch the floor as Maeve continues to tighten the bandage.
“But that’s the problem, Lou, they don’t let girls go higher than Red. It’s for men, guarding, we’re here to do the other things,” Maeve tells me before standing and walking back to the vegetables. Red. I immediately flip through the list that it always somewhere in my mind. White, Brown, Red, Blue, Silver, Black, and then the King.
I look around the room again, my throat constricted, and wonder how many of the girls in here planned on becoming Black like I had. How many had dreamed of becoming a guard? But I trusted Maeve, and that was probably only because she, like me, had dreamed of becoming Black. So why was she now telling me no? And how had she learned that?