The Red Tent

At the entrance to the red tent, the blonde hunter dropped her hand from my back. “Don’t be afraid.”

I wanted to snort at her. What kind of advice was that? Might as well tell me not to breathe. Tweeners died in these trials and I didn’t want to die. Couldn’t afford to die, I reminded myself. No leaving Ma alone.

She lifted the panel of fabric that covered the entrance and gestured for me to go inside.

My mouth was dry and my hand tightened on the water bottle I still held. I should tie it to my belt, the way Martine had, so I didn’t lose it. So I had my hands free in case I needed them. In case something jumped me the second I went inside.

“Go on.” The hunter nodded at the dark space beyond the opening.

Why was it so dark in there? The blue tent had been nice and bright. The red tent wasn’t a bright red, but a deep maroon color. Was it woven more closely or of a denser material? I eyed the fabric as I fastened the water bottle and the bag to my belt. It looked just as silky and light as the other tent. But I couldn’t see a foot past the opening.

The hunter waited patiently while I fumbled with the items Martine had given me, but now she tried again. “You’ll be fine. Go on in.”

I lifted my chin. I wasn’t sure she and I thought about fine the same way. Fine would be me heading home for lunch, thinking about how I could stretch the soup we had on the fire for another three or four meals and hoping Ma had gotten out of bed. She didn’t always and she hadn’t before I left in the morning. I’d called into her room to say “good-bye” and she’d murmured something in response, but I wasn’t sure she even remembered that today was the trials. Sometimes she forgot things.

But I wasn’t minded to argue with the hunter. I gave her a brusque nod and stepped into the tent. She let the panel drop behind me.

I was right, it was too dark inside. Too dark and too quiet. The sounds from the crowd outside—vendors calling, musicians playing, the hustle and bustle of people going about their business—dropped away like night had somehow fallen all at once.

I took two quick steps to the side and froze, listening as hard as I could. I couldn’t hear a thing, not a blame thing, but somehow I knew that there was life inside the tent with me. Lots of life. I could feel it in the air, wafts of movement as if the darkness held dancers, spinning around a floor above me.

But that made no sense.

Wings, I realized, when the air stilled. The life had been in flight. There were birds in the room. Well, or bazkide. Obviously bazkide.

I swallowed. I let my hand skim the surface of the water bottle, seeking some kind of reassurance. Martine had been through the trials twice before, although I didn’t know how far she’d gotten, and she’d thought I would need it, so nothing bad was going to happen to me right now, not this soon, anyway. And I was just supposed to wait here.

Maybe it was dark because they didn’t expect me? Maybe the lights would come on if they knew that I was supposed to be here?

“I’m here for the trials,” I called out. My voice sounded small and thin in the darkness. It annoyed me, so I took a deep breath and used a louder, stronger voice when I added, “I know I’m early but that ain’t my fault. Samuel told me to come here and wait.”

I waited.

Slowly, a cool grey light, sorta like the light of very, very early morning, began to fill the tent.

My mouth dropped open and I pulled it close right quick. I was in a forest. A serious forest with trees reaching way above my head, trunks as wide around as two of me. That just wasn’t possible. I’d walked into the tent and it was half the size, if that, of the blue gray tent. The ceiling couldn’t be more than ten feet high and no way would these trees fit inside it.

Illusion, I realized. I was walking in an illusion.

Well, that was interesting. And kind of cool. I knew the bazkide were magic, of course. But I’d never seen magic in action before, not really. People would say spells and charms, little ones, but who knew if they actually did anything? Our next-door neighbor, Billy Mackey, always said a charm when he lit his fire, swore by it. But he still used a fire-starter to do the actual lighting. Not like the charm worked without the spark.

I felt rather than heard words. Find what does not belong.

That doesn’t describe it right. The words—it was like I’d overheard something from another room, words that were distant but still real. I didn’t imagine them and I knew I didn’t imagine them. They weren’t just in my head. They were outside me, but they weren’t a sound, they were… well, more like a breeze. A motion in the air that had meaning. It was weird, but not weirder than giant trees in a tent.

I didn’t move from where I was, still two steps away from the panel covering the door, but I let my eyes survey everything I could see. Find what doesn’t belong, huh? I didn’t know much about forests. I was a city girl, lived inside the walls all my life. I’d seen pictures, but how was I supposed to know what was right and what was wrong in a totally unfamiliar environment?

It looked pretty cool, though. The cool light was turning more golden, as if the sun was actually rising, and it was angling through the leaves the right way, as if the light had density of its own.

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