Chapter 2

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In the year 376 P.D. (5 years later)

She fidgeted, waiting for her name to be announced. The name she gave them, not the name she was given.

“Sam of Haywood!”

When she didn’t move, someone shoved her to the front. She’d have to remember she was Sam now, not Samantha. It would take some getting used to.

“William of Gwent!”

Sam craned her neck, trying to catch a proper glimpse of her opponent through the crowd. Despite the swarming mass of spectators and contenders, it didn’t take her long to find him: he was a big lad with a girth that bordered on fat, dressed in red and white, the colors of Gwent. His eyes were small and mean beneath a flop of brown hair and betrayed no sign of intelligence.

A cool gale of morning wind whipped against her cheeks. Sam shivered, but not with cold. Her whole body thrummed with excitement. Six long years it had taken her to get here, six years of predawn workouts and midnight street brawls and mysterious bruises and cuts she couldn’t explain. She was here, and it would all be worth it.

You’ll still have to lie, an inner voice whispered. This isn’t the end of your secrets; it’s the beginning.

Brushing the voice aside, Sam stepped out into the arena. Considering it had been constructed just a few days before the Trials—and it would be torn down soon after—the arena was an impressive affair. The field itself was unfettered apart from a low picketed fence to set the bounds of the fighting. Behind the fence stood a U-shaped amphitheater with enough rows to seat half the city—and it seemed half the city had been seated. The common folk filled out the lower rows and spilled out onto the field if they were too poor to afford a proper seat, while the prime seating went to the wealthy merchants and local aristocracy.

Like their audience, the trainee candidates were a mix of the poor and rich, distinguished by the quality of their clothes and armor. The Trials were open to any who wished to enter, regardless of wealth or status. No, not any, Sam amended. The Trials were not open to Lady Samantha. And so she’d become Sam of Haywood.

Setting her shoulders back, Sam strode further into the arena, her ill-fitting armor rattling with each stride. A few of the boys guffawed. They elbowed William in the ribs and she heard one say, “This one’ll be easy.”

She scowled. Let them laugh. William of Gwent might be twice her size, but she would still defeat him. He lumbered across the grassy field with all the grace of a drunken elephant. They hadn’t begun fighting, and already rings of sweat encircled his underarms. Lady Samantha would have primly wrinkled her nose at the odor of perspiration and rusting armor. But she was Sam of Haywood.

Five swords—not practice swords, but real metal blades of varying lengths and styles—had been laid out in the middle of the field for Sam and William to choose from. Sam tested the balance of each sword until she settled on one she liked, a wide blade with a cat’s head pommel. William chose the greatsword, a hefty, two-handed weapon that weighed nigh on two stone. She smirked. It was a powerful sword—if you knew how to use it.

A trumpet blared, loud and brassy. The officiating Paladin, clad in formal livery, a black fleur-de-lis emblazoned on his white mantle, stepped up to a high podium behind the wooden barrier. “Swords at the ready!” Sam and William raised their blades to the on-guard position. “You know the rules by now. First to draw blood will be declared the winner. If you lose, you’re out. Go home. Better luck next year. Are we clear?”

She nodded. The rules were harsh but fair; outside of the training yard, there were no second chances. Demons didn’t care if you had an off day or if you allowed yourself to be distracted; they would kill you regardless. Sam had encountered a demon once in her eighteen years, and she had nearly died for it. The Trials, in comparison, were lenient.

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