[Note: I’ve decided to take up writing about this Eldarai character again, mostly in vignettes like below. This is something I wrote about her a couple years ago.]

There’s something I learned when I was twelve years old– something I had been taught wrong my whole life.
My parents abandoned me when I was nine, leaving me to roam the whole land on my own. I lived off of berries, roots, and animals caught in hunters’ traps. It was then that I learned that I had to rely on myself. No one else fed me much less showed me where to get clean water. I bathed when I liked, and didn’t eat unless I found it, and I had no friends.
When I was eleven I met a boy who helped me– who protected me from boys who tortured me and kept me from getting water and food. He taught me many things, the most important being that there was some good in this world, and even that small friendship changed me, gave me hope.

But the RAES taught me that pain was not my enemy. I had run from pain and made it my enemy for the entirety of my short life.

But Pain was the greatest friend I would ever have again. For when your enemies’ greatest enemy is your friend, you have a powerful ally. Pain is the best teacher, the most intimate friend, the toughest of lovers.

The RAES took me from the streets of Daene. I didn’t want to come with them, despite their promises of food and shelter. Since I wouldn’t come with them willingly, they tied me up and kept me in a sack for the next untold weeks as we traveled to the Forest of Rangers– the Sablewood.

Upon arrival they bathed me, fed me, gave me new clothes. I wept. off and on for the first week. I couldn’t understand why they were so kind. After the hellish trip there, the kindness hurt.I couldn’t reconcile the two experiences, so I decided to reject the former for the sake of my new home.

Every morning I woke up to a bell, rushing to wash and dress before a breakfast was served. I was painfully grateful. This happened for the first month. Then training began.

I said I wanted to learn how to fight. I had seen too many bullies, felt their blows, to dismiss the idea that I wouldn’t have to fight in my life.

When I turned twelve, the athletic training turned into combat. They pitted me, still just a sack of bones and skin, against a fifteen year-old boy. He ground my face into the dirt, breaking my nose the first time we fought.

That was when my mother warden, a tall, grim woman named Malimae grabbed me by the hair, yanked my head back, and set the cartilage back in place with her bare fingers. Her hand now coated in the blood that soaked down into my shirt and tunic, she released my head only to take me by the shoulders. I was so scared that I stopped crying. Something in her eyes forced me to look into her, and I saw something in, a fell, black fury that terrified me and attracted me at the same time.

“That boy taught you a lesson just now. He is trying to break you, to teach you that you are weaker than him, less powerful than him, and most of all, that pain by his hand is something to be feared. He thinks that pain is his greatest weapon, that you will fear the pain and thereby fear him. But by this he shows what he believes has true power: pain. You will teach him that you fear no pain, that pain is your friend, not your enemy, and your ally will bring him under your dominion.”

With that she shoved me into the combat area against the boy once more. My eyes were streaming with water that diluted the blood that still trickled down my face.
With two quick blows he leveled me again, and I found myself staring up at the stormy sky that circled round my dazed head like a crown. It began to rain.
Pain is your friend, not your enemy. I was feeling pain, lots of it, but it was my friend.

I had always wanted a close friend.

I got up. The boy squinted at me, confused.

“You must want to die, little girl.” He lunged at me, and I dodged to the left of him. He halfway missed, grabbing hold of the back of my tunic, using all his weight against me.
Down I went again. I pushed up out of the dirt, starting to shiver, but I was done crying though my tailbone was on fire.

Pain is my friend. A close friend.

I got up again, pain coursing through my body. The boy didn’t come at me right away, confused at why I was still standing.

I had always wanted a close friend.

I charged toward the boy, boots skidding through the fast-growing mud. He sidestepped me, but my hands grabbed out at his stomach, and clenched his shirt. He shoved me away, and I fell into the mud. I came up again, but this time I flung the clod in my hand into his face. it missed his eyes but went into his open mouth.

I charged at him again, clawing and biting and kicking. I ripped his shirt and landed a kick into his shin before his hands got purchase on my slimy frame.  He shoved me to the ground, but this time he followed me, half by choice, half because I wouldn’t let go of him. He landed on top of me, sitting on my stomach, crushing the air out of my lungs. He punched me in the face, on the cheek, and again on the mouth. My teeth mated with my lips and made descendants of blood and skin that pushed out of my mouth, ran down into my throat, choking me.

Pain is my friend.

I closed my eyes, soaking in the pain, in the cold mud, the ice-rain, relishing each blow. Each blow meant that I was still alive, each panicky moment spent feeling that it would likely be my last, was a reminder that It wasn’t.
Stop.”  The voice boomed out. A punch that grazed off my face and onto my shoulder followed it just barely.

The boy’s suffocating weight was lifted off of me, and I felt a body join mine in the mud, but only for a second. Someone picked me up like I weighed nothing, but they didn’t carry me away to my bunk, the only place I wanted to be.

“Stand up.” I don’t know how, but I stood, everything on fire, shivering in the freezing cold rain. I had become a golem, covered with muck. Out of my swollen eyes I saw the boy struggling to his feet in the mud where he had been tossed by the mother warden.
“Look at him. Look how he struggles. He was tested, just as you were, to see what he would do against a hopelessly mismatched foe. The only difference between him and you is that he failed his test, and you passed yours.”

Pain is my friend… Not his.

I watched as pain became his volatile enemy. The Mother Warden reached out with a closed hand, and brushed his cheek with the gentleness of an angry bull ox. he sank down to the mud, mouth bleeding. Her boot kissed his chest, scooping up mud on the way, delivering it to his neck and chest.

He tried to rise, but she wouldn’t let him, coming down to him, shoving his face in the viscous glom.

“You attacked someone half your size, relished her relationship with the pain you caused her. But you forgot to become acquainted with pain yourself. You are no more than the company you keep, and you cannot expect to learn if you do not keep the company of pain. Do you like the company of pain now, Broda?” She sneered to the boy who was writhing in the mud, her boot planted on the place she on his diaphragm she’d kicked moments before. She pressed down harder and he let loose a scream, trying to shove her foot off of him, but with no success. The Mother Warden let him squirm a little more.

I watched her beat him, shivering, my arms wrapped around my diaphragm, body on fire, embraced by my new friend.


            Everyone knew about the games. The first week I spent with the RAES didn’t pass before one of my fellow “bunks” mentioned that she wanted to take part in it when she was old enough.

     When I was “taken in” by the RAES, they mixed their careful surveillance with sleep powder in my food before I would sleep, so I wouldn’t be able to run away during the nights. Though I never saw a manacle, the invisible chains they wrapped around me were stifling enough.

            This was the generosity of the RAES; they would take in every orphan they found, whether they wanted to or not. They claimed that they would be your “family”, and in some ways they grew to be one for many. But I never forgot the way they took me from my only friend in the world, without notice, and long after my fellow “recruits” gave away their anger at being abducted, I harbored a deep bitterness that lingers to this day.

            But their propaganda was endless; the RAES was to be my family, and the Games were part of their litany: “The family that plays together, stays together!”  amicably said in his speech one year at the advent of the Games. 

            Even the sleeping arrangements were part of the brain-scourging. Bunks, stacked three high were lined up in the women’s dormitories (I never saw the inside of the men’s bunkhouses). There was always a first year initiate on top, a 3rd year in the middle, and an older girl on the bottom.

            The older girls were there to keep an eye on things; that I figured out on the first night. But they were also there to become your “bunkers”- friends, confidants, and sometimes even sister like figures. It was an ingenious way to built loyalty to the RAES, and it worked.

            It was heart-wrenching for most girls when their ‘sisters’ would leave for the graduate bunkhouse, or even on rare occasion go directly on an assignment. Most of the time, that would be the last you ever saw of your older sister and mentor- and if you weren’t lucky, the last you heard of her, too.

            The Games were the last hurrah before you foraged into the world- of course, they had competitions for all ages and years, but none of them compared to the ultimate Game- the “game of survival”, as some jokingly called it. But that name was the closest in accuracy, for the Game tested you in all levels of learning: in combat, intelligence, stealth, wit, reflexive actions, resourcefulness- all the things that the RAES valued in their family. But the games were not for the faint of heart, no indeed. In fact, some in certain branches of study were banned from participating, perhaps because of the risk of death, but no one knew until the first day.