Ania crouched, huddled under the low hedge. The bristly needles caught her hair, and the small blue-white pebble-berries that had already fallen burst under the palms of her hands. She heard the soft footfalls on the turf a few feet off, and she slowed her breathing and relaxed the muscles in her body, trying not to make a sound.
When the shadow attached to the footfalls was close enough, she braced her feet against the stout wooden trunk of the hedge, and leapt out in a shower of green needles to tackle the grown man on the foot path.
They both tumbled to the earth in a tangle of limbs and cloth. Ania’s father, Daninite, landed on his back with an “Oof!” and tried in vain to get back onto his feet while Ania wrapped her arms around his legs, giggling with all the fervor of her eleven year old self.
Ania heard a high whistle, and moments later she felt large paws on her back, and a long moist tongue was gluing the leftover pine needles to her hair. She let go of her father’s legs, and tried to turn around to face the panting muzzle of Nama, the not-so-little puppy that was determined to lick the back of her head off.
But as soon as she let go of her father’s shins, he scrambled to his feet and turned the tables, hoisting her into the air with his long arms wrapped around her middle. Ania squirmed and laughed, trying to get free, but Daninite started tickling her ribs, and she nearly fell out of his arms. He pinned her arms to her side, laughing with her as she tried to wriggle out of his strong grip.
Eventually, Ania ran out of breath, gasping for air as her flailing limbs came to rest. “Fine. You win,” she muttered.
When she had stopped squirming, Daninite set her down. He knelt down in front of her, the edges of his long overcoat brushing the tops of the grass. He started brushing the dirt and needles from her cloths, and said, “You know your lesson was supposed to start a quarter-mark ago, don’t you?” His perpetually twinkling eyes looked up through raised eyebrows at her.
She smirked. “Of course I know, Da. Why do you think I was out here waiting for you?” Before he could say anything, she pointed at the side of the red rock wall on the east side of the house. “You always eat in the downstairs parlor, so if I’m late, you always come through that door. You always follow this path,” she said, pointing at the neatly cobbled pathway beneath their feet, “and you always stop right here, because you can see the entire lawn from here.” Ania smiled broadly. "'Know your opponent's motions better than he knows them himself.' The Art of Victory, chapter sixteen."
Daninite laughed, a deep-throated rumble. He reached up and ruffled her short, dark hair, shaking loose some of the burr-like hedge needles from their perch. "That was the assignment I gave you last night. You read it already?"
"I read it last week and you know it."
The petulant look on Ania's eleven-year-old face melted off as her father laughed again, and said, "What I know is that you really only used chapter sixteen as an excuse to stay outside a little longer."
Ania glanced sheepishly down at her feet. No matter what excuse she used, it was almost impossible to fool him. She noticed a small smudge of dirt on the toe of her boot. She tried to brush it off with the tip of the other. She avoided looking at her da. I hope he isn't upset with me... She bit her lip as she saw one of his hands come into view.
Daninite put his hand under her chin, and tilted her gaze up to meet his. A gentle smile curved his lips. "Ania, you're one of the smartest people I know. And that's saying a lot. I know you love being out here, and excuse or not, you've proven that you understand chapter sixteen, and so..." He stood, and knocked the last few needles from her hair. "I don't think we need to have a lesson on something you already know. Why don't you show me some of your knife tricks?"
Ania flung her arms around his waist, burying her face in his overcoat. Backing up, she grabbed his hand and started pulling her da towards one of the larger oak trees along the border of the yard. She got to one with a massive knot in it, and several deep stab marks clustered around the twisted bark, and stopped about twenty feet away from it. She pushed her da back a few steps so he was out of her way, and said, "By the way, Da—they aren't tricks. Don't you pay attention?"
She flicked her wrist, and the butts of her daggers slapped into her palm. She flipped them up into the air, tossing them from hand to hand behind her back, her eyes switching between each of the dancing blades as quickly as the wings of a hummingbird. Left to right, underhand, overhand, behind the back, add a spin, and... Ania's hands blurred, and she threw the knives at the tree trunk with the force of a crossbow bolt. She pulled another pair of daggers from the tops of her leather boots, and sent them to stick only seconds after the first had thudded to a stop.
Ania smiled. The knives had landed exactly where she wanted them too—four knives exactly the same distance away from each other, surrounding the knot in the oak tree. One last knife...
Ania drew the last knife from a belt sheath on her left leg, ready to bring it across and stick it, dead center, with her right hand, but as soon as she brought it out, she knew something was wrong. The balance was off, even the shape... But that wasn't possible. How could the balance be off? This was the exact same knife she'd used yesterday, and it had been fine...
Before she had time to do more than register the problem, the knife, off balance and spinning wildly, hit her hand, but not in a way she could catch it. A corner of the blade was bent nastily into a split burr that dragged across her palm, tearing open a thin layer of pale skin.
Ania cried out at the stinging pain, and brought her throbbing hand in to clutch it to her chest. She stared uncomprehendingly at the knife that was now imbedded into the soft dirt at her feet. She could see now that something had bent the blade, making one side split and creating the burr that had cut her.
Daninite dropped to his knees by her side, his normally smooth brow furrowed in deep concern. "Ania, are you alright? What—" he looked down at the knife and she saw his shoulders slump. "Ah, so that's what it hit." Placing a hand in her shoulder, Daninite said quietly, "Last night, somebody threw a rock through the window of the shed. It was thrown quite hard, and so a lot of equipment was knocked to the ground off the walls, but we couldn't figure out what it collided with first. I guess it must have hit your knives.”
She avoided his gaze, staring instead at the red-beaded tear in her palm. Her finger twitched, and her whole hand stung. She brought the injured palm up to her mouth and started sucking on it. The sharp tang of blood filled her mouth, but the sting faded. She was sorry when it did. Now she didn’t have anything to distract her from the tears threatening to well up. They spilled over and she watched as big wet droplets fell to the ground. A few of them hit the tops of her boots, darkening the faded leather. She tried to concentrate on that, but soon her vision blurred.
Now she didn’t have anything to concentrate on.
Her shoulders started to shake. Staring at the blurry silver splotch on a sea of green that had been her knife, she whispered, “Those were her knives.” She clenched her uninjured fist, remembering how it had felt when her aunt had pressed the bright lengths of polished steel into her hands four years ago. She almost said, "Why did they do it?" but she knew. It was the same reason they followed her home from town, the same reason they stole her books when she left them on the benches on the edges of the lawn, the same reason she looked over her shoulder whenever she was out past dark.
Her right hand, which had decided on a dull ache, dropped down to the necklace hanging under her collar. The thumb-sized pendant hung from a twisted silver chain, and it fit snugly in her palm. The metal was cool on the torn skin. She squeezed it, and felt the imprint of a hawk's head dig into her fingers. Just because of a necklace, she thought. Just because I'm not scared of it like they are. Just because I don't hate it. Just because -
She felt her father's arms wrap around her, and she buried her face in his shoulder.
"I know, Ania. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
* * *
When Ania had calmed down, and her da had used his sleeve to dry her cheeks, and her eyes weren't quite so red and puffy anymore, Daninite backed up and looked her up and down. "You know, I don't think we need to finish your lessons today. I was going to go over chapter sixteen, but if you already understand it well enough to use it, I think I can let you off the hook." Placing his hands on her shoulders, he pushed himself upright to a standing position. Ruffling her now very messy hair, he said as he led her back towards the path where she had ambushed him, "Why don't you head down into town and see if Karra can help you fix your knife? You can stay down at the forge for as long as you want."
Ania's step picked up when he mentioned Karra. She'd been distracted enough that she'd completely forgotten about that option. She looked up at him, making sure that he was really alright with her skipping the rest of her lesson.
When he saw the look on her face, Daninite laughed and shook his head. He pushed her towards the stable lot. "Go on, Ania. And don't come back without a smile on your face!"