There is a story and it goes like this. There is a tower of brick and stone, raised up like a mountain. Its peak puts holes in the bottoms of clouds. A princess sits by the window at the top, and ... [+]
I tightened and untightened the straps on my pack as I stared into the entrance to the caverns. I had always taken it for granted, but today it seemed menacing, like a bottomless black pit that no light could fathom and nothing could escape. That’s probably because I never had to go in it before.
My mother rested her hand on my shoulder. “Are you ready?”
“Yes.” I shifted my weight, hating myself for the lie. I could never imagine being ready for this, but I had little choice in the matter. If I didn’t complete the trial to come of age, I would never be able to show my face in the village again.
“You’ll be fine.” She gave a wide smile that reflected confidence, but her eyes were filled with concern. She glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then leaned closer to whisper, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but it’s just a den of wolf spiders. It hurts if you get bitten, but you’ll be fine.”
I nodded quickly and looked away. It seemed no one entirely trusted I could make it through without help, since all of them had given me hints about the trial. The problem was that none of the hints added up to a useful whole. Teacher gave me a lecture on the behavior of bats, Uncle demonstrated the best way to hunt wild boars, and Sister slipped me a charm to ward off curses. Even Father, over breakfast, repeated three times the story of the time he was almost struck by lightning, coughing whenever he mentioned that he got out of the way because he felt the hairs on his arms stand straight. While it was possible the caverns were infested with sorcerous bats allied with lightning-spewing spiders that rode atop wild boars, it seemed unlikely.
Teacher gave a speech about the importance of tradition, and especially the tradition of sending children to face a dangerous trial singlehandedly. I barely paid attention; it was the same speech for everyone who came of age. The speech covered everything important about the trial except for what it actually is. No one ever talks about the trial they went through, at least not in front of the children. Perhaps speaking about the trial was a privilege reserved for adults, much like using names or voting at forums.
“And now it is time for the trial to begin,” concluded Teacher. “You must face it alone, child, but know that we await your return.”
I managed a thin smile as I entered the cavern, the rest of the village watching in silence. I stepped into the darkness, allowing myself to be enveloped by cold shadow. I didn’t bother smiling once I was out of eyesight; no need to pretend when I was alone.
I walked deeper and deeper into the cave, shivering in the damp. Soon there was barely enough light to see by; I groped my way along the walls. I inched my way into a blackness I had never seen before, one untempered by sun, moon, or stars. There was no way to see my path forward. I paused, confused as to what I was supposed to do. I could simply turn back now and pretend I had faced the trial. No one would know the difference. All that mattered to them was that I entered, then returned after a while.
I gritted my teeth and stepped forward. I felt my way along the floor with my feet, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t give way. Even then I slipped and fell, scraping the skin off my forearm. I struggled to my feet when I saw something impossible: a pinprick of light in the distance. Yet it grew larger as I continued my journey, until finally it was close enough that I could begin to distinguish between rock and open air. The passage widened into a room, and in the middle of the room was a table with a candle on it. When I strained my eyes, I could just barely see a chair at the table.
“Well don’t keep me waiting,” came a voice from the room. “Come, sit.”
Hesitantly, I stepped into the room, reluctant to relinquish the support of the cave wall. I glanced side to side, at the floor, at the ceiling as I went. There was no sign of anything in the room aside from what I had already seen, with the exception of someone seated at the other side of the table. One thing was certain: I had found the trial.
I pulled back the empty chair as quietly as possible, then deposited my pack next to it. I kept my knife close, though; no telling who this person was or what they wanted. Their features were obscured by shadow, and they remained silent even after I was seated.
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
“Who are you?” repeated the figure, mockingly.
“It is tradition for the host to name themselves before the guest,” I replied promptly. Teacher had drilled that into me as soon as I could talk.
The figure giggled. “We are not host and guest. I see you are confused, though, so perhaps I should be plain.” The figure scooted closer to the table, entering the ring of candlelight. “Do you see?”
Staring at me was my own face, as clear as any reflection in a pond. I gasped, instinctively gripping the charm Sister had given me.
“You still don’t understand, then.” The figure leaned back, its smile distorted by flickering shadows. “I am you, and you are me.”
“That’s not possible,” I finally choked out.
“I’m so sorry. Were you expecting lightning spiders?” The figure leaned forward. “Allow me to prove it.” It held its hand to the flame, then jerked it back. I felt a searing pain in my hand; it was burned where the figure had touched the candle. The figure leaned back, once again enveloped by shadows. “You may as well put that knife away.”
I crossed my arms. “OK. Maybe you are me, somehow. What’s the trial?”
“Haven’t you guessed?”
I remained silent, hoping the figure would speak for me. It stayed silent, though, and I finally gave voice to my suspicion. “The trial is facing what you fear most,” I said slowly. “It’s why everyone told me something different.” I hesitated. “But that doesn’t explain you.”
“Yes, it does.” My voice rang back to me with unfamiliar firmness and impatience. “Do I have to say it for you? You’re afraid of letting yourself be yourself, someone who takes what they want.”
“That’s not true,” I muttered softly.
“Of course it is. You’re constantly worrying about what other people think, what they want. You won’t take the last piece of bread because Brother says he needs it. You let Mother give you the worst chores because no one else wants to do them. And today, you let yourself walk off to what you thought would be your death just because it’s what everyone else wants you to do. And where did that get you? You’re just a lonely little girl lost in the dark now. The village would barely notice if you never came back.” The other me emitted an eerie chuckle. “But that’s not how it has to be. Let me be the one to leave the cave. We’ll take what we want. The others will have to respect us. Because if we do that, we won’t be a little girl they can push around anymore.”
“Enough!” I shouted. I pushed back my chair, stood up, and took a deep breath. “You’re wrong,” I continued softly. “I know what I’m afraid of now. I’m afraid of being someone as selfish and alone as you. But I refuse to be that person.” I lifted the candle from the table. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to my family.” I slung on my pack and walked away.
“Don’t be stupid,” came the voice from behind me. “You won’t get anywhere without me. You need me.” The voice became higher pitched, more pleading. “You can’t leave me here alone!”
I paused and glanced back. “I can and will. I refuse to let you hurt the people I care about.”
The figure’s continued protests faded into silence as I focused on the slippery climb back to the surface. The candle had nearly burned out when I felt sunlight on my face. I emerged into the meadow, dazed by the bright light, and disoriented by the cheers going up around me. I nearly fell over when Mother and Father both ran up to hug me.
Teacher approached and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Well done,” she intoned.
“Thank you, Teacher,” I whispered.
She smiled at me. “You can use names now. Call me Sage.”
“Yes, Sage.” I smiled back. “Glad I made it.”