In the second part of Youngblood, we are introduced to the main character, Lena Ironback.
Lena is about to take part in a ceremony that she has been working towards her whole life – she is becoming a Red Rider.
This means that she takes on the vow to join the Red Riders and be loyal to their leader, her grandmother Livia.
But it is not a vow to be taken lightly – she will no longer keep her name and she will swear to spill the blood of a werewolf.
Hundreds of figures, all in blood-red hooded cloaks, stood in row after row on either side of the narrow aisle. A blood-red carpet ran up the middle toward the dais. Long red, gold-trimmed banners emblazoned with the sun-in-splendour crest of Sol hung from every pillar and wall.
The sheer quantity of red overpowered the muted brownstone walls of Sol’s temple, though nothing could outshine the golden cups and sun icons gleaming from the altar.
In the centre of all this, on the dais at the front of the long temple, stood the most intimidating sight in all of High Rock, probably all of Thanna.
Livia Ironback, Firstblood of the Red Riders.
Her two axe-wielding seconds stood on either side of the woman, attentive to any command Firstblood might deliver. But Livia trained her sharp hazel eyes on the young woman, waiting nervously at the end of the hall, and Lena’s stomach tightened.
‘This is it,’ Lena thought as she took her first tentative step toward the woman who terrified her above all others. ‘Eyes of a hawk, ears of a cat, nose of a wolf.’ The words that came to Lena’s mind were part of an old song about the woman who’d been the leader of the Red Riders longer than anyone before her.
Even without the fearsome words of the ballad, anyone would think twice before crossing blades with Firstblood. She stood tall with her shoulders squared, her skin bronzed from years in the sun, and the strength of her arms straining against her riding leathers. She’d pulled her salt and pepper hair tight against her scalp and it trailed down her back in neat braids beaded with the dozens of fangs from her kills. A deep scar crossing her lips was the only reassuring sign that Livia Firstblood was mortal.
Her black eyes watched Lena close the gap between them like a predator watched its prey and Lena swallowed hard, her mouth dry and her hands already shaking. Firstblood peered down at the world from over her sharp nose, and Lena could never read the woman’s impenetrable gaze.
Yet, today, Lena could sense something different. As she drew closer, she was certain she saw the corner of the Firstblood’s mouth twitch. Pride suddenly swelled in Lena’s chest as she thought that for the first time in her life, she might have made Firstblood smile. Even if only for an instant.
Lena’s heart was in her throat, as she scanned the crowd from her periphery, hoping to glimpse her father or sister amidst the cloaks and hoods. But alas, they were indistinguishable in the blood-red sea.
Refocusing on the podium, Lena reminded herself what was to come. This was it. After seven years as a page, and another five as a squire, she was finally taking the oath. She was about to become a Red Rider a full two years early. Her hard work had paid off. She would be forever in servitude to High Rock, to Firstblood Ironback, and whoever took her place once she passed. If she ever passed.
‘A life of servitude,’ she thought, suddenly. ‘Is that really what I want?’ Lena grit her teeth and pushed her nagging doubts back down, deep into the forgotten recesses of her mind. Now was not the time. She wanted this. She deserved this. She worked her entire Sol-cursed life for this.
With renewed determination, Lena padded up the half-dozen steps to stand upon the dais to kneel before Livia Firstblood.
Lena gulped, suddenly feeling so small in front of the towering woman.
“Ready?” Livia asked softly. She didn’t offer gentleness to just anyone.
“Yes, grandmama.” The Firstblood cleared her throat sharply, and Lena was quick to correct herself. “Yes, Firstblood.”
Firstblood nodded and extended a hand to her right. One of the Secondbloods placed two hand axes in her open palm. Closing her enormous fist around both hilts, Firstblood then held the hand axes out in front of her.
For a moment, the beauty and intricacy of the workmanship transfixed Lena. Yana Ironback, the silversmith to the Red Riders, was forbidden from being at the initiation, but her presence shone through those two hand axes which she had sculpted just for Lena. A newfound appreciation bloomed in Lena’s chest for her mother’s skill.
The small bearded axes were a perfect pair, two impossibly identical silver blades, each sharpened to a gleaming shine, with stained birch wood shafts, bound with black leather. Old runes covered the axe blades, words of magic. Lena only knew a little, she recognised the sigil for protection and another for strength. The others were a mystery to her and seemed all the more beautiful for it. A bitter regret clawed at her as she remembered her childhood desire to follow her mother’s path. But Lena was an Ironback. She was born to be a red rider.
Now all she had to do was prove it.
Rising to stand, Lena placed her right hand atop the blades. She straightened her shoulders and held Firstblood’s gaze, the words of the oath were suddenly a jumbled swirl in her mind. ‘One word at a time,’ she thought.
“I swear upon these blades—” Lena started.
“Louder,” Firstblood hissed.
Admonished, Lena cleared her throat and projected. “I swear upon these blades to bind my life to the land of Thanna and safeguard her shores. To protect her from invasion, destruction, and usurpation. To repay the blessings of Sol by protecting the leaves, waters, meadows and mountains and to guard the life of her people with my own…” she faltered. Her mind always went blank at this bit. The silence felt like a thousand years as Firstblood stared down at her, eyes narrowed. “And I swear these blades will spill the blood of the wolf and my heart shall not rest until I scorch their plague from this land. May all who hear it bear witness to this oath.” Lena hurried through the last lines a little too fast.
“We hear your words!” A cacophony of voices chanted the reply in unison and the hairs on the back of Lena’s neck stood on end.
There was no going back now.
Firstblood opened her grip, gesturing for Lena to claim her axes. In a daze, the young woman picked them up, one in each hand, testing their weight and letting her fingers get comfortable with the leather around the hilt. Never had she held weapons so perfectly balanced. They were a thousand times better than the battered iron weapons she’d trained with.
“The Red Riders welcome you,” Firstblood announced, “no longer Lena Ironback; You are now Youngblood of the Red Riders.”
The cloaked riders by Firstblood’s side clanked their axes together once and at that signal, the whole audience followed suit, clanking their weapons together as the Second threw a red cloak around the shoulders of a very dazed Lena, and clicked the shoulder lapels and collar in place, giving Youngblood a firm pat on the shoulders before turning her around to face the crowd, now cheering her new blood name.
In that instant, all her fears and worries fell away and the young woman couldn’t suppress the grin. Suddenly, she wasn’t an out-of-place novice anymore. Lena might be the youngest and the greenest, but she was a Red Rider, and that meant something.
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