The doors of the dreaded Chamber of Ordeal swing shut behind me with an ominous clang

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The doors of the dreaded Chamber of Ordeal swing shut behind me with an ominous clang. I am in a shroud of darkness and surrounded by complete silence. I can practically hear the rustle of the Chamber as it begins thinking of what horrors to throw at me to make me fail this Ordeal. But I will pass this. All I have to do is remain silent. I know this. I am Joren of Stone Mountain; of course I know this. My influential and wealthy family dates back from the Book of Gold. I am soon to be a knight of the noble realm of Tortall. I am the best at studies in my year, and I excel at the fighting arts. I am the affluent heir to an incredibly rich beautiful dukedom. I am reputed to be one of the best squires of the realm.

I am Joren of Stone Mountain.

Then suddenly, I am falling through deep and freezing water. Panic fills my mind as the pressure of not being able to breathe squeezes at my lungs. Terror makes my whole body go numb and I begin shivering from the cold. The bottom of my stomach plunges and my heart drums a rapid beat against my chest. I'm drowning. It is the same feeling I experienced when I was four and my older sister Marisa accidentally pushed me to a part of the pond where the ice broke through. I'm choking, fighting to get to the surface, to breathe.

I can't make it.

Anger surges suddenly through my body. If I fail because of my fear of drowning, it will be because of Marisa. I cannot let my older brat of a sister win. I fight to get to the surface. I am not going to make a sound. I am not going to drown. I am not going to fail this because of my older sister. I don't care if I drown, because I won't drown. I desperately fight my way to the surface.

Then just as suddenly, the chilling water is gone. I am lying flat on my back on the cold stone floor of the Chamber, gasping for breath. I struggle to calm my breathing, to breathe slowly and evenly. A dunk in cold water will not make me lose my cool. I smile to myself; the Chamber is not going to beat me. Not for nothing am I Lord Wyldon's favorite student.

Really? A cool and emotionless voice whispers in my mind. It holds eons of knowledge: of bliss and grief, of anger and hope, of love and hatred, of coldness and passion, of madness and loyalty. It is the voice of the Chamber itself. You haven't been Lord Wyldon's favorite student for a long time, young squire Joren of Stone Mountain. Not since Keladry of Mindelan arrived.

A scene appears in the Chamber before me. I try to close my eyes against it, feeling heat and coldness drenching every part of my body, but I cannot erase what is happening. It is stupid to fear this, but I do. I just cannot stop it. I close my eyes, willing with all my strength for the picture to disappear. Please, Mithros, no. I am not scared of her. I can't be scared of her. But I can't close my eyes against the scene. It is as if the scene is painted on the inside of my eyelids; I can't escape.

A tall and muscled young woman stands before me. Her sun-streaked brown hair is cut short to just below her earlobes, her skin tanned, her brown brows arched, her nose delicate, her mouth set in a grim straight line. Her dreamy, long-lashed hazel eyes are filled with an unreadable emotion.

Keladry of Mindelan.

My enemy. I clench my fists. How I long to punch her, to break that cursed Yamani silence.

She stands before me with an odd expression on her face. "You are determined to hate me, Joren?" she murmurs softly. Her voice trembles as she whispers my name. "For no better reason than because I am a girl who wishes to try for knighthood?" She lifts her chin defiantly.

I hate you because you're an accursed Yamani lump who has no right to be here, I snarl silently at her.

Her face pales and she bites down hard on her lower lip. "Why?" she asks quietly. "Why do you abhor me so?" Using her booted foot to shove me to the ground, she digs her heel into my chest. I fight back a flinch of pain. I have endured worse. She points a lance directly at my thumping heart. I feel my breath quicken.

Why do I hate her?

As she lifts her lance carelessly in one gloved hand, light suddenly sparkles on the badge on her chest. A beautifully embroidered badge with the Mindelan coat of arms and a glaive and a sword crossed on a shield with the double circle of a female knight.

No! I think angrily. This Yamani lump is a knight? King Jonathon is actually so unfair as to force a good, brave, and noble knight like Wyldon of Cavall, a hero of the realm, the true embodiment of everything a knight should be, to accept the Lump into knighthood? How could he? How dare he be so unfair?

Hatred surges through me. Female warriors are weak; they are foolish and easily broken by emotion. How can anyone let Keladry become a knight? She is weak and she will give way soon enough. And then where will her friends be? I have been taught and carefully schooled that the day a female becomes a knight is the day the gods withdraw their favor from us. Now the country that I would willingly die for is to have another female knight? Another lady knight, when the Lioness has already caused the gods to withdraw their favor from Tortall and start the bloody Immortals War, which wounded my cousin Petrov forever?

What will the gods throw at us now that Keladry of Mindelan has become a female knight? I want to scream and curse this blasted girl, even though I know that is what the Chamber wants me to do. I force myself to be calm. It is just an Ordeal. Keladry of Mindelan will never become a true knight. But anger still boils within me. Curse that girl, I think angrily as words press and burns against my quivering lips. I bite my lips together. Hard. Curse Keladry of Mindelan. She ruined everything.

Training. Friendships. Reputation.

My entire life.

The utterly emotionless voice speaks again, lisping, in my mind. Are you so easy to break, Joren of Stone Mountain? It asks. Your fear that Keladry of Mindelan will succeed as a female knight is so strong? Will it be so easy to break a boy? Do you honestly fear Keladry? Envy her power and strength? Are you afraid that she is a better squire than you are?

I fear nothing, I spit mentally at the blasted Chamber of Ordeal. I fear nothing. Remember that. I am afraid of nothing. Least of all that gods-cursed Yamani Lump of a girl. And envy her? Give me a break! That girl is nothing compared to me! Nothing! Less than nothing!

I can feel the thudding of my own heart drumming the beat of my lie. For it is a lie. I do envy that Keladry is strong and brave and accepted. I envy that she has friends who care about her. I hate myself for it, I try to deny it, but I can't. Not when confronted with a force that is utterly emotionless and unbiased, a force that cannot judge but only looks into one's heart to sea the truth.

That's your choice then, the Chamber replies, sounding almost amused. Very well.

Blackness and darkness surrounds me completely. I open my eyes so wide that they hurt, but I can't even see my own body. I put a hand about half a meter from my face. I still see nothing. And then suddenly I am falling, falling so hard through the air, with the wind whistling through the air, plummeting to the ground.

No! I scream mentally. Memories flood my mind.

Long ago, when I was but eight years old, I got into an argument with my older sister Marisa. AT thirteen years old she began using punches instead of words, lashing out at me with her fists. I backed away, frantically trying to avoid the pain, and she laughed, swung at me again. As I stumbled back from her blow, I went over the low railing of the tower balcony, and fell down. I screamed as I fell down, screamed as the wind whistled in my ears as the ground beckoned, screamed harder as my ribs cracked with a sickening crunch as I slammed onto the ground. Blood flowed from my chest and streamed over my body.

While I lay there in agony, my sister poked her head out from the tower to stare down at me.

And laughed.

I did not fear heights as a result, as that accursed Lump obviously does, but I hate falling, even if it is falling a few inches to the ground during training. That whooshing sensation in my body and the freezing of my brain as I plummet to the ground is all too clear. No, I whisper silently to myself. No. I won't cry out. I'll die if I have to, but I won't cry out. I won't.

I hit something hard and cold, and everything goes fuzzy.

I do not know how long I lie there. Finally, I regain my consciousness and gingerly open my eyes. I am nearly blinded by the blazing white light that now fills the empty and cold room. What am I doing here? I ask myself. Why am I lying here when I should be fighting for my knighthood? The dream I have cherished ever since I watched through wide blue eyes Lord Wyldon of Cavall and Duke Gareth of Naxen fighting bandits with only a sword and a small dagger each.

I open my eyes, I try to see but I'm blinded by the white light.

I can't remember how, I can't remember why; I'm lying here tonight.

The Chamber throws its next attack on me. I am seven again. I remember this day as clearly as the Chamber is now showing me. I watch as my younger self trips, crashes into my uncle's favorite vase. I feel my mouth twist in repugnance as little trickles of blood run down my cheeks. My uncle picks me up and throws me viciously into the broken pieces again, his face red with rage. I cut my face, but he doesn't care. He beats me over and over again as he shoves my face continuously into the sharp shards of glass, glistening like diamonds on the floor.

No! I scream mentally at the Chamber. No! That day was one of the worst in my life. My sister stood there and smirked as she watched warm blood trickle down my face. My mother wept helplessly as she watched my skin turn black and blue. My father just stood there, arms crossed as his only son was beaten until my skin couldn't hold water. He believed pain made a man great. My uncle beat me ruthlessly, not caring about me. He wouldn't have cared if he had beaten me until I died, had a runner not appeared at the door with an important message.

No! I scream. Stop prying in my mind. STOP! Stop making me relive the worst moments of my life. You've no right to pry in my mind and draw out everything that I've worked so hard to forget. You have no right!

But the Chamber does not comply.

And I can't stand the pain, and I can't make it go away.

No, I can't stand the pain.

Joren of Stone Mountain, the Chamber whispers. Being a knight is about being good and loyal. It is about doing everything in your power to help others. If you cannot even relive a simple memory, how will you risk your life to save those who you do not even know? How can you work together with those you do not like?

How can you be persuaded that your beliefs may be wrong?

A new scene begins.

I see my younger sister Caitlin dancing about in her room. It is often remarked that we look alike, but her curls are streaked with warm golden highlights, her full mouth is softer, her eyes a darker and warmer blue. I smile slightly as she beams her innocent smile. She is the only person I still care about.

My sweet little sister giggles as she takes a sharp sword from her desk. I furrow my brow in confusion; how can Father allow her to acquire such a weapon? She begins a complex sword drill with it, whirling about her room and picking up speed until she is just a blur with a glinting sword.

"I'm going to be a knight!" she cried in delight. "Joren will be so proud!"

No! I want to yell, but I clamp my lips shut. I cannot make a sound. But this is destroying me. My dearest sister Caitlin, so innocent and sweet and naïve, is going to become a knight? The gods will punish her harshly, and she will die some cold night because she is a female. I love my sister. How can this happen to her? Again I force myself to be calm by reminding myself that they are just scenes and do not portend to the future.

Then it hits me.

I realize the Chamber's tactics. It forces a person to deal with the things they fear or dread the most. In order to pass the Chamber of Ordeal, you must face your fears and dreads. A man who can cope with the memories and fears that they push deep within their heart is a true and worthy knight.

Suddenly, I crumple inside. What kind of a monster have I become? To dread so much a girl becoming a knight that the Chamber uses it against me? To hate Keladry so much just because she is a girl that I hired two men to kidnap her maid and stash her on Balor's Needle? What kind of a man have I become? Thoughts shriek and dance inside my head. I want to cry, but I cannot. I haven't cried since I was ten, and anyway, I will lose all if I do.

I will lose what little I have left.

Everybody's screaming, I try to make a sound but no one hears me.

I'm slipping off the edge, I'm hanging by a thread, I want to start this over again.

This is just the Chamber trying to break you, I tell myself. These are all lies.

Oh? The Chamber inquires. I suddenly see myself as a five year-old again. I'm laughing and playing with the village girls and boys. We are playing tag. A scrawny girl with a dirty braid suddenly slips and falls, and she begins to cry as a cut in her hand bleeds. I go to comfort her and stem the bleeding with my handkerchief without a thought of her station.

Why am I so different now? Why would I die rather than comfort a poor and ignorant girl now? Why do I now shove poor kids into dirt? Why did I, as a senior page, make younger lads grovel at my feet? Why do I pick on Keladry? Am I really jealous?

Stop, I order myself. Keep asking why and you will fail this test. I try to think of something else, a happier time, but I just can't forget what I've done. What I've become. I try desperately to think of another time, another memory, but I can't forget that awful day. I can't forget my childhood. I can't forget the child I once was. I can't forget that memory.

So I try to hold, onto a time when nothing mattered.

And I can't explain, what happened, and I can't, erase the things that I've done,

No, I can't.

That memory, what I did that day, is so different from what I would now do that I wonder if it really is a memory. But then I look at the silver scar on my palm and smile bitterly. That memory is real, all right.

In the scene before me, and utterly true to my recollections, my father's steward charges out of the house. Picking me up by the ankles, he swings me around and around until I want to vomit and am dizzy enough to faint. He sets me on the ground, takes out a knife, and gouges a deep cut onto my right palm. "Never do that again," he commands, as I try hard not to cry. "Never play with the village bratlings." He turns to the children. "Scram!" he roars. "You filthy maggots! Scram!"

They all vanish.

"But they're my friends," I protest angrily. "Don't insult them like that! I like them!"

Friends.

The man boxes my ears and slaps me hard on both cheeks. I remember even now the searing, burning pain in my hand and the stinging on my cheeks. I remember the hot prickle of tears against my eyelids, of tears trying to force themselves out, of tears burning my eyelashes. "Never say that again," he informs me in a deadly voice. "Never." He gouges another wound deeper into my palm. I nearly scream with pain.

The memory ends.

After that all the villagers avoided me. I fell ill with fever for nearly two years. While I was ill, no one came to visit me, to make sure that I hadn't died in the night. When I recovered, I changed. I became as cold and hard as ice. I scorned the village bratlings, shoving them away from my heart as they had shoved me away.

But a question still burns in my chest.

How could I have changed so much? That little boy who was once me would have done anything to protect his friends. That little boy didn't care if his friends weren't noble. That little boy liked his friends for who they were. That little boy was kind.

Now, I can easily betray my friends without batting an eye. I won't speak to a commoner now except to tell them to get out of my way, even if you pay me. Now, I pick on the younger pages and make them grovel. I used to make them do what is known as "hazing". I pick on Keladry of Mindelan because she is a girl. I pick fights with her when she's alone and I've got five others with me. I had her maid kidnapped and scared half to death and stashed on Balor's Needle so that Keladry couldn't do the examinations she needed to do to become a squire.

Then I suddenly realize it: I gave myself up to go to trial not for the sake of my knight-master, who is good and kind, but because I hate the person I have become. I hate that I resort to stupid tricks to get Keladry kicked out. I hate myself. I've become an awful and arrogant prig.

How could this have happened to me? I cry to myself in anguish.

You know how, comes the cold reply.

Another painful blast from my past. This one is so excruciatingly painful. I am ten, about to go to the palace to become a page. I am riding with my older brother James, who I always looked up to (who softened my heart with the villagers), and his fiancée, Lady Fiona, a member of the Queen's Riders to find bandits.

I close my eyes in pain. My older brother was always been the one I looked up to, even when he had declared to an outraged Father that he would marry Fiona. Father had threatened to disown James, but James had stubbornly kept nagging and nagging. James was the favored child; my parents had given in. I was so happy for my older brother. I didn't even care that she was a female warrior.

I hate myself for it now, but before, when I rode with the pretty and spunky female warrior, I liked her. But she was a fool, a thrice-accursed, damned idiot. It is because of Fiona that I hate female warriors with such a passion now.

"Come on!" Fiona urges excitedly. "Come on! I want to ride for the river and rest there!"

"It's dark there," James cautions. "And slippery."

"But it'll be so beautiful there," Fiona persists as she bats her heavy lashes. "Go on!"

James turns to me. I feel unbearable, indescribable, tearing, roaring, ice-cold and fire-hot pain as I watch the scene that I wish to delete from my memory, as I see his familiar face relax into an easy-going smile. "What do you want, Joren?" he asks as he grins at me.

I watch myself shrug and curse silently. Why hadn't I…? "Why not?"

Fiona pouts prettily, tears glimmering in her eyes and threatening to fall. "James…" she half-sobs. I clench my fists, knowing it is futile and insane to attempt killing a memory. "If you love me, you wouldn't refuse me."

So we go to the river. Fiona screams suddenly as a bandit seizes her. She thrashes helplessly, looking very much like a pretty and desolated maiden but not using any of her fighting skills. James leaps to her rescue, ripping his blade out from his sheath. I watch, horrified, as the bandits engage my younger self in a fight as James tries to rescue Fiona. He kills the bandits and grabs Fiona's wrist. "Let's move," he urges. Fiona nods and picks up her skirts to run, but trips over a root. As my brother bends down to help her, a bandit makes a wild stab for him.

Fiona could have helped him. She could have saved him simply by pushing him. But she did nothing at all, just watched with terrified, wide eyes, and I was too busy trying not to get hacked into pieces, as the knife drove home into my older brother's heart.

Fiona doesn't do anything, just throws the bandits coins and runs away, screaming. "James, you crazy fool, stand up and protect me! There are bandits here, for Mithros' sake!"

That day changed my life. I became cold, callous, and emotionless. With the exception of my younger sister Caitlin, I no longer allowed myself to feel any affection for anyone. I hated female warriors more passionately that anyone; it was because of them that my brother was dead. If Fiona hadn't been a warrior, she wouldn't have been helping us fight bandits and my brother would've lived. If she hadn't been a weak, passionate, and stupid girl she would have fought off at least one bandit and my brother wouldn't have died. If only…If only…my older brother didn't die.

I close my eyes. This is just too much. Too much pain and agony. I can't bear it. I give in. I relent. I beg the Chamber. I plead. Don't do that again, please, I whisper mentally. I would rather die than have my most painful memories relived. I am not worthy of being a knight. I cannot pass this.

So be it, was the cold reply. What think you, Joren of Stone Mountain?

Somehow, I know what it's talking about. I hate the monster I've become. I don't want to live anymore. I don't want to go back to what was a shameful, terrible life. I'm tired of masquerading, of pretending, of being forced to feel what I do not want to feel, to have to do what I do not want to do. To be a person that I'm not, to be bound by chains and rules. To have my past and my family dictate my beliefs and thoughts and every single one of my movements. I don't want to be the kind of man my family wants me to be. I want to be free, to be myself again.

"Just give me what I deserve," I tell the Chamber. "I know death is my only escape." My voice shakes slightly in the deathly silent room, but I speak aloud.

Very well, is the answer. But you have made respectful the death that you could not make respectful your life. Go, Joren of Stone Mountain. The Black God has great need of you.

Slowly, I feel my body ebbing away. I feel the pain of every single blow I ever made anyone else suffer. I feel every blow I ever dealt. I remember all of my mistakes. I remember every single haunting detail of my past. I know that I am dying. But I don't care. I just have one question:

How could I have changed so much? How could this happen to me?

An immense, hooded black figure that I know is the Black God appears, stretching out a hand blacker than night. He beckons to me. I give him my hand, feeling my body fading as my spirit grows stronger and brighter, and he leads me out of the mortal realms into the Realms of the Gods.

"Come, Joren of Stone Mountain." His voice is deep and kind. His grip is firm and warm.

"You are a good person, underneath that ice mask. Your ambitious family crafted your life and character. I trust you, Joren. I believe in you; I have a mission for you. A chance for you to redeem yourself."

A chance.

That is enough.

How could this happen to me?

I'm made by mistakes, got nowhere to run,

The night goes on, as I'm fading away, I'm sick of this life,

I just want to scream,

How could this happen to me?