Chapter 3

Hope parked her motorcycle next to Scar’s, a little way off from where the main caravan had settled, everyone currently eating their midday meal. Normally they ate the midday meal while the caravan travelled, much like the morning meal, for those who chose to partake in it. Hope unzipped the pack on the back of her bike and pulled out a solar blanket to drape over it. She plugged the blanket into the battery and turned to wait for Scar to finish setting hers out. The solar blankets would capture what energy they could from the sun and recharge the battery of the motorcycles.

Scar finished and looked up at Hope. She asked, “You ready for this?”

“Ready? Oh, for the huge mysterious test that, if I pass, will prove that I am ready and able to lead our clan? Sure, why wouldn’t I be ready for something like that. Happens everyday, right?” Hope straightened her back and looked around as nonchalantly as she could.

Scar chuckled and put a hand on Hope’s shoulder, steering her around the nomad encampment to the junkyard beyond it.

“Don’t worry so much. Luke said it’s a test Warren designed for you. Not like you haven’t been taking those your whole life. Hell, remember the time he made you stay in the desert alone for a week? With only enough food and water for a day. By the time we came back to get you, you were filthy and a bit hungry but alive and well enough.”

Hope turned to stare at her friend incredulously before saying, “I was 13! Who does that to a 13-year-old?”

Scar stopped and turned to Hope with a raised brow and placed a hand on her cocked hip, “Warren trained you to survive. The only way to really test a person’s survival skills and instincts is to place them in extreme circumstances. You not only found enough food and liquid to survive that week, but you also gained self-confidence in the fact that you could survive. And what about the leaps and bounds you made in the yoga, meditation and basic Capoeira techniques I had been teaching you.” 

Hope gave a small snort and snapped back, “I was still only 13!”

Scar grinned and said, “Well the point is, you have been surviving Warren’s tests for a long time. I am sure you will do fine on this one as well.”

“Surviving doesn’t mean passing. I didn’t always pass his tests,” Hope said softly.

Scar put a hand on Hope’s shoulder and pushed her towards the junkyard again as she replied, “You passed many more times than you think. Sometimes all that matters is survival. There’s no use worrying over the test before we find out what it is.”

Hope nodded and tried to ground herself as Scar and Warren had taught her. If she could keep a clear mind and focus, she had a better chance of passing the test, no matter what it might be. They reached the junkyard and passed through the outer walls, made of stacked cars, and into the interior. Massive piles of metal scraps and cars towered everywhere surrounding an open area in the middle. Standing before the rest of the clan in a little huddle were Luke, Hitch, Ani and two strangers.

Hope focused her attention on the two strangers as she and Scar approached the group. A giant of what looked to be a man towered an easy six and a half feet tall. Covered head to toe, he wore sturdy combat boots, heavy-duty pants, a long leather jacket, and gloves. She could see the collar of an armoured vest covering part of his neck. His bald head, the only skin showing, was pale to the point Hope wondered if his outfit was missing a hat.

As they approached, Luke noticed them and gestured in their direction, causing the smaller stranger to turn towards them. The woman stood a bit under 6 feet wearing a leather jacket and pants that looked like shorts with belted bottoms. Hope could see the slight bulge of a double shoulder holster rig under the jacket. She had tan skin and her deep black hair was styled in a mo-hawk, and a thick fringe covered the right half of her face.

Hope caught a glimpse of tattooed skin beneath the jacket, looking closer she saw iridescent swirling stripes.

“Good, everyone is here,”  Luke said as Hope and Scar stood by his side. “Hitch, please call everyone forward so that I can begin.”

Hitch turned to the clan and spoke in a loud, gruff, and heavily accented voice, “Come. Closer.”

The clan, used to Hitch’s very few words, immediately shuffled close around Luke and the strangers. Ani moved closer to Hope and Scar, placing a hand on Hope’s back in silent support.

Luke looked around at the faces of the gathered clan members and began talking, “We are here today to honor Warren’s last wishes. A good man and a great leader. We are all sad to have lost him. Alas, we must move forward, and Warren knew this. He entrusted me with his last will and testament, an old tradition used to pass along last wishes. Warren and I discussed many times what would become of the Ulric clan when he died. As many of you know, he took in and raised Hope from the day she was born. To him, Hope had always been his daughter, but more than that she is her mother’s daughter.” Luke paused and turned his gaze to Hope.

“Stephanie was a special person and a natural born leader. When she died in childbirth many of you were unsure how to go on. We will not go into the clan’s history, before strangers, but it would suffice to say Warren raised Hope to be a leader. He trained and tested her from the day she could understand his words. She did not have the normal childhood of even those we raise in this nomadic life. It was harsher and more dangerous. But that does not mean she is not loved. All of us have helped her along as she has grown. Today, we see the fruits of that labor.”

Murmurs broke out as the clan members commented to each other and reminisced about Hope, who’d grown from a babbling toddler to a capable protector so quickly. Luke waited a moment, a smile gracing his face before he turned serious once more.

He raised his voice over the murmurs and continued, “Warren and I decided that the best way to show Hope’s growth and readiness to lead the clan is to bring in my friends here and have her demonstrate her abilities. This is my friend Kat and her partner Bron,” Luke gestured towards the woman and her mammoth of a partner. “Both are freelance mercs who, like us, live under the radar. Bron and Hope will face each other in combat until one submits.”

Many people protested at once looking between Bron and Hope with wide eyes. Standing next to Bron, Hope looked like a child. Her petite frame  and porcelain looks making her look small and frail.

 “She can’t take on that giant!”

“She’ll get killed!”

One voice rose above the others and shouted, “How does her getting beat by this giant prove that she can and should lead us?” Bernard shoved his way to the front and crossed his arms over his chest as he glared at Luke then Hope.

Ani scoffed behind Hope and met Bernard’s gaze, “Could you take on and beat this man, Bernard? You, who is so quick to fight? Do you believe yourself to be a better fit for our leader?”

Bernard looked at Bron and paled slightly before replying, “Being able to fight isn’t the only requirement for leading us, and you know it Antonia. We need a unique breed of a person to lead us. We should look to Dante or Antony. They have the experience as well as the fighting ability.”

Hope’s brow furrowed at Bernard’s weird comments of “a unique breed of a person.” What the hell did that mean? Before she could think much about it, Hitch held up a hand and silence fell.

“Thank you, now as I said, the test that Warren decided on is to have Hope show her skills against Bron. I suggest you observe what happens before deciding that our departed leader was wrong. Let us all fall back to the wall and clear the middle for Hope and Bron.” When Luke finished, Hitch turned his wheelchair and moved it off to the side by a wall of cars.

Grumbling and glancing at each other, the rest of the clan members followed suit. Scar and Ani each gave Hope’s shoulder a squeeze and joined Luke. Kat looked at Bron for a moment, then nodded and moved to stand with Luke. Hope walked over to stand roughly fifteen feet from Bron.

Hope turned all her attention to the giant. She took a few deep breaths to center herself and took a loose fighting stance like Scar had taught her. After a few moments she made a quick dash to Bron, moving in with a quick jab at his chest. Bron stood still taking the hit and raised an arm to grab for Hope. She ducked under the arm and leaped backwards doing a flip to land facing him. She had to stop herself from shaking her fist. He felt like a stone wall.

Bron took a few steps toward her and pulled his arm back for a punch. Hope quickly danced around behind him. She tried to sweep his legs out from under him. Her leg hit his and instead of the normal give of flesh, she hit an immovable barrier of metal. Hope swore. She reversed the movement of her leg, swinging herself back around and up to a handstand, and flipped back to her feet in a low crouch.

Bron turned to face her again. He smiled. The smile widened when Kat called out ‘Don’t hold back’ from the sidelines. He lumbered towards Hope. She waited until he got close and flipped her upper body backwards to swing a leg up towards his head. Bron caught her leg and with a sharp movement of his arm threw her across the clearing. Hope grunted as she hit the wall of cars back first and slid down to her feet.

She wobbled slightly, then ran and did a cartwheel and front flip to build momentum. Then she propelled herself up to kneel on his shoulders. Bron remained standing. He didn’t even move from her weight. Hope barely had time to cuss before he reached up and dislodged her. He slammed her to the dirt at his feet.

Hope gasped. Her vision blurred. She fought for air. Her vision cleared just in time for her to see his leg moving to kick her. She rolled and struggled to her feet as his foot hit the ground with a heavy thud that she could actually feel. She swayed a bit and Bron moved towards her. His arm stretched out to grab her. She danced under it and moved behind him, spinning a kick into his back. He stumbled a few steps forward, into a rusty car that rocked from his weight, before he caught his balance. He turned on her with a low growl.

Hope fell into her low fighting stance as she worked to slow her breathing despite her aching ribs and back. Bron advanced a bit slower. She planted a hand on the ground and swung her body towards him. Hope aimed a two footed kick at his midsection then used the force of it to back flip to her feet. Bron barely grunted and kept moving toward her. Hope backed up and hit a car wall. Bron reached her, grabbing her neck. He slammed her against the car wall a foot or so off the ground and held her there.

Hope fought to keep from blacking out. Bron’s grip tightened, and he pushed her harder into the wall. Hope gasped, reaching up to claw at his hands. As he moved closer, she brought her legs up and used the wall behind her to push into his chest with all the strength in her legs. His grip loosened. He tried to walk back forward, but Hope used the wall as leverage to straighten her legs out. She swung her upper body down and through his legs when his grip on her neck loosened, just in time to dodge the punch Bron delivered. A punch that heavily dented the car she had been against. She rolled across the clearing and up to her feet.

The expression on Hope’s face took on the look of a cornered animal. She let out a fierce growl. Everyone watching saw her stance lower and her demeanor change. Then the color of her eyes shifted to the amber of a wolf’s eyes. They glinted as the backs reflected light like an animals. She bared her teeth and growled. The deep throaty growl of a wolf fighting for its survival. Bron looked at Hope with surprise. He glanced over at Kat, who shrugged. Bron rolled his shoulders and bared his teeth back at Hope. As he moved steadily towards her, he reached up and fiddled with something under his jacket near his shoulder.

When Bron got five feet closer to Hope she let loose a deep warning growl, then lunged forward. She moved so fluidly and fast that she almost became a blur. Bron stopped. He blocked her kicks and punches with his arms and shoulder by turning with them. Unable to block all the hits, many landed on his chest and shoulders. A few hit his face. He weathered the blows, watching for an opening to push her away. Hope’s growl turned into a constant sound among the sounds of the blows she rained on Bron.

Hope felt more than saw the presence of someone coming up behind her. She disengaged from Bron and flipped across the clearing to land on her feet. Hope faced both Bron and Kat. She glared at the strange woman. How dare she enter this fight? Kat dropped into a fighting stance, about five feet from Bron. Her hands came up. Hope moved in a blur; she launched herself into a flip and landed in front of Kat. She moved fluidly into a spin kick aimed at the woman’s head. Kat barely ducked under Hope’s leg and reached up to grab it. Kat used Hope’s momentum to propel her up and over her body. Hope rolled to her feet and immediately dashed towards Kat. She swept her legs at Kat’s. The woman, now matching Hope’s speed, jumped the sweep and landed a few steps to the side. She turned to face Hope and bared her teeth.

Bron moved. Hope saw in her periphery. She growled and spun a kick levelled at his hip. Bron grabbed Hope’s leg; she used it to pull her body close and  reached up to his shoulders. She brought her other leg up to straddle his hips. He took a small step forward to compensate for her weight. When he did Hope jerked all her weight backwards. Bron fell towards the ground. She landed on her back. Hope used the ground as leverage to roll Bron to the side. He landed on his back hard, the ground shaking at his impact. She continued her roll and straddled his chest. One of her legs pinned an arm. She quickly placed a hand on the other to hold it to the ground. Bron grunted. He started to push against her hand and throw her off.

Hope saw faint movement from the corner of her eye. In a blink she had reached up and released one of the slim knives from her bun. She pressed it against Bron’s throat. Hope gave a deep warning growl. Bron froze. Kat had been moving up behind them and stopped. Everyone stared in shock. Once Hope’s eyes had changed and her growl deepened to resemble a wolf’s, the fight had gone by in a blur. The clan had barely been able to follow it. Luke, Scar and Ani didn’t look surprised. Scar looked to Luke for permission. He nodded and she quickly interrupted the fight.

“Bron, look away from Hope and relax your body. Submit to her or she will kill you,” Scar said in a loud but level voice. Bron looked over at her then back at Hope. Her growl got louder. He flinched slightly. He fought against his instincts. He relaxed his body and looked away from Hope to the ground.

“Good,” Scar said. She turned her attention to the woman.

Kat watched in disbelief as her partner submitted to the wisp of a girl he had been fighting.

“Kat, move slowly to where Hope can see you fully.”

Kat scowled and looked at Luke. He nodded. She grunted and moved slowly around the girl who still had her partner pinned.

“Slower. That’s good. Stop there. Drop your gaze and relax your body. Show you are done fighting,” Scar said.

Kat looked skeptical at this. She glanced up. Hope stared at her, teeth still bared and growling as fierce as any predator Kat had ever hunted.

“Drop your gaze!” Scar commanded her sternly.

Kat gritted her teeth. She dropped her gaze and relaxed her body. She fell into a loose stance, letting her hands fall to her sides.

Scar stepped up beside her and glanced at her slowly, “Good, now stay there please, and stay relaxed.”

Scar walked slowly towards where Hope still had Bron pinned with a knife at his throat. Hope watched her, still growling, until Scar knelt beside her and lowered her eyes. She said softly, “It’s over, you have won. You and your family are safe.” Hope’s growls quieted. She tilted her head at Scar. She looked back down at Bron. Bron kept very still and left his eyes where they focused a few inches down from Scar’s knees. Scar reached out and touched the hand holding the knife lightly. “The fight is over, Hope. He has submitted to you.”

Hope’s grip loosened. Scar took the knife and placed it back in its sheath in Hope’s hair. Scar took Hope’s hand and stood, pulling the smaller woman with her as she did. She stepped away from Bron, Hope followed. Her face and body slowly relaxed. Her eyes darted around, looking for danger. When she found none, she completely relaxed. They stopped next to Luke. He reached out and took Hope’s hand with a smile.

Hope blinked a few times as her face started to show confusion and she looked around.

“Well done, Hope.” Luke said proudly.

Hope cleared her now sore throat and rasped, “What happened? I remember the fight starting, but not much after Bron had me pinned by the throat.”

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