Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Shadows in the Sand - Chapter 2


The City of Nimar,

JD 59, Morning



As a child Faria had always been fascinated by the city walls – the way the chunks of white limestone lay on top of each other – and how the mechanism functioned to open the city gate.  She wanted to understand the structures, their strengths and their weaknesses.   Her natural curiosity of how things worked meant that choosing to become a craftswoman was a no brainer for her.  Those children who knew what they wanted to become always made the best students.  The craftsmen and women lived and trained in the Northeast quadrant and they specialised in either carpentry or stonemasonry.  One subject was not enough for Faria, so she specialised in both.  Faria wasn’t the first to study both disciplines but her intelligence, passion and skill always set her name apart from the rest of the trainees.  Most of the wood from the surrounding gravel plains was of poor quality, weak and dry; it was good for nothing more than firewood.  The very best wood – that brought with them from the northern lands over 300 years ago – was used for the arrows and spear shafts. Those trees which were growing in the outcrop around the water pool had been chopped down and used for roofing, pipes and other structures.  Hunters occasionally brought in extra wood from the Dead Forest to the east when it was needed, but that place was not without its risks and was only a last resort.  Naturally, being built around an outcrop, stone was abundant.  Although that too varied in its qualities as a material. 

Faria’s motivation and leadership qualities saw her rise through the training ranks and at the mere age of twenty-one, she was already dayshift supervisor of the maintenance and development of the entire Southwest and Southeast quadrants of Nimar.  Leading a team of ten craftsmen, Faria patrolled the two quadrants to help with repairs or act on any problems reported by the citizens. 

“The sandstorm really clogged her up good,” said Arnou, blowing out the sand particles and replacing the outer hood of one of the cooking furnaces in the city.          

Tall, with fiery red hair curling down to her shoulders, Faria was an imposing presence and she commanded the respect of her all-male unit.  With an infectious smile, hazel eyes and luscious lips, she had no shortage of admirers either.

“You know what to do – a complete clean out.  We can’t have everyone chewing on bits of sand.  Collect another baseplate from the store as well, this one is cracking already.  I told Master Jud we shouldn’t use the stone from the Syris Outcrop, it’s too brittle,” said Faria.


Although she cared for the city, deep down Faria had always felt like it constricted her ambition.  There was a world of opportunity beyond the walls, a wealth of resource and where others saw difficulties and rough terrain, she saw roads linking new settlements, bridges creating shortcuts and defence systems to aid the soldiers in their fight against golems.  In Faria’s mind, Nimar didn’t have to be one city trapped within its own walls, but a network of small cities working in unison.  Faria saw expansion as the key to Nimar’s future, the only key to its future.  No one else she worked with cared for ambition though, for them, life was a simple routine based on food, water and survival.  Despite feeling frustrated sometimes, Faria couldn’t criticise the current elders as it was under their leadership and guidance that she had been able to train and learn her skills.   Life in Nimar was a routine, but it was a life and the Nimerians had never had it so good since crossing the Black Mountains. 

Faria longed for the shift to end so she could work on her projects in peace.  She lived, like all the citizens, in a shared dormitory with twelve other craftswomen.  Her sketches, created by etchings on slate, were scattered across her bed and her roommates, although each accomplished craftswomen in their own right, couldn’t make one bit of sense out of them.  They didn’t understand why she had to think outside the box and couldn’t settle for a simple life within Nimar: build new buildings, repair old ones, retire.  Her drawings of long-range projectiles and enormous bridges channelling water from afar, all confused and baffled her roommates.  Still, Faria was respected and liked enough not to have any over-inquisitive questions and shady looks every time she entered the room.  However, Faria didn’t have any good friends within her quadrant.  Her best friends – Athmane, Bayoud and Mary – all roughly the same age as her, had each joined a different quadrant but they’d remained very close during training and their teenage years.  They continued to hang out between shifts where possible, even though Athmane was in the field most of the time. 

Master Hamed, one of the current forty Master craftsmen, joined Faria by the furnace that was being repaired.

“Faria, you’ve been summoned to the Sanctum.  I don’t know what it’s about but I suggest you go straight away,” said Master Hamed. 

All eyes turned on Faria, who herself was startled by Hamed’s words; it was unusual for anyone, ever, to be called to the Sanctum who wasn’t a Master, but especially someone so young.  Master Hamed struggled to hide his jealousy of Faria.  It was the Sanctum’s messenger, Master Filas, who had been sent by the elders to instruct Master Hamed to find Faria.  Although the elders often walked around the city, looking in on their respective quadrants, talking to the Masters and addressing any issues, they always slept in the Sanctum and it was in there that all the plans for the city were discussed in complete secrecy. 

Faria had been silenced by Master Hamed’s words and he repeated himself again.  

“The Sanctum, Faria.  We don’t make jokes in our quadrant.”

“Yes, Master.  Sorry, I’ll head there right away,” she finally responded.

The crafters’ quadrant wasn’t renowned for its sense of humour, they tended to take everything as seriously as their constructions; it was in the soldiers’ quadrant where jokey banter was to be found.  As Faria walked over the compressed gravel of the city streets, her eyes fell on the hunter who had just climbed onto the wall.  It was her close friend, Athmane.  Always happy to see Faria, her red hair sticking out from the crowd, Athmane shouted to his friend from the wall.

“Where are you going?” asked Athmane.

“Inside the Sanctum,” she replied, with a wry smile.

“Ha! Yeah right.  A day of my rations next time I’m here says you won’t even dare look Master Braegon in the eye.”

“Just watch me.  I’ll enjoy eating your food.”

Faria’s confident response brought Athmane running down off the wall to join her on the streets.  It was impossible to get lost in Nimar as the rigid quadrant structure meant you always stumbled onto one of the four main streets which all led to the central Sanctum.  Athmane and Faria hugged each other.  Along with Bayoud and Mary, the four of them were the closest of friends having grown up together as foster children, in the care of Grandmaster Fleur – the medic elder.  Despite joining separate quadrants, the four of them had remained close, sharing a connection and bond which could never be broken. 

“More importantly, why are you here?  I thought you had three weeks left outside?” said Faria.

“I’ve been summoned.”

“Don’t tell me you picked the wrong mushrooms again and nearly poisoned us.”

“That was one time, in my first week outside.  You’re never going to let me forget it, are you?  I can’t wait until you make a mistake.  Anyway, I don’t know why I’m here.  Now, I believe you had some crazy idea about going inside the Sanctum?”

“Yes, I can’t delay any longer.  I’ll see you later, hopefully and we can catch up more then.”


Master Braegon was the soldier who stood watch outside the Sanctum entrance during the day; Master Ariss took the night watch. Reaching the Sanctum, Faria looked up at the spire, as she always did when she was near it, and marvelled at its beauty.  Now she would get to fulfil the wonderings of many and discover the inside.  Athmane watched incredulously in the distance as Faria engaged in conversation with Master Braegon, a huge man with a beard down to his chest and strong, muscly arms.  Next to Master Braegon the eternal flame burned on.

“Welcome to the Sanctum.  I hope you live up to your reputation – we need it from the sounds of the commotion coming from the centre,” said Master Braegon.

The centre!  It must be the water pool, thought Faria. 

“I assure you I’ll do my best,” she replied.

“I’ll lead you down there.  Come.”

Master Braegon opened the thick, wooden door which creaked loudly so that entries would be known, and they entered the Sanctum.  Watching on from the streets, a mix of envy and puzzlement consumed Athmane, but he was happy for his friend and he knew she’d spill the secrets later. Athmane made his way to his Master’s chamber. 

Inside the Sanctum, Faria was instantly hit by how much cooler the air was and her eyes adjusted to the darker room, which was illuminated by slits in the rocks above filtering only shades of sunlight through.  There was a natural and pleasant earthly smell within the Sanctum, none of the peculiar mix of odours which wafted through Nimar.  Master Filas, the messenger and internal guard, stood erect at the bottom of the smooth, white stone steps which led up to the elders’ chambers, the archive room and the top level – the important parts of the Sanctum.  It was quiet inside the Sanctum, the hustle and bustle of the city blocked by the thick walls and heavy door.  It had an air of exclusivity about it and Faria greatly admired the stonework. Untouched by the rough winds of time and unspoilt by the battering of the sand storms, the rocks which looked beautiful on the outside still retained their true colours on the inside, the quartz crystals within them sparkling in the faint light.  Faria stood in awe.

“Not too shabby, eh, this way,” instructed Master Braegon.

Master Braegon led Faria down the spiralling stone stairs towards the precious resource: a circular pool of water several metres deep.  In the centre of the spiral, a bucket-pulley system powered by a waterwheel continually brought water from the well up to the first floor of the Sanctum and into the water tank, where it was distributed – or not, if the elders restricted it – by four stone half-pipes to the separate quadrants of the city. 


Faria estimated to be at a depth of 10 metres below the surface of Nimar and the air had gone from cool to cold.  The natural light no longer penetrated the depths and the stairs were lit by flames burning the oil which resided in little potholes carved into the walls. The potholes would be refilled every day; oil was something Nimar was not short of, stockpiling huge amounts which the hunters replenished every week from the tar sands.  Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Faria was met by the engineering elder, Grandmaster Prisa, a sixty-year-old woman who’d pioneered the water-pulley system and freed the water carriers of their backbreaking duty.  Prisa was a gifted and intelligent craftswoman, well respected and admired by all in the city.  Out of all the elders, it was Prisa the citizens looked to for advice and they trusted her judgement and word.  Master Braegon retreated back up the stairs and to his post.

“Faria, it’s good to meet you again.”


The two of them shook hands for only the second time, the first being at Faria’s graduation.  Prisa’s hair had turned silver at a young age and had helped to give her an aura of authority and wisdom, while taking nothing away from her natural beauty.  If anything, it enhanced it. 

“The Masters speak very highly of you and they say you have a gift for envisioning ideas where others do not,” said Prisa.

Faria was a little startled by the remark.

“You’re too kind.  I have ideas, whether they can be translated into reality is another thing. I was under the impression the Masters regarded me and my ideas with disdain.”

“The Masters just don’t understand your ideas like I do.  They lack ambition and the spark of imagination.  I like those who think differently.  Your drawings in the construction building far outnumber the contributions of others, even some of the Masters I’m afraid to say.”

“Drawing is a form of escapism for me, it’s no chore.  So, what’s the problem?”

“Straight to the issue, just like a true craftswoman should be.  So I shall be blunt as well… Faria, in one month, we’ll all be dead.  The water in the pool is not replenishing.” 

Faria didn’t respond, Prisa had been a little too direct with the issue and it came as a massive shock.  Only when Prisa mentioned the water did Faria actually notice the near empty pool behind the elder.  Prisa turned around and spoke as she surveyed the water pool.

“We’ve always been careful with the water and if we noticed that the well was not refilling we’d reduce consumption to let it catch up and replenish.  Three hundred years and the well has never dried-up completely, a remarkable feat of sustainability and restraint.  But the last few weeks the water hasn’t refilled, even when times were very bad this has never happened before.  I fear the rains have not come in the mountains to replenish the groundwater. Or perhaps something else has cut off the water; maybe the earthquake a few months ago shifted the underground and diverted the groundwater elsewhere.  This could be a short-term problem and the well could yet replenish, we pray that it will, but where water is concerned we cannot just sit around waiting.  We must be proactive and source alternative supplies.”

“I agree with your evaluation, we need to source elsewhere but with all due respect, this is a job for the hunters to scout.  I’ll just be a burden.”

“Fortunately, two alternative water sources were located long ago.  There is a large well located at the centre of the Helven Outcrop to the west and that’s where you come in.  I want you to go to Helven and evaluate the area for access.  It is, by my understanding, a craggy, eroded and undulating terrain with much of the ground collapsing into sinkholes.  Water is the most precious resource we have and we can’t afford spillages, lengthy delays accessing it or worse, losing lives reaching the well every day.  You are to firstly locate the water well and secondly, you are to assess the best ways to access the well to mitigate the risks I just mentioned.  I believe you caused quite a stir in your final year of training with your unusual construction designs.”

Faria took a moment to take in all that Grandmaster Prisa had said.

“If the resources are available, I believe we could build bridges, water-ducts and even tunnels to help channel the water as easily as possible from the well to Nimar.  Even if we took all the wood from the Dead Forest, we would still only have enough to build in the Helven region.  Manpower would have to then push the water carts back and forth along the gravel plain.  It would be a huge operation.  Of course I want to help the city and I’ll gladly accept the task.  I just don’t feel we should put all our faith in this one plan.  It would be an enormous effort.  You said there were two wells?”

“You’re correct – Helven is Plan B.  All the elders have agreed it is best to relocate entirely to another region, one that is known to have vast reserves of water to last us forever along with adequate shelter to house us while we rebuild.  It’s no secret Nimar has reached capacity, we cannot continue here forever.   The plan is to move and rebuild Nimar in the Dunein region. It’s been discussed for some time, even before the water problem.” 

“Dunein?  I grew up with the horror stories about that locality.  Its caves are supposedly occupied by a monstrous snake.  Personally, I thought it was just a silly rumour and an extravagant tale to scare us, but those soldiers that left the city earlier – they were on a mission to Dunein, weren’t they?”

“We felt it was better to be safe than sorry.  Many years ago, well before my time, the elders sent a hunter on a scouting mission to the northeast lands.  The hunter reported a vast underground freshwater lake in the Dunein caves, but he also found something else: an enormous serpent’s skin.  Terrified, the hunter escaped the caves and that night, watching from afar, he eyed the serpent slither down from the Black Mountains and into the caves.  The hunter barely made it back to Nimar alive, apparently running most of the way back.  Delirious, dehydrated and in shock, the medics could only get strings of sentences out of him, nothing coherent.  Before his death two days after arriving back to Nimar, the hunter awoke in the night and traced out the figure of a snake in the sands outside the wall – it was over 50 metres long.  To be honest, we don’t know what the hunter saw all those years ago.  The sun probably fried his brain.  Still, we had to check out the area for water and to rid it of any beasts, hence the large party of soldiers we sent out to investigate the area first.  Two hundred years have passed since the hunter saw the snake and it will have surely died, if there was a snake in the first place.”

“I hope the soldiers will be safe.  I will do everything you ask of me.  I’m still a little unsure of why we are bothering with Helven now, after what you said.”    

“Well, undoubtedly there will be people unable or unwilling to move to Dunein – the sick, the elderly.  We can still use Nimar, a safe base for our people and hunters.  The bulk of the population will be in Dunein, but Nimar can still sustain a small percentage of people, supplied with water from Helven if we can resource it and transport it here.”

“It sounds good.  Two cities for our people, I never thought I’d see the day.”

“I know you won’t disappoint us and after chatting with you now, I’m certain sure you’re the right person for this task.  We need the energy and passion of youth on our side – this is for your future after all.  We’ll take everything one step at a time.  For now, you shall go to Helven with a hunter to guide you and keep you safe.  Grandmaster Hawk has asked his Masters to select the best candidate.”

Faria’s mind immediately switched to Athmane, although she knew he was second on the hunters’ rankings.  But then he had been called back…

Prisa kept on speaking.

“You shall evaluate Helven for its water and ease of access.  I want a full report when you get back.  You shouldn’t be more than four days.  I guess this is all coming as a shock to you, but know this: there are three possibilities for the future of Nimar. Either we bring the water to us, we move to the water, or we die.  This is the greatest challenge we’ve faced since the Great Flood caused our ancestors to migrate across the Black Mountains and yet it is nothing compared to their struggle.  We’ve come a long way as a people and the blood of the Nimerians will not be wiped out on my watch.  We have enough water in the stocks to last the city for four weeks.  By that time Grandmaster Jax will have returned from his mission to Dunein and the whole city will know the plan.”

“When do I leave?”

“You’ll leave at dawn. I’ll meet you at the gate and introduce you to your hunter companion.  Take whatever things you require from the store room.  I’ll have a few things to hand you tomorrow as well.  Grandmaster Hawk was working on a map to guide you safely through Helven based on old scrolls handed down through the years.  I’d like to spend another night double-checking the map, it’s not that I don’t trust Hawk but one mistake could cost you your lives and I’m a better reader than him.   Besides, it’s good if you go back to your shift and work as normal, prepare for tomorrow and rest well tonight.”

“There will be a lot of questions from my work mates.”

“Tell them it was about your design for the new toilet system, which I think is excellent by the way.  I’m sure you can redesign it for the new city in Dunein.”

The last of the water from the well was raised up by a bucket.  Prisa tied a ribbon around the handle which signified to the water distributor at the top to stop the waterwheel.  Nimar was now officially on a countdown.  The water remaining in the waterwheel was drained out and into the store tanks, not a drop was wasted.  Prisa and Faria stared at the moist pebbly bottom of the empty water pool.  The upper edges of the water pool had already cracked and flaked from dryness.

“I’ll stay down here for a bit, I prefer it down here than at the top, the colder air lets me think clearer.  See you tomorrow morning,” said Prisa.


Faria ascended back up the staircase, she was curious to explore more of the Sanctum and approached Master Filas, his cold hard stare resolute and his body unwavering.  Faria had not been given permission to go to the higher levels, only to the water well, and any act she made to get up there would be dealt with swiftly by Master Filas with serious consequences.  Master Filas slammed his spear down onto the stone floor, the noise echoing off the walls and making Faria jump. 

“Sorry, just wanted a peek,” said Faria.

Alerted to the noise, Master Braegon opened the Sanctum door.

“Come Faria, I’ll show you out.  Never mind Master Filas, once you come back and it’s known you helped to save the day I’m sure he’ll be nice to you.  Although he still won’t let you up the stairs.  Best of luck out there,” said Master Braegon.

“Thanks,” she replied.


The sun was shining and outside Faria squinted from the brightness. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  She was stunned and didn’t know what to feel.  All these years of daydreaming about leaving the city and now it was going to come true, yet any joy she was feeling was overshadowed by the threat to Nimar’s survival.  What if Jax didn’t return, or if he did and it was bad news?    The designs she had made during her training had been laughed off and dismissed by her colleagues as make-believe.  Faria knew otherwise, she wouldn’t draw something that wasn’t theoretically achievable.  If the materials could be sourced, the designs could be built and they would hold up within their structural limits – of that Faria was certain.  She was pleased her name had gone a long way and that Prisa had selected her for the mission.  Walking through the streets back to her dorm and seeing the children playing, Faria shook off any notions of doubt creeping in and resolved do to the best she could for the city.  Faria’s mission might have been a back-up plan, but she was determined to make sure the city could count on it.

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