“Another night of doing bugger all and freezing our backside off,” declared Max.
Bayoud shrugged off his friend’s comment as he stood guard during his night shift. He was proud to stand guard and protect the city he loved. For him, ninety percent of being a soldier in Nimar was patience, vigilance and self-discipline. The other ten percent was being brave and heroic when the time came. Attacks on the city were infrequent – months would go by without any action – but when they did occur, attacks often had fatal consequences and caused huge damage to the city buildings. What mattered to Bayoud was being ready, for the slightest delay on his part could spell disaster for those he loved and cared for inside the walls. All newly graduated soldiers started out on watch for the first three years, patrolling the massive outer city wall on a constant twelve hour shift. Once you ranked up from experience and age, you’d then get the easier jobs of sitting inside coordinating the soldiers or, better yet, be chosen to go on a scouting party like the recent one that had left earlier that day. Bayoud had grown up listening to the heroic tales of previous Grandmasters and Master soldiers and wanted his name to go down in legend someday as well. Perhaps one day, he would wield the ultra-weapon of his people – the giant axe called, ‘Gravemaker’.
At 6ft 5”, Bayoud was tall but his bones outpaced his muscles and his build was lanky as such. Smarter than the average soldier, Bayoud’s intelligence had not gone unnoticed by the Masters during his training. Every soldier was equipped with a 5ft wooden spear and a knife. Only the Masters and the elders had alternative weapons, passed down from one to another, which were custom-designed and extremely valuable. Max turned around to survey the town.
“We should be with the party that left today to kill the snake. Greater strength in numbers I say.”
“And if the serpent kills all the soldiers, who is then left to defend the city if we’re attacked by golems or the serpent in its vengeance?” responded Bayoud.
The mention of golems – the biggest threat to Nimar – quickly shut Max up. Bayoud stared intently out into the darkness that enshrouded the lands to the south. No one had ever ventured south; the early hunters reported a great flat expanse which they called The Void, a nothingness bereft of life, water, and even shrubs, so no one ever went there. But the south intrigued Bayoud, sometimes on the clearest of nights, when the atmosphere had cleaned itself of dust and sand he thought he could make out a faint violet and green tinge to the southern night sky even if no one else could. Something lay beyond the horizon, of that Bayoud was certain. Bayoud’s concentration was interrupted – as usual – by Max, returning to the wall after popping down to fill up his water, or so he hoped he could.
“They’re rationing the bloody water again! I need to drink more water I think, it stings when I piss,” said Max.
“You should go get yourself checked out. It might not be a lack of water. A sand leech may have crawled inside you during your sleep. It’s a common problem in our quadrant, something about the living conditions being less sanitary and our beds closer to the ground.”
“What would you know about that? Your bed is up on top.”
Bayoud smiled and replied, “The merits of winning the spear throwing trials. You should have trained harder.”
“It’s your gangly and unnaturally long right arm that is the problem – no one can compete with it. Fine, after this shift ends I’ll go see a medic.”
“Good, I’ll come with you to make sure you go. I know you don’t like those cacti needles.”
Max liked to play the tough guy, exaggerating and hamming up the bravado, but Bayoud knew his friend was no natural soldier. In previous attacks Max had been nowhere, rearing his head only when the danger had passed. Bayoud sensed Max’s overt swagger was because his friend was actually on edge because the city was emptied of its soldiers, especially Grandmaster Jax. It was the elder who usually took care of any attacks.
“Here, have some of my water if you’re thirsty,” said Bayoud.
Max gratefully accepted a few swigs of Bayoud’s water. As a child, Max didn’t know what career he wanted to do and, frankly, he didn’t care. Consequently, he was placed into the soldiers’ quadrant by default like so many of the rest, mainly boys. Gripping his spear and focused on the surroundings, Bayoud trusted his gut and he sensed that the predators outside the walls were watching and waiting for the very second the soldiers dropped their guard. The greatest enemy was that which couldn’t be seen. Bayoud kept a watchful eye on the south, his intuition telling him that one day something would come out of The Void. It was cold. The biting wind blew in from the south, but Bayoud would take a night shift in winter over a day shift in summer, when the suffocating heat was at its most unbearable. Bayoud stretched his fingers and suppressed his yawn from the other soldiers. It would be a typical night of slow-pacing the wall.
Athmane and Faria,
Faria had hardly slept during the night. She didn’t know if it was excitement or nerves she was feeling but, whatever the emotions might have been, they were too much to allow her to sleep. Like all of the citizens, she didn’t have many possessions – a satchel bag, water flask and some wooden carvings she had whittled when a teenager. They were her lucky charms and she had taken them into every exam she took, not that she needed luck. It hadn’t taken long for her and Athmane to organise their things and they’d said goodnight well before midnight. Despite Athmane’s advice to not bring much, before leaving the dorm Faria borrowed two more satchels from her sleeping roommates, they wouldn’t notice, and she put some empty slates in them with some chalk. No one really needed the slates anyway and it was important she could sketch out Helven in detail.
Faria left her dormitory, pausing to look back and reflect if she’d ever see it again. It might not have been luxurious but it was safety and security – home. The lands outside were a dangerous place, even in the company of an experienced hunter. Nimar was quiet at night: only the patrolling soldiers made whispers of noise and Faria’s footsteps crunching along the gravel drew their eyes from high upon the wall. Most of the soldiers thought nothing of it, just another citizen going to the toilet, yet they did wonder why she had so many belongings with her before she passed out of sight towards the gate. The wind was cold and Faria already missed the relative warmth of her dorm, she wondered if she’d even be able to cope the first night away.
As the first beams of the rising sun un-blackened the southern sky, Faria waited by the gate and passed the time by watching the soldiers patrol the wall. She spotted Bayoud and waved to him. Nearing the end of his shift, Bayoud waved back and smiled, curious as to why she had a rucksack but his eyes didn’t linger on her too long, his supervisor, Master Cawes, was nearby and he kept his eyes fixed on the land outside.
“Good morning. If you insist on carrying that extra weight, be my guest, I’m not helping you,” said Athmane.
“I know you advised against it, but I decided not to listen to you. Besides, Prisa said you’re to assist me however you can and I feel it’s important to detail Helven to the maximum.”
“I had an inclination you’d ignore what I said! Give me a few satchels then. But if we’re being chased by a golem, these are getting dropped first.”
Grandmaster Prisa arrived at the gate, pleased to see both hunter and craftswoman were on time and ready for the task at hand.
“Good morning to you both. I trust your Master explained your mission, Athmane.”
“Keep Faria alive, at all costs.”
“You two were chosen for your youth, dedication and excellence in your fields. I would like you back here in four or five days to report your findings. I believe that is ample time, but don’t rush. It’s important you make a thorough assessment and stay safe,” said Prisa.
Another figure approached from behind Prisa – it was Grandmaster Hawk.
Grandmaster Hawk carried his longbow and the deadly black arrows in his quill, twice the size of the conventional arrows. Sporting a black moustache and stubble, Hawk’s fierce blue eyes shone in the dawn sun and his thick black hair blew in the wind, partially covering his eyes. Hawk had the air of authority about him, and at the age of fifty he was the youngest elder. Lean, fit and a handsome face, Hawk assumed command of the hunters and the soldiers in the absence of Grandmaster Jax.
“Congratulations on your number one ranking. I hear your skill with a bow is almost as good as mine,” said Hawk.
“I came close to beating your record in the training ground, but narrowly missed out,” replied Athmane.
“You should have no problem using this then.”
Grandmaster Hawk handed Athmane his longbow – the ultra-weapon of his quadrant.
“This is one of the three longbows our quadrant possesses. I have mine back in the Sanctum, Master Thane has his on the scouting party and now you have the other. No one has been to Helven in over a hundred years and we do not know what beasts may lurk there. It would be irresponsible of the city to send two of its most promising people without maximum protection.”
Athmane held the longbow in awe. Bayoud couldn’t help but notice from the wall and stared at the remarkable scenes involving his friend, not caring anymore about being caught by Master Cawes. The longbow was the most revered weapons in the hunters’ arsenal. The three longbows were crafted by Grandmaster Rufus two hundred years ago and they were kept in the Sanctum. The elder hunter was the only one entitled to the longbow and only he, or she, could decide who could wield the other two. Lighter than Athmane’s current bow, despite its bigger size, it was made of the strongest wood and had double the range of the other bows.
“You’ll need these arrows for it as well,” said Hawk.
Grandmaster Hawk handed Athmane a quill with ten black arrows – oak shafts with obsidian arrowheads.
“Thank you, I’m overwhelmed. I’ll bring it back in one piece,” replied Athmane.
“Finally, here is a map of the Helven region with the safe route to the centre. We’ve done our best to reconstruct it out of the mess of parchments we had and I’ve double and triple-checked it. I hope it will help, trust your instincts though,” said Prisa.
Prisa ordered the soldiers on the wall to open the gate, Bayoud assisted, and the gate slowly began to open with the rising sun visible through the widening gap.
“All being well, I’ll see you again soon. Good luck,” said Prisa.
Without hesitation, and happy to escape the city once more, Athmane confidently walked out of the gate with Gryth’s ashes safely in his satchel and the fierce longbow proudly on his back. Athmane wasn’t a Master, but he sure felt like one now. Faria followed behind, pausing slightly as she walked on the outside ground. Resisting the urge to looking back, she ran a little to catch up with Athmane and then kept pace.
On the wall, his shift now over, Bayoud watched his friends leave with curiosity. First the large party of soldiers and now this. He didn’t like not knowing what was going on and he felt like, out of the four of them, he was the one least developing as even Mary was shift supervisor during the day. Bayoud left with Max to the medical quadrant and then he would try to gather as much gossip as he could from the city.