JD 59 of the Year 321, Dawn
As he did every morning, Athmane watched as the red sun rose slowly up from the western horizon. The giant ball of flame wasn’t bright enough yet to hurt his eyes and Athmane could clearly see the three huge black spots that marred its surface. He didn’t know what it meant and he didn’t care, all he wanted was for the warmth to come back to his blood.
The desert, especially in winter, was cold at night and the strong wind blowing in from The Void far away to the south made it even colder. Athmane had taken shelter overnight in a hollowed out limestone overhang, one of many in his hunting area. Millions of years of erosion and weathering had left it broken, loose and precarious to climb on but Athmane had no other option. Without shelter from the biting wind he would inevitably fall ill. Between the ages of eight and eighteen he had been taught the skills needed to be a hunter and to survive for long periods in the wilderness. Athmane could set traps but was particularly lethal with his weapons – a bow and arrow, spear and knife. He had never liked killing with his knife, close combat was not his style and using it meant that he had missed with his spear and arrows. However, Athmane was the top marksman from his class and he was confident of his ability to hit anything within 50 metres. At the age of twenty, despite his youth, Athmane had a mature head and he was one of the very best hunters Nimar had.
As the light returned to the desert, it revealed to Athmane’s eyes a thin veil of mist that had blanketed the sand and, after taking a moment to take in the new day, he gathered his spear and bow and carefully climbed down to the flat, gravelly sand plain below. It was time to hunt and then return to Nimar. A city of wind-whipped and sun-baked stone, Nimar was the last remaining dwelling of humankind in the land. He knew exactly where his city was and Athmane could judge the distance he was from Nimar to the nearest kilometre. Athmane had found it difficult in the beginning to correctly estimate the distances when dealing with the flat, deceptive landscape. Now he was experienced enough to know he could make it home on the water he had remaining and bring back the food before it went off. Being a hunter was more than about killing. To be a hunter was to be selfless, it was useless killing precious life stock if they couldn’t bring the food back in time for the benefit of all in the city.
The landscape offered little in visual enlightenment but Athmane didn’t mind, in fact he found it peaceful. Out in the wild he was his own boss, in charge of his own destiny and at one with nature. He preferred the silence of the land to the noise of the city. Athmane had chosen to be a hunter gatherer – some of the children weren’t so fortunate in knowing what they wanted to do – and he had never contemplated any other path. As early as he could remember, the lands outside the cramped and bustling city had fascinated him. Athmane was sociable when he needed to be, indeed he had very good friends from within the four quadrants, but alone with the land was where he was most content. The passing wind and streaking whispers of sands across the landscape was all the conversation he required. In truth, he didn’t look forward to his retirement and having to teach, yet he was a long way away from that and took comfort in it. Retirees became known as Masters, expected to train new recruits, procreate and be called upon when needed. Masters never really ‘retired’ in the proper sense of the word; Nimar was a machine that could not afford for even a few of its cogs to stop working. Being a Master, however, did afford an escape from the menial jobs for a more comfortable life with a higher command and more respect.
Athmane raised his bow; his sharp brown-coloured eyes had found their prey: an adult antelope, upwind of Athmane and its senses sluggish to adjust to the morning light and mist. Every part of the animal’s body would be used, once boiled down and placed in a stew it didn’t matter to the people of Nimar whether they were eating a prime piece of thigh meat or a bit of nose or tongue, it all tasted the same. Food was food and the meat provided necessary sustenance. Athmane could hunt and cook his own food in the wild – a perk of the job – but he had to bring back enough meat, berries, herbs, dates and other forage each week to meet his quota.
Despite the skilled efforts of its hunters, there was never a day of excess food or celebration in Nimar. The land of Empyria was not one that gave, it only took.
Twang! The slender wooden arrow sailed through the air and pierced the antelope straight through its brain. Athmane rarely missed, even when the wind blew strongly. Dawn was always one of the best times to hunt and, while hardly teeming with life, this area was always a reliable source of antelope, rabbit, fox, lizard and vulture. The hunters always sourced responsibly, if they had hunted too much meat one week, they would concentrate on gathering other types of food the next.
Athmane raced over to the carcass, removed the arrow and stopped the flow of blood. The last thing he wanted was for a sand golem to pick up the scent, descend from its lair in the nearby outcrops and be on his tail all the way home. Golems were big, slow, stupid creatures that rarely troubled the hunters but that didn’t mean it was any fun to have one pursue you, especially after it had picked up the smell of food in its nose. Most of the time the golems slept in their lairs buried under rock and sand, but when they did hunt they mainly went after the wolves in the Black Mountains, or sometimes the people of Nimar, with lethal consequences. It was defending against the golems, sand eagles and other beasts where the soldiers came in handy. Using his knife, a serrated piece of flint attached to a piece of wood, Athmane marked his signature hunter symbol onto the carcass. These symbols were handed out by the Master hunters at graduation and with them they could easily tally up the meat brought in per hunter each week. It was the meat brought back that earned a hunter his respect.
Tall, broad shouldered and very strong, Athmane easily flung the antelope onto his bronzed back and carried it by its back legs over his shoulder. It was a three hour walk back to Nimar. Dressed in ragged clothes passed down through the generations, made when life was more prosperous in the northern lands, Athmane wore nothing more than a tunic covering his chest to his knees, exposing his lower legs and arms to the elements.
By late morning the land had heated up enough to make Athmane sweat, the cold of a few hours ago now a distant memory and something that he longed for again. In the winter, Athmane could get by hunting further away from Nimar and its precious water supply, but in the summer months he would never be more than half a day’s walk from it. The importance of water was the first lesson to be drilled into the new recruits and the Masters would never let their pupils forget it. Dehydration was the biggest killer.
Head down and watching his footing, Athmane carefully navigated across the gravel plain and the little shrubs that waited to trip him up. It was a journey he had walked a thousand times before. The rocks of the gravel plain were black. Exposure to millions of years of radiation from the sun had transformed their natural, paler colours. The only sound was that of Athmane’s breathing and his feet trudging along the ground. Basic sandals made from the carcasses of animals stopped the hunters burning their feet in the blisteringly hot sands.
Always alert to his surroundings, Athmane’s periphery vision picked up a shape 4 kilometres away to his west. It was a large party of men, soldiers Athmane presumed, heading away from Nimar and to lands in the northeast. Athmane guessed something big was going down, soldiers rarely left the city and especially so many – over a hundred, he guessed – but this wasn’t his concern, he was just a hunter. Athmane had his duty and the soldiers had theirs.
Reaching Nimar, Athmane headed for the drop point. The city gate was slow and cumbersome to open regularly, so the hunters placed their haul on a flat, wooden crate which was raised up over the 3 metre high walls by the on duty soldiers. The soldier on the wall lowered the wooden crate and Athmane placed the meat on it. It was a sizeable catch and Athmane was slightly jealous that he wouldn’t get to taste it, for he wasn’t scheduled to return to Nimar to receive new orders for three more weeks. Athmane turned away from the wall and began to walk back into the wild.
“Hang on, Athmane. You have been summoned to see your Master,” said the soldier.
Athmane closed his eyes and let out a sigh. A few seconds later a wooden ladder was lowered and Athmane climbed up. On the wall, he already felt uncomfortable by the sheer volume of people and the noise of the town. Nimar presently housed one thousand six hundred people – it was near saturation point. The Sanctum dominated Nimar, a tower of sandstone blocks built upwards and outwards in a spiral shape reaching a height of 15 metres above the top of the outcrop. The rocks of the Sanctum were a fine mix of orange, yellow, red and black sand grains which blended together in a wispy texture as if the very heat of the desert had melted them. At the top of the spire, the four elders presided and viewed the entire city.
The elders were also known as the Grandmasters, the most experienced and knowledgeable of their chosen field. The Grandmasters were elected by the Masters of each of the four crafts – soldier, hunter, medic and craftsman – and they held ultimate authority over each of their respective quadrant. At the bottom of the Sanctum lay the most precious resource of the city – the water pool. The very lifeblood of the city, only the elders and a select few had permission to enter the Sanctum and access the life-giving pool. The Sanctum also housed the dry food stores, should the city ever be under siege or times turn hard and, the library, containing maps as well as various scrolls detailing the land, its resources and its creatures.
There was no space for the dead inside Nimar, the deceased were burnt and their ashes scattered – even those of a Grandmaster. At night, numerous torches lit the city fuelled by the oil from the northern tar sands – a concoction of crude black oil which seeped to the surface and mixed with quicksand. Outside the Sanctum burned the eternal flame, used to quickly light the torches at night time, to cook the food and to light fire arrows in case of attack. The Southeast quadrant of the city contained the training buildings and sleeping quarters of the hunters. Staring at the city, Athmane was counting down the seconds until he was back on the other side of the wall.