PART THE FIRST
As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There armored lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum, no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo
But the Angelus Bells o’er the Liffey’s swells rang out in the foggy dew
The Sleepers, Talvi and Pakastaa, stood stoic and unmoving on each side of the Sanctum’s door, she on the right, and he on the left. Their eyes were closed; to the outside viewer, they appeared to have fallen asleep on duty, Pakastaa with his pipe still smoldering, and Talvi leaning on her glaive. Hence their loving nickname, and the title that they had adopted, the Sleepers.
However, outside viewers would be wrong. The Sleepers were not asleep. They were simply relying on their fine-tuned other senses- hearing, smell, and touch- to more effectively guard the Sanctum’s precious contents.
The eyes could be deceived, but the other senses could not. That was their principle.
An unworthy presence approached the door, obviously trying to sneak past the Sleepers. It slunk quietly across the snow-covered stone. But it did not get far.
Pakastaa was the first to notice the unworthy presence, hearing its footsteps and smelling its scent of fur and iron. He scuffed the tip of his boot across the snow, the movement barely visible or audible, as a signal to Talvi. She repeated it. Simultaneously, the Sleepers crossed their glaives over the door just as the unworthy presence reached for the door handles.
They could tell that their coordination and seemingly unthinking movements had startled the unworthy presence before they even opened their eyes. When they did, though, all they saw of the one who had dared try to breach the Sanctum was its back, as it turned tail and fled into the nearby pine forest. In the shadows of fading twilight, it looked vaguely like a fellow Okotan.
The Sleepers shared a look. Talvi made a subtle, negative head motion; whatever had approached them, it was gone. There was no need to pursue. They were needed here. Pakastaa made a similarly subtle, yet affirmative, head motion, acknowledging. They went back to their previous positions, asleep to those who didn’t know any better…
Ihu sat outside the door of the Sanctum Guard’s bunker, trying to light his pipe. Around him, a quiet breeze blew, slightly disturbing the snow drifts and the needles of the pine trees. In the almost completely-darkened sky, the light of the twin moons, both at their fullest point, shone through the thin blanket of clouds. It was a peaceful twilight.
Down below, he observed the normal bustle of Sanctum City begin to wind down, as shops closed, Okotans returned home, and lights were put out. Here and there, a lantern lit the streets, providing some illumination for the Gentlemen who would be patrolling that night.
He was supposed to be one of those Gentlemen.
Ihu finally succeeded in igniting the damp pipeweed, and took a long pull. Not for the first time that night, he began to wonder where Arktinen was. He was supposed to have reported back ten minutes ago to be relieved of his afternoon patrol; then he, Ihu, would take the night patrol. But the greenhorn was nowhere to be seen.
Then again, this was Arktinen’s first real patrol. He probably just lost track of time.
Speaking of Arktinen… The recently appointed Gentleman came bustling up the stairs of the Sanctum Mount, cheeks flushed beneath his mask, breath coming hard. He adjusted his fur coat and multiple scabbards before meeting Ihu’s gaze. He grinned sheepishly.
Clutching his glaive and rising from his stool, Ihu approached Arktinen. “A bit late, are we?” he asked in a mock-angry voice, though the smile he wore belied his true feelings.
“Sorry, Ihu,” Arktinen replied. “I guess I got too caught up in my patrol. I didn’t realize that I was late for my shift tradeoff until I saw that the sun had gone down. It took all I had to get here before night completely fell. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
Ihu patted Arktinen’s shoulder. “It’s all right, lad. I was late for my first shift tradeoff, too. It happens to even the best of us.” He chuckled, and after a moment, Arktinen joined in.
Their camaraderie was cut short, however, by a rustling sound. They turned around to face the nearby trees. Arktinen’s hand dropped down to one of the knives in his scabbards; Ihu tightened his grip on his glaive. Out from the foliage came…
“Oh, it’s you,” Ihu grunted as the tension went out of him.
The ‘you’ in question was Ahkmou, another recently appointed Gentleman hailing from the neighboring Region of Stone. Ever since the alliance between the Regions of Ice and Stone, Okotans from the latter Region had trickled in to join the ranks of the Sanctum Guard, the most recent being Ahkmou. Why he joined was a complete mystery, because so far, he hated everything about being a Gentleman.
Ahkmou’s head and shoulders were topped with snow. He was huddled deep in his fur coat, with a white scarf tied tightly around his nose and mouth. He was very visibly shivering.
“Hi, Ahkmou,” Arktinen said.
“Shut up,” Ahkmou responded, the words muffled by his scarf.
“That’s no way to greet a fellow Gentleman,” Ihu said gruffly. He held no tolerance for Ahkmou’s rudeness. “What in the blue blazes were you doing in there, lad? There’s beasties deep in those trees, and, last I checked, you hated being outside in the cold.”
Ahkmou shook off the snow on his head. “It’s none of your business, old man,” he said. “I’m going inside.” With that, he stormed through the door of the bunker, slamming it behind him.
Ihu shook his head. “He’d better learn some respect on his own, or I’ll have to knock it into him.” He gave Arktinen a farewell pat on the back. “Have a good night, lad. Don’t let Ahkmou get to you.”
“G’night,” Arktinen called back, as Ihu descended the Sanctum Mount’s stairs.
As he walked, entering the outskirts of Sanctum City, Ihu took another long pull at his pipe, watching the smoke he exhaled spiral into the chill breeze…
The common room of the Sanctum Guard’s bunker was full of Gentlemen and Gentlewomen relaxing after a hard day’s work, enjoying a drink, a smoke, or a chat with friends. Some were spending the night patrolling the streets and borders of Sanctum City, and some were sleeping in the Gentlemen’s and Gentlewomen’s barracks. The majority of those present were Ice Okotans, but here and there, brown armor and masks punctuated the white.
Jaa was in the middle of sharing a hilarious story with his best friend Ehrye. They both tried unsuccessfully to hold back their giggles as he continued.
“… and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not even the same bucket!’”
Ehrye fell into a very unladylike snorting fit as Jaa delivered the punchline. He fell into laughter along with her. For a few moments, everything was all right.
The door suddenly slammed open, then closed, catching the attention of everyone in the common room. Ahkmou stormed in, rubbing his arms as he made his way, hunched over, to the fire burning merrily in the fireplace. “Move,” he told Kylma, who was currently enjoying the warmth.
“No,” Kylma said. “This isn’t your fireplace. Why should you have it all to yourself?”
Ahkmou didn’t bother to answer properly. “Move,” he commanded again.
“No,” Kylma refused again, more emphatically this time.
This time, Ahkmou didn’t even bother to verbalize his wishes. He gave Kylma a hard shove, causing the Ice Okotan to fall off his stool. He then took it before Kylma could get back on it and scooted as close to the fire as he could, holding his hands up to the flames to warm them.
Kylma made a sound of disgust. “Enjoy your stool,” he muttered under his breath, as he departed.
As the activity in the common room slowly returned, Jaa glanced between Ehrye and Ahkmou, silently communicating his discomfort at Ahkmou’s rudeness. From her expression, Ehrye shared his feelings. Their discomfort was alleviated, however, by the arrival of Arktinen.
“Hey, Arktinen,” Ehrye greeted him. “How was your first patrol?”
“It was all right. I was late for my tradeoff, but Ihu didn’t seem to mind.” Arktinen rubbed the back of his head. “I should learn to keep better track of time.”
Jaa chuckled. “It’s all right. Like Ihu says, it happens to even the best of us.”
“Yeah.” Arktinen looked over to where Ahkmou was huddled up by the fire, forgoing his intentional ignorance of people to deliver a cutting remark every now and then. “He came out of the forest just as Ihu and I were trading patrols,” he said, pointing. “He was kind of a jerk. Is he always like that?”
Jaa followed Arktinen’s finger, hesitant to answer. “I don’t know,” he replied after a moment. “Ahkmou’s only been a Gentleman for about as long as you have, so I can’t really give a good judgment of his character. Though I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he was a jerk all the time.”
“What was he doing in the forest?” Ehrye wondered.
Arktinen shrugged. “He didn’t say. He wouldn’t say, actually. Like I said, he was kind of a jerk.”
Jaa peered at Ahkmou, who was unaware of the scrutiny. He had repeatedly stated that he hated being outside in the cold, and the fact that he had been out amongst the pines, refusing to disclose what he had been doing there, seemed a tad suspicious. Jaa decided to keep an eye on him every now and then, to make sure that he didn’t do anything too fishy.
Ehrye yawned. “Boy, I’m tired,” she said. “I’m going to go to bed.”
“Yeah, I think I’ll hit the Harakeke, too,” Jaa said.
“Me three,” piped up Arktinen.
Simultaneously, the three left for their barracks, Jaa and Arktinen going to the Gentlemen’s, and Ehrye to the Gentlewomen’s. They bid each other good night before hopping in their bunks.
Jaa stared up at the bottom of the bunk above him, where Arktinen had already fallen asleep. His mind raced a little as he thought, not of Ahkmou’s mysterious journey into the forest, but of Ehrye. She had been his best friend ever since they joined the Sanctum Guard three years ago. And over those three years, he had developed feelings for her. Feelings of love. He had wanted desperately to share those feelings with her for about a week now, but hadn’t found the right opportunity to do it.
He yawned and rolled over, his eyes closing. He had the day off tomorrow; he’d think more about his confession then…
The flames danced over the logs in the fireplace. They gave such good warmth. And for Ahkmou, good warmth was what he craved right now.
He absolutely hated it here in the Region of Ice. He especially hated it here in Sanctum City. It seemed like the coldest place in all of Okoto. For a native of the Region of Stone, who was so used to the desert heat, it was utter misery. He had no idea how his fellow Stone Okotan Gentlemen could stand it.
He would stand it, though. Even though he ached to return home, he would tough it out. Once he completed his objective, once he had done the thing that was his sole purpose for joining the Sanctum Guard, then there was the possibility of going home…
Ehrye groaned as she crawled into her bunk. It had been a long, hard day for her, what with patrolling Sanctum City’s outer perimeter and all. It was good to finally get some rest. She’d need it; she had Morning patrol tomorrow. She closed her eyes, eager to drift off into dreamland…
She opened her eyes at the whisper that came from above her, and sighed. She forgot that she was bunked under Lumi, the gossip and insomniac who loved to have others stay up with her, into the wee hours of the night, sharing juicy tidbits. “Not tonight, Lumi,” she muttered, rolling on her side to face the wall. “I’m too tired to gossip.”
“Come on, Ehrye, stay up for just a little longer?”
“I heard something that you’d definitely be interested in!”
“Good night, Lumi.”
“It’s about Jaa!”
That caught her attention. She sat up, rubbing her eyes. “What about Jaa?” she yawned. “If it’s something that’s going to tarnish him in any way, I don’t want to hear it.”
Lumi hopped down from her bunk, hastily adjusting her mask; that thing seemed to always be loose. “It’s not anything bad, unless you think it is. I overheard Jaa talking to Kokkan that-” she could barely contain her giggles at this point- “that he likes you!”
“First, it’s impolite to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, especially relatives’. And second, of course Jaa likes me. He’s my best friend; best friends are supposed to like each other. Is this really what you kept me up for? To tell me something I already knew?”
“Not that kind of like,” Lumi giggled. “He likes you, likes you!”
It took a second for Ehrye to register. When she finally did, she asked, “Are you sure? I think you’re making this up.”
“I’m not! Would I lie?”
“You managed to convince Kopeke that the Ice Eagle was a type of hat. Yes, you would lie.”
Lumi blushed. “Yeah, but that was completely different!”
“Look, Lumi, Jaa hasn’t let on that he likes me, likes me, and if it were true and he wanted me to know, he’d tell me. That’s how confessions are supposed to work. Besides, I know better than to listen to something you overheard and act on it; there’s always the possibility that you misheard. So until Jaa comes to me and tells me that he likes me, likes me, I have no choice but to not believe you.” She lay down again and rolled over to face the wall, with her back to Lumi. “Now go to sleep.”
“But, Ehrye!” Lumi protested.
It did no good. Ehrye was already asleep…
He dreamed of things that once were and things that would be. Things of good nature and things of foul nature. Things created and things destroyed. Things far away and things very near. And in all of these dreams, there were the hand, and the mask.
He didn't think much of what he dreamed when he woke up; the only prevalent thought in his mind was that he'd try to be more on time today...
Edited by Scrubbish, Jul 13 2018 - 04:28 PM.