AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Sixteen summers later
Daidam stood beside the head of her bunk rummaging about in one of the nooks carved into the stone wall of the barracks. After a few moments, she pulled a strip of cloth free and sat on her bunk. Crossing her leg to rest her calf on her other knee, she set about cleaning her dusty boots.
"No purpose to rub them, Daidam. They'll be dusty again before you reach the end of the family quarters."
Daidam didn't look up from her work to answer the man sitting at one of the tables on the other side of the barracks. "A rub of cloth might do your boots some good, Chaca," she told the man playing a game of chance with three others.
"Ah, but is it not a sign of a good Protector to have dusty boots? Do they not belong to one who has completed patrol?" The soldier smiled raising a dirty boot into the air then slamming it down on the stone floor, a cloud of dust rising in its wake.
One of the other men at the table waved a hand in front of his face as the dust cloud spread. "I see it has been decided who will sweep out the barracks this eve." Daidam smiled at the Captain of the Guard's pronouncement. "Daidam speaks true, Chaca. Your boots are dirty whether you leave on patrol or return. A good rub would not harm them."
"Aye, Captain," the man said nodding. "I shall do as you say just as soon as I win this round."
The captain tossed a pair of flat stones on the table, one side of each stone was colored red, the other side blue. He laughed when the stones came to rest with both red sides hidden. "This eve does not suit you, Chaca. Slacy!" he announced then slapped the table with his hand.
Daidam stood and snapped the cloth a few times to shake the dirt from it. After all, she would not be sweeping the floor. She tossed the cloth back into the nook then took a final look into the polished stone mirror beside the nook. She adjusted her pants until the strips down their sides were perfectly straight. Then she tugged on her tunic's hem around her waist, straightening the cloth on her shoulders. Satisfied, she grasped her spear and turned away. To either side of her, a row of bunks stretched to the ends of the barracks while the opposite side of the room was occupied by groupings of tables and chairs where the guards took their meals or spent endless hours playing Slacy when they had no duties to perform.
"The moon shall light your steps this eve, Daidam," the captain said as she approached.
Daidam nodded. "It is good."
"I bid you to be extra watchful."
Daidam smiled. "Aye, Captain. I expect to hear your boot strikes before the dawn."
Chuckling, the captain stood and placed a hand on her shoulder. "You have learned well, daughter." They both looked toward the barrack's doorway when the guard finishing patrol entered. "Now, go. It is not good to leave the Fortress unprotected."
Daidam nodded. With steady, sure steps she walked across the stone floor and disappeared outside.
Situated at the very end of a butte towering above all that surrounded it, Alasdair Fortress was the furthest outpost of the Realm of Arhdahl yet it served as its first defense against any threat from the Abyss.
Milas sat on the most prominent point of the cliff buttress, her legs dangling over the rock cliff and her position partially obscured by the stones around her. She had learned that if she sat very still when the guards made their patrols, she would be unseen in the night's shadows. As had become her habit, she looked down into the Abyss far below at the foot of the butte.
After leaving the barracks, Daidam began her patrol by walking the length of the narrow passage that fronted the various underground cavities where the family quarters were located. She smiled at the familiar sounds coming through the doorways and envisioned her own family quarters- her mother preparing the eve meal and her younger brother studying his parchments in anticipation of their father's arrival when he would question Kailen on the day's studies.
Her steps brought her to the end of the passage and she walked up the ramp that would return her to the surface of the butte.
She stopped and turned around. "Thoralf? What takes from your family this eve?"
"Have you seen Milas?"
"I have not."
"She did not return from her studies this day. It will soon be dark."
"You need not worry. She is almost finished with her studies. Soon, she will be patrol as I."
"You will watch for her?"
"Tell her, her eve meal is waiting."
"And, her mother worries."
Daidam smiled. "At the risk of having a boot thrown at me, I will do as you ask, Thoralf."
"You know my daughter well."
"None like to hear of a mother's worry."
"You speak true. Good eve to you, Daidam."
"Good eve, Thoralf."
Thoralf watched her walk to the top of the ramp. "But mothers do worry," she whispered before returning to her quarters and waiting husband.
"That be truth," Daidam said, grinning. She turned to her right to walk across the open square in the center of the fortress, the rock surface also serving as ceiling to the quarters and barracks below her feet. Daidam followed a route walked by generations of Protectors before her; never did it occur to her to vary her steps.
After crossing the square, she paused at the Fortress gate formed by two large boulders placed ten strides apart. From each boulder, a deep groove, scraped into the hard stone surface ran in opposite directions toward the butte's precipices. When the groove came within ten strides of the drop off, it turned to perfectly trace the butte's contours- never being further or closer to the edge than ten strides. Daidam followed the groove as it encircled the fortress.
Daidam had completed one full loop of the fortress and stood again at the boulder gate. She turned around to reverse her steps. It was now full dark and, to the north of the butte, the moon was shining brightly. She reached the point where the groove turned to follow the precipice. Something caught her eye and she stopped, tightening her hold on her spear as she dropped it into battle position. Peering into the shadows at the very edge of the butte, she saw movement. "Who threatens the House of Alasdair?" she called into the darkness. "Speak true or I'll alert the Fortress."
"Don't. It is Milas."
Milas stood and eased away from the cliff. "Yes, Daidam. I pose no threat."
"You have left the fortress."
"I stepped beyond the groove, yes. But it is nothing but-"
"It is forbidden."
Milas moved closer to Daidam. "Why?"
"Why? What do you mean?"
Milas studied the woman standing before her, the toes of her boots barely touching the lip of the groove while her spear extended past it. "Why is it forbidden, Daidam? Why are we not to cross that rut in the stone yet your spear passes over it?" Daidam yanked her spear back until it too was inside the groove. "It is but an imaginary barrier. It serves no real purpose."
"It is for the protection of the Fortress and of the Realm. It protects us against those that would threaten from the Abyss."
Milas laughed, sitting on a boulder on the wrong side of the groove. "What threat? Have you ever looked down there?"
Daidam shook her head. "It is forbidden." She relaxed her grip on her spear. "What is down there, Milas?"
"It is beautiful, Daidam. Trees reach as far as you can see."
"Yes. So many it is impossible to count. And there are rivers that flow wide and free."
"You speak true?"
"But..." Daidam looked around.
"I look into the Abyss and I wonder why we live on this barren rock? Why we must scrape deep holes into the stone to catch rain water? Why the Realm struggles to survive when down there is everything we hope for."
"It cannot be."
"But it is. Come," Milas said standing and holding out a hand, "I'll show you."
Daidam backed away. "No! You must come back. Come back within the Fortress."
"Daidam! What danger have you found?"
Daidam spun around. "Captain, the danger is none. It is Milas, daughter of Thoralf."
"It cannot be. Milas is of our House."
"She speaks true," Milas said toward Daidam and the Captain, intending to step back over the groove.
"No!" the Captain thrust his spear to stop her. "Any found within the forbidden zone must die." Milas froze at the words.
"Daidam, it is ordered. You must obey."
"Send her back into the Abyss."
"I cannot. It is Milas, daughter of Thoralf, House of Alasdair."
"Milas is no more. She entered the forbidden zone."
Daidam watched in horror as her father thrust his long spear at Milas, driving her back toward the cliff edge.
"My honor for the Realm of Arhdahl," the captain cried as he stormed toward the groove, his spear thrust out in front of him. Milas back pedaled to the very edge of the precipice, her boots slipping in the loose pieces of stones.
Daidam reached out to stop her father, she grabbed for him as he crossed into the forbidden zone in pursuit of his quarry. But she missed and he charged toward Milas, struggling to maintain her tenuous footing. He made one final thrust. In desperation, Milas grabbed hold of the spear. "Father!" Daidam screamed when both tumbled out of sight.
To be continued...
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