Location: Stadtholme, Nubik. Guard house.
It was dark in the armory when Steston stepped inside, one hand holding a half-melted candle while the other hovered over the knife in his belt. He did not like the dark. Darkness was where the most vile of violence occurred. Ambushes made by men with no honor left others dead or dying with no chance of help. Alive one moment, and dead the next.
“Men are supposed to be good at dying,” his little sister had said when he’d seen her last. “That’s why they get put as guards and things.”
Steston had wanted to tell her that being a guard was the only reason their city was kept safe, but that would have been wildly impolite. This was his role, and there was no need to shove it in his sister’s face. In any case, Steston’s mother would have berated him for it, saying that his future wife would not appreciate such words, and neither did she.
He tried to think what his mother would do in this armory in the middle of the night, her hair standing on end because something felt terribly wrong. Did they get such sixth senses? Commander Berholdt, the man who’d trained Steston along with half the garrison, said that the Danger Sense was one thing that separated men from women, and that their mothers, wives, and daughters were above such things. Steston wasn’t sure if that was true. Why else was his little sister afraid of the dark?
He hadn’t asked about it, though. That would have been an even larger breach of etiquette than snapping at his sister. It would have implied that she had a bloody streak that was so frowned upon in the general community. It was well-known that women could be fierce, bold, strong-willed. But they didn’t stoop to violence. It was a lesser thing, which was why none of the weapons or armor in here belonged to women.
The armory was empty. No odd shadows flickered in the corners, nothing moved just within his sightline. Whatever had driven Steston here in the middle of the night obviously wasn’t here any longer, if it had ever been. If there was any intelligence rattling around in that brain of his, Steston would have fled back to his bed before anyone could learn about his faulty sixth sense.
Instead, he withdrew from the armory, and trotted down the stairwell with a silence that had been drilled into him from day one. It brought him to the door that would leave him on the streets of Stadtholme, near its iron gates. He snuffed out his candle when he reached the guard house door, and set it on a ledge nearby. Steston lifted up on the doorhandle as he swung it open, mindful to keep the rusted hinges silent. When he first joined the Guard, he’d marvelled at their half-dozen tricks and traps that would alert the Guard of any who entered when they had no right. Now, the silence was instinctual. He snuffed out his candle when he reached the door, and set it on a ledge nearby.
Steston’s sixth sense subsided as he withdrew from the Guard House, but he moved towards the iron gates anyway. Familiar faces stood at attention, armed in case something were to happen… not that things generally did.
“Can’t sleep?” The more grizzled guard asked him as he stared out beyond the bars.
Steston nodded silently. The world looked peaceful. It was a shame, almost. He had to last two years before he would be part of the official Guard; until then, it would be a constant test of skill and drive. This little night journey was not a promising start, and though it was not pleasant thinking, he forced himself to consider what might happen if he failed here. If he was not accepted into the Guard, the only options he had would be less than pleasant ones. He could kiss his soldiering career goodbye; it would be farm work or manual labor for him. He shivered at the prospects.
And then something caught his eye, and he turned around to face the guard tower. Shadowy black figures swept over the rooftops. “Did you see that?” Steston asked the two men at the gates.
The seasoned guards exchanged a look, and the younger of the two shook his head. The grizzled guard searched the surrounding area, then asked, “What?”
“On the roofs…” Steston started, but the shadowy figures were already gone. The guards, it was clear, had been too focused on the streets to look above. Steston darted back to the guard house, and let the hinges squeak as they would. If he was wrong, there’d be shame enough to deal with. But if he was right, his position in the Guard was almost entirely assured.
He was willing to take the risk.
Steston stepped inside and pounded down the hallway rather than take up the stairs. The lower level was where everyone slept, and there was another staircase at the end of the hall.
By the time he reached the stairs, a few men had stumbled out of bed, bleary-eyed, demanding to know what fool was making such a ruckus at this time of night. Steston skidded to a halt and spun, pointing heavenward with heavy emphasis. His meaning, he hoped, was clear enough. A few blessed souls said no other word and darted back into their room for whatever weapons and clothes they could snatch before running into the fray.
Within moments, a quiet but incessant peal clattered down the hall and echoed up the stairs in time to Steston’s footfalls. The alarm had been sounded. By the time Steston reached the upper levels, officers were stumbling out of their rooms, half-dressed and only mostly-alert.
One was none other than Commander Berholdt, who flagged Steston down. “What in the name of the Holy Goddess is going on?”
Steston explained what he had seen.
To his surprise, however, Commander Berholdt didn’t jump immediately into action. Instead, he gave off a few select curses, said something about being early, then said something that made Steston’s jaw drop nearly to the floor: “Use your dull blades.”
He could hardly process what he was hearing. Dull blades were for practicing, not for real combat.
“Move, boy,” Berholdt snapped. “Unless you want to risk winding up dead.”
Steston needed no further prodding, and bolted back into action. What it all meant, he didn’t know. Regardless, upon his return to the armory, men were already strapping on weapons. Several of the more seasoned guards were reaching for the dull blades as if they knew something the green guards did not.
The young guard only hesitated for half a second at the doorway as distant fighting noises began to fill the open space. It was enough to prod him on, and Steston joined the others to strap on his practice sword. A small stirring of pride kindled in his chest to see the hesitant younger guards follow his lead.
Then it was back into the now-lit hallway, where men had drawn back their dark cloaks to reveal navy blue uniforms. For a moment, time slowed. Steston knew those uniforms. He wore them every day, though their house was green. The young guard’s first thought was a coup, but it was dismissed as soon as he recalled what kind of sword he had around his waist. Sense snapped into place, then. Men of the Guard had told plenty of the recruits fun war stories about specific months where one guard house turned on another to practice for potential attacks from other countries. Steston hadn’t really believed them, but even so, this wasn’t the right month. Yet it explained how the shadowy figures from the roof would know how to traipse across it without triggering any noise warnings.
Someone shoved past him, and Time fractured back into a speedy pace.
Move, boy, unless you want to risk winding up dead.
Yes, Steston thought as he bounded towards the fray. From what he’d heard, these things occasionally got a bit ugly. How disappointed his family would be if he died not in some valiant battle but in some practice skirmish between guard houses. That would not happen to him; he absolutely refused to let it.
The halls were packed with guards as more blue uniforms came in as reinforcements and more green ones woke up and attempted to fight off the attackers. Steston waded in, edgeless sword brandished, and played whatever role he could in their victory. But it was a mess in those halls. When the other guards told the stories in the mess hall, they hadn’t done a good job of describing just how crowded everything was. Steston wound up with his back to the wall, slashing and jabbing like they’d learned how to do, but carefully. Even edgeless, a sword wasn’t harmless.
Face after face appeared, and then disappeared after conceding defeat. And then, out of nowhere, a sword appeared out of his periphery. Faulty sixth sense indeed. He tried a defensive maneuver, knowing he would not make it on time. The sword came to an abrupt end right against his neck, and the blue-uniformed guard quirked an eye, waiting for Steston to withdraw from the fight. He did, ashamed at not having made it through the whole thing.
He wondered if, in a real fight, he would be so quick to accept defeat. Steston liked to think he wouldn’t, but Commander Berholdt always said a warrior could not know how brave they were until they were in a situation that demanded more than what they could take. It was a crazy world they lived in, Steston thought, that this would be the life they’d lead.
The young guard withdrew to an open area, motioning to passing Blues that he’d already been defeated. There, near the stairwell where the Blues must have first descended, stood collected a large group of defeated guards. None wore the navy blue of tonight’s enemy, though Steston was fairly certain they’d have just left the guard house.
The noise echoing down the hallways slowly ebbed. Steston stood off to the side while some of the other new guards spoke in hushed whispers among themselves. The men of the Guard watched them all in silence, him most especially. They looked at him with… approval.
Steston was no coward, but he couldn’t help but wonder what life might be like if he hadn’t had to join the Guard… If he could have done as a woman would do, finding work in the market or some other bloodless job. How nice that would have been, how quaint. He had trouble believing anyone really liked getting stabbed at.
Bernholdt, the young guard thought as the commander came striding down the hallway, might have been the exception. The hallway had fallen silent and Bernholdt’s sword was back in its sheath where it belonged. Somehow, the commander managed to combine grimness with some sense of victory.
“Congratulations, men. I am pleased with our response times, and we managed to push back the enemy, even with their commander’s foul trick. Get a good rest tonight; tomorrow is business as usual.”
A few groans, but the crowd dispersed quickly. Steston wondered who among them would find sleep easy after tonight’s excitement.
“Steston,” the commander said, stopping him from going far. He saluted the commander, and let him speak. “You did well tonight. Getting the barracks up and awake is something to be proud of. Keep up the good work, and you might find yourself ascending the ranks with ease.”
“Thank you, sir,” Steston replied, careful not to let show what thoughts he’d been entertaining not five minutes before. “I will not let you down.”