A guards first hunt is a right of passage. A key pinnacle in a young mans life, marking his transition from boy to man. Most council boys are made to undertake one or two in their lifetime, while us scraps are thrown out into the wild before our thirteenth birthday. Makes sense. Use disposable individuals for dangerous situations. They say the young are faster and can run further, they can gather more food to feed our expanding numbers. We scraps know it better as Crowd control. A term which more fitfully explains this satanic practise so often glorified by pigs like Darrox. Children as young as eight are given a bag and a dagger, told to follow the light of a fire started by an arrow from the wall, shot to an area where food may be found. In truth, the guards who fire the arrows are ordered to target the most dangerous regions. The caves, the glades, the Forrest, the bog. I was there when Darrox was given the order to send a group of twelve year olds to their end. He gleefully glared at the scraps, saw the patch of woods known to be a summit for the wolves, and shot his arrow dead centre. Their screams still resonate through my head when I see the woods.
"Move it, wretch!"
A boy pushed past me, using the vulgar term as though it carried no meaning, falling silent when I tripped him up, sending his chubby body into the wall. A child with such high body fat and in weathered hands was obviously of a privileged class, and so teaching him a valuable life lesson seemed compulsory. That and I enjoyed any reason to kick dirt into the face of the children whose parents had once victimised me in my youth.
I had little time to dwell on the child as I rounded the corner unto the Lords path, a wide stretch of road our forefathers had crafted from stone, which led to the great western gate. The devils pass, as most call it.
Phoenix walked toward the guards waiting for us, the warden already glaring down at each of us, my heart trembling as I feared he might demand an inspection of my bag. He had a reputation for stripping scraps of weapons before a hunt. His idea of fun in this damned world. I slipped back, using Twell's awkward height to shield myself from the demon watching us. When we formed a line, I ensured I was between Twell and Ven, relieved to be severed from Phoenix.
As I lingered at the back of the procession, out of place as expected, I felt someone take a tight grip of my forearm, nails pricking my skin as they turned me urgently, my eyes glaring down at the face of Lila. She didn't say a word, didn't scowl or snarl or scream the word gibbock. The older woman simply pressed something cold into my hand and let her lips graze my knuckles.
"For whom the bell tolls my heart is lost."
It was an old saying. An elder saying. Uttered to those sent away from their loved ones to fight or undertake some quest which might cost them their life. Usually, it was said by a parent or by a loved one to their most cherished relation as a symbol of sympathy, pride, and hope. I was not aware she seemed to regard me as anything more than the scrap who fed her birds and saved her husband. Maybe I'd been blind all these years. By the tears in her eyes and the smile on her mouth, I read some unsaid affection she harboured for me. Perhaps, in another life, I might have had the heart to hug her, told her she'd been good to me, apologised for stealing seed all this time, but I didn't. I turned and walked back in line beside Ven, glimpsing down at my hand, catching sight of the cool item she had given me.
It was the lighter.
Perhaps now, as we approached the gate, approached the line of council members headed by the warden, I might regret not thanking her. After all, this gift was not just some ancient trinket. This lighter was a symbol of power. To hold the ability to create an element. More so, it was a piece of my past. A relic father said was given to my mother who sold it to feed herself and the baby in her womb. It was mine. More importantly. It was Forbidden for anyone other than the council to own such an artefact of the past. As the horn was blown commencing the hunts initiation, I thrust the small silver heirloom into my belt, a warmth emanating from within me as I felt my parents were watching over me. I needed all the help I could get.
Our line was told to stand face, all joining shoulder to shoulder, though I made sure I made no eye contact with Phoenix, uncomfortable already from my possession of his firearm. My right side was against Ven, my ears pricking up to the sound of his fingers cracking as he bent them nervously. Perhaps rumours were true and the warden was the one to cut out his tongue. The devil of a man appeared as my mind dwelled on his name, his piercing black eyes scanning us, lingering on Phoenix. Behind him stood the council, all twenty of them, dressed in black as was traditional for an initiation. The women stood with pale skin, smooth hair and clean nails, their lives untouched by hard work or pain. The men, most fat and red skinned, sat in chairs, while those still able bodies stood erect, with smooth, hairless cheeks and bright eyes. They signified lives comfort and ease we knew nothing of. I hated each one, but today, I focused my eyes on the ground, determined to be ready for my escape.
Then, the warden began to speak.
"We stand here today to rejoice in the passing of our youth into the realm of men. I present guard Darrox, a boy with bestial strength, unwavering determination, and the ability to down a full keg of my brew," the council chuckled as the warden walked up to Darrox, giving him a playful punch on the arm, the crowd silent, most unaware of what brew was, most resenting the spoilt criminal Darrox was. The warden continued with a false smile that made my gut wrench, "On his return, Darrox will be promoted to first luietenant of the northern guard. I hope to see the scraps in line, my boy."
As if aware of my status as a northern guard, Darrox turned and gave me a wink, followed by a look that made me feel exposed and vulnerable. I returned his look with a glare, unable to lash out as the warden came between us, standing in front of Phoenix. I felt the boy stiffen as the warden craned over him, inspecting his face as though it were a page of a highly fascinating book, his dark lips curled in a smile more lethal than any beast.
"Now now, you have much to prove. Remember our deal."
The whisper was low and menacing, my nerves shuddering at his every word. I wanted to shrink back, grab my knife, force it into his skull and run. My hatred for him was rivaled only by my fear of his dark soul. As if able to read my thoughts, his eyes darted to me, stare dwindling on my belt.
"Dearest citadel citizens, I give you the councils greatest student, the guards wisest member, and the most adept leader we are yet to know. Come forward Phoenix, son of Payson, our sacred desiple who shall be granted the promotion of first luietenant to myself and eventual Warden of the guard!"
The workers cheered, easily won by the promise of a new warden, as did the council and the farm folk and the scraps. Phoenix might be a pathetic excuse for a man in my eyes, but I could not doubt his kindness to the people. Maybe that was why the warden seemed intent to send him out. Children of the council who lack a violent nature don't usually live past their first hunt. What better way to eradicate the weak than by sending them to their deaths under the illusion of an act of bravery. The glorification of Phoenix's first hunt made me sick, memories of my fourteen year old self thrown into a pack of guards as they ran into the wilderness, rendered this entire celebration unnecessary. A twenty four year old council boy receiving a roar of applause, while a thousand orphans remained unsung heroes as their bodies decayed in the wilderness before us. My stomach turned and I focused on the sky, staring into the red sun so hard my eyes began to burn, fingers curling around the handle of my knife. I wanted to get out there now, before we lost the sunlight. The Warden was holding us up on purpose, wasting time with false formalities in an effort to ensure our hunt would have to treck home through the marsh by night.
Finally, the warden called out for us to fall in line. I turned, expecting to be paired with Ven, but Twell seemed to push himself to my side, bumping into me as he did. I glared at him, stunned when I realised he was talking to me in a hushed voice
"W-we should stick togetehr, us being scraps..."
He stopped short as Phoenix called out for Twell to fall to the back. Great. The person making sure we were covered from a threat behind us happend to be the guard who once broke an arm tripping over his own feet. Ven came to my side, silent and solemn, sternly looking ahead. I wasn't going to have a problem with empty banter now.
"Fare well children of the citadel!" The Council chanted in unison, the gates opening with a deafening crack, my heart momentarily shuddering, as it always did, as we began to march forward.
Some might call it a fine day for a hunt. The heat was almost bearable, the ground was dry and easy to tread, and the bog we journeyed toward was just beyond the heathland. As we left the citadel behind us, the ground became earthy, my shoes kicking up clouds of dry dirt. Darrox raced ahead, laughing and whooping about something with Phoenix, who seemed less talkative than usual. I remained focused on the wilderness around us. The heartland was the safest territory to wander through. Miles of mostly flat earth, infested with various shades of murky moss and bright purple weeds. Sometimes they use these plants for healing draughts, though the flowering plants often poison patients. Rumour is, they kill off the weak and sick with herbal poisons just to empty the infirmaries.
"Keep up, keep alert!"
I laughed at Phoenix's poor attempt at an order. Since we left, do done nothing else but survey the land. The Heath was flat, and so danger could be seen from miles away. A mist was setting in, rolling towards us from the direction of the past, but it was not so thick enough to veil a predator. No beasts seemed ready to hunt just yet, so I allowed myself the brief bliss of enjoying the view of the distant mountains. Ahead if us lay the trail, a pass through the swampy marsh that led to the bog, and beyond the bog lay the Forrest of the beasts and scavengers, and beyond that, the river. Then, there lay the mountains. The rocky guardians of the valley, surrounding us entirely, breaking the skyline with their looming peaks. What lay beyond them? The ruins? A desert? A vast emptiness? Other survivors?
The great unknown called to me. It was a call I'd heard since birth. Now, finally, I would answer.
We took a rest in a small clearing on the border of the marshland pass. The bog was not far, the thick scent of tar already reached us through the mist. Darrox began devouring a piece of stodgy white something I'd seen council members eat before. It was either what they called bread or some sort of pudding. Phoenix retrieved a leaf wrapped parcel of stewed meat, probably fowl by the soft yet sweet aroma. Meat from fowl I raised, never passing my lips to quench the never ending hunger inside ms. I tried to distract myself from their filling meals, focussing on my seeds, taking three at a time, loathing their woody taste. There's a reason they feed this to the fowls.
Ven walked past me, slipping something into my seed bag, moving away to a desolate spot as he did so. I glanced at Twell, who was too busy vomiting on moss to eat. I peered down, suprised to see a handful of dried apricots. These were rare, saved from the hottest months, preserved and stored in the citadel. I longed to ask how he acquired them, knowing all too well these were most likely stolen, but I appreciated his wish for solace, so I enjoyed them in peace, scanning the path ahead.
As we began to pack up and walk into the marsh pass, I thought of Ven. I still remember him from my years struggling to live in the orphan home. A child of unknown descent, living among us, learning from old Roody to speak some form of elevated language he called "british English," wooing almost every soul he spoke to. He was the tallest boy there, a whole four years older than me. Growing up, I was a devious teenager, stealing from guards, evading council bullies, climbing across the village roofs. Ven caught me twice and let me run off, saving me from the punishments of the warden.
There was something different about him. The girls in the town used to say he wasn't the usual dirty scrap. Ven could be courteous, never swore, always a good guy unless you gave him reason to fight. Then he was all scrap. I admired how easily he held back the urge to bicker with workers, and the way he avoided confrontation with the council. I remember when he joined the guard. We used to try and spot him on guard at the wall on our way to classes with the elders. He had golden brown hair that looked almost like fire in the sun, making him easiest to spot when he stood at the wall amongst the other ugly faced council guards. It was Ven who I'd sought advise from, it was he who suggested I join the guard.
Since his tongue was torn out and the guard saw fit to demote him to being the errand boy for the council, I've never seen a flicker of the old Ven in those now sunken green eyes. We stand side by side on the wall most nights, with nothing but silence and the odd clink of his flask as he sips stolen beer from the citadel. I cherish silence, often forgetting the vacant guard beside me was once a young man who would bring his rations to the home so he might share them with us younger scraps. Ven took the crippled kids up the wall to see the sunset, he gave us medical supplies during the plague, even venturing out on a hunt to bring back wildflowers for the herbal tea we needed that one year we witnessed winter. Now, hes mute, mundane, void of hope and heart, barely aware of the world around him.
Could that be me? If I never escape, would I become like him? The warden loathes me, he might hurt me in the same way. I might lose an eye, a leg, a hand. He had dome all three to scraps before me. I was temperamental, vicious, a live wire waiting to explode. How long would I make it...
My thoughts drew me into myself so much, I barely noticed the procession had stopped, my body slamming into the back of Twell. Loosing my footing, I slipped saved from falling into the muddy path by Ven, his arm steadying me. I whispered a thanks, expecting some sort of reaction, but he merely glanced at me before pulling his arm back and standing in line. Slightly off guard, I quickly stood in line next to Twell, surprised to see the boy was ten shades paler than usual. I fished into my belt, pulling out a pouch of mint leaves. I handed him one, forcing myself to smile. He seemed momentarily comforted.
"Oi scrap, why you smiling?!"
I glanced at Darrox, who was leering over at me, his angular face twisted into that same retched look he gave me every morning on the wall. As hard as he might try, his open resentment towards me could not hide his deep envy of my abilities. He was, after all, the only guard unable to understand strategy plans and the only council child unable to read. His brawn could not make up for his lack of brain. I shrugged, "just enjoying how this mist obstructs my view of that hefty potato you call a nose."
His enraged expression gave me more delight than regret. It was common knowledge Darrox had been bullied by the other council children for having an ugly nose, it's bloated appearance I'll suited to his otherwise chiseled face. Council boys loved bullying those with flawed appearances. Though he was the bully now, having gained eight tons of muscle and a few foot in height, though the bulbous nose was still a weak spot. Twell looked at me in horror, mouth open, eyes wide. He already looked sick, my comment seemed to encode a fear in him, a fear so great he might have soiled himself. I pitied him. A spineless scrap made an ill guard. Darrox rose up, ready to charge toward me. I kept smiling, knife ready, knowing I was stupid to fight so early and risk my chance to escape at the bog. The opportunity to inflict some pain on the grotesque council brat who constantly attempted to assault me was too strong. There were no guards or council members here to punish me. Out here, were equal.
Then, Phoenix shot up, holding him back, telling him something that made him pull away and sulk off. I swore under my breath, partly relieved, continuing to walk beside Twell. Glancing up, I noticed Phoenix glared at me, giving me a "what the hell?" Look that I ignored.
"Y-You should be careful...he's known for k-kicking us scraps to death," Twell mumbled, staring ahead, almost as though he were too afraid to address me directly. I sighed, slowing, letting him walk on, my eyes focussing on the ground. The dirt was damp, speckled with ashy stones. We were passing through the western road, but the ground was no longer dry, meaning the bog was nearing. Another hour and we would be trudging through the murky bogland. My heart pounded with anxiety, the thought of freedom easing my pulsating nerves. Every sense seemed heightened. I could smell the sharp scent of the soil and the strengthening smell of tar. The sun seemed a deeper auburn, burning the distant mountains. The mist felt warm and suffocating, wrapping it's murky arms around me as though trying to draw the life from my weary body. As harsh as this environment was, I tried not to dwell on how hard it would be to evade the beasts that would soon be lurking in every shadow of the Forrest. Yet, I had no choice. The Forrest was the only route to take. The guards never survived it's wilderness. No search party would dare seek me out if I flee into the place of nightmares.
The sound of a sharp breath beside me drew me out of my reverie, my eyes darting to catch those of Ven, his expression pensive as he seemed to be observing me. I raised an eyebrow, "didn't your parents tell you it's rude to stare."
He smirked, shaking his head, tapping a finger on my temple. He wanted to know what was going on in my head. I shrugged, "pondering life and it's many awful features."
The look he cast me next was hardly amused. He rolled his eyes and held two fingers up, turning them so they symbolised legs, moving them. Run. He knew. Momentary alarm caused me to stop, his hand pulling my arm roughly, forcing me to keep pace with him.
"Yes. I am. If I go back, I'll die," I whispered, voice trembling, my eyes meeting his sternly. He nodded and gave me a thumbs up. I was stunned.
"Y-your not gonna tell me not to risk it?"
He shook his head, opening his mouth, pointing to his lack of tongue. Then he pointed at me and shook his head. Get away before you end up like me. Tears seemed to burn up inside of me, a sensation of sadness I was not accustomed to. It was too late for Ven. He knew it.
He smiled and pointed at Darrox, hitting his fist against his palm. He was going to take Darrox down for me.
"Break. I need a piss!"
Darrox marched off, forcing Phoenix to stop, all of us freezing in our places. He groaned, ordering Twell to help him fix his pack. Ven grabbed my hand, forcing me to look at him, mouthing a word.
Vale. It was Roodey's old word. Vale. Farewell. Ven used to say it to me as a kid, whenever he left the home or went on a hunt. Vale. It was our way of saying this might be the end. I wiped somthing hot from my eyes, scolding myself for seeming weak, hiding my momentary upset from the others and from Ven. Sighing, I said in an overly cheery voice, "Vale."
He just smirked, giving my hand a final squeeze before walking a little ahead, eyes focused forward, face empty of any emotion. I took a shuddering breath, envious of how easily he accepted his possible death, my eyes straying to Phoenix, relieved to see the fool was still fumbling with his bag. Sighing, I fastened my belt tight, pulling my bag around my chest, ready to run. Saying farewell to Ven seemed as though I were leaving behind my past at the citadel. My demons were buried, my life till now erased. Today was the first day of my life... If I lived to see the morning.