The Protector

Chapter One

EPOV

The ground is hard and cold beneath me as I roll over to my right side, bending my knees and pulling them into my chest. I wrap my woolen cloak tighter around me and pull the hood up over my head to try to retain more body heat. My movement brings me closer to Tyler, who is sleeping beside me, and I feel his body shaking with chills in the predawn darkness. Touching his forehead tells me that he is burning with fever as his body fights the poison from the Fanger bite he received two days ago. We've field dressed the wound and given him medicine to counteract the venom, but it takes several days for the body to recover. I'm relieved that this is the last night of our scouting trip and we should be back in our barracks by tomorrow afternoon. A couple of days in the infirmary with some food and rest and he should be fine.

I scoot my body closer to him and rearrange my cloak to cover both of us, hoping the extra heat will enable him to sleep. My shifting around has opened a space at my back and I feel the cold air rush in before being cut off when Emmett rolls over with a groan and closes the gap between us. His bulk is comforting against my back and my mind stills and begins to slide towards sleep.

Before I let myself fall back asleep, however, I raise my head up to check our camp. There are twelve of us in our squad. We sleep in four groups of three, like spokes on a wheel with our feet towards a small fire in the middle of our camp. Three are always on sentry duty and nine are sleeping. I asked a trainer once why we were taught to camp like this. He laughed and told me I would learn why soon enough and we did. The first time we were surprised during a night practice exercise when we had ignored orders and slept all huddled up from the cold, we stumbled into each other, fumbling with our weapons and doing more damage to each other than the trainers who were impersonating Thaayers while they "killed" us. After that we learned our lesson. The punishment that followed for disobeying orders just reinforced our obedience to the trainers. Sleeping in groups of three allowed us to stay warm, yet arm ourselves and protect one another without getting in each other's way.

We are all eighteeners and nearing the end of our eleven years of training together. When we began as eighters, there were fifteen of us, but we've lost three members to disease and training accidents. The remaining twelve of us have meshed into a solid fighting unit. We think as one, move as one, and protect each other with our lives. This is our last training exercise. We've been scouting along the upper edge of the escarpment that separates the civilized lands from the waste lands for the last week looking for any sign of Yippers, Fangers or the Thaay but besides the small one that bit Tyler, everything has been normal and we've seen no activity. When we return to the barracks, we'll take our oaths as full Protectors and receive our personal assignments.

The fire has died down to a small bed of coals and gives off little heat. There is just enough light from it and the setting moon for me to make out the other two sleeping groups. The soft snores and slow breathing reassures me that the rest of my group is safe and resting. A flash of light out of the corner of my eye catches my attention and I rise up a little more to look out over the edge of the cliff where we are camped to the waste land beyond and below. There is a strange pulsing glow at the very edge of the horizon, but I blink once, and it is gone. Not sure if I imagined it or not, I lay my head back down on my arm, close my eyes and relax my body, concentrating on opening my mind and my senses to check for any signs of danger nearby.

A faint breeze stirs the air and I breathe in deeply but I don't detect any unknown scents. I concentrate on my hearing, but there is nothing except the normal night sounds. Finally, I still my body completely and open my mind sending out fingers of mental awareness to scan the surrounding area. I briefly touch my sleeping comrades and then quest further, locating the three sentries. My search finds nothing out of the ordinary and I allow myself to slip into sleep. As I do, the dream pulls me under.

In my dream I am once again in the backyard of my childhood home. We are having a party and all our friends and neighbors are there. The air is filled with the conversations of adults, the laughter and shrieks of children running and playing, and the mouthwatering smells of food being cooked. I am filled with a happiness and peace I have not felt in a long time. The party is for my brother Jasper. Today is his beginning day, the day we celebrate the beginning of his life, but this will also be his leaving day because when each boy reaches his eighth year he leaves his childhood behind and enters his training to become a Protector. At the end of the afternoon the officers will come and Jasper will leave with them. He will only be allowed to come home a few times a year for celebrations and during Oath Week. In two years, when Emmett and I turn eight, we will join him at the cadet barracks.

I look over to the table where Jasper stands beside our mother and father, greeting each of our neighbors as they congratulate him and thanking them for the training gifts they give him. His face is serious and he stands as straight and tall as he can. He looks different, older somehow, and my stomach twists with a strange emotion that I don't recognize. My gaze shifts to my father. To honor Jasper, he has dressed in his old Protector uniform. His medals have been polished and gleam on his chest, his general stars are in a row above them and his left sleeve is pinned up to the shoulder where his arm is missing. I know he has other scars and wounds from his service, he has shown them to me and told me about some of them, but sometimes I sense that he has many secrets he is not sharing. He turns to my mother and as I watch he places his hand on her stomach, gives her a smile and a quick kiss on her cheek. He pats Jasper's back and tells him to run and play and enjoy himself, then walks over to join the rest of the men as they turn the meat on the fire and reminisce about their time in the service.

My mother is arranging the rest of the food on the picnic tables as I run by her to join my friends. Suddenly I stop and grab her around the waist, hugging her tightly and resting my head on her stomach where my father placed his hand. I realize with a start that my mother is going to have a baby and I know that it will be a girl. I grin up into my mother's startled face and whisper, "Alice" and run off to the wooden fort in the corner of our yard where all the rest of our friends are playing.

Mike and my brother, Emmett, are on the top level dueling with their play swords. I am under the fort growling and grimacing and pretending to be a Thaay as I chase our neighbors' daughters, Bella and Jessica. They are running and squealing as I threaten to catch them and eat them. Emmett and I are twins, a rarity in our community and a constant source of teasing for both of us. Although we are about the same in height, Emmett is already bigger and stronger than I am. He's louder and bossier too and usually takes the lead when our group of sixers plays together. Ben is digging in the dirt examining the worms he finds while Tyler is swinging from bars and bragging to Lauren about how strong he is.

I've almost caught Bella when she slips past me and runs up the ramp to the top of the fort. She is looking behind her and laughing at me, when I realize that she is between Mike and Emmett and is about to be hit by Mike's sword. His sword comes around in a wide arc and hits her lower arm just above her wrist with a sickening crunch. Her shriek of pain is instant and I know that her arm is broken. I grab her as she starts to fall and watch as her eyes fill up with tears. She bites her lower lip to keep from crying and trembles with the effort to keep them from falling. We both know that crying is not permitted. I pat her back, trying to sooth her and as I look into her eyes I find myself telling her that I will protect her. "I'll protect you Bella, I'll always protect you."

"Protect, Bella, always protect you, protect," I'm muttering the words in my sleep and on the last "protect" I find myself on my feet, wide awake, my sword in hand, shield in place and crouching defensively. Emmett is instantly armed and beside me, both of us scanning our camp for signs of danger. Everything is quiet and the sentries haven't raised any alarms, so he looks at me raising an eyebrow in question. I nod to him and whisper, "The dream."

He only hesitates a moment before reaching out with his sword and quietly tapping our squad members to wake them. In seconds they too are armed and alert moving into a tight defensive circle. Emmett whistles softly and the three sentries filter silently back into camp. They look to him in question and use hand signals to report that nothing is amiss. We are all still on high alert and I know that some of them are wondering what is going on, but Emmett never doubts me and just as I am beginning to doubt myself, the first stirring of the morning breeze brings with it the stench of Yippers.

They are on us in an instant, snarling, biting, and clawing as they pour over the edge of the cliff. They are ugly animals, four-legged with large clawed paws. Most of them are about mid-thigh high and are covered with dirty, brown-spotted fur. Their heads are large with strong jaws filled with sharp deadly teeth. One bite to the leg and they can bring a grown man down, and once they have you on the ground, they can tear out your throat in a matter of minutes. But we are ready for them, and our tight defensive circle prevents any of them from getting through to us. We slash, thrust and cut with our swords and bash with our shields; moving in a choreographed dance of death perfected by years of training. In twenty minutes it is all over and ten Yippers lay dead at our feet. Everyone begins cleaning up the camp, loading our supplies into backpacks and preparing to leave. We are all tired and ready to return to the barracks.

As we're tossing the bodies of the dead Yippers over the edge of the cliff to the waste land below, I notice Ben examining one of them and squat down beside him to look at what he has found. He shows me the deformed front paws of the animal. The paws almost resemble hands. There is the nub of an opposable thumb on each one.

"This is how they were able to climb up the cliff to get to us," he says, looking at me. "We need to take this one with us to headquarters to show the officers." I nod and Emmett agrees, so we tie it to a pole to carry back with us.

While everyone is busy, I notice Emmett standing at the edge of the cliff looking out across the dry, dusty landscape below us. On the edge of the horizon is the ever present sickly green glow. "Fucking Thaays", I hear him mutter as I walk up beside him. He glances over at me and I know we are thinking about the same thing. "Jasper," he whispers, and I nod.

It's been two years since Jasper took his oath and six months since he disappeared on a mission to the Wastelands. He was assigned as a Ranger, the only type of Protector who is authorized to enter the Wastelands. Rangers go in alone and come back alone; when they come back at all. In the last few years, more and more of them have disappeared. Although the officers won't talk about it, it is clear that something is going on out there. My mind wanders back to the pulsing light I saw last night.

My attention is brought back to the present when Emmett shifts uncomfortably beside me. He casually turns to check out the camp, but I know he is making sure no one is close enough to hear us. "Do you think he could still be alive out there?" he whispers. I shrug.

"I don't' know, Em." I reply.

"Have you ever tried doing," he pauses and his voice drops, "you know . . ."

"No," I shake my head, "too far."

Emmett knows about some of my abilities, but we don't talk about them openly or in great detail. Having hunches, or knacks, or premonitions is, like crying or emotional displays, completely forbidden in our society. I'd learned that lesson the hard way when, as a tener, I tried to explain to a trainer why I knew there was a Fanger hidden under the rock he was about to sit on. My attempts to explain how I could "feel" it, had led to a stern rebuke that only Thaay could "feel" things. "Are you a fucking Thaay disguised as a real human?" he had screamed at me as I stood before him in shock. "Protectors don't use 'feelings'. We use our trained senses, our knowledge, and our weapons. Do we need to send you out into the wastes to join your real family?"

The tongue lashing had also come with ten licks from the trainer's whip that my squad had witnessed. The faint scars from the beating were still visible on my back. The teasing and bullying I took from the rest of the cadets had been as bad as the beating. Emmett and I had sported bruises and black eyes for weeks until they finally left us alone. At the time, I had wondered why the officers and trainers had never stepped in to stop some of the abuse, but over time I realized that it was all designed to toughen us for the hardships that we would face in the years to come.

I had questioned Emmett why he had stood up with me when it wasn't really his fight. He had looked at me like I really was half Thaay and just laughed. "You're my twin brother," he had said. " If you're a Thaay, then I guess I am too." I never told anyone about my "feelings" again.

Over the years I had learned to rely on my premonitions. They had never been wrong, but I had always been able to explain them away as heightened senses, such as smelling Yippers, or hearing the scrape of a Fanger's scales, or seeing a faint track that others had missed. The dreaming had only started about a year ago, however. I had no explanation why the same dream of protecting Bella continued to haunt me. It always came at night, just before some type of danger and it had saved us from the increasing number of attacks we were experiencing.

The camp is cleaned and everyone is packed and ready to leave. It is time to go back to the barracks. Emmett nods at me and I set off at a lope as lead scout. The rest of the squad falls in behind as I range out ahead. No one thinks twice about me taking the lead scouting duties. I'm the best. They know it and trust me.

Tomorrow is the start of Oath Week. We will be sworn in as full Protectors and receive our personal assignments and specialized training schedules. Our families and neighbors will be there. Everyone from the outlying villages will come into the city to enjoy the festivities. There will be lots of food, drink and dancing and most of all, for me, a chance to see Bella.