The Protector

Chapter One

The ground is hard and cold beneath me.

Rolling over on my side, I tuck my knees in, pulling them into my chest while I wrap my woolen cloak tighter around me, tugging the hood up over my head to retain more body heat. My movement brings me closer to Tyler, who is asleep next to me. I can feel his body shaking with chills in the predawn darkness.

Tyler was bitten by a fanger two days ago and his body is fighting the poison. We field-dressed the wound and gave him medicine to counteract the venom, but it takes several days to recover. I'm relieved that this is the last night of our scouting trip. We should be back in our barracks by tomorrow afternoon. A night in the infirmary, some rest and hot food, and he should be fine.

I rearrange my cloak to cover both of us, hoping the extra heat will help him sleep. My shifting around opened a space behind me, and cold air rushes in before being cut off when my brother, Emmett, rolls over with a groan, closing the gap between us. His bulk is comforting against my back. My mind stills and begins to slide towards sleep. Before I let myself fall back asleep, however, I raise my head and check our camp.

There are twelve of us. We sleep in groups of three, with our feet towards a small fire in the middle of our camp, like spokes on a wheel. Three are always on sentry duty while nine of us sleep. I once asked a trainer why we were taught to camp like this. He laughed and said we would learn why soon enough – and we did. That first time we were surprised during a night practice exercise – we had ignored orders and slept all huddled up from the cold – we stumbled into each other, fumbling with our weapons and inflicting more damage on each other than the trainers impersonating Thaayers 'killing' us.

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 and protect one another, without getting in each other's way.

We're all currently eighteeners; but we're nearing the end of our eleven years of training together. When we return to our home valley in two days, we will no longer be cadets. We'll take our oath to become full Protectors, ending our training years forever.

There were fifteen of us when we began as eighters, but we 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.

For the past week, we've been scouting along the upper edge of the escarpment that separates the plateau on which our valley is located from the Wastelands below for signs of yippers, fangers or the Thaay, but besides the fanger that bit Tyler on his lower calf, everything has been normal.

The fire is only a small bed of coals. There is just enough light from it and the setting moon for me to make out the other two groups sleeping. Their soft snores and slow breathing reassure me that the rest of my group is safe.

A flash of light out of the corner of my eye catches my attention. I rise up a little more to look out over the edge of the cliff to the Wasteland below. There is a strange pulsing glow at the very edge of the horizon, but I blink once and it is gone. Unsure if I had imagined it or not, I lay my head back down on my arm, closing my eyes and relaxing my body, in search of any nearby danger.

A faint breeze stirs the air and I breathe in deeply, yet I detect no unfamiliar scents. I concentrate on my hearing, but there is nothing out of the ordinary. Finally, I relax my body completely and open my mind, sending out fingers of mental awareness to scan the surrounding area. I touch my sleeping comrades briefly and then quest further, locating the three sentries. When I don't find anything threatening, 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 cooking. 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 start 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 begins 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 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 is standing beside our mother and father, greeting each of our neighbors as they congratulate him, thanking them for their training gifts. His face is serious and he stands as straight and as tall as he can. He looks different, older somehow, and my stomach twists with a strange emotion that I don't recognize.

To honor his oldest son, Father has dressed in his old Protector uniform. His service medals and commander bars are pinned in a row on his left chest, their polished surface glinting in the sun when he moves. The left sleeve of his uniform is pinned up to the shoulder because of his missing arm. 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 is keeping secrets about his time as an active Protector.

Father turns to our mother and places his hand on her stomach, giving 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.

Mother is arranging the rest of the food on the serving tables as I run by her to join my friends. I stop suddenly and grab her around the waist, hugging her tightly, 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 her startled face and whisper, "Alice" before running off to the wooden structure in the corner of our yard where all the rest of my friends are playing.

Mike and my brother, Emmett, are on the top level dueling with their play swords. I roam underneath, growling and grimacing and pretending to be a Thaay as I chase our neighbors' daughters, Bella and Jessica. The girls run and squeal as I threaten to catch 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, he 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 digs in the dirt, examining the worms he finds, while Tyler swings from bars and brags 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 level. She looks behind her, laughing at me, when I realize that she is between Mike and Emmett and is about to be hit by Mike's sword. The sword comes around in a wide arc and strikes her lower arm just above her wrist with a sickening crunch.

Bella shrieks in pain and without having to check, I know that her arm is broken. I grab her as she starts to fall and 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 soothe 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, sword in hand, shield in place, crouching defensively. Emmett is instantly armed and beside me, both of us scanning our camp for signs of danger. Everything is quiet; 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. He 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. Just as I am beginning to doubt myself, the first stirring of the morning breeze brings with it the stench of yippers.

The yippers 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 in height and are covered with dirty brown-spotted fur. Their heads are wide 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 go for your throat.

But we are ready for them. 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 lie dead at our feet.

Everyone begins cleaning up the camp, loading our supplies into backpacks and preparing to leave. We are 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 Wastelands below, I notice Ben examining one of them and I squat down beside him to see what he has found. He shows me the deformed front paws of the animal; they 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 to the wall to show the officers there." 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," he mutters 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 obvious 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."

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

"No." I shake my head. "Too far."

He 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 learned that lesson the hard way when, as a tener, I tried to explain to a trainer why I knew there was a fanger coiled beneath 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 person?" he had sneered 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 Wastelands to join your real family?"

The tongue lashing had also come with five strikes from the trainer's whip that my squad had witnessed. 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 a couple of black eyes for weeks until they finally left us alone. At the time, I had wondered why the officers and trainers never stepped in to stop some of the abuse, but later I realized it was all designed to toughen us for the hardships that we would face in the years to come.

When I questioned Emmett why he 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 said. "If you're a Thaay, then I guess I am too."

I never told anyone about my 'feelings' again.

Over the last couple of years I've learned to rely on my premonitions. They have never been wrong and I've always been able to explain them away as heightened senses, such as smelling yippers, hearing the scrape of a fanger's scales, or seeing a faint track that others had missed.

The dream started about a year ago, however. It's always the same one, with Bella. I have no idea why it continues to haunt me. It comes at night, just before some type of danger, and it has saved us more than once from the increasing number of attacks we've been experiencing. It is almost as if she is protecting me, even though I am the one promising to protect her.

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 good at it; 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 food, drink and dancing; but most of all, for me, a chance to see Bella.



.AN: Thanks for reading. All mistakes are mine.