I fall in and out of my humdrum dreams, the noises of the forest echoing up to me as I try to sleep like the rest of my people. Ever since I took on the responsibility of warden, it seems I've drifted into a state of awareness and attention, which is just as useful as it is annoying. I might be able to defend the camp like no other warden can, but I also can't relax. My shoulders feel like stone, hardened and tense since I haven't relaxed in so long. I'm also cold, I would naturally from so high up, no matter how many blankets the elders give to me that I just pile up around me on my watch ledge.
The other younglings have no idea how good they have it.
Suddenly, I sense something. Unease bites into my gut, obstructing me from any sleep that I might be able to gather. I leap up and lean over the railing that I made from branches and twine one afternoon. I see something moving to the entrance through the rays of moonlight through the leaves, but I can't discern how much of a threat they are. Regardless, I begin to move, putting the nearest tree and the closest constructed platform in my sights. I grab my nearest weapons, a spear and a dagger, the latter being useful to dig into the bark, should I ever lose my balance on my descent, known to happen in the high Winter winds.
I keep pace with the intruder as they continue towards the camp, seeming to stumble at a desperate pace. I leap from platform to platform, grabbing hanging ropes when I almost fall back, my spear locked in a baldric strapped to my back. I reach the final platform and the official watch towers, two parallel trees carved with the faces of guardians at the bottom; the camp entrance. From there, I scale down, branch by branch, putting my fingers to my lips halfway down and letting out a high-pitched, coded whistle, two short squeaks followed by a long, quivering note. It means danger; I never take any chances.
By the time my feet crunch into the ground, I see the intruder stumble and collapse just outside the entrance, then four members of my tribe leaving their tents to meet me. Three are warriors, the other our village leader and diviner, Anikee. I've known her since the birthing bed, she delivered me, just like many other younglings of the tribe. That said, I don't like her, and she doesn't like me.
"What is it, Namiah?" she asks me, her attractive face set seriously, wrinkles only just edging her eyes and lips.
I just gesture to the fallen person in front of us, and she looks at me scathingly, even though I'm stating the obvious.
"A neighbouring clan?" asks a male that, at first in the dim light, I don't recognise. When I do, my cheeks bloom uncontrollably. It's Varos, the only male of our tribe who asked my father twice to be considered as my mate. We never got to hear his verdict.
"We - we have no neighbouring clans for at least ten stadia," I say, hardening my tone. "I sensed them suddenly, out of nowhere..."
We all step closer together, the males armed with their spears. I draw mine from my baldric as we observe the one before us closer. It is female, young, and beneath her I spy the swaddled, scrunched face of a sleeping child. Her gear hangs away from her, and I see the bumps of her ribs through her thin flesh.
She still breaths, lightly, from exhaustion. Varos takes the blunt end of his spear and jabs the female on the back with it. "Rise," he says, his voice deep and handsome.
She does, quiveringly onto her hands and knees. "Which tribe do you hail from?" asks Anikee.
"T - the Va - Vale," she stammers. I raise an eyebrow. The Vale is a cluster of encampments - the more permanent dwellings, so why she has come this far troubles me, a distance of many miles from here.
"Why have you come here?"
"Pl - please." She raises her head and I see she is young, though she is battered. Her eyes are bloodshot red, her hair tangled and malting, and she smells like nothing I have ever come across. It rushes up my nostrils and it takes all of my composure not to double over and vomit. "I -," she steps towards Anikee, but as she holds out her hands in protest, the girl falls forward into her arms, unconscious and unmoving. Our leader nearly falls over at the weight, clearly just as disgusted by the smell as I am.
"Varos, take her," she orders. The warrior does so obediently, tossing her over his shoulder like she is a potato sack. "We must nurse her before we can question her intentions, such is our tribe's law of xenia."
"Yes, Mother," he nods. I realise once again their similarities as I gaze at his dark, plaited hair and pale eyes that seem white in moonshine, the same as hers.
"Continue watch, Namiah," Anikee says before I can step a foot into the village. "Inform us if any more should approach." She turns from me with a swish of her night robes, leaving me on the outskirts with just an appreciative nod from Varos before he and the others duck into Anikee's tent.
I'm left alone, frustrated at the leader who hates my every breath, and with the smell of that woman lingering in the air around me, telling me in a dark pit of my stomach that something is wrong.