Gate Warden Toftin took the book with a disgusted look on his face. Prior to that moment, he had been ready for the day. Everything seemed to go just right that morning: he awoke, and wasn’t tired; he ate his breakfast, and wasn’t running late for his post; his shave was free of nicks or cuts. The sun was shining for the third straight day, and the air was warm in the morning. Then the Archmaster of the Shell handed him the book.
“No one named in this book can pass through the Shell, you hear me Toftin?” he said, referring to the all-surrounding white walls of Inoria.
“Archmaster, with all the checks and verifications that I do as a Gate Warden, searching every visitor’s name with this book will increase the screening time substantially. North Gate 5 is one of the busiest we’ve got,” Toftin said.
“Gate Wardens aren’t paid to whine. This is an order from the very top. See to it that it’s carried out. If someone comes through and his or her name is in that book, then we have no choice but to treat it as if you let a subversive through the Shell. Losing your job as a Gate Warden will be the least of your worries in that case. Do I make myself clear, Toftin?”
The Warden tried his best not to show any emotion in his face. The effort of doing so was clearly visible.
“Aye, sir. I won’t fail Inoria.”
As soon as the Archmaster was out of earshot, Toftin cursed his unlucky day, though not as loudly as he wanted to.
First Shellsman Gulo was manning the inner portcullis, a new friend of Toftin’s. Gulo was bored out of his mind, and spun his saber in creative ways to pass the time. Toftin couldn’t resist telling about his encounter with the Archmaster, and showed him the book. Instead of sympathizing, Gulo laughed. He pointed behind him and Toftin saw a large line of people waiting to get through Inoria’s gates.
For a split moment, Toftin wanted to throw the book in his hands against the wall. But he knew that the Archmaster would bury his bones in a heartbeat if ordered by Lord Dennis of Inoria, and the words “an order from the very top” was an order that couldn’t be refused.
He shook his head, and asked for the door on the portcullis to be opened. Dragging his heels into his small office under the great wall of Inoria, he realised it may not be all that bad. Certainly, many people today will have to wait longer than usual to get through the gates, but as long as he follows the rules, it’ll be a normal day like any other. The outer portcullis door was opened by Gulo, while another First Shellsman closed the inner door. The gates were like a heart, closing and opening their door valves, and letting a steady stream of approved people through.
A woman and a child were first.
“Your papers and purpose,” asked Toftin.
The woman looked both anxious but happy to be where she was.
“Here. I am fleeing Chefron, and I wish to make a home in Inoria,” she said.
Toftin focused on verifying all of the information on her papers; the issuing city, the official seal, the quality of the ink, even the thickness of the paper—anything that could hint at a fake document.
“I see you are with a child. Where is the father?” Toftin asked, without looking up.
“Dead, killed by the invading Tyrians marauders.”
“What is your area of expertise? How can you benefit Inoria?”
She didn’t pause long to think.
“I helped my father make arrows. I can make arrows for Inoria. I am sure your soldiers on the wall could use good arrows for their bows.”
Toftin made a note. He proceeded to check her name in the book, and couldn’t find it.
“How was your husband killed?”
The woman was surprised at the question. She looked down at the ground.
“They looted the town. He told me to escape and I did, but he wanted to stay and fight back with the others. I didn’t see him die, but I can feel it—he didn’t survive.”
Toftin stamped her visitor’s pass and returned her papers.
“You can apply for a permanent pass once you are employed. Welcome to Inoria.”
The woman smiled and tears swelled up in her eyes. She thanked Toftin softly and walked through the open door to Inoria.
Toftin screened several more people when he realised that he should have checked the woman’s maiden name in the book. He made a note to do so at the end of the day. As expected, the line was moving far slower with the addition of checking every name in the book.
A man came through the outer door and presented his papers.
“Papers and purpose.”
Rodrik passed his papers.
“I am a merchant from Chefron,” he lied. “You might have seen a caravan enter your city today, that was my friend Pero. We bring goods from the Tyrians to Inoria, and sell Inorran goods to the Tyrians. Think of us as a window to your walled city.”
Toftin found no discrepancies in his papers. His name was not in the book either.
“Duration of your stay,” he asked.
“I would like to make Inoria my home. I have enough money saved up to do so,” he showed Mira’s bag of iron squares.
Toftin stamped his visitor’s pass and told Rodrik that he can apply for a permanent one once he earns an income.
“Thank you,” Rodrik said. “My wife is also next in line. She will be staying with me.”
The guard signaled Rodrik through the open door, though he hesitated for a moment.
“I cannot do my job if you stand here. Please move along,” Toftin said. Rodrik nodded and entered Inoria.
Mira was next, passed her papers and answered Toftin’s first few questions. The Gate Warden checked his book, and didn’t find her name. Not a single rebel today, he thought. But then he remembered his first case of the day.
“What is your maiden name, Mira?”
Mira raised her eyebrows.
“I don’t use it anymore. I’ve been married several years now,” she said.
“I understand, I still need to know it if you wish to come through,” Toftin said.
She answered his request, and immediately realised the implication of her words. The sound of her maiden name reminded her of her brother, and the day he was executed. She remembered the Tyrian executioner saying his full name and crimes before dropping him with a noose around his neck. There was no way they could know such information here, she thought. She calmed herself down.
Toftin checked the book for her maiden name, and found a match. The first name, however, was of some man. The earlier warning of the Archmaster echoed in his head when he made his discovery.
He stamped a denial slip and handed back Mira her papers.
“What is this? Why am I being denied entry? My husband is on the other side!”
“I’m sorry, but I cannot let you through,” Toftin said. “Please leave, and allow the next person to be screened.”
Mira’s face turned red.
“What do you mean you cannot let me through? Is this because of my maiden name? I have nothing to do with the rebels! But the Tyrians believe that I do because of my brother. If you don’t let me in, I will surely be killed if I return to lands occupied by Tyr.”
Toftin shook his head.
“First Shellsman, get the man who was recently approved. His wife here is suspect, and I need to revoke his visitor’s pass for good measure,” he said.
The guard nodded.
Mira started to curse at Toftin.
As soon as the Shellsman opened the door, Mira shoved him out of the way and dashed through. Rodrik was only a few dozen paces away, and shocked to see Mira running through the gates of Inoria. The harsh sound of a whistle was blown from inside the gatehouse, and guards with bows on top of the walls all quickly turned to see what was going on.
“Mira, what are you doing!” Rodrik yelled.
“We need to run, Rodrik!” she took his hand. At first Rodrik stumbled, but he regained his footing and they began to run together. The sound of guards yelling behind them made them run faster. Arrows flew through the air, and hit the ground only a few paces away from them. The vast flatland after the gate was devoid of any buildings or trees. Rodrik and Mira were overcome with a desire to run, away from the gates and arrows, away from the Tyrians and their looting and brutish rule. They only wished to be able to run faster, and each step seemed to make no progress in getting them to safety.
Another volley whizzed by. Both of them dropped to the ground. Mira was hit by an arrow in her left thigh, and Rodrik fell with her, though he wasn’t hit.
He looked back at his wife on the ground, and found her calm and transfixed on her arrow wound.
“Mira, you’ve been hit,” he said softly.
Mira continued to stare at the arrow protruding from her leg. She didn’t say a word, nor did she scream. Her hands shook.
The guards that chased after the couple surrounded them with a tight circle of sabers.
Gate Warden Toftin finally caught up to the guards.
“Get them out of Inoria. Don’t assist them in any way. That’s an order from the very top.”
Rodrik stood up.
“No, my wife needs help. Bandages, all I ask for is a bandage. We will leave Inoria and never return,” he pleaded.
Toftin violently waved his hand and shook his head.
“You will get no such thing,” he motioned the guards, “Get them out of Inoria!”
For a split second, Rodrik thought about resisting. It was a primal emotion, one that urged him not to accept the reality at hand, and escape from it. But then he realised what would happen to Mira if he did. Would they kill her? If they didn’t, she would not able to survive on her own with an arrow through her thigh. He decided to comply, and slung his wife over his shoulders. She was shivering, but silent.
“Everything will be ok,” she whispered in his ear when they exited the gates of Inoria.
The line of people wishing to enter the city was still long, and they looked at the couple and the guards nervously. No one wanted to get involved or help in any way.
“You’re stronger than I ever could be,” Rodrik whispered back.
They reached the forest a few hundred paces away from the wall. Rodrik searched the forest to find materials for bandaging, but when he came back, he saw his wife without an arrow in her leg. Her wound wasn’t bleeding anymore, though it still looked gruesome.
“What happened?” he asked, puzzled.
She held her palms open.
He began to piece things together. “You’re telling me you’re an Arcon?” he said, eyes wide. “Why haven’t I seen you do magic before?”
“I didn’t know I could. I thought that was all on my brothers side,” she began to rub her leg. “It still hurts like hell though. I can’t walk. But I can heal an arrow wound with my hands!” she smiled.
Rodrik shook his head in disbelief.
“Well then, I guess they were right to ban entrance to such a dangerous Arcon such as yourself.”
Mira rolled her eyes. She picked up the bloody arrow on the ground and twirled it with her fingers.
“I don’t want to get shot by another arrow to find out what other powers I have, so let’s stay safe, ok?”
Rodrik laughed, and nodded.