The path ahead is perilous, but I have walked it many times. I’m driven by a sense of responsibility and a need to check that everything is in its right and proper place. I begin with the air: crisp, frosty and a taste of mist. Somewhat irregular, but acceptable. It is quiet; no monsters bark; death-machines are a distant, unsettling, yet familiar rumble; no one blunders into my immediate path. I may begin.
I alight from the window sill onto the fence. The window closes firmly behind me: I am on mission. While routine is the most important thing when facing the outer world, I have over time given myself options. I chose to take on the additional burdens; it is a hardship. But it gives me choice in where my path leads first. I like to alternate, it foxes the enemy who watches everything I do. Before continuing I check the window: it is indeed shut, my way back is barred. It’s not that I want to avoid my duties, but comfort always beckons. Who would not choose a warm bed over the dangerous roads I walk? Only a fool, a fool some days I would like to be. Onwards.
I take the other path, hopping right into the secondary domain. This is a narrow space, the walls high and vertical; a challenge to scale directly. Few come this way, and only my apprentice regularly tests the waters here. But she is only young and I must check that the wards she’s laid are strong and holding. I slowly pace between the eruptions of greenery that spike up out of the hard and shifting ground. At times we’ve found good hunting and prey here. Every crunch beneath my feet echoes and I keep my eyes and ears peeled for threats. This is largely a stable realm, which is why it can be safely protected by my apprentice. The huge gate at the end remains sealed: this area is secured. With that surety I can inspect more closely for details, track the realm for unusual entrances and exits, appraise the minor changes that creep into all places over time. There’s a tall tilting tower which has been in decline for as long as I’ve trod this realm, ever leaning further, ever more broken down and yet it still stands. I wonder sometimes who might have constructed it and for what purpose. The world is full of mysteries.
As I take a mighty leap to scale the towering walls there’s a sudden explosion of sound and movement – I freeze, gripping the wall, ready to drop if need be – it is just demons, their cawing and twittering searing the air as they divide their little flock. I watch where they go; they may come later in the audit. Safe, I haul myself up onto the wall. It rocks beneath my feet. Strange that a boundary wall might be so solid and yet so precarious. No matter. I follow it along its length, able now to look down into not only the secondary realm, but also the primary. A ground-level investigation will be required, but from way up here I can make a decent assessment of the state of my own wards and defences. It is a more challenging world to defend, open at both ends and gaping wide, almost inviting intrusion. From here nothing seems untoward, though there have been minor movements in the structures that dot the space. They come and go, mostly harmless, but who knows what might lie in wait behind or beneath them. Sometimes I imagine they rise up from beneath the earth, from a realm I cannot access or defend against. Thankfully these invasions do seem largely benign, but we must be prepared for surprises.
At the wall’s end I enter a world of cold steel. Cold, for it is winter, though the taste of spring is in the air, I can smell it on the budding trees, desperate to return to flourishing life. All in good time. Nimbly, I pad across the sloping expanse. Peering over the edge I see that it remains sealed. Within lies a whole other demesne, loosely guarded by another but frustratingly I can only gain irregular access and then only for a brief time, save in summer. In summer this area will be achingly hot, though well-shaded where the tree branches sweep down. A good hiding place for when there are intruders whose activity requires monitoring if not action. Through long experience I have found that this is the way. Conflict is for younger wardens, and I’ve had plenty of it in my time. What seems an intolerable threat at first may, with time and distance, prove to be a disruptive but ultimately harmless presence. It still gets my hackles up, but we all have our own domains to monitor, and they do criss-cross, woven in and around the others. That perspective came slow, but accommodations can and should be reached with other wardens.
Over, from one metal-shod land to another of crumbled stone and wooden beams. This has been one of my favoured spots for years: a full view of the primary domain and swift access to the toplands via the sprawling trees. I coil and spring into the lower branches, recklessly throwing myself up the well-climbed routes into the tree’s heart. This is a realm all of its own, of twisting roads, occluding leaves, and in summer explosions of colour and scent. For now it is a skeleton of itself, one whose bones creak beneath my feet. Others visit here. My apprentice of course, but the quick-shifting, ever on the move demons of the air also treat the toplands as a rest or place of play. I shall prove them wrong. Even without the cover of leaves I am well camouflaged and quiet. Without the leaves they are easier to find as well, their fast flickering wings and feathers, pointy bead-eyed faces moving like clockwork along the narrowest twigs. As I creep closer, some instinct makes them hop further up the tree, though I am certain they cannot see me. Up here, the wind catches the tree and blows the branches in unpredictable and unsettling patterns. I worry sometimes that should the gusts be strong enough it will twist the whole of the toplands out of position, and then where will the realms lie? My presence is its protection, the wards I continually lay and refresh bind the world together, protect it and us from the outer-outer realms and their malign influence.
I burst forth, whip-fast, but the demons are swifter still, complaining furiously as they take to the air. They’ll be back, they always come back. I explore the full range of the larger branches, especially where the trees’ domains blend together. It is a potent space for chaos and change. All clear, I carefully descend the mighty trunk. It bears the marks of many past audits. Now safe within the primary domain, having been able to assess its open wounds as empty and safe, I can spend more time in the minutiae of the realm. Each plant, each stacked stone tower, each of the weird structures that push up from below. Today, all is safe, all is well. Content with my refreshed wards, I take a slow turn, and catch sight of a rival warden, hovering on the boundary of my primary domain. In times past I would have rushed them, wielding my powers and scared them away. But I know their purpose now, they too have wards to bind and preserve the world, and theirs intersects here with mine. I shall withdraw politely, but woe betide them should they trespass beyond the negotiated territories. In so withdrawing I assert the dominance of my claim and confidence in my wards.
My duties are accomplished, for now. It is time for rest and warmth. Later, I shall check the wards again.