‘It's your turn to tend the bell,’ Richard says sternly, determined not to move outside.
I grumble as I drag my stiff muscles into motion and shield myself under extra cloth ready for the chill blast that greets me at the doorway. I squint through the fine mist to glare at the bell. I shake my head at why it is still called a bell. It’s never rung in its life. It’s not even one of those metal domes that send ringing from the cathedral towers and across the valleys. It’s merely a carefully stacked pile of wood so when the bell across the plain from us flickers alight we can set the logs ablaze in a swift and tall blast that will cut through the fog and tell the men at the peak of the mountain to light their bell. It has been generations since the warning bells have signaled war. Generations of us men huddled in freezing despair, silently begging release from duty. Twice a day we check the moisture of the logs, switching out excessively damp stumps for the dry ones kept in a small secondary hut hidden behind ours to protect it from the rain. The small enclosure piled with gloriously dry wood is a cruel tease to the men desperate for warmth during the darkest nights. I check the level of the oil for lighting the bell and slip quickly back into the hut.
‘All good?’ Richard asks over his warm mead.
‘Yes, nothing to report. No signs of anything changing overnight. I’ll do the first night watch again if you like,’ I offer. The thought of waking in the morning gloom only to stare into the void is something I actively seek to skip.
‘Fine,’ Richard responses in his usual glum manner. The depression of duty latches deep into his being and leeches out eager to claim me as its next victim.
It’s night like this that I pray for war, for anything to break the hopelessness. As soon as we light the bell we must ride to war and almost certain death. At least I know death is permanent, this duty tempts us with pride yet threatens us with ongoing isolation in the companionship of only one other and a never changing view. I shake my head to remove the horrid thoughts of death. I look over at Richard thinking that he can keep those thoughts, I need to return home to my betrothed. A tear squeezes itself out from my eye at the thought of her. Her soft skin and warm embrace power a sudden glow in my chest. The desire to return to her nudges my attentions further awake. I lock my eyes of the expanse below me and drift my mind into a comforting stream of images from home. The glow shortly fails me. The despair of my duty penetrates my heart. A shadow grows around my body, grasping me with a potential eternal doom of sitting on this mountain waiting for something that will never come. I am stuck by honour and bound to the pledges I made during my right of passage to manhood. I must stay here and survive somehow. Until the next rotation comes we have to survive and serve. That’s if the next rotation comes.