Six years and a half passed, and the day of our coterie’s testing came. Even the Oathed took part in the trials, for anyone may grow stale. We of the Wall took our turns sweating anxiously over pages of written challenges. I do not mean this figuratively, for I saw that my left hand left buckled stains on my pages. After, came the physical demonstrations to prove our craft.
Who had time to judge her own work on such a day? We went from one requirement to another, fortunate to catch a gulp of water between events. The pie men and the tavern keepers did good business, savories sending tempting scents, sweets at every corner, for the citizens of the Wall enjoy these Proving festivals and come down to watch, to judge the quality of the warriors who defend them. Music, shouted wagers and songs play through the smoke of cooking fires in the streets, while whores and the vendors trot their wares. The little blue naiman hide. I think they find high spirits of crowds threatening, and it’s true that they can be easily injured because of their lesser size and lack of nimbleness.
For the soldiers, a sense of hope underlay the day. Only a few days ago our old Commander had died in his bed and we felt adrift without a leader. Surely King Matthew would use the results of testing and recommendations to give us our new head. What better time than this? All were focused, old and young upon this day.
Some civilians take favorites among the soldiers of the Wall, such will beg a warrior to wear a ribbon that’s later reclaimed for a good luck token. Most of us reject this ribbon superstition. It hints disloyalty for no individual of us is best or better– we are as good as each other in the only contest that matters, the contest of war.
This Proving day proved a good testing, for we only crippled two of our number in the physical demonstrations, and only one of them permanently. One apprentice died; an accident no one could have prevented save by petitioning the Gods, for she tripped and fell into a swing of big Macc’s ax.
Berann took first in archery. She stood in her close black wrap with her russet hair knotted severely out of her way, looking to me like a spider, for her arms angled out of proportion long, and set arrow after arrow snicking into a moving target on a rope. Double the speed of any other contender. Such confidence showed in her black-smeared face, she made me smile. Berann saved me once in battle with her skill so I felt her success became mine.
I won my sword bout against Ratcatcher. We called her that because she had first tamed the big rat in the barracks whose great grandchildren now sat by the fire with us and groomed their fingers. Ratcatcher had good skills, all the swiftness of an animal on her feet, but I still won.
After the early years of wanting always to win, to dominate, now it seemed I rarely lost. I felt as if I had walked backwards into my own ability, and it shamed me. I wanted in all things to belong, to be a good companion, and my former hunger to surpass everyone gentled, even as I gained skill. A sense of my own lacks and others’ strengths seemed to have sprung like watered seeds in the blood of Thane Gehir. A look of friendship, a glance asking approval, these things mattered most to me.
At the day’s end, King Matthew sent word he would delay appointing the new Corpsmaster until after the Oathing on the next day. That the King hesitated to make his new choice boded ill. Did he not understand how bewildered we of the Wall felt without our commander? To pause, as though the King doubted his choice, suggested such uncertainty that none of us dared talk of it.
That night I stood watch on the Wall from black morning to the first false dawn.
I took my post at the midnight call of the watch on the cobbled streets, stood and watched their lanterns dip and sway along irregular ways below. Cold enough to numb hands and toes as we paced our rounds at intervals, the chill of old stones rising wetly up. Spring frogs, the little peepers so numerous that you could say they seethe in forests and swamps through spring season, chorused high in the darkness, a shrilly sound in the icy dark.
I could see Mell and track a flash of her wary eyes in the blackened skin of her face under her close hood. Both of us, like most of the soldiers of the Wall, had excellent night vision. Some in the City said it was a kind of magical medicine we took, but that is only a story.
Neither of us spoke, our feelings moved too near, too raw. Even under the black of her duty her features seemed tense. Why should the King hesitate in his choosing? We needed certainty. A commander. We had coutned on a new appointment to focus us. The watch passed below again.
“Look,” I said,” a horseman comes across the Arena. What fool would come by night?”
He broke from the woodland, his rangy horse trotting along the great road. My heart swelled with recognition.
“It is Thane Gehir,” I said and I heard my voice lift. I felt I knew him from the way he sat his horse, as if our one meeting had described for me all of his ways forever. Over six years apart, but I felt his coming choked my throat with hope.
Mell did not answer. I tapped an alert for the door guard below, a single bell note with no warning of threat, implying no special permission either. Even if I recognized him, Gehir would have to present full cause for his admission. We waited in the dim, and still Mell made no remark as we scanned the woodland edge for any other signs.
A knock on the trapdoor near my feet, and the square opened.
“Oath Lord,” I said, and saluted Thane Gehir.
Bigger than my recollection, his face as naked of paint as on our first meeting, he climbed up easily and greeted us with his hand upon his breast, bowing. Mell absented herself from us, withdrawing to a part of the Wall near to Cascada, who stood like an ebony spear erect and alert by an abutment. Gehir smiled at me, lessening the natural gravity of his bearded face, and paced me as I walked the Wall, looking out over Arena and woodland beyond. I felt I could appear more calm continuing the duties of my post. He seemed to be able to see without a torch or candle, as well as I.
“Ti of the Wall, I am here only briefly,” he said. “I shall stay for tomorrow’s oathing of your coterie and one more night beyond. I need to remind you of your oath to me and lay upon you one command. Never kill for the perfection of arbitrary obedience or for discipline. Other reasons for killing I leave to your judgment and the needs of war or justice, but not these.”
“I shall keep my Oath,” I said, sure that he must see some future I could not.
“Then may it go well with you, Ti of the Wall.”
He went quickly away, vanishing down the square darkness of the trapdoor as if he had done it a hundred times, like any of the soldiers.
Thane Gehir stayed long enough to see the Oathing of my age group. He must have requested permission to be at the ceremony for it had few other observers and only the bare bones of ritual. We assembled in the Hall of Hearing where our King did justice, a large room full of sunlight reflected from a central courtyard. A bare place, save for one fireplace large enough to roast a pig. Everything cut in strange white stone that seemed to hold the light and make it greater. The King sat upon the dais in his throne of carved wood. How old that chair looked and how ill placed in so pure and unstained a place. Gehir waited below and behind, seated with other officials of the court and some of the Burgmasters whose curiosity about the expected appointment of our new Corpsmaster had drawn here. They buzzed and muttered, colorful as flying insects, elaborate braids and headdresses quivering. How many hours, I wondered, not for the first time, had gone into their public appearances.
While I watched, standing with the others already oathed and the youngsters who foresaw in this ceremony their own to come, I found myself wishing that the King would really cut his palm rather than miming the gesture before he set palm to palm with each of his new warriors. Only their blood stained his skin. Still, he did this act every three years, and surely ritual sufficed, I argued back to myself. It was the Oath that counted, that claimed these warriors for the Wall, not for our King. How did that define my own oath, made kneeling in the dust of a road years ago? Was the difference that mine had been made to a single man?
Thane Gehir sat a little forward in his chair, remarking each phrase of this ceremony as if he had never observed anything of this kind in all his long life. I remembered vividly the cutting of my own palm, stinging pain and wet warm blood, and how he had cut his own palm just as deeply before meeting wound to wound. These years later, I wondered if the alchemy of that moment had nothing to do with the blood I had once believed magical and transformative, but more with his acceptance and the knowledge that I belonged at least to him, if to nothing and no one else. But I also recalled how he had with a word healed the wound almost as soon as it had been taken. Might there be many kinds and levels of magic in the world?
King Matthew stepped forward from his seat, his bared long sword held out in salute. He stood stern, proud, waiting for our full attention to edge into anxiety.
“I now appoint the new Corpsmaster, highest in both the oral and written examinations, ranked third in the physical demonstrations.”
King Matthew seemed as severe as if he enacted a punishment upon us rather than the welcome end of uncertainty.
“Ti of the Wall, you are Corpsmaster,” he said. “Serve us well.”
I choked on denial, and felt my fellows draw back from me. A hand pressed me out to the front, possibly Cascada’s, and I felt the growing bellow of chaotic acceptance drawing up out of their throats and pushing me out from them. Vomiting me forth in a fresh rejection. In the six years since Thane Gehir had blooded me I had not felt such loneliness nor such a burden.
How strange to sit in the wood paneled room of the Corpsmaster by myself, a fire in the small fireplace, black-bound rosters and record books free to my curiosity. I looked up at each sound from the hall as though I expected to see our old Corpsmaster returning, his hard eye on me in challenge of where I sat.
I spent some time reading over the past few weeks of notes, but one of the newest of our rats fell from the bookcase onto the desk and broke me out of my studies. It sat up, preening its striped sides as though pretending it had made no misstep, bright black eyes expressing nothing but satisfaction and the hope that I might have saved it some raisins. I found a few linty ones in my pocket and left a happy animal holding three at once in its greedy fingers.
I reviewed duty rosters, set Eac in command for the next six hours in my stead. Passing the door guard, I shook out my shoulders in the cool night and claimed one of the horses standing ready at the hitch. I rode through deserted streets inland to the Fortress of the King. The watch saluted me when I crossed their path, stepping aside with their wavering lantern light spilling about them.
Set high against natural buttresses of stone, the Fortress stood alone, tall and forbidding. It predated the Wall, with a warren of hidden rooms and passages underground, strewn with artifacts. We had the libraries where slowly such things gathered over time, by students and librarians, but so much remained unknown. Perhaps were our days not so taken with the needs of defense and war, we might learn from these traces and treasures more of our origins. When I was younger and had more time I had spent hours upon hours there in study, and even now my leave days brought me back here for the pleasure of reading.
At the Fortress I made my way past the Halls of Hearing and in to the King’s apartments where I silently relieved Datch who had drawn duty there, overseeing the dinner and entertainments the King offered Thane Gehir that night. The room felt pleasantly cool with only the fire to warm the air. It comforted me to be here close to Gehir.
Silent in my formal sable garb, hand upon hilts as I stood in the corner by the door, I waited for a sign. I watched the room and all that passed therein, but what I felt was Gehir’s presence. Living and breathing and warm with blood. He ate and drank like any mortal. He seemed no more than yet another honored warrior, save for the kind of questioning the King gave him.
King Matthew spoke as though Gehir were a dear friend who proved that friendship by his mere presence in the hall. As the evening wore, though Thane Gehir’s expression did not much change, his posture put more distance between them. King Matthew had the aspect of a man sore tried, still pressing. I saw that both drank heartily of the red wine, but it seemed to lend no ease.
The King yearned for prescience, for Thane Gehir to use his skill to foresee the next battle, the next threat, his hopes of children, his plans for alliances. As they sat by the fire, I could not hear most of what was said, but you can tell when answers are all negative from men’s bodies.
“Each generation lives in the last of days,” Gehir said, slightly louder than before. “We see everything as if none after us would have eyes, and we see terrible ends. We love old stories because we know how they go. That’s all we want, to see conclusions, to know how the story comes out. But those old stories were grim reality while they happened, blood-dimmed like our present time. King Matthew, the justice denied one people turns to working in another. The wound dealt becomes wound taken. That is the law, the best I can give you. In time you also become legend, a story with an end. You scribe it and no other.”
He became silent once more, and King Matthew studied him, slowly turning a half-empty goblet between his hands. I saw King Matthew look about the room, his gaze passing over me and past before he gestured.
Harpist Caher, stepped forward and after a little soft playing of familiar stuff he sang a tale of friendship, a familiar and beloved tune to which I had heard very different words in the Yellow Rose Tavern. When he had bowed to the praise, Caher turned his harp to Thane Gehir, a gesture I had never seen before, and he bent his head down, his pale eyes flickering to the Thane’s face. This invitation could not be refused. Gehir touched the strings gravely as if relearning them, then settled the great back of thin polished wood against his shoulder. He ran a few arpeggios as if to acquaint the harp with his touch, and I understood why this opportunity had been offered him; he knew this instrument as if he had spent a lifetime with its kind.
His hands moved making wandering notes that shaped themselves again and again into a range of melodies. Gehir created a few light tunes, then themes I had never heard before, wordless, one unfolding from another as if all were only parts of a greater song. I felt I stood and watched histories of man pass by. I sensed that time was longer than ever I’d imagined, that the march of humankind had trod forward and fallen back, over and over for eons. I was so focused upon hearing that I could hardly see, though I glanced back to the dim presence of Queen Heme behind me. She came silently and stayed beyond the room’s light.
He slowed his fingers, let one note cry out twice and fade. Queen Heme stepped back into the hall, I heard the rustle of her robes and caught a scent of dried flowers then she was gone. I relaxed my hand upon the hilts of my sword, aware that I had let my grip grow stiff. My time sense was all askew. I glanced down and saw to my satisfaction that the Fortress too, had rats. This one was dull gray, close to the color of the Fortress walls of stone, and it gave me a considering look before it melted back into the hallway shadows.
“You have given me a great honor,” Thane Gehir said to the Harpist, and Caher reclaimed his harp, saying nothing. I knew it was not discourtesy that kept him silent, for he turned his face away from the fire to keep it private.
Then Thane Gehir leaned forward to King Matthew and said some words. The lined face of the king lit with relief and joy– he made as if he would ask something more. Gehir moved back so decidedly that the King must have recognized it was useless, and stilled the half-made question. I saw that by his side Gehir’s hand made a fist as if in regret, as if he would take back what he could not. Soon after, they wished each the other a good night, and I escorted my silent King to his rooms in the West Tower.