Chapter Two: An Oath
The stranger stopped, hesitating it seemed, before looking around. His close hood shaded his features and he tugged it forward. No helmet nor armor. A naked face, no blacking on his skin, sharply pale over a thatch of brown beard.
“You do owe me.” An unaccented voice, clear and deep. “Who were your enemies?”
“Not enemies,” I said, because recognition had finally come clear in the last moments of my fight. No coincidences in this attack. Now it made sense. “They were our own kind. Our teachers. Soldiers of the Wall.”
“So you owe me nothing real,” he said harshly.
“Something as real as a life,” I said, “for they would kill the weakest, the first to fail– that was me. They sent us out for our first blooding. I would have been their cull. The sacrifice. I am Ti of the City Behind the Wall, and I owe you.”
He looked away, and in the turning of his head I read a carelessness I could not bear. His dismissal tasted more bitter than death, so quickly did I forget the desperation of racing heart and laboring lungs. I laid down my sword, drew my personal blade from its sheath over my heart and spread my left hand to him, slicing across the taut palm, so that the ready blood dripped down. Even as I heard Mell hiss in dismay, the man stepped back as if struck, then forward. He knelt to face me, bright gray eyes wide. Was there anger in his look?
“I cannot deny you,” he said.
“Of course you can. I have proven worthless this day. If you deny me, who will blame you?”
“Your good friend for one,” he said, looking aside to Mell, with a smile warming his face. His features seemed to shift then, as if he were a much older man than I assumed, and I sensed that many conflicting thoughts chased each other in his consideration. He took my blade from me and drew it easily across his own left palm before taking my bleeding hand to match wound to wound.
“First Oath,” he said. I felt happiness flow from his blood to mine. “You have honored me with your First Oath. You are mine until I die, or you burn your blade. Serve your time at the Wall, Ti, so I command, and I shall bide my own.”
He unclasped my hand and passed his forefinger over my cut with a whispered word. Had I not watched, I would not have believed the way the wound sealed itself back up again, the last blood flaking dry from my palm. This he did as if it were the most casual of things. There was still a scar angling across the skin for me to keep and I curled my hand shut. Did I fear he would take that too? He sprang up and took a running step to his horse.
“I have been too long,” he said. “Tell King Matthew that Thane Gehir has taken Ti of the Wall’s First Oath.”
Even if you’re a City dweller who’s not been outside the Wall, you know that just beyond the stones stands the Arena, a broad battlefield of wasteland that our forbears cleared to force the enemy to always come to us openly and unprotected. We allow no tree or bush to survive in the Arena, but it is by nature a barren place, a thin poor soil persisting upon it, boulders straggling here and there in groups across the span. There’s not one stone in the Arena that hasn’t drunk blood.
The travellers’ road leads away from our great gate in the Wall across the Arena and then into a tree-clad descent that over days of rough terrain zig-zags the traveler down and out of our mountains. The road through the great woodlands lies ashy brown and wide enough for two wagons abreast, though it turns and descends by narrower switch backs that tax the efforts of horse teams or oxen. In places, steep drop-offs verge the way. Built and rebuilt through most of the ages of man, this road’s roots are only younger than those of the mountains themselves. Any army progressing towards our Wall comes slowed and wearied by the journey, vulnerable to our soldiers. But this meant too that visitors who wished to trade came a long way to find us, and the last miles of their journey made them subject to attack by the bandits and others who habit the outside land. Thus the necessity of our troops meeting them for the last part of their journey.
I raised my head taking a deep breath, realizing in surprise that our encounter had taken only a few minutes of our time, and if we hastened, we would not seem delayed at all to those we went to meet.
“Heme, are you all right?” Mell started as Heme bent abruptly down. No, it was no reaction to her injury. She grabbed something out of the dust. A small roll of parchment, and I recalled its fall when the arrow struck her down. My glance caught Mell’s, she cocked a shrug as Heme turned from us.
We continued only a short distance from the place of the attack before we met the travelers we were sent to accompany. We had too much pride to mention to them our encounter, and they, tired merchants with saddlebags of rare goods and only a few guardsmen, didn’t look upon us with a critical eye. I am not even sure they marked Heme’s shoulder wound for she had drawn her cloak over Mell’s rough binding.
When we returned to the Wall, no one at the gates commented upon our marks of combat. No doubt they seemed greater to us. Our travelers were received with courtesy, passed in through the great creaking gates and into our City. I wondered what they bore, likely rare metals or elements for workmen and researchers of the City.
Relieved of responsibility, I found myself hesitating by the Wall, looking up the rough-surfaced boulders that rose over my head thirty feet or more, colored gold in late winter light. I saw differently even the pale lilac sky above, as if this day had freed me of a burden I had not known I carried, as though the blood of Thane Gehir left me the gift of a light heart. Mell watched me with that shuttered caution she employs to conceal her judgment as we followed our guests into the safety of the Western Court. So, whatever I felt was obvious enough for a friend to see.
Cascada lent Heme her arm again as we entered the barracks kitchen, then led her to a stool by the fireplace. The drafty room had only the fire to lift the shadows in this swift evening of a winter day, orange-yellow reflecting off time-polished stones of the floor and padded benches. We tugged off our helmets and light mail, glad to get the close-fitted weight off. I noted the small sounds of our activity, each part familiar, like a re-establishment of pattern and comfort. We smelled of acrid metal, sweaty leathers, and slightly, of blood. I put Heme’s weapons on the rack as well as my own. We had field-cleaned them and later we would wipe and re-oil the blades, and dress the leather padding inside our headgear. Mell and Datch went out for the doctor, while the rest of our group settled on the benches in a gloomy, tired silence.
“How is it with you?” I asked as Heme sat down, stiff and in-turned. She did not answer, so I brought her a basin of warm water and soap, letting her clean face and hands before I did my own.
“The doctor will be with us soon enough,” I said. I bent over a fresh basin of water and soaped away my black face paint, trying to hide my own surprise. Small-talk, comfort-talk, from me? Normally I would not have offered any comment, nor unasked, volunteer my help. I wondered at myself and at the continuing wellspring of fellow feeling. The water felt wonderful. I found my mind turning to the thought of the City baths.
I knew I should, like the others, be anticipating the arrival of the Corpsmaster and our instructors, predicting both their dissection of our failures and our own uneasy self-criticisms. My thoughts refused that weight, and I felt instead a strong physical enjoyment in the contrast between the strenuous work of the day and this moment when I could claim a chair and ease both feet and muscles. Pleasure more refreshing than water.
The doctor arrived, neat leather shoes scuffing on the floor, a precise man with a pointed black beard. He had a small blue naiman with him which carried his things in a basket, and stood patiently balanced on its stout hind feet and tail. An unusual assistant, I thought, comparing it to a child-sized salamander in my mind as I watched. But perhaps the doctor had secrets he did not wish any human assistant to share, and naiman have both great patience and obedience. Expertly the doctor cleansed and dressed Heme’s wound with warm water and herbs, which made the smoky air of the room clear and fragrant, a smell like fresh grass in spring. She obeyed his instructions to hold her arm this way or that, but she gave no reaction to his efforts other than a word offered for courtesy as he finished. He had treated all of us, a skilled man in his trade, the best in the city. King Matthew would have assigned no one less adept to tend his own. The doctor and his naiman left, the creature quickly obeying the slight gesture of the doctor’s bony hand.
The sound of shoes outside scraping, brought us all to our feet. When the Corpsmaster entered, his small lithe form clad as usual entirely in black, he was not alone. King Matthew himself stood before us in his blood red robes, saluting with a touch of gloved hand upon his chest in acceptance of our deep bows. His bearded face showed lines of reflection and repose, yet I knew him for the warrior he was. Had I not seen him with my own eyes slit the throat of a contending soldier and throw the body from him across the throne room? No hand had helped him act, our king needed none. Insolence could tolerate no other answer.
I wondered then if he would find insolence in my actions of the day and dread knit my stomach.
“You have all returned,” he said in his light strong voice, glancing from face to face. “Of custom, not all return who depart on this journey.”
“No. Indeed, in this trial,” the Corpsmaster said, “the one I fought should not have returned.”
“How is this then?” King Matthew asked.
I saw no real surprise in his features, and I guessed he already had his own news of the day. I felt relief first; the King did not seem angry. Then pleasure for the Corpsmaster had declared his intention was to kill me. He had chosen me. Maybe I’d not saved myself from him, but I’d at least held him off for a little before my rescue.
“Lord King, Thane Gehir has taken my First Oath,” I heard myself say.
“So one might say that you have returned, but not to us,” King Matthew answered. “The tradition is not broken after all. We have lost Ti of the Wall.”
I could not understand his expression; he seemed more pleased than discontented. Something very like a smile moved his lips as he considered me. Had such a thing ever happened before? I knew no story of it and surely such a legend would have wings among us who served the Wall.
“I had thought to take that oath from you myself,” he said. “What was the Thane’s first order to you?”
“That I serve my time at the Wall,” I said. “My oath to him commands I obey your will, by your leave, my King.”
“Then so be it,” he said, “Let me see your hand.”
I held it out, the shiny tissue of the scar slashing diagonally across my palm, orange with firelight.
“I see it was indeed Thane Gehir,” he remarked, his amusement more pronounced.
“It was Gehir,” the Corpsmaster said in a perfectly uninflected voice. “He mastered me.”
King Matthew nodded. He paused a moment, casting his glance at the fire where it murmured on the stones of our fireplace. Then he set his shoulders back, looking at our group once more.
“And you, Lead,” King Matthew said, gazing at Heme, “there will be no long dissection of this day’s test for you, because your future does not lie with the Wall. Not one but two of the soldiers who set out upon this day will not return to service unchanged.”
I saw her freshly washed face pale. Her mouth forced a smile.
“Lord King, I have served my apprenticeship upon the Wall,” she said. “I have earned my blood. I have given no Oath, thus I have no Oath to break. I elect to take a place at your side by your invitation and my free choice.”
My eyes met Mell’s across the room in shocked understanding of the ritual words. This was the source of Heme’s errors today. Now we understood. She had hid no common lover’s note in her sleeve, but Summons from the King himself.
I stared, we all stared, wondering. Heme stood young and strong and comely, yet all of us hid disbelief behind the masks of our faces. Never had we seen any particular look, or singular gesture from the King, and astonishment held us all. Had Heme more warning than a few hours? How had our King made his selection? It was a fine choice, I told myself. He could not do better than to take my swordmate. She had health, beauty, and restraint of character.
King Matthew held out his open hand, palm up. Heme stepping forward placed her own in it. A young Queen, yet I knew she would be a faithful ruler. Perhaps in time would come at last an heir to hold this kingdom for another generation. We saluted them both then, our arms across our breasts, bowing low.
“Ti,” Mell said softly to me as we oiled and polished our blades by the fire, long after the others were asleep. I drooped with tiredness myself, after a long session at the baths where I had indulged myself in hot water and soaps. I looked at her and raised my eyebrows. The rat who had been nibbling on a crust by my left foot also stopped and glanced at her before it went back to the vital business of filling its already rounded belly. She had kits somewhere in one of the holes under the wall.
“Surely it makes you angry,” Mell said, her voice thin, “that you were selected to die today?”
I found myself smiling.
“By the Gods, I was not meant to die,” I said, “for here I sit.”
“Whomever the Corpsmaster chose to fight, he meant to kill. None of us is at his level of skill. You may say fate intended it this way. Easy with hindsight, to be complacent. But now you owe a stranger fealty. None of us know anything about Thane Gehir, save that he is a man of magic, and that, I at least, find extremely disturbing. You should not have been picked to die – or forced into this strange arrangement.”
Our rat sniffed carefully about before deciding nothing was left of the treat I’ad brought. She sat up to polish her fan of whiskers. The thought that I might be to Gehir as this rat was to me flitted through my mind. No, I decided, the rat was far prettier with her brown spotted sleek fur and round black eyes. I had never before offered to touch her, but now I put out a finger. The rat sniffed it thoughtfully, then bumped my finger with her damp nose. How alien a touch, how strange it made me feel. She raised herself to put paws on my knee, and I felt their scraping gentle touch.
“Thane Gehir is rumored to be the man in the Tarberrn papers, but he cannot be that old. If he is a mystery, he is to me, a kind one. Someone should have died today,” I said, “It isn’t a strict rule, but it is usual. Nearly a superstition. I’ve heard that the choice is based on chance, so that we all shared the risk. May be. May be not. I am not sure I would order things randomly were I the Corpsmaster. If ‘random’ does not content you, my friend, I will tell you what has grown in my mind today.”
I studied her in the vague light of the fireplace, wondering if she would believe me; if she could lay her rage behind enough to hear me. Her normally calm and purposeful face held judgment and her eyes narrowed, her level eyebrows drawn down. I realized that her plain look had acquired a kind of austere loveliness over the years, no prettiness, but a clarity of line and color. Our rat continued to clean herself, now attending to her fine fingers. I had read somewhere that in history rats had no opposable digits, and I remembered the pictures in the archives that depicted them with simpler feet, clawed feet good only for running and clambering about. They had been smaller then, too. I drew myself back to explain to Mell.
“Since the deaths of my parents and my brothers I have stayed an outsider. Never has my mind moved with the rest of the group in all our years of training. When I fought, I fought for my anger. When we went to the taverns to drink, drink took me into my fury. I have sought to excel to assert the power of my offense. The righteousness of my rage. I say rage, Mell, but I think it was an uglier emotion for which I have no name, and that ‘rage’ is too kind. A wish to drag down and ruin, to violate and brutalize. A will to revenge myself. I’ve never loved my companions, I have come closest to respecting you. I brewed impatience towards the rest. I’ve had no desire for them, for love or pleasure or even companionship. I tolerated you, and tried to feel nothing warmer. You felt more comfortable to me than the others, but rarely more than an old boot worn to my foot.
“It’s not that I have thought myself superior, nothing so simple as that. I shared nothing with anyone but you, and I can see today what a burden of myself I’ve made. You’re loyal and forgiving. You knew me when I was very young, back when I had a nature able to give. You’ve continued to endure all my repulsions because you recalled my earlier self. You’re never a breaker of promises.”
Her glance faltered, a little. I knew she understood me well.
“If I were Corpsmaster, and the choice of sacrifice was not by chance, I’d be my own first choice to eliminate. With luck I can kill and I never hesitate, but I have shown no ability to be one of the unit. I have no good word for sharing with the others, even with you. In repeated battles, I might kill many enemy soldiers, still I would be a grating element, a sore in the body of the army.”
“You are friends with me,” she protested.
“Mell, you have been my friend for years and a good one too, but I’ve not befriended you back.”
She started to speak, then closed her mouth. Mell is too honest sometimes, to be pleasant. The rat shook herself once more then moved back into the shadows. Perhaps soon she would be willing to bring out her kits and introduce them to the soldiers.
“I don’t promise to be different immediately. There’s no magic in this. I do think that the person who left the Wall this morning is not quite the same one who talks with you now. You may laugh, Mell,” I said. “Still I have never had such a wonderful bath in all my living memory as the one I had tonight. Even the food I ate this evening, winter fare, with stewed parsnips and potatoes and no fresh green thing, seemed savory, as if I woke from a long fast. Have I ever taken such pleasure in feeding this rat? Haven’t I ridiculed the rest of you for your care and hidden any friendly thought I had for the animal? Now I want to name her. I actually,” and I did laugh then, “look forward to falling asleep tonight.”