Eoin’s favorite place in Oruasta was the Wall, for the simple reason that it was useless, and it was his.
When he was fifteen, he had tried to run away to the Border Wars. King Gabreal’s call was hard to resist, then, with its message of honor and excitement, a need to protect home, and its imperative to remind the other Kings that their hands were not so large, yet, that they could take what belonged firmly to Gaebrel’s people. Gaebrel needed heroes, and Callix and Tiernan had already gone shoulder to shoulder into the ruined, honorable fields. Eoin was no less a hero than them. He had spent all his boyhood keeping up with them, step for step, tracking up and down his city’s hills and defending everyone inside from the monsters and bandits and storm clouds of his imagination.
Eoin let them send letters back for six months before he grabbed a sack and cloak, and crept from his rooms at midnight.
His father caught him and dragged him back inside by the scruff of his neck. Eoin remembered it clearly, because he had been bare inches from surpassing Zacarias in height, but his father had still lifted him onto his toes and ushered him inside as if he were a puppy that had cleverly worked himself lose from the kennel.
Then his father sat across from him in the deep kitchens below their twisting complex of rooms inside the mountain. He looked like he might snap into a grin or glare at any moment. Eoin held perfectly still, terrified of the look.
“You want to be a soldier?” Zacarias asked.
Eoin had nodded mutely, afraid that he might tilt into an ill-timed grin in a misinterpretation of his expression.
“All right,” Zacarias said. “Get to bed. Because tomorrow you’ll be waking with the dawn as the new Commander of the Wall.”
Oruasta had exactly one stretch of wall, seated on the north side of the city, and it could be walked in the space of twenty-nine steps. It was built because a grandfather or other of Eoin’s had disliked the way a cleft in the mountain face looked from the outside, and had no purpose whatsoever in the defense of the city. But a tight, winding staircase of three hundred steps led up to the top, and since it was built, a small cadre of soldiers guarded it, looking down at the impassable rocky face below them and laughing, while they watched the hills around them.
For a year, Eoin mostly played cards with the men on the Wall.
When he stopped losing money to them, his father handed a piece of the Mountain Guard over to him as well, and he split his time between the Wall and the barracks that rested at the base of the stairs. He patrolled the hills between hands of cards, and felt like a boy and man at the same time. Another year, and finally, he joined his brothers in the field.
And missed his useless Wall immediately. Callix and Tiernan looked tired, shoulders slumped in a tight way that shouldn’t have been possible with that much strength in them. They had always been strong, and at twenty-two and twenty, they had only broadened since he last saw them. Both also looked like they’d finally met a weight that they were impotent in front of.
Eoin tried to return home the night he found them in the field. Callix chased him down, and Tiernan snuck out in front of him, catching Eoin over his shoulder. Tiernan carried him back like a lamed animal and deposited him at a camp fire just outside the main encampment from the army.
“You will not run,” Tiernan had said, with one thick finger pointed at him.
Behind him, Callix looked down at Eoin in the dark, and the firmness of his features delivered the order just as firmly in silence.
After a minute, they both sat down across from him.
Callix slumped forward over his knees, tired again. “This is how it works,” he told Eoin. “You don’t run. You look at the man next to you, and know he’s not going to run either. You see the man on the other side, and know his feet are planted too. And as long as you all have that faith, as long as you take everything together, you make it through this. And you don’t ever let yourself be the one to break the line.”
So, they all stayed, and they all aged. Tiernan dropped into a dangerous anger at a moment’s notice. It had kept him alive, and it took him years to let it go. Callix just got quieter and it never quite shook off him. Eoin laughed, too easily, like he was desperate for it, and felt unsteady every time, like laughter might break into something dark.
When he came back, to Oruasta, to home, too many years later, he’d wandered aimlessly, lost in streets he’d known all his life. He found the old stairs to the old useless Wall, and he climbed them. Step after step on the short, turning flights. Sometimes he stepped on firm stone carved into the mountain and sometimes he leaned out on a wooden planks tacked into place. And the motion, the shift and pull of each step, steadied him. At the top, it delivered him to the same broad, flat top he remembered.
The Wall was always – always – the same, his point of orientation, guarding nothing, and somehow everything.
Eoin approached the stairs, and leaned back with an expectant smile. Pausing with his foot on the first step, he watched a tall figure winding down toward him, a long cloak strapped tight across shoulders to ward against the whipping air that danced on the Wall. A dozen more steps, and the man paused, just above Eoin, and leaned against the top of the rail.
“You’re back,” he said. The wind dragged his long, thinning hair into his face, but didn’t hide the width of his smile.
Eoin nodded. “I’m back,” he said.
The man chuckled. “I saw that.” He dropped down another step, and another. “I said that. Don’t tell me you’ve gotten so brainless you’re just running around repeating people now.”
Stepping up to meet him, Eoin clapped him on the shoulder. “Wish I could say it was good to see you, Reed,” he said and grinned. He liked Reed, and had been spoiled by him. He was the kind of soldier who trusted a commander enough to crack a smile easier than a salute, and to jump into orders the first time they were given when trouble came. In the fields, Eoin had copied him without meaning to, and felt easier doing it.
“Shouldn’t you be somewhere else?” Reed asked. He jerked a head upward, indicating the elegant point of the mountain that hung over the city. Windows were sunk across its entire face, indicating the maze of his family’s home hidden inside.
“My father couldn’t give me the latest reports,” Eoin told him. “I came to find them myself. Thought I’d see what I could see.” He said the old phrase easily, nodding up toward the Wall, already ready to take the next step past Reed.
“There’s not much to see up there,” Reed said, and rocked Eoin back to a complete stop. There was a usual answer to his wording, and it was the opposite of what Reed had delivered. Everything. You can see everything from the Wall.
“What?” Eoin asked.
“I’ve just been up there,” Reed said, idly, as if he hadn’t just broken a hundred year pattern. “And there’s only old Candir up there.”
Eoin blinked. There had never been less than six men stationed on the Wall. It was too many for a good fast hand of Handle, and too few to split into two.
“Why don’t you come with me instead?” Reed said. He looked up at the darkening sky. “It’s almost time for dusk patrol.” And finally, he met Eoin’s eye again, his words gaining a little of the weight that had begun to settle on Eoin’s stomach. “You’ll see what you want to see there.”
Eoin nodded, slow. Letting out a breath, he ended it on an uncertain laugh. “All right,” he said. He smiled, shrugged. “Lead the way, sir.”