Footsteps of the Fallen

10 Years Past

10 Years Past

The wind came in again, biting and hard. The boy huddled in the wolf-skin clothes he’d been given. Father said his mother’s people did not wear clothing made from men, only beasts slain would shield them from the elements. He walked behind the man, placing his feet in the snow-prints he left, feeling small and cold. “Not much further,” he heard the wind carry his father’s voice back to him.

Suddenly, as quickly as the wind came, they were there. All he saw was black rock, from east to west across the horizon, reaching up towards the sky. Words had not done it justice, as he strained his neck upwards and could not see the top above the snow flurry. Being a boy, he could not comprehend how such a structure could be built, whole mountains would have to be leveled just to construct a part of it, and he knew from his lessons that it stretched almost entirely across Talin’Tyr, guarding their border from the barbarians to the north. No army in no country to hope to assault, and yet the wild men of the north had done their best for thousands of years. What sort of stuff must those men be made of to throw themselves at that bloody wall, with no hope of victory?

They reached the foot of the wall, and there were grayish, taciturn looking buildings surrounding a center holding. It was one of many of the keeps of the Black Watch. Men in solid black dressings rode out to meet them, and guide them back to the keep. The Black Watch was not held to the laws of the country, being separate but equal, but it was well known that they respected them. The men themselves were quiet and somber, and the boy wondered in all their lives in the cold had made them as hard as ice. Men nodded to his father as he passed, and looked quizzically at him as he walked the hard road. It made him miss his sister.

“I’ll not have you and your sister up in the North at once, should something happen. And I would hardly place you both in the old bastards care, he might just decide to refresh old wounds and take you captive, and I’m not interesting in carrying spears over the wall again.”

They passed many men on their way through the keep to the rigging on the other side. He was surprised to see a fat man walking along, and nod knowingly to his father. Such men did not last within the Black Watch, it was said, as either the north or the brothers would get a weak one. Still, as he waddled past he seemed at home. Many of the men training seemed young, and though some smiled, most scowled or ignored them. Criminals, he knew, were drafted into the brothers if they did not have to stomach for death. It was ironic that some of the worst kind of men, rapists and murderers, were the ones guarding their countryman’s safety.

Suddenly a huge man, a mountain of flesh surrounded by black brothers, came upon them. “I heard you were here Kel’Thane,” his low and gravelly voice boomed. “But I didn’t think you’d sneak through. My feelings are hurt.”

His father laughed, a rare sound, “The day you have a feeling is the day the wall comes crashing down, Sargent.” He seemed to notice something on the man’s outfit and corrected himself, “Captain, it seems. You’ve come a long way since I was causing trouble around here.”
Stone’s face twisted up bitterly as he spoke, “Not my doing. You can blame General Tiberius. Says he needs men he can trust running the keeps. I keep telling him he’s wasting his time on this; I’m better training those boys down there.” He looked down, so far down, at the boy and squints, “They keep getting worse every year, I swear by Arakxx. Is this pup yours?” When his father nods solemnly he chuckles, “too scrawny for a brother. You should consider the Maesters.”

They laugh and speak for a few minutes of things long past that they seem to miss, even as sad as things seem when they speak of a friend who they say is gone. After a bit Stone moves on, saying he has business to attend to, and they continue. “Stone is a good man, and a good friend, even if he was a son of a bitch. The friends you make while in your early years aren’t like any others, remember that there is a value to the time you’ve known a man, and don’t make the mistake of breaking bonds for little cause.”

They came to the wall, and had to ride a system of pulleys to the top. There were few gates on the wall, and difficult even for the brothers to open, to dissuade their enemies from considering them a weaker point. Because of this the brothers must travel over the top if they wished to travel beyond into the north, a rare prospect.

When they finally reached the top the clouds seemed to part, and everything for many miles was clear as day. It was beautiful in a way, how a tool of war provided such insight into the world itself. The boy imagined seeing home from here, in Talin’Tarathia, and seeing his sister gazing out towards the wall. He regretted that she was upset with him; she had wanted to go with him to the North. There was nothing to be done, though; Father was not a man to be cajoled into getting one’s way. He wondered idly if she was looking out at him as he was to her. He felt like she was.

As they approached the way down he put his mind to the task. The rigging was relatively safe but one slip or misstep and it would be hundreds of feet down, a sure death for any man. They rode in silence, his father seeming lost in thought from their meetings in the keep. At the landing, the black brothers departed, leaving them alone in the wilderness of the north.
They traveled for a half day, not stopping for rest, eating on the way. This journey was the first time he had not trained in war in four years. He would need what strength he had if they were attacked, father had said, and there were lawless men such as Skylar’s Mercenary Band. He knew, through hearing servants speak of it, that his father was held in irons once at the mercy of Skylar, and that he bragged of the fact to this day; but his father did not speak of it.

Finally they came to a clearing, where fifty wild men stood in silence. The one in front was a greybeard, tall and of noble bearing. His eyes, though, were hard as ice as they approached. “Where is the girl?” he asked in a harsh tone.

“Far north, beyond your reach. You shall have her in two years when I come for my son, and not sooner. If he is dead, you shall not have her. If he is hostile to me, you shall not have her. If he is marked, you shall not have her. Know and remember these words, old man, or you will come to rue them.”

The barbarian scowled, “You take my right to my granddaughter as surely as you took my daughter. The day I rue is the day I released you, cursed boy, and may the gods punish my foolishness for letting you take her into your wretched land.”

His father stood tall and imperious, “Curse me all you wish, Father, but I have told you I had no hand in her death before all of your gods and mine, but you will not listen. I do not care to listen to your insults and baseless accusations today any more than I did when I marched the Black Watch to your door and demanded you cease them years past. You will have the girl as well as the boy, for two years each, just not together.”

His father leaned down and turned him to look into his face, speaking deliberately. “You will go with your grandfather now, and for two years forward. It will be difficult to live as they do, among the trees and the wolves, but you are made of sufficient strength for this. Know your people and your father and your sister think of you daily, and that you will return home one day stronger for the experience. Show these men, these savages, what it means to be a man of Talin’Tyr, and take from them the strength they do have, for it is great. Go now, boy, and remember that I will come for you.”

With that he pushed the boy forward, and he began the long walk to these strange and foreign men. They stood like wild gods, the way the pictures showed them against the black wall. He did not look back to his father, knowing that would be a weakness, and did not seem him again for two years. But as his father and sister thought of him every day, so did he of them.

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