It was on those nights, when the moon was dark and the winter winds blew harshly, that the world seemed most at peace. No shapes stirred in the grass below, and the lanterns of the city did not move, did not waver. From the wall, you could hear no sound save the soft tolling of faraway bells, and sullen whispers carted by the gale, and the frozen breath of the guardsmen mixed pleasantly with the thick smoke of their cigars. They were the guardians of the freedom of Man, and their eyes were as sharp as the cold.
"Be snowing soon," grunted the largest, whose shoulders were broader than the regulation shields, and perpetually adorned with heavy pauldrons laced with frost. His lips were hidden by massive whiskers, the envy of every man whose teeth had chattered on a bitter night on the watchposts, and in the half-light one could mistake his spear for a moderately large tree. His name was Friar, and when he spoke the other men turned to listen, in silence tinged with reverence.
Rodrin was a lanky man, with kind eyes and a daughter in a hamlet with no name. "Snow," he said with a laugh. "Not so much a question of 'if,' I think, as it is how much, and how wet. It gets in my socks," he added, ruefully. "There's nowhere to dry them, not out here. The hearth is too busy, and the ice stings."
Friar threw his smoke over the wall, watching it fall with an expression of distant interest. The ember faded at once. A smaller officer, wearing a cape of heavy fur, imitated the motion without thinking, then shrank away at Friar's expression. "Snow is snow," said Friar to Rodrin, and shrugged. "There's no shame in a peg." He gestured at the other man's feet, his mustache twisting as his mouth formed a wry smirk. "Captain Horthin had a saying: 'on the wall, you wear either good boots for a month, or logs 'til your knees give out.'"
"And which one were you?"
"I never needed boots." He said it quite casually, not a boast at all, but one look at the man was enough to determine the comment's veracity. He looked over the men of the night's rotation, and stoked the single fire with practiced efficiency. He pointed at a silhouette, masked in shadow.
"Draw closer, Tom. You'll freeze in the dark." The boy's face grew larger as the others hurried to make room; he wormed through with and expression half of gratitude, half of embarrassment at the looks he was given. Rodrin passed him a flask, but he shook his head, eyes on the floor. It went instead to Origol, a corporal with one eye and half a temper, who snatched the drink with a grumble.
Flakes began to fall, white and delicate, forming patterns in the air. Friar remembered a painter from his youth, whose memory was so complete that he would draw not the mountains nor the nobility of the land, but rather the path of the winds that blew during the spring. His palette was diverse, and at the end of his labors he would present to the watching children a panorama of hypnotic blues and mysterious greens, at once as deep as the open ocean and as superficial as the song of a passing lark; upon the painter's death the local magister had hung the collection in the annex of his palace, where the children were not permitted.
Friar didn't mind. He wasn't the sort to mind much at all, really -- his thoughts were of the bovine variety, slow and peaceful, and on nights like this he could see the paintings once more. Trails of sparkling gold, crossing like spools of thread on the spinning wheels of gods. He had just begun to smile when he heard Tom speak up, his voice quavering but eager.
"Is it true you killed a troll?"
"Mm?" He blinked. His mind was still full of the colors, and he squinted a little to clear them away. Before he could fully recover, however, Rodrin cut in.
"It's true all right." His voice was chipper, tinged with contagious excitement. "I saw it clear as the fire, right with my own two eyes." His arm swept the expanse of the wall, as if to draw an army that stretched to the horizon and further, row upon row of bristling blades and armored heads. He grinned. "The Makruthe came at us hard, all along the eastern Reach. You'll never see an army that size again, not for a thousand years. T'wasn't just trolls, you see -- they'd been raiding the coast for six turns of the fields, looting and burning as they do. . ."
"Savages," muttered Origal under his breath, but no one gave him notice.
". . . and growing their hordes. They came on horses, true, but they also had the steel wagons of Sterl, with crossbows mounted on wheels turned by fire, and giants from the last stone hills. There were witches among them, and creatures from the Old World. I was a boy at the time, it's true, and I'm not ashamed to say that when I saw them on the hills, coming down the footpaths with their warcries and their banners. . . I wet myself there and then. Oh, don't smirk at me, Dinvor, you'd have done the same, if you'd been there. Their arrows," he clutched his hand into a fist, "blotted out the sun.
"At the end of the day, we may have had. . . what do the books say? six hundred men. Six hundred, against tens of hundreds of thousands, and Friar here was at their head. Couldn't miss him, with those shoulders of his. And there was the king of the trolls, name of Gahdabar"--
"Gahnthar," Origal interrupted. Several of the men hushed him into silence.
"Gahdabar the Green," continued Rodrin. Most of the crowd wore complacent expressions, for they'd heard this story many times, and in many different ways. Few among them knew the truth, and fewer still remembered it correctly, but Tom had been alive not nearly enough for either, and listened with rapt attention. In the fire, his eyes were bright, and Rodrin thought of his own daughter and couldn't help but to smile in return.
"Oh, he was monstrous," he said, and raised his arms at odd angles into the air, his fingers clawing at nothing. The snow fell around him and stuck to his clothes. "First thing he did, he picked a man up from the vanguard and tore him in halves, and he drank up the insides like soup from a bowl." Tom winced, and the men chuckled. "Next, he pulled out his club: great big thing, that club; the Troll King had a notch for every man he killed, as he added another Friar came up with his spear -- that very spear! -- and he stabbed the troll through the heart." Rodrin glanced at Tom's look of disappointment with a smile. He'd told the tale many times before, never mind that he'd seen nothing save the initial engagement of the forces, and he was an expert at embellishment. Friar watched him with detached amusement as he went still further.
"Thing is, though," said Rodrin conspiratorially, "you can't kill trolls through the heart." A lie. Trolls bled and died as easily as anything else, Friar reflected. In the end, it'd been a lucky shot from an archer that had done it, but of course that wasn't what people remembered. People remembered Rodrin's version, mostly because that archer hadn't survived the battle, and also because it was a lot easier to believe that a great hulking man had killed the king of the trolls, than to pin the credit on some malnourished neophyte with an arm that had trembled just enough at the point of release.
"You can't kill 'em through the heart," Rodrin repeated. "And Ghada -- Ghababar, right, he grabbed Friar's spear, and tore it out with a scream that shook men's hearts on both sides of the line. I heard it on the walls, and I reckon they heard it from the city, too. He screamed, and he pulled his club, and he swung at old Friar there like a badger in heat. He was quick, you see, far quicker than you'd think a thing like that could be, all lanky arms and stumpy legs, and the two of them fought all day, until the moon came out and the bodies piled up high on every side." He spread his arms slowly apart, setting the scene. "Gharinar swung again and again, and he knocked Friar straight into the wall, and he swung again, and Friar's spear shattered straight down the shaft, into splinters too many to count." Tom glanced at the veteran's spear, which seemed perfectly intact to him. He narrowed his eyes.
"He only had the blade," explained Rodrin. "The wood . . . completely gone. The splinters pricked Friar's hands through the gloves, and he lifted the steel with a roar, like a lion's roar, fierce and proud, and we heard that on the walls, too -- clear as summer midnight. And the troll was still bleeding from that stab to the heart, bleeding hard, so of course Friar jammed what was left of his spear right there, right where he'd opened the wound, and he stabbed up, right through the head, until his hand ripped clear out of Gharbibar's skull and into the sky." Rodrin mirrored the motion with his own meager arm, finishing in a fist that crunched with settled frost.
The snow fell harder now. It clumped on the men's helmets, and they stamped on the ground to warm their feet. A few of them muttered trite conversation, passed a measure of jerky between themselves, and Rodrin leaned back in his seat with an air of pleasant exhaustion at a tale well told.
Tom, however, stayed hunched, brow furrowed, and he looked at Friar, then Rodrin, with uncertainty.
"What's on your mind?" asked Friar. "Speak up."
"It's just. . ." Tom hesitated again. "It's a good story, and all"--
"Story?" scoffed Rodrin. "Hard truth, all of it -- stranger than fiction, more exciting, too, if I may say, but the truth through and through." He lit a match, pressed it to a fresh cigar with an exaggerated air of injury.
"Fine," said Tom. "It's a good retelling, but I can't figure out. . ." he looked up at Friar apologetically. "How did we win?"
There was silence for a while, as Friar searched for words. He was saved the effort by the sudden tolling of a bell, swinging twice, in a noise soon mirrored by the wall's own tower. "Another day," he said, patting the boy on the head. "Go wake the next shift, boy." He looked up at the other men. "You lot too," he barked. "Get some sleep while you can, breakfast is served when the tower tolls eight, you get it or you don't."
Groans and laughter bubbled up as the men rose from their perches, and one by one they made their farewells to Friar and disappeared into the halls. Tom was the last to go, staring quizzically at Friar for only a moment before hurrying off to bed.
The warden turned to find, without surprise, that Origal had remained.
"You'll be tired come morning," he said, flatly.
"Aye, and my knees will ache and my back will give me the hells. Won't matter for long, will it? I'm the oldest the wall's ever seen."
"Chirping bastard," Origal continued. "You'd think he'd at least get the name right, after all this time. It's Gahnthar -- Gahnthar. What'd he say tonight? Ghabribabi? Disgusting."
"It's a hard name." Friar took a seat on one of the perches, grunting softly as he did.
"The boy, though, I like. Got a good head on him."
"He can't know the truth. None of them can."
Origal waved his hand dismissively. "Send him to the archives come morning; little scholar'll have a field day."
"I thought you liked him?"
"It's an affectionate term." Origal smiled sharkishly, gaps and all. "Besides, you make too much out of it. Not exactly the most terrifying thing, is it? The bastards ran away, is all. I was there, you were there. They ran."
"Maybe?" Origal had a dark laugh, full of bitterness at the best of times, and grating to the ears when he was in temper. Which was now, and almost always. "Age has been harsher to you than me, Friar. The turned tail, abandoned the field, made like dogs in the rain. Or has Rodrin been getting to you, after all this time?" He laughed again, and Friar shook his head.
"I forget some things, it's true. That man," he said suddenly. "What was his name?"
Origal's expression darkened at once, no trace of humor remaining. "What man?"
"You remember, don't you? The one in the"--
"There was no man. They were animals then, they're animals now. Cowardly little beasts of a species."
"You still think so?"
"I know so."
Friar paused, then nodded. The sounds of the next watch came down the halls, the footsteps merging on the stairs, the voices of the men bleary with sleep and muttering about nothing at all. "Good night, Origal." Friar moved away, in the direction of the noise. "It's time we both got some sleep." He didn't stay long enough for a response.
In his quarters, the lantern had gone out. The single window shone into the perimeter of the walls, toward the city. He sat on the bed, unhooking his armor and hanging his spear, and stared. The city. The last city. One of what had once been many, before the Makruthe had swept across the sea and land with their swords and countless allies. He wondered, sometimes, how they had found so many. How such countless multitudes had rallied behind such a beaten people -- for they were a people, no matter what Origal claimed, sorry and pathetic as they were.
Sometimes he wondered, and then he would remember the man.
He closed his eyes, leaned back on a pillow as hard as stone. He remembered the smell of blood and rusting steel, and saw again a field littered with corpses and what Rodrin claimed were the "tears of widows far away." Red rivers between continents of death. He saw seven men, broken and battered, the last seven of the six hundred guardians of the wall. And then he saw another. He saw the man in purple robes, standing at the front of that horde that stretched to the sea, and as he drifted to sleep he heard his voice across the banks of time.
This is done, he had said, and we are done. We bleed the same, and today we need no further blood. He stepped over the corpses, the field pocked with arrows and broken spears, and he leaned over Friar with an expression he would never forget. For the eyes of the conqueror had been kind. They had been so full of wisdom and sympathy and sorrow that for a moment Friar found himself overwhelmed with sudden emotion. And the man had murmured, I am sorry.
Then he rose, turned to an army who had followed him far farther than the ends of their world, and told them to return, to rejoice. Let them cower behind their walls, as we once cowered under them.
And with that, they had departed, back to lands unknown.
Monsters, Origal called them. Cowards. Men with black skin and horribly white teeth, savages who recruited creatures to do their foul work. Friar sighed. Cowards and monsters.
And yet theirs eyes were kind.