The wind was strong here. Rolland saw it move the little flags atop the small, pointed houses. He could see everything here, at the very top of the Lighttouched Academy’s tower. All the people scattered about the narrow, cobbled streets that weaved their way through all the houses in Ashrennon. The people at the market, bartering and selling and shouting and buying. The people sitting out at cafés, reading books and talking and having meetings and first dates.
He could even see the training yards from here, with the fighters of the inner guard practicing their telans and sparring with swords both wooden and steel. He lingered on the fighters for a time. Their movements were swift and fluid. He watched the more senior guards among then. Every step in their telans reeked of perfection, a by-product of their unfailing devotion to their art. Rolland smiled as he remembered the dream he’d held when he was younger. He used to wish with all his bones to join their ranks. He’d wanted to help protect the city alongside them. More than that, he’d wanted to become a legendary guard like Cholus, his great-great-grandfather, had been. After lingering on the fighters, his gaze fell farther afield, to the farms of the outer city. They were far away, but up here he could just make out the rows of wheat and corn and apple trees. The cows and sheep slowly grazing looked like bugs from where he sat.
A gust of wind pushed him forward, making his heart flutter. His feet dangled over the edge of a stone wall on the highest tower in the city. He relaxed as he regained his balance, then scooted back from the edge. He liked edges, tall places, and wind. Sometimes, altogether, they became a little dangerous.
Which made him like them all the more.
He liked being able to see everything. Though, as his eyes crept away from the farms, he knew there was one thing he couldn’t see from here. The one thing he wanted to see. Just past the farms was a wall. The Tall Wall. It was even taller than the tower he sat upon.
Sometimes he stared at the wall, trying to bore his gaze through it to see the other side. Other times he imagined climbing it like he did this tower and sitting at the very top. His feet dangling down the edge. It would be even windier there. He would be able to see more than the market, the cafés, the fighters, the farms.
The Tall Wall was not for climbing, however. The stone was polished, sheer and smooth, and even after the centuries that had passed since its creation, none of it had crumbled to make handholds and footholds for him to grasp and cling.
It was also where the outer guards worked. Though their telans were not so perfect as the inner guards’, they were of a more practical sort. They had bows, both flat and curved, that could shoot him down if he tried to scrabble up to the top. He thought of becoming an outer guard once, too. They patrolled the wall, inside and out. He would be able to see the other side, glimpse what lay beyond everything.
At least, beyond everything he knew.
Sometimes, he’d even dreamt of becoming a travelling merchant, going out and trading for all the things Ashrennon needed but couldn’t create alone within its Tall Wall.
Dream and think and look and wonder, these were the only things Rolland could do. Rolland wasn’t allowed to become an inner guard, an outer guard, or a travelling merchant. Rolland was lighttouched. Lighttouched weren’t taught to fight or trade. Lighttouched were taught to be wise and smart. They were taught to remember and think.
Above all, they were taught to stay hidden away in the Lighttouched Academy.
They were also taught not to climb towers and sit at the edges of things. Rolland knew it was dangerous not to do what he was taught, but he didn’t much care for what he was being taught, and he liked things that were a little bit dangerous.
‘Rolland,’ a voice said from behind him, then sighed. ‘Why is it that I always find you here?’
Rolland didn’t turn around right away. He kept staring at the Tall Wall as he heard the small steps of Master Willem come toward him. He heard the billowing of Willem’s robes in the wind, his heavy breathing from his walk up the tower stairs. Rolland turned to see the looming figure in dark robes lean against the wall. Willem’s hand tattoos peeked out of his long sleeves as the master peered over the edge.
‘You shouldn’t sit so close, Rolland. If a harsh wind blew through and you fell to your doom, I’d be the one to have to tell your parents.’ Master Willem pushed away from the wall and looked at Rolland. Rolland didn’t meet Master Willem’s eyes, that would have been greatly disrespectful. Instead, Rolland looked at the master’s hands, now clasped together, with only his fingers visible out of his sleeves. ‘You shouldn’t be up here, but you’ve been told that enough times. I doubt me telling you again will do much to change you.’
‘Sorry, sir.’ Rolland popped off the wall and stood in front of Master Willem. The master was looking into his eyes, Rolland could tell. It made him uncomfortable, and he looked down at his own hands, at the fingers of his right. Two of them bore the same circular tattoos that the master wore. It would be a long time until all his fingers and the whole of his hands were covered like Willem’s. Just as it would be a long time until he could stare into someone’s eyes, like the master was doing, and see what lay behind them. Whenever Rolland looked, he only caught glimpses, but glimpses were more than enough to land him here.
‘That’s alright,’ Willem said.
Rolland’s head rose a little, and he glimpsed a small smile on the master’s face. Even though Master Willem made him do things he didn’t want to do, and his eyes boring down made him uncomfortable, Rolland still liked him. Out of all the masters, he was the only one that was ever patient with Rolland.
Master Willem motioned to one of the benches at the top of the tower. ‘Will you sit with me for a time, a little farther from the edge?’
It wasn’t really a question—the masters didn’t have to ask for things. Even so, it felt nicer to be asked than ordered. They sat side by side on the stone bench. Still able to see much of the city, Rolland’s eyes crept back toward the Tall Wall.
‘Do you know why the Tall Wall was made, Rolland?’ Willem asked.
It wasn’t a hard question. Everyone knew why the Tall Wall was made.
‘To keep the barbarians out. To keep us safe.’
‘Yes, that is what we are told. Can you think of another reason?’
Rolland furrowed his brow. He was never taught another reason for the wall. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘But you know why we, the lighttouched, are kept here?’
Rolland frowned. ‘To keep us hidden away from the rest of the city?’
The master nodded. ‘It is the same with the Tall Wall. It keeps people out, but it also keeps us in.’ He paused. ‘You don’t like being kept inside, do you, Rolland?’
‘Not especially, sir.’
The master sighed. ‘When I was your age, I was apprenticed to a blacksmith.’ Rolland looked up in surprise, almost meeting the master’s eyes, then remembered himself. ‘Yes, I know. It’s hard to think of this frail old man.’ He put a hand on his chest. ‘Was once a strong young thing, hammering on metal all day in front of a forge.’ He pulled his hands out of his sleeves and held them up, fingers splayed and extended, in the light. ‘Finding out we are what we are changes us. It changes our plans. We must tread the path we are given, no matter how much we may want to walk another.’
Master Willem put a hand on Rolland’s shoulder. ‘One day, when your hands are inked such as mine, you might be adviser to the king.’
‘Or a common merchant.’
‘Not so common, if they’re able to afford a lighttouched on their staff.’ Willem removed his hand from Rolland’s shoulder.
Rolland didn’t hear the same conviction from the master’s words. Before Rolland even knew he was what he was. Before he had stood, eyes downcast, as the masters walked down the line of boys and girls his own age, inspecting them one by one, he knew what it meant for a lighttouched to be an adviser to a merchant not of noble blood.
It meant they’d failed in their potential.
The master sighed and stood, bones popping as he brought himself to full height. ‘You should run along to arithmetic.’ Willem walked toward the tower door. ‘You have already missed breakfast. Mr Setram would no doubt appreciate you turning up for his class.’ The master descended, slowly, down the stairs. He left the tower door open for Rolland. A courtesy, he supposed. It saved him climbing back down to the balcony of the boys’ dormitory.
Rolland took one last look at the city. At the training yards. At the Tall Wall. Then he ran along to his first class of the morning. Arithmetic. Not his favourite class at the academy. Though he had no favourite class. None of them sparked much interest in him.
Except, perhaps, for cartography. The maps they looked at were mostly of the city, and its past iterations. But every now and then, they got to look at other maps. Maps of the surrounding regions. Maps of the Chtean Empire, of the Slo’atin Kingdom, and the Barbarous Lands. And old maps. Maps that showed the seven cities of Rennon, long before the Tall Wall. Looking at these maps brought some joy to Rolland. But the joy was always a bleak sort of joy, because when he pored over them, and felt a longing for adventure, he would see his own fingers running down the lines on the maps. His tattooed fingers, marking him for what he was. And he knew he would never be able to see those places.
Perhaps it was a good thing, that these maps were not brought out very often.
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.