1. Why My Brother Is Not a Guard
During my brother Mel's final test to become a guard, he performed a flourish with his halberd and cut off his left foot. You wouldn't think it was possible to slice your own foot clean off while you're standing on it, but he managed. He says that he didn't really feel any pain at first, but he did feel the tendon in his leg rolling up like a window shade.
My parents were mortified. My dad just set his jaw like he does when he can't yell at us right exactly then, and my mom covered her eyes. Me, I watched the whole thing. There was a lot of blood, and of course Mel was screaming—they say you're not supposed to, that it makes a bad impression on the test officers, but I'm pretty sure I would have, too. Then the healer came over and made an incision in the back of my brother's leg. He reached in and found the tendon where it had gone into hiding and pulled it down to where it belonged, chanting the entire time. Mel was screaming a lot louder by then. Five minutes later the foot was reattached. It's pretty much as good as it ever was, but Mel still has nightmares about the pain.
Not that I'm the least bit sympathetic. If you ask me, he did it on purpose.
2. Why We Even Have A Guard In This Town That No One Cares About, Including Half the People Who Live In It
If you walk west for about five days—three if you eat on your feet—you'll come to the road, and if you manage to catch a ride there, you could make it to the River in a week. We have a river here called the Trickle—even going over the forty-foot falls outside town it manages to seem lazy and quiet—but the river to the west is so big that everyone says it with a capital R, like it's President River or Mother River or something that you have to be careful not to piss off, even though it's that far away. There's a ferry across the river, apparently, and if you cross it and catch another ride to the mountains (about two weeks away) and find a way over the mountains (the road used to run through a tunnel, but it's been caved in for as long as anyone can remember) and find the right valley somewhere in those mountains, you'll be in Enemy Territory. So you can understand why we need to be vigilant.
3. Career Options In My Town
There are basically three career options for kids in our town: the guard, the church, or the family business. That's because there are too many kids. If you have three kids, like my parents did, then one of them has to go into the church, and another one has to go into the guard. If you have seven kids, like the Marlburgs, then you have to send three to the guard and two to the church. Three is not very many kids for our town. A long time ago, supposedly, some people had trouble even having one. Nowadays most people have three or four at a time.
I wasn't there, but from what I understand my parents were pretty embarrassed when they had just one the first time. That was my older brother Gil, and he was the only only in town. He's only in a lot of ways, and maybe even more so after my brother and I were born. (Twins; my parents were so relieved.) I think we all knew Gil would go to the church. He used to spend a lot of time alone thinking, which made people uncomfortable. No one here would ever say that they were against thinking, not out loud, but I think that some of them think it.
4. About That Third Option
My dad is a carpenter. He builds cradles and chairs, and every once in a while he works on houses. He likes the work, and I've helped out enough to know that I wouldn't mind it either. The trouble is that there are three other carpenter shops in town, so it's not enough just to make a chair that looks good and will last for forty years; you have to read the customers' minds so you know exactly what kind of lathe work they like or what sort of stain is going to go with the new rug they just bought. That's what Dad says whenever he loses a sale, that he supposes he should have gone into reading minds. Once or twice a week we all hear about it during dinner. He really wants us to feel sorry for him, so he usually gets up and paces while he talks about it. Mom makes a lot of sympathetic noises, but Mel and I just eat.
Dad never goes out hunting or fishing. Sometimes, when the shop is closed, he just sits on the porch and stares. I don't know what he's staring at. I wonder sometimes if he was always like this, or if he changed after his brother and sister were sent away, or what.
5. More About My Brother Gil, the One Who Does Not Actually Appear In This Story
Gil went off to the monastery when he was fifteen, and we haven't seen him since. That's how the church works, pretty much: kids go into the monasteries and copy manuscripts and chant, I guess, and after about forty years they let a few out to minister to the villages. This would explain why Reverend Force is gray and blinks and mumbles all the time, even when he's standing in front of a full house of worship. Even when he's alone he mumbles. Personally, I don't think the church much cares about us as long as we keep sending them fresh blood, but when I ask questions about things like this Mom starts making sounds that are not exactly words, except they get louder and louder until she is basically shouting at me with throat-clearings and aggressive hums.
Anyway, it's been six years since Gil went away to the monastery, but last year I got a letter from him. At least it might have been for me. Like I said, my brother and I are twins, but I think I forgot to mention that we are identical twins, and this is not a very common thing in our town. Multiples, yes, but not identical ones—the only other ones in town are the Chess girls, who are sixty-seven-year-old triplets. And Gil never could tell me and Mel apart. He was always starting up conversations with me, except that a minute in I'd realize that he thought he was continuing a conversation he had started with Mel. Not that it mattered very much, because talking was just another way of thinking for Gil.
6. More About the Letter
The letter, like a lot of Gil's conversations, had to do with the Enemy. Gil was kind of obsessed with the Enemy before he went to the monastery, and judging by the letter it's only gotten worse. The letter—which is written in this really flowery script, so I guess his penmanship has improved since he went away—said he had read some prophecy about a Chosen One, and that even though it was vague and cryptic like prophecies are, Gil was sure that it was referring to our village and our family. "The twice-born brother of a lonely scholar," was part of it, and even though that sort of describes our family I wasn't convinced until I read the part about the signs, especially the part about the beasts and birds.
7. Some Birds Talk Too Much
Birds have been talking to me since I was seven years old. I was hunting, or at least practicing, in the hills outside of town, trying to follow the trail of a nice fat hare I'd spotted, when this bird started talking to me. Mostly about destiny, and some other words I didn't understand. To be honest I didn't listen for long before I shot it clean out of the tree—my first kill. It was a good-sized mourning dove, and it made for a decent roast. A couple of weeks later Mel came home with one, which was how I found out that they talk to him too. They show up every so often, sometimes a couple of times a week, sometimes not for months at a time. We call them destiny doves. Turns out destiny tastes great with a blackberry sauce, but can't tell the difference between identical twins. I've learned one thing, though, and that's that there's no game easier to hit than a bird that is trying to talk to you.
8. A Short Conversation With Destiny
Another thing that happened was that I caught this fish, this gorgeous fat salmon, and it said that it would grant me a boon if I let it go. I said I was pretty hungry so I'd pass. Besides which I don't really even know what a boon is, but I didn't tell the fish that. Anyway, the fish started talking really fast and panicked and said something about my destiny again, and I got irritated. I said tell me my name and maybe I'll let you go. I said do you know I've got a brother that looks just like me? Maybe you're really looking for him. How am I supposed to take all this destiny talk seriously when you don't even know who I am?
Long story short, the fish didn't know my name. But he was delicious with beans and rice.
9. How My Brother and I Learned Cooperation
Finally there was the wizard. Mel saw him first, hanging around by the old mill at the bottom of the falls. It's a bit funny, how Mel and I like to do the same things but we don't do them together. We both like to fish at the bottom of the falls, we both like to hunt, but we like to do those things alone. It's just that when you're in town, you never get any time to yourself, so once you get out past the checkpoints it's nice to enjoy the quiet. Anyway, Mel told me he was sort of dozing with his fishing pole tucked under an arm when he gets this weird feeling and realizes there's this foreign man with a scraggly beard staring at him. Apparently the guy said something about a Need, and told Mel to come with him, so Mel sliced the guy's belly open with his boning knife and ran away.
I didn't know about any of this when I met the wizard myself a little while later. I was chasing down a stag, and about the time I thought I had a shot, this old man limped into my line of fire. I guess he thought I was Mel coming back to finish the job; he did something with his fingers and the shotgun flew out of my hands. He said he was sorry, that he could see how I might have misunderstood the part about the Need. His cloak was slashed and bloody and he stank like sweaty fish, but I didn't have my gun so I had to just stand there and listen to him talk about how I was going to be a great leader in the war against the Enemy and unite the lands. He wouldn't shut up until I told him I'd come with him. I told him I needed to get some things from home first; he didn't like that, but I made up a story about some Shotgun Shells of Destiny that were under the mattress and I think he bought it.
About twenty minutes later I came back with Mel and one of my other guns. The wizard was just sitting on a rock in a clearing, not expecting a thing. Mel and me are used to hunting alone, so we're both quick and quiet; we came from different directions, close enough so that there was no chance of missing. I hit him in the back, and Mel blasted him in the face. Just to be sure, we cut off his head and his hands and buried them far away from the body.
10. Why Something Had to Be Done
Look, maybe there are people who wait around hoping Destiny will come looking for them, but I'm not one of them, especially when it turns out Destiny is as dumb as a rock. Mel and I were in agreement about this; why would we want to go wandering off with some creepy wizard and start a bunch of trouble with people who have nothing to do with us? The only problem was, one of us had to go into the Guard, and the Guard does stuff like marching off to the west and getting into fights, and that puts you just a few battlefield promotions away from becoming a Great Leader, which is just asking for Destiny to catch your scent and come slobbering up to you like some dumb-ass dog. When Mel volunteered for the test a year early, I should have known something was up. Sure, it looked like an accident, and sure, he'd only been training in the halberd for a few months, but I know my brother.
He failed the test, of course. He can take it again in a year, but the instructors won't forget—no one who saw what happened will forget. And I'll be there next to him, and if I try to do something similar it'll be obvious that I'm trying to sabotage my chances, and I'll be sent off anyway. That's the confusing thing about military service: if you pass the tests, joining up is a reward, but if you get into trouble it's a punishment.
I could kill my brother, but that would mean getting rid of my buffer against Destiny, and if they found me out I'd be shipped off to the border anyway. I had a better idea, and when I mentioned it to Mel, he thought it was a good one too.
11. How Penmanship Turns Out To Be Important
The crap of the whole thing was how much time we had to spend practicing writing. Mel and I both stopped going to school as soon as we were allowed, and neither of us cared much for books. But both of us spent our afternoons scrawling fancy script on any scraps we could get hold of, until my fingers felt like dry twigs about ready to snap. It was horrible, but by the end of a month our penmanship was getting pretty good. Mel's was better, though, so it was him that wrote the letter. Well, fixed the letter, because it was Gil's letter, just with a couple of important changes. After that it was a matter of sending it back to where it came from, and getting it into the right hands there, and then waiting.
And waiting. And waiting. At least we could hunt again, although Dad was starting in on how we needed to start acting like real apprentices, because one of us would have to take over the shop someday. I wasn't worried about that; I already knew how to measure twice and cut once and hammer and glue and sand and varnish. I was worried about the letter.
12. The Chosen One Is Revealed
It was six weeks before we heard anything. A priest actually came down from Two Rivers, Gil's monastery, to talk to Mom and Dad. They sent me and Mel out of the room. After about an hour the priest left; he stopped on the porch to shake our hands, really slow and solemn, like he was proud to know us or something. When Mom and Dad came out, they were both crying. Dad was having trouble getting any words out, and I realized that he was crying because he was proud. He told us that the priests had come across a prophecy and that Gil was the Chosen One and that he was going to save us all from the Enemy.
Well, Mel and I had to play like we were shocked but proud, and then we had to deal with a lot of hugging, and more crying, and then Dad started singing patriotic songs so we had to sing along. We were stuck there for two days, with neighbors coming by to pay their respects to the family of the big hero. The mayor made a speech and Reverend Force mumbled a blessing and everyone was generally pretty obnoxious about how hopeful and proud they were.
We both thought Gil would kick up a fuss about what had happened, but based on the letters he's sent that doesn't seem to be the case. He wrote that when he first read the prophecy he misunderstood it, but he sees now that he was just reluctant to accept his destiny. He's on the march with a big army; it looks like we're invading Enemy territory now, or at least crossing the River and making a mess over there.
To tell the truth I haven't been paying that much attention to the rumors. I've got other things on my mind. Turns out yesterday Mel was over at the stables, and everyone says he got kicked in the head by a mule. No one actually saw it happen, but ever since he's been talking gibberish and he just cries when he sees a book. Then last night he went to the shop while everyone was asleep and built a crib so fancy that the miller's wife ordered three more for the quads she's expecting. See, one of us has to take Gil's place up at the monastery, and it looks like Mel's a step ahead of me again.