The best spot on the ledge is still just a spot on a ledge. Not sure why the Blue God felt the need to teach me such an obscure lesson, especially so close to the end, but there you have it. Around here, people know the Blue God less for his kindness than his twisted sense of humor. I guess that’s why he has armies marching into the valley as we speak, ready to kill the killers—though something tells me I won’t be here to see it. And if there are kinder gods behind different clouds, they know I’m not alone.
One day, there’s a valley brimming with simple folk just trying to make it through another winter. The next, men ride in with hooked spears and crossbows and big bloody banners, and if you’re lucky enough to survive the massacres, they throw you in wagons and cart you off to the mountains. You wonder if they mean to put you to work digging for silver. But they take you right past the mines, like silver means nothing to them, and lean an enormous ladder against the rockface: the biggest, sturdiest ladder you’ve ever seen, all oak and iron wrapped in seal-skin to keep the water out. Way the hookspears handle it, you can tell they’ve done this before, in other lands. They use their spears to force you up the ladder onto a narrow ledge—no food, no escape—then they pierce the snow right beneath the ledge, erecting countless sharpened stakes.
Then, they wait.
At first, you think maybe you’ll be rescued. The hookspears have enemies, after all. Maybe heroes with lances and chainmail are already on the way, galloping through the snow, mad with desire to save you. You just have to survive a bit longer. You tell yourself you can do it. Sure, it’s bad up here—all that cold, needling wind—but if you impress the hookspears with your guts, maybe they’ll even let you down. Then you remember what they did to your village, and all those other villages before, and you start to give up. And the wind keeps blowing.
Meanwhile, the hookspears place bets. A few keep watch while the rest sit around campfires and drink stolen wine. Sometimes they shout up at you and loose crossbow bolts so close that pebbles scratch your face—but you hold on. Hours pass, then days. You smell burnt meat from their campfires and try not to cry. Your guts twist like a wrung-out washrag. While the others beg or yell or pray, and the hookspears laugh, you stave off thirst with mouthfuls of snow or icicles carefully pried off the rocks above you.
Eventually, someone falls—one of the old ones, already brittle from cold—and his organs share their deepest secrets with the sharpened stakes below. The killers laugh at the dead man, then some of them use their hooked spears to drag him away while the others fashion new stakes to replace the ones the old man splintered in his fall. Along the ledge, everyone else cries or curses. A few start praying again. Then more people fall—the farmer with a face like a wounded possum, the washerwoman with one ear, the blacksmith who can’t stop sobbing despite the size of his arms.
One after another, their legs buckle and they tumble off the ledge—or maybe they just step off, howling, like that young man who’d already lost his bride and one of his eyes when the hookspears came. One by one, they tumble and break on the ground like frozen fruit. A few pull others down with them. Each time, the hookspears point and laugh. Then they haul the dead somewhere else, where the living cannot see.
And then one day, somehow, you’re the only one left. You turn your head side to side, inspecting the rockface. You notice a better spot where the ledge widens a few inches and the rockface recesses, meaning you could even lean back a bit. What’s more, a crossbow bolt has buried itself in a crack in the rock. You think you might be able to pry it out, use it as a weapon. Still no food, and no amount of snow can erase the feeling that your throat is full of nails, but you’ll take what you can get.
Getting there is another matter, though. So far, you’ve kept alive by holding your numb legs straight as arrows. But you haven’t moved for days, and just inching sideways feels like running uphill on broken knees. You wobble. Your heart lurches. The hookspears take notice and draw a little closer, wondering if their final victim is finally about to tumble into the Blue God’s embrace. Some taunt you. Others shout encouragement, begging you to last long enough for them to win the bet.
You do your best to tune them all out, mind nothing but the shape of the mountain against your back, underneath your hands as you spread your arms behind you, inching your way along the cold wet rock. Before long, it’s sundown, so your eyes might as well be full of blood. You close them, knowing you’re better off trusting your life to touch anyway. And then something strange happens. The icy wind becomes an autumn breeze. You forget the torn cloak, the soiled clothes hanging off your limbs like a bad promise. You realize you aren’t on this ledge at all. That was just a nightmare and really, you’re naked in the dark with your beloved, relearning the curves of her body with your fingertips, proceeding carefully, hoping to make her smile.
And then you slip. Your eyes open, and you find yourself drowning in a cauldron of red dye. You reach out, groping blindly. And maybe it’s the Blue God taking pity on you, or maybe it’s just luck, but your hand catches that crossbow bolt buried in the mountain’s cheek. You hang on it for a second, amazed it doesn’t break.
Then it breaks. Somehow, you catch hold of the ledge and dangle there, weak and kicking. Beneath you, the hookspears howl. Most of them want you to fall. A few want you to climb back up. But you’re too weak. And anyway, what would it mean to make it back up there, only to die a few hours later? How long can you really last anyway—another day, maybe two?
Then you think about your beloved again—someone long gone, someone who maybe never even lived—and you imagine the rockface is the soft, generous body of something better and more beautiful than you will ever be. Somehow, that gives you strength. You pull yourself up. Your arms quiver, frail as stalks of winter wheat, but then you get your knees under you. No room to perch so you feel along the rockface—your back to the sunset—and see a bit of that crossbow bolt left, still sticking out of the crack, the steel tip gleaming red in the darkness. You wonder if there’s some silver in there somewhere, hiding. Like silver matters when the Blue God comes.
Nonetheless, you reach. You take hold of that half-a-bolt with two fingers and pull yourself up, trusting what has already betrayed you because you have no choice. And, bit by bit, you straighten. You hug the mountain like it’s your mother, and the dampness of the snow just means she’s crying because she’s so happy to have you back. You catch your breath. You wait for your strength to replenish, though you know it won’t.
From far below, the hookspears cheer. Even the ones who wanted you to fall, they can’t believe you made it. Some of them change their bets—which is to say they make new bets with wagers so big, they overshadow what came before. Only they don’t like you hugging the mountain like that, with your back to them. That’s an insult they cannot suffer. So they tell you to turn around and put your back against the mountain, like before. When you don’t answer, they loose a couple more crossbow bolts against the rock, close enough that the shards cut your cheek. But you know by now that they won’t kill you, and the blood feels warmer outside your face than inside it.
That night is very strange, unlike any other. As you hug the mountain, you feel it hugging you back, crying in your wounded face, and sometimes you even feel warm. But there is cold, too, and it comes without warning the way fire does when you’re asleep. And this time, it’s so bad that you weep because you know you can’t hold on any longer. But then the darkness thins and fades and you feel a fresh sunrise on the top of your head, then your back, warming you a little, and you thank your mother for rinsing your wounds and keeping you safe.
But the hookspears still want to see your face. They say you’re spoiling the game. They make you a deal. Just turn back around, says one in a thick accent, and we’ll send you up some food. He swears it on the Blue God. You don’t think he’s telling the truth, and you know turning around will be hard—even worse than it was to inch along the ledge—but you tell yourself that even if there’s the faintest chance, you have to take it. Your mother, your beloved… they’d want you to take that chance, too.
You decide to be quick about it. The ledge is so narrow anyway—even here—that all you can really do is throw yourself sideways, like a hinge throws a door, and hope you stay attached. And you do. The hookspears cheer again. Then, you notice their leader. You’ve hardly seen him before because he’s been watching from a distance, but he stands a little closer now. He’s older than you, with a braided goatee and dark hair interrupted by a jagged shock of white. Around his throat rests a necklace of dried ears, and every so often, he traces one of those ears—every curve, every swirl—with surprising gentleness.
He’s doing so now as he stares at you, mulling something over. All at once, he nods and steps forward, grinning. When he shouts, you recognize the voice that offered you food earlier. You can’t understand what he’s saying, then you realize that even though he’s looking at you, he’s talking to his men in their own language, giving them orders. Some of them move forward and pull all the sharpened stakes out of the bloody snow, holding them in their arms like firewood. Others fetch the great ladder and lean it against the rockface.
One man advances with a spear, from which the leader hangs a satchel. Two men grasp the base of the ladder to hold it steady. The killer with the satchel starts up. But the rungs are slick with ice and he falls back down, which makes his friends laugh. Blushing, he gets up and tries again—then falls again, about halfway up. This time, his leg breaks, a bit of bone peeking past his armor. He howls. The hookspears laugh again and drag him out of the way, and the leader takes over. His boots crunch in the snow as he makes his way to the base of the ladder and starts up.
Turns out he’s more sure-footed than the rest. He makes it up the ladder, gripping each rung with tight black gloves, until his face hovers just inches from your toes. You remember that bit of crossbow bolt still stuck in the rocks behind you, wonder if you could dig it out and stab him with it. You think about kicking him, too. But you lack the strength and besides, you notice that he has two different colored eyes—one blue, one green—and then something in his expression tells you he noticed you noticing, and he blushes. But then he clears his throat and draws his sword, and you wonder what it will feel like when he sticks that blade in your side and twists it.
Instead, he takes the satchel off his shoulder, hooks the strap on the tip of his sword, and offers it to you. Sunlight gleams off notches in the blade. You fix your gaze on the bulging satchel, reach out, and take hold of the strap. The leather scrapes a little as you slide the satchel off the blade. It is heavy—or maybe you’re just so weak—and the weight of it unbalances you. You tip forward, start to fall. You drop the satchel but it’s too late, you’re still falling. You look to the leader’s mismatched eyes, hoping he’ll save you.
And believe it or not, he does. He drops his big pretty sword, grabs your nearest ankle, and pushes hard. But that only unbalances you more and you lurch forward, even farther from the rockface, the mountain, your icy weeping mother—that is, until the killer with mismatched eyes leans far off the ladder, moves his hand from his ankle to your chest, and throws you back against the rock. You can’t believe his strength. The two of you stare at each other. For a moment, you think he’s going to speak. But he just starts back down the ladder. When he reaches the bottom, he picks up his sword and sheathes it. Then he gives the ladder a shove and it falls sideways, vanishing into the soft snow.
His men move forward and replace the stakes in the snow, right under you. They seem happy their leader didn’t get himself killed in the mad act of saving a prisoner, but they start to argue. You can’t understand what they’re saying but you guess that some of the men think it’s time to move on. One points at you with his crossbow and ends his speech with an upward lilt, like he’s asking for permission to shoot you. The leader answers by calmly drawing his sword and flicking it across the man’s forehead—deep enough that he falls, howling like a bloody daisy, but does not die.
The other hookspears laugh—including the one who broke his leg before, who is now biting down on a bit of wood as his friends wrap the wound in bandages. Meanwhile, the leader slowly wipes his sword on his sleeve, turns, and nods up at you. Then he sheathes his sword again and walks away. The satchel remains in the snow, next to the ladder. For the first time, you wonder what’s in there. You imagine bread, apples, peppered flesh from the flanks of a slaughtered animal. Maybe even wine. Your mouth waters. You try not to cry. You look for the leader again, spot him in the distance at a table outside a big tent, studying an unrolled map just as it begins to snow.
He takes off one glove and traces what might be a road or a river while some of his men watch and nod, but you sense he’s pretending. Sure enough, he glances up at you later, and his expression reminds you of a dog that’s just been struck by its master. You feel like you’ve let him down somehow, and for a moment you want to apologize, until you remember he’s the one who sent you up here in the first place.
You return your gaze to the stakes in the stained snow. It occurs to you that if you could just miss the stakes, you just might survive the fall. Then you could pull out one of the stakes and use it like a spear to fight off your enemies. Then you laugh. The sound surprises you, but it seems to surprise the hookspears even more. They all go quiet and stare up at you—all except the leader, who keeps his gaze on the map, which is now covered in a thin dusting of snow.
You laugh until you feel sick, then pluck an icicle from the mountain and suck on it like a child sucking its thumb. You wonder what the hookspears have done with the bodies, your friends who already fell. You know you can’t possibly last much longer up here. But then you see smoke in the distance—smoke that wasn’t there a few days ago—and you wonder if that’s some of the hookspears’ enemies, heading this way.
The hookspears see it, too. However much your laughter unsettled them, the smoke bothers them more. You note how gravely they speak in hushed tones. Even from this distance, you see the worry tracing each face like scars from a dagger. You sense they want to move—to fight or run—and if you can last just a little longer, you might yet survive.
But you never knew you could feel so frail. Only the mountain is keeping you alive—this spot on the ledge where you can lean back a little, so the mountain takes your weight. You know you mustn’t trust your legs anymore, couldn’t possibly manage a ladder even if one were offered. This worries you: when your saviors arrive, even if they remove the stakes, how will they get you down? You look westward and your heart falls. The smoke is still there, but so very far away.
Then, the day begins to fade. The sunset bleeds through your closed eyelids. You don’t see the hookspears yawn and finally tire of their game, discussing how they’ll have to leave soon if they want to stay ahead of their enemies. They debate whether or not you’ll fall to your death before dawn. A few linger nearby, looking up at you, shaking their heads. But most gather around campfires, warming their hands against the snow, then return to their tents to sleep.
Of course, you don’t see what they dream once they’ve taken off their armor. Nor do you see their leader emerge from his tent in the middle of the night, dressed again, his armor rinsed in moonlight. You don’t see his breath fog the air as he approaches the mountain with deliberate slowness. You don’t see him look down at the satchel still lying in the bloody snow, next to the ladder, then up at you. You don’t see him frown—the closest he ever gets to weeping—as he tries to imagine what’s going through your mind up there. What it must be like to stand on a ledge like that with no hope of escape.
The leader of the hookspears shakes his head, trying not to place himself where you are, dying at the hands of men who didn’t even bother to tell you their names. He thinks about how far he’s traveled to kill strangers, and why. He wonders what your name is, wishes he’d asked earlier when he was facing you at the top of the ladder, when he saved your life. He thinks about the others—those who have already fallen—and how he’s had them piled up on the western side of the camp, a ghastly fortification.
Then he thinks about the necklace he left back in his tent, thinks about wearing your ears around his neck. He wonders if that would honor your strength, such as it is. He wonders how long he can wait for you to fall. He glances west but he can’t see the smoke from his enemies in the dark, even as it washes over the stars. He considers pulling the stakes out of the ground so that after he’s gone, you can fall off the ledge without impaling yourself. But what would the men say? So he picks up a crossbow and fires it over his shoulder, almost without looking.
The splintering crash awakens the men. They rush out of their tents. Some think they are under attack but most recognize the sound and move to collect on their wagers. Their leader shouts over them, interrupting the inevitable conclusion of their game with new orders. Blinking away sleep, the hookspears ready their horses, take down their tents, then move to retrieve the massive ladder still lying in the snow. But a body has fallen on top of the ladder, pinning it to the earth. They will have to move the body first.
Leave it, the leader says. And no one argues.