It was a black, moonless night. Stars sparsely dotted the sky, blinking in and out. Winter whispered gentle reminders, disrupting small piles of crunchy brown leaves along the road with cool, foreboding breezes. An energetic squirrel scampered across the twisted branches of an oak tree, a small snake squirming in its jaws. The weeks before hibernation sent the animals of the Great Forest into a fit of desperation. Asher had seen his fair share of squirrels, badgers, and foxes running around town, scavenging for discarded fruits and helpless animals. It had never bothered him before, but today he felt tiny eyes boring into him, tracking his movements, reminding him that he was being watched.
Walking on bare feet since he left his home, Asher stepped off the grass and onto the road which led to Rinkar Avenue. Small rocks wedged between his toes and stung his soles as he trudged along the well worn dirt path. His mother always scolded his shoe-less tendencies, however lightheartedly. Growing up a farm girl had done the same thing to her, and when her son had exhibited desires to bond with nature, she couldn’t have been more pleased. For Asher, it all came down to how his feet felt. Nature could run off Tarkine Falls for all he cared. There was something about trotting along the grass or dirt uninhibited that set his aching feet at ease. But not so tonight. Nothing could calm his nerves tonight.
Black mumbling figures paced in the forefront of his vision, while the wall stood further behind, motionless and silent. The guards had surrendered their duties to the night, leaving only the shadows of their many watchtowers to frighten rebels into obedience. Those who shuffled noisily ahead of him, however, were not afraid. Asher had never ventured beyond his home during the twilight hours; he knew little of this gathering at the wall, only the few that stood before the wall during sunset. He had heard a few tales of men who came out after the guards had turned in for the night, but he knew nothing of their motivations, their desires, or their struggles. What were their reasons for coming out this late at night? Were they afraid of getting caught? Or is this the only time that their consciences allow them to leave?
Asher walked steadily until he came within a few feet from the end of the road. Beyond him, a patch of grass stretched ahead twenty feet to the wall, covering a width of several hundred, as it traced the outline of the wall and the Tarkine Mountains. Asher had never crossed the patch of grass. He had never dared to venture a step onto it. The closest he had been to the wall itself had been from within the safety of the EFC’s wooden walls, last week.
The idea of stepping onto the grass nauseated him. Asher remembered the color of the blood from the man who had been shot. He remembered the fear that surged through his heart and sent his body into a series of vicious convulsions. He would retain all thoughts of fleeing over to the Hill Country, and even his anger towards the Giver of Life, but he would never seriously consider it. These ideas were wonderful, they engaged his vibrant mind, but, logically, he could never entertain any of them. As much as Jordan would be disappointed, as much as Portas and the Lifers would look down upon him, he knew, in the deepest part of his heart, that he could never muster enough courage to step on the grass, let along climb over the wall.
The Giver of Life knows this.
The thought came to him briefly, but he rejected it immediately. Regardless of how well the Giver of Life understood his mind, Asher would never get what his heart desired. He would never experience true freedom within the confines of Aversano and its treacherous wall. It mattered little to him what the Giver of Life knew, for the simple reason that he would never given Asher what he wanted. In fact, Asher was sure that the Giver of Life couldn’tgive it to him. Everyone believed that Aversano was set apart by the Giver of Life, and the Hill Country was a land to be condemned and feared. The people of Aversano were free, and the Hill Country lived in slavery.
But, if the Giver of Life was so powerful, mighty, and great, why would he lie to his people? Asher wondered to himself. Why would he tell them that they lived in freedom when in reality they were slaves? The Giver of Life had made a mistake, this much Asher knew, and even in his omnipotence he had shown himself weak. The Giver of Life could not fulfill the desires of Asher’s heart, this much he knew. And even if he did not have the strength to flee from this abominable land, restlessness would take root in his heart, and grow into resistance. But it wouldn’t matter to the Giver of Life, as long as Asher didn’t kill anyone, steal their wife or consume too much liquor. Those were the only sins that the Giver of Life seemed to care about.
“Hey, are you ready to play?” An older teen appeared in front of him, dressed completely in black.
“What are you talking about?”
“The game,” a female voice said from behind. He turned around. Three more boys stood next to her, all dressed in black. She crossed her arms and smiled at him. “Tell me you know about the game.”
Asher took a step away from them. “I don’t know anything about a game.”
The girl laughed in his face. He smelled liquor on her breath.
“Somebody, tell this one what the game is.” She produced a silver flask and took a swig.
“The game is designed to test your courage,” one of the younger boys said, rubbing his hands together. “In order from youngest to oldest, each player takes as many steps onto the grass towards the wall as they can.”
“And the one with the most steps wins.” The girl handed the flask to the boy who had been speaking. She lifted an eyebrow as she addressed Asher. “Are you ready to play?”
Asher slipped his hands into his pockets. This is exactly the kind of game that Jordan would like. He was the brave one, always ready to do anything, even if it seemed dangerous. Asher wasn’t brave. He had barely recovered from the event last week. But maybe…
An idea came to him. If he could play this game—if he could win it—maybe he could be as brave as Jordan. Maybe he could be brave enough to leave Aversano.
“I am ready to play.”
The girl smiled and motioned for the other kids to form a line. They immediately obeyed her, ordering themselves in what he assumed to be ascending age order. Asher wondered if Jordan had ever met her before. He would like her.
“How old are you?”
She scanned the line and pointed to one of the boys. “You stand in front of him.”
Asher slipped into the line. He counted the boys in front of him. He was third in line. Couldn’t they bend the rules for a first time player? No, he shouldn’t be afraid, he reminded himself. This was his chance to show his bravery, and if he didn’t have it, this would help him get it.
The first boy stepped onto the grass and immediately turned back. The girl sighed but gave him a pat on the arm as he walked to the back of the line.
“You’ll do better next time, Joe.”
“He always does one step,” a boy whispered behind him.
Just one more boy and then it would be his turn. Hopefully the other boy had more guts than Joe.
The boy lasted five steps before fear got the better of him. He did not return to the line, but ran away.
“He always does that.”
It was now Asher’s turn. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. This was his moment, his chance to be brave. It was his chance to do what no other had done in the history of Aversano. Or, at least, the recorded history. With his eyes still closed, he set his foot onto the grass. The cool blades sent a shiver up his spine and his shoulders shook. His second step was easier. Then the third. Then the fourth. And the fifth.
“That’s how you do it.” He heard the girl whispering to one of the boys on the line. He opened his eyes. Only a few more steps and he would be at the wall. He wondered if games like these had gotten the Wall Watchers started. Had they played this particular game in their youth, daring their friends to step further and further, only to get hooked to the adrenaline? Asher took another step.
The shrill of a whistle cut through the night. He turned around. The girl and her friends had broke out into a run. He turned to his left. There, in the darkness, a single beam of light approached him. He felt the fear rise in his throat. A guard. He had two options: turn back now and forever lose this game or get caught and subjected to whatever punishment his actions demanded.
There was, of course, a third choice. He could climb over the wall. Asher swallowed hard. Could he really do that? Could he really leave his family behind? His friends? Jordan? Would he like what he found there?
The light approached. Asher made up his mind. He dashed toward the wall. He could hear the guard’s footsteps now. The man was running, his light bouncing along the grass. Asher pushed forward, heart pounding, determined to reach the large stone blocks. The guard was shouting now, blowing into his whistle, then shouting again. But Asher kept running, eyes focused on the wall as the distance quickly closed.
He placed his hands on the stone blocks and nearly fainted. Here it was. The wall. The one thing separating him from the Hill Country. Asher knew he would have to climb up the wall. There was no turning back.
“Get back here, boy!” The guard shouted, almost behind him.
Asher lifted his foot and found a crevice. He reached up for a place to grab and hefted himself up. One step. He found another crevice. Two steps. Then, three. Then four. And five.
The guard was at the wall now, shouting and yelling for him to get down. The fear of getting caught pushed him faster, but it was the hope of the Hill Country that made him continue climbing. With one step at a time, he climbed higher and higher, until he had reached the top.
He glanced down. Four guards had joined the first and were all shouting his name. How do they know who I am? It didn’t matter if they knew him, though. He was at the top of the wall. There was nothing they could do to him now.
Asher turned his body around, facing the Hill Country. He felt accomplished, like this was what he had been waiting for his entire life. Something surprised him, although it didn’t keep him from starting the climb to the ground. He had heard of the light that the Wall Watchers were addicted to. He had heard that it was beautiful, and it was. But its beauty was not what had surprised him.
In a long line surrounding the wall, giant mechanical lights had been set up, linked together by chains, facing the wall. The light that the Wall Watchers stared at every night was not real light. It had been set up there by someone else.
But the truth did not bother him.
Asher set his feet on the soft ground of the Hill Country. He was ready to begin his new, free life.