Trial by Land
Pre-game. Basch, his brother, and Landis boot camp.
They spend the sixteenth year of their lives apart, and Noah never forgives him for it.
In the summer that they are accepted into Landis's training camps, they are fourteen, and flush with ambition. By the time they have conquered the preliminary exams, all of the masters have made pleased commentary about how evenly matched they both are, how talented, how skilled. How lucky, that Landis will have not one, but two skilled soldiers under its command. The future shines bright indeed.
Twins, they say, are lucky stars to sail by.
Basch and Noah keep their composure well around the quarrel masters; their mother has taught them how to behave in proper company, and they both understand the gravity of being soldiers for their nation. But among their peers, they are simply the fon Ronsenburgs, easily intermixed save for Noah's insistence on keeping his hair tidy, Basch's forgetfulness with the combs.
They pass basic literacy without hesitation, though Noah still fumbles with his mathematics under duress. They learn the axe and spear, the bow and gun, though the latter mostly involves Basch trying not to shoot Noah's face off. They hit their growth spurts a week apart: a week spent with Noah gloating insufferably until Basch is forced to stuff his brother's face into their soup bowls.
After a spectacular series of months invested in riding lessons, rafting disasters, and a million different ways to tie a length of string, they advance to official cadet status together. One-eighth of their class has already failed out. The next tests will be harder, but at least their training will begin in earnest now that the weakest applicants have been skimmed away.
During the break between spring and summer, Basch and his brother attend the official ceremony that acknowledges their mutual achievements. Noah kneels to Basch's left. Basch is on Noah's right. They bow their heads simultaneously and murmur their vows of service with no hesitation.
Their mirrored voices slide together in unison. They are perfectly matched.
That night, Noah rolls over in his cot and then leans over the side; he has the top bunk, a victory that was claimed in a war three-months long and countless black eyes. "What do we have to look forward to with this year?"
"This year is trial by land," Basch answers. He is busy staring up at the bottom of Noah's mattress, envisioning the challenges that the older students have spoken of, wondering how many tales are mere rumor and which are truth. Not all the monsters can be lies. "To climb the Westward Spire, and survive the year unaided."
"You will have to pair with me," insists Noah. His voice is both proud and petulant. "Together, nothing can stop us from reaching the top."
A smile sneaks its way onto Basch's face in the darkness. "Aye."
But when they arrive at the camp at the base of the mountain, staying with Noah is the last thing on Basch's mind. Various tents are stationed together with colored banners to delineate which service they provide: travel packs, Gambit manuals, weaponry. Some of Basch's acquaintances are already there, rigging up their gear packs and picking knives off the racks provided. Basch lets himself be drawn towards them, agreeing readily to their company when he is asked. Noah is busy taking a few extra minutes with the masters anyway, going over the trail maps with painstaking attention.
They depart the camp before Basch remembers to make certain that Noah has found someone to go with, and by then it is too late to turn back.
The road his group chooses begins with a steep incline. It struggles against the mountain's girth, easing out into a long path that begins to descend inexplicably again before Basch catches sight of a partially-obscured trail flag, and steers the party towards it. It is with chagrin that he discovers the ruse: one of the other teams must have been there first and sabotaged the marker, because the flag points towards an endless loop of brambles and rocky soil.
Basch grows lean and tanned as the summer goes on. Noah is not there for him to measure himself against, to compare himself to -- teeth, height, hair -- though he imagines that his twin will unaccountably end up looking exactly the same. With small differences. Basch is always forthright, Noah is always hesitant, so that they match the dissimilarities together to make a joined set, able to respond to all manner of challenges, both of them specialized just enough in temperament that they can pick up on what the other cannot. They are twins.
Basch does not make it to the top of the Spire. The snows come down before his group can struggle past the three-quarters mark, and they retreat to the nearest lodge. The larders there are well-stocked, and Basch makes it a routine to hunt the white hares that brave the cold, wrapping up his hands in rags so that they will not stiffen when it comes time to draw his bow.
His habit of unconsciously clenching his teeth returns without warning. The persistent ache is distracting. Basch presses his fingers into the hinges of his jaw, willing the tendons to slack. His entire body is unnecessarily tense; he grinds his teeth all night in his sleep, all day while he is awake, against the cold as he finds himself scanning the horizon line even when there are no rabbits to hunt.
At the end of their sixteenth year, when summer rolls around again and three-quarters of the students have survived to return to camp safely, Basch looks up to see his reflection waiting at the entrance of his bunk.
"You didn't contact me," is Noah's means of greeting, once he is done brooding in the doorway and has advanced forward, unbuckling his swordbelt and dropping it on Basch's cot.
"I did not." Basch is already engaged in the game of observation. Noah is a little less tanned -- he might have expected as much, what with his brother's tendency to hang back under cover more -- but there's a scab on the back of his hand that is already knotting, bundling up the skin in an angry inflammation.
Noah catches him looking. "I'll scar," he laughs, a little regretfully. "Here is a line that cannot be erased. Will you cut yourself to match?"
"If it were me, would you?" Basch replies easily back.
Noah smiles, but he is more optimistic, more naive. It shows. "Yes. Yes, I would, brother."
"That is a foolhardy promise to make." Seams creak as Basch packs more shirts into the discards bag. He has outgrown most of his old clothes while on the mountain; time to exchange the defunct uniforms at the military registrar. "Doubled injuries will cripple us twice as fast, Noah. What good is it, to swear to mimic pain needlessly?"
Noah does not move, blocking his path to the closet. "And who are you to speak of oaths?" His voice has grown dark with a peculiar sense of anger; Basch recognizes the tone, familiar with how it lives in his own throat. "Four seasons turned, and I walked alone. You promised we would take the ramps together. I planned for it. Instead, I took my lessons in the wilderness by myself, with no one to assist."
Basch's teeth suddenly ache in his skull. He traveled the Spire in comfort with his own partners, a comfortable group of five together; he had not imagined that Noah would venture out without support, not into a wilderness challenge that punished carelessness with fatality.
Somehow, it does not surprise him that his brother had chosen no one, rather than compromise.
He yanks the lacings closed on the discards bag with unnecessary force. "You should have found me on the road, Noah," he informs his brother calmly, feeling the slippery weight of responsibility looming close by. He will not take the blame; at the same time, Noah is staring at him with an expression as if they are both ten years old again and Basch has been out skinning his knees alone, to their mother's dismay. "I would have gone with you."
"You were already too far ahead." Noah's hands are shaping fists at his sides. "Should I have forced you to come back for me?"
The two excuses meet on the air, equally foul. Neither of them have resorted to outright yelling, but Basch's throat feels scoured and harsh anyway; his jaw is tight, anxious, and he cannot make it relax.
"Why would I not come back for my own brother," he begins, and kills the rest of his defense before it can be born; he would not come back because he did not, as they both have found out over the course of the seasons. Even if Basch's assumption stemmed from confidence in Noah's skills rather than an outright abandonment, the fact remains that they were parted.
A brief mistake, perhaps, but his brother had done nothing to fix matters either.
"One year," Basch states aloud -- a weak peace offering, disliking the need to explain himself. They are twins; they do not need to be sewn together at the hip like a monster, and he does not want to be held solely accountable for a moment's lapse in judgment. "Hardly the end of the world, Noah. We have much to look forward to in Landis's future, and I hold faith that we will endure the trials that come together."
If the encouragement suffices, Basch is not certain. Noah's gaze has dropped to the bed, and his mouth is a curved line, tugging down at the corners. It is an expression too angry to be sad; too sad to be angry, too resigned for despair and too other for Noah. Too different.
For one horrifying moment, Basch realizes that he can no longer read his brother's face.
"I will help you carry down the clothes," his brother says at last, drawing in a deep breath and reaching for the laundry sacks. When Basch tries to take one -- splitting the burden evenly -- Noah yanks them away, shouldering them both with a stiff pride. "Take care of the business that you need to, and perhaps we will see one another later, Basch."