I never meant for it to come to this.
When my brother and I were children, our favorite story was the tale of the two heroes, the great redeemers. I would read it aloud when he was too young to read for himself, and when we were slightly older we would act it out, pushing together piles of furniture to be the mountain and climbing over it. Two halves of the same whole, all of the prophecies said, and we were siblings and best friends, and what could be closer?
The day I started weapons training was the first time he wandered into the city alone. When one of the servants found him and brought him back, my father was furious and lectured him for hours in the cold, quiet tone of his that was worse than yelling. He hid in my room afterwards, not quite managing to hide his tears. That was the day I promised myself I would always protect him, whether from the outside world or some threat closer to home.
The day I turned sixteen, my father told me I had to stop acting out the myth with my brother. “As the future ruler, you must not give your subjects false hope,” he said. “Anyone who crosses the mountain will die, this is fact. And as a ruler you must be strong, an example to your subjects.” He stared at me, pale eyes unflinching. “Your brother is weak, a dreamer. Do not let his foolishness go to your head, or you will ruin us all.”
And so the first time my brother asked me to leave with him, I refused. “Haven’t you ever wondered what sunlight looks like? Real sunlight, not whatever manages to filter through the clouds here.”
Yes, I thought, but instead I replied, “This is our home. We’re the king’s children. We can’t just run away from our duty.”
He didn’t say anything, just left the room. But a few weeks later, he was back. “I can’t just stay here, doing nothing,” he said. “I have to go, somewhere, anywhere. Don’t you ever feel it? Like something is pulling on you, to go out there?” He gestured with one hand, towards the city and beyond, where the silhouette of the mountain lay on the horizon.
“My obligation to our people comes first,” I told him. “One day it’ll be my responsibility to keep them safe—“
“You don’t rule the country yet! When our father gets older you can come back, but for now, travel with me.”
“It’s dangerous out there,” I said. “Adakias, if you cross the mountain you’ll die.”
He looked at me. “I have to go,” he said quietly. “With or without you, I’m leaving.”
And he did.
And that evening, I followed him. My promise was more important.
He didn’t go through the city streets, instead choosing a path that avoided people. I followed his footprints, deeply marked in the dusty earth, and even found an occasional trail sign, built in pebbles and broken twigs. For him? I wondered. Or did he somehow know I was following him? It made no difference, in the end. I traced his footsteps until they crossed the peak of the mountain.
When I saw where his trail went, I stopped. I wasn’t shocked, or angry, or sorrowful, just…numb. I sat there, next to my brother’s footprints, for what could have been one hour, or three. When I finally awoke enough to move, I built a small camp in the overhang of a rock, and then, as the sun began to rise, a cairn for my brother.
I don’t know how long I traveled the mountain before the day when I saw him again. At first I couldn’t do anything but stand and stare, unsure if I was right, but there was no one else it could have been. I would have run to him, right away, but there were others with him—two oarsmen, one of whom secured the boat he must have been traveling on, the other leaning over to whisper in his ear. I moved to crouch behind a small ridge of rocks and noticed another person I hadn’t seen before—a girl, lying unconscious in the boat. She was pretty, I suppose, with wavy light brown hair streaked with gold. My brother leaned over and woke her up, helped her to stand. She seemed weak, leaning on my brother for support as they moved away from the river.
I waited until the boat and its oarsmen had vanished down the river before I followed. I don’t know why it was so important to me that he not see me, but I stayed hidden as I followed him and the girl.
When I saw his destination, I was horrified. The tales of the death that awaited in this place were far darker than the stories of what happened to those who crossed the mountain. Every parent ensured that the smoky, cracked-glass walls took residence in their child’s worst nightmare. And so I did the only thing I could to save my brother—I kicked the door open and strode in, drawing my dagger.
Just inside, a shadow in the dim, candlelit interior, stood a tall, bone-thin man. He raised an arm to stop me, and for a moment it seemed that he had too many limbs, that some of them bent the wrong way—and then I was suddenly furious. I am not afraid of nightmares, I thought, and buried my knife in his chest. I shoved him away and turned to face my brother.
“What are you doing here?” I forced the words out, half-terrified on his behalf and hell-bent on keeping my promise to myself. “I followed you to the mountain, I thought you’d died!” I glanced at the girl who stood beside him—someone wealthy, from her clothing and the way she stood, like she expected people to listen to her. “And for what? For all she knows, we’re just some kids who crawled out of the gutter two weeks ago.”
She took half a step forward and met my eyes. “You don’t know how many rich men and princes have offered their wealth to my father in exchange for a wedding,” she said. “I didn’t like them; I sent them away. He’s who I chose, poor or not.”
“Fine,” I snapped. “Money doesn’t matter, whatever. That doesn’t mean he’s told you everything about who he is.” She glanced at him, then looked back to me, confused. “He—we—are from here, from this side of the mountain. He’s why you were sick, why you had to come here.” I couldn’t have said why I was so angry, aside from the fact that it was now obvious he had come here for her, had put his life in danger just for her.
She turned pale at my words, and turned around to look at my brother. “Is this true? Were you going to tell me?”
“I—yes. Yes, it’s true. I should have said something sooner, I know, but that doesn’t change anything, does it?”
I gripped the hilt of my dagger and took half a step forward. She was a danger to him, would keep putting him in danger if they stayed together. I couldn’t let that happen, not without breaking my promise. So I raised my knife and struck.
His cry was short, sharp—like broken glass in a dark room. I caught my brother as he fell, my knife buried between his ribs. I don’t know what happened to the girl—I didn’t see her after he stepped between her and my blade.
“What have I—oh, god, what have I done?” My voice shook as I tried to remember everything, anything I’d learned about medicine. “Just—try and hold still, I’ll—“
“It’s okay,” he interrupted. I saw a drop of blood at the corner of his mouth. “I know you were trying to protect me.” He smiled halfway. “This was supposed to happen.”
“The prophecy? But—you and me, we were—you weren’t supposed to die!” I knew there were tears on my face, but I barely noticed.
“Listen,” he said, “you have to believe in love, like I believed in the prophecy.” He took a shallow breath.
“You’re not going to die,” I told him. “You can’t die, I’m going to get help, or something—just stay awake, don’t stop breathing…”
“When the mountain falls, you have to be the one to rule both kingdoms,” he said. The blood drop had turned into a trail, from the corner of his mouth to his jawline, and his breathing was getting shallower. “I—“ he coughed—“I have to go away, but I’ll see you again, someday.” He smiled up at me, just like he had when we were children. “Don’t cry for me, brother.”
I never meant for it to come to this, but now I rule alone over the broken halves of a single kingdom, a dropped piece of pottery that can never be entirely whole again. And I know that the only thing that comes from love is pain, and blood, and death.