*Author’s note* I’ve decided I’m going to do NaNoWriMo again this year and this backstory is an introduction to one of the characters who’ll be making an appearance in the story. I don’t want to give too much away about it but this gives a general idea of what to expect. I will be posting everything I write on here, so apologies in advance for the spam, but I always seem to go over the 50,000 words and never properly finish it. So, I thought sharing it was enough motivation to make sure there was an ending.
It was enough to make me miss the endless trudging through the mountains. At least then we couldn’t see the guillotine that loomed over us, barely even had a sense of it. Guards may have guided us in a none too friendly manner, but the true horrors of what lay ahead were still cloaked in shadow. Now they were behind us, the shadows shed but the threat no less frightening. If we slowed, slipped or became the slightest bit complacent they’d catch up and those horrors would be with us. They’d be our reality. In the course of one meeting, being like me meant running for your life.
Now I had to find my refuge in Solo, rely on the kindness of strangers from a people renowned for their xenophobia.
I wasn’t from Solo. My home, Ewel, was the country next door, separated from Solo by mountains. It was a vibrant, land-locked place that enjoyed the membership of a much bigger entity; the Continent. No one had really bothered to come up with a name for it, so rather than trying to represent every country in its name there came an unspoken agreement to refer to it only as the Continent. It had its flaws, of course it did. Nothing could be that big and ever expect to run smoothly, but in the long run it offered protection, inclusion and things that were generally better than if we were left to our own devices. Of course, there were some stories where it hadn’t quite worked as expected, but there was genuinely a lot of effort to correct it.
But the elusive feather in the cap was always Solo. No one was ever sure why its views and values differed so much from its neighbours. Although we all suspected geography had something to with it. Solo was a big country, it ran alongside the entire mountain range and covered every inch of the land until it met the sea. As such its defences were strong, a mountain range on one side and the sea on the remaining three; it was damn near impenetrable and that meant they never had to rely on anyone else to protect it. But it also meant they never saw any need to reach out to us, they ignored our existence except to offer a few threats here and there if they thought we were looking to make a move.
However, an increasing population, a lack of room to expand and a rocky relationship with its neighbours meant the country started running out of resources. The Solo government realised its quarries were running low, coal for fuel and wood for building was also teetering on scarce. Meanwhile, my government had slyly been keeping track of Solo’s going ons and their lack of technological advancement meant they weren’t yielding nearly enough crops to feed its people. If they’d joined the Continent, irrigation would have been installed years ago, providing water for crops and animals. Instead farmland was becoming wasteland.
In all my life I’d never had the burning desire to pay a visit to this nightmare land. In fact, I always wanted to stay away from it. Even looking up at the mountains gave me the shivers, knowing what was on the other side. But fate is a very cruel mistress and not long after the Continent managed to broker some sort of parlay with Solo, I found myself as part of the delegation sent to negotiate a deal. none of us really wanted to go, the stories were famous. A ruthless government, people who either didn’t know any better or just didn’t care, rampant disease and inequality, and the only thing hated more than an outspoken woman was a foreigner. But we headed there, nonetheless, a duty fulfil.
And, up until three hours ago, I was a prisoner in their capital city. Of the seven of my kind kept hidden in the depths of the Regent’s home only three of us survived. I didn’t know what happened to my comrades but the screaming that echoed dutifully throughout the complex hinted at their fate. For months our only view was the slimy grey walls penning us in, no sunlight made its way to our hole, neither did fresh air. Our diet was rotten food and any water we had was bordering on stagnant. The only people we saw, aside from each other, were the guards appointed as our own personal nightmares. As long as we were kept alive they were allowed to treat us as they wished. For months we longed for a way to escape, the likelihood dwindling as our numbers slowly flickered downwards. Despair stalked us all.
There were rumours, strange morbid things that churned my stomach. I won’t go into too much detail here but the general consensus was that the Regent was draining our magic to keep himself alive, healthy and youthful.
I suppose that statement needs explaining, especially if you’re someone from Solo. Although, I suppose if you’re from Solo you’re hardly going to believe a word I’ve written here. You’ll tear the paper up and claim the text is nothing but the maddening words of a blaspheming foreigner. I can assure you, these words speak nothing but the truth.
Magic exists. Outside of Solo it’s as real as these words before you. There are ten types of magic; elemental, talking to animals, healing, protective, destructive, premonition, talking to spirits, transformation, telekinesis and telepathy, and extended life. Through a convoluted series of events, too complex to go into here but involving a dangled promise of alliance then a not so unexpected betrayal, I ended up in enemy territory with six others of my kind having to explain the nature of our magic.
You see, we’re Hebens. For some reason our lives are much longer than the average human’s, so we age slower than anyone else. No one really knows why we do but I’m not really one for looking a gift horse in the mouth. Apparently this was extremely attractive to the Regent, he’d heard rumours of our kind but having limited contact with magic he didn’t know if we were real or just a myth. I’m almost certain it was one of the reasons he made a tentative agreement to meet with representatives of the Continent.
He sent soldiers to head us off at the mountains and put on a show of how they weren’t going to let anyone dangerous cross the border, separating us from the rest of our group and slashing our numbers dramatically. We didn’t dare walk away because peace was at stake. Tension was bubbling between the Continent and Solo, there was always something in the background making things worse and this could very well be the thing to sooth whatever aggravations there were.
Sometimes I wish we’d thrown all etiquette aside and slaughtered those men there and then. In the long run it would have saved a lot of pain.
My sister, Lys was among my comrades, she was given a different path. The last time I saw her she was taking a track to a separate part of the mountains, her destination different to mine. The sun was just rising and there was a smile in her eyes that always settled my mind. She turned away and I couldn’t even watch her go, I had my own journey to complete. If she’d fallen into the same fate I had she’d talk herself to an early grave. Unable to control her tongue, she often talked herself into difficult situations and, most of the time, could talk herself out of them again. I doubted the soldiers of Solo would tolerate her long enough to let her do the latter.
They were short tempered people and from our travels through the country it seemed this wasn’t just limited to the military. Whatever town we swept through, the people regarded us with weary eyes, their mistrust was clear and it didn’t matter we had a heavy escort of armed guards. We made them uncomfortable. Despite all of this I kept a vague hope we’d be able to talk some sense into their leader, show him the alliance was something to take seriously, that it was an answer to their problems.
We were dragged through the gates of Greystone, the capital of Solo. It was the first city I’d seen here and the poverty was evident almost immediately. There were beggars on the street and rundown buildings, taxmen weaving their way through them all collecting every little scrap they could and taking away the dignity of the people they crossed.
As we climbed the hill the city had based itself on, some wealth was injected into the surroundings. The homeless grew fewer, the buildings were more respectable and the goods being sold were of higher quality. It wasn’t until we crested the top of the hill that it became clear where most of the wealth was channelled. The Regent lived in a lavish complex, surrounded by walls and guards yet giving off an aura of pure wealth – showing off for the sake of showing off. Had this been the Continent, camps of protesters would be parked outside giving voice to the injustice of such an abuse of power. But no one here cared, not one batted an eyelid.
The grandeur was worse inside. The décor was minimalistic but everything on display was there simply to intimidate, to boost the importance of the Regent, it was saying ‘I have money, I cannot be touched’.
It was at this point we realised our hopes were in vain. Someone like this would never agree to the terms set out by the Continent, he placed too much stock in his own self worth and signing a treaty with us would mean giving up some of that privilege and cascading it down to his people.
He was stooped over his desk, squinting at a piece of paper. Didn’t even react when we were ushered into his office and shoved before his desk. His thinning hair was going grey at the temples and some wrinkles were beginning to creep across his otherwise un-aged face. All in all it was safe to say he was unremarkable. After shuffling papers around and reading through them he finally set them to one side, throwing one sheaf in the fire behind him. It was only then that he looked up.
“Ah, at last,” his voice was strong, an unexpected piece of information as I looked on. His aged hands gripped an expensive looking goblet, years making them shake as he took a long sip. As he pulled it away from his mouth a string of spit stretched out between the rim and his lip until, rather pathetically, it drooped and disconnected in the middle. “My intrepid explorers return to me. How was the other side?”
“It is good to be home, sir,” said the leader of our little group of guards.
“What have you brought me?” He accompanied that with an ancient finger crooking towards himself, the guard obliged and grabbed the nearest of us, which happened to be me. I stumbled to my knees and looked at the man before me in disgust. Hebens were respected for their wisdom, at this point in time I felt a disgrace to the name. In all my wisdom I should have seen this, instead of ignoring my gut feelings I should have embraced them. the man before me was bad news, a monster hidden in the body of an old man. Still, it didn’t stop my pride from bruising slightly when a flicker of disappointment lit up his eyes as he looked me over.
“What does it do?” Like a bored child with an unwanted toy.
“It lives for a long time. This one claims to be over ninety.” This seemed to get his attention and the Regent leaned forward in his chair, as if that small movement would be enough to reveal details previously hidden to him when he was just a couple of inches further back. “Just as you were after sir.”
“This will do nicely. Send one to the lab right away. It’s best we get started now, don’t you think?”
I felt hands under my armpits as a guard made to lift me up, it was undignified and a little terrifying. My comrades started muttering, alarm clear in their voices.
“No,” the old man boomed, “not that one. He has spirit and I do like to see spirit broken. Take one of the others and escort the rest to their quarters.
And that’s how we ended up living in the dungeons of one of the most lavish homes I’d ever seen. The screaming started before we’d even been locked away. The guards laughed as we panicked, as we tried to fight. They threw us behind barred doors and let us listen to what our friend was suffering.
Getting out wasn’t as hard as we thought it might be. After a couple of months we finally stumbled across a solid plan. As our numbers fell so did the amount of guards sent to watch over us. Apparently three of us only warranted one. It was then we realised we needed to get our hands dirty if we were going to escape.
So we killed the guard.
It was quick, I think, and definitely desperate. A small struggle ensued but he was dead before he could yell. There were keys and some coins. We took those and his weapons, sharing them out between the three of us and we crept silently through the shadowy complex. At the top of the stairs we were almost caught, at the last minute I spotted someone walking through the entrance hall and did my best to hide myself in the shadows. I only caught a brief glimpse of the man who almost came across us, but he had mannerisms I recognised. I dismissed myself as being silly, it wasn’t possible, but even as we flitted across the courtyard I couldn’t get it out of my head. He looked like a younger version of the Regent.
The rest of the escape wasn’t as close a call. The guards seemed pretty lax and it all felt too easy. Although in hindsight it really wasn’t.
Three hours on from that moment and we weren’t in Greystone anymore. we had our taste of freedom and we didn’t intend on staying in that city. It was a mild night and after months in that dank place listening to screams it was a luxury to spend it beneath the stars and bathed in moonlight.
Of course, I had no idea where we’d go from here. As we rushed through the city I noticed some of the people bustling about in the early hours of the morning looked a lot like us. In fact, they were like us. Hebens brought into the country with false promises. Our escape was too late, my kind were being lured over here and, from the small amount of experience I had with Solo’s guards, I doubted they’d easily be able to get out of the country.
I suppose I’d already made my decision, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I’d created this mess, made it seem as if Solo were trustworthy, made it possible for my kind to be sent over the mountains to live a life of servitude. It only made sense that I dedicate myself to unravelling the damage we’d caused. I think the others agreed. We needed to protect our own and sneaking out of the country wasn’t going to do that.
Even though it hadn’t been that long I sensed it would take many years to undo. There were only three of us and a whole country to search.
Even if it took my one hundred years, I vowed never to return to the Continent until my people were safe, until the Continent itself was safe. It turns out a hundred years was a very generous estimate.
To be continued…