So there it was. The proof I’d was waiting for carried around inside Elswick’s head this entire time. For two hundred years he’d hauled around a secret about the Regent and watched everyone in Solo adore him. I could never imagine how difficult a thing it was.
The man I called leader was barbaric. Murdering innocent people just so he could eke out his miserable life for a little bit longer. Those cold eyes flashed into my mind and a shiver ran the entire length of my body. Merciless. It was sickening to know what went on behind the gates of the mansion. I wondered if the people of Greystone would stop him if they knew, or perhaps they’d join in and start abducting Hebens for their own benefit. I didn’t have much confidence in the first happening.
But there was yet another thing that didn’t add up. If Elswick knew what was going on, knew why they were letting Hebens into the country then why weren’t the Continent stopping it?
“If they come so will war,” Maya answered. Apparently she didn’t need physical contact to access a person’s mind. At a quirk of my eyebrow she gave an apologetic smile but went on to elaborate. “The Continent knows but it cannot do anything. Accuse Solo and any chance of a deal will be gone and fighting will take its place.”
I say elaborated, she didn’t really make things any clearer. Apparently you needed to be a mind-reader to understand what she was going on about.
” At the moment,” Elswick took pity, “the Continent is doing everything it can to bring Solo into the fold. It knows the people are denied basic rights and they want to bring that to an end. They have to see the ongoing agreement to let my kind across the borders as progress, or a lack of cold feet. To act on the information I gave them would endanger a relationship that’s taken centuries to cultivate and is still fragile. The fighting would be war. The only reason the Regent isn’t more open is because he doesn’t want to draw their attention, if he knew the knowledge was already out there he’d round us all up and who knows what else he’d do from there.”
“So,t he Continent knows? All those years ago when you gave them that information they decided not to do anything about it?”
“Nothing is perfect,” he shrugged, “not even the Continent. It’s always worth remembering that.”
“But they’re letting an enemy get away with the ill treatment of their people.”
“Because all of us would be treated worse if they intervened. It’s a rubbish decision but it’s better than the only other one available.”
“That’s a high horse you shouldn’t be jumping on, missy,” Lance broke in for the first time in a while. He looked put out, he didn’t want to show me this memory but Elswick shouted over him. It was his memory and he could decide who saw it. “Until a couple of days ago you were one of those blind followers. We’ve been at this for years. Every single person here has proven themselves to the cause, committed themselves to the big picture. You helped one Heben a couple of times, that doesn’t make you the newest member of our family, especially since the one you helped is an outcast.”
“Let’s be honest, right,” I poked him in the chest, “you’re in no position to be casting anyone out. People want to kill you. I don’t know how long you’ve been cooped up down here but public sentiment is not with you.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he yelled.
“Don’t I? I reckon I’ve been living up there for as long as you’ve been down here and that puts me in a better position to know what the hell everyone is thinking, you know. Maybe it escaped your attention but there was an attack last week. It might’ve been the most vicious but it wasn’t the first of its kind.
“Now, you might not have caused it, whether you were hiding away down here or causing your own type of disruption elsewhere doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you weren’t there. You didn’t see the pure terror or anger jumping around from victim to victim. All the blood spattered all over them, the stories they swapped in their shock and the fragments they remembered. Every single one of them pointed the finger at you and the Hebens. The blame, whether it should be yours or not, was thrown firmly at your feet. People don’t want anything to do with you. They’re scared. So tell me how you expect to be able to replace anyone you throw out with a new recruit. Where are you gonna get them from?”
“You’re here aren’t you, as much as I might wish otherwise. We have our ways and we find our people. Your outburst was uncalled for, but at least we found your purpose. You will be our ears. Apparently a lot goes on in the Fourth Quadrant, you’ll listen and report back to me.”
“What about those tests you mentioned?”
“All on good time.”
“Umm, I hate to interrupt after an unexpected peaceful conclusion but she won’t be able to take on her new role straight away,” Elswick seemed a bit hesitant with every word, “but I’m taking a trip to this mountain pass you uncovered and I fully intend for Asha to come along.”
“Of course you do,” Lance was exasperated. He rolled his eyes and barely kept himself from cursing. “Very well, since our rules mean nothing to you I don’t see how I can stop you.”
He walked away in a huff and I wasn’t sad to see him go.
“Well, that was about as good a welcome as I could hope for,” he shrugged and started walking away. “Come on, time to get some food I think.”
We ended up staying there. Elswick couldn’t go back up, two people attacked him now and he was saved both times, no doubt his face would be circulated in one of those posters with mine keeping his company. People on the lookout just to pick up a quick bit of money, not really bothered by what we’ve done. Warren couldn’t go either. The first people would see when they looked into my background was his name, so he’d be their first interrogation. A few people went with him to collect whatever food bread he’d baked, ingredients leftover and to block the passage up.
Over the next few days I learned a lot more about the people labelled as terrorists, the first being that they would never needlessly hurt anyone. They lost a couple of contacts in the bank explosion, valuable ones they weren’t willing to sacrifice. It was one of the reasons everything was so subdued on the day Warren brought us down here. The other being a lack of progress with the mountain path.
Hebens popped up here and there, although I hadn’t see the one I’d pushed over. I think this place was a refuge for them. If they ended up on the streets they were welcomed down here at night, the same for any Heben who knew they wouldn’t make it home before nightfall. But much more interesting than them was the amount of anomalies. Obviously, Maya was one and so was that person with the fire but there was a lot of them here. Things went flying around the caverns as people used their minds to get items, I saw a couple of people talking to animals; stray dogs also welcomed in this shelter.
Elswick told me that all these sorts of magic were common in the Continent but there was something that made the anomalies of Solo special. While the people of the Continent were limited to one type of magic, for instance if you could read minds you couldn’t then start talking to animals, anyone from Solo who had magic could learn anything. They’d always be stronger in one discipline but that hardly mattered, it was such a rare gift to use all ten branches of magic. Oh wait, no. It wasn’t ten, it was nine. No one could learn the magic the Hebens have, it was innate. Only the Regent had successfully found a way to use it for his own gain.
Anyway, I learnt all of this just by being among them. I also learnt more about Solo history than I had in my entire life. Unabridged and completely honest, the first time I truly got to know my country and it was shocking. Not only did it used to welcome magic but it used to be among the magic users; explaining why Solo anomalies were able to use all kinds, it ran through their ancestor’s veins.
Something happened, no books ever said what but it changed history. Solo retreated and kept everyone out. Some historians suggested the mountains were manmade, they were raised from the ground to keep the rest of the Continent out. Others said no such thing.
I often spent my time with the books, Warren seemed surprised; never having struck him as someone who’d enjoy reading. But it was like those books I had at home, I enjoyed knowledge and adding to it. If you’re born in the Fourth Quadrant people like to assume you’re stupid, so it’s always nice to see the shock on their faces when you prove that you aren’t.
Warren would sometimes join me, apparently he also had a thirst for knowledge, or maybe it was because the single rule of the library spoke to his personality. No talking.
I didn’t see Lance again, but word seemed to spread that I’d joined. I think there were a few mutters about why I hadn’t taken any tests but I kept my head down and wondered how I was going to add anything to the cause. I was considering taking a cloak and dashing through the streets beneath it, hanging out in the shadows while people talked.
The idea started snowballing and absolutely seized with it I couldn’t let it go. Of course, as soon as I jumped up to start tracking a cloak down Elswick turned up.
“Grab a cloak,” he said. I glowered at him. “We’re going to the mountains, by the time we get there the pass should have opened up.”
“So, I’m going home,” he smiled, big and bright and joyful, he looked ten years younger, which, for him, was about sixteen. “You’re coming with me.”
A group of people came with us. Warren opted to stay put but gave us some hardy bread for the journey. Lance didn’t see us off, I think he was still mad about Elswick dismissing him so quickly. Some who came with us had abilities, one was the woman who held fire in her hand, she could actually control all the elements, given the unpredictability of the weather that wasn’t a bad skill to have. Her name was Amber and from what I could gather she seemed a bit wary about coming along with us.
Thankfully we didn’t have to sneak through the city gates. At some point in the history of the rebellion and its hideaway, someone had the brilliant idea of tunnelling underground and having it come out far enough away from the city that the guards wouldn’t see people suddenly appearing out of nowhere. I got the impression someone with magic helped with this project, the walls were far too smooth and considering the length of the tunnel it would have taken decades to complete.
It was a relief when we finally emerged into fresh air. I didn’t realise how cooped up I was feeling until that first lungful of fresh and devastatingly cold air. It woke up my system and everything seemed sharper. My eyes took a while to adjust but when they did everything was clear like it never had been before. I’d never been outside of Greystone and I didn’t want to miss anything, but I kept stumbling as we walking because I was looking around so much so I had to give up.
The mountains loomed in the distance and they never seemed to get any closer. They were absolutely massive, too hard to imagine anyone being able to make their way through them.
We avoided any settlements, too many questions would be asked. Instead we camped in the open, everyone taking a watch shift. I looked up at the sky and the stars were so clear, like never before. The smog of the city wasn’t getting in the way. It all looked so vast; it was laughable at how full of its own self-importance Solo was when it really paled in comparison to everything.
Every now and then we came across travellers on the road. A few hailed us, asking for directions of some spare food. Each time Elswick melted into the background, keeping his eyes down; using his years of experience to stay hidden in plain sight. None grew suspicious and all passed on in good humour.
I’d never walked so far in my life, but I didn’t complain. Not even when everyone else started. I always took the shift no one liked and I took on cooking duties. I did all I could to prove I was useful to the group, that I wasn’t just being taken along because the Heben who could boss the leader of the rebellion around liked me for whatever reason.
My thoughts often wondered, a way of passing the time and distracting me from the pain in my legs and the ache in my back. The lack of a countryside was worrying. Trees were very few and far between, any streams looked grey and the animals we saw were thin, almost skeletal. How badly had we damaged our country? We’d stripped it so far back the bines were beginning to show and it was a gruesome, grizzly sight. Could the Continent help with that as well?
Amber did what she could, healed a dying tree with her elemental magic, purified water for people and animals to drink without fear of getting some sort of disease. Maybe if there was more elemental magic in the country it wasn’t too late. Maybe they could come and heal Solo and turn it back into what it used to. But then we went past quarries and I doubted it would work. Such an ugly scar in the face of our country, a whole that said there was no healing the country. It was dying, the symptoms untreated for too long. The more I walked through the country the more I hated the Regent and the people he elected to help him. This was not okay, none of this was.
I think Elswick had similar thoughts, he seemed surprised by how much had been done to the countryside, safe to say it had changed since he last roamed it. Amber physically flinched away from things like the quarry and instead kept her gaze firmly ahead. There was nothing she could do about the past, but we were heading out to change the future, which was the best chance we had of stopping any more of this damage.
We walked for three days, resting at night; stopping only when the sun had disappeared completely from the sky. Halfway through the fourth we arrived at the foot of the mountains and it took us another day to get to the pathway.
I think we got there quicker than anyone expected because the path was still being cleared. People called down to us and asked a peculiar phrase, Amber replying in kind. Work stopped for a few minutes while everyone welcome us. Apparently the blockage was a little further up the path. We sat and ate lunch, the most satisfying for days and were told to rest. Tomorrow morning a guide would take us to the site.
The intervening time went by in a blur. none of us needed to stay up and keep watch and we all pretty much collapsed into our bedrolls straight away. The next morning was a bit of a rush. We had to leave at daybreak and most of us were still happily dreaming away. I helped our guide get everyone up, insomnia striking a few hours earlier, and we were soon on our way.
We arrived at lunchtime and it was an impressive thing to behold. A wall of stone blocked the way but somehow a system was rigged up with levers and pulleys to help people reach the very top.
“It’s about half the size it was this time yesterday,” the guide told us all. “We should break through today.”
“Do you have any elementals?” Amber asked.
“Not on this rotation, “the guide replied.
“Then I think I can make this go quicker,” she said as she rolled up her sleeves. Elswick explained to the guide and he called everyone away from the stones. At first nothing happened and we stood there looking up hopefully, with doubt creeping into our mind. But then there was a trickle. Not really a word you’d usually use when it comes to stone, but that’s what it was. The very top of the rubble was beginning to dissolve and the leftovers trickled down into a pile of their own. Slowly but surely the stone disappeared and we could see more of what was behind it. An impressive feat of magic, one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. It had me wondering how anyone could ever hate it when it was so useful.
Five minutes later it was gone completely, the path was finally freed up and there was another way in and out of Solo except the guards had no idea about this one. Two centuries it’d been blocked up, enough time for them to forget about it. I was confident the Regent was arrogant enough to believe no one would ever be able to get through it.
But here we were, a bunch of us from solo standing on one side and another group of people standing on the other. We all moved hesitantly towards each other, all of us still dumbfounded by Amber. She swayed slightly as she walked so I held out my arm for her to take. Throwing aside her wariness she clutched onto it and steadied herself.
They were all Hebens. Even from this distance I knew that much. They all seemed so young but I doubted the Continent would use anyone so young to handle such a delicate situation. I wondered if Elswick knew any of them.
Beyond them the mountain path twisted, there were sheer drops, thinning paths and treacherous looking passes. The trip between Solo and the Continent wouldn’t be easy. but getting freedom never was.
As it turns out Elswick did know a couple of them, they were from his clan. They embraced like brothers, all of them holding each other at arm’s length as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
“Lys wanted to be here,” one of them said, “but the council absolutely refused. They said it was too risky for someone of her position and ordered her to send others in her place. Such is the life of a Continent politician.”
Elswick laughed and said he didn’t expect anything less from the council. He muttered something about expecting her to come anyway.
“Her impulsiveness has mellowed a bit. Although, had she known you’d be waiting on the other side you know she would’ve been here,” he paused, turning serious. “No one’s heard from you in so long, we all thought you were dead.
“I assure you I’m not,” Elswick clapped his friend on the back then beckoned us all over for introductions. He introduced me as the reason why he wasn’t dead. That seemed to earnt he gratitude of the Heben and he clasped one of my hands with both of his and thanked me earnestly, I stuttered and blushed and didn’t really say anything.
“You ready to come home?” He asked Elswick. He only nodded enthusiastically.
So we set off. As quick as that, without any discussion. We took the first opportunity and hot-footed it out of Solo. My heart started beating erratically. I’d never been out of Greystone before, never imagined I’d be stepping outside of Solo in the same week. It was an offence worth the death penalty, never mind it being impossible before now. I thought about the evening I met Elswick and never did I imagine such an accidental meeting could derail my life so much. A current came along, picked me up and I let it whisk me as far away from my old life as possible.
I was right to think it was a difficult to trek. Almost straight away people had difficulty. Eventually we settled into a lumbering pace and we were assured that if we kept at it we’d be on the other side by nightfall. Despite a couple of close calls we didn’t lose anybody. The Hebens were perfect guides, conscientious of anyone who might be struggling. Elswick stayed by my side the entire way, not that I needed his help, which made a nice change.
There was one particularly dangerous bit where we had to go one by one. It was a tense few minutes as we all took on the challenge knowing that one false step would mean a plummet hundreds of feet down.
But we got there and the contrast mad itself known straight away. From this height I saw the green countryside and the luscious trees. Any animals that crossed our path was healthy looking and Amber didn’t have to heal anything. I could see for miles and it was such a beautiful sight. I was almost sad we had to start descending. I’d never seen anything like it before and, knowing I’d have to return to Solo, I doubted it was just one of very few opportunities to drink this country in. Elswick hadn’t lied. It was a breathtaking place.
He, however, didn’t want to linger. He was home. Two hundred years since leaving on what he thought was a peaceful mission and he’d finally returned. I could see the longing in his eyes, the relief of having finally made it.
We made our way down and I saw a tent fluttering in the breeze. A lot of activity buzzed around it and people started pouring out as they saw us coming down. One woman, with long blonde hair, rushed out and looked up at us, hand to her eyes so she could see properly. Elswick stopped, without warning and smiled so broadly it looked like his face was going to split open.
“Lys!” He shouted down and I saw her hands go to her mouth. She started to clamber up and he went to meet her. They hugged and I think I heard a few sibs, but the wind took them away. He was finally back with his family.