Artha was true to her word. Within a few days we had people from her country trickling, it looked like a couple of other Ambassadors had passed on the word as well. Two weeks passed since out meeting with the council and we’d amassed a sizable company. Each new member was more than capable with a weapon but Lys tested them on their oratory skills, since that was what would make this a success or a failure.
I was training as well. As soon as the new arrivals heard there was someone from Solo in the camp they had to come and seek me out. Somehow I managed to strike up a friendship with one of them, Kent, and he started to show me how to use a sword. Although I couldn’t actually be trusted with one yet. Sometimes Elswick would come and watch. He never said anything, just stood on the outlines and observed what was happening.
“You’re not moving your feet fast enough,” Kent said.
“Trust me, I’m moving them as fast as they’ll go. You might not be wielding a sword at me but I’m not exactly keen on getting hit by a stick either.”
“Then maybe it’s the way you’re placing them.” He knelt down and moved my feet into position, getting them precise. “There you go, that should be better.”
It was and I definitely stood my ground better under his next onslaught, I’d still be waking up tomorrow with a few new bruises though. I looked around for Elswick but he’d wondered off, I guess Lys was keeping him busy.
But this was pretty much how we spent our time preparing to go back to Solo. Lys wasn’t happy with the pace, she wanted to be there now, but it was still a heck of a lot quicker than it was before. Elswick was having to dash around and run errands, as well as teach each new recruit about life in Solo. I joined in sometimes with that but I think most people were weary of me. They expected some sort of betrayal to come from me and I couldn’t really blame them. For the most part I spent my time with Kent trying to prove I could be useful if things came to the worse, but when I’d had enough of getting whacked with a stick I spent time in Lys’ tent sharing what I knew of Greystone and its people, devising the best the best strategy for our group.
Both Lys and Elswick added their own notes here and there. I was still doubting I could actually add anything constructive but they seemed pleased with what I offered; some of it Elswick hadn’t been too sure of beforehand.
Two months after the meeting with the council and we had everything we needed to begin. A group had already left for Solo, including a couple of the anomalies that came with us, to make it possible for a large group to travel through the pass. They would be constructing bridges and ladders wherever suitable, they were also taking some supplies so we wouldn’t be completely overwhelmed by it.
In the morning we’d be leaving Ewel, going back through that treacherous path and into the jaws of the beast. Dread and excitement thrilled through me in equal measure. Now I’ve seen what’s outside Solo I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go back, yet I missed some parts of it. I missed my home, as run down as it was, that roof had been over my head since I was born. I had memories there, good and bad, and I couldn’t bear thinking I’d never walk through those doors again. I missed Warren too. That was a feeling that took me by surprise, but they were true nonetheless. Kent kind of reminded me of him a little, he spoke a hell of a lot more but the way he saw the world and the way he reacted to it – well, there was something particularly Warren like about it. If I didn’t return to Greystone, as much as I wished things would work out like that, I’d never see him again. And I think it was something I couldn’t bear.
The mix of feelings made me restless so rather than spending the time trying to get to sleep (the sensible thing to be doing) I found myself wondering to the place where I somehow managed to convince Lys I was worth taking a chance on. I may have travelled a bit further afield now, but it was still my favourite place. The nature her e was a wonderful thing to behold, the flowers beautiful. If I could spend the rest of my days here I’d be a very happy person.
A crunch on the ground behind me, someone was there. I squeezed my eyes shut and hoped it wasn’t Kent, he spoke a lot and now wasn’t a time for speaking.
“You’re supposed to be getting some sleep.”
I smiled. “So are you.”
Elswick stepped up beside me, probably a bit closer than he meant; his hand brushing against mine. He had the good sense not to carry on talking. Instead, he looked out over the land before us and took it all in. What was he thinking? He’d finally made it home and now, in the blink of an eye, it was time for him to head back to his prison. It couldn’t be an easy thing to do.
“How are you feeling?” I sighed internally as I broke the silence.
“Like I’m just not supposed to be here,” he sounded lost, “I hope I can make it back and quicker than I did this time round.”
I did the only thing I could think of to comfort him and grabbed the hand that bumped against mine every time he moved. I squeezed it, an attempt to show that he wasn’t alone. That as long as he was in Solo in my lifetime I’d be there for him. I think he understood, his shoulders seemed to relax and he kept looking out.
We stayed like that for a while. I wasn’t sure how long, but I went to bed later that night ready to sleep and feeling much better about what was coming. We hadn’t said anything else to each other but it was enough to set us up for the journey ahead.
I settled down a fell asleep before another thought could flit through my head.
I really didn’t like the mountain path. It was a lot easier now thanks to the advance party, but it was still slow going with the amount of people coming along. Having mountains looming down on either side of us meant there was a constant fear of an avalanche. And, for whatever reason the closer we got to Solo the more everybody glared at me. They were feeling nervous, and I suppose if they were so certain I was going to betray everyone they probably thought to time for it was getting closer. I suspect that if there was an avalanche I’d get the blame for it.
it was a thought that occurred to me a lot, but I shrugged it off each time, there were more important things to be worrying about. Once we got to the Solo side of the pass we had to descend the mountain and weave our way through the countryside without being noticed. While there weren’t any major settlements it would still be a task, there were villages and farms. If any one of them saw us passing through they’d send word to Greystone and the Regent would send people out to fight us. Our primary mission would be over before we’d even started it.
There wasn’t any point in stopping off in any other place, people here were already questioning the wisdom of the government and they didn’t need our help. But as long as Greystone remained in the grip and at the centre of the Regent and his propaganda machine there was no chance of anything ever changing.
Up ahead I saw Lys helping people up a difficult bit in the path. It was so tricky the advanced party couldn’t do anything to make it easier. We’d been in the pass for several days now and every time we reached the top of a rise I expected to see my home. And each time it wasn’t there my heart sank a little at the thought of having to spend more time in the mountains.
To be honest it made that moment all the sweeter. The split second when I thought my eyes were playing tricks and had to do a double take. That single moment where we crested a rise and sprawled before us was the vast land of Solo. It didn’t have the beauty Ewel had. It didn’t have the variety of flora and fauna because of the damage we caused our land. We struck out independently and this was the cost. All the same, there was a sharp twinge in my gut as I saw ‘home’ again. No matter how much I hated it, it was all I ever knew. It was my entire world, up until a few weeks ago.
The sun was setting over the country and there were lights twinkling in each settlement; that we could see them clearly was a testament to how bare the landscape was. The bigger lights were the hearthfires, the beating heart of each community. The smaller ones flickered in windows, illuminating the dark houses and the dark streets.
“Welcome home,” Lys said as she turned to me.
“I’ve never felt welcome here,” I said in all honesty. Some of the doubters were around me and the tension following them since we left Ewel seemed to lose interest and melt away. It took them all of five minutes to drink in the view and start to set up camp. Only Elswick stayed by my side, I thought he was feeling the same as me. A sort of bittersweet surge at the thought of descending back into the pit. We shared a moment very similar to the one the night before we left his home. Then he went to help with the preparations and I thought it best to make a record of everything we’d been through in case the worst happened.
So, that’s the story, so far. You’re all caught up. What happens from here remains to be seen and, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how it was going to work out. The story’s unfinished, but do they ever really end? I’m closing the page on this chapter now, but it doesn’t mean my life ends with the final full stop. Even if I die there will still be a few days between me finishing my writing here and the actual event. Stories don’t ever end when they’re supposed to. But for now, this is where it ends, for better or for worse. There was more yet to come and if we survived it would be told. But history is only told by the victors and if we lost this would be the only record of our lives and resistance.
In the morning we’d be returning to Solo.
I suppose the fighting was inevitable.
Democracy wasn’t something we were used to in Solo, while the outlying settlements would happily join with the Continent it was Greystone that was the driving force, the military might. We did our best to avoid it, we really did. But the Regent refused to listen, so the people did too.
We took each village, each town. We spoke to every single person, prepared our arguments and set our case across well. We travelled under the banner of peace, sometimes I feared it was the only thing stopping people from killing us on sight. For the increasingly tough settlements I was deployed as a secret weapon. The person from Solo with no magical powers who wanted nothing more than a non-violent agreement between the two sides. We were honest with our answers, those who had magic owned up to it and even demonstrated what they could do, promising not to use it against civilians.
I remember there was one town, just a couple of days away from the capital, it was so divided you could practically see it in the town square. As they gathered to listen the crowd parted as if an invisible barrier kept them apart. One side grew increasingly more aggressive, the other reacted, insulted by the disrespect they suffered.
We barely got out of that one without any violence.
As our travels wore on Lys was getting more and more anxious. I’m not sure if it was because of the situation we’d thrown ourselves into or because she was slowly coming to grips with the exact world her brother had lived in for two centuries. She might have suffered her own prison serving on the council with her hands tied behind her back, but she still had liberties and rights that were stripped from him simply because of what he was born as. She struggled to bite her tongue and she was even weary about talking to those who were sympathetic with our cause.
Naturally, word of our arrival spread quickly through Solo. The closer we grew to Solo the more guards were present. They followed us wherever we went in a town, never leaving us be. We never reacted, pretended they weren’t there and rose above the threat the Regent was levelling at us. We all knew trying to enter Greystone through the front gates wasn’t going to get us anywhere. There was not a chance in hell they’d ever open to let us in. But remembering what I’d told her, Lys was adamant that we’d try. Any acts that looked aggressive had to be a last resort, so that meant trying to get into the city the old fashioned way.
The walls loomed above us, the noon day sun high in the sky taking away any shade. It looked like Greystone’s entire guard force was on the walls. They lined the defences, spears and swords drawn, bows and arrows at the ready. A friendly welcome was not on the cards. We strode on, our banner of peace flapping gently in a lazy breeze. Each step was carefully taken, no one wanting to be the straw that broke the horse’s back.
“Hello there,” Lys called up. She used the same voice she had in the council chamber. We all waited for an answer.
I looked around, keen to see if anything had changed since I was last here and surprised to find something had. On either side of the closed gates there were posters plastered on the grey brick. They were usually kept within the city walls, anyone outside barely had a clue what was going on in the city, paranoia was rife at the top of the hill. Even more shocking was my face staring out of the paper. Someone had drawn a very good likeness of me and added a headline above it accusing me of treason. Any information on my whereabouts would be richly rewarded and anyone thought to be hiding me would find themselves executed right alongside me.
My thoughts jumped to Warren, we took a lot of pains to keep our heads down within those walls, not many people realised we worked together and I just hoped that the promise of money hadn’t jogged anyone’s memory. Had I put him in danger?
“You and your kind are not welcome here,” a guard called down. There was a slight hitch to his voice, as if nervous that even talking to us might open himself up to whatever magic we held. “The Regent advices that you turn around immediately and return to your country. If you hand over the traitor he will allow you to return without any trouble.”
As much as I hated seeing my face up on those walls, being called a traitor and used as a bargaining chip, at least it meant the doubters had no reason to doubt any more. The guard made it clear I was not a part of this country any more than Elswick was. at least not anymore.
“You are mistaken, sir,” Lys called back up, “we have no traitor here.” I felt a rush of gratitude at her words, she was always unafraid of what people thought. “Let’s turn back,” she said to us, “the way ahead is closed to us.”
So we found ourselves walking away and our of view of the wall. I tensed, expecting arrows to fall on us while our backs were turned, but perhaps I’d underestimated the honour of my people. They didn’t take the cowardly opportunity in front of them.
The whole thing gave our friends in the rebellion time to come to our aid. They would have known immediately when we reached the wall, I suspect a lot of people were gathered behind those gates, listening to what the guards were saying, breath held in anticipation. Excitement at strangers from another country thrumming through the crowd, anxious about the possibility of us being dangerous. I’m sure as soon as we were sighted on the road to the gate the rebellion sent someone out into the tunnel to come and find us.
We reached some rocks and someone stepped out onto the path in front of us, he shouted out a greeting and raised his arm in salutation. Lys slowed the party down and we looked on curiously.
“There is another way into the city,” the figure said, I imagined I saw a sly smile flicker over his lips. The smile was something I didn’t know but, despite its lack of use, I knew that voice. I knew it anywhere.
“Warren!” I all but yelled. It was so strange, after all I laid eyes on, to see something, or someone, familiar. Before I could even register what I was doing and broke ranks and wrapped him in a hug. It took us both by surprise. Thankfully there wasn’t any time to be embarrassed. Lys and Elswick came up, the former introduced herself as I let him go, and the latter shook his hand.
“Good to see you again Warren.”
He led us all through the tunnel, leading the invasion of Greystone. Needless to say when we popped up into the city it didn’t go down well. The Regent had hoped to use us to flush out those who supported the rebellion, but having survived in the shadows for years and years they were much smarter than to make their support public.
We tried to keep things peaceful. To carry on as we had so far. But the guards came pounding down and, whether on orders or some unspoken understanding, went straight for me. I stood my ground, refusing to run away or show them my back, determined that there would be no ounce of violence from me.
They struck, I stumbled back. My nose cracked and blood came gushing out. Someone else struck me from the right and my head reverberated. Pain blossoming behind me eyes, everything started spinning. Another strike and I was on the floor, blood speckled the cobbles. There was a metallic hissing as swords were drawn and I had enough time to see the steel come flashing towards me. So certain it was the last thing I would see.
But they stopped. All of them in mid swing. There was a look of utter confusion, mixed with downright terror as it dawned on them exactly what was happening. The people to come to my rescue were neither Elswick or his sister. They were the people convinced I was going to betray them, the ones who spent so long keeping one eye on me it was a wonder they hadn’t gone cross-eyed. It turns out some of them could use their minds to control things, in this case they were manipulating the air to stop the guards from following through on their actions.
When all the pieces clicked into place for me I rolled away as quickly as I could, ignoring the pain flaring through my entire body. I tried to get up and step away but my body just didn;t want to support itself. Elswick was there though, of course he was. Before my knees could buckle he had hold of me. My arm across his shoulders, his around my back.
That’s when the fighting started and at the moment it felt like it was inevitable I was involved. People started screaming; the civilians telling everyone what was happening. They ran as fast as they could. For all their bravado when faced with foreigners, there wasn’t any to be seen when a real threat showed up.
I remembered coughing up blood. A probing hand from Elswick suggested a broken rib piercing something it should be piercing. I think Warren came running in, there was a brief conversation and a vague memory of cool hands on my forehead, then my ribs. No words were said but there was a wave of relief as the pain started to subside. It wasn’t enough to stop me from slipping into unconsciousness though.
When I did wake up it was to a city I didn’t recognise. I was alone in a darkened room, which turned out to be in an empty house. The street outside wasn’t as full as it usually would have been and, to be honest, the faces I did see belonged to Hebens or those who’d followed us from Ewel. It felt dead, no atmosphere outside. Everyone looked at me as I went past but no one offered any information. I found myself cutting a path I made so often in my life and the crowds grew thicker. Still, none of them were people who were from here.
The posters I spent years admiring were torn down or defaced. There was blood in the streets but no bodies. The hearthsquare was just ahead but there was something different. The stalls were in shadows, I couldn’t clearly see the hill that towered above them. No guards on the paths but there were people ahead. Their faces in darkness.
The fire was out.
They used my final strategy. Everyone from Solo knew that if the hearthfire went out the place was cursed, there was no saving it. All that was left was to abandon the city. with no capital to operate from the Regent had lost his power. If Greystone was all that stood in the way of solo joining the Continent then it was the only sure fire way of winning if things turned violent.
Lys and Elswick were there, both staring at the empty hearth. The light was out, but I was sure they could bring a new light to this city, and therefore to the country. Solo was on its knees and these two, strangers form another land, the creatures undeservedly hated by my people, were the best ones to support it.