I grew up in the North Country, near Lake Missim. My parents moved there from the City before I was born. For the first twelve years of my life, my days were idyllic. The wild beauty of the North Country surrounded me by day, and the warmth of my home and family at night. Things seemed perfect.
Then the ghouls came. Big, grey, muscular creatures who looked like men but walked on all fours—the ghouls came from the mountains and began attacking the villages, slaughtering all those they found. The king rode up from the south, with his mighty generals behind him, recruiting all able-bodied youths and adults as he came. My parents heard of his approach and pulled armor and weapons from a trunk beneath their bed. I had never seen such things—had no idea that they owned these instruments of war—had no idea that my parents had once been soldiers in the king’s army. Not yet old enough to fight, I was left to watch incredulously as my mother and father donned these strange costumes, transforming themselves into warriors before my eyes.
As the king rode into town, my parents went out to meet him, bowing and offering their swords in service. Our neighbors came out of their homes, too. Many of them wore armor like my parents’. I saw other children staring from doors and windows, their faces bewildered and fearful.
The king thanked those who offered to fight alongside him. I hoped he would tell them that their service was not needed, that they could return to their homes and their families. But he did not. Instead, he declared that the children and elders should go to the City, where they would be safe within its walls. Those who could fight should join him. They would march with all speed to the East, where the ghouls were known to be lurking…preparing to invade the village nearest to our own.
Time was given to say goodbyes and make arrangements. My mother looked sad as she gazed into my eyes and told me to be brave. “Take heart, Maryam. The king always cares for his subjects. You will be safe in his City. And perhaps we will come for you, when the battle is done. Perhaps we can return to our life here one day soon.”
My father had tears running down his cheeks and into his beard as he hugged me. “Know that we fight for you, Maryam,” he said. “And for all those who cannot fight for themselves. We will see you again. Someday. When the foe is vanquished and all is restored. We will be together. The king will see to it.”
I looked out to where the king was waiting with his generals, conferring about the battle ahead. “I hate the king,” I said. “Why can’t he fight the ghouls himself? Why does he need you to fight for him? He’s selfish. He wants you to die so he doesn’t have to—so he can keep living in his golden City forever and never have to face cold or pain or death like everyone else does. He’s a cruel ruler and I’ll never bow to him!”
My parents just looked sadder as I finished my speech, and for a moment I felt bad to have caused them more pain. But then the anger rushed back in and I was glad to see the sadness in their eyes. It was what they deserved for following such a selfish leader.
The king’s trumpets sounded then, and my parents looked sadly at me as I stood, arms crossed. “Maryam, one day I hope you’ll understand,” my mother said. “What we do now, we do for you.” And she kissed me on my forehead. My father stroked my hair. “Don’t harden your heart, child,” he said. “The king is good, though I know right now you can’t see it. But maybe one day you will.”
They led me to one of the village grandmothers who would watch over me during the journey to the City. “Goodbye, Maryam,” they said, and hugged me one last time. I didn’t return their embrace.
It took three days to journey to the City of El. It is in the center of the kingdom, and is surrounded by a high, white wall. The city itself looks like a small mountain, with the center being higher than all the rest. The children and elders from our village were given rooms in a large, airy building near the bottom level of the City. We had chores and lessons to attend to during the day. But in the evening, we were allowed to roam the streets, to explore the place that had become our new home.
I spent my hours alone, walking, looking into windows, watching people live their lives in this vast metropolis of white stone and running water. There were fountains everywhere, and rivulets running down the middle of many of the streets, making a sound like laughter on the cobblestones. But I found no joy in it. I watched as families sat down to their evening meal, smiling. A father stroked his young son’s hair. A mother laughed as she chased her daughter around the kitchen table. An old man rocked slowly on his porch, his eyes closed peacefully as his children and grandchildren cleared away the dishes inside.
This place was for the happy, the peaceful—for those whose lives hadn’t been torn apart by war, by the king’s demand that their family members follow him into battle. This place was for those untouched by the real world. It wasn’t for me.
I returned to the house and packed my clothes and a few trinkets into my knapsack. Then I hid it under my bed and pretended to go to sleep. Later, when darkness had fallen thick and heavy over the city and all had become quiet, I snuck out and headed for the city gate. I knew that the wilderness beyond the wall was said to be dangerous, full of vicious creatures and selfish men. But I thought I’d rather take my chances among them than to stay in this place where every moment was a reminder of what I had lost, what the king had stolen from me.
The gate had sentries posted on either side, but they were looking out toward the darkness of the wilderness, not inward to where I sat huddled, waiting for my chance to escape. When the next watch arrived to relieve them, I took my opportunity and snuck out beneath the shadows of one of the gatehouses. For a moment, I thought one of the guards looked at me and I froze. But then he looked away, and I moved out into the tall grasses that grew in clumps in the fields around the city.
I knew that there was a village only a few miles away. I knew I couldn’t stay there—once the elders noticed I was missing, they would send out a search for me. I would have to get farther away from the city if I didn’t want to be dragged back inside its walls again. But the village might be a good place to find some travelers that I could join in with—maybe even someone who was going north, back toward the North Country that I loved. Back toward my parents and the home that held so many of my good memories. If my parents were even alive. And if our home was still standing.
I started to make my way down the road. The stars were bright enough to shed some light, and I began walking quickly—both to keep warm and because I was afraid of what I might meet if I stayed out in the open too long. I had gone maybe a mile when I noticed something coming toward me on the road ahead. I dove into the bushes nearby and crouched down, my heart hammering in my chest.
At first, I thought the thing coming toward me was a ghoul. It was hunched over and shuffling along in a strange manner. Had they come this far south already? Were they so bold as to attack the City of El itself, with its strong, high walls? But then I realized that this was no ghoul. It was a person; a man. He was injured, his leg bound up in a white bandage that shown out against his dirty and torn clothes. And then I saw that there were others behind him…men and women coming in a long line—limping, gasping, leaning on one another. I watched them go by. Some were missing entire limbs. Some had gashes on their face or hands—unbandaged and painful to look at. A few seemed whole, unharmed—until they grew close and I could see that they were missing eyes or fingers.
The gruesome parade continued past me for what must have been an hour. No one spoke. I hid in the bushes, terrified that someone would see me, unsure of who or what these people were, where they came from, what they intended to do once they reached the City.
But then I saw a different sight. Coming at the end of line of wounded were six tall men, arrayed in royal armor. Their helmets were dented, their shields broken. Several of them limped. But still they held themselves tall. And between them they carried a litter. As they drew closer I could see a body lying on the litter—a man. He didn’t move. I didn’t think he was breathing. Then, as they passed me, I saw the man’s face, still and white—undoubtedly dead. It was the king.