As any citizen of Medar knew, being Selected to move to the Golden City was a ticket out of poverty and into a better life.
Freya’s family knew about poverty. Like most of the inhabitants of Nob, they were farmers, just managing to scratch out a living in this unfertile part of the Land. Their home was nothing more than a two-roomed, earth-walled hut with a thatched roof that often needed repairs. It was perhaps a little smaller than other huts in the village, but by and large it was typical of the majority of dwellings in Nob. There were of course the richer people, who lived in nicer places near the middle of the village: the blacksmith, the baker, and the butcher. Even so, only the Master’s Official, who visited once a year, had a house made of brick, with glass windows and a roof made of fancy tiles. Freya imagined that all houses in the Golden City would look like his.
Not that anyone they knew had ever been to the Golden City, but traders had passed through and told stories of its beauty and wonder. Nobody was entirely sure how many people got Selected and how often but, every now and then, the news would travel to Nob: a family here, a family there. And now it was their turn.
The next week was filled with happy activity as the family prepared to leave their tiny dwelling and the small town of Nob forever. Freya’s mother hummed to herself as she bundled up their belongings and wiped down surfaces. Freya’s father patted her mother’s bottom as he passed her, and her mother giggled! Freya was shocked and embarrassed.
If they had merely to pack up their house, it would likely have only taken a day, such a small amount of possessions did they own. But they also needed to harvest all their remaining crops so that they would be able to trade them on the way to the Golden City. Although being Selected meant that they were guaranteed a home and work once they got to the Golden City, they still had to make their own way there.
This posed their first problem: how were they going to travel? They had no horse or cart to carry their possessions, and the Golden City was at least twenty days’ hard walk away. While pondering their dilemma and trying to decide what they must leave behind, help came from the most unlikely quarter: grumpy old Garret. He seemed to be eternally in a bad mood, and was not afraid to show it. In fact, Freya couldn’t remember ever seeing him smile or offer a kind word to anyone. He had also been seen consorting with Guards more than once—doing what, she didn’t know. But whatever it was, it wasn’t likely to be anything good. Word was not to trust him as far as you could spit.
Nonetheless, he now offered to take them to the Golden City in his horse and cart. And this for no payment, which was the most surprising part of all. Old Garret was normally the most uncharitable person in Nob, even though, for some reason, he had more money than most. But he insisted, saying that he’d always wanted to see the Golden City. Besides, they could buy him his dinner and a drink or two along the way. Euphoric with their recent luck, Freya’s father, Thomas, gladly accepted the offer, as if accepting a gift from an old friend.
Despite their busyness, Nan still had to graze, which meant that Freya had snatched opportunities in which to study her mysterious tablet. She would find a well-concealed spot in the scrublands, far away from anybody, and carefully unwrap the object. It was the same every time: looking at it in the daylight, the face appeared unmarked, except for the numbers at the bottom. However, if she shone a flame so that it cast its light on the surface, then the writing would appear. She pondered the meaning of the words. What was this marvellous place, Tyrelia, described in the poem? It sounded so wonderful, so idyllic!
She asked her mother and her father, both of whom responded exactly the same: a distracted, “What? Don’t know what you’re on about. Please, can you …” and then an issued instruction to continue to help pack up their lives.
After that, she decided not to mention it to anyone. It seemed better that way. And someone had obviously gone to great lengths to conceal the tablet in the first place. Perhaps best she should keep it a secret for now.
And what about the numbers? What did they mean? Could they be a code? The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that they were a code. She didn’t know much about codes, but she knew about numbers: numbers were for counting.
So Freya counted. First of all, she counted all the words. There were twenty-one words in the first verse, and twenty-four in the second. Added together, that only came to forty-five, and the first number was 50, so that didn’t get her anywhere. Next, she tried counting letters. The fiftieth letter was the ‘T’ in ‘beauty’. The sixty-third letter was ‘J’, the ninety-second letter ‘A’, and the ninety-ninth letter ‘N’. That spelt ‘TJAN’. Again, a dead-end. She tried counting the letters backwards: that spelt ‘TENL’. Nothing made sense, but she couldn’t stop puzzling over it.
Then, before she knew it, they were all packed up: the harvest was loaded, Nan was tethered to the cart (she would provide them with milk on their travels, then be given to Garret as payment once they arrived), and it was time for them to farewell their friends and Nob. Farewell their old, poor lives, and set off for the promise of a new and better life.
Not having any friends to say goodbye to, Freya instead visited her favourite places. She sat in the corner of Nan’s lean-to, breathing in the fertile aromas. She drifted around their empty house, trying to memorise every nook and cranny. Finally, she wandered into the wasteland within the shadow of the Wall. She searched out her cave and scrambled inside, remembering the day she discovered it. I never did get to turn it into a hidey-hole, she thought, ruefully.
It was hard to be sad really, when everything was so terribly exciting. Nevertheless, she found tears streaming down her face, once her mother had torn herself from her friends and her sister, and clambered aboard the wagon. Old Garret had clicked his tongue to Bertha and they set off with a lurch.
“Goodbye! Goodbye!” her mother called, waving a hanky at her lifelong friends until they could no longer make out the group that had formed to see them off.
Freya’s father even wiped a tear from his eye. Her mother kept sniffing and wiping her eyes for what felt like hours. But Freya found that all feelings of sadness quickly disappeared as she gazed around, eagerly drinking in the new sights. For Freya, who had never been farther than Forstdam to sell their harvest at the market (and that only once), it was a great adventure. She pestered her parents continually with questions about the Golden City.
“Where is it? What’s it like? How do you get there?”
Her father laughed his gruff laugh, ruffled her hair, and answered her questions as well as he could. He told her that, if one travelled due east from Nob for many, many leagues, it was said that you would encounter the Golden City, built on and surrounding the Great Hill. Said to be the most beautiful city in the whole of Medar, it was the dwelling place of the Master. His palace was at the very top of the Great Hill, a dazzling building covered in gold: the most breathtaking sight in the whole land. But, he told her, surrounding the entire city was an impenetrable wall, and not just anybody could enter: only those who were invited. And that included the few who were Selected each year. They truly considered themselves the luckiest people in Medar!
From Nob, they could not travel directly east and needed to take a southern route—the road that circled around the southern edge of Medar, about a hundred kilometres from the edge of, and following more or less parallel to, the Chasm. Her father told her the names of the towns they would travel through: Forstdam, Helderford, Tong, Dome, and finally, Targa, the city outside the gates of the Golden City. They all sounded equally exotic to Freya, but although she longed for more information about them, her father could tell her little. Like Freya, he had never been past Forstdam, and what he told her was from the stories of travellers who had by chance come to Nob over the years.
Much to Freya’s disappointment, it turned out that all those exotic-sounding places really weren’t that different from Nob—just not quite as poor really. Same grey skies, same shadow of the Wall, same daily drudgery of working to keep families fed and homes maintained. Uneventful that is, except for the reaction that Freya got from everybody to her appearance. In Nob, she had become accustomed to the teasing from the village children, but the adults had treated her normally. As they travelled to new places, however, she found that people, children and adults both, stared at her with looks of pity, shock or even worse, disgust on their faces. At first, she just ignored them, and looked away, pretending not to notice.
On the fifth day of their travels as they rolled into Helderford, it went too far. A group of people stood there and pointed and laughed at her. One of them yelled out, ‘Ugly Face!’, and they all roared with laughter. It was humiliating.
After that incident, her mother dug a hooded cloak out of her pack, and Freya wore it so that it hung low over her face, concealing her scarred visage, whenever they neared a new town.
That evening, when her parents thought she was asleep, they discussed the situation in hushed voices.
Her mother asked, “How could they be so cruel?”
She couldn’t discern her father’s murmured response.
Garret muttered something like, “Good luck getting her into the Golden City.”
Her mother gasped at that. “Do you think they would stop her?”
There was a pause. Freya lay stock-still and breathed slowly and evenly. She sensed they were looking at her.
Garret responded gruffly, “You know how important looks are, especially there.”
To which came her father’s measured response, “Well, we will just have to keep her covered.”
The finality in his tone indicated that the conversation was over. She continued listening, hoping to hear more, but the only sounds were those of the adults preparing for bed.
This turn of events was extremely upsetting for Freya. She knew she looked different to other people, but apart from the village children, nobody in Nob had treated her differently because of her looks. But now here was Garret suggesting that she might not even get into the Golden City because of her deformity! What would she do if her family got into the city, but she did not? She didn’t believe her parents would ever abandon her, so she comforted herself with the thought that, whatever happened, they would always be there to protect her. A new thought presented itself to her: if she did manage to get into the city, how could she keep herself concealed … forever? Would her whole family suffer because of her? Perhaps her family would be better off without her … perhaps she should run away. But where would she go? Unbidden, an image of Tyrelia popped into her head. Well, I’ll just go live there! she thought, but then she chided herself for confusing a fairy-tale with reality.
However, she had distracted herself, and couldn’t help thinking about her mysterious tablet. She soon drifted off to sleep dreaming of the magical place in the poem, where she and her family could live happily without fear of her deformity ever being a problem.
To be continued…