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.
For the next five days, as they continued their travels eastward, there were no villages and they encountered few travellers. On the evening of the tenth day since leaving Nob, they drew close to Tong and as dusk fell, they searched for a suitable place to stay the night. As they passed a group of people seated around a campfire off the side of the road, one of the men hailed them.
“Good evening! Are you from around here?”
Thomas responded cautiously, “Good evening to you, sir. No, we are travelling through these parts. How about you?”
“We’re travellers too. We’ve been Selected and are on our way to the Golden City.”
“What a coincidence! We too, have been Selected and are also going there.”
At this, the stranger invited them to join his family gathering. It transpired that they were from Helderport and that they, too, were headed for processing at Targa. Unable to believe their good luck at meeting people in such similar circumstances, Freya’s family gladly joined them and all were soon enjoying a hearty meal together.
“Do you know much about what’s involved with this processing?” Thomas asked the stranger.
“Can’t rightly say that I do,” responded the other, “for no-one who’s been Selected ever wants to leave the Golden City to tell us what it is like. I can’t say that I blame them, neither.” This comment was met with nods and murmurs of agreement from all the adults around the fire.
“All I know is that we present these papers here …” – at this he tapped his breast pocket – “… to the officials at Targa, and then they take us to the Golden City. Seems pretty straightforward.”
After that, the conversation moved on to speculation as to what their new lives might be like once they got into the Golden City. In the cosy light of the campfire, all thoughts of Freya’s disfigurement, and the implications that Garret had hinted at, were remote and even ridiculous.
So it was that, four days later, around mid-morning two weeks after leaving Nob, the family finally arrived with much anticipation in Targa—the first trading post outside the Golden City. There they were to present themselves to the authorities for processing. Garret had explained to Freya that Targa was the second most important city in Medar, for everything that went in and out of the Golden City first had to go through Targa. That meant all goods, food, and people. Targa was roughly forty kilometres from the Golden City, and it lay on a direct route to the only gate in that city’s walls. The road on which they entered Targa from the south ended in the centre of the city, at the town square. Other roads radiated out from each side, but you could tell the one that led to the Golden City: it was a wide, beautiful avenue and, rather than just being a dusty track like the roads they had travelled on so far, it was cobbled. In fact, the whole square was cobbled, so that the horses’ hooves and cart wheels clattered loudly as they entered. The road out of Targa on the far side of the square continued on to the Eastern provinces, to places called Little Farthing and Elmwood, which were about as far east as one could go, and were probably as far away from her hometown, Nob, as you could get within the whole land. Freya’s mind boggled.
In the middle of the square was a large pond with a model of the Golden City in the centre and fountains all around the edges. The model even had a copy of the impenetrable wall surrounding its base. The hill had roads spiralling around it all the way to the summit. At the very top was a replica of what she assumed must be the Master’s palace. The jets of water from the fountains splashed onto the model and cascaded down the hillsides, causing it to glitter and sparkle in the sunlight. It was the most beautiful thing Freya had ever seen.
The town square was alive with people, who all had somewhere to go or something to do; it was a hive of activity, a blur of motion. On one side of the square there was a food market and the air was filled with delicious smells of fresh bread, roasted fowl and chestnuts. These mingled with the less savoury smells of livestock—pigs, cattle, and sheep—that were up for sale nearby. The air reverberated with the shouts of vendors announcing their wares, and of purchasers haggling.
All of this, Freya observed through a knot hole in the side of the cart. She and her brother were lying in the cart, pretending to be asleep. Freya’s father located the small processing office that was positioned amongst the prominent government buildings along the north side of the town square. Her parents took the Selection scroll into the building, while Garret stayed with his horse and cart tethered outside.
Freya noticed that he positioned himself so he could hear what was being said inside.
From within the cart, Freya couldn’t understand too much of what was going on. A male voice with a strange accent congratulated her parents loudly, then got even louder as the man strode towards the cart.
To be continued…