It has been twenty years, but I still remember the walls of Cassiopeia. A marvel of engineering, they stood almost a mile high, and protected the city from invading forces for almost 200 years. I grew up in the shadow of the wall, with my parents and my sister.
When I was very young, I used to dream about the world on the other side. I would lay back at night and imagine the trees and lush green fields where the farm hands worked. My world was cobblestone and marble. Our home was nestled so close to the wall that we only saw sunlight a few hours a day.
When the war reached the city, you could hear the explosions all night. Ansara would wake up and cry. Most nights, I would sneak over to her bed and hold her until she stopped. By the third night, I had gotten used to it. It still amazes me what a person can adjust to if they have to.
By the fifth night, my parents started making plans to escape. The city was surrounded, and the Lacertan reputation for violence was well-known.
It took the Lacertans thirteen days to break through the defenses. My last night in Cassiopeia, I heard my parents arguing about it. My mother said that the council had betrayed us, that they were Lacertan sympathizers. My father said that you never knew who was listening. My parents finally agreed to pay two men to get the four of us out of the city. I remember my mother giving them her jewelry, including a ring that had been in her family for six generations.
They came for us early the next morning. The sun had not yet risen when Ansara and I were placed into a narrow compartment underneath an offal cart. My parents had given each of us some money, and a few small heirlooms, then promised to meet us just outside the gates. It felt like days before we reached the northern gate. Mostly, I remember waiting in the foul-smelling darkness, our arms wrapped around each other, terrified that every bump would be soldiers inspecting the cart.
Once they had gotten us outside, we were left on our own in the wilderness. We waited for several days, starving and cold. We hid in the bushes and watched the city fall. The wall that had sheltered me my entire life crumbled, filling the air with a pale dust. I can still hear the cheering from the Lacertan army as they pushed forward into the city. At night, when I close my eyes, I can see the fires as the city burned. It was my fourteenth birthday.
After the third day, I realized our parents were not coming. My sister cried, and insisted we stay. Maybe she was right, and they are still there waiting for us. Even then, the patrols had already began searching for anyone escaping the city.
We followed the road north, being sure to stay to the trees in case anyone was watching it. We also did our best to avoid the others escaping the city. We had no food or shelter, and to this day I thank the stars that we had not left during winter. It was late summer, and there were berries and other plants we could eat on our way. We slept in ditches and drank rain water when we could.
My sister would not move quickly, though. She still mourned our parents, and slept far longer than I liked. Perhaps, I was too lenient in the beginning, but it was only because I loved her. If I had pushed her harder, and we had arrived earlier–
I am told that it does not help to think of such things.
Neither of us was suited for life in the wilderness. We were city children, used to warm blankets and delivered food. I laugh now, to think of us, scrabbling through the brush looking for something to fill our bellies, back when I still thought I knew what hunger was.
We were far enough away from the city that people had begun lighting fires at night. Ansara wanted to join them, but I was still afraid. One night we waited just at the edge of the light as people gathered around the fire. They talked about how the Lacertans were offering good money for any Cassiopeian refugees.
My sister and I shivered in the woods that night. She began to cry, and soon I could no longer tell if her body was shaking from the cold or the silent tears for our family.
The nearest city was Orion Alpha. I had never been there before, but I did our best to keep us heading in that general direction. We moved slowly, and soon there were too many people following the road for us to stay hidden.
Behind us, a giant column of smoke rose into the sky from Cassiopeia. We blended into the crowds, most coming from Orion Beta. Their city had been the first to fall to the Lacertans. Unlike us, they had evacuated before the Lacertans arrived, and most of them had escaped with at least a few belongings.
An old man with a wagon gave us a ride for awhile, sharing dried meat with us, and telling Ansara old stories about the original settlers. I should not have been surprised to wake up one morning to find that he was gone, along with the few things we’d smuggled out with us.
It is normally a three day journey to Orion Alpha. We arrived two weeks after leaving Cassiopeia. Coming around the bend towards the city, I was struck by the sheer mass of humanity waiting outside the city gates. Armed soldiers lined the walls, letting only a small trickle through each day. Small tents had been set up for people to sleep in. The air smelled of sweat and shit. Still, I did my best to put on a brave face for Ansara.
“They will take us in,” I told her. “You’ll see.”
We descended the hill, only to be stopped by soldiers at the perimeter of the camp. Metal bracelets were clamped on our arms saying which tent we belonged to. We were each given a bedroll and told to present ourselves at the gates each morning at sunrise. There, we would eventually be moved into the city.
Walking through the camp, what struck me most was how quiet it was. There was no laughter, no spirited conversation. People waited in silence. After some time, we found our tent. The beds were stacked on top of each other, and there were no walls to keep the wind or vermin out. We found an empty bed near one side, and waited.
Other people drifted in and out of the tent, but most were at the city gate. When they came back, nobody acknowledged us beyond a small grunt. Every night, one of the guards would come by with rations for the next day. Every morning, we would all line up at the gate, in the hopes that we would be admitted into the city.
There were times when I wished that we had died with our parents. Waiting for days on end, worrying that every minute the Lacertans would come over the ridge and wipe out the entire camp. The only thing that kept me going was Ansara. She did not cry anymore, but she did not smile either. I wanted to see my sister happy, and I knew that would only happen in the city.
Each morning, we would line up with the others, waiting to see if we would be picked to enter the city. We waited for hours in the sun, only leaving to return to our tents when it dipped below the horizon. The guards would give us food vouchers when they checked us back in, which would be exchanged for moldy bread and a thin broth.
The weather turned cold, and many nights Ansara and I would huddle together using both of our bedrolls. We had not dressed for the weather, and I was worried that she would not be able to handle the harsh winter that was coming.
I did not have to worry long. She was selected to join the others in the city a few days later. She screamed and reached back for me, but the guards slammed her to the ground and started calling her an agitator. Ignoring her cries, they dragged her into line with the others, and we shared one last look before she entered the city. I never saw her again.
Without Ansara, my life descended into further drudgery. I had focused so much of my survival in keeping her alive, of getting her into the city, that I no longer knew what to do. I showed up at the gates, hoping to have the same luck she did. If I were able to make it in, we might still be reunited.
I ignored the rumors about what happened on the other side of the walls. Nobody had ever come back from inside, and it was easy to dismiss them as the scared ramblings of people who had seen too much strife already.
It was in the dead was winter when I finally chosen. We huddled near the entrance as always. At this point, I was waiting more for what ever warmth I could find from the others than anything else. As always, a man walked along the line, picking people seeming at random. I stared at him, refusing to duck my head like so many others had.
He smiled and grabbed my arm, looking at the metal band that had been forced on me when we arrived. Talking quickly to the others in a language I didn’t understand, he nodded at me and then moved on down the line. Two guards grabbed me and dragged me towards the city gates.
I arrived in a massive room with lines painted on the floor. Above me, a loud speaker rattled off the following words in a variety of languages. Even now, years later, I can still hear that voice when I’m falling asleep.
“Do not switch lines. Arrivals from Orion Beta, follow the blue line. Arrivals from Cassiopeia , follow the red line…”
©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.