Many years I have been walking these roads. When you walk as much as I, you learn that each place looks the same. Each path could belong to one far behind you; there is no such thing as the path untrodden. The people I pass, though belonging to different villages, towns, kingdoms, nations, all look the same. Some have darker or lighter hair, skin, or eyes, some are taller or shorter, some are men, some are women, some are children. But, in each place, they are the same. The children run and shriek and play, then sulk when their parents scold them for missing chores, lessons, or ruining the washing. All adults, regardless of who, go about their day in much the same way. They travel, work, eat, rest, and try to discover some meaning to life and their place in the world.
Nothing and no-one is dramatically different to the other.
Yet, I have seen war tear through nations, crumbling kingdoms and crashing through lives as if the little people went unnoticed by the forces that destroyed them. Wars that, for all they were about, sought to prove that one kingdom or one nation was different to the other: that one was superior and the other was nothing, or one more hateful, or one more productive, or one more glorious.
This path I walk now, did some ancient people battle here too? Or was there some notion of peace? Could I have walked here uncloaked, unlike the way I am forced to travel now? Could I have shown my long, dark hair without fear of enemy citizens rushing out toward me? Dropping their play or their chores to throw stones at me, laughter turning to curses, someone running to bring the attention of a nearby authority member?
Now, as it is, I cannot, and I must forever keep to pulling my cloak over my face, hiding my dark face and dark hair, shuffling through as quickly as I can to my next destination.
Libraries. That is where I go. And schools. Or anywhere information may be stored or kept. I wander past all these roads, deep into nations I am not welcome, seeking libraries, schools, and treasuries of information. I was a scholar once, someone prestiged in my lands who collected a great wealth of information and learning. I watched the skies, sleeping each night where the cool evening air brushed my skin and the light of the heavens glinted favourably upon me. I chartered the movement of the heavens, tracked comets, moons, and from the moons, tracked the tides. By day I sketched the flora and fauna, hoping to document the knowledge of my people for the generations of the future. Which flowers could we eat? Which herbs were best for curing a common cold? What was the migratory pattern of our beloved sparrows, where every child would run into the streets of the town to watch as the sparrows first returned, harbingers of the spring?
Now, I stomp down mud tracks and slip through boggy grasslands, a wanderer, vagabond, and the stars have turned from me.
Since I have been wandering, streaks of grey and white have tainted the deep cocoa colour of my braided hair and the beard that now grows untrimmed on my face. Once upon a time, my hair was pure coffee and my beard well-fashioned, a sign of my place in the kingdom. Now, I have no place and no kingdom. War ravaged our kingdom, forcing survivors to flee and spread far and wide to escape our enemy. The royals mostly died, refused life by the enemies that tore through their lands. My brother, the elder prince, died so that I may live, begging me to spread all I knew about how our kingdom was ravaged by the army from the North.
I have failed him.
History is always written by the survivors. That is the way of things. Decades have passed and information has been spread, teaching people of this nation that the northern kingdom squashed unlawful rebels from the south. That the killing of my people and taking of the kingdom was for the good of the lands. They spread lies, poisoning the minds of those we once allied with. They said we were barbarians, ate our enemies, boiled them alive, and killed mercilessly in the night, leaving villages silent with death.
Hark them and their damned words of lies!
They were the barbarians. They stole into our villages late at night and killed our people. They laid siege to our kingdom, stealing children and women, boiling them, and drowning the men in the blood of their families.
I was there. I saw it. I saw my mother dragged through the palace by her neck and tossed into tar and my father sliced into pieces as he fought with all his effort to run after his queen. My brother, our last hope, defended the escape route until it killed him, the last surviving person of our kingdom to ever keep that palace. A mere couple of hundred of us survived. Most cut their long hair, the symbol of our kingdom, abandoning their beliefs to hide more safely in the places they escaped to. They never mentioned the past, burying it, hiding it, too scared to speak out. Everyone else believes the people of the North. No-one questioned it. Whether the people of the higher classes were bribed and threatened to change their minds and spread the word, I have no doubt. History was written and my people were written off. I am the last Denevan citizen, I refused to change. I kept my hair long and plaited, I kept my skin kissed by the sun, I still sleep beneath the starry skies. Though the stars have turned from my fortunes, I write the history as it is truthfully and travel the nation replacing the lies with the truth.
As a scholar, I can’t fight. I can’t raise armies and I can’t raise rebellions. My brother would have done better at that. As a scholar, however, I can change the history that is recorded. I hope, one day, the people of the future will understand what truly happened and my people can be free one more.
And so, until the day I die, I will burn the scrolls that say the Denevan’s were barbarians who slaughtered the Northerners and sought their wrath deservedly. The fire burns bright, like justice glowing through the darkened lies. Then, my scroll takes its place so someone can read it.
There’s not much a scholar like me can do. No grand gestures. But if I have fire, parchment, a pen, and my own feet to stand on, then by the light of the heavens and the stars I’ll write until my hands bleed and cramp forever and walk until my legs can shuffle no further. And if I die by fire for my sins of burning libraries of history, then so be it.
“So be it.”
I look up from the crumpling parchment in the fire and stare at the stars. Each one, they say, is born when a Denevan dies. Somewhere, then, my mother, father, brother, and people glitter over the earth. Which ones? Each night I wonder which ones they could be.
“How can I look at you if I don’t know which one you are?” I find myself crying into the darkness, not for the first time. Over the decades, I’ve cried, screamed, cursed, yelled, and cried some more at the stars and their silence towards me. The fact my family now ignores me and how lonely I feel.
I twirl the long braid of my hair in my hands and look at the twisting greys and whites lit in the firelight. When did I get so old? Will I always spend my life this way? When will I get to live and not just survive?
Sometimes I liked to think each white or grey came from each historical scroll I burned: a curse for burning the things I had once sworn to create and protect, never to destroy. For, a scholar never burns information. Only adds to it. Then, I remind myself that what I burn is not true information, but lies. And, if I am cursed for that, so be it.
Again, “so be it.”
“Why are you talking to yourself with that kind of face?”
My heart oozes instantly from the pores of my skin and I leap up, fumbling to cover my hair and face with my cloak, which lies just too far from me to smoothly cover myself. The same voice laughs. I search the darkness beyond my fire to see a young man, peeking through the hem of my cape that drapes incorrectly down the side of my face. He shakes his head and chuckles.
“Sir, I find you quite strange. You must not be from around here.”
He has a pleasant voice and a pleasant way, and he indicates with his hand whether he can join me. His mouth moves, too, as if he is speaking, but I don’t hear what he asks. Instead, I nod mutely.
“Cold, isn’t it?” He asks, rubbing his hands and reaching closer to the fire. “What have you managed to burn? I swear the rain around here made anything within the area wet for weeks.”
I don’t want to tell him I’m burning scrolls, so mumble something about keeping spare wood with me for emergencies. He raises an eyebrow and repeats that I’m quite strange. I think the same of him. I’ve not seen anyone with his hair colour for a while, either, so tell him, “You must not be from this area, either.” He looks surprised but smiles slightly as he looks at the flames dance.
“You’re right. I’ve been on the road a while.”
“Visiting distant relations?”
“No, I can’t really be sure for what. Maybe I’m trying to run away, maybe I’m running towards something. Either way, I seek another life. One far from the cold I’ve lived with until now.”
“You’re from the North?” I ask, heart, back in my skin, now freezing inside me as if the notorious cold from the North had travelled with the man and seeped into me. I couldn’t believe I’d invited a Northerner to sit at my fire.
He nodded, saying nothing. For a time, we both sat in this silence, staring only at the leaping reds and oranges burning the air that warmed us. Somewhere in the sky, the clouds rumbled. We both awkwardly mumbled something about hoping the rains would hold, at least for tonight.
“I was a soldier, I guess.” He said eventually. “I followed my father into the military after he was killed. A couple of decades ago there was a massive war with the neighbouring kingdom. My father was killed in service in the fields. They brought his body back and, as customary, his gear was passed to me, the eldest child. So, I had to go into the service, too. I missed that war, but I’m glad of it.”
“War is not a pleasant thing,” I said, still unsure what to say. My scholar’s mind was telling me to just listen, to let a man who needed to speak, speak. But, my survivor's mind was telling me to run, to scream, to hit him, anything. My inner turmoil made me sit still, so he kept speaking, nodding at my remark.
“Indeed. I saw so much death returned to our town. My father, my uncles, my aunt, village members, townspeople, kingdom guards… my other aunt ran the healing huts in our village so many soldiers from the fields were brought there as a last hope. It was awful. Like animals had attacked them. No mercy, no honour.” He shook his blond head and I wondered how I never realised he was a Northerner, no-one this far south had such white-blond hair. The people here were fair, but fair mouse-coloured blondes, light browns, and reds. His hair stood out. I’m amazed he didn’t wear a cloak until I realised his people weren’t the ones being driven away. He looked now at my hair and sighed. “I know who you are. I won’t judge. I have learned over the years not every Denevan is to blame for what happened to my people.”
“You’re people?” I cried out, unable to stop myself. I found myself standing, having leapt to my feet, and I stood staring at him with anger on my face. He looked up at me sadly, and I saw in his face he may accept if I killed him. That shame and frustration drove me on. “What are you on about? There was no battle in the northern fields. You all came to our kingdom and slaughtered us like foxes left at the mercy of wild dogs. My people are dead and the rest, hiding, because yours came like a swarm and wiped us out! And you don’t blame me for what happened to YOUR people?!”
He cocked his head to the side in confusion. “What are you on about? No battle in the northern fields? We came like a swarm? Were you even there? Did you even see or know what was happening? How long have you been wandering these roads?”
“I was there! I saw my father and brother cut down and my mother suffocated and burned in tar by YOUR people! My citizens were destroyed and their homes were rendered to splinters. The smell of burning flesh and the sound of screaming still fills my ears, and you people have the audacity to tell the nation and write to the future saying that we’re the ones who ravaged you?”
“And what about how your armies came to our villages and slew all the beasts we raised for meat and burned the crops, mutilating the men and raping the women? I know those braids, I saw them as a child. I hid in the trees as they came, saw my aunt raped and killed by soldiers over the body of her dead husband, saw my father return from battle barely recognisable. Your people started it! Our soldiers went to your kingdom only when yours had come to our villages.”
My chest heaved so much a growl erupted as I breathed.
I should storm off, ignore him, he had been fed lies by the kingdom he grew up in. Everyone had been. That’s why they needed my history, to change the lies they’d been told and finally give justice to my people. But my stubborn and scholarly sides wanted to teach him the truth, to get him to see and admit he was wrong, that his people lied. So, I stayed.
I sat down heavily, grumpily stirring the fuel in the fire for it to burn more brightly. I found myself offering him tea. I was surprised when he accepted, two men sitting angrily beside each other and sharing a drink. It was strange.
“I find you strange, too.” I told him, as I prepared the leaves I had been collecting as I walked. I heard him huff beside me. Neither one of us spoke until I poured the tea into each of our personal mugs, and we both sat staring into the dark liquid.
“What is this tea?” He asked, staring into the water and sniffing the vapour.
“It’s a fusion of mint, sweet basil, and lemongrass. And something else. I can’t remember what now. A kind of grass I picked long ago. I quite like them, so I collect them if I ever come across them on the road.” I find a dark humour in the simple conversation we now share. I hear him sniff beside me.
“It smells incredible, like nothing I’ve ever had from tea.”
I too, sniff at the vapour coming from the tea, taking a deep breath and letting the scent warm my insides. I smile and notice that he, too, is smiling beside me. So people from enemy kingdoms can smile together like this over something as simple as tea.
“In the north, all the tea tastes the same. It’s brown and bitter, and most people add milk and sweeteners to make it taste even remotely better. Frankly, I try to avoid it. But, there’s little else that’s warming in the winter months unless you want to drink plain hot water, and that doesn’t taste much better either after a while.”
I hum. “My people often infused tea with flowers and herbs. I remember the grasses from the palace garden, the little yellow and white flowers we’d pick from wild bushes on the sides of tracks, and even different types of roses we’d test. I wrote so many scrolls on which plants you can use for teas and what the best fusions are. It was some of my favourite work. I hoped our future generations would look back at them and learn some of our favourite teas and, hopefully, add to it.” I don’t know why I was confessing all this to someone like him. Maybe I just wanted someone to finally talk to who even remotely knew of my people. He nodded.
“If you can record things on scrolls you must be able to read and write well. You must have had a good position.” He was staring now once more into his cup, nose fully hovering over the scented vapour.
“I’m sorry about your brother and mother.” He muttered.
“I’m sorry about your family, too. War will make victims of us all, particularly the innocents.”
We both nodded and stared at the flames. In my head, I was trying to do calculations. When was the war? I could barely remember now. It was scratched into my memory, but when had it been? I was a young man, nose buried in books and scrolls most of the time. When had it been? I tried to think back to the work I was doing at the time, something about the local fauna and how they may have evolved. When had that been?
“You say my people came to your villages. When was that, roughly?” I asked, still staring at the fire to avoid looking at his face. I felt him watch me and tried to keep my face neutral. There was a long silence.
“It must have been about two and twenty years ago. I was only just allowed to help guide the large oxen in the fields so I must have been nearly ten harvests in age.”
I choked on my tea, not able to tell whether it was too hot or whether I had swallowed it the wrong way in my surprise.
“But the war didn’t begin until you laid siege of our villages and towns a year more than two decades ago!” I cried, staring at him wide-eyed. I’d been travelling nearly twenty years since the day the kingdom fell a year after the villages were taken, I should know.
He shook his head and shuffled to face me. “What are you on about? The Denevans came to our villages a year before that. After a year of waiting, we then finally went to get our revenge.”
My heart oozed through my pores again, this time feeling more like solid stone. I wondered how healthy it would be for someone to have their heart do this too often and swore I’d research it at the next library I came to. The year before the first attacks on our villages some of the soldiers HAD left the castle on a mission with local allies. Had they also attacked northerner villages? But I had thought they had travelled west to meet with the King in the west? I tried to figure out whether my brother had been there then. He had been away for a time, then.
“How long had the raids taken place?” I asked.
The man looked up and looked like he was trying to calculate. “We lived in a state of emergency for at least half a year. We were worried we would miss the seed-sowing season. Then, it just stopped out of nowhere. I remember everyone was angry, and wanted revenge, but couldn’t figure out why it suddenly stopped.”
I tried to think back, cursing having my nose buried in books most of my life at a crucial moment. My brother had been away then to visit the King to the west, but not for that long. So he had come back. Had he been to the North at all? Or was it a rogue team of soldiers attacking? Or had he ordered them to go but not gone, himself? Then, I remembered soldiers did return looking as if they’d been battling, but they said they got injured on the road, attacked by bandits from a neighbouring kingdom. Said northerners had got them on their way back from the West, guarding the western road for some reason. My brother and father had declared a state of emergency, calling more soldiers to look into it and take care of it. They looked pretty worried. If they had been the attackers of the North, would they have looked that worried, or was it a solo rebellion against my brother who then got played into attacking after?
I couldn’t tell anymore.
“My brother was away for a time, then, fighting bandits from the North that attacked our soldiers on the roads from the West after a talk with an allying kingdom. He seemed really worried about the situation. I hope he wasn’t actually attacking your villages. Defending is one thing, deliberately attacking innocent villages is another. I never thought my people would do that. My father always believed in peace and diplomacy above the use of swords.”
The young man finished his tea with a sigh. “I ran away from my kingdom because I didn’t want to be caught up in webs of politics. Being a soldier was difficult. I didn’t want a life of violence and destruction. I missed working in the fields. I tried to go home at one point but I was forced to go back to help protect the homeland. In the north, it always seems about fighting and protection and being on constant guard. I heard you could grow incredible fruits in the south and wanted to see it for myself. And here I am, discussing old politics with a man caught in a similar position to me, just born on the other side. Now, I get the feeling that both sides had their faults, and both sides had reason to try to defend and attack from the other.”
I reflected. If the survivors write the history, then obviously the point of view from the losers of the battles never gets written. The strong control the information. But, what if some of what they wrote is true? There obviously had to be two points of view. What if neither was fully as black and white as each said, but both muddied and swirling together to form something in the middle?
“I think, now, that no country is perfect and both have their own side. Yet neither side’s beliefs are perfect because it doesn’t consider the other. I learned that my people were attacked on the way back from the West so defended themselves from bandits from the North, and then the North came after us and wiped us out brutally. You learned that my people attacked your villages for no reason, wiping out agriculture and those who could grow the food for all the kingdom, so your people attacked in revenge. Neither side is innocent, and neither is fully the enemy.”
He nodded. “I never knew how your people had been killed when we attacked the kingdom. That’s awful. I never realised we could attack with such disgusting brutality. I even went into the military after my father and feel I should have known. Even now, perhaps I’ve been blind to it. We’d have no true war since, so I’ve never seen how the soldiers attack their enemies. I’m mostly on guard duty and only hear about how we defend our home. I really hope my father wasn’t able to kill people like that.”
I looked at the sky, cloud wafting quickly across it. “I hope my brother never resorted to mutilating and raping. I’d never forgive him for that. I’d like to believe he wasn’t the sort but… who can really be sure?”
The young man looked at me and nodded. “I’m glad I met you, old man. Maybe a previous version of me, before I ran away, would never had sat and chatted to you. I’m glad I met you in this version, where I’m more open-minded to hear different things. I know my people aren’t innocent completely. I ran away for a reason. I wonder if our kingdoms will ever get over this. Though yours have a lot more to get over, us being the ones spreading all the news about the war and your people being few in number now.”
I nodded. “That’s my purpose. To walk the nation and write the history I know. Though, I’ll confess now the true fuel of our fire, tonight. I’ve been collecting and burning the history your people write and replacing it with the history I write. Though, now I realise perhaps mine isn’t entirely accurate either.”
The young man looked surprised and then laughed. “Well, history makes excellent fires.”
I was amazed at how he had taken that. I thought his people would be angry if I burned it, and he told me some people may be. “But I’m just a farmboy, though I inherited my guard duties. I can’t read. It matters not to me whether squiggles on a page were burned. In the villages, history and stories always get spread verbally. Paper matters not.”
I felt stumped. How could I have been spreading the word all this time if only a few people could read it? He must have sensed my disappointment, for he placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Keep writing, old man. Someone will read it. And, until then, I’ll spread the history I know too, verbally. Though, this time it will have some of your truth in it, too.”
I look at him and smile slightly. “Then, I’ll keep writing. But, I too will write the history that we share, not the history that I alone know. Your people weren’t entirely to blame either. Instead, there is guilt and innocence on both sides. I’m afraid that, all this time, I’ve been just as guilty as your people, spreading only one side of history and ignoring the pain on the other. Will I ever be able to amend that? I can only hope to write what I know, valuing the pain on both sides, and share with it what I know. As a scholar, I must always value all the correct information. There are always two sides and history will never be correct unless both sides are considered. I was trying to wipe one out with the other. That will never work.”
The young man smiled back and took his hand from my shoulder. We had talked through the night, and the stars would soon sink beneath the horizon and make way for the rising dawn. The young man shook his cup dry and put it in his sack, pulling something out instead.
“Here, to thank you for the tea. And for opening up my eyes.”
It was a fresh-caught rabbit. I stared, open-mouthed. These were hard to catch. He grinned.
“Farmboy, right? Have it, I caught a couple the other day and have enough for a while. Ate some fresh, dried some more. I have plenty and can catch more. You have this. Thank you.”
I thanked him back and graciously took the rabbit, reaching into my own sack and bringing out a couple of cotton wrappings. In these, I had been collecting and mixing tea leaves. I poured some into a spare cotton wrapping I had finished tea from previously and closed it tightly. “In return, please take this. You looked like you enjoyed it today.”
The young man’s eyes lit up as much as I’m sure mine did when I saw the rabbit. He quickly put it away and then stood, stretched, and turned to face me, young smile stretching across his face. “Well, thanks old man, that was a well-needed chat. I’ll be on my way. I want to reach the southern kingdom before the harvest to see that beautiful fruit they speak of. And, I’d like to think that my father and your brother were both fine on the killing side. If they have nice relatives like us, they can’t have been all that bad themselves.”
I smiled and stood with him, grasping his outstretched hands. As he walked out of sight, I sat and stared at the last starlight in the sky.
It’s funny who you meet on the road, and interesting how two strangers can make such an impact in each other’s lives. He taught me a lot. Immediately, I set about pulling out scrolls and ink and quills to write the history I now truly knew. That the Denevans and the Northern kingdom both had their crimes and their innocents, that a war had somehow came from a series of political and unfortunate attacks, likely caused by bandits and mutiny and crime on both sides. Northern villages had been pillaged, Denevan people had been wiped out, and both had a joint history that had to be considered. And, that strange young man, deserved of credit, was mentioned fully at the end. After all, as a scholar, I had to include all sources I took from to be credible. I realised I had never taken his name, but, as he never found out mine, I hoped this made us, in some way, equals. As I scrawled the last of the history shared between the Denevans and the Northerners from the battles of over a couple of decades ago, I looked at the last of the winking stars as the dawn began to turn the sky pale pink and blue. I’m sure, at that moment, the stars shone down favourably once more on me again, brightening and glinting. I wondered, that one there, and those next to it, could they be my family? Could I join them there?
The true history written by the second prince of the last Denevan king, wandering scholar of the Denevan kingdom, was never shared that day, or for several years after. His body was found a few years later, though no one could understand the circumstances of his death. A local authority figure, upon searching his belongings, found several scrolls. Most empty, and a few full, numbered at the bottom to indicate order of reading. When she read them, she immediately ordered messengers to spread the news. And so, verbally, the news spread, that the true history of what had happened in those fateful years was finally found, taking both sides of the war into consideration.
The scroll, an important and sacred artefact, was placed in the library of the Western king, who now watched over the Denevan plains and kept a close eye on the North. The surviving Denevans were allowed to come out of hiding and claim who they really were and peace was finally, and eventually, realised between the surviving Denevans and the northern kingdom.
And, somewhere in the south, a man with white-blond hair raised his daughter to pick a sweet fruit from a tree, smiling as the gossip he heard coming from the other villages told the story of a blond northerner who met the Denevan scholar prince and changed the state of the nation forever.