63 years prior...
The memory of the night my life had changed forever is still so vivid and clear in my mind I can see it every time I close my eyes...
All of my most important belongings were packed into two small suitcases. I took a moment to say goodbye to the little room I would probably never see again. As my eyes wandered over the colorless walls, I noticed the old family picture on the dusty nightstand. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to remove it. Instead I gazed at it, trying to evoke the memories of the time when it was taken.
The young girl with dark raven hair, pale skin and grey eyes was familiar, but unrecognizable to me. It was hard to grasp I stared at myself. The man and the woman at the girl’s side smiled, and I was struck by a painful thought. That couple didn’t resemble my parents. We had changed so much that we morphed into shadows of our former selves.
“Elena.” My mother’s soft voice sounded behind me.
I was lost in thought so deep I didn’t hear her enter. I spun around and faced her. The strands of her usually tied, dark hair were loose, falling down her shoulders in messy restless waves. Her eyes reflected the misery of a lost soul that suppressed its grief into complete emptiness, searching in vain for a more convenient solution that simply wasn’t there. Despite her efforts to remain calm for my sake, I sensed her distress. It was a scary and unnatural sight. I had never seen her in such an alarming state.
She glanced around, her restless gaze pausing briefly on the suitcases, then focusing back on me.
“I see you have finished packing, sweetheart,” she said softly.
Dumbstruck by the situation, I was at a loss for words. I didn’t know what to say, so I simply nodded. Talking could only cause more pain. It was best to remain silent.
My mother’s hands gently rested on my cheeks, and she kissed my forehead. “Don’t worry, Elena. Nothing bad will happen.” Her fingers brushed over my thick hair, and a smile triumphed on her lips, spiting the tears that shimmered in her eyes like diamonds. “Try to get some sleep. I’ll wake you up when Jonathan arrives.”
“All right, Mama,” I said in a whisper, and poured all my emotions into a tight hug.
For a few moments, we comforted each other in silence. She was the first to let go.
“I need to pack a few more things before I call it a night.” She sighed, and headed toward the door, then turned at the last moment. “Go to bed. You will need your strength.”
The words echoed around the room even after she had left. They were spoken in a mild, reprimanding voice as a well-intended warning of the predicament to come.
That night, I tossed and turned in bed, trying to think of anything except the misery that crept into our lives, but sleep wouldn’t come. In normal circumstances, an eighteen-year-old girl would have been excited to have a fresh start, but I dreaded the mere thought of leaving the house. A part of me longed to find a coping mechanism, so I tried to imagine that foreign place we would head toward in mere hours. But no matter how hard I pushed myself to think positive thoughts, my imagination failed me, and my mind turned into a vacant cemetery of old remembrances. Even though I didn’t want to revisit those painful memories, something inside me whispered I needed to do just that in order to make my peace with the situation.
Years before The Great War, when I was little, my parents talked about other wars from long ago. I listened to their stories, but never quite understood the roots of disdain that ruled my entire world and commanded my happiness. I only knew we lived in a country that didn’t want us there. In our hearts, Nyrma was our home—a place where we belonged—but Nyrmans didn’t see it that way. For decades, they looked down on Sariyans, and treated us like intruders. Unequal to them.
I was told we were hated because our ancestors desired to conquer Nyrma. Instead, we ended up being defeated ourselves, and our own country was destroyed in the process.
The explanation was vague and unsatisfying. No matter how much I had tried, a six-year-old version of myself couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to go to regular schools, wear pretty clothes and walk down the street with my head held high...like the Nyrman children. I was taught jealousy was a sin, but couldn’t contain my envy when I noticed they lived in beautiful houses, and no white flags waved on their fences. I hated the sight of that white piece of fabric that branded us as outcasts.
Once, I asked my parents why Sariyans hadn’t put up any resistance. The moment the words came out, I was silenced with fierce threats from both of the people who had always treated me with patience and kindness. Their strange and fearful reaction prevented me from telling them how I detested the knowledge I was meant to live a life under restraint, being held accountable for something I hadn’t done. Deep down, I refused to be humbled simply because I was Sariyan, and the truth burning in my heart ate at me from within.
As I grew older, that gnawing feeling of injustice became even stronger. Watching my parents struggle because of the brand Nyrmans had inflicted upon us made me bitter, and filled me with disdain toward those who considered themselves privileged and entitled to a better life. I wished there was a solution in sight, but there was no escape for us. Even our looks singled us out, so we couldn’t pretend for a single moment we were something else than a subordinate nation—only good to serve another. The very color of our hair gave us away. It varied from all shades of black to brown, but it was always dark and contrasted by an unusually pale complexion and a set of bright—blue or grey—eyes.
Seeking refuge from such grave fate in the arms of a Nyrman was also out of the question. Since the law strictly prohibited marriage or a romantic relationship between the two populations, they made sure we were stripped of all rights. Our men were singled out to work in factories run by powerful Nyrman men. Sariyan women didn’t have that luck. We were not allowed to work or go out to any public places where we could get into contact with Nyrmans.
The result of such harsh policy was complete estrangement. Without any rights or means to fight back, we were confined to our homes. The sting of such restricted life was bound to leave a heavy mark on every young woman. For that reason, when I was a teenager, my only wish was for God to hear my prayers, and somehow turn me into that which I detested—a Nyrman.
But, although few and very far apart, there were times I was proud of my descent. It would often happen when I sat in the corner of my mother’s atelier, watching her paint. I was in awe of her talent, and wondered how a person who could create such breathtaking beauty ended up being hidden from the world when she could erase some of its ugliness. Even then, I knew the answer. Sariyan art was a thing to be laughed at. But there wasn’t anything funny about my mother’s paintings. They emanated strong energy—a yearning for something greater.
Her art reflected the nature of her unbreakable spirit, and I admired her strength. While my father was away, working in a dirty iron factory, she made the most of our situation and made sure I was given the education that was denied to me. When a Sariyan girl who lived near us lost her mother, she showed kindness, offering to care for Mina Dravens while her father was away during the long working hours. The girl was welcomed into our home, and I was encouraged to treat her as a sister. Later, that little girl would become my best friend and it was all thanks to her. Rebecca Starks, the woman I could proudly call my mother, was both noble and kind in a time when there was little goodness left.
I often wished I could share her positive outlook on life because she was my biggest muse. Even though I had inherited her love of art, we carried very different feelings on the inside. When I painted my first painting, my mother was thrilled, but also puzzled by its darkness. Her work represented open spaces, such as endless skies or meadows covered in the greenest grass and red flowers. The image I had brought to life depicted an innocent looking girl, walking through the black forest filled with monsters ready to rip her apart. The conversation we had that night when I showed her the painting would haunt me forever. She wouldn’t leave the subject alone, so I told her painting the light was purposeless because things would never change for us—not unless we fought back.
“No matter how dark it seems to be, you never give up on hope, Elena,” she scowled with pride, accentuating every word with fire in her grey eyes. “We are not defeated, but merely humbled. Don’t worry, my child. Someday we shall fight for our freedom. One must learn to choose his battles.”
I felt as though I stared at an older reflection of myself, and realized I didn’t yearn to become one of them, but to turn into this woman who held herself with the grace of a brave warrior. She didn’t lie to me. A chance to fight back came and, just like everything else, it was swift and unexpected.
The news of the greatest Nyrman tragedy travelled throughout the country. People, both Nyrman and Sariyan, trembled in dismay. That a small group of barely armed rebels had succeeded in murdering the president of Nyrma was inconceivable. Yet, that was exactly what had happened. President George Craven had been shot during a speech in the capital city of Cresna. The responsibility for the attack was quickly claimed by a mysterious organization with a simple name—The Resistance.
The first few days after the attack, the whole country had been veiled in chaos. While the authorities promised to bring the terrorists to justice, The Resistance kept mocking them by committing one attack after the other, blowing up Nyrman factories and the important buildings of the government. At first, they refused to believe Sariyans were capable of forming such a strong group that couldn’t be traced or defeated. After all, we were a nation of slaves—their subordinates.
Soon, the mystery was resolved with a message written in the blood of a Nyrman nobleman. It said: Sariya will fight until death. That simple sentence, although forged in a gruesome act, offered us something we didn’t have in decades. Every Sariyan felt a piece of pride and human dignity had been restored in their battered hearts. Suddenly, there was hope.
The feeling of euphoria didn’t last for a long time.
Nyrman retaliation was quick and heartless. A new president, by far crueler than the last one, was elected. His first proclamation made the blood freeze in our veins. “If death is what the Sariyans desire, it shall be granted to them.”
The memory of the freezing coldness remained engraved in my mind.
The streets were covered in snow when the war began.
No one was sure what it meant. After the initial shock, everyone fell silent. Some people chose not to believe it. Some were scared. Others—like my father—decided to fight and join The Resistance.
My father’s decision had taken a toll on my mother. Since I was an only child, we were two women left to fend for ourselves in the raging war fought by men.
In the beginning, my father found a way to let us know he was still alive. Sometimes, the agents of The Resistance delivered his letters. Other times, people stopped by our house in the dead of night to give us scarce information regarding one of their rebels, Michael Starks. Only once, in many months, had he come to pay us a short visit. His appearance was so different that it took me a while to recognize him. The memory of the smooth and shaved face was replaced by the image of a disheveled, dirty and tired man who resembled a stranger. Even his demeanor had changed. Gone was the gentle and caring man who had brought me up. Something had hardened and altered within him, changing him into the shadow of a man he had once been. I stared after him as he left, and thought...this is what war does to people.
This was out last encounter, and suddenly my father seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. The occasional help from the agents ceased together with any news of my father’s whereabouts. The period after his disappearance was filled with trials. Food was scarce, and there were few people we could call friends. In truth, we had only two people on our side. Mina and her father, Jonathan Dravens. The thought that at least somebody still appreciated my mother’s generosity was somewhat comforting. Many of our neighbors and acquaintances were afraid of the consequences if they associated with those who had openly partaken in the rebellion against the state. What started as a rekindling of hope for our nation, turned into the greatest gap we had ever known. Another Sariyan stream emerged, and they were known as The Traitors because they sold out their own people in exchange for an amnesty from the Nyrman government. One could never know whom to trust, and the main rule of survival was that everyone must fend for themselves.
Nevertheless, as difficult as it was, life moved on and we moved along with it. Often, my mother pretended nothing had changed, and she pushed herself to continue being the best mother she could possibly be. But I could hear her crying in the middle of the night, and knew she was hurting. There were so many times I wanted to offer her comfort, but feared she would despise the idea I was aware of her weakness. So, just like her, I bottled up my pain and tried to be strong for both of us. My father’s destiny was never discussed. It was a dark secret swept under the carpet.
Six months went by before we were forced to make a heartbreaking decision to refuge the small city of Kalghary where we had spent our entire lives. For a while, we believed we would manage to remain in our homes since there weren’t that many Nyrmans among us, but a non-negotiable ultimatum destroyed that hope. We were ordered to evacuate the area under their surveillance on the morning of a set date or, as the new president Thomas Drake had put it, face the consequences of their wrath. The notorious Black Troops were closing in on us, and it was only a matter of days, perhaps even hours, before they attacked.
Everybody was ready to leave because we knew what would happen to those who stayed to face the danger. Bone chilling stories of The Black Troops’ cruelty echoed throughout the city. Although many believed the described atrocities were untrue, nobody was willing to take a chance and cross paths with them. We didn’t know where we would go or what would happen to us. Since we had never been allowed to leave Nyrma, we had no knowledge of the world outside of its borders. Survival would be difficult at best, but fleeing was our only option.
Too tired to continue worrying about the trials to come, I closed my eyes, grasping onto that reassurance and waiting for the break of dawn.