Introduction: Honestly, today’s story started with the final line and was built backwards from there. Said punchline was inspired by Karie Murphy’s comments that Jeremy Corbyn likes to get on trains to obscure places like ‘the South West or Orkney’, so we can announce this as my debut into political writing. That might not bring with it any additional sophistication, but it did make me smile, and what’s more important than that?
Aged just fourteen, I left my village for the first time. The elders handed me a sword and a map with a blank space on it that needed to be filled. Before I went, they warned me that the road would be long and treacherous, but that if I completed it, I would come home a man.
At first, I scoffed at their words. The lands around our village are quiet and the bounty plentiful. I slept under the stars each night having hunted for my dinner, and I felt at home in the world. Perhaps the life of an adventurer was made for me, and when I returned I would become one of those souls that spent their lives disappearing into the unknown to collect gold and stories.
It was when I entered the mountains that things began to change. I no longer spent my evenings staring up at the heavens and pondering my future. Instead, I was hunkered down in my tent, listening to the wind howl around me. In the morning, I’d have to dig my way out from the snow that had covered my door as I slept, so by the time my feet got on the road I was already exhausted, each step feeling like I was hefting a bag of rocks up the side of a hill.
The elements would prove just one of my adversaries. Bandits roamed those mountains, living hand to mouth and in my lone tent spotted an easy meal, ambushing me in the day or sneaking up on me in the night. Everyone in our village grows up with a sword in their hand, but I quickly learnt that to use it on a man is different than a scarecrow. My first kill chipped away on my soul, but by the twentieth, I barely felt it.
And truthfully, I preferred the bandits to the bears. I swear there is magic in those hills for no beast should grow to that size. The first time I came upon one, I thought it was a giant, and as it reared up, my brain had already accepted our death. Thankfully, my legs are more optimistic and threw me to the side. I left that encounter bloody and beaten, but I ate well that night.
Then there was the area I sought to discover. It proved elusive, as I went up and down the hills, East and West, desperately trying to find a way into the valley that had alluded my people. I got hopelessly lost and spent much time cursing the gods and the men who sent me on this quest. That did me no good, though. For three years, I walked those mountains until I began to recognise them and know them like old friends. By the end, the bandits no longer came, choosing to stay in bed rather than face my sword.
It meant the day I found that path, hidden in a spot I must have walked past a hundred times, I could barely bring myself to celebrate. As I crept into the blank space of the map, unaware of what I’d discover, all I could think of was home and how I could finally return, a man. Even the beauty of the valley that I entered, waterfalls cascading down the mountains that protected it from the worst of the elements held no attraction to me while that thought lingered in my mind.
As I walked, sketching details of the land around me as I went, I was shocked to stumble upon a dwelling, sat at the side of the path. It was such a slice of normality, something I had not seen in so long, that I almost fell to my knees. What kind of people could live in this hidden paradise? Approaching the door slowly, still on-guard after all this time, I discovered it was open, welcoming me through. I hesitated for a second, anxious of traps and of falling at the final hurdle, but the temptation was too large. I stepped in, unsure of what I might find.
Behind a long table, a woman stood cleaning a mug and she looked up at me with a smile on her face.
‘Hey, pet, we’re closing soon, but you probably have time for one if you fancy it? What will it be?’