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The Grim Gray Hills

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This is what it means, to be a noble in the Hill Country: you are a traitor to your people.

Your father or your grandfather was some opportunistic turncoat, who flocked to the Old King's side when he rolled through the region and was hastily ennobled, charged with pacifying their fellow hillmen. Something about rewarding loyalty and local lords knowing their people. The first is a sick northern lie; the second is a tragedy.

If you are a noble lord of the Hill Country, the northern king steals your children. All your sons he takes for his knights, all your daughters he sends to his northernmost convent, and he marries them all off to people of his choosing - loyal noble men and women, not of the uppermost ranks (they will not taint their blood so), but of the stalwart middling ones, who don't mind so much about treason in the blood and can ride herd on barbarian brats.

If you are the heir of the largest fief in the Hill Country, the first one ennobled, the one created before that final war whose very existence was the whole pretext, you are shipped off to become a knight by your grim father, whether you like it or not, and court is precisely the misery you both expect. Everyone glances at you and sees the duskiness of your skin, the sharpness of your features, and glances away again; rarely do they ever look back. You are nothing to them because you are not Tortallan, can never pass as proper; your barbarity and your bastardy is etched across your face.

(It is the unspoken tragedy of the Hill Country: it is a rare hillman who is full hillman, now. Jasson's men followed their leader and took great pleasure in the women whose men they righteously slew in battle, and while neither side speaks of it, everybody knows. The difference is, the northerners think of this as a right and a joy of conquest, and the hillmen think of it as yet another depravity. They claim their bastards in tight-lipped silence, because if they didn't there would be no hillmen left.)

The way everyone pointedly ignores you, even the Masters, rankles, but it is better than the alternative: the hillmen all know what happens when northern nobles take an interest in you. You learn to exist in the silences, in the not-space between the regards of others. You would move unnoticed, but three people notice you, three people refuse to look away: the bully, whose fief borders on the Hill Country and has thus been raised to look down on his neighbors; the history teacher, who stares at you with the perpetual suspicion that only real understanding of history can bring; and the prince, who watches you with the cool fascination of a child presented with an exotic pet. You are not sure who is worse. At least you expected the bully's petty abuse and the old knight's suspicion.

(You learn, later, that that least favorite teacher of yours, never a teetotaler, began drinking like it was a new sacrament the day you arrived at court. He has never been sober since.)

The knight is content to simply watch you, constantly, and though that omnipresent hard stare is a perennial irritating itch on the back of your neck, you learn to live with it. The bully learns, eventually, to confine his nastiness to words only: you are faster than he is, and more willing to risk pain, and when your cohort begins learning the sword he leaves off entirely, because he is the only one to have seen in you what you felt in yourself. The sword is an extension of you, and you are more than willing to kill with it.

The prince, perversely, grows more fascinated with you by the day. He will not leave you be, and you are only a hillman, not really a real noble no matter what the pretty charter says, and you cannot exactly tell him to step off. He knows it, too, and so he hounds you, and eventually you find yourself absorbed into his little clique, and you have no idea how you got there and you can't get out again.

The prince is a spoiled northern brat, gifted with a life of ease no hillman has ever had, even before Tortall existed. That is what rankles most, and in the years you are his trophy hillman, you find yourself noticing - you let yourself notice - more and more the oppressive opulence of Corus. Rich food, and plenty of it, with enough served at a single feast to feed the whole Hill Country. Expensive cloth and jewels and gold on the women and the men, and the outfit of any one of the court butterflies is worth enough to feed a whole village for a year. You don't even want to total up the expense of the decorations that adorn the palace and so many of the buildings in the city, or the multitude of silly baubles that are made for Midwinter and discarded again, but the mathematician in you cannot help it, and you are appalled.

And you are very, very angry. That people should live like this - that the northern barbarians should live like this - while your people starve in the hills and turn to banditry and worse to feed what mouths they can - while those northerners dare tax them into worse poverty by the day… You cannot bear it.

But despite all this, the prince is strangely guileless, strangely charming, and you are drawn inexorably into his orbit. After a while, you even grow comfortable there (used to your captivity like a bird grows used to a cage), and you cannot even honestly say you do not want to be there, that you wish the prince hadn't taken an interest, and over time you even forget that you never wanted his pity, his charity, his condescending enthrallment, that you didn't want to be his friend.

(But some part of you always remembers that, and always resents him.)

And then the new page comes to court, and you find that there are more things you cannot bear.

An older page - one of your (the prince's) friends - takes him under his wing at the prince's express and public request. The bully takes a shine to the new boy, but the prince and your (his) friends have too, and they step in for him like they never, ever did for you. The duke himself roots not-so-secretly for the new boy; whenever you were dragged to his office bleeding and bruised, even the traditional excuses didn't spare you from punishment. Hillmen are never innocent.

You despise the new boy. He is charming, charismatic, impish, likable - all things you aren't. More importantly, he is northern, from a fief as far north as it is possible to go in Tortall that dates back to the Book of Gold, with the pale-as-milk skin and the stereotypical Tortallan red hair and eyes that, while they are far from normal, are still pale and colorful, not the dark colorless eyes of a Hill Country mongrel. No one glances at him and then curtly away; they are captivated at first glance by this bright spirit. The prince and his friends adopt him at once - there is no waiting game, no dark edge of fascination, and they do not treat him as a pet, but as one of them from the start, a true member of their circle. The suspicious old drunkard even takes a shine to the Trebond boy, and soon enough the whole court is in love with the pipsqueak, because someone has decided to start working miracles early.

Alan drives off Ralon, saves the prince from the Sickness, and after one disastrous start that you wish you were permitted to tease him over, takes to the sword like a duck to water. You hate him more with every accomplishment, and you hate him most for encroaching on the one thing that set you apart, that made you special, that made you useful. You are not useful now to the crown, not like you were before Alan, because a king always needs the best swordsman and now there are two, and the hillman is always the spare.

Meeting Roger is a jarring relief. You first run into him in the hallway the day he arrives, and when he glances over at you, his eyes don't flick away. They stay steady on your face, bright like the prince's but with none of his unconscious cruelty, and he never treats you like you are stupid, like you are criminal, like you are something less even than an animal. Roger treats you like you are human, and he is the first person in this whole blasted court to do so.

It is strangely easy to switch allegiances, to go from the orbit of one Conté to another. Strangely easy to find reasons for not being around your old friends, not being available for anything, not going anywhere but your master's rooms save at his bidding. Your old friends, when they see you, tease you mercilessly about how busy you are and how overbearing Roger must be, and you grit your teeth and let yourself bristle only in the privacy of your own room, and you wonder if they hear the rising anger in their voices when they mock you.

You wonder if Trebond is fully aware of the deep suspicion in his eyes, whenever he stares at you. Suspicion that quickly shades into disdain and even disgust, when he looks at you or at Delia or at Roger - at the two barbarians and the one who dared befriend them.

Finally, one day, you feel something twist and snap in you, and you try to murder Alan. You come back to yourself, horrified, and you stammer out apologies and walk away staring at your hands, wondering what has gotten into you, wondering if these northerners are right and you are just a filthy, honorless barbarian. If all your people are like you, if all your people snap and attempt murder over nothing, maybe they were right not to trust you. Maybe the Old King was right to exterminate you.

Roger drags you roughly off the balcony of Balor's Needle before you even realize you were standing on the edge.

Somehow, you never expected anyone to care enough to save your life.

Roger drags you all the way back to his rooms, kicks the door shut behind him, and slams you into a wall. He stares at you long and hard. "My esteemed grandfather was a genocidal maniac," he says at last. "Don't you dare finish his work for him."

It is not, perhaps, the best way to go about saving someone's life, but it works for you. And if Roger hadn't had your devotion before, he does now.

And then Alan has his Ordeal and has to go and be special once more, and publicly and horribly reveals Roger to be a traitor to the crown, and is revealed in turn to be a girl (which explains quite a bit in retrospect), and finally caps it all by slaughtering the only person in this whole rotten place you actually trusted.

It is a good thing you have self-discipline - the self-discipline not to react, not to break down in public, not to hunt down this witch you thought (was a friend) that you knew - and it is a good thing she leaves as soon as she can for the desert. This time, you might really kill her, and it would be entirely of your own accord.

But the court without Alanna there spins off-balance, with the prince growing more deliberately cruel by the day and the whole circle broken and the whole court still focused on their epic hero. The prince goes to the desert, comes back from the desert, and sets off on an epic fit of temper, and for once everyone else sees the face of the prince you already knew.

Delia cannot spend much time with you - this new unsettled court is suspicious of everyone, but hillmen the most (always the most) - and it isn't like you two know each other that well anyway, but she is from the Hill Country too and that's enough, really. It's enough for her just to be there, the court beauty, admired by all even as they coo over how well she's assimilated.

You know she hasn't assimilated at all.

It is a visit home - the first in ages, the king wouldn't permit it but your father has died and he has to let you settle things - that transmutes Delia's dangerous nonsense into a viable idea in your head. By the time you return, Delia has been recruiting, and you are not quite sure what to make of Thom's willingness to help a couple of hillmen resurrect a traitor to overthrow the crown, except that it is fitting and deliciously ironic that it is the Lord of Trebond who helps you.

He watches you both, you and the tomb, with a dark knowing in his eyes and a pity that (strangely) doesn't rankle, and no, you don't know what to make of Thom at all. Except later, after Roger is back, and you remember old hillman superstitions and an offhand comment by a redheaded page, and know that he knows that he has just killed himself.

In the end, though, the Roger who came back is not the Roger you loved, and his epic madness dooms the whole plot, despite your and Delia's best efforts to snatch a victory anyway. Your end comes like this: the witch knight finds you in the catacombs, barring the way to the man who is no longer the man you knew but is still the man who you live for, and all your attempts to goad her only hasten your end.

This is how a traitor is remembered: as a barbarian bastard, a backstabbing, murderous thug who'd as soon bite the hand that fed him. But that is only how your people talk when northerners or their pets are around to hear.

When they are alone, your hillfolk remember you this way: as the man who was willing to die for the slim chance that you might free them. They vow to one day finish your work and restore your honor, and they pass down the name Alexander in secret, as a promise that the Tortallans will never hear whispered until it is far too late for them.