The Hermit Kingdom

The story of Volchok is a palimpsest of histories written within its ice. Dig down far enough, or reach up high enough, and an altogether different history greets you. It is not known when the first settlers left the forests of Tal’dor and the Nur-Dal to make their homes in this inhospitable region, nor are the reasons known for such migration. In years gone by, perhaps, Volchok’s climate was altogether warmer and not so susceptible to the six-month freeze that visits its northern regions annually. Perhaps, as they always do, resources played their role in driving folk here. Or perhaps it was the religious wars of Tal’dor, conflicts that had been underway many years before the first explorers came here, that pushed people northwards, for no other reason than to escape the unimaginable loss of life and wanton destruction visited upon that country. Perhaps we will never know.

But what must have been clear to those that first ventured into these unforgivably cold lands was that they had not been the first to discover it. Everywhere they turned, signs of a dead civilisation peppered the landscape, megalithic monuments to a deranged species of giants whose works inspired awe and fear in equal measure. In the spring thaw they found them, and in the winter drifts they recalled them in fireside stories they told one another, until they came to accept these strange, terrifying relics as part of their own history, part of their own story. Giants, now more ice than flesh, frozen for eternity on the wild steppes. Enormous, decapitated, human-shaped skulls carved from the moss covered rock and placed on the edges of forests, their bodies long since gone, either dismantled and carried away for the construction of other weird wonders, or simply collapsed into the earth where they had once stood. Two hundred meters below the surface of Volchok, cave systems whose ceilings seemed as distant as the white sky they shut out, and built into their walls, statues of giants, their outstretched arms holding up tiers above them, their splayed legs supporting the tiers beneath them, and their fingers and toes stairs by which travel between the whole was made possible. Impossible feats of engineering, insane architecture, lay above and below the permafrost of Volchok, and yet their masters, those who had built them, were nowhere to be found.

Inhabiting a land of such archaic mystery, one in which a race of beings had made the impossible out of nothing more than rock and ice, only to throw down their tools and abandon it, helped shape the superstitious soul of the folk of Volchok. They had stories and explanations for everything, from the strange runes they found in caves, the herculean fortresses uncovered beneath the snows of the steppes, to the palaces of ice poking through the mountain clouds. Somehow, they were omens, signs, communications from the past delivered to the present.

Within this abandoned kingdom the specific temperament of the Volchok people was forged too. They lived spontaneously, with energy, as though today might be one’s final day in Bratsk. Such impulsiveness was understandable: wildlife, the weather, the landscape itself, starvation, illness, the dangers of Volchok were numerous. Each day one was forced to look death in the eyes, and to take one’s chances. But there was something about the bequeathed nature of the space they lived in that made them feel like temporary visitors here. So they drank, ate, and fought as though tomorrow might never arrive, or as though the giants who had hued this place from sheer rock and ice might return at any moment to reclaim it once more.

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