I was most certainly not supposed to be born. My father, eighteen, working the streets; my mother, twenty-one, a servant in the household of the town’s wealthiest landowner, out for a night of regrettable fun. She couldn’t keep her job and a child. My father couldn’t either, but he… well, he chose differently.
When my mother, furtive and wrapped in an impeccably-modest dress (or so my father always told me), delivered a tiny, silent infant into my father’s arms, she couldn’t meet his eyes; she clearly felt guilt for delivering the burden that was me into my father’s transient, nocturnal life.
But my father, despite the hardship I know I caused him, never treated me like a burden. I grew up in an ever-shifting landscape, city after city, street after street. My father looked for work at every chance he had--there weren’t many people, in the towns and hamlets we travelled, who wanted a dirty, homeless tiefling working anywhere, much less anywhere visible, much less with a child in tow. He worked jobs that paid in kitchen scraps, went sleepless for days on end balancing shifts that never seemed to end, bowed and scraped and apologized and said anything he needed to in order to get by. And when that still wasn’t enough… well, he was still young, and the streets always welcomed another body. I saw a lot, growing up. And I learned to say very little.
That life couldn’t last.
By the time I was ten or eleven, we were spending a lot less time in cities. I had always shown something of an uncanny attraction to the wilds; while my father was working, I often wandered into the woods surrounding whichever town we were in for that month, from which I’d return with berries, nuts, and various woodland trifles. My father always thanked me the same way--a tired ruffle of my hair, a gentle admonition to be careful in the woods, and an insistence that I eat most of what I’d brought. As I grew older, I began to bring back rabbits and woodfowl to cook over a fire in some alley or another, and after that, it wasn’t long before the fruitless towns began to lose their appeal.
Living in the woods had its perks. My father was never much of an outdoorsman--cities were his origin, the ground that felt most stable under his feet--but I was more comfortable than I’d ever been. My father said it probably had something to do with my mother; she was certainly a tiefling, like he was, but there was something more to her. She’d smelled like leaves, he said, the sort that fall down dry and turn to dirt on the damp forest floor. And the antlers--he’d flick mine with a little smile--had certainly not come from him. I could tell, in these times, that my father was happier. Not content, maybe, not satisfied, but happier. And so I was happy. We fell into a pattern of camping and hunting, and when we needed supplies that the forest couldn’t provide, we set up ambushes on the roads and raided carriages and merchants’ carts. My father clearly enjoyed the thrill of the theft; it was like a drug for him, a heady high that fed and clothed the both of us. Truth be told, though, after a while, we stole more than we needed to. We perfected the highwayman’s routine, and my father was more alive than I’d ever seen him.
The winter of my thirteenth year hit both of us like a rockslide to the skull.
We had experienced plenty of winters both on the streets and in the woods, and we knew how to survive. We’d prepared, stocking our little camp with stolen furs, coats, and blankets, and piling preserved rations high under our oilskin tents. My father was even cheerful as the first snows came in; he liked beautiful things, and the ice hung like jewelry from every tree branch. But on the last highway heist before the weather changed for good, things turned very, very badly.
The driver was a human, and an old one at that. Harmless, really. The passenger was a likewise-aging half-elf.
Not so harmless.
The half-elf’s curse hit my father directly. It wasn’t a killing spell, or it wasn’t supposed to be, but I watched as my father’s muscles locked and he fell by the side of the road. The carriage didn’t even slow down as I sprinted to his side.
He was motionless for eight entire hours.
Night fell. The fire I made wasn’t warm enough, nor were the blankets I brought--I carried nearly our entire camp to the side of that road, since I was too slight to drag my helpless father through the darkening woods. The man couldn’t even shiver, so still he was forced to be. When finally his fingers twitched, the cold was so deep that his skin had turned pale, his lips were purple, and he could barely open his eyes.
My father had never been the most hardy man. Life had been too meager for too long. Unable to recover while surrounded by powdery-cold, waist-high snow and buffeted with biting wind, he caught a chill.
It didn’t go away.
I did everything I could. I searched under the snow for any herb I could find, but the ground was frozen and the plants were shriveled. I tried to ambush more travelers on my own, but my father was the talented thief, not me. I piled him high with blankets as he sweated and shivered, but…
Well. I’m sure you understand.
I’d never been alone before. I survived the winter by the skin of my teeth, half-starved and speechless, hating the magic which had brought about my father’s end--even harmless magic, as I’m sure the curse was meant to be, was treacherous. Repellent. Not to be trusted. When spring thawed the snow, I retreated deeper into the wilderness, deeper into my own head, and far, far away from anyone who might pull me out. I don’t think I spoke a word for almost three years, because… well, who was there to talk to? I hunted, and I fished, and I wandered.
I was sixteen when I finally decided to go back to a town. I hadn’t even approached one since I was twelve and holding tightly to my father’s hand, but even if the wilds could provide me with food and shelter, I was… missing something. Something that my father had understood. The reason, perhaps, that despite the hardship we’d faced on the streets, civilization never stopped calling to him.
No matter how much the wilderness felt like home, or how surely I found ways to survive, I was not built to be a solitary creature evermore. When I walked through the streets of my first town in years, I felt something tug in my core that was almost as strong as the pull of the woods.
I was starved for company in every way a person can be.
I’d never been talkative, but even by my own low standards, my social skills were rusty. Eventually, I loitered around a butcher’s shop long enough that the butcher asked me if I had a kill to sell--I suppose he identified me as a hunter, which wasn’t wrong--and I realized how I could access the world of the city. The next day, I brought him a deer. And he paid me in coins. And I bought a new shirt.
And thus began my slow reintegration.
I still spend the vast majority of my time in the wild. Now, though, I’m a bit more willing to stop in a town to sell a pelt, repair my weapons, or purchase new shoes. I go where I want to in the moment, which is usually the result of me seeking both isolation and society at once. I don’t trust very easily, but I need intimacy profoundly, and… well. I might be a mess right now, prickly and quiet and wary of the world, but I hope that somehow, with work and maybe even a friend or two, that can change.
(I'm learning how to play Dungeons and Dragons and this is my character's backstory. If you have ideas to make this character more fun to play, post me on Twitter @egradcliff !)
E.G. RADCLIFF IS AN INCURABLE WRITER, lifelong imaginer of worlds and author of The Coming of Áed series of fantasy novels. An insatiable reader and researcher with a penchant for all things Celtic and a love of the mysterious and magical, she brings a knowing touch to her Young Adult fiction.
She enjoys adventure, reading on the train, and dreams about flying.
She is a Chicago native and is based in Illinois.
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