The border wall only extended a few miles away from the road. There wasn’t a big need for it to go further. Most of the border between the Empire and Villaba was marked by a ridge that dropped in a steep slope down to lower land between Villaba and the Magron Mountains. The ridge was impassable for vehicles, and impractically rough terrain for everyone else.
We stopped in a hollow to eat, plan, and rest before resuming our trek overland. The land was thick with trees, and I wished we had Lord Ilya Terr of Terrimbir with us. For him the trees would part and vines would move aside to let us pass. I don’t think I had ever cared about how I treated trees before traveling with Ilya Terr. Seeing them come alive at his bidding and attack humans at his command had been quite the experience. So, we moved as gently as we could, trying not to offend the forest as we struggled through.
At last, Eliah judged we were a safe distance past the wall and turned us north. We reached the top of the ridge without any warning, and the Empire fell away before us. The land was the dull green and brown of autumn. I couldn’t help but feel that it was more brown than it should be. Eliah stood very still beside me and I turned to look at her.
Her eyes soaked in the view of the hills and valleys, and she blinked hard. “It’s overgrown in places it wasn’t before,” she said, her voice thick, “but do you see that hill there,” she pointed, and I tried to see what she was pointing at, “It was forest before—now it looks like there is a keep there.”
It took several embarrassingly long seconds of Ayglos and I squinting at the view before Ayglos said, “I see it!” and I grunted affirmatively as if I’d found it, also. A moment later I did, spying the gray splotch on a hill much closer than I’d expected.
“We should wait for dark.” Declared Eliah, “I bet there are watchmen with spy glasses watching this ridge.”
We moved back into the cover of the trees and I cast an impatient eye at the sun. We had hours before dark. I did not want to wait. But parts of the ridge were very exposed, and if we were spotted it would make everything else much more difficult. Ayglos found a log and sat with his back to it. “We should rest. Get some sleep while we can.”
Reluctantly, I sank to the ground beside him. Ayglos slipped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close. I leaned into his touch, drawing comfort from his strength. He didn’t say anything when Eliah sat on his other side but he pulled her close, too.
When I awoke, the trees were shrouded in dusk. I sat up, gently prodding Ayglos and reaching over to give Eliah a little shake. I hesitated when I saw her head resting in Ayglos’s thigh. That wasn’t surprising, considering our nap—I had had my head on his chest—but his hand was buried in her short blonde hair as if he’d fallen asleep stroking it. My brother woke with a flinch and our eyes met. He blushed and removed his hand from Eliah’s head. She stirred.
I stared at Ayglos for a second, wondering how I had missed this, but then I shook myself and said, “Sun’s down. Time to go.”
We had nothing but the clothes on our backs, so breaking camp involved standing up, dusting ourselves off, and starting our trek down the steep ridge.
We moved slowly, navigating the steep slope as best we could in the dark. There was bracken to snarl our clothes and catch at our feet, and tree branches that unexpectedly slashed our faces. But we heard no patrolsand we made it to the bottom without twisting our ankles on loosed dirt or stone.
When we reached the bottom I heard Eliah take a long breath and let it out slowly. Ayglos said, “Welcome home.”
We were inside the Empire.
The woods was thick at the base of the ridge, but the hike was still much easier by comparison. Eliah was our guide. She was far better in the woods than Ayglos or I, her upbringing as the Huntsman’s daughter and her deep love of the forest had turned her into the most skilled tracker and pathfinder that I’d met in my travels. I wondered if she had hunted and tracked along the edge of the ridge before. These lands had belonged to Dalyn, at least loosely, in the past. Had she ranged this far?
Eliah held out a hand to stop us, then gestured us closer. “That’s the pass to our right, which means the outpost is just ahead.”
We were now far more likely to bump into patrols or even just off duty soldiers. There was a town here—but the sort that catered to a regiment. If it was anything like the other order crossings, there would be a handful of practical businesses like blacksmiths, and the rest would be whore houses, gambling halls, and taverns. The stables would be on the outskirts, and that was our first stop. The dark shapes of buildings rose before us, and we crept forward even more cautiously. There were lights in some buildings, but it wasn’t the kind of town with lamplighters so the streets were dark.
We’d circled maybe a third of the way around the outskirts when the scent of horse manure and hay hit my nose. A moment later we came to a corral fence, and then to the barn. It was dark inside, but the doors were open. Inside, we heard the gentle sounds of animals. It appeared that the barn was arranged in a handful of huge stalls designed to hold small herds. I whistled softly and Hook nickered back. He was clearly under no stress because his approach was unhurried. When he arrived, he dropped his head to my chest and whuffled a greeting. I ran my hands over his face and neck, breathing in his familiar scent. Something in me relaxing a little. Behind him, Brimborren, Rood, and Flannel appeared in the darkness. “They’re all here,” I said.
It took a bit more doing to find tack, especially in the dark, but after some trial and error we had all four horses saddled and bridled. Eliah took the reins of all four. She would take the long way around the outskirts of town to the side where the rest of the guard complex was. “Be careful and come find me before you do anything stupid.”
“Of course,” promised Ayglos. “The Galhari are nothing if not careful.”
Eliah snorted. “The Galhari are nothing if not full of air.”