by Dan Hiestand
The Roadless Traveled
The Roadless Traveled
“It’s almost scary how beautiful you are, do you know that?”
The Gap of Ezru
Aquamarine (March) 12, 2013
Half-hidden between the Ordeals Mountains to the south and the Peaks of Parnassus to the north, the Gap of Ezru might have taken weeks for the average traveler to find. Indeed, it was more of an idea than a place one could hope to point out easily, either in person or on a map.
Floods ruled the Gap. In fall and winter, it was found here; in spring and summer, there.
The mountains crowded close here, shrouding the whole valley in a cloak of darkness and ever-present winds. Something about the Ordeals Range, in particular, called the clouds to bow down low, and the paths were filled with fog even in early spring.
If the Outriders started on this trek even a little later, the ways would be slick and treacherous—
As a mild rain pattered down on Jace Dabriel, he wondered if that wouldn’t be an improvement.
The young man stood sound and solemn for a moment or two, not even shifting as the rain grew stronger. His gaze was fixed upward, peering at a tree that had grown sideways out of the cliffs off to his right. The wind shook its golden boughs, but its roots were like iron.
He couldn’t say why, but truth be told, it looked happy.
Jace pulled his hat off and shook out the droplets into the still-greedy earth.
He had volunteered for the night watch again; such a common occurrence by now that the others assumed he would take it without even asking. Perhaps he should have been gratified by that, perhaps disturbed. In truth, he had no opinion at all.
Jace thought it had to be coming up on five in the morning by now, but it was hard to say. Here, the sun’s exact position could be lost for days at a time, and the small hours of morning were difficult to tell apart. He slowly turned on his heel, orienting himself.
As soon as he got up – if he hadn’t already – Relic would wander a good distance to investigate one of the stone mounds they’d passed: Monuments of those who’d gone this way in decades past, pioneers streaming out of the bustling centers of Republic power while they still could.
This was the threshold.
The border of Republic of Veil'driel and its provinces. The doorstep of what had once been the Tri-State, and all around them were lost things, bits and pieces of that Commonwealth’s legacy.
Like us, Jace thought wryly.
He set his hat back on his head—
And as rivulets of rain slid down his nose and cheeks, he squinted into the mist.
He could see in his mind’s eye where Relic would stop; Cedwyn would go, too.
Isabelle, on the other hand, would ...
That happened a lot.
Jace’s breath hitched for an instant. He turned, righted his hat, then tipped it to his visitor.
“That coffee for me?” he asked.
In the strange, milky light, Isabelle’s eyes were radiant – though he could see in her languid grace the hint that she wouldn’t be at her sharpest until she finished her coffee. Lifting herself up onto a rocky outcropping beside him, she started to sip contentedly.
“Make your own,” she said.
With her on the high ground and him standing, he was barely level with her toes.
Silent companionship lingered between them.
Her eyes were closed as she breathed in the steam—
He glanced back at her for only an instant and saw her stretch her legs.
It reminded him of a moment, forever ago, when he’d played with the toe of her boots.
“Your boots look like shit,” he said with a smile, pretending she didn't command every shred of his attention. “Thean would be pissed.”
When Isabelle opened her eyes, they twinkled with something Jace couldn’t name.
“Hm,” she mused, pretending she didn't know she commanded every shred of his attention. “Then maybe he can shine them for me when we get back."
“Wooooooow,” he went on, starting to pace slowly around her perch. “Brave girl all of a sudden.”
He should have noticed the way her smile no longer matched her eyes.
The old Jace would have noticed – before that night.
“You're an idiot.”
“I know,” he said. “What's up with you—?”
He interrupted himself to stoop low and observe sneakily behind the outcropping—
“—you sleep alright?”
Straightening, he directed his gaze to the tree lodged deep in the mountainside.
Isabelle indulged him, gazing at it with her thumbnail drumming the rim of her cup.
“Yes, Dabriel, I'm good,” she purred; ever in awe, and feeling helplessly precious that every time, even after all that happened to him, his first concern was always for her. “How are you?”
Jace turned back to her slowly, his eyes wide and filled with something new: Indecision.
Isabelle dropped her gaze an instant, thinking that, even after all this, he might notice the shadow of her troubles passing over her face. Now was not the time to worry about Jace, least of all about his feelings. She’d done enough of that, with Cedwyn and Relic alike, since Westwood.
Seeing that look in his eye, she knew he was lost a daydream of their earliest times together.
“I—” Jace started.
“How's the shoulder?”
“Good,” he said slowly, nodding even slower. His eyes narrowed. “The shoulder's good.”
“Good. And what's that?” she asked, raising her hand to point.
The top of a red envelope was jutting from his outermost cloak pocket. With two fingers, he slipped it out, then turned it over in his hands once and again. The outside was too thick to see through; the seal, unbroken.
Isabelle leaned forward intently, fixing her gaze on it. She slipped her cup into her left hand.
In the eye-watering light, he imagined how she’d look with great wings streaming behind her.
Would she be breathtaking – or terrible? Or both?
“It’s almost scary how beautiful you are, you know that?”
“Yes. Now answer the question.”
“It’s – it’s a letter,” Jace stammered.
“It’s a letter,” she repeated. “From who?”
As Jace turned it over in his hand to examine the seal, he felt heat on his face.
“Thean. That post-rider kid brought it.”
“A few hours ago.”
Around them, low clouds were shuffling lazily by. Light stretched sedately over the mountains. With each passing instant, sunlight pooled slowly and inexorably across the unknown wilds of Ara: The land beyond the Gap which had not been mapped properly since—
“Give it to me,” Isabelle said, and Jace’s gaze snapped up. She nodded once more to prompt him, then handed over the remainder of the coffee, exchanging it for the red envelope. Jace sipped quietly, wincing a little in surprise at how hot it still was.
Faint rustling announced Isabelle opening the letter.
“That post-rider kid's name is Forerunner Lucas Reese,” Isabelle said, bringing the letter up to her face.
“Who cares? Nobody’s gonna remember that after he gets his dumb ass killed. I heard him coming from a mile a—”
“No, you didn't! Shut up.”
Jace cleared his throat and stiffened a little. Suddenly, he felt like a forerunner himself. Her forerunner. He knew just what was coming, and it made him feel small and ashamed.
“Yeah, it's Reese's fault, right? His fault that you're so unsure of yourself lately, his fault that you can't sleep, his fault that you won't, or can't, talk to anyone about it. And whose fault will it be next time, Dabriel? Relic's, Cedwyn's ... mine?”
Jace ducked a little into the coffee.
“No, ma'am. I didn't mean ... I just—”
“I said. Shut. Up!”
Isabelle hadn’t looked up from her reading, eyes quickly scanning the page. Her legs had stopped kicking; she was more eager than ever to be off. Jace noticed the change even with his back to her. Yet, she still took her time – long, agonizing minutes – to address him again.
“You know what?” she asked, dangerously quiet.
“Wh-what ... ma’am?”
“Before this moment, and I really mean this, I can't remember the last time you let me down.”
Jace didn’t say a word in answer. He busied himself taking a long gulp of coffee.
With a small sigh, Isabelle folded the letter back up and settled it within her own cloak. The envelope, she carefully tore into small strips. When she was done, she tore out the wax seal and enclosed it in her hand; every step a perfect reflection of regulations not followed closely in—
“Tell me,” Isabelle said, “what does a red envelope mean?”
“It ...” Jace turned back to face her. “I ...”
Isabelle pounced from the rock, landing a pace away from him. They were face to face when she opened her hand, revealing Thean’s wax seal split neatly into four pieces. He knew without having to ask that she’d bury them one by one on the trail.
“Do you know … what. It. Means?
The look in her eyes was one he had not seen in years – and he responded as he would have then.
He dropped his gaze.
“A message of utmost urgency,” Jace said.
The rain hissed back to life, plop-plopping in what was left of his coffee. As a bit sloshed over his hand, he winced and rubbed it. From the corner of his eye, he saw Isabelle take a step forward and promptly backtracked. Then, as if to prove it was no mistake, she took another step.
“So, tell me why – exactly – if it arrived a few hours ago, it remained unopened until now.” Jace started to answer, but the sharp intake of breath stopped him. Isabelle closed her eyes tight. “Honestly, what the hell's wrong with you?”
Jace kept his eyes downcast, but he threw the rest of the coffee into the dirt – a rallying cry, an act of defiance, that earned him nothing more than a glare from Isabelle. What’s she going to do, send me home? She’s not even in charge here!
And yet ...
Moment by moment, he felt the shadows grow longer with unanswered questions.
Isabelle’s expectant gaze held no mercy; Jace tried to speak again, but nothing came out.
What if the legions were under attack? What if those wizard ... things ... were back?
What if the enemy host he’d seen that night from the ridge – now nowhere to be found – had returned and had somehow gotten past them? What if it was a message from Thean saying the new camp out on the Ezru Plains was under siege and ...?
Jace came back to himself when he felt the heel of Isabelle's hand strike him on the chest.
What if it was all for nothing?
The strike was light – lighter than he expected, and perhaps lighter than he deserved. It was a mercy, but not a kindness: She’d spied an instant of weakness, of hesitation, of failure, the kind that hadn’t passed between them since he was in training under her command.
And that’s precisely how he felt.
“You're on watch, we're all depending on you. If we're really lucky, ignoring a message like this may just cost us all of our lives and not the entire Republic.”
A grunt of mingled aggravation and exhaustion rose from her throat.
“This all just a game to you, right? Just a game?”
Isabelle held his gaze and didn’t let go until she felt his in-breath shift down from his chest to the pit of his stomach. As he sensed it, too, he closed his eyes against a sudden wave of doubt – feeling small and pathetic as his words about Lucas Reese echoed in his mind.
At least he’d never done anything as stupid as ignoring urgent correspondence in wartime.
Isabelle raised her palm off his chest, but he could still feel the burning where it had been.
“You better learn to grow up, and you better do it fast. And if you can't, you know what? You can relinquish command of this team – the greatest hope our nation has right now – to someone who can. There’s no one to impress out here, Jace.”
“I wasn’t trying to. I—”
“Listen to me. No gauntlet, no crowds, no fans.”
During this conversation, Jace Dabriel had already become a living legend; he had, perhaps even then, more fans than anyone alive in all of Ara. He was not, however, aware. And that was best.
“I don’t care about any of that,” he said, betrayal aflame in his eyes. “You know that.”
Isabelle finally took a step back, poised in thoughtful reflection as she considered.
“I do,” she said. “And that’s good. You’re not just a leader now, Jace – you’re the leader.”
Jace’s eyes were wide. “I know.”
“Then start acting like it.”
Jace’s reeling mind caught onto something—
“What does it say?”
“It says your blind luck lasts at least one more day,” Isabelle said, glancing down at her nails. “The enemy’s dead-enders have sustained heavy casualties. Thanks to Creed’s sharpshooters, their guerrilla raids are faltering. And,” she added, “it says we're to pass through the Gap, into the provinces, then veer north through the Parnassus Mountain Pass, to a town called Sandia.”
“Sandia?” he breathed, a beacon filling the dark night in his mind. “Why?”
“I don't know,” Isabelle said, taking a step past him. “Maybe they'll tell us in another urgent message you can ignore.”
Jace frowned, mind working desperately to change the subject. Something he usually excelled at.
“I think Avery knows that pass pretty well. His dad used to take him—”
“He does. And I know,” Isabelle said; then she turned to him, slapping something into his chest.
Jace balked for a heartbeat, then held out his hands in time to keep the object from falling.
“You know what to do with this,” Isabelle said, turning her back again.
It was a quarter of Thean’s seal.