The pass through which Ree came back into Solaike barely deserved the name. There was no road, though the valley below started off well enough, with level, easy terrain alongside a cool stream perfect for resting one’s feet in — if her feet had needed rest. But the upper end mocked that flatness, the ground rising precipitously into a tangle of boulders and thick undergrowth. Only two things kept Ree going then: an instinctual belief that the deer track she was following could be traversed by someone on two legs, and a perverse determination to do exactly that.
Determination won out over terrain. She hauled herself to the top, panting and triumphant. And for her pains, she was rewarded with a splendid view across the Heliin mountains of Solaike, laid out under a brilliant, cloudless sky.
They weren’t a large range, in either height or extent. But they were carpeted in a dense growth of trees, an emerald mask over a labyrinthine assortment of caves, outcroppings, and valleys you could only find by falling into them. Here and there a rock face broke through the mask, defying goats to attempt its heights. In this landscape, a band of rebels against the usurper Valtaja had held out for a generation, despite repeated attempts to dig them out. Looking at the place, it wasn’t hard to see why.
Ree mostly knew the mountains from a lower vantage point, hiding out with those rebels, helping them with their war. She’d never seen the place from so high up. After a bit of searching, though, she found the notched peak of Ahvelu, and then she had a sense of where she was. Southwest of the main pass into Solaike — well, she’d known that much already, when she decided not to take the easy road — but not as far southwest as Veiss, where the rebels had overwhelmed the garrison three years ago and achieved the first major victory of their revolution.
If she’d had the sense the higher powers gave a chipmunk, she would have come via the main pass. But she’d spent the last few months in a city, and now she craved a bit of peace and quiet, away from people. And entering Solaike this way meant Aadet wouldn’t know she was coming. She had a reputation for turning up when he least expected it; it would be a shame to break that streak now. She was masked, of course, but that didn’t hide everything, and there were enough people who would remember and recognize her from the days of the revolution.
Besides, she liked the novelty of it. A path she’d never followed before, a view she’d never seen from quite this angle.
Now she had the challenge of figuring out how to get from here to Taraspai. By her reckoning, if she headed over a nearby ridge, she had good odds of striking one of the old quarry tracks that laced this area. During the days of the revolution, she never would have used any of those roads; a traveler on a known path made for an easy target. Something Valtaja’s soldiers had learned all too well — but they feared the forest, hugging the roads and leaving them only with reluctance. There were leopards out there, and stories of worse things. If some of those worse things were just rebels in frightening disguises . . . did it make much of a difference? Dead was dead.
But the rebels were gone now, occupying the capital in triumph, and Ree didn’t always have to take the hardest route. The novelty of descending slopes by falling down them ass-first wore off after a while. And by her estimate, she had at least two days’ travel ahead of her before she got back to anything resembling civilization, even with a road to help. Longer to reach the capital itself. She paused long enough to scrape her dark hair off her face and back into a fresh braid, then set out again.
Getting up and over that excuse for a pass had taken up half the day, and finding a path down the other side took most of the rest. Ree didn’t have to sleep, but in these mountains, going on in the dark would have been asking for trouble. She was as capable of breaking her neck as any human. Or, for that matter, being eaten by some noctural predator. She spent a wary night perched high in a tree, sabre unsheathed in her hand, listening to the forest converse with itself in whispers and growls and brief, dying screams.
She came upon one of the tracks sooner than she expected the next morning. It ran in a general east-west direction, its rocky surface stitched together with thick weeds. Ree put her boots on it with a sense of relief and headed east. The road definitely made for easier going, but also hotter, with the sun beating down on her head. Right. There’s a reason why I don’t usually come back to Solaike during the summer.
She kept a sharp eye out as she walked. The revolution might be over, and the track showed no signs of recent traffic in any large numbers, but wariness was a habit carved into her bones. And even in this isolated region, she couldn’t expect to be the only one around.
It wasn’t even midday yet when Ree saw a telltale curl of smoke in the air ahead.
About the Author: Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood, and together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. The first book of her Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her other works include the Doppelganger duology, the urban fantasy Wilders series, the Onyx Court historical fantasies, the Varekai novellas, and over seventy short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.