Hiking up into Azure was not an easy task. Even James, who grew up scaling these mountains, was having troubles. The slopes, covered with fallen foliage and pine needles, were slippery. The rocks, protruding from the ground, were sharp and if they didn’t trip over them, they had to climb them, or go around them. To top that all off; it was cold and wet.
Sarah huddled with the others in the shelter they’d made from the tent. It was their tenth night in and weather had caused them to stop before Sparrow had wanted to.
“At least the snow hasn’t come yet,” James consoled the Sergeant. “One fall could immobilize us for days.”
“Does that happen often?” Sarah asked, relaying Jason’s question. His thoughts were always close now, monitoring her progress and listening to the gems of information James spouted.
“Last winter was the worst,” he told her. “General Wholawski is tired of his stronghold here in the Frezure Mountains.”
Sarah snorted. “That’s an apt name.”
James smiled. “He’s also worried that if he doesn’t take over soon, Prince Hermanus,” he nodded to the boy, “will gain enough support to overthrow him.”
“Do you think I could?” the Prince asked surprised.
James nodded. “Lord Farquard, whom I mentioned before, has been your longest supporter. According to him, there are others, and the numbers are growing.”
They continued on, constantly moving higher and northwards, until they hit a river they couldn’t cross.
“Wholawski’s stronghold is up river from here.” James informed them. “This river is formed from the moat around the fortress, that is filled by the lake. We should be careful now, though the road is on the other side, this side is patroled as well.”
Somewhat useful, Jason sighed. Let Sparrow know you should switch to moving at night.
Sarah whispered Jason’s instructions to Sparrow who nodded.
“We’ll find a sheltered place to rest until the day is done,” Sparrow informed the group. “We’ll start traveling at night tonight so try to sleep.”
It took another four nights before they reached the lake. They huddled on the cliffs, staring at the water. The surface, gleaming in the moonlight, streached for miles, making Sarah wonder if this was more likely an inner sea.
“A Willow!” Prince Hermanus exclaimed, pointing just to their left.
“By the Gods it’s not burnt!” James's whisper was tinged with astonishment.
Sparrow sent two scouts up to examine the Willow. It was gnarled and bent, blown by the whipping winds that came off the lake. Tucked up next to a cliff, it was only chance that had allowed the Prince to spy it. But, the best part, the scouts told them when they returned, was that it hid the entrance to a grotto.
“That’ll do us then.” Sparrow nodded. “We’ll wait for the others here. Good vantage point, and a Willow to keep us in communication with Phoenix.” She smiled. "Let us nest my birds."