By the time the sun had retired and the stars had begun to take over its post, I had lodged several bolts into sketched Keon’s face at varying distances, and I was quite satisfied.
“The real trick will, of course, be learning to keep your aim where you want it when in flight,” Keon remarked, “but all in all, you’re progressing quite nicely for your first night of practice. You seem to harbor some natural talent in that slender figure of yours.”
“I’m simply going to pretend I didn’t hear that last part,” I said guardedly. “I may disregard your choice of wording altogether, actually. I appreciate the lesson. Perhaps tomorrow, we’ll get you started on reading, yes?”
“Perhaps. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day of travel, though. With any luck, we’ll arrive in Sekerheim before the next sunset. I’m rather excited to show you the city, actually,” he looked at me intently, as if searching for my reaction.
“I’ll be thankful to be done with all this travel,” I said somewhat flatly. “Goodnight, Keon.” I retreated into my tent.
The next morning consisted of packing and going, and I was beginning to get accustomed to the bandits’ nomadic lifestyle. When I hadn’t been helping with the packing, I had been brushing Fia’s wavy mane and tail. It helped me to remain calm, though I couldn’t deny a certain apprehension in the back of my mind. I could untangle a mane, but other things in life were so out of my control, and the stakes grew ever higher. I could feel it in my bones. I just knew I wouldn’t reach Sekerheim without something bad happening. I hit a knot in her mane that proved too much for my fingers to comb out easily, and I felt Keon’s eyes on me as I showed more and more frustration.
“Careful now, you’ll make her bald,” he jested, and then, dislodging my fingers, he took my hand in his. “I know all this isn’t easy for you, dear. Just hang in there. One step at a time, now.” I was surprised Keon was so capable of giving sound advice, let alone gleaning my true frustrations from knotted horse hair.
“Sometimes I think you’re more perceptive than I give you credit for, Keon.” I looked away from the mane and into his eyes. “Thank you.”
“Sometimes you’re less stubborn than that knot!” he smiled.
“Sometimes you’re too clever for your own good,” my eyes narrowed and I took my hand back.
“There she is,” Keon’s teeth glinted.
We followed the road for another hour or two, and I had been spending more time riding on the ground than in the air. There was less need for scouting now that forthwith robbery was not an objective, and besides, the wintry air was growing much colder. The wilderness had been hilly all along our journey, but now the hills had taken rockier forms, sparsely decking the wooded land. When we finally broke off from the miles of dirt road that had led us thus far, Keon told me that we were now headed directly for another place I’d never heard of, the Ridge of Aulay.
“And after we meet the ridge, well, you’ll see,” he winked as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I do wish the next corrupt man we happen upon has a horse for me to ride,” he mocked. “My feet are always getting sore on these longer days of hiking.”
I did feel awfully privileged being the only one with a steed. “Why do you not have horses? They seem easy enough to steal, given an opportunity to sneak into barns at night--”
“We do steal them on occasion, but when a situation arises that calls for an extra amount of stealth, which is fairly often, we have to let them go and start over. And, need I remind you, we were all under the impression that--”
“Yes, yes, that you would be robbing people by the roadside, and you didn’t want any clopping around. I understand; that’s quite enough.”
“Yes, dear,” he said in submission. Must’ve been too tired to continue to bicker.
When the eminence of the ridge came into full view, I felt awe and heartache all at once. Awe because of how impossibly steep it looked. I had to wonder why Keon hadn’t mentioned that this last stretch was not only the longest, but by far the most taxing for travel. And heartache for the semblance of the Ridge of Aulay to the mountain range back home, the Brothers. It stood as a colossal reminder that I could never truly go back, for my life would never be as it once was. ‘Such is growing up,’ Keon might’ve retorted were he able to hear my thoughts.
“The snowcaps are a lot more than caps this time of year, eh?” I hadn’t realized Keon had rejoined my side, having noticed earlier that he’d slipped back for a while to speak with Orlo. But to say I was startled would be improper, seeing as I’d grown used to his unheralded appearance.
“Yes, it looks cold up there,” I shivered just thinking about it. Flurries had begun to fall all around us; I pulled my woolen coat on, and Fia drew her wings in tighter.
Before long, we had reached the base of the ridge. I watched as the dark elves dispersed, searching the stony walls.
“What’s going on?” I asked Keon.
“They’re looking for something, dear.”
“I know!” I snapped in frustration. “I’m so tired of your surprises, Keon. What is it they’re looking for?”
“You’ll know it when you see it,” I could hear his teeth chattering, his own burgundy cloak secured tightly. It was hopeless, trying to get an answer from him. But fortunately, it wasn’t long before a cry rang out. One of the elves had found it, whatever it was.
“Well, it’s no wonder we had so much trouble finding the spot,” Keon said as we drew near. “Can’t hear it when it’s like that. Impressive winter, this.”
When my eyes adjusted through the snowflakes, what he said made sense, for before me, draped over the shoulder of the ridge, was a waterfall… which had frozen solid. It was like the clearest glass, though variations in the way the water had flowed obscured what lay behind: the entrance to caverns.
“So as you can see, dear, it doesn’t matter how difficult the ridge would be to climb. We’re not going over it, we’re going through it. Now, I suggest you step back and leave the men to their work.”
I watched as Keon joined the others in searching through sacks of stolen goods and pulling out whatever they could find: pickaxes, flails, even shovels. They began breaking up the ice by whatever means possible. It seemed dangerous, almost foolish, but I could see no other way. I bent over and hugged Fia’s neck, sharing warmth as we patiently waited.