Fenris could not help but slow her pace for the seventh time since they left what Vala called the Titan Woods. Above them the clear blue sky opened up like a limitless sea of pastel blue with strange creamy wisps of white splashed here and there. Those cottony swirls that her Lunar companion called clouds even moved, for they drifted lazily across the sky like leaves in a pond. The Twilight let out a small gasp of wonder when a flock of geese flew overhead in a rough â€˜Vâ€™ formation. They soared effortlessly along the currents and chased the cloudsâ€™ hazy white skirt-trails like how some of the overeager clansmen of her Lodge used to do with the women they fancied.
The memory pricked at her heart and brought her gaze back down to the nearly overgrown dirt path that they were following to a place called Corrast. She blinked back the wetness in her eyes. She would not show anymore weakness. Instead she concentrated on the hills surrounding them, like ripples on a sheet of green cloth. Everything was so bright! And that brightness lightened the weight on her heart. The land stretched out as far as the horizon, a sudden change from the dense tangle of boughs Fenris had lived with her entire life.
It had been four days since they exited the Titan Woods. Four days of steady travel through light forests and rolling plains. The nights out in the open had been warm enough that a small fire was enough to protect her from the evening chill without Valaâ€™s cloak, though she kept it on most of the time as her rags offered little in the way of modesty, at least as far as the Twilight was concerned.
Her boots kicked up bits of dirt as she walked over the occasional barren patch, making rough scratching sounds so unlike the solid thumps of feet against ancient treebark. It had taken some time before her heart stopped jumping whenever her boots sank almost imperceptibly into the soft earth. Around them, blue jays called from their perches and sparrows darted between the scattered oak trees so small that the birds appeared massive in comparison.
She spotted another one of the strange short-haired goats grazing beneath the shade of an oakâ€™s sprawling boughs. It had long, pointed ears that twitched at the slightest noise and beautiful black colored eyes. Vala had called these interesting brown-coated animals â€˜deerâ€™ and the skittish creature watched them warily as they marched up and across an adjacent hilltop. Each hill they crossed had brought with it new sights for the Solar to marvel over. But as they crested the latest hill, the Twilight caught sight of the city of Corrast and it took her breath away.
â€œBet youâ€™ve never seen a place like this before,â€ Vala commented casually and waited with a bemused grin while Fenris stared in wonder.
The city stretched out before them in the distance. Shingle roofs cropped up in uniform patterns across the city like marks on an engraving with tiny grooves that hinted to streets. She noticed tiny smoke trails wafting up from thin, smoke blackened chimneys and the flocks of pigeons that looked like miniscule dots traveling from one rooftop to the next. A tall and thick wall of bleached stone encircled three quarters of the city. The last flank sat on the banks of a river that snaked away into two different horizons. And on the waters of the river she saw what looked to be wooden lodges with large white sheets strung atop poles floating on the waves.
The city keep, a monolithic structure of stone sat at the top of a steep slope that ended in a sheer cliff that overlooked the river, like a crown. On each of the four corners of the keep, vibrant red and gold banners danced lazily in the wind. The standards matched those that flew over the heavy wooden gates that led into the city. From their vantage point, Fenris saw the tiny moving shapes of travelers and merchants passing through into the city.
â€œI never imagined,â€ Fenris said breathlessly. â€œI have read about cities in journals but they never mentioned that it would be soâ€¦Big. How do they build something like this? Where would all the stone come from?â€
Vala chuckled, which sounded like a soothing rumble, and held her hands up in a defensive gesture, â€œIâ€™m not much of a tour guide. But a place like this takes generations to get off the ground. I figure theyâ€™d trade with other kingdoms unless theyâ€™ve got quarries of their own.â€
â€œThere are other places such as this?â€
â€œMore than you can count. A good few of them make this place look like a pile of mud huts in comparison.â€
The Twilight had a difficult time imaging such a thing. â€œA place grander than thisâ€¦?â€ she said softly and wondered how that can possibly exist. But Vala knew this world and Fenris did not think that her companion would lie to her. So she smiled a bit towards Vala, â€œI would like to see them someday,â€ she decided with a nod.
â€œYou will,â€ her friend promised.
Her smile did not fade when she glanced back towards the marvel of stone and mortar. â€œShall we continue on?â€ she asked with a hint of excitement, â€œYou said that we will be able to find supplies and lodgings here, and I would like to find more serviceable clothing before anything else.â€
â€œAww, I was starting to like how you dressed,â€ her companion cooed, a now familiar grin gleaming on her dusky skinned face.
â€œMay we go an hour without you pointing out how immodest I look?â€ Fenris snapped and set her fists on her hips in a gesture of exasperation.
â€œYou know, youâ€™re kinda cute when you angry.â€
â€œI am *not* angry,â€ she sighed, â€œI justâ€¦I mean I am grateful for everything you have done for me. I would be dead if it you had not arrived when you did. But itâ€¦Among my people, such talk is reserved for people who areâ€¦intimate with each other and only in private. So I would appreciate it if you stopped making those comments,â€ and in a softer voice, â€œespecially when those comments are aimed at me.â€
â€œFair enough,â€ Vala said with a shrug, â€œNo more pointing out the holes in your cloths,â€ she promised succinctly. She scratched her neck, her grin not fading in the slightest as though she were running through the comments in her head rather than giving them voice.
Fenris rubbed temple. She liked the swarthy haired Lunar, but she was still astonished by her friendâ€™s lack ofâ€¦well, manners. Her actions reminded the Twilight of some of the more hot-blooded men of her lodge, who lacked manners, played pranks, and even tried to spy on the women. She never imagined that a woman could act in this way. Nor did she ever imagine that she would find it strangely endearing, despite the annoyance. That fact alone made it tolerable.
The young Solar turned back towards the city. She noticed a long, winding road of dirt and cobblestones that led out through the city gates where it split into a handful of branches that snaked into the horizon or over the many hills. â€œShall we go?â€ she asked her tall companion and pushed those thoughts from her mind. She glanced back when Vala answered.
â€œYeah, lets,â€ she agreed.
As they started down the hill towards the road, Fenris stared into the space between Valaâ€™s shoulder blades. Her view was unobstructed and she noticed how broad the Lunarâ€™s shoulders were and how her clothes hinted at taunt muscles underneath. She had not noticed before, but they had always been blocked by the presence of her glaive.
Which was no longer there. â€œVala,â€ she said warily.
â€œWhere did your weapon go?â€ a confused frown creased her face, â€œIt was there when we were on the hill.â€
â€œI put it away. Less questions this way,â€ came the casual reply.
She thought a moment, â€œSo you hid it on the hill? I had not noticed.â€
Vala chuckled softly, â€œNo, I still have it with me.â€
When it was clear that there was not going to be any further explanation, â€œBut how did you possibly hide something that large on your person? It cannot see any sign of it,â€ she pressed, then heard the Lunar mumble something along the lines of â€˜less questions from the guards anywayâ€™.
â€œMy gearâ€™s made of moonsilver, it can shapeshift like me,â€ she explained in a clearer voice, â€œSo I switched it to something less noticeable. You ever wonder where my armor went when we first met?â€ She pivoted her waist far enough for Fenris to see her rap a knuckle against something metallic under her white shirt.
â€œI do not remember much of that encounter,â€ she admitted.
â€œDidnâ€™t really expect you to,â€ then teasingly, â€œYou did sort of pass out right quick.â€
Color filled her cheeks. She opened her mouth to respond but shut it purposefully. After two more gently sloping hills, they reached the road. It looked well-used with a pair of deep grooves on either side that hinted to heavy wagon use. The road was paved with tightly packed earth with tan and cream colored gravel speckled intermittently on the surface. No travelers besides the pair were on the road, though the view they had from the hills suggested some activity at the city gates.
While they walked side by side, Fenris glanced over to her companion and cocked an eyebrow. â€œYou can shapeshift?â€
Vala grinned at her, â€œMm-Hmm.â€
â€œBut how is that possible?â€
â€œItâ€™s Lunaâ€™s gift to her Chosen. We can wear the shapes of animals and sometimes even other people.â€
â€œOh,â€ Fenris frowned a bit, â€œSo, I would not be able to shapeshift?â€
Her swarthy companion chuckled again and shook her head, â€œThatâ€™s not a Solarâ€™s purview. Hey, donâ€™t look so disappointed. Youâ€™ve got plenty to be proud of.â€
â€œSuch as,â€ Vala repeated with flair and after a short pause counted with her fingers, â€œWell, thereâ€™s that whole Mandate of Heaven thing. Youâ€™re meant to rule Creation, and protect it and its people.â€
Her frown deepened, â€œIâ€¦I know nothing of rule.â€
â€œCreation still needs protecting,â€ the Lunar gently pointed out.
Fenris considered her words and nodded, â€œThis is true. I do not know what other dangers lurk in the world, but I know of the monster that destroyed my people. I wonâ€™t let the sou-Faeries destroy anymore lives,â€ she vowed.
â€œWell, youâ€™ve got a lot to learn before that,â€ Vala warned.
â€œI want to learn more,â€ she decided without pause and nodded with determination when her friendâ€™s familiar grin reappeared.
â€œYouâ€™ll get your chance.â€
They continued to talk as they traveled. Vala explained some of the nuances of urban society as the dirt road widened and slowly gave way to neatly paved cobblestones. The stone walls of the city steadily grew taller as they approached and Fenris soon found her eyes continually drawn by the sheer scale of the man-made structure. She saw the minute forms of armored soldiers as they patrolled under the flowing banners that flew over the battlements. The low din of activity steadily grew louder and more distinct as they came within shouting distance of the gates, where soldiers kept the influx of travelers to a slow trickle.
The people gathered near the gate were an odd mix of farmhands and trappers who paid them no mind when they came approached. They were all garbed in simple shirts and breeches in various shades of greens and tans. An older man in brown weather-worn leathers looked to be the leader of the group and was talking to one of the guards. Fenris could not pick up what was said, but the look on the manâ€™s bearded face did not bode well.
There were over a dozen wagons parked near the gathering. Each cart was covered with dust covered canvas and was drawn by a pair of horses. Fenrisâ€™ eyes were wide as she tried to avoid openly staring at the strange creatures, though Valaâ€™s light chuckle told her that she had failed in that respect. The one nearest her, a white-furred beast with light grey spots splattered on its flanks, stared back with dark eyes that reminded her of the deer she had seen earlier. Its long ash colored tail swished from side to side like an elderâ€™s beard, so unlike the stubby ones found on the goats. She smiled wide at the horse as it shifted closer to her. They were so tall! Everything seemed so much bigger.
â€œLet me do the talking,â€ Vala told her and moved ahead when she nodded in agreement. She stole one last look at the horse before following Vala towards the group of men.
Four soldiers stood in front of the gatehouse, while a fifth traded words with the leader of the wagon train. Each guard was wrapped in long chainmail shirts and red and gold tabards baring the kingdomâ€™s coat of arms. The poleaxes they carried crossed, barring their path as Vala got close. The fifth soldier, the head watchman judging from the slightly more ornate helmet, turned his attention away from the caravan leader to address them.
â€œHey lady,â€ he called to Vala, who stopped two paces away from the other guards, â€œPlease wait your turn, miss. Youâ€™ll be let into the city once weâ€™ve made our inspections.â€
The Twilightâ€™s raven-haired companion gestured at the two of them, â€œWhat inspections? Weâ€™re not merchants,â€ she told the head guard.
â€œThat may be, but youâ€™ll still have to wait your turn. These traders from Hubb got here first, so youâ€™ll both have to wait.â€
â€œDonâ€™t be countinâ€™ on this endinâ€™ quickly,â€ the caravan leader said gruffly. His mouth, eyes and even nose seemed to have sunken into the thick beard that rimmed his craggy jaw. â€œWeâ€™ve been tryinâ€™ ta get inta Corrast since morninâ€™ and itâ€™ll probably take all night fer these dolts ta finish whatever theyâ€™re doinâ€™ to our wares.â€
Vala arched a brow, â€œI donâ€™t see anyonâ€¦,â€ she started to say then spotted a pair of guards climb out of one of the wagons with a large crate. â€œYou have two guards inspecting an entire caravan? Thatâ€™s going to take hours!â€
â€œYa donâ€™t say, missy. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ve been tryinâ€™ ta tell this boy all day!â€
â€œWatch your tongue, old man or youâ€™ll never get to set foot inside the city,â€ the guardsman snapped. Fenris thought he looked very uncomfortable under a helmet that was one size too large. His feet scrapped against the cobblestones, unused to attention and responsibility, and the slightly slump of his shoulders spoke of little sleep and long days.
â€œOh Iâ€™m sure yer prissy lapdog of a captain will want ta be explaininâ€™ to the nobles why their favorite wares be missing from the marketplace then eh?â€
â€œI still donâ€™t see why we have to wait out here. We donâ€™t have anything to inspect!â€
â€œYou will wait like the rest and follow proper procedure!â€
â€œEy donâ€™t be snappinâ€™ at the woman fer questioninâ€™ yer heat-addled notions aâ€™conduct.â€ The man seemed rather anxious by Fenrisâ€™ estimate, to meet a deadline rather than fearing that something would be found. His eyes were only on the guard standing in front of him and he made no subtle movements towards his men or the wagons.
â€œCould you assign more of your men to the task of inspecting the wagons?â€ Fenris spoke up, then immediately regretted doing so when three pairs of eyes settled on her. She felt the gaze of the two men drift lower and tugged on her cloak self-consciously. The Twilight shot a beseeching glance to Vala, who rolled her eyes before coughing loudly into her fist.
The guardsman abashedly cleared his throat then said, â€œI would if I could, miss. But I canâ€™t pull anymore men from the patrols. And gate needs to be watched at all times.â€
Her brows furrowed in thought, â€œWould you be able to watch the gate alone?â€ she asked after a moment.
â€œWell, I suppose I can,â€ the guard nodded after he thought hard about it, then motioned for four standing in front of the gate to assist with the caravan.
â€œThatâ€™ll certainly help get things goinâ€™,â€ the bearded man agreed, almost absentmindedly stroking his bushy beard as he regarded her with an approving smirk that made her all the more uncomfortable in her current attire.
She tried her best to ignore the manâ€™s wandering eyes by nodding towards the group of men gathered several paces behind the graybeard. â€œCan your men help as well?â€ she asked him, which thankfully drew his attention back to her face.
â€œThat we canâ€¦,â€ he mused and cocked his head towards the guard, â€œif heâ€™ll be allowinâ€™ it.â€
â€œWe normally donâ€™t allow anyone besides the guards near the wagons,â€ the guard explained. â€œWe have to make sure nobody tampers with anything.â€
â€œThey can assist your men with offloading the crates can they not?â€
â€œWell, I suppose I can allow it this timeâ€¦â€
â€œYa wonâ€™t see me arguinâ€™ over that,â€ said the bearded man in leathers, who then went to round up his men. â€œLooks like weâ€™ll be doinâ€™ some extra work boys!â€ he roared heartily. â€œLetâ€™s get it done and weâ€™ll be seeinâ€™ hot food and cold ale yet! Donâ€™t yaâ€™ll be givinâ€™ me those lazy groans, get to work!â€
Fenris took a deep breath after the head guard thanked her for stepping in and left to stand watch over the gate. She suddenly felt a dozen eyes on her. A glance over her shoulder revealed several men stealing looks of her, which made her face burn with embarrassment. It bothered her so much that she was visibly relieved when Vala threw an arm around her shoulders.
â€œNice work there,â€ her companion said cheerily as she hugged her. She did not seem to notice the Twilightâ€™s discomfort. â€œThe guard says we can head on in whenever we want.â€
â€œThat is good to hear,â€ Fenris said weakly under the Lunarâ€™s weight.
â€œCome on, come on, letâ€™s get off this dirt and into someplace more comfortable,â€ Vala urged insistently as she half-led, half-dragged a protesting Fenris into the city.