Through the gates

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"So, let me see if I've got this clear in my head," said Hachim Arondir, chewing on the remains of softened tree bark, oblivious to the flecks of snow falling around them while they waited for the gates to be opened. He pointed at Fenris, who had to suppress an urge to flinch. "Ex-royal protector, now a refugee who has been hiding out in Bruckin. And you, Princess Kirya Tellador, who ran away because you wanted to find the Outsider. Who also happened to be in Bruckin." He glared at Seldon, then his eyes narrowed. "Tranton Seldon, explorer extraordinaire. In the flesh. If what they say about you is true, then it's an honour, sir." The squad leader crunched his way over to Tarn. "And you, an escapee from some forsaken underground secret prison. I still don't know why you're here. But no matter." He turned back to Fenris. "That about cover it?"

Fenris bowed slightly. "I believe it does."

"Good! Good. Well, you know me; we were all in that briefing session together for long enough." He threw an arm out wide, as if he were a magician pulling aside a curtain. Standing slightly apart were three other Bruckin elite guard, all of whom had been assigned to them by Garrus Lief. "Viscount Lief can't be here today because he's busy attending to those sizable explosions," Hachim said, his teeth clamped together and a smirk of displeasure on his face. "But no matter, because you've got these three jokers."

He slapped a hand on the shoulder of a woman, older than Kirya by perhaps ten years, who stood with a hand resting on the pommel of a long, slender, sheathed sword. As with the others, she was dressed in heavy furs and leathers and bore a large pack on her back. "She's called Galisai," shouted Hachim, his voice booming even against the wind. "You won't find anyone more skilled with a blade. She makes the term 'swordsman' out-dated." Galisai smiled courteously and Fenris immediately felt more at ease.

"This is Stefan. He's our scout. Our eyes and ears. He knows the mountains as well as anybody in the valley - which is to say, not at all - and if I were to trust anyone to get us over them, it's him." Hachim nodded at Tranton. "No disrespect to your particular achievements, Outsider. But the Aviarettes aren't like the Barrier Mountains."

"So I've been told."

A creaking, splintering noise interrupted them as ice fell from the gates, shattering on the ground, as they swung slowly open, an inch at a time. As the gates parted a howling gale blew through the gap, forcing Fenris to brace his feet and take firmer hold of the pack which lay at his feet. Hachim turned to face the buffeting wind, raising one hand to shield his eyes while the other remained on his hip.

"Bit blowy today," he remarked. Turning to indicate the last of his squad, he introduced her as "Hatch Eyer, whose secret weapon is being clever. If you hurt yourself, she'll patch you up. If we encounter any strange creatures - and we will - then she'll probably know what it is. Any problems, she'll solve them. That's what she does."

Hatch tapped her palm on the short but wicked sword at her side and the daggers sheathed across her chest. "I'm good at these, too," she said.

"I already don't remember your names," Tarn said, scratching his head.

"Alright," Seldon said, hefting his pack onto his back. "Enough socialising. How about we start walking this road?" He was dressed in hardy clothing, as they all were, and seemed more comfortable than Fenris had ever seen him.

Hachim led them to the gates, which towered above. They'd been opened only enough to allow a single adult to pass through at a time. Additional guards stood at the ready either side of the opening. As he followed, Fenris took in a deep breath of air: he was about to pass beyond the north gate of Bruckin. If the valley had a border, this was it. Few had ever ventured beyond, fewer still had returned.

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