In search of hope

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The land to the north-west of Treydolain was divided by a strip of forest, which once had been the southernmost point of the Bilderbury Forest which covered the slopes at the mountains in that direction. Much of the area closer to the capital, and thus the centre of the valley, had been deforested over the centuries, save for a winding strip ranging between five to ten miles deep that ran from west to east across the northern half of the valley, curving from the Bilderbury down towards the capital and then up to the Tillen Steppes, where it passes by within view of Bruckin.

It was into this strip that the Black Scree had crashed, and therefore it was into the strip that Roldan Stryke had gone, leaving the capital and entering the trees half a day after seeing Elia on the mesa. The impact site had been visible from the palace and he'd estimated its position, marking it on his map. That had been an educated guess, though, and he now found himself trudging through undergrowth and across shallow rivers, swatting away insects, all the while wondering why he'd bothered in the first place. If he'd stayed in the city he could have caught up with old friends, some of whom he hadn't seen for coming close to decades. There probably wouldn't be another occasion to bring them all together under one roof in his lifetime.

The forest was relatively tamed, having been maintained primarily for rich Treydolain folk to go hunting without fear of being eaten by a bear or trampled by a rampaging boar. That made getting around easier than it might have been, but it also meant that Roldan was bored. The trees were still sufficiently dense to obscure his vision and make the search belaboured, without giving him any of the satisfaction of navigating the southern glaciers, or trekking through the Gilgrafen. Now that was a real forest.

The first sign that he was nearing the crash site came with a slight thinning of the tree canopy and the subsequent increase in available light. Branches were broken and entire trees lay at odd angles, blackened by old flames. There was an absence of wildlife, leaving only the creaking of the damaged forest to fill the silence. He rubbed two fingers together on a brittle leaf, then sniffed: tell-tale signs of a source-fed fire in the smell. Back in the old days airships used to go down like this all the time, before they figured out how to isolate the fuel cells. It shouldn't happen to a modern ship, especially the jewel of Bruckin captained by a woman whose reputation was known throughout the valley.

He followed the signs until he reached what remained of the Black Scree, its wreckage scattered around a flattened, burnt clearing. It was lucky that the entire forest hadn't caught fire, given the dry fire - one of the fortunate side effects of the rapid burning of source was that in an uncontrolled environment it would consume oxygen at a rate faster than the surrounding air could replenish. Roldan was no engineer or artificer, but from his limited understanding it seemed that the history of source-harnessing was one of good fortune and remarkable escapes; by rights they should have all gone up in flames centuries ago.

There was little to tell from the remains of the ship. It was tangled and twisted, metal and wood fractured and tossed together like crumpled paper. He pulled a chunk of the deck aside and threw it to the ground, where it crumpled and disintegrated from the impact. Squinting, he gazed into what might have once been a cabin. There were odd, melted, soot-covered shapes inside, dotted about like silhouettes against shadow. Perhaps a bed. Once, it might have been a chair, or a desk. The walls were metal-lined, revealed now that the wooden panelling was long gone. That seemed to be all that was holding the ruined structure together.

The crash might as well have been years ago, for all the use it was to him now. It was beyond unlikely that the Scree had gone down due to mistakes from its crew; if they'd wanted free of their moorings they'd have known how to do it without ripping the hull apart. Only an idiot would have blown the locks in such a way as to breach the fuel cells, and in his experience Bruckin crews were anything but stupid.

Footprints could be seen in the ash and burned vegetation, like imprints in dark snow. A clean-up team from the mesas had gone over this place, removed the bodies, made a mess. Roldan walked out of the crash site, past the edge of the burned, ash-covered area, then found a fallen trunk to sit on. He loosened his pack and dropped it to the ground, then took a drink of water from the bottle on his belt.

It had been a long while since he had been out on his own, in the wild, on the hunt. For years he'd been on the ice run to the south, or sailing to other corners of the valley to fetch taxes or luxury goods for the capital. Easy, safe, uncomplicated work. For a time he'd seen it as a well-earned retirement and had been grateful; not every King's Eye got to live that long. At the start, he'd considered himself too old for a life on the road - past caring and past his prime. That thought hadn't lasted long, but there hadn't been a way out until Tranton Seldon fell off the glacier and shattered the peace.

If he had a couple of King's Eyes with him, he could cover the forest in no time. He wanted nothing more than for Fenris to be there, sat beside him, so that they could talk about the old days, and ponder the lunacy of the valley's current trajectory, and figure out a path. Roldan had always seen himself as support: helping others with his fists, his sword or occasionally his words. None of those things were helping him now.

There was a time when he'd been called the best tracker in the valley. He stood and slung the pack back onto his shoulders. This kind of hunt required being methodical, so he began by walking the circumference of the crash site. Most of the footprints were clustered around the bulk of the wreckage and were therefore less frequent and overlapping at this distance. Rather than being layered on top of each other, he could make out individual prints, which revealed that they were evidently produced by the soles of Treydolain city guards' boots.

Roldan kept walking, one eye on the ground, another on the treeline. He'd never been an especially patient man, except when doing this: it gave him a unique focus which cleared his mind of all other matters. His eyes weren't as clear as they'd once been but he could still spot an out of place detail when it presented itself, which in this case was a footprint bearing an entirely different pattern. He followed the prints for a few steps back towards the wreckage, then turned and moved in the opposite direction. The trail of trodden ash disappeared almost immediately, washed away by the recent rains, but other, subtler signs remained: crushed grass, lingering depressions in mud, a thin strand of fur caught on a branch that did not belong to any creatures native to the region. The trail went cold after about thirty feet but Roldan pressed on, following the natural curve of the land, assuming a path of least resistance. He found a berry bush with some of its fruit picked.

He continued, increasingly following his instincts rather than definite evidence, until he came upon a mound of earth still noticeably fresh compared to the surrounding terrain. A single. fist-sized stone was placed on one end. A body had been buried here, a good half mile from the crash. It was a sentimental but foolish gesture, especially given the recognisable Bruckin tradition.

There was a survivor.

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