[ TWENTY-SIX ]

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chapter twenty-six | when a horse runs straight at you, get out of the way  - also, getting left behind is terribly sad

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By the time they reached the edge of the mountains, it was a week later.

Julienne was saddle-sore, though her foot was mostly healed, and they were all happy for the change of scenery. One could take only so much of cheerful meadows and happy flowers before it became too much.

Especially because of everything at stake.

The pendant around Julienne's neck seemed to grow heavier the closer they came to the snow-capped mountains and stony cliffs, and the raging river that they were supposed to follow.

Stromrivier, was what Anton called it.

As they travelled the worn path through two rising slopes of earth, following the natural rift between two mountains. It was too narrow to be a proper valley.

"Ahead," Michele suddenly said, the first words in a long time. "The Fortress of Bergklip is ahead."

Anton looked askance at his sister. "You've been here before."

"I have," she agreed. "For my graduation assignment, I had to infiltrate the base with my brother-in-arms and my paired Dtieren. We passed with flying colours."

"What's a Dtieren?" asked Julienne, looking up at her mama.

Michele sighed. "It's an animal they pair us with to fight. It's an animal very close to your heart."

Julienne raised her eyebrows. "So, what was yours?"

"A black cat," Michele smiled. "She was very pretty but couldn't move with me to Mireston. Magical blood can't pass the merge."

Anton brought them back to the situation at hand. "It's supposed to be uninhabited, but what do we do if it's not?"

Michele bit her lip, thinking as she swept her gaze over the rocks and trees to either side of them. The river had split from the little valley, a small stream now leading them further into the mountains.

"Before we continue," Michele finally said, gently tugging her horse to a stop. "We need to wait for nightfall. There's a path mostly hidden by brush and guarded by the occasional sentry. It's just a precaution, to make sure they know who pass here."

Anton nodded and followed suit, both of them dismounting. Julienne stayed on the horse as they were led to a small crowd of trees, that would hide them from the path.

"What is the purpose of The Fortress of Bergklip?" Anton asked as they tied their horses to a tree, offering them water and food.

There had been plenty for the horses in the meadows, and with the more sedate pace, they were both looking happy and strong.

Michele helped Julienne down. "It was our fortress when I started school. There was a rebellion and it became the Traitor's Outpost. It used to be a place of our heritage, so no one officially called it that out of respect for history."

"What does it guard?" asked Julienne as she stretched out her stiff muscles. Her necklace had come free, the pendant swinging in the air.

Michele eyed the bronze around her daughter's neck. "It borders a second 'Merge', a gateway to another realm. This one is called Vagefeur. It's the realm... or our enemies."

Anton's eyes were wide, obviously recognising the implications of this, and shook his head. "There is absolutely no way it's left unguarded. Half our country is inaccessible because of their hold on our capital. They would guard this with their lives."

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