The outline of Alendel began to emerge from the eastern horizon, a welcome sight after a long day's march. Selenia paused and leaned on her walking stick, taking a moment to gather her breath on the side of the paved road.
She came down on one knee and prodded her aching thigh, massaging it in small circles. It had started acting up right after leaving Finham and had calmed down as she'd warmed up, but only to a point. Now it was worse. But the truth was, she did not mind. Not really. She could have done without the pain, but the freedom associated with being able to move again, breathing the outside air, was everything. A week nailed to an infirmary bed under the watchful eye of the clerics had put things in perspective.
Selenia reached Alendel just before nightfall, crowds of merchants and soldiers congregating just beyond the gates despite the late hour. Built at the junction of the four major roads dissecting the realm, the city never slept, serving as both a commercial hub and a military staging ground. The trade route ran north and south, and the military supply chain east and west. When a century earlier Kaspian the Builder had beaten the orcs back westward and settled Finham before the Gap, Alendel's existence had become inevitable. The centrality of its location also suited the Scouts, who chose it as the headquarters to their first company. The city nowadays housed two divisions, and it had been Selenia's station for the last six years.
She negotiated her way through the central square, careful to remain on its outer perimeter, away from the carts and pedestrians pushing through the center. She exited the square on the north side and pushed the door to her barracks. Home sweet home.
She found Reese sitting at one of the large tables by the common room hearth, a ceramic mug by his side, studying a checkered board overlaid with black and white stones. Fully absorbed by the puzzle in front of him, he held his head with both hands, elbows resting heavily on the table, the tip of his fingers obscured by a mop of unruly black hair. She sat across from him and moved one of the stones two squares forward.
"That's not a legal…" his voice trailed off and his eyes went wide as he looked up. "Selenia!" He sat back and pulled one arm behind his chair's backrest. Slowly, one half of his face stretched back into a grin. "You look… marginally better than the last time I saw you!"
"Hello Lieutenant," said Selenia as she self-consciously unhooked a strand of blond hair from behind one of her ears, under no illusion that it would do much to cover the bandages that came half way down her forehead.
With his foot, Reese pushed the chair across the table from him, slouching further into his own. Then, he slid his mug towards her and nodded at it. "Sit. Drink. Welcome back!"
Selenia grinned and sat down. She raised the mug to her lips and coughed as she took a big gulp, swallowing more of the dark, bitter stout than she had meant to.
Reese chuckled. "Yeah, you needed that," he said. "Bet the clerics didn't hook up you with that kind of medicine in the infirmary, did they?"
Selenia cupped her hands around the mug and smiled at it. "Thank you Reese. For everything… I know you're the one who found me out there."
He waved his arm dismissively. "Ah, don't mention it. The privates did most of the heavy lifting anyway. I have been wondering though… what exactly happened out there? You were in pretty bad shape."
She let out a deep sigh. "To be honest, I'm still trying to figure it all out. I remember parting ways with you in Finham, that morning. I checked in with the scouts in the tower to the west, they said there'd been no orc spotting for several days. So I decided to venture into the Gap."
"You'd been wanting to do that," he said. Selenia nodded. It was one of those zones that Scout Sergeants were expected to get to know, certainly if they ever hoped to make Lieutenant, which to her was non-negotiable. She'd come up through the ranks a little slowly, in part because she'd enlisted so young. But now that the bulk of her training had shifted from physical conditioning to learning about the world, she felt more confident she'd climb the ranks as she wanted. But all that felt somewhat distant now, as it had since she'd woken up broken in that infirmary bed.
"I remember stepping into the Gap," she continued. "And then I remember some kind of an impact, a sort of weight crashing into me…" She looked away, her eyes finding the burning hearth. "And then nothing," she said. "Next thing I know I'm in the Finham infirmary, feeling like some giant boulder had rolled over me."
The fire cracked in the hearth, a haze of ephemeral sparks twirling above the flames.
"Had to have been orcs," he said quietly.
"Had to," she agreed.
Reese took the stone Selenia had moved off the board and tossed it weakly in the air. "When I didn't see you come back that night, and no-one reported seeing you the next morning, I thought maybe you'd stayed at the Tower. I'd planned to take the new Privates there anyway, so we headed out bright and early. When the Tower said you'd never checked back in, I knew something was wrong. I took a couple of the rookies with me and we started looking. Thankfully you weren't very far west of there, just you know… not easy to find."
"Yeah, I heard I was in a crevice," she said.
Reese nodded. "Some of the new Privates have very keen eyes."
"Did they find anything else?" asked Selenia. "Looking around the gap, I mean."
"We didn't venture very far in, and as soon as we found you we hauled you back. You really didn't look like you could afford to wait. But Sen mentioned that he sent an elite team in afterwards, to assess what the orcs were up to. I don't know what he found though."
Selenia froze. "Sen? The Information Officer?" She shouldn't have been surprised. Of course they would look into it. Information Officers, and the five Masters of Intelligence overseeing them, were the highest ranking members of the Renisian Scouts. Devoted to intelligence gathering, they had eyes and ears everywhere. Promotion into their ranks had always been her ultimate ambition, but finding herself now a subject of their inquest felt deeply unsettling.
"Yeah. And he also asked me about your sleeves. Apparently the ends of your sleeves were burnt off, I don't know. I honestly didn't even notice. You had so many critical wounds, all I saw was blood and bruises."
Selenia stayed silent, eyes fixed on the fire.
"I'm sorry Sel…" he murmured.
She shook her head. "No, Reese. If there's one person who has nothing to be sorry for, it's you. I owe you one, Lieutenant."
He grinned at that, and Selenia got up, stretching her shoulders. "Ookay", she groaned. "Now I'm going to get some sleep. It is good to be home." She headed for the bunk beds.