Most execution days were followed soon after by the names of the dead filtering down the mountain. There were always discussions in the mines of who had been disposed of, and in the hours that followed rifle volleys the prisoners assembled a list of the lost. Then they worked and waited for a brave soul to sneak up the mountain and bear ill news to the families left behind.
It took five days for a runner to check in after the storm.
Rain washed down the mountain as it always did during summer storms, turning the slopes to slick messes of loose, pebbled soil. A mudslide destroyed an abandoned homestead villagers usually squatted in to avoid patrols, and half the trail washed down with it. The sixteen gunshots went unheard over the thunder and the villagers went on with their lives for five more days.
Lea was collecting eggs in the hen house when someone knocked on their cabin door. She heard the hinges clattering and set her basket down, coming around the house to see who was paying her and her father a visit so early in the morning. Dawn painted the greyed wood cabin a rosy hue and cast Davan Farrar's shadow on their door.
Three years her senior and formerly a wide-eyed eccentric, Davan was her brother Theodor's closest friend before the war. When she was a little girl, Lea watched them build all sorts of failed inventions from sticks and string, and followed them into most of the hidden caves in the hills on quests for forgotten treasure. Two years earlier they both went to war to protect the Hollow Mountains from invasion. Six months after that, Davan returned to the village missing a leg; Theo never did.
"Davan!" she hissed as he raised his hand to knock again. "Father's still asleep. What are you doing here at this hour?" He lived well down the ridge and few were out and about before midmorning unless there was urgent business to attend to. From the turn of his lips and his weary stance, Lea knew it would not be good news. "What's wrong?"
"We should go inside," he said carefully, as though weighing each word to prevent a misstep.
Worry crept into her stomach but Lea unlatched the door and let Davan in before padding over to her father's bed to help him to a sitting position. The elder Theodor eyed her blearily in the sunshine.
Lea smoothed the unkempt grey hair behind his ears. "Father, we have a visitor. He has news for us."
"Okay," Father said in his usual monotone and turned his attention to the wary young man in their kitchen.
"Leanda..." Davan began, using her full name for only the second time in his life. "The runners came back with a list this morning." He paused as she stared at him with eagle eyes and he opened his mouth once or twice to form the proper words. "Your brother... Theo was executed."
The words breezed past her like a cold wind as Lea felt her father's grip tighten on her hand. "What? When? Where?"
"He was in the mines... All this time, Lea, he was in the mines and we – I never knew. And..." Davan trailed off as her father began to sob beside her on the bed. He had long been ill and his emotions especially raged to extremes. As the tears streamed down her father's face, Lea was secretly grateful for the distraction.
She knew in some way that the weight of her own reaction would hit before long but for that short while she could immerse herself in the familiar task of caring for the elderly man who only partly understood what was happening. Lea held him close, calming him down with soft words and half-hearted reassurance.
Lea went through the motions as the elder Theodor soon returned to his quiet contemplation of the room and she went about the rest of her morning chores. Davan vanished from the house under her cool dismissal but when she went outside to get some kindling for the stove she found him seated on the back steps.
"I'm sorry about how I handled that," he said, gesturing vaguely at the house. "I should have given you some warning or told you first or-"
"It's done." Lea skirted past him and down the steps to the woodpile.
The sun was high in the sky already and she heard the bustle of her neighbors on the ridge; their voices seemed muted that day. Lea could hear the birds chirping as they always did, and the wind rustled the trees as usual, but the people spoke in hushed tones, distant words that buzzed in her ears like approaching bees. Their sentiments prickled her skin, and she could guess what they were saying; she'd heard and spoken the same things over and over after news of the dead came to town.
Sympathy, offers of help... and soon it would turn to pity. Lea would be a pitiable creature in their view, reduced to a mourner with reddened eyes and fragile disposition because their soldier was gone. He was gone. Theo was dead.
Lea walked straight on past the wood pile and into the brush at the edge of their clearing, out of sight of the ridgegoers. She didn't want anyone to see the tears that fought free and streaked her face, blurring her vision until she was trudging blindly forward. Branches and bushes barred her way but she kept on going, until the house was out of sight. Until the ridge was far above her and she could no longer hear the painful whispers. Until she was alone.
She settled onto her knees in the soft soil in the shadow of a crooked pine. She let herself cry and rage freely here, with no witnesses but the mountain. After a time, the tears were replaced with exhausted misery as Lea traced patterns on the bark of the tree.
"Theo told me you always came here when you were upset." Davan's voice and limping footsteps approached behind her. He leaned on the tree but he was mindful not to invade her space. "He thought it was poetic, the way it knelt to protect you and wrapped its branches around you like a hug."
Lea choked out a laugh, wiping her puffy face. "Theo overthought everything. I don't think it ever occurred to him that this was just the closest nice place to get away."
"I think he realized that. But he wanted it to be more meaningful."
"Of course he did. He wanted everything to be bigger and more exciting than it was. He was a dreamer." It had always been as simple as that. Theo spent most of his time lost in thought, assessing the world, planning the best new ways to do old things, then drifting off in the middle of one of this schemes with his head up in the clouds.
Lea looked up at Davan, who peered down at her with shadowed eyes. "He didn't deserve this."
"No," Davan agreed, balancing himself on his good leg and carefully stretching out his wooden prosthetic leg so he could lounge beside her. "No, I should have dragged him home with me, no matter what. It should have been him sitting here with you, not dying-"
"I'm going to bring him home," Lea said, and his head swiveled to stare at her. "He deserves to be buried at home."
"I'll go up at night, when patrols won't see me."
"Lea, you can't just-"
She looked over her shoulder, looked up the mountain. Though trees blocked her view, she knew how far the mines were, how far she might have to go. Lea met his eyes, an unnamed emotion behind their distress. "I know the mountain as well as anyone, better than they do, even. I'll go up every night until I find him if I have to, but I'm bringing his... his body back and I'm giving him a proper funeral."
Davan pushed to his feet in a hurry as she walked with wild determination back up the hill to the ridge and home. "Leanda! Wait!"
"You're not going to convince me otherwise, Davan!" she spit, turning back to glare at him. To her surprise, he was stomping up the hill with equal determination.
"I won't stop you, but I can't let you go alone." A grim smile split his face and he leaned against a tree, surreptitiously catching his breath. "Can you imagine what Theo would have said if I let his baby sister face those trigger-happy bastards alone?" He shook his head. "Sorry, Lea, but I'm coming with you."