Nightfall crept up on Lea that day.
Davan left around noon to mind his own home, and for a time it was quiet in the cabin. Lea sat with her father, observing the shadows shifting across the floor, until she heard the first tentative knock at their door. After that, the other villagers came by in twos and threes to pay their respects to Theo's memory. She greeted and mourned with dozens of her neighbors before, at long last, the sunset drove them back home.
In the grey of twilight, the first patrol swept through the village. Armed with rifles strapped loosely on their shoulders, the peacekeepers had once been more likely to cause trouble than prevent it. Now, though, as the occupation settled into its second summer, the ridgegoers were too wary of the patrols' presence to incite anything and the men were on their way with a weary show of force. There was nothing to fear in her quiet hamlet.
Clouds of stars dotted the inky sky by the time Davan knocked at the door again, turning her father's attention from his dinner to the door. Lea was somewhat surprised he even noticed now, since so many had visited already. She was more surprised to find two figures on her front step, the expected one and a young woman from down the ridge, Aurela Gatt. Lea looked askance at her as the two walked in and Aurela sat down at the table.
"I knew you'd want someone with your father tonight," Davan explained. "We told no one else."
Aurela nodded, her short, blonde curls bouncing out from under her hood as she smiled. "As far as anyone is concerned, I'm here helping you through the first night of mourning."
"You are," Lea said, hugging her. "Thank you for this. I'll owe you."
"No, you won't."
Lea put on soft-soled leather shoes and grabbed her jacket from the peg by the door. It wasn't cold yet, but, as the dew settled and the night drew on, she would need it. Lastly, she packed an old, clean blanket into a backpack and they set out into the night.
She didn't dare use a lantern with the patrols around. The moon was waxing gibbous and gave them enough light to see their footing. They both knew the paths up-mountain like they knew their own homes; it would do no good alerting the peacekeepers to their presence with an unnecessary light.
Once outside the village but below the first patrol range, Davan said, "None of the runners I talked to have come across bodies before. I'm afraid we'll be on our own, here."
"I know it's a long shot," Lea admitted. "But I'll try until I can't."
Davan stumbled on a loose rock, and Lea turned to offer him a chance to stay behind but he caught himself on his walking stick and held up a hand to forestall her. "Don't even try it," he laughed drily. "If it were that easy to shake me, you'd already be halfway to the mines."
She shrugged and walked away. "If you fall behind, I won't stop again."
"I know. And I won't."
As cold as she acted toward him, Lea was secretly grateful he had tagged along. His presence kept her mind from wandering back to dark thoughts and he almost made their somber quest lighter with occasional self-deprecating jabs at his pace. Despite her words, Lea hung back with him when they left the old road to the mine and helped steady him when the trek became more treacherous.
The mine road followed the lay of the land, along ridges and between boulders, always gradually upward. It was well-traveled before the war, and even now it transported a large cart of iron ore every week. While the road might present their easiest route, they ran the risk of running into one of the patrols higher up the mountain. As lazy as the peacekeepers had become, it was still common practice to shoot people who were out after sunset.
'Besides', Lea thought, 'it's unlikely the bodies would be so near the road, to remind them of their sins.' The prisoners in the mine never left, and no sane local would trek near it. The peacekeepers would keep things tidy for themselves, and so she figured Theo's body would be somewhere well away from their camps. But where?
"Do you think they would use a cave?" Lea asked, stepping over a fallen pine branch.
"I don't know. I don't think so." Davan looked pensive for a moment, as he examined the area around the branch and clambered over it as best he could. "There aren't any close to the mine and they wouldn't want to over-exert themselves, would they? What's near there?"
A damp breeze tousled her hair as Lea called to mind the land around the mine. After her mother died and before her father's illness, she'd spent many an afternoon playing nearby while the elder Theodor worked. She'd collected flowers on the slopes above the treeline, climbed boulders near the stream, and watched birds dart in and out of their nests along the spur.
"The spur," she murmured, and Davan frowned but nodded.
The breeze whispered in her ears as it often had near the spur and the hairs on the back of her neck raised. Father always warned her not to go too close to the edge. 'It's a falcon's dive down, Leanda, and only a falcon can get out of that. You fall down there and we'll never get you back.'
Lea led the way, setting a faster pace than they'd taken before. The height of the moon in its arc across the sky told her they were running out of time. As it was, they would reach the cliffs with barely enough night to cover their return. Davan, for his part, never once complained, even as his exhaustion showed. But she knew they would have to make this trip again soon. Even if their suspicions were right and she found Theo's body on the first try, they would have to return to navigate the rocky descent.
Moonlight painted the increasingly steep mountainside in patches of silver and coal. As long as she looked ahead and remained vigilant, Lea could negotiate the way. Dew made the ground slick, but they stumbled onward.
Davan cursed under his breath, and she turned her head to see if he needed any help. Her feet slid out from under her as the shaky bit of rock she'd just stepped onto pulled free of the muddy slope. Lea instinctively cried out in alarm before she landed hard on her left side and her head connected with a rock.
Somewhere, far away, Lea heard Davan calling her name, but she just lay staring off into the distance. The dark specter of the spur rose above them; she'd almost made it. But she was just lying down, waiting for something. Someone called her name and she thought for a brief moment it was Theo.
Pain and sound returned in a moment as Davan arrived at her side and looked her over. "Lea, are you alright? Can you walk? We need to get out of here now," he whispered in a rush that sounded like a jumble to her still-addled senses.
"I-" Lea didn't even have time to assess her own injuries before the breeze brought the sound of footsteps to her ears. Two, perhaps three, peacekeepers approached quickly, making no secret of their presence. Why would they, when they were armed and the mountain folk had no weapons left?
She tried to get her feet under her but her stomach lurched from the pain in her head and her left knee didn't seem to work properly anymore.
"Come on," Davan urged. "You need to get up."
She pushed Davan away. "Go! Hide!"
"I can't leave-"
"I have more reason to be here than you right now," she hissed. "I won't let them find you!"
She shoved his prosthetic leg out from under him and he slid down the pebbled rise on his good knee, stopping not far from some heavy brush. "Get out of here!"
Davan stared up at her, disbelief clear on his face in the moonlight. After an agonizing second, he got his feet under him again and vanished into the shadows. Lea turned away from him, looking toward the dark peak rising over the trees. She whispered a prayer to Theo and the mountain that she wouldn't be finding out in person what lay in its shade.
"You, there! Don't move!" A lantern emerged from the shadows to her left, and, more importantly, Lea found herself staring down two rifle barrels.