By the time she reaches the top of the staircase, Milo is rolling her shoulder joint to make sure it sits nicely in place. It feels good, if not a little numb.
As she steps out into the open air, she closes a fist next to the ball of embers and it fizzles out of existence, saving her a face full of ash as the wind hits. The staircase lets out onto a flat pathway that curves around into the centre of the mountain, giving her plenty of rock on the right and a sheer drop on her left. She peers down as she walks and unlike the Frosts on the other side, the thick and vibrant tree cover here turns the landscape into a sea of mottled greens.
Rounding the corner of this path, the image of Val’s Cabin greets her like a rich ink painting. A huge dead tree is rooted under the grey-brown stone of the mountain, its bough rising up out of the ground behind the cabin to just above the roof. The branches drape over like black limbs, thinning out as they go until they’re like a curtain for the front porch. The cabin itself is grey stone, built using Atlas cement to last a millennium – of which it’s served probably half already. Roofed with layers of wood and insulation and punctured with triple-glazed windows, it looks like every hunting lodge she remembers from her life before: a grand and sturdy exterior, framed proudly against the sky. The area was flattened hundreds of years ago, cut out of the top of the mountain by her ancestors as a lookout position, so it has clear views down to everything below. Milo walks across the plateau, enjoying the perfect composition of the scene as she approaches. It never gets old, even after hundreds of years.
As she pushes aside the fingerling branches and steps up onto the front porch, the wooden panels creak beneath her feet.
‘Hello there, Val.’ She strokes one of the pillars next to her. ‘Sorry I’ve not been around. You know how it is, always busy.’ She rolls her eyes, shaking her head. ‘Anyway, I don’t know how long I can stay, but – I’m here now. I hope that’s enough.’
Stepping forward, she unlocks the front door with an old key. More of a formality, since no one else knows the cabin is here anymore, but she enjoys the tactile action. As she steps inside, waves of wood and leather scents wash over her, forcing her to take a moment and breathe it in. The bottom floor of the cabin is wide open, but the ceiling is low and its dark wood construction makes the whole room feel cosy and welcoming – at least, to her. Opening the closet inside while shutting the front door with a foot, Milo shrugs off her overcoat and hangs it up amongst several others.
‘I made it out okay, as you can see,’ she says, shutting the closet and walking across to the small wood-fired stove in the far corner, squatting down to reach inside. ‘Well, except for a few broken bones, but don’t worry – the Vigour patched me up real nice.’ She snaps her fingers, forming a small flame on the tip of her thumb that she nestles into the pile of wood and kindling, waiting for it to catch.
‘The next step is getting through the forests to reach Bastion – you remember when we used to travel there?’ She pauses, adding wood once the flames begin to grow. ‘Back when it was still being rebuilt. Oh, Val, if you could see what the Null have there now, I think you’d be impressed.’
She stands and reaches up to a small cupboard above the stove, retrieving first a kettle and then a glass jar filled with loose tea leaves. As she goes back to grab a mug with each hand, she hesitates; one hand wavers, then falls down to her side. With a small sigh, she grabs just one mug, then portions out some tea leaves before picking up the kettle and going back out the front door. Around the side of the cabin is a large water tank attached to the back, filled with rainwater from a system of gutters and filters coming off the building’s roof.
‘I know you don’t think it’s good for us, but it’s not done any harm so far and surely, by now, it would have done? Besides, I’m boiling it anyway, relax.’
Back inside, she sets the kettle onto the stove and leaves it to heat up, returning to the closet by the front door. Inside, a small wooden board on the interior wall greets her, various dangling keys attached.
‘Where do I want to stay?’ she mutters, as she runs her fingers along the line. They pass various symbols printed onto paper and leather tags, stopping at a boar’s head stamped onto a piece of black leather, two huge tusks jutting out from its mouth. She lifts it from its metal hook, then shuts the closet door and walks over to the large table in the room’s centre, throwing the key on top and pulling out a chair to sit. She starts leafing through documents spread out across the slab of wood, looking for who exactly she reports to in Bastion.
‘Oh, I’ll be seeing some old friends while I’m there, too,’ she mumbles, engrossed in the papers, ‘I’ll have to think of some stories I’ve not told them yet, keep them entertained.’
She stops, then laughs once, looking up at the empty chair across from her.
‘Although, knowing me, I might find something new along the way.’