Gideon kept them walking the whole night, with only one short break for a quick meal of rations. Soon Dan tired of seeing nothing but trees, endless bushes, and the eyes of small forest creatures, shining brightly in his night vision. He wanted to see something new. Gideon assured him the forest would end tomorrow, but for Dan, it couldn’t come soon enough.
Once the forest was noticeably lighter and Dan had to switch off his night vision (everything suddenly seemed dark and gray by comparison), Gideon called for a halt.
“We’ll spend the day here,” he said. “Fan out and find a comfortable spot. This forest is rarely crossed at this point, but I still want everyone reasonably hidden from sight. Use the dead branches to make canopies and cover them with leaves. Kaori, Francois: form a perimeter and distribute guard duty as you see fit.”
They spread out, Dan finding a bare spot by a tree, perfectly hidden by a large bush. It was far from anything he had ever slept on before, but after walking the whole night, it didn’t take him long to fall asleep.
It was dusk when he was gently shaken awake by one of Francois’ men. “C’est l’heure de se lever,” he said quietly before moving on to the next sleeper. Dan supposed that was some form of ‘good morning.’
It was still in the forest. The crickets chirped quietly all about them, as if merely warming up for the night’s chorus. A few late birds twittered sleepily in the trees. It was already quite dark, only the top-most leaves lit by the slanting rays of the slowly sinking sun.
Dan stood. For the first time since leaving Hyleran, a quiet excitement was within him, not at where he was, or what he might see, but in what he was doing. He might be backed into a corner by Vydar, but despite his best efforts, he was beginning to become involved in the war. He realized that he was part of a very crucial mission, far more crucial than Gideon or any of the others realized.
Dan glanced around. The others were slowly getting up, yawning, stretching, shaking the sleep from their eyes. Dan spotted Gideon nearby, lying next to a tree. He saw Laelia nearby, lying close to him.
Francois, fastening on his armor as he walked, went to Gideon. “The sun is nearly set,” he said. “It’s time we moved out.”
“I know,” Gideon replied, not opening his eyes. “Just savoring the moment.”
Francois moved off to rouse some of his knights.
Everywhere Dan looked, people were putting armor on or brushing leaves out of their hair. They were ready to go. What was Gideon waiting for? Dan crossed over to him.
Laelia opened her eyes as he approached and sat up, brushing the loose dirt from her armor. She carefully avoided looking at him. Gideon opened his eyes a crack, saw Dan, and stretched, yawning widely as he did so. “This is the only way to wake up,” he said half to himself, a satisfied smile on his face.
Dan glanced around. The ground didn’t look particularly comfortable. “What do you mean?”
Gideon sat up. “Out here I’m free. Surrounded by trees, the open sky above me, the woman I love by my side” — Laelia glanced up briefly, but then went back to pulling twigs from her hair — “There can be no better life to wake up to, Dan.”
The words struck a chord in Dan. No better life.
“Still,” said Gideon, getting up and brushing himself off, “we’ve got to fight for it.” He offered Laelia a hand – which she refused, although with a smile – and then went to check on the others.
“You stuck there?” Laelia asked.
Dan had remained where he was, looking at the spot Gideon had left. “What?” he said. “Oh, no. Just thinking.”
Laelia followed Gideon.
No better life. Dan had just realized something about Gideon: he had his horizon. He was there. He had what Dan had been searching for ever since the night Darren freed him.
Dan turned and watched Gideon rousing the others. Was there a difference? Was there some visible clue that Gideon had everything he wanted, and he, Dan, did not? He noticed Laelia by Gideon’s side. She was a part of it. She was a part of Gideon’s horizon, just as Heleer was a part of Dan’s.
Dan might find Laelia distasteful, even hostile, but Gideon clearly loved her. And even though she wasn’t very open about it, Dan could tell she loved him too. There was a difference in the way she looked at him and talked to him and acted around him. Dan had seen enough similar patterns in SR to know what it meant. They loved each other.
Dan watched the two of them a moment longer, and then without warning, felt such a powerful wave of longing that he actually had to put out a hand to steady himself against a nearby tree. Longing for Heleer. Longing for contentment, for peace, for having her with him.
Dan closed his eyes against the sudden rush of feeling. The things he would say. The things he would do. Why, why couldn’t he have appreciated what he had? Why couldn’t Heleer have been enough? After all, what was more important in the end: Heleer or some vaguely imagined horizon?
Dan opened his eyes. Just how important was it to him that he achieve his horizon, whatever that might be? Was it more important than Heleer? Dan couldn’t say it was. But then, neither could he say that Heleer was more important than his horizon. They were both equally important, both equally things Dan needed, things he couldn’t live without.
“Move out,” Gideon called, pulling Dan from his thoughts. “We should reach Valkrill’s perimeter of caves at about midnight. Stay alert.”
Dan felt a sudden sense of dread. What if something happened? What if he was killed? Then he would have neither Heleer nor his horizon. He supposed he wouldn’t care, being dead, but the thought still held a measure of fear. He couldn’t die. He had to get back to Heleer. He had to find his horizon.
He had to.