Authors Note: The name Lance Manning is used multiple times in this story. That particular name was a creation of Maggie Rennie, and comes from her story 'A Thief's Tale'. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing out on one of the best fanfics ever written about Locke Cole.
With one last warning to Terra, Locke grabbed the messenger's report and headed for the exit. Briefly skimming the data, he decided that it would be suicide to head back across the Sabil Mountains with the Imperial Army barreling toward them. His only other option would be northwest of the Returners' base, through the Willowman Pass.
Locke sighed at the thought of having to make the climb across the Willowman, but decided that the extra time could help him formulate a plan for what to do when he reached South Figaro. "It's amazing where I am now, and where I've come from," he mused out loud as he trekked across the grassy plain. "It just seems to get progressively harder. First it was 'Locke, join the Returners.' Then 'Locke, steal information for us.' Then 'Locke, rescue the witch.' Now it's 'Locke, stop an army.' When's it going to end? What's next? 'Locke, save the world?'"
As he plodded on, the gently rolling green meadow quickly gave way to rocky hills, and Locke started his long ascent into the Willowman. Considering it only added a couple of days onto the trip between the Returners' base and South Figaro, it was not a bad alternate route for small groups. On the other hand, taking an army through the pass would take weeks since some of the areas where so narrow that only two abreast could pass at a time. Locke hoped that there was not a contingent of soldiers waiting at the other end of the pass hoping to catch the fleeing Returners. It would all depend on how thorough the Empire's scouts had been when they mapped the area. Thankfully, few knew of the Willowman and fewer used it. It was too inconvenient and slow for travelers, and not challenging enough for the outdoor sports enthusiasts.
Moving onward and upward through the terrain and occasional wild animal, Locke reached the entrance to the pass at around sunset. Looking back over his shoulder, he could see the dying rays of the sun cast a reddish glow on the smoke rising from the Returners' base. The army had clearly been moving faster than they anticipated. As he slung his pack off his shoulder, he thought of those who had been in the hideout and he hoped that everyone had made it out safely.
He pulled a piece of dried, salted meat from one of the flaps in his pack and tore off a chunk with his teeth before putting it back. After a quick stretch, he hoisted pack up again and began to move into the pass while gathering sticks and twigs from the scrub brush that grew on the mountain. At this elevation, it would be deathly cold all night long and a fire would be a necessity.
With his arms finally full of wood, Locke began to scan the side of the pass for a particular cave. In a few short moments, he found the hole he was looking for. Though it looked like a regular cave from the outside, Locke knew this particular hole to be the perfect place to camp for the night. It only extended for about ten feet, but since the hole angled upward into the rock face, it didn't trap the cold mountain air. There was a place, out of the wind, to build a fire and a small ventilation shaft to allow the smoke to filter out.
Upon reaching the fire pit, he wasted no time in getting the fire started and the cave warmed up. After the blaze was under control, Locke left to gather some more wood and to fill a small pot with run-off water that cascaded down from the higher peaks. With a bundle of wood under his arm and a pot of water in his hand, Locke took one last look at the setting sun and headed inside to make his dinner.
He set the pot of water in the direct heat of the fire so that it could come to a boil. Then, he took out the dried meat and tore off three strips. He also rummaged through his pack for a small leather skin that held dried vegetables and spices. It took very little time for the water to begin boiling, and Locke added the meat, vegetables, and spices taking care to move the pot out of the direct flames so that it could simmer for a while.
Patience was a virtue that he held in spades, so it didn't bother him to wait for the soup to finish cooking. Instead of thinking about his impending meal, he turned his thoughts to planning what to do when he reached South Figaro.
If I can find a way to disrupt communication between the officers in town, and their troops, that would be an advantage for us, he thought while adding some sea salt to the simmering mix.
"Standard long distance communication is usually done by carrier pigeon," Locke thought out loud as he stirred the fire with a stick. "If I can get back to Figaro, I'll get some homing pigeons from there and swap them with the Imperial birds. That'll reroute all communications to Figaro. Hmmmm. I like that!"
After a little more time pondering his plan, Locke noticed that the soup had cooled down enough to eat, and he inhaled the aroma rising from the pot. "Ahh. Just like Grandma used to make," he said with a self-satisfied smile.
After a quick meal, he built the fire up one last time, unfurled his sleeping bag and curled up for a good night's rest.