"So how does it feel coming back to Yola like this?" Hal asked as the train chugged slowly across the countryside.
"Nervous," I said truthfully. "It's around the High Holidays, so it should be alright, but the land is usually cursed. That's why there are so many Yolans who chose to be nomads in foreign lands."
"Cursed? By what?" Ana said, her voice slightly mocking.
"The blood of slain comrades. When the Esperantan Empire took back the land from the conqueror Alexander, they slaughtered his army, and the gods cursed the land. But many Yolans make a pilgrimage to Stunmah Dovak during the holidays."
"Hm. No wonder everyone thinks you people are crazy: you still believe in impossible gods and silly superstitions." I wanted to hit her so badly, but I managed to stay calm and ignore her. The road was long enough without having to argue with her. Instead, I looked out at the countryside. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue, and the morose evergreen forests of the Tisukunna Province had been replaced by endless grasslands dotted by clusters of bright red flowers. The grass still looked dead, but in a few weeks it would be a bright green color that was perfect for spring. I could see a shepherd in the distance, tending to his herd.
"So where exactly are these mountains?" Ana said, gazing out the window. "All I see is grass."
"Yola is a massive country," Hal said. "The mountains are on the far eastern edge, are there are no trains or gas stations. We'll have to travel by carriage, which means that it'll be weeks before we get there.
"You're kidding, right?"
"No ma'am. I'm dead serious. The only real civilization is in the extreme north, which would take us even longer to reach, and the extreme south, which is…you really don't want to go there."
"That's where they grow Elysium," I explained.
"It's a drug that comes from a plant that only grows in the jungles down there. The place is ruled by the old Yolan monarchy that was in place before the Empire came here, but the only people with any real power are the drug lords. I've never been there, and I don't plan on going anytime soon. The grasslands are much safer. We might run into the occasional bandit or two, but other than that, we should be fine."
We sat in silence until the train finally came to the last station. We were still technically in the Tisukunna Province, but we might as well have been in Yola. It wouldn't be a problem to get into the Yolan Province: the guards at the border were mostly just for show and to stop any smugglers.
The village we stopped in didn't even have a proper name, or any paved road for that matter. The people looked as if they belonged in a third world country, and a couple of goats wandered around aimlessly, devouring anything they could fit into their mouths. We stopped at a small store to stock up on supplies before taking a dusty old bus to the border gate. As I suspected, the guards at the gate simply checked our bags for anything illegal before letting us through. They didn't even care that we had guns and knives on our persons.
"Welcome home, brother," one of the guards said to me as we passed through the gate. I had never really thought of Yola as my home, but it was true that it was easy to see other Yolans as family, even if they weren't related. It was a basic rule of hospitality: if a stranger asks for shelter, you give it to him, and you treat him as if he were your own kin.
The village on the other side of the gate was just as primitive as the one we had came from, only this one was little more than the guards' living quarters, a motel, and a store. The air was dusty and dry, and the sun that had looked so soft and warm when we were on the train glared down at us as we made the long walk from the gate to the store. We purchased a horse, a wagon, and some provisions with the last of our money before setting off into the untamed wilderness.
I never knew how harsh the Yolan grasslands were until I spent a day out on them. I was the only one of our ragtag group who knew how to operate a wagon, so I had the pleasure of sitting out in the sun while Hal and Ana lazed about under the cover of the wagon. The sunbaked grass crunched underneath the wheels of the cart and our horse snorted in exhaustion. I tugged on the reins and the wagon came to a start. The horse pawed at the ground with her hoof, sending up a small cloud of dust. I gave the poor creature a long drink from my water skin before urging her on again.
By the time the sun was setting, my ears were ringing and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Hal and Ana had been talking all day, but their voices were too muffled for me to hear. I had tried talking to the horse, and I have to admit that she was an excellent listener. Not too good with responding, but that's alright with me. As night descended and the land was plunged into a cool darkness, I felt myself dozing off. I pulled on the reins again, and the horse slowed to a stop once more.
I hopped down from the driver's seat and went around to the back of the cart to find that Hal and Ana had both fallen asleep. I climbed into the wagon and lightly shook Hal's shoulder.
"Huh? What do you want, kid?" he said groggily.
"You get first watch, Ana gets second, alright?"
"Ugh, fine." Hal got up and rubbed his eyes before going outside to stand watch. I took his place on the floor of the cart and quickly fell asleep.