The birds started singing in the trees about the time that Anie had to start watching her feet while she walked. She lost her energy in the space of a yawn, and the growing light spreading through the sky on her right seemed wrong. She blinked heavily. Thea slowed, holding steadier, as Anie started to stumble. The others all pulled in a little closer, as if they might lean against each other.
The sun climbed heedlessly into the sky.
“When do we sleep?” Anie murmured.
“It’s not safe yet,” Chas said. But he was slowing too. The whole crowd ahead of them seemed to be stuttering in their steps. The trees were thinning, the ground evening out, but their feet seemed more and more hesitant to leave the ground.
And then, suddenly, that stutter turned into a halt. A whisper raced through the crowd, a hush like a gasp.
Then, someone screamed. One thin voice, and Anie brought her head up like it had been pulled on a string. She tightened her fingers in Thea’s hand. Others were shouting, and the sudden urgency crawled under her skin until she could feel her heart tapping against her ribs. She braced her feet, knees, legs, ready to sprint away again.
A thunder pounded into the ground after a moment, like a storm, sped up until it was unnatural. Ahead, the trees only dotted the roll of the hills, huddled together in twos and threes, and the rare, large bundles. It had been so long since Anie looked up, she was surprised. Beyond the thin trunks, it was hazy. A line of dust and dark shadows behind. Horses.
Darien held Mel steady. The woman who had caught Chas held out her hands, wide, to tell the others to hold. Few listened. The crowd tumbled back, and Anie pressed herself against Thea’s side to keep from getting separated from her. Mel appeared against her other side, and held her tight.
“Down!” the shout came through the commotion. “Every one down!” Anie searched the crowd, until she saw the man calling out, down on his knees in the dirt, catching the hands of the people around him to drag them down too. She dropped to her knees and tugged Thea down too, while the horses came close enough for them to hear the riders’ armor clanking.
One by one, the whole crowd came down, onto their knees, hands and knees, looking up with wide eyes, or heads down with hands over them. And Anie breathed deep, waiting for the thunder to stop.
The horses slowed. Whinnied and waffled around war gear. Tramped and wheeled, and riders relayed orders down the line.
At the front of the line, a woman sat a sleek, red horse. Her blonde hair was braided over one shoulder like another piece of her armor. Her knees were tucked behind metal plates. Her shoulders were squared, and the leather on the pommel of her sword had been worn smooth.
When she pulled her horse to a stop, she looked over the whole mass of them. Listened to someone behind her carefully. Then raised her voice. “If you’re armed, lay it down now!”
No one moved. There was nothing to lay down.
Anie steadied herself against Thea and watched the woman’s face.
“What are you doing here?” the woman demanded.
“We’re looking for Lord Tiernan,” the woman who stopped Chas said. “For safety!”
The woman on the horse paused, looking her over. She cocked her head back, listening to another rider who had just come in from the far end of the line. They exchanged a few words, quietly, and the red horse shuffled in the dirt.
“You all came from Madden’s fortress, at the mountain?” she called.
“From the encampments they built south of it,” a man replied. The same man who had told them to get on their knees. Beside Anie, Thea took a deep breath.
“How?” the woman on the horse demanded. “We fought for those encampments two days ago. They couldn’t be breached.”
The woman who had stopped Chas shrugged, not quite at a real loss. “Seryn Two-Hand decided to burn them down.”
The rider’s eyes narrowed. She exchanged one more short sentence with the men behind her. “My name is Deorsa. You will stay here, until I say so. Anyone who approaches the camp will be stopped, I promise you.”
Mel reached a hand around Anie’s shoulders, reached for Thea carefully. And slowly, she slipped off her knees and sat in the dirt. Mel wrapped her other arm around her knees and breathed deep. When she smiled at Anie, Anie just shook her head.
She twisted around to get more comfortable too, and rested her head against Thea’s arm. She should have closed her eyes and slept, but she watched the soldiers on the horses instead, while the crowd settled and resettled around her. As the dust cleared, Anie could look through the horses’ legs, and count the white tents spread behind them in their little rows.
It wasn’t long before two more riders came thundering up from the camp. One of them was broad, leather glistening richly in the sunlight. The other was lean tall and lean. Both shoulders on his jacket looked rough, like someone had ripped at them.
For the second time, Anie looked up sharply. It was Aled. She called for him before she realized she probably shouldn’t and Thea quickly cradled her head back against her. Deorsa had heard her, and was looking sharply in their direction. When Aled and the other man arrived beside her, she murmured something to him. Aled looked toward Anie immediately. Then he slid off his horse and came straight toward her.
Thea, Darien and Mel all looked at him warily as he crouched in front of Anie, but he was smiling as easily as ever.
“Anie,” he said happily. “Did you sprout wings? How did you get here?”
She almost grinned, because she was tired, and because he was hard not to grin at. “No,” she said. “Seryn came for us. She took us out through a window and we all climbed over the wall.”
His face twisted, just a little. Blinking, he cocked his head to one side. “Did she come with you?”
Anie shook her head.
Aled pulled back without standing, lifted his chin just enough to take a long look at the crowd over the girls’ heads. Behind him, the broad man was swinging down from his horse, and Doersa was handing her reins off to the man beside her. Aled twisted enough to see them both start toward him and looked back, his smile was a little dimmer. His eyes flicked to Thea’s hands wrapped around Anie, and then to Mel and Darien’s faces while they held his eyes fiercely.
“Who did come?” he asked. “Reese? Emyr?”
Anie shook her head again.
“We haven’t seen any of your guard,” Mel said. “Seryn came alone, and told us to get out of the camp, because she was going to burn it down.”
“What else did she tell you?” Aled asked.
“That she could bring Anie to us, if we would wait,” Thea said. She glanced up at the broad man as he came to a gentle stop near them. She looked at his face, then continued carefully. “That Lord Tiernan was close enough that we could catch up to him and we’d be safe with him.”
The man took a moment, and gave her a small nod.
“Why would she do that, Anie?” Aled asked. He held her eye and leaned in a little closer, until it seemed he had forgotten about the others. “Which of the others did she talk to?”
“Just me,” Anie said. She pulled back against Thea’s shoulder.
“And what did she tell you to do?” Aled asked.
“Climb out the window with her,” Anie said. “She said it would be the last hard thing she asked any of us to do.”
Aled blinked again, and for a moment Anie thought he was staring.
“There’s some trick here,” Deorsa murmured. She was taller than Anie had imagined, and she had to lean back to see her face, brow bent in, mouth a sharp question.
Aled looked at her out of the corner of his eye, then back to Anie. He gave her a wry, tilted smile.
“We’ll search them,” the broad man assured her quietly.
“Does it make sense to you?” Deorsa asked him.
The man considered the breadth of the crowd, and gave a small shake of his head. “Why would she just let these people go?”
It took Aled a moment to realize the question was aimed at him and he twisted to look up at them. Standing, he shoved his hands into his pockets. “She wouldn’t. Macsen owns her.” Then he shrugged. “So, either Macsen is pulling the trick. Or Seryn lost her mind.”
“What do you think we should do with them?” the man asked, in the same measured, even tone.
Aled shrugged. “What you planned to do with them, I suppose.”
“Just take them back to Oruasta?” Deorsa said. She shook her head at him. There was a small smile at the corner of her mouth. “Did Seryn send you?”
Aled just shook his head, returning the tight smile.
The broad man nodded down at the girls before he turned and took long, steady strides back to his horse. Deorsa and Aled followed wordlessly behind him, mounted up and followed him a little ways off.
“I think that was Lord Tiernan,” Thea whispered against Anie’s hair.
The soldiers left their horses in a line, a wall of mounts barring them from the camp, and slowly became combing through them. They asked each person for their name, where they came from, what family they brought with them. What family they had left behind, and scribes followed behind the soldier marking answers with short charcoal scratches. Anie tried to stay awake, but after the first hour, she shut her eyes.
She slept until Mel shook her awake. Thea was asleep too, and Mel woke her next. Their shadows were outrageously long, and the sun was barely showing over the edge of the mountains.
“They’re taking us to the camp,” Mel said. “They can’t find anything wrong with us.