Wednesday Serial: Farther Part XXIII

Seryn fire_hand


Seryn counted her horse’s leaping strides, each one of them echoing up through her spine as it bounded forward: one, two, three… Aled’s horse was pounding the ground along side hers, hooves thrumming against the ground between each pounding strike of her own horse. Three strides, and she pulled her horse around, tapped the reins and spun him on a pinpoint until he came to an even stop. She threw one leg over his neck, slid out of the saddle and stopped hands raised, reins looped in her fingers, her horse’s body tucked against her back.

Aled was behind her. The city was in front of her, with the guards teetering on an uneven line where they’d started to give up on any sort of chase. All of them were staring at her. It didn’t much matter. Aled was behind her where he belonged. The guards were far enough away to give her space to breathe. The moment was hers again.

She took a careful breath, meeting the guard’s eyes one at a time, calmly and quickly convincing them she wasn’t likely to move any time soon.

“I’d like to see your commander,” she said evenly. She raised her hands a fraction higher as the lead guard came toward her. His face was bent in sharp angles, watching her like she might explode at any moment. Her motion pulled her cuffs down just a little farther, showed a scant inch more of the scars that looped lazily on her skin. “I promise not to move until you bring him here.”

He glanced at her hands, her scars, then back at her face. She was calm enough, her scars were dark enough, her statement held the narrow gap between surrender and threat.

He watched her for another breath. Then he nodded over his shoulder. One of the other men ducked his head in a salute, and took off running. His feet hit dirt for half a dozen strides, than scuffed against stone as he started up the inside of the wall. Seryn stayed exactly as she was.

Aled shifted behind her. The guards resettled their hands on the hilts of their weapons. Most of them let the points drop almost to the ground.

It was barely five minutes before they heard the guard running back. A second set of boot steps kept pace beside him. When he came back into view, a tall man arrived just ahead of him, his stride lengthening to bring him to the front. His shoulders were square in the way Seryn expected from a man who had spent most of his life earning a living off his strength. His hands were callused, his sharp stride just loose enough that she could see every move was made in habit, not thought. His chainmail gleamed brighter than the others’, but the leather hilt of his sword was creased to fit his grip, darkened where his fingers had polished it to a shine.

Seryn waited for him to exchange a few rapid sentences with the lead guard, hands still raised. When he turned toward her, Aled turned as well. Seryn looked over her shoulder, stopping him immediately as he stated to come up beside her.

“Stay where you are,” she murmured.

The commander glanced at Aled, then back to her, and stopped a few feet in front of her.

“You missed your window,” the commander told Seryn. She could feel the light curiosity in the way he watched her. “You were supposed to leave before dawn.”

“Those weren’t our orders,” she told him.

He looked her over again, and nodded. It was a small motion, just enough to tell her to lower her hands, but nothing more.

“Do you have the power to grant us passage?” she asked.

He nodded again.

“We’re exactly what we said: personal guests of King Madden and soldiers in King Vardeck’s service,” Seryn said.

The commander looked at her sideways, as if asking if she would believe what had just come out of her mouth. “Just the two of you?”

“We came with Lord Commander Macsen of the Rein,” she told him. She looked back at the city. “We’re leaving under his orders, and with King Madden’s permission.”

The commander listened, nodding along. “And your uniforms?”

“It’s in my bag.” Seryn nodded across her shoulder, indicating the pack tied behind her saddle. The commander checked to make sure he had permission, then stepped forward and slid the draw string open in one short motion. Flipping the flap back, he looked through her folded shirts and breeches until he found the heavy jacket with the bear embroidered across the shoulder. He held it still for a moment, looked at her, then down at it, then shoved it all back inside the back.

“Best be on your way,” he said.

Seryn smiled gratefully. Touching her fingers to her forehead, she tightened the drawstring on her pack again and swung into the saddle. She kicked her horse into an even walk and started away from the city.

Aled fell in beside her, but neither of them said a word until the city had shrunk on the horizon, the stones of its walls faded into a flat gray face, too dark under the open sunlight. Seryn put the sun on their backs, grateful for the warmth as it sank into her shoulders, and steered them straight west. The horizon was crowded with trees, gathered in bunches, the first sign of the forest that cut a thick line through the country side, just out of sight. She would have been happier if it was closer, just so she could move the city out of sight behind the leaves. She was gripping the reins too tightly, just to keep her fingers from jittering, and her chest felt too thick from every controlled breath she’d forced through in in the last few hours.

“Were you trying to start a fight?” Seryn asked Aled, after the silence had settled between them like a third companion.

A few feet to her right, Aled looked over in surprise. “What?” he asked.

She looked at him blankly, letting her horse pick his own footing on the rolling ground.

“No,” he said.

“No?” she repeated lowly. “So you decided to shout at common guardsman, demand rights, as if we aren’t everything he fears…”

“He grabbed you,” Aled said.

“He grabbed my sleeve,” Seryn countered, quick, stopping any other excuse. “And I rank here.”

Aled stared at her. Slowly, he straightened in his saddle, squaring his shoulders, leaning back. “Yes, ma’am.”

He was still watching her, so she watched him too, waiting.

“We could have taken them,” he said. His tone was steady, persuasive.

She shook her head. “Not on our own.” She shook one hand free of the reins, rubbing her fingers along her thigh to stretch them as far as they would go and chase the jitters from her arm.

They rode until the sun touched the leaf line ahead of them, then camped on the flat ground between tree trunks. They’d seen knots of people in the distance throughout the day, but stayed as far back as they could, shifting course to make sure they didn’t run into anyone who was making their way toward the east road. As slow as the keimon were moving, it was easy to avoid them. By late afternoon, they’d stopped seeing them at all, engaged in opposite directions, but Aled and Seryn decided against a fire for the night, and flipped a coin for first watch.

Seryn blinked awake at midnight, sitting easily, her mind coming up easily from the light sleep she’d been holding. Aled sat with his back to the tree beside her, head up, eyes shifting through the trees. Slipping out of the blankets, she tapped him on the shoulder.

“Anything?” she whispered.

“Nothing,” he said.

They traded places and at dawn, they ate another cold meal and rode farther into the trees.

The morning passed in silence, each of them still combing the trees for any surprises. They fished lunch out of their packs, ate it calmly. When Aled finished his meal, he seemed to have swallowed down any concern as well, and he started an easy, halting conversation about nothing as they continued. Seryn let him, enjoying it for the most part, but kept her eyes open, her ears wide.

It was nearly sundown again before she heard the crack of another heavy animal in the woods ahead. She pulled to a stop, shot Aled a quick look and he went quiet in the middle of talking about a pie that one of the old cooks used to bake. Aled had never had a bite, but swore it was the most delicious thing on this earth, then had to stop in the middle of his explanation why. His mouth hung open as if he might finish his sentence once he was given permission again, then slowly closed the longer Seryn stayed on alert.

It was definitely a horse, moving slowly, in its four-step pattern. It had a rider, judging by the double branch crack as the horse shouldered through and then the human brushed it out of his way a second later.

Seryn held still.

Aled smiled when he saw Chezza’s broad shouldered form come through the trees.

“Hey,” he said.

Chezza leaned back on her horse and took in a deep breath. “Hey,” she said. She nodded to Aled, then straightened and saluted Seryn. Seryn held her smile back to a slight curve, and touched her fingers to her forehead as well to let Chezza drop her hand back to her side.

“You the forward today?” she asked Chezza.

“Patrol.” Chezza could barely hide the glee in her tone. “Camp’s already set.” She paused before she added a needling, “We expected you hours ago.”

Smiling, Seryn shook her head. “Lead on,” she said.

Chezza turned her horse, waiting for Seryn to fall in beside her, then continued west. Fifteen minutes and they broke into a clearing between thin trees. The scrub had grown in thick at one edge, then petered down to grass that finally broke into plain dirt half way across the open ground. Seryn sat a little straighter, running her eyes over the lines of tents, each perfectly strung and pegged into clean triangles and squares. The horses were picketed in the grass, barebacked and shining in the last of the light. Her squad was spread between the tents, some around low fires, others at the mouths of their tents. It was strange to see them without their uniforms, but it didn’t make the shape of them any less familiar.

Harun strode toward her immediately, catching her horse’s head to let her swing down from the saddle. He was taller than her by almost a head, but his muscle all whip-cord thin, so that they weighed about the same.

“Welcome back,” he said. He looked to Aled just after her, making the greeting stretch to him as well.

Aled grinned at him. “You know what they say: there’s no place like the middle of the woods.”

Seryn shook her head, and looked back at Harun just in time to catch his exaggerated look of pity for having to put up with Aled on her own for so long.

She shook her head. “You have reports for me?” she asked.

“In your tent,” he said. He nodded across the clearing to the largest tent, standing a little squarer than the others at the center of the lines.

“Everything went smoothly?” she asked.

Harun nodded. “Smoother than I expected for a twenty man company running at breakneck speeds across kingdom.”

“Good,” Seryn said. She looked over the tent lines again, meeting the eyes of her squad as they turned toward her. They were tired, and she could feel it rolling off them. They tucked their hands in their pockets, leaned against the tent posts, gave sharp salutes that ended in a sharp clap as they let their hand fall back to their sides. But they were ready as always, and it was good to be among many again.

She stretched her hand one more time, and this time her muscles accepted the looseness.

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