Danta stopped with his next sentence ready on his tongue, mouth already open. He blinked, then slowly closed his lips. Eoin offered him a smile, but Danta did not return it.
“You were on their side,” Danta said quietly. “You were in those battles to protect their borders.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Eoin told him. “Once you’ve seen what my brothers can do…” He shrugged. “We frightened them. They saw three keimon who could have held a battlefield against thousands, if they’d had to. And then they looked around, and saw how many keimon were living beside them, and I imagine they felt as if they were waking up inside a locked chest. You wouldn’t know it, but you’re watching kings panic.” He nodded down toward the field, to the scattered lines of horses and walkers and wagons. The mix of voices murmured up the hill. The wind hissed in the grass, stirred the trees on the far side. It bit into their clothes, and Eoin resisted the urge to step out into the sunlight for heat. Below, he watched the walkers falter against the heavy breeze and tuck themselves closer together.
“You could still go down to them,” Danta said.
Eoin shook his head and didn’t look at him. “No,” he said, on half a laugh. “If you’re afraid of nothing else in this world, Danta, fear the panicked man. There’s a madness in it. And a strength like you’ve never seen.”
Danta shifted on his horse, and did not speak again.
It was another hour before they decided to cross the next hill. The crowd had mostly passed them, and it was time to catch up with the front again, to wait out the next few hours’ long haul across the plains. Eoin led the way, down the hill away from them, then skirting around the back of a rise to stay out of sight. Danta hung back in the tall grass, letting his horse choose its footing in the stony slope, and Eoin pressed forward, one ear turned to make sure he didn’t slip too far back.
The sunlight felt good on his back. Eoin rounded his shoulders into it, and dropped his head just a little, letting it touch the skin of his neck and seep in through his hair. When he heard the other horses, he raised his head lazily.
There were two of them, men in plain brown clothes, and coats buttoned all the way up to their throats. It would have looked fine, if either one of them had a hand shoved into a pocket, or a fist locked around the collar to hold in heat. Instead, they rode straight-backed and easy, as if they were used to square shoulders, straight seams and high buttons. One of them looked familiar. He was older than the two, but still barely Danta’s age, muscular and brown haired. Eoin had seen him recently in Madden’s castle, but only from a distance.
Turning his horse around, he ran back toward Danta, coming up beside him just as the two men approached.
For a moment, none of them said anything.
“Where are you headed?” the older of the two said, after a minute. He gave Eoin a friendly smile.
Eoin slid his arm forward, as if readjusting his grip on the reins. His sleeve fell back a bit, showing a wide piece of the red band tied around his wrist. He watched the man to see if he would look, to see what he would do when he did. “Oruasta,” he said.
The man’s eyes flickered down. Then his smile stretched wider.
His friend leaned forward. “You’re a bit far from the pack,” he said. His voice was higher than Eoin had expected, and he looked over to reassess his age. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen, muscled from work, but in that thin boyish way. “You’d be safer down in the flats with the rest of us.”
“We can take care of our own,” Eoin told him.
The boy scrunched his eyebrows together. Danta glanced at Eoin, then back to the two men, and pressed his lips together.
“Really,” the boy said. “You ever run these hills before? All kinds of things come out at night.”
“I don’t think we need to worry about them, Drystan,” the first one said.
Drystan looked over immediately, and shut his mouth just as quickly. Eoin expected confusion, but his expression had smoothed, open with expectation. Waiting for what he was supposed to do next.
“What’s your name?” the older of the two asked.
Eoin smiled, mirroring his amiable air. “What’s yours?”
The man laughed. “Should we argue a bit, or just cut to settling on giving them at the same time?” His smile titled up at one corner when Eoin stayed quiet another moment. “Aled,” he said.
“Eoin,” Eoin said.
Aled nodded, as if he’d expected nothing less.
“You’re one of Vardeck’s?” Eoin asked.
Aled looked away, turned his head just enough to avoid his eye. He worked his jaw, hiding another deep smile. Drystan pulled the reins of his horse a little too tight and the animal shifted, hooves clapping against the hardened dirt.
“Relax,” Aled murmured to him. He flicked a look back to Eoin. “This is a Warlord. He’s just going home. I trust we won’t be in each other’s way?”
“I don’t see how we could be,” Eoin told him.
Aled nodded, touched two fingers to his forehead in a loose salute, and turned his horse back for a pass between the hills. Drystan fell in behind him, close to the flank in perfect formation, and neither one of them looked back. Eoin watched them for a full minute, swallowing a heavy breath. Danta waited for him to move, keep glancing between him and the two riders, the questions he wasn’t asking so loud that Eoin could hear them in the air.
“It’s time to find the others,” Eoin said. Turning his horse, he kicked it into a hard run before Danta could say anything.
They pounded over the hills together, away from the open fields and into the more twisted lines of the land. The hills came and went, some of them flat sided and jagged with stone, growing steeper and taller as they moved. Around the bases the grass turned to bramble and the bramble into low trees. The wind cut through a little harder at times, guided by the hard hills around them, and then disappeared entirely in the lee of the larger swells. Then sun was sinking low when they finally reached the wide camp Tiernan had set up, with its rows of tents shoved up against the base of a tall slope. Tiernan himself was waiting on the edge, arms crossed, watching them approach.
Eoin pulled his horse to a stop, dropping into a shallow turn to give the animal more room to slow. He twisted to look at his brother.
“They’re not letting them go,” Eoin said. “Vardeck’s coming after them, just like we thought he would.”
Danta stopped, a little breathless, beside him. In the dim evening light, he looked between the two men, silent, eyes wide.
Tiernan didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he swore, deliberately and fiercely.
Eoin almost laughed, but it came out as a sliding breath. “My thoughts exactly.”
“How far away are they?” Tiernan asked.
“Half a day, if you move fast,” Eoin told him.
Tiernan turned silent again. He resettled his hands over his arms. Eoin watched the knuckles tighten, the skin pale a little.
“If we were to do something, we would want to do it quickly,” Eoin told him.
His older brother flicked him a look. “Did you say hello?”
Eoin looked innocently to Danta. “I don’t believe I did. Did you hear me say hello?”
“No,” Danta said uncertainly.
“No,” Eoin repeated. He looked back to Tiernan. “I was very rude to them, I promise. But I did give them my name.”
Tiernan shook his head. But his fingers had loosened. “Good,” he said. He didn’t offer anything else, but dropped his hands to his side and scanned the horizon as if counting the miles.