The day ran long. The hours stacked up between Seryn’s shoulder blades instead of sliding past her shoulders the way they usually did, and by noon, she was counting down the minutes until sunset. The carts and wagons rumbled forward, and she stayed in her saddle, wandering up and down the line. Walkers wandered apart, and pulled back together, avoiding one patch of grass, one rough hill, one crease in the earth they disliked. Seryn watched, and she kept her mouth shut. Ern had called her young, and she knew enough to read the word “brash” behind it, and know she couldn’t push much more today. The others rode in their usual ring around the walkers, wandering like her, but never leaving that precarious patrol. She nodded to them as they all came and went, and trusted them to hold the line together for now.
Everyone stopped for the night just over the roll of a hill, which held the brunt of a breeze off their backs. There were still two hours before sundown, but they all scrambled for their nightly comforts: water, fuel for the fire, food, the softest patch of earth. Crackling flames popped up like stars in the dusky sky, dim, but rolling with warmth. Seryn ran a loop around the new camp, marking the edges, smiling and nodding to whoever met her eye, then ran back to her own.
Chezza sat at the only fire between their tents. The others were all scattered, as they should be, with only her and Harun and Aled waiting on the orange flames. Aled looked up with his usual lazy grin.
“I hear I won’t be seeing much of you anymore,” he said. “I wish I could say I was sad, but honest, after the last few weeks, I’m just sick of you.”
She shook her head, held back a smile, almost slapped the back of his head as she passed, but chose to flop down beside him instead. She sat, head in one hand, and accepted a rough plate from Harun.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
Seryn pulled her head up immediately. “Yeah,” she said. She took the chunk off bread off the edge of the plate and took a thick bite, then sat back to chew.
“So, do we have a plan?” Harun asked.
Seryn chewed carefully. “We have orders,” she said. “We’ll get as far as we can before they make us flash our hand.”
“Are we allowed to do that?” Chezza asked. She looked around, as if someone might hear. There was no one close enough to know they were doing any more than grumbling about the path. “I thought…” She hesitated, then pulled deliberately at the front of her plain clothes. “I thought we were stuck playing games.”
“We are allowed to do anything we can get away with,” Aled told her. He waggled his eyebrows, as if that excited him, though his mouth stayed in a too-firm line. “Just so long as we end up at that encampment on time, with a full complement.”
Chezza looked to Seryn for confirmation. Seryn watched Aled a moment longer, and nodded.
“Macsen gave you free rein?” Chezza said. Her face was lit a little brighter than usual too.
Seryn blinked at her. She smiled, uncertainly. “Hardly.”
“But you’re actually in charge here,” Chezza said. “You can give orders here. You can…” She hesitated again, but pushed forward, lips pulled on the edge of a smile. “You could tell us to get back into uniform, mount up, and take us onto a battlefield all on our own?”
Seryn watched her, not sure why that pleased her so, but smiling back at her just because her tone was that infectious. “I suppose so,” she said.
Chezza rocked back in her seat. She bit her lip on a grin.
Harun whistled low. “That’s a first.” He glanced at Aled, and Seryn could see the glow in him too, banked low to keep it hidden.
“It’s not for long,” Seryn said carefully. “Vardeck already has four ranks on the way, and Madden promised at least four as soon as he can equip them.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Chezza said. “It’s a hundred stone more trust than he’s ever given us.”
“Of course,” Aled said slowly. He looked across at Seryn. “It makes sense that he’d hand it you, his favorite guard dog.”
Slowly, Seryn put her plate on the ground. She wiped her hands on the tops of her breeches and turned away from the fire. “I need some sleep.” She nodded to Chezza. “See you in a few hours.”
Chezza nodded, and they both went their own ways, curling up to close their eyes and catch some rest. It was full dark when Seryn rolled to her feet again. She took a breath of the cool evening air and it woke her from the inside out, as it usually did. She met Chezza at the horses, swung into the saddle and rode for the hills again.
Time fell properly again, with fresh sleep to clear her mind, and Seryn rode easy. The hills stayed empty, creaking with the press of their horses’ hooves. Seryn and Chezza passed handful of words between them, both happy enough to scan the hills and grass and open, empty valley.
Shortly after midnight, it seemed too quiet. Like Seryn could suddenly hear the patterns of her throat as her breath ran through it. Like she could suddenly hear the sky, a distant whisper, because the breeze had gone still.
Chezza pulled her horse to a gentle stop. She looked over her shoulder. Then she looked back at Seryn, and even in the dark, Seryn could see the uncertainty on her. Her hands were pulled up, hovering inches above the saddle horse. Her shoulders were perfectly set, her elbow squared and stilled.
Seryn put a hand on her horse’s neck, feeling the mare react to her sudden tension. The horse resettled her hooves on the grass, and the dirt beneath it crunched and slid.
“What is that?” Chezza whispered.
Seryn cocked her head immediately, turning to mimic Chezza’s angle, and listened, hard.
And then the campfires below bloomed and bellowed, like flowers roaring into spring. Red and orange and yellow spilled everywhere in an instant, then fell back, pieces of them scattered everywhere that they shouldn’t be. They licked up the lines of the wagons, painted carts into shadows, caught in grass, overran the stones, and flared again. People screamed. Then they moved. Then they ran. And they ran nowhere, spinning, and turning, just trying to stay in the shadows between the flames, and pulling everything they could into the shadow with them.
Seryn kicked into her horses’ sides immediately and ran back into the valley. Chezza stayed close.
“Harun!” Seryn yelled, as she came sliding down, leaned forward over her horse’s neck and holding tight as they raced forward. He was somewhere, and she knew he would be listening, and she had learned a long time ago how to make her voice carry in disaster. “Form the lines! Form the lines!”
And she had to pull sharply to one side. Someone was running right in front of her, barely more than a shadow. The woman turned to look back at her, head wrapped in black cloth, shoulders wrapped in black, breeches dark dark brown. Seryn stared at her. Then the woman kept running, and Seryn followed Chezza deeper into the burning camp.