It was magnificent. A wall-less, roof-less castle made of ice-white flame with rivers of blue trickling through it. Tiernan stopped in the dark, mouth open to catch his breath after his constant rush around the camp, and watched. Even in the yellow light of the fire catching in the plains behind him, it was still brilliant, shining like a frozen cliff under a full moon. The line of it wavered, lazily rolling back and forth to form the ring. His men were pitch-dark in front of it, darting back and forth at the edges, one or two running all the way across like shadow puppets. It towered three or four times the height of a man, and heat rolled off it, thicker and cleaner than the crackling fire. And it hissed like a distant waterfall.
Tiernan had never seen a shield so large from the outside. Once, just once, he and all four of his brothers had stood together to make a ring like it, when they were children. It was just lessons, but they filled Oruasta’s center square with light and warmed a dead winter. But all he had seen were his hands pressed flush to the white sheet in front of him, and a few quick glimpses of the edges as he watched them to make sure the unraveling ends stayed against his brothers’ energy on either side. All he had done was concentrate, grin under the weight of it while his older brother, Callix called out encouragement that sounded like gentle insults, and Eoin tried to make them all laugh too hard to breathe so he wouldn’t be the first to drop his side. And wait for his father to finally tell them they’d done enough, that lessons were finished for the night. When it was over, he remembered seeing awed faces in some of the windows that faced the square, but he had just been tired from heavy lifting and laughter.
He’d seen one or two of his brothers raise a shield, bright even in full daylight, and that had been stunning enough. He’d seen his father and Callix make a wave of shattering fire that cracked boulders when it fell, and that had been a little glimpse into a frightening fairy tale, but this…
This was like watching a star dress itself in its gleam and glory. If this was what they looked like, joined together, energies sparking against each other and reaching toward heaven with burning hands, he understood why they called his family the Warlords and watched the rest of the keimon with wide eyes. Even he had tightened his fists and pulled back, realizing how many people had hands to the inside of that wal.
They couldn’t hold it up for more than a few minutes. The heat was just too much, wide as it was. But wide as it was, when they let it fall, there would be enough energy left hanging in the air to reform the main strength of it on a word. There wasn’t much more they could do tonight.
“Light it up!” he shouted.
He counted five and fresh fire hit the camp, more than before, spread across the plain in rolling heaps. The screaming had died down, but it flared up again, cut into the dark and stuck there. He spun toward it, watching the shadows. There was still a crowd by the camp, people who hadn’t made it to the ring of protection, and they were scattering in every direction, some running for the trees, some for the hills, some just moving thoughtlessly as far as their legs would take them. Tiernan watched, backing toward the hills. His men were following him, and Eoin was somewhere shouting his orders for retreat, and everything was in shambles.
But Tiernan didn’t see any fire running with anyone, caught on their clothes or skin. They were just shadows, and he let out a low breath. He kept moving for the hills.
At his first climb, the orange fires disappeared behind stone. The heat faded behind the cliff face, but he could still see the glow off the keimon’s shield. He kept climbing, half running, half scrambling on hands and knees to get higher. When the shield finally came down, it was like someone had dropped a blanket over the plain. Everything was dark. Everything was quiet, except for some rustling that was half breeze and half his own shuffling boots.
Tiernan came to a full stop, listening. He tore out of his dark jacket, and shuddered in his white shirt. But he dropped the jacket anyway and kicked it away. Someone was crying a little farther in the hills. Someone else was hushing them, gently, but their voice was shaking too. He climbed to meet them.
They were holed up with their back to a sheer piece of stone. One, a boy no older than ten was huddled over his knees, while the other, his mother maybe, rested on one knee with her arm around his shoulders.
“Are you all right?” Tiernan whispered as he crouched beside them.
The woman faced him quickly, looked him up and down, swallowed and nodded. “Is it over?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. He glanced behind him. Then he turned back to the boy. “Come on,” he said, offering his hand. The boy took it just long enough to stand, then scrubbed his hands against the front of his breeches. His mother stood beside him and Tiernan led them higher into the hills.
“Shouldn’t we be going back down?” she asked after a moment.
Tiernan looked back at her carefully. “That’s your choice,” he said. “But I have friends waiting for me ahead.”
She blinked at him. He could barely see the motion in the dark, but he could feel her silence. He could feel her trying to make his shape out and having better luck with it. “You didn’t come from the city with us,” she said evenly.
Tiernan shook his head. “Not really.” And he waited.
She took the first step forward, and passed him on the way up the hill.
It wasn’t hard to find others. They were collecting each other, in pairs, then small knots, then straggling lines and Tiernan met some on the way up and crossed others on the way down.
“This way,” he told them all, and they fell in together eagerly. Some of them hugged as they found people they knew. Others just stepped in shoulder to shoulder and leaned on each other anyway. In the dark, they always fell quiet again, feet crunching in the rough dirt, breath whispering on the air.
It was almost an hour before Tiernan found Eoin, and he had a string of almost twenty walking behind him. Eoin had a collection of his own, a little louder than his, but Tiernan imagined that Eoin had been chattering to them most of the way, and Tiernan was grateful for the sound.
Eoin clasped his hand as soon as they were close enough.
“That was exciting,” Eoin said. He was grinning tiredly.
“Any trouble?” Tiernan asked.
“Not much,” Eoin said. “But three people twisted ankles on the way here. Mountain climbing in dark is not a common skill, apparently.” His smile widened, and he looked to see if Tiernan was laughing at his joke. Tiernan nodded along.
“Nothing more than though,” Eoin said. “I sent some of the others to go through the trees, and I’ve still got one or two combing the hills, but it looks like we have about fifty new friends.”
Tiernan nodded, and didn’t say anything.
“Not as many as we’d hoped,” Eoin agreed.
“But it’s some,” Tiernan said. He nodded over his shoulder to where the ground had finally leveled out, and trees leaned low over the ground. “Let’s get them to camp. We’ll see how many of them will stay with us.”