Seryn tilted her head back, slowly meeting Ern’s eye. He was taller than she had realized before. They’d always sat side by side on horseback when they talked before, and her horse made her plenty tall. With her feet on the ground, looking up at him, there was a gap. Maybe it was the sleeplessness humming in her skin, maybe it was the feel of her energy still sticking on her palms, maybe it was just stupidity, but she only met his eye and squared her shoulders and almost smiled.
He was trying to be intimidating. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she felt it, but it was ridiculous. It felt like sparring with one of the raw boys and girls that Macsen brought into the barracks. They had all the pieces they needed – hands, arms, legs, feet, torso – but didn’t know the leverage that would hold her to the ground. He had all the right pieces, but that kindly slope to his neck as he looked down at her couldn’t pin a fly.
“I’m Seryn,” she said evenly.
Ern took a step closer. She just tilted her head farther back
“Who are you?” Ern repeated.
Harun shifted behind her. She didn’t turn, but she thought it was just a rustle to cover his own urge to laugh.
“Seryn,” she repeated.
Ern nodded to Harun. “Who’s he?” he asked.
“Harun,” Seryn said. “I think you’ve met.”
Ern turned a shoulder back to the rest of the camp, looking over the remains of it, the people wandering between burned out patches of grass. “All of us, we came with brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children…” He swung his head back toward Seryn. “But you. You ride in with them. Twenty of them.” He paused. “Did you notice that’s a nice round number?”
“Twenty-one,” Seryn corrected him steadily. “And… I thought we already talked about this.”
“They’re not family,” Ern said. ‘They’re not even really friends, are they? You say something. They carry it out like it’s their own thought. Did you think I didn’t see that last night?”
Seryn blinked. She took a breath. Considering, she looked lazily back at Harun. “I was raised with him,” she said, and looked back at Ern. “With all of them. We sat at the same table for breakfast, dinner, and supper. We had rooms next to each other. We played in the same yard. Saw each other every day, all day. Worked together. Fought together. Isn’t that family?” She shrugged. “I’m just that cousin that can always get people to pull their toes behind the lines.”
Erin looked her over.
Seryn gave him a steady smile. “You should get some sleep. It’s been a long night.”
Ern smiled too, and she would have thought it was just a return on her expression except his eyes had dropped to his boots, to the dirt scuffed up beneath them. “Are you trying to play the cousin with me too, now?” he asked. When he met her eye again, he was still smiling, and it was heavy, like it was more than just amusement.
Seryn shook her head. “No, she said.
Ern looked over her shoulder at Harun. “Is she going to send you off to bed next? Is that where the rest of your twenty-one are?”
“Yes, they’re sleeping,” Harun said. His voice was heavy, too, waiting to see why he was asking.
“Exhausted, you mean,” Ern returned. He looked at Seryn. “You ordered them to bed because there was nothing else to do with them.”
Seryn didn’t say anything. She watched his face. He was sun tanned, a little too red from the last few days on the open road. There were lines around his mouth from smiling too much. And lines in his forehead, just between his eyes, thinner, from the occasional glare. His expression was so schooled, she suddenly realized she wanted to see that glare, just to see if it was trained, too.
“You’re poorly trained,” Ern told her.
“Excuse me?” Seryn said.
“All of you,” he said. He looked at Harun, and it eased some of the strength of his gaze. “That shield was near perfect, but you Worked for half an hour, and it rolled most of you straight into the sack? Either your twenty are more out of practice than a crowd of keimon who have just come out of hiding, or your teachers never taught you how to keep it from hollowing you out.”
Seryn hesitated. “We’ve mostly figured things out on our own.”
Ern raised his eyebrows, a question, but the accompanying silence made it clear that was obvious.
“What did you paint you face as when we left?” Ern asked. He tilted his head curiously.
Seryn didn’t answer. She didn’t have an answer. She didn’t know what he was talking about.
“We didn’t,” Harun said smoothly, clipping the gap in the conversation so quickly, it almost disappeared. He sounded easy, certain, so Seryn didn’t turn to watch him. She listened, trusting him to cover whatever this was. “We didn’t see any reason to. We weren’t the ones tearing our sleeves off to show off our scars when we danced past the guards, but none of us were frightened enough to hide our faces on our way out. They can’t catch us again.”
Ern looked at him, raised his eyebrows at him too, then twisted to look at the scarred field behind him. “Can’t they?” he asked.
Ducking her head, Seryn almost laughed, but kept it to a heavy breath.
Ern was watching her when she looked up again. “But you did come with us from the city,” he said, too slowly.
“Yes,” Seryn said.
“I’ve been asking around,” Ern told her. “No one remembers any one of you.”
“Do they remember you?” Seryn asked.
Ern faltered. It was a shallow pause, but he met her eye and looked away, fast. She memorized the look, then ignored it.
“It was a big city,” she continued. “And we were all hiding.”
“You’re saying I passed you in the market square, and I just don’t remember?” Ern asked.
“Maybe,” she said. She shrugged. “I was good at keeping my head down.”
“You weren’t there,” Ern said, so gently, it slid over her without really feeling like a disagreement. She only felt the backlash at the end of the sentence.
“I think you should go,” Harun said. He took half a step up to stand shoulder to shoulder with Seryn.
Ern pointed a finger at him, and somehow, it stopped Harun from coming any farther forward. “Good,” Ern said. “You should talk more often. That’s the first time I’ve actually considered you could be her brother.”
One more steady look, and Ern turned back to Seryn. She stayed as she was, still and straight and blank-faced.
“Were they yours?” Ern murmured. His tone had dropped. Seryn wasn’t sure even Harun could hear him. She examined his face, looking at the firm angle of his jaw, the quick way his eyes moved to meet hers, to watch her. He leaned his shoulders close, not to make her feel small, she realized, but shielding her from sight.
“What are you talking about?” she whispered.
“Our visitors last night,” Ern said.
“What are you talking about?” she repeated, a little louder, because it was hard to fit that much disbelief into so small a tone.
“Don’t,” Ern warned her. “I know what you are. And all I’m asking, is for you to tell me if this is what you were sent for. To steal us away in the night, corner us stupid and scared a few at a time, so that you can handle us.”
Seryn slid one foot back. Maybe to run, maybe just because the fighter’s stance felt better. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Ern caught her hand. It was quick. One moment his arms hung idly at his sides, the next, one hand snapped out and caught the bones of her wrist. She could twist free. But she could see his body slanted in for the next grab if she did, and she thought she might break the bones in her hand trying to get free from the strength of his fingers. He pressed into her skin, and at first it was the ends of his fingers that hurt the most. Then it was his palm, pressed to the thin skin across the back of her hand, growing warm, then hot, then burning.
She pulled on her arm, flinched, just to move air between their hands. Harun stepped in, snapped one hand down on the bones of Ern’s shoulder, and another in the soft muscle just above his elbow. Ern dropped to his knee, let go, and Harun twisted his arm up behind his back and pushed him down to the ground. Ern caught himself on one hand. Harun bore down harder, and Seryn kicked his elbow out. Ern hit the ground with a groan, rolled onto his back, and Seryn followed him down, knee on his arm, leaning into the hand that was still glowing ice blue.
“I know you’re from Vardeck,” he murmured, before she could say anything.
She stared down at him.
“You need me not to say too loudly,” he said.
“I need you not to try to take my hand off,” she returned. She nodded at him, steady. “You need that, too.”
“I’ve heard about you,” Ern said, quiet. Seryn wasn’t sure that even Harun could hear. “Vardeck’s border guard of the keimon, raised in barracks, trained with weapons before they were big enough to lift proper ones.” Ern shook his head slowly. “I knew you were young. Never quite pictured you looking like you could have been in the crib last week.”
Seryn leaned forward, digging her knee farther into the hollowing of his arm. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “But if you want to believe that I’m some sort of warrior child, all right. If it will convince you to leave me be.”
“Seryn,” Harun said.
Ern met her eye easily still. “Just tell me that those weren’t yours last night,” he said. “I won’t say a word. I don’t care if Vardeck sent you to keep us on the right roads. I just won’t be dragged off in the dark.”
Seryn watched his face. Carefully, she stood, making sure she leaned her weight forward enough to give him one last dig in the arm. She touched the back of her hand, testing the edges of the burn as it reddened her skin.
“If a King like Vardeck wanted us dead,” she said. “Do you think he’d send a handful of his prized guard to keep us on a road? Don’t you think he’d just send out everything he had and destroy you in a night?” She waited to see Ern’s expression shift as he heard and understood, then didn’t wait for any response. She fell in step beside Harun, and they walked swiftly to the far side of the camp.