His men had packed too many blankets. He had never thought of his entourage as a cuddly bunch, until he watched them pull one blanket after another after trunks and crates and bags, as if they had been hoarding them like fluffy gold. But he couldn’t say he was sad this morning, watching the gathered men and women curl into a blanket each and finally tuck their head down to sleep as the sun was crawling up into the sky. He would find a joke to make about it later, but for now, he just smiled.
“Did I hear some trouble earlier?” Eoin asked, sliding in beside his brother.
Tiernan was resting his spin against the leaning trunk of a narrow tree as he looked over their jumble of tents and dead cook fires and sleeping bodies. He had his arms crossed over his chest to stave off the morning cold, wearing only a white shirt. His jacket was nowhere in sight, though Eoin was happy enough for his. Setting his shoulder to the tree, he rested too.
Tiernan shook his head a little. “His name is Bendric, and he thinks that we should all be back in the valley where the mountain lions won’t eat us in our sleep.”
Eoin hesitated. “What?”
Tiernan nodded. “He’s concerned about mountain lions. Not the masked arsonists that ran over his bedroll last night.”
“Well…” Eoin shrugged. “That’s good. Glad we didn’t scare them too much.”
Tiernan gave a low laugh.
“But there will be some saner people who want to go back to the valley soon,” Eoin murmured. “Any idea how we’re going to explain this to them?”
“Plenty of ideas,” Tiernan said. “None that I think will go well.”
Eoin nodded. “Well, hello. We burned your camp because we needed to rescue you from a king, and couldn’t get our political fingers dirty, because he has a bloody great army that might destroy us. But we cared, so that’s the important bit.”
Tiernan gave him a look, and Eoin was surprised it wasn’t accompanied by a slap to the back of his head. Eoin smiled apologetically. “Sorry,” he said.
“You are not helpful,” Tiernan said.
“I know,” Eoin said.
“You are unhelpful,” Tiernan said.
“Yes,” Eoin agreed. He nodded quickly.
“You are as unhelpful as an elephant in a library,” Tiernan told him.
“But equally as interesting,” Eoin pointed out.
“As a baboon on the battlefield,” Tiernan said.
“They do a lot of damage actually…” Eoin tilted his head, considering.
“As one of Vardeck’s soldiers running through our camp right now,” Tiernan said.
“I think I’m better than that,” Eoin objected and at the same time, someone behind him in the copse of trees said, “One of us might actually be good for you just now.”
Tiernan brought his back off the tree and turned in one smooth motion while Eoin just blinked and looked over his shoulder. Still half in the shadows, the dark-haired man he’d met on horseback stood idly. He looked exhausted – eyelids heavy, and swaying just a little – but his shoulders were still squared and he smiled.
Eoin tried not to stare, and blinked instead. “Aled, is it?” he asked.
He nodded, then pointed at the brothers. “Eoin? Tiernan?”
“Who is this?” Tiernan asked.
Eoin opened his mouth for a long moment before he worked the answer out of his mouth. “This is Aled. He’s one of Vardeck’s.”
Tiernan seemed to be working on a delay as well, because he stayed where he was for a count of three, and then suddenly stepped forward, rounding on Aled with a fierceness that a bear might envy.
“I’m not here to cause any trouble,” Aled said quickly, raising his hands. “I promise you.”
“Then you shouldn’t be here,” Tiernan told him.
Aled almost took a step back. “You’ll take them to Oruasta?” he asked. “Straight to Oruasta?”
“We’ll take them to where it’s safe,” Tiernan said, and took another step forward.
Aled stepped backward, hands still raised between them, palms empty. He laughed, one breathless sound, as if he didn’t know what else to do. “You have to take them to Oruasta,” he said. “You have to get them behind walls, or Vardeck and Madden will come after them.”
“You should leave,” Tiernan told him, still pressing him back into the trees.
Aled glanced to Eoin for help. Eoin raised his eyebrows at him, and Aled understood the message clearly enough. He rocked back, quick, to keep out of Tiernan’s way.
“I came to talk to them,” Aled said. “To tell them to stay here with you. To explain to them what will happen to them if they come back down into the valley.”
“Why would you do that?” Eoin asked.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Aled asked. “I’d run too, if it would do me any good anymore.”
Eoin blinked. Tiernan twisted back to look at him, and Eoin only shook his head.
“I can tell them things that will keep them here with you, whether you want them or not,” Aled said. “Do you want my help or not?”
“What do you want from us?” Tiernan asked. “How much do you want from us?” He asked it so lightly, there was no doubt that the highest limit of what he would give was a flat nothing. Even Aled knew it.
“I want to talk to them,” Aled repeated. “Nothing else.”
“And what would you say to them?” Tiernan asked.
Aled took a long time to answer. He met Tiernan’s eye for a long time, taking long breaths that Eoin could see working through his chest. He was tired, bone tired, and Eoin could see him fighting not to surrender and fade back into the shadows. He lifted his chin, met Tiernan’s gaze levelly, and his eyes sharpened with every second he managed it.
Then he clapped. Three times, sharp. “Hey!” he barked. Loud. Eoin had heard voices trained to carry over a battlefield – from his brothers, and his father, from the city commanders, and many others – but Eoin’s carried faster than most and demanded attention. Eoin jumped back. Tiernan jumped forward. Aled darted around them both and strode into the middle of the camp.
Aled clapped again. “Wake up!” he shouted, and he stepped nimbly though the sleepers scattered in their blankets. Tiernan was moving after him, steady and fierce, but it didn’t matter.
“My name is Aled!” Aled said, turning in a tight circle. Men and women were sitting up around him. Some of them kept quiet. Some of them murmured to their neighbors. One woman shouted at him that that was very nice, but he ought to shut up. Aled laughed at her. “Not today, sorry,” he said.
He turned another circle, moving away from Tiernan. “My name is Aled, and I’m a keimon in King Vardeck’s border patrols!” That earned silence in seconds. “You all saw my friends and I ride in a few days ago. There are twenty-one more of us in the valley below. That’s the largest group of us that Vardeck has ever allowed together under one commander, and the only reason he allowed it was so we could ride with you and tell you where to go without you knowing we were anything different from you.”
Eoin watched more heads come up, watched a girl kick the woman next to her so that she would wake up, saw a man on the other side, pull his boy toward his chest and cradle his head.
“When I was six years old, my town was gathered up and sorted out. The keimon were driven out of town and into one of Vardeck’s barracks. At the gate, they sent my parents to the right, and my sister to the left. I haven’t seen my parents since then. A few weeks later, I was sent off to Rendren for training. I lived with other boys and girls my age or younger. We were taught to fight on command, raised in it until we were old enough that they could send us to the patrols. I was sixteen on my first battlefield. And I killed men there, and I’ve killed men since, when I was commanded. I have never lived a day outside their orders since they came for my town.
“King Vardeck has spoken with King Madden,” Aled continued. “He sent two of us to show Madden exactly what we are capable of, and Madden decided to build a keimon patrol of his own. If you go back into that valley, you’ll live like me for the rest of your lives. Stay here. These men will take you away and you’ll never have to think of me or mine again.”
No one said anything for a long time. They shifted in their blankets, quiet, and Eoin felt the tension of fear spidering through them, in a way that shouldn’t have been possible in the open sunlight.
“What about our families?” someone asked, finally. She brought her head up, looked at Aled with eyebrows pulled together. “We left people down there.”
Aled worked the words off his tongue slowly, and they looked like they hurt. “Leave them.”
“What do you mean?” the woman demanded. “We can’t–“
“Have you ever heard of a soldier named Seryn?” Aled asked. His voice cracked out between the trees, and the people fell quiet again. “You might have. I grew up with her. She was maybe three when they took her. As far as she’s told me, she remembers her father’s dog. She remembers one room from her old house. She doesn’t remember her parents. She doesn’t remember any person that she knew before she was thrown into the Rendren bunks and told to learn. She learned better than any of us. They told her to pick up a sword, and she picked it up and swung it. They told her to run laps around the yard, and they had to tell her to stop too, because she wouldn’t on her own. Every time, she was the first one into the yard and the last one out.
“We liked her well enough. She liked us. We called her Oceandeep when she left for patrol. That was just something we did as kids. They told use we were heroes, so we gave ourselves great names. Hers fit. Whatever strength that girl had, it was deeper than anything we could draw from, and she would always outdo us.
“The last time I saw her patrol, they weren’t calling her Oceandeep anymore. She was Seryn Two-Hand. She has the habit of leaving corpses on the battlefield with everything inside their chests burned out, and two perfect black hand prints on their ribs. And she’s still the first one on the field, and the last one off.” Aled turned to catch more eyes, fierce, and exhausted, and moving with some fresh adrenaline that was dragging breath into him again. “She’s down in that valley right now. She’s our commander. And I sit around a campfire with her at night, and I make jokes, and if you make me admit it, I’d have to tell you that girl is my sister, deep in my blood in a way that I’ll never shake. But after everything I’ve heard about her over the last few years, she scares me. And she should scare you. You should run, and pray she doesn’t run you down tomorrow. She won’t let anyone else go.”
Eoin stepped back himself, skin crawling at the tone in his voice. Tiernan even stood still, hands at his sides.
Aled looked to them carefully. “You’ve heard of Two-Hand?” he asked, and it came out a low plea.
“Yes,” Eoin said, nodding.
“Keep them away from her,” Aled said. “She’ll do everything they ask of her.”
When Aled turned to leave, no one called out after him. He walked slow at first, then picked up his feet and ducked into the trees at a run.
Eoin looked at Tiernan, and Tiernan looked back at him, quiet.