The sun was climbing higher. The chill that had hovered in the camp was slowly bleeding away, replaced with a light heat whenever bare skin faced the sky. Tiernan rubbed absently at his cheek, tracing the line of his beard.
It was a familiar feeling, the heat. The fires had been hotter, hit his skin more like a red-edged hammer, but this was close enough. He felt awake again. Partly, it was the sunlight, and partly, it was the memory of necessary motion.
Few of the others were sleeping. Tiernan wasn’t sure whether it was the sunlight or Aled.
They were gathering in knots. They talked for a few minutes, heads bent together, and then didn’t talk. They stood up, moved around, rooted through the few things they’d brought with them. It wasn’t much. But some of them had knives. Some of them had something longer. Most of them just spread out enough to open and close their hands. And then they knotted together again, none of that motion sufficient to calm a heartbeat.
“What did we do?” Danta asked, standing next to him.
Tiernan worked his tongue around the inside of his teeth for a moment, watching the crowd. “We started a fight,” he said. “What did you think we’d done?”
Tiernan felt no surprise when one of them approached him. He was a tall man with graying hair and a hatchet held comfortably in his left hand.
“Wesson,” he said, and held out a callused hand.
“Tiernan.” Tiernan clasped his arm.
“We’re decided,” Wesson said. “We’re going down there. Most of us anyway.”
Tiernan nodded, but looked away. Aled had been an idiot to try to tell them to abandon the people in the valley. Tiernan was not that kind of idiot, but this wasn’t going to be an easy victory.
“I’m guessing there was a reason you did this they way that you did,” Wesson said. “That you’re not really allowed to help us.”
Tiernan faced him slowly. “Allowed? You do know who I am.”
“Yes.” Wesson smiled and nodded. “You have a father. And you’re not the oldest brother.”
Tiernan shook his head. “My brother would have told me to do this, if I hadn’t spoken fast enough.”
Wesson paused, listening, nodding again. “Glad to hear it.” He met Tiernan’s eyes, a little sideways. “But something held you back.”
Tiernan looked around the camp. “You can see what’s here. It’s only me, my brother, and the sixteen we brought with us. There was little we could have done in sunlight. And Oruasta can’t afford to anger the Kings.”
“So, you’re not here,” Wesson said.
“I’m not here,” Tiernan agreed.
Wesson paused, then he surprised Tiernan with a laugh. “That’s a thin lie now.”
Tiernan ran a hand over his beard again, laughing too, though he wasn’t sure how. “The way I’ve counted, I should be able to thicken it up, if I just repeat it enough. You know? Stack it on top of itself a few times.”
Wesson shook his head. Very slowly, he bit his lip, straightened his smile, looked at Tiernan seriously again. “And you can’t help us again.”
Pausing, Tiernan took a breath. Then he shook his head.
Thea nudged Anie with her toe. “Get up, sleepy,” she murmured. “I need your help.”
Anie rolled over. She stretched her arms over her head, unsure when she had fallen asleep. Her spine felt twisted, and her bones felt heavy. Mel was faced into the ground next to her, as she usually was when she was awake and didn’t want to be just yet.
Thea was moving, packing up the few blankets they’d taken back out that morning and staking them back into the cart. Anie blinked.
“Help?” she asked.
“We’re moving,” Thea said. “Everyone is.”
The camp was rattling around them. Chas and Darien were up, helping the next wagon over. There crumpled blankets on the ground, but no people. They were too busy walking, running, packing, talking.
“It’s not safe here,” Thea said. “The valley is too open.”
Mel pushed herself up on her elbows, dragged her hair out of her face. “So, where are we going? The hills?”
“The trees,” Thea said. “I think.”
Chas dropped a pile of pans on the ground with a clang. They rang and hummed as they slid down the growing pile already leaning haphazardly. The women behind him handed him something else, a cloth pack, and he dropped that too, without looking at it. Darien pulled two rucks out of the wagon bed and strode back toward the cart. He set them carefully inside.
“We can’t take the wagons,” Anie said quietly.
“We’re running,” Thea said. “We have to get away from here as quick as we can. And the big wagons will be no good in the trees.”
Anie sat up, fast, and Mel did too, pulling her hair back again.
“But Momma,” Anie said.
Thea met her eye firmly. “Momma will catch up,” she said. “She’ll do it. And we’ll be easier to find if we stay with the others. Two hundred people leave a lot more footprints than three.” She held Anie’s gaze for another moment, took a breath, then glanced at Darien across the cart.
He nodded gently.
She looked down and took another breath.
“Well, there are almost a hundred of us,” Wesson said. He shifted his grip on his hatchet, watched the gray head bob and point down again. He smiled up at Tiernan. “We can handle this.” Nodding, he started back toward the crowd.
“I would go with you, if I could,” Tiernan said, stopping him after a few steps.
Wesson looked back over his shoulder, eyebrows raised slightly.
“Any you can bring back, we’ll take with us to Oruasta,” Tiernan promised.
“Thank you,” Wesson said. He touched his head in a small salute.
“How much do you know about Vardeck’s army?”
Turning slowly, Wesson stepped closer to Tiernan again. “Is there something I should know?”
Tiernan hesitated. Taking a breath, he glanced over his shoulder, watching for his own men, and stepped closer as well. “You know Vardeck has a standing army?”
Wesson nodded. “A lot of the Kings kept them after the last wars. The borders haven’t exactly been steady.”
“You know its three times the size of any other King’s?” Tiernan asked.
Wesson paused. His brow drifted higher. “Three?” he repeated. “His lands aren’t that wide.”
“No,” Tiernan said, weighting the word. “It’s really not. The rumor is, he wanted twenty soldiers for every keimon he had trained, just in case they turned on him and he needed to bring them down.”
Wesson sighed, set his teeth together, shook his head. “We’re not that frightening.”
“His are,” Tiernan cut in.
Wesson looked up sharply.
“He tours their training ground every year. Personally,” Tiernan said. “You think he doesn’t know what they’re capable of? He keeps them spread out, one to a squad, two if they’re really in the thick of things.”
Wesson put a foot back, almost as if he would turn. He paused, but held Tiernan’s eye. “There are twenty of them down there.”
“We counted twenty-two,” Tiernan said.
“Are their squads nearby?” Wesson demanded.
Tiernan shook his head. “No,” he promised. “We checked, and you can’t hide that many men. And this is the first time we’ve ever heard of Vardeck allowing so many out without their usual watchers. So imagine how much trust a fearful king must have in these twenty-two to let them command themselves so far from home. You are not stepping into an easy fight.”