“Easy,” Mel said. She caught Thea’s arm as Thea handed the last of the bedding to Darien. Immediately, he tucked it tight between the larger sacks in the back.
Thea looked at Mel, stopped just where she was, arms and spine rigid.
“We can’t,” Mel said.
Pausing, Darien rested his hands on the wall of the cart. “Mel…” he said. “It’s all right.”
Mel didn’t look at him, holding Thea’s gaze, steady and insistent. She lowered her voice, to keep him out of it. “We left home for Momma,” she murmured. “We are not running anywhere without her.”
“We left for all of us,” Thea said.
Mel tilted her head, the question so obvious, Thea took a step back from it.
“This was your choice,” Thea said.
“And I’m not taking it back!” Mel told her. “I’m with you, Thea.” She was almost laughing, but it was too tense for her, just an unsteady effort to lighten the weight hanging off Thea.
Anie shifted on her feet, hands tucked into the folds of her coat. She glanced around, met Darien’s eye, and he gave her a small smile. Quickly, she looked away again, but she took an easier breath.
“Think for a minute,” Mel said. She pulled, just a little on Thea’s sleeve. “We should wait for her. Or look for her.”
“Someone attacked us in the middle of the night, because they hate us that much,” Thea said. “We need to run.”
“Da hasn’t even caught up with us yet,” Mel said. “You want to split us into more pieces for us to find?”
Thea raised her eyebrows, quick, and leaned her head toward Mel. “You still think he’s coming? We left in the dark, in the middle of the night, after he told us to stay where we were, and you think he’s going to run to join us here?”
Anie rocked back on her heels, blinking.
Mel didn’t move at all. “Of course, he’s coming, Thea,” she said. “He was just scared.”
Thea paused. She looked down after a moment, unable to mirror the hard look on Mel’s face anymore. Her jaw slacked, and she took a shallow breath, shook her head. “We have to go,” she whispered.
“Where are we running to?” Mel asked. She turned then, raised her voice, including Darien again, and catching Chas’ eye as he approached the cart. “We’re still months away from Oruasta.”
“There’s a fortress,” Chas said. He threw the last of the new bags into the cart, kept a hand on them to make sure they settled into place properly. “This side of the mountains. I’ve been hearing about it for days. There’s room for us and it’ll keep us safe through the winter.”
“A fortress?” Mel said. “And we’re just going to politely ask the owners to hand it over to us?”
“It’s empty,” Darien said.
“Empty?” Mel repeated. She met each of their eyes, carefully, harshly. “You mean abandoned.”
Chas pulled back, suddenly unsure what he’d stepped into. He raised his hands a little. He looked to Darien, but his brother was only shaking his head.
“There are only two reasons soldiers abandon a fortress, and neither of them helps us,” Mel said.
Thea shook her head. “Just stop,” she said. The last syllable snapped off the end of her tongue.
Mel looked to her, and Anie thought she heard her take a breath. Her expression slacked, and her eyes went a little wide.
“You brought us all out here,” Thea said, very slowly. “You made your secret, exciting plans with your friends, and you decided you’d do it. You woke up in the middle of the night. You played dress up, painted your face into something romantic, woke up Anie and played dress up with her, too. You snuck us around the city, and it was all a good night for you. Did you even think about what might happen once we got out here?”
Mel took another breath.
“You didn’t,” Thea said. “And I have to. Like always. This is just another batch of your fun, gone sour.”
“No,” Mel said, quiet. “It’s not.”
Thea hesitated. She looked to Mel uncertainly. “Are you coming with me or not?”
Mel paused then, too. She clenched her jaw, then carefully let it go. “Of course I’m coming,” she said.
Thea shut her eyes, and eased a ragged breath into her chest.
“I would go with you, if I could,” Tiernan told Wesson.
Wesson nodded. “Well, we have to.”
“Remember one thing,” Tiernan said, as he started to turn away again. “Two men will run away from a fight: the coward, and the one buying himself another chance. If the fight turns, don’t get so stubborn that you won’t leave it.”
“Don’t worry,” Wesson told him. He took a step back, touched his open hand to his forehead in a layman’s salute. “I have every intention of following you back to Oruasta. With my boys.” Turning, he joined back up with the crowd, clapping the man next to him on the back, sliding the hatchet in his hand easily out of the way of the woman on his other side.
It took the whole mass of them less than an hour to sort out necessities from dear things and dear things from what they were willing to leave behind. Sacks and boxes, spilled clothes, pots and pans littered the ground between the larger wagons, stripped and abandoned in the field. Chas steered the cart around what he could, while Darien ran ahead, kicking things out of the way of the horse. There were small cabinets, pieces of carved tables, too heavy to take with them. Anie walked beside the cart, and touched the things as she passed them, wondering how much of it might lie there forever, softening and falling apart in the sun and rain. She wondered if anyone would come back for it. She hoped they would, so long as it wasn’t the fire-setters from the night before.
Up ahead, the crowd looked thinner than it ever had. She knew a lot of them had gone missing, but it was the quietness of them that made it so obvious. There had always been a rumble before, when they passed through. Now, most of the wagons were forgotten behind them. They’d kept all the animals, horses and mules and oxen, and their hooves clapped, hollow on the hard ground. Anie’s own footsteps only made a faint hiss in the long grass. The people ahead of her were fading into the trees, and even that hiss was disappearing. There were a few more calls, warnings about the first big roots to curl into their path, and directions for which way to turn after they were under the cover of the branches.
It wasn’t much. Anie tucked herself closer to the cart, resting a hand on the side. Their wheels still rattled a little, and the wood murmured at the roll of the field.
Under the trees, it turned cooler. Anie pulled her coat tighter.
Eoin slipped beside Tiernan, arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t look at his brother, eyes wandering over the men and women who stood over or sat around the growing circle of the camp. Tiernan glanced at him. He was a little closer than he usually stood, tucked just a little behind him, turned so that he might very easily whisper something. But Eoin said nothing. After a moment, Tiernan folded his arms across his chest as well, ready to wait.
“If…” Eoin said slowly. “I was planning to sneak away with them when they head back down into the valley… Is that the sort of thing that I couldn’t tell you about?”
Tiernan shut his eyes, and refused to look at his little brother for fear he’d smile. “It would be an idiotic idea.”
“Well, I know that,” Eoin said. “But it’s where we would be, if we were just men.”
“If we didn’t own a city that Kings were terrified to try to take,” Tiernan said.
“Right,” Eoin said. “If we weren’t the things that made Kings scream like little boys. That’s what I said.”
Tiernan smiled despite himself.
Eoin glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, and said nothing more.
“Change your clothes at least,” Tiernan said. “And stay at the back.”
“I can do one of those,” Eoin said.
Tiernan shook his head. “And cover up the wristband.”
Eoin paused. He held up his fist, examining the piece of red cloth tied around his wrist. He turned it in the sunlight, as if he’d forgotten what it looked like. They’d both been wearing them for a long time.
“Oh,” Eoin said. He smiled at it wryly. “Madden’s gift of protection. Do you think it still holds?” He looked over at his brother.
Tiernan shrugged. “I don’t know. But it marks you for what you are.”
“A dear friend of the King?” Eoin asked lightly.
“A man who can who at least knows a man who can make Kings do what they don’t want to,” Tiernan countered.
“Right,” Eoin said again. “Scream like little boys.” He shook his head. “How many of ours can I take with me?”
“Quack!” someone shouted, several yards ahead. The trees did a good job of twisting the voice, turning the vowels, deadening the consonants, so Anie wasn’t quite sure what she’d heard.
Mel, keeping pace beside her, turned to look at her slowly. She looked like she wanted to smile, but she’d been quiet enough over the last few hours, that the expression didn’t come readily. “Quack?” she said quietly, testing to see if Anie had heard the same thing.
“Quack,” Anie said, sure that’s what it had been, and unsure why it had been called.
Mel looked to Chas, on top of the cart, for another confirmation. He was smiling, nodding along.
“Quack!” another person shouted. It was a little closer in the line of people winding their way through the trees.
“Please,” Mel said. “Someone tell me that that’s not part of the plan to help keep us hidden. No one is going to believe we’re just a string of ducks.”
Anie giggled to herself and hid it behind one hand. The shout had been a little closer again, and a little clearer.
“That can’t be it…” Thea said.
Darien climbed onto the side of the cart for a moment, stretching up on his toes to see what was coming down the line.
“Quack!” a man shouted over his shoulder, now only a yard or two ahead.
Darien cracked a smile. “There’s a low branch,” he said. He looked up at his brother. “Duck,” he said.
Chas dipped his head as he came to it, bent almost to his knees to keep the leaves out of his face.
“Quack!” Chas shouted over his shoulder.
It had only taken a few minutes for the men and women to agree: it was better to move fast, than sit and plan a fight that a wide crowd would turn into mayhem anyway. They thought about splitting into two groups, coming around the mountains in two directions to better catch the camp between them, but there weren’t many of them. Eoin had count the group twice as he worked through it, and come up at less then ninety both times. He’d brought nine, bringing them close to a hundred.
Most of them were keimon, and most of them were tired, and barely half of them actually held a weapon. Their best chance still rested with in the men and women in the camp below recognizing their own and knowing which side to take.
They took a short rest, slept an hour in the growing daylight. Then, rolling out of bed, they started straight back down through the hills together.
They knotted as close as they dared without risking a bad slide taking too many of them out of the fight before it started. Eoin started at the back, Danta and the other eight close behind him. After a few minutes of slow going, he nodded for them to spread out along the line. They’d been over this long ridge more times in the last few days than anyone else.
An hour’s rough work, and they descended into the last line of hills between them and valley. The slopes ran down steeply, studded with more rock than grass, sliding under their boots when Eoin would have preferred quiet. He looked at the men and women around them, watching their hands start to worry at sleeves, or grip the rocks too hard. They were breathing a little too hard, even for the climb.
“Stay down,” he told them. “Keep low.” And he listened to the call echo up and down the line, holding them steady. They were getting close, and maybe the valley was still asleep, but none of them wanted to be seen until they were ready.
Three of the women sorted themselves out of the order, coming around the outside of the rough path. The rest slowed, letting them get ahead to take a look at what was coming.
Eoin waited, breathed, checked his sleeve to see that it still hid the red cloth at his wrist. He touched the knife at his side, then stretched his palms idly.
“Something’s wrong,” the man beside Eoin murmured. Eoin leaned forward to catch his eye. The man nodded up the line to where two of the women had come back, and bent their heads together with the wide-shouldered man that had been leading them. His hair was graying at the sides, and thinning. He brushed his hand through it as he listened, and his eyes slowly focused on the rocks under his feet.
Eoin nodded to the man next to him, then tapped him on the shoulder to let him by. Working his way quietly forward, Eoin leaned in over the front man’s shoulder.
“– gone,” one of the women was saying. Her hair was braided back, tight, and her hands were braced against her knees. “The wagons are still there, but everyone else is gone. It looks like they left in a hurry, but none of the dirty down the valley is torn up. They either went into the hills or the trees.”
“And they left some behind?” the man asked.
“Maybe. There’s just a line of them with their horses, straight across the valley.”
“How many?” the man asked.
“Twenty-two,” the other woman said. She was younger than the other, but had the same straight nose, the same ash-blond hair. She started to look over her shoulder, wiping her sweat off the back of her neck, then stopped when she saw the man’s head come up.
“Twenty-two?” Eoin echoed.
The man looked sideways at him – a little too long, as if Eoin had caught him by surprise – and he nodded. Eoin thought he caught a small smile from him before he turned back to the women.
The younger one was glancing between Eoin and the man, carefully. “Does that mean something?”
“Exactly twenty-two of Vardeck’s people joined up with us,” the man said, voice low.
“But they wouldn’t have all stayed to meet you, if everyone else left,” Eoin said.
“They’re lined up, waiting,” the first woman said. “Like they were last night when they made their shield, except now it’s a solid line across the valley. Each of them has a horse,” she said. She looked at both of them purposefully. “They’re here for a reason.”