The four of them glanced at each other, hush settling in.
The man ran one hand down his beard, and Eoin took a shallow breath, waiting.
Both women shifted on their heels, the same motion a few moments apart, looking more and more alike. They might have been sisters, but the age gap was a little wide, and Eoin suspected they were mother and daughter from the jealousless way the younger women stayed behind the other’s shoulder. They kept the same ready silence, waiting.
“They’re just standing in the open?” Eoin asked, after the quiet stretched too long. He eased the question into the silence, and all three of them turned to him slowly.
“Yes,” the older woman said.
Eoin nodded. “So. They want to be seen.” He met each of their eyes carefully.
“So?” the man asked.
“They’re probably waiting for us,” Eoin reasoned. He checked with the others to see if they would object, but none of them did. “But if they wanted to fight us, they’d do something more than set up twenty-two people in the middle of a field, and wait.”
The older woman blinked. “Sure,” she murmured. “Except we’ve seen what they can do with a line.” She raised her eyebrows.
Eoin looked down. They certainly had. A wall of blue fire that reflected in the very clouds, streaming from every hand without seam. “They could be waiting around to make another shield,” he agreed. “But that still wouldn’t be a fight. If I was laying out coins, I’d say they’re just waiting around to impress us.” He smiled lightly.
The woman looked at him straight for another long moment. Eoin held his smile, but knew what was coming.
“Have you ever seen one of those walls come down flat?” she asked carefully. “They can be used to fight.”
Eoin nodded. “In a battle, in the grind between the front lines, when the enemy doesn’t have anywhere to go. I’ve seen it brought down on soldier’s heads, suffocate, and burn. But it would make a poor strategy against a hundred people who can just run back for the hills.”
She paused, considered, and finally gave him a single nod. It wasn’t real agreement, just a silent validation of the argument. Eoin inclined his head, with a more slanted smile, and turned carefully back to the man.
“I would say they’re only here to talk,” Eoin said carefully. “And they might have things you want to hear.”
The man listened, waited a quiet second, and flicked a look over Eoin. “What are you here for, my lord?”
Eoin raised an eyebrow. “My lord?” he said. “I don’t know who that is. My name’s Eoin.”
“Wesson,” the man said, tapping his own chest.
The younger woman blinked before she realized she came next in the circle, her mouth slightly open as she looked across at Eoin. “Ava,” she said.
“Idis,” the older woman said, and touched her head in a scant form of a salute.
Eoin nodded to both of them.
“Does your brother know you’re here?” Wesson said.
Eoin smiled. “Yes,” he murmured. “But if you’re asking what I can do for you here, you’d better pretend I said no. I can’t do any talking for you.” He paused. “But I would like it if you’d pass me off as your mute cousin for a while, let me stay at your shoulder.”
Wesson considered that too, then agreed. He straightened a little, raised an arm and circled for everyone behind him to see. There was a quiet scramble, the men and women on the path pushing themselves back to their feet, resettling their things in their hands, sliding down half a step and bracing their heels to continue down. “Pass it on,” Wesson told the man behind him. “We’re taking a stroll straight down into the valley. And relax about it.”
It was another hour’s climb, sliding carefully down the twisting trail to the foot of the hills. Eoin listened to voices rise behind him, questioning the strange instructions cycling back. Every few minutes someone scooted past him – tapped him on the shoulder, pulled at his elbow, pushed him out of the way – and asked Wesson for an explanation. The man gave it to them as simply as he could, without pausing in his stride. The valley was quiet, and there wasn’t going to be a fight. The murmuring got louder the farther they went, and the line of them descended faster. Near the bottom, a slim woman with Idis’ same blonde hair but a rounder nose joined the line. She blinked at the number of them all coming straight down the hill, and Idis only shrugged at her.
In the last few yards, they finally fell silent again. The rocks clattered under their boots, and their heels hissed, sliding in the hard dirt. Metal jangled and clinked on a heavy step. The flat valley spread out in front of them, pale grass waving idly and a breeze tipping into the collars of their coats. Wagons and carts sat forgotten in the shifting grass. Piles of clothing fell between them. Piles of pots and pans gave a rough shine in the daylight. Old tables, cupboards, a mirror like smooth water, lay on their sides, abandoned.
Each of them paused together, gathering themselves on the floor, pulling sleeves down to their hands, buttoning one more button to tighten their jackets. Across the scattered leavings of the camp, twenty-two horses waited. The wind fingered through in their manes, played with their tails like they were tired flags. In front of them, their riders stood perfectly still, echoing the tree trunks standing sentinel on the far side.
Wesson glanced at Idis, then at Eoin, and started forward.
“You can stop there,” someone shouted from across the field. They’d barely crossed ten yards of grass, but Wesson paused in the middle of his next step, and Eoin stopped beside him.
It had been a girl’s voice, still light, but it snapped across the space, trained to be heard. Eoin scanned the line for who had moved, for who had made the call. They had all started to shift. Some of them were moving their hands up their horses’ leads. Some of them were just realigning their feet. One or two crossed their arms over their chest. He thought it was one of the center ones who had spoken. There were several women at the center, and the slimmest of them, a girl with brown hair knotted behind her head, faced forward easily, as if she was watching them.
“Seryn Two-Hand?” Wesson shouted back.
Eoin turned to him quickly, surprised that he’d used the name.
The girl across from them paused too, but then she laughed a little. “No,” she said. “But some days I’d like to be her.”
“What’s your name then?” Wesson asked.
She turned, said something to the woman beside her, shook her head, and shouted back. “Since you’re so fond of nicknames, sometimes they call me Dawn’s Shadow.”
Wesson looked down. “I meant no offense,” he called perfunctorily. Eoin thought that he had. Wesson’s voice held an edge that it hadn’t an hour before.
“Seryn Two-Hand sent me,” the girl said. She pronounced the name very carefully, taking more time than the last two syllables required. “She has a message for you: stay back.”
Wesson waited a moment for her to deliver the rest, then blinked when she didn’t. “Is that it?” he asked.
Eoin looked down. He held in a low groan until it came out as nothing more than a too-heavy breath.
“Did you need something longer?” the girl returned.
Wesson barely shook his head. His hand tightened on the handle of his hatchet, the head hooked through his belt.
“Careful,” Eoin murmured.
But Wesson was already calling, “If you have the time.”
The breeze closed over his last word, and rustled through the grass. The girl lowered her head a little. Turning to the woman beside her, she spoke for a moment, then turned and motioned for a man down the line to come closer. He took her place, and she stepped carefully forward. Idis rocked back on Wesson’s other side as soon as the girl moved. She wove a careful arcing line around one of the wagons, but stayed to the open parts of the field, leaving a clear path back the way she had come. Her hands rested easily at her sides, fingers slack. Eoin uncurled his hands slowly, tilting his palm out, just a little.
She was young. The closer she came, the more obvious it was. Her hair was thick, and coming carelessly out of its knot a little bit at a time. Her skin smooth, her waist thin, and her bones made hard edges at shoulder and hip, as if they had finished growing, but the rest of her hadn’t yet caught up. Stopping a few strides in front of them, she looked Wesson in the eye without flinching, almost as tall as he was. She even leaned in a little, perhaps considering one more step, and that felt young too. She might have been eighteen.
Wesson watched her come to a stop, and his hand fell off the hatchet handle.
“You know who Seryn is,” the girl began, quiet and even. “So, I’ll figure you’ve reasoned out whose we are, and who sent us this far from home.”
“We know you’re Vardeck’s,” Wesson said, voice low.
She looked Wesson up and down, noting the weapon at his side. Slowly, she looked away, turned to Idis first, then to Eoin.
Eoin thought he saw her eyes catch again, at the slant of his hand. He looked down slightly, to see how much of his scars were visible under his sleeve. His red wristband was peeking out, and he gently tugged his sleeve down. Looking up again, he saw her turn away, shoulders squaring toward Wesson. He thought she would say something more, but instead, she stayed still, eyes not quite focused.
“What’s your name?” Wesson asked, slow.
The girl’s eyes brightened, flicked up to met his gaze easily again. Her mouth turned up at the corner, almost a smile, as she considered his question. “Rhian,” she said after a moment. She watched him to see what he would do with it.
“What are you doing here, Rhian?” Wesson asked. Eoin looked at him out of the corner of his eye. If he’d sounded angry before, this slowness was sadness. Almost, Eoin thought he was disappointed in her. Or disappointed in an earth and sky that could make this out of her.
She raised her chin, closer to smiling than she had been before. “I’m leading Seryn’s rear guard.” she said. “Couldn’t you have guessed? What are you doing?”
Wesson kept silent.
Idis shifted on his other side. “We’re here for our people,” she said, voice leveled into a steady earnestness that gently commanded attention. “That’s all we want. We’ll leave with our families and never come back here again. All we’re doing is taking King Madden’s offer of safe exit.”
Rhian nodded. She took her time, looking over the men and women gathered at the base of the hills. She played with the fingernails on one hand, and turned, slow, marking the campsite leavings. She looked behind her, at her own people, and then twisted back. She met Idis’ eye, and Wesson’s. Eoin thought she would look to him next, but her glance stopped short, and she never faced him.
“You can take whatever you want from what’s here,” she told Idis. “We’ve already taken what’s ours.”
“What’s yours?” Wesson repeated. His eyebrows came together. His voice came down hard again.
Rhian faced him, and shook her head, just a little. “If Seryn were here,” she began, measuring each word on her tongue before she laid it out. Then quickly, “She would tell you this is King Madden’s land. We are Vardeck’s guard, here at Madden’s invitation, the guests and soldiers of Kings. We don’t answer to anyone else.”
“The Kings aren’t here, girl. And all we’re asking is for you to look around,” Wesson said, purposefully gentle.
“If Seryn were here,” Rhian continued. “She would tell you to be careful. You might have seen keimon who you think are here on invitation.” For the first time, she looked back to Eoin. “But those are just keimon allowed to walk on this land without being stopped. We can walk. We can run. We can eat, sleep, drink, play, dance and kill on this land. All at Madden’s invitation.”
“We understand,” Wesson tried again.
“And she would tell you, yes, we’ve taken what’s ours. And we won’t be giving anything back today. You should turn around, and you should go. This is the only warning we’ll give, and if you come after us, we can and will take more from you.”
“This really isn’t the time for threats,” Idis told her. “You’re holding our families. There isn’t a threat you can make that would be greater than the one that already delivers. Please understand.”
“Please, tell us where they are,” Wesson said.
“Stop speaking to me as if I were your child,” Rhian snapped. One of her hands opened at her side. The other sank behind her back, closing on something under a flap in her coat. “I’m not here to negotiate, I’m here to turn you back, whatever that takes.”
“You are a child,” Wesson breathed, thoughtlessly, too fast.
“I was trained to take and hold a field since I was seven years old,” she returned. “Whatever I am, doesn’t matter half so much as that.” Metal glinted in her back hand, the pommel of something worn to
Eoin stepped forward, putting a careful hand between Wesson and Rhian. “We didn’t mean any–“
She snapped her head to face him. “You have a protection on your head. I’ve been told about it. But it only goes so far. You should be running.”
Eoin raised both hands, offering a hesitant smile. “Just hold on.”
“Just talk with us for a while,” Wesson said.
Rhian stared at him. “You have two choices,” she said finally. “You can turn around and climb the hill on your own, or I will drive you up it.”
Eoin paused, hands still high. Wesson shifted on his feet. Glancing behind her, Idis leaned back.
“Go,” Rhian said, her light voice firm. “Or I won’t stop when you’re too tired to run, but when I get tired of chasing you.”