Tiernan was sleeping restlessly when they came back. He needed the sleep, and his camp was quieter than he’d expected it to be. That morning, he’d circled the small stand of tensts and marked the sunlight, and calculated how far Eoin and the others had gone. When noon came and went, and the sun began to sink again, it dragged down on his bones as well. He pulled a blanket from his bags, wrapped himself in and leaned against a tree. When his eyes drifted shut, he wasn’t surprised, but he woke often to sight along the ridge line.
But he was sleeping when they arrived. Eoin kicked him to wake him, and it was such a familiar thing that Tiernan looked up glaring, expecting to find Eoin smiling.
“We need to go,” Eoin said. There were dirty streaks across his face, marked in lines of sweat, like he’d been running in smoke. Jacket looked gray in places where it should have been blue.
“Now?” Tiernan asked.
Eoin nodded. “The faster we get home, the better.” And he looked over his shoulder as if he thought some chase had already started.
“We can’t go,” a woman said, striding up behind him. Her clothes were smudged as well, along with her bare forearms below where she’d rolled her sleeves. Tiernan thought the skin beneath might have shown a little red, too.
Eoin turned quickly, but it was a tired motion, swinging from the joints instead of actually moving. “I know, Idis,” Eoin said. “We can’t go, but we have to.”
Tiernan pulled himself to his feet, dropping his blanket behind him. Pulling his jacket straight, he moved to bring Idis into a rough circle with them. “What happened?” he asked.
“The valley was empty. They cleared everyone out. And then a few of them stayed behind, just to turn us back,” Eoin said, quiet. He looked up at Tiernan, silent in the hopes that he understood.
“And we went down to meet them,” Idis said. “We don’t have to do that again.”
“She’s right,” Wesson said, coming up on her other side. He had pulled his jacket open, relishing the cool air, though Tiernan felt cold watching him. His white shirt looked too white next to the rest of his clothes. “We know what they’re about now,” he said. “And there are still a hundred of us. How can they cover us all if we try to go hunting through their trees?”
“We don’t even know that they’re in the trees,” Eoin said.
“They drove us back into the hills,” Idis pointed out. She narrowed her eyes at him, almost smiled. “It’s a safe bet that they were driving us away.”
“But we don’t know,” Eoin said. “They could be anywhere in those woods, or outside it. We don’t know if they turned back for Serres, or if they’re continuing on.”
“They’ll have left a trail,” Idis said.
“Probably,” Eoin said. “Or maybe two or three, since they know we might be coming after them. And the wrong one could lead us to a very dangerous place, if they wanted it to. Like I said, we don’t know. We would be going in blind, and they would be ones doing the hunting.”
Tiernan watched Wesson and Idis’ faces sharpen. Wesson’s fingers tightened. Idis rocked backward, shaking her head slow, almost ready to tear herself away from this.
“We can’t leave,” Wesson said after a long pause.
“We understand,” Tiernan returned in the same low tones.
Eoin shook his head. “You have to. I’m sorry.”
Wesson’s mouth closed in a hard line.
“I’m sorry,” Eoin repeated, more fiercely. “But this was their idea of a warning shot. Come with us to Oruasta. Let us find some way to help you. There’s nothing you can do here with what you have.”
“That would take months,” Idis snapped.
Eoin looked at her seriously. “Yes,” he said. “But think for just a moment. They’ve just proved they’re not interesting in killing. They’ve stolen from you, but you have time to steal it all back.”
Tiernan looked at him sideways, trying not to let the depth of his doubt roll over his face. Idis held her breath, swallowed hard, watched Eoin for a long moment. Finally, her shoulders curled forward a little, the smallest sign of defeat that Tiernan had ever seen, and she let out her breath in silence. Wesson watched and slowly he nodded.
“I’ll talk to the others,” he said.
“Do it quickly,” Eoin said. Tiernan stared at him, almost stopped him for the cold briskness in his tone. “We need to be moving tonight.”
It took a moment for Wesson and Idis to gather themselves enough to wander back into the crowd behind them. Tiernan waited for them to slowly move away, nodding once when Wesson looked back over his shoulder. Then he turned to Eoin, eyebrows raised.
“When did you start giving out orders?” he asked quietly.
Eoin looked back evenly. “We need to go.”
“I’m getting that,” Tiernan said.
Eoin glared at little at his too-calm tone. “We need to keep ahead of the word that these red bands don’t hold the king’s approval anymore,” he said. He ran a rough hand through his hair, but his tone had lowered to match Tiernan’s. “We should give them out to everyone here. It might help move us across the mountains.”
“All right,” Tiernan said.
“There’s just nothing to do here, Tiernan,” Eoin said. His caught its edge and let it go again. “I thought they might be able to surprise Vardeck’s guard by coming back at them so soon. I thought they might just be able to stand up and plant their feet and claim what was theirs.” He laughed breathlessly at himself. “You know, like we used to do when we were kids?”
“I don’t think I’ve gotten that to work for me since I was about twelve,” Tiernan said slowly.
“But it seemed like the place for it,” Eoin said. “You know? Like they could look back at two kings who thought they could release and blithely recapture three hundred keimon, shake their heads and… I don’t know. Laugh?”
Tiernan shook his head.
“You know, they don’t even look trained,” Eoin said. He looked at Tiernan. “Vardeck’s guard.”
“How could they be?” Tiernan said. “He picked up children and put them in barracks. They weren’t raised by other keimon, just by soldiers.”
“But they are trained, somehow,” Eoin said. “That wall was steady yesterday. This one was…” He trailed off thinking. “They held it. It was the most unruly thing I’d ever seen, but I bet from their side, it was calm. They were driving smoke and fire at us, but as long as they held it, they couldn’t have been coughing on it the way we were.”
“There are some tricks you can learn on your own, if you look for them,” Tiernan said.
There was a moment’s pause. Tiernan crossed his arms over his chest, as the breeze picked up. Lifting his head, Eoin turned his face into the wind. His eyes were shut for a moment, then he opened them and scanned westward. The hills continued until they turned to rocking gray mountains on the horizon. On the other side, the sky was cloudy, white streaked with faint blue.
“We need to go home,” Eoin said slowly. “If this is what Vardeck is fielding now, and if he has Madden on his side…”
Tiernan nodded. “Callix needs to know what we’re in for.”
“And we need something more than just planting our feet,” Eoin said without looking at him.
Tiernan took a breath, and let it out, and said nothing.