Reed nodded. Taking the last few steps at a gentle run, he passed Eoin and led him back in toward the barracks that leaned against the inside of the mountain face. The interior was lined in slat bunks and weapons racks, and in between tables and chairs were scattered at a will. Some soldiers slept, arms thrown over their eyes to block the light of their comrades who sat at the tables, playing their cards. A few others walked briskly through, adjusting the straps and laces on their leathers, cloaks trailing behind them.
Men and women stopped to clap Eoin on the shoulder, doubling back in their quick strides as they realized who they’d seen. Eoin smiled at them all, traded greetings and jokes and fierce grips, and kept close behind Reed’s back. The older soldier did much the same, calling his hellos, and walking without pause.
At the far end of the barracks Reed’s patrol was waiting. There were six of them, mostly tall and lean like Reed, who seemed to lopped off a little height and applied it to the breadth of his shoulders instead. They were almost in a line as Reed and Eoin approached, hands idly checking their sleeeves and hats and weapons, and they snapped to attention the instant Reed was close enough to issue an order.
“Are we ready?” he asked them.
“Always, sir,” a blonde woman at the front said.
“We have a tag-a-long,” Reed said. “Watch out for him. He’s got a pretty head, but not much in it.”
The men and women laughed a little, but it was hushed, as they looked at Eoin. They knew who he was, as well as if his name had been spelled out on his forehead. Eoin glanced through their faces, looking for any of them he knew in return. The blonde looked a little familiar. The broad man definitely did not, though he had a slant to his smile that Eoin liked. The girl near the back, he thought he had played with as a child. She belonged somewhere in the lower city, in one of the neighborhoods that usually birthed the boldness that Eoin liked in his playmates, but she’d never been very adventurous, afraid to climb any tree high enough to get any advantage. He was surprised to see her in a squad like this.
“I promise, I’ll keep out from under foot,” Eoin told them, and added a half-glare for Reed.
“If I were you,” the girl at the back told him. “Under foot is exactly where I’d stay. You’ll be safest there.”
Eoin blinked at her. He’d been told something similar a long time ago. Not at his first battle, but one shortly there after, and he was surprised by her again, and the way she managed to carry the same tone as the scarred man who had looked down and given the same instructions.
“Then I’ll stay close,” Eoin told her.
They left the barracks at a quick walk. On the east side, a narrow road looped down to a narrow gate. It wasn’t much, just a slit cut sideways into the rock, wide enough for three men to walk side by side, a single unlit torch in a holder at the center and a thick wooden door on either end. Reed opened the first and the patrol filed past him until the broad man opened the second and stood guard there until Reed brought up the rear and he snapped it shut again. There was no handle on this side, and the door fit snugly into place. A mountain path, steep and cool, led down the other side.
Eoin took a quick look around, letting his eyes adjust to the new shade of dark. Inside, there had been enough torches fending against the night that was quickly dropping around them that everything had been painted in shades of yellow and gray. Here, between the straight backs of the trees, everything was a shade of blue. The sky itself seemed to be bleeding into them, darkening now that the sun had ducked under the horizon, and the breeze turned the air into a sweet chill.
When he looked back, the squad had scattered, off the road and into the shadows of the trees.
Eoin spun, looking for them, eyebrows high. Standing just behind him, Reed put a hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“Don’t worry, boy,” he said. “This is just the sort of thing you would like. We’re working our way along the north side and down the east canyon tonight. See how quiet you can be. If you hear a bird should only be singing in daylight, that’s one of us. Stop where you are, and we’ll find you.”
“All right,” Eoin said, not sure what else he should say.
Reed patted him on the back, lightly, and soundlessly. “Come on.”
They wove themselves into the trees as well, and Eoin glanced to either side, hoping to catch one of the others, but Reed just tread forward, quiet and slow. The trees stayed scattered on the hill, and Eoin placed his feet carefully. He had to pay close attention to avoid their roots, and to keep from sliding down the leaf littered slope. After a few minutes, Reed turned back to him, nodded, and even he moved too far ahead to be seen. Eoin took a deep breath, spun a slow circle to get his bearings, and continued on in his own silence.
The evening darkened, blues turning to grays and blacks, and the sky painting itself over with specks of white between the dusty banks of cloud. The hill stayed at the same cant, twisting around the side of the mountain, and the trees held their sentinel. Eoin tried to pick up his feet, move a little quicker, knowing that any patrol used to running these hills would run a little faster than him, even while they kept themselves hushed. But he was still behind the bird call when it came. A whirrel’s twitter that sounded like a joke in the dark.
Eoin stopped just where he was, hating to make someone come back for him, but knowing that Reed had reasons for giving his instructions.
It was the girl who found him, his old playmate, moving like a cat between the trees. She smiled at him, like she was surprised and pleased to find him standing still.
He only shrugged at her. He deserved it, for the way he had played as a boy.
She nodded for him to follow her, and turned back.
She took him just over the next rise. The hill turned and dipped a little, forming a rough bowl in the side of the hill. The flat bottom was wide, and set deep into the mountain so that it backed up against hard stone instead of dirt. Yellow light flickered up the tumbled face of it, and Eoin smelled smoke long before the girl motioned him down onto his belly to crawl to the edge.
Eoin counted the tents as they came into view, blinking at each new canvas peak. Twenty, some of them for supplies and command, but enough men milling between the fires to fill fifteen of them. Fire caught on freshly oiled leather, and the rings of chain mail, and long blades. The smoke mingled with the scents of meat and bread, a settled meal. And every one of them was wearing a black and yellow uniform.
Reed was already lying on the cliff edge, arms folded in front of him, chin resting on his fists like a boy watching the neighbors from his own roof.
Eoin looked at him, stunned.
“They’re on the mountain?” Eoin asked, quiet to keep from being heard, quiet because the thought would have rattled horribly in anything larger than a whisper.
Reed’s mouth twisted to one side, a little pained. “They’re on the mountain,” he murmured back.
“For how long?” Eoin asked.
Reed shrugged, and it rocked his head a bit, since he didn’t raise his chin. “This lot? They’ve been here three weeks or so. The others came a few months before that.” He caught Eoin’s pause, and looked at him with a firmer smile. “They don’t do much. We have some lovely contests in daylight, to see who can better insult the other’s mothers. At night, we play at stealing each other’s supplies, and mostly we win that, thanks to the mountain. They’ve only gotten inside twice.”
“They came into Oruasta?” Eoin said.
“Yes,” Reed said. “Burned some. Hurt some. And we drove them back out. It wasn’t more than a prod with a stick, really. They aren’t aiming to destroy us with these little men.”
Eoin let that sink in for a breath. Then he shook his head.
“Gaebrel just wants us to know that he hasn’t forgotten us,” Reed murmured. There was something sharper than a smile in his voice, something that might have rumbled into a laugh. Or a growl. “Isn’t that kind of a king to do for people so low as us?”