The fortress had once had five wooden staircases that led up to the top of the wall. The two at the front of the fortress formed twisting, square towers, tucked into the corners. A lot of the beams had held, reinforced on two sides by the stone walls, and the camp had rebuilt them quickly. The stairs at the back criss-crossed the stones more lazily, seated in the center of the rear wall. They’d been rebuilt as well, though they had only been able to rescue half of the old lumber. Two more staircases leaned against the sides of the fortress, and while the one on the right had held as well as the rear staircase, the one on the left was almost gone, scoured away by the wind and rain and snow in the years it had been abandoned. The camp never rebuilt it, but it was still Anie’s favorite way to reach the top of the wall.
The beams had been sunk into the stones once, and now each place they had been, was a square notch large enough for Anie to hold tight to with both hands. Her feet fit all the way to the heels, and she could pull herself up them in their slanted lines without feeling the gap between her and the ground. Forty feet high, and she still felt like she was stepping on solid ground. The first time she’d done it, she might have shaken, but looking down from the top, she’d decided that stairs were for cowards.
Unless Thea was watching. Then stairs were for the very smart ones who knew how to keep themselves out of trouble with their powerful older sisters.
But Anie liked the wall. Her hands were callousing from lessons with Thea, and she barely noticed the roughness of the climb on her fingers. From the top, she could measure and remeasure the clearing they’d cut around the walls. Every time she stood so high, and it still looked large to her, she squared her shoulders and smiled to herself. The trees were a thick bundle of black fingers all through winter, but from above, she could watch for movement between the trunks. She could watch for Momma.
Most of the time, she only saw deer, moving slow on the ground. Birds rose in clouds of black wings, or dove through branches all alone. Squirrels chittered, and she only ever seemed to catch them jumping out of the corner of her eye. The hunters went out and came back, shoulders heavy with a fresh kill that Anie wondered if she had seen before meandering through the snow. And, occasionally, she caught Chas and a handful of others creeping in from the other direction near sunset. Sometimes, he saw her too, and waved, then shook his head.
Two more weeks slid past, and it still wasn’t time to move on yet. Anie tried not to be antsy as she waited. The longer they stayed put, the longer Momma would have to climb out of her winter hideaway and find them.
Late in the afternoon, the sun crossed behind the mountains and left the fortress coolly in their shadows. The trees held onto the light a little longer. It sharpened the ends of branches, and stretched their shadows behind them, then peeled back farther as evening came.
Anie crossed her arms over her chest and leaned her elbows against the top of the wall. Her cheeks were chilled in the breeze that always seemed to climb this high, but her ears were warm under her hair, and she kept her fingers tucked against her ribs. Chas would be back soon, she thought, but she was watching the trees. Waiting.
Something had been moving in them for a while now. When it was far off, she’d thought it was a flock of birds that couldn’t decide where to land. Then, she thought it was her imagination. Now, she wasn’t sure whether the last of the sun, and the beginnings of shadows were playing with her, or if there really was something moving under the black limbs. If something was there, it was more than a deer, almost the width of the fortress in it’s flitting, shifting motions.
Anie bit her lip. She listened to the breeze, and she breathed steady, trying to hear anything outside the patterns of both.
It came closer. And then suddenly it stopped.
Anie blinked. She readjusted her elbows on the wall, so that she could watch the trees more directly. Her eyebrows pulled down, and she counted her breaths, waiting for it to start again. Maybe it had been a strange wind down there, kicking through the dirt. Maybe it had just been birds, who with their bird-brains decided to hop under the caps of the trees for a while. Maybe it was nothing.
Nothing moved for ten breaths. And then for twenty.
It was almost spring, Anie reminded herself. The leaves would be coming back to the trees soon. Maybe they had started to bud, and this was what they looked like in the breeze now.
A lock of her hair fell against her cheek, pressed itself flat to her skin. She had to pick it up with her fingernails to move it back from her face, and it fluttered in her fingers as she did.
The breeze hadn’t stopped.
Anie bit her lip, and looked harder. Twenty more breaths, slow, and even, and counted carefully, and she shook her head at herself. There was nothing there.
And then three men stepped out of the trees. They were riding big-chest horses with fresh-oiled leathers, and each of them wore a thick brown coat fitted tightly through the shoulders. They rode straight for the gate, horses reined in to a sturdy walk, heads bobbing gently.
Anie shoved herself up until she was standing straight and she stared. Another line of men and women stepped out of the trees on foot behind them. Then another, one step behind, and another, and another.
Anie started running for the front of the fortress, feet flying across the wide stones at the top of the wall. Ahead of her, a woman standing in a small knot of people at the top of one of the forward staircases, stepped back. “Open the gate!” she called down, and the order echoed through the open courtyard, happy and light.
No one moved for the gate, and the woman, dark-hair bouncing against her back as ran, pounded down the stairs to the open yard.
“Open the gate!” she said again, her voice now muffled between the walls, but still clear as it carried across the fortress. “They’re friends! Open the gate.” Anie realized it was Seryn a moment later, unused to hearing her shout so brightly, and she turned quickly to follow her down the stairs.
Seryn’s face was split in a smile, and she seemed breathless from the short run, though she had no right to be. Anie had seen her run farther, and stop on a single deep breath as if she didn’t even need air. The men and women in the yard were coming forward too, as they saw her, and a team assembled at the gate to lift the bars and secure the pulleys. It took them a handful of minutes to line up, and then a few more to pull the heavy, creaking timbers back, but they opened the fortress wide.
The three horsemen rode inside, and the men and women marched in behind them. Anie thought Seryn might run up to one of them, from the width of her smile, and the way her chest went up and down like she couldn’t keep a breath inside. But Seryn stepped to the gate, and stood by the locks to keep them open, while line after line of them marched inside. Anie watched while her smile slowly straightened, and her shoulders took their usual calm squareness again.
There were more than a hundred men and women in their rows. All of them in their brown coats. And Anie didn’t know any of their faces.
Anie took an uncertain step back. Some of the others – some of those who had swung the gates wide – were pulling back too. The yard echoed a little with the march of the men and women’s feet, each one timed against their neighbors, even in their relaxed stride. When they were done, they held the main bulk of the space, and their rear line was just inside the gateway, shoulder to shoulder.
Ern pressed his way to the front of the crowd. Broad-shouldered, and his hair a little long after the winter, he touched a few elbows gently, tapped a few shoulders, nodded, and calmed, and pushed everyone back one more step. Then he loped forward, nodding to anyone else who met his eye and stood next to Seryn. She shifted when he stopped, a little too close to her, but all she did was turn a little, so that her shoulder was in front of his.
Anie considered taking another step back. She’d left Thea at the cabin, and Mel had been somewhere in the main hall with Darien, but she figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find either of them. Chas was out somewhere, and Darien would have checked on them both, just to be nearby for whatever this was. Probably, they were already looking for her. She would only have a minute more on her own.
Anie stepped forward instead. She wove her way through the crowd, and pressed in close to the wall where some of the old carts and wood and supplies were stacked, just in case they’d needed to barricade the gate. From there, she was only a few feet behind Seryn and Ern, close enough to see the exact angle that Seryn leaned on her hip to put space between her and the larger man, and tightness of Ern’s jacket across his back as he crossed his arms over his chest. Neither of them was looking at the other, but Anie cocked her head just to one side to catch what Ern was saying.
“These are who you were waiting for?” he asked.
“Yes,” Seryn told him, her voice low, and her tone stating perfectly that it was all she meant to say.
“You know them?” Ern asked anyway.
Seryn gave a slow nod toward one of the men at the front. He was swinging down of his horse, and still taller than most of those around him. His hair was cut close, bleached blonde from the sun and brown underneath where the sun couldn’t reach. On his hip, a long sword pointed toward the ground, and he moved easily with its weight, adjusting the reins and loosening his horse’s saddle after the long ride. He patted his horse’ nose genially, smiled at the man next to him, and turned to look scan the new faces around him.
“I know him,” Seryn said. “I imagine the others are the ones with the real power though. He seems to just be a face they like to show around.”
“What’s his name?” Ern asked.
“Jeyd,” Seryn said.
Ern whistled, and Anie went up on her tiptoes to look at the man again. She’d never seen Jeyd in person before.
“You know him too?” Seryn asked, looking sideways at Ern for the first time.
“He’s one of our newer heroes,” Ern murmured. “I never really thought I’d trade words with him, unless managed to do something spectacularly wrong and he was the one arresting me.”
Seryn laughed, just a little. “People like him?”
“People fear him?” she asked.
Ern shrugged, then nodded again.
“I don’t suppose he likes to train without his shirt, or anything like that?”
Ern looked at her sharply. “Why?”
“He’s got two pretty new scars,” Seryn said idly. “It could do me good.”
Jeyd was approaching, and Seryn nodded to him, but kept quiet until he was close, too.
“Good to see you again,” Jeyd said.
“And you,” Seryn returned.
Jeyd cracked a smile as if she’d said something funny.
“You’re late though,” Seryn told him, maybe to cut the joke short.
Jeyd shrugged. “This kind of thing takes time. We don’t all live like this,” he told her. “Was there trouble?”
“No,” Seryn said. “But if you’d been two weeks later, and the passes had cleared, there would have been when I told these people they weren’t leaving.”
Anie blinked. Then she stared at the back of her head. She took a breath, and realized they were still talking, but didn’t much care anymore.
They weren’t leaving.
And Jeyd was a member of the King’s Guard, she realized, even if those brown jackets weren’t the uniform he was usually in.
Immediately, Anie turned, and ran for Thea.