There had been something hanging over the morning. There had been a dullness, something to pacify the discomfort in thought and slow the need for motion. As unsettled as the hours had felt, they had been calm, stretching out endlessly like a tedious, necessary mile. Maybe it had been tiredness, maybe just the chill of morning.
Whatever it had been, Tiernan watched his older brother walk away from him in the stone hall, and knew that it was gone.
The thoughtless strides that had brought him to the high mountain hall could not be repeated. And standing still was no kind of option.
Tiernan watched his brother’s back, then looked over his shoulder. As soon as he took his first step, he knew where he was going. He took long, quick strides in the opposite direction from Callix, the speed and motion clicking into place where the morning’s dullness had been to keep him calm.
He took the long stairs down from the upper halls, running them two at a time when the shorter steps seemed too rattling. He encountered no one, everyone who might have been coming down from the top levels of the city already engaged for the morning. When he reached the more public levels, he took a sharp turn onto the thinner back stairs, and ran through them with a quick smile at every maid and cook and runner that he passed. He slowed, but maintained a purposeful stride.
When he reached the bottom of the mountain, he moved onto the city streets without pausing. He knew them just as well as the halls of his home, even if he wasn’t precisely sure which building housed the people he was looking for. He walked for a few blocks, then, when he was no longer concerned about being immediately recognized, he shoved his hands in his jacket pockets, and slipped as quickly as he could down to the lower streets.
On the far north side of the city, Welden Street made a loop around the mountain wall. The carved side of the mountain was too thin to build into there, but the street’s constructors had simply leaned their thin structures against the face of it, and thought it elegant enough. Most of the shops and restaurants nearby had preferred to stay square and squat on their own two feet, while the buildings against the wall became a long row of hotels and rented houses. When Tiernan had left, they had been mostly full, gifted to those who had escaped to Oruasta without having a permanent place inside the city arranged beforehand. Coming back, Tiernan found them just as full, but when those staying in the rooms had seen the crowd that followed him into the city, they packed up and moved deeper inside the walls, without any fuss or hesitation, as if they had seen how it was supposed to be done from those who vacated the space before.
Every building was fuller now than it should have been, a tangle of friends and family behind each door, without much room between them. Tiernan had worried that it would seem too close after their travel under an open sky, but no none of them seemed willing to complain much with a roof and walls around them. He knew it wouldn’t last forever, but it was pleasant for now. He listened closely to the street conversations as he walked, and looked for familiar faces.
He found Wesson first.
The man was standing on one of the rare empty corners, circled up with five others, talking idly. Respectfully, he nodded over the shoulders of the man and woman beside him when he saw Tiernan, then gently broke away to meet him when he saw that the other man aimed to approach him.
“Good morning,” Wesson said, and bowed from the shoulders. It was just deep enough to acknowledge that he owed Tiernan something deeper, but this wasn’t the place to be formal.
“Good morning,” Tiernan said. “How are you?”
Wesson finished his last step away from his ring of friends, glanced at them, and shrugged a little at Tiernan. “Well enough,” he assured him. “Busy. And not busy enough.” Putting his hands in his pockets, he smiled easily enough, though his tone sank gently. “Place sort of feels like home, but it’s not. I think it’s the first time we’ve all realized that… well, if I was home, I would be chopping wood with my boys right now. And my boys aren’t here, and I haven’t gotten word yet how you all would feel about me chopping down all your trees.” He shot Tiernan a broader smile. “But I know you didn’t come down here to listen to this.”
Tiernan smiled back. “I did. And I didn’t.”
Wesson raised an eyebrow at him.
Tiernan hesitated, though he didn’t want to. Slowness didn’t suit anymore. “Are all of you settling in?” he asked.
Wesson nodded, then stopped himself. “We’re waiting,” he said, and shrugged again at the shallow explanation.
“We’re getting close,” Tiernan told him.
His tone must have given something away, must have held more assurance than Wesson expected, because the other man straightened immediately, his eyes snapping onto Tiernan’s. Tiernan smiled before he could help it. He could see the dullness fall away from him on an instant, and he was glad for it. It had felt strange to feel it drop away from his own shoulders, but now that he could see it from the outside, he liked the look of it.
“You’re leaving again?” Wesson asked, quick and quiet, because he needed the answer and he needed the others not to hear.
“You have a day?” Wesson asked.
“Two weeks,” Tiernan told him.
“So, you’re here to pick out who gets to come with you,” Wesson said.
“I’d like to come, if you’ll take me,” Wesson said earnestly. “You’ve seen I’ve got a good arm, and you know there are folk out there I need to see safe and sound. Meirie’s upstairs right now, and I swear there’s been a dozen times she’s almost walked back out of this city for her girls, so you’d better take her with you. Idis and Ava are good on the road, and I doubt you could get Sidar to stay behind.”
Tiernan held up a hand to stop him before the list grew any longer. He came to an unwilling stop.
“Are you fit?” Tiernan asked.
Wesson blinked at him, and nodded.
“I know when you left the city, some of you had been hiding for a long time,” Tiernan said carefully. “Some of you were sick.”
“I lived outside the city,” Wesson told him. He looked down, though he didn’t seem to be aware that he looked away. “My boys and I never had a hard time hiding what we were. There weren’t enough people around us to see.”
“And Meirie?” Tiernan asked. “Last I heard her, she was saying she still wasn’t sleeping all the way through the night.”
“That was weeks ago,” Wesson said. “And she’ll have weeks more on the road yet.”
“This isn’t a walk to safety,” Tiernan told him. He held Wesson’s eye, and watched as the man blinked and settled again in the realization that Tiernan didn’t care who heard him. “We all made it here, and I’m glad of it, but there’s a different strength needed on a road you just need to see through to the end before you can collapse. We’re going back for a fight, or we should be prepared for one anyway. So, I need to know if you’re fit.”
“Oh, we’re fit,” Wesson said.
“How many of you?” Tiernan asked.
Wesson paused to consider him.
Tiernan gave him a slow, steady smile. “I’m not here to pick out a handful. I want as many of you on the road with me as I can get. The more there are of you, the more of my own folk I can hide between you without having to admit to Madden and Vardeck just how much of a hand we have in this.”
Wesson nodded, just as slowly. “If I were being an honest man,” he murmured. “I might have to tell you that you should hold folk like Meirie back from a fight. But it wouldn’t be because she’s not strong enough yet, and the danger wouldn’t be to her.” He held Tiernan’s eye, making sure that the younger man understood him.
“Two weeks,” Tiernan said. “Tell all of them.”
Wesson nodded. Tiernan could see the gratitude and the pride in it, and the fierce need to have left already.