Taking the Long Road, it took twenty-two days to cross the plain east of Oruasta and arrive back at the base of the mountain string. It was another twenty-five days to thread through the high pass and down into King Madden’s land. Tiernan had counted and recounted, measuring distances and strides, how many would make the journey, what it would take to feed and shelter them the whole way through. The longer the trip, the more wagons they would be tempted to bring, the more excess they would want to pack in case it took longer than they expected. The more wagons they brought, the longer it would take and forty-seven days could become sixty so easily. It was a balance.
He had collected his eighty, men and women ready to go back for those they had left behind. They made it to the mountain roots two hours into the twenty-third day. The wagons were still full. The horses that pulled them had taken a week or so to grow accustomed to their new drivers. Tiernan hardly counted it as a delay.
Deorsa took longer sneaking her four hundred across the plain. Refugees had been coming and going for years now. King Gabreal had never reached out to stop them with anything more than the avoidable tips of his armies, but Deorsa’s folk wore uniforms, carried blades forged from finest steel, and fifty of them rode the sort of horses that made front lines break. Neither she nor Tiernan were anxious for Gabreal to take notice.
Tiernan waited at the base of the mountains for eight days, counting each sunrise and sunset as if he were a scout measuring the oncoming army.
Eventually, they arrived, split into traveling fists of ten and fifteen. For a day and a half, they tramped into camp from different directions. Last of all, Deorsa came with her fifty riders, grinning. Each of them had fresh wine or fruit or cheese, all in different wrappers and shapes, as if they had been split recently as well.
“I’m sorry we’re late,” Deorsa told Tiernan, before even offering a greeting. She didn’t look contrite, brown hair braided, but loose from the ride, eyes bright in the afternoon sunlight, armor peeking out with a glint from underneath the pinned folds of her gray cloak. Her horse was shuffling under her, as if the mare wasn’t sure why they had stopped at all when the breeze was so high. She was tossing her head and Deorsa was letting her, just making sure she kept clear of everyone around them.
“You’re not very late,” Tiernan said. He smiled when she laughed. “We’ll start up the mountain first thing in the morning. With any luck, the snow will be thinner than we expect and we can make up some time.”
Deorsa’s mare danced a little more, and Deorsa let her turn so that she was looking at Tiernan over her other shoulder. He almost didn’t notice the shift on her face and the way she glanced at the sun.
“We still have good hours in this day. Plenty of time to pack your camp and start up the mountain,” Deorsa said.
Tiernan shrugged. “Your men must be tired.”
Doersa smiled at nothing in particular and brushed her horse’s neck to calm her. Then she leaned down toward Tiernan. “I was a little mean on the way here,” she said.
Tiernan raised his eyebrows, questioning.
“I split my squadrons. I split best friends – as many as I could think of – and put them into different groups. Some of my men and women have known each other since they were very small, been standing shoulder to shoulder for as long as they can remember, in a fight or in the dinner line. I knew it would get them here faster. Jokes and good conversation do slow the feet.” She winked at Tiernan. “And now… Now, they’ll march anywhere you tell them to, just for the chance to walk beside the brothers and sisters they chose.”
Tiernan laughed to himself, and shook his head.
“Put them to the test,” Deorsa told him. “I’d promise that you’ll find them faster than anyone you brought, but… your troops have brothers and sisters that fate chose for them waiting on the other side. I wish I could inspire that kind of speed.”
Tiernan glanced behind him at the sprawled camp. There hadn’t been a single complaint on the way here. It took him a moment to gather a breath and look away from the scatter of wagons and tents and folk who hadn’t really sat still in the week they had been there. He nodded at Deorsa.
“I’ll set them to packing up,” he murmured.
Inside two hours the wagons were rumbling over the uneven gravel that littered the slope.