Deorsa turned her horse around, kicked forward and rode away quickly, calling orders as she thundered down the left side of her army. Tiernan turned as well, working his way down the other side of the line, and slowly, carefully, they turned everyone back. It took an hour to work their way back up the pass to a place where they could all sprawl out between the rocks.
“Make camp,” Tiernan told them. It was the first time he saw hesitation among them. Wesson looked at him sideways and paused before he relayed the order. Ava ran her horse in an extra circle around the others, and for a moment, Tiernan doubted she would stop. They didn’t come here to stay bottled in the pass.
But they settled in, drove tent stakes into the ground, and stripped gear off the horses.
Tiernan set up his own tent, to the right of the pavilion they had been using for all the business of traveling. Deorsa took her place to the left of it, and the rest of the camp was set out in squared lines from its corners. Tiernan laid his packs down against one canvas wall, but where no one else could see them, he left them tied and packed.
The sun began to fall, slowly, as if giving them time to change their minds. It was absurd, watching it linger in the sky. The decision to stay had been easily made, and Tiernan didn’t have a single reason to doubt it. They couldn’t go any farther without information.
By the time the sun dropped behind the hard lines of the mountains, and the red faded from the clouds, the camp was set. It would take four hours to pack themselves back up.
After midnight, another pair of scouts thundered into the camp’s grid. Deorsa threw the flaps of her tents back as she came out to meet them. Tiernan just looked up from the campfire.
“What’s the news, Col?” Deorsa asked the first rider. His hair was wild from riding, too curly to stay tame. His horse was breathing hard, making thin clouds of hot breath around its nose in the night air.
“Revca and Jessik are still hiding out near the fortress,” he said. He slid down off his saddle, patted his horse’s neck and faced Deorsa, breathing hard as well. “They wanted to get a look at the watch changes.”
“And you wanted hot food,” Deorsa said.
Col started to refute her, almost offended, but laughing as soon as he remembered that she couldn’t keep herself from a joke.
“He did,” the other rider, Laben said, behind him. “And since I couldn’t come up with a good reason for us to be miserably chewing on tack, I let him.”
Doersa grinned at Laben.
“What did you find?” Tiernan asked.
Laben hit the ground with both feet, and turned to look at him respectfully. “Two-hundred and seventeen of Madden’s soldiers in the fortress itself, along with nineteen of Vardeck’s keimon guard. Did you know Seryn Two-Hand was one of them?”
Deorsa looked at him a little more intently. “Really?”
Laben seemed torn between not wanting to look at her, and needing to give her due respect. He glanced at her sideways, just long enough to nod, then looked to Tiernan for his answer.
“I’ve met her,” Tiernan said.
“I have scars from her,” Deorsa said. Her tone dipped into something that was almost like pride.
Tiernan looked at her questioningly.
“It was a good fight,” Deorsa said. “One of the first ones I took for money. They said she was sixteen.” Doersa’s smile was stretching again. Tiernan wasn’t sure how she always managed to make it appear dangerous and inviting. “She was the only one who didn’t look terrified when I came for her.”
Tiernan blinked slowly, remembering Seryn’s face. He didn’t imagine someone like Deorsa would frighten her at all. There was too much icy control in her for Deorsa’s blunt wildness to carry real threat.
“They’re holding twenty-seven children in the fortress,” Laben continued after a look from Tiernan. “And none of them look older than thirteen. Outside the fortress, they’ve built two more wooden compounds about half the size. They’re not within sight of the fortress, but they have another forty-five soldiers there, with six of Vardeck’s guard on patrol, and two-hundred and twenty-one men and women out of uniform.”
Tiernan nodded, tallying numbers in his head. He would have preferred for the refugees to all be in one place, but that problem could be solved. Madden didn’t have an overwhelming advantage of numbers, and if he could push hard enough toward a siege, the commanders might choose to lock them all inside the fortress rather than defend so many targets.
“Also,” Col said, gently pressing back into the report.
Tiernan glanced up, willing to abandon his calculations until they had left him alone.
“We think they expect more, and soon,” Col said.
Tiernan tried not to let that surprise him. Two-hundred and sixty-two soldiers were hardly enough to do more than prick Oruasta’s ribs. He would need to know why some of them had been delayed.
“It looks like they’re clearing space in the fortress for them,” Laben said. “And they have guards on the road waiting for them.”
“So, they’re set to see us coming along with their friends, if we move to quickly,” Deorsa said.
“We’ll stay where we are for a few days,” Tiernan said. Deorsa paused, but nodded as he continued. “We need more information on the fortress anyway, and we have plenty of food without having to go down the mountain.”
“We should send a few riders farther out,” Deorsa said. “If we can get past their watchers, we might be able to catch a glimpse of their new friends, and whatever they might be bringing.”
Tiernan considered that, and nodded, without having to. Deorsa would have sent some of her quieter folk anyway.
“Get some sleep,” Doersa told Col and Laben. “That was good work, and I think someone has set up your bunks for you.” She paused, then winked. “Be careful before you jump into your blanket.”
“You think we were born yesterday,” Laben accused her.
Col shook his head as they both turned away. “We know what our friend are like.”
The two of them wandered into the dark, slowly disappearing between the brighter swaths of canvas and campfire smoke. Leaning forward on his knees, Tiernan eyed the reddened edges of the wood in his own fire, then slowly reached for another log. It was warm enough now to catch easily, and he would need it burning a while longer.
“You’re not actually worried, right?” Deorsa asked.
He raised his eyes slowly to meet hers. “No,” he said.
“Good,” Deorsa said. “I know what you’re capable of.”
“Do you?” Tiernan asked.
“You and your brothers have frightened five Kings out of their skins,” Deorsa said. “And you think I haven’t heard stories?”
Deorsa smiled. Then she nodded toward him again. “I bet you’re wishing that you had brought one of them with you.”
It took a moment for Tiernan to shake his head. “I’ve brought who I needed.”
She rewarded him with a quick smile, though he thought he saw her roll her eyes as well. “Yes, you did,” she said. She turned back for her tent without another word. He waited until she was gone before he shut his eyes.
It was dark. But not as dark as it should have been. Anie could see motion behind her closed eyes, shadows flickering and rolling, lights following. They showed purple through her eyelids, not quite bright enough for fire, and much too slow. She tried to ignore it, believe it was just a piece of her dream, and press herself back into sleep. After a moment, she realized her thoughts were too loud, her skin too warm under her clothes. She opened her eyes.
The lights were coming through the walls, moving wrong. She had memorized the shape of a lantern swing after so many nights, and the stagger of a candle as it was carried through the hall. This was like watching the tide sweep in and out, curl around invisible things in the sand and swirl back on itself.
Anie blinked at it, as the shadows shifted over the floor
The light was also whiter than sunlight, touched with blue like stars. It had been a long time since she saw keimon fire.
Sitting up, she pushed the blankets off her knees and set her feet gently on the floor. The others were dead asleep. The close quiet told her that they’d been breathing deeply for a long time, blood turned warm as they dreamed and the air heated with it. It must have been midnight. Maybe later, though the night hadn’t chilled enough to shoo the heat away again yet.
Carefully, Anie stood. She tip-toed to the door, slow and quiet, and tried not to breath. When she put her hand on the door latch, it clicked. She knew it was a very small noise, covered easily in daylight, but it seemed loud to her now. She waited a count of twenty before she actually pushed the door open. Even then, she only kept it open long enough to slide out into the main hall.
They had moved Rhian’s bed so that it was pressed into the corner of the hall, right up next to the wooden wall that closed Anie and the others off from the soldiers. She was still in her bed, a heavy set of arms and legs pressed into the cot. Someone else sat beside her, and for a moment, the keimon fire shifted too quickly over his face for Anie to recognize him.
She crept a little closer.
“Aled?” she whispered.
The keimon fire shuddered and disappeared, leaving Anie blinking in the dark. She could still smell it in the air, feel it prickle on her skin. He hadn’t burned it out like Thea had taught Anie, just smothered it. It waited like warm lamp oil, ready to be lit again.
“Aled?” Anie called again, very quietly.
There was a long pause.
“You shouldn’t be awake,” Aled murmured back.
Anie would have glared at him, if she could see him. “You’re the one who woke me up.”
“Go back to bed,” he told her.
The dark was starting to clear, and she could see his white shirt stretched over his shoulders. The rest of the hall was sighing and shuffling behind her, almost silent, but not quite. She blinked a few more times, waiting to see if she would be able to find his expression in the dark.
“Is it helping?” she asked.
Another moment passed.
“I think so,” he whispered. She wasn’t sure why the words seemed to stick on his tongue. He sounded sad. She thought he might be lying.
“It’s supposed to be thinner than that,” Anie said.
“Thinner?” Aled asked.
“The fire,” Anie said. “It doesn’t actually have to be fire to do the work. They just need the heat and the glow, I think.”
He didn’t answer her.
“My sister says it’s about making it come out slow,” Anie told him. “From your hands. You just let it drift out instead of pushing it. You almost try to pull it back inside you.”
“Did she teach you a lot?” Aled asked.
Anie paused too, then. She shook her head, not sure whether he could see her any better than she could see him. “Do you know where she is?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “I saw her this morning.”
“Is she all right?”
“She’s fine,” Aled said. “Go back to bed.”
Anie waited just a little longer, until the dark had seeped away enough for her to see her own bare feet on the stone floor and the shadow of the wooden wall. Then she crept back inside and tucked herself into her bed.