Deorsa called for Tiernan shortly after noon the next day. She sent one of her folk by his tent, and he idly pushed aside Tiernan’s tent flap on his way to the lunch fires. Tiernan finished his own meal before finding Deorsa at the back of the camp.
She sat with two women in the shadow of the mountain, a small fire between them, and a cook stand swinging emptily over it. Tiernan was almost beside them before he recognized Revca by the thick, braided loop of hair pinned to the back of her head. Jessik was beside her, hood up over her close-cut, red curls and both of them kept their faces turned down quietly.
Deorsa smiled up at Tiernan and kicked the log next to her to invite him down to their level. “You took your time,” she murmured.
“You didn’t tell me to hurry,” Tiernan returned.
“We thought the camp might already be a bit riled,” Jessik said. “We came in quiet.”
“Didn’t think it would be a good idea to tell you to rush over here, after they took the time to sneak in,” Deorsa said, and winked at him.
Tiernan took his seat slowly, and watched the three women exchange looks and take breaths, readying themselves to deliver their report.
“Madden’s dug in deep at that fortress,” Revca said.
“The guards work in four hours shifts,” Jessik said.
“And they’re careful,” Revca said. It was hard to tell if her smile was admiration, or pleasure at knowing that something scared them. “No one leaves without standing with their replacement for a few minutes.”
“On the main fortress, there’s four guards on every wall at all hours of the day.”
“Plus two more over the gate, and two just inside. Because they don’t seem able to do anything without doing it in sets of four.”
“Any hour of daylight, there’s someone in the training yard. Probably in fours.”
“And we’re moderately certain that they can have the gate closed and a full squad of archers in place inside two minutes. Four at the most.”
“Which is a lot more than we need to get any significant number of soldiers across the ground their cleared around the walls.”
Revca and Jessik looked at each other, as if to ask the other if they had missed anything. For a moment, it looked like Revca wanted to laugh. Then they both nodded, then continued on.
“The situation at the other two stockades looks about the same,” Jessik said.
“Four guards at every wall, four more at the gates,” Revca said.
“But they have a higher population of civilians, and wooden walls, so… they’re the weak spot.” Jessik flicked a glance between Tiernan and Deorsa. “But they would have to have been born brainless to not know it.”
“We’re betting there’s something they know that we don’t,” Revca said.
“Or, the fresh troops coming down the road are meant just for the stockades,” Jessik pointed out. “And they’ll be here in two days or less.”
Tiernan raised his eyebrows. “You saw them.”
Both of them nodded.
“A hundred and twenty, maybe a hundred and fifty, all in Madden’s colors,” Revca said. “Except one riding out in front, decked out in Vardeck’s uniform as if it’s some sort of armor.”
Deorsa snorted. “Lord Commander Macsen of the Rein?”
Tiernan looked sideways at her.
“What?” she asked. “I heard he was hanging on Madden’s shoulder lately. Who else would King Vardeck send to keep nineteen of his keimon guard in line?”
Letting out a breath, Tiernan nodded grudgingly. Glancing at Revca and Jessik to be sure they had finished their report, he braced himself on his knees and stood. His chest seemed a little smaller than it had when he sat down. He had known what sort of fight was coming, but the more he heard, the closer it came, the harder his bones felt inside his skin. He stretched his shoulders.
“Send someone back down the mountain,” he told Deorsa. “I want eyes on everything until we know what we’re doing.”
Deorsa nodded. “We’ll meet up tonight to talk plans?”
“We’ll meet tomorrow morning,” Tiernan said.
Deorsa’s eyebrows pulled together and she opened her mouth to object.
He waved a hand at her. “I’m going down the mountain, too. We need a way out of this pass without drawing attention.”
She didn’t shut her mouth until she had taken a breath and let it out. Then she nodded. “We really do. Take your time.”
The message came in the gray light before dawn.
Seryn had woken a moment before, sharp and fast, while the hall was still silent. She sat up as soon as she woke, turned, put her feet on the floor and was standing before she’d had her first thought. Slipping out of her bedclothes, she stepped into her breeches, pulled on shirt and jacket, laced up her boots, and prowled out of the hall. The door barely creaked on its hinges, and she paused to adjust her eyes to the growing light. She blinked only once. She tried to remember if she had taken a breath this morning before this one, before the chill hollowed her chest.
Climbing the wall, she stopped at the first guard station. She expected the usual exchange of nods that told her the last three hours had passed as usual. Instead, the guard on duty handed Seryn a small slip of paper, rolled tight for a hawk to carry.
Seryn glanced down at it in her hand, then took a step away to read it.
Macsen had made good time. He would be arriving before nightfall. She should send someone to meet him. She should stay where she was. He would take her report when he reached the fortress.
Seryn read it twice, out of habit, then let it roll back on itself and slipped it into her pocket. Walking back down to the main hall, she slid quietly to the back. Some of the soldiers were waking, but they were slow about it, leaning forward over their knees, running their hands through their hair. Finding the cots at the back of the hall, she touched Wynn on the shoulder.
Wynn’s eyes opened in an instant. She sat up and looked questioningly at Seryn.
“Macsen’s coming,” Seryn told her. “On the east road. “Take Tomi and meet him.”
“Anything we should tell him?” Wynn asked.
Seryn considered. “Tell him, we’re down three. Otherwise, everything went according to plan.”
Wynn nodded. It took her less than five minutes to pull her clothes on, wake Temi, and leave the hall. Seryn followed shortly after, watched them ready their horses and ride out, then mounted the wall again.
By the time she finished her morning circuit, she was late to breakfast, but she didn’t care. Eating quickly, she watched Drystan take the children out for their morning run with the littlest one in his shoulders. Then she let her jacket on her cot, gathered the rest of her guard and left with a glance back at Rhian’s cot.
She was still asleep, but Seryn could see the blanket rise and fall now, each breath stronger than it had been the day before. She would wake later, Seryn thought.