The morning run passed in the same long strides it always had. Content in their silence, they filled their lungs and worked out the tight strings of their muscles with the sounds of each other’s footfalls reinforcing their own. Thirty rounds of the fortress and most of them turned inside to catch a breath on the way to the training yard. Seryn ran her five extra rounds, and joined them, just in time matched padded swords with Aled.
The hours did not slide by – she hauled them past and was pleased at the weight she carried – but one by one wound down.
She ate lunch with the others before walked her rounds again. Satisfied with the state of the main fortress, she checked that the others were holding their posts as ordered, and moved on to the two outer compounds. Another quiet walk around each of them, and she returned to meet with Jeyd and finish preparations for their new arrivals.
She ate dinner with the others.
The sun was almost down before she saw the horses coming. She had been on the wall for the last half-hour, waiting idly, keep watching because it was a calm way to pass time. Drystan was below, tucked behind one corner of the main hall, playing with the children. They were running, tagging each other, laughing while they wore themselves out before they would be shooed off to bed. She could hear them getting tired. The light faded, the horses came into sight, shifting between the far trees, and Seryn knew Drystan would take the children inside within a count of thirty.
They were locked inside before the horses were close enough for Seryn to see that Tomi and Wynn were leading them. And Macsen was close behind them, riding at the head of the column with the flags just behind him.
Seryn watched them come from the wall, but she was at the gate when they rode through.
Macsen’s horse wheeled around, pulled out the of the line as soon as he saw Seryn. She didn’t smile, but she felt a little warmer than she had a moment before. It was a little easier to breathe, but that might just have been from the way she had straightened, pulled her chest open with an arm raised in salute. She tried to count the months since she had last held fingers to forehead like this, and decided it had been a ridiculously long time ago.
“It’s good to see you, Seryn,” Macsen said. He gave her a salute as well, allowing her to drop her hand. “Is my new office set up?”
She turned her shoulders in the proper direction, ready to lead him away. “Of course.”
Dismounting, Macsen handed the reins to Wynn and let her take his horse off toward the stables while he brushed some of the dust off his breeches and brushed his hair back from his face. He followed Seryn away from the gate without another word, his attention on the lines of wooden structures, the roofs, the main stone hall. She took him to one of the smaller buildings, set off one of the back corners of the hall. There were three steps leading up to the door, a furnished outer office, and a private room on the left, both of them a little bigger than they needed to be. Seryn slipped to the side so that Macsen could see them as soon as he stepped inside and he gave her an appreciate smile while he scraped his boots in the doorway.
“Good,” he murmured. “Good.”
Seryn nodded and let herself smile in return. “Is there anything else you need tonight?”
He looked at her over his shoulder. “Do you have somewhere you need to be?”
She hesitated. He still looked pleased, but something had shifted in his eyes. “I have the night watch.”
“Always?” he asked.
“I scheduled a rotation.”
He waved a hand, brushing that away. “Hand your watch to Celyn,” he said. “Then come back. I don’t want to wait until morning for your report.”
Seryn nodded, ducking her head low that time, and left. It took her less than five minutes to find Celyn loitering around the long tables in the main hall. He nodded as soon as she told him about the trade, and they left the hall again together. He turned toward the wall. She turned for Macsen’s office and was knocking on the door again before it was fully dark.
Macsen had already settled himself behind his desk, coat draped over the back of his chair, gloves thrown down in front of him. He waved her toward one of the chairs in front of him. “Let’s start with who you lost and how.”
Seryn paused with her hand on the door still, turned, shut it, and sat down.
“We were attacked in the middle of the night on the way here,” she told him. “It was before I had a firm hold on the caravan. I decided a show of force wouldn’t go amiss. We made a shield wall. Bethan and Harun didn’t have the strength for it. They died a few hours later.” She didn’t look away from when she said it. He didn’t either. “Chezza got mixed up somewhere in the mess of it. We never found her.”
“Harun never even made it here?” Macsen asked.
Seryn shook her head. “No, sir.”
“Who’s been acting as your second?”
Macsen leaned back in his chair. He raised one eyebrow at her, almost smiled, as if he wasn’t sure how to laugh at her joke. “They listen to him? He doesn’t have them running joke maneuvers?”
Shaking her head, Seryn let her lips curl upward as well. “He’s been just fine.”
“And you’ve held control here?”
Seryn nodded. “That was almost easy. I made a few promises, one particular threat, and they let me lead them here without any questions. When Commander Jeyd and his men arrived in the spring, we had one night of trouble, and very little since.”
“What promises did you make?” Macsen asked.
“There’s a man named Ern,” Seryn told him. “You can meet him tomorrow. We built him his own compound, about a mile south and east of here. He came with a small army of his own, mostly keimon, and they’ve been quietly doing as they’re told for the last six months, in return for uniforms.”
“That’s it?” Macsen asked.
“He liked what King Vardeck gave me,” Seryn told him. “All he wants is for Madden to give him the same thing.”
“I’m guessing he’s a little old for it…” Macsen said, quiet.
“Very,” Seryn said. “And we’ve had some sharp discussions about the things that he and his have to give up before Madden can help him, but they’ve been quiet.”
Macsen’s eyes flicked up to her face and when he nodded, she knew it wasn’t acceptance. “The other compound?”
“Not quiet,” Seryn said. “I’ve spent whole days hunting some of them down and throwing them back in. Then a few more days sealing up whatever hole they wiggled through. I haven’t had to find anyone in about two weeks, but it hasn’t been long enough to say for sure that I have them sealed up.”
“How many of them are there?” Macsen asked.
“One hundred and seven,” she said. “We take a count every morning when we unlock the inner doors, and a count every night before we lock them back in.”
“And are the children quiet?” Macsen asked.
Seryn paused. “Yes, sir.”
“They follow orders?”
“More than most children do,” Seryn said. “And every day they get better about it. Just like we did.”
“And who is it you have training them?” Macsen asked. Seryn pulled a breath in as soon as he asked it, feeling the weight even in his curious tone. “I got a little confused when Wynn and Tomi were explaining things to me. Is it… Rhian? Or Drystan?”
“Rhian,” Seryn said. “Until she got hurt a few days ago. Then I had Drystan running them through their paces.”
Macsen’s mouth closed in a thin line. He didn’t say anything for a long moment, watching her and she held his gaze steadily, even feeling her chest start to shrink in on itself.
“You were supposed to train them,” Macsen said, slowly, sadly.
Seryn blinked, once, too long. “I couldn’t.”
“We had trouble on the first night Commander Jeyd was here. It wasn’t easy to separate them,” Seryn told him.
“You were supposed to do it quietly, slip them away, not steal them,” Macsen said.
“We did,” Seryn said. “We did everything as we ordered. But… mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins… They still fought for them. It didn’t matter that we already had our fist around the prize.”
Macsen shook his head. “And?”
“Some children saw me afterward,” Seryn told him. “And it wasn’t my blood I was wearing.”
Macsen covered his mouth, and she thought she heard him laugh behind it. He pushed himself farther back in his chair and eyed the wall for a moment. “So, you let children train other children,” he murmured. He didn’t even say it directly to her. Seryn looked down at his desk, unsure how to read his tone. “And you lost three. And Jeyd’s been sending messages back to Madden saying you won’t hand this place over to him, and… “
Seryn froze, refusing to clench her jaw.
“It was probably a mistake to leave you all on your own this long,” Macsen murmured.
Seryn carefully spread her fingers against the arm of the chair. “I did exactly as I was told,” she said.
“I know you did,” Macsen said. His tone had softened, as if he had forgotten for a moment that she could hear him. There was a low apology in his tone. Seryn would have liked to let it sink in, but she couldn’t quite convince herself to abandon the tightness that had wound itself inside her shoulders.
“You’ve done well enough,” he said. Leaning forward over the desk, he held her eye for a moment longer. Then he nodded at her, quietly reassuring, and moved on.
“Run over the numbers with me, who’s stationed where,” he said. “Give me the names of the Captains, and whoever else you think is important. There’s a lot to be done tomorrow.”