Mornings were dawning sharper, the spring sun chasing away the cold instead of merely lighting it. The grey light faded more quickly, the air lost its damp cool between two breaths. Seryn watched it come and go, waiting outside Macsen’s office.
Dressed and relaxed, he stepped out the front door when the sun had climbed all the way over the horizon, and the world was right in its colors. Then he stopped, eyeing her thoughtfully. In long, heavy steps, he descended the stairs, still looking at her. She almost read curiosity in the way his gaze flicked over her.
“Why aren’t you with the children?” he asked.
“They like Drystan well enough,” she said.
“You’re twice over what Drystan is,” Macsen murmured. There wasn’t anyone else to hear, but he had a way of dropping his voice to make it clear that what he said wasn’t meant to go anywhere else, when it was only for her. She felt it like a warm hand on her shoulder, and, if it had been the right time for it, she would have smiled.
“He’s good enough for this,” Seryn told him.
“I want it changed by tomorrow,” Macsen said. He stepped past her, on the way to the main hall.
Blinking, she glanced at the ground. The order felt short. “They saw me after the fight,” she said carefully. “Bloody.”
He turned back toward her slowly, eyes on the sky before they settled on her face. She thought she heard him sigh. “Really, Seryn,” he murmured. “You’ve never been shy about what you are.”
Seryn blinked quickly, looked down again, and he moved on. One breath, and she followed him.
She barely spoke for the rest of that morning, all of her words coming out in pairs.
And she breathed easily, picked up her feet and moved smoothly, comfortably thoughtless.
Tiernan took Ava with him rather than navigate down to the fortress on years’ old memory. The two of them made good time on horses that were well rested after a few days sitting in camp. They were almost too eager to move, and Tiernan wished that he could let them run to work the itch out of their feet, but hooves echoed this close to the mountain, and he didn’t know who might hear.
At the bottom of the pass, Ava turned south, leading him directly to the fortress, as they had agreed. He wanted to see it for himself. And he wanted to see what they saw.
It took two and a half hours to work their way down the flat plain and bury themselves in the forest facing the gate. There was a path winding between the trees, clearly trampled into usefulness, and they kept a dozen yards to the side of it, now creeping forward to get within sight of the walls. Ava moved with surety, and Tiernan stayed close to her. When she slid off her horse, he slid down. When she left her mount with the reins looped over a tree branch, he left his, and they slid almost to the edge of the trees.
“There you are,” she said quietly.
The stone walls of the fortress were yellow in the sunlight, and looked small at a distance. It was a square structure, utilitarian, but still managed to look pleasant with the open green on all sides and the purple mountain stretching up behind it. Watching the small heads of the guards as they made their rounds, he measured the wall with his eyes. Thirty-five feet tall, or maybe a little more, all made in wide stones. Someone had cared when they put them together. He knew if he were standing right next to it, it would feel about the same as standing beside the mountain. The gates were open for the day, and he could see soldiers criss-crossing the yard in an uneven, constant stream.
After a few minutes, three horses road through the gate. They drifted south, fading into the tree line far away from Tiernan and Ava.
“Patrol,” Tiernan said, and Ava nodded. Jessik and Revca had said the fortress sent out six patrols a day, that they ran a loop around the camps in the south, and looped around the woods before they came back.
“How far do they go?” Tiernan asked.
Ava’s eyes were still focused on the trees where they had disappeared. She shook her head a little. “I don’t know.”
Tiernan glanced at her, quick enough for her to feel his surprise.
“That’s Vardeck’s guard in the patrols,” she said. “The other soldiers seem more than happy to let them handle checking up on the forts. I didn’t like the idea of trying to follow them.”
Tiernan nodded his understanding. “How do you feel about following them now?” he asked.
She looked sideways at him. It took him a moment to realize she was sizing him up, and then he broke into a laugh. She smiled too.
“We can try,” she said.
They walked back to their horses, then another two dozen strides before they mounted up. For a few minutes, Ava led the way still. Then she began looking over her shoulder to check the distance between her horse and Tiernan’s. Tiernan doubted she meant to do it, but more and more often, she glanced over her shoulder. Not wanting her attention split, he tapped his heels against his horse’s sides and pulled ahead of her. Looking back, he checked to make sure she was all right with the change. She nodded and returned her attention to the trees.
Soon, Tiernan heard the other horses and pulled to a quick stop to judge which direction they were moving. They weren’t trying to hide, just moving carefully between the trees, working their way south and east. They were moving away, and Tiernan let his horse drift forward again. He heard Ava move with him, and he kept his eyes on the trees, looking for the shift of the patrol between the trunks.
The noise of the first fort clacked and clattered over the sounds of the patrol after half an hour. Tiernan slowed his horse again, and turned to the side, trying to stay away from the patrol and bring the walls into view. They were made of thick tree trunks, stood on end and driven into the ground. The woods weren’t as clear around them, as if the soldiers had half a heart to hide the wooden walls altogether, but any branch within ten feet of the tops had been hacked away. They would do a decent job of keeping enemies out. He imagined they did a better job keeping people inside.
The patrol ran a circle around the walls, stopped to talk to the guards at the gate, then moved on to the west.
The clatter still covered the horses’ footfalls for five minutes as they moved away. When Tiernan could hear their strides clearly again, they seemed quieter than before.
Ava whistled, a little too sharp to be disguised as a bird noise, but it was close. Tiernan pulled to a sharp stop.
Her eyes were fixed in front of them, and he traced her gaze until he found the horseman as well. He was just sitting, arms crossed over the pommel of his horse, silent.
The man wasn’t hiding. There were trees on all sides of him, but he had chosen the clearest section nearby and waited right in the center of it. His coat was too green to blend in well in early spring. He was letting his horse’s head drop, letting it nose through the brush beneath them. The horse’s tail flicked, drawing attention to them. It obviously felt its rider sitting relaxed on its back.
Ava pulled her horse close to Tiernan’s.
“Do we turn around?” she whispered.
Tiernan considered it, then shook his head.
“He knows we’re here,” she whispered.
“I think he does,” Tiernan said
“So, we should leave,” Ava said. She started to pull her horse back a step, turning its head to return to the thick of the woods. She seemed to notice that Tiernan wasn’t gathering his reins to follow, and she glanced ahead again. “Maybe, we try again later,” she offered.
“There were three of them,” Tiernan said. “Why did only one of them stop?”
Tiernan smiled at her. “Maybe.”
She pulled her horse back another step. It sidled under her.
“Do you want to stay here?” Tiernan asked quietly.
“You’re going forward?” she asked. Her eyes were narrowing in doubt.
Tiernan just nodded.
Ava looked over her shoulder, then forward at the horseman. It took her a moment to decide, then she pulled to the right, nodding for Tiernan to move left. They took a careful minute circling around, then stepped through the trees on either side of the waiting man. Looking up as they approached, he glanced between them and slowly straightened in the saddle.
His horse flicked its tail again.
“You came back,” he said. He sounded pleasantly surprised.