Tiernan eyed the man’s half-smile without deciding whether to trust it or not. Eoin had taught him a long time ago how steady a mask a smile could be. Tiernan ran a critical eye over him instead.
He looked familiar, brown-haired and tanned, covered in lean muscle that he almost managed to hide beneath the smooth lines of his uniform. His boots had been cleaned recently, and his hair was cut short. His face was angular, but the lines were straight and healthy. His hands were rosy pink in the chill. The winter hadn’t done him any harm.
“How many did you bring with you?” the man asked.
Tiernan waved a light hand across at Ava. “Just one. You weren’t blind the last time I saw you.”
The man cracked a real smile in response, and shook his head at Tiernan.
“Aled,” Tiernan said, testing his memory of the man’s name.
He nodded, and looked further pleased. “Lord Tiernan,” he said. His horse shifted under him and he straightened a little to calm it, gathering the reins back into his hands. Absently, he drifted toward Tiernan. “You left the rest in the mountains, didn’t you?”
Ava shot Tiernan an alarmed look, and he gave her a small calming nod in return.
“Who?” Tiernan asked.
“The army you brought with you,” Aled said. His smile held, bald arrogance under a pleasant veneer. Someone, it didn’t bother Tiernan, and he actually started to smile back. There wasn’t any friendly feeling in it, just a common understanding that they knew what sort of game they were playing with one another. For a moment, Tiernan considered what control it might give him to break the agreement in the next moment. But there was no gain in it.
“What do you want today, Aled?” he asked.
Aled raised his eyebrows. “What do I want?” he repeated. As if it amused him a little. As if he thought Tiernan might have confused the situation.
“When last we met, you wanted to warn us to run for safety rather than risk coming near you and yours again,” Tiernan said. Aled’s smile grew rigid for a second. Then he carefully smoothed it back out on a breath. Tiernan wondered what he had touched. “What do you want to tell me today?”
Ava nudged her horse forward a step, keeping the distances even between the three of them.
“I didn’t want anything,” Aled told him. Half turning to look over his shoulder at Ava, he leaned forward again, purposefully relaxing. “I was being followed. I only stopped to see who it was.” When he met Tiernan’s eye, his gaze was as steady as stone. “I’ll bet you want something, though.”
Tiernan took his next breath slowly. In. Then out. “Do I?”
“Well,” Aled said. He glanced back at Ava. “There’s only one reason to be here…”
“At this time of year,” Tiernan said.
“Which is why you need that army you brought,” Aled said.
“I just don’t feel safe, leaving home without them,” Tiernan said.
Aled laughed silently. “And now, you need a way to bring them down to the plains, without us knowing your numbers.”
Without answer, Tiernan shut his mouth and smiled carefully in return. He blinked a few times, and Aled slowly nodded. Tiernan watched Ava’s shoulders rise and fall as she worked a long breath in and out of her chest. Behind them, the breeze rifled through the leaves, and sighed toward them. Aled’s horse flicked its tail again.
“Lord Commander Macsen is in charge now,” Aled said evenly. “Do you know who he is?”
Tiernan looked at him uncertainly. “He’s King Vardeck’s man. Why would King Madden…”
“He didn’t,” Aled said. “As far as his majesty is concerned, Commander Jeyd is holding this fortress, and has been for months. All honor and glory will go to him. Macsen doesn’t care about honor and glory. He likes power and I think he even likes it best when other people overlook him. He controls Seryn, and Jeyd is afraid of Seryn. Jeyd doesn’t know it, but that only makes it worse. He probably thinks he has reasons why he never goes against her.”
“He doesn’t?” Ava asked quietly.
Aled looked at her over his shoulder. “No. He only has one: if he pushes her, she’ll burn him down.”
Tiernan didn’t like the passionless way Aled stated it. The lack of emphasis sounded wrong coming out of his mouth. When Aled turned back his way, Tiernan held his silence. After a moment, Aled glanced down at his own hands, as if he had just remembered some things he had burned down as well.
“If you have a little patience left in you,” Aled said, voice low. “I can make sure the patrols go blind on certain days.”
Tiernan blinked. “Blind?”
“Blind, deaf, and mute,” Aled said. He cracked another smile. “They won’t smell you either.”
Tiernan raised his eyebrows, trying not to laugh at the offer. He glanced over Aled’s shoulder, expecting Ava to be holding in her amusement as well. Instead, she eyed the two of them, confused, and held the reins of her horse tight to her lap. Tiernan smoothed his expression down again, forced his mouth into a straighter line.
“That would be helpful,” he told Aled.
Aled went still, expression still bright, but a little deeper around the eyes. “I don’t know what the mountain folk swear on, but I’ll swear on anything you like that I can make it happen. And that you would still have to be careful.”
“You can’t make the road smooth for us too?” Tiernan asked.
Aled hesitated, and shook his head. “No, my Lord. Because Macsen’s here. Seryn pushes herself when Macsen is around, and I honestly have no idea what she’ll do.”