No one slept the night before they were supposed to leave the pass. They packed up their belongings. They secured the carts. They brushed down the horses, calming the animals even as they couldn’t calm themselves. Deorsa watched Tiernan across one of the campfires, both of them wrapped in their business with the men and women who came and went.
“You’re sure we can trust him?” Deorsa asked. Only once.
“Yes,” Tiernan told her.
And just before sunrise, they rumbled slowly down the path.
The sky was pink and gray when they reached the foot of the mountain. The birds were twittering, echoing in the clear silence. The trees stood sentinel between them and the fortress. The whole column picked up speed on flat ground. Tiernan and Deorsa aimed them toward the open plain in the east.
After the sun had gone down, they circled the carts and made a rough camp. They would settle more permanently in the morning, once they were sure they had come far enough past the fortress to find solid footing.
Revca found Tiernan in the dark. Astride her horse, she stopped beside his tent, pulling back on the reins to force her horse to hold still as it tried to dance in place. She and the other scouts had been running wide circles around the column all day, and she herself didn’t look any more ready to relax into the evening.
“I ran across your boy,” she said. She watched his face. “Aled.”
Waiting, Tiernan pulled in a steady breath.
“He said he was proud of you,” Revca said. She put a question in her tone, but Tiernan could hear the too-confident twist in it that belonged solely to Vardeck’s soldier.
He coughed out a laugh, and looked down at his hands. “I bet he did.”
Revca’s horse pranced under her, and she laid a hand on its neck, murmured something soothing.
“Get some sleep,” he told her. Curling forward, he rested his elbows on his knees, running a hand through his hair. He wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be, but it would be easy enough to close his own eyes.
Seryn watched the dark creep up behind the windows. The hall filled with yellow lamp light in some places, and shadows in others, as some soldiers turned toward their cots, and others roused themselves for the night watch. The afternoon shift was coming in in pairs, gathering a cold dinner and eating quietly. She had eaten hours ago.
Aled had already checked in after his patrol and given a quiet report. Drystan’s horse stepped in a rabbit hole, twisted a hock. They’d brought it back to the stables at a walk, then gone out again with a fresh horse, taken one extra round of the fortress, just to make sure nothing snuck up while they were occupied. Drystan was worried about the horse. Aled was happy they’d had fresh rabbit for their lunch.
The outer forts were locked for the night, with all the counts taken and verified.
The children were in bed.
She would be asleep soon. There was nothing left to keep her awake. She just hadn’t lifted herself off the bench yet to find her cot.
She was surprised when Carys touched her shoulder, but turned to face her smoothly enough. “What is it?” she murmured.
Carys looked sharp in her uniform, ready for the night watch. “Macsen asked for you,” she said. “He says you’re to come to Commander Jeyd’s office immediately.”
Seryn blinked at her. She could remember a dull weight in her limbs from a moment before, but it had melted away, leaving her flesh and bone again. The light of the hall sharpened easily, and the heat which had lulled her toward sleep now just touched her skin and fell away.
“Thank you,” Seryn told her and nodded for her to be on her way. Ducking her head, Carys stepped away.
The night sounded empty outside the hall. The dark looked thinner than it had through the window. Black shadows were only flickering gray as she passed through them. Seryn crossed the yard in long, even strides, and her heels thunked on every step up to the wooden porch outside Jeyd’s door. Another soldier passed her on the way to the wall, just a gleam of blue coat and pale reflection at the edge of the light. She knocked, put her hands in her pockets, waited, and entered when commanded.
The hiss of the breeze disappeared as soon as she closed the door behind her. A different silence hummed in the small space.
Jeyd tilted his head to look at her from his chair beside a small, square table. There was an open hand of cards in front of him, though it looked like it had been forgotten a long time ago. He smiled at her, but there was little weight to it.
“Hello,” he said. “You’ve been busy.”
Seryn held his eye as she gave a vague nod of her own, more greeting than agreement, then glanced sideways at Macsen where he sat in another padded chair against the wall. He flicked a look up at her, shook his head a little, and her chest tightened, drawing her spine straighter.
“Commander Macsen and I have made some decisions,” Jeyd told her. “We thought you should hear it from us, before everyone stops following your orders tomorrow.”
Seryn paused. “I’m sorry?”
“That’s one of the things that we decided,” Jeyd said. His smile tilted halfway into an apology. “You’ve done good things for us, but you don’t actually have the authority to give orders.” He seemed to offer a silent question, giving her the chance to disagree.
Seryn glanced at Macsen, then looked at Jeyd sideways. “You didn’t seem to have a problem when I took control of the other forts. And I thought we’d already had our argument about the children.”
Jeyd’s smile stretched, and she thought he looked impressed with her. Macsen did not.
“From now on you answer to Macsen,” Jeyd said. “And since we’re under Madden’s rule here, Macsen will answer to me.”
Seryn gave a steady, slow nod.
“Starting tomorrow, you’ll pull your people off the watch rotations and the work shifts,” Jeyd told her. “They’ll stay on the patrols.”
Hesitating, Seryn glanced between them. “Without meaning any offense,” she murmured. “That will leave a lot of us sitting bored through the day.”
“No,” Macsen said gently. “We’ll be sending most of them home.”
Seryn started to stare at him, then stopped herself, forced her eyes to the floor.
“You’ll stay,” Macsen told her. “You and I will pick the other three together.”
“Three,” she repeated.
“One to accompany the morning for the morning patrol, one to accompany the evening patrol, and one so there will be a rotation. You’ll stay with the children. As we agreed.” Seryn tried not to hear the bite in the last three words, but shut her eyes against it anyway. Another moment, and she wondered if it had been there at all. She might have imagined it.
“This fortress had operated for months with all nineteen of us,” Seryn told him carefully. “You don’t think it might be better serve if–“
“King Vardeck himself has requested fifteen of you back,” Macsen said. “He knows exactly where you’re best.”
Jeyd looked at the floor then too, and Seryn knew she was imagining nothing. Macsen seemed to notice the weight of his tone in the same moment, and he swallowed it, running a hand over his beard. Seryn watched him out of the corner of her eye, waiting, unsure.
“I know this is your office, Commander,” Macsen said quietly. “But would you mind giving me a moment with her?”
Jeyd nodded immediately. “Of course,” he said. Rising from his chair, he nodded to Seryn as well, and strode easily for the door. She listened to the hum of the night outside, then the click of the latch. Once he was gone, she lifted her chin, turned, met Macsen’s eye easily.
“I made a mistake,” Macsen told her.
Swallowing, Seryn forced herself to breathe out calmly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.
He almost laughed at her. “You’re apologizing for my mistake?”
“I didn’t mean to overstep,” she said.
“Well, you did,” he said. “And I shouldn’t have expected any less. I trained you to run farther, push harder. And then I left nineteen of you together for an entire winter, and I thought I’d find you all still tame come spring?” He shook his head. “It’s my fault. And this is the way to fix it. Trust me.”
Seryn nodded before she thought to stop herself. Then she opened her mouth, and couldn’t stop herself.
“But maybe just a few more of us…” she said. “We’re good here together.”
“Dremm, Seryn!” Macsen snapped.
Flinching, she shut her eyes, and he was standing just in front of her when she opened them again.
“Have I or have I not always taken care of you?” he demanded, his voice dangerous and low. “Have I or have I not trained you, made you everything you are? And tell me how long you would have lasted under this sun without being exactly what you are?”
She shut her eyes again, just for a moment. Then she shook her head. “I wouldn’t have,” she murmured.
“You know you’ve made a mess here,” Macsen told her. “They don’t respect you. They fear you. You know that.”
Seryn forced herself to take a breath, forced herself not to think of the way that Jeyd had looked at her after she reminded him how she had won the children. Her stomach tightened.
“And here I am, with the way to clean it all up, and…” He dipped his head, trying to catch her eye, forehead furrowed. “What? What exactly do you think you’re doing?”
“I was only making a request,” she said.
“Well, are you finished?” he demanded.
Seryn nodded without offering another word.
“Tell me who else should stay,” Macsen ordered.
Seryn made her decisions quickly. It was easy, her thoughts still racing, her fingers balled up at her sides to keep them from jittering. “Tesni. Wynn. And Rhian.”
“Not Rhian,” Macsen said. “She’s too young. She needs more tempering on the border.”
Seryn hesitated. Leolin, maybe. Or… she wasn’t sure why she suddenly wanted to ask for Aled. No. She blinked at herself. “Gareth,” she said.
“Fine,” Macsen said. “You’re dismissed.”
Seryn turned for the door. Her hand was on the latch when she hesitated again. Her hands were shaking now. She should have just pressed the latch down, swung the door open, stepped outside in the cool.
“When do the others leave?” she asked, instead.
There was a long pause before he answered. She wondered if he was shocked as well. She couldn’t remember if she had ever spoken to him after being dismissed.
“In three days,” he told her.
Again, she should have opened the door, but she didn’t. “Please. Leave Rhian here.”
She wasn’t sure how to answer until she looked over her shoulder, met his eye. She could match the steel she found there, once she saw it. “Because I ruined her.”
He glared at her. “Excuse me?”
“I ruined her. I cut into her back, deep. She’s not as strong as she used to be, and she never will be again.” Seryn wished it didn’t sound as if she were making promises under a dark sky. But every word felt like an oath. “If you send her back to the border, she’ll be dead in her first fight.”
“You told me she got hurt,” Macsen said.
“I hurt her,” Seryn told him.
“It was necessary.”
Macsen stared. She could watch him trying to calculate how it had happened. He glanced down at her hands, and she let him read whatever he could there.
“Please let me keep her alive,” Seryn asked.
It took a long moment. He held her eye and she looked at him blankly. She didn’t know how to plead with him other than to stumble through the syllables. She had never needed to before. Letting the desire twist her stomach, she kept her expression still. And she waited.
“Tesni, Wynn, and Rhian,” Macsen said, finally. Then he nodded toward the door. “Tell the others to pack their bags.”
She tapped her fist to her shoulder, a perfect salute, and she left.