Seryn dreamed something, and didn’t like it. There was a road. Some strange sound in the trees. Waking as sharply as usual, she forgot all of it.
Macsen was in the hall, up early. Seryn nodded to him. He nodded back. Then she turned her attention to the business of the day.
Aled woke just minutes after her, as she was wrapping herself into her uniform. The others weren’t far behind. Seryn started toward breakfast, stopped, turned around, and tapped Drystan on the shoulder.
He looked at her, curious.
She jerked her head toward the meal line. “Go,” she said. “I’ll wake them.”
He didn’t argue, and they slipped past each other. He took his place at the end of the line, starting a quiet, happy conversation with Aled. Seryn swung the bar on the door at the back of the room and slipped into the cool dark.
One of the children was awake, at the back of the room, one of the older ones. Cidra. Seryn matched the name to the face and fixed it.
Anie was awake too, or the creaking of the door made her sit up and take notice. Seryn met her eye. She didn’t know what a smile would buy, so she matched the girl for a moment.
“Wake up!” she said. “Up, up! Time for breakfast!”
Little bodies stirred in the dim light. Blankets shuffled. One of the boys reached over and slapped one of the others when he didn’t sit up, then laughed. Denna looked up through a curtain of thin hair, wide-eyed.
Seryn stayed until she saw all of them start to tumble out from under the covers, then she left. They knew where to go next.
They ate slowly. Children always did. Seryn ate her meal in half the time, then waited, watching. Macsen was behind her somewhere. He watched as well, and the morning crept forward.
They ran the children through their exercises, led them in laps around the fortress, then took them through two hours of staff practice. It was not the exertion that Seryn was used to, working one-on-one with someone with such a short reach. While Anie wore herself out, Seryn held careful control. When Seryn called a stop, she was antsy for more.
She caught Macsen’s eye across the yard. He lifted his chin, half a nod.
“Young folk inside for lunch!” Seryn called. “Guard, line up!”
The children didn’t rush the way she expected, but looked over their shoulders as they went. Sevi collected Denna from Rhian and hoisted her onto his shoulders. His friends waited for him. Anie watched them slide into their positions, as if the ground had been marked, as if they had measured the space between their shoulders, instantly. She looked at Seryn. Seryn nodded her forward as Macsen walked around the block of them.
The children disappeared into the hall.
“It’s good to see you all,” Macsen said.
Aled lifted his chin, raised one eyebrow just a hair, questioning the statement. Seryn would talk to him later. Or she wouldn’t. Soon enough, he wouldn’t be her problem.
“I’m here to send most of you home,” he said. “Your patrols are missing you.”
Emyr smiled. Drystan took a slow breath. He hadn’t been assigned to a patrol on the borders yet. He would get his first post when he went home. Seryn tried not to read the shift in his shoulders. It would be the first time that he served. When he looked up at her, he knew what she knew: that this posting hadn’t counted. They had still be shoulder to shoulder with their own.
He would be fine.
Seryn glanced to Rhian. She was still pale, and Seryn couldn’t read anything in her.
“You’ll leave two mornings from now, and report back to Barracks,” Macsen told them. “They’ll give you orders from there on how to meet up with your patrols. I expect you’re all ready for familiar ground.”
Some of them nodded.
Seryn glanced at Tesni, then Wynn. They both glanced over in time to catch her look, and she held their gazes. They had started to nod at Macsen too, but now they hesitated.
“Rhian, Wynn, Tesni, Seryn,” Macsen said. “Stay put. The rest of you are dismissed.”
The lines broke, instantly, filing around the ones who had been told to stay. When the others were gone, they came forward, standing in a curve in front of Macsen. Seryn slipped in beside Wynn.
“The four of you will be staying here,” Macsen told them. “You’ll report to me directly. Commander Jeyd may ask anything of you that doesn’t contradict my orders. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” they said in one, even voice.
“It’s been years since I’ve seen some of you,” Macsen said. “I’d like to see what I’m working with. Seryn, run them through the paces for me.”
Seryn tossed her staff up to catch it in the middle, then swung it over the back of her hand, spun it, faster. It was good to move. “Wynn, Tesni, pair up. Rhian, you’re with me.”
Rhian wasn’t holding a staff. She had time to shoot Seryn a look that was half a glare as she picked one up.
Seryn changed her mind so quickly, she wasn’t sure whether or not she’d had another plan. She put herself shoulder to shoulder with Rhian, smiled sharply at Wynn and Tesni. “Two on two. First to disarm both the other two, takes all.”
They worked for an hour for Macsen.
For the first half, Wynn moved smoothly around Rhian, every motion telegraphed just a little too far ahead. Rhian blocked and struck stiffly, but adequately. Tesni avoided her altogether, roaring against Seryn, using all his height to make her move. Seryn stopped thinking, blocked, dropped, spun, struck. The motion soothed her, and she took deeper breaths the longer they rattled against each other.
No one touched Rhian, but she was tiring.
Tesni wasn’t, just getting bored with not having even tapped flesh. When Wynn glanced over, and saw the blooming red across Tesni’s upper arm after Seryn spun in and out, she met Seryn’s eye sharply. She was smiling too, and Seryn felt the competition grip the other woman. She felt it run suddenly into her own blood and touch cool fingers through her chest.
Tesni lunged toward Rhian. Wynn darted, ducked, wove. Seryn took a bruise on her collarbone, on her forearm, the back of her thigh. They missed her head, the soft muscle of her upper arm, the buckling spot on the back of her knee. They still never touched Rhian.
Macsen smiled when they were finished, called it even though Wynn, Seryn, and Rhian were still holding their staves. Dismissing the others, he held Seryn back.
She wiped sweat from her forehead, stood up straight, and felt all the places in her chest that air had not rested in the last hour.
“I’m moving the four of you in with the children,” Macsen told her. “There’s no need for you to be separated.”
Seryn paused. Then she nodded. “Yes, sir. Tonight?”
“Please,” he said. And it sounded like an order.
Seryn ate with the others, relayed Macsen’s instructions, and continued on with her duties.
The patrol had to be seen off, the last one before Jeyd filled it with his soldiers and tacked one one of hers. It was Aled’s turn again, and Mari, and Tesni. Watching them ride through the gate, she wondered if Aled would come back. Then she didn’t. Mari and Tesni would bring him back.
Saddling her own horse, she rode straight for the outer camps. It didn’t take long for them to come into view between the trees. The guards saw her coming, and the gates opened as soon as she was close enough for them to be sure it was her. Captain Arrden met her just inside. She only came once a week, and he only met her farther inside when he needed her help. She knew instantly this would be a short meeting, and everything was in order. She put a hand on her horse’s neck to soothe her, didn’t even bother sliding out of the saddle.
“Nothing to report,” he told her. “It’s been quiet.”
“Good,” Seryn said. She glanced at the slow moving men and women in the yard. It was easy to sort out the soldiers that watched them, standing perfectly still at their posts. “Do you need anything sent over?”
Arrden shook his head. Then he smiled. “Not unless you have bacon to spare.”
She glanced at him. He seemed amused. She thought the joke was thin.
One of his soldiers came out of a cabin, holding a girl by the shoulder. She was shorter than the soldier by a full head. One side of her face was bruised from the ridge of her eye to her jaw and she walked as if her ribs were complaining. At the bottom of the steps, both she and the guard noticed Seryn. The guard pushed a little faster. The girl looked at her, focused and halfway into a purposed smile.
Seryn watched her for a few paces. “What happened there?” she asked Arrden.
Arrden glanced over his shoulder. “Nothing,” he said. “She gave us a bit of a runaround yesterday.”
“Runaround?” Seryn repeated.
“It’s nothing,” he assured her. “She’s not even a keimon. She was just bored.”
Seryn scanned the yard again. “Did we ever get a final count of how many like her we’re holding here?”
Arrden shrugged. “Forty? Forty-five? Not too many. We’ll see you next week.”
Seryn felt the dismissal. She considered pretending she hadn’t. Then she turned and rode back out.
She spent a little more time at the other fort. Ern gave his usual complaints. Captain Deva gave her usual explanations. Seryn patched it up with a short glare and a vague promise.
After dinner, the four of them packed their sacks, rolled their blankets and moved toward the room at the back of the hall. The children quieted as soon as they stepped inside. Seryn was the last inside, and she paused in the doorway. All the girls’ cots were lined up to the left, all the boys to the right. The few empty cots in the room laid at the back wall. She nodded Wynn, Tesni, and Rhian toward them, and said nothing to the children as she passed them.
Within an hour, the lights were out, the door was shut, and Seryn went to sleep with the others.
It was a long road.
Seryn knew it as soon as she stood on it, before she had looked both ways to see that it laid in a straight line, one horizon to the other. She shuffled a loose circle in the dust, staring at it. She had a vague feeling that she shouldn’t have been able to see that far, before she remembering that she was almost home. There were no hills here to hide the ends of things, just the haze of earth-meets-sky.
She didn’t know how she had gotten here. She shuffled another circle. She didn’t know why she was alone.
She must have made some mistake.
Seryn tried to remember what mistake that was. She had made a thousand. Maybe it was the fire she had made in the woods. Maybe it was that other fire.
Maybe she had taken a wrong turn, and everyone else had known better and chosen the right road. Why hadn’t she followed them?
Maybe she had forgotten to follow orders. No. No, no. How could she have forgotten that? She would forget how to breathe, how to bleed before she forgot how to bend to a command.
Where were the others?
Seryn scuffed through the road dust again, spinning, trying to remember who she had been with.
She couldn’t smell the dust. It took her a long time to realize it, even as it puffed around her, clung to her. She could taste it, but that seemed wrong, to feel the grit on the tongue and not the dry age in her nose. Then, in half a moment, she realized, she had forgotten how to breathe.
The trees leaned in over the road, green shadows on brown earth. Something whispered in them, with real voices, not breeze-hustled leaves.
No. She had not forgotten. She could drag air in, push air out, if she wanted. But she wasn’t supposed to breathe here. She wasn’t as close to home as she had thought. Breathing here would…
Seryn looked up at the trees. She knew what was hiding there. Her blood was beginning to hum in her ears, and she was shaking. If she listened too closely, she would understand them, and she hated that. What they had to say always shook her, hollowed her, bruised her. She needed her insides untwisted.
Holding her breath, Seryn spun, judging both ends of the endless road. One of them would lead toward the barracks. Maybe both if she ran far enough. Probably not. But they looked exactly the same.
She could hear her own heartbeat. And the voices.
Her chest was beginning to ache.
The shadows of the trees were striping the path. Maybe that was why she couldn’t decide which way to go. If she waited for the sun to shift, for the shade to slide, maybe something would look familiar.
Her back was beginning to ache.
No. She had to choose now. It was dangerous to be here alone. She should never have been alone. The things in the trees would come down from the branches if they realized she didn’t have anyone else with her. Her shadow must have been fooling them for now.
If she waited, that would slide away too.
All her ribs were starting to feel squeezed too tight, bruised. She couldn’t breathe. There was nothing good about breathing.
Why was she alone? Whatever she had done, she took it back. She took it all back.
Anie had no idea why Seryn, Wynn, Rhian, or Tesni had moved into their room. It had made the evening quieter than it should have been. Vetlynn hadn’t been sure if they were allowed to talk. Nessim had ignored them, as if he could pretend they didn’t exist, but hadn’t played cards with Sevi when Sevi offered. Cidra had watched them, as if she were waiting for instructions.
Rhian smiled at them all, wished them a good night, and slept immediately. Anie thought it must have been easy for her to slip into sleep. She still looked sick.
The others crawled into bed at almost the same time, and Anie listened to them breathe as she tried to go to sleep herself. Seryn, Wynn, and Tesni seemed to will themselves into sleep, on steady, measured breaths. They were asleep before any of the children, the decision made that it was time to be unconscious.
It took the rest of them a lot longer.
And now Seryn was twisting her sleep. Anie didn’t know why it woke her. She wasn’t making a sound, except for the rustling of the blanket.
Sitting up slowly, she saw Wynn raise herself on her elbow on Seryn’s right. They met each others eye for half a moment. Then Wynn offered a smile, motioning for her to lay down. She mouthed something to her as well, but in the dark, Anie wasn’t sure what.
Anie laid back down, but turned on her side to keep Seryn in view. Wynn slid quietly out of bed.
“Seryn,” Wynn whispered. The sound of her name hissed in silence. Seryn seemed to shy away from it, but didn’t wake.
Wynn touched her shoulder. “Seryn,” she said.
Seryn woke up gasping. Anie flinched. Cidra flinched, then stilled too quickly. Anie hadn’t known she was awake. Vetlynn turned in her sleep. Seryn sat up, with her back to Anie.
“Are you all right?” Wynn asked her.
“Yes,” Seryn said, immediately. It almost sounded honest. “Go back to sleep.”