Seryn woke. Eyes open, smooth as taking a breath.
The shadows held their place on the ceiling as if they hung by their finger tips, slipping into the dawning light. She blinked once, aware suddenly of sheets and shoulders and heavy blanket and cool air on thin cheeks. Then she sat.
She pulled on breeches, shirt, boots, jacket and tied everything smoothly into place. Bending her head, she fingered her hair into a quick braid, tight against the back of her head, and knotted it at the base of her skull.
Wynn was moving behind her. Breeches, shirt, boots, jacket. Tesni took a too-thick breath and blinked in the morning light.
Cidra shifted. Sevi lifted his head, curiously. Anie slept on, hard. For half a moment, Seryn wished she remembered how to be that tired.
She stood, striding straight for the door. The latch clicked and the lock held.
Seryn did not pound on the door.
She rapped her knuckles against the paneling in three measured strokes. There were already footsteps on the other side, close enough to hear her knocking. She listened to them pause and turn. She flicked a quick glance at the solider who opened the door, granted them a low nod, and slid past them into the open hall.
She did not imagine herself released, or the dim room behind her as bars of standing iron.
She stepped out the main doors, saw the gates standing closed in the middle of the wall and stood back to wait. Tesni arrived in the morning chill a moment later, and Aled followed a moment later. The others trickled out in their individual silences. Wynn broke the quiet, speaking gently with Rhian as the two them arrived last.
The gates opened on clean hinges. Seryn motioned them all outside.
They ran twenty laps around the fortress, smooth as the tide. Seryn’s chest expanded, her cheeks warmed, her hands and feet gathered their weight until they were steady as stone.
She did not count down the laps.
They broke apart in the yard. Stepping back into the room at the back of the hall, Seryn woke the children. The rest moved to claim their breakfasts.
They trained through the morning. Until they remembered the exact measurements of the breath and Seryn’s hands felt too light without a staff in them.
And they broke apart in the yard.
The afternoon passed. Seryn led Macsen through another round of introductions to the fortress’ supplies and structures. Yes, sir; no, sir; here, sir; and the hours moved smoothly.
They ate and the sun settled past the horizon. On her way to the rear of the hall, Seryn passed the stark, tight-packed sacks of her mates where they leaned against their bunks. Drystan was pulling the string tight on his. Pausing, she nodded to him. He gave her a careful smile.
“Relax,” she murmured. “It’ll be good to be home.”
He hesitated, then broke into a wider smile as he ducked his head. And he nodded.
Seryn settled onto her own cot, lights out, the room rustling as all the children tripped their way into sleep.
She did not listen to the lock slide home.
She blinked at the ceiling, at the dust and the shadows, sharp little stars that blinked at her in the gray. She took a breath, sat, and fitted herself into the day’s clothes. Wynn moved behind her. Tesni sighed awake.
She knocked on the door.
In the hall, Aled was walking down the line of bunks, as the rest of the fortress rustled thoughtlessly behind him. Aled’s coat was already buttoned tight around his chest, his collar fitted to keep out cold air that didn’t exist in the still hall. His sack hung from one hand, rocking against his leg as he moved. One by one, he nodded to the others as he inspected their bunks, and they were sliding out to find their horses in the gray.
Seryn took a breath, and waited for him to look her in the eye at the end.
“Get them back safe,” Seryn ordered, voice low.
He nodded without hesitation. “You know I will.”
Seryn hesitated. “I don’t mean the horses,” she murmured, and gave him a low smile.
He actually laughed.
“Be careful,” he told her.
“We will,” Wynn said dryly, standing behind Seryn in the hollow of the doorway.
“Get out of here,” Seryn said, and nodded Aled after the others.
It took less than half an hour to saddle the horses and organize the last of the supplies in the yard. Each of them mounted up in their coats, saddle bags swollen and packs tied on behind them. The horses flicked their ears and sidled beneath them, and the air slowly took on the day’s colors, warming inside their lungs.
Seryn climbed the wall to watch them go, hands in her pockets, jacket unbuttoned. As soon as they were gone, she would start the morning run. She absently calculated what the day would require with just four of them between the walls. Wynn would take the first patrol. Rhian would stay with her. She watched the horses trot toward the road where it cut into the trees, long legs in smooth strides, each heavy body in its perfect place in the lines.
From the wall, the thunder of their hooves rumbled hollowly. If she had been in the middle of the lines, she would have felt it in her bones.
The lines broke. One of the horses must have tripped, and the others stopped and scattered to avoid it. Someone screamed.
Seryn leaned forward over the wall, staring, then turned and raced down to the yard.
She was out the gate before she saw the second horse on the ground. She stared, and heard Tesni call out from the other wall.
Seryn was almost to them before she saw the naked steel and Drystan staring her down like she were a shade out of hell while the others tumbled together around him.
Her stomach dropped.
The trees erupted with soldiers.
Her sword was in the hall.
“Shut the gate!” she shouted, cut her voice high and clear just a moment before the sudden roar. “Shut the gate!” She barely heard herself, but she heard the sudden crack and tumble from behind her as well, as the fortress suddenly rushed into motion.
Aled rode back toward her, bent low over his horse’s neck. Not his horse. Somehow, he was on Gwyn’s and his own horse was bolting off to the left. Seryn dove out of his way, and he didn’t care, riding straight past her, aimed for the gate as it swung slowly – too slowly – shut. Tomi knocked Gan out of the saddle. Gareth wrestled Reese to the ground and put a knee in his back. The grass between the horse’s feet was on fire, and they shied and danced away from it. Imer’s horse, riderless, was following after Aled’s. Gareth’s horse reared, the saddle strap cut and the heavy leather sliding around its belly.
The soldiers were still pouring out of the trees, on two fronts, each one holding a rough line as it pressed toward the fortress. One drove straight toward the gate, angled to keep their north flank protected. The other arrived from the south, pressing in toward the wall, a solid line of shields. She could see the archer line behind them, pointed bows nicking above the shields.
There was fire in the trees, bright white and edged in blue, hemming in the gaps between the wedges of soldiers. There was fire in their ranks too, licking along hands, sparking like something breathing.
Seryn scanned the running mass of soldiers until she found him in the lead.
Tiernan, the Warlord, and he was shouting orders, while one hand sparked and crackled at his side.