Jeyd had been on the walls when the fight began. He watched the Guard ride out, trip on each other, and unlike Seryn, did not race out to catch the ones who fell. Seeing the enemy flood out from between the trees, he called down for them to shut the gate moments before she did.
Aled had slipped through.
The gates had thudded shut. The soldiers braced it and tumbled into defensive positions.
Seryn knew that there, behind thick walls, with a stocked armory and full larders, the fortress would have held. She and what was left of the Guard would have been lost, but the rest would have been safe behind the walls for days. For weeks. For months. Because that was the glory of a fortress.
But while she was down in the clash and clatter, obscured in the rush of her own heartbeat, waiting for the end she had always expected to come, Jeyd saw the vise of the encroaching army tighten. And press. And quietly, almost invisibly, brace to defend as if they had already laid claim to the ground to the south.
The other two forts were not well stocked, undermanned. They had doors and walls built with the intention of people locked inside, not breaking invaders on iron-willed faces.
Jeyd put his army in order in minutes, lined them up, stacked them, let them loose as if gravity was the last ingredient needed for victory.
Seryn was still breathing because of it.
The battle almost held order. There were lines. Soldiers stepped in time. Commands cracked and drums and horns echoed them across the wide field until the man farthest south and the man farthest north had, at least, complementary heartbeats.
Then the forts broke open like sacks held high, and everything inside them tumbled out, skittered, rolled and ran.
Orders could not come quickly enough.
For the first time in hours, Seryn twisted around, trying to catch a glimpse of the whole battle for herself. She counted fires. She marked every coruscating blaze of white, blue, ocean dark, shadow black, but didn’t tally them. Only the pure blue-white fires that might have belonged to her own.
When the drums finally told her where to move, she shoved her way back into the hard line that it demanded, and painted the field with her own heat and color.
Seryn did not count hours. Bloody days did not get divisions like those. They had minutes, the kind she prayed without feeling to see the end of, the kind that stacked up along her arms and legs and back and neck, slowly reminding her that this fight had begun at dawn.
She moved. She cut and lunged. She turned her feet to hold her ground, spread her fingers and wrapped them tight over leather hilts. She dug into strength that was anything but limitless and tried to calculate who would exhaust themselves first, grinding steel against steel until it screamed, bone against bone until it broke.
She was tasting blood, and couldn’t tell whether it was in the air or on her tongue anymore. It was stiff and thick in her coat, and she couldn’t say whether it was seeping up from the inside or down from somewhere else. Her leg had stopped burning. She had newer cuts.
Late in the afternoon, the enemy broke. Seryn felt it before she saw it, like she had calculated too large a step, pushed too hard into it, and nearly pitched herself forward.
The order came down the line as they pulled back: Let them run.
Jeyd was no idiot. Chasing invaders was a good way to lose a fight that had already been won.
Seryn waited until she knew it was safe, and then she shut her eyes. Four long seconds to tell herself all the things she would see collapsed into the jagged ground when she opened them again. She took a deep breath, and looked, and hated every familiar inch of it.
She did not sleep in the back room with the children that night. There had not been enough water to wash the army fully clean, and she had only scrubbed enough to not disgust herself. She still stunk of battle and there was no need for them to see that.
They all slept outside, back in their cots along the walls of the main hall. She glanced from side to side, unhappy with their number.
Aled was gone. Gareth, Tomi, Leolin, Mari, and Drystan were gone. Celyn was… Seryn slid a hand down her thigh, pressing close to the deep cut so that the pressure eased the thrumming heat, but she didn’t touch it. She imagined his expression as he came after her with his knife out, and she hated him enough not to miss him.
Imer was dead. A thin, deep cut, straight between the ribs, with so little bruising it was artful. He probably didn’t feel much beyond the last drop into the dirt.
Gwyn was dead. Missing one arm and stomach cut deep enough that even Seryn had to look away when they found her.
Tegan was dead. Blistered, burned, and dead.
They had buried them with the rest of the casualties, quick as they could, with all the reverent words, to clear the ground around the fort before it became the real horror of rot and ruin. They buried the enemy dead as well, though it was the thought of their friends becoming part of the monstrosity that drove them to work deep into the dark.
And now there were ten members of the Guard.
Macsen would not send any of them home. She knew it before he found her to tell her, so she was already nodding before he finished his statement.
He watched her shrewdly, measuring the curve of her shoulders as she sat on the edge of her cot, braced forward with her elbows against her knees.
“Find me first thing tomorrow,” he said. “So we can talk about the rest of it.”
She didn’t look at him as he turned to go, so she didn’t see his expression when she stopped him: “If you put him in front of me again, I still wouldn’t kill him.”
There was a long pause.
“Tomorrow,” Macsen said. She shut her eyes, all the blunt force in his tone reminding her that she was lying. He walked away. She pressed the back of her hand against her mouth, and clenched her fist to stop the shake in her fingers.
They all slept hard. Dreamless.
Tes and Lowri didn’t wake up.