Tiernan held his silence for a long moment rather than respond. Aled was, as usual smiling, and as usual, it seemed slick and honed, likely to cut any uncareful person that tried to slide past him. This morning, however, the edge was more brutal.
It was easy to guess that Gareth and Celyn were not the only ones who were angry.
Tiernan suspected that he had been angry for a very long time, but it was fresh today, raw as a broken blister.
“I’d like to meet them now,” Tiernan said evenly, voice low.
Doersa looked up, fixing him with a narrow look as if he had just asked to take the rest of the day off to pick wildflowers. He returned the look with raised eyebrows, inviting her to join him. When Aled led the way, she stayed behind.
The camp had lines now, even rows of tents and scattered fire pits where the soldiers had moved on from wanting sleep to wanting something warm in their stomachs. The ground wasn’t stamped down yet, too many of the men and women not having laid down and not bothered to move much since, so it still the place still felt wild to Tiernan as he walked through it. He greeted those he recognized, stopped when anyone called his name, and Aled waited a few steps away with something like patience.
They walked the whole length of the tents toward the southwest corner of the camp before they finally approached the six members of Vardeck’s guard who had followed Aled. Two of them were sleeping, flat out on the ground with their coats under their heads, boots still on. One of them, a boy who looked too stretched from growing, muscle wrapped tight to the bone, stood. He eyed the hills and the camp, giving each a measured sweep that would have looked calm if he didn’t continue to do it every few moments. The rest sat, knotted together, and Tiernan recognized soldiers who had each chosen a seat so as to have a complete view of the landscape between them.
Two of them still wore their coats: a girl who had turned hers inside out like Aled’s, and a man who had ripped the royal bears away and taken much of the sleeves with them. Another didn’t seem to have her coat with her at all. The last had stripped out of coat, jacket, and everything else she could to get away from the colors.
Aled walked into the midst of them without a word. Bending over the sleeping girl, he touched her hand. Then he turned his fingers, pressed them against her wrist, and Tiernan watched his face go still while he counted moments.
Straightening, Aled faced Tiernan again, and the others turned their heads with him.
“Guard, this is Lord Tiernan of Oruasta,” he said. “Lord Tiernan, this is Drystan…” He clapped the one standing on the shoulder, then pointed to the rest. “… Mari, Leolin, Celyn, Gareth, and Tomi.” He finished with the two sleeping at his feet.
Tiernan nodded to each of them.
“I’m grateful for what the seven of you did for us yesterday,” Tiernan told them.
“What did we do?” Celyn asked. He asked his question with his gaze between his feet, then flicked a sharp look up at Tiernan. It was a sheathed look, and Tiernan felt the impact of it.
He glanced between them again. Aled still smiled, while the others simply seemed to breathe, to be, jaws set by tiredness, limbs hung loosely. It was the way their exhaustion didn’t quite reach their eyes, still bright, that made him hold his silence for a moment longer.
“Who told you all to camp here?” he asked.
Leolin, bare arms draped over her knees, straightened just a to match his gaze. Celyn’s eyes narrowed.
“No one,” Leolin said. “But we didn’t exactly get an invitation…” She glanced at the sprawling camp, tents, and horses, and slight disarray.
Tiernan nodded, just once, and continued on. “But why here?” He pointed at the ground. “Why this side of our camp?”
Slowly, they blinked, then glanced sideways at each other. Aled crossed his arms over his chest, mouth open just enough to prove he was searching for an answer in the grass at his feet.
“You weren’t last in the marching column, but you still put yourselves farthest from the hills,” Tiernan said. He looked at each of them, though none of them returned his gaze any more, shifting as if the ground had suddenly become uncomfortable. “Did you mean to put yourselves between us and whatever might follow?”
Aled met his eye then, unsettlingly sharp.
“Was this what you were trained to do? First in and last out?” Tiernan pressed, knowing it was a little further than he should have taken his questions. None of them were answering him, but their quiet was not silence. They looked at each other, angry, guilty, as if they had been caught and it turned their stomachs to see their actions dragged into the light.
Celyn stood, turning away from the rest of them. Mari watched his back as if she might be needed in a moment. Drystan stood wide-eyed, a little more slack than the rest as he searched their faces, as if he hadn’t quite followed the others into their muddy thoughts.
“If you’re looking to escape Vardeck, you’re welcome to come back with us to Orusasta,” Tiernan said. “Or you can leave for the city now. I’ll give you a message for my father to explain who you are, and he’ll let you in.”
Drystan glanced between him and Aled. After a moment, Aled caught the look, and carefully nodded. It looked more like permission than agreement.
“If you would like to fight Vardeck,” Tiernan continued, and Celyn twisted to face him almost immediately. “There’s no need for you to stay here.”
Aled lifted his chin. He began another edged smile, turning slowly across his lips.
“Vardeck isn’t here,” Mari said. “Or haven’t you noticed?” She shot the question toward Tiernan, but looked up at Aled as his smile faltered. Then she shook her head at him, just a little. “The only person here for us to fight is Lord Commander Macsen. And…”
Aled took a measured breath.
Tiernan flicked a look from her face to his. “Seryn Two-Hand?” he asked. With the name, he gathered most of their attention again.
“She’s never going to give up this fight,” Leolin murmured. “It’s not in her to give up.”
“So?” Celyn asked. He spat the word on a whisper. And the others ignored him with clenched teeth and fists. And fell back into their quiet.
Tiernan waited a moment for Aled to meet his eye again. “You all know the boundaries of this choice better than I do. Make your decisions, then tell me what you need from me. We’ll do our best to give you what supplies you need whatever you choose.” Then he nodded toward the sleepers. “You’d do best by them to wake them and take them to the physikers.”
Aled looked at Tomi. Then at Gareth. He paused long enough on each that Tiernan could imagine he was waiting to see their chests rise and fall.
“Thank you,” Aled said. His tone was dull enough, Tiernan wasn’t sure if he would follow his advice.
Tiernan paused, already beginning to turn away from them all. “If you can’t wake them, you should run for the physikers.”
Aled’s head came back up, eyes clear and a little wide. Open-mouthed, he took a breath. Then he nodded. “Yes, sir.” And it sounded more like gratitude.