An army was easy to track. Hundreds of feet trampled the grass flat. Horses and wagon wheels tore the dirt. Hundreds of hands beat branches aside until they broke. There was no way to avoid it. Seryn, Wynn, Emyr, Gan and Carys rode easy for hours, just to the side of the massive track. When it left the cover of the trees, they hung back under the branches. When the trees dwindled to copses and lonely sentinels, they skirted around the base of the rolling hills, out of sight. Still, they traced the army’s path like a river channel, straight up to the fresh and scattered camp.
It was past noon, the sun high, bleaching and warming the open valley. The tents – eight long lines of them – stood out in glaring white, backed up to a stone face that shadowed the back half and cut the breeze. No flags snapped, but the whole thing simmered with steady motion as people moved between the rows and smoke rolled up from the careful fires.
Seryn dropped off her horse and the others followed her lead, padding another dozen strides forward to get a clear view.
“They moved quick,” Carys murmured over her shoulder.
Seryn nodded. Their retreat had been clean. They were anything but crippled, but she had known that, feeling their pull from the battlefield like the purposeful drag of the tide.
They watched the camp, the sun sinking into their skin as their horses fidgeted behind them. Seryn measured spaces, measured time, breathed in, breathed out.
“Gan,” she said. “Go north. As far as you can, but be back here by sundown. Tell me everything that they can get to easily. Emyr, head east. Carys, southeast.” She looked at them as she finished her instructions. “Be careful, and stay out of sight.”
The three of them nodded. Making a perfunctory check of saddles and saddle bags, they mounted up and headed back the way they came. A few yards, and they split, aiming for their separate paths and tucked themselves in behind the rise of the land, disappearing.
“So, we’re here to count?” Wynn asked. She looked a little bored, but ready.
Seryn nodded. “You work your way around the east side. I’ll take the west.”
“And if we see the others?”
Seryn hesitated, weighing Wynn’s expression. The dullness of it seemed suddenly too blunt. She considered what it might be guarding, found no hints. “Count them too,” she said.
They took their horses and turned away from each other, eyes on the camp for the rest of the long afternoon. In silence, Seryn counted tents. She counted command insignia tied to the poles. She counted fires and soldiers. She counted horses. Doubling her own numbers, she guessed at a host in the low hundreds. Not a great force. Nothing that would have broken the fortress without a mistake being made inside the walls.
She found Wynn back in the spot they had begun an hour before sunset. They traded information, watched and waited.
The others returned in the gray light of twilight, dusty and mellowed by long hours alone.
“Two towns to the north,” Gan told her, perfectly succinct. “Clean river in between them.”
“Old hunting camp to the southeast,” Carys said. “I saw a half a dozen people there, but it too big for just them. Looked out of use. There was a small town south of that, and I saw smoke farther out when I had to turn back.”
“Nothing in the east,” Emyr said. “It’s exactly what we came through last autumn. Just the valley.”
Seryn nodded, memorizing their phrases, their details. “Ready to ride back?” she asked.
Each of them nodded.
Seryn swung into the saddle, pulled the reins to point her horse back toward the massed trees in the south. “Let’s see if we can get back inside the walls by midnight.”
It was no harder to follow the beaten trail in the dark. They rode in a long line and wove between the thickening trees. When the army’s path fell back into the forest, they moved down the middle of it, tearing up a little ground of their own. They murmured between them, broke the silence as they pleased, and fell back into the rhythm of hooves and motion.
The fortress wall gleamed coolly in the dark when they approached. The gates had been closed.
Riding under the wall, Seryn shouted up to the watch commander. The watch commander called down, and Seryn was sure that he marked each of them, matching them against his memory of how many had gone out that morning. Then one side of the gate creaked open and they threaded their way inside.
They rubbed their horses down in the stables. Seryn’s muscles felt loose on her bones as she worked, steady and slacked after a long day in motion.
When they were finished, Seryn nodded the others toward the main hall.
“Going to see Macsen?” Gan asked.
“Ask him about…”
Seryn nodded, not needing him to finish. “Find shovels. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
They moved off under the scattered lanterns hung off corners, and Seryn worked her way around to Macsen’s office. She put her hands in her pockets, the night’s chill biting a little deeper without her horse beneath her. Tramping up the steps, she heard two voices inside, and knocked gently.
“Come in,” Macsen ordered from inside.
She slipped through. Squaring her feet on the other side, she nodded to Macsen sitting behind his desk, then to Commander Jeyd, standing to the side. Macsen gave her an absent smile. Jeyd met her eye and didn’t look away. She hesitated, then looked back to Macsen.
“We found the camp,” Seryn said.
Macsen leaned back in his chair. “They’re not far, are they?”
Seryn shook her head. “They went back up to the valley, found a rock shield for their back with clean water close by. We counted three hundred and seventy soldiers. One hundred and–“
Macsen was waving her to a stop. “Write a report. You can deliver it in the morning.”
Hesitantly, Seryn nodded. Jeyd’s gaze had shifted toward Macsen instead, though he glanced back at her from one moment to the next. He leaned both shoulders against the wall, a parody of relaxation with his arms crossed over his chest. Macsen blithely ignored him, and Seryn blinked, wondering if she was misreading his lazy smile. It seemed fitted over a tight jaw.
“Were you waiting for me?” Seryn asked carefully.
“Yes,” Macsen said. “We have something we need done tonight.”
Seryn gathered a careful breath. “We were hoping to bury Tes and Lowri yet tonight.”
“Let the others,” Macsen said. “We just need you.”
Seryn’s chest tightened for half a moment. She stretched the feeling away with a breath, and nodded. “What do you need, sir?”
“We need you to burn the southern encampments,” Macsen said.
Seryn sorted the words, and paused. The wooden walls creaked around her, the night’s chill sinking in, and for a moment she tried to sort that into words too. But Macsen was looking at her expectantly, and she took her next even breath.
“They’re already locked for the night,” she said.
He nodded. “They’re what the warlord came for.”
“They’re what we came for,” Seryn said, and gave him half a smile, a quiet question.
He looked down, smiled too – wider – and shook his head.
She paused. Jeyd shifted his weight off one foot, onto the other. Macsen was still leaned forward, waiting.
“Ern holds one of those encampments,” Seryn said. “Everyone in it asked for a uniform. They’re willing to serve in King Madden’s new guard.”
“And they’ve never managed to follow instructions,” Macsen said.
“They’ve tried,” Seryn said. “They lack our training.”
“This is our best option,” Macsen told her. “King Vardeck told King Madden. I’ve told Commander Jeyd. They finally understood. Keeping the encampments is a pointless loss.”
Seryn paused on the edge of another question, meeting Macsen’s eye again and realizing he was parading his patience. This was indulgence. Her questions were mute things, already stacked and satisfied under his hands, useless on her tongue.
There was no need for them.
She waited one more moment, then couldn’t find another reason not to nod. “Yes, sir,” she murmured.
“Take a torch from the stock,” Macsen told her. “Borrow any horse you need. They’ve left the gate open for you.”
Bowing, Seryn slipped out again.
In the main hall, she told the others to gather up without her. Wynn stared for a moment, and Rhian didn’t look her in the eye. She left again without waiting to see them move.
She took a torch from the stock room, tucked it under her arm and strode to the stable. Taking her saddle off the rack, she passed her own horse where she hung her head tiredly in her stall and chose one that flicked its ears at her and reached out for her hand as soon as she offered it.
She saddled up, and kicked out the gate.
When she was deep in the trees, she lit the torch, let the light flicker in the leaves. Small animals skittered away from her as she cantered south, and the heat in her hand kissed her cheek.
There were no guards at the encampment.
The wooden wall stood high over her head, thick tree trunks mucked together with red clay and thick rope. In the firelight it was all yellow-brown and deep black. The torch spit, and her horse whuffled. Nothing else made a sound. The open air swallowed every echo.
The wall would not burn on its own. She looked at them for a moment, then nudged her horse into a walk again. Following the wall, she scanned ahead, looking for where they had piled the brush when they cleared the land to build the stockade. It had been months, and the pulled up bushes and saplings and torn down trees would be dead enough. When she found the pile, she dismounted, picked up the first tangle of branch, lit it, and tossed it toward the wall.
Her horse shied away, but stayed within her circle of light.
She lit the next tangle and threw it near the wall. Then next. When she had a small burning pile, she threw larger branches into the mix and watched the sparks burst out like fireflies. She turned away from the smoke, and chose a chunk of log to roll toward the wall. Then she threw more branches in.
The rope in the wall caught first. It had been tarred, and it burst into yellow flame like it had been torched from the inside. The sweet smell of the wood climbed higher in her nose, and the heat bellowed out, sinking through her coat.
The wall began to blacken before she was sure it had caught as well. Seryn stopped, watched until her face felt numb with the heat, watched until she was sure the fire had sunk its teeth in deep.
Her fingers itched in the heat. She looked down at her hands, slowly, as if just remembering that they were there.