Seryn spread her fingers and, after a moment’s hesitation, added blue fire to the pile of bramble and flame. The taste of the smoke changed, cooling on her tongue, icing the inside of her chest. Her muscles tightened with the cold flow of energy running down from her shoulders. Standing very still, she watched, blinking away the ash that landed on her cheeks.
She only felt the heat on her face and her fingers. The rest of her had narrowed to a cool line standing in a breeze that cut through her. The fire bit deeper into the wall, winging out to either side.
Her bones were too light. She forgot their edges until her stillness began to ache and she shifted her heels on the soft ground just to remember she had them.
And she snapped her fingers wider.
She drove the energy out of her, chased it down her arms with another rolling wave of fierce ice until it burst out of her hands and sparked angrily around her fingers. It tore at her palms, and she didn’t care. She put her hands into the brush and pushed the yellow fire back. Blue-white energy rolled and ripped and bit, flickering in the trees, across her sleeves, coloring the night wrong. It was too bright a shade for moonlight, too unsteady, too wild, too hot. She had to turn her face to the side to breathe.
The yellow fire scooted to the edges, flaring up where her own energy sparked against fresh wood, and running ahead of the bonfire.
Seryn chased it. Caught it. Swallowed it until there was nothing but the ice-white conflagration that answered to her.
She drove it higher, until her bones believed in hell, and her mind fueled it.
And then she screamed, curled her hands toward her chest, balled them into thick fists. The fire fought her, unbearable, tearing at her skin, her muscles, clawing up the back of her ribs. She fell to one knee, gasped, and the whole fire died, crumbling into ash.
Seryn stared at it.
She took one breath, and then another, slowly coaxing her lungs into motion again. Her hands were shiny and slick. She could smell the blood on them, curdled by the heat. Her stomach was tight, and the bones in her neck felt bruised.
The pain didn’t fade as she gathered control of herself again. It simply slipped to the side, replaced by the calm understanding that she had done something wrong. She tested her body carefully, questioning limbs and joints and bones. At the same time, she clicked through recondite thoughts, dragging them up, putting them order. At the end, whole except for a few digging pains, she knew with clarity that she was not going to see daylight.
The thought faded almost instantly, leaving only its bite.
She turned for her horse. Wiping her hands on her coat, she pulled herself into the saddle and wheeled back into the woods.
It was harder to find the others than she had hoped. She had to slow, to quiet the sound of her horse’s hooves echoing between the trees. She had to quiet her heartbeat. The calm was worthwhile. She settled into its old familiar thoughtlessness.
She heard the sigh and bite of shovels in dirt, and followed it. Wynn, Reese, Carys, and Emyr bent over a shallow hole in a small clearing between the trees. The fortress was somewhere to their right, unseen. Rhian and Gan waited, close to two wrapped bodies a few feet away. Their horses ranged behind them, nosing at the sparse grass.
The guard looked up as she approached, heads lifting in the dark.
Seryn pulled her horse to a stop, and glanced at the grave. It was barely a foot deep, cutting Wynn off below the knee where she stood in it.
Reese smiled at her. “Come to join us?” he asked.
Seryn looked at him, and at the wrapped bodies. “Unfortunately not,” she told him. “What did you bring with you?”
Wynn stopped digging and leaned against the handle of her shovel. No one answered.
Seryn flicked a look over all of them. “Supplies,” she said. They heard the familiar command in her voice.
“Water,” Emyr said. She threw dirt over her shoulder and drove in for another shovelful. “Shovels, blankets, rope. Why?”
“How much water?” Seryn asked. Digging graves was thirsty work. They should have brought plenty.
“A bag each,” Wynn said. “We topped them off before we came out.”
Seryn nodded. She did her calculations quickly, silently, determining how far that would get them. “Weapons?”
They all stopped, shoulders and arms suddenly taut and ready.
“We brought our swords,” Wynn said, and gestured to the horses.
Serny glanced at their faces. None of them would have come out without their knives, either.
“Fresh orders,” she told them. “Ride east. It’s time to go home.”
Wynn stared at her. “Now?”
“Now,” Seryn assured her. “Don’t go back to the fortress.” She readjusted her hands on the reins, looked away, as if she couldn’t believe it either. “Apparently Commander Jeyd doesn’t trust us anymore.” She met Reese’s eye heavily.
He tightened his grip on his shovel.
“Why–” Wynn began.
Seryn turned to her and she felt silent. “Macsen’s orders,” Seryn murmured. “Be careful. I’ll follow you soon.”
Slowly, they climbed out of the grave. The shovels thudded against the ground as they dropped them. Gan held Rhian’s horse so she could climb up. Emyr, Reese, and Carys tightened their saddles, swung up as well. Wynn paused by Seryn.
“We’re just supposed to leave them?” she whispered. She glanced back at Tes and Lowri, laid out in the grass.
Seryn followed her gaze. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “He wants us far away by daybreak.”
Wynn’s mouth twisted, but she nodded.
Rhian looked at Seryn while the others circled around her. Her eyes were dark, her jaw tight. Seryn held her gaze and said nothing.
They rode out quietly, leaving Seryn behind. She waited until she couldn’t see or hear them before she slid out of the saddle.
Walking her horse to Lowri and Tes’ wrapped bodies, she lifted them one at a time, and laid them across her saddle. She thought her stomach should have twisted, thought her heart should have started to pound again, but she barely felt the weight. Then she started back toward the encampment.
It was slow, walking the whole way. The forest creaked around her. Small animals rustled in the undergrowth, or scampered across her path. She stopped twice to go around something larger as it meandered under the trees. The night held onto its silence, and she let it. Disappeared in it.
There were still no guards at the encampment when she arrived. She looked at the gate for a long moment, deciding how to open it on her own. Then she shoved the lock bar out of place, and dragged hard. When the gate was open wide enough to lead her horse through, she slipped inside.
She tied her horse out of the way, behind the first cabin in their long rows. Everything inside the walls echoed and creaked. Her boots scuffed in the packed dirt.
At the first cabin, she slid the heavy lock to the side, lifted the latch, and set her shoulder to it to open the heavy door.
There was a chorus of started gasps inside, blankets rustle, feet on the floor, quick reassurances. Seryn stayed where she was, outlined in the doorway until they began to hush themselves.
She recognized the woman closest to the door. She had helped cook for them all winter long. She had complained about their lack of spices all winter long. Seryn looked her steadily in the eye.
“Do you know me?” Seryn asked.
The woman glared at the question. Then she nodded.
“Good,” Seryn said. “It’s time for everyone to leave. Gather your things as quickly as you can and get out of here. Keep as quiet as you can.”
“Where are we going?” a man near the back asked bitterly.
Seryn scanned for him in the dark. Pressing her tongue to the back of her teeth, she considered her answer. “I’d suggest north,” she murmured. “Lord Tiernan is camped a day’s walk from here in the valley. But I don’t care. I was sent to burn this place to the ground.”
She turned around, started back down the steps. When she heard the cabin shuffle to life, she hesitated. She moved back to the door, and glanced over the dozen beds inside.
“Are any of you Thea?” she asked.
A few of them slowed at the sound of her voice, carefully shook their heads.
“Mel?” Seryn asked.
A man shouldered past her, back already slung over her shoulder. “They don’t sleep here,” he told her brusquely. He ran for the gate.
Seryn opened the lock on the next cabin. “Leave,” she told them, and they accepted her instructions in perfect silence. At the third, someone screamed. She glared them into silence. At both cabins, she asked for Thea and for Mel, scanned the faces of the girls, and no one stepped forward. A large knot of men and women worked their way out of the first and whispered in the space between buildings.
At the fourth, a man was waiting behind the door. He brought his elbow up into her jaw, twisted to catch her with another hard jab, and she ducked around the blow. Jaw aching, she twisted his arm back, brought her knee into his stomach, and drove him face-first into the wall.
“Don’t fight me,” Seryn hissed in his ear. “I’m not here to hurt anyone.”
He swore at her.
“You’re all free to go,” she said, loud enough for the whole cabin to hear, but still barely above a murmur. “Move quietly. Go north. Lord Tiernan is in the valley.”
She moved on. The crowd between the cabins had thickened. More doors were clattering open. Looking across, she realized that they were breaking each other free, while only a few trickled out of the gate. She jumped down the last few stairs, landing just in time to catch a boy whose head barely came up to her shoulder. She pulled him close by the collar of his jacket.
“Get everyone moving,” she told him. “The camp’s going to be on fire in a few minutes.”
He looked at her, wide-eyed. Then he nodded and she pushed him away.
She kept working her way down the row while more doors opened behind her, while more men and women spilled, whispering, into the yard. The murmur of the crowd swelled. Seryn ignored it until every cabin had been yanked open, and then she moved with it. Just inside the swirl of people, she pressed them toward the gate, nudged shoulders and elbows and kept them moving.
Someone grabbed her by the arm. Seryn spun toward them.
A teenage girl looked back, eyes wide, face pale either from sleep or fear, and it didn’t matter which. Her mouth was set in a gentle line while she held Seryn’s gaze. Seryn didn’t feel the sharp guardedness for a few moments. It was Anie’s curiosity, honed down to something that could bite.
“You’re looking for us?” the girl asked.
Seryn glanced behind her, found a boy first, a little taller, and a little older. Then another girl. Seryn looked at her and wanted to smile. She had been the one causing some small troubles a few days before. Chin high, she looked ready to fight for something now.
“I know where Anie is,” Seryn murmured. She turned her attention back to the first girl and caught the flicker behind her eyes.
“Where?” Thea asked. She had to take a step to the side to hold her ground as the crowd shifted toward the gate again.
“I can get her to you,” Seryn told her. “If you waited in the treeline on the north side of the fortress. You’d have to stay out of sight. It could be hours. You would have to trust me.”
The girl in the back – Mel – made a coughing noise that might have been a laugh. Thea and the boy behind her exchanged a careful look.
“All right,” Thea told Seryn. As she spoke, she tucked one arm behind her back. Seryn thought she saw the boy’s arm shift to take her hand and squeeze it tight.
Seryn nodded, and motioned them forward.
It only took a few more minutes to empty out the encampment. In the hush, Seryn spun a slow circle, listening for anyone she might have missed. The breeze fell in over the wall, humming when there were no other voices to fill the silence. Seryn’s horse whickered from behind the first cabin.
She led it around to one of the center cabins.
Climbing the stairs, she threw the beds against each other, cracking them apart. She kicked the splintered planks into the center of the room, making a ring just wide enough to lie inside. She carried Tes inside and laid him down in the middle. Then she carried Lowri. She took her sword off her saddle and laid it between them.
Looking over her work, she took a deep breath. Raising one hand palm up, she let energy drift off her fingers, ghostly light to be sure she could see everything. The blood still on her hands hissed, and her skin felt as if it might crack apart under the pressure. Seryn didn’t care.
Learning forward, she wrapped her hand around a bed leg and set it burning.
She touched the walls on her way out, until they crackled around her and blue fire inspired trails of red and yellow in their wake.
Mounting her horse, Seryn rode between the cabins, standing in the stirrup to light tender roofs and coming close enough to leave burning hand prints on the walls.
When her eyes stung with the smoke, and the heat began to lock around her, she kicked her horse through the gate.