The ride to the other encampment was short. Seryn made it at a gallop, racing ahead of the bright crackle of the fire. As quick as she could, she put it behind her and aimed straight for the gate. The smoke would climb into the midnight sky, and the fire would light the spaces between the trees, and she needed the precious time before it was seen. Her skin felt stone-cold in the dark.
There were guards on the walls, behind a gate locked from the outside. She had chosen them herself, letting Ern believe it was a suggestion. She had cast them, and let them play-act in their leathers, with their bows and arrows.
“Hold!” she called up to them. “It’s Seryn.”
She heard the distinctive creak of bowstrings relaxing as she shoved the lock bar off the door with her shoulder.
“Open the gates!” she ordered, and within seconds there was space for her to twist inside. Riding to the back row of cabins, she jumped out of the saddle and banged through the first door.
“On your feet!” she barked.
There was a start and scramble throughout the dark room. Someone yelped.
“Get dressed! Pack your things! Move south!” she told them. “Find your commanders once you’re on your way. Go.”
She listened to them spilling out of their cots, feet thumping on the floor, shaking the sounder sleepers awake. Then she moved on.
She cast her orders into the next cabin, and then the next, working along the back row before she started on the next one forward. She glanced over her shoulder as she moved, waiting to see the guards on the east wall suddenly call and alarm when the fire at the other encampment climbed high enough. They stayed quiet, turning instead to watch the yard tumble into motion.
“Out the gates and move south!” Seryn shouted. Men and women pushed forward, forming into small groups as they met with their squads, hesitant without their commanders.
Ern found Seryn after she had woken a dozen cabins, and yanked her around by the shoulder. She looked up him calmly.
“What’s this about?” he demanded.
“Orders,” she said. “You’re all to move south. Get as far as you can by morning. There will be someone waiting for you with further instructions.”
“In the middle of the night?” Ern asked. His eyebrows bent together, tight, and he leaned toward her.
“Otherwise, it would be difficult to get very far by morning,” she told him.
He opened his mouth with another sharp question, and she took one step closer to him. She could feel him tense, watched his eyes flicker down to her hands held loosely at her sides. His glance stuttered when he saw the blood on her palms.
“If I call this a test,” she murmured. “Will you understand better what you’re meant to do?”
Ern paused. Then he nodded.
“Good,” Seryn said. “Because I’m going to count to two hundred, and then I’m going light the back wall on fire and drive the rest of you out of here. Get moving.”
He walked six steps away from her before he allowed himself to run.
It was chance that she caught a glimpse of the boy – the twin – on her way deeper into the encampment. She thought for a moment that he had followed her in from the other camp, but his hair was longer, messier, and his shoulders looked leaner from training. She cut through the crowd to grab him by the arm.
The boy stared at her, swallowed hard.
“Why are you here, and your brother’s not?” she asked.
The boy swallowed something again. It wasn’t anything so sharp as guilt. Just a secret that he would have rathered she didn’t even see the edge of. She trusted that secret.
“You go north,” she whispered. “Don’t tell anyone else. Don’t let them see you go. Your brother will be waiting for you just on the other side of the fortress.”
He stared at her, mouth open now, stunned or in awe. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Move,” she told him, and pushed him away.
Then she started counting.
The camp simultaneously woke and emptied. The yard stayed a quiet milling of men and women, rushed into something like silence. Seryn waited in the shadow of the back wall with her horse. She watched them dully. She counted breaths, slow and steady.
At two hundred, she pushed her hands the standing logs of the wall. The wood hissed. Her muscles tightened with the chill pressed up under her skin like a sheet of metal. Her hands stung with the heat and the pressure, and then soothed themselves as the same warmth sank in deep.
The fire caught.
Seryn mounted her horse, and lit the roofs of the back row of cabin.
The crowd moved faster ahead of her, now a thin thing that disappeared easily in the dark outside.
She lit the other cabins, one by one, building the blaze until it choked her.
Then she rode out with the last of the men and women. They turned south, and she turned north, sinking into the quiet, into the cold, as she slipped back toward the fortress. She rode slowly, and let the fires bite deep and climb high behind her. The whole woods began to smell like smoke and charcoal, and things that should have been asleep crept through the heavy shadows. She rode carefully, and didn’t care.
The gate was still open. The guards stood on the wall, heads bent south. The sky was the wrong color, painted up like a poor sunset. Seryn wasn’t sure if they noticed her ride inside, and the small population of the yard was turned toward the fires as well. She heard one man laugh.
“They’re burning themselves down,” he said to the man next to him, with a smile like ash and charcoal were sweet on his tongue.
Seryn skirted to the other side of the yard, quiet. Leaving her horse untethered by the wall, she moved around the edge of the fortress, and crept to the back corner of the main hall. There was a pile of crates, supplies that had been there too long, but no one seemed to bother moving into their proper storage. She stacked them higher, balanced them carefully so that the would hold under unsteady feet. Then she stepped up them, tucked her fingers onto the window ledge just above her head, and pulled herself up, breaking the shutters to pull them open.
Sitting on the window ledge, one leg on each side, she looked down into the children’s room.
They were fast asleep. Even the starlight she had just spilled into the room, missed every bed, and her noise had woken none of them. The three nearest the window started when she jumped down, landing hard on her feet.
Seryn pressed her fingers to her lips, and glanced between their faces. Cidra stared at her, eyes too-wide, breathing too quickly. Evander barely looked away, but he had scooted to the far side of his cot instantly. Hilli simply peeked over her pillow.
Then Anie, dependable as a star, rose on her elbows, another shadow peering at Seryn in the dark.
Seryn crept toward her and crouched beside her cot.
“Have I ever lied to you?” Seryn asked.
Anie hesitated, then she started to smile doubtfully.
“Have I ever spoken an untrue word to you?” Seryn corrected herself, quickly, gently.
Anie waited another moment, then she shook her head. “No,” she murmured back.
“I want to take you to your sisters. Right now,” Seryn said. Anie sat up a little straighter, like Seryn had pulled a string at the top of her head. “And I want to take the others with us. I think your sisters can get them somewhere safe. But I need you all to move very quietly, and very quickly. Will you help me? I think you trust me most.”
Anie examined her expression, considering carefully. Then she pulled the covers back, put her feet on the floor and stood without hesitation. Looking down at Seryn, she held her eye for another long moment. Then she smiled. She spun toward the cot next to her and shook Vetlynn gently awake.
“Come on,” she whispered brightly. “We’re escaping!”
Stunned, Seryn watched her go, almost skipping between the beds, and then bit down hard on a laugh.
Seryn let her wake them all, unsure what any of the others would do if dragged out of sleep by her hand. Instead, she moved back toward the window where Cidra and Evander had both sat up and Hilli had tucked herself deeper into bed, though Seryn could see her shoulders shaking.
“Stand up,” Seryn whispered to Cidra. “I need your help.”
Hesitantly, Cidra slipped off the bed. Seryn motioned for her to take a hold of the mattress. Together, they lifted it off and set it silently on the floor. Then Seryn told her to take one side of the bed and they tipped it up against the wall. The ropes netted between the frame made a haphazard ladder that reached almost to the window. Seryn motioned Evander out of bed, and pushed his coat up against the bottom edge, anchoring it loosely.
It would not serve well, but it was the best that Seryn could do in a few moments.
The others were crowding around, and Anie pushed her way to the front, tucking herself close to Seryn.
“Climb up one at a time,” Seryn said, more to Anie than any of the others. “I’ll lower you onto the other side. Stay still at the bottom. Line up. Put your backs to the wall and keep very quiet. If I shout, you run straight for the gate, and go north if you can make it out.”
Anie swallowed, as if she had just realized that it was possible to get caught. Then she shut her mouth in a determined line and nodded.
Seryn climbed up, pulled herself onto the sill and hooked on leg on either side. The children climbed up after. She reached down for each of them, hauled them up while they kicked at the wall to help. Then, telling them to wrap both hands around her wrist while she held tight to their hands, she lowered them to the crates on the other side. They held their tongues, gasped a little at the drop, and lined up against the wall. Anie came last, and she squeezed Seryn’s hand tight, smiling breathlessly. She shook a little now. Seryn wondered what she had been thinking, waiting for all the others to go.
Seryn dropped onto the crates herself, then dropped to the ground and crouched so that she was looking up at Anie again.
“Stay close,” she murmured. “We’re going to the wall.”
“Not the gate?” Anie asked.
“There are guards at the gate,” Seryn murmured. “But not at the back wall by the mountain. If I can sneak you out, I’m going to, so no one has to run. Just stay close to me.”
She walked them between the buildings, hiding in their shadows. Anie ran into her more than once, and she heard the rest run into each other, wanting to go faster than they were. The bent wooden stairs that led to the top of the wall grew slowly in their sight, and when they finally reached them, Seryn had to slow them again to keep their feet from clattering on the stairs.
At the top, she walked until she found what she needed: length of rope, coiled, waiting for use. She tied it to the rail of the walkway, and threw the other end over the side.
“We have to climb down?” Sevi asked. He looked at the rope while he spoke, afraid of it.
“Yes,” Seryn said. “Down that isn’t that hard. You hold on tight, you put your feet on the wall, and pretend you’re just walking backwards. You’ll be fine. Wait for me at the bottom.”
Nessim looked at her doubtfully.
“How many very hard things have I asked of you in the last few months?” she asked him. “You’ve done them all, haven’t you?”
He didn’t answer.
Anie tore her eyes from the rope, looked at her, and she nodded.
“You can do this, too,” Seryn promised. “And this the last hard thing I’m ever going to ask you for.”
Anie blinked slowly.
And Cidra went first. The others lined up, taking Seryn’s hand to help them over the side. Only Denna and Sevi hung back. He held her hand, and she tucked her head against his arm. When half the children had managed the climb down, she motioned them closer.
“Denna,” Seryn said gently. “If you wait…” She glanced at Sevi, trying to be reassuring. “If you let her stay until last…” Denna almost hid behind him when Seryn met her eye again. “I’ll carry you down myself.”
Sevi looked pointedly at her hands, bloodied and smeared with ash. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
Seryn held his gaze more firmly. “I’ll get her down safely.”
“Promise?” he asked.
“I promise,” Seryn said.
Sevi joined the line of children. Carefully, they each disappeared over the side. The rope shook until they reached the bottom, then held still until the next began the climb. When only Denna was left, Seryn tested the rope at the rail again. She looped the tail into a second knot, just to be sure that it would hold both of them. Then she bent down.
“Come here, then,” she told Denna, and spread her arms, as if asking for a hug.
Denna folded against her chest, wrapped her arms around Seryn’s neck.
“Hold tight,” Seryn whispered. “Shut your eyes, and don’t let go.”
Seryn’s hands burned, stung as if they were beginning to tear again, but her boots held tight to the wall and gravity kept Denna warm and heavy on her chest. She walked backward, carefully, listening to the dull echo of the children whispering below, and focused on nothing else. Denna stopped shaking. The children got a little too loud. Seryn dropped to the ground, wiping her hands on her breeches before she handed Denna over to Sevi. Then she smiled at them all.
“Quick!” she murmured. “Into the trees!”
They ran, like they were playing a game, feet tumbling over the smooth ground. Strides beautifully unmatched. When the trees closed overhead, and the leaves sighed and whispered around them, Seryn turned them to the right, tucked just out of sight behind the first line of thick trunks. They slowed to keep from tripping, broke farther apart and wove between the trunks, and grew a little louder still. Seryn hoped their voices didn’t carry, knew they couldn’t have reached all the way back to the fortress and still murmured small wishes in the dark.
They skipped, and they ran, and they held each others hands to keep from losing themselves.
After nearly half an hour, someone called out ahead of them, “Anie?”
Anie, close to the back of the pack of children, raised her head and suddenly sped to the front. “Mel?” she called back.
Mel came running, Thea and two boys close behind her. She laughed out loud when she saw the whole crowd of them, then scooped Anie up in a hug. She turned around, and Thea ran straight into them, squeezing Anie between them.
The boys looked over the heads of the children, greeted the ones they knew by name. Content, Seryn waited for them to look at her.
“I hope you don’t mind that I brought a few extras,” she said when they turned her way.
One of the boys just shook his head. The other grinned like she had given them a festival present.
“Take them north. Try not to stop until you find Lord Tiernan’s camp. I can’t promise no one will be coming after you.”
The first boy nodded his understanding. The other kept grinning.
Anie peeked around Mel’s shoulder, then pushed at her arm until her sister put her down.
“You’re not coming with us?” she asked Seryn.
Seryn looked at her, at the sudden crinkle between her eyebrows. Seryn hadn’t expected to see her concerned, not when she had smiled while climbing out windows and down walls. Slowly, Seryn shook her head. “I have one more thing I need to do.”
“Will you come after?” Anie pressed.
Seryn paused. “No,” she said quietly. She didn’t look at her again, just scanned the others’ faces and nodded to Thea and Mel and the boys. “Good luck.”