It was still dark when Anie started to hear heavy feet ahead of them, though the sky was turning promisingly gray. The trees were spreading apart, and their little band moved more easily. Mel kept up with her better, and Thea wasn’t far behind while Chas and Darien stayed to either side to keep them all together. When the voices petered back through the air, they drew in closer. Anie listened hard for armor, for the clink of metal that she had heard around the soldiers at the fortress. They only sounded dull, thudding along under the thin tones of their speech.
Chas slipped ahead. Anie watched him go, and almost moved in next to him. Long-legged as he was, she would have bet half the moon that she could keep up with him. But glancing at Mel, she stayed close, dropped back and threaded her finger’s through Thea’s.
“Hey!” someone shouted ahead of them. Not Chas, and not as far ahead as Anie would have expected from the rest of the rumble. There was a following thud, and a gasp, like someone forgot how to breathe.
“Hey, hey, stop,” Chas said. Quick, sharp. Not quite as loud as he usually was, as if he didn’t have the lungs for it.
Anie peered forward in the dark. Thea kept her close with tight fingers. Darien padded forward into grayer shadow.
“Where did you come from?” the woman asked.
“Same place as you, I’d bet,” Chas said. He was on the ground. The woman’s shoulder was visible just behind a tree, and there was someone else moving beyond her.
“Darien?” she asked.
“I’m here,” Darien murmured.
She spun, blonde braid flipping behind her, and Darien raised his hands gently.
“That’s Chas,” Darien said. “My brother.”
The woman paused, watching the rest of them draw up behind him. She turned toward Cidra, toward Vetlynn and Nessim, caught Anie’s eye and Thea’s. “Where did he come from?” she asked. “He wasn’t with us.”
“He was in the other encampment,” Darien said as Chas rolled back to his feet. The woman tilted her head back toward him.
“Sevi?” a man behind her called. Sevi’s step faltered. Then Denna bolted forward.
“Da!” she shrieked. And giggled, and jumped just high enough for him to catch her and drag her up to his chest. Sevi followed, and caught him around the waist.
“Where did they come from?” the woman asked Darien.
“The fortress,” Darien said.
“We got them out,” Mel said. She raised her chin, halfway to a grin.
“You?” The woman’s voice was all question.
Purposefully, Mel nodded. Thea laughed a little under her breath.
Knotted together, they all surged forward, joining up with the rear of the crowd that was winding its way north and east, and out of the trees.
The sun rose on them, stretching their shadows just as they reached open ground. In the fresh light, all the children spun in circles, looking at faces, searching the gaps between shoulders. Bekany broke away first, shouting her older brother’s name. Petrick called “Momma!” and Sier echoed him and they split in opposite directions. Teo slid away without a word, fell back a step and wound between the others. One at a time, they all peeled away.
Anie held Thea’s hand tighter. Her feet had gotten heavy , hour by hour, and the sun was adding heat and weight to the air. But she smiled, without having to try, every time her sisters looked at her.
Lord Tiernan’s camp lay behind three long lines of small hills. They thudded and clambered around and through them to find the rows of tents neatly backed against the stone face of the next sheered hill. Smoke drifted off cook fires. Soldiers and others drifted easily down grassy lines. Horses were tied on the western edge, flicking their tails. And a band of twenty were riding straight toward them, armor clinking and swords strapped at their sides.
Thea pulled Anie closer to her side, and Darien took half a step in front of Mel.
A woman with blonde hair rode at the front, dark leather across her chest so that her braid made a bright line against her shoulder. Her horse was shining red, and her mouth was pressed in a straight, confident line. Anie watched her, watched her hands and her shoulders, squared and steady.
“Tell me what you’ve come for, and tell me quick,” she said, without greeting.
The woman who had caught Chas in the dark glanced over her shoulder at the others. At the hundred men and women at her back. She dropped her head a little, and took a breath, as if just realizing what they might look like.
“We’re looking for Lord Tiernan,” she announced carefully. “For safety.”
The woman on the horse, pulled at the reins to keep her horse close as it turned beneath her, antsy. Anie looked at the woman’s hands again, trying to find the nervous energy that was bleeding into her mount.
“You came from Madden’s fortress, at the mountain?” the rider asked.
“From the encampments they built south of it.” the woman replied.
Thea took a breath beside Anie.
“How?” the rider asked. “We fought for those encampments two days ago.”
The woman shrugged, not quite at real loss. “Seryn Two-Hand decided to burn them down.”
The rider’s eyes narrowed. Then her mouth tilted up into half a smile, and she blinked down at them. “Why…?”
The woman shrugged again. The rider shook her head.