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.
The encampments were on fire, Thea told Anie. Before long, Anie could smell the smoke, rich as a hearth fire and sharper in the wide night air. There was something else in it, something choked and choking, and Anie breathed in deep trying to decide what it was. Sharp. Acidic. When she started coughing, she stopped, and pulled her shirt up over her mouth.
The smoke stayed with them longer than Anie thought it would have. Thea slowed to a walk and called for the others to stay close. Chas caught Nessim by the shirt, forcing him to walk as well. Darien swung wide, disappeared and appeared again at the front of their little pack. His short strides forced them all together, and Anie glanced around at the haze that brightened and obscured the dark.
They walked for hours. Anie’s eyes stung. She blinked them shut over and over.
Then, finally, the air cleared. The trees gleamed under the starlight, and the breeze cut deeper between them. Anie pulled her shirt closer around her, and shuddered a little.
Vetlynn pressed in close to her shoulder.
The fortress was awake as Seryn slipped back in through the open gate.
It was well after midnight, and the lamps were lit as soldiers crossed and recrossed the yard. The walls crawled with too many shadows, the watch doubled by men and women crowded shoulder to shoulder to oggle the mottled orange sky, the dim fire, and the sharp outline of the trees in front of it. A few of them glanced at Seryn, made a perfunctory check of her person, but didn’t seem to notice that she had come back twice. The yard rumbled with their curiosity. In one corner, someone was loading a wagon with water, the only bright point of hurry.
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.
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.
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.
Macsen found Seryn in the morning. The sun was barely up, and she hadn’t put her boots on yet, but he strode through the hall to put a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Come with me,” he said.
Ignoring the rest of the guard where they sat on the side of their cots, he turned on his heel to leave again.
Seryn followed him out, footsteps echoing dully in the wide space between the walls. There were few other people moving in the gray light – a few loading breakfast over already healthy fires, and a few more settling their clothes and minds for a new day – and she looked at none of them. Eyes on Macsen’s back she kept stride with him out into the yard, around the corner of the main hall, straight to his office.
He struck a match sharply and lit the lamp on the wall with steady hands. Seryn shut the door to keep out the morning chill. Macsen sat behind his desk and waved for her to take the chair across from him.
“How much did you know?” he asked before she could cross the room.
She took her next step more slowly, sank into the chair holding his eye carefully.
The scouts returned in the afternoon, after Tiernan had returned to his tent. After the camp had woken and tumbled into motion and slowly clicked into order. After Tiernan had wandered between the tent lines to see where he was needed and lent a shoulder to shove what needed an extra push into place. After Aled had led what was left of Vardeck’s guard around to the other side of the camp and settled them into extra tents. After two of them had stumbled to the physiker’s half awake, with Aled between them.
Tiernan was tired, every ache from the battle sunk deep into him in the quiet.
Doersa lifted the flap of his tent and he lifted his head, pulling in a breath. Putting on something closer to a smile. Jessik followed Deorsa inside. There was dust on her coat and leather oil on her hands from gripping the reins of her horse.
“You’re back sooner than I expected,” Tiernan said carefully. It was possible that she had not gone north to the villages herself. She had a number who answered to her.
Jessik only smiled thinly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It just doesn’t take that long to bring back bad news.”
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.
Tiernan didn’t order the retreat until he had judged the perfect time. There was a tight balance, between when it became apparent that they had gained all they would from this fight, and when the soldiers still held the strength to perform maneuvers without desperation. And there had been so much desperation in the eyes of his soldiers when he began. Too early, and they would have hesitated, unwilling to give up on winning the day. Too late, and they would rush to obey, run and stumble. He waited until he saw the right moment, the catch of breath, the almost-fall and the last muster to press forward.
Deorsa would have called for it sooner. He knew it from the way she rallied her riders, ordered or them to sweep the field just a moment too late for them to hammer down the enemy with all the force they were capable of, like she had been ready to rally them for an entire different sweep. The one that would give the rest of the army the space to fall back. She shot him a look that was full of questions and demands across the battlefield.
But he waited.
Until he could see the men and women he had brought down into this valley slowly realize for themselves that this fight was not going to rescue the ones they had all left behind. He watched their shoulders slack, and then yanked them back, before that knowledge drove them beyond his reach.
He yanked himself back. Retreat now. Maintain the strength to try again. He moved them northeast, as quickly as he could.