In the twilight, Lord Tiernan’s camp moved languidly. The neatness of the tent lines gently hedged in the growing shadows from cook fires and torches. Canvas rustled, flaps opening and closing. Charcoal smoke drifted lazily. Ahead of Anie, one of the soldiers leading them encouraged them to keep moving, but her tone was unhurried. The whole crowd of them leaned lightly into their steps, looking around, talking quietly. Anie watched the men and women drifting between their tents, breathed in deep to catch the warmth of venison and broth boiling for supper.
And Momma leaned over one of the cookpots, long hair tied back with a single string, falling over one shoulder.
Anie stopped just where she was.
The birds started singing in the trees about the time that Anie had to start watching her feet while she walked. She lost her energy in the space of a yawn, and the growing light spreading through the sky on her right seemed wrong. She blinked heavily. Thea slowed, holding steadier, as Anie started to stumble. The others all pulled in a little closer, as if they might lean against each other.
The sun climbed heedlessly into the sky.
“When do we sleep?” Anie murmured.
“It’s not safe yet,” Chas said. But he was slowing too. The whole crowd ahead of them seemed to be stuttering in their steps. The trees were thinning, the ground evening out, but their feet seemed more and more hesitant to leave the ground.
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.
Wynn barely paused before she returned to her bed, just kept her eyes on Seryn as she moved away, settled under the blankets, tucked her head back down into the pillow. Seryn waited a long time before she sat up, as if she had to teach herself how all her bones fit together again before she could. Then she curled forward, silent, resting her forehead in her palm.
For a few long minutes, Anie watched her, waiting for her to lie back down. The rest of the room hummed with sleep, steady breaths in and out, sighs in the dark. Seryn hung on her hand in silence. Anie could see her shoulders rise and fall, but she was still, too quiet, to be resting. Her back was to Anie, and she didn’t see when the girl slipped out of her own bed, padding toward her in the dark.
Hesitantly, Anie touched her on the shoulder. She was so carefully, so light, she almost didn’t feel Seryn’s shirt under her finger tips. Seryn twisted toward her immediately, as if Anie had hit her. Anie froze.
“Can’t sleep?” she whispered.
Seryn dreamed something, and didn’t like it. There was a road. Some strange sound in the trees. Waking as sharply as usual, she forgot all of it.
Macsen was in the hall, up early. Seryn nodded to him. He nodded back. Then she turned her attention to the business of the day.
Aled woke just minutes after her, as she was wrapping herself into her uniform. The others weren’t far behind. Seryn started toward breakfast, stopped, turned around, and tapped Drystan on the shoulder.
He looked at her, curious.
She jerked her head toward the meal line. “Go,” she said. “I’ll wake them.”
“Something’s happening,” Nessim said. Suspicious, he twisted in his seat across from Anie, looking over his shoulder at Aled and Drystan. His breakfast plate was empty in front of him, but he was waiting for Sevi like always, and had nothing better to do than watch the soldiers in their comings and going.
Anie chewed through her next bite and watched too. Aled was giving an order. There was nothing strange about that, but it was interesting how Drystan’s eyes had widened just a little as he heard it.
“What do you think it is?” Anie murmured, quieter than Nessim.
“You think it’s about us?” Vetlynn asked.
Deorsa turned her horse around, kicked forward and rode away quickly, calling orders as she thundered down the left side of her army. Tiernan turned as well, working his way down the other side of the line, and slowly, carefully, they turned everyone back. It took an hour to work their way back up the pass to a place where they could all sprawl out between the rocks.
“Make camp,” Tiernan told them. It was the first time he saw hesitation among them. Wesson looked at him sideways and paused before he relayed the order. Ava ran her horse in an extra circle around the others, and for a moment, Tiernan doubted she would stop. They didn’t come here to stay bottled in the pass.
But they settled in, drove tent stakes into the ground, and stripped gear off the horses.
Tiernan set up his own tent, to the right of the pavilion they had been using for all the business of traveling. Deorsa took her place to the left of it, and the rest of the camp was set out in squared lines from its corners. Tiernan laid his packs down against one canvas wall, but where no one else could see them, he left them tied and packed.
Anie tripped her way between the tables, ducking under elbows, and generally trying to keep behind people’s backs as she slipped through. She knew she hardly succeeded, but Aled, at least, didn’t seem to notice her until she was almost leaning over his shoulder.
Rhian was sweating. Pieces of her hair stuck to her forehead, but she was still pulling the blankets closer while she slept, as if she wanted them knit into her skin. She was shivering to. Anie’s smile slipped away as she watched her. She had never seen anyone after a bear attack before, but she knew what people looked like when they were sick. Rhian wasn’t really sleeping, wasn’t resting, she was aching with her eyes closed to pray thought away.
“You’re supposed to be getting lunch,” Aled said. He gave Anie a slow look and a small smile.
Anie returned the look, eyebrows bent together. “You’re supposed to be asleep,” she told him.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I know you were on watch last night,” Anie said. “And you’re on watch again tonight.”
“You’re very observant,” he said. If he hadn’t been so quiet, she would have said he was impressed. “Now tell me what I’ve been watching…” Aled turned back to Rhian before he had finished speaking. Anie wasn’t sure she was supposed to guess.
Da called up the stairs. His voice was a little muffled coming up through the wooden floor beside Anie’s bed. Her room seemed a little large. Thea was sleeping in a dozen beds at once. But it was good to hear his voice.
Anie shifted onto her side, reburying her head in the pillow. She was going to steal her few more minutes of sleep. Da would understand. She thought he was probably proud of her too, now that she wasn’t really running away after all. They hadn’t gone so far from the city.
Her thoughts seemed to stutter against each other, matching what she knew had happened to the room around her. She realized her eyes were shut. She realized she was dreaming. The floor should not be standing upright and there were too many Thea’s in the room. Da’s voice was too high, too much like Drystan’s.
“Come on, come on, come on!” Drystan called, a sing-song too bright for the early morning. “Roll out of bed. Put your feet on the floor. Walk yourselves to breakfast. If you’re still dreaming, I suppose you can swim there, but move, move, move!”