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.
Jeyd had been on the walls when the fight began. He watched the Guard ride out, trip on each other, and unlike Seryn, did not race out to catch the ones who fell. Seeing the enemy flood out from between the trees, he called down for them to shut the gate moments before she did.
Aled had slipped through.
The gates had thudded shut. The soldiers braced it and tumbled into defensive positions.
Seryn knew that there, behind thick walls, with a stocked armory and full larders, the fortress would have held. She and what was left of the Guard would have been lost, but the rest would have been safe behind the walls for days. For weeks. For months. Because that was the glory of a fortress.
But while she was down in the clash and clatter, obscured in the rush of her own heartbeat, waiting for the end she had always expected to come, Jeyd saw the vise of the encroaching army tighten. And press. And quietly, almost invisibly, brace to defend as if they had already laid claim to the ground to the south.
Seryn saw Tiernan and she marked him, knowing that was where Macsen would expect her to be in this fight.
Commands clattered from the walls of the fortress, and from the lines of soldiers, echoing and rolling, passed from one officer to another. Footsteps thundered. Armor rattled. Seryn stayed where she was until she saw the shape of the vise locking around the walls, turned and saw Aled plunge through the narrowing gate.
She would need to be there too.
For half a moment, Seryn listened to it, and registered it calmly. It was a noise she had expected as soon as she saw the flood of men and women rushing out from between the trees, horrible, but familiar over the rumble of motion, the clank of armor, the measured voices of commanders who were pretending to understand the blood and the steel. And it took her half a moment to hear his voice in the twisted sound.
Seryn whirled back toward them.
Seryn woke. Eyes open, smooth as taking a breath.
The shadows held their place on the ceiling as if they hung by their finger tips, slipping into the dawning light. She blinked once, aware suddenly of sheets and shoulders and heavy blanket and cool air on thin cheeks. Then she sat.
She pulled on breeches, shirt, boots, jacket and tied everything smoothly into place. Bending her head, she fingered her hair into a quick braid, tight against the back of her head, and knotted it at the base of her skull.
Wynn was moving behind her. Breeches, shirt, boots, jacket. Tesni took a too-thick breath and blinked in the morning light.
The doors to the great hall were off their hinges, one of them cracked into three pieces, the other kicked in and only hanging onto the frame at the top. Walking between them, Oren tilted his head back to keep an eye on the upper pieces, seemingly balanced against nothing, and tried not to imagine them falling in on his head.
The hall itself was almost empty. He was unused to the echo of his own steps in a room that was usually full with conversation and humming motion, so he moved slowly. The lamps had not been lit, and the window light stretched between shadows. The pillars were stripped bare. The high seat was still upright on the dais, but it stood forgotten behind the table that had been dragged in front of it. No chairs, just a handful of men and women leaned over it, murmuring and marking.
Oren slowed even further, trying to sort between the strangers. One of them must have been Lady Dareya. He felt stupid, realizing that he wouldn’t know her even if she looked straight at him. He should have asked someone what she looked like.
He was going to marry her. There was nothing stranger than knowing that before knowing the color of her hair.
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.
The room went quiet as soon as Cidra stopped moving. No one else shifted, or even seemed to breathe, for a full count of fifty. Then slowly, they all pulled their blankets back up around their shoulders and buried themselves in their cots. Sevi climbed back into bed still facing Nessim, folding one foot beneath him and then the other. Nessim waited for a moment in the dark, and then sat on the floor just where he was. He watched the door, the cracks in the frame streaking him with dim yellow light, so that Anie could see the line of his nose, and the edge of one eye as he waited. He blinked too often.
Vetlynn was the last to lay down, her hair fall across her cheek so that Anie wasn’t sure whether she had turned face-down to hide, or not.
Anie didn’t lay down at all. She had thought she might sleep, but now she knew she wouldn’t. Sleep didn’t feel like a real thing any more, the way she could feel all the distinct edges of her thoughts inside her. Her body didn’t feel heavy enough to sleep.
She sat up, awake and alert while the clamor outside continued on, dimmed and dulled by the walls.
It got dark that night. Anie laid on her wooden cot with the blanket tight to her chest, and wasn’t sure why it seemed so much darker than it had the night before in the small space of the cabin she shared with her sisters. It was cold, but she kept her arms outside the blanket, elbows tight to her sides, hands on her chest. It felt safer than trapping her hands underneath.
She blinked up at the ceiling, high above her, lost in the crawling black that had settled over her eyes as soon as the lamps were blown out. They had spent hours filling in the spaces between the planks of the cabin with mud and clay and straw. She knew that there was no way any light came through the walls or roof, as tight as they’d been made to hold in heat. This hall was just larger. And still, she knew last night had been more grey.
She tried not to listen to the footsteps and voices outside. They should have died down a long time ago, and she couldn’t hear any of them clearly in the huge, echoing space. And there were too many thuds and cracks.