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.
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.
Reed nodded. Taking the last few steps at a gentle run, he passed Eoin and led him back in toward the barracks that leaned against the inside of the mountain face. The interior was lined in slat bunks and weapons racks, and in between tables and chairs were scattered at a will. Some soldiers slept, arms thrown over their eyes to block the light of their comrades who sat at the tables, playing their cards. A few others walked briskly through, adjusting the straps and laces on their leathers, cloaks trailing behind them.
Men and women stopped to clap Eoin on the shoulder, doubling back in their quick strides as they realized who they’d seen. Eoin smiled at them all, traded greetings and jokes and fierce grips, and kept close behind Reed’s back. The older soldier did much the same, calling his hellos, and walking without pause.
At the far end of the barracks Reed’s patrol was waiting. There were six of them, mostly tall and lean like Reed, who seemed to lopped off a little height and applied it to the breadth of his shoulders instead. They were almost in a line as Reed and Eoin approached, hands idly checking their sleeeves and hats and weapons, and they snapped to attention the instant Reed was close enough to issue an order.
“Are we ready?” he asked them.
The day ran long. The hours stacked up between Seryn’s shoulder blades instead of sliding past her shoulders the way they usually did, and by noon, she was counting down the minutes until sunset. The carts and wagons rumbled forward, and she stayed in her saddle, wandering up and down the line. Walkers wandered apart, and pulled back together, avoiding one patch of grass, one rough hill, one crease in the earth they disliked. Seryn watched, and she kept her mouth shut. Ern had called her young, and she knew enough to read the word “brash” behind it, and know she couldn’t push much more today. The others rode in their usual ring around the walkers, wandering like her, but never leaving that precarious patrol. She nodded to them as they all came and went, and trusted them to hold the line together for now.
Everyone stopped for the night just over the roll of a hill, which held the brunt of a breeze off their backs. There were still two hours before sundown, but they all scrambled for their nightly comforts: water, fuel for the fire, food, the softest patch of earth. Crackling flames popped up like stars in the dusky sky, dim, but rolling with warmth. Seryn ran a loop around the new camp, marking the edges, smiling and nodding to whoever met her eye, then ran back to her own.
Chezza sat at the only fire between their tents. The others were all scattered, as they should be, with only her and Harun and Aled waiting on the orange flames. Aled looked up with his usual lazy grin.
“I hear I won’t be seeing much of you anymore,” he said. “I wish I could say I was sad, but honest, after the last few weeks, I’m just sick of you.”