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.
Mornings were dawning sharper, the spring sun chasing away the cold instead of merely lighting it. The grey light faded more quickly, the air lost its damp cool between two breaths. Seryn watched it come and go, waiting outside Macsen’s office.
Dressed and relaxed, he stepped out the front door when the sun had climbed all the way over the horizon, and the world was right in its colors. Then he stopped, eyeing her thoughtfully. In long, heavy steps, he descended the stairs, still looking at her. She almost read curiosity in the way his gaze flicked over her.
“Why aren’t you with the children?” he asked.
“They like Drystan well enough,” she said.
The first night in the mountain pass was already chillier than the previous night spent down in the plains. The air felt a little lighter on their faces and the ground was harder under their sleeping mats, but there were more of them as well. With nearly five hundred climbing the slope and bedding down under the black sky, there were enough fires burning to keep everyone warm. With so many of them, the camp grew quiet after dark, but never turned under into silence. Whoever held the watch could hear one or two people behind him that weren’t ready for sleep, or who were done with it for now.
It took twenty-three days to come out on the other side of the mountains, and no one complained for the unspoken press that kept their feet moving.
Tiernan had never seen so many move so smoothly.
Watching Deorsa with her troops, he knew it was mostly her doing. She liked to joke with them, liked to trade conversations whip-crack quick, smart and bright and easy. There wasn’t time to complain around her. She didn’t have the energy to waste on it when she could be smiling and giving the man beside her an elbow-nudge over the way he’d nearly fallen off his horse at the sight of a frilled lizard. She gave her orders like an older sister. Everyone around her followed as if she had eloquently convinced them of her purpose, not shouted five words over her shoulder with a grin.
But he only needed to look at the faces of his eighty to know why they moved so quickly. If it had been possible, their wills would have grown them wings.
No one else was running. Anie picked up her feet and went through the crowd as quick as she could, but no one was else was moving even. They swayed, maybe, lifted on their toes to see what was happening at the gate, tilted their heads to measure the lines of men and women in their brown jackets. Anie ran, and it was like darting between trees, the world held still while she pushed through it and turned to catch a glimpse of the faces sliding past.
Thea was near the back of the fortress, too far to see what was happening, but she stood still, too. Darien waited just behind her, his shoulder forming a corner against hers. Mel looked like herself, a few feet in front of Thea, and turning, facing her older sister, then facing the gate, and smiling her confusion. Anie grabbed her hand and pulled her back to the other too.
“They’re soldiers,” Anie whispered.
Thea looked down at her, and Mel bent to catch more of her voice, and Anie had to repeat herself before they seemed to understand.
The fortress had once had five wooden staircases that led up to the top of the wall. The two at the front of the fortress formed twisting, square towers, tucked into the corners. A lot of the beams had held, reinforced on two sides by the stone walls, and the camp had rebuilt them quickly. The stairs at the back criss-crossed the stones more lazily, seated in the center of the rear wall. They’d been rebuilt as well, though they had only been able to rescue half of the old lumber. Two more staircases leaned against the sides of the fortress, and while the one on the right had held as well as the rear staircase, the one on the left was almost gone, scoured away by the wind and rain and snow in the years it had been abandoned. The camp never rebuilt it, but it was still Anie’s favorite way to reach the top of the wall.
The beams had been sunk into the stones once, and now each place they had been, was a square notch large enough for Anie to hold tight to with both hands. Her feet fit all the way to the heels, and she could pull herself up them in their slanted lines without feeling the gap between her and the ground. Forty feet high, and she still felt like she was stepping on solid ground. The first time she’d done it, she might have shaken, but looking down from the top, she’d decided that stairs were for cowards.
Unless Thea was watching. Then stairs were for the very smart ones who knew how to keep themselves out of trouble with their powerful older sisters.
When Anie and Darien returned to the fortress, the crowd inside was thick, but organized. The carts were all backed against the far walls, leaving the center clear for cook fires and canvas tents. The long center hall had been cleaned out and supplies stacked inside. The uneven lines of the caravan camping had been erased by the square edges of the fortress, and everyone walked a little faster.
They found Thea and Mel beside one of the fires. Someone had rolled gray stones about the size of Anie’s head into a circle to hold it in, each one a little too straight edged after the tumble rocks they’d used for the last few weeks. It was easy to see that they were broken pieces of the fortress, long used to lying on the ground.
Mel smiled at Anie while she handed Thea a bucket of water. Thea smiled without even noticing that Darien and Anie were there, then almost grinned when she saw them, took a deep breath, and wiped her hands down the cloth she had pinned to her dress as an apron.
They ate when it was almost dark, just after woodmen returned from their chopping and a few others rolled the sturdiest carts into the gateway. Leaning their heads back, they looked up at the white stars framed by the gray walls.
And Anie slept easy.
The fortress had been just a wide-standing shell of stone wall when they arrived between paling leaves.
The green that had held on through the early autumn chill had faded in a matter of days, not yet the riot of yellow and red that Darien promised Anie would come, but duller and bleached in the sun. Anie was used to watching the trees in the town square for the shifting seasons, and had always imagined that the sudden shift of autumn to winter colors arrived because of the several day’s stretch between her jaunts out to market. But there, walking under the trees from breakfast to dinner, the change still came like a hammer swing. She saw it coming, heard the whistle on the wind, and then it was there with the first too-cold night.
She had been glad to see the walls.
The whole line of them had crossed through the beaten gate where it hung on its hinges, and immediately made a jumble on the aged ground inside. The walls three times the height of a man, wooden staircases slanted up their inside faces with missing steps and railings. A long stone building stretched down the center, most of its eaves intact, and otherwise the fortress had been reduced to a wall here or there, and the old foundations marked out in crooked lines. Carts pulled to a stop where they could, and the people doubled back in all directions, looking at what age and abandonment had done. The knot around the gates choked the space, and the last of them threaded inside at a fish’s pace.
Anie had turned, examined the gray stone on all sides without picking up her feet. She kept her elbows against her sides and tried to be small in the new cramped space.
Oruasta was a large city, hidden under the cap of a mountain, so that the first thing Tiernan ever saw on returning home, was the straight gray sides of the imposing stone. A few trees clung to the sides, bony and dry in the lack of real spring reaching them so high on the slopes. A slashing track cut back and forth across the mountain, narrow and black with wear. The green grass never reached the foot, turning to chipped gravel.
It looked cool, stark and blunt. But it was home, and Tiernan couldn’t help but smile as it grew closer. It had been a long winter, and he knew exactly what was hidden under the streaked stone.
“If we push, we can spend the night in our own rooms,” Eoin murmured. He rode beside Tiernan, eyes trained on the mountain as well. It had been a year since either of them had been inside the walls they’d grown up in. His smile was tinged with all his need to be there again, to put his feet on familiar stone.
Tiernan loosened his hand on his horse’ reins, turning to look back at the caravan ranged behind him. They had picked up extra horses near the eastern mountains, taken carts and coats and boots and meat and salt anywhere they could find them, and paid more than they should have for such simple things. Still, they moved slow, and meals never seemed to stretch far enough. The whole of them looked tired, and walked with the rigid determination that came with knowing that large distances had to be crossed before real rest would fall. Tiernan watched them, and considered whether a long day would wear on them so much harder than one more night under a road’s sky.
As fortresses went, Oruasta was unimpressive. Sibeal had been raised at Kastair where the walls were ten feet thick and the towers could be seen for miles. There was a white stone quarry nearby, and the city had swallowed as much of it as it could. The quarry was now just a deep chasm, and Kastair gleamed in sunlight and glowed in moonlight. Looking up at Oruasta, Sibeal tried not to be disappointed. It was just a single square of grey stone halfway up the mountain.
There was some art to it. The arch in the center was deeply rounded and the walls to either side were smooth faced. Dark lines curled out from either side of the arch, reaching for the top like vines, but too exact to be plants. Every edge was smoothed, maybe because it was meant to be that way, and maybe because it had been there for a long time. Whichever, the fortress, hedged by tall trees and a rough mountain path, had the look of something that had earned its age and had no intention of giving up its prize any time soon.
“You know,” Eoin said, adjusting his hold on the reigns of his horse. The horse danced under him, apparently eager to continue on toward the mountain. “If you get any more excited, we’ll have to stop for some calming tea.” He patted his horse’s neck to settle it, but he was looking toward the mountain as well, leaning forward like he wanted to be at a gallop.
Sibeal watched him for a moment. There was a smile at the corner of his mouth, sharpness in his movements, confidence in the set of his shoulders. This was his land. Even if they hadn’t been in sight of Oruasta, she could have guessed it by the change in him.