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.
Osanna watched the white-hot piece of steel skitter off the anvil and reached to catch it without thinking. Closing her fingers around it, she realized she had imagined this before, calculated what it would take to hold the heat-softened edges of the heavy brick in a midnight thought, half-asleep and forgetful of realities.
It was lighter than she had imagined. But she was used to carrying them at the end of long-armed tongs, not seated in the center of her palm.
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.
A firm hand drew the decanter away from him. Brance watched it leave his hand with a dull focus, as if he were watching the air roll it away, as if those weren’t his fingers wrapped around the patterned glass. Then he just blinked at his fingers for a moment. When he finally realized how slow he was being, he snickered at himself.
Vardan pulled the decanter another six inches toward him across the table. With his hand over the open top, he looked down at Brance wordlessly.
Leaned all the way back in his padded chair, Brance carefully tilted his head back to look at him. “I don’t remember giving you a key,” he said, unoffended and still amused. Turning his head made the world spin delightfully. It was almost a puzzle, working out how to meet Vardan’s eye. And he was pleased with himself for solving it so efficiently.
“Your lock is easy to pick,” Vardan told him.
Brance nodded. He knew that. But he had a dog, and he trusted Kelb’s iron jaws more than he trusted iron tumblers.
Jinn had been warning people about the dangers of carelessness since he was six years old, and his little brother had almost run full-tilt into the stove while trying to tie bows in the dog’s tail. By the time he was ten, he had practiced to the point that he could summon a three-minute lecture after a single breath.
When he was thirteen, it had easily slipped to five minutes, and he could walk at the same time, to chase down his siblings as they tried to escape.
The house was quiet when Jaera woke, opening her eyes to the dim yellow light that wriggled its way through the shutters. Outside, she could hear people passing by on the street, her neighbors calling back and forth to each other, and someone pounded with a hammer, already deep in the day’s work. She was the last to wake, but she just yawned and stretched slowly. She had time.
She swung her feet out of bed and sat for a moment, blinking sleepily at the strips of light across her floor. When her thoughts started to lose their fuzzy edges, she stood up, stripped out of her nightshirt and put on the day’s shirt, breeches, and jacket. Then she finger-combed her hair enough to fit it into a braid.
Opening the door, she moved down the hall, then blinked in the brighter light of the main room as she came down the stairs. The windows were all open wide, letting in the breeze and the sunlight, and letting out the summer heat that was slowly building. The front and back doors were open as well. Jaera glanced at them, and pulled her sleeves down over her hands. She was still losing the comfortable, heavy warmth of sleep, and the air felt a little cold.
“Mornin’,” Barrett said behind her.
Ryane rolled onto her side. She pressed her back to the thin wooden wall behind her, and tucked her blanket tight to her chin. The windows here didn’t quite close, but the night breeze only cooled her nose and cheeks, well-trained this far south in the islands so that it knew not to bite. She was plenty warm enough, and had been for hours, though sleep was coming slowly.
Nestled into the corner between wall and floor, she finally felt able to leave her eyes closed. She’d never understand that. Lying on her back felt like being under an open storm sky, even though she was staring straight up at a ceiling. Lying on her side felt like hiding in all the best ways, tucked away from any one and anything that had a mind for finding.
Emmany was sure that the edge of a dance floor was the stillest place on earth. The steadiest place on earth.
At the other side of the room, the fiddlers faced each other and swung their bows, side to side, wing beats between, never on the same side, to keep their balance. One of them stamped her foot. The other tapped his toes, and behind them a third just hummed on the strings to brighten their tune. In front of them, the dancers swung, stomped, stamped, clapped, hollered. They smiled wide, twisted fast, caught their partners by the hand to keep them from flying too far.
And the edge of the room stayed still. The music thrummed on the wall and didn’t move it. The dancing rumbled in the floor, and it didn’t sway. It remained steady, while everything else tapped its feet and juttered into the steps.
Emmany leaned her back to the wall, hands in her pockets, and set her heels tight to the floor. Steady.
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.