Careful so the guard wouldn’t notice, he tossed his handkerchief over the side of the cart. Someone would find it.
Jasen had not been told who. Not when Kynbessne and Jennika explained the plan to him, all three of them gathered around the expertly drawn, delightedly stolen house map. Not a few minutes later when he had asked. Explicitly. Someone would watch the manse while they were inside, and someone would have a way to signal Jennika if the mistress of the house returned while they were still scouting inside.
Kynbessne had looked resolute and patient when he questioned her, perhaps protecting an associate who she’d rather he didn’t arrest. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Jennika, however, had cocked her head slyly, her constant smile tilting her mouth. Like she might just be enjoying the spectacle of leaving him in the dark.
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.
The gravel crunched, echoing back into the cave. Counting footsteps, Eytan stared into the dark. When the four of them appeared in a loose line, he wasn’t surprised. The first man had a heavy sword at her hip, and passed Eytan without realizing. The woman behind him, a shadow in her dark leathers, caught the glint of bare steel in Eytan’s hand and murmured one word to pull them all to a stop. The other two stopped immediately, glints and echoes ten feet back and Eytan stayed where he was, borrowing some of the bulk of the stone wall while he stared at them.
“Lost, sister?” Eytan asked, and kept his voice low so that it was mostly echo as well.
The woman didn’t answer, tilting her head to get a better look at him.
Macsen found Seryn in the morning. The sun was barely up, and she hadn’t put her boots on yet, but he strode through the hall to put a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Come with me,” he said.
Ignoring the rest of the guard where they sat on the side of their cots, he turned on his heel to leave again.
Seryn followed him out, footsteps echoing dully in the wide space between the walls. There were few other people moving in the gray light – a few loading breakfast over already healthy fires, and a few more settling their clothes and minds for a new day – and she looked at none of them. Eyes on Macsen’s back she kept stride with him out into the yard, around the corner of the main hall, straight to his office.
He struck a match sharply and lit the lamp on the wall with steady hands. Seryn shut the door to keep out the morning chill. Macsen sat behind his desk and waved for her to take the chair across from him.
“How much did you know?” he asked before she could cross the room.
She took her next step more slowly, sank into the chair holding his eye carefully.
The mud squelched under her combat boots as she bent to flip over the corpse. She held her breath, pulling on its shoulder, praying that the dead weight would stay dead weight. She didn’t want to have to run from this one. It had been raining all week, and that shouldn’t have mattered, but they had been trained to fight in thirty pounds of combat gear, not forty pounds of combat gear soaked through with rainwater, and she was exhausted.
She missed the days when a ceasefire meant counting up the soldiers who were still standing, carrying the ones who couldn’t walk back to the tents to wait in line for stitches and Novocaine, collecting tags from the ones who had stopped breathing. Missed them like the thunderstorms back home that knocked the lights out back home, and drove everyone together into the candlelight.
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.
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.”
She should have returned to the main hall immediately. She should have stepped back inside, slid into her cot, and slept. She could have made herself, and shutting her eyes would have felt like following orders. Easy. But, she turned right from Jeyd’s office instead of left, and climbed to the top of the fortress wall. The breeze was stronger there, and she lifted her chin to let it drag over her.
She stared at the horizon, waiting until her eyes could sort out the difference between the black earth and the black sky, and counted stars until the numbers faded into their repeating patterns and the stars themselves were just scattered dust.
Her fingers numbed. Her cheeks felt stiff in the cold.
She told herself she would go inside soon. Then, she still didn’t move.
No one slept the night before they were supposed to leave the pass. They packed up their belongings. They secured the carts. They brushed down the horses, calming the animals even as they couldn’t calm themselves. Deorsa watched Tiernan across one of the campfires, both of them wrapped in their business with the men and women who came and went.
“You’re sure we can trust him?” Deorsa asked. Only once.
“Yes,” Tiernan told her.
And just before sunrise, they rumbled slowly down the path.
The sky was pink and gray when they reached the foot of the mountain. The birds were twittering, echoing in the clear silence. The trees stood sentinel between them and the fortress. The whole column picked up speed on flat ground. Tiernan and Deorsa aimed them toward the open plain in the east.
After the sun had gone down, they circled the carts and made a rough camp. They would settle more permanently in the morning, once they were sure they had come far enough past the fortress to find solid footing.
Revca found Tiernan in the dark. Astride her horse, she stopped beside his tent, pulling back on the reins to force her horse to hold still as it tried to dance in place. She and the other scouts had been running wide circles around the column all day, and she herself didn’t look any more ready to relax into the evening.
“I ran across your boy,” she said. She watched his face. “Aled.”
Rhian woke up late in the afternoon. Seryn was not there to see it. She was told that Rhian woke quietly, that she opened her eyes, blinking as if the brightness of the sun coming through the window had suddenly reached her. She took a breath. She sat up. And she winced, but forced herself to twist her shoulders and stretch her spine before she allowed herself to settle back down.
Seryn wasn’t sure whether she would have wanted to be there or not. There was relief in hearing that she was conscious, but when she came back to the main hall for dinner, and met the girl’s eye, it only felt cold.
Rhian would survive. All the secrets between them would hold. No one would know that Rhian had been sick, and not even Rhian would know what Seryn herself did to keep the ghosts away. The hard edges of their shoulders would dull in time, and they would be able to work smoothly side-by-side again. Eventually.
Seryn ate her dinner, watching the hall as she usually did, and ignored the weight of the evening.
It was strangely easy.