Virden wrapped both hands around his cup, twisting the cool clay between his palms. The wine inside teetered, sliding up the sides and he moved slowly enough to keep it off his fingers. Kenze watched him watch the thin shadow of his cup on the table in the dim room. She had only taken a sip of her own. Alidon had downed his in a gulp, and poured himself two more without a word.
From one moment to another, they glanced at the door.
“It might just be us,” Virden murmured.
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.”
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 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 ground was still frozen when the war started. Edri thought her mind was still numb as well, when that was the first thought that rose to consciousness after she saw the notices pinned up around town. There were long weeks before the earth would thaw enough for them to drive a spade into. Long weeks before they could start the planting and by then hundreds of able hands would already have left for the borders. Fewer workers, but they would seed as much ground as they could, eager for whatever extra they could get in the coming seasons.
Edri pulled her scarf tighter around her head and kept walking through the main square, as if she hadn’t thought anything at all.
No one had to tell her that everything was about to change. She had seen the doors slam open, the same as the rest of them. She had heard the shouting, when no one in that room should have lacked the grace or tact it took to keep their voices down. She had watched the negotiations fall apart from the hallway, the knowledge of it crawling up inside her marrow when she should have been blind behind the walls, unaware and quietly anxious over everything until the official statements were made.
No one had to tell her anything, and she didn’t have the time to wait anyway.
She reached for Alcide’s hand and pulled time to a stuttering stop.
He stared at her instantly, but she had to shut her eyes, focusing on smoothing the repeating moment. It was always so hard, yanking them back a fraction of a second and letting it play, them yanking them through the same fraction again. Too long a fragment, and she would make herself sick, watching the people around her shudder in the same motion, over and over. Sounds repeated, hitched, and stuck in tones that didn’t belong to anything or anyone. If she could shorten the repeating moment enough, it would be hard to hold, but people would just freeze and the air would just hum in uncertain harmonies.
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.
“Bring her to me!” Lady Cintia yelled. Three guards scurried from the hall as if she had struck them, and every one else fell into brittle silence. The echo behind her voice had seemed too loud. Their breathing wasn’t even quiet enough. A few people shifted toward the walls. Others stayed exactly as they were.
Cintia shoved herself away from the long table, stood, and whirled away from it. The table rocked on its legs. Glancing around the room, she seemed to realize how many were still gathered after the morning court. She looked at the wall rather than glare at them directly.
“Clear the room!” she shouted.
Everyone moved toward the door in an instant. Teo, her husband stayed in his seat. The two guards at the wall stayed. The Captain of her guard, Maurei stayed, standing on the other side of the table. The rest of the crowd clattered out, and left a greater echo in their wake.
Rhian’s fingers shifted around the hilt of the knife, rearranging her grip. The blade turned, caught the sunlight for half a moment. She blinked. For the space of a breath, she seemed to look at something between her and Seryn. Then her gaze focused again. One heel turned out, balancing her stance.
“I’m not going to let you kill me,” she said clearly. Her voice was tight now, and perfectly honest.
Thought fell back, perfectly silent. The rustle of the breeze came through like the whisper of thunder. The ground held firm. The run of Seryn’s blood went quiet, along with every other thing inside her. Warm and calm, Seryn blinked back. “Put the knife away,” she murmured.
Rhian looked hurt before her expression tightened enough to call it anger. “We heard the stories,” she said, each word distinct. “About your first kill.”
Seryn felt the bite. Somewhere, that hurt. She imagined she might feel it later. Now, she felt the weight of her own hands, measured the seconds it could take Rhian to close on her. She watched Rhian’s face. The edges of her vision would best catch the roll of her shoulder, the shift of her hip before she moved.
Winter’s edge was holding tight to the stone halls above Oruasta. Getting out of bed every morning, Tiernan expected the floor to not feel so cold and the air to hold warmth a little closer. Instead, he pulled his socks on first, and put on full sleeves and jacket before he left his rooms. The halls were colder than his closed, sleep-heated room, and he slipped his hands into his pockets until his first walk of the day warmed him up.
He knew the plain at the base of the mountain was warmer. Spring was so close, the rest of the world could feel its warm breath, even if Oruasta liked to cling to its chill. The eastern mountains liked their cold too, but open to the sun, even they took on heat during the day. They may not have lost their snow yet, but the passes would be clear by the time he could make it that far.
He would go back over them soon.
At breakfast, Eoin told Tiernan he looked like he had woken up with a hedgehog instead of a pillow. Elbows leaned against the table on either side of his plate, he smiled falsely at the joke. It was his first smile of the morning, he realized, and it was a poor one.