Twenty One: "Variations on a Theme"

       There was a bit of an edge to the wind that night, the sort that always seems to herald stormy weather. Literally and figuratively.
       One of the newly appointed guards snapped to attention as I crossed the courtyard toward the battlements. He couldn't have been much older than sixteen. I sighed as I waved him something approximating a salute. Too young. But we have no choice.
       Okay, so that's bullshit. We have choices. I have choices. I could have said no when Fletcher set forth his nomination. But I didn't. I'm still not sure why.
       The wind picked up as I mounted the narrow stairs to the wall, and I shrugged deeper into my jacket. The moon had waned back to half, and shone brilliantly against a cloudless sky. I still couldn't shake that sense that a storm was coming, though.
       The masonry under my feet bore signs of fresh mortar, and the new stones were darker than the originals, creating a pockmarked look. I knelt to examine it more closely. The work had been done neatly; the grouting was smooth, and the stones laid with care. A sign of pride, however small. It gave me hope.
       A soft coughing from behind startled me, and I cursed silently. My mind was in twelve different places at once, and it was starting to affect my concentration.
       "'Tis late to be out and about, m'lady." Brennig Talfryn's rough voice carried softly on the still air.
       I looked at my watch. Three a.m. He was right. Still running my fingers along the cool stones, I glanced up. The older man was leaning against the inner edge of the wall, watching me with a rather bemused expression. His salt and pepper hair was buzzed military short, though he did affect a small goatee. He exuded an air of quiet confidence, a rare commodity among the ragged troops at my disposal.
       I stood finally, stepping back and mimicing his pose. "Very late. So what are you doing out?"
       "I'm about to go on watch. What's your excuse?"
       I grinned slightly. "I'm in charge. I don't need an excuse. But if you want a reason, well, I couldn't sleep."
       "Insomnia is not an uncommon trait among the upper eschelons." One corner of his mouth quirked in a smile.
       "Then you'd best be careful." By the end of that first day, after I'd found myself not only acting as Amber's military leader but Regent, too, it was clear I was going to need all the help I could get. And when it became clear that Brennig, a combat veteran, was the most competent of what remained of Amber's military, I'd drafted him as my second.
       The next three days had passed in a blur. I'd slept in snatches, usually at the desk in my new office, and usually halfway through some report, old or new. I'll take a demon over paperwork any day. But things were progressing. Brennig coordinated the augmentation of our measley forces while I was bogged down with Regental minutia. Harry had, with his usual anal-retentive thoroughness, catalogued our current state of supplies and created itemized, prioritized lists of what we needed. Gerda had the repairs well in hand, and Fletcher had vanished into Arden after terrorizing the former council into submission.
       I hadn't seen Gerard since he'd left for his ship, but Mara reported that he was busy, if quieter than usual. I hope he forgives me someday, but I can't say I'm too sorry. Amber's needed him here for a long time, and if it took a swift kick from an outsider to convince him, well, I had no problem volunteering.
       And there'd been no word from the rescue party, which weighed most heavily on my mind as time went on.
       "The archery division is off to a good start," Brennig mused, interrupting my own mental meanderings. "Them Eryiens your friend Ilie 'loaned' us have been a great help."
       That was an understatement. Stark's return with the Eyriens had been not only a boost to numbers, but a desperately-needed boost to morale. Ilie had been wonderfully cooperative, letting me co-opt a good twenty of his people for border sentry duty and training assistance. It cut down on my paranoid desire to try and be everywhere at once.
       "The ground forces, however, need a lot of work," he continued. "Most of those kids would be little use to us now, other than as fodder."
       I sighed. "Yeah. We need trained personnel." I rubbed the back of my neck, which had been sore ever since my last nap on the repair reports. "We need a bloody miracle."
       "You've done rather well, m'lady, with the resources at hand."
       I glanced over to him. "I'm not paying you to toady up to me, Brennig."
       "As I recall," he chuckled, "you're not paying me at all."
       I had to laugh. "Touche." I crossed the walkway to lean on the outer edge of the wall. The city was silent under the stars, the darkness hiding the signs of repair that had occupied every waking hour of the last three days. Off across the vale, the Dancing Mountains stood mute sentry. And somewhere beyond...
       It had taken us four days, so I really hadn't expected them to return any sooner, though the vain hope is always there. It could be weeks before they return, if they return at all...
       I banished that thought immediately. They'd come back. All of them.
       They had to.
       My thoughts must have been evident in my expression, because Brennig, who had moved to stand next to me, said suddenly, "A watched kettle never boils, Lady Greyfalcon, and only irritates the watcher."
       "I'm used to irritation, Brennig."
       "But not waiting."
       "Not waiting for things I have no control over," I countered.
       "Thus the familiarity with irritation, I see." He smiled into the night. "You should endeavor to get some sleep, m'lady. Other than at your desk."
       "I don't think I'll be able to sleep until I can rest easy, Brennig. And that won't happen until they come home." Every time I closed my eyes with the intention of sleeping, that forlorn "M" carved into the cave floor was there waiting.
       "We all hope it will be soon, Cecily." I could hear the strain and fear in his voice, too.
       Hope. It's about all we have left.