Seryn ran with the others. Inside the compound, the dirt was packed solid, but their heels played it like a drum. Each time she set a foot down, it jarred her all the way to the knee, but with the thunder of the others behind her, she thought the next step might shake the earth, or break it open.
Then their footsteps drifted apart, each runner behind her in a different pace that settled out into a weak thrum. Seryn took a deep breath, focusing on her own feet, her own circles that she was weaving between the wooden walls, always one stride ahead of the others.
And a few minutes later, the thudding of their feet fell together again, hammer strikes against the anvil of the earth, every muscle of their bodies wound together into this force that hit, and hit, and hit.
And fell apart somewhere behind her. She tried to time her step to the man directly behind her, to the woman behind him. She clung to the rhythm for another second, then let it go, ready to wait for it to come around again.
Her lieutenant watched them run the next lap as he leaned back against the fence. He was sweating in the heat, wiping the back of his neck, lazy, like he was swimming through the muggy air. When they passed him again, he moved fast enough, picked up his feet and fell in beside Seryn at the front of the line. She could almost feel the relief breathing off those behind her. This would be the last lap.
They ran it tighter than the last dozen. Each step was measured, made long and perfect, knowing that there were only a few more to make. For a long time, their heels hit down in time. A pounding beat that seemed to drag air in and out of Seryn’s lungs in rhythm as well.
“And halt!” the lieutenant called.
Every runner stopped, fast, except Seryn who ran one stride longer, just to hear the sound of her own stride on this ground. It still hit hard, and she heard the ring of it up through her bones.
The others were leaning back, hands on their hips, like their spines need the support of the air as much as their lungs did. A few risked resting their hands on their knees, and didn’t care who saw how hard their chests were working to catch everything they needed.
Seryn tapped her toes against the ground, breathing hard, leaned forward, and looked her lieutenant. She would have liked to run a little farther.
Her lieutenant looked back at her, must have known what she was thinking from the way she shifted on her feet, and left his order standing.
Seryn set her feet more firmly against the ground. She supposed that was what made her a soldier: following orders when she didn’t want to.
She looked at the others, who probably had wanted to greet the heat of the morning a little more slowly, but had dragged themselves out to run each lap together.
“Fall in!” her lieutenant called.
And they all did, one straight line that trotted into the dining hall, heels pounding the earth.