Anie woke to the tramp of the patrol as it passed beneath her window. Snuggled against the back wall of her room, deep under the roof, the sunlight never had a chance to reach her. It was only a dim glow behind the shifting curtain, just a glint on the use-polished corners of the furniture. The room was cold after the long night, the point of her noise numbed, but she was warm enough under the blankets to keep her asleep a while longer. Except for the tramp of boots, the ringing slide of chain mail, the abrupt click of metal at the end of every step.
Anie opened her eyes, but didn’t move. It wasn’t even bright enough to blink against, just a lighter shade of night. She watched the glow behind the window, listening to the soldiers march down the street.
Her sister, Thea always sat up straight at the first sound. Her breathing stayed slow, deep and quiet, and Anie wondered sometimes if she was just moving in her sleep. After she sat up, she stayed still for the entire time the patrol was within earshot. Sometimes Anie expected her to lay slowly back down, wake again when the sun crept in. Every morning, Thea waited, then slid right out of bed as soon as she heard the last dim echo of a boot heel. She ran to the window, pulled the curtain back with two fingers and tucked her head close to the wall to glance out.
A few months before, Thea would have run for the door afterward. She might have squeezed Anie’s foot on the way past – if she saw that Anie was awake – or just darted out on light feet and Anie would clamber out of bed just in time to see her sneak out the back door. She’d come back an hour later, pass Da in the door frame on his way to the smith, smile and gently touch his arm.
“See your friends?” he always asked.
Thea shook her head. “No one,” she said. Da nodded, and drew in a breath that left his shoulders a little more square.
“I’ll see you at lunch time,” he said, and walked out the door. He looked back as soon as he was out the door, glanced up at the second floor of the house, and left.
Thea hadn’t gone out since autumn, since the first frost painted the streets and melted under morning footsteps, leaving trails behind the early workers. Now, she only let the curtain settle back into place and pulled in her first measured breath of the day.
Thea stepped back toward her bed slowly. Pausing, she glanced toward Anie. Anie held perfectly still. Her bed was too warm to leave so soon. She shut her eyes again, hoping Thea would let her sleep a little longer before she shook her off the mattress. If she was very lucky, Thea might go downstairs first, and start the kitchen fire. Anie best days started with a mad dash from a warm bed to a warm hearth and a waiting warm breakfast. After a long moment, she heard Thea sat down on the edge of her own bed. Anie smiled, opened her eyes to make sure it was safe and balled the blankets up close to her chin.
With her back to Anie, Thea pulled her feet up off the cold floor. She’d left her clothes from the day before neatly folded over the foot board and she touched them in the dark to make sure they were still there, then started to peel out of her nightdress. She moved slowly. Anie almost laughed at her, moving so gingerly in the cold. Then she buried her mouth in the blankets, remembering she was supposed to be asleep.
Then Thea sat for a long minute in the dark, bare shoulders curved forward in the dark. She spread her elbows away from her sides and pressed her back into the air, like she was trying to collect the cold instead of warding against it.
Anie sat up very quietly. The light from the window touched Thea’s back, just barely, just enough that she could see the dark bruises lining either side of her spine. They spread from her shoulder blades to the bottom of her rib cage, purple-black wings dripping down her back.
Carefully, Thea tugged her shift over her head, lowered it over her back with both hands. Then she put her dress on, one sleeve at a time and stood before she tied it tight in front of her. Anie thought she saw her wince when she gave the laces one last tug before she tied off the knot at her side. Then she turned around, lifting her nightdress to fold it. Stopping, she looked curious to see Anie awake, but not surprised.
“Are you okay?” Anie asked quietly.
Thea smiled. “I’m fine.” She shook her nightdress, so quick it gave a sharp click in the air, then came down on the bed neatly folded in half.
“Are you getting sick?” Anie asked. “Like Mama?”
“That wouldn’t be fine, now would it?” Thea chided. Her smile tilted a little too one side, almost tipping into a laugh. She folded the nightdress two more times, then set it to the side. Turning to Anie, she swept up to her bed and balled her skirt to one side so that she could kneel in front of her.
“Look me in the eye,” Thea said.
Anie blinked uncertainly.
“Right in the eye,” Thea said. “Come on.”
Anie shifted to look straight at her.
“You can do better than that,” Thea said.
Anie grinned. Leaning forward, she touched her nose to Thea’s, set her forehead against her older sister’s.
“This is very important,” Thea said. She nodded a little as she spoke, without meaning to, and Anie laughed at the feeling as she tried to keep their noses together. “And you know it is absolutely impossible to lie with someone staring so keenly in your eyes, so I wouldn’t risk letting you this close if I had anything to hide.”
Anie giggled. “Which is why Mel never does this.”
Thea smiled, grimly. “Exactly,” she said. “Because Mel is a smelly, grinning, funny liar, and we love her too much to hurt her by making her tell all her truths. Although, just between you and me, I know she ate the last orange in the bin yesterday.”
Anie bit her lip against another laugh and waited.
“You asked a very important question,” Thea said. “And that’s why I’m going to answer it twice.” She paused. “I’m fine,” she said.
“Okay,” Anie said. She nodded, and it felt funny, bobbing against Thea’s face. They both laughed.
“Now, get up,” Thea said. She pulled back, and rose straight to her feet in one easy motion. “The sun’ll be up soon, and he’ll be laughing at you all day, and you’ll be staring at his shiny rear end all day if you don’t beat him down to breakfast.”
Thea slipped out, flashing Anie one last smile and Anie tumbled out of bed.