Da was already downstairs by the time Anie pried herself away from the blankets.
He stood by the door, holding the last bites of his breakfast, keeping the quiet of the morning air. Dressed in his heavy leathers, he watched Thea move around the kitchen, while the fire started to press warmth into the room, and glanced over his shoulder at the front door from time to time. Anie thought there was a shadow there that told him when it was time to leave, but she’d never marked it for herself.
She scooted past him, running on her toes to keep the soles of her house shoes off the cold floor as much as possible, and slid in beside the hearth. She waited until she felt heat sink through the thick fabric of her dress before she uncurled her fingers from her sleeves.
Thea looked over at her, smiled, and looked away to let her soak in warmth before she nudged her toward her chores.
Da finished the last bite of bread in his hands. “You need anything before I leave?” he asked Thea, already half turned to the door.
Thea looked over her shoulder, turned back to the pot over the fire, and shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“You’ll send Mel along when she wanders into the world?” Da asked. His hand was on the knob and Anie heard the door creak open.
“She’s going to be late today,” Thea told him.
He stopped where he was, the air outside sweeping in around the corner. Anie ducked closer to the fire.
“She’s running to market for me this morning,” Thea told him. “The way she runs, it won’t take more than an hour.”
“You’re staying in?” Da asked.
Thea faced him gently. “I’m staying in.”
He nodded once, and left. They could hear his heavy boots tramping down the street for six strides before they were covered by the light street noise.
Anie looked up at Thea carefully. “We’re not going out?”
Thea snorted without looking at her. Pulling a bowl out of the cabinet, she spooned out one serving of the barley meal inside, and turned to smile at Anie. “Well, if you wanted to skip your birth day this year, I’d understand, but…” She stopped as soon as she saw Anie’s return grin. “Da’s got something other than brains between his ears, if he thinks his girls are going to let go of a nine-year tradition. Now, I’ve got to take this up to Momma. See if you can put breakfast on the table while I’m gone. We’ll get out of here just that much faster.”
Anie jumped to the cupboards, stretching to reach the bowls, and Thea strode toward the stairs.
Anie served up the barley carefully, fast as she could. She listened to Thea’s footsteps, calculating how long it would be before she came back down. There was a sharp knock when she reached the top of the stairs, and an enthusiastic yelp from Mel’s room. Anie laughed, and put the bowls down. Then she grabbed the pitcher and raced to the back of the house. The water barrel sat just outside the back door. She flipped the trick latch to free the lid, then bent almost double to fill the pitcher out of the bottom. Then she shoved the lid back down, and ran back, careful not to spill any.
At the table, she pulled down three cups, filled them to the brim. Then she dumped the rest of the pitcher into the scrub bucket, just to freshen the water left over from last night, pulled the pot down from the hearth and dunked it inside to soak. Mel sauntered in just in time to catch the splash, and looked at her sideways.
“Are we in some sort of rush?” she asked. Her long hair was loose down her back, and her fingers were still caught in the laces of her dress, tying off the final knots at her hip. Her feet were bare.
Anie stared at her.
Mel stared back, eyes narrowed. She dropped the laces, and set both hands on her waist, waiting.
“Yes,” Anie said. “And if you forgot, I’m going to use all my birth day wishes to turn you into a frog for a week.”
Laughing, Mel straightened immediately. “I didn’t forget. Whose idea do you think it was to lie to Da?” She finished the knots in one sharp motion and turned back to shove her feet into her shoes where she’d left them just outside the kitchen doorway. They weren’t her house shoes, but her boots, and her hands were already in her hair, separating out the locks she needed for her four-strand braid. She made quick work of it, and stepped in toward the table, hugging Anie fiercely around the shoulders. “Bright birth day,” she murmured and kissed her roughly on top of the head. “And I hope none of your wishes come true.”
Thea came back down the stairs just in time to hear the curse. Stunned, she looked at Mel.
Mel glanced at her, then at Anie and shook her head, fast. “She said she was going to turn me into a frog.”
Thea laughed shortly. Sweeping past her, she sat at the table. “You know that’s not how the wishes work. Sit down.”
Anie and Mel raced to the table, then raced each other through their food. They were already two-thirds finished when they heard the patrol making its next round. The sun was almost completely up, and yellow light flooded the first floor of the house. Anie watched the shadows at the front door, scooping another bite into her mouth, quick. Mel matched her. Thea slowly lowered her spoon to her bowl.
She was watching the front door too, but her eyes darted from one side to the other without fixing on anything. It only took Mel a moment to pause as well. She swallowed quickly, followed Thea’s gaze behind her. “What is it?” she asked.
Just before the crash from across the street.
They left their bowls at the table, Thea and Mel dashing for the door. They yanked it open, the creaking echoing a whole line of them down the street. One at a time, the doors slid open, men and women crowded behind them to crane their necks outside. Anie pressed in between Mel and Thea, cheeks numbing almost immediately in the cold.
The patrol had stopped, all six soldiers ringing the front door at a house a little ways up the street. The door was half off its hinges, and Anie caught something moving fast inside. Someone shouted. Someone else returned it, a little higher, and a little more panicked. Then a seventh soldier, not one of the regular patrol came out, hands locked on the shoulders of a man still half in his night clothes. Danovan, Anie thought his name was. Da had done business with him once, but he’d never come back for a second job. He struggled a little, like he wanted to see how hard it would be to shake the soldier off, but wasn’t ready to actually try. The soldier pushed him a little faster, and the others closed ranks around the man as soon as he hit the street.
Quickly, Danovan’s neighbors started swinging their doors shut.
Thea stepped back, drawing Anie with her. Mel shut the door. Her hand still firmly against the wood, she looked to Thea.
“Do you know him?” Mel asked.
Thea shook her head, fast.
Thea thought a moment. “I don’t think so.”
“Then we’re still all right,” Mel asked.
Anie could hear the comfort layered in Mel’s tone, but it seemed to bite at Thea. Her older sister turned away, tugging her sleeves down to her wrists, covering the flush, curving scars that darkened her arms. She tried on a smile, and it cracked a little too early to seem real. “Yes,” she murmured. “We’re fine.”
Anie touched her elbow. “Are we still going out?”
Thea’s eyes brightened a little. Her smile turned a little more firm. “Of course.”