Wednesday Serial: Farther Part XX

Anie fire_hand


It took less than five minutes to load them all into the cart, most of which was spent settling Momma in the corner of the open bed. The girls dropped their packs in beside her and she leaned against their soft edges, half-turned so she could turn her head and easily see both ahead and behind.

One of the boys gave Anie a hand up and she clambered straight to the front, sitting on the wall of the cart just behind the driver’s seat. Wesson glanced back at her and snorted wordlessly.

“What?” she asked. She pulled back a little, not sure if she’d done something wrong.

“Nothin’,” Wesson assured her calmly. His smile was tugging at the paint on his face, scrunching his thin black whiskers together on his cheeks. “Just didn’t expect to be riding with a bird on my shoulder tonight.”

She pulled back further, and stopped when he looked at her again.

“But I suppose it’d be good luck, wouldn’t it?” he asked.

She hesitated, unable to read his smile properly through all the paint, then couldn’t help but grin back.

Thea climbed in behind her, and took a seat opposite Momma. She kicked her feet out straight in front of her and crossed her ankles, somehow managing to make the seat on the floor look graceful. Mel practically flew as both Chas and Darien pushed her into the cart. She spun as she touched down, dipped a curtsey to them, stuck her tongue out, and ran to the other forward corner. Like Anie, she leaned over the driver’s bench.

“Thank you for waiting,” Mel whispered to Wesson. Anie wouldn’t have caught it if it weren’t for the sheer gratitude weighting it down.

Wesson nodded and slapped the reins to send the horse forward. Chas and Darien jumped to catch the cart before it rolled away. The settled on the tail like sentinels, one perched on the wall, the other tucked against the floor, bare arms slung ready in the starlight.

And with no more need to walk or run or move, everyone seemed to hold their breath.

The cart rumbled forward. The horse’s hooves clapped on the pavement. The houses peeled by on either side, shifting behind them one at a time. Anie watched them, unsure if they were still sleeping or not. At times, she felt she was sneaking past them – when sliding around corners seemed too loud, or when quieting on the long straight streets rolled over her like a fresh breath – and at times she was certain they were lined up to wave good-bye. The windows alternately looked dark and distant before turning white and alive in the reflection. Mel sat with her back straight, like she was on parade. Wesson kept his head down.

Anie looked back at Thea, only to find her watching her own hands, curling and uncurling her fingers. She looked away again before Thea could catch her, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw Momma doing the same thing.

After a few minutes, the streets began to fill. It started with a slamming door on their right, and then a scurry of footprints and a heavy voice trying to shush the air. That scuffle faded away, doing nothing more than drawing all of their attention to that side. One street later, anther door opened and closed, and two figures stepped out into the night, hoods pulled high on their heads, packs secured to their shoulders. Another street and three more stumbled onto the street, sleepy or giddy, or only anxious. They ran ahead of the cart, hitting the main road and fading into shifting shapes. When the cart reached the main road, the shapes had already split apart into small knots of people walking downhill toward the gate. They split to allow the horse to enter the growing traffic and turned painted faces toward them. The motion was always quick at first – maybe out of surprise, maybe out of wariness – but they always held Anie’s eye a moment longer than they had to. When they turned away, they were brighter. Their smiles were wider or their eyes were sharper or their stride was longer.

Anie stared around her at the mass of people moving down the street, coming in through the alleys, climbing fences and dropping onto the paving stones. Suddenly halted breath turned to breathlessness. The silence was peeling away with the tap of footsteps and the quiet hum of voices as they emerged in the dark. Mel caught Anie’s eye and her smile, usually so wild, was freer than she’d ever seen it. Thea was looking around like the world had turned sideways and the new slant suited it. Momma was turning from side to side, watching everything. Chas and Darien glanced at each other, then at the crowd and straightened from their crouches. They spun in their seats, and clasped hands with some of the people passing by.

“Do you see Avigail?” Thea asked.

Mel nodded. She pointed a little ahead.

Thea stood immediately. She waved, then dared to call to her. Avigail whirled back, wide-eyed, then smiled. Jumping to be seen over the crowd, she waved back.

And suddenly there were dozens of people calling to each other, more waving. Some people ran, some people spun like they might have danced down the street if they weren’t so set on their current speed. Other carts clacked into view, whole wagons with people waving over the sides, and luggage tied above the wheels. Horses clopped out with single riders, and more and more people tumbled in from the sides. Every one of them was painted in gleaming colors, beautiful or dangerous or wild animal eyes laid over their own, a menagerie of color and brilliance descending on the gate.

Almost, the new thrill carried them through the gate. The crowd stepped into the open forum just inside the wall and the guards came into view. Most people were quieted by the armor and the shifting eyes, but it held like an ill-fitted lid. Anie didn’t even bother shutting her mouth to keep her silence, and when it was the cart’s turn to pass through, she looked the guard in the eye and didn’t blink.

Then the guard was gone. And the crowd was spreading to capture the entire night.

Anie turned and held herself on her knees, watching them spread out, and stared. The horizon should have been black where it sprawled on the other end of the open road. Instead it was glowing. White and blue arced and spread and danced like heat lightning. It flared, and spread like clouds, stayed like sweet fire heating the night.

Momma’s face was glowing with it.

Thea watched her, jaw open in a word she couldn’t find.

The cart rumbled forward, sometimes finding the road, sometimes dipping into the grass and the farther they went, the brighter the night became. Ten minutes from the city, and people were stopping, dropping to their knees where they were, or standing like they expected to fly, hands spread to either side. Light spilled off them, ice-white, and sky blue, colors twirling together like smoke, like fraying ribbons in water. Some of them held their palms to the sky, the glow tumbling around them like willow branches. Others pointed their palms down, pushing the very world away from them as the glow dropped out of them.

Momma’s face was glowing with it, but Anie suddenly realized it was from her own hands, held limply in her lap. She was staring at her fingers, turning them so that the glow caught and spun and wrapped around her fingers.

“Let me out,” Momma whispered.

“Stop,” Thea yelled to Wesson. He pulled the horse up short and Thea was already climbing out, holding her hand out for Momma to take as she came haltingly toward the tail of the cart. Chas and Darien helped her down from either side and she took five quick steps away.

Then she opened her arms, opened her hands, and she burned.

Anie gasped a little. It flared up so fast, and immediately turned her body flash white. Anie blinked at the heat rolling off her, blinked until she could tell that it was still coming from her hands, and spreading thickly into the dark. The light seemed to cling to her, forming a second skin around her that dimmed after a few moments and left a blue halo outside her clothes.

Momma was crying. And she was laughing. Unable to drag in another breath to announce either with a sound.

Anie had never seen anything like it. She looked down at her own hands. Slowly, she spread her fingers. Her shoulder-blade ached almost immediately, cold under the skin. The chill seeped over her shoulders, dripped down her arms, bit at the inside of her palms. Thin, blue smoke drifted between her fingers. There was heat in it. It was enough to keep her from shivering, but nowhere near the blaze her mother was setting under the sky. Anie tensed her shoulders, bearing down on the cold to speed it down her arms. The glow brightened.

Mel put a hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t…” she said hesitantly. She looked uncertain as Anie turned toward her. Biting her lip, she looked like she might take it back.

Wesson glanced carefully at Anie. “When did you Show?”

“A month ago,” Anie told him.

Gently, he shook his head. “Don’t push it. You won’t get anything like that.” He nodded toward her mother and sister outside the cart.

Thea was taking a few careful steps back, watching Momma like the heat was precious and she needed to catch it on her face. Then she dropped her hands too, and the blaze that piled off her was like a second bonfire, spreading a different line of shadows, a different line of heat to press on their bodies. She started out slower, the light illuminating her an inch at a time rather than cracking into existence. It flowed, water in the thick air. Anie stared harder.

“It’s not your day today,” Wesson told Anie. “It’s theirs.”


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