They spent most of the day at the stream, and the crowd only thickened, stumbling together for water first, then to stare in surprise at the neighbors they’d never known were like them. Avigail came by at a run, throwing herself at Thea and laughing. Her mother and father were wandering somewhere behind her. Mel, seated on the wall of the cart, barely looked at her, but scanned through the other wanderers, sometimes turning all the way around to follow a face she knew. Momma smiled, wider and wider by the hour.
Anie watched their hands.
Sleepers woke up and their fingers immediately curled shut as they blinked into the sunlight. Then they’d slowly loosen their grip. Men and women wandered past, rolling their fingers in open air, like they were stroking the wind. Others sat, both hands together, cradling something white and crackling like fractured ice. Some of them held it as tight as they could, forcing it down until it was brilliant, blinding as reflected sunlight, bright blue anywhere their palms touched it and knotted navy at the center. Others let it drift white along their skin, wavering and watery. They moved their hands through it, like their were washing their skin in the heat.
And there were others like Mel. Brothers and sisters who had run with their fire-born siblings. Husbands and wives who had refused to stay behind. Children who were too young to know, hanging on the hands of their parents. Hour by hour, it became easier for Anie to spot them. The ones who were still leaning back on their hands, or resting chins on fists, as if closed fingers were just an easy way to hold their hands.
Thea smiled when Anie caught her rolling the white flame across the backs of her hands, catching it in her other palm. It was so low, it almost disappeared in the high sunlight, so gentle, Thea might have been handling ghosts.
“It’s about control,” Thea said, turning her hands so that Anie could see. “It’s the first thing that Momma ever taught me. Nothing else much matters until you know that when you want it, it will come, and when you don’t want it it will stop. Until you can ask for a lot, and get a lot, ask for a whisper and get…” She trailed off, thinning the glow around her hands even farther, until it was just a piece of sparkling mist shining against her hands.
“Can I?” Anie asked. She’d been holding her hands open in her palms most of the afternoon, ready, but never sure what would happen.
“You can try,” Thea said slowly. The air around her hands was brightening, growing hotter, fast. Burning, Anie realized, as the air changed, smelling half like a woodfire and half like the far end of a storm.
Anie spread her hands, feeling the ice start at her shoulders, and willed it to run down her arms to spark out her palms as well.
“Wait!” Thea said.
Anie snapped her hands shut again, just in time to stop a sharp wedge of Thea’s glow that darted toward her.
Thea laughed uneasily, burning it away as quick as she could, leaving the air empty.
“You have to be careful,” she said, a little breathless. “Around me and Momma. Most other keimon you’ll work beside, and it won’t matter. Nothing will happen. Family, you can pull some of their energy, drag it into yours if you don’t know how not to.”
“Oh,” Anie said dumbly. She stared at the air between them. “What would have happened?”
“Not too much,” Thea said, but she was rolling up one sleeve. She pointed to a looping scar along the inside of her forearm. It was white, older than the other pinkish lines that swirled beside it, so flat that it just looked like someone had smeared a chalky finger along the skin. “I got this one of the times I dragged some of Momma’s energy. It wasn’t much of a problem, it just… it was more energy than I thought I had, and couldn’t control it fast enough. Like when you get water from one of the city pumps, and the water comes up faster than you expect, and sloshes everywhere.” She was watching Anie’s face to make sure she understood.
“Does it hurt?” Anie asked.
Thea nodded. “It stings. And then it hurts. But it always heals.” She looked at Anie apologetically.
Anie blinked. “You mean…” she said, slow. “Dropping fire from my hands is dangerous?”
Thea’s mouth turned up in a smile, startled.
“I couldn’t have guessed,” Anie said with a shrug.
Thea laughed, big and bright and easy.
“Fine,” she said. She shoved Anie lightly in the shoulder. “Are you ready?”
Thea sat with Anie for almost an hour, coaching her through the uneasy chill in her shoulders and the way to tease the cold down her arms in one steady run. It hurt, tightened her muscles until she felt like they were made of stone. The sudden heat at her hands flared and danced and never stayed still the way it rested in Thea’s hands. Thea told her to breathe, and that felt a little like asking rocks to gasp as well, but when they stopped, the ache in Anie’s arms was more satisfying than frustrating.
Thea, after that first laugh, never stopped smiling.
They spent the night by the stream, Momma, Thea, Mel, and Anie curled into the cart bed while the boys surrounded it with their bed rolls. All around, campfires flickered, and voices stretched into the night. Blue light flared here and there. Everyone slept like they were cushioned in pillows, wrapped in finest wool, even though it was dirt or planking beneath them, and bent elbows under their heads.
The next morning they crossed the stream, and kept rolling onward.
“Where are you headed?” a man asked them halfway through morning. He was riding a long-legged brown horse that looked like it was more used to short runs between cities than a long tramp across the plains. The horse tossed its head, pulled a little at the reins as he slowed it to settle in beside their cart.
“East,” Wesson said and nodded in that direction. Momma echoed it.
“Oruasta?” the man asked. He had to pull his horse down to a walk again.
“A little south of there,” Wesson said.
“Not quite so far for us,” Momma said. “I have family in Ardei.”
“Me and mine are heading that way,” the man said. “And a few others. It’s quite a haul to cross the hills between here and there. If you’d care to join us, we’d appreciate the company.”
Wesson looked at Momma. Momma returned the look with a small shrug.
The man smiled at their half-raised eyebrows. “Talk about it,” he said. “Find me at the camps tonight if you decide you want to. My name’s Ern.” He reached down to shake Momma’s hand, then Wesson’s, then wheeled his horse away. Anie watched him fall back to the next cart, rattling along behind them.
“Where are you headed?” he asked them.
The question echoed down the line for most of the day. Different men and women drifted past, and slowly the keimon reordered themselves, falling back for new comrades or surging forward to join a knot of walkers. The long wash of travellers quickly turned into a series of knots. When they stopped for the night, the crowd had split, dotting the fields in clumps of fire and wagons and horses. People strode through the darkness between them, finding more friends as they went, but it wasn’t the same breathless ease as the night before.
Ern found them soon after the sun had set.
“Not joining us?” he asked, smiling down at the dinner Thea stirred over the fire.
Wesson shrugged. “We’ve just gotten so many other offers of friendship today,” he said.
“There was a very inviting offer from a group planning to become the first underwater clowns on the southern coast,” Darien joked.
Ern snorted at him. “Sounds like they want a lot more of you than I do,” he said. “I’m just looking for someone who will stop to help me replace a wheel if they’re close enough.”
“We could do that,” Momma said.
Ern nodded to her. “We’ll wait for you before we move on in the morning.”
“Thank you,” Momma said.
Wesson smiled and nodded to him, then settled down at the fire again.
By the time Anie woke, the wagons and carts she’d seen parked around them before nightfall were already moving, splitting farther apart as they turned to find their own way through the rolling fields.
Some of them turned south, heading toward the trees that wound like a green river on the edge of the plain. They peeled off in groups of two or three wagons, or long straight lines of walkers. They trampled the grass behind them, leaving dark streaks in the grass.
Others turned straight north. They disappeared quickly, mounting one ridge and dropping immediately out of sight.
Most of them continued east.