Wednesday Serial: Farther Part XXXV

Anie fire_hand

ANIE

Darien shook Anie awake. She’d been dreaming about smoke, and she woke coughing, before she realized it was really there. It lightened the sky, reflecting angry red.

“Get up,” Darien said. “Grab your things. Get them in the cart.”

Everyone was running. Thea was holding the horse’s head as it danced on the grass. Wesson was grabbing his things off the ground, tossing them into the cart. Mel was just rolling out of her bed, but already scrambling to put it together after her. The fire crackled, too big, too bright, too hot. Shadows criss-crossed in front of it. People shouted.

“What’s going on?” Anie asked.

Chas caught her from behind as he ran past, dragging her up to her feet. “We don’t know,” he whispered, and then he was gone, running.

He picked up everything he could get his hands on, pots and pans, and anything else left on the ground from last night and threw them to his father. The horse rose on her back legs, screamed, and Anie wasn’t sure she’d ever heard a sound like it. She bundled her bedding into her arms in one swoop, and ran for the back of the cart.

Momma took the things from her, tossed them inside, then gripped her arms. “Run,” she said. She leaned down until there were slight inches between them, and Anie stared at the seriousness of her wide eyes. “Don’t wait for the cart. Get away now. Mel!”

“I have her,” Mel said, immediately at Anie’s elbow. She was pulling her away. Wesson was shouting something to his boys. A dozen other people were shouting too, and Anie couldn’t hear what. The heat rolled across the grass, turning it to waves like a summer breeze.

“Get Thea,” Momma told her.

“I will,” Mel promised.

They ran to the horse, and Mel started to drag at Thea’s elbow, too.

“We have to go,” Mel said.

“Where are we going?” Anie asked.

“Just give me a moment,” Thea told Mel. She leaned to the side, trying to catch sight of Wesson at the back of the cart. “Are we ready?”

“Go!” Wesson shouted back and Thea let go of the horse’s bridle haltingly, a finger at a time, almost turned to leave. She didn’t actually start to run with them until she saw Wesson darting forward to take her place.

“Go!” Wesson shouted again, and they sprinted away. Anie’s lungs were aching and her blood was racing, too hot from sleep, and too hot from the air.

“Where are we going?” Anie asked again.

“We have to get away from the fire,” Thea told her. She took Anie’s hand, holding it tighter than usual. Anie was squeezing her fingers too, running beside her, trying to match her short stride to her sister’s, trying not to be left behind. Mel stayed close on her other side, no longer holding her arm, but close enough she could reach out again in an instant. There were other people running, too, scrambling in the dark. A horse shot by on their left, so close Anie could smell it for an instant in a quick breeze before the hot smoke closed in again. A wagon rolled by as fast as it could, but took a long minute to pass them, stuttering in the uneven dirt. Everyone else just ran. Shouted and ran.

“Was it an accident?” Anie asked. She looked back, trying to get a look at the fire. It lay in a thick line, snaking through the middle of the broken camps. Near the end of the line, the fire piled higher, reaching yellow fingers into the smoke the circled above it.

“No,” Thea said.

Anie turned back, careful to keep on her feet, but stared at her. “No?”

“Someone rolled that into camp,” Thea said. And Anie realized that her older sister was combing the dark ahead, the fire already forgotten. Anie looked around quickly, trying to track all the runners, trying to see something between them. She didn’t know what she was looking for, but her feet and her lungs felt heavier, and she counted the shadows ahead, watching them run, watching them weave, watching them double back and turn, as if they’d forgotten where they were going.

“This way,” Mel said. She touched Anie’s arm, started to guide her to the right, but Thea was already turning.

“Stay together!” someone shouted ahead of them. She was riding a horse, thundering in front of them, wheeling back on her mount’s hind legs to keep from hitting anyone. “Stay together!”

Thea stopped dead to avoid the rider, dodged to the side, but didn’t start running again.

“Stay together!” the woman said again. They were close enough, Anie could make out her dark head in the smokey light. Her face was shining pale, her shoulders squared. “Get away from the fire, and circle up!” she yelled, and she was riding on.

Mel started to run again, then stopped when she realized that Thea wasn’t following. “What are you doing?” she demanded.

“There’s someone out here,” Thea said. She was twisting, looking around her. People were still shouting. Some of them were screaming. The fire wasn’t getting any dimmer behind them. “We can’t just run for the hills.”

“Yes, we can,” Mel said.

“We’re safer together,” Thea said.

There was another rider coming around. A man now, shouting for them to circle up, shouting for them to stay together. Thea looked at him, and looked back at her sisters.

“We’re safer together,” she repeated, and this time it was barely more than a whisper, a plea. “Mel…”

And Mel nodded. She looked to Anie, caught her eye to make sure that she’d heard and understood, before she took her hand and the three of them started running again, following the string of riders as they came past. People were knotting up in the field, still moving, but crunching together. Mel and Thea came in closer to Anie’s shoulders, and they slowed in the press of people. Thea twisted, looking around her. Darien appeared from no where. He gripped Anie by the shoulder and she squeaked and turned, but Chas was with him, and sudden Mel and Thea pulled closer to them, too. The crowd was too loud, not screaming, not shouting like the people still close to the fire, but talking, and Anie wished they would just be quiet and hide in the shadows.

“Keimon!” someone shouted. Another rider. Or maybe it was the same as the first. A woman, voice tilted as if she knew exactly how to make people listen. “Keimon to the outside! Form a line!”

Darien looked up first, eyes bright, like her voice struck clearer in his ear than Anie’s. Then Chas looked up. They nodded to each other.

“Thea?” Darien asked.

The crowd had started to roil, turning inside out on itself. Anie squeezed Thea’s fingers.

But, “I’m coming,” Thea was saying, and slowly disengaging her hand. She caught Anie by the wrists, gently, and pulled her toward Mel. “Stay here,” she whispered. She put a hand on Anie’s hair and held her head to her shoulder so that she could whisper easily. “We’ll be back, I promise.”

“Keimon to the outside!”

Darien was moving, sliding through the crowd sideways, with Chas just at his shoulder, but his head was twisted backward, looking to Thea. He waited until she was just behind them, then pushed through in earnest.

Mel wrapped her arms around Anie to keep her close as the crowd closed back in around them.

“Where are they going?” Anie asked.

“Keimon to the outside!”

Anie felt Mel shake her head. “I’m not sure,” Mel said. Her arms tightened, slid up Anie’s arms, and she had to resettle herself, shift her hands down again. Her grip loosened, and Anie thought she might just be telling herself to breathe. “They’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”

“Who are they?” Anie asked.

Mel didn’t answer, just shook her head again.

“What are they doing here?” Anie asked. “Why would they light us on fire?”

She thought she heard Mel laugh. “I guess they really don’t like us,” she said.

“Did they follow us from the city?” Anie asked.

“I don’t know,” Mel said. “But we’re going to be fine.”

Anie put both hands on Mel’s arms, hugging them to her. “Are you lying today?” she whispered.

Mel did laugh then. She shook against Anie’s back. “No,” she said.

“That’s what you always say,” Anie murmured.

Mel hugged her – not just held her, but hugged her – and, tight as her grip was, Anie started to feel like she could breathe. Her heart slowed a little, her blood didn’t feel so hot in the veins.

Then someone started screaming. Anie twisted, trying to find where it had started, but it was blooming through the crowd, so fast, jumping from one person to another, one side to another, she couldn’t find it. Mel held her still, but they were both craning their necks, searching for what had happened. The crowd hobbled a few steps, shoved Mel and Anie to the side, then started to hobble the other way. Mel turned with it that time, pulled Anie with her, and they slid into empty spaces as everyone around them turned and shifted, traded places, shouted.

“Hang on,” Mel said. “It’s all alright.”

She was still talking when Anie saw the first line of blue-white light climb into the sky. Anie held her breath, and Mel froze behind her. The light uncurled like a leaf, two straight stems, then another beside it, slanting into another and another. Then light flared and burbled, rolled and rattled up between them, all jagged edges and sparking edges. It rocked and steadied, colliding with the light beside it with a crash that Anie could feel somewhere under her skin. Anie blinked, and saw the patterns on the inside of her eyelids, and they grew, and they rolled, and they crashed together.

Until Mel and Anie and the rest of them were standing in a ring of it.

Until they were standing inside tall, gleaming walls. They cast shadows on everything, turned everyone’s faces into white and gray circles, turned shadows into black lines. And everything outside them faded into nothing.

Anie stared. She clenched and unclenched her fists around Mel’s arm without meaning to. And she breathed it in, the air freezing against the inside of her lungs like fresh mint.

“Come on,” Anie said. She tugged at Mel.

“Where…” Mel started to ask. Then she just tripped along behind Anie, ducking through the steadying mass of people to get closer to the wall.

Anie stopped when the crowd stopped, just on the edge of it and watched the keimon, arms in front of them, palms flat to the wall, as if they were holding it up with the weight of their bones.

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