The fortress had been just a wide-standing shell of stone wall when they arrived between paling leaves.
The green that had held on through the early autumn chill had faded in a matter of days, not yet the riot of yellow and red that Darien promised Anie would come, but duller and bleached in the sun. Anie was used to watching the trees in the town square for the shifting seasons, and had always imagined that the sudden shift of autumn to winter colors arrived because of the several day’s stretch between her jaunts out to market. But there, walking under the trees from breakfast to dinner, the change still came like a hammer swing. She saw it coming, heard the whistle on the wind, and then it was there with the first too-cold night.
She had been glad to see the walls.
The whole line of them had crossed through the beaten gate where it hung on its hinges, and immediately made a jumble on the aged ground inside. The walls three times the height of a man, wooden staircases slanted up their inside faces with missing steps and railings. A long stone building stretched down the center, most of its eaves intact, and otherwise the fortress had been reduced to a wall here or there, and the old foundations marked out in crooked lines. Carts pulled to a stop where they could, and the people doubled back in all directions, looking at what age and abandonment had done. The knot around the gates choked the space, and the last of them threaded inside at a fish’s pace.
Anie had turned, examined the gray stone on all sides without picking up her feet. She kept her elbows against her sides and tried to be small in the new cramped space.
Mel gripped her arm lightly. “Come on,” she said. She pulled Anie back toward the gate.
“Where are we going?” Anie asked.
“We’re just getting out the way,” Mel told her. She dropped her arm once Anie started following on her own. Turning sideways to squeeze between opposing lines of traffic, they threaded their way back through the crowd at the gate. On the other side, Mel slowed, and turned back with a grin, as if she had escaped something.
“The trees are too close to the walls,” she said. “Apparently, that’s bad for defense.”
Anie tilted her head back. Few of the trees were tall enough here to provide a way over the wall. She couldn’t see a single one that was within jumping distance anyway. She spun on her next step to check behind them as well, then just assumed that Mel knew what she was talking about.
“Darien and Chas heard,” Mel said, tilting her head toward Anie as she walked. “First thing they did was grab axes and run out here to start chopping them down. They said it was all good news all around. The trees need to be gone, and we’re going to need the wood.”
“We’ll spend all winter here?” Anie asked.
Mel nodded. “Four months, they said. Maybe five.”
Anie nodded to herself. That was plenty of time for Momma to catch up to them.
It wasn’t hard to find the boys. The thunk of metal against the tree trunks carried like a rough cough, and Mel wound her way toward them in quick steps. She held her skirts around her knees, picked her feet up to get around the raw roots, and Anie followed on her own looping path. They heard a sudden rustling a quick crackling the way Anie could sometimes get her spine to do if she twisted just right. Mel froze, and Anie slid in close to her. They watched a tree slice downward through the branches and break its own limbs against the forest floor as it came to a stop, then ran forward again to find Darien at the base. He was heaving long strokes to finish severing the log from the trunk, while Chas was already biting deep into the tree behind him, and a line of half a dozen men continued behind him.
Darien stopped when he saw Mel and Anie. He was already sweating in the chill, and he paused to take off his jacket while they came close enough to speak over the clap of the axes.
“How’s it going?” Mel asked.
Darien looked at his work and nodded to himself. “It’s good wood. Takes a little more heft to get all the way through it, but that’s good. It’s sturdier than what we take down at home.”
“Good,” Mel said. She looked down at Anie. “Will you stay out here with them?”
“Me?” Anie blinked. “Where you are going?”
“Oh, you know,” Mel said with a shrug. “I’ve got an invitation to stay at the palace up the mountain, so I’m going to find my roast duck dinner and my eight-inches-deep feather mattress.” She pointed a lazy finger at the steep slopes behind the fortress.
Turning, Anie followed her quick glance. She scanned the brown stone until it turned blue and then white, and saw nothing. She checked the passes, then looked up again. When she turned back, Mel’s face was blank with disbelief and she shook her head at Anie.
“I’m going back inside to help Thea and the others get this mess together,” she said.
Anie and Darien both gave her half a glare.
“You think Anie will be more help out here than in there?” Darien asked her. He rested the head off his axe against his boot, and bounced it absently on his toes.
“I think Thea will keep her head on better if she doesn’t have to track any more pieces than she has to,” Mel returned. “And that Anie will have more fun keeping out from under foot here than in there.”
Darien looked at Anie. She looked back, already mirroring his doubtful expression, and seeing it, he cracked into a smile. “Fine,” he said. He looked back to Mel. “I’ve got her. Get back inside.”
Mel nodded her thanks and went off at a run. How she still had the energy for it after the last few weeks of trudging, Anie didn’t know. She considered that Mel might not have the energy at all, but as usual, was playing tricks and had managed to convince her own body that she had a secret store of strength somewhere in it.
Darien held his jacket out to Anie as he pulled his axe higher into his hand again. “You’ll hold onto this for me?”
She took it grudgingly while he turned away again. He swung the axe hard. It bit deep. Anie hesitated, then slipped his jacket on over hers and sat at the base of another tree behind her.
The axes clattered, each man in the line carrying his own easy rhythm for a dozen strokes, then pausing to take up a new place in the strange percussion. Anie watched Darien bend and swing, rolling arm and shoulder into the motion as if his body had turned to water behind the blade, a rushing current that just drove hard in liquid lines. He spent more time looking at a new tree, deciding the angle to send it falling, than he did chopping out a wedge shape on one side. He spent even less time on the opposite side, then took one easy step back to let the straight trunk fall. He hardly watched it, other than a quick glance to make sure it had gone where he intended. It always did. He separated it from the trunk in another five strokes, and moved to the next. Every few trees, Anie moved too, staying close to him.
On his far side, Chas worked in the same easy way, though he seemed less relaxed in the swing, and more gleeful. It was no surprise to Anie, late in the afternoon, when he suddenly looked back at Darien, and grinned. “Want to make a race of it?” he asked.
One of the other men looked up, halfway into a swing, and stopped the axe short.
Darien laughed, maybe at Chas, maybe at the man, and shrugged. “Give me five minutes to take a rest?” he asked. He sounded a little breathless, though he wasn’t breathing quickly, just deeply. They’d been working for hours already without breaks. Chas nodded without question.
“Sure,” Chas said. “Then first one to five trees gets to quit early and go help Thea with whatever dinner in this place will be like.”
“Done,” Darien said.