When Anie and Darien returned to the fortress, the crowd inside was thick, but organized. The carts were all backed against the far walls, leaving the center clear for cook fires and canvas tents. The long center hall had been cleaned out and supplies stacked inside. The uneven lines of the caravan camping had been erased by the square edges of the fortress, and everyone walked a little faster.
They found Thea and Mel beside one of the fires. Someone had rolled gray stones about the size of Anie’s head into a circle to hold it in, each one a little too straight edged after the tumble rocks they’d used for the last few weeks. It was easy to see that they were broken pieces of the fortress, long used to lying on the ground.
Mel smiled at Anie while she handed Thea a bucket of water. Thea smiled without even noticing that Darien and Anie were there, then almost grinned when she saw them, took a deep breath, and wiped her hands down the cloth she had pinned to her dress as an apron.
They ate when it was almost dark, just after woodmen returned from their chopping and a few others rolled the sturdiest carts into the gateway. Leaning their heads back, they looked up at the white stars framed by the gray walls.
And Anie slept easy.
The next morning, Chas and Darien had gone back out with an even larger crowd to attack the trees. Anie tagged along after asking silent permission from her sisters. Thea sent her out with a nod, and Mel ran along beside her, keeping close to the boys.
“Anything we can do to help?” Mel asked them.
“Probably a thousand things,” Chas told her.
“We’ll tell you what when we get a good look at the day’s work,” Darien told her.
There had already been the steady thudding of blade on trunks as they left the gate and they found Seryn already leaning into the trunks. Her own friends were strung out around her, most of them swinging long strokes against the bark and sending thick chunks of wood sliding and flying. She had sweat through her shirt, but her swing remained smooth and landed hard.
Darien hesitated when saw her. He glanced at his brother.
“You got Chas to teach you?”
She finished her swing, a swift, slightly upward cut that chipped out a piece of wood the size of a balled fist. Then she looked at him over her shoulder. “Second best, I know,” she murmured. “But there was work to do.”
Darien considered the scattering of ragged stumps and felled trees. “I guess so,” he said. Anie wasn’t sure he’d actually raised his voice enough for her to hear.
Seryn hefted her axe and nodded to all of them. Turning back to the tree, she landed three more solid strikes, then rocked back on her heel to watch it bend toward the ground. It went slow, as all trees seemed to, cracking through its branches and groaning all the way down.
Then she held the heavy axe out to Darien. “Your turn,” she told him. “The next tree might knock me down if I get to close to it.” She waited to be sure he had a good grip on the handle before she let go herself, then slumped just a little. She rubbed at her neck, kneading her thumb into the muscle all the way from the base of her skull to the hard knot of bone at the tip of her shoulder.
Chas blinked at her. “You hurt yourself?”
Her hand went still immediately. She straightened to look at him over her shoulder again. Then she shook her head. “No,” she said. “Just not the kind of work I’m used to.”
They all held still a moment, listening to the blade and bark and coughing wood.
“You going to have them teach you today?” Seryn asked Anie after a moment.
Anie blinked up at her. “What? I don’t think so. No.”
Seryn’s lips twisted up at the side. “You don’t want to?”
“I can’t, can I?” Anie asked. Quickly, she looked to Darian and Chas.
“You’d have a hard time taking down one of the big ones,” Darian said. “But I was littler than you when Da taught me.”
Mel raised her eyebrows. “Teach me then?”
Chas turned incredulously to his brother. “You’re offering to teach city kits now?” he whispered, still a little too loud to make any of them believe that he didn’t actually want to be heard. “We’re lucky their out under an open sun and aren’t turning red as peppers, or running into trees, or tripping over rabbits.”
“Teach me,” Mel told him more firmly. “Or I’ll tell Thea that you were the one who broke into her salt stash and put extra in the soup last night.”
“It needed more salt,” Chas told her. “You thanked me. Why would you get me caught so I couldn’t do it again?”
“Why would you make me get you caught so you couldn’t do it again?” Mel returned innocently. “Just teach me, before I do something we’ll both regret.”
Darien laughed at them, and looked at Anie. Gingerly, he held the axe out for her and waited for her to take it.
In a week, they had cleared every tree within twenty feet off the walls. A wide, brown grass avenue expanded daily beside the stacked gray stones. After the second week, they had cleared another five feet, and rare green grass was pressing up from the ground, rebelling against the real cold that fell hard after the sun dipped below the horizon. The tree stumps stayed, as low to the ground as the cutters could safely manage, and marked what the forest had once been. At the end of the day’s work, Anie counted them on the way back to the fortress, marking their progress. And she touched each stump that was hers. After four weeks, they’d shorn thirty-five feet of land, and she’d made thirteen stumps all her own.
It had gotten cold quickly. She was used to bundling inside her blankets at night, pressing close to Thea’s back and tucking her head down so that each breath blew warm air toward her chest. The fires stayed lit most of the night with the walls to hide them, and people shook themselves awake on a shared schedule to make sure that they stayed hot. But one morning when they moved out to cut trees, the cold didn’t lift. They huddled into their coats and their fingers grew numb, and after an hour they came back to the fortress and the shelter from the wind.
By then, the gate was a thick thing, swung open under moaning duress. Whole tree trunks had been hammered together with their tops chopped to fat points and their bottoms flush to the ground. Four men had to pull one side open, but it only took two to slam them shut. Small cabins were half built along the left side of the fort and the roof of the long center hall had been replaced and reinforced so that it jutted off all the sides happily and cast a larger shadow.
Mel looked around and let out a smokey breath. “I think we’re more needed in here now.” She looked at the boys. “We have to get walls for everyone before the snow comes.”
Darien and Chas nodded mutely. Then Chas hit Darien on the shoulder, and they turned around to head back outside. The choppers pulled the threes inside now, moving them from the low rows they’d left them in near the edge of the cutting.
And the snow came just as suddenly. Anie, Thea, and Mel had been sleeping in one of the rough cabins with Darien and Chas and two other boys on the other side of a sheet of canvas for almost a week. They were still smearing dirt into the cracks between the stacked trunk walls to thicken the insulation when Anie stepped out to wet, white blanket on the ground. Her boots crunched in it. The fortress was covered in it, made brighter and balder, and the world sounded very quiet. She smiled, and scooped up a handful to help her wake up Mel.
The snow kept coming, a few days apart, and falling a little bit thicker every time. The whole camp worked furious to set up the last remaining cabins, then to build a raised walkway from the living areas to the main hall where they had begun too cook meals and gather together for the long evenings. The snow melt turned the court yard to mud everywhere else, and everyone was happy to walk out of their way to stay on the square loop of wood as long as they could, rather than fight through the sliding mess.
Another month passed, and the work split. Some people kept building. Some people risked a few hours outside again and came back with deer and birds and anything else they could find for the evening pot.
Another month. And another. Anie slept later with everyone else, went to bed sooner, no longer in a hurry, and happy to rise and fall with the sun. The snows slowed, but didn’t stop, just let the mud take longer turns before it bathed everything in fresh cold.
“A few more weeks, right?” she said to Thea late one morning. She was standing close to a pot of water while she waited for it to boil. It was just starting to steam, and she liked to stick her hands over it for the thick warmth of it. “It’ll be Spring soon?”
Thea looked at her with a smile. “Chas was missing all day yesterday. Did you notice?”
Anie shook her head, because she hadn’t, and she felt a little strange about that.
“No one wants to say anything yet,” Thea said. “But there’s a group of them who are going out to check the mountain passes every day.” Her smile stretched a little wider, but she looked down to hide it. “Chas says he’ll be the first to tell us when their clear. And then we’ll go.”
“We put in all this work for nothing,” Anie said, without thinking about it first. It was an easy thought, and there wasn’t much behind it. The cabins were square and hardy. The hall had actually been decorated in bright colors by some woman who had gotten bored with the white and the gray and the brown. Anie’s own bed had a family quilt on it, and Mel had carved vines and flowers into the wall beside her cot.
“We had to stay here for a while,” Thea said. “There was no reason not to put work into it, and I think some people liked getting carried away with it.”
“Do you think anyone will live here again?” Anie asked.
Thea shrugged, shook her head. “Who knows,” she murmured.