Wednesday Serial: Farther Part LVIII

Anie fire_handANIE

No one else was running. Anie picked up her feet and went through the crowd as quick as she could, but no one was else was moving even. They swayed, maybe, lifted on their toes to see what was happening at the gate, tilted their heads to measure the lines of men and women in their brown jackets. Anie ran, and it was like darting between trees, the world held still while she pushed through it and turned to catch a glimpse of the faces sliding past.

Thea was near the back of the fortress, too far to see what was happening, but she stood still, too. Darien waited just behind her, his shoulder forming a corner against hers. Mel looked like herself, a few feet in front of Thea, and turning, facing her older sister, then facing the gate, and smiling her confusion. Anie grabbed her hand and pulled her back to the other too.

“They’re soldiers,” Anie whispered.

Thea looked down at her, and Mel bent to catch more of her voice, and Anie had to repeat herself before they seemed to understand.

“They’re soldiers,” Anie told them. “From Serres. Commander Jeyd is with them.”

Thea took a too-quick breath that lasted too long. Mel’s smile dropped in an instant, and she spun to look back at the gate.

“How far does Chas go when he’s out?” she asked Darien.

“Far,” Darien said. “They check both passes as long as they’re making good time,” Darien told her. He put a hand on Thea’s shoulder, drawing her back, though Anie didn’t know why it mattered where they stood in the fortress.

But Thea took a step back on his gentle prodding, and Mel rocked back too, as if she’d been tethered to them. She turned back, caught Thea’s gaze for a breath, released it and looked to Darien. “Can we get to him?”

“What?” Thea asked. “Why would we…”

Darien’s fingers tightened gently on her shoulder. He looked to Anie. “Are you sure they were soldiers?”

“Commander Jeyd walked up and said his name,” Anie said. “Is… is he one of us?” She looked to Thea carefully, wondering if she hadn’t heard something as it was said. But he’d given his name. And Seryn had known him. And she had told him he was late.

“He’s not,” Darien said. “He saw Chas once, tried to arrest him.”

Thea looked up at him sharply.

Darien shook his head, and looked way from her, as if to shrug off the seriousness of what he’d said. “He didn’t see Chas too well. We got it taken care of. But if he’s here, none of us should be.”

“Can we get to Chas?” Mel asked again.

Anie looked over her shoulder. “And leave everyone else?”

Mel considered in half a moment. “We can cause a riot on the way out,” she promised. “We’ll get everyone moving.”

Anie looked at her, wide-eyed, trying to figure out if she should laugh or not.

“We can’t go through the mountains without supplies,” Thea murmured. She turned to Darien, slow, and her expression was oddly slack. “We’re not ready to run.”

“Well, there are other places to run than the mountains,” Darien said. “Chas should be on his way back. I don’t know exactly what path they take. We’ll wait for him.” He looked to Mel. “That should give you time to come up with how to start your riot, right?” His mouth tilted into a smile and Mel echoed it.

“Sure,” Mel said.

He squeezed Thea’s shoulder again. “We should maybe look at what we need to bring with us.”

They started to move, drifting away from the back of the fortress, and toward the crowd and the straight lines of cabins and shacks. Anie looked at the line of roofs, every corner squared against its neighbor, even spaces between each, measured so carefully. She wasn’t sure she’d realized how straight they were before, if someone decided to build them that way, or if that’s just how everyone threw up walls and roofs. Men and women moved between them, unmindful of the rigid order.

“Hey!” someone shouted. Ern, his voice pitched to carry. He had gotten plenty of practice at it over the last few months, and he was good at being heard. “Hey!” he shouted again, and waited for the crowd to settle enough for him to bring his voice down a little. People shifted and turned, and slowly brought their conversations into silence.

“We have some newcomers!” he said. “And I know it’s already been a long winter. We’re all itching to leave, but we still have a little bit of time here, and now we have extra bodies to fit in. We need to know where we have extra space, so if you could just go back to your bunks and see what you can wiggle around, what space you can spare, we might be able to get everyone settled before midnight.” There was a joke at the end of his tone, and the crowd rumbled through a quiet laugh.

Mel glanced at Thea, and Thea shook her head a little. They were already moving toward their bunks.

No one ran.

One moment, everyone was still around Anie, and then the men and women in their brown coats let out a breath, broke out of their lines, and everyone drifted toward their doorways. Voices barely rose, but they mingled and overlaid, back into the fortress’ usual rumble and clatter.

“Thea!” a man shouted from the cabin next to theirs. Anie turned toward him. He was leaning out his door, hanging onto the doorpost, ready to pull himself back inside in a moment. “You have space don’t you?”

Thea nodded. “We have space.”

“So, I could send my girls over to you?”

Thea only hesitated a moment. Then she took another quick breath. “All right,” she told him. And she ducked inside to start moving things around. Anie saw her pull one of the old shoulder sacks out from under her bunk first, and start folding clothes into it.

“Mel,” Darien said. “Come help me?” he nodded across to the cabin that he and Chas shared with a half a dozen others. Turning to Anie, Mel made sure she had her attention, then pointed in the direction Darien was taking her.

“Tell Thea I’ll be right back,” Mel told her.

Anie nodded and they disappeared into the moving jumble.

Someone tapped Anie on the shoulder. She looked up at Wynn. They’d cut enough wood together, Anie knew her, and it wasn’t really surprise that made her step back.

Wynn pulled back too, as if she was suddenly wary of Anie, then smiled at the two of them. She looked away, and leaned forward again. “Your hands looks empty,” she said. “Your sister doesn’t have you doing anything?”

“Not yet,” Anie said.

“I know I’m going to have to move some bunks around at my place,” she said. Her face split into another smile. “We’ve been so greedy with our space, you know?”

Anie hesitated, then nodded, because it seemed to be the sort of thing that needed a nod. She looked over her shoulder. She could hear Thea moving furniture now, too. Wood was scudding against the dirt floor and creaking in its bolts.

“Do you think she’d let me borrow you for a minute?” Wynn asked. “I could use some empty hands.”

Anie looked back at her. She took a deep breath, and almost said no. But they needed to wait for Chas, and she could hear their cabin mates helping Thea already.

“I can help,” Anie said. Wynn nodded advance thanks, and gestured for her to follow as she threaded her way through to her cabin.

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