Anie kept close to Wynn’s elbow. She wasn’t quite sure where Wynn’s cabin was, and the crowd had become a much larger thing than Anie had gotten used to navigating. She looked around, trying to guess how many more had just come through the gate. There seemed just as many men and women in brown jackets as there were others in their rag-tag ensembles of favorite clothing they couldn’t leave behind in the city, and the hardy practical things that had been just as necessary to bring along. It had made the last winter bright, seeing the prized bits of red and blue and gold, but it could turn to a tangle quickly, as everyone ran through their tasks. Anie ducked her head and watched Wynn’s boots, matching stride as best she could.
Wynn looked down at her from time to time, and she kept her strides short.
Anie expected them to make their way to the far side of the fortress, from the direction that Wynn was taking them. The cabins held their lines on either side, while the front of the fortress had been left mostly empty. Yet, Wynn stopped short and turned toward the main stone hall. Anie ran to keep up with the turn, and ducked under Wynn’s arm when she pushed open one of the big double doors.
It was a frenzy inside already too. They had used some of this space for storage, packed in around the edges. The front half was all tables and comfortably wide aisles between where they ate most of their meals. The back half was empty, or had been, a few minutes before. It hadn’t taken them long to realize that the open space under a roof was good for them. They had space to gather, and, after they’d realized that some people had managed to hold onto precious guitar strings and fiddles, the space to dance through the colder nights.
Now, the space was filling, back to the way things had been when they first arrived. Cots and bed rolls were being set up along the walls. Road bags were piled in the corners. At the end of the tables, two groups of men and women in their brown jackets were piling milled planks, and the clap of them echoed between the walls.
Anie hesitated. “You have things in here?”
Wynn looked down, quickly. Her expression seemed oddly hidden. But she was smiling the same as she had been before, and she nodded. Then she started down the center aisle between the tables.
Anie ran two steps to fall in at her elbow again. They passed the lines of tables, and the piles of planks, and started into the growing mass of cots and bed rolls.
At the very back of the hall, she tossed a rolled up blanket at Anie. “Help me set up some more beds?” she asked.
Anie held the blankets against her chest with both arms, exactly as she had caught it. “People are going to sleep in here again?”
Wynn glanced over her shoulder, appraising the area. “It seems the best sense, doesn’t it?” She looked at Anie to catch her answer. “There’s really not enough room in the cabins. There’s no reason to squish together that much.”
“Okay,” Anie said. She rocked on her heel. “Where?”
Wynn pointed to a gap in the cots. “Anywhere in there.”
The boards kept clapping and echoing as Anie and Wynn worked. People wandered in and out of the hall, and they all started gathering beds together out of the supplies that appeared and disappeared, stacked and shifted, as the newcomers slowly unpacked and settled. Wynn shook her head every time she reached for something that had been there a moment before and her fingers grasped air. She smiled at Anie, and rolled her eyes.
A few more minutes, and the hammering started. It cracked into the air without warning, and didn’t stop. Both teams of brown coats were laying their plants against the wall supports on either side and nailing them into place. While Anie watched, they knocked out a rough frame across the length of the room, then started facing it over in planks. The rough wall rose, straight, and taller than two men, but still only half the height of the hall. The echoes shifted in the divided room.
“What’s going on?” Anie asked.
Wynn watched the wall too, and she shrugged. “It must have seemed like a good idea to somebody,” she murmured. She didn’t look at Anie, focused on the planks that were lining up faster than most people could fall in shoulder-to-shoulder. She finally shrugged again, and looked down at Anie as if she had just realized she’d gotten lost in a thought. “Maybe these new folks are more used to their privacy than we are.” She stretched a close-lipped smile, and raised her eyebrows at Anie.
Anie kept moving beds around with the others. She was surprised when she looked across the cot in her hands and realized there were other kids at all four corners. Nett, Cidra, Sevi. And they looked a little lost as they walked backwards to move the cot into place, like they didn’t quite know why they were here. Cidra caught her eye, and shrugged, and raised her eyebrows. Anie was usually the one to know secrets of the lot of them.
Anie almost dropped her corner, suddenly looking around and counting the number of people around her who were her height or shorter.
Seryn was standing on this side of the wall, framed by the doorway that they were building into the center. Her arms were crossed over her chest. One of her friends, Aled, a tall man with brown hair and a near-permanent smile stood on one side of her. Commander Jeyd and Ern took up the other. Anie ducked her head before they could see her looking at them.
When the hammering finally stopped, the wall stood sturdily in the middle of the hall, and the cots were arranged in long lines across most of the empty space.
Anie finished her count of the kids around her. Nineteen. She didn’t think there were many more kids this young in the fortress. One or two, maybe. She hadn’t seen Vetlynn yet.
“All right. Clear out,” Seryn called. In the new quiet, her voice carried easily. “Things are about to get rough.”
Anie started to come forward, unable to keep herself from looking at Seryn anymore. Wynn put her hand lightly on Anie’s shoulder as she passed her. There was just enough push in her hand to stop Anie’s feet. The motion seemed to glue her to the floor stones, and Anie watched the woman walk away with almost everyone else, passing through the door in the wall.
All the children stayed.
And Seryn, Aled, Ern, and Jeyd.
“Are you sure you want to do this now?” Jeyd murmured. Anie was surprised at how well the low sound carried.
Seryn looked at him quickly. She smiled, and it was an honest thing, but it was too sharp, and too sly. “It is entirely too late to be asking that,” she said. “We can’t put them back now.”
“This is what you’ve done all this for?” Ern asked. He was a little louder, and the others looked sideways at him. “For nineteen kids?”
“How do you think King Vardeck started all this?” Seryn murmured. She shook her head at him, just once, and stepped forward.
“Hello,” she said, and this time it was obvious that her voice carried on purpose. She looked at them, all of them, and her smile didn’t fade as much as it Anie thought it should have. Anie tucked her arms close to her sides and waited for her to continue.
“My name is Seryn,” she said. “I’m going to be your training commander. You’re not going to understand exactly what that means for a long time, and that’s all right. I’m here to teach you as we go.” She paused, as if that was an explanation she wanted to see fit itself over them. She looked across their faces, scattered around the back end of the room, and she nodded, pleased, and encouraging.
“Things are going to get strange for you,” she said. “Things are going to change. We’re not going over the mountains anymore. We’re going to make our home here. It won’t be easy. But you’re all a very important part of it now. We needed to move you, so you could help us. And you’re not going to understand that for a long time either. I don’t need you to. I need you to look out for each other. I need you to talk to me and mine. I need you do as you’re told, for just a little while, no matter what happens.”
“We’re staying here?” Nett asked.
Seryn looked at him, then nodded carefully. “Yes,” she said.
He shifted, blinked, then asked again, to make sure he understood. “We’re sleeping here?”
Seryn’s nod came quicker. “Yes,” she said. “I’m sorry. I know your things are elsewhere. We’ll do our best to get them for you, but it may take us some time.”
“I don’t want to stay here,” Anie said. The sound of her voice seemed to cut every other noise from the room, slice it straight down to thin nothing. Seryn looked at her, and the smile stayed in place, but it looked heavy.
“I’m sorry,” Seryn said.
“My sisters will be waiting for me,” Anie said.
“I know,” Seryn said. “But we need you here.”