Wednesday Serial: Farther Part LXIII

Anie fire_handANIE

The room went quiet as soon as Cidra stopped moving. No one else shifted, or even seemed to breathe, for a full count of fifty. Then slowly, they all pulled their blankets back up around their shoulders and buried themselves in their cots. Sevi climbed back into bed still facing Nessim, folding one foot beneath him and then the other. Nessim waited for a moment in the dark, and then sat on the floor just where he was. He watched the door, the cracks in the frame streaking him with dim yellow light, so that Anie could see the line of his nose, and the edge of one eye as he waited. He blinked too often.

Vetlynn was the last to lay down, her hair fall across her cheek so that Anie wasn’t sure whether she had turned face-down to hide, or not.

Anie didn’t lay down at all. She had thought she might sleep, but now she knew she wouldn’t. Sleep didn’t feel like a real thing any more, the way she could feel all the distinct edges of her thoughts inside her. Her body didn’t feel heavy enough to sleep.

She sat up, awake and alert while the clamor outside continued on, dimmed and dulled by the walls.

It was a long time before it stopped. When it did, it happened more suddenly than Anie would have expected. At one breath, there were shouts and thuds, and that occasional, uncomfortable sigh of metal. Then she let the breath out, pulled another in, blinked in the dark, and it had all faded into the usual creaking night noises. She waited for one more shout, one more heavy thunk, but they didn’t come.

There were footsteps after a minute. They were measured and steady, if slow, a dim rumble in the dark. Anie listened to them circle the walls around her, ebb and swell as they passed around her and came back. Then the main door opened, and a dozen pairs of boots tapped inside on the stone floor. No one spoke above a murmur, and they sounded farther away than they could have been inside these walls.

Anie watched Nessim pull himself back to his feet. She leaned forward in the dark, ready to pull herself out of bed as well. She wasn’t sure if she would be running to him to quiet him or see what he would do next.

He filled his chest with one deep breath that pushed his shoulders back and his head up. Then he shouted, “Hey!”

Some of the other children jerked at the sound. One of them gasped, coming up out of sleep. The steps beyond the wall stopped.

“Nessim,” Anie murmured.

“Let us out!” Nessim shouted. Then he rammed the flat side of one fist into the door so that his whole weight was behind it. It clapped in its frame, bounced, and clapped again when he pulled his fist away. He kicked the door next. “Let us out!”

“Nessim,” Cidra said from the other side of the room.

“We don’t want to be here!” Nessim shouted, louder, as if to prove that he hadn’t heard her.

Sevi lifted his head from his pillow. Vetlynn pushed hers deeper down. There was a swifter murmur beyond the wall.

“Nessim,” Anie said again, a little louder. She stood up and stepped carefully toward him in the dark room. She put a hand on his shoulder. “It won’t budge,” she told him.

They will,” Nessim spat. “Let. Us. Out!” He kicked the door on every word.

Someone moved toward them on the other side of the wall, still slow, each stride long. Nessim kept kicking, shouting at them and Anie wrapped her fist around one of the seams of his shirt. She could yank him back. He wasn’t even taller than her.

She had to blink against the light when the door opened. She pulled on Nessim’s shirt before she even registered who was standing in the doorway. Aled looked down at them, his shoulder square in the frame, his long shadow stretching all the way through their end of the hall. Nessim kept his hands in fists, and he shook when he saw him. Anie only held her breath carefully.

“Go to sleep,” Aled said. It didn’t sound unkind, just impatient and strained. He looked tired enough himself to fall asleep against the wall, though his eyes tracked them clearly enough. His hands hung at his side, open and slack. His coat was unbuttoned, and his shirt was loose around his neck.

There was a cut in the cloth, and the collar of his shirt hung oddly. There was a scratch against his collar-bone where the cloth would have been, a line of bright red that had only stopped bleeding a moment before.

Anie looked at the cut, then at his face, and she let her breath out. Her stomach was too tight to keep it in.

“I’m sorry,” Aled whispered, looking on at Nessim, who was glaring back at him with the look of animal that had been cornered and cut.

Anie looked down.

Nessim darted forward and yanked Anie with him. Too surprised to dig her feet in, Anie fell forward, adding her weight to Nessim’s as the boy slammed his shoulder into the seam between Aled’s thigh and stomach. Aled grunted and fell forward to grasp at his own knees for support. Nessim twisted and held tight to Anie, pushing forward.

Anie ducked her head in the sudden lamp light, though there weren’t many of them scattered around the room. She let go of Nessim, pulled out of his grip and stumbled back a step. The main door was shut tight. There was nowhere for him to run, and there was a crowd of men and women standing around the long tables. Anie looked between their faces. She knew some of them.

Wynn. Emyr. Carys. Gareth. Gwyn. Drystan. She had eaten dinner with some of them a night or two ago. She had walked with them, worked with them, sat and talked with them. But they didn’t look the same in this crowd of men and women in their brown coats. They didn’t look the same without the crowd that should have been here.

Gwyn leaned forward and caught Nessim with little effort as he passed her. She lifted him off his feet, and held him against her with his toes barely touching the ground to keep him still. He screamed at her, and Anie saw her shut her eyes for the first second, then open them again with her face schooled to blankness.

Anie looked around the room, and took another step back.

Aled had fallen all the way to the floor. He was pushing himself back to his feet as other children appeared in the doorway. They stopped with their toes just shy of the door way, hands braced against the inside of the frame. Sevi was at the front, his little sister under his elbow. Cidra stood at the back, her face just a shadow above the others.

Anie took another step toward them.

“Get them back inside,” Seryn said.

She was stepping forward, coming to the front of the crowd. Her coat was open too, and her shoulders were rolled forward, but she didn’t look at tired at Aled. There was blood on her forehead. If there was a cut, it was hidden in the line of her hair. Some of the blood looked like it had been spat across her nose and cheek. The rest of it ran in thick line down beside her eye and all the way down to her jaw. Some of it was dry, cracking, and dark. Some of it was still bright, shining, and drawing broader strokes close to her ear. There was a smear where it looked like she had tried to push it away.

The blood was on her hands, too. And her shoulder. And the side of her coat.

Anie stepped back again.

Aled put his hand on her shoulder. She looked up with a start, but he only nudged her back toward the door. Anie let him push her back to Sevi, and then she turned to watch Gwyn carry Nessim back as well.

Nessim kicked Gwyn, hard, in the leg. She paused in the middle of a step, but it didn’t stop her. She shouldered her way into the room, and dropped him in the middle before striding back out.

Neither of them said anything before Aled shut the door.

Anie stepped carefully back to her cot. She didn’t sleep.

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