It wasn’t long before the others followed them. They made a quick line in front of the hearth stones, and a man in a brown jacket helped them fill plates with breakfast mash and four crispy strips of bacon each. There were rolls if they wanted them, but Anie ducked out of the line rather than wait for it, a piece of bacon already between her teeth.
She was very tired. And the salt on her tongue and crispness between her teeth was waking her up quickly.
They all sat at one of the long tables, elbow to elbow and tried to bend as far out of the way of the bustle of the hall as possible. Looking around, Anie felt odd, seated between so many her own age or younger, without an adult to break the lines. Thea wasn’t really an adult, she knew, but she was close, and no one here was.
After a few minutes, some of the men and women in brown coats sat down, too. And then a few in the green coats: Wynn and Rhian and Aled. Anie felt stranger, with Aled’s shoulder so much higher than Sevi’s at the end of the line.
She crunched through the rest of her bacon, and finished her mash without looking down at her plate for more than a moment.
Rhian ate slowly, keeping pace with Sevi’s little sister, Denna. Denna was young enough that she played with her food while she chewed, and sometimes preferred to use her spoon to build up a tower in the mash than to put the next bite in her mouth. Rhian didn’t seem to care about the delays, but didn’t take her last bite until Denna had cleared her plate.
Picking up her empty dishes, Rhian nodded to the rest of them. “Hand off your dishes to the washers,” she said. And nodded to the far end of the table where a handful of men and women were settling up the square wash tubs. “If you hurry, I think we can get out of here quick.”
“Get out of here?” Wynn asked.
“Where are you taking them?” Aled asked.
“Up the mountain,” Rhian said. She nodded over her shoulder without looking at them, helping to clear the dishes around her as the kids scrambled off the benches.
Anie moved slowly, not sure why the questions sounded off-kilter in their curiosity. Then she tried to remember the last time of these folk had needed to ask each other a question, instead of just falling in beside them, shoulder to shoulder, to put a hand where it was needed.
“Do you need another body?” Aled asked.
And Anie looked at him, wondering if she was just getting to see what they usually kept private.
“Yeah,” Rhian told him. “Are you free?”
Aled nodded. “Wynn?”
Wynn nodded as well. “I think I can get Tes and Mari in on it.”
“Drystan was bragging yesterday about how he hadn’t gotten sick of the fresh air yet,” Aled said. They both smiled as if this was a promise of a good day, and patted Rhian on the back on their way to fetch the others. Rhian almost rolled her eyes, then met Anie’s eye and forced a smile instead.
“Come on,” Rhian told Anie and the rest of the kids. “Let’s get moving.”
They ran to the end of the table, and stacked their plates in front of the tubs, ducking under elbows and arms to get there as fast as they could. Nessim stayed at the front, and Anie thought about catching up to him, but stopped herself and stayed close to Rhian instead. They all bunched together at the door anyway, waiting for her to open it into the morning’s sunshine.
Outside, the fortress looked much as it had the day before. All the wooden cabins were in their rows, and the carts were bunched into the back corners where they would be out of the way. The main gate was open, resting comfortably on its hinges, but the crowd still moved in its easy knots of friends. It would have been just one of the fearless days they’d had over the winter, except for brown coats or jackets on every one’s shoulders. Anie looked for Thea and Mel, for Darien and Chas, but they weren’t there.
She followed Rhian into the open yard for a half-dozen steps. The open gate didn’t show much more than their cleared length of field, and the trees on the far side of it. She wondered how long it would take to run from the wall to the trees. But there weren’t a lot of places to hide between the tall trunks.
“Hey! Anie!” someone shouted behind her.
She whirled immediately.
“Nessim!” someone else called within a moment, and suddenly there were a lot of names being tossed around. The kids were turning and running, and Rhian didn’t stop them as they scattered. It took Anie a moment, and another shout, to find Chas, striding toward her in the yard.
He wore a brown jacket. Anie blinked, trying to remember if he had owned it before.
“Hey,” he said, coming to a stop in front of her. He put a hand on her shoulder, like he might draw her into a hug, but he didn’t. He met her eye instead and smiled, a little gentler than usual. “You all right?”
She nodded, and she knew she was staring. “I’m fine.”
“Good,” he said. His smile stretched a little. “They told me I might get to see you if I waited around here.”
Suddenly realizing that he didn’t usually walk alone, she took a step to the side, scanning the rest of the yard. “Where’s Darien?”
“He’s not here. He’s with Thea and Mel,” Chas said.
“Are they all right?” Anie demanded. She forgot the yard again, and looked up at him fiercely. “I saw–“
“They’re fine,” Chas promised, before she could explain. He bent down to look her in the eye. “Thea said I should say it like this.” He pointed a finger between them, measuring the narrow space between their noses. “They’re fine. They’re fine. They’re fine.”
Anie started to laugh. Then she let herself. “Good,” she said.
Chas smiled, too, as bright as easy as he usually did. Hands still braced on his knees, he glanced over her shoulder, then twisted to look at the rest of the kids scattered around him. “They taking you somewhere?”
“Up the mountain,” Anie told him.
“Up the mountain,” Chas said. “Why… Are you trying to steal my job?” He rustled her hair, and she ducked under his hand as fast as she could.
“Who’s in charge?” Chas asked her.
Anie pointed out Rhian, waiting patiently near the door.
“Hey!” Chas shouted to her. “Can we come too?” he asked. He jerked a thumb behind him, though Anie wasn’t sure exactly who he meant. There was nearly a dozen men and women scattered around. She recognized most of them, she realized, though it had taken her a moment to sort past the brown coats. “I like the mountain.”
She considered the request for a moment. Then him. “Sure,” she said. “If you can keep up.”
Chas dropped into incredulous silence. He looked down at the little crowd around him. There wasn’t a single one that stood higher than his chest. “I think I can keep up,” he told Rhian.
She laughed, and took a step toward him. She held her hands in the pockets of her jacket and shook her head at him. “Really?” she said.
“I think so,” he said.
“We’re not talking about lifting and holding,” Rhian said. “We’re talking about running. And how many times have you sent these kids running for water or wood this winter?” She tilted her head to give him a questioning look. “They know how to move.”
Chas paused again. “Sure,” he said. He stuck his hands in his pockets to match her. “But so do I.”
She smiled at him.