It took Chas a moment to turn away. He spent the time giving her one slow blink which dragged his eyebrows down as he turned on one foot. He clearly wasn’t sure whether that smile was a kind thing or not, agreement or condescension. Anie thought she saw him finally decide to glare at the last moment before he had swung his back to them.
Anie coughed against a laugh. It wasn’t really funny. But it was Chas.
He turned back to a group gathered nearby, touched a tall woman on the shoulder, and pointed back at Rhian. She asked him something, he answered, and they talked for a few more moments before she motioned for the whole group to follow her. By then, Rhian was calling all the kids back together as well.
“Come on!” she was shouting. “We’ve got a mountain to climb. First one to the top gets an extra slice of cake when we get back.”
Every head whipped toward her. The salty, sweet bacon had been surprise enough. Anie couldn’t imagine the wealth of a slice of cake. Or two.
Chas and his group joined them as they were running to the gate. Behind them, there was another friendly shout as they sped up, and Aled and three others bolted after them from the main hall. Their uniform jackets hung open, and they were buttoning them hastily as they moved. Their hands moved perfectly even in their hard stride.
Rhian led the way. Aled took the rear. The other three fell into a fast pace to either side of the main group, happily ignoring the road. It took them twenty minutes to round the fort and reach the foot of the mountain. The path took a sharp turn to the left, and started around the outside of the stone face, gently curving upward.
Anie started to breath heavier after only a few minutes. But Cidra and Nessim were breathing hard beside her too, and Chas was setting the pace with his long legs, so she just smiled. She skipped through the next three steps, to see if that would help, laughed at herself when it didn’t, and kept moving.
Some of the others were falling behind. Sevi and Denna looked small on the path the first time Anie decided to look back. Sevi held his little sister’s hand, and walked carefully beside her, but she still hung on his hand as if he might pull her along.
Anie walked backward a few steps, and tilted her head.
Aled kept his place a little to the left of them. He looked as if he were strolling, easily putting one foot in front of the other as he kept up with them. Looking down at them, he watched the uneven match of their strides. Sevi could have gone faster. Denna was starting to slow even more.
“How old is she?” Anie asked quietly.
Nessim turned with her, then faced forward. “Three?”
Cidra looked over her shoulder, considered, and shrugged. “She might be big for three.”
“She’s got Sevi,” Nessim said. He glanced sideways at the green-coated man beside him, and didn’t look back again.
Anie tilted her head the other way. It was a little easier, taking steps backward like this, at least for the moment. She was slowing down though. Chas was starting to pass her.
For a moment, she considered letting him. Sevi would move faster without Denna, and she had been the littlest one for a long enough time that it wouldn’t have bothered her too much to let the girl hold her hand instead.
Then Aled moved in a little closer, and bent his head toward Denna. The girl looked up at him, and slowed even more, but after a moment, Aled stopped, crouched low enough to put his hands on the ground and Denna dropped Sevi’s hand to climb up on his back. Standing easily, he bounced a little to move her high enough to get a good grip on his shoulders. She locked her hands in front of his neck.
Glancing at Sevi, Aled said something. Then both of them started to run.
Anie faced forward immediately, running too. Chas cheered a little, and ran with her, Nessim staying close behind her. Aled was shouting, gathering everyone who had been behind her and driving them forward with a laugh. They all caught up in a rush of feet, and for a few moments, everything was a breathless scramble as they twisted past each other, competing for the head of the trail.
“Come on!” Aled said. “You’re not going to let Denna beat you, are you?” And he laughed when some of the boys surged forward, trying to get ahead of him.
“What are you doing?” Rhian asked. Anie paused at the sharpness in her voice.
Aled stilled a little too. “I made her a deal,” he told Rhian. He looked over his shoulder, nose almost touching Denna’s. “Right?”
“He’s gonna carry me all the way to the toppest top,” Denna said. “But I have to walk down all by myself.”
“Right,” Aled said. He looked back to Rhian. The blankness of his expression was almost a dare.
Rhian let it pass.
They ran for a little while. Then they walked for an hour, then ran again, and walked when they got tired. Anie kept close to Chas, not caring whether she was in the front.
When Rhian shouted that they were close to the top, it was past noon. The rest of the kids burst into one last run, but Anie held back. Denna bounced on Aled’s back, giggling. Cidra leaped in the longest strides Anie had ever seen, and the others laughed and jostled and elbowed each other right up to the rock that marked the top of the path.
Sevi touched it first, then climbed on top of it and crowed. Anie only watched him for a moment. Chas was drifting toward the edge of the trail, and the gravel slope that fell away on the other side. He took three more slow steps, then stopped, one knee propped up for the next step. He rested his hand on his thigh, leaned against it, and looked out at the fading line of mountains that continued on in front of them.
Their edges were blurred, the brown and white of their faces indistinct as they stretched higher. The notches between them were darker, but not clearer.
“What is it?” Anie asked.
Chas looked at her, then the others, and slid back to where she had stopped. He bent to point a finger over her shoulder.
“Right there,” he murmured. He pointed to one of the dark notches between the mountains. It was not really dark, she realized, just shadowed. Snow spilled out like soap suds, everything above it deep white as well, even though there was barely any snow around their own feet.
“That’s our pass,” he told her.
Anie looked back at him quickly, confused.
“That’s the one that we’ve been coming up here to check on,” Chas told her. He dropped his hand, and shook his head a little. “Arde said that that snow would just disappear one day. Any day now. He said these mountains didn’t like to give warning.”
Anie looked back at the pass.
“That’s how we’re going to get to Oruasta?” Anie asked.
Chas met her eye, surprised, then glanced around the others. When he looked back, he allowed himself a slow smile. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to get there.”
“Just not today,” Anie said, and nodded.
Chas paused again, and ruffled her hair. “Good,” she thought he said.
They ate lunch right there. Everyone sat on whatever rock looked good and tucked their elbows and knees in close to keep from getting cold in the high breeze. They pulled food out of sacks that Anie hadn’t noticed anyone carrying, and passed around the hunks of bread and cheese. Anie ate hers slowly, examining the snowy white faces of the mountains.
Rhian let them be slow. She let them sit for a good while after they were finished. Then they chased their shadows back down the mountain.