They stood around for another moment, each of them looking at each other. Nessim rubbed his stomach, and glared at Rhian, as if she should have told him this before he’d eaten the breakfast he had. Or perhaps he just liked to glare at her. Sevi held Denna’s hand and glanced around at the others. Cidra and Anie looked at each other, nodded, and turned around to run.
Cidra’s long strides were almost too much for Anie to match, but she stretched, then sped up, and stayed close at the other girl’s heels. The others followed, feet pounding in mismatched rhythms behind her. They took the first corner, and then the second, the ground smooth and flat except for where the occasional wide stump poked its flat head up through the dirt. The running was easy, all the way back around to Rhian. It took them just over a quarter hour.
“I thought I told you to run,” Rhian joked, and she motioned for them to keep going.
Anie blinked at her, but passed her by. They second time took them a quarter hour too, but they ran as hard as they could across the face of the fortress, and giggled when they slowed just around the corner.
Rhian motioned them on again, and Anie thought she saw her holding two fingers behind her back, as if she were counting. The next time around, Anie saw her flick a third finger down.
They padded along their path, and Anie started to watch her feet more than what was coming up ahead. There was a path, she realized, bending around the stumps in the same way they were, beaten through the new grass that was daring to oppose clinging winter. It was not very wide, as if one or two people had started it, but it was growing wider as they continued around. Nessim carved out a path on his side, Sevi and Denna tramped down theirs, and all the others filled in between. Anie, for no particular reason at all, started planting her feet on the stumps as they passed.
They ran around the fortress an eighth time, then a ninth, and they were starting to slow. Rhian was shaking her head at them when they came around the corner, but they were breathing hard, and none of them cared. She was pointing them on again.
“The faster you go round, the sooner we’ll stop,” she called to their backs. “I just have to count to twenty!”
She should have had all ten fingers held out the next time they came around, but she had none. Seryn stood behind her, all ninetween of hers gathered around with their jackets stripped off and their shirts peeled off, so that they were in their sleeveless unders and breeches. A few of them were stretching. One woman had her foot drawn up above her and her head curled back to meet it. Anie slowed to look at them, and the others hestitated as well.
Rhian whistled sharply. “Don’t stop,” she said. “I know none of you want to be out here all day.”
Anie pushed a little harder. She almost passed Cidra, but it seemed to catch the older girl’s attention too well, and all of them picked up their feet again.
Seryn, Rhian, and the others fell in behind them. Their feet struck the ground at the same time, or nearly so, stamping out as fast a beat as Anie would have expected at the start of a dance. Anie twisted to look at them, falling into three lines as they started to run as well. They were not quite straight lines, but not crooked either, just fluid, like they were each kites that had tied themselves to the same string. Their feet touched down lightly, and they pushed forward hard.
Before the first corner, without sound or notice, they split to either side of the children, ran around and past them, and disappeared behind the corner.
“Whoa,” Cidra said.
Anie nodded, though she couldn’t have said what she was nodding at. She wasn’t sure how to run like that. But it was pretty.
Rhian and Seryn passed them twice as they went around the fortress, once on that first side, and once at the third corner. Even with the sharp point of the wall making them all twist as they ran, their three lines stayed smooth as silk, the one of them – Drystan, Anie thought – whooped a little bit as he ran by. Anie missed whatever he’d done, but there was a louder thump as he landed, and his friends laughed a little.
“Keep going!” Rhian told them, and spun to flash them a smile. She still didn’t abandon the loose grace of her line.
At the third pass, she broke into a wider smile than Anie had seen on her yet. “Nice!” she said, and nodded to their group. Anie twisted around and nearly lost her step, but suddenly grinned too. The others had formed up lines behind her and Cidra. Two messy, scraggly lines, with a third haphazardly thrown down the side behind Nessim – and Sevi and Denna ran at the back, hand in hand in no line at all – but lines.
Rhian smiled at them. Drystan whooped again. Seryn just looked back, nodded to herself, and kept her pace.
They passed them twice on every round, always at the front side and the back corner, and Anie counted their rounds. At their last pass, all of them with their shirts stuck to their shoulders, and their hair wet against the backs of their necks, Anie realized that they had run twenty rounds as well.
Rhian and the others were waiting for the children when they came back to the gate for the final time. They were still in their lines, but must have ducked into the fortress because each of them had a long wooden staff. Rhian and Seryn held theirs in both hands in front of them, but some of the others had it cocked over one shoulder, or sitting at the back of their necks with their hands slung over it. Each rod was smooth, white wood.
“Do you still want these?” Rhian asked. “Or are you too tired?”
Anie took a deep breath. She was very tired. Some of the others shuffled behind her. Cidra put her hands on her hips like she wanted to demand a staff, and breathed hard, like she didn’t.
Rhian waited one more moment. Then she glanced at Seryn.
Seryn whistled, quick and sharp, sounding exactly like a bird that had once invaded a tree near Anie’s house. Immediately afterward there was a clack, clack, clap.
Everyone behind her had turned, swung their staffs, struck suddenly. Each staff struck another, in perfect time. Hit, hit, slide, and then each of them missed on their next stroke, while the men and women ducked or jumped or twisted to the side. Another run of dance steps. Another beautiful string of kites and each one landed, ready for the next strike, with their staffs leaned up along one arm, pointed ahead, squared off in their hands. All still in their lines.
“Do you still want these?” Rhian asked. “Or are you too tired?”
Denna ran forward, and so did a few of the others, but she still got there first, reaching up for Rhian’s staff. Sevi, close on her heels to catch her or join her, pulled to a stop and excepted Seryn’s. They looked bigger in their hands, heavier and clumsier, but Anie stepped forward for hers as well.
“This is going to be hard work,” Rhian told them all, shouting over their heads as the two groups surged together and the staffs were handed out. “But I promise, you can do all this too.”
Anie met her eye, and they smiled at each other.