Anie had never been so sore.
The first few weeks that Mel had worked with Da in the smith, she had complained about muscle ache, with all the bright energy that she did all of her talking. Anie almost didn’t believe her, for the first few days, but then Mel’s feet scuffed the floor more often than they should, and when she sat down, it took a lot more than her usual whims to drag her out of the comfort of a seat. It was the only time that Anie could remember knowing that she could walk out of a room, come back, and still find Mel just as she left her. Mel stayed up later than usual those two weeks, as late as Momma and Da would allow, just to avoid climbing the stairs to her room.
There were no stairs on the way to Anie’s bed in the main stone hall, but she didn’t even remember how much Mel hated them until a few weeks in when Rhian pointed them toward the stairs that led up to the top of the fortress wall, and told them to keep up. They ran the top of the wall once, and when they were breathing hard, she took them down the next flight of stairs she came to. They ran the base of the wall until the next set of stairs, and then ran straight back up. Up, and down. Up, and down. Until they finished their twenty loops of the wall. Then Anie hated stairs too.
“It’s shorter,” Cidra said at the end of it, leaned over her knees, trying to remember how to breathe normally.
Beside her, laying flat on the ground, Nessim blinked.
Cidra drew a circle in the air with her finger. “Shorter,” she said, and stopped for another breath. She braced her hand on her knee again. “Going ’round the inside. Instead of the outside. We didn’t run as far today.”
“No, you didn’t,” Rhian said walking past her. Rhian was breathing hard too, but she seemed to like it. She smiled Cidra. “Try standing up. Shoulders back. It’ll give your lungs more room and you’ll get more air.”
Cidra pushed herself straight again, took another thick breath, and nodded something like thanks to the older girl. Anie squared her shoulders too, and tried to measure her next breath against the one before it. It didn’t feel any larger, and she was tired. The moments rolled past however, and she and Cidra recovered fastest. Anie tried not to feel proud of it.
Rhian was waiting with their staffs when they were all willing to move again, just like she was every morning.
“Do you want these?” she asked with a gentle smile.
Anie wondered what would happen if they said no, but she didn’t have any want to say it. She liked the feel of it in her hands, both the jarring crack when she held it up to stop one of the others from striking her, and the whistle of it when she swung it herself. She had bruised her finger a few days ago, holding the staff the wrong way when Sevi swung at her, but it only made her want to try again, stack up days when she managed not to hurt herself in the fast mess of it all.
She wasn’t sure what reasons the others had, but they slowly looked at each other, nodded, and came forward to take them from her.
For a moment, they were a jumbled mess, all elbows and staffs. Rhian laughed at them, and started pushing them gently out into their usual circle. She set half of them facing in and half of them facing out in front of themDenna, smallest of them, ran around on Rhian’s heels, giggling as she played at keeping out of her sight. Rhian spun once to play with her, then carrried on until she was satisfied with the amount of space between them each. Anie faced Cidra and waited, moving her fingers to find their proper places on the wood.
Rhian picked Denna up, and put her on her back, then shouted to the rest of them. “Ready?”
“Ready!” they all returned, some more enthusiastically than others. Denna laughed as Rhian hefted her higher on her back.
“Remember, only what I tell you, and if you hurt one of your friends, you won’t like what I do next,” she said, just as she always did. “High block!”
Cidra and the rest of the inner circle swung over their heads. Anie and outer circle raise their staffs in both hands to stop them. They all took that first swing, slow, and steady, each of them intent on starting the day perfectly.
Cidra shifted down and Anie moved fast to meet her.
Cidra aimed for Anie’s knees and Anie angled her staff down to stop it.
“Return the favor!” Rhian called. “High block!”
Anie swung hard – high, middle, and low – and eased back when Rhian ordered the circle to turn. Cidra stepped to the left, and gave her a little wave while Ivea stepped in front of Anie.
It was lunch time before Rhian called for them to bring the staffs to her and sent them running for the main hall. Anie wasn’t sure how the hours passed so easily. Except that they were always moving, smiling, trying. They ran all the way to lunch, sat and ate, and it wasn’t until they tried to get back up that they remembered they were sore.
After lunch, Anie didn’t want to move and no one asked her to. Sevi stuck extra sweet muffins in Denna’s pockets, and he and Nessim smuggled her back to their room at the back of the hall to save them for midnight snacks. Cidra and some of the others wandered back outside just to soak in the sunshine while they sprawled out and refused to budge. Ivea, Anie and a handful of the others found Wynn and Aled and waited expectantly to see if they had time to give them another reading lesson that day.
And after they had all wasted their hours in whatever way they wanted, they ate dinner, curled up in bed, and slept like stones.
The next morning, the sun woke Anie, warming the hall until the blankets were just a bit too much for comfort. She rolled out of bed to do it all again. She had never been so sore, but she complained about it the way Mel had, as if it didn’t really matter. From one day to the next, she was getting stronger, and the ache in her muscles was not that bad.