Anie tripped her way between the tables, ducking under elbows, and generally trying to keep behind people’s backs as she slipped through. She knew she hardly succeeded, but Aled, at least, didn’t seem to notice her until she was almost leaning over his shoulder.
Rhian was sweating. Pieces of her hair stuck to her forehead, but she was still pulling the blankets closer while she slept, as if she wanted them knit into her skin. She was shivering to. Anie’s smile slipped away as she watched her. She had never seen anyone after a bear attack before, but she knew what people looked like when they were sick. Rhian wasn’t really sleeping, wasn’t resting, she was aching with her eyes closed to pray thought away.
“You’re supposed to be getting lunch,” Aled said. He gave Anie a slow look and a small smile.
Anie returned the look, eyebrows bent together. “You’re supposed to be asleep,” she told him.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I know you were on watch last night,” Anie said. “And you’re on watch again tonight.”
“You’re very observant,” he said. If he hadn’t been so quiet, she would have said he was impressed. “Now tell me what I’ve been watching…” Aled turned back to Rhian before he had finished speaking. Anie wasn’t sure she was supposed to guess.
“What happened to her?” Anie asked instead.
Aled shook his head. “Bear,” he said. He didn’t look at Anie and Anie didn’t believe him. She didn’t think he believed it either. He ran one thumb over his other hand, fingers not quite balled into fists. He laced his fingers together after a moment, then pull them apart. He picked at his thumbnail. Anie watched his hands, watched him lace and unlace them again.
“Are you helping her?” Anie asked.
Aled hesitated before he looked up at her again. “I will when she needs me.”
Anie tried not to look confused, but scrutched her eyebrows together again. “She doesn’t need you now?”
Aled shifted on the cot to better meet her eye. “What is it you think I should be doing?”
Slowly, Anie raised her hands, palm out. When he didn’t seem to understand, she wiggled her fingers. He cracked a smile, but still didn’t understand.
“I heard it helps,” she told him. “If we light the blue fires.”
“I heard a rumor like that once,” Aled murmured. “But we’re not healers.”
“No,” Anie said quickly. “Not for every one else. But for each other. I heard it helps a little.”
He blinked at her. Just once. “Who told you that?”
“My sister,” Anie said.
“It’s sounds like a nice story, but I’ve never seen–,” Aled said.
“She told me that my grandfather saved his brother’s life,” Anie said. “His brother had a fever and no one could drive it away. My grandfather sat in his room all night with just a little blue fire between his fingers. He made the rest of it into smoke so thin that it mixed with the air. His brother breathed it in and it came in through his skin. It didn’t make him better right then, but he made it through the night, and the next day, and the next, and got better when no one else said that he would. Because my grandfather sat with him.”
Aled smiled at her. “It sounds very nice. But maybe it was just because he needed your grandfather’s company.”
Anie considered that, but only for half a moment. She shook her head. “I sat with my mother for hours and hours when she was sick. It never made her better.”
Holding her eye, Aled let out a breath. His eyebrows came together and he pressed his lips together, as if he wasn’t sure if he could argue with that. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Anie shrugged. “I think she’s better now.”
“Good,” Aled said. Glancing behind him at Rhian, he shrugged too. “You know we all grew up together? I think that makes her pretty close to my sister, although I’m not clear on the rules of that. I think I had one, but didn’t know her very long. Not nearly long enough to understand the definitions in it. But I’m pretty sure if I just sit here, she’ll get better.” He faced Anie again with a smile. “Because, she’s a good enough sister that she knows not to die in front of me. She’s not that rude.”
Anie laughed and rolled her eyes at him. She liked the way he said it. Dying did seem rude, but he was stupid to think it might Rhian’s fault if she did.
“You could try it,” Anie told him. She raised her hands and took a half step forward. “Or I–”
Aled grabbed her arm to stop her, closed one of her hands with his fingers locked around her fist.
“No,” he murmured. “That’s not how we were made.”
Licking his lip, he looked away, searching for the explanation somewhere in the stones of the floor. “We’re better soldiers without it.”
“Without… the energy?” Anie stared at him, at his big hands on hers, at the earnestness in his expression.
“Without using it, yes,” Aled told her.
“I’ve seen you use it.”
He nodded at the accusation. “We made that wall. It’s good protection sometimes. It’s a good weapon. But it’s better inside us. It keeps us stronger than the others.”
Anie shook her head. “No. It’ll make you sick,” she told him.
He paused, tilted his head again. Then he let go of her hands.
For a long moment, they stood looking at each other. Anie wasn’t sure what else to say, and Rhian was shifting in her cot again. She was pulling the blankets closer, disappearing under them.
“She’ll be all right,” Aled said. “I’ll make sure of it.” He nodded toward the cook line, waiting all the way at the other side of the hall. “Go eat. You don’t need to worry about this.”
Anie watched his face, reading the calm in his eyes to make sure it was real confidence and not one of the masks that some people liked to wear. But he hadn’t lost his smile since he looked up to find her at his shoulder, and she didn’t think that was easy to hold if he was really scared. She took one step back, and then another, and finally turned away from Rhian and Aled.
She was hungry, but she couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder before she had to thread her way back through the crowd.