“Something’s happening,” Nessim said. Suspicious, he twisted in his seat across from Anie, looking over his shoulder at Aled and Drystan. His breakfast plate was empty in front of him, but he was waiting for Sevi like always, and had nothing better to do than watch the soldiers in their comings and going.
Anie chewed through her next bite and watched too. Aled was giving an order. There was nothing strange about that, but it was interesting how Drystan’s eyes had widened just a little as he heard it.
“What do you think it is?” Anie murmured, quieter than Nessim.
“You think it’s about us?” Vetlynn asked.
Anie wasn’t sure. Rhian had woken up yesterday, and there were new companies in the fortress. A tall man with an almost all gray beard had watched them for almost an hour yesterday, and Seryn had stood just behind his shoulder as if she answered to him. There were too many things changing, touching Seryn and her folk. They were usually so predictable, but now they were shifting out of their careful routines.
“Maybe,” Anie said. She fixed Vetlynn with a look. “And maybe not.”
“Maybe they’re going to take us up the mountain again,” Sevi said. “It’s been a while.”
“Maybe they’re going to move us,” Cidra said.
Anie looked at the older girl quickly. She seemed to realize that she had said something startling, and she looked purposefully down at her plate.
Nessim took a deep breath, but he didn’t seem surprised. Anie turned her questioning look on him. He frowned.
“Haven’t you ever asked Aled where he was trained?” he grumbled.
“In a fortress,” Vetlynn said. “Like this one. Why would they move us?”
“He said there there was no one there but kids and older kids,” Nessim said. He glanced around the table, looking at each of them moodily. “And their teachers. That’s not a fortress. You need defenders in a fortress.”
Anie watched his face, considering. Uneasily, the others glanced at each other, then at Aled and Drystan. Drystan was nodding now. Aled was beginning to pull away, orders almost finished.
“He said he grew up where the earth was flat line all around the sky,” Vetlynn said. “And the wind is always blowing, and the trees don’t stand up straight. He said the wind whistles a different song in every window and some days it tries to push you over.”
Anie shook her head. “That’s very far away,” she murmured. “They’re not going to take us there.”
“Not today,” Nessim muttered.
Anie glared at him. The others looked down at whatever was left of their breakfast with wide eyes.
When they were finished eating, they took their plates to the washers, and Drystan gathered them up out of the line as usual. He waited until he had them all, counting each of them with a tap on top of the head – except Nessim and Cidra who either seemed too tall or too prickly – and then led them out of the main doors. They fell into their usual lines, though the right line stretched out with Loma and his friends racing ahead, and the middle line bunched up when Vetlynn looked down to see that her boot was untied. They aimed for the gate, then pulled up short when Drystan called for them to stop. The lines broke, and then turned back, curious and wary.
Aled, Wynn, Rhian, and all the others were gathering behind him. They were dressed for their morning run, but their shirts still hung off them in clean, dry lines. Seryn was there too, Anie realized, drifting around the back.
“Pair up!” Drystan told the children. He was pulling the staves off the rack at the edge of the yard.
Anie blinked at him.
“Come on,” Drystan said. “I didn’t tell you to touch the sun. You know how to pair up.”
Anie went forward with the others to collect her staff from him. Then Cidra touched her elbow and they both sidled away a step until they had found their space. Gripping their staves with both hands, they waited, facing each other, twisted to look at him.
Denna waited until his hands were empty before she ran straight for him. Catching her, he lifted her onto his shoulders with a grin. He tugged playfully at her toes.
“Ready?” he called, and the yard grew quiet. Anie looked at Aled, looked at Wynn, looked at Tegan, unsure why they had an audience today.
“High strike!” Drystan called.
Cidra pushed her staff up to shield her head and Anie swung down at her. It felt stiff, and the morning air felt thin somehow, as if she didn’t need to push quite so hard as she was used to. Cidra shot her a look under their staves.
“High strike!” Drystan called again.
Anie shoved her staff up high, and Cidra struck.
Anie caught Seryn moving out of the corner of her eye.
“Low!” Drystan called.
Anie blocked Cidra, but she was watching Seryn thread her way through her friends. Seryn paused at Tesni’s shoulder, whispered something. Then she fell back toward Celyn and whispered something else, nodding toward the children. Celyn uncrossed his arms, and shouldered his way forward.
“Low!” Drystan called.
Picking up a staff of his own, Celyn tapped Sevi on the shoulder. The boy faced him in surprise. Tesni pulled Nessim away.
Sevi was talking with Celyn, but Tesni held his staff out for Nessim to strike immediately. On the next call, Celyn did the same.
Cidra looked at Anie with wide eyes.
Seryn paused near Mari next. Anie didn’t realize she had said anything to Leolin too, until the two women came forward to split Vetlynn and Bekany.
Drystan carried on the calls. Anie moved through them without thinking, except for the moments when she caught herself swinging too hard, or felt Cidra swing too softly. Her arms didn’t ache the same way as they moved through the motions, and her feet didn’t slip back the way she was used to. Seryn kept moving quietly.
She pushed Reese toward Getta. She pushed Wynn toward Jesi. Then she nudged Tegan, Carys, Imer, and Lowri toward Orin, Fen, Evander and Teo. Anie watched, as much as she could without risking her fingers under Cidra’s strikes, without lowering her guard and risking her head. And Anie waited.
Seryn touched Tomi and Gareth on the shoulder, but they didn’t come for Anie and Cidra. They took Monea and Sier to the side.
She touched Drystan next, and he pulled Denna down from his shoulders, hugged her, and put her feet on the ground. Rhian was sitting on the ground a few paces away, and he pointed Denna toward her. Then he and Gwyn split Hilli and Ivone. He still made the calls, and Anie saw Ivone flinch at the closeness of his voice. Then she grinned nervously, and struck hard.
There were only four of them waiting on the edge now, and Seryn watched the group appraisingly. She crossed her arms over top of each other, and took a breath, eyes moving from one pair to another. After a moment, she strode toward Imer and Evander, then motioned Gan over to take Imer’s place. Imer, she pushed toward Sier, and motioned Tomi back to the side to wait.
Anie held her breath, then had to let it out to make her next swing.
“Mid! Low! Low!”
Seryn pulled Reese away from Getta and jerked her head for Tomi to come in.
Cidra tapped Anie in the ribs, just to prove that the other girl wasn’t paying attention. Anie stuck out her tongue at her, and they both smiled tensely at each other.
Finally, Seryn nodded to Emyr and Reese, pointing them toward Loma and Petrick.
Anie felt Cidra stiffen then, before she had even realized what was happening.
Only Aled and Seryn waited on the side, and he was looking at Seryn as if he knew what came next, but would wait for her to say it anyway. She was still scanning the pairs, marking the way they moved, waiting through the calls to see them roll through the strikes, high, mid, low. She tilted her head, as if she was listening to the clacks, searching for the ones who had fallen out of time. Anie heard the rattle of the strikes, half a dozen of them a hair too slow, one or two, too fast. And Seryn turned toward her, toward Cidra, the only two children left striking against each other.
Anie took one deep breath, and let it out.
Cidra’s gaze had fallen back to Anie, and she refused to look away. She was murmuring under her breath, words that Anie didn’t understand. A prayer, maybe.
Then Seryn said something to Aled, and it was lost in the noise of the yard. He lifted a staff, swinging it idly in one hand, letting it land on his shoulder. Behind him, Seryn picked up a staff, and swung it too, spun it over the back of her hand, and caught it, as if weighing it.
They came closer, and Cidra shut her eyes. Anie pulled her swing back before she struck her. The older girl had pressed her lips together in a straight line, made more of stone now than of flesh.
And Aled tapped her on the shoulder, gently pulling her away. Cidra opened her eyes so she could move. She followed him three steps away and nodded while he told her who would take the first turn. She looked small next to him.
Anie turned to meet Seryn.
The woman looked down at her wordlessly for a moment.
“Do you hold back?” she asked after Drystan and moved the others through another call.
“What?” Anie asked.
“When you work with Cidra do you hold back?” Seryn repeated.
Anie hesitated, then she shrugged.
“You don’t have to with me,” Seryn said. “I promise you, I can take it.” And there was a small smile in the corner of her mouth, with all the weight of Thea’s honesty, and all the spark that Mel could muster. Anie blinked.
“All right,” she said slowly.
“High!” Drystan shouted.
And Seryn raised her staff for Anie to strike.
They only worked for a few more minutes. Drystan didn’t call the stop. Seryn did. Anie put her staff over one shoulder, breathing hard, sweat pulling at the back of her shirt. Seryn still looked cool and collected.
“You’re all a little loose this morning,” Seryn shouted to them all. She got near silence in reply. “Did you miss your run?”
Nessim snorted. Tesni’s lips twisted in a smile and he purposefully didn’t look down at him.
“Put your staves away,” Seryn said. “And let’s move.”
Anie followed her to the rack, joined the clatter of staves being thrown into place. When they all turned for the gate, the group seemed too large, and Anie felt small. Seryn stayed close to her.
Outside, they started to sort into their lines, but they were jumbled now with Seryn and the other spaced between them. Then they weren’t jumbled at all, but pressed out straight by their being there, pulled and pressed flush.
When they started to run, it was like finding new feet. Then it smoothed.