The encampments were on fire, Thea told Anie. Before long, Anie could smell the smoke, rich as a hearth fire and sharper in the wide night air. There was something else in it, something choked and choking, and Anie breathed in deep trying to decide what it was. Sharp. Acidic. When she started coughing, she stopped, and pulled her shirt up over her mouth.
The smoke stayed with them longer than Anie thought it would have. Thea slowed to a walk and called for the others to stay close. Chas caught Nessim by the shirt, forcing him to walk as well. Darien swung wide, disappeared and appeared again at the front of their little pack. His short strides forced them all together, and Anie glanced around at the haze that brightened and obscured the dark.
They walked for hours. Anie’s eyes stung. She blinked them shut over and over.
Then, finally, the air cleared. The trees gleamed under the starlight, and the breeze cut deeper between them. Anie pulled her shirt closer around her, and shuddered a little.
Vetlynn pressed in close to her shoulder.
Surprised, Anie pulled away, twisting to see her face.
Vetlynn was grinning. “Race you,” she whispered. Then she took off, kicking off every tree root, as if she could keep from tripping by striking first. And Anie dashed after her.
The cool air bit her lungs, but she didn’t care. She tagged Nessim as she passed him, challenged him with a look, and dragged at Bekany’s sleeve. Denna giggled and skipped, not caring that she couldn’t keep up. Anie tagged Mel and ducked under Darien’s elbow.
It was harder to run between the trees than on the smooth stones of the fortress wall. She picked up her feet more, and jarred her heels less on the soft ground. The others twisted through the trees, calling out as they twisted again to keep from colliding with each other on the other side. They strung out, and sped up, and tapped each other on the shoulder as they darted ahead of one another. Taunting. Laughing.
Mel ran with them.
As far as she could.
After a few minutes, she shouted to Anie, and stopped.
Anie pulled to an uncareful halt, blinking back at her.
Mel leaned forward on her knees, breathing hard.
“When did you get so fast?” Mel asked. She smiled, but her mouth was open to drag in more air.
Anie shrugged. She wasn’t quite sure. But she imagined she could run from here to sunrise.