It was still dark when Anie started to hear heavy feet ahead of them, though the sky was turning promisingly gray. The trees were spreading apart, and their little band moved more easily. Mel kept up with her better, and Thea wasn’t far behind while Chas and Darien stayed to either side to keep them all together. When the voices petered back through the air, they drew in closer. Anie listened hard for armor, for the clink of metal that she had heard around the soldiers at the fortress. They only sounded dull, thudding along under the thin tones of their speech.
Chas slipped ahead. Anie watched him go, and almost moved in next to him. Long-legged as he was, she would have bet half the moon that she could keep up with him. But glancing at Mel, she stayed close, dropped back and threaded her finger’s through Thea’s.
“Hey!” someone shouted ahead of them. Not Chas, and not as far ahead as Anie would have expected from the rest of the rumble. There was a following thud, and a gasp, like someone forgot how to breathe.
“Hey, hey, stop,” Chas said. Quick, sharp. Not quite as loud as he usually was, as if he didn’t have the lungs for it.
Anie peered forward in the dark. Thea kept her close with tight fingers. Darien padded forward into grayer shadow.
“Where did you come from?” the woman asked.
“Same place as you, I’d bet,” Chas said. He was on the ground. The woman’s shoulder was visible just behind a tree, and there was someone else moving beyond her.
“Darien?” she asked.
“I’m here,” Darien murmured.
She spun, blonde braid flipping behind her, and Darien raised his hands gently.
“That’s Chas,” Darien said. “My brother.”
The woman paused, watching the rest of them draw up behind him. She turned toward Cidra, toward Vetlynn and Nessim, caught Anie’s eye and Thea’s. “Where did he come from?” she asked. “He wasn’t with us.”
“He was in the other encampment,” Darien said as Chas rolled back to his feet. The woman tilted her head back toward him.
“Sevi?” a man behind her called. Sevi’s step faltered. Then Denna bolted forward.
“Da!” she shrieked. And giggled, and jumped just high enough for him to catch her and drag her up to his chest. Sevi followed, and caught him around the waist.
“Where did they come from?” the woman asked Darien.
“The fortress,” Darien said.
“We got them out,” Mel said. She raised her chin, halfway to a grin.
“You?” The woman’s voice was all question.
Purposefully, Mel nodded. Thea laughed a little under her breath.
Knotted together, they all surged forward, joining up with the rear of the crowd that was winding its way north and east, and out of the trees.
The sun rose on them, stretching their shadows just as they reached open ground. In the fresh light, all the children spun in circles, looking at faces, searching the gaps between shoulders. Bekany broke away first, shouting her older brother’s name. Petrick called “Momma!” and Sier echoed him and they split in opposite directions. Teo slid away without a word, fell back a step and wound between the others. One at a time, they all peeled away.
Anie held Thea’s hand tighter. Her feet had gotten heavy, hour by hour, and the sun was adding heat and weight to the air. But she smiled, without having to try, everytime her sisters looked at her.