There was no easy dawn that morning, no cool, lingering dark. The sun rose, dug hot, steady fingers into the earth and yanked it around to face it. Danneel woke into too-bright daylight, her blanket already pushed to the side, her mouth sticky after her short hours of sleep.
She had slept like something dead, she realized. There was no other way to account for the way she had lost time, the way daylight had invaded. And that woke her up fast.
Evander was already moving. He knelt on the ground, rolling his small sack of things inside his blanket. They had all gotten used to packing their small pile of things into even smaller packets for easy carrying, but he still gave it all of his attention. He tucked the end of the blanket in itself as if someone might be along to inspect the tightness of the fold, and he tied the rope to either end with careful knots, as if there were no hurry, and nothing else in the world. It bothered Danneel a little – the rest of them had learned to do it so much quicker – but he was also the only one who never made any noise as he walked, or had to stop to repackage his things midday to stop them from clinking.
“We’re almost out of time,” Jerdan murmured, holding Danneel’s elbow under the bare cover of the doorway.
She leaned against the wooden frame, hand on the cool paneling, head on her hand, and listened close. She watched the rain come down hard. The heavy drops bounced against the dry ground right now, gathering in brown puddles on the surface. In a few minutes, the puddles would sink into the dirt easier than the driving rain, and turn everything to mud.
Mud held footprints too well. They were almost out of time, if they still wanted to run. She could almost make herself believe that it was a biting truth. She could almost breathe it in deep enough to start a panic in her blood. But a laugh came so much easier.
It had been a good long while since she had been out of time.
The roadblock was the kind of efficient, lazy installation that Danneel had come to expect from these northern roads. There were three soldiers, each shrugged out of the piece of armor they hated most. Two of them had taken their helmets off and set them under their elbows. The other kept his pushed back on his head, but had peeled out of his pauldrons. They all sat, propped up on tree stumps or rocks, with their feet in the dirt road, as if that was enough to tell their commanders that they’d never left it. They sipped from water pouches, munched on nuts and rolls, and rumbled through their idle conversations. They had been there, exactly long enough to grow thoroughly bored with everything around them, and to accidentally memorize every forest sound and shadow. Any uneven crunch in the leaves turned their curious heads.
Danneel bit her lip, swallowing a sigh and any sound that might come with it. “Any ideas?” she asked the others.
Jerdan, leaning against her same branch, with his arms crossed over the lower half of his face, said nothing. Heydi had her little fingers laced through Danneel’s and she cocked her head to one side in that empty clockwork way she did when she wanted a thought, but her young head hadn’t put it together yet. Evander tapped his fingers against the tree trunk, once, twice, a third and fourth time, then stopped.
“So, exactly how much trouble am I in?” Heydi asked.
Sitting with her back to the wall, arms wrapped around her knees, the wide barn door open at her shoulder, she looked tiny. Danneel tried to remember if they actually knew how old she was, or if they were only taking her word for it. Sometimes she seemed like she was only the six-year-old she claimed, when she smiled, when she’d purposefully planted two feet in every rain puddle between the woods and the barn even as the cold drops came down on her head, when she braided her hair in that crooked way. Sometimes, Danneel could convince herself that Heydi was even younger than that, especially standing right next to her with the little girl’s dark head barely coming up to her chest.
Danneel looked down at the knife in her hands and the long, thin blade made her stomach twist. She could feel Caled watching her from behind his desk, watching her hands shake as she tried to measure the thing in her hands. Her fingers slid on the blade. It was sharp enough to cut her without effort. She didn’t think she would even feel the metal, just warm blood. Her stomach tightened again.
“I can’t,” she said. It wasn’t even a whisper. She wasn’t sure he would hear her, but he shifted in his seat so quickly, she knew he had.
“Are you scared?” he asked.
She clenched her jaw, wanting more than anything to clean the quakes out of her skin. “Yes,” she said. The word hissed in the air. “What if he wakes up?”
Caled leaned back. Looking up, Danneel expected him to say something. His silence stung, and he just shook his head.
“Heydi!” he called.