Growing up is learning
that some monsters won’t give chase,
if you don’t run.
Growing up is learning
that some monsters won’t give chase,
if you don’t run.
Emmet and Koen struck as different paths as brothers could. There were ten years between them, making Emmet the dark-haired, bronze-eyed son of a man who had died too young, heir to everything his mother commanded, and Koen the blonde-haired son of a man still alive, captain, conqueror, and blunter weapon. Emmet’s keimon stood in his halls with him, guardians and entertainers under glittering lights. Koen’s stood at ship rails, face into the wind, and learned nothing better than how to burn, how to buy glory with ash.
Bryn had known that long before she chose where to apprentice. As young as they had been, she knew her twin, Riya had understood as well. And neither of them had hesitated to split ways, jump on a ship, train for the halls. Different was something magical to two ten-year-olds who had spent their whole lives as walking mirrors of each other.
It took Anie longer than she thought it would. Running with the others, she knew it took a while to work all the way around the top of the well. By herself, it suddenly felt too wide, and each time her foot hit the planks beneath her, they seemed to swallow seconds. Her stride was too slow, and the wall went on and on. She was breathing hard when she stopped – too hard, it seemed – and she had to remind herself that she had been tired before she took that last round.
As she came around the back of the fort, she had seen Rhian beckoning the others over with the staves. They formed up their circle without her while she ran. Now, the fort echoed with the slap of wood on wood. The kids kept perfect time with each other, with Rhian shouting over them. Chas and a dozen others struck a counter point from the far wall, while Aled gave instructions and there were other circles beyond them, too many of Ern’s folk to fit into one practice group. Each of them clattered through their calls. Seryn’s friends, stripped out of their uniforms, moved in the combat ring by the main hall, just one pair at a time, and Anie thought their noise would have been lost under the rest, but it cracked the loudest in the open air.
Anie leaned over her knees, listening while she tried to catch her breath. Knowing she should straighten up to let air in, but not really caring, she squinted at Rhian as the older girl waved her over. Denna was on her shoulders, and she could move her arm very high, but Denna waved too, excited. Anie dragged herself upright.
Royse’s hands shook. He kept closing them tight, forcing her fingers to stillness next to each other, and they still rattled like they couldn’t even stand up to the breeze. He tried to remember if he had started out steady today.
He knew what steady was supposed to feel like. He triggered the flow of the chill under his skin, spilling off the edges of the plates of his shoulder blades, and the cold was supposed to drip down either side of his spine and straighten it. It was supposed to turn his bones to river stones, his muscles to silk, his blood to hot iron, all smoothness and strength. Each breath was meant to hollow him and hallow him and make him into something whole.
Voss watched Steph work for a moment before rapping on the door frame. He figured it was time for a little interruption. The other boy had been bent over his books every time Voss walked down the hall in the last four hours. Voss might have even believed that he had fallen asleep on them, head on fist, other hand wrapped instinctively around his pencil like a child’s comfort, except that Steph had the constitution of a mountain. He was the only one Voss knew who had never fallen asleep in Master Kiddel’s first-thing-after-lunch history-of-stone-and-sand-and-other-earth-old-mindless-subjects lectures. Still as he was, long as he’d been sitting there, there wasn’t a book on earth that could send him to sleep.
Steph didn’t move when Voss knocked.
Voss glanced at the wooden door frame, then at his knuckles still poised beside them. He was sure he had knocked, but the longer that it rested in memory, the less he remembered the sound, and he began to doubt it.
Steph turned a page. The paper crinkled, loud, or maybe just loud in the silence that stretched as Voss tried to remember if he’d already announced himself.
Galen was not home when Tarra came back at the end of her work day. He was supposed to be at the table, bread and cheese and yesterday’s happy find of fresh carrots and zuchinni spread on the table for dinner. Instead, the house was dark as Tarra approached, and she spent ten minutes lighting the lamps and calling his name in every room upstairs and down, looking for him.
She exhausted every cranny that a seven-year-old could stuff himself into. Then she stood at the base of the stairs, listening for him. All she heard was her heart beat.
He was not home.
And the house was too empty.
Wrapping herself back into her coat, she snuffed the lamp, and ran outside. She knocked on one neighbor’s door, then the others. Neither Arri nor Ceddir had seen him. Ceddir who usually sat at his front window all afternoon putting in hems and patches, hadn’t even seen him come home.
Toar strode in through the gate and sank onto the steps behind the house, falling back on his elbows immediately. He pressed himself into the cold stone, sweating, his rough shirt stuck to the sharp edges of his shoulders. Stretching his spine, he tilted his face up to catch the warmth off the sun, bent his back over the straight line of the step behind him and held it, too long, as if the ache of pulling himself back to comfort was too much to consider. Sitting there, he took four full breaths, and didn’t move.
Across from him, Alek sat under the shade of one of their father’s several wide-leafed trees. The garden continued lazily behind him, pretty and green this late in the spring. The flowers were holding out for warmer weather, but there was still something sweet coming out of the leaves. It wandered on the wind, lightly filling the space between the house and the yard’s back wall. The breeze chattering in the greenery hushed the sounds of the street on the other side, secluding the place, and making the air all the sweeter.
Holding his book against his knee, Alek watched his brother over the top of the page. “Long day?” Alek asked.
Late afternoon sunlight held a rough weight which always woke Toar better than a sand-slap to the face. He threw his arm over his eyes, to keep the light out, but it wasn’t enough. The heat still clung to his skin, and stuck his bedshirt to his shoulders with a thin layer of sweat. Another moment, and Toar threw back the covers with a snap.
Sliding his feet to the floor, he waited for his bones to settle back into their proper order, then stood. He felt too tall, his feet too far away from his head. But, he reminded himself, he was tall. He must have been mostly all right.
He pulled off his bedshirt, and slipped into a clean shirt and breeches, before stumbling out of his room. He let gravity drag his feet down the long staircase to his white main hall. Then he hung on the railing to turn himself toward the narrow door beneath the stairs that led into the kitchen.
Inside, Jaera was sitting at the square table in the center of the room. Her head was bent over a book laid flat in front of her. Resting on one elbow, she had one hand buried in her long, dark hair to hold it out of her eyes. Toar stopped just inside the door and looked at her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Jaera finished the line she was on, then tilted her head up toward him, still resting on her hand. She didn’t say anything, but she smiled.
Sleep clung to his body like a caking of dirt from the grave. He shoved his blankets back, before he even really woke, because they clung to him too, a too-heavy, too-thick, too-warm, too-close skin that he threw to the floor. He was sweating, and the cool air of the room was the sweetest relief. He sat, cooled his back, set his feet on the floor to stand, and then didn’t. He was too heavy still, all legs and arms, and solid bones. He thought there should have been hollow places in him somewhere – in his chest where he filled his lungs with air at least – but every inch of him was filled in with iron. He hung his head, held it in his hands and braced his elbows on his knees. And he sat.
He waited until his skin no longer felt like it had been left in the coals overnight. Then he himself on the headboard and pushed himself to his feet.
The door to his room creaked when he opened it. He had never noticed before how thick the wood was, or how hard it leaned on its hinges. He hadn’t counted the stairs before either, but now he did. Thirty-two steps, each one of them feeling like he was falling off a short cliff between him and the kitchens. He stopped at the doorway, because they were too warm too, and he leaned his shoulder against the outside wall, poking his head inside.
Karleigh opened her eyes, slowly focusing on the plain, pleasantly cream-colored wall beside her bed. She blinked lightly, realizing that she hadn’t moved during the night, hadn’t rolled off her left side, taken her hand from under her head, or un-crooked her knees. Her hair was still twisted and tucked against the pillow they way she’d done as she slipped into bed to hold it off her shoulders. The blanket was still perfectly square where it hung off the edge of the mattress.
Karleigh took a deep breath. She was no longer tired, her mind sharpening with every breath she took as she pulled herself out of bed, but she wasn’t comfortable. She dropped her feet over the side of the mattress, straightening her knees and rolling her shoulders back.
She’d had this room since she was six years old, but it still wasn’t home. She was beginning to believe – and accept in small, silent moments – that it never would be.