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 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.
“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.
Da called up the stairs. His voice was a little muffled coming up through the wooden floor beside Anie’s bed. Her room seemed a little large. Thea was sleeping in a dozen beds at once. But it was good to hear his voice.
Anie shifted onto her side, reburying her head in the pillow. She was going to steal her few more minutes of sleep. Da would understand. She thought he was probably proud of her too, now that she wasn’t really running away after all. They hadn’t gone so far from the city.
Her thoughts seemed to stutter against each other, matching what she knew had happened to the room around her. She realized her eyes were shut. She realized she was dreaming. The floor should not be standing upright and there were too many Thea’s in the room. Da’s voice was too high, too much like Drystan’s.
“Come on, come on, come on!” Drystan called, a sing-song too bright for the early morning. “Roll out of bed. Put your feet on the floor. Walk yourselves to breakfast. If you’re still dreaming, I suppose you can swim there, but move, move, move!”
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.
Anie passed Chas most mornings. One of them was always coming in for breakfast when the other was leaving, and he ran around the walls just like the rest of them. He and a whole company followed Ern through the laps, with Wynn or Leolin or Gan calling instructions for them the same why Rhian called them for Anie and the others. She heard him talking with whoever stood next to him, always just a little loud, as if he was helping her keep track of where he was. They nodded at each other when they walked by the other, or just met the other’s eye across the yard. Occasionally, they were close enough to trade a few words. He always smiled at her. She always reached out and squeezed his hand.
She looked for him in the afternoons, but he was never there. She meant, always, to ask him where he could find to disappear, but never did.
She just passed him, coming and going.
Anie had never been so sore.
The first few weeks that Mel had worked with Da in the smith, she had complained about muscle ache, with all the bright energy that she did all of her talking. Anie almost didn’t believe her, for the first few days, but then Mel’s feet scuffed the floor more often than they should, and when she sat down, it took a lot more than her usual whims to drag her out of the comfort of a seat. It was the only time that Anie could remember knowing that she could walk out of a room, come back, and still find Mel just as she left her. Mel stayed up later than usual those two weeks, as late as Momma and Da would allow, just to avoid climbing the stairs to her room.
There was a bloody sword under the bed, kicked there as if a person’s instinct to hide it had only briefly overwhelmed their apathy for getting caught. The mis-matched blankets on the bed fell far enough over the sides to hide it, but the breeze from the window threaded the smell of it out into the open.
Dovev had walked into the room, and felt the wrongness of it before she had settled the door shut again. Inside three shallow breaths, she had found it and pulled it out. Then she sat back on her knees and stared at it, trying to understand who had put it in her room.
It was not her sort of weapon. It was too long, too hard to hide, impossible to slip up a sleeve. She had a knife she always carried with her, long and thin in its own right, but it had always fit in a sheath beneath her knee, and now that she was taller, it lay well between her wrist and elbow. She picked up others as she found them, and threw them away as she needed, but they were rarely bloody, and she would never let them grow a stink like this.
“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.
They stood around for another moment, each of them looking at each other. Nessim rubbed his stomach, and glared at Rhian, as if she should have told him this before he’d eaten the breakfast he had. Or perhaps he just liked to glare at her. Sevi held Denna’s hand and glanced around at the others. Cidra and Anie looked at each other, nodded, and turned around to run.
Cidra’s long strides were almost too much for Anie to match, but she stretched, then sped up, and stayed close at the other girl’s heels. The others followed, feet pounding in mismatched rhythms behind her. They took the first corner, and then the second, the ground smooth and flat except for where the occasional wide stump poked its flat head up through the dirt. The running was easy, all the way back around to Rhian. It took them just over a quarter hour.
“I thought I told you to run,” Rhian joked, and she motioned for them to keep going.
“Pick it up!” the captain shouted, not for any real reason, but just to be calling commands. “Move it!”
The two lines of men and women kept running without any change. They held to their straight lines, feet striking the packed dirt road in perfect time with the person beside them. They moved quickly, smoothly, eyes straight ahead. If the ground lay in anything other than a smooth, downhill line, it didn’t matter. They ran as if they would run forever, as if breath were unnecessary, as if their bones were made of something as light as steel.
“Move it!” the captain shouted again. “Pick up your feet!”