Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (10 page)

A few torches flamed here and there, not enough to truly illuminate the camp. The stars seemed to hover just above the tents: constellations like handfuls of luminous silver sand scattered on a low ceiling of blue cloth. The same deep, beautiful voice I had heard the night I escaped beckoned me on, singing that same, haunting song. The melancholy wood flute rose up to join him.

I came out from between two tents and found a group of people – twenty, twenty-five, maybe more – crowded around a sunken firepit. Some sat on long, stripped logs that gleamed white in the dark. Others sat in the grass. Their faces danced with flame colours; expressions masked. I didn’t recognize anyone. If Luca was there, I did not see him.

Blue and orange sparks spiralled up into the sky like new suns being born. The people lifted up their faces as they sang, watching the sparks disappear. Even at this distance I could feel the heat of the fire radiating through the ranks of singers and warming my chilled cheeks and hands.

“Goodbye, my love, remember well,

My shadow on your door;

I leave my heart, my love, farewell,

And pray you cry no more…”

I knelt down, unnoticed, at the edge of the gathering, and sang with them.

 

I
cannot feel my toes any more. I use my hands to drag me up the hill; nails splitting, skin breaking as I claw through the thin layer of snow to the stony ground beneath. My vision swims and blurs and my heart seems to choke me. I force myself on, heading for the rocks that jut up at the crest of the slope. If I can only reach them, maybe I can hide. Maybe I can escape.

The wolves’ persuading voices have fallen silent now. Their paws crunch rhythmically through the snow behind me. Closer, closer, ever closer. Low, panting breaths. Sharp eager whines. The night is still, save for the sounds of their pursuit.

They know when their prey is at its limit.

Ten

W
ord of what had happened in my old village spread across Uskaand like ice spreads across a well in the winter: swiftly and inexorably. For a time, everyone had a story to tell of the wild wolf-girl who roamed the land with sharp, hungry fangs and glinting silver eyes. Few gave credence to the tales, though children gasped and giggled over the idea of such a creature, wondering if she might be hiding in the dark forest, or on the bleak loneliness of the plains. But never, of course, in a village very much like their own.

It was four years before the Wolf ascended again. Four years of running, of struggling to find work in tiny villages where the people could barely afford to pay Ma for her services. Of giving false names. Of staying quiet. Staying out of trouble. And never, ever fighting.

Many of the people we met in that time assumed I was simple in the head; I spoke so little, and met no one’s eyes. And I was always “falling down”. So clumsy for such a strong, strapping girl.

They gave mother their condolences in hushed whispers. What a shame the daughter of a healer should be enfeebled! An illness no healer could ease. But at least I was quiet and obedient. At least I wasn’t … violent.

The ice around my mother’s heart grew colder each time we were forced to move on: fleeing in the night like criminals whenever the villagers grew friendly enough to ask questions about where we had come from, whenever my unusual eyes provoked curiosity, whenever people began to suspect I was not such a clumsy idiot, after all. We became experts at packing our worldly possessions at a moment’s notice and discarding anything that was not essential. I lived in fear that one day Ma would abandon me too and I would wake to find myself left behind in one of those nameless villages, cast off like a broken stool or a worn-out blanket, alone in the world forever.

But no matter what she felt about me, no matter how she flinched whenever I came too near, or how often I heard her sobbing harshly in the night, she never tried to escape without me. She never even threatened to. She never let me go cold or hungry when she wasn’t colder or hungrier herself. She never beat me hard enough to kill me.

Or to break the skin.

My poor ma. Perhaps by the time I was twelve she had begun to believe that we were safe again. That the Wolf was gone. Perhaps she was just too tired to keep running through another winter. Either way, that year she made the decision to stay in a little village on the edge of the mountains until spring came. It was a decision we were both to regret.

I clawed my way out of the familiar misery of the memory-dream, jackknifing into sitting position with a choked gasp. My hand fumbled for the reassuring lump of the wolf tooth resting over my heart as I looked around with sleep-blurred eyes.

I was used to waking up in a different place every time I opened my eyes – especially lately – but this … this was something different.

I was sitting on a thick pile of rugs. Layers of black, grey and white-spotted furs lined with bright silks were piled over me. They were as soft as the down on a baby chick and finer than anything I had seen in my life, let alone touched. A wooden screen, decorated with enamel panels that made a forest of gold and silver trees, curved around my sleeping place.

Where am I, Father?

I heard a muffled footfall, and the screen drew back to reveal a tall woman with untidy grey hair, a tattoo on her face and uncomfortably sharp eyes. Memories fell into place with an almost physical thud.

Livia.

“Are you all right?” Her voice was less brisk than I remembered it, almost hesitant. “You were … calling out.”

“Calling out?”

“For your mother.”

My face flooded with heat. “Just dreaming. It was nothing.”

I fidgeted under her look of barely concealed pity and peered past her at the rest of the space. The roof was peaked canvas and the wooden poles holding it up were hung with glass oil-lamps. The richly embroidered tapestries on the walls depicted mythical creatures – flying horses, fire-breathing lions, three-headed serpents – in faded shades that showed they must be very old. Underfoot, there were layers of rugs, just as fine as the wall-hangings. I saw a low table as long as I was tall, legs deeply carved with strange patterns. The surface was strewn with papers and books, quills and ink. There were chairs and even a proper wooden bed, neatly made with a deep blue coverlet. Only a very sharp eye could make out the tell-tale shapes of the hinges that allowed such luxurious items to be folded for travel. If this was a tent, it was fit for a prince.

Or a nobleman sent into the wilds by his king.

“This is Luca’s tent, isn’t it?”

Livia nodded, draping her arm casually around the top of the screen. “He carried you here last night. You fell asleep, sitting up, at the gathering place. You must have been exhausted.” She paused for a second. “He was pleased to see you.”

“Oh.” I looked down at the mottled grey fur that covered my knees. “Where is he?”

“He had to go out on a patrol. He asked me to wait until you woke up and to then show you around; help you to settle in.”

Something – panic, probably – must have shown in my face. She added, “He’ll be back by tonight.”

I thought of smooth grey river stones, attempting to keep my expression blank. “I’m sorry to trouble you.”

She smiled and pushed the screen back a little further, gesturing at the untidy table. “Not a bit of it. I was taking the opportunity to amend my records. When I try to do it in my own tent I get interrupted every two minutes. I can’t even eat without someone running to me needing attention. And speaking of food, Luca left you some breakfast. You must be starving.”

I shuffled to the edge of the pile of rugs and disentangled myself from the fur wrapped around me. “I … you said Luca carried me here. I didn’t stir at all?”

“Not a murmur,” Livia said, clearing off a space on the table and moving a wooden tray onto it.

I had been a light restless sleeper since I was a child. Habit and necessity would have made it so, even if my nights weren’t plagued with dreams of running and howling and sharp white fangs. But Luca had held me in his arms, and I had not woken. My cheeks burned.

I hurried over to the table and sat down on one of the chairs, busying myself by taking the lids off all the covered bowls on the tray. There was a cup of milk, a bowl of round fluffy pastry things, some sort of egg dish and small stuffed flatbreads that looked crispy and golden, as if they had been fried. When I popped one in my mouth, the flatbread turned out to contain spiced roots and onions. The pastries were sweet: flavoured with nuts and honey. The eggs tasted of green leaves – like spinach, but stronger – and peas, and more onions. The food was very spicy, setting fire to my mouth, but very good. I tried to slow down, but I had only eaten one stingy, tasteless meal the day before and my belly would not let me. I was used to stuffing myself when I could, to make up for the times when meals were poor or even non-existent. Besides, if my mouth was full, I didn’t have to speak.

Not that Livia seemed to expect me to. She was scribbling away at her papers, dripping ink everywhere, sneezing whenever she tapped her nose with her quill. Her relaxed posture and the concentration on her face were reassuring, as if there was nothing strange or awkward about sitting here with me. Yet, the last time she had seen me I had been locked up in a cell. Then I had escaped, and the hill-guard captain himself had gone after me. And now I had spent the night in the captain’s tent. What must she be thinking?

As I washed down the last spicy crumbs with the last mouthful of milk, Livia put aside her quill and went to a chest at the end of the bed. She drew out a large, folded drying cloth and a bar of soap, and offered them to me. As I stood to take them, I noticed for the first time that Livia was taller than I was – by at least an inch. That was rare enough in men, back in Uskaand. The Sedorne seemed to be a long-legged people.

“I’m supposed to get you outfitted with a uniform and everything else you need today, but I think you should clean up first.” She added some clean clothes to the pile in my arms. “These are mine, just for the moment.”

“Do I smell that badly?” I asked, mortified.

“You don’t stink, but I can tell you’ve been sleeping on the forest floor for a while. I’m afraid we don’t have a bathhouse. I’ll walk you down to the river.”

“I’ve never been to a bathhouse,” I admitted. “At home we had hot springs.”

“Well, that’s a relief. If I have to listen to one more new recruit bellyaching about the lack of hot water, I might brain them. I don’t understand why they sign up if they want luxury.”

“Is that what I am?” I asked tentatively. “A new recruit?”

The hare in Livia’s tattoo seemed to leap as she frowned in thought. “Seems like it. I suppose you’ll do. Can’t say you’re lacking in gumption, anyway. And I never knew him to be wrong about anyone before.”

As I turned over her words in my mind, she pushed back the tent flap. I followed her outside into early morning sunlight and a businesslike swarm of people.

By day the hill-guard camp was a different place. My head nearly swivelled off my shoulders as I struggled to take in everything that was going on. I followed Livia through the centre of the camp, past a cleared circle of ground where around thirty men and woman were going through some kind of battle-drill, swords rising and falling in perfect synchronization. Near by a pair – one man and one woman – were sparring hand-to-hand, their movements a blur of kicks and punches. Others sat peacefully, polishing armour, repairing tack, sharpening weapons. I glimpsed a man pegging out washing on a line strung between tents. Elsewhere, a woman sat on the ground, a cloth wrapped around her shoulders, while another carefully snipped her hair.

It felt less like a campsite and more like a small town. The tents ranged in size from ones that would easily fit two dozen men inside to others that were clearly meant for only one or two people. As we went past the firepit at the back of the camp, I glimpsed wooden structures – the prison cells where I had been held. Where Birkin was probably being held now.

I hoped that they hadn’t put him into my cell. Not that Birkin would fit through the gap I had made.

The variety of skin and hair colours among the camp’s inhabitants was bewildering. At home, nearly everyone had the same coppery brown skin and dark hair as me; the same wide, broad cheekbones and flattish noses. In Southern Uskaand, where I had grown up, even the slight variation of my grey eyes had been enough to mark me as an outsider, the next worst thing to a foreigner, although I knew that in the North, both grey and blue eyes were common.

Among the hill guard, hardly any two people shared the same looks. I saw a man who would have caused whispering and stares in Uskaand, with his round face and button nose and skin so pale it looked positively unhealthy, especially against the fiery red of his hair. The man was talking to a woman who had skin that shone a dark bluish-black and a cloud of hair that stood out around her head like dark thistledown. She had a flat nose like me – yet her cheekbones and chin were pointed and sharp.

And there were so many
women
! I had assumed that the soldiers would be mostly male, as in the army at home, with the odd female cook, or healer, like Livia. But here it seemed around half the soldiers were women, and while I was glad that I wasn’t the only female recruit, it was strange to see all the camp dwellers, regardless of sex, in the same clothing – plain shirts and breeches – with weapons strapped to their bodies.

Many of the people we passed stared at me unabashedly, pausing in their tasks to watch as I walked by. I did not meet anyone’s eyes. Hostility, wariness and suspicion were all too familiar to me.

“Never mind them,” Livia said, hooking her arm casually through mine. I tried my best not to flinch from the unexpected contact. “Some wild tales have been flying around camp ever since the captain and Arian first brought you back. People will soon get used to you.”

I tried to smile. It would have been nice to accept her kindness without forcing myself to look for hidden motives – but I still wasn’t sure I believed her. No one had ever accepted me. No one had ever got used to me.

Luca wants me here
, I told myself, squaring my shoulders.
Livia thinks I’ll do. I’m good enough. I
will
be good enough.

Livia led me to the edge of camp, where trees began to encroach again. The passage of many feet had worn a trail down the high, moss-furred bank to the wide river bed. The water was a deep, mysterious green, glassily smooth on the surface. There were other women already bathing there, laughing and splashing each other.

“The men wash at night, and the woman in the morning. No mixing, unless by – er, prior arrangement.” Livia cast me a sidelong look and I felt my cheeks heating up again. She laughed. “There’s a strict no-peeking policy too, so you’re safe.”

One of the women in the water caught sight of me. She nudged her nearest companion. I couldn’t hear their voices over the sound of the river, but the immediate flexing of fists and crossing of arms was all too obvious. They didn’t want me there.

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Livia said, apparently oblivious, as she began to walk away. “When you’ve finished, come back to Luca’s tent and I’ll take you to the seamstress.”

The whole group of women was now staring up at me, their relaxed poses hardened into wariness. If I got into the water, would they leave? Or would they attack me? What if I hurt someone? The goatherd would have an excuse to carry out his threat, after all. Or, worse, Luca would realize he’d been wrong, and send me away.

Stay quiet. Don’t fight. Stay out of trouble.

I tried to force the familiar refrain out of my mind, but the sensation of coldness lodged. Hugging the things Livia had given me to my chest, I made my decision and turned from the river towards the shelter of the trees. I felt the women’s eyes on my back every step of the way.

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