Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (11 page)

As the sounds of the camp faded away behind me, my ears were filled with birdsong and the busy muttering of water. Golden clouds of pollen danced in the shafts of sunlight and made my nose itch. I tramped over trailing roots and mossy rocks, struggling for balance on the steeply sloping ground. Sweat sprang up on my face, and I began to pant a little. I also began to feel guilty. Livia had known what she was doing, taking me to the river. She probably expected me to brazen it out, introduce myself and make friends. Instead I had run away again. So much for my “bravery”. The further I got from those women and their watchful eyes, the more the knots in my neck and shoulders loosened.

I found a narrow goat-track and followed it, looking for a place where I could climb down to bathe. But the trail curved away from the barely seen glint of the water, and the river sounds grew fainter. I thought of turning back, but … the women might still be there, waiting.

I cursed myself for a coward and tramped on. The trail curved sharply. Finally I heard the roar of water again, ahead of me now, and much louder than before. The trees opened up to reveal a pool of clear green water rippling and glinting in the sun. I gasped at its beauty.

The pool was fed by a thin waterfall that splashed down a rocky cliff-face. Vivid yellow saplings and bluish ferns sprouted from the rocks. A dry crescent of smooth river pebbles edged the pool. I was about to run forward and explore when I saw the man.

His back was to me as he waded from the water to a neat pile of clothes on the dry pebbles on the opposite bank. Unsurprisingly, he was naked. Heavy muscles clenched and shifted smoothly under warm brown skin as he began to dry off.

I had seen naked men before. Uskaand is a land of icy rivers and hot springs, where it is common for men and woman to swim together. The polite thing would have been to simply look away until the man had finished dressing himself.

But I didn’t.

His back, shoulders and buttocks were a mess of scars. Long, straight scars that looked as if they had come from a whip. Thick, uneven welts that must have been caused by burns. Thin, silvery marks left by some weapon with a cutting edge. The wounds were long since healed, but some were still livid. I realized I was looking at the result of months –
– of abuse. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could endure so much pain.

As he pulled on his breeches, I began to back away into the trees. This man, who took such care to bathe in a private place when no one else was around, must never know that he had been seen.

A sharp snap rang out above the sound of the waterfall. I looked down to see that my boot had broken a branch in two. I cursed under my breath – but it was too late to run away without being spotted. Shirt still unfastened, the man was already turning.

“Back early, Luca?” he called. He was smiling, and the look transformed his face so utterly that for a moment I barely recognized him.

It was the goatherd. Arian.

We stared at each other, both shocked and unmoving.

Then he swore, low and vicious. He lunged forward across the pebbled shore to seize my arm. His fingers bit into my flesh, and he shook me hard. Although we were the same height, he almost wrenched my feet off the ground. “Get an eyeful, did you? Now I suppose you’ll run back and tell everyone?”

“No! I’m s–sorry!” I stammered, my bundled-up things dropping to the ground as I fought to keep my balance on the shifting river stones.

His free hand twitched up, as if to strike me. “Luca was mad to drag trash like you here—”

Anger and panic combined in a fiery burst and I brought my closed fist down on his wrist. “Let

He released me with a grunt of pain, and I used both hands to shove him back. “How was I supposed to know you’d be here? Does this p–place belong to you? Does it?”

“You followed me here – you spied on me.”

“Why would I do that? Why would I want to be anywhere near a horrible bully who keeps threatening me?” I shoved him backwards again, too incensed now to be cautious. It had been such a long time since I’d lost my temper. “You’re not the only one in the world with scars, you know! They’re not

He let out something dangerously close to a snarl. “Get out of here! Before I do something you’ll regret!”

“I’m not leaving,” I ground out between gritted teeth. “I didn’t do anything wrong. All I wanted was a b–bath, and you’ve already finished. You go!”

He took a slow, careful step back. When he spoke again, the words were low and flat, as if he were spending all his energy to restrain himself. “Listen carefully. Pick up your things now and leave. Go back to camp. Get away from me.”

“Or what?” I demanded, the heady mix of fright and rage driving me on. “Like hurting unarmed women, do you? Your mother must be so proud!”

He flinched visibly, turning ashen before my eyes. I went still, my feverish temper cooled by the sudden look of icy despair in his face. Before I could think to apologize, or ask what was wrong, he had spun around and was walking away, forging a path straight into the trees. In less than a heartbeat, he was gone.

“What did I say?” I whispered.

But I wasn’t sure I truly wanted to know.


crubbed to within an inch of my life, half-dry hair fluffing up around my face, and with the seams of Livia’s slightly too small clothes itching at my shoulders, I slunk back towards camp. I felt as if I had been tested twice this morning, and failed both times. First by running from those women when I should have stood my ground, and then by arguing with Arian when I ought to have walked away.

I half-expected to be greeted with drawn swords when I emerged from the trees after my bathe, but no one paid any attention to me. I kept it that way by scurrying around the edges of the camp, eyes down, shoulders hunched.

“Oh, dear,” Livia said, as I arrived in Luca’s tent. “You look like a whipped dog. What happened?”

“I had a run-in with the g – er – with Arian.”

She laughed, pulling a face. “Don’t let it worry you. You’ll soon find that the only person in the hill guard who manages to get along with Arian is Luca. For the rest of us, it’s like trying to be friendly with a–a rock. I’m not sure he has feelings, other than the urge to smash anyone who gets in his way.”

I thought about the horrified look Arian had given me just now. The man clearly did have feelings.
, I cautioned myself,
that doesn’t mean it’s safe to feel sorry for him. It just means he’s capable of hating you all the more.

“I’ll keep away from him in future,” I said, mostly to myself.

“That’s what I try to do,” Livia agreed cheerfully as she creaked to her feet. “Right, to the seamstress with you.”

Once again the healer strode straight through the centre of the camp when I would have stuck to the outskirts. After walking beside me for a minute without speaking she suddenly whopped me hard in the centre of my back. My shoulders shot back as the air
ed out of my lungs.

“That’s better,” she said. “You stand out more when you hunch over, you know.”

I noticed people grinning at this exchange.
Well, at least they’re not glaring. Or laughing.

The camp seamstress, Atiyah, was a short, round woman with masses of dark hair, and tattoos of cotton flowers covering the bridges of both cheeks.

“Oh, this is the new one, then? She doesn’t look so fearsome,” she said, snapping a long measuring tape between her hands. I jumped at the sound, and she let out a surprisingly girlish laugh. “Don’t worry. I won’t bite if you won’t.”

Livia reeled off a long list of instructions for Atiyah that had apparently come from Luca. I discovered that I was to have “special” armour – lightweight boiled leather that would cover my vulnerable points: gauntlets, vambraces, a neckguard and helm. The seamstress, rather than being annoyed at the extra trouble, as I had feared, seemed intrigued. She measured me quickly and efficiently, peppering Livia with questions all the while, and finally said that she would have to speak to Luca about materials as soon as he got back. Once Livia had extracted a promise that I would have at least one basic uniform to wear by tomorrow, she took me on to the weapons tent. There I was measured again and given a practice sword made of blunt, soft metal, and a wooden stave capped in brass at both ends. When I protested, pointing out that I had my axe, the weapon’s master laughed in my face. “You can’t train with that!” He snorted. “You’ll kill someone, probably yourself.”

“How am I going to learn to fight better with the axe by training with a sword and quarterstaff?” I asked Livia, as we left the armoury.

She pursed her lips. “Talk to Luca about it when he gets back. Here we are – your new home.”

I looked up to see a long, thin tent, its flap pegged open to reveal dozens of bedrolls lined up neatly on each side, with a few inches between each one. Only one or two people were sleeping within now, but the air that wafted out of the entrance was stuffy and humid with the smell of warm bodies. I could imagine how it would be at night, with the women packed inside like potatoes jostling one another in a sack. How did they

I backed away, shaking my head. “No. I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t sleep in there.”

Livia’s brow furrowed. “This is where all the women sleep.”

“Do you?” I challenged.

“Well, no – I stay in the healer’s tent. In case of emergencies.”

“Then not all the women sleep here. I won’t be any trouble. I’ll put my bedroll outside; that’s what I’m used to anyway. I couldn’t even close my eyes in there, let alone sleep.” I shuddered.

“We can’t let you sleep outside! What if it rains?” Livia said, appalled. “I’d offer to let you stay with me, but I need to keep the space clear for patients. Let’s just leave you in Luca’s tent for now. He can decide where you should go when—”

“He gets back,” I echoed, thinking that it seemed to be the standard reply for all the tricky questions around here.

“Yes,” she said, cheerful again. “Now I’m starving. It must be nearly time for a midday meal.”

She hooked her arm through mine again – ignoring my instinctive flinch – and towed me towards the largest tent in the camp. Spicy smells drifted my way, making my mouth water and my stomach gurgle.

“This is the mess,” Livia said. “They provide three meals a day, although you can normally coax food out of them in-between times if you missed eating because of duties. It’s permitted to carry a tray of food away if you wish, but you must bring your plates and utensils back to be washed. And smashing them doesn’t count.”

I ground my teeth. Was I ever going to live that down?

One side of the tent was pegged out with long poles, creating a sort of canopy where people sat on blankets or the grass, eating and laughing. The interior was filled with long, roughly hewn tables and low stools. At one end of the tent there was a counter covered in plates and trays and dishes, and behind that, men and women laboured over metal cooking pots, moving through clouds of steam and smoke.

By the time Livia and I had reached the canopy, everyone was staring at us. Laughter and chatter had died away, replaced by low whispering.

“Maybe I should just—”

“Not a chance,” Livia said flatly. “You might’ve got your way about sleeping quarters for the moment, but I’m not letting you hide from everything that makes you uncomfortable. We’re not ogres. We’re your new family, your comrades-in-arms. You need to get to know us and we need to get to know you – which will never happen if you keep running away.”

Her wiry arms turned out to have surprising strength. She almost dragged me over to the counter.

Turning my back on the whispering people, I tried to concentrate as she showed me where the wooden trays were stacked, and selected various cold dishes from the covered bowls that waited on the counter.

“You can just … take it?” I asked incredulously. “As much as you want? Don’t they run out?”

I bit my tongue when pity showed in Livia’s eyes again. Livia cleared her throat, then leaned over the counter and asked for several bowls of hot food from one of the cooks. She added the extra dishes to our trays and jerked her head towards the tables.

“Find us a seat, then.
that one,” she snapped, as I instinctively headed towards an empty table in the far corner. She relented a little as she saw my hunted expression. “Oh, all right. Small steps.”

We sat at the empty table and I busied myself with taking the lids off the bowls, releasing pungent smells that made my stomach rumble all the harder. It gave me an excuse to avoid looking at the healer. Her eyes were too sharp for comfort.

“Frost,” she said after a moment, stirring thoughtfully at a fragrant green dish of what I thought was lamb. “Do you know what the hill guard is? Really?”

“Luca said you’re here to keep people in the mountains safe from the rebels.”

“That’s our job, not what we are. What we
is scraps.”

“Scraps?” I frowned, confused.

“When Luca was given the task of creating a force to police these mountains, he didn’t choose troops from the regular army. He said they were too used to following orders, and fighting in squares and straight lines and enemies that play by the rules. He knew people like that would be no good. So he gathered together all the scraps. Leftover bits and pieces of resistance groups that survived the war. People who wanted to fight, but couldn’t find a place because they had trouble with being told what to do. People who didn’t fit into their families, or had lost their families. We’re all damaged in some way.”

She stared down into her cup of tea. Her face was grave, but not sad. “I come from a very rich, very important Sedorne family. They used to be favourites of Mad Abheron’s, and that tells you all you need to know about them. They married me to another of his favourites. He was a wicked man. I ran away once or twice in the early years, but in Sedra a woman belongs to her husband, no matter how vile he might be. I was always dragged back. My family made sure of it.

“After my husband brought me to Ruan I took my chance and ran away from him for the last time. I knew better than to seek refuge with my family by then, but I had no money, no friends, no skills. Nowhere to go. I lived on the streets of Aroha, and I did whatever I had to in order to survive. Eventually, the Order of the Mother found me and took me in. They taught me to heal, and I turned out to be good at it. Years later I assisted when the reia had her son, which is how I came to know Luca, and how I came to be one of his … scraps.”

She nodded at the table next to us. “See that boy there, that handsome boy with the red scarf? His name is Dinesh. His family were killed in a Sedorne border raid when he was five. He was the only survivor. He lived feral in the woods until he was ten, when a wandering namoa – that’s the name for a holy man or woman who follows the Mother – found him. He still hardly speaks. And that woman beside him? She’s Adela. One of Mad Abheron’s serving girls from the age of twelve to sixteen. I can’t imagine the horrors she must have seen. We might look official in our nice neat uniforms, but there’s not one of us who doesn’t know what it’s like to be on the run, or lost, or in hiding. That’s why we can get into the minds of the rebels we’re fighting like no one else. And that’s why – no matter where you came from, or what you’ve done in the past – there is a place for you here. If you can bring yourself to accept it.”

Now it was my turn to stare into my cup. I felt honoured that she had confided in me. But it was so hard to believe. So hard to hope. It was maybe the most frightening thing I’d ever done.

“You just think about it,” she said, after a minute. “And eat up. I’m putting you to work this afternoon.”

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