Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (12 page)

Twelve

“Y
ou know, I think I preferred it where it was in the first place. Can you put it back over there for me?”

I held in a groan as I shifted the table for the third time. Even lightly built travelling furniture grew heavy when you’d been heaving it around for a whole afternoon.

A shrill whistle sounded outside the healer’s tent, and I jumped, nearly dropping the table on my foot.

“It’s the signal that Luca and his patrol have come back, safe and sound,” Livia said, through a cloud of steam. She was scrubbing the bowls that she used to grind herbs in a bucket of scalding water. “You’ll grow to love that whistle in time.”

Safe and sound.

Something tugged sharply in my chest.

There was a pause. Then Livia said, “Well?”

I saw that she was grinning.

“What?”

“Aren’t you going to welcome him back?”

“He’s barely arrived,” I said, hoping my voice passed for calm. “He won’t want to be bothered with me. I’m just a new recruit.”

Her voice was tart as she said, “For the Mother’s sake, girl. You don’t have to fling rose petals at his feet and sing a stirring song. Just go and say hello. He’ll like it.”

“You … don’t think he’d mind?”

“I think you should stop worrying so much about what other people think and do what you want. You might shock yourself.”

She made me sound like a weak-willed fool. I gritted my teeth, pushed the tent flap back and marched outside.

I hadn’t realized how much time had passed while I was helping Livia. It was twilight, and someone had already lit the torches in the camp. The sky was deep blue, with the dark shapes of storm clouds moving over the trees. The cold air and darkness acted like a slap to the face. I stopped in my tracks. I had let Livia bait me, but my concern was valid, after all. Why
would
Luca want to be bothered with me? I refused to let the memory of what had happened on the edge of the farmstead influence me. That, my ma would have said, was the way to come home by weeping cross. Luca probably made everyone feel like that.

He wasn’t like me. He was beautiful, and strong, and … and
good
. That goodness shone out of him, like the golden lights in his eyes. Luca was bound to be valued and respected wherever he went. I was sure he wouldn’t deliberately upset me or lead me astray, but he couldn’t possibly know how much his words, his casual actions, had meant to me. I wasn’t the first scrap he had collected. I would not be the last.

Well, in that case
, a little voice inside me argued,
it can’t do any harm to go and sneak a glimpse at him. Just to make sure he really is safe and sound. If he looks busy you can slip away without being seen. He won’t even notice you.

I couldn’t resist that tempting logic. I followed the sound of voices. A crowd had gathered near the centre point of the camp, where the white stone firepit and the stripped logs glowed in the flaring light of the torches. I could barely see Luca. Only the top of his blonde head, bent to listen, was visible among the people jostling around him. They were all talking at once, bombarding him with questions. I was reminded of a litter of piglets fighting over the best place at their mother’s belly. I even saw Atiyah there, waving some pieces of paper – probably wanting to consult him about my armour.

Talk to Luca about it
, Livia had said whenever she could not answer a question herself. Apparently everyone did. It was a wonder he ever got a moment’s peace.

Luca’s head came up. His forehead creased and his gaze flicked over the waiting crowd, searching for someone. I wondered who he wanted. Arian, probably. Then he saw me hovering in the background a little way from the others. The lines on his face smoothed away. He smiled.

The sharp, painful tug in my chest eased, turning smooth and sweet, like warm honey, as I realized that Livia had been right. He was happy to see me.

Several people noticed his smile and turned to stare at me, their voices falling silent. For once I didn’t care. I was content to smile back.

In the quiet, a harsh voice rang out.

“For the Mother’s sake – you’re like a bunch of vultures at a carcass. He’s only just got back! Get on with your work and leave him be!”

Arian.

Luca’s eyes left me and his smile turned to a grin as his lieutenant ploughed through the waiting people. “You’re in a bad temper. Who flicked your nose this time?”

Again, several of the crowd – I recognized one as a woman who had been bathing in the river this morning – turned to look at me. I cursed mentally. Of course – those women would have seen Arian walk past them to bathe and then seen me head off in the same direction, and shortly afterwards Arian had stormed back to camp again. The women had drawn the obvious conclusion and placed the blame on me. And they were right.

“I’m not in a bad temper,” Arian said grimly, as if even he didn’t believe it. “I’m just stunned that certain people are so rude they didn’t let you clean up before they started demanding that you fix their problems. Did anyone even think to bring you any food?”

“I’m not hungry,” Luca said, his gaze seeking me out again. I noticed that there was a long streak of dirt on his neck. His clothes were muddy, as if he’d rolled down a hill in the rain. “And our mission was a success, so I’m in a good mood, no matter how grumpy you are. What I want to do is thank the Mother and talk to my men. Any objections?”

There was a collective
whoop
, and before I knew what had happened, a fire was crackling up in the white pit. It spread incredibly quickly, burning with those strange blue-green and purple flickers.

The smell of sunshine and honeysuckle drifted to me in the first waft of woodsmoke, and I looked up to see Luca approaching. A warm, strong hand closed around mine. “Come and sit by me,” he said.

I allowed him to tug me towards one of the stripped logs; I kept my eyes on the ground, even though I could barely see my own feet in the gathering darkness, because I didn’t quite dare to look at him. We sat, and Luca’s thigh pressed against mine. Lightning struck my body. I jolted and nearly toppled off the log as I hastily tried to put distance between us.

Luca caught me and pulled me back, laughing. “What are you doing?”

I shook my head, still staring down. I was so embarrassed I would happily have crawled into the fire and turned into a puff of smoke.

“Frost? What is it?”

I forced my head up and met his eyes. He was still laughing. Embarrassment, tension, apprehension – all of it vanished as thoroughly as I had wished it to a moment before. I laughed too, shaking my head at my own silliness.

“That’s better,” he said, as people took seats around us. “How has your first day been? I’m sorry I wasn’t here. We had to go back and collect Birkin. As much as I’d have liked to leave him there for the bears, the man’s entitled to a trial.”

“But I thought you said you’d send someone to collect him yesterday?”

“Ye–es.” He drew the word out sheepishly. “Well, I may have become a little distracted and…”

I laughed again. “You forgot about him?”

“Only for a few hours. I was up at first light to fetch him, I promise. Only by then he’d managed to work his way out of most of the ropes, and he wasn’t happy about being collected.”

“Is that how you got covered in mud?”

“No, that was the leopard.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell you another time,” he said. His fingers contracted in two quick little squeezes around mine, as if to secure my attention. “You still haven’t answered my question. How have you fared today?”

“I–I’m not sure. Some parts have been strange. Some parts have been interesting. I like Livia a lot.”

Luca opened his mouth, but before he could say anything more, someone cleared their throat loudly. We both looked up to see a circle of interested faces. Arian was sitting directly opposite me, his arms folded across his chest so that his arm muscles bulged threateningly. His face was hard and expressionless; his eyes were fixed on my knee, where Luca’s hand rested, joined with mine.

There was an awkward silence. People glanced at Arian, then at me, and away. I could tell something was wrong, but not what it was. I tried to slip my fingers from Luca’s, but his grip tightened again as he looked down at me. “In Ruan, when we gather like this around a fire, we believe that the Mother can hear our voices,” he said gravely. “We send our thanks to Her, our wishes and prayers, our dark thoughts and bright hopes, in the music we make. She draws it all from us, forgives us, and heals us in our hearts. It’s considered an honour to lead the song. I think you should have that honour tonight. You can sing anything you want – it’s the feeling that matters, not the words. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I can’t force anyone to do anything they don’t like.”

That last remark seemed aimed not at me, but across the fire at Arian.

I hesitated. The hungry snarling of the fire seemed very loud, but the waiting silence was louder still. I had been tested twice today, and twice I had failed. Now everyone was waiting to see how I would handle this challenge.

There is a place for you here
, Livia had said.

You have to believe
, Luca had said.

I took a deep breath. “Do you know the ‘Fox’s Lament’?”

A few of the people around the fire nodded.

“I think I’ve heard of it,” Luca said encouragingly. “You start and we’ll follow along.”

I took another couple of deep breaths. The hill guards waited with no signs of impatience – apart from Arian, who tapped his fingers against his arm.
Just get on with it!

I began to sing. My voice rang out, low and a little hoarse with nerves, through the night’s stillness.

“Said her lover, your hair is like,

The coat of the russet fox, my dear,

Red with passion, red with blood.

Said her lover, your hair is like,

The falling leaves, my dear,

Bright with smiles, bright with tears…”

After a moment someone pulled out a wood flute and joined in, and slowly others began to sing too, catching the words. Luca hummed tunelessly.

The white-hot heart of the blaze fluttered, the blue glints deepening, stretching. I almost felt I could see things within it … living things, moving in the flames. Shadows almost like faces. Shapes almost like hands. Long fingers, reaching out, beckoning with a slow, hypnotic pulse.

My eyes did not want to leave the light.
I
did not want to leave the light.

The fire roared and crackled and whispered. I imagined leaning closer, falling forward into the dancing blue, feeling its warmth embrace me… Somewhere in the night, a wolf howled. An icy shiver trickled down my spine like a melting icicle.

I wrenched my eyes from the fire, my voice drying up into a croak. No one seemed to notice. My gaze darted down to my hands. My left hand, clasped with Luca’s, still felt warm. I could still see the colours of the fire. I tried to calm my panicked breath.
It’s all right. It’s all right.

The last note of the flute lingered on in the darkness, and the centre of the fire suddenly flared up. The faces around it were transformed with glowing blue and turquoise and green – colours I had never seen in any fire before. A great rush of blue and purple sparks exploded out of the pit and spiralled up into the sky. It was beautiful, but I watched nervously, my wonder tainted with fear. Did those sparks truly carry the hill guards’ prayers with them, as Luca had said? What if the fire called to other things – other forces that dwelled in the night?

The blue fire ebbed and died down. There was a collective sigh.

“She was here,” someone said softly.

“She is always here,” said Luca.

A scream rang through the night. It was a woman’s voice, somewhere close by. Almost as soon as I heard it, it was drowned out by a male roar of rage. Luca was on his feet instantly, letting my hand drop.

“Captain! Help!” someone shouted.

Luca was already running. We followed him. People pushed and crowded around me, forcing me back. I put on a surge of speed and broke through the crowd to see the dark shape of the prison building directly ahead. A familiar-looking female hill guard sat in the grass before it, clutching her head. Blood streaked down one side of her face, and she was pressing a folded handkerchief to the wound. Another soldier – I realized with a shock that it was Dinesh, the boy with the red scarf, the boy Livia had pointed out to me in the mess tent earlier – stood over the large, crumpled form of … of
Birkin
.

The huge bandit was whimpering like a wounded animal, curled up in a feeble attempt to defend himself from the vicious kicks Dinesh was aiming at him. Birkin’s hands were chained behind his back. His face was a bloody mess; both eyes were nearly swollen shut.

Luca caught Dinesh by the shoulder, whipping him around so hard that the boy slipped and nearly fell. Dinesh raised one fist as if to strike out, then blanched when he saw that it was Luca who had dragged him away.

“He attacked Adela!” he blurted out. “When she went to take him his food, he headbutted her and tried to escape.”

“So you thought you would kick him to death while his hands were tied behind his back,” Luca said, his voice low and dangerously quiet.

The defensiveness and anger faded from the young hill guard’s face. A visible shudder travelled through his body. “I … I saw Adela and I…”

“I didn’t ask you to,” the female hill guard said, her voice sharp.

Dinesh’s face crumpled. Luca let go of him and bent down to look at Birkin. The bandit wasn’t making noise any more. I thought he must be dead.

“Someone get the healer!” Arian snapped.

“I’m here, I’m here!” Livia’s voice called. Panting a little, she pushed past me and knelt down beside the bandit, laying her hand on his throat. “He’s alive. Help me get him to the healer’s tent.”

Two hill guards hurried forward to hoist the unconscious bandit up. Meanwhile, Arian was murmuring to Adela. The injured woman wobbled to her feet and followed the procession bearing the bandit. The crowd parted and then closed silently behind them.

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