Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (21 page)

Twenty-two

O
utside, afternoon became evening, and evening, night. The light turned dusky and faded away, leaving our hiding place engulfed in shadows as thick and black as pitch. I couldn’t make out Arian’s face, or even the movement of my own hand any more.

After an hour or so a faint silver light began to creep into the cave, slowly gaining strength. The moon was rising. Its pale light reflected from the surface of the river, marking it with long grey ripples as it lapped at the sand. I watched the water with weary, sleepless eyes. Arian lay beneath me like the stone Livia had once called him. My hand clasped his wrist tightly – the faint pulse of his blood against my palm was the only reassurance that he was not already gone. He barely seemed to be breathing.

When at last he stirred, my first thought was that I had imagined it. The faint sigh could have been a sound from the water, or the sand settling around us, or a night creature burrowing. Then, after an endless moment, a soft, complaining grumble vibrated through Arian’s chest. The shoulder under my face twitched.

Moving slowly, holding my breath, I unwound myself from his body. Bracing my hands on the sand on either side of his head, I peered down at him. Faint glints of light showed me that his eyes were open. I stared into his dimly lit face, watching those tiny glints move as his gaze circled the dark place where we lay, then moved across to the water, and finally shifted back to me.

“Arian?” I whispered. Would he recognize me? Would he even be able to speak?

There was a long pause. Then he whispered, “You’re bleeding.”

I sighed, relief making my body flush with warmth. “Never mind that. Do you know who I am?”

He swallowed, coughed and leaned sideways, as though trying to sit. I held him down with one hand.

“Let… Let me up,” he said, his tone a mixture of confusion and annoyance.

“No. You were injured; you need to lie still.”

“You’re bleeding. I have to look at your head.”

I took my hand off his chest to touch my face, and found a long streak of gore. It had dried along my check and chin, and flaked off under my fingers. “It’s nothing. My scalp got scratched, that’s all.”

“Let me up,” he said more strongly. “You’d call it a scratch if someone stuck you through with a pike.”

“I’m all right,” I said, exasperated, as I pinned him down again. “Stop struggling or—”

He went rigid. Then his chest heaved. I got hastily out of the way as he rolled onto his side and began to retch. He brought up what seemed like a gallon of river water, and then flopped back with a muffled groan.

“I told you,” I said softly, smoothing the sweaty hair back from his forehead with no more thought than if he were a child. I scooped up a couple of handfuls of sand to throw over the mess he had made, then rinsed my hands in the river. “You were hit in the head hard enough to knock you out for hours. Chances are you’ll be sick for a while.”

“What happened? Where are we?”

“You don’t remember anything?”

He made an impatient gesture with his hand, then covered his face with it. “I remember … an ambush. Arrows. Razia?”

I hesitated for a second. “I’m sorry. She was dead before you went into the water.”

“I went into the— I did what?” He took his hand away from his face.

“One of the rebels clubbed you. You fell over the edge of the cliff and into the river.”

“Why aren’t I dead?”

“Luca and I saw you fall. He shouted that you couldn’t swim and told me to go after you. So I jumped in.”

“He ordered you to jump off the cliff into the
river
?”

I shifted sheepishly. “I think he probably expected me to climb down and try to pull you out. But I couldn’t see you and I thought I would be too late.”

He covered his face with his hand again. “We should
both
be dead.”

“Well, we aren’t. Say, ‘Thank you, Frost.’”

“Thank you, Frost.” His tone sounded more grumpy than grateful. “Now help me up.”

“I don’t think—”

“No, you don’t, but I’ll overlook it this once. Lying here is making me feel worse. Help me up.”

I was tempted, just for a second, to fold my arms and watch him struggle. But I was sure that he would keep on trying until he hurt himself, and that wouldn’t do either of us any good. I knelt up and slid my arm under his back, feeling the ridges of scar tissue there drag against my skin. I held my other arm above him. “Grab my arm.”

He obeyed. With an effort that made my stomach muscles cramp, I managed to get him upright. Some more pushing and manoeuvring arranged him so that he could rest against the back wall of the cave. He hissed a little when his bare back touched the mossy earth, and I picked up his thin undershirt, which was more or less dry now, and draped it behind him.

“Put yours on too,” he said gruffly. Something about the angle of his head made me think that he had averted his eyes. “You’ll freeze to death.”

“I’m all right,” I said. But his words had made me conscious of how little I was wearing. I picked my shirt up and pulled it on over the breast-wrapping.

“Can you tell me where we are?” he asked.

“Not really. The river dragged us downstream a long way, then the channel suddenly widened and we floated for a while until the cliffs disappeared.”

“Then we might not be on the River Mesgao any more,” he said. “We could have been sucked into a tributary. When it’s light I’ll climb up and see if I can recognize anything that might help us guess our location.”

“You shouldn’t be climbing anywhere so soon. You stay here and I’ll go out—”

“What would be the use in that? You’ve already said you have no idea where we are.”

“I didn’t mean to reconnoitre,” I snapped. “I meant to gather firewood and forage for food. You can’t even move without wanting to vomit. Who do you think will have to drag you back here if you faint and fall in the water? Show some common sense.”

To my surprise, instead of ripping back at me, he laughed. The low, husky noise filled the dark cave, and I sat back, shocked. I had never heard him laugh like that before. I didn’t think I’d ever heard him laugh at all.

“What? What did I say?” I demanded.

“Nothing, really,” he said, sighing. “I appreciate your advice. But we can’t stay here. We need to get to the others.”

“We don’t know where they are.”

“We’ll go back to the old campsite. I’ll wager anything that that’s where Luca and the rest are by now.”

I didn’t want to say it, but the words wouldn’t be contained. “If Luca’s still alive. If any of them are.”

There was a heavy silence, then Arian said, “Of course Luca is alive. We were winning. I remember that much.”

“We were outnumbered. Two to one, at least. And more rebels were coming. We were in retreat. Anything could have happened. We weren’t there. I wasn’t there—” I managed to stem the flow of words, breaking off with a gasp.

“You followed your captain’s orders,” he said quietly. “That’s all any soldier can do. He sent you to save me, and you did. You should be proud of yourself, not blaming yourself for things you have no control over.”

I pressed my lips tightly together. Finally, I said, “A lot of them are going to be dead, aren’t they?”

Arian hesitated. “Death is part of a soldier’s life. There’s no shame in surviving.”

I scooted over and leaned back against the cave wall beside him. “But you said you were sure Luca is alive.”

“He is,” Arian said firmly. “I would know it if anything had happened to him. I’ve always been able to tell when he was in trouble. He’s fine. I promise.”

My eyes went back to the slow grey ripples on the water. “Is that how you were able to save him from the fire?”

I knew it wasn’t my imagination that Arian’s voice had chilled when he said, “Did Luca tell you about that?”

“Yes. You don’t have to talk to me about it if you don’t want to. Only … I hope we’re friends now, aren’t we?”

“I acknowledge that Luca was right about you. You’re a valuable member of the hill guard.” His tone was flat.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”

“You don’t have to pretend to like me, just to be polite. You can be a friend to Luca and still hate my guts. Everyone else in camp manages it.”

“I don’t hate you!” I twisted around, trying to see his face. “You’re rude, mean, stubborn, and as bad-tempered as a mule, but I like you anyway. The rest of the hill guards would too, if you would only let them. The way you treat people, it’s as if you do it on purpose, like you almost want them all to dislike you…”

Arian turned his head away. My mouth dropped open.

“It’s true, isn’t it? You have done it on purpose. Why? Why do you want people to despise you?”

He laughed again, but this time the sound was bitter.

“They would anyway. It’s easier if they loathe me because I’ve chosen it.”

As I stared into the shadows that surrounded Arian, I saw in my mind the terrible scars on his back.

Who hated him so much? Who convinced him he would always be hated, no matter what he did?

“What were you just saying to me, Arian? About not feeling guilty over things you can’t control? That there’s no shame in surviving?”

His breath was loud in the darkness. “Don’t throw my words back at me. You don’t know me.”

“Well, that’s not my fault! You’ve never told me – or anyone in the hill guard – a single thing about yourself,” I retorted. “Come on, then. What’s your big secret? What’s so important that you think it justifies acting like a wounded boar all the time?”

“I should never have been born,” he said, spitting out the words like rocks. “I’ve already told you that. I killed my own mother. And every day when my grandfather looked at me and saw these eyes – these Sedorne eyes – he saw the man who destroyed his daughter living in his house, eating his food. Breathing, when she would never breathe again. He punished me for that soldier’s sins. And when he got too old and feeble to punish me himself, he let the other villagers do it. I was everyone’s whipping boy. I was lucky to survive to the age of nine, and I doubt I’d have made it to ten. Do you know how Lord Petru found me? Did Luca tell you that?”

“No.” My hands had doubled up into fists, but I kept my voice steady. I was sure that the faintest hint of pity would shut his mouth up like a bear trap.

“He was visiting the village where I lived. Luca was with him. Lord Petru was talking to the elders, my grandfather was among them. Luca wandered away from the meeting and found me at the river. A group of boys were ducking me. Holding me under until I passed out, then dragging me up, letting me come round, and ducking me again. Luca tried to make them stop and they turned on him and beat him too, not realizing who he was. The commotion fetched everyone, including Lord Petru and my grandfather. Lord Petru saw the scars and bruises and my bony ribs sticking out, and he pitied me and took me away and tried to make me one of his family. Instead I was the end of their family. I ruined everything, drove Ion to the Mad King and triggered the events that caused the fire—”

“Stop it!” I interrupted. “It wasn’t the way you’re making it sound. Luca told me what really happened. You were a child and Ion was insane. It wasn’t your fault.”

“He didn’t tell you that,” Arian said flatly. “He didn’t tell you it was Ion’s fault. Luca never blamed him for what happened. He blames himself. And that’s my fault too. They were happy before I came and afterwards they were dead. None of it would have happened if it weren’t for me. So forgive me if I don’t want to make friends with anyone new. I’ve already destroyed enough people.”

His logic was familiar. Horribly familiar. Every word of self-loathing he spoke was one I had used to punish myself in my own mind. And yet, when I heard it from him, it seemed wrong. Why should he take the blame for Ion’s actions? Why should he blame the child he had been for things that were out of that child’s control?

“You’re not the only one, Arian,” I said slowly. “Not the only one who was unwanted. Not the only one who had to live with a curse like that. When I was eight years old my village wanted to burn me.”

“They – what?”

“You heard me. Village boys attacked me and I fought back. When the men dragged me off their sons they hit me with sticks until I was half dead and threw me in a barn and bolted the door. They thought I was possessed by a demon. I was stuck there for three days with broken ribs and no food or water, listening to them debate setting fire to the building, listening to my mother beg for mercy. I licked the wet mould on the walls to stay alive. By the time I escaped I wished I
had
died.”

“Demons?” The bitterness was gone from his voice now. “That’s barbaric. No one with a grain of sense believes in demons. You were just a little girl. They ought to have been beating their sons, not you.”

“But their sons hadn’t gone insane and started snarling and howling like a wolf, had they?” I said wearily. “You’ve seen me when the battle rage takes me. It’s not natural. It’s a curse. The villagers wanted to burn me because they were terrified of me. And they were right to be scared. My mother and I ran away, and found another place to live, but the same thing happened again. One of the village boys tried to—” I broke off, shaking my head fiercely as if I could shake the memories away. “He was six years older than me. There was no way I could fight back. But when he hit me he drew blood. And the Wolf came again. It beat him until his face was gone. I can still remember the way his skull cracked under my fists. Coming back to myself, hands and clothes all covered in blood and bits of bone.”

“Frost…”

“The boy’s family wanted me killed. They were going to drown me that time. My mother begged for mercy again and in the end the elders banished us. It happened every time.
Every time
. Because we were alone and vulnerable, there was always someone who wanted to hurt us. Then the Wolf would come, and when it was done we took the blame. We ended up in a tiny, tumbledown village in the middle of nowhere, where everyone was half-starved. My mother was ill. She was so tired, so worn down, that she couldn’t practise her trade any more, and we had no money for food. I went out to hunt for us, and the village women promised that if I brought them some of the meat they would care for her while I was gone. But when I got back she was dead. They were too afraid to enter the house. I don’t know if they were more afraid of catching her fever, or my curse. The rumours had followed me, you see. Ma died alone, and cold, and without anyone to hold her hand. Because of me.”

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