Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (22 page)

Arian growled, “Those women were cowards. They lied to you. How could that possibly be your fault?”

“Arian – you don’t make any sense. If what happened to my mother wasn’t my fault, then how can what happened to Luca’s family be yours?”

He drew in a sharp breath. “It’s completely different.”

“Yes, it is different,” I said, hearing bitterness in my own voice now. “The reason your people hated you was far less reasonable. They hated you for being born. For having green eyes. They hated you just because you were there. You never hurt anyone – not like me. And I’ll tell you another thing that’s different between your story and mine. Someone found you, Arian, in the midst of your suffering. Lord Petru and Luca saw the goodness in you, and gave you a different life. And even if Lord Petru is gone now, at least you have Luca. He knows everything about you and he loves you anyway, loves you like family. I’ve never had that. My own
mother
was terrified of me. She used to flinch if I moved too suddenly. At night, every night, I heard her crying because of me, and what I had done.”

“No.”
He sounded almost desperate, as if my story had sickened him as much as his had sickened me. “Don’t say that.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “You’ve never forgiven yourself. Why should I?”

There was silence in the little cave for a few minutes.

“All right,” he said tiredly. “All right. You’re like a landslide when you get started, you know. First the tiny stones, then the pebbles and rocks, then the boulders, raining down on you until you’re squashed flat and all you can do is give up.”

I let out a tiny, slightly mad laugh. “I’ll try to count that as a compliment.”

“I shouldn’t if I were you.” His voice had gone back to its normal dry tone. “Come here. You’re shivering, and if we’re to get a good night’s rest we need to keep warm.”

At his insistence, I helped Arian to lie flat again. I thought it might make him sick for a second time, but after some deep, slow breaths through his nose he gestured at me to lie beside him. He seemed surprised when I fitted myself against his side without hesitation.

“This seems … familiar,” he said cautiously.

“I was keeping you warm earlier too,” I admitted. “While you were unconscious.”

He muttered something under his breath.

“What was that?” I asked, wondering if he could really have said,
Just my luck.

“Nothing, nothing,” he said. “Shut up and go to sleep.”

 

I
t is the end of the nightmare that I dread most. I can never escape it, no matter how long or hard I run. Always, it comes to this.

The steep, jagged rock face towers over me, and my hands cannot find purchase for even one hold. Sobbing and wheezing, I scrabble uselessly at the rocks with bleeding fingers, searching for a crack, a crevice, something,
anything,
that will allow me to keep running. There is nothing. I can go no further.

The howling of wolves rises, echoing from the rocks that will become my tomb, filling my ears. I turn to face them as they pour over the snow towards me. Without hesitation the first one leaps, teeth bared and flashing in the starlight. I scream…

And in the same moment my scream becomes a snarl; my screaming mouth a muzzle of sharp fangs. I fall upon my weakened prey, tearing into warm flesh, iron-sweet blood splattering and smearing across my fur.

When my hunger is satisfied, I raise my dripping face to the moon and share a howl of victory with my brothers.

We are the Wolf.

Fear us.

Twenty-three

I
propped myself up on one elbow and leaned over Arian. Even in sleep his face was grey and exhausted. He had made light of his injuries last night – but if anyone had the sheer stubbornness to start an argument when he was hovering at death’s door, it was Arian. I was sore and bruised and my brain was fuzzy from the previous day’s ordeal and the lack of food, and no one had even hit me on the head. And I knew that the Wolf was working away to heal me. Arian didn’t have that blessing, mixed as it was. He needed rest.

Dawn had only just broken. Light was glinting off the river, but it was still dim in the little cave. I could sneak out and gather firewood without waking him. Once I’d got a fire going, he might be willing to wait for me to find food to cook over it. That would keep him still for a few more hours at least…

“I can feel you staring,” he said, turning his head.

Abruptly we were nose to nose. Arian gulped audibly. I eased back, carefully wrapping my shirt around myself, hoping my cheeks weren’t too red.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“I have to get up sometime,” he said, eyes fixed determinedly on the roof of the cave.

“Not right now. I’m going to look for firewood and to see if I can find something for us to eat.”

“Do you know anything about the edible plants and fungi of this country?” he asked, still looking at the roof.

I pulled a face. “It can’t be that different from Uskaand. Or I could try to catch a fish.”

Arian sighed, then rolled onto his side and cautiously pushed himself up into a sitting position. He made no sound, but his clenched jaw and the film of sweat that sprang up on his face made it obvious how much effort the movement had cost him.

“Idiot. You’d poison both of us in your efforts to distract me. We’re not staying here, so put it out of your mind.”

“Do you have any idea how terrible you look? You won’t make it a mile in this state – and it might be fifty back to the old campsite. Why can’t you just be sensible?”

“I’m fine. I’ve survived a lot worse than this little bump.”

“I know,” I said grimly.

Instead of growling at me as I’d half expected, he gave me a wry smile. “Yes. So try and be sensible yourself for once. We need to find the others. We don’t have any hunting gear, or any food, and neither of us can forage well enough to keep us going for many days. I’m not going to get any better lying here until I starve to death. The first step is for me to try and figure out where we are. Then we can decide what to do next. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” I said grudgingly.

“Good. Now let’s get moving. The sooner we get out of this cave the better.”

“Bossy, bossy,” I muttered, crawling out from under the overhang onto the open sand.

“Says the woman who was pinning me to the ground last night,” Arian called after me.

The sun was coming up into a long bank of thin, hazy clouds, and I was grateful for its warmth on my aching flesh. My stiff, damp breeches and boots would soon dry out properly. I laced my shirt and rolled up the sleeves, then knelt creakingly down to drink from the river. I heard shuffling noises and a couple of swear words as Arian dragged himself out of the cave behind me. Then there was a splashing as he followed my example, drinking and then splashing his face with handfuls of the icy water.

“How’s your head?” he asked. “I never did look at it.”

“A bit sore,” I admitted.

“Your hair is full of blood. You ought to try and wash some of it out. It’ll attract insects.”

“Eugh.”
Suddenly unravelling my damp, knotted hair seemed like much less of a bother.

After a few minutes of vigorous and painful scrubbing, I wrung out the thick rope of hair and bent my head forward for Arian to examine my scalp. His blunt fingers probed carefully. A memory of Luca brushing my hair drifted through my mind, filling me with such confused emotions that I could barely separate pleasure from worry and embarrassment.

You are all right, aren’t you, Luca? Father, please let him be all right…

“There are some nasty deep scratches,” Arian said, breaking into my thoughts. “You need these cleaned out as soon as possible. Livia will probably want to stitch one or two of them. Can you rebraid your hair over the top? Then the flies won’t to be able to get in.”

I shuddered. “Yes. I can definitely do that.”

When I’d achieved a braid that pulled my wet hair over the worst of the scratches, I retrieved my axe, gave the blades – washed clean of blood by the river – a quick rub with the loose tail of my shirt and then put on my still clammy armoured jerkin and the axe-harness, which had only warped a little. The weight of the weapon made my back ache, but there was no chance I was leaving it behind. Lastly I buckled my vambraces and put on the gloves, which, though still damp, were wearable. My leather choker was almost completely dry, but it had shrunk and cracked and the metal studs were popping out. I reluctantly discarded it. Meanwhile, Arian was fastening his shirt and carefully pulling on his own jerkin. I resisted the urge to help. He wouldn’t appreciate it.

I approached the bank that curved around the little inlet, took two handfuls of the thick, coarse vegetation that grew over the edges, dug the tip of my boot in for traction, and heaved myself up onto the top. I tested the solidity of the ground with a few stamps, then leaned down and held my hands out to Arian.

He followed my path, grabbing my hands for the final pull that got him up over the edge. He was breathing heavily when he straightened up, and as he let go he made as if to touch his head, but checked the movement. Once again, I suppressed the urge to scold. I’d already seen that it made no difference. Instead I turned away to study the landscape that now lay before us. The bank sloped up for about a hundred yards before being hidden in the trees, and behind them I could see the shapes of the mountains. They didn’t look as far away as I’d expected.

“Any thoughts on where we might be?” I asked.

“We’ve been lucky. I’m sure this is still the Mesgao. I recognize that ridge, and I’d say we’re only a day’s hard tramp from the campsite. We might even meet the others on the way.”

“Then I suppose we should get going,” I said.

I chose to walk on Arian’s left and slightly behind him; I kept a careful eye on his gait so that if he staggered or fell I could at least try to catch him. The bank was not steep compared to most of the trails in the mountains, but by the time we reached the trees Arian’s breathing was uneven.

“I just need to hit my stride,” he said, without looking at me, as we moved into the shade of the forest. “Stop fussing.”

I rolled my eyes and pushed ahead of him, tramping down the undergrowth and holding back branches as unobtrusively as possible. He gave me a couple of annoyed looks, but didn’t ask me to stop, and that added to my worry. It was a steady uphill climb through the trees. Within an hour or so the rising sun had made the air humid and sticky and Arian’s face had taken on that worrying ashen look again.

I wanted to urge him to stop and rest, but I was sure if I suggested it he would shrug it off and walk faster just to prove he could. I began to listen for the sounds of a brook or stream. Drinking was a reason to stop that he wouldn’t be able to ignore.

By my reckoning it was nearly another hour before I picked up the sound of water ahead. Arian’s progress had slowed more and more – he had begun to walk with his hands slightly extended in front of him, as if he expected to fall. The tiny brook bubbled up swiftly out of a rocky fissure in the side of the hill, and as soon as we reached it Arian sat down on one of the sun-warmed rocks near by. That more than anything told me how exhausted he must be.

“Stubborn, prideful fool,” I muttered under my breath as I stripped off my gloves and hung them from my belt.

I examined the fissure, reassured by the coloured lichen and moss growing on the rocks. This was a sign that the water was good. I picked a large, waxy leaf off one of the bushes that were thriving around the brook and rolled it up into a tight cone shape, then let some of the water flow into it. Once I had filled the leaf I sniffed the water, dipped my finger in and tasted it. No strong metallic taste or residue on my tongue. Good.

I carried the water back to Arian. “Try to drink.”

“Not an invalid,” he said shortly. But he took the leaf and drained it in two gulps.

“More?”

He nodded. I refilled the leaf cone and brought it back. Again he gulped the water down. After a moment he laid back, putting his forearm over his eyes. I sat on the ground and leaned on the rock, pillowing my cheek on folded arms. Arian’s wheezy breaths seemed to even out, and I thought there was a hint of healthier colour in his face now.

“I can feel you watching. Again.”

“It’s not often I get the chance to look at such a rare pig head,” I said, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice. “I’m making the best of it.”

“It’s a good thing you’ve got those eyes,” he muttered a little sleepily. “Otherwise your mouth would scare all your lovers away.”

I snorted. “It’s a good thing you’ve got a skull like a rock, or your soft brain would have been beaten to a pulp by now.”

“It’s a good thing you’re here,” he said softly. “Or…”

“Or?” I said, after a minute had gone by.

A tiny snuffle answered me. He had fallen asleep.

I leaned my forehead on my arms, closing my eyes, and let myself drift for a few minutes. Then one of Ma’s sayings drifted into my mind. If someone had a head injury and kept falling asleep, it could be a bad sign. I lifted my head and squinted at Arian’s face. He looked peaceful enough, but how were you supposed to tell a natural sleep from something more sinister?

I stood up, leaning my hip against the edge of the rock as I gently pressed his shoulder. “Arian. Wake up.”

Reassuringly, his eyes blinked open at once. He focused on me without difficulty. “Did I…? Sorry.” He sat up carefully, rubbing the back of his neck.

“If you’re really tired then you should sleep, but we need to find somewhere with better cover,” I said, feeling guilty.

Arian opened his mouth as if to deny that he was the slightest bit tired, but apparently something in my eye warned him against it. He shrugged. “I suppose I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“Oh no, old greybeard. It must be a struggle to keep up with us youngsters, as ancient as you are.”

“I’m twenty,” he said, with dignity. “When I was your age I’d have shaken that blow off like a bee sting.”

“Of course you would,” I agreed calmly. “And you could sprout wings to drop rocks on your enemies’ heads as well. You knocked me out handily the day we met, and it took me two days to recover. And … I’ve an advantage you don’t.”

“Advantage…?”

I sat down on the rock next to him when his voice trailed off. “The Wolf.”

“You called it that last night. Is that how you think of your battle rage?”

I nodded silently. I didn’t intend to confide the full story of my curse to him, not here and not now. The truce between us still felt fragile, and only Luca could have accepted my mad ravings about gods and demons with barely the blink of an eye.

Arian was right when he said that Luca acted as if he were immortal.

I had a sudden vision of Luca falling, hurt, blood seeping onto his uniform. My chest seemed to contract. I had to gasp quietly for breath as panic tried to overwhelm me.

Arian frowned at me. “What’s the matter?”

I tried to laugh. The sound was feeble, and more telltale than a sob. “No, nothing. I was – I was thinking about Luca and about what you said before – that he … he has no fear. He needs us there, to remind him that he’s human. And we’re here instead. I can’t – what if—” My voice cut off.

Arian said softly, “I’ve been trying to keep him safe for years. Sometimes it feels as if I’m working
against
him, because the confidence he has, the faith … after everything he’s been through, it’s almost frightening.”

“He’s not like us, is he?” I said, staring down at my rough, scarred hands. “It’s as if people – normal people – are made of silver. Shiny to start with, but tarnished by time, by ill-treatment. Luca … Luca is gold. Nothing in the world could ever make him shine less brightly.”

“You understand him,” Arian said, sighing. “That’s good.”

Was it? Was it really good for me to know just how wide a gap lay between Luca and me, how mismatched we were? Could any love survive that great a disparity, even the love of a person like Luca? Because I wasn’t normal. I wasn’t silver. I had never been bright and shiny and clean.

I was base metal.

What if Luca wore himself out trying to turn me into gold?

Arian shifted closer to me on the rock, as if offering reassurance. “Frost … don’t
worry
so much all the time. You’ll wear yourself out.”

I laughed again, a better laugh this time. Grateful for the distraction, I turned to look at him. “You’re the last one in the world who should be giving that advice!”

He was closer than I had realized. I could see the tiny brownish-grey flecks in his eyes, and the dark green ring around the iris, and for the first time I realized that they were beautiful. Arian was beautiful. Perhaps in his own way as beautiful as Luca.

In the next moment his big, rough, fingers cupped my face. He brought our lips together, taking possession of my mouth. Shock – and something else, something guilty and excited that made me squirm – thrilled through me. I put a hand up blindly, and my palm found his heart. I could feel its fast, erratic rhythm. He was shaking.

I pushed at him. He resisted, fingers tightening on my face. Instantly fear overwhelmed shock. I smacked both my hands against his chest, bracing myself to struggle in earnest.

He released me.

I stared up at him. He was breathing hard, but his expression was indecipherable. I couldn’t tell if he was angry, embarrassed or disappointed. I couldn’t tell if
I
 was angry, embarrassed or disappointed.

Disappointed?

Before either of us could say anything, a strange voice called out: “Well, well – it looks like we’re interrupting something!”

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