Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (3 page)

“What’s wrong? I thought you said she wasn’t hurt.”

Inside me – in the cold place – a piercing, lonely cry rang out. It filled my ears. The men’s lips were still moving, but I could no longer hear either of them.

All I could hear was the Wolf.

The colours were slowly leaching out of my vision. I blinked, and the world was blue and grey and silver. The only red left was the bright liquid spilling from my hand. The second man moved slowly towards me, his hands lifting in a calming gesture. I tried to back away again – but there was nowhere for me to go.

No
. I begged silently.
Not now. I’m so close. Please…

The connection between me and my body shattered.

Sound rushed back. Vision sharpened. Muscles tensed.

The Wolf’s lips peeled back over its teeth as it scented blood.

Two

I
didn’t dare open my eyes.

My skull throbbed in time with my heartbeat. I was stiff and bone-deep sore. There was a maddening itch from the wound on my right hand. But the worst thing was the shame churning in my belly. Tears squeezed out from under my eyelids and slid down my face.

Oh, Father. It happened again.

There was a tiny squeak, as of leather. My eyes snapped open. Teardrops blurred my sight. There was a man sitting on a low stool next to me.

The goatherd.

The shabby, voluminous robes were gone. Instead he wore a fine linen shirt, unlaced at the throat, soft leather breeches and polished boots. And there was a sword at his waist. As I watched, his fingers tightened on the weapon.

I looked up into his face, and froze like a rabbit facing a leopard. Those green eyes were flat and cold and more menacing than a shouted death threat. When he looked away I breathed a sigh of relief – until I saw that his jaw was marked with four deep, distinct claw marks.

“She’s awake,” he called out, standing.

I tried to take in as much information about my surroundings as I could. It was dim, but I could see that the walls were planed wooden planks, the roof low and unplastered. It was a small space, and there were no windows. The only light came from a narrow opening high up in the roughly cut iron-bolted door. The room smelled of straw and livestock. Like a barn.

My chest started to tighten. I forced myself to concentrate on what I could hear. Voices. Some distant, some closer. Birdsong. Jingling and heavy stamping that grew louder and than faded away – horses being led. The ringing noise of metal being beaten into shape.

It was too familiar. All of it. It reminded me … reminded me…

Stop it. Stop thinking about it!

The door swung open. Late-afternoon sunlight flooded the room, and my eyes watered still more as I squinted at the man standing silhouetted against the light.

“I hope you’re ready to answer some questions, my would-be assassin,” the silhouette said. I recognized his voice. It was the second man on the hillside, the one with dark eyes. “I have to confess, I’m not feeling very patient.”

I tried to raise my hands to shield my face from the sun, so that I could see him properly – and felt the weight of metal encircling my wrists. Thick iron manacles bound my hands together.

The fear I had been desperately suppressing broke free and ripped through me with claws of ice. The iron chains clanked as my body began to shake. In an instant, I was eight years old again and locked up in Elder Gallen’s barn. I could hear the priests chanting outside, and smell the smoke.

Father, help me.

I surged to my feet, abused muscles screaming, head filled with the roar of fire.

The goatherd stepped hastily towards me. I threw my full weight at him, ramming him into the wall. The little wooden structure shuddered with the impact. The goatherd grunted, breath driven out of him. I pushed him away and dived towards the open door.

The silhouette put one arm out in a horrible imitation of an embrace. I slammed the manacles down, not caring if I broke his wrist. But he was too quick. He whipped his arm back and wrapped it around my shoulders instead, his other arm going around my waist, so that I was crushed against him, just inches from freedom.

I bucked and squirmed. His arms were like iron, stronger even than the cuffs on my wrists. Distantly, I was aware of his voice rumbling as he spoke to me, but I couldn’t make out the words. All I knew was that I had to get away before the priests came and lit the fire.

My eyes took in everything outside the cell. It was surrounded by canvas tents of all shapes and sizes, their walls streaked with green and yellow and blue paint.
Some kind of camp?
Beyond the tents I could see the forest and the mountains. I had to get to them: get away, hide. I had to run until no one could find me.

The silhouette took a step back. He was trying to drag me back inside.

I screamed. It was a high-pitched shriek, like a rabbit in a snare.

“Calm down,” he said. “For the Mother’s sake, stop fighting.”

Stop fighting. Stay quiet. Stay out of trouble.

I jerked forward with every bit of strength I had, and felt his grip around my shoulders slip. At the same moment, my legs were swept out from under me and I crashed backwards. My head hit something with enough force to make my vision flare with black and silver spots. Then the black and silver faded and everything went white again.

 

I
hear their voices in the wind. In the movement of water. In the rustle of the leaves. No matter what I dream, they are there. They hide beneath the surface. Watching. Waiting. The world of my dreams always grows colder. The dream sun always sets. And when the stars come out, I must run…

Three

A
fterwards – after it happened – I always pretended that I couldn’t remember anything. I pretended that the Wolf had stolen my mind as well as my body. But it wasn’t true. I was still there. Held back by walls of ice, unable to speak or so much as twitch a finger, I watched it all happen.

I remember the Wolf leaping up the slope towards Ulem and Marik and the shock and sudden fear on their faces. I remember it clawing and kicking and hitting until they were both down; until the noise of their screams brought the whole village running; until Elder Gallen and two other men dragged the Wolf – dragged me – off the boys, still howling and fighting.

I remember every moment of the Wolf’s attack. And I remember how good it felt.

I tried to tell myself that it was only the Wolf’s pleasure I experienced, the Wolf’s exultation in pain and violence. But that was a lie too. A part of me had enjoyed what the Wolf did with my body. A part of me had wanted to hurt those boys. Had wanted to hurt them as much as they had hurt me.

Looking back, a part of me still does.

The men took the chains from a plough shear and wrapped them around the Wolf’s arms and legs. They dragged it through the village and threw it into Elder Gallen’s little barn and left it there.

For a long time, the Wolf fought the chains. It was not strong enough to break them, though, not then. Finally, I suppose its strength gave out. The Wolf stopped struggling and fell asleep.

And I woke up.

“Her skull is intact, but she’s going to be very sorry for herself when she wakes up. Did you really have to hit her this hard, especially so soon after the last time?” The voice was female. It sounded old, and a little grumpy – like someone who was used to being in charge.

“I told you; I didn’t hit her. She hit her own head on the door.” That was the goatherd: words sharp edged, like flint.

“After you kicked her legs from under her. Yes.”

There was a short pause and then a different voice, the voice of the man who had caught me and told me to stop fighting. “She
was
trying to escape, Livia. Arian was just doing his job.”

“I think she’s coming around,” said the woman. “Holy Mother, she’s only a child. Can’t be any more than sixteen.”

“Sev … seventeen…” I mumbled. My lips felt thick and dry.

“Oh? Well, that’s still a baby to me, my girl. Open your eyes now.”

I struggled to obey her, reacting to the tone just as I always had to my mother’s no-nonsense commands. I winced from the light, then sighed as someone put something wet and cool on my forehead. It smelled of herbs – plants that I had known the names of once, before my mother had realized what I was and banned me from her stillroom. There had been no point in remembering their names after that.

A woman was leaning over me. She was pale-skinned but deeply tanned; the fine wrinkles around her eyes and mouth placed her age in the mid-sixties. Iron-grey hair straggled from an untidy knot at the nape of her neck. There was a funny mark on one side of her face, a blueish smudge that curved around her left eye onto one bony cheekbone. A tattoo. I squinted, trying to focus on it. Stars. Tiny flowers. A rabbit – no, a hare, staring up at the stars above one grey brow.

“That’s my healer’s mark you’re gawping at,” the woman said briskly. “If you can see enough to gawp, your eyes are most likely all right.”

“Where…?” My voice ran out and turned into a dry cough. My head throbbed and I groaned weakly.

“Here.” The second man spoke again. “Let her drink this.”

The woman brought a wooden cup to my lips. I sipped and then gasped as heat spread down my throat and into my belly. My head began to clear a little. I managed to whisper, “Thank you.”

“Well, you were right, Lieutenant,” the woman said, arching an eyebrow. “She’s a fierce berserker assassin, all right. I should never have got you to unlock those manacles.”

Unlock the manacles?
I lifted my hands – arm muscles twitching feebly – and went weak with relief when I realized the chains were gone. I also saw that my wounded hand had been neatly bandaged with a clean cloth.

“Where am I?” I croaked.

“You’re at the royal hill-guard encampment and back in the cell you tried to escape from about ten minutes ago,” the healer said. “I’m Livia, and these other two are Captain Luca and his lieutenant, Arian.” She patted my arm, then began to stand, grunting with the effort.

“Don’t go,” I whispered, clutching at her hand. She was my only protection against these two strange men. I didn’t want to be alone with them.

The woman’s face softened, but she shook her head. “Sorry, child. I’ve done all I can for you. Just tell the truth and I’m sure everything will be well. And no more running about for a while, understand? You’ll do yourself in next time.”

The healer cast me a look that I thought was meant to be reassuring and then went to the door. I closed my eyes against the glare of the sun, and when I opened them again she was gone, the door shut behind her. The goatherd had positioned himself against it, as if to ensure I did not try to run again. The other man was taking the healer’s place on the stool next to the mattress. He laced long, sinewy fingers together and leaned forward, clearly waiting for me to speak.

Even when he was sitting, I could see that he was taller than the other one, though not as bulky; his long limbs folded up gracefully in the limited space. He looked as if he were in his late teens, maybe twenty at most. His skin was pale, lightly tanned, and he had very long hair. Longer than mine, even. It was the rich dark-gold of blossom honey, streaked with lighter shades, and had been drawn back from his broad forehead into a simple braid. The gleaming rope of it fell over one muscled shoulder. His face was heart-shaped, with a sharp, determined chin and a thin blade of a nose. If the goatherd was a leopard, ruthless and rippling with muscle, then this one was a bird of prey. Beautiful and deadly.

It was unbelievable. This man – with the goatherd’s help – had actually brought the Wolf down. Without killing it. Without killing me.

I realized that he was staring at me just as intensely as I was at him, a thoughtful frown pulling at his brow. A shaft of light from the barred opening in the door fell across his eyes. They were like deep, still water – so blue that in certain lights they might almost look black.

“Admiring your handiwork?” he asked.

His voice was deep for a young man, and deceptively gentle. My gaze followed his pointing finger to his forehead where, I now saw, there was a red, puffy area exactly matching the shape of my own knuckles.

“It was a good hit,” he continued. “Not many people can get past my guard. What I’d like to know is why. Why save Arian twice and then turn on us? What are you?”

I couldn’t speak. My heart jumped wildly, and each deafening beat forced the air from my lungs.
What are you?
How could I answer that? I didn’t know myself.

He sighed. “Silence is not a good policy. If you refuse to answer my questions, I’ll be forced to assume the worst. Although if you are an assassin, you employed a very odd strategy today.”

I tried to answer – to deny the accusation – but my throat tightened on the words, nearly choking me.
Say something! Say anything!

“Odd or not, it nearly worked,” the goatherd chimed in. “You’re lucky you didn’t succeed, girl. Luca stopped me from finishing the job earlier, but if it were up to me, you would already be dead.”

I could see, in the blank iciness of his eyes, that he was telling the truth.

“I’m n–not an assassin,” I managed to stutter, forcing the words out. “I d–didn’t want to hurt anyone. I was just trying to help.”

“We didn’t ask for your help,” the goatherd said sharply.

“People shouldn’t have to be asked! I thought the bandits were going to kill you! I couldn’t just sit by and watch.” I looked back at the other man – Luca. “Th–Then suddenly
you
were there. I thought I’d walked into the middle of a trap. I’m sorry I attacked you – but I p–panicked. I thought I was defending myself.”

The dark-blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “The trap wasn’t meant for you. We were trying to find the lair of some bandits who’ve been kidnapping the locals and selling them as slaves over the border and … other places. It was unfortunate that you stumbled into it. Where do you come from?”

There was no point in lying. “Uskaand.”

“You’re a long way from Uskaand,” the goatherd said, disbelief evident. “Who were you travelling with?”

“N–No one. I was alone.
Am
alone.” The words were stark and painful; I hated him for making me say them.

“Why are you in Ruan?” Luca asked.

I opened my mouth, then closed it again, my gaze travelling warily between the two men. “My ma died last winter. I don’t have anyone else. She used to talk about Ruan and the Goddess in the Fire. I had nowhere else to go, so I came here.”

“The Goddess in the Fire? Do you mean the Holy Mother?” Luca asked.

“The G–Goddess in the Fire,” I repeated stubbornly.

“And you came a thousand miles, alone, to seek a bedtime story your mother told you.” The goatherd shook his head. “You honestly expect us to swallow that?”

“It’s the truth.”

The light rippled over Luca as he stood up, showing colours like a tiger’s eye stone in his long plait. “You’ve been through a lot today. I’ll talk to you again tomorrow – after you’ve eaten and slept. Maybe then your story will make more sense.”

“You’re going to k–keep me locked up here?” I demanded between gritted teeth. “I didn’t do anything wrong. You can’t—”

“We have every right to hold you,” Luca said. “You attacked us.”

“I t–told you. I was afraid! I panicked!”

“You didn’t fight like a panicked young girl. You fought like some kind of wild animal, and you howled like one too. You’re hiding something. It’s the hill guards’ job to keep these mountains safe. I don’t believe it would be safe to let you go without knowing the truth as to why you’re here and what you intend to do.”

“I’m n–not lying. I just want to go on my way. Let me go!”

“I’m sorry.” He did look sorry, just for a second, then his back straightened.

He left the cell without another word.

The goatherd closed the door behind the other man and moved silently to the foot of the mattress to look down at me. One of his hands was clenched on his sword hilt, the knuckles yellow-red with the force of his grip.

“If you carry on lying, eventually he’ll give up and march you down to the elders in Mesgao.”

“I’m not ly—”

He cut me off. “Once the elders have you locked up you’re no problem of mine, and I don’t care what you do. But while you’re in this camp I won’t be taking my eyes off you for a single second. If you do anything, anything at all, to make me suspect you intend to harm him a second time, I will execute you. Immediately, and without warning. Luca won’t like that – but he’s an honourable man. I’m not. Bear it in mind.”

He turned, ripped the door open and went out. I heard the grating sound of a rough iron lock sliding into place on the outside. It took me a few seconds to be able to breathe again.

Shaking, I curled up on my side, making myself into as small a target as I could. The herbal compress slipped off my forehead, but I didn’t try to hold it on. My hands went to my chest, where the familiar pointed shape of the wolf tooth made a hard lump under my shirt. I clutched it through the coarse material.

Oh, Father. I have to get away. I have to get to the Goddess.

Before I kill someone again.

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