Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (4 page)

Four

I
was kneeling on the mattress, searching the wooden planks of the cell wall for cracks or weaknesses, when I heard the sound of approaching footsteps. A shadow moved over the golden bar of light cast by the narrow opening in the door, turning the cell cold and dark. There was a sharp knock, then an impatient voice. “Do you want to eat or not?”

I heaved myself to my feet just as a wooden tray was thrust through the opening. It tipped forward, and I had to lunge across the little space to grab it before it fell.

“Wasting good food on bad rubbish,” the man on the other side of the door muttered. His footsteps were heavy as he stomped away, letting the light back into the cell.

I looked down at the tray, expecting to see stale bread and mouldy cheese, if I was lucky. Instead, I found a clay plate of neatly sliced flatbreads and a small bowl of some kind of yellow peas. There was another bowl filled with what I guessed must be meat stew, although it was a strange red colour, and a cup of water. Everything save the water was steaming faintly. They had even given me a spoon.

No wonder the man had been annoyed. Surely normal prisoners did not eat like this. Perhaps Livia had intervened on my behalf. For a moment, the thought warmed me, then I shook it away.
Stupid.
It did not matter who had ordered the food. I could not afford to feel gratitude towards anyone here. Not if I was to survive.

The smells coming from the tray were spicy and unfamiliar but good. I turned to sit on the mattress, and felt my foot slip down into a depression in the floor. I wobbled, and only just managed to save the tray. Here was something…

Immediately my hunger faded to the back of my mind. I put the food and water out of the way on the bedding and knelt down. The tips of my fingers skated over the ground, exploring the corner of the cell where the ground dipped. My own shadow made it impossible to see anything, but it didn’t matter. I knew what I could feel. A gap under the planks of the wall that was just big enough for the first and second joints of my fingers.

My breath sped up in excitement. Maybe an animal had tried to burrow its way in, or perhaps a recent flood had reformed the earth. But however it had happened, the gap was there.

Trepidation held me still for a long moment. What if they caught me trying to escape again? What if they had left this gap here on purpose as a kind of test? I ruthlessly stepped on these fears. I couldn’t let them make me weak. If I stayed I was sure to die – or kill. The only way to avoid that was to run.

And now I had a way out of this prison.

I looked around determinedly. I needed a digging tool. The bucket in the corner was too splintered and old.
The stool?
No, that would be too easily missed if I smashed it up. My eyes fell on the large, crude metal spoon on the tray of food. It was the next best thing to a spade. But if it were missing when someone returned for the tray, they would notice. It was the sort of thing jailers paid attention to – it was why there was no knife.

I would have to hide the theft of the spoon in a larger misdeed, something that would make them so angry that no one would realize the spoon was gone until it was too late.

I let myself drink the water. My throat was painfully dry, and I had no way of knowing when I might get more. Besides, no one would miss it once I was done. Then I allowed myself two mouthfuls of the peas, two of the stew, and two small pieces of flatbread. The spices in the food burned my mouth, but it was the best thing I had tasted in weeks, maybe months. My stomach cramped painfully, making hollow noises as it begged for more. I ignored it.

Regret made my limbs slow and heavy as I took the tray to the door. One by one, I shoved everything out of the narrow opening. I heard the thick clay plate and pots smash as they hit the earth and the splatter of the wasted food. I was about to put the tray out too – but, after weighing it in my hand, instead broke it into splinters under my foot, keeping one corner intact, and then threw the remaining pieces out. It would make a good scoop.

With my eyes on the wall, where the rectangle of sunlight from the slot in the door would warn me if someone approached, I dragged my mattress away from the other wall. Then I sat on it, so I was blocking the corner of the cell from view and pulled the leather thong from around my neck. I quickly kissed the smooth curve of the wolf fang.

“I beg your pardon, Father,” I whispered.

Taking a firm grip on the tooth – the bandage wrapped around my fingers helped – I began to hack at the rock-hard surface of the earth under the gap. The first few inches of dirt were almost impossible to break into. Sweat dripped down my forehead. I gritted my teeth and stabbed harder, the menace of the goatherd’s last words echoing in my mind. He’d make me suffer a lot worse than this.

The serrated underside of the tooth dug into my thumb, and the bandage around my hand began to flap loose. My head protested the activity by sending spikes of pain through my skull and into my eyes.

The earth dimpled. Then cracked.

With a sigh of relief, I wiped the crumbs of soil off the tooth and hung the leather thong back around my neck, tucking it safely down under my shirt again. I had to stop and flex my stiff fingers for a few moments before I was able to pick up the spoon.

Grunting with effort, I worked the thin edge of the spoon’s bowl down into the crack I had made, prising away the top layer of dirt to get at the softer, looser stuff beneath. After a few minutes the handle of the spoon was digging painfully into the sore spot on my thumb. I stopped with a muttered oath. I couldn’t afford to get a blister. It would slow me down. After considering for a moment, I unravelled the bandage from around my fingers and rewrapped it tightly around the spoon’s handle. I tested the grip and nodded in satisfaction.
Good
.

The wound the bandit had made on my hand was a sore red line that itched furiously as I worked, but just like the rumbling of my stomach and the threat of splinters from the underside of the wall, I ignored it. I knew that by tomorrow it would have scabbed over and in another day it would be gone completely, leaving no mark behind. I healed fast. Very fast. And I never scarred. It had been that way since the Wolf first took me. If the hill guards had realized just how quickly I would recover, they would have been a lot more cautious about taking those manacles off.

I managed to clear a foot-long section of hard earth from the corner of the cell. I had shoved the chunks of dirt under the thin, straw-filled mattress. It bulged strangely, but the bedding was lumpy anyway, so I hoped no one would notice. Then I heard footsteps. I hastily shoved my digging tools under the mattress and huddled into a ball in front of the hole I had dug as the light from the opening in the door disappeared. The air filled with an outraged cursing as someone caught sight of the mess I had made. I kept my head down and waited for him to go away. There was more swearing and banging, as he bad-temperedly cleaned up the wasted food and ruined pottery. When the noises stopped, I waited another minute, just to be sure he wasn’t coming back, and then I got to work again.

By the time the rectangle of sunlight had slid across the wall to sit above my head, the gap was large enough that I could fit one arm and my shoulder through it. In the opening I saw tall grass and undergrowth, as well as the piles of dark earth that I had scooped up and out of the cell. If anyone decided to take a walk around the back of the prison, I would be dead. The thought only made me work faster.

I had stopped to pick a splinter from the back of my hand when the sunlight died out of the cell again. I frowned. No footsteps had approached. Had a cloud moved over the sun?

I jumped like a spring hare when Luca’s voice came through the door.

“I’m told you don’t care for our food,” he said. “Any particular reason?”

I shrank deeper into the corner of the cell, using my body to conceal as much of the gap as I could.

I heard a faint thud – as if he had let his head fall against the door. When he spoke again his voice was softer. “You must feel like death dragged through a ditch right now. But you’ll only make yourself feel worse by refusing to eat. If I send more food, will you throw it out again?”

Was I supposed to believe that he cared? Maybe he thought he could trick me. I clutched my digging tools to my chest.

“I don’t even know your name,” he muttered, as if he were speaking to himself. “How can you reason with someone when you don’t know their name? Listen. We don’t want to harm you. You’re not in danger in this camp.”

I will execute you. Immediately, and without warning…

I squeezed myself into a tighter ball.

“We are the royal hill guard. Do you understand what that means? We follow and enforce the reia’s law. That means no torturing prisoners. It means everyone gets a fair trial. We risk our lives patrolling these mountains to keep the local people safe from the Sedorne bandits. We’re the good ones. You don’t need to be frightened of us.”

There was a long pause. Was he expecting a response? What did he want me to say?

The good ones?
As far as I had seen, the world was divided into people who were trying to kill you now and people who hadn’t tried yet. What did good and bad have to do with it?

“All right. I’ll leave you be for now. Here.”

There was a soft flumping noise. I peeked over my shoulder to
see
that he had shoved a folded blanket through the gap in the door. A leather waterskin followed, landing on the blanket with a wet slosh. I stared incredulously.

“Think about what I’ve said. If you tell me the truth, I can try to help you. We’re only enemies if you choose to make it so.”

His shadow moved away from the door. I listened for footsteps, but there were none. The man really was as silent as a bird of prey. I’d best remember that.

I waited a count of sixty before I stood, went to the door and peered out of the gap. One or two people were passing by, intent on their own business; there was no sign of Luca or his goatherd guardian.

I picked up the blanket and waterskin and checked them over carefully. The blanket was thick, double-woven wool, grey and soft with washing. The waterskin was well sealed, with no drips, and full.

Luca had just given me everything I needed to make my escape a success. This was too easy. Why would he give me these things? Not out of kindness. Not when the Wolf and I had attacked him and his man twice now. It made no sense. But he already had me locked up: luring me out only to chase me down again made no sense either.

No, it must be that these hill guards wanted me alive for more questioning. They thought I was a spy – someone with valuable information, perhaps. It was unlucky for them that I didn’t intend to wait around until they realized they were wrong.

By the time night fell, my shoulders, arms and back were quivering with tiredness. My fingers no longer had the strength to grasp the digging implements. Blisters were rising up on both my palms, and I had been forced to re-bandage my right hand and use the damp herbal compress Livia had made on the left.

But the gap under the wall was big enough for me to squeeze through.

I moved the mattress again, kicking and shoving at it with my feet so that it sat askew across the floor, hopefully concealing as much of the mess I had made as possible. Then I arranged myself on top of it and lay still, gingerly opening and closing my hands to try and work some strength back into them.

Someone walked past the cell and shone a lamp in. I tensed as I followed the path of their eyes in my imagination.

They moved on. I waited as long as I could bear, listening to the noises of the camp change with the darkness. When everything had been peaceful for some time, I went to the door and peered out again.

The camp was still under the cold blue starlight. I couldn’t see anyone near by, but that didn’t mean there was no one there – it was just too dark to be sure. I couldn’t afford to delay any longer, though. I needed to put the furthest possible distance between me and these people before sunrise.

I took the waterskin and blanket and pushed them out of the gap. Then I flattened myself against the dusty earth, pressing my belly and shoulders down and turning my face sideways. The rough wooden planks ripped out hairs from my braid and scraped my ear and cheek as I wriggled through the gap. I could feel the seams of my shirt strain across my back. The sensation of the wall pressing down on me, trapping me against the dirt, made me feel sick. I sucked in a deep breath, making myself as thin as possible – and popped out on the other side.

I lay face down in the dirty hollow I had made until the panic had passed away and my heart had slowed a little. Then I pulled myself into a crouch and looked around.

I couldn’t believe my luck. My cell was at the end of a long, single-storey building, and immediately behind it rose a little hill, covered in scrubby grass, weeds and bushes. I could be out of the camp and under cover in moments. I draped the blanket over one shoulder, put the strap of the waterskin across my body to hold the blanket in place and crept up the slope.

The sound of water reached my ears around halfway up. My heart sank. By the time I got to the top of the hill it was obvious why the prison had been built here. It wasn’t a hill at all. It was the edge of a ravine.

The river cut a winding channel through the rock at the bottom of a sheer, forty-foot drop. The tree cover on the other side of the ravine might as well have been a hundred miles away.

If I wanted to escape, I would need to head the other way. And it was no good trying to skirt the camp – that was where the sentries would be.

I had to go
through
the campsite.

I remembered the goatherd’s icy eyes and the hand clenching his sword hilt, and shivered. If he caught me running he would have all the excuse he needed. I would be dead before the Wolf had time to ascend.

Make sure he doesn’t catch you, then
, I told myself as I headed back down the slope. I pressed myself into the shelter of the prison wall, judging the distance to the nearest tent.
And stop wasting time
. I took a deep breath and ran flat out for the canvas wall, dropping down into a crouch when I reached it, heart thundering. No shouts. No arrows. Good so far.

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