Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (5 page)

The thump and slosh of the waterskin against the small of my back seemed deafening as I scuttled, crablike, from shadow to shadow, zigzagging through the outer ring of tents. Only the brilliance of the starlight allowed me to avoid tent pegs driven into the earth, casually abandoned camp chairs, washing pails and kicked-over campfires. But that same brilliance would betray me in an instant if anyone happened to glance my way.

When I reached the edge of the camp, I stopped for a moment, huddling in the grass against the wall of a small tent to catch my breath. Beyond this tent, there was an open area where the ground climbed gently towards the forest. I had to make it across that emptiness to get away. All it would take was one sentry to glance up at the wrong moment and—

I imagined the arrows thudding into my back and shivered again.

I found myself straining to hear something, any noise at all, from the camp. Whenever I had come across groups of soldiers in Uskaand they had been noisy, rowdy men, needing little excuse to shout, swear and brawl. This camp seemed eerily quiet in comparison. None of the tents even had a lamp burning in them as far as I could see.

Enough hesitating
, I told myself.
Go. Go now!

My muscles bunched in readiness for the last burst of speed I would need to see me away. But instead of running I froze.

Someone was singing. The deep golden voice echoed and carried through the still night air, until it seemed that he might be standing right beside me. The song was hauntingly familiar. It was an old folk song – a song that my ma had hummed all her life. Sometimes, when I was very small, she had sung it to me at night as she tucked me into bed.

“Farewell, my love, our time has come,

Long though I might to stay;

Our time has come, my one true love,

The world calls me away…”

Slowly other voices, male and female, began to join the first. The sweet, sad notes of a wood flute wove in among them, and a drum took up the slow rhythm of the melancholy song.

My scalp prickled. But it wasn’t fear this time. Longing was what I felt now, longing and loneliness, like a lost wolf listening to a strange pack howling in the night. Close by, so close, but utterly untouchable. A family I could never be a part of.

I lifted my gaze to the frosty stars, letting their light fill my eyes and remind me that sometimes it is better to be alone. Safer. For everyone. I took a firm grip on my blanket and waterskin, and ran from the hill-guard camp into the darkness.

 

I
look back. Always. I cannot help myself.

The wolves are rivulets of darkness streaming over the snow, like blood, black in the starlight. Silver teeth flash. Silver eyes spark. They know I am looking.

They raise their faces to the moon, and their high, eerie song fills the night. The wolves call to me. They call my name.

And they have my father’s voice.

Five

T
he villagers left me in the barn in chains for two days. No one would cross the threshold to bring me food or water. When the thirst became too great, and the burning tightness of my throat threatened to close it forever, I managed to drag myself close enough to the wall to lick the moisture from the green mould that grew there, though the taste of it made me retch.

The barn was near the centre of the village and the square of frozen, churned-up earth they called a green. It was where the elders went to pass judgement on village matters. The whole village gathered there that first day to debate what to do with me. The law prohibited the killing of children under the age of twelve without a special dispensation from a priest of Askaan. Elder Gallen ordered a messenger on a fast horse to ride to the nearest town, find the temple there and bring a priest back, urgently.

I listened to my mother plead for mercy. I was only a child, she said, only a girl. She offered to leave the village and take me with her. She begged to be allowed to bring me food and care for my injuries. A few others – including Eilik the blacksmith – sided with her, but the elders overruled them.

I was mad, they said. No one must go near me until the priest had come.

The messenger returned the next day. I heard the commotion as he – and the men he had brought – arrived. I was nearly too faint with thirst and hunger and the cold to care. But somehow all the bruises and pains I had acquired the day before didn’t hurt as much as I had expected. I rolled painfully through the straw and muck until I could press my eye to a chink in the wooden wall of the barn.

A golden-robed priest of Askaan, with a white beard and a stern, fatherly face, dismounted from a golden horse. He handed the reins to Elder Gallen, who stared at them as if he had never seen leather before.

There was another man with the messenger. A slight, slim man. His head was bald, and it gleamed in the early morning sun, but he looked young, not even as old as my mother. His face was smooth and unlined, and his eyes, although I could not see their exact colour at that distance, seemed dark and grim. His robe was black, and so was his horse. He was a priest of the Other.

That was when I really began to believe that I would die.

The two priests directed tables and chairs to be brought out to the centre of the village. They wanted to question everyone.

Ulem and Marik were forced to leave their beds to testify that I had howled like a wolf and foamed at the mouth, while my eyes had glowed with an unearthly light – and I had attacked without provocation and tried to bite out their throats. They questioned my mother too. Had I shown signs of madness before? Had I ever spoken strange languages or blasphemed; shown any desire to eat raw meat?

Ma denied it all, but I could hear in their voices that they did not believe her.

They stopped for a midday meal. The smells of cooking meat and vegetables should have made me drool, but my mouth was too dry even for that. My cramping stomach made me curl into as tight a ball as I could with the chains wrapped around me.

At the end of the day, as the light coming through the chink in the wall turned orange, the priests ordered the barn to be opened. Elder Gallen did not like that. He said I was too dangerous. When the holy men insisted, he offered to give them a pitchfork each, just to be safe. They refused that too.

Slowly, creakingly, the barn door was pushed back.

I heard my mother cry out and the sounds of a struggle, as if someone were holding her back. I could not see her.

The priest of Askaan took a few steps towards me, then he backed away, putting up his hand to cover his mouth. The barn stank, not just of animal dung but of my own. I had fouled myself. I had had no choice in the matter, but the shame did what the fear had not the power to do. It broke me. I began to cry silently, my body shaking with painful sobs.

“They gave you quite a beating, didn’t they, child?”

I squinted up at the man who had spoken. His voice was mild and kind. It was the priest of the Other. He crouched beside me, apparently unaffected by the smell, and took my chin in his hand, turning my face gently towards him to examine me. His fingers were dry and cool.

He gave me a sad smile. Then he stood and left the barn. The priest of Askaan followed gratefully, and the doors were slammed shut again, sending splinters, hay and dust showering down on me.

Outside, the two priests conferred in hushed voices. I could not see them, or hear what they were saying through the hole in the wall, and after a few minutes they moved back to the green.

The priest of Askaan took out the Holy Book and read a blessing from it.

Then the priest of the Other passed judgement. “The girl has been possessed by a demon of the Other. I believe she is too young to have voluntarily taken the demon in – it is a tragedy probably brought about by her upbringing. Fatherless children are always particularly vulnerable. She must be cleansed. And the village too.”

“How?” Elder Gallen asked.

“With fire, Elder,” the priest of the Other said. “With fire.”

The blanket, tied around my shoulders as a makeshift cloak now, was no protection against the bitter chill that had crept into my bones as I laboured up the shaly mountain slope towards my destination. My hands were raw from clawing at the rough surface for handholds, and my skin felt chapped and brittle. I was distantly aware of these things, but none of them were pressing enough to break my concentration on the place I had come so far to reach. The place I had lied, stolen and fought to get to.

I had finally arrived.

But something was terribly wrong. The cold inside me was a hundred times deeper than the chill of the mountain. What I was staring at was not the sacred place my mother had rambled about in her sickness – a place where the holy people were healers and warriors and where no one in need was ever turned away. This was not the home of the Goddess in the Fire.

This was a viper’s nest.

I stared at the towering outer wall of the structure. From my hiding place on the hillside, I could see that what must once have been an impenetrable stone barrier was now little more than a series of rotting masonry teeth. The gaps in the wall were filled with sections of sharpened wooden stakes, forming a seven-foot palisade with a single pair of rough wooden gates. Men in mismatched, dented armour, their pale hair greasy and unwashed, their skin streaked with dirt, moved freely through these gates. They brought in goats, sheep, carts loaded with grain, barrels of what looked like ale and other produce.

And they brought people.

People with dark skin. People with blood and bruises and tracks of tears on their faces. People whose hands were lashed behind their backs and who were kicked, punched or whipped if they fell or tried to resist.

On the other side of the wall I could see women and children with fair hair and pale skin dressed in fine clothes. They were laughing, playing, gossiping. Men in neat, lacquered armour with strangely peaked helmets casually patrolled the inner wall of the keep. The dark-skinned ones toiled: chopping wood, digging trenches and scrubbing clothes, backs hunched as if waiting for a blow.

Slaves.

If there had been anything in my stomach I would have vomited.

This was where the bandits brought their stolen goods and their stolen people. This was the home of the rebels that Luca had spoken of. Whatever holy place had been here once was long gone. There was no Goddess in the Fire. There was no help for me in Ruan. There was no help for me anywhere.

Almost without realizing what I was doing, I began the climb back down the mountain, desperate to escape the biting cold and the sight of my shattered hopes.

It had taken me nearly a full day to reach the ridge. I was down again in half the time, so despairing was I that I didn’t even think to test my handholds, or to search for a safe path. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I was acting dangerously; I could fall and be seriously hurt, or even die. The Wolf only forced its superior strength and reflexes on me if others shed my blood – if there was a chance for it to fight and kill. A careless stumble off a cliff wouldn’t rouse it.

But all I cared about was getting away.

The slope of the land became more gentle. Scrubby bush changed to grey, stunted trees and twisted shrubs, and then to the towering greenery of the hill forest. I walked on aimlessly, my eyes passing over everything without making sense of it.

I don’t know when I began to shake. I only noticed at all because despite walking on almost level ground, my feet started to slip and scuff. My vision blurred. I realized I was gasping for breath. I stopped and stared at the green and blue arches of the trees around me, at the sunlight turning the air to gold, at the moss and the rich dark earth.

Where am I? Where am I going?

Stones and broken twigs crunched beneath me as I sat down in the dirt.

I’ll never get the Wolf out of me. I’ll never be free.

I fumbled with the wolf tooth, nearly choking myself as I pulled the leather thong over my head, and squeezed the hard, familiar shape between my hands.

Father. Father, please help me. Tell me what to do.

“You’ve come a long way just to sit muttering to yourself.”

I jumped up, the wolf tooth flying from my hands. It landed in the dirt a couple of feet away. Instinctively, I made a grab for it, but Luca got there first, scooping the necklace up and looking at it thoughtfully. “A wolf fang? Why would you wear something like this around your neck?”

He looked up at me, his expression mildly curious. The sun made his eyes glow with a golden inner light, like the sky just before dawn, when the world hesitates on the brink of waking.

He was not wearing armour, but a wide leather strap crossed his chest diagonally and the hilt of a sword protruded over his left shoulder. Two more leather straps across his shoulders supported a massive canvas pack that probably weighed as much as I did. A pair of long knives were strapped to the outside of one muscular leather-clad thigh.

He had come prepared to kill.

I backed away, stumbling in my haste. I caught at the trunk of a nearby tree to halt my fall. “You followed me.”

“No, I tracked you. That’s slightly different. You went up to the House of God, didn’t you?”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the wolf tooth that dangled so casually from his long-fingered hand. I had lost Da’s axe. The tooth was all I had left. All I had of Garin Aeskaar.

“Why did you go there? To collect payment for the attempt on mine and Arian’s life? Or was there another reason?”

I took another step back. What would it matter if I had my father’s wolf tooth if I was dead?

“Answer me!” He raised his voice slightly, and my gaze snapped back to his face. “Why did you go to the rebel base?”

My nerve broke. I wrenched the blanket from my shoulders and threw it in Luca’s face.

I crashed into the trees about a foot from where he stood, careening downhill, ducking and swerving, thin branches whipping and scratching at my skin, roots catching at my boots, stones turning under my feet. The air rasped in my lungs and my mouth tasted of copper.

I could escape if I kept going. Luca was taller than me; he was broader and weighed down with weapons and a pack that would catch in the branches and slow him down. I just had to put a good enough distance between us. Then I could hide.

A flock of birds flew up ahead of me with piercing squawks. I leaped back, skidding to a halt. And realized something. There were no sounds of pursuit.

Could I have lost him so easily?

No. What had he said? He hadn’t
followed
me. He had
tracked
me.

He was still tracking me.

An icy droplet of sweat crawled down my back like a many legged insect.

In Uskaand I had hunted birds and squirrels for the pot and set snares for rabbits and foxes. I knew how to move quietly through the forest. But this man … this man was silent. More silent than any human had a right to be. I had never even heard his footsteps. He was somewhere in the trees. And he was coming for me.

I moved hesitantly now, placing each foot with care, cupping the waterskin to my side so that the few meagre mouthfuls of water I had left would make no telltale sound. A twig snapped somewhere uphill. I spun round, my eyes searching for something, anything that might betray my pursuer’s location.

There was nothing there. The only thing that moved was the wind among the leaves. I breathed out slowly, turned—

—and found myself face to face with Luca.

A long scratch marred one cheek, and there was a leaf in his neatly plaited hair. He lifted an eyebrow. “I never really liked hide and seek.”

I yelled, jolting backwards. My boot snagged in a trailing vine and I went down hard, landing on my right hip with a jarring impact that knocked the wind out of me. I scrabbled at the dirt, trying to push myself up.

A strong hand closed around my wrist and pulled me gently, inexorably, into a sitting position. Another hand rubbed my back vigorously, fingers pressing into the ridge of my spine. “Breathe. Just breathe. That’s it. You’ll be all right.”

I tried to shrug his hand away, tried to yank my arm free. “Get off,” I gasped. “Get away.”

Luca’s grip tightened. I tensed, anxiety tightening my belly as I waited for the hand on my back to move lower, to pull at my clothes. I got ready to bite, scratch and scream if I had to. Anything to get away.

He just continued to rub briskly. He smelled clean, like soap and leather and warm skin, and something else, something … sweet.
Honeysuckle?
His hands held onto me, but not hard enough to bruise. And he was warm, and I was so very cold.

“When was the last time you ate a decent meal?” he asked quietly. “Your ribs are sharp enough to cut my hand. You’re nothing but bones and hair.” He ignored my reflexive jerk away from him in the way an oak tree ignores a songbird alighting on a branch. “Why did you go to the House of God? Tell me the truth.”

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