Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (6 page)

I tugged at my wrist again. “Ma made me promise to go there. She made me swear, before she died. I had to find the Goddess in the Fire. But the Goddess is gone, if she was ever there, and now the holy place is filled with bandits and slaves, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know—”

“All right,” he interrupted softly. “It’s all right. I understand.”

“No, you don’t!” I shrieked, and from somewhere a little strength came back to me, and I began to fight, shoving and kicking.
“I don’t know what to do!”

He let me struggle. As abruptly as it had flared, the burst of anger died. I felt the burning heat of tears sliding down my cheeks and turned my head away from him, putting my free hand up to hide my face. His hand loosened on my wrist, but he didn’t let go and he didn’t say anything.

“I’m not an assassin,” I mumbled after a few minutes. “I don’t care if you believe me any more. String me up if you want.”

“You have a definite liking for the dramatic, don’t you? Who in the Mother’s name ever mentioned stringing you up?”

“Your lieutenant,” I said. “‘Immediately, and without warning’.”

He groaned, releasing my wrist at last and sitting back. Cold air stung my side where he had been pressed against me.

“Suddenly digging your way out of the cell and fleeing in the night makes a lot more sense. I’m sorry he threatened you – but I promise that was all it was, a threat. Arian would never hurt a prisoner, especially not an unarmed girl.”

I rubbed my face into the crook of my elbow to wipe away my tears and hide the disbelief in my face. That goatherd had meant every word he’d said. It had not been a threat, but an oath.

“I can see you don’t believe me,” Luca said dryly. “But you’ll just have to take my word for it.”

No, I won’t.

I surged to my feet – and fell over as a tide of dizziness swept my legs from under me.

Luca caught me before I hit the ground. He eased me back to sit on the forest floor again, and this time he kept a firm grip on the back of my shirt.

“The problem with making grand gestures with your food,” he said, calmly, “is that eventually you just get too hungry to run away any more.”

Six

T
he fire crackled merrily, flickering with vivid blue and yellow and purple lights. I had thought only driftwood made those shades in flame. Perhaps there was something special in the woods here. Something special in the earth. The pulsing colours were strangely absorbing. I felt as though I was being drawn in…

I tore my eyes away with a gasp and pulled my knees up to my chest, shuffling backwards so that I was braced against one of the large boulders ringing the clearing Luca had dragged me to.

He was sat cross-legged by the fire, humming tunelessly to himself as he stirred the contents of a small tin pot. He had filled it with water from a little stream near the tumbled rocks and then poured some kind of fine cereal grains into it, before adding dried peas and meat and what I thought were dried apricots, as well as pinches of colourful stuff from little paper packets. The smell was luscious – warm and spicy. I was sure he must be able to hear the strangled noises my stomach was making.
Damn him.

Night was drawing in and turning the patches of sky I could see through the trees to a dull slate-grey. Firelight gilded Luca’s face and made his eyes glow with those strange, half-seen traces of gold. His long braid fell forwards over his shoulder in a sort of liquid slither, and he shrugged it back – a graceful, absent-minded gesture that made me all the more aware of my own dirty hair and grimy body.

Using the edge of a blanket to shield his hand, he took the metal cooking pot from the framework of long twigs he had built to hold it over the fire. He ladled some of the spiced grains onto a small wooden dish, added a round of flatbread and held everything out to me.

“Normally I’d ask if you were hungry, but I already know the answer. Please don’t try to break this bowl, or dig with the spoon. I need to use them after you.”

I glared at him, wishing I had the willpower to throw the meal back in his face. But I didn’t. My hands shook as I reached out. I would probably have dropped the food if Luca hadn’t shaped my fingers carefully around the smooth curve of the wood.

“Watch out,” he said, his fingers slipping away from mine. “It’s hot.”

I withdrew quickly to my corner, digging the spoon into the food and blowing on it carefully before taking a mouthful. The favours were wonderful – sweet, hot and savoury all at once. The strange grain was soft, and the peas, apricots and pieces of meat, plumped up by the cooking liquids, were juicy. I burned my tongue on the next spoonful and didn’t care.

“I take it that it’s edible?” He was grinning.

I stopped eating, my fingers tightening on the spoon. Then I recognized the look in his eyes. It was a look Ma sometimes had when one of her herbal recipes came out perfectly, first try. He wasn’t mocking me – he was just proud that he had made something good. I tore off some of the bread. “It’s delicious. Thank you.”

He looked down at his hands, and I thought I saw a hint of red in his cheeks. It might just have been the glow of the fire.

I scraped the last grains off the plate with a piece of bread then knelt up to hold the dish and spoon out to him, snatching my hand away as soon as his long fingers brushed against mine. Despite his tan, his hand looked the colour of bone next to mine – and I wasn’t even accounted particularly dark-skinned back home, not with a Northern father.

“You’re pale,” I muttered as I sat back.

His eyebrows went up. He poured the remainder of the food from the cooking pot onto the wooden plate, took another piece of bread from his pack and began to eat, without wiping the eating things first. Something twisted under my breastbone. My mother had boiled everything I had touched before using it herself.

“Was I meant to hear that? Is it an insult where you come from?” he asked, after a mouthful or two. He didn’t sound offended, only interested.

“It’s not an insult. It’s just … those rebels I saw at that place—”

“The House of God.”

I jerked my shoulder impatiently. “They all had pale skin like yours. They were using the dark-skinned ones like … like cattle. The bandits that attacked the goatherd – I mean, Arian – they were pale too. He’s dark-skinned and the pale ones attacked him. It makes sense. People always hurt people who are different. But you don’t fit. You look like them. Why aren’t you with them?”

He stared at me. His eyes seemed very dark, and for a moment I thought I really had offended him. Then he shook his head and the fire made his eyes bright again. “You don’t know anything about Ruan, do you? I can’t believe you came all the way here without the faintest idea what you were walking into. Did you even hear about the war in Uskaand?”

“Of course we did,” I said, folding my arms. “So there was a war? What’s that got to do with it?”

He studied my face. “What do you know about Mad King Abheron?”

“Not much,” I admitted. “Not much that’s real. When I was little the other children used to tell stories about him. Silly stories. If you were bad, he might come sneaking into your house in the night and roast you in the fire and eat you – that sort of thing.”

Luca let out a snort of laughter, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. “Those stories aren’t as silly as you might think. Abheron was the king of Sedra, our neighbouring country. But he couldn’t hold onto power there. When he was inches away from being deposed he came to Ruan, supposedly to ask his brother-in-law, the rei – that’s the title of the Rua leader – for sanctuary. Instead, Abheron set fire to the royal palace, murdered his sister and her husband and all their children except one – who escaped – and took the throne of Ruan for himself.”

Suddenly the shadows in the trees around us seemed darker. “That’s…”

“Mad?” Luca put in helpfully. “Yes. Hence his nickname. After he’d killed the Rua royal family he brought his Sedorne noblemen here. Things were getting a bit uncomfortable for them back home as well. They occupied Ruan for ten years and those were not happy years for the Rua people, believe me. Then Abheron’s niece Zahira – the one surviving member of the Rua royal family – managed to defeat him. She took the throne back and married Lord Sorin, who was a Sedorne, and they tried to make us all one united people. But some of the Sedorne noblemen had got used to treating the Rua like … like property, like beasts of burden. They weren’t going to change their ways, not on the word of a Rua leader. There were assassination attempts, skirmishes, and finally a war that lasted about a year. At the end of it, Reia Zahira rounded up all the rebels and marched them over the border, back to Sedra.”

“That’s not much of a punishment,” I said scornfully. “Sending them back home.”

“It was the worst thing she could have done to them, short of death. Sedra is a republic now. Those noblemen forfeited everything – lands, titles, money – when they left to follow Abheron. She sent them home with nothing but the clothes on their back, and when they got to the border they had to beg to be allowed into their own country. I doubt many of those exiles are still alive.

“But that’s where the reia’s plan went wrong. A group of the rebels broke away from the main body of the army before her men could catch them. They escaped, taking their soldiers, families, supporters and servants with them. They had been stripped of their lands here, but rather than face returning to Sedra, they fled to these mountains and dug in. They’re trying to establish a new territory of their own here, far away from the reia’s seat of power. They bribe local merchants to bring them goods, or attack and rob foreign trade caravans that use the mountain passes. They send out splinter groups of low-ranking men to steal from local farmers and villagers. Lately they’ve begun kidnapping too: taking slaves for themselves and to sell over the border in Sedra. Officially, slavery was outlawed in Sedra years ago, but the authorities there don’t seem to be able to enforce it.”

“So the pale-skinned ones, they’re Sedorne?”

“That’s right.”

“And the dark-skinned people are Rua?”

“Yes.”

“But that means you’re Sedorne. You’re still on the wrong side.”

“It’s not about skin colour. Didn’t you hear me say that the reia
married
a Sedorne? There are far more of us who consider ourselves Rua first and Sedorne a distant second, than those who believe we’re innately superior because our parents came from over the border. The reia and the king have many loyal Sedorne subjects. The rebels aren’t rebels because they’ve got pale skin and light hair. They’re rebels because they are violent, corrupt and hungry for power.”

A breeze stirred in the leaves overhead. The fire stretched as if it were reaching for the wind, sending sparks spiralling upwards. I followed them with my eyes. Through the interlacing branches of the trees I could make out the distant lights of the stars. I shivered.

“And you’re here to try and capture them.”

“Yes. After two years of sending regular army patrols up here and finding nothing, the reia created the hill guard. A permanent force of well-armed, well-trained soldiers who could make the mountains their home, keep the passes safe for trade, protect the local people and, eventually, find and capture the rebel leaders.”

“You have found them. They’re in that place.” I remembered the prosperous, well-fed faces of the Sedorne and the bruised, despairing ones of the kidnapped Rua. “Why haven’t you done anything?”

“Because we’ve only recently discovered their base. We never even thought to look at those ruins. Frankly, we spent the first year in these mountains fighting so hard for our own lives that we hardly had time to look anywhere. Groups of bandits attacked us constantly, and any energy and resources left over went into trying to save local people from being murdered and kidnapped. It’s taken a lot of work to establish ourselves. There was a time, not long ago, when you wouldn’t have been able to cross into these mountains without being attacked at once. Some very brave men and women have given their lives for that cause in the past year.”

“But you know they’re there now! Why are you still letting them live there? They were dragging captives in all trussed up. They were hurting them. You have to help them!”

Luca smiled. There was still a line of tension between his eyebrows, but his voice was somehow different when he spoke again. “I know we do. We just don’t have enough men right now to take the fortress the rebels have made. I’ve sent a message to the king and reia asking for reinforcements, and when the new men arrive, we’ll march on the House of God, and take it back from the rebels. I promise.”

I realized he was trying to reassure me. I shifted uncomfortably as I felt the odd tug in my chest again. I cast about for something to distract myself. Something to stop him looking at me like that, as if I’d said just the right thing and he was proud of me. It was an illusion. A trick of the firelight, or my imagination. It wouldn’t do to believe in it.

“Why would the rebels go there anyway? I thought it was supposed to be a holy place. Aren’t they afraid of getting cursed?”

Luca shrugged. “It was a holy place, but it was ruined years ago. It’s been deserted ever since. There was talk of rebuilding it, but the reia could never find the money. I imagine the rebels went there because it offered more shelter than the bare mountains.” He hesitated, then went on: “There’s a legend about the House of God. There was supposed to be a hidden room somewhere in the building. A chamber that contained a Sacred Flame, like a … a portal to the Holy Mother. The legend says that those who had the courage to walk into the Fire would be able to speak to Her directly. If they pleased the Mother, She might give them gifts: healing, or blessings. They say that Reia Zahira was horribly injured in the fire that killed the rest of her family. One of her servants brought her to the House of God and put her in the Sacred Flame. And she was not only healed, but received the Mother’s blessing. They say that’s why she won out against King Abheron, when everyone thought she was mad to try. It’s possible the rebels went to the House of God thinking that if they could find the Flame, it would grant them some special advantage. More likely it would have sent them all mad, though, or charred them to a cinder. But that’s the rebels for you. They’re arrogant enough to think they can take whatever they want.”

I barely heard his last few sentences.
A Sacred Flame.

I remembered the dry, painful rasp of my mother’s voice, rambling as she lay on her deathbed.

“It was a sacred place, a secret place. A goddess was there. The Goddess in the Fire. Some who walked into the fire went mad. Others were burned up. But some were healed. You could be healed. You’re already mad, aren’t you, Saram? Better to be dead than alive with that thing inside you. If only you could find the Goddess in the Fire, you could be saved…

“I’m too weak to make that journey. I’ve always been too weak. Too afraid. After your father died… He shouldn’t have left me. He never should have gone that day…” Her fingers had felt like the fragile skeleton of a bird resting in my palm. “When I’m gone, you mustn’t stay here, Saram. Promise me. Don’t stay here like I did. Make the journey. Go to the mountains. Find the holy place and the Goddess. Promise me.”

“Yes, Ma,” I had whispered, as her hand had slipped away from mine. “I promise.”

“You recognize that legend, don’t you?” Luca said, breaking into my thoughts. “That was what you meant by the Goddess in the Fire. How on earth could you have known about that when you didn’t even know the difference between Rua and Sedorne?”

I swallowed dryly. “Ma’s parents died when she was young. There was a herbwoman visiting the village at the time. Stela, she was called. She was from Ruan and barely spoke any Uskaandian, but she tried to ease their suffering. After my grandparents had died, Ma’s aunt and uncle couldn’t afford to pay Stela for the nursing she’d done, and they didn’t want Ma around anyway, so they gave her to the herbwoman as a servant. Only Stela … she wasn’t like that. She treated Ma like her own child, and they went travelling together, all over Uskaand. Ma translated for her and assisted her, and eventually taught her Uskaandian. Stela taught Ma healing, and lots of old songs and stories, and how to read and write and speak Rua like a native.”

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