Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (7 page)

“And your mother taught you?” Luca asked. “Your accent is very good.”

I shrugged awkwardly. “When Ma got sick, she remembered the story about the Goddess in the Fire and made me promise to come here. She made me promise to find the Goddess. I had to keep my promise.”

“You must have loved your mother very much.”

I looked at the blue, purple and yellow fire.
Must I? She didn’t love me. I don’t think she taught me how…
Automatically, I put my hand to my chest. But the wolf tooth wasn’t there. It was still in Luca’s pocket. My fingers closed on air and clenched into a fist.

“Why did your mother make you promise that? Why did she want you to find the Goddess in the Fire?”

My hand clenched tighter – until it shook. I looked through the fire at his face. It was full dark now, and the shadows made his eyes look black. I didn’t know this man. Why had I told him all this? He had no right to know about me. He’d tricked it out of me.

“Why did they send you out here to fight the rebels?” I shot back. “You’re young to be in command, aren’t you? Was it to get rid of you? Did you do something wrong?”

He blinked, seemingly speechless for a moment, and I felt a vicious stab of satisfaction. “No,” he answered at last. “I suppose they sent me because they knew they could trust me.”

“Why’s that?”

“There are two reasons,” he said, voice flat and expressionless now. “For a start, Lord Sorin, the man who married the reia and became king, is my cousin.”

“Oh,” I said faintly. I looked at him sat comfortably in the dirt, with a wooden spoon in his hand, and swallowed. “What’s the other reason?”

“The leader of the rebels is a man called Ion Constantin. The king knows I’ll never rest until he’s brought to justice. It’s my duty and no one else’s. Ion Constantin is my brother. He murdered my family.”

Seven

I
sat in silence, eyes fixed on the man who slept across from me. The banked remains of last night’s campfire produced only the slightest of heat-ripples to interfere with my view. Luca lay on his back, one arm folded beneath his head, the other draped across his flat belly, fingers slightly curled. His breathing was deep and even.

The pale gold light of dawn filtering through the leaves cast a strange glow on his still face. He looked unreal, like a creature from a children’s story. A wood glim, maybe, in mortal guise, ensnaring girls with his unearthly beauty. Wood glims lured their victims into the forest, and when the girls lay down beneath the branches and died of love, their bodies provided sustenance to the tree roots and kept the wood glim immortal. Luca’s face would have ensured his existence was a long one.

I sighed at my own uncharacteristic flight of fancy. Luca was a mere mortal man. And I wasn’t going to be ensnared by him, or anyone. I was leaving, right now.

I just had one thing to do first.

With as much care as if I moved across the thin crust of a frozen lake, I circled the fire and crouched beside my sleeping captor. His shirt had twisted up in the night, and my necklace now lay over his heart. The collar of his shirt gaped open, showing the golden skin of his throat and the fine blonde hair there; it was so soft that even my shallow breaths disturbed it. Blood pulsed strongly in the hollow at the base of his neck. My fingers hovered in the air above his chest.

“Are you usually this heavy a sleeper?” I whispered, voice almost soundless. “Or do you really trust me not to stab you while you dream?” I wanted the words to be mocking. Somehow they were not.

Get on with it.
I slid my forefinger into his pocket, and touched leather.

He sighed. My gaze shot to his face. His eyelids, with their long wheat-coloured lashes, flickered, but did not open. I slid a second finger into his pocket. His skin was warm, even through the linen. I could feel the shape of his muscle under my fingers.

I insinuated my finger through the leather thong and drew it up, my fingers pressing gently into Luca’s chest. He made a low noise. I froze, checking his face again. His eyes were still closed, but he was frowning a little now, his lips parted slightly. The pulse at his throat seemed faster. I stayed as still as a rock, not daring even to breathe as I watched him. He sighed once more, shifted his head on his arm, and lay quietly.

He was asleep. He had to be asleep.

I pulled the wolf tooth free with a last, careful tug. The relief at having it in my hand again was nearly equalled by the relief of not having woken Luca. I sat back on my heels and dropped the thin leather necklace over my head. I picked up the blanket and waterskin and put them on as before, with the blanket over my shoulder and the strap of the waterskin diagonally across my body. For a moment, I hesitated, looking around the clearing. Then I was annoyed with myself.
Why are you waiting? You haven’t forgotten anything. You haven’t got anything to forget.

I walked out of the clearing, forcing myself to concentrate on moving silently so that I could not look back.

For a little while my success in having escaped Luca, twinned with last night’s meal in my belly, made me feel cheerful, even light-hearted. I smiled as I moved through the white wisps of mist that rose up from the moist forest floor and listened to birdsong with pleasure. But the further I got from the clearing, the more my mood darkened.

Nothing had changed since yesterday.

I still had nowhere to go and no way to support myself. If I had been free, really free, I would have taken my chances, walked to the nearest town and tried to find work. But how could I, like this? In a town or city there were always dozens of people around. All it would take was an overly eager young man in his cups who couldn’t take no for an answer, a cut-throat who thought I was an easy target, or some foolish girl with long nails who didn’t like foreigners. One nick, one drop of blood, and the Wolf would rampage, killing anyone it saw.

I had been careful in my travels to stay out of densely populated areas; to find work for one or two days and then move on before I could cause trouble. The less people near me, the less people at risk. But without my father’s axe I was just another unskilled wanderer, and a female at that. What farmer or crofter would want to hire me?

And I couldn’t live out here alone. When I had lost my pack I had lost my snares, my knives for cleaning game, my greased groundsheet. The first snow – the first leopard or bear – would finish me off. The same was true of trying to cross back into Uskaand. The Wolf was much faster and stronger than a man, but it was not invincible – not while clothed in my mortal flesh.

I cursed myself for believing my mother’s stories, for letting her words convince me that there was hope in Ruan. There was no hope, here or anywhere. And now I was worse off than ever.

I had been walking for half an hour, lost in the bitterness of my thoughts, when I felt my senses sharpen. A warning. I wrinkled my nose as I picked up the scent on the air. It was one I hated, but knew well. Death.

Two men lay just ahead of me in a hollow in the ground. They were tangled together, clothes stained with dirt and blood. The earth near by was marked with ruts where their bodies had been dragged and then rolled.

My instincts told me to run,
now
, run far and run fast. But although I could see the dull dead eyes of one of the men, the other had his face hidden in the dirt. I had to make sure he was beyond help. I forced myself to take the last few steps towards the bodies. I eased down onto one knee and caught the shoulder of the man whose face I could not see. I could feel the warmth of his skin through his shirt. Maybe…?

I turned him over. The sight of his face made me jerk away with a cry. Savage cuts gaped, forming crude cross shapes on both his cheeks. He was middle-aged, pale-skinned, with mousy-coloured hair. And he was most definitely beyond anyone’s help.

Now that I was closer, I could see that the other was only a boy, no more than thirteen, with olive skin and dark curly hair. Despite the differences in colouring, the two looked enough alike to be related. They had both been stabbed, but only the older man had been mutilated.

The blood on the bodies was still wet.

This had only just happened. The killers could still be here. Right here, watching.

I jumped to my feet and pelted up out of the hollow. I rounded the vast trunk of a twisted tree and ploughed head first into a warm, solid chest. Large hands came up to catch my shoulders and steady me, and a familiar honeysuckle scent rose around me. I managed to bite off the shriek before it left my lips.

“In a rush?” Luca asked. “Did you suddenly decide you didn’t want to run away after all?”

I looked up at him. His expression went from mocking to serious in a heartbeat. He shoved me behind him and took a step forward, searching the forest with his eyes. “What happened? Are you all right?”

I rubbed both hands over my face, wiping away cold sweat. The panic that had gripped me was easing. “I found some bodies. They were murdered not long ago.”

Luca swore under his breath. “Show me.”

Reluctantly I led him down into the hollow, staying close to him as he knelt beside the men.

“You were right. These men were murdered within the last hour. Maybe even less.”

“Why would anyone do that?” I asked, my voice shaking. “This one’s only a child. And why cut up the other one’s face?”

Luca bowed his head, concealing his expression. “To Sedorne, the cross is the mark of a traitor. Over the border they used to burn it on with a hot branding iron. Rebels did this.”

I turned away hastily and spat out a mouthful of bile, coughing and choking as it burned my throat. I wiped my lips on the back of my sleeve, but stayed facing away from him as I asked, “The older one … he’s Sedorne, isn’t he?”

“It was
because
he was Sedorne,” Luca said, grim sorrow in his voice. “From his clothes I’d say he was a farmer, probably heading down to Mesgao to sell livestock. This boy is most likely his son. Bandits killed him and his boy for their animals, but they marked the man’s face because he’d made a peaceful life here and settled with a Rua woman. The boy has dark skin, you see. To the rebels that’s treachery. Holy Mother, help me, if we’d just arrived here a little earlier…”

I made myself look at the bodies again. It was wrong to turn from them. What had happened to them was not their fault.

“We should bury—” I stopped abruptly. “Luca, look.” I took the farmer’s hand, trying to ignore the eerie warmth of the flesh as I peeled back the dead fingers to reveal a torn fragment of pink cloth. It was embroidered with white flowers. “This isn’t from either of their clothes. They had someone else with them. A girl.”

Luca swore again, and this time he didn’t keep his voice down. He climbed to his feet, took two quick steps and then paced back the other way. His hands had doubled up into shaking fists. “Those sons of whores. They took her.”

“You said this happened less than an hour ago – she could still be alive, couldn’t she?”

“They wouldn’t have bothered taking her away if they didn’t intend to have some fun with her. Yes. She’s probably alive. She’s probably wishing she wasn’t.”

“You could save her. You could go after them, get her back.” I stared up at him. “But … you’re not going to, are you? Why? Why not? Isn’t that your job? You can’t just let them get away!”

His jaw clenched. His eyes flashed to me and then back down to the ground.

“It’s because of me,” I said numbly. “You don’t trust me. You think I’ll run away.”

“Won’t you?” He met my eyes now, fury and frustration warring with pain in the dark blue.

I looked at the tiny scrap of fabric in my hand.
They wouldn’t have bothered taking her away if they didn’t intend to have some fun with her…

“If you go after them, I won’t run. I promise. I’ll do whatever you say. Just … help her. Please.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Luca’s fists unclench slowly. He sucked in a deep breath. “All right. But you’ll have to come with me. We probably don’t have much time.”

I stood up, my hand closing around the torn piece of cloth. “Then we should go now.”

We followed the deep drag marks uphill at a trot until we reached a narrow trail. The earth was marked by the attack that had taken the farmer and his son’s lives. Thick, sticky drops of blood gleamed on the leaves and the churned-up dirt. I saw sheep tracks and several distinct sets of footprints.

“There were
two
women here,” Luca said, tracing the shapes in the dirt. “And four bandits. They must have thought this was their lucky day. The farmer didn’t stand a chance. They headed uphill from here.”

Luca moved faster now; he was almost flying through the trees ahead of me, and yet somehow he barely made any noise. I winced at every twig that snapped under my foot, every leaf I disturbed, and at my own wheezing.

You have to tell him. Warn him now, before it’s too late.

“If something happens,” I panted. “If–if I get cut—”

“I won’t let anything happen to you.” He didn’t even glance back at me.

“You don’t understand. It’s you I’m worried about. You and those girls.”

Luca’s pace slowed, and then stopped completely. I stumbled to a halt and bent over at the waist, waterskin sloshing as I put my hands on my knees, trying to get my breath back.

“If I get cut,” I said, staring at the rich green of the moss under my boots. “If you see any blood on me at all, run. Just get the girls and run.”

“You’re going to have to explain yourself a bit better than that. You just promised you wouldn’t try to get away—”

A snort popped out of my lips. “
You’re
the one that will be running, not me.”

“What are you talking about? We don’t have time for riddles!” he said, exasperated.

I straightened up and looked him in the eye. “I’ll go insane. If I am attacked and if any of my blood is spilled, I’ll lose control. It won’t be me any more, do you understand?”

“Not really, no.”

I made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob. So much effort spent trying to keep my secret and now he didn’t even seem to be listening. I fought a craven impulse to leave it there. But I knew all too well that I couldn’t be around people without bringing death. That was my curse. If I wanted to avoid hurting someone – maybe even Luca – I
had
to make him understand. And once he understood, it would only be a matter of time before he handed me over to the priests. I was on borrowed time now.

“I call it the Wolf,” I said slowly, forcing the words out. “If my blood is spilled in battle, in anger, it takes over. It will attack anyone. Anyone within reach. Friend or foe. It’s
killed
people before. So if you see me get injured – if you see blood – you have to get away and take those girls with you, or I … it might turn on you.”

Luca stared at me. “That’s what happened to you before, isn’t it? You tried to save Arian, but you got cut, and then you couldn’t control yourself any more. The way you fought – the howling and snarling…”

“I know what that makes me,” I said wearily, avoiding the look of fear and disgust that I knew would be in his eyes. “I know what comes next. But I just want to do one good thing before … before that. I want to help save these women, and I can’t do that unless you promise me that if you see me bleeding, you will run and not look back.”

“We don’t have time for this,” he said, not annoyed this time but thoughtful. “I’m not going to make any promises, but I will be careful, and I’ll make sure I don’t put anyone in danger who can’t defend themselves.”

“Luca—”

“This isn’t a debate. Now come on.”

He started running again. I followed, and within a few moments, I was too breathless to say any more.

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