Read FrostFire Online

Authors: Zoe Marriott

FrostFire (8 page)

Eight

B
y the time Luca halted again my blood was thundering in my ears like a river in full flood. His arm flew out to motion me to stillness, then he dropped to the ground and crept ahead of me, bellying through the undergrowth.

I got down on my hands and knees and tried to copy his movements, placing my hands only where his had been. Leaf mould and dirt squelched through my fingers and dampened the legs of my breeches as I squirmed after him until I fetched up against a large, mossy boulder.

The smell of woodsmoke teased my nose. I could hear sheep calling restlessly and the low murmur of male voices. Luca, peering around the edge of the boulder, gave me a nod.
This is it
. I peered between the leaves.

A few feet away there was a rock outcrop that jutted above a crevice in the side of the mountain to create a deep natural shelter. Two Sedorne men – alike enough to be brothers, both heavily muscled and with reddish hair – sat in front of the cave on either side of a small fire. A large haunch of meat was cooking there, dripping strong-smelling fat into the fire and sending out a plume of bluish smoke. I sniffed again. Venison. Despite everything, my stomach rumbled.

One of the men turned the meat occasionally with a stick while his brother rooted through a leather bag, pulling out cloths and jars and setting them beside him in an untidy pile. The spoils of their attack on the farmer and his family.

A third man sat a little way from the others. This one was older, with thinning iron-grey hair. He was cleaning dried brown stains off his hands with a rag.

In the shadow of the rock shelter, behind a makeshift wicker fence that contained a small flock of sheep, were two Rua women. One of them looked middle-aged. The smaller one was no older than fourteen, I thought. The girl’s face was streaked with dirt and tears, and the woman’s left eye and nose were bruised and swelling. Both were gagged and their hands were bound with rope, but their feet were free. Given the chance, they could run.

“I wish Birkin’d hurry up with his washing,” the older man grumbled, picking at the brownish stains under his fingernails. “Never saw nothing to be squeamish about in a little blood. Why’s he always got to scrub himself down so well?”

“That’s just Birkin,” one of the brothers said, emptying out the last items from the leather bag. “And if you’ve any sense you’ll wait for him like he told us to.”

“I’m waiting, aren’t I?” The older man turned his head to look at the women. “Don’t see why he’s worried, myself. The younger one might be worth something to Constantin, but the old bitch isn’t going to whet his appetite.”

The girl whimpered through her gag and I felt Luca stiffen beside me.
Constantin.
The leader of the rebels. His brother. I flicked a glance at him and saw his eyes blazing, like a night sky in the instant after a lightning strike.

Hesitantly, I touched his elbow, looking for instruction. He indicated with a whirl and point of his finger that he would circle the camp uphill. An emphatic jab of his finger first at me and then at the ground signalled that I was to stay put. He shrugged off his loaded pack, then readjusted the strap of his sword across his chest and rotated his neck, stretching carefully.

I wanted to protest that I could help. But I had just told him about the Wolf. Even if he trusted me not to run, I couldn’t expect him to trust me not to hurt anyone. I nodded resignedly. Luca frowned at me, then twisted around and pulled one of the long knives from the sheath at his thigh. He reversed it and offered the hilt to me.

I stared at it, disbelieving. He sighed, seized my hand and thrust the hilt into it.
Stay here
, he mouthed. I nodded again, weighing the costly leather-wrapped steel hilt in my palm. The blade was leaf-shaped and finely honed. Despite the terrible situation, I felt a tiny smile tugging at my lips. He did trust me – at least enough to allow me to defend myself.

Luca’s hand was still cupped warmly around the back of mine. For a brief moment his long fingers entwined with mine around the handle of the knife, and squeezed.
Be carefu
l, he mouthed.

I nodded again.
You too.

He released me and wriggled out of sight. I fixed my eyes on the captive women huddled in darkness, and gritted my teeth.
Just hang on a little longer. He’s coming to save you.

Luca stepped into the clearing. He took off one of the brother’s heads with a single sweep of his sword. I swallowed a cry at the brutal swiftness of the death. The other brother yelled, dropped his handful of stolen items, and went for a sword that was leaning against the rock next to him. Before he could reach it, Luca’s sword flashed again. The man’s yell turned into a strange hiccuping noise. He crumpled inches away from where I was crouched. A long rivulet of blood crept across the dirt and moss towards me, and I inched away.

“Birkin!” the third man shouted as Luca rushed at him. The man’s sword, dull with dried blood, flicked up to deflect Luca’s. “Birkin! Get out here!”

This older man was faster and warier than the two brothers. He didn’t try to attack or escape; he merely concentrated on avoiding Luca as he carefully manoeuvred around the fire. “Birkin!” he yelled again.

Luca’s body seemed to blur. He flew into a kick that forced the bandit away from the fire towards the rocks. The Rua women were already on their knees, struggling with the ropes, their eyes fixed on the fighting.

Come on
, I urged them mentally.
Come on, you can do it.

Something crashed through the trees behind me. I whipped around.

A gigantic man, bulging with oversize muscles, stood directly in front of me. His long blonde hair was damp and hung in disarray around his freshly scrubbed face. In one hand he held a drying cloth and a bar of soap. In the other was a broadsword. His pale eyes glittered with fury.

He took a step towards me. I leaped up, pushing off from the boulder – and tripped over the body of the bandit Luca had just killed. I fell headlong into the clearing, almost landing in the fire. My hair sizzled. I rolled, and the haunch of meat went flying in a spray of hot fat as I scrambled to my feet, still clutching the knife.

Birkin’s sword jabbed towards my belly. I dodged, slashing wildly with Luca’s knife. Birkin didn’t even flinch. It must have been painfully obvious that I had no idea what I was doing, and his reach was a foot longer than mine. I couldn’t get near him. I spun away from another slash of his sword. He was going to nick me eventually. And when that happened…

I flicked a panicked glance at Luca and saw him wrenching his sword free of the grey-haired bandit’s chest. I felt a spurt of relief. Then Birkin came at me with a roar, his sword flying down in a two-handed slash that would gut me like a pig.

Something I had no name for – not fear, not even anger – shivered through my body, cold as ice. I screamed defiance, my body moving of its own volition. His blade sliced the air where I had been a moment before. My knife flashed twice.

Two long lines of blood appeared on Birkin’s chest, crossing his heart. He reeled backwards. His foot went into the fire and he roared as he jerked his leg out of the burning logs. He landed on one knee, still clutching his sword.

The older Rua woman, arms trailing pieces of rope, rose up behind him. The great haunch of venison was in her hands. She brought it down on the back of Birkin’s head with a dull
smack
. Once. Twice. A third time. The bandit’s eyes rolled up in his skull. The sword fell from his fist. He slumped into the dirt.

She stood over him, chest heaving. The deer’s leg bone was gripped so tightly in her hands that her fingers seemed the same colour. She lifted her weapon again.

Luca stepped past me, jamming his sword back into its sheath, blood and all. He held his palms up in a peaceful gesture, attracting the woman’s attention. “You’re safe now,” he said. “You’re safe. You can stop.”

The young girl, gag still in her mouth, scrambled out from under the ledge and ran towards her mother. A sob rattled the older woman’s frame, and she dropped the venison leg. Putting her arms around the girl, she pulled the gag gently away from her daughter’s face.

“They killed my husband,” she said softly, her voice broken. “They killed my boy.”

“We know,” Luca said. “We found them. I’m so sorry.”

The girl turned her face into her mother’s shoulder and cried.

The rest of that day took on a strange quality for me. It felt as though I had been given another person’s part in some grand play. I knew what to say and what to do, but I kept waiting for the real actor to come and push me out into my proper role again.

Luca and I rolled the bodies of the dead bandits to one side of the clearing and stoked up the fire for the shivering women – Mala and her daughter, Crina – to sit by. He took small clay pots with wax stoppers from his seemingly bottomless pack, along with bandages, and I helped the women clean and anoint their cuts and bruises, and wrapped Crina’s sprained ankle. My fingers moved briskly and skilfully, my mother’s training not quite forgotten, it seemed.

Meanwhile, Luca did a rather less neat job of bandaging the still-unconscious Birkin’s wounds, and then trussed him hand and foot to a nearby tree.

“I’ll have someone come by to collect him later,” he said, when I caught his eye.

“What if a bear or a big cat smells the blood and finds him?”

Luca shrugged. “He’s got plenty of daylight left. And any predators will go for the dead meat first. I have more important things to see to at the moment.”

We herded the sheep out of the bandit’s corral and followed Mala and Crina back to their farmstead, a small piece of land scooped out of the hillside. It didn’t take long to reach. The family had been ambushed almost on their own threshold. Two dark-haired boys, about the same age as me – twins, I thought, though not identical – came running to meet us as soon as we were within sight of the small house. They must have been left in charge of the farm by their parents. I saw their handsome faces blanch with horrified realization as they saw the state of their mother and sister, and looked in vain for their father and brother. Once we had the livestock safely shut in the family’s barn, the two young men went out with Luca to find and bury the bodies of their murdered kinfolk. I was left with the grieving women.

Mala urged me to sit in one of the wooden chairs by the fire. She bustled about, her voice brisk and slightly too high-pitched as she offered me tea and honey cake. Crina sat in the chair opposite, rocking ever so slightly, hands clamped on her knees. Her fingers twitched and strained, as if she were still struggling against the ropes that had left their mark on her wrists.

This morning Mala and Crina had set out to market as a normal family with their own cares and preoccupations. By noon they had been plunged into a world of blood and screaming and unimaginable terror. Now they were home again. But it was not the same home. It would never be the same again; nothing would ever be the same for them again, because they had had been changed forever by what had happened. Their family had been shattered as easily as a clay cup is smashed by a careless child. Darkness and mourning had filled the void left behind by those they had loved.

Luca and the twins returned a couple of hours later, mud-streaked and weary. I was relieved when one of them immediately urged their mother to sit and drink some of the tea she had made, while the other one draped a blanket around Crina and whispered gently to her until her tense hands uncurled from their straining grip on her knees. They would take care of their mother and sister, these two. They were good boys.

Luca had spoken to me about good people. He had said that he and his men were the “good ones”. I had scorned his words, telling myself there was no such thing as good people, or bad. Remembering the sickening, careless cruelty of the bandits who had caused this family’s heartbreak, I knew now that was a lie. I had clung to the untruth because it was easier than admitting to myself what I feared. The thing I had always feared, in my heart.

That I was not one of the good ones.

Luca leaned tiredly against the frame of the open door. Warm sunlight streamed in around him. “Mala, I will send to Mesgao today for an elder and a namoa to come here as soon as possible,” he said. “You’ll get a widow’s purse from the Crown. It’s not a fortune, but it will help.”

Mala winced from the word “widow”. She nodded wordlessly, eyes lowered.

“Thank you,” one of the twins said on his mother’s behalf. He turned his grave eyes to me. “And thank you. Captain Luca told us that you were the one who found my father and Abhay, that you were the one who realized Mother and Crina had been taken. They would be dead were it not for you. We’ll never be able to repay you, but we won’t ever forget what you’ve done.”

I looked helplessly at Luca, but the sun was too bright. I could not see his expression. Why had he told them that? He of all people knew I was no heroine.

“What is your name?” Crina asked, suddenly stirring in the muffling folds of her blanket. “We must add you to our nightly prayers. It’s the least we can do when – when you’ve been so kind.”

I hesitated, feeling Luca’s attention like a heavy weight on the back of my neck.

“Frost,” I said, finally. “My name is Frost Aeskaar.”

 

“D
o not run, daughter.”

Their voices – a dozen versions of my father’s voice – are sorrowful. I stumble through the snow, pressing my hands over my ears. It slows me down, and it does not block out the wolf-song, but it is all I can do.

“Do not run. We only wish to help you.”

“Leave me alone,” I scream, my voice shrill and trembling. “You are not my father.”

“Daughter,”
the wolves cry.
“Wait for us.”

But it is a lie. When they catch me, I know they will devour me whole.

I dig my blistered toes into the snow and run faster.

Nine

I
shuddered and shook with cold. My own breath nearly blinded me: spreading out silvery-white like a constellation before my eyes. I barely heard Elder Gallen arguing with the priests.

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