Authors: Zoe Marriott
“We can build a pyre on the edge of the forest,” he pleaded. “Burning a whole building in the centre of the village is too dangerous.”
“Far more dangerous to allow a demon-tainted girl to walk out of the barn and infect others on her way to her death,” the priest of the Other said calmly.
“But – it is my barn! The expense of rebuilding—”
“Is but a small price to pay to keep your people safe,” the priest of Askaan said. “My beard, man! You have housed a monster in that place! How could you put good cattle in there now? They would sicken. Their flesh would turn black, their milk to poison.”
That silenced the elder. No one raised any more objections. My mother’s shouts had faded into the distance. Someone had dragged her away. Probably Eilik.
Footsteps scurried past the barn. I imagined the villagers running back to their homes. I imagined the people I had known all my life – the faces I had smiled at or nodded to every day – hurriedly shutting themselves into their houses. I imagined them turning from the windows and putting their hands over their ears to block out the sound of the priests’ chanting.
I wished I could put my hands over my ears. But I could not. The men’s voices, solemn and sincere, echoed through the barn as they circled it. I imagined the priest of the Other smiling his sad smile and shuddered more. My shivers made the chains clink, almost drowning out the chatter of my teeth. Gradually their voices faded away.
Soon I saw the flames. The smoke drifted up towards the roof, curling and twisting there like a living creature. I coughed and choked, gasping for air. Fire licked at the walls with long red tongues. Heat drummed against my skin, but it did not warm me. I was so cold; I thought the ice would kill me before the fire did, and I was glad.
There was a crash behind me. My body, weighed down by the chains, jerked involuntarily as a panel of the wall fell in. Cold air whooshed into the barn. The fire roared.
A large, square figure, face muffled in cloth, charged into the gap waving a hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other. He ran towards me through the smoke. I cringed away. Someone had decided fire was too merciful.
The figure leaned over me. The cloth dripped icy cold water on my face, making me flinch. I recognized the kind eyes and singed eyebrows above the cloth. Eilik.
He jammed his chisel into one of the chains and smashed his hammer down. Three times he did this. On the final strike, the chains loosened and fell away.
“Come on, girl!” he shouted over the crackle and hiss of the fire. “Before the roof falls in!”
He grabbed my arms and pulled me to my feet. My muscles cramped and twitched and I nearly fell. He hefted me into his arms as if I weighed nothing, as if I did not stink of dirt and urine and mould. His hands were as warm as the air that gushed out of his smithy.
Pressing my face into his chest, he ran with me out into the darkness, carrying me away from the burning barn, through the outskirts of the village, to the edge of the forest where the light was blue and faint. Under the trees, two pale shapes waited. I recognized Dolla, my mother’s mule. She was weighed down with bags and boxes that had been haphazardly strapped to her saddle. And next to Dolla, my mother. She stepped forward as Eilik heaved me up onto Dolla’s back with a grunt of effort. I lay there, gasping for air, breathing in the clean horse-scent of Dolla’s mane, soaking up the warmth of her broad back. She shifted under me, but made no noise. Good girl.
Ma reached out. Not to me, but to Eilik. Her hand looked very white against his tanned forearm.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“I need no thanks,” he said gruffly. He turned his face towards me, but I could not see his expression in the dark. “’Tis nothing but fear that made a child’s fight into a nightmare. They see their own demons in the dark. I see only a little girl. You go on and start again, far away where they cannot find you.” A moment later he was gone.
“Ma,” I whispered. My voice crackled and hissed, like the fire. I reached out to her. Wanting comfort, wanting anything to help wipe the horror of what had just happened from my mind.
She shrugged my hand away. “Don’t.” Her voice was low and broken.
As she led Dolla into the forest, I began to shiver again.
Luca’s hand rested lightly on the centre of my back, guiding me through the farmyard and out onto the dust track that led away from Mala and Crina’s house. The heat of his sun-drenched skin soaked through my shirt, almost burning me. I took a deep breath to steady myself. With each step I tried to work up the courage to ask him what would happen to me now: how did they deal with people like me here? I couldn’t find the strength. The words clogged up in my throat like dry, stale breadcrumbs. I had promised to go with him and not to run away again, and I would keep that promise, even if every muscle in my body was quivering with the desire to flee. But that was all the bravery I had in me.
I was surprised when Luca stopped and seated himself on the low stone wall at the border of the family’s farm. From here, I could see the whole property, including the two new mounds of dark earth under the trees to one side of the house. Each one was crowned with a ring of white stones. The graves of the farmer and his son.
Nicu and Abhay.
“Sit down,” Luca said, gesturing to a fallen log with one hand while he shrugged his pack off and set it on the ground with the other.
I obeyed, watching him warily as he unbuckled the strap that held his scabbard to his back. He sighed and stretched, then laid the sheathed sword across his knees.
“So, I’ve learned your name at last,” he said. Almost casually, he drew his sword from its scabbard.
Fear stopped my mouth. My hands wanted to reach for my wolf tooth, but I kept them clasped tightly before me. I had to keep still, or I would break and run.
He won’t hurt me
, I tried to reassure myself.
He’ll make it quick, I know he will.
Luca had a folded square of soft cloth in one hand now and was attacking the blood stains on his blade with it. “In fact, I feel as if I’ve learned a great deal about you today. For example, I know that you’re not the type to cut a man’s throat in his sleep. No matter how easy he makes it for you.”
I gasped as I realized his meaning, outrage overcoming fright. “You were awake?”
“What do you take me for – an imbecile? Of course I was awake.”
“But – then –
?” I wailed, thinking about the way I had hovered over him, staring, muttering to myself.
“I needed to know if you would try to gain your freedom by killing me,” he said, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world. He didn’t take his eyes off his sword and kept rubbing away at the stubborn stain. “I also found out that you were willing to go against every instinct of self-preservation in order to help two women you’d never met. That you’re brave enough to face a man twice your size with nothing but a hunting knife, and fast enough to nearly kill him with it. That even when you were so afraid you couldn’t speak, you kept your promise not to run. That’s what I’ve learned about you today.”
I couldn’t think straight. I shook my head, trying to tumble his words into an order that made sense. “What does any of that matter? You know what I am. I told you about the curse. You know about the Wolf.”
“Frost.” He looked up from his sword at last, and I felt my own eyes widen as I met his. There was no trace of disgust or fear. Or even pity. Only kindness. “You don’t have to be afraid of me.”
The priests had looked kind, I reminded myself. Compassion was not the same as mercy. There was no way he could let me go. “What are you going to do with me?” I asked.
Sadness crossed his face, darkening the golden lights in his eyes, like a cloud passing over the sun. He slid his sword swiftly back into its sheath and slung it over his shoulder once more. Then he leaned down, opened his pack and drew out a large, lumpy parcel wrapped in sackcloth. He held the parcel out to me and waited patiently until I found the courage to take it. The weight pulled my arms down sharply as soon as he let go. The parcel was heavier than he had made it look.
“Open it,” he said.
As I fumbled with the hairy twine that held the wrappings in place, he stood and shouldered his pack again. The wind swept over the hillside and stirred the leaves behind him into a silvery-green cloud. Fine strands of pale hair drifted around his face.
“I don’t know what you expected to happen next,” he said, “but it’s obvious it was nothing good. So listen to me now. I’m going to make you an offer that you are free to accept or refuse as you will.”
My fingers stilled on the package. “What offer?”
“Join us. Join me. Become a hill guard.”
I felt my mouth drop open. “You – you can’t mean that. I’ve already attacked you once. I’m not safe to be around normal people. I’m cursed.”
“I don’t believe in curses,” he told me, eyes fierce. “I don’t believe in magic, or demons. I believe in choice. Whatever you’ve been told, whoever has hurt you, whatever past haunts you, you can choose to leave it behind. I know it, Frost. I saw who you are today. Your bravery saved those women.”
I began to shake my head, but he held up his hand, silencing me. “With some training I believe you could be a great warrior. I can teach you to channel this battle rage that affects you. I can teach you to fight your fear and overcome it. But it can’t happen until you take control of your own life. You have to
to stop running. You have to
to believe in me.” He smiled, and my breath caught in my throat. “I already believe in you.”
“You don’t know me. You don’t know … what I’ve done.”
“I don’t know you very well
,” he corrected. “I saw enough today to know that you’re a remarkable woman. Decent, kind and brave. I don’t accept that you’ve done anything truly wrong. I don’t think you could.”
I looked away, clenching my jaw. He had no idea how wrong he was. Yet it still meant so much to hear someone say they believed in me – in my goodness. My own mother would not have made such a claim on my behalf.
I heard the rustle of cloth and the squeak of leather, and suddenly he was kneeling before me, showing me the golden brown and silver-blonde streaks on the top of his head as his long fingers brushed mine aside on the forgotten parcel. He swiftly unknotted the twine, peeling back a layer of sackcloth.
I sucked in a shocked breath as I saw what lay neatly packed beneath it.
My pack. My hunting knives. My snares. My waterskin and dried meat.
My father’s axe.
Everything I owned in the world. Everything I had thought lost forever.
Trembling, I closed my fingers around the cold steel and smooth wood of the axe haft. “You found it.”
“I’ve been wanting to return it to you. Other things kept coming up,” he said. I felt heat rising in my cheeks as I remembered my repeated escape attempts. “Now you know I mean what I say. You can go if you want and never see me or my men again. I won’t stop you. It’s up to you, Frost.”
His hand closed around mine for the second time and our fingers entwined. It was so natural that I did not question it. I met his strange, dark eyes.
Everything went still. My breath caught. The wind seemed to die as the late afternoon sunlight wrapped me up, trapping me in a veil of warmth. A songbird trilled, and the noise stretched out endlessly, rippling in the stillness. The blue-gold fire in Luca’s gaze shivered through my body, altering all it touched: every speck of dust and drop of blood.
Then it was over. His hand released mine. He stood up and was towering over me again. I gazed down at my tingling, trembling fingers.
“You know where to find us,” he said. “I’ll be waiting.”
I strained to hear his footsteps move away, but there was only the voice of the wind. Still, I knew that he had gone.
I sat there for a long time, alone among the gently stirring trees. Something stirred and shifted in my chest too, unfolding beneath my breastbone. It ached, but the pain was sweet. Pain meant life. Something I had no name for was coming alive inside me. Something like hope, or happiness, or belief – none of those things, or all of them. I had thought such a feeling lost forever, just like my father’s axe. And just like my father’s axe, it had been returned to me. By Luca.
He didn’t believe in curses. He believed I could fight the Wolf. He had seen me go berserk and yet he still thought I was decent.
It struck me for the first time then, a realization so obvious that I choked on a laugh.
I was not in Uskaand any more.
There were no priests of Askaan or priests of the Other here. There was no one to pronounce my fate and order the fires lit. No one who knew what I had done or who I had been. No one who even knew my real name. In Ruan I could be a new person. I
choose to leave the past behind. If I could bring myself to believe what Luca had said.
Fight my fear. Channel my battle rage. Help people instead of hurting them. Find a place and keep it, instead of always running, always looking over my shoulder. I didn’t know anything about Luca or this country. I didn’t know if what he offered was really possible. But I had to choose, like he said. I had to choose whether I believed in him. Whether I believed in myself.
When I held my hand up to my cheek, the skin Luca had touched was still warm.
I stowed my things neatly in my pack, folded the sackcloth on top, and secured my father’s axe. Then I shrugged the straps over my shoulders and stood, nodding respectfully to the graves of Nicu and Abhay.
The light deepened from honey to amber as I walked through the rustling leaves, and then faded to blue as the sun sank beyond the mountains. I stopped once to eat and drink. Stars began to bloom in the sky, and the wind turned frosty.
I heard singing.
I stepped out of the trees. A sentry moved swiftly towards me, and I braced myself, lifting my hands to show I held no weapons. I could feel his eyes raking over me, although it was too dark to see his face. Then he nodded, pointing towards the centre of the camp. Towards the glow of firelight.