The girl of fire and tho.., p.19
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.19

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 19

  Author: Rae Carson

  Father Alentín comforts a young woman, supporting her up and over the ridge with his good arm. They pass close enough for me to see the bruise pillowing across her forehead, the bald spots and scabs from hair ripped out at the roots, her mangled earlobe. The priest whispers something as they pass, and she looks up at me, startled, with hopeful tears in her eyes.

  “I’m Mara,” she whispers. “Thank you for coming. ”

  While she and Alentín slip down the rise, I stare at her back, at the grass stains on her robe.

  Chapter 16

  COSMÉ tends the wounded and directs everyone to help with decisive efficiency. I sit curled against the wall of the huge half-cavern, unable to look away. Many of them wear charred robes over burned flesh. One of the men bundled across a horse’s back is already dead when they untie him and lower his body to the ground. The other three thrash with infection and fever. I remember Aneaxi’s leg, the smell of rotten meat, the edges of a wound that scalloped around black ooze, and I cannot bring myself to help or even get close. But I stay because it’s oddly comforting to watch my former maid. There’s a familiarity to the way she cuts their clothes away and cleans their wounds, the way she stitches flesh together and launders bandages. Her face is just as impassive, her hands as economical and capable as if she were still in my suite cleaning and folding curtains.

  I envy Cosmé her usefulness.

  In Brisadulce, I was the secret virgin-wife of the king, the visitor from a foreign land, a guest staying in the former queen’s suite. But I never understood my purpose there. Now, because of the Godstone, I’ve been forced across the desert to meet a supposedly great destiny. And yet nothing has changed. I cower in my corner, unable to act.

  Just like Alejandro, I realize with a start. I, too, could let myself be paralyzed into indecision, into weakness.

  Cosmé’s curling hair falls forward as she leans over to wipe blood from a man’s neck. Her hair has grown a little and falls just past her shoulders. She hollers for a strip of cloth. A tiny, barefoot boy with a crutch limps over with a bandage. Cosmé uses it to wrap her hair into a quick ponytail. I stare at her messy curls, the way black strands lie sweat-slicked against her ear, and I realize that, young as she is, no matter where Cosmé goes, no matter what situation she is in, she will always make a place for herself.

  My heart pounds as I stand. I step among the wounded, and I approach Cosmé, refusing to look down at them. I grit my teeth with determination, trying to make a stone of the revulsion and fear in my chest.

  “Cosmé. ”

  She doesn’t look up. “I’m very busy. If you need something, ask someone else. ”

  I take a deep breath. “Can I help?”

  She rings a dirty rag out onto the ground, then dips it into the bucket beside her. “There is nothing you can do. Go eat something. ”

  I almost walk away. Instead, I say, “I know you hate me. But don’t let that make you stupid. ”

  Her head whips up.

  “Let me get you some fresh water,” I continue before she can respond.

  Slowly her gaze moves to the bucket next to her. She nods. “Actually, that would help. Here. ” She lifts it toward me. “Don’t dump it anywhere near our drinking water. ”

  It’s heavy, and the handle digs into my fingers, but I hurry away, glad to do something besides touch infected flesh.

  I fetch water all morning. Once the others see what I’m doing, buckets appear out of nowhere. I dump the smelly, brownish, sometimes viscous stuff against the sunny side of the butte, then hurry into the caverns for a fresh refill. I can hardly keep up with demand, though I move as fast as I can. By the time the last wound has been cleaned and stitched and bandaged, my thighs and shoulders burn and I can no longer feel my fingers.

  I collapse against the wall and close my eyes, trying to relax my cramping forearms.

  “Highness. ”

  I look up. Cosmé stands over me with a water skin and a plate of steamed trout on a bed of greens. My mouth waters. “You haven’t eaten anything all day,” she says.

  I reach up. “Thank you, Cosmé. ”

  She turns to go, hesitates, turns back around. “I don’t hate you. ”

  I’m not sure what to say, so I just nod acknowledgment.

  That night, I sit cross-legged in my hut, Alentín’s copy of Homer’s Afflatus in my lap. I delve deeper this time, studying it sentence by sentence, as if I were in Master Geraldo’s study pouring over the Scriptura Sancta.

  My candle is half burned when Humberto enters. He grins at me before laying his bedroll out in front of the door.

  “I thought you might spend the night with your cousin instead,” I say, glad to see him.

  “Plenty of time to catch up with him later. And he needs the rest. ” He sits and pulls his boots off with a grunt. “Studying the Afflatus again?”

  “Yes. ” I roll my shoulders to relieve the ache there. “I’m hoping to find some kind of clue. ”

  He scoots onto my bedroll and sits beside me. He stares at my face. “You seem . . . that is . . . I mean . . . ”

  I don’t understand why he’s so flustered. “Humberto?”

  He shakes his head. “Your eyes. They do something to me. ”

  I blush furiously, but I’m saved having to reply when he says, “What I meant to say is that you seem worried. Frightened. ”

  I gape at him. “Of course I’m frightened. I was kidnapped, remember? Dragged across the desert on some vague hope that I can save you. I want to help. In spite of everything, I really do. But I don’t know how. There was one other bearer from Orovalle. Hitzedar the bowman. He killed thirty-four men, including an animagus. My country was saved that day. In my whole life, I’ve killed one person in battle, and I hardly knew what I was doing—”

  “What? You killed someone?”

  “Yes. And I don’t care to discuss it. But my point is, I’m not a warrior. I don’t know how I can possibly save you. ” I put my face in my hands. “Hitzedar was lucky. He completed his service. So many others never completed theirs. Many of them died. ” I look up at him finally, but it’s hard not to cry. “Humberto. I don’t want to die. ”

  He puts an arm around me and pulls me to his chest. “I don’t want you to either. ” As he strokes my back, I let the tears fall. “You are braver than you know, Princess. And smart. I think you can help. I truly believe that. ”

  “How do you know?” I whimper into his robe.

  “Have you heard of Damián the shepherd?”

  “No. ” But it sounds familiar.

  “He was my great-grandfather. He bore the Godstone. ”

  I look up at him, amazed, and I remember where I’ve heard it before. “I’ve seen the name. On a list of bearers kept in the Monastery-at-Brisadulce. ”

  His smile beams pride. “Damián was a hardworking man. He lived in a village many days’ journey from here, closer to the Invierne border. He used to stay out all night with his sheep. He wasn’t very comfortable around people, you see. One day he discovered a tiny spring, a damp spot, really. It was in a small valley that got lots of shade and had plenty of grass for grazing. A water source made it a perfect location for a village. So he set himself the task of digging a well where the little spring was, all by himself. He told his wife about it, very excited. I think it was an excuse to stay away from home longer. She was a shrew. But he never finished. ”

  “What happened?”

  “He dug down a ways, nearly the height of a man, but not far enough to get more than a trickle of water. Then when a sheep slipped down an incline and got tangled in a bramble, Damián went after it, but he slid on the scree and tumbled to his death. ”

  I glare at him. “I thought this was going to be an encouraging story. ”

  He smiles. “It’s not over. His well was forgotten, overgrown by mesquite. Almost twenty years later, a large scouting party
from Invierne came through that little valley led by an animagus. The men of Damián’s village lined up on the ridge with spears and bows, only slightly outnumbered. But the animagus sent his fire against them, and they began to burn. The villagers were just about to turn and run for their lives, when the animagus suddenly disappeared. At first they thought it was new magic, something they’d never seen before, but then the enemy panicked. The villagers took advantage of the confusion and slaughtered them from the ridge above. ” He leans closer and his eyes spark with amusement. “Later, they discovered the animagus had fallen into Damián’s well and broken his neck. ”

  I frown up at him. “So you are saying that Damián’s act of service was to dig a well? Part of a well?” Could it be true? Could an act of service be something this subtle? This inglorious?

  Humberto shrugs. “When the men returned to the village, they told Damián’s widow about the part her long-dead husband had played. She showed them his Godstone, something she had kept since his death. She said she knew something important had happened because it had cracked right down the middle. ”

  “His Godstone cracked?”

  “It did. ”

  “That makes no sense. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I’ve seen Godstones. Old ones whose bearers have been dead many centuries. They weren’t cracked. ” I wish I had thought to ask Father Nicandro if the Godstones came from bearers who had completed recognizable acts of service.

  “Well, I don’t know much about Godstones, but I do know my great-grandfather saved the village that day. It was a big scouting party, and the fact that it was led by an animagus means it had significance. Up until that point, the inhuman ones were mere legend, never sighted. It’s possible Damián’s well delayed Invierne’s invasion for years. ”

  “It’s possible. And Damián never knew he completed his service. ”

  “He never knew. ”

  I lean my head against his shoulder. Strange how the presence of this boy is so much more comforting than my husband’s ever was. Near Alejandro, I was too dazzled to be at ease. “You think I will complete my service,” I say, “even if I never understand how?”

  “Yes. ”

  But I could still die inanely, like Damián, or suffer grave injury, like Homer. Like a pig to the slaughter . . .

  “You know, Princess. ” Humberto’s thumb grazes my chin. “My grandfather, Damián’s son, was one of the men on the ridge that day. If he had died, Cosmé and I, my cousin Reynaldo, even Uncle Alentín . . . none of us would be here today. ”

  And suddenly I understand why Homer accepted his injury. I understand why it is better to die from my service than never complete it at all. Far, far better. Homer and Damián never profited from their acts of heroism; everyone who followed did. In the same way, I may never reap the benefits of mine, should I complete it. But that doesn’t matter, because God placing his stone in my belly was never about me.

  The next day, I set the Afflatus aside in favor of my old favorite, the Belleza Guerra. Every passage inspires more questions. I spend the whole day running back and forth between my borrowed copy of the manuscript and the people who have survived the war thus far.

  Father Alentín tells me the warriors of Invierne are unskilled but numerous as the stars in the sky. They pour from the snowy heights of the Sierra Sangre, led by animagi who wield amulets of fire. Though five of Invierne’s warriors perish for every one of ours, it is not enough. Once an animagus enters the battle, our people must flee or die.

  “How many exactly?” I ask him. “Is their army nearby? Do they seem ready to march?”

  “There are two armies,” he says. “One within a few days’ travel by horse. Another much farther north, a stone’s throw from Conde Treviño’s holdings. ”

  “Two armies. With quite a distance between them. ”

  He nods, rubbing the stump of his shoulder.

  “How many?” I ask again.

  “My girl, there are thousands. Ten thousand at least, and their numbers swell daily. ”

  Two enormous armies. Even the combined might of Joya d’Arena and Orovalle could not compare. “One will skirt the desert to the south,” I muse aloud. “The other will follow the jungle line to the north. They’ll advance on Brisadulce and the costal holdings from opposite directions. A giant pincer. ”

  Alentín leans closer. “I think so too. But I doubt that His Majesty, may orchids bloom in the wake of his passing, is prepared to fight a war on two fronts. ”

  “I fear you are correct. ” Alejandro, with his inability to make decisions or commit to anything, is prepared for nothing. I glance at the priest’s maimed shoulder. Tentatively, I say, “Do you mind telling me how you lost your arm?” It feels rude to ask, but I must learn all I can.

  “An arrow shattered my arm just above the elbow. In the days it took me to travel to this hiding place, it sickened with disease. I passed out soon after I arrived. When I woke up, the arm was gone. ” He shrugs. “An arm for a life. Not such a bad trade. ”

  “So they use arrows. ” Like the Perditos of the jungle. “What other weapons?”

  “For questions about weapons, my girl, you should ask Belén. ”

  I thank him and hurry away in search of the tall boy. I find him outside an adobe hut, scraping a fresh sheepskin with a half-circle blade whose handle fits neatly into his palm. We haven’t spoken much since our journey across the desert, and I’m wary as I approach. But he greets me with more warmth than I expect, even brightens with interest at my question.
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