The girl of fire and tho.., p.20
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.20

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 20

  Author: Rae Carson

  “They use the bow and arrow mostly,” he says. “Their bows are much larger than ours. The height of a man or longer. They don’t shoot with the same accuracy as our bowmen, but their arrows fly much farther. ”

  “Could we make a similar weapon?”

  “No. ” He looks up from the sheepskin. “We’d need trees. Lots of very tall trees with wood that hardens just the right amount as it dries. ”

  “What other weapons?”

  “Some spears. Most carry short swords. We have the advantage there, with our long blades. You don’t ever want to wrestle one, though. ” He sets the knife atop the skin and pushes up the sleeve of his robe. Four parallel lines of raised, whitened flesh streak down his forearm.

  I shudder. “They look like claw marks. Really large claw marks. ”

  He retrieves the scraping blade. “I don’t think they have claws. More like gloves with something sharp rigged into the fingertips. They fight like animals. Like mountain lions, but without the cunning. ”

  Again, I think of the Perditos. My stomach flips a little as I remember their random attack patterns, the slinking grace with which they moved.

  “But the weapon you need to watch for,” he says, punctuating the syllables with flicks of the knife, “is the amulet of an animagus. They wear them around their necks on heavy chains or leather ties. They never use them during the first part of the battle, something I’ve always wondered about, but after a while, that amulet starts to glow. Then light comes out of it, pure and white hot, fast as an arrow. It burns everything it touches. ” He shakes his head sadly. “We’ve won a few skirmishes against Invierne, even outnumbered as we are. But whenever an animagus leads them, we lose. Quickly and badly. We’ve learned to call retreat as soon as we see that amulet smolder. ”

  I know I must learn more about the animagi; they seem to be the key to Invierne’s strength. The first documented instance of an animagus in battle is the account of Hitzedar the bowman. Since then, they’ve shown themselves infrequently, but to hear Alentín and Belén talk, encountering one of Invierne’s reclusive sorcerers is commonplace.

  “Belén, I need to find out more about the animagi. What do they eat? What do they wear? What do they want? Maybe someone has infiltrated their camp. Maybe Conde Treviño—”

  “You need to talk to Cosmé. ”

  “What?”

  “Cosmé. If you want to talk to someone about sneaky things”—he waggles an eyebrow at me—“talk to her. She’s a spy. ”

  I allow my head to fall into my hands. Of course she is. She’s probably as efficient a spy as she is a laundress. I thank him and dash away in search of the travel escort/maid/healer/spy.

  She’s in the half-cavern, tending the wounded. Another man died during the night, she tells me before I have a chance to say anything. But the others might heal. It will be a few days before we know for certain.

  “Can I ask you some questions?” I expect her to brush me away, but I have to try.

  “About?”

  “Er . . . sneaky things. ”

  She raises an eyebrow.

  “I’m trying to learn about Invierne. Especially the animagi. If my father or my sister were ruling in Conde Treviño’s place, we’d have infiltrated the enemy camp by now. We’d know who leads them, what their plans are, what they eat for breakfast, what they—”

  “Treviño knows nothing. ”

  My disappointment is like a stone in my gullet. “You’re sure?”

  “I’m sure. ” She stands stiffly and faces me. “I suggested it when I was in his court. I thought we should send spies with the supplies. But the conde and his daughter felt it too risky. ”

  That makes no sense. “Supplies?”

  Cosmé’s face wrinkles with disgust. “The good conde made a deal with Invierne, you see. They don’t attack his holdings, he sends them sheep and foodstuffs. ”

  My heart beats against the base of my skull. “This is a jest. ”

  “No. ”

  “The conde is a traitor. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “Does the king know?”

  She shakes her head. “Ariña would never tell him. ”

  Ariña? What does my husband’s mistress have to do with . . . then I understand, and I roll my eyes at myself for not having seen it sooner. “Ariña is Conde Treviño’s daughter. ”

  “Yes. She represents her father in the Quorum of Five. ”

  “So you were sent to spy. As Ariña’s maid. Spy on what?”

  She shrugs. “Officially, to glean palace gossip. To help Ariña in her bid to become the next queen. But by then, Humberto and I had connected with Uncle Alentín’s group. ” She snorts derisively. “I guess we’re revolutionaries of sorts, rebelling against the conde’s betrayal, against the king’s useless passivity. So I went to Brisadulce, hoping to find the bearer. I found you. ” She looks around the cavern floor, at the sprinkling of injured villagers. She chuckles, but her eyes are devoid of humor. “What a fearsome group we make, don’t you think, Highness? A bunch of children, playing at revolution. ”

  “Call me Elisa. ” I look around too, but instead of seeing hopelessness, I see wounded survivors. I see a lovely, hidden village that prospers in spite of the war. “Cosmé, how serious are you about continuing the fight? I mean, why not just walk away? If you fled, north of Orovalle maybe, you could live. ”

  Her lips press together as her black eyes widen. Even angry and sad and streaked with dirt, she is a beautiful girl. “I will never give up,” she spits, stepping forward until her forehead is inches from mine. “They killed my parents. They killed most of my friends. I’m going to kill as many of them as I can before they finally stick an arrow in my gut or burn me to ashes. ”

  I resist the urge to step back. “And the others? Do they feel as you do? Will they keep fighting?”

  “Most of them, yes. ”

  We stare at each other for a long moment. “Good,” I say.

  Surprise flickers in her eyes before I turn and walk away. The threads of a battle strategy are patterning together in my mind. It’s an insane plan, like nothing the warriors of Joya d’Arena have ever tried before.

  It will never work.

  Chapter 17

  THE ceiling of our hut glows rich ochre in the candlelight. I stare at it, unable to sleep for the ideas buzzing in my head. Humberto’s breathing is steady and regular. He’s probably asleep already. I blurt, “I want to call a meeting. Of the whole village. ”

  Humberto starts, then rolls onto his side. “You do?” he yawns.

  “I do. ” I study his face, looking for disapproval or misgiving. He is quite handsome, I realize suddenly, with his desert-bred cheekbones and glorious hair.

  He blinks, eyes lidded with sleepiness, and rubs the stubble on his chin. “A meeting for what?”

  “To talk about the war. I have some ideas. ”

  “You should have Uncle Alentín call it. He’s been thinking of holding worship services for us all. The children look up to him. ”

  “Good idea. ”

  Humberto yawns again, then rolls onto his back and shields his eyes with a forearm.

  “Do you think they’ll listen to me?” I ask.

  He lifts his chin and looks at me upside down. “Yes, Princess. You are the bearer. They will listen to you. ” He settles back and closes his eyes.

  “You don’t still think someone will try to rip the stone from my body, do you?”

  “I might,” he mumbles.

  “What?”

  “If you don’t let me sleep, I might rip it out myself. ”

  I’m much relieved to see the grin spread across his face. “Oh. ”

  “Good night, Princess. ”

  “Call me Elisa. ”

  He growls.

  “Sorry. Good night. ”

  Alentín agrees to call a meeting, but suggests we
wait. “We just sent scouts to look for more survivors,” he explains. “We’ll wait for them to return. ”

  I can’t argue, though I’m not happy at the prospect of growing sick with nervousness over the next several days. Alodia was always the one to address the court. Except for a few minor toasts, I managed to hide quietly in the background. This should feel different. Fifty or so orphaned children shouldn’t frighten me. It’s not like I’ll be standing before the golden horde of Orovalle while they study the puckered fabric at my waist or twitter about how much I ate.

  I am the bearer, I tell myself. I represent hope for these people.

  I find I can no longer sit still for such long periods of time, so I ask Cosmé to teach me about duerma leaf. She narrows her eyes in distrust as she ponders my request. For a moment, I’m reminded of Lord Hector, of the way his busy mind spun beneath his careful countenance. It saddens me to think of him and Alejandro and Ximena searching for me, worried about what has befallen me. I wish there was a way to get a message to Brisadulce.

  “I’ll teach you. ”

  I step back in surprise. “Thank you. ”

  She guides me over the north ridge into a small twisting valley. The day is particularly hot, and grit fills my mouth with each sharp breeze.

  “It grows in the shade,” she says. “Usually in soft soil, but not always. Look for it on the sunrise side of boulders. ” She points to a low shrub with broad leaves of velvety sea green. “It produces small yellow berries twice a year. The berries are poisonous, but the leaves are very useful. I’ve been giving the wounded a mild tea to help them sleep. ” She strips several leaves in a smooth, gripping motion. “Don’t pull it up at the root. If you strip the leaves, they’ll grow back next year. ”

  I copy her motion and end up with several, moist where they broke off from the stem. They smell faintly of cinnamon. “What did you use on me?” I ask. “It wasn’t a tea. And it worked quickly. ”

  Cosmé nods. “Duerma leaf holds a lot of water. If you take the fattest leaves and squeeze the moisture from them”—she plucks a larger leaf and waves it in front of my nose—“then let it dry into a powder, you get something that will make a person sleep for days if inhaled. ”

  “Like me. ”

  “Like you. ”

  “Could someone die from this?”

  She shrugs. “Sometimes. A very concentrated dose would do it, maybe. If we harvested the berries, I’m sure I could concoct an effective poison. And sometimes people just react strangely to it. ”

  “So there was a chance I would die. ”

  She smiles, and I’m startled at the genuine humor in her black eyes. “A very small chance. At the time, you were quite . . . large. It would have taken an enormous amount. ”

  I glare at her, even though I don’t mean it. “And the tea you gave Ximena. How effective do you think that was?”

  “She probably awakened late morning with a pounding headache. ”

  “Interesting. Very interesting. ” I look around the tiny valley. It’s dry mostly, and rimmed in cactuses, but duerma leaf and mesquite huddle together in shady places. “Is there a lot of it around?”

  She lifts her chin. “What exactly are you planning . . . Elisa?”

  “Not sure yet. But I think we’ll need lots of duerma leaf. And—” I raise an eyebrow at her. “Sneaky people. ”

  The half-cavern fills quickly. We don’t usually light torches for fear of discovery, but tonight is the exception. Everyone has come, even the limping wounded. One of the scouts—a young man no older than seventeen—brought back five survivors, half starved but uninjured, so a hint of celebration buzzes in the chatter as we wait for Father Alentín to begin services. As I look out over the congregating people, my palms begin to sweat, and I regret eating so much jackrabbit stew for dinner. Our number nears sixty now. I try to think of something else.

  I helped prepare dinner tonight, even skinned a rabbit under careful supervision. Rabbits, I learned, part from their skin with disturbing ease. My clumsy knife produced a ripped and useless hide, but I’m confident I can do it again if the need arises.

  Alentín steps onto a boulder and holds his good arm at shoulder height until everyone is silent and attentive. He clutches a rose in his hand. I hope he either has another one stashed away, or doesn’t expect many petitioners. If he intends to officiate the sacrament of pain, a single rose will not remain sharp of thorn for so many prickings.

  Together we recite the “Glorifica,” then he begins to sing. I recognize the words, though the melody is a bit different, more minor and haunting than I’m used to, but the combined voice of the children is as high and clear as bells. I catch on quickly and sing my hope to God.

  We finish our hymn and line up for the sacrament. In Brisadulce, when Father Nicandro officiated, only a scattered few sought the pain of devotion. But here, in this place of desperate hope and brutal reality, every single person, adult and child, lines up to be pricked by the rose and receive a blessing.

  Father Alentín prays, asking God’s favor on the ceremony, then quotes the Scriptura Sancta: “Has not God chosen those who are pained in this world to inherit his paradise? For it is through suffering we understand our need for his righteous right hand. Indeed, our spiritual needs outweigh our physical ones. Blessed be the name of God. ” One by one they are pierced and blessed and tended to. Belén acts as the priest’s assistant, anointing their tiny prick wounds with ointment, wrapping them in bandages, giving the occasional cryer a quick hug.
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