The girl of fire and tho.., p.22
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.22

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 

Page 22

  Author: Rae Carson

  “Nine know how to use a sling,” Cosmé points out. “To make more of those, we just need leather. And rocks. Boys love to sling rocks. ”

  “Yes!” Belén raises his fist in a victory gesture. “We shall save the world from Invierne with slings!”

  Cosmé shrugs. “Anyone who can kill a rabbit at twenty paces could kill an Invierno at ten. ”

  “Well. ” I take a deep breath. It feels ludicrous, like we’re little children playing at war, which, of course, most of us are. “Then everyone will try their hand at the sling while we figure out how to make more bows and arrows. ”

  According to our list, we have a blacksmith among us, but no iron. Seamstresses, but we don’t know how the enemy costume themselves. We have a journeyman midwife who helped Cosmé stitch the wounded, and two trappers whose traplines snaked deep into the foothills, before Invierne came. Mara is a cook of some renown. Everyone else is a child, possessing useful general knowledge but little in terms of specialized skills. So many people, so many abilities. I just don’t know what to do with them all.

  A headache throbs behind my eye sockets. I pinch the bridge of my nose and murmur, “I need more information. ”

  “About the people?” asks Cosmé. “All you have to do is ask. ”

  “No. About Invierne. About their army. How close could someone get to them without being seen?”

  Cosmé chuckles. “If it were me or Belén, or even my brother, very close. ”

  “Close enough to observe them for a few days?”

  Cosmé and Belén exchange a glance. It’s the comfortable, intimate look of people who have known each other a long time. “We could,” Belén says. “There’s a cave nearby. High on a ridge. It was . . . ” He looks down for a moment. “It was a favorite hideout when we were younger. ”

  If it’s true, this could be exactly what we need. “I want a map of their encampment,” I say. “I want to know where they eat, where they sleep, how the place is organized. Do the animagi mingle with the others or keep to themselves? What do they wear? How are they supplying the army from over the mountains? How do—”

  “Elisa,” Cosmé snaps. “We’ll do it. The five of us will leave tomorrow. ”

  “The . . . five?”

  She nods. “You, me, Belén, Jacián, Humberto. We journeyed successfully through the desert during the sandstorm season. Surely you wouldn’t risk sundering a divinely blessed grouping. ”

  And he was led, like a pig to the slaughter, into the realm of sorcery. I smile weakly. “I guess I saw my function here as more . . . organizational. ”

  Cosmé snorts. “Eat well tonight, Princess. For tomorrow’s journey will bring fond memories of jerboa soup. ” She stands and stretches.

  Belén grabs my arm. “Elisa, you have a potent mind. If anyone needs to observe this army, it is you. ” His smile cannot mask the seriousness in his eyes. “Just try not to slow us down. ”

  They leave to make preparations. I stare after them, my stomach in my throat, my hands clammy in my lap. They are right, of course; I need to observe the encampment myself. It’s a small comfort that I will likely fulfill my act of service someday, even without realizing it. And I know this is necessary. The will of God. Because maybe I am the one the prophecy spoke of, the one who would enter the gates of the enemy.

  But I want to live. I want to see Ximena again. And Alejandro. I want time to figure out what I feel for my husband.

  Everyone will have something to do in our absence. A few will travel to the conde’s holdings to spread rumors of the mysterious Malficio. Some are tasked with building our arsenal and training in the use of sling and of bow and arrow. Still others will dig pits throughout all the major approaches, to be covered later by tent canvas and a shallow layer of dirt. The littlest are tasked with harvesting duerma leaf.

  I dread the journey. Heat, aching feet, tiny tasteless meals. This time, since we travel in stealth, we cannot take the camels and must carry our own packs.

  The whole village sees us off. They wave as we climb the rise, their hopeful faces grinning absurdly above frayed robes and bandaged limbs. Humberto leads us again, silent and unsmiling, shoulders hunched forward as if plowing our path through the air. He has not spoken to me in nearly two days.

  The straps of my pack bury themselves in my shoulders, weighed down by my bedroll, dried food, a water skin, ink and hide to map the army.

  Humberto sets a vigorous pace. As before, I struggle to keep up. I’m not the same fat princess who was kidnapped from her bed in Brisadulce, but compared to my nimble companions, I am slow and lumbering. Our journey through the desert was brisk but steady and straight. Here in the hill country, my knees and ankles throb from maneuvering around boulders and mesquite, from huffing up a rise only to skid down the other side. I’m easily the noisiest of our group, and I can’t imagine how I’ll sneak close to Invierne’s army undetected.

  By the time we break for a quick lunch of jerky and dried dates, my robes stick against my chest and the skin beneath the shoulder straps stings like an open sunburn. I drop my pack to the ground and make a point of sitting next to Humberto on a boulder. He stares straight ahead, nibbling on his jerky.

  “Humberto?”

  “Hmm,” he grunts.

  I keep my voice low. “Why are you angry with me?”

  He casts me a darting glance. “I’m not angry. ”

  “You’re ignoring me. ”

  “Yes. ”

  I sigh with exasperation. “I’ve never had a friend before. Just tutors and nurses and servants and . . . a sister. So I’m not very good at being a friend. I don’t know why I upset you and I don’t know what to do about it. ”

  “His Majesty is not your friend?” His voice is wry and startling.

  Is Alejandro really my friend? I shake my head. “I honestly don’t know. He said he wanted me to be, but now I wonder if those were just words to placate a child. We never spent time together or got acquainted. He has a personal guard, Lord Hector, and I think he and I could have been friends given time. ”

  “You didn’t tell me you were married. ”

  “I’m not in the habit of revealing state secrets to kidnappers,” I snap. “Of course I said nothing. And see? You’re angry. ”

  “No. I just feel . . . foolish. ”

  I stare at his profile. “Why? I don’t think you’re foolish. ”

  He finally returns my gaze. “I thought that maybe, when this was all over, maybe you and I could . . . which is stupid, because you’re a princess and I’m a traveling escort. See? I’m foolish. ” He jumps up from our boulder, shoving the rest of his jerky into the sash at his waist.

  I’m too stunned to follow. Heat crawls up my arms and into my neck. I am the one who is foolish for not having understood his desire to protect me, his easy chatter, the way his eyes always linger on my face. It’s heady and wonderful and frightening. My first coherent thought is: I wish Alejandro had been the one to feel such things. But my next is: I’m glad it was Humberto, and I want to keep the memory of him fresh and unique in my head, completely separate from Alejandro’s.

  I don’t notice the pain in my shoulders for the rest of the day. I glide along in a daze, wondering at this miracle of someone caring for me in such a way. That night, as we set up camp on a ledge above a dry wash, Humberto ignores me again. But I sidle close to him in the dark while he gathers firewood. I whisper, “I still don’t think you’re foolish. ”

  The smell of the earth changes with the cooling temperature. It prickles against my nose, citrusy and moist. The cactuses and tumbleweed gradually cede to piñon and juniper. We cross shallow creeks on occasion, and Humberto supplements our jerky and jerboa soup with mottled trout. After a few days, the risk of being sighted is too great, so we leave the ridgelines in favor of gulches and small valleys. Each night I crawl into my bedroll exhausted, a different kind of exhaustion than w
hen we traversed the desert. This time, my very bones ache from impact.

  My companions flash me irritated looks as we travel. I manage to collide with more branches and dislodge more stones than a team of carriage horses. I’m desperately aware of the need for stealth, but the harder I try to be silent, the clumsier I become. Belén lags behind the others to instruct me on how and where to step, but after a while, he snaps with impatience. I’ve always been graceless, my feet tending to thump down wherever I can plant them. Here, though, it is not enough to merely avoid a sprained ankle.

  I’m near to tears when Belén calls to Humberto in exasperation, “You help her for a while!” Up ahead, Humberto nods. Cosmé and Jacián look on in usual silence as the two boys trade places.

  Humberto is far more patient than Belén. He shows me how to place my feet just so, explains how to support each step with my thighs and calves. He’s careful not to touch me, though I wish he would.

  It feels like a dance lesson—something I never excelled in—all precision and hidden energy. By the end of the day my muscles buzz, half numb with the effort, but I’m snapping fewer branches, and I’m glad for having spent hours with him.

  That evening we light a small, smokeless fire to heat our soup, but stomp it out as soon as the sun disappears. My companions are less talkative than usual. Every sound or shadow sends them into suspicious alertness. They schedule rotating watches throughout the night. I offer to do a stint, but Cosmé shakes her head and tells me to sleep well. “You slow us down enough as it is,” she says.

  She is right, of course. I need the extra coddling; prefer it, even. I just hope that if we’re able to observe Invierne’s army, I’ll prove myself worth the trouble.

  We break camp in hurried silence the next morning. Humberto leads us with his usual unerring confidence, though we follow no trail that I can see. We travel along a graveled ravine, surrounded on both sides by bluish clumps of stunted juniper and dry buckwheat. The sun is high and angry. I’m pulling my shawl over my burning scalp when the Godstone turns to ice. I gasp in frozen shock. So cold. So piercing.

  “Belén!” My voice is like a rodent’s squeak. His tall form is closest to me; the others are too far ahead to hear.

  He whirls and glares down his hooked nose, but his face softens when his eyes latch onto mine. “What is it?”

  My fingers, numb with cold, press against my navel. “The Godstone. Something is wrong. ” I’m near to tears. The stone has turned my blood to ice only twice—to herald the Perditos’ attack and to warn of the sandstorm. “It only does this when danger is near. Very near. ”

  Belén doesn’t hesitate. He sprints forward and grabs Jacián and Cosmé by their robes. Far ahead, Humberto turns to see what the commotion is about. Belén waves him back frantically. They scan the area around us even as they hurry toward me.

  Humberto grips my upper arm. “What is it, Elisa? What’s wrong?”

  “I don’t know. I never know, but the Godstone— I think we should hide. ”

  Jacián is already crawling up the rise toward a thick clump of juniper. “Up here!” he gestures. “Enter through the back of the bramble. I’ll cover our trail. ”

  Cosmé and Belén dart up the slope. Humberto and I follow more slowly. It’s slippery and steep, and I grab on to jutting roots to pull myself up. The clump is hard to penetrate, the trees dense and tightly possessive of the ground around them. Humberto yanks on the branches so I can scoot inside, but they still scrape against my back and shoulders. I prop myself against a twisted trunk to remain level on the steep slope. Next to me, the others are in similar positions. Moist tartness seeps from the leaves, or perhaps the bluish berries, making the air acrid but cool. Spiderwebs tickle my cheeks. I don’t know how long we’ll have to hide here, crouched in this awkward manner, our scalps brushing the canopy.

  A moment later, Jacián joins us, breathless. “Any idea what we’re waiting for, Princess?” he whispers.

  I shake my head. “But the Godstone did this right before the sandstorm hit. ”

  “So it could be anything?”

  I nod, just as Cosmé slaps a hand over his mouth. Silently, she points downward into the ravine we just left. The trees are too dense to catch more than the barest glimpses of ochre-thick dust and rough rock, and I’m not sure what she’s pointing at.

  I hear them first. Pattering footsteps across gravel. A clattering sound, like wooden wind chimes. Or hollow bones.

  Suddenly I can’t get enough air. I’m too close to the ground, swathed in darkness. I expect arrows to pierce my side at any moment, for flames to engulf our carriage, and I won’t be able to get my ladies out in time—

  A hand on my shoulder startles me. I look up to find Humberto leaning toward me, his eyes very close and bright. I swallow. The Perditos’ attack is long over, I know, but I peer through the branches into the ravine, expecting to see men painted in black-and-white swirls, creeping like animals, wearing tiny bones around their ankles and in their hair.

  I catch a glimpse of fur. A long quiver of arrows. Waist-length hair that grows in clumps. I don’t dare breathe as they creep past on bare feet. A hunting party perhaps? Scouts? Their flesh is so pale. Red and blotchy in places from the sun. I wait for a sign that we’ve been spotted, but it’s too hard to tell through the trees. They are a marvel of silence, their footsteps and clattering bones only audible at this close range. Were it not for the Godstone, we would have stumbled right into them. I don’t see paint swirls. Still, the resemblance to the Perditos is uncanny.
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