The girl of fire and tho.., p.24
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.24

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 24

  Author: Rae Carson

  “I don’t care to linger here. ”

  Her eyes are bright, and there’s something remarkable about her easy, relaxed humor. A different kind of girl sparkles just beneath that perfect skin, a girl with a ready smile and kind eyes. Perhaps revisiting her childhood haunt brought it out. Or maybe she’s just glad we arrived safely. Whatever the reason, I realize that Cosmé, already lovely, could be stunningly beautiful if she chose.

  She frowns. “What are you staring at?”

  “Um . . . the rabbit. How did you . . . ?”

  “Humberto got it with a sling. He’s always accommodating when I threaten to make soup for breakfast. ”

  I chuckle. “He’s very capable, isn’t he?”

  “Like you, my brother appreciates food only if it can be served in large quantities. ”

  I choose to believe her teasing the friendly sort, and I grin right back. “Your brother is a wise boy. ”

  “He’s at the entrance on watch if you want to join him. I’ll bring you both breakfast when it’s ready. ”

  “Thank you. ”

  I retrace last night’s journey through the twisting cavern. It’s not difficult; all I do is follow the brightest path of sunlight. Humberto is there in silhouette, his back against the rim of the opening. A spiky tangle of mesquite obscures the view. When I step forward, I feel Humberto’s hand on my knee.

  “No farther, Elisa,” he whispers. “Stay out of the sun. Morning lights the cliff face like a torch. You’ll observe in the afternoon, when the sun is behind us. ”

  I swallow hard at the reminder of the peril we’ve put ourselves in.

  Our thighs brush as I settle next to him. I don’t move at all, perfectly happy to be so aware of his body next to mine, to listen to his soft breathing.

  I see our enemy clearly through tiny breaks in the bramble. This cave is an excellent observation post. Though I can’t discern the layout of their camp, I can make out individuals as they scurry about at unknown tasks, clothed in leather and furs, barefoot, pale skinned, lively. The most striking thing is their hair. I see shades of black like mine, some with red tints like Alejandro’s. But others have hair the rich brown of coconut shells, or even lighter—the yellow-gold of honey or straw.

  “They are strange looking,” I whisper. “So savage. So colorful. ”

  Humberto grunts. “Wait till you see an animagus. ”

  I pray to ward off the sudden chill beneath my breast. Then I change the subject. “Where are Belén and Jacián?”

  “Belén hunts. We have a bet as to who can get a bigger rabbit. Jacián is exploring the area to see if anyone has passed by recently. They won’t be back until the afternoon. The sun is too high for them to slip down the cliff unnoticed. ”

  I shake my head, in awe of my companions. I can’t fathom leaving the sanctuary of our cavern. But I travel with people who move across the land the way a gull skims the water. They are so at home in this place, even with the enemy a stone’s throw away.

  Humberto’s profile is golden in the glow of morning. The soft fuzz of his beard-to-come curls around his jawline, blending seamlessly into a mess of hair that waves down his back. Sitting next to him makes me feel less afraid, somehow.

  “I’m glad you’re here,” I say.

  He whips his head around. I almost flinch as his steady gaze travels down my face to my lips, and even though no prayer fills my heart, the pit of my stomach buzzes with warmth. My lips part. I lean closer.

  A movement catches my attention, and I gasp as the Godstone shoots cold fire through my veins. “Humberto,” I whisper, frantic. “Those Inviernos! Are they coming this way?”

  He peeks at the group gathering below. His brow furrows with alarm, but he shakes his head. “They can’t possibly see us,” he mutters. But the Inviernos continue to mill about at the base of our cliff. A few look up in our direction. Humberto swears and turns a fierce gaze on me. “Run back, Elisa. Tell Cosmé to bury the fire. I’ll cover our tracks. ”

  Even more than the cold, I’m frozen by the sadness in his beautiful eyes, deep and true. He squeezes them closed a moment and breathes deeply through his nose. Then, with one swift movement, he cups the back of my neck with a strong hand, pulls my head forward, and presses his lips to mine. He wastes precious moments kissing me, his tongue gliding across my lips, darting at my teeth. I open my mouth and kiss back just as eagerly.

  His other arm snakes around my waist and he stands, pulling me against his body, pulling me to my feet. Then he thrusts me away, but not before I see the wetness glistening in his eyes. “Go, Elisa! Run, now!”

  I back into the cavern, away from him, my knees shaking and my lips barren. Then terror overtakes me, and I flee toward Cosmé.

  Chapter 20

  COSMÉ reacts instantly to my breathless exclamation by kicking sand onto the fire. She looks around our chamber.

  “Jacián’s pack is still here,” she says in a clipped voice. “Bury it while I dump breakfast. ”

  I drop to my knees and scoop furiously, glad for something to do. This is it, I think, as I fling sand in all directions. What I feared. I dig and dig, mumbling senseless prayers, until I reach dampness.

  Cosmé returns and tosses the pack into the hole. Together we cover it up, then Cosmé stomps around to level the area. A presence darkens the entry.

  “They climb the cliff,” Humberto says in disbelief. “They know we’re here. ”

  Cosmé’s face is a stone. Humberto looks at the ground as though ashamed. They’ve been so strong since I’ve known them. So decisive. I suddenly feel lost and small.

  “At least Belén is safe. And Jacián. ” Cosmé whispers.

  Safe. My mind begins to clear of fear-fog. “There is no other way out of the cave?” I ask.

  “No,” Humberto says.

  I would never scurry up the cliff quickly enough, and even if I did, there is no way I could avoid pursuers in a footrace through the hills.

  “Could you two make it out and escape? I mean, without me?”

  They say nothing. Which is answer enough.

  “Show me the best place to hide. Leave me with food and water and get away from here. ”

  I see denial in Humberto’s eyes, acceptance in Cosmé’s.

  “Look for me in a few days,” I add. “If I can escape the cave and head west, I will. ” No such thing will happen, of course, but it might convince Humberto to go. “I bear the Godstone. If anyone has a chance to survive, it’s me. Now, go! Lead them away from me. ”

  Though Humberto continues to hesitate, Cosmé yanks me forward. “There is a place at the end of the other corridor,” she says as I hurry after her. “A wedge of sorts. It will be uncomfortable, but you will be out of sight. ”

  We’re there too soon. I wish the cavern was larger, easier to get lost in. Cosmé shows me a crevice. It inclines upward in a series of scallops and drips, a waterfall of sparkling limestone.

  “Climb up,” Cosmé orders. “Once in the shadows, you’ll see an impression on your left. Crawl inside as far as you can fit. ”

  I comply quickly, using all fours to scramble up stone that is too smooth for purchase. I feel her hands on my rear, shoving me forward. The impression is dark on my left; I cannot tell how deeply it penetrates. I twist awkwardly and scoot inside, scraping my knees. It’s a cavern within a cavern, with a depressed area guarded by a lip of stone. I scoot as far back as I can, well into darkness.

  “That will have to do,” Cosmé says. “Hold tight. I’ll bring food and water. ”

  It’s cooler here, almost chilly. Or maybe that’s the Godstone. Please keep me safe, somehow, I mouth. The floor is sandy and comfortable, but I have to hunch my head and shoulders and fold my legs tight to keep them in shadow.

  Humberto’s head peeks into the opening. He tosses my pack inside, to land next to me in the sand. “I put all our food and water ins
ide. Also, your ink. I suggest smearing your face and all the light parts of your clothing with it. If there is a flash flood, the water will come through this chamber. Let it sweep you back into the cavern. The water will stay shallow there. ”

  Flash flood?

  “Humberto!” It’s Cosmé’s voice, distant now. “I hear them!”

  His eyes are huge and sad. Apologetic.

  “Go, Humberto,” I say softly. “I don’t want anything to happen to you. ”

  “I’ll come back for you. No matter what. ”

  “I know. ”

  He reaches inside, squeezes my ankle. And then he’s gone, leaving me alone in the tight, chilly dark. A moment later, I hear shouting. They’ve been spotted leaving the cavern, and pursuit begins. I’m torn between hoping my enemy chases after my companions and wanting them to come after me instead, giving Humberto and Cosmé a chance to escape.

  I listen closely, holding my body tight in painful stillness. The shouting fades. Perhaps they move away from me. I can’t decide whether or not to feel relieved.

  Then I hear soft, sliding footsteps in the sand.

  My heartbeat thunders in my ears. I’m afraid to breathe. Surely they will see this crevice. They will peer up its length and glare into my obvious hiding place. I think of the ink in my pack, wishing I’d had time to smear my face and clothes with its concealing black. But then maybe the smell would have given me away.

  The smell . . . the cavern still reeks of sizzling rabbit meat. My eyes tear up. Humberto and Cosmé and I should be sharing a meal together right now. And then I think: What a strange thought to have when capture or even death looms so near.

  The footsteps draw closer. Hushed male voices speak a language I don’t understand.

  But suddenly I do understand. It’s similar to the Lengua Classica, though the syllables are more clipped and guttural than I’m used to. I’m so stunned that for a brief instant, I forget to be afraid. The people of Invierne speak the Lengua Classica?

  “Né hay ninguno iqui,” someone says. There is no one here.

  “Lo Chato né sería feliz si alquino nos escapría. ” The Cat will be displeased if someone eludes us.

  The guttural voices seem louder, nearer. Before me, an arm’s length away, a hand settles on the limestone waterfall, lit by sun streaming through fissures in the earth above. A thick, pale hand. Crisscrossed with scars the puckering white of bread dough.

  Please, God. Make him go away.

  I wait for an arm to follow. Maybe a pale face. I close my eyes, refusing to look. Finally I hear, “Né vieo nado. ” I see nothing. The sound of slithering footsteps fades. I sense my aloneness, and it is an empty, sorrowful thing.

  I refuse to move, afraid it’s a trick, afraid they stand guard at the entrance, waiting for me to reveal myself. I wish I had duerma leaf with me, so I could sleep through this nightmare. Then, days from now, I would wake, either captured or free. Or I would be dead and I wouldn’t wake at all. Either way, I would escape this terror of not knowing what would befall me, not knowing if my enemy lurked just around the corner.

  My stomach aches with emptiness. I need to relieve myself. But I refuse to twitch a finger, even to breathe too deeply. My lower back aches with the need for release and from holding my legs so tight against my torso. Still, I manage to doze off, infused with the warmth of my life’s most earnest prayers. Please watch over Humberto and Cosmé and Jacián and Belén. Let them escape. Let them live.

  When I wake, my back is rigid as stone and my stomach is a hole in my gut, throbbing with hunger. It’s impenetrably dark, so I know I’ve slept at least until late afternoon, maybe longer. I reach, quietly, for my pack and manipulate the ties, surprised at how naturally my fingers decipher the knots, and reach inside for my packet of jerky. The meat—dried strips of mutton cured in salt and then sweetened with honey—is comforting, though it sticks in my teeth as I tear it apart. Afterward, I sip from the water skin, wondering if I should conserve, wondering how long I’ll be stuck in this hole. I feel around in my pack to see what Humberto left me. Another packet of food, a second water skin, a candle, a knife, a tinderbox. I’ve never lit a fire myself, though I’ve watched the others do it. It can’t be that difficult.

  I sheath the knife against the hide of my boots, shoving it under the camel-hair wrapping. Before I do anything else, I must relieve myself. I consider digging a hole right here in my tiny cavern, but then I’d be forced to sit atop my own waste. Better to sneak down the incline now and crawl back up before morning.

  Gradually, silently, I force my leg over the stone lip, then grasp it with my hands as the other leg follows. I slide down the incline on my belly and let go at the last instant, breathing a too-loud sigh of relief when my boots contact the sand floor. I straighten and listen a moment. Nothing. I take a few experimental steps forward. Still no sound.

  I don’t dare go too far, for I’ve no assurance I’ll find my way back in the dark. Sitting on my heels relieves the pressure in my abdomen a bit. I scoop sand away, stopping at intervals to listen. Then I pat at the ground, feeling for the depression, and mark the deepest spot with a toe while I lift my robes and fiddle with the drawstring of my pants. The urge to go is overwhelming, and I barely settle into a squat in time.

  I hear voices, then sliding footsteps.

  I don’t have time to finish. I yank up my pants and scramble toward the incline while warm urine pours down my leg. The limestone is too slick, too soft. I climb partway up, clawing at the stone, ignoring the burning rawness of my fingertips, but my legs tangle in pants that were left loose and untied. The voices approach. My scrambling becomes frantic, but each time my fingers find purchase, my foot slips. Tears of panic run down my face. Then the Godstone turns to ice, and I gasp in shock. My fingertips freeze. I lose my grip and slide down. My rear slams into the cavern floor; the breath in my lungs flees in a single, violent gale.
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