The girl of fire and tho.., p.28
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.28

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 28

  Author: Rae Carson

  “Cracked ribs hurt the worst on the second day. It will feel better after that. ”

  “Humberto!” A wave of nausea ripples from my head to my stomach as I struggle to sit up. “We have to go now. We have to warn everyone. ” I’m so dizzy, but I must stand somehow.

  “We’re not going anywhere. ” He puts a hand to my chest and forces me back down. “You shouldn’t travel for at least two weeks. ”

  “Two weeks! Humberto, we were betrayed. We must warn Father Alentín. ”

  The spoon freezes in the air above me as his eyes narrow. “Betrayed?” he whispers. “What do you mean?”

  I look longingly at the spoon. “It was Belén. I saw him in the camp, eating with the Inviernos like they were lifelong friends. ”

  The spoon shakes. I reach my chin toward it, my mouth open, hunger still gnawing at my spine.

  “Belén would never—”

  I lie back, sighing through the pain in my lower chest. “How else did they find us? They didn’t stumble onto us, remember? They didn’t spot us from below. They came straight for us. They already knew. ”

  He is silent for so long. My stomach growls. Then: “Are you sure it was Belén you saw? Absolutely sure?”

  “I’m sure. I walked right past him. ”

  “Did he see you?”

  “Maybe. I don’t think he recognized me. ”

  He stares past me. “Belén,” he murmurs. “Why would you do this?”

  I can’t bear the hurt in his face. “I’m so sorry. ”

  “You’re right. We have to warn everyone. ”

  “Maybe there’s another explanation. Maybe he came to find me. ”

  “Hmm. Maybe. ” But his voice lacks sincerity. “Here, finish your soup. ”

  I slurp it eagerly, and I’m almost done before I notice the prickle at the back of my throat, the faint taste like cinnamon. “You put duerma leaf in my soup. ”

  “I did. Just enough to help you sleep through the pain tonight. Tomorrow you will tell me what you were doing in Invierne’s camp. And we’ll figure out what to do next. ”

  My eyelids grow heavy as the world begins to swallow my body. “Humberto. I’m so glad you’re here. ”

  “Me too, Princess. ”

  “You mean you walked right out of his tent in his own robe?” His voice is incredulous, and laughter crinkles the corners of his eyes.

  “Yes. I wish I could have taken the robe with me, but I was afraid it would show up against the cliff. ”

  “You climbed the cliff? In the dark?”

  I reach my hand toward him, showing off the wet, brown-stained bandage wrapped around my finger. “I don’t recommend it. I ripped off a fingernail. Oh, and also . . . ” I lift my other arm and peel away the fabric. It throbs where the animagus clawed me, but the pain is not so fierce as the ache in my ribs, and I had nearly forgotten it. The bandage has dried against my skin, and I have to yank on it to unwrap it. “I think this is infected. ”

  He holds my wrist and rotates the forearm, his eyes moving along the length of the parallel welts. “It’s not too bad,” he says. “I’ll need to open them up and squeeze the infection out, then let it drain for a day or two. ” His look intensifies. “It will hurt. But the skin around it looks healthy. If we do it now, I’ll think it will heal nicely. ”

  I swallow. “Let’s do it. ”

  He holds his knife blade in the flames for a moment, then lets it cool. He chatters to distract me while he slices me open, and I’m surprised at how little it hurts. I feel mostly pressure, like he’s cutting into a very close layer of clothing. But when he starts to squeeze, black spots flash and swirl just behind my eyelids. I sneak a glimpse, just once. The fluid oozing from my arm is viscous and greenish, tinged with blood. I turn my head away and grit my teeth as Humberto pinches down the length of my forearm. When he flushes it with icy water, tears spring to my eyes.

  The fire flares as he tosses the bandage atop the burning branches. For a brief moment, the air smells of rotting meat. I lie still, collecting my breath.

  “I should make you wait weeks before traveling,” Humberto muses aloud. “But we need to get back to the village as soon as possible. ”

  Humberto could go without me, but I’m afraid to suggest it. I don’t ever want to be alone again. Instead, I ask, “What happened to Cosmé and Jacián?”

  “My sister and I found Jacián a few hours later. Or he found us, rather. He’d been watching the camp and saw us being pursued. ” His face tightens. “We split up to avoid them. I don’t know if either of them made it. If they did, they’re far away by now. ”

  “But you came back. ”

  “I couldn’t leave you. ”

  We stare at each other. I want him to kiss me again. Maybe I ought to say something about it.

  Finally I manage, “We’re still very close to the army. ”

  His gaze shifts to my lips. “Yes. ”

  “You shouldn’t keep the fire going. ”

  “Um . . . no. ”

  “Then put it out, Humberto. I’ll live without it. Tomorrow, we leave. ”

  He shakes his head as if to clear it. “You can’t possibly walk. ”

  “I most certainly can. I’ll start slow, I promise. You can scout ahead in the morning. Find a secluded campsite just a few hours ahead, then come back and get me. If that works, maybe I can go a little farther the next day. ”

  He starts to protest but goes silent. I know he’s desperate to find out about the others and warn the village. “We’ll try it,” he concedes. He smiles softly. “And see? I told you that you’re braver than you know. ”

  His face is so intent on mine that I have to look away.

  Every step sends pain jolting into my ribs and back. Walking is both worse and better, though, for the motion chases some of the stiffness away. Breathing is near impossible, but my head clears, my neck relaxes, and the bruises on my arms and legs turn from purple to sickly yellow. The Godstone no longer flares in icy warning, but I continue to pray as I walk.

  The next day, we do the same, traveling only a few hours. The day after that, my breakfast tea sends spicy tingles to the back of my throat.

  “Did you put duerma leaf in this?”

  He just stands there, looking smug.

  I sway backward, into the bedroll he gave up for me. My eyelids are too heavy for a decent glare. “. . . hate you,” I say.

  “You can tell me all about it tomorrow. ” He leans forward, and I’m only vaguely aware of his lips pressing against my forehead.

  As we travel, I’m delighted to see the vegetation disappear, to feel the air warm, hailing the encroaching desert. When the soil turns red and buttes reach for the sky in fiery layers, I even feel a pang of homesickness.

  A sentry meets us while we are yet a half-day’s walk from the secret village, then hurries ahead to warn everyone not to kill us on sight. After exchanging a questioning look, Humberto and I quicken our steps. He strides ahead unerringly, and I thank God for leading me to him. This dry hill country is a maze of twisting ravines and identical buttes, and I never would have found my way without help.

  At last our mountain rises before us, the huge overhang of the half-cavern embracing the village tight within its shelter. Everyone is there to greet us, smiling, and my eyes fill with tears. It is so different from my first suspicious reception here. Alentín hobbles toward me, his one arm outstretched. I rush forward, ignoring the residual pain in my ribs, and wrap my arms around his skinny frame.

  So many faces I recognize, this time open and hopeful. They try to grab my hands and hug my thighs, but Humberto pushes them away. “She is injured!” he hollers. “Don’t squeeze too hard. ”

  My face burns with humiliation. For some reason, I hate feeling coddled in this particular moment. Then I spot Cosmé elbowing her way mercilessly through the crowd. She slows upon seeing Humberto, he
r relief apparent. They exchange an acknowledgment; then she approaches me and I notice, unaccountably, that she’s cut her hair short again. Her jaw twitches, her eyes widen. She leans forward—for a moment I think she’s going to hug me—then she whacks my shoulder and grins. “I didn’t think you’d make it back. ”

  I sigh. “I didn’t either. ”

  “She killed an animagus,” Humberto announces.

  Everyone stares at me in silence.

  “Well, we don’t know that,” I protest, shifting on my feet. “I never saw the body. ”

  “But you gave him duerma berries and burned his tent to the ground. ”

  I shrug.

  Cosmé peers at my face. “I don’t believe you. ”

  “Can we talk about this later? I really need a bath. And food. Anything but jerky or dates. ”

  But she won’t let it go. “Lying isn’t going to make you into a hero. ”

  The spark of anger in my gut quickly fades to sadness and exhaustion. I have nothing to say, so I turn away, thinking only bathing thoughts. Then, I get an idea. I stop.

  “Cosmé,” I say over my shoulder. “I brought a gift for you. ” I reach into my sash and pull out the animagus’s yellow-white braid. I toss it at her feet. “For being such a good friend. ”

  I feel eyes boring into my back as I hurry into the cavern.

  The story of my escape has already spread by the time I finish bathing. Everyone pats me on the back, asking questions, offering congratulations. And everyone has their own story to tell. My Malficio was very busy while we were away.

  At night, Alentín sits cross-legged beside me in the sand of our half-cavern while we wait for dinner to be prepared. He tells me of a group of five older boys who quietly stumbled upon an enemy scouting party while hunting. They tracked the party for a day, waited for the right opportunity; then, early in the morning, they attacked with bows and arrows from the ridge above. The scouting party was much larger, easily fifteen men, so each of our hunters killed a single man and then retreated. Two days later, they did the same. They left the remaining handful to spread the word of their defeat. Since then, the village rallying cry has been, “Each one kill one. ”

  Alentín tells me, “It is as you said. We sting, and then live to sting again. ”

  “Each one kill one,” I echo. “That’s perfect. ” I push away my discomfort at the thought that we are encouraging children even younger than me to kill.

  “We found another group northeast of here. Probably traveling between armies. They were camped next to a brook. One girl took an enormous batch of duerma leaf powder and poured it into the water a ways upstream. Half of them passed out. The rest panicked. ” His face hardens when he says, “We slaughtered them in their sleep, then took their clothes and weapons. Burned the bodies. ” He looks away.

  “You did well. ” But my belly squirms.

  “This idea of yours. Inflicting harm with little loss of life. Terrorizing the enemy. It’s a good one, the best one, but it still hurts my heart. ” He looks down and draws swirls in the dust with his fingertip. “I just hope His Majesty, may minstrels compose epics at the sound of his glorious name, will do as you say and give this land to its people. ”

  I whisper, “I will do everything I can. ”

  “I know you will. ”

  “Father, I need to show you something. ” I glance around to make sure no one is looking, then pull the animagus’s amulet from beneath my woolen blouse. I’m not sure how Alentín will react to seeing the cause of so much suffering, but I’m desperate to talk to someone about it. I lean forward, the caged Godstone cool and dead in my palm.

  Alentín’s eyes fly wide. “Did you take that from your animagus?” he whispers.

  “I did. ”

  He starts to reach for it, then yanks his hand back. “Are you sure it was a good idea to bring it here, Elisa? This is an instrument of evil. What if it starts to burn—”

  “It won’t. ”

  “How can you be sure?”

  “It’s not evil. It’s a Godstone. ”

  His face freezes. “That’s not possible. God would never allow such a thing. ”

  “I don’t understand it either, Alentín. But I know a Godstone when I see one. This is the fourth one I’ve seen, besides my own. There is no doubt. ”

  Alentín’s voice drops to a whisper. “How did he acquire such a thing?”

  “I don’t know. Godstones detach from their bearers at the moment of death. So maybe the animagi steal them. Or maybe—”

  “Maybe what?”

  I lean in. “Maybe some bearers have been selected from Invierne. ”

  His eyes narrow. “Inviernos are evil. They do not walk the path of God. ”

  I shrug. “But they have Godstones, and they do sorcery with them. If I could learn how to use it the way they do . . . ”

  His tone is dark and cutting when he says, “That would be a very dangerous game. ”

  I smile humorlessly. “No more dangerous than what we already do. You were the one who said the bearer was to fight magic with magic. ”

  He sighs. “Yes. It’s why we brought you here, after all, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. Promise an old man you’ll be careful?”

  I reach forward on impulse and hug him. “I promise. ”

  We’re interrupted by Mara, who bears steaming plates of spiced lamb shanks with buttered spinach. I breathe in through my nose, savoring the rich moistness. Not jerky, not dates. We take our plates, and Mara squeezes my shoulder before stepping away.
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