The girl of fire and tho.., p.31
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.31

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 31

  Author: Rae Carson

  Belén ceases rocking. “She escaped,” he says simply. “And the whole army of Invierne had a mad celebration. One of their own was killed, an animagus, yet they celebrated. ”

  “I don’t understand,” I say.

  “They celebrated because they found you, Elisa. The bearer. Only the bearer could have escaped an animagus. Could have used fire against him. They’ve been searching for you for years, and you came right to their camp. ”

  “What do they want with her?” Alentín demands.

  “They want her Godstone. They have nine already. Almost twice the number of perfection. They only need one more, a living one. ”

  “They need two more,” I say fiercely. I pull the amulet from under my robe and hold it out for all to see. “I took this one from the animagus. ”

  But Alentín doesn’t seem to hear. “How in God’s name did they acquire nine Godstones?”

  Humberto shrugs. “Maybe they robbed the graves of dead bearers. ”

  Cosmé sends her brother a disgusted look.

  “Many bearers never completed their service,” Jacián points out. “Or were never recognized. Maybe it’s because Inviernos killed them and took their Godstones. ”

  Alentín raises an eyebrow. “If that’s true, they’ve been collecting Godstones for centuries. ”

  “Or maybe,” I say slowly, “some of the bearers were chosen from Invierne. ”

  I’m rewarded with faces of laughing skepticism. Even Belén wrinkles his nose in contempt of the idea. But they don’t understand. I’d rather believe Godstones came to them freely. Otherwise, we’d have to conclude that Inviernos have walked among us, stolen from us, and are now on the verge of realizing a centuries-old plot.

  But what plot? “What can they accomplish with ten Godstones?” I ask, my voice quavering.

  He looks up at me, finally. Dead on. “Sorcery. Right now, they use their amulets to channel a bit of the magic that crawls beneath the earth. With ten Godstones, they can free it entirely. ”

  “Why?” The Scriptura Sancta forbids the use of magic. There must be a reason.

  But Belén only shrugs. “I’m not sure. I don’t speak the Lengua Classica fluently. And they speak with such strange accents. After a while, the burning was so bad, and when they took my eye, I couldn’t think anymore. . . . ” His head falls to the side again, and his cheek twitches while he loses himself in memory.

  “Belén?” Cosmé whispers.

  He blinks, refocuses. “They wanted to find out about her. About the bearer. ”

  Humberto strides forward and grabs Belén’s chin. “What did you tell them?”

  Belén rolls his head, grimacing. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. ”

  “Did you tell them about this place? About the Malficio?”

  A tear leaks from Belén’s eye. “I don’t know, Humberto! I don’t think so. All I could think of was that I’d made a mistake. A horrible mistake. ”

  “And then you miraculously escaped. ” It’s Jacián’s dark, drawling voice. He echoes my own fear, that Belén has led Invierne to us, perhaps even purposefully.

  “Oh, it was no miracle,” Belén says. “They let me escape. They tried to follow me here. ”

  I ask, “How can you be sure they didn’t?”

  Belén closes his eye and leans against the wall of the cavern. “I traveled in circles for days. I didn’t come here until I was sure they had lost the trail. ”

  “You were badly injured,” Jacián says. “I can’t imagine that you were able to elude them. ”

  “It was not a pleasant journey,” Belén says, his eye still closed. “But I did elude them. ” I’m inclined to believe him, for young Adán and his friends have not been able to find any sign of lurking Inviernos. I managed to avoid pursuit myself, inexperienced and clumsy as I am, so I know it’s possible. And neither was mine a pleasant journey.

  “These ten Godstones you speak of,” Alentín says. “Do you really think Invierne can use them to loose magic on the world?”

  “The Inviernos believe it. They believe it powerfully. Now everyone searches for Elisa. ”

  We ask more questions while Cosmé hovers like a suspicious mother cat, but Belén has little more to offer. We decide his betrayal has nothing to do with the conde’s summons, and everyone leaves to get some sleep before tomorrow’s journey.

  I linger awhile, unable to tear myself away from the sight of Belén’s gaunt cheeks, the burns on his neck and shoulder, his quivering limbs. I never knew him as well as I do Humberto or Cosmé. Still, I mourn his easy smile and the way his steady stride vanquished the desert terrain. I steel myself against pity. By his own admission, Belén is a traitor, though a reluctant one. If Alodia were here, she would have him executed for treason.

  But I am not my sister.

  I thank Cosmé for looking after him and tell Belén to rest well before I stumble off to my bedroll. I lie awake a long time, thinking of Humberto, of Belén, wondering about Invierne’s mysterious purpose. Just before drifting off to sleep, I realize I forgot to eat dinner.

  The air is dark and chilly when Humberto awakens me. I wrap up my bedroll and shoulder my pack before following him outside into the predawn chill. To the east, the blue-black sky cedes to a yellow glow that huddles over the darkly distant peaks of the Sierra Sangre. I glare at the mountains, thinking of the vast army sheltered in their shadow.

  We step softly among adobe huts. Our plan to sabotage Invierne’s tithe depends on our unannounced arrival. The messenger who brought the conde’s summons is not to know of our departure, lest he take word to Basajuan. Adán and others have been instructed to keep him busy and distracted—even if that means making him a prisoner—to ensure that we have several days’ head start.

  A soft nickering greets us as we round the butte. Jacián is already there, holding the reins of two horses; they are huge and colorless in the dark. I recoil when one shakes its head, rattling metal cheek pieces.

  “Horses?” I whisper to Humberto, though it sounds more like a squeak. “I thought we were going to take the camels. ”

  My face burns at his quiet chuckle. “Horses are faster. And we’re not going deep enough into the desert to require the camels. Don’t worry. We won’t make you ride one. ”

  I sigh in relief and determine to keep my distance.

  The others come in quiet twos and threes, and within moments our traveling party is complete. Led by Jacián, we head westward at a brisk walk. We are a perfect grouping of ten, including quiet Cosmé and tall Mara. I place my fingertips to the Godstone and pray that this journey will not be so ill-fated as my last.

  We cut northward and take advantage of the flat terrain with a steady, ground-consuming pace. To my delight, my legs churn effortlessly. My ankles don’t ache, my lungs don’t burn, the skin of my legs remains smooth and unchafed. The horses allow us to carry more varied foodstuffs than on our last journey, and every night, Mara cooks for us all, alternating flatbread and lightly stewed jerky with freshly caught rabbit or wild turkey. She has even brought her own satchel of spices that she puts to expert use.

  While we travel, Cosmé is distant and quiet, her delicate features sculpted in steel. Humberto tells me she was reluctant to leave Belén behind, that only a combined appeal from himself, Jacián, and Father Alentín caused her to agree to this journey. He says this is common behavior for her, that she pouts in isolated silence for days when she doesn’t get her way. Humberto knows her much better than I do, but I am reluctant to dismiss her so easily. I fear that her withdrawal is more deeply rooted than he realizes.

  After a week of unbroken travel, Jacián leads us eastward, back into the hills. The sun is high and hot, and sweat is trickling down my neck and soaking the collar of my robes when I smell smoke. At first, I think it must be the cook fire of a fellow traveler. But as we continue on, the scent grows stronger, then unbearabl
y acrid. We exchange uneasy glances. I put my fingers to the Godstone, trying to detect a hint of its icy warning, or even a pulse of warmth, any activity that would give me a clue as to what lies ahead. But it is as indifferent as a common stone.

  We crest a ridge and are finally able to see, ahead and slightly north, a mantle of smoke on the horizon. It is no lazy campfire, but a wide swath the sickly brown color of devastation.

  Jacián spins to face us. “The village of Cerrolindo burns,” he says. “I was going to guide us around it, but—”

  “There may be survivors,” Cosmé cuts in.

  We look at each other, and I know what our decision will be by the determined faces of my companions.

  “Elisa,” Humberto says. “Your Godstone. Is it telling you anything?”

  I shake my head. “Nothing. ”

  “Then the enemy is gone,” Jacián declares, and we need no further prodding to hurry down the hill after him.

  By the time we reach the village, I’m almost sobbing from the unrelenting smoke and from my own dread. I can hardly keep my eyes open for the sting, but even through the blurry haze of tears and hot fog I see the blackened skeletons of buildings. Wooden posts that end in charred jaggedness, rock walls layered in soot, remains of tables and chairs caved in on themselves and glowing red.

  “Look for survivors!” Humberto yells. He pulls his cowl over his head and ties his shawl to cover his nose and mouth. Quickly I mirror his actions. “And be careful,” he hollers. “Any of the remaining structures could collapse. ”

  I hurry through smoldering streets and curving alleys, blinking to keep my eyes moist, desperate to find life. I nearly stumble over the charred body of an animal—I can’t tell if it’s a sheep or a dog—and I almost vomit over the smell of burned meat, the reddish ooze leaking through cracks in its charred skin.

  “Over here!”

  I can’t tell who cried out or where the voice comes from, but it fills me with hope. “Where are you?” I shout back.

  “North end!” Humberto’s voice.

  I plunge back into the smoke, my forearm raised as if it could shield my eyes from the nebulous stuff, and head in the direction I think is northward. I see a tall figure on my left. It’s Mara. She hurries to my side, and we rush ahead together.

  My lungs burn by the time we reach them, a huddled mass of soot-smeared skin and hacking lungs, a family of four. Humberto is squatted down next to the smallest, offering comfort. He looks up at me as Mara and I approach, tears shimmering in his eyes.

  “They were locked inside that building,” he says in a wavery voice. “They were left to burn. ”

  “Oh, God. ” The cruelty of it is unfathomable. “Who did this to you?” I demand, as if I don’t know. The Godstone sends raging heat into my chest in response to my anger.

  A face peers into mine. Wide-eyed, blistered, female. “The animagi,” she whispers. “They said they were taking their revenge on us. They said they would destroy a village each time the Malficio struck. ”

  She doubles over with coughing, but I hardly notice. The earth below me sways too much.

  Chapter 26

  WE can only hope most inhabitants managed to flee, for we find no other survivors and only a few blackened bodies. I crouch a safe distance away on a barren rise, hugging knees to chest. My companions poke through the smoldering ruins to salvage what they can. I should be helping them, but my stomach churns, tears pour down my cheeks, and I am so, so tired.

  These last weeks, I have presumed to feel useful. I have treasured the success of the Malficio in my heart, taken pride in the way my tiny group of rebels looks to me for guidance and inspiration. I have allowed myself to feel so accomplished, so grown up. But I have been a fool.

  Jacián will tell me that all wars have casualties. Humberto will assure me that none of this is my fault. They will both be right. But in this moment, I close my eyes and feel the weight of death on my shoulders.

  “Elisa!”

  My eyes snap open. Humberto is hurrying toward me.

  “Are you breathing easier now?” he asks, eyes round.

  I nod. “The family?”

  He plunks down beside me. “They have cousins nearby. Cosmé offered to let them accompany us to Basajuan, but they’d rather stay in the area and look for survivors. We gave them food and water. ”

  I say nothing. He puts a gentle arm across my shoulders and pulls me against him. “It’s not your fault,” he murmurs into my hair.

  “I know. ” But new tears spring, stinging, to my eyes.

  “What worries me is how far west we are. I didn’t expect Invierne to have a presence this near the desert. Not yet anyway. ”

  “Perhaps they will march on Alejandro even sooner than we expected. ” I rub my nose against the fabric of his robe, giving a flitting thought to the inappropriateness of our actions. I should distance myself from Humberto. I should prepare myself to be the wife of a king.

  “That’s what Jacián said. We can’t linger. We must leave for Basajuan immediately. ”

  “If they are willing to burn a village because of one of our silly raids, what will they do when we poison their food?”

  I feel his chest rise and fall with a sigh. “That’s why we’re doing this, Elisa,” he says gently. “Remember? We want Invierne to retaliate against the conde. ”

  “We’re going to get people killed. ”
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