The girl of fire and tho.., p.4
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.4

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 4

  Author: Rae Carson

  I’m not sure what to do next. The carriage provides cover, but it burns. Even now, smoke licks the floor above, curling around the panels like white snakes. Feet patter by at eye level. Our enemies are barefooted demons, nearly naked and painted in black-and-white swirls. Anklets of tiny bones clatter as one darts in and out of the jungle. Lunge, sidestep, disappear; then another takes his place. Their attack has no pattern. It is random, constant, indefensible.

  A few paces away from our burning carriage gapes the opening of an enormous buttress, a cavern formed by the roots of a silk-cotton tree. I could reach it quickly, and Ximena, but I worry for Aneaxi and her broken leg.

  I flip over to face my ladies. “We must get away before the carriage collapses. ”

  They nod; Aneaxi’s round cheeks are smeared with dirt made muddy by tears. My heart swells for a moment, for I’m not willing to lose either of them.

  “Ximena and I will go first,” I say to Aneaxi. “Then we will pull you out by the arms. ” I hope that by standing, we’ll have the leverage to do what could not be done beneath the carriage. “Aneaxi, you must not scream, no matter how much it hurts. ”

  She takes a few ragged breaths. Then she rips a strip of fabric from the hem of her traveling gown. My chest burns with pride when she wads it up and shoves it in her mouth. I’m ready, her eyes tell me.

  Still we wait. The fighting is too close. From where we lie, we see pairings of naked, painted calves with boots and stiff hide. A man tumbles to the ground before me, and I scramble backward. His eyes are open and blinding white against the black paint of his face. His hair is as long as mine but twisted into thick clumps. He lies unmoving. Gingerly, heart pounding, I pry a stone knife from his still-warm hand and stuff it into my bodice.

  At last I see a break in the fighting, and I gesture frantically to Ximena. We scramble from beneath the carriage on all fours. My foot tangles in my slip as I rise, but I rip right through it. Once clear, we turn and grasp Aneaxi’s arms. She groans around the wad in her mouth as we pull. Her eyes clench tight; her face is bright red. Then she goes limp as unconsciousness takes her. As we pull her toward the dark cavity of the buttress, I expect to see an arrow impale her chest at any moment. Sweat slides down my back and across my stomach. Beside me, Ximena’s gray bun has come loose and her hair swings below her shoulders. Little by little, we reach the line of the jungle. The ground slopes downward as we step beneath the roots. It’s cooler here, and comfortingly dark. There is just enough room for the three of us in the little cavern. I catch my breath, holding tight to Aneaxi’s shoulders, so relieved to have made it this far.

  I have a better view of the battle now. My husband’s guard seems to have found its footing against these strange savages. They fight back to back against the random attacks, shield arms at ready for incoming arrows. Bodies from both sides litter the ground, and my stomach roils at the scent of burning flesh. Our carriage is an inferno. Next to me, Ximena flinches when the flaming structure collapses to the ground, sending sparks in all directions. A few moments more, and we would have burned.

  Beyond the ruined carriage, two savages have trapped one of our own against a tree. I cannot see his face, but his body is frozen in panic.

  One of the savages leaps forward with a shriek, plunges a stone knife toward the man’s chest. He lurches away just in time, and the knife jams into his forearm instead.

  He fights weakly then, with left-handed strokes. When he hesitates yet again, I know he cannot last. The painted bodies sense the kill. They begin an odd movement, like a dance. Squat, pivot, creep. They are like jungle cats, all wild grace and hunting fury. Then I catch a glimpse of the doomed man’s face.

  Alejandro.

  “No!” I clamber from our shelter. Ximena yells something indecipherable. She grasps my arm, but I wrench away. I feel so slow as I run toward my husband, my belly and breasts bouncing painfully with each step. As I pass the collapsed carriage, I pull the knife from my bodice. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I can’t let Alejandro die. The painted men circle my husband, unaware of my approach. They move closer as Alejandro readies his sword with his good arm.

  Desperate tears stream down my face as I launch at the nearest one. Together we plunge to the ground, and I’m crying and stabbing and stabbing until my arm is slick, until my shoulder burns from the impact of blade against bone.

  Someone pulls me away. It’s Alejandro. I blink to clear stinging vision and see two painted men lying at our feet. He must have dispatched the other. I should speak to him, and my mouth opens, but something bright draws my gaze downward. Crimson. So much of it, all down my bodice, soaking my skirt. Metallic saliva tingles against my tongue, and suddenly, I’m shaking so hard I feel like my teeth will rattle from my jaw.

  Alejandro pulls me close against his chest and strokes my back, muttering words I can’t take in. The battle is winding down, and soon enough, I will fret about my burned possessions, or Alejandro’s injured arm, or Aneaxi’s broken leg. But for now I can’t think beyond the warmth of Alejandro’s chest. He doesn’t love me yet, but in this place of death, in this precious moment of shared relief, he holds me.

  We lose fifteen men to the Perditos. Others, like Alejandro and Aneaxi, are injured but will mend.

  While Aneaxi sleeps, Lord Hector straightens her leg and splints it. I walk a few paces away to breathe different air and to wipe blood from my face with broad, waxy leaves. My dress is filthy and soaked, the blood already turning brown and thick, but most of my extra clothes burned with our carriage. My stomach grumbles—I can’t remember the last time I was this hungry—but I’d feel ridiculous asking for food while others tend to the wounded.

  Lord Hector finds me later, sitting on a stump, staring at the foliage around me.

  “Your Highness, we have a prisoner. ”

  I look up at him and notice that his mustache is matted and sticky. “Oh?” I’m not sure why he’d bother to inform me.

  “King Alejandro said that you would decide how to deal with him. ”

  Me? My heart thuds.

  Perhaps it is a test, meant to appraise the girl who will be queen. Or maybe Alejandro is busy with other matters. “The man is a murderer,” I say, for no other reason than to give myself a moment to think.

  “You have but to say the word, and I will dispatch him myself. ”

  My throat constricts at the thought. It doesn’t feel right that I should have the power of life and death.

  I’d rather no one else died today.

  “Does he speak?”

  “Yes. ”

  “Then I have some questions for him. ”

  Lord Hector helps me to my feet. There is a glow of respect in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. It warms me, but only for a moment. The cost of such respect has been too high.

  The painted prisoner sits in a ring of swords. His hands are tied before him; his ankles are chained. He knows his situation is perilous. He glances around at his guards, white eyed, understanding that any one of them could stick a blade into his heart.

  He sees me approach, and hope flickers in his eyes. Or cunning. There’s something obscene about the paint swirls all over his body. They are ghostly, nauseating. Up close, I see hollow bones woven into his long, clumpy hair.

  “My lady,” he says. His voice is perfectly clear and crisp, incongruous coming from his savage mouth.

  I almost correct his address, but I don’t care to reveal who I am. “I’ve been tasked with deciding your fate. Is there a reason, any reason at all, why I should spare you?” I can think of a very good reason, but I need to know if he’s amenable.

  He is silent for a moment. Then: “I could help you. ”

  “How?”

  “I know the jungle. I know her secrets. ” His eyes are huge, like a cornered animal’s.

  “Will you answer any question asked of you? Truthfully? Wi
thout reservation?” Lord Hector nods his approval of my question. He thinks I am being strategic, but I simply do not have the courage to watch someone else die.

  “I will,” the Perdito says.

  “Then I will spare you. ”

  “Thank you, my lady. ” He leans forward, clutching the fabric of my waist, head down in veneration. It’s the customary genuflection of a newly sworn vassal, and I find that I hate it. It’s too intimate, too dangerous, even with the sword points now aimed at his neck.

  Then he stiffens. His fingers have glanced across the Godstone beneath my bloody skirt. I know what he feels. A faceted surface, hard as diamonds but warm with life. He recoils.

  “You!” he whispers. His eyes are wide and wet with frightened tears; his breath comes in gasps.

  Someone lunges forward, a blur of gray hair and ruffled skirts. A gurgling sound, a body slapping the ground. Ximena! She backs away, and I see our prisoner lying flat on his back, my nurse’s hairpin protruding from beneath his jaw.

  I stare at the pin—so tiny—at the blood pooling around it, slipping across his skin into the jungle soil.

  “So sorry, my sky. I thought he was about to attack you. ” She might have been telling me I was late for morning prayer.

  I gaze unbelieving at my nurse, amazed at the speed with which she moved, wondering why recognizing the life in my navel would sentence a man to death.

  Chapter 4

  THAT night, we sing a hymn of deliverance and light prayer candles for the dead. The candles are foolish. If the Perditos attack again, the tiny flames, floating like stars in thick jungle darkness, will make telling targets. But we light them anyway.

  None of the fifteen were personally known to me, and as the king whispers each name, I cannot remember their faces. Still, everyone on this journey has been kind, and I mourn their loss because Alejandro does. While my husband speaks of them, I pray silently, thanking God for his life and for the lives of my ladies. The Godstone radiates gentle fingers of warmth throughout my body as it always does when my prayers are heartfelt. After a few moments, the strain in my back from dragging Aneaxi fades to a mild ache, and I feel deliciously sleepy.

  As a little girl, my greatest fear was that the Godstone would stop living inside me, that it would grow cold and still like any ordinary jewel. I would know then that the moment to perform my service had gone, that I’d been too selfish or lazy or stupid to act. So I learned to welcome its tender responses to my prayers. They are signs that I am not a failure quite yet.

  Alejandro finishes the ceremony with a muttered “Selah,” and everyone breaks off to prepare for tomorrow’s journey.

  “Lucero-Elisa. ” His voice is so soft I think I’ve imagined it, but his eyes, sparking in the candlelight, fix on me as he approaches. His wounded right arm is pinned tight against his stomach, wrapped in a gray sling.

  “Alejandro. ”

  “I wanted to thank you, Elisa. Hector says you acted with remarkable courage throughout the attack. ” I don’t remember courage. Just heat and fear. “And…” He avoids my gaze. “And you may have saved my life. ”

  Alodia would deflect the praise, weak as it is. She’d turn it into a flattering treatise on how his mighty prowess would have won through in the end, even without help.

  But he froze with panic, and if not for my interference, he would surely have died. Feeling bold, I say, “Yes, I did. And you’re welcome. ” Perhaps this was my great service, to save the life of a king. But the jewel still thrums its portent.

  He grins at me now, a boyish grin that warms me as much as the Godstone ever does, and my disquiet slips away. I smile back, feeling shy.

  “Do you miss home, Elisa?”

  My mouth opens to say yes, I miss it terribly, but I realize it’s not true. “A little. I probably haven’t been away long enough. ” It would be nice to feel safe again, to hug Papá, or even to study with Master Geraldo. But I don’t yearn for those things. Not yet.

  Just then, Ximena ambles toward me, so I excuse myself and hurry away. I’m not ready to face her. I don’t know what questions to ask.

  We endure the jungle five days more. Exhausted from double watches and stiff from cramming into too few carriages, we gradually leave the stifling growth of the rain shadow for the dry side of the mountains that overlooks the desert floor. Joya d’Arena, the Jewel of the Sand, stretches before us. Orange-red dunes roll along the horizon, soft with heat glare. I know Joya is a harsh, scorched place, but the wind-whipped sand and the fading light make it seem velvety and welcoming.

  Lord Hector guides us west along the desert’s edge, toward the sea. I see a line of deep green, perhaps days ahead, but in the shimmering heat it’s hard to know. Beyond the palms awaits Brisadulce, Joya’s capital. Alodia visited once, and she returned with stories of a marvelous oasis, beautiful sandstone buildings, and sparkling people who adored her on sight.

  I’m eager to arrive, if only to change my clothes, order a bath, and lose myself in an enormous, multicourse meal. My head aches to think of fresh fruit and chilled wine.

  We make camp along a stream that trickles from the mountains and heads west toward the city and the sea. In our borrowed carriage, Ximena orders me to take off my dress so she can wash it. She helps me with the buttons and I’m a little relieved, a little nervous, to have her so close by. She’s been a mother to me as long as I can remember. But I think of her hairpin—something I’ve seen almost every day of my life—sticking out of a man’s neck, and I marvel that I know so little about her. I’ve never asked. Where does Ximena come from? When did she begin working for my family? Why has she chosen to love me so? “Spoiled girl,” Alodia called me more than once as we were growing up. “Coddled just because she’s chosen. ”

 
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