The girl of fire and tho.., p.40
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.40

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 40

  Author: Rae Carson

  Elisa,

  Section of Invierne’s southern army broke off and joined march toward Brisadulce. Five animagi heading your direction; only three were sent against southern holdings. I think they know you’re there.

  We continue to harass army’s rear, but Perditos make our task difficult. They have begun shooting our pigeons. This will be my last message.

  Take care,

  Cosmé

  Chapter 32

  AS the Inviernos come, the line of enemies thickens into a dark ribbon across the desert, then a great river. The river expands until, from the vantage point of the wall’s highest tower, they seem like an ocean of fleas writhing in the sand.

  I huddle inside the wall with the bowmen, the Godstone chilling me, unable to tear myself away from the strange scene below us. The slitted loopholes between bricks splay to the inside, allowing a huge viewing range. Like everyone else, I stare through a loophole until my eyes water with heat and glare, looking for any subtle shift that could hint of their attack plan.

  Finally the animagi show themselves. I see the unlikely white-gold of their heads first, bobbing through the ranks of Inviernos. They break free of the army to stand facing our main gate. Five of them, just as Cosmé said, all wearing supple, whitish robes, their amulets darkly caged at their breasts. When they raise their eyes to the wall—their Godstone-blue eyes—I double over in icy agony.

  “Your Majesty!”

  I peer up into the sun-browned face of Captain Lucio. “I’m fine, thank you. ” I manage a smile and straighten, my insides already warming from the prayer that flew from my heart with instinctive ease. I can pray in any circumstance, now.

  I remember what the general said about offering an encouraging word to the king, so I take my leave of the captain and descend to the road, where my husband is overseeing the accumulation of water barrels.

  Alejandro is relieved to see me. He puts an arm around my waist and pulls me close, but he’s not giving comfort so much as taking it. “The portcullis outside will hold,” he assures me. “Even if they burn the gate. ”

  Soldiers passing by on the road don’t bother to hide their grins. They don’t know that we have yet to share a bed, and they like to see their king and queen embracing. So I hug Alejandro back, even though I can’t offer encouraging words in return.

  Never in my life have I so desired to be proved wrong. But the next morning, when our soaking gate steams under the onslaught of the rising desert sun, the animagi attack exactly as I foretold. They stand shoulder to shoulder, slender as palm trees, just outside the range of our weapons. I pray harder than ever to breathe life into my frozen limbs.

  Five others, clumpy haired and barefoot, slip from the crowd to face the animagi, one on one. They kneel to the ground and throw their heads back. A trumpet sounds, but it is eerie and keening, like no instrument I’ve ever heard. As one, the animagi whip daggers from within their lovely robes. I don’t see the flash of blades against flesh, but the bodies topple over and blood, crimson and sparkling in the sun, pools too quickly to disappear into the sand.

  At the sacrifice of their own people, the amulets around the animagi’s necks begin to glow.

  The Godstone is a knife of icy rage.

  Five more Inviernos come forward and surrender to the animagi. And five more after that. They continue the passionless process of slitting throats until twenty-five bodies lie crumpled in the sand, their blood feeding the magic that squirms beneath the earth.

  Five times five.

  And the amulets glow brighter.

  “More water!” I yell past the bile in my throat. I don’t know how well my voice carries inside the crowded wall, so I yell again. “More water on the gate now!”

  I don’t bother to see if anyone follows through with my command. My eye is drawn back through the arrow slit and to the caged Godstones that glow blindingly in the distance. The animagi tilt their heads toward the sky, mouths agape in effort or ecstasy. My nails dig at the sandstone in front of me as streaming light, blue-white, brilliant and arrow straight, thrusts from the amulets and pounds against the gate.

  I smell acrid smoke. The walls around me tremble.

  “Water!” someone yells. “Water, water!” The others take up the cry.

  Agonizing moments pass in a haze of icy warnings and warming prayers as we pit our buckets and pots and ladles against their sorcery. At last the streaming light fizzles away. The animagi stagger back and are absorbed into the writhing wall of Inviernos.

  A cheer thunders through our wall, shaking it as much as the animagi’s magic did. I join in the cheer because they need me to.

  Lord Hector finds me moments later. “Do you think they’ll try again?” he whispers in my ear.

  “Yes. They will rest. Then they’ll find twenty-five more who are willing to be sacrificed, and they’ll come at us again. ”

  He grips my upper arm so hard I gasp. “Elisa, you shouldn’t be here. There’s probably a black crater the size of Alejandro’s banner crown on the other side of that gate. We can last through three more attacks at the most. ”

  “I’m the queen!” I protest. “I should be here to—”

  “You said it yourself. They must not find your Godstone. Did you see what they just did with only five?”

  I swallow and nod.

  “Good. I’ll find someone to escort you back. Be prepared to flee through the tunnels if the wall is breached. ”

  “And . . . Alejandro?”

  “I’ll try to convince him to return, so watch for him. He is more a nuisance here anyway. ”

  Only the stress of battle would make him say such a thing aloud. His eyes flash with regret and surprise, but I put a hand to his shoulder, grateful for his honesty. “Hector, be safe. ”

  But instead of going back to my suite, I rush to the monastery to see Father Nicandro.

  He huddles in the empty gathering hall, on his knees before the candlelit altar. I kneel beside him.

  “Oh, dear girl, there should be so many more of us here,” he breathes. My heart catches at the sorrow in his voice. “Have the people of Joya d’Arena strayed so far from the path of God that we do not turn to him even in such times?”

  “Perhaps things are not desperate enough,” I say. “Perhaps they will come soon. ”

  “Perhaps. ”

  “Father, I have not come to pray either. ”

  He looks up startled. I tell him about the streaming fire that beat against our gate. “You see, Nicandro? It’s the blood. Something about the blood feeding the earth that allows them to use their amulets. ”

  He glares at me in warning, his dark eyes becoming very sharp. “You want to try something with the amulet you took. ”

  “I do. Father, I have to try something. ”

  He slumps against the altar. “What did you have in mind?”

  It only takes moments to prepare. I pull the amulet from beneath my vest and stare at it while Father Nicandro collects a ceremonial rose. He gestures me toward the altar.

  “No,” I tell him. “We should do this in the garden. Where no one will chance upon us. ”

  He hesitates only a moment before leading me behind the altar and out the door. The monastery garden is tiny, with a three-tiered marble fountain and a bench that fits no more than two. We sit together, beneath a trellis woven with the vines of a creeping sacrament rosebush. The roses are not in bloom, which exposes the long thorns in sharp clarity.

  In unison, we chant the “Glorifica. ” I put the fingertips of my right hand to the Godstone, the fingertips of my left to the amulet. Also a Godstone, I remind myself. Not for the first time, I wonder about the one who bore it. Did it detach from her body at the moment of her death? Did she part with it willingly, or did an animagus rip it from her belly while she lay screaming in agony?

  Nicandro pulls my head forward until our noses almost tou
ch. “What is it you seek, dear girl?”

  I take a deep breath, then I pour all the longing of my soul into my request. “I seek victory over my enemies. ”

  The prick is deep and painful. The first drop wells too quickly on the thorn, and when the priest pulls his rose away from my finger, three more quickly follow. They drop and bead against the hard-packed earth.

  While the dry ground drinks my blood, I pray. I reach with my mind deep into the earth’s crust. I imagine the amulet at my chest glowing with sorcery. I concentrate so hard that I lose my surroundings; the grotto garden, Father Nicandro, the clear desert sky above, all fade into a miasma of need and of prayer-induced heat.

  But nothing happens.

  I open one eye to peek at the priest.

  “Maybe you need more blood?” he asks skeptically.

  All the air inside me leaves in a disappointed rush. “If this was the way, I would have sensed something. I know I’m no sorcerer, but I have a Godstone living inside me! I should be able to do something. ”

  He puts an arm around my shoulders. “Maybe the prophecy isn’t about you doing something,” he murmurs. “Maybe it’s all the bearers. ”

  I lean my head against his shoulder. “Is this that strange idea you were telling me about? The one you couldn’t explain?”

  He sighs into my hair. “Yes. Yes, that’s the one. ”

  I am sick with helplessness as I rush back to my suite. The halls are empty and silent, my footsteps loud. What Hector said was true; we cannot risk Invierne finding my Godstone. But I hate feeling useless. I want to be at the wall with everyone else, hauling buckets of water, preparing for the wounded.

  How long will it take for the animagi to regain their strength and attack again? An hour? A day? The siege will be short-lived, of that I’m sure. My heart clenches to think of the brave people of my Malficio, of the risks they took, the lives we lost. All for nothing, since my brilliant strategy assumed a drawn-out siege that would make our enemy vulnerable.

  The possibility that Humberto died for nothing is unbearable.

  Rosario and Mara are huddled on my bed when I enter. Ximena sits next to the empty fireplace, sewing a skirt.

  “What happened, Elisa,” Mara says flatly as soon as she sees my face.

  “The animagi attacked. We held them off. ”

  “Papá will kill them all,” Rosario says.

  Ximena and I exchange a sad look. Then I plop next to him and hug him tight, but he squirms away, giving me a disgusted look.

  I finger my amulets—the dead Godstone and the ugly pendant—and think about the empty victories they symbolize. I failed to accomplish anything with the Malficio. I failed to use my Godstone against the enemy, the way Homer foretold. Perhaps, centuries from now, a priest will show the list of God’s chosen to another young bearer. Perhaps he will point at my name and say, “Ah, yes. Lucero-Elisa. Yet another failed bearer. ”

  I gaze at Alejandro’s tiny son. Just maybe I’ll have one last chance to do something right. When the animagi break through our gate, someone must get the prince to safety. I may have failed to save Joya d’Arena, but maybe I can still save its heir.

  “Ximena! No, wait. Mara. ” Mara will know what to bring, how to pack. “Go to the kitchens and storage rooms to find traveling food. Enough for all four of us for two weeks. Hurry!” There should be plenty of dry goods to choose from; Alejandro’s household has been stocking up for months.

  “Are we going on a journey?” Rosario asks.

  “As soon as possible. But I need to stay a little longer. ”

  He sighs. “Because you haven’t found your Godstones yet. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “I think the condesa has them. ”

  “What?” I exclaim. Ximena’s head whips up.

  “I tried to go in her rooms three times. But her lady says she needs rest. What are monthly courses?”

  I almost bite my lip. “Er . . . that’s when a woman doesn’t feel very well for a while. ”

  “Oh. Well, Condesa Ariña has been having them for a long time. ”

  Ariña has definitely been scarce. She made a brief appearance at my coronation, but I haven’t seen her since. I wonder if Alejandro kept his promise to have her watched.

  “Why do you think she has them?”

  “I looked everywhere else. ”

  It makes sense. When Cosmé and I disappeared, Ariña undoubtedly took the opportunity to search my suite. I just wonder if she commandeered the palm out of pique, or if she knew the Godstones were hidden there.

  “Well, Your Highness, I think we should pay a visit to the condesa immediately. ” I lean toward him conspiratorially. “I’ll keep her distracted so you can dig. ”

  A sallow woman with gray-brown hair opens the door. “The condesa is not seeing visitors right—oh, Your Majesty. ” Her curtsy is awkward and quick.

  “May we come in?” I give Rosario’s hand a reassuring squeeze. Or maybe it’s to reassure myself.

  Her body is firmly lodged in the opening, preventing me from seeing inside. “Well, Your Majesty, I’m afraid the condesa truly feels—”

  We don’t have time for this. I stare evenly at the maid. “I insist. ”

  She steps back, head down. “Yes, Majesty. ”

  I push inside. Ariña’s suite is very similar to mine, with a large bedroom and adjoining bath area. She prefers darker, jeweled tones, though, which surprises me. I imagined her surrounded by whites and airy pastels.

  Ariña lounges on her poster bed in a nightgown of deep plum, one arm wrapped around a shiny emerald throw pillow. She raises a wineglass to me as I enter. “Your Majesty!” It sounds like an expletive in her mouth in spite of her childlike voice.

  “Hello, Ariña. ” She is less beautiful than I remember. The same slender limbs, the same startling honey-gold eyes. But she’s like an old corn husk, all dried out and empty inside.
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