Home > The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(16)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(16)
Rae Carson

Her brows furrow in annoyance. “Don’t thank me. My brother has taken a liking to you and insists we treat you well, so thank him.”

“Humberto is your brother?” I can’t imagine how two such different people could come from the same blood. Though looking at her now, I see they share the same curling black hair, the same cast to brow and nose.

She doesn’t deign to answer. “I have traveling clothes for you. We must set off right away. Humberto will teach you to pack your tent. You’ll be responsible for it from now on. Also”—she gives me a disgusted look—“if I catch you stealing food or water from the stores, I will kill you, understand?”

I nod coolly, though my pulse is a drum at my temples, and say, “You have nothing to worry about. I’m not the kind who sneaks around in the night taking things that don’t belong to me.”

Her face twitches. “Just get dressed.” She whirls and marches away before I can ask her where we’re going.

It was foolish to aggravate someone who just threatened to kill me. I will have to be so much wiser if I am to survive whatever is to come.

The pressure to relieve myself is fierce. I take a deep breath to still my panicked heart, then I trudge through the sand, looking for Humberto.

We break camp quickly. Besides myself, Cosmé, and Humberto, there are three other boys about my age, who regard me guiltily every time they pass. My maid—my former maid—hands me a pile of clothing, leaving Humberto to explain how everything is worn. It’s light in color and thickly woven. A shawl goes over my head to protect me from the sun. Ties tickle my left cheek, and I resist the urge to scratch. Humberto explains that I can tie my shawl around my face if the wind picks up, to keep the sand out.

The most important item is a pair of stiff boots. “Sand and shale will wear through an ordinary pair of boots in days,” he explains. These are stiffly soled and knee high, with chaps made of camel hair that wrap around several times. Humberto shows me how to tuck the edges in below my knees and fasten them with ties. “It’s the season for sandstorms,” he says. “And the sand is most violent near the ground. I know they’re hot, but they’ll protect your legs.”

Sandstorms. I remember Hector telling me about them as we gazed from a place of safety over distant dunes. He told me they could flay a man’s skin from his bones.

What has made these people so desperate that they would risk the desert during sandstorm season?

We leave the packhorses behind with one of the young men and set off walking, while two camels carry our tents and our food and water. I stare after the man who rides in the opposite direction. There is a way out of this desert, for those who know it.

“He’ll be fine,” Humberto says. “He’s a traveling escort, like me.”

“Why can’t we ride horses?” Horses have always frightened me, but riding would be better than slogging through sand on foot.

He nearly chokes. “Oh, Princess. Horses need too much water to last in the deep desert. We rode them this far so we could get you quickly away. But only camels from here. It’s many days to the next water source.”

My stomach does a little flip. Though my hope of escape fled this morning, I’d harbored thoughts of Alejandro rescuing me. Surely he is ransacking the palace in search of his missing wife. Maybe even sending runners into the surrounding desert. But the farther we travel, the harder it will be to find me.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Far away, Princess.” He holds up a hand to forestall further questions. “Don’t bother asking more. I won’t tell you. At least not yet.”

“I’m not . . . that is, I’ve never been an athletic person. I will walk as long as I can, but . . .”

“Oh, I have that figured out already.” He’s wearing that grin of his, like he’s perpetually on the brink of laughter. “We brought you here on a travois. Did you think we could carry you the whole way?”

No, of course not. The strongest man alive couldn’t carry me for any distance.

“I mean,” he continues. “You can ride in the travois if you need to, but try to walk for a while? It puts a strain on the camels. They’d need more food and water, see, and my sister . . .” His voice trails off.

What was he about to say? My sister wants an excuse to kill you? “I’ll do the best I can.”

He nods. “I know you will.”

Walking through desert sand is the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. It only takes moments for my ankles and calves to burn with effort, for my breath to come in dry heaves, for sweat to soak through the first layer of clothing. But I press forward, nearly gasping with relief each time our small group crests a dune. Inevitably, I lag behind.

I take some comfort in the fact that I’ve been outfitted with great care. My captors mean for me to arrive somewhere, and safely. But getting left behind in this wasteland would be certain death. Cosmé looks over her shoulder from time to time, as if expecting to find that I’ve given up or collapsed in the sand, and each time she does, a fire burns in my gut and I put one leg in front of the other in grim mutiny.

As I wade through the sand, I have plenty of time to think about why I’ve been kidnapped. By stealing me, they have stolen a Godstone, and I dread the moment when they realize how useless I am. What will they do then?

My only hope is that Alejandro searches for me. That, in spite of the slim odds of finding me in this vast place, he cares about me enough to not give up.

At last, we stop for rest and water. Cosmé passes a goatskin bag around. I watch to see how much each person drinks, and I’m careful to take only my share. The bag goes around twice, and Cosmé moves to reattach it to the camel’s pack.

“Cosmé.” Humberto gestures toward me with his chin. “A little more for the princess.” She glares at him, but her brother smiles in return. “She’s not accustomed to this, and she’s perspiring a lot. Please.”

She grunts, but tosses him the bag. He catches it easily and hands it to me. “Drink deep, little princess.”

I hesitate, not sure what to do. One of the other boys, the darkly quiet one, glares at me. The other, slender as a tree even in his desert robes, winks over his crooked nose. I raise the goatskin to them both. “Thank you.” And I take a single, deep draft. Oh, it is not enough, but I hand it back to Humberto.

We set off again, and my legs are wobbly as date pudding. I fall behind even sooner this time, but I keep moving, teeth gritted with resolve. The heat is unbearable, my lungs burn, and the air shimmers before me. After a while, I don’t even try to keep an eye on my companions, finding it easier to look down, following the sandy indentations left by their feet.

My walking turns to sliding, then stumbling. I walk right into a camel’s rear.

“Oomph,” I say. I look up, blinking. The others have stopped to wait. They’re staring at me, but I cannot discern their expressions through stinging eyes.

“Humberto.” It’s Cosmé’s voice, and it’s unusually soft. “Rig the travois.”

I want to hug her.

Humberto rushes around while I sway on my feet. At last he takes my hand and guides me to his makeshift sand-sled. I lie down and cover my face with the shawl, and we set off. The camel’s gait is strange and jerky, but after a while, I adjust to the odd rhythm. I am exhausted, and my eyes drift closed, but I cannot sleep for overhearing snatches of relaxed chatter and easy laughter. It is clear that my captors do not feel there is any danger of being pursued.

Chapter 14

THAT night, Humberto shows me how to erect my tent. The poles aren’t heavy, but managing their awkwardness requires strength and balance. He assures me I’ll get the trick of it, but I don’t see how.

After the tents are pitched and the camels tended to, Cosmé builds a fire and makes a batch of jerboa soup. I walk away from the hot flames to watch the sun set across the desert. It’s a beautiful place, vast and shimmering, red as blood in the fading light. The dunes fascinate me. Though rippled on the windward side, leeward they are smooth as cream and dishonestly soft, like a favorite rug. It’s an astonishing place, and terrifyingly powerful, and I find I’m resting my fingertips against the Godstone in wonder.

“Does it talk to you?” Humberto stands beside me. I didn’t notice his approach. He shifts on his feet; his brown eyes are black in the twilight, like his sister’s.

“Why? What do you think the Godstone can do for you?”

He looks down, his face grave. “It can save us.”

My mouth opens to protest, but I stop myself just in time. My survival may depend on their belief that I can actually do what they hope.

His next words come in a singsong chant, “‘And God raised up for Himself a champion. Yea, once in every four generations He raised him up to bear His mark.’”

“That’s Homer’s Afflatus!” I grasp his upper arm. “You know of it!”

His face is puzzled. “Of course.”

Cosmé calls us to dinner at that inopportune moment.

“More soup!” Humberto says, then rushes away. I plod after him, preparing myself to appear confident, like one who can save others.

I settle across the fire from Cosmé, amazed at the sudden drop in temperature and grateful for the flames. There are five of us, including myself. The divine number of perfection. From my studies with Master Geraldo, I know the desert nomads always travel in multiples of five, for luck and blessing.

Cosmé passes a bowl to each of us. After watching the others, I understand not to expect a utensil, to tip the rim to my lips and scrape at the shreds of meat with my dusty fingers. I scour every drop from my bowl, and my stomach gurgles in response. The soup has chased away my hunger, but I am far from full. I set down my bowl, disappointed. Cosmé stares at me from across the fire ring. The sun has long since disappeared, and the wavering flames make ghastly shadows of her face.

“Highness,” she says, soft and low. “You get the same ration as everyone else.”

I meet her gaze steadily. “I did not ask for more.”

She stands and brushes sand from her legs, then kicks a bucketful into the fire to smother it. Our camp is now lit by only two small torches and the faintest smear of stars. The desert feels huge, surrounding us with deepest black.

We head off to our tents. I wrap myself tightly against the cold, already deriving comfort from the biting musk of my blankets. My last thoughts are of Homer’s Afflatus and the gates of the enemy.

Early the next morning, after a too-small breakfast of jerky and dried dates, I pack my tent by myself. It takes me longer than everyone else, and my arms shake from the effort, but I do it. Then I discover that I’m expected to walk again. My legs ache so badly, especially above my ankles, that tears prick at my eyes when we set out. Humberto’s thick form wavers far ahead. He guides us on this hot journey, so there will be no chance to discuss Homer’s prophecy or ask more questions until we rest.

I push through the sand with agonizing slowness, and before long, my captors are dark motes on the yellow-orange horizon. I should wonder if they’ve given up on me and left me to the desert’s cruelty. I should worry about dying here, about my body becoming a dried husk. My stomach is a gaping hole beneath my rib cage, burning with hunger. Worse, my head pulses behind my eyes and I feel nauseatingly dizzy. I need to eat something sweet to make the headache go away, but I know I’ll get nothing of the sort.

The wind picks up, flinging sand into my face. Without stopping, I pull the shawl across my nose and fasten it, the way Humberto showed me. I press on.

I don’t know how much time passes, but all at once I feel an urgent grip on my arm. I look up, blinking through my headache, into Humberto’s face.

The Godstone sends ice up my spine and into my chest.

“You must hurry,” he says into the wind. “Sandstorm.”

Oh, God.

“The others are erecting the tents ahead. Can you run?”

I nod, though I don’t know how my legs will manage it.

He wraps my arm around his shoulder for support, and together we hurry through the sand. Humberto is very strong, lugging me along at a pace much faster than I could have managed on my own and yanking me back up each time I trip over my feet. Swirls of sand gust against our legs. Humberto’s panic is unmistakable. He pulls relentlessly, calling, “Faster, Princess. We must move faster!” So I churn my legs as fast as I am able, sucking air through my shawl, my heartbeat a drum in my throat.

At last we crest a rise. Just ahead, the camels are lying side by side, huge lumps in the sand. Cosmé hurries to erect a tent of sorts around them while they grunt and toss their heads.

Another tent squats next to them. The crooked-nosed man beckons us frantically from the opening.

But my legs plant in the sand, hard and stiff as stone pillars, for in the distance, a wall of darkness races our way. It rages black along the ground, tossing sand high enough to cast the entire sky in shades of brown.

“Princess!” Humberto yanks me forward, but my legs remain frozen, and he mostly drags me toward the tent. The storm’s whoosh is deafening. I don’t know how we can survive such a thing. Our tents look so inconsequential, so fragile, and I know I will die here, my flesh ripped from my bones, the Godstone buried in a mountain of sand.

We plunge inside the tent. Cosmé tumbles in after us. She pulls the flap closed and ties it down. As I catch my breath, I stare at my four captors, dismayed by the wideness of their eyes. Camels moan in the distance.

“The camels?” I gasp. They are strange creatures, but less frightening than horses, with their long soft lashes and perpetual smiles. I can’t bear the thought of the sandstorm shredding their hides. “Will they—”

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