Home > The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(17)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(17)
Rae Carson

“They’re better suited to the desert than we are,” Cosmé says. “They know to lie down during the storm. They’ll be fine.” She shrugs. “Unless they’re buried for too long.”

Buried? Humberto is tying a rope around my waist. “Buried?” I whisper.

Humberto leans close. “Princess, if the tent falls apart, find a piece of it to wrap yourself in.” He ties a section of rope around his own waist, then tosses it to Cosmé to do the same. “Make a space for air, like this.” He demonstrates with a blanket, wrapping it halfway around his head and forearm.

He doesn’t see my nod of understanding, for the space inside our tent is suddenly blacker than night as the sandstorm’s roar overtakes us. I no longer hear the camels, or the flapping of the outside tent layer, or even the breathing of my companions. Were it not for the rope connecting me to the others, I could imagine myself completely alone. The tumultuous snarl of sand is so huge and steady, so pure, that it is almost like quiet. I sit for a long time, feeling my heartbeat slow and my breathing steady.

Silence crashes around us. True silence, as if the world has died.

“Is it over?” I ask, jumping at the sound of my own strange voice.

“Hush.” It’s Cosmé. “Do not waste air with your prattle.”

Waste air? Understanding dawns: The sand has buried us.

A moment later, the thrashing storm of sound resumes, followed by another unsettling hush. The terrifying afternoon stretches on in darkness while we are buried and unburied several times. Even more terrifying is the sure knowledge that the storm will erase all trace of our passing, that Alejandro will never find me now.

At long last, the silence remains. From the center of the darkness, Cosmé says, “Try it now, Belén.”

I hear rustling, the rub of fabric; then sand and light pour in from a hole near the top. I blink at the crooked-nosed man as he thrusts a long pole upward. Through it, I see blue, beautiful sky. I put my fingertips to the Godstone and send a prayer of thanks.

Cosmé and Belén dig us out of our tent. The outside layer is ripped in places, but Humberto says it will hold with a good mending. The camels were only half buried. All five of us get down on our knees and scoop sand away until we can lift the heavy material from them. Grunting and moaning, they sway to their feet and shake their heads around. The largest, a brown-near-to-black creature, chews his cud, while the tawny one paws at the sand. Such common behavior for camels, already familiar to me, and I marvel at their smiling acceptance of the day.

The sun is low in the sky, smearing copper across newly formed dunes by the time we dig the tents out and pitch them properly.

We let the fire burn longer tonight, thanks to a fresh supply of camel dung. Over another measly repast of jerboa soup, I ask, “Are sandstorms always like that?”

Humberto’s mouth is full, so it is Belén who answers me. “We get one or two bad ones like that each year,” he says. “Usually they’re mild and quick.”

I slurp my soup, savoring it, dreading the moment when my bowl is empty. The eyes of my companions fix on me, taking my measure. One pair—Cosmé’s—finds me wanting, the contemptuous curl of her lips apparent in the firelight. Ah, but the others. Their eyes hold questions, perhaps even reluctant respect. Even the quiet boy studies me carefully. I know what Alodia would do.

I say, “You all knew exactly what to do. To survive.”

Humberto shrugs. “We’re traveling escorts. It’s our job.”

Cosmé is a maid, not a traveling escort, but now is not the time to bicker the point. I nod to myself, as if deep in thought. “The desert produces strong people.” I hope my words don’t come across as fawning.

But Belén lifts his chin with pride. “We’ve survived worse than sandstorms.”

“I don’t doubt it.” I scrape the rest of my soup from the bowl, then lick my fingers. As I set down my bowl, I say, “But something else is coming. Or has already come. Something you’re not sure you can survive.”

None of them meet my gaze. Cosmé crosses her legs and studies her knuckles.

I dare to ask, “What is it? Why haul a fat, useless girl across the desert? Why am I so important that you would send Humberto back for me in the face of a deadly sandstorm?”

“We didn’t send Humberto back for you,” Cosmé snaps. “We sent him back for the Godstone.”

Of course. “Why not just pry it from my navel, then?” I know it’s a mistake as soon as the words leave my mouth.

Cosmé’s grin is predatory. “I’m still considering it.”

“Cosmé!” It’s the first time I’ve heard the quiet boy speak. “We can’t risk it yet. The prophecy is not clear. We can kill her later if she proves ineffective.”

Humberto’s eyes narrow, and he glares at the boy. “No one will kill her, Jacián. Not ever.”

Jacián just shrugs, then settles back into silence.

That night, Humberto creeps into my tent and quietly settles his bedroll beside mine. I’m relieved to see him, for I know why he’s here. He’s afraid of what the others might do.

The days are interminable and hot, but I use the time to think. I resolve to appear cooperative and unthreatening, for my survival depends on remaining with my captors for now, on giving them no reason to kill me.

We leave the dunes for a low plateau. The sand no longer sucks away my every step, so I keep pace with only a bit of struggle. Humberto leads us, never hesitating to choose our direction, though I don’t know how he manages this. Our water runs low and our rations are restricted. My skin longs for the cool water of my bathing pool. No, that’s wrong. The water in my pool was always warm. But I imagine it cool, as vividly as I imagine Ximena’s strong fingers kneading my shoulders.

My lips crack and sting. The camels’ arching humps shrivel, then list to one side. Humberto assures me this is to be expected, that they’ll recover with water and grazing, but I can’t help feeling sorry for them. After a while, though, my mind holds nothing but maddening thoughts of water.

After days of traveling across the plateau, Humberto guides us into a deep gully. The camels snort and groan, kicking their knees up and rolling their heads as we pass between cavernous cliff walls. We turn a corner, and the gully opens into an oasis of clumped palms and yellow-feathered acacia trees, of green grass and a pond of sparkling blue water. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

We all rush forward, five humans and two camels, until we are hip deep in water. “Don’t drink too much right away!” Humberto hollers. “It will make you sick.” I take a couple of large gulps, then sink down until the water covers my head, reveling in the coolness, the wetness. When I surface, the others are splashing one another, cackling like children. Humberto thrusts a tiny wave my way with his huge hand, and without thinking, I join their game, laughing and splashing. I pretend that I’ve known them all forever. That I am safe.

Much later, our outer layers of clothing swing from the branches of a large acacia that overhangs the tiny lake. Our tents are pitched, the camels calmly grazing on wheatlike grass that waves on the opposite bank. I sit with my bare legs dangling in the water, admiring the new calluses on my feet. I’m strangely proud of them.

Humberto drops beside me and spreads his head shawl between us. Inside is a large handful of fresh dates, gathered from a nearby clump of squat palms. I squeal in delight and pop one into my mouth. It’s sweeter than honey, sweeter than a street vendor’s coconut pie. Or maybe it just seems that way after a steady diet of jerky and jerboa soup. I spit out the pit and grab another. “Thank you so much!” I say with my mouth full.

He studies me while I chew, and it’s a look of curiosity, maybe respect. I don’t feel disconcerted as I did under Alejandro’s demanding gaze.

We camp there for two wondrous days before setting off, rested and water-plump and cool. Walking is less difficult now, though by no means easy, and over the next several days, I’m able to talk with the others as we travel. Jacián remains taciturn, but Humberto and Belén are happy to regale me with stories of foolish travelers and camel races. I learn that each of my companions has crossed the desert several times, even though they are young to be so well traveled. Jacián is the oldest at nineteen, and Humberto the youngest at sixteen, like me.

Even Cosmé joins our conversation at times, though she is guarded. There are so many things I want to know, about the Godstone, about the prophecy she spoke of, about her service to Condesa Ariña. But I dare not ask. Her desire to rip the stone from my belly is never far from my thoughts, so I’m careful to keep our discourse light and unprovoking.

Because of the way the afternoon sun blazes at my back, I know we travel east, toward the outer holdings and the amassing army of Inviernos. But the fastest way to silence the group is to ask about our destination. On my third attempt, Humberto finally says, “It’s a secret place, Princess, and you’ll not learn more than that.”

We leave the plateau and enter a rocky desert of squat bushes and occasional cactuses. The camels graze as they walk, chewing on dry grass and rigid thorns with equal enthusiasm. I’m delighted to hear the cry of vultures. And everywhere are unblinking lizards, too brave or lazy to scatter from our path until the last instant.

Our incline steepens; the way grows jagged with deep fissures and buttes that spring from the earth to dizzying heights. I could wander the maze of this desert for a lifetime and never find my way home. My only hope is that our secret destination will provide some means of getting a message to my husband.

At long last, after nearly a month of hot travel, we skirt a monolithic butte layered in smears of orange and yellow. On the leeward side, a village cozies up to the mountain in a series of giant stair steps, near invisible with its matching orange-hued brick. People scurry about and wave like mad when they spot us.

My heart pounds and my throat tightens. Not long now until they realize they were wrong to take me, that I cannot help them at all.

Cosmé rushes forward to greet an older man coming toward us. He wears the same generous desert robes as my companions, so it’s a moment before I notice that one sleeve lies flat against the side, empty. Other villagers come into view. They are ragged. Wounded. Several faces bear burn scars, rippling like the windy side of a sand dune. Others, like the man clinging to Cosmé, are missing limbs. One young boy, not much older than Rosario, wears a wad of wool shoved into his eye socket, tied down with a strip of dirty fabric.

Most of them are children.

I remember back, a lifetime ago, to the meeting of the Quorum of Five. We’d just received a dispatch from Conde Treviño that requested aid but assured us there had been no casualties yet. Perhaps news travels slowly.

“Oh, Humberto,” I whisper, frantic. “We didn’t know—I didn’t know—that the war had started already.” I place my fingertips to my Godstone and send a quick prayer for warm comfort.

Humberto reaches down and gently lifts my chin with his forefinger. The hopelessness in his eyes frightens me. “Princess. The war with Invierne never ended.”

Chapter 15

I don’t understand. The last war was a skirmish, really. It ended after only two years of fighting, when Alejandro’s father drove Invierne high into the Sierra Sangre.

The older man releases Cosmé from a one-armed embrace and hobbles toward me, staring. “Cosmé,” he whispers. “You have brought me the champion.”

She snorts. “She bears the Godstone, anyway.”

He ignores her, his black eyes fixed on my abdomen. “It sings to me,” he murmurs. “They said it would, should I ever encounter it, but I did not believe.”

“Who?” I demand. “Who said that?” Father Nicandro sensed it too, but I didn’t have the chance to ask him about it.

“The priests, of course. At seminary.” His face twitches beneath a short gray beard.

Humberto steps forward. “Princess, this is my uncle, Father Alentín, formerly of Conde Treviño’s holding.”

“You’re a priest?” I’ve never seen one like him before, ragged and filthy and mutilated.

He blinks. “So sorry, my child. Or . . . Princess? I’m not being very welcoming, am I? It’s just I never expected . . . I mean . . . yes, a priest. Ordained at the Monastery-at-Brisadulce, and”—shaking fingers press against his lips as he closes his eyes—“I cannot believe we found the bearer at last.”

The Godstone is quiet within me, neither warning nor approving, but his hopeful desperation disturbs me. From behind him, tattered children creep toward us, eyeing me with a mix of awe and suspicion. I resist the urge to hide behind Humberto.

Humberto settles a protective arm across my shoulders and says, “We’ve traveled a great distance, Uncle. We desperately need baths and something to eat. Fresh meat, maybe. Some fruit would be nice. Anything not dried.”

My mouth waters at his words, and I lean into him gratefully.

The children surround us and herd us toward the clinging adobe buildings. Even exhaustion and thirst cannot overcome my wariness, for some in the crowd—like Cosmé—regard me with such predatory hunger, as if I am a juicy pig roast garnished with pepper sauce.

The buildings are merely a front for a cool cavern system that worms through the great butte. Fresh springs provide drinking water, even a wide, shallow pool for bathing and laundry. Cosmé shows me where I can undress and bathe in private, a little alcove tucked away with a rock shelf for my clothes. She thrusts a dirt-encrusted bulb at me—it’s layered and crisp like an onion—and tells me it will lather against my skin. The water is cold and reaches midthigh, but it’s clear as crystal, and my toes wriggling in the sand seem closer, like I could reach down and grab them without bending.

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