Icicles Like Kindling, page 1
Icicles Like Kindling
The Death of a Soldier
A Snow Like Ashes Storyby Sara Raasch
[Balzer + Bray]
An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
They’ve been gone for two weeks. Thwack. Twenty-nine.
Two weeks. It’s only a few days’ travel from here to Spring. They should’ve been back by now. Thwack. Thirty.
But they went on a scouting mission. And those can take time— finding a hidden yet easily accessible campsite, sneaking into nearby cities, searching for information about our conduit. They’ll be back soon. Thwack. Thirty-two? Three? Snow above.
I tap the flat of my chakram’s blade against my forehead and groan into my wrist. It doesn’t really matter how many times I hit the target I set in the grassy field—Sir would say that the true test of aim is to hit the same spot over and over. And the dozens of splintered slices in the wooden pole are clustered together, yes, but they aren’t exactly perfect.
“Repetition, persistence, and accuracy—a soldier’s best weapons.”
Sir’s voice rings in my head. He is the most persistent soldier I know—he’ll be fine. He’ll make sure the mission is a success, they’ll all come back alive, and everything will be fine.
But my skin still crawls with unease, the same way it does when anyone from our camp is gone on a mission—the unavoidable itch that something’s wrong, they’re in danger right now, and if I don’t help them, my chest will burst.
That’s something I should keep track of. Not how many times I can get my chakram to hit a wooden pole—how many times I’ve felt helpless.
I remember the first time as thoroughly as I know the wear on my chakram’s handle. The memory fits me the same way too—a deadly thing, which is, even so, a part of me.
Kingdom of Autumn
Six Years Ago
I don’t want her to leave.
Walking with Crystalla usually makes me happy—the freedom from camp and all of those disapproving glares from Sir. The forest is quiet and cool today, everything holding still, as if the entire kingdom doesn’t dare interrupt our conversation.
But there hasn’t been any conversation. Our walk has been nothing but tense and silent since we left camp. As I trudge alongside Crystalla through the crunchy undergrowth of Autumn’s woods, all I can think is something I should never utter aloud, not if I want to be a soldier too.
I don’t want her to leave.
Crystalla keeps her eyes ahead, her lips parted like she’s trying to piece together what she wants to say. This time is different from all the others—before regular missions, everyone jokes and laughs and brushes off worry as if it’s nothing more than a stray snowflake on their sleeve.
Today I want so badly for her to smile or tug on my hair and tease me about the rip in my dress from climbing trees that morning. Normal things.
Because her mission tonight is anything but normal.
I hurry ahead, channeling my worry into running, darting over the fallen orange and gold leaves that litter the ground. Autumn is my favorite place we’ve stayed. The entire kingdom is a forest of sleepy, half-alive trees, oaks and maples and rustling aspens.
“Meira, look at these!” Crystalla says suddenly, and the happy distraction in her voice makes me stop. That’s the happiness I wanted.
The tightness in my chest loosens as she smiles up at me from her crouch on the ground.
She doesn’t smile like that very often.
I jog back to where she bends over a pile of aspen leaves. When I squat next to her, she picks up a ruby leaf as big as my palm, hooks a strand of hair behind my ear, and slides the leaf in with it, pursing her mouth in mock seriousness as she surveys her work.
Her lips break into another smile and she cups my chin. “Like an Autumnian princess.”
I giggle, touching the leaf. “No—like an Autumnian soldier!”
Crystalla’s smile falters. “Have you been asking William to train you?”
At her mention of Sir I frown and drop my eyes to the leaves beneath us. Dozens of them, each more vibrant than the last. I scoop up a handful and count them into my palm, my words muffled as I press my chin into my knees.
“He says he doesn’t need me to fight,” I mumble. Three, four, five.
“He says I have other duties.” Eight, nine, ten.
Ten leaves. One for each person in our refugee camp. I let the large stone, a brown leaf puckered at the edges, flutter out of my hands—Sir. Our leader. A narrow maroon one follows his to the ground—Alysson, his wife. A small copper leaf next—Mather, our future king. The rest cascade from my fingers, dripping one by one back to the forest floor, until finally, only three remain in my palm. Two identical circles of pale yellow—Crystalla and her husband, Gregg. And the last, orange and freshly fallen, still wet with life—me.
I finger the orange leaf and stack it under the two pale yellow circles.
I could help them on this mission—I could help them get our magic back from Spring. They need help, especially for missions like this, where they have to go so close to the man who overtook our kingdom and stole our conduit. King Angra won’t give our kingdom and people back without a fight, and he won’t give our magic back either. There are only ten of us he hasn’t captured or killed yet, and as I stare at the leaves I dropped on the forest floor, the pile looks small and brittle. I could help everyone—if not for Sir. If not for the way he pushes me aside like I’m just one of these leaves, fragile, disposable, and unneeded.
“We have soldiers,” he says. “You’re not needed to fight this war.”
I glare at the brown leaf on the ground. But I feel Crystalla watching me, and when I flick my attention up, her blue eyes flash in the afternoon sunlight.
“And what do I keep saying?” she presses.
My fingers close over the three remaining leaves and I clear my throat. “No matter what Sir says, keep trying. He needs me.”
“No matter what Sir says,” Crystalla echoes.
I pull the leaf out of my hair and add it to my stack. It’s larger than the other three, swallowing them up with its veins of dark red on scarlet skin. The longer I stare at the leaves, the more the colors blur.
Crystalla puts her hand over mine, covering the leaves. “I’ll come back. I always do.”
I sniff. “All right. I believe you,” I say, even though I don’t.
I want to help you. I know I can help you.
A gust of wind blows Crystalla’s white hair into a frenzy, whipping up the leaves around us. She laughs and grabs a handful of leaves and tosses them at me, and I toss some back at her, and we’re lost in a storm of colors.
The storm passes, along with that day, and soon it’s been one month since she and Gregg left. I stand, hands on hips, staring at the weapon on the floor of the old barn. When I woke before everyone else, I meant to grab a sword or a dagger from the weapons tent, something I could practice thrusting on my own. But then I saw this. Sir said it’s an Autumnian weapon called a chakram, a circular blade as big as my head with a wooden handle through the middle. It’s thrown like a disc, whirling through the air as it slices anything in its path. I shift from foot to foot, tingles of nervousness making my whole body hum.
I’m going to throw it. I’m going to fight.
I sigh. I should wait for Crystalla to get back and have her convince Sir to let me help—but it’s been a whole month with no word from her or Gregg.
Leaves crunch on the wooden barn floor, disintegrating under my boots, and each crunch makes my frown tighten. I have to do something.
Two fingers press against the bare sk
I bite back a scream and grab the chakram off the floor. My heartbeat flies against my ribs when I whirl to the attacker, but it’s just Mather, smiling at me.
His smile makes my heart leap even faster, his blue eyes level with mine, and I scowl so he can’t see how startled I am.
“I only let you sneak up on me because you’re our future king,” I declare.
“Uh-huh.” He drops his eyes to the chakram, and his brows shoot up.
“What are you doing?”
I square my shoulders, keeping my chin high. “I’m going to teach myself how to fight.”
Mather’s eyebrows stay raised. “William won’t be happy.”
I clench my jaw. The heaviness of the weapon and the way my fingers hurt around the handle reminds me of how right Mather is. I’m ten years old. I shouldn’t be fighting. But that’s what Sir would say, even though he lets Mather fight and he’s ten.
“I’m tired of waiting for Sir to give me permission,” I say. “I’m tired of listening to stories about King Angra and how he imprisoned our people, and I’m tired of moving all the time so he doesn’t find and enslave us, too. I’m tired, Mather, and I’m going to help so none of us are tired anymore.”
I pant, the words spilling out of me in a rush of need, and I pause when I see the look Mather gives me. Calm and thoughtful, he bobs his head in agreement.
He bites his lip and draws a short dagger out of the holster on his belt.
“William said chakrams can be used close range too. Fight me. I’ll teach you.”
I inhale, sharp and excited. “Now?”
Beyond the barn’s dilapidated walls, I hear the sounds of the camp waking up, of a fire crackling to life and voices buzzing. Sir will be looking for Mather soon to begin his morning training. He’ll check the barn.
I spread my legs in a close-range stance. Weapon up, one hand out for balance, body cocked so it’s not an easy target—the lessons Sir taught Mather fly through my mind. I only caught bits of their training, but I know enough to start.
Mather readies himself, his face severe. I blink and he moves, throwing his body toward me in a single swoop. I gasp, swinging the chakram blindly, the circular blade ringing when Mather smacks it with his dagger. His laughter echoes as I fumble around the barn, his white hair and glinting blue eyes flashing before he dives again, parrying and thrusting and cutting around me. Every few seconds I feel his dagger strike lightly against my body.
“Mather!” I spin. “Stop! Wait—I can’t—”
“You said you could do this,” he taunts.
“I can do this!”
“Just because—oh, look!” Mather drops to his knees and digs at something between the floorboards. His pause gives me time to orient myself, and I pivot back into the starting position, panting, gripping the chakram’s handle in both my fists. But Mather seems to have forgotten our fight—he stands back up, clutching a small blue stone covered in bits of mud. It’s pure blue beyond the dirt, the same intense color as his eyes.
“What is it?” I snap. “We’re fighting, remember? It can’t—”
He ignores me. “Remember what William said about conduits?”
I keep my grip tight on the chakram in case it’s a trick. “Of course,” I say. I remember everything Sir says.
Mather rolls the stone around his palm, brushing the dirt off it. “He said that everyone used to have objects that they put magic in, before the rulers took them away and made the Royal Conduits. What if they missed some? What if this stone has magic?”
I snort at him. “If they had missed any small conduits, wouldn’t people have found them already? Besides, only the eight Royal Conduits exist now.”
Mather’s shoulders tense and I bite back my moan. There aren’t eight Royal Conduits anymore—there are only seven that still work. Because King Angra of Spring broke Winter’s.
“If everyone had magic, we wouldn’t have to fight,” Mather mutters to the stone. “We wouldn’t need to get the two halves of our conduit back from Spring. We wouldn’t have to worry about our magic returning to it, because we’d all just have magic, and we’d be strong.”
I exhale. “I think we are strong. Even without magic.”
Mather looks up at me, his frown slack. “What?”
Something about the way he stares at me, like he’s desperate to hear my answer, makes me toe the floorboards. “I don’t think we need magic to be strong. We’ve lived for ten years without magic. I mean, we’ve suffered a lot, but we’re still alive.” I pause, heart clenching. “Some of us, at least.”
“But…” Mather’s voice dips, like he’s suddenly not as certain as he wants to be. “We need magic. All the kingdoms in the world have it. We won’t free our people unless we get our conduit halves from Angra and we are right again.” He stops, and I risk a glance at him to see him glaring at the blue stone.
“But… ,” he repeats. “It would be nice. Not to need magic.”
It would be nice not to worry every day about Angra finding us, about how many of our people are still alive in his work camps. It would be nice if Sir would let me help with this war, because I know we can be strong without magic, but…
I know we need it too. We won’t stop Angra without it.
I raise the chakram and let loose a battle cry to end all battle cries.
Mather jerks his head up, his face falling into an emotionless mask as he looks at the barn door behind me. But I’m running toward him, too focused, I’ve got him now, I’ve got him—
The chakram is gone.
My fingers grope the empty air above my head.
I freeze. My chest leaps with half a breath of excitement— Sir saw me fight! —until I register the bite in his voice.
Mather slips the stone into his pocket and offers a shrug of encouragement as I turn to the looming man holding my stolen chakram in one giant fist. The morning sun shoots through the door, creating shadows against Sir’s body. Every time I see him, it’s like the first time I saw the Klaryn Mountains—vast and deadly, towering over me no matter where I stood. A powerful, angry reminder that I am small, and weak, and alone.
The muscles in Sir’s jaw flex beneath his short stubble of white beard. “Mather—to the sword ring,” he snaps without looking away from me.
“Yes, Sir,” Mather says, and creeps out around us. When he’s almost behind Sir, he mimes kicking him in the legs. I smile as Mather winks and jogs off.
Sir and I are alone. My hands shake in the silence, but I level my shoulders and stare up at him. I’m a soldier, and soldiers don’t back down.
Unfortunately, Sir is a soldier too. “Do you have any idea what you could have done?” His question rises to a yell that practically shakes the barn. “You ran at our future king with a chakram. I know you think it’s fun to play with weapons, but this is real. This isn’t for children.”
I growl, hands balling into fists. “Mather’s a child! And you teach us both the history of our kingdom and the war—why can’t you teach me to fight too? I can help!”
Sir inhales, calming himself, and pushes his next words through a clenched jaw. “Mather is the heir of Winter. I teach you both our history because we all need to remember our kingdom—but you, Meira, are not needed to fight.”
Tears press against my eyes, but I will not cry in front of Sir. I am needed. This is my war too. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never been to Winter; it doesn’t matter that everyone else in camp belongs here far more than me—I’m just the baby Sir rescued in the chaos of escaping Angra’s takeover. I don’t belong to anyone, but I have to belong to Winter. It’s my home and I have to help get our conduit back.
Sir’s face falls and I think maybe he feels bad for yelling at me.
Maybe he sees how sad I am, how much I want to help, and will relent a little.
“Stay out of the weapons tent,” he says, and turns toward the door.
“You aren’t my father!”
Sir stops, looking back at me through columns of dusty light, and I pause too. I’ve yelled at him before, many times, but I haven’t said that word since…
I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to say the word father, and now that I have, my throat pinches. I sprint down the length of the barn and shove past him, stomping on the dry yellow grass as I burst outside and veer left, weaving through the array of tents we bought in Autumn’s capital, Oktuber. They’re made of brightly colored wool, heavy things that look like they might collapse at any moment. Midnight-blue and sunshine-orange structures that sag and lean but are beautiful anyway, even with imperfections.
I am useful. I am needed. No matter what Sir says.
Just inside the edge of the forest that encircles the camp, sits a pile of leaves. I collapse into it, reveling in the burst of fresh earth that envelops me. But the ruby leaves make me think of Crystalla, of the leaf she stuck in my hair, and I suck in a breath, pushing down the surge of worry that pricks at my chest. She and Gregg will be back soon, and we’ll all betogether again. Missions can last for months, but when she returns I’ll tell her Sir still isn’t letting me—
A branch snaps. I jerk my head up, fingers digging into my knees.
Not more than five paces ahead of me, a man stumbles into an aspen tree, gripping the trunk like it alone will keep him from collapsing. I jump to my feet. A Spring spy? One of Angra’s men?
The man falls forward again, grimy clumps of white hair swaying around his face. He pushes up, face contorted in a soundless scream, limping and hobbling and grabbing at branches as he drags himself through the undergrowth of the forest.
I tear toward him. “Gregg!”
He whips his head up and his face unravels at the sight of me. He jerks back, stumbles, falls to the ground, unable to pull himself up. His shirt is nothing but a few tattered strands of once-ivory cotton, blood caked in dried brown clumps over long, jagged cuts through his chest.
He writhes on the ground, a groan finally escaping his mouth as he curls onto his side, showing me his back. What used to be his back. It’s so torn open, so mutilated, I can see one, two, three of his ribs, hard white bones coated in blood and dirt and a few of Autumn’s leaves.
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