Icicles Like Kindling, page 2
I drop to my knees and scream.
Gregg stays curled away from me, his body convulsing on the forest floor. Crystalla. She should be with him. She should be here too—
I scramble toward him, half aware of footsteps running toward us from camp. But I get to him before anyone reaches us and pull him over, his head lolling to face the specks of blue sky through the forest canopy.
“Gregg,” I moan, my fingers slick with blood where I grip his arm.
“Gregg, where is—” Hands jerk me back into a tight hug. Alysson holds me in one arm, Mather in her other, her face blank and pale and as she stares at Gregg.
Everyone stands around him now, eyes vacant and faces gaunt and—where is Crystalla?
She’s not here.
Sir kneels and whips to the men nearest him. “Help me move him.”
“He killed her,” Gregg says. Those three words shake everyone into stillness as Gregg stares up at the sky like he’s not really seeing it.
“Herod. He killed her, William. I watched him. Three days, he had her in that cage, and he’d take her out and… he chained me up while he beat her, while he—” Gregg chokes. “I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t stop any of it.…”
Herod, Angra’s second in command. The name sends shivers up my body, shivers of memories, of blood and pain and people dying.
Sir nods and Gregg is blocked from view as the other men help Sir lift him into the air. I’m frozen in Alysson’s grip, unable to look away, unable to hear anything beyond the wind rustling the leaves together and the whine that escapes Gregg. One of his arms slips free, dangling limp toward the ground as they pass us. Around his wrist hangs a scarlet ribbon interspersed with streaks of black and purple, almost like—
No. Not a ribbon. Blood and bruises and dried gore, skin torn open.
He chained me up.… He killed her, William.…
“NO!” I scramble to get out of Alysson’s arms.
Everyone dies. I’ve seen them die, and I’ve cried for them, but this time…
Crystalla wasn’t supposed to die. There used to be twenty-five of us, then there were ten, now there are nine. My parents died in the final battle when Winter collapsed under Spring. Mather’s parents died when Angra killed them that same night. Everyone dies. But Crystalla was supposed to live because I need her to live, I need proof that we can live.
I scream again and Sir looks back, his eyes locking onto me as I push at Alysson and scream again. Someone slips in to take Sir’s place holding Gregg up, and Sir hurries back the few paces to us. He’s stronger than his wife, so much stronger, and lifts me as I thrash against him.
Over his shoulder, I watch Alysson trail behind us with her arms around Mather, his face expressionless as he stares unblinking at the leaves beneath his feet. He’s holding something in his fist that he spins around and around. The stone he found.
He looks up at me, his eyes wet with tears.
My screams turn into sobs and I collapse against Sir’s neck, unable to breathe.
That night they lay Gregg by the campfire under the clear Autumn sky. I drag my bedroll to the edge of my tent and lie there with the blanket pulled over my head, my knees tucked to my chin, and my arms wrapped around my legs so I’m as small as I can make myself.
“They caught us in less than a week,” Gregg says. Everyone crowds around him—except Mather and me, children who should be asleep. But I can tell by the way Mather shifts in his blankets next to me that he’s awake too.
“It was too risky,” Sir mutters. Something rips—bandages being torn.
“I never should have sent you to Abril. We’ll find the other half of the conduit before going near Spring again.”
Gregg makes a muffled grunt. “Stop,” he snaps. “We both know I won’t—”
His voice fades. Sir stays quiet too, and I want to ask Gregg what they both know. What won’t he do?
The truth flashes through me: he won’t last the night.
Gregg snorts, but it’s hollow, empty. “Angra put us in a work camp.”
He wheezes and a shudder runs through me. “At first… we thought we could free them. Stage an uprising. But—” He pauses, moans, and when he starts again his voice is pinched. “Ten years. Ten years, our people have been Spring’s slaves. He treats them like cattle. Keeps them in cages—” A sob flies out of him, making Gregg sound like a child. “Like animals, and they die like animals.”
Someone shifts and stands, starts pacing around the campfire.
Silence prevails for one heartbeat, two, and Gregg cries out, half a strangled howl and half a pained groan. “I saw everything Herod did to her. Every time he smirked at me. Every time she screamed. That’s why Angra released me. I’m a warning that when he catches us—” Gregg stops, panting. “I tried to stagger my path back here, so no one could follow me, but I don’t—I couldn’t—when they find us, Herod will do the same to all of you. Angra will make Herod kill each of you, so slowly…”
Gregg breaks into sobs. Coils of pain rise through me as I listen to one of the strongest, bravest men I know weep.
Mather shifts beside me and his hand cups my shoulder. I can’t move beneath the blanket and Gregg’s words, beneath the knowledge that I know more people dead than alive.
A pause, then Mather nudges my blanket away and presses his face to my ear, his breath steady on my neck. “I’ll never let that happen to you,” he whispers.
Everything in my body cools, a frigid gust from Mather’s words. His hand tightens on my shoulder and he stays next to me, his body pressed against my back. Gregg’s weeping turns to groans of pain and Mather’s breathing warms my neck and all I can think is:
I don’t want Mather to have to protect me.
I don’t want to sit back as everyone else helps free Winter, everyone else belongs to Winter, while I just watch people die in the attempt. I belong to our kingdom too, to the conduit and Crystalla and snow and every bit of Winter. And if being a soldier means my fate will be the same as Gregg’s, or Crystalla’s, or any of the countless others who have died…
I have to do this. I have to be a soldier.
For myself, for Crystalla, for Winter.
There were only eight of us after that night, after Gregg succumbed to his injuries under the clear Autumn sky. And Sir had no choice—he needed me. There were so few Winterians left, our entire kingdom either dead or enslaved. The eight of us were the only hope our people had.
Are the only hope our people have. Because Sir will return from this mission like all his other missions. He’ll go back to analyzing me while I throw my chakram, silent until I shout at him for being so maddeningly quiet. Then he’ll say I have no patience and I’ll growl that maybe I’d control my patience better if he would let me use my fighting skills to help get our conduit back instead of just to get supplies, and he’ll leave without giving in to the argument.
I laugh at myself. I’ve spent way too long at camp if I know exactly how my next conversation with Sir will go.
Two fingers touch my neck. “Dead.”
I whirl around, my chakram at the attacker’s throat a beat before I realize he’s not actually an attacker. Mather puts his hands up in surrender, his lips cocking into a slow smile, the one I’m pretty sure he knows is dangerous, because he only uses it when he wants to fluster someone. Usually me.
I pull the chakram away from the pulsing vein in his neck. “One of these days, that’s going to get you killed.”
“Not if you keep holding your chakram like that.”
“Did you just insult my chakram abilities? And here I thought you wanted to survive to become king.”
His grin widens, but on the last word, king, he flinches, the slightest twinge that shakes some seriousness across his joviality. “Anyway, aren’t you supposed to be practicing your close-range technique?”
I holster my chakram. “I seem to remember it was you th
I shrug out of my chakram’s holster and hand it all to him as he jogs toward camp to trade my weapon for a pair of practice blades. When he returns, he tosses one to me, and I snatch it out of the air.
Mather drops into a combat stance. “Ready?”
My knuckles whiten as my hand encircles the hilt. Ranged fighting, I can do. Melee fighting, not so much.
But if I win just one fight against Mather, just one sparring match, maybe then Sir will let me help our kingdom.
Maybe then I can help stop people from dying like Crystalla.
I curve my body around the sword. “Ready.”
Sara Raasch, Icicles Like Kindling
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