I OFFERED MY HAND TO THE FIRE.
Sparks leaped from the hearth and settled onto my fingers, heat drawn to heat, and glittered like molten gems against my skin. With my free hand, I pulled a bucket of melting snow closer and edged forward on my knees, ready to douse myself if the sparks flared into something much larger.
Which is exactly what I intended.
Winter solstice was six weeks away, but my village, high in the mountains, was already blanketed with a thick layer of snow. Grandmother used to say that the true test of a Fireblood’s gift was in the cold. But she died before she could show me more than the most rudimentary of lessons, and Mother had made me promise never to practice at all.
It was a promise I couldn’t keep. If the king’s soldiers discovered me, wasn’t it better to know how to wield my heat?
I closed my eyes and focused on my heart, willing the gathering warmth to surge upward and out the way Grandmother had taught me. If I did it right, the bright sparks on my hand would burst into tiny flames.
Come on, little wisp, where are you?
After years of being told to tamp down my fire, keep it hidden, make it invisible, I struggled each time I tried to find it. But there it was, a small, churning tendril. I coaxed it forward, a reluctant thread that grew a little, then a little more.
That’s it. I held my breath, afraid to break the spell.
A gust of frigid air whipped my hair across my face. The sparks on my fingers died, and the wisp darted back into my heart.
Mother slammed the door and shoved the quilt back against the crack at the bottom, a deep shiver shaking her fine-boned frame under her cloak. “It’s wicked out there. I’m chilled to the bone.”
Seeing her tremble, I finally scooted to the side, revealing the hearth. “I thought you were delivering a baby.”
“It wasn’t time yet.” Her eyes widened at the tall flames, then narrowed.
I shrugged, my excitement wilting. “It was so cold.”
“Ruby, you were practicing.” The tone of disappointment was familiar. “If even one person sees what you’re doing, just one, they could alert the king’s soldiers. With the summer being so wet, and the grains running out, people will do anything to survive, including taking a reward—”
“I know. You don’t have to tell me again.”
“Then why are you doing this? It’s bad enough when you’re not trying to use your gift.” She waved her hand at a pile of half-burned rags. Scorch marks still stained the floor.
My cheeks warmed. “I’m sorry I lost my temper the other day. Again. But tonight I could almost control the flame.”
She shook her head in a tense movement that told me there was no use pleading. I wrapped my arms around myself and rocked gently. Finally, her wind-chapped fingers reached out slowly to take a lock of my hair, which she always said was lucky to be black and not red like some Firebloods’. My skin might be a little too sun-kissed for a child of the North, but people didn’t look closely in this sleepy village, where no one had powers, frost or fire.
“I understand that your gift is a part of you,” she said softly. “But I lie awake at night worrying. How can we keep your secret if you insist on using your fire, even when you know it can spiral out of control?”
It was the same question she’d asked over and over during the past few months, when I’d decided to start practicing my gift. And I replied with the same answer. “How will I learn to control it if I never use it? And if we’re not safe here, why don’t we go somewhere safe?”
“Not that again. You know we’d never make it to the border, and even if we did, we’d be on the front lines.”
“Is heavily guarded now.”
“We should have left years ago,” I said bitterly. “We should live in Sudesia with the rest of our people.”
She looked away. “Well, we’re here now, and there’s no sense wishing for what isn’t.” She let out a sigh as she caught sight of the depleted pile of kindling. “Ruby, did you really need to use half our store of firewood?”
I swallowed past the guilt. “I won’t add any more logs to the fire.”
“When it burns down, we’ll freeze.”
“I’ll keep you warm. You can sleep right next to me.” I patted my mattress, which I’d pulled close to the hearth, just out of range of stray sparks.
Her gaze softened, a smile tugging at her lips. “You’re better than any fire. You never burn me, even if I roll too close.”
“Exactly. A Fireblood daughter can be very useful.”
She gave a bark of laughter and my heart lightened. “I am grateful—believe me.” She pulled me into a tight hug, gasping and laughing as she felt the sting of heat coming from me in waves. “It’s like holding a cooked chicken. I think you’d better take a walk to cool off. See if you can find some more kindling to replace the lot you used up.”
I pressed through drifts, the snow hissing as it melted against my shins above my boots. The wind howled from the southwest, yanking the hood from my head and raking through my hair with pine-scented fingers. The air was bitter, but my skin was still hotter than normal after practicing my gift. Mother had said to gather firewood and bring it home, but she also wanted me to calm down. Surely it was better to expel some of this heat out here, where it was safe?
I had done it before, sneaked out late at night into the desolate, snow-draped woods, my hands thrust into a hastily built fire as I willed myself to control the flames. All I’d managed to do was singe the edges of my cloak.
I gathered a bundle of small sticks, holding them tightly. The forest held its breath, eerily silent but for the rustle of wind in the treetops. Although I knew no one ever came here, I still looked around furtively, my heart beating thickly in my ears. Closing my eyes, I searched for the little wisp of flame I’d found earlier. The sticks grew hot in my hands.
The wind changed direction, barreling in from the north and carrying the dregs of a wet winter storm. I shivered and clutched the sticks tighter, struggling against the cold seeping into my pores and leaching the heat from my body.
Suddenly, the distant sounds of footsteps echoed through the woods.
I dropped the sticks and clambered onto a rock, knocking snow from it in heavy clumps. To the northwest, the path veered down into a gulley, where an overhang protected it from snow. In a few seconds, I would see whoever approached without being seen myself.