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Black Dawn (Chapter 11)

The bushes stirred again. Maggie's searching fingers found only acorns and licorice fern, so she made a fist instead, sliding out from underneath Cady and holding herself ready.

A form emerged from the underbrush. Maggiestared so hard she saw gray dots but she couldn'ttell anything about it.

There was a long, tense moment, and then a voice came to her.

"I told you you'd never make it."

Maggie almost fainted with relief.

At the same moment the moon came out frombehind a cloud. It shone down into the clearingand over the slender figure standing with a hand on one hip. The pale silvery light turned red hairalmost black, but the angular face and narrowed skeptical eyes were unmistakable. Not to mention the sour expression.

Maggieletout along, shuddering breath. "Jeanne!"

"You didn't get very far, did you? The road's justover there. What happened? Did she drop deadon you?"

It wasamazinghow good that irritable, acerbicvoice sounded to Maggie. She laughed shakily. "No, Cady's not dead. Bern's dead-you know, the bigslave trader guy. But – "

"You're joking." Jeanne's voice sharpened with respect and she moved forward. `"You killed hunt'

"No. It waslook, I'll explain later. First, can youhelp me get her to somewhere more protected? It's really getting freezing out here, and she's completely out."

Jeanne leaned down, looking at Arcadia. "I toldyou before I wasn't going to help you if you gotin trouble."

"I know," Maggie said. "Can you sort of pick herup from that side? If we both get an arm under her shouldersshemight be able to walk a little." .

`Bull," Jeanne said shortly. "We'd better chaircarry her. Link hands and we can get her up."

Maggie clasped a cold, slender hand with calluses and a surprisingly firm grip. She heavedweight, and then they were carrying the unconscious girl.

"You're strong," she grunted.

"Yeah, well, that's one of the side benefits ofbeing a slave. The road's this way."

It was awkward, slow work, but Maggie wasstrong, too, and Jeanne seemed to be able to guide them around the worst of the underbrush. And it was so good just to be with another human being who was healthy and clear headed and didn't want to kill her, that Maggie felt almost lighthearted.

"What aboutP.J.? Is she okay?"

"She's fine. She's in a place I know-it's notmuch, but it's shelter. That's where we're going."

"You took care of her," Maggie said. She shook her head in the darkness and laughed.

"What are you snickering about?" Jeanne paused and they spent a few minutes maneuvering arounda fallen log covered with spongy moss.

"Nothing," Maggie said. "It's justyou're prettynice, aren't you? Underneath."

"I look out for myself first. That's the rule aroundhere. And don't you forget it," Jeanne said in a threatening mutter. Then she cursed as her foot sank into a swampy bit of ground.

"Okay," Maggie said. But she could still feel awry and wondering smile tugging up the corner ofher mouth.

Neither of them had much breath for talkingafter that. Maggie was in a sort of daze of tirednessthat wasn't completely unpleasant. Her mindwandered.

Delos…she had never met anyone so confus ing. Her entire body reacted just at the thought ofhim, with frustration and anger and a longing that she didn't understand. It was a physical pang.

But then everything was so confusing. Things had

happened so fast since last night that she'd neverhad time to get her mental balance. Delos and the incredible thing that had happened between themwas only one part of the whole mess.

He said he'd killed Miles….

But that couldn't be true. Miles couldn't be dead.And Delos wasn't capable of anything like that….Was he?

She found that she didn't want to think aboutthat. It was like a huge dark cloud that she didn'twant to enter.

Wherever Jeanne was taking her, it was a long,cold trek. And a painful one. After about fifteenminutes Maggie's arms began to feelasif they werebeing pulled out of the sockets, and a hot spot of pain flared at the back of her neck. Her sweat wasclammy running down her back and her feetwere numb.

But she wouldn't give up, and Jeanne didn't either. Somehow they kept going. They had traveledfor maybe about forty-five minutes, with breaks,when Jeanne said, "Here it is."

A clearing opened in front of them, and moonlight shone on a crude little shack made of weathered wood. It leaned dangerously to one side andseveral boards were missing, but it had a ceilingand walls. It was shelter. To Maggie, it looked beautiful.

"Runaway slaves built it," Jeanne said breathlesslyas they took the last few steps to the cabin. "The Night People hunted them down, of course, but they didn't find this place. All the slaves at the castle know about it." Then she called in a slightlylouder tone, "It's me! Open the door!" A long pause, and then there was the sound of awooden bolt sliding and the door opened. Maggiecould see the pale blob of a small face. P.J. Penob scot, with her red plaid baseballcap still on backwardand herslightbodytense,wasblinkingsleepy, frightened eyes.

Then she focused and her face changed."Maggie! You're okay!" She flung herself at Maggie like a small javelin.

"Ow-hey!" Maggie swayed and Cady's limp bodydipped perilously.

"I'm glad to see you, too," Maggie said. To herown surprise, she found herself blinking back tears."But I've got to put this girl down or I'm going todrop her."

"Back here," Jeanne said. The back of the cabinwas piled with straw. She and Maggie eased Arcadia down onto it and then P.J. hugged Maggie again.

"You got us out. We got away," P.J. said, hersharp little chin digging into Maggie's shoulder.

Maggie squeezed her. "Wellwe all got us out,and Jeanne helped get you away. But I'm glad everybody made it."

"Is she…all right?" P.J. pulled back and lookeddown at Arcadia.

"I don't know." Cady's forehead felt hot underMaggie's hand, and her breathing was regular butwith a rough, wheezy undertone Maggie didn'tlike.

"Here's a cover," Jeanne said, dragging up a pieceof heavy, incredibly coarse material. It seemed asbig as a sail and so rigid it hardly sagged or folded."If we all get under it, we can keep warm."

They put Cady in the middle, Maggie and P.J. onone side of her and Jeanne on the other. The cover was more than big enough to spread over them.

And the hay smelled nice. It was prickly, butMaggie's long sleeves and jeans protected her. There was a strange comfort in P.J.'s slight bodycuddled up next to herlike a kitten, Maggiethought. And it was so blessedly good to not bemoving, to not be carrying anyone, but just to sit still and relax her sore muscles.

"There was a little food stashed here," Jeannesaid, digging under the hay and pulling out a smallpacket.

"Dried meat strips and oatcakes with salalberries. We'd better save some for tomorrow,though."

Maggie tore into the dried meat hungrily. Itdidn't taste like beef jerky; it was tougher and gam ier, but right at the moment it seemed delicious.She tried to get Cady to eat some, but it was nouse. Cady just turned her head away.

She and Jeanne and P.J. finished the meal offwith a drink of water, and then they lay back onthe bed of hay.

Maggie felt almost happy. The gnawing in her stomach was gone, her muscles were loosening up,and she could feel a warm heavinesssettlingoverher.

"You were going… to tell me about Bern …"Jeanne said from the other side of Cady. The wordstrailed off into a giant yawn.

"Yeah." Maggie's brain was fuzzy and her eyeswouldn't stay open. "Tomorrow …"

And then, lying on a pile of hay in a tiny shack ina strange kingdom, with three girls who had been strangers to her before this afternoon and who nowseemed a little like sisters, she was fast asleep.

Maggie woke up with her nose cold and her feettoo hot. Pale light was coming in all the cracks inthe boards of the cabin. For one instant she stared at the rough weathered-silver boards and the hayon the floor and wondered where she was. Thenshe remembered everything.

"Cady." She sat up and looked at the girl beside her.

Cady didn't look well. Her face had the waxyinner glow of somebody with a fever, and there were little tendrils of dark hair curled damply onher forehead. But at Maggie's voice her eyelashes fluttered, then her eyes opened.

"Maggie?"

"How are you feeling? Want some water?" Shehelped Cady drink from the leather bag.

"I'm all right. Thanks to you, I think. Youbrought me here, didn't you?" Cady's face turnedas if she were looking around the room with herwide, unfocused eyes. She spoke in short sentences, as if she were conserving her strength, but hervoice was more gentle than weak. "And Jeanne, too.Thank you both."

She must have heard us talkinglast night, Maggie thought. Jeanne was sitting up, straw in her red hair, her green eyes narrow and alert instantly. P.J.was stirring and making grumpy noises.

"Morning," Maggie said. "Is everybody okay?'

"Yeah," P.J. said in a small, husky voice. Therewas a loud rumble from her stomach. "I guess I'mstill a little hungry," she admitted.

"There're a couple oatcakes left," Jeanne said."And one strip of meat. We might as well finishit off."

They made Cady eat the meat, although she triedto refuse it. Then they divided the oatcakes solemnly into four parts and ate them, chewing dog gedly on dry, flaky mouthfuls.

"We're going to need more water, too," Maggiesaid, after they'd each had a drink. The leather bagwas almost empty. "But I think the first thing is tofigure out what we're going to do now. What our plan is."

"The first thing," Jeanne said, "is to tell us whathappened to Bern."

"Oh."Maggie blinked, but she could see whyJeanne would want to know. "Well, he's definitely dead." She sketched in what had happened aftershe and Cady had started running through thewoods. How Gavin and Bern had chased them andhad finally driven them into a corner on the boulder pile.How Bern hadclimbedup andchanged…

"He was a shapeshifter, you know," she said.

Jeanne nodded, unsurprised. "Bern means bear.They usually have names that mean what they are.But you're saying you tried to fight thatguy off with a stick? You're dumber than I thought." Still,her green eyes were gleaming with something likewry admiration, and P.J. was listening with awe.

"And then-there was this lightning," Maggiesaid. "And it killed Bern and Gavin ran away." Sherealized, even asshe said it, that she didn't wantto tell everything that had happened with Delos.She didn't think Jeanne would understand. So she left out the way their minds had linked when theytouched, and the way she'd seen his memories-and the fact that she'd dreamed about him beforeever coming to this valley.

"Then I filled the water bag and we heard Sylviacoming and he went out to make sure she didn'tfind me or Cady," she finished. She realized thatthey were all staring at her. Cady's facewasthoughtful and serene as always, P.J. was scaredbut interested in the story-but Jeanne was rivetedwith disbelief and horror.

"You're saying Prince Delossaved your life? Withthe blue fire? You're saying he didn't turn you overto the hunting party?" She said it as if she were talking about Dracula.

"It's the truth." Good thing I didn't tell her aboutthe kiss, Maggie thought.

"It's impossible. Delos hates everybody. He's themost dangerous of all of them."

"Yeah, that's what he kept telling me." Maggieshook her head. The way Jeanne was looking at hermade her uncomfortable,as if she were defendingsomeone unredeemably evil. "He also said at one point that he killed my brother," she said slowly."But I didn't know whether to believeit…."

"Believe it." Jeanne's nostrils were flared and herlip curledasif she were looking at something disgusting.

"He's the head of this whole place and everything that goes on here. There's nothing hewouldn't do. I can't believe he let you go." She considered for a moment, then said grimly, "Unless he's got something special in mind. Letting you go and then hunting you down later. It's the kind ofthing he'd enjoy."

Maggie had a strange feeling of void in her stomach that had nothing to do with hunger. She triedto speak calmly. "I don't think so. I think-he justdidn't care if I got away."

"You're fooling yourself. You don't understandabout these people because you haven't been here. None of youhave been here." Jeanne looked at P.J.,who was watching with wide blue 'eyes, and atCady, who was listening silently, her head slightlybowed. "The Night People are monsters.And theones here in the Dark Kingdom are the worst of all. Some of them have been alive for hundreds of years-some of them were here when Delos'sgrandfather founded the place. They've been holedup in this valley all that time … and allthey do ishunt.It's their only sport. It's all they care about. It's all they do."

Maggie's skin was prickling. Part of her didn'twant to pursue this subject any further. But she had to know.

"Last night I noticed something weird," she said."I was standing outside and listening, but I couldn'thear any animal sounds anywhere. None at all."

"They've wiped them out. Alltheanimalsin the wild are gone."

P.J.'s thin little hand clutched at Maggie's armnervously. 'But then what do they hunt?"

"Animals they breed and release. I've been a slavehere for three years, and at first I only saw them breeding local animaLs-cougars and black bears

wolverines and stuff. But in the last couple ofyears they've started bringing in exotics. Leopardstigers and things."

Maggie let out her breath and patted P.J.'s hand.`But not humans."

"Don't make me laugh. Of course humans-butonly when they can get an excuse. The laws say the vampires can't hunt slaves to death because they'retoo precious-pretty soon the food supply wouldbe gone. But if slaves get loose, they at least get to hunt them down and bring them back to the castle. And if a slave has to be executed, they do a death hunt."

"I see." The void in Maggie's stomach had become a yawning chasm. "But-2'

"If he let you go, it was so he could come backand hunt you," Jeanne said flatly. "I'm telling you,he's bad. It was three years ago that the old kingdied and Delos took over, okay? And it was threeyears ago that they started bringing new slaves in.Not just grabbing people off the mountain if theygot too close, but actuallygoing down and kidnapping girls off the streets. That's why I'm here.That'swhy P.J.'s here."

Beside Maggie, P.J. shivered. Maggie put an armaround her and felt the slight body shaking againsthers. She gulped, her other hand clenching into afist. "Hey, kiddo. You've been really brave so far, sojust hang on, okay? Things are going to work out."

She could feel Jeanne's sarcastic eyes on herfrom beyond Cady, daring her to explain exactly howthings were going to work out. She ignoredthem.

"Was it the same for you, Cady?" she asked. Shewas glad to get off the subject of Delos, and shewas remembering the strange thing Cady had saidlast night. I was coming here for a reason….

"No. They got me on the mountain." But the wayCady spoke alarmed Maggie. It was slowly and with obvious effort, the voice of someone who had touse all their strength just to concentrate.

Maggie forgot all about Delos and the slave tradeand put a hand to Cady's forehead. "Oh, God," she said. "You're burning up. You're totally on fire."

Cady blinked slowly. "Yes-it's the poison," shesaid in a foggy voice. "They injected me with something when they caught me-but I had a bad reaction to it. My system can't take it."

Adrenaline flicked through Maggie. "And you'regetting worse." When Cady nodded reluctantly, shesaid,

"Right. Then there's no choice. We have to getto the castle because that's where the healingwomen are, right? If anybody can help, they can, right?"

"Wait a minute," Jeanne said. "We can't go downto the castle. We'd be walking right into their arms.And we can't get out of the valley. I found the passbefore, but that was by accident. I couldn't find itagain

"I could," Maggie said. When Jeanne stared at her, she said, "Never mind how. I just can. But going that way means climbing down a mountainon the other side and Cady can't make it. And I don't think she'll make it if we leave her alone hereand go look for help."

Jeanne's narrow green eyes were on her again,and Maggie knew what they were saying. So we'vegot to give up on her. It's the only thing thatmakessense. But Maggie bulldozed on in determination. "Youcan take P.J. to thepass-I can tellyou howto get there-and Ill take Cady to the castle. How about that? If you can tell me how to get to it."

"Itstinks,"Jeanne said flatly. "Even if you make

it to the castle with her hanging on you, you won'tknow how to get in. And if you doget in, you'll be committing suicide-"

She broke off, and everyone started. For an instant Maggie didn't understand why-all she knewwas that she had a sudden feeling of alarm andalertness. Then she realized that Cady had turnedsuddenly toward the door. It was the quick, instinctive gesture of a cat who has heard something dangerous, and it triggered fear in the girls who werelearning to live by their own instincts.

And now that Maggie sat frozen, she could hearit, too, faraway but distinct. The sound of peoplecalling, yelling back and forth. And another sound, one that she'd only heard in movies, but that sherecognized instantly. Hounds baying.

"It's them," Jeanne whispered into the dead silence of the shack. "I told you. They're hunting us."

"With dogs?"Maggie said, shock tingling throughher body.

"It's all over," Jeanne said. "We're dead."

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