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Black Dawn (Chapter 14)

Maggie woke up slowly and almost luxuriously. She wasn't freezing. She wasn't aching or weakwith hunger. And she had an unreasonable feeling of safety.

Then she sat up and the safe feeling disappeared.

She was in Laundress's hut of earth bricks.Jeanne and P.J. were there, but Cady had been taken to another hut to be treated. Laundress hadstayed all night with her, and Maggie had no ideaif she was getting better or not. The frightened girl called Soaker brought them breakfast, but couldonly say that Cady was still asleep.

Breakfast was the same as dinner last night hadbeen: a sort of thick oatmeal sweetened with huckle berries. Maggie ate it gratefully. It was good-atleast to somebodyas hungry as she was.

"We're lucky to have it," Jeanne said, stretching.She and P.J. were sitting opposite Maggie on thebare earth of the floor, eating with their fingers. They all were wearing the coarse, scratchy tunicsand loose leggings of slaves, and Maggie kept goinginto spasms of twitching when the material made her itch somewhere she couldn't reach. Maggie'sclothes, including her precious socks, were hiddenat the back of the hut.

"They don't grow much grain or vegetable stuff," Jeanne was saying. "And of course slaves don't getto eat any meat. Only the vampires and the shapeshifters get to eat blood or flesh."

P.J. shivered, hunching up her thin shoulders. "When you say it like that, it makes me not wantto eat it."

Jeanne gave a sharp-toothed grin. "They're afraidit would make the slaves too strong. Everythinghere's designed for that. Maybe you noticed, there'snot much in the slave quarters made of wood."

Maggie blinked. She hadnoticed that vaguely, atthe back of her mind. The huts were made of bricks, with hard-packeddirtfloors. And there wereno wooden tools like rakes or brooms lying around.

"But what do they burn?" she asked, looking atthe small stone hearth built right on the floor ofthe hut. There was a hole in the roof above to letsmoke out.

"Charcoaled wood, cut in little pieces. They makeit out in the forest in charcoal pits, and it's strictly regulated. Everybody only gets so much. If they find a slave with extra wood, they execute 'em."

"Because wood kills vampires," Maggie said.

Jeanne nodded. "And silverkills shapeshifters.Slaves are forbidden to have silver, too-not thatany of them are likely to get hold of any."

P.J. was looking out the small window of the hut.There was no glass in it, and last night it had been stuffed with sacking against the cold air. "If slaves can't eat meat, what are those?" she asked.

Maggie leaned to look. Outside two big calves were tethered to iron pickets. There were also a dozen trussed-up chickens and a pig in a pen madeof rope.

"Those are for Night People," Jeanne said. "The shapeshifters and witches eat regular food – and sodo the vampires, when they want to. It looks likethey're going to have a feast they don t bring theanimals here until they're ready to slaughter."

P.J.'s face was troubled. "I feel sorry for them," she said softly.

"Yeah, well, there are worse things than beinghit over the head," Jeanne said. "See those cagesjust beyond the pig? That's where the exotics are

?tigers and things they bring in to hunt. That's a bad way to die."

Maggie felt ice down her spine. "Let's hope wenever have to find out – 2' she was beginning, whena flash of movement outside caught her eye.

"Get down!" she said sharply, and ducked out of

?line of sight of the window. Then, very carefully, with her body tense, she edged up to the opensquare again and peered out.

"What is it?" Jeanne hissed. P.J. just cowered on thefloor, breathing quickly.

Maggie whispered, "Sylvia."

Twofigures had appeared, walking through the back courtyard and talkingasthey went. Sylvia and Gavin. Sylvia's gown today was misty leaf green,and her hair rippled in shimmering waves over her shoulders. She looked beautiful and graceful andfragile.

"Are they coming here?" Jeanne breathed.

Maggie shook a hand-held low to the groundtoward her to be quiet. She was afraid of the samething. If the Night People began a systematic search of the huts, they were lost.

But instead, Sylvia turned toward the cages thatheld the exotics. She seemed to be looking at the animals, occasionally turning to make a remarkto Gavin.

"Now, what's she up to?" a voice murmured by Maggie's ear. Jeanne had crept up beside her.

"I don't know. Nothing good," Maggie whispered.

"They must be planning a hunt," Jeanne saidgrimly. "That's bad. I heard they were going to doa big one when Delos came to an agreement withHunter Redfern."

Maggie drew in her breath. Had things gone thatfar already? It meant she didn't have much timeleft.

Outside, she could see Sylvia shaking her head,then moving on to the pens and tethers holding the domestic animals.

"Get back," Maggie whispered, ducking down.But Sylvia never looked at the hut. She made some remark while looking at the calves and smiling.Then she and Gavin turned and strolled backthrough the kitchen garden.

Maggie watched until they were out of sight,

chewing her lip. Then she looked at Jeanne.

"I think we'd better go see Laundress."

The hut Jeanne led her to was a little bigger thanthe others and had what Maggie knew by now was an amazing luxury: two rooms. Cady was in thetiny room-hardly bigger than an alcove-in back.

And she was looking better. Maggie saw it immediately. The clammy, feverish look was gone and so were the blue-black shadows under her eyes. Herbreathing was deep and regular and her lashes lay heavy and still on her smooth cheeks.

"Is she going to be all right?" Maggie asked Laundress eagerly.

The gaunt woman was sponging Cady's cheekswith a cloth. Maggie was Surprised at how tenderthe big red-knuckled hands could be.

"She'll liveaslongasany of us," Laundress said grimly, and Jeanne gave a wry snort. Even Maggie felt her lip twitch. She was beginning to like this woman. In fact, if Jeanne and Laundress were examples, the slaves here had a courage and a blackhumor that she couldn't help but admire.

"I had a daughter," Laundress said. "She wasabout this one's age, but she had that one's coloring." She nodded slightly atP.J.,who clutched atthe baseball cap stashed inside her tunic and smiled.

Maggie hesitated, then asked. "What happenedto her?"

"One of the nobles saw her and liked her," Laundress said. She wrung out the cloth and put itdown, then stood briskly. When she saw Maggiestill looking at her, she added,asif she were talkingabout the weather, "He was a shapeshifter, a wolfnamed Autolykos. He bit her and passed his curse on to her, but then he got tired of her. One nighthe made her run and hunted her down."

Maggie's knees felt weak. She couldn't think ofanything to say that wouldn't be colossally stupid,so she didn't say anything.

P.J. did. "I'm sorry," she said in a husky little voice, and she put her small hand in Laundress'srough one.

Laundress touched the top of the shaggy blondheadasif she were touching an angel.

"Urn, can I talk to her? Cady?" Maggie asked,blinking fast and clearing her throat.

Laundress looked at her sharply. "No. You won'tbe able to wake her up. I had to give her strong medicine to fight off what they'd given her. Youknow how the potion works."

Maggie shook her head. "What potion?"

"They gave her calamus and bloodwort-andother things. It was a truth potion."

"You mean they wanted to get information outof her?"

Laundress only dignified that with a bare nod foran answer.

"But I wonder why?" Maggie looked at Jeanne,who shrugged.

"She's a witch from Outside. Maybe they thoughtshe knew something."

Maggie considered another minute, then gave itup. She would just have to ask Cady when Cadywas awake.

"There was another reason I wanted to see you,"she said to Laundress, who was now briskly cleaning up the room. "Actually, a couple of reasons. Iwanted to ask you about this."

She reached inside her slave tunic and pulled outthe photo of Miles that she'd taken from her jacketlast night.

"Have you seen him?"

Laundress took the picture between a callusedthumb and forefinger and looked at it warily."Wonderfully small painting," she said.

"It's called a photograph. It's not exactlypainted." Maggie was watching the woman's face,afraid to hope.

There was no sign of recognition. "He's related toyou," Laundress said, holding the photo to Maggie.

"He's my brother. From Outside, you know? Andhis girlfriend was Sylvia Weald. He disappeared last week."

"Witch Sylvia!" a cracked, shaky voice said.

Maggie looked up fast. There was an old womanin the doorway, a tiny, wizened creature with thin white hair and a face exactly like one of the driedapple dolls Maggie had seen at fairs.

"This is Old Mender," Jeanne said. "She sews uptorn clothes, you know? And she's the other healing woman."

"So this is the Deliverer," the cracked voice said, and the woman shuffled closer, peering at Maggie."She looks like an ordinary girl, until youseethe eyes."

Maggie blinked.-Oh-thanks,-she said. Secretlyshe thought that Old Mender herself looked morelike a witch than anyone she'd ever seen in her life. But there was bright intelligence in the old wom-. an's birdlike gaze and her little smile was sweet.

"Witch Sylvia came to the castle a week ago," shetold Maggie, her head on one side. "She didn't have any boy with her, but she was talking about a boy.My grand-nephew Currier heard her. She was telling Prince Delos how she'd chosen a human for aplaything, and she'd tried to bring him to the castlefor Samhain. But the boy did something-turnedon her somehow. And so she had to punish him,and that had delayed her."

Maggie's heart was beating in her ears. "Punishhim," she began, and then she said, "What'sSamhain?"

"Halloween," Jeanne said. "The witches here normally have a big celebration at midnight."

Halloween. All right. Maggie's mind was whirringdesperately, ticking over this new information. Sonow she knew for certain that Sylvia hadgone Ink ing on Halloween with Miles, just as she'd told thesheriffs and rangers. Or maybe they'd been driving, if Jeanne's story about a mysterious pass that onlyNight People could see was true. But anyway they'dbeen coming here, to the Dark Kingdom. Andsomething had delayed them. Miles had done something that made Sylvia terribly angry and changed her mind about taking him to the castle.

And made her…punish him. In some way thatMaggie wasn't supposed to be able to guess.

Maybe she just killed him after all, Maggiethought, with an awful sinking in her stomach. Shecould have shoved him off a cliff easily. Whatevershe did, he never made it here-right?

"So there isn't any human boy in the dungeon oranything?" she asked, looking at Laundress andthen Mender. But she knew the answer before theyshook their heads.

Nobody recognizes him. He can't be here.

Maggie felt her shoulders slump. But althoughshe was discouraged and heartsick, she wasn't defeated. What she felt instead was a hard little burning like a coal in her chest. She wanted more than ever to grab Sylvia and shake the truth out of her.

At the very least, if nothing else, I'm going to findout how he died. Because that's important.

Funny how it didn't seem impossible anymorethat Miles was dead. Maggie had learned a lot since coming to this valley. People got hurt and died andhad other awful things happen to them, and thatwas that. The ones left alive had to find some wayof going on.

But not of forgetting.

"You said you had two reasons for coming to seeme," Laundress prompted. She was standing with her big hands on her hips, her gaunt body erectand looking just slightly impatient. "Have you comeup with a plan, Deliverer?"

"Well-sort of. Not exactly a planso much as well, I guess it's a plan." Maggie floundered, tryingto explain herself. The truth was that she'd come up with the most basic plan of all.

To go see Delos.

That was it. The simplest, most direct solution.She was going to get him alone and talk to him.Use the weird connection between them if she hadto. Pound some sort of understanding into histhick head.

And put her life on the line to back up her words.

Jeanne thought the slaves were going to be killedwhen Hunter Redfern and Delos made their deal. Maggie was a slave now. If the other slaves werekilled, Maggie would be with them.

And you're betting that he'll care,a nasty littlevoice in her brain whispered. But you don't reallyknow that. He keeps threatening to kill you himself.

He specifically warned you not to come to thecastle.

Well, anyway, we're going to find out, Maggie told the little voice. And if I can't convince him, I'llhave to do something more violent.

"I need to get into the castle," she said to Laundress. "Not just into the kitchen, you know, but theother rooms-wherever I might be able to findPrince Delos alone."

"Alone? You won't find him alone anywhere buthis bedchamber."

"Well, then, I have to go there."

Laundress was watching her narrowly. "Is it assassination you've got in mind? Because I knowsomeone who has a piece of wood."

"It… ." Maggie stopped and took a breath. "I really hope it isn't going to come to that. Butmaybe I'd better take the wood, just in case."

And you'd better hope for a miracle, the nastyvoice in her mind said. Because how else are yougoing to overpower him?

Jeanne was rubbing her forehead. When shespoke, Maggie knew she'd been thinking along thesame lines. "Look, dummy, are you sure this is agood idea? I mean, he's-"

"A Night Person," Maggie supplied."And you're='

"Just an ordinary human."

"She's the Deliverer," P.J. said stoutly, and Maggie paused to smile at her.

Then she turned back to Jeanne. "I don't knowif it's a good idea, but it's my only idea. And I knowit's dangerous, but I have to do it." She looked awkwardly at Laundress and Old Mender. "The truthis that it's not just about you people here. If whatJeanne told you about Hunter Redfern is right,then the whole human world is in trouble."

"Oh, the prophecies," Old Mender said, and cackled.

"You know them, too?"

"We slaves hear everything." Old Mender smiled and nodded. "Especially when it concerns our own prince. I remember when he was little-I was theQueen's seamstress then, before she died. Hismother knew the prophecies, and she said, 'In blue fire, the final darkness is banished.In blood, the final price is paid."

Blood, Maggie thought. She knew that blood hadto run before Delos could use the blue fire, butthis sounded as if it were talking about something darker. Whose blood? she wondered.

"And the final darkness is the end of the world,right?" she said. "So you can see how important itis for me to change Delos's mind. Not just for theslaves, but for all humans." She looked at Jeanne asshe spoke. Laundress and Old Mender didn't knowanything about the world Outside, but Jeanne did.

Jeanne gave a sort of grudging nod, to say that, yeah, putting off the end of the world was important.

"Okay, so we have to try it. We'd better findout which slaves are allowed in his room, and thenwe can go up and hide. The big chambers havewardrobes, right?" She was looking at Old Mender,who nodded.

"We can stay in one of those-"

"That's a good idea," Maggie interrupted. "Everything but the we. You can't go with me this time.This is something I have to do alone."

Jeanne gave an indignant wriggle of her shoulders. Her red hair seemed to stand up in protest and her eyes were sparking. "That's ridiculous. Ican help. There's noreason"

"There is, too, a reason," Maggie said. "It's too dangerous. Whoever goes there might get killedtoday. If you stay here, you may at least have afew more days." When Jeanne opened her mouthto protest, she went on, "Days to try and figure outa new plan, okay? Which will probably be just as dangerous. And, besides, I'd like somebody towatch over P.J. and Cady for as longaspossible." She gave P.J. a smile, and P.J. lifted her head resolutely, obviously trying to stop her chin fromquivering.,., Ido need to do it alone," Maggie said gently, turning back to Jeanne. Somewhere in herown mind, she was standing back, astonished. Whowould have ever thought, when she first met Jeannein the cart, that she would end up having to talkher out of trying to get killed with Maggie?

Jeanne blew air out pursed lips, her eyes narrowed. Finally she nodded.

"Fine, fine. You go conquer the vampire and Illstay and arrange the revolution."

"I bet you will," Maggie said dryly. For a momenttheir eyes met, and it was like that first time, whenan unspoken bond had formed between them.

"Try to take care of yourself. You're not exactlythe smartest, you know," Jeanne said. Her voice was a little rough and her eyes were oddly shiny.

"I know," Maggie said.

The next moment Jeanne sniffed and cheered up."I just thought of who's allowed up into the bedrooms in the morning," she said. "You can helpher, and shell lead you to Delos's room."

Maggie looked at her suspiciously. "Why are youso happy about it? Who is it?"

"Oh, you'll like her. She's called Chamber-potEmptier."

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