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Black Dawn (Chapter 15)

Maggie shuffled behind Chamber-pot Emptier,heading back toward the castle. She was carryingpiles of folded linen sheets given to her by Laun dress, and she was doing her best to look like a slave. Laundress had smudged her face artisticallywith dirt to disguise her. She had also sifted ahandful of dust into Maggie's hair to dull the auburn into a lifeless brown, and when Maggie bowedher head over the sheets, the hair further obscuredher features. The only problem was that she wasconstantly afraid she was going to sneeze.

"Those are the wild animals," Chamber-pot Emptier whispered over her shoulder. She was a bigboned girl with gentle eyes that reminded Maggieof the calves tethered by Laundress's hut. It had taken Laundress a while to make her understandwhat they wanted of her, but now she seemed tofeel obligated to give Maggie a tour.

"They're brought in from Outside," she said. "And they're dangerous. Maggie looked sideways at the wicker cageswhere Sylvia and Gavin had walked earlier. Fromone a brown-gray wolf stared back at her with afrighteningly sad and steady gaze. In another a sleek black panther was pacing, and it snarled asthey went by. There was something curled up inthe back of a third that might have been a tigerit was big, and it had stripes.

"Wow," she said. "I wouldn't want to chase that."

Chamber-pot Emptier seemed pleased. "Andhere's the castle. It's called Black Dawn."

"It is?" Maggie said, distracted away from theanimals.

"That's what my grandpa called it, anyway. Helived and died in the courtyard without ever goingin." Chamber-pot Emptier thought a moment andadded, "The old people say that you used to be ableto see the sun in the sky-not just behind theclouds, you know. And when the sun came up inthe morning it shone on the castle. But maybethat's just a story."

Yeah, maybe it was just a story that you couldsee the sun in the sky, Maggie thought grimly.Every time she thought this place couldn't surpriseher anymore, she discovered she was wrong.

But the castle itself was impressive … awe inspiring. It was the only thing in view that wasn't dusty brown or pallid gray. Its walls were shinyand black, almost mirror-like in places, and Maggie didn't have to be told that it wasn't built of anyordinary human stone. How they had gotten it tothis valley was a mystery.

Delos lives here, she thoughtasEmptier led herup a stone staircase, past the ground floor which was just cellars and storage rooms. In this beautiful, frightening, impressive place. Not only lives init, but commands it. It's all his.

She got just a glimpse of the great hall, whereshe'd seen slaves setting a long table yesterday. Chamber-pot Emptier led her up another floor andinto a series of winding corridors that seemed to go on for miles.

It was dim in this internal labyrinth. The windows were high and narrow and hardly let any ofthe pale daylight in. On the walls there were candles in brackets and flares in iron rings, but theyonly seemed to add wavering, confusing shadowsto the twilight.

"His bedroom's up here," Emptier murmured finally. Maggie followed her closely. She was justthinking that they had made it all the way withouteven being challenged, when a voice sounded from a side corridor.

"Where are you going? Who's this?"

It was a guard, Maggie saw, peering from underher hair. A real medieval guard, with, of all things,a lance. There was another one in the opposite cor ridor just like him. She was fascinated in the middle of her terror.

But Chamber-pot Emptier of the not-so-quickwits reacted beautifully. She took time to curtsey, then she said slowly and stolidly, "It's Folder fromthe laundry, sir. Laundress sent her with the sheetsand I was told she could help me. There's morework because of the guests, you know."

"It's Chamber Maid's work to spread sheets," theguard said irritably.

Chamber-pot Emptier curtsied again and said just as slowly, "Yes, sir, but there's more work because of the guests, you see-"

"Fine, fine," the guard broke in impatiently. "Whydon't you go and do it, instead of talking about it?"He seemed to think that was funny, and he turned and elbowed the other guard in the ribs.

Chamber-pot Emptier curtseyed a third time and walked on, not hurrying. Maggie tried to copy the curtsey, with her face buried in the sheets.

There was another endless corridor, then a doorway, and then Emptier said, "We're here. Andthere's nobody.around."

Maggie lifted her face from the sheets. "You're absolutely wonderful, you know that? You deservean Academy Award."

"A what?"

"Never mind. But you were great."

"I only told the truth," the girl said placidly, butthere was a smile lurking in the depths of her gentle cowlike eyes. "There is more work when guestscome. We never had them before three years ago."

Maggie nodded. "I know. Look, I guess you'd better go now. And um-Emptier?" She couldn't bring herself to say the entire name. "I really hope you don't get in trouble because of this."

Chamber-pot Emptier nodded back, then went toreach under the bed and retrieve a ceramic container. She walked out again holding it carefully.

Maggie looked around the room, which was verybig and very bare. It was somewhat better lit thanthe corridors, having several bowl-shaped oil lampson stands. The bed was the only real piece of furniture in it. It was huge, with a heavy wooden frameand carved bedposts. Piled on top of it were quiltsand what looked like fur coverlets, and hanging allaround it were linen curtains.

I'm probably supposed to take all that stuff off and put the clean sheets on, Maggie thought. Shedidn't.

The rest of the furniture seemed to be largechests made of exotic-looking wood, and a fewbenches and stools. Nothing that offered a hidingplace. But on one side there was a curtaineddoorway.

Maggie went through it and found a small anteroom-the wardrobe Jeanne had mentioned. It wasmuch bigger than she'd expected, and seemed tobe more of a storeroom than a closet.

Okay. So I'll just sit down.

There were two stools beside a figure thatvaguely resembled a dressmaker's dummy. Maggie dropped her sheets on a chest and pulled one ofthe stools close to the doorway. Through the spacebetween the linen curtains she could see almost theentire bedchamber.

Perfect, she thought. All I have to do is wait untilhe comes in alone. And then She stiffened. She could hear voices from somewhere beyond the vast bedroom. No, she couldhear a voice, a musical girlish voice.

Oh, please, she thought. Not her.Don't let him come in with her. I'll have to jump out and hit herwith something; I won't be able to stop myself… .

But when two figures came in the room, she hadno desire to jump out.

It was Sylvia, all right, but she wasn't with Delos.She was with Hunter Redfern.

Maggie felt ice down her spine. Now, what werethese two doing in Delos's bedroom? Whatever itwas, if they caught her, she was dead meat. Sheheld herself absolutely still, but she couldn't tear herself away from the curtain.

"He's out riding, and he won't be back for another half hour," Sylvia was saying. She was wearing a dark holly-green gown and carrying a basket."And I've sent all the servants away."

"Even so," Hunter Redfern said. He gently movedthe heavy wooden door until it was almost shut.Not all the way, but enough to screen the bedchamber from anyone outside.

"You really think he's spying on our rooms?" Sylvia turned in a swirl of skirts to look at the tallman.

"He's brightmuch smarter than you give himcredit for. And these old castles have spy-holes and listening tubes built in; I remember. It's a stupidprince who doesn't make use of them."

He remembers, Maggie thought, for a moment too full of wonder to be scared. He remembers thedays when castles were built, he means. He's reallybeen alive that long.

She studied the handsome face under the bloodred hair, the aristocratic cheekbones, the mobile mouth-and the quick flashing eyes. This was thesort of man who could fascinate people, she decided. Like Delos, there was a sort of leashed tension about him, a reserve of power and intelligence that made an ordinary person feel awed. He was a leader, a commander.

And a hunter, Maggie thought. All these peopleare hunters, but he's the Hunter, the epitome ofwhat they are. His name says it all.

But Sylvia was talking again. "What is it that he'snot supposed to know?"

"I've had a message from Outside. Don't ask how,I have my ways."

"You have your little bats," Sylvia said demurely."I've seen them."

There was a pause, then Hunter said, "You'd better watch yourself, girl. That mouth's going to getyou in trouble."

Sylvia had her face turned away from him, butMaggie saw her swallow. "I'm sorry. I didn't knowit was a secret. But what's happened?"

"The biggest news in your short life." Hunter Redfern laughed once and added with apparentgood humor restored, "And maybe in mine. Thewitches have seceded from the Night World."

Maggie blinked. It sounded impressive the wayhe said itbut more impressive was the way Sylviafroze and then whirled breathlessly.

"What?"

"It's happened. They've been threatening for amonth, but most people didn't believe they'd reallydo it."

Sylvia put a hand to her middle, pressed flatagainst her stomach as if to hold something in.Then she sat on the fur-covered bed.

"They've left the Council," she said. She wasn'tlooking at Hunter Redfern.

"They've left the Council and everything else.""All of them?"

Hunter Redfern's fine red eyebrows went up.

"What did you expect? Oh, a few of the blackestpractitioners from Circle Midnight are arguing, butmost of them agree with the liberals in Circle Twilight. They want to save the humans. Avert thecoming darkness." He said it exactly the way Maggie had heard lumberjacks say, "Save the spotted owls. Ha!"

"So it's really beginning," Sylvia murmured. Shewas still looking at the stone floor. "I mean, there'sno going back, now, is there? The Night World issplit forever."

"And the millennium is upon us," Hunter said,almost cheerfully. He looked young and…personable, Maggie thought. Somebody you'd vote for.

"Which brings me to the question," he said smoothly, looking at Sylvia, "of when you're goingto find her."

What her? Maggie's stomach tightened.

Sylvia's face was equally tight. She looked up and

said levelly, "I told you I'd find her and I will.""But when?You do understand how important this is?"

"Of course I understand!" Sylvia flared up. Herchest was heaving. "That's why I was trying to sendher to you in the first place-"

Hunter was talkingasif he didn't hear her. "If it gets out that Aradia, the Maiden of all the witches,is here in the valley-'

Iliknow!"

"And that you hadher and let her slip throughyour fingers-"

"I was trying to bring her to you.I thought thatwas important," Sylvia said. She was bristling and distraught. Which was exactly what Hunter wantedher to be, Maggie thought dazedly. He really knows how to play people.

But the analysis was faraway, in the shallowestpart of her mind. Most of her consciousness wassimply stricken into paralyzed amazement.

Aradia.

The Maiden of all the witches.

So it wasn't Arcadia at all, Maggie thought. She might have mentioned that,after I've been calling her Cady for days. But then she hasn't been conscious much, and when she was we had more urgent things to talk about.

Aradia. Aradia. That's really pretty.

The name had started an odd resonance in hermind, maybe bringing up some long-forgotten mythology lesson. Aradia was a goddess, she thought.Of… um, sylvan glades or something. The woods.Like Diana.

And what Maiden of all the witches was, she hadno idea, but it was obviously something important.And not evil, either. From what Hunter was saying, it was clear that witches weren't like other NightPeople.

She was the maiden Bern and Gavin were talkingabout, Maggie realized. The one they were supposed to deliver. So Sylvia was bringing her toHunter Redfern. But Cady herself told me-I mean, Aradiatold me-that she was already coming tothis valley for a reason.

Before she could even properly phrase the question, her mind had the answer.

Delos.

In a coincidence that lifted the hair on Maggie'sarms, Sylvia said, "She won't get to Delos."

"She'd better not," Hunter said. "Maybe you don't realize how persuasive she can be. An ambassador from all the witches, coming to plead her case … she just might sway him. He has a despicable softspot-a conscience, you might call it. And we know he's been in contact with the human girl who escaped with her. Who knows what messages the little vermin was carrying from her?"

No messages, Maggie thought grimly. Not withthis vermin anyway. But I would have carried themif I'd known.

"Gavin said Aradia was still unconscious fromthe truth potion-that she was practically dead,"Sylvia said.

"I don t think she could have given any messages. I'd swear that Delos doesn't know she'sin the valley at all."

Hunter was still brooding. "The witches have oneWild Power on their side already."

"But they won't get another," Sylvia said doggedly. "I've got people looking for her. All the nobles are on our side. They won't let her get toDelos."

"She should have been killed in the beginning,"Hunter mused. "But maybe youhave a soft spotfor herlike you do for that human boy."

Behind the linen curtains, Maggie stiffened.

Like you do.Not like you did.And who else couldthe human boy be?

She gritted her teeth, listening so hard she couldhear the blood in her ears, willing them to talkabout Miles.

But Hunter was going on in his smooth voice,"Or maybe you still have some loyalty to thewitches."

Sylvia's pale face flushed. "I do not! I'm finishedwith them, and you know it! I may be a spellcaster, but I'm not a witch anymore."

"It's good to see you haven't forgotten whatthey've done to you," Hunter said. "After all, youcould have been a Hearth-Woman, taken yourrightful place on the witch Council."

"Yes…"

"Like your grandmother and her mother beforeher. Theywere Harmans, and so was your father.What a pity the name isn't passed through the maleline. You ended up being just a Weald."

"I wasa Harman," Sylvia said with muted ferocity. She was staring at the floor again, and sheseemed to be speaking to herself rather than toHunter. "I was. But I had to stand there and watch my cousins be accepted instead of me. I had towatch half humansbe accepted-be welcomed.They took my place-just because they were descended through the female line."

Hunter shook his head. "A very sad tradition."

Sylvia's breath came raggedly for another minuteor so, then she looked up slowly at the tall man in the center of the room, "You don't have to worryabout my loyalty," she said quietly. "I want a placein the new order after the millennium. I'm through with the witches."

Hunter smiled.

"I know it," he said, lightly and approvingly, andthen he started pacing the room. He got what hewanted out of her, Maggie thought.

Almost casually, he added, "Just be sure thatDelos's power is kept in check until everything's decided."

Sylvia bent and lifted the basket, which Maggiehad forgotten about.

"The new binding spells will hold," she said. "Ibrought special ingredients from one of the oldestMidnight witches. And he won't suspect anything."

"And nobody but you can take them off?"

"Nobody but me," Sylvia said firmly. "Not eventhe Crone of all the witches. Or the Maiden, forthat matter."

"Good girl," Hunter said, and smiled again. "Ihave every confidence in you. After all, you havelamia blood in you to balance the witch taint.You're my own eighth-great-granddaughter."

Maggie wanted to punch him.

She was confused and frightened and indignantand furious, all at once. As faras she could tell,Hunter Redfern seemed to be manipulating everybody. And Delos, Delos the prince and Wild Power,was just another of his puppets.

I wonder what they plan to do if he won't join their new order? she thought bleakly.

After a few minutes, Hunter turned in his pacingand walked by the door. He paused brieflyasiflistening, then glanced at Sylvia.

"You don't know how happy it makes me just to think about it," he said, in a voice that wasn't strained, or overly cheerful, or too loud, or anything that rang false. "To finally have a true heir.A male heir of my own line, and untainted by witchblood. I would never have married that witchMaeve Harman if I had known my son was still alive. And not only alive, but out having sons! Theonly true Redferns left in the world, you mightsay.

Maggie, with her teeth set in her lower lip, didn'tneed to guess who was on the other side of thedoor. She watched tensely.

And Delos came in, right on cue.

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