Black Dawn (Chapter 12)
"Where?" Jeanne said.
"The castle," Maggie said. "But we've got to sticktogether." She grabbed PJ.'s arm with her otherhand.
Maggie pinned Jeanne with a look. "It's the onlything that makes sense. They'll be expecting us totry to find the pass, right? They'll find us if we stayhere. The only place they won't expect us to go is the castle."
"You," Jeanne said, "are completely crazy-""Come on!"
"But you just might be right." Jeanne grabbed Cady from the other side as Maggie started for the door.
"You stay right behind us," Maggie hissed at P.J.
The landscape in front of her looked differentthan it had last night. The mist formed a silver netover the trees, and although there was no sun, the clouds had a cool pearly glow.
It was beautiful. Still alien, still disquieting, butbeautiful.
And in the valley below was a castle.
Maggie stopped involuntarily as she caught sightof it. It rose out of the mist like an island, blackand shiny and solid. With towers at the edges. Anda wall around it with a saw-toothed top, just like the castles in pictures.
It looks so real, Maggie thoughtstupidly.
"Don't stand there! What are you waiting for?Jeanne snapped, dragging at Cady.
Maggie tore her eyes away and made her legswork. They headed at a good pace straight for the thickest trees below the shack.
"If it's dogs, we should try to find a stream orsomething, right?" she said to Jeanne. "To cut off our scent."
"I know a stream," Jeanne said, speaking in shortbursts as they made their way through dew-wetferns and saxifrages. "I lived out here a while thefirst time I escaped. When I was looking for thepass. But they're not just dogs."
Maggie helped Cady scramble over the tentaclelike roots of a hemlock tree. "What's that supposedto mean?"
"It means they're shapeshifters, like Bern andGavin. So they don't just track us by scent. They also feel our life energy."
Maggie thought about Bern turning his face this way and that, saying, "Do yousense anything?"AndGavin saying, "No. I can't feel them atall."
"Great," Maggie muttered. She glanced back andsaw P.J. following doggedly, her face taut with concentration.
It was a strange sort of chase. Maggie and hergroup were trying to keepas quietaspossible,which was made easier by the dampness of the rainforest around them. Although there were fourof them moving at once, the only sound from closeup was the soft pant of quick breathing and the occasional short gasp of direction from Jeanne.
They slipped and plunged and stumbled betweenthe huge dark trunks that stood like columns in themist. Cedar boughs drooped from above, making ittwilight where Maggie was trying to pick her wayaround moss-covered logs. There was a cool greensmell like incense everywhere.
But however still the world was around them,there was always the sound of the hounds baying in the distance. Always behind them, always getting closer.
They crossed an icy, knee-deep stream, but Maggie didn't have much hope that it would throw the pursuit off. Cady began to lag seriously after that.She seemed dazed and only semiconscious, follow ing instructionsas if she weresleepwalking,and only answering questions with a fuzzy murmur.Maggie was worried aboutP.J., too. They were all weak with hunger and shaky with stress.
But it wasn't until they were almost at the castle that the hunt caught up with them.
They had somehow finished the long, demandingtrek down the mountain. Maggie was burning withpride for P.J. and Cady. And then, all at once, thebaying of the hounds came, terribly close and get ting louder fast.
At the same moment, Jeanne stopped and cursed,staring ahead.
"What?" Maggie was panting heavily. "You seethem?"
Jeanne pointed. "I see the road.I'm an idiot.They're coming right down it, much faster than we can go through the underbrush. I didn't realize wewere headed for it."
P.J. leaned against Maggie, her slight chest heaving, her plaid baseball hat askew.
"What are we going to do?" she said. "Are theygoing to catch us?"
"Not" Maggie set her jaw grimly. "Well have togo back fast – 2'
At that moment, faintly but distinctly, Cady said,"The tree."
Her eyes were half shut, her head was bowed,and she still looked as if she were in a trance. Butfor some reason Maggie felt she ought to listen to her.
"Hey, waitlook at this." They were standing at the foot of a huge Douglas fir. Its lowest brancheswere much too high to climb in the regular way,but a maple had fallen against it and remainedwedged, branches interlocked with the giant, forming a steep but climbable ramp. "We can go up."
`You're crazy, "Jeanne saidagain."We can't possibly hide here; they're going to go right by us. And besides, how does she even know there's a tree here?"
Maggie looked at Arcadia. It was a good question, but Cady wasn't answering. She seemed to bein a trance again.
"I don't know. But we can't just stand aroundand wait for them to come." The truth was that herinstincts were all standing up and screaming at her,and they said to trust. "Let's try it, okay? Come on,P.J.,can you climb that tree?"
Four minutes later they were all up. We're hiding in a Christmas tree, Maggie thoughtasshe lookedout between sprays of flat aromatic needles. Fromthis height she could see the road, which was justtwo wheel tracks with grass growing down the middle.
Just then the hunt arrived.
The dogs came first, dogsasbigasJake the Great Dane, but leaner. Maggie could see their ribsclearly defined under their short, dusty tan coats.Right behind them were people on horses.
Sylvia was at the front of the group.
She was wearing what looked like a gown splitfor riding, in a cool shade of glacier green. Trottingbeside her stirrup was Gavin, the blond slave traderwho'd chased Maggie and Cady yesterday and had run to tattle when Delos killed Bern with the blue fire.
Yeah, they're buddy-buddy all right, Maggiethought. But she didn't have time to dwell on it.Coming up fast behind Sylvia were two other people who each gave her a jolt, and she didn't knowwhich shock was worse.
One was Delos. He was riding a beautiful horse,so dark brown it was almost black, but with reddish highlights. He sat straight and easy in the saddle, looking every inch the elegant young prince.
The only discordant note was the heavy brace on his left arm.
Maggie stared at him, her heart numb.
He was after them. It was just as Jeanne hadsaid He was hunting them down with dogs. Andhe'd probably told Sylvia that he hadn't really killedtwo of the slaves.
Almost inaudibly, Jeanne breathed, "You see?"Maggie couldn't look at her.
Then she saw another rider below and froze inbewilderment.
It was Delos's father.
He looked exactly the way he had in Delos'smemories. A tall man, with bloodred hair and acold, handsome face. Maggie couldn't see his eyes at this distance, but she knew that they were afierce and brilliant yellow.
The old king. But he was deadMaggie was tooagitated to be cautious.
"Who is that? The redhaired man," she murmured urgently to Jeanne.
Jeanne answered almost without a sound."Hunter Redfern."
"It's not the king?"
Jeanne shook her head minutely. Then, whenMaggie kept staring at her, she breathed. "He'sDelos's greatgrandfather. He just came. I'll tell youabout it later."
Maggie nodded. And the next instant it wasswept out of her head as P.J.'s hand clutched at her and she felt a wave of adrenaline.
The party below was stopping.
The hounds turned and circled first, forming ahesitant clump not twenty feet down the road.
When the people pulled up their horses they werealmost directly below Maggie's tree.
"What is it?" the tall man said, the one Jeannehad called Hunter Redfern.
And then one of the hounds changed. Maggiecaught the movement out of the corner of her eyeand looked quickly, or she would have missed it.
The lean, wiry animal reared up, like a dog tryingto look over a fence. But when it reached its fullheight it didn't wobble or go back down. It steadied, and its entire dusty-tan body rippled.
Then, as if it were the most natural thing in theworld, its shoulders went back and its arms thickened. Its spine straightened and it seemed to gainmore height. Its tail pulled in and disappeared. Andits hound face melted and re-formed, the ears andmuzzle shrinking, the chin growing. In maybetwenty seconds the dog had become a boy, a boy who still wore patches of tan fur here and there,but definitely human-looking.
And he's got pants on, Maggie thought distractedly, even though her heart was pounding in herthroat. I wonder how they manage that?
The boy turned his head toward the riders. Maggie could see the ribs in his bare chest move withhis breathing.
"Something's wrong here," he said. "I can't followtheir life force anymore."
Hunter Redfern looked around."Are they blocking it?"
Gavin spoke up from beside Sylvia's stirrup.
"Bern said they were blocking it yesterday."
"Isn't that impossible?" Delos's cool voice camefrom the very back of the group, where he wasexpertly holdinghisnervous,dancinghorsein check. "If they're only humans?"
Hunter didn't move or blink an eye, but Maggiesaw a glance pass between.Sylvia and Gavin. Sheherself twisted her head slightly, just enough tolook at the other girls in the tree.
She wanted to see if Jeanne understood whatthey were talking about, but it was Cady whocaught her eye. Cady's eyes were shut, her headleaning against the dark furrowed trunk of the tree.Her lips were moving, although Maggie couldn'thear any sound.
And Jeanne was watching her with narrowedeyes and an expression of grim suspicion.
"Human vermin are full of surprises," Hunter Redfern was saying easily down below. "It doesn't matter. We'll get them eventually."
"They may be heading for the castle," Sylvia said."We'd better put extra guards at the gate."
Maggie noticed how Delos stiffened at that.
And so did Hunter Redfern, even though he waslooking the other way. He said calmly, "What do you think of that, Prince Delos?"
Delos didn't move for an instant. Then he said,"Yes. Do it." But he said it to a lean, bearded man beside him, who bowed his head in a quick jerk.
And he did something that made Maggie's heartgo cold.
He looked up at her.
The other people in his party, including the hounds, were looking up and down the road, orsideways into the forest at their own level. Deloswas the only one who'd been sitting quietly, lookingstraight ahead. But now he tilted his chin andturned an expressionless face toward the cluster ofbranches where Maggie was sitting.And met her gaze directly.
She saw the blaze of his yellow eyes, even at thisdistance. He was looking coolly and steadily-at her.
Maggie jerked back and barely caught herselffrom falling. Her heart was pounding so hard itwas choking her. But she didn't seem to be able to do anything but cling to her branch.
We're dead, she thought dizzily, pinned into immobility by those golden eyes. He's stronger thanthe rest of them; he's a Wild Power. And he couldsense us all along.
Now all they have to do is surround the tree. Wecan try to fight-but we don't have weapons. They'llbeat us in no time….
Go away.The voice gave her a new shock. It wasclear and unemotional-and it was in Maggie'shead.
Delos?she thought, staring into that burning gaze. You can-?
His expression didn't change. I told you before,but you wouldn't listen. What do I have to do to make you understand?
Maggie's heart picked up more speed. Delos, lis ten to me. I don't want I'm warning you,he said, and his mental voicewas like ice. Don't come to the castle. If you do, I won't protect you again.
Maggie felt cold to her bones, too numb to evenform words to answer him.
I mean it,he said. Stay away from the castle if you want to stay alive.
Then he turned away and Maggie felt the contactbetween them broken off cleanly. Where his presence had been she could feel emptiness.
"Let's go," he said in a short, hard voice, and spurred his horse forward.
And then they were all moving, heading on downthe path, leaving Maggie trying to keep hertrembling from shaking the tree.
When the last horse was out of sight, P.J. let outher breath, sagging. "I thought they had us," she whispered.
Maggie swallowed. "Me, too. But Cady was right.They went on by." She turned. "Just what was that stuff about us blocking them?"
Cady was still leaning her head against the treetrunk, and her eyes were still closed. But sheseemed almost asleep now-and her lips weren'tmoving.
Jeanne's eyes followed Maggie's. They were stillnarrowed, and her mouth was still tight with something like grim humor. But she didn't say anything.After a moment she quirked an eyebrow andshrugged minutely. "Who knows?"
Youknow, Maggie thought. At least more thanyou're telling me. But there was something elsebothering her, so she said, "Okay, then, what aboutthat guy who looks like Delos's father? HunterRedfern."
"He's a bigwig in the Night World," Jeanne said."Maybe the biggest. It was his son who foundedthis place back in the fourteen hundreds."
Maggie blinked. "In the what's?"
Jeanne's eyes glowed briefly, sardonically. "In thefourteen hundreds," she said with exaggerated pa tience."They'revampires,allright?Actually, they're lamia, which is the kind of vampire thatcan have kids, but that's not the point. The point is they're immortal, except for accidents."
"That guy has been alive more than five hundredyears," Maggie said slowly, looking down the pathwhere Hunter Redfern had disappeared.
"Yeah. And, yeah, everybody says how much helooks like the old king. Or the other way around,you know."
Delos sure thinks he looks like him, Maggiethought. She'd seen the way Hunter handled Delos,guiding him as expertly as Delos had guided hishorse. Delos was usedto obeying somebody wholooked and sounded just like Hunter Redfern.
Then she frowned. "Buthow come heisn'tking?"
"Oh…"Jeanne sighed and ducked under a sprayof fir needles that was tangled in her hair. She looked impatient and uneasy. "He's from the Outside, okay? He's only been here a couple of weeks. All the slaves say that he didn't even know aboutthis place before that.
'Me didn't know…"
"Look. This is the way I heard it from the oldslaves, okay? Hunter Redfern had a son namedChervil when he was really young. And when Cher vil was, like, our age, they had some big argumentand got estranged. And then Chervil ran off withhis friends, and that left Hunter Redfern withoutan heir. And Hunter Redfern never knew thatwhere the kid went was hem." Jeanne gesturedaround the valley. "To start his own little kingdom of Night People. But then somehow Hunter found out, so he came to visit. And that's why he's here."
She finished and stretched her shoulders, lookingdown the tree-ramp speculatively. P.J. sat quietly, glancing from Jeanne to Maggie. Cady justbreathed.
Maggie chewed her lip, not satisfied yet. "He'shere just to visit? That's all?"
"I'm a slave. You think I asked him personally?""I think you know."
Jeanne stared at her a moment, then glanced atP.J. Her look was almost sullen, but Maggieunderstood.
"Jeanne, she's been through hell already. Whatever it is, she can take it. Right, kiddo?"
P.J. twisted her plaid cap in a complete circleand settled it more firmly on her head. "Right," shesaid flatly.
"So tell us," Maggie said. "What's Hunter Redferndoing here?"