Black Dawn (Chapter 13)

I think," Jeanne said, "that he's here to get Delosto close the Dark Kingdom out Shut up the castleand come join him Outside. And, incidentally, ofcourse, kill all the slaves."

Maggie stared. 'Kill them all?'

"Well, it makes sense. Nobody would needthem anymore."

"And that's why you were escaping now," Maggiesaid slowly.

Jeanne gave her a quick, startled glance. "You'rereally not as stupid as you seem at first sight, you know?"

"Gee, thanks." Maggie shifted on her branch. Aminute ago she'd been thinking how good it would feel to get away from the twigs poking her. Now she suddenly wanted to stay here forever, hiding.She had a very bad feeling.

"So why," she said, forming her thoughtsslowly,"doesHunter Redfern want to do thisright now?"

"What do youthink? Really, Maggie, what do you know about all this?"

Four Wild Powers,Maggie thought, hearing Delos's old teacher's voice in her mind. Who willbeneeded at the millennium, to save the world-or todestroy it.

"I know that something's happening at the millennium, and that Delos is a Wild Power, and thatthe Wild Powers are supposed to do something-"

"Save the world," Jeanne said in a clipped voice."Except that that's not what the Night People want.They figure there's going to be some huge catastrophe that'll wipe out most of the humansand then they can take over. And that's why Hunter Redfern'shere. He wants the Wild Powers on his side insteadof on the humans'. He wants them to help destroythe human world instead of saving it. And it lookslike he's just about convinced Delos."

Maggie let out a shaky breath and leaned herhead against a branch. It was just like what Deloshad told her-except that Jeanne was an uninterested party. She still wanted not to believe it, but she had a terrible sinking feeling. In fact, she had a strange feeling of weight,as if something awfulwas trying to settle on her shoulders.

"The millennium really means the end of theworld," she said.

"Yeah. Our world, anyway."

Maggie glanced atP.J., who was swinging her thin legs over the edge of a branch. "You stillokay?"

P.J. nodded. She looked frightened, but not unbearably so. She kept her eyes on Maggie's face trustingly.

"And do youstill want to go to the castle?"Jeanne said, watching Maggie just as closely."Hunter Redfern is a very bad guy to mess with.And I hate to tell you, but your friend Prince Delosis out for our blood just like the rest of them."

"No, I don't still wantto go," Maggie said briefly. Her head went down and she gave Jeanne a brooding look under her eyelashes. `But I have to, anyway. I've got even more reasons now."

"Such as?"

Maggie held up a finger. "One, I've got to. gethelp for Cady." She glanced at the motionless figure clinging trancelike to the fir's trunk, then held upanother finger. "Two, I have to find out what happened to my brother." Another finger. "And, three,I have to get those slaves free before Hunter Redfern has them all killed."

"You have to what?"Jeanne said in a muffled shriek. She almost fell out of the tree.

"I kind of thought you'd react that way. Don'tworry about it. You don't have to get involved."

"I was wrong before. You areas dumbasyoulook. And you are totally freaking crazy."

Yeah, I know, Maggie thought grimly. It's probably justas well I didn't mention the fourth reason.

Which was that she had to keep Delos from aiding and abetting the end of the world. That wasthe responsibility that had settled on her, and she had no idea why it was hers except that she'd been inside his mind. She knew him. She couldn't justwalk away.

If anybody could talk to him about it and convince him not to do it, she could. She had absolutely no doubt about that. So it was her job to try.

And if he was really as evil as Jeanne seemed tothink-if it was true that he'd killed Miles… well, then she had a different job.

She had to do whatever was necessary to stophim. Distant and impossible as it seemed, shewould have to kill him if that was what it took.

"Come on," she said to the other girls. "Cady, do you think you can climb down now? And, Jeanne,do you know a way into the castle?"

The moat stank.

Maggie had been glad to find Jeanne knew a wayinto the castle. That was before she discovered that it involved swimming through stagnant water and climbing up what Jeanne called a garderobe butwhat was all too obviously the shaft of an oldlatrine.

"Just kill me, somebody," Maggie whispered halfway up. She was soaking wet and daubed with un thinkable slime. She couldn't remember ever beingquite this dirty.

The next moment she forgot about it in her worryabout Cady. Cady had managed the swim, still doing everything she was told asif she werein a trance. But now she was getting shaky. Maggiewondered seriously whether this sort of activity was helpful to somebody who'd been poisoned.

When they werefinally at the top of the shaft,Maggie looked around and saw a small room thatseemed to be built directly into the castle wall. Everything was made of dark stone, with a cold and echoing feel to it.

"Don't make any noise," Jeanne whispered. Shebent close to Maggie, who was helping support Cady.

"We need to go down a passage and throughthe kitchen, okay? It's all right if slaves see us, butwe have to watch out for them."

"We've got to get Cady to a healing woman-"

"I know! That's where I'm trying to take you."Jeanne clamped a hand on P.J.'s shoulder and steered her into a corridor.

More stone. More echoes. Maggie tried to walkwithout her shoes squishing or smacking. She wasdimly impressed with the castle itself-it was grandand cold and so huge that she felt like an insect making her way through the passage.

After what seemed like an endless walk, theyemerged in a small entryway partitioned off bywooden screens. Maggie could hear activity behind the screens andas Jeanne led them stealthily forward, she caught a glimpse of people moving onthe other side. They were spreading white tablecloths over long wooden tables in a room thatseemed bigger than Maggie's entire house.

Another doorway. Another passage. And finallythe kitchen, which was full of bustling people. Theywere stirring huge iron cauldrons and turning meaton spits. The smell of a dozen different kinds offood hit Maggie and made her feel faint. She was so hungry that her knees wobbled and she had to swallow hard.

But even more than hungry, she was scared. They were in plain sight of dozens of people.

"Slaves," Jeanne said shortly. "They won't tell onus. Grab a sack to wrap around you and come on.And, P.J.,take off that ridiculous hat."

Slaves, Maggie thought, staring. They were alldressed identically, in loose-fitting pants and topsthat were like short tunics. Jeanne was wearing thesame thing-it had looked enough like clothes from Outside that Maggie hadn't really focused on it before. What struck her now was that everybodylooked so… un-ironed. There were no sharp creases. And no real color. All the clothes were an indeterminate shade of beige-brown, and all thefaces seemed just as dull and faded They were like drones.

What would it be like to live that way? she wondered as she threw a rough sack around her shoulders to hide the dark blue of her jacket. Without any choice in what you do, and any hope for thefuture?

It would be terrible, she decided. And it mightjust drive you crazy.

I wonder if any of them ever …snap?

But she couldn't look around anymore. Jeanne was hustling through a doorway into the open air.There was a kind of garden here just outside the kitchen, with scraggly fnut trees and what lookedlike herbs. Then there was a courtyard andfinallya row of huts nestled against the high black wall that surrounded the castle.

"This is the really dangerous part," Jeanne whispered harshly. "It's the back, but if one of them looks out and sees us, we're in trouble. Keep yourhead down-and walk like this. Like a slave." Sheled them at a shufflingrun toward a hut.

This place is like a city, Maggie thought. A cityinside a wall, with the castle in the middle.

They reached the shack. Jeanne pulled the door open and bustled them inside. Then she shut the door again and sagged.

"I think we actually made it." She sounded surprised.

Maggie was looking around. The tiny room was dim, but she could see crude furniture and piles ofwhat looked like laundry. "This is it? We're safe?"

"Nowhere is safe," Jeanne said sharply. "But wecan get some slave clothes for you here, and we can rest. And I'll go get the healing woman," sheaddedas Maggie opened her mouth.

While she was gone, Maggie turned to Cady andP.J. They were both shivering. She made Cady lie down and had P.J. help her go through one of the piles of laundry.

"Get your wet things off," Maggie said. Shepulled off her own hightops and shrugged out ofher sodden jacket. Then she knelt to get Cady'sshoes off. The blind girl was lying motionless on athin pallet, and didn't respond to Maggie's touch.Maggie was worried about her.

Behind her, the door opened and Jeanne camein with two people. One was a gaunt and handsome woman, with dark hair pulled untidily back and anapron over her tunic and pants. The other was ayoung girl who looked frightened.

"This is Laundress." The way Jeanne said it, itwas clearly a proper name. "She's a healer, and the girl's her helper."

Relief washed through Maggie. "This is Cady,"she said. And then, since nobody moved and Cady couldn't speak for herself, she went on, "She's fromOutside, and she was poisoned by the slave traders. I'm not sure how long ago that was-at least a couple of days. She's been running a high fever andmost of the time she's just sort of sleepwalking-"

"What is this?" The gaunt woman took a step toward Cady, but her expression was anything but welcoming. Then she turned on Jeanne angrily."How could you bring this-thing-in here?"

Maggie froze where she was by Cady's feet."What are you talkingabout? She's sick-"

"She's one of them!" The woman's eyes wereburning darkly at Jeanne. "And don't tell me you didn't notice. It's perfectly plain!"

"What'sperfectly plain?" Maggie's fists were clenched. "Jeanne, what's she talking about?"

The woman's burning eyes turned on her. "Msgirl is a witch."

Maggie went still.

Part of her was amazed and disbelieving. Awitch? Like Sylvia? A Night Person?

Cady wasn't at all like that. She wasn't evil. Shewas normal,a nice, ordinary, gentle girl. She couldn'tbe anything supernatural….

But another part of Maggie wasn't even startled.It was saying that at some deep level she had known all along.

Her mind was bringing up pictures. Cady in thehollow tree, when she and Maggie were hidingfrom Bern and Gavin. Cady's lips moving and Gavin saying I can't feelthem at all.

The hound today had said the same thing. I can't

follow theirlifeforce anymore.

She was blocking them from sensing us, Maggiethought. And she was the one who told us to climbthe tree. She's blind, but she can see things.

It's true.

She turned slowly to look at the girl lying onthe pallet.

Cady was almost perfectly still, her breathingbarely lifting her chest. Her hair was coiled around her head like damp snakes, her face was smudgedand dirty, her lashes spiky on her cheeks. Butsomehow she hadn't lost any of her serene beauty. It remained untouched, whatever happened to herbody.

I don't care, Maggie thought. She may be a witch,but she's not like Sylvia. I know she's not evil.

She turned back to Laundress, and spoke carefully and deliberately.

"Look, I understand that you don't like witches.But this girl has been with us for two days, and allshe's done is help us. And, I mean, look at her!"Maggie lost her reasonable tone. "They were bring ing her here as a slave! She wasn't getting any special treatment. She's not on their side!"

"Too bad for her," Laundress said. Her voice wasflat and …plain. The voice of a woman who saw things in black and white and didn't like arguments.

And who knew how to back up her beliefs. Onebig gaunt hand, went beneath her apron, into a hid den pocket. When it came out again, it was gripping a kitchen knife.

"Wait a minute," Jeanne said.

Laundress didn't look at her. "Friends of witchesare no friends of ours," she said in her plain, heavyway.

"And that includes you."

With one motion, Jeanne wheeled away from herand into a fighting stance. "You're right. I knewwhat she was. I hated her, too, at first. But it's like Maggie told you. She's not going to hurt us!"

"I'm not going to miss a chance to kill one of them," Laundress said. "And if you try to stop me, you'll be sorry."

Maggie's heart was pounding. She looked backand forth from the tall woman, who was holdingthe knife menacingly, to Jeanne, who was crouchedwith her teeth bared and her eyes narrowed. They were ready to fight.

Maggie found herself in the middle of the room,in a triangle formed by Cady and Jeanne and theknife. She was too angry to be frightened.

"You put that down,"she said to Laundressfiercely, forgetting that she was speaking to anadult. "You're notgoingto do anything with that. How can you even try?"

Vaguely, she noticed movement behind the woman. The frightened young girl who hadn't saidanything so far was stepping forward. She was staring at Maggie, pointing at Maggie. Her eyes andmouth were wide open, but her voice was an indrawn breath.

"The Deliverer!"

Maggie hardly heard the gasped words. She wasrushing on. "If you people don't stick together,what kind of chance do you have? How can youever get free-"

��t's her!"This time the girl shrieked it, and nobody could help but hear. She clutched at Laundress's arm wildly. "You heard what she said,Laundress. She's come to free us."

"What are you talking a-?"Jeanne broke off, looking at Maggie with her eyebrows drawn together. Suddenly the eyebrows flew up and she straightened slightly from her crouch. "Hmm."

Maggie stared back. Then she followed all their eyes and looked down at herself in bewilderment.

For the first time since she'd arrived in the DarkKingdom she wasn't wearing her jacket and hershoes. She was wearing exactly what she'd beenwearing when her mother's screams woke her threedays beforeher flowered pajama top, wrinkled jeans, and mismatched socks.

"'She will come clothed in flowers, shod in blueand scarlet,"' the girl was saying. She was stillpointing at Maggie, but now it was with something like reverence. "'And she will speak of freedom.'You heard her, Laundress! It's her. She's the one!"

The knife trembled slightly. Maggie stared at thered knuckles of the hand holding it, then looked up at Laundress's face.

The blotchy features were grim and skepticalbut there was an odd gleam of half-stifled hope inthe eyes.

"Is she the one?" she said harshly toJeanne. "Is this idiot Soaker right? Did she say she'scome to deliver us?"

Jeanne opened her mouth, then shut it again.She looked helplessly at Maggie.

And, unexpectedly, P.J. spoke up. "She told usshe had to get the slaves free before Hunter Redfern had them all killed," she said in her light,strong child's voice. She was standing straight, her slender body drawn to its fullest height. Her blondhair shone pale above her small earnest face. Her words had the unmistakable ring of truth.

Something flashed in Jeanne's eyes. Her lipquirked, then she bit it. "She sure did. And I toldher she was crazy."

"And in the beginning, when Jeanne showed herwhat they do to escaped slaves here, Maggie said it had to stop." P.J.'s voice was still clear and confident. "She said she couldn't let them do thingslike that to people."

"She said we couldn't let them do things likethat," Jeanne corrected. "And she was crazy again.There's no way to stop them."

Laundress stared at her for a moment, then turned her burning gaze on Maggie. Her eyes wereso fierce that Maggie was afraid she was going to attack. Then, all at once, she thrust the knife backin her pocket.

`Blasphemer!" she said harshly to Jeanne. "Don'ttalk about the Deliverer that way! Do you want totake away our only hope?"

Jeanne raised an eyebrow. "Youwere the one about to take it away," she pointed out.

Laundress glared at her. Then she turned to Maggie and a change came over her gaunt features. Itwasn't much; they still remainedassevere and grim as ever, but there was something like a bleak smile twisting her mouth.

"If you are the Deliverer," she said, "you've gotyour work cut out for you."

"Just everybody hang on one second," Maggiesaid.

Her head was whirling. She understood whatwas going on – sort of. These people believed shewas some legendary figure come to save them. Because of a prophecy-they seemed to have a lot ofprophecies around here.

But she couldn't really be their Deliverer. She knew that. She was just an ordinary girl. Andhadn't anybody else ever worn a flowered top inthis place?

Well maybe not. Not a slave anyway. Maggie looked at Laundress's clothes again with new eyes.If they all wore this sort of thing, hand sewn and plain as a burlap sack, maybe a machine-made topwith bright colors and a little wilted lace would look like something from a legend.

And I bet nobody wears red and blue socks, shethought and almost smiled. Especially at once.

She remembered how Sylvia had looked at them. Normally she would have been terribly embarrassed by that, perfect Sylvia looking at her imperfections. But the socks had been what started heron this whole journey by convincing her that Sylviawas lying. And just now they'd saved her life. IfLaundress had attacked Jeanne or Cady, Maggie would have had to fight her.

But I'm still not the Deliverer, she thought. I haveto explain that to them….

"And since she's the Deliverer, you're going tohelp us, right?" Jeanne was saying. "You're going to heal Cady and feed us and hide us and everything? And help Maggie find out what happened toher brother?"

Maggie blinked, then grimaced. She could see Jeanne looking at her meaningfully. She shut hermouth.

"I'll help you any way I can," Laundress said."But you'd better do your part. Do you have a plan, Deliverer?"

Maggie rubbed her forehead. Things were happening very fast-but even if she wasn't the Deliverer, she hadcome to help the slaves get free. Maybe it didn't matter what they called her.

She looked at Cady again, then at Jeanne, and at P.J., who was staring at her with shining confidence in her young eyes. Then she looked at thegirl named Soaker, who was wearing the sameexpression.

Finally she looked into the gaunt, hard-bittenface of Laundress. There was no easy confidencehere, but there was that half-stifled look of hopedeep in the burning gaze.

"I don't have a plan yet," she said. "But Ill comeup with one. And I don't know if I can really helpyou people. But I'll try."