Black Dawn (Chapter 6)

Because there's no point. She's as good as dead already." Jeanne's expression was as hard andclosedas it had been in the beginning.

"But – "

"Can't you see? She'd slow us down. There's noway she could run without help. And besides that,P.J. says she's blind."

Blind. A new little shock went though Maggie.What would that be like, to be in this situation andsick and blind on top of it?

She tugged on the girl's shoulder gently, tryingto see the averted face.

But she's beautiful.

The girl had smooth skin the color of coffee with cream, delicate features, high cheekbones, perfectlips. Her black hair was pulled into a loose, glossyknot on her neck. Her eyes were shut, long eye lashes tremblingas if she were dreaming.

It was more than just the physical features,though. There was a serenity about this girl's face,a gentleness and stillness that was … unique.

"Hey, there," Maggie said softly. "Can you hearme? I'm Maggie. What's your name?"

The girl's eyelashes fluttered; her lips parted. ToMaggie's surprise, she murmured something. Maggie had to lean down close to catch it.

"Arcadia?" she repeated. It was a strange name; she wasn't sure she'd heard right.

The girl seemed to nod, murmuring again.

She can hear me, Maggie thought. She canrespond.

"Okay. Can I call you Cady? Listen to me, Cady."Maggie shook the girl's shoulder slightly. "We're ina bad place but we're going to try to escape. If we help you out, do you think you can run?"

Again, the eyelashes fluttered. Then the eyesopened.

Doe eyes, Maggie thought, startled. They wereextraordinarily large and clear, a warm brown withan inner radiance. And they might be blind, butMaggie had the oddest sensation that she had justbeen seen more clearly than ever before in her life.

"I'll try," Cady murmured. She sounded dazedand in pain, but quietly rational. "Sometimes I feelstrong for a little while." She pushed herself up. Maggie had to help her get into a sitting position.

She's tall. But she's pretty light…and I've gotgood muscles. I can support her.

"What are you doing?"Jeanne said in a voice thatwas not just harsh and impatient but horrified. "Don't you see? You're only making it worse. You should just have let her sleep."

Maggie glanced up. "Look. I don't know whatyou're thinking, but we can't leave anybody with them. How would you like to be left behind if itwas you?"

Jeanne's face changed. For a moment, she lookedmore like a savage animal than a girl. "I'd understand," she snarled. "Because that's the way it has to be. It's the law of the jungle, here. Only strongpeople survive. The weak ones … ."She shook her head. "They're better off dead. And the faster youlearn that, the more chance you'll have."

Maggie felt a spurt of horror and anger-and,fear. Because Jeanne clearly knew the most about this place, and Jeanne might be right. They mightall get caught because of one weak person who wouldn't make it anyway….

She turned and looked at the lovely face again.Arcadia was Miles's age, eighteen or nineteen. And although she seemed to hear what Jeanne was say

ing-she'd turned her face that way-she didn'tspeak or argue. She didn't lose her still gentleness, either.

I can't leave her. What if Miles is alive but hurtsomewhere, and somebody won't help him?

Maggie shot a glance at P.J. in her baseball cap.She was young-she might be able to take care ofherself, but that was all.

"Look, this isn't your problem," she finally saidto Jeanne. "You just help P.J. get away safe, okay?You take care of her, and III be responsible for Cady."

"You'll be caught with Cady," Jeanne said flatly."Don't worry about it."

"I'm not. And I'm telling you right now; I'm notgoing to help you if you get in trouble."

"I don't want you to," Maggie said. She lookedright into Jeanne's angry eyes. "Really. I don't wantto wreck your chances, okay? But I'm not going toleave her."

Jeanne looked furious for another moment; thenshe shrugged. All the emotion drained from herface as if she were deliberately distancing herself.The bond she and Maggie had shared for that brief moment was severed.

She turned, looked through a crack behind her,then turned back.

"Fine," she said in a dull, indifferent tone. "Whatever you're going to do, you'd better get ready todo it now. Because the place is coming right up."

"Ready?" Maggie said.

They were all standing-or crouching, actually,since there wasn't room to straighten up-withtheir backs against the walls of the cart. Jeanneand P.J. on one side, Maggie on the other, with Cady in the corner.

"When I say go, you guys jump over here. Thenall of us throw ourselves back that way," Maggie whispered.

Jeanne was peering out of the crack. "Okay, thisis it," she said. "Now."

Maggie said,"Go!"

She had been a little worried that P.J. would freeze. But the moment the word was out of Maggie's mouth, Jeanne launched herself across thecart, crashing heavily into her, and P.J. followed.

ThecartrockedsurprisinglyhardandMaggieheard the groan of wood.

"Back!" she yelled, and everybody lunged the other way. Maggie hit a solid wall and knew shewould have bruises, but the cart rocked again.

"Come on!" she yelled, and realized that they were all already coming on, throwing themselvesto the other side in perfect sync. It was as if someflocking instinct had taken over and they were all three moving as one, throwing their weight alter nately back and forth.

And the cart was responding, grinding to a halt and lurching off balance. It was like one of thoseparty tricks where five or six people each use only two fingers to lift someone on a chair. Their combined force was impressive.

But not enough to tip the cart over. It was surprisingly well-balanced. And at any minute, Maggie realized, the people driving it were going to jumpout and put a stop to it.

"Everybody-come on! Really hard! Really hard!"She was yelling as if she were encouraging her soccer team. "We've got to do it, now."

She launched herself at the other side as the cartbegan to sway that way, jumping as highas shecould, hitting the wallas it reached the farthestpoint of its rock. She could feel the other girlsflinging themselves with her, she could hear Jeanne giving a primal yell as she crashed into the wood.

And then there was a splintering sound, amazingly loud, amazingly long. A sort of groaning and shrieking that came from the wood itself, and aneven louder scream of panic that Maggie realizedmust have come from the horses. The whole world was,Run, Maggie thought. Stop looking now. Run.

She ran into the forest, dragging Cady with her. They had to find a place to hide – underbrush or something. Maybe they could climb a tree….

But one look at Cady and she realized how stupid thatidea was. The smooth skin of the girl's facewas clammy and luminous with sweat, her eyeswere half shut, and her chest was heaving.

At least Jeanne and P.J. got away, Maggiethought.

Just then there was a crashing behind her, and a voice cursing. Maggie threw another glance backand found herself staring at a man's figure in the mist.

A scary man. The mist swirling behind him madehim look eerie, supernatural, but it was more thanthat. He was huge,with shouldersasbroad as a two-by-four, a massive chest, and heavily muscledarms. His waist was surprisingly narrow. His face was cruel.

"Gavin! I've got two of them!" he shouted.Maggie didn't wait to hear more. She took offlike a black-tailed deer.

And for a long time after that it was just a nightmare of running and being chased, stopping sometimes when she couldn't hold Cady up anymore, looking for places to hide. At one point, she andCady were pressed together inside a hollow tree,trying desperately to get their breath back withoutmaking a sound, when their pursuers passed right by them. Maggie heard the crunch and squish offootsteps on ferns and started praying. She couldfeel Cady's heart beating hard, shaking them both, she realized that Cady's lips were moving soundlessly.

Maybe she's praying, too, Maggie thought,t, andapplied her eye to a crack in the tree.

There were two people there, horribly close, justa few feet away. One was the man she'd seen before he was doing something bizarre, somethingthat sent chills up her spine. He was turning his face this way and that with his eyes shut, his head twisting on a surprisingly long and supple neck.

As if he's smellingus out, Maggie thought, horrified.

Eyes still shut, the man said, "Do you sense anything?"

"No. I can't feel them at all. And I can't see them,with these trees for cover." It was a younger manwho spoke, a boy really. He must be Gavin, Maggiethought. Gavin had dark blond hair, a thin nose, a sharp chin. His voice was impatient.

"I can't feel them either," the big man said flatly,refusing to be hurried. "And that's strange. Theycan't have gotten too far away. They must beblocking us."

"I don't care what they're doing," Gavin said."We'd better get them back fast. It's not like theywere ordinary slaves. If we don tdeliver that maiden we're dead. You're dead, Bern."

Maiden? Maggie thought. I guess in a placewhere they have slaves it's not weird to talk aboutmaidens. But which girl does he mean? Not me;I'm not important.

"We'll get her back," Bern was saying.

"We'd better," Gavin said viciously. "Or I'm goingto tell her that it was your fault. We were supposedto make sure this didn't happen."

"It hasn't happened yet," Bern said. He turned onhis heel and walked into the mist. Gavin staredafter him for a moment, and then followed.

Maggie let out her breath. She realized that Cady's lips had stopped moving.

"Let's go," she whispered, and took off in the opposite direction to the one the men had gone.

Then there was a time of endless running andpausing and listening and hiding. The forest was aterrible place. Around them was eerie twilight,made even spookier by the mist that lay in hollowsand crept over fallen trees. Maggie felt as if she were in some awful fairy tale. The only good thingwas that the dampness softened their footsteps,making it hard to track them.

But it was so quiet. No ravens, no gray jays. No deer. Just the mist and the trees, going on forever.And then it ended.

Maggie and Cady suddenly burst out into an-.other meadow. Maggie gavea frantic glancearound, looking for shelter. Nothing. The mist was thinner here, she could see that there were no trees ahead, only an outcrop of rocks.

Maybe we should double back….

But the voices were shouting in the forest behind them.

Above the rocks was a barren ledge. It lookedlike the end of a path, winding the other way down the mountain.

If we could get there, we'd be safe, Maggiethought. We could be around the corner in a minute, and out of sight.

Dragging Cady, she headed for the rocks. Theydidn't belong here; they were huge granite boulders deposited by some ancient glacier. Maggie clambered up the side of one easily, then leaned down.

"Give me your hand," she said rapidly. "There sa path up above us, but we've got to climb a little."

Cady looked at her.

Or-not looked, Maggie supposed. But she turned her face toward Maggie, and once again Maggie had the odd feeling that those blind eyescould somehow see better than most people's.

"You should leave me," Cady said.

"Don't be stupid," Maggie said. "Hurry up, giveme your hand."

Cady shook her head. "You go," she said quietly.She seemed completely rational-and absolutely exhausted. She hadn't lost the tranquility whichhad infused her from the beginning, but now itseemed mixed with a gentle resignation. Her fineboned face was drawn with weariness. "I`ll justslow you down. And if I stay here, you'll have moretime to get away."

"I'm not going to leave you!" Maggie snapped."Come on!" Arcadia remained for just a second, her faceturned up to Maggie's, then her clear and luminousbrown eyes filled. Her expression was one of inexpressible tenderness. Then she shook her headslightly and grabbed Maggie's hand-very accurately.

Maggie didn't waste. time. She climbed as fastasshe could, pulling Cady, rapping out breathless instructions. But the delay had cost them. She could hear the men getting nearer.

And when she reached the far end of the pile ofboulders she saw something that sent shock waves through her system.

She was looking up a barren cliff face. There wasno connection from the rocks to the ledge above.And below her, the hillside dropped off steeply, ahundred feet down into a gorge.

She'd led Cady right into a trap.

There was nowhere else to go.