Black Dawn (Chapter 7)
No time to double back to the forest, either.
They're going to get us, Maggie realized.
"Get down," she whispered to Cady. There wasahollow at the base of the boulder pile. It would only hold one of them, but at least it was shelter.
Even as she shoved Cady down into it, she hearda shout from the edge of the forest.
Maggie pressed flat against the rock. It was slippery with moss and lichen and she feltasexposed as a lizard on a wall. All she could do was hang onand listen to the sounds of two men getting closer and closer.
And closer, until Maggie could hear harshbreathing on the other side of the boulders.
"It's a dead end-" Gavin's young voice began.
"No. They're here." And that, of course, was Bern.
And then there was the most horrible sound inthe world. The grunts of somebody climbing uprock.
Maggie looked around desperately for a weapon.
To her own amazement, she found one, lyingthere as if it had been left especially for her. A dried branch wedged in between the rocks aboveher. Maggie reached for it, her heart beating fast.It was heavier than it looked-the climate must be too wet here for anything to really dry out.
And the rocks are wet, too. Wet and slippery.And there's one good thing about this place-they'llhave to come at us one at a time. Maybe I can push them off, one by one.
"Stay put," she whispered to Cady, trying to makeher breath last to the end of that short sentence."I've got an idea."
Cady looked beyond exhaustion. Her beautifulface was strained, her arms and legs were shakenby a fine trembling, and she was breathing in silentshudders. Her hair had come loose in a dark curtain around her shoulders.
Maggie turned back, her heart beating in her throat and her fingertips, and watched the top of the boulders.
But when what she was watching for actually came, she felt a terrible jolt,asif it were completely unexpected. She couldn't believe that she was seeing the close-cropped top of a man's head, then the forehead, then the cruel face. Bern. He wasclimbing like a spider, pulling himself by his fingertips. His huge shoulders appeared, then his barrel chest.
And he was looking right at Maggie. His eyes methers, and his lips curved in a smile.
Adrenaline washed over Maggie. She felt almost disengaged from her body, as if she might floataway from it. But she didn't faint. She stayed motionless as the terror buzzed through her like electricity-and she tightened her grip on the stick.
Bern kept smiling, but his eyes were dark andexpressionless. As she looked into them, Maggiehad no sense of connecting to another mind likehers.
He's not human. He's… something else, a distant part of her mind said with absolute conviction.
And then one of his legs came up, bulging withmuscle under the jeans, and then he was pullinghimself to stand, looming over her, towering likea mountain.
Maggie braced herself, gripping the stick. "Stay away from us."
"You've caused me a lot of trouble already," Bernsaid. "Now I'm going to show you something."
There was a little noise behind her. She glancedback in alarm and saw that it was Cady, trying toget up.
"Don't," Maggie said sharply. Cady couldn't, anyway. After a moment of trying to pull herself outof the hollow, she slumped down again, eyes shut.
Maggie turned back to see Bern lunging at her.
She thrust the stick out. It was completely instinctive. She didn't go for his head or his midsection; she jabbed at a fist-sized pit near his feet,turning the stick into a barrier to trip him.
It almost worked.
Bern's foot caught underneath it and his lunge became uncontrolled. Maggie saw him start to unbalance. But he wasn't the huge muscle-bound apehe looked like. In an instant he was recovering, throwing his weight sideways, jamming a foot toarrest his fall.
Maggie tried to get the stick unwedged, to use itagain, but Bern was fast.He wrenched it out of herhand, leaving splinters in her palm. Then he threwit overhand, like a lance. Maggie heard it hit the ledge behind her with explosive force.
She tried to dodge, but it was already too late. Bern's big hand flashed forward, and then he hadher.
He was holding her by both arms, looming overher.
"You trying to mess with me?" he asked in disbelief. "With me?Take a look at this."
His eyes weren't cold and emotionless now.Anger was streaming from him like the strong, hot.scent of an animal. And then…
It was like nothing Maggie had ever seen. She was staring at his face, trying to look defiant, whenthe features seemed to ripple. The coarse dark hair on his head moved, waves of it spreading downhis face like fungus growing across a log. Maggie'sstomach lurched in horror and she was afraid shewas going to be sick, but she couldn't stop looking.
His eyes got smaller, the brown irises flowing outto cover the white. His nose and mouth thrust forward and his chin collapsed. Two rounded ears uncurled like awful flowers on top of his head. Andwhen Maggie was able to drag her eyes from hisface, she saw that his body had re-formed into ashapeless, hulking lump. His broad shoulders weregone, his waist was gone, his long legs bulging with muscle were squat little appendages close to the ground.
He was still holding Maggie tightly, but not withhands. With coarse paws that had claws on the ends and that were unbelievably strong. He wasn't a person at all anymore, but something huge andvaguely person-shaped. He was a black bear, andhis shiny little pig-eyes stared into hers with animal enjoyment. He had a musky feral smell that got into Maggie's throat and made her gag.
I just saw a shapeshifter shift shape, Maggiethought with an astonishment that seemed dim andfaraway. She was sorry she'd doubted Jeanne.
And sorry she'd blown it for Cady-and Miles. Sylvia had been right. She was just an ordinary girl, only maybe extraordinarily stupid.
Down on the lower boulders, Gavin was laughingmaliciously, watching as if this were a footballgame.
The bear opened his mouth, showing ivory-whiteteeth, darker at the roots, and lots of saliva. Maggiesaw a string of it glisten on the hair of his jowl.She felt the paws flex on her arms, scooping hercloser, and then Lightning hit.
That was what it looked like. A flash that blindedher,as bright as the sun, but blue. It crackled infront of her eyes, seeming to fork again and again,splitting and rejoining the main body of its energy. It seemed alive.
It was electrocuting the bear.
The animal had gone completely rigid, his headthrown back, his mouth open farther than Maggiewould have believed possible. The energy hadstruck him just below what would have been theneck on a man.
Dimly, Maggie was aware of Gavin making a thinsound of terror. His mouth was open as wide as Bern's, his eyes were fixed on the lightning.
But it wasn't lightning. It didn't strike and stop. It kept on crackling into Bern, its form changingevery second. Little electrical flickers darted through his bristling fur, crackling down his chestand belly and up around his muzzle. Maggie almostthought she could see blue flames in the cavern of his mouth.
Gavin gave a keening, inhuman scream and scrambled backward off the rocks, running.
Maggie didn't watch to see where he went. Hermind was suddenly consumed with one thought.
She had to make Bern let go of her.
She had no idea what was happening to him, butshe did know that he was being killed. And thatwhen he was dead he was going to topple off the mountain and take her with him.
She could smell burning now, the stink of smok ing flesh and fur, and she could actually see whitewisps rising from his coat. He was being cooked from the inside out.
I have to do something fast.
She squirmed and kicked, trying to get out of thegrip of the paws that seemed to clutch her reflexively. She pushed and shoved at him, trying to get him to loosen his hold just an inch. It didn't work.
She felt as if she were being smothered by a bearskin rug, a horrible-smelling pelt that was catchingon fire. Why the lightning wasn't killing her, too,she didn't know. All she knew was that she wasbeing crushed by his size and his weight and thatshe was going to die.
And then she gave a violent heave and kicked ashard as she could at the animal's lower belly. Shefelt the shock of solid flesh as her shin connected. And, unbelievably, she felt him recoil, stumblingback, his huge forelegs releasing her.
Maggie fell to the rock, instinctively spreadeagling and grabbing for holds to keep from slidingdown the mountain. Above her, the bear stood andquivered for another second, with that impossibly bright blue energy piercing him like a lance. Then,just as quickly as it had come, the lightning wasgone. The bear swayed for a moment, then fell likea marionette with cut strings.
He toppled backwards off the cliff into thin air.Maggie caught a brief glimpse of him hitting rockand bouncing and falling again, and then sheturned her face away.
Her closed lids were imprinted with a blazingconfusion of yellow and black afterimages. Herbreath was coming so fast that she felt dizzy. Herarms and legs were weak.
What the hell was that?
The lightning had saved her life. But it was stillthe scariest thing she'd ever seen.
Some kind of magic. Pure magic. If I were doinga movie and I needed a special effect for magic, that's what I'd use.
She slowly lifted her head.
It had come from the direction of the ledge.When she looked that way, she saw the boy.
He was standing easily, doing something with hisleft arm-tying a handkerchief aroundaspot ofblood at the wrist, it looked like. His face wasturned partially away from her.
He's not much older than me, Maggie thought,startled. Or-is he? There was something abouthim, an assurance in the way he stood, a grim competence in his movements. It made him seem likean adult.
And he was dressed like somebody at a Renaissance Faire. Maggie had been to one in Oregon two summers ago, where everyone wore costumes fromthe Middle Ages and ate whole roast turkey legsand played jousting games. This boy was wearingboots and a plain dark cape and he could havewalked right in and started sword fighting.
On the streets of Seattle Maggie would havetaken one look at him and grinned herself silly.Here, she didn't have the slightest urge to smile.
The Dark Kingdom, she thought. Slaves andmaidens and shapeshiftersand magic. He's probably a wizard. What have I gotten myself into?
Her heart was beating hard and her mouth wasso dry that her tongue felt like sandpaper. But therewas something stronger than fear inside her.Gratitude.
"Thank you,"she said.
He didn't even look up. "For what?" He had aclipped, brusque voice.
"For saving us. I meanyou did that, didn't you?"
Now he did look up, to measure her with a cool,unsympathetic expression. "Did what?" he said in those same unfriendly tones.
But Maggie was staring at him, stricken withsudden recognition that danced at the edges of hermind and then moved tantalizingly away.
I had a dream – didn't I? And there was somebody like you in it. He looked like you, but hisexpression was different. And he said…he saidthat something was important….
She couldn't remember! And the boy was stillwatching her, waiting impatiently.
"That …thing." Maggie wiggled her fingers, trying to convey waves of energy. "That thing thatknocked him off the cliff. You did that."
"The blue fire. Of course I did. Who else has thePower? But I didn't do it for you." His voice waslike a cold wind blowing at her.
Maggie blinked at him.
She had no idea what to say. Part of her wantedto question him, and another part suddenly wantedto slug him. A third part, maybe smarter than boththe others, wanted to run the way Gavin had.
Curiosity won out. "Well, why did you do it,then?" she asked.
The boy glanced down at the ledge he was standing on. "He threw a stick at me. Wood. So I killedhim." He shrugged. "Simple asthat."
He didn't throw it at you, Maggie thought, butthe boy was going on.
`Z couldn't care less what he was doing to you.You're only a slave. He was onlya shapeshifterwith the brain of a bear. Neither of you matter."
"Well-it doesn't matter why you did it. It stillsaved both of us-" She glanced at Arcadia for con firmation-and broke off sharply.
"Cady?" Maggie stared, then scrambled over therocks toward the other girl.
Arcadia was still lying in the hollow, but her body was now limp. Her dark head sagged tonelessly on her slender neck. Her eyes were shut; theskin over her face was drawn tight.
"Cady! Can you hear me?"
For a horrible second she thought the older girlwas dead. Then she saw the tiny rise and fall ofher chest and heard the faint sound of breathing.
There was a roughness to the breathing thatMaggie didn't like. And at this distance she couldfeel the heat that rose from Cady's skin.
She's got a high fever. All that running andclimbing made her sicker. She needs help, fast.
Maggie looked backupat the boy.
He had finished with the handkerchief and wasnow taking the top off some kind of leather bag.
Suddenly Maggie's eyes focused. Not a leatherbag; a canteen. He was tilting it up to drink.
All at once she was aware of her thirst again. Ithad been shoved to the back of her mind, a con stant pain that could be forgotten while she wastrying to escape from the slave traders. But now it was like a raging fire inside her. It was the most important thing in the world.
And Arcadia needed it even more than she did."Please," she said. "Can we have some of that?
Could you drop it to me? I can catch it."
He looked at her quickly, not startled but withcool annoyance. "And how am I supposed to getit back?"
"I'll bring it to you. I can climb up."`"You can't," he said flatly.
She climbed up. It was as easy as she'd thought;plenty of good finger-and toeholds.
When she pulled herself up onto the ledge besidehim, he shrugged, but there was reluctant respect in his eyes.
"You're quick," he said. "Here." He held out theleather bag.
But Maggie was simply staring. This close, thefeeling of familiarity was overwhelming.
It was you in my dream, she thought. Not justsomebody like you.
She recognized everything about him. That supple, smoothly muscled body, and the way he hadof standing as if he were filled with tightly leashed tension. That dark hair with the tiny waves springing out where it got unruly. That taut, grim face, those high cheekbones, that willful mouth.
And especially the eyes. Those fearless, blacklashed yellow eyes that seemed to hold endless layers of clear brilliance. That were windows on thefiercely intelligent mind behind them.
The only difference was the expression. In thedream, he had been anxious and tender. Here, he seemed joyless and bitter …and cold. As if hisentire being were coated with a very thin layer of ice.
But it was you, Maggie thought. Not just somebody like you, because I don't think thereis anybody like you.
Still lost in her memories, she said, "I'm MaggieNeely. What's your name?"
He looked taken aback. The golden eyes widened,then narrowed. "How dare you ask?" he rapped out. He sounded quite natural saying "How dareyou," although Maggie didn't think she'd ever heardanybody say it outside of a movie.
"I had a dream about you," Maggie said. "Atleast it wasn't me having the dream; it was moreasif it was sent to me." She was remembering details now. "You kept telling me that I had to dosomething….' ?
"I don't give a damn about your dreams," the boysaid shortly. "Now, do you want the water or not?"
Maggie remembered how thirsty she was. Shereached out for the leather bag eagerly.
He held onto it, not releasing it to her. "There'sonly enough for one," he said, still brusque. "Drink it here."
Maggie blinked. The bag did feel disappointinglyslack in her grip. She tugged at it a little and hearda faint slosh.
"Cady needs some, too. She's sick."
"She's more than sick. She's almost gone. There'sno point in wasting any on her."
I can't believe I'm hearing this again, Maggiethought. He's just like Jeanne.
She tugged at the bag harder. "If I want to share with her, that's my business, right? Why should it matter to you?"
"Because it's stupid. There's only enough forone."
"Look – !'
"You're not afraid of me, are'you?" he saidabruptly. The brilliant yellow eyes were fixed onher as if he could read her thoughts.
It was strange, but she wasn'tafraid, not exactly.Or, she was afraid, but something inside her wasmaking her go on in spite of her fear.
"Anyway, it's my water," he said. "And I saythere's only enough for one. You were stupid to tryand protect her before, when you could have gotten away. Now you have to forget about her."
Maggie had the oddest feeling that she was beingtested. But there was no time to figure out for what,or why.
"Fine. It's your water," she said, making her voicejust as clipped as his. "And there's only enough for one." She pulled at the bag harder, and this timehe let go of it.
Maggie turned from him, looked down at theboulders where Cady was lying. She judged the distance carefully, noting the way one boulder formeda cradle.
Easy shot. It'll rebound and wedge in that crack,she thought. She extended her arm to drop the bag.
"Wait!" The voice was harsh and explosive-andeven more harsh was the iron grip that clampedon her wrist.
"What do you think you're doing?" the boy saidangrily, and Maggie found herself looking intofierce yellow eyes.