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       Tortured, p.2

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  “Feeling any better? That first dose of morphine should have kicked in,” Myrna asked, taking the stool again.

  He was.

  The food was helping, too. Mabrother Cho handed him another bowl of soup and more bread. Then he set before Leon a saucer with a few of the cinnamon-and-sugar-coated apple slices. “You always liked these,” he said.

  Leon looked up, noting the cook’s kindly expression.

  “You know each other,” Genevieve said, as if she were just figuring that out.

  “More or less,” Mabrother Cho said, smiling. “He used to sneak down here nights when he was little, now and again. Your boy here’s made lots of friends I suspect you’ve never known about.”

  Leon reached for an apple slice and bit into the sweetness. “Not so many,” Leon said.

  “Enough that you’ll be missed,” Mabrother Cho said. “Don’t be gone forever, Mabrother.”

  Leon didn’t know what to say. He had no idea what he might find in the wasteland or if anything lay beyond it. It seemed unlikely he’d ever come back. He watched while his mother and Mabrother Cho packed food and supplies in the pack: mycoprotien, dried fruit, cheese, a little tea, flatbread, and a canister of baby formula. They added matches, a candle, flint and steel, a small pot, and a knife. Mabrother Cho filled four lightweight, metal canteens, capped them, and looped them to a sturdy belt.

  How many supplies had Gaia taken? Leon wondered. How long could she last on what she could carry? And she had the baby, too. The thought made him impatient to leave.

  “You want a blanket?” Genevieve asked. “It’ll get cold at night when the sun goes down. I can pack it small.”

  “All right,” he said.

  “A hat,” Myrna said.

  “I have one here,” Genevieve said, offering a beige one with a wide brim.

  Myrna showed him where she was putting medical supplies in the outer pouch of his pack. “Your back will start to itch when it’s healing,” she said. “You won’t win any prizes for enduring the pain. Use the morphine, and keep up with the antibiotics.” She shook a small container. “Two pills a day until they’re all gone. Promise me.”

  He lifted the bottle to eye the contents. “If I outlast them.”

  “Don’t say that,” Genevieve said.

  He glanced across the table to her. His mother stood with her shoulders proudly straight, but he could see the fear and stress in her troubled gaze. He accepted her help with putting on the shirt, which billowed slightly behind him. Then he dipped his head into the strap of his pack, straightening to lift its weight and shift it to the most comfortable place along his chest.

  Genevieve reached for the water belt and slung it over her shoulder. “I can take this as far as the wall for you.”

  He didn’t argue with her. Donning his hat, he took a last glance down at the table with its bowl of reddish water, the dirty towel, and Myrna’s tools. Myrna was regarding him gravely, but she held out a hand to shake his.

  “Good luck,” she said simply.

  Mabrother Cho lifted a hand in silent farewell.

  Strangely moved, Leon reached past the cook to snag a last slice of apple from the bowl.

  “Thanks,” he said.

  The cook gave a twisted smile. “Get going, then.”

  Leon followed Genevieve out the back door of the kitchen, past the rubbish barrels and the empty crates left from deliveries. The night was edging toward dawn, and Genevieve’s white sweater was visible as muted gray over her slender form, sliced by the black of the belt and canteens over her shoulder. As they headed uphill, side by side through the dim, cobblestone streets, he watched warily for guards, still not trusting that he was safe with his mother. The open space of Summit Park was quiet except for a lone cricket, and from that elevation, the high point of the Enclave, he had a view out toward the wasteland, where the horizon was visible as a line of gray meeting with faint pink above. Vast seemed the wasteland, and trackless. Finding Gaia was going to be nearly impossible.

  The alternative was staying in the Enclave and waiting for the moment his adoptive father decided to put an end to him once and for all.

  They left the park and headed down the last curving streets. The occasional streetlights flickered on as they approached, triggered by sensors. At one corner, a mute camera was aimed at the intersection.

  “He’s watching us go, isn’t he?” Leon asked.

  “Yes,” Genevieve said. “He’ll paint you as a coward and a traitor, but you’ll be safe. You’ll be gone.”

  He glanced at her profile. “He can’t be very happy with you,” he said.

  “I’m not very pleased with him, either,” she said, and smiled. “Don’t worry about me.”

  He considered that. “I will, though.”

  She laughed briefly. “Just so you know, Emily turned in the ledgers tonight. I just heard, when I was gathering your things.”

  “Did they give back her baby?”

  “No. Miles advanced the baby. He thinks she had a copy of the birth records made. She had enough time.”

  Leon stared ahead to where the wall that surrounded the Enclave was coming into view. Gaia’s friend Emily must be frantic about her advanced son, and she’d be helpless against the injustice of the Enclave. He was glad Gaia didn’t know, for he was certain she would blame herself if she did.

  “See what you can do about that,” Leon said.

  “I will. I’ll try. But we also need to be sure our children are secure.”

  “It proves Gaia didn’t take the ledgers with her,” Leon said. “I know.”

  “So will he call off the search for her?”

  “That I don’t know. She’s still a criminal for stealing them in the first place,” Genevieve said.

  “Advancing the babies in the first place, though,” he said dryly. “That doesn’t count as theft?”

  “You know it doesn’t,” Genevieve said. “That’s completely different.”

  “Tell that to Emily.”

  “No, you think it over yourself,” she said, “and imagine what your life would have been like if we hadn’t raised you.”

  He laughed bitterly. “You can still say that, when my father has just had me tortured for four days?”

  She paused, and he was compelled to turn beside her. “I’m not going to try to excuse him,” she said. “But can we not argue about him? Just for now?”

  He could make out her eyes enough to see how troubled she was. His feelings for her were confused by the bitterness he felt towards the Protectorat and her own complicity in his cruelty. On the other hand, she was likely the only one in the Enclave who had the power to save him from his father, at what personal cost to her own well-being, he couldn’t guess. He couldn’t stay hardened against his mother, not when they only had a few more minutes together.

  “All right,” he said.

  “Thank you.”

  The North Gate, seldom used, was smaller than South Gate but it, too, was patrolled by the requisite guards. They nodded at Genevieve as if expecting her, and when they opened the tall wooden gate, Leon passed under the arch to the outside. He glanced behind him for the last time, at the quiet, tree-lined street and the lightless towers of the Bastion, just visible over the rise of the hill.

  Before him, the hill sloped down toward an arid, windswept, shadowed landscape of boulders and stunted brush. His future. The cold uncertainty of it chilled him, and yet he did not look back again. The likelihood of finding Gaia’s tracks was essentially nil. He could scan for movement by day, and at night it was possible a campfire would show to guide him to her, but probably his best chance was to head north, looking for civilization, and hope Gaia found the same place.

  He briefly considered circling back to ask Emily what she knew of Gaia’s departure, but it would be risky, and set him back several hours, and he already knew Gaia intended to head north for the Dead Forest. If it existed. Gaia believed it did.

  I’ve done smarter things than this, he thoug

  Wordlessly, he took the belt from Genevieve, settling it around his waist so that the canteens rode to the sides where they wouldn’t impede his stride.

  “Here. One last thing,” she said, and passed him an extra roll of socks. “For your feet,” she added, as if he didn’t know. “It’s important to take care of your feet when you’re going so far.”

  The ball was soft in his hand. “Mom,” Leon said, strangely moved.

  “I’m just so sorry about this. If there were any other way—”

  He shook his head, and pulled her near to hug his arms around her. She couldn’t hug him back properly because of his wounded back, but she held tight to his collar and kissed his cheek.

  “Please be safe,” Genevieve said.

  “I will. Give my love to Evelyn and Rafael,” Leon said.

  “Come back to us,” she whispered.

  There was no answer to that. For a last, long moment he held her, filling with sad tenderness, a kind of forgiveness and loss that normally would have made him feel weak. Instead, he felt human, honest.

  “I’ll miss you,” he said, and knew it was true, despite everything.

  When he left his mother and started down the hill, he trod carefully in the shadowed space between boulders. He hitched once at the belt around his hips, tucked the socks in his pocket, and began his vigilant search for motion along the horizon. Somewhere ahead of him, Gaia was traveling with her baby sister. Whether what he was doing was stupidly reckless or nobly brave didn’t much matter, because the only thing left to do was try to find her.

  Read on for a preview of the second installment in

  the Birthmarked trilogy


  On Sale November 2011

  from Roaring Brook Press (An imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group)

  The Wasteland

  She grabbed the hilt of her knife and scrambled backward into the darkness, holding the baby close in her other arm. Beyond the fire, the wasteland was still, as if the wind and even the stones had frozen in the night to listen, and then she heard it again, a faint chink, like a footfall in pebbles. Someone or something was out there, watching her.

  Gaia turned the knife in her palm, resettling her grip, and peered toward where the far edge of the firelight touched the boulders and the gnarled, wind-stunted trees of the gulch. Without dropping her gaze, she felt by hand that the baby was secure in the sling across her chest, her warm, light weight hardly more than a loaf of bread’s. She’d left the baby bottle on a ledge of rock, out by the fire, and she hoped whoever was watching her wouldn’t take that bottle, whatever else they might do.

  The chinking noise came again, drawing her gaze to the far side of the fire. Then a head, an enormous, animal head, big as a cow’s but long of face, appeared at the edge of the firelight, looking directly at her. A horse? she thought, astounded to see an animal she’d believed was extinct. She checked its back for a rider, but there was none.

  Inadvertently, she lowered her knife. In that instant, a powerful hand closed around her wrist and another touched around her throat.

  “Drop it.”

  The voice came softly from behind her right ear. Sweat broke out along her arms and neck, but still she clasped the knife. His grip did not move, did not lessen or increase at all, conveying his confidence that he simply had to wait until she obeyed. So completely, so imperceptibly had he crept up around her that she stood no chance of fighting back. Below her jaw, she could feel her own pulse beating against the firm, pernicious pressure of his thumb.

  “Don’t hurt me,” she said, but even as she spoke, she realized he could have killed her already if that had been his intention. Rapidly, she imagined trying to twist free of him with a kick, but the baby might get hurt. She couldn’t risk it.

  “Just drop it,” came the voice again. “We’ll talk.”

  With a sense of despair, she dropped her knife.

  “Do you have any other weapons on you?”

  She shook her head.

  “No sudden moves,” he said, and his hands released her.

  She sagged slightly, feeling the adrenaline still coursing through her. He picked up her knife and took a step toward the glow of the fire. A broad-shouldered, bearded man, he wore clothes and a hat of the same worn, dusty color as the wasteland.

  “Step forward where I can see you properly,” he said, and held out a hand to invite her forward. “Where’s the rest of your group?”

  “We’re it,” she said.

  Gaia stepped into the firelight, and now that the burst of fear which had given her strength was receding, she doubted she could stand for long. The campsite, she knew, must reveal how she’d been reduced to the last, pathetic shreds of survival. He picked up the baby bottle. She watched his gaze settle on the sling that crossed her chest and the protective hand she kept there. He jogged up the brim of his hat with his thumb in obvious surprise.

  “You have a baby?”

  Gaia braced a hand against the tree trunk. “You don’t have any baby formula with you, do you?”

  “I don’t usually carry that. What’s in this?” He gave the bottle a little shake, and the translucent liquid caught the golden

  “Rabbit broth. She won’t take it anymore. She’s too weak.”

  “A girl, even. Let me see her.”

  She curved back the edge of the sling for him to see, and as she had done a thousand times since she’d left the Enclave, she checked her sleeping sister to see if she was still breathing. Firelight flickered over the little, pinched face, bathing it in brief color before sending it back to black and white. A delicate vein arched along Maya’s right temple, and a breath lifted her little chest.

  The man touched a finger to the baby’s eyelid, lifted it a moment, then let it go.

  He gave a sharp whistle, and the horse came nearer. “Here we go, then, Mlady,” he said. Decisively, the outrider lifted Gaia from the ground and up to the saddle. She grabbed the pommel to balance herself and Maya, and swung a leg over. He passed her the bottle and her cloak, then collected her meager things into her pack and slung it over his own shoulder.

  “Where are we going?” Gaia asked.

  “To Sylum as directly as we can. I hope it’s not too late.”

  Shifting, she tried to arrange some of the fabric of her dress between herself and the saddle. She could feel the dark, cool air touching her legs above the tops of her boots. When the outrider swung up behind her on the horse, she instinctively leaned forward, trying not to crowd against him. His arms encircled her as he reached for the reins, and then he kicked the horse into motion.

  “Hey, Spider.”

  The horse’s movements seemed jerky to Gaia at first, but when her hips relaxed into the horse’s stride, the ride became smoother. Behind them, the gibbous moon was low on the western horizon, casting a light strong enough to create shadows in their path, and Gaia peered to her right, toward the south, to where the Enclave and all she’d left behind had long ago dropped beneath the dark horizon.

  For the first time in days, Gaia realized she might live, and hope was almost painful as it reawakened inside her. Inexplicably, she thought of Leon, and a lightless, lonely feeling surrounded her, as real as the outrider’s unfamiliar, protective arms. She’d lost him. Whether he lived or died she would never know, and in a way, the uncertainty rivaled the unhappiness of knowing definitively that her parents were dead.

  Her sister could well be next. Gaia reached her hand into the sling, easing her fingers between layers of fabric so that she could feel the baby’s warm head in the palm of her hand. She made sure the cloak couldn’t smother the little face, and then she let her eyes close. She nodded gently with the rhythm of the horse.

  “Maya is dying,” she said, finally admitting it to herself.

  The man didn’t reply at first, and she thought he must not care. But then there was a careful shifting behind her.

  “She may die,” he confirmed quietly. “Is she suff
ering now?”

  Not anymore, she thought. Maya’s crying, before, had been hard to bear. This was a much quieter, more final form of heartbreak. “No,” Gaia said.

  She slumped forward, dimly aware that he was helping, with singular tenderness, to support her and the baby both. Why a stranger’s kindness should amplify her sadness she didn’t know, but it did. Her legs were chilled, but the rest of her was fast becoming warmer. Lulled by despair and the soporific, distance-eating gait, she gave in to whatever relief oblivion could bring, and slept.

  It seemed like years passed before Gaia became dimly aware of a change around them. She ached everywhere, and she was still riding, but she was leaning back against the man whose arms were supporting her and the baby securely. The baby’s body was warm. Gaia took a deep breath and opened her eyes to search Maya’s face. The baby’s skin was translucent, almost blue in its pallor, but she still breathed. When sunlight flickered over the little face, Gaia looked up in wonder to see that they were in a forest.

  Tiny dust motes floated in shafts of sunlight that dropped through the canopy of leaves and pine needles, and the air had a lush, humid luminosity that changed breathing fundamentally, filling her lungs with something warm and rich each time she inhaled.

  “What is it, in the air?” she asked.

  “It’s just the forest,” he said. “You might be smelling the marsh. We don’t have much farther to go.”

  Even when it had rained in Wharfton, the air itself had remained sere between each raindrop, aching to suck away any moisture, but here, when she lifted her hand, she could feel a trace of new elasticity between her fingers.

  “You talk in your sleep,” the outrider said. “Is Leon your husband?”

  The thought of Leon as her husband was too ludicrous and sad to bear, no matter what she might say in her dreams. “No,” she said. “I’m not married.”

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