Children of refuge, p.1
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       Children of Refuge, p.1

           Margaret Peterson Haddix
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Children of Refuge


  For all the Edwys in the world

  PROLOGUE

  The man lunged out of the darkness to grab me as I ran by.

  “Let go!” I screamed, struggling to break away. “Let! Me! Go!”

  I was already being chased by a pack of angry men. It didn’t seem fair that someone I hadn’t even seen was after me too.

  Of course, my friend Rosi had told me once that I had a talent for making people mad.

  Rosi . . .

  She’d been running from the angry men too. Had she at least managed to get away safely?

  I glanced over my shoulder, as if there was some way to see through the darkness and multiple rows of houses to make sure that she’d gotten back to her own home undetected. I’d been crashing through the trees and bushes beside the creek as loudly as possible, trying to get everyone to chase me, not her.

  But I’d been counting on being able to run fast enough that no one caught up.

  “Good,” an oily voice whispered in my ear. “Now you understand that screaming is useless.”

  “No, I was just—” Before I could add deciding what to scream next, a thick hand slid over my mouth. It smelled like onions and sweat and mud and, I don’t know, maybe puke as well.

  Yes, definitely the puke part.

  I bit down, my teeth sinking into the palm of the world’s stinkiest hand.

  The man jerked his hand back and muttered a few words I was pretty sure were swears. Having spent my first twelve years in Fredtown, the most boring place in the universe, I’d heard that there was such a thing as cursing, but had never been exposed to any actual curses. I’d left Fredtown only a few days ago, but those few days had been an education.

  “Now you understand that holding on to me is useless,” I said, which would have been a great last line before slipping away.

  All hail the mighty Edwy Watanaboneset, escape artist extraordinaire, I thought.

  But the man’s right arm was like a chain around my middle. I squirmed and shoved, and the rocklike bulge of his muscles didn’t budge.

  Maybe I could be an escape artist extraordinaire only in Fredtown, where the only people I’d ever had to escape were little kids and mild-mannered, unsuspecting Freds.

  Maybe I’d have to outsmart this man instead.

  “Do you know who I am?” I demanded. “Do you know who my parents are? Do you know what they’d do to anyone who hurt me?”

  I was just finishing my first full day at “home”—back with the parents who gave birth to me, anyway, after the long overnight trip from Fredtown—but I’d already seen how everyone tiptoed around my parents. “Yes, Mr. Watanaboneset”; “As you wish, Mrs. Watanaboneset” . . . how many times had I heard someone speak those words? My parents ruled, in a way that would have horrified every single adult in Fredtown.

  I could get used to that kind of power.

  Except that my parents wanted to rule me, too.

  “Yes, of course I know who you are,” the man whispered in my ear. “You are a boy who will be killed if I hand you over to the men chasing you.”

  Killed?

  I told myself he was just trying to scare me. Exaggerating wildly. But Rosi and I had been running away from a scary place neither of us understood, a scene of destruction where I was pretty sure people had died.

  A long time ago.

  Years in the past.

  “I’m going to keep screaming,” I told the man. “Everyone will hear, and someone else will come running. Someone who works for my family, probably. And then you will be in trouble. You’re the one who should worry about being killed.”

  The man clamped his hand back over my mouth, and this time he hooked his thumb over my nose and his pinky under my chin so I couldn’t move my jaw. He slid his right arm up so that the crook of his elbow pressed painfully against my Adam’s apple.

  Back in Fredtown all the adults would faint dead away just at the thought of one person holding another person in that dangerous way. It felt like all the man would have to do was have a muscle spasm, and that could kill me.

  “Before you say another word,” the man hissed in my ear, “you might want to know who I am.”

  “Who is that?” I muttered, the words coming out as grunts, because he was holding my mouth shut and pressing so hard on my windpipe. But I could tell the man understood. He leaned his face even closer to my ear.

  “I work for your father,” the man said.

  CHAPTER ONE

  Nobody had told me that my parents’ neighborhood was built on top of a secret tunnel up from the creek. So when the man dragged me into an innocuous-looking hole—and kept going and going and going—I instantly wanted to know more. We passed sputtering torches that seemed to throw off more shadows than light. The stench of the man’s hand seemed to grow nastier and nastier. But we were deep underground before he finally eased his hand off my mouth and nose and jaw and I could manage more than grunts.

  “What do you mean, you work for my father?” I asked. “Do you mean you used to work for him, but now you’re betraying him by kidnapping his son? Why did you grab me? Where are you taking me? Where does this tunnel lead? How many people know about it?”

  Six questions in practically a single breath. I thought that was pretty good considering he’d been restricting my oxygen supply for at least the past ten minutes.

  I inhaled deeply and instantly thought of a dozen more questions I wanted to ask. But coming home had taught me that adults who weren’t Freds sometimes reacted badly to questions. And this man definitely wasn’t a peace-loving Fred. Even though he’d stopped acting like he was going to choke or gag me, he’d only shifted the pressure. He wrapped his muscular right arm around my waist again, and he quickly twisted his left arm and hand around to grab and immobilize my hands and feet simultaneously—a neat trick I wanted to figure out how to do myself. The way he was holding me, it kind of felt like he could snap any number of my bones as casually as someone else might shoo away a fly. I decided to wait for a moment and see if he’d answer any of the questions I’d already asked.

  He grunted.

  “Only way anyone leaves your father’s employment is in a casket,” he said. “He told me to grab you. And this tunnel leads to his secret underground office. That’s where we’re going now. To see him.”

  The tunnel curved slightly to the left, and I tried to calculate distances and angles in the near-total darkness. We were going in the direction of my parents’ house, but how far belowground were we?

  “Is there some secret stairway down from my house to this tunnel?” I asked. “Why didn’t my parents tell me? It would have been a much better way for me to sneak out tonight.”

  The man did nothing but grunt this time, but it was a disapproving grunt, an annoyed grunt. I had a lifetime of experience irritating adults, but back in Fredtown the adults always tried to hide how much I bothered them. Which was weird, since they were always telling us kids we needed to get in touch with our feelings.

  The sporadic lineup of torches on the wall ended, and I could see nothing but darkness ahead. The man was holding me at an angle that prevented me from seeing his face, so I had no warning when he lifted me just enough that he could stab his right elbow repeatedly against the wall—entering some kind of code, maybe?

  There was a clanking sound, like a garage door opening. Could garage doors be reinforced? Coated with armor? Whatever it was, it sounded heavy.

  The man took five steps forward into the darkness and jabbed his elbow against the wall again. Suddenly electric lights glowed in front of us, a row of single bulbs nestled at even intervals along the rock walls. The clanking sound happened again too. I glanced back and saw a scarred sheet of metal descending from the ceiling behin
d me. It slammed against the ground, cutting us off from the portion of the tunnel we’d just walked through.

  “Are you getting tired of carrying me?” I asked the man. “You can put me down now. You know even if I wanted to escape, I couldn’t get out. Because of that door.”

  “I follow your father’s orders,” the man snarled.

  “Do you pick your nose if my father tells you to pick your nose?” I asked. “Would you eat the booger if he said to?”

  Okay, I knew that was kind of childish—the Freds said I should have outgrown booger jokes by the time of my twelfth birthday, which was six months ago. But if I wasn’t very mature, it was their fault for raising me in a place where, besides Rosi, every other kid I knew was younger than me. When we could get away from the Freds, all my friends loved booger jokes.

  Well, unless you counted Rosi as one of my friends. Which I had kind of started doing again.

  The man carrying me didn’t scold, but he didn’t laugh, either.

  “I follow your father’s orders,” he repeated, and squeezed a little harder against my ribs.

  If I were goody-goody, well-behaved, perfect Rosi instead of my usual grown-up-defying, rude-joke-making, wouldn’t-be-serious self, could I have won this man over? Could I have gotten him to put me down?

  It was starting to scare me that he was holding on so tight.

  My mind flashed back to Rosi again. I had convinced her to come out into the dangerous darkness with me because I’d wanted to show her a vast area of burned-out, abandoned homes that puzzled me. I hadn’t counted on men showing up there to meet in secret—men who chased after us when we accidentally made a noise. Surely there hadn’t been yet another scary man waiting in the darkness to grab her, like there had been for me. The man clutching my ribs worked for my dad; it didn’t seem likely that a similar man might work for her father. It didn’t follow the rules of—what was it the Freds were always trying to teach me? Oh yeah: logic.

  And Rosi had to have gotten away from the scary men who were chasing us, because I was making all the noise, and she was creeping away in silence. Rosi was so much better at being quiet than I was. She was better at everything the Freds valued.

  The man carrying me stopped in front of a door. Even as he kept a firm grip on me, he rapped his knuckles against the door three times.

  “Send him in.” It was my father’s voice, coming from an intercom speaker off to the side.

  The door creaked open. In one smooth move the man dumped me on the floor, backed out, and then eased the door shut behind me.

  I landed on the floor in a heap, my elbows tangled with my knees.

  “Hey, hey, a little dignity here,” I muttered.

  At least this floor was carpeted, unlike the bare rock on the other side of the door. I unscrambled my arms and legs and rolled over onto my side, my face still pressed against the rug. I had a great view of dressy black shoes, polished to such a high sheen that I could practically see my face reflected in the toe tips.

  I sat up, facing my father.

  “What was that all about?” I demanded.

  For a moment my father just stared at me. The Freds always said it didn’t matter what you looked like, only what you did. Let’s review:

  Tonight my father ordered some guy who works for him to grab me, carry me down a dark tunnel, and drop me on the floor.

  Earlier today my father punished me for asking questions.

  Before yesterday I’d never seen my father in my life, unless maybe it was the day I was born. He never contacted me even once.

  So, yeah. I wouldn’t have given him a very good score on the doing.

  But the way my dad looked? I hoped I would look like that when I grow up. He had this perfect bald head, his scalp so smooth you’d think his skin was made out of polished rock: Obsidian? Onyx? Jet stone? (Though maybe he wasn’t actually bald. Maybe he just had his servants shave his head that perfectly every day. I hadn’t been around him enough yet to know.) He could make his face look as hard as rock too. And he had this way of raising a single eyebrow that was just as intimidating as someone else flexing a muscle.

  He did that now.

  “You are not an obedient child,” he said.

  “Yeah, well, that’s what the Freds always said,” I told him.

  I stood up, rubbing my right elbow where I’d banged it against the floor. Now at least I was more on my father’s level, though I’d have to grow about a dozen centimeters to be able to look at him eye to eye, nose to nose, without tilting my head back. Back in Fredtown I’d been only a few centimeters away from being able to do that with my Fred-dad.

  Curiosity got the better of me. It usually did.

  “Have you ever met a Fred?” I asked my father. “What did you think of them? From what you saw of them, did you ever wonder—”

  “Silence!” my father interrupted, slashing his hand through the air. “I talk; you listen. That’s how this works.”

  It was so tempting to say, Sure, if you answer my questions. But my father’s hand had cut so close to my face. And, though I was trying not to think about it, Rosi and I had been running away from a truly scary scene. And I didn’t understand what the men who’d been chasing us wanted. And . . .

  “. . . for your safety,” my father said.

  “Wait, what?” I asked. “I zoned out a little bit there, and . . .”

  “And that is exactly what I mean!” my father said, throwing his hands up in the air. “You don’t listen! You don’t obey! You ask questions you shouldn’t ask!”

  I felt a little proud. In just three seconds I’d reduced my father from All-Powerful Boss Who Can Make His Employees Do Anything He Wants to a weak man making the same helpless gesture my Fred-parents occasionally resorted to.

  But my father wasn’t finished talking.

  “And that is why we are sending you to boarding school,” he said.

  CHAPTER TWO

  I took a step back, my spine scraping against the solid wood of the door behind me. Boarding school? I’d never known anyone who’d gone to boarding school. Back in Fredtown, family was everything—even if it was just a fake family, with Fred-parents, not real ones. Freds wanted to spend every moment possible with their kids. As far as I knew, boarding schools only existed in stories, the kind the Freds read at bedtime from odd old books, the stories that began, Once upon a time in a distant land . . . Or Long ago and far away . . .

  “But I just got here!” I protested. I was ashamed of how whiny I sounded, like the little kids leaving Fredtown just a couple of days ago crying, But Fred-mommy! Fred-daddy! I don’t want to leave! I love you!

  I hadn’t had time to decide if I would ever love my real parents or not. I hadn’t had time to know much of anything about them.

  But maybe I knew enough.

  I glanced quickly around my father’s secret underground office, with its thick rugs and its enormous, gleaming desk. No joke—it had artwork enshrined under glass all along the walls. Expensive artwork, I’d guess.

  “You’re a smuggler and a thief,” I said. “All the money you have is money you stole from someone else. The warehouse you have farther on in this tunnel? I bet it’s full of stolen property. If—if you send me to boarding school, I’ll tell everyone what you are. That you’re a criminal.”

  I was guessing at half of that. Obviously I hadn’t seen any warehouse. Yet. But my father’s already rocklike face hardened.

  “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Nobody would believe you. You’re just a kid.”

  I wondered if I’d taken the right tack. The Freds wouldn’t have wanted me trying to blackmail and manipulate my father. They would have suggested some namby-pamby approach when I first saw other kids’ luggage in my parents’ house earlier today—the Freds would have wanted me to gently tell my father, Don’t you realize that when you take other people’s property, it hurts them? Don’t you know you always have to take other people’s feelings into account? And have respect for their proper
ty rights, and all their other rights too?

  I’d returned Rosi’s luggage to her immediately, along with her younger brother Bobo’s. I hadn’t decided yet what to do about the other kids’.

  But what I’d really wanted to do was ask my parents a lot more questions: How does it work, stealing things? How do you get away with it? Aren’t you scared that you’ll be thrown into prison? Aren’t you scared that, if people think they can get away with taking things that don’t belong to them, then someone will take away something you want to keep?

  Oops. I think that last question might have sneaked in from a Fred lecture.

  Questions weren’t going to work now anyway. I’d started down the blackmail path; I needed to stick with it.

  “Someone will believe me,” I said. “I’m a good liar. Maybe I’ll say worse things about you. I’ll say you’re the type of person who would hurt a kid.”

  Back in Fredtown, that was the worst crime anyone could commit.

  My father’s expression seemed to go up a few notches on the Mohs’ hardness scale. Hadn’t Rosi and I learned in science class that diamond was the hardest rock of all? If that was true, then my father’s face had turned into black diamond.

  “Your mother and I are sending you away for your own good,” he said. “She’s so upset about it, she can’t even bear to come down and say good-bye.”

  “She’s barely spent twenty-four hours with me!” I protested, before I had time to think. “What does she care?”

  Maybe my father’s face wasn’t quite black diamond. He winced.

  “Nevertheless,” he said.

  He strode over to his desk and reached under it. I’d seen his desk upstairs in the house, in his nonsecret office. I’d seen where he had a button underneath it to call servants.

  “Are you calling back the man who just dumped me on the floor?” I said. “Really? You’re going to put me in the care of a man who would threaten me? I guess you told him to kidnap me, but do you know he said he might hand me over to people who would kill me?”

  “I trust Udans to get you out of this town and safely on to the boarding school in Refuge City,” my father said. But he hesitated.

 
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