The Immortal Rules, Page 15Julie Kagawa
When I awoke the next evening, I felt. . . different. Not in a bad way or in a way that nagged at me, like something I had to worry about. But something had definitely changed. Then it hit me. I was actually clean.
I threw back the quilt and sat up, stretching my arms over my head as I remembered the morning before. Soaking in a tub of hot, clean water, the steam rising into the air to fog the windows, was the purest form of bliss I'd felt in a long time.
Getting rained on or falling into a muddy, churning river didn't count. And there had been real soap, something I'd only heard about in the Fringe. The Archers made their own soap from lye, sand and goat milk, and I'd used the strange yellow lump to scrub through the caked layers of grime and blood, until I could finally see the pale color of my skin. Sadly, with dawn fast approaching, my bath had been short-lived, but I had stayed in that tub for as long as I dared, until the rising sun had forced me out of the bathroom into the borrowed nightgown left on a pillow, and under the covers of the bed.
I stood, taking in the small room. It had probably been a child's room at one point, if the cheery sun quilt and faded cloud wallpaper were any indication. For a moment, I wondered what became of the child whose room I was borrow-ing, but quickly abandoned that train of thought.
There was a squeak in the hall outside, movement over the wooden slats, and I froze. Was there someone outside the door? I listened and thought I heard footsteps, moving rapidly away from my room and down the stairs.
Mildly alarmed, I gazed around and spotted my clothes, lying clean and neatly folded atop a dresser. Frowning, I thought back to the previous day. Had I locked my door?
Last night, I'd left my clothes in a bloody heap on the f loor.
Someone had been in my room, if only to wash and fold my clothing, and that made me more than a little nervous. What if they had decided to wake me and couldn't? What if they'd noticed I wasn't breathing? My katana lay on top of the pile, not next to the bed where I'd left it, and that made me even more nervous.
I slipped into my clothes and buckled the sword to my back, vowing not to be separated from it again. I could not afford to be careless, especially when surrounded by even more strange humans. Pulling the coat over my shoulders, I turned to leave when there was a knock at the door.
"Allie?" came a voice from the other side. "You up yet? It's Zeke. "
"It's open," I called back. Though after tonight, that is going to change.
The door creaked as it swung inward, revealing a very clean, smiling Zeke on the other side, holding a candle. He wore a white shirt and slightly baggy jeans, and his blond hair feathered out over his eyes and collar, looking very soft and touchable. His pistol, machete, hatchet and various weapons were still in place, but he looked more relaxed than I'd ever seen him.
And, though I tried to block it out, I could hear his heart beating, low and contented, in his chest. I could sense the pulse at his throat, echoing it, and the blood f lowing through him, hot and powerful.
Cursing myself, I shoved those thoughts away. Maybe it was the overload from last night, being forced to see the wound, smell the blood soaking everything. To be that close, unable to tear into the man's throat, as I'd wanted to do all night, made me crave it even more. I was getting to the point where I'd better feed soon, or I'd go crazy.
Or maybe it was Zeke himself.
That was going to be a problem.
"Oh, wow," Zeke said quietly, his blue eyes dancing with mischief as he held the candle up. "Look at that. There was actually a girl underneath all the blood and dirt. Though you're a bit paler than I expected. "
I snorted, hiding my sudden alarm. "Seen yourself ?" He laughed good-naturedly. "Come on. I just got up, but I think Jeb and the others are down in the barn. They arrived a few hours after we went to sleep. At least that's what Martha said-after telling me she was washing my unmentionables and I could have them back tomorrow. " He wrinkled his nose. "I think the old woman was trying to come on to me. "
"Okay, I'm just going to erase that image from my brain now. " I gave him a mock-horrified look as we started down the corridor. "For the record, the words old woman and un-mentionables should never be used in the same sentence. " He grinned as we made our way down the stairs and through the shadowy halls of the ancient farmhouse. It was a truly monstrous old building, two stories tall, with high windows, wooden f loors and a roof that had been patched numerous times. Over the years, it had been expanded and built upon, and the back part of the house didn't quite match the first half, but it served its purpose I supposed, keeping a roof over the Archer clan's heads.
"Where is everyone?" I asked as we hit the ground f loor without running into any of the clan's numerous members.
Last night, Patricia had proudly told us that they had three generations of Archers living under one roof: brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, grandmothers, grandfathers, the whole family tree. I'd seen at least a half dozen people taking care of Joe when we'd followed Patricia into the house, and I'd suspected even more had been sleeping in their rooms.
Where was everyone now? I heard banging noises coming from the kitchen, but other than that the old farmhouse was silent.
Zeke shrugged. "I think most everyone is outside, taking care of the animals, finishing work in the fields, and making sure the wall is safe. Martha told me they keep goats and sheep out in the pasture during the day, but they have to bring them in at night. Otherwise the rabids will get them. "
"Zeke?" A frail, reedy voice came from the kitchen.
"Is that you?"
Zeke grimaced and ducked behind a wall, blowing out the candle as a small white-haired old woman came out of the kitchen with a frying pan in one bony claw. She blinked when she saw me, thick glasses and toothless gums making her look like a lizard.
"Oh," she said, not able to hide her disappointment. "It's you. The girl. "
"Allison," I provided.
"Yes, of course. " Martha wasn't even looking at me anymore, rheumy eyes scanning the candlelit room. "I thought I heard that boy out here. Is Zeke with you?"
"No," I said firmly, not glancing at the corner where Zeke was vigorously shaking his head. "I haven't seen him. "
"Oh. Pity. " Martha sighed. "He must be in the barn with the others. Such a handsome lad, that one. " She sniffed and peered at me, narrowing her eyes behind her glasses. "Oh, good. You found your clothes. I was going to tell you I had washed them, but you were sleeping so soundly, I couldn't even rouse you. You sleep like the dead!"
"Yeah. " I shifted uncomfortably. I am so definitely locking my door tonight. That, or I'll nail the damn thing shut. "I guess I was tired. We-our group-we sleep during the day and travel at night. I'm not used to being up in the afternoon. "
"Sleeping is one thing. " Martha nodded her wrinkled head sagely. "You, my girl, were out like a log. " I started to reply, but she appeared to lose interest now that Zeke wasn't around.
"Well, if you see that boy, tell him I'm making a pie just for him. Boys like pie. Dinner will be ready in an hour. Be sure to tell your people. "
"I will," I muttered as she vanished back into the kitchen.
I glanced at Zeke, hoping he hadn't picked up on my unease.
He just shrugged, and I raised an eyebrow.
"The mighty hunter," I quipped as we snuck out the back door, escaping into the yard. "He can take down vicious rabids and rampaging boars, but one old lady can make him f lee in terror. "
"One scary old lady," he corrected me, looking relieved to be out of the house. "You didn't hear what she told me when I got up- you're so cute I could put you in a pie. Tell me that's not the creepiest thing you've ever heard. " His voice climbed a few octaves, turning shrill and breathy. "Today for dessert, we have apple pie, blueberry pie and Ezekiel pie. " We laughed together, our voices bouncing off the farmhouse walls. Outside, the twilight air was cool and hazy, and when I
took a breath, I could smell smoke, dirt, livestock and manure. It was a clean smell, much cleaner than the Fringe and the city streets. Chickens milled about the yard, scattering before us, and a shaggy black-and-white dog watched us from a rusty tractor. It growled at me, curling its lips back as I met its gaze, but Zeke didn't notice.
"Now it's my turn," Zeke said, watching his feet as we walked down the muddy path to the barn. I glanced at him, frowning, and he kicked a pebble into the grass, following it with his gaze. "To thank you," he elaborated. "For helping me with Joe, and for killing that pig. . . basically for saving our lives. I don't think. . . I mean, if you hadn't been there. . . " I shrugged. "Don't worry about it," I said, embarrassed.
"You would've done the same and so would Darren, and I think we both got really lucky that night. No one got hurt, so it's over. "
"It almost got me," Zeke muttered, almost to himself. "I felt its teeth catch my leg as it went by. Thank God it didn't break the skin. If Jeb were to find out. . . " He trailed off.
"What?" I prodded.
He shook himself. "Nothing. Never mind. I would just. . . he would lecture my ear off, that's all. " I watched him intently, but he wouldn't meet my eyes. "Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks. " He shrugged. "And you're welcome to tag along with me and Darren whenever you want. "
"You know what I mean. "
We had reached the barn, a faded gray building that smelled of straw and goat poop. A warm yellow glow came from inside, along with the murmurs of people and the bleating of livestock. Slipping through the large double doors, we found Jeb near the front, talking to Patricia, while the rest of the group had sprawled around them, sitting on bales or leaning against fence railings. Matthew sat in the corner, holding a bottle for the baby goat in his lap, while Caleb and Bethany looked on in delight.
"Thank you for your hospitality," Jeb was saying as Zeke and I eased inside. "We appreciate you offering your home to us, but we don't want to be a bother. "
"Oh, Jebbadiah, stop it," Patricia said, overruling him. "It's no bother at all. Y'all are welcome here, for as long as you need. We have enough food, and if you don't mind sleeping in the barn, there's more than enough space to go around. I must say, it's a mite strange that y'all sleep during the day, but I'm not here to judge, no I'm not. " She cast her gaze over the rest of the group, smiling at Matthew, Caleb and the baby goat. "I know it's too soon to decide," she continued in an almost wistful voice, "but if ya'll decide to stay on a more permanent basis, we can always extend the house. We done it before, we can do it again. "
"We cannot stay long," Jeb said firmly. "And I do ask that our sleep cycles not be interrupted, but perhaps we can find other ways to repay your hospitality. "
"Just you prayin' over our man Joe, that's enough, preacher," Patricia said, her face turning somber and grim. "And maybe, if you really wanted to help, you could spare a couple of your men to help us watch the wall at night, keep the fires going and keep an eye on the critters. Since ya'll are night folk, anyway. "
"Yes. " Jebbadiah nodded and suddenly caught sight of Zeke and me, standing by the front doors, watching. "Yes, we can do that," he continued and beckoned to Zeke, clapping him on the shoulder as he came up. "You've met my son," he said with a trace of pride. "Ezekiel will be in charge of the night watches and anything else you need done. "
"It'll be nice to have more people on the watch," Patricia mused and gave Jeb a tight smile. "Very well, preacher, we accept your offer. I'll have David and Larry show your boys the way we do things here at night. "
They nodded at each other, two rigid, no-nonsense leaders finding something they appreciated in each other. For a second, I had the absurd thought that they would make a pretty good, although terrifying, couple, and snickered out loud at the image.
Three pairs of eyes turned to me. "And this is Allison," Jeb said blankly, with none of the pride he showed for Zeke.
"She is the newest member of our little family, though Ezekiel tells me she's quite dangerous with that sword. Apparently she took down the rampaging wild boar very nearly by herself. " The words were hollow, stiff. He might not be condemning me, but he sure wasn't praising me, either.
So much for our little heart-to-heart by the river. I guess he still has to keep the cranky-bastard appearance going for the rest of the group.
"We've met," Patricia said with a small approving smile.
"Joe said he watched you two from the tree. Said you moved faster than anyone he's ever seen. "
I shrugged, uneasy, but thankfully Zeke stepped in. "How is he?" he asked, a note of genuine concern in his voice. It still surprised me how worried he could be for a complete stranger.
Patricia's face fell, growing dark. "Alive," she murmured, and her voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "He's in the Lord's hands now. "
David and Larry, the two older farmhands, showed up later that night and explained what needed to be done. First, and most important, was guarding the wall, the barrier that surrounded the compound and kept the rabids away. Platforms and walkways had been constructed along the inside of the wall, giving the watch a clear view over the open field of anything coming out of the woods. Not only did the platforms need to be manned, but the bonfires that burned just outside the wall needed to be continuously fed. And someone needed to stay in the barn with the animals, for they would panic if they so much as smelled a rabid outside.
Zeke, Darren, Jake and I were drafted to help with the night watch. Ruth also volunteered, hoping to be close to Zeke, but the job required that you knew how to shoot a rif le, and delicate little Ruth was scared of guns. So she was put in charge of watching the sheep and goats, while I was shown how to use a hunting rif le. I tried not to act smug at the look on Ruth's face when they passed me the gun without hesitation, but it was hard.
"Nice," Zeke muttered, gazing down the barrel of the rif le, sweeping it over the fields below. We had taken the platform closest to the forest, where we had come out with Joe the previous night, and Zeke was kneeling with his elbows resting against the railing. "I used to have a rif le like this. Scoped, too. It made shooting game a lot easier, till I dropped it from a tree and cracked the stock. " He grimaced and lowered the gun. "Jeb. . . was not happy with me. "
I winced in sympathy. "How long do you think we'll be here?" I asked, leaning against the railing, hoping the rickety planks would support me. "It's not like Jeb to stop like this.
Why is he even considering staying here a few nights?"
"He told me he wants to stay until the 'Joe thing' is resolved," Zeke replied. "Patricia asked him to pray for Joe, but I think it's more than that. I think he wants to be certain that we're not leaving a demon behind. "
A demon? I thought, but movement out in the field caught my attention. "Zeke," I muttered, pointing toward the woods.
Zeke straightened, bringing up the rif le, while I watched the monsters creep closer, their awful, rotten stench drifting over the breeze. There were three of them, pale and emaciated, moving across the field, straight toward the wall.
They moved unnaturally, sometimes on all fours, sometimes hunched over, their jerky, spastic gait making my skin crawl.
Two of them were completely naked, but one still had the remnants of a tattered dress clinging to its body, dragging it through the mud.
"Rabids!" Zeke called, his voice echoing through the compound. Instantly, Darren and Larry scrambled down from the platform opposite ours and hurried toward us. They clambered up, the platform creaking under their weight, and I stepped back to make room. Zeke dropped to a knee and leveled his gun at the rabids, but Larry held up a hand.
"No, don't waste ammo," he warned, eyes narrowed as he peered past the smoke and f lames from below. "They're too far out still, and it's nearly impossible to kill them in one shot. Let 'em come closer, get a good bead on them, before you start firing. We might not need to shoot at all
. " The rabids suddenly jerked to a halt, gazing at the wall with blank, hungry expressions. Zeke and Darren kept their guns trained on them, but it seemed the rabids knew just how close they could be without getting fired on. They skirted the edge of the field, keeping just out of reach, ducking behind trees and into bushes, never getting close enough for a clean shot.
Beside me, Zeke made a noise that was almost a growl. I stared at him in amazement. His shoulders were stiff, tense, and his eyes glittered with hate. "Come on," he muttered, and the cold rage in his voice shocked me. "Come a little closer, just a few more steps. "
"Easy, boy," Larry soothed. "Don't be too eager. We don't want to attract more with the commotion. " Zeke didn't answer, his entire focus on the rabids below.
He seemed different now; the smiling, easygoing boy I knew was gone. In his place stood a dark stranger with cold, ruthless eyes, his expression frozen into a f linty mask. Watching him, I felt a stab of apprehension. In that moment, he looked very much like Jeb.
"They've gotten wise to us," Larry muttered, squinting to see past the f lames into the darkness. "A few years ago, there were a whole lotta them, and they'd come rushing up to the walls, searching for a way in, all night. We picked off several-damn things are hard to kill-before we got the fire idea. They still hang around-" he jerked his thumb toward the edge of the forest "-but they very rarely come close anymore. Mostly, they check to see if we have the fire going, and then they leave. Look, there they go. " I watched the rabids melt back into the woods, disappearing into the trees. The tension left Zeke and Darren's shoulders, and they straightened, lowering their guns, though Zeke looked disappointed.
"They'll come back," Larry said, not weary or resigned.
Just a statement, a simple fact. "They always do. " He tapped Darren's shoulder. "Come on, then, Darren was it? Let's get back to our post. Sometimes the monsters creep around and come at us again from the other side, sneaky bastards. " Darren and Larry climbed down from the platform and shuff led back to their own, Larry already pointing out more rabid "strategies," if you could call them that. Zeke set down his rif le and leaned next to me against the railing, our shoulders barely touching as we gazed out over the fields.
"They have a nice life here," he said, and his voice wasn't mocking or sarcastic. It was almost wistful, envious. I snorted and crossed my arms, hiding the unease of a moment before.
"What, you mean with the wall and being penned in like sheep, and the constant threat of rabid invasion? It's like a miniature New Covington, except there are no vampires here. " Except one.
"They have a home," Zeke said, giving me a sideways look.
"They have a family. They've carved out their own lives, and yeah, it might not be completely perfect or safe, but at least they have something that belongs to them. " He sighed and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "Not like us, constantly wandering around, never knowing what we'll find or what comes next. Not having a home to go back to. " The longing in his voice was palpable. I felt his shoulder against mine, our arms brushing together, the heat radiating from him. We didn't look at each other, keeping our gazes on the looming forest. "What was home for you?" I asked softly. "Before all this, before you started looking for Eden.
Where did you live?"
"A little yellow house," Zeke murmured, his voice sounding distant. "With a tire swing in the front yard. " He blinked, giving me an embarrassed look. "Ah, you don't want to hear about it, do you? It's pretty boring. Nothing special. " I gave him a puzzled look. My whole life, I thought there was nothing beyond the vampire cities but wilderness and rabids. The fact that there were other settlements out there, other towns, no matter how scattered, gave me hope. Maybe the world wasn't as empty as I'd first thought.
But I didn't tell him that. I just shrugged and said, "Tell me about it. "
He nodded, paused a moment, as if gathering memories.
"I don't remember much," he began, gazing out into the darkness. "There was a community down in the hollow of a mountain range. It was fairly small, everyone knew each other. We were so isolated, we didn't even think about rabids and vampires and things happening on the outside. So when the rabids did come, no one was prepared for it. Except Jeb. " Zeke stopped and took a quiet breath, his eyes far away and dark. "They came to our house first," he mused. "I remember them scratching at the windows, tearing down the walls to get in. My mom or my dad hid me in a closet, and I listened to their screams through the door. " He shivered, but his voice was calm, as if this had happened to someone else, and he was detached from the boy in the story.
"The next thing I clearly remember was the door opening and Jeb standing there, staring down at me. He took me in, and we lived there for several years. "
"Is that where the rest of the group came from?"
"Mostly. " Zeke gave me a sideways glance. "There were more of us at first, and some like Darren we picked up along the way. But, yes, the majority of us came from that town.
After the rabid attack, people were scared. They didn't know what to do. So they started listening to Jeb, coming to him for help, pleading for his advice. In time, it became a weekly thing, where we met in the old church for an hour or so and listened to him talk. Jeb didn't want to be a preacher again, he told everyone that. But people kept coming. And after a while, he sort of. . . gained a following. "
"But. . . Jeb believes God has abandoned the world, that He's not here anymore. " I gave Zeke a confused look. "I can't imagine that went over well. "
"You'd be surprised. " Zeke shrugged. "People were desperate for some sort of guidance, and it wasn't as bleak as you might think. Jeb believes that, even though God is no longer watching us, we have to keep fighting the evil while we're here. That we can't let ourselves become tainted by the demons. That it's the only way to have a shot at eternity when we die. "
He smiled faintly. "He did have some rather strong opposition, but it didn't seem to bother him. Jeb was never really attached to the town, not like me. Now that I think about it, I don't think he ever meant to stay long. Not with what he was teaching me. "
"What did he teach you?"
"Everything I know-how to shoot, how to fight. We would go out to the hills behind the town, in the daylight, of course, and he would show me how to survive in the wilderness. I shot my first rabbit at the age of six. And I cried all the way through cleaning it.
"But," he continued, "that evening, our neighbor took that skinny carcass and made a stew out of it, and we sat around our kitchen table and ate it all. And Jeb was so proud. " Zeke chuckled, self-conscious, and shook his head. "That was home to me, crazy as it sounds. Not this endless wandering. Not a faceless city that we might never find. " He sighed heavily, glancing back toward the barn, and the burden on his face was almost overwhelming. "So, anyway," he finished, shaking off his melancholy as he looked back to the woods, "that's why I think the Archers have a good thing here. Rabids and walls and fire and everything. " He finally looked at me then, smirking and defiant. "So, go ahead-tell me I'm a sentimental idiot if you want, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. "
"You're not," I replied. "I think you're too hard on yourself, and that Jeb shouldn't expect you to keep everyone alive and safe and happy, but I don't think you're an idiot. " He smiled, a real one this time, though his voice remained teasing. "So, what do you think I am?" Naive, I thought at once. Naive, brave, selfless, incredible-
and much too kind to survive this world. It'll break you in the end, if you keep going like this. Good things never last.
I didn't say any of these things, of course. I just shrugged and muttered, "It doesn't matter what I think. " Zeke's voice was soft, almost a whisper. "It matters to me. " I looked at him. His eyes were stormy blue in the moonlight, his hair a pale silver-blond. The cross glimmered against his chest, winking metallically as if in warning, but I couldn't tear my eyes from his face. Slowly, he let go
of the railing and leaned in, reaching up to brush a strand of hair from my cheek.
His fingers grazed my skin, and warmth shot through me like an electrical jolt. I heard his heart thudding in his chest, the pulse throbbing beneath his jaw. His scent was everywhere, overwhelming; heat and blood and life, and a distinct, earthy smell that was uniquely him. I imagined kissing him, trailing my lips down to his throat, a rush of hot blood f looding my mouth. I felt my fangs lengthen, even as I leaned in.
Ruth's voice shattered the stillness, jerking us apart and bringing me to my senses. Horrified, I rose and stepped to the edge of the platform, facing the wind. What the hell was I doing, playing with fire like this? Biting the preacher's son was an excellent way to get myself excommunicated and hunted down. Jeb was ruthless when it came to moving on, but I had the feeling he would make an exception for me.
Even worse, Zeke would know what I was-and he would hate me for it.
And, a dark little corner of my mind whispered, what if you had bitten him and couldn't stop? What if you had drawn every bit of light and warmth into yourself, and when you were done, nothing was left of him?
I shuddered and willed my fangs to retract, stif ling the desire and the Hunger that came with it. I thought back to our almost kiss and had to wonder: would I have kissed him, or would I have leaned in those final inches to tear out his throat?
"Zeke!" Ruth called again, oblivious to the scene up top,
"Miss Archer wants me to remind you that the fire outside the wall needs to be fed. The woodpile is back behind the water cistern. I can show you where it is if you want to come down. "
"I'll go," I said quickly as Zeke leaned over the railing to call back to Ruth. He stopped and gave me a puzzled look, but I turned away toward the ladder before he could say anything. If Ruth wanted alone time with Zeke, so be it. She could have her chance. Right now, I had to get away from him, before we both did something we'd regret.
"Allison," Zeke said softly, stopping me. I glanced up at him from the ladder, and found him looking at me with a sad, confused expression. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I shouldn't have. . . I thought. . . " He trailed off with a sigh, raked a hand through his hair. "Don't go?" he pleaded, giving me a hopeful smile. "I'll behave, I promise. "
But I can't. I shook my head and climbed down, leaving my rif le up top against the rails. I felt Zeke's eyes on me as I left, but I didn't look at him.
Naturally Ruth glared at me as I descended, but I ignored her, too, continuing toward the water cistern at the far corner of the lot. Her shoes clumped against the ladder as she climbed up to join Zeke, and I forced myself to keep walking. Hopefully, Ruth's single-minded adoration would distract Zeke from coming after me, though a part of me wished he would.
It's better this way, I told myself, passing the barn. Soft murmurs and contented bleats came from within; the rest of the group was taking advantage of the unexpected stop, probably relieved not to be hiking through rabid-infested woods. That was way too close, I continued, hurrying past before anyone could see me. What would you have done if Zeke found out? You think he could like you, if he knew what you really were? A mental snort. You saw how he was with the rabids. He'd put a stake in your heart or a bullet in your skull without thinking twice about it.
He'd sell you out, just like Stick.
I came to the tiny woodshed in the shadow of the gravity-fed cistern, really nothing more than a three-sided wooden shelter with a tin roof. It was stacked high with split logs, and I loaded several into the rusty wheelbarrow sitting nearby, when I heard a soft moan.
Warily, I put a hand on my sword and waited, unmoving.
It came again, the soft, hopeless sound of a human in pain.
From the other side of the woodshed.
Still keeping a hand on the hilt, I edged around the building, ready to draw my weapon if necessary. When I saw what was making the noise, however, I dropped my arm. There was no need.
A large iron cage stood at the back of the woodshed. The bars were thick and close together, though far enough apart to see inside. The door was barred in two places from the outside, padlocked shut and wrapped in chains. Even the f loor of the cage had iron bars running across it, separating the prisoner from the natural earth. A thin layer of straw had been spread over the ground, partially absorbing the smell of urine, iodine and blood.
Huddled under a blanket, curled up in the corner closest to the woodshed, a familiar, bearded face raised its head to stare at me.
I blinked. "Joe?" I whispered, recognizing the man Zeke and I had dragged back from the woods. "What are you doing in there?" I asked, appalled. I could smell the blood on him, the torn f lesh under the bandages. He was still badly hurt and needed to be in a bed, or at least a room where he could be looked after. "Who put you in here?" I demanded, wrapping a fist around the bars. He stared at me with bleary eyes, and
I backed away, fuming. "I'll get Patricia," I told him. "She'll let you out. Just hang in there. "
"No," Joe wheezed, holding out a hand. I stared at him, and he coughed, shuddering beneath his quilt. "No, it's all right," he continued when the spell had passed. "The boar savaged my leg pretty bad. I have to be locked up till they can be sure I don't Turn. "
"They did this to you on purpose? " I came back, gripping the bars as I peered at him. "And you let them? What about your leg?"
"It's been looked after as well as can be expected," Joe replied, shrugging. "In the morning, someone will come and rebandage it. And it's not as bad as it looks. I think I have a good chance of pulling through this one. " I looked at his sallow, sweaty face, the pain glazing his eyes, and shook my head. "I still can't believe they'd leave you in here like an animal. I'd be screaming and tearing the walls down, trying to get out. "
"I want to be here," Joe insisted. "What if I die in the house and Turn before anyone notices? When everyone is asleep?
I could kill my whole family. No. " He leaned back, drawing his blanket closer. "This is necessary. I'm not a danger to anyone here, and the family is safe. That's all I care about. "
"Good man," said a voice over my shoulder.
I whirled. Jeb stood at a corner of the cage, looking in, his sharp face impassive. The man moved like a vampire himself; I hadn't even heard him approach.
"You see, Allison," Jeb mused, though he wasn't looking at me. "This is a man who is more concerned about the safety of his family, rather than his own short existence. In fact, everyone here understands what must be done to protect the whole, rather than a few individuals. That is how they have survived here so long. "
"You think locking an injured man up like a dog, with no treatment or help or medicine, is the best thing for him?" Jeb's steely eyes turned to me. "If that man's soul is in danger of corruption, and his body is in danger of succumbing to the darkness, then he is no longer a man but a demon. And when the demon emerges, it is best to have it contained. For the safety of the untainted humans, yes, I do believe that is the best thing. " I opened my mouth to protest, but he over-rode me. "What would you do differently?"
"I-" Jeb raised his eyebrows expectantly, and I glared at him. "I don't know. "
"You and Ezekiel. " The old man shook his head. "Both of you refuse to see the world as it is. But that is not my problem. If you'll excuse me, I must get to praying for this man's soul. Perhaps it can yet be saved. "
He turned from me and bowed his head, speaking quietly. Inside the cage, Joe did the same. I retreated back to the woodshed, grabbing the wheelbarrow and filling it with wood, making sure to f ling the logs so they clattered around in the noisiest way possible.
I knew, in a sick, twisted way, that Jeb was right. Any human bitten by a rabid, whether it was a dog or skunk or a rabid person, was in danger of Turning. It was different from becoming a vampire, where you had to drink your sire's blood to become one. In my case, Kanin's Master vampire blood had made me strong enough to overcome t
he disease, and he'd gotten to me immediately after I'd been attacked. Even then, I had been very lucky; most vampires still created rabids when they tried to make new offspring.
Rabidism, however, was much more potent and certain.
Every case was different, Kanin had told me-usually it depended on the severity of the wound and the victim's fortitude and will to fight off the infection. The virus spread quickly, accompanied by raging fever and a great deal of pain, before it finally killed the host. If left undisturbed, the body would rise again completely changed; a rabid, carrying the same deadly virus that had Turned it.
I knew the precautions the Archers had taken were necessary; even with one of their own, they could not afford the risk of him going rabid. But it still made my skin crawl, the thought of being locked in a cage, alone, waiting to die.
I wondered what Zeke would think of it. Would he be as shocked and disturbed as I was? Or would he side with Jeb, claiming it was the right thing to do?
Zeke. I pushed the thought of him from my mind, hurling a log into the wheelbarrow so forcefully it bounced out and hit the wall of the shed. That moment we'd shared up on the platform, that couldn't happen again. No matter how much I wanted it. I couldn't allow him to get that close ever again.
For both our sakes.
Ruth and Zeke were still up on the platform, sitting side by side, when I returned with the wheelbarrow full of logs and branches. I didn't go back to the tower but watched as Larry demonstrated how to feed the fires by dropping the wood down several chutes that led straight into the f lames, all without leaving the safety of the compound. I was impressed.
Rather than stupidly scurrying outside to toss logs onto the flames and tempt any number of rabid hordes watching from the forest, they'd worked out an ingenious way of dealing with the problem in the least dangerous way possible. You had to admire their creativity.
After feeding the bonfires, I wandered back to the barn, wanting to avoid Zeke and Ruth on the platform. Maybe he could show her how to hold and shoot my rif le-she'd love that-and I could take over guarding the livestock. Whatever it took to stay away from him.
The barn was musty and warm as I opened the door and slipped inside, the livestock dozing contentedly. Most of the group was outside or in the farmhouse, helping with the watch or doing various chores around the compound. But Teresa, Silas and the youngest of the kids remained in the barn with the animals. Old Silas dozed in a corner, covered in blankets, snores coming from his open mouth. Teresa sat nearby, mending a quilt and humming softly to herself. She smiled and nodded at me when I came in.
"Allison. " Caleb emerged from one of the stalls and walked up to me, shy little Bethany trailing behind him, clutching a bottle in a grubby fist. Caleb held a spotted baby goat in his arms, and it was almost too much for him to handle, bleating and struggling weakly. Quickly, I knelt and took the animal from him, holding it against my chest. It calmed somewhat but still cried out pitifully.
"It doesn't have a mommy. " Caleb sounded close to tears, wiping his face and leaving a streak of mud across one cheek.
"We have to feed it, but it won't drink its bottle. It keeps crying, but it doesn't want the milk, and I don't know what it wants. "
"Here," I said, holding out my hand, and Bethany gave me the bottle. Sitting against the wall, I settled the tiny creature in my lap, as the two human kids watched anxiously. For a moment, I felt a prick of irritation that Ruth should be here doing this, not me, but then I focused on the task at hand. I had only a vague idea of what to do, having never seen a goat before, much less held one, but I'd have to make it work.
I pinched a drop of milk onto the nipple and waited until the goat bleated again before sliding it into its mouth. The first two times, the stubborn kid shook its head and cried louder than ever, but the third time, it finally realized what I was offering. Clamping its jaws around the bottle, it started drinking in earnest, gurgling through the milk, and my audience clapped in relief.
Before I knew what was happening, Caleb sat down on one side of me, Bethany on the other, and leaned against my arm.
I stiffened, holding myself rigid, but they didn't seem to notice my discomfort, and the kid on my lap cried greedily when I didn't hold the bottle up far enough. Resigned, I leaned back, watching the three young creatures around me, trying not to breathe in their scent or listen to their hearts. Teresa looked over at me and smiled, and I shrugged helplessly.
"You know," I muttered, mostly to keep my mind distracted, so I wouldn't think of blood or hearts or how hungry I was getting, "I think this little guy needs a name, if he doesn't have one already What do you think?" Caleb and Bethany agreed. "What about Princess?" Bethany suggested.
"Stupid," Caleb said instantly. "That's a girl's name. " She stuck out her tongue, and Caleb returned the gesture. I watched the kid suckle at the bottle, milk dribbling down his chin. He was mostly white, except for a few black splotches on his back legs and one large circle over his eye. It made him look like a bandit or a pirate.
"What about Patch?" I mused.
They clapped in delight. Both thought this was a perfect name, and Bethany even kissed Patch on his furry head, which the goat ignored. After a moment of watching him guzzle milk, Caleb suddenly let out an explosive sigh and slumped against me.
"I don't want to leave," he muttered, sounding tired and world-weary even for one so young. "I don't want to keep looking for Eden anymore. I'd rather stay here. "
"Me, too," Bethany mumbled, but she was half asleep now, curled up into my side.
Caleb reached up and scratched Patch on the shoulder, making its skin twitch as if it was shooing off a f ly. "Allie, do you think there'll be goats in Eden?" he mused.
"I'm sure there will be," I answered, holding up the bottle so the kid could get the last drops. "Maybe you could even have a few of your own. "
"I'd like that," Caleb murmured. "I hope we get there soon, then. "
Not long after, the bottle was empty, and all three were asleep, curled up on my lap or leaning against my ribs. Teresa had also dozed off, her head against her chin, the quilt fallen beside her. It was very quiet in the barn, except for the livestock shifting in their sleep, and the beating of the three hearts surrounding me.
Bethany suddenly slumped over, her head falling to my leg, her golden hair spilling over my thigh. I stared at her.
Flickering lamplight danced along her pale little neck, as she sighed and pressed closer, murmuring in her dreams.
My fangs slid out. Her heartbeat was suddenly very loud in my ears; I could hear it, pulsing in her wrist, her throat.
My stomach felt hollow, empty, and her skin was warm on my leg.
Brushing her hair aside, I slowly leaned forward.