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Книга: Morningside Fall lotd-2
Назад: TWENTY-THREE
Дальше: TWENTY FIVE

TWENTY FOUR

Runners were a rare breed. Even under the best conditions, with a well-known route cleared ahead of time, it took a certain kind of person to risk all the dangers the open offered at that pace. A bad step, a rolled ankle or a twisted knee, and runners could find themselves a dozen or more miles from their destination when night came. And that didn’t take into account the number of traps that evil or wretched people sometimes laid for the unwary. A shortcut through the wrong alley, or even the right one taken too fast, could lead straight to the grave.

Some called runners bold. Others, reckless. Cass had a new term for them.

Desperate.

She’d managed to keep her pace steady — despite the snow, which had made the terrain even more treacherous. Her lungs ached from the chill air, and her legs were increasingly leaden, but still she pushed herself. The wound on her thigh had seeped through her pant leg. About the only positive to the situation was that the route itself hadn’t been a difficult one to follow.

Cass got the impression that the remains of the city around her had grown more broken and jagged. The snow now enshrouding it covered but did not hide what lay beneath, a white sheet draped over a corpse. Surely this was a deadly place. But she refused the warning thoughts that tried to pry into her mind and force her to slow.

She wasn’t far from the Windspan now, and she felt confident that she could overtake Wren and the others there. If she could reach it. If they had reached it. Cass hadn’t really considered what she’d do if she’d overshot them, if she reached Morningside before they arrived. Wren was masking his location again, and there was no way she’d be able to track him if he didn’t want her to.

A fork led her to a narrow street and as she saw the scene that lay ahead, fear pierced her heart. She slowed and slid to a stop. There was a man lying face down, frosted with a thin layer of white, surrounded by a sludgy pool of deep maroon. Part of her wanted to rush to him, while the other told her to stay away. Cass lingered, panting, afraid of how she might react if she discovered the body was Swoop’s. She glanced around for any signs of combat, but saw none.

After a moment she crept towards the body, keeping her eyes up and watching in case it was some kind of trap. About eight feet away she stopped, and saw enough to know it wasn’t Swoop. The relief was tempered with the anxiety of not knowing what had happened. There was a good chance that Wren had passed this way, but no way to know whether they had encountered the dead man. She considered checking the corpse to see if she could determine how the man had died. It didn’t seem to matter though. He didn’t look like he’d been shot, at least not by Swoop’s weapon. Maybe the poor man had fallen victim to some unseen device.

Cass didn’t like the implications of that thought — that she might be running through a minefield, literally or figuratively. She set off again, doing her best to ignore the anxiety that tried to beset her mind and the fatigue that dragged at her body.

 

Swoop led the way to the bridge, and Wren could tell from his stride that something was definitely wrong. Usually his stride was aggressive and direct, but now, every so often, his feet seemed to splay to the side.

“Swoop, are you OK?” Wren asked.

“Fine, Governor,” he said.

They were coming up on the bridge now, and the man ahead was still just sitting there. Or maybe he was on his knees. Wren had assumed it was a man, though he supposed it could be a woman. It was hard to know for sure. The person’s hair was long and grey and swirled about his face. If it was a he, his eyes were definitely covered by a blindfold.

Swoop stopped, and Painter and Wren came up next to him.

“When we get close, you boys stay behind me,” Swoop said. “Ten feet or so. Until we know what he’s up to.”

“Can we just guh, go around him?” Painter asked.

Swoop shook his head. “I don’t want him behind us. Not until I’m sure. Maybe even after I’m sure.”

“OK,” Wren said. “Be careful, Swoop.”

“Yep.”

They closed the final distance to the man on the bridge, and Swoop motioned with his hand for the boys to stop while he continued on. Wren and Painter held their place. Swoop advanced towards the man, but stopped about fifteen feet back from him. The man’s head was bowed, and he did not stir as they approached.

“Sir,” Swoop said. “Everything OK here?”

The man didn’t move.

“Sir?” Swoop said again, and then a little smile appeared on the man’s lips.

“All is well,” he said. “Forgive me, it has been long since anyone has called me ‘sir’.”

Swoop swayed on his feet, and Wren saw him widen his stance. Something definitely wasn’t right.

“Tough neighborhood,” Swoop said. “Plannin’ on stayin’ long?”

“Not long.”

For an old man sitting alone in the snow in the middle of dangerous ground, he seemed completely at peace. It frightened Wren terribly.

“You headed across the bridge, or did you come from that way?”

“I had planned to cross. Now, I wait.”

“Waitin’ for…?”

The old man raised his head then, as if he was looking at Swoop. “You.”

Swoop’s head lowered a little, and his shoulders came up, like he was getting ready for something to happen.

“Well,” Swoop said. “Here we are.”

“There are stories in the west,” the old man said. “Stories of a king in a great eastern city, who raises the dead.”

Painter looked at Wren.

“Raises, and enslaves,” the old man continued. “You know this city.”

“I know a city,” Swoop said. “Don’t know any king like you say.”

“Yet you travel with him.”

The old man’s words filled Wren with dread, but there was something curious to them, something in the way he spoke, the way he formed the words, that pricked at Wren’s mind.

“Look, fella, I don’t know where you get your news, but I can tell you it’s bad. And if you’re thinkin’ about makin’ trouble, I got nothin’ for you but worse.”

“The king should be expecting me.”

“Morningside has no king,” Wren called as he came forward. He walked closer, but stopped a couple of steps behind Swoop. “But I am its governor. Or was. But I’ve never made a slave of anyone, and I don’t think I was expecting you.”

“You should be.”

It was a mild correction, the old man reemphasizing what he had already said, as if he had been misunderstood. His face was still turned towards Swoop.

“Could you tell me your name, sir?” Wren asked.

“Today,” the old man answered, “I am Justice.”

It happened so fast, Wren couldn’t really tell who moved first. Swoop knocked Wren backwards and brought his weapon up in a flash, but the old man was a blur. Wren fell. There was a clash of metal, and Swoop was thrown violently backwards. He crashed into the snow and skidded backwards on his back.

Somehow the old man was standing where Swoop had been moments before, as if he’d teleported. He stood sideways with his left shoulder towards Swoop, front leg bent and the other locked straight behind. A sword had materialized in his hands, though Wren had not seen him draw it. This he held vertically, close to his body.

Swoop sat up, momentarily dazed. He held up his weapon, but it was useless now. The old man had sheared the end of it off, just ahead of where Swoop usually gripped the front. It didn’t seem like the old man had cut Swoop at all, though, only knocked him down with his charge. Still, Wren couldn’t believe how far the old man’s attack had thrown Swoop. Swoop was a good eight feet back from where he’d started. Which meant there was now no one between Wren and the old man.

The old man turned his face towards Wren. “You,” the old man said.

But that was his only word before something streaked past Wren from behind. The old man spun just in time to avoid the impact, but the Thing that had pounced at him redirected and was on him in an instant. The two exchanged a lightning fast barrage of blows and then separated for a moment, long enough for Wren to identify the Thing.

Mama.

Wren wanted to call out to her, but fear seized him — fear of fatally distracting her. They stood facing one another, Mama panting for breath, and the old man called Justice still as a stone. The snow swirled gently around and between them, crackling softly as it met the frozen ground.

And then, like hammer and anvil, they clashed.

It was nearly impossible for Wren’s eyes to follow what unfolded before him. The speed was terrifying to behold, almost as if time had been compressed. Time and again the old man’s sword sang, and time and again his mother twisted away, only to snap out a deadly strike of her own. But neither fist nor blade found its target, so quick were they to dodge and counter.

Hands grabbed Wren’s arms and lifted him out of the snow. Swoop was pulling him backwards, away from the fight. Painter was there, watching the fury in shocked silence.

The speed was frightening on its own but it was made all the more mystifying by how precisely the blindfolded man judged Cass’s actions. Cass seemed far faster than the old man, but the old man’s movements were so efficient and fluid he was surprisingly able to match her. His quickness was unhurried.

Though it was too fast to see exactly what happened, for a moment Cass seemed either to grab or strike the old man’s forearms, and in the next instant his sword catapulted from his hands and tumbled into the snow several feet away. Yet the old man wasn’t disrupted. In nearly the same motion, he grabbed Cass with both of his now-empty hands and quickly spun, throwing her over his hip.

Cass flipped headlong, but somehow managed to arch her back enough to get her feet on the ground first. With her body parallel to the ground, she clung to the old man’s arms and launched a kick back over her head. Wren couldn’t tell if she connected or not, but the old man came free and collapsed backwards into the snow. He rolled like a shadow spilling across the ground and in the next instant was back on his feet, blade in hand.

Cass twisted into a low crouch. A moment later, the old man closed the gap between them with a single lunge and attacked with a downward slash, followed instantly by an upward stroke. Cass evaded both, and closed in tight, once again inside the range of the sword.

He fought to trap her hands, but her elbow flashed upwards and snapped his head back. The old man stumbled backwards, skidded in the snow, but as he did his blade flicked out and Cass flinched. For a tense moment they stayed separated by about ten feet. Cass was breathing hard, her hands held up in front of her to guard against the next assault. A thin black line welled from cheekbone to jaw.

The old man’s sword tip was pointed straight at her, steady and calm, like a knife in the hand of a surgeon. He seemed as relaxed as they’d found him, as if the combat had been no strain at all. He straightened slightly and gradually allowed his sword to lower, so low it nearly brushed the ground. And then he turned sideways and shifted his stance so the blade was pointed behind him, away from her. The two held their ground, each seeming to wait for the other to make a move.

And in that moment, something about the old man’s silhouette — the way he stood, the way he held the sword — came together with the way he had spoken, in a flash completing the picture that had been struggling to form in Wren’s mind. Before he’d even had time to process the thought and doubt it, he called out, “Chapel!”

It was impossible. Utterly impossible. And yet his heart was sure. The old man remained completely still, and Cass held her ground. Wren tried to run forward, but Swoop snatched at his coat and stopped him in place.

“Chapel, stop, please, it’s me, it’s me Wren!”

Still neither of them dared move. But the old man spoke.

“Chapel,” he said, as if some distant memory was awakening within him.

“Wren,” Cass said, despite breathing heavily. “What are you saying?”

“It’s him, Mama.” Wren managed to yank free of Swoop’s grip and he raced between the two fighters. He stood right in the middle of them with his hands up and out to his sides, facing the blindfolded man he’d once known as Chapel. Now that Wren could see him up close, even through the blindfold, grime, and wild hair, there was no mistake that it was indeed Chapel. But something was far different about him.

“Chapel, don’t you remember me?”

“Chapel,” he said again, more certain this time. “Yes. That was once my name.” He stood straight and relaxed his grip on his sword, but did not sheathe it. “I was at a place of refuge then. You were there for a time.”

“I was,” Wren said. “You saved me. From the Weir. You, and Lil, and Mister Carter.”

“What is going on?” Cass said from behind him.

“I don’t know,” Wren answered. “I don’t understand. They said you were gone. Lil said you’d been taken.”

“Taken, yes,” Chapel said. He stood silent for a moment. And then he sheathed his sword in a fluid motion, and it disappeared within his large shabby coat. “For a time, I did not know myself, and was lost.”

Painter cautiously approached. Swoop wandered over and picked up the missing chunk of his rifle.

“What happened?” Wren asked.

“I strove. And I again became master of myself.”

Wren couldn’t understand what he was saying, how that could possibly be.

“You’re Awakened?” Cass asked.

“I do not know the term.”

“You were once a Weir? And now you’re not?”

“That is true.”

“You were going to kill me,” Wren said.

“If I had determined the stories to be true, yes.” He said it without any hint of remorse.

“But you’re not gonna try that anymore,” Swoop said. He came by Wren’s side and stood just a little in front of him, with controlled menace. There was no doubt that Chapel was a foe far beyond Swoop’s skill, but it didn’t seem like that would keep Swoop from giving it a try anyway.

Chapel made no reply, and didn’t even react to Swoop’s voice.

“We came to find you,” Wren said. “At the village. Everyone thought you were dead.”

“Not yet,” Chapel said.

“Are you really yourself, Chapel? Now?”

The old man inclined his head towards Wren and paused before responding.

“I am who I am meant to be,” he answered after a moment. “Perhaps no longer who I was.”

“So, are we friends or what?” Swoop said. “Because if we got things to settle, we oughta get it done. We’re losin’ daylight.”

“These Awakened,” Chapel said. “Who are they?”

“They’re like you,” Wren said. “Except they needed help. To get free.”

“And you helped them?”

Wren nodded.

“And then?”

“And then what?”

“What becomes of them?”

“We live our l-l-l-lives,” Painter said. Chapel turned his face towards him for the first time. “As best we can. Wren ssss-saved me. And others.”

“And you are free?”

“As much as anyone,” Painter said.

“We’re going back to Morningside, Chapel,” Wren said. “You could come with us and see for yourself. Or we could tell you where Lil is. She’ll be so happy to know you’re alive.”

“Lil,” he said. “…I had forgotten.”

Wren wondered exactly how much of Chapel was still Chapel. For a moment, he thought back to Jackson, the young man he’d met at the Vault, who had had the trouble. The one whose mind had temporarily left his body, only to return with others. But no, Chapel didn’t feel like that. There was stillness about him, where Jackson had been wild. Chapel was controlled, not full of chaos. Still, it almost seemed like there was a piece of him missing. Or maybe just out of place.

“I will consider,” Chapel said. He bowed his head to them and then walked away towards the bridge and returned to the spot where they’d first found him. There, he knelt.

“We need to move on,” Swoop said. Wren noticed there was a small, dark stain at the top of his pants, where he’d bled from under his vest.

“Not yet,” Cass said. “You’ve got some explaining to do. All of you.” Her breathing was more controlled, but hadn’t fully settled yet. Even so, the anger was evident in her voice.

“Still got a long walk.”

“Then you go ahead,” Cass said. “I’ll deal with you later.”

Swoop’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t reckon I’m the kind to get dealt with, ma’am.”

“I need a moment with my son,” she answered. “We’ll catch up.”

“We’ll wait on the bridge. Be quick.”

Swoop nodded at Painter, and the two of them moved off to the Windspan, giving Cass and Wren some space. But not too much. Wren hated watching them go, because he knew what was coming.

Cass turned Wren to face her. She crouched and put both her hands on his shoulders. The cut on her cheek was bleeding freely, but she didn’t seem to care.

“What were you thinking? How could you sneak off like that? How could you do that to me, Wren?” Her voice was low but intense. She looked angry, but there were tears in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Wren said.

“Sorry? What if something had happened to you? What if I hadn’t gotten here when I did? Did you think about what that would have done to me? Did you even think at all?”

Wren stood silent before her. He’d seen her this upset before, but not often. The last time had been when he’d snuck out of the governor’s compound. The night he’d woken Painter. But this time was different. Different for him. Before, the harshness of her voice had frightened him, and the guilt for having done wrong had brought him to tears.

But this time he didn’t feel sad, or scared, or guilty. Something had changed inside, and he saw her anger was misplaced, and it did not move him. He saw her fear, and he felt sorry for her.

“Why, Wren?” she demanded. “Why did you do this?”

“To protect you, Mama.”

“No, Wren. No. That is not your job. I am your mother. It’s my job to protect you.”

“Not anymore.”

Cass almost looked stunned at his words. She just stared back at him. But even as she did, some of the anger seemed to melt away.

“Asher wants me, Mama. He’s always wanted to get to me. I thought if you were somewhere far away, maybe you’d be safe from him. But I have to try to stop him. I have to go back to Morningside…” He didn’t want to say it at first. But then he realized there was no consequence he feared from her now, and no further pain he could cause her. “I have to go back to the machine.”

For a moment she just stared into his eyes, searching. Her breathing was back to normal.

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” she asked, and her voice had lost its edge.

“Because you wouldn’t have let me go.”

She shook her head as he said it, but she didn’t reply. Wren could see she knew he was right. Tears finally dripped from her eyes, and she embraced him. He put his hands on her back to comfort her as best he could. She was squeezing both his arms though, so it was hard to do much. After a time she released him, and pulled away.

“You’re hurt,” he said, and he touched her cheek. Cass wiped the tears and… whatever her blood was now, away, and looked at her hand. Then she wiped her hands on her pants and stood.

“Swoop’s right. We better get moving.”

Wren shook his head. “Mama, I don’t want you to come.”

“I don’t want you to go,” she answered. “So we’re both going to be disappointed.”

She held out her hand. Wren looked at it. This wasn’t going anything like he had planned. Not anywhere close. But he knew he’d never convince her to let him continue without her. And though there was a part of him that had wanted to be a noble warrior, he couldn’t deny that he would be glad to be with her again. At length he took her hand, and together they walked to meet Swoop and Painter on the bridge.

The snow had dwindled to a light flurry of dust-like flakes. The wind gusted and Wren became aware of how wet his pants had become from being thrown down in the snow.

“Set?” Swoop said as they approached. Cass nodded, and without another word Swoop swiveled and started up the Windspan. Painter hesitated, but not quite long enough for Cass and Wren to catch up to him. He kept a few steps ahead, though Wren couldn’t judge whether it was because he was still trying to give them some privacy, or if maybe Painter was afraid of what Cass would say to him.

Chapel remained kneeling as they neared and Cass didn’t seem to have any intention of talking to him. Wren slowed his pace slightly, trailing behind his mother as she moved wordlessly past the old man. Wren stopped walking, but held on to his mother’s hand. She halted a step or two ahead when she felt him pull against her.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do, Chapel?” Wren said.

“I have,” he answered. “In my haste, I deprived your guardian of his weapon. In recompense, I will lend my protection until you reach your destination.”

“And will you stay with us when we get there?”

Chapel stood with such grace and ease it almost looked like he was falling in reverse. “After, I will go where I am led.”

Wren didn’t know what he meant, but he assumed that it was probably a no. Cass tugged Wren forward and they started on again. Chapel stayed in place for a few moments while they moved away, but in his own time he followed after them.

There was no conversation as they walked. Wren was still trying to process everything that had just occurred. It had been an utter whirlwind. Pursued, escaped, attacked, rescued, reunited. And completely confused.

If it had been anyone else, Wren would never have turned his back on the old man who was now following them. And he wasn’t certain how much of the man behind him was still the man he once knew. But one thing that hadn’t changed was the strength of Chapel’s word. Even with the strangeness, and the unbelievable nature of his tale, there was some comfort in knowing Chapel’s sword would be on their side. At least as far as Morningside.

Swoop had started out about ten yards ahead of everyone else, but he slowed his pace and let them close the gap to five yards or so before he picked it up again. The heavy cloud cover made the day seem later than it actually was. The degree of the bridge’s ascent hadn’t seemed too severe when Wren had just been looking at it, but as they continued upwards, he was surprised by the toll it took. And the Windspan was aptly named. The higher they climbed, the harsher the wind grew. They walked on in silence, hunched against the bite and bitter cold.

The group kept mostly towards the middle of the bridge, though from time to time Wren glanced out to one side or the other. From the Windspan, the city below looked like a circuit board coated in dust, running for miles in every direction. After about half an hour of walking, the snow had disappeared from beneath their feet, and the concrete was merely wet. They were still climbing up, though it was hard to tell if the angle of incline had lessened, or if Wren had just become used to the rise. Another half hour passed and a chilling fog descended upon them. He wondered briefly if they’d actually wandered up into the clouds.

Eventually the bridge seemed to level off, and the journey became a mere test of will; one foot in front of the other, with no end in sight — and cold to the bone. Swoop let them take a brief break, though it didn’t provide much rest.

Wren had thought he couldn’t possibly get any colder. Once they stopped moving, he quickly discovered he could. Cass and Swoop drew aside for a few minutes and spoke in low whispers, but Wren couldn’t make out what they were discussing. They didn’t halt for long, and though Wren’s body screamed with fatigue when they started off again, he was at least thankful for the warmth the effort generated, meager as it was.

“Only about four klicks to go,” Swoop said as they resumed their march.

“Only?” Painter said. “How mmmm-many were there to sss-, to start with?”

“Twelve,” Swoop answered. “Give or take.”

Wren tried to console himself with the thought that they were over two-thirds of the way across, but it wasn’t much use. He knew all too well that the end of the bridge wasn’t the end of their journey. And he didn’t know nearly well enough what the end held in store.

 

Painter’s whole body ached with the cold. Ache maybe wasn’t quite right. The sensation wasn’t exactly pain. It was more like a deep fatigue. Depletion seemed more accurate. But there was no doubt he was feeling the strain and discomfort of their bitter journey. He wondered now what would have become of him if he had come alone. Though, if he had come alone, he wondered if there would’ve been any need to make the journey in a single day.

He had been out among the Weir on his own before. Not often, but enough. Only once had he been attacked, and though he hadn’t mentioned it to anyone when they’d asked before, he felt certain he had provoked it. He had pushed the boundaries, testing his own limits. Though he hadn’t been bold enough to spend an entire night outside the wall, he felt stronger now than he had before. Stronger than he’d ever felt. And the closer they got to Morningside, the less certain Painter was that he would actually enter the city.

Painter started thinking through the scenarios likely to greet him upon his return. Would they arrest him for traveling with Wren and Cass? Or shoot him on sight? Finn had said Painter hadn’t been named in the order. Maybe if he showed up separately, everything could go back to normal.

But what then? Was there any reason to believe he’d face anything other than persecution? Would he be free to come and go as he pleased? It seemed doubtful that the situation in Morningside had changed for the better in the short time they’d been away. More likely it had worsened. Which meant that the best outcome Painter could reasonably expect was a return to a life of meaningless service to people who despised him.

Why, when you could have power?

The thought rippled through his mind, like rings of water after a stone has disturbed its surface. The thought was his, but what had instigated it seemed to have come from somewhere else. Within his mind, but not of it. And for the first time since that had started happening, he didn’t shy from the question it had stirred up.

What kind of power, he didn’t know. But he felt it within himself. Something else for him, besides a life of lurking — and merely hoping to escape notice. Something more concrete than vaguely wandering the open in search of his sister.

Not just survival.

Purpose.

 

The sky must have been darkening overhead for some time, but the lateness of the day struck Wren suddenly. Now that he’d noticed, he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t seen it earlier. They’d left the Windspan behind some hours ago and taken only two brief breaks since. Their pace had slowed noticeably. At first, Wren had thought that maybe Swoop was trying not to run them too hard. But now, watching the man ahead of him, he wasn’t so sure.

Swoop’s stride wasn’t as smooth as it usually was, and he seemed to be swaying from time to time. He’d been keeping ahead of them the whole time, saying it was safest to keep some distance between the point man and everyone else. Even when they’d stopped, he’d continued on a little ways to scout ahead, and then waited for them to catch up. But Wren couldn’t remember how long it’d been since he’d seen anything other than Swoop’s back.

Cass had, more than once, asked him if he was alright. His answer was always the same, sometimes over his shoulder, sometimes without even turning his head in their direction… He’d say, “Fine.”

At least there was some comfort in the look of the landscape. Wren didn’t exactly recognize where they were, but he recognized the feel of it. Home couldn’t be too much farther away now. If he could still call it “home”.

He had told Chapel that he was the governor of Morningside. Now he wondered if that had been true at all. Maybe he’d never really been governor because he’d always had the Council. He’d always had Mama. He’d always had Able and Swoop and Gamble. He’d always been surrounded by other people who could do the hard work when he couldn’t, who could make the hard decisions. And though Wren had always tried to do what he thought was right, he realized he could only remember one time that he’d made a decision that put himself in a tough position. Most of the time, he’d just been trying to find the compromise that made everyone happiest, or upset the fewest people.

That wasn’t governing. That was managing. Maybe it was the difficulty of that final stretch that had made Wren recognize the difference. The level of effort it took just to keep moving forward, just to keep pushing one step further. Whatever it was, he realized that more times than not, as governor, he had avoided situations that made him feel this way. He’d quit pushing when there were other options on the table. Like the time he’d overheard the guards at the governor’s compound talking badly about his mama. He’d walked right up to the brink then, and when it had been time to meet the challenge on his own, he’d shrunk back.

But maybe now, for the first time, he was actually doing something worthy of the title. Even if he’d already lost it. Maybe now he was thinking like a governor, and acting like one, whether he was or not.

And strangely, Wren didn’t feel any braver or smarter or wiser than he had before. In fact, he felt very small and afraid. But he knew in his heart that he was doing what needed to be done. He was doing what he had to. And even if he failed, which he thought was probably going to be the case, at least he knew he’d be losing for the right side.

“There,” Swoop said, and he stopped walking. The others caught up to him. There, up ahead, the top of the wall of Morningside peeked up over a rise. “Decision time,” he said. His breathing seemed shallow.

For a time, they all stood next to each other in silence, looking off to the city shining in front of them. Then Wren felt moved and he stepped in front of them and turned to face them.

“I had planned to come back alone. I know now that I could never have done it. So, thank you for bringing me here. But now I think I can finish it on my own.”

Swoop shook his head. “Not what I meant.” He grimaced, and drew a breath before continuing. “Not a decision whether I’m going back. Just wanted to know what the plan was.” Wren noticed now that the front of Swoop’s left pant leg was dark and wet, almost all the way to the top of his boot. His wound was still bleeding.

“Swoop?” Wren said, staring at the stain.

“I’m gonna make it home, little man,” he said. But even as Swoop said it, he swayed. Cass stepped around and looked him over.

“Oh, Swoop,” she said. He just looked at her with that flat expression. “How long have you been bleeding?”

“Little while.”

“When did it start up again?”

“Never stopped.”

“What?” Cass said. “You told me it was fine!”

“Said it would be fine.”

“How is it still bleeding?” Cass asked.

Swoop shrugged. He didn’t look like he cared much. But he didn’t look well either.

“There is a poison,” Chapel said. “It prevents the blood from clotting.”

Swoop looked over at him then. “Poison?”

Chapel nodded once, but he didn’t turn. His face remained angled towards Morningside.

“Any other effects I oughta know about?” Swoop asked.

“There could be a number. Pain. Paralysis. Death.” Chapel paused, but then he added, “Those beings who prey on their fellow man are evil creatures.”

“Well,” Swoop said. He took another deep breath. “Might as well finish the job.” He started off towards the city again. Cass tried to make him stop, but he shrugged her off and kept going.

Whatever lay ahead for Wren, he knew he wasn’t going to let Swoop wander off on his own. He turned and followed, but after a moment turned back. “Chapel?” he said. “Will you stay with us?”

Chapel remained impassive. “I will consider.”

Wren nodded. He had hoped Chapel would remain with them, but he knew it was a long shot. “I hope you’ll stay,” he said. Chapel didn’t reply.

Cass turned and started walking towards Wren. “Come on, Painter,” she said over her shoulder.

“I’m not g-going,” Painter answered. Cass stopped — and both she and Wren looked at him, surprised.

He said, “I’m not going back.”

“Painter, you have to,” Wren said. But Painter shook his head.

“I don’t have to do anything I ch… I choose not to do,” Painter said.

“But where else would you go?” Cass asked. “Why come all this way, if not to go back to the city?”

Painter looked off to the side, more avoiding eye contact than looking at anything in particular.

“I need some time,” he said. Then he looked back at Wren.

Wren could tell by his expression that he’d made his decision. Painter didn’t look sad or confused or anything. Wren hated to leave him behind, but Swoop was getting farther away, and Wren couldn’t think of anything he could say that might change Painter’s mind. He’d assumed that Painter had been planning to come back to Morningside to try to get some of his old life back. But he saw now in Painter’s eyes that he had something else in mind.

“You know what I c-c-came to do,” Painter said.

“I don’t think it’ll work, Painter,” Wren said.

Emotion flashed across Painter’s face, sudden anger, but Painter checked himself and merely said, “I have to try.”

He had his own plans. Maybe Painter was expecting to try and track Snow down himself. Maybe he was just having another one of his moments, and he’d come around on his own.

But as much as Wren wanted to tell his friend he had to come with him, it had been only a few hours before that he’d told Chapel that Painter was no one’s slave. Painter was a free man, just like everyone else in Morningside. Free to make his own choices, even if they hurt him.

“Bye, Wren,” Painter said.

“Bye, Painter,” Wren answered.

Cass shook her head, but seemed to sense Painter’s determination as well.

“Take care of yourself, Painter,” she said.

He nodded. Cass turned and walked over to Wren, and together they headed off to catch up with Swoop. It didn’t take long for them to overtake him. He was clearly on weak legs, and when they reached him, Cass took hold of his arm and put it over her shoulder. The fact that Swoop didn’t protest told Wren all he needed to know.

The city loomed before them, growing larger — and more ominous — with each step. As they came into view of the nearest gate, Wren could see there was activity stirred up just beyond it. A crowd had gathered inside. Or, perhaps, had been gathered. There were more guards at the gate than Wren had ever seen posted. And they were mostly facing inwards towards the crowd, rather than outwards.

And now that the moment of his return to Morningside was at hand, Wren felt anxiety. His whole body trembled with nervous energy, and his chest grew tight. But while his body flooded with emotion, Wren found it somehow didn’t touch his mind. In the midst of the swirling chaos, he was able to find peace.

One of the guardsmen finally noticed their approach and, after a flurry of conversation, six of them came forward out of the gate to greet them. Or to bar their way.

The ranking officer held up his hand as they neared. He looked nervous.

“By order of the High Council,” he said in a loud voice, “you may not enter the city of Morningside.”

Cass and Wren stopped where they were, about ten feet away. But Swoop took his arm from Cass’s shoulders and drew himself up.

“I look forward to you keeping me out.”

He didn’t stop, or really even slow his pace. He just kept walking straight towards the officer.

“Sir, we’re authorized to take any necessary action…” the officer said. Swoop was only a few steps away from him.

“Swoop,” Cass said. “Don’t.”

“Sir, please,” the officer said. He put his hand on Swoop’s chest. A mistake. Swoop’s hands flashed up, shoving the officer, but before the officer could fall backwards, Swoop caught the man’s jacket and jerked him. As the officer whipped forward, Swoop tucked his chin, and his victim’s face met the crown of Swoop’s head with an awful sound. The officer flopped awkwardly to the ground. Swoop stepped over him and kept moving through the gate.

The other guards stood stunned for a moment, but then one of them lunged and caught Swoop by the sleeve. Swoop turned with the motion and buried his fist in the side of the guard’s face. The guard went down to a knee, but that seemed to wake the others from their inaction. They collapsed in on Swoop.

Cass launched forward and threw two of the guards to the ground. The situation erupted into an all-out brawl. If Wren didn’t do something quickly, there was no telling how many of them would end up injured — or dead. He rushed into the writhing knot of people.

“Stop!” he cried. “Stop!”

Swoop had been knocked to the ground, and Wren threw himself on top of him. “By order of the Governor, stop!”

The guards fell back a step, still poised to attack, but apparently reluctant to risk hitting Wren.

“This man is my guardian and protector!” Wren said. “I demand that no harm should come to him.”

“You no longer hold any authority here,” said a voice behind him. Wren glanced back to see the officer getting to his feet. The poor man’s nose was crooked, and blood ran freely and dripped from his chin. Wren stood, and tried to straighten up, to make himself seem as tall as he could.

“I never surrendered that authority. Who claims it now?” Wren asked.

“The High Council,” he answered.

“It was just a Council when I left.”

“Things have changed.”

“Then take me to them,” Wren said. “And see that no one harms this man or my mother.”

“It’s not like that, sir. We’re going to have to arrest you all. It’s orders.”

“Orders given by an invalid authority based on a false accusation. My mother had nothing to do with Connor’s death, and Swoop has only ever loyally protected and obeyed his governor. The only thing either of them are guilty of is remaining faithful where others faltered.”

The officer glanced around at the other guardsmen, clearly uncertain how to handle the situation. And Wren understood his advantage now. While they were unsure, he was certain of his purpose, and that certainty gave him confidence.

“I can’t…” the officer said.

“You will,” Wren answered. He held out his hands. “I’ll allow you to bind my hands, if it will help you.”

“Wren, no,” Cass said, but Wren ignored her. Now wasn’t the time. The officer’s eyes flicked to Cass and then back to Wren.

“I am still your governor,” Wren said. “Regardless of what you’ve been told.”

After a moment of hesitation, the officer took out a pair of binders and clamped them around Wren’s wrists. Even when he had tightened them fully, they nearly slid down over Wren’s hands. Wren was pretty sure he could have pulled free if he’d wanted to.

“What about these others?” one of the guards asked the officer in a low voice.

“I don’t know, just… just keep an eye on ’em,” the officer said. “Until we get this straightened out.”

The officer and two other guards formed up around him, careful not to get too close to Swoop, who had worked his way up to his hands and knees, but hadn’t made it much further.

Wren looked at his mama.

“Take care of Swoop,” he said.

The officer placed his hand on Wren’s shoulder and guided him forward. It was only as they started away from the gate that Wren realized the crowd had gone nearly silent. They were almost all watching him, some with concern, some with confusion, some with contempt. The guards cleared a path through the people as the officer kept a tight grip on Wren’s shoulder. Murmurs swept through the crowd as they passed through.

Wren risked one last look over his shoulder, and saw Mama helping Swoop to his feet. There was a figure standing behind them in the distance, still outside the city: Chapel.

Wren smiled inwardly, as he quietly let the guardsmen lead him away to his uncertain fate.

Назад: TWENTY-THREE
Дальше: TWENTY FIVE

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