Wednesday, September 21, 2005

 

the child, ninety-nine


Stone was off himself now, running, vaulting over the fence. He only hoped that Mac had done whatever it was he'd been hinting at, to keep the other guards from noticing anything. The lone man ahead of him had dropped to his knees by the closest stake, the glittering blade in his hand.

And then a long arm was wrapped round the guard's throat, and the blade was suddenly in Stone's hand, the tip of it right under the man's chin.

'Don't move!' Stone hissed in his ear.

The guard in fact was frozen, tense in Stone's grasp.

'You're not going to touch another hair on their heads,' Stone promised the guard. 'We're taking our friends out of here and leaving. Cooperate, and you'll be fine. Give me an excuse, and I'll stick you right here.' He didn't want to or mean to hurt this guard, of course. But the guard had no way of knowing that.

Much to Stone's surprise, the guard's tension vanished. Instead, he began to shake, almost as if the man was having convulsions. And a slight sound escaped him, thin and reedy, like... like...

Laughter?

'A rescue?' the guard whispered. 'That's good. I was expecting there were a few more of you. Three avoided capture, right?'

Stone was stunned. How could he know that?

He tightened his grip, forcing the man's head back even further, letting the blade bite at his neck. 'You tortured that information out of them?'

'Me? No. I did no torture. And your friends never broke. Every time one came close, one of the two who had carried the tents always drew attention to himself. Those two can take beatings like nothing human! No, I have another reason to know the number of your group. And here and now is not exactly the place and time to discuss that. Let's get your friends free, and get out of here.'

Stunned, Stone wondered which was wisdom - to believe the guard's words and trust him? Or to slit his throat right away and leave him for the rest of the guards to find? Surprisingly, the impulse to gash the man's throat and see him bleed his life away was powerful, so powerful that he let the blade bite a touch deeper.

'Ow!' yelped the guard. 'What...?'

Aghast, Stone let him loose all at once, and the guard fell over into the sand, his hand going to his throat and coming away bloody. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' mumbled Stone, his head swimming. Staring at him, the guard reached for the knife that hung all but forgotten from Stone's hand. Scrambling up, the guard gripped the knife firmly, stood over Stone...

And turned to cut the first prisoner free.

Starr was suddenly at their side. 'What is this?' she whispered.

'An ally,' the guard replied. He moved to the next captive and sawed through the leather straps that held him to the stake as well. Interestingly, he had chosen to follow Mac's plan without even having heard it, for the first two he freed when Malachi and Morgenstern. Hopping up, the two moved quickly through the little forest of stakes, releasing one after another.

But they surely had no knives?

'Let's go,' said the guard, sheathing his knife. Malachi took up Joy in his arms, Morgenstern supported Linda, Forest helped the horribly beaten James. And quickly they were hurrying for the same part of the fence where Stone, Starr, and this curious guard had entered.

Starr helped Stone to his feet. He still seemed dazed, stunned, confused.

Mac met them at the fence and helped anyone who needed help to climb over it. He had with him the packs and canteens that Stone and Starr had left with him. Quickly Mac distributed among the group these packs as well as the extra one he himself had been carrying.

The guard waited till they were done with that, then said, 'This way.'

'But who are you?' Forest challenged. 'And where are you taking us?'

'Questions will have to wait,' the guard countered. 'And where I'm leading you, you'll want to go. Come on!'

They all glanced at each other as the man started off. He was heading around the east side of the corral and up the slope of that mountain into the darkness.

'What do we do?' Forest asked the others. 'Stone?'

'Come.' That was Maccabees. He started after the mysterious stranger. And so the rest, still puzzled, followed Mac.

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