Friday, February 10, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 17 - 'the third day begins'


***rewrite 25 apr 06 - towards the end, about Stephen losing his key***



Long before the guards - or security, as Rose called them - came around to unlock the doors for the morning, she, Lucy, and Linda were already up. 'What do you plan to do today?' Rose asked the others as she rummaged through her closet to find something to put on. Hmph, she added under her breath. It's all so gaudy - what would the Master want me to wear?

'I really don't know what we'll be doing today,' Lucy replied. She slipped behind the privacy screen in the corner of Rose's room to change. Both she and Linda had washed out the mire-stained dresses they had worn during their brief stay in the deepest dungeon, hanging the dresses up behind the screen to dry. Now Lucy changed out of her only other dress and back into this one, then set about hand-washing the one she'd just taken off.

'I hope Mac comes by,' said Linda. 'He might could tell us what we're supposed to be doing now.' Mac had shown up yesterday to fulfill his promise to help them finish searching their level. And Lucy, bless her heart, had obeyed the Master's order to her and apologized to Mac. Mac accepted the apology very graciously, and then the three of them had finished checking the floor for Walker.

They had found no trace of him - of course. Rose had suspected all along that they wouldn't; with her Committee connections, she was sure that if he had been brought to this level, she would have heard of him right away.

And so the question for the day was, now that their part of the search for Walker was concluded, and now that Ginger had become Rose - what were they to do?

Lucy finished washing the dress and hung it up to dry. Coming out from behind the privacy screen, she found that Rose was standing there, a bundle of clothes in her arms. 'Oh! I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long,' said Lucy.

'Not at all, my dear,' Rose replied. She still had that redolence of nobility about her; it just came naturally to her.

Lucy crossed behind the bed to strap on her sword and shrug on her pack. Might as well be ready, even if she had no idea what to be ready for. Linda, she saw, was straightening up the bedroom, folding and putting away the blankets - basically obliterating all evidence that Rose was entertaining company in her room. Good. She and Linda had slept on pallets made of blankets on the floor behind Rose's bed, hidden from the view of the window in the door in case anyone might peek in.

'Do you have any ideas what we should do?' Lucy asked Linda.

Linda only shook her head.

'I've thought about perhaps just taking Rose and leaving,' Lucy went on. 'You know, going on up to the cave and waiting there for the others, as Forest said we might. Other than that,' she shook her head, 'I suppose we might go upstairs, as Mac said Jack and Morgen plan to do today. I just don't like the idea of taking off somewhere with none of our people knowing where we will be.'

'Could leave a message with Rose,' offered Linda.

'True... But she doesn't know the others. She wouldn't know who to trust.'

Linda went on straightening things, then suddenly pulled open the drawer of the bedside table and pulled out a pad of paper. 'You could leave a note,' she remarked.

That was a thought. Lucy took the paper and sat down on the edge of the bed, thinking what to say.

'Linda, dear, I believe it's your turn now.'

They both looked up at Rose. And Linda breathed a quiet 'wow' once again.

It was amazing. Rose looked almost entirely different from the blaze-of-glory first impression she had made on Linda a day and a half ago. She was all simplicity now - and simplicity became her. Her hair was held back from her face with a plain headband, her fingers and neck stripped of the elaborate display of wealth from before. And her dress, a muted antique blue, was the least ostentatious item that she could find in her closet.

'You look great,' said Lucy.

Rose fingered the skirt of her dress. 'Isn't this nice? Linen, like the other dress the Master dressed me in. I don't even remember having this one...'

Linda left them to their chattering as she gathering her things and disappeared behind the privacy screen to dress. She rather liked the idea of having a place out of sight from the door to be able to change clothes. Down where she had been before - and it was the same throughout most of the dungeon - there had been no privacy whatsoever. Down there, it was mandatory that all areas of the cell be visible from the window in the door. Being the upper-crust certainly did have its advantages, she thought to herself.

Like Lucy before her, she exchanged the dress she was wearing for the one she had washed, then set about washing this one out. It was enjoyable, watching the way the color came back into it as the grime of the months of travel rinsed away.

Suddenly, without the least warning, there came the hammering of a fist on the cell door. Behind the screen, Linda froze. What...?

A moment later she heard the cell door spring open and a voice declare, 'Ginger! You are summoned to stand before the Committee and give account of your actions!'

Rose's voice stammered in reply, 'I... I... what? My actions?'

The voice - it was impossible for Linda to make out whether it was male or female - continued: 'You stand accused of welcoming the company of undesirables. You, Ginger, will give account and accept your punishment!'

'But I...' said Rose.

And that was all she got to say. Brief sounds of a struggle broke out, then came the slamming of the door. And that was all. Stunned, Linda craned her ears to listen, but heard nothing more. Eyes hollow, she turned and stared at the screen that walled her off from the rest of the room, her mind whirling, near to panic. What were they doing with Rose? And where was Lucy? Had she been taken too? Was... was there perhaps a guard left out there in the room, waiting to capture her as well?

For a moment longer she stood there, frozen by indecision. Then, reasoning that it was better to move and risk being caught than to stand here forever, Linda peeked out.

The room was empty.

Swallowing with a dry mouth, she called out, 'Gin-Rose? Lucy?'

Silence replied.

And then there came a rustling from beyond the bed. Lucy crept out, looking every bit as shocked as Linda felt.

'What happened?' said Linda, hurrying over to help Lucy to her feet.

'I... The door was opening, and I... I just bounced off the side of the bed and landed behind it.' And before Linda could congratulate her on her quick thinking, Lucy cried out, 'Oh, Linda, what a coward I am! I hid myself, and I let them take Rose away!'

Linda revised her opinion: Lucy looked far more shocked than she felt. The woman was all but ashen.

'Where did they take her? I mean, they said before the Committee, but where is that?'

'No one is supposed to know,' said Lucy. She blinked, then blinked again. And then the life started to come back into her eyes as she said, 'But I think I have a fairly good idea. If things are still much like they used to be before...'

Squaring her shoulders, Lucy added, 'Come on.'

And as they unlocked the door and slipped out into the corridor, Linda reflected: they didn't have to wonder anymore what they would be doing this day. But it was a pity now that they hadn't taken Rose and gotten her away to the cave while they'd had the chance.

~~~~~~~

Down in the deepest belly of this fortress, it was morning. Stone knew it was morning, because the bedlam of guards rousting out the prisoners was assaulting his ears. Groaning, the man stretched out his arms, working the kinks out of his spine. It wasn't easy, sleeping while sitting up and leaning against the wall. But since the alternative was lying down to sleep in the mire...

Before going to sleep the night before, he had stuck the candle stub into his pocket so he could find it again quickly when he wanted it. Now he pulled it out and lit it. Its meager light spilled out, illuminating this tiny corner-world curtained off by that blanket. And there, on the other side of the stack of their packs - there was Starr, her head resting on the packs, still sleeping.

Poor kid, he thought. She's all worn out. He would have liked to just let her sleep, but...

Reaching over, he gave her shoulder a gentle shake. As she opened her eyes and tried to focus on his face, he asked her, 'How do you feel now, honey? How's your ankle?'

She sat up, coming all the way awake. She gave his question a bit of thought, then said, 'I don't know.'

'Well, let's try standing you up,' he answered. Getting up himself, he took her hand.

And it was a repeat of what had happened yesterday. She still couldn't put any weight on it.

They both sat back down. 'All right,' he said. 'That's what I wanted to know.'

'What?' asked she.

'Whether I could get you out today.'

'Stone, I really...'

'I know, hon,' he said. 'But hear me out. I did a lot of thinking this over during the night. And... well, Walker's not here. And there must be some purpose to our being down here in this dungeon. If you could walk, I would make you go upstairs - yes, I would! - to make sure you were save. As it is...' He sighed. 'Well, the only thing I know to do is get back out there and look for someone who wants out of this place.'

He paused. And when she made no protest, he added, 'Thank you.'

'For what?'

'For no 'I told you so's' - for no 'just go look in Solitary' - for no... pushing.'

Again she said nothing, only looked up at him with those great wide eyes.

'I know what you think, and the dream you had, dear,' he added. 'I know you believe he's the one we were sent to bring out. But - I can't go back there. I just... can't.' Another sigh. 'I mean, all I need is another kick in the head. You know?'

'Yes, Stone,' she said quietly.

'So,' he said. 'I'll be going out there now. And I really, really need you to be praying for me. Ok?'

'Yes, Stone,' she said again.

He leaned closer, looking her in the eye. 'Mad at me?'

'...no...' she said.

'Disappointed, then?'

Ah! Her eyes dropped. 'Maybe... But I wasn't going to say anything.'

'Little girl...' said he, touching her cheek. He saw the tears she was holding back. 'Maybe another time, with another team, the Master will break through to him and bring him out. I just don't see it happening now - and especially not with it being me. He just hates me too much.'

The tears came now, flowing out. Stone drew her close and held her. 'And you love him, honey. My little girl with the big huge heart.'

'It's not my heart,' she mumbled against his shoulder. 'It's the Master's.'

Again he yearned to kiss her. Cinching her a bit closer instead, he held her for a long long moment. Then let go. 'I'll be back,' he promised. 'You be praying.'

'Yes, dear. I will.'

He waited to a silent inner count, then said, 'I love you.'

At just the same moment as she was saying it to him! Her jaw dropped open as he chuckled madly. 'Gotcha,' he grinned.

And then he was off. She heard the sound of him unlocking the door, then closing it behind him. After a moment's thought, she picked up the candle and blew it out to save it for later. And then, into the darkness, she began to pray in words she did not know.

And then, softly, to sing them.

~~~~~~~

'Man, this is exciting!' whispered Seth. 'Sneaking out like this - prowling round the dungeons, dodging guards...'

'We're not doing it for the excitement,' Forest pointed out. 'We're doing it to find Walker.'

'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' Seth replied. 'But that don't mean it ain't exciting too.'

'Know anything about this level?' asked James. They had waited till after roll call to be reasonably sure no guards would be coming and going on the stairway and, having slipped away from the crowd of fighters, were now making their way downstairs to the next level below Seth's.

'What I know 'bout this level ain't a whole hel... a whole lot,' said Seth, catching himself in the middle there. With a shrug, he added, 'Now, there been a few times when these weird screams came echoing up outta the floor under our feet. And I mean weird. Liked to scared the sh... well, liked to scared something outta me.'

Forest scratched at his nose to cover up his grin. Old habits die hard, but Seth sure was trying his best to keep his mouth in check. It was when the boy glanced over and spotted James using the same excuse to hide his own grin, that Forest had to really fight not to laugh out loud.

Seth scowled. 'What's the matter with you two, covering your noses like that? You smell something?'

Forest was about to answer no when he realized that he was in fact smelling something. Phew, and something foul! And the closer they came to the door to the next level down, the stronger the smell became.

Except it wasn't just a smell anymore. It had already progressed to a stink, and was rapidly approaching stench.

'Feh!' said James. He took off his pack and pulled a cloth out of it to tie around his nose and mouth. 'Well, that's a little better,' he said, muffled. 'Wonder why, with all the times we've gone up and down these stairs, we never noticed this smell before?'

Forest did the same, finding also a cloth for Seth to use. Looking now rather like a trio of bandits, they gathered in front of the door.

'Smells like a couple dozen skunks that all got mad at the same time,' muttered Seth. 'Or else all died at the same time.'

Forest glanced at the big guy, but wasted no time on wondering how, in the dungeons, Seth would have ever come across any skunks. For the boy had recognized the nastiness now. 'Remember Jessie's house?' he said to James.

'The house that wasn't really hers? Yeah. Where you fought the demon.'

'...demon...!' said Seth.

Forest was nodding, pointing at the door before them. 'I smelled this same thing then,' he said. He met both of the others' eyes briefly, then reached out and opened the door.

A light that had more kinship with darkness met their gaze. And as they peered more deeply...

Seth let out an oath in spite of himself. 'We're going in there?'

Grimly, Forest loosen his sword in its sheath. 'For Walker's sake, yes, we are,' he said. And plunged in through the door.

James followed right on the boy's heels, and Seth reluctantly after them. And then the door, though no hands touched it, gave a shake and slammed itself shut behind them.

~~~~~~~

If Jack and Stephen had been shocked when the guards mistook Morgen for Stephen, imagine how the girls felt when the guards there mistook Malachi for Talitha! And what's more - Malachi seemed to know ahead of time that that was going to happen.

'Wait till everyone is taken upstairs,' he told Joy as they heard the guards coming down the corridor. 'Then follow. I will slip away and meet you.'

'Slip away? From where? Where are you going to be? It's Talitha who's going to need to slip away,' Joy objected. But Malachi only smiled in reply as he shouldered his pack and turned towards the door.

As it opened. A scowling guard looked in, jerked his head at Malachi, and said, 'Move it out here, Talia.'

And that was it. Malachi was gone, leaving the two girls standing stunned in Talitha's cell. 'Um,' whispered Talitha. 'What just happened?'

'I have no idea,' Joy replied. Heading for the door herself, she stood to one side, peering through the window, hoping to see without being seen as they waiting for roll call to be done.

Of course it took half of forever. Joy had to remind herself that there were well over three hundred cells here, all of which they had searched in the past couple of days. The girls waited endlessly as the head guard barking out name after name, and voice after voice called back 'Here.' It was so tedious; both of them yawned more than a dozen times, and Joy resorted to pinching herself to stay alert.

And then the guard yelled out, 'Talia!' And the deep voice of Malachi replied, 'Here.'

And Joy marveled. His voice was so un-Talitha-like! And yet - roll call went on. No one noticed a thing? Couldn't they see straight? Couldn't they hear?

The minutes dragged by, but then finally the order to 'Move out!' was given. Joy waved to Talitha then and the pair of them got ready to head out as well. Joy nervous fingered the key in her hand, waiting for everyone to be gone first before she slipped it into the lock.

And... There; that was the last of them. Nodding to her companion, Joy whispered, 'Let's go.'

They moved silently, reaching the stairway door and doing still more waiting before they dared to slip through it. The noise of many feet preceded them over their heads; they had to hold back and move slowly lest they overtake the crowd of prisoners. Joy found herself really hoping that no one else would decide that this would be a great time to come back downstairs.

On upwards they went, passing landing after landing. After a bit, Joy lost track of where they were. At the next door they reached she paused and glanced at Talitha. 'Here?' she whispered.

Shaking her head, Talitha pointed at the door and mimed stirring something, using both hands.

What? thought Joy, not comprehen... Oh... The laundry! And as Joy's face brightened in understanding, Talitha pointed upstairs and held up one finger. Yes, that's right, thought Joy. The barracks were one level up from here.

On they went. The noises ahead of them diminished as the prisoners reached the barracks level and plodded through the door. Joy and Talitha slowed still more, craning their heads upwards, watching and listening. Please, Joy thought, praying, please no guards coming back down again!

And then the door slammed and there was great silence. The girls looked at each other. How close should they follow now? With a shrug, Joy led the way on up.

At the landing, Joy glanced at Talitha; this was the right door this time, wasn't it? At the tall girl's nod, Joy leaned close and placed an ear to the door, listening. Were the others far enough ahead of them now for her to safely open the door? And now that she understood why Malachi had said he would slip away - where was he?

No sound beyond. Unlike the cell doors, the stairway doors didn't come with windows in them to peek through. Flexing her fingers nervously, Joy wrapped them round the door handle. Prayed a prayer both brief and earnest to the Master, she braced herself and opened the door.

Nothing. The corridor beyond was empty.

Whew. With an encouraging smile to Talitha, Joy led the way out of the stairs. But which way now?

Talitha pointed. 'Barracks are that way.'

'But do we want to go that way?' Joy whispered back.

Talitha looked around them. 'I don't know. But I don't think we want to just stand here in the hall.'

True. One more glance around, and Joy started off away from the barracks. There was no telling what was here on this level, she reasoned - but they were more likely to be able to search in solitude if they chose a place where the people weren't.

Swiftly they reached a closed door. Forgetting to listen first, Joy whispered, 'Let's start here,' and reached for the doorknob to unlock it.

Oh, but there was no need to do that. For the door abruptly opened in their startled faces.

~~~~~~~

In quiet and unseen, Mac was watching Beatriz. Watching, watching. Until he would know what he was to do next.

~~~~~~~

Stephen stopped in midstep. 'Did you hear something?'

Jack, just ahead of him on the stairs, paused as well. 'What did it sound like?' he whispered, both of them keeping their voices low. The last thing the pair of them wanted was to be heard. After all, the whole reason for sneaking upstairs like this was to find Walker, not to join him.

'Not sure,' Stephen replied. They waited, barely breathing, to see if the sound would come again.

Nothing.

After a minute or so, Jack shrugged. 'C'mon.'

But as they turned to continue up the stairs, Stephen clutched at the back of Jack's shirt. 'There!' he whispered.

Yeah. This time Jack heard it too.

'Footsteps, you think?' asked Stephen.

Jack frowned. 'Could be...' he muttered. 'Maybe it's the girls...'

Stephen brightened at that. At report the night before, Joy had said that she and Talitha planned to come upstairs as well today, helping to search for Walker.

But as they went on listening, as the footsteps came closer, both men frowned deeply. No, that sound was much too heavy to be the girls.

Grimly, Jack loosened his sword in its sheath. 'Stay behind me,' he whispered to the unarmed Stephen. This was really a rotten place to make a stand, Jack knew - an enemy coming from below could easily cut his legs out from under him - but there was nowhere else to go. And so Jack waited. And prayed.

The footsteps stopped now, halting at the landing just below them, still out of sight. 'Be ready to run away if you have to,' Jack whispered. His arm tensed, ready to draw his sword.

And then a quiet voice floated up to them: 'Be not afraid.'

Relief swept through both Jack and Stephen. Morgen!

Yes. He appeared round the corner now, coming to join them. 'Oh, it's you' fought with 'What are you doing here?' to be the first words out of Stephen's mouth. While Jack said, 'I sure didn't expect you.' He plunged the hilt of his sword all the way back into its place as he added, 'What are you doing here?'

'I am come to aid you in your search,' Morgen replied simply.

'But,' Stephen objected, 'you were taking my place again at work. Won't they miss you?' A pause. 'Won't they miss me?'

'I think not,' came the response.

Oh. Another pause, then Stephen muttered, 'Sure hope you're right...'

'Well, anyway, glad to have you along,' Jack said. 'Let's go.'

On they went, continuing up the stairs. For someone who had just been making enough noise to put the two of them on alert, thought Stephen, Morgen was certainly quiet enough now to creep up on a mouse...

They had long passed the ground-level where Linda's party was, and continued on up into the realm of the guards. On they went, up, up. Where exactly they should begin their search, Jack had no clue. But something - gut instinct? - pushed him on. Higher. Higher.

Hmm. Jack might have felt the slightest little click inside; it was hard to tell. But shooting a glance at the others, then at the door just above them, he stopped and said, 'Here.'

Morgen nodded. Stephen shrugged and said, 'As good a place as any, I guess.'

'Well, if we'd gone much further, one of us might have gotten a nose bleed,' Jack quipped. With an 'after you' gesture towards Morgen, he moved to flank the door on the left. Morgen took the right; Stephen crowded behind Jack. They listened for any sound coming from beyond this door.

Nothing.

All right. 'Go,' said Jack.

Morgen went. There was a tense moment's wait after he passed through the doorway before he called back, 'All clear.' Jack moved up, waving Stephen through ahead of him, then took the rearguard. And as Jack slipped through the doorway last of all, he had just enough time to wonder what this level would be like...

...before he saw for himself.

Well. Not a whole lot different. Endless corridors as usual, but fewer doors. No one was about.

For the moment.

They stood in a tight knot together as the door closed behind them. 'Which way?' asked Stephen.

He was asking Jack. Jack immediately turned to pass the question on to Morgen, only to find that Morgen too was looking at him in silent expectancy.

Oy. 'Um,' Jack responded. 'Um. Ok. Well, let's go lef - no, right.' He pointed the way, and then found he was leading, for Morgen dropped back to take the rearguard this time, leaving Jack with the point, since the weaponless Stephen must of course stay sandwiched in the middle.

Well. Jack took a cautious step forward, and they moved out.

They reached the first door and Stephen made ready to unlock it. He was about to fit his key into the keyhole when a lot of noise started coming their way.

From behind them. They needed to hide!

Panicking, Stephen tried to hurriedly jam the key into the lock - only to watch helplessly as it flipped from his fingers instead, landing a good yard or so farther up the corridor. He choked on an inappropriate word and started to scramble after the key.

But there was no time for that. Jack's sword appeared in his hand as he whirled and pressed his back to the wall, his free arm swinging out to grab Stephen and shove him back against the wall as well. Morgen too had sword in hand, but instead of trying to melt into the wall behind them like the others were doing, he turned and stepped forward, moving towards the sound. Strangely, Morgen seemed to be larger than usual, as if he had something - wings? - extending out from his sides, to shield his two friends behind him.

The source of the sound now rounded a corner and started their way. Stephen's stomach sank; oh, yes - it was guards.

Jack's heart, on the other hand, soared up into the back of his throat. Guards, yes, heading for the stairway door they had just passed through. And in the midst of the guards, heavily laden with chains, there was stumbling along a lone figure, with a face so battered as to be almost beyond recognition.

Almost - but not entirely. For Jack recognized him, and a moment later, so did Stephen.

Walker!

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