They’d left the ranger station on November 10. Ellie had been taken the very next day, on the eleventh. By Harlan’s estimate, he’d last laid eyes on her a week or ten days after that. Harlan had been banished from Rule before Thanksgiving, so she couldn’t ask him, but hadn’t he said that they’d been attacked south of Rule? She thought that was right. But the boy had come from Oren, which was northwest and over fifty miles away.
That meant one of two things. Either Ellie had made it to Oren, or someone else had taken the whistle from her—maybe while she was still down south—and then found his or her way to Oren. Either the boy had actually seen Ellie and she had given him the whistle, or someone else had. Any way you cut it, someone had laid eyes on Ellie, maybe as recently as six weeks ago, when Chris had returned from Oren with books and those sunglasses.
And Lena. Angry, sullen, furious Lena was from Oren, and she’d tried to get back. Why? Because there were other people there? Yes, Lena had brothers who might still be alive. So … another enclave of survivors? Had to be.
An image of Lena spitting something at Chris and then grabbing him, flinging herself into his arms …
And Chris: It’s not what you think.
Well, she knew that already, didn’t she? Alex had tasted the truth in his lips, felt it in their embrace. Knew it from his scent.
So if not that—if this was not about Lena and Chris as a couple—then what? She went over the sequence again and recognized now not only anger but desperation in Lena’s body language. Lena had been frantic about something. But what? What could Chris possibly be in a position to do—
Oh, my God. Alex gasped as the pieces clicked into place, the solution to a puzzle she’d only now realized had been there from the start.
No, not desperate over what.
Desperate over whom.
Alex thought it might work like this.
Going on patrol must have more than one meaning. There was patrol, as in patrolling their perimeter, keeping out all kinds of bad guys. But there was also riding out of Rule in search of supplies—meaning that they would almost certainly run into other survivors. There were raiders, so she knew there were other enclaves, doubtless many other Rules. She’d been the one to suggest that they band together. Chris had dismissed that, saying that she didn’t understand.
But what if the men of Rule were not, in fact, the Armies of Light at all—but those of Darkness?
Now that she allowed herself the thought, she realized its logic. Of course, the men of Rule must raid other settlements. Look what happened in New Orleans after Katrina, in Baghdad when the troops invaded, or in the days when you could go to a grocery store right before a big old storm—a blizzard, say. The shelves got cleaned out in a heartbeat. People fought over bottled water in the aisles and slugged each other in the checkout lines. People stole. They looted. Sometimes, they killed to get what they wanted.
Things were a little different now, but maybe not by much. A lot of people were dead—not young enough to be Spared and not old enough either. But it was a safe bet that the Changed weren’t heading out for a loaf of Wonder Bread. That left an awful lot of people—and maybe a fair number of Spared—wandering around, looking for the basics of survival: warmth, water, food, shelter. She just bet those stores got cleaned out pretty quick. Hell, she’d seen enough on the road herself to realize this was true. She’d found a lot of bodies—but no food. So why did she ever swallow that Chris or Peter or any of the other patrols just happened to come upon a nice little grocery store somewhere that no one had thought to check out?
Because she’d wanted to believe them. No, that wasn’t quite right. She couldn’t afford not to. She just hadn’t wanted to think, period, because she was grateful to be safe and warm and fed and protected. But if they—she—had food and medicine, someone else went without. That was the way the world—brave and new, or not—worked.
So, you’re Chris or Peter, armed to the teeth, and you raid and take what you need. But way back, Marjorie had said that towns let in people with kids—because kids were valuable.
So what if you’re carrying out a special mandate, following an order that only a few, select people know?
Jess had said it: Following orders doesn’t make you a man.
So what if the orders were to find the Spared?
And not just that. Maybe the new rule was to find and then bring the Spared back, whatever it takes.
And kill anyone who stands in your way.
An hour later, the boy’s blood pressure fell. Alex woke Kincaid. They pushed fluids and Kincaid used the last of the dopamine to try and bring the boy’s pressure back up. By the end, the boy’s face was so swollen he looked like one of those good-luck Buddhas.
He died well before dawn and never once opened his eyes.
She had to get out, Chris or no Chris; whatever was happening between them didn’t matter. She had to get out.
Greg said that the others were a day behind. That meant that Chris and Peter would be back very soon.
She had to get out before Chris returned, though she wasn’t exactly clear on why that was so important. Remembering that sudden heat and their hunger for each other made her stomach fluttery with anxiety. Would she lose her nerve if she saw him again? No, no, that was crazy. She was crazy if she didn’t take the chance and run, now. Whatever was happening between them … well, she wasn’t sure what it was and she didn’t want to find out.
Kincaid was done in and not thinking straight or he’d never have agreed to let her take his horse back to town alone. Dawn was two hours away yet, and the night was still heavy and deeply cold, with a green thumbnail of a moon. As she left the hospice, she gave a cheerful wave to the guard hunkered in a puff of polar-weight sleeping bag inside the lobby’s double doors. The guard, a retired miner not as debilitated and old as his sicker friends, hollered something she didn’t hear but that she thought might be see you later.
“You bet!” she shouted back, thinking, Not bloody likely.
If there was a time to go, it was now, before Chris and the others made it back. The guards would still change over at seven, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Kincaid’s horse was much larger and stronger than Honey, and she thought that this horse was probably pretty fast. But she had to be smart. Galloping out of town with nothing was just flat-out dumb, and she needed to gather up what she could.
She touched her jacket, felt the knot of the Gigli saw she’d liberated right before she got Kincaid, and the slender line of a heavy-duty scalpel. Unless she planned on strangling someone, the Gigli wasn’t much of a weapon, but you could take off someone’s nose with the scalpel. She still had the boot knife. Kincaid had a gun, but it was in his office. Where could she go, right now, to find another? Nowhere. She wasn’t about to try breaking into the jail, and she knew only a limited number of streets in Rule, and where a few people lived. Come to think of it, she didn’t know where Chris lived either—and that was a shame, because she knew he was gone. Greg said all the guys had a couple of guns, so no telling what Chris had at his place. Well, no use worrying about what she couldn’t change.
Riding at night was not as hard as she thought it might be. The snow shimmered like a silver ribbon, and the light ghosted through the forest well enough that she could make out individual trees. She’d have to be careful, though. No telling what was under the snow—fallen trees, tangles of brambles. The last thing she needed was a horse with a broken leg.
The southwest corner was her best option. Greg had said there were not as many guards, although Sarah said there were guards in the woods, some in the trees. Yes, but she had an advantage. She ought to be able to smell the guards and avoid them. If they had dogs, she might be in trouble, but she couldn’t think how a dog would be of any use in a tree stand.
Yeah, but then maybe she shouldn’t bring the horse. A horse made a lot of noise, and this night was very quiet, no gunfire at all. Even raiders didn’t want to freeze their asses off.
There would be the Changed, though, and they weren’t stupid. Yeager could call them beasts all he wanted, but they knew what clothes were for; they’d be out there. She wondered if they’d learned about fire yet. Sure, why not? Jim, Tom’s friend, remembered how to evade, and that girl at the gas station had a club. And if one of them figured out how to use a gun …
Stop, you’re overthinking it. One disaster at a time.
When she turned into the village square, there were more men, and they all gave her a very long look as she passed. She screwed on the cheerful, chipper, just-minding-my-business look and kept moving….
“Hold up there a sec.”
Shit. For a split second, she thought about kicking the horse to a wild gallop, but she pulled up and waited as another rider came alongside. He was squat, with arms like Popeye and no neck. She knew him, had seen him around the village hall, but couldn’t dredge up a name.
“You shouldn’t be out alone,” he said. He even sounded a little bit like Popeye. “That’s Doc’s horse.”
“Yeah, but don’t tell anyone, please?” She gave what she hoped was a tired, grateful smile. “Doc let me take him. We’ve been up all night, and I just needed to get out of there.” It helped that this was true.
“That boy they found up by Oren?” He gave her a one-eyed Popeye squint. “Yeah, heard about that. How’s he doing?”
“He’s dead.” She was so tired that her eyes began to well, and then she was crying for real. “We were up all night. It was … pretty bad.”
“Hey, wow, it’s okay.” He tried giving her an awkward pat on the shoulder but didn’t seem to want to touch her and only ended up patting air. “You’re a good kid. It’s okay, you’re just all done in.”
“I’m really tired,” she said, backhanding tears from her cheeks. “I just need to lie down, I think.”
“Sure, sure.” He pulled up in his saddle, looked over his shoulder and then back at her. “Look, I’d take you home myself, but I got to head out, meet up with the guys coming back…. You going to be okay going by yourself the rest of the way?”
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