Page 59


Then she got it. “This is about Chris?”


“Let’s just say I’m taking advantage of an opportunity to speed things up a bit,” said Jess. “You had to be ready, too. Now you are.”


“Ready for what?”


“For the same mission that led Isaac to sacrifice. Abraham was called by God to choose, and he chose righteousness. In the end, he was rewarded and Isaac was saved.”


Great, a Bible story. Just what she needed. “That doesn’t make any sense. That was a test.”


“And so is this,” said Jess. “Christopher cares for you. He wants you. He’s Chosen, whether he knows it or not.”


She felt the flush start in her neck. “I don’t know about that.”


“Young lady, I may be old, but I’m not senile.” Her mouth curled. “Much. I heard it in his voice. I hear it in yours.”


“You can’t hear something like that,” Alex said, then remembered what Kincaid had said: Hearing like a bat, but with nuance. And she remembered all those times she’d caught Jess looking at her: through windows, across a crowd.


Looking, because she’d heard every word, even ones Alex barely gave voice to.


Jess was an Awakened.


67


They were well into the woods now. Nathan’s dog bounded alongside, surging through the snow. It was very cold, but there was no wind. The air was gray and still as the trees pulled together out of the shadows and into the coming dawn. Alex caught just a whiff of wood smoke from somewhere far ahead; that, and Nathan’s sweat and the dog, and Jess, immutable, as regal as a queen on her horse.


Nathan. Alex’s eyes narrowed. The guard was clearly following Jess’s orders. Did that mean there were other people in Rule willing to do the same? If so, then Jess didn’t need Chris to break any rules; she was doing it herself already, wasn’t she?


Unless there was a limit to how much she could do, how many people were willing to follow. Jess and Kincaid were tight; they were Awakened, just like the Rev, but only Chris was a Yeager. Well, not quite: his last name was Prentiss, so that meant that Chris’s mother had Yeager blood, but she’d run away. Still, in Rule, that might count for a lot. Pitting Chris against his grandfather might be the only way for things to change. But what things? Turning away refugees? Doling out girls? What was Jess after? What did she want done that only Chris could do? Was challenging Yeager such a risk? Maybe so. Jess clearly thought so, and Chris had always balked, maybe because that meant challenging Peter, too—and Peter was an Ernst, one of the Five Families. So, for Chris to challenge his grandfather and Peter, he would have to want something badly enough to risk everything.


If Jess was right, and Chris wanted Alex, then she was the bait.


Hell, she was the prize.


“Wait a minute,” she said, pulling up on her reins. Kincaid’s horse stomped to a halt. “You want Chris to come after me.”


“Of course,” said Jess, but she might as well have said duh. “Wanting is sweet, and a person desperately wants what he cannot have. If Christopher wants you, he will have to fight for you.”


“But you’re using me,” she said, trembling with a sudden blast of anger. Beyond, she saw Nathan turn. “How do I know this isn’t just window dressing, something to make me think I’m going to get away, so it can’t be faked?”


“You have a gun.”


“So do you.”


“I’m not going to shoot you, Alex. You will have to trust me.”


“Jess,” Nathan called. “Jess, we got to go.”


“Trust you?” Alex’s fists balled in fury. Beneath her legs, the Appaloosa reacted, snorting and prancing. “Why should I? You’re making it sound like this challenge is some big deal, like civil war or something.”


“It is,” Jess said.


Yes, Kincaid had said factions, hadn’t he? The Ernsts against the Yeagers? Or were there others? She remembered that extra chair, how unbalanced the Council had seemed. Because there was someone else? A sixth family?


“What if Chris gets hurt? What if his grandfather—”


“We won’t let that happen,” said Jess. “I know you have no reason to trust me, but we won’t.”


The image of Chris riding into town, finding out she was gone, stole her breath away. He would come after her—and God, in another time and place, she might even want that. “If there are so many of you, why don’t you do it then? Why don’t you break a few rules?”


Jess’s voice was as icy as her scent. “And what, exactly, would you call this, Alex?”


Nathan: “Jess.”


“This is Rule, girl, and the best I can do. If there is to be change—a challenge—it must come from Chris,” Jess said. “If he wants to be a man and blood of my blood, he must be tested. Test everything, but hold fast to what is good.”


“Blood of my blood?” said Alex, and then remembered what she had heard but not really understood.


Jess had said it, plain and simple: I thank God my grandson was spared.


Not spared as in saved from seeing how the world had ended, or seeing his mother die—but Spared.


Jess was Chris’s grandmother.


Did Chris know? She didn’t think so. He had never said—


Nathan let out a shrill, warbling whistle, and Alex jumped in surprise. “What is it?” she asked.


“There,” said Jess. “On the trail and in the trees. We’re almost there.”


Alex looked. Maybe three hundred feet farther on, there was movement on either side of the trail, and then she spotted two snow-white horses in the woods and their riders, in camouflage white with only the dark ovals of their faces to betray that they were there at all. A bit farther on, in the high, spreading branches of a large oak, a man, armed with a crossbow, nestled in a wooden tree stand.


“All right,” said Jess. “Remember: at the fork, take the left—”


Someone shouted Alex’s name, faint but unmistakable, and as she turned in her saddle, she knew.


Chris, on Night: charging down the trail, bulleting through the woods at a dead gallop. He was still just a little too far away for her to make out his face, but she heard him just the same.


“Alex!” Chris screamed. “Alex, no, stop! Stop!”


68


“Go!” Jess shouted. When Alex hesitated, Jess swatted the Appaloosa’s haunch. “Hiyah! Go, go!”


Startled, the Appaloosa shied and then spurted down the trail, surging with a mighty heave of its legs, and then Jess was right there alongside, and they were hurtling toward the edge of the Zone. Gasping, Alex had to fight not to pull back on the reins; if she did that, she would be thrown in an instant. Ahead, she saw Nathan’s dog dance out of the way as Nathan’s horse kicked off the trail and they thundered past.


“Keep going!” Nathan shouted. He waved them on. “Go, g—”


“Alex!” Chris shouted, and now his panic was unmistakable. “Alex!”


“Go!” Jess slashed the Appaloosa with her reins, whipping the animal to a frenzy, and now it was all Alex could do just to hold on. Hunching down in the saddle, she grabbed for the pommel, tightening her thighs around the horse’s middle, feeling the horse’s power jolt up her spine with every pounding step. She and Jess were dead even, their horses blazing through the woods. The trees were a blur, a flash of whippy branches that grabbed at her arms and her hair, and she felt the sting as one scored her cheek.


“Alex!” Closer now. She risked a quick peek back, saw that Chris was chewing up the distance between them; saw that he was gaining, would catch them, catch her. “Alex, stop!”


“Let her through!” Jess shouted, and then she gave the Appaloosa one final, vicious cut of her reins.


Kincaid’s horse screamed, a braying screech, and then it rocketed through the snow, bearing down on the mounted guards, and then they were there and gone in a flash, and she was past them and still going. Streaking beneath the archer in his stand, she broke through and then she was out of the Zone, she was out of Rule, she was out of reach and gone, and Chris—


A shotgun boomed, a blast that sounded like the earth was breaking in two—and Alex just had time to think, God, no, Chris!


With a high, bawling cry, Kincaid’s horse reared. Alex shrieked and flung herself at the horse’s neck, knotting her fists into its mane. The horse reared again, its neck popping back. It hit Alex’s forehead, and for a dizzying moment, she thought she would be thrown for sure. There was blood in her mouth, and her vision tilted as the horse stabbed down, but she held on.


They were turned around now, the horse dancing beneath her, and she was looking back down the trail, back toward Rule. She saw the shotgun in Jess’s hands, saw that Night was still rearing, saw that the guards had converged and were now wrestling Chris from his horse. Chris tumbled to the ground, but he was flailing, fighting them, clawing his way back to his feet. She saw one guard slip and fall, and then Chris was free, and he was churning through the snow, trying to get to her.


“Alex!” He was close enough now that she could read his despair, and then she suddenly caught the keener edge of another scent she knew: horror. He shouted, “Please, Alex, you don’t know what you’re—”


Jess clubbed him with the Remington. The blow was short and precise and caught Chris behind his right ear. Chris dropped to the snow in mid-stride and was still.


“No!” Alex cried. She tightened her knees, and the Appaloosa started back toward Rule. “What are you do—”


“Stop.” Jess racked the Remington and pointed it at Alex. In the tree stand, the archer leveled his bow, his arrow ready to fly into her chest. “Not another step.”


“But Chris …”


“Will be fine. Shake thyself of dust and loose thyself, o’ captive daughter of Zion. Go, Alex,” said Jess, “and do not look back.”


She did as she was told.


***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***