Birthmarked Page 42

"Hurry!" Leon urged her as she reached for the door handle, and then he was nudging her ahead of him. Gaia pulled him through, and then they were running again down another hall' way, to another staircase, one that spiraled downward into increasing darkness. Windowless walls of stone echoed the clatter of their hurrying feet. She stumbled once and gasped, slashing her hand against the wall.

"Gaia!" he called, turning back for her. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," she said, feeling the sting along her palm, and dimly perceiving a dark line of blood. She repositioned the baby in the nook of that arm, so her good hand was free. The air was cool and smelled stale, of old sawdust and onions. "Where are we?" she asked.

"It's the wine cellar," he said. "It should have lights. Ah." They'd turned the last corner, and a motion detector flicked on a light bulb, revealing a long, low-ceilinged room with mason' work arches. As she hurried behind Leon, twisting between a dozen tables and shelves loaded with old pots and potatoes and turnips, Gaia glimpsed catacomb like cavities filled with bottles and barrels. Leon gave a savage kick to a tall, wooden work' table that had a row of drawers.

"In here," he said to Gaia, over the rattling. "See if there's a knife."

Gaia glanced back at the doorway, hearing footsteps.

"Hurry!" Leon commanded.

She ripped open drawer after drawer, scattering their con' tents on the floor, until Leon tapped his boot onto a sharp, serrated knife. Gaia laid the baby on the table and grasped the knife. She slipped it into the rope that bound his wrists, and with three jagged tears, she had him free.

"Yes!" Leon hissed, curling his freed wrists in front of him.

Gaia snatched up the baby just as the first guard appeared. "Stop there!" he yelled.

"Here!" Leon said, grabbing her hand and ducking into one of the niches. A gunshot exploded, and another bullet hit the wall beside her. She hit the floor. Leon was yanking barrels away from the back wall, and she had a terrifying moment of suspecting he'd led them to a dead end, but then a deeper blackness opened in the wall and cool, dank air touched her face. Leon grabbed her shoulders and pushed, and she stumbled forward into nothingness, bracing her body to protect the baby as she fell against a stone wall.

She felt Leon fall against her, and then the door slammed shut behind them and they were pitched into the black of utter darkness.

Chapter 25 The Tunnels

Gaia'S EYES WIDENED against the darkness, searching for any glimmer of light, but the black was complete. She could hear Leon shoving something by the door, and then sharp banging noises and muffled voices came from the other side.

"Help me push," Leon said.

Completely blind, she put out her hand and felt him wedging something solid and hard against the door. She put her shoulder beside his and pushed as best she could with Maya in her other arm. The door shuddered but didn't move.

"It won't hold them long," Leon said.

The baby felt even smaller in the dark, and Gaia wrapped both arms around her. "Where are we?" she asked.

"It's the tunnel from the wine cellar," he said. "Remember the map?"

She heard a scratching noise, and then brilliant light burst from the tip of a match. Leon's frowning face appeared in the glow before he lifted the wick of a candle. A violent, battering noise came from the door, and Gaia jumped. She saw they'd wedged a bench into the woodwork of the door, but already it was buckling.

"They're following us!" Gaia said.

Leon grabbed a couple more candles from a box on a shelf, and then he was moving. He lifted the candle toward a narrow tunnel carved into the bedrock and shielded its flame with the cupped fingers of his other hand. "Hold on to me."

"Just go. I've got you."

She gripped the back of his shirt and flew after him. The one flame was enough to reveal the dark stone walls and ceiling of the tunnel, where, at intervals, wooden beams had been added to support the walls and ceiling. She once dared to look behind, where their forms cast a huge, frightening shadow back into the blackness. Once the tunnel forked, and Leon took the right tunnel. Then it forked again, and he went left.

There was a crashing, splintering noise behind them, and loud voices.

"Hold tight! Hurry!" Leon said, speeding faster so that the flame flickered wildly.

With each turn, the voices of the men fell farther behind.

"Quietly!" Leon said, slowing his pace hardly at all.

Gaia stumbled forward, gripping even more tightly on his blue shirt for balance.

He stopped. "All right?"

"Yes," she said, regaining her balance.

He started on again. As the distance between them and the guards increased, their voices diminished and then vanished entirely. Gaia could hear only her own labored breathing and her footsteps chasing Leon s over the uneven ground. In places, the tunnel had caved in, and they had to scramble over and around dusty rubble and stone. Maya gave a little whimper in her arms, and she saw Leon look back over his shoulder to her.

"All right?" he asked again.

"Are we lost yet?" she asked.

He let out a laugh. "Fiona and Evelyn and I used to play down here," he said. His voice had an eerie, muffled quality against the close walls. "Remember how you asked about hide-and-seek? Here. Take my arm now beside me. It's a little wider here."

"It's just kind of creepy," she said. A feather touch traced her face, and she looked up to see the ceiling was lined with spider webs, ashy thin in the darkness. She looked back the way they had come. "I don't hear anybody," she said.

Leon nodded and lifted the candle in the still air. "They'll come," he said. "They'll just be slower because they'll have to figure out which way we turned at each fork." He started forward again, shielding his flame. "Hold tight."

"Where are we going?"

"There's a place ahead where we can decide. If it's not caved in," he said.

She sped with him several more minutes in silence until they came to a widening of the tunnel, an area where the path diverged again. When Leon finally stopped, she released her grip on his arm and peered around her. Several wooden wine crates were arranged in a rough square, enclosing a little area beside the nearest wall. At her feet, an old gray cushion had been used for a mouse's nest, laced with black feces and seed husks. Leon was lighting a couple of fresh candles from the stub of the old one and he passed the first to her.

"Here," he said.

She lifted her candle to cast light into the crates. Shreds of chewed paper lined the boxes, the remains of comic books and magazines, and mixed in with these she saw the distinctive shapes of a yo-yo and a handful of scattered jacks. One shelf higher up contained piles of papers. A map of the Enclave and Wharfton, coded with colored marks and stained with damp, was fixed to the wall. The cool, earth's cented air was chilly to her, uninviting, and it was hard for her to imagine children playing here. Normal children, at least.

"What is this place?"

"Command central. Our fort. Fiona and Evelyn and I used to hole up here, long ago." With the toe of his boot, he pushed at a tin container and marbles rolled inside. "Fiona was obsessed with figuring out who my true parents were and where they must live. Especially when I turned thirteen. That's when I had to decide whether to live outside the wall or not, but of course, no one ever does. It was a game with endless possibilities and no solution." His gaze shifted from her face to the map on the wall. "How ironic to be here now, when I finally know the answer. We only have a few minutes, but from here we have a choice which way to go. You okay?" he asked.

She nodded. "Good enough, considering."

"I take it you found your mother," he said.

Gaia tried to form the words to say she'd died giving birth, but they wouldn't come. Instead, she glanced down at the baby and saw her murky blue eyes were focused on the candle in a vacant, dreamy way.

"It was bad, wasn't it?" he said. With his sleeve, he wiped at the corner of his mouth, erasing the trace of blood from the Protector at's blow.

"I couldn't save her," Gaia said, and then stopped before her loss could overwhelm her.

"I'm sorry, Gaia. I wish I could have done something."

He had tried, she realized. He'd been caught trying to get to her. Later, maybe, she could let herself think of her mother, but now she had to save her sister. "Maya will need food soon," she said. "Where do these tunnels go?

He lifted his candle to the left. "This way goes northeast toward where the wall meets a cliff. It ends in the cellar of a bar. If we could make it out of the bar, we'd be close to the wall, and we could run for it." He nodded toward the right.

"This way cuts a bit south and east, to the cemetery near Ernie's cafe where I saw you that day."

"Near the garden with the boulders?" she asked, stepping close to the old map on the wall. "The cafe's here on this little square?"

He nodded. "Yes. The tunnel collapsed in places, but we might be able to get through. When I was last down here, it was passable, but that was a few years ago."

"Who else knows where the tunnels lead out?"

"Half a dozen people, probably. My sister Evelyn, for sure. The Protectorat must know of the bar exit. This was an iron mine long before the Enclave was built here, but most of the tunnels have fallen in, and they're not safe."

Gaia had learned that the founders of the Enclave had drilled deep, deep below a defunct iron mine to reach a source for geothermic energy and steam, but she rarely thought about it. She tried to look down the tunnels for a clue as to which way to go. It sounded to her like they were trapped.

"Is there anywhere else?" she asked, examining the map.

"Only one other tunnel branches off this one," he said, "but it leads away from the wall, back toward the Bastion, to near the Nursery and the honey farm."

"The Nursery?" she said.

"Fiona found the way. She liked to go see the babies." He tapped a place on the map that was just north of the Bastion.

Gaia's gaze skimmed across the old colored markings on the map, mainly little X's scattered around Wharfton, and then she went still inside while her mind swirled. A terrifying, brilliant idea occurred to her. There was a faint, distant noise from behind, and she started in alarm.

"Leon," she said. "You wanted to find your birth parents when you were a kid, but what information did you have?"

"None really, besides my birthday. Fiona was trying to find families outside the wall who had siblings a year or two on either side of my birthday, but no kids my age. It was like trying to find where there were not pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, with none of them put together."

Gaia nodded. "That was because you didn't know the in-formation about birth parents from outside the wall. You didn't have my mothers code."

"I know," he said. "Nobody had your mothers code. We searched through our family records, but there was no information about my birth parents. Sometimes I thought I could remember something from when I was an infant, but it made no sense."

"But there was information about who adopted you," she said.

The candlelight pooled around them, shifting across his features as he watched her curiously. "Of course. What are you getting at?"

She seized his arm. "All my mother wanted, all she really wanted, was to know my brothers were all right, but she couldn't find out who they were inside the wall. Oh, Leon." A thrill shot through her. "We have to get to the Nursery. I have to try to get the records of who adopted the advanced babies once they came inside the Enclave."

"Who they became inside?" he asked, with a flicker of pus' sled concentration.

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