Birthmarked Page 49

"I don't understand," Theo said. "What's happened?"

Emily set a hand on Gaia's arm. "Gaia's leaving, Dad. Jasper and Bonnie are dead. She wants to go to the Dead Forest with her sister."

The others exchanged looks, and then Theo took off his hat. He circled it in his big hands. "I'll go with you," he said.

Gaia shook her head. "You can t, Theo. You have your family here."

"But, darlin, do you even know the way?"

"Do you?" Gaia asked.

Theo's helpless expression was echoed in the faces around him.

"That's what I thought," Gaia said.

Emily's family began gathering things to put in a pack. Emily brought a sling of gray cloth that she had used with her son, showing Gaia how to arrange it over her unharmed right shoulder and down to her left hip so that she could carry the baby snugly in a pouch of fabric across her chest. Kyle packed a box of matches and a knife, a small pan and a sack of corn meal, a slab of mycoprotein, and a bag of pecans into the backpack. Then he filled a couple of water bottles and added those. Theo rolled a tarp and a couple of blankets into a tight bundle and attached it with straps to the outside. Emily added diapers, three canisters of baby formula, and two baby bottles, until the pack was stuffed full.

"Take this in case it rains again or gets cold," Emily said, handing over a clean gray cloak that swept to her knees. The fabric had been worked with beeswax to make it water' proof.

"You're better off traveling light and trying to make some distance," Theo said. "If you can get yourself far enough north, the wasteland changes into forest. There's water there. That's what you'll be needing most."

"The Dead Forest," Gaia said.

"Yes," he said. "That's what we've heard."

Gaia looked around at the cosy home and the strong, loving family, and she felt a pang that was half loss, half envy. She was leaving this place forever, and everything here that might have been.

"Thanks," Gaia said. "All of you. More than I can say."

"We'll take you as far as the edge of Wharfton," Kyle said, shouldering her pack.

She looked up at him, seeing his determination, and couldn't refuse. "Look after those ledgers," Gaia said to Emily.

"I will. I promise. And you look after yourself, will you?" Emily gave her a tight, fierce hug. "I'll miss you."

Gaia wordlessly hugged her back, and then she, Kyle, and Theo slipped out the door.

The rain had stopped completely, and the streets of Wharfton were quiet. Only a few groups of people still lingered after the fireworks. Mist clung in the air, and there was a tang of acrid smoke from the explosives. Once Gaia heard loud voices and knocking, but as they hurried farther from the wall and closer to the unlake, the sounds diminished. She and the men walked quickly, avoiding the few lights that might make them visible to a camera lens. Gaia had no doubt that Mabrother Iris was at his screen desk, watching for any flicker, ready to command his soldiers to converge upon them.

When they reached the unlake, they turned west. The expanse of the unlake was a heavy void of darkness on her left that sucked down the streams and trickles of water crossing beneath her feet. Soon they passed Sally Row and Gala's old neighborhood. For a moment, she remembered her old home, the shady back porch, the smell of fabric drying in the sun, the tinkle of the wind chime. She could hear her father working the treadle. She could see her mother rinsing out her blue teapot. She tried to picture what life would have been like if the guards had never arrested her mother, if she'd been able to stay home, pregnant and healthy, enjoying this late little baby girl with her husband. Then she looked in the direction of the potters field, invisible in the night, and wondered if they would bury her mother there, too, beside her father.

Gaia peered into the darkness, keeping her gaze forward, until they reached the last row, the last house, the last yard.

"This is good," she said.

Kyle transferred the pack to Gaia's back. She hitched it forward, settling the weight to minimise discomfort to her sore left shoulder, and checked that the sling with her sister in it was still balanced along her chest. She hitched her skirt up a bit, and laughed as she realized she was still wearing the 'white boots. At least they were comfortable.

"Good luck, Gaia," Kyle said softly. He gave her a quick hug and passed her along to Theo for another.

"You have everything?" Theo asked.

She felt for the locket around her neck, tucked inside her dress. "Yes," she said. "Give my love to Amy."

"And you know your stars?" Theo asked.

She looked up at the cloud-filled, dark sky. An area of pale glowing showed the moon was behind the clouds, and that they were moving fast. "I will," she said. "When they show up."

Theo gave her one last hug. "You re a brave girl," he said.

She didn't think so. She was just doing what she had to do. With a last wave, she headed out alone into the night, finding her eyes had adjusted and there was just barely enough light for her to avoid tripping over the stones and grasses. The road became rougher and narrower, then finally vanished altogether. Crickets sounded in the damp night. When she'd gone on for some distance, she turned back to see if the others were still watching her, but she couldn't make out anything but the lights of the Enclave, spreading up the hillside toward the Bastion.

She wiped a strand of hair out of her eyes, and her fingertips graced the familiar scarred skin of her left cheek. She adjusted the baby's warm weight in the sling, and then turned away again, lifting her boots carefully for each step as the ground began to rise.

Rain run-off trickled between the stones, and a fragrant, stone-scented mist was rising from the ground. She could sense the open expanse in the night ahead of her: not a tree, dead or otherwise, this side of the horizon.

At the top of the first rise, she paused one last time to look behind her. The white, curving line of the wall was clearly visible under the distant floodlights, dividing the hulking hillside into two sections. Below, there was a faint scattering of reflections and rare, isolated lights. Above the wall, pinpoints of light dotted the Enclave all the way up to where the towers of the Bastion reached toward the dark sky. From this distance, the lights looked cheery, welcoming, as harmless as fireflies, but Gaia felt a residual shiver of fear ripple through her.

Where is Leon now, she wondered. Had they put him in the tower where her mother had so recently been captive? Had they killed him?

He'd saved her. She did know that much. He'd given the guards a new target just long enough for her to get away. She couldn't help wondering how long he'd planned it, or if he'd known when he kissed her that he would be sending her ahead without him. She hoped, if he was still living, that he believed his sacrifice was worth it, and even more, she hoped she'd be worthy of it.

Leon had told her to head north, to the Dead Forest, to a place he didn't even believe existed. Maybe he'd decided he did believe. If ever he could find her and join her again, that would have to be where.

Gaia peered south, toward the unlake, and heard a bird chirp somewhere to her left. She pivoted right, and sensed the vast, open space of the wasteland stretching before her under the opaque sky, a darkness as thin and final as the velvet lining of a shroud. A touch of wind lifted against her cheeks and ruffled her skirt. The little bundle of her sister was solid and warm against her chest. "Let's start north, Maya," she said.

As she walked through the dark, stepping softly through the wet stones, she looked ahead to where the first cautious star managed to blink through the clouds.

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