Birthmarked Page 8

"There you are at last, dreamer," her mother said. "Look here. I want you to see this, where it's likely to grow. See these broad, soft leaves, almost furry?"

Gaia couldn't see how one plant was much different from the others around her. She put her hands in the pockets of her dress and twisted the material there, making it bunch around her legs. She expected that Emily would be gone again to Sasha's today.

"Gaia. Pay attention. This matters," her mother said.

Gaia didn't know what she was doing wrong. She didn't know why her mother was being sharp with her. All she knew was that Emily should be there with her. Gaia let her head hang and hot mist filled her eyes.

"Hey," her mother said softly. She held out a hand. Gaia couldn't move.

"It's those girls, isn't it?" her mother said.

"I miss Emily," Gaia whispered.

"Sit here," her mother said gently. "Right next to me."

Gaia checked carefully that no grasshoppers were jumping in the area, and then she sat on her haunches, keeping the skirt of her dress wrapped tightly around her legs. She wiped at her eyes.

"Here's the thing about friends," her mother said. "Sasha I'm not so sure about, but Emily, she'll come back around to you."

"How can you tell?"

"I just can. It's something about depth in a person. Now, look closely." Her mother began again, more patiently. And now, as if she were seeing an entirely new plant, Gaia

inspected the pale green leaves and stems. Her mother dug the plant out carefully, and Gaia saw the spidery fineness of the roots.

"What's it for?" Gaia had asked. Her throat didn't feel as tight anymore. She sniffed.

"There's my girl," her mother said. "It helps stop bleeding. It helps a mother's belly contract again after she has a baby."

Gaia fingered the soft, furry leaves.

"Want to help me find more?" her mother asked.

And Gaia had nodded. Just that simply, just by needing Gaia's help, Gaia's mother had known how to make Gaia feel better. Not so lonely.

Now, years later, Gaia leaned forward, hugging one knee to her chin. There couldn't be a more perfect mother than her mother. Never had anyone been so intuitive, so generous, so real. And her father was her mother's ideal, balancing match.

Gaia picked up the loaf of bread that Derek had given her and inspected it. Faintly she could see a mark scored in the top crust, the baked version of the single line she'd seen him cut in the loaves in his shop. He'd made no explanation at the time, but now she wondered at it. She glanced up at the two yellow candles on the mantel. She'd kept the tradition of lighting them each evening at dinnertime in honor of her brothers. She thought of the single strand of bluegrass the weaver put into everything he made, and the fresh posies the blacksmith always hung over his anvil. It seemed everyone who had advanced a child remembered the baby in some way, with a mark or a daily ritual.

Ghost brothers had played beside Gaia her entire life, invisible to all but her parents. Perhaps loss was what had made Gaia's mother so tender. Perhaps she hadn't minded being arrested because she hoped she'd see her sons within the wall.

No. Her parents deserved to be free.

Impatience drove Gaia to her feet. All the doors were open to catch any faint breeze. She peered out the open front door, then gently closed it. She lifted her skirt and untied her mothers satchel. Inside was the brown ribbon, carefully embroidered with silk threads. It looked like a pretty decoration a young girl might wear in her hair. It was long enough to wrap around her head several times and knot so the ends would fall down the back, but she didn't put it on. She tried to make out a pattern in the colored threads, but while many of the figures looked like numbers and letters, they were unlike any alphabet she knew. Gaia scanned her mothers note again, side by side with the ribbon, but there was no similarity.

From down the road, she heard the laughter of a child, and she glanced up. There was the "tock" of a ball against a bat. One of them called something in a merry, high-pitched voice, and the lingering, melodic tone triggered a memory.

"Ah!" Gaia gasped.

Letters. The alphabet. The alphabet song. Her father loved to play his banjo and sing, and when Gaia was a girl, one of his special delights had been teaching her to sing the alphabet song backward, starting with Z, T, X. He had used the code in little notes to her as well. She jotted out the reversal code:



She looked again at her mothers message and began deciphering, switching each letter with its reverse letter in the alphabet so that W became D and so on.

Destroy it. Destroy this. to to DANNI O

She slumped back as the mystery only became more puzzling. The message was in her mothers handwriting, but in her fathers code. Did they write it together, or did her mother just remember the trick?

The message itself was the same thing Old Meg had told her: go to her grandmother, Danni Orion. But Gaia s grandmother had been dead for over ten years. Gaia barely remembered her, and her parents had rarely spoken of her. It had seemed as though there was something shameful or tragic about her death, and now that she thought of it, Gaia didn't even know how her grandmother had died. She didn't remember a funeral.

Was it possible her grandmother was still alive? Gaia tried to guess how old she would be, and put her in her mid-sixties. Granted, she would be old, but it wasn't inconceivable to live that long. Then again, it might just be her mother's way of telling her to go to the Dead Forest. Frowning, Gaia fingered the piece of brown parchment, turning it over and over in her hand until the paper was warm, and then she reached forward and dropped it into the fire where it flared for a second and shriveled into ash.

If she obeyed her mothers command, she would destroy the ribbon as well. She looked closely at the silk threads, hoping they would resolve themselves into a clear message, but the design was inscrutable.

It made no sense to her. She searched its entire length of approximately three feet, finding a seam where a segment had been sewn on to make it longer, and the threads on the newer segment were brighter. It's uncharacteristically careful for Mom, Gaia thought. Whatever it meant, Gaia couldn't bear to destroy it. She hoped her mother would forgive her.

She wrapped it smoothly around her thumb, coiling it into a neat, soft loop that fit easily in one hand. Sighing, she slid it back into the little pouch and retied it around her leg. She stood up and poked the wooden spoon back in the pot of red dye. Even the wood of the spoon was dyed red now, and the brown skirt was a deep, dark red. The white shirt remained obstinately pink.

"Enough," Gaia muttered. She fished out the skirt and dropped it in a basin by the door. When it was cooler, she wrung it out and spread it on the line behind her house, low to the fence where it would not be visible from the road. She added the last of her father's red dye to the pot and watched in satisfaction as it swirled a dark, bloody color that thoroughly infused the shirt. lf Derek wants me in red, I'll come in red, she thought grimly. That was one direction at least that she could follow.

Chapter 6

The Obelisk

ALTHOUGH SHE'D LEFT THEM on the line to dry late into the evening before donning them, Gala's shirt and skirt were still slightly damp when she left her parents' home for what might be the last time. She shivered as the night air came through the cold seams. The red was concealed beneath her black cloak, and she carried her satchel over her right shoulder. If anyone chanced to see her out and about, they would presume that she was going to a pregnant woman.

A cricket chirped. As Gaia approached Derek's bakery, the moon slid behind a cloud, and she felt her heart beat faster as much from anticipation as from her steady climb up the hill. His bakery was dark, and she had to touch along the door to locate the handle by feel. She had just found it when the door swung inward.

"Gently there," came Derek's voice in the dark. She felt him steadying her arm, and she slid silently within. Coals glowed deep in one of the ovens and cast a reddish hue into the room, leaving deep shadows in the corners. She shivered once more in the warmth. Derek's family must be sleeping for no one else was there. In the quiet, the coals made a warm, flickering sizzle.

"Are you ready?" she asked.

"You're certain of this?" he replied. "You could go back home. I could forget we ever talked."

She shook her head. "I have to see my parents."

She could hear his deep inhalation of breath. "All right, then. Are you in red?"

"Yes, under my cloak," she said.

He picked up a bucket with a cloth over the top. "Where are the Tvaltar passes?" he asked.


She watched as he held them briefly toward the oven, then deposited them in a drawer.

"Come on, then," he said. And he opened the door.

The inky, violet darkness of the street surrounded them as Gaia followed him out of the bakery, and she inhaled the dry scent of night blooms and grass. Somewhere near there must be a eucalyptus tree she had not noticed in the daylight, because now she could smell the medicinal fragrance of its bark.

In silence, she followed him up the street, then down another. They climbed steadily for nearly an hour, until she was warmed from within and her clothes were completely dry. The moon reemerged, full and perigee, to travel over her shoulder and illuminate the roads as they became narrower and more uneven. The houses grew smaller and more decrepit until the shanty homes seemed hardly more than rootless boxes to echo back the shuffles of their footsteps. She had never been to this area of Wharfton. She thought they were moving away from the wall, but then another turn brought them up against it in a remote place where a limestone cliff merged with the actual stones of the constructed barricade.

"Wait," Derek said softly.

She paused, looking back over her shoulder. Farther away, and downward, she was surprised to see the glow of the gate where so often she had delivered babies. She could even see the small, alert figures of the guards, shrunken by the distance. Along the eastern horizon, the short summer night was al' ready yielding to a hint of purple. She turned back to the hulking mass of the wall, seeing a guard tower above and to her left. She couldn't tell if it was occupied.

Derek was doing something at the base, something that made a quiet chinking noise. She huddled nearer and put out a hand to brace herself on the cool, gritty stone. Close up, in' fused with ghostly light, the blocks of pale granite looked roughly hewn and patched with lichen, but together they created an unyielding surface that rose six or seven meters high. By the moonlight, she saw Derek remove a large, flat stone. Surprised, Gaia realized it must have been already loose.

"Is it a passage?" she asked.

"Hush," he said. Then he drew her nearer, and she peered down to knee level, where an opening showed a glow of pale light on the other side. The opening was a space barely larger than the underside of a kitchen stool, but by crouching and crawling, she could make it through. This is it, she thought. I'm going inside the wall. She dipped her head into the opening, breathing in the fusty, earthy scent.

"Take this," he said.

"What is it?" She looked back to see a bulging towel in his hand.

"Dough. When you get through, I'll move the stones back in place. Take the dough and spread it like mortar between the stones."

"But what if they see me?" she asked.

"You'll be behind a hedge, near a refuse pit. It's unlikely anyone will be looking. But you have to fill in the mortar or the loose stones will be seen during the day. You understand?"

Gaia nodded, taking the towel.

"Then hide your cape and keep the hood of your tunic up," he said. "You'll be able to walk a bit like that, unnoticed. The Bastion servants often walk about the streets at night, and the guards don't bother them."

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