Deliverance Page 101

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It seems to take forever to reach the first branch. My blood-soaked tunic is stuck to my back, and every move I make feels like someone is scraping sandpaper over my wounds. I crawl onto the limb, rest my face against the trunk, and clench my jaw to keep from crying.

“I can do this,” I whisper into the gloomy twilight. “It’s just pain.”

Just pain. Just pain. I repeat the mantra to myself as I get to my feet, stab the dagger into the tree, and start climbing again. By the time I reach the highest cradle, the one that will let me see out over the Wasteland in every direction, I’ve given up trying to keep the tears at bay. I crawl into the small nesting spot supported by two branches at my back and another two on either side and struggle just to breathe without sobbing.

The stars are silver dust scattered across the sky, and the moon is a low-slung wedge that spills white light across the treetops like a path made of liquid diamonds. I position my back so that the bleeding wounds are between the two supporting branches, peel my tunic away from my skin as best I can, and tilt my head back to stare at the sky.

The last time I lay out beneath the sky near Rowansmark, Dad was sitting near me, the package from Marcus in his hands. If I close my eyes, I imagine I can smell the remnants of our campfire and the gamey scent of the rabbit meat we’d wrapped in leaves and hidden in my pack to keep for morning. I can hear Dad humming quietly, the same lullaby he sang for me when I’d wake as a child from nightmares that now seem dull in comparison to the terrible things real life can bring. With my eyes closed, I can hang on, just for a second, to the absolute peace and security I always felt whenever he was near.

My eyes open, and I raise shaky fingers to wipe tears from my cheeks. I don’t know if I’m crying because I hurt on the outside or because the ache of missing Dad feels more real in this moment than it has since the day I lay weeping on his grave.

“I miss you,” I say softly, my voice breaking over the words because they are too small, too ordinary, to sum up everything he meant to me. “It was you and me and Oliver against the world for so long. And now it’s just me. Me and Logan.”

My words are quiet against the chorus of crickets and the quiet shush-shush of wings as an owl passes by overhead. I sit for a moment, staring at the stars, and then say, “I want you to know that I understand why you went back for the package. Why you didn’t take it to Baalboden in the first place. And I’m proud of you for saving Quinn and Willow, even though it cost you . . . even though . . .”

My throat closes. I let the grief rush out of the silence, split it wide open, and consume me. I let it have me, and I feel. I feel the bright shard of pain in my chest when I accept that I will never pick up my Switch and spar with Dad again. That Oliver will never call me Rachel-girl, and I will never be forced to swallow Dad’s terrible cooking, and my little yellow house in Baalboden will never be filled with laughter and fairy tales and the good, cinnamony scent of Oliver’s sticky buns.

I cry until I have no more tears, and then I raise my face to the heavens, to the place where I know Dad and Oliver are looking down on me with the same fierce love that I will always feel for them, and I say, “Thank you for raising me to think for myself. Thank you for telling me fairy tales but also for teaching me how to face the battles I’d need to win in real life.”

I grab hold of a branch on my left and slowly reach my right hand toward the sky, imagining I can feel the whisper-soft touch of my family in return. “I love you both. I always will.”

I swallow hard and let a painful kind of peace fill me as I say the last word I need Dad and Oliver to hear—the most complicated, powerful word I know.

“Good-bye.”

Then, as my last word to my family floats across the endless expanse of trees in front of me, I use the kudzu vine to anchor myself to my perch, wrap my cloak around me to try to keep predators from catching the scent of the blood drying on the back of my tunic, and pray with everything in me that I will hear Logan before he gets caught in James Rowan’s trap.

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

LOGAN

“Keep moving,” I say quietly as we carefully skirt a cluster of thick, flowering bushes growing in clumps in the shadow of giant hickory trees. “If we stay in one spot for too long, the sentries will find us.”

We spent the night up in the trees, lashing ourselves to the branches with rope and keeping as silent as possible to avoid detection by the Rowansmark sentries who make regular rounds to check the city’s perimeter. I kept the tracking device in my hand so I could check it every few minutes, even though logic would indicate that unless Rachel was moving toward us, the screen would remain blank.

We’ve spent most of the day slowly circling the Wasteland north of the city, noting the routine of the guards at the gates, avoiding sentries, and trying to find other ways into the city.

So far, I don’t have any workable ideas. Rowansmark is clearly expecting an army from the north. The city’s wall is bristling with soldiers and cannons. There’s a triple guard at the entrance. If we’re going to get into the city, it won’t be through the gate.

“We need to move east through the forest and then cut south. The city shouldn’t be as heavily guarded there. We’ll have a better chance of getting in.” I hope. I have no idea if there are multiple entrances to Rowansmark, but I do know wandering around north of the wall is getting us nowhere. And every second we waste trying to find a way in from the north is another second that Rachel is in danger.

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