I felt him go very still under my arm, and his heart rate sped up. "Yeah," he mumbled, not looking at me. "It was a lucky thing."
Miraculously, despite the obvious scent of blood in the air and the conspicuous trail we left behind, we managed to avoid any sudden rabid attacks. Breaking free of the trees, we found ourselves at the edge of a large clearing, encircled with a barbed-wire fence. The remnants of an ancient barn sat rotting within the fence, overgrown with weeds and falling apart, and a rusty tractor sat beside it in the same condition.
In the middle of the clearing, a wall of corrugated metal, wood and cement surrounded a low hill. Bonfires had been set a few feet from the perimeter, lighting the darkness with heat and smoke, and I could see lights and other structures beyond the wall.
We eased Joe through the barbed wire, taking care with his leg, and started across the clearing. Halfway across, a shout came from somewhere up ahead, and someone on the wall shone a f lashlight into my eyes. Joe shouted back, waving his arms, and the light disappeared. A few minutes later a rusty groan echoed across the field as the gate opened and three people, two men and a woman, rushed toward us.
I tensed out of habit, and because the younger-looking man did have a rif le, though it wasn't pointed at us. The other man was lanky and rawboned, but it was the woman I paid the most attention to. Her brown hair was in a pony-tail, and though she didn't look very old, a few gray strands poked out from the sides. She might've been pretty once, but her face was lined with creases now, her mouth pinched and severe. And her eyes told me that, without a doubt, this was the person in charge.
"Joe!" cried the woman, f linging herself at us. "Oh, thank goodness! We thought you were dead." And despite her words, she looked as if she would have slapped him if it wasn't for his injuries. "What were you doing, going into the forest by yourself, you great damn fool? Never mind! Don't answer that-
I'm just relieved you're home. And-" her shrewd brown eyes suddenly fixed on me "-I see I have some strangers to thank for your safe return."
"Be nice to them, Patricia," Joe gasped, making a feeble attempt to smile. "They saved my life. Killed a rabid pig without blinking an eyelash-damndest thing I've ever seen."
"Did they now?" the woman continued coolly as Joe was taken by the two men and limped back into the compound.
"You don't say. Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways." Her sharp, no-nonsense gaze fixed on us. "My name is Patricia Archer," she said briskly, "and I don't know who ya'll are, but anyone who takes care of one of mine is welcome here."
"Thank you," Zeke said solemnly. "I'm Zeke, and that's Allison."
"Pleased t' meet you," Patricia shot back, leaning forward and squinting at us. "Let me see you better-my eyes ain't what they used to be. Lord have mercy, you're young. How old are you, boy? Seventeen? Eighteen?"
"Seventeen," Zeke replied. "I think."
"Well, ya'll are extremely lucky, traveling through the forest alone without running into rabids. They're quite the menace 'round these parts."
Menace? I thought. Like raccoons and rodents are a menace? A rabid boar nearly took off a man's leg.
"What are y'all doing way out here, anyway?" Patricia continued, but not in a wary, suspicious tone. She just sounded curious. "The pair of you could be my grandchildren. Oh, it doesn't matter." She waved her hand in front of her face.
"Stop being nosy, Patricia. Let's get inside afore we attract rabids. I insist you get a hot meal and some sleep. We have a couple of empty rooms. And we can heat a few pots of water for hot baths, as well. You look like you could use one." A hot bath was a luxury I'd only dreamed about in the Fringe. People said they existed, machines that heated water so that it came out at whatever temperature you wanted. I'd never seen one, myself. But Zeke shook his head.
"Thank you for your kindness," he said politely, "but we should go. We have people waiting for us in the forest."
"There are more of you?" Patricia blinked, looking up toward the trees. "Well, goodness, they can't stay out there, boy. David, Larry!" she called, beckoning two men down to the gate. "There are more people out in the woods," she announced sternly as the men scrambled out, each carrying a rif le. "As soon as the sun comes up, find them and bring them back. In fact, wake Adam and Virgil-tell them to help you, too."
"There's really no need-" Zeke began, but she shushed him.
"Hush, boy. Don't be silly. Ya'll helped one of mine, now I'm going to do the same. It's not like we see other humans around here. Where did you say the rest of your group was?" Zeke still looked reluctant, unwilling to give up the location of the others or hesitant to accept help from a total stranger. But I glanced over the trees, to where the sky was beginning to lighten, and my nerves jangled a warning. The stars were fading. Dawn was on its way.
"About three miles southeast of here," I said, making Zeke frown at me. I ignored him, meeting Patricia's worried gaze.
"There's about a dozen more out there, though half of them are kids. You might need to convince the preacher, though.
He can be stubborn."
"A minister?" Patricia's eyes lit up. "Oh, that's wonderful.
He can come pray over Joe. And you say there are children out there? Lord have mercy. Well, what are you two waiting for?" She scowled fiercely at the two men, who immediately muttered a hasty "Sorry, ma'am" and hurried back into the compound.
"Now." Patricia smiled at us, though her face looked as if she hadn't done it in a long while. "I'm sure you two are exhausted. I'll show you where ya'll can rest, and if you can wait an hour or two, breakfast will be ready." She blinked, as if something just occurred to her. "Oh, goodness, I guess I should go help Martha with the food this morning, shouldn't I? We're going to have a lot of guests. This way, if you would."
"Why did you do that?" Zeke whispered as we followed the tall, bony woman into the compound. "These people don't need more mouths to feed-it's probably hard enough for them to feed themselves."
"I'm tired, Zeke." I didn't look at him as I said it. "It's nearly dawn. I'm hungry, I'm covered in someone else's blood, I don't want to go tromping through the woods again, and for once I'd like to sleep on a bed instead of the cold, hard ground." Well, that last part was a lie, but he didn't need to know that. "You can relax-I don't think they're cannibals or secret vampire worshippers, unless you think the old lady is a devil in disguise."
He gave me an irritated look, then sighed, raking his fingers through his hair. "Jeb isn't going to like this," he muttered, shaking his head.
"Why am I not surprised?"
When I awoke the next evening, I felt...different. Not in a bad way or in a way that nagged at me, like something I had to worry about. But something had definitely changed. Then it hit me. I was actually clean.
I threw back the quilt and sat up, stretching my arms over my head as I remembered the morning before. Soaking in a tub of hot, clean water, the steam rising into the air to fog the windows, was the purest form of bliss I'd felt in a long time.
Getting rained on or falling into a muddy, churning river didn't count. And there had been real soap, something I'd only heard about in the Fringe. The Archers made their own soap from lye, sand and goat milk, and I'd used the strange yellow lump to scrub through the caked layers of grime and blood, until I could finally see the pale color of my skin. Sadly, with dawn fast approaching, my bath had been short-lived, but I had stayed in that tub for as long as I dared, until the rising sun had forced me out of the bathroom into the borrowed nightgown left on a pillow, and under the covers of the bed.
I stood, taking in the small room. It had probably been a child's room at one point, if the cheery sun quilt and faded cloud wallpaper were any indication. For a moment, I wondered what became of the child whose room I was borrow-ing, but quickly abandoned that train of thought.
There was a squeak in the hall outside, movement over the wooden slats, and I froze. Was there someone outside the door? I listened and thought I heard footsteps, moving rapidly away from my room and down the stairs.
Mildly alarmed, I gazed around and spotted my clothes, lying clean and neatly folded atop a dresser. Frowning, I thought back to the previous day. Had I locked my door?
Last night, I'd left my clothes in a bloody heap on the f loor.
Someone had been in my room, if only to wash and fold my clothing, and that made me more than a little nervous. What if they had decided to wake me and couldn't? What if they'd noticed I wasn't breathing? My katana lay on top of the pile, not next to the bed where I'd left it, and that made me even more nervous.
I slipped into my clothes and buckled the sword to my back, vowing not to be separated from it again. I could not afford to be careless, especially when surrounded by even more strange humans. Pulling the coat over my shoulders, I turned to leave when there was a knock at the door.
"Allie?" came a voice from the other side. "You up yet? It's Zeke."
"It's open," I called back. Though after tonight, that is going to change.
The door creaked as it swung inward, revealing a very clean, smiling Zeke on the other side, holding a candle. He wore a white shirt and slightly baggy jeans, and his blond hair feathered out over his eyes and collar, looking very soft and touchable. His pistol, machete, hatchet and various weapons were still in place, but he looked more relaxed than I'd ever seen him.
And, though I tried to block it out, I could hear his heart beating, low and contented, in his chest. I could sense the pulse at his throat, echoing it, and the blood f lowing through him, hot and powerful.
Cursing myself, I shoved those thoughts away. Maybe it was the overload from last night, being forced to see the wound, smell the blood soaking everything. To be that close, unable to tear into the man's throat, as I'd wanted to do all night, made me crave it even more. I was getting to the point where I'd better feed soon, or I'd go crazy.
Or maybe it was Zeke himself.
That was going to be a problem.
"Oh, wow," Zeke said quietly, his blue eyes dancing with mischief as he held the candle up. "Look at that. There was actually a girl underneath all the blood and dirt. Though you're a bit paler than I expected."
I snorted, hiding my sudden alarm. "Seen yourself ?" He laughed good-naturedly. "Come on. I just got up, but I think Jeb and the others are down in the barn. They arrived a few hours after we went to sleep. At least that's what Martha said-after telling me she was washing my unmentionables and I could have them back tomorrow." He wrinkled his nose. "I think the old woman was trying to come on to me."
"Okay, I'm just going to erase that image from my brain now." I gave him a mock-horrified look as we started down the corridor. "For the record, the words old woman and un-mentionables should never be used in the same sentence." He grinned as we made our way down the stairs and through the shadowy halls of the ancient farmhouse. It was a truly monstrous old building, two stories tall, with high windows, wooden f loors and a roof that had been patched numerous times. Over the years, it had been expanded and built upon, and the back part of the house didn't quite match the first half, but it served its purpose I supposed, keeping a roof over the Archer clan's heads.