It's better this way, I told myself, passing the barn. Soft murmurs and contented bleats came from within; the rest of the group was taking advantage of the unexpected stop, probably relieved not to be hiking through rabid-infested woods. That was way too close, I continued, hurrying past before anyone could see me. What would you have done if Zeke found out? You think he could like you, if he knew what you really were? A mental snort. You saw how he was with the rabids. He'd put a stake in your heart or a bullet in your skull without thinking twice about it.

He'd sell you out, just like Stick.

I came to the tiny woodshed in the shadow of the gravity-fed cistern, really nothing more than a three-sided wooden shelter with a tin roof. It was stacked high with split logs, and I loaded several into the rusty wheelbarrow sitting nearby, when I heard a soft moan.

Warily, I put a hand on my sword and waited, unmoving.

It came again, the soft, hopeless sound of a human in pain.

From the other side of the woodshed.

Still keeping a hand on the hilt, I edged around the building, ready to draw my weapon if necessary. When I saw what was making the noise, however, I dropped my arm. There was no need.

A large iron cage stood at the back of the woodshed. The bars were thick and close together, though far enough apart to see inside. The door was barred in two places from the outside, padlocked shut and wrapped in chains. Even the f loor of the cage had iron bars running across it, separating the prisoner from the natural earth. A thin layer of straw had been spread over the ground, partially absorbing the smell of urine, iodine and blood.

Huddled under a blanket, curled up in the corner closest to the woodshed, a familiar, bearded face raised its head to stare at me.

I blinked. "Joe?" I whispered, recognizing the man Zeke and I had dragged back from the woods. "What are you doing in there?" I asked, appalled. I could smell the blood on him, the torn f lesh under the bandages. He was still badly hurt and needed to be in a bed, or at least a room where he could be looked after. "Who put you in here?" I demanded, wrapping a fist around the bars. He stared at me with bleary eyes, and

I backed away, fuming. "I'll get Patricia," I told him. "She'll let you out. Just hang in there."

"No," Joe wheezed, holding out a hand. I stared at him, and he coughed, shuddering beneath his quilt. "No, it's all right," he continued when the spell had passed. "The boar savaged my leg pretty bad. I have to be locked up till they can be sure I don't Turn."

"They did this to you on purpose? " I came back, gripping the bars as I peered at him. "And you let them? What about your leg?"

"It's been looked after as well as can be expected," Joe replied, shrugging. "In the morning, someone will come and rebandage it. And it's not as bad as it looks. I think I have a good chance of pulling through this one." I looked at his sallow, sweaty face, the pain glazing his eyes, and shook my head. "I still can't believe they'd leave you in here like an animal. I'd be screaming and tearing the walls down, trying to get out."

"I want to be here," Joe insisted. "What if I die in the house and Turn before anyone notices? When everyone is asleep?

I could kill my whole family. No." He leaned back, drawing his blanket closer. "This is necessary. I'm not a danger to anyone here, and the family is safe. That's all I care about."

"Good man," said a voice over my shoulder.

I whirled. Jeb stood at a corner of the cage, looking in, his sharp face impassive. The man moved like a vampire himself; I hadn't even heard him approach.

"You see, Allison," Jeb mused, though he wasn't looking at me. "This is a man who is more concerned about the safety of his family, rather than his own short existence. In fact, everyone here understands what must be done to protect the whole, rather than a few individuals. That is how they have survived here so long."

"You think locking an injured man up like a dog, with no treatment or help or medicine, is the best thing for him?" Jeb's steely eyes turned to me. "If that man's soul is in danger of corruption, and his body is in danger of succumbing to the darkness, then he is no longer a man but a demon. And when the demon emerges, it is best to have it contained. For the safety of the untainted humans, yes, I do believe that is the best thing." I opened my mouth to protest, but he over-rode me. "What would you do differently?"

"I-" Jeb raised his eyebrows expectantly, and I glared at him. "I don't know."

"You and Ezekiel." The old man shook his head. "Both of you refuse to see the world as it is. But that is not my problem. If you'll excuse me, I must get to praying for this man's soul. Perhaps it can yet be saved."

He turned from me and bowed his head, speaking quietly. Inside the cage, Joe did the same. I retreated back to the woodshed, grabbing the wheelbarrow and filling it with wood, making sure to f ling the logs so they clattered around in the noisiest way possible.

I knew, in a sick, twisted way, that Jeb was right. Any human bitten by a rabid, whether it was a dog or skunk or a rabid person, was in danger of Turning. It was different from becoming a vampire, where you had to drink your sire's blood to become one. In my case, Kanin's Master vampire blood had made me strong enough to overcome the disease, and he'd gotten to me immediately after I'd been attacked. Even then, I had been very lucky; most vampires still created rabids when they tried to make new offspring.

Rabidism, however, was much more potent and certain.

Every case was different, Kanin had told me-usually it depended on the severity of the wound and the victim's fortitude and will to fight off the infection. The virus spread quickly, accompanied by raging fever and a great deal of pain, before it finally killed the host. If left undisturbed, the body would rise again completely changed; a rabid, carrying the same deadly virus that had Turned it.

I knew the precautions the Archers had taken were necessary; even with one of their own, they could not afford the risk of him going rabid. But it still made my skin crawl, the thought of being locked in a cage, alone, waiting to die.

I wondered what Zeke would think of it. Would he be as shocked and disturbed as I was? Or would he side with Jeb, claiming it was the right thing to do?

Zeke. I pushed the thought of him from my mind, hurling a log into the wheelbarrow so forcefully it bounced out and hit the wall of the shed. That moment we'd shared up on the platform, that couldn't happen again. No matter how much I wanted it. I couldn't allow him to get that close ever again.

For both our sakes.

Ruth and Zeke were still up on the platform, sitting side by side, when I returned with the wheelbarrow full of logs and branches. I didn't go back to the tower but watched as Larry demonstrated how to feed the fires by dropping the wood down several chutes that led straight into the f lames, all without leaving the safety of the compound. I was impressed.

Rather than stupidly scurrying outside to toss logs onto the flames and tempt any number of rabid hordes watching from the forest, they'd worked out an ingenious way of dealing with the problem in the least dangerous way possible. You had to admire their creativity.

After feeding the bonfires, I wandered back to the barn, wanting to avoid Zeke and Ruth on the platform. Maybe he could show her how to hold and shoot my rif le-she'd love that-and I could take over guarding the livestock. Whatever it took to stay away from him.

The barn was musty and warm as I opened the door and slipped inside, the livestock dozing contentedly. Most of the group was outside or in the farmhouse, helping with the watch or doing various chores around the compound. But Teresa, Silas and the youngest of the kids remained in the barn with the animals. Old Silas dozed in a corner, covered in blankets, snores coming from his open mouth. Teresa sat nearby, mending a quilt and humming softly to herself. She smiled and nodded at me when I came in.

"Allison." Caleb emerged from one of the stalls and walked up to me, shy little Bethany trailing behind him, clutching a bottle in a grubby fist. Caleb held a spotted baby goat in his arms, and it was almost too much for him to handle, bleating and struggling weakly. Quickly, I knelt and took the animal from him, holding it against my chest. It calmed somewhat but still cried out pitifully.

"It doesn't have a mommy." Caleb sounded close to tears, wiping his face and leaving a streak of mud across one cheek.

"We have to feed it, but it won't drink its bottle. It keeps crying, but it doesn't want the milk, and I don't know what it wants."

"Here," I said, holding out my hand, and Bethany gave me the bottle. Sitting against the wall, I settled the tiny creature in my lap, as the two human kids watched anxiously. For a moment, I felt a prick of irritation that Ruth should be here doing this, not me, but then I focused on the task at hand. I had only a vague idea of what to do, having never seen a goat before, much less held one, but I'd have to make it work.

I pinched a drop of milk onto the nipple and waited until the goat bleated again before sliding it into its mouth. The first two times, the stubborn kid shook its head and cried louder than ever, but the third time, it finally realized what I was offering. Clamping its jaws around the bottle, it started drinking in earnest, gurgling through the milk, and my audience clapped in relief.

Before I knew what was happening, Caleb sat down on one side of me, Bethany on the other, and leaned against my arm.

I stiffened, holding myself rigid, but they didn't seem to notice my discomfort, and the kid on my lap cried greedily when I didn't hold the bottle up far enough. Resigned, I leaned back, watching the three young creatures around me, trying not to breathe in their scent or listen to their hearts. Teresa looked over at me and smiled, and I shrugged helplessly.

"You know," I muttered, mostly to keep my mind distracted, so I wouldn't think of blood or hearts or how hungry I was getting, "I think this little guy needs a name, if he doesn't have one already What do you think?" Caleb and Bethany agreed. "What about Princess?" Bethany suggested.

"Stupid," Caleb said instantly. "That's a girl's name." She stuck out her tongue, and Caleb returned the gesture. I watched the kid suckle at the bottle, milk dribbling down his chin. He was mostly white, except for a few black splotches on his back legs and one large circle over his eye. It made him look like a bandit or a pirate.

"What about Patch?" I mused.

They clapped in delight. Both thought this was a perfect name, and Bethany even kissed Patch on his furry head, which the goat ignored. After a moment of watching him guzzle milk, Caleb suddenly let out an explosive sigh and slumped against me.

"I don't want to leave," he muttered, sounding tired and world-weary even for one so young. "I don't want to keep looking for Eden anymore. I'd rather stay here."

"Me, too," Bethany mumbled, but she was half asleep now, curled up into my side.

Caleb reached up and scratched Patch on the shoulder, making its skin twitch as if it was shooing off a f ly. "Allie, do you think there'll be goats in Eden?" he mused.

"I'm sure there will be," I answered, holding up the bottle so the kid could get the last drops. "Maybe you could even have a few of your own."


Tags: Julie Kagawa Blood of Eden Book Series
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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