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Return to Rat City


Book 2



Tyffani Clark Kemp


~~~


Smashwords Edition


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.  This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people.  If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.  If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy.  Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 Published by

SideStreet Cookie Publishing, LLC

www.sidestreetcookiepublishing.com

Copyright © 2018 Tyffani Clark Kemp

All rights reserved.

Cover design by SideStreet Cookie Designs


DEDICATION


For Sabrina.

This book was a mess and you helped me fix it. Thank you fro believing so completely in this story.



Table of Contents


Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

About the Author

Other Books by Tyffani Clark Kemp

Other Books from SideStreet Cookie Publishing


Chapter One


Something heavy moved through the forest. Thirty feet away and the bushes shook violently. Twenty feet away and a copse of skinny saplings rocked as they were knocked to the side, barely keeping their roots in the ground. Ten feet away, and the bloody tusks broke through the underbrush. Someone was likely dead if the screams from earlier were any indication. I let loose the arrow in my bow, heard the cry of pain from the rampaging creature, and listened as it thrashed around for at least twenty minutes before it finally stopped.

I didn’t move. I waited another minute, then two, just in case the animal was faking. When I didn’t hear anything, I climbed down from my tree-side perch. The jungle closed around me, silent but alive. I notched another arrow, and as quietly as I knew how, I moved toward the place where I’d last heard the animal. The boar lay on its side, breath heaving, arrow sticking up into the air, blood leaking down its belly and onto the leaf-covered forest floor. When its wide, frightened eyes saw me it tried to run but it was too weak. I released my second arrow, putting the poor creature out of its misery. We were going to eat well tonight, but there was still the matter of the mauled hunters to take care of.

I trussed the boar and tossed my rope over a tree limb high enough to haul it up so no other animals could get hold of it while I investigated. This jungle was full of all sorts of creatures and I’d lost several nights worth of meat by forgetting to factor them in. It wasn’t a very good first impression on my new hosts.

When the boar was secure I slung my bow over my shoulder and trekked to where I’d last heard the campers.

There weren’t a whole lot of places for someone like me to hide from a government with everything at their disposal. I’d thought I was safe in Rat City where there was no technology for them to track.

I would have been if they hadn’t had an inside man.

I’d been running for six months and still didn’t know for sure who’d turned me over. I had an idea; it was between two people I’d spent a couple months with in Rat City. Rosa had a grudge against me because William Burke, now the Patriarch of Rat City, was more interested in me than her. But the one I would have put my money on if I had any was Steve. He had more of a reason not to like me. I’d discovered his plan to kill Burke and Rosa after he’d killed Rat City’s previous leader Solomon.

He’d known who I was from the beginning.

The forest had direct trade routes to the capital city, so it was the last place anyone would look for me. That made it mostly off the radar and I hoped it stayed that way just a little while longer. I didn’t now what Steve gained from giving up Rat City to the government, but I needed to find out. Whatever it was, they weren’t safe as long as he was out there.

Two young men lay on the ground in a poor of their blood; one was face up and the other face down and he was a bloody mess. He’d been gored in the stomach and was still trying to hold himself together with his hands. I was closest to the one face down, so I checked his pulse, even though I knew they were both dead. I leaned over the second one to check his pulse. His eyes rolled around to look at me and I pulled back.

“Help me,” he whispered.

“You’re already dead,” I said. “Your brain just hasn’t caught up yet.”

I thought of the way Steve had been mauled by a dog when he was younger, his stomach ripped apart and sewn back together by a talented and devoted doctor.

And I thought of another doctor who could do the same thing.

I thought of Burke.

He might be able to save this man’s life if there was anything left to save.

“Please. Please.” He begged. The word was nothing more than the movement of his lips and he repeated it over and over, confirming what I’d said. His brain was fighting to say alive. It just hadn’t caught up to the fact that he was already dead.

“I’ll do what I can.”

Without putting my bow down, I pulled off my over-shirt and then my second shirt and stuffed the cleanest one into the man’s wound. He gurgled in his throat and blood coated his lips. I tried to ignore it by inspecting his clothes. He only wore one layer, which told me he wasn’t from around here. The winter months in the jungle were more brutal than on the prairie. They were coming to an end, slowly being replaced by the rainy months, but the nights could still dip well below freezing. At least he’d dressed in a mossy green tunic so he would blend into the forest foliage. His pants were generic and his shoes were all wrong. So were the dead man’s.

These young men were not hunters.

They were city boys.

“Where did you come from?” I asked. I looked around to find something I could lash together to carry him back to town. Their tent would do just fine. “Talk to me and hold this as tight as you can while I figure out how to get us back.”

I put his hands over the shirt and pressed down. He gurgled again and I turned away as my stomach rolled and tears filled my eyes. I fought back the memory of the screams, joined now by new images of blood and death. I wondered if I’d ever be whole again.

If my mind would be whole again.

If I’d sleep again.

“Where did you come from?” I asked again to keep from retching as I tore into the tattered tent with bloody hands and the shiv I kept at the small of my back.

“Lens,” he said through the gurgle of blood in his throat. I regretted asking him to speak. I’d seen enough blood and death to last a person a lifetime, but with the status I’d been born into I knew that it was only the tip of the iceberg.

Lens was a city of opulence and indulgence. The memories I had of it weren’t all bad, but they weren’t all good. It was where the Twelve Seat Government was based.

“What’s your name?” I tore a strip of canvas from the tent and tied two of the tent posts together to create the beginnings of a sort of body sling.

“Freigh.” His voice was softer and the letters stuck together from the blood.

“What are you doing all the way out here getting gored by boars, Freigh?”

He tried to answer, but it came out as nothing more than a cough. Blood bubbled between his lips. I set down what I was working on and went to his side.

“Freigh!” I shook him until his eyes opened. “Stay with me, Freigh. If you want me to save your life you’ve got to help me out, okay?” This man was not going to make it. I knew that in my heart of hearts, but I couldn’t just let him die.

When I was convinced he had a few more minutes of life left in him, I went back to my sling and started working double time. Using my shiv, I ripped strips of canvas and weaved them together like I’d been taught so long ago. I was surprised I hadn’t had to use my sling-making talent more often. I tied off the last piece of canvas and carried it over to Freigh.

“This is going to hurt,” I told him, “but I have to get you on here so I can get you back to town.”

He nodded, his eyes full of pain, begging me to do something to stop it.

“If you survive this you’re going to have quite a story to tell when you get back to the city.”

It took three tries to get Freigh’s dead weight on the sling and situated so I was confident he wouldn’t fall off, but I made the mistake of positioning him so that he could see his dead friend. He whimpered and when I looked down there were tears rolling down his face. Pink lines of blood and tears ran down his chin and into his shirt.

“Sorry,” I said. “He was gone when I got here. But I will do everything I can to make sure you make it.”

It was a hollow promise and I think we both knew it, but I made it anyway and determined to do my best to keep it. With my fingers twined in the mesh of the sling, I set off toward the trees where they were the thickest, pulling the dying man behind me. I walked as fast as I could. I didn’t pray consciously anymore, but in my heart I knew there was a prayer going out with every step that I took. My mother had made sure to raise me with the faith of our people, but after her gruesome death it was hard to ask anything of a God who would allow a girl to watch her parents be burned alive.

Still, old habits were hard to break and I’d seen enough in my day to know that when He wanted He could make things happen.

I’d been in the forest hunting for a couple of days with very little rest, so by the time I reached the edge of the trees I was exhausted, hungry, and probably a bit dehydrated. Freigh wasn’t a big man by any means, but he was still heavy and I didn’t even know if he was still alive.

If you were to look into the trees you would never see the tiny wound tethers tucked up into the bows. They ran along the bark of the trees and looked like hapless vines. I grabbed hold of one of those tethers and tugged as hard as I could. Little chimes rang, setting off more and more until it sounded like the trees were alive with the pretty, gentle ring. I dropped my arm down at my side and leaned against the tree while we waited for help. Exhaustion rolled over me in a wave and my knees buckled. I dropped to the ground next to Freigh and he looked up at me with startled, pained eyes, like he was afraid his savior was going to die along with him.

“Help is on the way,” I said. “Just so tired.”

I didn’t know the last time I’d eaten anything more than leaves and the few berries I knew were safe. I drew the line at bugs and bark. At least for now. Knowing my appetite, there was a good chance I’d give in soon.

The brush moved gently as if blown by the wind, and then people emerged. Two men and a woman surrounded us and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“What have you got there?” one of the men asked.

I didn’t answer. I was too tired to answer, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t take much to figure out whether the man was alive or dead.

“Gods! We’ve got a live bleeder here!”

Voices shouted orders. Hands caught me by the shoulders and guided me away. Someone inspected me for wounds.

“Where’s the bore?” someone shouted in my face.

“Strung up,” I said, finding my voice. “His friend is still out there. He’s dead.”

I was guided to a platform, and with a blink I was lifted into the trees. The forest town wasn’t really a town at all, but a city in the trees. I rose through the limbs, trying desperately to rouse myself.

I never thought I would miss a place like the rat’s maze as much as I did. Living in the trees was interesting, but I missed the rats I’d begun to can family.

“I need a runner,” I said. There was always someone listening here. “I need to send a runner to get a doctor.”

The lift stopped and a woman spoke out of the trees. “We have doctor’s here.”

“None that can save that young man’s life. I know a doctor who can.”

There was quiet for a long moment. “Who is he and where do we find him?”

“William Burke. He lives in Curr.”

“He won’t make it through the night,” she said. “Cur is three day’s run from here, not to mention how long it will take to find this William Burke.”

“I have to try.”

“I’ll send a runner. You need to sleep. Good job on getting that bore. Finally.”

Yeah. It had taken that long. They wouldn’t keep me around here much longer if I didn’t start doing better.

My vision swam as the lift started moving again and I was carried up to my platform. The rooms were little more than wooden platforms hung with curtains for some semblance of privacy. But privacy didn’t exist here. Secrets didn’t exist. If the people of Rat City were paranoid, then the Dwellers of the Living Forest put them to shame. These people still didn’t know who I was and I hoped to keep it that way for a few days more.

I was going to see Burke again. Maybe. I’d already accepted that I probably never would. That understanding made my chest ache, but if they were able to find him and bring him here, whether Freigh lived or not, I would at least get to see his face again.

Maybe he wouldn’t kill me.

Maybe he would let me explain that I hadn’t betrayed him.

Yeah, right.

Even as I thought it I knew that probably wouldn’t happen. Burke had said he would kill me if I ever came back, but did that mean he would kill me here too? I didn’t believe he would actually be able to kill me then, but after six months of ruminating on my supposed betrayal he just might be able to do it now. Even the purest hearted of people were able to do horrible things.

I collapsed on my pallet without washing up. I didn’t have the energy to clean myself up or even eat. I had to pee something fierce, but it would have to wait.


Flames and screaming.

Screaming and blood.

Blood and smoke.

I woke up without having gotten enough sleep, as usual, and it took me far too long to realize that the smoke I was smelling was from the dinner fires and not the bodies of my parents or my friends burning to death. I wiped at the tears on my cheeks and waited for my breathing to slow down.

When Burke slept next to me I didn’t wake to my heart racing so fast I thought my ears would explode or trying to drag in more air than my lungs would hold.

There was a gentle chime, different from the alarms I’d sounded earlier, and I looked up. Somehow, at some point, that chime had begun to signal safety to me. I crawled out of my pallet on the floor, put on some clean clothes, and clipped out of my room. This was the time of day when the others were down for dinner and no one was watching me. I climb up into the tops of the trees as far as I dared go. If I straightened, on a clear day I could see across the prairie. To the west I could see the empty land where Curr was supposed to be. To the northwest was the Wastelands and the strange craggy mountains out that way. And to the northeast was Lens.

And just below me, the chime rang and the trees rustled, and I followed, out and down, away from the fires and the smell of smoke and cooking meat, and deeper into the thick of the Living Forest. Southeast where I’d never been.

When I reached the ground, I dropped as quietly as I could and started walking along an invisible path that only I knew. I’d picked out tiny landmarks to follow, creating a path to my destination.

“You were screaming in your sleep again,” a deep, accented voice said as I passed a large tree.

I jumped and screamed, my nerves still raw from the nightmares.

“Shit,” I said. “Why do you do that?”

“You’re supposed to know when there’s someone around.”

“Yeah, well, it’s kind of not fair for you to do that after the nightmares.”

I took a deep breath and kept walking. He’d follow me. He always did. I called him Scar because half of his face and neck were covered in burn scars. He knew what I saw when I closed my eyes. He understood the nightmares.

The Tree Dwellers of the Living Forest were the most suspicious people I’d ever met. I’d never ventured far into these lands before. People were said to come in and never come out. I now understood why. It was true. The Dwellers didn’t give names to strangers or anyone they didn’t trust. I didn’t know any of their real names and they didn’t know mine. I was fine with that for now.

Because we had a common ground, even though we’d never really shared stories, Scar seemed to understand me, even if he didn’t fully trust me. He’d understood when I woke everyone screaming the first night and had me put on a platform away from everyone else. He’d understood when he caught me wandering the forest in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep and shown me the safe places to go when I needed to breathe and clear my head. And he understood now that I just wanted to be alone in my own head, but I didn’t want to be by myself.

I followed my invisible trail into the woods. It was harder to navigate here. The brush was dense and the trees grew their thick, heavy limbs closer to the ground where the Dwellers didn’t bother to keep them trimmed back. Few came back here. It was their buffer to the other side, whatever was over there. I liked to imagine it was a world of gold diamonds. It was stupid and irrational, but it something pretty for my mind to grasp onto when I needed it to think of anything but those flames.

Nestled in the thickest part of the forest, a river flowed with the most beautiful blue water. It was cool and clean and because there was light from the sun this deep in the forest, the rocks and fish glowed. They reminded me of Burke’s temple shrine buried so far beneath Rat City. The water there glowed too, but I didn’t see any of the markings of the old gods here that were in the shrine.

I walked out over the water on a felled tree that I used as a bridge and quickly shucked my shoes and outer clothes. Scar would know by now what I was going to do, and if he watched from the trees, he was good a pretending that he didn’t. I stepped into the cold water and shivered. The tiny glowing fish darted away, but curiosity brought them back again. Their tiny mouths nubbed at my toes until I gathered my courage, took a deep breath, and dove in.

The river wasn’t deep and it didn’t flow fast, at least not here. I swam against the current for a little while, then floated on my back as it took me back down and past my bridge. I wouldn’t go far. Farther down it started to pick up speed and I didn’t want to get carried out to sea. Or maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.

“Is the boy still alive?” I asked when I heard what I thought were footsteps.

“Yes. Barely. Don’t know why ya saved ‘im. He’s dead. Just doesn’t know it yet.”

I knew that. I’d said as much.

“I’ve seen people come back from some amazing things,” I said. “If they can find Burke he can save him.”

Scar didn’t reply. I floated a little more. The water helped to set my mind at ease and remind me just how exhausted I was. I almost didn’t make it back to my platform.


Chapter Two


When I woke up it was morning and I hadn’t been called down to do my daily chores. I’d slept through dinner and breakfast too, which was a testament to just how tired I was. My sleep hadn’t been peaceful, but at least I wasn’t tired.

Dusty orange light filtered through the trees and cast strange dancing shapes across the floor. A breeze blew across the platform, carrying with it the scent of wet earth after a rain. I got up and dressed in what passed for casual clothes here, a loose linen shirt that hung to my ankles and a blouse that hung on my frame like it was made for me. In the last six months I’d gained some weight. I was starting to fill out again and gain back some of my feminine curves. I no longer looked like a sack of skin and bones. Any time I caught my reflection I wished Burke could see how my cheeks had filled out. I refused to admit how badly I wanted to show him chest. I used to have breasts once. I was starting to get them back.

First priority was to check on Freigh. My stomach growled in protest, but I wanted to make sure he was still alive before I got food. Because I was placed so high and away from everyone, getting down was a little tricky. They hadn’t wanted to put in any extra lifts for me, but I’d talked them into a couple of ladders, hung from different levels. They were a little treacherous, but I made my way down to the populated levels where more sturdy bridges got me from one place to the next.

“Oi, ground hog,” someone called, and I waved. They may not trust me, but they were friendly. As long as I did my part to bring in food and protect them they let me stay, even if I did get a lot of side eye and endure a lot of whispering. Ground hog was their term for anyone who called the ground home. There were children six, seven, and even eight years old here who had never walked on the ground. Eventually, they would be trained on ground patrol, but for now, their parents were content to keep them in the trees.

I’d seen first hand how nimble those tree-born children were when they first walked on solid ground. It made me a little jealous. I was clumsy on a good day, though maneuvering these trees was teaching me how to compensate a little better.

I thought Freigh was dead when I saw him. He lay on his hospital bed unmoving. His skin was grey and there was just so much blood. But then his chest moved and I breathed.

The little makeshift infirmary was nothing like what Burke ran in Rat City and I wondered if he’d be able to do anything for Freigh if they found him. It concerned me. I wondered what they did when their people were hurt or dying.

“We sent for your miracle doctor,” a strong, elderly voice said from behind me. “I don’t think he’ll make it in time, though.”

I recognized her as being the leader of the Dwellers. She was the woman I’d spoken to on the lift yesterday on the way up.

“Where did these guys come from?” I asked, even though I knew.

“They come from Lens for the thrill of a hunt.” Her voice was bitter. “An initiation into manhood. They take our food and leave it to spoil in the prairie sun.” Green eyes flashed angry, and she glared at me. “You never should have brought him here.”

“So I should have let him bleed out in the jungle?” I asked, appalled. I knew these people were protective over their secret city, but I had a hard time imagining the city-born kids being sent out here to hunt anything, let alone wanting to.

“You should have left him to fend for himself,” she said with a nod. “If he doesn’t die, and that’s a very big if, they will come looking for him and his dead friend.”

I nodded. There was also the possibility that he might be grateful enough to keep his mouth shut, but I didn’t say anything out loud. My opinion wasn’t very valued here.

Someone raced past the platform, followed closely by another and a commotion started below. I turned to the old woman.

“Your doctor must be here,” she said. “He’d better not betray us.”

“He has his own secrets,” I assured her. “He takes care of a lot of people just like you do. He’s a good man. The kind you don’t find anymore.” I pressed my lips together as she walked away. “He might even be a better person than you.”

To my surprise, she chuckled. “Let’s hope so. I’m no one’s role model.”

I smiled and followed her. It should have taken them much longer than half a day to find Burke. They must not have gone all the way to Curr. Had something gone wrong?

I caught a lift and rode it down. They were activated by weight and some of them went up and some went down. It had taken about a week of continuously getting on the wrong lifts to figure out which ones were which. They weren’t marked.

When the search party broke across the edge of the circle camp on the ground, I was disappointed. The man they had with him was too thin and too run ragged to be my Burke, the man who could save lives. He was blindfolded and his arms here tied behind his back. His teeth were bared and he stumbled as if he was in a lot of pain. I almost told them they’d brought the wrong man, but then I saw his hair. Bleached silver and white by the desert sun, and possibly from the stress of running an entire city, there was no mistaking it. Still, this was not the Burke I knew, the strong man who rarely showed emotion or pain.

They brought him past where I stood in the shadows and I caught the look in their eyes. They weren’t convinced. Neither was I.

“Groundhog, get the lift ready. This one’s sick or something.”

I pulled the nearest lift down from its hiding spot in the trees and held it still while Burke and the Dweller stepped on. Burke stumbled and fell in. The Dweller barely caught him before he fell over the edge. His growl of pain made my breath catch. I stepped on after them, hanging one foot off of the edge so there was enough room.

“I don’t know why they think you can save the boy,” the Dweller said. “You look half dead yourself.”

I was inclined to agree.

Being this close to Burke, smelling his scent once again after six months of missing him, my mind and body were at war. My body wanted to wrap itself around him and beg him to forgive me. It was all I could do to keep my hands at my sides. My mind knew that Burke wouldn’t so easily forgive me, and Freigh needed him more than I did right now. He might be a good man, but I didn’t want to push him to his limit and cause him to do something he and I would regret later.

“What happened to your arm?” the Dweller asked.

“Crushed it,” Burke growled through teeth clenched to hold back what must have been an avalanche of pain.

My chest all but exploded. Having his arm wrenched behind his back like that must be killing him, but his arm should have been healing by now.

What had happened to him?

What was happening in Rat City?

I opened my mouth to ask, to find out how Hannah and Eli, my friend and her adopted baby were doing, but snapped it shut before the words spilled out and gave me away. He probably wouldn’t tell me anyway.

The lift came to a jarring stop. With my hold on the rope, I was able to keep my balance, but the Dweller had to let go of Burke to get his. Burke teetered forward, unable to catch himself with his arms bound. I dove in front of him, planting my shoulder in the middle of his chest. My arms went around him to make sure he was stable. He grunted. This close, his scent and his breath against the hair at the top of my head made my heart kick into high gear. Burke froze as if he sensed it too, and I listened as his heartbeat sped up.

“Thank you,” he grunted. His voice was so much deeper than I remembered it.

I followed as Burke was led to the infirmary platform where Freigh hopefully still waited to be tended. I wanted a chance to talk to him, but I didn’t want him to refuse to help Freigh because of me. If there was anything he could do for Friegh.

I kept my distance and stayed behind the closed curtain while Burke was shown to the patient. The hiss of air through his teeth told us what we already knew. Freigh might not make it.

“I can’t believe he’s still alive. What happened?” Burke asked.

“Attacked by a bore while hunting in our forest,” the old woman answered. “If it were up to me I would let him die, but since he was brought here and you were brought here, I guess that would make me a bitter old woman. Do what you can for him. We’ll give you what we can. If he dies, it’s not for lack of trying.”

“You’re the leader here?” Burke asked.

The old woman must have nodded because all he did was grunt. “I need a sling for my arm and I’ll need a fine needle and thread. He’s lost a lot of blood. I wish I had my kit.”

He wasn’t going to get any help from the locals. As the old lady and the others filed out, they passed by where I stood. The old woman caught my eye. There must have been something telling written on my face. Her eyes widened and she deflated and shook her head, waving her hand at me as she walked away.

I stayed where I was, listening and watching Burke’s faint shadow through the curtain. At the back of my mind I was aware that he could probably see me, but if he did he said nothing. He worked silently for hours with little noise but for the occasional sigh or grunt and curse word. I found myself smiling every time I heard his voice, no matter what he was saying.

Day turned to early evening, and that turned to dusk, but I stayed while Burke worked. When the sun sank below the trees and turned to full night and no sounds had come from inside the platform for quite some time, I began to wonder if he’d fallen asleep. I was about to creep around and check on him when he finally spoke, his voice deep, loud, and clear. The voice that I remembered.

“I know you’ve been there all night,” Burke said. “You might as well come out. Did they tell you to keep an eye on me?”

My heart leaped into my throat and I scrambled to figure out what to do.

“Come on,” he said when I didn’t move right away. His voice was playful, even teasing. He’d used that voice on me before. “I won’t bite.”

No, but the moment he saw me he just might shoot.

I pushed the curtain aside and stepped into the dimly lit room. Where I stood I was still in shadow and I’d filled out enough, my hair had grown out enough, that he didn’t recognize me right away. Burke stood next to Freigh’s bed and stretched his back. There was blood on his hands and splattered on his dirty shirt.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, almost laughing.

“Promise?” I asked, and my voice was little more than a croak.

Burke froze. I stepped from the shadows into the light and his eyes ran over the length of my body, appreciatively at first, but then his grey eyes clouded over and an angry frown settled between his eyes.

“Dalia.” That was all he said. In that word was all of the accusation, anger, and hatred I think he could muster, but it was still my name on his tongue. Tingles ran over my body at the sound of it and I almost cried.

“Hello, Burke,” I said, hoping to hide the tears in my voice.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I’ve been here since I left the city,” I said, keeping my voice low. “They don’t really trust me, but they put me up and they give me food.” He scoffed, probably remembering my voracious appetite. “I learned how to shoot a bow.”

Right, because that would instill him with confidence.

Good job.

He pointed to the dying man on the makeshift table, the frown deepening and showing how much he’d aged in the last six months. The previously gaping wound in Freigh’s stomach was sown shut with neat, tiny stitches. There would be a scar, but I’d be damned if it looked anything like the jagged line cut across Steve’s stomach.

“Did you do this?” His voice dropped an entire octave. I’d once said I didn’t want to know what it was like to be on his bad side. Now I knew just how right I had been. The accusation hurt more than anything he could have done to me physically.

I nodded. “If by ‘this’ you mean kill the bore that gouged him and bring him here, yes. I did this. I also…” I bit my lips together. Admitting I’d had him brought here probably wouldn’t have the effect that I wanted it to, and I didn’t want to see anymore of that hatred and accusation in his eyes than was already there.

“What?” he pressed.

“I tried to help his friend, but he was already dead.”

Burke chewed the inside of his cheek. “Why did they come get me?”

I lifted my chin. So much for trying to skirt around that. “I sent them.”

His eyes blazed with fury. “Why?”

It was my turn to be angry. “Because you were trained by the man who saved Steve’s life, Burke! I knew you could fix this!”

He glared at me. Some of the indignation melted away, but none of the accusation.

“I knew you could save him if they could find you. There is no ulterior motive.”

Except getting to see him one more time.

Maybe.

Burke stared at me for a long time and I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I didn’t know what he was looking for, so I let him stare. Hopefully he would see that I hadn’t betrayed him, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I’d mistakenly thought Burke was a trusting man. That was wrong. He had trusted me against his better judgment and my need to lie to him had killed any trust he might have had.

“You haven’t been taking care of your arm,” I said into the silence, needing some kind of noise before I went crazy.

“I haven’t had the time,” he said dismissively.

I took a couple of tentative steps toward him. When he didn’t stop me, I walked as close as I could, putting Freigh between us.

“Let me fix it for you. Are you in a lot of pain?”

Burke shook his head, but I knew he was lying. Permanent lines of pain were etched between his brow and at the corners of his eyes. They weren’t new, but I’d never seen them before.

I started to walk around the bed.

“I don’t need your help.”

“I don’t care. If you aren’t going to take care of yourself then you don’t get to be picky about the people who do it for you. Sit down and shut up.”

Burke did as I said, but slowly, glaring at me the whole time. I found bandages to change his and a splint, which he wasn’t currently wearing.

“How are Hannah and Eli?” I asked as I gathered what I would need.

“Hannah is mad at me,” he said and he sounded tired. “She won’t speak to me. She thinks I made a mistake banishing you.”

I stopped and looked at him. “She isn’t mad at me?”

Burke shook his head. “She’s the only one. Everyone else is afraid you’re going to come back and wipe us out. They blame me, I guess, but there’s no one left but me to take care of them.”

“You’re the one who made them feel that way. Not me.”

“Yes, because I let you stay when my better judgment told me you were no good.”

“You’re a liar, William Burke.”

I snipped the bandage from his arm and ripped it away, hoping that it would hurt. He flinched and my stomach rolled as blood seeped from the wound.

“You should have changed these days ago.”

“I said I’ve been busy making sure there isn’t an uprising against me in Rat City, and making sure the government doesn’t know where we are.”

“If they do it’s not because of me.”

“We’ll see. Steve is pretty adamant about your involvement.”

I grunted. “Steve also tried to kill me the night you met me, remember?”

“He says he was approached to find and kill you because you’re a spy for the government.”

“He says that now? But he didn’t say it before? You’re smarter than that, Burke. Come on.” I blinked back tears of anger and forced myself to focus on taking care of him. The more he spouted his ridiculous accusations about me the more they hurt and I realized I might have fallen in love with this stubborn man.

“I know Steve,” Burke spouted. “I don’t know you.”

“You’re right.” I cleared my throat when my voice came out tight. “You know Steve, which means you should know better than to trust him.”

I finished bandaging his arm and wrapped it in the splint made of tree limbs and cloth. After I handed Burke his ratty sling, I turned away.

“Make sure you take care of that thing,” I said as I left. “You don’t want to lose your stupid arm.”

“You lied to me, Dalia,” Burke said, and this time, it wasn’t an accusation, it was an admonition and it hurt just as much. Maybe more.

“Yes, I did.” I turned to look at him so he could see that I was telling the truth. “I had no choice because of who I am and what I have to do. I was protecting you.” I paused, hoping he would understand, but he just glared. “No one should have known I was alive, Burke. I died in the same fire that took my parents. But I never once lied about…”

The words caught in my throat. Words I never thought I’d say to him or anyone else. But he wouldn’t be deterred.

“About what?”

“About the way I feel about you. Though, I’m sure that doesn’t matter anymore.”

Burke shook his head and his hair, longer now, danced over his ears. “No. It doesn’t.”

The tears I’d fought for so long slipped over my cheeks. I couldn’t turn away fast enough to keep him from seeing them, but I didn’t wait to see what his reaction was. I found a lift and rode it up then took the ladders up to my platform before I could make anymore of a fool of myself.


Chapter Three


The trees were on fire. All of them. The entire forest was aflame and the smoke choked me as I skirted the lower branches trying to find Burke. He was here somewhere and I had to make sure he was okay. I had to get him back to Rat City.

When I found him, he strode across the ground, eyes blazing with firelight.

“This is your fault,” he growled. “You did this.”

“No,” I said, but even I didn’t believe me.


I woke up with my heart pounding and my body covered in sweat. I listened for the chime, but it didn’t come. That might have been because the sun was coming up through the trees and Scar was already waiting for me. Women were expected to do just as much work as men, so I ran morning patrols with Scar and two others. I got myself cleaned up and ate enough that I could make it to lunch and made my way down to show my face for patrol duty.

A couple of kids skirted around me on one of the bridges just before I found a lift to take me down to join my patrol group. I smiled as they ran along laughing. A day didn’t go by when I didn’t think of Hamster and Eli back in Rat City and wonder if I would ever get to see them again. Hamster, whose real name was Hannah, had become the adoptive mother to Eli, the child of a friend of mine who had passed away while giving birth. It hadn’t been much of a surprise to lose her, given the condition her poor body was in when I found her and brought her to Rat City. But that didn’t make my heart hurt any less.

“We save our tears for the dead,” the old woman said as she fell into step beside me.

“Sorry.” I wiped my escaped tears away on my sleeve.

“You’re in love with the doctor,” she said.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said, hoping to change the subject. “He thinks I betrayed him.”

“Did you?”

I turned to look at her with hard eyes. “No,” I said with purpose, pronouncing the word as hard as I could.

She nodded. “For some reason I believe you. Is he the one you cry for?”

I shook my head. This woman had never spoken a kind word to me the whole time I’d been here and I was supposed to suddenly believe she had compassion on me because she thought she knew what was going on between me and Burke?

“I didn’t bring him here for myself. I brought him here to do exactly what he did. I knew he could save that boy.”

“Not so sure he did,” she told me. “You can call me Bean.”

“Why?” I stopped walking and frowned at her. I was in a foul mood thanks to my conversation with Burke. “You suddenly trust me? For what reason? I’m not here to make friends. Burke is who I’m running from.”

That was only partially true. Bean’s eyes narrowed like she knew the truth.

“I don’t believe you. If you were running from him you wouldn’t have brought him here. What’s more, he would have killed you the moment he laid eyes on you. He almost killed one of the men I sent to get him before we had a chance to tell him why we were looking for him. He’s a brutal man, groundhog. If he hated you he would have killed you by now.” She turned her back to me and started to walk away. “And you can call me Bean because that’s my name. I’ll know yours soon enough.”

I reached for the little knife that I kept hidden at my belt, just because I needed the assurance that it was still there. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized my hands were balled into tight fists at my sides. I stretched my fingers and ran my thumb over the smooth handle of the little shiv that Burke had once given me. It had served me well thus far. I wasn’t keen on losing it just yet.

By the time I made it to my post, the others were waiting and looked perturbed.

“I got waylaid by Bean,” I said, relishing the wide-eyed looks I got for knowing her name. They were all very careful around me, but if I knew the leader’s name I’d gained some semblance of respect.

“Trouble?” Scar asked. For all of his brutal appearance, he was the kindest of the men I patrolled with. I called him Scar, but then everyone did. It was kind of obvious why. I knew that only those he trusted were allowed to know his real name. The other two were men I referred to as Frick and Frack. They were brothers, not twins, but they bore a painful resemblance to each other. By painful, I meant that they weren’t any more attractive than Scar. Frick had muddy brown hair, Frack had black hair and they both had dull brown eyes. They weren’t the brightest, but they were strong fighters and good men. Both were married with one child each. Girls. They really should have been twins.

“Whose the man they brought in to stitch up the groundhog?” Frick asked. He spoke with a thick, r-heavy accent.

All eyes were on me. They assumed all ‘groundhogs’ knew each other.

“A doctor. A good one,” I answered.

“Friend of yours?” Frack asked, his accent just has thick and heavy.

I deliberated on just how to sum up the relationship between Burke and me. “He was.”

“Did ya break his heart?” Frack asked with a grin.

“I guess. It wasn’t intentional.” I didn’t want to talk about this any more.

“Is it ever?”

“It can be.” I stepped onto the lift that would take us down to the forest floor without waiting for them to join me. It didn’t really matter if they hopped the lift with me or not. These were tree people, tree climbers. They were born climbing out of their mothers.

I hit the ground at the same time Frick and Frack dropped out of the trees with Scar right behind them. They landed soft on the balls of their feet and didn’t make a noise. I hadn’t learned that trick yet.

“Ya think yer slick,” Frick said softly to me. For untrusting people, these three were kind to me. We were tasked with protecting each other so there had to be a level of trust.

“I am.” I grinned.

He chuckled and moved into the trees. For three large men they moved with surprising grace and silence. I was still working on not making noise on the underbrush, though I was getting better at it.

“Did you see the bore I brought in?” I asked.

Frick turned and glanced at me for a split second. I caught a glint of respect in his muddy eyes.

“Ya brought that one in?”

I nodded, even though he couldn’t see me.

“Impressive. The same one what bored the boys?”

“Same one. I’d been tracking it for a couple of days. Too bad I didn’t get to it sooner.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

I frowned. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“Things happen the way they are supposed ta,” Frack said, coming up behind me and startling me. I’d thought he was ahead. He chuckled when I glared at him.

“That’s kind of a sick way to look at a boy dying and one lying on his death bed.”

“I think the boy will be fine. Yer doctor friend did a fine job stitching him up. Tiny, fine wee stitches they were. Only ever seen stitches like that from one man. Used ta work in the big city before he was disavowed and sent packing.”

I wondered if that was the same man who had mentored Burke. I didn’t say anything. If it was, it was the same man who had saved Steve’s life. A waste of lifesaving skills, if I was honest.

That was what the Dwellers thought.

I wasn’t any better than they were.

We made our way into the thicker trees, the four of us falling silent as we set about checking our posts and making sure we were safe. For the first hour or so, things were quiet and still. I ran through my checks, making sure all of the alarms were secure and the watch points were clear of debris. We were about to make our way back in and up for lunch when one of the alarms was tripped. Three large, cawing birds were released from their cage, flapping their wide wings into the trees. They were bred in the tree city and trained to return to a certain place where other fighters would know that we needed backup.

“Groundhog?” Scar whispered through the trees where he was hidden from sight. “That you?”

“No,” I replied just as quietly.

The three men were immediately on guard.

“Could it be a search party come after the boys?” I asked. Maybe it would have been best to leave Freigh to die in the woods, now that I thought about it. I wouldn’t have done it, but I understood a little now why it might have been best.

“Probably.”

Shit.

The three men slipped into the trees, hiding in the murky green light cast by the sun through the leaves and branches, while I twisted as quietly as I could to the empty cage. I closed the open door and leaned a branch against it to hide it, then followed the trail to the trip wire. It was just a vine tied off under some brush so no one would ever know that they’d tripped an alarm. As an outsider I was expendable, but this would be tricky. If they were from the city, I didn’t want them to see my face if I could help it. If the government knew I was alive and they were looking for me, there was a good chance that anyone from the city would know who I was.

As I grew closer to the trip wire, I heard voices coming through the trees. They were moving quickly for a search party, but then, people from the city didn’t always know how to be effective.

I crept as close as I could get without being seen. There were ways of running people out of the forest without having to actually interact with them. I’d never seen any of them in action before today, but I’d been taught on how to properly execute these tricks.

I climbed a nearby tree with a thick, low hanging branch and shimmied my way down to the rope wrapped around the place where the branch forked into two. I unwrapped it and tugged, lifting a trap door in the ground hidden by fallen leaves and limbs.

At first, nothing happened. I tied off the rope with the door open and waited. A large black nose poked out, sniffed for a moment, and caught a scent. Hopefully it wasn’t catching my scent and would go after the people from the city. Even from here I could smell their perfumes. I hoped it was enough to mask me from the large black panther that stepped out of the hole in the ground. In the mid morning light its sleek coat shimmered. Massive paws pushed against the ground and it leaped out of the hole onto the ground. Pacing into the trees, it disappeared with a low rumble.

A soft click click echoed through the trees. No one would think anything of it, but I knew it was one of the men letting me know that I’d done a good job. I let the door to the trap close and hopped out of the tree. The panthers weren’t bred in the tree city, but they were the its biggest defense after the patrol.

Scar slipped out of the trees, looking as if he was a walking tree himself, long enough to pat my shoulder and nod. Respect was hard earned around here, but once you had it they trusted you with their lives.

He slipped back into his shelter and I followed. I knew he was good at hiding in plain sight. He had to be. Scar was self-conscious about his face. I didn’t know the story behind what had happened to him and he would probably never tell me, but I knew it was traumatic. He wouldn’t come to any of the campfires and I couldn’t say that I blamed him. Bonfires in trees were a little terrifying, even without the mental and emotional trauma.

We skirted around the edge of the area where we knew the people from the city were. The panther would either kill them or run them out of the forest. Either way, the Dwellers would be safe. I understood that sometimes people had to die. I also understood that sometimes, death was not the way, but I was not the one to come in here and change these people’s way of living.

A shattering scream ripped through the silence of the forest. My heart began to beat so fast I was sure it would explode. It wasn’t a human scream, though, it was the panther. Something wrapped around my wrist and I jerked my arm before I realized Frick was leaning close.

“We need to go. Once that panther’s done with them it will come after us.”

I looked into his eyes and his fear became my own.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, my voice as soft as a breeze.

Frick shook his head. “I just got word that there are more panthers in the area. We need to go.” His emphasis was on the need. I nodded and abandoned my post, slipping through the trees as quietly as I could. I was getting better, and with our lives on the line it was easier to be quiet. It was how they learned and survived.

I grabbed a low hanging branch and swung myself up into the nearest tree. Frick was right behind me with Frack not wanting to lag behind. When I turned, Scar was already there, grinning from ear to ear. He was the quietest and the quickest of us and sometimes he freaked me out a little bit. He reached for me and I took his hand. Scar pulled me to my feet and I trotted up the thickening branch behind him until we were at the wide trunk. Here, the branches grew close together. We would climb so we could see when what happened to the search party and report that they were well and truly gone.

“I heard that the doctor man is in bad shape,” one of the brothers said from behind me. I wasn’t sure which it was. Their voices were so much alike. They really really should have been twins.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked, knowing full well what was probably wrong. He hadn’t been taking care of that damn arm of his. He was probably going to lose it.

“Said he got caught in a cave in, but he wouldn’t say where.” Frick stepped around me and climbed higher into the tree. He reached for me, but I waved him away, determined to do it myself. He shrugged and kept going. “One of our doctors looked at it and said it was beyond repair, even for him. Apparently, he already knew that but was trying to get as much use out of it as possible.”

I pulled my lower lip between my teeth and worried at until I tasted blood. That was not what I wanted to hear, even though it was already what I feared.

“Is he going to have to lose it?” I asked. Again, I already knew and dreaded the answer, but I wanted someone else to tell me. I didn’t want to come to that conclusion myself..

“Probably, but it still works some for now.”

“Stubborn,” I said to myself before I realized it was loud enough for them to hear. They looked at me with mirror image eyes. I shook my head. “You men are all stubborn,” I said. “He’ll use it until he loses it instead of taking care of it and keeping it. What kind of surgeon only has one arm?”

I pulled myself onto a branch above the others, not wanting to have to deal with them, and shimmied my way down to the end as far as I felt comfortable going. It broke my heart to think that Burke would lose his arm, but if he wanted to be stubborn and stupid then it served him right.


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