“Marin? Marin! We’ve got a problem.”
I jerked upright, turning away from the ward that Kellin and I had just finished with. Thom, a few feet behind me, stiffened and turned toward Rory as I got up, brushing the mud from the knees of my jeans. Kellin sat back against her heels, her brows knitting, but she stayed quiet for the moment, face pale and drawn with the effort of resetting the shattered ward.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, heart starting to thud a little faster even as it felt like a leaden weight in my chest. “What happened?” Did some get through, get deeper than we thought? Is someone hurt? How could we have missed something like that?
“It’s Leah,” Rory said, his expression strange. “She’s gone.”
“What?” Thom blurted, swaying on his feet. I put a hand out to steady him, realizing that he really shouldn’t still be up. “How did that happen? Wasn’t someone supposed to be guarding her?”
Rory shook his head, looking between Thom, Kellin, and I. “Someone was until he got pulled to fill a gap on the second ring. Brandon said that she was still unconscious when he left to help with the defenses, and tied up the way that we left her.”
“That’s not suspicious at all,” Kellin said quietly. “You’d better have a look, Marin.”
I grunted. “Is anything missing, Rory?”
“That’s where it gets stranger. It doesn’t look like there’s anything gone. Just her.”
My heart skipped a beat and my throat tightened. Did she run, or was she taken? If she was taken, how did something slip through the wards to do that? “Kel, do you think you could walk the line and make sure that we didn’t lose another ward somewhere?”
“I think I’ve got enough gas left in the tank for that,” she said dusting off her knees as she stood up. “What’re you going to do?”
“What do you think? I’m going to go give everyone else marching orders. If Leah’s still in camp, we have to find her.”
“And if she’s not?” Thom asked. “What then?”
I hesitated, my common sense at war with itself and my morals. “I think we have to send some people to find her,” I finally said.
“Why?” Thom asked. “She tried to kill Phelan. If you’re right and she was the one who fucked with the wards a few weeks back, she almost got us all killed when the Shadow Man brought his little army into camp and tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. Let her run. “
I shook my head slowly. “She knows things about how we’ve laid out camp, about where we get our food, our water.”
“So we get the walls up, make them strong. We change our habits.” Thom took my face in his hands. “We’re better off with her gone, Mar. If she’s run, let her run.”
Rory cleared his throat. We both looked at him. He shrugged slightly. “For what it’s worth, I think he’s right. Maybe she ran because she’s scared. Maybe if she gets far enough away, she’ll snap their hold on her.”
The voices. If I thought they were geographical, I’d run, too. I squeezed my eyes shut. Except she’s going to go out there into the world and quite possibly die of starvation and exposure—assuming that running was her choice in the first place—and that’ll be on our heads and no one else’s. “All right,” I said, hoping that I’d be able to look at my own reflection someday and not see guilt etched there, “you guys win.”
Thom’s arm slid around my shoulders and he squeezed me tightly. I tried not to slump into the embrace, opting to yank myself upright instead.
Kellin made eye contact with me as she started to walk away, along the ward-line, giving me a brief, almost imperceptible nod.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Kel, but you guys thinking I’m doing the right thing doesn’t do a goddamned thing for my conscience.
“Let’s have a look,” I said, suppressing a sigh. “Maybe she’s left something behind to tell us what she’s done and why.”
Thom and Rory exchanged a look. Rory shrugged and Thom shrugged back. I shot them both a baleful glare and started walking toward the storage tent. Thom tried to hand me my staff and I shook my head firmly.
“No, you hang onto that and use it if you’re not going to go sit. Keep as much weight off your ankle as you can.”
“It’s almost healed,” he said.
“Almost isn’t healed,” I countered.
Don’t take this out on him. He doesn’t deserve it. I set my jaw. This decision is on you—they made it yours. You’re going to have to live with it.
So why can’t I just change my mind?
Because it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, I reminded myself. That’s why. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. They’re right. Even if she’s run and survives to tell anyone about us here, we can still be ready for them. We can plan for that eventuality.
Thom caught my hand and squeezed tightly.
“What I wouldn’t give for a clear-cut answer,” I muttered. He squeezed my hand again.
“Welcome to the new world, now with shades of gray,” he whispered.
I sighed. Black and white and shades of gray. Why did I ever think that things would get easier instead of harder? Because I’m a stupid idealist who dared to dream that maybe, just maybe, we’d be able to see more clearly the lines between right and wrong, good and evil.
But there’s no such thing—there’s only bright white, darkest black, and shades of gray.
Many, many shades of gray.
Autumn – Chapter 9 – 01
“Marin? Marin! We’ve got a problem.”