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Blood of the Lamb Book Three
By MANDY HAGER
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2014 Mandy Hager
All rights reserved.
The first time Maryam broke through the darkness that trapped her, she was besieged by pain. The second time, she retched and vomited into a metal bowl. Now, as she dozed away the last of the drug's numbing effects, she dreamed of her victorious return, and of the smile that lit her father's face as he welcomed her home. He had reached his arms out to her, calling her into his embrace, and they stood together beneath a halo of golden light, as if Onewere's sun shone down for them alone. Its warmth ebbed deep into her bones, so calming and relaxing that, as she awoke, it took her several minutes to register where she was. Grubby beige curtains separated her from the next-door beds, while overhead the one bare light-bulb—coated with white phosphate dust—circled in a languid breeze that rippled the curtains at the foot of her bed. Of course ... the hospital. The other place—the lush green island—was no more than a wishful dream.
Fear knotted her stomach as she reached over and tentatively ran her fingers along the bandage encasing her arm. She could feel the joint of her shoulder, then the padded clump around the point of pain, and finally—praise be!—the long thin line of her lower arm. Still there!
She'd been so scared when Charlie had insisted she return to the hospital for treatment of the infection that was eating into the flesh around the site of her broken bone. Had choked back tears as Charlie's kind wife Veramina explained how the doctors would reset the break with metal pins—but only if the arm was still fit to save. Maryam had gone into the operating theatre so on edge she'd felt the bed shake as she struggled to contain the urge to cry out when they injected a burning potion deep into her vein. Her last rogue thought before the drug took hold was a premonition of her severed arm, abandoned to the scavengers that roamed the rocky tide line in the bay below.
Beyond the curtain another patient shifted and groaned, and someone responded in a soft, soothing voice. Although Maryam didn't understand the words, she recognised the native language of this prison island—this forsaken outpost of the Confederated Territories where she and Ruth and Lazarus were now detained—and she recognised the tone. How she longed for someone by her side who cared like that. Joseph. Memories of his gentle face, of his blue eyes beaming out his love, flooded her thoughts. But Joseph is dead. Four simple words that formed the endless bleak loop inside her head now he was gone.
The curtain at the foot of her bed swept aside and Veramina's plump smiling face came into view. "Ah good." She bustled over to the bed and placed a cool palm on Maryam's forehead. "It's about time you were awake, my dear. You gave us quite a scare."
"You didn't take well to the anaesthetic. We nearly lost you twice. Once in theatre and once while you were coming round." She dropped her hand down to Maryam's wrist and checked her pulse. "Never mind. All seems well now."
"What about my arm?"
Veramina handed Maryam a cup of tepid water and two painkilling tablets. "You're lucky there as well. At first they were all set to amputate, but as they cleaned the wound they changed their minds." She winked at Maryam and began checking for movement and responses in each of the affected fingers. "For such a little thing you're pretty tough."
A wave of relief washed over Maryam. She had escaped death yet again, it seemed. How many times could she elude it before her luck ran out? Already she had stared it in the eye more often than she cared to count. Even this most recent escapade—Charlie and Veramina's kind scheme to save her arm—was rife with difficulties that could still dangerously backfire.
Maryam beckoned Veramina in close. "You're sure the doctors don't suspect I'm from the camp?"
The older woman chuckled. "Believe me, honey, they have enough trouble working in these awful conditions without speculating about things like that." But now she lowered her voice as well. "We'll have to take you back smartly, though. Tonight."
Maryam felt her eyes grow wide. "So soon?"
"It's not the best, I know, but they've gone and changed my shifts on me and I'm off for the next two days. It's just not safe to leave you here alone. But I'll give you antibiotics to take and try to pop in now and then to check. The rest is up to you. Promise me you'll give yourself at least six weeks to really heal."
Six whole weeks? Maryam nodded, but impatience nipped at her. Six more weeks trapped within the confines of that stinking camp felt like a life sentence.
Veramina laughed, the sound bursting forth like water from a tidal vent. "Lord love you, girl! You're as grumpy-faced as my old man!" She patted Maryam's cheek, then slipped through the curtain to the next-door bed. "Now Essie," she boomed, "I told you once already not to bring this raja makan in more sweets ..."
As Veramina berated the poor woman, Maryam closed her eyes and concentrated on her breath until the world beyond her curtains faded to a background drone. She had to think, to clear her head completely of the drug. She'd already made the decision to return to Onewere, but now it looked as if she had six weeks in which to plan her escape. Somehow in that time she must source the tree that cured the plague Te Matee Iai, learn how to extract its life-saving essence, then find a way to flee the camp and cross the huge expanse of sea to get back home. It bordered on impossible, yet she had to try. If she could get the cure back to her people and prove to them it would work, she could expose the lies that allowed Father Joshua and his Apostles of the Lamb to maintain their strict controls.
But, despite her best intentions, she couldn't concentrate. Her arm pulsed in the sticky heat and she felt as drowsy and disconnected as when she'd been overcome by sea-sickness on the boat before it sank. She tried to count the blooms of mould on the curtain hanging at her side, too scared to close her eyes in case images of that awful journey came back to haunt her, as they did most nights. One small anemone-shaped splash of green ... two ... three ... a fourth with spindly trails that bled into the fifth ... now six ... now eight ... Eventually her eyelids drooped.
It was evening before she finally shook off the anaesthetic's pall and woke to find the threadbare nightgown bunched around her waist and clammy with sweat. She sat up gingerly and edged her legs over the side of the bed, swaying as the movement dizzied her brain. She knew this light-headedness, had experienced it when Mother Lilith drained her of her blood. Now she took a few deep breaths before she dropped her feet to the floor. Her arm hung leaden beneath the wad of bandages, and she supported it against her chest with her other hand to ease the throbbing drag.
She shuffled past the other curtained cubicles to the toilets, then stopped to rinse the sweat from her face and run her fingers through her tangled hair. If even this short expedition tired her, how on earth would she find the energy to get back to the camp? Hadn't Veramina said she'd have to go tonight?
As if in answer to her questions, Charlie appeared, pushing a strange chair on wheels. His face lit up when he spotted her.
"G'day, kid! How are you feeling?"
"Fine," Maryam replied. "I just woke up." She looked down at the wheeled chair. "Is this for me?"
Charlie motioned for her to sit. "Climb aboard!"
As soon as Maryam was seated, he spun the chair around and wheeled her out into the corridor that linked the jumble of decrepit wooden buildings. The place was virtually deserted, with the few staff on the evening shift run off their feet and barely glancing up as Charlie pushed Maryam past.
"Vera's stashed the pills you need in here," he murmured as he swung the chair into the treatment room where Maryam had first been assessed two weeks before—the very room from which she'd stolen the pills that saved Lazarus's life. Charlie produced a sling to support her arm, then tucked two boxes of pills right in near her elbow so they'd not be seen. "Take the paracetamol every four hours to help with pain, and you need to take one of the other ones—the antibiotics—three times a day, after each meal, until they're gone." He caught her gaze. "It's vital that you take them all."
"I will," Maryam reassured him, only too aware that the sole reason this kind white man had stuck his neck out to help her was that she reminded him of the daughter he had lost to an infection such as this. She owed Charlie and Veramina's dead daughter much.
Now he crouched down beside her and met her eye to eye. "Okay, kiddo. Here comes the prob: while it was relatively easy sneaking you in here via the hot-water truck, it's too late in the day for that. Besides, everyone up at Cee One knows I've finished for the day, so if I turn up now they'll think something's up. If we didn't have to do this tonight it'd be easier, but with the buggers screwing Vera's shifts we have stuff-all choice."
Charlie's words were hard to follow, but she understood his meaning well enough. "Is there a way?"
Charlie's forehead wrinkled like a rippled sea. "I thought of sneaking you home to my place, but we live so close to all the other guards I figure it's not worth the risk. The trouble with this god-forsaken island is that everyone knows everything that's going on. The only way I can think to get you back inside the camp undetected is to hide you right in the belly of the beast, so to speak."
Beast? "What do you mean?"
"There's an unused storeroom tucked right at the back of the administration building. If we can get you into the building tonight, you can hide in there until some time tomorrow when it's safe to bring you out."
Maryam shook her head. "That's crazy, Charlie. You shouldn't put yourself at any further risk for me. Why don't I just stay here, and if I'm caught I'll take whatever punishment comes?"
"You're a plucky little thing, I'll give you that. But it's not just you who'd be punished. There'd be a witch-hunt and we can't afford my Vera's job being put at risk. Besides, Vera's already signed the papers to discharge you, so there's no going back." He rubbed his calloused hand over the bristles on his chin, the sound as harsh as grit on stone. "But you have to understand, I can't guarantee what time tomorrow I can get you out. You'll have to hide in there as quiet as a mouse until the time is right."
Maryam's pulse started throbbing in her arm and she felt sick. "And if they catch me there?"
Charlie reached out and squeezed her good hand. "I dunno, little lady. That's the truth. But I'm guessing the most you'd likely get is a little solitary, where I can keep an eye on you. Worst case, I guess, is Littlejohn could try to deport you—but, trust me, if that looked likely I'd be on the blower to Jo back on the mainland and get her to raise hell. Littlejohn may've black-listed her for now, but that sheila has contacts in all sorts of places and knows how to rock the boat if there's good cause."
Maryam closed her eyes, trying to make sense of what he'd just said. It was hard to tease out meaning from the flat-vowelled accent of the Territorials at the best of times, but when Charlie got excited he talked so fast, and used such foreign words, her brain grew tired trying to keep up. The white woman Jo was certainly on the detainees' side, Maryam was convinced of that, but since Sergeant Littlejohn had banned Jo from returning it was hard to know what she could do, when Jo herself had said how little most people in the Confederated Territories cared what happened in the camp.
If it weren't for the fact that Ruth—and Lazarus—were still trapped inside, Maryam knew she might just as well take her chances and try to run. But Ruth would never cope in there alone. Besides, inside the camp she'd at least have food and shelter until she'd recovered enough to make her move. Here, outside the camp, where the ordinary islanders were as dependent on the Territorials as her people were on the Apostles back at home, she couldn't guarantee that she'd survive at all. Charlie and Veramina might have helped her to get treatment because she linked them in a strange way to their daughter, but they could hardly be expected to risk more than that.
"Then show me how to get inside," she said now, meeting Charlie's eyes and trying to transmit more bravery than she felt.
Charlie held her gaze a moment longer before he nodded. "Right you are." He stood up and cleared his throat. "We'll ditch the chair just short of the main doors, okay? I'm going to distract the guard for a few minutes, and in that time I need you to slip out and wait for me up by the crossroads. Is that clear?"
She saluted him and forced a smile. "What's the signal when it's safe to move?"
"Attagirl. Just wait until you hear me do one ding-dong of a sneeze, then run like hell."
He pushed the wheeled chair back out into the corridor and proceeded through the hospital until just shy of the last turn in the run-up to the main front doors. There Charlie slewed off into a side room. He unearthed a small bottle from his pocket and put a finger to his lips to warn Maryam to keep quiet, then he disappeared.
Maryam pressed herself against the very edge of the doorway and listened as his boots clipped across the wooden floor toward the door. Now he began to speak in the native tongue of the islanders and she heard a deep guttural rumble as the man on guard replied. Charlie said something that caused the man to laugh, then she heard two sets of footsteps thump down the entrance steps outside. A few seconds longer and from somewhere outside the building, she heard a loud preposterous sneeze.
Daring not deliberate too much, she sprang from her hiding place and ran as fast as she could down the last section of corridor, clamping the boxes of pills against her body to dampen their manic rattling while she crossed the foyer and slipped out through the open door. She could hear Charlie's voice somewhere off to her left, and glanced over in time to see him wrap his arm around the guard's shoulders and manoeuvre him until his back presented to the door. The putrid stench of phosphate hit her as she tiptoed down the steps, all the time watching the guard, who raised Charlie's bottle to his lips and took a long slow swig. She'd reached the gravel drive now, the sharp edges gouging at her feet as she tried to skim over their surface, though the stones still shifted and rattled underfoot. Then Charlie, bless him, started singing like a sea lion on heat and the guard joined in, blocking out the noisy evidence of her flight.
She ran on until she made it to the crossroads, where she tucked herself under a thicket of phosphate-burnt weeds to wait. Her feet felt shredded, her arm one useless shaft of pulsing pain. And she couldn't regain her breath, the burning in her lungs consuming all the muggy air she tried to drag inside.
The evening had settled in now, the sky a cloudless dome of darkest blue. Watery yellow light spilled from buildings and in the distance a dog barked a doleful monologue. Maryam rose, weaving with dizziness, as Charlie finally strolled up the road alone.
"Good work," he said. "If Littlejohn knew what a useless drunk old Sevu was he'd blow a valve!" He leaned in close to peer at Maryam's face, and she caught a whiff of something sharp on his breath. "Are you okay? It's best we walk cross-country to avoid the road."
In truth, the jagged flakes of rotten rock had bruised her feet, and she still felt weak and wobbly from the surgery. She didn't even want to acknowledge how much her arm hurt. The whole point of the operation had been to stop the pain, yet here she was feeling as sick and overwhelmed by it as the moment the bone first snapped.
She struggled to keep up with Charlie as he led the way across the shadowy ground. She was caked in sweat before they'd even made it over the first scrubby rise, her heart beating so fast the pulses ran together into deafening white noise inside her head.
"Wait," she gasped to his fast-retreating back. "I have to rest."
He retraced his steps and tipped her face up with his finger to study her more closely. "Damn it. I knew this wouldn't work," he muttered, more to himself than her. "How about I carry you until we reach the top?"
Excerpted from Resurrection by MANDY HAGER. Copyright © 2014 Mandy Hager. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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