Promised Page 2

Peter’s aloof posture melted slightly. “I’m not asking to be your friend.”

“What do you want, then?” she said.

“Just don’t ignore me,” Peter said. “Just look at me like you look at other people, like I exist. I deserve that much.” He took a step nearer, into the invisible boulder, which cracked and began to disintegrate into painful shards.

With an effort, Gaia met his gaze. His blue eyes were as discerning and vivid as ever, but the generous humor that used to brighten his visage was gone, replaced by stark, wary reserve. As their gaze held, she could feel herself knowing him, understanding him, and it hurt because deep down she knew his transformation was her fault.

He took a half step nearer, waiting her out.

It wasn’t friendship he wanted, she realized, or even the closure of forgiveness. He wanted something harder: honesty without intimacy.

“I can try,” she said.

In the stillness, he nodded. The girl made a snapping noise with her fingers and pointed impatiently ahead, but Gaia kept her focus on Peter.

“Enough said?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. His voice dropped, and he was the first to turn away. “Enough.”

Gaia turned then to the girl. “Lead the way, Mlass.”

The girl took off into the shadows again.

A ping of conscience mixed with Gaia’s relief, and she wondered what Leon would think of her new truce with Peter. Shoving it back, she strode rapidly after the girl.

Already the heat of the wasteland day was switching over to the coolness of evening, and in another hour it would be lightless and cold. Gaia could smell dry sage and the ubiquitous dust of the wasteland, layers of it, like the opposite of water. The terrain dipped into a ravine of deeper shadows, and the girl slowed as they reached the bottom. The next moment, she vanished.

“Where’d she go?” Gaia asked. There had to be a hidden passage or cave, but for the life of her, Gaia could see no way through the rock wall of the ravine.

Then the girl’s head peeked up about knee-high, several yards away, and she reached toward Gaia. Gaia moved cautiously forward, peering into the shadows, and it was only when she was right on top of the girl that she saw a crevice in the rock, dim with dusty shadow. It looked too small to conceal anything, but Gaia could hear breathing. She squinted as the girl drew her in, and then slipped the strap of her quiver off over her head to duck down farther.

A slumped, prone man lay in the back of the crevice. The smell of blood was a metallic, sweet taste in the air. The girl drew close to him, snuggling against his heart, and the man put a limp arm around her.

“Silly Angie,” the man mumbled. “What did I tell you? You have to go join the caravan. I’ll catch up with you.”

There was a flicking noise behind Gaia, and Peter leaned in as far as he could with a lit match. The injured man frowned, wincing. His eyes were feverishly bright in the sepulchral space, and his expression turned to wonder. Gaia took in his gaunt cheeks, his pale hair and darker beard, the strangely youthful angle of his eyebrows even as he suffered, and recognition hit her gut before it reached her consciousness.

“Jack?” she asked, disbelieving.

Gaia’s brother quirked his mouth in a half smile. “Wouldn’t you know,” he said, his speech slurred. “Now, if only I were pregnant, you’d be a big help.”

Chapter 2

Clan nineteen


“Light another, quickly please,” Gaia said. “It’s my brother.” She was as delighted to find Jack as she was horrified to see him in such dire shape. “Where are you hurt? How long have you been like this?”

Peter struck another match and kept them coming. Jack blinked slowly, watching Gaia with his oddly lustrous eyes. His shirt was dark with caked blood.

“Just take care of Angie,” Jack said. “She’s had a bad time of it. I’m glad I got to see you once more. I kept hoping I might.”

“Tell me how you’re hurt.”

“I got knifed in my side here,” Jack said. “I didn’t think it was that bad, but it’s wiped me out. The blade must have been poisoned.”

“When was this?” Gaia asked.

“A couple days back, when we ditched our band of nomads,” Jack said. “Angie’s mother just died, and the kid has no other family. It’s a long story, but her mom asked me to get Angie to the Enclave so she could have a shot at a future, and I owed her, so that’s what I was trying to do. Gaia, promise me you’ll take care of her. You’re headed back, aren’t you?”

The girl had slid her fingers into Jack’s hand and looked like she would never let go.

“Take care of her yourself,” Gaia said. “We Stones don’t die easy.”

“Odin Stone. Right.” He mumbled his birth name as if it were still unfamiliar.

“Where’s your tribe now?” Gaia asked.

“They were two days west of here and heading south. They’re long gone by now.”

In the poor light, Gaia saw that layers of cloth were stuck against Jack’s wound. Tugging at the fabric would make it worse and start him bleeding again before she could treat him properly. There was no point staying here talking.

“You ready, Peter?” she asked.


Carrying her brother back to camp was like hauling a limp block of granite between them, and the going was so slow that the sky was a rich violet by the time they reached the last ridge. Several scouts intercepted them and took over carrying Jack. The campfires of the caravan spread before them in the valley below as they made their last descent.

“You never said you had a brother,” Peter said.

“I have two, both older,” Gaia said. “We didn’t grow up together because they were both advanced inside the Enclave. Just before I left, Jack helped me escape, and then he left for the wasteland, too.”

Gaia glanced at Angie and wondered what the full story was there. The little Gaia knew of nomad culture was harsh and brutal, which fit with Jack getting knifed. The girl, still cradling her wounded hand in the makeshift bandage, kept close to Gaia as they wove through the ordered chaos of the camp.

Eighteen hundred people were noisily settling in for the night. Since leaving their home beside Marsh Nipigon in early September, Gaia’s people had had over three weeks to establish their routines on trail. Each clan had a central hub of cook fires, with clusters of families surrounding them. True tents were few, but dark tarps were rigged over poles to shelter many of the families. Packs, baskets, and cages of chickens added to the jumble. Somewhere a clear tenor voice started up a ballad, and smoke brought the scent of chicken cooking with honey and curry.

“Welcome to our caravan. We’re from Sylum originally,” Gaia said to Angie. “Like it?”

The girl nodded, glancing ahead toward the men carrying Jack.

“I’ll do what I can for you and Jack,” Gaia said. “Try not to worry.”

In the center of the activity, clan nineteen was laid out in neat circles around three fires, and Norris Emmett, drawing on his skills as the cook for the lodge back in Sylum, was overseeing the feeding of a hundred people. He glanced up as Gaia approached, and his gaze swept over Jack and the girl before he called something over his shoulder. Farther behind him, Josephine was feeding two toddlers: her daughter Junie and Gaia’s sister Maya.

Gaia stopped to give the little girls hugs and kisses. Maya tried to feed Gaia some bannock by pressing it against her lips, but Gaia laughed. “No, that’s for you. Eat up, squirt.” Gaia looked up at Josephine. “Has she been good?”

“Good enough,” Josephine said with her normal good humor. “I’ve got her. Looks like you’re busy.” Josephine had cut her dark curls shorter for convenience on trail, and they were held back from her face by a jaunty red headband. Gaia’s little sister had a bit of the same red in her hair.

With a pang of guilt, Gaia couldn’t help thinking Josephine was in some ways a better mother figure to Maya than she was herself. “I’ll try to come back to tuck her in,” Gaia said, and gave her sister another kiss on top of her soft curls before she continued on.

A smaller, fourth campfire was burning to one side where Dinah, the former libby, had a tarp and supplies laid out in readiness for medical emergencies. She’d turned to healing in the past year, assisting Gaia and proving to have a steady hand with everything from childbirth to single sutures. Dinah’s white, pleated shirt had remained spotless during the entire exodus, defying all logic and now, as they approached, she straightened, swinging her braid over her slender shoulder.

“Only you could wander off into the wasteland and come back with two more mouths to feed,” Dinah said. She nodded toward the men carrying Jack. “Do you want help with him?”

“Let me get started,” Gaia said. “See what you can do for Angie’s hand.”

The scouts lowered Jack to the tarp, where he lay still. Gaia was already reaching for the soap.

Peter lit two extra torches and arranged them nearby. “I’ll get back to the ridge,” he said.

“Right. Good.” Gaia heard the perfunctory note in her voice and made a point of looking up to meet his eyes. The faintest irony tinged his expression. “I mean, thanks, Peter.”

“You’re welcome, Mlass,” he said evenly, and with a brief smile at Angie, he was gone.

Dinah’s gaze followed Peter and turned back to Gaia. “What was that?” she said.


Dinah pointed her thumb after the retreating scout, then stopped. “Okay. Never mind.”

Gaia sank down beside her brother and reached for his shirt. “I need an update. Have the scouts who went ahead to the Enclave returned? Munsch and Bonner?”

“No. Not yet.”

“It’s getting to be too long. What else do you have for me?”

Dinah filled her in about some bickering between the miners and the fishermen, a woman’s persistent fever, a shortage of corn meal, and a broken travois. “Chardo Will is mending the travois. Otherwise, nothing major.”

“Has Leon come in with the crims?”

“Not yet. He sent word they’d be in around sundown.”

Then he’s late, Gaia thought.

Gaia would not relax until all the clans were settled in for the night, including and especially the crims. Leon was in charge of a dozen prisoners who accompanied the exodus, working to earn their freedom by the time they reached Wharfton. In a concession to safety, the crims were chained by the ankle in pairs, which meant they were always the last ones into camp each night, along with Leon.

Dinah was working over Angie’s hand, and Gaia could see from the child’s glassy gaze that Dinah had given her a lily-poppy draught for the pain. Gaia started on Jack’s wound. With scissors, she cut away the looser fabric, then used a sponge to wet the caked blood and carefully peel the rest away. The wound was ten centimeters long, and deep, scraping along his lowest rib. The edges were ragged and pink with infection.

“Bad, huh?” Dinah asked.

“Yes.” Gaia glanced at her brother’s face, considering carefully. Jack was out cold.

In the past year, there had been dozens of times when a medical situation needed more expertise than she had, and she’d come up with a policy. She was brutally honest, always, with her patient, and she let the patient decide what she would try. Sometimes it had been deemed best to do nothing, and the patient had died. Other times, she had done nothing, and the patient’s body had healed itself. Most times, the patients had wanted her to try cleaning, stitches, compresses. Once she’d amputated a man’s crushed hand, and he’d survived. But digging around in people was not something she excelled at, and she was loath to do it without their consent.

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