Promised Page 5

A last, spindling thread of reservation unraveled inside her, allowing her heart to leap blindly forward. “Me, too. Of course I’ll marry you. Nothing would make me happier.”

His eyes grew warmer and deeper than she’d ever seen them. “You mean this? You won’t take it back?”

She laughed. “Yes. Really. You’re right. It’s ours, and I just have to learn to live with it.”

“Like a curse or something.” He was nodding, and then he was shaking his head, too, like he could hardly believe her. Then he laughed. “When?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Whenever we get settled. Okay?”

“We’re pretty settled tonight. Right now, actually, come to think of it.”

She laughed again. “You’d have to shave.”

“I can shave. I’m very good at shaving.” He toppled slowly sideways to the blanket, bringing her with him and half squashing her.

“We agreed not to tease each other on trail,” she reminded him.

“We agreed not to tease each other too much,” he said. “You’re mine now.” His voice dropped soft and close to her ear. “You’ve made a promise.”

“I know. You have, too.”

Leon shifted her more comfortably in his arms, and she snuggled near, feeling the warmth where her clothes met his and inhaling the warm, smoky scent of him. He somehow reminded her of cinnamon, even though she hadn’t tasted any in over a year. The idea of him being with her always, just like this, for the rest of her life, brought her a kind of wondering joy. Then, with an awful sense of premonition, she hugged him more tightly, peering past his shoulder to the black void of sky beyond the drifting campfire smoke, as if she might not get the chance to hold him again for a long time. Ignore the fear, she thought.

She felt his finger move lightly along the chain of her necklace.

“Finally,” he said tenderly, and for the first time, Gaia heard a new, ineffable sweetness in his voice.

Chapter 4

the crims’ deal

THE PACKED, WIND-SWEPT DIRT was parched and gray beneath Gaia’s boots, and the little clumps of sage and oat grass had turned almost colorless in their wasted, spindly grip upon the earth. Like us, Gaia thought. She was climbing up a long, gradual hill of dusty rock and scrub two days after picking up Jack and Angie when she noticed the people in the caravan stopping ahead, on top of the next ridge. She glanced down at Maya, whom she carried straddled on her hip, supported with a sling. The little girl had her fingers in her mouth, and she made a petulant noise, tugging at her cloth hat.

“You have to keep your hat on,” Gaia said. “Look! Look up the hill. See Josephine and Junie? We’re going to catch them.”

The people kept spreading out in a knobby line along the ridge top, and Gaia knew it could mean only one thing: the Enclave. She looked back eagerly for Leon, and moved aside with Maya to let others pass. Several girls and boys, her messengers, paused conveniently nearby, and over their heads rippled her standard: a yellow oval ring on a green background, reminiscent of the commons back in Sylum. Mikey, Dinah’s son, was in charge of bearing the flag, which made it easy for anyone in the caravan to locate Gaia.

“What is it?” Norris asked her. The cook leaned heavily on his crutch to rest his peg leg.

“We must be close,” she said, smiling. “They’re stopping to see. Go on. I’ll be right there.”

Adjusting the angle of her hat brim, she scanned back along the caravan, where every able-bodied person was heavily loaded. Men and women carried food, clothes, poles, and rolled tarps, sometimes in huge loads on their backs. Where there were no roads, they could use no wheels, but they’d rigged travois for the horses to drag. Angie was carrying a pole with two cages of chickens balanced over her shoulder, keeping it steady with her good hand as she followed Jack’s stretcher. Other children drove a small herd of close-shorn sheep, and far in the back, trailing slowly behind, came the crims with extra loads of water.

Wanting to see the Enclave for the first time again with Leon beside her, Gaia automatically hitched Maya higher and started walking back along the line of travelers, with Mikey in her wake.

In the distance, one of the crims stopped to wait while his chainmate maneuvered their ankle chain around a rock, and then they came forward again. The next pair of prisoners, each carrying a heavy skin full of water on his back, was impeded at the same place, and managed the same clumsy dance. She watched it twice more before she dragged her gaze away, looking for Leon, and found him in the back. Leon was helping to carry a platform laden with water sacks and spelling one of the crims who trailed behind, head bowed, hands on his hips, moving his legs in exact mimic of his chainmate so as not to disrupt his chainmate’s stride.

Gaia had never been happy about the crims. Back in Sylum, after she’d been elected Matrarc, many of the prisoners had been retried and their sentences commuted. Others had been released to their families, leaving incarcerated only the forty who were convicted of the most violent crimes.

The families who had elected to stay behind in Sylum, a minority of two hundred people, had not wanted to be burdened with running the prison. Their leader, Mlady Maudie, had argued vociferously that Gaia should take all the crims with her on trail, and after weeks of negotiating, they had ended up one night at a table in the lodge, dealing out the files of the prisoners into two piles and trading to see which crims would stay and which would go.

Mlady Maudie had offered to swap a murderer for five of Gaia’s lesser criminals.

“We need to keep our numbers down,” Leon had said quietly, turning aside to confer with Gaia. He had once been unjustly imprisoned with the crims himself, and he’d been running the prison since Gaia had become Matrarc.

“We won’t be able to guard them forever,” Gaia had said to him, considering. “What if he breaks free and kills us all in the night? What if he kills us when we reach Wharfton?”

“He won’t,” Leon had said, explaining what he knew of the men’s characters, and Gaia had trusted Leon’s guidance on the matter.

In the end, Leon took charge of twelve crims for the exodus. Those twelve traveled the first three-quarters of the trail many times over, carrying stockpiles of water and supplies for replenishment stations along the route. Their thankless labor had been critical for setup long before the huge exodus ever began.

“Come on, Mlass Matrarc!” a youthful voice called from the ridge. “You can see the Enclave from here, with the towers and the wall! It’s amazing!”

“Wait for me,” Gaia called back. “Just wait there. Break for lunch. I’m taking care of the crims.”

Leon looked up at her voice. “Hold up there,” he said to the crims, and coordinated with his team to lower their platform.

The other crims lowered their heavy water skins and stood panting under the bright sun, their gray and tan clothes saturated with sweat. Leon took off his hat to brush back his sweaty hair as he approached, and Gaia met the piercing blue of his eyes when he put the hat back on.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“It’s time. We can’t go over the ridge with the crims in chains,” she said. “I don’t want Wharfton or the Enclave to see us like this.”

She watched his gaze shift skeptically up the ridge. The travelers had put down their packs, and many were lounging on boulders amid the dry grass, passing canteens and resting their feet as they broke out their midday victuals. In contrast to their sturdy wholesomeness, the chained crims appeared even more depraved and vicious. What was more, the segregation of one small dangerous group cast an unsavory pall over everyone else, too.

They couldn’t afford to look disunified.

“I see your point,” Leon said. He turned to the crims, unclipping an iron key from his belt. “Malachai, you first.”

The tallest crim and his chainmate left their burdens and made their way forward. Malachai was a stiff, deep-chested man with a rough, dark beard and gnarly knuckles who had killed his wife. Claiming self-defense and defense of his children from her abuse had not convinced the jury to release him. He had a way of regarding Gaia with an unblinking concentration that made her uneasy, and yet she knew Leon trusted him completely.

“What’s going on?” called a burly man, strolling back down the ridge toward them. Bill, a thick-headed, well-liked miner from the rowdy end of Sylum, worked a lump of chaw in his cheek as he spoke. “I don’t remember anything about freeing the crims. What are you doing?”

Behind Bill came several of the miners from his clan.

“It was part of the deal,” Gaia said. “The crims staged our supply drops and carried extra water for us in exchange for their freedom once we arrived. We’ve essentially arrived.”

“Nobody asked me about this deal,” Bill said.

“It was part of negotiations back in Sylum, weeks ago,” Gaia said. “You maybe don’t recall.”

“I don’t like it,” Bill said. “You there, Vlatir, hold up a second.”

Leon had already undone the shackles on Malachai’s and his chainmate’s ankles. He looked briefly at Bill, then moved pointedly to the next pair of crims.

“Hey!” Bill said. “I’m talking to you!”

Leon straightened. He gave no overt command, but as fast as their chains would allow, the twelve crims circled defensively around Leon, Gaia, and Maya. Positioning himself between Gaia and Bill, Malachai picked up his chain and gripped it in one hand, silently prepared to swing it into savage motion.

The only one more surprised than Bill was Gaia herself.

“What’s this?” Bill demanded.

“Leon, stop them,” Gaia said.

“They aren’t doing anything,” Leon said.

“I said stop!” Gaia commanded.

“Drop the chain, Malachai,” Leon said.

“He can’t threaten Mlass Gaia,” Malachai said.

“Nobody’s threatening me,” Gaia said. “It was a misunderstanding. Drop your chain. Now!”

Malachai did, slowly setting his fists on his hips, still facing Bill.

“Did you see that? They’re savages!” Bill said.

Others were coming rapidly down from the ridge. Several of the archers readied their bows. On Gaia’s hip, Maya began to whimper.

“Put up your bows,” Gaia said. “No more of this. You’ll treat the excrims with respect. They’re citizens of New Sylum now, and they have the same rights as anyone else. Yourself included,” she added to Bill.

The archers lowered their bows but remained on alert. Gaia reflexively smoothed a hand around Maya’s back, and she watched as Bill’s gaze shifted to the little girl.

“You’re scaring the baby,” Bill said.

“Are you done?” Gaia asked.

Bill turned once more to the crims, then to the others who had gathered around, and he gave out a loud, aggressive laugh of disbelief. Maya began to cry in earnest, and Gaia slid her up out of the sling to cuddle her close to her neck. “You’re okay, baby,” she said softly, still watching Bill. Maya’s wail subsided into a little hiccupping sob, and the tiny girl wrapped her soft hand around Gaia’s neck. As Gaia kept her gaze zeroed on Bill, demanding his concession, she felt the prickling, volatile silence of the others around them.

“Tell me you understand,” Gaia said.

“All right,” Bill said. “But if they harm any one of us, so help me, I’ll personally rip them apart.”

“And you’ll face the consequences for vigilantism if you do,” Gaia said.

“Is that so? Are you and your boyfriend going to run the courts in Wharfton when we get there?” Bill asked.

Gaia took a step nearer. “You’d better hope I’m still in charge when we get there,” she said darkly. “You mess around in Wharfton or the Enclave and you’ll get strung up fast with no questions asked.”

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies