Promised Page 6

Bill’s eyebrows lifted. “What kind of place are you taking us to?”

“It’s brutal,” Gaia said. “We’ve discussed this. Do you want to go back to Sylum to die there? You still can. We’ll give you enough water to go back,” she said. She shifted Maya to her other shoulder. “That goes for anyone else, too.” She faced up the hill to where the others waited. “Once we go over that ridge,” she called, “there’s no going back.

Uneasiness rippled tangibly through the crowd.

“None of this is going to be easy. Life outside the wall is hard, and in some ways it’s even worse inside. But if we stay together,” Gaia said, “if we can count on each other, no matter what, I know we can build our new home in New Sylum, just as we’ve planned. That means we can’t start out divided, with some of us already second-class citizens. Do you all understand?”

She picked out the clan leaders, one by one, to be sure they were with her. Dinah represented the libbies and the fishermen families from down by the shore; Norris’s cousin, a cobbler, headed up the trade workers who had run shops side by side in the center of Sylum; Mlady Beebe represented many of the homeowners from around the commons; Mlady Roxanne, the teacher, led a large group of loosely connected laborers; and the morteur, Chardo Will, who was Gaia’s second in command and Peter’s brother, led the largest clan of hardworking, quiet men who had never married.

One after another, eighteen clan leaders nodded to confirm their loyalty, and then Will nodded toward Bill the nineteenth and final leader.

“How about it?” Will asked in his calm, steady voice. “Where do the miners stand?”

Bill shouldered his pack again and sauntered a couple steps toward the ridge. “I already said it. If any crim messes with me and mine, I’ll break his neck. But I wanted to get out of that death trap back home my whole life. The miners aren’t going back. That’s where we stand on that.”

A couple of the other miners chimed in. Gaia gave Maya another pat on her back and exhaled in deep relief as the crowd began to move again. Leon turned to unlock the remaining chains. One excrim peered down at his ankle and lifted his foot as if testing the unaccustomed lightness. Beside him, Malachai was hugging a young boy. Gaia had expected more of a celebration, but aside from a few smiles and back slaps, the excrims seemed content to stand together, patiently waiting instruction.

Gaia glanced at Leon. “We still need the rest of this gear.”

“We’ve got it, Mlass Gaia,” Malachai said, nodding respectfully. “Your dad’s free now, son,” he said softly to his boy. “None of that now. Not to worry.”

Leon dumped the chains on the water platform with a heavy rattling, and took a place alongside the platform. Three of the excrims took up the other places, while the remaining men picked up their burdens, no longer forced but voluntarily.

Gaia met Leon’s gaze, wondering.

He smiled at her, as if he’d expected all along that his men would continue to operate as a unit. “Go ahead,” he told her.

She took a few steps, pausing to look back. Apparently, she wouldn’t be going over the ridge with Leon beside her.

“Ready?” Leon asked. “On three.”

The four men lifted the platform of water sacks as one, and started forward. One of them said something Gaia didn’t catch, but she heard the genuine warmth in Leon’s responding laughter.

“He has them more in control than ever,” Will said.

Gaia turned, surprised to see he’d fallen in beside her. Will’s face and hands had gained extra color during his weeks in the wasteland, and his tan strengthened his resemblance to Peter, his younger brother. He had a beard now, too, like all the other men who hadn’t shaved on trail, and she decided the darkness delineating his jaw suited him.

“It’s a little frightening,” she agreed. “Like he has his own mini army of loyal followers now.”

“I expect their loyalty extends to you,” Will said. “I’m not sure how much farther.”

She smiled, and as she walked, she peered up under the brim of his hat to his kind brown eyes. “How’ve you been, anyway?”

“Good. I haven’t had the chance yet to congratulate you on your engagement.”

“Thank you.” She glanced at her red bracelet.

“Be happy, Mlass Gaia. You deserve it.”

She laughed. “Thanks. So do you.”

He settled his thumbs under the shoulder straps of his heavy pack. “Will Vlatir mind if we’re still friends?” he asked.

“He hasn’t minded so far,” she said. “We’ve worked so well together.”

“That’s true.”

Beyond Will, along the ridge top, people were sorting themselves out, preparing to move on.

“I’ve been wondering what’s best,” Will said mildly.

She glanced up at him. He was smiling, but some faint guardedness hinted that their friendship might be at a turning point. Her heart felt a twitch of alarm. If she knew a friend was in love with her, but he never asked for anything and accepted he could never have more, was she responsible for any heartache he might suffer?

“I don’t know what to say,” she admitted.

“I guess we’ll see, then, won’t we?” he said.

I guess, she thought.

Gaia continued to carry Maya up the weather-beaten slope with Will silent beside her. Her heart began to work in her chest, as much from eagerness as exertion. A couple of boys went by with a pack of goats, their bells tinking in the dry heat.

With each step, the horizon of the ridge grew nearer, until finally Gaia breached it and the last expanse of wasteland stretched before her, a great, shimmering landscape of brown and white and gray. In the distance, the Enclave rose on a majestic hill. Its towers and white roofs and the spike of the obelisk cut a distinct skyline against the blue above, while below, the great, impregnable wall divided the city from the tumbling gray structures of Wharfton, her home. Farther below, the sweep of the vast unlake fell away toward the south.

Gaia took a long, deep breath. “That’s it, Maya,” she said to her sister.

Will paused beside her. “It’s bigger than I expected.”

“Yes,” she said simply.

“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing, and passed her a pair of binoculars.

Small in the distance, rippling in the heat waves, a figure was walking toward them: a woman moving with a steady but unhurried gait.

Gaia zeroed in on the motion. There was no mistaking the woman’s purposeful bearing, nor the black medical bag she clutched at her side. “It’s Myrna Silk,” Gaia said. “One of the doctors from the Enclave. She was in Q cell with me. In prison.”

“Apparently she’s out,” Will said.

Gaia scanned through the binoculars along the top of the wall, picking out the tiny figures of the guards, and her pulse kicked up a notch. Far in the distance, the Enclave was fully armed and waiting for them.

Chapter 5

the backward siege

“AT LEAST THEY AREN’T sending out forces to attack. So far.” She handed back the binoculars.

“Keep them,” Will said. “What happened to yours?”

“One of my messengers has them,” she said. “Thanks.” She slung the strap around her neck and Maya began to inspect them. There was nothing to do but continue onward and keep an eye out for an aggressive move.

The caravan veered south, skirting wide of the Enclave and Wharfton to approach along the old shoreline of the unlake. If Gaia’s judgment was correct, they were a couple of hours away from the wall when they met up with Myrna Silk. Her black eyebrows contrasted vividly with the white hair fringing out from the edges of her hat, and there was an acerbic, no-nonsense quality to her features even when she smiled.

“Exile agrees with you, I see,” Myrna said, clasping Gaia’s hand warmly. “Who’s this delightful creature?” she added, lifting the brim of Maya’s hat.

“My sister, Maya.”

“Of course,” Myrna said. “Did Leon ever find you?”

“He’s here,” Gaia said, gesturing behind her. She drew Myrna aside on a wide, sunny ledge of rock while the caravan continued, stretching out in a long line to their left as they faced the Enclave. She waved for the vanguard to progress along the shoreline without her, and they trudged onward. “I sent two scouts to Wharfton four days ago and they haven’t returned. Do you know anything about them? Munsch and Bonner?”

“They were taken in for questioning. That’s how I heard you were coming with an army.” Myrna glanced around and set down her bag. “Looks like that rumor was a bit off the mark. Unless those are attack chickens.”

Gaia laughed. “We’re not an army. We’re coming to relocate permanently. We’re peaceful.”

Myrna looked amused as she shook her head. “Only you.”

“What?” Gaia said.

“Things have changed since you left,” Myrna said. “There’s even more hostility across the wall now than there used to be. Listen, I came to talk to your leader to see if I can persuade you all to leave. What are the chances?”

Gaia shook her head. “We can’t leave. We’ve come too far, and our old home is a death trap. We’ll do whatever it takes to survive here.”

“Even so. Who’s in charge?”

Gaia felt a certain ironic delight. “I’m our elected leader. You’re looking at the Matrarc of New Sylum.”

Myrna’s gaze went from Gaia to the caravan of walking people with their burdens and back to Gaia. “That figures.”

Gaia offered Myrna a canteen, but the doctor had brought a bottle of her own, and while the older woman drank, Gaia lifted Will’s binoculars again. The wall, with its massive blocks of limestone, appeared taller than before, and now that she was nearer, she inspected a new wooden layer that had been built along the top. A parapet connected the towers so soldiers could walk along the continuous top length, at least along the legs of the wall that overlooked Wharfton.

She adjusted the focus on a soldier who had his own pair of binoculars aimed back toward the caravan.

Gaia lowered the binoculars and turned to the doctor. “Are you spying for the Protectorat?”

“Why? Do you have something to hide?”

She had a point. Gaia glanced over her shoulder to where her young messengers waited discreetly for orders. “Tell Leon Vlatir and Mx. Dinah to join me, please,” she said to one. “They’re both behind me a ways.” She gestured to another. “Chardo Will went ahead. Find him and ask him to come back, too.”

The messengers sprang off.

“My scouts were supposed to ask a couple of my old friends in Wharfton to start stockpiling water for our arrival,” Gaia said. “Would you have any idea if that’s happening?”

“I don’t know. Derek Vlatir is the one who told me your scouts had been taken in. He always knows what’s going on.”

“How do you know Derek?” Gaia asked, puzzled. “He still lives outside the wall, doesn’t he?”

“So do I, now,” Myrna said, and jogged up her chin. “I told you things have changed. I took over your old house on Sally Row. I hope you don’t mind, but it didn’t look like you were coming back. I’m running a blood bank there.”

“But isn’t that illegal? How did all this happen?” Gaia asked, amazed.

“Outside the wall the blood bank isn’t illegal,” Myrna said. “You began it all by stealing the birth records. It took the Enclave a few days to realize you gave them to your red-headed friend, Emily.”

“Emily! How is she? Is she all right?”

“Didn’t Leon tell you? The Protectorat took Emily’s baby to persuade her to give the records back, which she did, of course. But then the Protectorat accused her of having copies made. When the Enclave still didn’t give Emily’s son back, she and her husband went berserk.”

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