Promised Page 8

Gaia hesitated, and glanced at the load he already carried. “No. I’ve got her.”

He clearly thought that was a poor decision, too. “Fine,” he said, and turned back with Myrna.

Gaia knew she’d annoyed him, but at the same time, she was relieved that Leon wouldn’t be in the lead with her. She had a secret fear that he would take some risk in the Enclave that she’d be helpless to prevent. She turned, beckoned to Will and Dinah, and began striding the length of the caravan toward the vanguard.

“All right, green flag,” she said to Mikey when they eventually reached the low rise where Peter was waiting with a corps of archers and scouts. The caravan of people shifted, collected itself, and began moving again.

Peter tipped his hat brim as she fell in beside him. “I’m finally seeing where you came from, Mlass.”

She glanced up and felt the natural pull of a smile. “Yes.” With Peter’s beard and the dust of the trail, he looked much like he had when she’d first met him. She would have died if he hadn’t rescued her, and she wondered if he ever remembered that night. “So much has happened since I left.”

“For all of us,” Peter said.

“It’s so big,” Mikey said.

Gaia glanced over at the boy and smiled. “It is, isn’t it?”

She tried to see Wharfton from his perspective, considering he’d never known anything bigger than the sylvan village of Sylum, and the clusters of buildings magnified before her eyes, especially the bright ones inside the wall that glistened in the sun. She needed no binoculars to perceive a boy on the path to the water spigot above Western Sector Three. Brown and gray garments hung on clotheslines, and across Wharfton, thin lines of dingy smoke rose from chimneys. A colorful pot of pink flowers stood on the porch of the closest little home. The first sound she heard was a blacksmith’s bang, and suddenly she was home.

“What if I get lost?” the boy said.

Gaia laughed. “We’ll keep you safe. If you lose your way, just head downhill, toward the unlake. You’ll always find us then.” She made a gesture for the Chardo brothers and the others. “We’ll turn off here.”

Gaia started down into the great blue bowl of the unlake, and when a grasshopper leapt past her trousers, Maya squeaked in surprise. Soon, Gaia intercepted a trail she knew from her childhood when she, Emily, and Sasha used to explore. She’d drawn from her memories of the unlake to create a terrain map the planners had used for deciding where to lay out New Sylum, but she didn’t realize how sweet it would be to actually retrace the old paths. It felt like signals were reawakening in the dormant corners of her brain, making her senses even more acute. Her heart lifted. This was going to be home again, but better than before.

“See?” Gaia said, turning to Will. “It’s just like I remember.”

“Your two lives are finally meeting up,” Will said.

She looked up, surprised. “Yes.”

His profile was aimed ahead, to where a flight of swallows careened through the clear air. “It’s beautiful,” Will said. Then he added, “We’re a long way from the marsh.”

“That’s the point,” Peter said.

“I’m just saying it’s different,” Will said.

“Are you going to get homesick?” Peter asked.

Will adjusted the shoulder strap of his pack and regarded his brother. “Not before you do.”

Peter forced a smile. “I won’t.”

Gaia glanced at Peter again, picking up on his mood. “Everything all right?”

“Get it over with,” Will suggested.

“What?” Gaia asked.

Peter shook his head. “It’s nothing.”

Will laughed at him. “He wishes you and Vlatir all the best.”

“Thanks, Will. I can speak for myself,” Peter said.

“It’s really okay,” Gaia said, her cheeks warming.

“I do, of course,” Peter said stiffly. “Congratulations.”

For goodness’ sake, she thought. “Thanks,” she said abruptly. She gestured forward. “Shall we?” she said, and continued on.

Around the next bend, the bay of boulders descended into a wide, flat shelf of bluegrass, wildflowers, and low brush. Stands of aspen promised firewood. Farther along, angling northeast, a path led directly back up toward Wharfton and her old neighborhood on Sally Row.

Her gaze traveled up toward the towers of the Bastion and the obelisk. She lifted her thumb, measuring its height against the obelisk’s as she used to do with her father, and a poignant longing for him touched her heart. Then she shifted her thumb toward the wall. Leon had told her that as long as the soldiers were no taller than her thumbnail, she would be out of rifle range, and the guards on the wall were still smaller than that.

Views change, she thought. She was no longer a kid.

Maya held her thumb up, too, puzzled.

Gaia laughed. “We’re home, bug,” she said. She turned to Dinah, Peter, and Will, opening her arms wide. “This is the place.”

Dinah compared it to the site plans she’d pulled out and nodded. “I see. It’s good. Will?”

He absently hooked a hand around the back of his neck as he looked over Dinah’s shoulder. “Yes.”

“We’ll secure the perimeter,” Peter said.

In no time, the clan leaders began filing people to their predetermined areas, adjusting in a fluid, flexible way now that they were confronted with the actual terrain. Archers appeared on three outcrops of rock that provided a clear vantage of the entire area. Mikey propped Gaia’s standard in the place where clan nineteen would settle, and Gaia set Maya on her feet as Josephine came up with Junie. The two little girls gave each other hugs.

“Cute,” Josephine said. “I’ll watch them. You sure you want us setting up here, under the gun, so to speak?”

“Yes, closest to the path up to Wharfton,” Gaia said, indicating a boulder that marked where the trail rose.

She took another look at the organized chaos around her. Norris was directing several expools to lay out his kitchen gear along a shelf of stone, and Angie, with a serious expression, was letting the little girls take turns with her goggles.

“Angie,” Gaia said. “I thought you were staying with Jack.”

“She’s no trouble here,” Norris said.

“I know, but I want it settled who’s in charge of her, and I expect Myrna to take Jack up to the house on Sally Row.” Gaia considered the girl. “Would you rather be here with Norris, or with Jack?”

“Jack,” Angie said.

Gaia agreed. “Then I want you to stay with him and not wander. You can help out Myrna, at least until we’re settled. Is that clear?”

The girl stood slowly and retrieved her goggles from the toddlers. She nodded.

“I have to go see about Munsch and Bonner,” Gaia said. “They need to be released and I want to check on getting some fresh water for tonight, too. It’s strange that no one has come down to see what’s up with us,” she said, thinking of Emily’s parents and Leon’s birth father.

“I’ll get Peter to put an escort together,” Will said.

“I’ll take Peter and some archers,” she agreed. “I’d rather have you stay here. You’re in charge in case anything happens to me.”

“And have Vlatir slit my throat for letting you go without me? No, thank you,” he said. “Meet us up ahead.” He started up the trail.

She took off the sling she’d used for Maya and checked to make sure she had her knife in her boot. Then she glanced back at the stream of people still winding their way down into the unlake. Jack’s stretcher was coming, and she caught a glimpse of Leon giving Myrna a hand down a steep chute. Below, people were spreading out, clearing stones and setting up campsites.

She turned her back on New Sylum and trod up the familiar path, past the places where her mother had first taught her about motherwort and where her father had taken her to pick early morning blueberries. With each step, she was closer to home, closer to all she’d left behind, and it felt like time was reversing, too. Absently, she stroked her fingers along her scarred cheek, and wondered if she would find herself in her old skin.

As she came over the last ridge out of the unlake, she saw that Sally Row was deserted.

“It’s not right,” Gaia said. “It’s too quiet.”

“This isn’t necessary, you coming up here,” Peter said.

“I have to see what happened to Munsch and Bonner. Besides, now that I’m here, I’m curious. Aren’t you?” Gaia said. “We’ll be careful.”

“Stay together,” Peter said, and motioned the others to surround Gaia.

Most of the archers were women of the cuzines who’d been shooting since they were children, though a few, like Peter, were men who’d trained daily for the past year. Now all of them nocked their arrows in readiness.

Gaia walked up the middle of the quiet dirt road. The once familiar houses looked small and dusty, so much more weather-beaten than she remembered. She wondered if they’d deteriorated, or if they’d always been this dilapidated and she only noticed now. She was nearing her family’s cottage when a clatter came from up the road.

A dozen Enclave guards marched toward them. Their black uniforms and hats stood out sharply against the mottled grays of Wharfton, and their rifles glinted in the sun.

“Gaia Stone!” called their commander.

She came to a stop. “I’m Gaia Stone,” she said. “Who are you?”

“You’re under arrest for treason,” he said. “Tell your people to stand back.”

Quicker than speech, Peter stepped in front of her and aimed his arrow at the captain with deadly precision. Will drew his sword. The rest of her guard packed in tightly around her with their arrows aimed at the Enclave force.

At the same time, the Enclave commander raised his hand in a signal to his men, who spread out to either side of him, dropped to their knees, and aimed their rifles with loud cocking noises.

“Don’t be foolish. We’ll shoot you to ribbons,” the commander said.

“Not before half of you die,” Gaia said. “You’ve lined yourselves up like target practice, and my archers don’t miss at twice this range.”

The commander stilled his hand and paused, plainly reconsidering the distance.

“What’s happened to my two scouts?” Gaia demanded. “Why haven’t they been released?”

“Come see for yourself,” he answered.

“Not unless you put your guns down,” she said. “We’ll talk.”

“You disarm first,” the commander called.

“Mlass Gaia, I have his Adam’s apple, easy,” Peter said quietly.

Thinking fast, Gaia scanned the line of Enclave soldiers with their barrels pointed toward her. She knew her archers would not hesitate to shoot, but many of her friends would die defenseless in the exchange. Her heart jumped. If she made a mistake, Will and Peter could be dead within seconds.

“Disarm,” she said quietly.

“No,” Peter said.

“Now,” she said, even more softly. “I insist.”

She heard the creaking around her as bows, taut with strain, were carefully lowered. If possible, her archers tightened in even more closely around her, providing defensive cover for her with their own bodies. She had to peek over Peter’s shoulder to see. On a command, the Enclave guards put up their rifles, and Gaia took a deep breath.

“I have to go with them,” Gaia said. “I need to talk to the Protectorat anyway. I might as well start negotiations now.”

“It’s a mistake,” Will said beside her, his sword still drawn. “Don’t be reckless, Mlass Gaia.”

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