The Third Book in the Birthmarked Trilogy
By Caragh M. O'Brien
Roaring Brook Press Copyright © 2012 Caragh M. O'Brien
All rights reserved.
Gaia notched her arrow and drew back the taut string of her bow.
"Don't move," she said. "At this range, I can't miss, and I'm aiming for your right kidney."
The spying nomad lay belly-down, with goggles pushed up and binoculars pointed down the cliff toward Gaia's clans. An old rifle was propped within easy reach. At Gaia's voice, the spy lowered the binoculars a centimeter.
"That's right. Now slowly move away from the rifle," Gaia said.
Instead, the nomad rolled over, threw the binoculars at her, and grabbed for the rifle. Gaia released her arrow and dodged sideways. She reached to notch a second arrow even as the first one pierced the nomad's hand, knocking the rifle wide to bounce over the cliff into silence. Before the spy could recover, Gaia stepped down hard on the arrow to pin the skewered hand to the ground.
"I said don't move," Gaia said.
She aimed her arrow point-blank at the nomad's face, and saw for the first time that below the goggles, the features belonged to a young girl.
Startled, Gaia eased up and lifted her foot off the girl's hand. She wrenched a dagger from the girl's belt and shoved back away from her. A quick look over her shoulder showed Gaia they were alone on the ridge, which annoyed her to no end. Where were her scouts? Overhead, the sky was an effulgent canopy of pinks and oranges, but the wasteland was washed in the ashy shadows of dusk, making visibility sketchy at best. Gaia notched her arrow again, ready.
"You can't be out here alone," Gaia said. "Where's your tribe?"
The nomad girl curled over her wounded hand. Blood dripped red onto the rocks, and the feathers of the arrow blossomed like a pernicious flower out of the back of her hand.
"Speak up, girl," Gaia said.
The nomad girl hunched up her shoulders instead, and cradled her pierced hand to her chest. Ringed with dirt from the circles of her goggles, her dark eyes glistened with pain. If Gaia didn't know the girl had just been armed, she'd have thought she was the most vulnerable, helpless-looking thing she'd ever seen.
"Are you understanding me?" Gaia asked.
The girl still didn't reply, but from her alertness and the way she'd initially responded, Gaia was convinced she did understand.
Gaia had a bad feeling about this. She scanned the ridge top again, peering around boulders through the brush and shadows. Sending a girl this young to spy implied that the girl's tribe was a bare-bones operation, but that didn't mean it wasn't dangerous. Down below, within easy range of a rifle shot, the nineteen clans of the caravan were setting up fires and cook pots, digging out their carefully rationed supplies of food. They had nothing extra to spare to raiders.
The girl couldn't be alone. Gaia noted critically that she was wrapped in layers of dusty cloth rather than sewn garments. Her worn boots looked like they'd crossed long kilometers, and a red fringe around the ankles, evidence of loving craftsmanship, was now dark with dust. The girl turned startled eyes toward the brush, and in the same instant Gaia heard rustling. She crouched low, lifting her arrow again and pointing it at the girl. "Don't move," Gaia said, her voice low. "You'll be the first one I shoot if someone gives me trouble."
"Mlass Gaia?" came a low, familiar voice.
Relieved, Gaia straightened again and lowered her bow. Chardo Peter and five of her other scouts closed in on them, the women and men moving lightly over the rocks.
"We've been looking for you," Peter said to Gaia. "Are you all right?"
"Of course," Gaia said. "I expected forty scouts along this ridge. Where are they all?"
"Out further," Peter said. "They're moving inward now. Look."
Gaia glanced across to the next promontory and saw a hint of movement. Two scouts were highlighted briefly against the skyline before they shifted out of sight. Gaia slung her bow over her shoulder and put the arrow back in her quiver.
"Warn them we're not alone. I want another full search of the perimeter, starting now," Gaia said, and a pair of scouts slipped into the shadows. Gaia stepped nearer to the girl, "Who else is out there?"
The girl, alarmed, shook her head.
"Can't you talk?" Gaia asked.
"Need help," the girl said in a barely audible, guttural voice. She pointed to the west.
"Who's out there?" Gaia pressed. "Your family?"
The girl shook her head again and conspicuously swallowed, working her throat. "My friend is hurt," she said. "Please."
Gaia stooped beside her. "Let me see your hand," she said. "Peter, look around for some binoculars. She threw them at me. And there's a rifle over the cliff. I want that retrieved."
Gaia reached for the girl's small hand, examining where the arrow shaft pierced her palm. The wound was ragged, and she couldn't staunch the bleeding until the shaft was removed. Gaia's stomach went light and queasy, but she focused, positioning the girl's hand on a wide, flat stone. She took a bandana out of her pocket and folded it in a square to be ready. Then she pulled out her knife.
"Hold still," she said.
The girl watched her solemnly.
Gaia braced the arrow against the stone, cut sharply to sever off the tip end, and then leaned close to examine it for slivers. It was a clean, blunt cut.
"I need your bandana, Peter," she said without looking at him. "Fold it long on the diagonal, please." She met the girl's gaze. "I'm pulling the arrow back through now. You ready?"
The girl nodded, shutting her eyes tightly. Gaia pulled the arrow out with a slick sound, then held the girl's hand up high and packed her bandana into her palm.
Peter passed her the makeshift bandage, and she secured his black bandana carefully around the girl's bloody hand. "Keep it up here, by your neck, and apply pressure to both sides. See?" she said, guiding the girl's other hand into place.
The girl opened her eyes and tentatively examined the arrangement.
"How's that feel?" Gaia asked.
The girl nodded. She cleared her throat, but instead of speaking, she pointed west again and started getting to her feet.
"It needs to be properly cleaned," Gaia said. "I'll take you down to camp."
The girl shook her head and pulled at Gaia's sleeve, clearly indicating she wanted her to go with her away from camp.
"Is your friend far?" Gaia asked.
The girl raised five fingers.
"Five minutes?" Gaia asked, and the girl nodded.
"Mlass Gaia, you can't go," Peter said. "It could be an ambush."
Gaia knew he was right, but something about the girl's stoic demeanor with her wound had tempered Gaia's suspicions of her. She put a hand on the girl's shoulder and studied her eyes, seeing hunger there, and wary desperation.
"Will I regret trusting you?" Gaia asked.
The girl shook her head once, and her voice was little more than a croak. "Please. It's safe."
"I'll go with her," Peter said. "You belong back in camp. There must be fifty people down there with questions for you right now."
Gaia's duties were precisely what she'd wanted to evade for five minutes when she'd set out for a walk on the ridge, and here was the perfect excuse to do it.
"No. I'll take you with us," Gaia said, and turned to her other scouts. "The rest of you be careful. If this girl had been hostile, she could have picked off any number of us from here, but I suppose you all realize that." She put her knife away. "If we're not back in thirty minutes, tell Chardo Will he's in charge."
Without waiting to see her orders followed, Gaia headed off into the wasteland with the little nomad. The girl led her through the brush, moving quickly and silently in the fading light. Her outfit was exactly the brown-gray color of the land, so watching her was like seeing a piece of the landscape itself shifting through the shadows. Gaia could hear Peter following behind her.
They'd gone only a short distance before Gaia felt her queasiness again, only worse. She kept on, hoping it would pass, but in a matter of seconds, she was shaking and clammy. "Wait," she called.
Grimly, Gaia put her hand out against a boulder, waiting while nausea hit her full force. She buckled over with her guts clenched and grit her teeth, hoping she wouldn't actually throw up. For an instant longer, she thought she could control her stomach, but then she heaved into the shadow of the boulder.
Lovely, she thought. At least she avoided drooling on her trousers.
"You shouldn't still be nauseous," Peter said. "Everyone else was finished two weeks ago. Have you been sick all along?"
She closed her eyes, waiting for her stomach to settle.
"Mlass Gaia?" he said more gently, nearer.
She didn't want Peter's gentleness. She waved him back and spat. "I'm good."
The girl was staring at Gaia, her eyes wide with concern. She tilted her face and made a gesture for a big round belly in front of herself before pointing to Gaia.
"No, I'm not pregnant," Gaia said, acutely aware that Peter was listening. "The problem is, I can't shoot things. Living things, that is. I get sick afterward, every time." No amount of training had ground that out of her.
The girl looked surprised, and then she waved her wounded hand and laughed with a husky, musical sound.
"I know. Real funny," Gaia said.
Peter was not amused. "Who else knows?"
"Leon, obviously, and a few of the other archers," Gaia said. "It's not a big deal. I'm not usually the one shooting things. That's what my scouts are for."
"If you'd take them with you."
Being around Peter compelled her, annoyingly, to be truthful. That much hadn't changed. "All I wanted was five minutes to myself. Just five minutes," she said. "I didn't ask you to worry about me."
"It's my job to worry about your safety."
"Then you should have had the scouts on the ridge like you were supposed to."
The instant she spoke, she regretted her sharpness. In silence, she wiped her lips with her sleeve.
"You still can't even look at me, can you?" Peter asked.
Gaia turned slowly, bracing a hand on her hip. Peter hitched at the strap of the arrow quiver that cut vertically across his chest, and gave his bow an impatient jerk. He'd let his light brown hair grow out, and the ends had turned lighter, almost blond with his endless days in the wasteland, planning the route of the exodus. It was true. She was uncomfortable around him still, even though it had been more than a year since their decisive exchange on the porch of the lodge.
"Is there something you want to say?" she asked.
He watched her quietly. "Are you ever sorry for what you did to me?"
Their broken relationship had ripped her up longer than she cared to consider and had caused her no shortage of unspoken friction with Leon over the past year. "Of course I am."
His eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Then why didn't you say so?"
"What good would it do either of us?"
She regarded him across the distance and felt an invisible boulder materialize between them to ensure they stayed apart. The nomad girl was watching curiously.
"It would make a difference," he said. "Even now."
Gaia briefly pressed a hand between her eyes. "In that case, I'm sorry for what I did," she said. She hadn't deliberately misled him when they'd kissed so long ago, but that was what had happened, and she'd made it worse by getting in the stocks with him. "I thought you must know I was sorry. I feel terrible about how I treated you, but I'll never regret that I chose Leon. You and I can't be friends. It isn't possible."
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."
Peter's match went out.
"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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Promised by Caragh M. O'Brien. Copyright © 2012 Caragh M. O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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