Promised (The Birthmarked Trilogy)

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9781250034281: Promised (The Birthmarked Trilogy)

After defying the ruthless Enclave, surviving the wasteland, and upending the rigid matriarchy of Sylum, Gaia Stone now faces her biggest challenge ever. She must lead the people of Sylum back to the Enclave and persuade the Protectorat to grant them refuge from the wasteland. In Gaia's absence, the Enclave has grown more cruel, more desperate to experiment on mothers from outside the wall, and now the stakes of cooperating or rebelling have never been higher. Is Gaia ready, as a leader, to sacrifice what―or whom―she loves most? Promised is the thrilling conclusion to Caragh O'Brien's Birthmarked Trilogy.

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About the Author:

Since earning an MA in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, Caragh M. O'Brien has been a high school teacher, an author of romance novels, and now a novelist for teens. Her novels Birthmarked and Prized were named YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults. Birthmarked was also a Junior Library Guild Selection and chosen for the ALA 2011 Amelia Bloomer List. She lives with her family and writes from her home in Connecticut.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1
 
 
exodus
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.”
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 tr...

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