Zo couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t fear the Ram.
Even after the raid, when so much of her fear had turned
to hate, the fear still existed beneath. It was a foundation that
she came to rely upon. A constant.
Sleeping under a fir tree so close to Ram’s Gate went
against her very nature. While her body revolted, she couldn’t
think of a more appropriate place to be. Zo choked down the
beastly fear clawing its way up her throat and smiled like this
was just another assignment. “It’s time, Gabe.”
Her guard, Gabe, rested on soggy pine needles beside her.
His hands were tucked behind his shaggy blond head, eyes
closed in feigned sleep. He used to lay like that, with his arms
arrogantly thrown back and his chest puffed out like he owned
the world, when they were kids. The river would rush by
carrying rumors of starving clans and battles lost—heartache
that pulled tight strings of tension throughout Zo’s body—
while Gabe just laid back and chewed on a grass root.
Today, Gabe’s pretend-sleep didn’t fool Zo any more than
it ever had. They both knew he hadn’t slept soundly since
they’d left the Allied Camp a week ago. With eyes still closed,
Gabe frowned as Zo left the protection of his side to bundle her
bedroll. She crawled out from under the skirt of the enormous
fir tree. Its sweeping limbs that kissed the uneven ground had
kept them as safe as one could be in this godforsaken region.
Behind her, Gabe growled impatiently as he gathered his
“There’s no need to rush this.” He pushed the branch aside
and threw out his pack with more force than necessary. Zo
flinched, not used to seeing her childhood friend angry.
“You didn’t wake me for my watch again,” said Zo,
unsurprised. Ever since they’d left the Allies, Gabe had been
Gabe sighed and scooped a blob of mud from the newly
thawed earth. He frowned and smeared it along the curved
planes of Zo’s face and neck. The cool mud felt surprisingly
comforting, but it could have just been Gabe’s touch. His
capable hands shook while lines of worry deepened across his
“This won’t work.” He stopped and cupped his muddy
hand at the base of her neck, his blue eyes pleading. “You’re
too pretty. A little mud can’t change that.”
Zo yanked on the sleeve of her shirt until the seam split then
ripped and frayed the cuff of her pant legs. Young, unarmed
women just didn’t go on casual strolls through the perilous
hills of the Ram. Commander Laden said she needed to look
desperate if she wanted them to believe her story. Her lie.
As if looking desperate is hard, Zo thought.
Gabe stood a full head taller than Zo. Despite his large
frame, he could outrun a jackrabbit and his mind was just as
quick. A valuable weapon for the Allies. But with all of his
abilities, he was not the one walking into the lion’s den this
He untwisted the strap of Zo’s medical satchel and let out a
long breath before dropping his hands to his sides.
“I’ll miss you,” said Zo. Her voice carried the mechanical
cadence she’d adopted several years ago. A small part of her—
the part that wasn’t dead—hated disappointing Gabe. He’d
done so much for her and her little sister, Tess, since they’d
journeyed from the Valley of Wolves to live with Commander
Thinking of her wild, eight-year-old sister brought a
temporary smile to Zo’s muddied face. She couldn’t think of
Tess and not imagine her tromping through the forest trying
to catch squirrels and sneak up on rabbits. It was her second
favorite thing to do, next to following Zo around the Allied
Camp. The little tick wouldn’t take her absence well. Zo had
left a note and arranged for her care, but that didn’t mean the
Gabe pressed his cold hands to Zo’s face and forced her to
look at him. “Come back with me, Zo. Let Commander Laden
send someone else. Someone with less to lose.”
“We’re not doing this again.” Zo pulled away. She had
begged for this mission, and she would see it through. No
matter what the cost. The Allies desperately needed information
that only she could provide, if they hoped to defeat the most
powerful military force in the region.
Gabe’s hands curled into fists. His voice rose to carry over
the wind that whipped his unruly hair. “Entering Ram’s Gate
is suicide! We don’t even know if you can get the information
The truth was far worse than Gabe could possibly know.
He hadn’t heard what life would be like inside the Gate. They
would eventually discover her, and once they did, they’d kill
There were worse things a person could endure.
She’d do anything for the Cause.
“Goodbye, Gabe.” She kissed his frozen, whiskered cheek.
His hand clamped down on Zo’s wrist and he yanked her
into a fierce embrace. “I’ll be close, waiting to help you escape
the minute you send word.” He smoothed down her wild, dark
hair. “I’ll find a way to keep you safe, Zo. I swear it.”
Zo forced a hollow smile, for Gabe’s sake. “Look after
Tess. Tell her I’m doing this for her. Tell her I’m doing it for
She left Gabe standing frozen in the low light of morning.
After a hard climb, Zo reached the towering wall of Ram’s
Gate. The wall was comprised of redwood logs at least four
feet in diameter and fifty feet tall, bound together with heavy
rope and shaved to a point at the top. Black tar and broken
glass glimmered along the high rim of the wall to discourage
clans foolish enough to attack, and souls brave enough to dare
Zo looked right and left and saw no end to the wall through
the thick maze of aspen and evergreens. From her training with
Commander Laden, she knew the giant wall ran for miles in
each direction until it reached the cliffs that dropped off to the
freezing ocean below. Inside the wall were hundreds of acres
of farmlands, mountainous forests, and enough homes to house
thousands of Ram and the slaves they called “Nameless.”
Calmer than a sane person should be, Zo dropped to her
knees in the shadow of the ominous wall. Knowing these
might be the last free moments of her life, she allowed herself
to think about things that were normally buried deep within
her. The memory of her mother’s soft skin. The safety of her
father’s smile. Tess’ dimples and her eagerness to please,
despite her stubborn ways.
The moment was as sweet as it was brief. But it was hers.
Deep-voiced drums boomed and the enormous gate rose
inch by inch. Men shouted orders and whips cracked. Through
the gap of the slow-rising gate she saw at least forty men in
tattered animal hides with harnesses on their backs. They
slipped through mud while struggling to turn a giant wheel
connected to a thick chain to raise the gate.
The Nameless. The Ram had kept slaves for hundreds of
years, some were captured, others came willingly, while most
were born into the lowly title.
Instinct told her to run, but fear and determination kept her
frozen in place. She locked the people she loved back into the
cage that was her heart and prepared to face her enemy.
Zo pressed her nose into the icy mud in a show of
submission. The drums ceased and the silence echoed in her
chest like a painful heartbeat.
The metal of short swords clinked against armor as men
approached. She peeked up to sight of a bald leader walking
ahead of a wall of six soldiers. His cold eyes seemed too big
for his head, protuberant like those of a frog.
“Get up,” the leader commanded.
Zo climbed to her feet but kept her gaze focused on the
“State your name and clan,” he ordered.
“I am from the family Shaw of the Kodiak Clan,” Zo said,
hoping her accent would pass. The Ram had raided one of the
Kodiak settlements a few weeks earlier. Many of the women
and children whose husbands had died in the raid would
come to the Gate, choosing to offer themselves as slaves over
watching their children starve to death.
The leader circled her. “Age?”
A few of the guards in the line exchanged words. One
laughed under his breath.
“You’re too thin to claim the Kodiak as your clan. Your
jaw is more square than round.”
The sound of a young girl’s scream saved Zo from having
“Let me go! You’re hurting me!” the girl cried.
Zo froze. It couldn’t be …
A guard dressed in full armor carried the kicking child up
the muddy hill and dropped her at the bald leader’s feet.
Zo’s whole body went rigid as her eight-year-old sister,
Tess, scrambled up to hug her. “I’m so sorry,” Tess cried. She
must have secretly followed them from the Allies, though how
she survived the dangerous journey unnoticed was beyond Zo.
“Tess, I thought I’d lost you,” Zo stammered. She hoped
her shock registered as relief instead of panic. “Don’t say a
word,” Zo whispered in her ear as they embraced.
“Who is this child?” the frog-eyed leader asked.
“She is my sister, sir. We were separated. She found me.”
“Clearly.” He circled the girls once more then reached out
and grabbed Zo by the throat, forcing her to the ground on her
back. His lips brushed her cheek as he spoke. “How do I know
you’re not a stinking Wolf? That you’re not feeding me some
story?” His breath reeked of stale cabbage and rotten sausage.
Zo’s heels dug small trenches in the mud as she struggled
against the hand tightening around her throat. Black dots
The leader smiled and licked his lips as if she were his next
meal. “We don’t allow Wolves through the Gate.” A string of
spittle escaped his lips and landed on her cheek. “Ever.” He
released his grip and Zo gasped for air.
Tess rushed to Zo’s side, her eyes wet with tears.
“With all of the clans mixing, it’s getting harder and harder
to sort the wheat from the tares. I can’t take any chances …
” He shrugged and nodded to his guard. The men moved in,
pulling the sisters apart. Tess let out a shrill cry. A guard struck
“Please!” Zo fought against firm hands digging into her
arms. “I come from three generations of healers. My sister is
learning too. We beg the mercy of the Ram, and pledge our
The Gate Master held up a hand, and his men threw Zo to
the ground. His round, glassy eyes stayed fixed on her as he
grunted a soft command to one of his men. The soldier nodded,
bowed, and ran back through the Gate.
“A healer, you say?” The corner of his lip pulled up to
reveal rotting teeth as he smiled. “We’ll see about that.”