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       Ruled, p.1

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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Ruled


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  Leon hauled himself up the ledge of Gaia’s window, peered in, and tried to make out her bed in the shadows.

  “Gaia?”

  “She’s not here,” said a voice behind him.

  Leon dropped to the ground and reached instinctively for his knife.

  “It’s just me,” Peter said.

  Leon located the quiet figure in the darkness and slid his knife back in his belt. Behind Peter, the forest was impenetrably dark, but the moonlight washed the yard beside the lodge with a cool, gray hue, and glinted on the water tower above.

  “What are you doing here?” Leon said.

  “Preventing a break-in, looks like,” Peter said.

  “Very nice,” Leon said, brushing grit from his palms. “Where is she?”

  “Out and about. You must want to see her bad to come in all this way unannounced.”

  “Where?” Leon repeated.

  Peter jerked his thumb to his left. “Out on Bachsdatter’s Island. Adele’s having her baby.”

  Leon instinctively turned toward the marsh, as if he could penetrate the darkness all the way through the village and out across the water to where Gaia was now. He tried, unsuccessfully, to curb his disappointment, and started around the lodge.

  “I thought Adele planned to come into the village for the end of her pregnancy,” Leon said.

  “Turns out she didn’t,” Peter said, following him. “Bachsdatter came in for Mlass Gaia this afternoon, and she took Mlady Maudie out with her, too.”

  “So she could be out there a while.”

  “I hear that’s how childbirths go,” Peter said.

  “Did she bring Maya with her?” Leon asked.

  “Maya’s with Mlass Josephine.”

  Leon glanced up at the lodge windows, not exactly sure which one belonged to Josephine, but they were all dark and peaceful.

  “Do you want to leave a message for Mlass Gaia?” Peter asked. “You’re not having trouble with the crims, are you?”

  “No. They’re fine back on the trail,” Leon said. He could smell mint as he passed the garden fence, and it made him oddly thirsty. “I left Malachai in charge. We have another week’s worth of work to do before we come in again for more supplies.”

  “How’s that third station shaping up?”

  “It’ll be ready by September,” Leon said. “There’s time yet.”

  “Are you sure it was safe to leave the crims?” Peter asked.

  “What are they going to do? Run away?” Leon asked.

  “Circle back and attack us.”

  “On foot? With you on patrol? Not likely.”

  They came around the last corner of the lodge and the commons opened up before them.

  “Do you want to leave a message for Gaia or not?” Peter asked.

  “No. I have something I need to deliver myself.”

  Leon touched his shirt pocket where he kept a red, woven bracelet he’d made, just to check that it was still there, ready like always. For days, he’d been obsessing about Gaia. He’d been missing the way she laughed late at night when she was too revved up to sleep. Usually, he could shake the craving to see her, but this time, maybe because the moon was practically full and bright enough to show the way, he’d finally given in. He knew every meter of the trail by now, even by night, so he’d come into Sylum to find her, to be with her for a couple hours.

  Or just an hour, if that was all she had for him. He’d take whatever he could get. He grinned in the darkness. He shouldn’t rub it in. He knew he shouldn’t. Gaia for sure wouldn’t want him to.

  “Don’t worry. It’s nothing special,” Leon lied.

  Peter sent him a quick, hard look. His pace picked up. “You’d better be good to her.”

  “Or what?” Leon asked, amused. “You’ll beat my brains in?”

  “Close enough.” Peter swung up onto his horse.

  Leon was good to her. As good as he knew how. “Does she ever complain?”

  “She barely talks to me,” Peter said tightly. “How could she complain?”

  That was exactly what Leon wanted to hear. He untied his horse.

  “Where are you headed?” Peter asked.

  “Down to the beach.”

  “What for?”

  “To get a canoe.” His horse sidestepped delicately in the dark grass and Leon settled him with a hand on his neck.

  “You can’t go out now,” Peter said. “I’ve seen you in a canoe. You stink at sterning. And it’s dark.”

  “So? It’ll be light soon.”

  “Will you wait until then?”

  Leon looked at him curiously. Peter couldn’t possibly be concerned for his welfare. “What is this?”

  “I’m on patrol. This is my job, remember? Village security.”

  “Some job,” Leon said. “You didn’t see me until I was practically in Gaia’s window.”

  Peter shook his head. “I followed you since you first rode into the village.”

  “You knew I was here for Gaia,” Leon said, annoyed. “You could have told me where she was.”

  “I could have,” Peter agreed.

  Leon hauled himself into the saddle.

  “You’re still not engaged, are you?” Peter asked.

  “No.”

  “Eats at you, doesn’t it?”

  “Not at all.” Leon’s mount shifted heavily under him, and he kicked him into motion.

  It ate at him, all right. It was a perpetual, burning, gnawing irritation. The few times he’d brought up marriage again, even vaguely, Gaia had withdrawn, and that was the last thing he wanted. It set them back by weeks, every time. Conversely, when he didn’t mention it, she gradually let down some inner guard, and there was nothing as sweet as Gaia when she let herself love him.

  Leon was vaguely aware that Peter had pulled up to ride alongside him.

  “What are you doing?” Leon asked.

  “Patrolling.”

  “Cut it out.”

  “Why? Am I bothering you?”

  It was so juvenile, Leon didn’t bother to answer. Peter pulled his horse slightly ahead as if he were in charge. Or more masterful.

  What a tool, Leon thought.

  They rode down the familiar main road, passing the quiet houses of the village, the closed shops and tavern. The more he thought about it, the more Leon hated being on a string. He wondered why it wasn’t the other way around. Why was he always the one who was begging? He didn’t actually beg. He never would. But it felt like that. Even now, he was the one riding in the middle of the night for hours, trying to get in her window, then taking up a paddle to cross a dark marsh, while she was delivering a baby, not thinking about him at all.

  Of course she wasn’t thinking about him. Only an egotistical jerk would expect her to think about him while she was tending a childbirth.

  This timing was not going to work. He knew that, so why couldn’t he give up?

  They passed the willow and wound down toward the shore. Moonlight on the marsh made the water glow in silvery patches between the black hillocks of grasses. He was going to miss the marsh. Not much else about Sylum, but the marsh he’d miss.

&
nbsp; Along the shore, a dozen small houses stood back from the water, with the beach sloping before them. Several piles of wood were accumulating for the next bonfire night, after the Thirty-Two games. Only two more now, before they left. Everything was in countdown mode. He rode over the sandy shore to the canoe rack and dismounted.

  “Here,” he said to Peter, holding out the reins. “Take care of my horse. I’ll pick him up tomorrow from your barn.”

  “I’m not taking your horse,” Peter said, swinging down from his own. He looped his reins over the rail, near a water trough.

  Leon waved instinctively at a cloud of gathering mosquitoes. “I didn’t ask you to go out there with me.”

  “You’re right. You didn’t. Take the end,” Peter said, gesturing to a canoe on the rack.

  “You’re not coming,” Leon said.

  “Do you want to get there faster, or do you want the romance of a solo paddle?” Peter asked.

  Leon took a brief look at the sky, which showed a faint edge of gray, and then he tied up his horse beside Peter’s, took one end of the canoe, and carried it down to the water.

  “You’re in the bow,” Peter said, tossing him a paddle.

  Leon recognized the satisfied taunt in Peter’s tone. He’d learned enough to know a canoe moved more efficiently with a more experienced canoer in the stern. Peter would handle the subtleties of steering and leave Leon to supply the brute muscle in the bow. It was not a compliment.

  “You paddle like a beauty queen. Lengthen your stroke,” Peter said.

  Leon bit his blade into the black water.

  “More,” Peter said.

  “Why are you even coming?”

  “You think I know? Paddle.”

  Leon reached again, farther, until he felt the difference in the canoe. Smoother. As long as they moved, the mosquitoes didn’t settle along his neck and face, or at least not much. He peered ahead. A mist hovered over the dark water and clung to his arm hairs. Peter steered them effortlessly through the winding waterway, much faster than Leon could have done alone, calling occasionally to switch sides. Despite himself, Leon had to respect Peter’s skill.

  They came around a bend to a longer, open stretch, where chirps and croaks droned over the water.

  “How’s your family?” Leon asked, back over his shoulder.

  “What do you mean? They’re good.”

  “Has your father decided if he’s coming with us or not?”

  “He’s not. My uncles aren’t, either.”

  “Why not?” Leon asked.

  “My dad says this is his home. He says he’s known for a long time he might never have grandchildren. This is where his roots are. He wants to grow old here.”

  “Even if his sons move away?”

  “Maybe he’ll come later,” Peter said. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

  It drove Leon crazy, these people who refused to come on the exodus. Home was more about people than a place. Didn’t they see what it would be like in Sylum once everyone else was gone? They’d be living in a ghost town. But the old matrarc’s husband, Dominic, had gathered two hundred of the most traditional, bull-headed villagers around him, and they could not be persuaded.

  Leon felt bad for Gaia, who kept trying to convince them and kept getting snarled in negotiations about what to take and what to leave behind. She wanted everyone, every single person on the exodus.

  “Mlass Gaia thinks they’ll let us have water when we reach the Enclave. Do you?” Peter asked.

  Leon thought ahead. Outside the walls of the Enclave, they’d find the opposite of what they were experiencing now, surrounded by gurgling water and the rich, loamy scent of the muskeg.

  “I think we’ll have to fight for it,” Leon said.

  “What with?” Peter asked.

  “Our heads,” Leon said.

  “Switch,” Peter said, and Leon lifted his paddle over to stroke on the other side.

  When they reached Bachsdatter’s Island, Leon climbed out of the canoe, and with Peter, wordlessly turned it over on the rocky beach. A pearly, evanescent light muted all colors into gray, and the cliff rose before him, cold and inhospitable. Maybe this was a mistake. He hadn’t been to the island since the previous fall, when they’d gone to fetch baby Maya from the Bachsdatters.

  What a mess he’d been back then, furious with Gaia, hating everything about Sylum. He’d wanted to hurt her and see her as miserably tortured as he’d been. He’d wanted to get to her through Maya since he couldn’t reach her himself, since she didn’t care enough about him directly for his opinions to matter to her. Punishing her for not loving him enough had been his single goal.

  Real smart. But then, he wasn’t smart where Gaia was concerned. Was it that different now, really? He would never hurt her now, but still she didn’t care enough for him. He didn’t know if she ever would. He couldn’t understand this sick thing inside him that made him love her so intensely even when she kept holding back the last sliver of herself.

  “Is there a problem?” Peter asked.

  “No.”

  Leon took to the path, leaving Peter to follow. At the top of the cliff, the homestead huddled, waiting. A few sheep scavenged between scrub and windswept trees, while the clotheslines cut a black web across the fresh orange glow of the sky.

  Near the far edge of the cliff, the stone cottage clung to the ancient rock, and a row of square windows was yellow with lamplight. A woman’s sharp cry cut through the early morning, and Leon slowed.

  Childbirth. He couldn’t think of a single place where he’d be less welcome. The clannish thing that happened to women around babies and blood, the way they all became so wise and exclusionary, was not for him.

  He glanced back at Peter, who’d stopped by the garden gate.

  “No way am I crashing that party,” Peter said.

  Leon laughed. “Afraid?”

  “Mlady Adele hates me almost as much as she hates you.” Peter turned back. “I’ll check out the barn. Get me when you’re ready to go.”

  Leon swiped a mosquito from his cheek and took the front steps slowly, listening. Only the soft wind hummed in the grass, and a couple of distant frogs bellowed from down in the marsh. He was about to knock when he had a better idea: spy.

  He backtracked off the porch and walked quietly around the yard, peering in each window. To the left, toward the cliff, the windows revealed the living room where he had once confronted Gaia. The space was tidy, with a couch and chairs, books and dried flowers. A loom was taut with rows of white strings. An oil lamp illuminated a pile of neatly folded cloth diapers on a table, and at the sight, he remembered the early days of taking care of baby Maya, back when she was so tiny and frail, back when holding her was the closest he could get to Gaia.

  He touched the pocket of his shirt again, over his heart. You don’t propose for the last time until you’re certain of the answer. Someday, certainly, she would say yes. He had to believe that. He just had to know when the time was right.

  He turned and began around the stone house to the right, to where another window revealed a small bedroom, paneled in golden wood. The bed was angled in a way that he could see the bare feet of Mlady Adele, who lay on her side. Her husband Bachsdatter Luke was beside her, holding her hand, smiling tightly. Gaia was rubbing her back in deep, slow strokes, talking to her gently. When a soft moan came clearly through the opening of the window, Leon instinctively drew back, but he soon realized he was in no danger of being seen through the screen. Gaia was focused with undivided concentration on the mother before her.

  Leon had never seen Gaia at work as a midwife, and he was hungry for every detail of her. Her face glowed with a serious, attentive expression. Her hands were gentle and sure. Her brown hair was tied back, but a strand of it curved loose along the line of her left cheek, like a smooth ribbon beside her scar. Gaia was alive in a way he’d never seen before.

  She smiled now, and reached for her locket watch to check the time. “You’re doing very well,
she said, her voice just audible to him. “Now breathe again with me. Ready?” She took a few sample breaths herself, guiding Mlady Adele along.

  “How’s my baby?” Mlady Adele asked.

  “Your baby’s fine,” Gaia said. “Your baby’s in just the right position. Trust your body. You’re doing a beautiful job.”

  “I should have come into the village, but I was having such cramps, and then the bleeding started. I was afraid to move.”

  “I know. You did the right thing staying here,” Gaia said. “I would have told you the same thing.”

  “See? You’re going to be all right, Adele,” her husband said.

  “But is it too early? Is this too early?” Mlady Adele asked.

  “It’s fine,” Gaia said, in a smooth, reassuring voice. “Truly. You’ve got a little fighter in there with a good, strong heartbeat, and he or she is going to be fine.”

  Leon could see Mlady Adele relaxing, too, and then a sharp banging noise came from out of Leon’s line of vision. Mlady Adele jumped and gave a new cry of pain.

  “Sorry,” said another woman’s voice.

  “I’m going to die!” Mlady Adele said. “I just know it. My cousin died with her second child. I told you. Remember? Her labor was just like this.”

  Gaia began soothing the mother all over again, her expression as reassuring and loving as before, but now Leon saw a subtle shift. Gaia was battling tension of her own. He was aware of it only because he knew her well, but it was there. Behind her, a tidy, blond woman moved forward carrying a metal bowl, and Leon caught sight of Mlady Maudie. She ran the lodge in the village with short-tempered efficiency, but here she looked out of place.

  Gaia straightened. Her gaze was considering, thoughtful. She rested her hand lightly on the mother’s shoulder. “Give me one minute, Adele,” she said softly.

  “Where are you going?”

  “I’m stepping out for one minute, no more,” Gaia said. “You have Luke with you, and you can see me right through the door.” She pointed toward another door at the back of the room. “Okay?”

  Adele mumbled something.

  Leon plunged along outside the building. When he came to the corner and the screen door opened, Gaia wasn’t alone. She was drawing Mlady Maudie out to the back stoop. Leon stopped, bracing a hand on the stone wall.

 
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