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       Ruled, p.2

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  Gaia took a look over her shoulder into the house again, then turned to Mlady Maudie. “I need you to focus,” she said. “You’re upsetting her.”

  “I’m not suited to this. I don’t have the temperament,” Mlady Maudie said. “I told you I didn’t.”

  “I don’t care if you’re not naturally good at it,” Gaia said sharply. “When I’m gone, there’ll be nobody else. You need to practice.”

  “I can’t!” Mlady Maudie said. “I do everything wrong. I don’t have the patience. You said yourself I’m upsetting her.”

  “Because you’re not trying enough,” Gaia argued.

  “I am trying. But the closer I get to her, the worse she gets. Just let me leave.”

  Gaia was still for a moment, her expression fierce, calculating.

  “If you leave, it will be better,” Gaia said. “But only for Adele. For every mother who comes after, once I’m gone, it will be worse because you’ll have that much less experience.” Gaia’s startled gaze flicked toward Leon, and she turned to face him. “Who’s there?” she demanded.

  Leon jumped, then stepped forward. He’d hoped Gaia would be happy to see him, but he was wrong. She barely seemed to register who he was. Unsmiling, she slowly lifted a hand to her necklace. Moans came from the doorway behind them. Gaia faced Mlady Maudie again.

  “You will stay,” Gaia said. “You will be quiet, and listen, and watch. Leon, take off your boots and come in.”

  Terror rooted Leon to the ground. She couldn’t be serious. Already she was back inside, and as the screen door closed, he stared at it in disbelief.

  Mlady Maudie laughed briefly. “She’s terrifying, isn’t she?”

  “Are you staying?” Leon said.

  “After that? What choice do I have?”

  “What does she expect me to do?” he asked.

  “How do I know?”

  He could hear Gaia’s soothing voice again, and a gasping noise from the mother on the bed. He shucked off his boots, propped his hat on a peg, pulled open the screen door, and cautiously entered the bedroom.

  Soft light glowed from the globe of an oil lamp on the table, and a second lamp had been placed near the foot of the bed on a chair. On a narrow shelf, a wooden candelabra with three lit flames silently dripped wax, as if night had been prolonged in this room and dawn were still hours away.

  Adele’s frizzy, superfine hair was drawn back in a ponytail, and spidery bruises ringed her eyes, giving her an unearthly, fragile appearance. With one hand, she gripped the edge of the bed, and with the other, she held tightly to Gaia as she breathed a series of forced, measured breaths. Her forehead crumpled. She closed her eyes, strained with pressure for a moment, and then collapsed backward again.

  “Good,” Gaia said. “That was so good. Not much longer now.”

  Stunned, Leon stared at the hugeness of Adele’s belly. Her gown was hitched up, leaving her heavy, pale legs bare. Normally he would have instinctively looked away, but now, instead, some uneasy form of compassion drew him quietly nearer.

  “What can I do?” he asked, his voice low.

  Gaia glanced up, her eyes a quick flash of relief. “Wash your hands,” she said, and nodded to a basin on the dresser. “Over there. You can help support her.”

  Leon met the startled gaze of Adele’s husband, but before Bachsdatter could say anything, Leon rolled back his sleeves and began to wash. Gaia kept up her steady, reassuring talk, repeatedly telling Adele how well she was doing. Mlady Maudie silently passed Leon a towel, and when he turned, Bachsdatter, a compact, weathered man with a gray beard and sunken eyes, was focused again on his wife.

  Leon took that as acceptance enough.

  “I feel another one coming,” Adele said, her voice rising in urgency. She reached for Gaia.

  “Support her back,” Gaia said to Leon. “Here, on the other side.”

  He shifted around, opposite to Bachsdatter, and following the other man, he set his hands firmly behind the mother’s back. Adele’s gown was clammy with sweat, and for an instant he thought she would recoil at his touch, but Adele was concentrating inwardly, and he wasn’t certain she even realized he was there. He braced his hand to hold her, and when the next contraction was over, he looked to Gaia, wondering if he should let Adele back down.

  “So good,” she said to Adele. “Your baby’s close now. You’re doing so beautifully.”

  “It hurts,” Adele said, her eyes closed. “It hurts my back.”

  “Do you want to try squatting? It might help,” Gaia said. “We can help you up.”

  Adele nodded, and with a look to coordinate with Bachsdatter, Leon gripped beneath Adele’s left shoulder and helped her into a squatting position.

  “Do you want to move to the floor? It’s firmer,” Gaia said.

  “No. I’m good here,” Adele said. “Like this. Just like this.”

  Gaia rearranged a clean cloth beneath her. Leon kept expecting something fast, a primal bursting or some sort of fanfare or agony, but Adele only strained and then drooped in a cycle that seemed to go on forever at its own unhurried pace.

  “That was a good one,” Gaia said, after another round. “Do you feel like pushing? I can see your baby now, Adele. The head’s right there. Your baby’s coming.”

  Leon shifted his grip for a more comfortable hold, gentle and firm, and steadied Adele’s back. He could hardly believe he was doing this. He glanced over at Bachsdatter, who was holding Adele’s hand and supporting her from the other side. Bachsdatter made a soft joke. Though he looked worn with care, a protective gentleness about him did something strange to Leon inside. He looked at Gaia again, wondering at her connection with these people, and at the powerful connection between Adele and her husband.

  And then he felt it silently including him, too.

  A faint breeze stirred through the room.

  Gaia’s voice was still going, a stream of encouragement. “That’s right, Adele. Your baby’s coming. That’s the head now! You’ve done so well. Just a little more. Almost there.” She was reaching down below Adele, who was sagging again.

  The breath of the room seemed to hover, waiting, ready. Then Adele strained again, and ground out a pained moan.

  “That’s it!” Gaia said. “Oh, Adele, he’s here. He’s beautiful!”

  The woman in Leon’s arms leaned slowly backward, her mouth wide and body limp. “Let me see him,” she said, but already Gaia was passing the baby up over Adele’s belly, trailing the umbilical cord. It was the knobbiest, skinniest baby Leon had ever seen, all slippery knees and elbows, and a dark color he’d never known existed. Gaia wrapped a clean cloth around the little body and rubbed him with surprising vigor, right on top of Adele. Then, as Adele held the infant, Gaia used a bit of reed to suck out his mouth and nose, and an instant later the baby gave out a cry.

  Leon laughed, and everyone else was smiling, too. Bachsdatter was openly crying. Mlady Maudie kept congratulating everyone loudly. Gaia was talking in a joyful, delighted stream. She was moving, too, cleaning up between Adele’s legs. Leon couldn’t keep his eyes off the little person who had shown up. He was pinkening now, and he was so small. Leon knew, of course, that he’d existed inside Adele, but now he was born. He was his own complete little guy, a person who’d never existed outside before.

  “Thank you, Gaia,” Adele said. “Oh, thank you. He’s perfect.”

  “He is. He’s incredible. You’re incredible. But we’re not done yet,” Gaia said. “There’s the afterbirth. Catch your breath for a minute while you can. That’s coming, too. Okay? Let me do the cord.”

  Smiling, Adele lifted her head to take in the room, and Leon felt her gaze settle on him.

  “Who’s this?” Adele asked in surprise.

  Leon drew back. He watched Adele’s mottled face. She was still happy, but confused, and suddenly her confusion changed to shock.

  “You!” Adele said. “What are you doing here?” She clutched desperately at her newborn. “You stole our baby girl
!” she cried. “Get out!”

  “It’s just Leon,” Gaia said. “I told you about him. He came to help me. To help you.”

  “Get out!” Adele shrieked again. She started to shiver visibly and reached for her husband. “Luke! He’s here! He can’t steal our baby!”

  Leon backed toward the door. He looked down at his hands, wondering when they’d picked up traces of blood. His shirt had streaks of it, too. Adele’s eyes flashed with pain, and in panic, she turned toward Gaia again.

  “Help me! Gaia!” she said.

  “You’re all right,” Gaia said soothingly. “Here. You’re fine. I’ve got you. He’s going. He was just here to help, but he’s going.”

  Adele hunched into another contraction, and Bachsdatter slid the baby from her arms. Without another look at Leon, Gaia began to work over Adele again. Still in shock, Leon glanced up at Mlady Maudie. Her face was bloodless, her lips tight.

  “You should go,” she said quietly.

  With one more step, he was outside and the screen door closed behind him.

  How quickly it had changed. How fast. He’d been part of them. He’d been with them for the miracle of a birth. It was the most extraordinary thing he’d ever seen, and he’d been part of it.

  Now he wasn’t.

  He was the enemy. He stared down at his hands. It was full light now. Sunlight was slanting across the top of the island, and a light breeze was stirring the leaves of the apple trees. He tried to breathe, and found his chest was tight with pain.

  “You all right?” Peter asked.

  Leon turned to find him in a sturdy chair, tipped back against the wall of the stone barn, near a big, open doorway.

  Leon looked down at himself again. He stood in his gray socks. His boots were waiting for him on the stoop, his hat on the peg. His brain still wasn’t processing properly.

  Peter brought down the front legs of his chair with a thud in the dirt. “There’s a pump over here,” he said. “Here. Let me.”

  Peter strode to an old pump with chipped black paint and began working it. Squeaks and sharp bangs came from the metal, and then the chugging gush of the first water. Leon pushed into his boots before going near. He automatically put his hands in the cold stream, rubbing them clean, and the water seemed to wake him from a trance. A cold, quiet steadiness took its place.

  “I’ve got it,” Leon said, his voice low. Taking the handle, he got a big rush going, and then stuck his head under the pump, gasping at the cold of the fresh water. He took a long drink, relishing the sweetness down his dry throat. Then he stripped off his shirt and jacked the handle again. He was about to put the fabric under the pump when he remembered the bracelet in the pocket. Slowly, he plucked it out and slipped it into his trousers pocket. Then he washed his shirt, wringing it out twice before he snapped it in the air.

  He glanced back at the house.

  “I’m guessing it was a boy,” Peter said.


  “You okay?”

  Leon looked at Peter again. He’d waited by the barn. He hadn’t just supported a woman through the final hour of her labor or seen a baby being born. He hadn’t been taken in and spit back out.

  Leon nodded, but he wasn’t okay. “I just—” He stopped. The last thing he needed right now was a witness.

  He plucked at his wet shirt, then looked at the laundry line. He strode over, dug a couple clothespins out of the little basket, and hung up his shirt in the dry wind. Then he sat in Peter’s chair and tipped it back against the barn again, closing his eyes as his face angled upward into the sunshine.

  They didn’t want him. Of course Mlady Adele and Bachsdatter didn’t want him. But Gaia did. She hadn’t deliberately jerked him around. He ought to get back to the crims. He’d been insane to think he could propose again. He had work to do. But he was tired, too. So tired.

  It couldn’t have been too much later that he heard her voice.

  “Leon,” she said, and he felt a soft touch on his knee.

  He opened his eyes to the brightness.

  “You were a great help,” she said.

  “It was nothing,” he said.

  “Luke wants to thank you.”

  Mlady Adele, obviously, did not.

  Leon shook his head. “No, that’s all right.”

  “I want to thank you,” Gaia said.

  He smiled slightly. “You’re welcome.”

  He leveled the chair again, and looked around for Peter. He was across the way, talking to Mlady Maudie and Bachsdatter Luke, who was holding his new son.

  “You’re getting sunburned,” Gaia said, and he saw she was holding his shirt and hat.

  He pressed a couple fingers to his chest and then lifted them away to see the ghost marks fade to a ruddy hue. It figured.

  “Why did you come?” Gaia asked, passing over his shirt.

  “I wanted to see you,” he said.

  “That’s all? No problem with the crims or anything?”

  It seemed like so long ago that he’d left the crims to come into the village to find her. He fingered his shirt, which was all but dry. “No. Just you.”

  “You’re awfully untalkative for a guy who came all this way to see me,” she said.

  He glanced up again, seeing the concern in her eyes when she smiled at him. His loneliness began to thaw.

  “You were amazing in there, you know,” he said.

  She shook her head, turning his hat in her hands. “I hope I didn’t boss you around too much. I can get a little single-minded.”

  “Hardly at all. ‘Take yer boots off and git yerself in here,’” he drawled.

  Gaia laughed. “No!”

  “Yes,” he said.

  “I’m sorry. I really was so glad when you showed up. I was ready to strangle Mlady Maudie. You were just perfect. So supportive and gentle.”

  “Okay, that’s enough.”

  “But really, Leon. I’m so glad you were there. I always wished I could have you with me at a childbirth.”

  He squinted up at her. She seemed to mean it. He wondered if she even realized he’d been kicked out. She nodded toward the shirt in his hands.

  “Please put your shirt on,” she said.

  He pulled it over his head, checking the buttons. “Better?”

  She looked exhausted, and happy, and too bighearted to believe. So why did he still feel anguished? He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her onto his lap.

  “Hey!” She laughed, hugging an arm around him.

  He snuggled his nose in her hair and kissed her neck. Mine, he thought.

  “They’ll see,” she muttered.

  They’d better. “Let them. It’s legal.”

  She laughed again and quickly kissed him. Finally.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Something’s wrong. With you. It was Adele, wasn’t it?”

  Leon could feel Gaia’s fingertips rest lightly at the base of his throat, cool and soothing. He let his gaze settle on the pump. “She couldn’t help it,” he said.

  “I’m sorry,” Gaia said softly. “She really couldn’t, but I’m so sorry. You were part of it. You felt that, didn’t you?”

  He did. He’d felt it. He wanted more of it, without the sting afterward.

  “Babies,” she said with a sigh. And then, “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Leon.”

  And there it was. That unlocking inside him. That thing only she could do to him. That was why he had come. Why he would always come.

  Marry me, he thought.

  She settled nearer, adjusting her arm around his neck. He very slowly, carefully tipped the chair back again. At first, he felt her startled grip, but then she let out a low, trusting laugh, and rested her head next to his. Her necklace bumped against his neck.

  “Are we napping?” she asked.

  “For a little,” he said.

  He wasn’t napping. He concentrated every cell of his body on memorizing the
weight of her against him, and the smell of her hair in the sun. His arms measured the slender curve of her torso. His fingers separated out a single strand of her hair. Her breathing slowed, easing, while his watchful heart chugged on, stupid and hungry, and the red bracelet stayed in his pocket.

  Copyright (C) 2012 by Caragh M. O’Brien

  Art copyright (C) 2012 by Julie Dillon

  Chapter 1

  The Baby Quota

  IN THE DIM HOVEL, the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia’s ready hands.

  “Good job,” Gaia said. “Wonderful. It’s a girl.”

  The baby cried indignantly, and Gaia breathed a sigh of relief as she checked for toes and fingers and a perfect back. It was a good baby, healthy and well formed, if small. Gaia wrapped the child in a blanket, then held the bundle toward the flickering firelight for the exhausted mother to see.

  Gaia wished her own mother were there to help, especially with managing the afterbirth and the baby. She knew, normally, she wasn’t supposed to give the baby to the mother to hold, not even for an instant, but now the mother was reaching and Gaia didn’t have enough hands.

  “Please,” the young woman whispered. Her fingers beckoned tenderly.

  The baby’s cries subsided, and Gaia passed her over. She tried not to listen to the mother’s gentle, cooing noises as she cleaned up between her legs, moving gently and efficiently as her mother had taught her. She was excited and a little proud. This was her first delivery, and it was an unassisted delivery, too. She had helped her mother many times, and she’d known for years that she would be a midwife, but now it was finally real.

  Almost finished. Turning to her satchel, she drew out the small teakettle and two cups that her mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday, only a month ago. By the light of the coals, she poured water from a bottle into the kettle. She stoked up the fire, seeing the burst of yellow light gleam over the mother with her small, quiet bundle.

  “You did well,” Gaia said. “How many is this for you again? Did you say four?”

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