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       Prized, p.29

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  “I can’t,” Gaia said.

  “Are you telling me you won’t?” Dominic demanded. “We have seven other children who all need their mother.”

  “Dominic,” the Matrarc began.

  “No. I don’t care,” Dominic insisted. “I’m not going on without you, Olivia. We’re losing this one. I know how you feel about it, but we’ll have others. It’ll be okay.”

  Gaia looked up at Leon to see if he understood what she’d been trying to say. Then she reached for her satchel and stiffly pulled out the smaller bag of tinctures and herbs.

  “It’s not that Gaia won’t,” Leon said. “It’s that it’s not possible. She can’t save your wife by sacrificing the baby.”

  Dominic frowned at Gaia, obviously trying to process the information. “Are you telling me you can’t save either of them?”

  “It’s not that. There’s a chance I could save the baby,” Gaia said.

  She watched Dominic’s horrified expression as the implications became clear to him.

  “No,” he said flatly. “Olivia, did you hear that? I’m telling you no.”

  “Dom,” the Matrarc said softly.

  “No!” he said, standing. “Get out of here! I don’t want you here,” he said to Gaia.

  Gaia felt Leon’s hands on her shoulders.

  “No, Dom. I want her. Wait, please,” the Matrarc said.

  Her face contorted during another contraction, and she reached for her husband’s hand. Dominic sat again beside her, his face grim, his eyes furious.

  “Don’t make it harder for me,” the Matrarc said softly to her husband.

  The following silence was terrible, and then a soft knock came on the door.

  “Cover me up so the children don’t have to see any blood,” the Matrarc said. “Be sure about it. Give us a minute as a family, but then, Gaia, you have to come back. Promise me.”

  “I will. Take this, now. Open your mouth.” She leaned near with a tincture of witch hazel and shepherd’s purse, and carefully placed the drops under the Matrarc’s tongue.

  “What’s that for?” Dominic said.

  “For the bleeding,” Gaia said.

  The door was opening and Taja, her eyes enormous, was peeking in. “Mom? We’re all here.”

  “One minute,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia packed a clean towel between the Matrarc’s legs again while Will collected the bloody ones in a basin. Dominic sat motionless, stricken, as Leon spread a clean white blanket over the bed.

  “Okay. We’re going now,” Gaia said. “Leon?” She reached for his arm, but he simply lifted her off her feet again, and they went out to make room for the Matrarc’s children. Jerry, the birthday boy, sucked his thumb. The youngest, a toddler, was carrying his bear. Will closed the door behind them.

  They moved down the balcony toward a bench, and Leon set her gently on her feet. Across the atrium space on the opposite balcony, a couple of mladies waited to be of any assistance, but Gaia waved them off.

  “You holding up okay, Mlass Gaia?” Will asked.

  She felt his concerned gaze, and nodded. “I’m going to need your help soon,” she said.

  “There’s no way you can save the Matrarc, too?” Will said.

  “I’ll try, of course, but I’ve never sewn anyone up after a blade delivery, and she’ll lose a lot of blood no matter what I do. Once we start, we’ll have to do it fast.” She considered, feeling rather sick. Even if she succeeded in extricating the baby and sewing the Matrarc closed, there would be nothing to prevent infection. She hadn’t had time to learn more about the lily-poppy Peter had said the old doctor used for pain. “I think we’ll have to tie her down. I only have motherwort for the pain. It won’t be nearly enough.” She touched a hand to her forehead.

  “Can you get Gaia some tea?” Leon asked.

  Will gazed at her a moment, then nodded and turned for the stairs. As he left, Leon sat, pulling Gaia tenderly beside him. She couldn’t relax, but she leaned her cheek against his shoulder.

  “It’s hard for me to believe you’re not furious at the Matrarc,” he said quietly.


  “She left you in the stocks for hours. That’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forgive, and you’re helping her as if it never happened.”

  Gaia turned over her hand, seeing the raw, bruised circlet in her flesh, but she was already thinking ahead about the surgery. “She’s a pregnant mother and she needs me,” she said. “This is what I do.”

  “Remember how she punished you for inducing a miscarriage?” Leon asked. “I can’t help noticing her husband would have no qualms about sacrificing his own full-term child now that it’s the Matrarc’s pregnancy your dealing with.”

  Gaia hadn’t thought of that irony. “He’s desperate. It’s awful. All of it.”

  “She’s stubborn like I’ve never seen before,” Leon said.

  Dominic’s suggestion was bothering her. Gaia remembered a conversation she’d had with a doctor back in Q cell, when Myrna had proposed that a hooked forceps could be used vaginally to pull out a placenta like this one, sacrifice a baby, and save a mother. Gaia had no such tool and no such skill, but part of her wondered. If she’d been released from the stocks earlier, when the Matrarc was still strong, before she’d had much blood loss, could Gaia have cleared the placenta and the baby by hand so that the Matrarc would have lived? There were many ifs, but it almost made the Matrarc’s decision to keep Gaia in the stocks a suicide choice.

  “She wasn’t just stubborn,” Gaia said. “She valued Sylum the way it was. Enough to die for it.”

  Leon watched her closely. “What are you saying?”

  She shook her head. It was pointless to speculate anyway. The Matrarc was now so weak that her body was shutting down and killing the baby along with her. “It feels wrong to play with life and death.”

  “You’re not,” he said. “Just do the best you can.”

  “If I do nothing, they’ll both die.”

  “Then do what the Matrarc wants you to do,” Leon said. “It’s her choice.”

  When the Matrarc’s six sons and Taja came out, they looked bewildered. Jerry took the bear from his little brother and tossed it over the balcony, which made the toddler cry. Taja scooped him up into her arms, and the mladies hurried forward to meet them.

  “Mlass Gaia,” Dominic called.

  Gaia stood stiffly and leaned on Leon’s arm to go back in, dreading what lay before her in that room. Will joined them, bringing a fragrant pot of tea on a tray to set on the table. He had brought more clean towels, too. He closed the door.

  “I want you to take the baby out now, Gaia, while it’s still moving,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia sank onto the edge of the bed.

  Dominic shook his head, burying his face into the pillow beside his wife. “Please, no.”

  Gaia lifted her bruised hands, thinking of the strength and skill she would need. She had a flashing memory of her mother’s death and knew it was coming again. She glanced at her satchel, then at Will, and then back to the Matrarc. “Are you sure?”

  “Absolutely,” the Matrarc said.

  “You’ll die,” Gaia said. “I’ll do what I can, but it’s beyond my skill. You need to know that.”

  “I want my baby to live,” the Matrarc said. “That’s all that matters to me now.” She clenched her jaw while her body worked in another contraction. They were becoming weaker and more infrequent, and soon, Gaia knew, her body would give up entirely.

  “Dominic, you have to let me go,” the Matrarc said.

  “I won’t,” he protested, speaking quietly and urgently to his wife. “Please, Olivia. I can’t manage without you.”

  “Kiss me,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia looked away, hiding her face against Leon’s shirt while he held her closely. She could hear Leon breathing and feel his strength, and when, moments later, it was time to deliver the baby, she did.



  SOON AFTER, the Matrarc was dead. Her youngest child, a son, slept in his father’s arms.

  Gaia never wanted to see another dead person for the rest of her life. It would take her forever to forget the sight of cutting into the Matrarc to rescue her baby, let alone everything that had come after, and the fruitless effort to save her life. The motherwort had done nothing for the pain, and though the Matrarc had bit on a tightly rolled cloth, her screams still echoed through Gaia’s mind. While she’d been doing it, she’d focused with a cold, efficient part of her brain, but now she trembled everywhere and felt sick with a kind of loathing.

  She washed her hands a last time while Will covered up the body. He would have one mess of a job with the cadaver.

  “Take her monocle,” Dominic said.

  Gaia couldn’t look him in the eye. “I don’t want it.”

  “You don’t have a choice,” Dominic said.

  I always have a choice, she thought.

  “Leon,” she said. “Take me out of here.”

  He put an arm around her as she walked slowly out of the room and along the balcony. Taja, without a word, passed around her to go in with her father. At the top of the steps, Gaia wavered, and Leon lifted her against him once more. All she wanted to do was sleep, deeply, for ages, preferably without having to move out of his arms.

  He carried her down the stairs, careful not to bump her toes against the walls during the turns, and set her gently on her feet at the bottom. She straightened the waist of her trousers, gazing wearily at the gathered men and women in the atrium.

  Gaia moved forward and braced herself on the back of a chair. “The Matrarc’s dead,” she said. “But her son’s alive.”

  In the silence, some of the people began weeping, and others turned to hug each other. Gaia couldn’t bear to look at the Matrarc’s younger children, who were gathered up by several of the mladies and brought up the stairs.

  Mlady Roxanne rose from a seat near the fireplace where a half dozen of the cuzines were gathered. She looked like she had been crying already. “What do we do now?”

  “The first thing is to plan the funeral,” Mlady Maudie said soberly.

  At her words, Gaia was jolted out of her fatigue. She half expected to see a list of notes already in Mlady Maudie’s hand. If no one stopped them, the cuzines would arrange the funeral, and then it would be natural for them to plan the next thing, and the next.

  “No,” Gaia said. “You don’t plan anything. Dominic can plan the funeral with Will.”

  “Don’t be so worried,” Mlady Maudie said. “We’ll just make it easier for him.”

  Gaia took a step back, alarmed. “Leon, how many people are outside?”

  “Hundreds still. I’ve been watching,” Leon said.

  “We’re going out.” Gaia lifted her voice to carry clearly through the atrium, even over the sorrowing noises of those who hadn’t noticed her exchange with Mlady Maudie. “Come out to the commons,” Gaia commanded. “If you want any part of the decisions for Sylum, come outside. Now. All of you.”

  Painfully, she walked through the screen door and stopped on the top step of the veranda. It was the same place Gaia had seen the Matrarc occupy, ages ago, when she had first come to Sylum. Like golden, winking eyes, torches filled the commons and burned their black smoke into the air. By their light, the men of Sylum, who had been sitting and resting while they waited for word, rose to their feet, and there was a visible ripple as they moved forward, gathering.

  “The Matrarc’s dead,” Gaia said in a loud, steady voice. “She died a few minutes ago. Her baby’s alive. A son.”

  Mumbling began, and Gaia began to make out individual faces: Will and Peter’s uncles, then Roger, and Xave. Leon stood just behind her, and the people who had been waiting in the lodge were streaming out the door. Norris came along the porch rail to her left, bringing his rolling pin, which seemed odd to her until she looked more closely at the crowd and saw a scattering of pitchforks and hammers.

  This is not good, she thought.

  “Look there!” came a man’s voice.

  There were startled cries and arms pointing upward. “They’re armed, in the bell tower! The women are going to shoot!”

  “Nobody’s shooting anybody,” Gaia said loudly. “We’re here for a vote. A civilized vote. That’s what the Matrarc agreed to when she let me and Chardo Peter out of the stocks. Equal rights for all.”

  “If we’re so equal, why are they armed?” yelled another man.

  “Put your bows down!” Gaia called, turning back toward the doorway. “Tell them to put their bows down. Mlady Roxanne, are you there?”

  “Put them down, or we’ll burn the lodge to the ground!” called another man.

  Angry voices erupted from the crowd.

  “Mlady Roxanne?” Gaia called again.

  “She went in to talk to them,” Will said in his quiet voice, coming out the door.

  She glanced from him to Leon, making a quick decision about who would have more inflence.

  “Talk to the men,” she said to Will. “Quickly.”

  Will glanced briefly toward Leon, then stepped forward to the front of the porch and lifted a hand. Torchlight flickered over his straight frame. “You heard her,” Will said, his voice carrying with calm authority. “Go tell everybody who’s still home. We’re having an election right here. In fifteen minutes’ time.”

  The buzz lifted into the night air, and the men swarmed. Torches scattered in every direction.

  Gaia spotted Peony hovering farther down the porch.

  “Go ring the bell, Mlass Peony,” Gaia said. “That will wake people up.”

  Mlady Maudie turned from a group of cuzines. “But Mlass Gaia, that’s just for the matina,” Mlady Maudie said.

  “Ring the bell,” Gaia repeated to Peony. “And keep ringing it. They’ll know it’s no matina. Tell the archers to come down. We’re not having any of that. Will? Can you make sure?”

  He and Peony went back inside and Gaia glanced again at Mlady Maudie, who folded her arms across her chest, frowning.

  “You’re making a mistake,” Mlady Maudie said. “I’ll keep the archers near.” She headed into the lodge. Gaia went slowly down the stairs and turned to look up at the bell tower, where the archers had withdrawn out of sight.

  Peals broke into the night air, sonorous and strange, far more than had ever been rung in a string together. They filled the dark air with their insistent rhythm. She looked for the moon to the east over the marsh, knowing it must be nearly full, and caught a glimpse of it low on the horizon, still hidden in the trees. Residual horror hovered at the edge of her mind, and she veered away from the nightmare she’d just gone through with the Matrarc. Then, as the bell peals reverberated away into silence, far out in the marsh, the loon answered with its elusive, haunting call. Gaia listened, waiting for more, and shivered when it didn’t come.

  “Here, let me give you a hand,” Leon said, coming to help Gaia back up the stairs.

  “I never thought I’d see this day,” Norris said, putting forward a chair for her.

  “It isn’t over yet,” she said.

  “She needs something to eat, Norris,” Leon said. “She’s hardly had anything.”

  “What I really want is more willow bark tea. Can you make it strong?”

  “Will do,” Norris said, and went inside.

  Gaia sank gratefully onto the cushioned chair. Her wrists and neck had started to pulse with soreness, and it felt best when she held still. Torches were moving in the commons, illuminating glimpses of beards and hats and pitchforks as men returned.

  “Is this going to work?” she asked Leon.

  “It might. If nobody burns the lodge down first.”

  That’s what she was afraid of, too.

  “We should have Peter here,” she said, and realized his uncles must have gone for him.

  The torches were returning, more than ever. The crowd swelled to the edges of the commons. Children, gr
andfathers and uncles amassed until they were jammed in doorways and windows, until they had climbed the trees and the stocks, and still more people came, nearly two thousand strong.

  Josephine and Dinah came, bringing the babies. Little Maya’s eyes were bright, but when Gaia reached for her, Dinah kept her against her shoulder. “I’ve got her. You take care of business.”

  A snatch of laughter drifted over the crowd, and a clinking noise.

  “Are they drinking?” Gaia asked.

  “Some are,” Leon said.

  A man on horseback was progressing through the commons, and as he came nearer, Gaia recognized Peter in the torchlight. His father and uncles helped him down when he reached the lodge. He’d had a chance to wash and change his clothes, she saw, and though his face was haggard, his pace labored, he met her gaze and smiled warmly. He came up the steps just as Will returned.

  “Have a seat,” Will said, setting another chair beside Gaia’s.

  The discoloration of Peter’s lip was nearly gone, and she felt a flutter of nervousness as he slowly sat beside her.

  “You really delivered the Matrarc’s baby?” Peter asked Gaia.

  “It was awful,” she said.

  “Are you okay?”

  “I will be, if we can settle this vote once and for all.”

  He reached out to put his fingers over hers, clasping her warmly, and she saw he had the same circle of bruise around his hand. Her heart beat in irregular thuds as she carefully pulled her hand away from his. His frank gaze lifted to hers in a question.

  “I think we’ve earned the right to hold hands,” Peter said gently.

  Gaia glanced up at Will and then Leon. She licked her lips, then turned to Peter again. His eyes were as blue and direct as ever, and the tiny smile scar beside his mouth still beckoned. She didn’t know how to begin.

  “What is it?” Peter said.

  It was bad enough having no privacy, but she couldn’t talk at all with Leon and Will looking on. “Leon,” she said. “I think I need a few minutes with Peter alone. Will, do you mind?”

  Will backed up. “Not at all.” He started down the steps, taking his father and uncles with him, and only once looked back over his shoulder before they mingled into the crowd.

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