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       Tortured, p.3

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  She glanced down, checking to see if the necklace Leon had returned to her was still around her neck. She tugged the chain so her locket watch rested on top of the neckline of her dress and loosened her cloak. As she straightened, the man let her go, using only his right hand to hold the reins. His fingers, she saw, were clean, with stubby fingernails.

  “Where are you from?” he asked.

  “South of here. From Wharfton, on the other side of the wasteland.”

  “So that still exists?” he asked. “How long have you been traveling?”

  She thought back over a daze of time in the wasteland. “The formula for Maya lasted ten days. I lost track after that. I found an oasis and caught a rabbit. That was, I’m not sure, maybe two days ago.” There’d been a corpse at the oasis, a body with no visible wounds, like a harbinger of her own pending starvation. Yet she’d made it this far.

  “You’re safe now,” he said. “Or almost.”

  The path rose one last time, turned, and the earth dropped away on their right. Stretching far toward the eastern horizon was a great, blue-green flatness that reflected bits of sky between hillocks of green.

  She had to squint to see it clearly, and even then she could hardly believe what she was seeing. “Is it a lake?”

  “It’s the marsh. Marsh Nipigon.”

  “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” she said.

  Lifting a hand to shade her eyes, she stared, marveling. Gaia had spent much of her childhood trying to imagine Unlake Superior full of water, but she’d never guessed it would be like having a second, broken sky down below the horizon. The marsh expanded across much of the visible world: part serpentine paths of water, part patches of green, with three islands receding into the distance. Even from this height, she could breathe in the cool freshness of it, laced with the loamy tang of mud.

  “How can there be so much water?” she asked. “Why hasn’t it all evaporated?”

  “Most of the water is gone. This is all that’s left of an old lake from the cool age, and the water gets lower every year.”

  She pointed to a swatch of dark green that rippled in a slow-motion wave as the wind moved across it. “What’s that area there?”

  “There? That’s the black rice slue,” he said.

  The path took a long, left-handed turn along the bluff, and as they rode, Gaia could see where the landscape dipped down to form a sprawling V-shaped valley. At the wide end, the forest descended to meet the marsh. A patchwork of woods, farmland, and backyard gardens seemed to be stitched together by dirt roads and pinned in place by three water towers. Where the path curved down to meet the sandy beach, a dozen groups of men were working around canoes and skiffs.

  “Havandish!” the outrider called. “Hurry ahead and tell the Matrarc I’ve brought in a girl with a starving baby. She needs a wet nurse.”

  “We’ll meet you at the lodge,” a man answered, swinging onto another horse and bolting ahead. People turned to stare.

  “Who’s the Matrarc?” Gaia asked.

  “Mlady Olivia. She runs Sylum for us,” he said.

  He steered his horse rapidly up the shore and through the village, and for the first time, the horse stumbled. Gaia clutched at the pommel, but the horse regained its footing.

  “Almost there, Spider,” the outrider said. “Good boy.”

  Caked with sweat, double-burdened, the horse flicked back an ear and pushed onward. The road turned to abut a level, open oval of lawn, edged with oaks and ringed further out by sturdy log cabins. Simply dressed people paused in their work to follow their progress.

  Ahead, a sun-scorched strip of dirt separated the commons from a big lodge of hewn, dovetailed logs, and in this area stood a row of four wooden frames, like disconnected parts of a fence. Puzzled by the jumbled sight, Gaia stared at a hunched form in the last frame until understanding came to her: they were stocks, and the dark form was a slumped prisoner, passed out or dead under the noonday sun.

  “Why is that man in the stocks?” she asked.

  “Attempted rape.”

  “Is the girl okay?” Gaia asked. What sort of place have I come to?

  “Yes,” he said, and dismounted from behind her. Rugged and lean, bearded and strong, the outrider ran a hand down his horse’s neck and turned to look up at Gaia. He isn’t old, she thought, surprised by her first clear look at him. She’d seen the outrider only by the light of the fire, and she was curious now to see how this man, to whom she owed her life, matched his voice and clean hands.

  He tilted his face slightly, regarding her closely, and she waited for a question about the scar that disfigured the left side of her face. It never came. Instead, he took off his hat to rake a hand through hair that was dark with sweat. Decisive, perceptive eyes dominated his even features with inviting candor.

  Beneath his beard, the corners of his mouth turned down briefly with a trace of regret.

  He donned his hat again. “I hope your baby makes it, Mlass,” he said. “For your own sake.”

  Startled, she instinctively held her sister closer, but before she could ask what he meant, a light tapping noise came from behind her. She turned. A wide, deep veranda spanned the width of the big lodge, and a white-haired woman with a red cane was coming through the screen door. She stood straight, and her pale blue dress draped over her pregnant form with regal simplicity. A bit of gold and glass hung from a necklace, gleaming against her dark skin.

  Six months, Gaia estimated. The Matrarc was six months pregnant.

  Half a dozen women were coming out of the lodge behind the Matrarc, openly curious, and more people were gathering in the commons.

  The Matrarc held out a slender hand in a gesture of expectation. “Chardo Peter? You brought in a girl and a baby?”

  Gaia noticed a subtle disconnection between the Matrarc’s gesture and the direction of her gaze, and put it together with the significance of the cane: she was blind.

  “Yes, Mlady,” he said. “The baby’s a girl and nearly dead from starvation.”

  “Bring them here to me,” said the Matrarc. “I suppose the girl is weak. Carry her if you must.”

  Chardo propped his hat on the pommel and reached up to help Gaia. She shifted her sling to make sure Maya was secure. As her feet touched the dirt, her knees buckled, and he caught her before her legs gave out entirely. “Forgive me, Mlass,” he said. He scooped her up in his arms and delivered her to the top of the steps. Gaia steadied herself against a log pillar and glanced furtively around. She didn’t know why she was uneasy, but something felt wrong.

  “Please,” Gaia said. “We need a doctor.”

  The tip of the Matrarc’s red cane nudged Gaia’s boot, but then she set the cane aside and extended her hands. “I want to see the baby.” There was a melodious, deep quality in her voice that took the edge off her direct command, and yet she clearly expected to be obeyed.

  Gaia gently extricated Maya from the sling and lifted her into those expectant hands. Unbelievably scrawny and fragile, the baby was hardly more than a listless bundle of blankets. The Matrarc cradled Maya in one arm and ran quick fingers over her face and arms, settling at the baby’s throat.

  Up close, Gaia saw the Matrarc’s complexion was a deep tan, with darker freckles splayed across her nose and cheeks. Her wrinkles were few. Despite prematurely white hair, which was arranged in a soft, heavy bun, the Matrarc was in her mid-thirties, Gaia guessed, and obviously competent with a baby. The clear, translucent brown of her sightless eyes was lit by an alert, trenchant expression, and then she frowned with concern.

  “You see?” Gaia said. It reassured her to see the Matrarc clearly realized the gravity of the situation.

  “It’s not good,” the Matrarc said. “When was she born?”

  “About two weeks ago. She was premature.”

  “Where’s Mlady Eva?” the Matrarc said.

  A woman was hurrying across the commons carrying a baby of her own. “I’m here!” she called. Her apron had streak
s of red, and her dark hair was coming loose from its braid. “I was just putting up my preserves, but Havandish told me this couldn’t wait. Why do you need my baby?”

  “You’ll need him to get your milk flowing,” the Matrarc said. “A baby has just arrived who’s too weak even to suck. Do the best you can for her. Mlady Roxanne, take them in. Quickly, please.”

  The Matrarc passed Gaia’s sister to a tall, angular woman who gave Gaia a swift look through her glasses, then took the baby into the lodge. Mlady Eva was untucking her blouse as she hurried after them.

  “Wait for me,” Gaia said.

  “No, stay,” the Matrarc said. “We need to get acquainted. What’s your name, child?”

  Gaia peered anxiously through the screen door, but already the others were out of sight. She tried to follow, but her legs were still too wobbly. “Where are they going? I need to be with my sister.”

  “She’s not your own child, then?” the Matrarc asked.

  “No. Of course not.” Gaia glanced at Chardo to find him regarding her with faint surprise, as if he had been operating under the same misassumption as the Matrarc. “I would never have been feeding her rabbit broth if I could have nursed her myself,” she said to him.

  “I didn’t know what to think,” he said.

  “Obviously, you’ve been through an ordeal,” the Matrarc cut in, lifting a hand. “Let me see your face.”

  Gaia backed against the railing to avoid the Matrarc’s touch. “No,” she said.

  “Ah!” said the Matrarc in surprise, dropping her hand.

  “Mlass, you need to cooperate with her,” Chardo said.

  Cooperating, Gaia had learned, could be dangerous. “I need to be with my sister,” she argued. “Take me to her and then I’ll cooperate.”

  The Matrarc drummed her fingers on top of her cane. “You have that backwards, I’m afraid. How old are you? Where have you come from?”

  “I’m Gaia Stone,” she said. “I’m sixteen. I left Wharfton two weeks ago. Now let me in there. We’re wasting time.”

  A puzzled crease came to the Matrarc’s forehead. “Why do I know this name?” she asked. “Who are your parents?”

  “They were Bonnie and Jasper Stone.” A thought hit Gaia. “Do you know my grandmother, Danni Orion? Is she here?”

  The Matrarc touched her own necklace, and took a long moment before she replied. “Danni Orion was the Matrarc before me. I’m sorry to tell you she’s been dead these ten years now.”

  As the Matrarc released her necklace, Gaia saw the pendant clearly for the first time. It was a gilt-edged monocle, and the familiarity of it stunned her. Years ago, in one of her earliest memories, she’d seen the same monocle in the sunlight as her grandmother twisted it to dazzle her.

  “You have my grandmother’s monocle,” Gaia said in wonder. Gone was the chance to ever know her grandmother, replaced by a concrete truth: this was the place she’d been seeking for weeks in the wasteland, her grandmother’s home, the Dead Forest that Gaia’s mother and Old Meg had urged her to find. She gazed out at the big, shady trees and lush greens of the commons, proof that nothing here was dead except the possibility she would ever be reunited with Danni O.

  “Gaia Stone,” the Matrarc said slowly, testing the name. “Your grandmother told me about your family. A brother was taken away from you, I think. I remember now. They burned your face, didn’t they?”

  Everything inside Gaia slowed down, and she let her gaze drift up to the woman’s sightless eyes. It was beyond strange to come all this way and meet someone who knew, without seeing or touching her, that her face was scarred. She untucked the hair behind her left ear to let it slide forward.

  “Two brothers,” Gaia said, correcting her, as if it still mattered. “The Enclave took both of my brothers. One I’ve never met. The other left for the wasteland shortly before I did.”

  “Why weren’t you taken into the Enclave? I don’t understand.”

  “The burn scar kept me out of consideration for advancing or I might have been taken, too.”

  “Where are your parents now?” the Matrarc asked.

  “Dead, back in the Enclave. My father was murdered. My mother died giving birth to my sister.”

  “I’m sorry,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia stared bleakly toward the screen door. “Please,” she said. “Let me go to my sister. I need to be sure she’s okay.”

  “You can’t do anything more for her, and there’s something we need to settle,” the Matrarc said. She made a gesture. “Bring her a chair.”

  Chardo fetched one from farther along the porch, and Gaia eased down upon it. She gripped the edge of the wooden seat with both hands, hating how weak she was.

  “Tell me something,” the Matrarc said. “Why did you go into the wasteland with a baby? Why would you risk her life?”

  “I didn’t have a choice,” Gaia said.

  “Maybe you didn’t for yourself,” the Matrarc said. “But why couldn’t you leave the baby behind? Surely someone in Wharfton would have cared for her.”

  Gaia’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. She had promised her mother to protect Maya, and for Gaia, that had meant staying together as a family. “I couldn’t leave her.”

  “Even knowing it was likely she would die?”

  Gaia shook her head. “You don’t understand. I had to take care of her. I didn’t know it would take us so long to cross the wasteland.” Then she remembered that her friend Emily had offered to care for Maya, and she’d refused. Had that been a mistake?

  “Or what you would find on the other side, I expect,” the Matrarc asked. “It was a terrible risk. A desperate, suicidal risk, in fact. Were you persecuted in your home? Were you a criminal or a rebel of some kind? Did you leave to escape the law?”

  Gaia looked uneasily at Chardo and the others.

  “I resisted the government in the Enclave,” she admitted. “But I didn’t cause any rebellion. I did what I thought was right. That’s all.”

  “‘That’s all’?” the Matrarc echoed, and then laughed. She pensively circled her cane tip against the floor while her eyes grew serious again. “You have a decision to make, Mlass Gaia. Staying in Sylum is like coming through a one-way gate. You can enter, but anyone who tries to leave Sylum dies. We don’t understand fully why this happens, but we find their bodies.”

  Gaia’s eyes grew wide. “I saw a corpse,” she said. “At the oasis two days ago. He was only recently dead. I was afraid it meant the water was poisonous.”

  “A middle-aged man with a full beard and glasses?” the Matrarc asked.

  “Dressed in gray,” Gaia said. It had both frightened her and given her hope that she was nearing civilization.

  “There’s your crim, Chardo,” the Matrarc said. She turned to Gaia. “He escaped from prison here four days ago. It happens to anyone who leaves. We’ve had nomads pass through, but if they stay with us even two days, the same thing happens.”

  Gaia had never heard of anything like it. “What could cause that? Is there a disease here?” She had avoided the corpse for fear of infection.

  “We think it’s something in the environment,” the Matrarc explained. “There’s an acclimation period while your body adjusts to being here, but after that, there’s no harm to those of us who stay. Beyond the obvious.”

  Frowning, Gaia gazed at the gathered crowd, trying to see what was so obvious. Aside from the man in the stocks and the Matrarc’s own blindness, the people looked healthy and fit. There were tall people and short, a few chubby ones, and none very skinny. Old men and young lounged nearby, with a fairly even distribution of skin tones, from pure black to birch white. There were plenty of children, and attire suggested a mix of affluent and poor.

  “What do you mean?” Gaia asked.

  Laughter came from the women on the porch. Gaia turned to Chardo, puzzled.

  “We don’t have many women here,” Chardo said. “Only one in ten babies is a girl.”

  Gaia looked around ag
ain in amazement, seeing how few women there were, mostly congregated on the veranda around the Matrarc. Out in the commons, nearly every face was masculine, and many had beards. Even the children were nearly all boys. How had she not noticed?

  “It’s more than that,” the Matrarc added. “The last girl was born here two years ago. And since then, only boys.”

  “How can that be?” Gaia asked.

  The Matrarc shrugged. “You don’t have to understand it to realize you need to make your choice. Leave today, or stay forever.”

  “But that’s no choice at all. Where would I go? How would I survive?”

  “There was a small community west of here a few years ago,” the Matrarc said. “And there are nomads who cycle through from the north. You could take your chances in either direction, or you could head back to your own home in the south.”

  Gaia couldn’t possibly go back, not in her weak condition. She could hardly stand. “I can’t leave,” she said. “Besides, I’d never leave my sister behind.”

  “I thought you’d say so,” the Matrarc agreed. “Here’s the other side of your decision. If you stay, you must agree to follow the rules of our community. You might find them strict at first, but I assure you, they’re fair.”

  “I can put up with anything as long as I’m with my sister,” Gaia said.

  A faint breeze moved along the porch, and a tendril of white hair shifted across the Matrarc’s face. She smoothed it back, blinking. “Tell me,” the Matrarc said in her soft, lyrical voice. “What would have happened to the baby if Chardo Peter hadn’t found you?”

  Gaia swallowed back the thickness in her throat. “She was dying,” she admitted.

  The Matrarc nodded. She drummed her slender fingers around the top of her cane. “She still might die. If we didn’t have a mother here to nurse her, she’d have no chance at all. Correct?”

  Gaia nodded.

  “Is that a yes?” the Matrarc pressed.

  Gaia didn’t like where this was going. The Matrarc’s gentle manners belied a quiet, unyielding brutality.

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