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Authors: Caragh M. O'Brien

Prized

BOOK: Prized
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For Nancy Mercado
the wasteland
S
HE GRABBED THE HILT of her knife and scrambled backward into the darkness, holding the baby close in her other arm. Beyond the fire, the wasteland was still, as if the wind and even the stones had frozen in the night to listen, and then she heard it again, a faint chink, like a footfall in pebbles. Someone or something was out there, watching her.
Gaia turned the knife in her palm, resettling her grip, and peered toward where the far edge of the firelight touched the boulders and the gnarled, wind-stunted trees of the gulch. Without dropping her gaze, she felt by hand that the baby was secure in the sling across her chest, her warm, light weight hardly more than a loaf of bread. She'd left the baby bottle on a ledge of rock, out by the fire, and she hoped whoever was watching her wouldn't take that bottle, whatever else they might do.
The chinking noise came again, drawing her gaze to the far side of the fire. Then a head, an enormous, animal head, big as a cow's but long of face, appeared at the edge of the firelight, looking directly at her.
A horse?
she thought, astounded to see
an animal she'd believed was extinct. She checked its back for a rider, but there was none.
Inadvertently, she lowered her knife. In that instant, a powerful hand closed around her wrist and another touched around her throat.
“Drop it.”
The voice came softly from behind her right ear. Sweat broke out along her arms and neck, but still she clasped the knife. His grip did not move, did not lessen or increase at all, conveying his confidence that he simply had to wait until she obeyed. So completely, so imperceptibly had he crept up around her that she stood no chance of fighting back. Below her jaw, she could feel her own pulse beating against the firm, pernicious pressure of his thumb.
“Don't hurt me,” she said, but even as she spoke, she realized he could have killed her already if that had been his intention. Rapidly, she imagined trying to twist free of him with a kick, but the baby might get hurt. She couldn't risk it.
“Just drop it,” came the voice again. “We'll talk.”
With a sense of despair, she dropped her knife.
“Do you have any other weapons on you?”
She shook her head.
“No sudden moves,” he said, and his hands released her.
She sagged slightly, feeling the adrenaline still coursing through her. He picked up her knife and took a step toward the glow of the fire. A broad-shouldered, bearded man, he wore clothes and a hat of the same worn, dusty color as the wasteland.
“Step forward where I can see you properly,” he said, and held out a hand to invite her forward. “Where's the rest of your group?”
“We're it,” she said.
Gaia stepped into the firelight, and now that the burst of fear
that had given her strength was receding, she doubted she could stand for long. The campsite, she knew, must reveal how she'd been reduced to the last, pathetic shreds of survival. He picked up the baby bottle. She watched his gaze settle on the sling that crossed her chest and the protective hand she kept there. He jogged up the brim of his hat with his thumb in obvious surprise.
“You have a baby?”
Gaia braced a hand against the tree trunk. “You don't have any baby formula with you, do you?”
“I don't usually carry that. What's in this?” He gave the bottle a little shake, and the translucent liquid caught the golden firelight.
“Rabbit broth. She won't take it anymore. She's too weak.”
“A girl, even. Let me see her.”
She curved back the edge of the sling for him to see, and as she had done a thousand times since she'd left the Enclave, she checked her sleeping sister to see if she was still breathing. Firelight flickered over the little, pinched face, bathing it in brief color before sending it back to black and white. A delicate vein arched along Maya's right temple, and a breath lifted her little chest.
The man touched a finger to the baby's eyelid, lifted it a moment, then let it go.
He gave a sharp whistle, and the horse came nearer. “Here we go, then, Mlady,” he said. Decisively, the outrider lifted Gaia from the ground and up to the saddle. She grabbed the pommel to balance herself and Maya, and swung a leg over. He passed her the bottle and her cloak, then collected her meager things into her pack and slung it over his own shoulder.
“Where are we going?” Gaia asked.
“To Sylum as directly as we can. I hope it's not too late.”
Shifting, she tried to arrange some of the fabric of her dress between herself and the saddle. She could feel the dark, cool air touching her legs above the tops of her boots. When the outrider swung up behind her on the horse, she instinctively leaned forward, trying not to crowd against him. His arms encircled her as he reached for the reins, and then he kicked the horse into motion.
“Hey, Spider.”
The horse's movements seemed jerky to Gaia at first, but when her hips relaxed into the horse's stride, the ride became smoother. Behind them, the gibbous moon was low on the western horizon, casting a light strong enough to create shadows in their path, and Gaia peered to her right, toward the south, to where the Enclave and all she'd left behind had long ago dropped beneath the dark horizon.
For the first time in days, Gaia realized she might live, and hope was almost painful as it reawakened inside her. Inexplicably, she thought of Leon, and a lightless, lonely feeling surrounded her, as real as the outrider's unfamiliar, protective arms. She'd lost him. Whether he lived or died she would never know, and in a way, the uncertainty rivaled the unhappiness of knowing definitively that her parents were dead.
Her sister could well be next. Gaia reached her hand into the sling, easing her fingers between layers of fabric so that she could feel the baby's warm head in the palm of her hand. She made sure the cloak couldn't smother the little face, and then she let her eyes close. She nodded gently with the rhythm of the horse.
“Maya is dying,” she said, finally admitting it to herself.
The man didn't reply at first, and she thought he must not care. But then there was a careful shifting behind her.
“She may die,” he confirmed quietly. “Is she suffering now?”
Not anymore
, she thought. Maya's crying, before, had been hard to bear. This was a much quieter, more final form of heartbreak. “No,” Gaia said.
She slumped forward, dimly aware that he was helping, with singular tenderness, to support her and the baby both. Why a stranger's kindness should amplify her sadness she didn't know, but it did. Her legs were chilled, but the rest of her was fast becoming warmer. Lulled by despair and the soporific, distance-eating gait, she gave in to whatever relief oblivion could bring, and slept.
 
It seemed like years passed before Gaia became dimly aware of a change around them. She ached everywhere, and she was still riding, but she was leaning back against the man whose arms were supporting her and the baby securely. The baby's body was warm. Gaia took a deep breath and opened her eyes to search Maya's face. The baby's skin was translucent, almost blue in its pallor, but she still breathed. When sunlight flickered over the little face, Gaia looked up in wonder to see that they were in a forest.
Tiny dust motes floated in shafts of sunlight that dropped through the canopy of leaves and pine needles, and the air had a lush, humid luminosity that changed breathing fundamentally, filling her lungs with something warm and rich each time she inhaled.
“What is it, in the air?” she asked.
“It's just the forest,” he said. “You might be smelling the marsh. We don't have much farther to go.”
Even when it had rained in Wharfton, the air itself had remained sere between each raindrop, aching to suck away any moisture, but here, when she lifted her hand, she could feel a trace of new elasticity between her fingers.
“You talk in your sleep,” the outrider said. “Is Leon your husband?”
The thought of Leon as her husband was too ludicrous and sad to bear, no matter what she might say in her dreams. “No,” she said. “I'm not married.”
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 farther 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.
BOOK: Prized
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