When the siege is done and it's safe to step out into the open, the Dag bursts loose. Furiosa insists on a guard at first--the last of the Vuvalini, because the Dag trusts no one else--but as time goes on and nothing happens, she goes her way without escort. Not much lives out in the sand, and the Dag has a way of knowing whether what does is baneful or good.
She has a real talent for that. Furiosa knows, and the Vuvalini knows, and the remaining Wives know--but no one else knows that when she's out on the frontiers she finds what parched desert plants she can and carefully digs them up. She makes note of where they're growing--under rocks or beside washes--the way the desert always shields her life. The Dag learns that where one plant grows, more are likely to follow. She learns that desert plants are strong, and that given enough time and encouragement, they leech out the poisons in the earth before they die.
There's a small patch of dirt at the base of the South Rock, some fifty paces long and ten wide. It's protected from the wind by twin spurs jutting out from the lode, and from the harshness of late-day sun by the same. The earth isn't much--rocky, sandy, sour--but it's close at hand, and so is water. All three of the buttes the Citadel laid claim to are riddled with cisterns dug over the years, and this little oval of land, cradled between arms of stone, is right next to one. It's on the other side of a dozen feet of solid granite, but the Dag smiles as if it's nothing. She builds a stone cistern in the meantime, and painstakingly fills it by hand, a bucket at a time. She hauls a heavy iron cover over it so the thirsty sun won't drink it dry.
She makes that patch of sandy, sour earth into her garden, transplanting the weeds and stubborn scrub into the protected crevices and watering them until they take hold. The hydroponics gardens inside the Citadel provide an endless supply of healthy mulch; she tends her little plants until they wither, and then she collects their seeds. Nothing is wasted.
The Keeper's bag is filled to splitting with seeds. The Dag takes them all out in the evenings, when the sun grows low in the west, and spreads them across the floor. Each packet is labeled in a spidery scrawl. The Dag learned to read, but it takes her a while to parse out the words. They are strange, nothing like she's heard or read. Punica granatum. Matricaria chamomilla. Digitalis purpurea. Rosa rubiginosa. She whispers them to herself at night and dreams of a garden in the desert.
Her belly swells with Old Joe's child. She withstands the attentions of Capable and the Milking Mothers with poor patience; her plants are more important. "Can you not see?" she demands. "The earth need not be tainted forever." She digs through the Keeper's bag to show them the notebook tucked in the bottom. It, too, is filled with spidery scrawl, and here, beside each name, is a description. Punica granatum. Pomegranate. Deciduous, fruit-bearing shrub or small tree, growing between 5 and 8 meters tall. Fruits from March to May. Desert plant; keep from getting too damp. Plant cuttings instead of seeds for consistency and to preserve seeds.
Can they not see this is more interesting, more needful, than a baby?
"Very needful, Dag," Capable says, pushing her back down on the bed so she can listen to the baby's heartbeat. "But this child is coming whether you want it or not, so you may as well pay attention to you for a change."
When the stairs finally get cut, it's a common sight to see the Dag waddle down them, buckets of water on her back for her madwoman's thorn-patch. She smears her face and hands with the War Boys' white clay to fend off the sun, and daubs axle grease around her eyes to fight the glare; her hair glows like the ghost lights over the blasted earth.
It's hard-going, that first year. Her son grows faster than her garden does--"It might not be a boy, Dag"--and Furiosa won't let her scavenge the litter of wrecks on the eastern stretches. "It's too dangerous," she says, marching through the auto bays, through the rows of hemp, through the worshipful lines of the Wretched. The Dag plants herself like a mule. "Angharad did it," she counters.
Furiosa stops her perpetual motion just so she can glare at her. "Angharad did it because she had no other choice. You're not going."
The Dag subsides. Furiosa sends out parties each day to pick the wrecks clean; patience is more important than first choice. She digs irrigation ditches through the sand and whispers to the plants: "I read it in one of Old Joe's books," she says. "I'm gonna make a web of tubes, buried under the soil to keep the sun from cracking them, that'll carry drops of water right to your roots. There are a lot of cars won't need their brake lines anymore; I'll clean 'em out, and then they're yours."
Her baby comes seven months after the Return. She was right about him being a boy, but wrong about him being ugly. He is soft and sloe-eyed, and is the sweetest, quietest baby the Dag could ever have imagined. His right arm is shrunken and withered, but that doesn't matter; he can breathe fine, and he'll have the use of his feet and one whole hand.
"He's splendid," she says, gazing down at him.
Capable gives her a sharp look.
"I'm naming him Angharad."
Off in the corner, Miss Giddy croaks with laughter.
No one bothers to tell her that Angharad is a name for girls. What the Dag has decided is what will be, and she has decided her son will be named Angharad. Furiosa spares him a brittle smile, and Toast refuses to touch him. The Dag understands. Angharad has his mother's pale hair and dark eyes, but he has his father's strong nose, too.
The Dag gazes down at him as he suckles at her breast, and decides his father was a desert wind. She will love this child, for his father was no one at all.
Furiosa sets aside a stone crew for her birthing gift, and within a week the sluice between the Citadel's well and the Dag's little garden cistern is carved out. Never again will she have to carry buckets down to her plants. She straps Angharad to her chest instead, and hauls him down the steps. He sleeps while she tests cuttings and waters wavering transplants, and while many of them die, many more begin to thrive.
She coaxes the salt out of the earth one weed at a time. There is hope, yet.
"How can you stand it?" Toast asks the Dag one day. "It's so boring." She's perched on a rock outcrop perfectly shaped to cradle a pair of buttocks, and she settles in while the Dag digs another hole. There're a bunch of them littering the sand. The Dag said something about letting the earth breathe out its sickness, but Toast wasn't listening.
The Dag moves to the next hole. "Everything's got a time and a way," she says. "I can see the way, so I make the time."
"Right," Toast says. She looks out over the flats southward, toward Gas Town. The belch of dark smoke is all she can see of it; if she were higher up, she could see the crazed tangle of pipes and towers that make the refinery.
It's quieter, here. The tangle of the Citadel is hidden inside calm stone. Toast likes it. Better to lull the opposition into underestimating you, than to have them on their guard at the outset. Hide your assets, she thinks to herself. Catch 'em by surprise.
"Have the War Boys toppled before you, yet?" the Dag asks. There's a streak of dirt across her white-painted cheek from where she brushed her hair back.
Toast lets out a snort. "They topple over as soon as you stand 'em on their feet," she says. "All the healthy ones died in the desert."
The Dag pauses to look east. There's not much to look at, aside from bare rock; the cliff is in the way. Toast wonders what she sees.
"Not all of them," she says. "The Rock Riders got some, Gas Town and the Bullet Farm got some more." She scratches out another hole. "People aren't worth much, but fighters are worth a little more."
A chill runs down the back of Toast's neck. "You think we'll see another siege?"
"I think a mighty gate is needful," the Dag replies.
Toast looks back at the smear of smoke over the horizon. "I think you're right," she says.
She hunts down the Vuvalini later that night, in the mess. There's not much to eat but roots and water until the harvest comes in, but there's salt aplenty, so at least it tastes decent. She spots her halfway along, with her back to the wall and a wicked knife at her elbow. Toast sits down opposite and slurps at her soup. "I want to learn to fight," she says.
"And I want knickers with more cloth than hole," the Vuvalini says. She keeps eating.
"I want to learn to drive, too," Toast presses. "And I want to learn to shoot."
The Vuvalini pauses, the spoon halfway to her mouth, and gives her the hairy eyeball. "Do you, now."
"I won't go down without a fight. Never again."
"Never's a long time," the Vuvalini says, and resumes eating.
"So will you help me?"
The Vuvalini ignores her. Ignores her until she's done eating, no matter what Toast says. When she's done she scrapes the bowl clean, takes up her knife, and heaves off from the table. Toast stares after. So it's like that, is it.
"We're vulnerable," she tries again the next day, hunkering down beside the Vuvalini as she cleans the sand out of her bike's air filter. "There're scavengers out there, remnants of the war parties. We need to arm ourselves. I need you to teach me how to fight so I can protect us."
She falls back on her ass when the Vuvalini stands up sharply. She bangs on the engine, and a puff of dust gusts out. "Ask the War Boys," she says.
"I don't trust the War Boys," Toast says, scrambling to her feet. "They'd as soon kill me as teach me to fight."
"Sounds like you're in a pickle," the Vuvalini says, before straddling the bike. The kick of the engine sputtering to life drowns out Toast's words. She roars out of the caves and down the new-carved ramp to the flats.
Toast kicks at the packed-dirt floor in frustration.
She tries again, this time with a basket of food she begged from the cooks. It's not much, but she did get two sweetcakes in with the fried turnips, and a bunch of small, sweet grapes. "Please," she says, holding the basket out.
The Vuvalini takes it, giving a quiet "hm" as she pokes through the contents. "Bet you pissed someone off for this."
"Please," Toast says again. "Will you teach me to fight?"
"Well, now." The Vuvalini gives her a piercing look. "I do believe that's the first time you asked me nicely." She drives on over Toast's stuttered reply. "Furiosa already came to me about building up the guard. I haven't gotten far, because the War Boys we've got are sick as dogs, and the Pups are too young. Not many women want to fight, either; there're a lot of timid souls, hereabouts."
"Not me," Toast blurts out. "I'm not timid."
"No, you're a right pain in my arse," the Vuvalini snaps. She softens her tone. "But you're strong. And you want to learn to fight." She examines Toast from head to toe, taking in her close-cut leathers and her close-cropped hair. Toast finds herself straightening up, bracing for inspection.
Toast the Knowing is fierce. She is not content with the slow pace of growing things; she tasted battle, and it settled in her bones. She meets the Vuvalini's gaze, and she sets her jaw.
"I think I can find something to teach you," the Vuvalini says. Toast grins in triumph.
The War Pup looks up at her, his smooth, unscarred skin painted white and his eyes blackened like a skull's. He stares up at her, and he asks, "Are you here to kill us?"
Capable glances over the small crowd of pups lingering in the doorways of the main hall. One of the older ones has a toddler perched on his hip. Not one looks over the age of twelve, but it's hard to judge; none are very tall. They're all red-eyed and watchful, and their ribs poke out from their skin like ripples on a sand dune. A rat scurries past; one of the boys stomps on it. He picks it up by its tail.
"No," she says, her voice choked in her throat. There's a sore on the boy's arm, what looks like a scratch that got infected and left to fester. "Did you know a War Boy named Nux?"
The pup shakes his head. His eyes are blue. They seem to glow in the darkness.
"Oh," Capable says. "What's your name?"
The boy shrugs a shoulder. "I'm a pup. I don't get a name 'til I rip my mouth."
Capable has a sudden urge to sit down and bury her face in her hands. She had come here looking for some shred of Nux; instead, she's found sickness, pain, and pointless despair. No wonder the War Boys fought so hard to die. She beckons the pup closer.
"Come here," she says. "Has anyone looked at that, for you?" She points at the sore on his arm.
He shrugs. "Organic did. He said it wasn't much."
"No." The word is out of her before she knows what she's saying. "No. You come with me, pup. I'll take a look at it, for you."
He follows her meekly, but it isn't trust she sees in his eyes. He's following an order, and the blank-eyed stare of fear stares back at her. Her heart breaks a little more. She doesn't know how much more she can handle; it was already creaking under its burden before she touched Nux and saw how he froze like a rabbit at the gentleness. She's sure it's in pieces, now.
She takes the boy to the nearest cistern. A gaggle of War Pups trail after, their eyes large in their hollow-cheeked, painted faces, and they peer curiously as she washes away the paint, then pours cupful after cupful of clean water over the cut. Pus and dirt washes out onto the floor. The boy trembles, but he does not move. Capable turns his arm this way and that. There's warmth around the cut itself, but none elsewhere; nor are their red streaks of infection crawling under his skin. He's lucky.
"This way," Capable says, and leads him out to the winch platform, silent and still now that the Treadmill Rats have been set loose to find what remains of their families. She sits him down on the balcony in a pool of warm sunlight. "You sit here for a half hour each day," she says. "You know how long that is?"
The boy shakes his head. Capable holds up two fingers.
"It's when the sun's moved this far across the sky." She holds the fingers up to demonstrate. "You sit here, and you let that cut bake in the sun. That should clear it right up."
He looks plaintively up at her. "But I have to catch bugs," he says. "And Lookout said I had to make sure no one touched his deck or he'd pound me into a smear."
"Lookout's dead," Capable says. She doesn't know Lookout from any of the other War Boys, but odds are good he is. "You stay here, and I'll catch the bugs, and you forget about what Lookout said, because he can't hurt you anymore."
She waits until he gives an uncertain nod before stroking his shaved, white-painted head. "I'll be inside if you need me," she says, and goes back in the cave.
There are a hundred more pups who need her help, and a hundred more War Boys too sick to stand. She doesn't know much about sickness, but there are books in the Immortan's vault. She rolls up the sleeves of the blouse Furiosa gave her and gets to work.
Two days in and she's decided the Organic Mechanic was a monster. He'd tended to his charges the way a mechanic might a car, slapping on patches without a thought to human frailty. Mutated fetuses pickled in brine line the back wall of his office. Capable takes them down with a bitter, pinched feeling in her heart and buries them properly, while the pups and a few healed-up War Boys look uncertainly on.
His workshop is filthy, is the truth of it. None of his rooms, from the office to the bunk to the exam room, are what you'd call homely; but the operating room is the worst. Countless stains are ingrained in the floor, and rusty brown splatters creep up the walls. There's an aura of pain and fear creased into every corner. Worst of all is the stainless steel table, worth a fortune in these fallen times, standing ugly and cold and far too clean by half.
Capable scrubs everything until she's scraped a layer of dust off the rock, then limes the walls with the War Boys' clay paint until they are as pristine as the salt flats under the light of the moon. The rest of the Mechanic's tools she boils.
He left some books tucked away in a cabinet, old books on human anatomy and common illnesses. Good books, full of simple language and first aid for everything from bug bites to punctured lungs. Their spines crack when she opens them, and dust falls from their pages. She brushes them off and sets them aside for later.
At first, she only tends the War Boys. There are nearly four thousand people living in the Citadel, and she is one woman. But time goes on, and the War Boys die or heal up as their illnesses dictate, and soon she has more helping hands than she knows what to do with. The Pup with the sore on his arm comes back first, saying in a shy voice to call him Kick, and she puts him to work as a messenger. She feeds him until his ribs sink back in his chest, and his hair grows out until she's forced to braid it back for him lest it get caught in the machinery of the pump works.
He's far from the first. Just like Nux, she finds the War Boys are thirstier for kindness than they are for water. She speaks to them with respect and gentleness, and they uncurl from their protective shells to show her their tenderest wounds. There is a little of Nux in every tired, coughing man that comes into her workshop. Some days it hurts so badly she runs to the top of the rocks and screams into the wind. Some days it hurts less, and she can stomach a smile. The War Boys love her for it. When she opens her doors to the Wretched, they unanimously move out of their tunnels to make room. They're better suited to managing crowds of people, she finds; each day she opens her workshop doors and ushers in the sick and hurt of the Citadel, and the War Boys keep peace for her.
One of the Milking Mothers comes to help, too--her name is Plenty, and she knows more than a little of leechcraft, though the herbs she recommends are long dead. Perhaps the Dag has some in the Keeper's valise, but it'll be years before they sprout under this blighted sky. They talk long into the night. Plenty bore twelve children before she was put out to the milking machines, and of that group, seven made it past weaning, and four to adulthood. The shards of Capable's broken heart grind to dust, and she folds Plenty's hand in her own.
"One of these pups is probably my son," the big woman says, watching Kick scuffle in the dust with another boy. Her eyes are hollow and deep. "All of us mothers wonder which children are ours. It's impossible to know."
The Vuvalini comes through, once, with a broken finger. She marks the curious diffidence of the War Boys in her presence, and gives Capable a sly look. "Conquer 'em with kindness," the old woman laughs, clapping a callused hand on Capable's shoulder.
Capable keeps that thought close to her heart. A thousand ailments pile up each day: boils, bites, burns, blisters. Kindness is slower, but it's surer. She smiles at her War Boys, and learns every name the pups give themselves, no matter how boyish or silly. She chants them to herself at night so she won't forget: Brave, Lizard King, the Best, Noose, Stripe Piper. They still long for Valhalla, but Capable reckons that'll ease when they have something to live for.
Better a life lived than one cut short. They'll see.
Cheedo sits in the Immortan's vault, soaking her feet in the water of the pool, and wraps her arms around herself. Outside, engines roar, and the sharp retort of gunfire echoes between the Rocks. She would not have been able to hear it, before. Before, the vault doors would have been locked, and the outside world muted away.
Cheedo is glad Immortan Joe is dead. She is glad she can wear long, full skirts, and blouses that cover her from neck to wrist. She is glad she can leave the vault when she chooses, speak to whomever she wants, and forget that sex even exists.
But there was certainty, as Joe's treasure. She misses that.
She scrapes her thumbnail against the paint dried on the floor. "Our babies will not be warlords," she murmurs the words out loud. Writing that had been... powerful. She had felt giddy and strong, painting something so seditious on the floor of their tormentor's inner sanctum. Nothing since has felt quite so real or raw as that single act.
Days pass, and the Citadel repels the war party. They are demoralized, weakened by the desert and repeated defeat. Furiosa opened the gates for the Wretched and barred them against the returning War Boys. For once, the Immortan's greed worked in their favor: with no external sources of water, the War Boys faded and dropped their weapons after a week, when their water stores ran out. The worst fighting was on the second day, when a small cadre attempted to climb the cliffs. The Milking Mothers and the Wretched alike beat them back, throwing stones until they lost their grips and fell to their deaths. Cheedo can still hear their screams.
The remainder were gathered up by Capable and brought back into the South Rock. She's made a hospice out of the War Boys' former haunts, and tends to them all the same way she did their wayward War Boy on the Rig.
Cheedo ticks them off on her fingers: the Dag has her plants, Toast her fighting, Capable her leechcraft, Furiosa the governance of the Citadel and the defense of its people. What does Cheedo have? On the road she wanted to be back safe in the vault. Now that she's there, she wishes she was out on the road. The drifter who had helped them, Max, she wonders where he is, now.
Before she's realized it she's etched a pattern into the white letters, scratched out a crosshatch into the paint. She sighs, wipes the dust on her hands off on her skirt, and goes down the tunnel to the bedchamber. Aside from Miss Giddy, she's the only one who sleeps in the vault anymore. She misses her sisters' breathing beside her.
She wakes from color-stained dreams with a fire in her heart. She goes to the former War Boy compound for their white paint and black grease. When she gets back to the vault, she obliterates the words on the floor beneath a layer of pattern, alternating black and white according to her fancy. She spends the whole morning on her knees, staining her clothes and burrowing into the sensation on paint on her skin. When she's done, she rinses off in the pool. A vast, abstract melange of shapes spreads out to circle to the pool. Objectively it is unlovely; the patterns are inconsistent, the execution wobblier than she would like.
But it's hers.
The next morning she goes out with one of the women. She's young, young enough to still be breeding stock, but she hasn't yet gotten the swollen, sagging dugs of the Milking Mothers. Her name is Corsa. She carries a gun and two grenade spears while Cheedo picks over the rocks, looking for the particular ones she wants.
There's plenty of white clay in the area--it's what the War Boys use for their war paint. Cheedo ignores it, for now. She pokes over the ridges in search of veins of yellow and red. She finds them in the fading light of day, a full two miles from the Citadel. All she can see is the green tops of the Rocks, and the pinpick pinwheels of the windmills. She breaks out chunks of ochery clay with her bare hands and loads her and Corsa's packs.
She crushes the rocks into powder and mixes them with precious water into a paste. She covers the walls with swirls of red-black-white-yellow, until her fingers are stained and her arms ache and the vault is a swirl of color.
When Angharad is born, she smears red over his brow and says to him, "You are his no longer. You are yours."
Furiosa stands on the top of the West Rock and watches the sunset. Below her rumbles the waterworks, groaning as they haul water up from the depths of the earth. Immortan Joe had been both miserly and wasteful with it, denying it to his people only to waste it in horrifying quantities at a whim. No more. The siege is over, and the Citadel's women took the day. Cisterns litter the inside of the Rocks, and Furiosa's first act was to open the gates to the Wretched.
They are Wretched no more. Furiosa hears their petitions for an hour twice a day; they are no longer faceless, miserable wretches. They are her people. They are the Citadel.
She blasts stairs into the sides of all three Rocks, and connecting tunnels beneath the earth. She leaves the winches and elevators, run now on water power instead of human sweat; the motor pool is tucked midway up South Rock for security, as are all public cisterns and the pump works in West Rock. She welcomes her people, but she does not deny them their need for defense. Gas Town and the Bullet Farm are cowed--they are not broken. Until she asserts her sovereignty in the triad, she will make the Citadel a fortress they will never tear down.
She can't do it alone. She never could, not even on the race through the desert. Now, she asks the Wives to help her lead, and the Milking Mothers, who are wise to the politics of the upper reaches of the Citadel from their time feeding them. She talks to the War Boys as well, and listens to Corpus Colossus's advice sparingly. He seems wise, but he is a poisoned man, tainted by his father.
No more the hideous rush of water, to wash away the Wretched; no more the waste of guzzoline on joyrides in the desert. It is a time of careful abundance. There can be no longevity without an eye to the future. Water is survival in the wasteland, and survival is paramount.
Furiosa looks east and wonders at the hand of fate.