Dardassa flew up the incline, her rifle hugged to her chest. Soft earth gave way beneath her boots as she went, but she kept steady, eyes on her man. He was flitting between the trees as he ran, stumbling from cover to cover, no timing, no finesse. Inexpert. The wasteland out there had no life; he was as unused to the green as the girls were unused to his kind.
The tale of his kind was a tale shortly told; dead, for the most part, most of them before the raid had even started proper. Clan Clin D’oeil had had the watch this morning, and there were no finer eyes in all motherdom. The firefight had been short and ugly, and most of it took place just beyond their borders, with the Keeper giving orders from a place of safety, and K.T. and Jessie Kay doing the same in the midst of the fray. No blood was spilt on their land.
Dardassa gained the crest of the small hill, took a knee and had her rifle cocked and ready in under five seconds. She could hear footsteps coming up behind her, and knew Alkira by her tread and the rustling shift of her skirts and hair. Dardassa sighted down her target and her dearest friend settled down beside her.
“He is the only one left, I think,” Alkira said. Her voice, as always, sounded like nails in a bucket, so unlike her sweet face and light step. Dardassa loved that about her, loved how so many things about her were seemingly at odds. Alkira was like a living double take, she was. “We’ve taken their bikes, we’ve taken their water. Mary clipped him on the leg. He won’t last a day out there.”
Save your bullet, was what she was trying to say in her meandering way. Alkira never said anything that she didn’t take her sweet time to say.
In the little world of Dardassa’s scope, the raider dragged himself from a tree trunk to a low rock with five jerky steps. Dardassa counted his death six times, just for the fun of it. Alkira’s hand came to rest lightly on her shoulder; she was waiting for a reply. Anyone else, and Dardassa would have knocked the hand away the second it even came close. Not Alkira. This weight, she counted as an anchor.
“No such thing as a wasted shot,” she replied in answer to the question that was never asked. Alkira’s hand jerked minutely; a sigh. Away through the trees, across the lush grass, Dardassa’s bullet caught the raider dead in the head, stopping his retreat. A clean kill.
The Keeper was dying. The greatest dust cloud was rising in her mind.
Her head ached and floated all at the same time; an immense pain that was slowly seeping away, bit by bit, like daylight behind the horizon. The Keeper grasped about, searching for something to anchor her, and a hand grasped back. The girl, the Dag. Her skin was clean and smooth and sweet to the touch, hot with energy and fervour and fear. All things that mean life. It was good that she be surrounded by things such as these, on this the day of her rebirth. The constant rumble and shake of the engine, the dust of the road, her sisters and her sweet new daughters… plus a warboy and a half mad wastelander, of all things. She would have cackled, if her lungs had allowed it.
The Keeper sighed. It was hard to open her eyes, hard to register anything happening beyond the scope of her fingers. All around them was noise and engine oil and fire, but the Keeper knew she was going back to the earth, to the life-brown eyes of her youth. She clutched at her satchel of seeds, and at the girl's hands in her own. There were words, words that she should be saying, but she could not call them to mind.
They didn’t matter, anyway. She had already passed on what was important.
The war rig shook and the ground shook with it, like the beating of a thousand angry drums, like momentum, like fanfare, like something was about to happen. She felt the Dag touching her face. The Keeper smiled. It was good, not to be alone.
They whispered things about her, the young ones. ‘Built that rifle from scratch, she did.’ ‘I heard she lived through the Walk.’ ‘Killed every man she’s ever met.’ Some of them were true, some of them weren’t. Dardassa left it up to common sense, circumstance and age to sort the one from the other. In the meanwhile, she let them talk. In days like these, it did no harm for girls to turn women into goddesses. It was up to them to build the legends that they would one day try to become.
Dardassa was old. She mightn’t look it, but she felt it. The red in her hair was more dirt than colour, and the memories in her head went so far back they reached another time. It made her dizzy-like, betimes, to think back to a world full of colour and life and plenty, and open her eyes to the contrast of the tiny haven that the Many Mothers had created within the wasteland. It hadn’t been easy, building this green place of theirs. The sweat and tears of a generation had soaked and softened the soil; hard work and the punishing sun had toughened the women who lived upon it. Stones polished into gems.
Mary Jo Bassa was such a one; young as she was, she was sharp and quick as a whip, took everything the Wasteland threw at her and turned it to good. The Keeper too, old and shrewd, endlessly puttering about in the gardens and the orchards. Like Dardassa, she was a product of a time before, but she had evolved as necessary. K.T. Concannon was one of their fiercest warriors, a proud daughter of the Moon Cry Clan, a better shot and better rider than Dardassa herself. The little ones often took a shine to her, with her thick black dreads and her voice like butter, and many a blood mother asked her to initiate their daughters. Then there were Jameela, Rock Amy, the Wailer, Sylvia Ricatto; all shaped by fire and the place of their birth.
And if the rest of them were flamed-forged, then Alkira was earth-born, she with her gentle face and ruined voice. She seemed by turns too soft and just right for the Green Place. Another one of her oddities that Dardassa loved.
“They were talking about you again,” she informed Dardassa one afternoon, peeling off her dirt-sodden gloves, rubbing her chest to calm the clatter of her lungs. “The girls, a little knot of them in the fields. I heard them as I passed.”
Dardassa snorted. Alkira had laid a tiny mountain of root vegetables before her; she slipped her smallest knife out of her boot and got to work peeling them. This time of the evening, their yard was quiet, as were all the yards across their borders. The mothers were all training with the girls in the arena, and they would need sustenance when they returned. Jessie Kay, K.T.’s wife, ran them all hard.
“Was that s’pposed to be news?” Dardassa said. She shifted to make room on the slab of stone that she occupied. Alkira sat, fished out her own smallest knife, and grabbed a yam. “All they ever do is talk about me.”
“True enough,” Alkira conceded, voice rattling with her amusement. She nudged her thigh against Dardassa’s, playful-like, as they peeled together. All of the vegetable shavings went into a pile, to be used later on for fertilizer, or soup stock, or medicine. There were many deadly sins, out here in the desert, and the deadliest of all was waste. “Would you like to know what they were saying this time?”
“Depends. You wanna tell me?”
“Do you know something, Dassa? I don’t think I actually do.”
Dardassa snorted again, and Alkira laughed one of her grating laughs, a sound that might have once been pretty. In Alkira’s present state, it was like a pail full of rocks tumbling down a never ending hillside. Dardassa adored it.
“You know, I bet you encourage them in it,” Dardassa said, putting on an accusing tone for the jest of it. “All them tall tales and half-truths.”
“Of course,” she rasped. “Our world has evolved in so many ways that can kill us, destroy us. Mythology is harmless.”
Their days were full of waiting. The Keeper had lived half a score longer than the next oldest of the remaining Vuvalini, but she was sure that the others coped with the tedium, the long pendulum swing of their days under the scorching sun, a fair bit better than she did. Especially the Valkyrie. There was a woman who was built to lead. The Keeper couldn’t remember what she had been made for, what hopes her mother had nurtured for her, what she had wanted for herself before the chaos came and the world turned her into what she needed to be. She had forgotten, and perhaps that was for the best. Some secrets were best kept from yourself.
It was a scorcher, because it always was, and the gang had their goggles up and scarves tight. Their current camp was a few miles off, in the sparse shade provided by a jutting cliff. It was bad form to work where you slept, so the Valkyrie had built her nest far away, high up in the cage. There, she laid her trap. Behind the dunes, in the dips and valleys of the sand, Maddi and the others laid in wait. The Keeper, meanwhile, laid her head to the ground.
All sand of course, brittle and bone-dry, nothing to give any sort of promise. The Keeper listened to the land anyway, every chance she got. Even after all these years, her bag of seeds held precious little, but never seemed to empty.
There would be no planting here, but several miles south, there had been signs enough that roots had once taken suck, that the earth had once lived and breathed. Perhaps there she would cast her die.
The day stretched long. Just when it looked as though they would return empty-handed, a small, rattling truck appeared on the horizon. The Keeper put away her seeds and took out her metal.
It was a quick affair; six men, poorly armed, one of them already dropping his trousers before they got started with the Valkyrie’s supposed rescue. Firefly shot him first, from her perch higher up on the hill. First to be shot he was, but the last to die; the Firefly liked her slow gut-kills more than was probably healthy. Sentiment was no use out here, not even the bitter kind. The Keeper went for the headshot as usual, and she got her man, second from the left; snapped him right as he was diving back for the truck.
She met the Valkyrie at the bottom of the dunes when it was done. The girls were already stripping the truck and the bodies, and loading the valuables onto the bikes.
“Little enough,” the Valkyrie said, pulling on her clothes swiftly. She threw a critical eye over what they’d gathered. “Barely worth the gunpowder. Though I suppose there’s no such thing as a wasted shot.”
The Keeper cackled, leaning on her rifle.
“You sound like someone I knew.”
“Oh?” The Valkyrie smiled. “What happened to her?”
“Oh, what happens to everybody else out here, I suppose.” The Keeper patted the pouch at her waist for a few seconds. She allowed herself that. “Come on, we need to move before the crows come. I want to plant a seed.”
The Vuvalini forged and held ties with a few of the nomadic tribes. Every few years, whenever they came to the Green Place, they would trade. To Dardassa’s eye they were coming less and less, and in the past several years their wares had been fewer and shabbier. But they would never refuse trade; they couldn’t afford it.
The Antmen had arrived the week before, and their caravans were set up at a polite distance from the borders of the Green. The truce space, Alkira called it. Close enough that a good riflewoman would have the drop on them if things suddenly went sour; far enough that the Antmen would at least have a head start. They’re good at running, the Antmen. Dardassa only knew this from what she’d heard from her sisters; there’d never been one of their tribe interesting enough that she felt compelled to speak to them. And if there was anything else about them worth knowing, Dardassa wasn’t like to find out. She sat at the top of the incline that overlooked the caravans; back to a tree, her gun across her knees.
Mary Jo Bassa, bigger and stronger with every passing year, came footing it up the hill. She walked with a kind of purposeful pride; the years had earned her more than a few accolades, and she wore them contentedly. If the caravans had been sparse of late, it might well be because the raiding parties had been seen thicker and more often. Mary, pride of the Swaddle Dogs, had helped to repel them all. She greeted Dardassa now with a salute and a jaunty wave, her eyes sparkling with something furtive that made her skin glow when she smiled. Dardassa snorted, glancing back down the hill. Perhaps Mary knew something about the Antmen, or one in particular, that was worth telling.
It was not the most common practice, but was sanctioned, and indeed encouraged by most of the mothers. The Vuvalini were nothing without their daughters, and there were precious few safe ways to bring life into the world. K.T., Ancilla and the other women like them had taken wives, and mothered strong daughters on them. Dalliances within the Vuvalini were common, whether they would produce children or not. Dalliances with outsiders were inevitable, if short-lived.
Dardassa wouldn’t know; she had never had that particular inclination, nor any thoughts that turned towards procreation. She had initiated several girls in the early days, when they were all young and building their lore, but had never had any desire to conceive daughters of her own blood. She didn’t imagine that confinement would suit her in the slightest, and had no compunctions about saying it. The womb did not make the mother.
She watched the movement down at the caravans, the trickle of Vuvalini moving up and down the hill, heard the high calls of the Antmen, hawking their goods. Someone trampled up behind her and took the seat next to her; K.T. Her hair and skin were damp with sweat, and she was armed, as always, to the teeth.
“Small crowd this year,” she commented, pulling her dreads out of their topknot. “Same for their stores. They didn’t have any of that rope this year, nor the snake venom.”
“Everything is smaller this year,” Dardassa pointed out.
“True.” K.T. rested her elbows on her knees, frowning at the distance. “Fewer and fewer want to risk crossing the wasteland.”
Dardassa nodded. There would always be those who make the journey, searching and scavenging and hoping to find something different this time around. But with the Unsmiling and Joe’s war boys out there, it was a gamble that they’d ever make it back alive. The Vuvalini’s scouts brought back ugly reports every day. She sighed, rubbed at her eyes, and gave K.T. a rueful glance.
“The world is shrinking. Used to be there was too much of it for one person to even wrap their head around. Soon we’ll all be fighting over scraps.”
“Mm.” K.T. reached across and slapped Dardassa on the back. “Fight we may have to, but we’ll fight to the last.” She grasped at the air, brought her fist gently to her chest. Dardassa repeated the gesture, her mind’s eye filling with the image of her mother. Strange to think of her now, after all these years, but that was the nature of remembrance. You had to forget a little, first. And it was fitting, perhaps, in the time of drought, to be reminded of your years of plenty.
“To the last,” she repeated.
“In the meantime…” K.T. hopped off of the bench and grinned at Mary. The girl was hurrying back down the incline to the caravan, some small package bundled in her arms, looking as excited and secretive as she had on the way up. K.T.’s smile stretched. “Let the young ones have their fun.”
Somewhere around year ten in the desert, they picked up a stray.
The woman never told them where she came from, or where she thought she was going when she came limping over the horizon, wearing more sand than clothes, leading a rusty old cycling machine. The Keeper was the first to spy her, stumbling along in the dust. It didn’t much matter where she wanted to go, anyway. Alone, dressed like that, no food and only water enough to last the rest of the day… the only place she had been headed was the grave.
A few of the girls wanted to leave her. A few more wanted to kill her. But the majority of the Vuvalini, depleted as their numbers were, remembered the words that had brought their mothers and grandmothers together all those years ago, to find shelter and solace in the middle of a war. Those were the women who’d fought, who’d sowed, who’d looked at a generation of girls labouring beneath war and death and threats from all quarters, and said, no more.
They stopped for her. Gave her water and food. Took her back to their camp. Her name was Melody.
Melody stuck to the Keeper for the most part. The Vuvalini didn’t try to separate themselves based on lines of birth, not when their numbers were so low, but there still remained a degree a clannishness that clung to the women and their attitudes. Even the Valkyrie, as impartial a leader as she was. Melody sensed this, and must have judged it best to make nice with the old woman. The Keeper saw no harm in it, once the woman pulled her weight.
“I’d heard of you girls, but I thought it was a load of bull,” she said one afternoon, digging a little gully in the dirt with her bare hands. This part of the desert was as barren as most others they’d found, but something about the earth here had promise. The Keeper was perched on her motorcycle next to her, cleaning out her rifle, watching Melody work.
“Did ya now?” she said, brow cocked.
“Sure did. I mean—” She broke off here for a sip of water and to swipe her arm across her brow. “—I mean, a bunch of strong warrior women, making it on their own in the wasteland, no men and no rules but their own?” She snorted. “Sounds like something a little kid would make up.”
The Keeper laughed, a rustling sound. Every day her voice sounded older to her own ears.
“I think a kid woulda cooked up something a little nicer than this for us.”
“A happier ending?” Melody suggested, pausing with her hands in her dirt. They were already callused and peeling from her days in the desert, and likely from her days before that too. She continued to show no desire to speak about where she’d come from, and the Keeper continued not to fuss about it. It was Melody’s hands she looked at when she replied, firmly.
“This ain’t our ending.”
To that, there was no real reply, just a little laugh, and a look. The Keeper was becoming well accustomed to that look. Let the old woman believe what she must. She barely remembered what it felt like, to be so young.
“What did you do?” Melody asked, not letting the silence sit too long. “Back in your Green Place, I mean. Were you a leader type? A fighter? I don’t suppose you were a domestic, not with that big rifle you carry around.”
The Keeper shook her head. She nudged the bag of seeds closer to the girl, watched as the rough brown hands picked out the kernels that she wanted. They were old relics, those seeds, tough as hell, but Melody handled them with unwarranted care.
“It didn’t work like that,” the Keeper said, watching her plant the seed. “There was no one woman for one task, no one person with all the responsibility. Them who do things like that… that’s how you kill the world. No, in the Green Place, the woman who covered your back in a fight one day might be the woman cooking your meal the next day, darning your ruined clothes the day after that, scouting into the wasteland further in the future. If you had the skill for it, then at some point, you could count on finding yourself doing it.”
“Seems like you girls had it all figured out.”
The Keeper hefted the rifle butt and rapped her gently on the back of her head for her sass, like she might have done with any of the mother’s daughters. Melody grinned.
“We knew a thing or two,” the Keeper said.
“Hm.” Melody surveyed the little lump in the dirt that she’d spent the last fifteen minutes on. Longest bloody time the Keeper had ever seen it take a body to plant a seed, but the girl was proud. First times of all kinds were always something special. “I don’t know if I’d have believed that a week ago, but I think I believe it now.”
The Keeper cackled and huffed all in one.
“And they say nothing grows in the desert.”
Melody’s laugh tinkled, like a sound from a world away.
She didn’t stay with them long, and a part of the Keeper had expected that from the first. They woke up one morning, two months later, ready to pull up camp and strike east. One of the night lookouts found the empty cot and gave the cry; the girl, her rickety two-wheeler, and a portion of water were all gone. Some of the women made the fist, grasping at the sandy air as the sun came burning upon their backs. A girl as young and untried as Melody, facing the wasteland on her own… it was as sure a death sentence as a bullet.
The Keeper refrained. She alone saw the seeds missing from her little bag; the vegetables, the fruit, one of the little saplings. Like everything else, it was a gamble, but she had learnt that even if it hurt to believe, the hope stood out from the pain.
Dardassa loved nothing like she loved the trees.
Alkira, maybe, but that was a gun of an entirely different make. Alkira she loved without ever having to say it, without grand gesture or open proclamation, without caveats and without reserve. She loved her as girls in the old world, licking icypoles on the lawn in summer; loved her as a woman as they clawed their way out of the post-apocalyptic dust; loved her as her hair started going greyer and greyer and the world turned around them.
The affection she felt for nature was different, bone-deep and visceral. Even when it was commonplace, the sight of a tree could make her chest feel tight, with the knowledge of how many years had went into the making of the bark, how far its roots must stretch, how much life had seeped in and out of it through the years. The trees in their new home had much the same effect on her. Most sentiment was lost on Dardassa, but she could spend hours in the orchards and the fields, chatting with the Keeper in her low, sweet voice, watching Mary Jo Bassa and her little Furiosa dance and play around the flowers, giving Firefly and the Valkyrie tips on how to use their slingshots. She had names for most of the trees, for the time she’d spent among them and the memories that coursed through them.
There was something sacred in every living thing. Her own mother had taught her that.
Early in the morning, she left Alkira sleeping in their cot, and headed out to sit under her favourite apple tree. The first phase workers were already in the gardens; the harvest was coming soon. This time last year it had been worryingly meagre, many of the root vegetables coming up stunted and bitter. There had been signs, however, that this year’s would be better.
She expected that Alkira would come looking for her, and she wasn’t disappointed. Dardassa heard her soft tread easily, after so many years training herself to look out for it. She sat next to Dardassa in the grass at the knotted roots, her skirts in a tangle around her legs. They didn’t speak, at first. Theirs’s was a language that lived through touch and breath as much as words. Dardasssa could feel Alkira smiling at her in periphery.
“I was thinking,” she said eventually, her voice rasping out like sand on rock, “of trying to expand the gardens. We still have a fair bit more arable land on the borders, and we should be able to fit a few more rows without choking the rest. I brought it up with the Keeper and K.T. and Wondrous Jill. Trader Arnand said he might have new strains for us. Cherries, Dassa.”
Dardassa considered it, pulling absently at a few weeds.
“Arnand… that old smeg? You really think he has what he says?”
“Think well, Dardassa. He’s a cheat, but he knows better than to cheat me. I’d have his nads off and on a plate before he could blink. Told him as much.” Alkira’s smile created new lines in the brown of her cheek, and Dardassa laughed so hard her teeth hurt a little.
“God, but I do love it when you throw ya weight around.”
“Do you? I would have never guessed,” Alkira said blithely. Dardassa grinned harder, and leaned across to kiss her shoulder.
“We can think about it,” she said, leaning back against the tree trunk. Alkira settled back with her, and they watched the expanse of the trees and bushes stretching out before them. In the far distance, the dun brown of the desert encroached, an everlasting reminder of what the rest of the world suffered. Dardassa stroked Alkira’s arm idly as she watched. More green. It would be pleasant to see. Even if it failed, they could never have too many seeds.
The first years were marked with death. Within a year, their number had halved; the souring of their land had been a slow, agonising thing, but the news had spread to those most eager to take advantage, and it had spread fast. When the Vuvalini were thrust out into the wasteland, they did so with a target on their backs.
K.T. was one of the first to go, laying down her life after a furious chase across stone and sand and mountain rock. One of the gangs had gotten it into their heads to get the famous warrior’s head for a trophy. She made them work for it. When K.T. went, she took five of their bikes and one of the big trucks with her; the implosion shook the ground like a prehistoric quake. Watching the fray from miles away, her wife said an anguished prayer and followed her to the earth minutes later, going down in a hail of raider bullets.
It was chaos for a while, after that. Hardened warriors wept like little girls; K.T. had been their de facto leader, a bulwark of strength, a living goddess to most of the Vuvalini. Jessie Kay likewise had been a fixture in the Vuvalini since they began. Lines shattered, fingers faltered on triggers, engines sputtered. They managed to scrape themselves away from the battle that day, but only just. Their enemies pursued them hotly, and women died by the dozens.
In the aftermath, the silence was severe. They set up their camp on a plateau carved into a mountainside, reaching for the deep dark blue of the sky. The Keeper couldn’t remember ever feeling so cold. Her voice was as steady as ever as she said the words of remembrance, standing on high in front of the remainder of their force. Inside, she felt ready to crack. The faces that stared up at her… she had never seen such fear, such uncertainty.
That night, while she and the other elders conferred, a group of thirty struck off on their own, disappearing into the desert. They were never seen again.
The second night, brought on by stress and activity and heat, Rock Amy went into labour. It was a hard birth; the screaming painted the stars and women clutched at each other’s hands in commiseration. At the end of the night, Amy passed on, and her daughter lived. Stone Drew. She was not the first child born to the desert, but she was the last born to the Vuvalini.
On the third night, the Valkyrie came into the tent where the Keeper and the other elders conferred. Her eyes were red rimmed but stark in their surety, and her midnight hair wrung down her back like oil. She was still young, but age had crept into her brow and her mouth and her fists.
The Keeper looked at her, raising a hand for silence. There was iron in the air, a heavy feeling, like something about to happen.
“I…” the Valkyrie started, and then stood straighter, lifted her chin, started again. “I have an idea. Will you hear me?”
The Keeper beckoned her in. This girl, headstrong and clever and brave… she might be what they needed.
“Take me to her,” Dardassa snapped, scraping her hair out of her eyes. She felt thin, stretched tight and hard, like sheep gut over the world’s longest violin. The girl before her nodded, stammered an apology and struck out on a path between the huts and trees. Dardassa followed her, and the scent of smoke and blood followed them both.
The raid hadn’t taken them by surprise. The lookouts had been sharp; they’d had ample warning, ample time. But damn it all, there had been too many.
They hadn’t been without news. They had heard, with increasing disgust and contempt, of the stronghold of Immortan Joe, how his strength grew daily, how his army increased in size and fanaticism. They had never thought that his arm would stretch so long.
Dardassa followed the girl, who was heading, seemingly, towards the central yard. She forced herself to think of all the reports that had come to her. Huts and stores had been ransacked; many of their weapons and food stores were gone. And that was precious little, as compared to the toll of flesh. Magic Mace, Ancilla, Numakulla and too many others: dead. Aerti the White, Mary Jo Bassa, little Furiosa and too many others: taken. Zinc, Wondrous Jill and Wondrous Jane, and too, too many others: grievously wounded.
The girl took her to one such a wounded now. Dardassa felt her steps stretch, lengthen, and turn into a dead run as they approached the courtyard, and she saw the silver-brown hair strewn across the dirt.
She should have been with her. It was the first thought to strike into her mind, and she knew it was folly to blame herself, but Dardassa saw no other way. In every battle, she was aware of Alkira, her soft gait behind her, her ruined voice in her ear. This time, the chaos and the blood had overwhelmed her, and she had never looked behind. This was her price.
She pushed closer, moving past her guide, and Regina the medic stepped in her way. Her face was torn and kind, already adopting a consoling air.
“Dardassa… I’m sorry. I could have dealt with the head wound on its own, but one of the bullets went too close to her lungs.” She held up a hand, probably to cup Dardassa on the shoulder, but she knocked it away. Regina pressed her lips together sadly. “I’m afraid all we can do is put her—”
“Regina.” Dardassa’s voice sounded hollow and foreign and very unlike herself. It might have been a ghost. “Please, move.”
Regina paused, then bowed her head and stepped out of the way.
Alkira lay on a pallet on the ground, her hair spilling outward. There was a bandage wrapped around her head, and one slapped to her red-soaked side. Even without lifting the bandage, Dardassa knew that it was a death wound. Alkira’s skin was drawn and wan, and her eyes were thrumming with visible pain. Every breath that she took seemed to rattle her very body with agony.
Dardassa dropped to her knees, grasped for her hand. Alkira held back, and made a tiny sound of pain in her dry, weak voice.
Dardassa turned back to the medic, eyes wet.
“Can’t you… can’t you do something about the pain at least?”
Regina’s sad eyes and bitten lip told the entire tale; their store of medicines was low, and the count of the injured was too high. Far too high to waste their herbs on those who wouldn’t live past the hour.
The world spun a little. Dardassa felt a scream tickling at her throat, stifled it with a mighty effort. Her rifle was slung across her back; she left it there and reached instead for the gun at her waist.
She turned back to Alkira to find her smiling. Of all things, smiling. Dardassa felt like she really might sob then, seeing her dearest friend’s eyes lit up with sympathy and a galaxy of pain.
Alkira squeezed her hand.
“It… it won’t be long now,” she groaned. Her voice was more wrecked than ever. They had always thought that the disease would kill her; they had never looked for something as bleeding plebeian as a bullet. “Can feel it. I’ll just drift off. I can handle it. You’re here with me. I can handle it.”
Save your bullet, was what she was trying to say in her meandering way. Save your bullet, and save yourself the pain. Dardassa laughed, without mirth. Always, Alkira thought of her first.
“Watch you suffer, or end your pain by killing you myself.” Her voice was dry. “Not much of a choice, is it?”
Alkira smiled again, though it clearly hurt to do so. Her usual clean white smile was a swatch of red.
“Come,” she said. “Lie with me.”
Dardassa could do nothing but obey. She stretched out on the pallet beside her friend, feeling as the eyes of the Vuvalini nearby turned away from them, giving them their privacy. Dardassa reached for her waist, but instead of her gun, she came away with a piece of cloth. She used it to wipe away the blood, dirt and sweat from Alkira’s face. Alkira laboured through it, breath coming slow and hard. There was a lump in Dardassa’s throat that she could not swallow. She looked into Alkira’s eyes. They were brown; not the brown of the desert or the mountains, but brown like life-giving earth.
“You are beautiful,” she said then. She didn’t say it often enough.
Alkira stared deeply into her eyes, and squeezed her hand. She never again in life let it go.
The Keeper found that it was easy to wear her new mantle. Or perhaps easy was not the word. Things had happened so quickly, she had had no choice but to adjust. You adapted, or you died.
Part of her rebelled, at leaving. At being forced to leave. They had been nomads before, in the earliest days, and when they found the Green Place, they’d sworn to create a safe space for their daughters and granddaughters and every generation of mothers to come. That dream had drowned, so close to the shore that it ached. Now, there was nothing to do but push forward.
The caravans were loaded up. The food was parcelled and stored. The Many Mothers navigated the souring earth of their home carefully, taking every essential, leaving much behind. K.T. and Jessie Kay were a coordinating force, ensuring that everything had its place, that everyone had a task, that no duty went shirked.
The Keeper looked after her seeds and looked after her gun.
The old rifle had never faltered, never rusted, never jammed on her once in her life, and she meant for that to hold. She sat alone in her hut as she took it apart, cleaned it, switched out the barrel, put it back together, loaded it again. All that was done almost without thought, her fingers moving through the motions like the lyrics of a childhood song, lingering all through life at the back of the mind.
As a child, she would have never looked into her future and seen anything resembling this; a hardened old woman, initiate mother to many, the blood of more men than she could count on her hands. Would have never imagined that she’d know how to kill, how to cause pain, how to fight and do all these ugly things… and be a Keeper of great things as well. She looked at the bag of seeds next to her. Someday, somewhere, they would grow. It was a promise.
K.T. came looking for her eventually, the Valkyrie trailing in her wake.
“Are you ready?” she asked, leaning in the doorway.
The Keeper stood, and gathered the tools of her trade close.
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
The Keeper was dying. The cry of mourning spread across the land of the Many Mothers.
So many things were following the way of death. Had been, for the past few years. Dardassa could feel it. Nothing had been the same, since that raid. The size of their harvests had been decreasing for years, and in the past few, they had seen a marked dip. The earth rejected their offerings. The wells were running low. The trees, her beloved trees, were dying by the score, yielding premature seeds and bitter fruit. Dardassa’s mind admitted it before her heart accepted it: they would need to move on. Preparations were already underway.
Dardassa moved with purpose. She saw the singers and the mourners as she strode across the yard to the elders’ hut. There was a small crowd gathered outside; they made way for her easily.
Inside, Wondrous Jill was pacing with speed that belied her age. Her remaining eye locked in on Dardassa as soon as she breached the doorway. Her expression was apologetic, but firm.
“Dardassa, you came.” She beckoned her forward, and started leading her into the inner room. “I’m sorry, there’s no time for delay, not with everything we need to do. We can have the ceremony later, if time permits. You were ear-marked. You knew this, did you not?”
Dardassa nodded. She could not say that it was a surprise, that it had come to this. Wondrous Jill nodded back sharply, seemingly pleased with the mild response. She gestured forward through the doorway, to the cot where the aging, dying body lay, surrounded by healers and other elders. Dardassa’s shoulders sank, even as she prepared herself. Seeing her, the woman on the cot raised a feeble hand in acknowledgement. The Keeper of the Seeds. Her old friend.
The Keeper rose. The satchel lay near the cot; she scooped it up, and took it with her when she left the room.
There was no fanfare, no celebration, barely any acknowledgement. She left very much the way she had come, with Jill at her side, and quiet purpose clenching her heart.
Outside, the singers had begun, and across the yard, across the entire compound, hundreds of fists were raised. Some made the sign to the Keeper; she bowed her head in greeting.
Just outside the hut, a woman was crying. Big, wracking sobs that shook her slight body. Those were tears of grief, the kind that went to the marrow. The voices raised all around her only seemed to make her sob harder.
The Keeper knelt next to her.
The woman hiccoughed at her. The Keeper took it as acknowledgement.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
The woman raised her head, showed red eyes and a face stained all over with her tears. When she saw to whom she spoke, a fresh crop of tears welled in her eyes, but she gave answer all the same.
“I am sad,” she said simply.
“Tell me your name, sad girl,” said the Keeper.
For a moment, she though that she would get no reply this time. But it came, if falteringly, and peppered with sniffs and sobs.
“I am Gentle Alice. Daughter of Chettie the Grey. My Clan is Clin D’oeil. My initiate mother… my initiate mother was the Artful Wynne.”
The Keeper closed her eyes against the brief flash of pain. She had not heard the old Keeper’s given name in many, many years. She supposed it would be many a year before she heard her own again. Alice was off crying again, covering her face with her hands. The Keeper looked at her steadily, with more kindness than she’d known she had left in her. This woman was still young, and did not have the look of the warrior. This was probably her first and greatest loss.
The Keeper covered the pale hand with her own. She remembered a pain that had a similar sting, when the first of her initiates had passed. Her heart softened further. Alice’s eyes were a brown that made her think of Alkira, and she could not think of Alkira without a little stab of hurt, and strength also.
“Here, girl. I know why you are sad. But never forget; you are one of the Vuvalini, the Many Mothers. Like the Keeper before her, and all the women we have lost, Artful Wynne will be remembered.”
Small comfort, perhaps, and it would not take root in the girl’s mind for some time, but for now, it quietened her tears. It happened in unison; they both clenched their fists quietly, and brought them to their chests.
“And now?” Alice asked the question looking outward, at the clusters of gathered women, at the broken homes, the ruined trees and dying gardens. The Keeper looked with her, and acknowledged once again that these would be their last days in this place. The world around them was taking a deep breath; something was about to happen. The desert out there was hard and unknown, but they would find a way.
She patted the girl’s hand, before rising to her feet.
“And now we move forward. Give it a damned good try.” The Keeper smiled gently. “No such thing as a wasted shot.”