Set in the world of Caragh O'Brien's Birthmarked Trilogy, specifically set between the second book in the Birthmarked trilogy (Prized) and the final book (Promised), “Ruled” offers a rare glimpse into the mind and heart of Leon Grey.
The bracelet sits in his pocket, patiently waiting to be slipped around Gaia's wrist. Leon needs to see her again. He finds out that Gaia is delivering a baby in the village, and he makes the trip to visit the sixteen-year-old midwife, only to find that the birth is not going too well. The bracelet—and what it means to the both of them—will have to wait.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Roaring Brook Press editor Nancy Mercado.
Leon hauled himself up the ledge of Gaia’s window, peered in, and tried to make out her bed in the shadows.
“She’s not here,” said a voice behind him.
Leon dropped to the ground and reached instinctively for his knife.
“It’s just me,” Peter said.
Leon located the quiet figure in the darkness and slid his knife back in his belt. Behind Peter, the forest was impenetrably dark, but the moonlight washed the yard beside the lodge with a cool, gray hue, and glinted on the water tower above.
“What are you doing here?” Leon said.
“Preventing a break-in, looks like,” Peter said.
“Very nice,” Leon said, brushing grit from his palms. “Where is she?”
“Out and about. You must want to see her bad to come in all this way unannounced.”
“Where?” Leon repeated.
Peter jerked his thumb to his left. “Out on Bachsdatter’s Island. Adele’s having her baby.”
Leon instinctively turned toward the marsh, as if he could penetrate the darkness all the way through the village and out across the water to where Gaia was now. He tried, unsuccessfully, to curb his disappointment, and started around the lodge.
“I thought Adele planned to come into the village for the end of her pregnancy,” Leon said.
“Turns out she didn’t,” Peter said, following him. “Bachsdatter came in for Mlass Gaia this afternoon, and she took Mlady Maudie out with her, too.”
“So she could be out there a while.”
“I hear that’s how childbirths go,” Peter said.
“Did she bring Maya with her?” Leon asked.
“Maya’s with Mlass Josephine.”
Leon glanced up at the lodge windows, not exactly sure which one belonged to Josephine, but they were all dark and peaceful.
“Do you want to leave a message for Mlass Gaia?” Peter asked. “You’re not having trouble with the crims, are you?”
“No. They’re fine back on the trail,” Leon said. He could smell mint as he passed the garden fence, and it made him oddly thirsty. “I left Malachai in charge. We have another week’s worth of work to do before we come in again for more supplies.”
“How’s that third station shaping up?”
“It’ll be ready by September,” Leon said. “There’s time yet.”
“Are you sure it was safe to leave the crims?” Peter asked.
“What are they going to do? Run away?” Leon asked.
“Circle back and attack us.”
“On foot? With you on patrol? Not likely.”
They came around the last corner of the lodge and the commons opened up before them.
“Do you want to leave a message for Gaia or not?” Peter asked.
“No. I have something I need to deliver myself.”
Leon touched his shirt pocket where he kept a red, woven bracelet he’d made, just to check that it was still there, ready like always. For days, he’d been obsessing about Gaia. He’d been missing the way she laughed late at night when she was too revved up to sleep. Usually, he could shake the craving to see her, but this time, maybe because the moon was practically full and bright enough to show the way, he’d finally given in. He knew every meter of the trail by now, even by night, so he’d come into Sylum to find her, to be with her for a couple hours.
Or just an hour, if that was all she had for him. He’d take whatever he could get. He grinned in the darkness. He shouldn’t rub it in. He knew he shouldn’t. Gaia for sure wouldn’t want him to.
“Don’t worry. It’s nothing special,” Leon lied.
Peter sent him a quick, hard look. His pace picked up. “You’d better be good to her.”
“Or what?” Leon asked, amused. “You’ll beat my brains in?”
“Close enough.” Peter swung up onto his horse.
Leon was good to her. As good as he knew how. “Does she ever complain?”
“She barely talks to me,” Peter said tightly. “How could she complain?”
That was exactly what Leon wanted to hear. He untied his horse.
“Where are you headed?” Peter asked.
“Down to the beach.”
“To get a canoe.” His horse sidestepped delicately in the dark grass and Leon settled him with a hand on his neck.
“You can’t go out now,” Peter said. “I’ve seen you in a canoe. You stink at sterning. And it’s dark.”
“So? It’ll be light soon.”
“Will you wait until then?”
Leon looked at him curiously. Peter couldn’t possibly be concerned for his welfare. “What is this?”
“I’m on patrol. This is my job, remember? Village security.”
“Some job,” Leon said. “You didn’t see me until I was practically in Gaia’s window.”
Peter shook his head. “I followed you since you first rode into the village.”
“You knew I was here for Gaia,” Leon said, annoyed. “You could have told me where she was.”
“I could have,” Peter agreed.
Leon hauled himself into the saddle.
“You’re still not engaged, are you?” Peter asked.
“Eats at you, doesn’t it?”
“Not at all.” Leon’s mount shifted heavily under him, and he kicked him into motion.
It ate at him, all right. It was a perpetual, burning, gnawing irritation. The few times he’d brought up marriage again, even vaguely, Gaia had withdrawn, and that was the last thing he wanted. It set them back by weeks, every time. Conversely, when he didn’t mention it, she gradually let down some inner guard, and there was nothing as sweet as Gaia when she let herself love him.
Leon was vaguely aware that Peter had pulled up to ride alongside him.
“What are you doing?” Leon asked.
“Cut it out.”
“Why? Am I bothering you?”
It was so juvenile, Leon didn’t bother to answer. Peter pulled his horse slightly ahead as if he were in charge. Or more masterful.
What a tool, Leon thought.
They rode down the familiar main road, passing the quiet houses of the village, the closed shops and tavern. The more he thought about it, the more Leon hated being on a string. He wondered why it wasn’t the other way around. Why was he always the one who was begging? He didn’t actually beg. He never would. But it felt like that. Even now, he was the one riding in the middle of the night for hours, trying to get in her window, then taking up a paddle to cross a dark marsh, while she was delivering a baby, not thinking about him at all.
Of course she wasn’t thinking about him. Only an egotistical jerk would expect her to think about him while she was tending a childbirth.
This timing was not going to work. He knew that, so why couldn’t he give up?
They passed the willow and wound down toward the shore. Moonlight on the marsh made the water glow in silvery patches between the black hillocks of grasses. He was going to miss the marsh. Not much else about Sylum, but the marsh he’d miss.
Along the shore, a dozen small houses stood back from the water, with the beach sloping before them. Several piles of wood were accumulating for the next bonfire night, after the Thirty-Two games. Only two more now, before they left. Everything was in countdown mode. He rode over the sandy shore to the canoe rack and dismounted.
“Here,” he said to Peter, holding out the reins. “Take care of my horse. I’ll pick him up tomorrow from your barn.”
“I’m not taking your horse,” Peter said, swinging down from his own. He looped his reins over the rail, near a water trough.
Leon waved instinctively at a cloud of gathering mosquitoes. “I didn’t ask you to go out there with me.”
“You’re right. You didn’t. Take the end,” Peter said, gesturing to a canoe on the rack.
“You’re not coming,” Leon said.
“Do you want to get there faster, or do you want the romance of a solo paddle?” Peter asked.
Leon took a brief look at the sky, which showed a faint edge of gray, and then he tied up his horse beside Peter’s, took one end of the canoe, and carried it down to the water.
“You’re in the bow,” Peter said, tossing him a paddle.
Leon recognized the satisfied taunt in Peter’s tone. He’d learned enough to know a canoe moved more efficiently with a more experienced canoer in the stern. Peter would handle the subtleties of steering and leave Leon to supply the brute muscle in the bow. It was not a compliment.
“You paddle like a beauty queen. Lengthen your stroke,” Peter said.
Leon bit his blade into the black water.
“More,” Peter said.
“Why are you even coming?”
“You think I know? Paddle.”
Leon reached again, farther, until he felt the difference in the canoe. Smoother. As long as they moved, the mosquitoes didn’t settle along his neck and face, or at least not much. He peered ahead. A mist hovered over the dark water and clung to his arm hairs. Peter steered them effortlessly through the winding waterway, much faster than Leon could have done alone, calling occasionally to switch sides. Despite himself, Leon had to respect Peter’s skill.
They came around a bend to a longer, open stretch, where chirps and croaks droned over the water.
“How’s your family?” Leon asked, back over his shoulder.
“What do you mean? They’re good.”
“Has your father decided if he’s coming with us or not?”
“He’s not. My uncles aren’t, either.”
“Why not?” Leon asked.
“My dad says this is his home. He says he’s known for a long time he might never have grandchildren. This is where his roots are. He wants to grow old here.”
“Even if his sons move away?”
“Maybe he’ll come later,” Peter said. “That’s what I’m hoping.”
It drove Leon crazy, these people who refused to come on the exodus. Home was more about people than a place. Didn’t they see what it would be like in Sylum once everyone else was gone? They’d be living in a ghost town. But the old matrarc’s husband, Dominic, had gathered two hundred of the most traditional, bull-headed villagers around him, and they could not be persuaded.
Leon felt bad for Gaia, who kept trying to convince them and kept getting snarled in negotiations about what to take and what to leave behind. She wanted everyone, every single person on the exodus.
“Mlass Gaia thinks they’ll let us have water when we reach the Enclave. Do you?” Peter asked.
Leon thought ahead. Outside the walls of the Enclave, they’d find the opposite of what they were experiencing now, surrounded by gurgling water and the rich, loamy scent of the muskeg.
“I think we’ll have to fight for it,” Leon said.
“What with?” Peter asked.
“Our heads,” Leon said.
“Switch,” Peter said, and Leon lifted his paddle over to stroke on the other side.
When they reached Bachsdatter’s Island, Leon climbed out of the canoe, and with Peter, wordlessly turned it over on the rocky beach. A pearly, evanescent light muted all colors into gray, and the cliff rose before him, cold and inhospitable. Maybe this was a mistake. He hadn’t been to the island since the previous fall, when they’d gone to fetch baby Maya from the Bachsdatters.
What a mess he’d been back then, furious with Gaia, hating everything about Sylum. He’d wanted to hurt her and see her as miserably tortured as he’d been. He’d wanted to get to her through Maya since he couldn’t reach her himself, since she didn’t care enough about him directly for his opinions to matter to her. Punishing her for not loving him enough had been his single goal.
Real smart. But then, he wasn’t smart where Gaia was concerned. Was it that different now, really? He would never hurt her now, but still she didn’t care enough for him. He didn’t know if she ever would. He couldn’t understand this sick thing inside him that made him love her so intensely even when she kept holding back the last sliver of herself.
“Is there a problem?” Peter asked.
Leon took to the path, leaving Peter to follow. At the top of the cliff, the homestead huddled, waiting. A few sheep scavenged between scrub and windswept trees, while the clotheslines cut a black web across the fresh orange glow of the sky.
Near the far edge of the cliff, the stone cottage clung to the ancient rock, and a row of square windows was yellow with lamplight. A woman’s sharp cry cut through the early morning, and Leon slowed.
Childbirth. He couldn’t think of a single place where he’d be less welcome. The clannish thing that happened to women around babies and blood, the way they all became so wise and exclusionary, was not for him.
He glanced back at Peter, who’d stopped by the garden gate.
“No way am I crashing that party,” Peter said.
Leon laughed. “Afraid?”
“Mlady Adele hates me almost as much as she hates you.” Peter turned back. “I’ll check out the barn. Get me when you’re ready to go.”
Leon swiped a mosquito from his cheek and took the front steps slowly, listening. Only the soft wind hummed in the grass, and a couple of distant frogs bellowed from down in the marsh. He was about to knock when he had a better idea: spy.
He backtracked off the porch and walked quietly around the yard, peering in each window. To the left, toward the cliff, the windows revealed the living room where he had once confronted Gaia. The space was tidy, with a couch and chairs, books and dried flowers. A loom was taut with rows of white strings. An oil lamp illuminated a pile of neatly folded cloth diapers on a table, and at the sight, he remembered the early days of taking care of baby Maya, back when she was so tiny and frail, back when holding her was the closest he could get to Gaia.
He touched the pocket of his shirt again, over his heart. You don’t propose for the last time until you’re certain of the answer. Someday, certainly, she would say yes. He had to believe that. He just had to know when the time was right.
He turned and began around the stone house to the right, to where another window revealed a small bedroom, paneled in golden wood. The bed was angled in a way that he could see the bare feet of Mlady Adele, who lay on her side. Her husband Bachsdatter Luke was beside her, holding her hand, smiling tightly. Gaia was rubbing her back in deep, slow strokes, talking to her gently. When a soft moan came clearly through the opening of the window, Leon instinctively drew back, but he soon realized he was in no danger of being seen through the screen. Gaia was focused with undivided concentration on the mother before her.
Leon had never seen Gaia at work as a midwife, and he was hungry for every detail of her. Her face glowed with a serious, attentive expression. Her hands were gentle and sure. Her brown hair was tied back, but a strand of it curved loose along the line of her left cheek, like a smooth ribbon beside her scar. Gaia was alive in a way he’d never seen before.
She smiled now, and reached for her locket watch to check the time. “You’re doing very well,” she said, her voice just audible to him. “Now breathe again with me. Ready?” She took a few sample breaths herself, guiding Mlady Adele along.
“How’s my baby?” Mlady Adele asked.
“Your baby’s fine,” Gaia said. “Your baby’s in just the right position. Trust your body. You’re doing a beautiful job.”
“I should have come into the village, but I was having such cramps, and then the bleeding started. I was afraid to move.”
“I know. You did the right thing staying here,” Gaia said. “I would have told you the same thing.”
“See? You’re going to be all right, Adele,” her husband said.
“But is it too early? Is this too early?” Mlady Adele asked.
“It’s fine,” Gaia said, in a smooth, reassuring voice. “Truly. You’ve got a little fighter in there with a good, strong heartbeat, and he or she is going to be fine.”
Leon could see Mlady Adele relaxing, too, and then a sharp banging noise came from out of Leon’s line of vision. Mlady Adele jumped and gave a new cry of pain.
“Sorry,” said another woman’s voice.
“I’m going to die!” Mlady Adele said. “I just know it. My cousin died with her second child. I told you. Remember? Her labor was just like this.”
Gaia began soothing the mother all over again, her expression as reassuring and loving as before, but now Leon saw a subtle shift. Gaia was battling tension of her own. He was aware of it only because he knew her well, but it was there. Behind her, a tidy, blond woman moved forward carrying a metal bowl, and Leon caught sight of Mlady Maudie. She ran the lodge in the village with short-tempered efficiency, but here she looked out of place.
Gaia straightened. Her gaze was considering, thoughtful. She rested her hand lightly on the mother’s shoulder. “Give me one minute, Adele,” she said softly.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m stepping out for one minute, no more,” Gaia said. “You have Luke with you, and you can see me right through the door.” She pointed toward another door at the back of the room. “Okay?”
Adele mumbled something.
Leon plunged along outside the building. When he came to the corner and the screen door opened, Gaia wasn’t alone. She was drawing Mlady Maudie out to the back stoop. Leon stopped, bracing a hand on the stone wall.
Gaia took a look over her shoulder into the house again, then turned to Mlady Maudie. “I need you to focus,” she said. “You’re upsetting her.”
“I’m not suited to this. I don’t have the temperament,” Mlady Maudie said. “I told you I didn’t.”
“I don’t care if you’re not naturally good at it,” Gaia said sharply. “When I’m gone, there’ll be nobody else. You need to practice.”
“I can’t!” Mlady Maudie said. “I do everything wrong. I don’t have the patience. You said yourself I’m upsetting her.”
“Because you’re not trying enough,” Gaia argued.
“I am trying. But the closer I get to her, the worse she gets. Just let me leave.”
Gaia was still for a moment, her expression fierce, calculating.
“If you leave, it will be better,” Gaia said. “But only for Adele. For every mother who comes after, once I’m gone, it will be worse because you’ll have that much less experience.” Gaia’s startled gaze flicked toward Leon, and she turned to face him. “Who’s there?” she demanded.
Leon jumped, then stepped forward. He’d hoped Gaia would be happy to see him, but he was wrong. She barely seemed to register who he was. Unsmiling, she slowly lifted a hand to her necklace. Moans came from the doorway behind them. Gaia faced Mlady Maudie again.
“You will stay,” Gaia said. “You will be quiet, and listen, and watch. Leon, take off your boots and come in.”
Terror rooted Leon to the ground. She couldn’t be serious. Already she was back inside, and as the screen door closed, he stared at it in disbelief.
Mlady Maudie laughed briefly. “She’s terrifying, isn’t she?”
“Are you staying?” Leon said.
“After that? What choice do I have?”
“What does she expect me to do?” he asked.
“How do I know?”
He could hear Gaia’s soothing voice again, and a gasping noise from the mother on the bed. He shucked off his boots, propped his hat on a peg, pulled open the screen door, and cautiously entered the bedroom.
Soft light glowed from the globe of an oil lamp on the table, and a second lamp had been placed near the foot of the bed on a chair. On a narrow shelf, a wooden candelabra with three lit flames silently dripped wax, as if night had been prolonged in this room and dawn were still hours away.
Adele’s frizzy, superfine hair was drawn back in a ponytail, and spidery bruises ringed her eyes, giving her an unearthly, fragile appearance. With one hand, she gripped the edge of the bed, and with the other, she held tightly to Gaia as she breathed a series of forced, measured breaths. Her forehead crumpled. She closed her eyes, strained with pressure for a moment, and then collapsed backward again.
“Good,” Gaia said. “That was so good. Not much longer now.”
Stunned, Leon stared at the hugeness of Adele’s belly. Her gown was hitched up, leaving her heavy, pale legs bare. Normally he would have instinctively looked away, but now, instead, some uneasy form of compassion drew him quietly nearer.
“What can I do?” he asked, his voice low.
Gaia glanced up, her eyes a quick flash of relief. “Wash your hands,” she said, and nodded to a basin on the dresser. “Over there. You can help support her.”
Leon met the startled gaze of Adele’s husband, but before Bachsdatter could say anything, Leon rolled back his sleeves and began to wash. Gaia kept up her steady, reassuring talk, repeatedly telling Adele how well she was doing. Mlady Maudie silently passed Leon a towel, and when he turned, Bachsdatter, a compact, weathered man with a gray beard and sunken eyes, was focused again on his wife.
Leon took that as acceptance enough.
“I feel another one coming,” Adele said, her voice rising in urgency. She reached for Gaia.
“Support her back,” Gaia said to Leon. “Here, on the other side.”
He shifted around, opposite to Bachsdatter, and following the other man, he set his hands firmly behind the mother’s back. Adele’s gown was clammy with sweat, and for an instant he thought she would recoil at his touch, but Adele was concentrating inwardly, and he wasn’t certain she even realized he was there. He braced his hand to hold her, and when the next contraction was over, he looked to Gaia, wondering if he should let Adele back down.
“So good,” she said to Adele. “Your baby’s close now. You’re doing so beautifully.”
“It hurts,” Adele said, her eyes closed. “It hurts my back.”
“Do you want to try squatting? It might help,” Gaia said. “We can help you up.”
Adele nodded, and with a look to coordinate with Bachsdatter, Leon gripped beneath Adele’s left shoulder and helped her into a squatting position.
“Do you want to move to the floor? It’s firmer,” Gaia said.
“No. I’m good here,” Adele said. “Like this. Just like this.”
Gaia rearranged a clean cloth beneath her. Leon kept expecting something fast, a primal bursting or some sort of fanfare or agony, but Adele only strained and then drooped in a cycle that seemed to go on forever at its own unhurried pace.
“That was a good one,” Gaia said, after another round. “Do you feel like pushing? I can see your baby now, Adele. The head’s right there. Your baby’s coming.”
Leon shifted his grip for a more comfortable hold, gentle and firm, and steadied Adele’s back. He could hardly believe he was doing this. He glanced over at Bachsdatter, who was holding Adele’s hand and supporting her from the other side. Bachsdatter made a soft joke. Though he looked worn with care, a protective gentleness about him did something strange to Leon inside. He looked at Gaia again, wondering at her connection with these people, and at the powerful connection between Adele and her husband.
And then he felt it silently including him, too.
A faint breeze stirred through the room.
Gaia’s voice was still going, a stream of encouragement. “That’s right, Adele. Your baby’s coming. That’s the head now! You’ve done so well. Just a little more. Almost there.” She was reaching down below Adele, who was sagging again.
The breath of the room seemed to hover, waiting, ready. Then Adele strained again, and ground out a pained moan.
“That’s it!” Gaia said. “Oh, Adele, he’s here. He’s beautiful!”
The woman in Leon’s arms leaned slowly backward, her mouth wide and body limp. “Let me see him,” she said, but already Gaia was passing the baby up over Adele’s belly, trailing the umbilical cord. It was the knobbiest, skinniest baby Leon had ever seen, all slippery knees and elbows, and a dark color he’d never known existed. Gaia wrapped a clean cloth around the little body and rubbed him with surprising vigor, right on top of Adele. Then, as Adele held the infant, Gaia used a bit of reed to suck out his mouth and nose, and an instant later the baby gave out a cry.
Leon laughed, and everyone else was smiling, too. Bachsdatter was openly crying. Mlady Maudie kept congratulating everyone loudly. Gaia was talking in a joyful, delighted stream. She was moving, too, cleaning up between Adele’s legs. Leon couldn’t keep his eyes off the little person who had shown up. He was pinkening now, and he was so small. Leon knew, of course, that he’d existed inside Adele, but now he was born. He was his own complete little guy, a person who’d never existed outside before.
“Thank you, Gaia,” Adele said. “Oh, thank you. He’s perfect.”
“He is. He’s incredible. You’re incredible. But we’re not done yet,” Gaia said. “There’s the afterbirth. Catch your breath for a minute while you can. That’s coming, too. Okay? Let me do the cord.”
Smiling, Adele lifted her head to take in the room, and Leon felt her gaze settle on him.
“Who’s this?” Adele asked in surprise.
Leon drew back. He watched Adele’s mottled face. She was still happy, but confused, and suddenly her confusion changed to shock.
“You!” Adele said. “What are you doing here?” She clutched desperately at her newborn. “You stole our baby girl!” she cried. “Get out!”
“It’s just Leon,” Gaia said. “I told you about him. He came to help me. To help you.”
“Get out!” Adele shrieked again. She started to shiver visibly and reached for her husband. “Luke! He’s here! He can’t steal our baby!”
Leon backed toward the door. He looked down at his hands, wondering when they’d picked up traces of blood. His shirt had streaks of it, too. Adele’s eyes flashed with pain, and in panic, she turned toward Gaia again.
“Help me! Gaia!” she said.
“You’re all right,” Gaia said soothingly. “Here. You’re fine. I’ve got you. He’s going. He was just here to help, but he’s going.”
Adele hunched into another contraction, and Bachsdatter slid the baby from her arms. Without another look at Leon, Gaia began to work over Adele again. Still in shock, Leon glanced up at Mlady Maudie. Her face was bloodless, her lips tight.
“You should go,” she said quietly.
With one more step, he was outside and the screen door closed behind him.
How quickly it had changed. How fast. He’d been part of them. He’d been with them for the miracle of a birth. It was the most extraordinary thing he’d ever seen, and he’d been part of it.
Now he wasn’t.
He was the enemy. He stared down at his hands. It was full light now. Sunlight was slanting across the top of the island, and a light breeze was stirring the leaves of the apple trees. He tried to breathe, and found his chest was tight with pain.
“You all right?” Peter asked.
Leon turned to find him in a sturdy chair, tipped back against the wall of the stone barn, near a big, open doorway.
Leon looked down at himself again. He stood in his gray socks. His boots were waiting for him on the stoop, his hat on the peg. His brain still wasn’t processing properly.
Peter brought down the front legs of his chair with a thud in the dirt. “There’s a pump over here,” he said. “Here. Let me.”
Peter strode to an old pump with chipped black paint and began working it. Squeaks and sharp bangs came from the metal, and then the chugging gush of the first water. Leon pushed into his boots before going near. He automatically put his hands in the cold stream, rubbing them clean, and the water seemed to wake him from a trance. A cold, quiet steadiness took its place.
“I’ve got it,” Leon said, his voice low. Taking the handle, he got a big rush going, and then stuck his head under the pump, gasping at the cold of the fresh water. He took a long drink, relishing the sweetness down his dry throat. Then he stripped off his shirt and jacked the handle again. He was about to put the fabric under the pump when he remembered the bracelet in the pocket. Slowly, he plucked it out and slipped it into his trousers pocket. Then he washed his shirt, wringing it out twice before he snapped it in the air.
He glanced back at the house.
“I’m guessing it was a boy,” Peter said.
Leon looked at Peter again. He’d waited by the barn. He hadn’t just supported a woman through the final hour of her labor or seen a baby being born. He hadn’t been taken in and spit back out.
Leon nodded, but he wasn’t okay. “I just—” He stopped. The last thing he needed right now was a witness.
He plucked at his wet shirt, then looked at the laundry line. He strode over, dug a couple clothespins out of the little basket, and hung up his shirt in the dry wind. Then he sat in Peter’s chair and tipped it back against the barn again, closing his eyes as his face angled upward into the sunshine.
They didn’t want him. Of course Mlady Adele and Bachsdatter didn’t want him. But Gaia did. She hadn’t deliberately jerked him around. He ought to get back to the crims. He’d been insane to think he could propose again. He had work to do. But he was tired, too. So tired.
It couldn’t have been too much later that he heard her voice.
“Leon,” she said, and he felt a soft touch on his knee.
He opened his eyes to the brightness.
“You were a great help,” she said.
“It was nothing,” he said.
“Luke wants to thank you.”
Mlady Adele, obviously, did not.
Leon shook his head. “No, that’s all right.”
“I want to thank you,” Gaia said.
He smiled slightly. “You’re welcome.”
He leveled the chair again, and looked around for Peter. He was across the way, talking to Mlady Maudie and Bachsdatter Luke, who was holding his new son.
“You’re getting sunburned,” Gaia said, and he saw she was holding his shirt and hat.
He pressed a couple fingers to his chest and then lifted them away to see the ghost marks fade to a ruddy hue. It figured.
“Why did you come?” Gaia asked, passing over his shirt.
“I wanted to see you,” he said.
“That’s all? No problem with the crims or anything?”
It seemed like so long ago that he’d left the crims to come into the village to find her. He fingered his shirt, which was all but dry. “No. Just you.”
“You’re awfully untalkative for a guy who came all this way to see me,” she said. He glanced up again, seeing the concern in her eyes when she smiled at him. His loneliness began to thaw.
“You were amazing in there, you know,” he said.
She shook her head, turning his hat in her hands. “I hope I didn’t boss you around too much. I can get a little single-minded.”
“Hardly at all. ‘Take yer boots off and git yerself in here,’” he drawled.
Gaia laughed. “No!”
“Yes,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I really was so glad when you showed up. I was ready to strangle Mlady Maudie. You were just perfect. So supportive and gentle.”
“Okay, that’s enough.”
“But really, Leon. I’m so glad you were there. I always wished I could have you with me at a childbirth.”
He squinted up at her. She seemed to mean it. He wondered if she even realized he’d been kicked out. She nodded toward the shirt in his hands.
“Please put your shirt on,” she said.
He pulled it over his head, checking the buttons. “Better?”
She looked exhausted, and happy, and too bighearted to believe. So why did he still feel anguished? He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her onto his lap.
“Hey!” She laughed, hugging an arm around him.
He snuggled his nose in her hair and kissed her neck. Mine, he thought.
“They’ll see,” she muttered.
They’d better. “Let them. It’s legal.”
She laughed again and quickly kissed him. Finally.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Something’s wrong. With you. It was Adele, wasn’t it?”
Leon could feel Gaia’s fingertips rest lightly at the base of his throat, cool and soothing. He let his gaze settle on the pump. “She couldn’t help it,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Gaia said softly. “She really couldn’t, but I’m so sorry. You were part of it. You felt that, didn’t you?”
He did. He’d felt it. He wanted more of it, without the sting afterward.
“Babies,” she said with a sigh. And then, “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Leon.”
And there it was. That unlocking inside him. That thing only she could do to him. That was why he had come. Why he would always come.
Marry me, he thought.
She settled nearer, adjusting her arm around his neck. He very slowly, carefully tipped the chair back again. At first, he felt her startled grip, but then she let out a low, trusting laugh, and rested her head next to his. Her necklace bumped against his neck.
“Are we napping?” she asked.
“For a little,” he said.
He wasn’t napping. He concentrated every cell of his body on memorizing the weight of her against him, and the smell of her hair in the sun. His arms measured the slender curve of her torso. His fingers separated out a single strand of her hair. Her breathing slowed, easing, while his watchful heart chugged on, stupid and hungry, and the red bracelet stayed in his pocket.
“Ruled” copyright © 2012 by Caragh M. O’Brien
Art copyright © 2012 by Julie Dillon