Voco, vocas, vocat… Gods, no more conjugations. Saoirse’s hands were near blue from scouring the aluminium skillet in the stream and her head was spinning with conjugations. Latin drills had taken exactly as long as the washing-up, which was roughly eternity. The two eggs they’d got away with from that manky little farm had fed them all, but egg stuck like a burr when you’d got no oil to cook it in. There hadn’t been oil in months.
Before their little school in the bricked up garden had been raided, before her womanhood came on her, there had at least been others her age sometimes, at least till the Catcher picked them off. Now it was just her and her parents and the constant smell of earth and endless, endless Latin drills.
It seemed pointless. It wasn’t like she’d ever not be nomadic if things went right, so why did she need it? She already spoke Albinese and Eirean, and could get by in the old tongue of the tales and rites. Why in the name of Eriu did anyone even need Latin? “Gods below, Mum, I know my Latin. Can we please do something else?” Saoirse said, trying and failing to keep the irritation from her tone. She shoved the plates into their go bag and flopped down on the log passing for a chair tonight, holding her hands under her clothes to warm them. Mum shot her a warning look and Saoirse quickly composed her expression. A woman grown never let her face speak for her. It was dangerous and childish.
The air at least felt less close and confining out here. Winter’s end had brought on the urge to see the sky and they had left the dugout, occasionally risking the woods again at night once the weather warmed up. It was still chilly and damp, and they were covered in the waterproof jackets and trousers they had stitched from a castoff Amazon parka last winter. With Da off setting the snares to hopefully catch them tomorrow’s supper, it was just her and Mum and, she prayed to the gods, no more Latin drills. Maybe roast rabbit and egg even for breakfast if Da caught something.
The Amazon farm, such as it was, seemed desperately poor but had enough rangy hens that one more egg might not be noticed missing. It was safer this far out, where the people were like to be old culchies who could scarce run a farm any longer. The ones who had breeding in mind needed to live closer in to society, what with there finally being some regulations on it after that measles outbreak. Seemed the ones who chose to live this far out were too poor, too odd, or too old to be much of a threat to them.
The full belly helped, but she’d forgot how damn awful it was to be wet all the time.
She’d got used to being dry in the winter again. Mum had scarce let her out of the dugout since her coming of age ceremony, and the rain earlier had left her just damp enough to be uncomfortable. The day had been what they called a soft day, the sort where even after the rain, the damp just clung in the air. Between that and the wind, her plaited hair was matted to her neck and the collar of her shirt was cold with the water from it.
Saoirse’s belly twisted with guilt at not being satisfied. It was precious few of her kind in Eire who made it this far free and with both parents, or any parents at all really. A woman grown had no business whinging on like this. They might be nomads in the woods, but she wasn’t captive in some Amazon’s nursery or, the Gods forbid, their breeding room, a fate that could come on all too quick.
It had only taken one night for them to lose Connor. He’d gone into the town last new moon to steal them the things they couldn’t make, and they had never seen him again. They guessed his weak eyes had betrayed him, that he’d been grabbed by a Catcher and shipped off to an Adoption Centre somewhere. Sometimes she heard Mum crying during the day as they slept, worse than she had after the twins had been stillborn. It was disquieting to hear, knowing that Mum hurt so badly as to cry where she could be heard. It was unseemly for a man or woman grown to show weakness in a world so harsh as theirs. Saoirse was seeing now that these people she’d trusted to protect her were far from infallible, and it was a hard thing to admit.
“Tell me the tales, then, Saoirse.” Mum said, arranging the twigs and fishing out her fire starter. “And if you know them well, it’s only thirty minutes of Maths before bed.” She fed the smouldering fire with sticks as it fought valiantly against the damp. They were thankfully easy to get as far out as this, so they rarely wanted for fire except when it was raining (which in Eire was all the gods-accursed time). And they had gone far out for this summer, like only to see the odd hunter who was too old and hungry, and often touched, to bother with a few Littles. Closer in to a town, they’d never risk a fire, and Saoirse was gratefully anticipating its warmth. “Tell me the tale of the great Chieftain and the Titans.” Her sharp, foxy, careworn face glowed red in the growing firelight.
She was not a lovely woman, downright ugly to anyone but her own family, but perhaps that had been for the best. To keep your freedom until nearly forty was unheard of in Eire, and yet Mum had managed it with birthing four children and only two born dead. That both had got to coming of age free was a miracle of the Gods according to Mum.
Saoirse and Connor both had taken after Da, and Mum lamented it. As she had grown out of childhood, she had grown into the very thing most catchers wanted. Now she was a woman, there would be more than one breeder that would look at her blue eyes and blonde curls and see money in it. On the market, she would fetch a dear price indeed. And for that, they went further out, living on rangy rabbits and pilfered vegetables from far flung and questionably tended farms, hiding from civilization even more since Saoirse’s rite of first blood.
No wonder, that- when a woman was past twelve, that meant she could be used by a breeder, the worst of possible fates. From that moment, their only occasional company had been other families hiding for much the same reasons, with other frightened young daughters. More often they saw only the father or mother, with the daughter only a memory.
Every night since then was whatever lessons they could scavenge from the education Mum had managed to catch. A chance connection with a Little who’d escaped from an absentminded professor had made that more robust than most got. Some (many, really) were wholly illiterate, but Saoirse could read and write and cipher as well as one could learn scratching lessons in the dirt with a twig. Though hunting was unwise for her now, Da had taught her to aim true and make a clean kill on any small animal in range. The only time she got out to practice lately was when Da was with her and she wore her brother’s loose clothes. Boys sold for less and were more like to be left alone.
Truth be told, she’d rather be trapping with Da. It seemed more useful to their lives than any amount of algebra or Latin. But it wasn’t safe for her to be wandering in the open, and the tales she didn’t mind so much. The tales had no books, hadn’t since the invasion so long ago. The others they met sometimes refused the tales, saying the Gods were dead and to talk of them was useless. But Mum was a believing sort and insisted her children do the same.
Saoirse took a breath, looked over at her mother in the flickering orange light of the night forest, then shoved her tangled blonde hair, freeing itself stubbornly from its plait, behind one ear and began., switching to Eirean. It was harder to keep up in Albinese because she had to translate twice that way, first from the old tongue and then from modern Eirean. Mum used that as a truly frightful test. “Time it was and long ago, the Daoine lived wild and free upon the green hills. They were a mix of warring clans in those days, and kept each to their own. The land was large and they were small, and they had all they needed.”
“The daoine being…?” Mum prompted.
“The People. Among one of the clans, a woman by the name Dechtire was wed to a warrior of her father’s choosing. On her wedding night, she became a bird and flew away. She returned as a woman to her husband in three years time, with a little bastard boy named Setanta who the Rooster had called to with a great destiny.” There was more to her story, but Mum had asked for the tale of the great chieftain and did not care for diversions in the tale even when they were linked.
Mum gave a little smile. “The Rooster. Tell me more about the Rooster, Saoirse.” She poured water from a canteen into a tin and set it on a stone near the flames. There was no tea, it being far too risky to steal where it could be got, but it was a damn fool who drank water without boiling it first. That could turn your guts to water for a fortnight. Once there had been an escapee who’d been captive from childhood that got away not knowing that. The woman had come to them deathly sick with dysentery and lived only a day. She’d been eight then, and already too aware of how easy it was for the Gods or the Amazons to take you. Saoirse made a quick mental translation from the old tongue, then went on.
“Coileach is a great red rooster who crows to those of the People. When you hear his crow, you know within your heart what you are called to be. Coileach called to Setanta even as a child, and the boy knew he was no mere bastard, but sent by the gods. He didn’t know why in those days, and life for a bastard in his clan was harsh and cruel.” Saoirse said, warming her hands on the fire. Mum was nodding, a sign she was getting it right. The tales weren’t easy to remember. Their gods had led complicated lives with a lot of improbable happenings occasionally involving giving birth to a trout, and the stories were merciless to a child’s memory. Now that she was no child, Mum expected her to get it right, lest the history be forgotten.
“Good so far. Now come here, love. That hair of yours needs combing. Tell the rest and I’ll try to be gentle.” She’d been afraid of that happening when the wind picked up. Saoirse’s hair was not suited to life on the run. It curled in a very unruly way and was a tangled mess more than the tidy plait a woman ought to wear. She moved next to Mum, anticipating the aching scalp that was sure to follow. At least it was wet now- combing it dry was a special torture and left her looking like a dandelion in seed. Mum began to unravel the rain-matted plait and fished about in the bag for the comb.
Bracing herself for the yanking of the battered metal comb, Saoirse went on. “When Setanta was a man of fifteen and had no trade, for none of his small clan would take a bastard to apprentice, a great glass boat appeared and he was taken by Manannan the god of the sea to the Otherworld, where the gods dwell with the noble dead. There he met his true father, and was told the People would be beset upon by giants in the years following his return. It was his true calling to unite the squabbling clans into one true People and defeat the Titans, for the threat was great and their chances grim. He accepted this calling as a bind upon his very soul, that if he should fail and die he would be denied the Otherworld and his soul would be cursed to wander the lands forever.
When he returned, though he had sailed many a day, it was as though no time had passed at all. He took up the training of a warrior with what motley weapons he could make and won many battles against neighboring tribes, uniting them then as one clan, one People. By the time his beard was grown fully, he ruled over the people as a benevolent chieftain.” She winced at the yanking on her scalp and worked on remembering the next bit. She knew Mum was testing her to remember the lot despite the pain. “When Setanta reached thirty years of age, great ships appeared on the horizon and lookouts on the cliffs ran to him, begging for help. The ships were gargantuan, and crewed by Titans from the north who looked much as the People did, but stood three times their size. Manannan sought to turn them back with a great storm and rough waves, to dash their ships upon the stones, and did send some of the Titan warriors to the land under the sea, that the gods might deal with their souls. But the great ships weathered the storm and the Titans ascended the cliffs.” She jerked as Mum worked on a particularly tricky tangle. “Ow!”
“Sorry, love.” Mum said. “I’m doing the best I can.” She gave Saoirse a quick hug, then took up the comb again. “What happened when the Titans came?”
Saoirse shifted to relieve the ache in her bottom from the log, then said, “Warriors of all the People gathered, all the men and women from fourteen to sixty standing strong with their bows and arrows and great stout shields. The gods stood against the god of the Titans, who was unseen, all knowing, and all powerful. He had no clan but stood alone and came from the sky. On the fields of the world and the otherworld, the battle raged. And though the People fought bravely, their arrows were as bee stings to the Titans and the battle was lost soon after it began. The leader of the Titans slew Setanta with a single blow and the leaderless warriors that remained fled. The gods sent all their might, but they failed and the one god of the Titans triumphed.”
Mum gave one last pull through her daughter’s now smooth hair. “What happened to the Gods?” She asked, pulling the young woman tight against her on the damp log, then swiftly weaving the wet hair in the complicated plaits that their kind’s women had worn for battle. A bit overdone for now, but curls such as Saoirse’s were far too stubborn for the looser peacetime style.
“Nobody knows, but they have been silent since that day.” Saoirse said, almost in a whisper. “Some say the giants’ god killed them all. Others believe they hide beneath the hills now, granting the prayers they can in hidden ways so as not to be caught again. There were none to welcome the soul of Setanta, nor had he fulfilled the Rooster’s call. He was denied the Otherworld and his spirit was doomed to wander.” She shuddered a bit from a mix of the night’s chill and the story, feeling Mum weaving the side plaits into one at the nape of her neck. “The Titans sent out sentries, and more ships came, with things to build great villages and she-Titans who had no appetite for killing. Their eyes fell upon the remnants of the People and a great longing seized them. They took up the women and children and even the great warriors of the People, and kept them as a mother will keep her suckling babe. The wandering spirit of the great chieftain saw the folly of his plan, and found a young spirit-talker by the name of Brendan in hiding. He exhorted Brendan to share his words, that the People ought to hide and fight unseen as their foe was too strong. And so Brendan the Listener gathered those he could and led the People to their new destiny.”
Mum let Saoirse go and turned her so they sat face to face. “Never let the tales be forgotten. Even if an Amazon takes you and locks your words away with their dreadful creations, never forget that we are the true People of these hills and the Rooster calls all of us to carry that in our souls.”
“Mum?” Saoirse asked, feeling for some reason like she had to know right now. “Have you heard the Rooster? What does it feel like?”
Mum sighed. “The Rooster’s crow isn’t heard so much as felt. It feels like a soul deep longing that you would give your life to.”
Saoirse’s voice was shaky and sounded somehow both older and younger than her years at once. “What did it tell you?”
Mum placed one worn hand on Saoirse’s shoulder. “It was for you and all my children. To keep you free if I could, safe if free can’t be had. And to never let you forget who you are. I pray to the Lady every night that Connor is safe, wherever he is. I know your wee brothers are safe with the gods. And I raised you to be safe with us, and now you’re a woman to be strong and make your own safety.”
Saoirse grabbed Mum in a tight hug. “I won’t forget, Mum. I’ll find a way to help the People. No matter what happens to me. But how do I know if I’m called?”
“That’s for you and you alone to know, love.” Mum said. “If that’s what he calls you to, you’ve been called to be a light to our people in these dark times.” She let go and locked her brown eyes on Saoirse’s blue ones. “It’s a hell of a burden, but I raised a strong woman and a damned stubborn one. I have faith in you.”
“Touching.” A thickly rural accented voice, more incomprehensible even than their own, said from behind them. “Won’t do you no good.”
The two Littles spun around and found themselves facing the barrel of a hunting rifle held by a skinny Amazon man. He looked as careworn as they did, wearing mismatched and worn hunting clothes. “Let my daughter go.” Mum said, pulling Saiorse close. “You can have me if you let her go.”
“Fuck that, then!” The boy kept the rifle trained on them. “You think I’m some gobshite, d’ye? You’re old and ugly, cost them just as dear to fix you up as they’d get sellin’ ye. The girl’s a wee pretty ‘un, fetch me a thousand quid, that.” He wavered the huge barrels of the old rifle between them. “Sides, you lot gone and stole our eggs, like to do it again less I stops you. Right we get payment back fore we starve. Oi, Pat! Get the zipties here!”
Saoirse somehow knew running would get him to shoot, and those bullets on a Little would leave… something she didn’t want Da coming back to. “You want me.” She said, not sure how she had gone from discussing a grand revelation of purpose to about to be taken hostage in less than five minutes. “You’ll leave Mum alone if I don’t fight?” It was as if all the world had fallen away save for Mum and the boy with the gun. Saving Mum was all that mattered. Young and pretty as she was, she’d known for a long while this day would eventually come. There were those of their kind that would fight, those that would rather go to the Otherworld than with an Amazon, but something in Saoirse froze at the sight of that gun barrel. Even captive, she wasn’t ready to be done with life. She tried to keep her face still and stoic, as a woman grown ought to. Never let them see your fear, Da had said when she came of age.
The boy looked down at her, apparently startled at her words. “It’s you’ll fetch me the quid. Couldn’t sell her in a Donkey’s years.” Now she could get a good look at him, she could see he was likely no older than she was, sixteen at the most. He was dirty and pockmarked with acne, his shoes were worn thin, and his gun hand was shaking a bit. “Won’t hurt you. Don’t really want to do it. Just need the money. Bad year for ever’one.” His words were steady, but his eyes were screaming in panic. He didn’t want to shoot, even just a Little. Perhaps that was enough to stop him from hurting Mum.
“You don’t want to kill anyone.” She said, forcing her voice to stay level. There was no way out for her, that was obvious. If Mum went to an Adoption Centre, they’d kill her as unsellable or turn her into some pet. “You’ll just sell me to an Adoption Centre and let my mother be.” Mum fought back sobs, but a single tear escaped and trickled down her cheek. Saoirse was wrapped up in an unnatural calm, as though all her emotions had fallen away. Another boy, a few years younger and clearly a brother, just as disheveled and skinny, approached and held out some plastic zipties. “Promise me. Swear on your God that you won’t hurt my mother. She’s- she’s all I have left.” She lied, praying to all the gods she could name that it would keep her father safe. Da didn’t have the protection ugliness gave Mum, even at his age. Mum was shaking at her side, gripping her hands so tight it hurt.
“God don’t care for us no more’n he does for you.” The boy scoffed. “Swear on my mum’s soul, I will. Your mum is safe and free if you come without fighting.” He took the zipties from the younger boy. “Say your goodbyes then, girl. Make it quick- I’ll take you into the city at daybreak.” Now that he didn’t have to shoot, he seemed more sure of himself. Like any hunting trip, except the quarry talked back.
Saoirse hugged her mother as tight as she could. “I love you, Mummy.” She said, fighting back tears. “I won’t forget. Ever. No matter what.”
“The gods be with you, my love.” Mum said, tears soaking into Saoirse’s shoulder. “You’re my strong girl. Whatever they do to you on the outside- You’re of the People, and nothing can change that.”
“Alright, that’s enough, then!” The boy snapped. “Step away from her and put your hands behind your back, girl. Pat, tie her hands.” The gun was still trained on Mum, so Saoirse stepped away and put her hands behind her back for the younger boy. He pulled one zip tie too hard, and she felt blood trickle down her hand. The younger boy’s hands were shaking as he picked her up as easily as if she were an infant. “Feck, Pat! Don’t hurt her. They’ll pay less.” The older boy scolded. He cut the too tight ziptie with scissors and put one on that held fast but didn’t pinch.
Mum reached one hand to her lips. Knowing talking was unwise, she blew Saoirse a kiss and fell back, shivering by the fire. Saoirse failed to hold back the tears now, and her cheeks were wet as the older boy handed Pat the gun and took Saoirse onto his hip as surely and gently as if she were his little sister. Well, she’d be someone’s little sister soon enough if she was lucky enough to find a family that didn’t breed. How the hell was she being calm about this? “Go, then, you old thing.” He said dismissively to Mum. “I’ll not hurt her. Not about to bollox up a thousand quid deal.” Mum backed away, the boy walked in the opposite direction, and too soon she fell out of sight. Saoirse knew, as they approached what could charitably be called a farm in the distance, that she would never see her true family again. You stay strong, she told herself as she went toward an unknown fate. You need to be a light in the darkness. You are strong. You will survive. You are of the People.
And the wind takes a bird where it blows
By the ships at Dunleavy, whilst trailing after her mother, Mary Alice felt her whole body seize up in a violent chill that made no sense at all. The air around her continued to be what her teacher would call “dreadful hot” and the sweat beaded on her brow was unaffected, but she still shivered and froze in place a moment, causing her little brother to nearly crash into her.
“Move! You blockeded me!” Eamonn whined, and she stepped aside and fought down the shivers. Focusing on the area around her to put her mind anywhere else, she locked her ears on the singing. Oh no. Not this man again. Swiping the clinging ginger hair from her sweaty neck, Mary Alice resolutely looked anywhere but the docks. It didn’t help- she could still hear him. Did the man ever rest his voice?
“Hourra les filles a Cinque deniers
A cinque deniers les filles en sont
Tiron, les garçons, sur les avirons!”
A powerful baritone voice echoed from the dock area. Naughty Singing Man was at it again and Mary Alice knew better than to sing along this time. He always sang on the dock in funny words that sounded like Gaulish. The last time she sang along with him, Mummy’s face turned very white and then Mary Alice got a spanking. It was just not fair- Mummy never noticed him singing, just her singing along, and she hadn’t even known the words were naughty at the time.
Today Mary Alice kept her mouth tightly shut- It was not a day to get Mummy mad, though her stupid little brother was having his best go at it anyway. He had wandered up to Mummy and started trying again to wheedle her about the fecking puppy. Again.
“No! If you don’t get me a puppy, I won’t go into the doption centre. Never!” Eamonn yelled, kicking the sidewalk viciously as if it would get him anything other than a spanking. Mary Alice shook her head, knowing with all the certainty of her six years of experience that he would regret the fit.
Mummy wanted to get them a baby sister. Eamonn wanted to have it made into a puppy, but that wasn’t going to happen because Eamonn was being an arse. With the superior attitude only an older sister could manage, she stuck out her tongue at him. It did nothing to stop his useless attempts to persuade their increasingly frustrated mother.
“But Mummy, a baby can’t play fetch or do anything fun!” Eamonn whined. “And it won’t never grow up and play football with me! It’ll just be a stinky girl baby forever!” He emphasized the girl part by raising his voice volume way too much and Mary Alice covered her ears. Little brothers were so annoying once they got bigger. She was glad her new sister wouldn’t grow up to be a stupid whinging boy.
“Hush, Eamonn!” Mummy snapped, rubbing her temples. “I want a human Little. Your da wants a human Little, and your sister wants one too. Maybe if you’d listen, we’d get you a puppy. But I know who’s going to be caring for that puppy, and it isn’t you. So no puppy, and stop acting up or it’s a spanking for you.” She turned away with the tight set shoulders that meant her decision was final, and that was it. Eamonn sighed and slumped down, pouting, then followed his mother and sister into the Adoption Centre, knowing he was defeated. Mary Alice stuck her tongue out at him one last time in triumph, excited to finally be getting a sister. As she walked away from Naughty Singing Man, the chill fell away and she rubbed the goosebumps off her arms.
Mummy took Eamonn’s hand firmly, then rang the bell at the desk. Another grown up lady appeared, the name tag on her bleached denim jacket reading Dora. “Hello, Dora.” Mary Alice said and grinned, showing off the two missing teeth on top. Grown-ups always thought that was cute.
“Hello, little lady!” Dora peeredover the top of her glasses. “Reading already? What a smart girl you are.”
“I’m six!” Mary Alice declared proudly. “I’m the bestest reader in my whole class. And I’m here to pick out a baby sister and not a puppy.” She glared at Eamonn “My brother wants a puppy, but Da says he’s acting like an arse so we can’t get one.” She wasn’t supposed to be calling her brother an arse, but if she was just repeating what Da said, she got in less trouble. She’d been experimenting (that was one of the words Da taught her) with making grown-ups have different reactions lately, and found being bad without getting caught was good fun.
Dora covered her mouth and laughed, then said, “I’m not sure a girl your age should be talking like that, dearie.”
Mummy sighed. “I’ll have to have a talk with Da about what he says in front of her. And like she said, a Little girl. If you’ve got a ginger one, especially. No puppies.” She pulled out her Driving license and handed it over. “Sorry about them. You know how they are at that age.”
“No worries at all.” Does said, typing in the information on her keyboard. “You’ll find our Littles refreshing then. We etiquette school the lot straightaway. You’ll have no trouble with excess language or the nappies with our Littles. We do have a ginger girl and two ginger boys that look a bit like your own. And if you see any boys you’d rather have, we can have him made into a girl for a small extra fee or turn any one of them ginger. Just the cost of the modifications and if you get any modifications we’ll do the teeth for free.”
“Lovely!” Mum said. “I do admit they get very chatty as they grow, but I can blame my husband for the language.”
“Da says bad words in the car.” Eamonn chimed in, sending an opportunity to shift the target off him just a bit too late.
“We will deal with Da later!” Mummy snapped. “Now come on, you two. Let’s pick you out a baby sister.”
Mary Alice and Eamonn followed the grownups into a room chilled with air conditioning and lined with identical cots. Inside, one lady with leggings and sweatshirt was rolling a cot back and forth. Inside, a Little boy in a fuzzy blue sleeper was half asleep. Another held a bottle to the mouth of a blond girl with her hair in two plaits with little ringlets at the end. The girl looked blearily over at Mary Alice, who giggled and stopped by the chair the caretaker was sitting in. “She’s cute.” She said, flashing her most charming gap toothed smile. “What’s her name?”
The caretaker gave a gentle smile. “If your Mummy takes her home, it can be whatever you decide. Isn’t she lovely? We just ran her through etiquette school and now she’s all ready to find her forever home.”
“How old is she really?” Mary Alice had a few friends with Little siblings, and sort of got the part where they got older but they didn’t. She rather liked the idea of someone who wouldn’t grow up and would stay that cute forever.
“Papers say she’s fourteen. And how old are you, dear?” The caretaker wiggled the bottle, prompting the girl to suck harder.
“I’m six. Can she only drink bottles or can she eat food too?” Mary Alice looked at the girl, trying to observe and work out the answer in her head the way Da told her to. She was mechanically sucking at the bottle, the way they ate at home when Mummy served mushy Brussels sprouts and they had to eat it all or else they got it again at breakfast. Formula must taste dreadful, then, she concluded. Not surprising- the stuff in the bottles looked like milk after it went manky and didn’t smell much better.
“We leave it up to the Mummies, dear.” The caretaker pulled the bottle out and checked the level. “We train them here to take the bottle without complaint, but if your Mummy wanted to use baby food or nurse her she could.” The caretaker patted the Little between the shoulder blades. As if on cue, she let out a belch almost immediately. Mary Alice giggled, finding it novel to not have it shushed like in school. She liked this one- maybe this could be her baby sister. Mummy was inspecting a ginger haired girl in the cot on the opposite wall, but that one had lines worn on her face like Gran did and Mummy had her lips pressed like she wasn’t happy. “Mummy!” Mary Alice called in the loudest whisper she could manage. “I like this one. Can we keep her?”
Mummy walked up to her and looked down at the Little. Her eyes were half closed as the caretaker set down the bottle. “Oh, what a darling.” She cooed. In a milk coma, are we?”
“We use a regression formula that makes them so lovely and sweet after feeding.” The caretaker explained. “We can give you the brand if you’ll not be nursing.”
Mum pressed her lips again. “I’m not fond of chemicals in food.” She said apologetically. “I’d be more like to blend up our own meals. The nutritional content on some of those packaged Littles foods are dreadful.” Mary Alice knew her mother was far too fussy about chemicals. All her friends got fun foods at lunch and snacks in the cupboards after the shopping was done, and she had to pack boring meat and greens that more often than not were mushy. Poor baby and poor them. Mummy’s vegetables were awful and you had to eat every bite. She loved the days she played at Aine’s house and got orange squash and crisps for a snack. Aine’s Mummy said her Mummy was paranoid, but she wasn’t sure what that meant yet.
“We shy away from the snacks here as well.” The caretaker said, shifting the sleepy Little. “Too much sugar altogether. Not wanting to get them fat like a Libertalian. On table food,she might fight back a bit more and nappies will be more of a chore. If you can, I recommend you nurse her if formula’s not for you. Should only be a day or so before your body responds to her presence, less if you’ve borne your own.”
Mummy gave a sad smile. “I’ll be sure to try, but I got mastitis with these two something awful. If I can, I certainly will.” She picked up the now sleeping girl’s hand. “She is lovely. How old then?”
“Fourteen, and we think born in August from her growth. She’s just over a meter tall and the growth plates are mostly closed.” The caretaker read from a chart on a bulletin board.
“So she’s not like to get much bigger then?” Mum strokes the girl’s hair. “Oh, she has curls, just like Mary Alice!” She crooned, playing with the ringlet at the end of one plait.
“Maybe just a bit, and the breasts are like to remain small, the hips narrow. We got her from a backwoods hunter up North claimed she was an orphan, so no information about pedigree was there to be had. She was malnourished when we rescued her, but now she’s healthy and strong, and started her cycles a few months back if it’s breeding you want. However, if you’re meaning to breed her, it’s recommended you wait till she’s had a full year of cycles to make sure the hips are grown enough for birthing. Too many lose their girls in breeding too young.” The caretaker seemed upset at something in that sentence, but it and most of the conversation was mysterious to Mary Alice. Why were they doing so much talking? When would she get her sister?
Mummy put out her arms. “May I hold her?”
The caretaker gently lay the Little in Mummy’s arms, and Mummy’s eyes went all soft and happy. “Oh, the Little love.” She murmured. “No, I’ve no need to run a mill. Those lot are the worst sort. I just want to love her.”
“And thank goodness for that.” The caretaker said, audibly relieved. “The ones we take off these backroom breeders are a sorry lot, and the government would do well to keep it to the professionals. Only thing Albion ever did right was make those laws. Best we can do with the laws the way they are here is shut down the worst of them and hope they’ve not spread too much disease. There were no regulations at all till that business with the measles, so we take what we can get. This one here, she’s one hundred percent wild bred and caught, so no worries about the sicknesses out of those awful places. We’ve given her all the vaccinations she needed, and the poor girl already suffered through a few of the diseases before we could rescue her. Imagine getting the chicken pox in this day and age!” The caretaker tutted, disdain on her face.
“Unimaginable.” Mummy said, gently rocking the Little. “It’s a lucky thing for her you rescued her. It’s hardly a life out there if you’re sick and hungry. Thank goodness we came along.” Mary Alice was completely lost at the boring grown up discussion. Everyone knew you you were supposed to hate Albion, but she had no idea what made them so bad. And if the Little had managed to not get a shot, how was that a bad thing? Shots fecking hurt. The doctor had given her three at her last visit, and Mummy had taken away the lolly after. And it was cherry, her favourite.
“You want to be the one to save her.” The caretaker agreed. “I will tell you she’d go to one of those backroom breeders right quick, young and small as she is and two years past the minimum age. Sadly, there’d be nothing to stop them breeding her right away if you don’t take her off the market. There’s one got an eye on her now, but you being a family, I can get you approved faster than a single adoptee. Is she the one, Mum? I’d rather see this sweetling go where I know she’ll be protected.” Mary Alice was sure the caretaker was saying more than she was saying out loud, but couldn’t figure out what it was. Grownups were right odd like that.
Mum clutched the sleeping Little to her, body tight and tense. “They’ll not get this one.” She said. “I would like her made ginger, but leave the teeth in case I need to use real food. I’d like my new little one… she looked down at the Little tenderly. “My Alannah to look like her brother and sister.”