Mari the Healer keeps to the gardens and the vault. Too many men. Even though it’s obvious that they’re just babies, children her own daughters could have birthed, that Valkyrie and Furiosa could have birthed, it’s still feels dangerous, too dangerous, to be out among them. They put her on edge. She’d rather tend the plants – fed by the mulched bodies of some of those baby boys, she knows – with Plenty and the Dag, and the slim few men whom the young mothers allow up here. She’d rather be under the open sky and surrounded by the green, like back in the old days when she was a young mother herself, watching her birth child, Cicada, name herself a daughter and initiate under the Whorl.
She watches the Dag, up to her elbows in bloody soil, wondering what her birth name might have been and if she cares, if her initiate name was one she wanted to take. They’ve been back barely one turn of the moon, long enough for the Dag’s belly to go from “showing” to “obvious”, and Mari can’t help but notice the reverent way the Citadel-folk watch her. She wonders what the child’s birth name will be, and whether the people here, in this fortress that will be the new Green Place, have rituals like her own do around the naming of lineage and family.
Her Furiosa – still recovering in the vault, and hating every second of it – had been Furiosa the Wellspring, once, long before she became Furiosa the Impirator, let alone Furiosa, Boltcutter, which Mari’s pretty sure her long-lost daughter hasn’t heard about yet. Names do tend to accumulate. Valkyrie had been Hohanna before she took her initiate name. Mari, herself, had been the Blade before she became the Healer. Jobassa the SwanStar had once been only MariJo. Names grow. And these boys, they are boys, really, not men, not yet, they wear such short, sharp names, just like their lives: Snatch and Gash and Gun.
She looks across the garden, to where the Dag – how long before she becomes the Planter, or takes on Lita’s title? – is showing one of the boys how to stake the delicate tendrils of a plant that she, Mari, thinks might be a kind of bean. She wonders if he’ll live long enough to be Gutter the Flowering, Gutter the Vine.
Probably not, she admits to herself. But where there are seeds, there’s hope.
Toast. They’d named her that at the Bullet Farm, where she’d been born. One of the women in the bunker – old, ancient, a hundred and forty slashes scarred shallow into her arm, one for every hundred days since she’d been taken – told her that it was a long-ago word that meant both a kind of a food and a kind of celebration. Toast, understanding ‘food’ and ‘reason to celebrate’ as essentially the same thing, hadn’t been surprised.
She only became Toast the Knowing when she was given to Immortan Joe. Traded for milk and water, or offered as tribute, she didn’t know and didn’t care. She just knew: She was named as a thing to be consumed, to be fuel for someone else’s ends.
Now, a lifetime later, nearly two thousand days later, Toast the Knowing carries pistols on her hips, and a shotgun across her back, and her name is ringing in the mouths of war boys. Child soldiers, not much younger than she is, riddled with cancer, who carry her on their shoulders, celebrating.
Toast! Toast! Toast!
All this for a salvage mission gone right, for a full tank of guzzoline and half a tonne of scrap metal that they had to tow all the way back to the Citadel because the engine was drowned in sand. But it’s her first salvage, and their first one too, most of them, and she lets them cheer because toast is a kind of food, and food is life, and better to cheer for life and sustenance than to scream for death and a fool’s dream of glittering chrome.
They ride the platform up into the cool depths of the garage, surrounded by their salvage, and Toast tells her boys that they did good, tells them to get some of the black thumbs up from the Repair Shop to start hauling this stuff to where it’s needed.
Absently she puts her hand across her belly. She’s been queasy, off and on, since the night they snuck into the hold of the war rig, and that had been twelve days after her last moontime. Toast the Knowing chews her lip, already knowing why.
They don’t call her The Fragile anymore. It’s been sixty-four days since they came back to the Citadel, to the only home she’s ever known, and thirty days ago she’d set the arm of a war pup who’d fallen down a shaft. Now they call her The Boneset. Now she leans against Mari’s knee for hours at a time, grinding Dag’s herbs into poultices and listening as the Healer tells what this one, that one, the other one will do. This will clear an infection. This will staunch bleeding. This will help damaged lungs open up and breathe again.
Cheedo mixes Oil Tree and Manuka leaves, mashes them in a tin bowl under her mortar – she’d always understood “mortar” as a thing that explodes, but this is solid and sure, almost a hammer, smooth and round and made from the polished bone of someone’s thigh – until the cool, green scent makes her eyes water, then she takes it to Furiosa.
“You hate this like I hated running,” she comments, unwinding the dressing around her sister’s broken ribs.
Furiosa grimaces, but concedes the point and suffer’s Cheedo’s touch without flinching.
It’s hard to touch her.
Hard, because she suspects that Furiosa was a wife before she was a guard, before she was an imperator, and even if she wasn’t, she’s a woman in a fortress full of violent men, and she didn’t have a bank vault to protect her. Uninvited hands, even Cheedo’s, smearing cold across her collar bone and down her ribs, over her breasts, can’t be welcome.
Cheedo wonders if she knows that the boys, the half-life boys they found, running on empty, when they’d scavenged the Organic Mechanic’s shop, are calling her Bolt Cutter.
“Mari says your lungs sound better,” she offers.
Furiosa rolls her one good eye, the other currently covered by a make-shift patch cobbled from a pair of old goggles and a clean rag.
“She does,” Cheedo insists. They’d found a kind of funnel in the Organic Mechanic’s shop that let Mari listen to people’s hearts and lungs. “Hardly any rattling.”
Furiosa’s chest is yellow-green with faded bruises, and Cheedo’s careful as she re-wraps the dressing, but she still catches the wince, and the hiss.
“That should do for another day,” Cheedo promises.
Furiosa only nods, and Cheedo turns to go, but—
“Thanks,” the impirator’s voice is a rasp. “Thanks, Boneset.”
Cheedo smiles and ducks out the door.
They shouldn’t have survived.
Not after the bike went down. Not in that press of engines and war-mad men.
But they had.
The desert night is no colder than it ever is, and they’re wise enough not to waste precious fuel on heat. Plenty of that once the sun comes up, no need to make more of it now. Besides, a wreck that big is bound to attract scavengers – salvage crews, meat seekers, diviners – better to stay quiet, get through the mountains the long way, even if it means something like a hundred and thirty days of walking.
Damn, it would have been nice to save that bike…
Even if the bike hadn’t been salvageable, even if they’d had to grab what they could and run, the supplies would have kept them going for a good long time. But there’d been too much chance of getting caught, captured, and the two of them had decided not to risk it.
Alkira, who has been called the Clever for more waxings and wanings than even she can remember, goes through the short list of their supplies once again. One rifle and half a dozen cartridges; two pistols, one with three bullets, one fully loaded; five knives; two water flasks, one empty; one blanket; three shawls; one lizard-skin pouch with about six strips of jerky left inside; two needles and roll of lizard sinew; two pairs of boots; and a signal mirror hanging on a cord under her shirt. Alkira remembers one of her grandmothers, Moree the Bright, wearing it, and telling her that there had once been powder, brown as skin, pressed into the bottom of it, long, long ago, before the world burned away.
Alkira presses her hand to her heart, and she can feel the disk of the signal mirror under her palm. Her hands itch to use it, but she doesn’t even know if there’s anyone to signal, whether Furiosa and her sister-daughters made it back to the citadel at all, let alone managed to claim it.
She pulls her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and shifts on the hard-packed ground. Overhead, the satellite twinkles and speeds across the sky. In the morning, they’ll move again. Sooner, if things start smelling dangerous. But for now, Alkira the Clever watches the stars and the endless sands, while her daughter, maybe her only surviving daughter, pillows her head on Alkira’s thigh and sleeps.
Just boys, Capable tells herself. Just kids, like Angharad said, most of them at the end of their half-lives, and the rest so young they’re barely more than babies. Just boys.
She tells them, too, day after day, for a hundred days and more. They follow Toast like a hero, the older ones, smelling the carbon and the steel on her, maybe seeing a shadow of Furiosa in her step, and hoping for a scrap of regard. But the little ones follow Capable, clinging to her hands, curling up in her lap to sleep, if she lets them.
She always lets them.
“Do you have a name?” she asks every pup who crossed her path.
Some of them do – Snipe and Fist and Gap – and some of them don’t. Those ones would shake their heads, mutely, staring at the floor.
“Do you want one?”
The way they’d square their narrow shoulders, and stand taller, thin chests puffed out like soldiers, at the offer. So she names them after the Dag’s plants: Bean and Root, Tendril and Sapling, a forest of pups growing up around her.
Sometimes, she considers her own moniker.
It’s not a name, not really. Just the thing she’s been called since her blood came in at thirteen and the Organic Mechanic in Gastown pronounced her so. Capable of bleeding on a regular cycle, which was rare, she knew. Capable of bearing children. She’d been given, or sold, she was never sure, to the Immortan soon after.
That had been a long time ago. More than ninety passes of the full moon over the domed glass ceiling of the vault. She tries to remember what her mother had called her, and Kora floats up, like a spark, in her memory.
Kora, she turns the word over and over in her mind. I am Kora, and I am capable. But I am more than that, too.
Amy oils her rifle. She watches Toast shooing war pups in her wake, and can’t help thinking of her two birth children, both of them long dead now. Devon had died a child, barely old enough to be named, toast-rack chest heaving with the labour of breath, the year that so many of them got sick. Asher had been older, strong enough to survive the lung rot that killed almost a third of the Vuvalini. He’d lived long enough to name himself a son and be initiated as Asher The Plow, turning the furrows and planting the seeds with Lita, long enough to die in the raid that lost them Furiosa and MariJo.
Silently, in a ritual that is never far from her mind, she numbers her beloved dead, counting one bullet for each name, like a rosary, and dropping them into her cache.
Colleen, Tale Keeper, her birth mother
Moree, the Bright
Tara, the Swift, her initiate-mother
Yillah, the Joyful, beloved always, always
Ellen, the Weaver, who sired Devon
Marama, the Whorl
Dru, the Nimble, who sired Asher
Noorin, the Child
Kylie, the Child
Devon, the Child
Asher, the Plow
Kaydee, Kill Canon
Amy breathes out, and in again, listing the names of the newly dead.
Lita, Seed Keeper
Nux… She never knew his initiate name. Maybe he never had one. Amy drops another bullet into the cache: Nux the Child.
Angharad, the Splendid
Jobassa, the SwanStar
Amy grits her teeth against that name. Seven thousand days and more, she’d refused to name her initiate-sister among her dead. Taken, yes. But she hadn’t seen her die. Now she knows. Jobassa, the SwanStar, died on the third day. But the WellSpring lives in an impirator’s skin. Seven thousand days, and more, her daughter survived to come home to them. Amy swallows hard against pride and grief. She reloads her rifle, quick and careful, natural as breathing, and slings it across her back.
I saw them go under the wheels, she tells herself. But I didn’t see them die.
Alkira the Clever
Hohanna the Valkyrie
She waited seven thousand, one hundred and forty-one days to mourn, to even acknowledge, Jobassa’s death. She’ll do no less for her sister, her daughter.
I didn’t see them die.
Meeka makes her slow way to the garage, leaning on Kora’s shoulder when she needs to. The ache that had been spreading across her lower back for two days had blossomed into something more consuming early that morning. She’d stayed in the garden, pushing seeds into the blood-drenched soil and breathing through the pain that came in slow, cresting waves, until her body had told her to do something else and, in the middle of doing something else, gripping Kora’s hands till her knuckles went white, a boy – Sprout, one of Kora’s pups – had come running with news of strangers at the gates. She’d struggled to her feet and followed, hoping her baby would agree to stay put just a little while longer.
In the corridor, she lets her hips roll as they need to, pauses when she needs to, aware of the way the boys stare at her, aware that she is something else now. Not a Wife, thank Everyone Who Listened, certainly not under the dubious protections of her dead captor, but the Keeper of the Seeds, some of them more human than others. Carrying a child – one that’s been kicking and stirring and anxious for freedom for almost as long as they’ve been back – grants her some measure of the mythical, and the boys keep away unless they’re told otherwise.
Meeka leans into the stone wall, breathing through another contraction, and Kora breathes with her, through her mouth, like through the narrowest of pipes, just the way Mari had said.
“Not long now,” Meeka says, and Kora nods encouragement, for all that she looks out of her depth.
Mari had told her what to expect, probably, and that her body would know what it was doing, probably, even though she hasn’t done this before.
None of them has done this before.
There had been a time, when Meeka’d first arrived in the vault, pulled out of the wastes and thrust into Immortan Joe’s horrible bed, when she’d walled herself up inside her skull and didn’t so much as breathe her name the women who shared her prison – funny how things become habits – that Capable, that Kora, had bled and bled. The others had been frantic, Miss Giddy counting on her fingers, tracking the days since Kora’s last visit to the Organic Mechanic, since her last moontime, Angharad and Toast whispering to each other about how to hide the mess of it all. A miscarriage would have been a strike against her, one step closer to being consigned to the Wretched and left to fend for herself.
That was the closest Meeka had come to seeing anyone in labour, and Kora too, most likely. They’d expected to help Angharad through her delivery but…
So much for that idea.
Maybe Mari and Amy are right, and Angharad is with the many mothers. Maybe she’ll whisper encouragement, all the way from the cool green depths, the same way she used to whisper We are not things, we are not things, our babies will not be warlords, in the dark after Meeka’d missed her bleeding for the third time in a row, all of nineteen days before they’d made their escape.
And here we are again, Meeka thinks, resuming her slow progression alongside Kora. Here, but not here. The Citadel, but not the old Citadel.
The stone corridor opens up into the huge space of the garage, thronged with pups and war-boys and the Wretched who aren’t so wretched any more. They spot Cheedo and Mari, Amy and Toast, and sidle up to the four of them. Meeka’s muscles move of their own accord, and her breath comes out in a rush. She squeezes Cheedo’s hand.
Just a little longer, baby, she tells her child.
Mari and Amy have been telling her, telling all of them, stories of the Vuvalini for ages now. Every phase of the passing moon, every constellation that rises in the sky, comes with a story of the Weaver, the Joyful, the Firebrand, the Bright. She knows her child will grow up hearing, not lies of Valhalla, but true tales of life and death and of life carrying on. How Nux became the Wondering. How Angharad became The Shield. How Meeka became the Keeper of the Seeds.
Furiosa limps towards the garage. Everything hurts. But “everything hurts” has been the reality of her life for quite a bit more than seven thousand days, and even the long-ago, half-mythical memories of her lost Green Place have never melted into something so unreal as to pretend that life with the Vuvalini was easy. But a collapsed lung takes a long time to heal. Even after a hundred and thirty-six days of slipping between sleeplessness and unconsciousness, a hundred and thirty-six days of watching the moon wax and wane on its nightly journey across the inky sky, breathing still doesn’t come easy. Then again, it’s not as if breathing has ever been a gentle thing. Dust and exhaust, the oven heat of the midday wastes and the bone-chilling cold of the desert nights, they all took their toll long before the desperate chase across the sands that lead her back to the Citadel. At least now her shallow breath doesn’t ache like the stab wound it was. At least her ribs feel whole and solid. At least both her eyes are working, more or less, for the first time since she came home.
Strange to think of this place as home.
But home, real home, the Green Place, is gone. Gone with Kaydee and Lita and MariJo and, oh Mothers, even Hohanna. Part of her aches to sob, to mourn, but that well dried up years ago, and she'd had to keep moving. Here there is water and green and even many mothers. Dag’s belly is round to bursting with the fullness of life, and Toast’s, too, who hadn’t even known she was pregnant when they’d fled. Maybe, just maybe, Furiosa can learn to make a home of what had been a prison, maybe she can keep moving just long enough to do it.
Clusters of war boys – just boys now, she reminds herself, just boys – scatter from her path, some of them murmuring her name, calling her Impirator. Once, just once, she hears boltcutter whispered with something like awe, and thinks the kid must be one of the black thumbs, to speak of a tool like that.
Furiosa rolls her shoulder under the straps of her prosthetic arm. It’s lighter than the old one, thank the Mothers, and moves a bit better, too. Someone – one of Kora’s boys – had come running to the Repair Shop where she’d been tightening the bolts again. People at the gates of the Citadel, he’d gasped. People on foot. Two women on foot.
Hope is a bad habit, Furiosa knows. Addictive as water, heady as a memory held close in the dark.
Hope is a mistake, she remembers.
But she pushes forward anyway.
They shouldn’t have made it this far. Not with so little water, and certainly not on foot. But maybe the Mothers – and there are more mothers in the cool, green depths than there were before the mad race back towards the Citadel nearly five full moons ago, she knows – had been looking out for them. The last nineteen days of their journey, they’d travelled in the dark, moving to keep the cold at bay, and to avoid the night patrols which, at least, were easier to dodge, even if they weren’t easier to see.
Alkira is leaning heavily on the skull-tipped spear they’d taken off a desiccated body, twenty-seven days ago, along with a pistol, seventeen bullets, and a water flask that, miraculously, had still been half full. Her right leg isn’t doing a very good job of holding her up, but she keeps insisting that she’s got a few miles left on her tires yet.
If they’d taken the salt flats, would they have died?
Was this better?
She doesn’t know.
Riding up on the platform, she considers the two knives she still has hidden on her body, the fact that they won’t do much against the war boys who surround them, particularly since those war-boys currently have possession of the one knife they managed to find on Alkira, as well as all the guns they had.
They emerge into a crowd, more people than she’s ever seen in one place. The din of them, even just murmuring, is worse the howl of the wind across the sand, and she struggles to keep her face neutral.
So many strangers.
No. Not all strangers.
Her heart leaps at the site of Mari the Healer and Amy the Quick, even as they push towards her. The four women from the night by the salt flats, so beautiful and strong they could have been her initiate-sisters, are here, too, standing like they own the place. She can’t help noticing that the pale one, pale as moonlight on salt, looks like she’s going to drop that baby any time, but her attention doesn’t linger.
She scans the crowd for the one face she needs to see again.
Her mothers pull her into their arms, and her sisters, too - the one with short hair and pistols belted across her swelling belly steps forward, and the one with hair like a firebrand, but her head is spinning, grief pulling her down.
We shouldn’t have made it this far.
She calls up Furiosa’s voice, the feeling of her muscled body real and solid in her arms after all that time, the joy of it so deep it ached like seven thousand days of waiting…
To have only had one day.
In the throng, she hears a word repeated. Not Valhalla, not Chrome, not any of the words the war-addled men had shrieked as they careened and slashed and died, but Boltcutter. Boltcutter.
She looks up from Mari’s shoulder and sees the wall of men part like waves on a barely remembered sea. Sees a woman, limping, stumbling into the suddenly empty space before her.
Hohanna, the Valkyrie, pushes herself forward, pushes through the press towards the woman whose face is a mask of shock, of joy that aches like seven thousand days of waiting.
Hohanna pulls Furiosa into her arms.
“It’s me,” she breathes, pressing forehead to forehead. She feels Furiosa’s hand cup the back of her skull, feels her fingers threading through her hair, and traces her sister’s cheek. “It’s me.”
Hohanna’s fingers come away wet.
Furiosa’s fern green eyes are spilling tears like a spring.