“We’ve lost some scouts.”
These were the first words that Laura spoke upon her return.
“Lost?” Mother questioned.
“Lost, yes, not misplaced. And Maddie is one of them?”
“Have they been captured?” I asked.
“We don’t know.”
There was a frustration growing within me and it was getting ready to boil over. I wasn’t that much older than Maddie, but she was still a little girl. She may have been their best scout, but she should not have been left out there with so much that could harm. My mind played out a number of scenarios before pushing them to one side. Instead of thinking the worst, I needed to act. I was rising to my feet when Laura spoke again.
“It’s okay, Evie, we have people looking for her.”
“Have they found her?”
“Then it’s not okay.”
I looked towards Mother who nodded her permission. Her faith in me was unfathomable.
“Evie can find her. I also believe that Evie can bring her back safely. You need to show her where she was last seen and then leave it all to her.”
“But there are hunters out there. We picked up signs of a number of them, moving towards the centre. In such numbers, nobody can be safe. Not even a skilled scout like you.”
She looked at me with a plea for reason, but I was beyond that. Hunters are clumsy creatures and in larger groups they grow overconfident. If they were moving towards the centre, they were doing it for a reason. Perhaps they were delivering fresh goods.
“Do you think Maddie was captured?”
“No. She has been driven into an area which is not safe. She has not returned with us because she cannot get through their lines or she is tracking the group. I don’t believe they have the wit to detect her; she can disappear in plain sight. The problem is that the closer she gets to the centre, the more chance there is of her being detected by the Watchers.”
“The Watchers? Who exactly are they?”
Mother’s tone had changed. This was a question that carried far more than an enquiry. There was a distant echo of apprehension. It was as if she was remembering something from her furthest past, remembering and regretting.
“The Watchers have always been here. They were here before the hunters. Some think that they were here before the floods. They can protect but they demand obedience. There is never life without a payment.”
The words hit Mother like slaps. Her face flinched with their delivery. She reached out and held my arm.
“Evie, the Watchers are extremely dangerous. Perhaps more than anything you have ever encountered. They will be aware of you. Indeed, they may even know where you are right now. When we spoke of the Watchers in The Garden, we were not merely creating a tale to comfort us, it was partly true. The Garden had been granted to us many years ago by a group of men who were interested in our survival. They saw that we were a small group of innocents and seemed to take sympathy. They showed us the valley in which The Garden was set, showed us the fields that were already planted and bursting forth. They even promised to protect us from the floods and the hunters. We had everything that we could ever have dreamed of and it was the Watchers who bestowed this upon us. Then girls began to come in from all parts of the forest. They had all miraculously escaped from the terrors of the Margins and found sanctuary with us. If there ever was a god, this was surely his doing. But, the payment.”
“Payment?” I asked, afraid to get an answer.
“There is always a payment,” Laura added.
“Yes, there is always a payment.” And Mother’s eyes were now so terribly sad. She swallowed hard as if digesting a hard truth that she had hoped to have forgotten.
“One day, they had said, one day they would return and they would determine our contract. That day was going to be a long way off and we forgot about it. We settled and grew. More girls arrived from across the great waters and we grew some more. The Garden was our paradise and we stayed within it. We needed nothing from the outside world as all life was with us. Then Agnes arrived.”
I was itching to get out and onto my task of finding Maddie, but I knew that Mother was telling this tale for a reason and that reason was still being played out in this new world.
“Mother, I understand.”
I think I understood. Mother was in the midst of confession, a confession from a woman who had always lived her life for others. Whatever she had done would not amount to what she may have thought of as a sin. Mother was good.
“Evie, before you go, please listen a little longer. Agnes was their messenger. She was pious yet honest. Well, that is what we thought at first. It turned out that Agnes had another face and that was always turned towards the Watchers. I didn’t find out that until some years had passed and she had become a central part of our world. The Garland girls were her idea. She was devoutly religious, to whom I now know, and she said that ritualising the coming of age of the girls would please God. It would also add meaning to the miracle that was The Garden. We did not know that it was a sign to the agents of the Watchers that the price was ready to be paid. After it had begun, the hunters came for payment. One at a time, girls began to disappear. I had my suspicions but Agnes said that it was the price of paradise. I did not think that it literally that. Then you came and the hunters seemed to have met their match. ”
“How did that change things?”
“You had been prophesised. You were real and they were afraid. Now go out there and bring back the child. But be careful.”