“Let’s have a look.”
Her mother babbled, “Oh please, sir, my children are sleeping. Please don’t disturb them!” She sounded too anxious.
Unperturbed, the accented voice said, “I just need to ensure that the information you have given me is correct.” A hand lifted Freya’s hood away from her face.
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, she told herself. She forced herself to relax as though she were sleeping. She was lying on her scarred side, so the man shouldn’t be able to see a thing.
“So, this is your daughter,” the man confirmed. It was not a question. She sensed him checking her brother. “And your son. They must be exhausted to sleep through this racket.”
Her mother answered nervously, “Oh yes. We have been travelling for days. They are very tired.”
“Okay, let’s go inside and finalise the paperwork.”
As the official turned to enter the office, Garret cleared his throat and remarked nonchalantly as though to nobody in particular, “I thought it had to be blood kin to get in on the same Selection?”
The official paused and with amusement in his voice asked, “I suppose you’re going to tell me that you’re related to this family?”
“No sir,” replied Garret. “I just thought you’d like to know that the girl is not.”
Freya couldn’t help herself—she sat bolt upright and demanded, “What?”
The hood of her cloak fell back, exposing her face. Somebody gasped, but she didn’t see who, as she quickly pulled the hood back into position. The official hadn’t seen. He was looking searchingly at Garret, and then turned back to Freya’s parents. Freya suddenly realised that there was something terribly, terribly wrong: they weren’t denying Garret’s charge! She spun to look at her father: there was incredible sadness in his eyes.
“Everybody inside,” the official said, taking charge. “It looks like you have some explaining to do.”
The whole family was marched inside through a small waiting room into the official’s office beyond. The official seated himself behind his desk, with Freya and her family left to stand facing him. The Guards closed the door behind them and remained standing at their rear. The official calmly placed his elbows on the desk and, leaning slightly forward, steepled his fingers under his chin and gazed at Thomas with hard, cold eyes.
“Tell me!” he commanded.
And so, Freya’s father told the story.
Almost fourteen years ago, on a cold, stormy night, a loud thumping on their door had roused the family from their cosy supper. Her father opened the door to admit a bedraggled, heavily pregnant woman. The woman was in fact already in labour, and collapsed into their house, begging for help. They had barely shut the door when she delivered a tiny baby girl. Martha cut the umbilical cord and gave the infant to Thomas to find something to wrap the baby in, while she continued to help the woman.
Just as her father was out of sight in the bedroom, they heard the thunder of hooves, followed by a pounding on their door which was unceremoniously flung open. Towering in the doorway was a Guard.
The woman cowered in fear and screamed “No! Not my baby!” whilst clutching at her still large belly.
The Guard hardly glanced at Freya’s mother as he grabbed the woman and dragged her out to his horse, calling brusquely back over his shoulder as he left, “You don’t need this baggage from Yaw.” He galloped off with her towards the Chasm.
Freya’s father, having hastily nestled the newborn infant into their bed, raced out after the horseman into the rain. Not long after, he returned, white as a sheet. Dropping onto a stool, staring blankly at the floor, he said in a flat voice, “He threw her into the Chasm.”
From the bedroom, the frail wail of a baby rose into the air. Martha dashed into the room to comfort the infant lest the Guard should come back past their house and hear it. But thankfully he did not.
The village held a number of meetings to decide what should be done. Initially they had kept the infant hidden, for fear that some Guards would come back looking for it. But in time, and with no galloping visits from those horsemen, they became less and less fearful, realising that the Guard must have believed that the woman from Yaw was still pregnant when he had disposed of her. Martha and Thomas had always wanted a daughter, so it wasn’t a difficult choice to keep the baby they affectionately named Freya. But of course, everybody in the village knew the girl wasn’t theirs—babies don’t just appear out of thin air. They thought it best not to tell Freya about the unusual circumstance of her birth, and it had certainly never occurred to them to tell the Selection officials, because she had always been theirs—their daughter. They had even recorded her as their own in the town Register of Births and Deaths.
Freya trembled, but her mother did not comfort her—no, not her mother—but yes, these were her parents in every way that mattered. Her breath caught in a silent sob.
As her father’s story came to a close, Thomas looked at the official, pleading for understanding with his eyes.
“And so, you see, sir, we didn’t mean no deceit. We just think of her as our own. That’s all.”
But the official did not agree. His eyes were hard as he announced, “She is not your own. She does not qualify for admittance to the Golden City. You three will be permitted entry, but we will deal with the girl separately.”
Her father stared at the official for a few long seconds, before responding politely but firmly, “I’m terribly sorry for wasting your time, sir. We will have to decline your offer and be on our way back home.”
Freya let go the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. The official leapt to his feet and signalled to the Guards stationed at the door. His voice did not betray the anger that flashed in his eyes.
“No, you misunderstand. Nobody refuses the Selection. Nobody. The Golden City needs you. You, your wife, and your son will now proceed to the Golden City. Guards, take this girl to the Pit.”
From that moment, everything happened incredibly quickly. Two Guards grabbed Freya and marched her out the door to a waiting cart with a wooden cage on the back. A third Guard, who had been stationed in the waiting room, blocked her family from leaving the room. Inside, her father demanded, “By the Master, have mercy!”
Her mother sobbed uncontrollably.
The Guards shoved Freya into the cage and bolted the door.
“Mother, Father!” she screamed.
But her words were swallowed up as the Guards whipped the horses into action. They galloped off, amidst a clanking of harnesses and chains, and a thunder of hooves on the cobbles, towards the Sentinels—the hills behind Targa—and the Chasm.
Tears blurred her vision and streamed down her cheeks. She threw herself at the cage, shook the bars and sobbed, “Help me! Please, somebody help me!” But there was nobody to hear her pleas.
The last thing Freya saw as she looked through the cage bars was Garret. He was smirking.