Read an Excerpt
"Now!" The old woman's voice was as sharp as the ancient, taloned hands that pressed hard against the young woman's belly. "Bear down! Now!"
In the shadowed darkness of the hut of blood, Lonit obeyed. The child was coming, coming on a tide of blood and pain. She would not be here to greet it. She was too tired. Even though the midwives were holding her upright, she felt herself slipping away, drifting into delirium.
The two women who held her by her upper arms shook her. Jarred her. She was annoyed with them. The pain was passing. The tide of blood had brought no child after all. Why did they not allow her to lie down? Her blood ran down her legs and was seeping into the thick layer of grasses and lichens covering the floor. How she hated the sweet smell of blood and the rank, moldering scent of winter dark that filled the little hut. Just thinking of them sickened her, and she wished that the midwives would clear the soiled floor covering away and bring in fresh, which, unstained, would smell of the summer sun. Summer! How she longed for summer!
The gray lichens and golden grasses pricked the soles of her feet. She was too weak to stand, but perhaps it would not be so good to lie down. The floor covering had been spread to absorb blood and birth debris, not to provide comfort. That would come later, after the child was born. If it was ever born!
Woman of the West, bear down, I say!"
Who spoke? Old, talon-fingered Zhoonali? Wallah? Iana? Kimm or Xhan? Lonit could not tell. Around her, the overcrowded confines of the circular hut were a blur of sweating, watching women, as naked and painted with ash and rancid oil as she.
Above her, the interior framework of mammoth and camel ribs arched upward toward the hide-covered vault of the unvented roof. A jumble of thong-joined caribou antlers supported the ceiling. How she wished that one of the midwives would fold back a portion of the hides, allowing the smoke to vent and fresh, cold air to enter. It was so close, so darkand so smoky that she could barely breathe.
Her eyes rolled back in her head. The ceiling appeared to float, high . . . so high. The racks of antlers seemed to move through mist, as though the spirits of the caribou were taking them up again and forming an invisible migration into the night. Lonit wondered if her spirit would follow. It would not be such a bad thing to die . . . to join her ancestors . . . to be away from pain, away from the probing eyes and hands of the midwives. She would follow the spirit caribou herds as her people had done since time beyond beginningonly this time she would go alone and not come back.
Her own shout of defiance startled her. The ghost caribou fled into the night, and the antlered ceiling hung steady and unmoving. She was suddenly aware of the rich, acrid stink of burning bison tallow and knew that the moss wicks in the stone lamps were gutteringagain.
How many times had they been replaced since she had been proudly escorted to the hut of blood by her man. How long had it been since she had entered the hut stripped off her specially made waiting garments, and ceremonially fed them to the fire of new life coming?
The embers of that fire were cold now, as were the ashes that had been drawn from the smoldering fire pit to paint her body and the bodies of the midwives with symbols that honored the life-giving powers of Father Above and Mother Below.
Her mouth was dry. Someone gave her water from bladder skin.
"Just enough to moisten the throat. There. No more." Wallah smiled, but there were only sadness and empathy in the wide, loving eyes of the aging matron.
Lonit was so exhausted she could barely swallow. She closed her eyes. Since her labor had begun, the sun had twice risen and fallen over the edge of the world. Now it was night againa long, cold Arctic night filled with the sound of the wind and the slow, atonal chanting of her people. She listened to them. It must be very late, for only a few sang, and no children. Only the old ones. And the wolves.
Wolves! She opened her eyes. She could hear them clearly, close to her band's winter encampment. They were hunting in packs now, running across the winter tundra beneath the starving moon, seeking to take the blood and flesh of their prey into themselves, even as she fought to expel life from her bodywithout losing her own life in the fray.
But she was losing. Two days and two nights were much too long to be at the birthing of a child. Her pains had begun close together, no more than the breadth of time between heartbeats, it seemed. Right from the start, they were savage pains, the sort that wore a woman down if allowed to continue.
There was worry in the midwives' eyes, but Lonit was too exhausted to worry with them and too weak to wonder if they would consider the howling of wolves to be a good omen or bad. She did not care; no omen could be worse than the pain that was rising in her again. She drew in a breath and held it, gritting her teeth and closing her eyes.
She tried to think of wolves, of being a wolfnot a naked woman trapped within a fouled hut but a wild thing, running free beneath the blue light of the starving moon . . . running lean with the cold, clean breath of the wind at her back . . . running hungry for life across the wild, savage miles of the open tundra, in the shadows of great, tumbled ranges and the glacial massifs of the Mountains That Walk.
"Bear down, Woman of the West!" Zhoonali commanded. "You are first woman of our headman, but like the rest of us you are only a woman. Cry out if you must, but bear down! Now!"
Lonit was young and strong, and it was not within her nature to cry. She willed herself to run with wolves across the open miles of her imagination. Her blood surged, and her heart pounded fast and hard. She was no longer a woman. She was a wolf! She was a strong and sleek wild animal, just like the wolf that had once leaped upon her and nearly claimed her life. Her arm bore the white lightning mark of a jagged scar inflicted by the tearing fangs of that wolf. Her man wore the skin of the beast, and its paws and fangs were around his neck. But now, as she ran, she was pursued by a terrifying white lion with a great black mane, a lion that roared within her.
"Torka!" From out of her very soul, Lonit howled his name in unspeakable anguish as another contraction transformed the supple muscles of her abdomen into a single oiled, ash-blackened strap that tightened, boring in and down upon her unborn child, crushing itno!forcing it from her body at last!
The baby was coming! She could feel the head burrowing deep, ripping her tender flesh, tearing her apart like a wolf trying to free itself of a trapand failing. Never had she suffered such agony. Not at the birth of her firstborn child, Summer Moon, nor at the birth of her second daughter, Demmi.
Her eyes widened with terror. Little ones! Will this woman ever look upon you and hold you close again?
Beyond the winter hunting camp of her band, the wolves broke and scattered, disappearing into the far hills and the farthest reaches of her fevered mind. Her little girls ran with them, and her man followed. Only the pain remained. She tried to call out after the ones she lovedthe wild wolves, her children, her man. But even as she attempted to form their names, light exploded within the little hut. Briefly she thought of the sun. She wondered if the intensified pain were its child; for with pain, always there was light, bright . . . glaring . . . blinding.
"Lonit! Come back to us!"
She did not want to come back, but Xhan and Kimm, the two midwives who supported her weight, shook her again, hard.
"The child comes!" Xhan was shouting. "You must kneel again now. You must try harder!"
Lonit was beyond trying. She was not even a woman anymore. She was a spirit, running away into the face of the rising sun with the ghosts of the caribou. Why did the women not leave her alone? The child would come or not come. Her body would allow it life or not; either way, she had no control. None.
The fingers of Xhan and Kimm curled into Lonit's armpits. That caused a little pain, though of no importance. The contraction was building in waves as the midwives forced her to crouch and spread her knees wide.
"Push!" demanded Kimm.
Slumped in Kimm's arms, Lonit could not even try. The ebbing pain would come again. The next time, she knew it would kill her, and she would be glad.
Wallah knelt before her, shook her head, fixed Lonit with frightened eyes, and, with a sigh of regret, slapped her once, twice, and then again.
"You will not give up now, Lonit! The life you carry is the first to come forth in this new land. It will be a bad thing if it dies, and a worse thing if it takes you with it! Look at me, Woman of the West! You have never been lazy before! You must work harder!"
In a stupor of pain and exhaustion, her entire body was trembling as she crumpled forward, bent double against the agony of yet another contraction. Blood and fluid gushed again from her body, and still the child would not be born.
"Stand back and away!" Zhoonali's command was for Wallah as the old woman took the matron's place and reached out with taloned hands to part the curtains of black hair that had fallen before Lonit's face.
"This goes on too long. A woman can only take so much. You are young and strong. You have given life before, and if the forces of Creation allow it, you will give life again. But now the spirits have spoken with the voices of wolvesa very bad omen. The life in your belly must be taken now, before it is life."
Lonit blinked. The contraction was easing a little, just enough to give her time to focus her thoughts. The old woman's words had been spoken so softly, but with threat. She began to understand that Zhoonali was speaking of killing her unborn child.
Lonit stared at the old woman. She could see the pores in the creases at the sides of her wide, flat nose, and the painted patterns around her smoke-reddened, rheumy eyes had smudged and run together. But somewhere in that haggard, time-scarred face, the ghost of long-lost beauty lingered, and Lonit was not surprised to see genuine and deeply felt pity in the dirty, desiccated features. Zhoonali had borne many children, but only one had survived to offer comfort to her in her old age. The old woman was no stranger to pain or to death.
"No . . ." She sighed the word, moving back from the old woman and wrapping her long, slender arms protectively about the great, swollen mound of her belly. This was her baby! When her pains had first begun, a new star had shown itself above the western horizon. A new star! A tiny, glimmering, golden eye with a bright whisk of a coltish tail! It was the best of omens! The magic man, Karana, had said so.
Karana. Where was Karana? He should be here now, outside the hut of blood, making magic smokes, dancing magic dances, chanting magic chants for one who was as a sister to him. Had he left the encampment again, to seek the counsel of mammoths? Were Zhoonali and those loyal to her right about him? Was he too young and unreliable for the responsibilities of his position?
Lonit moaned. Within her belly, the baby moved. With or without omens or the presence of the magic man, her child lived, and Zhoonali had no right to speak of ending its life. The child would live or die according to the will of the forces of Creation. Apart from this, only its father and the magic man had the right to deny it a place within the band. This baby was Torka's childperhaps Torka's son! And what man with only daughters at his fire circle would deny life to a son!
Pain was rising in her again, cresting, then crashing as Lonit felt her back and hips rent apart. It was excruciating, but she had no wish to evade it. This time when she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, she did not think of wolves or spirits. She thought of her man. She thought of his child. Their child. And with a fully human cry, she bore down on the pain, pushing so hard that the world seemed to crack open all around her. She screamed until it seemed that her pain screamed back at her as she fell gratefully into darkness, into a thick, all-encompassing black lake of oblivion in which she would have drowned . . . but for the cry of a child. Her child!
"A male child!" The voice of Wallah was as full of pride as though she announced the birth of one of her own.
Relieved, Lonit managed a brief moaning tremor of a laugh. At last. She would look upon her infant and hold it to her breast! She had given birth to a son! Karana was right; the new star had been a good omen! Torka would be so proud!
She tried to open her eyes but failed; her lids were too heavy. It did not matter. The long ordeal of childbirth was over. The pain was over. The midwives were cleansing her, stroking her back. Old Zhoonali was gently kneading her belly, seeking to purge it of the afterbirth.
Strange: Her abdomen still felt swollen, and she could have sworn that the baby still moved and kicked within her.
But the black lake of oblivion was closing over her again. It was warm. It was deep. It was welcoming. It was good to drift in it, listening in supreme contentment as the midwives fussed around her.
Then she heard Zhoonali sadly say, "The infant son of Torka is strong and sound. The first infant born in this new and forbidden land is more beautiful than any boy this woman has ever seen. It is a pity that this child must die."