People of the Earth
By W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1992 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
All rights reserved.
Such a terrible winter.
White Ash leaned forward, face pinching as cramped and knotted muscles strained in her back. She peered across the fire at the pile of hides covering Bright Moon's body. The draft that sneaked in around the lodge skirts created patterns in the thick bed of glowing red coals and cast a ruby light over the inside of the lodge. She could see Bright Moon's face; her mother finally slept.
My mother? Curious. I can hardly remember my life before Sage Ghost stole me from the Three Forks camp. I belong here, among the White Clay people, now. Owlclover might have borne me—but Bright Moon loved me more. White Ash rubbed a nervous hand over her face and looked at the old woman who now slept so fitfully. And all I can do is sit here and watch her die.
"Thank you for everything, Bright Moon," she whispered softly in sorrow. If only Sage Ghost hadn't left with the other men in a desperate attempt to find game. She closed her eyes, grief a physical pain, like a gnashing of teeth in her chest. Bright Moon would be dead before he returned.
For eight winters White Ash had lived with the White Clay. Of those years, the first six had been wonderful. As she'd grown, she'd learned the ways and language of the Sun People. The White Clay had moved south from the Bug River, all the way to the Fat Beaver, to avoid the raiding in the north.
She smiled as she remembered carefree days of golden sunshine in the summer and cozy, warm lodges in the winter. Through all of them, Bright Moon's face had beamed with love for her. She'd played with Wind Runner and Brave Man and the other children. They'd run and told jokes and hunted for mice and rabbits.
White Ash shook her head, the smile on her lips bittersweet. Three years ago things had begun to change. Rumors had circulated down the trail that the other clans were beginning to move south, seeking new territory. The White Clay warriors had strutted among the lodges, thumping their chests, growling threats about what they'd do if the other clans came near.
Then the Black Point clan attacked the camp on the Fat Beaver River and caught everyone by surprise. The White Clay had fled in horrified confusion and come unraveled, splitting into three factions. Defeat after defeat had thinned what remained of their ranks. But the people had never been as desperate as they now were. War visited them again, bringing death and privation. Hunger stalked the camp, reflected in the gaunt faces of the children and elders. The cold seemed to intensify, rending their bodies with talons of ice. Hope had fled with the ghost of summer.
Hope? How can I hope? What have I done to deserve this? What hope will there be for White Ash? She closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to escape the images in the Dreams. She forced herself to relive the days when she and Wind Runner and Brave Man had laughed and told each other what they hoped for the future. The sun had been brighter then. The meat racks had bent under the weight of rich red slabs. The White Clay had been whole, powerful. Smiling faces peered at her from the past—faces of people dead or vanished with the breakup of the clan. Faces now as remote as those of her native Earth People.
Bright Moon made a gasping noise that withered White Ash's spirit. Sage Ghost, maybe it's better that you don't know.
She leaned forward, propping her chin on one knee, staring dully at the spot where Sage Ghost's bedding should have been. Various parfleches—collapsible rawhide bags—had been stacked around the bottom against the skirting of the lodge to act as extra insulation from the stinging cold. The dogs slept outside but their packs stayed in, away from eager teeth, be they canine or packrat—assuming one of the wily rodents made it that far past the famished dogs. Peeled poles, where they supported the finely sewn hides of the lodge cover, gleamed in the crimson light. Through the smoke hole she could see the stars, wavering as the hot air made a mirage of the soot-stained hole.
Tired, deadly tired. Her soul ached. Could this really be happening to her? She glanced at the mounded robes where Bright Moon lay. How long had it been? An eternity?
No, only two long days since Sage Ghost had left with the other men in another attempt to find game—anything to augment the dwindling supplies of food. They shouldn't have come out here in the middle of the basin in the first place. Sage Ghost had told Whistling Hare that starvation and the Wolf People lurked here.
But who remained sane among the battered remains of the White Clay? They were but one small band of the Sun People, harried, constantly pushed farther south by the Broken Stones, the Hollow Flute, and the Black Point. The northern bands had grown, swelling in size until they strained the hunting grounds and stripped berry bushes of fruit.
The clans weren't the only threat. The Wolf People, who lived in the Grass Meadow Mountains to the east, hated the Sun People. Only a week ago they'd ruthlessly raided a Sun camp, sweeping through the village like a swarm of enraged buffalo, burning lodges and murdering everyone in their path. They'd even killed the women and little children, and brutally slashed open the wombs of pregnant mothers to rip the babies from their bodies. Fear stalked the clans of the Sun People like a malignant demon. To the west, the Sheep Hunters, who hunted in the Red Rock Mountains, had warned the White Clay what would happen if anyone foolishly pushed into the canyons in their range. In a world gone hostile, the only hope for survival lay to the south, beyond the Sideways Mountains ... maybe somewhere beyond the land of the Earth People.
While the men hunted, the women trekked long, circuitous routes to check snares and look for concentrations of jackrabbits that might be driven into a trap. The endless, nagging cold continued.
And I have to face Bright Moon's death alone.
The day after Sage Ghost left, the chill had awakened her, eating through the robes, bringing her out of another of the strange Dreams. She'd blinked, wondering why Bright Moon—who took such pride and delight at offering tea to early risers—would have let the fire die. She'd blinked in the gray light and sat up.
"Bright Moon?" she'd called softly and heard no answer. She reached over to the silent bundle and lifted the hides.
Bright Moon lay on her side, eyes glazed by a terrible fear. Her gray hair spilled loosely over the furs, contrasting with the red tones of fox hair under her head.
A desperate croak had come from her foster mother's throat.
White Ash had panicked and thrown on her frost-stiff clothing before stumbling out into the mauve light to run flat-out for old Flying Squirrel's lodge.
The old woman's reputation as the real leader of the band had grown through the years. Her husband, Whistling Hare, might pronounce the decisions, but most people suspected that Flying Squirrel lay behind each and every one. Not that people minded Whistling Hare's leadership; they respected his counsel—and, of course, Flying Squirrel's—and generally did as he advised.
Flying Squirrel had pulled a robe about her thin shoulders and hurried across the snowbound camp. Wind whipped the old woman's silvered braids; the expression on her lined face had gone grim as her feet crunched through the grainy snow. She'd ducked into the lodge and stooped to pull Bright Moon's blanket back. "Bright Moon?"
Only the frightened eyes had moved, tears welling in their corners.
"Can you hear me?" Flying Squirrel had persisted.
Bright Moon mumbled something, lips not moving, eyes darting this way and that.
"Rest, old friend. We will make a fire and get you something to eat." And she'd turned, beckoning White Ash to follow.
Outside, beyond earshot, Flying Squirrel faced White Ash, weary resignation in her old eyes. With a callus-horned hand, she rubbed her long face, rearranging the patterns of wrinkles. "I've seen this before. It's soul splitting."
White Ash drew a quick breath, stiffening. "Her soul's separating from her body? You mean like what happened to old No Teeth?"
Flying Squirrel nodded. "I don't know why. It just happens among the White Clay—more so than among other people. Sometimes it's just one side of the body, and maybe it gets better through time. But with Bright Moon ... Listen, girl, I've walked this earth for six tens of summers and a little more. When it's this bad, it's usually only days until the soul leaves all the way."
White Ash swallowed against her thudding heart. "We need a Soul Flier to sing for her ... to heal her. We'd better send a runner after Old Falcon. Maybe if he comes back from the hunt, he can Sing her soul back into ... Why are you looking at me that way?"
The tenderness in Flying Squirrel's expression deepened. "Because, child, I know you love her. I know what a blessing it's been to Bright Moon to have you these last eight years. But there's nothing we can do."
White Ash shook frantic fists. "But if Old Falcon—"
"Shhh! Which of the boys would you send? Young Drummer? He's barely fourteen summers old. He knows how to stay alive, but with all the trouble we've had, do you think the men left a trail? Hmm? And you know how it is in early spring. Warm in the morning and blowing snow like crazy in the afternoon. And what if the men find a herd of buffalo? Would you have Old Falcon leave them and come running back? Would you risk the Power of the hunt?"
"But she's dying!"
"Yes, girl. She is. And if you don't get that fire started in the lodge, she'll freeze to death first. Come on, I have some embers you can carry back. The fire looked stone dead. You take care of her and let us do the rest. We all love Bright Moon. We'll all help."
And they had. Some brought thin stew, the last of their rations, cut with more and more water. Others brought firewood, or warm tea. Meadow Vole had come and sat by the hour and talked about the past, enjoying a sharing of memories one last time before yet another link with long-gone days separated forever. Through it all, Bright Moon lay there unmoving, helpless and fading.
White Ash did what she could, cleaning Bright Moon's bedding, washing her foster mother, holding her hand during the other times. And finally the old woman slept.
A heaviness pulled at White Ash's eyelids; an ache stabbed through her lower back. She pulled another piece of sagebrush from the pile, dropping it on the red embers. Brilliant yellow light flared before burning down to hot coals.
How would she be able to face Sage Ghost when he returned? How could she look him in the eyes and tell him that the woman he loved more than life lay dying in the lodge? How could she stand his pain? Sage Ghost lived for Bright Moon, sharing a love with her unlike any White Ash had ever seen. For Bright Moon, he'd traveled south to steal a child.
She'd never know a man as good as Sage Ghost. He had become her shield against the world. When the Dreams came on her, he smiled knowingly, and kept them a secret from others. And when she asked him about Power, he got that hidden look in his eyes, a curiously wistful smile curling his lips. But he'd never talk to her about it, saying simply, "Power does as it will." And he'd pat her on the shoulder, the warmth of love in his eyes.
She looked over at Bright Moon. The old woman had been such a wonderful mother—so much better than her real mother among the Earth People. When Bright Moon died, a hole would be ripped in White Ash's soul the way a thrown rock tore through thin ice on a pond. A hole she would never fill again.
Everything would change. What would life be like, just herself and Sage Ghost? What if his soul sickened? That happened sometimes; the soul pined away, lost in grief, until it drifted off and left the body behind as an empty husk.
White Ash reached up with slim fingers to massage her stiff face. Her eyes burned; fatigue burdened her with all the oppressive weight of a freshly skinned buffalo hide. Sage Ghost would depend on her. He'd need her as never before—and she wouldn't even have time to grieve. Her shoulders would take the brunt of the tragedy.
Worse, Brave Man would seize the opportunity to pressure Sage Ghost into letting him marry her. Brave Man. She'd been in love with him once. What had happened to the dashing youth she'd played and laughed with? He'd been light-hearted, daring and handsome. She wished she could simply remember him as he had been, see the sparkle in his dancing dark eyes and enjoy the gay smile on his laughing lips. She'd felt a special affinity for Brave Man, a sense of their destiny together. In her heart she'd known they would marry. Her love for him had grown through the years, richening, ripening—until the day the Black Point had ambushed the camp on the Fat Beaver. Dashing young Brave Man had been wounded in the attack, or perhaps—as he claimed—Brave Man had really died in the attack. Rock Mouse had seen him hit in the head, watched him fall, and seen the blood pool from the gash in his scalp. Several moons later No Teeth and Bobcat had found him wandering aimlessly through the sage-covered hills. Oddly changed, curiously Powerful, Brave Man claimed to have escaped from the Camp of the Dead. A new gleam lit his glazed eyes as he told of the voices that now whispered in his head.
Disgust rose like bile in her throat. Her memory drifted back to last summer ...
With great cunning, Brave Man had ambushed her on the trail, carrying her kicking and screaming into the thick willows along the Gray Deer River. Despite her struggles, she'd been helpless in his powerful arms. She shivered at the memory of his muscles, bulging like river cobbles under her flailing fists.
He'd thrown her down, a triumphant light in his eyes as he pinned her beneath him. She'd continued to struggle, knowing how futile her efforts were.
"You've turned me down for the last time." A nervous smile had flickered across his lips. "The Spirits told me to do this. They whisper to me, you know. It's Power. I want you."
She glared at him. "You can't do this! Not and get away with it!"
He laughed, running his hand up under her deerskin dress to feel her thighs and the place between her legs. "I can. Among the White Clay, a man can steal any woman—as long as he knows where to take her. I have relatives among the Broken Stones. You and I will go there. You'll be my wife and bear my children. No one will be as Powerful as we will."
"And if I don't want to?"
He'd grinned. "You can run away. But when you do, I'll track you down and bring you back. I've listened to the Spirits. They say you're mine. The voices will tell me where you are. We are going to be Powerful one day. You and I together. I've Dreamed it. Yes, I've seen that you're the way to the golden light."
"You'll have to beat me to death!"
He'd shrugged. "Perhaps. But I don't think Power will let you die. You're too important."
She tensed as he pulled the hem of her soft hide dress up, then undid the thong that held his fringed breechclout. She whimpered at the sight of his distended organ.
"Don't do this. Brave Man, don't ... don't ..." Her strength proved no match for his as he forced a knee between her thighs and pried her legs apart.
She stared into his eyes, seeing them glaze as if belonging to another. She could feel his Power—and it curdled her soul. As his penis touched her, she tightened, knowing how much more it would hurt, unable to stop herself.
"Are you ready?" he whispered. "Ready for the unity of our Power?"
A cry choked in her throat as he reached down to open her for his entry.
"So!" a familiar voice called from the willows. "Is this what my friend meant by going hunting this afternoon?"
Brave Man tensed, looking over his shoulder. Relief rushed like spring floodwaters through White Ash's soul.
A strangled sound came from Brave Man's throat before he shouted, "Get away! If you value my friendship, Wind Runner, you'll leave now!" (Continues...)
Excerpted from People of the Earth by W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Copyright © 1992 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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