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"Enemy or not, you will marry the Ahousat!"
Her father's order rang in her ears even now, as Sarita picked blueberries on the peaceful hillside. With those few words, her life had shattered.
She stripped another handful of the luscious blue-gray fruit off the delicate, lacy branch. She dropped the berries into her cedar basket then straightened. Rubbing the small of her back, she looked over at the other women scattered about the clearing. Several women, commoner and slave alike, worked quietly at their task, bending over the heavily laden bushes. There was Spring Fern, her slave, busily picking a rich harvest of berries. Perhaps she could help calm Sarita's unhappy brooding.
Sarita looked around her. A gentle sea breeze, tangy with a salty smell, rustled the bushes growing on the slanting ground. Stark, fire-blackened skeletons of dead cedars dotted the clearing--remnants of a long forgotten forest fire. Higher up on the hillside the thick, green growth of cedar and fir reclaimed the land. All around the brush-covered clearing, the soft purple flowers of fireweed scattered bursts of color against the light green and yellow of the dried grass. It was a tranquil scene--in vivid contrast to Sarita's thoughts.
"Spring Fern," she called, "Come over here and pick with me!" She watched as the slave gathered up her basket and slowly trudged the distance between them.
Usually, picking sweet blueberries was one of Sarita's favorite chores. Today, however, her hands trembled and her thoughts raced. She couldn't concentrate on her picking and when she looked into her basket, she noted that many blueberries were crushed. Picking with care, however, was of little concern.Her mind was on Fighting Wolf.
She wiped a purple-stained hand across her forehead. It was so hot on this early summer day. Below her she could see the quiet village laid out in the morning sun. Tiny dots, people, went about their daily activities. Occasionally, the muted sound of someone's laughter drifted lazily up to the workers on the hill. She, however, would never laugh again, she told herself bitterly. There would be no laughter in a forced marriage to Fighting Wolf.
Standing on the side of the hill in the small clearing, Sarita could look down at the village spread out along the beach embankment. In each long, wooden house lived several families. This was the summer village. In the fall, the houses would be disassembled, the side planks taken down and packed away. Then, everything and everyone would move to the winter village. Everyone, that is, except me, she thought angrily. By then she would be living amongst the hated Ahousats.
The reflection of the sun's intense rays on the bright water far below temporarily blinded her. The shallow arms of a bay formed a gentle half-curve separated by a wide expanse of water. It was almost as if the arms stretched futilely towards each other to keep out the rolling grasp of the sea. They afforded some protection from the huge ocean, but in the rare, wild, summer storms were forced to surrender to the raging gray waters. Today however, the sea was silver, like a gently rolling sweep of shimmering mercury.
Sarita turned back to her blueberry bush. She picked carefully now, the big, plump berries falling easily into her hand. Popping a berry into her mouth, she chewed it quickly, tasting nothing as she pondered the events of earlier that morning.
"Have you given any more consideration to Fighting Wolf's offer of marriage, my daughter?" her father had asked her.
When Sarita answered him with stubborn silence, he continued patiently. "He's a very good provider for his family. He'd make a good husband. In addition, his family is as wealthy and as well-known as ours." He paused. "Wealthier, in fact. They have large clam beds, hunting territories, many slaves. They are a powerful and ambitious family."
"Oh?" Her tone conveyed her disinterest.
"You would seek long and hard to find a better match for our two families."
Sarita lifted her chin defiantly and her eyes flashed. "That may well be, Nuwiksu," she sniffed haughtily, "but I find Fighting Wolf not to my liking. I don't know him and I don't see how I, a Hesquiat woman, can love and respect someone from the Ahousat tribe. They've been our enemies for many years."
Her father began to lose some of his usual calm manner. "You will obey me, daughter! Think seriously on this matter. You've tried my patience long enough. You've rejected every eligible young man in this village and the next!"
His voice rose in anger. "No other father is so patient! Most young women have long been married by your age, betrothed from the time of their puberty ceremony! I've been exceedingly patient with you ... but no more!"
Sarita watched as, with great effort, her father brought himself under control. "Too much rests on this alliance. As you say, we've been enemies of the Ahousat for several years. But I," he announced, "have had enough of war and killing."
He paused, his angry gaze upon her, and Sarita had flinched inside. "You will marry Fighting Wolf in five days!"
"Nuwiksu!" Sarita had cried then. "No! Please--!"
"I've already agreed to the marriage. I'd hoped you'd see the wisdom of it and accept it. I see now that you won't. No matter."
"Nuwiksu--"implored the distraught girl.
He waved away her pleas. "You'll accept your husband-to-be gracefully. Enemy or not, you will marry the Ahousat!"
With this grim pronouncement, her father had stalked off, leaving his daughter standing with head bowed and tears coursing down her cheeks.
Sarita's thoughts returned to the present. What would she do now? She wondered woefully.
It was true that she had rejected every eligible suitor in the village and a few others besides. But she wanted a man to love and respect, one who would cherish her as in the romantic tales the storytellers chanted on long winter evenings. That wasn't so wrong. She wanted to love and be loved in return. Now, being married off to an enemy, she had no chance for love. How could Nuwiksu do this? She lamented hopelessly.
As Spring Fern approached, Sarita stood lost in thought. The slave noted her mistress' lithe figure in the woven cedar bark dress. Shining dark brown hair, high-lighted with gold, hung loose to Sarita's waist. High cheekbones and a straight nose made her face striking. The delicate arch of her eyebrows graced scintillating golden eyes that danced with an inner fire. Her cheeks were lightly tanned, touched by the rosy blush of good health.
Sarita's full lips parted to show even, white teeth as she smiled briefly at Spring Fern, noting her heavily laden basket. "Oh, Spring Fern," she sighed. "What am I to do? What am I to do?"
Spring Fern bent and carefully placed her burden on the ground. She straightened, looking at Sarita with compassionate eyes. Given to Sarita when both were but children, Spring Fern was sensitive to her mistress' moods and needs. She knew Sarita was truly upset.
"About what, mistress?" she asked carefully.
Sarita quickly told her slave of the earlier conversation with her father. Picking the succulent berries, she asked solemnly, "How could Nuwiksu do this to me? He's giving me to the enemy!"
"Perhaps this Fighting Wolf isn't so bad," consoled the slave. "Your father loves you very much. Surely he wouldn't give you to someone who'd harm you." She managed to keep the doubt out of her voice. As she spoke, her nimble fingers speedily gathered the fruit.
Sarita shook her head sadly. "We've been fighting the Ahousats for a long time. No, I know they're our enemies."
Spring Fern had to agree. "Yes, for as long as I can remember, we've been at war with the Ahousats."
Sarita went on, as if she hadn't heard, "They've always wanted our fishing streams, our clam beaches. Countless times they've raided us in the night like the thieves they are! They kill our men and steal our women and babies. Fighting Wolf is their war chief. He's the one who leads them in their bloody fights. He's the worst of them all! And he's the man my father would have me marry!"
Spring Fern heard the agony in her mistress' voice. She answered quietly, "I don't understand it myself." She sighed. "It seems it's always the way of men to make war ... and the way of women to suffer from war. Your father is a good man," she added reassuringly. "Perhaps he wants an end to all the fighting and killing. If your father gives you to Fighting Wolf, the Ahousats won't raid us any more."
Sarita didn't answer. She just stared at her slave, a sudden question forming in her mind. She burst out, "But it was Fighting Wolf that approached my father about marriage."
Spring Fern shrugged. "Oh? What difference does that make?"
"It means," said Sarita excitedly, "that Nuwiksu didn't approach Fighting Wolf and offer me in marriage. Fighting Wolf came to my father and asked for me. Don't you see? Fighting Wolf asked for me! It was only then that my father agreed to the marriage."
The two women stared at each other for a moment, pondering the meaning of this revelation.
"Now, why?" mused Sarita. "Why would Fighting Wolf offer for me? What possible advantage is there for him?"
"Perhaps the Ahousats are losing the war with us," suggested Spring Fern. "Maybe he wants to make peace. He knows that if he marries you, your father will no longer fight against him."
Sarita snorted. "The Ahousats aren't losing. They're winning against us! Why would the winners chose to marry into the losing side? It doesn't make sense."
"Maybe Fighting Wolf is tired of war," sighed Spring Fern. "I know I'm tired of talking about it." She caught Sarita's eye and grinned as she added, "Maybe he's heard how beautiful you are and wants to marry you for that reason."
"Hmmph," sniffed Sarita. "I suspect a man like Fighting Wolf, trained only for war, doesn't concern himself with things like beauty. He would have no softness in him. Besides, he probably has his pick of beautiful women."
When Spring Fern raised a brow inquiringly, Sarita explained, "Women taken as slaves in the many raids he's led."
Sarita continued her musing, "No, there must be something, some reason, why he offered for me." She paused in her picking. "Spring Fern, I don't like it. I don't trust him."
"Your father does," shot back Spring Fern.
"Does he? You say that because he's agreed to give me to Fighting Wolf," stated Sarita slowly. "Or is Nuwiksu forced into this alliance as much as I am?"