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The land burned--not with flame, not with heat, but with the raw, savage colors of the Ice Age autumn. The girl seemed to burn with the tundra as, knee-deep in the dry, wind-whipped grasses of the rolling Arctic steppe, she deliberately slowed her pace and allowed old Grek to lead the other girls and women on. With their heavily laden gathering baskets hefted on their hips and the children and dogs trotting at their sides, they were far too busy chattering to notice that Naya had fallen behind. They leaned into the wind, their dark hair streaming behind them. The bone, shell, and stone-beaded leather fringes of their garments flapped, tangled, and clicked noisily as they hurried on with never a backward glance.
Naya stopped, waiting for old Grek to sense her absence. When he did not, she smiled. She had made a careful game of her sudden need to be alone. No one had missed her. On and on walked old Grek, proudly assuming the role of woman watcher, aggressively stabbing the wind with his bone-shafted, stone-tipped spears. Loudly and respectfully he appealed to the lions, bears, leaping cats, and wolves. The wind carried his deep voice to Naya; she could hear it clearly.
"The women and children of Torka come, yes!" he cried. "Grek leads them now to the lake, yes! The women and children will drink! The women and children will bathe! Look not with hungry eyes as they pass, for Mother Below has made the lake for all creatures who live upon her skin. Let us come safely through the country of the flesh-eaters."
It occurred to Naya that she should be afraid to stand alone in the country of the flesh-eaters; but the sun was so warm and the day so fair that not even fear could chill her--only pity could do that, and did. The men of the band were hunting bear in the far hills, and she wondered if her grandfather resented being with the females instead of with the other hunters, who were tracking the great three-pawed bear that had been raiding the winter storage pits of the People. Grek gave no sign of resentment. He walked arrogantly ahead of his charges in his timeworn shaggy leggings and long-haired black shirt cut from the skin of an adult bison. It took a big man to wear such a heavy tide. Grek was big, and the shirt made him seem even bigger. With his massive head bent and his broad back humped against the wind, Naya understood why the children of the band called him Bison Man.
A cloud passed before the sun. Naya looked up. Shadows swept across the world, then vanished as the cloud was consumed by the hard, dry wind. The euphoria that had brought Naya to pause was gone. She felt tired now, irritable. The fringes of her lightweight coltskin dress were tangled from the wind, and she did not savor the prospect of separating them. The morning's gathering of lichens, fungi, tubers, and the seeds and berries of the dying summer had wearied her.
Naya scowled. She was all too easily wearied these days. Was it any wonder? Soon the thirteenth winter of her life would begin. Thirteen! The concept staggered her. It seemed an enormous number of years for a girl who had yet to come to her first time of blood.
True, the spirit of a woman's life would come to a girl in its own good time, and she was not the only girl in the band to come late to womanhood. Many a chant and medicine smoke had been offered to the forces of Creation on behalf of Swan, the headman's youngest daughter, and Larani, daughter of the hunter Simu; yet neither girl had come to her first time of blood even though they were the same age as Naya.
She frowned as she thought about this. The girls' slow maturation had prompted the older band members to whisper with concern. Naya had seen the women seeking omens in the organs of female animals taken by hunters. The women assured the headman that all boded well for the "new women to be," but saw to it that Naya, Swan, and Larani shared equally in the small, fatty glands that were cut from above the kidneys of every kill. It was well-known that rare and wondrous spirits lived in these little glands--spirits that favored women and had the power to bring girls more quickly to their time of blood.
Naya made a face of revulsion. She did not like the taste of the little glands, but she always dutifully ate her portion. Swan found them pleasant enough, and Larani actually liked them. Nevertheless, while Swan and Larani were visibly blossoming toward impending womanhood, the granddaughter of Grek still looked like a child.
She sighed wistfully. Swan had grown tall during the last long winter, and Larani actually looked like a woman under her clothes. The hunters of the band were gazing at her with new eyes. Soon gifts would be brought to her parents, and she would become some man's new woman.
Naya sighed again. No man looked at her as they looked at Larani. She would always be called Little Girl because she was little--a small, bird-boned, skinny sprout who would never bleed as a woman bleeds, never be looked at by the men of the band, and never be given gifts by those who would wish to invite her away from the fire circle that she had shared with her grandfather since the death of her parents so many long years ago.
Old Grek promised that someday she would win the finest gifts of all because she was the daughter of a great shaman. He had told her that she would be mated to one of the headman's sons. But Naya was not certain if she believed him. Unlike Swan and Larani, she was not growing up--she was simply growing old! Soon days and nights would pass and one morning she would wake to find that her entire life had gone by. She would limp around camp, mumbling about the past, and sucking food through the rubble of her teeth.
The girl's eyes widened as she realized that the distance between her and the others was much greater than before. "Grek! Everybody! Wait!"
The wind blew the words back into her round little face. Her small, perfectly matched, but oddly serrated upper teeth chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. The others walked on, not looking back. Not even Squirrel Killer, her favorite among the dogs, had missed her. Vexed, she hurried on.
Now a wild dog--or was it a dire wolf?--yapped somewhere in the tawny, windswept hills to the east. Naya turned, startled, to stare across the open, rolling steppe toward the hills and the vast, tumbled, ice-ridden mountain ranges that lay beyond. She could see no sign of dog or wolf, but that did not mean that one or more of these animals was not there.
She held her breath and listened, straining to see. To become a straggler was asking to become meat for the watching yellow-eyed carnivores of the wide, savage steppe.
Yet, somehow, she did not feel threatened. The most unusual sensations were sweeping through her body and mind, as pleasant as they were disconcerting. She had never felt like this before.
Her right hand strayed to her throat and rested there on her newly strung necklet of berry beads. In her gathering basket was a generous collection of the seedy, summer-dried little fruits, which she had at first mistaken for craneberries. Thinking them pretty, she had made a necklet of them while the other women and girls had been busy with their own morning's gleaning. With a bone needle taken from the feather-shaft quill case that she wore like a tiny ornament inserted through the base of her nose, she had carefully strung the berries onto a slender thong ripped from the fringes of her knee-length dress. The result had been a pretty adornment, and Naya liked pretty things.
Now--and not for the first time since stringing the berries--she absently raised the strand to her mouth and nervously moved the tip of her tongue against the slick, oily skin of the tiny orb of fruit. Although nearly completely dehydrated, the berries still oozed a little juice. The taste was subtle, decidedly sweet, and pleasant.
Her pulse began to pound and leap. She laughed, then stifled the sound. She was behaving so strangely!
Now her small right hand drifted downward . . . lightly questingly, to her newly budding breasts. Larani would have laughed to see them; they were not really breasts at all, not when compared to the wondrous swellings upon the chest of the daughter of Simu and Eneela. No, these were the breasts of Little Girl; no larger than the minute shells that were sometimes found along riverbanks. These were nothing to boast of.
Her mood suddenly shifted. Awash in the sunlight, she was euphoric again, at perfect equilibrium with the moment. The berries were a warm, moist embrace around her neck. The world trembled before her. Her dress suddenly felt hot, suffocating. In one fluid motion, she peeled off the garment.
Naked save for her necklet and calf-high moccasins, Naya felt so much better that with a sudden laugh she raised her arms and began to dance. She whirled faster and faster until her long, plaited hair spun outward, whipping and singing in the air like twisted sinew.
Dizzy, she stopped. The world went on spinning. Her braids coiled around her face, slapping her, rousing pain as crying out in surprise, she staggered, then fell.
It took a moment for the world to stop moving. Puzzled by her own behavior, Naya clambered shakily to her feet and wiped her bruised knees with her palms. For the first time since deliberately falling behind, Naya's head cleared completely. She felt a chill, a warning of winter.
Soon the time of the long dark would come to the northern world. Hares, ptarmigan, owls, and foxes were already changing color. Soon the great herds of grazing animals would follow the sun over the edge of the earth, and many a wolf, wild dog, and fox would follow. Soon horses, camels, and mammoth would leave the tundra to winter with moose and deer within the wind-protected hills. Bears and lions would seek their dens. Pikas, voles, squirrels, and lemmings would go to ground. Rivers and ponds would turn to ice, and fish would either seek deep water or freeze. The sky would whiten with clouds and migrating geese, and when the last of the winged ones was gone, Father Above would close his yellow eye, wrap himself in robes of storm darkness, and seek winter sleep in the arms of his sister--the moon. Then the days of endless night and cold would come. Then the People and the animals of the world would go hungry as Spirit Sucker hunted the earth, feeding upon the lives of the old and the weak . . . and occasionally upon the young and the strong.
Naya trembled. Why think of winter when the wind still sang of summer as it blew warm and hard across the world? Entranced by the splendor of the moment, Naya wanted to prolong the glorious day so that its memory would warm her in the long dark times to come.
Moments passed. Again the dog yapped, a deeper sound now, more threatening. Naya jumped, turned, and saw nothing, but she felt eyes watching her. It was definitely time to go.
"Wait!" she cried. "Wait for me!"
Umak laughed. In the high, sun-scorched grasses beside him on the hill, Companion, his wolflike hunting dog, cocked its gray head and put back its ears in puzzlement. Then, not to be outdone, the dog lifted its head and howled as though in contest with the man.
Far below on the rolling grassland, Naya looked back over her shoulder as she ran, tripped, then went sprawling. In a moment she was on her feet again, screaming as she stumbled on, abandoning her dress and leaving her gathering basket and its hopelessly scattered contents where they lay.
The young man was the wolf who had deliberately set dread into Naya's heart; it was his fault that Little Girl was running in panic. But what else could he have done when she had fallen behind the others? He had wanted to shout a warning, to ask her what in the name of the forces of Creation she thought she was doing there alone, sucking on her berry beads and dancing naked beneath the sun. But if Naya discovered that he was following, she would reveal it to old Grek. And if Grek found out that he had not been trusted to be sole woman watcher, his pride would shrivel. Not a man in the band would wish such shame upon old Grek. And so, by the "luck" of a secret draw, Umak, elder of the headman's twin sons, was hiding, shadowing the old man, the women, and the children instead of where he wished to be--tracking bear with the other hunters.
The words of Torka, his father, echoed in his head: In protecting our women and children there is much honor! They were strong words, as powerful as the headman himself. The man who is chosen to protect the women and children of the People holds the future of the band in his hands.
"Yes, yes, of course," Umak muttered impatiently now as he moved resentfully forward through the grass.
In his lightweight summer tunic and leggings of caribou skin, Umak's lean, powerful young body cut a narrow swath through the tawny hills as he moved forward, being carefully not to stand erect lest Naya turn and see him. He lengthened his stride; Little Girl was faster than he had thought possible, and she had put herself beyond the protective range of his spears. Until he was able to close the distance between them, she was completely vulnerable.
"Either slow down or run faster, Little Girl!" he muttered, wishing that he could shout the words. He howled instead--a loud, deep, vicious howl.
"There!" Umak said, satisfied. "That will put fire beneath your feet and speed you on your way to safety." He would have added more, but Naya tripped and fell again.
Umak stopped, ducking low within the dry, stony depression of a streambed. The dog stopped beside him panting now, tongue lolling and slobbering. Umak's long earth-eating stride had lessened the distance between him and the girl considerably.
"Silly Little Girl. If only you knew that it was Umak, and not a wolf, who pursues you."
Naya was such a gullible child--amusing and clever and always unpredictable, except when it came to satisfying her appetite for food or pretty things. Everyone smiled upon Naya. Everyone was amused by her. But everyone worried over her increasingly headstrong nature. Grek pampered her excessively, and it was not a good thing to spoil children; eventually little ones had to grow up and assume their full responsibilities within the band. What Naya had done today was irresponsible and dangerous to herself and to those who might be forced to risk themselves on her behalf.
Troubled by his thoughts, Umak edged his way downhill. The lay of the land allowed him a view beyond the rise that stood between Naya and the others: The females had reached the reed-choked shore of a small, shallow lake that shimmered in the wind. It was beautiful. Umak smiled with pleasure at the sight of it. Several of the women were already racing ahead, casting off their garments as they sloshed into the cool shallows. The children and pups and big, rangy dogs followed to turn the water brown with their splashings. It was evident that in the excitement of the moment, no one had missed Naya. Umak frowned. Grek should have noticed her absence long before now. He nodded to himself. Torka had been right to send a man to keep an eye on the old hunter--Grek was obviously not the man he used to be.
Crouching low, he sought the concealment of grass, then moved downward across the face of the hill, flat on his belly with his spears extended forward and held in both palms. He paused close to a scrubby tangle of craneberry bushes. The sight of the fruit caused him to salivate. The berries were much larger than usual, dark and half-dried from the effects of wind and sun. Nevertheless, Umak had not tasted water since dawn, and a craneberry was a craneberry. Even the most desiccated bit of fruit would help to ease his thirst.
He reached for a handful of berries, tossed them into his mouth, then instantly spat them out, recoiling. Whatever the fruits were, they were not craneberries; a closer look at them and the shrub that bore them affirmed this. Still spitting particles of seed and half-dried pulp from his tongue, Umak castigated himself for carelessness. Many summers and winters had come and gone since the five-year-old son of the hunter Simu had eaten the flesh of an unfamiliar fungus, but Umak still cringed at the memory of the bloated little body, the grotesquely swollen face, and the pitiful, gasping cries of the dying child.
A sudden crack of thunder startled him. The sound seemed to have come from directly overhead, but he had seen no lightning, and the sky was clear. He frowned. How could lightning strike out of a cloudless sky? He looked across the wide, rolling river of golden steppeland. Clouds were gathering over the distant ranges like herds of woolly, growling black animals. The thunderbolt had come from the west. The clouds were massing now, forming into squall lines, gradually extending their range to shadow the foothills and the distant reaches of the summer-parched plain. Soon the tundral lake would be in shadow. Soon it would rain--at long last!
As Umak stared across the distances lightning veined the sky and sent probing fingers of white-hot light deep into the skin of the earth. The wind was growing much stronger now, whipping the grasses and causing them to lash his face. Remnants of golden pollen rained upon him and caused his eyes and nostrils to itch fiercely.
He stifled a sneeze. It was a wasted effort. Companion sneezed with him--followed by another that was twice as loud. Umak quickly curled his fingers around the broad muzzle lest another such sneeze reveal his presence to Naya.
The girl was facing toward him now, with her back to the wind, listening and alert, tensed to sprint from danger. Umak held his breath. Only after the longest, most searching pause did she whirl and begin to run again.
Had she seen him? For a moment he could have sworn that their eyes had met. Something was different about her stride--it was so intensely and unexpectedly sexual that he stared after her in shock and amazement. A moment ago he had been looking at a child. Now the sight of her bare shapely little bottom winking away in panicked flight reminded him of the upturned tail of a doe antelope racing provocatively across the steppe, inviting all ready bucks to follow.
Warmth stirred within his loins. What a tiny thing Naya was, all legs and nearly breastless, yet she was heart-stopping lovely. His woman did not look like this. No. Honee, the mother of his two little ones, was fat, with layerings of skin in places where flesh should lie smooth. . . .
The dog whined and nuzzled Umak's free hand, urging him to move on, but the young hunter paid no heed. He stared at Naya until his eyes burned, and even though the sun was beating on his back, heating his hunting tunic until his skin seemed to be liquefying beneath it, he made no attempt to move or to look away. Unlike the sun, a man could look at a woman without going blind.
Or could he? Naya was not a woman! She was a child! But she would be a woman someday. And when that time came, she would be his brother's woman. It had been decided long ago: Naya was for his twin, for Manaravak. Umak had no right to look at her at all.