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 Manand 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 stoopped 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 deepended. "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 theirrations, 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 theoppressive 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 todo 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!"
Handsome, with the smooth grace of a hunting cougar, Wind Runner parted the willows to stand on braced legs, one fist propped insolently on his hip. His other hand gripped hunting darts and an atlatl. The dappled sunlight gleamed in his thick black hair, striking sparks from his hard eyes. The lines of his mouth--more suited to laughter--had gone thin-lipped. "Let her up."
White Ash broke loose and scrambled away, crouching to the side, wary eyes on both of the young men. "He wanted to carry me off to the Broken Stones."
"I heard." Wind Runner chewed his lip, thinking hard before he addressed Brave Man. "This is difficult, old friend. We all know that men steal women, but to do so isn't worthy of who I always thought you were. Then to hear that you would beat White Ash ... well, that makes me wonder."
"You go too far!" Brave Man stood, reknotting the thong that held his breechclout. The muscles rolled under his smooth skin. Then he started for Wind Runner, fingers grasping--only to come up on the sharp point of a dart.
"Don't." Wind Runner smiled, the action in no way belying his deadly intent. "And, yes, I'll skewer you without a second thought. I think you'll thank me for this one of these days."
"I thought you were my friend."
"I am. But sometimes a friend has to do more than sit back like a raven on a stump. Something's happened to you over the last couple of summers. You've been changing, spending too much time in your head. You were about to make a fool of yourself, and I couldn't call myself a friend and let you do it."
Their gazes locked, hot, bristling. White Ash watched them, paralyzed by the intensity of the moment. Like two opposing forces--light and dark, or water and fire--they faced off. Wind Runner, the man she'd come to love for his kindness and calm manner, poised to kill Brave Man, the frightening young warrior whose exploits had saved the White Claymore than once. Driven by the voices that now whispered in his mind, Brave Man was deadly in combat, wily in the hunt.
Brave Man broke, crashing off through the willows, feet thumping the earth as he ran. Wind Runner sucked a deep breath as he stared after him.
White Ash began to shake. She leaned against a cottonwood trunk to brace herself, rubbing nervous hands along her arms. "You have no idea of how glad I am to see you."
"You have no idea of how glad I am that he ran off!"
She grinned at him then, still weak-kneed. "Why are you here?"
Wind Runner blushed slightly, lowering his eyes. "Because I love you ... and wouldn't see you hurt."
She pinned him with her startled gaze, lifting a hand to her mouth. "What?" Love me? Is it true? Could it be? Too many times in the recent past she'd caught herself watching him, staying near in the hope that he'd smile at her, or laugh with her over some trifling thing. Now her soul stirred, happiness seeking to supplant the terror inspired by Brave Man.
He smiled shyly and looked up at the yellowing leaves overhead. "You heard me. I love you. And I can't have you. You're my father's brother's daughter. It would be incest."
She blinked. "But I'm not White Clay!"
He lifted a desultory shoulder. "I know. But it's still incest to the White Clay. You're just like my sister. A sister and brother don't marry, don't couple."
"But I wasn't born White Clay!"
"Are you trying to talk me into something I might regret?"
She gasped and shook her head. "No. I was ... I mean, I ..." He winked at her then, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. A warm illumination, like a shaft of light, shot through her. Her pulse quickened.
"Come on, let's get you back to Sage Ghost before my foolish friend loses all of his senses again." Then, under his breath, he added, "Or I do."
"Don't, not now. Not after what Brave Man just tried to do. I couldn't ... wouldn't want it that way. Not with the fear and disgust so fresh in my mind."
He turned, eyes wide, mouth coming open as his color drained. "White Ash, please, never tempt me. It would be disastrous for both of us. Think about what people would say. Think about how it would affect the Power. Incest ..." He winced. "Nothing is as terrible as that. Nothing. As much as I love you, I couldn't. It would destroy us."
He looked away then, head bowed. "Maybe it's a terrible joke, some temptation by Power that makes me love what I can't have as long as I'm White Clay." He shook his head before turning back to her, features haunted. "And I have driven a final thorn between Brave Man and myself. Why did this have to happen? What's gone wrong with the Power of the White Clay? The two people left to me to love are denied me. The laws of the People keep you from me. And the voices in Brave Man's head--whatever kind of Power they are--have removed him from my life."
She stared up at the leaves that rustled in the breeze, seeing irregular fragments of blue through the yellow mosaic, too undone by the day's events to deal with any more. "I looked into his eyes, Wind Runner. He's not right. Something's wrong inside, I could feel it." She paused. "He'll never forgive you."
"I know. But then, it's better that way than if you were still on the ground under him, isn't it? He's ... I don't know. Something changed after the Black Point raid, after that warrior hit him on the head. Rock Mouse told everyone that the blow killed Brave Man. She said she saw him fall just before she ran. Then Brave Man appears and says he came back from the Camp of the Dead. Maybe he did. He's not the same person we loved. Remember how he was before that? Happy, joking." A wistful tone came to his voice. "He and I, we used to run, play at darts and hoops. We dreamed together then ... dreamed of what we would do, of the hunts we would have, and of how we'd raid the other clans and make names for ourselves as warriors. The person he was then would never have dragged you off or tried to rape you. I've felt the scar on his head. He says that headaches come from there--and the voices of the Spirit Power that whispers in his mind."
"And do you believe it?"
Wind Runner lifted his hands. "I don't know. A different Brave Man walked into camp that day with Bobcat and No Teeth. Someone--something--different in my friend's body."
She placed a tender hand on his shoulder, hating the longing that formed within her. Yes, she loved him. How could she live with the tragedy of never fulfilling that love? She forced herself to ignore the question and said, "No matter what happened to him, he's possessed by something." She shivered. "No good will come of this day. I ... I can feel it, like a winter of the soul."
The fire popped, bringing her back to the lodge and the endless night of Bright Moon's prolonged death. Brave Man would seek more leverage now. For two years she'd been a woman. Each turning of the moon found her taking four days in the menstrual lodge. She'd avoided the chances to sneak off to the bushes with the available men. She'd become somehow special, somehow different, among the White Clay, perhaps because of her denied love for Wind Runner.
And then there were the Dreams ... .
Far to the south, a lilting chant rose on the night, rising and falling as voices twined in time to the beat of a pot drum. A zip-zipping sounded from a grooved bone stroked with a chokecherry stick. A soft, rhythmic clattering accompanied the whole as someone shook an antelope-hoof rattle to the beat of the music.
The song carried on the chill of the night, drifting from the earthen lodge's smoke hole, creeping through the slits of the door hanging, where yellow bars of light slipped past to splash on the hard-frozen ground. The music echoed on the packed soil of the camp and wound through the sagebrush. The chiming notes caressed the winter-tan grasses, hovered over the frozen shadows of drifted snow, iced now from the melt.
The song rose, trilling the evening chill, traveling on itsway to the crystal points of starlight and the Spirit World in a plea for life.
Bad Belly stopped for a moment, head cocked to the song of his People as they called for help from First Man, the Earth Mother, and the Earth Spirits to save Warm Fire's life. Despite the desperate nature of the ceremony unfolding in his grandmother's lodge, the beauty of the night captivated him. He'd left the steamy warmth inside to go out and attend to the necessities of the body. Now, walking back, he hesitated, cold wind nipping at his cheeks, flicking his black braids back and forth like twin cougar tails. Spring would come soon, but would Warm Fire live to see it?
Bad Belly dallied, unwilling to return to Larkspur's lodge and face his grandmother's disdainful stare or the pain of his brother-in-law, Warm Fire's, wasting. His sister, Bitterbrush, would still be sitting in her accustomed place where she watched her failing husband through haunted eyes.
He shook his head and sighed. What did it feel like to know that your wife loved you? His mercifully short marriage to Golden Flax had been anything but blissful--she'd finally thrown him out. Bitterbrush, like everyone else, loved Warm Fire. How would she cope with her husband's death?
How will I?
Bad Belly took a deep breath. How does a man deal with the death of his only friend? Images of Warm Fire's face stirred the gray ashes of his memory. Warm Fire's twinkling eyes and reassuring smile hung in his thoughts with all the clinging sorrow of honey in a sandstorm.
High on the rocks behind the camp, a wolf keened into the night, voice twining with that of the singers who pled for Warm Fire's life. Bad Belly bit the inside of his lip, seeking to draw resolve from the pain. A shiver caught him by surprise as the cold breeze shifted. Darkness pressed around, seeping into his life, sucking at his soul.
As if to reassure him, Trouble padded across the crunching snow to thrust his nose into Bad Belly's hand. Absently Bad Belly scratched his shaggy black-and-white dog's furry ears.
Life hadn't always been so difficult. Once he'd had the ability to greet the morning sun with more than trepidation.He had been named Still Water as a boy, though now he doubted that anyone even remembered. They'd begun calling him Bad Belly the time his stomach had given him so much trouble, and the name had stuck with the persistence of boiled pine sap. He squinted up at the stars, wondering if the Creator--who knew everything--remembered his real name, or cared that the last bit of human warmth and companionship in his life grew dimmer by the moment.
Warm Fire remembered--but Warm Fire lay in Larkspur's lodge, dying, while the Healer, Black Hand, Sang over him.
Had Power left Bad Belly alone, he would have been an average sort of man, not very tall, not very muscular, and not very handsome. But the capricious Spirits had meddled. When he'd been a boy, he'd stuck his hand into a hole where he'd secreted a special toy. Rattlesnake--in search of respite from the glaring summer sun--had found the same hole and secreted himself in there, too.
Bad Belly had hovered between life and death as Singing Stones--the renowned Spirit Healer--chanted endlessly over him. Either the chants had worked, or his grandmother had paid enough, or sacrificed enough, to the Spirit World to win him his life. Of course, had he been a first daughter, Larkspur would have paid a lot more and perhaps Bad Belly might have escaped his experience in one piece. As it was, his right arm had never been the same. Now it hung uselessly: a misshapen and crooked thing that he held protectively to his chest.
Shortly after that, Singing Stones had left the People to go to Dream high in the Sideways Mountains. If only he were here now! The greatest of all Healers, he might have made the difference for Warm Fire. But the old man had disappeared into the high places to find something he called "the One."
Bad Belly walked up the trail to where the rocks that jutted up from the gravelly soil loomed black in the night. He lifted a foot onto the rough granite and stared up at the dark shape of the Round Rock Mountains that rose behind the camp. At another time he'd been climbing up there, and because he had only one good hand, he'd slipped and fallen and hurt his right leg. Fortunately, Warm Fire had been close and hadcarried him back to camp. Warm Fire--he'd always been there in times of trial.
Warm Fire's words of encouragement and comfort whispered through Bad Belly's uneasy recollections. No one else understood him, treated him as a worthy human being. And now Warm Fire lay in the lodge ... no, don't think it.
Warm Fire listened to Bad Belly's incessant questions about the way things were. He didn't laugh when Bad Belly's attention wandered and he lost track of his thoughts. Instead, Warm Fire smiled and helped protect his brother-in-law when Larkspur's wrath exploded at Bad Belly's preoccupation.
"I can't help it," Bad Belly whispered to the night. Everything had a secret. Everything evoked a question. Why did birds fly? Where did wind come from? How could snow, rain, hail, thunder and lighting all come from the clouds? Most of his people, the Round Rock clan, considered him a fool for thinking about such things.
Bad Belly cleared his throat, enjoying the icy needles of wind-driven cold as they prickled his skin. The earthen lodge had been hot, damp, overwhelmed by the smell of sweating human bodies. Only the pungent relief of the water-soaked Sagebrush leaves and crushed yarrow that Black Hand cast onto the radiating hearthstones had helped. Sagebrush--the life-giver--cleared the breathing passages, working the magic of renewal.
Trouble walked off toward Bitterbrush's lodge--a black-and-white shadow in the darkness.
Bad Belly filled his lungs with the frigid air. Time to go back. Time to force all of his soul into the Healing Songs, to pray that his only friend might remain alive and well.
He lifted his eyes to the star-shot sky and chanted, "Creator, if you must take a life, take mine. Leave my friend alive. Give him strength and happiness. Take my life in place of his. People need him."
Blinking at the longing echo in his voice, he stared at the heavens. Only the wind moaned in answer. Bad Belly started down the trail.
The sound of claws scratching across rock caused him to wheel and stare into the darkness. The huge animal stoodsilhouetted against the sable cloak of night. From where he stood, Bad Belly could see the amber eyes glowing with an internal light of their own. A fist of premonition twisted in his gut.
Bad Belly backed away, step by careful step, eyes locked on the wolf's. Spirit animal, what do you do here? Have you come for a soul? Are you the answer to my prayer?
He nerved himself, repeating aloud, "Take me. Let Warm Fire live."
The wolf's broad head lowered, ears going back as curling lips bared gleaming teeth. A low sound issued from the animal's throat--a muted moan crossed with the ghost of a howl.
Bad Belly's heel caught in the sage. He teetered briefly, arms flailing, before he toppled over backward, a cry breaking his lips when he hit the ground. Snow crunched as he pushed himself up and stared.
The wolf had disappeared.
"Take me!" he called, raising his withered arm in a hopeless gesture. Only the wind hissing through the stiff sage and the muffled chitter of snow crystals blowing over the drift answered him.
He hung his head before he forced himself to his feet and turned his steps for the earthen dome of the lodge. He looked back at the rounded lump of granite, hope strangling in his breast. Not even a shadow remained. Regretfully he pulled the door flap back and ducked into the humid heat and dancing firelight that filled Larkspur's lodge. The chill that had refreshed his body had numbed his soul.
The last lilting notes of Black Hand's healing song died as he entered. The lodge, perhaps three long paces across, consisted of a low-domed, circular structure that had been dug into the ground to the depth of a man's waist. Four sturdy roof supports of limber pine rose from each side of the fire to a square framework of stringers that surrounded the smoke hole. Rafters had been run from the stringers to the edge of the excavated pit. Bundles and pouches hung from the rafters on thongs, and rolled furs supported the people who sat shoulder to shoulder around the periphery of the lodge.
No one seemed to have noticed Bad Belly's absence. Attentioncentered on the Spirit Healer, who sat at the rear of the lodge in the place of honor. Black Hand might have passed forty winters, though Bad Belly suspected the man to be older. He wore a painted elk-hide jacket that hung to the middle of his thighs, and long, fringed leggings. Many necklaces adorned his chest, some sporting gleaming white shells brought by Traders from as far away as the Western Waters beyond the land of the Antelope People. Polished eagle-bone beads had been woven into a breastplate that covered Black Hand's entire chest.
No trace of white streaked the Healer's shining black hair, but thin lines had formed around his severe mouth. Now he prayed, head tilted back, eyes closed, as he passed more damp sagebrush through the Blessing motions, offering it to the east, west, north, and south and then to the sky and earth before casting the wet leaves into the fire. Steam erupted in a hissing, spitting cloud.
Beside Black Hand, Warm Fire lay on his side, knees drawn up. Bad Belly's heart shriveled at his brother-in-law's appearance; sunken flesh had melted away until he looked like little more than dried winterkill. The old sparkle had disappeared from the lackluster eyes. Warm Fire coughed, a lung-wrenching sound. It hurt just to hear it. He wasted by the day, hardly able to breathe. A rasping sound came from his throat, while his chest labored. How could a man so handsome and strong be reduced to this?
Bad Belly blinked at the pain within. He loved Warm Fire-loved him with all of his heart. To sit through his slow death ... it ate at him, wounding his soul. Across the fire, their eyes met. Warm Fire's weary smile burned the hurt even deeper.
No one else smiled for Bad Belly.
To Black Hand's right, old Larkspur looked on, a sour tightness in her expression as she blinked her eyes nervously. She sat amidst the rich furs, firelight flickering over the deep lines that age had engraved in her face. She watched Black Hand the way a hawk might watch a foolish young ground squirrel. She always got that sharpness in her features when equals were around. Her face reminded Bad Belly of a wildprune kept a year too long, withered, sucked dry. Over the years her teeth had fallen out until her jaw jutted out, sharp and harsh. A thick nose hung over thin brown lips, and she tended to blink too much, as if something bothered her eyes.
When Larkspur died, the camp and its territories would pass to Bad Belly's mother, Limbercone--the oldest daughter. She now sat beside Larkspur, hands folded in her lap, her broad face weather-beaten and honed. Shé might have been a younger copy of her mother but for the long, curved nose that dominated her face. Limbercone would give a lodge to each of her sisters, Phloxseed and Pretty Woman, as was customary. But when they died, everything would go to Bitterbrush, Bad Belly's oldest sister. The People did it that way. Inheritance went through the women. When the men married, they went to live in the lodges of their new wives.
Bad Belly had done that when Larkspur married him off. If only things had been different between himself and Golden Flax ... It's over. Forget it.
Bad Belly's aunt, Phloxseed, and her husband, Flatsedge, sat along the back wall, glancing nervously at Warm Fire. Opposite Limbercone sat Cattail, Bad Belly's father. Age had begun to work its way on Cattail, increasing and hardening the lines around the corners of his eyes and mouth. Once, when he'd been a young man, Cattail had led a war party against the Wolf People in the Grass Meadow Mountains and captured the sacred Power Bundle they guarded so heavily. Every clan feared that bundle. The old stories said that it was First Man's bundle and that Fire Dancer had given it to the Earth People just after he'd Danced with fire to renew the world.
Cattail claimed that at the instant he'd touched the bundle on that long-ago day, his soul had burst into flame and the bundle had shouted at him that he wasn't fit to be the Keeper of the Bundle. The Spirit of the bundle had carried Cattail up to the clouds on a fiery whirlwind and ordered him to return it to its rightful Keeper. An hour later the Wolf People had come down to the Gathering and sued for peace to reclaim their bundle. Cattail had given it up willingly, and the Wolf People had provided the Round Rock with meat andpine nuts for ten years after that. Larkspur had jumped at the chance of adding Cattail to her family, thereby gaining a great deal of prestige for her daughter.
Warm Fire broke into a fit of coughing again, turning his head as he swallowed the fluid his throat had brought up.
Bad Belly settled himself next to Bitterbrush. She glanced at him, eyes reflecting worry and love for her dying husband. He took her hot hand into his cold one, gripping it tightly, reassuringly. Bitterbrush would always make a place for him. Perhaps because she had been closest to him, or perhaps because of Warm Fire's friendship for her wayward brother.
"He's dying," Bitterbrush whispered, a look of misery in her eyes. "What will I do? What will I do, Bad Belly?"
"Black Hand's a great Healer. Wait and see." He couldn't help looking across to where Bitterbrush's children, Tuber and Lupine, sat. They tried to keep stoic faces as they cast frightened glances back and forth between Warm Fire, their mother, and the Healer.
Bad Belly's throat constricted. What would he do when his best friend died? He closed his eyes against the ache that filled him.
Copyright © 1992 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear