Well, not really a lot of that to do here. But still: Mai-HiME and all it's characters (And boy, are they ever!) belong to Sunrise. No profit made, no infringement intended.
Brief mentions of het. :o
Stone Age, Upper Paleolithic
circa 30,000 BC, Eurasian Continent
It was strange, she thought, how silence could feel as if it was trying to drive you crazy with its presence. Especially when that presence was something you used to seek out – a way of temporary reprieve for a private soul... an escape from the voices and nearness of family, cherished though it was.
She exhaled, and watched as the chill of the air turned her breath into fog in front of her face. The sun had passed its zenith some time ago, and she'd turned her thoughts to finding shelter. Berries and other types of edible vegetation had been tucked into the pouch at her waist during the day's trek, but meat – if she could find any likely prey – would have to wait until she had found a place to settle for the night.
The term bounced around the inside of her head for only a moment before the cries of the dying replaced it, and now she missed the silence in her own mind. There was no such thing as a predator. Every living thing under the sun had something that preyed upon it – even the largest of beasts and the most savage of men.
She clenched the spear in her hand, and the rush of a hot anger made her skin flush. She prayed – oh, Mother how she prayed – that the barbarians who had so brutally destroyed her home would pay the price they themselves had exacted.
And wished that she'd had the power to stand in their way. But battle...
She'd always had a gift for it, she acknowledged, her eyes trailing unseeingly over the barren stretch that ran the length of the open-ended valley. Always had that gift off coordination from what she had in her hand to where she wanted it to go. But her people had been a peaceful one, preferring to work the land and honor the Mother, their hunger for knowledge turned to exploring their own souls rather than exploring the world. Being the daughter of the strongest shamanic blood in her clan had helped her to understand that need better than most.
She still remembered a night several summers ago – cold and clear, with the air leaving the taste of frost on the back of her tongue. She remembered the feel of her father's fair, curly hair between her hands, the steady, rocking motion of his strides as he carried her outside their settlement on his shoulders. They'd only stopped when she could no longer see the flickering firelight, and she'd sat in his lap as he taught her how to use the stars as her guide, and how to catch the whispers of the air around her.
"Listen, child." His gentle fingers closed her eyes, and even though it was a black, moonless night, the loss of her sight had sharpened her perception. "The world is always speaking to you."
And it had, she recalled and touched her ear, which tingled all over again at the remembered whisper of the coming snow.
He'd taught her so much. But she still had so much to learn from him. From her mother, who shared the same additional senses, but also gave herself to practicality and medicine, and had taught her to heal wounds and soothe souls.
Ma... She stopped there, in the middle of a stride and tilted her head back, finding the first star of the night. I miss you. I miss Da. Everyone.
A sharp gust of wind tore at her hair, pushing her clothing tight against her body and the black strands of hair in front of her face with a punishing strength that made her stumble. She caught herself, thankfully, by slamming the spear's blunt end into the soil and leaning on it.
Instinct, she considered bemusedly as she straightened again, and studied the weapon. But whose, she had no idea. Had she done that while walking the lands about her home, the winter-frozen ground would have offered no resistance whatsoever, and she would have fallen on her face all the same. But she had moved south steadily during the last cycles of the moon, and the air was warmer here – enough that the stone tip sank deep into the uncovered soil, beaten almost bare of life by the winds and lined by trees only at the foot of the mountains far to her sides.
A shake of the dark head. No. Far more likely that the spirits she sensed were kind, and aiding her in this unknown land.
She knelt on the cold soil and put her hands to it, feeling the dirt warm under them as her gaze turned inwards for a long, exhausting moment, her thoughts and her mind blurring to another plane as she let the blood in her veins take control.
Between her hands, a single, solitary flower sprouted – healthy and vibrantly colored – steady and still, though the winds still gusted about it. A show of her gratitude.
It taxed her, though, and she settled back on her haunches and tried to calm her pounding heart. She almost didn't dare to open her eyes, fearing that the loss of her line had also meant the loss of her Sight – one of the additional senses that allowed her to not only feel the presence of spirits, but to see them as well. That, however, could only be done when her blood took her over.
The price, she assumed, that the Mother asked in return. To know more than others, but never too much.
Would it still be there, she wondered, or had the end of her line meant the end of her gift, the way it had for Gardo, the boy from another shamanic line? His family had died, too, but from illness, and her mother had found him on the ground while out gathering herbs. He had only barely survived the sickness himself.
Maybe it would've been better if he hadn't. Once he recovered and had found that his other senses were gone, the sudden lack of a knowledge so fundamental had slowly but surely broken him. She'd held him while he cried helplessly, feeling kinship for him as their ages had been close, but helplessly unable to understand his pain.
"It's blindness of the cruelest kind," he'd told her one evening, when he had finally run out of tears and screams. "It's a world you can only partially live in. You can see, but not in colors. Hear, but not in notes. Smell, but not tell one scent from the other, and feel, but not tell the trunk of a tree from a blade of grass." His eyes, once a clear, summer-sky blue but now dulled to a weary, cold gray, had closed. "It's death, all on its own."
Then he had faded into slumber, and his skin had been cold beneath her hands the next morning. She still shuddered at the remembered feel of it. Cold as ice... fake. No longer a person, but only a form. No thought. No life.
He had only been ten summers old. And since she had been left alone herself, she hadn't dared to Look or Listen anymore.
But she needed to know, and had no idea when she would next get the chance to try. So even as she felt her blood rouse her body further, she took a breath and opened her eyes before she could convince herself otherwise.
And immediately burst into helpless tears.
Scores of them were around her, silent and unmoving, lit with the gentle, blue glow that she remembered so painfully well, and the rest of the world faded into a dark silhouette that made her See them all the more clearly. Her tears blurred her vision, and she couldn't See the smiles, but instead felt the warmth directed at her from all sides.
"How?" she whispered hoarsely. "Was he not the same as I?"
The blue forms shifted to clear a path, and another shape approached her. A woman, she could tell, and a young one. Not the color of the sky above or the rivers that parted the lands, but the warm gold of the sun itself. She had never seen a spirit that color before, but as the woman knelt before her and met her eyes, she knew why.
"He was," she then murmured. "And so were you."
"Yes." The gilded form nodded, and just as she recalled, her lips didn't move. It was less a matter of speaking, and more one of her mind being open to receive the words that others could not.
She didn't understand.
"Why am I different?" she asked pleadingly. "Gardo lost his Senses when he lost his family, and I have lost mine as well. Is this simply a grace period? Will I lose my Sight and die as he did?"
"No." The spirit extended a golden hand, and she felt the air warm as it hovered over her belly. "He was alone. You are not."
A sharp inhalation. "Drynan."
A smile, and one that she Saw this time. "He made it pleasurable for you."
The sheer absurdity of blushing in front of a ghost didn't pass her by. "He did. Others were too frightened."
"Most fear what they do not understand." The spirit regarded her almost apologetically. "It is cruel, but will probably always be the way of life. But I can promise you that you will feel the sun on your soul again. Soon."
She wanted to ask what the ghost meant... wanted to ask so many questions that she no longer had family to turn to for answers for. But she blinked, and the world of the living flooded back into focus – the dead shifting into shadows that the naked eye could not see.
A sigh, and she bent her neck to regard the flower before her. "I don't suppose you have the answers?" she asked of it, and kissed its soft petals before standing, though the plant predictably gave no reply.
She yanked the spear free with a grunt, and patted her chest as she took a look around and stretched one arm in front of her, aligning the side of her hand with the horizon and closing one eye. Three fingers, she counted, between that and the bottom of the sun. She had little time before night fell.
A ruffle of fabric and fur to resettle the worn clothing around her shoulders, and she headed towards the line of trees, the spear thumping rhythmically against the ground beside her.
She had been different as long as she could remember. Always been an outsider. An eventual tag-along to the couple that the settlement had only reluctantly accepted into their midst when their old shaman passed onto the next world. He had, from what she had heard, been a good man and a genuine help to his people, but had not shared the gifts that her parents did.
Her family's power had made the people around them wary. Suspicious. And certainly more than unwilling to hear of their own young spending time with a child that shared the same perceived abnormalities. So while the other, older children had grown into adults, experienced their Initiations and discussed them amongst themselves, she had – as always – been standing to the side. Different in a primal way that none but those of her own blood understood, and for that reason, feared.
It wasn't obvious, she remembered as she pushed her way through the woods that she had avoided until now. It was a subtle segregation, as it had been with her parents, because the people weren't foolish enough to ignore the fact that they needed a shaman. So it was never openly discussed, but always there, in how they kept a certain distance, and how no one spoke to them unless they needed to.
Alone and avoided. Only accepted because they had needed them sometimes.
All the same, it had been the only home she had ever known, and she had cared for them. But Drynan...
Drynan had been different. A carver, who used sharpened stone to create animals from chunks of wood, and wandered about to trade his work for food and supplies. He had no shamanic blood in him, but still his mind and eyes had been open. Not as much as hers, but more so than the people she spent her days without. He had noticed how she was separate when he had stopped to trade with the village, and had taken an interest in her.
And had been quite upset at what he learned. Outraged. Disgusted. But for her, and not with her.
"It's ridiculous!" His handsome face had formed a deep scowl, and he'd folded strong arms over his chest.
She had eyed him with confusion. "It is how it has always been," she'd remarked honestly. "It's alright, really. It's not pleasant, but I'm used to it."
His scowl had loosened, and his expression changed to one of profound sadness. "Ah, my friend." He'd taken her hand and nearly startled the life out of her by doing so, because nobody aside from her parents ever touched her, and she wondered what he had seen and done that made him so different from the others. "That only upsets me more. I shudder to think what your Initiation was like."
Her head cocked, and her mind chased itself as she tried to figure out how he could have learned what he had of her, and not realize.
"I never had one," she told him.
"No, I heard you." He was visibly startled, and ran a hand over the stubble on his face. "I'm sorry, I just... I mean I realize these townsfolk are idiots, but... How old are you?"
"I'll be 18 winters by the next full moon."
"18!" His russet eyes had widened even further. "You should've been Initiated three years ago, at the latest!"
"Most were," she'd agreed.
"Mother!" He'd fallen onto his back in the snow, and she'd had to laugh at the look on his face. A strange thing to do – an unfamiliar one – around someone who was not her parents. He'd looked up at her laughter and smiled, and then joined her in it.
"You should do that more," he'd told her as their merriment dwindled. "Laugh, I mean. You're very beautiful when you do."
She'd blushed at the words, and not known quite how to respond.
He'd studied her, and shaken his head with a sigh. "I'm sorry," he'd said. "You really have missed out on a lot, haven't you? With the way they treat you?"
"Mother." He'd sat up, resting his elbows on his legs and his chin on his hands. "I don't understand them," he'd told her softly, and looked into her eyes as if he was trying to draw everything about her from within them. "I don't understand how they can not want to know someone like you. Learn what you think and befriend you. I'm glad that I don't understand, but it still makes me wonder."
She hadn't quite understood him either, so she'd supposed that was alright, and had hesitantly reached for his hand again, smiling as he willingly gave it. Strange, yes, and new, the way she'd felt with him. Accepted, maybe. But still, it had been nice.
"How old are you?"
They'd stayed like that for a long time, merely studying each other. Him, with a sense of puzzlement and regret for what prejudice had wrought, and her enjoying the simple wonder of friendship and companionable silence. Of someone who didn't shy away, but openly offered and took in equal measure. Who wanted to be around her.
"Would you mind if I spoke to your father?" he'd suddenly asked.
She was still convinced that it was a miracle that her head hadn't outright spun when he told her and helped her to her feet, and kept a hold of her hand as they walked through the snow to her parents' home. Where he had gently kissed her in full view of the other villagers, and she had decided to wait outside while he spoke with her father, and for the first time, completely ignored the looks she received while she sat there in the snow.
"I will not hurt her," he had promised earnestly, and she'd strained her ears to hear the response from her father.
"You will not," had been the reply. "Because if you were to, it would be far worse than what those narrow minds have already done. And you will not live long after that."
"Then you have my blessing. And once it is done, we will finish our affairs and I will remove my family from this place. My child will not know this intolerance any longer."
"I'm glad. She's too gentle of a soul. She doesn't deserve their ignorance."
"No." A pause. "No, she doesn't."
Drynan had shown her the most gentle and careful Initiation she could ever have dreamed of. He had touched her almost reverently. His hands had been so very tender and so incredibly patient, pausing often to reassure her and several times stopping altogether and just holding her and talking to her, making her laugh and smile until she relaxed. They had spent the entire night together, and just before dawn, he finally helped her take the final step into adulthood.
She smiled in remembrance as she shed the fur covering her shoulders and draped it over a low branch by the spot she'd chosen to make her shelter in. And then she paused, and realized that she was smiling, and how long had it been since she last did that?
A long time. Too long. The day before the attack came. Five days after the full moon where she had spent the night with Drynan, and two nights after he had left as she knew he would, but not until he'd again kissed her in the middle of the village, this time wrapping his arms around her and lifting her off her feet, and laughing with her once more, both of them ignoring the stares and enjoying the shocked silence.
She had known he would leave since only seconds after he'd asked if he could Initiate her, and none of them had planned to build anything lasting over the ritual, as was the norm. Still, she missed him now, and wanted to thank him. He had taught her to love in more ways than one, and the one night spent with him had left her with the assurance that her line would not die with her.
Her hair came down to shield her face as she studied her stomach, resting one hand over its still flat surface and wryly scolding herself. Her mother had been a healer. How on earth could she not have noticed something as simple as her past two cycles not occurring?
It was strange all over again. She still mourned her losses, but felt lighter somehow. The knowledge that she would not end her days as Gardo had was a massive weight off her chest. She was no longer resigned to a life assigned to her by others, but determined to instead build one of her own. And inside her, she now knew that she held a promise that her family would live on.
Indeed, she considered as she sent the open plains an affectionate glance over her shoulder and reclaimed the spear, the sun was shining on her soul again.
She tucked the belt tighter around her waist and the pack, to keep both it and the long shirt from getting tangled in the underbrush as she hunted, and took a breath before walking away from her campsite. She reminded herself again that she would need to take more care now, and to keep an eye out for the herbs that she knew would make the pregnancy easier on her body, and those that could help save it, should she find herself in a situation that required such things.
The wind brushed against her exposed arms as she walked. It was still cold, but under the cover of the trees it was nowhere near as stiff as it had been out in the open, and instead of shivering under its weight, she sniffed it, sorting through the scents of leaves, soil and roots, her gaze sharpening as the scent of animals touched her nose.
Her body responded instantly. She dropped into a slight crouch, and her steps lost all sound as she moved across the forest floor, deftly avoiding branches and moving with the wind, careful to disturb as little of the pattern around her as she possibly could. Another inhale, this one through her mouth, and she tasted the air on the back of her tongue even as she heard a soft rustle mere bodylengths ahead.
A rabbit? She brought her spear up and prepared to strike, slowly and silently moving into the bush the sounds were coming from, almost crawling forward. Only when the wind blew, as that would help disguise her movements and hopefully leave the animal ignorant of her presence until it was too late. Carefully, she moved a handful of leaves a side and peered ahead.
Not a rabbit. A hare, with its back facing her nigh-directly, and she slowly pulled her arm back.
From the opposite direction, a thin stick burst through the brush and pierced the hare's neck cleanly, and the sudden need to stop her throw made her overbalance and crash backwards onto the ground. Her own instinct kept her from whirling to land on her front, and she curled slightly instead, taking the impact on her lower back and keeping the sudden fall from knocking the breath from her lungs.
A shout reached her ears, and she rapidly shifted her spear and got herself into a crouch as she braced one foot against the ground behind her. She could only hear one set of footsteps moving her way, but she tightened her grip on the polearm and set her jaw grimly. The last strangers she had seen had been the attackers.
She hoped that it wasn't yet her time to leave this world. She had never been blooded in battle, and had no desire to learn what that was like. But if the Mother wished to test her with it...
Well. Then she would do her utmost to pass, and if need be, die trying.
The steps came closer, and even though she had seen it before, she was shocked again at the sight of one of those strange, flying sticks. Her body had no such compunctions however, and automatically whirled the end of the spear up to deflect it, making it fall harmlessly to the ground a small distance away.
"Hahh!" she yelled back. The steps paused and resumed again, but slower and softer. Walking, instead of running.
Now another call came to her on the wind. Parts sounded familiar, but the total was disjointed and didn't mean anything to her, and she scooted back nervously, pointing the sharp end of her spear in the direction of the voice.
The leaves not two bodylengths from her face were pushed aside, and another sharpened stick was aimed at her face. It looked almost like a miniature spear, but was held strangely against the side of a larger stick that had a piece of sting tied so tightly to its ends that it curved. The curved wood was held with one hand at the apex of the arch, on which the thin stick also rested, and another hand was gripping the end of the thin stick, pushing the end of it against the side of the string.
She was no fool, and as such was very aware that at this slight distance, she wouldn't have the time to knock the stick aside no matter how fast her reflexes were. And from the posture of the woman – for it was a woman – that stick would go flying in the split second that she tried to attack.
She bit her lip and cursed fluently on the inside, then slowly spread her arms and let the spear drop. Her head tilted back to bare her throat in surrender, and she met the eyes of the woman who hopefully wouldn't be her killer.
And in a pair of sternly glinting, crimson eyes, she lost her soul in less time than it took her to gasp in reaction.
The woman wavered in her stance, but didn't break her gaze. That gaze did, however, soften as she seemed to detect the shock she'd garnered – quite obviously a fair bit more than she had intended.
"Kiremaget?" She lowered both sticks and tilted her head. "Brasifori?"
Were there only two words, or more? her mind wondered as she kept staring up dumbly. It wasn't a tongue she ever remembered hearing before, so it was hard to tell. The tone, at least, seemed to indicate questions, but what they were...
She didn't seem to intend harm, though.
"I'm sorry," she replied softly, though her tongue seemed reluctant to work with her, and her eyes refused to drop from the ones further up. "I don't understand you."
The woman nodded as if knowing what she was saying in spite of the language barrier, and placed the small stick over her shoulder and into a canister on her back. She, too, spread out her arms. "Ara?"
Honestly... She sighed and finally managed to make her eyes drop. What was happening to her? She had no idea who this woman was – knew nothing about her other than the fact that she could make sticks fly, and every chord in those melodically spoken words that she couldn't understand was easily plucking strings inside her she didn't even know she had.
"If that means 'alright', then yes." She nodded her head for added emphasis and sat down in a pile of leaves with a whoosh of air.
"Hm." The woman moved closer and crouched in front of her, and she felt the weight of red eyes on her, then heard the amusement as she blushed under the gaze. "Oho."
"Stop it," she admonished firmly, though the words were directed at the ground between her feet. "It's not funny."
"Iisé." The word – words? - sounded obliging enough, but the moccasin-covered feet that was all she could see of the woman didn't move. Then a hand touched her arm, and she swallowed against the tears as her heart pounded in her throat.
"You know, this really isn't fair," she mumbled as she felt the light touch leave goosebumps in its wake, and recognized the gentle ministrations of a healer. The warm fingers were probing her muscles as they moved, eventually reaching her neck and making her vertebrae pop back into place with a swift twitch. "Because even if Da had taken us away, we wouldn't have come here. We would have stayed in the colder lands, and I never would have met you."
"So my parents were killed and my home destroyed all because of me." She swallowed against the guilt that overwhelmed her, and felt the tears leak from her eyes. "Because if they were alive I'd still be with them, and I had to be here to meet you, and I was supposed to meet you. I can feel it where there is no flesh, and only instinct."
A hand cupped her cheek and lifted her face up, and she lost herself all over again in that concerned, ruby-colored regard and she just couldn't stop crying.
"And it hurts. It hurts because I don't know you at all and already I love you more than anything and oh Mother, I killed them!" Her body finally tired of the shifting emotions of the past moons and gave out, and she would have collapsed on the forest floor if strong, soft arms hadn't caught her and embraced her, and the gentle hand that stroked her hair only made her sob all the harder into the cloth-covered shoulder that smelled of crushed leaves and wood smoke and whitewater.
"Shhh," was whispered gently, compassionately, tenderly against the side of her face, followed by more words she didn't know. More words that made her heart dance just because they came in that voice.
It wasn't fair, her mind cried, but Mother, it was true. She loved this woman with an intensity that frightened her. It made her heart pound and her blood roar and joy sing through her veins. She could feel it encircle her and cradle her and she was utterly helpless against it. It was sheer agony and irresistible delight all at the same time, and the warring emotions inside her made her already sorely abused body cramp in protest.
Her insides clenched in an entirely wrong way, and she clutched her stomach in reaction as the voice next to her ear reminded her that curses came in a tone all their own, too.
"Qui?" Her face was pulled up again, and red eyes bore into her own. "Qui lin? Te?" Two fingers were held up. "Fii?" Three this time, and she nodded as she forced back a whimper. Almost three moons.
"Arní!" Another curse by the sound of it, and she was laid down gently on her side as deft fingers plucked a pack not unlike her own from the woman's belt and removed several small pouches. Each was opened and sniffed in short succession until one was selected.
The sharp scent of the dry herb reached her and made her grimace, but without any mixes made specifically for pregnancy, it was the best either of them could have done. She clenched her jaw as another spasm wracked her, and watched blurrily as several pinches were dropped into a waterskin while honey-colored hair whipped back in the breeze.
"Sa." Her head was raised as the woman scooted her hide-clad legs underneath her to support her head, and the spout of the skin was put to her lips. "Qen."
And she drank, forcing down the mixture as fast as she could in spite of both the fear that made her shiver, and the taste of the water. Absolutely awful, but a strong relaxant, and one that would hopefully force her body to ease its protests and let her rest.
The skin was kept at her lips until she drained it entirely, and by that time the teeth-grinding cramps had eased significantly and allowed her to stretch her body out with a sigh of relief. That one hand was still stroking her hair, and she peered up to meet the eyes that threw her to the highest highs and the lowest lows all at the same time. They stared at each other until night was falling around them.
"Are you feeling this, too?" she whispered, and captured the hand that rested on her belly. "You must be. I can't be pulled like this only to have it rejected." The eyes above her softened, but probably only at the wistfulness in her voice. "Please tell me you feel this."
There was a rustle and a faint glide of one body against another, and then they were both laying down, her with her head pillowed on a shoulder and an intense, thoughtful gaze burning into her from only a breath away.
Haltingly, a hand reached and touched her chest, pressing against the skin over her heart. A question.
She did the same in return, and smiled at the relief that flooded the red eyes and surely made her own glitter. An answer.
They could not yet speak with words they both understood, but lips still searched and gently found as she was drawn into a tender embrace, and neither of them responded to the friendly calls that came from afar, though she did see her companion send a decidedly annoyed glance in that direction, and had to laugh as the curses came again.
"It's alright," she murmured against smooth skin, and shuddered as lips nipped at her jaw and a warm, moist exhale trailed over her neck. Her companion was frustrated, she could tell, but knew as well as her that interruptions or not, it was anything but wise to find their way further until her body recovered fully.
"Ara," the woman repeated, and broke away a little before settling a gentle hand over the tiny life inside her. "Ara?" she queried softly, her eyes still worried. "You enfa?"
At last, there was a word she recognized, and it made her smile again, washing away the day's fatigue and the sting of dried tears from her eyes.
She claimed the hand that rested on the outside of her shirt, and brought it beneath it before settling it in the exact same spot, and reaching up to stroke the woman's cheek. "Our," she corrected softly, guessing.
And she knew, when she saw the brilliant smile and returned it, that it was another word for them to build on.