Their cave had been destroyed almost a full turn of the seasons ago, yet the Clan had not moved. At first, their leader had been paralyzed by his own inexperience, his fear that he, and not Ayla, had caused the Spirits to destroy their home. Spring had come in quickly, with all the bounty that their home location had provided. With plentiful food and water, Broud had thought to wait until the warmer weather came to move on. The Clan lived in hide shelters and they ate plentiful food, and their young leader had dreaded taking them on a trek with no set destination, ample danger, and no end in sight.
Then the attack came, terrifying a people who had known a peaceful existence for almost as far back as their racial memory spoke of. Brun and Borg were killed, along with Oga, Aba, and Igra. Broud, sputtering with fury and bereft at the loss of his mate and the mate of his mother, had gone off with Vorn and Crug, and had never returned. Many wanted to leave the cursed site, surely a place loaded with evil spirits. But Goov, the young mog-ur, was adamant that they stay. The cold weather would be upon them once more, and many were terrified that their totems had deserted them after so long without a home. Many thought privately that the untried mog-ur was wrong. Many longed for the steady years under Creb's guidance, even if in the end, a shadow of unexplained despair had hung over the ancient sage. But the traditions that bound these people were strong. If Goov came out of his meditation assuring them that their totems had not fled, and that they must stay, then they would stay.
They were also saddled with a medicine woman barely a woman, and suffering from an early pregnancy that showed no signs of being any more fruitful than her last. Uba often got sick as she treated the illnesses and minor injuries of the others; more often than not the young woman had to drag herself from her shelter to fulfill her office. Privately she still mourned for Ayla, not only as a sister, but as a more experienced medicine woman whose quick intelligence rivaled Uba's wealth of memories. She cursed Broud for his folly, even though she knew she should not.
She was not the only one who felt Ayla's loss, but no one spoke of the blonde woman they had raised as Clan before Broud cursed her with death and ran her off. Even Aga, who had not cared for the strange girl until Ayla saved her daughter Ona, missed the young woman born of the Others, but made Clan. Many felt that Ayla had been a sort of talisman for their Clan, a carrier of good fortune. Without her, they had known nothing but hardship.
Still, they fell into a rhythm of life that was not too different than what they had always known. Fortunately, Broud had left three experienced men behind when he set off to wreak his vengeance and never returned. Droog the tool-maker and Grod, Brun's former second in command, were still capable hunters. Zoug was too old to work, but he could share his wisdom. Ebra, Uka, and Aga were the senior women now, and on this day they had set the younger women Ona, Ovra, and Ika to gathering the early apples and nuts thrown down by the heavy storm of the day before. Brac, not yet a man, was forced to take up the work of a man and he did so without a complaint, even as he mourned the loss of his mother and her mate. He spent this day carving heavy spears out of ash wood. Grev and Durc, young boys, were collecting stones from the stream for boiling water, along with kindling for the fire. Ebra and Aga busied themselves curing the hides and stomachs of two deer killed the prior day by Droog and Grod, helped by Aga's little son Groob. As the women worked, they made light talk of the refreshing cool winds, without touching on the more unpleasant subject of the brutally cold weather those refreshing autumnal winds portended.
Ebra, long a good mate to the old leader Brun, was well attuned to the needs of the men. A moment before Droog looked up to see what woman was available, she had poured tea from the water-sack suspended over a small fire. She set another cup to the side for Uba, who was resting after a fierce bout of nausea. After delivering tea to the young medicine woman, Ebra sat back down and palmed her flint scraper. She could tell by the younger woman's posture that Aga was about to broach an unpleasant subject, and Ebra braced herself. Ebra was a woman who liked to work through her troubles, not speak of them. But it could not be helped.
"There are too many unmated women here," Aga said with a mix of words and gestures. "It is unlucky."
Ebra grunted at this, wondering how much more bad luck could befall them.
"Maybe we should send word to one of the other Clans. With Ovra mated, Droog would be willing to take on another woman, maybe Ika. But the young women need young mates, and it will be several years still before Brac, Grev, and Durc can take mates."
"Durc has a mate," Ebra reminded her. "Ura."
"But will her mother want to send her, when we have no cave? When we have had such bad luck? Better that we send some of our young women to that Clan."
"And then there will be no new babies born to our Clan," Ebra said. She knew she was being contrary, but with her mate dead and her son likely in the next world as well, the first-ranking woman had very little to be hopeful for. Only Brac, the future leader, could bring any joy to her heart. She would preserve what she could of her Clan, for Brac. "Besides, Aga, it is not our place to decide what women mate which men."
"Then who will decide?" Aga demanded, setting her work aside and staring Ebra face on. Aga was challenging Ebra to say that Goov, the mog-ur, would decide in place of Broud. Aga thought the older woman was clinging to the past, refusing to accept that her son had gone off to kill and had instead met his own violent end.
"I must fetch more water," Ebra said irritably. She stood and walked down to the stream, though she had come to prefer the water from the mineral spring near the mouth of their old cave. It was one of the many luxuries she would soon have to learn to do without. If Ebra had dared, she would have cursed whatever fate had brought her to this low place at the end of her life. She had served her mate Brun well, she had born him a strong son, a son any man would be proud to have at his hearth. Loyally, Ebra placed blame for the catastrophes on Ayla rather than Broud. Though Ayla had been a valuable member of the Clan, time erased Ebra's memory of the young blonde woman's strengths and left only the memory of a surly, defiant woman, not even Clan, who had hounded her son mercilessly. Ayla's refusal to accept Broud's authority, first as a man and then as a leader, had brought Ebra to this pass. Now Ebra had proof-the murder of her mate-that the Others were more demons than human. If only Iza had never taken that girl in! If Ayla had never joined the Clan, all things would be right. Ebra shot a contemptuous glance in the direction of the little boy, Durc, orphaned by Ayla's 'death.' Such an ugly boy, Ebra thought. It is well enough that he has a mate already chosen. What woman of the Clan would wish to have such a one for a mate? It was unnatural.
Ebra bent to fill her water sack at the stream's edge, just as a hard gust of wind came along. Irritated, she stood and clasped at the rebellious, silver-streaked strands of her coarse red hair. But as she did, her fading eyesight caught a strange shape on the horizon. It did not have the shape of a human per se; rather, it seemed to the aging woman two humans lumped together, one upright and one floating along sideways in a billowing cloud of shining black. Ebra shielded her gaze with one tanned hand, squinting her eyes as she noted the strong, proud, familiar stride of whatever it was coming their way.
The water sack fell to the ground, gurgling water out over the rocks and mud. And then, Ebra's cry rang off the cliff-face behind her, echoing out of the collapsed cave: "My son!"
He carried a woman with him, Uba saw as she clasped her hands over her heaving belly and stood upright between Ona and Ovra. He carried a woman Uba had never seen before, but it was certainly Broud, and Vorn was not with him.
Well, Uba thought as her heart sunk again, I've already accepted it. Vorn is dead. But if Broud could return, maybe…
"Who is that?" Ona gasped. "Look at her hair!"
Uba said nothing. It was all they could see of the woman in Broud's arms: her long, whipping black hair. Just as Uba and the others could make out the sharp features of Broud's face-and he had shaved his beard, it seemed-Broud stopped and set his woman down. She was very small, smaller than Uba herself, and her hair spilled down past her hips. A current of excitement rushed through the Clan, first that Broud had returned, and then that he had brought someone with him. Who was she? Where did she come from?
The girl's walk was reluctant; her steps were guarded, coltish. She seemed hurt somehow, and as she turned her small face up to them, she ducked evermore behind Broud until he pulled her along. But in those fleeting seconds that she had turned her face to the Clan, they had taken her measure.
"She is one of them!" Aga gestured sharply.
In a shocking bit of disloyalty, the former second Grod muttered, "What's he done now?"
Ebra bit her lips to keep from scolding the man. Her son was home, her son was returned from the dead, her son would take up his rightful place. She would have to convince Broud, somehow, to leave this cursed spot. They would find a new cave-a better cave!-and Ebra would rule as the highest ranking woman, the mother of a mateless leader. Ebra cast her eyes about over the young women before her, wondering who might make the most pliable mate for her son.
But who was this girl her son led on?
Kyani clung to Broud. The day had started with sharp pain and too much blood, and she had wanted to rest in the quiet shelter Broud had found. But he had been so eager to move on, even carrying her when she had stumbled and cried. And now Kyani knew why: he had found his own again. As they had traveled alone, Broud had become hers, her familiar, her protector, and now something more, something like a mate. Kyani had thought-foolishly-that things would go on this way. Perhaps there would be children in time, but they would be alone, together, learning each other in the quiet of the night and in the bustle of the day.
And now, Kyani peered out frightfully on a dozen or so faces, from toddlers to old women. She stood before an entire tribe of the Old Ones, and they had all lined up to welcome Broud back. She could read no emotion in their faces, no pleasure, no surprise, just nothing. There were no smiles and no tears, only twenty-some eyes all locked on her, and none of them friendly.
"Come, come," Broud commanded her quietly, taking her hand up in his. He could feel her shaking again, he perceived the sharp rise of her fear. But he was overjoyed to see his people again, and thrilled that each one he had left behind had survived in his absence. Even those who were missing from the crowd couldn't sadden him; Broud was home, he could rebuild. He could become the leader Brun had wanted him to be.
"Mother," he called softly, and Ebra came shuffling forward in a submissive posture she'd not taken since he left. Ebra dropped at Broud's feet and waited for his signal that she could speak. He touched her lightly on the shoulder, shocked at how frail that once strong shoulder felt in his palm.
"This woman rejoices to see the leader again," Ebra gestured eloquently, true pleasure glowing in her dark eyes. Ebra paused, and then decided that as Broud's mother, the question was hers to ask. "This woman respectfully requests to know whom the leader has brought; she is not Clan."
Broud nodded. He gestured the entire group over, wanting to get it over with at once. "This woman found me near death nearly a moon ago. She healed me, and for it her people-" Broud paused, thinking that he ought not to say that Kyani was cursed with death. "She was banished, sent away. She is mine now."
A shudder of consternation passed over the small group. How could this girl of the Others belong to Broud? What did he mean, her people banished her? What would the spirits think of one of her violent kind in their midst? For all her small size, this outsider was not a child like Ayla had been, a child who could be trained properly. Broud had brought a young woman of the Others to his Clan.
It was Goov who finally spoke. He approached the leader cautiously, respectfully, and seized on the only positive thing he could find in this most unexpected turn of events. "This… this woman is a healer? A medicine woman?"
"I do not know, Goov," Broud said, thanking his totem that he'd the chance to say that name once more. "But she healed me. She knows some medicine, but I do not think she was so valuable to her kind. They drove her off with hardly any discussion."
Goov was too tactful to point out that Broud had done just the same to their own best medicine woman, leaving them with a sickly young woman who lacked the necessary confidence in her own skill. "Does she know how to speak?" he asked hopefully.
"No," Broud said. "I've taught her some, but she will need to learn everything now. And she will need… she will need a Clan totem, so that we can be properly mated."
This was too much. There was a roar of conversation, a flurry of gesturing, and many a gaping mouth. Broud cut over it all. "But for now, we have come a long way. We are tired and hungry. Ebra, bring us tea and food. I will go to my shelter and rest, and later I will answer any other questions anyone might have." Broud snatched up Kyani's hand once more, and led her away to where his shelter still stood, almost as a talisman in hopes for his return.
"It's all right," Broud said softly, sinking his hands into Kyani's thick hair. His thumbs stroked her cheeks with tender reassurance, but the wide-eyed, frightened look was casted into her fine features. She didn't understand him, and so he cradled her against his chest. "Home, Kyani," he told her. "Broud, Kyani, home."
Ebra unobtrusively brought them refreshment, a venison stew and refreshing chamomile tea. She eyed the delicate woman her son called his own with dark dislike. It was not proper how the girl clutched at her son's arm. Had she let go of him once since they'd arrived? How could Broud tolerate it? What had happened to him out there? But when Broud turned his gaze back to Ebra's face from the food, his expression left the old woman no room to question or condemn. Already Broud was shedding the self-consciousness and fear he had felt alone on the steppe, and was returning to himself, to his old confidence and command. His mother backed away, shuffling again. Kyani thought it was a lot like groveling, and she didn't think she could ever behave that way. But Broud's status was starting to become apparent to her, both from the reaction of his people and the fact that his rough hide shelter was the largest, and lined with many rich furs. And with his status came responsibility. She had hoped they would hide in this half-tent, partially obscured from the hostile faces of his people. But after they had eaten Broud told her to sleep, and then went out to talk to the men who waited for him. Left alone, Kyani was painfully aware of the women rudely staring at her. She heeded Broud's command, and curled up in his furs. She couldn't sleep, but at least if she could pretend, she wouldn't have to see them all watching her. The harsh, guttural words outside terrified her, as did the crude and foreign surroundings. She was suddenly conscious of the deep pain between her legs and in her belly, and frightened by what had caused it. Sure she had made a terrible mistake, Kyani hid her face in her arms and wept.
"Broud, I just don't understand this. You left with Vorn and Crug to kill these people, yet you return with one of their women! You want Goov to find a Clan totem for her, so she can be your mate! What are the people to think?"
"They can think whatever they like. Ki-ani is mine. I won't let her go. And we need more people now, don't we? We need more women, so we can have more children." Broud was defiant. He had expected some questioning, but he was tired of it now.
Droog countered, "What about one of the many young women who are now without mates? Why should you take this girl, when they are left alone?"
"You should take another to your hearth, Droog. Uba, maybe." Broud raised his hand to silence his men. "Enough of this. We must be up in the morning. I want to start looking for another cave, and I want to look up, in the mountains. Where it is safe."
"Safe?" Grod asked, at once alert. He feared the worst. "Did you steal this woman, Broud? Are her kind coming after you? Are we in more danger now?"
"It happened as I said, Grod! But her people are not far behind. I felt them following me, I am sure. Do not tell the women, but we must prepare ourselves. The Others want our land, and I will protect us against them. Tomorrow we begin our search, up in the mountains. It will be colder, but we will be like eagles. We will see everything coming at us. We won't be caught unaware again."
"But why this girl, Broud?" Droog demanded. "She is one of theirs; she will bring their evil spirits with her! Ursus will not want her here, after what her people have done! We will follow you into the mountains, Broud, but leave the girl behind, before she brings us worse luck!"
Broud's sudden harshness alarmed the other men, especially old Zoug, who did not trust the rash leader. Only Goov, watching the others without commenting, remained in a calm silence. "She is mine, Droog! I told you this already. I will not let her go; I will never let her go! You will follow me because I am the leader! And you won't tell me what woman I take to my hearth! She is mine. I want her. I will have her."
"Mog-ur," Droog pressed, though his manner was now more cautious. "What do you think of this woman of the Others? Will she bring us bad luck?"
"You believed Ayla brought us good luck, Droog," Goov gestured simply. "We should give this woman a chance, as we gave Ayla a chance."
The others expected Broud to go into a fury at the mention of the blonde woman, but Broud only nodded and asked, "You will meditate on her totem, Goov? Surely she has one. How can anyone-Clan or Other-exist without a totem?"
The men turned to Goov. If mog-ur said he would meditate on the girl's totem, the matter would be decided. They would have no choice but to accept another of Broud's impulsive acts, perhaps the most impulsive and unexpected of them all. Why was he so fiercely determined to keep that tiny girl of the Others? Surely there were now many young and attractive Clan women needing mates, any of whom would be more fitting for the leader!
"These are strange times," Goov said softly. "Creb told me that nothing would be the same anymore. Things are changing, even the Clans will change. I have seen it. I think we must accept this woman. Perhaps we will even have need of her. I did not believe it before, but now I am sure that we must protect ourselves against these Others. When Broud teaches her to speak, we can learn from her what these strange men want and what they plan to do. This is why I believe we must accept her, and why we must follow Broud into the mountains. Ursus has told me that we will walk unknown paths in the days to come. I believe this is but the first. Yes, Broud. I will seek your new woman's totem. I will do it gladly."
"Good," Broud said, a little more at ease. He had not expected mog-ur to give such a strong blessing to Kyani's presence among them. And then Broud wondered, did Ursus lead her to me, to benefit the Clan entire? The thought that it was not his own will, his own desire acting on him, but the guidance of the spirit world was unsettling. But the matter was settled, at least for tonight. Broud stalked away from his hunters, and to Oga's sons.
He was irritated to see Durc following Grev so closely, but Ayla's son hung back as the boys of Broud's hearth tumbled into his arms. They had hung back uncertainly until now, when Broud knelt down and opened his arms for them. He praised their strength, particularly impressed with how much Brac had grown in his absence. There was no trace of weakness in the arm that Ayla had mended. "You are almost a man," Broud said with approval. "I will need your strength soon, Brac, if we are to continue hunting mammoth. Yours too, Grev. And to help you grow strong, I have brought you a new mother."
"She's smaller than me!" Brac complained, unimpressed. "She's even smaller than Uba! And she is strange looking. She is not Clan."
"That may be, but she knows good healing magic, and she is kind. She is not yet Clan, but she will be, and she is a good woman. You will see. You will come to love her, as I do. Now, where have you been sleeping at night?"
"With Ebra," Brac said, baffled by Broud's talk of love. Brac remembered Broud's fierce hatred of Ayla, and the harshness he developed over the years with Oga.
"Good. Sleep in my mother's shelter tonight, and until we find a new cave. I must be alone with your new mother, until she learns our language and our ways." It was only half the truth. Broud was not quite ready to surrender himself to the rest of his people. He wanted more time alone with Kyani. He felt his step lighten as he returned to her, he felt his heart lifting in anticipation of the moment when he could take her in his arms again. He felt a rush of sexual excitement as he recalled how she had felt beneath him, and he was no longer afraid that his hard need would kill her spirit. Broud ducked under the shelter, his blood surging as he caught scent of her. But when he dropped down beside her, she clung to the furs, clung to her body, her shoulders shaking with sobs.
"Ki-ani," he whispered, detaching her gently, pulling her up in his arms. She cringed from his touch as if he were a stranger again, as if he meant her some great harm. "What's this?" he asked, baffled, lifting her chin with his fingers. Her face was stained with tears. "Ki-ani hurt? Not well?"
She stared at him blankly, as if she had forgotten the words they had used for so many days. She was struck dumb with fear. Broud frowned, wondering how long she had been crying alone. He ignored the resistance in her limbs as he drew her into his arms. He had wanted her again, he had looked forward to this moment, but she now clutched her arms over her belly in obvious pain from the night before, and her eyes were wide with the fear that he would do it again. "All right, all right," Broud said, ignoring his frustration, smothering it like Kyani had smothered her cries for him. "Ki-ani well. Safe now. Home now. Sleep, Ki-ani. Sleep. I will watch over you."
He sat back, holding the frightened girl on his chest. Hadn't it just been so easy, travelling together across the steppes? Broud sighed heavily as the burden of his responsibility came crashing down on him. Was it all a mistake, bringing her here? Hadn't she wanted him? Had he only imagined her kindness, and the way she had pressed herself against him only last night? He hardly knew the shivering woman in his arms. But then, her little sobs slowed, and the tension in her limbs softened. He felt her small cold hand creep through the opening in his wrap and press against his belly, seeking his warmth. Broud eased himself back into his furs, knowing he would have no release tonight. Just as well. The pleasure of Kyani's delicate body seeking his comfort once more was sweet enough, and there would be plenty of time for the rest, once she felt safe with him again. Broud cupped his hand over her head protectively, and closed his eyes.
In her first few moments of consciousness, Kyani was finally warm. Soft, thick furs were wrapped over her body. Hard, strong arms encircled her. Her cheek pressed against warm flesh. "Broud," she murmured, smiling with her eyes closed. She knew his smell, a strong male scent mixed with smoke and pine and wet earth. His hand was buried in her thick hair, the other rested possessively against the curve of her hip. In that drowsy moment she did not question where she was, and she did not feel sore or frightened. She inhaled the deep male scent of her hunter and was satisfied.
And then she opened her eyes, and took in her strange surroundings. A fire was reduced to glowing coals before her. Above her, a crudely cut piece of hide stretched to form a lean-to type shelter. In the dim, pre-dawn light, Kyani took note of the items in the shelter. There was nothing for cooking, no stored food, no ornamentation of any kind. Broud's only possessions were weapons. Spears lay clustered together at the back of the shelter, some capped with flint, some merely sharpened and scorched with fire to make a hard, wicked point. She recognized a bola, set to the side almost reverently on a swatch of thick brown fur. There was a thick hide wrap carefully bound with a sinew cord that looked like it might hold tools or knives. There was no trace of a woman's presence whatsoever. The older, red-haired woman who had thrown herself at Broud's feet the day before was not his woman. Perhaps, then, his mother? Kyani bit her lips; if his mother had to grovel at his feet, how would she be expected to behave? It didn't matter, she realized. Last night she had been terrorized by the faces of the Old Ones, senselessly afraid of where she had been brought and how she would now live. In the fresh, pale morning, Kyani knew that this would have to be her home now. She would have to adapt. She gazed up at Broud's sleeping face. She was his now, his mate, his woman. He had been greeted with a great deal of reverence, suitable for a man of great status. Perhaps he was even the leader of these people. He would not let anyone hurt her.
Broud woke. He blinked groggily, and then his eyes warmed at the sight of her. Kyani smiled at him; she was not upset. She was not leaking from the eyes or shaking in dumb terror. He ran his fingers over the incredibly soft skin of her face, and then he cupped her chin in his hand and held her gaze. "Come," he said. "Ki-ani. Must eat. Must fetch water."
Kyani struggled to understand. She knew come, eat, water. But she did not know what to do. Her lessons could not wait. If she was to be an acceptable mate for the leader, she would have to learn Clan ways quickly. Broud couldn't lead her about by her hand like a child. He could not teach her women's work. He looked to his collection of weapons, thinking of the most important lesson, the one Ayla had never mastered.
Broud reached for a spear. He held it up, as if to offer it to her. When she reached her hand out, his expression grew stern. He pulled the spear away. "No," he said, which she knew. "No. Never touch. Woman never touch."
She was confused. Her hand floated awkwardly in the air, suspended over the weapon. Broud put his fingers on her arm. "Touch," he said. He stroked her face. "Touch."
Kyani smiled. After a few more moments of their familiar game, she put her fingertips on his chest and repeated the low word, a sound that caught in her throat. "Touch." She was rewarded with Broud's pleasure, which she was fast learning to read from his dark, gleaming eyes and his posture, rather than a curve of his lips.
But then he became stern again. He lifted the weapon. "No touch. Ki-ani no touch."
"Yes, Broud," she said. Her guess was right: she was not to touch his weapons. She could not comprehend the deeply entrenched customs and traditions that led to the prohibition. She only wanted to please him. She wouldn't touch his weapons, not because it would defile the weapon and anger the spirits, but because her hunter didn't want her to. Broud nodded with pleasure. She was quick and eager to obey. He was hopeful that his new woman could be made acceptable, both to the Clan and to the spirits that ruled them.
She followed him out of the shelter. She was unsurprised to see the Clan awake and up, for the days began early among her own kind as well. But here, it was the women who were hustling about while the men were slowly coming to life, stretching, contemplating the day. Kyani caught their curious glances as she followed Broud, but no one looked straight at her. The women that they passed ducked their heads submissively. Broud stopped before a young brown haired woman who seemed to be in her fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. The woman bowed her head and waited.
"Uba," Broud said, telling her with a mix of gestures and simple words, "This is Ki-ani, my new woman. She is to be my mate, but she must first learn women's work. You will teach her."
Uba's lips parted softly. She almost shook her head, no. How could she teach a grown woman of the Others? The Others had killed Vorn. She did not want to have one of them at her side. Why had Broud chosen her to teach this interloper? Did she not have enough to do, being a novice medicine woman as well as a new widow carrying a child? Uba was afraid that she would lose this baby like she had lost her first. She did not want any additional duties to take her away from what rest she could snatch.
"You liked Ayla," Broud said, almost an accusation. "You knew Ayla better than any of us. You shared a hearth with her. You know more about her people."
"Ayla did not even know her people!" Uba gestured frantically. Ayla was her sister, Ayla was Clan! This woman was nothing like Ayla!
Broud flashed his old, quick anger. Was she defying him? He did not want Kyani's first lesson from a woman to be defiance to a man! "You will teach her," Broud repeated sternly. He listed what words and phrases Kyani understood, a tiny list compared to the rich and complex Clan language. Uba bowed her head in obedience, defeated. Broud turned to his new woman, a woman no bigger or stronger than the child Brac. To Uba's utter shock, the leader caressed this woman's fragile-looking face. He spoke to her in murmurs, ordering her to stay. He gestured to Uba, said her name. The woman, possessed of odd, violet eyes surrounded by impossibly long, thick black lashes, turned her odd gaze on Uba. She repeated the name. Uba nodded reluctantly. Even stranger, Broud touched Kyani's face again, and the woman dropped her cheek into his hand like a baby drawing comfort from its mother. Open affection was frowned upon by the Clan, except for in the privacy of one's hearth. Uba wondered why Broud did not cuff her for it. Something happened to him while he was away, Uba thought. Something has changed him, and the strange woman has a great deal to do with it. Uba still resented Broud for driving Ayla off. She blamed him for the destruction of their cave and for Vorn's death, and her leader's bizarre petting of this new woman of the Others angered her. But her rich heritage as a medicine woman, full of heightened powers of observation as well as a natural inclination to approve of anything that helped another, stoked her interest.
It was not Uba's place to question the leader. She put her conflicting feelings aside and turned her attention to this little woman who stood so shyly before her. Uba snatched up two water skins, and thrust one at the woman. "We must gather water to cook breakfast," she said quickly.
Uba was not a patient teacher. When Ayla had come, Uba's mother Iza had treated Ayla with all the patience and tenderness due a child. Uba did not rush as she showed Kyani how to prepare a morning meal of tea, mash, and fruit; but she didn't explain the words for each thing as she touched it. She didn't give Kyani a fair chance to learn. Kyani strained to catch on. She sensed no satisfaction from the young Clan woman when she guessed at the word for apple, chamomile, or grain. Kyani had never been shown such disdain, and it cut her. Hoping to please, she tried to mimic the woman's subservient posture, shortening her stride, keeping her eyes averted or to the ground when passing others. As with Ayla, Kyani's strangeness overwhelmed the success of her efforts to fit in.
Kyani took a portion of the food when she was offered, but Uba reprimanded her with a sharp word that caught Kyani by surprise and disappointment. Kyani was famished, but Uba motioned to where Broud was sitting with Goov. Kyani was to serve her man first, before she ate, if she was allowed to eat at all! Uba left Kyani alone to cross the campsite with Broud's breakfast.
The other women had served their mates almost on bended knee. One mature woman had to sit head bowed, bowl in hand, for a long while before her mate stopped sorting over a pile of rocks to recognize her. Kyani's cheeks burned as she walked past the clusters of fires. She would be humiliated to get on her knees or sit while ignored, offering bowl in hand. But her fears were unfounded. Broud was talking to Goov about the high mountains running in a line to the northeast, but his eyes couldn't leave Kyani. As soon as she was close he motioned for her to sit beside him. He shared his food with her, as he sometimes had with Oga. He let his hand bump hers as if by accident, but when his skin swept hers he lingered, and she had to bite back her smile. Broud tried to make his gestures of reassurance and affection discrete, but they were not missed by anyone. There was a heat between the leader and the small, dark woman, a bond usually only seen by two mated for a lifetime, yet full of some swirling, dizzying, fiery desire. Broud couldn't take his eyes off Kyani. Kyani tried to emulate the other women and did not return his longing gazes; all the same, a warm flush crept up her throat and spread over her cheeks when he watched her. Her strange violet eyes seemed to glow and everyone saw it. It was beyond curious to the others, especially the women. The older women, led by Ebra, were scandalized and disapproving. They were uncomfortable with the overt attention he paid this foreign scrap of a woman.
But the younger women, Ovra and Ona and even Uba, as the day went on, were fascinated. Ovra loved Goov deeply, and she recognized herself in Kyani's eagerness to please Broud as well as her open desire to be beside him always. Ona and Uba grew melancholy, missing their lost mates while wondering who now would keep them warm at night. Kyani thought she was being subtle, hiding her longing to be alone with Broud, to lie on his chest while wrapped in thick furs. She didn't know that she was among a people whose sensitivity was equaled only by their deep understanding of body language and ability to read any gesture, however small. Kyani couldn't be more obvious if she openly cried out for the man and threw herself into his arms. Ebra was horrified by Kyani's unwomanly behavior, worrying that it would have a bad influence on the young women of the Clan. She thought smugly that Broud would soon tire of such a demonstrative creature. She thought he might beat Kyani.
Broud noted the despair that Kyani tried to hide when she saw him snatch up a spear and Brun's bola. It pleased him, not that she was unhappy, but that she longed so much for him. He was more than flattered; he had always craved attention, the physical proof of love and acceptance, from women. His own face was flushed with proud warmth as he imagined returning to her with his day's kill bound to his spear. He motioned to Goov and Grod, and they snatched up their weapons. It was a fair, bright early autumn day, the sun rising into a cloudless sky; a fine day to hunt. Droog gathered up his spear as well but Broud shook his head. "A man will have to stay behind, Droog. And not just old Zoug."
The tool maker furrowed his heavy brows without understanding. "I must hunt for my hearth, Broud," he gestured.
Broud turned his back to the women and told Droog quietly, "Things are changed now. I will not leave the women and children without a strong man to protect them, and we won't travel far besides. We are not alone in this country anymore."
Droog nodded, understanding immediately. He turned his gaze out to the northern horizon, half expecting to see the demon Others, lanky and lean and running towards them with spears up. But there was nothing other than the golden, gently swaying grasses of the steppes.
Broud put his hand on Droog's shoulder. "Good man. If the spirits are with us, we will bring enough for all to share. We will rotate days to hunt. This must be our way now."
Broud knelt over the bleeding ibex, Kyani's obsidian dagger in hand. "Thank you, little brother," he murmured softly, pulling the animal's head up by a tuft of fur on its head. He slit the exposed throat quickly and the life blood of the beast poured out around Broud's feet. Broud gave a swift death to the creatures he hunted, having no wish to cause suffering or to offend the spirit of the animal he killed. The ibex was a big male, almost three hundred pounds, and it was the second that the three men had taken from the rising Crimean mountains.
"That is a strange weapon," Grod noted when Broud looked up.
Broud stood, drawing the shining black blade over his wrap before he set it back in the cord knotted around his waist. "It is the same as the one that cut my leg. She gave it to me."
"The woman touched it?" Grod asked in horror.
"Her touch did not offend this blade," Broud attempted to explain. "Their kind allows women to touch weapons. She won't do it anymore, though. I have taught her that Clan spirits abhor a woman's hand on a weapon. She won't defy me."
Grod grunted in disbelief. He had no high opinion of women of the Others, and he surely had no faith in their ability to obey. It had been proven impossible once already.
"Tie up this animal," Broud ordered swiftly. As Goov and Grod bound the ibex to Broud's spear, Broud stood and gazed out towards the shining blue sea, rippling with tiny waves crested in white foam. They had not climbed terribly high, barely past the line of wind-whipped pines, but still he had a commanding view of the land in all directions. The steppes were at his back, but that direction would be the most important way to watch. Towards the northeast, the mountains rose higher still. Many peaks were capped in glistening white already; others were cloaked in mist. It would be cold up there, even in the midsummer. But there was plenty of game to be had, and many fresh streams would run down from the snowpack. Yet they had been out for much of the day, and yet had found no suitable cave. Broud looked at Goov and asked, "Do you think there will be large caves up here?"
"Should be," Goov replied. He brushed the molting ibex's fur from his hands and set them on his hips. "But I would feel more comfortable if we searched for them as a clan, or at least brought the women and children up high before we men went on."
"So you understand," Broud said, his voice hard with purpose.
Goov nodded. "The Others will keep coming, I think. I do not believe that all of them are wicked; surely you must now agree. But it would be better for us to leave the open land. With what the women gather today, these two animals will provide enough meat for today and tomorrow. We ought to bring the rest of the Clan up here tomorrow and continue our search. It must be done soon, Broud."
Broud made a small grunt of agreement. He scanned the northern steppe warily. Back in the embrace of his family, the anxious feeling of being hunted like an animal had softened momentarily. Staring down from the heights, though, it was easily recalled. Someone had been following them, and it wasn't a cave lion. "Tomorrow, we will bring everyone up to this peak while we men search."
"It will be difficult for Uba," Grod warned.
Broud rounded on the older man. He knew Grod doubted him, and he had offended Grod when he vaulted Vorn up to Second before Grod's hair had even greyed. Broud could not have such a petty quarrel undermine his authority when such a desperate threat overshadowed them. "Uba's death at the hands of the Others would be far more difficult for her, Grod, and for all of us. She will have to climb."
Kyani and Uba spent their day together, gathering the early harvest of the land. Kyani had been delighted to find a thick vine of grapes, popping several into her mouth as she picked. She offered a smile to Uba, but the young woman did not return a friendly gesture. Kyani sighed. Their people had not enjoyed good encounters, and it would take time.
She longed for her woven baskets. Uba carried hide sacks, and Kyani had only spied several woven crafts at the camp sight, rough work that she guessed was made from sinews and hides. Lighter wicker baskets would be best for gathering more fruits, vegetables, and tubers. Grapevine could serve but was tough to work. Kyani would like to gather strips of ash wood, but she decided that as they returned along the stream she could gather reeds to weave a quick basket or two for tomorrow's gathering. Carrying their sacks of grapes, nuts, and early apples, they headed back along the gurgling stream. "Uba," Kyani called, stopping by the reeds.
The Clan woman shook her head. "Come, Kyani."
Kyani smiled patiently. The Clan woman was treating her like a stupid child, and Kyani would have to put an end to it if she was to make her home here. She raised her hand to indicate, "Wait," and proceeded to cut reeds with the small flint tool she had been given, choosing the unblemished ones. She also seized a great many cattail leaves, perfect and green at this time of year, though these would have to dry for several days before they could be used. Uba sighed heavily, glancing about for Ebra or one of the other women to take charge of the stranger for a moment. Uba wished she hadn't eaten any of the grapes; her stomach was beginning to turn sour again, and she couldn't boil water for tea until they returned. If only this woman would hurry! She reached into her otter-skin medicine bag for a helpful root to chew, but the sour metallic saliva filling her throat gagged her. Miserably, Uba dropped to her knees and vomited into the reeds.
The woman was horribly sick. Kyani dropped her burdens and knelt beside Uba, rubbing her hands softly over Uba's back. Kyani saw the cuttings of wild ginger root clenched in Uba's hand, but Uba couldn't stop retching long enough to chew them. Kyani rolled a broad leaf and brought sweet water from the stream to Uba's lips. She had never carried a child or experienced the fierce sickness that a baby sometimes brought, but obviously both races shared the affliction. Uba drank slowly, her gaze meeting Kyani's. For the first time, Kyani was able to read the emotion in a Clan woman's eyes: there was fear, and deep sorrow. Kyani wondered that the young woman had no man in her shelter, only a lanky little boy called Durc. Perhaps Uba's mate was dead. Perhaps he had died when Broud was injured. Kyani bit her lips, her heart heavy and the stupidity of it all, the senseless waste. When Uba regained something of her composure back Kyani asked words that Broud had taught her, "Better now?"
"No," Uba replied truthfully. She sat back on the soft, mossy grass to catch her breath, draping her hands over her round belly. She said more words, made more gestures, but it was nothing Kyani could understand. She offered Uba what comfort she could: a soft touch, water, and a quiet supportive presence. Uba pursed her lips together as she sized up the foreign woman and decided that she was kind. Her hands were gentle and capable, and her instinct to help was immediate. Uba's first reaction of dislike melted away quickly. She isn't Ayla, Uba reminded herself sternly. Kyani marveled that Uba had-just for a moment-borne something like friendship in her eyes before it vanished as quickly as it came. Kyani sighed; it would be a long road until these people accepted her. But would her own kind be any quicker, if the situation were reversed?
Back at the camp, Kyani stoked Broud's fire. She borrowed a wooden bowl from Uba and copied a Clan method of warming water with rocks heated in the fire. While the water heated, Kyani laid her cattail leaves out in the sun. Then she soaked the reeds in the warm water until they were more pliable. Feeling the eyes of the older red-haired woman on her, Kyani set the spoke-like base for her first basket. She enjoyed weaving and had fair skill at it. The women of the Clan watched with grudging admiration as Kyani speedily made one fine basket and then another. She felt new eyes on her and cast a hidden glance up from under her dark lashes: Broud's two boys Brac and Grev, followed by Uba's boy Durc, were lingering nearby with big, curious brown eyes. The two smaller boys were naked but for cords about their waists with little slings tucked beside their hips. They clutched tiny spears in their hands. Kyani smothered her delighted smile and offered them a small grin instead, and quick as little rabbits they turned on their heels and ran away. A ways behind them stood Ebra, glaring rudely into her son's shelter, her face screwed up in disapproval. Kyani's smile dissolved and she turned her eyes back down to her work.
The hunters came in then, to Kyani's delight. They shouldered spears with two fat, healthy mountain goats lashed to the spears. She could not hide her smile to see Broud strutting cockily down the rocky hill, the wind tousling his dark chestnut-brown hair about the strong, sharply angled planes of his face. His eyes sought her out immediately, before anything else, and he swelled with pride. She was watching him, admiration in her pretty violet eyes. Her adoring gaze was as food to Broud.
In Brun's day, unless large game such as a mammoth, a bison, or rhinoceros was brought down, each hunter killed his own game for his own hearth. All had offered a portion to Creb, the deformed holy man who could not hunt on his own. But in this new day the women were called together to butcher the two large animals and they were cooked over a communal fire pit. The best pieces were offered to Broud and then Goov, and then to Grod who seemed to have resumed his station as second in command without any discussion on the matter. Kyani longed to gather her own herbs and do her own cooking, but despite the language barrier and the way the older women seemed to scorn her, it was rather merry to work all together. The mature Clan women had expected something like the new-found Ayla with Kyani, and they were reminded as she worked that Kyani was a woman grown who did not need to be taught to butcher or skin or cook. They were grudgingly relieved. For her part, Kyani found a bit of enjoyment in the camaraderie of the women and the good, comforting smell of roasting meat and vegetables. She had not realized how much she had missed women on her journey. When the rich meal was prepared, Kyani imitated the Clan women and served Broud with a bowed head, realizing at once the pleasure she was giving him by doing so. She did not feel so much like she was groveling then, but honoring him, which she could easily do after the cave lion incident.
After they ate, the Clan gathered together and they seemed to tell tales around the fire as her own people did, except here there was a great deal of pantomime and Kyani found herself caught up by the elegance of their motions even if she could not share in the stories. Broud sat at her side and as the night darkened, his arm slipped discretely around her waist and he encouraged her to lean against him. She was happy to do so. The Clan saw this; some recalled how Broud had cuddled Oga to him in his younger years, before his strange battles with Ayla exploded in the young man's face and humiliated him.
Kyani was enjoying herself. She was safe and full and dry, with no hard trek before her. Broud's arm was locked possessively around her, and she saw for the first time that other pairs were sharing such abbreviated, discrete forms of affection in the darkness, as her own people did. The Clan was not so foreign, and even that foreignness was exciting because it was infused with her growing passion for her hunter, her leader. But as comforted as she was, Kyani she suddenly realized that the proportions of men, women, and children in this community were all wrong. There were a few mature men and women, and then a gaggle of youthful women or nubile girls, and then only four children, all of whom were boys. Some disaster had befallen these people, stripping them of young hunters and children. Or maybe, children were harder won among these people. In Kyani's band, nearly one-third of the members were children. Unless something changed dramatically, and soon, this Clan would dwindle. Kyani looked up at Broud, wondering if he felt any sense of desperation when he looked over his people. She hoped her own kind had not played a part in the destruction of his Clan. It would be best, she thought, if Uba had a girl. Durc seems to be her child; he now lay with his head in Uba's lap. Kyani thought a daughter of Uba would be best for one of Broud's two sons. But that would leave the other son and Durc, and that older woman's young boy without mates. Kyani pouted anxiously, hoping that someone in this group was considering this danger. Already, Kyani had begun the transformation from a woman of her own band to Broud's mate, with a concern for all the people he was responsible for.
Broud wasn't thinking of this, though. He was at pure ease. He had noted the happy change in his new woman. She had been industrious this day, and it made him proud of her and hopeful that the other Clan members were impressed, too. Uba had given him a full report, and he noted the baskets drying near his fire as well as the strips of cattail leaves set out to dry. He hoped she had begun to think of herself as Clan, and that the others would accept her soon.
It was fairly late when the Clan retreated to their separate beds. Broud watched as Goov went off on his own, away from Ovra and towards the cave that had once been their home. Uba had prepared some drink for him, and it was just as well. They would need all the spiritual guidance of mog-ur in the coming days. Already the old traditions were being tread upon, and it made Broud uncomfortable. But what else could be done?
He pushed his dark thoughts away and brought Kyani to his shelter. He wondered idly if Droog had relieved his needs with Aga while he lingered at the camp, giving Kyani a chance to see the signal. It didn't really matter. She shed her travel-worn doeskin and climbed under the furs, watching him with a warm and steady gaze that made Broud's heart flip into his stomach and his body stir. He dropped his own garment and slipped into bed beside her, almost dizzy with the thought of the pleasure he would take. Kyani's breath came quick then, but she was soft in his hands as he coaxed her to turn onto her belly. He pulled her hips up, feasting his eyes on her body. He pressed his hand against the small of her back until her back dropped into a deep, gorgeously provocative arch, and then he clutched her hips and pushed hard until he was inside of her, tipping his head back and closing his eyes at the ecstatic sensation. He could easily forget that the tightness that was so intriguing for him was a misery for her, until her sharp cries called him back.
"Shh, be quiet," he gasped, hoping that the others wouldn't hear her, hoping, before he was swept away from all thought and care, that she wouldn't have such pain tonight. But Kyani couldn't even keep herself up; her arms shuddered and then collapsed. Broud followed her down into the soft furs. He wrapped his hand over her mouth again, smothering the gasps and cries even though they excited him powerfully and drove him to a quick, hard climax. He couldn't withdraw; the dampness he had filled her with felt too good to abandon after the first bone dry greeting, and he took his pleasure again with his deep hard thrusts, made brutal by his size rather than his intention. Kyani was shaking in his arms when he finally spent himself. His own body trembled and he lay over her for a long while, trying to recover his mind and his strength, unable even to think.
When he finally drew her onto his chest, Kyani buried her face until she caught her breath. She was sore worse than before, torn and bruised and badly handled. It couldn't go on this way, but without some instruction it was likely to. Though her new mate had a depth of sensitivity unlike her first, and his love for her was obvious, the hunter had no understanding of her own needs. She would have to show him that his way was too rough for her, at least now, so early in their life together. Her mate had been a boy, but he had known, he had been taught by older women before his mating to treat a woman gently and share pleasure with her. Now Broud's hands were running over Kyani's body appreciatively, not for her delight but for his own, as if he had no idea of what he could give her in return for what he took for himself. But he did not want her to grieve again, and he didn't want to drive her spirit away. He lifted her chin to see her eyes, to show her that he was beyond pleased with her, so pleased that his body glowed with it. So deep was his adoration of Kyani and what she gave that he would gladly die for her. Broud's emotion, as intensely felt as all his emotions ever were, burned clear and hot in his dark eyes. Kyani met those eyes for a long while, judging his good will. Finally, she pushed herself up on her weak, shaking arms and put her mouth against his; and this time it was Broud who froze in shock.
The sensation was exquisite. The young woman's lips played on his softly, pressing against his lips, pushing them open. Her sweet breath was warm against his. He felt her hands touch his rough cheeks, her fingers spread into his thick hair. He lay back on his furs, stunned by her gentle attack. He lay still, passive, and let her taste him, entranced by this new feeling. Her lips strayed, brushed over the stubble along his jaw and then her warm mouth pressed against his throat, over the maddeningly sensitive skin behind his ears, down the thick vein in his neck. Her tongue dancing over his tingling flesh provoking a consuming sensation like something out of the deepest of his datura-induced visions, when his body and spirit seemed to melt into the earth. Broud and all of his kind were far more developed in the regions of the brain that controlled the senses, and Kyani had no idea how thrilling her touch was for him, more so for Broud than for any man of the Others. It was almost a sweet torture for Broud as Kyani played her lips and her tongue over his body. His quick, stumbling breath encouraged her. The powerful man was like a boy in initiation under Kyani's soft attention, and she drew her kisses down his broad chest, his rigid, muscled abdomen. She looked up at him and saw that his eyes were closed and his lips were parted. His breathing was heavy and trembling and his impressive organ had grown thick and hard again. Kyani wanted to teach him how to help her enjoy him, how to please her.
But the hunter's different biology made this a more dangerous game than the girl had gambled on. She took him in her mouth but after only a few sweet, thrilling kisses he exploded into motion, snatching her hard as his brutal, tormented lust finally overwhelmed his care for her. Kyani knew he would throw her down again and she twisted in his grasp, suddenly terrified and desperate to escape him. He'd not understood. He'd taken again, with no thought for giving. She had erred in judgment, like a woman trying to feed a wild beast, and now his hands were locked around her hips, his fingers gripping and digging into her flesh painfully. Their bodies were locked in a struggle for dominance. Broud was a thousand times stronger and aroused beyond sense, and she had done this to him, to herself. Kyani knew nothing else to do; before he could flip her onto her belly again, she forced her hips against his, taking him in, throwing her head back and screaming at the effort. Stunned, stupefied, Broud watched with wide eyes as she sat astride him, rocking back and forth until finally took him fully. Shuddering, she lay over his chest and took his face in her hands. She sobbed his name. She was crying and panting at once. And beyond all this, the first sparks of her own pleasure were crackling awake, a hint of a pleasure unlike any she had felt before, merciless and relentlessly filling and utterly complete. Broud released her hips and saw through the delirium of his pleasure that he had mottled her lovely ivory skin with ugly bruises. He was torn between shame and bliss. Trembling, moments from the peak of a violent climax, he fell back again into the thick furs and watched with half-lidded eyes, surrendering to her desperate exotic dance.
They could not sleep for hours. They lay side by side, staring at each other, grasping silently for an understanding of each other that was still just beyond their reach. Their bodies ached as if they had done battle. Tentatively, Broud placed his hand over hers. Kyani accepted it; she laced her fingers with his. The cold air thrilled their sweaty skin. Above the crude hide of the shelter, the stars swung east to west overhead in their eternal dance, the hearths of heaven burning bright and careless to the world. Around them the Clan slept fitfully, disturbed by what they had heard. But in the shelter, in the orange glow of the fading fire, they were the only man and woman in all existence. Slowly, they came together again. Broud took her small body in his powerful arms. He wrapped the furs tight around them. Kyani brushed his sweaty hair away from his face. Broud ran his fingers over her pretty lips, and then he clutched her to his chest, every thought erased from his mind but the joy of her.
In the morning the Clan assembled at the base of the rising mountain chain. Broud wanted to be careless of their curious eyes, but he was too much a creature of the Clan, dependent on their opinion. He almost spoke to Goov about what Kyani had done to him, but he thought the mog-ur would wonder, once and for all, if Broud had truly lost his sanity. The men and women both watched the leader and the woman he had named for his mate, unable to join in their minds the flushed cheeks and bright eyes of the pair to the girl's slight stumbling stride and the animalistic screams and guttural gasps they had heard in the night. Her head was held high and she clutched her basket in her arms, eager to sample the harvest of the mountains. She also carried water for Broud, his boys, and herself, a Clan digging stick, and a woman's flint knife in case she should find some materials for her basket-weaving, which had obviously impressed the younger women of the Clan. They wanted to walk beside her and inspect her weaving, since her skill and technique were quite different than their own. No one could help remembering that Ayla, too, had been highly skilled. In fact, with this new woman of the Others in such high favor with the leader, they allowed themselves to recall what an asset the 'dead' woman had been to their Clan. They thought this Ki-ani might bring them practical benefits, if not luck. Since she had such favor with Broud, and being a practical minded people with strong survival skills, they forgave her for her obviously violent racial origins and looked hopefully on what the young woman might have to offer. Even Ebra had no choice but to admit that the girl's weaving was good and her slight body was stronger than it looked. They hiked up into the mountains, Broud and Goov in the lead and Droog, Grod, and old Zoug guarding the rear, and Kyani sprang up the rocky slopes like a sure-footed she-goat, careful not to pass Broud's mother who still claimed first position among the women. When Uba stumbled Kyani swept to the young medicine woman's side, and Uba leaned heavily on Kyani's slim, strong arm as they crept up through the trees and made their way to the dramatic overlook where Broud had decided to leave the women and children. No one was unimpressed by the gorgeous view of the sun sparkling on the sea to the south, and the brilliant white-capped peaks to the east. Broud called his mother to one side.
"See that the women scout this place for water and easily gathered food," he instructed her, and Ebra in turn commanded the women to spread out.
Broud turned to Kyani, flushing nearly scarlet when they locked eyes. They made no outright obvious gesture of the strange passion and heavy bond that they felt, but they both read it clearly in the other's face; after a moment of this secretive gaze, Broud turned away, heart pounding as he waved to the men. The men gathered up their spears and fell into rank behind him.
Kyani watched him go, almost aching at the sight of him leaving her. Finally she turned to the other women, trying to banish her longing for Broud through seeking to gain a sense for what the women found important to collect. But Uba was most interesting to Kyani; she did not seek out berries or the eggs of mountain-nesting birds, but herbs and flowers. The ginger the day prior had been a hint, and now Kyani watched the young woman kneeling near a cluster of bright yellow flowers that she had seen Myriana gather to tend wounded hunters. Uba was their medicine woman, young though she was. Kyani knelt beside her and said, "Wolfsbane."
Uba did not look up, but she named the herb herself. "It's the roots I want," Uba said, knowing the woman didn't understand but sensing that she wanted to. Ayla had taken a special interest in healing and excelled at it, and Broud had claimed this girl had treated his infected wound as they journeyed back to the Clan. Uba had looked the leader's nasty injury over herself and had been fairly impressed with Kyani's skill. Broud owed the violet-eyed girl his life; perhaps that was the source of the affection between them. Uba could not imagine that Broud had saved Kyani as well, during the vicious battle with a cave lion that had made up Kyani's mind about her future with Uba's leader.
Uba took out her digging stick, but a sharp pain in her lower back prevented her from accomplishing her task. Kyani took over, digging a small hole near a cluster of the flowers and then delicately shaving the roots. She was careful not to cut too much away, which pleased Uba. They spent a pleasant morning and afternoon together, seeking out plants and showing each other new ones, all without any true spoken communication. Soon enough Durc wandered over and told Uba that he was hungry, and Uba and Kyani made a fire and hard boiled several of the large eggs Kyani had snatched from a low nest in a pine tree. There was plenty, and since Ebra was busy, Kyani gestured over Broud's sons and fed them as well.
Grev was the more demonstrative of the two boys, being the younger. He sat down beside Kyani, who thought that the child was still young enough to nurse, at least for comfort if not to bolster his growth. It was plain to her now that Broud's prior mate, the boy's mother, had left this world. Poor boy, she thought, holding out her arms for him. Grev shyly crawled into her lap and soon fell asleep, feeling full and safe at last in a young woman's arms.
"Your son?" Kyani asked Uba, wishing that she was quicker with the language that must become hers.
Uba narrowed her eyes at the strange undulating pattern of sounds. Kyani indicated the boy Grev and said, "Broud." She pointed to Durc and asked, "Uba?"
Uba did not understand, of course. The Clan did not assign paternity, not truly. Kyani's own race was slowly coming to it, and only a handful of the many Cro-Magnon bands travelling through Ice Age Europe assigned paternity themselves. Kyani's band, a more southern tribe that had wound in a slow generational path from the Middle East up through Turkey and into the Ukraine, did. Kyani tried again to make herself understood, and finally it clicked to the Clan woman.
"No," Uba said. "Not Uba's. Durc is Ayla's son. Ayla…" Uba smacked her hands together, sliding them off each other in a gesture of finality. The sorrow in her eyes contributed to Kyani's understanding.
"Ayla…" Kyani said, and then motioned to the sky, the realm of the spirits. Another orphaned child. This could not have been the work of Broud's fight with Drakav and Tarek. Something else had happened to these people, something that deprived them of hunters and young mothers.
Uba nodded. "Durc is mine now," she spoke and gestured.
The boy, Durc, had a different look than the other children. Not only were his limbs straighter and slimmer and his face flatter and more delicate, his dark eyes were haunted. He turned to Kyani and told her bitterly, "Ayla Durc's Mama. Mama went away. Broud made Mama die." The boy made the same gesture, crossing his palms.
"Durc," Uba admonished softly, embarrassed. Broud's new woman did not understand-or did she? Now that Broud had returned, Uba was afraid for the quick, clever boy. The leader had not been interested in the child since his return, but before he had left the animosity shown to Ayla's son was open and harsh. Hopefully this girl would soothe the leader's angry spirit, and he would learn to show kindness to Ayla's son. If not, Uba feared that there would one day be a reckoning between the two of them, Broud and Durc.
"Who is Durc's Father?" Kyani tried again, using Clan words for all but Father, Ata. She was wondering why the boy had spoken of Broud. Kyani corrected herself and asked, all in Clan speech, "Ayla's mate? Who was Ayla's mate?" Could it be that there were three brothers, not two? And if so, why did Broud pay no affection to Durc? Broud seemed to take a great pride in his two sons, and he was a deeply affectionate father. Kyani did not believe he could scorn any of his children. And why did Uba care for him, and not Ebra? And was this Ayla woman Broud's dead mate?
Uba shook her head. "Ayla had no mate. She was ugly. I didn't think so, but she was very tall and very pale and she had a Cave Lion totem. She was… Unwomanly. Fierce. She was my sister, and I loved her." Uba stopped, seeing the bewildered look in Kyani's odd eyes. "Ayla had no mate," she repeated.
Kyani stared at the boy Durc, wondering what Uba was going on about, only comprehending that Broud was not Ayla's mate after all. She knew 'no mate' and 'cave lion' and nothing else, and together it made no sense to her. She smiled then, and shrugged carelessly, not wishing to grieve the woman and the child over past losses that could never be repaired now. Uba seemed to have no mate either, so perhaps it was all part of the same riddle. In time, Kyani thought, she would learn. But today the mountain air was crisp and refreshing, and far away they could hear the low moaning of the sea. Kyani stroked Grev's dark hair softly, cradling the sleeping boy gently on her lap.
The hunters returned unsuccessful but undaunted. Goov and Zoug both believed there was a good chance that caves would be found deeper into the chain of mountains. The rocks were right for it. They had found a pure alpine lake and ample game around it, mountain goats and roe deer and even a few giant deer drinking among the flocks of birds. The men knew that other hunters wouldn't be far behind, large cats and wolves and hyenas. Broud was eager to find animals with luxurious warm coats to give to Kyani for rich and beautiful wraps. He had given her the hide of his ibex but it was tough, not like her soft pale doeskin. He was consumed with what she needed now: foot and leg coverings, hoods, even dresses like the odd and attractive one she had tattered on their journey, fringed about the legs and adorned with a pattern of quills around the neck and sleeves. But most important was providing her and all of his people a safe home, high up and far away from roaming bands of chalk-faced warriors and their whistling spears. They would retreat back down to their camp that night, but Broud determined that Uba and Zoug and even Ebra shouldn't make the climb every day. Ebra had deemed the pine-rimmed overlook satisfactory for women's work, and so Broud informed his Clan that they would move the camp on the following morning. On the way home, Broud and Grod took down two of the roe deer, and the Clan enjoyed a dinner of venison combined with the gatherings of their women, which were bountiful as ever. The stars had barely pierced the sky when Broud informed everyone that he was tired, exhausted even. He needed to retire to his shelter with Kyani, right away. Broud, like all of his people, was no good liar. No one was fooled. Ovra snickered to Goov, earning a none-too-serious warning glance in return. Goov admonished her, "He is happy, Ovra. That's good for all of us."
"I am happy too, Goov," Ovra said, throwing an alluring glance over her shoulder.
"I have to talk with the spirits," Goov gestured sheepishly.
Ovra arched her eyebrows teasingly, and sauntered away, throwing her hips provocatively. The young mog-ur growled in a losing dispute with himself and then followed behind, figuring that it was early enough anyway. Finally given a sense of purpose and direction, a lighter mood lifted the spirits of everyone in the Clan, and that couldn't be a bad thing after a year of sorrow.
In Broud's shelter, Kyani, freshly returned from the stream, combed her long hair out. She shivered in the cold, and she shivered with anticipation. She did not want another bad night with the man she adored. She remembered the faint and hopeful feeling that had awakened in her the night before.
Broud undressed slowly, for once full of anxiety around a woman. He could easily pin her down and take what he wanted, she was letting him without too much of a fuss; but how could he make her do those wonderful things again? They watched each other carefully across the fire, lacking the words and the wisdom to achieve their desires. Kyani sensed his greater caution, though, and it made her hopeful. Hadn't she known, from the beginning, that it would be a difficult game of patience and trial between them? She was a delicate girl, but she was no coward. Kyani stripped away her dress and slowly sank down on the furs. Broud, already down on his knees, crawled over to her, helplessly lured by her sweet scent and the raw beauty of the fire glowing off her pale, creamy skin. A sly smile passed over her lips, and she lay on her back as he reached her, a haughty look of challenge in her dazzling violet eyes. She wanted to see his face and kiss his lips as he had her, and she would receive him no other way tonight. Broud followed with unconscious understanding, crawling up over her, his strong arms pinning her in on either side. He looked down on her with a fierce gaze of possession. Kyani's breath came harder. This time would be different; he was different tonight. Kyani pushed herself up slightly on her elbows, and brushed her lips against his. As she backed away, Broud, wanting more of her exotic, entrancing kiss, followed her down. As he eased his weight on top of her and buried his hands in her thick black hair, Kyani yielded her mouth to him. She wrapped her long slim legs around his hips, and thrilled, he understood, taking his pleasure in a slow, deep penetration. The woman beneath him moaned softly with something that sounded like grateful approval, and for the first time, her back arched to meet him and he felt her body soften properly to welcome his. Broud sighed deeply, taking his woman slowly as she lay blissful in his arms. He closed his eyes and learned to let pleasure and peace melt together.
The next day, after venturing around the clear blue lake, Broud and Goov discovered a large cave near the peak of a magnificent, sheltering mountain. Broud sunk his spear into the acidic alpine earth and leaned on its hilt, and for the first time in his adult life, he knew the true satisfaction of having followed his own intuition while having done right by others. Though the spirits would have to anoint it, this was the cave they needed. Broud would earn his people's confidence yet. The hot tempered young leader was content, and his soul felt quiet.