Chapter one: Woman of flame
The day when the older females came to take her child name away from her had been the happiest of her life so far. Her mother had been very proud, she had wept and laughed at the same time, trying to sing along with the other females as the village shaman cut off the girl’s child lock. From now on she would never again cut her hair, as it was custom in their clan. The females of the clan of the leopard were proud of their long flowing hair, and rightly so. She had envied her mother her thick dark locks, so long they reached her knees and shiny like polished stones. Now she would grow her own mane and from now on she was Aytha Un Or, woman of flames. The name was chosen because of her flaming red hair, a heritage from her sire, Walks in silence. He too had red hair, and it made him very sought after by the females but it was only Aytha’s mother, Reba Dir Or, woman who dances, who had been his mate and born him a daughter. Others had born him sons, but in this clan sons were welcomed and daughters celebrated. It was the way it had to be, the way it always had been.
When her child lock had been removed and her new name announced she and some other girls also come of age were taken to the sacred hut where the shaman would tell them what sort of life they would live, and most importantly, if they ever would find a real mate and have cubs. One of the other girls was before Aytha, her name was Ishi Eba Or, woman who fishes, and she was Aytha’s best friend. She was told that she would be joined with her true mate rather soon, and that she would have two cubs. The shaman said that her mate would have black hair and a scar on his face. The other girls immediately started to giggle, the silence in the hut had been absolute and the atmosphere tense and loaded since they all wanted to know these things. One of the girls made an obscene gesture. “Ishi, sounds like you are going to carry the cubs of Running slowly.”
Ishi stretched her tongue out, Running slowly was one of the younger males of the clan and he was given the name because he had rather short legs and was very stocky in build. “ Well at least he is strong!”
The shaman sent the girls a strict glance. “Silence young ones, Aytha was it?”
Aytha nodded, she felt herself tremble with anxious energy, who would she find to be her true mate? She wanted that so bad, they all did. Only with a true mate would you be able to conceive a cub and all the girls were just dying to have a cub of their own. Having a child meant that you were no longer addressed as N’shay, huntress, but Matay, lifegiver. The mothers of the clan didn’t really have to do much work themselves for there would always be a small horde of young ones eager to take care of a cub while the mother worked with something else. Cubs were precious to the clan, and those who bore many children seen as blessed and special. The shaman hummed and stretched out a hand, put it on Aytha’s forehead. “Oh young one, I see such fire in you. You are strong, and you have to be, I see much sorrow ahead.”
Aytha felt her heart drop. “Sorrow?”
The shaman nodded, there were shadows in her eyes. “Yes, but it is yet far ahead young one, worry not. It will be alright.”
Ishi hollered. “Her mate, her mate, do you see her mate?”
The shaman had to grin, these young ones, just robbed of their status as children hadn’t yet learned to act with the dignified calm of a woman. Some never did but most calmed down eventually. “ I do see Aytha’s mate yes, he is very tall and very strong and his hair is as golden as the sun itself”
Aytha felt herself blush down to her toes, a golden haired mate? Ishi cheered. “ Lion clan, Aytha is gonna find her mate in the lion clan!”
The lion clan was the largest of the clans and most of the males were blonde and rather tall, since the clan was so large it was strong and they had many things and they rarely had to starve. Aytha swallowed hard, a male of the lion clan, that was quite a catch. The shaman told the other girls their fortune too and Aytha didn’t really listen, she was too caught by her own thoughts. The shaman hadn’t said if it would happen soon though, she hoped it would. They hadn’t met with the other clans in many summers and it was about time that they sought them out again to trade and find new mates for the young ones. Aytha knew that she wouldn’t find a true mate within her own clan, they had some sort of instinct that prevented them from being joined with a relative and every male in the clan was more or less related to Aytha’s mother. She could bring any male she wanted to her bed furs for some fun except from her own father and her brothers but she would only be truly mated with someone not off her own blood. The shaman said it was good that way, that it prevented cubs from being born weak or ill.
When the girls all had been told their fortune they were brought outside again, the older females would bless them and rub them with the blood of a freshly killed deer and then they would wade across the river and wash it off, it did symbolize a rebirth, into a new life as an adult woman. Now they no longer could play with dolls, or act silly. They would have to work and make themselves useful and they would be respected and looked upon as keepers of the life of the clan. The females were the most important members of the clan, the ones who kept their past alive and made sure that the people would continue into the future.
If they did a mistake they would be scolded from now on, as children they could have done pretty much whatever they liked and be excused, not anymore. Aytha had to swallow hard not to cry as her old doll was being burned, along with everything else she had owned as a child. Her mother came and embraced her, addressing her as onye, sister, not adye, daughter. Now she was one of the women, no longer one of the children and she was allowed to do the things women did. Her stomach tingled with nervous energy, there was yet one thing left of the ritual and it was the one part most of the girls were anxious about.
When Aytha were younger she had been very curious about what the adults were doing when they were two or more in the bed furs and making lots of odd and funny sounds. Sometimes they screamed too and she had gotten a bit scared when her mother and her current mate hid in the furs and made those sounds. Her sister said they were having fun but how could anything that made people scream be fun? Aytha knew that people screamed when they were scared, or were in pain. One of the hunters, Two teeth, had broken his leg on a rock and they had pulled it back into place and it had made him scream a lot. It had been terrible. And when Soru had gotten that gorgeous little cub of hers she too had been screaming from inside of the midwife’s hut, Aytha wondered why. Later she had of course realized that the sounds were made because they felt good doing it but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t nervous. The females of the clans were not allowed to let a male touch them while they still had their child name, if a male did try to bed a female that young he would be banished and to most banishment meant death. You couldn’t survive on your own, simple as that.
The girls were rubbed with some sweet smelling pollen, then the older females started chanting and each were brought to a small hut where a male waited for them. The older females did choose which male would fit each girl and make her feel calm and ready to fully become a woman. Being chosen was a great honor and the males chosen were usually among the older more experienced ones, males in control of themselves and able to make even the most nervous female feel good. Everybody knew that the ones who had enjoyed this ceremony would become the best in bed, they would bed many males and bear many cubs and make the clan strong. The spirit of a female was seen as very strong, way stronger than that of a male and so the males would be strengthened whenever they were with a female. The hunters would always lay with a female before they went hunting certain species. It was believed that the spirit of the animals were stronger than the spirits of the males, and if the males did die during the hunt the animal spirit would devour theirs if it hadn’t been strengthened by a female first. Even the males who normally only sought other males would find a willing female before such hunts, it was just the way it always had been.
Aytha had often asked her mother why the males were so different from the females, and why they were treated in different ways. The females would keep their adult name their whole life and they would be protected and cherished just for being female. The males on the other hand would be named after things they had done, or certain signs, and the names could be rather odd at times. A male would have to struggle to get some status and power, everything depended upon his skills and luck. Their names would change with their status, and so would their popularity. The females would move to other clans if they found a mate there, the males had to stay put, and the males were the ones to do the dangerous jobs like hunting large animals. Aytha had wondered why this was the rule and her mother had explained that the clan could survive if it lost many males, but not when many females were lost. A male could sire many cubs but a female could only get a new cub when the first one had been weaned, which took four years, so a male was expendable, a female was not. Losing a female was a tragedy for the entire clan, losing a male much less so. To a mother it was a glorious and wonderful day when her daughter came of age and became a woman, but it was a day of sorrow when a son came of age. Now he would be required to join the hunts and he would be in danger almost every day. The young hunters were the ones most likely to die, if they did make it through the first tens they usually lived on but normally they lost at least two hunters every turn of the seasons. It was just normal, the mothers would grieve but the grief would be way worse if they lost a daughter.
Aytha had a brother who already had come of age, and she remembered that he had been terrified when they told him that it was time for his transformation. The day was joyous to the females but far from it for the young males. Now they were expected to put their lives on the line and they would no longer be treated with respect, now they would have to earn it. The boys too would have their child lock cut off, and their old toys and clothing burned. They would be nameless until someone came up with a suitable name and from that day on everybody older than them would have the right to order them around. The final part of the transformation was the worst one, Aytha remembered seeing her brother afterwards, limping, pale and red eyed, in obvious pain and no longer allowed to seek out his mother for comfort. The young males would be stripped down and clad in the hide of a deer. Then they would be chased through the camp by the other males and when someone managed to catch the lad he would be nicked with a spear on his neck, a sort of ritual “kill” to show that the child was dead. And then the males of the clan would mount him the way they would mount a female, to show dominance and make sure that he didn’t become cocky due to his new status as an adult. He was still the underdog until someone younger came of age.
Aytha knew it hurt the young males horribly, and they were not allowed to cry while the other males made use of them thus. They could scream or curse but not cry, only children did cry. The chief would always be the last one to take the young ones, since he was the leader, the strongest one. Aytha did pity the young males, their lives were much harder than that of a female. Any young male who did break down and cry were regarded as flawed and weak and he would have to stay in a hut away from the others for a whole year before the ceremony would be repeated. During that time he was regarded as being dead, nobody was to speak to him and the only contact happened through the shaman who left some food by the hut every now and then. It was seen as a horrible fate and he would rarely ever gain a high status, no matter how skilled he became. It would haunt him for life.
Aytha was the last of the young ones to be lead to a hut, a woman by the name of Nimh ardei or, woman who sews, took her by the hand and smiled, stopped by a hut. Aytha felt herself shiver ever so slightly, one of her friends had come of age the year before and they had met afterwards and Rusha ardei or, woman who smiles, had told her that it had hurt to begin with, but then it felt wonderful and the nervous energy she felt made her want to run and hide. But she was an adult now, she had to face her fears and be brave. The women of the clan of the leopard were not cowards, they would hunt the smaller game and even fight if they needed to, she would honor her mother’s blood.
The hut was small and made from strong branches and thick hides from buffalo and mammoth, there was just a little light in there since only a fat lamp was used as a light source but she did see who the older women had chosen for her, and it made her gasp and stare. It was the chief himself, One ice. He carried that name now because he was so old he could remember the last time the ice of the far north had started to slide south like an unstoppable wall. The tribe had moved south then and stayed by a huge sea for many many tens of tens. When the weather got warmer and the ice went north again they moved back to their old land as they had many times before and One Ice said that it was just natural, a cycle like that of the moon and the stars.
One Ice was the tallest of the males, his mother had been from the clan of the white wolves and they were the largest of their kin. He was a head taller than anyone else and he had long silky hair the color of a dark cloudy day, mixed with silver. The females adored him, One Ice had many cubs living in many clans with their mothers and he even had grandchildren and so on. He had lived with seven mates and was onto number eight now and he probably would live to sire even more cubs. Aytha had always thought that he was beautiful, and the mere thought of him had made her blush, like it did with the other young girls too. Now he laid on the soft furs of the hut and he smiled at her, a very gentle and friendly smile. He was always nice to the females, and the adults had often been bragging about him, saying he could make any female see stars and forget her name. Aytha didn’t know about that but she knew that it was a great honor also for her to have him this night, the chief was after all the male with the highest status of the entire clan, and it would rub off on her too. The other males would seek her out since they believed that some of the chief’s strength may pass onto them by laying with her.
One Ice was slender but powerful and he had many scars from encounters with wild animals. As normal with their people his age wasn’t visible except from within his gaze and many came to seek his wisdom and advice. Aytha didn’t know what to say or do, she just stood there, worrying her lip and staring at the ground, she felt like a small thing compared with him and even if a female had higher status than even the chief just from being female it didn’t mean that she didn’t respect him a lot. One Ice cocked his head. “Aytha, I am honored by your presence”
She had to giggle, her heart thumping like a herd of wild beasts over the plains and he gestured for her to come and sit down. She did, and the scent of him made her feel more at ease right away. He did smell of wood and smoke and something safe and he took her hand and caressed it gently. She swallowed. “ I am glad it is you”
He grinned again and caressed her back and shoulders, his hands were so large and strong and calloused but they were warm and the touch sent shivers through her, but pleasant ones. Maybe this thing wasn’t so terrifying after all. Like her he was naked and Aytha had seen naked males before, in the warm summers everybody went naked, with just a belt around their waist to hold their flint knives or other tools. He was hard too, and that was more unusual to see but she wasn’t unfamiliar with that neither. She just wondered how that huge thing was supposed to fit inside of her.
But he did kiss her and that sent jolts of strange feelings through her body and before long she did forget to be scared. What awakened in her was so strong, so demanding and when he did take her she was so eager and so ready there was little discomfort. She did understand why the others made such noise when they did this for it felt so good it did make her want to scream and hearing his soft moans and groans of pleasure only fueled her own eager need.
Afterwards they laid there cuddling and Aytha had always said that she was looking forward to that part of it, she had always liked cuddling and he was nibbling on her earlobes and her neck, nuzzling her with great affection. This was how the males would show their appreciation of a partner and they could be very tender and caring, Aytha found that she liked it a lot. Then they repeated the pleasurable activity many times through the night and when they emerged from the hut the next morning everybody knew that Aytha had taken great pleasure from her first night with a male and that she would be eager to bed others from now on.
There would of course be no cubs born from this, and she regretted that fact but she knew that her mate would be blonde so she just accepted things the way they were and hoped she would meet him soon. Her mother had prepared a new hut for her and she was given adult clothes and adult tools and now she was fully a woman of the clan. It made her heart swell with pride for the women of the clan of the leopard were sought after by males from all the other clans, not only for their beauty but because they were skilled in many things and gave birth to strong and healthy cubs. She would be with the female hunters until she did find a mate and started having cubs and she proved herself to be a very good huntress, capable of bringing her fair share of game back to the camp. In the autumns she and the other females would gather nuts and fruits to dry, berries to boil with fat to make a sort of cakes and herbs for the healer. The children did help them out too, and many did also fish in the rivers and made dried or smoked fish for the winter.
When the snow returned they went to the winter home of the clan, a huge cave. It was very warm and with the many fat lamps and the fireplace ablaze it was cozy. Here there was no privacy and everybody knew who bedded who and who slept alone but it didn’t matter, the winters usually flew by rather swiftly. Aytha remembered that winter as the last one of true happiness, she had been so safe and so content and nothing was making her worried. The males were eager to be her lovers and she soon became known for being a very good partner, that gave status for the spirits loved the women who loved to bed the males and share their strength. She loved feeling a male inside of her, feeling his hands on her body and hearing his cries when he came, it made her feel whole and it gave her such pleasure. That winter one cub was born to another woman and Aytha saw how the shaman and the midwife stayed in the small birthing alcove for two days, singing the whole time to prevent evil spirits from stealing the powers of the infant before its own spirit was rooted to this world. Whence the infant had been drinking its mother’s milk ten times it was safe, it was bound to this world then and unable to return to the spirit world and nothing made a new mother more worried than a cub who didn’t want to suckle.
They lost a hunter that winter, to a cave lion and in the spring one of the older women did perish when she crossed a frozen lake and the ice broke under her. That caused the entire clan to mourn deeply and many thought it was a bad omen. The spring came late, and it was cold and when the summer too proved to be rather cold One Ice sent some of the strongest hunters up north to see if the ice was returning. They saw nothing out of the ordinary and so the clan just accepted that it was a cold year, that happened every now and then. The year after was very warm and so the clan thrived and enjoyed life. Aytha hunted and learned how to tan leathers and she made some very nice embroidered skirts which made her very popular among the other females since she taught them the patterns she had invented. For years the clan moved between the cave and the summer hunting grounds, following the huge herds over the plains. They sometimes met hunters form the other clans and exchanged news or traded and every now and then the clans themselves met and spent a season or two together. Aytha had lovers from several clans and since she was so special due to her rare hair she became rather famous. But she didn’t meet her golden haired mate of the lion clan and she grew restless and frustrated.
She had one favorite among the males of her clan, a young one just a few tens older than herself. His name was Wolf eyes and he was very handsome and a good hunter already from the start. All the young females liked him, he was great in the furs and the other males did respect him since he was very skilled with the spear and braver than most. Aytha had bedded him many times and he did make her scream in pleasure bordering on pain more than once, she was sad he wasn’t a compatible mate. He would have given her strong cubs, and pretty ones too. Wolf eyes was among the young males who did offer themselves up to the older males, in exchange for lessons or simply a boost of status. She had seen him on his knees in front of the chief, head bobbing back and forth as he had the chief’s cock in his mouth and it was rather common to see such displays of submission, yet it almost made her jealous, like she wanted to keep him just to herself. No female would do that to a male, it was below their dignity but most young males would have to do their fair share of sucking cock to climb within the hierarchy of the male hunters. Some offered up their asses too and Aytha had seen two of the elders take one of the young hunters together, one in the young males ass and the other in his mouth. It was seen as extremely humiliating for the one being taken but if the young ones were able to take it and accepted their low status they could slowly climb, as long as they didn’t do anything stupid.
Aytha knew of one of the males, named Swears twice who had ruined a hunt by letting the prey see him too early and he was treated like an outcast for two whole winters and he had to get down and let the other males fuck him whenever they wanted to. She had heard him screaming in agony more than once but he never tried to break free or protect himself. He had to take it with dignity and accept his plight, it was the only way. Errors were punished, it was simply the way of the clans. They all depended upon each other and if they lost their prey it could mean that they would have to starve, so everybody did their best not to make blunders.
Sometimes the clans would gather for the great hunts, when the hunters drove huge herds of animals over cliffs or trapped them in canyons. Other times the hunters would cooperate to bring down huge prey like mammoth or wooly rhinoceros. Aytha knew that the hunters never killed more than they needed, and they never took the old and experienced beasts. They went for the young and stupid and they knew every individual in the herds. They never took more than one calf from each female and sometimes they would bring down animals that were sick or injured. The shaman would tell the young hunters of the pact between the hunters and their prey, and tell them it was sacred and never to be broken.
The males had their own stories which the females weren’t allowed to hear and they had many customs and rituals which were secret and sacred. The females too had such rituals and Aytha was proud to learn the ancient stories of how the moon mother created the first females and made sure that they spread and grew strong. The males came later, created by the goddess of the earth, that was why dead males were buried while dead females were burned so they could return to their mother in the skies. Aytha got her clan tattoos one by one, telling of her life and her growing status. They hurt but she was very proud each time the shaman called her to her and told Aytha it was time for another one.
One Ice would gather the clan in the winters and tell ancient sagas of a time when there were no ice up north, and when huge forests grew everywhere. It had been warm then, and the clans few and spread far out. He told them of giant animals that no longer was seen anywhere, and he told of camps that didn’t have to be moved but stayed in one place, surrounded by walls. That usually made everybody smirk, One Ice was fond of exaggerating at times.
Then the winters started to grow longer and colder and One Ice sent hunters up north once more, and this time they could confirm it, the ice was growing, and moving again. This didn’t cause any sort of panic, it was as it always had been. One Ice sent runners to the other clans who lived further south and then the clans prepared for the long journey. They packed up everything they owned and started walking. The males would drag the hides and tent poles on simple sleds and the females carried what they could. This was no journey filled with sorrow, it was an opportunity to meet the other clans once more and to go to a place where it was pleasantly warm and where the game and fish were abundant. Aytha was very happy because she welcomed the change and the possibility of finding her true mate.
As they moved south the young ones saw things they never had seen before, species that made them just gape and stare and One Ice felled a giant elk with his spear, the antlers were so wide it could have covered an entire hut. The hunters looked for flint and other precious stones where the rivers had dug into the soil and the females did seek out rare herbs and roots. There was always something new to learn and they were all optimistic. They met the clan of the wolf and the clan of the bear on the great plains close to the huge river which flowed south. It was a joyful meeting and later on the clan of the wolverine and the clan of the lion did join them further down the river. Now they were many speakers gathered there and Aytha had never imagined that she ever would see that many people in one place.
Everybody were trading and exchanging stories and the campfires were roaring towards the skies each night. There was plenty of food to eat and some had brought instruments and there was dancing and singing almost constantly. Aytha did bed a few males she never had met before, and they treated her with the outmost respect but she still hadn’t met that one who could give her the cubs she so longed for. One evening there was an even greater reason for celebration, two of the hunters had found something very rare. It was a huge plant which grew only in very dry places and it had a huge bulb underneath it. The bulb would grow for decades until one day the plant forced forth a single stem carrying a huge flower. The flower did smell like a carcass but it was very pretty and as soon as the flower withered and spread its seeds so would the rest of the plant too. The plant the hunters had found had just bloomed and the stem hadn’t rotted yet, which meant that the bulb was still fresh and edible. The women gathered and started to dig and the bulb was enormous. Everybody cheered and sang as they used mammoth tusks and logs to break it free from the earth. The bulb was the size of a bull mammoth and it hadn’t gotten spoiled at all.
First the males did drill holes in it and emptied it of the sticky white juice which was gathered in ceramic jars. Then the females started to cut the bulb open and Aytha had never seen this being done before and was very eager to learn. The bulb consisted of very dense white meat and the smell was wonderful, like the red berries which grew in sunny places. The cubs were running around begging and they were given pieces of the bulb to feast upon. The bulb was so large it was more than enough for everybody and huge chunks were taken away to be dried or smoked. Some of it even got grounded up into a mosh they mixed with dried berries and fat and some got sacrificed to the great goddesses to ensure that the clans would keep their luck and grow.
The feast that evening was a grand one, the juice would ferment almost immediately when exposed to air and the taste was so sweet and crisp Aytha drank way more than she should. She ended up in the bedfurs with One Ice and a hunter from the clan of the bear and when she woke up the next morning she was sticky all over and terribly sore. The clans moved forth, slowly but steadily, the land did feed them and caves gave them a place to stay during the winters and One Ice told them that the great sea was a long journey away yet. Cubs were born, some hunters were lost and a group from the clan of the fox did perish in a mudslide one spring. Aytha’s sister found a mate in the fox clan and moved away and her brother did live with a mate from the bear clan now. Aytha didn’t really know when the change happened, it had to have been gradual but she realized that One Ice was worried. He would often seek her out and she really liked him for he was always very gentle with her and knew exactly what she liked. But lately he had been very quiet and she had seen him stare at the horizon with a frown upon his face.
The hunters who travelled far told that the ice was catching up with them, that had never happened before and the weather was acting in a very odd manner. It could change in an instance, from warm to freezing and they lost three cubs who fell into a cold river and didn’t manage to get out. The animals moved south too, the density of animals got higher and higher and one night a part of the camp got trampled by a stampede herd of buffalo. The clans tried to move faster, the huge amount of prey animals also meant that there were predators present and now they saw huge tigers and lions almost every day. The wolf packs got very bold and so did the hyenas too. The mothers were watching their cubs the whole time and everybody was starting to become nervous. It didn’t get warmer as they moved south, and the ground could sometimes become covered with ice as hard as flint.
There was plenty of food still, they would find the shallow parts of the rivers and spear the huge rays which would bask in the sun. the meat was inedible but the hide was excellent for making boots and the teeth made good cutting tools. The clan leaders would gather often, discuss the route to take and make plans and Aytha knew that One Ice was growing more and more anxious. The signs were not right, nature was not reacting the way it had before. As the clans travelled there were bound to be conflicts, some males would fight over the right to woo some female they all wanted, some got jealous of each other’s skills, some young ones just snapped and didn’t obey as they ought to and everybody was shocked when the leader of the clan of the wolverine came one evening to tell everybody that they had made one of their hunters dead. That was unheard off, nobody killed another of their species but the male in question had forced himself upon a very young female and so they had thrown him off a cliff. That was a bad sign indeed and everybody started to wear amulets to protect them from evil spirits.
But it was no use, suddenly the animals started dying, the enormous herds had a hard time finding enough food, the beasts were skinny and fighting and they found whole flocks laying dead. The scavengers had the feast of all ages but One Ice was terrified. As they moved southwards the once lush areas proved to be everything but what they once had been. It was still cold, and dry and the forests were dead. It provided them with enough wood to burn but that offered little comfort. The sun didn’t seem to get really warm, not even in the middle of the day and the hunters brought home plenty of pelts and yet it didn’t seem to be enough.
They reached the great ocean after a journey that had lasted three times three tens, and Aytha had never seen that much water before. It was beautiful but One Ice was telling them that there had been no ice floating in the water the last time he had been there. But now they had reached the shore and they split up again to form camps along the seaside. Aytha was sure it would be alright, that the ice would move back north after some tens of tens like it had before. It wasn’t too bad to live by the sea for there were plenty of prey and fish and also new things to eat. She had never had shellfish before and found that she liked it. Again the clan settled down and fell into a sort of routine. Cubs were born and some perished and it all felt familiar and yet not. The cold continued, and the ice kept moving, slowly and unstoppable like time itself. The herds got trapped between the ice and the sea and for a while there was a sort of plenty nobody had seen before but everybody knew it couldn’t last. They dried and salted meat and prepared for a famine.
The herds died, there was little or nothing left to eat and the beasts starved to death. The predators were the next to go and the clans had to work hard to find food now. The stretch of land left was just a few days march wide and Aytha started to believe that the ice would push them all into the sea. One Ice was in despair, his mate Woman who sings softly was with cub again and she was growing weaker by the day. Two of the clans had been fighting and several hunters had gotten killed and this new horror made everybody feel frozen to the bone out of sheer terror. The clans started to feel the effect of the lack of fresh food. Some hunters got sick and some even died and the shamans tried to gather herbs to counteract the horrible disease but to no prevail. The herbs seemed to have lost their potency and now even the cubs started to grow weak and lethargic. The days got shorter and shorter and many spent the days more or less asleep. Aytha was terrified, was this going to be the very end of them?
The temperatures dropped again, the cold so intense the few trees which were still alive did explode. There was little wood to be found now and the huts were not warm enough. Everybody gathered in a few huts and huddled up together and tried to stay warm and Aytha just prayed that the warmth would return soon. Many died, some froze to death, others vanished in the snowstorms and the clans lost more and more of their hunters. Then the women started dying too, too weak to cling to life. Aytha had never known hunger before, but now it became a horrible new acquaintance. She could see her own bones under her skin and her hair had grown brittle and dry. She wasn’t afraid of death, the dead didn’t seem to suffer but it was so bitter to never have truly lived. She couldn’t believe that this really was the end of the clans, of their people. The ocean did freeze over and some of the remaining hunters left to cross it. They were gone for more than six turns of the moon and only two returned to tell them that they had reached the other side just to find another wall of ice there. The ocean was getting more narrow by the year.
One Ice wept when they told him this, then there was no hope unless the goddesses could be convinced of their sincerity. They had to have sinned for something like this to happen. The hunters had found huge flocks of birds frozen in the ice, herds of animals too and there didn’t seem to be any life left anywhere.
A male from the clan of the fox entered their camp one night, bloody and dying. The clan of the hyena had attacked them and killed everybody, even females. They had stolen all the food that was left and Aytha just knew it, the goddesses would never forgive the people this. It was truly the end. Wolf eyes came to her that night, desperate in a way he never had been before. He had begged her to let him take her and so she had allowed it, but for the first time she didn’t like it. She just let him fuck her but she felt cold all the way through, like she had no strength to give. He was weeping afterwards, telling her how he would have wanted to father cubs, how he had longed to find a mate. Now it was all too late, they would all die. Aytha knew he was right, the warmth would never return. Sometimes a mating could be forced, if both wanted it enough, he begged her to do it, to let his soul join hers but she refused. Neither was strong enough, they were too closely related and why should they try to form a bond now, when they were close to death? If she got pregnant she would die for sure, there was no future anymore. Wolf eyes said he never had felt the pleasure of a true mating, and she knew that it was something which couldn’t even be described but it wasn’t hers to give. It made her sad but nothing could change that and he was devastated when she turned him down. It made her feel guilty but she couldn’t take the risk.
The mate of One Ice had given birth to a girl, then perished and some other females had been taking care of the cub. It was a beautiful baby and One Ice made sure she and the other infants got the food they had left. Some hunters still had strength to move and they tried to find cracks in the ice through which they could fish. One day they returned with some huge trout but also with some chilling news, they had found a dead hunter, from the lion clan. And he was frozen all the way through but it had happened very fast. They had followed his tracks to find that everybody in that clan was dead. They had all frozen within seconds or so it seemed and Aytha felt how a horrible fear grasped onto her heart. She knew it would happen to them all in the end. Some suggested that they should try to cross the ocean but there was no point. The walls of ice would meet and then there would be nothing but ice, no life left.
The wall of ice was just hours away now, it pushed huge mountains ahead of it, grinded away at the very bedrock and they could hear it in the distance, like a waterfall, just more terrifying. The clan of the wolverine sacrificed a young female in front of the ice, to appease the dark spirits pushing it forth. It didn’t help at all. They didn’t hear from any of the other clans now, the visits stopped. Every day they had to remove some dead body from the hut and Aytha envied the dead, at least they were at peace, free from the burning agony of hunger. Wolf eyes left the hut one morning and he didn’t return, Aytha knew he had been too weak to live much longer. He had wanted to face death alone, so that nobody would see he was afraid. She missed him and wondered if it was true that the dead would meet again on the other side. The shaman had died some winters ago and Aytha was angry with her. She had never met that golden haired one, the shaman had lied.
Aytha had been in a haze for days when there was a new sound, a sort of distant howl and she got up and staggered out of the hut. Nobody else had the strength to move now, but she had always been stubborn, and strong. Her own mother had died just days earlier and Aytha was so numb from it all she didn’t even feel any grief. Nothing really mattered anymore. She blinked, there was little light now and she saw that snow and dust was moved by the wind, it was a blizzard but not like any she had seen before. Suddenly she felt afraid, a deep instinctive fear unlike any other and she ran. She had no idea where she ran for it was all white around her, nor did she know why for there was surely no escape but she staggered forth until she fell into a crack in the ground with a yelp. The weight of the ice had started to deform the very crust of the land and cracks opened here and there. She landed on a ledge with a thud and immediately she let out a shriek of fear. Underneath her was a flaming abyss, so warm her hair almost caught fire and her skin felt raw. Hot magma was flowing around like it was being stirred by some invisible force and the heat was unbearable. Over her head the howling sound got stronger and she pressed up against the side of the crack, trying not to scream. If this was her final moment she ought to face it like a true woman of the leopard clan, with fierce strength.
Ice cold wind swept down, so cold it would have turned tissue into solid ice in seconds but here the heat from the bowels of the earth faced it for battle. Steam rose like raging torrents, roaring upwards. Whirlwinds thundered through the crack and Aytha just laid there, unable to move, each breath sheer agony. Heat and cold, blazing scorching one moment, unbearably cold the next. She just clung to the wall, praying that her death would be swift, not painful. She passed out after a little and was lost to the world.
She woke up feeling horrible, her skin was sore, and she was so cold and wet and she whimpered and didn’t know what to do. The crack was almost closed over her, ice had formed and miraculously enough some of it reached the ledge, almost like a sort of stairway. She gathered her courage and climbed, her fingers raw and aching and she knew she was badly injured but she had to go and see what had happened to the others. There had been just two tens left now, of a clan once being home to two tens time ten. It was all lost, their people erased from the face of the earth and the thought was so unbearably bitter. She managed to get up, leaving bloody handprints on the ice. She staggered forth, the thick cloak had protected her but it hadn’t been enough, her lungs were burning still and she had a hard time breathing.
She recognized the terrain after a while, saw the ice wall towering over the small stretch of land left. She wanted to curse it but what was the point in that now? It was all over. She found the hut, there was no smoke coming from it, it was all silent and she knew they were all dead. She climbed inside, slowly. At least she could die with her own clan, with her kin. The hut was silent, so terribly silent. The cold had killed them in seconds. They probably died before they even realized what was happening and she fell to her knees, keening as her sorrow overcame her. She was alone, so terribly alone, the only one left.
The sound made her shriek, it was a groan, and she crawled towards it, on her knees. It came from a pile of frozen furs and she started tearing at them, desperately. They were hard like sheets of wood but she managed to rip them away and she stared down, it was One Ice. He was still alive but only barely. He tried to smile but his skin was frozen and cracked, blood seeping forth. “Who?”
His voice was barely audible and she realized that he was blind, his eyes frozen too. “Aytha”
Her own voice was unfamiliar and she shivered, it was horrible, grotesque. She wanted to vomit but there was nothing in her gut. He moaned. “Dying, please, take her”
He made a move, it had to hurt but he pulled something out from underneath his body, it was his daughter, Red flower. He had shielded her with his own body and Aytha felt hot tears flow down her cheeks. “How, all are dead!”
One Ice shuddered, his body shutting down. “West, towards the sun, go west, maybe open water”
Aytha sobbed. “ I am weak, hurt. “
One Ice let out a gargling sound. “Go”
He let out another moan and then he didn’t draw breath again and Aytha let out a howl, a wild cry of agony and grief. The infant made a faint sound and she knew that she had to do what One Ice had said. It was the only chance. She gathered the remaining food, some pelts and made a sort of sled. Then she attached the baby to her chest under the furs and left the hut behind. There was nothing there now, only dead bodies the ice soon would grind to dust and she wailed as she walked. She had no chance and yet she had to try, for the sake of the child left in her care.
She went for days, sometimes barely conscious and she sucked on ice to give the baby water. She had some pieces of dried fat and berries left, and tried to feed the girl by chewing it and then pushing the food into the baby’s mouth with her tongue but the little one refused to eat. It was lethargic and Aytha knew Red flower was dying, just as she was. There was no end to the ice, no open water. The once mighty ocean a narrow canal between the walls of ice and they moved towards each other all the time. The food ended and Aytha cursed her own stubbornness. She should have stayed in the hut, at least she would have died among her friends.
She was staggering over ragged cliffs made of ice, trying to avoid the cracks and the lose areas which could fall apart under her weight. Red flower hadn’t moved in hours and she started to believe that the infant had perished. At least the little one’s torment had ended then. She was about to climb over yet another block of ice when she heard a sound, it was a sort of growling and she turned around slowly. It was a bear, it had to be the last one alive and it was skin and bones and its fur had fallen off many places. One eye was missing and most of its teeth were broken, it was a miserable sight. The animal had caught her scent, and Aytha had no weapons left. The bear was perhaps close to death but its mind hadn’t yet understood this, it was angry and in pain and so it reared up and roared. It was ruled by instinct, not thought and so it charged.
The ice was very slippery and Aytha jumped over to another block of ice in a desperate attempt to avoid the bear. The animal lost its footing and fell down into a crack, roaring with rage and pain and Aytha let out a small sigh of relief which turned into a shriek of fear as the block shifted underneath her. She had time to turn around before she too fell, not into the crack with the bear but into one just opening up, and it was filling with sea water from underneath. Frigid seawater, green and clear and Aytha had time for one last breath before it engulfed her, pulled her down. Her last sensation was one of sorrow and regret. She hadn’t managed to save Red flower nor herself, her people were no more. She had failed, the shaman had lied to her, there had been nothing but sorrow.