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Authors: Harper Swan

Tags: #Adventure, #Historical, #Science Fiction

Raven's Choice (4 page)

BOOK: Raven's Choice
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Willow, who followed close behind, laughed at the uproar. “I suggest you take turns sleeping beside your aunt, starting with the youngest two for tonight,” she said.

“She’ll sleep in the lean-to,” Bear said abruptly. “There’s no room for her here.”

The children’s faces fell, and they were quiet. The look her sister gave Bear seemed keen and searching, but when she turned to Raven, her face was serene. “Maybe we can work out something later,” Willow said, shrugging.

“Well, come on before it’s full dark.” Bear held open the flap. “There’s no moon tonight.”

He walked her the short distance to a lean-to built against a large rock face. Skins covered long sapling poles embedded in a knee-high stone base. The top of the skin-covered area was sealed against the rock face with smaller stones. The lean-to seemed secure enough, yet Raven couldn’t help feeling offended. An entry space opened into one of the sides, and Bear stood beside the flap, waiting for her to go in. When she didn’t move right away, he tapped his fist against his chin several times.

“Move things if you need to,” he said and left.

She watched him enter the family’s double tent, the spiked poles of both tops leaking wisps of smoke blending into the dusk. She could understand that he might not particularly want her to sleep in the tent he shared with Willow, but a covered crawlspace closed off by a hung skin led to the children’s tent. He would have neither seen nor heard her there.

In the dimness, Raven pulled out skins and hides from the stack filling much of the lean-to. The next day, she would gather grass straw for the bottom layer, but until then, deer hide covered with bear pelts would do. She picked a spot on the dirt floor closest to the rock side and away from a corner woodpile, which could be full of spiders. After the bed was made to her liking, she undid her braid and stripped off cape, tunic, leggings, and boots before slipping between the thick furs, her shell necklace clicking as she settled.

Although Raven resented being put apart that way, the lean-to was cozy. In the distance, an owl hooted, and she began to drift off with the day’s events shifting dreamlike behind her closed eyes. The Longhead’s face floated by. She wondered if he’d gotten any bison and whether his painful arm would keep him from sleeping. An injury like that needed to be repaired immediately, before too much damage set in.

A sudden brightness against her eyelids made her eyes open, and she struggled out of her heavy covering.

Bear was coming from under the entry flap, a stone lamp in his hand. An acrid smell of burning bear fat filled the lean-to. Alarmed, she gasped and pulled several pelts over her nakedness. “What is it?” she asked.

“No need to be frightened.” He put the lamp on an upended log before he moved over and knelt at the end of her pallet. “I simply want you to hear my decision. You’ve been too long without a mate. You should be bearing children. After much thought, I’ve decided the best mate for you would be”—he thumped his chest, making a hollow sound—“me.”

The lean-to suddenly seemed like a trap. Raven’s fingers dug into the fur, tugging the pelts closer.

Bear’s eyebrows lifted. “Don’t you want a child? Your mate didn’t start a bud growing in you—in what, four turns of the seasons? Every time your sister weans one, she has another to suckle. If I can’t aid the Earth Mother in swelling your belly, then no man can.”

He pulled the pelts from her hands, dropped them beside the pallet, and looked at her through the flickering shadows for a long moment before fumbling at his leather loincloth. Then he pushed her down onto the furs and clambered on top. Because of his height, his enormous chest covered her face, and all she could do was lie flat like a stone on a lake bottom until he finished. She gasped for breath when he rolled off.

He sat up and lifted her right hand. “You should be more careful, plant woman,” he said, tracing a slow finger over the crusted scratch made earlier when they’d hidden in the rocks. Then he grasped her arms and pulled her so she was also sitting. His fingers skimmed her hair. “Black and shiny as your namesake’s feathers.” He thrust his fingertips into its thickness.

Her scalp tingled at his touch. There was no mistaking these intimacies—he was wooing her. But Raven was wary. Earlier, he’d made it clear how he felt. He disliked her, and most likely it was only the mating that put him in a better mood—if so, that goodwill would soon fade.

She made herself smile. “I am fortunate to be at your hearth.” She drew one of the displaced furs up against the chill and looked him in the face, holding his eyes. “The Earth Mother favors you.”

His brows rose. “And what does that mean?”

“You have courage and strength. Because of your decision to take the meat, the settlement will sleep deeply tonight, their stomachs full. And the bargain you made with the Longheads showed much wisdom.” She found it easy to say those things because they were true.

The corners of his mouth turned up slightly—only a hint of sharp eyeteeth. Black eyes glittered in the lamplight, and again his fingers smoothed her hair.

Emboldened, she continued, “I’ll put the captive’s arm back in place tomorrow. That will help him survive the trip so he can rejoin his people—”


People
—why do you call them people?” He frowned and pulled his hand away. “You saw them. We were with that wretched beast all afternoon. Surely you understand that he isn’t like us.”

“It’s just that—”

He slashed a hand through the air in front of her face, cutting her off. “And they frighten away game, so when we go out on the steppe, we find nothing, and then the band sleeps hungry—not like tonight. The elder was right. I should throw him in the lake. That’s what a truly wise man would do.”

“Very well, beasts then—animals. It’s just that animals capable of planning a hunt with fire and blood can surely plan revenge.”

Raven ran a hand under the fur covering and along her ribs. They felt tender, as if mildly bruised. “Your decision to bring him here instead of killing him was a good one. But a one-armed ma—beast won’t survive on the steppe or in the mountains, and his whole tribe might come if he doesn’t show up.”

He tilted his head to look at the poles supporting the top of the lean-to and seemed to be considering her words.

“I have reset many out-of-joint shoulders,” she said. In reality, she’d only helped with a few.

She let the covering slide to her lap, despising herself but not knowing how else to sway him. His eyes strayed down, turning smoky.

She lowered her voice, making it warm, breathy. “I can do so again. I know how to.”

His tongue licked his top lip as if savoring honey, and then the covering was completely off her.

At some point during the night, Raven dreamed she was a real raven, a bird. She sat upon a limb and groomed her glossy plumage. The pinions slid cleanly through her bill with a satisfying swish.

A rustle of feathers came winging through the air, and a young raven, a fledgling, landed clumsily beside her. It pleaded for food. The fledgling’s beak hung open, flashing the bright-pink interior of its gullet. It made the loud bawling sounds that young—and sometimes not so young—ravens used while begging.

Moved to action by this display, Raven began working her throat to bring up food, and she put her beak into the fledgling’s open pinkness. But then she realized her throat pouch was empty. There was no feeling of fullness, no rounded swelling—only empty flatness. She pulled her beak away from the young bird and flew away, searching for food.

Raven awoke early and found herself alone in the lean-to, the camp quiet. She turned over, and a gust of her body’s scent marked with Bear’s muskiness wafted past her face, the odor overpowering the fur smell. At some time during the day, a bath in the lake would be necessary.

After slipping on her clothes, making her braid, and dabbing ochre on her forehead and chin, she peeked around the lean-to’s flap at the main tent. Her stomach fluttered with the prospect of facing Willow. She didn’t know how her sister would react to the night’s unexpected happenings.

No one was about, and she couldn’t hide all day, so Raven went out to the smoldering hearth and started grinding herbs with the small mortar and pestle she always carried in her pouch. She ground willow bark for pain and swelling. On reflection, she also ground valerian root for sleep, to be used later in the day. The Longhead should move his arm and shoulder right after the joint was reset, but he would soon need deep, healing sleep. She scooped water from a nearby water vat into a small gourd. Her hand funneled a handful of ground willow bark into the gourd. Using a twig, she stirred the potion.

Raven was searching the hearth’s embers for a small stone to heat the mixture when she heard Bear’s voice behind her—gruff and terse, nothing like the night before. She straightened and faced him.

“I want to make something clear,” he was saying. “Neither I nor anyone else will hold you in high regard because, out of pity, I joined you in those pelts. You are likely barren, and nothing will come of it.” His eyes were pointed icicles. “I have a question for you. And I want the truth. Are you a spirit seeker as well as a healer? Many of you are both.”

“I do my best to heal people. That’s what I do. Isn’t that what Willow told you?”

Bear looked at her strangely. “I want you to remember this, healer. If you cause any problems, I will cast you out onto the steppe or—” He kicked her pouch lying on the ground. “Or I’ll feed you all your medicines.”

Raven considered his sullen face, wondering if he somehow knew about Fern. Regardless, he was an overly volatile man. Her fingers shook as she stirred the willow brew. Leaf was right—it was best not to make him mad.

“As for the Longhead, I’ll put his arm bone back into his shoulder,” Bear said. “It isn’t fitting that you do it.”

“Fine,” she replied, weary of his crossness. “But I need to give him this brew. It will deaden some of the pain.”

He paused, frowning and doubtful.

She hurriedly added, “It will help make him more docile. More like a—a newborn aurochs, like a calf.”

To her surprise, his mouth twitched into a slanted grin. The idea of the Longhead behaving like a calf must have pleased him. He waved at the gourd. “Finish with your medicine. Let’s get this over with before we end night fast.”

Leaf was already at the pen when they arrived. Raven wondered how long he’d been staring at the skin-covered form on the ground. The skins were completely still and didn’t move even when Raven cleared her throat. The captive, it seemed, was dead. But when Leaf shouted, he stirred and arose, throwing off the skins. Air rushed out of Raven’s lungs—she’d been holding her breath.

The night before, they’d encircled him with posts set into the ground and tethered him to them using long, braided leather ropes tied around his neck. The ropes going to the posts had enough slack that he could stand or lie down in the center. To define the pen’s boundaries, the enclosure had been secured with more ropes, wound from post to post around the circle.

Several sturdy guards stood nearby. Bear told them to unwind the ropes going around the pen but to leave the ones attached to the Longhead’s neck.

Raven turned to Leaf. “Tell him we’re going to set his arm and that he should drink this.” She showed Leaf the gourd. “But first, I will need to examine him.” Leaf translated, and the Longhead looked over at her. She searched his face to see how he felt about what he’d heard, but his expression gave nothing away.

When the ropes were gone from around the pen, Raven entered the surrounding posts, fully expecting Bear to stop her. He didn’t, so she put the gourd down carefully on the ground, all the while aware of the Longhead’s eyes following her. To reach him, she went between two of the tethers. She paused a moment and then gently moved her hands around on his shoulder and arm. His skin was hot, feverish.

“What in the great Mother’s earth are you doing?” Bear shouted, starting toward her.

“I have to determine whether the bone has come out the front or the back,” she said. “Let’s hope that it’s the front, or relocating it will be difficult.”

Bear glowered but stepped back out of the circle, and Raven continued her examination. The Longhead stood still while her fingers probed. She took a quick look at his face and experienced that odd swirling of impressions she’d had on first seeing him up close. He looked strange, which was not to say ugly. It just took a few more heartbeats to make sense of the striking eyes gleaming under those heavy, menacing brows and the well-shaped mouth under such a large, protruding nose.

Luckily, the arm was out of joint in the front, but the whole limb was tight and swollen. Too much time had passed. The bone wouldn’t go back in easily, maybe not at all. She brought the gourd over and mimicked drinking from it before pressing the handle into the hand of his good arm.

He looked so intently into her face that Raven felt he was trying to see into her mind and hear her thoughts. With eyes still on hers, he raised the gourd and drank. His trust warmed her, and she wanted to smile at him but dared not.

“Well, which is it?” Bear asked when she emerged from the circle.

Raven looked at him hesitantly. She doubted he understood that medicines needed time to work. If Bear straightened the arm at that point, her potion would only ease the soreness after the arm was fixed, doing nothing until then. When the more immediate pain sank its fangs into the Longhead, he possibly wouldn’t be mild like a newborn calf but more like a raging bull.

“It’s out the front,” she said. “We should wait until the potion takes better effect.”

“There isn’t time. There are other things to be done this morning,” he said. But still he stood there, his fingers pulling and working the bottom of his parka. Seeing how they were all watching him expectantly, he huffed out his chest and moved inside the circle of posts.

The captive’s brow tightened when Bear stopped in front of him. For a moment, the two bulky forms faced each other as if about to wrestle. Then Bear lifted the bad arm and began to slowly pull. A growl rumbled from the Longhead’s throat. Bear dropped the arm, turned, and tromped out of the circle.

“Since you boasted you could, you do it, healer,” he hissed, rubbing dampness from his face.

Raven walked into the pen area again, and something resembling relief crossed the captive’s face. Her stomach roiled like a pool of eels as she began taking the looped rope ends from around the post tops, so the ropes fell without tension from his neck. Although no one told her to stop, Raven sensed the men grasped their spears tighter. They eyed her silently, faces full of interest and something more that made her overly conscious of every move. She took a quick glance at Bear, and he was watching her as closely as the rest.

Though it would give the men even more to stare at, Raven shed her fur cape in order to free her movements. Clad only in leather tunic and leggings, she felt as vulnerable as she imagined the Longhead must have felt.

BOOK: Raven's Choice
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