The girl struggled along a pathway threading across the lower slope of the cliff up to where the clan lived in caves; she had waited for the pre-dawn sky to lighten before attempting the path, even now the sky gave barely enough illumination and she picked her way carefully, not wishing to stumble, not wanting to alert the Leader to her return. She stopped momentarily, listening, head cocked in the direction of a sound from behind her, from the valley floor, deciding the noise was nothing to fear, animals foraging, probably picking through the remains of the meat the hunter had brought for her while she'd been exiled from the settlement. She listened to the distant cries of other beasts greeting the day casting her eyes in the half-light across the grey shadowed tree crowns where leathery winged creatures raucously cawed and swooped above roosting sites.
She moved forward once more along the path shifting the balance of the child she carried, he slept at last, worn down by the hunger that had him whimpering pitifully in the darkness of the night. She held him close through the night cushioned to her breast knowing he'd find little or nothing to sustain, maybe comfort was all she could offer; now she glanced down at him fearful for his life, the clan found no room for the weak and sickly, allowed no time to attend the ill, sentiment was a sparser commodity than food itself. Several times their Leader had looked at her disapprovingly, questioning with his stance and glare the time she spent nursing the sickly boy instead of working for the group's survival.
'He's your Son.' She thought, 'Don't you care if he lives or dies?'
Clan policy was harsh and only concerned with survival; the weak, the injured, and the elderly had no practical value and were cast-off to perish. The elderly and the injured understood the necessity of the rule and usually removed themselves voluntarily from the caves to end their life amongst the beasts and scavengers on the valley floor - they rarely survived long. For a mother to abandon her sickly child to the wild beasts was quite another matter, few mother's could make the sacrifice willingly; the Leader was the arbiter, his word final, to disobey would cast the mother to share the same fate as her child.
The clan with whom she lived had settled in cliff face caves fronted by a broad flat rock strewn apron, the apron edge plunged one hundred metres down to the plain and the mountain soared dizzyingly above their home, it was safe, defendable against raiding clans and beasts, the only disadvantage was the need to descend into the valley for food and water, a time penalty that stole even a moments respite from the daily toil for survival.
Few rules governed the clan, each new leader choosing his way, imposing by force for a few seasons before a younger, stronger male challenged and took up the mantle; by custom the pretender took possession of the defeated males woman, often choosing a second younger woman to help ward off the cold night air. That had been her fate. She been in the wrong place at the wrong time wandering too far from her family clan looking for early season fruiting berries and finding herself surrounded in a pig hunt, the pig forgotten in the excitement of finding a female without the need to resort to battle. The clan Leader claimed her - the spoils of the hunt were his to despoil.
As she slowly climbed the path, her mind ticked off the annual rains that marked the seasons. 'Five,' she counted, 'not more'. In those seasons she had borne the Leader three children, this one in its second season and unlikely to see a third. She felt old and in the feeling of her weariness she recognised the briefest of glimpses of the smell and the image of her own mother; too many seasons blurred by birthing to recall her mother in detail, yet still she knew her own life, her own span of seasons, did not equal the total of the digits on her hands and on her feet.
She walked on unsure of the reception she'd receive, resigned to a beating at the very least for returning with the child, possibly cast out to fend for herself; a death sentence, there was no survival as an individual. She was no longer afraid - the young hunter had given her hope, so very different from when she had fled the settlement a few days earlier...
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She had woken in the night, a pain clutching at her inside like fire and ice and had bitten on her lip so as not to scream out as another spasm of pain cut through her body. Slowly dragging herself from the sleeping skins, pulling the infant with her, taking care not to wake either the child or the Leader who lay grunting in sleep against the ample bodied warmth of his first woman, she stole down the mountain path to the bleeding camp where the women stayed for a few days each month less the shame of their bleeding bring dishonour on the clan - or so the Leader claimed.
The bleeding camp, a hundred metres or so from where the path up to the settlement met the valley floor, was in the lee of a small crescent of rocks enclosing a clearing in which a fire could burn shielded from all but the most inquisitive eyes. She had been terrified when first dragged to the camp by the Leader's woman. She hadn't understood the different way of things in this clan. She thought she was being expelled from the clan, to be left for the beasts to fight over until she found herself thrust with a curse, and the routine beating of a staff across her shoulders, into the company of two other women resting in the shade of the rocks, they were almost kind to her, in spite of her outsider status.
The place scared her, the bleeding camp - not the bleeding, she had long since grown to accept the inevitability of staining with the cycles of the moon; her own staining had begun seasons before she'd been captured by this clan. She remembered a time before her capture, before the birthing of her children, when she could feel changes, sensations in her body in the days before staining commenced and she would seek out the moon in the night sky, check its shape, remind herself this was just the natural cycle of things, it was as natural as the rains that marked each season. Now her life was too demanding to have the luxury of feeling the subtle changes inside of her, she felt subtlety had been swamped by the children that had grown in her body, the long months of growing and the pain of their birth had somehow dulled her capacity to feel within her body, though she felt with her heart, more so for this sick child than her first born; an empathy not just of motherhood but of being on borrowed time, surviving at the whim of others.
What scared her about the bleeding camp was the scavengers, the beasts of the night, she could smell their fetid breathe on the night air, she could hear them marauding nearby, baying over remains, padding around the camp, wise enough to keep out of the flickering light cast by the flames from the fire, rarely hungry enough to venture near. Everyone in the clan knew that occasionally a women never returned from the bleeding camp, it was impossible to know whether they'd been taken by animals or by another tribe, simply knowing they'd disappeared was unsettling enough. She didn't know what she feared most, to be swollen with child, or to bleed and stay some days at the camp terrified the fire would fail and an animal would carry her away. That was before this last season.
During the last season she had been a regular visitor to the camp, each moon cycle brought her and the infant to the camp, an entire season without a child growing inside her. She grew less fearful with each visit, relished the time with her son, rarely entirely alone, nearly always one or two other women who would take charge of the child, give her time to rest, recover her strength, or take her turn at gathering and preparing food. It was curious, she thought, how in the bleeding camp the women shared compassion, such caring between women would be met by a beating at the settlement. She began to look forward to her visits and the short time it allowed for her to be alone with her son away from the disdainful and reproachful glances of the Leaders woman and away from the routine beatings she incurred for imagined failings dreamt up to spite. Then she missed a staining, and another; her heart sunk, she didn't want another child, not yet, not while this one remained so weak.
When she crawled away from the sleeping skins with a pain clawing at her inside, she knew something was different. She had felt the familiarity of change growing within her body, a child growing from seed, but she had never felt pain like this. She reached the sanctuary of the bleeding camp and slumped against the rocks settling the infant alongside her, oblivious to his cry's, pulling an old and dirty sleeping hide around her, her body curled, cramped in pain, a cold prickly heat of perspiration dampening her body as the barely formed foetus aborted. She lay waiting for the pain in her body to subside and her strength to recover, all the while cradling the child, exhausted beyond hearing his plaintive mews, aware she should move to the stream, cleanse the child and her own body, lacking strength to make food, to maintain the fire.
The first night she watched the fire burn low, lacked the energy or even the desire to gather fuel and closed her eyes, waiting for an animal to take her, knowing they were there, watching, waiting, she can smell them on the breeze, hear them brushing through the vegetation. She was surprised to find herself alive next morning, someone had rebuilt the fire, left some fruits within reach. She ate hungrily, brushing away the dirt and insects, too hungry and too tired to be bothered with washing the food or herself. She dozed during the day, the infant clutched to her breast, suckling from time to time, crying when not sleeping.
She wakes with the feel of the child being pulled from her, shrinks back, claws the air to ward off the animal, opens her eyes at the child's plaintive cry. A man silhouetted by moonlight taking the child, turning, walking away from her. She cries out, stretching an arm, and struggles to her knees, too weak to stand, watching his back disappear into the forest, crawling, calling out as the child's pitiful voice weakens with distance. Distraught she slumps forward beating the ground with her forehead, wailing, frightened to move, frightened to witness the child's demise, all hope for his future vanishing with his cry.
She slumps to the ground her body shaking, raging at the unfairness of life that snatched her from her tribe, mated her with a man whose very smell and savagery brought her to the point of retching only to have the one person she cares for snatched away; too weak to cry, she lays wondering when one of the beasts would come for her, hoping it would be soon, her weariness surrendering her body. She lay for an indeterminate time, neither long nor short in her memory, stirring when the heat of the re-kindled fire warmed her back and the smell of roasting meat seduced her thoughts. Hunger igniting swelling her stomach, she turns to the fire, the child's fate sealed, and takes meat tearing at sinewy flesh, meat's blood dribbling from her chin, eating quickly before he returns and beats her, glancing up all the while in the direction he took.
She hears his returning footfall and scuttles into the lee of the rocks, teeth snatching at the meat, slaking her hunger, taking the food inside her before he tears it from her grasp. She hears him close toward her; can feel feet pounding across the clearing and bows in supplication, arms circling her head to ward off blows, waiting resigned: nothing. She peers between her arms, can see him standing before her, a foot moves, she flinches waiting for a kick that is just a tap accompanied by a grunted greeting.
He bends down, proffering the cleansed child held in his outstretched arms, the infant's dark eyes brightly shining in the light of the fire. She snatches the child from him, pulling him to her, feels his tiny hands grip at her flaccid breast and shifts his position, feeling him draw on the nipple, gurgling, quietly suckling, pulling sustenance from her body.
The man slowly reaches an arm toward her; she bares her teeth, watching his face, not his hand. He croons, soothing, touches her skin, moving his hand to where her body shrunk back from his touch tight against the rock, cornered. Ignoring her spitting snarl, he touches her shoulder. She lunges for his arm dislodging the child, missing her target, draws back instinctively guiding her nipple to the child's mouth silencing a whimper before it grows to a cry, her eyes never leaving the man crouched before her.
She watches the man move to the fire, taking meat, returning and offering food to placate; she's enticed by the smell, hungry beyond fear, snarls at him, upper lip curling over stained teeth, and hesitatingly reaches forward, snatches the food and places it behind her, out of his immediate reach.
He growls quietly whilst his eyes traverse her body, not threateningly but sympathetically, marking her condition, nose wrinkling. She's aware of where his eyes lay, croons discomfort, almost mewing, watching him closely as he cautiously reaches touching her leg where the blood has dried, she growls, showing him her teeth again, watching his finger rub at the stain.
He stands and moves away grunting at her to follow; watching as she struggles wearily to her feet clasping the child to her and reaching for the piece of meat, placing it in her teeth. She knows he's taking her to clean just as he's cleaned the child, and follows him aware for the first time since arriving two suns before, that she smells and is dirty, even by her own limited criteria.
At the stream, he looks around, sniffs the air searching for predators, glances back toward the caves set in the cliff and sees the first beams of the morning sun licking gold high up across the rock face. He beckoners her forward standing off to one side so as not to intimidate and watches as she places the child cradled between tufted grass mounds bordering the streams edge. She bends to the water, the piece of meat still held between her teeth dripping juices onto her thighs, and splashes water onto her lower body. He grunts with dissatisfaction at her efforts, moves swiftly grabbing her by the wrist forcefully pulling her into deeper water ignoring her struggle and growls through clenched teeth, pushing her down until she's sitting on the gravelled stream-bed, the water dividing and spilling around her hips. He moves behind her, she twists her head as she feels him spoon water with his hands onto her back, feels his fingers scrape at the downy hair of her shoulders cleansing the dirt and grime matting her body hair, spooning more water to wash away the loosened dirt.
Knowing not to waste an opportunity, she strips and chews at the meat eating rapidly, less out of hunger, more to devour before he changes his mind and snatches it from her. For the first time in many seasons she doesn't feel fear, she's aware of an inner calm, like when her Mother would comfort her after a fall or a burn. She knows she should be cleansing herself, not letting this man attend to her; but first finish the food, she eats passionately glancing sideways all the while to verify his position.
Finished with the meat, she throws the bone onto the bank, thinking she might have an opportunity to chew later, to crack the bone and draw the marrow, and moves to brush him away, to take up the chore she should be doing for herself. He grunts displeasure and forcibly pushes her arm away before pressing down on her shoulders, making sure she understands he wants her to keep still. She watches cautiously as he moves to face her, gutturally demanding compliance, gesturing her to move, to open her body. She reacts instinctively, years of male subjugation taking their toll, and leans back to watch him kneel before her crooning again as he spoons water across her chest, drawing the dirt from her skin with his fingers, muddying the downstream flow. She's surprised by the colour of her skin, pale under the darker hair clumped above and below her stomach.
She feels his hands moving between her legs; gentler, probing, unlocking matted secretions, no mans hands had been there, except to part the way. Now she knows what he wants and lets him continue, relaxing, enjoying the attention, listening to his throat purr as his fingers untangle the knotted hair in her groin, watching him intent at his ministrations, waiting for him to finish, expecting him to begin.
As he moves his hands away, clearly finished with that part of her body, she reaches out, grabs his hand, places it to her crutch mewing, opening herself for him to touch. He throats a deep growl of contentment massaging her briefly, feeling her heat even in the coolness of the stream, then stops and turns his attention to cleaning her legs. She lay back letting the water coursing round her head, down across her breasts and stomach, parting her legs shamelessly and letting the water tip down her sex like a gully in flood. She stretches a hand to part herself, kicks him with her heel of her free leg to draw his attention, then moves her foot into his groin probing at the protrusion, feeling it flex at her touch. She hooks her foot between his legs and pulls him toward her, flinching as he growls aggressively at her, pushing her leg down, unhooking her hold.
His aggression startles her, she starts to scramble back, move away from him and feels him take hold of both her legs, she kicks out, breaks his grip and scrambles to the bank side, feels him drop on her, holding her, enveloping her in his grasp. She pushes up trying to dislodge his grip forcing her bottom against his stomach, feeling his hardness press against her skin. A hand pushes her head to one side and she feels his mouth descend onto her neck biting hard enough to stop her moving, light enough not to break skin, the growl in his throat urging her to stop her struggling. Deciding he has the advantage for the moment, she lies still, wondering what he intends next.
He eases his grip forming a tunnel with his arms, nudging her to turn over. She twists under him staring up at his face, emitting a low growl of displeasure, lips twitching, teeth flashing a warning, and watches with astonishment as he moves down her body and resumes cleaning her legs, not that it need much cleaning, the running water had washed most of the dirt from her skin. He leans back on his haunches as if admiring his handwork. Satisfied he pats at her leg, gesturing her to open. She shakes her head, raises her knees, and locks them in her arms.
Deliberately slowly, he unclasps her interlocked fingers, there's no mistaking his strength, if he wanted, he could beat obedience from her. He starts to part her knees, she moves faster now wanting him inside her and fans her thighs down to almost touch the grass opening the core of her body to him and watches as he crouches forward bringing his face down between her legs all the while rumbling a low growl of contentment. She can feel his breath moving the hairs covering her sex, hear him inhale her scent, she imagines his flattened nose twitching expectantly, then feels him running his nose hard across the folds of her sex. She leans back, hands gripping at the tufted grass each side of her, moves back, not to get away but to elevate her hips, to display more openly. He chews across the folds of her sex, lips gradually opening her, exposing the true colour and texture of her body to his mouth, nuzzling at the pink warm flesh, feeling her jolt with the penetration of his tongue, she settles against his mouth opening wider to feel his tongue move in her body, his teeth scraping against soft tissue. Her breathing takes on a stream of small spaced grunts, contentment - not displeasure, while he continues to seek the source of the smell and of the liquid coating his tongue.