In my hand, I hold a wooden object made from the knot of a tree. I close one eye as I look at it closely. I’ve been working on the shape for many, many days—since the day I thought of it while watching Beh run her fingers through her hair. My other hand holds the edge of a flint blade to the wood, and I carve off another tiny slice.
I used to dread the coming of winter for many reasons. I was never very prepared for it and rarely had enough food stored up to keep healthy. My bones would ache around the joints, and one year at the very end of winter, strange spots appeared on my legs, and I was so tired I could barely move. Once spring came and I found other things to eat, the spots went away, and I felt better.
I also dreaded the long winter nights when I would lie alone, cold and empty inside, just waiting for the sun to rise again. My mind would go through winters when I was a child, and everyone in the tribe would gather together in the longhouse. It was the tribe’s common shelter, made of the large bones of animals, covered in hides, mud and thatch. There was a hole in the very center of the top, where the smoke from a large fire would escape. When we were all together, the center fire and our body heat kept us warm.
This winter is going to be different though. I smile to myself as I think of Beh in our sleeping furs last night, sticking her cold nose against my bare chest underneath the fur blanket. It made me shiver, and not just from the cold.
I’m almost looking forward to the long nights this winter because Beh will be here for me to protect and care for as the days grow short. I also hope by then she will let me mate with her because spending the winter trying to give her a baby is something I really want to do.
I turn away quickly, shoving my hands underneath the extra piece of hide I brought with me just in case she tries to see what I am doing.
Beh makes some more mouth sounds and places her hands on her hips. I look up at her but keep my hands hidden and my body tense, not sure what she is going to do. She moves her head from side to side as she looks down at me a moment but then sighs and smiles. She tries to walk around to the front where I sit, but I twist my body, hands, and the fur around so she still can’t see underneath the furs in my lap. She tries to sit next to me to see what I have in my hands, but I won’t let her.
My eyes fly over to hers, and I know exactly what she is trying to do. It is likely to work, too, if I think about it for too long. Instead of giving in, I pull one hand out from under the fur, wrap the fingers of my other hand tightly around the object hidden beneath, and grunt sharply. My arm coils around the outside of the fur, and I lean over the whole bundle with my eyes closed. If I can’t see her, I won’t give in to her suggestions and show her what I have.
She makes more sounds, followed by her hand grabbing at the fur and trying to pull it back. I hold tightly to it and wrench it away from her, growling low. I don’t want her to see it; it’s not done yet! Beh make more noises, her sounds sharp and succinct, and then she rights herself and takes a step away from me.
I sigh heavily as she huffs through her nose and walks back toward the cave entrance. As soon as she slips through the crack in the rock, I turn back to the fur and slowly remove the little object, holding it up in the sunlight again. I have been working on it for many days, trying to get it just right.
It looks a little like a hand but with only three fingers. There is a round part made from the knot of a fallen tree I found near the edge of the forest, which will be the part she can hold onto. Protruding from the knot are three finger-shaped extensions carved from the wood, and I am making it for Beh to help her untangle her hair.
It will be my gift to her.
Taking a closer look at the edges, I come to the conclusion that I am mostly done with what can be accomplished with my flint carving knife. I just need to find the right kind of rock to smooth it out. Once it is smooth, Beh will be able to use it to pull the snarls from her hair after she washes it. Her hair will be shiny and soft, and when I run my hands through the strands, it will feel so good between my fingers. I think it will help her hair stay soft as well when she won’t be able to go to the lake to wash.
Sighing a little to myself, I hope she might also use it on my hair.
I decide it’s as good as I can do with the flint. Wrapping the little wooden claw in the hide, I stand up to brush wood shaving from my legs. Right as the dust and flint chips fall from my furs, I hear Beh’s scream.
Over the past several months, I have heard Beh yell when she is angry and when she is upset. I have heard her cries that come with tears. The sound that comes from far off to the side of the cave—right at the line of trees where Beh usually goes to relieve herself—is definitely Beh, but it is not a sound I have heard from her before. It makes my entire body go cold.
I know Beh is in trouble.
Dropping Beh’s gift, I hold the sliver of flint tightly in my hand as I race toward the sound. She is still calling out, and this time I can make out my name-sound in between the other sounds as well.
“Beh!” I yell back. I move my head from side to side fluidly, focusing on which direction the sounds originate and about how far away. With my mouth open, I inhale deeply to try to find the scent of both my mate and anything that might be threatening her. I twist and turn through the small grove of trees that line the ravine, and when I speed around one large cedar, I encounter a terrifying sight.
Beh stands with her back against the bottom of a cliff. Her mouth is open, and a continual string of sounds emanates from it as she leans her palms against the sheer cliff and kicks out with her slender legs. On one side of her is the little ravine with a trickle of foul water running far below, and in front of her is a huge, large-tusked boar.
He is one of the biggest ones I have ever seen with coarse black hair sticking out from his body. His hooves are sharp and covered in mud. I can see a hole off to one side where he has obviously been digging right near where Beh usually relieves herself. The creature ducks its head low to the ground and squeals out a warning before it starts to charge.
I’m too far away. I can’t get to her in time.
My eyes never leave the scene as I run with my feet pounding on the ground and my heart pounding in my chest, knowing there is no way I can get there fast enough to stop what is happening. Beh tries to kick out at the beast, but she doesn’t make contact with him. He butts toward her foot, and his tusk catches on the bottom of the long, strange leggings near where they encase her calves.
With a terrible sound, the material rips all the way up the side of her leg to her hip. Beh begins to scream again as the boar takes a step back, shakes his head free of a piece of cloth caught on his tusk, and paws at the ground as I finally get close enough to distract the beast.
Without putting any thought into how dangerous it is, I run forward—yelling as loudly as I can at the creature—and throw my body at his. As soon as my chest hits his hard, muscled body, the wind is knocked out of me, and I am momentarily stunned. I have to take a second to force air into my lungs again. Though the boar is short-legged, his massive, thick body is long.
The great boar squeals and bucks, trying to dislodge me, but I grab one of his tusks and hold on tight, knowing that if he tosses me away, he will go after Beh again. I throw one of my legs over his back and tighten up around him. I have to make sure my thighs are as anchored to his sides as they can be. He bucks again, but I manage to get one arm under his snout without letting go of the massive tusk and try to pull his head to the side.
My other hand still holds on to the slim piece of flint I had been using to make Beh’s gift. It’s nothing like I would usually use to attack and kill so large a beast. It’s not even strong enough to cut through his thick hide had he been dead, but it’s all I have. With the blunt part of the flint against my palm, I shove the tip as hard as I can into the thick skin of his neck.
The boar shrieks and bucks. I can feel warm blood as it covers my hand and wrist, but it’s not much—I’ve barely cut into his skin. I have to find the thick vessel at his throat if I have any hope of killing him.
I have to save Beh.
The boar twists and turns his head—trying to gouge me with his long, sharp tusks. He alternates between attempting to stab me and kicking his feet out behind him, trying to dislodge me from his back. My legs tighten around his flanks and my heels dig into his sides. As I adjust myself to hold on, he whips his head around, and I feel a sharp sting in my forearm as one of his tusks connects with my skin.
The pain is awful, but a flash of the creature going after Beh runs through my mind, and I refuse to let go even though I can feel the blood running down my arm. Beh is screaming, but I can’t look at her and hold on at the same time.
I dig the flint into the animal’s neck again, making several small cuts and generally angering the boar but not doing any real damage to him. I can’t get a deep enough cut across his throat where I need it to be while he continues to flip and twist his head around, trying to slash me with his overgrown teeth.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see my mate moving toward us, crying out for me. In her hand is a long, but very thin, branch from a tree. I make a sound that is somewhere between a growl and a whimper. Not only will that sized branch not come close to diverting the boar, it will likely direct his attention toward another target.
He will go after her again.
I have to do something before she gets too close.
With a roar, I pull my arm up from around the creature’s neck where I am trying to cut him, ball my hand into a fist, and slam my knuckles against the creature’s forehead, right between his eyes.
Momentarily stunned, he stops the thrashing of his head long enough for me to get the flint in the right position to open his carotid artery. I can feel the difference immediately as warm blood gushes instead of trickles over my hand and arm, and the boar staggers to one side. I only have to hold on to him for a moment before his legs buckle and he collapses. I’m stunned, lying partially under the beast, but he is finally dead.
My breaths come in pants as I shove the corpse away, push myself to my feet, and stagger backwards. With wild eyes and clenched fists, I stare at the body, daring it to rise again and threaten my mate. The little sliver of flint is sticking out of the boar’s neck, coated in thick, red fluid.
I feel Beh’s small hand against my arm, and I turn swiftly toward her. I take a single step to get her within my reach, bend slightly at the waist, grab her tightly around her hips, and throw her over my shoulder.
I will never let her out of my sight again.
Beh makes that squeaking sound as I settle her against one shoulder, then bend down carefully to grab hold of the boar’s hind leg so I can drag it behind me while keeping Beh safe. Hoisting her up more firmly in my grip, I move as quickly as I can without risking dropping her
She’s squirmy—not as much as the boar was, but right now, I don’t care. I feel my stomach churn, and I’m desperate to get her back in the cave and safe with me. She is making a lot of loud sounds, and I hear that no sound a few times as her hands slap painlessly against my back. In response, I smack her backside a couple of times with the hand that holds her, just to quiet her a little. If the boar has a mate, I don’t want her coming after us. Even in my frantic state, I’m careful not to hit hard; I would never hurt my Beh.
By the time I reach the path right outside the cave, she has stopped wiggling and is still. I let go of the boar outside the crack, knowing that I can’t leave it there long, or it will attract other animals. I rapidly turn us sideways to fit both Beh and myself through the entrance to the cave. Before she can protest, I pull Beh from my shoulder and toss her into the furs at the back of the small cavern. I fall in after her, covering her completely with my body, wrapping her up in my arms, and trying to stop my heart from beating so hard.
In my mind, I see the boar slashing at her over and over again.
My arms tighten around my mate. I register her hands wrapping around my head and holding me as I hold her, and I am slightly calmed. I breathe in short, sharp pants against her shoulder, and I squeeze my eyes shut to try to stop the burn behind them.
She’s my mate.
I was almost too late.
She could have died.
I cry out and bury my face in her neck as the horrific thoughts and images of what could have been overwhelm me. I try to stop the thoughts, but they keep coming. Even when I hold her as tightly as I can, all that comes to mind are thoughts of her being hurt. What if she is injured and I haven’t seen it? It could have happened before I arrived. Swallowing hard, I lean back and look down at her shocked and tear-stained face. The cut on my arm throbs, and I quickly look over Beh to see if she is wounded anywhere.
I should have done that before, and I’m angry with myself for not considering it earlier. I remember the boar going after her leg and causing the rip in her strange leggings. What if her leg is cut? My hand reaches down and rapidly examines the skin of her leg—now clearly visible with the odd material of her strange clothing torn all the way up one side. It hangs in tatters from her hip.
I still can’t see around it, and unlike a fur wrap, how to open and close the strange leggings is impossible to determine, but I have to know if she’s hurt or not. Frustrated, and with my muscles still tense from the fright, I grab at the edge of the garment and tear it the rest of the way off. The whole top part of the clothing rips and pulls away in my hand, leaving a section of it still wrapped around her other leg. The little, hard, round piece near her stomach pops off and flies into the air before it drops to the dirt and rolls toward the edge of the fire pit.
I am immediately distracted by something extraordinary.
Underneath her leggings is another garment I have never seen before. It’s wrapped just around her hips, crossing low on her waist, down between her legs, and presumably covering her buttocks. I brush my fingers over the edge of it to feel the extremely thin material. It’s rough and bumpy, feeling a little bit like the underside of a thickly veined leaf. It has lines and patterns in it, too, and it is the same pale pink as the mysterious wrap around her breasts and back.