Mother was the only person that knew the father of my unborn child was an Acini, a barbarian. She had accepted this quietly and without question - I was a woman and could make my own decisions. My father, however, was of another mind. He questioned me almost daily about who the father was. When I did not answer him, he would storm off, raging about irresponsible boys and his thoughtless daughter. I dared not tell him who that father really was.
When I bathed down at the river with my friends, they also begged me to tell them who I had mated with. But I couldn't tell them, either. I knew even then that no one would understand.
Then one night, I woke in terrible pain. I called to my mother from my bed. She was calm, making me get up to walk and sending my little sister to fetch the midwife.
The birth was hard. I was in labor well into the next morning. The time passed in a haze of pain - rising, walking, leaning on my mother's arm, squatting, and then resting in pure exhaustion. I could tell that the midwife was worried, but she never let up on her gentle coaching.
Finally, the midwife told me to lay back on my bed. Normally I would birth the child myself, squatting on the floor, but the midwife was concerned and wished to deliver the child herself. I pushed, screaming in pain as the child emerged. As I fell back onto the pillow, my mother touched my arm and I opened my eyes. "You have a daughter, Ralya."
A daughter. Weak as I was, I tried to sit up and see my daughter who howled with a healthy set of lungs. The first thing I saw, though, was the look on the midwife's face. She looked torn between disbelief and horror. Stammering, she handed the bundle of blankets to me and backed away. My mother caught her arm and began to whisper in her ear.
But I only had eyes for my daughter. She was beautiful to me, in a way that all children are to their mothers. Her fur was grey, like mine, shading to a lighter color on her chest. But her fur was mottled lightly with darker spots. Her muzzle was shaped like mine, only a bit flatter, and was festooned with short little whiskers. And her ears were also like mine in shape, with little tufts of fur at the tips.
And then her howling faded to whimpering, and she opened her eyes. They were golden yellow, her mother's eyes, with oval pupils. I hugged her close to me, and she began to nurse on her own. Smiling down at her, I rocked slowly in my bed, the pain of childbirth fading for the moment. For the first few minutes after the birth, I was unaware of anything but her. I remember trying to think of names, and rejecting all that came to mind.
That was how I was sitting, cradling my daughter to my breast and slowly rocking, when my bedroom door opened and my father flew in. Behind him, my mother wore an expressionless face.
He took only one look at his granddaughter. His ears went back and he snarled at me wordlessly.
"Father." Tears sprang to my eyes. He stared at me. I could see the hate and fear in his eyes. Frightened, I glanced down at my child. "Please..." I choked on a sob. "Please. Say something."
Silence. My daughter whined softly. I smoothed the fur on her head, and she quieted.
"You have betrayed your village and defiled your family's pack name. You have disgraced me by mating with an Acini." He spoke the name with a hiss. "You are no longer a member of this family. As soon as you are able, you will leave my house and this village."
Whirling, he left the room. My mother gave me a sad, long look before following him, and leaving me alone.
Three dawns after my daughter's birth, I left my childhood home. I had constructed a sling to carry my daughter, and I had with me my knapsack, a few blankets, an axe, a small supply of food, and a waterskin. The night before I left my mother came to me, and we talked. Rather, I cried and she talked. She said my father was right to banish me, for the village would never accept my child. She told me to remain the willful, strong woman I had grown to be, and to seek a new life for myself and my child. She whispered prayers of good travel and luck. And then she left me alone.
As the sun began to rise into the forest canopy, I cried. My daughter slept at my breast, and I wept silently so as not to wake her. But my heart ached. The passion that Trrl and I had shared could not have been wrong. It had felt so good - how could that be bad?
But now I was alone.
My feet took me to the cave where Trrl and I had met, and where my daughter had been conceived. The tide was out, and I went inside. The ashes from our campfire were undisturbed, and I decided to stay in this secluded place. I glanced outside at the sea, and resolved to teach myself to swim.
In the next few months I did just that, and more. I carefully constructed a cradle for my daughter, and made other conveniences: torches, a spit, a chair. I fashioned spears and snares, and became a fairly good hunter. And I named my daughter.
My village's custom was to combine the parents' names. The custom was not always followed, of course, if the resulting names were unpronounceable. For some reason, I desperately wanted to hang onto what little of my old life remained. So I named my daughter Tryla.
Summer slowly passed into autumn, and I began to store up food for the upcoming winter. I would be lying if I said that I wasn't worried about the impending cold weather. I was terrified. Living in a village with a nice warm hut was one thing - passing the freezing months in a cave by the sea was quite another. My dreams were filled with horrible images of my daughter lying in her cradle, frozen and lifeless.
If was from one of these dreams that I woke early one morning, just as the sun was beginning to bathe the mouth of the cave with its pale light. Tryla was whimpering, and I rose to feed her. Then I saw the shape at the entrance of the cave.
I squinted, trying to see clearly against the brightening glare. Grabbing the nearest weapon, I called out. "Who are you?"
"Ralya. You know I."
My stomach wrenched at the sound of that guttural voice. "Trrl?" I whispered.
As I stepped closer, I saw that it was indeed Trrl. A loose, silly smile had spread across my face, but I didn't care. Before I realized what was happening, I found myself in his arms.
He brushed the fur on the back of my neck in a soft caress. "Ralya. Still pretty," he purred into my ear.
Just then, Tryla began to cry in earnest. Trrl tensed and pulled away from me, peering into the cave. I grabbed his hand in mine and led him to the cradle. Tryla stopped crying when I picked her up, and she stared up at me with her incredible eyes.
Rocking Tryla gently, I motioned Trrl closer. His eyes widened as he looked at her. "Trrl, this is our daughter. Her name is Tryla."
He brushed a finger against her cheek and laughed quietly. "Try-la." He shook his head. "All your names are hard to speak." He gazed at her for a long time as she grabbed his finger and shook it. Finally he came out of his daze and looked around the cave. He frowned. "Why you live here?"
I sat down on my bench to feed Tryla and told him how I had been disowned and banished. I tried to explain how the pack is everything to a Lupani. And I cried into his shoulder.
When my tears subsided, he raised my chin with a finger and looked into my eyes. "Pretty Ralya, pretty eyes." He fished around in the small sack he had attached to his belt and drew out the yellow shell I had given him so many months ago.
"You still have it," I gasped.
He nodded. "You must not be here during the cold," he said, gesturing around. "Wind from the sea... It would freeze you. And Tryla." He grabbed my hand. "Come to the village. With I."
"Your village?" I asked. He nodded. For some reason I started to cry again. But of course I agreed, and we packed up a few belongings. Trrl complimented my spears; he said they were very well made.
The trip took five days. The weather was still warm enough to camp out comfortably. Trrl told me that his village often hunted this far out during the warm months, to keep from spooking the game close to the village. Then, during the winter they hunted closer.
He also began teaching me the Acini language. At first, it only sounded like snarls and growling sounds. I despaired of ever learning even the most basic words. But Trrl was patient, and I slowly began picking out the nuances in his language. On the second night, as I was falling asleep, it dawned on me that tone and pitch had as much to do with the meaning as the actual sounds. After that realization, I began learning whole phrases as well as words.
On the morning of the fifth day the land began to get rough as it sloped upwards to the mountains. Trrl and I took turns carrying Tryla, and he assured me that we were very close to his village. Trrl managed to find and follow a trail amongst the odd pillars of rock that poked out of the ground here and there.
We crested a hill, and I saw my new home for the first time. A cluster of twenty or so tents sat on a gentle hill. A herd of sheep grazed between us and the village, tended by another Acini. He waved and shouted when he saw us, and ran to meet Trrl.
They growled together for a minute in a rapid exchange that I could not follow. Then Trrl touched my arm, and I heard my name. I smiled nervously and clutched Tryla closer. What was I getting myself into? Trrl was one thing, but a whole pack of Acini...
The unfamiliar Acini saw my movement, and moved closer to peer into the blankets that were wrapped around my daughter. His face lit up in a smile as he saw Tryla. He whooped loudly. The noise woke Tryla and she began to cry.
Trrl smiled at me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. "Tryla is very special. We have only two Mrha in our village. Now, three."
"Mrha?" The word was unfamiliar.
Trrl muttered to himself, trying to put the words together in Basic. "A... child of two that are... different. You and I. You will see."
"Oh." I nodded. Two people of different races. My heart skipped. Could there be other Lupani here?
We walked up the hill to the village. We were surrounded by Acini, all snarling and mewling to each other. Tryla was a source of intense fascination. Everyone wanted to see her, and they crowded around, jostling me in an attempt to catch a glimpse of her.
We were escorted to a large tent near the center of the village. All of the tents were apparently constructed out of hide.
Yet another Acini waited for us by the door, dressed in an ornate beaded vest. The alpha of the village, I assumed.
"He is Raol. He is the leader," Trrl whispered into my ear. Nodding, I bowed, keeping my eyes to the ground submissively.
Trrl spoke briefly to Raol, introducing me. The Raol spoke in fluent Basic. His voice carried over the hushed crowd. "Ralya. Welcome to our village. I trust that your life will be happy here. Do you accept Trrl as your partner?"
My jaw dropped open in shock. I was supposed to take Trrl as my partner? I glanced at Trrl, but his eyes were forward and his face was calm. He had said nothing about this. Partners were for life. How could I decide something like this now?
"Your decision, Ralya. Do you accept Trrl as your partner?" Raol sounded impatient. I shook my head, trying to clear it so that I could think. But Raol took that for a negative answer. "So be it. We will give the Mrha to Trrl to care for, and you must go now."
"What?" I shrieked. Trrl was still not looking at me. His head was bowed, and he had gone down on one knee. The crowd closed around me, and hands were grasping for Tryla. She began to bawl again. "No!" I clutched Tryla close to me and huddled to the ground.
Raol's voice cut through the din of Acini voices. "If you do not accept Trrl as a partner, you must give up the Mrha. The child is ours by law."
My blood went cold at those words. Tryla was screaming, the hands pulled and ripped at my fur, and voices shouted foreign words all around me. "All right!" I screamed. "I will be his partner!"
Raol said something else, but I didn't understand the words. The hands vanished and the press of bodies disappeared. I was crying. How could Trrl have done this? Feeling betrayed and hurt, I slowly looked up.
Trrl was gone. I looked around wildly but could not find him. Raol was beckoning to approach him. Slowly I stood and walked a few paces towards him. He held out his hand. I ignored it. "You must know that laws are laws. Customs are customs. Life is good here. You will learn to live here happily, in time."
I said nothing. He sighed. "Marra will take you to the Mrha bearers. They will help you prepare for the ceremony." I nodded slowly and turned away.
Marra was a petite, soulful-eyed Acini girl. I followed her to a nearby tent and she motioned for me to enter.
Blinking my eyes, I looked around. The ground was scattered with cushions and blankets, a chest, and a small cooking fire. But what drew my attention were the two other people inside.
One was a slim but muscular Vulponi, and the other was Lupani. My heart leapt at the sight of them. Perhaps they would help me escape, and we could all flee this horrible place together!
The Lupani smiled and embraced me. Holding me at arm's length, she said, "Welcome to our village, Ralya. My name is Kirin and this is Geani." She gestured to the Vulponi. "I hope you will have a happy life here, as we have."
I stepped back. "But - but don't you want to escape?" I sputtered.
Kirin shook her head, her eyes puzzled. "But life is good here. Why should we want to escape?"
"You are kept here against your will! You have children by Acini?" The Vulponi nodded. "And they would take your children if you do not stay."
The vixen shrugged. "So we stay. We carried Mrha. We have easy lives here, and partners that love us."
"Speak for yourself," I muttered. "Trrl tricked me into coming here. If I knew that I would have to become his partner..."
"You don't love him?" asked Geani.
"I... I don't know. I would have liked time to think about this," I said softly. Geani nodded silently. "I mean... I am to be partnered to him. I hardly know him!"
Kirin embraced me again. "Just know that you will be looked after well here. The Acini look fierce and talk loud, but they are really a good people." She glanced into the bundle I held in my arms. "And it is the best thing for your daughter."
My shoulders slumped. She was right. I wanted to give Tryla the best of everything, and I couldn't do that if I was fighting to stay alive out in the wilderness. Tryla gurgled happily, looking up at me.
" All right," I said quietly. "I will stay here for Tryla. So when is this Cursed ceremony?"
Kirin told me that the partnering ceremony would take place in three days. I would need to learn the rituals and the vows, in Acini. I resolutely set about learning my part. For Tryla.
The next few days were consumed by preparations for the ceremony. Since I did not have enough time to make my own partnering gown, I altered the one that Kirin wore during her ceremony. She was about my size, so the work did not take long. Unfortunately, the beadwork needed to be redone. I also made a crown of sticks and mountain flowers, and took care of Tryla. Geani taught me the questions that I would be asked, and the proper Acini responses. In between, I learned more about Kirin and Geani.
"I was captured during a raid on a Vulponi village," Geani told me. "I was only six. Ever since, I've lived with the Acini. That's why my Acini is better than Kirin's. I really don't remember by blood family - that entire part of my history is shrouded. The tribe raised me as if I were their own. When I was old enough, I partnered with Rraun and gave him a daughter." She smiled. "You'll see her soon. She's with the healer on a trip to gather herbs before the frost comes. I'm quite proud of Poula."
Grimacing, I sucked on a finger that I had stuck with my needle. "Tell me something. Why are our children - the Mrha - so important to them? Why couldn't I leave and take Tryla with me?"
"The Mrha are sacred. It is very difficult for people of two different races to conceive a child. No one knows why a few times a union will be fruitful, and all other times not - even with the same mates. But the Acini try at every opportunity, both the males and the females. Surely you have heard the stories of human males being tempted during the night by Acini seductresses?" I nodded "Those tales are very much true. Human males are not as attached to their partners as we become, for some reason. Perhaps it has something to do with the way in which the Daansi made us. Remember Marra? She is carrying a human farmer's child."
Discovering that my hands had gone idle while listening to her, I picked up my needlework again. My cheeks burned with shame and anger. Now I knew it had been no fit of passion that Trrl and I had shared that night in the cave. It was premeditated and purposeful. I felt used. To get my mind off of that line of thought, I asked, "Why do they consider the Mrha sacred?"
Geani's voice became hard. "They are sacred. The Mrha are the messengers of the gods. Their dreams are prophetic. They themselves cannot bear children, and so the adult Mrha preside over the Summer Prowling."
I felt that Geani was getting mad at me for not believing that my tiny daughter was a messenger of the gods, whatever gods these barbarians worshiped. "What about Kirin? How did she come to be here?"
"She was found unconscious in the forest after having been attacked by the Equani. The Acini male that found her nursed her back to health, and helped her back to the village. A few months later it was obvious that she was pregnant, and she was partnered with Warrl. He was the one that found her, and was the father of her child. Unfortunately, the child died inside her."
"But Trrl said that the village had two Mrha," I said, interrupting her.
"Yes. Jason was named after his human father. He, too, will be back soon. He is hunting for your partnership feast."
Just then, the opening of the tent was thrown open, and Trrl stepped in. Geani smiled and left, saying something about preparing dinner. I simply stared at Trrl.
After what I had learned during my talk with Geani, Trrl was the last person I wanted to see. He squirmed under my gaze, nudging a pillow with his foot. "How is Tryla?" he asked.
"How could you?" I hissed. Trrl looked up in surprise as I stood. "You only wanted to mate with me for one reason, so that you might father a Mrha. Then, you bring me here under the pretense of giving me someplace to stay for the winter. Instead, I find that I am forced to partner with you, or Tryla would be taken from me. Trust me, you are the last person I want to see right now."
"Ralya..." He covered his eyes with a hand and stood there for a long time. I heard a faint whimpering sound.
I was so mad by this time that it was all I could do to keep from throwing myself on him and tearing him apart. "Don't you have the courage to answer me, Acini?" I snarled.
At my words, the whimpering grew louder, and Trrl's shoulder began to shake. I paused, listening. Then I asked, incredulous, "Are you crying?"
Trrl removed his hand from his eyes and looked at me. His tears had left matted streaks on his cheeks. "I... I could not hurt you, Ralya -" His voice caught and he stopped.
"That's a fine sentiment, but it doesn't change the fact that I am trapped here." Shaking his head, Trrl grabbed my hand. I tried to pull away, but he held me firmly. "Let go of me!" I cried.
"I love you."
I froze. "What did you say?" Trrl brought my hand up to his mouth and held it there. "I love you, Ralya. I did not want to hurt. I did not want to scare. Be happy." His eyes pleaded as he spoke. "Please?"
He had used me, lied to me, and participated in an attempt to kidnap my daughter. But some little part of me still felt something for him. I stood there in the tent, staring holes into his head, clutching my fists. And, Curse him, he kept looking at me. His eyes were still teary and red, and he snuffled a little. He looked damn pathetic.
Finally I couldn't stand it anymore and I turned away from him. "I said I will partner with you, and I will not go back on my word. But you are going to have to teach me to trust you again." I paused, staring down at my sleeping daughter. "It's not going to be easy, Trrl."
There was silence for a long time, and finally I heard him speak again. "I love you," he said, so softly that I barely heard him. Then he left the tent.
I knelt on a cushion and touched my daughter's cheek. My partnering ceremony was tomorrow. I hoped that I was doing the right thing. For Tryla.