I hear whispers of our clan's guest for the next couple of days, never seeing her properly, only in glances as I collect the meat alloted to me from the night's hunt. I do not ask, as I do not need to. I hear better than most, allowing me to find out from the two medicine women in front of me in the line that she has said no word to anybody, and refuses to release the child around her breast, not even to clean herself or to see it is healthy.
I still don't feel right about this. I swear that her stench still lingers on me, making the venison that I munch on at the edge of the firepit taste rotten. It doesn't take long for me to notice the boys of the tribe across the way from me staring and pointing at me. I look behind my shoulder for a moment, hoping that there is a long-haired, bright-eyed female that they've set their eyes on behind me. But nothing. I sigh, for I know what is to come.
"Namiah." I look up, and I see the broad form of one of our hunters above me, his lips tilted into a smug expression. "You've finally emerged from your hovel?"
"It's not a hovel, Darius," I reply flatly, "it's a tree. A tall, leafy thing, you probably headbutted one as a youngling -,"
"You should treat me with more respect," he hisses, his eyes darkening as he grabs my arm and squeezes as if to frighten me. I glare back at him. He will not intimidate me, he will not.
"Why, because you know how to throw a spear and strike lucky? Don't act as if this deer was yours, it's far too artistic a kill -,"
"You little -,"
"Darius," the voice meets me, strong and strict, followed by the figure of its owner: Varos. "Stop this. You should never touch a woman in this way." The firelight shadows his strong cheekbones, framing soft eyes now occupied with the authority of the diviner's son.
"What kind of woman is she? She is more like a balding rat -,"
"That is enough," Varos snaps, and I know I should be annoyed that I must be protected like this, but instead I feel heat in my chest that makes me shiver with comfort. Varos seizes Darius by the arm, linking us by the arm that still clutches me.
"Fine," Darius grumbles, and he stalks off escorted by his hunting companions. I stand to meet Varos at equal height and nod.
"Thank you for your help," I say,
"It's no problem, though if I saw more of you around, we might be able to put Darius in his place together." He smiles at me, and I think it looks childish, mismatching with his fearful, muscled exterior. I am about to smile back when I hear a scream. It is one that seizes my whole body, making me jerk to attention and feel as if my gut has turned to liquid. it is a scream of such panic and terror that everybody at the fireside goes silent, and the scream comes again, followed by the sight of a woman racing from Anikee's tent, clutching her side. She comes closer, and I see slick, wet blood welling around her hand, and where there is a tear in her flesh, so deep that I see her pink, glistening organs trying to slip out.
Others scream as they see her, and trying to open her mouth, she fails to form words and falls to the gravel so limply that I do not doubt she is dead. I am at attention, flanked by readied hunters standing around me. Varos races forward and I follow, we do not approach the woman, but standing in front of the fire where the main aisle through the encampment leads, and where somebody else walks down, her arms limp at her sides.
I know who it is, I see her straw-like hair, the mound of swaddling on her front, and her limp arms where one hand seems to wear a red glove. It is the intruder, walking towards us calmly with cheeks shining with trails of tears. She stops not far from the clustering clan of which I stand at the perimeter of, reaching for the flint blade at my hip, pressing my finger to it to test and feeling it bleed. Varos now has a spear in his hand, tossed to him by a hunter over my head, and he points it forward, ready to charge.
The woman's lips purse and she speaks quietly in a voice hollow of anything that I could call human. "They tried to take him from me." I don't understand her until she reaches to the knot that keeps the swaddling around her. She pulls and it falls away, as does her child, but as it hits the ground at her feet with a thud, nothing comes from it. No scream, no voice or movement. I only catch the sight of a scrunched blue face, hiding eyes that I now realise had closed for the final time long ago.
The mother steps over her decaying child, and she raises her bloodied hand to us.
"You shall not take him from me."