Girls & Women

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Sisters of the Wolf
Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

NEANDERTHAL (KRAG)
MOUNTAIN CAMP

“STAY AWAY FROM THE BUSHES!” Keena’s warning echoes across the clearing.

The children jerk their heads up, eyes wide like startled deer, before returning to their task of gathering wood. Keena clutches her father’s spear in one hand and scans the forest edge. Atuk gave her the weapon this morning before he left camp with the other hunters to kill the beast terrorizing their band. Father trusts her to protect the young ones. She’ll do her best, but she wishes he were here with her now. Her legs tremble as she sniffs for danger. Only the children’s familiar scent and the smell of pine needles reach her nostrils.

“Keena, let go.” Tat tugs at her other hand, struggling to break free of her grip. “I’m big and strong. I can help.” His chubby body wriggles with excitement.

“You’re growing up, Tat.” Keena smiles at his toothy grin and big brown eyes. “You can help pick up firewood, but you have to stay close.” She releases his hand.

“Whoohee!” Tat races toward the others, his tangled curls barely visible above the swaying grasses.

Keena tracks his movement until he reaches the group. A queasy feeling settles in her gut as she returns to her vigil. Tat has only lived through four snow times. He shouldn’t be here. Not today, when she’s the only one watching the children. She told that to his mother, but Teal was giving breath to a new small one and the women were helping her. Tat’s a handful, but everyone says Keena can handle him.

Clouds cover the sun and a breeze stirs the trees. Keena pulls her furs tight against the biting wind. There’s a movement in the shadows. A flash of gold in the greenery? She blinks and strains her ears, but hears only the rustle of leaves. Then a sudden shift in the wind from the forest slaps Keena’s face. Her nostrils flare. There it is. The smell of death.

Caw, caw. Crows take flight, their bodies black against the sky.

“Run! Drop your wood. Run to the cave.” Keena rushes to gather the children. Where’s Tat? He’s not among them. “Tat!” Her scream mingles with the cries of the crows and the children’s shrieks. Then she sees Tat, following a hare into the tall grass at the forest’s edge.

The bushes explode as a giant tawny shape bursts from the undergrowth and seizes Tat. The pungent odour of lion mixes with the scent of terror heavy in the air.

“No, no! Not Tat.” Tears stream down Keena’s face. This can’t be happening. She can’t let this happen. “Eeeyaaa. Drop him!” She advances on the cat with her spear raised. “Let him go!” What would Tat’s mother do? What would Atuk do? Her father trusted her to keep the children safe.

Keena scoops rocks from the ground and hurls them at the beast. The lion snarls and backs away, shaking Tat’s lifeless body, sending his blood splattering over her. She sinks to her knees, spear pointing at the lion, waiting for the fatal spring.

“Eee-yii-yi!” The children have reached their mothers. Teal’s screams rise above the rest, mingling with the wails of her newborn. “My boy! Tat, Tat!”

The big cat’s fierce amber eyes glare at Keena, mocking her, before it disappears into the bushes with its prey.

***

That evening, in the high country near the glacier, a silver moon shines in the sky. Ice crystals ride the breeze, stirring the trees that blanket the slope near the Krag cave. The deep, throaty cough of a lion echoes in the valley, wakening Keena from the most troubled sleep of her thirteen snow times. She hugs herself, trying to shake the blood-filled nightmare from her mind. Ominous figures cast by the firelight loom on the stone walls all around her.

Keena pushes back the bison-hide cover and rises from her bed of dry grasses. She’s careful not to wake her parents sprawled on one side and her aunt and cousin on the other. All around are shadowy lumps and muffled snores. She picks her way to the entrance, where a row of fires protects her people from the night hunters outside.

Keena stares beyond the flames. Two pairs of orbs glint in the dark outer camp. She throws more brush onto the fires, and sparks shoot high into the night.

“They’re only foxes.” Ubra emerges from the dimness behind her.

“I know, Mother, but they’re not the only ones out there,” Keena whispers. The distant call of the lion floats on the wind. She shivers. Even the heat of the flames can’t warm her. “I was there when the lion took Tat.” Keena squeezes her eyes shut to block the horror from her mind.

“It wasn’t your fault, child.” Ubra hugs her. “No one could’ve saved Tat.”

Mother’s right. Little Tat wasn’t the first of their band to be taken by the great cat. Uncle Orak, already crippled by a charging muskox, was killed at the stream several suns ago. Keena’s friend Morda was taken three suns ago while gathering plants in the forest. And now sweet, playful Tat is gone. Keena shudders. None of their bodies or bones have been found. The hunters searched for the lion, but it was like a spirit and left no trace. Perhaps Leeswi, the Earth Mother, had sent it. If she had, nothing could stop it.

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