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Nila was alone. She struggled to walk the trail along the river until it was dark, and then curled up, hungry and exhausted, in a bed of leaves and grass under a tree. She was crying, but it was a warm night, so she soon fell asleep.
Nila’s dreams were of torment, of a day that began normally, but turned to unimaginable terror. She was lucky to be alive.
“Nila, fetch some water!” When Nona called her daughter to a chore, she responded quickly. As the youngest, her job was to bring water from the river whenever her mother needed it. She would take a goatskin to the water’s edge where it was fast flowing and pure, and then soften the skin in the water until she could fill it. It took many trips with the goatskin to fill the pots Nona instructed her to. The water was mostly used for cooking. Nila was learning cooking. She wanted to make wonderful soups and porridges like her mother, made from meat her father brought and mushrooms, leeks, roots, chestnuts, seeds, berries and other ingredients she gathered in the nearby forest with her mother. It was easy to find them this time of year. They were always gathering more and storing them away in stone and clay pots for the time when it would turn cold again.
Albere, her father, was off hunting. He was a very good hunter and always brought back meat for them to eat. She loved the smell of fresh meat cooking over the fire, but hated cutting it into pieces to dry. She also hated scraping the smelly skins with flint blades. It was necessary, though, because when winter came, they needed the skins to keep warm.
Jan, her brother, was making arrows with grandfather and the other old men, and practicing his shooting skill with the finish of each one. They used wood from the wayfaring tree because it was strong and naturally straight. They used flint for heads, the shape depending on whether the arrow would have to stun a rabbit, knock a bird from its tree nest, or pierce the tough skin of a bear. Young ravens were snared in their nests to provide a tail for the arrows so that the heavy head would fly true.
At ten notches, her brother was strong and handsome, with piercing blue eyes and long white hair flowing over his sun-darkened shoulders. He would go on the hunts soon. For now, he learned how to make long bows of yew with the old men and practiced on small animals and birds, careful not to lose any arrows he was testing. When their father returned from the hunt, Jan knew he would have to help replenish his father’s arrows.
By mid morning, Nila and Ola, her little friend, had made several trips to the river--when it happened. They heard the loud yells of Thals charging into the encampment to kill.
“Stay! Don’t go …!” Nila found herself yelling at Ola. But it was too late. Ola had climbed the riverbank and was already running headlong toward her mother and her fate.
Nila fled in the opposite direction. Entering the cool, waist deep water, she followed the bank until she came to an overhanging root system of a huge tree on the bank’s edge. Up under the roots, she found her hiding place. It was one of several hiding places Nona had sought out for her.
Nona had been stern. “If the bad men come, I want you to run. Not to me, but to one of these secret places we found. You must stay there, no matter what, until your father or I come to get you. Do you understand?”
As she cowered up against the muddy bank, shaking in fear, Nila understood. She could hear the shrieks and screams of those being killed amid the yells of the attackers. She strained to hear her grandfather, Jan, or her mother, but she only heard the sounds of battle and the cries of pain. It was over in a few minutes, but it seemed like hours. When it finally became quiet, she knew they were all dead.
Then, Nila heard them coming, grunting and breathing heavily from their exertion. Their stench was overwhelming. She had to keep from gagging, as one by one, the bad men came to the river. She saw their hulking bodies, their long, scraggly hair, and the bright red blood that covered them. She watched them wash the blood off. Some were wounded. She hoped that they would die as they washed their wounds. The red blood flowed by in streaks in the water before her. She held her breath so that they would not hear her. They were so close; but they were also spent, and not interested in looking for little girls hiding within reach. They finished washing, drinking great gulps from the river like wild animals, and returned to the camp.
As she waited for them to leave and her father to come, it became clear that they weren’t leaving. She smelled fires burning and her mother’s food being cooked. They were talking loudly and laughing. She could hear them going through the family’s possessions as pots broke and shelters were torn down while they looked for hidden personal items.
Occasionally, one of them would come to the river to relieve himself. He’d stand there, belching, as she smelled the pungent odor of his piss spewing out loudly. Hatred rose up in her. She wanted to jump out and kill him. Instead, she suppressed her anger, and kept silent.
By mid afternoon, all she heard was snoring, as the bad men succumbed to their exertion, food, and drink. She was cold to the bone and needed to get out of the water. She wanted to sneak up and kill one of them in his sleep, but fearing he would wake, chose to go the other way. She headed down river.
Nila woke at dawn; a cold, wet dew covered her. She could see smoke rising from where she’d come. She knew they were burning her home. In her child’s mind, she thought they’d killed her father too. She felt so alone. Still, she needed to get away; so she continued on her way, following the trails, always keeping the river to her right.
As her hunger grew, she gathered berries, seeds, and mushrooms to eat as she went. Her mother had taught her well. Even at seven notches, she knew which ones were poisonous. Still, she was hungry. Crying and dreaming of a piece of meat or one of her mother’s hot soups, she stumbled along as the sun came up and went down again. It rained. She spent two nights shivering in the cold and wet. She saw pigs by the river. She was afraid, but more afraid to go back, so she snuck by them and continued on.
By now she was so hungry she thought she’d die. Her feet were bleeding and her legs were scratched raw. She came to a place where the familiar river joined a larger one. With no other choice, she followed it to the left in another direction. More suns passed. She struggled on.
Nila awoke to sound of splashing and laughter. “Am I dreaming?” she thought, from her hunger-induced stupor. As she sat up in the sun warmed morning grass, she saw three children, like herself, swimming in the river. She rose up and staggered toward them.
The boy, the tallest of the three, saw her first. At first startled at the sight of Nila, he recovered quickly and yelled to the others, “Look, a girl!” and scrambled up the bank. As they approached each other, Nila stumbled and fell on her face before him.
Hot soup was being poured into her mouth. It woke her up again, choking, to see strange women looking down at her. The soup wasn’t her mother’s, but it was the best thing she’d tasted in many suns. Nila saw the boy that found her standing off to the side, smiling shyly.
She was now in the land of the Po. She didn’t speak their language, but it was similar, so she learned quickly. The Po lived in wood and stone shelters and didn’t move with the seasons like her family had. Instead, they put seeds into the ground and waited for them to grow. They grew a vining fruit she already knew called grapes and seeds from grass they called wheat. The seeds from this wheat were crushed and made into a paste they cooked until it grew hard. She had never tasted bread before, but she liked it.
Aldo, the boy who found her, became her big brother, and she joined his large family. She helped the women the same way Aldo’s sisters did. She ate their bread and fish from the river. She learned to swim, naked, with the others. She learned to catch fish with a basket they wove from reeds. They covered their bodies with a soft fabric of animal fur or plants. They called it cloth. Her family had only used animal skins and furs for this purpose.
Nila was safe and secure with the Po, and leaned many things, but she longed for her family. Sometimes she dreamed they weren’t dead.
Nila dreamed that she was being held down. She wasn’t dreaming! A strong hand was clamped over her mouth. She tried to bite it, but it held her jaw so tight she couldn’t open her mouth. The smell was unmistakeable. “Thals!” She was lifted up from her bed, taken from the shelter she shared with two of Aldo’s sisters, and was being carried off into the night.
There were seven of them. They slipped into the village at night, like foxes, when everyone was sleeping and stole Nila and Aldo’s sisters, Gina and Lena. Just beyond the village, the men stopped, and a leather strap was tied to force wadded leather her open mouth. She could not yell, only breathe. Her hands and arms were tied tightly behind her back. Then, one of the bigger men threw her over his shoulder and carried her upriver along the same trails she had come. She slept no more. She just endured his hard grip on her as the undulation of his walking carried them far into the night, branches of passing trees alternately scratching, then caressing her. It was a moonlit night, so they walked until dawn. Far away, in the morning, the Po people were waking to find them gone.
Tied tightly to a tree while the men slept, Nila was hungry and thirsty. She tried to communicate with Gina and Lena, tied to trees beside her, but they were both gagged, so they could only talk with their eyes. Gina was clearly frightened; looking like she was going to die. Nila was angry. She wanted to kill.
Their captors awoke and immediately started arguing. She couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the way they looked at her, she knew it was about her. In the daylight, the one who had carried her so easily was quite tall and handsome, for a Thal. He had blue eyes, a wispy blond beard, and a wavy brown head of hair flowing over his shoulders. His broad shoulders were bare, revealing muscular upper arms. He had no hair on his chest and back. The others were quite hairy. He was younger than the others, but seemed to be in charge. When he started to untie a stone ax he carried at his side, the older man confronting him grew silent, as did the others.
He came directly to Nila. His eyes were bright and he smiled slightly as he untied her gag. The wadded leather fell out of her mouth. Her jaw ached. She wanted to spit in his face, but something stopped her. The others moved to the other two girls, and untied their gags too.
She could feel his hand on her leg as he stared intently into her eyes. She glanced down and saw it move up under her short leather skirt. She felt his finger exploring, then his finger was inside. “Virgo!” he cried out.
She had felt that before. Not long before, when the water finally got warm enough, she and Aldo had gone swimming in the evening after chores almost every day. With Aldo’s guidance, she had become a superb swimmer. While they were still afraid to cross to the other side, like the bigger boys, both swam under water like fish. Nila loved swimming under the clear water to grab his kicking legs and pull him under.
As a young girl with only bumps for breasts, Nila wore only a short leather skirt in summer. Her bumps were very sensitive, and hurt sometimes, but she told no one. Not having a mother, she did what Aldo’s sisters did. Leather was very heavy when wet, so she always left her skirt on the bank, next to Aldo’s loincloth of leather.
That evening, after playing with his legs like that, they emerged from the shallow water near the bank facing each other. Aldo’s peeing tool was standing up like a stick. Seeing an opportunity, she grabbed it like she had his legs.
“Hey!” Aldo yelled, and began to reach for her bumps, but she was too fast for him. Nila climbed the bank and ran.
He caught up to her in the tall grass and brought her down like a running goat. She was on her back. He pinned her arms down with his knees a began playing with her nipples. It felt good, she relaxed a bit, observing his rigid peeing tool at close range. In all the times she’d seen him pee, he always turned away. She had never seen its head before, all red and swollen. And then he turned his attention to her peeing place. It felt strange, but good, like her nipples.
Then, he was hurting her. She tried to push him off, but he was persistent until he started jerking wildly and she felt him peeing inside her. After that, Aldo appeared embarrassed, and ran off.
She was bleeding, so she went to the river and washed off. She stopped bleeding quickly, and was relieved. She didn’t swim with Aldo in the evening after that. He hung around like a sick dog, but she waved him away. She was feeling the good part of that now.
“Virgo!” The Thal that had been arguing, probed Gina next to her. Gina squirmed and moaned but the leather in her mouth prevented her from crying out. Nila felt the fingers of the young man’s free hand press to her lips, his eyes burning into hers and the smile gone from his face.
“Naahhh!” She heard the Thal with Lena cry out. Four of them untied her from the tree and threw her to the ground. Pulling their huge peeing tools from their loincloths, they took turns with her. The one with Gina, with long, matted hair streaked with white, and another with pure white hair, did nothing but stand by and watch.
Lena kicked and scratched and tried to bite them, but they were too strong. Her screams turned to whimpers, and finally, she was silent. Nila whimpered against the fingers to her mouth. She could have bitten them, but she didn’t. Tears streamed down her face and wet her captor’s fingers. Gina was crying and whimpering too.
Lena lay there battered and bleeding. She could have run, but it was no use. They would have caught up with her quickly. Instead, she sat up, a sullen look on her face, and rearranged her bloody skirt.
Gina’s gag was untied. She wanted to spit at her tormentor, but she didn’t. She feared what had happened to Lena. The men brought dried meat and water. It was all they would get all day. Even Lena was ravenous, fearing they would leave her to starve.
They were untied from their trees, and then their hands were bound in front at the wrist. The men bathed in the river, then let the girls in. Nila thought of swimming downstream, but a long leather tether prevented that. Her captor had a tight grip on it. Then, he tied it to his waist and pulled her out.
They headed upriver--fast. Nila’s feet were tough from going barefoot, but the rocks and sticks took their toll. She wondered about Lena behind her. It was all she could do to keep up, to keep from being pulled forward and stumbling to the ground.
At dusk, they stopped, ate a little dried meat, and tied the girls, sitting, to trees. After a hard night of dozing off to strange dreams, Nila’s feet felt better, but her arms and wrists were sore from her tight binds.
The four Thals started after Lena again, but the young man, stone ax raised, stopped them. He shook his head in disgust. He had a purpose they didn’t understand. She sensed that he wanted the girl alive. And she had to walk—fast.
The days fell into routine. After four or five suns walking, she could no longer keep track, she saw the big tree in the distance and she started weeping. The forest had reclaimed the encampment, young trees poked up from the ashes of their burned shelters. Broken pots and stone tools were scattered about, signaling former habitation. Although it was only mid afternoon, her captor stopped and surveyed the scene.
Two of the men went hunting. Nila, still tethered to her captor, whose name she had learned was Tsun, searched the camp, but they found little. When they found a large stone pot, Nila motioned with her hands that she wanted to make a soup. Tsun and the others were amused. But the young leader, once again, came to her aid. He untied her aching wrists and numb hands, and retied the tether around her neck. Then, he let her lead him into the forest. The other girls were then tethered the same way, and put to helping her find leeks, nuts and mushrooms. The two hunters returned with a small deer. While they cut it up, drinking the blood and eating the heart and liver raw, Nila took the leg bones, broke them to reveal the marrow, and then sucked some out before throwing them in the soup.
The men roasted the deer meat on a fire Tsun made with flint. Nila moved some the burning branches around the heavy stone pot. The girls cut up what they had found and added it to water they had brought from the river. Soon, her soup was boiling. They found three unbroken carved wooden ladles and tried to sip the soup without burning themselves. It was the best food they had tasted in many suns.
When all were sated, Tsun went off and came back with a goatskin filled with potion. He must have cached it on the trail on the trip down. It was obvious they had used this camp before. The men sat around the campfire and loudly laughed and boasted until the sun went down. They forced Lena to gulp the strong drink. By dark, once again tied to a tree, Nila heard their grunts and cried. Lena remained sullen and silent in her drunken state.
The small amount of deer meat that was left was wrapped in leaves and put in the leather bags the men carried. The remaining soup filled two goatskins. Nila and Gina gathered mushrooms, nuts, and berries for the journey ahead.
Lena had a hard time waking the next morning. Seeing that she would rather be dragged than follow walking any more, her tormentors took turns carrying her. It was good. As the trail left the river and wound uphill, Nila caught glimpses of her sleeping while being carried.
After two suns, they came to a place where the trail steepened, and the ground became rocky. Nila’s feet began to hurt again. She knew of this place. Her father, Albere, had talked of the Alps many times with the old men around the campfire. She had helped her mother sew the special clothes he needed to go there and hunt. Now, she was about to see them herself. Far ahead, she could see the white tops rising to the sky itself. Were they going there?
They left the trail and soon came to a spot that could have been a place a bear would hibernate under an overhanging rock, except that logs had long ago fallen in front of the opening. The men removed the logs carefully and revealed a cache of food, furs, and leather clothing. Nila was amazed at their ingenuity. When the cache had been removed, the logs were placed back exactly as they had been. It became obvious that the Thals used this place often.
The boots were wonderful. When stuffed with grass, they were also warm and comfortable. The leather coverings were large, heavy and uncomfortable, but they would be needed soon. Nila hadn’t slept the last two nights because she was so cold. The furs would be a burden, but they, too, would keep them warm. Her father had worn such clothes in the Alps. Nila, at twelve notches, was about to join him.
They climbed all morning on a time worn trail that showed no signs of recent use, except the prints of deer and goats. Tethers were tied waist to waist, allowing the girls to carry their heavy trappings and keep their balance. The deep forest gave way to rocky meadows and white-topped peaks loomed all around them. Nila had heard her father’s stories, but it was still strange to look down on the tallest trees, so far below.
By midday, they were surrounded by snow. Nila’s strong young legs were aching, her body hot and her breathing labored. The sun was strong and bright, but the air was sharp and cold against any exposed skin. Nila had always enjoyed the sight of first snow of winter, but grew to hate the cold that killed and took their food until the spring came. That’s why her family had marked a life tree, to celebrate surviving the snow and cold one more winter.
No one could live in this barren place. It was winter in summer up here in the sky. It was all rock and snow. Nila saw nothing growing and was glad they had food with them. Suddenly, the sky that had been so bright and blue became white with fast moving clouds that closed in around them. They pushed on, heads down, as sleet pummeled them, barely finding their way.
They were headed down now, and the sleet turned to heavy, cold rain. Lightning flashed about them, and the thunder shook their bodies and hurt their ears. Their leather and fur coverings were soaked and heavy, making it hard to keep their footing as they staggered down the steep, rain-slicked trail. Just when she thought they would all die on the mountain, the clouds opened a bit, so that she could see the tops of trees ahead.
Finally, they found a level place amid tall trees by a roaring stream. Crawling up under small trees on soft beds of wet moss and tree needles, they huddled through the night in the cold and wet. Nila crawled in close to Tsun for warmth. He put his arms around her and pulled her in.
Nila awoke, still wet, but warm, at first sun. A mist hung in the trees, but the stream no longer roared, and birds were singing. They ate what little food they had left and started climbing again. The girls were untethered. The exertion heated their wet coverings, drying them. By mid day, they were, once again, high in the mountains. This time it did not storm. As they descended into the waning sun, a great lake came into view. Tsun in the lead, the first to see it, announced, “Züricsee!”
They spent two suns at the lake, resting and gathering food. Nila and the girls fashioned nets and caught some fish in the icy waters. The Thals caught fish with their hands in the small streams that came down to the lake. There was no soup or bread, but they ate their fill and filled their bags. And Lena suffered in silence again. No one was tethered or tied. Even Lena would not run now. They were too dependent on these strange, brutal men.
More mountains lay ahead, until one day early, they crested a rise to see rolling hills and a plain beyond. Nila could see forever. The world was larger than she thought. Below, smoke from campfires rose in the warm, still air. “Gals!” Tsun once again announced. They tethered the girls again and headed straight for the camp.
Spotters had long announced their coming. By the time they arrived, the sun was waning, and the whole camp, about fifty people of all ages, came to greet them. Tsun, his ax held high, led the group into the camp. A great cry rose from the Gals when they arrived. They gathered in a circle in the center of the camp. The women brought food and drink for all to eat. There was meat and summer fruits. Nila even drank the strong potion from the wooden cup they placed in her wrist-tied hands. It burned her mouth and throat. Then, she got very warm and her mind went numb. After that, she relaxed and the food tasted very good. She had to pee, but held it.
Tsun and Gor, Gina’s protector, were in heated negotiations with the leaders of the Gals. Gina was brought before them, touched and turned by all. She had been given the potion, too, so she did not complain, just stumble sleepily about. The Gals brought copper, gold, and silver items, fine leather coverings, spears and axes, and many tools to the trade. A great yell rose up upon conclusion of the trade, but it was dark and Nila was falling in and out of sleep.
The women took Nila and Gina to the edge of the camp. As her bindings were being untied, she was jumping up and down in her urge to pee. The women quickly took the girls, in the dark, to a stinky peeing place, and they both relieved themselves. Nila was glad that she couldn’t see. She almost vomited from the smell.
Back in a shelter with young women, they quickly fell asleep. They didn’t hear the men celebrating until they fell asleep, drunk. They didn’t hear Lena’s screams.
They were awakened before dawn, given soup, taken for another pee, and then tended to in great detail. First, they were scrubbed with warm water-soaked skins, and then their hair was combed and braided. Nila was given a leather dress of soft skin like she had never worn. Gina’s dress was of white doeskin, decorated with fur from several small animals. Nila had never seen such a beautiful dress. The women then brought out copper and silver plates woven with sinew to white bone, forming a breastplate of great beauty. Their faces were rubbed with fragrant oils. The breastplate was placed on Gina. Nila was given lesser, but still beautiful ornaments.
When the sun was high, they were led from the shelter into the light. The whole camp had gathered in the circle, men on one side, and women and children on the other. Gina was led to the side of a boy who appeared to be about Aldo’s age, on the side of the men. The boy was oiled and his long brown hair braided. His chest and arms were bare, except for the leather armbands of a hunter. He had a copper necklace and a stone ax tied to his waist.
Nila was placed next to Gina. She saw Tsun towering over the boy on the other side. An old man with white hair and a fur coat covered with many amulets came into the circle. He spoke many incantations Nila did not understand and brought foul-tasting potions for them to drink. The women began a chant that reached a pitch that put shivers down Nila’s back. Just when she couldn’t stand it, they stopped.
They were then taken to where furs had been place for them to sit on. The women and girls began bringing them many foods to eat—some good and some strange. Grape potion made it easier for Nila to eat the things before her. She didn’t want to get sick, but so much food, so quick, after nearly starving took its toll. Gina started throwing up beside her. The women took them to the stinky place where they both threw up the remains of what they’d eaten. Feeling better, they were brought back to the furs for more food and drink. Nila saw Lena with a group of camp girls. She didn’t acknowledge Nila’s glance.
Nila was aware of Tsun’s watchful eye on her. She returned his glances with smiles. She was beginning to like him a lot. She understood little of the babel of voices around her. She did not understand his language, but she understood him. They were beginning to communicate.
Late in the day, the men came and got Gina. She and the boy were taken to a small wood shelter at the edge of the circle and pushed in. Two men stood guard at the small opening. Before long, there was the sound of struggle coming from the shelter, then screams—Gina’s screams. Everyone just continued to eat and drink and said nothing. The guards at the opening did nothing. Nila stopped eating, frustrated, and thoughts of killing rose in her head. Just when she couldn’t stand it anymore, the boy appeared in the opening and raised a bloody hand. The camp cheered, and the boy slipped back inside. Nila never heard Gina again. She never saw Gina again.
The next morning, very groggy from the grape potion, Nila was pulled up from her sleep by Tsun, and they were soon walking fast again, away from the camp of the Gals. Lena was with them, carried by Gor. Nila was untied, following Tsun on her own.
They traveled through deep forest, keeping the great mountains to their right until they disappeared. They skirted camps and avoided contact. They crossed many rivers and small streams. Nila began to communicate more and more with Tsun and the other captors. Word by word, she was learning the Thal language. She didn’t have to speak when she crawled into Tsun’s arms at night. She rarely talked to Lena, except sometimes when they were foraging for food. Lena had come to accept her fate, telling Nila that it didn’t hurt so much if she didn’t struggle. She was surviving.
After a moon of suns, they came to a place where the forest opened to marshy grasses, and they reached a great river. “Rine!” Tsun called it. The Thals were euphoric, their joy grew with each step. Then, near nightfall, they smelled the smoke of campfires, and tired as they were, everyone broke into a run. Yelling and waving their weapons high, they rushed into the camp. They were greeted with equal enthusiasm.
Tsun rushed to a white-haired man that looked like him, hugged him, and lifted him high. The old man’s stature, headdress, and clothing suggested that he was the leader. Tsun then dragged the old one to Nila, speaking loudly and gesturing wildly. The old man looked Nila up and down and smiled broadly. “Yellowhair!” was what Nila translated that she thought he said of her.
The celebration began.
In the morning, she found herself, once again, being dressed in fine doeskin with fur trim. Again, copper ornaments adorned her body. Lena was similarly dressed. They were led out to the center of camp. Like before, an old man pronounced incantations, and the camp sang, then celebrated with food and drink. At dusk, Tsun took her hand, and waving goodbye, took her up river until it was dark. They lay down in a bed of soft leaves. Before long the food and drink overtook them. Nila slept safe and warm in his strong arms. Near dawn, she felt him doing what Aldo had. Only this time it felt good. Before long, they both slept again. At dawn, with a quick flip of his ax, Tsun killed a small squirrel that had curiously peeked in on them. He let the squirrel bleed on his right hand, then, he smeared some of the blood on her clothes and peeing place. It felt so good, Nila wanted to play some more, but he put the squirrel in a bag and they walked back to the camp. The whole camp cheered when he raised his blood-dried hand to them coming in.
Winter came quickly. Nila, Lena, and the other women barely had time to gather nuts and berries before it set in with cold winds and snow.. Lena was already carrying a baby in her belly, and it slowed her work and made her sick. There were many skins to scrape, chew, and sew. These people dressed with much more fur than she remembered. She soon found out why. At least she had Tsun to help keep her warm at night.
When the snow was deep and they had to stay near their shelters and fires, Nila began to get sick. The old women told her she was having a baby, and the camp celebrated. The fever came, and some of the old and small children got it and died. Their bodies were left, frozen, near the river. If they ran out of food, it was the custom of the Thals to eat the dead. Tsun and the young men were a good hunters, so they had fresh meat even it the coldest times. They never had to eat the dead. When the winter got too bad for the old ones, they wandered off alone and never came back. The younger people often fought for the missing one’s possessions.
Before the snow melted, Lena’s baby came. Lena was not strong. Her spirit had been broken and she could not tolerate the cold weather. Her feet were already swollen and turning black when she was overcome with the pain of birth. She died. The old women had to cut the baby from her.
The baby, a girl, was small and sickly. Nila tried to nurse it with her growing, painful breasts, but it too, died within a few short suns. Nila had named it, Gina, but mother and child joined the growing pile of bodies by the water’s edge. They were covered with snow to keep the wolves from them. Hungry wolves often came into the camp at night and had to be driven off. In the spring, the ice went out on the river one night with a great cracking and groaning. In the morning, the dead were gone with the ice. There were fish in the river again.
Nila had learned many things, and the hard winter had made her strong. She found a young tree and carved thirteen notches on it. Nearby, were other young trees for her children. Tsun killed a mother bear and her two cubs in their den. Nila drank the mother’s milk and ate her fat meat, in preparation for her own baby, growing inside her. The cubs’ fur coats became a bed for the expected one.
And he came when the sun was warm and the grass was tall. Everything was in bloom and the bees led them to honey. With great pain and joy he came, Tor, their first son. He was big, and healthy, and Nila had enough milk for him. He would grow quickly and strong. And his father would soon leave.
With Tor to her breast and tears in her eyes, Nila waved her husband off. These annual raids were a part of Thal ritual that stretched back beyond memory. As soon as the young men were strong enough, they joined the raiding parties. There were usually two. Tsun was now the clear leader of the one that brought virgins to the Gals. Their alliance with the Gals was necessary because the Gals were the guardians to the passage into the mountains, and the Gals were the source of the grape potion, copper, and many other fine trade goods.
Tsun’s father, Rork, too old to raid, was the leader of the Thals. He and a few men stayed to protect the camp and hunt to provide meat for the women and children. The annual raids brought young women for wives and concubines for the young warriors. Their customs favored the young men. Women like Lena, were considered stupid and expendable. Nila would change that.
Tsun had given her a flint knife. Two of them had come to her sleeping place at night. Both of them were stabbed. One almost died from his wound. Nila helped care for him. No one bothered her after that. She showed the women how to find herbs and foods they hadn’t gathered before. Her soups and porridges became legend. The fish she snared in her reed baskets became a staple of the camp. The young men and women watched her swimming in the cold, Rine water, naked, envied her. They soon learned to swim followed her.
When Tsun returned, with two young girls from a tribe she did not know, he carried with him a bag of the wheat seed he’d promised her. He was astounded to see his strong baby boy, Tor, with his curly head of yellow hair and bright blue eyes, crawling about the camp annoying everyone with his bellowing yells and incessant appetite.
With Tsun’s help, Nila burned some dry marsh grass on a high, sunny riverbank. Then with his stone ax, they broke the strong root system up and freed the soil for planting. By the time the snow came, Nila could see the young wheat growing up through the bare dirt they’d prepared.
Nila’s second winter with the Thals was much better than the first. Perhaps it was the dried fish or the abundance of meat. The fever did not come and it wasn’t so cold. No one died and no one walked off to die. By midwinter, Nila found that she was having a baby again. But, before the spring, she awoke one night having the baby. Ill formed, it died at birth.
In the spring, when she carved her fourteenth notch on her life tree, she carried Tor with her, to carve one on his.
The years had been good for the Thals. Each year they grew more wheat. They now grew enough to have bread nearly through the winter. The raids had been successful, bringing riches from trade and plunder, and new blood. Tor had grown tall and strong. When Rork had seen that his grandson would become a great leader, he gave in to his pain and walked peacefully off into the winter to die. Nila had several babies, but they all were born too soon and died. Each one weighed heavy on her heart. Tsun took to the concubines. Some of their babies were his. None knew for sure, although some claimed their right to leadership.
Nila, with no daughters to help her, faced increasing opposition from the other women during the long summer raids. The flint knife, once used to ward off errant Thal men, now served her when jealous women and their daughters tried to steal her possessions or take her life in the night.
Tor wanted to lead a raiding party. He was bigger and stronger than Tsun when Nila first saw him. Tsun would not hear of it. With only three raids under his belt, Tsun felt Tor too inexperienced to lead a raid. Once again, Tor left with his father.
Nila spent the summer tending the wheat, fishing, and teaching the young to swim. She was still strong, but her breasts, pulled from nursing so many others’ babies hung down, her teeth were bad and falling out, her skin was brown and cracked from the wind and sun, and her blond hair was streaked with gray. Most of all, she ached in her joints. She had had the tattoos placed on her knees and ankles by the elders. Painful as they were, the tattoos did nothing to ease the aches that kept her from sleeping in the night.
The first raiding party arrived to exaltation. Weddings were held and the camp celebrated for days. Nila waited through the waning summer into the fall. Tsun and Tor did not arrive. The wives of the other Thals, missing with her husband and son, began to blame her, as if she was the cause of their missing loved ones.
The wheat was harvested and stores were put in for the winter. Without the hunting skills of Tsun and Tor, there was less dried meat. The snow came early, and with it, hope that they would arrived. Nila remained silent and stoic. While she imagined what tragedy had befell them, she never knew.
As the winter wore on. There wasn’t enough meat to eat. The fever came again and took the old and small children. Bodies piled up by the river. The blame was directed toward Nila. She saw that the wheat would not last. The wolves came nightly to feed on the dead. She was so alone and tired. She could no longer cope.
One cold morning, she wrapped herself in furs, took a small piece of bread, and walked out on the ice of the Rine. By mid morning, she felt warm, even though her joints ached and it was bitter cold. The sun was so bright she could see the evergreen-forested slope on one side and the never ending marsh on the other. Hers were the only tracks as she struggled with the deep snow in some places and bare ice in others. But she saw little of it. Her mind was filled with desperate days running with her love, Tsun, and the glorious times when she watched Tor grow from a beautiful boy to a strong, smart man. How could this have happened? She remembered all the homecomings, the stories Tsun told.
The sun went down. She was tired now. She sat down. She could not feel her feet. They were warm. She was warm. Her memories grew more vivid. She thought of her mother combing her hair, with Ola playing nearby. She thought of her great childhood journey, where she learned to love the mighty Tsun. She thought of Tor, her only son. These thoughts ran together and became one. By morning she was gone, alone.
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