The air in the cave was quiet. That was what awed Ronan most about the initiation cave: it was so quiet. No sound of pine trees stirring in the wind; no dripping of water or rustle of human or animal life. Only silence: deep, profound, endless.
Ronan had been waiting in this cave for a day and a night now. He was alone, with no food or water, and only a single spear for protection in case a cave bear should suddenly decide to invade his solitude. He had no fire, only one small stone lamp to light the thick blackness. His upper torso was naked, save for where it was decorated by the ocher markings painted there yesterday by his uncle.
It was his initiation into manhood, and he must pass the Test of Solitude.
He had been here a day and a night, but shut away from the sky as he was, there was nothing to help him count the passing of time. Ronan himself had no way of knowing if he had been in the cave for a few hours, or for a week. Time here was endless. He only knew that when the men came for him, he must be ready. They must not find him asleep.
The wounds on his upper right arm had long since stopped bleeding, but they still hurt. He thought the arm had swollen. Neihle had cut deep enough to leave scars, though not deep enough to injure the muscle beneath the skin. The scars were an honor, a sign that the man who carried them was an initiated male of the Tribe of the Red Deer. When the rest of the men of the tribe came to get him, and found he had passed the Test of Solitude, Neihle would make two additional cuts on his left arm.
The lamp flickered. The animal fat in which the wick floated was almost burned out. Surely, Ronan thought, that was a sign that the men must come soon.
He was cold. He was hungry. He was exhausted from thirty-two hours without real sleep. But he kept his upright position, seated on the floor with his back propped against the stone wall, his spear held poised in his left hand. When the men came they would find him ready.
They had already made the hunting dance before they left him here alone, initiating him into the male society of tribal hunters. Next after the Test of Solitude would come his initiation into the most important, the most sacred and revered of all the rites of the Mother.
It would be Borba who would do it; they had settled that between them some time ago. Borba had been initiated when her moon blood began to flow twelve moons past, and so she was well qualified to teach a boy the things he needed to know about mating with a woman.
Ronan had kept himself awake for much of his time in the cave by thinking about what he and Borba would do this night and about what changes it would bring to his life.
He would move out of his stepmother's hut and live in the men's cave with the rest of the initiates. Ronan had long since ceased to listen to Orenda's bitter tongue, but it would be a blessing no longer to be forced to endure her enmity at close quarters. He would marry, of course, but not for a few years yet. Boys of fourteen did not generally marry in the Tribe of the Red Deer.
Freedom. That was what Ronan had thought about all through the long and lonely night of his Test of Solitude. He would live in the men's cave, and hunt every day with his agemates, and be every night with a different girl. He would no longer be a boy but an initiated man of the tribe.
It would help to make up, a little, for what he had never had.
I will not think of that now, he told himself firmly. It was ill luck to think of angry things during the Test of Solitude.
Ronan's ears, for so long attuned to silence, now caught a faint sound in the distance. A few moments later there was a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel that led into the chamber in which he was waiting.
The men were coming. Ronan got to his feet.
There was a great fire going outside the initiation cave, and after Ronan's maternal uncle had made the cuts on his other arm, the men feasted on the deer they had killed for the occasion. Ronan sat around the fire with the men of his tribe, listening to the laughter and the talking, and helping to pass great pieces of roast deer meat clockwise around the circle. His exhilaration was so great that he did not even feel the pain in his heavily bleeding arm.
The laughter grew uproarious as the talk became bawdier. Ronan's strong white teeth bit into the meat that was handed to him, tearing away a big chunk before passing it along to the man on his other side. He felt the food giving him strength, a strength he would need later, as the men were delightedly pointing out with lavish anatomical detail.
The juice from the meat ran down Ronan's chin, and he wiped it away with his hand. There was blood on his hand, mixing with the red juice of the deer meat. The blood had streamed down his arm from the new ritual wounds. As he listened to the talk, Ronan felt the restless beast of desire rising within him, beating in his blood, hammering in his heart, pulsing in his loins. The meat came around to him again, and he tore off another chunk with his teeth.
"It is time. The women will be waiting." Ronan looked up to see his uncle's tall shape standing before him. The rest of the men were also getting to their feet. It was necessary for them to go to the sacred cave of Earth Mother for the final rite of the initiation ceremony. Borba would be there, with the rest of the tribe's initiated women.
Someone lit a torch from the fire, and then more torches were raised on high. A few men stayed behind to put out the fire, and the rest took to the narrow trail that wound along the river Volp, a trail that would bring them eventually to the place that was the final destination of all initiation ceremonies, both male and female alike.
The women were at the sacred cave already, gathered on the shore of the river that long ago had cut its way directly into the hillside to form a series of underground caverns. For the Tribe of the Red Deer, this seemingly endless, deep, dark cave represented the womb of the Mother. It was here the tribe brought its young girls when the menstrual blood of life first began to flow; here it brought its young men when they became of an age to worship the Goddess by having intercourse with a woman; here the Mistress of the Tribe twice a year made the Sacred Marriage to ensure the life of the tribe, the life of the herds, the life of the world of men.
No member of the tribe ever approached this place without the hair on the back of the neck rising in awe. And so it was this night for Ronan.
Then he saw his half-sister.
Morna. The Chosen One. The Daughter. The one who would be the tribe's next Mistress after Arika died. She was one year younger than Ronan.
His mouth set in bitterness as he stared at his sister's lovely face. She smiled at him and flung back her red-gold hair. Her eyes glittered in the torchlight.
What was she doing here? he thought angrily. Morna had not yet been initiated. She had no business being here this night.
The Mistress, he saw, glancing around quickly, was not here. Well, he had not expected her to be. Arika had always kept as far from her only son as possible, given the communal nature of the tribe.
Borba was not present either. She must already be within the cave. Ronan stood in the midst of the men, tense and alert, waiting to be told what to do next. It was Fali, the Old Woman of the Tribe, who approached. In one hand she held a stone saucer filled with red ocher; in the other, she held a brush made out of pine.
"Ronan, son of Arika, grandson of Elen," Fali said clearly as she painted the loop sign of the phallus on his chest between his nipples. "It is your time to learn to know the Goddess as world-maker. It is your time to learn to serve her, as Sky God served her when together they mated to make the world."
The Old Woman finished her work and stepped back. "You may enter the cave," she told him softly. "Your mate awaits you in the first chamber."
Ronan bent his black head and looked down into the bright brown eyes of the Old Woman. Fali, one of the girls kidnapped so many years before by the men of the Horse, was now the only survivor of that fateful event. The Tribe of the Red Deer had changed since then, Ronan had been told. Principally, it had come to recognize more fully the religious needs of its men. His initiation was one of those changes.
The Old Woman had handed him a stone lamp, and slowly he started along the river, following the stream as it wound into the depths of the mountain. Earlier in the spring, Ronan would have needed to take a boat, but it had been dry this year, the river was not as swollen as usual, and it was possible to walk along the gravel at the outermost sides of the cave.
The men of the tribe came to this cave only twice a year, at Spring and Winter Fires, and then they came but to the first chamber. Only the man chosen to make the Sacred Marriage with the tribe's Mistress was ever taken into the sanctuary.
Ronan knew he would never be one of the men to see that sanctuary. His mother was Mistress, and his sister would follow her. As it was taboo for him to lie with either of them, he was fated to remain ignorant of the mysteries that lay beyond the first chamber.
He was not sorry for that, Ronan thought, as he made his way carefully along the shore of the river, lit only by his single stone lamp. The cave was thick with the Mother's presence, thick with the smells of the earth, of the river, thick with Mystery.
Ronan shivered in the chill damp. I have had enough of caves, he thought suddenly, remembering his solitary dark vigil of the night before. Then he shivered again, this time with fear. That was blasphemy!
He made his mind a blank, willing out dangerous thoughts. He looked ahead, his eyes striving to pierce through the darkness, to find the woman he was seeking.
After what seemed to him a long time, the passage widened, and Ronan found himself in the first chamber of the cave. The walls in here were decorated with engravings of animals: buffalo, reindeer, and horses. Most important to the cave's purpose, however, was the sign of the Mother, the P, which was chiseled again and again into the limestone walls.
The river passed through this chamber and then disappeared out of sight into the profound darkness of the depths of the hill. Ronan did not follow the river; instead, he stopped and looked at the girl who was waiting for him.
The women had made a small fire in the center of the chamber and arranged a bedplace of leaves and grasses covered over by deerskin rugs. Kneeling upright on the bedplace was Borba, naked save for the necklace of pointed deer teeth that hung around her neck and the belt of similar teeth that encircled her slender hips. Her hair had been washed and left unbraided, and it flowed around her shoulders, bright as sunshine in the dimness of the cave. Upon each high firm breast was painted a red ocher triangle, symbol of the female.
Ronan halted. He flicked a quick look at the golden triangle that lay below her belt and felt a vibration beginning within him, low and dark, thrilling all through his blood and his bones and his muscles. But he forced himself to stand still and wait. It was for her to show him what he should do.
"Ronan," she said. Her face was lit by the firelight, and he saw the flash of her smile. He thought it looked oddly triumphant.
"I am here." He began to walk toward her.
Borba's laugh held a strange, wild note. "You look like a cave panther, stalking toward me like that," she said. She stretched out her hands to him, and he came and took them. She tugged him downward toward her, and he knelt facing her. She had not released his hands, and now she raised them and put them on her bare young breasts. His phallus was perfectly erect.
Her wide eyes gazed up at him. "That is good," she whispered. "A woman likes to have her breasts caressed, Ronan." And then she reached out and began to untie the leather thong that belted his deerskin trousers.
Nel was coming home from collecting berries with her agemates and some of the tribe's old women, when she heard the baby crying from within the forest of evergreens and birch that surrounded the trail. She halted.
The child walking behind her on the narrow path bumped into her, and some of the berries in the basket she was carrying spilled.
"Nel!" Rena said with intense annoyance. "Don't stop so suddenly! You made me spill my berries." And she dropped to her knees to retrieve what had been lost.
"Didn't you hear the baby?" Nel asked.
"Sa," Rena returned. She looked up. The two children were alone for the moment; they had been at the end of the line of returning gatherers, and those in front had not yet realized they had fallen behind. "It is one of Mira's twins. They must have brought it out to the woods while we were at the meadow picking berries."
The sound came again, a thin, fretful wailing. The baby sounded as if it had been crying for some time.
Nel clenched her fists. "I am going to find it," she said.
"You can't!" Rena dropped her basket and reached out to grab Nel's arm. "That twin is dangerous."
"I can," Nel said stubbornly. "How can it be dangerous, Rena? It is only a baby!"
"It is the dark twin, the second one born," Rena said. "When the Mother bore twins at the beginning of the world, one became the God of Light and the other became the God of the Underworld. Now, when twins are born to the world of men, it is necessary to send the dark twin back to the Underworld before it can spread its darkness in the world of light. You know that, Nel. Everyone knows that!"
Nel's face was white and set. Her thin-bridged nose and sharp cheekbones looked even more prominent than usual, and her glittering green stare was desperate. "Then why does the Mother make twins, if one is evil?"
"No one knows why the Mother does as she does," the other child returned impatiently. "She is the Goddess. She does not have to explain herself to us."
The cry came again. "I'll find the baby and hide him away somewhere safe," Nel said. "No one will ever know."
Rena's fingers tightened on Nel's arm, "How will you feed it?" she asked practically. "You are but nine winters old. You have no milk to give an infant." Rena loosened her grip somewhat as she saw that her words had made an impact on Nel. She added, in a gentler voice, "It is in my heart that you are more upset about this child than Mira is. After all, she still has one child left to care for, and that is more than enough." Then, when Nel did not respond, Rena said, "My mother told me that in the tribes that follow Sky God, both twins are exposed. At least we do not do that."
"Nel! Rena! What is keeping you?" From a little way up the trail came the voice of one of the old women who had accompanied them. She sounded cross.
"Go on," Rena said, giving Nel a push, and after a minute, Nel went.
Supper was ready when Nel returned to her father's hut, but she could not eat. Her stepmother nagged and scolded and made remarks about ungrateful children, but Nel scarcely heard her. All she could hear, echoing again and again through her mind, was the desolate sound of the baby crying in the forest.
There was no one in the whole tribe who would understand how she felt, she thought despairingly. No one except Ronan, of course, and since his initiation she had scarcely seen him. Now that he was a man, obviously he had no time for the small cousin who was still a child.
"I told the Old Woman I would bring her some of the berries I picked today," Nel said, lying with swift inspiration. She could not bear to stay one more minute within this hut, and she knew a promise made to the Old Woman would be respected even by her stepmother.
Olma frowned, muttered something about needing Nel's help herself, but did not try to stop the child as she left the hut. Nel did not go toward Fali's hut, however, but turned instead toward the river on whose shores the main homesite of the Red Deer was located.
The Tribe of the Red Deer had dwelled in the area of the Greatfish River for as long as anyone could remember. The location was ideal for the exploitation of the reindeer and red deer which formed the chief staple of the tribe's diet. The caves and huts faced east toward the river, in a place that was dry and sheltered from the wind, and on the opposite bank the heights of Deer Hill afforded excellent views of the surrounding territory. The river at this point ran in a series of fords and rapids, and immediately upstream from the homesite it converged with the Leza in a marshy area that was rich in both fish and fowl.
Located thus, at the point where two rivers emerged from their narrow upland valleys into the foothills, the tribe was in excellent position to prey upon the herds of deer as they ascended into the upland pastures for summer feeding and then returned to the lowland pastures for the winter.
This evening, however, Nel was not thinking of deer. She was thinking of the abandoned baby in the forest. Behind her, cookfires were burning cheerfully in front of all the huts, and the tribe was at supper. Only the baby in the forest would not be fed this night, Nel thought. She stared at the swiftly running water of the Greatfish River, and then, abruptly, she began to cry.
A large wolf emerged from the forest upstream and began to lope with long loose strides toward the solitary child. Nel did not see him, and she remained in her place by the shore, weeping inconsolably. The wolf reached her, halted, and began to make small inquiring noises in the back of his throat.
"It's all right, Nigak," Nel said in a voice that shook with grief. "I'm all right."
"What's the matter, minnow?" The voice was familiar, and deeply loved, and, hearing it, Nel struggled to get herself under control. "N-nothing," she gulped.
"I am thinking it must be a very big nothing to make you cry like this," Ronan said. He sat beside her and put an arm around her narrow shoulders. "What is it, Nel?" he asked. "You can tell me."
Nigak switched his attention to Ronan, extending his white muzzle to sniff at the boy's clothes, Nel turned her head and buried her face in Ronan's shoulder. "I h-heard the baby," she said. "Crying in the forest. Oh Ronan!" Her skinny body was wracked with grief.
"One of Mira's twins," he said softly.
"It will be dead by now, Nel," he said. "It isn't suffering any longer."
"Do you think an animal got it?" she sobbed.
She continued to sob, and he continued to hold her. Finally, he said, "Come. You are soaking my shirt. You will have to re-scrape it for me, the buckskin will be so stiff."
She shuddered. "I don't understand why they did it," she said. "I will never understand why they did it. They say it is the will of the Mother, but how do they know that, Ronan? How do they know that the Mother wanted them to kill that baby?"
"The Mistress told them so," he said. His face was impassive.
"Suppose she is wrong?" Nel said defiantly. "Suppose the baby was not a dark twin? Suppose the baby they kept is the dark twin, and they have killed the light one?"
A little silence fell. Then Ronan said, "You are a dangerous thinker, Nel."
"So are you," she flashed back.
They looked at each other. After a minute, Ronan grinned. It transformed his face, that smile, transmuting all the dark arrogance into brilliant, beguiling charm. Nel smiled tremulously back.
"I'm sorry about the baby, minnow," he said. "It's why I was looking for you. I knew you would take it hard."
It made her feel better to know he had been looking for her. "Are you sure it is dead, Ronan?"
"I am sure."
She let out her breath in a long, uneven sigh.
"You can't rescue all the outcasts of the world like you rescued Nigak, you know," he said.
The wolf, who had lain down before Nel's feet, lifted his head when he heard his name. He was a magnificent animal, silver gray except for four white legs, a white chest and white muzzle. His clear yellow-brown eyes looked from Nel to Ronan, his ears folded back in friendliness, and his tail wagged.
"Nigak was able to eat meat when I found him," Nel said. "I was going to look for the baby this afternoon, but then Rena said I wouldn't be able to feed him and I knew she was right."
Ronan closed his hand gently around her braid. "You need to toughen up that soft heart of yours, Nel."
"I am tough," Nel said indignantly.
"About yourself you are," he agreed. "I don't ever remember seeing you cry for yourself."
"Once I did," she said. Her voice was low. "Don't you remember?"
He gave a tug to the long fawn-colored braid. "Sa," he said. "I remember."
Silence fell between them. Then Nel said, "I didn't think you cared about me anymore. Ever since you moved into the men's cave, I have scarcely seen you."
"Of course I care about you." He sounded surprised. Then he quirked one slim black eyebrow. "We are bound together by blood. Don't you remember?"
In answer she stretched out her right arm, with the white skin of the inner side exposed. They both regarded it with interest. On the fine skin near the wrist there was a small half-moon-shaped scar, a memento of the ceremony Ronan had performed when he was ten and she was five. He stretched out his own arm, which showed a similar mark.
Ronan laughed. "You were so brave," he said, "letting me slice away at your wrist like that. Brave or stupid. I was never certain which."
"Both, I am thinking," she retorted, and they laughed together.
"So this is where you are, Ronan. I have been looking for you." Nel turned to see Borba making her way toward them from the cluster of pines behind. The setting sun haloed the girl's hair with gold, and she was smiling at Ronan.
"Run along now, minnow," Ronan said into her ear.
I was here first. Nel almost said it, looked into Ronan's face, and then did not.