Iluna stumbled for the fourth time that morning. Grasping for an anchor, she found an icy rock and held it long enough to restore her balance before retracting numb fingers to the warm folds of her wolfskin cloak. She exhaled a steamy breath and looked up to the mountainous horizon. The daysun had clawed its way to the sky, but shone weak and ineffectual through the mist above the mountains.
Iluna caressed her heavy belly within the folds of her cloak; her unborn child was close. Another cramp tightened its grip and she scrunched her eyes shut. “Not yet. Please.”
She did her best to ignore the pain, and retrieving her walking stick, resumed trekking through the snow. She had to keep going, there was no turning back. She had no home. No people. Her only option was to find the cave with the red walls. That meant moving northwest as her dreams had shown her. But the further north, the further west, the more mountains. Winter ruled harsh and relentless in such forsaken country.
As the morning wore on, Iluna stopped with each cramp, pausing until the ache passed, then continuing on her journey. She'd covered a fair distance despite her pains, but the sky grew veiled with heavy cloud, the air froze, and the first snowflakes fell at midday. She would need shelter. At a large cypress she paused to look back the way she’d come. The foot of the mountain extended down, white as far as the eye could see, interrupted now and then with patches of green from alpine trees. Perhaps she should turn back after all. She’d been foolish to leave the comfort of the cave that had sheltered her during the dark days and nights of Ilun when daysun, nightsun, moon and even stars disappeared from the sky. She frowned at her own stupidity. Her child was too close now. She should have remained to give her babe a safe start to life. But the dreams had seemed urgent. The red cave called to her, and that face, blue and black, with golden eyes, like fire. You’re close, Iluna. Keep walking, it had told her. Was it Ona, the Mother, who revealed her face and called to Iluna in her dreams? What awaited her in the red cave?
The snow drifted in a wall of white, obscuring her view. She pulled her cloak tight, and tucked black strands of hair into the hood, then turned to face her path, putting one moccassined foot in front of the other.
A cramp stronger than any other tore her insides. She dropped the walking stick to clutch her belly. Her knees buckled, and she fell on the hard ice. Hot wetness spread down her legs and she lifted her face to the cloudy sky. “No, Ona! Please, not now.”
Pain seared through her, along with fear. In the clan, the women had Amak to attend them when their time came. Childbirth was considered a sacred rite, and a secret one. Only mother, medicine woman and the gods would bear witness to it. Iluna knew nothing about it. Her own mother had died giving birth to her. She closed her eyes as the realisation unfurled in her mind – out here, alone in the snow-laden mountains, there was every chance she would face the same fate as her mother. What she would give to be back with the clan so that Amak may attend her. Iluna was tamatu – outcast – but the medicine woman would help her nevertheless. Iluna forced a breath and crawled on shaking limbs to the trunk of the cypress. The thick canopy kept the snow at bay. She would have to face childbirth alone. She'd faced her entire life alone, so why not this too?
Iluna's breath shortened to gasps as the pain erupted. The cramps grew in intensity and sweat soon dampened her tunic. Time wore on, and the gloom of the day spread with Iluna's screams. The cramps hit like a storm through her body, over and over until, with exhausted shrieks, Iluna gave birth before the sunset. The birth itself was quick, but took what little energy Iluna had left, and her screams quietened with the first mewling cries of her baby. With a teary smile Iluna drew the little slick body of her babe to her breast and watched her daughter suckle. She then wrapped her baby tight in the folds of her cloak. Iluna's eyes drooped, and in the next heartbeat, exhaustion took her into deep sleep.
Night had descended. An oil pot, shining in the distance, swayed as it drew closer. Iluna blinked up into a familiar face and her heart stopped. Could it truly be him? His hair was still touched with golden tips from summer. His eyes remained their usual colour and their amber shone like the daysun. He looked no different from the last time she'd seen him, when they'd clutched each other – desperate lovers – before saying goodbye.
“Anton,” Iluna said with a croak in her voice. “We have a daughter.”
Anton kissed her forehead before taking the babe. Cold air replaced the warm moist place where her daughter had snuggled, and Iluna drew her cloak tight. Anton looked down at their daughter and smiled before cuddling her close to his bare chest. He wore only a loincloth and Iluna wondered why he didn't feel the cold, but happiness clouded her thinking and she drew comfort from the vision of her lover holding their child. She closed her eyes and allowed exhaustion and dreams to take her once more.
A long sleep enfolded her and Iluna remembered waking thrice.
The first time, to pain – the soreness in her belly, between her legs, and the swelling pressure in her breasts. But more pressing was the deep stab of loss. Her arms ached to hold her baby, but such a thing was impossible now. Anton would be making his way back to the Wolf Clan with their daughter, where she'd be safe. Perhaps the red cave had been nothing more than a dream. Had Anton dreamt it too? Is that how he'd found her? Iluna blinked open her eyes and witnessed an orange glow on low pine branches. Wood smoke wafted close, and she turned her head.
An old man crouched by a fire. He was small, the size of a child, and when she looked at him a sense of calm flowed through her, easing her grief. Then his gaze snapped to her and Iluna’s heartbeat raced. His eyes were like none she'd ever seen on a person. They were more like an animal of some kind. An owl, perhaps. The irises widened and his skin changed dramatically – mottled red, and black and grey, and he almost seemed to blend with the background. Fear paralysed her limbs. Iluna forced her mouth open to speak, but he spoke first, curt and fast, in a language she did not know.
“Diliah,” he uttered, and darkness took Iluna back to her dreaming, back to the red cave. Perhaps he was one of Ona’s messengers. Some part of Iluna’s consciousness hoped he wasn’t a spirit of the Malfir, come to take her into the angry depths of Malfiren.
The second time she came to, the world was moving beneath her. She lay on her stomach, face down. Her body remained sore and a hot wetness seemed to stick under her chest. She opened her eyes, and the world swayed. The scent of something, like warm leather, drifted to her as she lifted her head. Ruddy-brown fur greeted her, and its heat was a strange comfort. She lay straddled over some woolly beast; they traveled among the snowy pines. It was daylight. How much time had passed?
“Diliah,” someone whispered, and Iluna allowed her dreams to take her back once more. So tired. So tired.
When Iluna woke for the third time, her weariness was far from gone, but a crying babe assaulted her ears and made her breasts ache. Her eyes opened to behold a red glow on a rocky wall. She was in the cave. The red cave. The cave of her dreams. So she'd made it. Something like relief stirred in her chest, but then the memory of her daughter brought back tears and worry tightened in her throat.
“Hello?” she whispered. Only silence replied. She blinked the tears away to scan the cave. In the crevice of rock small red fungi glowed, giving the cavern its colour. One large bench held bowls, vials, and a little wooden carving of a woman; a goddess perhaps. A jug and cup sat on a smaller bench beside her. She recalled her tree-dwell in the Wolf Clan, her home, and the loss tightened its grip in her chest. It hadn't been much of a home, and it was her home no longer.
Iluna stretched, her body aching. Clean furs covered her. She peered beneath them. She wore a smock made with a rough material neither leather nor grass. A wet stain covered her chest. Her breasts were leaking milk. Weakness made her head fall back, but the crying sounds came again. She closed her eyes, tears falling on her cheeks. It was time to allow the dreams to take her once more. Anton had her baby. Their daughter was safe. Her own safety mattered not, and she was too exhausted to care.
Iluna sat up. A baby was crying out there, somewhere, and for an instant she thought it was her daughter. Iluna threw back the wolfskins and placed her bare feet on the floor – a polished rock surface that shone in the glow of the oil pots. The floor was warm as though heated from deep within the mountain. Dizziness took her when she stood and she sat back down.
Her hands shook. How long had it been since she’d had anything to eat? She poured a cup of the liquid in the jug and drank. Spring water. Good. She poured another cup and then another downing them quickly one after the other, until the dry of her throat felt a little smoother. She stood again, her head not so dizzy now. Her body still ached, but not like before. Her smock had been changed; this one was clean, fresh. Someone was looking after her. Perhaps the strange-looking old man with the mottled skin and eyes like an owl. Or the blue-black face with the golden eyes – the one from her dreams with the voice that beckoned her to keep moving until she found the red cave. Was that the one who'd brought her here? And why? This place brimmed with essence, with magic. As though it came from the mountain rock. But that couldn’t be true. Only the living could hold so much power.
“Ona, help me,” Iluna whispered.
The mewling sounds returned and echoed through the chamber. Iluna faced the exit – a tunnel. She took a deep breath and walked toward it. Darkness filled her vision, but the passage soon opened to another chamber where oil pots lined the cave’s wall. A fire burned in a square part of the stonework and a pot bubbled on top. The rich aroma made Iluna’s mouth water and her stomach growled. There was no sign of the old man. Was he real? And did he know about her baby? Perhaps he'd seen Anton when he'd taken their daughter away.
Iluna stalked through another passage until she came to a flat wooden end. She touched it, feeling the rough dry surface and stepped closer to press her ear to it. Noises came from the other side. She tried pushing, but the wood stood firm. Her eyes fell to a smooth ball of rock half way down. Iluna frowned. She touched it gently – it felt warm too. Was all rock warm in this place? She gripped it and the rocky knob turned effortlessly. Something clicked and the wooden obstruction swung inward, groaning. Iluna jumped back.
A vast open space was revealed to her. A large cavern, big enough for a dragon’s lair – for a hundred dragons. Iluna’s eyes widened as she took in the scene. Hundreds of people bustled about. All of them short, just like the old man, some even smaller. They walked in twos and threes, in every direction, and held baskets filled with oddments. Iluna crouched low in the dark passageway, watching. The enormous space was lit by a series of strange plants or mushrooms that nestled in the cavern walls, among cracks and crags in the rock. They glowed blue, green and red, and everything in between. High above, a pale beam of light penetrated the very centre of the space. Daylight perhaps. Oil lamps on tall columns were dotted throughout, lighting the path for the bustling crowd. Some people stood behind benches, in little open huts, with food, or treasures resting on, and even brimming over, benches. Oil pots lit their wares, and frequently the passersby would stop to talk with one of the hut dwellers, and exchange goods from their baskets.
Iluna closed her mouth – she’d never seen anything like this. She could not take her eyes from the strangeness of this place and the people. Just like the old man the people here were small, none of them taller than a child of ten or twelve summers. Yet they were full-grown. Some had grey hair and wrinkled skin. Dark skin. Iluna shivered when she recalled the old man's eyes, and the way his skin had mottled and changed. Or had that been a dream? No, it couldn't be a dream. He had been real and he'd brought her here to this strange place deep within the mountain. She scanned the bustling crowd. Could the old man be among them? There were so many, how would she find him? Perhaps he’d seen Anton with Iluna's daughter, and the possibility made her search for his old wizened face.
The mewling grew louder. What was making that sound? Iluna crouched down to stalk out of the passageway and look to her right. She gasped. A mountain goat stood trapped in an area bordered by logs, and a kid cried for its mother. They had been separated. Who would keep an animal this way? And who would keep the baby from her mother? Iluna stuck to the shadowy walls as she inched toward the baby goat. It came to her, bleating. She reached out and patted the thick goat hair, and the kid quieted.
Iluna smiled, until sadness flared once more, making her frown. Where was her own babe now? Anton had their daughter, Iluna knew that. Though why he had taken her remained a mystery. Still, their daughter would be safe with her father. And she’d have a good life in the clan. A better life than the one Iluna could offer her. Iluna had to accept that. Even so, she wished she could see her baby just one more time. If she followed Anton's trail perhaps she could catch them before he returned to the Wolf. She took a breath, trying to calm a sudden eagerness to leave this place. Perhaps she could hold her daughter...
A shout pierced the bustling background noise. One of the little people was looking and pointing her way. His hair was a shock of thick dark curls, with a beard to match. He wore a square-like purple tunic that seemed to set him apart from the brown of the others. His scowl was far from friendly. Others soon followed his stare, and in a handful of heartbeats, a small crowd had gathered, talking quickly amongst themselves. They all wore simple tunics made of the strange material that was neither leather nor grass. Their skin mottled, just as the old man’s had, blending with the background of the cavern – red, blue and black. Iluna’s mouth fell open in both fear and fascination. Who were these little people with owl eyes and skin that transformed in such a way?
“Ofucia! Ofucia!” The bearded man yelled, his voice deep and authoritative for one so small. Iluna glanced around her. While she could not understand the words, and while they seemed a strange people, she understood the look in their eyes. They were afraid. She'd seen that look plenty of times in the eyes of her own people, and it was such fear that had made her an outcast. Fear had led her here, nothing more.
Her hand fell from the kid's neck and she stood, her knees shaking. “Please, do not be afraid. You have nothing to fear from me.” Her voice rasped, her throat still dry. She looked fretfully around the large space. Beyond the tall lamps stood the rocky walls of the mountain's interior. How in Ona's name could she get out of here?
Others joined the mob, their skin mottled also, and they stepped back when they spied her, silent – eyes wide.
“Arvus qanda! Arvus.” A new voice pierced the throng. The old man! He pushed his way forward, hands raised. Iluna held her breath as she watched him. Yes, he was the one. He had found her out there alone. Had he seen her daughter and lover? She would ask him, somehow, then thank him for his help, and leave this strange place as soon as she could.
The man with the beard responded with quick sharp words, eyeing Iluna as he spoke. But the old man shook his head and his voice grew soft. In moments, the crowd seemed to calm. Their skin dulled to its normal swarthiness, no longer mottled, and in twos and threes, they returned to their business. The bearded man remained. He gave Iluna a long stare before he also turned and moved on.
The old man looked at her, his owl eyes wide. “Eee-luna”.
Iluna’s breath stalled in her throat. “How do you know my name?”
He walked toward the wooden plank and turning the stone knob, opened the entrance. He gestured toward her, uttering strange words in his language.
Iluna shook her head, a frown creasing her brow.
He stepped into the entrance, and still his voice was calm as he seemed to beckon her.
Iluna moved toward him, hoping answers would come.