Men were not supposed to be present during childbirth. It was a female rite. Amak, the clan’s medicine woman, and her novice, Lili, saw to such matters. A man was only allowed if he was a Soragan, and only then if something was very, very wrong.
Izhur pursed his lips as he walked the few short steps to the birthing tree. This was his first Ilun as the clan’s Soragan. His first birth, too. He wished his master was still alive to guide him, to teach him. Twenty summers was too young to be a clan’s Soragan. He hoped he knew what to do.
He followed Lili up the carved steps of the giant oak tree, its leaves long gone with the winter frosts. Snow would come soon. The Winter of the Sky was always cold and dark.
About ten steps up the trunk a tree-dwell made of bark and mud clung to thick lower boughs, the way a hive did. Izhur stepped inside and blinked, adjusting his eyes. Neria lay on the birthing mat, fatigue written on her grey face. Her dark hair clung close; eyes drawn. The bulge of her pregnancy sat low on her abdomen. She had little left.
Amak stood. The medicine woman looked as though she had aged eight winters. The lines around her eyes usually accentuated her smiles, but now they made her appear old and weary. Her tunic was stained and blood dripped from her hands. “The daysun has gone down,” her voice almost a whisper.
He nodded. “I will do my best.”
Neither mentioned Ilun. They were the clan’s knowledge keepers, she the medicine woman, he the Soragan. They knew the danger that now lurked for human and spirit alike. Ilun was a dark event that occurred every eight winters – during the Winter of the Sky. With no light to frighten them away, the spirits of Malfiren were free to wreak their terror. The first night of Ilun was no time to be welcoming a newborn into Ona’s world. Izhur would have to work hard to repel any dark spirits. No easy task. The demons would detect a newborn the way a wolf smells blood.
Neria tried to scream again as another contraction took hold, but her voice rasped like stone on stone. Wolf pelts covered the mud floor of the tree-dwell. Much of Neria’s blood had drenched them and the coppery scent filled the modest space. Izhur knelt by Neria’s head and wiped her sweaty forehead with the palm of his hand. She was cold.
“I will protect you, and your baby,” he said, and Neria’s eyes closed, squeezing out a tear.
His voice had shaken, as had his hands.
“Lili, get some lights – as many as you can,” Izhur instructed, trying to keep panic from his tone. The girl jumped up and tore down the tree. Twilight now rapidly diminished. They would need light to help keep the Malfir away.
Izhur swallowed a hard lump. He put his leather satchel on the floor of the shelter and took out the implements he required for the task ahead, his hands still shaking. He placed two flat stone plates on the floor, both the size of his palm. He took a small clay pot and opened the stopper. The spicy aroma of oliban and crushed sage filled his nostrils, contrasting with the thick stench of blood. He poured a generous amount on each of the stone plates, and put them on either side of Neria.
Lili came back with a satchel of oil pots. She held one in her hand, already alight.
“Give it to me,” Izhur said. He lit a taper then held it to the plates. The crushed spices smoldered and spirals of aromatic smoke danced through the shelter. They would help deter the Malfir.
Izhur handed the oil pot and taper to Lili. “Light the others, all of them, and place them around the tree-dwell. Try to make a circle.”
Lili nodded. Soon a yellow glow lit the mud walls.
Neria cried out again and Amak cooed soothing words as she glanced earnestly at Izhur. He knew the look in her eyes; it was a plea for him to do something, to move faster. A distant rumble sounded outside – thunder. Amak heard it, too. Her eyebrow arched in a question. A winter storm on Ilunnight? Omens upon omens.
Izhur placed his hands on either side of Neria’s head and started the song – a deep incantation, a call to Ona, the Mother. Only She had the power to help them on such a night.
His body rocked and he closed his eyes. He focused on his breathing and the words. ‘Whenever you’re unsure go back to the beginning.’ He remembered his master’s advice as he followed it. Breathe. Chant. Breathe. Chant.
Another rumble of thunder echoed. The storm crept closer. An icy breeze whipped through the shelter sending the flames of the oil pots sideways. Neria’s strained scream followed. Izhur opened his eyes and wiped sweat from his forehead; his long hair hung in damp tendrils. Amak scowled and shook her head.
He returned his trembling hands to Neria’s temples and tried again. Breathe. Chant. Breathe.
He felt it before he saw it, that giddy sensation. This was normal, like a feeling of falling, before his sight opened up to reveal the Otherworld. Its familiar shadowy grey swam before him. Neria’s body pulsed dimly as her light waned. Like an oil pot on its last drop, she was dying. Izhur fought the urge to retract out of the Otherworld; his grief would overpower him if he didn’t control it.
He focused his mind and looked around. The Otherworld was clear. No shadows lurked. The Malfir were no threat – yet. He turned his attention to the babe. Neria’s womb pulsed with a strong golden light; so powerful, it was like trying to look at the daysun.
Izhur wanted to turn away but forced himself to send his sight further down, toward the bright spirit still nestled within Neria’s womb. In the Otherworld, the form of the baby was fluid. The child took no clear shape, and resembled something of a circle of fire. Izhur marveled. Never before had he seen a spirit so bright. It calmed him. Perhaps the Malfir would be frightened.
Izhur had to force the birth. It was the only way. He sent forth his ethereal arm, and saw the luminance of his hand and fingers. He touched the ball of golden light and whispered a chant as he pushed down. Movement and light throbbed and he pushed harder. The glow from the oil pots was visible on this plane, dancing red globes. But another flash struck, to the north – rapid bolts of blue and white. Lightning.
He pushed again. More movement. Come little one. He pushed harder. Neria’s light faded further, blinking out. Nothing could be done for her now. Izhur had to save the child. He pushed again and an eruption of light threw him back before darkness came.
“The child is cursed. That is as clear as my foot.” Ugot spat next to the foot he mentioned. “I can see it. As can you. We know what has to be done.”
There were several nods.
The Circle of Eight sat in the Tree of Knowledge, the oldest oak in the Wolf clan’s winter lands. It stood away from their family shelters, giving them the privacy needed to make decisions about the clan’s daily existence. Its mud walls weren’t maintained as well as the family tree-dwells and an icy breeze cut through thick cracks, making everyone shiver. The Eight huddled close, a single oil pot lighting their faces, old faces mostly, all of them wearing grim expressions.
Flynth, grandmother of thirty healthy grandchildren, had glistening round cheeks, wet with tears that refused to stop no matter how many times she shook her head. Neria had been a friend to all of them. They met now to decide the fate of the babe who had suckled as her mother’s lifeforce passed away. The storm had been distant then. Now it sent its deadly fingers closer. The rumbling of thunder roiled without pause.
Izhur shook his head as he pulled his wolf cloak around him. “This child, she has an extraordinary light.” His voice wavered. He wanted to explain more, but a peal of thunder prevented him.
“What kind of Soragan are you, Izhur? Even I can see the omens. She is cursed, I tell you.” Ugot spat again. His dark eyes scanned the others, searching for agreement. There was more nodding. Ugot was one of the oldest, and despite his renowned lack of wisdom, this gave him some authority.
“Ugot speaks the truth, Izhur. I am sorry to say it.” Amak shrugged. “How else can we explain the drought, the fires? Even Neria’s death? She was a healthy young woman. Her body should have withstood the birth. And what about her father?”
“Osun was careless.” With even Amak against him, Izhur felt completely alone. “Everyone knows not to hunt lions.”
“Still, he died not long after her conception.” The medicine woman shrugged again, as though apologising.
Izhur massaged his eyes, his body exhausted. The birth had required much energy. Such focus in the plane of the Otherworld was always taxing. He needed rest. Thinking straight was difficult. Yet he could not deny the omens.
Osun’s death was unnatural. On their return from Agria, they’d found their summer lands, usually so abundant with life, burned and barren. The whole forest had suffered drought and fire, and now this – the first night of Ilun. The babe born and Neria dead. Ill-omened indeed. Yet he’d seen her in the Otherworld. He could not forget that light.
Ugot stared at Izhur with a look of smug satisfaction. His protruding brow and narrow eyes made him appear rather stupid.
Izhur ignored him and forced himself to speak. “I have seen her light. I tell you it is strong. She has – power.”
“Then she would make a generous sacrifice, perhaps prevent any further tragedy this Ilun.” It was Zodor who spoke, his voice quiet but strong. At twenty-five summers, Zodor was young to be such a respected leader in the Eight, but somehow he was the dominant voice. A fine hunter and father of two healthy sons, he was the unspoken leader. Everyone listened when he talked.
Izhur rubbed his temple, not quite believing what Zodor suggested. It had been generations since there’d been a human sacrifice in the Wolf clan. His shoulders slumped with the weight of responsibility. Again he wished for his old master. Jakom had been the clan’s Soragan for more summers than most could count. He used to be the dominant voice in this circle – as a Soragan’s should. His wisdom had kept the clan from danger many times. But Jakom had passed into the Otherworld last winter, and now Zodor seemed to lead the circle and Izhur was the new, untested Soragan.
The Wolf clan was not the clan Izhur had been born into. He’d joined them nine summers ago when Jakom selected him as his novice. He had always struggled to belong. The Wolf didn’t have the same friendly outlook as the people of the Bear, and Zodor had always been cold. But Izhur must ignore all that now; he was the Soragan.
“Zodor.” Izhur measured his voice and looked down at Zodor’s feet, not daring to reveal the frustration that would be clear in his eyes. “The Wolf hasn’t made a sacrifice for generations. Not since Jakom was a young prentice himself.” He eyed the seven men and women around him. “Many of you were not even born then.”
“Then it is well overdue.” Zodor’s voice remained low and determined. “Even a hunter such as I can read the omens, Soragan.”
Izhur rubbed his temple again, trying to order the many thoughts that jostled for attention in his mind. What would Jakom do? How could he perform such a sacrifice of an innocent? And what of her light?
“She could help us. She could become the most powerful Soragan our clan has known.” Izhur pressed on. “Perhaps we could sacrifice an animal – a wolf – like we do in the spring.”
Ugot spat for a third time.
Zodor’s eyes burned. “You have foretold of another to be our next Soragan.”
Izhur grimaced. Zodor’s youngest son, Yuli, had a strong light and was born at an auspicious time – during Agria, the festival of Light. It made sense for him to become Izhur’s novice in the future. The gift-born seemed to be rare these days. “Your son bears power, there’s no doubt of that, Zodor. But this little girl, she—”
“Must I remind you she was born on Ilunnight?” Zodor’s face was motionless. “How is it you, our Soragan, can ignore that? If she has power, as you suggest, then we would be wise to use her as a sacrifice. The Malfir will be appeased by such a gift. Do I really need to explain this to a Soragan?”
The man reminded Izhur of rock. Strong, silent, still. He would not be moved, and if he couldn’t change Zodor’s mind there was no influencing the others. Izhur agreed with them, he was no Soragan. Soragans were respected; listened to. Leaders in all clans but the Wolf. Izhur was too young. He was no Jakom.
“If any of you object, speak.” Zodor looked to each elder in turn.
“She must be sacrificed,” Ugot said.
“I agree.” Jarel put a hand through his grey hair.
Flynth shook her head and more tears fell from her rosy cheeks.
Tod simply shrugged and looked to the entrance of the tree-dwell. Izhur couldn’t help but scowl. Tod wouldn’t shut up when they discussed seasonal migrations, but he always dismissed the tough decisions.
“This is a grave decision.” Lral’s dark eyes looked at Izhur, and he straightened his shoulders a little. This elder he respected above all others in the Eight, indeed the clan, even more than Amak, for Lral was the oldest and wisest. “And you are right to defend her, Izhur.”
Izhur’s breath shuddered.
“But I am old enough to remember the last human sacrifice.” Her eyes glistened as she spoke. “It brought us safety for many summers and winters. We of the Wolf have not known tragedy for a long time.” Her old eyes looked down to the oil pot and a single tear landed on the muddy floor of the tree-dwell. “It is time for us to appease the Malfir once more.”
Izhur slouched. He had lost.
Zodor stood. “It has been decided. We will sacrifice her tonight. We call on our Soragan to do the task.” He nodded at Izhur.
Zodor left, and one by one the others followed. Lightning ripped through the sky as Izhur watched the circle members make their way to their own tree-dwells. Only Amak remained. She put her warm hand on his. “It is best for the clan, Izhur. We need to feel safe. This is your burden, for you are our Soragan now.” She squeezed his hand before rising and following the others out of the shelter.
Izhur trod carefully. There was no moon or nightsun to offer him light, and the faint gleam of starlight had been taken when storm clouds blanketed the sky with their dark ink. Lightning streaked through the black curtain of night and, for an instant, Izhur could see his course. The rocky path remained in front of him. He was not yet lost.
The baby in his arms began to cry.
“Shush now,” he whispered. But the crack and roll of thunder drowned the voice of man and babe. With each flash, he increased his pace. He had to get this over with. He had to prove his worth.
A powerful wind rushed from behind, pushing like a giant hand. Izhur’s long hair whipped his face and he shivered. A fat drop of rain slammed onto his cheek, quickly followed by another on his moccasin. The dark clouds above released their cargo all at once and the rain drilled down, icy and hard.
Izhur’s foot slipped on the rocky path that led to the altar. He slowed and held the baby close – her warmth, a strange comfort on his chest. She stopped her mewling and nestled in to the beads that hung around Izhur’s neck – the two threads, one of wood, one of azurite – that marked him as a young Soragan.
Izhur patted her back beneath his thick tunic as he walked. But he shouldn’t have. He should have remained cold, distant. How else could he prepare to do the task assigned him? This was to be his first sacrifice. The first night of Ilun was presenting him with all manner of challenges he’d never before faced. Even in his time as novice to Jokam, he’d not attended a human sacrifice.
As he walked, he thought on the meeting with the Eight and grimaced. Zodor and his bespurned influence. The man was a skilled hunter, no one could doubt that, but he knew nothing about the Benevolent Ones. He knew nothing of the Otherworld, and he knew even less about the Malfir. This sacrifice was wrong. Even a Soragan prentice could see that. Still, Izhur would have his own small influence. The corners of his mouth twitched.
He’d made a decision, back in his tree-dwell while he hastily prepared. He would not sacrifice this innocent to the Malfir. It would offer the demons too much, and he couldn’t bear the thought of them tearing apart her spirit, consuming all the power of her light, only to make them stronger. No, he would give her back to the Otherworld – to Ona.
Jokam had taught him the ritual, of course, and Izhur had prepared the implements. But now it was raining. How was he supposed to keep the oil pot alight?
Never mind that. Just get to the altar.
Again he quickened his step, and again the lightning blazed. Closer. A clap of thunder roared and seemed to shift the rock beneath his feet. The wind whipped hair into his eyes and his foot hit a large glossy protuberance. Izhur fell, twisted, and landed on his back, cushioning the babe’s fall.
“Great Mother,” he whispered. Lightning flashed and he glimpsed the rain like fine darts pelting toward him from a black void. He lay on his back a little longer and the baby nestled once more. Her warmth halted his shivering. He had to get up, keep moving.
He stood and adjusted his satchel. The babe moaned. With soft words, he soothed her and returned to the rocky path, limping.
The altar stood in the centre of a large chasm. Made of hard rock, it had been carved out of the granite many winters past by long dead ancestors. A flash of lightning revealed its stature and the gruesome faces carved into its side – two headed beasts with the maws of lions, the eyes of snakes and the ears of bats – silent guardians. Iridescent lines etched into its surface shone blue with each flash of light. The winter altar was a dark, grim place, so different to the altars in their spring and summer lands. It was, after all, a place where they normally sacrificed to the Malfir. An animal every winter was given over. Usually small animals were sacrificed, sometimes a larger beast like a deer or wolf – especially during Ilun. Izhur had never seen a child bled. It happened. He knew it. But to see it – to do it…
He sucked his cheeks and stepped forward, hoping he could send her to the Benevolent Ones rather than to the clutches of the Malfir. Usually, such a sacrifice required the presence of the clan, to offer their support and energy to the Soragan. But the Eight had charged him with sacrificing the child to the Malfir, and this was a task performed by the Soragan alone, lest evil spirits contaminate clan members. The Eight would remain ignorant to Izhur’s plan. As long as they knew she was dead, they’d have no knowledge of which realm she’d been given to. Izhur swallowed. He would have to draw on the energy of nature itself. Difficult, but possible.
Wind circled the chasm in frenzied chaos, sending rain sideways. It stung Izhur’s bare cheeks and he wished for the warmth of his rabbit-skin hood. He stepped carefully lest he fall again.
The altar seemed too large for the baby. Its slick surface gleamed briefly with each flash of light. Izhur laid Neria and Osun’s daughter on the centre and tightened the swaddling clothes, a vain attempt to keep her dry, warm. He fumbled with the satchel, removing the necessary items: an oak root, a vial of sacred water, the oil pot, and a knife made from bronze magic. Its orange sheen glinted with each lightning strike. Before, in his tree-dwell, Izhur had sharpened and polished it.
He bent to sink his fingers into the rocky soil and clench a palmful of mud which he put on the altar at the baby’s feet. He placed the oil pot near her head, the oak root to her right and the vial of water on her left.
The rain teemed. Small puddles pooled on the surface of the altar. Izhur’s wolf-fur cloak hung heavily on his narrow shoulders, saturated. It tugged with each gust of wind, and he gripped the altar to keep balance. He clenched his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering. Lighting the oil pot would be impossible. Even if he succeeded, the rain would drench the flame in an instant.
A thick branch of lightning sparked the rock somewhere up above, and the thunder echoed round the chasm. The baby screamed. Angry sparks of light blinked into a dark infinity revealing purple, blue and charcoal mountains of cloud. The sky roiled.
A dark creature, bird or bat, flapped its wings and flew up amongst the clouds and lightning. Its caw echoed around the chasm. Izhur frowned hoping it wasn’t another omen.
The lightning would have to do as a replacement for the flame, but he kept the oil pot in its position. Next, he took the knife, his hand shaking. He tested the blade and sucked in a breath when he pricked his skin. A single red steak ran down his hand, mingling with the rain.
The baby screamed, still. Her swaddles had loosened and one little arm waved at him. Izhur closed his eyes and started the chant. “Ona, Goda, Imbrit, Atoll, Mittha, Utun, Tonat, Shephet.” Repeating the names of the Benevolent Ones, beckoning them to hear him and accept his sacrifice.
It happened quickly this time. His surprise nearly sent him straight back, but Izhur steadied his mind as he looked through the plane of the Otherworld. All around him the pale silver streaks of rain fell in odd directions. When he looked to the altar, the golden brightness of the infant burned – her blinding light.
He couldn’t help but marvel at its strength. At its centre, a red core gave way to gold circular rays pulsing outward toward him. So much power. What were they giving up?
He steadied himself. He had to do this. He had to show them he was a Soragan – their Soragan.
Izhur forced his hand forward. It clutched the knife, a black shadow moving shakily with the tremor of his hand. His lips mouthed the chant “… earth, water, fire …” and his voice carried, filling the chasm. He drew from the power of nature, gaining energy from the trees, the rain, even the rock, until his voice boomed, matching that of the thunderous storm. A deep thrill ran through him. He’d never felt so much power. It would have been all too easy to give in to the rush, to pass over fully, but he focused and calmed.
“Take this child into your bosom.” His words echoed. His arm lifted and braced just above the babe’s heart. “She is our gift to you.”
The world paused, like something had been registered, and then it started again.
Izhur’s arm shot downward.
One blue streak darted through the Otherworld and struck Izhur’s hand. The knife flew. Izhur was thrown back and smacked the side of the chasm. The crack of thunder deafened and his mind snapped back from the Otherworld.
He opened his eyes, and the pain forced them shut for a heart beat. He looked to his hand. No mark, no burn, but the lightning had snatched the knife.
What about the babe? She was silent. Had he struck her?
Gradually, he stood. The rain drilled harder. A streak of fire ran down his spine, but he sucked his breath and took a small shuffling step toward the altar.
Lightning came and went and he saw the small bundle on the altar where he had left it. He shuffled closer, one foot in front of the other until he stood above her. Her little hand still waved at him, and for the first time that night, Izhur smiled.
He scooped her up and laughed and let his tears mix with rain.
“It’s a sign, little one. A sign!”
He didn’t bother with the oil pot or the vial of sacred water. He left his satchel exactly where it sat on the ground. He braced the child to his chest and ran, ignoring the screaming pain in his back. His feet slid on the rocks, but the lightning lit his way. He was the Soragan. They had to listen to him. They must listen, for Ona had surely spoken this night.
The tree-dwells stood as he had left them, though the rain now made them glisten with each lightning strike and the large boughs swayed in the wind. The hearth fires burned low, but were still visible through the small cutouts of the shelters. He went to the one at the center, the most privileged – Zordor’s tree-dwell, set high in an elm.
Izhur stood at the foot of the tree and filling his lungs, yelled into the pelting rain. “She is no sacrifice! She is no sacrifice!”
His voice screamed in the night. The clan came out of their shelters. Some stood at the entrance to their tree-dwells; others descended slowly and lingered on the ground with a square of hide held above their heads.
“She is not to be sacrificed.” Izhur pumped a fist in the air, his voice rasping.
“What is the meaning of this, you fool?” It was Zodor. The great hunter didn’t bother with a cloak to protect him from the icy rain. He marched toward Izhur and stood over him in nothing but a short tunic. Zodor’s unbound hair whipped around him and his muscles, like carved flint, gleamed in the flashes of lightning that still flicked through the night.
Izhur’s eyes filled with fire as he stared up at Zodor. “I tell you, she is not a sacrifice, she is a gift from Ona herself.”
“Madness.” Zodor’s voice boomed. His eyes burned with anger. “The Eight decided.”
“The Eight was wrong. I am the Soragan—”
“You are mad.”
“I’ve seen her light.”
“You’ve seen her evil.”
A pause stalled them. They stood opposite each other, breathing hard.
“Give her to me.” Zodor held out his hands.
“Give her to me.” The hunter grasped for her, but Izhur stepped back. Zodor lifted a fist and struck.
But Izhur struck too and a blue light sparked within his hand. It shot out like a spear of fire and hit Zodor full on the chest. The big hunter was picked up and thrown back.
Clan members gasped and two of the men ran over to kneel by Zodor who now lay limp on the wet ground. One by one, the small crowd turned to look at their Soragan.
Izhur took the moment. His vision swirled as though he trod the fine edge between this world and the Other. “I am Soragan here. I say again – I have seen her light. She is no sacrifice.” His voice echoed through the night, and boomed louder than any thunder.
And the clan bowed their heads.