Something moved. Tuuli lay absolutely still. A thick layer of snow had built up over her while she slept, and she didn’t want to disturb it and let on that she was awake. Things walked the ice wastes that could spot motions under snow even in the dark of winter.
Straining her ears she waited and listened, but all she heard was the howling of the wind, faint through the snow that covered her. She sensed no presence nearby, and she felt no vibrations in the ice.
Still, something had moved – and it hadn’t been her.
There it was again. Something brushed against the fur on her chest. Something small. It squirmed, and pushed against her, and then she remembered.
Her cub. Her newborn cub. She’d gone to sleep in the snow, cradling it in her arms to shield it from the cold. It still lived, its little body warm under her hand now that she knew what to feel for.
Alive, but hungry.
Tuuli lay still for a moment longer, making sure she sensed no movement nearby. Nothing. She was completely alone. They. She and her cub – they were completely alone.
She wouldn’t be completely alone again for a long time.
Groaning to herself, Tuuli shrugged and shook her head, causing the layer of snow covering her to slide. Pressing the little one to her chest with one hand she pushed herself up into sitting position and looked around.
The wind still blew, but the snow had stopped falling. Faint moonlight pushed through the clouds and down to the icy plains – the snow a dark grayness that faded away into the night.
Tuuli lifted her nose and sniffed, but smelled no threat on the air.
The cub squirmed again, vibrating ever so slightly under her hand. Shivering. The little thing was cold.
She put it to her breast to feed and wrapped her arms around it, covering it with her own thick fur as best she could. So tiny. So vulnerable. Completely naked. She wouldn’t be alone for a long, long time.
And it would be long before she could hunt again. She wouldn’t be able to kill anything like this. You needed your hands and your mind clear. Right now, she couldn’t even set her little burden down or it would freeze to death.
Tuuli looked down at her cub where it suckled at her. In the darkness she didn’t see much, but she looked anyway. It was there, it was hers, and she had to look.
It. He. The cub. It was too little to be someone. Too weak. When it got bigger she’d give it a name. Then he’d be someone. When he could walk and swim on his own. When he could kill his own prey.
Then she’d give him a name and pass him on to his father, just like her mother had passed her on to hers. Then she’d be free again.
Tuuli closed her eyes and remembered.
The creature had been small and white. Everyone and everything was white here. Only blood was red, and blood dripped in the snow and covered her hands. The sun had shone that day and the snow had been so white and the blood the reddest it had ever been.
She understood now. Her mother’s eyes had changed. She’d looked at Tuuli, and she’d seen the dead creature and its blood in the snow and on her daughter’s fur, and her eyes had changed.
The wariness had faded and given way to something else – something good.
They’d shared the kill then and there. Tuuli had torn and tugged, and eventually she’d gotten the creature’s little heart out and offered it to her mother. Before, it had always been the other way around. Mother always gave the heart to her, but not that day.
That was the first time she’d seen her mother smile, and the last. The people didn’t smile.
Tuuli opened her eyes to the night and squinted down at the cub in her arms, only just barely making out its shape in the darkness. It had stopped eating and gone to sleep, still with its little muzzle pressed against her. It didn’t even have teeth yet.
She sat for a moment longer and then got to her feet and started walking. One day she too would like to smile.