By Blood We Live Page 20

One moon later, the lovers were married. Imut was too young to take up the throne, so Liku ruled as queen until he should come of age. Lehek-shi was her consort.

But in the Lower realm, the soul of Edu would not cease its lamentations.

When Lehek-shi told Liku of the price of the bargain, she was not very afraid. She knew her monthly bleed well enough, and when the chances of conceiving were slim. She and Lehek-shi waited. And when they did come together the first time after Edu’s death, Lehek-shi made an offering in the fire to Nendai, the god of prudence, and wore on his manhood the dried skin of pig-gut to prevent any seed from entering Liku’s womb.

But a splinter from the wood he’d cut for the burning lodged under Lehek-shi’s thumbnail, and tore a small hole in the minnan—and though the lovers willed it not, Liku was made with child.

In the Lower realm, the demon god Amaz felt the new life stir.

When Liku realised what had happened, she was afraid. By the third moon without her bleed she could feel love wrapped around the child inside her. Lehek-shi knew he would never get her to relinquish their baby of her own free will. Nor, as her belly grew bigger and she put his hands on her to feel the first kicks of life, could he bear the thought of sending his son or daughter down to the kingdom of Amaz. The lovers had murdered together and bargained with a demon god—and the passion and understanding between them was stronger than ever.

The Maru numbered little over two thousand, and among that number were some dozen women at the same stage of their carrying as Liku. But all the women gave birth before the queen, despite the drugs and songs of the wise women, and between Liku’s baby—a boy, whom they named Tahek—and the latest born to the tribe was almost one whole moon.

Nonetheless, the substitution was made, the mother bribed (Lehek-shi would deal with her if she made trouble) and the replacement child—rubbed in the blood and birth fluids of Liku for disguise—beheaded in Tahek’s place.

The Izul came up and sucked out the soul from the tiny mouth between the buttocks and carried it down to Amaz.

Three years passed. Liku and Lehek-shi believed their trick had worked. Their son Tahek grew strong and healthy. The Maru moved north, but the cold weather stayed close behind them.

One day a great snowstorm caught them. The winds blew and a noon darkness fell. Liku and Lehek-shi became separated from the tribe. In the gloom, they heard the howling of wolves.

They seemed to be in nothingness. There were no trees, no rocks. The division of land and sky had vanished. The snow drove hard and plied deep. The wind was cruel. Liku’s fur tore from her and went up into the sky. They tried to catch it—but it was gone. Lehek-shi made her wear his.

For hours they could not count, for a time that might have been days they struggled through the storm, with no knowledge of where they were going, only with the hope of finding shelter. Lehek-shi grew very weak from the cold. At last, exhausted, he fell.

When Liku knelt to try to warm him, she gave a cry. There, not twenty paces away, was the edge of a forest.

With what little strength that remained to her she dragged Lehek-shi into the shelter of the trees. The wind died, suddenly. For a few moments the lovers lay together, unable to move. Darkness came over them.

“Come with me,” a voice said. “If you do not get warmth and food, you will both die.”

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Liku opened her eyes.

Standing over her was a dark-eyed man, great in height, wrapped in the skin of a wolf. He bore a bloody spear and around his neck a long loop of animal teeth. A red birth mark stained half his face.

“Come,” he repeated. “I will carry him. Be swift. He has not much time.”

Not knowing if she was awake or dreaming, Liku followed the man, who bore Lehek-shi over his shoulder as though his weight were no more than a child’s. She was near death herself, from hunger and cold.

“Here,” the man said. “I have food and warmth for you both.”

Under two mighty trees lay the body of a giant wolf, slain. The beast was bigger than three men. It had been slit from its throat to its loins and its innards cleanly removed.

“I have not means to make the fire,” the man said, “but if you are willing to pay my small price you can eat of the animal’s meat and shelter in his skin, and in the morning the storm will have passed, and your people will find you. They are coming this way, but will not get here before the sun rises.”

Liku, frozen and starving and weak, reached for the animal’s hide—but the stranger stopped her.

“You have not agreed, freely, to pay my small price,” he said.

“What is your price?” Liku asked. “I am a leader of my people. I can give you all that I have!”

The stranger shook his head. “I ask very little,” he said. “A drop of blood from each of you, and the animal’s warmth and meat is yours. Give me this courtesy offering freely, and you will live to see the sunrise.”

At that moment the clouds tore a little, and the full moon sailed free on a field of black.

Liku’s heart misgave her, but she knew that without food and shelter the stranger’s words would be proved true before morning. “Very well,” she gasped. “A drop from each of us. But hurry! I feel death near me!”

The stranger took one of the teeth from around his neck and gave it to Liku. “Do it freely,” he repeated. “Because your life and the life of your beloved is precious to you.”

Liku took the tooth and saw that it was sharp. Quickly, too cold to feel the pain, she made a tiny cut on her thumb and did the same for Lehek-shi.

“Very well,” the stranger said, and lifting open the belly of the wolf, he cut several pieces of the animal’s flesh. Liku, driven by her need, ate, and fed Lehek-shi, though Lehek-shi could barely open his eyes, and seemed still to be wandering in death’s country. The meat tasted sweet and tender, and Liku was surprised.

“Now hurry,” the stranger said. “Into the beast. There is a second storm coming from which the trees will not be shelter enough.”

Liku dragged herself and Lehek-shi into the warmth of the wolf’s body while the stranger watched. Again Liku was surprised that there was no smell of death in the animal, only the feeling of warmth and succour. The stranger watched, and, when the lovers were settled, he smiled and spoke:

“I bring you greetings from Amaz, god of the Lower Realm,” he said. “The meat you have eaten was human flesh, and your blood is mingled with the blood of the beast. Now every time the moon is full, the wolf will take shelter in you, and your craving for that same human flesh will be more than you can bear. Those who survive your bite will carry the same curse. You do not cheat my master and go unrepaid. Farewell!”

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