She took her name from the winter, but she held no special love for it. Ice sat bundled in her bear-fur coat, glaring at the shallow river running and bubbling over the frozen rocks. By the starlight, they looked like they were made of black glass. There was silver in there, she knew it, and she itched to get her hands on her panning tools. She wanted to wade into the water and steal its treasures from it, but it was too cold. As obsessed as she could sometimes be, she still had some sense in her hairless head.
Huffing her frustration out in a plume of white fog, she got to her feet and headed back to the Holt proper. She was running dangerously low on metals to work with, and there was no way to find more until the snow melted and the rivers warmed up. Perhaps some time warming herself in Burr’s den wouldn’t go amiss. She pulled her hood down around her head and her boots crunched through the crust of frozen snow, making more noise than she was used to. Another huff, another plume of white fog, another irritation.
A warm fire crackled at the base of the Dentrees, and elves and wolves clustered around it for warmth and for company. Laughter and talk wafted up with the smoke and the promise of a hot bowl of Rootwise’s tea drew her in. As always, the herbalist was brewing something on the fire, and she accepted a bowl of it with cold fingers and genuine gratitude. She sat on a log next to Lynx and Huntwise, whose heads were bent together, talking in low tones about the current migration of the clickdeer. Young Ash hovered nearby, listening and waiting for his chance to speak up with a good suggestion or an impressive insight.
Ice closed her eyes and felt the warmth of the tea seep through the clay bowl and into her chilled fingers. She listened to the talk and the laughter around her, and wondered how long it would be before Piper or Melody added music into the mix. The night beyond the dentrees was quiet and still, the sky clear but for the smudge of grey smoke from their hearth fire. Ice took a deep breath and let her irritation and tension flow out of her limbs and up, climbing away with the smoke to disappear into the night sky. She still had gold to work with. She’d never been happy with the amulet she’d made last year—she could always rework it into something new. Plans and experiments busied themselves in her head as she sat and drank her tea and enjoyed the company of her tribesmates, even if she didn’t participate too much in their chatter.
Burr came and sat beside her once Huntwise had moved away to discuss some pressing matter with Wolfmane. She leaned against Ice and was content. Words were rarely needed between the two.
“You’re already working on something,” Burr eventually said. “I can tell. Your body may be here, but your mind is already in your work-den, isn’t it?”
“Hmm—?” Ice’s large grey eyes flicked to Burr momentarily. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
Burr, not fooled by Ice’s dry wit, narrowed her eyes but couldn’t help but smile. “Never mind,” she said.
The brothers Hawkcall and Snaptwig came back to the Holt on their wolves with a nice-sized boar slung between them on a thick branch, and they were greeted home with enthusiasm and a quick sending to those nearby but not present: fresh meat was available! Everyone gathered near the fire, and Hawkcall and Snaptwig gladly carved up the boar’s carcass and handed out portions to all who wanted some. Ice hadn’t realized how hungry she was until the scent of the boar’s blood hit her nostrils and her stomach gurgled in response. “Are you hungry?” she asked Burr.
Burr nodded and the two of them joined the crowd around the night’s hunters. Aware of how many mouths there were, Ice didn’t want much, just enough to sate her. Even if there’d been a whole branch-horn, she wasn’t in the mood for a distended belly and a digestive stupor. All she wanted at the moment was to not be hungry.
When Hawkcall held out a modest strip of meat to her, however, their eyes locked, and Ice’s world collapsed in on itself until it contained nothing but her, Hawkcall, and a tiny echo in her soul she could scarcely hear, but desperately wanted to.
They stood staring at each other for several heartbeats, each absorbing and processing what was happening to them. Neither of them noticed the hush that fell over the tribe, and the knowing smiles and elbowing back and forth. It was Ice, however, that broke the silence and the spell.
If there was one thing Ice had learned from this whole ordeal, it was that she did not enjoy being pregnant. She was tired all the time and ate like a stinkbear, not caring what she put in her mouth, just that it was plentiful. She even found herself wanting to eat fish. She never liked fish. But this cub inside her tapped her strength and wanted her to eat fish, so eat it she did. She almost felt as though she were being held captive by her own belly, and she still had a year of this to go, and more inconvenience besides. She’d grow heavy in a couple seasons’ time, and waddle about the Holt and complain of a sore back and have trouble getting up and down the trees and in and out of her den and her furs. She’d seen pregnancy many times before, and she wasn’t looking forward to any of it.
Thankfully, Hawkcall hadn’t been one of those moon-eyed romantics who thought that siring a cub on her meant they were to be lifemated. She was grateful for that, and more grateful still that he wanted the cub so badly. He’d waited a long time to be a father, and was already hunting for the softest of pelts and carving toys from the bones of his kills. He was inexpert at it, but she was glad he was so enthusiastic.
It wasn’t as though she didn’t love the tiny little thing that was growing inside of her, in her own way. She’d known that eventually this would happen to her, and part of her looked forward to getting to know the adult it would grow to be. She envied Hawkcall and the other males, however. All they had to do was have a bit of fun and then sit back and wait. Her breasts hurt and she was having trouble sleeping. The furs were all either too scratchy or too warm or not soft enough. Hawkcall was having none of this trouble.
It was one of those bitterly cold and clear nights, where the stars were so bright and so many that they hurt her eyes to look at them for too long. She walked down to her work-den, a hollow a little ways away from the dentrees where she could hammer and work and sweat. She was tired all the time now, but that didn’t stop her. Her mind and heart were still in her work and she would not leave it, even if it left her arms aching and her stomach more ravenous than ever. Even if it made her want to eat fish.
Her den was just as she’d left it. The amulet was lying on her strike-stone, still unfinished. She was having trouble with this one. It just didn’t seem to want to become what her mind’s eye saw it could be. She lit the tallow lamps and shrugged off her coat, hanging it over the doorway to provide extra protection from the cold outside. She picked up her hammer and looked at the stubborn lump of metal, turning it over and over in her hand.
Hopefully, this pregnancy would turn out to be just like making this amulet. Both were a lot of work. Both tired her and wore out her limbs and made her bones ache. She poured effort and sweat and love into both projects. And hopefully, her amulet would be beautiful and worth all the work and pain. And hopefully, her cub would be healthy and happy and worth all the work and pain, too. She judged the spot where she wanted the hammer to strike and drew the tool back, over her head. Both the amulet and the cub were wanted. Both the amulet and the cub needed a lot of work. And both the amulet and the cub were labors of love, in their own ways.
Ice had not expected his death to hurt quite so much. She felt the loss of every tribesmate, of course she did, but when Huntwise, Oakhand, Easysinger and Vine pulled the litter with Hawkcall’s dead body back to the Holt, she surprised herself with the depth of her grief and the pain of her soul’s call answered with nothing but silence.
It was not fair. The cub was so close. If only he’d been able to live long enough to see the face of his own child. She found herself angry beyond measure at the hunters, at the mighty, cunning hunters who thought they wouldn’t need a Preserver with them, who let one of their own get gored by spooked prey, who let a new father fall without seeing his only cub be born. She raged at them, at her own chieftess, who let Ice spend her fury on her with the penitence of the guilty.
Ice retreated to her den and suffered body-wracking sobs that almost made her fear for her cub. She cried until she felt drained of everything, and then found that she had more to cry out. It was not her own grief she suffered—she did not cry for her own loss. She cried for her cub’s loss, that he—she knew it would be a male, she didn’t know how, and it unsettled her that she was so sure of it—he would never know the father who loved him so deeply, who looked forward to his arrival so keenly, and who would have loved him more than anything in this world.
She lay in her furs, exhausted from the force of her grief. She ran a hand over her swollen belly, a gesture she was unused to making. “I’m sorry, little one,” she whispered. “I’m sorry that you’re stuck with me.” She knew that although she loved her cub, she would not love him in the same intense, selfless way Hawkcall would have. The cub would not want for love, not in the tribe. But he would want for his father.
She felt like a whale at the Parting. Hawkcall’s body lay cold and still on the raft, and all she could think about was finding somewhere to sit down. She felt guilty for that, but her feet and back were relentless. He’d hardly been shoved out into the river before she turned and made her way back to the Holt. Partway there she veered away and instead went to her work-den. Once inside, she sat in the seat that had been shaped into the wall and caught her breath. She looked at the amulet, still unfinished even after all this time. She picked it up and turned it over and over in her hands, her anger at it and her frustration with her pregnancy mingling until she couldn’t tell one from the other. She stoked her forge. It was time for a change of plans.
Her pregnancy was nothing like the amulet after all. The amulet was of her own design, which wasn’t working. The pregnancy had been thrust upon her, and by all of Owl’s accounts, it was working just the way it was supposed to. She was going to bring this nonsense with the amulet to a close: melt it down, make something entirely new. Maybe a few things. She didn’t even know what yet, but she knew she had to make the amulet go away. She didn’t like failure, and that’s all she seemed to be doing.
She spent all night at it, pushing herself past exhaustion and out the other side to clarity and vision. She hammered and sculpted until she wound up with three pairs of earrings. One she decided to keep for herself. Another she would give to Burr. And the third, perhaps to Easysinger. An apology of sorts, for having lost her temper. Accidents were accidents, after all.
The earrings were heavy in her hands, and her fatherless cub was heavy within her, too: both labors of love.