ICE BURIAL: The Oldest Human Murder Mystery (The Mother People Series Book 3), page 1
THE MOTHER PEOPLE SERIES
JOAN DAHR LAMBERT ©
Copyright Joan Dahr Lambert 2012
Joan Dahr Lambert is also the author of
CIRCLES OF STONE
(Simon Schuster 1997,1999),
Book One in the Mother People Series
CIRCLES IN THE SKY
Book Two in the Mother People Series
WALKING INTO MURDER
Book One in the Laura Morland Mystery Series
WADING INTO MURDER
Book Two in the Laura Morland Mystery Series
SKIING INTO MURDER
Book Three in the Laura Morland Mystery Series
SEA HORSE MEMOIRS
THE OLDEST HUMAN MURDER MYSTERY
Oetzi the Ice Man died more than five thousand years ago in a shallow ravine high in the Alps. Snow and ice covered him, shielding him from view. As the years passed, glaciers closed around his half-naked body, preserving it almost perfectly. He was not seen again until 1991, when hikers noticed a human head and shoulder protruding from the ice. The spectacular find galvanized the public as well as the scientific world. Newspapers and magazines highlighted the story and the questions it raised. Who was Oetzi, and why had he climbed so high into the peaks in a snowstorm that would have kept any experienced mountain man, which he clearly was, from venturing into the heights? Still more puzzling: why, once there, had he removed most of his clothing?
Articles in scholarly journals and the popular press soon provided a wealth of details about Oetzi: we learned his approximate height and age, the state of his health, what he ate before he died and a great deal about how he lived. Not until another autopsy was conducted in 2001, however, did we learn the true cause of his death. Oetzi had not died of exposure as had always been assumed. Instead, he was brutally murdered.
Now comes a novel to tell us why.
The man staggered up the steep slope, clutching his injured hand. Wind battered him, and freezing particles of snow and ice hammered at his eyes. He dared not turn his head to see if the attackers were following. He was too dizzy, too weak, for that. There was strength only for flight. Still, the unexpected storm might save him. The men behind him were not fools, and only fools would head for the summit now. He plunged on.
The wind grew stronger as he approached the top of the peak. He could hear it moaning around him, and the snow was thicker, heavier. The piling drifts dragged at his feet, tried to trap them. He floundered, unable for a moment to haul them out. A sound pulled him forward. She was there, in front of him. He must get to her or he would lose her in the blinding whiteness. Perhaps, though, she was not there. He could not think clearly enough to be sure. His wounds and the blow to his head had confused him.
She did not know the arrow had hit him; he remembered that. He must not tell her lest she try to give him her strength and thus lose her own.
A blast of wind knocked him to his knees as he reached the summit. He crawled ahead, certain now that he heard her voice. He followed it, felt his body tumble into a hollow. Abruptly the wind lessened and snow built up around him, protecting him. He must be in a ravine, he thought distractedly. How had he got there? And then she was with him. He felt her come into his arms and wanted to weep with the joy of it. They were all right now. The men would not find them here, deep in the hollow. They could stay here and be safe.
He lay still, content just to breathe and feel her breath on his cheek. And in that moment of relaxation, understanding came. His eyes opened wide with shock. He knew now who had tried to kill him and why. He had seen what he should not have seen, heard what he should not have heard.
Another shock followed: she was still in danger. The man who had attacked him wanted to kill her, too. That was why he had made the villagers come with him into the storm, to help him drive them up the mountain so the cruel unrelenting cold and wind would kill them if the arrows had not. There was no safety here; they would be frozen, buried beneath the drifts and no one would ever know the truth.
Desperation seized him. She did not know the truth either. It was not the ones they feared who killed, as they had thought; what he had seen and heard made that horribly clear. Danger still stalked all of them. He tried to form words to tell her of this new peril, but his lips would not move. He licked them, managed he thought to say her name. Other words tried to force their way out, words of warning, of love, but he could not tell if they reached her, for she did not answer. Perhaps she could not hear through the wind, or perhaps he had not spoken after all.
Slowly, the words faded until he could no longer remember them or why he had to say them. A realization, pure and clear, pushed into their place: he would not live through the night, but she must. The thought pounded at him, would not let him rest. Over and over he heard it. He must not let her die, must not let her die. Nothing else mattered now, only that she must not die.
The sky darkened abruptly and a tearing wind sprang up, blowing debris into Zena’s eyes. She looked up, startled. A moment before, the sky had been brilliant blue; now it was almost black as masses of dark clouds rushed into the high peaks. Down and down they came, gathering around her until she could hardly see.
A clap of thunder made her jump. She would have to find shelter. To walk on these exposed ridges during a thunderstorm was dangerous.
Freezing particles of hail suddenly catapulted into her eyes, almost blinding her. Zena put her hands over her face and stumbled on. There was an old hut near here, she remembered, one of the many shepherd’s huts that dotted the mountains. It was not in good repair, but it would provide some shelter from the storm.
Squinting to see through the rain-lashed air, she inched ahead until she spotted the small building nestled against the hill. She ducked to go through the low entrance but was startled into immobility by a groan. It was not the groan of an animal, but of a person. Zena took a cautious step forward.
The groan came again, and she saw someone huddled on the floor in the far corner. “Who is there?” she called softly, not wanting to frighten the person.
She heard a gasp, and a young woman raised her head. She stared fearfully at Zena. Zena stared back, her heart lurching with wild hope. The dark hair, the round dark eyes; was it possible? Could she have found her at last? She looked more closely and felt the hope drain agonizingly away, leaving her with a heavy, sodden sensation in her chest. This was not her sister.
Pain suddenly suffused the woman’s face and she bent over again, straining to breathe. She was hardly more than a girl, Zena saw with astonishment. What was she doing here by herself?
“Do not be afraid!” she exclaimed, coming closer. “You must let me help you. What is giving you pain?” She took a few more steps, and the girl shrank back.
“I will not hurt you,” Zena reassured her, coming up to her now. The young woman doubled over again, and Zena understood. She was in labor. A girl even younger than her was giving birth all alone in this abandoned shelter.
“The baby is coming? Is that what pains you?”
The girl nodded. There was still fear in her eyes, but it had lessened. She winced as lightning tore through the sky, followed by the crash of thunder.
“Then it is a good thing I have come,” Zena said in a practical tone, when the sound of thunder had faded away. “I am not a birther or healer like some, but I have been present at many births and will do my best.”
Her voice carried assurance, but
“First, we will make you more comfortable,” she said in the same sensible tone. Pulling off the pack that was always on her back, she drew out an extra fur, her skin bag of herbs and liniments, and some loosely woven cloths.
“Lie down here so I can feel your belly when the next pain comes,” she instructed, spreading out her fur. Obediently, the young woman lay down, her knees drawn up to her chest. Another contraction came almost immediately, then another, even stronger.
Zena smiled into the frightened face. “Good!” she said. “They are strong and close and that means the baby will come before too long. You will be fine, I am sure of it.”
Some of the strain left the girl’s face - for she really was more girl than woman, Zena thought worriedly. Truly, she was too young to be giving birth. Why had her tribe not protected her by sending her to the Ekali, the women’s place, at the time when new life was most likely to begin? In her tribe, all young women went there in the middle of their moon cycles for two years at least after their first bleeding. Since men were not permitted to come to the Ekali, the young women were protected from beginning a new life until they and their bodies were older. Still, this girl looked big and sturdy, and that was in her favor.
Lightning flashed again, but this time the boom of thunder was slow to follow and sounded far away. Good, Zena thought. Already the storm is moving away.
The girl moaned in agony as four more contractions came, one right after the other. “You should try to crouch now,” Zena told her, helping her into a crouching position. “That will help the baby to come.
“Breathe with each contraction,” she instructed, pushing her chest in and out to demonstrate.
The girl tried to imitate, but a wrenching spasm contorted her body, making her gasp instead. Peering down, Zena saw the crown of the baby’s head. Labor was more advanced than she had thought. A few more contractions, then some pushing, and the infant would be born. The girl must have been here for many hours already.
“Now just let the spasms come, do as they wish,” she said, “and try to breathe into them. Then, when I tell you, you should push. Then it will be over.”
There was no reply, but Zena saw comprehension in the young woman’s eyes. When the next pain came, she sucked in a deep breath and managed to let it out again before another followed. Three more came; then Zena told her to push, bear down as hard as she could, when her muscles tightened again. Four pushes, then five, and the infant’s head slid out.
“Good! You have almost done it,” Zena assured the straining girl. “The head has come and that is the hardest.” She leaned down to catch the baby as she spoke, and gave it a small tug. Unresisting, the tiny body slipped out. Zena held it, waiting for a moment to see if it would start to breathe, then gave it a gentle slap on the back. A thin screech emerged, and then another, and she relaxed.
“A fine boy,” she told the young mother, who had collapsed into the fur. “See what a beautiful baby you have!” Wiping the infant gently with one of her soft cloths, she placed him in his mother’s arms. The girl held him, her clasp tentative at first, then more confident. There was wonder on her face.
“Look, already he is hungry! That is good,” Zena told her as the infant rooted with his mouth for a nipple.
The girl spoke for the first time. “He is all right?” Her eyes were anxious as she examined the baby.
Zena looked with her. “All the fingers, all the toes, and everything else,” she said with a smile. “He is good and big as well, and healthy, I am sure.”
The girl smiled. “He is beautiful,” she breathed, her eyes radiant. Her face suddenly twisted with pain, and the fear returned.
“It is just the afterbirth,” Zena reassured her. “When that has come you will be finished.”
As soon as the bloody mass emerged, she ducked outside to get water for cleaning from the small stream just beyond the hut. The rain had almost stopped now and she could see blue behind the retreating clouds. She stood for a moment, entranced as always by the steeply folded green hills, the high alpine meadows that stretched away in all directions. The air was so clear and fresh after the storm that it seemed to sparkle. She pulled it into her body, felt it cleanse her and fill her with renewed strength; then she turned back to the shelter.
“Now, we will clean you and the baby, then we can see if he wants food or is too tired after all that work,” she said cheerfully. She chattered on as she performed the various tasks, cutting the cord and cleaning up after the birth.
“Tomorrow, I will return to my tribe and bring help,” she told the girl. “After a birth there is sometimes weakness, and it is good to have others who can help you. You can come back with us and stay until you are fully recovered. After that we can help you return to your own tribe.”
“You are kind,” the girl answered. “I thank you.”
“I am glad I was here,” Zena replied. “Let us see if the little one will take some food now, then you must both rest.”
The baby suckled briefly, then a small, satisfied shudder went through his tiny body and he slept. The girl’s eyes slowly closed, though she kept starting, as if still afraid.
Zena looked around the small shelter. It was much more habitable than it had been before. A patchwork of small skins sewn together covered most of the gaps in the walls, and the floor was swept clean. There were supplies in one corner - some tubers and berries, a small stone bowl with melted animal fat, a flint knife set in a wooden handle and a bow with arrows, as well as some lengths of cord and a cape made from woven grasses, like the one she often wore. Was it possible the girl had been living in the hut? But how had she come here, and why?
The girl’s face was finally peaceful. It was smooth and round, the cheeks still flushed from the effort of the birth. Her hair was a deep rich brown, her eyes almost the same color, just as her sister Teran’s had been. Zena felt again that flash of hope. Perhaps the girl might at least know something or had heard a rumor…
The thought trailed away. Almost a full cycle of the seasons had passed since her sister Teran had disappeared, and in that time the people of her tribe had searched the whole area and asked everyone they saw for news of Teran. No one had seen her; no one had heard anything of her, nor had they found any clues, no footprints or signs of a struggle, nothing at all. She had simply vanished, as if into the air.
Zena still found it hard to believe. One moment Teran had been there, the next she had not. They had gone together to pick wild strawberries on the mountainside, and Zena had run back to the clearing to fetch a basket she had forgotten. When she returned to the hill a few minutes later, Teran was gone.
Grief filled Zena again as she thought of that day. She and Teran had shared the same womb, had been born one right after the other; had spent all their days and nights beside each other. They were two sides of the same person; she fair and blue-eyed and dreamy, attuned to the sky and the stars, always seeking, always asking questions. Her darker sister, younger by only a few moments, was more practical, in tune with the earth and all that grew upon it. Teran had been a talented healer too. Some of her knowledge about herbs and healing had come from their wise one, Larak, but some seemed to come from an inner place only Teran possessed.
But Teran was gone. All she had now, Zena thought desolately, was the shadow of her twin walking beside her, reigniting her grief even as she was comforted by the shadowy presence. While that shadow persisted, she vowed stubbornly, she would not believe that Teran was dead.
“If you are there somewhere,” she murmured, “tell me what you think of this girl I have found. And what I should do.”
An image of food came into her mind. Of course! Her sensible sister was telling her that the girl would need nourishing food when she awoke. Zena checked the baby; then went out to look for more tubers and berries, some eggs if
When she entered the shelter again, the girl’s eyes were on the door, as if she had been waiting.
“I have brought food and wood for a fire,” Zena told her. “See, I even have eggs. The nests are full now that summer has come again.”
A tentative smile pulled at the girl’s lips. “That will be good,” she said softly.
Zena pulled out her fire-making tools and knelt to make a small blaze. “I am called Zena,” she said. “What is your name?”
“Zena?” A look of incredulity came over the girl’s face. “You are Zena?”
Zena nodded, surprised that the girl was familiar with the name. Only Mother People used it, and for this girl to come from a Mother People tribe seemed unlikely. No one who followed the ways of the Goddess would let a young woman give birth all alone. Besides, there were not many Mother People tribes in the area. Years ago, the spreading ice and the fierce invaders from the north who fled it had driven them south, and only her tribe and a few others had returned.
The girl was still staring at her with startled, awe-struck eyes, and Zena sighed. The name did have significance but she did not like to think about it. It meant woman who guides her people, and only those destined to be the next spiritual leader of the Mother People used it. It had been her mother’s name while she lived; now it was her own, with all the responsibilities that entailed. She and Teran had always planned to take on the awesome task together, and the idea of doing it alone terrified Zena. She was sure she could never be as wise and calm as her mother had been, or as Larak was today. Teran would have been better at that.
Another thought interrupted; with it came hope. If the girl did know the name, she might also know something of Teran, after all.
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