Chapter Seven

Sage looked down at her clothing. The buckskin trousers and shirt hugged her waist and hips, yet allowed freedom of movement. Matching knee-high moccasins completed the ensemble.

Four weeks ago, Wanapaya had delivered the garments into her hands. "Today we begin your lessons, and you will need the new clothing."

"What lessons?"

"Change your clothing and I will show you."

Since that day, every muscle in her body had been initiated and she had the aches and bruises to prove it. He approached her lessons like he did everything in life, with infinite patience. The competent tutor and the willing pupil stumbled, wrangled, and at times faltered, but by the end of two weeks, Sage became adept at riding bareback. Moreover, she'd mastered the complicated feat of mounting and dismounting while the pony stormed the prairie. She studied the ancient craft of arrow-making, and in the process learned how to shoot a bow.

Today she'd accompanied him on her first hunt—a successful first hunt, if their heavy-laden mounts were an indication. An elk lay across Dancer's flank and a deer across Wither's. Now for the hard work of gutting and tanning.

Stooped over the hapless doe, a pair of moccasins appeared in Sage's line of sight. She looked up and gazed upon the face of Swan and the cherubic infant wailing in her arms.

"It is the bellyache." The woman passed her the disgruntled child.

Sage took the babe in her arms and looked at Wanapaya. "Go," he said. "I will finish."

In the lodge, Sage pummeled garlic and ginger root together, added ample water and dispensed the mixture through a hollow reed.

"We call it colic." Sage smiled. "Soon, the child will be at peace."

"Swan thanks White-Woman-With-Strong-Medicine," the woman said with a shy smile.

"What did you call me?"

"White-Woman-With-Strong-Medicine. It is the name the People call you now."

Tears came to her eyes. The People had honored her by bequeathing her a name. Since her arrival in the village, word spread about her knowledge of herbs. Countless times, the elders appeared at Storm Cloud's lodge seeking cures. Constipation, stiff joints and toothaches were among the ailments that delivered them, and if she didn't have to pull the infected tooth, she applied a poultice of catnip leaves and cloves to draw out the infection. Minor wounds she treated with a poultice of blackberry seeds and comfrey leaves, plucked from a reservoir of plants growing in the woods. Too many times to count, she'd stitched torn flesh, once or twice set broken bones, and helped deliver a dozen babies. She escorted Swan and her babe outside and returned to the task awaiting her with a smile on her face.

"You are happy with your new name?" Wanapaya asked.

She turned to him. "You knew?"

Resting on his haunches, he nodded without taking his eyes from the dead elk at his feet.

"Why did you not tell me? This is a great honor the—"

He rose, tossed his knife on the ground and bit out the words. "Must I tell you to open your eyes to what is around you?"

Rendered mute by his curt words and the tone of his voice, she stared at him for a lengthy time before speaking. "I've displeased you in some way."

"No." He looked away from her. "I am displeased with myself."

"Displeased with yourself? But why?"

He advanced, so sure-footed, she took a step back. "Displeased I must lie beside you in my father's lodge every night. Displeased my body grows hard every time I look at you. Displeased I have taken this honorable path and I no longer wish to walk it!"

She brought a hand to her throat and faltered on the words. "I-I did not know. I never meant to cause you—"

"I have built my own lodge and you will join me there. You decide whether it will be as my wife."

Her heart leaped and a smile found her.

"You mock me now?" He turned from her and stormed off.

Finding her tongue, she called out to him. "I'll marry you, today, tomorrow, tell me when."

He stopped and spun around to face her. "Two suns from now. I will tell my mother and she will tell Dark Lodge and the whole village will know."

"Wait! Where is your lodge?"

He walked toward her again like a great beast sniffing out his prey. "It is best you do not know unless you wish to join me there now."

She flung an arm out, hoping the gesture would stop him.

"I did not think so."

She watched him walk through the village until she could no longer see him and then she spread her arms out and spun around. She had called him forth from her dreams and he had come.

In two days she'd marry Wanapaya.

* * *

Otter Woman entered the lodge with a white ceremonial dress draped over her arms, and tears flooded Sage's eyes. Coming to her feet, the bride-to-be took the hand-sewn garment from the woman and ran her hands down the soft hide. Her fingers lingered near several rows of intricate beads across the breast and near the hem. Never had she seen such an exquisite garment. She shucked her clothing, slipped the white doeskin dress over her head, and spun around in a half-circle.

Also fringed with aqua-blue and red beads, the sleeves mimicked the waist sash. Otter Woman handed her a pair of white, knee-length moccasins and as a final touch, the woman fastened a sacred amulet of aqua-blue stones around her neck.

For once, her future mother-in-law grew silent, the woman's dark eyes brimming with tears as she surveyed the sight before her. Lacking a full-length mirror, Sage relied on Otter Woman's awestruck expression to confirm she looked stunning.

Garbed in tan deerskin leggings, a breech clout and short moccasins, The Pursuer personified virility. A shirt of the same fabric graced his muscular form, and his long hair had been tied back with a leather thong.

Birds twittered from the trees and the clouds rolled overhead, but Sage scarcely heard them as she faced Wanapaya. The Holy Man placed the ceremonial stick on the ground between them and spoke in his native tongue. The dark warrior nodded and she'd say yes, never comprehending what she'd agreed to. Triumphant cries and cheers resonated through camp when the Holy Man removed the stick from the ground.

"It is finished," her new husband said. "We are man and wife."

The People gathered around the great circle of fire to celebrate. Braves lined up before maidens and for a few precious moments they danced face-to-face beneath a blanket. As quickly as the intimate interlude began, it ended, and the maidens moved on to the next young brave in line. Other tribal members danced alone. They dipped, twisted and twirled to the beat of the drums, their feet flying through the sacred steps with the grace of a herd of gazelles.

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Wanapaya signaled their departure and a select group of elders escorted them to their new lodge on the outskirts of the village. Wanapaya pulled back the flap, Sage entered and a mixture of sweet aromas greeted her—fresh pine needles, sweet prairie grass, and stalks of wild heather.

Finished gazing at her new surroundings, she looked across the short distance separating them and looked at her husband, her protector, the man of her every dream.

He motioned her forward and of course she obeyed, certain it had been one of the things she answered yes to today. He cupped her face in his hands and her body responded to his kiss with feverish passion. His hand brushed her breast arousing her so fast it stunned her.

He eased the dress up her hips and over her shoulders until she stood naked before him. She should be mortified, or at the very least timid, but those emotions were the furthest from her mind. His tongue swept through her mouth and she shuddered, and again when he brushed a nipple with his thumb and slid his hand over her hips and bottom.

His essence filled her. His lips moved with lightness over hers and drifted to the tender flesh above her collarbone, lingering at the tremulous beat of the pulse in her throat. He twined his fingers in hers and led her to the soft bed of animal pelts, eased her down and followed with his body.

After removing his clothing, a gasp came from his beautiful mouth when his hot skin connected with hers. His body trembled and she surmised he struggled to control this wild passion between them.

Excruciating need and intense hunger filled her, yet he withheld the full power of his love from her. "I am not a fragile bird."

"No, more like a delicate flower whose essence should be savored."

She emitted a frustrated groan.

"I do not want to hurt you."

"You make it sound as if I'm about to be drawn and quartered." She laughed and grew serious when he didn't. "Wanapaya?"

He buried his face in her neck and failed at stifling a laugh. "I cannot lie to you. What can I do to make it hurt less?"

She thought long, weighed her options and spoke. "Gran says if you have committed to engage in something be quick about it."

His laughter echoed around them and mingled with hers. She clutched a length of his hair in her hand, forcing him to look at her. "Be quick about it then."

He seduced her with sweet words of love, kissing every inch of her naked skin until her tense body relaxed. A hand slipped between her thighs and he slipped a finger inside. Shivers racked her body. She clung to his shoulders and moaned into his mouth.

"I love you." She reveled in the words falling from his lips.

He removed his finger, cupped her bottom and eased into her one slow inch at a time. Encountering a barrier, he grew still as if waiting for her reaction.

Her voice husky and low, she said, "Do you call this quick?"

With his gaze riveted on her face, he drove in deeper. Her body tensed and a small moan escaped her.

Again, he thought only of her. "Are you hurt?"

"Well, yes." She sniffled. "I seem to be doing better now." Her own voice sounded small. "Is this all there is to this mating?"

He smiled down at her. "No, my love, there is more, so much more. Soon you will ask me to teach you everything I know."

She couldn't imagine that right now. "I will?"

Setting a slow, steady tempo, he moved inside her. "Trust me."

She came alive under his skillful lovemaking, surrendered to the release her body craved. The sweetest ecstasy awaited her, hung suspended just outside her grasp. She rocked her hips into his and allowed the powerful release to crash through her.

She held her breath through the waves of pleasure, releasing it long seconds later with words she couldn't stop. "Teach me everything you know, my brave dark warrior."

* * *

Sage notched the days of the calendar on Peter Pa's walking stick. Although she missed him and Grandmother with all her heart, her destiny lay here now, with the People, with her husband. The humid days of summer passed and the Moon of the Falling Leaves were upon them. Men hunted and women strained beneath their daily tasks of readying for winter. Sage prepared for the birth of her first child.

With her legs folded beneath her, Sage sat beside Otter Woman outside the woman's lodge constructing snowshoes. She handed her mother-in-law a lengthy string of sinew with a smile. "You would do best to put down the snowshoe and make a cradleboard."

Otter Woman's fingers ceased their frantic motion and her round eyes grew wider. "When do you bring this joy into my life?"

"In February."

The woman lifted her face to the grey sky. "It is a sign of good fortune."

Twelve inches of snow blanketed the ground in December. The Winnebago put it to good use by packing it around the lodges outside. By mid-January, wood for the fires grew scarce and the supply of buffalo and horse chips dwindled. Every able-bodied person spent the daylight hours scrounging for twigs, small branches, and animal dung to keep warm.

Accompanied by the best hunters of the tribe, Wanapaya left for days searching for meat to feed the People. With two months remaining of the brutal winter, Sage had too much time on her hands to fret about bringing a child into the world under such elemental conditions.

The February winds blew in like the mighty breath of a dragon. Her husband's expert tracking skills were needed more than ever. These days, he seldom slept in their lodge, but tonight he ducked under the flap, wet, cold and hungry, yet drew her into his embrace, kissing away her fears.

After the meal, Sage joined her husband on a layer of pine boughs and animal skins and snuggled into the warmth of his body. "My time is near." She pulled back a length of his long hair and looked into his eyes seeking strength. "You should stay close to the village now when you hunt."

He bolted upright up, his eyes searching hers.

"I said near, not imminent."

His brow furrowed.

"Imminent means right now."

His body relaxed. "I will do as you ask." He ran his hand over her distended belly. "I am anxious to see the face of my son."

She pinched him. "A son? Have the spirits brought news I carry a son?"

"He appeared in my dream. I have seen his face."

"Tell me, husband, does he have your eyes or mine?"

"My dreams are cloudy." Again his brows met. "I saw the delicate features of a woman and the strong body of a warrior."

"Hmm." She released her breath one puff at a time. "I wonder what it means."

He slapped a hand to his forehead. "No, the spirits are not angry with me."

"You are making little sense."

"Maybe I have seen a childlike Wears-A-Dress."

In spite of his somber tone, she laughed. "A man who warms the blankets of other men?"

"What is so funny?" He scowled. "It happens in every village."

"Yes, and it has happened in yours." She placed a hand on his shoulder and pushed him to the ground. "This is not the reason you saw the face of a woman and the body of a man."

A sigh left his lips and soon light snores echoed in the lodge.

She smiled. Her girth had doubled in the last four weeks, hindered every movement. She gave it little thought at first, but now reflecting on Wanapaya's vision, the fog cleared. "Dream in peace, my strong warrior," she whispered against his cheek. "You'll need your strength."

* * *

A strong wind snaked through the jack pines the night Sage entered labor. Otter Woman and the ancient sage, Crooked Back, assisted at the birth. The boy emerged first, followed by his sister ten minutes later. She wanted Wanapaya to witness their arrival, but Crooked Back forbade it.

"We are a superstitious People." The old woman smiled. "The man who brought you this pain must wait outside lodge."

Crooked Back sent for Wanapaya the moment the infants arrived. "You have been blessed two times this day." The ancient sage handed him his son.

Otter Woman placed the girl in his arms. He peeled back the pelts, looked her over like an alert raptor would his nestlings, and did the same with his son. Confident they'd arrived safely, he wrapped them up, raised his head to the sky and thanked the four winds for the wondrous gifts.

"Your woman waits." Crooked Back led him toward Sage.

Her face still red, her long hair damp, he knelt beside her. In a state of euphoria after the birth, the look of love in his eyes pushed her over the edge.

"You cry?" He took her hand in his. "You still have pain?"

Weak fingers stroked his cheek. "No, they are tears of joy."

He held his fingers up. "We have been blessed twice this day."

Her voice still hoarse, she struggled to speak. "That's why the moose wandering the woods and I could have been cousins."

After planting a kiss to her cheek, he pulled back, his handsome face thoughtful. "What will we name them?"

"I will leave you to name our son, but I've chosen for our daughter." She watched his eyes. "Her name shall be Mataya, One Sent From Above."

"It is a fitting name for one as beautiful as her mother."

"And for our son?"

"It is a great honor to name him after his grandfather. He will be called Comes-With-The-Storm."

She wrinkled her nose. "Such a big name for one so small."

"A person has many names during their lifetime. For now, we will call him Storm."

She rolled the names off her tongue. "Mataya and Storm." Her eyes drooped and it took great effort to speak the words. "When they are strong enough to travel, we must take them to Grandmother and Peter Pa. She has waited a long time to see the face of her great-grandchild."

"Great-grandchildren," he said, smiling again. "When the snow leaves, we will make the journey." His long bronze fingers stroked her hand, lulling her to sleep. "You have earned the promise and the journey."

In the recesses of her mind, Crooked Back's voice drifted toward her. "Go now, shoo. Your woman needs rest."

Otter Woman placed a hand on his shoulder. "You should rest too."

"I am too happy to chase dreams. I will dance around the great circle of life and give thanks to the spirits in the sky."

Sage sent her own gratitude toward heaven before seeking the sleep her body craved.

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