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The wind forced its way in from the north, drinking up moisture as it crossed the Great River and sounding its way through the leaves remaining on the trees. It hesitated at the ring of low-built earthen mounds, and the torches there flared as the wind shared its breath with its brother, fire, gently so as not to extinguish him or enrage him, then hurtled its way across the plaza.

Woman-From-The-West paused as she felt its chill embrace of her face and her bare legs. Her life would change this night. The two warriors who had been sent with her to bear the Warrior's burial gift to the Priest paused when she did, waiting silently.

Woman-From-The-West turned slowly, heavy with child. From where she stood, between the house of the Priest and the raised earthen platform of the temple, she could not see the mortuary on the burial mound, readied and waiting for the bones of the honored dead, but far to the east, across the smaller river that flowed from the south, from a raised earthen work much the same as the one on which the temple stood, a signal fire glowed.

She continued in her slow circling. To the south she saw the lights from the fires of those who had come bringing their dead: to the west and to the north, the fires of the villages, swollen now with still more arrivals.

So many had come. And from so far. But the Warrior had said, "It is time," and the word had gone out. Had he known the Priest would die? Or had it been only that the mortuary house was full? Woman-From-The-West could not know, and the Warrior would not say. Had he known that he, too, would die?

Woman-From-The-West felt the chill that was not caused by the wind. It prickled her arms, raised the fine hairs on her neck, and misted her eyes. She had not known these people two winters past, but now two lives connected her with them: the one that grew within her, and the one that ebbed from the man in the house where she had lived since the time of the green corn.

She heard a low growl, different from but carried by the wind, and with a pain she could never share, she knew what that meant. The Guardians were restless. The Warrior's time grew short. Drawing about her her soft cloak of colored fiber woven from the hair of the rabbit, she turned to the two warriors who waited. They, too, had heard the growl. They, too, knew what it signified. They, unlike some others, had remained loyal to the man who lay dying.

Quickly, accompanied by them, protected by them and by the spirits of the Guardians, Woman-From-The-West returned to the man who had taken her from the caravan of slaves being shipped to the great water of the south and had chosen her to be his mate. For him, to accompany him, she would gladly give her life, but that was not to be allowed, even though at this moment the wives of the Priest readied themselves to join their mate in burial. For the Warrior, another service was required.

The smell of death was strong in the house. None of her healing arts had been able even to slow its relentless approach. The Warrior lay near the fire, his great length stretched out on a litter she had ordered brought close to the warmth. Although he did not raise his head, she knew he watched her. "You heard them?"

"I heard them," she said.

"Then it is to be tonight. You will prepare me?"

She heard no fear and no sorrow in his voice and vowed that he would hear none in hers. "I will prepare you."

She knelt beside him, testing the water that waited near the fire, and drew away the furs that covered him. He was silent as she touched the damp cloth to his chest, as though knowing she mourned his wasted strength. Silent. Leaving her in silence to bathe him as she had bathed him before, as once, he had bathed her. She had fought the women he sent to her that first day, her greater size and strength and fear easily overcoming their efforts to prepare her for this giant who had claimed her for his own. He had laughed and dismissed the women. "What a mate you will make for me," he said. "You will never cringe from me. You will bear me many fine sons. And you will stand by my side through this life and the hereafter."

She had never cringed from him; from that moment she realized there was no reason. She carried his child, the only child she would ever bear. And because of that child, she was preparing him to go into the hereafter without her.

He caught her hand in his. "I will miss you."

She looked up, seeing the pain that glazed his eyes. "And I will miss you."

"I must wear the armor," he told her. "There are those who would try to claim the position of Warrior. For their sakes, as well as the sake of our people, I cannot allow them to do so. And you—" He groped beneath the edge of the litter and brought forth a copper breastplate with his likeness engraved upon it. "You must wear this. No one will harm you while you do. The Guardians will see to that. As they will see that I am not disturbed. I cannot command them to leave me until a new Warrior arises. I have copied the designs. You will find them on a scroll hidden beneath our bedrobes. When our son is ready to assume his place as the Warrior, you will have new armor made for him. Then they will come to him. You will do this."

"I will do this," she promised. "And then I will come to you."

He dropped his hand on the rise of her belly where their child lay protected. "Woman-From-The-West," he said softly, and she knew he was remembering. It was he who had named her. With a gentle sigh, he left her.

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