Pregnancy far from cities is fraught with danger. A single complication can quickly become fatal.
— Graston Wilnur, The Case for the Establishment of Mandatory Hospitals
The sun had dipped below the horizon and the eighty-eight stars were out like gems scattered across black fabric. The cool wind buffeted Desòchu as he headed home with his favorite deck of cards in his pocket and his rear sore from playing games almost the entire day.
When he reached the heavy blanket at the entrance, he noticed light shining along the edge and bottom. He hesitated with a spark of fear; he was also an hour late coming home.
Desòchu took a deep breath. He pulled back the curtain and stepped inside. When he saw two people sitting on the couches of the main room, he froze.
Tejíko, his grandmother, looked up from her steaming cup. “Busy day?” she asked in a tone that would freeze the desert. She had a large mug of steaming liquid in her hand. She was sprawled out on one of the shorter couches, her feet propped up on the far end with her long braid measuring out her length from nape to her knees. At the end of her braid was a thick, iron ring that she played with using her toe.
“Mother,” started Desòchu’s father, Hikòru. He was wearing a familiar outfit, a simple shirt and pants both of orange. It was his favorite color.
She tilted her head to the side, her braid pulling along her shoulder. “My apologies, I’m sure you and your son have come to an agreement about staying out well past sundown. It’s not like we require the other children to be home by now.” Her voice grew even more tense.
His father’s jaw tightened for a moment. “I’ll deal with it. You aren’t the clan leader, Great Shimusogo Tejíko. You don’t have to demand obedience. Not yet unless you are planning on poisoning Great Shimusogo Yutsupazéso.” He used her formal name to show he was being polite, though it was obvious he was talking through grinding teeth.
“Great Shimusogo Yutsupazéso has decades before she takes her final run.”
Desòchu cleared his throat. “I’m just… going to my room.”
Tejíko looked at him sharply, her bright green eyes almost piercing him. She gestured with her chin toward Chyojímo’s room. When he didn’t immediately move, she repeated the gesture.
Ducking his head, Desòchu reversed direction and headed for his mother. His bare feet scuffed on the stone ground as he slowed down at the entrance of her room. It was dark which meant his mother was sleeping but Tejíko’s orders, though silent, pushed him forward. “Mama…?” he asked quietly.
There was no answer.
He stepped further in but kept his hand resting on the entrance. “Mama, are you sleeping?”
When she didn’t answer, he let out a sigh of relief. He could at least tell his grandmother he tried. Even Tejíko wouldn’t blame him for letting his mother sleep so close to giving birth.
Turning around, he started to leave when he caught a strange scent. He stopped as a frown ghosted across his face. It smelled sharp but sweet, a metallic scent that reminded him of when they butchered sheep.
He almost kept walking out of the room but something pulled him back. It was the smell, it was wrong. He turned on his heels and padded deeper into the room. The thick calluses of his feet made a faint scuffing noise.
However, when he stepped into something wet and sticky, he stopped. With a sharp inhale, he fumbled for the glow light that would be on his mother’s side table. His hands patted along the wood but he didn’t find a light.
“M-Mama?” he whispered. He patted the side of the bed, thumping on the blankets.
His fingers hit something wet and warm.
With a gasp, he yanked his hand back. His pulse beat loudly in his ears and he felt dizzy. Shaking violently, he clutched his hand to his chest as he stared into the dark. He didn’t know what to say, what to do.
Desòchu tried to swallow but his throat didn’t seem to work. Shaking, he reached out but pulled back before he touched. “Ma… ma…” The word choked in his throat. Shaking his head, he stepped back as tears burned in his eyes.
Gasping for breath, Desòchu tried to move away but his feet wouldn’t move. He sobbed with the effort. He had to do something, anything. He needed to call out for his grandmother but the words refused to come.
It felt like forever when Tejíko’s voice cut through his fear. “Boy? Why are you still in there and not talking? Why isn’t a light on? Why are you standing in the dark?”
“G… Grand…” He choked on the words.
“Boy?” She was getting closer. He could hear the heavy ring in her hair thumping against the side table.
“Ma.. mama. There’s something wrong with mama.”
“Some… Chyojímo!?” Tejíko’s voice grew sharp as she launched herself from the couch. The ring in her hair rang out against a table and then the wall. “What’s wrong!? Get the light on!”
He saw her briefly silhouetted in the light of the room entrance but then she plunged into the darkness.
Desòchu tried to track her movement but when they collided with each other, the impact threw him into the dresser. The sharp corner dug into his back and he cried out in pain.
“Out of the way… oh, my blessed sun, no! Kòru!”
From the main room, Hikòru started to get up. “What is—?”
“Get help! Jímo is bleeding!”
All the air in Desòchu’s lungs rushed out in a sob. “Ma-Mama!?”
“Kòru! Move your ass!” There was crashing as Tejíko fumbled with the side table in the dark. She swore violently as her hand slapped around the top. “Damn it, where are the lights!?”
“I’m… I’m…” stammered his father. Desòchu heard the side table crash to the floor.
“Damn it. Help me, this is your wife!”
“Give me a second, old goat! I’m getting there.”
“Just get a light!”
“Make up your—!”
Tejíko swore violently. “Useless toe of a man!”
She took a deep breath then screamed at the top of her lungs. It was a wordless cry, one that pierced Desòchu’s ears and drowned out everything with the inhuman sound that resembled some sort of tortured bird’s scream instead of something from a human’s throat.
The terrible sound rose in pitch, turning from a scream into a high-pitched screech. The sound pierced his ears. He clapped his hands over them but the terrible noise somehow managed to seep through his fingertips.
Tejíko staggered back, her body lighting up in the dim light coming through the entrance from the main room. The sound finally faded from her throat as she stopped. Slowly, she bent over as if it pain before dropping to her knees.
Light flashed into the room. For the briefest moment, he thought he saw a small dépa disappear into the darkness. A golden glow disappeared with it, but the brief light was enough to orient himself to his mother’s bed.
A blast of air slammed into him, kicking up blankets, papers, and everything else as two brilliant fires appeared. Heat slammed into him, drawing out the moisture from the air and shoving him back with the force of the searing wind that howled in the confines of the room.
Used to the darkness, he was blinded by the arrival of the clan’s warriors. He could feel as they moved further into the room, barking orders.
“Kiramíro, get to Chyojímo,” said one of the warriors. It was the deep voice of Somiryòki, the eldest. Desòchu caught the edges of his movement as he knelt next to Tejíko. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Get her!” snapped Desòchu’s grandmother. Even with the exhausted sound in her voice, she had a commanding, icy tone that cut through all the fear.
Heat flashed across Desòchu’s face. He found that he could focus better and looked to see the two warriors on each side of his mother’s bed. The flames surrounding their bodies were scorching the blankets as they hurried to inspect his mother.
“How bad?” asked Somiryòki.
“Bad,” Kiramíro’s voice was tense and low. “There is a lot of blood. We need Nàga from the Ryayusúki here and fast.”
Tejíko pulled herself up. Her entire body was shaking as she clutched the side of the bed. “Get Desòchu out of here.”
Desòchu looked up at her and shook his head. “No, I can—”
Kiramíro spun on her heels and splattered blood everywhere. She didn’t seem to even notice as she stepped away from the bed and toward Desòchu. He had never seen such an expression on her face before.
When she reached down for him, he flinched.
She scowled. “I don’t have time for this.” Pulling back her hand, she slapped him hard across the face. The force of the blow throwing him into the ground as stars exploded across his vision.
Kiramíro grabbed his shoulder. Her burning fingers dug into the joint painfully. Then she yanked him from the ground in a flash of heat and wind.
His legs smacked against the opening of his mother’s room.
When he blinked, he was standing in the middle of the main room next to his father.
The warrior dropped him.
He tried to catch himself but failed. His arms flailed before he stumbled into his father’s side.
Hikòru growled and shoved back hard, propelling Desòchu into a wall. “Out of my way, Boy!”
Desòchu caught the rock with his shoulder. The smoothed curve smacked painfully against his palm. His arm started to collapse from the impact but he managed to avoid smashing his face into it. Stunned, he pushed himself away as the world spun around him violently.
His father wasn’t looking at him. With his jaw set, he was trying to step around Kiramíro to get to his room. “Get. Out. Of. The. Way!”
Kiramíro held up her hand, the flames flickering along the edges. “Stay. We are dealing with it.”
Hikòru turned on her and shoved her with both of his hands.
The warrior didn’t even budge but the flames grew brighter.
“Keep it to yourself, Fijimòsu.”
Desòchu wondered if Kiramíro’s other clan was Fijimòsu, but he wasn’t familiar with the name. He thought he knew all the clans in the surrounding areas.
His father continued, “I’ll have my skull filled with shit if I’m going to stay out here like some castrated sheep. Now get out of my way and—”
There was a blast of heat and air as Somiryòki rushed out of the room. The speed of his passing left a burning afterimage of a bird.
Both Hikòru and Desòchu turned their heads to protect their face from the wind. Kiramíro didn’t flinch as the flames flared to protect her. Around them, small items were ripped from shelves and smashed into walls. The sound of breaking glass and ceramic filled the air.
Hikòru snarled and shoved forward.
Kiramíro moved to block him. “Stay here. Your wife is—”
“I’m not going to lose her!” At his side, his hand balled into a fist.
“Somiryòki is going to get—”
“Move, Fijimòsu!” He swung his fist.
There was a flash of light and Hikòru flew back. His body slammed against the cave wall and he slumped to the ground. Strands of his hair clung to the wall and his ring fell to the ground. It rolled across the floor before clattering against another wall.
Kiramíro pulled back her flaming fist. “Stay down!”
Hikòru rolled over, a glare painted on his face. He wiped blood from his nose.
Stumbling over, Desòchu ran over to his father. “Papa!”
Hikòru surged to his feet. Desòchu saw his father’s lip pulled back to expose the white flash of his teeth.
He didn’t see the punch coming.
His father’s fist caught the side of his head. He opened his mouth as his entire world exploded into white light. A second explosion blast across his senses as he crunched against the stone wall.
Stunned, he couldn’t do anything but slide down the wall.
“Stay down, Hikòru,” said Kiramíro. “If you want your wife to live, you need to stay out of our way.”
The air exploded as she disappeared, a flash of light streaking out of the entrance of the cave. The heavy blanket was ripped off by her passing, torn from its moorings. It fluttered away in the darkness as the burning path traced her route out of sight.
Hikòru stumbled forward, intent on heading to his bedroom.
Tejíko came out to block him. She looked older than usual, as if seeing her daughter bleeding had drained her of all life. “Not now, Kòru.”
She sniffed, there were tears in her eyes.
Hikòru didn’t seem to notice. “Mother, out of—”
“What happened?” asked Yutsupazéso as the clan leader came shuffling into the room. Her breath came in and out with rattling wheezes. She wore her sleeping gown, the ancient material had some rips that Desòchu hadn’t seen before.
Behind her, there were others milling around outside of the cave entrance with a few following her inside.
Tejíko turned to the clan leader. “Jímo is in trouble.”
“Somiryòki and Kiramíro?”
“Getting help.” Tejíko looked at her son and then back to Yutsupazéso.
“Get out, Hikòru,” commanded Yutsupazéso.
“Great Shimusogo Yutsupazéso, that’s my wife.” Hikòru turned to her. “Please, I need to be in there.”
Instead of answering, Yutsupazéso turned and headed over to Desòchu “How are you, Boy?”
Desòchu groaned and rubbed his jaw as he pushed himself up. “I’m good.”
Yutsupazéso leaned forward. “You are in the way. Either you go on a walk or I send you to clean out the latrines.”
Desòchu paled. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Yutsupazéso.” He bowed briefly and hurried out toward the exit.
The old woman turned and glared at Hikòru. “Latrines or walk?”
“I’m not a moon-damned calf that needs—”
“Go clean out the latrines,” interrupted Yutsupazéso.
Hikòru’s mouth opened.
Yutsupazéso pointed a finger at him.
Desòchu’s father closed his mouth. His shoulders slumped.
“Yes, Great Shimusogo Yutsupazéso.”
She turned back to Desòchu. “Go on, Boy. You don’t need to see this.”
“Is… is mama going to lose…?” The words caught in his throat.
She shook her head but there was something in her eyes that told him she was lying. “No, not this time. Now, go wake up Gemènyo and play cards with him for a couple hours. I’ll send for you when your mother is safe.”
He nodded and then followed his father out of the cave.