Rousted by his father from a deep skullcap sleep in the trembling yolk-yellow glow of a flaming smoking reedmace, wind groaning through gaps in the roughly fitted logs, now at twelve years considered a man, he was sent out into the dawn of the coldest winter since his mother had perished giving birth to thrice split daughters while starving marsh-wolves stalked the tribe.
He was to search the marsh for his three missing sisters.
He knew no infants so new to walking could ever have survived the night just gone – remembered the three of them learning to walk, the guard-dogs either side of them so little hands could grip the neck-hackles for support: a traditional cure amongst the estuary dwellers for those reluctant to cease crawling.
He found the triplets naked on all fours around a savaged sheep, their long hair matted with its still-steaming entrails, their mouths bloody, their eyes rolling up into their heads until only the whites were showing, nostrils flared, breath visible and billowing – tinted with dull-red light from the unsteady line of the stillborn day’s frozen horizon. He watches, wanting to vomit, feeling his mouth fill with saliva – then, as an awoken freezing river-mist creeps through the reed beds, he abandons them.
He will say he found them dead. He will say he buried them.
A cataract is forming over the black swamp-pools so that as an icy sleet begins to fall the stagnant waters hiss. The little girls’ heads turn towards the sound as their pupils fill the whole of their eyes, their bodies flood with warmth, and the growth of their new pelts accelerates.
They had caught their brother’s scent from a long way away. But they will not hunt one of their own.