Ellin finds him only a few minutes’ walk from the camp. It’s not - he wasn’t really trying to hide anyway, but the boulder does a good job of that regardless of his intention. It’s grey granite, towering to twice his height, and the small black chips of mica make it shine like water in bright sun. So it makes a great landmark-windbreak all in one.
There is no sun today, though. Nothing but dull grey sky arching over the leafless trees. The light bounces everywhere, and it almost hurts to look at. But this Red-Willow Moon is bitterly cold even it it is bright, the kind of cold that sucks all the energy from the world. The kind of cold that forces him to take a rest, crouched down in the lee of the erratic, perched so only the middle of his spine has any contact with the cold stone, after only a few minutes of walking. Without even a burden, because none of the lines he drew in from the frozen pool down below had any fish on them.
Ellin, though, has always known where to find him. “Hati?” she asks, crunching through the snow crust and appearing around the stone’s bulk.
He stands. “Yes, what is it?”
“I thought I could catch you before -” she says breathlessly. There are ice crystals lining the fur on her hood - she truly must have been hurrying.
“Before what?” he asks.
“Before you got back - look, I -” she breaks off, chewing on her bottom lip. She only does that when she’s nervous. The red sore from the last time she worried it apart has hardly healed yet. His mind starts to spiral off towards a dozen different potential catastrophes, but before it can get its teeth fully into any one she speaks again. “I need to talk to you.”
He looks around; there’s nobody in sight. Not even any birds or animals. The forest is completely still. “All right.”
“I -” she stops again, and takes a deep shuddering breath. “Listen -”
He almost wants to shake her, wants to yell what’s wrong, is someone dead, what is so scary that she can’t even tell her own mate?
He doesn’t do any of that. It wouldn’t help anyway. Besides, he knows how she works; Ellin has to be unknotted, she cannot just be forced to speak her mind. So he waits.
Eventually, Ellin seems to screw up her courage and try again. “Hati,” she starts, “I’m going to have a child.”
The world is already as silent and empty as it seems it can be. There should be no way for it to still further. Or maybe that’s just his own heart, going quiet. “Really?” he manages, uncertain whether the tremor in his voice is hope or fear.
She nods timidly.
“You have missed a bleed?”
Another nod. “The first one I thought might be just -” she shrugs -” but not the next as well. I’m sorry,” she blurts.
“Don’t.” Even he’s surprised at how forcefully it comes out. “Don’t you apologize. Not for this.”
“But-” she begins.
And that’s it, isn’t it. But. They should be happy. He should be laughing, should be swinging her up in his arms, should be imagining already what their son or daughter is going to look like, whether they’ll have his or Ellin’s hair, their eyes, their personalities -
The woods, which had before seemed so empty, now feel full of watching eyes. All looking for this new vulnerability, this new bond that could be taken and put around his neck. And he can break bonds of pride, or of guilt, anger, even threats to his own person and to Ellin are not ultimate - but this? If she even so much as hints at touching the tiny spark of life growing in Ellin’s belly, he knows that will be it. She can have him leashed forever, kneeling at her altars forever, never complaining or defying, if it would mean protecting his child. For the sake of - of the sky and the Sea and everything he holds holy - he has proof. He saw, he had to stand there impassive and watch, listen to his best friend scream until his voice shattered when she -
He pulls Ellin closer to him, and she stumbles the one step to lean into him, rest her head on his chest. She fits just right in his arms - always has.
How can he have been so… irresponsible? How can he have not thought about what kind of life he would be bringing a child into?
“It’ll be all right,” he lies, rubbing one hand over her shoulder blade. “It’s going to be all right.”
Later that night, nestled up in his sleeping-sack next to the warm form of Ellin softly breathing in his ear - and the most precious cargo now being carried around inside her - with the single lamp-flame outlining the shelter walls in orange and charcoal, he can think more. The rest of the day he has been going about dazed, trying to balance his actual tasks against the drumbeat of what will you do what will you do in the back of his head.
What he thinks about, strangely, is the first time. Back when - well, for whatever innocence means he was innocent, when he and Ellin has only been lovers and not yet truly mated, and he hadn’t known what it would mean when, yearning for that place in his brother’s life it seemed he had been pushed out of, he let himself be trusted. When he was encouraged to look around and see again with new eyes all the suffering, to see the sickness and starvation that the Spirit sent surely as the wind and rain, the fury of storms that froze all men alike, and had thought was this not the only crime? Was it not the only injustice, that he lived and breathed, had food and water and security where others didn’t?
And was it not then the only right, to work to ensure it for all, not only for those that lived but for those yet to be born, his children and his friends’?
What would you do, to make a world safe for your children to live in?
His answer is no different, now. It means everything different, but the answer itself remains the same.