There is the terror and then there is the life between the terror. Tinhara had spent days recuperating and resting, preparing for what lay ahead. This was a time between the terror, and the living was good again. She hauled back on the reins, and Huel grunted to a stop. She looked around, and could see nothing by snow and ice in the area, nothing that looked threatening or godlike. Tinhara tripped off the sled and struggled to unhitch Huel. She mumbled to Lefe that it was time to sleep and, after a few minutes that seemed to stretch into a frozen hour, Huel was free. Exhausted, Tinhara wobbled back to the sled, pulled back the skins, and shoved the already sleeping Hadyn aside to make room for herself. She crawled in, and covered her head, and let sleep embrace her. Visions flew before her eyes of her losses and triumphs, her wretchedness and her valour. And there, always in the corner of her dream, stood the beautiful Burning Woman.
The next morning Tinhara was up first, checking the landscape for signs of life. She couldn’t see the bear, which meant he had travelled far for food. “I think we’ll have to begin without Huel,” she announced as Hadyn made her way out of the caqun. She looked over and watched Hadyn as she rubbed her eyes and stretched her arms above her head. Hadyn yawned and Tinhara unsuccessfully fought the contagious impulse to follow the lead.
“I’m not pulling the sled,” Hadyn said. Tinhara stared at her.
“Yes, you and I are going to get the sled going. We can’t wait here for Huel, he may not be back for days.”
“What about Lefe?” Hadyn said as she stood up and stretched again. “Why can’t he pull?” she asked.
“You ask him,” she replied.
Lefe refused to pull the sled. “Hungry,” he complained. They had eaten all the food now, and had gone through all of the stores, except for a few small pieces of qamux. They weren’t desperate enough yet to eat the very last of their food; that didn’t happen until they were hungry enough to eat their own fingers. There were few animals in the Land of the Gods. Hadyn’s stomach growled. Tinhara raised her eyebrows and shrugged.
“Food, pull,” Lefe reasoned. Hadyn agreed to feed Lefe if he agreed to pull the sled.
“And how exactly are you going to feed him?” Tinhara asked. “And no, don’t look at me like that. You don’t really think a smile is enough to get me digging up the snow and scraping away at tawnluk weed. Besides, even if I did, it wouldn’t be enough for him. Stop smiling like that, I simply won’t do it.” She gave in. The weeds were bitter and hard to chew, but it kept Lefe happy for an hour.
“I think there’s some life over there,” Tinhara said as she pointed. Hadyn joined her and looked, even bending so she could follow the line from Tinhara’s finger. She shook her head and frowned. “Pictu,” Tinhara said. “A small rodent, not very tasty, but better than starving.” They had already travelled a half an hour on foot, in an easterly direction, looking for food.
“You see a small rodent somewhere in the snow?” Hadyn asked. She laughed at Tinhara.
“I saw them blacken the snow a while ago. You know, for you this was a simple world, where there were few animals, and even fewer people. But you don’t see what’s around you; you are looking for things to move in great leaps and bounds, and they don’t. You need to develop eyes for the snow, for the Gods and Goddesses, for the ancestors, for the small things.” Tinhara could tell by the look on Hadyn’s face that she wasn’t getting through. “Trust me. There are some small animals up there that we can eat. It’s on the way. If we get started now, we may have something substantial to bribe Lefe with.”
“This place,” Hadyn said, “this is not like my world. Magicians and heat and snow and, and you! You with the light of your ancestors.” She raised an eyebrow and smiled a little as Tinhara walked past her.
“And you’ve told me that your ice melts and freezes every year, and that sometimes there is grass and sometimes there is snow. That sounds like magic to me,” Tinhara said.
“It is magic,” Hadyn sighed wistfully.
“Okay, time to be quiet. They don’t run away, but if they’re scared, they can bite. Just pick them up slowly, delicately, and drop them into the pouch.” They remained silent for the next few minutes while they walked to the nest. Hadyn was surprised at the size; the little animals were plentiful. She reached out and slowly wrapped her fingers around it. It sniffed her glove and twitched its whiskers and she dropped it into the pouch.
“These are so easy to catch, why don’t you eat more of them?” Hadyn asked. Tinhara just grinned and snatched another one from the ground and shoved it into a bag with the others. Altogether, they had caught more than twenty pictu, enough to last for a few days. They trundled back to the camp, the squirming, squeaking animals dragging in bags behind them.
“Pictu!” Tinhara shouted to Lefe. He stood up and put his hands on his hips, and stuck out his tongue. She laughed. “I know, I know, but they’re food. And a deal is a deal, we feed you, you pull the sled.” There was no way to start a fire, so they would have to be eaten raw after being skinned. Tinhara used the opportunity to show Hadyn how to cut up the small rodent, to avoid the bad parts inside that could ruin the taste of even the pictu.
“Chew it quickly, not too much, swallow fast. Bite a small piece, small enough to get it down your throat,” Tinhara said before taking the first nibble. Hadyn nodded and bit into the animal: she gagged and spit, and began to claw at her mouth to remove the bitter taste.
“That’s horrible,” she protested. She reached for some snow and chewed on it to wash away the stinging taste.
“Snow’s a good idea, it will freeze your mouth and you won’t be able to taste it so much. I guess I’m used to it. As used to it as you can be. They are full of fat, and that will help us get through this area, keep us alive. But the taste… Now you know why there are so many: no one really wants to eat them.”
“And that’s why they were so easy to catch,” Hadyn murmured as she nodded to herself. She bit a small morsel, chewed more snow, and then chewed more flesh. It seemed to be a little more palatable, and through a combination of snow and pictu, she was able to slowly calm her growling stomach. Tinhara watched, smirking, as Hadyn struggled to finish her portion. Finally, when she was done two pictu, she handed the tiny carcasses to Tinhara.
“That was brave of you. Not many people can stand the taste,” she said with a hint of admiration and humour in her voice.
“Yuck,” Lefe added after finishing off a half dozen little animals.
“Give me the bones, I will give them to the Gods,” Tinhara said as she held out her hands.
Lefe slapped her palms and smiled. “Gone,” he said as he opened his mouth wide and waggled his tongue. “Gone gone.”
They stopped before crossing over an invisible but, to Tinhara and Lefe, distinct barrier to enter the Godhome. Instead of the flat, steady terrain of the rest of area, here rested mountains of snow and valleys of ice. Giant ice shards, partially hidden in a light white fog, speared the earth in random places. “We have to stop here and let Lefe rest. We can’t go on until everyone is at their best,” Tinhara announced. She and Hadyn stepped off as Lefe released his grip on the sled. He flopped down into the snow, weary from the exertion of pulling the sled such a long distance. She patted him on the shoulder, grateful for his strength, determination and devotion.
Tinhara checked the fur on her parka and saw that it was blowing north-west with the wind. She bent down to feel the direction of the ridges of the ground snow. Scanning the distance, she saw a twisted mass in the snow just slightly to the left. The disturbed landscape was a testament to the madness of the Gods who lived here. There was still no sign of Huel, although she couldn’t blame him. Nothing but a human was foolish enough to go through this area. They began their preparations by eating more pictu.
“When we’re done, empty your bowels. We’ll have to go as fast as we can for as long as we can. If you need to pee while we’re on route, pee. It will freeze your clothes solid, but we won’t be able to stop. Lefe, do you think you can…”
“Lefe pull,” he said as he thumped his chest.
Tinhara smiled. “No, Lefe run. If you run we stand a good chance of getting through.”
“Good chance?” Hadyn repeated.
Tinhara sighed and scratched her head. “Yes. This isn’t going to be easy.”
“It’s been easy so far?”
Tinhara laughed. “I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that when the winds start to blow, they can carry you away. The myths say, if that happens, keep your eyes closed and your mind focussed on the way you are travelling. That way,” she paused as she cleared her throat, “that way if the Gods look at you, they will let you live. If you see a God, they’ll kill you. So if one of them picks you up, if you travel with the wind, keep your eyes closed and try to think about anything else. They may let you live.”
“You’re not kidding about this,” Hadyn said.
“Eyes closed,” Lefe said as he tightly closed his eyes and turned his hands into fists.
“We’ll take some precautions, of course. Now, my pants are tied on, thanks to your leather straps,” she said to Hadyn. “But you need to tie everything on. The wind can take your clothes from you, as an offering to the Gods. If they are tied on, the Gods can’t have them, and you won’t freeze to death. If the wind gets really strong, if the Gods are demanding, release a pictu from your pocket,” she said, handing a dead pictu to each of her companions. She shoved one in her own pocket. “The Gods will accept them as a sacrifice,” she explained. Hadyn nodded her pale face and put the creature in her pocket.
“Go now?” Lefe asked. Tinhara smiled and shook her head.
“Not yet. One last thing. I need to explain how to get out of here, to the mountains. Head south, toward the range that you see over there,” she said as she pointed. “When you get closer, you will see the smoking mouth in the hillside, before the true mountains begin. Go to the smoking mouth, that’s where the people live. They are nice, they will help you, even if you have nothing. Tell them you want to go over the mountain, to Arpine. Hadyn, are you listening? Ask only the men for help, not the women. Only the men can help strangers. It’s just their way. You too Lefe, do you hear? Men only.”
Lefe nodded his head. “Men.” And then everyone fell silent.
A melancholy fell over Tinhara. Being with Hadyn had changed everything. The idea of only herself for companionship had become unspeakably hateful, and she craved every moment she had with Hadyn. She looked out toward the south, wondering if what she saw in the distance was the mountain range, or a sky mirage.
“It is amazing how much of this changes every day,” she said.
“What changes?” Hadyn asked.
Tinhara blinked, half-smiled and said, “This.” She stretched her arm out and motioned to the snow and ice around them. Hadyn stood and looked, even resorting to standing on her toes, as if a few inches would help her see what her shorter companion was referring to.
“Snow and ice. It is always just snow and ice, more and more and more of it.”
Shaking her head, Tinhara said, “Snow changes every day, like the way our mood changes every day. Snow can be angry, you know. The wind can be angry, or it can be loving. Remember that.”
Hadyn snorted. “Loving wind?”
“Yes, I think you’ve only ever seen its loving side. I hope you never learn of its anger,” she replied. Tinhara put her hand on the back of her head and sighed.
“I don’t understand. Why should I care?” Hadyn asked. “I understand that maybe you need to know about the snow and the wind, but as long as you’re helping me, I don’t need to know. I’m going home, where none of this matters.”
Tinhara held her breath for a moment and then slowly exhaled. She hoped that Hadyn would survive this area. She will, but will I? She wondered. She nodded to herself, and stood, and said “We’ve got just a day or two before we reach the mountains, but there is no protection between here and there. The wind will blow, and when it does, you won’t be able to stand up. We’ll curl up together and let the wind blow over us. We won’t have a lot of time when it strikes, just a few minutes to find a small snowbank like that one and curl up inside it. If something happens, if we become separated, just remember that. Curl up with your back to a snowbank and you will be fine.” She wondered if she had successfully hidden her anxiety. Hadyn grabbed her face and turned it up, toward her own. Hadyn straightened her back slightly and kissed Tinhara. Tinhara raised her hands to her lips.
“Thank you for caring,” Hadyn said as she headed back to the sled. Tinhara’s heart was pounding.
They spent the next while layering more clothing on themselves and discussing the dangers of the flying ice blocks and shards that could crush or impale any of them during the big storms.
“The first thing you do is lie down flat. If you can find a spot between two snowbanks, take it. If not, try to dig a pit for yourself. It doesn’t have to be deep, but the idea is to be lower than the rest of the landscape. You’re less likely to be hit with things that are flying in the breath of the Gods. If something happens to me, be sure to continue onward. Don’t look at me like that. You see, even if I die, I’ll be able to help you. Like the ancestors helped me. I’ll still help you get over the mountains.”
“Naqtuk,” Lefe said.
“Bear clouds, sacred sky formations,” Tinhara explained. “In fact, the day I found the mystic Cyr, the woman who started me on this journey, she was under the protection of the Naqtuk clouds. I guess I could become that powerful, maybe, and join the bear spirits in the sky. But forget all that for now. Just remember to keep low if the wind starts to blow. Maybe the Gods won’t see you.” She couldn’t tell if Hadyn understood or appreciated any of the spirit talk, but it comforted her own heart, and it would have to do for now. It meant that she would be confident in risking her life to save Hadyn, for even if she died, she’d be reborn.
They travelled as fast as they could, each woman standing on a runner pushing with one leg, while Lefe ran with the sled. Huel had been smart enough not to risk his life for something he could not understand. People follow their hearts.
It was mid afternoon when the wind began to moan and visibility was reduced to almost nothing. Tinhara could no longer see even the end of the sled where Lefe continued to pound away. Tinhara arched her neck up and tried to spit out light as she had before, to light the way, and perhaps even fend off the Gods. Nothing but air and spit came out, and even those were stolen by the wind. She yelled out for everyone to take cover and tried to reach across the back of the sled to Hadyn. The world went white and she was swept off her feet. She tumbled in the gale force winds, blowing across the tundra like a piece of discarded fur, rolling and bumping across the snow. She finally stopped tumbling and righted herself so she was lying face down, her head turned against the wind. “Hadyn!” she yelled, knowing that she would never be heard. She began to clear away snow with her arms and hands so that she would be below the level of the land. The wind howled, changing from high to low notes as the Gods bellowed. Her adrenaline kept her focussed for a while, but she became frustrated when she made no headway into the hard ice around her.
“Hadyn!” she cried into the wind. The roaring wind echoed back in her ears like sadistic laughter. The Gods were laughing at her and Tinhara could feel herself lift slightly off the ground. She twisted and the wind slipped out from under her, and she returned fully to the earth. The Gods called out again to her, and one became louder than the others. His harsh, screaming voice cut across her face, lashing her flesh until it went numb. This unrelenting, demanding God wanted a better look at the intruder who dared to step into the Godhome. She felt herself rise up as the snow circled around her. She called out again for Hadyn. Her strength was sapped out of her, and there was little she could do as the God picked her up and threw her into the sky.
She spun around in great circles, twirling in the blinding white. Snow got into her nose and her mouth, it worked itself under her eyelids and into her ears. She was cut off from the world she knew, the world of the bear, and was now travelling in the world of the duck. Her eyes were painfully cold as the sharp crystals of snow started to melt and immediately refreeze on her eyelashes. Tinhara tried to open her eyes, but they were frozen shut. If I can’t see the Gods maybe they won’t kill me, she thought to herself. She wished she knew where Hadyn and Lefe were. She wished she knew which way she was flying. She wished she could see the world from this height. She wished she were drunk. And finally, she wished she would land and that the wrenching would end. The wind shifted uncertainly and she felt herself drop in fits and starts, and was finally dashed on the ground, broken and bleeding and alive. She curled up as best she could and laid still. Within seconds, a wet, thick snow covered her. It was heavy and it weighed her down, but she was able to breathe.
Tinhara could taste blood seeping into her mouth. At first, she thought she had bit her lip, and she searched her lip with her tongue. The bleeding was coming from inside. She moaned slightly and spit out some blood and a tooth. She moved her head, her arms, and finally her legs. She cupped her hands and let her hot breath melt her frozen eyes. She blinked, dazed and battered and thankful. “Pwaise be,” she stammered as she choked. She spit a mouthful of blood into the snow in front of her and grimaced. She had survived a dance with a God. She struggled to lift herself out of the snow that had covered her, and once it was off her, she felt better. She shook herself slightly. Her shoulder was out of place, and her wrist ached badly. She stood up warily and bounced on the balls of her feet, making sure her legs and feet worked. If she could move, she could find the others. Tinhara looked around, watching her breath rise up before her. It was quiet now; she could feel the silence stretching all the way to Kashunaq. She had lost a tooth and it was painful to move her jaw. There was a sharp pain in her side and, upon investigation, found one of her small stones blades stuck through the pictu and into her side. She pulled it out and looked at the blade. It had gone in only the depth of her fingertip; it was nothing.
“It’s so quiet,” she said aloud, chasing back the fear. She was able to see the mountains clearly now, looming in the darkness of the day: they were free from the haze that had locked them in. She could not see the pictu horde, and saw no trace of Hadyn or Lefe. “Hadyn!”
Her voice echoed off the anguish in her heart. She’d lost Hadyn to the Gods; she had been the sacrifice, the thing they wanted more than anything else they could have had. How could they be satisfied with pictu when they could have Hadyn?
Tinhara’s legs began to tremble. Her heart broke while she cried. She cursed the names of all of her ancestors, spittle flying from her mouth as she ranted. A dark gloom settled in her mind. She knew she had blood tears rolling down her face, but she did not care.
And then, inside her head, she heard a voice. We are still with you.
A rush of pain shot through her spine and she bolted to her feet. Screaming, she threw her head back and a bolt of light shot out toward the sky. For as long as she screamed, that light flowed from her mouth. She closed her eyes to block out the blueness of the world and went quiet for a moment, although only long enough to take another deep breath. Each time she howled the light shone out like a beacon, lighting up the sky with a sizzling, crackling light. She could smell the light zipping past her nose; warm, elemental, comforting.
“A beacon,” she whispered. She looked around her, as if to see if anyone else had heard her sudden revelation. She concentrated and opened her mouth. Nothing came out, and she could hear the whispers of failure echo in her ears. Her body ached, betraying her desperate desire to find the woman she loved. She was exhausted, and bleeding, and she heard Care for yourself, success will come.
Tinhara collapsed into the snow. If the ancestors said she would be successful, she knew it would be. It meant that Hadyn and Lefe were alive, somewhere, and that she would find them. The ancestors had not spoken to her at all when she tried to fulfil the first prophecy. She had asked for their guidance, but they had remained silent. This time, she did not ask, and they were here for her. This time, she was on the right path.
Tinhara tended to her wounds. She wiped the blood and tears from her face and dried herself carefully. They would be small scars, she hoped. She popped her shoulder back into place by slamming herself against an ice block. She patched up her knife wound with pictu fur, and she chewed some snow to stop her mouth from bleeding. And then, when she was as cared for as she could be, she called to the ancestors.
They would not speak to her, but through her. She could feel the tingling, the throbbing. It excited her, made her nervous. Tinhara coughed and cleared her throat. She was ready. The energy was growing in her; she closed her eyes to better concentrate. Her stomach tightened as the power rose up. Inch by inch, she felt it, until finally it was in her throat. Tinhara took a deep breath, and exhaled. Only a small spray of blood came out. She tried again.
The light shot out straight in front of her for almost fifty steps before dissipating into the dark. Tinhara tried again, focussing on the tightness her body went through. Each muscle contracted and released in rhythm, and she pursed her lips and blew a streak of light out. She shouted with joy, triumphant in her conquest of the power of the ancients. She collapsed onto her knees.
“Forgive me, old ones, how could I have doubted you?” she said as she spread her hands over the snow. She bent down and kissed the snow, leaving behind a bloody lip print. She looked around at the snow touched with blood from her wounds, and smiled. “I leave behind this honest gift of myself.” She knew the ancestors would be here, in the snow, whether she believed or not. With her hands raised to the sky, she spit out a small bolt of light in celebration and prayer. Tinhara now had control over her gift. She could call upon it whenever she needed, and she would use it to find Hadyn.
“Hadyn,” she said. Although she had told them to head south to the smoking mouth, she knew she would have to search before heading there, just in case. It was possible, she reasoned, that they were injured and would not be able to make the trip, and the thought of leaving Hadyn dying in the snow was one she could not stand. If the Gods let her be, Tinhara could cover a large area before the cold really settled into her bones. She decided to spend only one night day in the Land of the Gods; any more and if Hadyn had reached the mountain people, she might continue the journey homeward alone.
Heading away from the mountains, Tinhara jogged in a straight line for twenty minutes, then turned east, travelling until she was sure she could no longer see her tracks. She headed south, and turned again. Searching in parallel lines meant she would not miss anyone buried in a snowbank or trapped under a piece of ice, but it was slow work. On one turn to the east, she spied something dark. A dead pictu lay on top of the snow. She picked it up, sniffed it, and decided it would be okay to eat it. She tore away the fur and skin with her teeth and nibbled on the fatty flesh underneath. She held the pictu out, away from her body so that the blood would drip into the snow and not onto her clothing. She spied another dark blob and discovered a small, tattered pouch. She picked it up and inspected it carefully. It was hers, and although the bottom had been ripped out of it, Tinhara kept a firm grip. It might be all she had left. She knew now she was on the right track. She picked up odds and ends as she travelled the land, a knife here, a bag there. Some of it was intact, much of it was damaged.
She tripped over a headless skeleton in the snow, landing face first and sending up a puff of snow. Scrambling, she carefully inspected the bones and found that it was a bear. It was too old to be Huel. With the ribs, leg bones and claws in hand, she continued her journey, wrapping them in the tattered pouch as she walked. Everything was important.
“What” she asked herself as she pulled her hood back and tilted her head. She tilted it the other way and then looked at the bear bones in her hands. Did she hear it again? Her heart leapt and she ran onward, calling out Hadyn’s name over and over. The snow crunched loudly with each heavy footfall and she paused to listen again.
“Hadyn!” she shouted. Only her echo responded. She sighed sadly and continued her search. Tinhara trudged through the snow for hours, finding no more signs. She sat down heavily in the snow and flicked at a small speck of ice. There was no hope of finding them; she had no idea how far or in which direction she had travelled with the Gods. Lying back, she sighed and gave up the search. She laughed a bit and began to move her arms, flapping them like wings. Bird, she thought.
Tinhara walked south, eyes still keen for any sign of the others. This world of ice and snow that had long cradled her in its arms was not just absent of life; it seemed dead. She stared into the sky as she walked; even the Gods had abandoned her. Anguish began to fill her mind, and she knew she would cry if she wasn’t careful. Concentrating, she breathed deeply, steadily. If she controlled her breathing, she wouldn’t cry. A cool breath whispered gently across Tinhara’s shoulders. Proceeding forward, silent and sombre, she spit out rays of light into the wasteland. As the light swept the ground before her, Tinhara saw grotesque faces leap from the shadows around her, cadaverous heads that hung from fiendish bodies, performing grizzly cannibalistic rituals as one faded into the other. Always in the corner of her eye, Tinhara could see a black hole, and within the hole, a terrific pale face with more black holes for dead eyes and a mute, screaming mouth. It’s hungry stare fell viciously on her mind. From the darkness, she believed she could hear echoes of sinister laughter.
It was the same laughter, she was sure, she had heard from the God she danced with, from the Karech magicians and from the storm that took her mother. They had been hunting in the waters of the Ataani Ocean, at the end of the world. Her father had lain prone on the ice, his face shoved tight against a seal’s breathing hole. “You can smell the male who comes up to breathe,” he explained. He motioned, and Tinhara walked over and crouched down beside him. “Put your face down into the hole, right down. Cover the outside of the hole with your hands. That’s right. Can you smell it?”
Tinhara inhaled deeply and took in the odour that clung to the edges of the ice. She withdrew her face and nodded at him. “Mother, come and smell the seal!” she shouted.
“I’ve smelled seals before,” Qintal said.
“But mother, not like this, not from a breathing hole,” Tinhara insisted.
“Then I will smell the seal from the breathing hole,” she responded as she walked over and crouched down beside her daughter. With her arm around Tinhara’s shoulder, she bent down and inhaled deeply. “Yes, that’s a seal. He’s been here recently. And perhaps,” she said as she gave her daughter a hug, “he will come again soon and we will have fresh seal for dinner.” Tinhara’s stomach growled in delight.
They waited near the hole, Derly standing with his spear poised. Her mother put her bare hands to her mouth and began to grunt and bark, imitating the noises of a female seal in heat. And Tinhara waited, watching the hole, refusing to blink for fear she’d miss the moment when the male responded. There! Her father rammed the spear into the hole and shouted, and her mother leapt to the spear shaft and grabbed hold. The bone hook on the point of the spear had jammed through the flesh of the animal and despite its wriggling and twisting, the point held fast.
“Get the snow saw,” her mother ordered, and Tinhara immediately jumped up and fetched the saw. “Cut, cut,” she shouted as she struggled to maintain her grip on the shaft. Cutting and sawing around the hole, Tinhara finally made it large enough that her parents were able to pull the animal through and up onto the ice. A trail of blood led from the enlarged hole to the dying seal that Derly had yanked across the ice.
Tinhara raced to get the xix and a bowl from the sled and returned quickly, handing it over to her mother. Qintal quickly sliced the animal’s throat while Derly held the bowl under the gash to catch the blood. Her mother sliced off the upper flipper and gave it to Tinhara, and she began happily to gnaw on it. The other upper flipper she kept for herself for later. Her mother continued to slice up the seal, removing the heart and liver, which they all shared. Next came the spine, the women keeping the upper half and her father getting the lower half. They talked and laughed and enjoyed the hard won meal, and it wasn’t until almost an hour later that Tinhara noticed the sky.
“Father, the sky is turning over there. Will there be a storm?” she asked as she pointed, seal blood dripping from her hands.
He turned and looked, and responded quickly. “Get everything back to the sled, now!” She and her mother moved immediately, grabbing the seal and pushing it along the ice to the sled. Derly had already beat them to the sled and was strapping himself into the harness when they loaded the carcass onto the sled. “We will have to run,” he said. “Run as fast as you can!” he shouted. The family ran, heading back to shore. But Tinhara was young and small for her age, and couldn’t keep up with her parents. She lagged behind, despite the admonitions and encouragement offered by her parents. Her mother slowed down, waving her arm, urging her to run faster and faster, but she couldn’t do it. Her chest hurt, her legs ached and she stumbled into the snow. She looked up and watched as her father continued his great pace, never once looking back. But it was her mother, with her wide back and her strong arms, who grabbed Tinhara and lifted her up onto her shoulders. It would have felt like a child’s game if she hadn’t been so afraid.
The clouds quickly filled the sky and the bitter winds blew from Nasquelek itself. Her hair froze as the white ocean mist sprayed them. She could barely see her father but she called out to him; she knew Qintal was running slower now, tiring out as she carried her daughter on her shoulders. There was a thunderous roar, and the Gods split open the ice before her father. He was unable to stop in time, and fell into the frigid water. The sled stopped at the edge of the floe, and from atop her mother’s shoulders she watched as he struggled to gain a hold of the sled or the edge of the ice or anything else. Tinhara heard the sound then, a strange, deep laughter. She wondered who she could hear. They were only fifty steps away when her mother lost her footing and fell, sending Tinhara tumbling into the ice. The wind was too strong to continue walking, so they both began to crawl toward the sled. Forty feet, thirty feet, twenty feet, they moved closer and closer, Qintal calling out to her husband. The ice groaned again, and a crack appeared between them and him.
“Stop!” her mother commanded as she grabbed Tinhara and held her back.
“We can still save him!” she cried out, kicking her feet and struggling to wrest herself free of her mother’s fierce grip.
“You can’t cross the water!” Qintal yelled back at her as she yanked her daughter closer. Bleak, bitter clouds emptied pitilessly onto them, creating an impenetrable sheet of ice rain. Tinhara began to shiver when her clothes stuck to the floe. She was soaked through and it wasn’t long before the shivers turned to convulsions. Everything became hazy for her. Her mother began to strip off her own fur clothing. Tinhara lay there, helpless, unable to free herself from the icy grips of the floe, while her mother put layer upon layer of her own clothes on her. She looked up once toward the sled, which was still an impossible few feet away, but there was no sign of her father. She heard the laughter again, rumbling at first and moving into a high pitched squeal as the ocean and the wind raged against them.
When the sun eventually came out from behind the clouds, the crust over Tinhara began to melt and she struggled to free herself from its bonds. She was too eager, and yanked her hand up away from the floe before it was ready to release her. She stared, dumbfounded, at the small finger that remained behind.
She felt that same hopeless loss now, even though many years had passed. Lying down under the empty sky, Tinhara fell into fitful sleep. She was exhausted, but her mind wasn’t ready to rest, so it tortured her all night long. It reminded her that she’d lost everything; Hadyn, Huel, Lefe. The Gods had torn even her soul asunder, and laughed at her in her dreams.
In the early morning, she awoke tired. Just as she had promised herself, she headed toward the mountain. If Hadyn was not there, had not been there, then she would come back. And if the Gods drove her out again, she would come back again. She ambled on, head down, at a slow pace. Hope was lost in the labyrinths of her fear. From the corner of her eye, she spotted it. The Naqtuk clouds had gathered to the west. Tinhara leaned back to get a better look, and collapsed.
A soft sound awakened her. She blinked her eyes open, and waited to hear it again. She heard nothing out of the ordinary. A slight breeze, a few crystals of snow clinking over the ice, the sound of her breath. In, out. In, out. In… out.
The breathing she heard was not keeping time with her chest: it was not her own. The ancestors were breathing life into her. Tinhara bolted upright and scanned the area. She spied the Naqtuk clouds again, still where they had been. They were not moving. She could not make out what might be there, waiting for her, but she scrambled to her feet in anticipation. She ran; not quickly, but steadily. Over and over, her feet hit the ground, over and over they left the ground. First one, then the other, keeping a beat that drove her on.
She could see a small blob of black, hovering above the snowline. It was not easy to make out. Each step she took while she ran jarred her vision. But she knew instinctively what the blob was. It was the same blob she had been seeing from a distance for years. It was Huel’s black nose bobbing up and down as he ran toward her.
She grunted loudly, words failing her, as he came fully into view. Huel slowed down as he approached and greeted her not with his usual roughhousing, but with the gentleness of a father greeting his cub. Tinhara fell into him, sobbing into the fur she clutched in her hands. “Praise be!” she shouted as she clung to him. Huel chuffed and bellowed and licked her tears away. Tinhara dried her face swiftly and grabbed him by the ears. She sat nose to nose with the great beast, each one moaning and grunting softly, until finally Huel laid down beside Tinhara.
“Huel, Huel,” she murmured into his ear. “I thought you had abandoned me. But you came for me, you found me. And my friend, I need your help to find Hadyn again. You found her when the Karech magicians took her. Can you find her again?” But Huel lived on his own schedule, and Tinhara was angry that he did not get up right away. She wanted to be on the move, but Huel wanted to rest, and no matter how much coaxing she tried, he would not budge. Fed up, Tinhara turned her head and spat out a sliver of light.
Shocked, Huel jumped to his feet and grunted. Slowly he sniffed the air, and Tinhara, and the snow. Tinhara took advantage and got to her feet, and began to walk the way she had come. Huel strode up and put his massive body against her leg, steering her back to the way he had come from. It wasn’t long before Huel began to move quickly. Tinhara jumped onto his back, and rode him while he ran.
An hour later, after twists and turns in their journey, Tinhara saw them. “Hadyn! Hadyn!” Tinhara screamed. Hadyn jumped up from where she was crouched, waving her arms and shrieking.
“Tinhara! Oh, Tinhara! You found us! It’s Lefe!”
Tinhara leapt off the bear before he had completely stopped, and was on her knees beside Lefe.
He opened one eye slightly and tried to grin. “Bird,” he said. Lefe was lying on his back in the snow.
“Are you trying to make a snow bird?” she asked. His legs were splayed, his right arm twisted at a horrible angle.
“He’s hurt,” Hadyn whispered as she bent down next to Tinhara. Tinhara touched Hadyn’s cheek and smiled faintly. “He can’t move.” Her voice was shaky, her body trembling.
Lefe’s eyes flickered open and shut as he passed in and out of consciousness. Each time he came to, Tinhara searched his body, touching here, pinching there, and looking for some sign that he felt pain. Slowly, she shook her head. Waiting until he passed out again, she pulled Hadyn aside.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
Hadyn shook her head. “He kept me wrapped in his arms. He took all of the blows. When we landed, I landed on him.”
Tinhara sighed and looked back at Lefe. “His back is b…” she choked. Drawing a deep breath, she said it again. “His back is broken. He c… can’t move, he can’t feel his body.” They both turned toward where he lay, and watched as Huel gently curled up beside him, his head resting on the great man’s chest.
Tinhara nodded, and she could see by the tears welling in Hadyn’s eyes that she understood what that meant.
No more words were exchanged. They walked back to Lefe and prepared him. Tinhara gave him some of the bear bones she had been carrying, as weapons to use in the life after this. Hadyn dug deep into her pocket and withdrew her lone pictu. It was all she had. Tinhara reached for Hadyn’s hand as she bent to lay it on his chest, next to Huel’s head. Wordlessly, slowly, Tinhara took the dead pictu and twisted it, breaking it in half and rending the skin open.
Thick, bloody fat oozed out. Tinhara took Hadyn’s hand, extended the woman’s finger, and ran it through the fat. Guiding Hadyn, she solemnly drew a crescent shape on Lefe’s forehead. To provide light for his spirit to follow, she thought to herself. She knew she could not say the words out loud: the spoken language was beyond her right now. She repeated the ritual, drawing spirals down his cheeks and jaw with Hadyn’s finger. To keep evil from your eyes, that you may see your destination.
Tinhara stifled a groan, and pulled her lips in tightly. Finally, still using Hadyn as a writing tool, she drew rough wings on his arms.
“Bird,” was all she could whisper. Slowly, she put the pictu on his chest, and stood up. One eye opened, his lips moved slightly, and his eye closed again. She put her hand against Huel’s great head, and pressed it down twice against Lefe’s chest. He was to stay with Lefe until he died. She knew that if Lefe lingered, Huel would regurgitate food and water for him. But she also knew she would see Huel again too soon.
Tinhara put her arm around Hadyn, and led her away.