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People of the Nightland
THE WINTER OF ICEBACKED MAMMOTHS ...
"His name was Ti-Bish. Most people called him "the Idiot." He huddled in the lee of the snowdrift and stared out at the pine and spruce trees that rose like dark spears to threaten the star-glazed night sky. Wind Woman howled over the peaks of the Ice Giants and thrashed the dark forests, whipping branches back and forth. A camp of the Nine Pipes band of Sunpath People--down the hill in front of him--lay quiet and still. The people slept warmly in their conical lodges made from pole frames and covered with hides. Ti-Bish could hear the snoring. Somewhere on the far side of the village, a baby whimpered. He didn't see any dogs. It was cold, very cold. The people must have brought the dogs into their lodges for the night.
"They're asleep," he murmured to himself. "All asleep. No one will see me."
A tall gawky man with a boyish face and two long black braids, he had seen ten and nine summers. He pulled his bearskin cape more tightly around his skinny body, and hunched against the cold. Doing so pulled the straps tight on the floppy hide pack that hung down his back.
On the wind, he heard the rasping sound of feathers shredding air.
A bird? At this time of night? He craned his neck to look up. No great bird darkened the stars, but the constellation known as Horn Spoon Village had climbed high into the sky. At this time of year, it indicated that morning would be several hands of time behind the eastern horizon.
Surely no one would be awake at this time. No one would come outside, even if they heard a slight noise.
He rose and picked his way down the hill, carefully placing his snowshoes. They were made from willow hoops laced with rawhide and bound to his moccasins. If he slipped on the ice beneath the dusting of snow, he would tumble down the hill like a thrown rock. At that commotion, however, the entire village would wake and come looking for the intruder.
He eased into a spruce grove. Amid the dark branches, needles rattled and he could smell human waste. Snow had piled around the trunks. The shadowed hollows of the drifts gleamed dark blue, while the cornices shone purple.
He listened for ten heartbeats, then carefully picked his way down the slope toward the shell midden.
The people of Nine Pipes Village collected freshwater mussels from the nearby lakes and rivers. He lifted his nose and could smell the new shells they'd thrown on the midden.
"No one will care," he whispered. "They've already eaten their fill."
He crept closer and heard something pecking. Talons scratched on shell.
Ti-Bish cocked his head. He had a sudden affinity for the scavenging night bird. "We are all the same when it comes to hunger," he whispered softly, feeling the rightness of it.
He removed his mitten, pulled his pack around, and felt inside. His cold fingers located one of the stones, and he pulled out his bolo, a contraption of three rocks that dangled from thongs. The light of the Blessed Star People reflected from the snow with a faint pale glow. He might be able to see well enough to ensnare an owl. The thought of warm meat made his empty belly moan.
Wings flapped again.
He crept downwind of the shell midden, praying Wind Woman would keep his scent from the owl. When he reached the edge of themidden, the shells glittered faintly in the starlight. He got down and crawled forward with the silence of a dire wolf on a hunt.
A caw erupted, then several more.
Ti-Bish frowned. A raven? Scavenging in the middle of the night? He'd never seen or heard of such a thing. Perhaps the bird, too, was starving?
He fought the urge to rise, to rush around the midden and cast his bolo in one desperate gamble for food. No, way too risky. Ravens were very smart.
Sliding forward on his belly, Ti-Bish could see the bird feasting on the fresh shells at the base of the midden. The raven was big, black as night, with eyes that glowed silver in the star gleam.
Raven stood on a mussel shell, grasping it with his feet, and used his beak to tug out a stubborn bit of meat. Tossing his head back, he gobbled the morsel down, and went back for more.
Ti-Bish took a deep breath, rose on his knees, and judged the distance. He lifted his bolo by the center knot, letting the stones hang.
Raven stopped eating.
Raven cocked his head and searched the midden for predators.
Ti-Bish waited, hoping his belly would not moan again and give away his position.
For long moments, he remained still, not even breathing, while Wind Woman battered the forest. Cold began to sting his exposed fingers. Raven's fears eased, and his black beak lowered to flip empty shells this way and that. The clawed feet skittered on the uncertain footing.
With the noise as cover, Ti-Bish drew back and flung his bolo. He put all his strength into the cast, hearing the thongs swish wickedly through the silent air. Raven let out a sharp cry, leaping up as the bolo caught him at midbody, pinning his wings to his sides. He flopped over, and cawed in terror. His frozen puff of breath hung in the air before it was swept away by the wind. Ti-Bish raced forward as Raven clawed to his feet and tried to run.
"Please, my brother, I'm starving!"
He chased Raven over the icy shells, his snowshoe-clad feet slipping and sliding. He made a mad leap, arms out, his body thumping in the snow. He caught a foot, pulled, and got a grip on a partially extended wing.
Raven squawked and pecked at Ti-Bish's fingers when they went tight around his black body.
"Forgive me, Brother," he said as he grasped Raven's neck and twisted, surprised at how strong the creature was. The feathers were warm against his chilled fingers, and for a moment, Ti-Bish marveled at the life pulsing under his grip. Then, with a final wrench, the vertebrae snapped.
Raven's body twitched and jerked, the wings desperate for the air. The feet kicked, and the long black beak clacked woodenly.
Ti-Bish sighed, sinking back on the snow. For a moment, all he could do was stroke the sleek black feathers. Glancing at the village, he half expected to see people ducking out of the lodges, hear dogs barking, and calls on the night.
The world had turned suddenly silent; even Wind Woman held her breath.
Raven is a Spirit Bird!
That memory sent a shiver up his spine. What would come of killing a Spirit animal? He could imagine the look of consternation on the faces of the Elders, see the horror reflected in their eyes.
But they dismissed me long ago. He stared down sadly at the raven, carefully stroking the feathers, marveling at the warmth beneath. He had never liked killing. The destruction of beauty had always upset him.
"Isn't there a better way, Raven? Do we have to kill to live?"
He unwound his bolo, stood, and carried his prize back to the forest. Behind the screen of trees, he nestled in the lee of the snowdrift, partially sheltered from Wind Woman as she resumed her relentless blow.
"I'm sorry I had to kill you, Raven," he whispered as he continued to pet the feathers. "But I'm starving, too. Thank you for your meat."
Drawing a stone knife from his belt pouch, he slit open the bird's belly and cut out the internal organs first. The heart, liver, and kidneys he ate in single gulps.
Ti-Bish drank the blood that had pooled in the stomach cavity and then peeled back the skin--feathers and all--and gently laid it to the side. Using his teeth, he tore the meat from the bones as fast as he could and swallowed it.
When he'd finished, he tucked Raven's bones into the empty skin and carried it to a nearby tree. When he found the right branch, he placed Raven in the crook where the bird's soul could see the sun rise. His people--the People of the Nightland--never left the bonesof animals they'd hunted on the ground. To do so was disrespectful. If animals were killed with reverence, the creator, Old Man Above, would send a new body for them, and their Spirits would enter it and fly away again.
"Thank you, Brother," he said softly.
He leaned his forehead against the trunk of the tree and took a deep tired breath. He'd been scavenging this shell midden for several days, but had found little to chase away his hunger.
Yesterday, one of the Sunpath women had brought him food. She'd been kind and beautiful. He'd been hoping she would bring him more today, but she hadn't. He would linger in the area for perhaps another day, then move on.
Lethargic from the feast, he felt too tired to return to the lean-to he'd constructed far back in the forest. A raven had a lot of meat, and his belly was filled to bursting for the first time in several moons. The taste of it lay cloying and musky on the back of his tongue. He placed a hand to his belly as the first pangs lanced through him.
"Shouldn't have eaten so fast."
He walked back into the pines, found a big drift, and began scooping it out to create a snow cave. When he'd finished, he crawled through the narrow doorway and curled on his side. Beyond the entry, snow whirled and gusted across the ground.
He pulled his pack close, wondering what he'd do in case Grandmother Lion or Brother Short-faced Bear also came to scavenge the shell midden. With the strength of Raven's blood warming his belly, he fell into an exhausted sleep.
The Dreaming crept up from the cold ground and twined icy fingers around his body ... .
In the Dreaming, he and Raven flew side by side over jagged ice peaks that seemed to go on forever. Deep crevasses rent the ice in places, and long cracks zigzagged away from them like dark lightning bolts. Here, in the Dreaming, he was no longer a weak man. He flew behind Raven with his own black glittering wings.
"Look!" Raven said, and tucked his wings, plummeting downward toward a gaping hole in the ice. "Do you see it?"
Ti-Bish dropped toward the cavern and floated beside Raven on the cool currents that blew up from the darkness. The air smelled of moss and algae. Water gushed from the mouth of a tunnel, carrying sand and gravel out in a black stream that ran along a fissure, only to be swallowed by the ice again. Groans and squeals could be heard, as though the Ice Giants were being squeezed and crushed.
Raven tucked his wings yet again and dove. Like a cast dart, he shot through the tunnel mouth into utter darkness.
Frightened, Ti-Bish followed.
Deep in the belly of the Ice Giants, light glowed, pale and flickering.
"This is the way," Raven said. "Follow me."
He flapped over a great dark lake streaked with a phosphorescent brilliance, as though the fish themselves left sinuous trails of light through the water.
"Through there," Raven said, and flew up the shore. "Do you see it?"
Raven sailed along the lakeshore, swooping down occasionally to examine the gigantic bones of monsters that eroded from the ice. A trail wove around the ancient skeletons--a Monster Bone Trail--and here and there Ti-Bish saw the skeletal bodies of dead humans.
Raven soared to where a wide river spilled out into the fiery lake. For a moment the great bird hovered on the draft. Raven shot a look over his wing, meeting Ti-Bush's surprised gaze; then, with a caw that sounded like laughter, Raven dove into the cavelike opening.
Ti-Bish, squealing in fear, sailed after him.
Only the sound of Raven's flapping wings led him through the blackness. On each side the Ice Giants chittered and cackled. Often their deep groans were loud enough to scare Ti-Bish's Spirit from his body. He flew harder, trying to catch up with the ever-elusive Raven.
For what seemed an eternity they flew through a quaking, moaning world of darkness. The first twinkle of light might have been an illusion, a thing of desperation. No more than a pinprick, it beckoned, luring him forward.
"This is the way," Raven said. "You must be the guide who leads the people this way."
Emerging from the hole, the effect was as if the Ice Giants split wide. They flew out into a dark sky filled with thousands of Star People. Far beneath them, herds of mammoth, long-horned buffalo, and caribou grazed together along the shore of a vast ocean.
"What is this place?"
"This is the land of the Long Dark ... the place you heard of in stories told by the Elders."
"The land Wolf Dreamer led the people away from so long ago?"
Fear slipped away like elk's winter coat in spring, and Ti-Bish flew wild and free, darting and diving after Raven, who flipped over onto his back and plummeted straight down toward a long-horned buffalo.
Raven alighted on Buffalo's hump. Ti-Bish hesitated, aware of Raven's mocking eye as he backed air, and dropped worriedly onto the buffalo's back. The thick fur compressed under his taloned feet. The animal's massive shoulders rolled up and down as it walked through belly-deep grass.
Raven said, "Buffalo shows you the way. Just as I have. If I'd flown here, to the Long Dark, where there is plenty to eat, I wouldn't have needed to scavenge the shell midden, and you wouldn't have had to kill me. My life is a gift. Use it to grow strong so that you can guide our people back to this paradise."
Ti-Bish burrowed down into Buffalo's thick fur and sighed. Had he ever enjoyed anything so warm and soft? In the distance, he saw mammoth calves running and trumpeting, playing in the starlight. Caribou stood in ponds, moss hanging from their antlers; and high overhead, crimson waves of light rolled across fluttering curtains of green and blue: the brilliant fires of the Monster Children's war that never ceased.
"This was ours once," Raven said. "Before Wolf Dreamer led our people through the ice. But you can lead them back."
"The world is changing. People are turning on each other. Even the Ice Giants moan and wail.You must not fear the conflict, but embrace it, for it will strengthen the people." Raven was watching him with a knowing eye. "It will be difficult, and many will call you a fool."
"They already do." He hated being known as the Idiot.
"You must only believe." Raven paused. "Finally, you must seek out Nashat."
"He hates me. And I've only seen him once since he returned from the south."
"He will lead the Nightland Council soon. He will understand your value. And, finally, you must have him bring the Sunpath woman known as Skimmer to you. Only through you will she believe in me."
"Skimmer?" His heart warmed as he remembered the Nine Pipes woman who had shared her food with him.
"Se is my legacy, Ti-Bish. The future of the Dream." The world seemed to shrink, growing ever smaller. "And you must be good to her."
The last thing Ti-Bish remembered was Raven's gleaming eye. The sensation was as if he were falling into it. Dropping into an endless darkness ...
Copyright © 2007 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear