People of the Wolf
By W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1990 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
All rights reserved.
The Long Dark continued, unending, eating their souls.
Wind Woman whipped across the frozen drifts, whirling wreaths of snow into the arctic night. In her fury, she blasted the mammoth-hide shelters of the People with a gust that battered the frozen skins over the head of the one called Runs In Light.
Blinking awake, he listened to the howling gale. Around him, the others of the People huddled in their thick robes, deep asleep. Someone snored softly. Cold, so cold ... An uncontrollable shiver made him wish they had more fat to burn in the fire hole, but it was gone. Seventeen Long Darks hadn't put much muscle on his skinny bones to start with—and famine had wasted the rest.
Even old Broken Branch muttered that she'd never seen a winter like this.
Carried on the wind, a faint whimpering came from behind the shelters. Some animal scratched for food scraps the People had long since chipped from the ice. Wolf?
Heart pounding with hope, Runs In Light traced chill-stiff fingers over his atlatl—the ornately carved throwing stick used by the People to catapult stone-tipped darts. He squirmed out from under frosty hides. Creeping tendrils of cold stroked the last warm places on his body as, bent low, he stepped silently over fur-wrapped sleepers. Even in the icy air, the stink of the shelter—occupied for months—came to his nose.
Buried under the hides, Laughing Sunshine's baby squeaked its hunger. A spear of sound, its pain reflected in Runs In Light's pinched expression.
"Where are you, Father Sun?" he demanded harshly, tightening his grip on the atlatl until his fingers ached. Then, like a seal through an ice hole, he wiggled under the crawl flap. Wind Woman rushed down from the black northwest, shoving him backward. He steadied himself against the shelter, squinting into the lighter darkness beyond. Snow crystals chittered mutedly on the packed ice.
Wolf's muffled sounds came again, claws scratching at something buried in the snow.
Runs In Light circled, following the lee of a drift, hoping Wind Woman would keep his scent from wolf's keen nose. On hands and knees, he crawled to the top of the drift and slithered over the crest on his belly. Dark against the stained snow, wolf struggled to dig Flies Like A Seagull's body from the clinging ice.
He bowed his head in sorrow.
He'd found his mother frozen in her robes a week before. Echoes of her stories would haunt his mind forever, voice warm as she told him the ways of the People. He smiled wistfully, remembering the light in her eyes as she chanted of the great Dreamers: of Heron and Sun Walker and other legendary heroes of the People. How soft and caring her hand had been as it resettled the furs around a younger and happier Runs In Light's cold face.
A bitter chill touched his soul as he saw a more recent visage of her toothless death rictus—her frost-grayed eyes.
So many had starved.
Too weak to do more than stumble out of the shelters, the People had carried Flies Like A Seagull's corpse only this far. Here, on the ice, they'd left her to stare at the skies, praying and singing her soul up to the Blessed Star People. Wind Woman had blown her stiff corpse over, snow drifting softly to bury her—until wolf came to chew her frozen flesh.
The urge to rush down over the drift, screaming his rage and hurt, rose powerfully. He forced it back. Food, wolf was food.
Father Sun looks away when hunger forces hunter to stalk hunter. What had they done that He would punish them so?
Runs In Light took a deep breath, rising slowly to his knees, judging the distance.
Wolf stopped short, head coming up, pointed ears pricked. Willing himself to remain motionless, Runs In Light gauged the wind, waiting, hoping his hunger-robbed limbs wouldn't betray him this last time.
Wolf turned his head, sniffing, gaunt ribs working as he searched the wind, an uneasy presence leaving him wary.
Runs In Light cleared his thoughts, shifting his eyes slightly to the side. He breathed softly, relaxing, forcing gnawing twists of hunger from his consciousness. He himself had experienced that feeling of being watched, that subtle prickle of eyes upon him. For long moments he waited while wolf's nerves settled and the animal's gray nose dropped to gnaw the corpse again.
Runs In Light tensed—threw his weight into the atlatl—and watched the dart as it arced. True to the Spirit Power he'd breathed into the shaft, it caught wolf just behind the ribs.
The animal yipped—a startled leap carrying it straight up. Landing on all fours, wolf shot away into the night.
Hollow hunger voices echoed in his head as Runs In Light followed, the dark blotches of blood on the snow. He stopped, dropping to one knee. Weakly raising his atlatl, he pounded the stain to chip it loose. With a mittened hand he lifted a bit of red-splotched snow, sniffing. Gut blood, it carried the pungency of severed intestines. Burning blood, it would slow wolf, bring him to an eventual stop.
From blood smear to blood smear, he worked out the trail, growing uneasy as the distance stretched between him and camp. Wind Woman's breath shifted across the land, blowing snow to fill his tracks. The eyes of the Long Dark lay heavy and menacing upon him.
He gazed upward, murmuring to the spirits, "Leave me alone. I must find wolf. Don't eat my soul ... don't...." The drain on his soul abated, but the presence clung in the air, floating, waiting to see if his honor proved worthy.
In the lee of a drift, he studied the tracks. Wolf had stopped here and even lain down for a short while. A blacker patch of blood stained the snow.
Runs In Light's fingers trembled inside the heavy mittens as he used a stone dart point to carefully pry the frozen blood from the ice. Heedless of the wolf hair sticking to it, he chewed, grimacing at the gut-juice taste. Food. The first he'd enjoyed in four days.
Four days? The Dreamer's number. His mother had told him that. A day for each of the directions to bring the soul awake.
He stood, slowly scanning the landscape, whispering, "You're here, wolf. I feel your spirit close."
In the Long Dark, the white waste gleamed deep blue, shadows of purple creeping along the drifts. To the north, the land undulated, jagged peaks shining starkly in the light of the Star People above.
Eyes to the snow, he clutched his weapons: two darts, both as long as he was tall, and his atlatl, blessed by the blood of mammoth and Grandfather White Bear. He shuffled ahead, pace just fast enough to keep warm. Hunger stalked his rubbery legs as he stalked his prey.
Wind-sculpted snow wavered, shimmering in his tear-blurred eyes. How long since he'd slept? Two days?
"Dream Hunt?" he muttered hoarsely, wondering at the unreal sensations; hunger and fatigue played with his mind and senses. He staggered, dazed by his swirling balance.
"I must catch you, wolf."
The soul eaters of the Long Dark drifted closer, eerie whispers haunting his ears. He clamped his jaw tightly, crying, "The People need meat. Hear me, wolf? We're starving!"
An age-cracked voice murmured in Light's shifting memory, "Sun Father's losing his strength. Cloud Mother wraps herself around Blue Sky Man and sucks up his warmth." The old shaman, Crow Caller, had blinked, one eye black, the other white with blindness as he told the People of coming famine.
Seeing only snow, the aged leader had prophesied, "This year mammoth will die. Musk ox will die. Caribou will stay far south with buffalo. The People will wither."
And it was so. The melting time during the Long Light had barely lasted through one turning of Moon Woman's face. Then Cloud Mother had covered the skies. Constant rain and snow raged out of the north to kill the Long Light. Cold lay heavy on the land when the grasses, willows, and tundra plants should have grown tall to feed mammoth.
Crow Caller spent his time singing, praying for a Dream. The old shaman trapped Seagull once and twisted his neck four turns. The limp bird in his callused brown hands, he'd sliced through the down feathers with an obsidian blade to expose the guts. He'd peered, his one good eye gleaming, to see what news Seagull brought from so far out among the floating ice mountains on the great salt water to the north.
"Back," he had croaked. "We must go north ... back the way we came."
The People had looked at each other anxiously, remembering the ones who pursued them, the ones they called the Others: mammoth hunters like themselves, but men who murdered and chased the People from the fertile hunting grounds to the north. Could the People go back? Could they face those fierce warriors?
Once—so the elders told—the People had lived on the other side of the huge mountains to the west. There, Father Sun had given them a wondrous land of rivers abounding in grassy plains rich in game. Then the Others had come, driving them from the land, pushing them north and east against the salt water. Father Sun, in his wisdom, had given them a new land at the mouth of the Big River where they could see the Big Ice extending out into the salt water. The Others had followed, pushing the People away from the lush hunting grounds at the mouth of the Big River, pushing them down this last long valley, ever to the south. Now the ground rose, the mountains hemming them from the west, the Big Ice encroaching from the east. What was left? And behind the Others continued to push, forcing the People ever higher into the rocky hills devoid of game.
So the elders debated while the People worried. Was there enough game in this high rocky country where little grass grew for mammoth and caribou? What would the People do?
And then the young hunter called One Who Cries had run into camp, calling to all that he'd found three dead mammoths. So they'd talked. Against Crow Caller's judgment, the People had gone farther south to butcher the giant beasts, eating their way into the carcasses while the Long Dark grew longer over their heads, chasing Father Sun to his southern home.
Crow Caller grumbled and growled, tormenting them, saying that hunger would be their punishment for disobeying Seagull's oracle.
"A mouthful of food is worth more than an earful of shaman's words," Runs In Light had told himself. And the People had stayed, splitting even mammoth's small bones for what marrow remained. They stretched the heavy hides over piled stones and propped them up with split mammoth long bone and curved tusks. But mammoth no longer came to Crow Caller's chanted prayers. Musk ox and caribou stayed far to the north near the great salt water.
Despite the protests of old Broken Branch, the People had eaten the dogs. First the pack dogs were turned into stew. Finally, in desperation, the bear dogs were dispatched and dropped into boiling bags—a sure sign the People were near catastrophe.
Men and women hunted, finding nothing but darkness and ice. Grandfather White Bear killed Throws Bones and dragged him away into the darkness to eat.
And the People starved.
Wind Woman tugged Runs In Light's furs, pushing him toward the land of the Big Ice and Father Sun's home: south—ever south. Even now, Wolf ran that direction—away from the shelters of the People and into the unknown where even Crow Caller feared to go.
"Crow Caller," he whispered, gut tightening. The cursed old shaman had taken Dancing Fox for a wife—knowing she despised him. But who could deny a shaman of Crow Caller's power?
It had been a winter of sorrow. Runs In Light had lost so much, his mother and even the woman who made his heart sing. He blinked, shaking his head. Dizziness swept over him; he fought for balance.
"A little longer," he muttered to the Soul Eaters of the Long Dark. "Just give me a little longer."
Hungry ... too hungry. The People insisted the hunters be fed first. People without strong hunters died. Still, he had cheated—given his share to Laughing Sunshine. Her milk had dried up and her baby wailed pitifully. Yet if he could find wolf, she could feed it again.
Runs In Light gulped icy air, cold tingling through his shivering body. His mind slowed its wheeling. He continued his shuffling pursuit on leaden legs, knowing wolf lurked close, angry, unwilling to die peacefully.
His foot slipped on slanted ice. He fell hard, grunting, light-headed again. Pushing himself up, he dusted the snow away and looked to his weapons, resettling the long dart into the hook in the end of the atlatl.
Mind tumbling, for a moment he tried to remember why he'd left the safety of the shelters. "What was I ...? Ah ... wolf." He concentrated on his prey, frightened by the lapse.
Again he bent to the tracks. For weeks the People had been living off mammoth's hide, cutting apart—section by section—the very roofs over their heads. By the hour they gnawed frozen skin, having no fire to boil it soft.
He stumbled, almost falling. As he struggled to stay erect, he saw movement from the corner of his eye. He spun sluggishly. Too late.
A cornice collapsed under wolf as he leapt, blood-weak, from the crest of a drift. Wolf crashed down, rolling out of control in a cascade of powdery snow, snarling his hatred and fear; he knocked Runs In Light sprawling.
He scrambled to his knees to face wolf.
"My brother," he sang softly, "let me kill you. The People starve. Bless your soul to our use. We are worthy of your—"
Wolf bounded forward. By instinct, Runs In Light rolled away as strong jaws snapped for his leg.
The beast panted hoarsely, frozen puffs hanging in the air. Head lowered, yellow eyes squinted, he bared his teeth.
Runs In Light stood, edging around. The bloody fletched dart shaft poked out of wolf's side, flopping loosely with each labored breath. Blood dripped from the torn wound and soaked wolf's coat, freezing in stringers.
Why do I feel no fear? Wolf faces me with hate in his eyes. We are both hungry. Maybe starving makes men and wolves fools?
Wind Woman howled through the frozen darkness. A gentle dusting of snow glistened in the light of the Star People as it settled over them. Wolf's growl steamed out in a vaporous cloud.
"Wolf ... I'm sorry. Father Sun has truly forgotten us when we must eat each other. Where has caribou gone? Where is mammoth?"
The beast's head lowered; for the first time, Runs In Light noticed the froth of red building on wolf's mouth. The tumble down the drift must have driven the dart deeper to wound a lung.
Wolf's limbs trembled in sudden weakness. The beast charged, but his feet lost their grace. He weaved, strained breath a tearing sound over the whimper of the wind. Clumsy, the animal stumbled, falling.
"Forgive me, brother," Runs In Light sang, arms lifted to the night sky. "I send your soul to the Star People. Your flesh will make my people strong. You are brave, brother wolf."
With all his power, he drove a long dart through wolf's shoulder, using it like a spear. Wolf yipped in pain, kicking violently as Runs In Light struggled on the end of the shaft. Then the big animal quieted, fierce yellow eyes staring vacantly at the snow.
Runs In Light sagged, looking up at the Star People overhead. "Thank you, wolf. Father Sun, are you listening?" he shouted resentfully. "Wolf has just given his life to save your people. He cared about us."
His hands shook as he sliced the gut cavity open, releasing a rising puff of steam. It swirled around, caressing his head in the warm odor of blood. He tore the heart loose and gratefully sucked the life-hot blood from it. With the razor-sharp points of his darts, he cut the thick heart muscle into strips and choked them down, almost enjoying the sudden cramps twisting his stomach. The acrid unpleasantness of wolf-taste filled him—Power in its own right.
Wolf's strength coursed through his body. A warm feeling spread along his limbs like ice melting at the dawn of the Long Light.
Softly singing a spirit song, Runs In Light turned to the high drift wolf had tumbled down and began pawing into the crusted snow. Within minutes, his skilled hands had hollowed out a shelter.
Looking to the night sky, he shouted, "Get away! I've shown honor! You have no claim on my soul. Go! Leave me alone!"
The malignant powers of the Long Dark pulled back, respecting him and his courage. (Continues...)
Excerpted from People of the Wolf by W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Copyright © 1990 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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