Read an Excerpt
"So she sang,
'A young man would be wise.
A young man would be brave.
He left the place he knew.
He came to death's valley . . .
He broke the living stone . . .
He slew my friend the bear . . .'
"And Iya said, "Ho, sing what you will. It is your death song and it is music that will make my heart glad.'"
Bad Wound (Taopi-sica)
Lakota Myth by James R. Walker
The spirit of the wind called from the black depths of the Ice Age night. It moaned across the storm-savaged highlands, keening in the way of a wild beast mourning a lost mate until, at last, the sleeping boy's eyes opened in cold darkness.
Warakan's heart was pounding, and his thoughts ran as wild as the wind. It has returned to the forest, the thing that cries in the winter dark! The sad-voiced spirit that clothes itself in the invisible skin of North Wind as it haunts the abandoned village of the dead to which Jhadel has forbidden me to return!
Knuckling the residue of dreams from his eyes, the boy remained flat on his back upon the jumble of dried ferns, feathers, and strips of crudely cured animal skins that served as his mattress. He held his breath and listened, trying not to be afraid as he remembered, All that is bad comes from the north . . . all that is dark and cold . . . all that has to do with death and danger.
Beside him lay the sleeping old shaman and the orphaned cub of the tawny she-bear whose thick, shaggy pelt now clothed his own thin, furless hide. Beyond the vaulted confines of their hide-covered, sapling-braced lodge of bark and brushwood, North Wind was no longer moaning; it was howling through the forest like a gut-wounded dire wolf.
The lodge creaked, straining against its hardwood anchor pegs, then trembled violently. Warakan trembled, too, but although he was wary of the rising wind, he did not fear the storm that spawned it. His shelter had endured worse weather since White Giant Winter had come down upon the world. The size of the lodge was nothing to boast of, but its location on a bench of broken woodland beneath an overhanging streamside bluff would grant protection from the full fury of the storm. He and Jhadel had dug the broad, circular foundation of the lodge knee-deep into the skin of the earth, surrounding it with bark and brushwood to prevent the intrusion of all but the most tenacious drafts of cold air; even these were baffled by a ring of heavy stones that held the bottom edges of the lodge covers in place. Now, snug as a wood rat in his winter den, Warakan was confident that his shelter would survive this latest onslaught of weather; but he was less sure of other things, or more elusive things potentially far more dangerous. Of these intangibles he was afraid.
He lay motionless in the dark, breathing softly as he listened for the spirit to call again. Moments passed. Outside, North Wind continued its rampage through the trees, but if it spoke in the language of men, the boy could not understand its words. He closed his eyes, as though by depriving himself of one sense he might sharpen another, and gradually he became aware of other sounds: the soft rubbings of thong against wood; a loose section of hide flapping near the apex of the roof; the erratic snortings of the dreaming old shaman, Jhadel, sloppily sucking air through broad, camel-like nostrils; and the low, whistling snores of the yearling bear as it slept its winter sleep in a grass nest well away from the central fire pit, where the heart-ember of sacred Fire smoldered in a mound of ash lest it grow cold and lifeless before dawn.
The boy shivered, not against cold but against frustration. The latest snowstorm had kept him lodge-bound with Jhadel for more than three days and four nights. Not wanting to worry the old man, Warakan had not told him that the only reason they had meat in their boiling bag, fat for their tallow lamp, and kindling for their fire was because he had recently begun to replenish their supplies of dried meat, burnable twigs, grass, and fat from the many carefully placed hunting caches they had assembled at the beginning of winter. The boy's frown became a scowl as he wondered if the old man knew anyway; there was little in the way of secrets that a youth who had not yet seen the end of his tenth winter could keep from a shaman of Jhadel's years, even if the youth was Warakan, grandson of the war chief Shateh and son of the fabled Mystic Warrior, Masau.
They are both dead, and you are here beyond the edge of the world, cast out from among the People with only an old man and a bear to care whether you live or die. So much for the powers of Jhadel!
A sigh of bitter acquiescence to this unwelcome truth brought the scent of the lodge into Warakan's nostrils. It was an appalling invasion. The rancid stink of soiled bed furs and clothing, of charred wood and dung and bones, and of moldering hides mingled with the smell of the unwashed old shaman and the young bear.
Too long has White Giant Winter kept us in this lodge! Will Warm Moon never rise again? Will the forces of Creation never send the sweet breath of South Wind to speak to us of spring?
As though in answer to the boy's unspoken questions, the wind rose again to slap at the exterior thong-lacings of the lodge, and suddenly Warakan's head went up in the darkness. He opened his eyes. His heart was pounding. It was there againnot the voice of the wind, but something crying in the wind, a distant unarticulated sound of such unspeakable sadness that the boy yearned to howl back in sympathy . . . and in fear.
What is it? Why does it cry? And if Jhadel is truly a shaman, why does he not hear the spirit summoning him on the wind?
Stung by his suspicions he dared not ignore, Warakan sat up. The old dread was back in his gut. The voice of the spirit was already fading. He strained to hear it, but movement had roused a sharp, all-too-familiar pain in his battered rib cage, and he found it difficult to concentrate. Hissing through clenched teeth, he reproached himself for his weakness.
Someday I will be a warrior! Warakan reminded himself sharply as he glared into the blinding-black interior. Someday, no matter what Old One says, I will leave the dark deeps of this winter-cursed forest into which he and I have been forced to flee from our enemies. Someday I will turn my back to the rising sun and strike out for the stronghold of those who have beaten me and scarred my face. I will return their "gift" of pain. And I will bring to them a gift of my own. Strong in the power of the sacred stone talisman of the Ancient Ones I will bring it. With my face and body painted with the blood of Life Giver, the white mammoth that is totem of the People, I will bring it. Wearing the skin of Yellow Wolf, the Red World shaman who turned the hearts of all but Jhadel against me and made my grandfather name me Outcast, I will bring it. I will bring Death to all who are responsible for the slaughter of my father, grandfather, and sister!
"Someday . . ." The whispered exhalation flowed from Warakan's mouth like blood from a wound. He pressed his lips together, deliberately stressing the newly healed gash that ran from his upper lip into the right nostril of his broken nose. This time when pain flared, the boy welcomed it and named it Teacher. In a world of warring tribes in which few boys lived to be men, he knew he must learn from pain the most important lesson of a future warriorhow to command his body to submit to the will of his mind.
Gritting his teeth against the hurt in his sides, he reached forward and fumbled for his winter foot gear. He could see nothing in the darkness, but he could hear great tides of air surging and shifting restlessly beyond the lodge as he realized the voice that wept in the wind was silent now. Frustration pricked him. Soon the storm would be over. Over North Wind went its way, only the forces of Creation could say how long it would be before the spirit called to him again, if ever. And if, as he feared, its cries warned of approaching danger, he might be too late to take heed.
Be it a spirit of the wind or, as Jhadel claims, only a wounded wolf or lion or fang-toothed leaping cat, if a boy can snare it, this Warakan will do even though the Old One has forbidden it! I will go into the night. I will extend our traplines. And if I catch it, be it beast or spirit, then will I know if I am right to fear it!
Finger-fishing for thong laces, he located them, pulled the attached moccasins onto his lap, and reached forward again; this time his hands hunted the two long, thin, feather-stuffed buckskin liners that he would wrap around his feet and calves before pulling on the heavy, trisoled, knee-high moccasins Jhadel had fashioned for him from two thicknesses of smoked elk hide. Moments later, the insulating liners were in his hands and his feet were wrapped. He put the moccasins on, cross-lacing the thongs to prevent trespass by the carnivorous, toe-eating frost spirits he would surely encounter on his forbidden journey across the frozen land.
As silently as Night Hawk winging across the face of Moon I must go, he cautioned himself. For if I wake Little Bear Brother, the cub will follow to ruin the hunt as he so often does, and if I wake Jhadel, he will never let me go. But if I do not, and the spirit is crying in the wind to warn us of . . .
Unnerved, Warakan cut off the query before a full mental image of his fear took form. On a night like this, he had no way of knowing what invisible forces from the world beyond this one lurked in the dark, waiting to carry the careless words and thoughts of a fearful boy upon the wind to the forces of Creation.
Warakan attempted to swallow his rising apprehension as, slowly, making considerable effort to move without rustling the bedding, he stood erect. His cautiousness saved him from bumping the top of his head when it came into contact with one of the framing posts. In a burst of happy enthusiasm, he wondered whether he had grown taller since dusk; the realization that the lodge was once again sagging under the weight of new snow, only making him seem taller, left him momentarily dispirited.
A wolf began to howl in high, baleful dissonance. Warakan frowned as it occurred to him that old Jhadel could have been right when he credited spirit song to wolves. Warakan knew wolves when he heard them, and this one was close. Very close.
He tensed. Wolves were not the only carnivores hunting the winter woods in the vicinity of the lodge these days. He and Jhadel had found the spoor of wild dogs and of larger, more dangerous predators: a pair of good-sized lions, a leaping cat that favored its right hind limb, and before the first heavy snows a bear with paw prints broader than the width of the old man's shoulders.
Warakan's hands flexed at his sides. Somewhere within the lodge were his bone lances, gloves, and leggings, his luck-bringing golden eagle feather, the deer-skin sack that held his extra spearheads, and the waterproof rawhide carrying bags within which he stored his fire-making supplies and sinew snare lines; he needed at least some of these things to set his traps, much less venture alone through the surrounding forest with any hope of safety on a trek that might take him more than a hand count of days if he went all the way to the gorge and back. But how, the boy pondered, was he going to retrieve his belongings without tripping over the scattered debris of everyday winter confinement that he and the old man had strewn haphazardly across the hide-covered floor?
Carefully, he thought as he swallowed hard and advanced slowly.
Determined not to wake Jhadel, Warakan did his best to recall where the little mounds of remnant marrow bones and splinters of half-worked stone tools and spearheads lay amidst cast-off clothing and piles of animals skins. His best was not good enough. The ball of his right foot came down on something unexpected, and before he could arrest his forward movement, the object rolled under the arch of his foot. He remembered too late the bear-bone lance he had been mending by the fire pit. An instant later it was under his heel. Taken off balance, he grabbed for thin air, found no purchase in it, and went sprawling.
Somewhere close by, the cub sighed and made low sounds of settling more deeply into slumber, but the loud smacking of seamless lips told Warakan that he had awakened Jhadel. Infinitely annoyed with himself, the boy lay on his belly, waiting for Old One to drift back into dreams. It was not to be.
"I will not allow you to go alone into the storm, Warakan." The shaman's voice was a phlegmy scrape in the darkness.
Disgusted, Warakan clambered to his knees. "Then come with me. The storm will soon be over."
"Will it?" The old man's question hung in the air, sharp as a double-edged stone lancet.
Warakan could feel Jhadel's eyes fixed on him, not in the way of a man trying to pierce the shroud of night but like a hunting animal that sees by dark as well as by day.
"Dawn will be long in coming, Warakan," Jhadel said. "Return to your sleeping place and to your dreams."
Warakan knew a command when he heard one; he also knew that he was not going to obey. Rising, he declared, "The lodge is again heavy with snow!" The statement came in a rush; there was no need to lie, not when he could mask deception with truth. "I must remove the added weight before the roof braces are overstressed. No need for you to be disturbed while I seek my gloves and scraper and"
"And when you have done this, Warakan, what else will you seek?"
The boy knew that Jhadel had already unmasked his intended deception. He could hear movement in the lodge now, the sighings of bed furs and skin garments as Jhadel drew himself into a seated position and wrapped his bony, tattooed arms around his folded knees.
"There is a wolf singing in the forest," observed the Old One.
"I am not afraid of wolves."
Silence filled the space between them. Jhadel allowed it to settle before he said, "The wind blows from the north again tonight, from the cold heights of the high gorge, from the ruins of fallen lodges, and from the abandoned village where the bones of the dead follower of the Red World shaman, Yellow Wolf, lie beneath the shadow of the Watching Star." He paused. "That which you have heard crying in the wind will not easily be found, Warakan, nor will the snares of a mere boy confound it. You will not go into the storm in search of it."
Warakan's face expanded with resentment as he realized the old man had not only trespassed into his thoughts but must have been awake all along. Pain knifed across the boy's mouth, cheekbones, and the broken bridge of his nose, but this time when Warakan hissed air through his teeth, his uncontrolled reaction was not to pain; it was in open, angry defiance of Jhadel. "I will go!" His voice cracked with fear. The old dread was fully alive in him now, festering like an infected wound under the protective scab of his hard-won self-control. "The spirit calls to you, Jhadel! If you were not losing your powers, you would hear and answer!"
"A shaman does not respond to tricks of the wind."
"And if it is more than that?"
Again silence settled between them. Somehow it was darker than the interior of the shelter, heavier and more threatening than the weight of the latest accumulation of snow upon the lodge. At last Jhadel said calmly, in the way of an all-knowing, imperturbable seer, "No man may know the secrets of the wind, Warakan. Nothing under the black robe of Father Above is certain, but for now, as shaman, I tell you that we are safe here in this little lodge beyond the"
"If you do not know the secrets of the wind, then you cannot know this!" The boy had not intended to shout. "What if the spirit is crying a warning to us, Jhadel? What if it is trying to tell us that those who have driven us beyond the edge of the world are still hunting us? They will find us if we stay in one placethat much is certain. And if the warriors of the People of the Watching Star find us, we will diethat too is certain. You are an old man, and it may well be that you are ready to die, but I am only a boy, and I am not ready! I will seek the secret of the wind! If the spirit is a spirit, and if it is warning us, then we must flee once more before the warriors of the Watching Star, for you are not fit to fight them, and I cannot win against them yet. Not until I am a man and a warrior and"
"Old am I? Lost my powers, have I?" Jhadel boomed in sudden anger. "The forces of Creation have placed you in my care, Warakan! To assure the continuance of your life, I have betrayed the will and confidence of my people! For your sake, I am named Enemy by those who would have taken your head and flayed the skin from your body even though you were one of us, a child born and consecrated to the Watching Star until the Four Winds swept you to a new loyalty and a new people among the warriors of the Land of Grass and"
"I swept myself!" Warakan interrupted with hot belligerence. "The ways of our people were not my ways. I betrayed them with open eyes and a proud heart."
"Hmm. As have I. And so now, for your sake, never again will there be a place of honor for Jhadel in the fire circles of those who once honored him above all others. Yet the sacrifice of this shaman of the People of the Watching Star has been well made, and not without purpose. Once the People were one, Warakan! The People of the Watching Star, the People of the Land of Grass, even the lizard-eating People of the Red Worldall were of one tribe, one blood, one spirit. So it will be again. But not until we have found the shaman Yellow Wolf, who has stolen the sacred stone of the Ancient Ones and driven Life Giver, the white mammoth totem of the ancestors, beyond the edge of the world. To find that man, to seek that totemthis will be a lifetime quest. So I say this to you now, boy: The someday for which we both yearn is far from this moment. Go back to your sleeping place and to your dreams, Warakan, for as long as Jhadel lives, you will be many things, but you will not be a warrior!"
A tremor of indignation shook the boy, intensifying into pure righteous wrath. "Then die!" he shrieked. He was not struck by the full impact of his words until, impelled by fear-driven anger, he plunged recklessly from the dark confines of the lodge into the windswept vastness of the night.