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The young one crouched within the trees. She was frightened. Her heart was beating fast. Much too fast. Casting a worried glance upward at gathering storm clouds, she chastised herself for venturing so far downstream. If only she had allowed the lengthening shadows to urge her home instead of inspiring her to check the last snare in her trapline! If only she had hurried back across the snow to the safety of Old One's den when she had first caught the stink of Strangers upon the wind! Now it was too late.
They were coming!
She could see them now. They were just emerging from the dark depths of the evergreen forest on the far side of the creek. Distance raised a thin shimmer of mist that obscured her vision. She growled, recognized mist for the trickster it was, and kept her gaze fixed and steady. In the cold vastness of this northern land, discerning eyes could easily pierce the substance of illusion and force reality into stark definition. And even in the fading light of this late winter day, the young one's eyes were as discerning as the eyes of the black wolves from whose loins Old One claimed the ancestors of their kind had sprung.
Another growl formed at the back of her throat. She was no wolf. But this was her hunting ground! And now, as she deftly strangled the winter-lean hare she had just withdrawn from her snare, she watched the Strangers driving their dogs and sled toward her across open snow. Her eyes narrowed. She counted four males, two females, a double hand-count of dogs. They were headed for the creek. Her creek. Never before had their kind ventured so deeply into her hunting grounds. Never! The wind brought her their strong, smoky stink. She snarled. They reeked of danger.
And they were coming closer, fast.
Her heartbeat quickened. If they kept to their present course they would soon be upon her. She looked around, worriedly eyed the surrounding copse of slender, bare-branched young birches, and knew that the trees offered no hope of continued concealment. She must run before she was seen!
Fighting panic, she hurriedly slip-noosed the warm, limp body of the hare to a hunting thong already laden with a cottontail and two larger hares. The combined weight of the uneviscerated animals was considerable; nevertheless, the young one slung all four carcasses over her bearskin-clad shoulder with little effort. She had not yet attained the full power that would be hers in maturity, but she was nearly fully grown and as strong as she was resolute. She would not abandon her kills to the carrion eaters of the forest. She would not dishonor her prey. She was of the Old Tribe! That which she had snared and strangled she would eat. Tonight she and Old One would feast. Later, when their bellies were full and the coals in the fire pit were sleeping beneath a blanket of insulating ash, they would take the skulls and bones of the hares and rabbit into the night. They would venture to the center of the sacred spruce grove. They would place the skulls and bones in a circle on the snow. They would hunker together inside the circle, wave their willow wands, raise their long pale faces to the darkness, and sing the ancient song of their kind, summoning the kami with their howls.
She held her breath, trembling as she thought of how it would beof how it must be. When she and Old One had finished their song and gone back to the lodge, the spirits would come. For newly fleshed bones and skulls the kami always came. And in the thin chill of dawn, when she and Old One returned to the clearing, the bones and skulls would have vanished. By the grace of the kami, the hares and rabbit would be alive again, running and leaping along the slender hunting trails that their long-eared, high-flanked kind made through the winter forest, offering themselves as prey while the rabbit drummed upon the earth with its great feet and the hares danced the wondrous winter dance of their kind, asking to be stalked again, slain again, devoured again, and reborn again in the never-ending Circle of Life Ending and Life Beginning.
She exhaled. Her heart was still beating far too fast. Her mouth had gone dry. If there was to be a feast, if there was to be a singing in the forest, if life was to be renewed and endless winter brought to an end through the dance, she must make it back to the lodge with her prey.
The Strangers had reached the creek. Two of them were lagging behind, but the rest of the pack was continuing on, driving their dogs and sled fast across the ice.
The young one gripped the shaft of her bear-bone lance so tightly that the palms of her fur-wrapped hands ached from the pressure. Restraining a gasp of fright, she turned and darted toward a nearby snowbank. Clambering to the top, she slid down the lee side of the drift, scooted on all fours into the cover of a thick snaggle of deadwood, and sprawled flat on her belly.
The Strangers were still coming!
She lay motionless. The shock waves generated by their movement across the snowpack rippled beneath her. Hard. Pounding. Threatening. Closing her eyes tight, she uttered an involuntary sob of fright as she buried her face in the soft fur of her folded arms. Her mind flamed with a terrifying recollection of Old One's oft-spoken warning:
"Look not you upon the Strangers lest the power of your gaze they feel. Let them or their dogs set eyes upon you never. Never! If ever see or scent you them passing through our forest, conceal yourself within wind and trees and go your way unseen, leaving no track by which you may be followed. The Strangers are Enemy! Outside of the sacred circle do they stand. There is not one among their many tribes who will suffer our kind to live!"
A shiver went up the young one's broad, powerful back; the short, coarse hairs at the base of her spine prickled as her senses quickened with a loathing born of generations of enmity and alienation.
The Strangers were almost upon her!
The hackles rose on her skin. She heard a sharp crack of sound followed by the pained yelp of a dog, then felt the Strangers cresting the outer slope of the snowbank. They were passing directly above her now, moving fast along the narrow, elongated top of the drift, heading toward the deep woods that lay beyond. She listened to the runners of the sled sliding, bouncing, and slicing deep into hard-packed snow made nearly gelatinous by several consecutive days of clear skies and the frail, all-too-fleeting warmth of a pale winter's-end sun. She heard the creak of wood, the stress of thong, the strained suck and pull of human breathing, heaving, slobbering panting of dogs.
Never before had she been so close to Strangers. Their presence was overwhelming; it reeked of power and arrogance. Their scent was revolting. And yet, impelled by a curiosity innate to her kind, the young one could not resist peering up at the beasts of Old One's warnings. Just one quick look was all she desired, to see if they were truly as ugly as Old One said. Surely one look could not matter, could not . . .
The lead dog felt her gaze. It rolled an eye downward. It saw her.
Trapped in a lake of shadow within a maze of tangled deadfall, the young one's muscular body tensed and resonated with a virulent loathing so overwhelming that she was momentarily transported beyond fear, beyond reason. Her upper lip quivered upward to display her canines as, growling deep in her throat, she warned the dog out of fixed and narrowed eyes.
Look away, foul and unnatural thing, for if to my enemies you betray me, I will find a way to gut you before I die!
Startled and intimidated by the unspoken communication, the dog yarfed, bucked sideways in its harness, spurted urine, yet kept on its way, inspired not only by the young one's warning but by the crack of a well-oiled thong whip.
The young one shut her eyes so tightly that her entire face hurt. The Strangers hurried on without so much as a sideward glance, and images of them remained burned beneath her lids as she lay trembling in a descending explosion of ice particles kicked up out of the snow by runners of the passing sled.
Big dogs. Heavy-jawed. Slavering. Wolf-eared. Tails curling over blanketed flanks, exposed anal hair stained from endless defecations. Hideous! Foul!
Strangers. All in caribou skins. All on snow walkers. All hooded. All stinking! She knew their gender, not only by the cut of their garments but by their scent. One female, big, lagging slightly behind the males, bent double beneath the weight of an enormous pack. Three males: one trotting close to one side of the sled, another on the opposite side, and the master of the sled loping behind, cracking his whip, his hood blown back, his hip-length black hair flying loose and wild in the wind, his profile strong, smooth, devoid of fur, broad-mouthed, high-nosed as an eagle, with the black barred lines of a shrike running upward toward his temple from the corner of a long, angular eye.
The young one caught her breath. The master of the sled owned the face of a raptor. A predator's face. And he was not ugly. He was the most singularly beautiful creature she had ever seen. She shivered, not in fear of him but in awe of his beauty, and in stunned recognition, for she was also a predator, a stalker of prey, an eater of flesh, a gnawer of bone, a sucker of marrow and blood taken hot from her kills. And her face was broad-mouthed and high-nosed andso unlike Old One'sdevoid of fur.
We are of a kind, this Stranger and I!
The realization burst into her consciousness. Sun-bright, fire-hot, it was as appalling as it was enthrallinguntil she recalled Old One's warning that Strangers were like mist: tricksters, dangerous and deceptive and often deadly in their endless and unpredictable transformations. Yet now, with their scent lingering in her nostrils, the young one found herself wondering if her own scent was not also redolent of den smoke and if, were she ever to find cause to journey many days beyond Old One's refuge, she would not also take on a stink if she could not air her furs or bathe in clean, warm ashes.
But would she ever stink quite so disgustingly of fear?
The question pricked her. She remained motionless, eyes tightly shut, trying to understand the deeper implication of the information her nostrils had just sent to her brain. The Strangers were afraid! She had not thought it possible. Nevertheless, the sour scent of their terror was unmistakable. They were running from something. But from what? The wind was at their backs, blowing straight across the top of the drift. She doubted that they had picked up even the slightest scent of her. And yet, even if they had, she could think of no reason why a pack of Strangers would flee from a solitary member of her kind. It would be so much easier for them to set their dogs on her, to stand by and watch their beasts run her down and tear her to pieces as they had done to her mother when they had come upon her feeding alone in distant hills so long ago.
Her mouth tightened. She could feel the Strangers moving off the drift now, still heading toward the woods. Her heart hardened toward them. She was now confident that they were not running from her. Alone she was no threat to them. As long as they kept their pack together and moved warily through her forest, they were safe from her predations. Something else had frightened them. But in these last lingering days of the Cold Moon beneath which great bears still lay sleeping in the earth and lions hunted far to the south, what would set the Strangers running like panicked herd animals?
The young one's spirit went suddenly cold. As though in answer to her unspoken question, the wind rose and brought to her an intricate braiding of new, more complex scents. She opened her eyes, raised her head, and set her nostrils questing wide, scenting the air, pulling it deep, until, with a startled intake of breath, recognition burned her senses.
The Great One had returned!
Earth Shaker! Life Giver! Thunder Speaker! The Destroyer!
The ancient names of the giant rolled within her brain like thunderstorms threatening on a far horizon. But there were other scents on the wind. There were other trespassers in her forest. The Strangers were definitely not alone. Their stink had masked the scent of the Great One as surely as it disguised the closer, more pertinent danger that was now advancing through the deep woods on the far side of the creek. Another much larger pack of Strangers was walking in her forest! The young one could smell them and, by the subtle textures and gradations of their stink, knew their intent: They were stalking the smaller pack. A thin shiver of excitement burned beneath her skin. Death was stirring the wind and taking many forms as it moved at will through her forest this day.
Suddenly, again impelled by curiosity, the young one elbowed her way out of the deadfall and scrambled up the steep side of the snowdrift to cautiously peer over the top. She wanted to see what must happen now.
The Strangers were still heading doggedly into the woodlands, but the two members of the pack who had fallen behind were just now crossing the clearing and approaching the far side of the creek. She stared fixedly at them. They appeared relaxed, unaware of danger. A small female in heavy furs. A young male with a great load on his back and something bright, shining like a piece of dark sunlight, on the tip of his lance. The young one cocked her head to one side; Strangers often carried lances, but never before had she seen one quite like this.
A strange thought drifted across her mind: If she were to raise a howl now, the twosome might possibly be intelligent enough to hear the warning in it. If they did, there might yet be time enough for them to flee to safety across the creek. And if she put all her strength and skill behind the howl, the young male might be so startled and frightened that he would drop his bright-headed lance as he ran. It would be hers then, easily collected after Death had come and gone its way, unless one of the other pack of Strangers saw it first.
She cocked her head to the other side. Why should she wish to help any of their kind? Even in hope of taking for herself a bright-headed lance? They were Strangers! Mother slayers! They killed for pleasure as often as they killed for meat and by so doing deliberately chose to stand outside the sacred Circle of Life. If they knew she was here, they would not hesitate to hunt her. They would spear her. They would flay her alive as they had flayed what was left of her mother after their dogs had savaged her. And when they had fleshed her skin and staked it to cure in the winter sun, they would toss her meat to their dogs. Their filthy children would come close to gawk as whoever had slain her would proudly prepare to display her pelt as a war trophy outside his lodge.
She shivered. "Enemy they are." She repeated Old One's warning as she lay flat on her belly and, with a cold and unforgiving heart, prepared to watch them die.