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"In the beginning, when the land was one land, when the People were one people, before Father Above made the darkness that ate the sun, before Mother Below gave birth to the ice spirits that grew to cover the mountains, the wanawut was born to hunt the children of First Man and First Woman--to follow them as we now follow the great herds, to feed upon the People even as the People feed upon the meat and blood of mammoth and caribou and bison. For this alone was the wanawut born: to teach the People the meaning of fear."
The words of the magic man flowed into the night, into the wind that licked the perimeters of the communal fire, teasing the flames with its cold breath, circling the encampment like a stalking, invisible predator, and chilling the fur-clad people who were gathered into a circle. His words reminded them that although they were bundled close together, spears at hand and daggers ready, and swathed in their many-layered garments of skins and fur--their faces painted with ash to make them appear bold--they were nevertheless small and frightened and vulnerable beneath the vast and savage Arctic sky.
The magic man stood with his arms raised and his remarkably handsome face upturned to the night. He was a man in his prime. In fringed garments sewn entirely of the white belly skins of winter-killed caribou, he shone like glacial ice on a moonlit night.
"Fear..." He exhaled the word lovingly, as an offering to the night, while the low, hissing tide of cold, dry, Ice Age wind blew across endless miles of glacier-laden ranges and rolling steppeland. He alone seemed at peace with the night, a conspirator with the wind that swept into the gathering and streamed with dark portent through the minds of every man, woman, and child who listened as he spoke and gestured before the great communal fire.
As though at his command, the flames leaped high, feeding noisily upon bones and lichens and thick, dried sods cut from the shallow surface of the permafrost. It was a hot, hungry fire, which warmed the magic man as it sent sparks so high that they seemed to join the uncountable stars that sprawled across the taut, black skin of the sky. He smiled, master of the night and the stars, of the wind and the fire, and in absolute control of the people who sat in cross-legged, hunch-shouldered awe of him.
All except the newcomer.
Something dark and malevolent moved within the magic man as his eyes drifted to the tall, powerful, physically magnificent young hunter who sat straight and unmoving in a black-maned, tawny outercoat of lion skin.
Navahk, magic man, nearly hissed the hated name aloud. If only Supnah--his brother, and headman of the band--had not managed to persuade Torka to stay, he would be long gone and far away by now. Yes, Torka had been set to go. He had vowed to lead his infant-suckling woman and his cursed dogs and the boy whom he dared to call son into the unknown and forbidden country that lay to the east. He had told the people of Supnah's band that from a high promontory he had looked out across the forbidden land and had seen much game there. He had all but begged Supnah and his band to follow him; but the other man was not willing to commit his people to the unknown.
Supnah had spoken of a headman's responsibilities to his band with such persuasive eloquence that Torka had been sobered. Although he had already secured his pack frame onto his back, in the end Supnah had convinced him that for the sake of his woman and child, he must stay within the protection of the larger band, among those who would name him brother. In time, if the spirits of the game and the forces of Creation decreed that it might be so, perhaps they might yet venture into the forbidden land together. But for now the people of Supnah's band would remain in the land of their fathers. And so, although the woman had boldly urged him to go on, Torka had deferred to the wisdom of the older man and had chosen to remain with the people of Supnah's band. He had turned his back upon the far and forbidden country and had traveled west with Supnah's people to this night of fire and feasting.
The magic man's smile twisted into a leer of contempt and loathing. Before Torka had joined them, they had been starving. Now, suddenly, the land around them was rich in game. Many said that Torka brought the meat to die upon the spears of the hunters, and Navahk, who as magic man had always taken credit for bringing the game, did not know whom he despised more: Torka or Supnah.
Torka was staring back at him now, his face impassive and nearly as handsome in the firelight as the magic man's. Unused to rivals, Navahk hated him for that and because, while the thoughts of others were as easy for him to follow as mammoth tracks on a muddy outwash plain, the magic man found it impossible to know the thoughts of Torka. Unless Torka allowed him to know them.
Torka had made it no secret that he was a man who had endured much pain and suffering. He had lived with fear and had triumphed over it. It held little mystery for him; if anything, he was contemptuous of it. His body carried scars inflicted by wolves, bear, and mammoth, and by the lion in whose skin he walked. Why should he tremble at a magic man's tales of a legendary beast that he had never seen, when he had faced so many real threats and overcome them? Fear weakened a man and made him vulnerable to predators. And it was apparent from the way he observed the magic man that Torka knew that he was predacious.
Frustrated, Navahk looked away from Torka, determined not to be intimidated by him. He would drive him from the band or see him dead, along with the one Torka called son. The idea caught fire within him. He smiled. Then he actually laughed, and suddenly he leaped high and began to whirl in the firelight. He danced as gracefully as a hawk soaring upon the wind. He sang the high, wild, wordless songs of wolves and wild dogs and of stallions driving mares before them upon the vast, open grasslands of the summer tundra. He became prey and predator, bear and lion, mammoth and caribou, and then, hunching into a bestial crouch, he rocked himself on his heels and wailed and hissed, leaped and prowled, no longer flesh but spirit, the thing of which he warned his people--the wanawut.
He heard the women gasp with fear as the men murmured appreciation for the intricate savagery of his dance. He did not care about them. Instead he paused before Torka, smiling to mask his jealousy of the man's masculine beauty and unperturbable calm. The magic man raised his skin-beribboned ceremonial staff of office, a fire-hardened thighbone of a camel atop which the horned, oiled skull of an antelope gleamed and stared sightlessly at the newcomer. He shook the staff viciously at Torka, and all the claws, talons, and beaks sewn onto the streaming ribbons of skin rattled and clicked.
"Does Torka not fear the wanawut now that he has seen its spirit come to dance within the skin of Navahk?"
Torka did not move. He was startled by the rapaciousness he glimpsed within the magic man's eyes, and chose not to react to it visibly. "Torka is wary of all things he does not understand."
The magic man glared at him, hating him. Torka, having seen the threat in Navahk's eyes, was as watchful as a grazing animal venturing to drink alone from a tundral pool where predators were known to lurk. But worse than that, his cool reserve toward the magic man was affecting Supnah, the headman of the band. Supnah. Navahk's lips flexed downward. His brother was such a wise and wary man in all things, except when it came to his younger brother. With Navahk, Supnah's credulity and gullibility had always been without bounds. Until Torka had walked into their lives. Now the magic man's words, gestures, and well-practiced performance had left the older man unimpressed . . . as he had been unimpressed with his brother ever since encountering Torka alone upon the tundra, pursuing slavers who had stolen his woman and boy.
The name of that boy was Karana. Abandoned with most of the children of Supnah's band during a time of famine, the boy alone had survived, to be later found and adopted by Torka, who had come to love him as a son. Torka had spoken Karana's name, imploring the hunters of Supnah to help him rescue his woman and the boy from the slavers who had stolen them and murdered his grandfather. The people of Supnah had cried out in surprise while the headman had stood in mute disbelief, a woman's tears welling beneath his lids. Karana was Supnah's son--his only son--and Navahk was the magic man responsible for the children's abandonment; he had also sworn that he had seen a vision of the deaths of Karana and all the other children who had been abandoned with him.
"Do not look back," he had told their grieving parents. "This man has seen the children in his dreams, and they are food for beasts and for Spirit Sucker, the wanawut that howls in the time of long dark as it feeds upon the flesh of our abandoned little ones. Their life spirits are released to the wind, so those small, useless ones who have died in order that the strong among us would not starve may be born again to their people in better times."
But now Karana, the child whom Navahk had declared dead, sat alive and healthy beside his father, reunited with his people because of Torka. The boy stared at the magic man out of black, hostile eyes, which seemed to pierce straight to Navahk's heart.
The muscles of the magic man's jawline tensed visibly. Karana's eyes had always been able to pierce him. How he loathed the child and Torka and Supnah! How small and culpable they made him feel, even though he stood boldly against the night, working his magic for their pleasure while wishing that he could make the words strike all three of them dead.
His mouth grew taut over his small, white, oddly serrated teeth. If only he had been born first, brawny instead of beautiful, and with the potential to be even half as good a hunter as his brother! He would take his brother's place, and no man would ever question the validity of his dreams or magic again.
Not that they ever had . . . until Karana had walked back into their lives out of the world of spirits to which Navahk had consigned him.
Now, as a result, Supnah looked at his brother with speculation rather than adulation. He sat at the front of the men's side of the circle of his assembled people, in the full regalia of his rank. Because he was an unpretentious man, it was minimal: the headman's circlet of eagle, hawk, and teratorn feathers about his head; and around his neck, over his outer tunic, a collar of the downy breast skins of those birds, to which their taloned claws had been sewn. They hung like a fringe made of desiccated fingers, clicking dully in the wind as Supnah sat stoically upon his lichen-and-down-stuffed sitting pad of bearskin, in the place where errant smoke was least likely to offend his nostrils or burn his eyes. He had seated Torka in a position of honor to his left and had placed Karana at his right. Now and then he looked down at the boy and slung a broad, powerful arm around his slim shoulders, drawing him close, hugging him with open and profoundly paternal affection, as though he could not believe that the child was really there; then he would lean forward slightly and look at Torka, nodding to indicate a depth of appreciation that no words could express.
Seeing that look, Navahk trembled with suppressed rage. The storytelling and magic were in celebration of Karana's miraculous return and in gratitude to Torka for having saved the life of the child. Since Torka had stepped into their lives, nothing had been the same. Wild dogs walked at his feet as though they were his brothers, and he had willingly shared knowledge of the miraculous spear hurler, which he had devised, with Supnah's band.
It was only an elongated shaft of bone approximately the length of a man's forearm, with a handgrip at one end and a barbed tip at the other. But with the sinew-wrapped grip held in the right hand, the butt end of the spear braced against the barb, and the narrowing, pointed end of the shaft facing back over his shoulder, a man could more than double the speed, distance, and power of his thrust. With this awe-inspiring weapon, Torka had led Supnah's hunters to a victory against the murderous slavers of the Ghost Band.
And now, thanks to Torka alone, a sense of power and self-determination had been reawakened within Supnah's band. The band had gaped at the newcomer as though he were a bright, warm sun rising on their world. As Navahk had stood by with murderous resentment, the people of Supnah's band had listened spellbound while Torka told them how a rampaging bull mammoth had destroyed his band--how he had dared to face its raging fury, been charged and lifted by its great tusks, fixed a spear in its shoulder, then was thrown and left to die, only to rise from death. Out of all his people, only he, his woman, and his ancient grandfather survived the appalling devastation that the beast had wrought. The three had fled eastward into unknown country, across the savage, twisted hills of a distant land, vulnerable to predators and the marrow-freezing cold of the endless nights. Nevertheless, they had survived the incomparable hardships until, at last, they sought refuge within a cave high upon a distant mountain. They had found shelter from the storms, and the filthy, stinking nest of a small, frightened child--Karana--who had also climbed the heights for safety.
Under Torka's leadership Supnah's hunters had killed many of the Ghost Band, which had preyed upon the people of the tundra for as long as any of them could remember, and had taken to their fires a dozen tattooed young women captives. The women's faces shone with pleasure in their new circumstances, and their eyes glowed with wonder at the overpowering physical perfection and astounding beauty of the magic man.
Navahk smiled. Their obvious adoration momentarily overshadowed his feelings of frustration. They, at least, were beguiled by his tales of enchantment, which had first been told at the dawn of his people's memory to drive back their fears and reassure them of their place within their world.
But sensing that his position within the band was in jeopardy, he had chosen another enchantment. Tonight Navahk had conjured fear and had danced with it through the flame light as though it were his lover. He had made it his ally, reaffirming his own status by loosing the beast of terror among his people--a beast that only he, as magic man, could control. It was a method he had long used to manipulate his brother to serve his own ambitions.
"Navahk says this to his people: In his dream times, this man had seen the wanawut walking in the mountains to the east. It hungers in the night. It longs to feast upon the flesh of those who would follow Torka into the new and unknown land into which he would lead us."
The magic man fell silent. Supnah was looking at him out of eyes that seemed to strip him to the bone. His arms folded across his chest, his weatherworn but still handsome features set into a watchful scowl, the headman seemed a stranger, his eyes fixed upon his brother with a mixture of contempt and pity. Seeing it, Navahk winced and felt his own smile disappear.
Navahk was no longer in control of his brother, and if he was not in control of his brother, then he was no longer in control of the band.