They were hunters and wanderers, Culean's people, stalkers of horse and ox and great-horned stags. There were other bands who fished the coastlines and dredged the cold waters for shellfish, and others still who brought down the ivory-laden mammoths. Her people were not so arrogant, to think themselves a match for the lords of the steppe, and they kept to the herds which White Horse Woman had set aside for her children.
All of Culean's world, from the blue vault of heaven to the distant ice at the north, was woven with sound. The shuffle of her people's footsteps as they followed after the herds of the steppe, the whisper of the wind as it bent the grasses in long golden waves and the soft sigh of the stars on the coldest of nights, when the sky blossomed with multi-colored lights.
Through this din, the people called to White Horse Woman, to keep her mindful of their passage. The whistle they use is old - yellowed from the grasp of many hands, and the carved knuckle bone cracked nearly its entire length - but it still gives a sweet, two note call when Culean raises it to her lips. The old uncle taught her to use the whistle. "Call to White Horse Woman with the wind-song. She will come, if you call, and give great blessings to the people."
The children of the White Horse Woman sang songs about the world they saw about themselves, and of the world beyond the curtain of the death. They sang the songs about the fire at night, and with the coming of the dawn. They sang, quietly, barely above the sound of the wind as they crept forward to hurl their spears at the stragglers at the edges of the herds.
Things were not such with all the bands - the mammoth hunters used fire and treachery to stampede the great beasts into traps. Furthermore, it was said, spoke with their guardian through an old skull and a moldering pelt. But this was rumor only, for none of the women of the mammoth people had married men of the White Horse since before the days of Culean's mother.
Last year, Culean was a child still, and lay rolled in the furs as the elders sat by the fire and talked of the people's future. Now she is fourteen summers, a woman grown, and she wears the bone whistle around her neck on a lanyard made of braided horsehair.
Only a woman can carry the bone whistle. Her aunt had carried the whistle before her, and her mother before that. Now Culean is the oldest woman of the people, and she walks ahead of the people at dawn, calling White Horse Woman as she goes.
And when the elders spoke of following the herds east, it was like the song of the breeze in the grass. Culean's heart leapt within her, and she held the bone whistle in her fist as she said, "Yes, let us go, and follow the wind."
The wind was from the west, that season, and it pushed the herds across the grass like a scattering of pollen. The people followed after, trailing amidst the grazers as they drifted towards the sun. All the nations were on the move - Culean's band, the stags and their harems, the mammoths and their hunters, even the flocks of quail.
The horse-hunters saw the flock of birds first, then felt the tremors. By then it was too late. The dust of the stampeding mammoths rose high in the air.
Culean's people fled, as the birds had. Some of the fleetest young men made it to the edges of the stampede. The rest did not.
Culean, walking far ahead, might have been one of the fortunate ones to escape, had she not turned back for her uncle. The lead mammoths passed her by, but one of the younger cows struck her down. The following herd ground her body into the dirt, and the bone whistle with it.
The mammoth hunters came upon the few survivors at dawn, and gathered them into their band. But all the daughters of the White Horse were dead, and with them all the heritage of the band. When the mammoth hunters crossed the ice, bearing with them the skull and cape of their God, they left the White Horse Woman behind them on the plains of the steppe.
2. Kalkriese, Gaul
At daybreak, they rode north from the smoke-shrouded camp - two guards and their commander. The guards rode with their hands free, the commander with wrists bound to his saddle. Our scouts brought us word, running barely faster than the jogging horses, but swift enough.
The north-flowing river glinted through the trees. Early spring, without a blossom on a branch or a blade of new grass. The horses stumbled, now and then, on the root-choked trail. It would have been easier to travel on the waterway, as did so many others - wanderers, craftsmen, raiders.
We had told our families and our chief that we were scouts, explorers. But there was not a man among us - not one of the twenty - who did not dream of returning to croft and hall with treasure. Plunder and tales - stories of where we'd been, the mist-shrouded coasts we'd seen, the people we'd met and fought and beaten. Perhaps we'd win our fortune through some cunning trick, perhaps it would be a lightning-fast raid. But we'd find something to bring back, something to help us win renown. And the next year? More would follow us, and we'd all be leaders on those journeys, every one of us, even the lowest bilge-soaked scab.
But we'd found nothing thus far, save a handful of smoke-wreathed villages along the river. The people faded back into the woods as soon as they spied our ship and her high post of dragon-work. They were a fey people, shy and easily startled, like a pack of foxes when the great wolves are in the forest. A day and a half up the river and we'd seen nothing worth the taking, until now.
Weary of fending off untrimmed branches on the narrowing track, the guards slowed their horses to a walk, and then stopped. We kept watch - low to the ground, in the shadow of great trees, each man grinning that the fools had chosen to ride right into the midst of us, as if they had never seen us.
The commander's knees hit the ground with a thud and a grunt. He was a big man, and heavier for all the metal he wore. The guards treated him warily, and approached him with bare metal, so we knew him for a warrior, and not a slave to be strangled.
I would have waited until they killed him, for I knew a man of his sort would be a chancy captive. But Jospin was of a different mind, and put an arrow through the guard's throat just as he raised his sword to kill the kneeling man. Then Alfson let out a roar, and we were all on our feet.
The guards we killed outright - one choking on Jospin's arrowshaft, the other brought down with his horse. And a bad business that was, for the horse lost a foot in the skirmish, and bled out there on the trail. But one of the men dealt a blow to the commander, so that he fell senseless, and with the other two horses we finally had a prize.
Alfson was all for following the track back to the sprawling camp that Sorsen and young Holteven had described, to see the size and worth of it. But the rest of us were looking at these men and their armor and their horses, and recalling the caution of the river-side townspeople.
We've found the wolves, the thought went, no need to crawl into the den to count their teeth.
So it was down the hill to the river with the horses and the pack and armor of the dead, and dragging the commander with us.
Have you ever loaded horses on a longship? Well, that might be a lesson you should learn, for there are a dozen tricks of it, and none of them make the work easy. But got them loaded we did, although we were a good ways down the river before we were sure they would not leap out and kill themselves. Then all that was before us was a long sail back across the sea, and up the coast to home.
Perhaps there would be a storm or two - a touch of rough weather to make us remember why we loved hearth and hall so much - and if we were truly unfortunate, a close call with some cousins down the coast. We stopped at one of the last villages at the rivermouth, and made off with as much food and fodder as they still had, so early into the year. And then it was up sail, shove the captive down into the well again, and out onto the sea. Four days, if there was good weather - perhaps five.
We never found our own valley again.
The wind blew us out of the waters we knew - even Havesvon, who had been with Tarisven when he crossed to the western islands. A great storm began to build, one of Thor's own making, black as the Stormbringer's own arse and thick with the wrath of wind and the anger of ice. It was the last blow of winter, and it pushed us for days past counting. First to the west, toward the setting sun, and then where we were sailing, none of us could say.
One of the horses went overboard in the first week, and we killed the other that same day, great bloody mess that was. It was Odin's own luck that we had the horse, for none of us would have lived so long without the meat. Oh, the meat was gamey and slick by the time it was gone, badly salted with sea-foam and eaten raw and cold. But we ate it and were glad, and then took to each man eyeing the other, as though deciding who was the fattest, and first to go.
The captive got his share of meat, for he proved another of Odin's graces - a landsman, but quick to learn; and when Alfson was taken off his feet by a twist and buck of the ship, it was the captive who lunged for him first, and had a fist knotted in Alfson's hair and jerkin to help drag him back into the ship. After that, there was no more talk of cutting the captive's throat and giving him to the sea.
The storm faded, after more than twenty days. We took the time to mend the sail as best we could, and tried to tack the ship about to find our way back east and north. But another storm came up, this time out of the south, and drove us on. We began to place bets, as to what the end of the world would be like, when we came to the edge and spilled over with the rest of the fish and wrack and storm.
We were all wrong, for none of us thought we would ever see land again.
The ship - good, solid, oaken, great-hearted thing she was - foundered finally, on a cold and tree-thick shore, and spilled us all into the sea. And so we all went down into the darkness, without having touched land for more than two passages of the moon.
All of us, that is, save the captive. Either he lived, or went to his own people's afterland, for I have never seen him here, down among the dead men.
The Lenape found the stranger in the early days of summer, washed upon the beach like so much flotsam. He did not come alone - the wooden shell of a watercraft lay further south on the water's edge, and a hand's count of his companions came to shore with the shifting tide.
The stranger's hair was dark as any of the people, but that of his companions was pale - dun colored as winter-killed grass when damp with the sea, but dried to a cattail down after the people pulled the bodies from the water. The dark-haired stranger was the only one who still breathed, come morning.
The broken shell of the seacraft - cunningly made, the timbers bent like bows and with foreposts carved in the shape of demons - held many curiosities, and the people gathered them up. The wise men examined the many things found, and set many of them aside to lay with the stranger, if he followed his companions along the spirit trail, and for his use, if he did not. Some were obvious in their use - vessels for water and for food, not that much of either remained, and blades such as the smiths of the people had only dreamed of. There were also coats of metal and novel ornaments.
Some among the people wondered - out loud, and in their secret hearts - if it might not be best to keep the salvage from the shattered craft, whether the stranger lived or not. He is only one man, and there is much of value from the craft. Others pointed out that the treasure had no great store of luck bound to it already, and that the taint of greed would draw manetuwak to any house that held the plunder.
"Restrain your greed," the oldest of the conjurers said, setting down his opinion on the matter. "Keep the whole cloth for the stranger, and the metal shirts. The rest, set on the burial ledges of the dead men."
They called him Maxkw Seksu, dark bear, - partly as a joke, for the man's skin was as pallid as the flesh of an oyster, and partly because of his companions, he was the only one who looked somewhat human. Human or not, bear he looked, wrapt in his cloak and with his face sprouting hair like one of the beast-people.
"Maximus," he tried to tell them. But no one could make the sounds properly, so Maxkw Seksu he was. By the end of the summer, when the people shifted their lodges to the hills, he was able to walk with them.
With the spring, they came back to the oceanside. The man spent many days walking the shore. His feet left prints that looked like those of the people, now, for he had finally set aside the rotting boots that he had clung to throughout the fall. His ankles still turned oddly, so that his feet pointed out like those of a goose.
Small Mink followed after the man on these walks, jumping from footprint to foot print.
The man wandered around the shattered hull of the craft. The winter's storms had battered it into a heap of boards and rotting canvas. The bodies of the dead travelers had gone the same way - their platforms had collapsed over the winter, under the weight of the snow.
At evening, Maxkw Seksu came back to the firecircle and said, in his abrupt way, "I go." His hand waved west, toward the setting of the sun.
It was not possible to forbid him. Not possible - and perhaps foolhardy, for who knew what dreams had come to the man as he sat staring at the sea? But the people did the best they could, to tell him what they knew of the trail west, of the mountains and of the great lakes beyond. They saw to it that he was fed and provisioned, that he had spare shoes and an extra shirt and as much food for the trail as he could carry.
Young Aldar, whose mother was sister to the mother of Small Mink, went with the stranger, as far as the limits of the watershed. They left him with the Munsee, among whom were a few who seemed interested in walking with the man a small way. The next year, two men from the Munsee came to the lodges of the Lenape, and told how some of the ugly people had come down from the north, and tried to steal some of the sugar and corn that the had set aside. Maxkw Seksu had taken out his long knife and joined the people in defense of the town that had granted him shelter. The men of the ugly people had been driven off.
One of the young men of the Munsee had gone with the dark man, after the sugar maple pressing, up the river to the northern lakes. And with that Maxkw Seksu had passed out of the knowledge of the Lenape.
4. Paha Sapa
We shall all die here, Ptan thought. He coughed, smoke coiling into his throat and chest. This will be the end of my grandfather's people.
They were crouched on the riverbank, five of them - Ptan, Ikhopheya, the woman Htaomani and two children who clung to the woman's skirt. Behind them, from horizon to horizon, stretched a line of fire. For two days it had driven everything before it. Now, at the riverside that Ptan had hoped would be their refugee, they faced a mass of the animal people, likewise fleeing fire that now encircled them.
Overhead, the smoke shut out the stars and the last of the sunset. Whenever one of the people rose, the smoke choked them, and all the edges of the world were in flames.
"If we run at the flames, and leap over them..." Ikhopheya said, and stopped, his eyes going to the children. Ptan shook his head. The adults might make it, if the fire was only in the grass, but the children never would.
Another handful of antelope swam across the river and clambered out beside the people. The animals darted to the crest of the river bank, then back again, parting like a flock of birds around the buffalo that now climbed from the river.
The bull rose from the water, coat steaming, and breath gusting in clouds from his nostrils. As it stood there it seemed to grow, until the humped shoulders touched the sky. Ptan crouched, transfixed, as it gazed back at him. The light from the fire shone in its eyes. Flames flickered across its shining flanks. When the beast opened its mouth and bellowed, the fire gleamed there as well.
The beast stared at Ptan and shook itself, sending ashes flying like a sparrow flicking off a dust of snow.
Again, the beast called, a coughing bellow that flowed out to the horizon and beyond. Then it lowered its head and strode up the river bank, hooves tearing at the soil. Its coat dripped as it went, marking the ashes with darkness. More ashes fell on its coat, turning the bull the color of snow.
Ptan looked at the others, at Htaomani, clutching the children close, at Ikhopheya, his jaw tense and his wounded hand shaking. "Come," he said. "We will follow him."
They followed the bull for what seemed like days - walking always in darkness, but with the sullen glow of the fire always behind them. The beast stayed before them, never stopping for long, but never drawing out of their sight. Overhead, the moon seemed fixed, always slipping down towards the horizon, never reaching it.
Finally, they came to the edge of the hills, where brush began to replace the grass. The fire glow grew less and less. The smell of the grass became stronger, greener. Ikhopheya grunted, spitting in frustration and surprise. "Marsh," he said.
It was - the ground was softer here, and the grass pushed aside by sage and hemlock. Ptan looked back. The fire was gone.
When he looked ahead, the bull had disappeared.
The sky had gone grey behind them, and there was no sign of the fire, only a faint smudge of smoke on the air.
They stayed there, in the hills that were dark with trees even in the depths of the drought, all that fall and into winter. The hills and the trees blocked the wind, and the animals were fat.
Sometimes, when Ptan was out hunting, he found a hollow pressed into the snow under a stand of firs or in a cedar thicket. Once, after a thick snowfall, he found the beast's tracks, crossing his path.
The snow had been thick and long, and they were nearly out of food again. Ptan looked after the trail, pushed through the snow, for a long time.
When he followed it, a deer's trail joined it at the crest of the next rise. In the hollow, the deer waited - winter-thin, but alert.
"Thank you," Ptan thought - to the deer, to the bull - and brought the arrow's feathered notch to his cheek.
He set out a handful of pemmican for the deer, and left it there, with the blood on the snow, as his father had taught him.
In the spring, when the hickory trees were blooming, Ikhopheya said, "We should go back to the plains." Htaomani, her belly curving under her dress, nodded.
"This is a place of refuge, but not a place for us to live." They were insistent - even Htaomani, her belly curving under her dress.
So Ptan led them away again, south and east, leaving the black-covered hills behind them. As they left, the children dancing and playing, even under their burdens, Ptan looked back. The bull was not there - he had not expected it.
They heard of the man called Bear long before he appeared in Taenhatentaron. But the widow Haenta Utchke knew of him first, and dreamed of him four times before he came.
After the fourth dream, Haenta Utchke went to the old grandmother. The elder sat in the late spring sun, her eyes closed slowly rocking back and forth.
Haenta Utchke told her of the dreams - of how four times, she had dreamt of a journey to the west, accompanied by an animal companion. First an otter, then a fox, then a crow, and finally a bear. When Haenta Utchke finished speaking, the old woman sat silently for a long time. A crow swooped down into the compound, its wings spread against the still-bare branches. When the bird flew away, complaining of the empty ground within the compound, Grandmother spoke without opening her eyes.
"What does your heart tell you?"
Haenta Utchke looked down at her hands, where her work-roughened fingers played with the fringe of her dress. "It is a journey-dream. A true journey, not a heart-journey. It is not," she said, her voice gone tight and angry, "that I am alone and unhappy with the family of a man who is gone. And I will go alone, with none other of the people."
"Not alone, I think."
Haenta Utchke shrugged. "Alone, with some beast or some fur-folk, it does not matter. I will go with none other of the people." To Haenta Utchke's ears, her voice was thick with bitterness. Her husband had been in the house of the dead for a year, and still his family would not release her from mourning. "The journey is of one part - away. In my dream, there is no return."
Grandmother nodded. "Not everything is seen at once. Perhaps another dream will show you returning."
"Or perhaps not."
Grandmother tucked her blanket closer to her shoulders. "Go back to your uncle's lodge, girl, and take your mouth of acorn dust with you."
Haenta Utchke rose to her feet. "If I dream again, I will come back to you." Grandmother grunted, but did not say anything more, nor did she open her eyes as the young woman left.
The man came to the Wyandot people in the last days of winter, and when he left, Haenta Utchke went with him.
They traveled by the water road first - birchbark canoe along the edges of the lakes until the lakes were no more. Then they traveled by river until the river was a shallow stream. Then they packed the food and the mats on their backs and walked.
Haenta Utchke never counted her steps, nor did she number the days as they passed. The man did count his steps, and after a certain amount - Haenta Utchke tried, more than once, to count with him, but always lost her count of five-twenty-fingers long before the man reached the end of his reckoning - after a certain amount, he would stop and make a heap of stones.
She grew exasperated with this pointless waste of time, and never more so when he spent long moments searching for stones. When they were deep into the plains, he abandoned the stones and began to set stakes instead. At creeksides, he would hack at willow stands until he had a bundle of wands the thickness of two fingers. Bound to his back, above the pack, the wands waved with each stride.
When the wands gave out, he tied handfuls of grass together.
For Haenta Utchke, the steps were unnumbered and the days countless. Each stride led to the next as one breath followed the one before. Day eased from night and fell back into twilight, a long stream of moments.
For the stranger, it seemed, the steps and days alike were each unalike, all of them broken away from each other into a heap of shattered time.
She asked, finally: *Why do you count your steps?*
They used the sign talk of the plains, for the man had never learned the language of any of the people. He was clever with his fingers, though, and grew quickly skilled at hand-talk.
The man looked away. Haenta Utchke waited, although her fists knotted and she wanted to beat the earth in fury. Finally, he turned back to her and signed, *My land, my home - it is many days away. I walk to that place.*
She knew this already. Anyone could see this. It was predictable - the man had to explain things everyone knew and did not understand the simplest of queries.
*To know how many days to walk*
She shook her head.
He sighed and sighed. *The world is round.*
Again with the things everyone knew. One had only to look at the world around them - the sun, the moon, the shape of a tree, the arc of the horizon.
*I walk around the earth.* This he had to sign twice, before Haenta Utchke understood that he meant walk the circumference of the world, and not simply upon it. It made her shake her head again, until he grunted and picked up a handful of earth. He rolled it between his hands into a smooth lump.
*world* he signed, and indicated the lump of dirt.
She looked at him. There seemed to be no reply to make to this.
With dogged patience, he found a tiny grass stem and poked it into the lump. *home* he signed. Turning the lump, he put another stem in the earth. *You home.* Another fraction of a turn. *here, us now*
Haenta Utchke reached out, took the lump and stared at the three bits of grass. Then she handed it back.
The stranger was mad. She had been chosen, it appeared, to take a madman away from the people, so that his madness would not infect them.
In the summer, the thunderbirds returned to the western shore, hunting the seawolves.
Tlaalduus watched them from the spit-point at the river mouth, where he had beached his canoe on the sand. The thunderbirds were little more than specks against the sky when he first saw them, wheeling and turning in tight spirals to climb the updrafts from the seacliffs. A faint rumble of thunder carried from far off.
There had been no signs of the orca brothers for half a year. They had been in and out of the bay all fall, chasing fish and the occasional bird. As the sunshine of early autumn faded the pair of seawolves had pushed further and further out to sea. In the dark of the year, even if they had come close, fog had set in so closely that Tlaalduus could not have seen them.
He had thought them gone, perhaps forever. The winter through he had spent long evenings by the fire, staring at the coals as he traced over the events of the last year. The trail in his mind was well beaten. There were no breaks, no turnings-off. Everything had come to pass as it would have.
He had gone apart from the people to live alone after his wife and children had died. The first winter was hard - more from solitude than from want; the lodge was warm, his food sufficient, but his cousins and nephews kept close to the village as the snows deepened.
When he found the two orphaned wolf cubs in the spring, Tlaalduus thought everything resolved. Slowly, patiently, he taught the gangly youngsters to stalk a bit of meat on a leather thong, then a still flopping trout, and finally to chase young rabbits. After that, they taught themselves.
The wolves had grown into the best of hunters, and the most generous. Every day they found more prey. The carcasses of their kills had littered the beach like the logs from a riverflood. And Tlaalduus could not have disagreed with the young wolves - the best meat was that eaten fresh, while the prey was still warm and their blood still remembered the waking world. Why smoke the meat, or work so hard to build a storehouse for jerky, if another deer or salmon or seal lay within reach? They would bring Tlaalduus all the food he could want.
Like a man should with young children, Tlaalduus had instructed the young wolves - waste not, for the death of others is a gift which we must repay. He had showed them the earth and log smokehouse he had made, and the sweet wood he had collected, for preserving the meat. Great slabs of rose-colored fish meat already hung there, soaking in the smoke. Raven had made the first storehouse, and set aside the first preserved meat, and shared his knowledge with the people, but only if they swore to share it with others.
First had been impressed with the cunning of it all, the join of the logs and the chinking between them, and how the roof had been slanted to let the rain run off. But Second was not in favor of eating dead meat, and soon enough called his brother away to the hunt. None of Tlaalduus's words would change their ways.
The Mystery had.
It had been a cool morning, with the fog pushed out past the end of the rivermouth. The wolves had left the lodge, searching for something to eat. Clouds of crows perched on the dead things that lay on the shore, but the wolves trotted past, on to the riverbank. The silver and scarlet salmon glinted in the sunlight, tantalizingly close. First jumped into the water, with Second following close behind. Tlaalduus, watching from the lodge, saw their dark heads, gone sleek with water, dive under the waves.
When they arose, the wolves had been changed. Their bodies had lengthened and grown thick as old trees. Their feet grew wide and flat and the water washed away their fur, leaving the wolves sleek and naked as the fish they had pursued. Frantic, they swam back towards shore, grounding themselves briefly on the stones before the river forced them on to the sea.
Shocked, Tlaalduus had stared, until the grunting cries of the wolves broke him from his astonishment. He ran to the river, following the transformed wolves as they struggled against the current. Even as he watched, they had grown more confident, more assured. At the mouth of the river, they leapt over the sandbank, and into the salt waves.
He had stood on the shore, calling their names. One had turned back, then another. They lifted their heads from the water, black eyes glinting.
They had stayed in the bay beside the lodge at the rivermouth, slowly venturing further and further away. When Tlaalduus left the shore in his cedar canoe, the seawolves would appear, as if called.
Their transformation had changed them in more than appearance. The brothers hunted only what they could eat and they gulped down everything they could catch. They had grown more humble as well, and when Tlaalduus called out warnings to them, of weather or the thunderbirds, the seawolves listened. The brothers played, still, leaping after each other and falling back into the sea with a sound like crashing thunder. This, Tlaalduus knew, the thunderbirds would not tolerate, for the storm and the lightening was the nature of the thunderbirds, and they would not allow interlopers.
In the winter, the seawolves left, and Tlaalduus did not know where they journeyed. All winter, it seemed, they had not returned.
Now, it seemed, the thunderbirds had returned, and brought their young to the seashore. Two of the circling hunters were huge, but the third was this year's fledgling, for all that it still dwarfed a man.
Ripple watched them for a long time, until the thunderbirds shifted north and out of sight.
In the lodge at evening, he sat smoking beside the fire and considered the possibilities.
Perhaps the seawolves would not return to the coast. Perhaps the thunderbirds had already found the wolf brothers.
If the seawolves returned, Tlaalduus decided, he would warn them.
The next day he went out on the bay, bark hat pulled low against the rain. The waters and sky were empty - of thunderbirds, of seawolves, of ravens, of fish. Noon found Tlaalduus far across the bay, at the edge of the sea itself.
He beached the canoe and built a fire on the stones. He had nothing to eat, but the fire warmed his heart as well as his hands. He sat with his back to the canoe and looked over the firepit at the out-going tide.
The shush of the waves worked its magic, and when he saw the seawolves, he thought at first he was dreaming.
Then Second pushed his head from the water and whistled, breaking the dream-snare.
Tlaalduus rose to his feet and walked to the edge of the stones. First joined his brother, both of them turning their heads to look at the man on the shore.
He drew a breath: to scold, to cry greeting, he never knew. A flash of lightening struck the water, and a crash of thunder boomed forth, echoing against the cliffs. First sounded, sinking swiftly beneath the waves, with only a slap of his fluke to show where he had been. Second blew and whistled, as if daring the thunderbird to strike.
The young thunderbird - black as night, with blue storm-fire glowing on the leading edges of its wings - fell like a stone. But swift as it was, Second was faster. The orca dove, fluke snapping free as he submerged, and disappeared below the waves. The thunderbird screamed in frustration, the sound of its voice echoing off the cliff walls. Its talons closed on nothing but seafoam and the tips of its feathers smoked as they skimmed across the water's surface.
Then the thunderbird cried out again, this time in surprise, as the water roiled around it. Its wings beat frantically, dashing spume across the waves and over the stones where Tlaalduus crouched. It rose above the water, feet tucked close, wings working for every handspan of air. As it climbed, the water beneath its empty talons rose in a smooth dome and then parted as First, mouth agape, lunged after the thunderbird. The orca came out of the water, up, up, until the tall back fin broke clear.
Tlaalduus saw the ivory teeth close on the thunderbird's tailfeathers. Then the thunderbird was away, still screaming in rage, while First subsided with a thunderous crash.
The thunderbird fled, its flight jerky and uneven. First breached beside Second and blew, both of them skimming the surface and then sounding again. Tlaalduus crept closer to the water's edge. The thunderbird was a speck in the sky.
"Ha," he said, half a gasp, half a laugh. "Well done, great brothers."
The orcas broke the water beside him, lifting their heads clear of the water. Their eyes gleamed back brightly - clever First, bold Second. Rain pocketed the water's surface, burying the ripples in the velvet haze.
The fog thickened. Tlaalduus waded out into the water, first to his knees, then another step, until the waves pushed at his chest. First sank beneath the water and resurfaced almost under Tlaalduus's hand. He blew - a gusty breath of rotting fish - and brushed against Tlaalduus's fingers, before disappearing.
The wind grew stronger, pushing the waves further up the shore. Once, twice more the orcas breached, and then were lost to the rain. Far off, like a taunt shouted by a man across the river, thunder rumbled. Tlaalduus retreated to his fire and the mat beneath his canoe.
By evening, the storm had faded. Tlaalduus pushed the canoe out into the drizzle and made for home.
Neither of the orcas appeared, but he did not expect it. They were out among the wilderness of the sea, among the peaks of the islands and the winding valleys of kelp. Next year, summer would come again.
They reached the mountains with autumn, as the days shortened and broad-leafed trees turned scarlet and gold among the dark pines. With the first snow fall, the stranger fell ill.
Haenta Utchke built the lodge by herself, off the trail and close to water. The stranger was raving by the time she had the firepit dug and the first coals burning.
He lay before the fire for three days. The first day, Haenta Utchke gathered wood and set snares. She walked as far as she dared, dragging wood back in a rough toboggan made of withes. The days could be many, she thought, when she would need to gather wood quickly, or in the depths of snow. Best to save the closer deadfalls until then.
The second day, the sky clouded and lowered. Haenta Utchke set snares again, with no great hope of the outcome. The wild things could feel the weather, as well as she did, and would stay close to cover.
The third day the sun rose bright and gold, and was soon lost to the clouds. Before noon, it began to sleet, and thereafter to snow.
In the lodge, Haenta Utchke fed the fire slowly, and kept the stranger as close to the firebed as she dared.
"Roma," he groaned, and then, "Fides uxor."
Shattered wiped at his face with a bit of the dry duff. She did not understand the words, but the stranger rested easier when she held him close and rocked him.
She dozed, late in the night, as the wind fell. When she woke, the walls of the lodge were closer, darker, and gleamed with moisture. Haenta Utchke blinked, staring, and hugged the stranger to herself.
They lay now in a cave, the fire gone to embers before them. The wind had died away. In its place was a low, rasping sound, as if something great and large was panting. She felt a damp and hot gust on the back of her neck. She turned.
The wolf stared back at her with shining green eyes. Mouth agape, teeth shining. Haenta Utchke swallowed back a scream. The man jerked in her grasp, and she relaxed her grip.
"Ha," she said. "Good evening, grandmother."
The wolf stepped closer, sniffed at the stranger. Then she turned and walked back to the edge of the cave, where she lay down in a nest of leaves and...babes.
Two children - pale of skin, dark of hair, and naked as squirrels - squirmed closer to the wolf, nuzzling at her belly. The wolf licked each of them, her eyes still upon Haenta Utchke.
"Roma," the man said. "Roma," and then trailed off into mutterings in his own language.
The wolf rose. She circled Haenta Utchke and the fire twice, and on the third time, when she passed around the fire, she had shed the wolf's form and now was a woman, of the stranger's kind - pale eyes and dark hair, with a hood of the same metal skin as the stranger's.
She spoke, and it was the stranger's language that she used. But this was a dream, and in the dream, Haenta Utchke understood her words.
"You have been kind to my son."
Haenta Utchke shook her head, confused. It was only what a person should do.
The wolf-woman knelt by the fire, one hand on the furs over the stranger's knee. Together they held him, until he breathed no more.
Afterward, Haenta Utchke slept, and did not dream. When she woke, the fire had burned low, and the man, still in her arms, was stiff and cold. Outside, the wind had died, and the sun shone bright in the chill air.
She scrubbed at her face with handfuls of ash, wishing for a glazed cup or a bit of copper. When the sun was high, she took the stranger's long knife and went out, looking for softwood trees to strip of their bark. She found no birch, but made do with bundles of juniper branches.
Jerking the branches off, one by one, she was surprised to find her cheeks wet with tears.
The lodge would suit as a burial house - she would find no better, not here on the lonely mountain. The bear's fur she took for herself, and all but a handful of jerky.
The pack was heavy and the strap cut into her forehead. When she found the trail, she turned to the west without hesitation.
Before the full moon, she had reached the bottom of the rations pouch, and the summit of the mountains.
It had come upon her suddenly - one morning, it seemed, she was still walking endlessly uphill, and before midday she had passed over the shoulder of one more ridge. When she looked up, all the mountains before her fell away, one blue peak after another. Far off, at the edge of the horizon, she could see the glimmer of silver at the edge of the world.
She stared at it for a very long time before recognizing it for what it was - a great body of water, larger than any of the lakes of the east.
Bending, she took off her moccasins and stood there, barefoot, until the sun slid behind the clouds again. She turned around, slowly, her hands raised and her head bowed, humming under her breath as she did. On the fourth revolution, she opened her eyes.
To the south, a flicker sprang away from an aspen tree, sulfur wings flashing as it dove towards the cedars at the crest of the hill.
To the west, a raven approached, its shadow a faint blur as it passed over Shadow's head and was gone.
To the north, down the slope, a great elk buck stood watching her. When her eyes fell upon it, the buck shook his velvet-covered rack and strode away, long legs carrying him east, down the snow-flecked slope of the ridge.
To the east, the sun shown bright on the heights, turning the bare stone like the metal of the stranger's metal skin, when it was new. A bear walked away, its rump reflecting the shining sun.
Shattered looked once more at the mountainside falling away, and the line of shining brightness at the edge of the land, like the sun on a bright helm, like the wolf-woman who was a warrior. Then she turned her face back to the east, and began the long journey home.