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Bonus Chapter II: Aitu
Aitusik – Ninutsuet
Spring had come early to Ninutsuet this year. The nails of Mother Ice and Sister Snow had clawed their way back from the riverbeds and bushes, and her old sorcerer uncle, Tissungagat, said they would see berries in the weeks to come.
Aitusik thought that was silly. Weeks could be long, and why wait for berries when you could hunt for them?
Her foot squelched in the sodden soil as she trudged uphill from the camp in the cove toward the stunted balsams that overlooked the bay. Alluk plodded beside her, giggling each time he pulled his shoes from the sucking soil and the ground let out another belch.
If Aitu walked further south, maybe she could meet the berries halfway, and then her mother could stew them till they were tart and rich and so melty warm that you could drink them down like water. Aitu would surely be honoured as fittest hunter come autumn and all the village—including her big brother Poanni and handsome Aki and stupid ugly Mamik—would gather round to listen to the story of how Aitu had braved the—
Urrrrrrgh. A gigantic whine from just behind Aitu shattered her fantasy.
“It’s too far,” Alluk complained, finally bored of the belching sounds, and exaggerating his tiredness with a slump of his shoulders. He heaved one of his feet from the mud and it came free with a pop. “The mud’s too thick. My mother’s going to smack both of us if my shoes get ruined. Again.”
She didn’t say it aloud because it was mean, but if all it took for Alluk’s shoes to be ruined was a little mud, then his mother needed to get better at sewing.
“Don’t be lazy,” she chided. “We only just started.”
Aitu continued walking, forcing Alluk to start up again. They marched together toward the trees, which were densely packed and dark, full of animals and secrets. Aitu’s mother and father warned her not to go near the woods alone, or anywhere alone really. There were bears, they said. There were great fish in the water that could swallow her all up, or the ice could break off and drift out to sea, or a stranger could take her and they’d never see her again. There was the Black Man of the Woods—the lord of evil spirits—and there was Sea Mother and her kin who even grown hunters knew not to test their luck against.
But Aitu was careful about these things. She listened best of all to Tissungagat; she knew how to turn herself into a bird and fly away, or into a mouse or a fish.
Well, in principle she knew how to turn herself into a mouse. She hadn’t actually done it yet, but that was only because she was waiting for the right time. She had to really need to do it, and when the moment came she’d be ready. Besides, everyone knew Aitu’s family had magic in their blood. When it came time to ochre their skin, someone from their family always cared for the sacred water used to mix the paint.
Snow-damp branches licked the caribou leather of Aitu’s coat like tongues. Were there spirits in the branches, teasing her, trying to eat the ochre off her skin? She pulled her arms tight to her sides, comforted by the warm crush of her coat’s furry interior against her skin, ignoring the pull of the branches at the two long black braids that framed her face.
The woods’ spiritsprobably knew Aitu could do no such thing as turn into a bird.
For a moment, between the trees, Aitu was sure she could see a dark figure—tall as the stick-thin western birches the band had just left behind for the eastern summer camp. The branches around it bent back like it had moved.
Aitu’s heart thumped. Curling her fingers into her palms, she squinted into the darkness until her gaze blurred around the spot where she’d sensed movement.
“What is it?” Alluk tugged the fringe on the back of her coat.
Nothing was there. Just a shady patch between the trees. The movement had probably been a squirrel. Skinny and starved from the long winter, they were easy to miss this time of year.
She pressed on, fighting the tingly feeling in her feet that wanted her to turn back around like Alluk said and play in the mamateek instead.
Running away wasn’t what a hunter would do.
“We’ll be fine,” she argued. “We’re good hunters and I have a knife.” Aitu patted the leather pouch tied at her waist. In truth it contained a whalebone comb, not a knife at all, but the comb was sharp, and where eyes were concerned, a knife was a knife was a knife.
She stopped briefly to let Alluk catch up.
“How much further? Your mother said the stew would be done soon.” When Alluk came foot-to-stone with a mid-sized rock Aitu had happily hopped over, he crawled over it instead.
Aitu sucked back a laugh. She had to try not to be impatient with him. He was only seven to Aitu’s nine. “As far as it takes us to reach the berries.”
“These berries are fast for something with no legs.”
No doubt Alluk thought he was being clever. Well, Aitu was cleverer still. “They put their legs away when they reach the bushes.”
“So we can eat them?”
They started walking again.
“That’s stupid,” said Alluk. “Why would they do that?”
What would Tissungagat say? After a minute she smiled to herself. “They like being eaten. When they’re ready to be eaten it tastes as good for them as for us. And they want to help the band. They feel sorry for us.”
“Hmmm.” Suspicion brimmed in the sound. “That sounds like something you made up.”
The balsam and spruce trees swallowed them, and the light dimmed as though evening had fallen—spike-straight branches blotting out the sky. Snow crunched underfoot, and a flock of sparrows startled to flight as Aitu and Alluk intruded on the quiet.
Overhead, a raven cawed.
Aitu smiled. It was a good omen. Aitu’s older brother, Poanni, said she had raven’s eyes, that there was some raven in their family. The raven’s blood was how magic had come into their line, according to Tissungagat.
Gazing up at the high branches with her raven’s eyes, Aitu stretched her arms out like imitation wings. What would it be like to look down at the world from up there? What would it be like to circle around and around, drifting on the wind? Aitu had never been up high before; the thought made her dizzy.
An idea came to her, and she wiggled her finger for Alluk to come closer so she could whisper in his ear. “We should turn into animals! We can travel further and faster then. Turn yourself into a fox!”
Alluk grinned, his crooked teeth, which he usually hid, on full display in his small, round face. “Yes! Yes! I’ll be a fox.” He snarled like a beast. “Or a bear. Grr.”
Aitu laughed and Alluk’s chubby cheeks flushed.
She knew he liked her. He followed her everywhere and gave her stupid presents. Not that she minded; Alluk, at least, did what he was told, and he didn’t throw snow at her like Mamik and his friends. Not unless they were playing and he was supposed to throw it.
“I’ll be a raven,” Aitu said, crouching down and spreading her arms out again.
Alluk crinkled his face with great effort, as though if he squeezed hard enough he’d sprout talons and fur. After a few seconds he farted loudly, blushing, but still a boy and not an animal.
Aitu laughed again, but he didn’t look very happy about it this time.
“What are you doing here?” came Mamik’s harsh, familiar voice.
Mamik’s hand brushed against Aitu’s shoulder.
She jumped, grabbed Alluk’s arm, and twisted round so she could see Mamik. How had he crept up on them like that? If Mamik’s family had any magic in them it probably came from the weasel.
She was a bird, she was a bird, she was a bird—brave and clever and fast! She could face the snot-nosed older boy and come out alive. “Leave us alone, Mamik.”
Mamik crossed his arms, tall and brutish. He had dark brown hair, and a bit of fuzz unevenly distributed about his chin and cheeks. His eyes were brown too, and he wore his hair long, with braids at the front. His coat and trousers were dirty, as though he’d been playing in the muddy snowmelt.
“I came to find you, Mudhead. Your mother wants you,” he pointed at Alluk, grinning. “And you. She’s going to spank you when she finds out where you’ve been.”
Mamik had turned mean last summer, around the time Aitu’s father had taken him to trade with the white men beyond the southern pine forests. He’d come back with stories of lush trees with leaves like fins, and beautiful girls with hair pale as the sun. He’d called Aitu mudhead after that and pushed Alluk around too. He wouldn’t feel so special once Aitu was allowed to go—her father had been teaching her the white men’s words so she could come, though lately the white men didn’t come to trade anymore.
Maybe Mamik had scared them off with his hairy face.
Aitu smirked, which must have annoyed Mamik because he crinkled his nose all up like a growling wolf.
“Maybe we should go.” Alluk tugged her arm.
Getting a spanking wasn’t much of an incentive. Aitu shook her head.
“Aitusik! Alluk!” That was Mother’s voice. “Mamik!”
Aitu glanced behind her, back into the depths of the woods.
The raven was perched on a balsam, regarding her cryptically.
“Come on, Mudhead.” Mamik prodded her with a stick.
Alluk’s hand loosened in her fingers, then let go entirely.
For the tiniest instant, the tingling in her toes told to her grab Alluk’s hand back and pull him away with her. But Alluk stepped out of reach before she could.
“Aitusik! Alluk! Mamik!” Aitu’s mother’s voice echoed from the cove, nearly a song.
Deep in the woods where Aitu had seen the shadow, the raven took flight.
Aitu stepped away from Mamik and Alluk. “I have to follow the raven to the berries.”
“Aitusik! Come home!” The words shuddered through the trees.
Aitu crept back. She had to go—she had to. The raven was calling her, and you didn’t say no to spirits. Not ever. Not the good ones anyway.
Mamik must have sensed that she was about to run because he grabbed for her. But Aitu slipped away quick as a mouse, and without looking back again she darted into the trees, running as far as she could from Alluk and Mamik and the quieting call of her mother’s voice.
It was nearly impossible to run through trees that stood so tight together, but Aitu was slippery. She twisted sideways just when she needed to, shrinking herself small so she could make it through even the narrowest spaces.
Running, running, running into the dark.
Once her mother’s cries had grown too distant to hear, she jolted to a stop. Guilt crackled through her ribs. And poor Alluk—he was stuck with Mamik, who’d no doubt give him a smack or two.
The raven cawed somewhere ahead of her, invisible in the thick of the tight-packed trees and their shadows.
Aitu couldn’t think of Alluk right now. She had a raven to follow. Besides, her mother would take care of Alluk. He could sit and be lazy and eat stew until evening, which was what he’d wanted all along anyway.
There was no clear path through the trees and Aitu was forced to bend, dip, and twist to push through the scratching branches. Even so, the rough, pockmarked bark on the needle-thin arms of the balsams scratched her cheeks and scraped loudly against her leathers. Wherever she squeezed through, the trees whipped behind her like they were mourning her escape. The woods were darker the further you walked, the twisted maze of tiny branches creating a net that turned the sky all patchy.
Aitu slowed down. She’d never seen this part of the forest before and the raven was nowhere to be heard. There was no sign of her mother, or Mamik, or Alluk. She’d left them completely behind.
It was no small thing to be lost in the woods. Bad spirits lived here and would snatch any opportunity to coax wayward humans to their side. Tissungagat was always warning of creatures like that. If you made a pact with one, you’d be barred from ever setting foot on the Happy Island promised to people of the band.
Aitu gripped her arms and rubbed, suddenly cold. As she ran her hand over her sleeves her finger caught on a snagged bit of fabric.
How hungry must those trees have been to have ripped a hole right through her mother’s fine sewing and thick caribou hide?
Poanni wouldn’t be afraid.
“Aitu!” a woman’s voice—high and sweet as a songbird—called to her from the trees ahead.
“Mother?” Aitu stepped forward, into a small clearing, half expecting to find her mother standing inside it wearing the pretty red scarf Father had brought her from down south.
It was dark inside the rounded, empty space, the thick, damp moss mounded into miniature hills and valleys—a landscape of green underfoot. Stepping on the hills had the air of a bad omen about it, and as she walked, she did her best not to tread on the downy mountains.
“Mother!” but Aitu’s reply caught in her throat and she stopped walking.
There was something wrong about the voice. And Aitu hadn’t got turned around—she was sure of it. It would have been impossible for her mother to have travelled ahead of Aitu this far into the woods.
“Aitu! Aitu! Aitu!” The call was musical as a sparrow’s.
Aitu shivered. She peered at what slivers of sky she could from beneath the conifers—when had it got so dark? Smoke or black clouds plumed in the sky, like back at camp they were holding the spring festival without her.
They’d all be warm, scrunched together, eating and laughing, listening to tales or playing games.
She slipped her hands inside the sealskin mittens hanging at her sleeves. She closed her eyes tight, trying to imagine she was sat at the fire with Poanni’s arms around her. It was a long time since she’d truly been little enough for him to pull her against him and plunk her into his lap, but she pictured it anyway, feeling the love and warmth seep into her through his embrace. She didn’t even care if Mamik laughed at her for being a baby.
“Aitu!” came the voice, right in front of her.
Aitu had been so caught up imagining the scene by the fire that when the voice called her a fourth time she screamed and fell backwards onto a snow-caked rock.
Her braids slapped her cheeks.
The eerie familiarity of the creature’s face made it more frightening, as though it were trying desperately to look like what it thought a human was supposed to. It stood on all fours, and with hands in place of front feet, though the fingers were terrifyingly long and hairy. It’s swooping, droopy neck was covered in brown hair that hung shaggy and coarse all the way to its ruddy back. The face was the worst though, with dark, human eyes just enough like her mother’s eyes, and a nose just enough like her mother’s nose, but a mouth that was a little too wide and a little too toothy. It seemed to be smiling at her, but the expression went on too long and too steady.
Aitu couldn’t think of what to say, so she said nothing and cried instead and reached for her whalebone comb in its pouch, the hard rock she’d fallen on pressed right against her back.
“Aitu!” The creature spoke, but its lips didn’t move, or its teeth, and it kept on smiling and smiling.
It didn’t look anything like The Black Man of the Woods, but that didn’t mean it was a friend.
“Aitu!” it called.
And then, quick as the wind the creature turned around, so that Aitu wasn’t sure if it’d moved at all. It stepped deftly around the hills of moss, over the roots that could easily snag your feet. After about seven feet it stopped, bent its neck, and looked at her again. “Aitu!”
“Why do you have my mother’s voice?”
“Aitu! Aitu! Aitu!”
Aitu pushed herself up off the rock. “Can’t you say my whole name?”
There was a creak and then a caw from above. The raven had returned and was flying in rings exactly above her head.
She felt calmer just watching it.
The raven dove beneath the trees, following the creature as it drifted deeper into the woods where the snow wasn’t yet melted.
It was obvious they wanted her to follow. She ran her fingers along her comb and bit her lip.
She hesitated but a moment longer before tiptoeing with mouse-soft footsteps through the moss and into the snow and the path carved by the grinning creature. Where its feet had touched down, prints as if from long-fingered hands remained.
Ever since she’d been very small, Aitu had wished she were a hero like one of the people in the stories, but now that the moment had arrived, she longed only to be safe at home with her family, slurping stew and only daydreaming that she was having the sort of adventure she really was having now.
“Do not run from me, Child,” said a deep voice, sleepy and lilting. Was that the creature too? Maybe it was the raven.
“Ahhhhh!” The scream snatched Aitu’s attention back in the direction of the camp. It rippled across her skin, through her coat and right to her flesh.
Thump thump thump went her heart.
It hadn’t sounded like the scream of someone playing a game. It had sounded like Old Kop’s screams when Poanni and Aki had hauled him back to camp with a bull’s antler piercing his shoulder.
Not a scream you survived.
Was Aitu walking the wrong way? The creature was leading her deeper into the forest, away from home.
“Do not turn from me, Child.”
Aitusik would turn if she wanted to. She made as if to leave, scrambling for purchase on the uneven ground, slipping in one of the monster’s hardened footprints.
Another scream froze her in place.
It wasn’t just one person; she could hear a lot of voices crying out from the other direction.
“AITUSIK!” The forest and the whole earth shook with the force of that thunderous voice, and Aitu did fall down this time, sliding in the snow, scuffing her palms on hard ice and dirt.
She phoomphed against a tree, sticks snapping against her fine coat, one of them puncturing through to her shawl underneath, jabbing her back.
Aitu bit back a whimper and opened her eyes and turned her palms over.
Her hands were bloody.
The creature was staring at her again, its eyes no longer so similar to Aitu’s mother’s, but ever-changing—flickering like autumn leaves from green to burnished red and then a dusty, black-spotted brown.
“W-What do you want?” Aitu reached back and gingerly slid the low-sitting branch from the narrow hole it’d speared through her coat.
Drool frothed at the creature’s lips.
“Aitu,” it said.
With a shudder and an ache that shot from her foot to her hip, Aitu hauled herself to her feet. “All right. I’m coming.”
As they slipped, shadowy and sinuous, through the woods, the ache in Aitu’s feet widened till her toes began to pulse. Still, she plodded, walking like she was caught in a spell.
A snowflake landed on Aitu’s cheek, cold and then wet as it melted.
She made herself as small as she could, huddling in her clothes as the raven cawed their passing, warding off the bears and the wolves. When Aitu looked left and right, hungry eyes seemed to leer at her from every night-black shadow between the trees.
As the snow grew fiercer, the wind picked up. It was calmer in the trees, but she could hear Father Storm howling beyond the woods, tossing the remaining drifts of snow about in the air.
“I want to go home!” she called. Her eyes were beginning to sting, frost clinging to her lashes. She could only just make out the shape of the creature as it traced winding paths through the tight spruce.
“What’s your name?” Aitu croaked.
If it heard, it didn’t answer.
A sob broke from Aitu’s lips and when it did the tears she’d been holding back gushed out of her in a torrent. They froze against her skin, tears and snot soaking the collar of her coat.
A wet coat and a wet face in a storm was the touch of death.
Aitu yelled at the creature, like if she yelled she’d scare her fear away. “I’ll turn into a raven and fly away!” she threatened. It was what Issuk would have done in the stories, or maybe he would have been a bear and torn the monster to shreds.
Tearing it to shreds seemed impossible when it had got so far ahead of her, its shape bunched and indistinct beyond the veil of snow.
Still, she walked.
And the more she walked, the more the shape of the creature morphed and twisted and changed. It was her mother, striding through the woods, her fine red scarf blowing behind her in the wind.
“Mother? Father? Poanni?”
It didn’t answer, turning smaller and smaller.
Sobbing, Aitu started to run. She stumbled and she fell, but she was getting closer. She would make it.
She stretched her arm out for her mother—
And the creature disappeared, blinking out of existence and then back again further away from her. Out of reach.
Aitu grunted, sucked back her tears, and dashed toward the shape. The faster she ran, the further it drifted from her.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to Mamik,” she pleaded. “I’m sorry I ran away. I’m sorry I pretended not to hear you.”
Aitusik tripped on something massive.
It was lying in front of her, its long neck curved around, its hairy belly exposed like it wanted her to lie in its fur. On its back was some sort of blanket—red and bright like Mother’s scarf. Red like blood.
Aitu stared it in its angular eyes, disbelieving and afraid.
But she was colder than she was frightened. If she didn’t listen to the monster she would freeze to death in the woods and no one would ever find her.
“All right, but if you eat me I’ll turn into a raven and peck my way out of you.” She gave the creature a look and curled up against its fur, burying her cheek between its front legs.
The creature’s heartbeat thudded rhythmically in Aitu’s ear, a lullaby. A croon. As she listened she grew more and more tired, her eyes closed, her dreams taking hold of her. For the last time she would ever dream of such things for a very long while, Aitu dreamed of her parents and her house and Poanni and Alluk and the rest of the tribe.
When she woke, she was all alone.
The snow was still falling, but the sky was light above her gunky eyes, and the whiteness surrounding her made it nearly too bright to see anything. The trees and the ground and Aitu herself were all coated in white.
A trail of prints, partially filled by snow, tracked away from her, small and round.
From close by came a trill.
Aitu jumped to her feet.
A ways off, the monster stood covered mostly in snow so that it looked white too. Its brown hair hung, matted, from its neck. Somehow it didn’t seem so terrible anymore now. The beast’s face, though peculiar, wasn’t the distorted face of her mother. If anything, it looked like a poorly made deer or caribou, antler-less and sad.
The creature shook its back and snorted, the movement causing an avalanche of snow from its back, revealing its bright red harness and the blanket on its back. Yellow embroidery curled in pretty shapes all along the edges of the blanket. The creature flared its wide nostrils at her and snorted again before turning away and meandering off.
“You don’t look like you know where you’re going at all,” Aitu called scathingly, angry at the monster and herself, but not nearly so afraid now that day had come again. She must have been asleep for an awfully long time.
Long enough that her family would be worried about her.
“Wait! I’m coming!” Aitu stood up, bones aching. She stretched, checked her pouch for the bone comb, then hurried after the spirit. Once she’d caught up, she stuck close to its side, following it through the trees until eventually they broke free of the stranglehold of pines and emerged onto a snowy plain that Aitu thought she recognized.
She could get home from here.
Aitu sighed dramatically, but she couldn’t help smiling. Now she truly would get a spanking, and it wouldn’t be a light one.
The creature trotted awkwardly away from her across the snow, sinking with every second step. It seemed out of place and frightened, but it wasn’t paying any attention to her anymore, and she let it wander away. Spirits, surely, knew their own way home.
The sky was all white and grey clouds, and in the distance she could see the smoke from back at camp.
With another, even wider smile, Aitu set off homeward, her path curving away from the creature’s. Together, they were two black dots on an endless snowscape.
Overhead, the raven cawed.
It took a long time to pass the forest and find the low hill that sheltered the camp. When she did find it, her first instinct was to run over the crest and straight down into the basin, but a tingling in her toes stopped her.
She crept quiet, crouching low. Listening.
Voices. Voices in the camp.
She couldn’t understand what they were saying, and it was different than any language she’d ever heard. Different even than the words of the Ashoon to the north or the Aeshung white men in the south.
Shaking, Aitusik crouched to the ground and slunk toward the peak of the rise. She peered over with trembling legs.
Angry black smoke poured into the air from a huge fire someone had made in the middle of the camp. Strange men wearing shiny stone dresses and red skirts milled about the town, holding thin spears and chatting. Their skin was pale, unpainted. When they laughed though, they sounded just like anyone who laughed. Just like the band.
From somewhere Aitu couldn’t see, people were crying and some screaming. Two men stepped from around a mamateek, carrying a third man between them. His face was bloody.
Where were Aitu’s people? Where was the band?
Aitu nearly bolted to her feet, but just stopped herself.
Nearer the beach, Mamik was being led by one of the strangers, bound by a long rope tied around his neck and again around his belly. He was sobbing, crying out for his sister and mother. No one was with him.
“Mamik! Mamik! Get down, Mamik!”
At the sound of her brother’s voice, Aitu stood up.
Poanni charged toward the centre of the camp, harpoon in hand.
The men surrounding Mamik scattered. Bound to them, Mamik tripped forward, yelping.
Poanni shoved through the frightened men, and with a knife cut through Mamik’s bonds in two swift slashes. Mamik fell backwards onto the ground.
Poanni! Poanni had saved him! He was here and Aitu was safe.
Aitu stood on her tiptoes, high as she could now that she didn’t need to be afraid anymore. She waved to her brother, and when he didn’t react she cupped her hands to her mouth and called to him. “Poanni! I’m here!”
He wasn’t paying her any attention.
Aitu ran down the hill toward him, feet skidding on the slippery mud. She shoved her hand into her pouch, gripping her bone comb.
A knife was a knife was a knife.
In the middle of the camp, Poanni swung his harpoon, creating a space between himself and the encroaching strangers. With every swipe, Aitu could see how his arms bent a little lower, shoulders slumping, the swing a little narrower. It was an awkward weapon to use like that.
The men in stone dresses had large knives that shone in the firelight, and as Poanni’s swings slowed they nipped like coyotes, forcing him back toward the ice-packed bay.
Aitu screamed as she all but tumbled toward them, but no one turned, even when she reached them. She jabbed her tiny sharp comb into the leg of one of the strangers and he screamed.
Aitu felt a thud—his boot kicking her hard in the chest. She flew back, thunking against the hard bank, the air knocked from her chest.
Slowly, Aitu propped herself up.
Poanni was almost to the edge of the shore.
The men in stone dresses swarmed the camp like summer ants. One of them had grabbed Mamik in his arms and was carrying him off somewhere. At the edge of one of the tents, a creature like the spirit who’d led her through the forest kicked the ground, sending up a spray of mud and small rocks.
Aitu’s vision spun.
And at the centre of it all, the fire.
It roared yellow and orange, so hard and bright it felt like it was burning her eyes.
And there were faces—faces in the flames!
“Father?” Aitu forced herself to her feet but shrank back.
Her father’s face stared at her from just outside the fire, at the bottom of a pile of bodies that was just now catching alight. The whole fire was made of bodies, only most were charred, their clothes all hard and black.
“Father!” Aitu yelled, coughing out the smoke. She didn’t want it in her. She hadn’t noticed it, and now she didn’t want it in her. She didn’t—
Big, strong arms enveloped her, clutching her tight, pinning her arms, lifting her into the air. She thrashed this way and that, but she couldn’t break free. The edges of the stranger’s metal dress cut at her sleeves, ripping a hole through her fine caribou coat. He smelled of blood and leather and sweat.
She bit at him, but he slipped his fingers out of reach and gripped her harder.
As the smoke spun into the sky, cloaking her view, he dragged her along with him, backwards toward the woods. Away from the fire. Away from the pile. Away from the band.
Past the fire and the rushing bodies, Poanni suddenly broke out from the men herding him toward the ice. In his hand was one of the strangers’ long knives. He slashed it back and forth in front of him, swinging with renewed strength, cutting down his shocked attackers.
Aitu’s choked throat found its words. “Poanni!” That was her brother, the best hunter in the village, the best warrior. “Poanni!”
He yelled something, but she couldn’t hear.
He dropped the large knife, knelt to the ground, and hefted the harpoon up again. All the way up.
He ran for her.
Men trailed him, but they weren’t as fast as Aitu’s brother.
He hurled the harpoon.
Aitu feltthe whoomph of the harpoon as it exploded through her attacker’s midsection. Then she was tumbling tumbling, splattered with mud as she collided with the ground.
The stranger screamed.
Aitu rolled onto her back and stared.
The dying man wailed where he lay—a sound so much worse than Old Kop’s screams. Poanni stood not ten feet away.
Aitu hissed out a breath, tasting blood, waiting for Poanni to drop the pole at the end of the harpoon’s twine and hurry after her. Thud thud thud went her heart, beating a drumbeat that thrummed all through her body. They could run and hide, and when the time was right they would come rescue Mamik and whoever else the strangers had taken.
Thud thud thud. Thudthudthud.
For a moment, Aitu met Poanni’s gaze. In an instant, sadness, and then his serious face. The one he used when he was commanding the other hunters.
“Run, Aitu,” he called to her. “Sednisnut.”
Sednisnut. It was where the Osaqana band made their own spring camp, but Aitu had never been there. And the Osaqana weren’t always friendly. Ever since the band had started trading with the white men they’d refused to meet with Aitu’s people.
“I don’t know the way,” Aitu cried.
But Poanni didn’t say anything else. Instead, he tugged on the butt of the harpoon with its line, dragging the dying man across the snow like a seal. The man’s blood painted a red trail after him.
“Over here!” Poanni yelled. “I’ve got your man, see? I’m going to cut him open and make his veins into strings for my sitar!”
Aitu didn’t know if any of the strangers understood her brother’s words, but they understood his violence. As they thudded toward Poanni, he quickly backed toward the water, dragging the screaming man after him, hauling his catch to where the ice had been breaking off for days.
Aitu couldn’t move.
Run, run, run, her instinct told her. Run to Sednisnut for help.
Help for Poanni. Help for Mamik.
It would be too late.
So run, run, run she did.
Aitu sprinted after her brother, who already had about fifteen men chasing him toward the open water. Why was he doing that? It was unstable now the weather had warmed; he’d be carried out to sea.
They all would.
Their parents had always warned them not to go near the ice.
“Poanni! Don’t go! The ice―Poanni!” Aitu’s throat was raw from yelling, her feet sore from walking. She ran all the same, with no hope of catching up to the tall men ahead of her. She watched, helpless, as Poanni reached the very edge of the world and gave one last heave, jerking the screaming man onto a loose bit of ice.
Three more of the strangers had followed him onto the pan.
A great crack echoed in the camp as one of the strangers leaped from the shore onto the already splitting pan, a sound louder than a thunderclap in Aitu’s ears.
Another of the strangers swayed, off-balance, only to fall into the freezing water and disappear beneath the crush of two warring pans. Men spilled from the mamateeks to find out what was happening, but not one of them was one of Aitu’s people. They yelled and pointed and directed each other this way and that, but none of them was as loud or desperate as Aitu as she screamed after her brother, even as he pushed the ice further from the shore and drifted further and further into the ocean wastes along with several of the strangers.
Aitu collapsed, fingers curling into a grip like she could grab Poanni’s coat and haul him back home.
They’d left her. All of them had gone away, even Alluk. If only she hadn’t run off, she would have seen her mother again, felt her big, soft hands stroking her hair. Maybe Aitu would have heard the men approaching, and maybe she would have warned them, and then Poanni wouldn’t be floating out to die on the water, and father would still be here. They’d all still be here. She could have stopped it.
The men were growing tired of watching Poanni and his kills disappear, and a few of them turned around.
Aitusik sniffed, swallowed, and then forced herself to get up. Poanni had told her to leave, so she would, and she’d make the Osaqana listen and come rescue Mamik. He was all she had left now, only mean old Mamik with his fuzzy chin.
“Mamik.” Even his name made Aitu cry, and she had to force herself not to stop walking and go look for him.
Aitu followed her footprints back the way she’d come, retracing her path from the woods. None of the strangers seemed to have noticed her leaving, too distracted by the chaos Poanni had caused.
As she heaved her feet along through the snow she tried to remember anything and everything she’d ever heard about Sednisnut and the Osaqana. She really didn’t know where Sednisnut was, but it must be somewhere past the forest. It was certainly inland.
Much as it had last night, the walking became automatic, so that she hardly noticed she was moving her legs at all, only that they itched with sweat and stung from tiredness.
For a while she didn’t say anything, afraid someone would hear her and follow, but when she didn’t see anyone for a long time, and as the sounds of the camp faded to nothing, Aitu began to hum to herself, biting her lip as she did so, imagining her parents were beside her singing along.
At the edge of the forest, where she and the creature had emerged this morning, she considered the routes left and then right, finally deciding to head onto the snowy plains where the creature had vanished. Maybe it had smelled or sensed something; maybe it knew where the people were. She only hoped she didn’t meet a worse monster on the way, like a bear fresh inland for spring. It was the season for it, and a bear’s white coat would blend into the snow so that she might not see it coming straight away.
Aitu’s lip quivered, and she quickened her pace, afraid to look up as she walked and see a bear in the distance.
A snort and a trill.
“Hello?” She’d heard a snort and a trill like the creature’s.
“Tuungaq!” Aitu called. “Tuungaq!” Demon seemed a fitting name. “Where are you, Tuungaq?!”
Then Aitu spotted something lying flat on the snow.
She hurried to the beast’s side and collapsed beside it. She stroked the flat of her palm over its brown fur.
Tuungaq snorted in greeting, and Aitu held back her tears only a moment before wrapping her arms around the big monster’s neck and sobbing against its rough, scratchy hair.
“Do you know the way, Tuungaq?” She looked up, staring into the creature’s eyes, black as Aitu’s eyes, black as raven’s eyes. Her family’s eyes. “I hate them. I hate them.” Saying it only made her cry harder though, and she squeezed her eyes shut till her head started to ache.
“We need to go, Tuungaq.” She brushed the snow from his neck. “I don’t really hate them. I want them back, even Mamik. Can you bring them back?”
Tuungaq wouldn’t talk like he had last night though, and he blinked uncomprehendingly. She shuffled closer, then lifted his heavy head from the snow and onto her lap.
If she laid down in the snow with Tuungaq she could fall asleep and never wake. It would be easier than going on, and she’d be with her family again, all of them together. All of them, on the Happy Island.
She smiled, shutting her eyes. Tuungaq didn’t want to move; he probably knew best.
“Goodnight, Tuungaq. Goodnight Mamik; I’m sorry.” Aitu laid down, ready to give herself to the cold.
The wind had picked up again; she could hear it baying as though it knew she was all the way out here, last of the last. She snuggled closer to Tuungaq, whose body was cold under the hard sky, even though he had fur and Aitu didn’t. His breathing was shallow and laboured, and he kept opening his mouth to lick his big lips like he was thirsty. When his tongue licked her cheek by accident, she opened her eyes.
“You’re making them sore.” Aitu whispered. Tuungaq continued worrying at his lips though, and Aitu gave him a pat. “You led me away from Ninutsuet,” she said, “so I wouldn’t be killed. I shouldn’t let you die; Issuk wouldn’t let you die. It would be good if I knew how to really turn into a raven; I could fly overhead and show you where to go, couldn’t I?”
Aitu stood up, shielding her eyes with one hand as frenzied gusts sprayed hardened snow against her face. She couldn’t see anything at all. Shadows seemed to spring up wherever she looked so that ghosts appeared to be marching on them from all directions.
Gritting her teeth, Aitu bent down and grabbed Tuungaq’s harness, pulling till he raised his neck and staggered to his feet. The problem, she realized, must be the snow, but there was no use doing anything to stop the storm god when he came, so she did all she could to calm her creature with reassuring gestures and sounds.
“We’ll keep going.” Aitu pulled on the bridle, walking the creature along.
Instead of following, it bucked and made a strangled sound, nearly hitting her with its hooves.
“Stop it!” Aitu stamped her foot. “Stop it now! We have to get moving!”
No matter how angry she got, Tuungaq wouldn’t move. It was favouring one side, its steps uneven. It must have got stuck in the snow.
Aitu knelt down.
One of his ankles was bent at an unnatural angle, and there was blood—
Aitu looked up, staring into his cavernous black eyes. A cold hard pit had formed in her stomach.
She gritted her teeth and swallowed back the lump forming in her through. It didn’t change anything; they still needed to move, and quickly. Aitu thought she could hear voices being carried along the wind. It sounded like the mishmash language of the strangers.
She took a step, then a second, gently easing Tuungaq after her.
Behind them, some of the ghost-shadows were taking form, becoming the shadows of real men.
“Come on, Tuungaq,” she begged.
To her relief, the creature picked up the pace, following her more easily now. Perhaps she’d convinced him to trust her.
She peeked behind her and shook her head. The men were still coming; she just wasn’t fast enough.
From ahead of her, in a language a little like that of white Aeshung men, one of them called out something that sounded like “Where go?”
Where was she going.
Aitu went still.
A figure peeled out from the sheets of white that swirled around them, standing in front of her. He had brown hair and pale skin, and a kind, fatherly face. One of the attackers.
“Nowhere. Home. I’m lost,” she answered in Aeshung. What should she say? Would he let her go? Would he even understand her? “Move.”
“No, I don’t think –.” His accent was thick and strange and Aitu had trouble understanding his words. “That my horse you have.”
“Horse? His name is Tuungaq.” Aitu frowned. “You can’t have him. Move.”
“Portus! Come see —” The man was laughing. “One of the skraelings has my Gorbo. She said she won’t give him – –!”
The second man, Portus, appeared beside the first, riding another creature—another Tuungaq—though this one’s fur was a rich black. He whispered something very quickly to the first man, but in their own tongue.
He pointed at Tuungaq’s ankle.
The first man’s amusement soured.
“Give me him here, girl―or boy, —— — — –.”
“Girl,” said Aitu. “You can’t have him. Let us go.”
“He suffer, — — —-? Give me —- my horse!” The first man drew his long, shining knife as though to use it, and Aitu placed herself between Tuungaq and the strangers.
“No! You go. Leave us alone. We’re going to Sednisnut.”
The first man shared a look with Portus before replying. “Sednisnut?”
Aitusik swallowed. She didn’t know the Osaqana. She didn’t know Sednisnut. But she knew she couldn’t let the pale men know there were other bands. She hesitated, then blurted out: “It means the sky. We’re going to the sky-world, to the afterlife.” Better not to tell them about the Happy Island either. The horses might be able to lead them there if they knew.
The strangers stared at her in bewilderment, but then the first one raised his hand. Aitu shrunk away, but she wasn’t quick enough.
He struck her with the back of his hand, hard enough that she tripped and nearly collapsed against Tuungaq. She fumbled for her comb—but no, she’d dropped it!
Instead, she made a fist, trying not to think about how small and weak she must look.
“I want her,” the man said. “She a—s me. Have Mikipsi record her words from her, and her —- customs and gods. We — — —- to make a sacrifice to them before we —- south again.”
Portus replied in their own language.
The first man smiled. “No, I keep her.” He snapped his fingers and Aitusik jumped.
She had to run, before they could take her, but Tuungaq wouldn’t make it on his own. Torn, Aitu did nothing, and soon Portus was grabbing her, the two men continuing to speak to each other in words she didn’t know. He rested Tuungaq’s harness from her grasp, prying her sore fingers from the leather. When she made another grab for him, Portus hit her again.
“Please don’t!” Aitu reached for him, but Portus handed the harness to the first man, who stroked Tuungaq’s forehead briefly, whispering something to the animal before opening its throat with his blade.
Tuungaq collapsed, frothing at the mouth and neck into the snow, emptying his blood out at her feet. She didn’t move. She didn’t want to leave Tuungaq behind.
They stood and waited in the snow until the rest of the men had caught up, Aitu listening in a daze the whole time. The first man introduced himself as Marianus. He was a warrior, he said, but it didn’t seem he had the speech to explain any further. She was his now, he said. He wanted her to tell him about her people.
Aitu didn’t say anything. He gave up on her after that.
When the rest of the men arrived they were dragging wheeled cages full of supplies and animals and people. One of the people Aitu recognized immediately, even beneath his bruised and bloodied face.
Mamik looked up, but his gaze was unfocused, and he didn’t say anything to her as Portus loaded her in the wheeled cage beside him, to sleep amongst some hunting dogs and an old white man who wouldn’t stop singing, even when Aitu threw a bone at his head. A warrior came by to bring them food, but when she recognized stew just like her mother’s, she couldn’t eat.
That was our food, was all she could think.
Days passed and they caught up with spring, and the berries, and the herds. On their way south Aitu was made to recount stories of her people to a funny little brown man with curly hair and a writing stick. His name was too hard for Aitu to pronounce, which was fine, because no one could pronounce hers either. When they stopped, which was often, men would tie her to a pole and leave her to sit with the dogs. She played with them often, and so Marianus began to call her Ydelka, which the curly-haired man told her was a word used for hound.
After that she didn’t like to play with the dogs so much.
Mamik grew sick not long after, and nothing Aitu said or did seemed to help. His skin went all ashy and he spent his nights thrashing in a cold sweat. The curly-haired man gave him medicine, but it didn’t work. One morning, Aitu awoke to find him lying dead behind her, his mouth agape, his eyes wide open.
By midmorning, he was gone.
That night she huddled with the dogs again for the first time since Marianus had called her Ydelka.
What was most frightening though, was how soon her family became abstract. When Aitu thought of her Mother she would cry and cry, seeing her red scarf and her warm smile, but it was an indistinct hand that reached out for Aitu, an indistinct face that wore Mother’s smile. They came to her through a veil of snow, made only of hulking shapes without true form. She didn’t dream of them, not since the night in the snow when Tuungaq had come to protect her. She looked out of the bars of her cage in the sweltering days and cold nights and wondered what exactly he’d protected her from. There was no magic here, no changing to animals, and no spirits walking the forest.
Perhaps it was why they had killed him.
The small trail of warriors and captives arrived a few months later at a settlement that made Aitu’s hairs prickle. Stone buildings lined roads built atop a bog, arranged in rows and rows, with canals in between them to direct the water. This was Lorar, they told her, her new home. It was beautiful, and she hated it.
Here, she thought, the world had been shaped to fit the men who lived here. Here, the magic of the skies and the gods and the spirits had been forgotten and betrayed.
This was no place for Aitusik, no place for Aitu. And so, when the strange, foreign little girl was brought before Marianus’s household, to sing and dance and tell stories about the skraelings in the northern wastelands, she did not tell them what her name had meant, or how to say it, and over time she forgot it herself, and started to believe she had always been a hound, and not a raven of the wilderness.
Daylight came in slivers, just as shreds of memory came in dreams. Words she shouldn’t understand danced in her ears—ears she was sure had—she was certain he’d—
The man of shadow. The Black Man of the Woods.
She shuddered on the soft bed in the corner of the small dark room where she’d been waking and sleeping in a delirium for what felt like months. Even now, her fingers were twitching, part of her still dreaming. On mornings like this, she could still feel the dirt beneath her nails, though a southerner had come days ago to bathe her.
Dirt . . . or snow?
She pulled the soft cotton blankets they’d given her close, like she was in the snow now, despite the heat. It was always hot; it didn’t matter what time of day it was.
Still, they left her in darkness, and barely spoke.
When they did speak, it was in the tongue of the southern shore. Her Samos’s tongue. First had been a northern slave, but lately a fat southern woman with scraggly hair and a monobrow brought her meals. She’d taken to calling her Tangle, like Kirin would have. He was always coming up with silly nicknames for the people he met.
Where was Kirin?
A sharp pain stabbed through her guts and she curled into a ball on her side, waiting for the wave of hurt to subside like it always did. When the pain finally released her, she rolled onto her back and dabbed at her sweaty forehead with one of her blankets.
She had to figure out what had happened to her. She had to learn where she was. She had to escape.
Tangle always brought a tablet with her, scribbling the whole while like Marianus’s spy had used to do when he’d recorded her words. If Tangle said anything it was monosyllabic. That or a grunt—she was fond of grunting.
By the end of Tangle’s scribbling, she always fell back to sleep, like they’d doused her meals. Then again, she was so tired. Always tired.
Where was she?
The only light shone in a slanted line through a crack in the room’s door and when night came—or what she assumed must be night—it was completely black. The room was plain and windowless, made of sandstone at a guess, though she wasn’t sure. It smelled of perfume and the food they brought her was spicy and sweet on her tongue, washed down by a sharp floral brew that in the dim light looked like watered-down red wine.
If not for the darkness and the silence, she’d have called her cage more splendid than anywhere she’d slept in Marianus’s household.
At first, she’d thought that must be where she found herself, but this place, wherever it was, was foreign. She wasn’t at home in Lorar anymore. She couldn’t even promise she was in the north at all—not with the food so hot and the fabrics that made up her bed. If she was in the north, this was a lot of work to go to in order to make her think she wasn’t.
From whatever space lay outside her room came the predictable shuffle of feet and she closed her eyes. Today, no matter how tired she was, no matter what dreams threatened to pull her back into sleep, she had to do something. Sitting and listening to Tangle scribble wasn’t helping, and even though there was nothing obvious in the room to use as a weapon, there was one thing she could count on—one thing Tangle never forgot.
At the door, the shuffle grew louder. Not one set of feet this time, but two—no, three.
Thud thud thud thrummed her heart, but despite or maybe because of the fear she smirked to herself.
“If you’re looking for a companion to warm your bed while you wait,” came a man’s voice. His words hung in the air as though awaiting a response.
A woman’s melodic chuckle followed. “I’ve waited over thirty years. What’s one more?”
“Father—” This third voice—it sounded so familiar. An older man’s.
The footsteps stopped before the door.
She’d fight all three of them if she had to.
On her bed, she sat up, shoved the blankets aside, and waited. The long-sleeved plain robes they’d clothed her in were almost like another blanket, swaddling her. If she wanted to move fast through the building she’d do better stripping naked.
From the other side of the door, a key clunked in the wooden lock.
The woman who entered first was a stranger, and though she couldn’t see behind the newcomer to the others, she could tell already Tangle wasn’t one of them.
The woman had russet skin and the slight, delicate features the Ajwati often did. There was an androgenous quality to her, her tightly cropped hair boyish and her expression playful. A prominent scar—most likely from a knife wound—marred her chin, reaching nearly to her full lips.
In one hand, the woman balanced the usual tray laden with foreign delicacies. Her ornate robes were detailed in gold thread, which shimmered in the light from the lantern held by someone behind her.
“I see you’re awake,” said the woman with a smile. She strode right up to the bed and carefully laid the tray on top of the blankets.
A tablet and stylus rested beside the cup of translucent red liquid.
Before she even had time to take in the two other people who’d entered, she snatched the stylus, leapt from the bed, and shoved the instrument against the woman’s throat. The stylus caught on a gold necklace around the woman’s neck and she grabbed it, twisting so it dug into her skin. A little portrait hung from the jewellery.
“Tell me where I am, or—” Before she could add the or, the woman raked her nails across hers.
A moment later the stranger was free, gasping slightly as her breath returned to her.
The stylus had fallen to the floor, but the necklace—it hung from her fingers. She had an instant to turn it over and catch a glimpse of the portrait. A pretty man or woman—it was hard to tell—gazed out with a rather perturbed expression, their long hair bound atop their head in a topknot. They looked like a Masseni, or maybe an Anouti.
Before she could return the necklace, the woman snatched it straight out of her hands, pinching her.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman. She didn’t look sorry though, as she turned the necklace over and muttered a fuck at the broken chain.
From the doorway, which closed with a muted thud, a man laughed.
“Graceful as always,” came a man’s cheerful voice. His Masseni had an accent—even she could tell that—but she couldn’t place it.
She held her chin up, letting her eyes adjust to the warm gloom created by the lantern.
The man holding the lantern was young, with pale skin, long yellow hair, and an eye patch over his left eye. His hair hung straight past his shoulders. His tunic was dark—too dark to tell the exact colour—and he had the look of a westerner.
And behind him—
“Farnus?” she fell back on the bed from shock. It had been his voice she’d recognized earlier, calling someone father.
Farnus Alba—White Faction senator and Lorar’s spymaster—met her eyes and spread his arms, opening his hands with his palms open as though in a show of . . . deference?Apology?
She grimaced. “What is this place?” Panic flooded her voice and she flinched at the sound of her own upset. She didn’t want to sound so scared. “What happened to me?”
The smile on the woman’s face faded, replaced by a mournful sadness. By pity. “You died, sweet thing.”
Warm arms wrapping around her. A man’s breath hot at her ear. Then pain. So much pain. The shadow man. The Black Man of the Woods.
The yellow-haired westerner chuckled. “Almost everyone in this room has died at least once. After a while it loses its edge.”
The scarred woman glared at him in reprimand. She cleared her throat. “You don’t have anything to fear from us,” she said, soothing. “You’re among friends.”
“Where?” she couldn’t help but stare at Farnus. Was he dead too? Did Marianus know?
“Ek-Anout. Outside Ledan,” answered the yellow-haired man. He smiled at her, and it looked kindly. It looked kindly. She didn’t sense that he was kind. “My name is Kristos.”
“Rashid,” said the woman. A man’s name.
Farnus coughed. “You know me, of course, Ydelka of the wilds.”
“Ydelka . . . .” she whispered the name that should be hers, but it tasted newly strange. A robe she’d learned to love and then outgrown. “I’m not—”
Rashid—a eunuch, perhaps, rather than a woman?— took one step toward the bed before pausing. “May I approach?” he asked.
She balled her hands into fists, but she nodded.
“Thank you.” He slid his hand inside the folds of his robes. When he drew it out again he was holding something metallic that shone where the light hit it. He held it out for her to take.
It was a small bronze mirror, its edges ringed with peacocks. Small flecks of green paint still remained here and there on the creatures’ beautiful tails.
“Hold it up,” Rashid said softly.
Behind Rashid, Farnus darted a nervous look at Kristos, who cleared his throat.
She held it up and—
Rashid caught the mirror before it could fall. With his free hand, he cupped her cheek. His deep brown eyes seemed to trap hers—the only thing stopping her from screaming. “A price we all pay, one way or another.”
Kristos coughed. “Some of us more than others.”
“My—” The words wouldn’t come. Not for what she’d seen. She’d never been vain, but—Her face had been a mess of scars. Jagged lines raked her cheeks, her lips, her everything. She’d looked like a quilt rent apart and sewn back together.
In a panic, she rolled up the sleeves of her overlarge robe and found scars all over—red marks ringing her arms as though they’d been. As though she’d been.
A squeak and a wail rattled from her mouth.
This time, Rashid knelt before her. He held her gaze all the while and clasped her hands in his. “Shh. Shh. I promise, it’s not so bad as it seems. Mirrors are all liars.”
“So why show me?” she sobbed, the fear she’d felt in the arms of her attacker—her murderer rushing in all at once.
“So you’d understand,” said Rashid. “In case you didn’t believe us.”
“And how—how am I alive?”
Rashid looked over his shoulder at Farnus. He pulled a papyrus from some hidden place. Rashid took it, then handed it over. “A copy,” she explained. “From Marianus’s collection.”
The words—her words—stared back at her. The words she’d spoken to Marianus’s scribe all those years ago.
Magic blood. Raven’s blood.
She set the papyrus aside.
“I don’t understand. What do you want with me?” She searched each of their faces in turn, but none of them gave anything away. “Who are you? Do you work for the senate?”
Farnus hid his beady eyes from her by turning to Kristos, like Kristos was the one in charge, though he had to be half Farnus’s age.
“There’s time for all of that,” said Rashid. “But first why don’t you eat. Ydelka, was it?”
Her stomach rumbled and suddenly it seemed funny. So absurd that if she were dead, she should feel hunger at all. But when she looked in Rashid’s eyes she found, if not honesty, then real care.
“Aitu,” she said softly as she reached for her bowl of half-spilled soup. “My name isn’t Ydelka. It’s Aitusik.”