My people have sixteen words for wind. There is the howling wind from the north edge of the world that carries the song of rage and lament of the banished gods. There is the small swirling wind on an otherwise still day, carrying eddies of snow up into a man’s face. There is the gusting wind that changes direction, and the gusting wind that maintains direction, generally coming from the northeast. There is the loud, screaming wind of a blizzard and the wailing wind of a snow gale. Only one of the winds, the hansha, is gentle, and it comes from the south.
When I was five years old, my father took me on my first hunting trip. A snow gale was coming, and we dug a depression in the old snow. Father showed me how to force one of the dogs into the depression, and how to huddle against the dog while piling snow around us against the coming wind.
For long minutes, I felt the soft thuds as Father shoveled more snow on top of us. The dog, Ita, growled and squirmed beneath me. I clenched my legs tighter around his ribs, stuck like a bur, and gripped the leather strap I’d wrapped around his muzzle. Ita and I hated each other, and the strap was to keep him from whipping his head around and biting me.
The thuds stopped, and I expected a shout from my Father. He’d dig in beside me, wiggle through the snow until he could touch my foot or we could even speak to each other, and when the storm blew over, which might be an hour or a day later, he’d help me dig my way out.
I heard nothing. I shouted, but it made Ita thrash like a hooked fish. I tightened the strap around his muzzle again and waited in silence.
Hours passed. It was dark as night inside the snow mound, and I couldn’t hear the howling wind. I waited. At first my heart beat fast with fear, but that faded into anger. I wasn’t worried about Father; he would be fine. He must have left me.
As time crept onward, I began to shiver, even inside my many layers of wool and fur. Ita growled at intervals, reminding me that if I let up on the strap even for a second, I’d lose a finger, if not a hand or my nose. That happened once, to a boy in another clan. His dog bit off his nose. I had no doubt Ita would do the same, if given half a chance.
My stomach growled, and I managed to extract the last piece of dried horsemilk cheese from my pocket without losing control of Ita. I ate it, but then I wanted fresh milk or water, anything to drink. I ate a little snow, but it’s dangerous to eat much. It steals the heat from your body, and I was already cold.
I shivered and waited. I thought of my mother and how Father beat her sometimes. More often than he beat me, to be fair, but then she was strong and I was weak. She rarely cried, and I almost always did. I didn’t hate him though. I feared him, yes, and disliked him. But generally he had a good reason to beat me. I cried when I burned my hand on a coal. I cried when Otso-ka, my father’s father and the high chief, told me that I was more like a mewling puppy than a proper chief’s son, and then again when Father sighed his own disappointment.
Mother was the soft, bright light in my days, and even she was fading by then. Father’s constant irritation and demands wore her down, and she sniped at him and brushed off my cowardly clinging at her skirts. I resented her for that; why could she not be more kind when I needed her? Still, she was the kindest person I knew, and most times she gave me at least a little comfort.
How many hours had it been? Too many. I debated with myself, and finally scratched slowly toward the surface, Ita grumbling beneath me, grunting as my knee dug into his ribs.
My head broke above the snow to see fading sunlight, and I almost shouted for joy. But I couldn’t be too careless. I dug us out carefully without letting go of Ita until we were both fully free of the snow cave that had sheltered us.
He snarled, lips raised, then turned and set off for home. I called, but I didn’t really want him to come back, so I wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t look over his shoulder. I followed his tracks, trudging through the twilight and the bright, cold moonlight that followed it. The sun is never far above the horizon in the beautiful north, and in autumn daylight is short but moonlight lasts for hours. I was fortunate that night was bright. I reached home close to midnight and fell into my mother’s arms in exhaustion.
She patted me and fed me a very late dinner. Father said I’d been slow; Ita had been home long since. He laughed at me when I told him how long we’d stayed beneath the snow, and he told me the storm had lasted only for a few hours, not even all night. He mocked me for my brief tears of relief at finding myself safe at home.
The next morning, he pulled me in to my grandfather’s tent. Otso-ka terrified me even more than my father did, and I trembled inside my parka while my father told him the story. My father did not say that I’d cried in my mother’s arms when I finally stumbled into their tent. I knew better than to shoot him a grateful look, even at that age.
Otso-ka grunted his approval. “Good. He’ll do.”
My father nodded, then steered me out before any of the other chiefs could argue with Otso-ka’s decision. Over lunch, he murmured that Otso-ka’s approval meant that I was still allowed to be in line for the chiefdom after my father. Otso-ka was high chief over the scattered tribes, and my father was the chief of our clan, next in line for the high chief. The -ka after his name indicated his status. My father’s name was Jerenth, and he was addressed as Jerenth-ko, the -ko denoting that he stood to replace my grandfather. He was brave, and strong, and smart like the wolf. In this role, my father kept the chiefs in agreement. He was quick with his words, his fists, and his knife.
I didn’t see many of the arguments between the chiefs or how they challenged Otso-ka and my father. I did know that when I was ten, Father came back from a meeting with blood on his parka. He seemed satisfied, and he told me, “That’s how you settle arguments, Elathlo. Some men just can’t be convinced. You have to make them see.”
We feed our dead to the wolves and the carrion birds. It is civilized to let our bodies go back to the earth from which they came. We are born, we eat of the flesh of animals and the plants we can find, and then we provide food of our own when we die.
After that meeting, three dead men were left behind to feed the wolves when we moved our camp.
A few days later, my father showed me how to use a knife. How to keep it concealed in the palm of my hand with the blade resting flat against my wrist. Where to aim in a man’s back. How to twist the blade once it was in, so that the hole would be enlarged and the blood would flow freely. He made me practice on a piece of wood.
Mother didn’t approve of me learning such things at ten, but her opinion had little power, even within our tent. She approved even less when Father took me out for next test that Otso-ka decreed.
Tarvil boys become men by passing a series of tests, and then serving a warrior as an aloka. The tests are difficult, but they are only preparation for service as an aloka. That time is the most dangerous and most terrifying period of a Tarvil’s life. The warrior is called a sponsor; he trains his aloka in combat and in anything else he deems necessary to be a man. A good sponsor might even teach his aloka to read if his father hasn’t taught him already, although we have few texts and little need to read. My father had already taught me to read, and he and Otso-ka had taught me to speak Common, although later I learned that none of us spoke it well. They were more concerned with selecting a warrior who could teach me combat.
My father had trained me a little, but our lessons frequently devolved into shouting and beatings. I avoided them as much as possible, and Father did as well; I don’t think he enjoyed beating me, but saw it as a necessary step toward toughening me into a man. He was constantly irritated by everything I did. Otso-ka once called me a torethsha, the word for a warm breeze that promises spring but fades into the icy karetsha. In other words, I looked promising but proved a disappointment.
The series of tests lasts for years. The summer I turned twelve, my friend Tirta, his cousin Dathlo, and I were given the fourth significant test. Otso-ka decreed that we would steal wolf cubs. They would be raised until they were nearly adults and then killed for their pelts. Wolf fur is thick and warm, a fitting tribute both to the ferocity of the animal and the courage and cunning of the man who killed it.
Raising a wolf cub was perhaps less courageous than killing an adult, but the cleverness was greater and so the honor was considered comparable. Besides, it was part of the test. A warrior must prove himself both fierce and wily.
First, we had to find a wolf den. In the distant past, our ancestors hunted wolves. They used horses and dogs and lasso poles. Sometimes they used bows, but often the wolves were too fast, or too tough; they could survive long enough to kill a man, even after a direct hit. The better method was to use lasso poles. They would catch a wolf around the neck and hold it in place while a man could advance close enough to club it over the head. Arrow holes in the pelt lessened the value considerably. The dogs were not allowed to kill wolves caught in the lasso poles unless human lives were in danger; they would destroy the pelt. Dogs were essential to the hunt, though. They helped track the wolves when the men were hunting, and they guarded the men and horses while they worked.
That was then. We had long since lost that skill, and our dogs had lost their thirst for wolf blood. The Erdemen soldiers had come often enough onto the tundra to keep the wolf packs in check, and we had not been forced to defend our flocks as often as in the past. Our flocks were smaller now and kept within the camp among the tents. Even the boldest wolves would rarely venture between the tents themselves, and we kept watch at night. We killed wolves, of course, lone wolves scouting around the tents or even small packs that roamed across the tundra. But we had not been on a grand wolf hunt in thirty years.
Although our dogs were no longer in the habit of wolf hunting, they could still follow a trail. Tirta, Dathlo, and I took three of the largest, fiercest dogs with us. They led us some eight leagues northeast, into some of the rolling hills at the base of the mountains.
The dogs sniffed and searched, and hours later we found the entrance to a den. The dogs were excited, but not howling with rage, and we guessed the mother wasn’t inside.
We tried to get the dogs to crawl into the hole first, but even the smallest didn’t get much past his hips before wriggling back out again. A torch revealed a narrow tunnel, but I thought we could make it. We threw a luck piece to see who would crawl inside.
Dathlo won, or perhaps lost. He stripped off his coat and outer tunic and shivered for a few seconds in his undershirt, gathering his courage. We tied a rope around his waist; in case something happened, we could pull him back out. He shoved the torch into the hole, then slithered in after it, knife in hand.
We could see the light in the gaps between his body and the edges of the wall. Then the tunnel turned, and his body blocked the rest of the light. Farther. We heard some muffled sounds, and then grumbling as he slid back out.
He shook a few bits of dirt from his hair and sat back on his heels.
“It’s too narrow. I can’t fit. But they’re back there! I could smell them. I heard a tiny sound before they got quiet.”
Tirta and I stared at each other.
“I’ll go,” I said. I didn’t want to. But if I was to be chief, I should be brave. I was smaller than the other two, and I had the best chance of fitting through the narrow hole. Tirta nodded, looking a little relieved.
I stripped down to my own undershirt and shivered. The wind gusted, a few forlorn snowflakes icy against my bare arms. I trembled while Tirta tied the rope around my waist, making sure it was tight enough to catch on my hips.
Dathlo tied his parka closed again. He gave me a reassuring clap on the shoulder. “Go on. Make us proud.”
I crouched down in front of the hole and took a deep breath. The scent of wolf found my nose, musky and strong. I was still trembling, and only a little bit because of the cold. On my belly I shimmied inside, pushing the torch ahead of me. The thick smoke choked me, almost overpowering the smell of wolf that seemed to seep into my very pores from the walls. I crept forward. The dirt was not as well-packed as I had expected, though the tunnel was old. And if the dogs couldn’t fit through, how could a wolf fit? I wasn’t entirely sure, and I was afraid to think about the answer. I kept going.
The wolf cubs were silent, and I could guess how close I was to them only by the smell. The tunnel took a turn downward, though the slope was shallow. I slid down carefully, edging forward and listening for any little mew or coo or growl that might indicate the cave was occupied. Nothing but scent, although I thought the air might have been getting a little warmer.
An open space ahead. I pushed the torch through and then, when no wolf leapt out of the darkness to bite off my hand, I peered cautiously into the den itself. I gasped, my eyes wide.
Three cubs lay in a little pile, their eyes barely open. They were fat and round, with hair coarser than that of our dogs. Mostly black, with little streaks of grey and brown on their faces and legs. I set the torch down and reached forward to lift one cub. It squeaked when I picked it up, and I froze.
I heard another sound, a deep growl that made me tremble with fear. I started to shimmy backwards, but then, with a surge of courage, reached out to grab the other two cubs with one hand. They squawked in protest at the rough treatment, and I began to scoot backwards through the tunnel.
“Get me out!” I shrieked, my voice cracking. The rope jerked and tightened against my waist painfully and I began to slide backward faster than I could crawl. The cubs wriggled in my hands.
The light from the torch abruptly disappeared, replaced by blackness. The wolf mother was in the tunnel with me! There must have been another entrance, larger and more often used, and she had returned from her hunt. I was whimpering with fear, crawling backward as fast as I could. Her growling was deafening in such a small space, punctuated by blood-curdling snarls. I could hear her claws scrabbling against the sides of the tunnel and the soft fall of dirt. She was too large for the tunnel I’d used, probably larger than the dogs, and she was forcing her way through. Gaining on me. Hot breath brushed my face for a moment and I heard the almost-silent snick of teeth closing only inches from my face.
Hands grasped my ankles and jerked me backward before I could cry out again. We sprinted to the horses and vaulted on, galloping away as the mother wolf burst from the tunnel and flew at us. She was no longer growling, lost in a silent, murderous rage.
The dogs raced beside us, weaving back and forth and darting at the wolf when they had a chance. She leapt at Dathlo, trying to pull him from his horse, and he cried out as her teeth caught his pants leg. It jerked him sideways, and he righted himself only when one of the dogs caught the wolf’s side in his teeth. The wolf let go to whip around and sink her own teeth in the dog’s throat.
The dog was dead in moments, the wolf’s mouth bloodied. She was behind us now, but she could run as fast as a horse and farther, so we were hardly safe. She stopped for a split second, sniffed at something on the ground, then launched herself after us again.
I groaned aloud as I realized I’d dropped one of the three cubs in the confusion and chaos. I hadn’t even noticed.
Dathlo split away from Tirta and me and circled back. The wolf followed us, risking the flying hooves of our horses to try to bring us down. My horse was bleeding from a deep bite on one haunch already, and Tirta was fending off the wolf’s snapping teeth with the end of his lasso pole. The two remaining dogs had fallen behind.
We circled back just enough to see Dathlo lean precariously down from his galloping horse, hanging from one hand and one leg. Nearly upside down, he swept up the cub in one hand and righted himself with a lurch, then shot after us.
We were fortunate. We fled all the way home, running like a demon was on our heels, as indeed it was. The wolf slowed and stopped some distance from our camp. I looked over my shoulder to see her looking after us. She was tired, sides heaving, but I didn’t think she stopped from fatigue. She glanced over one shoulder and then back at us. Perhaps she didn’t realize we had gotten all the cubs, didn’t know Dathlo had retrieved the last one. Out in the open, the cub would be an easy meal for a golden eagle, a vulture, or a wolf from another pack. She stared after us, and I could feel the hatred and fury in her gaze. Then she turned and loped away.
All three of us breathed a sigh of relief. We trotted into camp with tears of relief in our eyes. Even Father smiled when he saw us.
“You got them?”
“Yes.” I dropped the two cubs I carried into his waiting hands. They were half-crushed in my parka, and I could barely muster a bit of sympathy for their frightened mewing. I was trembling with fatigue and the aftermath of terror. Tirta and Dathlo were much the same.
“Who did it?”
We hadn’t been expecting that question, and we glanced at each other.
“I got them out, sir, but I dropped one when we were fleeing the mother. It almost killed us. Dathlo went back to retrieve it,” I said.
Otso-ka nodded. “Good.”
I slid down.
Father merely nodded at me, but clapped a congratulatory hand on Dathlo’s shoulder. “Had to fix my cub’s mistake, didn’t you?”
“Maybe a little.” Dathlo smiled back, ignoring me as my mouth dropped open in protest.
Later Tirta and I grumbled about it between ourselves, but Father and Otso-ka had already decided to honor Dathlo rather than me. Tirta, who had barely done anything aside from flee with us, was somehow exempt from their barbs and insults. At least he took it gracefully. Dathlo managed to transform his moment of courage into a heroic epic, in which my admittedly fearful theft of the cubs was only a brief introduction.
The war began before I realized it. The men went south for days or weeks at a time and returned with tales of plunder and pillage. This was not entirely new, although I had not listened much to their stories when I was younger. This year I listened. I preferred the chores I could do for Mother to listening to my Father’s tales of bloodshed, but I was not immune to the excitement of combat. The stories frightened me, but they were thrilling too. I lost my taste for them when I began to hear of rape and other cruelties.
Perhaps I was soft, because the other boys my age listened with wide eyes, eager for every lurid detail. I tried to hide my blushing and bit my lip to keep from crying out when one of the men mimicked a girl’s panicked pleas for mercy. He gave her none, of course.
My father had trained me a little in the arts of war. I knew how to wield a sword with tolerable skill, how to protect myself with the small shield, and how to use a bow with some accuracy, but my father said I was far from ready to join battle. Perhaps I should have been ashamed by that. I was ashamed that he found me wanting, but I was almost relieved that I was not yet allowed to fight.
The men said the fighting was easy, but even the soft Erdemen farmers could sometimes knock a man from his horse with a well-thrown rock or an arrow. Still, the casualties were few. The men stole grain and even kidnapped some Erdemen women.
I didn’t see them; they were sent off with the various warriors who took them, or others to whom Otso-ka owed favors. When Father was gone, I asked Mother, “Why are they taking women?”
“Because so many died last winter. You remember how hard it was here. The western tribes had it even worse. They need women to bear children.” Mother’s voice was soft. “It’s not something I’m happy with, but not something I can do anything about, either.”
“So… they’ll just make them have babies?” I wasn’t well-informed on how babies were made, but I’d seen how our dogs, sheep, and horses mated. I assumed people did something similar.
“Something like that.” Mother kept her eyes on the roasting mutton and I had the feeling she was avoiding my gaze.
“Will Father get one?” I tried to imagine an Erdemen farm girl sharing our tent and grimaced.
“No. There are too many men without wives now for Father to get a second woman.” Her lips twisted in a bitter smile, but she said nothing else.
A few months later, everything changed. First, we moved north, with no explanation, or at least none that Mother and I heard. Father and Otso-ka were grim and irritable, and we knew better than to ask anything while they stomped about in such moods. The weather worsened, and even before the winter solstice, it was colder than it had been the previous winter. We moved again, north and to the east, toward the mountains. By then I could guess that the fortunes of war had shifted, and we were fleeing.
Tirta was in my clan, so we usually traveled together, but Dathlo was in my uncle’s clan, and normally we would not see him often. But since we had begun our flight north, our clans had traveled in larger groups in order to better protect ourselves against the much-feared southerners. I heard little from my own family, but Tirta and Dathlo kept me well informed on the rumors they heard in their tents.
Dathlo had been honored with the task of caring for the wolf cubs, and we visited his tent often to see the cubs as they grew. They had to kept away from the dogs, although for six weeks we forced one of the new dams to nurse the wolf cubs. Her own cubs were dispersed among other litters, because the three wolf cubs ate as much as seven puppies. They ate until their little bellies were stretched tight as drums. Dathlo, Tirta, and I had to hold her down while the cubs nursed; we sat on her head and her hips so she couldn’t turn and kill them. She hated it, and each time the cubs ate to the steady sound of growling as she protested her mistreatment.
For the next month, we made a paste for them of meat, milk, and flour. It would have been better to feed them nothing but meat, but already we ate only one or two meals each day ourselves. There was no surplus to feed to hungry wolf cubs who served no purpose.
The next month, Father killed two of the three cubs. He said they cost us too much meat that the men needed for their own strength. By then, the men who went to fight got meat every other day, and those of us who stayed behind got a bit of meat every week or ten days. Mother considered butchering a sheep once, but there were few enough that Father would not yet let her kill even one ewe. We did, however, eat the meat of the cubs in our stew for the next few days.
The Red Tarvil, who lived a little to the south and west, had fled to us, begging for help, telling of lost grazing land and the steady, relentless advance of the Erdemen army. They split off from us some weeks later, preferring to head west and north again rather than stay and fight. But their plea told us more than their words; they had never liked Otso-ka and had not been friendly with our clan in many years. They were desperate indeed to seek our help.
From their men, I heard the rumors of the Erdemen fighter, Sendoa, a giant who fought with the fury of a thousand demons. The Red Tarvil said he had been connected with the ascent of the new Erdemen king, but no one knew how. It probably didn’t matter. We knew little of Erdemen politics and cared less.
My father went to a battle with some other men and returned with only two others. A sweeping cavalry charge had taken them unawares, arrows at their backs and Erdemen cavalry decimating them. He spoke to my mother after they thought I was asleep, and for the first time in my life, I heard fear in my father’s voice.
“Their chief is one of the old demons. Either a demon or a god.”
“You believe those stories?” My mother also sounded frightened.
“I didn’t until now. He’s not human.”
Their voices subsided into murmurs, and I could no longer make out their words over the howling of the blizzard outside. Tirta told me the next day that he’d heard much the same from his father. The Erdemen chief, whom they called a general, had inhuman strength and speed and glowing green eyes. Some even said he could turn men to stone by looking at them, but Tirta and I agreed that was probably only a rumor. If he could do that, the Erdemen army would already have extinguished us. Instead, they were going about it the ordinary way, with swords and arrows, pushing us north until we fell off the edge of the world.
The one remaining wolf cub killed Dathlo about a week after we began our last flight into the snow. It lay in wait near the stake to which it was tied, so that it was hard for Dathlo to judge the length of its chain. To be fair, though, Dathlo had hardly been unwise. We had been cautious with the cub for months, but it had never yet attacked us.
Perhaps it did not think of it until that morning. Perhaps it was biding its time. By then it was nearly as heavy as he was, taller and leaner than many of our dogs, though still with the clumsy gait and big paws of a cub. Its face was still softer than that of a full-grown wolf, the muzzle not yet entirely elongated and the teeth smaller than they would be later. It didn’t matter. If it acted as wolves always acted, it would have sprung at Dathlo in silence, with no warning growl, and killed him with the first bite in his throat. No one saw it, and the wolf cub settled down to eat its fill.
At some point it pulled the stake from the ground and disappeared. Later someone found the stake and the chain later some distance from our camp, half-buried in the snow. Dathlo’s mother found him near dusk, a frozen body in a frozen puddle of blood, torn half to shreds. I saw the body later, when we cleaned him up before leaving him for the wolves. The corpse didn’t really look like Dathlo anymore. I tried to think of Dathlo being gone, and the bloodied meat before me as unrelated to my friend.
I didn’t cry until long after Mother and Father were asleep that night. Tears filled my eyes. I brushed them away. The dampness made my cheeks sting with the winter cold, sucking the heat from our bones even within the thick-walled tents. I turned toward the firepit, but the coals were long banked and dormant; their faint heat did not warm my face.
Otso-ka did not say anything about Dathlo’s death, other than that Dathlo should have been more careful. There was no grief to be spared for a boy; too many men were dead for a boy to have any importance. Dathlo’s father Pashlo and most of the rest of the men saddled up the next day and went south again, while we continued northward, fighting into the icy wind that swept from the edge of the world.
We’d killed most of the sheep already, and this far north, we would not be able to graze them most of the year. It was better to kill them now while they were fat and we could eat or dry the meat rather than wait for them to starve. Even so, we had little food, and the little we had stored was diminishing every day.
I heard no one say it out loud, but we all knew the end was coming. Either the Erdemen soldiers would kill us all, or we would freeze like the carabaa do in a hard winter, huddled together for warmth that whips away in the ever-present wind. For generations, we had lived in the southern tundra, with our few sheep and our shaggy little horses, barely more than overgrown ponies, content to fight the wolves and the Erdemen soldiers when necessary but otherwise avoiding trouble. There was plenty to worry about with winter storms, cold, and hunger without antagonizing the great army to the south. The tundra was our protection; the barren land did not tempt Erdem, and it was enough for us.
Now the army was coming north, and this time, they did not stop.
One night about a month after Dathlo was killed, Mother used the last of our flour to make flat cakes, which we topped with a puddle of horsemilk and crumbled bits of cheese. We also used the last dried lamb and some dried herbs to make a thin stew; without the thick fat of a good mutton or even a carabaa, it wasn’t as flavorful as Mother had hoped. The highest-ranking chiefs had a few sips of alamaa, but even that gesture didn’t brighten the mood much. Father and Otso-ka murmured to each other in the corner of Otso-ka’s tent while we ate. I brought them imea, just the way Otso-ka liked it, but Father waved me away before I could hear much of what they said. The next morning, Father and some of the others went on another foray south against the Erdemen.
None of them returned.