Bear Skin, Smoking Mountain

by William Broom



The god's blood was milky white, spreading out in a long tail across the grey surface of the ocean. Its body lay coiled on a tiny island, little more than a flat rock waiting to be covered by the tide. A pole was planted there, with a net full of rotting fruit: the offerings of the seal-skin people. There would be nothing to claim them now.

I was coming up the coast in a dugout canoe when I saw it. Steep slopes rose on my left, while on my right lay the wild ocean. Mist muffled the horizon. When I saw the blood, a sense of grim resignation came over me: it was a terrible thing that had happened here, but it meant the trail had not gone cold.

I paddled closer to the island, steering clear of the blood. The god had had the body of a serpent and a humanlike head covered by a bone mask. Its body had been filleted from end to end and the guts scooped out, leaving only a hollow shell behind. The mask had been cracked in two, leaving a white mess swimming between the eyes.

It was taboo for me to look upon such a thing, but it was taboo for me to be here at all. There were no rituals for this, no songs to sing at the passing of a god. Seasons turned, men and women were born and died, but the gods were supposed to be eternal. Yet I had to do something. A bank of kelp was drifting nearby. Struggling against the unfamiliar currents of the ocean, I gathered some of it and spread it over the spirit's corpse. That was all the dignity I could give it. Then, though I was unsure, I took down the fruit offerings from and let them lie amidst the murdered coils, so that the tide could take them away with the rest of it.

Abruptly, I realised I was being watched. There were little gods all around me. I might have seen them earlier if I had been concentrating, but they were sea-spirits, different to the gods of my own tribe, and I was not used to their form. When they floated on the waves they looked almost like drifts of foam, but when they began to move I saw their shapes: like crude dolls, soft and wrinkled, with one great gaping eye in the middle of their heads.

I dared not move. They were among the lowliest of the gods, but still they could destroy me if they chose. If I was lucky they would drown me; unlucky, and they might carry me away to one of their taboo places where men were never meant to go.

"All my obeisances to you, little ones," I said as they circled the island. "I am sorry to have crossed your waters uninvited. I mean no harm."

The water-spirits gave no sign that they had heard. I was speaking the language of my own gods, the river gods, and they did not understand. They drew closer, tasting the white blood, sniffing at the body of the serpent. A ripple of alarm went through them as they understood what had happened. Their black eyes fixed on me again, and a baleful rattle echoed from their chests.

"This was not me. I was only trying to give it peace--"

The wind rose and the waves grew choppy around me. There was only one way to make them understand. I drew in a breath that felt like fire in my throat. When I spoke, I could feel the words sting on my lips.

"I did not do this." I spoke the First Tongue, the true tongue; the language that had been used by the great spirits of the Dawn Time to shape the world, giving form to all things by naming them. It was the only language that all spirits understood without fail.

The little gods had heard me this time. Their rattling coalesced into a single word: "Death?" they asked, "Death? Death?"

"I did not do this," I said again."I am hunting the one who did."

#

When my brother was born, he cried louder and longer than any child the village could remember. "Good healthy lungs," said the old women of the tribe. He never seemed comfortable. His fingers and toes were always cold, no matter how close we held him to the fire. "Just needs some meat on his bones," they said, and fed him droplets of honey from the end of a reed. He never refused food and was never satisfied by it.

I was three years older than Rupa, and in my earliest memories I was already watching over him, sworn to keep him safe. When our mother was busy weaving nets or singing at the women's ceremonies, I would stay close by my brother's side. I would follow him as he waddled around the village, smiling his big smile at everyone he met. I would bring him back if he wandered too far into the forest or too close to the riverbank.

Even before he could walk, we could tell he had the god-sight. His eyes would flick away from human faces towards the corners of the room, focusing on things that normal people couldn't see. When he learned to run he would chase after the little gods, giggling, sending them scattering before him. Other times he would see things passing by that would make him cry and crawl underneath our mother's dress.

The old women would smile and nod when they saw this, and raise their eyes to the stilt house where our god-speaker lived. We all respected Nidali, but she was an outsider: a wandering shaman who had come to replace our old speaker when he died. Everyone, Nidali most of all, knew it would be better when a local god-speaker could be trained to take her place. And indeed, she would often come to the window and look down when Rupa was chasing the little gods. Everyone in the village was certain she had her eye
on him for a successor.

Much later, she told me she had been hoping he would die of sickness while he was still young.

The first time she spoke to us was some time after Rupa's sixth birthday, in the late autumn when the air was pregnant with the promise of first snow. Mother was ill and Rupa had wandered off again, so I went down to the river to find him. I hardly understood it at the time but I had begun to develop god-sight of my own. The little spirits of the underbrush appeared to me as pale flickers in the corners of my eyes. From their movements I could guess where Rupa had gone.

I found him knee-deep in the river, having chased a spirit out into the water and caught it. He was squeezing it in his hands, his arms trembling faintly.

"Rupa," I called. He glanced at me but did not reply.

I splashed into the water beside him. "What are you doing?"

"It's warm," he said. I snatched the god from his hands and felt what he said was true. It was like holding a tiny star. A great dread came over me then. I knew instinctively that this was taboo.

Rupa's eyes widened at something behind me. I turned and saw Nidali, the god-speaker, coming down the bank towards us. Her bearskin cloak was interwoven with charms of bone and amber, making it rattle as she walked. Her face was painted black from the top of her forehead to the line of her lips. As soon as I saw her my knees started knocking together with fear.

"Rupa," she said, "come out of the water, and leave the gods alone."

Rupa whimpered.

"Please," I said, "it wasn't him. It was me. Look." I held out the squirming god in my hand. A trickle of invisible fluid ran down my arm.

"Drop it," said Nidali. I let the spirit go and it scampered away into the underbrush.

"You can't lie to me, Werec," she said, dragging me out of the water. "But I'm impressed you could touch the spirit at all. Come, both of you."

She marched us, wet and disgraced, back through the village to our house. Mother was lying beside the fire, gathering her strength. Nidali went inside and said to her:

"I wish to teach your child."

Mother smiled. "Rupa," she said, barely a question.

"Both of them," said the god-speaker.

#

"I know who did this," I repeated. "I will find him."

"Death," said the little gods of the sea. The waters were growing calm. Their malice towards me seemed to be fading. For the hundredth time I blessed my teacher, wherever she was now. Even among god-speakers, few of us knew the First Tongue, and I was lucky to have learned it from her.

The gods murmured to each other in their own language as they gathered on the island,climbing over the serpent god's corpse.

"Death, death," they said. "Blood, god, blood."

They pushed the seaweed and the fruit offerings into the ocean. Then they crouched over the bloody body, opened their eye-mouths, and began to feed. All that remained of the god, they devoured. I choked back bile in my throat. I knew that it was natural for them to do this. The god's essence was immortal, and by eating it they would ensure that it was returned to the great web from which it came. Yet it was still a dreadful thing to look upon. I averted my gaze and paddled away, leaving the little gods to their meal. I had to move faster. Rupa could not be far ahead of me now.

#

As my brother and I grew up, we spent more and more of our time with Nidali. She taught us the names of the gods of the Udani, and the language that they spoke. She taught us which places were sacred and which were taboo. Above all, she taught us the law that keeps men and gods in balance, and keeps the cold at bay. One day, we knew, it would be our place to uphold it.

When she taught us, she always favoured me over Rupa, but that only made him redouble his efforts. "One day I am going to be god-speaker," he would whisper to me at night. "Then I will be strong, and I won't let anything bad happen to you or mother or the village, not ever again."

"You will, my brother," I said, and believed it. Everyone knew it was to be him. I dared not admit even to myself that things could be any different. When Nidali taught me things that she did not show to Rupa, I felt uncomfortable and afraid. Sometimes I would make mistakes on purpose so I would lag behind. Nidali watched me do this and said nothing.

When I was ten years old, I was given my skin-cloak. Three years after that it was time for Rupa to receive the same. One of the young men had brought down a handsome old brown bear. Even dead, the body seemed to be filled with a colossal energy. The flesh was roasted and shared among the full-grown men; the offal was cast on the ground to predict the next season's salmon run; and the skull was given back to the gods. The hide was stretched and made into a cloak for my brother to wear.

That night the whole village gathered on the riverbank for the ceremony. The elders purified Rupa's body with sacred smoke. He took off his child's clothes and tossed them in the river to be washed away. He walked into the water until he was fully submerged, then walked out again as a man. The bear-skin cloak was placed over his shoulders, and that was when it all went wrong.

At first there was nothing but a faint tremor in his cheek. He began scratching at his flank where the hide rubbed him. Then at his shoulders, his belly, his neck. The trembling spread from his face and ran through his whole body. At last he fell down, convulsing, on the dry earth. The men who had held the cloak stood on either side of him, unsure what to do.

Rupa grabbed the clasp of the cloak and ripped it away. He crawled out of the bear skin and gave a great gasp, as though surfacing for air after a long time. It took a minute before he could stand up again.

Some of the tribe reacted with sympathy, some with horror, some with anger. Intentionally or not, Rupa had rejected his place among the Udani. He had rejected his own skin. Some people wanted to punish him, or force him to put the cloak on again.

Nidali had watched all this from the edge of the crowd. Now she walked into the centre and picked up the cloak.

"I will deal with this," she said to the elders. She gave Rupa a woollen sheet to cover his nakedness, then beckoned him to follow her.

"You, too," she said to me. I obeyed, feeling a hollow lump in my throat.

She took us down the river for half a mile, to a place where the bank rose tall and steep. The silvery blackness of the water rushed by beneath us, as though hurrying past the sight of our shame.

"Teacher, what happened?" said Rupa. He was on the verge of tears. "Was the bear taboo? Was the skin cursed?"

Nidali was silent for a time.

"There was nothing wrong with the skin," she said at last. "The problem is with you. The cloak rejected you because you are not of the bear skin."

"Of course I am. How could I have some other skin?"

"You have no skin, Rupa. I'm sorry. I had hoped that my instincts were wrong, but this has confirmed it. You are a no-man: a human born outside the law. You can see the spirits, but the spirits cannot see you. To them, it is as if you do not exist."

"That's a lie," said Rupa. "You've always hated me. You've always wanted Werec to do better than me. Now you're lying just to hurt me."

Nidali looked at him with cold eyes. She took his bear-skin cloak and threw it off the cliff, into the river. He lunged towards the edge and I saw he was going to dive after it. I grabbed him around the waist and held him while he struggled. He let out a howl of rage and confusion that echoed through the night. The cloak was gone, drifting down the river to float into the open sea.

Rupa twisted around and hit me in the face. I let him go, and he ran off into the forest.

Nidali laid a hand on my shoulder. "You must be strong for your brother now, Werec. He will never wear a skin, never hunt with the other men, never take a wife. He has done nothing to deserve this fate, but he cannot escape it."

"Why? What makes him that way?"

"Why are some children born blind and others lame? I cannot say. But I will need your help to look after him."

I nodded dumbly, hardly comprehending what I was agreeing to.

"Without the warmth that the gods provide, his life will be hard. He will grow cold and hungry, and then...he will want to eat." She shuddered faintly. "If he is to survive, we must take him to the smoking mountain."

#

We set out the next week. I had managed to talk Rupa into accepting Nidali's help, though he still hardly spoke to either of us. At night when we camped, I would hear him crying in his sleep. Before we left, the villagers had treated him with a mixture of confusion and revulsion. Most of them had never heard of a no-man before. All they knew was that something about him was deeply unnatural.

Once we had left our own tribe's territory, we travelled only on the ancestral paths that were given to us. As long as we stayed on those paths we were welcomed by all we met; to take a different route would have been at best an act of subterfuge, at worst of war. We went up through the forests, into deer-skin land, and stayed a night in the village of the Tuyan, one of our partner-tribes. Many of the husbands and wives there had once been Udani, before they married into their new tribe, so they greeted us warmly. There were children of my age who shyly rubbed the fur of my bear-skin cloak, while I did the same with their deer skins. Rupa sat apart, leaning close to the fire as always. One of the girls asked me, "Where is your brother's cloak?"

"He hasn't gotten it yet," I told her. "As soon as we return from this journey, he will become a man."

After nine days' walking, we came to the great bay. On the far side of the water was the sacred mountain, rugged and blunt-headed. First we visited the Maris tribe, who lived on the islands of the bay. Nidali met with their god-speaker and got his permission to climb the mountain.

The trail to the summit was steep and snow-laden. All of us were cold, but Rupa shivered so violently I feared we would have to turn back. But at last we reached the summit, where a line of red poles marked the edge of taboo territory. Craning my neck from there, I could just see the edge of the ravine where the earth fire was hidden. Smoke crawled up out of it and into the sky.

There were no gods to be seen there. Most sacred places were home to dozens of different spirits, but this mountain had just one. 

"Listen," said Nidali. "This mountain is the home of a great god--greater than all the gods of our tribe. Its name is Inuz, the Sleeping Fire. Inuz has the power to grant blessings of heat and light. We will petition the god now." She knelt facing the summit and gestured for us to do the same. I took Rupa's cold hand in my own.

"Inuz," said Nidali. She began to speak in what I would later know as the First Tongue. After the incantation was done, she took out a pouch of precious stones, jade and jet and amber. She laid the offering on the border of the taboo ground.

There was silence for a long time. Then the mountain groaned, its voice echoing through the earth beneath our feet. I dared to look up for a moment and saw a great transparent body, the colour of firelight. It filled the entire ravine, surging like a wave and then disappearing below.

A wave of heat rolled over us. When it had passed, Rupa was breathing with new life. I squeezed his hand and for the first time in memory it was warm.

Nidali stood up. "The god's fire is within you now, Rupa," she said. "We have found a way for you to live."

#

I left the little gods behind me and moved on up the coast. This was seal-skin country, unfamiliar to me in every way. Strange spirits were everywhere: transparent polyps drifting through the water, giant spiny beetles clinging to the rocks, and thin figures peering down from the clifftops. I had been travelling for six days, two of them down the river and four on the open water. The smoking mountain could not be far away.

Near evening I saw seal-skin men, sailing far out on the water. It was only luck that they did not see me too. I had beached my canoe in a narrow inlet, near a small stream that flowed down from the hills. I was filling my waterskin when they came around the headland --two ships with two hulls each, so swift they made my dugout look like a child's coracle. I dragged the canoe up the shore into the undergrowth before they could spot me. I was a trespasser here; in order to follow Rupa, I had forsaken the ancestral paths. If I was found here I would be treated as a lawbreaker and a spy.

The seal-skin ships soon vanished into the mist, but I was left rattled by the encounter. I decided I had to take the lay of the land before I went any further. With the last hour of light that remained, I climbed up to a ridge overlooking the inlet. From the top, facing northwards, I could finally see my destination. The smoking mountain waited across the water, and the sides of the bay swept out from it like two great arms--the coastline on my left, and a long chain of islands on my right. The largest of those islands glimmered with firelight, marking the site of the Maris village.

As I turned to go back down, something in the forest caught my eye. Dragonfly spirits were rising out of the trees, like birds disturbed by the passage of some animal. I watched as the disturbance moved down to the shoreline, not far from where my canoe was hidden. A woman stumbled out of the trees and onto the beach. She took a dozen more steps before she fell to the sand and did not get up.

From that distance I could see nothing besides her deer-skin cloak and her matted black hair, yet somehow I recognised her at once.

When I got back down to the beach, she was still lying where she had fallen. At the sound of my footsteps she raised her head weakly.

"Sami?" I said. "What are you doing here?"

When she saw who I was, she lurched to her feet and pulled out a short bone knife.

"Stay back," she said. Her face was white and her chin was stained with vomit. She swayed as she stood, yet her eyes still flashed with defiance.

My hand went instinctively to the handle of my axe, but I restrained myself from drawing it. "Where are your deer-skin brothers and sisters?" I asked.

"I got away from them. They couldn't hold me."

It had only been seven days since I last saw her, back at the village, when she left along with her deer-skin kindred. She had been a different person then to the hollow-eyed wretch I saw now. She looked so weak that I could have simply grabbed her by the wrist and pulled the knife out of her hand.

"You came here looking for Rupa."

"Yes. And I'll find him."

"You can barely stand up, Sami. You ate something bad, didn't you?" It was always dangerous to travel in a foreign territory, ignorant of the local plants and animals.

She tilted her chin upward. "He needs me," she said. "I'm not going to abandon him like you did."

We stared at each other in the gathering gloom. I knew I could walk away now and have nothing to fear from her. She might be captured by the Maris and punished for lawbreaking. Or she might die, unseen by anyone but the gods. Either way she would not pose a danger to me or my mission. If I were to bring her with me, she would be at best a liability--and at worst a knife in the back. She was not my responsibility; no law would punish me if I left her now.

But my brother had loved her.

"You need water and food," I said. "Come with me and I will give you both."

She glared at me, her hatred struggling against her fundamental need to survive.

"Please. Give me the knife."

She came towards me and I was not sure if she was lunging or falling, until I felt her legs crumple against me. The knife made a soft sound as it fell point-first into the sand.

#

When I was eighteen years old, I was made god-speaker. Few had ever taken the mantle so young, but everyone agreed I was ready. Nidali passed her talismans on to me, and I was bound to the tribal gods under their sacred oak. Afterwards, she went on her way. I could tell that the hills and the secret paths had been calling to her for a long time. I took her place in the stilt-house overlooking the village.

Meanwhile, my brother was comfortable enough in his home on the far side of the river.

After we returned from the smoking mountain, none of the villagers had even wanted to look at Rupa. To be without a skin-cloak was like being without a voice, without a face. The men shunned him, the women flinched from him, and the children threw stones. I knew he could not live among them much longer, so my uncle and I built a house across the river, near the narrows where it was easy to cross. Rupa lived there alone, save for when mother or I came to visit him.

The rest of the tribe were happy to give him food so long as he stayed on his side of the water. The ground outside his house was forever littered with animal bones and fruit rinds. He ate enough for three men, but stayed thin as a reed. He had no cloak, but the blessing of Inuz kept him warm. He was not happy, but there were far worse lives he could have lived. At least he was in harmony with the tribe and the gods.

All until Sami came.

It was my sixth year as god-speaker, and one year after our mother had passed away. The couples' dance began in the early spring. Seven young men and women of the Tuyan tribe came to visit the eligible youths of our own tribe. If a match was made, they would take their spouse home and give them a new deer-skin cloak in place of their old one. The seven came under the protection of their tribal god, Kohalac, who floated like a huge jellyfish spreading her shade over her children's heads.

Sami was one of the seven. I knew her: she was the deer-skin girl who, long ago, had asked me about Rupa's skin cloak. Perhaps she had talked to him back then, just a few words. I felt a premonition the first time I saw her, but I ignored it. I was distracted, perhaps, because I had not completely resigned myself to the celibacy of a god-speaker. My adherence to duty never wavered, but still I was stung by the shape of the women's bodies, and the dreams that came upon me late at night.

I watched the elegant dance of courtship from afar, proud to see the buds of love blooming among my fellows. I did not notice at first that Sami was often absent from the group. I did not see how it began--how she wandered beside the river and saw him on the far bank, how her curiosity drew her closer even while his dark countenance warned her away. I did not hear the words they spoke to one another, the whispers exchanged after nightfall, the taboo kisses stolen behind a screen of pines. By the time I first saw them together, they were already in love.

One of the elders grew suspicious and warned me about it. That evening, when Sami had disappeared again, I went across the river with a bag of food for my brother. I found them sitting hand in hand outside his hut.

When Sami saw me she stood up, and I caught a flicker of something like hate in her eyes. Then she slipped past without a word and went back toward the village.

I sat down in the seat that Sami had left. My heart was heavy as a stone. "Rupa. What have you been doing?"

"Brother," he said, "I know you will tell me it is wrong. That's why we kept it a secret. But if you knew what I know about her now--you would not say this is wrong. It is right."

I looked down at my hands. The trees crowded close around the hut, filling the space with shadows and damp.

"I love her, Werec. I love her and she loves me. Please tell me you will give us your blessing."

"Rupa, you know this cannot be."

"Why not? Why should the law say such a thing?"

"You have no skin, Rupa. She cannot take your cloak, nor can she give you a new one. You can never marry. I am sorry."

"Even you turn against me," he said. "Where is the bond of brotherhood now?"

"The law is above all bonds. It is what holds the world together, and without it we are nothing. Rupa, believe me, this is for your own good, and hers as well. What kind of life do you think she could lead with you?"

He stood up, tears crowding at his eyes. His body was thin and pale, making all his gestures of rage into ones of impotence. "You know nothing of me and her. Nothing!"

He strode off into the forest, shouting something behind him that was muffled by his sobs. I watched him disappear into the dark. 

I went back to the village, expecting that he would return by morning; that eventually, reason would work its way into his heart, and he would give in.

The next day, I found the eaten god.

#

When she was alive, Kohalac had been huge: three times a man's armspan, and filled with blue-grey organs that moved in a dreamlike dance. When I found her corpse, all her organs were gone, and her blue blood was splashed across the leaves and the stones. Only her deflated skin remained, a transparent sheet draped obscenely on the ground near the riverbank.

I put up taboo-poles to keep the other villagers away from the scene of the murder. Eventually, a swarm of spirit snakes came and dragged the body away. I asked them what would happen now, but they made no reply. The speech of the spirits was closed to me.

The Tuyan youths all sensed that something was wrong, though they could never guess what. One of them threw up after breakfast, and by the afternoon several others had caught a fever. All of them felt cold. They were suffering because it was not their land and they had no spirit to shield them.

"Kohalac has abandoned us," said one of them. "We must have done something to offend her. God-speaker, what should we do now?"

I thought before I answered. "You should go home," I said at last. "Your shaman will know what to do to appease her." Then I asked: "Where is Sami?"

They found her in her tent, hiding beneath her cloak and sobbing.

"This is your doing, Sami," they said. "Because you consorted with that taboo man across the river, our goddess has left us." Sami didn't answer. I dared not tell them how wrong they were, and how right. They bound Sami's hands and told her she would be taken back to her tribe for justice. They looked at me with reproachful eyes, but did not say anything out loud. Then they packed up their tents and left.

I went across the river to Rupa's house. The hearth was cold, and the food I had brought was still on the table where I had left it. 
When I stepped back outside, there was a white fox waiting for me.

"You are summoned," it said.

I bowed my head and followed, knowing all too well where we were headed. Upriver, there was a trail to a taboo place where only god-speakers were permitted to go. The sacred oak, black-barked and ancient, sat there overlooking a dark pool, with a waterfall hanging behind it like a screen. This was the dwelling place of the tribal gods of the Udani.

I knelt before the tree and waited for the gods to show themselves. First came Bres, the great ghostly bear, emerging from the curtain of falling water. Then there was Nawes, the two-faced raven, swooping down to perch on a gnarled branch. 

"All my obeisances to you, honoured spirits," I whispered.

"Werec," said the bear god. "You already know why you are here."

"Rupa..."

"There is no greater abomination than this. Blood must repay blood, and swiftly."

"Please, great spirits. He is angry and confused. If I can speak to him, I can convince him to repent."

Bres roared, and the river echoed his voice all the way down to the village. My heart trembled in my chest.

"For this crime there can be no restitution," said Nawes. "Go forth, Werec god-speaker, and kill the no-man who has lived among us."

Blood rushed in my ears like a cyclone. My own words echoed in my mind: The law is above all bonds. It is what holds the world together, and without it we are nothing.

"I cannot. Please, send somebody else. To kill my own brother is an abomination of its own."

"Not for you," said Nawes. "Not for him. The no-man is beyond our law. The tiniest grain of earth is worth more than his life."

Bres stalked closer, his footsteps shaking the earth, until I could feel his hot breath upon me. "There must be blood. Do it, or the law falls upon you also."

I closed my eyes and choked back my tears.

"The law above all," I said.

#

By the morning, Sami's fever was reaching its height. She had thrown up most of the food and water I had given her. She needed my help to climb into the dugout, which I had lined with her cloak. Fever or no fever, we had to keep moving.

I sat at the back and paddled while she lay in the bottom of the boat, like a moth in a split cocoon. Often she slept, murmuring, though the only word I could make out was my brother's name. Other times she watched me through half-lidded eyes.

In the afternoon I started to notice a festering smell, stronger than the faint remnants of vomit. I pulled off Sami's boots to reveal her feet, sweat-slicked and lumpy with blisters.

"Sami, I need to put your feet in the water to clean them."

She was only half conscious. She did not resist when I lifted her legs over the side of the boat, but when they touched the salt water she gasped in pain. Her legs thrashed, but I held them under the water. At last she became accustomed to the pain and stopped moving.

For the first time I tried to imagine what her journey must have been like. Her route had been more direct than mine, but still she must have walked day and night to catch up to me.

"It's a long way from deer-skin country to the sea," I said. "You're lucky you even made it this far."

Sami looked at me, and despite her fever, I was sure she was completely lucid in that moment.

"You've never been in love, have you, god-speaker?" she said. "Otherwise you'd understand it wasn't very far at all..."

She trailed off, her feet still dangling over the side, and soon fell into a deeper sleep. I stood over her, my whole body trembling. I could easily have thrown her out into the water. Instead I pulled her legs back in, dried her feet with my tunic, and put my clean boots on her.

#

We crossed the great bay at midnight, staying close to the shore where the waters were calmer. Out among the islands I could see fires burning in the village of the Maris. My heart ached, remembering how I had come to this place last time as a respected guest, not a spy creeping through the night.

After hours of darkness, I came to a beach that I recognised. The smoking mountain loomed ahead of us, and a trail snaked away through the trees. 

"Stay here," I told Sami. "I will return by nightfall tomorrow."

Her only reply was to crawl out of the canoe and get to her feet. She was still weak from the fever, but her will was strong. I knew she would follow me no matter what I said, and I had neither the time nor the materials to restrain her.

"Very well," I said. "You go first."

We began to walk. She never failed to keep pace with me, though I could see that each step pained her. The way only got steeper as we went on, as the trees fell away to be replaced by snow.

"Do you know what this mountain is?" I asked her.

"Yes."

"And do you know why Rupa has come here, of all places?"

She did not answer.

"Sami, he eats gods. You know this. Now he wants to eat the great god of the mountain. He thinks that will sate his hunger at last. But the truth is he will never be sated."

Dawn came, warming the sky above the ocean and illuminating the frost-clouds on our breath. Still we climbed. At last we reached the
taboo-poles that marked the edge of the summit. I stood before them for a time. I knew there was only one way Rupa could have gone. I had broken spirit-law so many times on this journey, what was one more transgression? I stepped over the line into the forbidden zone. Sami hesitated only a moment before following me.

I could see the mountain's mouth now, surrounded by bare stone where the heat had melted the snow. I walked to the edge of the cliff and peered down into the crevasse. It was filled with the body of Inuz, like an orange ocean surging in the deep. Within the body of the god, very far down, there was a gleam of buried fire.

I turned back to Sami. "He is not here," I said.

She was staring at me strangely; and at that moment I realised the real reason I had brought her with me: not because I had no other choice, but because somewhere in my heart I still imagined there was a way for my brother to live.

The next moment, something heavy bored into my side.

Pain blossomed. I looked down to find a spear buried in my side. The weight of it dragged me down to my knees.

Rupa came out from the rocks where he had been hiding, his bare feet slipping on the ice. His beard was ragged and his hands and feet were covered in scabs. His eyes widened when he saw Sami; for a moment I thought he would go to her and embrace her. Instead he ran towards me. 

"Who's the bright one now, brother?" Spite twisted his voice into an unfamiliar shape. "Did you think I would just wait for you to come and kill me?"

"Rupa," I gasped. Pain was rolling through me in huge crashing waves. I could smell my own blood.

"That's why you're here, isn't it?" He stood over me. "Tell me you didn't come here to kill me, brother."

I looked up at him and said nothing.

He pulled the spear out.

Sami ran forward and grabbed his hand.

"We're going to go far away from here, love," he said to her.

I breathed deeply and spoke a phrase in the First Tongue. Nidali had taught it to me soon after we returned from the smoking mountain. Those words were woven into the heart of the blessing ritual. By speaking them aloud, I brought the blessing to an end. The warmth of Inuz, which Rupa had enjoyed for so many years, was taken from him.

He gasped. The icy mountain air was rushing into his lungs, turning every breath into an agony. His whole body began to shiver uncontrollably, and he fell to his knees beside me.

Sami shrieked and tried to grab the spear, but I was faster. With the blunt end I knocked her backwards down the slope.

Rupa was trying to crawl to the edge of the ravine. His mouth opened wide, sucking at the heat of the mountain god. I could see the hunger in his eyes. I could almost convince myself it was a mercy, to finally put an end to a hunger as cruel as that.

I drove the spear into the back of his neck, just below the skull. He went still at once.

There was a low sound, like an animal, which was Sami wailing.

Blood was leaking through my tunic. I packed snow into the wound and bound it tight with a strip of cloth. A dark red stain spread through the clear crystals of ice. The pain was fierce, but the pressure would keep the bleeding at bay for now.

I looked up and saw Sami kneeling over Rupa's body. She patted him softly, her hands fluttering like butterflies. I crawled over and shoved her aside, more roughly than I had meant to. She sprawled on the ground near the cliff's edge. I rolled Rupa onto his back. 
I took off my cloak and laid it over his head so I didn't have to see his face. I needed to act quickly or my nerve would fail. I tried to think of it as nothing more than a piece of meat, an animal. I took up my knife and made a long incision into his stomach.

Blood boiled up around my fingers and covered my hands in moments. I reached into the dark and crowded cavity. It didn't take long to find what I was looking for: a huge tumour growing on the inner lining of his stomach. It was roughly ball-shaped, white, and hot to the touch. I cut it out of his flesh and pulled it into the light.

Sami stared at me, uncomprehending.

"This is what remains of Kohalac, and the other gods he ate. Now it must be returned." I wrapped the tumour in my cloak and stood up. "Come."

"You're just going to leave him?"

"The gods will deal with his body," I lied.

I began to walk, though every step was a lightning stroke of pain. I could tell Sami was following by the sound of her sobbing. 

It was a long way down to the bay. By the time we reached the snowline, my vision was beginning to blur. The last thing I saw was three men in seal-skin cloaks, coming up the track to meet us.

#

That night I had a dream. The Maris men had imprisoned me in an empty hut, with the windows blocked and the door barred. But in the dream, the roof of the hut had vanished and I could see the stars. The ghostly gods came down from the sky and peered into the room where I lay. I saw Bres and Nawes, my own gods; many-antlered Horac of the Tuyan tribe; and other spirits, sleek and serpentine, who I guessed were the gods of the Maris. They had all come to reclaim what was taken.

"It is done," I told them. "Here is the god-essence that remains."

I had the white tumour in my hands. I lifted it up, and the gods leaned down to cluster around it. They picked it apart with their hands, their claws, their teeth. While they ate, a keening song rose from within them, echoing through the forests and the sea.

After it was done, they murmured to each other in secret tongues. Nawes flew down and landed at the foot of my bed. Her twin beaks were sharp as knives. "This is not all of it," she said. "Some of Kohalac's essence is still missing."

"How can that be? I brought all of what I found in his body..."

"That is your concern. Find what remains, and do not make the gods wait too long."

I lay, sleeping and waking, in the hut for three days. On the third day the Maris shaman came to me, his seal-skin cloak painted with dozens of blue eyes.

"Our gods have decreed that you be sent back to your tribe," he said. "A ship will be ready to take you tomorrow."

I could see he did not like to let a lawbreaker go unpunished, but he had no choice. I asked him to let me see Sami before I left. He took me to the hut where she was being held and let me inside. She was awake, staring at the wall. She did not seem to notice me until I spoke her name.

I said: "Tell me what happened, the night that Kohalac was killed."

She said nothing.

"Please, Sami. I need to know."

Small tears glimmered at the corners of her eyes. She began to speak, haltingly at first, but soon in a great flood of words.

"He came to my tent after you told him that we couldn't be married. He wanted us to run away together. Then he went away into the trees. I heard him shouting in a strange tongue. I think the goddess was telling him to stay away, and he was refusing. After that he was silent for a long time.

"When he came back, I knew there was something different about him. His skin was so hot I could barely touch him. He was dripping with sweat, and his eyes, and his voice... it was like he was a different man. And then we..." She trailed off.

"And now you are with child."

"How should I know, so soon?"

"You know."

She began to weep openly. "It's over now, isn't it? The essence of the god is inside me, inside the child that I carry. So you will take me to the gods and sacrifice both of us together--my child and me as one." She took a step towards me, tearing her tunic open to bare her collarbone. "Go on, then. What are you waiting for?"

I pushed her hand down. "Sami, I know you see me as an enemy. But I loved my brother, and he loved you. For his sake, I will not let the gods claim you."

#

The seasons turned, and by the time spring arrived the wound in my side had become just a pale scar. Life in the village carried on as it always had, though it would be a long time before our bonds with the Tuyan were mended. Some of our men objected to Sami living in the hut on the far side of the river, but they could not dispute my authority. The women brought food for her just as they had for Rupa.

I visited her when I could. We did not speak to each other much, but sometimes we sat together in silence. If she had prepared food, she would give some to me. If my hand brushed against hers by accident, she would flinch away.

Then, one day in early summer, a girl came running to my house to bring a message: that the deer-skin woman was having her baby. I thanked her and sent her on her way. The birth was women's business, and the women would take care of it. I left it alone until nightfall, when I went up the path to the hut. As I approached I heard a loud, healthy wailing. The sound raked at my heart. I had been hoping it would be stillborn.

I went into the hut. Sami was alone with the child, clutching it close to her breast. It sucked greedily at her teat. When she saw me she gripped it tightly.

"No," she said.

"You knew this was the only way."

"Not yet. Just give me a little longer with her."

I shook my head.

She backed into the corner. The baby was jolted and began to cry again.

"Sami. Either you give her to me, or I will take her."

Her eyes looked almost full black in the narrow light of the lamp. "One day," she said, "I will kill you."

I stepped forward and took my niece from her mother's arms. She cried and cried. Her body radiated warmth.

I wrapped her in a blanket and took her out into the night. We crossed the river and went up the path to the sacred oak. She didn't stop crying all the way there. The gods were already waiting when I arrived: Nawes and Bres, and dozens of lesser spirits perched in the branches of the oak.

"Are you ready to do your duty, god-speaker?" said the twin-beaked raven.

"I am," I said.

I laid her down on the bare earth and took the ritual knife from my belt. "Let the gods' will be done." But I found I could not lift it. The babe had stopped crying, and when I looked into her eyes my whole body felt weak. I fell to my knees. I said: "O my gods, have mercy. If there is any way she can be spared, let her be spared." My words caught in my throat. "If it is your will, I will do it. But let it not be so."

I waited for the word.

"She is the child of a no-man, but there is god-essence in her also," said Nawes. "Such a thing has never been known before. Great evil may come from it. Or it may not."

My heart leapt, uncertain whether I should hope.

"If the child is spared, will you take responsibility for whatever she becomes?"

"Yes," I said. "I will care for her as if she were my own."

A gust of wind blew through the sacred grove. I kept my head bowed for a long time. When I finally looked up, I saw that my niece and I were alone. I gathered her in my arms and left.

All the way down to the village, she was silent. I looked at her and for the first time let myself see her as a living creature, a bud of a new human being. I saw that she was beautiful.

I could not think of anything to say when I returned to Sami's hut, so I simply put the child back into her mother's arms. Sami held her close and rocked her until she fell asleep. Then she looked at me, her face red with tears. "What now?"

"Give her a name," I said.





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