The winter trek back from the frozen north was always hazardous. Not just because of the enemy clans that one may encounter, but far more dangerous were the elements. As the thaw waned and the cold that gripped the wilderness for most of the year returned, many factors played into survival. If the cold came too soon, the snows of the north would not compact under the runners of the sleds. They would bog down. It would be like pulling them through sand. Another great danger was the stillness. The stillness was a time when the wind did not blow. Once the cold returned, the winds that the thaw produced dwindled with it. There were migrations when the wind died, and so did many upon the trail. One would think that wind would only add to the chill, but that was not the case. The opposite was true. The wind was a friend to the clans. It circulated the air over the white wilderness, created warmth as it brushed the snow. These actions brought just a fraction of a degree of warmth. It was almost imperceptible, but the Kodiak, with their special senses, could feel it.
Tyree positioned himself on a high bluff and with his eagle eyes scanned the clans as they made their way south. He watched with sadness the passing of his own clan, the first to leave the frozen north. Then came several smaller clans, then the Tranca. He saw Rolak and Shuyah leading and protecting fifty thousand Tranca clansmen in their wake. Tyree was filled with mixed emotions. He wanted to ride to Shuyah, tell her of the terrible secret he had to hide—of the massacre at Verdanta, but his hate for The Scar overpowered his love for the Tranca girl.
Two days later, the Logalla came. They numbered over a hundred thousand, thirty thousand warriors. The size of the force became clear to Tyree as it took three days for the multitude to pass. Then Tyree saw The Scar commanding the rear guard. It was a large contingent spread out to alert the Logalla to any attack from the north. Tyree followed.
As the Logalla clan passed the northern edge of the twisted forest, a third of their warriors split off from the main body. A Logalla force of ten thousand, plus wives, children, and livestock, entered the forest. The rest continued down the western edge of the vast expanse of deformed black trees that died before time began. Tyree concluded that the regiment left in the northern forest were Logalla reserves, a massive army that could be called in to flank any attack. The Logalla were primal, but with obvious military acumen.
The Scar’s rear guard unit stayed with the main body. Tyree knew that soon they’d be reaching the Logalla’s winter grounds. The rear guard would join up with the massive encampment, and he might never find The Scar again. Tyree donned his Logalla disguise and followed the Logalla’s rear guard closely. Night fell and they made camp. Tyree saw where The Scar placed his hut. He joined some stragglers and entered the Logalla camp. Tyree made his way to The Scar’s hut. He dismounted and, with as much nonchalance as he could muster, moved close, and drew his sword. He was at the flap of the hut when the dog attacked. The Logalla had domesticated wolves that served as sentries in the night. The Kodiak differed in this custom, as in most. They saw no purpose in man’s best friend. Dogs alerted a camp to intruders, but Kodiak senses would detect them long before even canine senses could. Dogs served only as troublesome noise makers who competed with their own masters for food.
Tyree killed the attacking wolf-dog with a thrust of his sword, but the camp was alerted and many Logalla came out of their huts armed. Tyree leaped onto his horse and fled. The Scar stepped from his hut, saw the interloper and, placing cupped hands around his mouth, called out a signal. This alerted the Logalla bowmen who were posted all around the outer edges of the Logalla camp. Tyree already knew where they were, and hoped that none of them had moved in the last few fleeting moments. The bowmen drew back their strings at the sound of a horse approaching. Tyree had to run a gauntlet of arrows at the camp’s perimeter. If he’d been riding a snow pony trained in evasive maneuvers Tyree might have avoided the arrows altogether. One struck his Logalla horse in the neck, and one found its way past Tyree’s armor under one arm, lodging between his ribs. Tyree guided his wounded mount into the snowfields. The horse kept on for two views before it coughed blood and died. Tyree tumbled into the snow, arose in great pain and staggered to hide behind a drift. But he could not conceal his footprints in the snow. The arrow was lodged in a peculiar place under his left arm. It was difficult to work with it, to cut a notch in the shaft as he did the arrow in Shuyah so long ago. He would have to simply break the shaft, leaving the tip still in his ribs. The pain made it impossible to read the wind. He didn’t know how close the Logalla pursuit might be. He had to snap the shaft of the arrow and not utter a sound. Tyree placed his left hand down around the arrow where it entered his ribs. Then with his right hand, he reached around and grasped the shaft firmly, both hands bloody and slippery. He gritted his teeth and broke the shaft. His mind and body exploded in pain, but he held in the scream that it spawned.
Having unsaddled their horses for the night, it took time for the Logalla to mount a pursuit. They carried torches and followed the blood trail and hoof prints of Tyree’s horse. They found the dead horse and fanned out in the snowfield. Tyree prayed to the wind. It began to snow—the first of the season; one that would hide his tracks. To Tyree it seemed to take forever, yet it was but a few heartbeats and the snow came in earnest. The wind picked up as the seasons changed. The blizzard drove the Logalla back into their camp, certain that the storm would spell death for the badly wounded Kodiak.
Tyree was losing blood and sleep beckoned. He knew that to sleep was to die, so he forced himself to stay conscious through the wind, and the snow, and the long night. Finally, as the sun peeked over the southern horizon, the snow stopped. A horse snorted nearby. Tyree drew his sword with a weak arm and forced his eyes to focus. His eyes held the fog of impending death that made it hard to scan the area around which he lay. He blinked and saw nothing, but he knew something was there. Then, they appeared, and only because they wanted him to see them. They stood all around him, all in the white skins of the snow bear; all riding white horses. The Ghost Warriors looked down on Tyree with their pink eyes. Then a black cloud enveloped his vision and Tyree gave in to unconsciousness.
“Shuyah!” Tyree called out as, in his delirium, he trudged hopelessly through a snowstorm. Walking before him, Shuyah would turn, extend her arms desperately, but instead of coming to him, would turn back and vanish into the falling snow. It happened over and over, a frustrating hallucination that tore at the heart of the Kodiak boy.
Tyree awoke before a crackling fire. He was wrapped in white fur blankets. His ribs hurt terribly and he reached a hand around to examine his wound. He found the arrowhead had been removed and the wound bandaged. His senses told him that the poultice of the healing root had been placed on the wound. He flexed the arm under which the arrow had found his flesh. It caused him great pain, but he could feel the stitches. He had been saved from the hut of the dead.
“You have lost much blood,” said a deep voice.
Tyree looked up to find a Ghost Warrior now crouching on the other side of the fire. The Ghost Warrior dipped a wooden ladle into a metal pot boiling on the fire and scooped a portion of hot steaming soup into a wooden bowl. He rose erect, walked around the fire, and held the bowl to Tyree’s lips. The Ghost Warrior knew that Tyree was too weak to accomplish this on his own. Tyree drank deeply, felt the hot soup course through him like a life-giving elixir.
“My name is Jasika,” the Ghost Warrior said.
“I am Tyree of the Kodiak,” the wounded boy warrior replied in a voice made ragged and weak by his injury.
“Yes, we could tell you were Kodiak, yet in your fever you spoke of a Tranca girl. Are the Kodiak and Tranca now on speaking terms?” the pink eyed Ghost Warrior asked.
“Just the two of us,” Tyree said then he lapsed back into unconsciousness.
* * *
“Wake up, boy,” Tyree’s grandfather said.
Tyree awoke, instantly excited at his first bear hunt.
Tyree was nine years old and had been practicing with bow and arrow for the bear he was certain would cross his path. Young Tyree and his grandfather fed their ponies and ate a hearty breakfast of brush hen eggs and strips of caribou sizzling in a metal pan over their fire. Snomads ate with their fingers, for spoons and forks were added weight that hindered the long journeys to and from the north. Tyree and Grandfather gnawed at the hard bread made from wild oats and drank goat’s milk warmed over the fire. They snuffed out their fire with snow and rode their bridleless snow ponies into bear country. They guided their mounts with their knees and leg pressures, as all the Kodiak, and snow ponies, had learned to do. They had with them two pack ponies that they pulled along by leaders, for pack ponies were not like snow ponies. They would sometimes become stubborn when the snow grew too deep or their burdens too heavy. The four agile ponies zigzagged around and between the black and twisted trees like merry-go-round horses breaking free.
Young Tyree and his grandfather had traveled two days to the hunting grounds in the twisted forest where the bears wintered. Their fur would be thick and healthy, Grandfather had promised, and a prize of which to be proud. It was the furthest Tyree had ventured from his clan, but being with his learned grandfather eased all concerns. Grandfather, the light that shone Tyree’s way in the wilderness.
Grandfather had killed more bears than any Kodiak; put more bearskin rugs on the floors of the huts of his family than any other. No better guide, no better hunter, could the boy ask be his mentor. He was an elder, now, wrinkled and worn, but now able to devote his time to training the orphaned grandson who had no memory of his murdered parents.
They saw the tracks of many deer, the favorite prey of the big black bears that inhabited the twisted forest.
“The bears are not our only concern,” Grandfather said, wetting his fingers with saliva and reading the frigid wind. “The Logalla inhabit this forest, as well.”
The Logalla, Tyree thought, his young blood suddenly flashing with heat born of hate. The Logalla, who had killed his parents. Young Tyree found himself now wishing that his arrow could find the heart of a Logalla even more than that of a bear. Tyree’s grandfather reminded the boy almost daily of the Logalla’s bloody intrusion into Tyree’s life. Not to instill vengeance, but to steel the boy against it. Grandfather sought to remind him of the deadly capacity of the Logalla so that the vengeance that could not be dissuaded could be turned toward caution and discretion. It would keep the boy, in his later years, from being foolish in his unalterable quest for revenge.
Grandfather had showed Tyree how to hold his bare hand into the wind, how to move his fingers, how to let the wind caress his palm. “Put your mind into your hand,” Grandfather said. “Feel the wind’s words.”
Now, they were hunting in the twisted forest. Together, they read the wind. Then Grandfather spoke at a whisper.
“There, that sensation. What does it tell you?”
“Animals,” the boy replied, concentrating.
“Deer—and something else.”
“I don’t know.”
“Separate them,” Grandfather instructed, “feel their size, their weight. Breathe mightily through your nose.” Grandfather did this, and so did Tyree. “Smell them.”
“Wolves!” the boy gasped.
“Yes, and on the hunt,” Grandfather deduced. “Feel how their blood rages. How the deer panic.”
As if to add credence to Grandfather’s deductions, a wolf howled not too distantly. Other wolves joined in, and their howls became snarls. In his mind, Tyree saw the chase, felt the attack, witnessed the kill. Their snow ponies shuffled nervously, but they didn’t snort or spook like horses would have.
“We are downwind,” Grandfather whispered. “Let us approach. Let us learn.”
Tyree and his grandfather dismounted. They didn’t need to tie up their snow ponies, for the ponies were stalwart and would not move from where their riders left them unless absolutely necessary. The snow ponies also held the pack ponies in check and would await with worry their riders’ return. Young Tyree and his grandfather ventured stealthily into the woods. Tyree nearly jumped out of his skin when four deer, three doe and a buck, burst from the trees. They shot past the two Kodiak with less fear of the humans than of the wolves from which they sought to distance themselves.
“You circle west, I the east,” Grandfather whispered. “Keep the wind in your face.”
At the thought of venturing on alone, Tyree was gripped by fear, but he didn’t reveal it. Still, his grandfather knew the boy’s fear—read it in him as definitively as he read the wind. But the boy needed experience alone—needed less to trust his grandfather, and more to trust himself.
Tyree had learned, like all Kodiak, to walk on the snow without letting it crunch beneath his feet. He stepped toe-heel, not heel-toe, as those of other clans did. Tyree looked back. His grandfather had vanished among the twisted trees. Aloneness filled him with anxiety, but he held it at bay and carefully moved on. He came to the edge of a clearing and saw movement therein. He heard the snarls of the wolves’ feeding frenzy, smelled the bloodlust on the wind. Tyree boldly moved closer. The wolf pack tore at the carcass of a dead doe, the larger wolves snapping at the smaller, forcing them to hungrily await the leftovers. Tyree settled into a crouch to observe the predators’ bloody ritual. He blended with the trees and snow, as a Kodiak inherently knew how to do. Tyree became invisible even to the sharp-eyed wolves who might glance his way.
Suddenly, the wolves stopped feeding, turned and raised their bloody maws unmoving, staring straight at Tyree. Tyree’s blood ran cold. These were not wolves as future eons would know them. These were ravenous prehistoric monsters with hairy humped backs and massive fangs. Did they see him? Would they attack? Then, the wolves all bolted away and across the clearing as if seeing the human boy sent fear into their fearless hearts. Tyree smiled. Humans are the greatest predator, he thought. Then, behind him came a shuffle in the snow that sent chills through his bones. He was upwind, so his senses read only the dead deer and retreating wolves. Tyree turned to see a colossal white snow bear standing over him! This was also not the cuddly polar bear of the future. This was a primeval killer, seven feet tall, angry black eyes, and as wide as a hut! It stood on its back legs, massive black fore claws held out to the sides as if on display. The bear roared so loudly it nearly burst the boy’s sensitive Kodiak ears. The boy scrambled backwards on his back into the clearing. The bear advanced. It roared again, drawn to the kill by the blood on the wind. But like all major predators, the snow bear preferred a live kill, and would within a heartbeat have the boy in its jaws.
The snow star whistled through the clearing like a bird of prey. It struck the great white bear in the throat beneath its gaping jaws. The bear issued but a perplexed snort as blood gushed from its wound all over the prostrate boy. The bear’s tongue then lolled out and it fell forward, dead, onto the boy. Its colossal weight and horrible stench smothered young Tyree. Grandfather rushed forward, dug at the snow, and hurriedly pulled the boy from beneath the gargantuan ursine creature. Tyree was unconscious, but in a moment his eyes blinked open wide. His grandfather’s smiling face greeted his return from the edge of death.
Grandfather took from a pocket inside his bearskin cloak the flint and steel all Kodiak carried for starting a fire. With it came a handful of tinder which he placed on the ground. He whistled like a dove and began gathering wood which was plentiful all around the clearing. Obeying the call of the dove, which they recognized as that of their rider, the snow ponies trotted almost silently into the clearing. By the time they arrived Grandfather had a fire crackling. Once the boy was comfortably covered in blankets, Grandfather set to carving at the carcass of the dead bear, first skinning it then dressing out as much bear meat as the two pack ponies could carry. Even after loading the pack ponies with meat, the bear was too big to turn over, so only one side could be skinned and butchered. Grandfather scraped the fatty tissue away from the underside of the bearskin. He smiled at young Tyree.
“Only half a skin, but this will make a fine cloak for a boy,” he said. “You can pretend you are a Ghost Warrior, who only wear the skins of the snow bear.”
“Have you ever seen them?” the boy muttered.
“Yes, and on more than one occasion.”
Night came quickly to the twisted forest and they camped there. The wolves howled distantly. Young Tyree curled up in his blankets and watched the fire as his grandfather told him of the Ghost Warriors. The fire danced before young Tyree’s eyes like an entertainment of light. It brought sleep to a little boy who’d had a very full day.
CLICK HERE FOR CHAPTER 11: "WOUNDS"