It was the first time Siv had seen one of the coral towers Sancormecha was supposedly composed of. She had gone out full of stories and high hopes, expecting a mighty citadel shining into the sky, full of doughty warriors, but the pale tower was barely taller than the largest baobab tree. It stood alone past the ragged edge of the cold-burned forest in snowdrifts whirling in the wind against the grey dawn light, and was so empty it seemed nearly abandoned. The Liberman had said it was left mostly unmanned over the dark, freezing months of Nidt and that the towers in the city to the North were much bigger, but she didn't know whether to believe him or not.
She shied away when he tried to talk to her, looking away from his bare, whittled frame and the crutch he bore to support his one-legged cripple's body. No man of her tribe would let himself live on like that, a hungry mouth to eat the tribes meat. The stories about the Liber must be true, that the Sancormecha had been forced to shut them up in their castle and cut the tongues from their lying mouths or remove other things, after they tried to bring ruin to their proud city. You're thin like a stick too, a little traitorous voice said deep in her secret heart.
She had blurted out her message, truncated by fear or pride, between gasping, fogged breaths and waited uneasily for the skinny liar to shuffle off and send for the hunter they needed. "Nidtwarrens o' the neighbouring tribe torn open, people killed or carried off." Twisted corpses frozen in the dim grey-white drifts. "Cries in the forest like a werewolf story." Roaring for hours, no sleep for anyone, ice rattling in the branches overhead. "Trees torn apart and scattered." Huge gouging tracks in the bruised, iron-hard earth. "Need a hunter, came here." Running hard for days, sucking blood from gashes in trees, hiding like a white mouse in holes and hollows.
"Sleep here", he said in his lisping voice, pointing at a wood and bone cot, its straw mattress covered in old, threadbare furs. She would allow herself this collapse, now that she had reached her destination. She threw her young, spare frame gratefully into the warmth and didn't even bother to take off her own rank skins before she struggled under the furs and went out like a blown lamp.
"Wake, little snow hare", said a deep, rich voice.
Siv struggled for consciousness and pulled the furs from over her head. The voice belonged to a huge man in white furs, stooping over the cot. She focused - not a man, not furs. The rotund stranger was covered in her own fur, creamy white like the bears that come over the ice of Druga Bay in the depths of Nidt to chew hungrily at the trees.
"I thought y'were supposed to have two joints in your arms and legs." she said, and cursed herself silently a moment later.
The figure straightened, laughing in a deep, easy throb.
"Too skinny for the forests in Nidt." she murmured, "Get you frostbit."
Siv blushed under her hood, remembering what she'd been told. The Sancormecha weren't born into their various forms, they made themselves that way. They endlessly recrafted themselves into new bodies to suit the task at hand. Maybe they were even immortal. She shivered, thinking of Opa dying of the murrain, his once-strong face beaten yellow by the disease. The needfire and willow switches powerless to help him.
"I am Sancormecha Kresyaga Darvik, and you?" rumbled the figure, voice close in the small smooth-walled room.
Siv stared, mouth working "Krishja...". The strangers face was as black as soot, sitting in the bears skin like a puppets face in its fur hood. Her teeth were yellowed, broad and sharp, the gums, a deep red.
"Just Darvik will do, yes?"
What looked like a closed eye sat in her forehead, above her two remaining eyes. One of them had more of the wolf in it than the other.
"Um.. Siv, it's Siv."
"Yes, like the drink..." she replied.
"What drink is that?"
Oh, this is going just superbly, sniped her inner voice.
"uh... fatfruit, sweet sap... and treeblood... we drink it up in the...", "We drink it when hunting up in th' hills." she concluded, growing annoyed at herself.
Darvik nodded, "Mmm. Good for hunting, fast to find, make you run long."
"Y'know it?" asked Siv.
"No, but I have had fatfruit, and I have drunk my share of blood." As she said this, Darvik made a little curling, rending motion with her hands.
Siv eyed the heavy black claws that slid out from between the woman's spatulate, lightly furred fingers. Catching sight of this, Darvik sheathed the claws and extended her hand to Siv. Determined not to be frightened by this hearty bear-woman, Siv clasped her hand and was lifted easily out of the cot, onto the cold floor.
"Come, let us have some drinks of our own."
Darvik led her up a series of winding, organic-looking spiral stairs into the top areas of the tower that debouched in a modest sized room covered in bright carpets. There, she sat her down in front of a small crackling fire that smelled of pine, sharp and herbed. Siv sat awkwardly in a weird, lushly padded chair that was big enough to fit three of her as the furred woman busied herself with a large bone teapot and leather cups.
"There was a Liberman here before." Siv remarked, looking around the room.
"Hoho, he knows better than to be about while I'm here." chuckled Darvik, moving to fetch a clay jug from it's hook over the fire in the center of the room.
"D'you trust him?" Siv wondered aloud.
"Oh, he is all right, for his kind." Darvik rumbled, pouring.
Nonplussed by this dismissal of supposed years of bloody feuding, Siv accepted the tea jack with a little nodding bow over her hands and blew on it.
"Is the tea to your liking?" inquired Darvik, sitting down gently, her delicate, polite care for her guest seemingly at odds with her rough hunter's bulk.
"Yes, thank you... Nice and hot", replied Siv, sipping at the tea, searching for something positive to say about the watery brew.
"Hm. Oh, I know."
Darvik rose from the twin to Siv's chair and crossed the room to a cupboard in the wall. She opened it, revealing a large haunch of meat silhouetted against the carved wooden screen at the back of the coldstore. Taking a bone knife, she deftly scraped some fat off the carcass and carried it over. Siv smiled gratefully and nodded in response to her questioning expression, and Darvik dropped the fat, knife and all into her cup.
After a pleasant silence, spent picking little bits of tea-leaf from their tongues and flicking them into the low fire, Darvik shifted in her seat.
"So. The Liberman mentioned you said some of your people have been killed. What's out there, up in your hills? What is it that's worthy of my spear?"
The stranger's fingertips were furless and black too, Siv noticed, looking everywhere but at Darvik's eyes.
"They say it's a old bear, come off the ice to hunt easier meat.", Siv said eventually.
"But, you don't think it's a bear." stated Darvik flatly.
"I've heard bears, even seen one once." said Siv in a small voice.
"And what does this sound like?"
"Something that eats bears." Siv said quietly, staring into the heart of the fire.
They approached the tribe's camp some days later, walking up the dim, ice-locked river valley through the immense greasy-barked trees as they pushed out their little green and red buds. Looking at her home with fresh eyes, Siv noticed that the ground about the new treewarren was hardly churned up - they had barely ventured out at all in the time she was gone, back and forth from the coral outpost. Her people murmured as they peeked out of the hollow tree that formed the entrance to the warren, their breath fogging in hopeful, brittle clouds as they chattered to one another.
"Look at 'er fur." whispered an envious old woman, her yellow teeth worn to nubs from chewing leather.
"Black as livertree all over, I'll warrant." replied another.
"Strong too, better than that skinny weakling sent t' fetch her."
"We don't need 'er anyway, Antahi has defeated the beast, I heard him say so"
Could it be true?, Siv wondered hopefully. But that means he'll want a wife soon. She set her mouth, looked straight ahead, and led Darvik past the people that crawled out of the trunk of the hollow baobab, their skin pale from the months-long darkness of Nidt and their time spent hiding away under the earth.
"Is it always like this?" asked Darvik, wrinkling her little black nose at the smell and squeezing shut her nostrils.
"Mostly, though it's been getting worse with the beast out there. Maybe it's dead after all - it smells like they've been at the mushroom wine." said Siv and frowned, "We should be out harvesting the trees by now, not huddling underground pretending the dawn hasn't come."
They climbed up the slippery branches, over sawn plank steps the colour of green-washed bone, cut and driven into the trunk with the backs of copper axes. Siv paused to pat the snow and ice from her fungus-padded leather shoes, her companion did the same with her strange black rubber sandals and they climbed down into the hollow bole of the tree. Animal warmth and a sad smell of fear and unkempt toilets enveloped them. Darvik swore as she scraped her head on the low soot-covered ceiling, dirt pattering down on her broad shoulders. Ahead, a struggling glimmer of firelight approached them through the darkness of the sloping entry room, revealing a group of young women.
"Oh Siv, we've just been talking about you. It turns out you went for nothing, Antahi's already killed the beast." sneered a portly woman holding a shallow dish of burning fat and swinging a skin half full of the hallucinogenic wine.
The others variously sneered along with her, or looked sheepishly at the floor. Siv blushed and pushed back her hood, freeing her short black hair, remembering Antahi pushing up against her in the wintry darkness of the tunnels, breath stinking of wine and the strange alkaloid herbs he chewed. She wished she was still out in the forest, cold as it was, pushing past the snickering and silent group.
They mocked stepping out of her way and getting it wrong. Siv paused, waiting, and stared blankly at the bloodshot eyes lost in the round face of the woman in front of her, her shaven head making her look like some kind of huge, deformed baby. Behind her, Darvik loomed out of the darkness and Siv had the dubious pleasure of watching the woman's eyes widen and her face fall as she scrambled out of the way.
Darvik motioned her on, paying them as much attention as to dogs barking. They walked along the black-ceilinged tunnels, punctuated here and there by small, half-completed openings. They were ill thought out, abortive things, Siv thought to herself. Dug more for something to do, than for their value as escape routes or boltholes. Every once and a while, they passed a tiny, guttering dish of fat in a sconce scratched out of the earth, as often dark and solid as not. Siv began to sweat in her embarrassment at the paucity of the welcome for their visitor, as muttered words crept out of the soft-walled tunnels.
"Nidt take this." muttered Darvik behind her, as she rummaged in her long leather satchel, pulling out a glinting bone and wood contraption the size of her fist. It made a sloshing, pattering sound as she fiddled with it and orange light flared from it's glass face, throwing their shadows veering down the corridor. Dirty faces pulled back from the openings in alarm. Siv bit her lip, avoiding looking at the otherworldly Sancormecha magic and hurried on as the floor squished softly under their feet beneath it's carpet of dead grass.
As they stepped down into the longroom, the hushed babble of voices they'd heard ahead of them quieted to a murmur. The tribe's bald-headed old Ariki peered at them blearily from the other end of the roughly shaped room, over the low fire down its center. Old hunters lined the rude walls, sitting cross-legged on platforms dug into the earth, bunched together in conversation. The tribes few remaining dogs whined from the floor. Thankfully, Antahi was nowhere to be seen.
"Little Siv!" called the Ariki, slurring into his cup. "Your trek to the outpost was no use after all, like Antahi said - who is this stranger that you have brought before me?". He huddled under his bearskin cloak, pointing unsteadily, tooth amulets clattering around his throat.
In his cloak he looked like he had the same furred skin as Darvik, but a dull patchy brown, rather than her clean yellow-white. So it was true, she sighed to herself, after all the deaths, that lying blowhard finally did something.
Behind her, in the corridor, she could hear scuffling noises as people struggled to see over each others heads into the room. Darvik strode impolitely past her, without waiting for her to reply, as was proper. Her little heart babbled in indignation, hadn't they travelled together, shared a fire? She'd finally done something right. It should be her introducing Darvik to the tribe,
"I am Sancormecha Kresyaga Darvik, of the Sewn-clan of Hoenruuh." Darvik boomed, her lantern making the shadows of the room jump. "I have hunted the great worms of the desert of the east, the shape-changing ghosts of the mountains of the north, the wicked serpents of the seas of the west, and now I hunt in your forests here to the south. I have heard you have a beast here worthy of my spear."
A scattered few drunken laughs murmured around the drinker's cups. The eyes of the longroom glanced at the long satchel she wore on her back, and the murmuring voices rose. Some sounded amused, some offended that she might have brought a weapon into the hall.
Antahi emerged through a curtain at the rear and seated himself at the Ariki's right hand, his eyes wandering hungrily between Darvik and Siv, where she stood uncertainly near the wall. He wore a head-dress of blue feathers atop the thin hood he never seemed to remove and his severed little finger hung at his throat. The fleshy amulet held his soul, he had once said, pushed down there with his magic and kept safe. Siv wondered if it was leaving that finger behind that gave him the courage to brave the uncertain woods that surrounded them to collect those feathers.
"Silence!" shouted the Ariki, spit flying, the sharp tapping of his ceremonial steel knife on the stone before him ringing out. The cryptic muttering began to settle.
"Welcome to the hunter of mighty Sancormecha, from the mighty hunters of the Heparii!" he cried, his voice sounding thin and reedy in the large room after her thunderous recital.
"You are correct.", he continued, "The beast was a fearsome white bear from the ice. He strayed too far with his broken teeth, too old to hunt. He was infected by a hungry spirit from the black ice that grows in the depths of Nidt."
"It 'was'? You have seen it, it is already dead?" queried Darvik.
"Better!", cried Antahi, over the headman's reply, the conversation veering into an area he saw as his own, "The deep dreaming skald has chased it to ground in the spirit world", he said, meaning himself. "He cast the yarrow stalks and looked in pools in the deep places, anointed with the holy oils and ash from the burning bushes picked in the noon-heat of Nussum."
The muttering in the room took on an impassioned tone. Siv glared at him, wishing he had thrown himself into the pools in the deep places.
The Ariki nodded, waving his hand about, "Tell us the tale, strong skald, so that all may know of our mighty victory!."
Antahi stood, swaying a little, "It ate up the Mustii tribe to the east, but they were weak and few, so we were not worried.", the skald went on. "Then it ate up the Corvii tribe to the west, because they too were weak, though they were many. Then the bear and the hungry spirit that lived inside it ate well and grew stronger."
The murmuring in the room quietened in comfortable expectation. They had heard this story before.
"Now it was strong enough to threaten even us, the mighty Heparii. It took Wonn, daughter of Umna when the women went out to pick snowgrass up the valley." At this, a wailing cry drifted over the heads in the corridor outside.
"Then we sent out our mightiest hunters to kill the beast." A soft drumming suffused the room, as the old hunters around its walls slapped their thighs.
"Long hours we waited for them to bring back the beasts head, then twice longer before we could admit to ourselves the beast could be hungry and evil enough to best our hunter's strong right arms. Then we sent out the heart-heavy fathers to look for their sons."
The Ariki's head nodded deeply onto his chest.
"Only Reesh was brought back with them when they returned." The drumming stopped abruptly.
"Small holes covered his body. His skin was hollowed out by the hungry spirit, but his meat was not eaten. This is how the long-travelled skald knew it must be a spirit, for even the hungriest old bear would have eaten meat left in the snow."
Siv swallowed and leaned heavily against the wall, roots pressing into her back. Now how would the tribe cut and move the lumber that paid for their food for the next Nidt? She remembered Reesh, a small, round, gruff man, his earlobes lost to frostbite. Opa had known him, she recalled from her childhood, though he was younger then and still had his ears. Now his head, painted with lime, would be sitting in an alcove in the tunnels below them. Opa would have gone, Siv thought. Opa would have died with the others, replied her secret, angry heart.
"Now our young men were gone, eaten up by this spirit. Only old men and women and your great-souled skald remained."
The nodding Ariki was evidently too heroically drunk to notice the insult.
"Then in the depths of our despair, our strong-singing skald felt his heart burn in him like a furnace at this insult to our greatness. He drank a mighty draught of the strongest mushroom wine. He fell frothing to the floor. Deep he fell, into the cold, dark pits of the spirit world. Darker than the noon of Nidt they were, colder than the ice that forms on ice. Long they battled-
"Can I see it's head?" Darvik interrupted.
The skald frowned, "The knowledge-bearing skald killed it in the spirit world. It's soul was dead, but such is the magic of the spirit world, it's death chased it for days before it found it's way back to the world of men. Now it's body lies where it fell, far out into the forest."
"So you see, the beast is dead..." the Ariki slurred, "... dead. But you may hunt meat for us. Our hunters are few now. The hunting is hard."
"I see.", tolled Darvik, her broad teeth biting down on the words. "Very well, I will hunt meat for you. I will need a guide, someone who knows the forest and can keep silent when they need to."
The longroom was quiet. The old hunters pursed their lips, their eyes crossing, ostentatiously wishing for the return of their strength.
"Who will go with Darvik?" cried the headman, "Who will bring back meat for the tribe?"
"I will go." declaimed Antahi, as he shook his blue feathers.
"No, we cannot spare you." decreed the Ariki. "You must stay to protect us with your magic."
You little bitch, thought Siv, You knew he'd never let you go. Opa was twice the man you are. Now you'll want me to be your servant, or worse, just like before.
"I'll go." says Siv in a small voice, then again, louder. "I will go." she said, feeling like a hare, still with it's thin Venaut coat, sitting brown in the white snow - not pale tan skinned, sweating in the heat of burning fat.
Darvik waited, staring at the floor, then nodded.
After that, they were treated to a meal of thin broth, starchy cakes and more of the ever-present wine. Darvik was honoured with a seat on the benches with the other hunters. Siv was allowed to sit nearby on a wooden stool, but they urged her to silence with cool glances if she began to make too much noise. She tried to catch Darvik's eye, but the heavyset woman refused to notice. Darvik merely nodded silently at the effusive praise for her bravery and stared ahead, chewing stoically. Siv, they mostly ignored. It was a familiar feeling to her, they'd long held her luck to be dead for surviving the murrain that defied the magic of the last shaman, until it killed him too. It was as if her existence reminded them of that breakdown of the myth by which they lived their lives.
Sometime later, the old Ariki curled up where he was and began to snore. Antahi had slipped off again through his curtain. Siv pressed her lips together and wondered what had changed to make Antahi miss an opportunity to aggrandise himself before the elderly hunters.
Their audience at an end, Siv trudged through the close, dark tunnels to the communal storeroom. The wrinkled woman guarding the entrance pushed herself to her feet as she approached.
"What d'you want here, skinny girl?" she asked, mouth twisted in distaste.
"I... I'm the Sancormecha hunter's guide, I need a spear and food for hunting."
"More like 'er stalkin' horse." the elder grumbled, spitting on the floor.
Still, she offered no more objection as Siv chose a hefty bone-headed boar spear from the storeroom and a measure of pemmican, wrapped in leather and fat.
She and Darvik left the warren and headed out to check for spoor in the grey, early dawn light. They headed to where Wonn was taken, their feet crunching through the surface of frozen slush. The unmoving sunhole was a dull grey eye above, it's surrounding filaments barely visible. Darvik strode on ahead, making the trees jump and swing, ghostly underlit with the orange glow of her lantern.
"You should not have come." Darvik rumbled, staring into the dark between the trees.
"Why d'you hate me now?" Siv demanded, sniffing in the chill air.
Darvik paused and looked at her, her eyes dark in her black face, "I do not hate you child, I do not want to see you killed. Better it had been an old hunter with more scars." she replied.
"They've been too old to hunt or fell a tree as long as I've known them, and the beast's dead anyway. I c'n look after myself." Siv asserted quietly, lifting the wooden haft of her spear in demonstration.
"As may be, but stay behind me anyway. I can't guard you and hunt at the same time."
Siv bit back her retort and commenced glancing about to show her vigilance. They zigzagged their way along, heading upwind over the muddy terrain, scanning the lantern across snowgrass and treestumps, their rotted-out branches like beaked skulls staring out of the snow.
"Will you show me where the woman was taken?" Darvik said abruptly, after they had walked out of sight of the warren.
Siv stared at her a moment, then nodded.
Siv had seen the squarish indentations in the frosted ground where Wonn was taken before she had left, the ones the other women had failed to see, and the old men had ignored as no tracks they knew. She had been gathering sticks on the other side of the clearing when Wonn had screamed, but when she'd looked back only the trees were moving, swaying in the flurry of snow knocked from their branches. Wonn never made another sound. She remembered the out-of-place smell of woodsmoke in the air and the crackling of rotten branches as the beast lumbered away through the thick undergrowth. Later on, as they huddled in the warren, there had been more of that hellish whistling roar tearing across the sky. Siv prayed Wonn had been dead by then, just as she prayed the beast was dead now.
It took some time to find the holes again under the thin layer of dusty snow. Darvik pushed her away gently and brushed the snow from the ground. In the lantern light pooling on the hard earth they looked stranger still, sharp-edged and alien in that world of curves. Darvik traced their gouged edges with a cream-furred hand.
"Like stone blocks tumbled over the ground..." Siv murmured.
Darvik didn't respond, just straightened and swung her satchel around. Reaching inside, she pulled out two thick staves and slotted one into the other, twisting them together forcefully, making a long pole. Delving into the bag again, she swung out an ornate silvery spearhead, as grey as stone and as long as Siv's arm and fastened it to the end of the pole. The spearhead had heavy tines at the base like Siv's own boar-spear to stop it going in too far, but many backwards-pointing talons along it's length. Siv shivered a little in the cold wind, imagining hunting with a spear that wasn't made to be removed. There'd be no second chances for a better thrust with a weapon like that.
They tracked the indentations backwards into the bush, past the torn, soft trunks that lay about, covered in discs of blueish-white fungus. The hunters had dismissed these as mere deadfalls pushed over in a storm. When Siv mentioned this, Darvik snorted.
"They are not rotten enough." she said, tapping them with the butt of her spear. "These were live trees when they fell, and look here. What is this?"
Ahead of them, deeper into the increasingly marshy growth, was a messy pile of thick branches on a hummock of drier land. They had been torn and mangled, piled waist-high as if some huge wind had thrown them here. The dark water covered any tracks that remained. Bright patches showed on the trees around, jagged tears in their trunks from where the branches had been torn. The trees hunched over them in the glow of the lantern, twitching ghostly as Darvik swung it around.
"This was no wind pulling down old weak boughs." Darvik rumbled, looking around, "They are all from no higher than twice what a bear could reach."
"So?" queried Siv, attempting to find a dry spot out of the ice-rimmed pools.
"Wind is stronger higher up, it is sheltered down here." she said, wading out into the tea-coloured water, ice crackling around her furred legs.
Siv glanced around apprehensively, imagining some giant bear, trying and failing to climb the trunks, again and again.
"I don't see any claw-marks on the trees. Shouldn't there be claw-marks if it was a bear?"
"And what would a bear be doing with branches? These are not from meat-bearing trees... but... no.." Darvik paused, thoughtfully.
"What is't?" Siv asked, puzzled.
"It is as if..." Darvik cocked her head. "If these were bones and not branches, this would look like an old kill, where the animal stopped to feed."
Siv noticed for the first time, tiny regular fragments of wood scattered about the artificial clearing, floating in the pools among the old, dead leaves.
"What animal stands in water to feed?" Siv wondered, "And who cut wood here?"
Darvik bent and scooped some of the little squarish fragments out of the mere and shone her strange, bright light on them. They steamed like breath in the bluish darkness, ciphers of an unknown myth.
The marsh having swallowed any further trail, they backtracked to the site of Wonn's disappearance and followed a wide old lumber trail onward. It's deep scraped tracks were scattered with rimed thickets of regrowth. Their breath huffed out of them like spirits leaving the dead in the long pre-dawn hush of early Orsren. Darvik led the way now as they wound in and out of the splitting, rejoining tracks away from the warren, towards where the Ariki had told Darvik of the abortive battle between their young hunters and the beast. Grass shushed and crackled with frost at their feet as they climbed the incline into the hills.
Darvik stopped, her breath pluming in a veil before her and twisted the lantern to silence and darkness.
"Handsign only from here I think." she whispered in a deep burr, reaching out to take Siv's hand. "Do you know handsign?" she asked in the stuttering language, tapping it out on Siv's palm.
Siv nodded and replied hesitantly, "Use handsign in dark warren."
"Good enough." Darvik replied, "I want to watch the site of the kill for a while, let us find a vantage point."
They walked slowly on, avoiding stepping on sticks or the small, ice-capped puddles. Siv saw Darvik's third eye open for the first time, yellow and angry like a hawk's, as they crested a rise. She scanned the ground ahead of them where it sloped gently down to the sudden blackness of a jagged-edged gully. High on the opposite side a rocky promontory rose like a knuckle above the dark green tangle.
Darvik crouched for a time, looking out over the brush, apparently in no hurry to move on. Siv hesitated, then bent slowly to crouch beside her. Somewhere down there in the dimness a lone bird squeaked out a repetitive, lonely sound. Siv kept glancing at her companion and back out to the forest, unsure whether to say or sign anything. The bird quieted and silence rose up from the leaves. Darvik nodded and reached a hand out to Siv.
"Quiet now." she signed gently.
Darvik rose to her feet and crept away down the slope, keeping to the deep shadows beneath the trees. Siv followed, a little more noisily, but still proud of her hunter's stealth. They made their way down slowly, reaching out to the trunks of trees to arrest their momentum, nosing their feet around twigs. At the bottom of the slope a fallen tree reached out over the narrow gully, making a rude bridge. Ancient axe-marks scarred it's base, but it lived still, perpendicular branches standing up along it's length.
Moving out onto the bole of the tree, Darvik squeezed between the branches, using them as railings, and moved across to the other side, the trunk rocking slightly beneath her weight. Siv followed, pulling her shorter body up the thick bole and onto the smooth bark. Partway across, the muddy sole of her leather shoe slipped on a patch of mould. She gasped and caught herself on a springy branch, clutching at it with her thick mittens and dropping her spear as the trunk rocked alarmingly under her feet. She glanced down into the deep gash in the earth far beneath her, ice glimmering at the bottom like blood welling in a cut. The view began to tip as the trunk rotated with her weight and she gritted her teeth, making a small whimpering sound.
Darvik glanced back and grabbed another branch, throwing her weight in the other direction. The tree stopped rotating and rocked gently back and forth. Her heart in her throat, Siv made herself reach out for another branch and dragged herself gingerly back over the trunk. As the balance shifted, Darvik moved to compensate, her lips a thin line, inclining her head and finally stepping back to where she began. She jerked her head back minutely, urging Siv onward. Breathing raggedly, Siv swallowed, picking up her spear from where it leaned, caught in a tangle of branches and continued along the trunk, careful to test each step with a twist of her shoe.
Safe on the other side of the gully, Siv crouched panting with her hands spread flat on the mossy ground.
Darvik patted her on the shoulder, signing "Still quiet, good."
Exhaling in a tiny huff, Siv straightened to kneel on the crisp foliage, snow crunching softly. Covering her face with the edge of her hood, she rubbed at her cheeks with the rough hide mittens, blinking away the beginning of tears and stood shakily, leaning on her spear.
The birds had started up again, wittering around them. One of the four-winged treeblood-suckers twisted it's green and grey form through the air, pirouetting shadow-like. They stood silently for a time, watching entranced as the birds gradually settled. Then, Darvik stepped slowly onward upslope, angling towards the rocky pinnacle above them. Siv followed behind, with a brief glance behind her at the tree-bridge.
The outcropping was easy to climb, just a tumble of round boulders raked up there by storm waters racing to the sea, spattered with grey lichen, with dwarf saplings growing in the cracks. Water trickled gently down the hill from it's crumbling base. The hard stone was chill like ice through Siv's gloves as she followed Darvik up over the crest. There, she copied the yellow-white furred hunter and sat crosslegged staring out at the ocean of dark tree-tops.
From the vantage point she could see down into a new clearing in the brush. It had to be where the young hunters of her tribe had met their end. The largest baobabs still stood, scarred and crooked. The smaller growth was trampled like a child's attempt at weaving, frost dusted over it in a dirty white blanket. Siv wondered whether the bodies of the remaining men were under there somewhere, skin white under white snow, or some place different still, some black hollow beneath the earth.
She started slightly at the pressure of Darvik's hand on her knee, turning to see the ghost of a smile replaced with a stern teacher's frown.
"I want to watch for a while to see if anything comes." Darvik tapped. "If you get sore or tired, there is a flat place behind the stone."
Siv nodded and turned to stare out over the jagged hole in the forest, watching for anything out of place. Darvik's third eye was open again, giving her a strange inhuman aspect. Siv wanted to ask her if she thought the beast was really dead, what kind of person she was, what she was made of, all of these things. But it never seemed to be the right time, and she was never quite certain that the tall stranger liked or respected her enough to answer her childish questions.
Hours passed, and despite her best intentions, Siv's muscles began to complain, then to bite at her. Darvik didn't seem bothered, she stared stoically into the forest as if patiently waiting for it to explain itself. Siv bit her lip and tried to lean in a different, less painful way, but it was no use. Finally, she rolled over onto her hands and knees and crawled uncomfortably off the pinnacle, down the cascade of boulders, to the mossy thickets below.
She found a soft bunch of grasses and curled up in her skins, pulling the hood up around her face to shut out what little wind there was. The fading firestars were still visible high in the blue-black dawn sky, and the sunhole still shone faintly in it's unmoving position, a wan intimation of the raging, ragged orb it would become in the noon of Nussum, months from now. Sleep came to claim her eventually, rescuing her from daydreams of warmth, of the Nussum fires that scoured the hillsides every year, of Antahi's heat in the cold tunnels.
Siv jerked upright, her heart hammering like an axe felling a tree, the echo of a sound ringing in her mind. She scrambled upright, hands clenched on her spear, swinging it about in panicked arcs.
"It is safe." Darvik called out from the rocks above.
"What was that? Wait, we're talking aloud now--
A whistling roar split the dawn, surging huge and fading out, back and forth off the hillsides, choking the words in her throat. Siv waited, her shoulders rounded and hunched, waiting for the blow to fall. Nothing. Not even birdsong braved the silence.
"It is hunting, far from here I think." stated Darvik, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in the dark, half-formed blur of the forest.
They stood listening for a time, but the howl did not come again. After a long time the birds began to cry out once more, a building chorus of alarm calls that slowly faded to silence again, as if they were uneasy calling attention to themselves.
"You told the Liberman other nidtwarrens had been attacked." said Darvik. "Where they in that direction?" she asked, pointing into the gloom.
"...maybe it's death will catch it soon... what?" Siv murmured, glancing over to her companion.
Darvik repeated her question.
"No, further south, and east some." Siv slowly replied.
"Have you seen them?" queried Darvik.
"No." she whispered.
"Then how do you know?" Darvik pressed.
She sniffed, "A Corvii came and spoke to us, a witness..."
Darvik's eyes shone in her black skin. "No one spoke of this, What happened?" she urged gently.
Siv breathed alone, "He was dead." she said finally.
"Dead?!" Darvik spat, her brow twisted.
"He had eaten the fruit of the Sanga, the tree of knowledge. It is forbidden." Siv said woodenly.
"What does it do?" asked Darvik.
A pause, a breath, "It kills, eventually, but if you die before then... you take a long time to die." said Siv.
"I presume this is not a good death." Darvik said.
"They don't know they're dead.", Siv's voice was alien in her ears, "He'd walked through the snows, half naked, he was cold. Bruised and frozen, but not dead. He should've been dead."
Darvik watched her, saying nothing.
"We didn't tell him. It's forbidden to tell them. Better they should think they're alive, until they finally die. He went back in the end, to bury them, what was left of them."
"...Nidt." Darvik swore.
Opa had slapped her when she had suggested the fruit to him, when he could no longer hide how badly the murrain had become, but then he had cried, saying he would not have that as the last memory she had of him. Saying, there were deaths, and then there were worse deaths. The Sanga was a bad death.
"Take me to this warren." instructed Darvik, "I would see this for myself."
Gripping tightly to her spear, Siv nodded. She couldn't decide if she wanted Antahi to be right and the beast dead or the beast to be alive and Antahi discredited. The thought of the beast still out there roaming the hills pushed at her mind, but she clung to the hope that it's death would catch it soon somehow, rearing out of the dark earth. One thing was certain, she couldn't go back to the warren again, not with him triumphant and the elders doubtless pressing for more sons.
They choked down a hurried meal of pemmican and wine and pressed on into the grinding twilight. Darvik insisted they no longer use the lantern to light their way, so they trod on across the cold ground, feet slipping in the muck of sudden pools. Walking past the older trees that should have been harvested already, Siv stared, their half-seen trunks seemed to conspire, leaning one on the other, uniting against them, sodden with melting slush.
No animal tracks showed in the stubborn snow blanketing the slippery tussock. The only sounds in the forest were the far roar of water surging under river ice and the cry of vultures somewhere ahead of them. As they travelled, Siv pulled some red and wrinkled late-season berries from the low bushes and stuffed them into the wide pocket at the front of her jacket.
Ahead, Darvik slowed and cocked her head, motioning Siv on. The birds peeped questioningly behind them and wind rustled forlornly in the tall branches.
Siv felt a rough shove from the rear and stumbled to her knees in the crunching grass. She turned angrily to demand an explanation when the chill silence was cracked open by a sharp concussion from the path behind them. Darvik cried out in anger and tumbled into her, the birds squealing a chorus of blame.
Siv lifted her face, spitting snow as Darvik jumped up beside her.
"Stay where you are you unnatural bitch!" yelled an unsteady voice.
Antahi walked slowly out of the shadowed trees, holding out a strange blunt metal stick, pointing it at them as if was a spear that they could run themselves onto.
Darvik began to reach down for her spear in the grass, blood trickling down her arm to spatter bright red on the white snow.
Antahi cried out, "Stop! L-Leave it there!", his breath coming in great gasps.
Siv goggled at the Sancormecha hunter held at bay with a blunt spear and the apparent betrayal of the already victorious skald.
"Antahi? What are you-"
"Shut up! Shut your lying mouth, traitor!" he screamed, spittle glittering in the half-light.
"How could you Siv?" his voice was crooning now, soft and small like a child's.
Then, his face twisted, "He told me about you! I know what you did! Why did you have to bring her here? You're spoiling everything!"
The staff in his hands wavered drunkenly between the two of them. She could smell the reek of him, smoky and bitter above the snow and clean leaves.
"He chose meee! He spoke to me, showed me his glory! He blessed me... in the cold darkness he held me to his hot breast..."
Darvik shifted slightly, gliding her foot over the spear on the ground.
He ranted on, oblivious, "You can't stop him - I won't let you! He's the god of the forest... the black soil... the red-faced bird..."
Darvik's leg kicked out and the spear buried it's head greedily in his abdomen as his blunt spear crashed bright fire into the ground.
He staggered back a step and fell to his knees, groaning. The long shaft of the spear bounced horrifically as dark blood poured over his legs. He began to cry in little keening sobs.
Darvik pounded across the distance between them, whipping a short, heavy knife to his throat and grabbing the back of his head.
"No!" Siv cried, scrambling to her feet.
Darvik recoiled as if struck by something as Antahi's hood fell back, blue feathers scattering.
His head drooped forwards and his legs began to twitch spastically. Siv doubled over vomiting. Darvik stared, transfixed. The back of his head was missing, a gaping, scabbed wound partly filled with rusted metal objects, His face slumped down like a mask no longer held. His legs kicked and he rolled onto his side, silent now but for a quiet ticking, the only sound in the hushed forest.
Siv covered her face and sat back, weeping softly. From the body came a wet ripping, followed by a dull repeated crashing like stone on rotten wood. Eventually she looked up. Antahi was wearing his hood again, his arms folded on his chest. His head slumped obscenely into the dirt.
Twisting around, Darvik grunted and levered a bloody pebble from the hole in her shoulder with the knife. She winced as she rolled her arm in little hopeful circles, testing the joint. A forage in the satchel produced a clay pot of bluish powder which she asked Siv to sprinkle on the wound. Taking it back, she hesitated for a moment and finally dug around for a small leather package of snus, broke off a pea-sized chunk and jammed it under her upper lip. Relief smoothed her features.
"We should bury him." whispered Siv, "No one should see him now."
In her mind a shy small boy laughed at the pattern of sun on leaves.
They carried him to a shallow depression away from the track and piled snow and cut branches over him, the ground being still too hard to dig. It would have to do. The alien spear, they broke on a rock and threw in with him, despite the value of the metal shafts. Darvik rubbed her hands on her legs again and again, she asked her to sing a song, but Siv shook her head, woodenly wiping at her eyes, not trusting herself to speak. A cascade of doubts jumbled through her mind; maybe it was only Antahi and there was no beast after all, perhaps it was out there still and the tribe crouched undefended in the stinking tunnels, and finally, maybe it was her luck that caused it all, chewing out of her black heart and into the world.
She staggered after Darvik as the furred woman followed Antahi's messy trail, hoping for an end to knowledge, a stirring legend with a happy ending, not this eternal hopeless trudging to catch up to fate. The tracks were easy to see against the earth, dragging dark scars through the scrubby drifts, under branches hanging with the weight of bulging tumours. They curved back in a wide circle, leading away from the warren, worming over the slopes toward the silent home of the neighbouring tribe.
Some distance farther on, the trees thinned. Below them, at the base of the hill, the earth was rucked and hollowed near the ice-covered river. Shadowed figures sprawled doll-like out of the ground, frozen corpses locked in the mud. They slowed cautiously, walking out of cover under the twitching eyes of the firelight stars.
Closer nearby, a faint reek of blood crept over the earth. The stag lay before a curled, unmoving figure, a light dusting of powder speckling it's flank. The snow piled up against the side and back of the kneeling figure in a parody of a warming cloak. They crept up to the side of the pair, spears raised in warding.
"It's him... the survivor, the Sanga-touched." Siv whispered.
"Shht." cautioned Darvik, signing for quiet.
The bulky hunter slid her sandalled feet across the distance and crouched to examine the deer. Siv could see the holes pock-marking it's skin, it lay in a tumbled heap, it's hide bunched and mangled like a tattered cloth. The smell of old smoke hung around it. She made herself look at the figure. No wounds marred his skin, he was finally still, a preserved statue kneeling within sight of his home.
Darvik pulled out her lantern and shook it into life. the orange glow flickering over her before it fell on the perverse still-life at her feet, making them shift, jumping like flames at the alien sight. She motioned for Siv to take it from her and reached out, grasping the stag's short antler and heaved it's head out of the hardened slush.
Suddenly, the earth below Darvik erupted in a flood of blood and hot gore as the soil and the deer atop it was torn apart, throwing her high in the air. Siv screamed and stumbled backwards, tumbling down the hilliside. Looking up from the ground, she saw Darvik scrambling to her feet, waving her long spear at the behemoth. It's rusted carapace was covered with soil and plants, oily smoke gouted from it's back as it ground and whined, lashing a huge, misshapen foreleg at the hunter. Darvik jumped, half-caught by the impact and rolled away over the torn earth.
The beast turned away, making a grinding, clicking sound as it swung it's shovel head toward Siv. She whimpered and crawled backward, digging in her heels and elbows, the hated lantern striking bright yellow-orange images on the white ground, shadowy trees and the shining red rods and bulging growths of the unnatural thing that sprang at her, rumbling and puffing coal-grey.
She rolled herself over desperately, throwing herself into a half-run, half-fall down the hill. She could feel the ground shake behind her, a roaring sound filled her head and hot piss warmed her legs. A tangled, incomprehensible yell sounded from upslope, followed by a rending crash. Siv tried to look and tripped gasping into a rime-encrusted thicket. Jumping up, she could see Darvik pounding four-legged across the slope, fanged mouth agape, leaping at the beast, chasing the spear that projected from it's side. The cream-furred woman howled maniacally as she crashed into it and grabbed at the spear, ripping it's shaft back and forth, twisting the spear's savage head inside the guts of the beast.
The beast screeched and whistled, spinning heavily around, churning the earth and gouting smoke in a cloud around them. Metal shrieked as Darvik was spun, tumbling off it's back. She rolled hard and leapt to her feet, eyes starting as she accelerated toward it in a second attack. The thing whirred and crouched like a bear, it's head outstretched at the hunter, Darvik gathered herself and leapt again. The beast rose to meet her and howled in a deafening, whistling roar. Pale white steam rushed from it's head and engulfed Darvik at the apex of her leap. She screamed and glancing off the beast's flank, thudded messily to the ground, her face a bloody pink ruin.
"Darvikk!" she cried out, scrambling to find her spear among the shadows and white grass. The monstrous thing emitted a whistling shriek and turned, spurting smoke and oil. Gears ground their teeth together in anticipation. She flailed at the earth and found the hard length of the spear as the beast ran at her, roaring and shaking up frozen clods from it's path. She looked up at the face of bruised leaves and decayed metal as she ground the butt of the spear and pointed it into it's heart. A pounding, ringing impact smacked the sense from her head. The spear bent and snapped, numbing her hands. She found the world whipping past her and a crushing stone weight imprisoning her ankle as she hung upside down. Inverted trees swung past her eyes, a crumpled heap that might have been Darvik's body, a deep blue sky filled with terror.
Tearing pain lanced deep into her thigh. Beating her palms thoughtlessly against it, she looked up into the things red, roaring maw. Fire burned deep in the monster's gullet, masticating blades and saws chopped at the air, it smelt of burning and rotten fat. Siv screamed and heaved her weight uselessly against it's grip as the behemoth ground a proboscis under the skin of her leg. A jarring pull and her limb disappeared into the shuddering mouth, with it's twirling, glinting blades. Blinding pain tugged her mind out through her leg, Skeletal trees danced, twigs reaching like broken fingers set wrong, white soil, red mouth, orange warmth spilling across the ground. She pawed blindly, grabbing something hot, and bucking, threw it full force into the beast's throat.
A grinding, gushing. Senseless, stunning explosion and dull, ticking silence. Siv groggily raised her head from the dirt and gaped in the sudden darkness. The beast churned it's legs against the sky above it's steaming carcass, slowing to a halt. A drunken klaxon blared mournfully from it's shredded body and whistled to a sliding halt.
She avoided looking at her shrieking leg and hopped over to Darvik, supporting her weight with the broken spearshaft. The hunter was crouched, fumbling at the satchel and already chewing determinedly.
Between Siv's eyes and Darvik's knowing hands they mixed poultices and daubed creams, striking a warming fire against the silent flank of the beast. Darvik babbled in her opiate drunkenness, talking of tattooed heirloom replacements for her eyes and Siv's truncated leg. Siv just lay back on the soft earth, sucked more mushroom wine from the skin and stared up at the fading firestars and the burning sunhole, striking golden through the gaps in the branches.