“Why would you go?” asked Arnarr, standing firm, a willow rooted in her living room.
Aarculii stood at the entranceway. “Because I follow the wing tips of Raven better than anyone in our village,” he pled, hand outstretched. “They led our people off the island of our birth, guided us oversea to this land, and led them through the ceder forests to massive herds of game.”
“They also lead men to their death,” she said. “They lead hunters to game only to be attacked by wolves, who eat them and their prey. They lead men to salmon runs, only to be stalked by bears, who devour fish and fisherman alike.”
“That’s why I must go!” he implored, holding his hands out for her approval. “If we kill the man-eaters we can make all the lands safe for our people.”
“What if you die? Yeeka and I will be left alone. Who will help raise our daughter?”
“Our people,” he answered. “That is why I must go. They’ve done so much for us.”
“You believe you might die and still you would go? Yeeka and I don’t care if you kill a thousand bears, only that you’re here for us.”
“But if I go I will do more to take care of you, and many other families. That is why I must go.” He drew his hands back, a beggar growing indignant. “Don’t you want me to be a great man?”
“No!” she shouted. “Not if a great man would leave his family.” She stuck her chin out, proud tears adorning her cheeks. “No matter what you say, you can’t care for us better from afar. No one can. The Raven Clan will face far greater danger than wolves or bears if it tears its husbands from their wives. A great man could imagine a better way.”
Aarculii burned with rage, thinking her selfish, but could he not combat the coldness that crawled up his skin, to stand across from his weeping wife. He crossed the gap between them, blanketed her slender shoulders with his arms, and mumbled, “Everything will be okay.”
She peeked, her damp eyes sparkling. “I want to grow old with you.”
“We will grow old together,” he whispered. “But first I must make sure that others in distant villages can do the same. I must not be selfish.”
She sharpened her soft features to knives, her watery beads became battle wounds. “I am not being selfish! I will miss you. Can you think of no better way to serve your people than war?”
“I’ll miss you, too,” he said. “But all of our people agree I must go. The elders have decreed that we must not be bound from the bounty of the land like we were from the sea. That we must slay the behemoths as we did the leviathan.”
Arnarr collapsed into his grip, broken. “There are better ways,” she sighed. “But I don’t want to oppose you and our people.” She looked up one last time. “Come back often.”
“I will,” he said, a promise loosed like an arrow.
* * *
In this time of war, the wingtips of Raven guided Aarculii in ways they never had before. To hunt the hunters, Aarculii told the men to become a pack themselves, to always remain on the hunt, only to sleep in broad daylight and on high bluffs when one of them could stand guard, and never to attack when their prey was alert. The men spent many nights watching wakeful wolves, but Aarculii told them to have patience, and eventually, every pack erred. After a prime kill, when every member was stuffed with the fat meat of calves, the wolves would sleep without a guard. And every time a pack slept, a band of warriors slaughtered it, interested not in the feast, only the kill.
Aarculii knew bears would be more difficult. He watched one tear across a mountain faster than any wolf, larger than 20 and containing all their force within one indivisible whole. With a hide too thick to pierce with an arrow, he knew attacking one while it slept would be even more dangerous than challenging it while it roamed. But he didn’t know how, until he watched a Raven, diving to snatch a ground squirrel, arch its wings and appear to stand still, frozen in mid air.
“Prepare yourselves,” Aarculii said to his fellow warriors, Akiny and Ata. All three crouched on one side of a small hill, while a brown bear lumbered up the other. Aarculii glanced at his team. Ata sat fast, but Akiny’s limbs trembled. “Steady your hand,” he said. “Hold tight, and I will slay him. But one mistake and we’ll all die.” Akiny balled his fists until they burned blood red and stopped shaking. “Here he comes.”
The bear crested the summit, a shock of brown against the clear blue sky. When he saw them, he bared his teeth and growled, but the men did not respond. He opened his jaws and roared. “Now!” Aarculi shouted, then smacked him across the face with his spear. Ata and Akiny dashed to opposite sides of the beast and ensnared his paws with strands of sinew.
The bear reared onto his hind legs and thundered across the hillside and into the mountains, then clinched his teeth, raised both paws to crush Aarculii’s head, but could not pull forward. He pulled harder, dragging Akiny and Ata across the rocks as they struggled to dig their heels into the loose tundra, wrapping his arms around Aarculii despite the bindings.
“Hold him,” Aarculii demanded, jabbing at the bear’s heart. But his staff plied against the hide like grass against a rock. “Hold him,” he said, but the bear stretched the sinew thin, about to snap. “Hold him,” Aarculii said one, final time.
The men clinched their teeth and tears streamed from their eyes, but their muscles tore, their bones ground, and their grips began to slip.
“Let go!” Aarculii shouted.
The men released the ropes and watched in horror.
Aarculii stuck the butt of his spear into the ground and cowered at its base, thew himself under the juggernaut and gave his life to fate.
The bear crashed toward the warrior, teeth and claws bared and snapping. Under his own weight, the spear broke through his hide, but he merely balked, then persisted down the shaft in his fit of rage. He snapped at the warrior once more, clipping Aarculii’s forehead, then the spear exploded out of his back and he fell to the left of the man, dead.
Aarculii lay silent, the world renewed. He had been spared. And from the white clouds, a black bird emerged, turning tightening circles, descending for its share.
The men packed the meat and stacked the gut pile, then the sun sunk for its short summer nap and the moon emerged, framing the hill in a blue light, like an isolated world for the warriors alone. While Raven feasted, Akiny sat next to Aarculii and thanked him. “You saved my life,” he said. “Men like you are why I became a warrior.”
Aarculii threw his arm around the young man’s shoulder. “On the hunt, we survive as one,” he said, the starlight bathing their embrace.
* * *
Arnarr leapt into his arms when he returned. She had imagined those arms wrapped around her every night he was away, while she clutched Yeeka and dreamed he was behind her.
The moment Aarculii clutched her soft body, the world of warfare faded.
She wriggled under his grasp and kissed and bit his neck and cheek, then stopped and looked behind him.
“What is it?” he asked.
“You have to see Yeeka,” she said, then shouted down the hallway to their daughter.
Yeeka, now a toddler, stumbled into the room on her own chubby legs.
He fell to his knees, held out his arms, and called to her. She stopped, confused, then lit with recognition and ran into her father’s arms. He spun with her above his head, and thought, this is what I live for – to make the world safer for my child, and all children.
“I have something for you,” he said suddenly, handing Yeeka to Arnarr and pulling a silver hide from his bag. “A wolf,” he said, laying the fur across their bare floor. “I killed it with a single blow from my staff, so it doesn’t have a blemish.” He smoothed down the last paw then looked up at them. “The elders say this makes it magic.”
Aarculii assumed his wife’s tears were joyful. But she wept because he was proud, proud of what he’d done rather than sad to have missed his daughter’s first steps. She remembered holding her arms out to Yeeka as she stumbled forward. Her daughter, an unsteady willow, swayed and nearly fell, but caught herself with a swift foot and sprung upright. She shot between her mother’s fingertips as if she’d won a race, and Arnarr cheered, overrun with joy but tinged with pain. She was sure Aarculii would share her pain and stay. But now she saw he would leave again.
* * *
His next absence was much longer. The man-eaters had retreated from the entire coastal plain. But Raven’s wings still pointed inland. The elders wanted to eradicate the beasts, or isolate them in the icy interior, so man could inhabit all the lush grounds of the world, unafraid. In this pursuit, the warriors passed other villages where they were always housed and comforted, for in the absence of their own men, these villagers needed comfort, too, comfort that their men were being well-received.
“It’s wonderful to see you,” the elder of one village told Aarculii. “We never had a band of our own warriors to protect us. Please stay as long as you can.”
While the elder spoke, Aarculii’s focus drifted past him. He was struck by the women of this village. First, for how different they looked from his own wife – much less beautiful – but then at their sheer numbers. There were thousands, each with several children in tow, and not a man in sight.
“I see you notice all the women of our tribe,” said the elder.
But with its tingling fingers, guilt seized Aarculii’s neck and turned him back.
“Few men are born in this village. That is why we have sent forth no warriors. We send women to marry, but still have so many that all our men have several wives.”
“Is that not immoral?” Aarculii asked, his two impulses battling.
The elder grasped the warrior’s shoulder, then looked him deep in the eyes. “Raven often keeps several nests,” he whispered, “Man, like Raven, must adapt to his circumstances.”
Caught in a fast current, Aarculii’s head still bobbed. He watched two women, arms locked, follow their husband into a sod igloo, and his fire burned from two places, passion and disgust.
The elder let the topic drift, and reminded him of a far more pressing issue. “Do you think the man-eaters are adapting to their circumstances?” he asked.
Aarculii had heard this fear in every village. “Some speculate that deep in the interior, behind a massive mountain range, the bears and wolves are banding together, planning to attack us as a single, unified force. Others say the disturbance in the natural world will bring forth an even more terrible beast from the animal kingdom.”
The elder’s face sunk with grave concern. “That would be the end of my village,” he said. “So far from the coast, with no warriors to protect us, we would be defenseless. All our children are vulnerable.” He paused and pled with ancient eyes. “Do you think it wise to leave the perimeter of the coastal plain unprotected?”
Aarculii had not thought of this. The man-eaters regained land every time the warriors retreated. What if they snuck back into a village? All these children would die. He could not face his own family knowing he let that happen. He knew Arnarr would be sad, but he thought of all the children – all across Alaskax, and especially right here – he thought about the Raven Clan, and he thought about all of these women, walking arm in arm without a husband in sight.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
“Do what?” asked the elder.
“I’ll stay here and hold the man-eaters back while my people return to regroup.”
* * *
The last night that all the warriors stayed, Aarculii lay awake with Akiny. The young warrior, his own fire waning at his elder’s news, pressed him. “Does Raven divine our actions?” he asked, the moon pouring its tide of light over their farewell. “Or is each man’s passion a Raven unto himself?”
Aarculli curled the boy under his arm and gazed up, their embrace ever-framed in that otherworldly light. “There is Raven in all of us, and a part of us in Raven. But he is nothing if abstracted. He is first that fiery bird.”
* * *
The last time Aarculii had returned, Yeeka barely spoke. Now she rolled around on the wolf skin rug and chatted with Arnarr every time she cooked. She asked, what are you making? A stew passed down from her grandmother. Where’d the meat come from? Her father, who was very brave. How did he kill the animal? He was a great hunter. Then she hefted the paw before her with both hands and growled. “If he is a hunter like this wolf, will he hunt us?”
Arnarr laughed and told her no. “You’re father killed that wolf to protect us.”
“Where is he now?” she asked, and Arnarr’s mind slipped back to the first time he left. She had feared this question then. She was raising their child alone. Most of the year, only the idea of him separated him from death. But he always returned, as he promised, and today she could answer her daughter. “He’ll be here tomorrow.”
* * *
Yeeka stood between Arnarr’s legs as the warriors arrived, a chick in the folds of her mother’s wings. She watched burly men barreled into the village as if they were a pack of wolves, and worried they were killers, but then saw their stoney faces crumble and flutter upon their children like flower pedals. She scoured the crowd, sure she would recognize the man she could not remember, eager to light his face. But all the warriors avoided her, cast down their eyes. She began to sniffle.
When every warrior had found his wife and Arnarr stood alone, ignored, she screamed, “What has happened to my husband?” She dropped to the ground and grabbed Yeeka, trying to cover her eyes and ears, trying to save the lie she had told with her stories.
But Akiny burst forth from the group and ran to them. “He’s fine,” he said, grabbing her shoulder.
She looked at the boy as if he had brought Aarculii back from the dead. “What do you mean?”
“He is alive and well,” said the warrior. “He stayed behind only to protect a border town and hold the ground we made safe. He cried when he told me he could not come back to you, but he said he could not return knowing he left a single child unprotected.”
Having just received her husband from the grave, Arnarr was not upset. “Will he be alright by himself?” she asked.
“Aarculii stayed because only he could prevent a counter attack,” said Akiny. “He is the greatest warrior in Alaskax!”
Arnarr could see the man believed what he said – he burned with the same passion she would have, if she had just seen her husband – but she dropped her head with sorrow, imagining how long it would be until Aarculii returned. She turned away from the jubilant warrior, and dragged her sobbing daughter back to their home. There was no place for them in the celebration. She had married a great man.
* * *
Inside, she collapsed on the silver hide and cried. She did not rise for days, not to feed herself, not to take care of her dauther Yeeka, and not to sleep. She rested only in fits when her body collapsed, but her dreams always woke her. Blood splattered her vision as Aarculii was torn apart by wolves. Blackness sucked the light from her mind when a bear crushed his scull under its paw. Goosebumps ruffled her skin as he froze to death waiting for his band. Soon her sleeping and wakeful states became one, and she lived in a haze where her husband was viciously murdered at every moment. Her howls filled the village day and night, shaking her people’s faith in their quest.
The elders came to her, hovered like ghosts, and told her she was being selfish. They said her husband was the most selfless man in the Raven Clan and she refused to support him. She did not even take care of her child, who slept and howled like her mother, only in her own room so no one could hear.
The elders’ implications suppressed her fear and a deeper emotion erupted. She hated that he chose to be apart from her. She knew no man-eater could kill him. But she did not know why he chose to stay away. She hated his choice so much that she shut her lips, and sat calmer than the eye of a storm.
“That’s better,” the elders said. “Now serve your people with silence.”
When they left, she soared over the distance her husband had traveled like a great bird, trying to imagine his true motives, attempting to envision other villages in distant lands. The emotions of men alone on the trail scared her, the feeling of young women left alone to host other warriors terrified her, and the worst seemed to be on the edge of the coastal plain. But instead of soaring there, a literal bird hopped into her home, like a messenger from that land.
A Raven, clean and clear and bright as a new day, stood before her, silent. The symbol of her people for its obvious cunning, Raven could lead a wolf to a wounded calf and share in the spoils, but could also scare the herd to trample the predator and feed on both. Without killing anything, he fed on everything. Arnarr yearned for his wisdom.
“Is he dead?” she asked.
Raven hopped above the entranceway and huddled into a warm nook. Aarculii was fine.
But how could he be fine apart from her? If he missed her like she missed him, he would yearn for her every night.
Raven preened. He did not miss her like she missed him.
But she knew he was passionate. He burned for her every time they were together.
Raven snapped his head up and looked her in the face. He satisfied himself with others, the warriors and the villagers.
But he might still return to me.
Raven’s fiery eyes now pierced into her bosoms core. His urge to war was not for glory, or to protect his people, but to wander.
“Isn’t it?” she shouted.
Raven cackled, high and nasal, and nodded.
“But he’s not like you, is he?” she screamed. “He’s conflicted. He lies to himself.”
“Yes,” Raven screeched. “With two families and a new child every month, he’ll never be satisfied.” Raven cackled again and flew from his perch, out the entranceway.
Arnarr fell back and flailed. The wolf skin rug tangled around her body, and she howled once more. Only this time, it did not carry though the village like the howl of a stricken woman, but reverberated through every home like the howl of a genuine, vicious wolf.
In the next room, Yeeka woke from a nightmare where the wolves plotted their revenge on the child of the warrior who killed so many. Now she was sure they had arrived.
She dashed into her living room, expecting to find her mother split in half and smeared across the walls. What she found was far more terrifying. In the middle of their home, Arnarr writhed under the fur Aarculii had given her, her flesh melding with its hide, until only its head remained detached, hanging like a loose hood. Though her face was still human, her eyes were more terrifying than the wildest beast’s. She looked hungry for her own kind.
“What has happened to you?” Yeeka said, backing against the wall.
“Your father is a liar,” she growled and sprung at the child.
Yeeka dropped to the ground and covered her face. Her favorite toy, the silver rug, had come alive to kill her.
Arnarr was unmoved. “He has betrayed us for another family, and I will kill him for it.”
As Yeeka sobbed, Arnarr snapped the hood over her head and twisted her neck as the face of the wolf became her own, then stuck her snout between the girl’s hands.
Yeeka dropped her pathetic defense and stared at her mother’s slender face, covered in fur, beautiful despite the snarling teeth extending from her jaw.
“Remember my face,” she demanded. “And strike me on the nose when I return. That’s the only way to wake me. Do you understand?”
Yeeka closed her eyes and nodded. When she opened them, a silver flash of tail whipped around her entranceway. She buried her head between her knees, determined not to speak to anyone, not to lose focus, to hold her mother’s face before her mind and strike her on the nose when she returned.
* * *
With the memory of her husband’s musk, and the heightened smell she acquired with her fur, Arnarr bounded from the coast to Inland Alaskax, carefully avoiding the class of men created to protect her. She knew they would kill her in her present form. They would not consider her a sentient being, an intelligent creature, a beast burning with human desire.
She glared down at the villages he had visited, and the rage inside her grew as she imagined the women he had deflowered in each. She skirted them though, and picked up his scent on the other side, saving her vengeance for the whores who bore his children.
Raven soared overhead, his mouth watering as the stew slowly simmered.
On the cusp of the Interior, at the foot of a massive mountain range that divided the rich coastal plain from the vast tundra, she found a small village that reeked of fertile women, and one home, at the edge of this village, that smelled of Aarculii: his sweat and blood, his spilled seed, and to the inflaming of the wolf’s nostrils and anger of Arnarr, the diluted scent of his essence mingled with the odor of another – the smell of his children.
Arnarr hunkered into a stand of trees and waited for dawn. Then he emerged. Her jaws quivered at the thought of sinking her new, deadly teeth into his neck, killing him with the bites she used to give him out of passion, but she let him march out of the village and into the woods. She wanted to see his wives, wanted to prove to them and herself that she was better than them in every way, not just as a beast. At this thought, the callous killer that clung to her skin fell off like an ill-fitting coat, and she walked to the entranceway a proud, beautiful woman.
Inside, Aarculii’s other wives tidied the mess from breakfast, their children chasing each other around their feet like a braided stream.
“Let’s pack a lunch, take all the kids, and visit Aarculii on the bluff today,” Shawa said.
Awat turned to Shawa while she stacked the dirty plates. “Is it safe?” she asked.
“Of course,” said Shawa, sliding two scraps of meat into a separate bin. “We haven’t seen a bear in months, or even heard the cry of a wolf. And who knows when the other warriors will return. Aarculii must get lonely.”
“You’re right!” she said, swooping up her youngest daughter. “Do you want to visit du eesh today?” She tickled the girl’s ribs.
The girl wriggled, lit up, and was about to holler yes, when Arnarr knocked.
Awat put her daughter down and Shawa stopped washing. They glanced at one another, then drifted toward the door together, pawns on their fated path. Outside stood the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. They remained silent.
“Hello,” said Arnarr. “May I come in?”
The women led her to their living room, and her own legs became crags for the streams of children, each with the features of her estranged husband. In the center of the room, several wrestled on a bear skin rug – the only hide more precious than the one Aarculii had given her and Yeeka. One little boy waved a paw at another and growled. She yearned to throttle their tiny necks, to rip the rug from under them and suffocate them with it. Instead, she smiled.
When she smiled, she grew even more radiant, seductive, intriguing, as if she held a coy secret beyond the superficial, as if she understood more about the deep workings of life than they could ever fathom, so they did not baulk when she told them that she could teach them the secret of her beauty, and told them to boil a basin of water. They stoked their kindling and fed it every last log Aarculii had dried for them, eager to see what magic the beautiful witch could work, imagining their husband would be twice as surprised when they brought him lunch today.
When the water boiled, the women turned to Arnarr with wide, anxious eyes. “Now,” Arnarr said calmly, “plunge your faces into it.” Their eyebrows shot up.
But Arnarr calmly lifted her chin to highlight her cheekbones, and asked, “Don’t you want to be like me?”
Faced with this, the women were convinced there was a supernatural power behind her beauty, and they lowered their faces over the cauldron. As soon as the boiling water splattered on their skin, they tried to pull back. But they could not. Arnarr had seized their hair and held them down. They screamed, but their final sounds were quickly drowned as Arnarr plunged their heads into the basin.
Arnarr’s hands boiled and bled as the women flailed wildly, but it was not long before their bodies fell limp. She threw her hands into the air, stared at her wounds, and shrieked with madness.
The children froze with terror. They glanced between their mothers’ bloody, lifeless skulls and the crazed woman standing over them. She ceased laughing, looked down, and smiled pitilessly, then ripped the bear skin rug from under them, wrapped it around herself, and transformed into a bear as she had once become a wolf. The children screamed but it was too late. Arnarr, bear woman, descended on them one by one, growing with every child she devoured, until this beast of vengeance burst through the roof.
When she reared onto her hind legs, she towered over the village and roared. Thousands of women looked up at her, and her fury grew as fast as their fear. They tried to corral their children into their homes, but they could neither outrun nor hide from the beast. She devoured them by the mouthful, like ripe berries from a bush. She smashed homes open with her paws and dug out hiding children like succulent roots.
The village was demolished in a matter of moments. Arnarr let no one escape to the woods, dug the bottom out of every home, and scattered every pile of wreckage across the earth to ensure no one survived. Every mutilated corpse was exposed, and man would never settle this spot of land again. She reclaimed this territory for the man-eaters, and left fresh, pulverized meat to entice them back.
Then, with a vague instinct to go back to the coast, she charged to the village of her birth, destroying every town and band of warriors along the way, leaving a trail of destruction for the man-eaters to follow. No one was prepared to slaughter such a beast. Even the spears crafted to kill bears were not long enough to pierce her monstrous hide.
* * *
Aarculii’s post was the gateway to Interior Alaskax, so when no warriors passed him in pursuit for several days, he assumed the war was over. He packed his small camp, woke early, and gazed at the mountain range of the Interior – the largest in the land – for one last time. A wrap of clouds hung round their necks, and from the highest peak, Raven emerged, soaring straight back to the border town of Aarculli’s two wives, a clear sign he should return.
But when he saw the first home of his village – his own – his beliefs crumbled like a calving glacier. Raven stood atop the wreckage, pecking the eyes out of the blistered, bloody faces of his wives. He fell to his knees, gripped his chest, and pressed his forehead to the ground, choking. He had failed. Something had snuck past him, or he had overlooked something more devastating than anything he had conquered. Either way, the path down which he had poured his energy had fallen into a crevasse. There was no climbing out, no changing direction. He drew his ulu from his coat and pressed it against his throat.
Then Raven screeched. He had finished with the women and hopped around, turning soil for another morsel, but there was nothing. He narrowed his eyes on Aarculii, shrieked again, and soared over the trees to the coast.
Aarculii dropped the blade and noted the tracks out of his village: northwest, following the same half-circle he had taken there. But Arnarr, Yeeka, and the village of his birth were due west. If he took off immediately, following the wingtips that had brought him there, he could save his first family from the gravest danger yet, and there would be no trace of his transgression.
But as Aarculii set out, Arnarr descended on her own home. She slashed the roof off her sod igloo and plunged her snout into its bowels. Yeeka still sat against the wall, starving and emaciated, clinging to the memory of her mother’s face. But the bear shook this image from her mind, and Arnarr’s last chance to emerge from her state, Aarculii’s last chance of redemption, and man’s last chance of survival, were lost as Arnarr severed her daughter in half between her jaws. Her daughter could not recognize her, could not save her, because she returned as a different beast than the one as which she had left.
The monster rose from the ashes of her home, her daughter’s blood still smeared across her jowls, and descended on the rest of her village, destroying it as she had every other in her path.
This massacre appeared to be the end of her people. But as Arnarr sifted through one large heap of smoldering debris, a hand protruded from another pile, and balled into a fist.
Having disbanded from the warriors to care for stricken women, Akiny lay in the rubble. There was no way he could save his village, nor any chance he could slay this beast and save the rest of the Raven Clan alone. But he could flee and alert others.
The beast had come from the nearest northeast village, but there was one nearer, due east. Perhaps other warriors were headed to that village and they could join together. But the beast stood between him and that hope.
Akiny sprung from the heap and landed on his feet, facing east, and sprinted straight for her.
Nose deep in a burning hole, Arnarr did not notice her old friend until he passed directly underneath her and brushed her blonde underbelly. Then she yanked her head from the wreckage, rose onto her hind legs, and roared.
By the time she spotted him, he dashed toward the woods on her right. But Arnarr had grown so large that she simply turned and fell onto her front paws to catch up with him. As she descended, she opened her cavernous jaws and wrapped them around Akiny’s torso, prepared to kill her last living clansman. But Akiny ducked and accelerated, driven by a strength he had not possessed since he fought at Aarculii’s side.
Arnarr was shocked to swallow a mouth full of air. She had not needed to chase a man since she reached her new height, but now she found herself barreling after Akiny, striving to reach him before he escaped into the thick woods. She quickly caught up and lowered her mouth over him again, just before he reached the threshold of the woods, and snapped her jaws shut with him in her mouth. But before her teeth pierced his flesh, her shoulders smashed into two yellow cedars, and she spat him forward as she crashed onto the forest floor.
Akiny stumbled for several steps, crashing into cedars himself, but regained his balance and disappeared into the thick woods.
Arnarr lay on the ground, breathing pensively into the woods. But instead of tearing after him, she sniffed the air and decided to go back to her village, kill the survivors, then follow his scent to the next town.
* * *
Aarculii burst into the elders’ igloo and tried to warn them, but when he told them the beast had somehow grown within his perimeter, directly in their territory, they froze with icy defense.
“No. Nothing could have grown under our watch,” they said, cracking with arctic coldness.
Aaruclii tried to move them to rush to the aid of his village, but they refused. “All our warriors are gone,” they said.
“Then they are dead!” Aarculii shouted. “Are there not two able-bodied men among you?”
The elders did not respond. They and Aarculii stared at each other, each hiding their deepest motives. The elders glanced between one another and with a firm nod decided Aarculii vied for more power than they would give him. They turned to him, his face soaked with sweat, shaking, and twisted with his last strains toward hope, and said, “No.”
Aarculii doubled over, struck in his chest. Without warriors, he could not kill the beast.
Then Akiny burst into the room and crashed onto the floor. “A monster comes from the west!”
Aarculii fell on his clansman and grasped his bare, burned shoulders. “Akiny! Is that you?”
The men wept to see each other, for the love they shared, but mostly for the pain. The sight of the other proved to each that they had failed. Akiny did not soothe the suffering, and Aarculii could not save his family. Everything was lost.
Now the elders rose to their feet. “Have you seen the beast?” they asked Akiny.
“Yes.” He looked up, eyes still clinched, remembering his scorched village. “I ran right under it, but my head barely brushed its stomach.”
“Can you kill it?”
Akiny turned to Aarculii, but he remained silent. With Arnarr and Yeeka dead, he had no hope.
But the elders needed him now. “What do you need to kill the beast?” they asked. “Saving the rest of us is your only chance for redemption. If you do it, you will surely be remembered as a hero, and find another family.”
Aarculii thought he had found his course again, believed the wing tips of Raven had been leading him here all along. He looked at Akiny anew, and said, “We can do it.”
Akiny’s eyes opened wide and his vision cleared. He would join the one man he loved once again. The two turned back to the elders and said, “We can do it!”
* * *
Aarculii told the elders they needed only one more man, thicker ropes, and a much stronger spear. Skilled women wove several strands of sinew together, creating braided rope, master carvers cut a sturdy shaft from the core of a yellow cedar, and the warriors were introduced to Mastik, the elder’s personal guard, a man more hardened than Aarculii and younger than Akiny.
Aarculii took the shaft and wedged his own spearhead on top. Everything would depend on the weight of this new weapon, from the lives of the warriors to the last of their people, so they christened the shaft the way every spear would be hardened from that moment on: they sliced their palms open and cauterized the fresh, breathing heartwood with their blood.
With no further ceremony, they shot up the mountain to the west, arrows loosed in desperation.
Arnarr sensed their approach and charged up the other side.
“She’s coming,” Aarculii shouted, feeling the mountain shake under her weight. “If the monster beats us to the summit, and comes down the other side, there will be no stopping it.”
The men redoubled their pace, but with less than one hundred feet to go, the grade steepened and the tundra turned to loose rock. The men hit the gravel and scrambled like salmon in whitewater.
On the other side, Arnarr simply leaped over the steep grade in one enormous bound. Her bulk soared over the edge, her blond hair glistened in the high sun, and she crashed onto the summit, shaking the mountain to its core.
“She made it,” Aarculii cried, then flung himself onto the summit. “Grab my hands,” he said, leaning back over the edge and extending a hand to each struggling warrior. They grabbed hold and he jerked them up. They scrambled to their feet just in time to see the beast rise to its hind legs and roar.
“Quickly!” Aarculii shouted. “If it lands it will be too late.”
Akiny and Mastik dashed to opposite sides of the bear and flung their thick, heavy ropes, each lassoing a massive paw, but Akiny found that barring into the ground did not work. She whipped him to the ground with a small shake of her arm.
“Run to the trees,” he shouted to Mastik, and dashed to a small stand of yellow cedars.
Mastik raced to a stand, as well, and both men wound the rope around the largest trunks in sight, then bore into the ground.
Arnarr had a stronger urge to kill the man prodding her with a stick than any man before, but she found she could not move. Her nostrils burned like fire, her mouth gushed with water, and she roared, spewing saliva on the crouching warrior.
Aarculii could see the men’s grips were slipping, and the gnashing teeth snapped closer to his head with every bite, so he planted the butt of the spear into the ground and gave himself to fate.
“Now,” he yelled, and the warriors released their ropes.
The braided sinew snapped around the trees, flinging bark across the summit, and the bear plunged itself onto the spear. The tiny spearhead pierced Arnarr’s chest like a needle into sealskin, then exploded out of her back with a geyser of blood. But Arnarr pushed down the shaft as if it were not there, biting at the man with the ferocity that had held her hands in boiling water.
Aarculii lay flat against the ground, still clutching the base of the spear to steady it, and he felt the sharp teeth of the monster pinch his torso. Then there was nothing.
Arnarr fell over sideways, dead, unable to have her revenge as the monster she had become.
Aarculii lie on the ground, the spear ripped from his hands. He now clasped his own chest and listened to his breathing. As it slowed, he felt free.
Akiny rolled him over and shouted, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said, jumping to his feet and hugging them both “We did it!” he screamed.
As their laughter filled the summit, the elders crested the mountain. They rushed to the sides of the new heroes of their people and embraced them all.
“You have done it,” they said. “You have saved us all. You will go down in history as warriors who fought for your people. With all our other men dead, you will be the founders of a new generation.”
Aarculii swelled with pride as he thought of taking another wife or wives.
Akiny, too, looked hungry, but he turned to his fellow warrior, and imagined the life they would have together, roaming the plains on the hunt when their families needed food.
But on the other side of the summit, the small wound in the bear’s chest broke open down her sternum, and the two sides tore apart with a pop. The men turned their heads in horror, and there, at the heart of the beast, they saw her: deformed, shriveled, and bloody, but unmistakably, Arnarr.
Aarculii’s vision plummeted. The wings had led him off a cliff long ago. He only thought he had been soaring. Aarculii drew his ulu from its sheath and slit his throat.
In death, Arnarr had achieved what she could not in life, no matter how vile she became.
Akiny fell onto his friend and tried to hold back the blood, tried to push the flaps of throat together, but it was no use. Aarculii’s eyes rolled back and the sucking from his neck gurgled to silence. Akiny tore the blade from his comrade and dragged it along his stomach, spilling his innards onto his friend.
The pile of gore choked the newest warrior. The split open bear, the gnarled woman at its core, her bloody hands, the decapitated warrior, and the intestines spilled across him – how could this be? “What happened?” he whispered, sure there was no answer.
“That was his wife,” the elders proclaimed. “Aarculii was perhaps too great a warrior, conquering in every aspect of his life, blind to the monsters in his wake.”
Mastik stared into the gaping hole in Aarculii’s throat. “Then what can a warrior do to avoid this?” he asked.
The elders did not answer.