Part One: To The End of the Earth
“Which way did my mother go?” Rhy-lee asked her father one day.
“North,” he said, and pointed without looking. Young as she was, she could see the small collapse that happened inside him when he heard the question, knowing that one day she, too, would leave him. ‘Distant heart’, her name meant. Her grandmother and aunts made sure that Rhy-lee and her father could hear when they said that her name was well chosen.
Rhy-lee loved her father. But even so, in her quiet moments, she took to climbing the ridge above the village, where she would sit with the warm red-and-white brush of her tail curled around her legs and just the inquisitive tip of her nose sticking out from the hood of her parka. She would look out from the top of the steep north face of the downs, over the forest and the bare plain beyond, all the way to the horizon.
Rhy-lee watched the plain change its colours, season by season, white to green to yellow to brown and back to white again. She wondered what her mother, that mysterious woman, had found out there, and whether she was wandering still. Her mother’s name, Tiere-lene, meant ‘never turn’.
As she grew older, Rhy-lee began to set out on treks of her own. Some curiosity would catch her – a circling hawk, a distant crag that she had never climbed – or she would be taken by the simple urge to walk, and she would be off. For single days, at first, then for one night, then two. She knew her father fretted while she was gone, and that her grandmother and aunts would mutter among themselves where he could hear. But her wandering heart would not be stilled.
She tried to resist it, for a time, and become so miserable and ill that her father chased her out the door. When she returned, tired, filthy and elated by the things she had discovered, her father chucked her under the chin and said, “Come, tell me your stories by the fire.”
Once, she was away for three nights and returned with a bloody gash on her forehead that would certainly scar. In her hands, she carried a pair of antlers. She had been to the forest, she said, where she had been startled by a stag who accused her of coming to hunt his harem. She had tried to retreat but the stag had blood in his eye and insisted on a fight. She showed her father her knife, broken just above the hilt. The antlers she offered him as a gift, but when she saw his sick look and the tears in his eyes, she dropped them to the ground and hugged him fiercely.
“Soon, now,” said one of her aunts, where Rhy-lee and her father could hear, and the others nodded in sage agreement.
“Well enough that it happens before she marries and has a man and children to leave behind,” said her grandmother.
So they were dismayed when a young man of the village named Culm-mane, a homebody like her father, offered her his shawl and she accepted.
Her father refused any dowry. “You know what she is,” he said. He addressed himself to Culm-mane, but his eyes were on Rhy-lee. “She has her mother’s heart. Make best of the time you have with her, and live for what children she gives you.”
Rhy-lee and Culm-mane were married and, in due course, Rhy-lee gave birth to twin sons. Yfan-wyn and Aoin-rhys they were named, when they reached their second year – ‘secret path’ and ‘safe haven’ and, like Rhy-lee, their names reflected their natures. Yfan-wyn was an explorer from the moment he could wriggle out of his bassinet and squirm across the floor. Aoin-rhys was his father’s son and would watch from the bassinet, his nose tucked under the fluffy tip of his tail, while his brother went about his business.
Rhy-lee loved her husband and adored her sons. But still, she obeyed her wandering heart. Every so often, once her boys were weened, she would give it release for one night, or two, or three. But she always came back. She would touch her nose to Culm-mane’s and pick up her two boys and it was enough.
As he grew older, she began to take Yfan-wyn with her. He would come back, his eyes as bright as his mother’s, and regale his grandfather and father and brother with his adventures. Aoin-rhys preferred to stay at home with his father or, when Culm-mane was out tending the village flocks, with his grandfather.
And then Culm-mane was killed. He was out searching one night for a missing ewe and her lambs and found the animals being butchered by a company of wolves, one lamb already spitted over the fire. The wolves caught Culm-mane and tossed him over a cliff.
“Wolves,” Rhy-lee snarled. For a week, she stayed home and grieved with her boys. Then she went out. She took her bow and iron traps and hunting spear. She was gone for six nights.
When she returned, she had three wolf tails hanging from her belt. She would not speak to her sons of what she had done, just touched her nose to each of theirs and held them and, later, sang them to sleep with a cracked and weary voice. Afterward, sitting with her beside the fire, her father chucked her under the chin, which he hadn’t done since she was a child, and looked at her with serious eyes.
He held her while she wept. He did not comment – and growled at Rhy-lee’s grandmother and aunts for their comments – when Rhy-lee tanned the three wolf tails and sewed them onto her parka.
After that, Rhy-lee returned to sitting at the top of the ridge, gazing north. Yfan-wyn would sit with her, the two of them silent side-by-side, tucked up in their parkas and with their tails around their knees. And the urge grew in Rhy-lee – long delayed – to go, to walk and not stop and fill herself up with the world.
Aoin-rhys stayed home and sat on his grandfather’s lap by the fire. “Mother will leave soon, won’t she, Grandfather?” he said, one day. “And Yfan-wyn will want to go with her.”
“Yes,” said his grandfather.
“And I will stay here with you.”
His grandfather smiled with tears in his eyes. “I would like that.”
So, when the day came that Rhy-lee had to go, her father said to her, “Take Yfan-wyn. Aoin-rhys will stay with me.”
Rhy-lee started to shake her head. “It is dangerous, out in the world.”
“Then better if he wanders with you than being left to wander on his own,” said her father.
Rhy-lee recalled the nights she had lain awake as a child, camped out in the open and staring at the sky, trying to find some memory of her mother, wondering why she couldn’t have waited, just a little while, and taken Rhy-lee with her. She looked from one son to the other. Aoin-rhys hugged her hard, then Yfan-wyn took her hand.
When they were packed, Rhy-lee’s father chased her aunts and grandmother back into their houses, then he and Aoin-rhys accompanied her and Yfan-wyn to the top of the ridge.
“Thank you,” Rhy-lee said to her father, touching her nose to his.
He chucked her under the chin. “Come back one day,” he said.
Then Aoin-rhys and his grandfather watched while Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn picked their way down the steep north face, stayed until they had splashed across the river and disappeared beneath the eaves of the forest.
And then they went home.
Yfan-wyn stuck close beside his mother as they went deeper into the forest. He was not so frightened, yet, but she had never before taken him beyond its fringes and he knew the story of the antlers above the mantel in his grandfather’s house.
Rhy-lee chose a path where the locked branches of the trees were most dense and so the undergrowth the sparsest. The leaves on the trees were brown and brittle. Many had fallen already, breaking up the canopy with patches of light. Underfoot, the moss that coated the rocks and the exposed roots of the trees was brown, too, and powder-dry.
At a creek crossing under open sky, pushing through thick bracken, they came face-to-face with a doe and her fawn. For an instant all of them froze. The doe and fawn looked at them with enormous, frightened eyes. Rhy-lee raised her hands, showing her empty palms. She caught Yfan-wyn’s arm and led him into the creek to splash across.
Yfan-wyn stumbled, staring at the deer, and Rhy-lee had to drag him upright. He took in the deer’s narrow faces and frail-looking arms with their short, black-hoofed fingers, the barrels of their bodies poised on spindle legs, tensed to spring and flee on all fours. He couldn’t make them fit with the frightening tale of the stag his mother had fought in her youth.
Then they were out of the creek again and the deer were lost behind the bracken screen.
At night they rested in the high boughs of a tree, where wolves couldn’t reach.
“The stalking cats won’t trouble us,” Rhy-lee said. Those beasts would take a deer, but avoided people who were eaters of meat.
“It feels strange to not be going home,” said Yfan-wyn, not quite willing to voice his fear.
“Yes,” Rhy-lee agreed. “It does.”
“It feels good,” he said, because it felt like that, too.
He saw the flash of her teeth and eyes. “Yes.”
He was quiet a moment, reassured by her smile. Then the magnitude of what they were about welled up again, so much greater than any of their past wanderings together. “How far do you think we will go?”
His mother looked past him, as though seeing past the trees and over the horizon. “Who knows?”
“I miss Grandfather and Aoin-rhys,” he said, softly.
“Yes. Me too.”
“I miss Father.”
“Yes.” The word was a rasp of air, with barely any sound.
Yfan-wyn hesitated, then confessed an idea that he had been nurturing since before his father died. “Perhaps we could find the end of the earth, so we can go back and tell them.”
She reached across to chuck him under the chin. “I think they would like that.”
When they came, at last, to the far side of the forest, Rhy-lee stopped and looked out over the vast brown plain, speckled with the first dusting of snow. She felt Yfan-wyn slip his hand into hers.
“It is a long way to the end of the earth,” he said.
“Yes. It is.”
Rhy-lee took in the distance to the horizon and filled her lungs. She felt bigger somehow, as though life in the village had kept her small, and now at last, out here, she had the room to grow.
They walked throughout the day. When Yfan-wyn began to lag, Rhy-lee slung her pack around to her front and carried him on her back. They shot hares for their dinner, and Yfan-wyn was very pleased to have shot his own, cleanly and on the first attempt. The animals’ fur was speckled white, their winter coats already growing through. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn camped in a little hollow that would hide the light of their fire from curious eyes.
In the morning, they awoke to find snow falling thickly. There was a rumble in the earth beneath them. They sat up and saw bison streaming past, a vast herd of them, jostling and lowing in their simple tongue, more than beasts but not-quite people. The steam of their breaths hung in a cloud over the creatures’ backs.
Another movement caught Rhy-lee’s eye. She gasped and grabbed at Yfan-wyn, but it was too late to duck out of sight. Stooping grey figures loped towards them – three in a staggered line, their lean bodies clad in rough furs, heavy hunting spears dangling from bony paws and round shields slung across their backs. Their yellow eyes were fixed on the bison herd. The closest wolf almost stepped on Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn before it glanced down. Its eyes met Rhy-lee’s, the flat gaze of a predator, with no recognition of one person to another.
And then the wolf was leaping over their little hollow, accelerating.
A surge went through the herd, and the bison were running. The wolves yipped and whooped. A bison bawled in pain, crying out for help. Wolves closed in from all sides.
Rhy-lee clutched at Yfan-wyn’s parka. Her heart rattled. She lifted him, pushing. “Move,” she said. “Move!”
Quickly, they gathered up their packs and weapons.
“Don’t run,” said Rhy-lee, but she hurried him, nonetheless.
She didn’t let Yfan-wyn slow until the wolf pack and their kill were far behind, long lost in the veil of falling snow. They forded a river where it sprawled over shallow beds of rounded stones. Yfan-wyn slipped over and had to be pulled up spluttering from the water. On the far bank, Rhy-lee scooped out a hollow in the settling snow, and made a low mound of the stuff for a windbreak. Yfan-wyn sat and shivered while she lit a fire, his teeth chattering so hard Rhy-lee could hear them over the sound of the river. He stayed there, huddled in his parka and sheepskin blanket, with only his sodden tail visible, drying in the heat, while Rhy-lee went back to the ford with her spear and fished.
The land around the river was so flat that it seemed the banks hardly rose from the water at all. The horizon was lost from view, and the grey-white land and the grey-white river and the grey-white sky all blended together.
Rhy-lee stayed awake after darkness fell. During the night the snow stopped and the clouds rolled aside. She watched the stars wheel overhead. A few hours before dawn, she awoke Yfan-wyn to take his turn.
He yawned himself alert while she rolled up in her blankets and went to sleep. Yfan-wyn pushed back his hood, hoping that the cold around his head would keep him awake, and the better to listen. His ears twitched, searching for any sound over the chuckle of the river as it played with its stones. The land about was still.
In the morning, there was a blue sky and ice floes on the river. On the horizon to the north, they saw that the land rose and cracked.
Yfan-wyn took a turn at fishing, this time. There was a curious restfulness in it, standing tense beside his mother with the icy water rippling against their shins, spears poised to strike the instant any silver shape darted away from their shadows. His feet were numb with cold. All he could feel was a dull sensation of the rounded pebbles underneath.
Sitting down for a hot breakfast, he spoke the thought that had been turning in his head since the previous morning. “Mother, how did you kill three wolves?”
Rhy-lee didn’t answer immediately, but sat and looked out to the horizon. At length, she said, “Let us not waste a good day.”
When they reached the cracked upland, late in the morning, and climbed its slope, they saw that they would not be able to make their way along the top. It was so broken apart by the criss-cross of cracks and ravines that there was no way across.
“Through the ravines, then,” said Rhy-lee. Before they descended, she looked back over the plain. There was a herd moving along the river in the distance, of bison or caribou, dark against the snow. Closer at hand, white herons waded in the shallow water, fishing with their beaks. She saw no other movement.
It was slow going through the ravines and tiring. Sometimes, when they seemed to be turning too far from their course or came to a dead end, they scrambled up the crumbled, heath-covered sides and along the top to a crack that better met their needs. Occasionally, one or other of them had to climb up just to get their bearings, then back down into the deepening shadows below. At nightfall, they camped on a stub of ridge top that was sheer on three sides. Rhy-lee took first watch with an arrow nocked loosely to her bow.
Yfan-wyn was woken by grey pre-dawn light. His mother still sat watch. She looked at him with red-rimmed eyes.
“What is it?” he asked.
“We have been followed,” she said.
Yfan-wyn felt a chill of fear. “By the wolves?”
“One wolf,” she said. “Alone and therefore sick or mad. Probably driven out by the pack we saw. It would have crossed our trail while it was still following them.”
“What will we do?”
“We shall have to kill it,” she answered. “Today. We will find a place to ambush it.” She reached over to squeeze his hand.
Yfan-wyn followed her through the ravines with his ears pointed backward, straining for any sound of steps behind. He looked back frequently, dreading what he might see. Whenever he turned his attention to the placement of his feet, the fur stood up along his spine. When, inevitably, he stumbled, Rhy-lee picked him up by his parka and set him in front of her.
“I will keep watch behind,” she said.
She called a halt not long afterwards. They were in an unusually long, straight stretch of ravine. “Here,” Rhy-lee said. She pointed up to the ridge top ahead, where the ravine bent to the right. A clump of snow-capped boulders perched on the rim. “I will hide there and shoot when it comes past here. You,” she said, turning to look up the scree beside them, “hide up there. Once you hear me shoot it, jump up and shoot it from behind if you can and I haven’t killed it cleanly.”
Yfan-wyn chewed anxiously at his lower lip, his tail curled up behind his legs. “I want to stay with you.”
She shook her head. “You’ll be safer this way. It might have a shield. If I don’t hit it cleanly and it comes at me, I don’t want you close.” She knelt in front of him and held his shoulders. “And if you’re behind it, you can shoot it if it charges me.”
He swallowed, then nodded, wide-eyed.
They went past the bend in the ravine to climb up, so that the wolf wouldn’t see where they had ascended. Rhy-lee lay her spear beside her feet and stood with her bow ready at the place she had chosen. She watched Yfan-wyn scamper along and throw himself flat where she had told him to hide. He looked so tiny, carrying his bow and cut-down spear. He was tiny, she thought.
She squatted down behind the boulders and stilled herself, bow across her knees. She listened.
For a time, she heard only the wind, humming softly along the cracks in the broken landscape. Then a clink, a scrape of grit over stone. A low cough, half caught words – the wolf, muttering to itself. Mad, she thought.
Rhy-lee strained her ears. Nothing.
There was a clatter of falling rocks, a loud growl, a scream from Yfan-wyn. Rhy-lee leapt to her feet, raising and drawing her bow in the same motion.
Yfan-wyn sprinted towards her along the ridge top, his weapons abandoned. The wolf bounded after, gaining quickly despite a lopsided gait. Rhy-lee glimpsed ragged clothes and patchy fur. It was armed with a stone-headed axe, but no shield or other weapons.
“Get down!” Rhy-lee cried.
Yfan-wyn was too panicked to hear. The wolf ducked lower. With a curse, Rhy-lee dropped her bow and grabbed her spear. She charged. Now Yfan-wyn threw himself down in the snow. Rhy-lee vaulted over him. The wolf snarled, showing rotted teeth. Its skin was covered in scaly growths where it was bald. One eye was grown shut and tears of pus streaked its cheek.
She ducked under a wild swing of the wolf’s axe and stabbed at its belly. The wolf batted the spear upwards with its free hand. Rhy-lee’s momentum sent her crashing into its legs. She pivoted, using its own weight to fling it to the ground.
Yfan-wyn scrambled to get clear. The wolf’s axe flailed and he squealed. Rhy-lee didn’t see where it struck him.
Rhy-lee stabbed at the wolf’s chest but it moved at the last instant and she missed its heart. The wolf mewled like a hurt child. Again Rhy-lee thrust the spear and again the wolf moved and cried out. Rhy-lee screamed in anguish and struck once more. This time she struck true.
The wolf gripped the shaft of the spear, holding its head and shoulders clear of the snow. Its tongue flickered between its teeth. Its last breath rattled out in a fitful cloud of vapour. The wolf spat blood.
Its head fell back and it lay still.
Rhy-lee sank slowly down onto her haunches. The aftermath of the struggle, with her blood still hot, made her shake.
She wiped her face and looked up. Yfan-wyn sat a short distance away, regarding her with unblinking eyes. Blood seeped between his fingers, clamped around his calf, and speckled the snow beside his foot. His lips were pale, peeled back from his teeth.
She rushed over to him, hugged him, gently pulled aside his hands to see the wound. The axe had caught him above the top of his sheepskin boot. She pulled up his trouser leg to reveal a gash just below his knee. The sparse fur of his leg was matted with blood.
Rhy-lee made herself take a slower breath. “Let’s wash it and see how deep it is,” she said.
She hurried over to her pack for her water bottle and medicine kit. Kneeling again beside Yfan-wyn, she carefully slid off his boot, then splashed water over the cut. She peered anxiously into it. The gash was wide, but not deep.
“It’ll bruise around the joint,” she said. “You won’t be able to bend it or stand on it tomorrow.”
Yfan-wyn didn’t respond. His gaze was fixed on the dead wolf. It was good for him to know what killing was like, she told herself, the awfulness of it. But still, his shock was distressing. Rhy-lee tried not to think about how badly things had almost gone.
“This will hurt.” She unrolled a parcel of lime from inside the medicine kit and pressed a handful onto the wound. Yfan-wyn gasped. Rhy-lee quickly rinsed her hand, then bandaged his shin.
“The body will draw attention,” she said. “We need to be away.”
Yfan-wyn got himself back down into the ravine, then Rhy-lee carried him as far as she was able. They camped early and watched the crows descend in the distance. Their gathering would be visible for miles around.
“We can go home, back to Grandfather and Aoin-rhys, if you wish,” she said.
Yfan-wyn shook his head. “We haven’t found the end of the earth yet.”
Rhy-lee found a laugh in that, just a breath. She sobered. “I was afraid, when I saw the wolf chasing you.”
“Do you want to go home, Mother?” he asked.
Part of her did, the small part that feared the cost of her wandering, feared losing Yfan-wyn, never seeing her father or Aoin-rhys again. The greater part of her answered. “No.” Hearing herself say it made her more certain. “No. We will find the end.”
She let Yfan-wyn take his turn at watch, once he had rested, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
As Rhy-lee had predicted, Yfan-wyn’s leg had stiffened and swollen by morning and would not take his weight. Again, she carried him. She was thankful when, before noon, they reached the end of the cracked country and climbed up to find themselves on a plateau. This land was not so flat as the river floodplain they had left behind, but contoured instead with hummocks and hollows and low folded ridges, dotted with boulders large and small, left behind by the ice of ages past. Low heath bushes grew wherever the landscape offered the tiniest shelter.
The snow was deeper on the open ground, though, and soft with a new fall overnight. Rhy-lee was unable to carry Yfan-wyn far.
She found a cleft at the bottom of a ridge, partly hidden by a screen of heath and deep enough to shelter them from the wind and any casual gaze. “We’ll rest,” she said, “and see how your leg is tomorrow.”
“I can walk,” said Yfan-wyn – and indeed he could put his weight on it and hobble about.
Rhy-lee chucked him under the chin and said, “You will walk better tomorrow or the next day. There will be rabbits hereabouts, probably not all hibernating yet. I’ll set some snares.”
Once that was done, she opened the dressing on Yfan-wyn’s leg and checked the wound, then they took turns to nap through the afternoon. In the evening, she went out to check her snares and came back with a pair of rabbits, which she gutted and skinned. Yfan-wyn had set a fire, but Rhy-lee waited until full dark before lighting it. They sat close to watch the rabbits char, their noses dry in the heat of the flames and the fur of their tails hot to the touch, wrapped around their feet.
A soft sound, a clink of two hollow things bumping, made Rhy-lee’s ears twitch. She listened. When it came again she reached for her spear.
A massive silhouette rose up above the edge of the cleft. Rhy-lee froze. Bear.
A gust of wind brought its scent down to them, a pungent aroma of maleness and carnivore. Yfan-wyn gasped, only now noticing the arrival. Rhy-lee put her hand on his forearm to hold him still.
The bear stepped into the light. Rhy-lee’s gaze travelled up from his black claws, hanging over the edge of the cleft, each one as long as her hand. The bear’s limbs and torso were covered in a pelt of yellow-white fur that her spear and arrows would probably not even penetrate. He wore an apron made of the long bones of old prey and vanquished enemies, bound together with leather thong and decorated with feathers, claws and teeth. A girdle of wolf scalps bound the apron at his waist. He leaned on an iron-headed spear that Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn would have struggled to even lift between them. Black eyes peered down at them from a startlingly narrow head.
Slowly, Rhy-lee stood. She picked up the spitted rabbits and held one up to the bear. She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Please, won’t you share our meal?”
Blood pounded in her ears. She waited for the bear’s response. Then he made a rumble deep in his throat – an approving sound, Rhy-lee thought – and stepped carefully down into the cleft. Just as carefully, he lowered himself to his haunches. The rattle of his bone apron put Rhy-lee’s hackles up. Their little fire looked tiny between his enormous feet, a spark. This close, he seemed to block out the stars.
He reached out and took the rabbit, so delicately that Rhy-lee barely felt the brush of fingers large enough to crush her head. “Thank you,” he said. The deep growl of his voice put her in mind of waterfalls in the canyons of the highlands.
Rhy-lee resumed her seat. She offered the remaining rabbit to Yfan-wyn. He didn’t move. The whites were visible around his eyes, his fur standing up all over. She took the rabbit off the spit and snapped its spine, then lifted Yfan-wyn’s hand and closed his fingers around the hind portion. He blinked, looking down in surprise.
The bear observed in silence. His rabbit dangled, untouched, from his finger and thumb, his acceptance of their hospitality not yet consummated. It was a morsel for him, barely a mouthful.
“You are far from home, little foxes,” he said.
“Yes,” said Rhy-lee.
“You have wandering hearts, as I have heard your people say. I have seen others such as you, over the years.” He lifted his chin to scratch his throat, seeming to be musing more to himself than them. “It is a curious affliction for a people who thrive when closed behind walls of stone.”
Thoughts of her mother boiled up. Rhy-lee wondered if this bear had ever met her. Might he have killed her, if he had? The bear noticed Rhy-lee’s reaction. She said, “My mother came this way, when I was a child.”
“And you seek her still.”
Rhy-lee shook her head at that, but inside, she could not be certain that it wasn’t true.
“I found your wolf,” said the bear. “That was well done. A mad wolf is a threat to young bears, who are wont to stray.”
Rhy-lee inclined her head but kept her eyes on him. The bear’s smell was overpowering. He examined his rabbit, but still did not eat.
“You have killed wolves before, I see,” he said.
“Wolves murdered my husband,” she replied.
“Ah.” He regarded her a moment, then added, “Yet you did not take the tail from this one.”
Rhy-lee said, “This was necessity. A mercy, even.”
“Rather than passion,” the bear said. He tipped his head to one side and his top lip curled up, a quizzical smile. His teeth were thicker than Rhy-lee’s fingers, and as long. “Mercy for wolves?” He harrumphed, then chuckled. As he dipped his head, she saw the scars that crisscrossed his muzzle and brow.
The bear sniffed, looking at Yfan-wyn. “Your son?”
Rhy-lee’s heart lurched. “Yes.”
The bear nodded slowly. “I have a son. He is grown, now, and left his mother.”
“I have two sons,” said Rhy-lee. “The other stayed home with his grandfather.”
“Ah,” said the bear, returning his gaze to her. “He has not your wandering heart.”
“No. Only Yfan-wyn.”
“‘Yfan-wyn’?” the bear repeated. He addressed Yfan-wyn again, “It is a good name. I am Inanakurekuri – ‘the death of all wolves’. Where does your secret path take you, little fox, if not in search of your lost grandmother?”
Yfan-wyn stared up at the gigantic being, his lips peeled back in terror. Rhy-lee answered for him, “Yfan-wyn wishes to see the end of the earth.”
“Aha!” The bear slapped his knee, making them both jump. He smiled broadly, a terrifying sight. “It is a fine ambition. A pilgrimage well worth the journey.”
Wonder made Yfan-wyn’s eyes even more huge. He forgot his fear long enough to gasp, “You have been there?”
He shrank back as Inanakurekuri’s gaze turned back to him. “I have.”
“Is it far?” asked Rhy-lee.
“Further than you have come, I expect. But not so very far,” Inanakurekuri said. He shrugged. “Further for little legs.”
Rhy-lee met his eyes in silence for a moment and felt no sense of threat. “I am Rhy-lee,” she said.
Inanakurekuri nodded. “Thank you, Rhy-lee of the wandering heart, for the hospitality of your fire.” He lifted his rabbit, peered at it briefly, then stuck the whole carcass in his mouth, holding it behind his teeth while he pulled out the skewer. He chewed three, four times, then swallowed. “I will rest.”
With that, he lay down his spear and shuffled around to lie with his back to them, filling half the cleft. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn sat still, listening to his deep, steady breathing. With excruciating slowness, Rhy-lee turned to Yfan-wyn. She carefully slipped the sheepskin blanket from his shoulders, then rolled it and placed it in his arms. Then she reached behind him and picked up his pack. She held the straps for him to slip his arms into and handed him his bow and spear. She picked up her own gear and, moving as silently as they could, they padded out of the cleft.
They hurried across the moonlit plateau, Yfan-wyn skip-hopping on his injured leg to keep up.
“Was he really asleep, Mother?” he asked.
“No,” said Rhy-lee. “No, he wasn’t.”
“Why did he pretend?”
“For his honour. Because he had decided not to kill us.”
They saw bears twice more over the following days, but only at a great distance. Each time, they slunk low and hurried on their way. Winter’s march reversed, briefly, as the skies stayed clear and the sun offered a last burst of summer warmth. Some of the snow melted, and everywhere there were tinkling rivulets of water, that pooled in the lower ground. Rabbits and other small creatures were out to nibble up the exposed grasses and heath, their coats caught between summer brown and winter white. Geese flew over in formations that spanned the sky. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn stopped to watch, shading their eyes with their hands.
They hiked for short days while Yfan-wyn’s leg healed, starting late and camping in the afternoon, until he said, one day, “I can keep going,” when Rhy-lee made to stop.
She surveyed the land ahead. A line of hills, steep but low, marched across in front of the horizon. Rhy-lee pointed to a gap between two hills. “Can you get that far?”
Yfan-wyn eyed the distance doubtfully but nodded. “I think so.”
As it turned out, his leg began to ache before they reached the hills, and his pace slowed. He was determined, though, and Rhy-lee let him go on, even though it meant that it was nearly dark when they reached their goal.
Yfan-wyn’s leg was stiff again when he woke the next day. His mother smiled at him and chucked him under the chin. “A short day’s walk, today,” she said.
He grinned, feeling sheepish, but still pleased by yesterday’s effort. She gave him a little while to hobble around the campsite and loosen up before they set out.
The valley curved gently to the west at first, then doglegged back to the east. The hills were wider across than they had looked from the south. The hills of the valley grew steeper, smooth and nearly vertical.
“This is a made place,” said Rhy-lee, softly.
Yfan-wyn’s hackles stood straight up. “Made?”
She nodded. “Let us see.”
Her ears were up, showing no sign of fear. Yfan-wyn’s wanted to lie flat against his head. His mother did not slow, though, and he scurried after.
Another turn pointed the valley almost directly northward. Here, it widened out, and here Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn stopped.
Wooden posts flanked the path – whole tree trunks stripped of leaves and branches but otherwise uncarved. More posts surrounded both sides of the space. On top of each post had been placed a skull. Yfan-wyn moved closer to his mother.
“Hunters,” she said.
Alarmed, he turned to see. “Where?”
“The skulls,” she said. “Look – wolves, panthers.” She pointed up at one of the posts nearest to them. The skull on top of it was broad and heavy. “That is a bear.”
Yfan-wyn looked up at the other near post. “What about that one?”
It was a similar shape to the panther skulls, but much bigger and with bizarrely oversized fangs, like scythe blades.
“A sabre-toothed lion!” his mother exclaimed.
“I thought they were only in stories,” said Yfan-wyn.
“So did I,” said Rhy-lee. “It has been here a long time.”
All of the skulls had the decayed, crumbling look of bones that had been out in the weather for many years.
Yfan-wyn took a step away from her and looked around with renewed wonder. “What place is this? What could defeat all of these hunters?” He thought of Inanakurekuri and the others like him that they had glimpsed. It seemed to him that a white bear should defeat any person or creature in the world.
“I think I know,” said Rhy-lee.
She strode past him. The ground inside the ring of posts was filled with low hillocks, covered in heath and moss. Yfan-wyn thought he spied pale rocks peeking through the plant cover. No… Not rocks.
His mother reached the closest hillock and, with a heave, pulled aside the heather branches. The object was covered in moss and so large – longer than his mother was tall – that it took a moment for Yfan-wyn to realise that it was another skull. Long tusks descended from its jaw, their points buried in the earth. Rhy-lee pulled aside more heath, revealing a rib cage the size of a shepherd’s hut.
“A mammoth,” Yfan-wyn breathed.
His mother nodded. They looked around. The other hillocks – all of the hillocks – were really enormous, overgrown skeletons.
“It is a graveyard,” said Rhy-lee.
Yfan-wyn stared at the monstrous skull in front of him. He tried to imagine what these greatest of all people had been like when they were alive. Even one as fearsome as Inanakurekuri would have had to yield to these. He felt a sudden thrill of fear.
“Mother, we should go. Before any mammoths come.”
Rhy-lee shook her head. “There have been no living mammoths here for generations. This is an old place, long forgotten.”
It was true. The decayed skulls on the posts and the overgrown skeletons said as much. He could feel, too, the weight of time and long years of stillness.
“But you are right, we should go,” Rhy-lee said, after a while. “This is no place for the likes of us.”
Quietly, they picked their way across to the other side of the graveyard, where the valley opened out once more onto the surrounding plateau.
Rhy-lee paused to look back. She put her hand on Yfan-wyn’s shoulder. “Now that was a rare thing,” she said.
It felt wrong, somehow, to just scurry away from the place. After a moment’s thought, she took an arrow from her quiver and went back to lie it at the foot of the nearest guardian post. Yfan-wyn followed her, uncertainly, and laid a second arrow across hers.
She reached out to scratch him behind the ear.
“Are there any mammoths, anymore?” he asked.
“Not in this part of the world.” Might there be somewhere else? Now that would be a wonder. “Perhaps in the east,” she said, “where the land stretches on. Perhaps there might be some there.”
“Perhaps we will go there one day.”
She looked down at him with a smile. “Perhaps.”
By the end of the day, the plateau had started to rise. It continued to slope steadily as they continued in the morning. The sky grew leaden again, clouds heavy with snow. As they neared the crest, Yfan-wyn saw that the rise broke off along a ragged edge. Beyond, he could see a white horizon, a perfectly even, barely perceptible curve. His ears caught a sound, and he saw from their twitching that his mother’s did too, a low rumble, a crashing and hissing that rose and fell but never stopped. He caught a scent – salty, but more than that.
And then, suddenly, they were at the edge. Below, water smashed and boiled over the feet of black cliffs. A few crags and broken spits of rock scattered out from the cliffs but, beyond them, there was no more land, only chill grey water and floating ice.
“The end of the earth!” Yfan-wyn breathed.
He filled his lungs with the heady smell. The wind tugged at his parka, snuck underneath to lift it from his shoulders and fill it with cold air. Beside him, his mother laughed aloud. Behind them, to either side, lay all the earth that was theirs to walk.
“The sea,” said his mother. “It is the sea!”
Movement in the water caught Yfan-wyn’s eye. Tall black fins broke the surface, piebald backs curved out of the water and under again. A blunt snout broke the surface, jaws agape to show pointed white teeth.
“What are they?”
“Hunters,” said Rhy-lee. “What their name is, I do not know.”
Yfan-wyn took a big, shuddering breath. “What will we do now?”
“Now?” She smiled. “Now we will wait for the clouds to lift and darkness to fall. Then we shall see.”
They lit a fire, back a way from the lip of the cliff and somewhat out of the wind, and huddled up together to wait. Yfan-wyn dozed on Rhy-lee’s shoulder while she chewed mutton jerky.
It snowed, briefly. Then, just on sunset, cracks appeared in the grey blanket to show a pink and mauve sky. Rhy-lee watched the sun touch the horizon, turning orange, then red, before sinking below. She glanced at the sky behind her, then nudged Yfan-wyn awake.
“Now,” she said and turned him around.
Curtains of light rippled across the northern sky. Ghostly, dancing, never still.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It is the souls of the dead,” said a deep voice, “dancing before they are reborn into the world.”
They turned. Inanakurekuri approached, leaning on his spear to climb the last stretch of slope. This time, Rhy-lee felt no fear.
“You forgot your snares,” he said, laying a handful of rabbit corpses by Rhy-lee’s knee. He sat.
“Thank you.” She turned her gaze back to the sky. “My people say it is the birth light of the world.”
Inanakurekuri rumbled deep in his chest. “It is that, as well.”
“You followed us,” said Yfan-wyn, peeping around Rhy-lee.
The bear smiled at him. “I did. I found I had a notion to see it again, too.” He was quiet for a time, then said, “I am not one who finds sport in hunting little folk. Some do. Wolves I hunt, for necessity and satisfaction, both.” Another pause. Rhy-lee looked up at him, sitting as still as a mountain, his eyes on the lights in the sky. His black tongue came out and he licked his teeth.
“Years ago, I was badly injured and starving, unable to hunt or even gather herbs to clean my wounds. A fox found me. By then I was mad with pain.” He touched a ragged scar on the side of his belly. “This wound had turned sour, and the sickness was in my blood. In my fever, I tried to drive her away. Or kill and eat her, I do not know.
“Rather than leave me to my fate, she brought me food, herbs to cure my sickness and lime to clean and seal my cuts. When I had the strength, again, to walk, I followed her to her campsite, but when I reached it she was gone and had covered her scent. She left me a last gift of salmon, caught from the river. I left a token in exchange. When I came back, it too was gone.”
He held out something to Rhy-lee. The half-jawbone of a wolf, she saw, its teeth still attached. Angular letters were etched into its surface. “It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” he said. “While you carry it, no bear will harm you. Most wolves will think again. Perhaps you will find another wanderer who carries my Word. I cannot say that she will be your mother, but she will be a kindred heart.”
Rhy-lee felt her ears tremble. It was known that, on a rare occasion, a white bear might carve their name as an honour gift, a mark of respect when a fine deed had been done. But what had she done?
Her tail curled as she asked, “Why?”
Inanakurekuri shrugged a huge shoulder, as if not quite certain himself. “Because I like the thought of a fox who hunts wolves,” he said. Another shrug became a shake of his shoulders and head and he added, “Because my heart, too, is often distant. It would please me, if your quest was successful.”
Rhy-lee felt tears come, unexpected. A great balloon of a sob rose up from the pit of her belly, squeezing her heart on its way through her chest and bursting out between her teeth. Another followed and a third. Yfan-wyn held onto her hand with both of his.
Inanakurekuri looked at the sky. “The birth light of the world,” he said.
Yfan-wyn touched the carved jawbone. “Will we go home?”
Rhy-lee felt it, too – a longing for her father’s reassuring stillness, for Aoin-rhys’s comfortable warmth in her arms. “Yes,” she said. She wiped her eyes. A slow smile tugged the corners of her mouth. “Yes. But we will go the longer way.”
Part Two: The Long Way Home
The bull elk stood over them, hoofed fingers planted on either side. He bent his head to peer at the half-jawbone, etched with sharp-angled letters, that Rhy-lee held up for him to see. Rhy-lee’s heart battered the inside of her ribs. Antlers as wide as tree branches fenced her and Yfan-wyn in. One swipe would be enough to kill both of them.
The elk snorted. “The Word of a white bear,” he said. “Though this elk does not read such marks. This elk has little time for bears.” He growled deep in his throat and lifted his head to bellow, “Bears kill young elks!”
Rhy-lee flinched as he shook his antlers. Yfan-wyn squirmed underneath her. He had tripped when the elk charged suddenly out of the river – having watched them, seemingly unruffled, for several minutes while they filled their flasks. What had triggered the elk’s sudden change of mood, Rhy-lee had no idea. Hearing Yfan-wyn’s cry, she had turned and flung herself over her son just as the elk reached the shore.
“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” said Rhy-lee.
“‘The death of all wolves’”, said the elk. “This elk knows of that name.” He harrumphed and withdrew a short way. Cautiously, Rhy-lee got her feet under her and stood.
“It is a good thing to kill wolves,” the elk mused.
The gigantic head lunged back towards Rhy-lee. She yelped and fell over Yfan-wyn. “This elk sees that this fox, too, is the death of wolves,” said the elk, nudging his nose at the wolf tails sewed to Rhy-lee’s parka. He withdrew once more. “This is unusual for a fox, who this elk knows is littler than a wolf.”
The elk shook his head again and grimaced, as though trying to dislodge a stuck thought.
“Mother…” Yfan-wyn gasped.
Rhy-lee hissed at him to be quiet.
“A bear kills elk. Wolves kill elk,” the elk said. His voice rose with each sentence. “A bear kills wolves! A fox kills wolves!” He punched the pebbled beach. “A fox is a friend to bears! A fox–”
Rhy-lee cut him off, “You said you knew the name of Inanakurekuri.”
“Hmm?” The elk blinked at her. “Yes. This elk has seen the Word of this bear before. Or at least,” he frowned, “this elk recalls that was what the fox said who carried the bear’s Word.” He looked hard at Rhy-lee. “Perhaps this fox was that fox.” He nodded to himself. “Yes, that must be the case, for bears do not give their Words freely, this elk knows.”
“No,” said Rhy-lee, getting her feet under her again. “That wasn’t me–”
“This fox was that fox,” the elk declared. He turned and splashed back into the river. “Though this fox had no youngling with it when it was that fox.”
“Which way did she–” Rhy-lee began, then stopped. Her mouth worked silently while she reframed her question. “Which way did this fox go, when it was that fox?”
The elk dipped his muzzle into the water and snorted, making bubbles. He lifted his head again and answered, “East. And now this fox has returned from the west. This fox is going in circles.” The elk chuckled to himself. “Perhaps this fox is not so clever.”
Rhy-lee stared at him for a moment, then stooped to haul Yfan-wyn up by his collar. She hurried him across the pebble beach to the edge of the trees.
“Mother,” he exclaimed. “He’s seen her!”
“We don’t know that it’s your grandmother,” she replied, gruffly. “Inanakurekuri didn’t promise us that. And we don’t know how long ago.”
She was not inclined to press her luck by asking the elk any further questions. But still, her mind burned with the same need to know that she saw lighting Yfan-wyn’s face. Need, but also fear. What if it was her mother? Did she really want to meet that woman who had left her behind so long ago? Who had not thought to wait for her, as Rhy-lee had waited for Yfan-wyn, before she let her wandering heart take her.
“East takes us towards home,” Yfan-wyn said.
Home, Rhy-lee thought, where she had left Aoin-Rhys with her father. Aoin-rhys, who did not share her wandering heart as Yfan-wyn did, preferring the sameness and solidity of stone walls around him, like his grandfather. Like his father, Culm-mane, had done, she thought with a pang.
She nodded, dragging herself back to the present, and chucked him under the chin. “We will go east,” she said. “Perhaps we will build ourselves a raft and make our journey easier for a while.”
She was pleased to see him smile at that. Yfan-wyn fidgeted with his parka. His wrists stuck out further from the sleeves than they had done when they set out from home. “You have grown,” she said.
Building the raft took most of the rest of the day and when it was done it was a rough and rickety looking thing. But it took their weight well enough to keep them dry. Rhy-lee cut long poles to push them along the shallows and fashioned rough paddles of bound twigs for when they reached the deeper water. They poled down to where the forest river emerged from the trees and camped there under the leafless eaves, looking out over the still-white plain. The forest river meandered out to join the greater watercourse that looped across the plain, both rivers fat and smooth with the first snowmelt of spring and reflecting the darkening blue of the sky.
A breeze had come up by morning, that wrinkled the water and sent bits of cloud scudding overhead. Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn poled the raft out onto the great river. Rhy-lee could feel the strength of the flow underneath, but the current was not fast. She unwrapped the fish they had smoked a couple of days before and they ate that for breakfast as they drifted along.
Around noon, Yfan-wyn stood up and pointed at a triangular ripple that was spearing across the current towards them. “What’s that?”
Something swimming, Rhy-lee thought, but not a fish. The river had curved away from the forest and the country was too open for beavers. Her fingers had just closed around the haft of her spear when a blunt, brown furred head popped up at the side of the raft. Stout fingers caught hold of the logs. Long whiskers and small, round ears twitched. Black eyes fell on the spear in Rhy-lee’s grasp.
“Foxes on a raft,” said the creature, with a little chuckle. “I am alone. May I share your perch a while?”
Keeping her eyes on it, Rhy-lee nodded. “You may.”
The creature laughed and pulled itself up from the water, revealing a long, sleek body and short, thick limbs and tail. It – he – wore shorts made of some hairless animal hide and had a heavy wooden club slung from a thong around his neck. Other weapons were strapped to his thighs. An otter, Rhy-lee realized, but far larger than any she had ever heard of, almost wolf-sized in his length of body and breadth of chest. She wondered if allowing him aboard might have been a mistake.
“Where are you from, friend otter?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light.
The otter grinned, showing sharp, black-stained fangs. “From the sea.” He took an oilskin parcel from his pocket and unwrapped it to reveal dark-coloured leaves. The otter squeezed some together and stuck them into the corner of his mouth to chew. “And what of you, little fox?”
“We are wanderers,” said Rhy-lee. “Returning home.”
The otter’s interest sharpened. “Oh? And where is home?”
“The downs,” said Rhy-lee. With the sudden intensity of his stare, she felt oddly uncomfortable to share even that much.
He stretched himself up to peer that way, to the ridge of bare hills in the distance beyond the forest. “Ah,” he said. “A pity.”
Rhy-lee frowned, wondering what he meant. Out of the corner of her eye she could see that Yfan-wyn’s ears were flat to his head.
The otter shivered suddenly, but not from cold, Rhy-lee thought. “But east,” he said. “You are headed east, where the river wills?”
Rhy-lee shrugged warily. “For now.”
The otter nodded back, seeming pleased by that. He leaned forward to hawk a black gob of spit into the river.
Rhy-lee chewed her lip, considering, then reached into her parka and brought out the etched half-jawbone. The otter’s eyes glittered, watching.
“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” she said.
The otter scratched his throat. “Is that your god, little fox?”
“God?” Rhy-lee repeated, confused.
He chuckled. “I do not know this Word. It looks like a wolf’s jaw to me.” With a sharp bark of amusement, he slipped back off the side of the raft, making it wobble. The otter clung to the side a moment longer. “Go east, little foxes. Let the river take you and you will find the sea.”
Then he was gone.
Rhy-lee watched the ripples of his passage speed ahead of them downriver. She suppressed a sigh of disappointment and looked at Yfan-wyn.
“He was very strange,” said Yfan-wyn. “I didn’t like him.”
“Mm,” said Rhy-lee. She showed him a lopsided smile. “It seems it is a day for strange meetings.”
They had no more unusual encounters on the water, although they passed by wading herons and a herd of caribou, paused to drink at the water’s edge. The caribou eyed them with dumb incuriosity, having not even an elk’s simple intelligence. The river curled back towards the forest and, by evening, they were close enough to the trees that Rhy-lee decided to pull the raft ashore and make their beds up in the branches.
They had just dragged the raft up out of the shallows and onto a stretch of sloping bank when the wind shifted for a moment. Rhy-lee whirled to see tall, grey-furred figures stalking out of the trees.
“Wolves!” cried Yfan-wyn.
It was too late to flee. Rhy-lee reached slowly into her parka and brought out the Word of Inanakurekuri. The wolves fanned out, a dozen of them including two old grandmothers with white in their fur and a trio of half-grown cubs. They wore vests and kilts of roughly tanned hide, sewn together with gut, and carried spears and round hide shields. At their belts were stone axes and looped leather slings.
One she-wolf strode forward ahead of the rest. Rhy-lee’s hackles went up when she saw that this one’s vest was made of fox skin. In her hand, the she-wolf carried a rusted iron axe.
The she-wolf circled them. Rhy-lee turned with her, keeping her back to Yfan-wyn’s.
“I see you are a wolf-killer,” said the she-wolf.
“And you a fox-killer,” replied Rhy-lee. She was amazed that her voice was steady.
Several of the wolves growled. The she-wolf sneered.
Rhy-lee held up the etched jawbone. “It is the Word of Inanakurekuri.”
The she-wolf stilled, glaring at the jawbone with yellow eyes. A wolf’s jawbone. Her fingers tightened around the haft of her axe and for a moment Rhy-lee thought she was about to attack.
The she-wolf snorted. “This Word is known to me,” she said. “The name of this bear is known to be true.”
“The bear is far from here,” said a large male, with a ridged scar from his right eye across the top of his scalp and over his left ear.
The she-wolf rounded on him, baring her teeth.
“The ears of a bear hear far,” said one of the grandmothers.
The scarred male growled at her but was shouted down by the rest of the pack.
“There is no sport here,” the lead she-wolf declared, turning back to Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn. “We will trade. You will give us metal.”
Rhy-lee worked her tongue around her mouth, trying to generate some moisture there. Carefully, using only her forefinger and thumb, she pulled her skinning knife from its sheath. “I will give you this,” she said. “If you will answer my question.”
“A question?” The she-wolf’s ears came up in surprise. She eyed the bright blade of the knife. “Ask it.”
“Have you seen another fox who carries the Word of Inanakurekuri?”
Rhy-lee’s heart thudded as the she-wolf gave a quick nod. “There is one who has returned to these parts for many years – since I was a cub.” The fingers of the she-wolf’s free hand twitched. “She often shelters in the forest in the winter.” She thrust out her hand. “Give it to me.”
She. Rhy-lee handed the knife over. “Has she been seen this season?”
The she-wolf grinned slyly. “One question, for this blade,” she said. “More metal for more questions.”
Several of the pack yipped their appreciation of her cunning.
Rhy-lee took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. She. “I will give you wire snares to trap rabbits,” she said.
But the she-wolf’s gaze had shifted beyond Rhy-lee. Her brow furrowed. Rhy-lee started to turn. The she-wolf’s eyes snapped wide. Behind Rhy-lee, Yfan-wyn cried out in alarm.
She spun to see long-bodied figures burst out of the river, heavy clubs raised over their shoulders. Otters! Several of them lifted narrow tubes to their lips. The wolves howled and charged. Rhy-lee grabbed Yfan-wyn and lifted him bodily, away from the fight, then pushed him ahead towards the trees.
Something bit into the back of her neck.
She ran another dozen paces before her legs gave way underneath her.
“Run!” she cried to Yfan-wyn, and then her tongue was too thick to say it again.
Her vision darkened as wolves fled past. One stumbled and fell. Otters bounded after. Then the darkness was complete, and she knew no more.
Yfan-wyn was under the trees before he realised that his mother was no longer with him. In horror, he stopped to look back and was knocked off his feet by a fleeing wolf.
He scrambled quickly back up. Otters bounded towards him. He couldn’t see his mother. Something whisked past his face. He saw an otter lower a dart tube from its mouth.
With a sob, Yfan-wyn turned and sprinted after the wolf.
Even with its canopy bare of leaves, the forest still grew dark before the open plain at the end of day. Yfan-wyn could hear the otters behind him, whistling to each other in the gloom. They seemed to be falling behind. He slowed, listening hard.
A hand closed around his arm, another clamped down on his muzzle, preventing him from crying out. Yfan-wyn found himself dragged, struggling, towards a tree trunk – hollow, he discovered, when he was pulled through a narrow gap and inside.
“Be still,” his captor hissed. “They are close.”
Yfan-wyn stopped fighting. He could smell that his assailant was a fox. She released her grip on his mouth.
“They will smell us,” he whispered.
“No,” the word was barely a breath. “Their noses are dull, as are their ears. Only their eyes are sharp. Be still. Their ears are dull, but they are not deaf.”
Yfan-wyn heard movement outside the tree. A loud whistle, close at hand, made him jump. Others responded, further away.
The otter’s claws scraped over dirt, just outside. Yfan-wyn could smell its wet fur. He held his breath.
Then the otter moved off.
Yfan-wyn listened to the whistling calls move away.
“They are giving up the chase,” said the other fox. She shifted away from him and he felt her rummage about.
“My mother fell,” Yfan-wyn said. His lip trembled.
Flints sparked in the darkness. “Then she is alive,” was the reply. “And that is all that can be said for her.”
A light flared from the sparks, and the other fox closed the side of a small glass and tin lantern. Yfan-wyn looked at her face. She was old, he saw, with the white on the sides of her snout spread across her cheeks and forehead. The pupil of her left eye was milky pale.
“Better to forget her,” she said.
Yfan-wyn could only shake his head in horror.
“Where is home for you, little one?”
“The downs.” Tears were coming. He tried to keep them in, but couldn’t. He hung his head, hiding his face behind the sleeve of his parka.
“Of course. The downs.” There was an odd heaviness in the way she said it. “I will take you through the forest, to the foot of the ridge.”
Yfan-wyn shook his head, more vigorously this time. “No. I need to go back for my mother.”
“And do what?” the old woman said harshly. “Be caught yourself?”
Yfan-wyn glared at her.
She sighed through her nostrils. “So be it.”
“My name is Yfan-wyn,” he said. “My mother is Rhy-lee.”
He thought he saw her start, ever so slightly, on hearing his mother’s name. The reaction was so small that he wondered if he had imagined it. He stared, searching for some resemblance to his mother. Could this really be his grandmother?
She turned her face aside, so that he could see only her blind, milky eye.
“I do not need to know your name,” she said. “Rest here tonight, at least. They will not have gone anywhere in the dark.”
Yfan-wyn stared at her. Are you my grandmother? he wanted to say. But how could she be? How could she hear her child’s name and turn aside? The pressure of the words stuck inside him escaped in a tiny whine. Her ears twitched, but she did not look at him.
Rhy-lee woke up to find her wrists and ankles bound together with rope. She raised her head. The she-wolf lay less than an arm’s length away, bound as well, staring at Rhy-lee with yellow eyes.
The she-wolf bared her teeth but said nothing. Then she rolled over so that her back was to Rhy-lee.
Rhy-lee twisted her neck to look around. She wriggled onto her belly, then awkwardly pushed herself up onto her knees. Also lying bound on the riverbank were four more adult wolves and the three wolf cubs. There was no sign of Yfan-wyn. Otters armed with clubs and dart tubes stood guard around them. Beyond them, on the river, was a sight that caused Rhy-lee’s jaw to drop open in amazement.
It was built of timber and floated on the water like a raft, but was larger than any house Rhy-lee had ever seen. Its sides curved upwards, higher than a bear’s head. Rows of oars stuck out from holes set near the tops and wooden ribs arched overhead. At the vessel’s front and back its sides came together and rose to carved peaks. The front peak was fashioned into the shape of an eagle’s head, the rear carved to resemble a feathered tail. A high pole rose from the centre of the vessel, a long crossbeam near its peak wrapped around with the loosely tied, pale canvas of its sail. Similarly bundled canvas joined the wooden ribs at their peaks – a roof for inclement weather, Rhy-lee realised.
“A ship,” she exclaimed aloud. She had only heard them described in traveller’s tales. The sea, the first otter had said he was from.
The sea. Rhy-lee’s stomach tightened.
She called out to the nearest guard. “What will you do with us?”
The otter lifted its club and snarled something in a language Rhy-lee didn’t understand. Another barked, “Silence! Property does not speak unless it is told to.”
Property? Rhy-lee stared at him blankly for a moment, wondering if he had misspoken. Then understanding hit: the otters were slavers and they would take her away across the sea.
Sometimes, among the villages of the downs, if a person committed a crime, their punishment might include a period of bonded service, but slavery – the owning of one person by another – was something she had only heard told of as a distant myth of barbaric lands, far away. Panic rose up inside. She clenched her fists, digging her claws into her palms until she was sure they would bleed.
Yfan-wyn had escaped, she told herself. Yfan-wyn was safe. They were near enough to the downs now for him to find his way home.
Further along the bank lay the bodies of the two old wolf grandmothers. Too old for slaves, Rhy-lee thought, tightening her fists even more, holding her terror inside
Yfan-wyn had escaped, she repeated. He was safe.
Yfan-wyn watched from the branches at the edge of the forest while the prisoners were loaded aboard the otters’ gigantic, high-sided raft. He saw the flash of his mother’s red fur among the grey bodies of the wolves. He clutched helplessly at the hunting spear the old woman had given him.
Not his grandmother. He could not believe that she would let his mother be taken away if she were.
The oars along the side of the giant vessel were rising and falling, turning it to point the carved eagle head downriver. They were leaving!
Yfan-wyn slithered down from his perch, barking his shins and falling the last little way. He sprinted through the trees, keeping the vessel in sight but staying under cover. For a while he kept up, as the river meandered away from the forest and back again in a lazy loop, but then his strength began to falter and the river began to veer away from the trees in a long, steady curve. Yfan-wyn’s lungs and legs burned but he was left further and further behind.
Almost, he let himself stop and collapse to his knees and give up. But his mother would not have given up on him. Whimpering, despairing, he left the trees and kept on going in a ragged jog.
They would stop for the night, he told himself. The ship would stop, and he would catch up.
And then what?
He squashed the hopeless thought. She would not give up on him.
He ran on, as best he could. Now and then, the snow drift deeper and he would stumble and lie, panting and exhausted, with his pulse pounding in his ears and his vision turning black, wondering if he would rise again. Then the freezing cold of the snow would begin to soak through his fur, waking him from his stupor, and he would struggle up and get his feet back under him and moving again.
Sometimes he would get a stitch in his side, or a cramp in his legs, and he would lean on his spear and hobble on until it passed and he could run once more. And always, the ship faded further and further into the distance, until he wondered if he was only imagining that it was still in sight at all.
The blue of the sky began to deepen ahead. Yfan-wyn’s shadow began to stretch further ahead of him, as if it, too, would leave him behind. The sunset painted the snow golden, then crimson, then mauve. Then the sun was gone, and only the stars lit the way. Still, Yfan-wyn ran on.
At last, long after dark, he caught up.
The otters’ vessel was stopped again by the far bank, held against the current. From within its high-walled sides, Yfan-wyn could hear the frightened, confused cries of bison. A dull red glow rose from within the sides of the vessel. The smell of cooking meat wafted across the water.
A wolf howled. It sounded close. Yfan-wyn wondered if the wolves were following, too.
He eyed the otters on guard at the front and rear of the vessel and wondered, doubtfully, if he could sneak aboard. There was a large hummock in the snow closer to the riverbank. Yfan-wyn thought he might have a better vantage – and be better hidden there, too.
It was only when he neared it and the hummock suddenly moved that he realised his mistake. Only then, as an enormous hand lashed out to close around his body, crushing the breath out of him, did he smell the bear.
The bear’s narrow head came up from where it had rested, chin on the snow, and turned to look at him. The jaws opened, displaying fangs longer than his hand. Yfan-wyn would have screamed, but he had no breath to do so.
The bear paused. Yfan-wyn twisted to see. It was the old fox woman who had saved him in the forest. She held up the half-jawbone of a wolf for the bear to see the letters etched into its surface.
“It is the Word of Inanakurekuri,” she said.
The bison packed into the bottom of the ship lowed incessantly, confused and distressed by the smell of one of their number being barbequed by the otters on the forward deck. Rhy-lee hunched in the shadows beneath the ship’s rear deck, manacled alongside the captured wolves and a half-grown bear who hiccupped softly as he tried not to cry. The chains that joined their cuffs passed through thick iron rings bolted to the keel of the ship.
The bison were all juveniles, too, Rhy-lee had noted when they were winched, unconscious, into the ship. They ranged from newly weaned calves to pubescents. Young, scared, easy to train, she thought. What did it mean for her and the adult wolves?
She spoke to the she-wolf. “Will those of your pack who escaped come for you?”
The she-wolf stared at her in silence for a long moment. Rhy-lee wondered if she would reply at all. Then she stretched her jaws in a wide yawn and said, “The pack will choose a new leader. We are dead to them.”
Dead, thought Rhy-lee, and wolves did not attend to their dead. She leaned across to the bear, catching his eye. “What is your name, young one?”
The bear sniffled, his dark eyes flitting from Rhy-lee to the wolves. “I am Babuk, born of Nuganaksaramun,” he said.
“I am Rhy-lee, born of…” Rhy-lee hesitated over her mother’s name, “Tiere-lene.” It felt strange to say it, so long unspoken. She asked, “Did your mother escape the slavers?”
The bear cub nodded. “I was not with her and Megi, my sister, when they caught me.”
“Then she will come for you,” Rhy-lee said, because it was certainly true.
Babuk glanced up at a pair of otters walking along the central gangway, overhead. The ship’s hold was largely open for most of its length, the areas of solid decking at the front and rear connected by the central gangway and narrower platforms along the high side walls. The gangways were joined by broad-topped ribs that held the rowing benches, above the backs of the frightened bison.
“But they are so many,” said Babuk.
“Too many, even for a bear,” said the she-wolf.
Rhy-lee wondered if that were true. Could the darts of the otters pierce the thick fur of an adult bear?
“Then we will need to help ourselves, as well,” she said. But both the she-wolf and Babuk had turned away from her.
Rhy-lee looked down at her manacled hands.
She wondered what had become of Yfan-wyn. He would have kept going, she told herself. He would find his way home. She had to push the thoughts back down, in case the fear undid her – that she would never see him again, nor Aoin-rhys or her father.
She watched the sparks from the otters’ cooking rise up into the night, past the ribs of the ship’s open roof, quickly fading. She would never know if that other fox, the other who bore the Word of Inanakurekuri, was her mother.
No, she told herself. She was not beaten yet.
She began to work her hands around in the manacles, trying to find a way to pull them free.
The otters’ vessel was a small red glow across the blue-white snow. There was a bank of cloud to the south, deep shadowed underneath and silver-lit on top, but directly above the skies were clear. With the moon not yet risen to outshine them, the stars formed a sky-spanning river of brighter and fainter sparks.
Yfan-wyn trudged after the bear, his ears twitching at the soft rattle of her bone apron. His perhaps-grandmother walked beside him, a barrier of unasked questions in between.
The bear slowed and growled a low inquiry. A snowdrift shifted off to their right. A young bear stood up, only half-grown but already several times larger than the two foxes. She carried a heavy iron spear and bow and arrows like her mother, but wore a girdle of tanned hide rather than an adult’s apron. Her mother held out a paw and the young bear ran to her, tucking herself against the larger bear’s side.
The mother bear faced Yfan-wyn and the old fox, her face in shadow as she peered down. “I am Nuganaksaramun,” she said. “The name of Inanakurekuri is known to me, as it is known to all bears.” She paused a moment, then added, “My son, Babuk, is aboard the slaver ship.”
Yfan-wyn’s tongue was sticky inside his mouth. “Yfan-wyn, is my name,” he said. “My mother, Rhy-lee, is aboard the,” he hesitated over the unfamiliar word, “ship.”
The old fox cleared her throat. Her voice was taught when she said, “I am Tiere-lene.” Yfan-wyn’s heart jumped. It was his grandmother’s name. She met his gaze as he stared at her. “My daughter is on that ship.”
“Can we get Babuk, Mama?” asked the young bear.
Yfan-wyn watched Nuganaksaramun’s head sink lower and his hope fell with it. Nuganaksaramun pulled her daughter tighter to her side. “I do not think we can, Megi.”
A whimper escaped between Yfan-wyn’s teeth, a wail bursting to follow. “What will happen to them?” he said.
“In the morning they will go,” said Nuganaksaramun. “They hunted the bison herd this afternoon and their ship is filled.”
“They will be taken to the south, to the cities of swine and dogs and fowl, where lions rule,” said Tiere-lene. “They will be sold.”
They were silent for a moment, their eyes all fixed on that distant glow.
Nuganaksaramun said, “In the tale of Inanakurekuri, he was taken by slavers as a cub, and he escaped and returned. But his is the only such tale.”
“Is there nothing to be done?” said Megi.
Her mother shook her head.
A wolf howled, sounding near.
Yfan-wyn’s grandmother said, “If we can distract the slavers, then Yfan-wyn and I are small enough to sneak aboard the ship and cut the prisoners loose.”
“How will they be distracted?” asked Nuganaksaramun.
“With an attack,” Tiere-lene replied.
The bear thought about that a moment, then said, “Megi and I will not be able to do that alone.”
“You will not be alone,” said Tiere-lene.
They smelled the smoke of the wolves’ campfire long before they spied its glow. The wolves had dug out a hollow in the snow, piling it around them. Their huddled bodies further shielded the fire’s light.
Yfan-wyn stared at his grandmother’s back as she walked ahead of him, the pressure of questions crowded up inside his chest almost unbearable. She had offered nothing, though, and he did not know how to begin.
Every so often, one of the wolf pack would lift their head and howl to the night. The sound made Yfan-wyn’s skin crawl.
Nuganaksaramun led them towards the camp from upwind. The wolves remained unaware of their approach until the great bear loomed up close beside them. Then there was a flurry of growls and startled activity as the wolves lunged for weapons and peered wildly into the darkness for other threats.
Nuganaksaramun raised a broad hand. “I have not come to fight.”
The wolves crouched behind their hide shields, weapons ready.
“There is a slaver ship on the river,” said Nuganaksaramun.
“We have seen it,” said a wolf. “It has not troubled this pack.”
“It has troubled other packs,” said Tiere-lene, stepping into view at the bear’s side. “There are captured wolves aboard.”
“That is of no matter to us,” said the wolf.
“The slavers have weapons and tools of iron,” said Nuganaksaramun. “We wish to attack the slaver ship and rescue our kin, but we have no interest in the slavers’ wealth.”
Yfan-wyn peered past his grandmother’s shoulder. The wolves cast sideways glances at their leader. Several licked their muzzles as the thought of iron riches took hold.
The leader straightened, lowering his weapons. “Even together, we would struggle to overcome them,” he said. “Slaver darts will pierce our skins and then we too will be as the dead.”
“We can beat them if we are cleverer than they,” said Tiere-lene.
Yfan-wyn shivered at the freezing touch of the river. The water rippled around his bare shins as he waded after his grandmother. They had left their clothes and gear on the shore, carrying only their hunting knives on thongs around their necks. His grandmother showed no sign of discomfort at the cold. The breeze ruffled the sparse, greying fur on her back and shoulders.
Tiere-lene launched herself into the current. Yfan-wyn braced himself and plunged after with a splash. His breath whooshed out at the shock of the water closing around him. The bears and wolves were meant to have crossed further downriver.
Teeth chattering, Yfan-wyn paddled downstream towards the red-rimmed silhouette of the slaver ship.
Rhy-lee gritted her teeth, bracing the manacle with her feet and her free hand. The first cuff she had wriggled her hand out of relatively easily, but this one was bent tighter. Blood trickled along her fingers from where she had skinned her knuckles on the metal. She twisted her hand, smearing it over the inside of the cuff, making it slick.
She pulled again. Her knuckles ground painfully against each other, but her hand started to slide through. The wolves and the young bear watched in silence, their nostrils twitching at the smell of blood. A nearby bison calf stamped its hoof.
With a sudden wrench, Rhy-lee’s hand came free. She flexed her bruised knuckles, wincing. She was free. It would be easy enough, she thought, to jump up onto a rowing bench and over the side before the otters could react. They could swim better than she, but she thought she could probably lose them in the dark.
Babuk and the wolves watched her in silence.
Rhy-lee hesitated. Her first thought should be to get free and find Yfan-wyn. But could she leave them to their fate? She knew the answer before she even asked herself the question.
“Can any of you get free?”
It was immediately obvious that the wolves, including the three cubs, were stuck, with their broad palms and bony wrists. Young Babuk had a bear’s thick forearms, but his hands were not so flexible as hers.
“Try,” she said. “I will get the key if I can.”
Exactly how, she did not know.
She slunk to the edge of the overhung deck and peered up. An otter sentry stood on the high gangway at the side of the ship, peering out into the night. Rhy-lee could not see if he carried a key on his belt or not – not all of the otters did.
Suddenly the otter staggered backwards. He stepped off the edge of the platform and fell. Rhy-lee barely had time to duck out of the way. The otter landed with a thump, a white-feathered arrow almost as long as Rhy-lee was tall protruding from his chest. A roar echoed across the river. Bear!
Young Babuk lifted his head and bellowed in reply.
On the forward deck, Rhy-lee saw otters dash for the anchor chains, only to be driven back by a hail of rocks. Slingshot, she thought. Wolves! A heartbeat later howls joined the roars of the attacking bear. The captured wolves howled back. The bison began to bawl and tug at their shackles.
A trio of otters leapt down after their shot fellow, clubs ready and barking angrily at the prisoners. Their eyes fell immediately on Rhy-lee, standing unshackled in front of them.
Yfan-wyn was so cold clinging to the slaver ship’s anchor chain that he wasn’t certain he would be able to climb up it and into the ship.
“Soon,” said his grandmother. “Hold on just a little longer.”
Yfan-wyn’s teeth chattered, making it hard to speak. He tried anyway, the words suddenly coming unstuck inside him. “Why did you leave?”
She glanced at him, just briefly. “Because I had to. You understand that,” she said. “But why didn’t I wait for your mother, you mean, as she waited for you?” She was quiet a moment, then continued, “She loved her father so much, and he her. I could not part them. And there was much of him in her, besides.” Another, smaller hesitation, then, “Does he live, still, your grandfather?”
Yfan-wyn nodded. “Yes.”
“That is good,” she said, her voice distant. “I did not think her heart would take her far, not as a child, anyway.” Her teeth flashed, suddenly – a smile, perhaps, but one without mirth. “If I had waited, then she would never have had you, would she?”
A bear roared – Nuganaksaramun, launching her attack. Wolf howls joined in a moment later and the ship erupted with barks of alarm from the otters and cries from the prisoners within.
“Up!” said Tiere-lene, giving him a boost.
Yfan-wyn almost slipped straight off the chain, but he gripped tight with his legs and fingers and hauled himself up. He kept his eyes fixed on the side of the ship, expecting to see an otter appear at any instant and raise the alarm, but the slavers were evidently all occupied with the attack from the shore, on the opposite side of the vessel. His arms burned before he was even halfway up, but he kept going.
Fingers cramping, he raised his head to peer through the hole where the anchor chain fed through the ship’s side. A rock arced out of the darkness and banged into the planks directly below the hole. Yfan-wyn jerked back, almost slipping.
He clung hard to the chain, while his grandmother demanded to know what was wrong.
Heart clattering, he looked again.
A pair of otters sprawled on the deck close by, one with a bloody face, the other with an arrow through his back. A brick fireplace stood with a spit-roasted bison unattended over its flames. On the far side of the deck, a group of otters crouched under cover, hauling frantically on the other anchor chain. All along that side of the ship, otters leapt up from cover to fire their dart tubes and bows. Yfan-wyn couldn’t see where the prisoners were held, but he could hear their shouts.
“Is it clear?” said his grandmother.
“I think so.”
Yfan-wyn pulled himself up and over the side, drawing his knife as he landed on the deck, expecting to be spotted immediately by the slavers. Tiere-lene was right behind him. “Go! Down into the hold!”
She pushed him towards the edge of the deck where, down in the bottom of the ship, he could see the captive bison pulling against their bonds. He ran that way and leapt into the space below. He landed heavily and rolled into the legs of a bison calf, which bucked and kicked him painfully in the hip.
His grandmother hauled him upright. “Quick! Out of sight.” She pushed him ahead of her, between the rows of bison. “Hush,” she said to the bison, “we are here to free you.”
Yfan-wyn stopped. “They are chained,” he wailed. “We cannot cut their bonds.” His mother and Nuganaksaramun’s son would certainly be chained too.
Tiere-lene swore. “Then we will need a key. Go forward, we will find your mother first.”
Rhy-lee stumbled back from the otters’ clubs. There was a roar and a tearing, popping sound. Babuk had ripped the bolt that held his chains free of the ship’s keel. He lunged at the otters, ignoring the blows of their clubs, grabbing the head of one in both paws.
Rhy-lee leapt onto the shoulders of a second and heaved backward with all her weight, setting the otter stumbling off balance and towards the chained wolves. She hit the planks with the otter on top of her. His shrieks mingled with the snarls of the wolves as they caught hold of him. Rhy-lee wriggled out from under, expecting to confront the third otter or to hear him raising the alarm.
Instead she found him lying dead and a naked, greying fox standing over him with a hunting knife in her hand. Rhy-lee stared at the other woman. Memories of that same face crashed over her – that face, red-furred and with two good eyes, seen from below, a small child’s memories.
“Rhy-lee,” said her mother.
Rhy-lee’s legs gave way and she sat down sharply.
A small face peered around the Tiere-lene’s arm. “Mother!”
Yfan-wyn launched himself at her. Rhy-lee caught him reflexively, held him fiercely, then pushed him away to look at him, scarcely believing the evidence of her eyes. “I thought you would have gone home.”
“We need a key for these cuffs,” said Tiere-lene.
“There!” said Yfan-wyn. He started to reach for the belt of the otter that Babuk had killed, but looked up at the young bear, with his bloody hands, and thought the better of it.
Tiere-lene plucked up the key ring and unshackled Babuk.
Rhy-lee gathered herself together. “And them,” she said, indicating the wolves.
Tiere-lene hesitated, then tossed the ring to the she-wolf. Rhy-lee watched the wolves fumble awkwardly with the keys. “We must go,” said Tiere-lene, as Rhy-lee moved to help them.
Mother, filled Rhy-lee’s thoughts. Mother, mother, why did you leave? Why did you never come back? She pushed it down. Later, she told herself. When we’re clear of this and safe.
“How will we get out?” asked Yfan-wyn, looking at Babuk. “They will see us.”
“We fight,” said the she-wolf, picking up an otter’s club.
“No,” said Rhy-lee, her mind focused now and racing. “I have a better idea.” She pointed along the side of the boat furthest from the attackers on the riverbank. “Go up behind the bison. Once we have unlocked them, we need to get them all on the other side of the ship.” To Yfan-wyn and Babuk, she said, “Stay hidden.”
Glancing up at the otters lining the side of the ship, their attention still focused on the riverbank, she ran out between the chained lines of bison. The young animals stopped bucking, with the wolves moving among them. They stood shivering, their eyes rolling. She unlocked the first pair of chains and started to pull them free. A hand grabbed the chain beside hers. She looked up into her mother’s eyes, one clear, one clouded.
“Keep unlocking them, I will pull the chains free,” said Tiere-lene.
Rhy-lee moved on. The bison they had just released surged away from the wolves, towards the side of the ship where the otters stood. Those still chained watched Rhy-lee and Tiere-lene tensely, their ears flicking. One older calf gulped an enquiry in its simple tongue. “We are setting you free,” Rhy-lee answered.
She looked up at a yell from above. An otter tumbled backward, short limbs flailing. He bounced off the back of a bison and hit the planks beside Rhy-lee. He struggled to sit up, a bloody gash across his brow from a slinger’s rock. He saw Rhy-lee and froze.
Tiere-lene lunged past her, knife arm extended, but not before the otter let out a piercing whistle of alarm. He was answered from above as his comrades turned to see.
“Now!” Rhy-lee cried.
The wolves charged towards the freed bison. The terrified animals tried to scrabble up the side of the ship. The ship leaned abruptly with the sudden shift of weight. The otters yelled. The last few bison still chained bucked and kicked. Rhy-lee and Tiere-lene dodged among them, releasing the remaining chains. A bison tripped, bowling Rhy-lee over.
She scrambled up as the ship tipped even further. Darts shot down into the confusion of bodies. Rhy-lee saw the she-wolf leader clutch at her neck and sag. The ship rocked, halfway over. A couple of otters fell backward over the side. A couple more were dragged down from their perches by the wolves.
Not enough weight, Rhy-lee thought. There weren’t enough of them to get the ship over. There was a roar. Something huge thumped against the outside of the ship. The head and shoulders of an adult bear appeared over the side.
“Mama!” yelled Babuk.
The ship began to topple. It was going over.
“Yfan-wyn!” Rhy-lee cried.
She saw him, clinging to Babuk, the young bear’s arm locked around him as he charged up the side of the ship and leapt overboard. The bison surged after, sweeping the otters ahead of them. Rhy-lee saw the she-wolf struggling to follow as water poured in. In the manner of wolves, none of her fellows stopped to help her.
Rhy-lee ran to intercept her. She caught the she-wolf as she stumbled, pulled her backward into the water. They went under. Rhy-lee kicked furiously. Then she felt the she-wolf kick too and they broke the surface, gasping at the cold.
Still clinging together, they swam for the shore.
The otters had evidently already tried to force their way onto the riverbank. Two of their number and a wolf lay dead at the edge of the water. The rest of the wolves were off along the bank, harassing the otters who were now swimming away downstream. Babuk was in the arms of his mother and another juvenile bear. Yfan-wyn sat shivering close by. Rhy-lee could hear the frightened bawling of the bison calves as they fled into the night.
Rhy-lee gathered Yfan-wyn up.
“We need to get warm,” she said, after she had held him for a time.
The she-wolf crouched close by, ears raised and nose twitching, staring after the departing pack. Her fellows who had been captured with her were gone with them. She swayed unsteadily, even braced on hands as well as feet, with the otters’ dart potion in her blood. She noticed Rhy-lee’s gaze.
“I will not run under another pack’s leader,” she said. Her words were slurred. “And I am twice-dead.” Her lips curled back from her teeth in an expression of anguish. “I do not know my place, anymore.” She drew a deep breath, and nodded to Rhy-lee. “I will remember you, little fox.”
With that she rose, weak and unsteady as she was, and walked away in the opposite direction to where the other wolves had gone.
An enormous hand engulfed Rhy-lee’s shoulder. She looked up at the mother bear.
“I am Nuganaksaramun,” said the bear. “Come, we will light a fire.”
Rhy-lee nodded, looking out over the water.
“Where is she?” said Yfan-wyn.
Of Rhy-lee’s mother, there was no sign.
In the morning, the wolves returned to loot the half-sunk slaver ship, shouting and squabbling over their treasure.
Nuganaksaramun presented Yfan-wyn with a carved piece of antler.
“You are brave, little fox,” she said. “You will carry my Word truly.”
Rhy-lee had to laugh at her son’s incredulous expression as he stared at the gift in his hands.
They found Yfan-wyn’s gear where he had left it on the on the opposite bank. Tiere-lene’s clothes and possessions were gone. Her tracks led away across the thinning snow.
“Will we follow?” asked Yfan-wyn.
Rhy-lee shook her head.
“Do you think we will see her again?” he said.
She gazed out across the plain, wondering why her mother had run away once more. Too afraid, she thought, and wished it could have been different. She chucked Yfan-wyn under the chin, swallowing her sadness.
“Perhaps one day,” she said.
They went home, then, across the plain and through the forest, up along the first ridge of the downs. That was where they found Aoin-rhys and Rhy-lee’s father – sitting tucked up in their parkas with their tails around their knees, staring out over the plain, the way Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn had used to sit together before they left, daydreaming of the wide world.
Aoin-rhys saw them first. He leapt up and launched himself at Yfan-wyn, bowling him over and tumbling with him a short way down the slope. The two brothers wrestled and laughed in the new spring flowers. Rhy-lee’s father got stiffly to his feet. She was surprised by how old he looked, when only a season had passed.
He touched his nose to hers, then pulled back.
Rhy-lee could barely get words out past the lump in her throat. “I found her,” she said.
She saw his expression change, ever so slightly – just a fractional tightening around his eyes. He held her gaze in silence for a long moment. Then he said, “Come down into the warm and tell me about it.”
Weeks later, Yfan-wyn came out of his grandfather’s house and happened to glance up to the ridge top above the village. A person stood there – a fox – ears upright and parka hood thrown back, leaning on a hunting spear.
Yfan-wyn stared. His heartbeat tripped.
He crashed back through the door into the house, getting a yelp from Aoin-rhys.
“Mother! Mother! Grandfather, come and see.”
His mother caught him as he barrelled into her, knocking the air out of her with an “oof!”
“What has got into you?” she gasped, trying to get enough air to laugh.
He wriggled free. “She’s here!”
“Who is here?” demanded Aoin-rhys.
Yfan-wyn turned. His grandfather stood in the kitchen door. “She’s here.”
His grandfather nodded. His ears were up and his tail was straight, but his expression was peculiar. He didn’t speak, just took a deep breath and started walking towards the front door.
Rhy-lee caught hold of both her sons, saying, “Shush, now.”
She let them tow her to the door, then stopped them on the step. Yfan-wyn watched his grandfather disappear between the houses, and re-emerge a moment later, climbing the slope of the ridge. His grandmother, having come partway down, stopped.
She waited while her husband climbed up to meet her. For a long time they stood still, and it seemed to Yfan-wyn that they were not even speaking, just staring at each other.
“Mother…” he began.
“Shush.” Her hand on his shoulder was shaking.
Then his grandfather leaned over and touched the tip of his wife’s nose with his own.
Copyright 2017 Ian McHugh
About the Author
Ian McHugh’s stories have appeared in publications including Asimov’s, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and (this year) The Year’s Best Science Fiction. His debut short story collection, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for Australia’s Aurealis Awards in 2015. His full bibliography and links to read or hear much of his previous work free online can be found at ianmchugh.wordpress.com