Douglas Niles: The Messenger

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Douglas Niles The Messenger
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    The Messenger
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Douglas Niles

The Messenger


Hunters on the Blood Coast

I can throw a harpoon as far as any man and hit the target twice as often!” Moreen knew that her voice was getting loud, but right now she didn’t care. How could her father be so Chislev-cursed stubborn? “You know it’s true! So why can’t I take a kayak out with the rest of the hunters?”

“You’re my daughter, and you will stay in the village with your mother!” growled Redfist Bayguard, his swarthy face darkening into the flush of deep anger.

The young woman opened her mouth to speak, but the chieftain trampled over her objections without hesitation. “I have already given you too much freedom! Do you know there are those who speak ill of me because I let you learn how to cast a harpoon, how to track a bear and build a fire on the tundra? They say I cannot control my own child-how can I be expected to manage the affairs of the Arktos?”

Moreen felt her own temper slipping away, knew that she should bite her tongue, but the words spilled out in a voice that reached far beyond the sealskin walls of the little hut. “Maybe people should worry more about their own affairs,” she snapped.

“You will be silent, now!” roared the chieftain, rising to his feet and trembling in such rage that the daughter momentarily feared his clenched fist. She stood up too, glaring, challenging him, all but daring him to strike.

He turned and pushed through the leather door, stomping into the misty dawn.

Striding after him, Moreen caught the flap of door before it closed, then stopped, quivering from her own anger but unwilling to press the fight. She saw the blue-white sky, the flat waters of the bay, and, closer, the villagers going about as if they hadn’t heard the argument. It was early morning, but early morning in the time of the midnight sun. The sky was already fully bright after the short, ghostly interval of midnight.

“I know that you don’t want to humiliate him, but that is what you do.”

Her mother spoke from the shadows beyond the cold firepit. Inga Bayguard sat crosslegged, looking at Moreen with her dark eyes soft and sad.

“How can he be so unfair?” the younger woman demanded, even as a small voice inside of her suggested that it was she who was being unreasonable.

“If you had asked him to take you along when he was going hunting by himself, you know that he would have gladly let you accompany him. How many times has he done just that? Remember, not four years ago, he took you hunting in spring, and the two of you paddled as far as Tall Cedar Bay? But today … this is the great hunt of Highsummer. Every male in the tribe is going along, and, like it or not, your presence would be a huge distraction.”

“Well, how can it be such a humiliation for him when in the end everyone knows I obey his will?”

“Because you shout at him, corner him in arguments. Because you make certain that everyone in the village knows how you feel.”

Letting the door flap drop, which enclosed the hut in a dimness broken only by the whale-oil lamp, Moreen pushed a strand of black hair back from her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. Her mother rose and stepped around the small room to look up into her daughter’s face.

“You have your father’s strength, Moreen Bayguard, and your mother’s-well, I want to believe you have your mother’s heart. But you are your own person. As you enter your eighteenth summer you have been granted unusual respect by the Arktos-even those old hunters who have now worked you into such a rage.”

“What do you mean, ‘respect’? They think I’m a frivolous pest.”

“Sometimes you are a frivolous pest,” retorted Inga. “There are other times when you show skill that cannot fail to impress. The men may complain about you learning manly skills, but they have noted your talent with the harpoon. You were right-you can throw better than any of them. They respect your intelligence, and the force of your words. You are a true heir to your great-grandfather.”

The young woman’s anger softened. She looked at the pelt that stretched across one whole interior wall of the hut, the lush black fur that was far too precious ever to lie upon the ground.

“I want to be worthy of Wallran Bayguard. I really do,” she said.

“I know, child,” Inga replied. “As it was for your father, the legacy of the Black Bear will be a burden and an honor that you carry all your life. Wallran Bayguard hunted and slew the mythic bear as foretold in the prophecy, killed it with a single spear-cast, as had been foretold since the Scattering. That promise for the future, that our people will one day prosper and rise to be masters of Icereach, is embodied in you. It is your legacy and your future.”

“My future?” Moreen replied in disgust. “My future looks like a lifetime of cooking and skinning the prey that the men bring home!”

Her mother’s expression gently chided her, but the younger woman was in no mood to heed it. Instead, she pushed through the door and stomped across the village square. The Arktos hunters there, busy with their preparations, had the good sense to avoid meeting her eyes.

By the time the Arktos hunters had rigged their kayaks and collected their gear Moreen and Bruni, her best friend, had ascended to the rocky crest rising just beyond the shore.

Beyond the mouth of the bay, the White Bear Sea was a dazzling swath of silver, bright with reflected sunlight. The sky overhead was pale blue, which brightened to white closer to the horizon. The summer sun was a shining presence in the northeast, a spot of fire burning through the haze.

The huts of Bayguard nestled across the flat ground between two hills and the sheltered bay that had been the tribe’s home for three generations, since Wallran Bayguard had killed the black bear that had hallowed this spot. Here they weathered the brutal onslaught of Sturmfrost each winter, and emerged each spring to, if not prosper, at least survive. The threescore structures looked neat and snug, clustered around the flat square and ceremonial firepit in the center of the village. Across that plaza rose a shape made of bundled sticks, the half-bird, half-fish image of Chislev Wilder, hunter goddess of the Arktos. Little kayaks were arrayed along the shore. For a time the two women watched the hunters push the boats into the shallows, each scrambling aboard and quickly starting to paddle.

“Do you think they will be gone long?” asked Bruni, lifting her voluminous leather skirt enough that she could sit comfortably on a large, flat boulder.

Moreen, who was dressed in sealskin trousers and a woolen shirt, leaned against another outcrop and shook her head. “I don’t care,” she snorted, “if the lot of them are gone until Lastsummer Day!” She watched as the kayaks bobbed through the gentle surf near the shore, each man paddling his little craft through the breakers until the boats gathered a short distance off the beach. Redfist Bayguard, his kayak distinguished by a crimson stripe, stroked into the lead and led the boats toward the mouth of the small, protected bay.

Bruni chuckled, the sound rumbling from her big body with an easy humor that Moreen inevitably found infectious.

Moreen sighed in resignation. “If luck from the past holds, they’ll find seals not too far away. Even if they get after a whale-” the chieftain’s daughter winced inwardly at the thought of missing that thrill-“I would think they’d be able to tow it back here within a week or ten days.”

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