Black Doe

The child died at dawn. First Wife was too ill to tend her son, so Trayja closed his eyelids and painted them as his mother would have done. She wiped the vomit from his mouth and kissed his lips. Then, as Second Wives must, she mixed herbs with ground reindeer antler and sprinkled them over his body. When Goros came to beat her with a stick, she said, “N’rit tosk.” I am responsible. By law he could not touch her, and so they came before the Council.
By this time Khee had recovered. She shouted at the Councilmen and shook her heavy beaded necklace. “She killed my child. Ingkak, boy-child–son of Goros, hero of the Great War. He drank her blood soup and died.”
The seven Councilmen sat like glaciers. They wore embroidered skin shirts and breeches with three stripes of beadwork on each leg. The men half-circled the fire–their boots on their knees, their palms upturned. Trayja thought they looked foolish. Any man with a club could kill them all before they could untangle themselves. Trayja lifted her eyes past Khee. She stared through the hut’s door at the distant hills. The autumn wind whistled across the tundra. She grieved for their shared son too, but done was done. Wishing wouldn’t fix her careless mistake.
Khee stomped her foot. “Second Wife has always envied me. She wanted me dead too–the murderess!” She broke into wild sobs. “Murderess, monster–”
“Control your hysterics, or we will make you leave,” said Ruk, the eldest. He was blood-kin to Trayja through her mother and had always been kind to her. “Keep your peace. Goros, be sure of this.”
“It is my honor,” Goros replied. He touched Khee’s shoulder and drew her behind him. She glared over his shoulder like an angry beaver at its dam.
Ruk nodded, but didn’t stand. “Trayja. You invoked the Old Ways with your words. Are you sure you wish to commit to this?”
“N’rit tosk,” she repeated, clasping herself in her arms. She was as tall as any man, but she felt small here.
Ruk spoke softly. “I would counsel you otherwise, kinswoman.”
“I know how to make blood soup. Goros brought me the doe. I drained her and mixed the blood with fresh milk. I soaked turap bark in it overnight, as I should have.” Trayja closed her eyes, her nose filled with the soup’s meaty smell. Nothing else in the Tribelands smelled like it. She opened her eyes again, her voice harsh. “But I didn’t cool it outside before serving it. I kept it in the hut. The hut was so cold… I thought it would be enough. I didn’t know the soup would spoil.”
Ruk frowned and curled his fingers. Before he could speak, Khee screamed, “She kept Anishuywa from blessing the soup! And in punishment he has taken my child–and almost took me. She would be First Wife!”
“I would not!” shouted Trayja, clenching her fists.
The women faced each other, with Goros between them like a wall. Trayja took a deep breath. Khee wasn’t worth losing her remaining status. Trayja dropped her hands and said, “I would once have been First Wife to another man. That is true. But with my father’s dishonorable death, I know my place. Fear not, Khee. I have no wish to displace you.” Not with Goros, certainly, she thought. Her hands curled into fists again.
“It should have been you that died,” the older woman hissed.
Ruk’s voice rang like an eagle’s cry. “Khee, you are dismissed.”
Khee glared at Trayja, then strode out the door. Goros watched as she went, but didn’t follow. He frowned at Trayja like she was one of his hunting-spears thrown astray. Goros never lost his temper, even when beating her. He would be a Council member someday.
The Councilmen remained impassive. Ruk glanced around the half-circle at their faces. “Trayja, you know that blood soup must be properly chilled. Anishuywa does not approach fires. This child, had he lived, would have grown feeble. His jurra would be weak–the cold would kill him. This is why boy-children and their mothers must drink blood soup before the child is fully weaned. Anishuywa commanded it to the first hunters on the plains. So the songs go, and so it has been since before any of us remember.”
“This is why I am responsible,” insisted Trayja. “And I want jarusk. The Old Justice.”
Ruk said nothing, but his head fell. He unfolded his legs gracefully and stood at full height, just below Trayja’s shoulder. “So be it. Goroska Trayja, you are exiled for two years. At the end of that time, your return must be earned. Gri kor sortok.”
The decision fell like a hailstone on her head. Exile she had expected, but sortok–and she must declare such status to any village she visited? She would die. Ruk knew it too, and his eyes lowered. He added, “You may leave in the morning. I will send my blessings with you, and a luckstone. Anishuywa protects those who invoke the Old Ways.”
Trayja bowed her head, hiding her face behind a curtain of thick black hair–her one beauty, for which Goros had chosen her. A luckstone wouldn’t be enough.
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Trayja waited at the village’s edge, having slept uneasily and packed quickly. Winter was coming. The late-morning sun crept over the horizon. She carried little–dried seal meat, a bone knife, a small spear, tinder and flint. She would need fire to survive–she was no boy, weaned with blood soup. Anishuywa was a god for men. Like other women, Trayja had Kamulankuk–the buxom Mother. If she were as fat as the Goddess, Trayja thought, she could live for two years without needing food.
Ruk approached, clutching his fur-lined hood close to his face. The luckstone glowed faintly in his gloved palm. “Child, why have you chosen this?”
Trayja didn’t respond. She pocketed the stone, slipping it between her fingers. Perhaps it would do her some good.
Ruk touched her cheek. “Was it truly so bad, being wife to Goros?”
She turned away, not wanting to see the compassion in his eyes. She saw no use in speaking of the past. What was done was done. Goros–and the poor child. She squeezed the stone.
Ruk’s soft voice carried through the wind. “You are full of jurra, child. Such energy. Would that you had been my daughter. I would have found you a better mate.”
“Had you been my father, I would have been someone’s First Wife,” Trayja snapped.
“Bitterness will hurt you,” he said. “Trayja. I will pray for you. Where will you go?”
Where indeed? While she had never loved Goros, the Yugulek village was the only home she had known. But she’d considered carefully last night, as she lay without sleeping on the bear furs of her bed.
“I will go to the mountain shrine,” she said, looking towards the mountain’s crest. The snowy peak glittered against the gray sky.
“But you are sortok. The gods–”
“Are the only ones who might speak with me.” She brought her eyes back to Ruk. “I will visit the shrine. If I go to another village, they’ll only turn me out. If I go to the gods…”
Ruk shook his head. “Be careful. Do not anger them.” He stared at her without blinking. Trayja guessed that he was memorizing her face. Most likely he asked where she was going so he’d know where to look for her body.
Trayja had little patience for goodbyes, but she respected Ruk. She touched her forehead to his and walked away. She crushed the luckstone in her palm, the carvings of its thousandfold blessings intangible through her gloves.
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The mountain shrine was six days’ journey by foot. Trayja kept a swift pace, grateful for the clear autumn skies. Her feet crunched over the icy ground, snug in their deerskin boots. At night she sheltered under a rock outcropping and built a fire from dead bramble bushes. She ate dried fish and slept fitfully with a rock under her hip.
On the second day, her muscles ached and she slowed her pace. Mid-day she passed a reindeer herd, which bounded away at her approach. The god Anishuywa would be racing across the plains in this weather–his antlers held high, his snow-white fur shining, his proud stride tearing across the white landscape. Trayja strained her eyes looking for Anishuywa, but these were ordinary brown beasts. That night, she found no shelter, so she huddled inside her coat as the hunters did, and entered shuruk sleep–waking just often enough to pace a quick circle and sleep again instantly.
It kept her blood moving, but exhausted her. She woke bleary-eyed and weak. She chewed some meat strips and began walking again. She oriented herself by the frozen slope and went east toward the mountain–knowing that somewhere ahead of her sat a hut of the Tribespeople. Goros had mentioned it once. Several huts stood on the tundra like sentinels. The Tribes took turns supplying them with food and firewood. Any huntsman might shelter there if caught unaware by a storm.
The plain sloped into the river valley, interrupted by leafless trees stretching skyward like antlers. The hut stood by the river. The valley’s far wall stretched up the mountain, where the people of the Old Ways had built a shrine to the gods. It was in this valley where Trayja’s father had slain a pregnant doe. A careless mistake–but it cost him his life, and Trayja her status. And now another mistake had sent her into exile. It’s done, she told herself. Dwelling on it was useless.
Lost in thought, Trayja tripped as something caught her boot. She tumbled down the slope, sliding against rocks and bramble bushes. “Surk!” she cried out, fearing she’d break her neck. Pain shot through her right ankle. Her feet skidded ahead as she grabbed a tree trunk. The luckstone slipped from her pocket and vanished into the snow.
Trayja righted herself and leaned on her ankle. Icicle-sharp pain burst through her leg. “Anishuywa, Kamulankuk,” she muttered, drawing her hood close. She eased down the slope, favoring her ankle. It was dark when she reached the bottom and hobbled into the hut. A firepit and woodpile stood in the hut’s center. In the corner, a ratted fur lay on a pile of moldy cloth. Too tired to build a fire, she lay down, trusting the walls to shelter her. She slept for almost a day.
When she woke, her ankle had swollen to purple tenderness. The wind rattled the walls. Trayja built a fire, curled up under the blanket, and wondered where she’d get more food. She thought about Goros and Khee, warm together in their home, and she pressed her fist into her palm. If the gods wouldn’t help her, she’d travel far away–somewhere so far that sortok meant nothing, if such a place existed. She’d find a way to rely on no one but herself.
That evening, a hunter entered the cabin. His red-striped hood marked him as Inatu–a tribe Trayja knew little of. He looked surprised to see her. “Klauto gikt?” he asked, and she shook her head without understanding. “Sortok,” she answered, and he nodded and said no more. He lay down by the fire and slept. Trayja clutched her knife all night–sortok had no rights, especially alone with a strange man. In the morning he left without speaking, leaving a sack of dried meat, a flask of milk, and a broken bone. The message was clear–be well in your travels, but don’t stay.
Trayja devoured the meat. She stretched her leg, hoping to see the ankle healed, but it hadn’t. She had no choice but to remain. She spent a week there, praying the hunter didn’t return. On the second day she vomited when she woke, but thought little of it until the week had nearly passed. That night, she crawled to the door and looked at the sky. A new moon, barely present–her kamu-koremtak should have come upon her. Her breasts ached at the thought, and she grew dizzy. Two days later, she knew: she bore Goros’s child in her belly.
Trayja screamed into the lice-infested blanket. She punched the wall until her knuckles bled. She wished Goros’s child would burst from her body stone-dead. Hungry, she ate some meat and promptly vomited. She remembered the dead boy-child. Khee was right. “It should have been me, child,” she whispered.
In despair, she slept again, and in the morning woke with numb resolution. As soon as she was well, she would go to the mountain shrine. Only the gods could help her now. She rubbed her ankle and decided that three days would be enough. She looked outside to check the weather. In the distance a pair of hunters headed her way.
Trayja’s heart raced. She decided to wait for them, hoping they would be as kind as the last man. In case they weren’t, she gathered all the food into her pack. She sat on the bed, knife in hand. When the hunters arrived, they drew their own knives. They were Karaiki, a people who traded with Trayja’s own. For a moment Trayja considered not saying anything, but her honor compelled her: “Sortok.”
One man spit. The other spoke Yugulek. “Get out.”
Trayja limped toward the mountain. An old trail circled the base, and the journey was easy at first. But the path steepened, overgrown with shrubs. No one kept the Old Ways anymore–they worshipped the gods from comfortable huts. She stumbled up the hill, supporting herself with branches. Burrs scratched her deerskin gloves, and dark red berries stained her coat. She sheltered the first night under an oddly-shaped rock, and the next night slept shuruk again. Her tongue was dry and her head ached. She hadn’t urinated in a day. She sipped some milk, but conserved her supply.
Finally Trayja approached the shrine. Above her head, the rock crested to a white peak. The shrine itself lay half-buried in snow. Frozen mud walls held mosaics, with thousands of rocks worn smooth in icy streams. Two statues stood before her: a snow-white reindeer buck with thirteen-point horns, and a jet-black woman with flowing hair and outstretched arms–the fattest, most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. At the shrine’s center stood a smooth bone basin tied with frozen sinew. When Trayja touched the basin’s clear ice, it shimmered. The gods were here–but whether they’d listen was another question.
She knelt at the altar and drew her knife. “Anishuywa, Kamulankuk. I give you all that I have left.” Her frozen fingers clutched the knife against her temple. She grabbed her long black hair, tore it against the knife’s sharp edge, and draped it on the altar like an unwound rope. She trimmed wisps from her neck and added them to the offering. When she finished, she removed a glove and touched her stubbly head. Now she truly looked sortok, she thought, and laughed. But the laugh turned bitter. The statues remained silent. She was a fool, to think the gods would speak with her.
Angry, she pulled her hood over her head and stared at the altar. She thought about leaving, but she had nowhere left to go. As she watched, a single strand of hair lifted itself and coiled through the air. It danced a circle and drifted into the Goddess’s outstretched hand. Before Trayja could blink, there stood Kamulankuk in her ample glory, laughing like someone had just told a great joke.
“My daughter,” she said, smiling. Her stomach rippled as she leaned down and pressed her forehead to Trayja’s. A halo of soft hair tickled Trayja’s face. “My lovely, beautiful daughter.”
Trayja dropped the bone knife. Kamulankuk laughed again, and warmth filled Trayja. The Goddess said, “What, you don’t think you’re beautiful?”
“I’m too thin,” said Trayja, when she found her voice. “And I have no hair.”
“Nonsense. You’re lovely as you are.”
Trayja stared at her, wondering if she dreamed from exhaustion and pain. Perhaps she was entering the Long Sleep. If so–what was done was done. She would address the Goddess as she wished. “Wealthy One,” she said, “I am sortok. I prepared blood soup badly, and a boy-child died. I will perform any task you set in order to earn forgiveness.”
The Goddess stepped back and folded her arms. “Do you regret your actions?”
“I do,” said Trayja, but as she spoke she felt resentment surging. She shouldn’t have been making blood soup at all. She should have been a First Wife. It wasn’t her fault that her father had been dishonorable. Yet she had paid the price. The boy-child paid, she reminded herself, and bowed her head. “I regret the death of the innocent child. N’rit tosk.”
“If you earned this forgiveness, would you return home? To your people and your husband?”
Trayja opened her mouth and closed it again. Finally, she said, “I would do my duty, as it pleases you.” As she spoke, she clenched her fists. She missed the only home she knew. But even if she earned her way back, she’d still have to live with Goros–and bear his child, which by law would be considered mainly Khee’s.
The Goddess laughed. “And what would please you, child?”
“Freedom,” Trayja said, looking over the mountain’s edge at the valley. “I want to stop paying for other people’s mistakes. I’d rather pay for my own.”
Kamulankuk touched Trayja’s hood. The hood slipped back, and warm hands stroked Trayja’s shorn head. “Freedom is also a terrible burden, child–yes, I know your heart, and I hear you. You can’t survive as independently as you’d like. But I’ll let you taste freedom for a time. Because there’s something you must do–for me, and for my beloved Anishuywa.”
“What do you need?”
“Three tasks. You will know them when the time comes. Do you accept?”
Trayja wondered if she could refuse. She suspected Kamulankuk would accept the answer–and leave her to die on the tundra. Refusing the Goddess would certainly shorten her exile, although not the way she liked. “N’rit garisk.” I accept.
Kamulankuk smiled. “I’ll grant you freedom. Just remember the price must be paid.”
The Goddess vanished. The shrine disappeared into darkness. The only light came from the icy altar where Trayja’s hair lay. She jumped to her feet and gripped her knife. Her whole body pulsed with each heartbeat. A strange wind blew through the shrine. The black hair rose from the altar and spiraled around itself.
Something slammed into Trayja’s back, knocking her onto her hands and knees. The hair splintered into thousands of fragments and swarmed toward her like an insect cloud. Hair burrowed into her skin and covered her in thick black fur. Antlers burst from her head. Her cry became a snort. Cold air entered her widening nostrils, warming as it filled her lungs. As her body expanded and her legs lengthened, she wondered, What about the child inside me?
After that, she stopped thinking. She had never felt so alive. Kore, kore, kore! She leaped through the darkness, landing on the mountain path. She bounded away, her proud antlers honoring the sky as her tough hooves praised the earth. She dug through the snow to a lichen patch, ate her fill, and raced away through the valley. The slope that tricked human feet was natural for hooves. She leaped over the crevice and sped across the plain to where she’d seen the reindeer.
The herd grazed at a frozen lakeshore. A few enormous bucks paced the herd’s edges. Delicate brown does guarded their nearly grown fawns. At Trayja’s approach, they scattered. The bucks circled her. She presented herself–antlers raised, tail erect–as they sniffed her scent. After a while the largest buck snorted and nuzzled her neck. Other bucks walked away, satisfied at the judgment. The buck touched his nose to her ears. Trayja licked him. Any buck might mate with her, once she entered heat. This one’s strong neck and powerful hindquarters pleased her. When she was ready, he would come to her. Trayja felt free for the first time since her father’s death.
Thank you, Kamulankuk. Trayja snorted and tossed her head, smelling the tundra soil. She turned toward the mountain to offer her prayers. A snow-white reindeer stood alone, outlined against the gray rock. The God gazed at her, patient as winter. Trayja lowered her antlers, realizing the first task required of her. It tore at her–her first taste of freedom, interrupted by duty. But she had promised the Goddess.
Dipping her antlers to the buck before her, she slipped away and trotted up the mountain to Anishuywa. He turned his head at her approach, but did not acknowledge her. She touched her antlers to the ground, wanting to run away. The God would demand too much, she was sure. He’d want submission. He’d require everything from her–all she’d fought for, and her newfound freedom.
Anishuywa nuzzled her and lifted her head with his antlers. She forgot her fears in his presence. His eyes were gray, like winter skies in the few precious hours of daylight. Despite her pregnancy, the desire in his eyes drove her into heat. She pressed her face to the snow and gave herself to him fully. She climaxed with a human’s knowledge and an animal’s honesty.
The entire winter afterward, when she grazed and migrated with the herd–her belly growing heavy with child–she would see the few hours of daylight, and a name would return to her: Anishuywa. Her body trembled with delight–so much that her legs wavered beneath her, and all she could do was remember.
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When her time came, Trayja found a small cave near a frozen stream. She lay on a lichen bed. Before her stood Anishuywa, white and bold, watching his child’s birth. Behind her knelt Kamulankuk’s vast form, receiving the child into her warm embrace. As the wind blew outside, Trayja pushed and grunted. The Goddess stroked her flank, singing about the world’s creation in a language long forgotten. After a few hours Trayja produced a beautiful young doe. She licked her daughter’s brown head and sniffed her tiny tail. Kamulankuk stroked the fawn’s ears and Anishuywa dipped his antlers to her.
But Trayja’s pains continued. Her instincts screamed trouble. She pushed again, and another child burst from her–human, a baby boy-child with thick black hair on his head. Kamulankuk caught him and struck his back. The boy wailed. Anishuywa nuzzled the squalling infant.
Trayja looked at Kamulankuk in wonder. “My children,” she said in reindeer language. “How is this possible? Goros’s son living inside me all this time–”
“The fawn is Goros’s daughter,” said Kamulankuk, grinning. “She transformed with you. She’ll be brave and clever. The boy is Anishuywa’s. He’s a spirit child–and your spirit is still human. He’ll be a great healer.”
Trayja pressed her nose to the boy’s belly. She murmured Old Language prayers for her children’s health. When she raised her head, the gods had vanished. She was alone with her fawn and her baby.
Days passed as she recovered her strength. She called her daughter Jat and her son Urag. Her daughter grew strong. Shortly after birth, the fawn wobbled on her feet and explored the cave. Jat poked her nose into each corner and sniffed at the entrance until Trayja snorted to call her back.
Urag worried her. He suckled at her belly but lacked strength to draw milk. The child couldn’t handle the cold as reindeer could. Trayja curled around him, but it wasn’t enough. As Jat grew, Urag weakened. One morning, as the boy lay shivering, Trayja realized her second task. She bowed her antlers with grief–how terrible, to need someone she hated–but she would do this task for her son.
She left her babies alone–praying they’d be safe–and scoured the tundra for a bramble patch. When she found one, she chewed it until her gums bled. By afternoon, she’d torn a long vine spiked with thorns and spring flowers. She took one end in her mouth and dragged it back to the cave. Trayja wedged the bramble’s end in a crevice. She picked up Urag, who cried out as her teeth marked his skin. She balanced the child on her back and stepped across the vine. She twisted her body and ducked her head to catch another bramble loop. By late morning, she managed to strap Urag in place for the journey ahead.
Trayja set off for the Yugulek village, with Jat trotting behind her. Urag cried of hunger, but soon he slept. She kept a fast pace. It was nightfall when they approached the village. It smelled stronger than she remembered. A pyre burned at the village’s edge. On the nearby altar lay the deceased one’s possessions–for purification before reuse. Ruk’s best spear lay on top of his beaded pants. Trayja dipped her antlers in deference to the Long Sleep. Mene anishorok, Hirska Ruk. Done was done. The reminder made her task easier.
Trayja approached the hut of Goros and Khee. The smell of deer stew wafted through the air, making her choke. She wanted to run, but Urag needed her. She touched Jat’s nose, urging her to stay back. Then Trayja snorted and tapped her hoof against the door.
Goros opened it, spear in hand. He nearly dropped his weapon. Khee screamed. Trayja would have laughed at their cowardice, but she grieved too deeply. She knelt, revealing the baby strapped to her back.
No one moved. Goros reached toward the child, then drew his hand away as if he might be a spirit. Khee muttered, “Anishuywa, Kamulankuk,” as she tapped her thighs in prayer. She was rounder than before, yet had no child at her breast–Trayja thought she must have borne and lost one recently. Yes. She’d been right to bring her son here. If only he might remember her, she would be content.
Goros fetched a knife. Trayja flinched, fearing he might harm her–but no, he cut the boy loose. Khee took the child and suckled him. Trayja looked away, not wanting to lose her son to Khee–but he must live with his own kind. She stood again, commanding Goros with a look. Guard this child, or I will kill you. Goros blinked, and Trayja wondered what he understood. He bowed his head.
“Anikala su gabki,” he whispered. Sacred black doe.
It would have to be enough. She left the village with her daughter, head held high. She glanced back, and saw her people had gathered at the village’s edge. They talked among themselves. Some prayed or sang as she departed. The black doe, she thought. Anishuywa’s mate. A story would be made tonight.
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In the coming season, Trayja and Jat explored the muddy plains, their hooves softened with summertime. Jat grew into a beautiful young reindeer. Almost an adult, she was Trayja’s friend in a way a human child took years to achieve. Trayja shed her antlers in a bramble bush and regrew them from itchy nubs. Jat’s horns grew like her mother’s over the summer, until both had velvety eleven-point sets.
They migrated with the herd that winter, and returned in spring. Trayja taught her daughter the tricks of human hunters. Her daughter listened, wide-eyed, and remembered what she heard. Reindeer-born Jat could hear the earth. Sometimes she’d share secrets, like how ice could sing and how rocks decided a river’s flow. Often she understood things that mystified Trayja. Once in late autumn, as they drank from a nearly-frozen valley stream, Trayja told her daughter that does were only hunted when boy-children were weaned.
“But why?” asked Jat, her ears flicked back.
“It is Anishuywa’s will,” said Trayja. “A boy-child weaned with blood soup earns divine jurra. Anishuywa’s power helps him withstand ice and cold. This is one of the Old Ways.”
“That’s not what the land says,” Jat told her.
“Anishuywa commanded it to the first hunters.”
“He commanded that hunters drink the doe’s spirit. Not her blood.”
Trayja was surprised to discover that “spirit” and “blood” were different words for reindeer. She called both jurra. She knew that spirit was more than physical warmth, but she had never separated them so clearly. “You’re sure?” she asked.
“In the Old Ways people understood that these words were different.”
Trayja lifted her head. She looked across the river toward the plain where the herd grazed. “You think Anishuywa wishes for humans to stop making blood soup?”
Jat tipped her antlers. “I think humans no longer hear the earth, and so they cannot understand the will of Anishuywa.”
Trayja considered as she drank again. She’d always figured that she and her daughter would become human again, once she’d completed her service to Kamulankuk and Anishuywa. Perhaps that was the greater purpose she served–somehow, she would end the misunderstanding.
She looked at the vast gray sky. Seasons had passed. Soon she could return to her village, if she’d earned it. Her son would be nearly weaned. Someone would make blood soup for him–but it wouldn’t be Trayja. After two years as a doe, she could never make blood soup again. But this third task for Anishuywa–each task had been harder than the one preceding it, and–
A group of hunters headed toward the herd–and Trayja understood the gods’ plan. She raked the dirt with a hoof. “No,” she said to the sky. “No, you won’t take my daughter.”
The tundra didn’t respond. Furious, Trayja raced across the plain toward the hunters. She would kill Goros before he could have her daughter. Behind her she heard Jat’s hooves pounding, following her out of confusion. Trayja whirled around and snorted a command: stay. Her daughter halted, tilting her head in question. Trayja sprinted toward the hunters, but didn’t see Goros. She circled around the herd, wondering how she could possibly defy the gods’ will. On instinct, she ran back to Jat.
Goros had split away from the other hunters, seeking strays. Jat stood near a mossy patch, ignorant of the threat. Goros aimed his spear. Trayja bellowed. She lowered her antlers and charged. At the noise, Jat raised her head and leaped away. Goros yelled and threw his spear. Trayja made the only choice possible. With a great jump, she landed between the spear and her daughter.
The spear struck her flank. Blood poured down her fur, staining the lichen beneath her. She staggered and sank to the ground. Pain blinded her. She heard Jat running and Goros swearing. Hands touched her–familiar ones. Her husband’s hands. She kicked weakly, knowing he’d slash her throat.
But he caressed her body’s length, his hands gentle against her rough fur. “Anikala su gabki–great black doe, you who brought me my son–I swear it was an accident,” he whispered. “N’rit tosk. I will save you if I can.”
Trayja lashed out at him, but Goros dodged her kicks. He knelt beside her and pulled the spear from her flesh. Her blood surged around his hands as he pressed the wound. Trayja bellowed, but Goros pinned her to the ground. “Hold still, beautiful one,” he said. “I swear by Anishuywa himself that I will not harm you.”
Trayja snorted, too tired to resist. Goros stripped off his sealskin coat. He wrapped her flank and tied the coat underneath her stomach. He jumped away as she struggled to her feet. As she loped stiffly away, he called, “Gabkuraki, Anikala.”
He had blessed her in the ancient way. Trayja stumbled across the plain to find her daughter. Goros will freeze without his coat, she realized. To her surprise she hoped that a storm would not approach.
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Trayja met her daughter over the next hill. With Jat’s guidance, she stumbled to the cave where she’d birthed her children. She tore at Goros’s coat until it fell away. It had done its work–the wound had sealed. She prayed it would heal cleanly. Trayja stared at the discarded coat, remembering Goros’s kindness to her despite not knowing who she was. Without his help, she would have died. It was hard to accept.
The next day, her body grew hot despite the chilly air. After sniffing the wound, Jat snorted anxiously and licked Trayja’s neck. She brought moss and berries, but Trayja had no appetite. Then Jat brought water in her mouth, and Trayja drank, knowing she would die without it. The water tasted like her daughter’s scent as it splashed across her muzzle.
Trayja fought the fever, but it was strong. As she burned, she slipped into deeper sleep. She no longer heard her daughter’s snorts. She lost track of daylight as winter darkness took the land. Once she woke to realize Jat had vanished without leaving food. Her flank ached, and she noticed a bald patch where none had been before.
“Anishuywa, Kamulankuk,” she murmured. Confused, she slept again. She dreamed of the God lying with her, his white head soft against her belly. The Goddess stroked her back and whispered into her fur. “Child, child, you knew there would be a price.”
“I knew,” she said in her dream, speaking both reindeer and Yugulek at the same time. “I knew there would be a price. But it’s too high.”
“The price must be paid. You know what must be done, daughter.”
Trayja did. She remembered Anishuywa’s great gift to her. She’d been waiting all her life for this moment without knowing it. She wanted to touch her antlers to his, but she couldn’t move. “Wealthy One, I do know. Kamulankuk… I’ve asked you for so much, and not done as you wished. I’m sorry. I ask only one small thing more. So I can finish your tasks.”
The Goddess touched her forehead to Trayja’s. “What do you ask, child?”
“I need the strength to stand.”
The Goddess smiled, the expression spreading across her face like melting ice. “Granted, daughter. But that strength was already yours.”
Trayja woke. She was alone in the cave, still burning with fever. She pressed her forelegs to the ground and lifted herself on her haunches. She raised herself to her feet, slowly lifting her antlers until she looked straight ahead. “Anishuywa,” she whispered. “Kamulankuk.” The names gave her strength.
She left the cave, aching with every step. Snow covered the plain, and the herd was gone. She trudged westward, watching for wolves, and headed toward the Yugulek village. She stumbled on a rock and fell. Her wound tore open. Blood trickled down her leg and matted her fur. She remembered the day where she’d hurt her ankle on the mountain slope. It seemed like three lifetimes past.
Trayja forced herself to her feet. She had her freedom. She would do this on her own. A cold wind cut through her thick hide. The village huts lay across the plain ahead of her. Keep moving, keep moving. The village looked impossibly far away. Each step took more strength than the last. She walked until she could move no more, and then she collapsed. What little strength she had left was gone.
She lay in a stupor, and then smelled something familiar. My daughter– She opened her eyes. Jat stood before her, a clump of black fur clutched in her mouth. Behind her stood Goros, Khee, and the child Urag. Trayja struggled to stand, but failed. Jat dropped the fur and licked her nose. “I’ve brought them, Mother. Let them help you. You don’t have to fight alone.”
Trayja snorted weakly, wanting nothing to do with Goros. But Jat nuzzled her insistently. “His people worship you now. They say you brought a sacred healer to their village. Please, Mother. Trust me. Let them help you, because I can’t.”
I don’t need any help, Trayja wanted to protest. But Jat had been so brave–to go to the village, where a man might shoot her, and bring– Her nose fell forward. Goros stroked her head. He wore the beaded pants of a Councilman. “Stay with us, Anikala su gabki. This child–he has power. He can heal you, as he has healed others in our village. Khee, bring the child.”
Trayja tried to kick, but her legs wouldn’t move. Small hands touched her flank. She wouldn’t take help from Goros, but from Urag– My son, my child. He kissed her fur. She wanted to reach for him, but was too weak. She reached for her son with her spirit. The world spun when they touched.
Urag, the God’s son. She remembered his feeble attempts to drink her milk. But now he drank her fully. Urag lapped at the jurra streaming down her flank. The wound sealed underneath his tongue and vanished. Her fever floated away as her son drank the blood soup only she could provide.
She closed her eyes, her burden lifted. Her body shrank and transformed. When Urag finished, Trayja lay naked in the snow in Goros’s arms. Her son snuggled at her hip, and her daughter sniffed her hair. She had never been more content.
“Anishuywa, Kamulankuk,” whispered Goros, his eyes wide. He touched Trayja’s cheek. “You’ve earned a return and more, Second Wife. I don’t feel I’m worthy of you.”
Khee drummed her hands on her thighs and added, “I’ll do penance. I’ve treated you badly.”
At Trayja’s hip, Urag sat up straight. From his tiny body spoke a deep voice that rumbled like an avalanche. “Hear me now, for I speak Anishuywa’s truth. With this jurra I drink, I complete the circle. No more reindeer shall die for the boy-children of your people. I call on you to obey my true command: All sons of your people shall befriend a reindeer doe and learn her ways, that they might someday treasure their own wives as deeply.”
The boy fell silent. A moment later, he was laughing like any newly-weaned child. Trayja scooped him into her arms. How could she have thought to live without him? The day she’d asked to be alone seemed very long ago. Jat licked the boy’s neck. “Urag, my son,” said Trayja. “You’ll be a great Councilman one day with the wisdom of the reindeer.”
“So the God commands,” whispered Khee.
“Trayja, blessed one,” said Goros, “will you come home with us?”
Trayja looked at her husband and his primary wife. Her anger was gone, and seemed small compared to what she’d witnessed. They’d cared for her son, and Goros had saved her life on the plain. Still, Kamulankuk’s freedom ran in her blood. She could never return to their household. “I will not stay in Yugulek,” she said, “but I will dwell on the mountain with my son–where my daughter can visit freely without fear or danger. I will guard the shrine and keep it clean. Those who honor the reindeer may bring me food and supplies. And I will have another husband if it pleases me, or none if it does not.”
“So be it, black doe,” said Goros. He took off his coat and wrapped it around her. Khee offered her own gloves and soft boots. Trayja accepted their gifts. Done was done. She picked up her son and touched her daughter’s soft neck. The five of them walked toward the Yugulek village, snow crunching underfoot. Trayja looked up at the night sky. The clouds looked like antlers. Somewhere, the Goddess was laughing.

end_swoosh

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