Happy reading. 😁
A week later, Atanar paused beside a copse of fir trees, searching for a suitable location for the snare. A well-traveled game trail was best, preferably one surrounded by rocks or thick brush, which would funnel his prey through his chosen spot.
Something cracked behind him. “Shit,” Corvac muttered. “Sorry.”
Atanar bit back a sigh but did not turn. “I said, ‘silently.’”
Crouched low, eyes darting across the trees, Corvac drew beside him. “I’m trying. How in Atal’s name can you be so quiet? You’re as big as a fucking oak tree.”
Atanar frowned at the Aredian terms, but ignored them for now. “Practice,” he replied in a whisper. “Of which you need more of.”
“I can catch as many rabbits as I want.”
There. Where those saplings curved toward one another, a few rocks were strewn on either side, creating a path between the young trees. The dirt and snow were kicked up as well, revealing the neat prints of fallow deer.
Atanar withdrew the sinew to wind it into a noose. The juniper and white sage oil he’d rubbed on their clothes stung his nostrils, but would help mask his and Corvac’s scent. “Rabbits aren’t filling,” he said as he worked. “It’s more efficient to kill one larger creature than a dozen small ones.”
Corvac studied Atanar’s hands, which deftly knotted the sinew and began looping it around the saplings. “Eh, there’s no point in catching deer. We get everything we need from our real hunts. I only catch the rabbits because Utu likes their pelts.”
Snare secure, Atanar glanced around the area to mentally mark the location before moving on. Corvac followed, and they walked through the pine and fir trees for a few minutes before Atanar asked, “What is it that you really hunt, if not large game? There are no atsuula here, and only a few toothless old ones in your camp.”
“How many more traps are you going to set?” Corvac replied instead. “I stink of sage and we’ve been out here all fuckingmorning. I want to get back before the others leave for their hunt.”
Now, Atanar paused and regarded the boy, who stared back with a mixture of amusement and unease. “What?” Corvac finally asked.
Even his accent held too many traces of Aredian.
Atanar shook his head before he slipped around a juniper bush. “No self-respecting Canderi should use such…Aredian slang. It’s beneath us.”
The boy waggled his eyebrows. “It is? Ea’s tits! I’ll have to let the others know.”
“Na nippu ikhu.” The Canderi words rolled off of Atanar’s tongue like wind through grass. How musical they sounded next to the crass Aredian speech.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Corvac scrunch his face as he repeated the words, then the boy frowned. “What’s that mean?”
Atanar fought back a smile and paused before another clearing. “That was me telling you to stop speaking from your ass.”
Corvac gaped at him, then tossed back his head in laughter loud enough to rouse a family of ptarmigans from their roosts. As the game birds fluttered away, Atanar shot the boy a warning look, but Corvac only grinned at him with the same kind of broad, delighted smile that Nel used to give. Atanar’s chest tightened and he had to look elsewhere.
He swallowed thickly and continued along the trail, which was blanketed with brown needles. In this area, the trees were so thick that their boughs draped the trail in shades of green and kept the worst of the snow at bay. Not much farther on, gleams of white broke through the dark shadows of the trees. Cold wind stung Atanar’s face, even through his beard and thick furs, and froze his breath into spirals of white air; spring was coming, but winter had not yet released its grip upon the world.
Corvac peered between the conifers on all sides. “Do you really expect to catch a deer with those little loops?”
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Corvac said. “We have everything we need. We don’t want your deer.”
Something passed ahead, beyond the tree-line. Something big. “More for me,” Atanar replied, lifting his hand in silent signal for Corvac to stop.
But Corvac didn’t stop, not even once the creature passing ahead became visible. Atanar grabbed the boy’s fur-lined jacket to pull him back, and dragged him bodily behind a few closely-growing conifers.
To the boy’s credit, he didn’t curse until they were settled, then he shot Atanar a scandalized look. “What the fuck are you–”
Atanar clamped a gloved hand over Corvac’s mouth and nodded ahead, where the caradoc crossed into the clearing. Already taller than Corvac at its shoulder, the snow lion was still lean and lanky with youth; his mane, too, was scraggly, like the beard of a teenage boy. Spots of charcoal flecked its white coat, creating the perfect camouflage within the forest. The caradoc moved across the clearing with the effortless grace of one who feared nothing, though no doubt every sense was alert for a trace of danger – or supper.
Atanar resolved that Corvac would be neither.
Corvac shifted, but Atanar did not release him until the snow lion had passed out of sight. Even then, he gave the boy a stern look, pressing his finger to his lips in a gesture to be silent, and removed his hand.
He’d expected the boy to exclaim immediately, perhaps with more accursed Aredian swearing, but Corvac only craned his head to get a last look at the caradoc. “What was that?”
Atanar’s throat tightened and it took him a moment too long to reply. “A caradoc. A young one, too, by the look of his mane.”
“Caradoc,” Corvac whispered reverently. “I’ve never seen one before. Only heard of them. Do…” He winced. “Your name. Caradoc Keraasi Atanar. You were from that clan, right?”
By now, everyone in the kulkri camp knew Atanar’s story – and his shame. The proud snow lion whom had once been revered by Atanar’s entire clan was now no more than a memory, and a stain of blood covered by snow.
Atanar pretended to study the open patch of ground where the caradoc had passed. When he was certain he could speak normally, he jerked his chin. “Let me show you something.”
Corvac studied the clearing again. “Uh…are you sure it’s safe? Won’t that thing come back?”
“Doubtful,” Atanar said as he slipped free of their hiding spot. “But just in case…how fast can you run?”
When Corvac gaped at him again, it was Atanar’s turn to lift his brows. In response, Corvac jerked his finger in a gesture that was no doubt meant to be insulting. Atanar ignored it—it was probably Aredian, anyway—and made his way to the clearing, where he scanned the tree-line again to be certain the caradoc had gone.
Corvac pointed to the trail of massive paw prints that marked the predator’s passage through the snow. “Ea’s tits,” the boy breathed. “Look at the size of those tracks!”
Kneeling, Atanar spread his hand across the nearest print; they were the same size. “This one’s only a few summers old,” he murmured as Corvac did the same to another print, which dwarfed his hand. “I’d wager it just left its family den a few weeks ago, when the snow started to thaw.”
“Will it get much bigger?” Corvac asked.
Atanar held up both hands, placing his thumbs and forefingers together and spreading his palms. “An adult’s paws are about this size. Ruuk’s were larger.”
“Shit.” Corvac stared at the tracks again, shaking his head slowly.
“Have you truly never seen a caradoc before?” Atanar asked.
Corvac shrugged. “We usually don’t travel this far north. Utu says it’s too cold. But sometimes the hunting is good.” He paused. “Did you… I mean, I’ve heard the others say that some Canderi actually ride these things. Is that true?”
Suddenly, it was difficult to breathe. A hot flush spread through Atanar, despite the cold air, and his stomach churned with the memory of Ruuk’s blood painting the snow beneath his feet. His fault. Atanar had not held the claymore, but he may as well have slit the snow lion’s throat. The result would have been the same.
Even in the company of others, he was alone, bereft of the companion he’d raised from a kit since he was Corvac’s age. No matter where he went or what he did, he would never feel that connection with another living being. He was alone; he would always be alone.
Atanar blinked and looked back at the boy, frowning at him beneath his fur-lined hood. “Yes,” he managed. “It’s true.”
I’m sorry, Ruuk. Atanar had destroyed so much; it was the way of vorunn, to take everything until it left one empty. “Yes.”
When he said nothing else, Corvac frowned, then nodded to the snares at Atanar’s belt. “Can we go home now? Unless you want to stand around and keep freezing your fucking arse off.”
Atanar sighed deeply. “Ancestors help me,” he said as they began to make their way back to the trail. “You must learn some new words.”
I had a lot of fun creating the Canderi language. It’s loosely based off of Inuit. This was my primary resource: https://library.alaska.gov/hist/hist_docs/docs/anlm/200078.pdf
Next time: The smile she gave him held no warmth. “Ready your weapon, and try to keep up.”