30 November, 2006

Chapter 1

MICHAEL paused, leaning on the long handle of the axe. He did not rest long though; experience had taught him that an extended break, even to catch his breath, was an open invitation for the bitter cold to catch him. All around, the world stood still and silent, wrapped in winter's shroud. The snowpack was deep this year, having already reached seven arms in depth, and another arm or two on the way, but still not enough to ocassion much comment. The old-timers still spoke of the winter when the snowpack had reached nearly three paces, blocking the snow doors in the second floor of most houses. He was wrapped in his heavy bearskin robe, which made swinging the axe rather awkward. Although his leather and wool snowsuit would have kept him just as warm and given him better mobility, he wore the skin with the bear's head sitting upon his own like a helmet, the same way the Yekrut tribes would, as it protected from more than just the cold. Michael did not believe in the Yekrut superstition that the bear's spirit would give him greater strength or power, but the wolves did think twice about attacking. He was not too worried about them this early in the season, but out here a man who did not take precautions was a dead man. At least, that is what his mother kept telling him.

As he caught his breath he scanned the nearby trees and, with a final glance at his bow propped by the sled, he hefted the axe and resumed his vigorous attack on the helpless tree. The victim of his brutality was an atnalym tree, the only one for miles around and a good thing it was. The atnalym tree reached full maturity from a sapling in about two years. Although it never stopped growing, it would only reach about sixteen to nineteen arms in height. It would simply begin to cast off older branches to make room for the newer. It had no fruit or seed; the cast-off branches would simply sprout roots and continue growing. A plague if uncontrolled, they suffered this one to stay because if trimmed to the trunk every year, it produced enough wood to warm the house through the long winter months and never grew enough to begin shedding its own branches. Throughout the White Mountains every house had one or two of these trees within a mile or two, and the towns, a well-tended grove. Every year when the snowpack began to reach the lower branches, the people would spend a few days cutting and carting the wood to be cured for next year. In the towns this was a great social event, as everyone lent a hand. But for Michael it was a solitary affair.

He and his mother, Tenahj, lived alone on their small farm, where they had a moderate-sized yak herd and a respectable apple orchard. Among the many farms and four towns that populated the White Mountains, Tenahj was known as the foremost authority on yaks. Hers gave the finest wool and richest milk and were highly prized as breeding stock. The apples on the other hand, were Michael's. He was only two weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday, and already respected as an apple grower. He had started about five years previous, when he was only thirteen years old, with the long-neglected grove that had been there with the previous owner. After much pruning, grafting, mulching, and everything else that went into it, he had just this year harvested enough to sell at the annual trader's market held three weeks ago.

Michael worked on through the day, stopping only to catch his breath and scan the surrounding trees. Lunch he considered a waste of time; he preferred to chew on bits of dried bear and yak meat with some cheese for flavor while he worked. To drink, he had a couple of skins of apple brandy. Water or unfermented cider would have frozen before reaching the tree that morning. He paused once more as the sun stood half-way above the treetops to survey his work. About an hour and a half of daylight remained, and it was time to start loading the sled if he wanted to get back before full dark. As it was, he would burn a lot of oil getting the evening chores done. As he surveyed what remained of the tree Michael smiled in self satisfaction. Tomorrow he would finish by midday, for a total of three and a half days of work, down a half-day from last year.

He loaded the sled quickly with all he could carry, stacking the rest for transport tomorrow. The pile of wood had grown rather impressive with the work of the past days. He sighed as he looked at it. It would take more than one trip to carry it home. He began to trudge his way towards home, pulling the heavily laden sled behind him. The wide bottom of the sled kept it from sinking into the snow while his own snowshoes provided enough traction to pull it. Not for the first time, nor the last, Michael thought fondly of his skiis, impossible to use while pulling the heavy load.

The sun had already dipped below the western peaks and the light was fading fast when he finally arrived at the woodpile by the barn, breathing hard from the exertion. Quickly he unloaded the sled and stowed it in the barn. Like the house, the barn had two levels, the first made of stone and the second made of wood. The snow had completely covered the door of the lower level, but a small wooden ramp was still needed to reach the winter door. A trapdoor in the dim recesses of the back offered access via a ladder to the lower level where the herd was penned until spring. Lighting a lantern he made his way past several storerooms to the trapdoor and down the ladder to check on the yaks. As he approached the pen of the three pregnant yaks, they softly snorted in greeting. He reached over to scratch behind the ears of two by the railing, then broke the thin skim of ice in the water trough. Though warmer inside than out, it was still cold, and the animals made good use of the abundant hay on the dirt floor. Reaching for a lever above the feeding trough, Michael released a generous amount of grain from a large storage bin in the upper level through a small chute.

Michael then repeated the routine with the other two pens, one for the other females and one for their bull. Back upstairs, he forked down some hay to supplement the grain. At the door he redonned his snowshoes and gathered his gear, all of which he had left at the door. After cleaning the axe and large tree saw, he left them with the sled in one of the storerooms. A short uphill walk brought him to the house, where he cooked himself a small supper before sitting down by the fire with a book.

Tenahj had left the same day Michael had started the woodcutting. She was not due back for at least two more days. She had gone bear-hunting, the meat and skins of which provided the third source of income which allowed their small family to live in relative comfort. The bones they would trade with the Yekrut tribe in the spring for a few day's labor, repairing buildings and equipment mostly.

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Tenahj arrived midafternoon four days later. Michael was downstairs, working on the embroidery of the jacket he planned on wearing to the Solstice celebration in a week, when he heard the horn blast that announced her imminent arrival. He quickly pulled on his snowsuit over his clothes to greet her and help her unload. He saw her about a half-mile northwest of the farm. He went out to greet her and help her pull the sled the rest of the way. The first thing he noticed as he approached his mother was that she carried her bow strung in her hand. She had taught him to string the bow only if he expected to use it. The second thing he noticed was even more worrisome and perplexing than the first. There was no bear on the sled.

"What happened?" he asked, after they had embraced and greeted one another.

Tenahj looked for a moment into her son's worried eyes, then said, "I'll tell you over a cup of hot cider. How are the yaks? You did follow my instructions?" She made that last sound more like an ominous statement than a question.

"Yes, yes," Michael replied, a trifle impatient with her question, then proceeded to give an account of the past week, enlarging a bit, perhaps, on his own industriousness. Truth was, he had spent a little more time reading than he would have had she been there. They both laughed at his description of young Hu's complaints both times that he had come out. Young Hu came out two or three times every week to buy what milk they had for sale, and to sell what cheese and butter they wanted. His father was the dairyman for Sweetwater, the nearest town, and possibly the largest in the White Mountains. Young Hu had the dubious honor of collecting the milk for processing, and neither Tenahj nor Michael could remember a time when he did not complain about something.

Beyond that, nothing of special note occurred during the days that she was gone; the yaks were fed, watered, healthy and happy, the winter stores were in good shape, the mending was almost done, etc.

"And there's a kettle of cider and a pot of stew simmering on the fire," he concluded, as he closed the barn door. Tenahj had taken a quick look at the yaks while Michael had stowed the gear, and now they headed towards the house together. Tenahj still carried her strung bow, but no longer walked like one herself.

She was a striking woman. Lean and muscular, she was not exactly beautiful, but still enough to make men give her more than a passing glance. She was tall for a woman, measuring just over six arms in height, which added to her presence and aura of strength and wisdom. The sun itself seemed to shine brighter when she was happy, as if trying to validate her mood. Right now, however, the sun didn't seem to be shining very enthusiastically, even with the mention of hot food and drink.

Michael was still curious, as well as a little anxious, about his mother's week, but he knew that no amount of wheedling from him would get the tale out any faster. At the house, Tenahj finally unstrung her bow, and went immediately to her room to change out of the clothes she had lived in for her entire trip, and to wash up a little. Michael went downstairs to finish the meal preparations. After everything was ready and they had sat down at the table to eat, Tenahj said, "I want to leave for the solstice celebration the day after tomorrow."

Michael slowly pulled the spoon out of his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. That would be two days earlier than they usually went. For his mother to be willing to leave the yaks alone for that long... something serious must be worrying her. "Ma, what happened?" he asked.

Tenahj took another couple of bites before answering, "Two days west of here I came across the tracks of a large group of animals moving north and east. I followed them for about a day to the caves on the west side of the peaks above Sweetwater. Halfway there I found two Yekrut trackers huddled in a protective ring to ward off spirits. They told me the tracks were made by 'demon spirits'. I've rarely seen a Yekrut as scared as they were. What is it?" she asked, seeing the surprised expression on her son's face.

"The tracks, did they look like a person's hand, with only three fingers and a thumb?" he asked.

"Where did you see them?" was her reply. She had gone as stiff as a bowstring at his question.

"I saw a set of them by the woodpile the last day that I cut wood," he said, a worried look on his face, "I asked young Hu about them, but he didn't know anything; he said he would ask at the other farms he was going to," he hesitated, then added, "Ma, what are they?"

She hesitated, too, poking at the remains of her stew, then sighed and said, "I don't know."

This just added to Michael's puzzlement. "But you know every track in the White Mountain," he said, almost pleading, " how can you not know what they are?"

She looked Michael in the eyes, and said, "I've never seen tracks like that before. I have no idea what made them." It was the tone of voice in which Tenahj spoke these words that caused Michael to be suddenly plagued by a feeling that something was about to go terribly, dreadfully wrong.

"I've changed my mind," Tenahj said, standing up, "we leave tomorrow as soon as we can."

The feeling stayed with Michael the rest of the evening.

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