Over mountains low and smooth, like placed pebbles, and frozen valleys quick and sly... Through thrusts of northern air... Past snowdrifts deep as graves, firs shaggy with snow... Swoop closer, closer, in, in... The last white spine... and you will find us.
We have reached The Frozen Altar at last; the icy structure sparkles in the oystery light of dawn. The winds are the easterly kind that Blit, our Glorious Mountain, cannot protect us from, and I have to squint as I search for hints of blizzards or Avians in the sky. Nothing – the sky is pale and untelling, with only a soaking of oranges in the far south.
The Altar marks Blit's base; beyond this point the Bleak Foothills end and Blit begins staggering skyward, the frightening climax of our landscape. His peak can be seen from our village further north – we have travelled half the night, without rest, to be here. There are seventeen of us in total – my father and sixteen hunters, including myself.
Father takes his place behind the Altar, and the rest of us form a half-circle in front of it. When we are ready, Father turns his back on us to face Blit.
"Blit, our Glorious Mountain," he begins, his voice rough. "You protect us from western winds. You provide us with limestone for our houses, food for our tables, and in the Sixty Warm Days, you provide us with mosses, berries, wildflowers, and time to grow and mine. Now, we ask you to choose which of these hunters before you will be our next chief. Choose wisely."
Frowning, Father turns back to the rest of us. "I hope I have served you well as your chief; now, we must welcome The Sixty Warm Days with another. I will not be forwarding myself again this hunt, but I forward my only children for the first time, my daughter, Leetha, and my son Kalleb." He looks at me, then at Kalleb, who is slouching beside me and twiddling his thick black hair. I wince at the mention of his name. Bastard. Even gets a special mention in Father's speech.
Father only told me last night that Kalleb had decided to forward himself, despite promising me it's you alone, Leetha. Kalleb isn't interested. Kalleb won't.
Well, Kalleb did. Why did I expect anything less? The boy's a sly bastard. Sly as an Avian...
I am pulled out of my thoughts by a large, heavy hand on my shoulder. I look up: Old Renkarr towers over me. I can't tell if it's his smile or his sweat that are making his whiskery, ruddy face shine.
"First hunt, eh? I still think of you and Kalleb as babes; I'm sure your father does, too. I'll look out for you on the mountain."
I'd rather he didn't, but I don't say that out loud. I just nod, and turn back to my father. "Choose your kills well. Hares, birds, foxes and rykox, for example, will only score you between ten and twenty hunting points. You have five days to bring back your kills – five because that is the amount of time it took Blit the Legendary Hunter to track, kill, and return an alpha." Father pauses to swab every hunter with his gaze. I have seen ice the same colour as his eyes – black, slippery and dangerous. "Avians," he says suddenly. "Avians rule the mountain. If you let them, they will impale you, wear you on their beaks as trophies… and then skin what's left of you with their talons, ribbon by ribbon. Always look up."
It's time to hunt.
We begin our ascent; all sixteen of us trudge together. The mountain is careful at this low altitude, dawdling, and the spilled snow is shallow, yet some hunters use their walking sticks and others pull each other up. Old Renkarr is the only one who sprints up, his footsteps strangely gentle considering his size. He gives me a brief nod as he passes me.
I need to separate; three of the weaklings tail me, as though hoping I will help them out of pity, whilst Haytos' enormous sons step in front of me deliberately and point their knives at their necks. They let their tongues loll out too, and Erst, the oldest, also mashes his awful jutting teeth. What I'd give to shoot my arrows at their faces. It would surely be an improvement.
What they don't have in faces, the brothers certainly have in weapons: Layers of knives, several small spears on their backs and an axe each, as well as sweeping bows of wood and caribou skin very similar to mine. Those bows could definitely take down an Avian or two. That's probably the kill they are going for, judging by the amount of arrows in the cases at their sides. Just like me.
I deliberately slip back, further and further, until the Haytos brothers are too far away to care about anymore. Kalleb, however, keeps my pace perfectly and stays close – no doubt just to annoy me. I feel myself burn from the inside out, but I hold my tongue, because there are still other hunters around.
Myka's two daughters overtake me – they're going a little too slowly, aren't they? – they play with their necklaces of blades and giggle, and walk practically cheek-to-cheek. I get the tingling feeling that they're laughing at me, a thought that makes me tighten my hold on my bow. They're playing stupid, I remember. Father warned you about that.
Kalleb cannot be shaken. He is a fever. When the last scraggy things of the group have passed me, I finally stop. "What do you want?"
His pupils seem to fatten as he grins, "To help you become chief."
I scoff. "Or to kill me in my sleep?"
"You won't get a better kill than any of the Haytos giants, admit it. You need me." Is that a hint of laughter in his voice?
I stand tall to match his height and move close to his thin, gaunt face. I don't like his eyes – mineral-blue colours that spill neither light nor power – they are worn and weak, threadbare. "What I need is to become chief. In some tribes, it would be my birthright. But I don't mind fighting for my title. It makes me even more worthy-"
There is a scream directly ahead. I run up the slope, past a curling of rock…. One of the hunters convulses madly in the snow. His face is so red and pain-twisted that I can't recognise him at first, but it soon falls in place – former chief Moe's son Wayat, who is no more than twelve. He shrieks like a starved thing and his savage movements leave the powders flying around him. With his shaking fingers, he fumbles with his coat – I realise he is trying to take it off. I waste no time in putting an arrow through his skull.
Kalleb shouts and grabs my arm, but the boy's forehead is already centre-pierced and frilling with blood.
"It was just fever of the mountain," Kalleb whispers shakily. "It wasn't-"
"He was convulsing; he could have been transforming into an Avian. We can't take any chances, you know that."
A/N: All reviews are returned (I review back).
All work by Victoria Best (id. 657454) is copyright under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.