“We thought the Bear People wiped out,” Astorek explained. “My father is glad to see we were wrong.”
“They warred with the Volarians,” Vaelin said. “Driven across the ice to find refuge in our lands. Not so with your people, I see.”
Astorek’s face grew sombre and Vaelin noted Kiral’s sympathetic wince, making him wonder what tune she heard from her song. “We had war,” the Volarian said. “It was ugly, but short.”
• • •
The settlement lay a mile along the coast. Instead of clearing the forest the Wolf People made their home amongst the trees. They were mostly pine mixed with birch, tall and strong enough to support the walkways constructed between them, their branches liberally adorned with ropes and ladders. The larger dwellings were all at ground level, wooden conical structures, part covered in moss and seeming to flow around the trees as if they had grown in their shade like great mushrooms. They were led to the largest structure, an impressive circular building constructed around the tallest tree, its trunk sprouting from the centre of the wooden floor and ascending through the multi-beamed roof. The interior featured numerous low tables but no chairs, the Wolf People habitually sitting on piles of fur they carried from dwelling to dwelling as the need arose. Many had already begun to fill the space by the time Vaelin and the others were led in, Astorek ushering them to a set of tables arranged around the central tree.
“This is your council chamber?” Vaelin asked, sitting on one of the fur bundles with Dahrena at his side. “The place where decisions are made,” he elaborated in response to the young Volarian’s baffled look.
“Decisions.” Astorek sighed a faint laugh, glancing over to where the man he called father was taking his seat, gesturing for Wise Bear to join him. “All decisions were taken long ago. And not by us.”
Alturk slumped down opposite before Vaelin could ask anything further, muttering, “My people would have fed us by now. Or killed us.” The Sentar war chief had lost weight on the march, as had they all, but whilst the others had mostly recovered in recent days, the depredations of the ice seemed to linger in him. Lonak men did not grow beards and his face had a skull-like leanness, his once-bald head now sprouting a disordered jumble of black hair and his arms lacking the same thickness of muscle. The depth of sorrow Vaelin had seen in him back in the mountains also hadn’t lifted and he wondered if Alturk was deliberately holding to it, allowing the sadness to reduce him, perhaps even hoping the ice could do what battle could not.
“You should rejoice,” Dahrena told the Lonak. “Now you have the greatest story to tell when you go home.”
“Alturk never shares at the fire,” Kiral said. “Though my sister once told me he has a story to shame all others. For Alturk, as confirmed by the Mahlessa herself, once heard the voice of a god.”
Alturk slammed his hand on the table, grating something in his own language and glowering fiercely at Kiral. Vaelin made ready to rise in her defence but the huntress just smiled, meeting his gaze with a complete absence of fear and saying something in Lonak which she quickly translated for Vaelin and Dahrena: “A story not shared is a waste of riches.”
Food was brought in shortly after, wooden platters piled with roasted meat, also bowls of nuts and berries. “Tastes like seal,” Alturk observed, taking a large bite of meat. “Though not so tough.”
“Walrus,” Astorek explained, coming to sit down at their table. “Winter meat. We eat mostly elk in the summer.” He gave Alturk and Kiral a curious glance, his gaze switching between them and Vaelin. “You are not from the same tribe.”
“No,” Alturk confirmed in an emphatic growl, chewing and swallowing. “We are Lonakhim. They”—he jerked his head at Dahrena and Vaelin—“are Merim Her.”
“We were enemies for a long time,” Vaelin said. “Now we are allies, made so by your people.”
Astorek gave a sigh of annoyance but this time refused to display any offence. “These are my people.”
“How do you come to speak our language?” Dahrena asked.
Astorek glanced at Whale Killer, now engaged in animated conversation with Wise Bear. “A tale to be told soon enough.”
The meal lasted into the night, the copious meat supplemented by a heady brew that smelt strongly of pine. Vaelin took only a sip before setting it aside although Alturk seemed to appreciate it. “Like drinking a tree,” he said, voicing a rare laugh as he drained his bowl.
“We ferment wild berries and pine-cones,” Astorek said. “Let it sit long enough and you can use it to light fires.”
“Lights a fire in my belly, true enough.” Alturk lifted another bowl to his lips, drinking it down in a few gulps. As the evening wore on Vaelin was relieved to find the hulking Lonak a morose drunk rather than a fighting one, watching him slump forward, head rested on his hand as he continued to down the pine ale, muttering to himself in his own language, much to Kiral’s evident disgust.
“You shame the Mahlessa Sentar with this display,” she sniffed.
Alturk curled his lip and said a few short words in Lonak. From Kiral’s furious reaction Vaelin judged they were not complimentary. She snarled a curse in Lonak, getting to her feet, her knife half-drawn.
“Enough!” Vaelin told her, voice heavy with command and loud enough to herald a sudden silence in the hall. “This is not your home and you insult our hosts,” he went on in a quieter tone, his gaze shifting to Alturk. “And you, Tahlessa, should go and sleep it off.”
“Merim Her,” Alturk slurred, half rising, fumbling for his war club and promptly dropping it. “Son killer!” He braced his arms on the table and tried to lever himself up. However, the task seemed to be beyond his diminished limbs and he collapsed, his face connecting with the table with a painful thump. He remained in the same position and soon began to snore.
“Varnish,” Kiral sneered, sitting down again and glaring at Vaelin. “You should have let me kill him. My song finds little of worth in him.”
“A troubled mind deserves healing, not death,” Astorek told her, casting a sympathetic gaze over the slumbering Lonak. “And those of the same tribe should not kill each other.”
Kiral laughed, popping a berry into her mouth. “Then, since we’re no longer allowed to kill the Merim Her, the Lonak would have little else to do.”
Astorek gave a sorrowful shake of his head. “All so strange, but so familiar.”
• • •
The feast came to an end some hours later, the Sentar carrying the still-unconscious Alturk to the far end of the hall where Astorek told them they were welcome to make their beds, the settlement lacking any empty dwellings to house so many newcomers. “The tribe grows larger by the year,” he said. “We are required to build constantly.”
Whale Killer and Many Wings appeared at his side along with Wise Bear, the shamaness pointing her staff towards the hall’s broad doorway. “It is time for our tale,” Astorek said.
After the warmth of the hall the cold outside felt crushing, stealing the air from Vaelin’s lungs and provoking an instant thumping in his temples. Dahrena and Kiral accompanied him as they followed the ice folk into the forest, Astorek leading the way with a flaming torch. The path was steep and thick with snow, the way ever more difficult the higher they climbed though the Wolf People moved with the unconscious speed born of having walked this trail many times.
Finally they came to a flat expanse at the base of a rugged cliff, Astorek lifting his torch so the light played over a narrow opening in the rock face. Vaelin saw how Kiral and Dahrena stiffened at the sight of the cave, and how Wise Bear took a firmer hold on his bone-staff. “Power?” he asked him.
“Much power,” the shaman confirmed, peering into the cave with obvious unease. “Maybe too much.”
“There is no danger for you here,” Astorek said, moving into the cave and beckoning Vaelin to follow. “This place is as much yours as ours.”
The cave entrance was narrow but opened out into a broad cavern, the walls dry and the air musty with age. Numerous bowl-like indentations had been carved into the cavern floor, each stained with dried pigment of different hues, but it was the walls that captured Vaelin’s attention. The cavern curved around them in a long semicircle, two-thirds of its length richly adorned in paintings, the colours so vibrant they seemed to shimmer in the light from Astorek’s torch.
Many Wings spoke, ushering Vaelin towards the stretch of wall nearest the cave mouth. “Mother bids you welcome to the memory of the Wolf People,” Astorek said.
Vaelin peered at the images painted onto the stone and was surprised to find the paint fresh, the images clear and easily discerned, a large patch of black paint adorned with small pinpricks of yellow he took to symbolise the night sky. A little farther along he found an image of crude stick figures, all arranged into a single large group, and next to them the same group divided by three black lines.
“The end of the first Long Night,” Astorek said, “and the birth of the three tribes, dividing the islands between them. There were no shamans then, and life was hard. But still we prospered.” He moved along, the torch flickering over various scenes, the images becoming less crude as they progressed, so that soon there were no more stick figures, but clear depictions of people and beasts. Hunters speared walrus on the ice or cast harpoons at whales from the prow of boats, others raised dwellings among the trees. Vaelin paused at the next image, taking a moment to fully understand the scene; an island, Wolf Home judging by the shape of the mountain, and alongside it a vessel of some kind, but of completely unfamiliar design. It was long and low in the water with only a single mast and far more oars than any modern ship.