Authors: Chris Paton
Embers of the Raven
A CHRISTMAS STORY FROM GREENLAND
Originally Published: November, 2012
By Chris Paton
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Paton
Cover Art by Nicole Cardiff
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events or organisations is entirely coincidental.
All rights are reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the author.
Embers of the Raven
Snow fell softly upon the little man toiling through the drifts, slipping up the slope, sweating beneath his skins. All the while the raven watched.
“Humph,” said the little man when he spotted the raven, but he did not stop. The twilight was growing stronger and he had yet to find a suitable qaarusuk for the day. It would be a cold day once again and the little man was loathe to spend another polar day burrowed in the snow like an animal. “A cave is what I needs and wants,” the little man muttered. With lumpy digits he fingered the sealskin pouch tied around his waist, hidden beneath his inner layer of furs. He gave the pouch a reassuring squeeze before withdrawing his hand deep within the heavy cuffs of his skins. As the little man toiled further up the mountainside the raven took to the wing, following him.
The little man, no more than a dwarf in size, stature and temperament, turned at the sound of the raven in flight. He humphed once more and carried on. The snow was less deep here but the rocks upon which he trod were smeared with a thick gelatinous glass, cold and hard to the touch and treacherous to the lone traveller lost in his thoughts. Mikissok, for that was the dwarf’s name, slipped and fell hard on his knees the impact of which jarred his body, stretched his patience and tried his humour. Mikissok humphed again, closed his eyes and stood once more upon his broad feet and two short legs. Upon opening his eyes Mikissok saw the raven padding about the snow a mere stone’s throw before him. Mikissok rubbed his knees with gnarled, stubby hands. After a moment he stood at his full height and lurched upon the snowy trail until he found his rhythm once more. The raven followed, hopping and flapping behind the dwarf.
As the moon circled above the dwarf toiled below. He and his raven companion moved quickly through the pass and entered a broad valley that stretched down before them. Mikissok paused a moment at the top of the tongue of snow slipping into the valley below. The dwarf took a deep breath and held it in his lungs. With a quick nod and a wink to the raven Mikissok leaped upon the broad snow-tongue and plunged down the shallow mountainside and hurtled into the valley below. With a yawp echoing about the black walls of the dark winter night, Mikissok slid for a long time. The grim smile upon the dwarf’s leathery face was plain to see in the winter moonlight. Mikissok could care less about gruff dwarven reputations, for all he knew he was the only dwarf this side of winter and besides, this was fun. As his passage slowed and the raven flapped to a stop beside him, Mikissok wiped a tear from his wind-blown eyes and sucked at the salty tip of his finger. He winked again at the raven before pushing himself onto his feet to begin the march along the valley floor. There was a good-sized qaarusuk, one he often used, just a short distance into the valley and Mikissok reckoned he would be there before too long. He fingered the pouch around his waist one more time before setting off.
Mikissok had gone but a few feet when he felt a chill wind upon his broad neck. Exposing his left hand, Mikissok reached up to check his hood had not been torn during his wild ride along the valley tongue. The hood was in perfect condition and the dwarf was suddenly alert. Mikissok grew still and sank to his knees upon the snow. From a distance, in his dark sealskins, Mikissok looked like just one more boulder strewn upon the valley floor. The raven waddled slowly into his vision. Her black eyes did not rest as she scanned the valley sides.
“Be still bird,” Mikissok hissed. The raven froze, her wings held tightly to her body. Still, like another small boulder among many, the raven’s eyes continued their furtive questing about the valley. Mikissok sniffed the air as a pungent breath of carrion whispered along the surface of the snow towards him. The dwarf risked a quick glance downwind and instantly regretted it. Moving slowly towards them in a long loping gait was a lanky four-fingered beast. Its long arms swung back and forth between the slow swings of a bulbous knapsack pulling heavily upon its back. Mikissok knew what was in the knapsack long before he heard the muffled screams drowning amid the crunch of the breaking crust of snow beneath the beast’s feet. The dwarf knew this beast, he knew her well. Amâgaiat she was called and that knapsack on her back was the
, a half rotten sealskin sack patched with the tanned flesh of her victims. Amâgaiat often prowled under a winter moon, preying upon lone travellers, Greenlanders travelling to and fro between the winter settlements. Mikissok had seen Amâgaiat all too often and for that he was fortunate. He knew her blind spots; upon the barren arctic landscape Amâgaiat was blind to anything that did not move. As the fell beast passed by the dwarf Mikissok held his breath and stilled his thoughts. Through half-lidded eyes he regarded the raven. For a moment he thought she had flown so still was she, her black eyes closed, her beak tucked into her breast.
“Clever bird,” Mikissok thought to himself as the air grew gradually sweeter and the crunch of the beast’s footsteps retreated up the valley tongue. The wind whipped up the snow from Amâgaiat’s broken trail before the dwarf as if cleansing the air once again. A dervish of snow danced in front of Mikissok before planting itself in an apologetic heap before him. Mikissok sniffed the air quietly. He listened and then peered intently at the raven. Under the dwarf’s gaze the raven cracked an eye open, twisted her head first one way and then the other before hopping onto the fresh pile of snow between them. The raven nodded at the dwarf and Mikissok took that as his cue to stand and massage his poor knees. He turned and followed the trail behind him with his eyes. The beast was gone.
“Troll bitch,” Mikissok spat. “She’ll be feasting tonight, raven, you can be sure of that.”
The raven cocked her head at an angle and blinked.
“She must be hungry,” Mikissok continued. “That looked like a whole family she had there in the amauten. Poor devils,” he shook his head. “Well, bird,” he said after a moment. “You have earned a night in my qaarusuk, whenever I do find it. Come on. ‘Tis this way.” Mikissok marched off with a new urgency. Whereas the sun would not rise this morning, nor for many mornings to come, the moon was setting and the dwarf did not walk during the winter day if he could help it.
Mikissok crawled between the frosted rocks; the raven followed brushing the snow to either side with her great wings. The entrance to the qaarusuk would have been a tight squeeze for an adult Greenlander, but Mikissok slipped under the great boulder with the ease of a child at play in winter. Once inside Mikissok moved further under the boulder and flopped into a shallow depression within which he could stand and remove his sealskin smock and trousers. As the dwarf pulled the smock over his head he wrinkled his nose.
“Humph,” he said. “I am a little ripe.” Mikissok glanced at the raven padding about the entrance. “It’s not that bad, bird,” he called. “Are you coming in?” The raven cocked her head but remained at the entrance. “Suit yourself.” Mikissok hung his smock from a crude stone hook he had fashioned on the underside of the boulder, the roof above his head. The raven disappeared from the entrance as Mikissok fiddled with the pouch around his waist and pulled out a small portion of kindling. It was no more than several short lengths of dried roots, but it would make all the difference. Mikissok scrambled deeper into the qaarusuk and retrieved a bundle of twigs and tiny branches from the deepest, darkest and driest part of his abode. It was not long before the dwarf had a small fire going and the raven, curious, reappeared at the entrance to the qaarusuk and, tentatively, she hopped in.
“Nice to have a bit of company,” Mikissok said with a smile upon his grim face. “It’s not often I get to share anything.” He reached out with a short, muscled arm and dropped a small hunk of dried hare at the raven’s feet. She attacked it immediately, teasing and stretching, pulling at the meat without pause. Mikissok chuckled deep in his throat, the smile played upon his face in the glow of the fire. He chewed several pieces of meat from the cache between the rocks before throwing a couple more to the raven. He was warm, he was safe and the day had just begun. Mikissok added a few more twigs to the fire and crawled onto the reindeer skins that served as a bed in his sleeping space. Scratching his body with thick fingernails, Mikissok turned his back to the small fire and slipped slowly into a deep slumber. The raven waddled out of the qaarusuk and found a perch higher up between the rocks upon which to sleep.
The twilight of the short winter day revealed little of the drama during the long winter night. In Nugatsiaq, Aaviak, the wife of the qajaq-builder Iikkila, anxiously paced the ice-choked shoreline of the winter settlement. Her children were missing, so too was her brother. They had been travelling to Uummannaq across the great stretch of sea ice. They were late. Iikkila approached his wife. Standing behind her he circled her waist with his arms and rubbed her firm, rounded belly. “They will come,” he said. Aaviak shook slightly, shaking her head with silent sobs. Above them the Northern Lights shimmered. Bright green curtains of light drifted across the dark polar sky. The brief period of twilight was ended and now the long polar night was begun.
Iikkila lifted his head suddenly. On the sea ice, some distance away, came the swish of a sledge grating across the surface, the steaming breath of many dogs rising before it. Aaviak heard it too and her shaking was replaced by a stiff expectation. Iikkila released his wife and walked slowly onto the ice. Aaviak stood a moment longer until she could see the sledge coming towards them. It was long and broad, a hunter’s sledge. She ran onto the ice and, gripping her husband’s hand, they walked towards the sledge.
As the sledge neared them they saw it belonged to a great hunter. Fourteen dogs pulled smoothly, their fan-shaped traces taut and efficient. As it drew near Aaviak and Iikkila noticed the grim nature of the sledge dogs. They were old, older than any dog a Greenlander might use, and yet they pulled heartily and without pause. The rime frost about their muzzles and coats suggested they had been pulling for quite some time. The hunter, sitting sideways on the sledge, was even more peculiar. He was unknown to them and dressed in such an unfamiliar way that Aaviak became a little nervous. Iikkila looked at his wife. He squeezed her hand. Iikkila returned his gaze to the approaching sledge. It was built in much the same way as his own. The gnarled thwarts were tied tightly to old runners, and yet not so tight they could not flex. The aged uprights at the back of the sledge were thick and smooth with use; they too were tied in the manner of the Greenlanders. Thick reindeer skins were lashed to the thwarts and upon them were lashed many skin sacks, the kind used for travelling great distances. They were full and closed tightly. As the sledge drew nearer the hunter leaped onto the ice in a smooth, practised motion. He uncoiled a great whip with a flick of his wrist, snapping the whip in the air to the left of the dogs. They turned to the right and then slowed as the hunter called out to them.