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Authors: Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley

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BOOK: Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic
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The Tuniit,
thought Kannujaq,
who could survive their way?
He was not cold. But, in thinking about these not-quite-human folk, a chill ran through him. He stood alone in their hunting lands. He had come to regret taking this detour. His winding path among the hills had led him away from the coast, where he was most comfortable, and his dog team was having a rough time among the rocks.

He sighed and started back down to his sled, when a low howl made its way over the wind. In a moment, it was joined by another. Then several more. Eventually, the howls were like those of a small pack of wolves. Even a large pack would have been nothing to fear—Kannujaq was armed with a bow and a spear, both crafted according to the high standards of his people. And then there were his dogs to defend him. But Kannujaq nevertheless shuddered at the sounds ahead of
him: he knew all animal noises, and these cries were not those of true wolves.

Tuniit,
he thought,
imitating wolves. Maybe driving caribou.

So, even now, the Tuniit were hunting in this place. He decided not to bother them—or chance being bothered by them—slipping and sliding his way back down the slope, to where his dogs awaited. Luckily, his team was only making low, anxious whining noises at the wolf sounds of the Tuniit. But if Kannujaq did not get his dogs out of here, it would be only a matter of time before one or more would howl in return.

Soon, the sled was again making its slow way back toward the coast, rushing ahead on the occasional patch of snow: sticking, rushing ahead, sticking again. Kannujaq was young, as strong as any other youth he had ever known, but this part of the Land was wearing him down.

Much time passed, and, despite the tongues waggling from their heads with overexertion, Kannujaq noticed that his dogs were growing excited, ears standing high on their heads. He was more attuned to their body language than to what lay under his own fingernails. It took him a moment to realize that the dogs were smelling a camp ahead—maybe a source of food and rest. Kannujaq was fond of the idea, since a storm was moving in and the light snowfall interfered with his distance vision. Fortunately, the days were growing long, so there was still enough light for Kannujaq to spot twisting lines of smoke in the distance, where the ground levelled out.

Kannujaq grinned, pleased to see several figures approaching from out of the snowfall. Camp folk. He began to urge his dogs forward, but paused.

Something bothered him about this place.

Dogs,
he thought to himself.
I don't see any.

Kannujaq was familiar with the kind of camps he had grown up in, all temporary, as established by his ever-roaming family. He had even seen a few camps set up by distant relations, usually using interconnected rib bones, from the skeletons of whales scattered along the shores, as shelter. Normally, any camp would be full of dogs, which were used for hauling pack-loads in the summer and sledding in the other seasons. The sight of a place without any dog teams made Kannujaq uneasy. It was like coming across a community without people. Then he spotted one loose dog out of the corner of his eye, and felt a bit better.

That dog,
he thought,
where's it off to?
As he watched, squinting, the animal disappeared into the haze of thickening snowfall.

Kannujaq was startled by an odd noise. A thin cry. He turned back toward the approaching figures, the camp dwellers he had first spotted. He grinned, getting ready to raise his arms in greeting.

His grin quickly faded as he realized that they had not stopped to greet him.

They were running at him.

And they looked nothing like Kannujaq's folk.

2
Place of Murder

In a single moment, all of the strange facts of this place came together—and the word “Tuniit” flashed through Kannujaq's mind.

There was no time to reach his bow. He could only think to fumble about for his spear. Kannujaq had never before seen one of the Tuniit—a single
Tuniq.
Despite the fact that his elders had described them as “almost people,” his imagination had pictured them with fangs and claws. As if they were as much wolf as human. Instead, as their faces came into sight, Kannujaq was shocked to see how human they looked. Their features were round, dark with the soot they were said to burn instead of seal oil (for which they were also called Sooty Ones). But their faces were human. It seemed that Kannujaq was looking at a mixed group of Tuniit men, women, and children, dark faces twisted up in fear. Some were carrying babies, awkwardly, in their arms. The men and women among them were marked by odd hair styles. Both had great lengths of hair twisted up tightly, but the men wore theirs in a peculiar ball on top of their heads. The women wore their hair in clusters over each temple. All they shared in common were their shabby, sooty tops. Their bear-fur pants. Their short, squat frames.

No wonder,
Kannujaq thought to himself,
there are so few dogs here.
Maybe it was that he'd been so tired, worried about making it back to the coast, finding someplace to rest—but one way or another, he had stumbled into a Tuniit camp. He, like his dogs, had assumed that this was a human encampment. Instead of avoiding the Tuniit, he had walked straight into them. Such a mistake! Now he would probably end up ripped apart by Tuniit. With the thoughts that came to him in his panic, he imagined his own corpse. Lying in pieces. Pulled at by these creatures who were half-human, half-animal. The Tuniit could haul boulders as if they were pebbles.

What would Kannujaq look like after they had grabbed him?

But the Tuniit did not attack. All at once, the whole group seemed to catch sight of Kannujaq. All, males and females alike, ground to a halt. It was as though they'd been startled by the sight of him. Then, as though they shared one mind, the Tuniit turned and ran in a different direction.

Fleeing,
Kannujaq realized.
From me.
Then, his heart still pounding in his chest, his eyes watching the figures disappear back into the haze, he thought some more.

But they were already running before I got here,
he thought.
What would make Tuniit run?

Then Kannujaq realized that he had made a mistake: Not all of the Tuniit had fled. They had left behind one small, hooded person. It was impossible to see if it was a boy or girl. If the lone figure had been human, like Kannujaq's folk, he or she would have been tall enough to be a child on the edge of young adulthood. Not quite old enough to take on adult duties.

Then the wind blew at the child's hood, and Kannujaq became sure that he was seeing a boy. So human in looks! Far from being afraid, the boy was smiling, and seemed riveted to the sight of Kannujaq's dog team.

Kannujaq decided to take a risk. He stepped forward, raising his arms to show that he meant no harm. Maybe a human greeting would be understandable even to a Tuniq.

Kannujaq half expected the boy to run, though the youth surprised him by actually moving closer. He began to babble excitedly, but Kannujaq had some difficulty understanding the words. It was almost normal language, but different—a kind of Tuniit talk. Strangest of all, the boy kept grinning from the depths of his vast hood, which concealed much of his sooty face.

The boy kept pointing at Kannujaq. In a few moments, Kannujaq seemed to grasp what he was saying: The lad was actually glad that Kannujaq had come. Also, he was late? The boy had expected him? They were here. Them. Those Ones had also arrived. There were other words, as well, words Kannujaq couldn't quite make out. And there was one word that the boy kept repeating, but it was no use—Kannujaq simply couldn't understand all of what the boy was saying.

Kannujaq did, however, realize that the boy was not pointing at him. The lad was rambling about the necklace around Kannujaq's neck. On it were strung claws from Kannujaq's first bear, along with a special bit of stuff that his grandmother had given him. In fact, Kannujaq was named for that very stuff. On his necklace was a reddish-brown loop of kannujaq. It was all that remained of a needle passed down by Kannujaq's ancestors. And it was said to have been used by his great-great-grandmother, who had lived in lands without name, back in the times before Kannujaq's family did so much exploring.

It was also said that, in the old days, people sometimes took the kannujaq from rocks, grinding it to sharpness with other stones. It didn't hold a fine edge like some materials—such as jade or flint or ivory—but it lasted a long time, and some people liked the fact that it could be easily re-sharpened. On top of it all, the kannujaq was pretty to look at. Kannujaq himself liked the look of it, and he often rubbed his own thin loop between thumb and forefinger, until its shine reminded him of the sun setting on the water.

The boy, for whatever reason, seemed obsessed with the kannujaq.

With gentle touches at his arm, the boy began to lead Kannujaq into the Tuniit camp. There was something desperate about the lad. Something that made Kannujaq want to indulge him. As they went, the boy's grin faded, and his pronunciations became impossible to understand. Increasingly, his tone became emotional, even a bit crazy, until his babbling trickled off like an ice-choked stream. Stiffly, Kannujaq forced one foot in front of the other, somehow feeling more child-like than the one he followed.

It's a dream,
he thought for a moment.
Has to be. I'm dreaming I'm with Tuniit. And I'm asleep.

But Kannujaq had never before dreamed the touch of cold wind on his cheeks. He had never dreamed of detail. Curling snowfall. Stones underfoot. The sound of his own breath. The weather alone would not let him remain convinced that this was fantasy. It was getting worse. Quick, sharp gusts were whipping crystal snow particles about like sand. Whenever the wind eased off for a moment, Kannujaq could see a squat figure or two: Tuniit, like before, running as though for their very lives.

Sometimes Kannujaq stiffened, startled by different voices.

Screaming.

After a few moments, he spotted a row of seven glowing fires—the peculiar way in which Tuniit kept their cooking fires—lined up outside of an enclosure of flat rocks, about waist-high. The weird boy led him around it, slightly downhill, toward the shore. When the snow was not stinging his eyes, Kannujaq could see the corners and walls of other stone dwellings. He could also see …

Death?

On the ground were several dark heaps—the bodies of fallen Tuniit. The boy led Kannujaq, stumbling, past the dead. Corpses lay about the place like so many seals dragged up from the shore. The Tuniit grounds were all bare stones. No old snow or ice. And wherever Kannujaq's eyes rested for longer than a heartbeat, he could see new, wind-driven snowflakes becoming caught on rocks. Sticky with dark blood. Already freezing. The boy began to lead him more quickly. Other details were lost to him, but Kannujaq had spotted enough for his thoughts to whisper:

Murder. Place of murder, this is
…

Kannujaq swallowed. His mouth and throat had gone dry. He should have turned back as soon as he'd seen that this was a Tuniit encampment! If they were involved in a feud with some other community, he wanted no part in it. Kannujaq pulled his arm away from the boy. He turned around, looking for his dogs.

The boy's hand clamped down on his wrist, and the lad yanked at Kannujaq with all his strength. The boy was not strong enough to move him, but Kannujaq still froze in shock, momentarily forgetting his panic. No one had ever dared to touch him in such a way. No adult. No child. Among his own folk, physical attacks occurred only between the most terrible enemies—never openly. To Kannujaq's family, violence equalled madness.

But these aren't people, he remembered. And at
least they're not tearing me apart.

Then Kannujaq frowned in thought. The boy's strength didn't seem all that unusual. In fact, it seemed about like the brawn of a human boy around the same age.

Kannujaq was distracted by shouts from the beach. The voices were like those of men, but the roars were fierce. Threatening. Like those of animals. Kannujaq realized that living Tuniit were now passing him and the boy. Some were staggering, barely noticing either. Many Tuniit were kneeling on the ground, weeping over their dead in a too-human way.

As though suddenly realizing that he'd offended him, the boy released Kannujaq. Again, the lad babbled out his odd words. One word in particular. A word that Kannujaq had not been able to understand.

Then Kannujaq got it!

Help,
Kannujaq realized.
He's asking for help.

The boy repeated himself one more time, pointing toward the beach, then ran to the side of a staggering Tuniq.

Kannujaq was finally alone. He could easily disappear. Go back to his dogs. Forget about this awful place. But he had been jarred out of his panic. He was, after all, an explorer. His fear had been replaced with curiosity.

Boy,
he thought,
wants my help. How does one help Tuniit?

BOOK: Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic
12.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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