Read Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic Online

Authors: Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley

Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic (7 page)

BOOK: Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Planned meeting,
Kannujaq thought.

For a long moment, there was silence. Finally, when Kannujaq could stand it no more, he asked Siaq
why she lived among Tuniit. Especially as a slave.

Siku's mother sighed, as though having dreaded the possibility of discussing such things. Then she placed something small and dark in the fire. There was thick smoke, but not that of heather. There came to Kannujaq's nostrils a sharp and familiar smell, but not as strong as when the boy had tended the fire. Within a few heartbeats, his wild spirals of thought and anxiety gave way to relaxation. Even a bit of stupidity. He glared at the woman, fighting the smoke's effects.

“Throw no more of that on the fire,” he told her. When she stared back at him defiantly, he added, “If you do, I'm leaving. Only I control my isuma. You're not a Tuniq. You should know that.”

Siaq issued a light hiss at him, her dark eyes narrowing in displeasure. But she tucked away a bag from which she had pulled the smelly angakkuq stuff. This was not a nice way to start a conversation, but Kannujaq had at least learned an important fact about her.

She, too,
he thought to himself,
is an angakkuq.

More silence. The fire burned. Kannujaq coughed. The smoke cleared. And so did his mind.

Just as Kannujaq was becoming convinced that this meeting was a waste of time, Siaq spoke.

“I had a husband once,” she muttered.

She spoke in the manner of Kannujaq's folk. He was surprised to feel such relief at hearing the sound.

“But a time came,” Siaq continued, “when he did not come home. I was alone, and I began to starve, eating my clothing in order to survive.”

Kannujaq swallowed hard. The Land was indeed unkind, at times. Since all clothes were simply the skins of animals, they could be eaten. But it was a rare horror when someone was desperate enough to do so.

“In this state,” said the woman, “I was found by the Tuniit. Even then, they were led by Angula. He was less brutal in those days. Less mad. But not by much. He took me in as a slave, since I could do waterproof stitching. The Tuniit cannot. The Tuniit do not like slaves, but Angula always had his way through bullying. And a slave's life among Tuniit is better than death.”

Hardly,
Kannujaq thought to himself. But he did not speak. He knew that one must never interrupt a story. To do so was to insult a storyteller's isuma. He decided to interrupt Siaq only if she tried to throw more stuff on the fire.

“Angula attracts strange beings,” Siaq added with a sigh. “One spring, the Tuniit discovered a great boat, wood instead of skin, lying gutted along the shore. There were beast-men there, Siaraili, covered in furs and hard shells. Their faces were like dog hair. Their bodies had gotten wet. They lay frozen, dead, stuck to the ground. Only one among them had not quite died.”

In the absence of the weird smoke, Kannujaq's mind was fully clear. He instantly guessed which Siaraili had been rescued by the Tuniit.

Glaring One?
he wondered.

“Angula dragged him to camp,” Siaq said. “I was made to care for him. He was huge, like a giant. His hair was disgusting. Like a dog's. Skin disgusting, like a corpse's. He recovered quickly.”

Siaq, her own face rather corpse-like in its smoke-framed slackness, turned toward her pile of kindling. Kannujaq readied himself to speak out, for he could not stand any more of the dark shaman-stuff. But Siaq reached only for dried heather. The white smoke of the heather, stifling as it was in tight quarters, seemed like a breath of fresh air in comparison to what she had earlier burned.

“This one,” she went on, “this survivor … this was the one who you call the Glaring One. The one who hates us now. But, back then, he was only grateful to Angula. He repaid Angula by intimidating others in the
camp for him. Angula enjoyed it. It was like having a bear as a pet. In time, Angula made me teach the Glaring One some of the way Tuniit speak. More than anything else, Angula's pet wanted to get home, which he said was across the sea. What he could not know was that great boats were spotted now and again, probably searching for him. Cunning Angula always found ways to keep the Glaring One out of sight of these boats, unaware of their presence. He kept him distracted with hunting. With games. With … many things.”

Kannujaq shifted in discomfort.

“Always,” Siku's mother continued, “I was there for whatever the Glaring One needed. Angula gave me over like a dog pup. The Glaring One was happy to have a slave, I think. Slaves were common where he came from—a place he called
Gronland.
His kind called the worthless Tuniit lands
Heluland,
or ‘Place of Flat Stones.'”

Siaq broke off to wipe at her eyes, which were tearing. Her story died for a time. Kannujaq remained respectfully silent, watching the fire diminish to a low, ashy glow.

“But I was laughing at him, inside, all the time,” the woman said a while later, as though there had been no pause in her tale, “because I knew that the Glaring One was just Angula's slave, like me. He just didn't know it.”

She paused, reaching out a lean hand to push at some leftover twigs, stirring the fire around.

“Seasons went by,” said the woman, “and I became sickened with it all. I started to tease Angula. I told him, sometimes, that I would tell the Glaring One how Angula was keeping him from being rescued. Angula beat me terribly for this, threatened to kill me. He was scared. He was not only keeping the Glaring One captive, but he had also searched the bodies of the Glaring One's dead companions. He had taken as much
treasure as he could find. Knives. Spears. Arrows. Even some of the things they wore. He had told the Glaring One that they and their kannujaq implements had been lost to the sea.”

She smiled darkly at Kannujaq, who shuddered at her words. Among his own folk, only a monster would think of stripping the dead. It was as bad as disturbing a grave.

“But he had actually kept the kannujaq tools,” she added, “hiding them safely away. In time, the Glaring One grew into the Tuniit community. He even began to treat me kindly. But I was always tempted to tell him the truth about Angula. Then a night came when the Glaring One and I were quarrelling. All of my hate came out, somehow, made my mouth move on its own. I told him the truth. I told him everything. Every bit of it. Almost.”

Siaq paused to throw a generous handful of heather onto the near-dead coals. After a moment, it crackled, and orange flame flared high.

“He never spoke after that,” she went on. “He never looked at me. Not at Angula. Not at the Tuniit.”

Staring into the fire, her face yellowed by its glow, Siaq laughed.

“Angula became scared,” she said. “But he was relieved when the Glaring One slipped away one day. No one saw him go. Maybe he sighted one of the ships of his folk. It wasn't long before Angula started showing a few of his kannujaq treasures around, claiming that spirits had given them to him, that he had special powers. He had learned that wealth can purchase souls. He began to lend his treasures out, in return for loyalty. In this way, he enslaved everyone.”

Siaq released a strange sound, at once mournful and amused.

“Do you understand this lesson?” she asked
Kannujaq. “Wealth makes power. Power makes fear. Fear makes slaves.”

Kannujaq's eyes were fixed, staring, on her half-mad face, peering like a shadowed mask through the heather's smoke.

“But Angula had made a mistake,” Siaq told him, “for the Glaring One was no normal man. He was a leader among his own folk. Angula had only a few years to enjoy his power, before the Glaring One returned. And he brought Siaraili. He sent out his giant-like men to punish the Tuniit shore encampments, laughing, killing, always searching for Angula and his stolen … things. Others died, but Angula escaped every time. Angula became mad, paranoid, trying to hold onto his power. He claimed that the sea raiders were punishing the community for disobeying him. In time, every Tuniq in that camp was gone, killed or scattered. Angula survived, fleeing to a new Tuniit community—this one. Myself and Siku, who was smaller then, came with him. Here, over the next few years, it was easy for Angula to buy himself authority with his stolen garbage. And the whole thing started again.”

Siaq was weeping openly by the time she was finished her tale—from what, exactly, Kannujaq could not tell. But there did seem to be plenty to weep about. Suddenly, he understood how little her son, Siku, truly knew of his mother. She had told the boy bits and pieces of truth, but he had interpreted everything through the eye of a shaman (as well as that of a young boy). To Siku, as with the other Tuniit here, this was a battle against sea-monsters. The Siaraili were bad tuurngait—shape-shifting creatures of the Land's unseen parts, influenced by things like personal thought and feeling. Siku's grasp of matters was weighed down with the signs and forces he believed to whirl all around him.

His mother's burden, in truth, was much heavier.

10
Weakling!

Only Siaq and Angula had known who the Siaraili really were: an entirely other folk, unlike either Tuniit or Kannujaq's people. Huge. Well-armed. Brutal.

Kannujaq returned truth with truth.

“If we don't leave this place,” he said, “all of us … we'll die.”

Siaq sniffed and agreed.

“I can't leave the Tuniit, though,” she said. “I've been with them too long. They are friends, family. Life has more meaning among them, now, than it does among your—I mean, our kind.”

She's become a Tuniq,
Kannujaq thought.

“And the Tuniit are not like our folk,” she said, “always travelling, always sledding. The Tuniit worship their homes. Their homes are part of them.”

Kannujaq could not understand why anyone would be attached to a fixed home, but he told Siku's mother:

“No time for this, Siaq. No time. The Siaraili left only because they were worried about the storm. But once
they feel safe again, they'll finish this camp. If the Tuniit will not move, because of love of their homes, then there is only one other thing they can do. They must return the stolen kannujaq goods. Leave them by the shore, and hope the Glaring One finds them—”

He was surprised to find Siaq laughing before he could complete his argument. Hers was a dry, bitter sort of laughter.

“I told you of how I taught the Glaring One our language,” she said. “But I learned some of the Glaring One's language, too.”

Siaq pointed to Kannujaq's necklace.

“That stuff,” she told him, “they call ‘copper.' It's the weakest of their materials. For their weapons, they use a different word. I can't remember it anymore.”

She looked Kannujaq in the eye, offering a bitter smile.

“Have you ever wondered,” she asked him, “about what the Tuniit call the giant-men?”

Kannujaq made no answer, though the dark look in Siaq's eyes raised the hairs on his neck. With each breath, each utterance, the woman seemed to abandon some further shred of her sanity.

“Your son told me,” Kannujaq answered. “He said they shout a word when they attack. Siaraili! It's why the Tuniit call them Siaraili.”

Siaq laughed. “The Tuniit,” she said, “have no idea what this word means. Shall I tell you? The Glaring One's men are shouting, ‘Skraeling!' In truth, they are calling to the Tuniit. Mocking them by summoning them to their deaths. Because they know that the Tuniit do nothing but panic when they are attacked. They run, and run some more. That is why they are called Skraeling. The word, in the language of the Glaring One's folk, means ‘Weakling.' The Glaring One's people have spent many generations at war. They have grown fond of it.
This is why the giant-men run through the camp like children at play. Kicking walls in. Slashing at every man or woman in reach. Raiding is fun for them, and they have no respect for those who will not fight back. Like the Tuniit. After every raid, they gorge themselves on whatever they find in camp. They wash it down with the harsh tea-like stuff that they are fond of. The tea that makes them sleepy. And bloodthirsty again. Do you think such a people are here only for stolen tools? They want blood. They are mad!”

Kannujaq frowned, trying to make sense of the information.

“But,” he argued, “they don't attack children. So they're not entirely—”

“You don't understand, do you?” hissed Siaq. “They are friends to violence! They don't like this Land, do you not see? They hate us, Tuniq or not, because we are part of it. Because they want to go home, and every stone of this place reminds them that they cannot. Their leader, the Glaring One, will not allow it until he has what is his!”

Kannujaq was confused. “Then let's give him the treasure,” he said. “What else could he want?”

A strange look flashed through Siaq's features, but Kannujaq had no idea what it meant.

Kannujaq sighed. “Siaq,” he said, trying to be patient, “your son thinks I'm here to fight off the Glaring One and his people. He thinks I'll rescue the Tuniit.” He reached for his necklace, giving it a shake, so that his pitiful little loop of kannujaq gleamed in the firelight. “He thinks,” Kannujaq added, “that this piece on my necklace, given to me by my grandparents, means I have some kind of power in common with the Glaring One.”

BOOK: Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Gray Panthers: Dixie by David Guenther
So Me by Norton, Graham
Gamble by Viola Grace
Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones
Conquering Alexandria by Steele, C.M.
Shadow by Karin Alvtegen