on the ice, hiding behind the crafted snow mound, the
But the Hunt-Spirit showed mercy
this day. The Toonijuk soon heard
There was a sliding. Breathing.
She tensed, hand tightening on
her walrus tusk. The seal moved
…and the Toonijuk sprang. Hopping
to her feet. Leaping over the
Karunk! The round eyes of a large gray-black male looked straight at her. As she rushed him, the seal whirled and slid quickly back toward the water.
The Toonijuk dove, belly-landing on the ice. Gliding down beside the seal. She extended her left arm, wrapping it around his neck.
He barked. Lashed out with his flippers. Digging her toes into the snow and ice, she dropped the tusk and forced herself to her knees. Her free hand balled, and she pounded the base of the seals head.
The blow left him dazed, but still thrashing. Taking hold of a forelimb, she rolled him on his back. He warbled in protest as she straddled the belly, plucking the tusk from the snow. With both hands she raised the clan totem high above her head and plunged it into the throat. The seal twitched once then lay still.
Exhausted, the Toonijuk fell on the carcass. Enjoying the dying warmth, she rested, regaining her strength.
Finally she stood, study-viewed her hunt-kill, and yelped in surprise. A very big seal! Head bigger than this Toonijuk! Would that her father had seen such a kill!
She would eat what she could. Cache the rest. From this excellent skin she would craft new coverings, footwear, and perhaps a blanket. And from the bones, she would…
The Toonijuk paused. Certain shed heard the barest squeak of crunching snow.
She listened carefully. Scanned the ice. The sound had come from a nearby cluster of windswept ridges. Shed negotiated them herself in order to reach this smoother plane. They had hidden her well enough. Could hide something bigger.
She removed the tusk from the seals throat.
There was another sound, a footfall.
She pinpointed the noise-source. There, behind a hummock.
Only a walk away!
The Toonijuk clenched the tusk.
From behind the hummock emerged a four-legged form, huge and white.
Toonijuks heart beat rapidly. She shook.
For this was her enemy.
He strode rapidly toward her, moving like flowing water over the rough, broken ice. Crossing over onto the plane, he increased his speed, coming at the Toonijuk with hare-fast bounds.
A voice of elder-wisdom screamed for her to run. Told her that the bear only wished to steal the kill and would leave her alone. But she also remembered the long time without food. Abandon this hunt-kill, and she might never find another. Might very well starve here on the Frozen Sea.
No. The kill belonged to this Toonijuk. She stood her ground.
The bear continued his charge. He was young, lean, with insolent eyes. He came closer and closer, and the Toonijuk did her best not to tremble as she gazed at those powerful limbs and mighty paws. The bear ran faster. Only a pace away…
Brandishing her weapon, the Toonijuk bellowed. Bellowed with all her might, at the top of her lungs, while waving the tusk.
Looking surprised, the bear skidded to a halt, splattering snow.
The Toonijuk made a jabbing motion with the tusk. Placed a foot on the seals head, and thunked her chest, saying, This my kill! Toonijuk belong! My enemy leave!
But her enemy didnt leave. He grunted, pawed the ice, and swayed his weasel-slender head, taking in this Quoo Toonijuk who dared challenge him over kill-claim.
Then he moved a step forward. The Toonijuk repeated her display, waving the tusk and bellowing even more loudly.
The bear roared. Revealed fangs as big as spear-points. The Toonijuk quaked.
Smelling fear, the bear moved in.
Even on all legs his nose stood level with her chest. She backed from her kill.
But when the bear reached the carcass, he stepped over it, and kept walking.
And the Toonijuk understood.
Understood the bear, like this Toonijuk, was a wanderer, who, also like her, had gone a long while without food. The fit of his thin coat over rangy muscles showed her how hungry he must be. Hungry enough not to settle for one meal when he might have two.
The bear pressed forward. She backed away, her weapon feeling light and useless. The bear seemed to grin at her cowardice.
No, she thought, firming tusk-grip. Be no frightened Mitt! Remember elder-lessons.
The bear rushed her. Rose to his hind legs, standing twice her height. Swept his left paw back.
While the Toonijuk remembered the first lesson…
…and darted straight at the bear. Straight in the path of the kill-strike. As the paw and claws came within a midge of her face, the Toonijuk ducked, hair ruffling as near-death swept over her head. Then…
…she dove to the bears left, under the pit of his arm.
Heard a whoosh as the strike completed its arc across the width of the bears chest, no Toonijuk halting the sweep. Down he went to all fours, bumping the Toonijuk as she zagged by, knocking the tusk from her hand.
The Toonijuk ran.
Ran for the cluster of ridges, where she hoped she might evade pursuit. But as she built up speed, she heard the scrape of ice as the bear pivoted, followed by the pounding of sprinting feet. Hot breath licked her nape, and a violent force seized her by the outer-coverings, jerking the Toonijuk in place before yanking her backwards.
She bent her toes down, spiking her nails into the ice. Chips flew as she slowed and slowed until she stopped entirely. For a horrible moment bear-strength tested Toonijuk-ice-hold in a vicious tug-game, then…
…rip, and she tumbled forward, rolling with the fall and ending up on her knees, facing her opponent.
He held a stitch of fox-coverings in his right paw. With a frustrated growl, he cast them aside and lunged at the Toonijuk.
She scrambled to her feet. By the time she got to them, he was already upon her. Rearing, clamping front paws on her shoulders.
She staggered under the weight, knees buckling, shrieking as claws poked through her coverings and sank into her flesh.
She looked up at the sharp-toothed maw, opening wide. As the head dipped down, she thrust her hands up, catching the bears chin…
And pushed, pushed!
Arms and legs trembled. She screamed as claws shredded her back. Yelled Getoff! at her foe. But, chortling, he kept exerting his awesome mass.
They spun, round and round. The bear whipped out his tongue, dripping saliva on her face.
WhattodoWhattodo? Use whatever means you can, the Elders had taught. Nails, feet, and?
The left paw touched her chin. Taking her sight from those jaws, she turned her head, opened her mouth wide, and bit.
The bear at first gave no notice, but she bit down harder and harder until she tasted blubber and blood.
Breaking free of her hold, the bear snapped his head back and howled. Released her. She stumbled away and collapsed. The bear rolled on the ice, whining as he staunched the wound with snow.
Blood darkened the blue-white under her. Back ached. She sat up, catching her breath.
Only a pace away was the lead. Waters would have frozen some by now, but not completely. There was a hope she might try…
…if she was youth-fool enough to dare.
The bear growled at her. An almost friendly growl, wound quickly forgotten. Navra! He was enjoying himself!
He rose to fours. The Toonijuk started to crawl on hands and knees toward the lead.
And again the bear lunged.
She crawled faster, faster, but no good; the bear caught up.
So she flipped on her back. Met his black eyes…
…and kicked, sending her foot into his nose. Anger in the strike because the seal, she knew, was lost. She heard a crunch!
And the bear mewed and placed paws on snout. The Toonijuk slapped her forearm, extended index and middle finger at him…
Eat Toonijuk spatt, O enemy!
…and, lowering her membranes, taking a deep influx of breath, she crawled then slid into the open water.
A cold shock as she cut through the crystallizing surface and submerged. She paddled, kicked, and descended past the thick of the ice ledge. Heard above a splash. The paw or head, maybe, but not the whole bear. Be reluctant to get salt water in a fresh wound. Endure stinging pain as the Toonijuk did now, making her want to scream and scream in agony! The only feeling she might have for awhile.
For though the bear might not plunge in after her, the Demon of the Northland was ever the patient hunter and would stalk along the lead, waiting for the Toonijuk to emerge for precious air.
So she wouldnt.
The loose fox-coverings trapped bubbles, slowing her, putting her at risk. So, as she reached the bottom of the ledge, she stripped down to the seal coverings, allowing the old outer coat to drift away with the current.
All sensation had left her fingers and toes and soon would leave most of her body. Her head, though, felt as if it were swelling, and her chest caved inwards. She became acutely aware of her heart, beating less and less until it barely seemed to beat at all. The Toonijuk stopped swimming, allowing the frigid water to suck her down. When she had sunk well below the ledge, she began to kick and paddle again, swimming directly under the floes. With this part of the Frozen Sea as thick as a whale was long, all light soon vanished.
But even without sight, she continued to sense the ice, and kept well below it, careful to make as little noise as possible. The bear might be trying to stalk from above.
Her body became almost fully numb, and even the sting of her injuries lessened. The Toonijuk realized the full madness of what she was doing. Yes, she had taken to the water before and had swum for great lengths under the floes. She was an excellent swimmer, her father had always said. But never had she or any Toonijuk ever swum underwater in the winter, beneath such a vast expanse of ice!
For Toonijuk were, like all Northland dwellers, not fish; they needed to come to the surface for life-air. And Toonijuk were not the Seal or the Walrus, or even the Bear. They might only stay underwater but a few moments…
…or stay there forever!
She swam as fast as she could, but moving her right arm brought pain to her back. What had the bear done? No way to see. The Walrus had gouged her once, but this hurt even worse. Hopefully, the Healer-Spirit might soon mend it.
She scanned continuously for light. But the passing waters remained as black as Lok, and the Toonijuk half-expected to see Navra herself, questing for a spirit to devour.
But while she didnt see the Mistress of the Underland, the Toonijuk did see ghost-light of fish and other waterlife. Thankfully, she did not see the brighter flashes of the Walrus or the Orca, which at least gave off light, unlike the Bear.
She swam on, trying to remember the lay of the surface ice, trying to remember everything she had seen before reaching the lead where she had caught the seal. But the ice, even a Quoo Toonijuk knew, was like one alive. Shifting, moving, changing. What she had seen a twilight ago might be long gone.
The ice now turned a shade blue. Thinning, but still too thick to break and stretching on endlessly.
She swam and swam. Tiring, chest hurting, wanting to breath. Too long under. She grew lightheaded. Wondered if this be the work of the Gods, seeking to punish her first through the bear, and now by drowning under the Frozen Sea.
Punish this Toonijuk for her great sin.
And should I not accept such punishment and at least see family and Clan-Mates in the Sky-Ground?
But as she swam a length more, she saw something that made her vanish such mad thoughts. Made her heart soar.
Ahead, a great stretch of ice, light blue from below, as blue as the sky on a bright summer day. A newly frozen lead she had crossed a stretch of time ago. So new it had sagged beneath her weight. Firmer now, no doubt, but still thin enough to break.
Her injured, exhausted shell took forever to reach the new-ice cutting across the older floes. Chest hurt more; spots danced in her vision. Needed air now, but once she was under the frozen lead, she dove a few strokes down then back-swam. A weak current took her, allowing her to rest some as she study-gazed for the thinnest ice.
Sighting a particularly light portion, she kicked upwards and swam to it.
The ice was smooth, translucent, and yet strong. With her more powerful left arm, she struck it.
Nothing. Didnt even bend.
Struck with both arms. Still nothing.
Kicked. Nothing. Struck and kicked. Nothing. Nothing.
No good! The Walrus couldnt break through, let alone a Toonijuk. And no other thin ice in sight! Indeed, nothing in sight, as everything, even the blue above, grew darker and darker and…
And she saw other Toonijuk around her. Not treading water, but standing, as if on the land-ground. Not mad with this Toonijuk as she felt they should be, but speaking. Her father, offering a blessing of the Protector-Spirit. And the ancient Shaman, telling her she must break through the ice. Break through to start her journey-way.
Lightness returned, and she saw no Toonijuk. Only the dark water and frozen lead, now many strokes above.
She had fallen asleep! Was sinking! Had been elder-warned that spending too long underwater might cause loss of awareness. Next time, she might never wake. But she couldnt get to surface! She couldnt?
No! Must drive fear from mind! Must be calm.
Relax-self, her father would say. Study-view the ice.
She did. Concentrated on the differing patterns of light, looking for?
There, only a short swim away. A round patch, a half-shade lighter than its surroundings. Maybe worn down by current or broken through by the Walrus mattered nothing to this Toonijuk.
She kicked furiously over and struck the ice with both hands. Again, it didnt break but did stretch like the fish-skin of a game-pouch. A little more pressure!
She dropped. Focused…
Even as her chest hammered and her vision started to dim.
Using every last bit of strength, she swam.
Straight up. Arms out. Palms flat.
Straight into weak ice.
It stretched. Stretched…
Shards fell on her head, others slid across smooth glaze. The Toonijuk heard a huh-uh! huh-uh! huh-uh! huh-uh! and realized it was herself, taking in over-needed air.
Grabbing the edges of the hole, she hauled out onto the firmer new-ice. Her face and body tingled. Grew warm. Chest expanded. Heart beat faster. The agonizing pain in her back returned. She shook and shook her head, ridding it of water, and raised her membranes.
Then she belly-crawled farther tentatively. When she felt sure the ice would support her, she rose to hands and knees and shook off the water before it froze.
Up on her feet now, skating across the frozen lead until she reached the denser pack ice. Once there, she stripped off her seal-skin coverings and plunged in snow, rolling and rolling to blot off every last trace of water.
When done, she hopped up, looking, listening, and smelling for enemy.
But of the Bear there was no sign. She was safe.
Safe and in-shell. But just barely. For the first time she reached back to check her wounds. Digging a finger into deep gashes. She dabbed them with snow, praying the Healer-Spirit might work her magic. Bad cuts; had those claws been any deeper…
She shook, thinking not just of the bear but the time under the ice.
Then anger took hold. She stomped. Raven-thief bear! No doubt now enjoying her hard-won kill.
Still, she thought with a grin, he also bore Toonijuk-inflicted injury and would not soon forget his combat with this one!
Fighting the boar Bear and swimming beneath the Frozen Sea in winter. Feats to tell the Clan! Feats to impress even the Great-Lord and Monster-Slayer Grundun. Even this Toonijuks big-head brother might have been amazed.
She smiled, thinking these things. Thinking of Clan…
…and thinking these things, began to cry.
Could not tell the Clan of her feats, she knew, because her mother and father and brothers and the ancient Shaman and other Clan-Mates were all gone.
Killed by an enemy even worse than the Bear of the Snows.
And now this most unworthy daughter had even lost the tusk, totem of the Walrus Clan.
She kept crying even as she crafted a den from bits of rubble ice. Even as she slept within, sleeping as the lone Toonijuk must, with an eye and ear always keeping watch. With a rumbling stomach and a thumb in this one’s mouth, in a way not done since a Mitt.