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Chapter One - Fear the Beast
To truly understand fear is to experience something far beyond your own immediate death. Death comes for us all in the end, but terror is the sensation of being gripped by a force which comes not from the earth. At least, that is what the elders have always taught, and on this point, I believe them. The night my grandfather died was one of those moments. I hadn’t arrived in the world, and my testimony is unexceptional. Like all my friends I was told the tale only in whispered half-songs, broken fragments of repeated lore, and I worry that those with first-hand memory are leaving us nothing but a hazy cloud of wisps. Dying embers of things too horrific for plain speech. Nevertheless I will recount what I know.
The winters have been harsh for uncounted generations now, and we have made do. Nobody knows when the ice first rose up in great sheets to block the ancient hunting routes, all my people have ever been born into was cold - numbing, chilling cold. That season, when the final moon of the long night shows herself, was nothing extraordinary. But something in the mountain had stirred, the end of a sleep so old it began when the people had not arrived in these lands. The camp was dug in, the dogs were lean but calm, the women still scraping the hides with hands like river rock. My grandfather, like all the men, was out on the slopes checking the snares for old harefoot. They came home as usual, tired but cheerful. All versions of the story agree that the air was so still and quiet, the snowflakes themselves seemed to be hovering gently. Can you picture a night so clear and bright you were walking through a sparkling mist of un-moving crystals? Probably not. When the first blood was spilled onto that perfect crisp ground, the singular piercing shriek must have woken the bear younglings themselves.
Nobody can agree on the timeline, but something horrible and with the ferocity of a raging lion was rampaging through the camp. It went from tent to tent, flaying and eviscerating the eldest men, leaving everyone else untouched and unharmed. People recall the feel of chilled damp fur, hot breath, eyes like sacred coals, flashes of teeth and bone and warm blood. The creature mutilated some beyond all recognition, pulling apart a man from the sternum and spreading every rib like a ptarmigon wing. The cries and wails woke the people and the maelstrom seemed to drive the beast away. Although it left no footprints everyone swore they saw or heard it loping towards the mountain, tossing great arcs of gore across the snow. One or two made to go after it but the elder women demanded they stay. Whatever evil came among us that night needed to be left behind, and so an exodus of families began, taking a few prized objects and necessities and burning the tents behind them. The moonlight guided us to an old disused hunting site at the entrance to a narrow gorge, and the people spent the night huddled together.
Some returned to the camp at dawn and grimly described how the bodies had refused to burn. Arguments had raged about how to bury the dead, whether they should be placed in the ground as custom demanded, or some other way devised to ward off the shadow of the beast. Since tradition required bodies be watched over through the winter and graves dug in the softer spring soil, this was out of the question. Eventually the elders spoke and ordered the remains be taken to the mountain and cast into the deepest fissures. New rites of purification were hurriedly discussed, some of the surviving men were to fast from food and transport the bodies with hounds. After hurling them into the cold voids they were to run in different directions and wait for three days alone, isolated, before returning to the new camp, which was to be back with another family gathering. No doubt the rest of the people would be spooked by the whole affair, turning up early ahead of the usual communion of groups and the winter fire.
This is as much as anyone my age knows of the event, and it angers me to my very bones that I don’t know where my grandfather was dumped, like a scavenged carcass. Our elders are now mostly women, and they all made some sort of secret pact to never speak of it all in plain speech, let alone song or story. Those men have no songs for their lives, their great hunts are forgotten, their very names lost like the river ice to the sun. I know the other major families think of us as lost souls in some way, cut off from our kin. Men like me should travel to the cemeteries, marked with granite and rings of mountain glass. But we have nothing. My name is Ikirtu, and I carry a forgotten memory that cannot be spoken of.