Naka pushed back the leather flap guarding the entrance her hut in hopes ofÂ greeting the sun, but only snow and the faintly acrid scent of long-dead fires met her in return. She lowered her eyes to the ground and shook herÂ head; she knew, even without asking the winds or the trees, that the huntsÂ had gone badly; there was no food to be found, not with such a heavy winterÂ sitting over the land.
Her feet fell woodenly against the ground, leaving holes in the driftsÂ as she crossed the clearing to the elders’ cabin. Light flurries swirledÂ around her, leaving a dusting of white in her near-black hair, giving herÂ the grizzled look of one twice her age. More crystals clung to her fursÂ as a wind whipped between the trees, becoming lost and wandering haphazardlyÂ between the trees and low houses that the tribe called home. Her hand fellÂ three times against the heavy wooden doorjamb, but her fingers felt nothing,Â still stiff and numb from cold.
With a rough scrape, the tanned hide slid aside from the entrance, revealingÂ Telikai’s leathered face. His eyes matched the clouds, grey and brooding,Â as if at any minute hail and sleet could fall from them and run in riversÂ down the channels of his aged face. At the sight of his Speaker, though,Â they lit up like pools reflecting the sun for a brief moment.
“Hail, Naka, Speaker of the Wild,” he said in his rough-hewn voice, noddingÂ to her, breaking eye contact as a sign of respect; to gaze into another’sÂ eyes while bowing a greeting would be to show distrust. He could not affordÂ not to listen to her words, and she knew it.
“Hail Telikai, Speaker of Men,” she replied, matching his motions gracefully.Â “The hunts have not gone well.” Hers was a statement, not a question.
Telikai, leader of the tribe in matters physical, blinked. Her words brokeÂ ritual, in a surprising way. He would have offered her a place at his hutfire,Â supplies from his stores, but she had bypassed the formal ways and goneÂ to the meat of the matter quickly. He fumbled for a few moments, then shookÂ his head. “No, they have not.” His head quirked sideways, one eye narrowed.Â “How had you heard? The men have said nothing to the others yet.”
Naka smiled. “I have not been Speaker without learning to listen as well;Â the snows have come early, and strong. The deer have all but silenced. TheÂ wolves cry at night. Even the squirrels call out to the trees, begging forÂ food, and the trees have entered their sleep and are dreaming of FatherÂ Sun, heeding no-one’s call. I know.”
The Speaker of Men grimaced, then sighed. “You are right, of course. ThreeÂ parties have gone into the forest in search of game. Two deer have beenÂ trapped, their spirits thanked, their bones returned to the earth, and aÂ rabbit as well, but this will not feed enough, or for long.”
The Speaker of the Wild nodded in response. “How are your stores, Telikai?”
The gnarled man turned his back and lowered his gaze. “Three days. PerhapsÂ four. Then….”
The pair left the thought unfinished; they knew what came next. Naka shookÂ her head. “As I thought, then.”
Both stood then, silent for a time, each lost in thought. Telikai broke theÂ silence first. “You have made all the requests you could?”
Naka turned away from the older man, looking back across the clearing. WhenÂ she spoke, her voice carried an odd low rumble to it. “No, there is oneÂ last request to be made.”
“One last?” Telikai sounded indignant. “How long had you intented toâ€””
The Speaker of the Wild turned then, her eyes carrying a gleam that TelikaiÂ had never seen before, a hint of something feral, wide, brown and cold, likeÂ amber. “I waited until the time was right, Telikai; I know my duties, as youÂ know yours.” She faced the clearing once more, looking about the variousÂ huts and houses. “Tonight, you will feast. Tomorrow, you will know yourÂ tasks. Have Yani brought to my hut; she will understand.” With that, sheÂ left, leaving Telikai to stand with his hut open to the winds, staring afterÂ her in surprise.
Naka’s preparations went quickly, far more so than she had thought theyÂ would. Though she had rehearsed the rite more times than a tree has leaves,Â she had never performed it, nor, after today, would she again, if all went as it should. Relighting the fire in her hut took longer than she wanted,Â but once started, the bundles of leaves and hair that she wound burstÂ alight, filling her longhouse with pungent smoke. Painstakingly, she heldÂ each limb in the air over the fire as if bathing in the smoke, washingÂ in the heat, all the while reciting the litany of her life and her roleÂ as Speaker of the Wild, translator for human ears of the voices they couldÂ not understand. Then, when she finished, she snuffed the flame with a furÂ pulled from her bed, which she then wrapped around herself while still warm.
Once outside, the air seemed warm to her, though she knew it was all partÂ of her ritual, and yet a part of her mind was enthralled. The ground wasÂ pleasantly cool, a far cry from the icy trudge it had been before. HerÂ steps carried her quickly beyond the domain of humans, into the forestsÂ themselves. The trees, sleeping and dreaming of green and of warm and ofÂ sun, seemed eerily quiet to her ears, and her nose caught naught but iceÂ and snow and her own scent. A distant corner of her mind worried that herÂ ritual had been in vain, but she told herself with quiet determinationÂ that her call would take time.
Her senses drifted then, mind losing itself easily to the eternal now asÂ was her wont when isolated from the world of people. How long she walked,Â breathing and sensing and living in the world of spirits without knowledgeÂ of when or where or why, was immaterial. Time was meaningless. The treesÂ were here, the sky was here, the earth was here. All else was distant,Â unimportant. Her summons was answered; the scent of bear approached.
She was tall, her fur more white and grey than brown or black, her eyesÂ clouded. She smelled barren; no cubs had come from her in several years,Â a fact she did not enjoy but could not regret; she knew her place in theÂ web of existence, and not to be called upon to fulfill her duty wasÂ disappointing, but she had birthed cubs in the past and came knowingÂ that her time was nigh.
Naka knelt, bowing her head and kissing the earth before the sow, prostratingÂ herself and venerating the lifegiver. The shebear nodded her response, and the Speaker of the Wild lifted her gaze to meet the other’s. The exchange from there was brief, Naka apologizing for her presumption, pleading the lifeÂ of her village, and offering the standard trade. The old one reared onto herÂ hinds, seemingly in defiance, then dropped to the ground again and nodded;Â it had been a long and hard life for her as well, though a rewarding one.
The rock came to Naka’s hands even as the shebear lay against the earth, andÂ a single blow was enough to dim the light in her eyes. A second split herÂ skull, her still-warm brains a tasty treat for the Speaker of the Wild. Then Naka lay atop the sow, placing her arms and legs along those of the coolingÂ body. She felt the heat from the lifegiver seeping into her bones, washingÂ through her.
Soon she felt too hot even as new snow began to fall and a wind picked upÂ in the air. She tossed aside her furs, layer by layer until she stood nakedÂ over the prone form of her mother-sister. Her mind swam in heat, sweating as fur began to pierce through her skin in a grey-brown coat, fingers growingÂ fat and stubby, claws ripping through their tips. Her face distended, bodyÂ swelling as she became one with those whose voices she had represented.Â Almost as an afterthought, the short stubby tail popped itself into place,Â and Naka shook, rearing onto her own hinds and roaring out her acceptance ofÂ the gift, even as she knew Yani would be finding herself with child in aÂ few days.
Finding game enough to feed the village would take time, but she would haveÂ far more success than any of the others could, and tonight, at least, herÂ village would feast on the body of the lifegiver. They would sing herÂ praises, as they sang Naka’s. Then, when every last one had had their fill,Â they would take her bones and, as they would with any sacred elder, theyÂ would return her to the earth.