1,600 Words from The Broken Sky

   “As I said, I will be the lure. I will go and draw a wolf in. I will run from the north to the top of this rock. You will hear me coming. Don’t be stupid. Do not shoot me when I appear.”

   She paused for a moment and looked each of them in the eye before continuing; “I will drop off the end of that rock and there will be a wolf right behind me. You will have three heartbeats to shoot that wolf before he knows it’s a trap and disappears. Can you boys shoot a wolf in three heartbeats?”
   “I can shoot three wolves in two heartbeats.” Nachin replied.
   “Let us hope it does not come to that.”
   Cnán watched the boys work their way into the brush, and then praying to Gral that they would be somewhat competent in their appointed tasks, she started to the northwest. This time she strode quickly and silently across the open grasslands and barren sandy patches. The wind made a constant hissing in the brush and a small swarm of biting flies grew in her wake. Cnán worried; the boys had no patience for this kind of hunt, and she knew it could take days to find a wolf if the wolves did not want to be found.
   About one verst to the northwest, she stopped and plucked a wide blade of grass. Crouching behind the hollow bole of a dead tree, she stretched the blade along her thumb and held it to her lips. Blown properly, the blade produced a high squeaking sound. With a little experiment, she modulated the squeak to drop in pitch as she blew. “Skewk, skewk, skewk, skewwww.” The cry of an injured rabbit; any wolf within hearing would be drawn irresistibly. Cnán waited.
   Again she blew, and again she waited, straining to hear a cautious yap in the distance or the high warbling language of two wolves discussing the prospect of food. Cnán had used this trick often while herding goats to draw wolves from hiding that otherwise awaited an easy meal. This time, no wolf.
   She moved on, another verst to the west. Behind a rock this time, she sent out the same plaintive cry. The wind hissed in the grass and a small lizard inspected her from a fallen log. Nothing, no wolves. The sun now hung high in the sky and Cnán began to perspire beneath her vest and skirt. Three vultures circled far to the north. Was that where the wolves had gone?
   Again she moved, only a half a verst this time. Hiding behind another rock at the head of a shallow gully, she once again squealed like an injured rabbit. She coaxed out a cry that embraced all of the pain she could imagine a rabbit would feel from dragging its broken leg. The wind hissed. And then came a new sound; a different sound, like an old woman clearing her throat. Finally, a wolf this time? She called again. Silence. Then the cough, a little closer now.
   Cnán did not recognize this kind of wolf sound, maybe wolves of the steppe spoke in a different way than wolves of the hill. She cautiously peeped over the rock. About two bowshots away she glimpsed a shadow crossing between two clumps of brush. It was larger than any wolf, and walked with the fluid ease of a predator. In an instant Cnán knew that she was dead, for a great s'is'kiss padded into view, an enormous Siberian tiger.
   As Cnán ran silently down the shallow gully, she kept her head low. She thought, be invisible, be unseen, do not be prey. But she knew that the big cat heard her call and tracked her even now. She was dead. She should freeze like a rabbit in the claws of an eagle and give her life to the sky and the wind. There was no possibility that she could outrun this thing. There was no help within two and a half versts, and what help would that be? Two boys with toy Mongol bows. But still, being Third Dog of the People for so long had filled her with some foolish will to live.
   What did she know about tigers? Nothing. Nothing at all. Cnán had never before seen such a beast, but heard only stories. She reached a dead tree and crouched behind it. What did she know about tigers, were they like lynxes? She knew lynxes. They ate rabbits. They ate lemmings. They liked to play. Lynxes would play with lemmings, let them run one way and then the next. But always the lynx won in the end. Always the lemming was the lynx’s meal. Did tigers do that too? Did tigers play?
   Cnán looked around the tree. The tiger was there before the rock where Cnán had crouched earlier. Likely she had lost her bladder and left her spoor at that moment of shock. The tiger scented the ground, its pink tongue flicking out as it golden eyes rolled up to meet her hazel ones.
   Cnán sank back behind the dead tree. Its bleached white trunk was devoid of bark. A trail of large black ants paraded up the pale wood on errands of their own. Cnán could smell rain in the air. A storm would arrive within a day or two. Three small, pale mushrooms poked their shy parasols above the loose soil at the base of the tree. A lone desert lark sang from a far off bush. She must play with this s'is'kiss. She must be the lemming.
   Running north, Cnán kept low, kept out of sight. She reached a small rock and flattened herself behind it. The tiger loped easily down the gully she had just passed. Backing on all fours, Cnán put more distance between herself and the tree where she had paused moments before. Quickly, silently, invisibly, she crossed behind a low hill and crouched to run. Half a verst, maybe; then she looked back. The tiger followed. Play, she had to play or she would never make it. Cnán stood and eyed the tiger, then flopped to her stomach and scrambled to the southeast; scrambled through brush and rocks until she could crouch without being seen and run, run, run. She forced herself to stand again. The tiger was less than a bowshot away. It faced north, pretending not to see her; playing. Then it turned.
   Again she dropped below the line of low hills and scrambled to the northeast. Weaving, running, how many versts now? Would she ever find the brown sloping rock? She could hear a low rumbling, almost a sound of satisfaction. The tiger was pleased with this play. She ran heedless, crouching low and threw herself flat behind the hollow bole of a dead tree.
   A low cough and a short growl let her know that the s'is'kiss, stood right behind her. She jumped up and waved her arms. What a stupid thing to do, but she was desperate. Its enormous face was the size of a cauldron, black and yellow stripes, so close, she could see the hairs, she could count the whiskers. It backed off with a low snort and put its ears up in mock surprise. S'is'kiss was not through playing it seemed. She ran around the tree as it jumped onto the trunk. Climbing to a low branch the tiger growled, waving an enormous claw-studded paw in her direction. Cnán dashed to a rock and jumped behind it, then changed directions and ran north. The s'is'kiss, waited, it was good play, and the end would come soon. Cnán dodged and scrambled.
   The brown sandstone rock was there where it should be; she almost passed it in her mad haste. Time for running now, the game was over. Cnán stretched it out, her legs a blur of brown scissoring calves. “Ay, yai, yai, yai.” Her breath, a screaming torrent, heaved into her lungs while from behind came the steady gallop of heavy pugs slamming into the earth. Up the rock she ran, an arrow whisked past her face only a finger’s width away. Pausing not for a moment, she dropped off the end as an enormous form landed exactly at the top of the rock behind her. S'is'kiss paused.
   The next arrow took it in the chest, a growl of indignation, then another arrow. On its hind legs, it roared in surprise and rage. Then two more arrows struck, one in the eye. The tiger sprang from the rock toward Maqali. Yet another arrow took it in mid jump, and Nachin dropped his bow and leaped to the back of the tiger, drawing his knife. Maqali curled into a ball as the tiger landed. But Nachin’s knife was already plunged into the animal’s heart. Kicking and bellowing the Siberian tiger threw Nachin for ten paces before it twitched and grunted and died.
   Slowly Cnán stood; she lived. The sun rode high above, like a disk of purest gold. The great bowl of creation over her head was a deep indigo blue with incredible white clouds drifting past like a string of enormous snowy Bactrians. The scent of sage and wild rose and tiger musk smelled like the ambrosia of the gods. The air in her lungs tasted like the finest milk of a young goat, freshly drawn. And Cnán laughed. She stood and laughed and could not stop if the world were ending. She laughed and the tears flooded down her cheeks. She lived, the world was before her, and she laughed, collapsing slowly to her knees. And as she sank to the ground, a vision came to her of the People, once her People, surrounded by Mongols, dying, dying. Of their shaman, nailed living and screaming to a tree, hands above his head and his bowels opened and strewn about the ground before him. Awaiting the wolves. And Cnán laughed as one possessed and finally, unable to draw breath, she laughed until she lost consciousness.

 

Raef's World of 1227 A.D.