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Sample Chapter: Raven Woman

Raven Woman~ Chapter 1 ~

Umiak

Alaska...A.D. 300

The girl saw no familiar trees, no tall peaks of snow-covered mountains, only flat whiteness surrounding them. Someone shrieked and the sound carried back to her. She turned to watch in stunned fascination as the last boat gave a mighty lurch against a pounding wave and rolled in slow grace so that only the bottom bobbed on the surface. The second boat did the same, causing a neck-snapping jolt transmitting to the two remaining vessels. They tipped sideways for a long, terrifying moment before they bounced back into place.

Fear had not touched her yet. Her father, the leader of the group, would make it all right. He always had.

Ragged chunks of ice struck the sides of the wide skin boats and the wind howled and danced over the water.

Women and children huddled together, their mouths open in unspoken cries of fright.

The men stoutly braced themselves against the movement of the heaving sea. Tawny skin stretched over their facial bones in expressions of grim resignation. The men knew Ugruk’s power.

The four boats lashed by ropes of rolled hides leaped into the mist. The leader was a landsman, nuunamiut. He had no way of knowing that tying them together only increased the danger, making the boats harder to maneuver.

 

Raven Woman

Children with round black eyes filled with terror clung close to their mother’s fur clad leggings. They made no sound. A child of the Arctic learned early in life to be still in the presence of danger. The babies, tucked away snugly inside the hoods of their mother’s jackets, stayed dry and warm.

Winter wind suddenly whipped in from another direction, skimming over the ice-choked water in short, vigorous gusts. The pale sun had long since disappeared causing the sky and the water at the horizon to blend into a murky gray color. The water that sprayed over the boats turned to ice, plastered onto exposed eyebrows and eyelashes, ringing the long hairs of their wolf skin hoods.

The leader muttered words to placate Ugruk, the one who lay at the bottom of the sea. It was possible the creature would feast well upon their flesh today. The thought made the leader’s body twist with a shudder of revulsion. For a nuunamiut to perish at sea was the ultimate tragedy. His bones would haunt his kinsmen forever in their desire to be covered with earth in the shadows of the huge forest trees.

She sucked in her breath, not minding the frigid air that rattled inside her chest. Her uncles, cousins, aunts—a third of their village—had ridden in the four boats.

The remaining nuunamiut gazed at the black water in disbelief. Only lances and pieces of hunting equipment danced on the water as if taking on a life of their own. As they watched, black heads popped to the surface, staying only briefly before sinking from sight.

Huddled in the boat, the girl sat too far away to see the faces of her drowning kinsmen, but she sensed their agony. Her father signaled to someone in the second boat and a man bent to cut the connecting rope. The two overturned boats had been discarded like so much driftwood in an attempt to save the two remaining. Her mother bumped against her shoulder, to get her attention. The round shape of baby brother showed plain beneath the soft pliancy of her mother’s fur hood. The girl closed her eyes, wishing she too could be safe next to the remembered moist warmth of her mother’s skin.

The mother yanked off the girl’s mitten and pressed an object into her palm, closing her fingers over it tightly until she winced with the pain. It was the family’s treasured ikiiak, a feather from the Raven who had watched over their people since the beginning of time. Her mother never removed the charm from the little leather pouch which hung around her neck. The girl opened her mouth to question just as a swell of water mixed with chunks of ice leaped up at them like some terrible living thing. 

 

Raven Woman

Was it Ugruk? In her terror she imagined him coming for them. The girl felt strong hands pushing her to the bottom of the boat. Her mouth and nose filled with dirty slush water. She struggled against panic. She could not find any place to put her breath. It would surely leave and she would die in the bottom of the boat.

Then there was nothing but merciful darkness.

#

Strange voices penetrated her stupor when the girl slowly became conscious of her surroundings. She lay spread on her back in the bottom of the boat. Where were her mother and father, her brother and sisters? She leaped to her feet, expecting to see the fearsome waves and feel the sharp cut of the wind. The boat beneath her remained steady, the air still and cold. Her sudden movement brought babbles and moans from many voices. She turned in the direction of the sound to see a tightly packed group of fur-clad people step back in alarm.

Strangers from the other side! She was a wiivaksaat, a dead person! Terror gripped her insides and twisted cruelly.

The crowd gradually edged toward her again. Was her mother and father among them? Were they teasing her, hiding as in a game children played? It might not be so terrible to be dead if they were all together. She rubbed her mittens into her eyes to see across the blinding sharp whiteness of the snow. The sun sprayed a pale warmth over the scene. She struggled to stand on wobbly legs.

A man ventured close enough to reach a finger out to touch her. The girl trembled but did not retreat. When the people saw the man still standing and unharmed, they rushed forward, each touching the child with probing, questioning fingers. With sudden insight, the girl knew they too had thought her a spirit. She was alive!

She crawled out of the boat, tottering on the snowy ground as if taking her first baby steps. She felt weak; her stomach growled in hunger. A ring of faces surrounded her. Their dark-eyed expressions and tawny skins were much like that of her own people, but she was taller than even the tallest man standing before her.

“Where are my kinsmen?” the girl asked, trying not to cry. It would have shamed her father to see his daughter show the weakness of tears in front of strangers.

 

Raven Woman

The crowd began to talk, the sound came to her as a low, muttering hum. Her distress subsided momentarily as curiosity took hold of her emotions. These might be the tareumiut, people who lived by the sea. Hunters from her village brought back stories about these strange people who were able to slay giant fish. Sometimes the hunters traded caribou meat for skins filled with fat from the water creatures.

A few of the men wore round white objects in the bottom of their lips, much like the men in her clan put sharp little bones from the white goose through the tip of an ear.

Umiak?” One of the men pointed to the boat.

She did not recognize the word, yet she slowly began to realize that much of their conversation sounded familiar. In spite of her resolve, tears overflowed her eyes and ran down her cheeks when she tried to speak. She used hand gestures to tell them of her people coming in boats from a long distance, searching for caribou that were scarce this season. She made motions to indicate the tossing sea, the bobbing boats and rolled her hands around each other to show how they all turned over. It was then she remembered the charm her mother pressed into her hand and pulled off her mitten.

There in her palm, almost as if it had become a part of her skin, lay the black, crumpled feather from the powerful tulugaak, the Raven. The crowd gave a concerted gasp and stepped back. She did not care about the strange reaction of the people. Instead, her thoughts turned to the mother who had placed this charm in her palm. Her head lowered until chin touched chest and a muffled sob escaped her tightly clenched teeth.

Where are her people? Why have they not come to be with her? She turned to face the water, hoping to see them magically walk up from the shore.

She had no time to worry for suddenly an excited murmuring started from the back of the group. The crowd separated in the wake of an apparition striding toward her. She leaned against the boat for support. Her throat dried so that she gulped at the air, striving for calm.

It was the angakuk. The shaman.

In her village everyone feared the shaman and yet trusted their lives to his magic powers. He picked up the amulet lying against his chest, waving it at her. With one hand he swung the dried leg of a loon to ward off any dangerous spirits she might have brought with her.

 

Raven Woman

He was taller than the others, and when he stood before her, their eyes were nearly of the same level. He raised his voice in a high pitched chant, causing fear to sour on her tongue. She swallowed convulsively.

Circling her again and again with a maniacal frenzy, he bit the insides of his mouth, producing foamy spittle mixed with blood at the corners of his lips. The center of his lower lip held the largest ornament of any of the men, carved in the shape of a seal.

“This one may not be a human being as we are.” His high, sharp voice carried above the constant murmuring of the crowd. Many of his words sounded strange, some she recognized. It was plain he told them she was not of their world.

“She is in the guise of a helpless girl. It is a deception practiced on the gullible. She must be a dangerous ilitkosiq, a trouble maker from the other side!” He looked out over the sea and waved the loon leg. A movement rippled across the calm surface of the water. Wavelets began at the shoreline, gathering force as they leaped and lunged over one another as if in haste to get to shore. A huge wave crashed down on the beach, coming from nowhere. The gathering of people leapt back, huddling closer to one another for comfort. Some moaned in fear.

The girl felt her knees weaken and tried to hold herself straight. She could not be a visitor from the dead. Her talisman, the Raven feather, would not have followed to the other side. Totems were only for human protection. She momentarily tucked her fear behind her curiosity to watch the shaman.

Even though he wore baggy sealskin trousers, making him look to be as round as the others, the girl could tell he was thin as the birds that ran along the shore finding insects. His bony chin was picked clean of hairs, as was every man’s, but his eyebrows were allowed to sprout in every direction. Some of the longer hairs drooped down into his eyes, mixing with his lashes. He wore only a birdskin vest on his chest to signify his power over the cold. Countless greasy meals and the dried blood of animals stained the vest.

She had heard tales of other villages in which shaman seldom permitted water to touch their body or their clothing-thinking water diminished their powers.

His eyes stunned the girl, piercing through her like a lance, pinning her to one place. She felt certain those black eyes knew her every thought. Bloodshot veins almost filled the white area and reminded the girl of caribou brains spilled onto the snow. His long, thin nose hooked down toward his coarse, full lips which were spread in a horrible grimace. Snags of chipped, rotted teeth showed just above the gumline.

Her voice shattered the silence. “I am not of the wiivaksaat!”

 

Raven Woman

“Who are you? What are you called?” A woman stood a little closer than the others. The girl turned away from the shaman to look at her. She was by far the fattest person in the village. Her eyes were swallowed by her round cheeks, but the malicious glare from the slits of her eyes was more frightening than the look of the shaman. Her low forehead creased with a sullen scowl which sat comfortably upon her face as if it belonged there.

“Sarquaaq!” The shaman pointed at the woman. “This is not your place to question first. It is too dangerous.”

The girl felt surprise at the placating whine in the shaman’s voice. She wished to tell them her name as a sign of friendliness and that her clan was called the tornit. She dared not. Once a name was spoken she would be in their power. Among her people, a person’s soul was wrapped inside his name. One did not surrender it to strangers.

She remembered how often the sick changed their names so the bad spirits would not know them and might leave them alone. The girl shook her head, her eyes sad, but her mouth settled into a stubborn line in front of clenched teeth.

“Leave her here!” The shaman’s voice screeched out over the murmur of the crowd. “This is a dangerous place! I feel many ilitkosiq, dead souls, all around us, in the water, creeping toward shore! Soon they will crawl out upon the land, searching for this one.”

The girl understood that he spoke of her people by the way he shook his rattle toward the dark water and then at the skin boat lying on the beach. The thought came that it might be better if they left her here alone to wait for her father. He was out there, he would surely come for her. She knew some of her people had perished, she had seen their heads bobbing in the icy water. She shivered in fright to think of climbing back into the boat and entering the water with souls of her departed family swimming beneath her.

An ancient crone moved up to stand by the one called Sarquaaq. She was small enough to be a spirit. “An old person feels shame that her daughter stupidly asks a stranger to surrender her name.” Her shadow was no larger than one of her daughter’s mammoth legs yet she seemed not the least intimidated.

“You call yourselves Inuit—the men. Yet you are afraid of a child? This one is not from the land beyond. We have seen people of her clan in our journeys. She is of the tornit, those with the strength of a bear and tall as the napaktuk, trees.”

The group stirred restlessly, not knowing who to believe. When the old one’s husband was alive, she went with him on many journeys, for he had been a wanderer. Few of them had ever seen a tree, but all had heard of these wonders.

 

Raven Woman

She leaned fearlessly toward the girl, touched her cheek and then touched the boat. “She has a name now. The girl comes from the sea in an umiak. Her name will be Umiak.” She turned to speak to her as if they were the only two in the village. “Ooo-mee-ack. It is a pleasant word, you will like it for a name.” She moved to stand in front of the people, ignoring the shaman. “She is young, her soul not yet formed. She offers no harm.”

The shaman glared, his eyes suspicious. “A child? She is big for a child. I say she is a mother who has lost children to ‘Sednah in the water’. Her kinsmen will rise from the water and find her. I may not have enough magic to protect you against the danger!”

The people muttered with fear at the mention of Sednah. Some moved away with their families, but most stayed, eyes bright with curiosity.

The old woman wiped her furred sleeve under her runny nose which was turning red from the cold. The sky had changed to an ugly brown. A storm was coming.

“An old woman is not afraid, even if some men are.” A shocked expression came over the watcher’s faces with this outright disregard of the shaman’s commands. For a long moment the girl’s life hung by the silence between the old woman and the shaman.

“What of the lances, harpoons and other treasures that our people have gathered from the water? These belong to the girl,” someone in the crowd spoke. The shaman knew curiosity had overpowered their fear and he had lost.

For now.

The shaman glared at Umiak and the old woman, his bony chin tilted with arrogant pride. His voice calm, more frightening than his screams and shouts.

She had made a powerful enemy.

“I must examine the weapons. They may contain spirits to bring mischief makers and thus poor hunting. The girl will come with me. If she has born children we must return her to this place and leave her to join her dead family,” the shaman warned.

Hands began to strip off Umiak’s soggy jacket. Someone handed her a dry fur. She slipped her arms into the icy cold sleeves, shivering until her body heat warmed the inside. It felt so good not to be wet, although her boots were still damp.

 

Raven Woman

The old woman spoke to her, her ancient voice cracked in places as would a piece of folded hide in the cold. “Umiak.” The grandmother pointed a finger into her chest and said it again.

“Ooo-mee-ack,” the girl repeated politely. So, it appeared she would not be left for Ugruk. They called the water creature Sednah. Could Ugruk and Sednah be the same creatures? Now they had given her a name. She knew it had to do with the skin boat. She let the word linger on her tongue, pursing her lips to whisper it.

“Ooo-mee-ack.” It sounded soothing, yet strong and pleasing. She looked back at the water, expecting to see her father and mother coming for her. The shaman had spoken of them as being spirits. Could it be true? Could all have perished? She followed behind the old woman as the procession returned to the village.