Khaidu had not always wished for death. She still remembered when the sky’s endless abyss spoke to her in hushed tones. She used to prance like a goat on the mountains while her ten brothers laughed at her. Now that she couldn’t walk, now that her face was a broken ruin, now that she could hardly speak two words without the pain in her head turning white-hot, they no longer laughed at all. Not in her presence.
Her family, the last true nomads of the Gumiren, had a saying. The Steppe is a hard mother. The Steppe provided food and grass for the herds. The Steppe gave water and firm land, comfortable for the feet of the horses. The Steppe was the endless sky as a ceiling and the endless grass as a floor—a home as great as the earth itself. But the Steppe was cold. The Steppe was wind and driving snow. The Steppe was dearth and labor and, sometimes, death.
Khaidu often wished her hard mother, the Steppe, would end her.
“You need something to distract you, my little wolfling,” said Etchigu one day as he came into her yurt with two steaming cups of salty tea. He was the only brother who still spoke to Khaidu. She suspected that he did it only because it was his duty as eldest.
“I’ve spoken to Mamai,” he continued. “She is willing, this once, to let you come on the hunt.”
Khaidu laughed, though through her crooked mouth it sounded more like hissing. She made the sign that meant “horses will fly before that day comes.”
Etchigu smiled. “Yes, I know it isn’t proper for a girl to come. But Mamai can make an exception.”
“To tradition? Yes, we must. You needn’t remind me. I know we’re all that’s left of the Gumiren in the Steppe. But you need this, little one. And I know you want it.”
“Y-y-yes…” A little ember of delight lit up somewhere deep inside her.
A rumbling sound, like the soft growl of a bear, rose up outside the yurt. It was echoed by the rhythmic strumming on a three-string tobashur. Then someone started to play the bowed two-string kabukar. To Khaidu, it sounded like a river breaking free of ice in spring. Her ember of delight flared into ecstatic joy.
Etchigu must have caught her expression, because his eyes lit up with more than the light of her dim hearth-fire.
“Yes,” he said. “I asked the boys to sing the one about the wolf cub who couldn’t hunt.”
“D-d-did…y-y-ou…hm-hm-hm…” She was too tired to go on, but Etchigu caught her drift.
“Yes, I asked them to sing it in ‘mother bear.’”
It was Khaidu’s favorite. There were three kinds of overtone singing, some more piercing than others. But the rumble of the mother-bear—it had a quality that sweetened even the worst pain for Khaidu, though it was laced with wistfulness and loss.
Etchigu carried her out of the yurt. Four of her brothers sat around a large fire. Three of them were playing their homemade lutes, and one was searching for the overtone, his eyes closed. All the muscles of his face were slack, except for his eyebrows, which threatened to bore into the bones of his head, they were so tight. Then they relaxed, and the overtone poured out just as the logs of the fire cracked and fell in on each other. A shower of sparks rose, then faded into the heavy fog encircling them.
As soon as the singing started, children materialized out of the fog. The evening song called to them, and they were always preternaturally quiet when “mother bear” was used. It soothed Khaidu, for whom their physical games were a constant reminder of her loss. Then one of them, probably some distant cousin of Khaidu’s that she could never remember—there were so many of them, after all—moved into a dancing-pattern that mirrored the words of the song.
“A cub there was, who howled with hunger …
All the faces turned toward the fire were calm, but smiling. This was right. At such moments, the painful reality of being a people in exile faded into the larger tapestry of their Gumiren history—so rich, so ancient, and so pure. At least until the recent time of darkness.
“Her legs were weak; her teeth were cracked …”
A masked figure with trailing sleeves of bright red emerged from the darkness. Khaidu’s heart leaped. It was a rare thing for the old shaman’s daughter, a dancer of the spirits, to come out for the evening song, to transform it into more than a simple remembrance. Her movements, inspired by mystical currents in the eternal expanse of the sky, gathered all the threads of their individual worries, desires, aspirations, and intertwined them into a single petition to the silence of the Heights. To the Unknown Father whom all true Gumiren have sought for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
“Many were the years of hunger, many the days of pain…”
The spirit-dancer spun on one foot, then seemed to fall, until she caught herself at the final moment. It looked as though someone had lifted her by an invisible string attached at her shoulder. Back and forth she swayed, softly humming along as her fingers, arms, and legs painted pictures that spoke in a silent language of supplication.
Until she shed her downy fur and tasted her first kill …”
Khaidu’s eyes hurt from the firelight. She closed them. With something like surprise, she felt wet drops fall on her hands, lying upturned on legs like matchsticks. Was she crying?
Will I ever shed my downy fur? wondered. Then the bitterness rose up again. No. More likely I will be the first kill, not taste it …
Three days later came the Red Day, named for the unbearable fire of the first sunset of spring. It was the first wolf-hunt of the year, fraught with special significance. In the misty morning, all the hunters bantered, eager for the start of the hunting season. They fell silent as Etchigu carried Khaidu out of her yurt. He strapped her into the special saddle designed for her lifeless legs and too-strong arms. The silence grew to murmurs, all of them unfriendly. Khaidu heard them all:
“What is Etchigu doing? This is not allowed…”
“A bad omen, especially for Red Day…”
“Has Mamai gone soft in the head?”
Only Batuk (Khaidu’s personal torturer) had the courage to walk up to Etchigu and openly remonstrate. Etchigu took him aside and spoke in angry whispers. Khaidu tried not to listen, but she heard enough.
“How much longer does she have? Have some pity,” whispered Etchigu. That was especially painful to hear, but it seemed to work. Batuk subsided, though the look he gave Khaidu promised no respite from future pain.
Khaidu tried not to care, though the tears were already threatening to come. Not an auspicious beginning for the hunt.
It took them most of the day to approach the hunting fields. As they rode, the beauty of the landscape pushed aside all Khaidu’s other thoughts. This Red Day seemed created by the Powers especially for her. As the sun set, the horse-clan’s hunters—twenty picked men, ten of whom were Khaidu’s brothers—stilled their horses on the tips of the Teeth, the last ridges before the mountain flowed wave-like down into the Steppe. The setting sun gilded their furry-eared hats and the plumed heads of their hunting eagles. They stood in a rough semicircle, each hunter the prescribed 10 paces away from his neighbor, just close enough to hear the raised voice of the hunt leader. The horses stamped and tossed their heads in frustration, their breath clouding around them. The eagles shrugged—first one shoulder, then another—anxious to begin. Khaidu thought her heart would explode from the beauty of it all.
Khaidu’s heart caught in her throat at the sound of Etchigu’s hunt-shriek. The horses flew over the lip of the Teeth, and their breath mingled with the fresh powder thrown up by eighty hooves in concert. Etchigu launched into an old ballad, and Batuk backed him, adding his own improvised harmony to Etchigu’s raspy tenor. Then all the men joined in, and the river of song grew to a torrent. For a moment, Khaidu thought the eagles sang with them as well, their wings half-unfurled, their darting tongues visible in their open beaks.
The single wolf in the valley below looked up, as though curious. Arelat, Etchigu’s eagle, screamed. At that sound, the wolf turned and fled. The sons of Mamai jani-Beg, the greatest matriarch of the Gumiren, shouted the final chord of the ballad and threw their arms up. Gold-flecked in the evening light, the eagles leaped up, awkwardly catching the air as though they were out of practice. All together as one, they caught a thermal and spun around each other, dancing, then each wheeled out and plunged down toward the fleeing wolf. For a moment, Khaidu felt a pang for the poor creature. No wolf, no matter how big, could come away unscathed from a Gumiren eagle attack.
Suddenly, Arelat the eagle banked left, nearly crashing into the other eagles in mid-air. Khaidu forgot to breathe in surprised shock. An eagle twice the size of Arelat materialized seemingly out of nowhere. It was black as a raven, except for the head and tail, which were whiter than new snow. Incensed at the challenge, Arelat dove at the intruder. At the last possible moment, the great white-headed beast maneuvered out of the way. Arelat missed.
Khaidu gasped. This could be the end of Arelat as chief hunter’s eagle.
But the white-headed monster seemed to have no interest in dominating the rest of the eagles. Its behavior was unlike anything Khaidu had ever seen. It wheeled back and forth, toward the other eagles, then toward the riders, then back up into the expanse of sky, seemingly for the joy of flight alone.
Khaidu slowed her horse to a complete stop. The black and white eagle compelled her with a yearning stronger than thought. She wanted the eagle for herself, to bind it to herself as all hunting eagles were bound to Gumiren hunters. She wanted to show them all she was worth something. No, it was more than that. She ached to have her own purpose within the rule-bound world of the Gumiren nomads, the world that had no place for a cripple.
Etchigu had taught her the song of binding; would her body cooperate?
Khaidu raised her gloved right hand, palm up, toward the eagle. She keened that peculiar call that so enticed all eagles. The inside of her head convulsed with pain. The eagle shuddered and stopped in mid-soar. Her tongue cramped and her throat burned with the effort, but Khaidu gritted her teeth and kept on. She wrapped her awkward lips around the words of the binding.
The eagle trembled, battling with what Khaidu could only imagine was an ecstasy like nothing a human being could bear. It broke free for a moment and managed to fly up a few feet, then again seemed chained in place, shuddering in midair. The other eagles circled it now, and Arelat was primed to strike at the now helpless creature.
Now, thought Khaidu. To me!
The eagle plunged toward her, and the rest of the eagles followed in single file like the tail of a spirit-banner snapping in wind. Khaidu focused her song to a higher pitch, then reached deep within her throat to find the elusive overtone. When she found it, the sound pushed through her broken body like a spear-thrust, and she almost lost the thread of the music in the ecstasy that erased all her pain. That was the final blow. The eagle veered, then alighted clumsily on Khaidu’s gloved hand. Khaidu fell silent, and the eagle remained in place. It worked.
Up close, she saw that it was not quite twice the size of a normal Steppe-eagle, but even with her strong arms, Khaidu had to strain to keep it steady. It looked at her with eyes nearly human and clicked its beak. For a terrifying moment, Khaidu thought it would peck her eyes out. Then it squawked and preened like a sparrow.
With her other hand, Khaidu grasped the thick mane of her pony and whistled. The pony cantered down toward the ragged line of hunters who had stopped in the middle of the slope. They all looked at her as though she had grown a second head. She smiled internally. Far away, barely more than a speck of dust, the grey wolf ran like the wind. If wolves could speak, he would have a story to tell that would make him a legend. The only wolf ever to escape a Gumiren hunt.
Etchigu clicked his tongue, and his horse pushed uphill toward Khaidu. He smiled broadly, his eyes lost in the folds above his high cheekbones.
“Well, well, wolfling,” he said. “Trying to take my place as head hunter?” His laugh was raspy—a sure sign of real enjoyment. He regarded the eagle, the whites of his eyes stark against the winter-burn red of his face. “What a beast! Poor Arelat. He’ll never live it down.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. He raised his arm and whistled. Arelat came, but with bowed head. It avoided looking at Khaidu. Her eagle completely ignored Arelat, intent on Khaidu’s face. She felt the heat of the gaze like it was human. It gave her a perverse kind of enjoyment. But the best was the embarrassment on Batuk’s face.
The hunting party’s return journey was interminable. Eagle, pony, and hunter alike rode with heads half-bowed. Khaidu alone rejoiced as she contemplated her eagle circling overhead, never too far away from its new master. Lost in her thoughts, Khaidu did not realize that she had fallen behind the rest, with only Batuk still behind her. Panic pushed out joy in an instant.
Batuk trotted up to her. Etchigu was too far for her to cry out. She willed her pony to canter. She was too late. Batuk rode alongside, matching her pace. His eyes were like two prods on her left cheek. I will not panic, she said to herself. Her heart refused to listen. Already the cramping in her hands presaged one of her fits. Batuk did it on purpose. He wanted her to have a fit and fall off. She was so far behind the rest that it would take a long time for anyone to realize that something was amiss.
She knew what she had to do. “Breathe long, extend your fingers, turn the rocks in your neck into water,” said Mamai’s voice in her head, but Khaidu only felt herself curling inward like a poppy closing at night.
“You shouldn’t have come,” said Batuk, wolfish. “You ruined the hunt for us.”
It seemed Batuk was not content with waiting for her fit. He struck her on the back of the head, in the place that hurt more than any other, as he knew well enough. A light flashed behind her eyes, a moan bubbled up from deep inside her, and she fell to the ground, screaming like an animal being butchered.
But no. That was not her screaming. Batuk screamed. The white-headed eagle was on top of him, scraping his face with its talons. Even in the tangle of hands and black feathers, the telltale red splashed.
The rest of the party rushed back, but they were far away. By the time they arrived, Batuk’s face was a ruin.
Khaidu retched on the ground, barely managing to avoid fouling herself with the sickness. Her body throbbed with pain, her mouth was fuzzy and tasted of metal. With an effort, she moved her tongue over the inside of her cheek—it was thick as felt and ragged. She suspected she had bitten though her tongue. Something sharp and insistent pounded at her left hip. She sobbed. To her own ears, she sounded like little more than a wounded animal. Something reptilian and repulsive, worse than a lamed horse or a sick dog.
Etchigu picked her up. His expression was difficult to read.
“Khaidu, did Batuk attack you?” he asked quietly.
She shook all over, but managed to force her head up and down. Etchigu sighed.
“Then he deserved what he got. But Mamai will be furious. There’s something you must understand, little wolf. You are responsible for that eagle now. If it attacks anyone else, you will have to put it down. You do not know the pain of killing your own eagle. It is worse than losing a prize stallion.”