I talk all night long with a dream image. About the tales of my pain; Thus my sleeplessness comes from these tales.
—Amir Khusraw, thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet
Northern shores of the Black Sea
The woods. The low-hanging fog. Or to these three hunters, the low-hanging cloud that makes finding their prey just that much more difficult. In the fog, they effectively only have ears to listen for their prey. In contrast, their prey has eyes, ears, noses, and animal ESP, which pierce through the fog, and so do those who hunt them.
It is Orzu’s birthday. Born on the seventh day of the sixth moon, he has seen seventeen cycles of the sun. In a few more sun cycles, it will be time for him to find a wife. His grandfather, Parcza, has taken him and his sister Illyana into the woods so Orzu can master the art of providing meat for his family. Parcza doubts whether Orzu will ever become a good provider for a new family, for Orzu has yet to kill during the hunt, any hunt.
Illyana, on the other hand, is a natural-born hunter. But Parcza knows that the young men of the village will not be selecting Illyana based on her hunting skills, for she has become a very handsome young woman, at fifteen cycles of the sun. Two sun cycles ago, her breast buds began to blossom and she begrudgingly had to alter her clothing to accommodate these changes, asking why she needed to dress differently than Orzu.
Orzu has taken point, softly and slowly moving forward in the dense undergrowth of the forest. They have gone farther north than normal as the lands near their village seem depleted of game. He peers back at Parcza to see if he is doing well in his grandfather’s eyes. Parcza has been a surrogate father for Orzu and his sister. Six sun cycles ago, the Reindeer People, the giants of the north, took their father as a slave; they took their mother and their grandmother, Parcza’s wife, too, for unspeakable reasons. Thus, Parcza has done his best to mother them as well as father them.
A shuffle of a leaf, and Orzu stops, holding his hand up. He moves his bow up and draws the arrow shaft back, just as Parcza coached him this morning. His arrow has a normal stone head for smaller game. He and his sister have a few special arrows for larger game, with a very shiny black stone that is extra hard and sharp. Parcza found these on the Reindeer People’s arrows and spears after they massacred a nearby village, and he kept a collection for their use. Parcza is holding a spear in case they are the hunted, as these woods have two types of animals—the ones much smaller than they, which can be killed by arrows, and the ones larger and sometimes hungrier than they, which may or may not be deterred by even their spears.
Orzu scours the forest for the source of the leaf sound, and he sighs in relief. It’s a rabbit. Unlikely to jump at them and rip their limbs off. He aims along the arrow shaft as he watches the rabbit nibble some leaves and wiggle its nose. Orzu finds it cute. He’d rather have it around the house than dead with an arrow through it. I cannot kill this animal, he thinks. It is not right.
Whoosh. His trance is broken as Illyana’s arrow splits apart the head holding the cute wiggling nose.
“Orzu, what were you waiting for?” Illyana admonishes as she goes to retrieve the carcass, which is convulsing as if the head were still attached. “What were you thinking of? Inviting the rabbit home to dinner?” Parcza glances at Orzu, shakes his head, and goes over to Illyana, congratulating her on her fine kill.
Joining his family, Orzu leans down to look at the blood-oozing animal and also compliments his sister on her shot. Parcza begins his next lecture, especially for Orzu. “Your ability to kill with one shot is vital to your survival, and the survival of your family. Not only do we need to eat meat many times each moon cycle to be strong, we need to be ready to defend against attacks, by animals and by the giant Reindeer People.”
Orzu and Illyana have only seen the Reindeer People once—the night when they raided their old village several sun cycles ago. Parcza came to their house to hide them and their mother while their father joined the other men of the village to fight these giants. Orzu remembers seeing the Reindeer warriors lift two men of village at a time and throw them a distance longer than ten strides. They towered over the tallest of the villagers by nearly three heads and could lift boulders seemingly with ease.
Orzu held his dear Illyana tightly and covered her eyes as they hid in a secret compartment and watched the Reindeer warrior search the rest of their house. As the Reindeer warriors assembled their new slaves, Orzu’s mother gasped, seeing her husband terribly wounded, captured as a slave. Overwhelmed by her sense of love, she abandoned their hiding place to go to her husband’s aid and was grabbed by a warrior, stripped of her clothes, and raped mercilessly over and over in front of her hapless husband.
Parcza escaped with the two children out the back way into the woods, knowing the warriors would come back to search their house again. Illyana saw more, much more, than Parcza had wanted her to. But she was strong. She told Parcza that she wanted to learn to hunt, learn to kill, so she would never have to hide again. And so Illyana came with Orzu on this hunt, and every hunt.
“Orzu, your sister asked the right question. What were you thinking?” Parcza asks in utter dismay. “You had a clean shot. Your draw was perfect, as was your aim.”
Looking at the ground, Orzu meekly replies, “Parcza, isn’t it true that the Reindeer Giants kill indiscriminately? They kill animals not only for food, but for their pleasure, just like they kill their slaves when they are no longer useful. I heard they drink their blood and eat parts of their body.”
Parcza nods yes. Illyana purses her lips in disgust at the thought.
“Thus, Parcza, if I kill for my training, am I not like them? What separates me from them? Killing is not good,” Orzu laments.
With anger in his eyes over Orzu’s dangerous logic, Parcza gives a stern recounting of the ills that the Reindeer People bring. “Orzu, do you love your sister?”
“Yes, of course,” Orzu replies, putting his hand on her head, “I love her with all my heart.”
“Orzu, you love my rabbit in a kettle more than me as you can’t kill one yourself,” a smiling Illyana rebuts.
With the most serious face, Parcza reminds him, “Orzu, if taken, you will work to your death lifting stones that weigh more than an entire village to make their pyramids. I have not taken you there to see these giant structures, which stand more than twenty men tall, as the horror of our men dying on their feet is too much for even me to bear. Mark my words, Orzu, the horror of what they would do to Illyana is far, far worse.”
Illyana peers at Orzu with distress and dismay. Even though she had only nine sun cycles of age that tragic day, she has nightmares of her mother’s screams at the unforgiving hands and members of the Reindeer warriors.
“Orzu, you may not want to kill to save your own life. But maybe you’ll need to kill to save your sister’s, if you love her.” Parcza pauses, then adds ominously, “Be clear on what would happen to her if she were caught. They do not care how young she is. They take girls as young as thirteen cycles. They are inhumane. Maybe not even human. If caught, after having been raped repeatedly by several warriors, your sister would be selected by one to be his sex slave until she can perform no more. Then, they would feed her sex organs to their next sex slaves to increase their sexual desirability. They believe it is their right to have our women in this way as they are the ‘chosen’ descendants. Children of descendants from the sky, from the heavens.”
“Orzu, listen to me. They will make your sister dress in ways that are meant to incite lust, showing her sexual organs at all times. They will teach her to paint her lips and tint her eyelids. They will teach her how to make potions for lust and delirium. Worse, they will make her perform depraved sexual acts. So painful and depraved will these acts be, she will long for someone to kill her.” He pauses and continues, “Orzu, you would kill to save your sister from such a fate. You would and you must, just as she would do for you if you were to be enslaved.”
Parcza pauses, his eyes growing moist. “They took your grandmother too,” he says with a crackle in his voice. “I tried to follow her as they took her to their pyramids. I heard her crying in the night as they repeatedly violated her, but I couldn’t free her. I was tormented for numerous sun cycles, until I got enough villagers to come with me to rescue our women.”
He pauses to collect his thoughts. “Finally I saw her, with her lips painted and eyelids colored, and her breasts and loins exposed. Holding her hands were the children she bore for her tormentors. The oldest was on his way to being a giant, already your height, Orzu, in only a few cycles. I will never forget his face. Like his mother’s, but so long and distorted.”
He wipes away the tears forming in his eyes. “Then she saw me. She said to go. I should have killed her before, but now it was too late.”
Parcza stops again as he sees his grandchildren are catatonic.
Illyana has hidden her face in her hands, which are covered in rabbit blood. With the blood running down her cheeks, she cries at Orzu, “You must kill. If you can’t kill the bastards, then you must promise me that you will kill me before they do to me what they did to Mother.” She glares at Orzu. “Promise me that.” Orzu nods and hugs Illyana.
Taking a deep breath to inspire her inner courage, she takes out the three super-sharp black stone arrows from her quiver and holds them out to Orzu. “Big brother, rest assured, I am not solely dependent on you to save me. I can shoot three of these deep in the chest of any Reindeer man in less than the count of three. Unlike you, I have learned from Parcza how to be a warrior. I will not be taken.”
Parcza changes the topic. “Orzu, it’s time to recite the tradition. As my grandfather has passed to me, as his grandfather passed to him, I pass to you. So start.”
Orzu is caught off guard and stutters, “Tens and tens of cycles ago, the long-tailed star came and our lands became cold and winter came. The giant reindeer dominated…”
Orzu stops as Parcza slaps the back of his head. “You must memorize it word for word. If you change it, your children will change it. And their children will get the wrong message. Their survival depends on it. The children of the children of your grandchildren—their lives depend on your knowing each word precisely.”
Illyana pipes in, reciting the tradition in just a few breaths. “Tens upon tens upon tens of cycles of the stars ago, the long-tailed star came from the sky and our lands became ice, and winter became forever. Only the giants of the reindeer prospered, because of the power from this star. Thus, the forefathers of our forefathers’ forefathers moved away from the land of the ice. We prosper as we move farther away each generation. Keep looking for lands rich in animals to hunt, water to fish, grass to harvest, and settle there. Make alliances with neighbors for safety. And be wary of the giant Reindeer People; when they arrive, move away from the direction of ice to seek safety. The bright star, the tail of the bird, will be your guide. Watch for the long-tailed star, which came from the direction of the bird. For when it returns, lands will again become winter, and the lands and animals and even man will change again.”
She sticks her tongue out at Orzu and then recites it backwards: “Again change will man even and animals and lands the and winter become again will lands, returns it when for.” She sticks her tongue out again.
Parcza pats Illyana’s head in approval and says, “Orzu, that’s another reason why you need to keep your sister safe. For only she will be able to teach your children the tradition.”
Observant of Orzu’s gaze at the loose leaves lining the forest floor, Illyana gives him a little hug. “Don’t worry. You will find a woman like Mother. I know all the young girls of the village. I’ll find you a good woman. I’ll even tell her what a great provider you will be. But that means you need to step up, big brother.”
Their grandfather smiles at the exchange, then stares towards their home many days’ hike away. “Up until your time, our family has survived for generations because we follow this tradition. Now we have our backs to the vast lake and things have changed. But you must understand these traditions—act on them, or pass them to your children so they can act on them.”
Lost between jealousy of his sister’s keenness with words and bow and his poor comprehension of the oral tradition, Orzu asks, “But what do these words really mean, Parcza?”
“The Reindeer People came into the lands after the long-tailed star came. For cycles and cycles, they expanded their lands and their numbers by taking from our kind and breeding with our women. Their women are barren, so they need ours. Even their daughters born by our women are mostly barren, so they need to steal our women constantly to reproduce. This is why they have so little regard for females, as they are just objects, mere reproductive animals to them, and why we should fear them so. They worship the sky where the long-tailed star came from. It is said they gained their size and their power when the star landed out of the heavens. Our family has survived up until now as we have always moved away from the Reindeer People. That star we see at night, the tail of the bird in the milky streak, it is our reference point of where we need to move away from. Do you understand?”
Orzu and Illyana nod.
Minutes later, evening starts to come and the stars emerge. Parcza points up to the sky and shows them the three brightest stars in the milkiest, cloudiest part of the night. “See the bird? The star at its tail? Always remember this star, and when you’re in danger, move away from it. Tell your children to watch it each night and flee if the star with the long tail returns, for the Reindeer People were born of that star. The next may bring worse to our kind.
“After the raid that led to the death of your parents, we fled from the tail of the bird, and we moved our house near the vast lake—the lake that we cannot see across. The surviving villagers followed us, as they have no traditions. We are now cornered if the Reindeer People move in this direction. If we need to move again, then you or your children or your children’s children will need to cross the lake. I know not what is there. But you must find out what is on the other side, prepare your family for the journey, and remember to find the tail of the bird and move in the other direction.”
Parcza moves to give them a hug when the bushes rumble. A boar taller than Illyana leaps at them, knocking Parcza down as he brings his spear around defensively. Orzu instinctively pushes Illyana back behind him and stabs his spear at the boar repeatedly, at the neck and then the chest. He checks to see that Illyana is okay, then goes to Parcza, who is bleeding from a shallow thigh wound.
Illyana rips some of her clothing, exposing much of her legs, to make a bandage to tie around Parcza’s wound. They help Parcza stand, and they all look at the boar, writhing in pain as it dies in front of them. Illyana stares at Orzu and says, “So you cannot shoot a little rabbit, but you can brutally maim a monster boar.” She hugs her big brother with renewed respect.
Orzu makes a cane for Parcza to use while Illyana carves up portions of the boar to take back to the village. Parcza puts his arm around Orzu for support and pats his head. “So, you will make a good provider for your family after all.”
The three of them look for a place to make camp for the night, with Parcza using both his cane and his spear to steady his walk. In the camp, Illyana smokes the boar meat in preparation for the several days of travel ahead. The next day, they break camp at dawn and head through the forests, back to the village. Orzu is at point with his spear, with renewed confidence after his boar kill. Illyana helps Parcza navigate the debris of the forest floor.
Then the bushes rumble again. Orzu, with spear ready, scans for the next boar. But this time it is no boar. He stands four heads higher than Orzu, with massive pectoral muscles and sculpted abdominals showing through the open-hooded feathered cape he wears. Underneath a large bird-head headdress, his face is long, his ears are long, and his eyes are dark and piercing as he looks at Illyana and her exposed legs. It is very clear what his intentions are as his member extends from his loincloth.
Parcza rushes forward with his spear but irrationally stops short of spearing this Reindeer warrior, as he recognizes the face. The face of his wife. He cannot kill his wife’s son.
And with that momentary delay, the fraction of a second of hesitation, the massive warrior rips the spear from Parcza’s hands and tosses it to the ground. “I am the great Tureal, grandson of the King Anneal, great-great-grandson of those who are descendant from the stars.”
He surveys the three and recognizes Parcza’s face. “You. I remember you. My mother fled from you to seek the joy of my father’s loins. My father could split her slit better than you, puny man. She screamed in pleasure and pain, as only a real warrior like him could have so pleased her.” He hits Parcza in the groin with the butt of his spear, sending him to the ground howling in pain and bleeding from the crotch.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Illyana plants three of her black-tipped arrows deep into Tureal’s perfect left pec. She smiles, as she has exacted revenge for her mother. And for her grandmother.
Much to her shock, Tureal lunges at her, ripping the arrows from his chest, and grabs her by the waist, turning her upside down. He rips her already-shredded lower garments off and fingers her, as Illyana screams in pain. “Good, you are virgin. My finest warriors will savor your slit, and you will become the prize for the strongest of—”
He is interrupted by Illyana’s screams. “Kill him. Kill him. Like you did the boar. Don’t let him take me.”
With haste, Orzu interrupts Tureal’s attempt to violate his sister as he thrusts his black-tipped spear at Tureal’s neck. Thrust after thrust is glanced to the side as if Tureal were swatting flies. Tiring of the game, Tureal rips the spear from Orzu’s hands, turns it around, and spears Parcza in the gut, through and through. Tureal turns to leave with the struggling Illyana, who has begun to recognize the futility of her situation.
And so she decisively screams to her brother, “Kill me. Kill me. Kill me now. Don’t let them do to me what they did to Mother.”
Orzu has drawn his bow with a black-tipped arrow. It will slice so clean and fast, maybe she won’t feel it, Orzu hopes. Tureal has torn her upper garment open so that her fully blossomed breasts are exposed. And Orzu has a clear aim at her heart. Just let those fingers loose and it will be a clean kill.
But he hesitates. As Illyana hysterically screams to kill her, Orzu’s mind races. I can do this. I can do this. I can…No I cannot. I cannot kill. I cannot kill. It is not right. What do I do? What do I do? And time slows to a crawl.
Illyana cries, “Orzu, you promised to kill me. I’m not the rabbit. I’m your sister. If you love me, if you truly love me, kill me. Kill me now.”
Orzu stares down the arrow at his sister’s heart between her breasts. And he searches inside for a voice, the voice that will tell him what he should do. What is right? As Illyana continues to scream and cry, inside him it is only silent, empty, and dark.