Inaluk’s heart pounded with dread as she rode into the remote mountain village of Akiak, her silky-haired camel high-stepping its long legs through the deep snowfall. The villagers poured out of their lodges like lemmings preparing for migration, staring at her as if she’d turned into one of the beasts she’d come to warn them of. When Inaluk reached the village square her mount danced in the compacted snow, his wide, flat feet giving him firm purchase on the slippery surface. Then he shook clumps of ice from his long, thick fur, nearly unseating her, nostrils flaring at the scent of fear emanating from the villagers.
The gray sky grew even darker and snow began to fall. Inaluk shivered beneath her fox-skin coat; it seemed no amount of furs could keep her warm now that the Great Cold had settled on the land. Her fingers stung within their gloves as she drew back firmly on the reins, stilling her mount. She sat and waited for the headman of the village to greet her, but other than a murmuring of voices from the crowd, no one stepped forward to offer her the comfort of the speaking lodge. She tried not to be insulted by reminding herself these people kept apart from the other tribes, and might not even have a speaking lodge.
She muttered an oath under her breath. She would just have to announce her purpose to all of them right now. “The beasts from the other side of the world are coming,” she said, raising her voice to be heard over the rising wind. “You are called to the service of the chieftain. Be prepared to ride to war on the morrow.”
The murmur of the crowd rose to an angry rumble, and the wind sought to answer with a blast of gritty snow. Inaluk’s eyes stung and watered, the tears freezing on her lashes. She squinted at the group of people before her and her eyebrows rose in surprise. From the rumors she’d heard, she had expected them to be a timid group, but they appeared to be a strong, healthy people. One or two even shook a fist at her.
Inaluk remembered her uncle’s story about the time his hunting party had run into a group of these villagers. He and his hunters had still been boys, so with the ignorant bravado of youth, the boys had insulted their women, laughed at the men—and when there was no response—they had finally just taken their weapons and mounts, without a protest from these mountain people. She’d shaken her head with disgust when she’d heard the story. No man of her tribe would have tolerated such dishonor.
A big man exited a lodge, the villagers parting for him to form an open pathway to Inaluk, and the world abruptly stopped. She could no longer hear the grumbling of the people, nor the shriek of the wind. She heard nothing but the pounding of her heart in her ears. The cold that had crept beneath her furs on the long journey to the mountain vanished, to be replaced with a heat rising from her loins and spreading to her entire body. He strode toward her, meeting her eyes and holding her gaze with a force of will she’d rarely encountered. He stood a head taller than the other men, his long black hair whipped by the wind and revealing tantalizing glimpses of high cheekbones, a firm chin, and full, strong lips. Even his scowl did not detract from his beautifully sculpted face. Inaluk had never considered a man could be beautiful, yet he had lashes so thick they caught snowflakes, which he dashed away with an impatient hand.
He stopped a stone’s throw from her and bellowed into the gale. “We have an agreement with your chieftain. We mine the metal; shape the weapons. We do not go to war.”
Inaluk caught her breath, mentally shook herself. She heard his words as if through a fog, and it took her a moment to understand their meaning. She measured the man before her, confusion warring with her gut reaction to him. Although his words sparked with cowardice—for no man worth his sword would refuse to go to war when his people were threatened—she saw none in his face or stance. He wore a vest of white sealskin that hadn’t been clasped; the wind threw it open to reveal a chest packed with muscle. A fur cloak lay over unbelievably broad shoulders, and his arms bulged with even more muscle. His entire being radiated arrogant physical strength. His dark blue eyes narrowed as he boldly studied her in turn.
“Are you the headman?” Inaluk finally said, with the strength of a demand in her voice. As daughter of the chieftain, she’d had to work harder than any man to gain the respect of her people. She refused to be intimidated by her instant…attraction to this one.
“I’m the head blacksmith, Otuku.”
He spoke as if his work were his title, that to be the head blacksmith meant headman. The abrupt silence of the villagers, and the looks of respect they threw his way, told her this was so. Such an odd people, here on this isolated mountain.
“Then blacksmith, have you no speaking lodge?” she asked, hiding behind the most formal manner her father had taught her. “The wind grows fierce and the chieftain’s daughter, Inaluk, has had a long journey.”
Without waiting for a reply, she slid off her mount with the aid of her mounting rope, and handed the reins to a child whose face turned white with fear at the honor. Inaluk frowned, not understanding these people at all. “Water and feed my mount well. We have been days on the road with hardly a break.” The boy nodded at this common request, since camels were known for their long journeying without water on the frozen tundra, and tugged at the reins, leading her tired mount to a corral of camels that hissed and spat at the intruder. She sighed. Even the animals showed their dislike of strangers.
She knew the task her father had set her would be difficult, but she never would have guessed it would be this hard to understand a people who had once been a part of her own village. What had happened to them since they’d split from the main tribe decades ago? Perhaps they had stayed too isolated, thinking they would be safe up here on their mountain. Or perhaps the rumors of some kind of curse on these people were true. Yes, they supplied superior weapons to the tribes, but they were paid for their labors in trade. They could not hide behind some old pact made decades ago, not when her people needed every person who could wield a sword to fight back the beasts. And now it fell to her to change their minds and drag them to war.
The blacksmith reluctantly led her through the village, and she looked around in curiosity. Their lodges were similar to her own village—peat surrounded by packed snow—but an odd hump lay between them, and Inaluk’s eyebrows rose in surprise. They appeared to be tunnels, connecting each dwelling to form one huge lodge. She thought it an ingenious idea, especially since they also appeared to connect with the animal shelters. It would make feeding the animals and visiting each other much easier in winter’s frequent blizzards, but Inaluk frowned at the lack of privacy they must have.
The blacksmith motioned her to enter one of the dwellings standing apart from the others, and she ducked slightly to enter the lodge. There appeared to be only one tunnel connected to this dwelling, and if the heat and smell pouring from it was any indication, it connected to the blacksmith’s forge.
Inaluk absentmindedly shed her outer wraps and sword belt as she looked around in curiosity. This lodge displayed so many weapons! Swords, knives, and spears hung on racks of walrus tusk. Bows and arrows lined one wall, useless during the Great Cold, since frozen fingers could slip and the thin sinew of the bowstring would freeze. But the wealth of furs! They completely covered the sod and bone walls, and much of the dirt floor. The bed was piled high with them, and she wondered if they were as soft as they looked. She could see why the blacksmith’s home was chosen as a speaking lodge, for it displayed this village’s great wealth…or did all the lodges boast such riches?
Inaluk became so absorbed in inspecting the craftsmanship that it took her some time to realize the blacksmith hadn’t followed her in. She frowned as she pulled off her now-wet boots, placing them in the basket by the door. Then she pushed the corner of the deerskin open and stuck the basket in the crack to let in some cold air. Her brow beaded sweat, and her heavy leather shirt and furred pants stuck to her body. It felt hotter than summer in this lodge.
The blacksmith finally stooped into the room from the opening connected to his forge, his face and arms covered with soot. So, he had gone to finish his work before coming to speak with her. Inaluk’s frown turned into a scowl. As chieftain’s daughter, she was used to people dropping whatever they were doing just to greet her. She’d fought hard for that sign of respect from her father’s male warriors, so she struggled to push down her irritation.
He threw snow into a pot hanging over the fire, waited for it to melt, then removed it from the flames and began to wash his face and hands, those muscular arms. He shrugged out of his vest, revealing even more muscles, and wiped down his chest. His brown skin glistened in the firelight, the water leaving droplets of sparkle along his chest, shoulders, and the sharp planes of his face. His lashes stuck together, highlighting his deep blue eyes. Inaluk felt her mouth involuntarily twitch into a smile of admiration as she sat down next to the fire.
“It will be some time before the elders assemble,” he said, apparently unconcerned by her perusal. “Are you hungry?”
Inaluk was tempted to disdain his hospitality, late as it was in coming. But she had fed on dried elk for days and craved something warm in her stomach. At her abrupt nod, he changed pots and soon a fish stew simmered, its pungent aroma making her mouth water. He stripped off his trousers down to his loin-skin.
Inaluk tried to ignore the sight of all that glorious male flesh, for she had never seen such a stunning example of male virility.
The blacksmith closed the door she’d propped open and then squatted beside her. Inaluk sidled away, silently chiding herself for acting like a young maiden. She had seen her father’s warriors in less. Why should his near-nakedness make her uncomfortable?
Inaluk winced. Such a foolish question. She knew why, and forced herself to acknowledge it. Because her strong attraction to this man made her want to possess him. Now. This instant. He radiated grace and beauty and power, and she wanted to touch all his silken skin; feel the swell of his muscles beneath her hands.
She had never experienced such a visceral reaction to a man before, and it rattled her.
Inaluk moved to the other side of the fire. She heard the blacksmith’s strangled chuckle and looked up into his sparkling blue eyes. She couldn’t decide where she’d seen that color before. Perhaps in the rare sapphires of the chieftain’s circlet, or the color of the twilight sky just as the blue darkened to black for the long winter….
Inaluk blinked, her gaze skittering back to the dancing flames of the fire. “Your lodge is apart from the others.” She immediately regretted the harshness in her voice. She’d only meant to break the charged silence, to protect her rapidly fraying dignity in the presence of this man. He might be beautiful, but all she knew about his character was cowardice. She could never dally with such a man.
When he answered, his tone echoed hers. “The sparks from the forge carry a danger of fire. We’re a cautious people and wouldn’t risk losing the entire village.”
Inaluk ran her fingers through the soft fur she sat on and nodded. The tunnels had other disadvantages besides lack of privacy; the spread of fire, and even the spread of disease. She remembered her father’s words when she left for her journey: to consider all new things carefully. A chieftain must see beyond the surface, to know all the details before passing judgment. Inaluk knew her decisions tended to be hasty. So perhaps her assumption of cowardice only meant these people had grown too cautious in their isolation?
“There hasn’t been an invasion in generations,” said Otuku, spooning up a bowl of stew. “How do you know the koba come?”
Inaluk’s thoughts came to an abrupt halt. Koba meant blue monster, which aptly described the hairy beasts. But the word was ancient, part of a long-forgotten language. But then, this was an ancient battle. It seemed the villagers remembered some of their ancestor’s lore.
“It’s the time of the Great Cold.” Inaluk accepted the bowl of stew and spoke between mouthfuls, puzzled that the man knew the name, but not how the monsters could invade their land. “The water freezes thicker, making a solid bridge between their land and ours. The beasts—the koba—will try to come to our side of the world, to take our land and resources. But we’ll push them back, just as our forefathers have done. And maybe this time we can rid ourselves of them once and for all.”
“But how can you be sure they will come again?” he asked. “Maybe they are now content to live in their own lands.”
“They are big and greedy and cunning. They breed like hoppers and no land can sustain them for long. They are…not a part of this world.”
His smoky blue eyes widened. “What do you mean?”
Inaluk scraped the bottom of her bowl, putting the last bite in her mouth. She swallowed. “I only know what the shamans have told my father. The koba are an aberration. They put our world out of balance, and if we do not exterminate them, then all of humankind will fall.”
“Surely that’s an exaggeration.”
“Do you think you are wiser than the combined knowledge of our shamans?” Inaluk said with a touch of disdain in her voice.
He bristled at her words. Inaluk added arrogance to his list of character flaws. She wondered how many women in his tribe agreed with everything he said just because of his looks. Or how many men acquiesced to him because of the size of his muscles. Hmph. She was the chieftain’s daughter and bowed to no man but her father.
They glared at each other, eyes locked…and then he abruptly smiled. It startled her so much, her empty bowl fell to the floor, the boneware rattling around the edge of the smooth wood. Again, the world seemed to stop, and she only heard the beating of her heart. Energy crackled between them, undefined yet powerful. It felt like…lightning from a summer storm. The charge that made the hair rise on her arms, the back of her neck. Only different, somehow. Different…and unsettling.
They both started at the sound of scratching on the door-skin, followed by a wrinkled hand pulling back the hide. A small man entered, his hair impossibly white against his weathered brown skin. Inaluk smothered a gasp. The man wore the blue-tinged fur of the koba as a cloak and carried the sacred horn of a narwhal in his fist. He used the old ivory as a walking staff, the top of it decorated with feathers. Ancient runes had been carved between the natural whorls in the whale’s horn all along its length. Inaluk tried to hide her fear, for surely he had to be one of the great shamans, to possess such revered items.
“I, Avataq, speak for the elders of this village.” He stood looking at her as if for permission, and she quickly nodded her head, remembering the formal response.
“The chieftain’s daughter, Inaluk, welcomes your words.”
The shaman slowly settled his bones between them and close to the fire, waving away the bowl of stew Otuku offered him. A mass of wrinkles surrounded mismatched colored eyes—the mark of a great shaman—the left black and the right a clear brown. Inaluk frowned at the depth of intelligence gleaming within them. She would be wise not to underestimate this shaman’s cunning.
The old man squinted at her face, studying her for an overly long time, and then his shaggy white brows lifted. “Are you Chieftain’s Daughter, or Shaman?”
Inaluk flinched. “I’m not a shaman.” She brooked no argument with her reply, and quickly lowered her head. Not many strangers noticed her different colored eyes unless they looked closely. They appeared similar unless the lighting fell just right on her face; one brown, one a green-tinted brown, just enough of a disparity to mark her as a shaman. She had worked hard among her own people to make them forget her difference. She was a person of the earth, not of the stars, and had no yearning for magical knowledge. She wanted to be their next chieftain, a hunter and comrade. Not a shaman who dabbled in mysteries and things better left alone!
She made her next words brief. “The beasts—the koba come. The chieftain calls all the people to the edge of the world to fight.”
Avataq’s thin lips curled. “So I have heard.” Thankfully, he seemed to have dismissed the subject of her eyes. His fingers tightened on the length of narwhal horn, which he held upright in his left hand. “You know my people have an agreement with your chieftain. The threat must be great if you have come here for warriors.”
The blacksmith—Otuku—rose to his feet, a bitter expression twisting his mouth. “We provide the weapons for all the people, even in times of peace. We do not go to war.” He said the words mockingly, his eyes fastened on the old shaman. “This has been our agreement for generations.”
Inaluk stood just as quickly and faced him across the fire, hands planted on her hips. “So you have already said, but do not think to hide behind that. You’ve lived in your mountains behind the shadow of your curse and the protection of our warriors long enough. But you know as well as I, when the monsters come, all feuds or agreements are annulled until the danger is past. This has been so since the first invasion. You’ll stand and fight with the rest of our people.” Her chest fluttered from the force of her words, watching his handsome face flinch and then turn red, and she fought the dismay his cowardice made her feel.
“You know of our curse?” Avataq asked. She looked down at the old shaman, stunned she had forgotten his presence, and slightly annoyed he’d focused on that portion of her words. Running fingers through her auburn hair, she folded her legs beneath her, and tried to speak calmly. She must control her overreactions to the blacksmith.
“Only that it’s a strong spell, and carried in your blood from one generation to the next. It was the reason your people became skilled toolmakers, in trade for the chieftain’s agreement that none of you would be taken to become warriors. All other tribes send their boys to us for training.”
The shaman glanced at Otuku, then back at Inaluk. “And what do you suppose this affliction might be?”
She sucked in her breath, yet couldn’t keep the derision from her voice. “Many say your people are cursed with cowardice.”