A stark white cloud of breath poured from Tulok’s mouth and he passed through the cloud as he trudged through the snow with the swagger of youth and boyish arrogance. Frigid air filled his mouth, cooling his throat then pouring back out, warmed by his body. A clear, crisp night, cloudless and still, a good omen for the Chosen; a good sign for the warriors. Leaning forward, Tulok persevered up the hill, pushing through frozen reeds and frosted grasses. The stillness amplified the rustling reeds. Any nocturnal predators would know in advance of his journey. Not knowing his reputation for swiftness and agility, the predators may come, but they would die at the hands of the Chosen.
As a child, Tulok was blessed with vitality and a voracious appetite, requiring a wet nurse to aid his mother to satisfy him. He walked early and ran earlier, joining older boys in their violent play. Proud and aloof, his mother watched her youngest son as her matched and surpassed her other seven sons in strength and strategy. His cunning grew and the old men called Tiqriganiannig, Fox, and Amaguq, Trickster. Old women no longer sat by the fire commenting on virility and who would lead when Apaata, the aging leader, passed away. Tulok would rule the people; Tulok would lead the men in the hunt; Tulok would take women to his bed and make strong sons. Tulok.
Pausing, he listened. A keening howl from miles away; the steady, slow bump of his heart; the rasping of cold air filling his lungs, warming, and pouring back out into the cold. Amarok did not walk this night, dared no walk near Tulok, the Chosen.
Resuming a brisk but unhurried pace, Tulok reached the frozen dunes with frosted grasses pointing to the sky. A thin, well-traveled path curved through the reeds, inclining gently up a slope and ending in supported stairs. Tulok waited at the wooden stairs looking up into the black sky with brilliant white fires burning through. He could see the beginning of the smoke over the hill in front of him, just beyond the rise of the stairs. Carefully he lifted a foot to the bottom stair when a reed broke. Dropping to a low crouch, Tulok scanned the frozen reeds and stark grasses looking for the predator. Sliding his knife free with a soft swish he adjusted his feet for balance to run or to spring into an attack.
To take the stairs now was certain death, the only safety in the grasses which barely came to his hips. He must stay low, and he must get off the trail. Sliding to the left, he eased into the reeds, listening, waiting for his assailant to move and cause a sound.
Tulok waited with the patience of a warrior. Tonight was his night; he would night die this night. Tulok, a soft voice whispered, rippling across the grasses and away again. Tulok, he heard. Flexing powerful legs he raised himself slightly, eyes scanning across the valley he had crossed, looking now for the woman who called him. None but his village knew his name, of that he was certain. None but his village knew this night was his night, destined to be Chosen. He stood. “Come to me, woman,” Tulok called into the dark, his breath pouring from his mouth.
Tulok chided himself. Hearing things, most likely; hearing nothing, most likely of all. He turned and began up the stairs. Tulok. He turned; seeing nothing, he continued on. Stepping over the rise and onto the final step Tulok saw destiny spread across the sky. Vibrant green and blue smoke rippled across the sky, raining down glowing fire of victory and fortune. Tulok raised his hands to the air, chest held high, face raised to the clear night sky. The wind chose this moment to race across the water toward Tulok, lifting his long black hair off his back and shoulders to fly in a whirlwind of chaos and coal.
Tulok turned and saw an old woman standing on the trail, her white hair like bone against the dark. Tulok’s black hair fell still around him as the wind faded and stilled. “Woman, you are in danger here,” Tulok said, stepping slowly down the wooden stairs toward the frail and strange crone. “Amarok walks the night, mother, you should not be here alone.” In the dark, Tulok could not recognize the old woman, but did not fret. The woman was frail as a child. A rasping, perilous voice hissed from her bony form.
“Tulok, Amarok walks this night. Amarok stands before you, shadowed and cloaked that you, great warrior, might move in to protect that which will see you dead.” The crone lifted golden eyes to meet Tulok’s. Her lips lifted back to show wolf teeth and her cackle turned to a throaty howl. Tulok sprung back from the predator but not before the bony fingers had turned to razor sharp claws and slashed out at his belly, raking the thick fur and leather leaving a giant tuft of fur floating through the air.
Tulok scrambled up the stairs to his destiny. He could not die in the sight of his destiny, this everyone knew. He ran up the wooden steps and crested the rise, his eyes falling on nothing but a black sky sown with the white fires of the dead and gone. Tulok spun around to find Amarok, now a giant wolf filled with menace and hunger, standing there. Tulok’s breath poured from his mouth in a white cloud and mingled with the white cloud of breath from Amarok.
“Please,” Tulok whispered.
“Warriors who would lead do not beg, or they die,” Amarok growled and sunk his teeth into Tulok’s throat.