The Cave

            After a hike of a few hours, Nalai and Iquiuk made it to the section of the coast known as Okiuklik Bay. Legend had it that the ancient sea goddess Chandratl had been angered by a young man named Okiuklik, who had been fishing without offering proper tribute. He’d hidden in caves to avoid her wrath. She tricked him out into the bay with her beauty and drowned him as punishment.

            Nalai snorted. No wonder our ancestors killed the gods. They were petty and cruel, using people as their own personal play things. We’re much better off without them.

            Clutching the strap of her satchel tightly in both hands, she cautiously approached the shore line. Large white capped waves rolled up onto the shore. Even though it was summer, the water wouldn’t be all that warm. Farther south it would be more or less tolerable, but Nalai had no desire to venture anywhere near Naqiq, the south land. On a clear day, there was a portion of Naqiq which could be seen from where she was but the sky was overcast and she couldn’t see too far out across the water.

            It’s just as well. I hear that Naqiq is a strange place full of bizarre creatures and dangerous plants.

            Nalai wandered along the shore looking for possible sources of willow root while Iquiuk ran on ahead, doubling back on occasion to see how Nalai was doing and then running back ahead. After a while, Nalai spotted what appeared to be the opening of a cave. It wasn’t much of a surprise; the shore was dotted with caves. Willow root grew all over the tundra but it grew best in damp areas. The coast was the dampest part of the tundra but it was also the most dangerous. Taking care with her footing, Nalai approached the mouth of the cave. The rocks were slippery from the waves. She could see hollows in some of the rocks were water had been trapped and evaporated, leaving behind salt deposits. She made a note of those spots as sea salt was also useful to bring back.

It was a bit of a climb to get up to the cave; Nalai had to pull herself up with her hands while carefully placing her feet on the slippery rocks. Once she got up to the mouth she turned and whistled for Iquiuk to follow her. The dog carefully made her way up.

Nalai signalled for Iquiuk to sit. “Stay,” she ordered. “Guard.”

Iquiuk whined but lay down in guard posture with her head looking out of the cave, her ears alert.

Satisfied, Nalai went inside. A few steps into the mouth of the cave she spotted a distinct and familiar patch of pale grey moss and her heart leapt into her throat. She bent down, took off her mitten, and picked up a small clump of the moss. She ran it between her fingers, a smile spreading across her face.

Tuniq moss! What luck! With all the cases of snow sickness popping up in Kuktaiqik lately this will be a welcome find. She carefully scooped the moss up and placed it in the bottom of her satchel. Even if I don’t find much willow root this will more than make up for it.

When she’d gathered all that she could safely take from the cave, she stood up and looked around, scanning the cave for any sign of the almost white willow root.

There.

It was easy enough to spot against the dark grey cave walls. It wasn’t much, but it was there. She followed the root. It was coming down from the roof of the cave, heading deeper in. She followed it, hoping that it didn’t run too deep. It wasn’t yet noon but it was dark in the cave and she hadn’t brought any light sources with her.

After a little while, she spotted a cluster of root ends that were perfect for harvesting. She reached out and snapped most of the exposed root ends off and gently placed them on top of the moss inside her satchel. She continued on, finding a few more clusters of root ends for harvesting. Her satchel was nearly full of willow root and she was about to turn around and leave the cave when a faint glimmer caught her eye.

Nalai turned. It was coming from deeper within the cave. She frowned. That’s strange. There shouldn’t be anything glowing down here. These caves don’t have any crystal deposits in them; they were all mined out centuries ago. What’s causing it, I wonder?

Taking care with where she placed her feet on the increasingly uneven floor of the cave, she slowly made her way towards the faint light. At any rate, caution was a good thing as she had no idea what was causing it in the first place. The glimmer became a little brighter the closer she got to it. Not very bright and certainly not bright enough to light up the cave but it was enough to follow.

            As she walked, she noticed that there was a faint breeze wafting towards her. It was odd and very out of place. The only entrance to the coastal caves was from the shore line. Unless there had been a cave in recently that opened up a hole towards the back of the cave there shouldn’t have been a breeze at all coming from that direction. Nalai turned to look behind her.

            She swallowed nervously. Her path had turned so subtly that she couldn’t see the entrance any more. Intellectually, she knew that to get back all she had to do was to turn around and start walking but that knowledge didn’t get rid of the gut wrenching sensation that she was all alone in a dark and unfamiliar place with no visible way out.

            Swallowing her fear, she crept deeper into the cave. She didn’t notice that she’d found the source of the glow until she was right on top of it. She looked down and jumped back a few paces.

            The glimmer was coming from a square cut icy blue gem dangling from the hilt of a sword. The problem was that the hilt of that sword was clutched in a pair of hands that had been there for so long that they’d been reduced to nothing more than bone. The hands attached to the rest of a skeleton which sat up against the wall. It was dressed in what appeared to be the remains of some kind of armour but the design was unfamiliar to her. It didn’t look like something the Nakuk would have made but then it was so old that it could well have been an antique design.

            Rather than stare at the remains, Nalai turned her attention to the sword instead. It was old and filthy but must once have been a work of art. There weren’t many swords among the Nakuk as traditionally they preferred spears but legends told of great men who wielded the swords that had slain some of the ancient gods. This one didn’t match the descriptions of any of those. The hilt was short, only long enough for a single hand to grasp it. At the end were three interlocking loops; the square gem dangled from the bottommost loop. Part of the blade was covered by a wing that swooped down from the crosspiece. A second wing swept up in the opposite direction. When held properly, the wing would provide some protection for the wielder’s hand. The dull, rusty blade was quite long and appeared to be a piece missing near the tip.

            I wonder if that sword would be worth anything once it’s all cleaned up, she wondered. I wonder who it belonged to? Who was this man and how did he get here? I don’t think he was from Kuktaiqik; I would have heard about a missing man. The other cities would have mentioned if one of their people had come this far south and gone missing.

            She shook her head. Maybe if I take it back home with me someone will recognize it and know who it belongs to.

            Nalai knelt down beside the sword and started to pry the bony fingers away from the hilt. It wasn’t difficult but the bones were slimy and cold and the task made her shudder in disgust. She sent a silent prayer to the Shinning Lights, hoping that the man wouldn’t be angry with her for what she was doing, that she would be able to identify him soon, and that his family would finally learn what had happened to him.

            As soon as her bare hand wrapped around the hilt she felt a blast of air as though she had stepped out into a snowless blizzard. The wind whipped around her, impossibly feeling both hot and cold at the same time. She let go of the hilt and the wind died down to the breeze it had been before.

            What in the name of the blessed ancestors was that? She shook her head. That can’t have happened.

            She grabbed for the hilt again. This time in addition to the wind—though not as violent as it had been the first time—she felt a rush of emotions.

            Anger.

            Blood lust.

            Fear.

            Sorrow.

            In a panic, she dropped the sword to the ground, turned around, and ran as fast as she could for the cave entrance.