illustration by Toeken

People of the Wild

Genevieve Williams

“People of the Wild” by Genevieve Williams is a lovely little story, and well-told; The subculture devoted to rewilding in a world that has future tech reminds me a bit of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel Always Coming Home, and the plot wrestles with the very modern issues of trying to hide and protect those which cannot protect themselves in an increasingly connected world. Just how effective can we be as guardians, when the other side has drones?

Morning next to Annette Lake, up in the mountains south of what was once Interstate 90. It snowed overnight and I clear a drift away from the flaps as I open the tent. The tent is tanned hide, lined and laden with furs. You can get tents that you toss in the air and they come down fully set up and ready to crawl into. But to be one of the arktoi, you need to know how to do it the old way.

Marcus grunts behind me. He’s not a morning person, even when they come later in the day. The sun, having cleared the ridgeline to the east, turns the fresh snow around us brilliant and glittering. Clear blue sky, cold temps. I’ve already bundled up, but Marcus is still in his sleeping furs, and complains that I’m letting the cold air in.

I step outside without answering and let the flaps fall closed. Arguing wastes energy. By the time Marcus emerges from the tent, I’ve gotten a fire going in the pit: circle of stones, dug-out depression in the earth, a store of tinder and kindling, as well as shavings from a cedar board to get things started. I used my knife on a striker instead of a bow drill—no need to be that hardcore—and am adding larger pieces of wood as Marcus gets breakfast started without comment. We’re still eating when the wolves show up. Two of them.

We know them and they know us, though we aren’t close. They aren’t dogs. But they adore bacon, and we share some with them as we make our start on the day.

The wolves have something on their minds. They eat in a preoccupied fashion, and stay to watch us go about our morning cleanup rather than leaving right away.

“They want us to see something,” Marcus says, as I hang the leftovers from a cord of woven nettle strung between two trees, some distance from the tent. The bears are mostly hibernating, but food is food, and bears are bears.

We bank our fire, tidy our camp, and follow the wolves.

An old trail leads gradually down one side of the tall ridge on which we’ve made our camp. Once an easy ramble for recreationists, the trail is no longer maintained. In places avalanches have all but wiped it out. The wolves have a much easier time of it than we do scrambling over tumbled rocks and easing across gaps. The wild reclaims, which is the entire point.

Even so, there are signs of what this place used to be: a fallen tree with notches cut into it, bridging a frozen stream. A former railroad rail bed, still not conquered by the forest to either side and running broad and level. By the time we reach what the wolves want us to see, it’s almost midday.

The child is curled into a tiny space between a boulder and a fallen tree, covered over with cedar boughs on which no snow has collected, shivering. She wears a pink quilted coat, the sort of thing a city dweller who only goes outside to transit between buildings, or maybe to enjoy a bit of real weather, would wear. But the city’s parks, even the ones on the high rooftops with full elemental exposure, are nothing like true wilderness. She wasn’t here last night. She’d be dead right now if she had been, and the cedar boughs would be covered with fresh new snow.

The only fresh tracks are those of the wolves, who nosed about the child’s hiding place for quite awhile before they came to find us. Now they set off into the woods without a backward glance.

The child stares up at us with wide brown eyes. Black hair peeks out from under a knitted yellow hat that looks warmer than the coat. I feel the same wash of protectiveness that comes when we find a baby rabbit, or deer, or abandoned bear cub.

“Shit,” Marcus breathes, beside me, and glances after the wolves as though he wants to ask them questions. We’re lucky they didn’t eat her. Wolves are wolves, and it’s winter.

“Hi there,” I say to the child. “You must be cold. Want to come out of there?”

She regards me in silence, her face as solemn as a fawn’s. Finally she nods. I breathe a sigh of relief, my breath fogging. At least she understands me, though she looks a bit young to be talking much yet. Big enough to walk, but freezing. Carefully, I lift her from the notch she’s wedged into. She’s tiny, and feels so cold. I hold her close to me, and her arms go around my neck. “Fire,” I say to Marcus, and he’s already on it, digging under fallen trees for wood less soaked from the snow, peeling bark off a lightning-split cedar to scrape off tinder. Within moments he’s made a bird’s nest of the stuff, gotten it started with a spark from his knife and a striking surface, and tucked it carefully into the bed of twigs and shavings he’s prepared for it. I put the child near the tiny fire as Marcus feeds it steadily. She watches it, her eyes still round. She may never have seen an open flame before in her life. She makes no sound as Marcus builds the fire up. I sit behind her, insulating and reflecting heat with my body. After awhile she warms up enough to take off her mittens of her own accord. Gently I take her hands and examine them. No sign of frostbite. Her face is unblemished, too. I look at Marcus. “She wasn’t outside all night. She couldn’t have been.”

Marcus nods. We’re both wondering the same thing.

“Fire’s going,” Marcus says at length. “I’ll go have a look.” He rises from his squat by the fire and disappears down what’s left of the trail. Snow has covered any tracks, but it’s the only direction the child could have come from.

I look down at the child’s face. She’s regarding me with a seriousness I associate with very small children. Not that I have a lot of experience with very small children. Suddenly I, who can start a fire with two sticks, gut and butcher an elk in a single winter afternoon, navigate a forest in the dead of night, feel out of my depth.

The arktoi protect children. But like our patron, the Lady Artemis, we do not have children ourselves, except for those who come to us to learn. It is something we agree to in order to take up this life.

“Are you hungry?” I ask, and she nods. Probably thirsty, too. I give her some water and go through the satchel hanging at my side. It’s for gathering, but at this time of year it’s also for the food we have to carry with us. The jerky’s far too tough for child’s teeth. But there are dried berries and other wild fruits, and I offer her those. She must be hungry because she eats them without complaint.

All this time she hasn’t made a sound, which is starting to worry me. She should be crying, I think, or calling for her mother. Something. “Do you have a name?” I ask her.

She chews awhile longer, looking thoughtful. At last, finally, she speaks. “Karina.”

“Karina? How did you get out here, Karina?”

Her face wrinkles, and I realize it’s the wrong question. Even if she remembers, she probably doesn’t have the words to explain. She starts to cry.

I cuddle her and tell her it’s going to be okay. It will be, eventually, though right now I don’t know whether “okay” means reunion with her family and restoration to anything like normalcy, or not. It’s entirely possible that they’re the ones who abandoned her out here, and the arktoi’s mandate concerning abandoned young is very clear. The urge to protect her from everything is almost overwhelming. I wonder if this is what parenthood feels like. I offer more food, chewing the jerky to soften it before giving to her, and trying to make her laugh. I eventually succeed, but I can tell she’s still scared. “Can you tell me where you came from?” I ask, bracing myself for a fresh onslaught of tears.

She looks up, then at me, then all around. Then she shakes her head.

I sigh. “Well, we’re going to go someplace safe, okay? Someplace warm. We’ll take good care of you.”

Marcus returns, looking grim. He glances at Karina, weighing how much to say in front of her. Then he looks at me.

“Flier down there,” he says, jerking his thumb back down the trail. “Crashed.”

My gut sinks. “Any survivors?”

He shrugs. “No one’s there. Blood, though. Snow’s covered tracks.” Meaning a lot of blood, if it’s still showing after last night. But no body.

Tracking is about finding a story. You look at the traces and build the story out of the evidence. Even as little as Marcus told me is enough.

“Someone flew out here with her,” I say. “Probably following the maglev line.” Which itself follows the old freeway through Snoqualmie Pass, east of us. “Something happened and they crashed. Whoever it was, brought her up here. To hide her?” Marcus shrugs, accepting this as at least matching what he’s seen. “And then . . . ” My imagination runs out.

“Guess is, they went for help. Don’t know why they didn’t take her.” He eyes Karina again, then me.

“What,” I say.

“She was coming to us,” Marcus says. “The pilot.” We don’t use the ambient much, we arktoi, but I feel that tickle in my head that means data, and I allow it. And there it is: a name, a picture—and she looks enough like Karina to be her mother, sure—and some details about her application and acceptance to join the arktoi.

But just her. Not a child. I look up at Marcus. “So where is she?”

Marcus shrugs. “Flier came from Seattle,” he says, which answers a question Karina couldn’t, but nothing else.

It takes most of the remaining daylight to get back up to our campsite. The whole way, I’m wondering whether it’s the right decision. Because Marcus found the flier at the base of a tree partway up the old trail, the damaged trunk showing that it was flying beneath the tree canopy when it crashed. There’s a flattened space at the trailhead that used to be a parking lot, and beyond that there’s an old road that comes up from what used to be the freeway. Nothing else in any direction for miles but wilderness. People come out here sometimes who aren’t arktoi, recreationists and hunters, but all of them are permitted, tracked, and while the pilot who crashed out here last night was expected, she wasn’t expected yesterday or today.

I revise the story. Something happened, causing her to come early and unprepared, with her young child whom she hid rather than take with her. And now she’s vanished. Maybe dead.

At the campsite, we bundle Karina up in sleeping furs until she’s a little ball with a face sticking out. Marcus builds the fire back up. The sun drops below the ridge to the southwest. Down where we found the child, it’s already dark under the trees. If it hadn’t been for the wolves, she’d be down there now, freezing to death.

And the wolves would have eaten her.

We hear them howling, down in the valley, hunting. They didn’t try to get at the food we’d hung up, but Marcus finds bear tracks around the base of the trees we ran our line between.

We make some food. Karina wrinkles her nose at the stewed meat and dried out, rehydrated vegetables we have on offer, along with mushrooms. We mash it up as much as we can, and mix it with water. She’s still not a fan and starts to cry. Marcus looks aggrieved.

“We need to take her to a settlement,” he says, as Karina’s wails ring off the surrounding mountainsides.

“I agree,” I say, holding the squirming child and wishing I knew how to soothe her. Though she seems to understand what I say to her, when she speaks it’s all but incomprehensible, and I conclude that some of it is in a language I don’t understand. I wish I did. “But we aren’t going to do that tonight.” Among other things, the sky’s clouding over, and it looks as though it’s going to snow again.

We get her to swallow a few bites of food, and drink some water. I know how long an adult can go on inadequate supplies of both; have myself fasted for several days as part of my training. I don’t know how to do that calculus for a child. I remind myself that she looks well-fed, has enough energy to cry over her circumstances, and hasn’t been out here long enough to suffer unduly.

Only, why is she here in the first place? My mind keeps circling the question, and I realize I’m trying to figure out how to keep her. Young children are edge cases; we don’t take them without them going through their own application. I revise the story again: Karina’s mother wasn’t planning on bringing her. At least, not at first.

So what changed? There are options, for people who find themselves unable to care for their children. My own recollection is dim, but I spent part of my early adolescence in one of them, before I came to the arktoi.

Was her mother hoping we would find her? Did she know enough about us to know that one cannot join the arktoi merely for the asking, but that there was no way we’d leave an abandoned child to die?

It would explain why Karina has no originating or identifying data, not even a basic ident. We have to take her word for even her name, although she is young enough that that is probably true. She’s anonymous, and therefore unfindable.

Her noise attracts interest, even as we clean up the camp and make ready for night. Marcus builds up the fire. We don’t see the bear, but we smell it, somewhere nearby but beyond the light of our fire. Nothing else in the wild smells like that. Of all the wild’s creatures the bear is most like us. They are intelligent, adaptable, and dextrous. Also curious for curiosity’s sake. The one beyond the fire knows that something new has come, has stirred out of its winter burrow in search of a midwinter snack and has smelled this new thing on the wind. The bear is not alarmed or we would have seen it already, driven it off if we could, killed it if we could not. But it is interested.

Bad thing for the arktoi to kill a bear. “Bear” is what arktoi means, and in the old story we are each told at our induction ceremony, it was the death of a sacred bear that made the arktoi in the first place, that brought children—only girls back then—to be priests of the Lady Artemis, to live on the edge of the wild, to make peace and assuage it if they could, to fight it if they had to. Because of our beginning, part of our charge is to protect the young, be they humans or neighbors. That means protecting Karina . . . whatever that means, in this case.

Almost no one is allowed into the wilderness anymore. If we find anyone who isn’t supposed to be here, who isn’t one of us or with the appropriate wilderness permit and designated guide, we’re to detain them and bring them to one of the ranger stations. Like the temples of Artemis in the old days, the ranger stations mark the edges of our domain. There, whoever we arrest is turned over to the urban authorities, to be dealt with.

But this is different. Isn’t it? Marcus thinks so, because he suggested going to a settlement, not to the ranger station. We’re thinking the same thing. We’ve known each other a long time. We’re close to the same age—who’s older I never bothered to find out, we trained together and grew into adulthood together—and we understand each other well. Some of the settlement people joke that we should pair off. We won’t, though we’ve had sex. Even that’s infrequent. The Lady is famous for having everything to do with fertility except for the act which generates it.

I used to wonder about that. I don’t anymore. In the wild, the choice to survive can come down to you, or your children. To be caretakers, the arktoi cannot be mothers.

And now, here’s this child, dropped into our laps like Apollo into his twin sister’s arms the moment he was birthed. However she got here, she’s ours now.

The bear moves off by the time we’re ready for bed. Karina has started crying again but Marcus, who grew up in the settlements, not in the city like me, says it’s tired crying, the kind that means she needs to sleep. We take her into the tent of skins and settle her down between us where it’s warmest. I’m not that worried about neighbors but Marcus keeps his bow handy and I have the harpoon rifle on my other side. I don’t like it. But it does get the job done when you really need it done.

I lie there in the dark, listening to Marcus’s familiar breathing and the shorter, lighter breaths of the child between us, while my mind runs in circles like a squirrel that’s lost its nut. Ambient access is attenuated out here, by design; the augmented reality technology customized to help people cope with urban life can kill you in the wild if you rely on it too much. But I can pull up Karina’s mother’s record of acceptance to the arktoi, and from there trace a thin thread of data back to the city she came from. And there I find the data I’m looking for.

Karina’s her child, all right. And not, legally, in her custody.

I fill in more of the story: the mother, whose name was Miranda, joined the arktoi to leave her family behind. That happens more often than you’d think. But she was supposed to leave Karina behind as well, and didn’t. Whatever she was fleeing, she wouldn’t let it swallow her child.

And now I’m afraid I know why we found no trace of Miranda aside from her crashed vehicle and some blood.

We wake the next morning to a clear, cold day, with a stiff breeze stirring the treetops and brushing showers of glittering snow through the air. Marcus wants to get a move on, but of course it’s not that easy with a little one in tow, particularly a little one who’s now fed and rested—slept through the night, for a wonder, and Marcus sarcastically declares it a miracle—and starting to exhibit more curiosity and distress about her situation. The parts involving waste elimination most of all.

I tell Marcus what I found and concluded during the night. “You know what I think?” I ask.

“Miranda wanted to disappear and never be found, and her child with her,” Marcus says.

I said we knew each other well. I hug the child to me. She squirms a bit and I look down at her face. She has a serious expression as though she understands what’s going on. She doesn’t, though. She can’t.

“Let’s see that she isn’t, then,” I say.

“Can we do that?” Marcus asks. “Could we, even if Miranda were here?”

I don’t answer. No point in having an argument until we know whether there’s one to have, and we won’t know that until we reach the settlement.

During the journey my mind starts spinning up all kinds of things. Distraction in the wild can kill you, even—especially—on familiar ground, but the path we’re treading now is so familiar I could walk it blindfolded in my sleep. That’s probably why I miss all the warning signs.

Marcus doesn’t, though, and he grabs my arm before I walk right into the settlement’s view. We peek over the edge of the ridgeline—and we wouldn’t even do that if we weren’t snow-covered enough by this point to look like part of the ridge ourselves—and now that he’s called my attention to it I see what’s wrong.

There’s no one in sight. And the raven call we should have heard, that tells us that all is well and the settlement that arktoi are coming in, didn’t sound.

Now the only question is whether we’re too far in to avoid the trap.

And of course, Karina picks that moment to start making noise.

I can barely understand her. Half the time she speaks a language that I don’t, and the rest of the time her baby talk is near-indecipherable. So I don’t know whether she has to potty or is hungry or just saw something scary or what. I put my hand over her mouth, which of course makes everything worse—she turns into an eel in my arms, I can feel her inhalation which presages a full-throated wail. I get her off the ground in my other arm and start booking back the way we’ve come. If Marcus tries to suggest another course of action I don’t notice. But he follows behind me, watching our backtrail every which way, and he’s got the harpoon rifle out. At the moment I’m glad of it.

There’s a ridge between us and the settlement. That’ll help a bit with the noise.

“No tracks,” Marcus huffs, and I nod. Even I wouldn’t have missed that. No tracks on the trail to the settlement, except ours.

But whoever’s there wouldn’t have come the way we did. The way we went, you’d need snowshoes or skis, or else be thrashing up to your thighs in snow.

We get a little distance, then find the leeward side of a boulder the size of a house and crouch down. Karina is still upset, so we take some time to soothe her and hope nobody hears us.

Okay. So. Where did whoever’s at the settlement come from? And when? And how? The settlements are few and difficult to find. Their locations aren’t on any map—you either need to be an arktoi, or get that information from one. The thought of how they might have done that turns me queasy.

At least where is easy enough to answer. There’s a route from the maglev line, if you know how to follow it. No maglev stops, but someone following the old highway beneath it—on a snow-cat, say—would be able to get there. Or, easier still, a helicopter or drone flier.

I blinked a quick image of the settlement before we beat tracks. I call it up and share it with Marcus. We both study it, our eyes staring into empty space. The invaders have hidden themselves well. But we know they’re there, because there are tracks in the snow of motorized vehicles which the arktoi do not possess, including a large shadowed depression where something large came in for a landing. Not a chopper; we’d have heard it. A drone, then.

I don’t dare ping the settlement to find out more. We’ve received no alarm, and that means ambient communications are being monitored.

“What are you thinking?” Marcus asks, and that startles me, because usually he doesn’t have to ask.

“I’m thinking we might be screwed,” I say. “I think Miranda got caught. Maybe she was being pursued and that’s why she crashed. She left Karina and ran off to keep them from finding her.” And we didn’t cover our own tracks, including Marcus’s when he investigated the crash site, because it hadn’t occurred to us that there’d be reason to. “I think they might have found the spot she was hidden. From there, they’d find our tracks. Depending on when, they might be right behind us.”

“Why take the settlement, then?” Marcus says.

“To limit our options,” I say, though even as I speak I can see him having the same thought.

“We could give her up,” Marcus says.

I look down at Karina. She’s quieted down; in fact, she looks like she might be about to fall asleep. Well, it’s been a long morning. I wish I knew more about kids. I’d expected to hand her over to the settlement by now. She weighs a lot more than I’d have thought, too.

“I won’t,” I say, and meet Marcus’s gaze.

“Maybe that’s her family down there,” Marcus says. “Maybe they just want to bring her home.”

He’s not from city; I am. That’s the big difference between us, always has been. “If they do, it won’t be good for her. Fuck them.”

“She’s not ours,” Marcus insists. “Even if Miranda had brought her to us herself.”

“By city law,” I argue right back. “But we’re not in the city now. Miranda gave her up to the wild for her protection. We are the stewards of the wild and the goddess’s agents.”

Marcus can’t argue with any of that. But he says, “They’ve already taken over a settlement, looking for her. What if they do worse? What if the arktoi decide to send her back?” Collectively, he means.

“And teach these . . . invaders that the wild is penetrable? No. We convince them to give up the chase,” I say. “As for the arktoi, how do you know the rest won’t agree with me?”

He doesn’t. “Fine,” he says, tabling the argument for the moment. “How are you going to persuade them?”

The hunters, he means. “Follow me,” I say.

Luck is with us: it starts snowing. Forecast said so, but you don’t want to count too much on snow or no snow right when you need one or the other. It won’t hide our trail entirely unless it snows way heavier than it looks likely to. But it’ll slow them down.

We make our way higher into the mountains. That won’t stop a drone, but anyone on foot’s going to have trouble: across avalanche-prone hillsides and frozen streams slipperier than a greased sled’s undercarriage. It’ll slow them down, give us enough of a lead for what I have in mind.

We don’t go seeking bear dens, but when we find one we note its location. We don’t want to disturb anyone. Bears around here don’t sleep straight through the winter; they’ll get up now and again for a pee or a midwinter snack. They leave tracks like anyone else.

A bear is the best option. A mountain lion’s been through—but they’re shy and attack only with the clearest advantage. The wolf pack would be great, but finding Karina has spooked them and we’ve seen no sign of them since. If we headed back toward the maglev line we’d probably find that all of the neighbors have vacated because of the extra humans around. The wild is no longer accustomed to them.

But if humans intrude too far, or come too close to the places the animals consider safest . . .

It feels mean, what I’m considering. It might well damage what passes for trust between the arktoi and our neighbors. The Rewilding Act required stewardship from the very beginning. We who pursue that life turn our backs on every other way of living. We all take the same vows, to the wild and to our Lady. It is impossible to exist in the wild without interfering with it. But we try to minimize our interference.

Now I propose to interfere most directly and obtrusively.

We follow a narrow trail along a ridgeline, just wide enough for our snowshoes. It’ll be hard for our ostensible pursuers to follow us. This trail eventually meets up with the top of the ridge, and there we stop for a look back. After all, it’s possible that I’m wrong and the people at the settlement will have a good laugh when we get back there, at the needless wild goose chase we went off on.

I’m not wrong.

Five of them, all the way across the bowl of the valley—we only see them because they happen to be crossing an open space between thicknesses of forest. They don’t pause, so if they’ve seen us, they aren’t obvious about it. But we’re above the tree line here and they’ve had plenty of time to spot where we are.

“Keep an eye out for flying assholes,” I grunt to Marcus, as we start down the opposite site of the ridge. There’s no shorter route for them to follow than the one we’ve taken. Karina is asleep in the sling I’ve ginned up using a heavy shawl and some lengths of cord and strips of fabric, peaceful as though she were in bed. I can’t credit my own maternal skills for that, which are nonexistent; she must be exhausted.

Marcus stops and looks back, leaning on his walking stick. He made that stick, just as I made mine, cut and peeled a piece of vine maple, shaped the handle and whittled the end to a digging point. Both our sticks are carved along their length with pictures and patterns that signify important moments of our lives as arktoi. It’s an old way, a primitive way, but we made them ourselves and that’s important. He watches me, with Karina strapped to my chest, and says nothing. I know what he’s thinking.

“You want to split up?” I ask him, because he’ll never say it on his own.

Marcus doesn’t answer. He just turns around and recommences breaking trail.

Doesn’t mean he agrees with me. Does mean he’ll help.

We begin to lose daylight as we begin our descent into a valley. It isn’t a place the arktoi customarily go. We leave the land under our stewardship alone, as much as we can.

But we know there’s a grizzly asleep down here.

And she has cubs.

There’s no recent sign. We go close, but not too close, to the den. We don’t want to be the ones to wake them up. But we break trail as close as we dare. We leave Karina’s coat nearby, and blood from a rabbit I’ve killed.

Then we split up, circle back, retrace our steps, and do everything else we can think of to confuse the way we’ve gone. We wind up way up in the trees, partway around the bowl of the valley from where we came in. We don’t have time to build a proper snow cave, which would conceal our heat signature from technology designed to detect it, but we build ourselves something of a snow fort that will hide us at least a little, along with the trees. Above us, a canopy of evergreen laden with snow, some of which occasionally dumps onto the forest floor. Branches of broad-leafed salal poke out of the snow here and there; edible berries in the summer, waxy green leaves in the winter. We settle in.

We don’t have long to wait. The drone glides into view above the ridgeline we crossed only a few hours ago, a gray shadow like a cloud in daylight beginning to fade; direct sunlight is already gone from this valley. It hovers there, small bright red lights blinking.

“What’s it doing?” Marcus whispers. A breeze rustles the trees above us; there’s a chance he wasn’t overheard.

I put a hand on his arm, make the sign in the private arktoi sign language for hunting, then point at the drone. Marcus’s eyebrows go up. I know what he’s thinking: can they do that? I nod at him. He takes a deep breath and lets it out in a silent sigh.

I’m hoping they are that good, so they’ll spot our confusion of tracks in the fading light. We’ve laid the bait. Now all we can do is wait and see whether they take it. Sometimes you have to wait for the prey to come to you.

There’s a noise. Not from above, but a stirring, a rustling and shifting down in the valley. It could be moving snow, but I know what it is.

It takes a lot to wake a hibernating bear. We must have been more successful than we realized.

Up above, the drone lowers. It comes down, down, below the ridgeline. Great goddess, it’s big. Marcus goggles at it. He’s never seen one this size before. Hatches open in the bottom and lines come out, people dangling from the end of them. They don’t detach when they hit the valley floor. Intelligent of them, under the circumstances.

It’s about the only intelligent thing they do. They find our deliberate confusion of tracks, the remains, the blood. They start following the trails, but in so doing mar and obliterate the signs we’ve left. They’re no trackers, though they’re quite efficient at quartering the valley and searching it systematically.

And they’re getting closer and closer to the den.

Karina is snuggled against my chest. The harpoon gun lies at my right hand, between Marcus and me. There are too many of them for it. There’s a hunting knife at my belt, but that’s closer quarters than I want, with the child snugged against me. The prey has come into the net, but I don’t dare take it myself. Lady, Great Bear, if you are awake out there, let me see just how literally true that is . . .

There’s an enormous rumble, and the spot we’ve pinned as the bear den erupts with four hundred pounds of just-awakened fury.

Black bears are one thing. They’re pretty mellow, though even they can be dangerous when roused, and a black mother bear with cubs can be a fearsome thing. But a grizzly is something else again. There’s no way in hell Marcus and I would have come this close if the need wasn’t dire.

Her roar shakes the trees around us. Loose snow on the ridgeline above breaks loose and slides into the valley.

It also wakes Karina.

At first, I don’t even hear her wail, with all the other noise: the angry roar of the bear, the startled shouts of our pursuers—so many; who is this kid?—a foot of accumulated snow dumping from the trees, the report of gunshots.

Gunshots. They brought rifles.

Of course they did. I’m an idiot.

Marcus shouts something too, but by then Karina has my attention. Her brown eyes stare straight into mine as she lets go with a full-throated wail, a tiny, high-pitched echo of the enraged bear below us who charges among our pursuers with a tread heavy enough to shake the ground. They run, rationally enough, but no one can outrun a bear, and it’s odds in their favor of their following you up anything you try to climb. One of the hunters goes up a tree, and the bear rears up on her hind legs and takes a swipe, as casually as brushing away a bothersome insect. There’s an agonized shriek and a body falls from the tree to the ground, groaning.

Two of them, clearer-headed than the rest, don’t try to run. They take up positions and shoulder their rifles. I see at least one of the rounds hit home; the bear turns, furious now, and charges right at them. They shoot again. I can’t tell if they hit.

Marcus bellows in my ear. I can’t hear him over the roaring in my head, a roaring that I tell myself is an echo of the bear’s rage, but even as I’m thinking this I know it’s not true. We are people of the wild and so is she, but we are not the same.

She would never have done this to us.

The hunters rise into the air. It takes me a moment to realize what’s going on. The drone is retracting their lines. Including the one the bear killed.

Within moments the drone is above the ridge. The bear is a silent hulk in the darkening valley. Karina’s wails have faded into sobs. I’m sobbing too.

“Come on,” Marcus says, once the drone is gone.

We make our way down into the valley. The bear doesn’t move. Nothing stirs from the mouth of the den. The cubs must still be asleep. Small favors. If they’d died I’d never forgive myself. As it is, I’m going to have a hard time.

The bear’s alive. By the way she breathes, and that she doesn’t do more than glare and growl weakly when we approach, we know how bad she’s hurt. I look at Marcus. The thing to do is get to line of sight and send a ping to the vets to come and assess, treat and heal if possible. But we don’t know the situation at the settlement, or any of the others nearby, and the encounter here has surely been reported. Two and two make four, even to city folk who don’t know a bear den when they see it.

Marcus does it anyway. I can’t blame him. He’s thinking something I can’t stand to contemplate right now. I let him take care of business.

I have a small hope, as we make our way out of the valley and along another trail to another settlement, one deeper in the wild, one the hunters maybe didn’t find. It’s all but dark now, gray sky and gray snow, and the dark shadows of trees under their wintry blankets.

My small hope is this: they took the bait. Assumed that the child was killed and eaten, based on the torn coat, the blood. That we, her caretaker-cum-kidnappers, fled when the bear struck. That they didn’t have time to realize there were no bear tracks anywhere in the valley when they arrived.

That the Lady keeps all who come to Her.

My other, smaller hope is that the bear will be healed. Maybe, then, I can forgive myself. Lady knows there is no forgiveness in the wild.

I will take this child to the settlement. The nursemaids will know how to care for her, but I will oversee her upbringing and training. When she is of the right age, I will tell her her story and offer the same choice we are all offered. With any luck, she will accept, and I will be her mentor. And teach her to be a better arktoi than I have been.

It’s the only amends that I can make.

• • •