Name: Jim Kroepfl
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Fantasy
Title: Kannihut and the Dying Land
Kannihut focused on the low sky. He was sure this time. The strange light glowed in the distance, reaching up into the sky in long orange streaks, silhouetting the trees. But it was dusk and the light was in the north, like a brother to the sun, threatening to bring a completely different day. The glow came from the hills beyond the lake village, out near the mysterious island where the Spirit Father lived.
Kannihut wanted to put it out of his mind, but lately he’d seen the glow more and more, and each time the wrongness of it gnawed at him deeper. He was wondering if he dared to bring it up again when his older brother’s command broke through his thoughts.
“Kannihut, pay attention,” Willisaw hissed. “If we miss a deer, Gishgoo will tie us to a tree and leave us for the Hill People.” Before, Willisaw was known for his humor; now, Kannihut wasn’t even sure if he was joking about Gishgoo. Kannihut wasn’t sure about much anymore; he never seemed to do right in his brother’s eyes.
Kannihut shifted his legs and tried to focus on spotting deer. He and Willisaw had been crouching at the edge of the dry lakebed for hours. The thin layer of mud on their skins was beginning to crack and break away, making him itch all over. The small pond had attracted deer throughout the spring, but it was almost gone now and not many deer came anymore.
“Let me take the first shot today, Willisaw,” Kannihut whispered. He wasn’t as good as Willisaw, but he was better than most boys with eleven winters.
Willisaw shook his head as he watched the clearing. “No. We can’t miss.”
Kannihut took one more look at the northern sky. The strange glow was gone. He could just make out a patch of flowers at the opposite edge of the lakebed, tiny red and purple dots in front of a stand of young spruce. As he stared at the flowers’ vibrant colors, he felt a strange quivering inside. An area in the trees looked different from the rest, greener and brighter, as if lit by sunshine, and as he stared, the leaves stood out even more and began to shimmer.
Willisaw turned to look behind them as Gishgoo, Kaak and the dog came out of the forest. Kaak was the clan’s best hunter and had spent more time in the woods than anyone. The dog, which Kaak refused to name, stood next to him as it always did, its light brown fur and white face blending into the underbrush, its paws covered with mud to block its scent from dabbing the ground.
“Let’s go,” Gishgoo said. “It’s too hot. All the deer are deep in the forest.”
Willisaw stood, but Kannihut stayed crouching, staring at the trembling colors.
“Come on, Kannihut,” Willisaw said with hushed impatience.
Kannihut couldn’t take his eyes away from the vivid shimmering in the trees. “Wait,” he said in a whisper, wondering if he should ask the others if they saw it, too. Then he thought better of it. These men were hunters; they noticed the smallest movement in the brush. The area was too bright, too prominent to be missed—if it was real.
“We’re leaving,” Gishgoo commanded while a smitch of dried mud fell from the downturned corners of his mouth. As he turned his well-muscled back, the dog’s ears shot up and it focused on the same area in the trees that held Kannihut’s gaze.
Kaak followed the dog’s eyes. “Look,” he whispered.
A young buck moved out of the trees and took tentative steps into the meadow. Slow as glaciers the hunters put arrows to the gut and raised their bows. The deer was out of range but coming toward them. It had four points and a unique diamond-shaped patch of white at the base of its neck.
Willisaw moved back into a crouch and held up a finger, signaling that he would shoot first. Without moving his head, he glanced at Kannihut and winked, looking for just a moment like the old Willisaw, before they lost everything. The deer stopped in the middle of the lakebed and looked in all directions, smelling the breeze for danger, its white tail twitching. It took a few more tentative steps toward the hunters as they pulled hard against their bows.
Kannihut held his breath as he strained to hold his bow in place, but his arm started trembling. He glanced at Willisaw’s arm, steady as rock. Kannihut thought about the blue ink marking of a Water Panther on Willisaw’s bicep, the one he kept covered with mud, even when he wasn’t hunting.
When Willisaw let out a reproachful breath and Kannihut knew the warning was meant for him. He pulled his thoughts back to the deer and willed himself to steady his shaking arm.
Hurry, he thought as the burning in his muscles grew. The hunters waited until the buck had its head down and its side toward them.
Willisaw’s tortured bow let out a muffled sigh as it snapped back into shape, slinging the arrow across the lakebed. At the sound, the others released their bows and three more arrows shot toward the deer. Two struck it in the neck and one in the back haunch. Kannihut’s arrow sailed just over its back, which he knew everyone noticed. The buck dashed into the forest, limping, and the hunters burst out of the brush and ran after it.
Willisaw, running at full speed, pointed as the deer ran down a dry creek bed. The hunters instinctively shifted in that direction, the dog alongside them. Kannihut tried to keep up but was soon far behind, even though he followed at a dead run. He stopped at the bottom of a hill to catch his breath and that was when he saw the deer.
It had four-pointed antlers and a diamond marking on its chest. As it came over the hill, the buck wasn’t limping and no blood stained its hide. It noticed Kannihut and calmly stared at him with its dark liquid eyes. Time stood still while Kannihut admired the fearless animal—until he remembered his purpose. He slowly raised his bow, breaking the delicate bond between them. At the movement, the buck turned and sprang back over the hill. Kannihut ran after it, his bow ready, but when he reached the crest the deer was gone. There was only a wide empty meadow and no place for the buck to disappear.
Kannihut looked at the ground where the deer had stood. It had to have been a different deer, he rationalized, not entirely believing it. He needed to catch up with the others and he almost called out to them, but then remembered the dangers of this part of the forest. He managed to find the faint trail that led to Willisaw, Kaak, and Gishgoo. They were at the edge of a nearby meadow, gutting the deer.
When he approached, Kaak looked up and laughed. “It’s our own great hunter,” he said. “Better eyes than a hawk.”
The others laughed, except Gishgoo who gave Kannihut a stern look. “It’s about time you showed up,” he said.
“Willisaw, did the deer double-back toward the forest?” Kannihut asked.
“No, we followed it straight on.”
Kannihut stared at the deer’s face, now lifeless as a carving. It was the same fearless deer, he was sure of it, but how could that be?
The hunters burned the deer’s heart to help its spirit rise to the sky, then tied the carcass to a drag of long branches and took turns pulling it back to camp. Kannihut tried helping, but was quickly replaced when he struggled. On the way, the men retold the story of the hunt, teasing Kannihut for his stubbornness.
“Now animals will fear you every time you wander into the forest,” Kaak said laughing. “You might even make a pretty good dog one day.”
Willisaw laughed with Kaak and gave his brother a good-natured swat across the head. Kannihut didn’t want to ruin Willisaw’s rare good mood by telling him about his mysterious deer. He didn’t believe him about the light, and another strange story might set him off. Today, he had helped with the hunt and, in his own way, Gishgoo seemed pleased. Kannihut would act happy and maybe tomorrow his arrow would hit a deer and he’d be a real hunter. Then he wouldn’t have to worry if he and Willisaw could stay with Beaver Clan. He would have a home.