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. It glowed in the distance, silhouetting the trees just a little like the first hint of sunrise. But the light was in the north, like a brother to the sun, threatening to bring a completely different day. The strange light had to be coming from the hills beyond the lake village, out near the mysterious island where the Spirit Father lived, but this side of the great swamp . . . where nobody lived.
He’d seen the light before. The first time had been when he and Willisaw were camping near the village. Willisaw’s anger brewed like a thunderstorm because, once again, Kannihut had been lost in thought. When he’d pointed out the eerie light reaching up from the hills, Willisaw barely glanced up, muttering that it was the winter spirits that danced in the sky. 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. He wanted to explain about the light, but he knew Willisaw would only get angrier because hunting was not the time for talk. He held his tongue and tried to focus on spotting deer. Despite the warm breeze on his face, he shivered. He hadn’t been to this part of the forest since his last hunt with his father. Now it felt wrong to be here. The river was too low, and the Hill People crossed it at will to hunt and to raid. He had hoped he’d never see the western forest again. Not after what had happened.
But here he was, hunting in the same forest with Willisaw and the Beaver Clan.
He told himself he should be grateful he and Willisaw had people to belong to, as much as outsiders could ever belong. Beaver Clan weren’t family—not Water Panther Clan—but like them they were from the lakes. Gishgoo took the brothers in when they had no other place to go, but being this close to the river again brought back all the fear and anger and the reminder of how much he missed his real family.
He shifted his legs. He and Willisaw had been crouching at the edge of the dry lakebed for hours, waiting for dawn. The thin layer of mud on their skins was beginning to crack and break away, making him itch all over. The small pond attracted deer throughout the spring, but it had all but disappeared by now and not many deer came anymore.
“Let me take the first shot today, Willisaw,” Kannihut whispered.
Willisaw shook his head as he watched the clearing. “No. We can’t miss.”
Kannihut started to protest, but Willisaw was right; if they let a deer get away, Gishgoo might kick them out of Beaver Clan. They’d be alone again and might as well walk down to the river and wait for the Hill People to cut their throats.
After their family had been killed, Gishgoo agreed to take them in because Willisaw was a good hunter. But food was scarce, and Kannihut was small, even for his eleven winters and he had yet to prove he deserved a place in the clan. If he was forced out, he wasn’t entirely sure Willisaw would leave with him. He’d never survive alone. Before, Kannihut never doubted his brother’s loyalty.
He shook his head to refocus his thoughts.
Willisaw sighed. “It’ll be too hot today, Kannihut. All the deer will be deep in the forest.”
Kannihut took one more look at the northern sky. Thankfully, the strange glow was gone, replaced by the grayish pink light of morning. 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 quietly. “We’ll hunt near the stream later.”
Willisaw stood, but Kannihut remained 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, used to noticing the smallest movement or the quietest step of a hoof in the brush. The area was too bright, too prominent to be missed—if it was real.
“We’re leaving now!” 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. Its rack had four points and there was a unique diamond-shaped patch of white at the base of its neck.
Willisaw slowly moved back into a crouch and held up a finger, signaling that he was closest and would shoot first. Without moving his head, he glanced at Kannihut and winked, looking for 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, his bicep unmoving. 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.
“There is no more Panther Clan,” Willisaw repeatedly told Kannihut. It was probably true. After people stopped hunting near the river, his family hadn’t seen other Water Panther families and nobody back at the lakes claimed to be from the lost clan. It was just a story now, like the spirits in the springs.