Eighty centuries ago, in the frozen land that is now Alaska, a clubfooted male child had been left to die, when a woman named K’os rescued him. Twenty years later and no longer a child, Chakliux occupies the revered role as his tribe’s storyteller. In the neighboring village of the Near River people, where Chakliux will attempt to make peace by wedding the shaman’s daughter, a double murder occurs that sends him on a harsh, enthralling journey in search of the truth about the tragic losses his people have suffered, and into the arms of a woman he was never meant to love. Song of the River is the first book of the Storyteller Trilogy, which also includes Cry of the Wind and Call Down the Stars.
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Song of the River
The Storyteller Trilogy
By Sue Harrison
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Sue Harrison
All rights reserved.
THE NEAR RIVER VILLAGE
Chakliux's thoughts were like the bitter taste of willow bark tea, and he shook his head, suddenly impatient with his self-pity. At least she was beautiful. He could console himself with that. If he did not look into her eyes and see the emptiness there. If he did not let himself hear her foolish giggle, her petty complaints.
What was more important? His happiness or the safety of the people in this village and his own?
He had seen the storm coming, watched when it was only a shifting of stars, a wisp of cloud, but with each incident—the robbing of a snare trap, the refusal of a bride price—the thunderheads built until now it would take only one small thing to set the hunters at each others' throats.
How better to bind the villages than through marriage? What stronger marriage than one between a son set apart as Dzuuggi and the daughter of the Near River shaman?
The older hunters in his village had envied him. He had smiled at their jokes, at the longing in their voices when they spoke of her, this beautiful Near River woman. But Chakliux did not want her. How could she compare to his Gguzaakk?
Gguzaakk had carried her soul in her eyes. Even now, he felt her spirit hovering near him. He was not afraid of her, that she might try to call him into the world of the dead, to follow her and their tiny son. Gguzaakk understood what he had to do, and he could feel her sorrow.
He reminded himself that Snow-in-her-hair was young. Gguzaakk had had more than four handfuls of summers when she died. Wisdom comes with age. Snow-in-her-hair would grow in wisdom as the years passed.
Chakliux watched her as she spoke to her mother, as she laughed and flashed her eyes at the young warriors who made one excuse or another to be near her. She wore a hooded parka of white weasel fur, each slender skin sewn so its black-tipped tail hung free. The parka was something to draw away the breath, and Chakliux comforted himself with the hope that Snow-in-her-hair had sewn it herself. He smiled as he remembered how clumsy Gguzaakk had been with awl and needle. But what had it mattered? Gguzaakk understood things of the spirit. She could look into a person's eyes and know what should be said.
But, Chakliux told himself, it would be good to have a wife who could sew. How better can a woman honor animals than by creating beauty from their furs and hides?
Chakliux also wore a special parka. It was made of sea otter skins—bought in trade from the Walrus Hunters—to remind the Near River People of his powers. His mother had made it. She was a woman gifted with a needle and with quickness of fingers. He wore caribou skin leggings but nothing on his feet. He had known the people would want to see his webbed toes, his foot turned on edge, that sign of his otter blood. Who could doubt he was otter when they saw that foot always ready to paddle?
If it had not been winter, he would have showed them that he could swim.
Even now, he longed for the quiet cold of the depths, the clear silver light shining down into the water. He wanted to teach others to swim, but they would not try, and each year, children, who might have saved themselves if they knew how, were taken by the river. Even Gguzaakk had been afraid to swim ...
Ah, he could not allow himself to think too much about Gguzaakk. Soon he would have another wife. He must be a good husband to her.
He turned his thoughts to the lodge, to the caribou hides that were stretched over the lodge poles, to the thick mats on the floor. It was a good winter lodge. It would be a comfortable place to stay, and Snow-in-her-hair's father seemed to be a wise man. It would not be difficult to live with this family.
Snow-in-her-hair stood to receive another gift: a willow basket made of roots, split and woven. Inside was a flicker skin. The spotted feathers of that bird—a bird a man might see only once or twice during a whole lifetime—would bring them luck in their marriage.
He thanked the one who had given it—an old woman he had heard called Ligige'. Her back was humped and bent so he could not look into her face, but he saw the respect others in the lodge gave the woman, the place made for her on the honored side of the fire.
She mumbled something when he thanked her, then began to turn away. Suddenly she stopped. She stared at his feet, and he felt the heat of her eyes, as though in looking she had kindled a fire. With effort, she straightened, looked into his face, gasped. She said nothing, only averted her gaze, covered her mouth with one hand. But as she walked away, Chakliux felt Gguzaakk's spirit move like a fitful wind, blowing from all directions.
Sok watched Snow-in-her-hair, let his eyes caress her long graceful arms, the small mounds of her breasts under her parka. Tonight she would become wife of the Cousin River hunter, the man whose feet belonged to otter. Did he appreciate her beauty? Sok had watched the man carefully, saw no great joy in his eyes when he looked at Snow-in-her-hair. Maybe he was more otter than man. Maybe he wanted a woman like Happy Mouth, who looked like an otter.
The first time Sok remembered seeing Snow-in-her-hair she had been a child playing in the dirt outside her mother's lodge. Even then he had recognized her beauty and had stooped to join her play, until one of his hunting partners saw him and laughed, mocking.
He could have waited ten years, saved a bride price that even a shaman would not refuse, but his loins had burned with need. Even when he hunted, he could think of nothing but women. The animals sensed his disrespect and refused to give themselves to his spears. Finally, even his stepfather noticed and told him to take a wife. Sok had taken Red Leaf, a good woman. She had given him two fine, strong sons, but each time he saw Snow-in-her-hair he wished he had waited.
He had considered asking for her as second wife, but a man of The People rarely had a second wife unless his first was barren or sickly, and Red Leaf was neither. His only hope was to become chief hunter or a celebrated warrior. Warriors and chief hunters often had two or even three wives. But now there was this otter man. The stink of the Cousin River Village was still on him. Snow-in-her-hair deserved better.
"Do not let her see him," Ligige' told her brother. "At least until after this night, until they have sealed with their bodies what has been said in words, and her father has accepted the man's gifts."
"Is that wise?" her brother asked. "Truth cannot be changed."
"This marriage gives hope for peace. You know our young hunters seek any excuse to fight against the Cousin River Village. They foul their own traplines to give reason."
Tsaani nodded. His sister was right. And it would not be the first time there had been fighting between this village of The People and the Cousin River Village. With only a two- or three-day walk between winter villages and less between summer fish camps, the people saw each other too often, thought of too many reasons to hold anger against one another, especially since the salmon runs had been poor in the past few years.
But only the few who were oldest in this village—his sister Ligige', Blue-head Duck and he, himself—could remember the last fighting. Words were not strong enough to explain the horror: young men killed, days of mourning, and hard winters with too few hunters in both villages to keep the very old and the very young alive.
To prevent more killing, he and Ligige' must keep this secret, especially from Day Woman.
Tsaani had heard the Cousin River People boast of their animal-gift son, but for some reason he had thought him to be a child yet. Even Near River People had come back to tell stories of his ability to swim. A person who could swim? How could anyone bear the cold waters of The People's rivers? But Tsaani reminded himself that his own daughter had no fear of water, and it was said that their family carried Sea Hunter blood. Those island people claimed to be brothers of the sea otter. Perhaps the man's talents were no more than that—a remembrance of grandfathers long dead.
If so, then Ligige' was right. The young man who had come to marry their shaman's daughter was no animal-gift, but only Day Woman's child, found before he died on the Grandfather Rock.
THE COUSIN RIVER VILLAGE
K'os stretched her arms above her head and curled her toes. She lay on her sleeping mats and watched as Bear Finder adjusted his breechcloth and retied his leggings. She was an old woman, they said. She laughed. Bear Finder looked at her, tilted his head.
"You are happy?" he asked.
"I am happy," she said.
Old, yes. Old, but as smooth-skinned and flat-bellied as a girl. Seven handfuls of summers and still like a girl. Her hair was black, without a strand of white, and her face was smooth, her teeth strong. Only her hands betrayed the years, but men did not look at her hands. She had other things they would rather see.
Bear Finder crouched in the entrance tunnel and cautiously moved the doorflap aside.
K'os snorted her disgust. "If you are afraid of my husband, you should not come here at all," she told him.
He crept back from the tunnel, pulled on his parka. She could see the burn of red on his cheeks, but he said nothing. He would return. They always did. And what could Ground Beater do? Throw her out? Kill them? He was an old man. She could tell him anything, and he would believe her. Especially now that her son, Chakliux, was gone. Why worry?
Chakliux. She wondered how he was doing in the Near River Village. She smiled. Had they figured out who he was? Probably not. The Near River People were not known for their quick minds. She was glad he was gone, but she missed him. He was so very wise. He could keep her laughing—or thinking. His riddles! Whose were better?
But he also frightened her. He knew what she was, had probably known since he was a child. But then she knew his secrets also, things he did not even know about himself. Things no one in this village knew.
Gguzaakk had claimed his heart, but she had been no match for K'os. What wife could replace a mother? Especially a wife who had so unfortunately died in childbirth.
Ah well, Chakliux was at the Near River Village now. The shaman's daughter was said to be beautiful. He would soon forget his round, plain Gguzaakk.
Chakliux's powers were great, but they were like the powers of the owl. You did not want to see Chakliux's eyes turned toward you. He did not carry good luck with him. No one was safe. Not even his mother. Not even his wife.
K'os threw back her head and laughed. Let the Near River Village live with Chakliux's luck.
THE NEAR RIVER VILLAGE
The years had weakened Tsaani's legs. He still hunted, but everything he did, he did slowly. Now, as he walked to his daughter's lodge, he planted each foot carefully on the packed snow paths. Mud bled through the ice in the center of the path, and the wet earth smell of it filled Tsaani's nostrils. In that great battle between the sun and night, winter was being defeated once again.
He came to the lodge near the center of the village where his daughter lived. It was a small lodge; the caribou hide cover needed to be replaced, but since she was second wife, Tsaani had little hope that would happen.
Perhaps he would get a few caribou during this year's hunts. His own wife did not need the hides. Her lodge was new. He would not have his daughter live in shame because she was second wife and because her husband would rather sleep than hunt.
He scratched at the doorflap, but no one came. Finally, he crawled in through the entrance tunnel—something he would not have done except in his own daughter's lodge. The lodge was empty.
Fox Barking, Day Woman's husband, was a man whose thoughts were always turned toward himself. He had no doubt taken both wives to see the Cousin River Dzuuggi, thinking the Dzuuggi would assume he was someone important. If a man was too lazy to hunt, what good were wives? When you let your wife live in a lodge that stinks of mildew, who could think you were important?
Tsaani's knees and ankles ached, but he made himself walk more quickly. The shaman's lodge was on the far side of the village. Tsaani's caribou hide moccasins seemed to slip more than necessary, but finally he came to the lodge, to the crowd that had gathered around it.
When the people saw him, they parted to allow him inside.
The lodge was warm, too warm, with too many people, each adding to the heat with words and laughter. Tsaani stayed at the edge of the group, though several urged him toward the comfortable fur mats and willow backrests reserved for the elders, but he remained where he was, watching, listening.
His eyes fell first on the Cousin River Dzuuggi, and in that moment of seeing, he wondered why Ligige' had asked him to come. There was nothing he could do. The young man stood with feet bare, the otter foot and webbed toes uncovered for anyone to see. But even if the man's feet had been covered, how could he hide his high forehead, his wide cheekbones, his well-formed eyes? This was Gull Wing's son. The young man laughed, and it was Gull Wing's laughter. Were they blind? Were they deaf?
He looked at the faces in the lodge. There was no one from the Cousin River Village. Had the man come alone? Perhaps, like Tsaani and Ligige', he realized that too many young hunters longed to become warriors, and so decided to risk only his own life.
Tsaani watched the man for a time, listened as he spoke to the people. Perhaps he looked like his father, but he had wisdom far beyond any Gull Wing ever possessed. It must be the wisdom, Tsaani decided, that closed everyone's eyes to who he was.
Slowly, Tsaani studied each face, the men and women of his village, old and young, wise and foolish. They listened as the Dzuuggi spoke of the ties between the two villages, as he told stories of the battles and the hunts, the grandfathers and warriors who bound them together into one people.
Then Tsaani's eyes found his daughter, and he saw that she knew. There was pain in her face, sorrow etched in long lines down her cheeks. She opened her mouth, and Tsaani was afraid she would speak, would say something to break the spell the Dzuuggi was weaving, but though her mouth moved, no sound escaped.
Tsaani began to work his way through the people, toward his daughter, to warn her, to explain that she could not claim this man as son, that she must make a sacrifice, as she had when this son was born, to protect their village.
More people crowded into the lodge, pressed against Tsaani, so that it seemed as though he were in a dream, each step taking him nowhere, but finally he was only three women from her, then two. He reached out to clasp her shoulder, but before he could touch her, the cry came, a long, loud keening.
As though the cry were a wall, Tsaani felt himself being pushed away. Day Woman flung herself at the young man's feet, clasped his ankles and called out, "My son, oh my son, you have come back to me."
"You think I want a husband who was thrown away?" said Snow-in-her-hair. "You think I want children who are cursed? My children may already be cursed, just because I looked at you. Just because I sat beside you!"
"No one in the Cousin River Village has been cursed because of me," Chakliux said softly.
"That is because they do not know who you are!"
"Nothing has changed. I am the same person I have always been," said Chakliux, but even as he spoke, doubt pricked his heart.
Gguzaakk had died in childbirth. Had he cursed her? He shook his head. No. He knew why she had died. It was one reason he was here. How could he bear to stay in his own village with that knowledge tearing him apart?
Then he felt the comfort of Gguzaakk's spirit close to him, and he reminded himself that even his son had been born whole and perfect. No deformities, no marks that told of curses.
Wolf-and-Raven and his wife, Blue Flower, sat without speaking. They watched their daughter as though she were a dancer, performing. Finally, when Snow-in-her-hair was exhausted, she dropped down to cry, lying with her face in her mother's lap.
After a moment, Wolf-and-Raven cleared his throat. Chakliux waited for the man to speak, and as he waited, he gathered words for his reply. He must convince Wolf-and-Raven that neither he nor old He Talks, the shaman of Chakliux's village, had intended to harm Snow-in-her-hair or any person in the Near River Village. They only wanted everyone to live together in peace.
"There are those who say the Cousin River People sent you to curse us," Wolf-and-Raven finally said. He was a man of long face and loose skin, and his lips were too large for his words, smearing them together so Chakliux had to listen carefully to understand what he said. "I do not believe this."
Excerpted from Song of the River by Sue Harrison. Copyright © 1997 Sue Harrison. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thought that Ms. Harrison did a wonderful job to capture her audience in this page turner. She not only has a good mystery but a thought provoking novel of survival.
This book is filled with adventure, love, and the tale of one man's journey towards his destiny. I love the way the writer seemed to bring the story to life. This is a good book for anyone who likes a page turner and a passion for historical fiction.
I thought the book, song of the river, was an excellent adventure.I couldnt put the book down.I am a picky person about books and this one caught my eye. 5 stars .
Although Harrison still manages to captivate audiences, she has turned to unnecessary storytelling methods such as shock value and vulgarity in her writing. The stories have become less about epic journeys and intricate plots to being more about whom is sleeping with whom and murder