CHRAMN THE UNCONQUERED by Adam McPhee
The tundra calls Chramn “Chramn the Unconquered.”
Sounds strong but no.
Warriors come in father’s father’s time and stomp the land. Some bend knee. Some show warriors’ sons where the rivers bend, where the ice is thick or thin. Bring them meat and fur. Or just show them where game is. All kinds of game: musk ox, caribou, giant beaver, mammoth. Even glyptodon and winter sloth. Not supposed to eat winter sloth. Taboo. But bent knee has no say.
Many bend knee.
Not Chramn. Chramn lives off tundra. Track marten, track otter, track small game. Knows where eggs are. Big eggs. Builds peat fire. Harvests secret plants that grow on fox cache in spring. Has terracotta bowl from mother’s mother. Makes culture stew: rabbit or fish, turnip, onions, herbs. Maybe little clam, little moss.
Chramn makes do but Chramn all alone. Grows lonesome on wizard’s pingo. Not real pingo, place with dead wizard inside. Mound! Chramn use shells to dig for treasure. Like midden heap but better scraps. Finds femur and many finger bones. Beautiful femur. Very lonesome on pingo. Chramn uses femur to dig. Keeps digging, finds bottle with strange drink. Tastes bad. Finds jar of… ochre? Finds club with spikes like star. Finds patches of leather and scrap of meat––gives meat to seabird.
Warriors send big landsleighs to search for game, to search for unconquered. Many unconquered, not just Chramn. Landsleighs with ten, fifteen archers. Carriage underneath to change out caribou without stopping. Some steal wind with large sail.
Little troikas scout ahead.
No one watches Chramn.
Warriors ask unconquered for game den, for game’s tundra path.
Warriors can’t track inland seasonal migration from landsleigh?
Chramn laughs! Chramn howls!
Chramn follows warriors’ tracks to unconquered yurts.
Warriors flay unconquered who don’t show them game.
Put heads on scornpole, make man-pelts for sick dance.
Make mockery of whole tundra.
Chramn changes that tonight.
Chramn tracks warriors to camp site. Warriors make defensive ring of landsleigh, build campfire.
Chramn chews seabird. Moon rises. Chramn has all night.
Warriors fall asleep. Warriors’ sentry falls asleep. Warriors’ dogs fall asleep.
Warriors’ camp smells like smoke and non-cultural stew and dog and unwashed men.
Chramn knows life is game. Game like: swim to island, pick berries for mother. Chramn gets good at game. Picks many berries for mother, flowers too. Then game change. Now game is: hold Chramn underwater until Chramn drowns. Chramn works on lung capacity and running away. Chramn avoids lake. Always this way. Always a new game. Good life is not be strong at game. Chramn’s father and Chramn’s father’s father good at game. Chramn’s fathers dead. Warriors good at game. Warriors wake up in morning? Chramn shrugs, doesn’t know.
Chramn teaches warriors new game.
Chramn teaches warriors “mountain ram skull crush.”
Game is simple. Sneak up on ram. Put hands on either side of head. Press hands together. Crush skull. Enjoy ram.
Sentry is not good ram. No struggle, no buck.
Now warriors have new game.
Good life is know many games.
Chramn muffles dogs with scraps of leather. Dogs sleep.
Warriors have game, “make sigils, take land.”
Game is hard. Chramn not understand rules. Chramn understands sigils mean warriors own land. Sigil’s power is no one knows meaning underneath. Unconquered don’t understand how sigil works, only that sigil works.
Chramn use ochre to make new sigil on side of landsleigh.
Sigil very big, very scary.
Even Chramn not know what sigil means.
Now warriors try mountain ram skull crush.
Sneak up on Chramn, now Chramn can’t breathe.
Chramn admit: warriors pretty good at mountain ram skull crush.
Chramn struggles. Chramn bucks. Chramn kicks and stomps. Chramn reaches for club.
Chramn realizes warrior slip sinew round Chramn’s neck.
Chramn traces it back to warrior, grabs warrior’s hair, hooks warrior’s cheek with thumb. Chramn slams warrior overhead, down hard into permafrost. Chramn tries sinew game. Not bad.
Chramn covers dead warriors in snow, away from camp.
Chramn inspects landsleigh. Landsleigh smells like pine tar. Landsleigh has little house on back made of wood and… hard fishing net? Soft rock? Chramn not sure but house is nest for seabirds. Seabirds lay eggs. Seabirds stay put, grow too fat to fly. Warriors not have to forage.
Chramn sneaks under landsleigh, inspects belly. Chramn recognizes trick from talk with bent knees who run away to be unconquered. Trick called “latch.” Latch shows up on clothes, shows up on yurts. Few winters, latch is everywhere.
Latch is easy.
Chramn opens latch like hunting in taiga: quiet.
Landsleigh underbelly gives birth to many caribou. Caribou bend knees to warriors too. Better than being culture stew. Chramn doesn’t blame them even though Chramn hates bent knee.
Chramn makes caribou unconquered.
Warriors camp in a fist: four landsleighs, one troika.
Chramn wonders what’s inside landsleigh.
Inside is big but cramped. Empty space where caribou sleep, then place where gear sleeps, then place where warriors sleep. Landsleigh’s air is stiff: full of snores and night farts.
Reminds Chramn of father’s mother’s cave before warriors stomp the land.
Chramn takes as much gear as he can carry: bow, quiver, arrows, flint lighter.
Chramn thinks of summer they lost father’s mother’s cave. Warriors smoke them out, shoot them down.
Chramn can play that game.
Wraps warriors’ gear in hide sack.
Something stirs in the hide and Chramn crouches, ready to fight.
Is just little girl. Too small to know Chramn is unconquered.
Chramn doesn’t know landsleighs have children.
Chramn won’t play fire game with little girl. Little girl can fit in sack. Different game for little girl. Take little girl to Slabland Coast. Big rock slabs there, two men lay toe-to-toe for rope game, still more rock. Great place to dash enemy skull. Seabird scavenge, catch seabird. Won’t dash little girl but same game. Little girl is bait.
Little girl crawls to Chramn. Shows Chramn golden bee jewel called brooch.
Chramn’s eyes go wide! Chramn remembers jewel! Chramn’s mother has brooch until run from cave! Golden bee jewel called brooch has strong forage magick, strong healing magick, even little song magick. Chramn’s mother wears brooch, Chramn knows tribe doesn’t hunger.
Chramn’s mother dead many summers ago. All Chramn’s mothers dead: mother, mother’s mother, father’s mother, father’s sisters, mother’s sisters.
Chramn’s fathers dead. Chramn’s brothers dead.
Chramn’s sisters dead.
Chramn lives all alone on wizard’s pingo.
Little girl puts brooch in Chramn’s hand.
Doesn’t matter, but: same brooch.
Chramn hates warriors.
Chramn picks up little girl and puts in sack.
Then: landsleigh underbelly shuts, latch closes from outside.
Chramn puts down hide sack and picks up club. Fight time.
Chramn listens, hears footsteps in snow. Warrior tongue has too much sand but Chramn follows.
Sentries discover unconquered caribou but not Chramn. Think their caribou luck fails. Chramn snickers because Chramn knows: game doesn’t have luck. Luck is just, you get tired of following sinew so call strangling ‘luck’. Always luck threads back. Always. Need hunter-patience to track.
Outside, sentries talk. Sorceress gives them trouble. Sorceress raids landsleigh meat cache, lets meat rot. Sorceress asks unconquered for game hide because sorceress is shapestrong. But sorceress asks. Warriors don’t ask, warriors take.
Chramn is interested.
Chramn thinks sorceress might be new game.
But sorceress is in other direction from Slabland Coast and Chramn is trapped in landsleigh.
Sentries walk off, look for caribou. Think maybe they get blame for bad caribou luck, so let warriors sleep.
Chramn ready to leave through top of landsleigh, thunk every head on way out. Trouble if warriors wake, warriors out thunk Chramn, but what choice?
Hide sack is light.
Chramn looks and sees little girl crawl out, open underbelly.
Opens underbelly from inside.
Of course: landsleigh doesn’t stop, must open from inside.
Little girl laughs, Chramn shushes.
Chramn thinks of fear from summer when warriors show up at cave. Chramn chooses not to play cave smoke game. Not to little girl.
Chramn has idea for new game.
Marks little girl forehead and cheeks with ochre, makes sigil like on landsleighs.
Chramn understands what sigil means now.
Sigil means: Chramn play cave smoke game, maybe.
Sigil means: Chramn play take little girl to Slabland game, maybe.
Sigil means: warriors pick next game.
Sigil means: Chramn knows many games, so choose smart.
Outside, Chramn moves downwind so dogs can’t track. Sings running song twice, in dormouse voice, then finds patch of snow to sleep. Unconquered caribou join him.
Chramn thinks of the sorceress, wonders what games sorceress plays.
Maybe show sorceress wizard’s pingo.
Will start tracking sorceress in morning.
Chramn sleeps, rests head on gift for sorceress: two fat seabirds from landsleigh.
Chramn dreams of summer cave.