The Reindeer Tribe

Posted by on Dec 28, 2012 in Blog, Featured | 3 comments

The Reindeer Tribe

The smoke from the fire stung Mikkel’s eyes as the old man stirred the bubbling liquid in the clay pot hung above the flames. The black ink was thick and evil smelling. The smell clung to his throat making it hard to breath. The old man, who was named Tengrim, appeared unaffected. As he worked he sang tunelessly under his breath stirring the ink in rhythm with the rising and falling cadences of his song. Mikkel recognised snatches of the tune in the old language of the tribe. He shifted uncomfortably on the bare floor.

“How much longer?” he said.

“Until it is ready,” said Tengrim.

“I have to go.”

“I know. Also, you have to be here. How will you be in two places at once?”

“I have to go now Pappa. I have somewhere to be.”

His grandfather sighed and rocked back on the calloused soles of his feet.

“Always there is no time with the young. Always must they rush about like birds in the the Springtime. Here, there, and yet have nowhere to go. Only when you have lived as long as I will you know how little time there is. You are here now. This is where you must be. Later, when you are somewhere else, that is where you will be.”

Mikkel sighed. “I don’t have time for the sage elder tribesman act today Pappa. I have to be somewhere soon, it’s very important.”

“More important than your time of Becoming? Come, the ink is ready, let us prepare the final mark.”

Mikkel removed his shirt to reveal the long black whorls of ink that curled up his right forearm, under his bicep and over his chest. The tattoo was large, the work of many years. He remembered the first mark in the Winter of his seventh year, the mark of the rabbit. The second in his ninth year, the mark of the reindeer, the others came quickly after. Each one marking another step into adulthood and his people. Tonight he would receive his final mark, the mark of the tribe. The final mark was most often of a reindeer stag, or perhaps another creature of the forest, the owl or the fox, rarer still the wolf or bear was chosen. The mark would be decided by his spirit animal that dwelt in the part of his soul still nourished by the knowledge of the old ways and sacred to the tribe.

That was what the old men of the village would say. The old women would laugh and spit and say that men will be men and you must make exceptions for them. They are like children in the world and must have their rituals to make sense of it. The old men would grumble at this and say they should be respected and the women would laugh again and spit. Old women in his tribe spit a lot

Mikkel did not mind the marks. He wore them with the pride of his tribe. His grandfather was once a great Reindeer warrior before the war and The Settlement. His father had died in the war and Mikkel had been brought up by the old man. These marks were a badge of honor, they marked him out as one of the Reindeer tribe. Mikkel did not mind the marks at all.

“Now, hold still boy,” said Tengrim, placing his hand over Mikkel’s chest. The skin of his palm was rough, chapped by seventy odd winter’s and a lifetime in the ice fields, but the hand that held the tattoo needle was steady and familiar. Mikkel inhaled and shut his eyes as he felt the familiar sting of the reindeer bone needle as it tap, tap, tapped against the tender flesh of his breastbone. His grandfather took up his song again as he worked, a low, guttural chant that came from deep in his throat. His weathered face was crinkled in concentration as he dipped the needle in the cooling ink, then swiftly tapped the razor sharp tip in a pattern against his grandson’s skin.

Finally his grandfather stood and let the needle fall into the pot. He grunted in satisfaction “It is almost done. At the ceremony tonight the final mark shall be made and you shall take your place with your father among the Reindeer Tribe.”

Mikkel touched the tender flesh of his chest and traced the whorls of ink that flicked across his breastbone to come to rest above his heart. Soon he would bear the mark of the tribe. Right now though it hurt like hell.

“Do not pick at it. Take the dressing and bandage. It would not do to die of bloodfever before the night is out.”

Mikkel took the dressing offered and Tengrim helped wind it around his chest. “There, now go and be in the other place you must be. I will see you at the gathering hall at sunset. No later, understand. The ritual must begin at sunset.”

“I understand Pappa. I will be here.”

“See that you are, now go.”

Mikkel was out the door of the shack and into the crowded street before the old man turned away.

Helsinki, brightly lit with a hard Winter sun and the streets thronged with market day crowds. The Edgeslum was a long way from the central markets and he was already late, he was going to have to run the entire way. In the distance, framed by the harsh winter sunlight, lay the Kauppatori, the market square and the entrance to the harbour. Beyond, at the mouth of the bay, lay the squat grey bulk of Sveaborg, it’s battlements festooned with the Ministries communication towers and aerials pointed inwards towards the city.

The huge cobbled entrance to the harbour was a mass of market stalls; cook pots selling thick meaty stew and grain soup, traders and hawkers selling everything from salvaged electronics to pots and pans hammered from brass mortar shells. Mikkel loved the market day. He loved watching the children munching on the raw snowpeas sold by the kilo, the smell of the cooking pots and pastry stalls at the upper end of the market where people like him were not welcome. He loved most of all watching the people come and go and wondering where they hailed from, who their tribe was, what they believed in.

Today he was late, and all the market goers were intent upon holding him up. Progress was painfully slow. He struggled past a woman holding the head of a pig, twisting away to avoid being smeared in the long trail of blood that dripped from the dead animal’s snout. Another man accosted him offering wines and

spirits from the homelands of Mother Russia, guaranteed fresh and clean, no radiation. Mikkel needed no Radcounter to tell the man was lying. The seller was missing most of his teeth and his hair clung in fraying clumps to the pale dome of his skull. Mikkel made his excuses and hurried away. No amount of chems would help that one. His death was already within him, seeping from his poisoned bones.

When he reached his destination, the red bricked Uspenski cathedral that sat watch above the harbor, she was nowhere to be seen. Mikkel scanned the sea of faces below, searching among the thronging crowds for a sight of her, nothing. He climbed the first few feet of a street lamp trying to get a better view. That was a mistake.

“Hello Mikkel.”

The man below was dressed in a most extraordinary fur coat, his features almost obscured by the rich brown fur that surrounded his face. In his hand was a plastic carrier bag filled with snowpeas. The man grinned up at Mikkel as he shelled the peas and ate them.

“Hello Fawkes.”

“Why don’t you come down from there and we can have a talk.”

“Can’t do that. I’m waiting for someone.”

The man smiled again and ate another handful of peas. He had a gleaming gold tooth that glinted in the sunlight.

“Your sister is it? Little Lejá?”

Mikkel felt his stomach ball up. He kept his voice calm, “Yes, have you seen her?”

“No. Perhaps she left before you arrived? Why don’t you come down from there? Now that she’s gone it that leaves us plenty of time for our little chat.”

“I don’t have time to chat. I have to be somewhere.”

“Yes, you needed to be here thirty minutes ago, but you were not. And now I am here, and we are going to have that little chat.”

Fawkes made a motion with his hand. A figure detached itself from shadows beneath a shop awning. It was Vess, Fawkes’ bodyguard. A huge, scarred, manshaped lump of meat that once had been a man. Terribly wounded in the war, what had come back was not entirely human. Fawkes found him in an Pitbar in Riga where he was paid nightly to maim and cripple all comers in brutal cage fights. Fawkes however, could see his greater potential, he had a gift like that, and soon Vess had been squeezed into a suit and was paid to maim and cripple people at Fawkes’ bidding. He never spoke, but Mikkel had seen into those dead empty eyes of his and he hoped he never would.

Vess’ presence was enough to bring Mikkel down to street level. Fawkes was one thing, he could be reasoned with, but Vess was a force of nature, best not riled.

“What do you want Fawkes?”

“Straight to business, that’s what I like about you Reindeer shaggers. You don’t hang about.”

“What do you want.”

Fawkes ignored him, “Your old man was like that too. Never time for small talk. Small talk is the lubrication in the wheels of business for people like me. It may not mean nothing, but it’s essential all the same.”

Mikkel said nothing, he didn’t like it when Fawkes mentioned his father. They had served together in the war, or so Fawkes said, at every opportunity. Mikkel suspected he was lying, or embroidering the truth. Fawkes lied like most people breathed. It was oxygen to him. A conversation without lies was a dead thing to him, a wasted opportunity. Fawkes never wasted an opportunity.

“So tell me, when are you coming down to The Cubes? I could use a good man like you. You Reindeer men, you’re good in a fight, I know, I’ve seen you fight. No fear.”

“I’m not fighting for you Fawkes. Not now, not ever.”

“I’m not asking you to fight for free boy. All my fighters get paid and handsomely. It’s entertainment, see. No one really gets hurt, badly. It’s not like where I found old Vess here fighting in the Pitbars. The Vessel they called him in his unit. He could soak up all the punishment you could give him and ask for more. Course he doesn’t talk much nowadays, but that’s the way I like it.”

“I told you Fawkes, I won’t fight. I don’t need the money that badly.”

Fawkes eyes narrowed. “You sure Reindeer boy?”

“What?”

“That’s not what I heard.”

“You heard wrong.”

“Money’s always nice, it’s true, but maybe you don’t want to mess up your pretty face for a couple of checkels and a chembath. Fair enough, but I heard you’re in trouble boy. The kind of trouble a man can’t walk away from never mind a boy like you. You think your tribe of Reindeer men can protect you here? A half dozen sad old farts drunk on fermented pine sap and forest mushrooms? Listen to your real friends Mikkel, that little sister of yours will be all alone in the world if you make a wrong move here. I can help you. I can protect you. Being part of my stable of lads will give you certain advantages. Protections beyond money, you see what I’m getting at? You need me boy, maybe more than you know right now. Think it over. There’s a spot open for you tonight. I’ll hold it ’til sunset. I don’t see you by then you’re on your own.”

Fawkes swept away into the crowd the rich red fur of his coat swallowed into the mass of humanity. Vess lumbered after him, the crowd parting before him like the Red Sea.

The Cube

CC licensed photo by Flickr user Tom T

The Winter sun was waning as they reached Fawkes’ place of business. The warehouse was in the docks, a crooked building, it’s aged roof sagging like a swaybacked old mare. The metal doors were pitted with red rust and here and there the ancient girders that framed the doorway were eaten through. From within Mikkel could hear the dim roar of many voices raised in unison. The interior was close and humid despite the cold outside. Vess ushered him in, directing him towards some metal steps leading to an office high in the rafters, Fawkes’ hideaway.

The room was spare, a large desk sat in front of a window overlooking the Cubepits below where the crowds milled about awaiting the beginning of the night’s festivities. There was a bookcase, containing some yellowed tomes and a filing cabinet. In one corner sat a worn leather sofa that once had been brown and was now a dirty grey. A young man was sitting there. He looked nervous and lost. ‘My opponent?’ Mikkel thought. Young, thin, hungry, like all the street boys. A mean, street hard intelligence. He would have to be, to survive out there. But what brought him here, to this place. A last desperate measure. Everyone knew about Fawkes and the warehouse. No one quite knew all that went on there, violence clearly. The Cubefights were known throughout the city and the slums as being brutal and bloodthirsty. Rumours persisted about other dealings. Fawkes had his long fingers in many pies and he paid off everybody. Those that fought in the pits rarely emerged unscathed and never unchanged. No one ever talked. The Cubefights were taboo talk, The Ministry was always listening.

Fawkes was sitting behind the desk with a broad smile on his face.

“You decided to join us, that makes me very happy.”

“I wasn’t given much choice,” Mikkel nodded towards Vess, who remained impassive.

Fawkes’ grin became broader still, “Come now, everyone arrives here by choice. Those are the rules. Whether you stay, or go is up to you. The door is right there, walk through it and I’ll never bother you again. Mikkel stood to leave. He thought about Pappa at home, anxiously awaiting his return for the night’s ceremony to begin. He thought of Lejá, his sister, still out there on the streets somewhere. Missing. Fawkes claimed no knowledge of her disappearance, Mikkel knew that was a lie. He had to do something. Going home was something, but it was not the thing he needed to do.

“Where is my sister.”

“I told you, I don’t know.”

“Bullshit.”

Fawkes’ smile dropped.

“I already told you, I don’t know where your sister is. No doubt she’s been picked up by one of the Genetheft outfits, or worse one of Chard’s men has got her. Do you know how much your father owed him when he died?”

Mikkel shook his head.

“Enough. Enough to make that debt pass from Father to daughter.”

“I’m the eldest.”

Fawkes snorted a laugh. “The eldest by a filthy Reindeer woman. A tribe of dirtbloods half of them chemmed and poisoned in the war, the other half dying by inches in the Edgeslums. Your half sister though, she’s pure as the driven snow. Her bloodwork is sweet as Handel’s water music. They could make a thousand of her in old Europa with just one pinhead of that fine old world DNA. With half an hour and a gene stripper they’ll boil her down to nothing and ship her Juice to the mid Atlantic by noon tomorrow. There’ll be a hundred billionaires in a bidding war for her bones by sundown. But I’m sure none of that has happened. She’s probably holed up in a shack hotel somewhere with an ounce of Adrenochem and one of those Gangpae motorcycle boys tasting the sweet insides of her. What a waste.” Fawkes’ smile was back now, hungry and dangerous.

Mikkel’s insides were a writhing mass of fear and anger. With an effort he held his voice steady.

“You’ve never spent much time with my little sister Fawkes, or you’d know anyone stupid enough to lay a hand on her would lose it at the wrist. And Chard has never taken an ounce of interest in her, or my family, we’re just another bunch of dirty reindeer fuckers to them. And those Gangpae boys? They’re not her type. She tells me they break too easily.”

Fawkes chuckled. “Brave words little reindeer boy, but with the debt your grandfather has been running up with the Asiatics it was only a matter of time before Chard got involved.”

“What?”

“Oh, you didn’t know? That’s right boy. Your grandfather has gotten himself in a whole heap of trouble. The kind with long legs and sharp teeth. Word out there is Sharde has bought his marker.”

The fear was a palpable thing in his gut now. A roiling mass of cold snakes writhing in the pit of his stomach. Sharde was very bad news. He’d come out of the war with a stash of stolen Chems from a bank vault in Ossetia and a pet chemist he’d dragged half alive from a resettlement camp. With a terrifying ease he set himself up in the slums with an army of blank eyed killers and ruled the moneylenders, pimps, and chemdealers with a brutal and violent efficiency. Fawkes was a bit player servicing the entertainment needs of the community. Sharde was the real fucking deal. The radiated masses needed Chems to live. Sharde was their tainted God.

“This thing you want done. Tell me what I have to do.”

Fawkes’ grin reached from ear to ear.

“I knew you’d come round reindeer boy. It’s simple. I want you and the other lad there to put on a little show for the punters down in the cubes.”

“What kind of a show?”

“The kind with blood.”

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The CC licensed images above are courtesy of Flickr users hugovk and Tom T. The originals can be found here and here.

3 Comments

  1. Ooh. That last line was a sucker punch, Donal. Mean, mean.
    And I don’t even know what to hope for, that his sister is as tough as he thinks she is, or that he is as tough as he has to be.

    Argh! What a place to end it!

  2. Thanks! This came out of nowhere, but I’m really pleased with it. So much so I’ve tentatively linked the next story prompt to it.

  3. This definitely seems like the start of something bigger! Great last line. And I love the spitting old women. :) It starts off a bit pastoral and I wondered if it took place in the distant past–and then it turns out it’s a horrible, dismal future. I like that.

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