Chapter One: Okta CHAPTER ONE Okta
Elsa didn’t turn around. She straightened her spine and concentrated on finding her rhythm, but still she had to glance at her skis to make sure they stayed in the tracks. It was a little too dark to head out, but she was so eager.
Her cheeks were windburnt. From the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of her dark hair sticking out from beneath her hat and turning silvery gray with frost. Her eyelashes had changed color too, and she could feel the cold moisture when she blinked. It was like she was becoming a different person.
The lake was crisscrossed with snowmobile tracks leading home and away. To neighbors and cousins. To the reindeer corral. She followed the widest track. She’d found her rhythm, and her skis swished beneath her. She was nine years old. A big girl now. With skis of her own, not hand-me-downs from Mattias.
She poled onward, her arms strong and powerful, with each glide long. She knew the house would soon be a tiny dot behind her. The lake gave way to forest, but she wasn’t afraid. She was never afraid, because she knew exactly where she was and could always find her way home. She didn’t usually go beyond the lake. But now she was big.
It was early January, so the sun had found its way back, but it hardly rose over the horizon before dipping down again, leaving a pink shimmer in the sky. Today the clouds absorbed the light faster than she’d expected, but it wouldn’t be pitch-black for a while yet. She would make it there before dark. The snow weighed down the firs and birches. It looked like they were all bowing to her, welcoming her home. To think, that they recognized her even with her frosty silver hair and new skis.
She heard the reindeer and skied faster, though her thighs were stiff. Her breath came faster too, stinging her throat. She must not lick her dry lips or they would redden and crack. She didn’t like the taste of blood.
No one was there now, she knew that. Mom, Dad, and Mattias were at home. It wasn’t time to feed the reindeer yet, but she was going to surprise them. Get the pellets ready, haul out the bags, and maybe even go in and scatter some of the feed. Hold the reindeer lichen in her hand so the animals would flock around her, not the least bit afraid.
The sound of a snowmobile starting up halted her in her tracks. Such disappointment. She wasn’t the first one here after all. The snowmobile was idling. She pushed off with her poles, almost silent, then grabbed the trunk of a pine and peered around it.
It was him.
She never said his name.
In his mouth, between taut lips, was something soft and downy. In his hand, a bloody knife. Elsa squeezed her poles so hard her cold knuckles ached inside her mittens.
He took the piece of ear from his mouth and stuffed it into the pocket of his grimy yellow pants, the kind road construction workers wore. The wide reflective strips flashed as he passed in front of the snowmobile’s headlights. The dead calf lay next to the fence, just outside the corral. He bent down—for what? To take it with him? Her throat betrayed her and he looked up. His eyes were searching, quick and deft, until he found her. Maybe he wouldn’t recognize her with her silver hair?
It looked like he was swearing, stomping toward her in his boots. His tongue bulged behind his upper lip, pressing against the snus to release the nicotine.
Then he grinned and pointed at her, holding an index finger to his thin lips—shhh—before drawing his finger across his throat.
Death. She knew that meant death.
He went back to the snowmobile, took a pair of black gloves from his pocket, and swung his leg over the seat. He was unaware that he had pulled out more than just the gloves. The small, downy ear fluttered through the air and landed in the snow. It bore the mark that proved the calf belonged to their herd.
He revved the engine, releasing the stench of exhaust, but also something undefinable that made Elsa’s nose crinkle.
She skied on shaky legs to where the man was last standing, removed her mitten, and picked up the ear. She wiped the snow away and got blood on her palm. It wasn’t the whole ear; he’d cut off just the outermost part, where the marking was.
She glanced at the dead body by the fence.
It was Nástegallu—Elsa’s reindeer. The white patch between her eyes, and her unusually long legs. Drops of blood covered her soft fur. Elsa’s reindeer, without her earmark to show where she belonged. Elsa couldn’t cry, couldn’t scream. There was a frightening clamor in her head. The thought that one day she would kill the man who did this.