Authors: Avram Davidson
Ursus of Ultima Thule
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
If even continents drift and flow, it is not surprising that names of places should do the same. There is, for example: Britain, North Britain (Scotland), West Britain (Ireland), Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland), Brittany (in France), and New Britain (a city in Connecticut and a large island near New Guinea). There was also Thule. Where was Thule? Was it the Orkney Islands? Norway? Iceland? Suppose there was not only the Thule of Pytheas, but long, long before Pytheas … a Farther Thule
Farthest Thule … in short, another Thule entirely. Old Thule. The original Thule. And suppose that theory to be correct, which holds that within the lifetime of
the poles and polar zones underwent a great shift. And so suppose that buried under the all but immemorial ice of the interior of one of the great Arctic islands (say Spitzbergen … Nova Zemlya … Greenland …) lies buried, forever beyond our reach and ken, the remnants of an ancient race and culture: that of the people of Thule. Old Thule. Ultimate Thule. An Arctic Atlantis, immersed beneath ice instead of ocean
This, then, is a tale of the original Ultima Thule — before its people fled the most invincible of enemies; before — long before — they fled south, and farther south again: there, either to be obliterated by (or, likelier, absorbed by) other men and other cultures — their very tongue and speech forgotten. One word alone survives, thrown up like a piece of rack or wreckage upon an inhospitable shore: a word now part of every language, though now traceable to none: the name of their lost and ancient homeland:
Long, long before the sun had moved her circle and her path and cliffs of ice descended forever upon true and Farthest Thule, Arntenas Arnten (he who could speak the language of the Bear and of the great red mammonts) ruled there: and he held the ultimate rule in that land-whole of the nains and the perries, and was King of the Men, and of the Other Men as well. Neither Picts nor Celts nor Scands nor Wends nor Finnds had come as yet to the Southern Lands below, nor had any of those lands sunk as yet beneath the all-circling sea.
Elk drew his sledges swiftly over the mossy turf in summer and upon the silver snows of winter, and he was wealthy in gold and amber and his nains had the art of crafting for him blades which never suffered from either the green sickness or the red. This was done inland, sometimes in the forest and sometimes on the heath. And the shores of the all-circling sea saw, in guarded coves, the perries working most skillfully in colored glass, but seldom if ever could men see them, for they slipped like shadows into the rocks and clefts, and they blended like shadows into the trees, for such is the manner and the form of the perries. And in the king’s hall the people feast upon the flesh of salmons and of stags, whilst the great dire wolves — who eat from the king’s own hand alone — prowl in both the outer and the inner court to the king’s own chambers.
Past the forest and the heath are the Paar Marches, and past the Paar Marches are the Death Marshes and the Great Glens where the wizards dwell: and none but they (save, of course, the king) have the way to the Deep Caves, the airs of which both are intermittently foul and often fatal. It is when lightning strikes those rotting airs and thick murk mists that dragons are gendered. And as to what use these dragons are put, these are not the proper concerns of either nains or perries or Men or Other Man, and certainly not of the bar-bar-folk who come at times a-prowling o’er the all-circling sea; but only of the wizards and the king. Often do his singing-women beg him to relate them somewhat of the wonders said to bide there. If he is of a good mood he passes it off with a bauble or a jest, and if he is of an ill mood he may fling a sandal or a buskin at them with a rough word. Sometimes, if his mood is grom, he tells them such tales as makes them shriek and hold their ears and beg for leave to go. But if his mood is very grom indeed he makes them to tarry and to listen and to bide.
Other tales are told round the fire hearths as the snow-daemons howl and prowl about, of were-whales and tree-tigers, of the bewitchments of the Painted Men (whose skin must not be seen), of those fell compacts which bind their members to go a-roving and a-robbing and at last to pile all their troves and treasures in one great heap and fight by two and day by day till only one survives: winner take all; the king’s men and the king’s guests sing in Deep Chant of the cult of the Divine and Dying Bear, who descends into death each winter and who rises from his grave again at each winter-end … at length their chant itself dies down and they gaze all silent into the embers and sometimes without mickle more than a murmur they roll them in their furs and fleeces and sigh their way to sleep …
But sometimes someone in tones low and grave would half-tell, half-whisper such a story that the listeners must need pile high the fires again and sometimes yet again — for warmth, for courage, comfort, or perhaps to mark the passing time — drawing nonetheless nearer to each other and nearer, nearer yet: till each could see in every other eye the reflection of the dancing flames … the darting flames … the dancing, darting, wondering flames.
In the darkness of his granduncle’s medicine hut by the flickerflicker of the faint fire (which the man was allowed to have, grudgingly, and at high tax, for preparing his simple witcheries) the boy recollected the sound of the taptap beats on the tiny witchery-drum and the sight of the mandrakes lifting the lid of their bark box house and coming out to dance by the fire, tossing up their small-small scrannel arms and stamping their tiny-tiny feet to the toom
petty-toom of the child-sized drum — then dancing backward and closing the lid on themselves as the last faint pulse beat died away.
A small man, his uncle or granduncle (in those days the boy did not distinguish), with a skill in small witcheries and small magics by which he sustained them. And the boy felt proud of seeing what other boys did not see.
But most of his memories before the breakaway were ill ones.
When he grew big enough to wander from the partly underground medicine hut or the round thatched house where his uncle’s sister sat mumbling as she pounded bark or stirred the acorn gruel, the boy learned swiftly enough how little he had to pride himself in. If you are smaller by far than the smallest of any born in your birth year, if they are smooth of skin and fair of hair and you are dark and your swarthy skin is covered with a nap or bloom of dark hair — are these things to be proud of? If others have fathers and brothers who return from the hunt to be greeted by the singing of their women and if your only family connection with it all is when old uncle or old uncle’s sister comes stooping up and waits for a bone or an offal to be tossed as to a dog — is there pride in this?
To be sure, he was quicker of body and sharper of mind than any of his birth year; sharp and quick enough to learn that sharpness and quickness won praise only for others and in him were only to be resented. That magic and witchery produced fear and that fear often produced respect; but that small-scale magic and witchery caused only small fear — suspicion, rather — and hardly ever respect at all. For fear and fears hung over the town like the smoke from the great central fire on lowering days. Fear that someone was working a witchery, fear of the wild ones of the woods, fear of the king and the tax-gatherers, fear of known magic and of unknown even more. And the boy who was small and sharp and dark and shaggy produced an effect of strangeness like the subtle smell of fear — but was not strong enough to ward off the hates and wraths this caused — and besides — and besides …
The affair of the great roan mammont, the rogue mammont, fear of fears and terror of terrors, brought all things to a head. But before that, long-long before that day of blood and death, that day of the hill-that-moved, the trees-that-walk, serpent-snout and spear-teeth and all the other names used when one dares not use the real name:
long before then, when he was very small, there was the token.
The token hung on a thong from a peg in a post in his grandmother’s hut. For a while it was above his head and he reached for it often while the old one squatted, mumbling, in the sun of the door-front. He could not remember the first time he actually reached it, standing on a stool (probably), but he had a clear recollection of one day scanning it and seeing it and recognizing it. It was carved of wood, roughly but forcefully, in the form of a bear. It had the bear’s head and one tooth showed clearly in the crude snout; it had the bear’s paws and legs.
But the legs ended in the feet of a man.
• • •
Perhaps at that time he had not recognized this strangeness; he had certainly never seen a bear, for it was not till later that Tall Roke brought in the cub that was partly petted and partly tortured until it was abruptly killed and eaten. Likely at that child-time he did not know that a bear has bear’s feet and that although they resemble a man’s, yet they are not. Nor was it yet clear to him how subtly manlike the carving was.
But he had the clear recollection of scanning it that one day and becoming aware that the old woman, granduncle’s sister and his own grandmother, had come in and was staring at him, a look on her blear and withered face odd even for her on whom odd looks were common. A look of fear and love and awe and horror.
Sensing that she was in what was for her a lucid mood, he asked as he pointed, “This — what?”
And she, promptly and matter-of-factly, said, “Your father.” And as promptly thrust awry her snaggle-snarl hair and screamed and rolled her rheumy eyes and tore open the bosom of her bark-cloth dress and beat and scratched her withered dugs and wailed and howled and beat her head upon the earthen floor. “Hinna!” she screamed. “Hinna! Hinna!” and, “Hinna-tenna!”
Such fits and antics were not so rare as to alarm the boy — for all he knew, all grandmothers behaved so — just as, for all he knew, all fathers were carved of wood and hung on leather thongs from posts. But this fit was uncommonly severe and he appreciated, in fact he rather enjoyed, the new aspects of it, as he might have enjoyed a new grip noted in a dog fight.
. So the old man sometimes addressed the old woman. Sometimes the old woman said it as she pointed out the small blue flowers of a plant occasionally brought back with other herbs and roots or leaves and barks from the woods by the old man. So: Hinna was the old woman and hinna was a flower, but he knew that this old woman was not thrown into a fit in order to mention either; he did not know
he knew and wondered, mildly, that he knew at all. Logic was here working scarcely above the level of intuition.
The old woman shrieked and babbled “Woe!” but mostly her words were strange and, “
!” she screamed. And, “
Arn’t! Arn’t Arn’t!
And then old Bab-uncle was kneeling beside her, soothing her, calming her, arranging her tattered dress of pounded bark-lining, carrying her at last — when her voice was a mere croon or drone — to the worn-almost-hairless half of deerhide which covered her grass bed. And the old man got up and seemed at a loss as he looked at the boy who sensed and instantly seized an opportunity.