To the Faedin, nothing is more sacred than the Cycle of Souls, shifting through forms as they evolve and grow wiser and stronger across each turn of the Cycle’s intricate spirals. Once a lifetime, every 52 years in the grand spiral, the Cycle of Souls itself is celebrated by the Faedin in the time of the Passage.
The Faedin faiths each see the Passage through the lens of their unique beliefs, leading to three different observances. Despite this, the Passage is celebrated at the same time, in accordance with an astral cycle carefully tracked and followed by Janoa, Brudvir, and Kypiq alike. All Faedin faiths see the Cycle as the course of the soul between its creation and the moment of its perfection, many lifetimes in the future. With each pass through the Cycle’s motions, the soul grows, and when it manifests on Elyria once more, it emerges in a new form, transformed by its past experiences, a step closer to its perfect form. It is the shape of the Cycle – its form – that the faiths see differently.
To the Kypiq, the Passage is a moment of joyous reflection, a celebration of the souls, in all their unique and beautiful forms, called the Masque of Passage. Throughout the months of the festival, each Kypiq takes on their soul’s many forms, donning elaborate costumes as they adopt the shapes and identities of animal spirits of the world around them, remembering past forms and celebrating potential future incarnations in equal measure. With each form comes a story that is shared with fellow celebrants and its moral: a lesson learned from that form that can serve the soul as it whirls through the Cycle. The most popular forms are the forms of the wolf, badger, horse, squirrel, alligator and raven.
Outsiders are always welcome, and it’s not unusual to find Neran in attendance, complete with masks and costumes of their own. To the Kypiq, every newcomer is a chance to hear a new story and learn a new lesson that may inspire their soul anew and grant them a new form in the next life.
For the Janoa, the Passage is a time to strengthen and refine the soul, driving out weakness as one might drive impurities from steel; with heavy blows and fierce strength. The Contest of Passage is a grand melee in the Janoan culture. It is a year-long contest of strength, with each member fighting multiple opponents and strong predators in several bouts throughout the year. With each victory the soul strengthens, gaining some of the power of its opponents and shedding its fears and other weaknesses in the process. A Janoa warrior throws themselves into the Contest, hoping to ascend its ranks to be named the greatest warrior and the strongest soul.
It is said a warrior knows themselves only after the Contest of Passage, only when they have seen the pinnacle of their strength. Among the Janoa, it is expected to show well in the Contest; to face your opponents, fight fierce, and stand true in the light of combat’s judgement. The Contest of passage is an important milestone in Janoan life, whether it comes when one is young or old. Many tales of their heroes begin with surprising victories in the battles of the Contest of Passage, be they at the hands of an unproven whelp or an old Janoa who steps finally out of shadow to shed weakness and attain greatness.
The Brudvir observe the year of the Passage more intimately than either the Kypiq or the Janoa. The year is spent connecting with the wolf spirits in a ritualistic hunt known as the Pursuit of Passage. The ritual commemorates an event in the deep past of the tribe, where the wolves and the Brudvir connected for the first time. Those who participate don wolf garb and attempt to join a wolf pack, connecting with the spirits of the pack and joining in their hunt. The Pursuit of Passage also stands as the first sign of the dark winter to follow in a few short years. It is taken as a good sign for the coming Longest Night when more of a settlement’s Brudvir succeed than fail in the ritual. Many attribute the amber eyes of the Brudvir to the first Pursuit, pointing to it as proof of the tribe’s connection to the spirit of the wolf.
Nanna groaned as she rolled beneath the heavy furs of her bed, still sleepy and comfortable in their warmth. All around her, she could hear the shuffling and grunts of the rest of her extended family rising in the darkness. The hearth hadn’t even been relit yet. Scrunching up her eyes, the tiny girl resolved to sleep, even just for a moment more.
“We'll set out as soon as we’ve all gathered. No need to wake anyone,” Ingvar said quietly.
At her father’s words, Nanna’s brown eyes shot open. She had forgotten, drowsy as she was! Today was the day they would pick the pack to hunt for the winter! Despite her father’s claims, Nanna knew there was still much they would have to do. And for Nanna, this would be the day, finally, when she would join the pack.
One way or another, she thought as she threw the furs off her form and swung her tiny legs over the side of the dais she slept in. She winced as her feet touched the cold earthen floor, but she no longer cared. She had far too much to do.
“Apologies cub, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Her father stood before her, blocking the meager light streaming down from the smoke hole in the roof. Ingvar was massive, even among the clan, with shoulders nearly as broad as Nanna was tall, and a long form that rippled with barely contained strength. To outsiders he was Ingvar, champion of the Brudvir at Siegert’s Crossing; a fearsome defender and a warrior who had defeated every challenger that dared cross his path. But, to Nanna, he was Ingvar the kind father. Since her mother had passed three years ago, Ingvar doted on his daughter. He treasured her, protected her and, Nanna admitted to herself, kept her from anything dangerous that might come her way.
The problem, as Nanna saw it, was that her father protected her too much. She should have joined the hunters, or another of the clan’s groups, the year her mother died. That was the custom, but Ingvar always found a reason why Nanna was forbidden. “It’s too dangerous for a little one like you” and “You will find your place, don’t hurry into danger my treasure!” were phrases Nanna had heard countless times now. She dreaded them.
But this time, I won’t let them stand in my way, Nanna thought.
Nanna was determined to prove to her father that she was ready to take her rightful place; ready to show the clan her true worth. The rest of the clan her age had already found their places, be they hunters, weavers, carvers, or any of the other roles that kept the clan alive throughout the seasonal cycle. She knew they noted her lack of development neither was Nanna ignorant of their disapproving glances or hushed comments. She could see herself growing ever smaller in their eyes, with each passing year that her father kept Nanna in his shadow. Soon, she would be nothing, or worse, less than nothing: a stone anchor to drag the clan down, a hungry mouth with no strength to hunt.
But now was the time to change that. Last night, the shaman had looked at the stars and saw the signs. The wheel would turn just a few more times, then the Eye would ride the heavens once more, harbinger to the Longest Night. And with the Longest Night would come darkness and nearly endless winter. The clan had to work hard in the time left to prepare.
While a host of the clan moved to fell the trees needed to fuel fires for the coming darkness, and the weavers began work on the blankets and shrouds that would keep them warm, the clan’s hunters stumbled to assemble themselves before the family long house, waiting for Ingvar to assign them their duties.
Even in the still-dim early morning, the clan was excited. As Nanna moved to place new logs into the hearth and strike flint against steel to light the hearth fire, most of her extended family had already stepped into the morning air to join the hunters, woods folk, weavers, and smokers. For many, just as it was for Nanna, this would be the first Longest Night, but they all knew the tales. The hunt would begin today, and it would not stop until the year of gloom began.
As the hearth crackled to life, she brushed her hands against her legs and turned to follow her father through the open door and out into the morning. Ingvar was already motioning to the throng of hunters, sorting them into groups. Each of the teams had a different role, their target a different type of meat. As she watched, Nanna knew her father would never pick her to join the hunt in any capacity. She watched her peers take their place in silence, standing a step behind her father, her lips pressed into a thin line. She had watched her father pass her over countless times now, but this time, her grimace hid something other than anger. She had a plan, and it didn’t require her father’s choice. Nanna was excited. Today she would hunt.
To say that Nanna was a tiny child would not be an exaggeration. The smallest of her family, Nanna was often called the runt of the litter. Most of the clan stood nearly half a meter taller than she did and only the youngest children need fear her strength. Her father had protected her, sheltered her, her whole life. He was always afraid something would hurt her, that something would break her diminutive frame as easily as a stone breaks the ice the forms over the crossing on cold nights. And yet, Nanna didn’t feel weak. She felt restrained. Chained. Held back and caged while, deep within, a hidden strength paced restless behind her eyes, waiting to be freed.
Her father finished the assignments of the hunters and turned to her, “We may be gone several days Nanna. Listen to Bethemel; she will keep you and the village safe.
“Of course, father,” Nanna bowed her head as she spoke, her eyes hidden behind the reddish-brown locks of her bangs, obscuring the look of determination that glimmered there, “I will do what is best for the clan, in all things!”
Ingvar raised an eyebrow and smiled. Perhaps he simply wished to believe his daughter was as dutiful as she was determined, or perhaps he simply didn’t want to recognize the obvious defiance in her tone, but he let the matter drop, instead embracing his daughter in a gruff hug that lifted her clear off the ground.
“Just be safe, girl. Returning to the Crossing to learn something had happened to you? Why, that would be the end of me.”
Nanna wriggled and squirmed until her father put her down, laughing.
“I understand, father. You needn’t fear. I will be there when you return.”
He narrowed his eyes, before sighing. With a final wave to his daughter he turned and walked with the hunters to the palisade that surrounded their small village and out its modest gate. Nanna watched as they forded the river, her thoughts straying to what she had hidden there, just past the tree line on the other side. She desperately wanted to run across the ford now, gather the gear she had hidden there and head off to hunt, but she knew she could not. At least not yet. She would have to give the hunters a day’s head start. Then... then she would have what she wanted; the opportunity to show her value once and for all.
The day passed more slowly for Nanna than any previous day in her life. Each chore that she completed for Bethemel seemed to draw on and on. It was as if the old matriarch knew Nanna’s plan and would simply defeat it by placing an impossible mountain of work between her and the freedom she needed to slip away. But Nanna was determined; for a full year she had planned this moment, making small preparations between chores, spending her free time with a bow and even forcing her father to show her how to fight with a long knife. She was as ready as she could be, she reasoned, and today was the day to go. She simply needed the right moment.
That moment finally came late in the afternoon. The sun was already sliding into the mountains to the west, casting long shadows across the forest, and streaking through the open gate of the village in golden rays. The old woman, Bethemel had been standing at the gate, watching the tree line, when she suddenly approached Nanna, who was washing a stack of wooden plates in the river’s water.
“That’s enough dear,” she said to Nanna, placing a hand on the girls’ shoulder before kneeling next to her to gather up the plates, “You can go now.” As she spoke, she turned to watch the tree line once more, before slowly bringing her eyes back to Nanna. There was real love there, but also fear. Does she know what I’m planning? Nanna thought, as she nodded up at the older woman. Brushing dirt and mud from the fur of her breeches, the little girl turned to walk back to the settlement, but something stopped her. Without a word she turned back to the old woman and embraced her. Bethemel held her close and whispered in her ear.
“Be careful, girl. Come home to us. We’ll be waiting.”
Nanna gasped as Bethemel let her go, forcefully turning her to face the forest.
“Lady Bethemel I…” Nanna trailed off, she really didn’t know what to say.
“Oh please, little one. I’m your grandmother, I may be old but I’m not blind. I see you withering in your father’s shadow.”
Nanna cast her eyes down, ashamed.
“No, no, Nanna. Enough of that. Your father cares more for you than anything else in this world, but that doesn’t mean he’s right to keep you the way he does.”
The old woman looked down into Nanna’s eyes. Her own gray eyes brimmed with tears.
“You’ve a life of your own to lead. Go find it, Nanna. But come back to us! We will be waiting.”
The old woman ushered Nanna towards the river and the tree line on the other side. She crossed the ford at a run, never once looking back. She didn’t want Bethemel to see her tears.
Nanna recovered her gear, hidden in the crook of a tree and outfitted herself for the hunt: Furred hide boots to keep her warm and quiet as she moved, matching wolf pelt arm guards, leather gloves and a rich wolf-pelt cloak that her father had made for her. The hood of the cloak incorporated the wolf’s head, so that when the hood was worn, Nanna's face was obscured by the snarling visage of the wolf that her father had bested to make it. In a simple pack, she had stored a week’s worth of preserved meats. She decided to wear the pack beneath the cloak. It would not be as comfortable, but it would prevent the cloak from being pinned in placed by her pack and limiting her mobility. The heavy cloak also helped to muffle the clacking noise the bone toggles made as she walked. She was ready.
All that was left was to answer one simple question: Now what?
It was a harder question to answer than she realized. She stood there in the shade as the sun sank for longer than she’d care to admit, just listening to the forest before her, brooding from beneath her wolf’s head cloak. She doubted she’d catch anything in the gloaming light, so finally she decided to set out into the woods to find a place to shelter for the night. She had to be far enough away from the settlement that her fire would not be seen which meant an hour’s walk through the woods. With a curse she set out, realizing she had tarried long enough that she would have to set up her camp in darkness. At least she knew the woods almost as well as the village.
Nanna's confidence flagged just a few moments into her walk. As the darkness closed in around her, the forest seemed to transform. She grew up here and believed that she understood the forest as well as any who lived in it, but in the growing blackness of night, she felt more lost than she ever had before. For the first time since her mother passed, Nanna missed the overprotective presence of her father. Every crack of a branch, or rustle of leaves in the wind had Nanna convinced that the eyes of predators were on her, watching, and waiting to pounce.
She tried to shake off the feeling as she selected a small clearing to build a fire within, but it would not leave her. Even as the flames crackled and bathed the clearing in firelight, she swore that just beyond the fire’s reach a host of ravenous beasts were waiting for her to fall asleep, so they could feast. And she was right.
As the fire began to die out, she saw them for the first time. Five shifting forms, each about her size, shadows within shadows. They were pacing around the edge of the clearing, quietly padding between the trees. They were four-legged and furry.
Wolves, she realized, as fear gripped her heart tightly.
Her father had warned her about wolves, once when she was younger. He had taken her downriver to fish in the lake there and they had watched a pack of wolves take down an elk on the shore opposite them.
“A merciful end, thankfully,” her father said, pointing to the elk.
“What?” Nanna asked, appalled, “They ripped the elk apart!”
Her father looked down at her, a grim smile playing across the chiseled crags of his aging face, “Trust me, little one. That was mercy after what they had done.”
“Wolves don’t win with the fight. The fight only comes after the hunt is won. They ran that elk down. Harried it for hours until all chance of it fighting back was lost in panic and exhaustion. They’re clever, wolves are. They value the pack over the individual, but they never throw a member of the pack in danger’s path without first knowing they can win. They whittle their prey down in a thousand tiny encounters and, each time, their prey escapes, they do so believing they have won. They never see the parts of themselves the wolves take with them until there is almost nothing left.”
He placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Remember that, Nanna. A wolf fights in increments, and never alone. They will never fully engage with their prey before it is prepared to hand them victory.”
Nanna remembered her father’s words and sat bolt upright. She grabbed a log from the fire, kindling really, as a makeshift torch and began to slowly pace the edge of her camp. She wanted them to know that she saw them, that she was aware; that she was not yet ready to hand them victory.
All the fire light, especially the torch in her hand, had ruined her night vision, but she could hear them moving off, retreating in the darkness. Had she not remembered her father’s advice she might think herself safe, but she knew better. There was no rest for Nanna that night. She had to keep moving. If she were to sleep here, she would not awaken again.
She didn’t know how much time she had, but she quickly shouldered her pack and threw her cloak over it once more as she stalked into the forest. She could, she realized, head back, but that meant accepting her father’s judgement and she refused to accept that she was truly too small and too fragile to support the clan. No, she reasoned, she would head further into the forest, west and south, making for the lake where her father had fished. With any luck, she would leave the wolves’ territory behind, and they would seek other, easier, prey.
As if there’s anything in this forest smaller than me, she thought. It was wishful thinking, and she knew it as quickly as she thought it. The wolves would be tenacious. Harassing her as they followed would be easy work. The meal might be small, but it was too easily won for them to give it up. The truth was, Nanna had no choice now. Like it as not, she was locked in battle with the wolf pack; it would not end until either she, or they, were defeated. Torch in one hand, long knife in the other, Nanna of Siegert’s Crossing trekked through the woods, waiting for the wolves’ next appearance.
The night that followed was long and tiring. Nanna’s legs burned and her eyes bulged, dry and red, forced to remain open and alert far too long. Any time she stopped she could hear them in the distance. Never more than a few trees away. Never closer. They seemed content to remain out of sight, watching her; stalking her. Though hours had passed in the darkness, she never actually beheld them directly.
She saw the first of them just as the light of morning was cresting the eastern horizon. It was small for a wolf, its fur ragged and matted.
The runt, she realized, sent ahead because it is the least valuable.
When she saw it, it was standing between two trees, maybe twenty strides to her left. The light caught its eyes, revealing pale amber orbs as it lazily licked its muzzle. It made no move, until Nanna took an aggressive step in its direction, growling in her deepest voice. Maybe she could convince them that she was a predator, too. Something not worth their trouble. Something too risky to take.
Or maybe they’ll just think I’m an idiot, a dark voice in her mind voiced her worst fears.
Whatever the wolf’s assessment may be, it took off running at her growl and she did not see another wolf for over an hour, but when she did, she realized she was running out of time.
She had been making steady progress toward the lake. For several minutes she had seen no sign of the pack, nor its runty scout. She began to hope that perhaps they had broken off after all, she broke through the trees to reveal the lakeshore. Sitting, almost casually, on the sand between her and the water were two more wolves. Neither of them, she noted, were the runt she had seen earlier.
It will happen here, she realized.
The pair were much larger than the wolf she had seen before, larger than she herself was. Each was cloaked in a pelt of sable and brown fur. The larger of the pair, a male she presumed, watched Nanna as she stepped out of the trees with deep amber eyes. Next to him, a female, regarded her with one gray eye, her other eye socket scratched and scarred closed, her muzzle likewise marred by four other rent-like scars. Together the scars told a tale; she had fought something large and it had raked her muzzle and eye with its claws, tearing flesh and ruining her eye, yet she remained and whatever terrible creature the wolves had faced was likely dead.
Nanna had spent the night considering what she would do when the time came. Among her people, the hunting packs of the wolves were highly respected. It would not be fair to say that her people feared wolves, but they regarded them as some of the forest’s most dangerous predators. Rivaled, perhaps, only by the otter bears that hunted the river in spring.
She considered her options: She could run, but her father had always warned her that wolves would simply run you down. She could stand and fight, but everyone knew that packs attacked as a group, and she would face all of them, an overwhelming force. She knew her best chance was to somehow divide them. But, to do that, she only had once chance. She needed to take control of their pursuit. She had to be the one that decided who went where.
She had a plan and, the moment she saw the pair before her, she knew now was the time. Screaming at the top her lungs she charged the wolves.
They danced out of her way easily but, of course, that was the point. Nanna didn’t stop running until she was in the water and swimming hard for the other shore. Over the course of their long trek through the forest, she had shed most of her gear, until only the long knife and her clothes remained. The cloak was weighing her down in the water, to the point where she regretted keeping it, but she knew she would need it on the other side of the lake.
Halfway across the lake she risked looking for the wolves. The entire pack watched her as she swam, gathered around the larger wolf. It was clear to Nanna that he was the pack leader. The one she would have to deal with if she wanted to get out of this alive. She watched them, as they watched her, until she was on the other side of the lake. It was only then that they began to run the lake’s shore. They would be here soon. She did not have much time.
Thankfully, for Nanna, her plan required little preparation. Still dripping with lake water, she stepped away from the shore and towards a large rocky tor that marked the southern side of the falls at the western edge of the lake. They would be here any moment, but as she stepped off the sand onto the broad rocky shelf that led to the tor, she smiled. It didn’t matter anymore. She was where she needed to be. She removed her cloak and spread it carefully on the rocks before her, as if drying it.
Then she drew her knife again and prepared herself. By cutting across the lake she had forced them to come to her from a single direction. With the tor at her back and the lake to the left, they could now only approach her from the south and the west. She looked down at the wet cloak. If she did this right, she might have them. In the distance – but much closer than she was ready for – she heard the howls of the pack.
Her father had said that wolves howl to affect their prey. If you heard the howls of the wolves, it meant you were as good as dead in their eyes. Nanna hoped to surprise them.
“Come on then!” She growled into the forest.
She knew better than to expect them to come at her from the shoreline, where she could see them, but when the alpha leapt out of the southern woods, she was still unprepared. She yelped in surprise, stepping to the side and turning to face the wolf as the beast came down to the ground next to her. Its paws scrabbled on the rocky shelf, and she moved quickly with the knife, raking it across its muzzle, drawing first blood.
The wolf leapt back, landing on the cloak Nanna had so carefully placed there and yelping in surprised terror as it gave way beneath him. The poor beast scrabbled at the lip of the hole that had been hidden by cloak, but the edges of the cloak simply slid under its paws and the creature plummeted into the pit below with a scream and a splash.
Nanna knew the wolf was already dead. The pit was too deep to escape without help. She had discovered this herself as a younger child, when she had fallen into it. Her father had saved Nanna by lowering a line, but without his quick aid, the girl would have fallen into the icy water and slipped under, never to be seen again.
It had cost her the cloak her father had made for her, but that was the least of her problems and, in exchange, she had solved the worst of her problems. The four remaining wolves would think differently about her now. She was no easy prey.
As if to prove her point, the four wolves revealed themselves, stepping out of the tree line and circling her wearily. Nanna held her knife at the ready, growling to the wolves in a tone that matched their own. She would fight them each, if she had to, using the pit to her advantage. She just needed to remember where it was, to maneuver each wolf in the fight so that they had to contend with it. It was if Nanna fought back to back with another of her kind, a pack mate of her own.
As the alpha’s mate leapt for her throat, she dropped to the ground, slashing the wolf’s underside with her knife with one hand while reaching for the wolf’s hind leg with the other. She had hoped to pull the creature into the hole with its mate, but she only managed to grasp it briefly, setting the wolf into a spin as it slammed into the ground and slid across the rock. She had no time to analyze her handiwork, as the next pair came in from opposite sides even as she leapt to her feet. Nanna dodged aside easily as the larger of the two moved to attack, realizing too late that the attack was a feint that left her entire right side open to the runt, who leapt her, maw agape and snarling.
The little thing was terrifying now, its size and health completely lost in the moment. There was almost nothing Nanna could do, her hands were in the wrong position, her knife too far from its target. She raised her right arm putting it between the wolf runt and her throat; it was the only option she had, the only way she would live. That solace did nothing to dull the pain as teeth pierced through the fur of her arm guard, tore the flesh of skin and muscle and sank directly into the thin bone of her arm, shattering it. But now it was fastened there, its jaw locked onto the bloody mess of her arm, and in Nanna’s other hand, was her knife.
She stabbed the runt twice, once in the shoulder, grimacing as the knife skipped across its shoulder blade, then again just behind the shoulder, between its ribs. With a scream it released her arm and fell to the ground, its chest heaving. Immediately, the three remaining wolves leapt away and retreated into the forest.
For a moment she did nothing. She simply stood there, over the dying wolf, blood streaming from her ruined forearm. She strained to see where the wolves had gone, but they were invisible. Or, more likely, she realized, they had fled. Having lost their leader, and now losing their scout, they were broken, unwilling to force the encounter any further.
She closed her eyes, just for a moment, but that moment of respite was enough. Every ache, every tear in her flesh, came flooding into her experience and, with a yell of her own, she sank to her knees next to the wolf runt.
She’d lost her cloak and, she realized, she had thrown her bandages away in the night as she tried to lighten her backpack. Cradling her still bleeding arm in her hands, she wondered if she had defeated these wolves, only to succumb to her wounds and die.
It’s a waste, she thought, if only I hadn’t fought. At least then only one of us would die.
She slumped over next to the runt, growing weak from the loss of blood. If she counted herself, half of the six that had met in the forest would be dead. And no one will have won.
This hunt was a disaster, for everyone. Even the wolves.
It was her last thought as unconsciousness took her.
Nanna dreamt. She dreamt that her mother, dressed in the cloak Nanna had just surrendered, had come to her side to sooth her. Keeping her warm even as she cleaned and massaged the savage bite she had received from the runt. It hurt, but at the same time it felt nice, right. As if the simple act would somehow save her. Her mother was joined by others, though she could not see their faces, who lay beside her on the rock. Their warmth enveloped her, kept her safe. In her dream she thanked her mother, who leaned in to embrace her, her love obvious in her a single, gray eye.
With a gasp, Nanna sat upright, the image of her dream still fresh in her mind. It was dark, even the moon was missing from the sky and Nanna realized she had been unconscious the entire day. Her mind was foggy, the dream still heavy in her consciousness and at first, she missed its implications. She looked down, trying to find the form of the runt she had stabbed Was it still there? She reached out and touched wolf fur, the form still hot, its breath ragged. It lived.
She leaned back, meaning to put her hand down on the ground to steady herself, but she instead found herself pressing into the side of another furred form. She grew deathly still as she looked around, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. Four silhouettes greeted the return of her night vision. Each lay around her, curling round her form, keeping her warm. She looked down at her right arm. Her hand hung limply, she doubted it would ever heal, but the bleeding had stopped. The wolves had licked the wound clean.
Quietly, carefully, she retrieved her long knife and stood. Picking her way between the wolves, she set off to circle the lake again. She had to return home now, she knew that. Injured as she was, she would be lucky to escape sickness; returning with a kill was out of the question. She considered the runt she had stabbed. No, it might not die at all, and now that it had saved her? She couldn’t bring herself to harm these wolves further. She didn’t understand what had happened, but they had chosen to let her live. She would return the favor.
Instead, she stepped away into the forest, beginning the trek home. No one would believe her story, but perhaps it didn’t matter. She had come out into the forest to prove she could survive here as any of her clan could. She had proven that. The runt’s bite was proof enough that she had fought something and lived. They might think her foolish. They might still consider her weak, but now they would know that she was one of them. Now they would know she was Brudvir.
She winced with each step, the pain in her arm was enormous. Even just trying to close the fingers of her right hand was agony. For the next few hours, it was her only companion, but that pain was a reminder that she lived. She began to savor it, to cherish it. Each step was a reminder that she faced the wolf pack and lived. Each spike of pain was proof that she was one step closer to home.
As the morning of her third day in the forest dawned, she saw the animal tracks ahead of her on the ground. They were large, almost the same shape as a human hand, but deeply gouged into the loam of the forest floor. Nanna's heart sank. She let her eyes scan the trees for further signs, and sure enough, she saw the tell-tale claw marks of the otter bear everywhere she looked.
The scratch marks across every tree, the deep tracks, they all meant that the otter bear was marking its territory. They usually don’t stray far from the water, but before each winter otter bears begin to stake out territorial ranges for themselves. Each range acts as the larder for an otter bear as they prepare to hibernate through the winter. Immediately, she knew they meant she had stumbled into the range of an active otter bear.
She had to tread carefully.
Nanna knew that otter bears were tricky hunters, but they weren’t known to be particularly stealthy. She should hear it coming, and hopefully have time to hide. So, she halved her speed, constantly watching the trees and listening for signs of the bear’s presence. That was how she first noticed her followers.
It was the runt she saw first. He was limping along, his chest heaving, only a few meters away and resting at each tree just out of her sight line. Pretending not to notice she walked on, spotting the one-eyed female off to her right, about thirty meters away. She realized the others must be following her as well.
Nanna knew she should be terrified. She should be worried that she faced not just the potential for an angry otter bear, but four wolves as all well. Yet, somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to see these wolves as a threat any longer. They had followed her, yes, but gone was the malice from the previous day. Perhaps they were afraid of her now.
Or maybe fever is taking me after all, she thought as she resumed walking slowly, eyes alert for the otter bear. Her vigilance soon paid for itself. Ahead of her, she began to see signs of other tracks. Mann tracks, specifically. A band of hunters from her own clan, if she had to guess. They were fresh tracks, fresher than the bear’s.
They were brave to take up the hunt for an otter bear. Nanna knew her father would never send a group after an otter bear like this. Either they were foolhardy hunters, like herself she had to admit, or they had seen the bear and diverted to deal with it at her father’s order. Either way, she worried. Otter bears were monsters in their own right. While generally not aggressive, they could be capricious creatures that could kill you just to play with the corpse.
Nanna hoped to catch the hunters before they found the bear, but a chittering roar in the distance dispelled any hope of that. She hurried forward as quickly as she could, trying her best to ignore the sounds of the wolves around her, keeping pace.
She heard the sounds of battle, the clash of metal and the splintering of wood growing louder as she moved closer. She had her long knife in her hand, but she didn’t remember drawing it. It didn’t matter, it was right that it would be there. A few meters ahead of her, accompanied with the creaking crash, a tree fell to the ground revealing the fight ahead of her. The bear was easily two meters tall, standing on hits hind legs. In one hand it held a massive log that it drew back to throw at the throng of hunters across from it. One leapt forward from the group, the glimmer of an axe in the sunlight revealing it to be her father, Ingvar! As she broke into a run, she watched the arc of the log as it left the bear’s hand and streaked for the rushing form of her father. She flinched, certain that it would sweep him off his feet, but with a shout and arc of shining steel, the log was split asunder. Her father still lived!
She veered to the right, surprising the alpha’s mate who had been keeping pace a few meters away. Without a snarl or a yelp, the wolf simply changed her course, falling into step behind Nanna as she ran. In her periphery she saw the other three, including the injured runt, do the same. When Nanna burst into the clearing behind the otter bear, she was leading the pack.
With a snarl she rushed the monster. The wolves answering her with growls and howls as they too leapt at the great beast’s back. Surprised and enraged, it twisted; reaching behind itself to sweep the wolves from its back, but every time it got close, the wolves would simply drop off the creature's back and scuttle back out of its way. Nanna did the same, adopting their tactics and staying out of the reach of the bear’s claws.
On the other side of the creatures, she heard her father bellow and his hunters answer. As one, they leapt at the beast. Now harried from both sides, the otter bear was too distracted, too confused, and it soon fell, the cuts of countless axe throws and the ragged tears of claw and tooth evidence of the grand melee that had transpired.
Ingvar saw his daughter for the first time as the bear fell. He didn’t recognize her, initially. Nanna could see it in his face. First fear, then confusion. Around her, the four wolves, teeth barred, snarled at the hunters. But Nanna stepped forward, sheathing her knife. It seemed to be all the message the wolves needed, as they each sat, and took to licking their wounds.
“By the guardians! Nanna?!” her father strode towards her, taking her up in a massive embrace.
“What are you doing here?” He asked, only releasing her from the hug as she winced in pain.
“What has happened to you?” He asked, seeing her mangled arm for the first time, “And what are these?!” He pointed to the wolves.
“I’ve come to hunt. They’re…” She paused, “…my pack.” As she said it, she knew it was true. She couldn’t pinpoint why, or how, but she knew they were hers and she was theirs. They were her family, if just in spirit.
She felt herself grow weak in her father’s grip, exhaustion slowly taking her back to the blackness of unconsciousness. When Nanna woke again, she was in her bed, the four wolves curled around her. Her father sat at her side.
“I should have Bethemel exiled for letting you leave, but I’m told I would be defying the spirit of the pack.” He motioned to the wolves.
“They tell me you're not even Nanna any more. They say that girl left the village and returned as someone else.”
“What do you mean?” She asked, groggily.
“They call you Ylva now, Nanna. The she-wolf. And it’s hard to deny. You’ve changed little one.” He pointed at her eyes. She didn’t understand, until he handed Nanna her mother’s silver mirror. The face that looked back at her was hers, but it was not. Somehow, during her adventure, the girl’s eyes had lightened and changed, becoming the same pale amber as the alpha wolf’s she had killed at the lake. She considered her reflection for a moment, noticing the way the light pooled in her eyes. She had changed, she thought as she idly scratched the head of the nearest wolf, the runt, she realized.
Ylva handed the mirror back to her father and smiled, “Do you still think I’m too small to join the hunt now, father?”
Her father smiled, engulfing her in that massive hug of his once more, “You will always be my little Nanna. But I’ll never hunt again, without you and your pack at my side.”