In the ancient town of Faolan there once lived a girl name Laire. Faolan in those days was synonymous with misfortune, bounded on one side by a forest full of bandits and on the other by a sea full of pirates.
Thus on one month the mayor would hand over their wealth to the first group of thieves, and in the next he would turn it over to the second. The townsfolk had little choice but to scratch a living out from whatever the soil and sun would give them. Their hearts soon turned bitter as rancid milk, and they looked on the world with eyes of stone.
All except for Laire. As she watched her mother work her hands to the bone for slave wages and her father leave each fortnight to trade from town to town, she swore she would find a way to make them happy again.
One day, she slipped out the back door and took a secret path up the nearby mountain. The old women of Faolan whispered stories of Olcan, a wild and savage spirit that lived at the peak. Olcan could supposedly grant boons with an offering of raw meat.
Laire had no meat to offer, not since the bandits spirited away the last of her sheep. All she had was a small bag of acorns, which she laid on the flat, blood-stained stone at the mountaintop.
Soon the wind began to howl, and Laire held up her arm to keep the cold from her eyes. When she lowered it, she found herself face-to-face with the largest wolf she had ever seen. The top of her head only came to its shoulders, and its amber eyes were the size of saucers. The wolf glanced at the nuts on the stone before fixing her with a baleful glare.
Laire thought her legs had turned to water, but she forced herself to remain standing. “Great Olcan!” she cried, “I beg your favor! Please grant me the strength to protect my family and home!”
Olcan answered in a voice like an earthquake. “You foolish little morsel. I have bitten off the heads of great warriors for lesser insults than this pitiful pile before me.”
“Please,” Laire said, falling to her knees, “it’s all my town can give, but our need is very great. I beg you, help me save my people.”
The wolf merely yawned, lolling the huge blade of its tongue. “The rule of the wild is that the strong bend only to the strong. Why, then, should I favor a foolish cub like you? You are more suitable as an offering to appease me.”
Something snapped inside of Laire. She jumped to her feet and glared back at the beast.
“I am NOT weak. I am stronger than something even stronger than you.” She paused, racking her brain, and spoke the only thing that came to mind. “I am stronger than Death.”
Olcan snarled, then snorted, then dropped to his belly in peals of laughter. “Stronger than Death! Funny little morsel. You’re too weak to even carry a conversation!”
Laire realized that there was no going back now. All she could do was buy time. “I AM stronger,” she declared. “And I can prove it. Give me a year and I will show you how strong I am.”
Olcan regarded her with eyes like narrow blades. Then he grinned and said, “Time means nothing to me, but I am starved for entertainment. Let’s have a wager—I will follow you for a year. If within that time you fail to prove your claim, I will eat your coward heart.”
“Fine!” Laire cried. “And if I succeed, I will eat yours! Then I will be the guardian of the mountain!”
“It is settled then.” With a single leap, Olcan disappeared into Laire’s shadow. “Your year begins now,” came his disembodied growl. “I wonder how good your heart will taste, morsel.”
Laire knew that to win their wager, she had no choice but to be bold.
In the forest, she hid herself on a branch that hung over the road leading to Faolan, and waited. Days later, the bandits came trudging down the road. They had grown lazy over time, expecting the cowardly townsfolk to hand over their due.
The chief rode on horseback while five of his men followed on foot. Laire held her breath as they passed beneath her, singing minstrel songs and laughing over bawdy jokes. With a cry, she leaped down from the tree to seat herself behind the chief. His horse whinnied in surprise and broke into full gallop, the chief grabbing onto the reins for dear life. Laire dragged the dagger from his belt and cut deep into his neck. She let his lifeless body fall to the ground for his pursuing men to find, then led her new horse deeper into the woods.
Hours later, when her hands had finally stopped shivering, she turned to her shadow and said, “Well?”
There a moment of silence, then the sound of a massive yawn. “You killed one bandit. That does not make you stronger than Death.”
Laire did not give up. She went back to Faolan and waited for the pirates to come. They arrived a week later, docking for the night at the bay. They too had grown complacent and did not even post a watch on deck.
On that moonless night, Laire set out with a small boat filled with kegs of oil. She spilled the oil in the waters surrounding the ship, lit a torch, and hurled it into the blackened sea. The pirate ship lit up like a paper boat. Men scurried and screamed, but in the end their burning vessel surrendered to the bay, all hands down.
Still Olcan was not impressed. “Slaying pirates does not make you stronger than Death. I could have done that myself.”
Again Laire headed into the forest with a shovel in tow. For weeks she worked on a dike that would divert the river, and on her final day the summer rains came and the waters swelled against the banks. A flood crashed into the bandit camp, washing the lot of them away.
Knowing this wasn’t enough, Laire left her town and wandered into the next. This one was plagued by Vikings. She dealt with them too.
In a twinkling the year was over, and Laire soon faced Olcan across her campfire. “I have driven away evil-doers from my land,” she said. “This proves that I am stronger than Death.”
Olcan snorted and said, “Far from it, morsel. You are merely slightly stronger this year than you were in the last.”
They argued throughout the night, until finally Olcan said, “I will give you one more year. But my patience only stretches so far. Prove yourself this time, or else.”
And so Laire tried again. She wandered the land in search of impossible tasks. She rescued maidens from towers, saved captives from invading armies, and tricked an ogre into swallowing a poisoned sword. She and Olcan met again when the year was done, and again they could not agree. So they postponed their resolution.
On this went, year after year. Each of their anniversaries would end the same way. No, slaying an invincible giant does not make you stronger than Death, nor does answering the sphinx’s insoluble riddle, nor does freeing a king from a witch’s unbreakable curse. They would adjourn for yet another year, and each time Olcan would tell her it would be her last.
Soon the land grew peaceful and prosperous. Throughout the towns and villages, stories spread of a wandering hero who worked miracles. None could touch her. Each assassin that approached her bed in the dark would be stopped by a pair of fearsome yellow eyes. Each warrior that tried to attack her from behind would be felled by an unseen claw.
She became her own legend, the woman with the wolf’s shadow.
In the end, it was Laire herself who proved her own claim false. As she was traveling to help a distant town build a water reservoir, she suddenly gasped and doubled over in agony. She crawled another half mile before her heart finally gave out. Laire died at the gates of the town she came to save.
The tearful residents carried her body back to Faolan, where her family gave her a funeral fit for a king. They buried her in the cemetery behind the church. Visitors came from all corners of the country, counting kings, nobles, and knights among their number. It took three months before the end of the line finally came within sight.
And when the last mourners put on their hats and left the churchyard, a gentle breeze swept the leaves from Laire’s grave and Olcan himself appeared. The great and terrifying wolf was gone, replaced by a wan and tired beast with flattened ears and fur that had lost all its luster.
He leaned close to the headstone and whispered, “Does it taste good, my heart?”
To this day, no one knows who placed the statue of an enormous wolf beside the grave of Faolan’s greatest hero. But till now it stands there in quiet sentry, and people from all over come to lay acorns at its feet for good luck.