Running. Running. Running. Heart pounding. Feet slapping the ground. Ears drumming. Bowstring thrumming. I feel every pulse tear through my body as with every breath, every step, every heartbeat, I draw closer to my prize. Bow in hand I soar through the forest; shadows of overarching trees dappled with brilliant sunlight – Light and Darke – life and death: distinct but inseparable. Trees twist all around us; almost seeming to move of their own volition… but that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? And yet, even for living my whole life in these woods and on the great steppe to the North, it remains unfamiliar, and ever it surprises me anew; although, that being said, I can always find my way back home. To the home of my ancestors; our ageless tribe, or, failing that, to one of the smaller camps dotted about wherever light can be found in the forest. But there are parts of the forest that even we dare not tread, places where some say sunlight has never touched the ground.
As I rush through the sunlight dappled forest, chasing the swift and elusive deer, my feet barely even touch the ground. I have long since taught myself, with some help from Grandmother Winterthorn, to run swiftly and silently. I notice that the deer has stopped; exhausted and shaking, by a pool in a nearby clearing. Through a parting in the trees I see her. I catch the smell of lotus blossom and know that I am downwind of her – scentless and invisible. I hold my breath as I pull back my bowstring and notch my arrow. I am steady and silent as the Moon herself. I am calm and serene and cruel as the forest. I am as inevitable as death. I line up my shot and draw a single, steady, silent breath; the breath that will be her last. I fire. She falls. Birds shriek. I am the huntress and I will protect my tribe. I approach her body, and whisper a silent prayer to thank the doe for her sacrifice. I enjoy this silent moment of peace and tranquillity before it is shattered as my idiot cohort comes smashing through the trees – it was his racket that scared her off and necessitated this chase in the first place. Before the fool can speak I silence him with one of my famous stares.
“Don’t say anything, Aiken. Just help me get her back to the village before it gets dark.”
He closed his mouth and hung his head in shame; his curly brown locks drooping over his broad shoulders. He muttered something unintelligible.
“I just wanted to warn you that you were getting near the Darke Wood.”
And true enough, just past the pool the air grew cold and grey; dismal; filled with dread. We were near enough that if we craned our necks upwards we could see where the canopy twisted together and shut out the sun. This was far closer than we, or anyone for that matter, should ever get to a Darke Wood; for there are many of them in the forest, growing and spreading. Of course, there are stories; scary stories parents tell their children about monsters and fiends in the dark… lurking… waiting… eternal… but they couldn’t possibly be true, could they?
“I can’t believe it’s spread this far already…” I whispered as we stared on in disbelief. A shiver crept down my spine and I shook such creepy thoughts from my head.
By the time we were back at the village the sun was setting and the fire was already lit, the other hunters waiting for us. I’d had no idea how far we’d run. We carried the doe towards the flames and sat down with the others. On the other side of the bonfire sat Grandmother Winterthorn talking to a strange man I didn’t recognize. He wasn’t wearing the pelt of any forest creature, nor any cloth woven from cotton, wool, or silk. Or maybe he was – the grey colouring made it hard to tell, and I’m not a seamstress by any stretch of the imagination, no, I leave that stuff to my sister, Moonbeam. I realized with a jolt that this was the third moon of the season, and our trade partners; the Wolf-brood clan from the ruined metropolis beyond the steppe had sent representatives to deliver this season’s goods and negotiate next season’s trade. The funny thing was, I knew everyone else at the fire, and I didn’t see anyone else wearing grey – they usually send three or four men, so where were the others? And why would the village elder take such interest? Grandmother Winterthorn never talks to the traders, she leaves that to Sage and Juniper; the twins that lead the foragers, or to Gwynn, or his sister Gwen (what were their parents thinking) who were the most renowned Guardian and seamstress in the village, respectively; with Gwen doubling as a decent forager in her own right. But then, I’m the greatest hunter; and the only huntress in the whole tribe, so why doesn’t she ever ask me to negotiate? Am I too inflexible?
Aiken dragged me from my thoughts, offering me food from yesterday’s hunt – some quail – and some fruit (apples, my favourite) I thanked him and was about to return to my thoughts when Grandmother Winterthorn stood; her blue and white robes flowing around her hunched, wrinkled, yet still beautiful body. Her silver hair, braided with twine and flowers, shifted slightly in the gentle breeze, as did her many pendants and necklaces. Her large, black eyes twinkled in the firelight, framed by the silver-blue crescent tattoos beneath them; a mark of her rank as village elder. She raised her arms skyward and an audible hush of reverence and awe fell over the crowd as she began to speak.
“Children of the Moon. Tonight we pay privilege to our honoured guest; from far to the North, within their ancient city of stone; Fenrir; leader of the Wolf-brood clan.” We all gasped. Never had their leader graced us with his presence before. “He brings us favours – rare cloths; warm and strong, bountiful food to last the winter, powerful weapons for our hunters; let us thank him. As we are blessed by the moon; so too is he blessed by the great grey wolves of the North, mighty and ancient spirits; not the beasts of our forest; and they are his allies!” She liked to be dramatic. She was about to speak again, when from the shadows someone whispered in her ear. “It seems tonight is not just a night of great honour, but also great celebration. My children; tonight, Moonbeam has birthed the firstborn in nine years, and not only that, but triplets, too!”
With this news we all leapt to our feet and cheered. But just as those of us with musical talents went to fetch their instruments, and just as I was getting ready to dance, I felt a terrible feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach – Fenrir’s face was twisted into a wicked smirk. We danced for most of the night, but Fenrir slipped away unseen, making me feel very uneasy…