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copyright 2017 Susan Spitale Precht

cover art: Christopher Precht



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Prelude

 

"There can be no more forging, no more use of metal! On this point we must agree!" Osker bellowed. His wife, Paetryka, stood beside him, still weak from childbirth with their newborn son in her arms. Osker was in the prime of his life, a son of the high chief and trained to lead. He wore the weariness of the devastation that had befallen his people within the rippled creases of his high brow. The ruddy skin of his face flamed with his present frustration, coloring his countenance which was otherwise sallow from long hunger and grief.

The people were assembled in the cavern. They knew themselves as Dvargen. Whatever the word had meant in some forgotten tongue was never considered among them. They were a sturdy folk who traveled great distances by foot dragging their burdens behind them or upon their wide backs.

Soft light played against the crystal and the sound of running water was ever present. They were quiet and respectful, but waiting with obvious anticipation to determine who would prevail in this discussion.

"I do not agree, Osker," an elderly Dvargen said quietly. "If indeed we are to venture into the world again after so many years beneath the earth in these passages, we should be able to restore the lives we led before the scourge of the wyrm." Of the assembled he appeared to be the eldest yet his tone was deferential to Osker.

"No more metals! We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past!" Osker replied to the man stubbornly.

"You are a young man, nephew, and even though your father died valiantly in protecting this clan in the homeland, you may not be ready to take his place and dictate," the old man replied softly.

Osker glared at his uncle. Paetryka tapped his shoulder gently to remind him to check his temper. She was the daughter of his father's most trusted minister, who, like Osker's father, was also slain years before in the final war with the wyrms.

"Ye can all lead yourselves. I have no desire to be your leader as my father was. There is land enough to choose your own chiefs, even if there are not the people to populate them," Osker stated flatly, without venom.

"Disband the clan?" another man cried in shocked disbelief.

"Nay, we need not disband, just distance. Paet and I will take the valley to the east, all that I ask is that all must vow, once your leaders are chosen, not to create the forging fires that drew the wyrm to our homeland." Osker took a breath before continuing. Every person in attendance seemed frozen in place, waiting for what would come next. "We must bury our history and start anew, no written word, no stories of before that will lead us again to that ruin."

A slow murmur erupted amid the gathered. They were not many, the survivors of a civilization that had been in the thousands. All that remained was a handful, less than fifty and most of them young, or ailing. They had been among the first to escape the fury of the enemy's destruction- the women, the children, the sick and the old. Osker himself had joined them only upon his father's insistence. He would have rather stayed to fight, but his father entrusted these souls to his safekeeping, as well as some other details, details he was sworn to carry out in secrecy.

"Can we agree on this one thing?" Osker asked.

"Will we remain one clan? Is this really what you want, nephew?" his old uncle asked.

Osker nodded. "Choose your leaders among yourselves and when you have done so, let us strike this oath."

Osker walked away. His mind was a mess. At barely seventeen the safety of his father's people had rested entirely on his shoulders. They had travelled far from where they had begun, seeking a course of subterranean caverns that had hindered their progress but had allowed their escape from the threat outside which hunted them nearly to extinction.

He could not tell them what he knew, not the warning given to his father by the strange wanderers. The wanderers came before the wyrms and had warned of them. They had given his father some large stones, but Osker did not entirely understand the significance of them. What his father had told him was vague and hard to believe. He intended to bury them along with the written history of their world and pray that they never be found.

Chapter One

Osker's Tribe

 Twenty five years later

The day's gathering was done and nothing pleased young Torg more than to be free of the direct blaze of the summer sun as he ducked under the cover of a berry bramble. A soft breeze swept eastward from the mountains, lifting the heat of the late afternoon slightly. Nearby, the adults of his small tribe were busy loading the harvest onto wooden litters to drag through the tall grass back to their summer camp. A slight twinge of guilt nagged him. He knew that he should be among them and busy doing the things that adults did, but he busied himself with stockpiling the spoiled berries around him.

Nearby bushes shuddered with the unspent energy of his cousins at play. Three wolf pups contributed to their clamor, yapping excitedly, and rolling in tumbles around their feet. Shrieks of triumph harmonized with groans of disgust every time a well-aimed pitch met its mark.

Torg, the eldest of this Dvargen tribe's third generation, if only by months to his cousin, Berr, and barely a year to his sister, Rache, had just reached his fifteenth year. His dark eyes were alert and full of humor as he listened to his cousins maintaining the battle. The rows of dark braids that bristled down the full length of his back were already hopelessly tangled and splattered with seed and pulp. Streaks of sweat had trickled through the purple of his berry-stained face, giving him a fierce appearance. His favorite wolf pup, Neah, jumped at the opportunity to lather his face with her tongue, making him even stickier. He pushed at her playfully and was met by a nip on his nose from her sharp teeth.

He rolled the pup unto her back and tickled her belly to keep her still as he continued gathering. His smile grew as he surrendered to the play, visualizing the advances and retreats of the others from the resulting ruckus. Passing close to his hiding place he heard the grate of the litter runners against the ground. Again, he felt out of place. He knew he should be bringing in the harvest instead of crouching in the brambles like a child. Just as he was about to quit the game, his resolve was broken by the condemning voice of his grandsire.

"He is too old for this! They are both too old for this foolery," Osker snarled loudly as the group of adults made their way back to camp. "Juni, it is their time this season to go. They need to take on the responsibilities of grown men."

Torg's smile evaporated from the consequence of knowing that Osker was referring to himself and Berr.

"Da, they have time yet. They have just now reached the age and Rache has a season to spare," he heard his father reply softly, without much resolve. Juni never had resolve against his own father, much to Torg's dismay.

"Aye, and next year the women will be wanting them to wait on Brom!" Osker's voice rose, Torg picked up the pup and held her tightly, hoping to remain hidden. "They must take their place in this clan. The choosing is not something that can wait. Rache will be among the ones to be chosen soon and it would be better for her prospects if her brother and cousin paved the way for her, NOW."

Madilyne, Torg's mother, spoke out in a determined but emotionless tone, "They can go next harvest. Torg and Berr will go together and Rache will be chosen while they are away. Brom is a bit young...." The rest of what she said was lost as her voice drifted away with them into the tall grass. He relaxed his hold on Neah and she bolted.

Torg's feelings lately were mixed when he considered the choosing ritual. He was not unwilling to take the journey across the mountains and choose his mate from the other tribes of Dvargen that dwelt in the west. He was anxious to take his place as a man among the clan. But it would cost him his beloved sister, Rache. He knew he might never see her again as she took her place in another tribe far away.

His mother would ultimately decide when it was his time. In this she had the right to overrule Osker. But he also knew that the old chief would make all of their lives miserable as she resisted. Osker did not take easily to any opposition to his rule. Given a choice, Torg would've done just about anything to avoid a winter holed up in the lodge with his grandsire's temper, anything but leaving Rache. He moved out from under the briar on his knees, stopping to untangle his braids from the thorns that snagged them.

I am getting too old for this, he realized and was surprised by a half-hearted hope that Osker would prevail. Once free of the brambles, he was met by a silence in the valley. He wondered how much time he had lost to his thoughts. The elders were long gone, and perhaps the wolves had followed them. He chuckled and quickly ducked out of sight, suspecting that his cousins had joined forces with Rache in his absence and were just waiting for him to reveal his location. He guarded his breath, straining the silence to capture every sound. When he heard the slight cadence of footsteps drawing near, Torg readied two fistfuls of berries and crouched in preparation to strike. Once he had judged the footsteps to be in striking distance, he lunged upward with a fierce roar and pelted his target blindly.

The berries splattered sloppily across the broad chest of a stranger. The man did not flinch or make any motion that indicated he was aware of the onslaught. He regarded Torg with a fixed eye as he sheathed his spear fluidly into the sling over his back.

Torg tried to meet the eye of the stranger but was forced to squint from the glare of the declining sun. His cousins, Berr and Brom, emerged from hiding to flank him at each side. He hoped that the girls had gone to warn the camp.

The stranger cleared his throat with an expectant, "Ahem."

"Hail!" Torg said in a voice struggling with the tones of depth from encroaching manhood.

"Hail!" The stranger replied.

Torg nodded and gathered his courage again to meet the stranger's eyes. They had never met anyone from another tribe. His mother, and his aunts, had all come from people that lived on the other side of the mountains. He had also once overheard talk of a different race of man, a people who were not Dvargen, but he could tell from this stranger's physical bearing that he was indeed Dvargen and the embroidery on his tunic was definitely in the style of his own clan.

"Well met," Torg offered with a slight bow, hoping that he was performing the formality of the greeting correctly.

The stranger inclined his head in answer and turned around, raising one arm over his head. Torg searched the valley to west and saw two men break from the brush in the distance, spears ready. They sprinted towards where Torg stood with the juice of spent berries still dripping from his fist.

Why are they here? His heart sunk realizing that the strangers must have come for Rache. But her time is more than a season away! Sadly he recognized that as young as he thought her to be, she had reached the age their mother had been when she was chosen.

The stranger cautiously scanned the western sky while awaiting the approach of his companions. Once they arrived, the man turned back to Torg and asked, "Ye be the tribe of Osker?"

Torg nodded in recognition to his grandsire's name, lowering his eyes from the discomfort of their three steady stares. He hoped that his confusion would not bring shame to his tribe by making the strangers feel unwelcome. The stranger grabbed Torg by the shoulder with a grip that demanded the return of his gaze.

"Lad, we have traveled a great distance with urgency. Does Osker yet live? Will ye lead us to him at once?" His voice was weary but not without kindness.

Torg nodded again and turned to lead the way. Berr and Brom looked to him questioningly.

"You will be welcome, sirs," Torg said as he turned and faced the unspoken protests of his cousins with a commanding gaze, hushing them with a quick finger to his lips.

They had barely begun to stride in the direction of the camp when his father's voice broke through the brush.

"Hail, Mikel! You are a sight!" Juni bellowed as he rushed towards the men with his arms outstretched. "Your sister will be pleased for the visit!" Juni reined Torg in with a playful stranglehold. "This fine mess of a lad," he said with obvious pride, "is our son, Torg, your nephew."

Mikel regarded Torg again, sighing softly. "If only time allowed for our lingering acquaintance with the heirs of our kinship." He swung Torg over his shoulder with a smile. Torg blushed unseen beneath the high color of berry staining his face and wriggled loose from his uncle's grasp. The moment his feet took the ground, he gained his bearing and brushed distractedly at his tunic attempting to regain his dignity while Mikel's companions clucked softly.

"I'd like to introduce you to your uncles, Lyn and Ranel," Mikel stated.

Torg bowed to each of the men who embraced him in turn; they were both rough and teasing in their affection.

His father winked to him and put his arm around Mikel's shoulder, leading the visitors in the direction of the camp. "Mikel, let you and the others rest and supper afore ye start getting solemn. There is time enough on the morrow for the haste ye are speaking."

The men walked on. Berr, Brom, and Torg scrambled through the brambles to retrieve their berry slings and were forced to run to catch up to the long strides of the men.

"'Tis not good tidings we bring ye, Juni. We must leave at first light so a visit cannot be had, regrettably."

Torg slid in beside his father, noticeably out of breath. He watched the familiar ease of Juni's face stiffen beneath the bushy brows that framed the hollows of his eyes now knitted together with concern.

Berr tugged at Torg, and pulled his ear close, whispering, "Why are they here?"

Torg answered him with a slight shrug.

"Come then, brothers," Juni said, attempting lightness. "You must be weary, and I shall hear no words of dark portents until ye be shed of your boots and wrapped in warm robes and each of ye be resting with a full belly."

Mikel's laugh was deep and full. "Juni, you still got that bossy way about you. I shall yield to your hospitality and allow you to settle us before we burden you with our purpose."

Torg was so relieved that their greeting included no query of Rache that he slowed to catch his breath.

"Are they here for Rache?" Berr asked outright. Torg noticed that his usually jovial face was marked with worry.

"I don't believe so."

"What else could it be?" Brom suggested.

"They said it was serious."

When they reached the camp, they went unnoticed by their parents who were busy situating their guests. Their ever-watchful grandmother was not so easily avoided. She did not let them get by her in their sweaty sticky state. Her tone was stern, but her eyes sparkled with amusement. "Ye hellions get off to the stream now and wash that mess!" She swatted affectionately at Torg's head.

Rache and Torg walked side by side to the creek.

"I do not believe they have come for the choosing, Rache."

The apprehension in her face eased slightly. "Torg, I never wish to leave. When the time comes I want my mate to stay here with us."

"We have no say in that, I fear," Torg replied as they stowed the berry slings in a cask that was settled in the cool shallows of the creek. Tess and Bess, their golden-haired twin cousins, joined them in the water.

"I wish I was a babe like you," Rache said sadly as she tweaked seven year old Tess's freckled nose.

"I want to be bigger!" Tess exclaimed and jumped while splashing Rache playfully.

The four waded into the deep water, rinsing the berry juice from their tunics until the leather grew too heavy to wear. Once removed, they held the tunics high above the water and waded into the shallows to wring them out, all the while playfully snapping them in the air at each other. Rache collected the tunics and brought them in a soggy bundle to the shore, where she hung them out to dry on the branches of nearby shrubs.

"Where have Brom and Berr gone?" Rache called to Torg as she sat beside the creek's edge to unravel her long braid. Her hair shone in the twilight, streaks of gold melded into the darkest browns. Torg realized how much he adored her; she possessed a quiet contentedness that he had always relied on. More than a sister, she was his dearest friend. How shall I bear it when someone comes to take her away? The sorrow of this impending loss overwhelmed him like a dark storm. He tried to force the sadness from his heart, knowing it was a fate they could not escape.

Berr and Brom rushed recklessly into the creek and tackled Torg, forcing him beneath the surface with strenuous shoves. He jumped up spluttering and angling for revenge, just as their Grandmother called them in. She waited with soft robes in hand to wrap around them and a steaming crock that he took for supper, on the ground near her feet.

Once she settled them and they were dry, she served them a broth heavy with summer greens and seasoned with a touch of berry wine.

Torg noticed the wrinkled strain in the old woman's face. "Can we not join our uncles by the fire?" he asked cautiously.

"No, dear heart, 'tis men's business they are discussing. Best be off to your dreams early, for we will be breaking camp at first light tomorrow."

They all began to ask questions, one on top of the other, rising in volume. Grandmother shook her head and forced a smile. "Hush now, where is your spirit of adventure?" she asked.

"What adventure?" Rache asked.

Torg heard a slight tremor of fear in his sister's voice. "Is it time for the choosing?" he asked, glancing at Rache.

"No, child, it is not that time."

"Why are we leaving, Gramma?" Brom asked.

Their Grandmother spoke in a soft calming tone: "We are going to gather with our kin, 'tis nothing to trouble about. Now then, off to your sleep, come along."





Torg lay awake watching the shadows of the fire play against the tent. The voices of the men murmured on without distinction. He listened to the soft breathing of his cousins sleeping around him, missing the usual nightmare whimpering of the pups. He was troubled by their absence. They had not been seen since Mikel's arrival.

In the hours before dawn, he awoke to sounds of activity in the camp. Peering through the tent flap he saw that the women packing the litters that would drag the necessities for their journey. He hurriedly slipped his head back inside when he spotted his grandmother returning from the caves.

It was a familiar sight but the timing was wrong. Following the harvest, before the rains of the cold weather they had always quit the valley in favor of their winter lodge deep in the wood. There, under the sheltered canopy, they would hunt the elk for food and skin, and gather wood for warmth. Great barrels of grain and berries were stored there, soured and fermenting during their absences, to become the spirits that would sustain them through the long dark nights.

But we are not going to the Winter Wood, Torg reminded himself. His mind raced with questions concerning their destination. He rolled over on his pallet and grumbled. Grandmother had said that they were going to gather with the clan but they never had before. Why now?

Bad tidings, dark portents, he wondered. What could it be?

In frustration he rolled over again and tried without success to become comfortable. Forcing his thoughts free from the unanswerable, he turned them to the bows and arrows that were stowed under his bunk in the lodge. He painstakingly inventoried each item from memory, especially the bow that he had been perfecting just before the spring thaw. Eventually, these thoughts drew him back into sleep.

Chapter Two

Leave-taking

 

Torg woke to Rache's gentle shaking of his shoulder. The tent they had been sleeping in had been dismantled around him and the comforts of their camp were packed and stored away.

"Get up and get dressed. We are ready to leave," his sister said rapidly as she yanked his pallet out from under him, spilling him in a heap of blankets on the ground.

Osker sat with Mikel near the dying embers of the fire. They were etching the ground between them with the points of their spears. Mikel scored lines across the ground while his other hand moved in pace with his words. Osker glanced from the ground to Mikel's face. The chief's brow knit back and forth, his posture was stiff, and his mouth was tightly drawn in a frown.

Torg rubbed his eyes as he stood. Berr and Brom came up from behind and took an arm to drag him towards the stream. He mumbled a sleepy protest but they laughed and pulled him harder. He struggled free from them at the water's edge and they all washed quickly before shrugging into their slightly damp clothes, retrieved from the bush.

"Grandmother sent us to collect some berries for the journey," Brom stated as he fished into the cask for the slings and divided them among them.

"Has anyone told us where we are going and why?" Torg asked.

"No one has told me," Brom said with a shrug and a blank expression that conveyed the idea that he would never expect them to. Brom was a younger more serious version of Berr. His reddish gold hair rebelled just like Berr's from the customary braiding and wisped about his skull in stray springy curls, his amber eyes were soft, lacking the humor found in Berr's despite their identical placement. A broad frame and high color differentiated these brothers from the darker, more lithe, Torg and his sister Rache. The four years that divided them had forced Brom to be perpetually racing to catch up. Even the advent of the twins, four years his junior, did not improve his stature in his own eyes.

They raced each other back to the fire and unloaded the slings into their grandmother's waiting arms. The visitors were geared up and ready to go. Ranel and Lyn shifted impatiently while Juni conferred with Mikel.

"Brother, I still think it would be best for the women and your parents to head to your winter lodge. The journey will be harsh and there is no telling what will be awaiting us," Mikel said to Juni.

Juni shook his head. "Osker will not hear of it and, frankly, I agree with him. We are grateful for your warning but we cannot leave our women to fend on their own in this danger."

Mikel did not conceal his anxiety, "We had little choice but to journey alone or the beast might have followed."

Juni placed an arm around his brother-in-law's shoulder. Torg kept back a pace, wanting to listen but not wishing to intrude on the men.

"Your sister, Allyssa, insisted we come to ye. She feared we would all perish without a chance to warn you of them." Mikel paused upon seeing him. Torg looked down at his feet and tried to appear casual.

"Understood, Mikel," Juni agreed. "We will follow and stand with your folk against the intruder. But we cannot leave our own behind in the imagined safety of a wood that could never be safe from the menace you described."

Torg interrupted, "Father, Uncle, what invaders? What menace? What beast? Where are we going?"

Juni turned to his son and regarded him grimly. His father was a majestically built man with a broad frame, gilded by the sculpture of his muscles. The strength that Juni physically possessed had always inspired confidence in the clan but what Torg read in Juni's expression that moment sent a chill through his heart. His father appeared powerless.

"Da?" Torg asked in a low voice that he hoped hid his fear.

Juni composed himself, "Never mind for now, lad. I shall tell you along the way. Let us go and seal the caves so our goods will be safe until our return," he said and patted Torg's shoulder.

The existence of their camp was a memory when they returned from sealing the caves. His mother, grandmother, and his two aunts, Lize, and Spae, waited with the three girls. Four litters were snuggly packed with bedding and provisions. Water and wine sacks were lined up along a row of rucksacks. Back slings, armed with ornately carved spears, leaned against a nearby trunk. The sacks and skins were divided among the crew. Slings were strapped on their backs and adjusted.

Mikel, Lyn, and Ranel had already started out towards the mountains. He watched their silhouettes crossing the valley like moving specks beyond the grass. Torg turned towards the wood and whistled his low signal for the pups to follow. He waited expectantly but they did not appear.

"Neah, Len, and Lumis!" he called out commandingly. "Come!"

His father strode beside him. "Son, they will be fine until our return and they are far too young for a journey such as this."

Torg pretended to not hear him and whistled again, the others began attaching the leads of the litters to their belts. Each litter was crafted of two birch poles that were carved thin at the lead and wide near the ground. The runners were worn flat on their downsides. A woven sling between the poles held the cargo in place. The leads themselves were two handholds wrapped in leather to steady the load and two strong thongs attached the weight to the bearer's belt. As was the custom of Torg's clan, the younger members were the principal haulers because their youth and energy favored the labor and it had allowed the tribe to travel at a steady pace. The four eldest had the honors: Torg, Rache, Brom, and Berr, but Tess and Bess would take a turn or two along the way.

Torg knew he didn't have the time to find the pups, even to say goodbye. He longed to bury his face one last time in Neah's fur. He felt compelled to obey his father. He knew he must strap the litter to his girth and follow the tribe fearlessly towards the unnamed danger but the panic he had been masking now boiled to the surface and, before he could check it and stop the outrage from taking his tongue to a place of shame, he heard himself cry, "NO!"

His father's shock was obvious but it didn't silence Torg. "I will not leave my pups to fend alone. You may choose what you like, Father, and you may even choose for the most part for me as well, but this I will not do. You take us from our summer harvest, not half collected. We know as you do that winter will have need of the stores. You lead us from our beds to some unknown mountains where an evil you will not even speak of awaits us. To follow a man you call my uncle but whom I never heard of before yesterday. And now I am told that I must leave the pups BEHIND?"

Torg was spluttering. Juni was frozen facing him, flushed by the outburst, and clenching his fists. Torg felt the heavy approach of Osker. The old sire of the clan was livid. Osker's hair was a mantle of silver gray that flowed in waves cresting on his forehead. Thick moons of black-silvered eyebrows and his formidable black and white beard that grizzled along his jaw, contrasted with his worn skin that was now glowing so red that steam seemed to pass from it. Torg had barely turned to mark his approach before the old man felled him with a swift and powerful bash to the back of Torg's head.

"How dare you speak such way to your Da?" Osker bellowed in a tone that felt as if it shifted the earth beneath Torg.

Juni extended his arm to help his son stand up but Torg flinched from him. Juni shook his head, saying to Osker, "You should not have done that, Da."

Rache ran to her brother's side and lifted his face in her hands, searching his eyes. He glared at her, blinded by his humiliation. He pushed her hands roughly from him as she tried to brush away the dust and dirt from his tunic.

"Get up, boy!" Osker bellowed, still red-faced and hot. "Can you not see all is waiting?"

"Da." Juni interjected.

"Ye have all coddled the boy, Juni. Made too much of his wit. We will not waste the morning waiting on him while others face death," Osker growled.

Osker glared at Torg before turning his back on him and stomping away. "We leave now!" he ordered.

"Torg, I am sorry for the pups," Juni said. "It was not my doing, nor your grandsire's, that we must go. Please get up, son. We must aid Mikel's tribe. They have lost many lives to a great beast..." his voice trailed off. Torg was not listening.

Without acknowledging his father or his sister, Torg stood. He did not look ahead to his clan that had begun to move out but he realized the litter that he was to pull was already in tow behind his Grandmother.

Juni reached for a spear from his back sling and stabbed it on the ground near Torg. "Son, find your pup if you must then follow us as fast as you can. We cannot linger now. I wish this." Juni embraced both of his unresponsive children, and hurried away to catch up with the clan.

Rache remained quiet as if she knew better than to speak. Her expression wore the competing reactions of confusion and purpose. She glanced toward the backs of their tribe moving westward, leaving them both behind.

"Nonsense," she muttered. "Now, where have those naughty pups wandered off to?" Her eyes scoured the nearby brush for signs of them. "Must be wandering in the woods, dontcha think, Torg?"

Torg frowned. He felt nothing but anger and loss, then anger for the loss, anger for the unknown, anger towards Mikel and his tribe's trouble, but most of all, anger at his grandsire for striking him down unfairly. I will never follow them!

"Rache..." he said and met her gaze for the first time since the assault. Tears welled in his eyes as grief and shame replaced anger. "You go now with the others. I will never follow them."

Rache moved closer to him. "Hush, now! You are just in a temper. Let us find the rascals that began this mess. There's time enough to decide whether we follow or wait here for their return."

Torg knew the stubborn set of his sister's mind well enough to not try to convince her otherwise. She would no more leave him than he could resist following her even if she chose to track their clan.

"You are right", he agreed. "There is time enough."

Chapter Three

Wayward Wolves

 

The afternoon sun was blazing the sky by the time they had finished a thorough search of the now-abandoned campsite's perimeter. Torg began collecting branches and rushes to construct a lean-to by the creek's bank. Rache foraged grains and greens, and simmered them in porridge over a small cook fire while he finished building the shelter.

"Maybe they are hiding near the berry bushes?" she asked Torg after camp was set.

"Aye, it's worth a look. And we could do with more berries for ourselves."

They walked towards the brambles facing the sun. The breezeless air was heavy with humidity and gnats swarmed annoyingly around their heads. They gathered a scant harvest while crawling through the bushes, whistling and calling for the pups.

Dejected, sweaty, and emotionally weary, they returned to the creek and washed. Afterward they ate the porridge in silence. They did not put words to their thoughts or fears; they shared them unspoken in the quiet wanderings of their separate minds. Before the fire was burned to embers, Torg added a stout log to keep it burning through the night while they slept.

During the night the pups returned. Rache woke before dawn and found them curled up between her and Torg. While he slept she quietly sliced a length of leather into strips and braided the pieces into collars and leads for the pups. She tethered the pups with the lead securely to the main pole of their lean-to before returning to sleep. She didn't disturb her brother who continued to snore softly, in spite of the mass of Neah's fur snuggled around his face.





The small band moved on, the Dvargen tribe joked happily as they entered the Winter Wood. Torg looked forward to reworking his bow, and he collected slender saplings for arrow shafts, and feathers for flights, as they tramped through the wood. The harvest had been so plentiful that it had taken three extra litters to cart the berry mash. His Uncles had gone ahead with his father to stalk the elk herd that spent autumns under the forest's cover. Torg was sure their hunt would be a success and that the smokehouse would be stocked upon their arrival.

His mouth salivated for the taste of venison after a long summer of hare, fruit, greens, and grain. He wondered how well antler points would work as arrowheads. He had just begun speaking to Rache, who walked beside him, when a tree fell on his head. He felt branches smothering him and he thrashed wildly.

"Torg! Wake up!" Rache was shaking him hard. He opened his eyes and squinted at the rising sun, feeling disconnected. His head pounded from the force of the tree but, once Rache cleared the debris, he realized they were not in the wood at all.

"A dream."

"What?! Get up, you lout! They are running off again," Rache said sternly.

"What is?"

Torg sat up to see the pups chewing and growling at the straps that attached them to what remained of the lean-to as they dragged it away.

"How?" He stared at Rache but could not shake his dream state off to form a coherent question.

Rache stopped pulling on his limp arms. "Come on, silly!" she exclaimed and ran after the pups.

He jumped up, quickly passing her in pursuit of them. He caught the main-pole and anchored it into the ground and reeled the pups in by the lead.

"You rascals!" He muttered while panting through his teeth. The pups continued to fight the lead, putting all their combined weight into a backward tug, and gnawing at the leather. He tightened each collar while tickling them each in turn, until they forgot that they were being restrained and jumped around him, yapping and snapping playfully.

Rache collapsed on the ground beside them.

Torg pointed to the lead. "Nice handwork, lass! When did you capture our prisoners?"

"You were asleep and I did not want them wandering off again."

"I see." He tickled her, "You mighta tied them to something they could not drag off." He said with a grin.

Rache squinted at him with a pained expression. "Oh, that is quite nasty. Does it hurt much? Let's head back to the creek and see about it." She began prodding his head, which improved his awareness of the pain from the knot that was swelling on his forehead.

He wanted to tell her she was doing more harm than good with her touch but decided against it and just winced. "I had a dream, Rache."

She smiled. "That would account for all that snoring ye kept me awake with."

"Nay. Listen," he continued. "We were all in the wood. Our harvest was the heaviest it has ever been. I was gathering."

"Torg," she interrupted, "the harvest was good enough as it is. We should not waste thought- or dream- on what might've been had Mikel never come."

He considered her words as he dragged the pups along.

"We must follow them, I realize that. But how can we travel with these scoundrels? They are so changed since Mikel came and we cannot trust them to keep pace."

"Father may be right. They might do well on their own."

"They would not. They have no pack to teach them to hunt. We have been snaring hares for them since they were orphaned."

They reached the creek. Torg tied the pups to a tree while Rache bathed his bruise with cool water. The fire had burned out in the night, so they broke their fast with berries. Torg pondered the problem of traveling with the pups.

"Well, if they can drag a lean-to as they did, they can drag a litter," Rache suggested.

"Hmmm. But we have nothing to load on a litter so they would outrun us for sure."

"Well, we load the cask and let them pull it to wherever we are going."

"Rache, we wouldn't be able to move the stone that seals the cave on our own. All the spare litters are in there."

Torg shrugged and walked off to check the snares they usually set in the brush. He returned with four small hares and found his sister exactly as she had been when he had left. So deep were her thoughts, she did not sense his approach. His offering of hare caught her eye and brought a faint smile to her lips. She immediately went to work skinning and cleaning it. The pups whined and strained at their tethers, anxious for the meat. Torg tossed the remaining hares their way and let them scuffle over them.

"A litter would make us slow anyway," she remarked when the hare was clean. "What am I to do with this? No fire to cook it. We won't eat it raw."

"Save it for the pups. We may not have a chance to set the traps for a few days."

Rache rewrapped the hare meat back inside the cleaned rabbit pelt and knotted it tightly with a strand of leather.

"They will slow us down on the leads, also," Torg stated.

"We will have to carry them as babes. I can see no other way."

Torg glance scanned the sky. "Well, whatever we have to do, let's get to doing before it's too hot to move."

While the pups finished their feast, Torg and Rache fumbled to devise slings or carriers for them but found each assembly lacking.

"It is already starting to get hot," Torg said finally. "We will just drag them along, and carry them in our arms when we must."

With pups in tow they set off in the direction of the sun's path down the valley.

Chapter Four

The Western Valley

 

Osker's tribe traveled throughout the day at an easy pace; unconsciously allowing for the chance that Torg and Rache might catch up with them. Madilyne continually strained her neck, searching for them with backward glances towards the eastern reaches of the valley. They stopped at dusk, which came late in the summer, but it still felt too early to stop.

"We are barely within two day's trek to Winter Wood," Osker complained. "Never shoulda let that boy hold us back."

"Old man," Grandmother said. "We have traveled a good distance and none of us had time to prepare for this. Don't be putting it all on Torg."

Madilyne looked over at Juni; he met her eyes, mirroring her concern.

"Would not have been right to leave the pups to die, Father," Eli said. "Give Torg credit for minding his responsibility to them."

Osker glared at his youngest son but Madilyne hoped the dimness of the day spared Eli the true force of it. She sighed loudly to break the tension.

"Off wit' ye now, sons. Gather wood wherever ye may find it. We need to get a fire going," Grandmother said as she raked the ground to lay their camp.

The children gathered rocks and stones to bank the fire, filling the pit with brush and tinder. The men returned with wood.

"Brom, Berr," Eli called. "Go set these snares in the tall grass. We may catch a hare for the morning."

The boys ran off with Tess and Bess trailing behind.

Tea and broth were set to brewing, blankets were unfolded and laid out, and the crude camp was set. The young girls returned in time to keep their grandmother occupied. There was no water to wash, so she nit-picked them clean, speaking soothing words that settled them down. Madilyne took Juni's hand and led him away from the camp.

"Do you think they are all right?" she asked.

"I hope so. They are near grown and able enough."

"These are our children. I cannot go forward and leave them behind. And I should go find them."

"There isn't time, Madi. I expect the pups hid better than we thought. They will catch up. Give them another day."

He wrapped his arms around her and they leaned against the other, leaving all the unsaid and unknown unspoken between them and unanswered.

Mikel joined them, "Lyn, Ranel, and I have decided to continue on through the night. We are not yet weary, nor would we sleep not knowing if the clan survived the wyrms."

"The wyrms?" Madilyne asked. Until this moment she had not given much thought to the cause of the trouble attacking Mikel's tribe, her birth clan. She was aware only of the urgent need for them to go, and the rush of dismantling the camp to get moving, and the absence of her children. She never stopped to wonder what lay ahead.

Juni held her closer. "Dear, the circumstances are grave. The wyrm is a beast that rains fire from the sky. We might take small comfort to know our children do not face that. However, Mikel and Allyssa do not have such peace."

Madilyne cringed and faced Mikel. "Brother, I am sorry. I had no idea this terror was upon you. Could you not kill it?"

"It has the mass of a mountain. And spears fend off its back."

Madilyne's eyes widened and she took a deep breath. "What can be done? What do you expect us to do?" She felt her Juni's hand squeeze her shoulder to steady her.

"We haven't had the time to plan it through. We meant to figure it out along the way," Juni answered her.

"But instead, ye have us to consider. And wolf pups. And your own Da's temper." She sighed. "You men should travel at the fastest pace. Leave Osker with us. For all his bluster he cannot keep up as he once did."

Taking her brother's arm and Juni's hand, Madilyne led them to the fire. The children were sleeping and the women settled the camp for the night. Lyn and Ranel marked their approach with their eyes. Mikel nodded to them. They stood and strapped on their slings and packs.

"What is this?" Osker asked.

Juni kissed Madilyne's hand and released it to pick up his rucksack and sling. She admired him lovingly. To her, he appeared so strong and brave but she was afraid for him, afraid for all of them. A tear slipped down her cheek. She wiped it away quickly, knowing it would harm him to see it.

"Father, we are going to travel through the night. You must stay behind and keep the women safe," Juni said with finality.

"How dare ye decide this without consulting me?" Osker roared.

"It was my decision," Madilyne said firmly. Osker attempted to stare her down and she returned the gaze without flinching.

Eli and Mark began to collect their things. Eli hugged Spae before he turned to his sons who had been feigning sleep for their grandmother's benefit.

"Father! Let me come!" Berr cried out and began rising from his blanket.

"Oh, no, you don't." Spae responded quickly before Brom had the chance to chime in.

Eli bent to clasp both of his sons affectionately by the shoulder and said, "Keep a keen eye to the skies and your spears ready!" He paused and took a deep swallow to compose the emotion the parting inspired. "Mind your mother."

Berr nodded solemnly and lay back on his pallet.

"Father, I shall miss you," Brom said.

"And I will be missing you lads but it will be no time at all till we are together again, safe and sound in the Winter Wood."

Mark kissed the foreheads of his sleeping twin girls. He smiled at Lize and she kissed him fiercely on the mouth.

"Dontcha be worrying for me, Lize," he told her. "Next we meet, this will all be over." He winked and embraced her.

Osker paced and grumbled but offered no further argument. Grandmother went to each of her sons and sons-in-law, to give them her blessings for the journey.

Torches were lit and, with a slight wave from everyone, the Dvargen men set out for the mountains.

The crackle of the fire became the only sound in the camp. Everyone who was awake watched the torches disappear into the dark distance. Osker's snores soon sawed through the night. Madilyne rose to get a log for the fire and the women came in closer to her as she stoked it.

"What is a wyrm?" Madilyne whispered.

"I have never heard of such," Lize replied.

"Nor I," agreed Spae with a solemn nod.

"Grandmother?" Madilyne asked.

The old woman turned her gaze from the fire. "Why do you ask, child?" she queried with concern. Her ancient face was careworn, softened by lines and time. Her eyes were blue but as fresh as the dawn sky. Madilyne always marveled how easily those eyes erased all her mother-in-law's years.

"Mikel said it is a wyrm that is attacking his tribe," Madilyne replied.

"Ah, so that is what it is. What else did he say about them?" Spae asked.

"Just that the beast has a mass of a mountain. And rains fire from the sky."

She felt her sister-in-law’s tension increase from her statement. Their eyes moved automatically to check the safety of their children.

"I have heard of the wyrms, aye." Grandmother whispered. "In another time, the wyrms destroyed the homeland. The tribes, those that survived, had to flee through passages under the earth. We found caverns and tunneled through. It took a very long time, was much hardship and sickness until we found these lands."

Madilyne stared down at her hands. "All that survived," she echoed. She shuddered inwardly, thinking of her mate and children.

Grandmother pulled her close and with a comforting voice said, "It was so very long ago."

"What do they look like?" Lize asked.

"I never saw one with my own eyes." Grandmother sighed. "There was much talk about them, but that talk died with that time."

"Rain fire from the sky!" Spae said, staring into the fire.

"Well, enough of fears and wonders that we have no answers for. We must rest if we are to catch up with the men by the morrow," Grandmother said firmly.

"What about Torg and Rache?" Madilyne asked hollowly.

"Lass, if ever a pair could survive the world, it would be those children of yours. They have their wits and each other. Do not trouble yourself for them tonight, at least not when sleep is needed," Grandmother replied, and shooed the women into their blankets with an authority that was her mastery.

Chapter Five

The Wyrm

 

They woke before dawn. Madilyne's first thoughts on waking had always belonged to her children but this morning they were both gone. She turned her thoughts to Juni who was also gone. She felt pulled apart in the opposite directions that her family had taken.

She nodded to the women as she passed them on her way to the grasses to forage for the breakfast pot. She heard Grandmother behind her, rattling the fixings for tea, while Lize and Spae had begun to break camp.

Berr and Brom were ahead of her, scouting the high grass. She guessed they were checking the snares. She found herself hoping for a hare because food would be a problem on this journey with no men to hunt for it.

The sun rose. The morning haze obscured the mountain ridge from view. Nothing at all felt familiar to her although she had passed this landscape at least twice every year. After heeding nature's call and gathering some greens, she returned to the camp. The girls were busy packing the litters. She noted the confusion in their faces.

"Waking in a strange place is hard on them, Spae."

Spae nodded to her. Osker just grunted.

"Harder still with their Da gone," Spae replied.

Berr and Brom returned empty-handed and set the snares on a litter. Madilyne watched them gulp down their breakfast, their glances drawn eastward. Waiting for signs of Torg and Rache, she assumed and noticed the fire was dying. But there was no need to refuel. They would be leaving soon.

"Auntie, what if Torg gets lost?" Brom asked her.

"He won't, lad. We have walked this way all his life for the Winter Wood."

Brom searched her eyes for reassurance and looked back one last time before he and his brother strapped on their litters and headed off west. Madilyne took up the last litter.

"We head to the mountains then, Madilyne?" Osker asked gruffly. He seemed put off that no one was looking to him for leadership. She walked over to him and kissed his cheek.

"Aye, Da. We need to catch up with the men if we can."

"Let us be off, then," he replied decidedly.

The group moved at a swifter pace than the day before. Madilyne found herself scanning the sky. She worried to the east for her children and to the west for her husband. But what she worried most about would come from above and so it was there that her attention was drawn. The day was not half past when they arrived at the path that led to the Winter Wood.

"Still no sign of my children…" she muttered with a sigh.

Osker suggested they break for a bit and all agreed. This was familiar territory and gave Madilyne a small comfort. She handed her water skin to Osker at his request and watched him depart into the welcoming wood for a nearby stream.

Grandmother followed him, bustling in his wake, "Wait for me, old man, I'm following," she called to him. "Wild strawberries in there if the elk have not looted them." Osker took no apparent notice of her but his pace slowed slightly.

Madilyne undid the litter from her belt and took a seat on the grass next to Lize.

"I worry that Torg and Rache will not follow from here."

Lize agreed with a nod. "I was thinking the same."

"Perhaps they will be safer in the wood?"

"What place can be safe from this, Madilyne? I've been thinking this through all morning. If things were not dire, Mikel would never have left his family behind to face it without him. They need our help, though I doubt we can do very much."

"Let's hope we have some aid to offer, Lize, or some way to escape."

Water skins returned filled by Osker and they lunched on strawberries. Grandmother distributed a nice find of bitterroot for the journey in the hot afternoon.

"Will keep the dust from collecting in your mouth," she said. "Just chew on the end, it has flavor enough."

With that, all the litters were taken up again and they set off westward. The journey took most of the day. The mountains appeared before them at nightfall, Madilyne gauged the climb of the trail, and along the path her eye followed she recognized the shape of Mikel careening downward towards them.

"To the cave! To the cave!" he yelled. "Follow me quickly!"

They were stunned and slow to react. Madilyne's eyes searched for the others on the trail he was fleeing from, and found the rest of their men racing down. Rocks slid from under their feet and the mountain appeared to shake beneath them.

Grandmother released the ties of Brom's litter quickly from him and attached it to her belt. Madilyne followed the path of Grandmother's eyes upward and saw the menacing shadow of a huge creature hovering over the panicked men. Her eyes gazed higher, almost unwillingly, and she witnessed the wyrm itself, spewing a torment of fire from its maw. Osker reached for a spear and rushed forward with a fierce cry.

Madilyne remained frozen in place, shocked by the terror unfolding before her.

Grandmother gathered all the children and said, "Run now with all your strength, through the tallest brush back to the wood! Hide there and wait for Torg and Rache!" She pushed Berr forcefully; he was staring towards the beast. "Be gone with ye, and don't look back! GO NOW!"

Tess and Bess fled, scared past their wits, with Brom and Berr following. Berr still hauled a litter and it never touched the ground. It bounced airborne past Madilyne's line of sight.

Madilyne felt Grandmother pushing her from behind, "To the cave! Now!" She herded the women with force and energy uncommon for her age towards Mikel, who was hollering things Madilyne could not hear. Juni reached her side and quickly relieved her of the litter as he picked her up into his arms and carried her to the cave.

She saw Osker racing up towards the wyrm. She stared in horror at the creature. It was the largest thing she had ever seen. Glossy black scales armored it from its head to the tip of its spaded tail. Leathery wings that beat furiously in the air suspended it aloft. Its eyes blazed with the reflection of the fire that flamed from its nostrils as it roared with deafening thunder.

With an almost imperceptible extension of its talons, the wyrm grappled Lyn, plucking him from the trail with one smooth pass as easily as she might pick a leaf from a tree. She heard his anguished scream and her fear for him overtook her, sending her spinning into unconsciousness.

Chapter Six

The Wood

 

Once the pups realized that their choices were limited to the leads or the inside of a rucksack, they settled into the pace of the journey on foot. By midday Torg and Rache wandered into their tribe's camp from the previous night.

"They didn't get very far," Rache remarked.

"No, not far at all," Torg agreed.

They sat to rest. Rache withdrew the hare meat and cut off the limbs for the pups, which they devoured greedily. While they crumbled the bones, she set out water for them in a bowl, holding it to keep it steady. Torg rubbed Neah by the scruff of her neck as she slurped at the water noisily. Rache watched him, smiling slightly.

"You really do love them, don't you?" she asked.

Torg affected a manly scoff but nodded. "Yes, I do. How are you holding up?"

"I'm fine. I'm thinking the others can't be too far ahead and we should be able to catch up by nightfall at this pace."

Torg looked to the west trying to see if he could catch a glimpse of the tribe, flashes of light like fire caught his eye. He squinted and shaded his brow with a palm.

"Do you see them?" Rache asked.

"No, not them."

Rache looked towards the direction he was scrutinizing and saw the flashes. A dark form rose from the mountain to the sky. Rache pointed to it. "What could that be?"

Torg had seen it also but didn't know what he was seeing.

"Could be anything. A hawk, a cloud…" he replied, peering through the midsummer haze.

"Nay, 'tis too large to be just anything. It is definitely something."

"Well, impossible to tell from this distance. Might be the smoke from a fire," he shrugged. "Are ye rested enough for us to continue?"

Rache picked up the water bowl that the pups had licked dry, stowed it in her rucksack, and grabbed the leads for Lumis and Len. She brushed the dirt from her seat and started off. Torg met her pace, Neah at his heels.


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