Northern Arrows

 

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Prologue

A twig snapped somewhere in the vicinity and the girl whirled around to face the direction of the sound with a speed that was admirable for her age. A sharpened stick was thrust out towards the noise and she crouched down into a defensive position. Her knees barely touched the grass under her. She held the position for a moment, listening for any signs of movement in the forest, just like her parents taught her to. When a small rodent ran out of a bush and darted over her bare feet, she panicked and fell over backwards.

"Eysh!" she hissed involuntarily as she fell on her back, then covered her mouth in surprise at such foul language. Hastily, she mumbled out an apology to the god her village prayed to. Their god was a bull, and angering him would not be a good idea.

    Their village, Keg'wen, was a minor location built on the edge of a vast forest used for hunting by the inhabitants. They used a language known in towns and villages over the continent called Mëlle and were a relatively peaceful people in terms of war with other peoples. Her father was a hunter, so he taught her various survival methods and allowed her to roam the forest on her own for shorter periods of time. She was only allowed in the outskirts, however, because deeper in, what appeared like a normal forest became something more—a home to creatures beyond their comprehension that thrived in the shadows.

    This did not phase the nine year old, however. She used to heed the warnings of her father and his fellow hunters of the Namigare Forest, the Mëlle name the villagers had given to the inner part of the forest, meaning 'trees of shadow'. Yet, many months before she attempted to follow a fox trail, not realizing that which direction it was leading, and eventually reached a place where the grass faded into a blueish hue and the trees on that grass had light purple bark. When she realized where she must have been, she sprinted home, terrified that something was following her. For a few visits, she refused to go far from Keg'wen, but she realized she was being foolishly fearful and decided to return to the edge of the Namigare and quell her fear.

    She sat down cross-legged before the Namigare when she reached it and took a deep breath. Suddenly, she became aware of animals such as foxes and rabbits watching her with curious eyes from behind, wondering why she was there. Attempting to ignore it proved futile, so she focused on the discolored trees and grass just a foot away from her. She could've sworn she saw the lurking figure of a wolf with eyes that shone in between the trees. Its eyes seemingly met hers, and after a silent standoff, the wolf snarled and ran deeper into the Namigare.

    Now, she was not afraid of the inner forest. She did not go there often, but whenever she did, the wolf would appear after some time. Each time it came closer and closer to the edge, and its snarls drove the animals farther from her. The girl no longer feared the wolf. In fact, she was intrigued by it. Its fur was dark and its fangs were threatening, but its eyes were deeper than those of the foxes that dared approach her. It felt intelligent, and she wanted to meet it.

    The girl pulled herself to her feet, and a small fairy light near her legs told her that she was near the edge of the Namigare. She looked around to find the border and approached it with poorly concealed excitement. She got down on her knees a hair's breadth away from the discoloration and scoured the shadows for any signs of the wolf, placing her makeshift weapon next to her. Minutes passed, and nothing appeared. Her disappointment was obvious, and a lone red fox she recognized by its black socks nudged her arm. She was about to get up and go home.

Suddenly there was a yelp from behind, startling both her and the fox, and a large, dark form landed on its feet across from her and slid to a stop, leaving dirt marks in the blue grass. It heaved, and the fox fled away. The form took shape in the girl's mind and she recognized the glowing eyes of the wolf. Joy coursed through her until the wolf stumbled and snarled, whipping its head around and attempting to reach and arrow embedded in its back. Crimson trailed down its side the more it struggled.

    "Volv?" the girl said questioningly. She reached out to the creature, hesitant. This was a being from the Namigare. What was to say that it wouldn't attack her?

    Instead, the wolf stopped its attempts and stared at her. It panted and tilted its head at her, as if it was deciding whether or not to approach her. The wolf snorted and took slow steps towards her, lowering its head. As she saw it up closer, she realized that it was larger than a normal wolf and its tail was slightly shorter. Its ears were also larger and more pointed. She reached out farther, as if to touch its forehead, and the wolf closed its eyes and leaned into her hand.

    It was like an electric shock. Suddenly, she felt like she understood the wolf, thoughts and all. There was too much information for her to process, so thankfully, after a second it cut off and the wolf stared at her with curious eyes. She scratched behind its ears and admired the strange blue hue its coat bore. Without thinking, the girl stood and walked into the Namigare, her hand tracing down the wolf's spine until it reached the arrow. The wolf growled a warning, but the girl paid no mind. She was more focused on the three black bands on the shaft of the arrow, telltale signs that the arrow was from a Keg’weni hunter. She was almost taken by an uncontrollable rage before returning to the important matter at hand. Carefully, she grabbed the arrow from as far down the shaft as she could and slowly began to pull it out. The wolf yelped when the arrow shifted under its skin. The girl knew she was tearing the wound more than it would be if she left the arrow, but it would begin to irritate the wolf if her hunch was right. There was a green band over the three black bands, indicating a poisoned arrow.

    When the arrow finally came out, the wolf collapsed. The girl fell to her knees beside it and stroked its fur. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. The wolf growled until it heard her voice. Then its growl became more of a purr and it closed its eyes. “You might not survive.”

    The wolf opened one eye and looked at her questioningly, its ears flicking upwards. She held the arrow in her hand and gripped it tightly in anger. The wolf saw her and shook its head, as if to say that one measly arrow wouldn’t kill it. She wished for a second that it was true.

    “It’s poison,” she mumbled, and the wolf’s eyes widened. “Nothing’s ever survived it.”

    The wolf snorted and shook the girl away. It stood, and at its full height its head was at the same level as hers. It licked her nose and her cheek. To her surprise, she heard a rough, feminine voice in her head when the wolf’s eyes met hers.

    You have my sincerest thanks, child.

    In a daze she said, “But you’ll die.” The wolf snorted again and licked her cheek again before running away. The girl watched the wolf disappear, and then realized she was surrounded by fairy lights. The grass she was sitting on was blue. The Namigare. She got up and walked home, the arrow in her hand and anger in her heart.

 

    The girl walked into Keg’wen just after sundown and walked between the houses until she reached the campfire in the middle of the village. Around it sat many of the Keg’weni hunters and some of their wives, including her parents. When she got close enough to the group, one of the younger hunters and a good friend of hers called out to her and waved her over.

    “Kyera! Come!” he shouted, and the rest of the hunters turned and greeted her. She sat down on a log next to the hunter who had called her over, but did not smile at the rest of the hunters as they did her. She was too focused on the memory of the wolf in the forest and the arrow she held in her hand. The hunters continued their discussion while she focused on the way the flames danced on the logs with the help of the slight breeze. The green band on the arrow and the feel of the wolf’s tongue on her face made her feel like the flames.

    “Kyera, were you in the forest today?” one of the older hunters asked her, seeing as they had changed subjects. Kyera looked up at him with her brown eyes and nodded slowly, looking back down at the arrow. She twirled it in her hands, feeling the splinters.

    “What did you find?” asked another hunter. “Is that one of ours?”

    Kyera looked up at the hunter who last spoke to her. It was then that they realized her freckled face was dirty, her braid was close to ruined and her hands had blood stains on them. “It is,” she said. “One of ours.”

    “Toder,” her mother said worriedly from across the fire. “Toder, what happened to you out there?”

    The arrow almost snapped under the pressure of her grip. “Did anyone encounter anything… strange, today?”

    “Why do you ask, Kyera?” her father asked, his grey eyes narrowed in concern and one arm around the waist of her mother, attempting to comfort her. “What did you find?”

    “I found a wolf. And it was nice. It didn’t hurt me. It sat by me like the foxes and the rabbits do,” she explained, and all the hunters listened. She decided it was in her own best interest not to mention that it had licked her face or spoken to her, or that it was intelligent. “And now it’s going to die, because I pulled a poison arrow out of its back.”

    There was silence by the fire. Everyone sat and looked at each other in disbelief and confusion. There were many questions on each of their minds, but the most important one was who shot the wolf and why was a poison arrow used for something that should’ve been killed by a true shot by a normal arrow? A certain young hunter with long hair and blue eyes cleared his throat and looked up in shame.

    “I am truly sorry, Kyera, but I am afraid I was the cause,” he said, his eyes too scared to meet the nine year old’s. “I was taking a walk in the forest when I heard a large commotion and found a large wolf hunting. It saw me and came towards me, so I shot it a few times and it ran.”

    “Understandable, Kyon,” the second hunter to address Kyera said. “But why on earth would you have used a poisoned arrow? Those are only for dangerous situations and you know that.”

    “It was a dangerous situation!” Kyon protested, throwing his hands up. He was met with looks of disbelief. “That was no mere wolf I shot. It was larger than the other wolves, and it had a single color on its coat. The oddest shade of blue I’ve ever seen on an animal. Shades of blue of that kind are only found in the Namigare, and I’m sure that’s where the thing came from. Young Kyera, I am sorry you are saddened by this, but if I’m right about that thing’s origins, then good riddance!”

    Kyera’s father looked at Kyon, then at his daughter. His gaze hardened and he narrowed his eyes at her. “Kyera, is the creature Kyon described the same and the one that you encountered?”

    She couldn’t lie. She wanted to, but lying would only make the situation worse, and an elaborate story would be even less believable than Kyon’s report of a creature from the Namigare coming out into their neck of the woods. “Yes, father,” she said. “It was.”

    Her father’s fists clenched. He was trying to control his rage, but his own daughter had laid with a monster from the shadows. “And you sat with this creature? As if it were a mere fox?”

    “I did, father.”

    “Did you not see anything wrong?”

    “It wasn’t hostile. I saw no reason to be afraid.”

    “Kyera, you must promise us, right here in front of the others, that you will not go near the Namigare or any creatures that look like they are from it again, especially not if you are alone,” her mother cut in hastily, before her father would say something too harsh for the child. The hunters and their wives all agreed that that was a wise idea.

    “Ma, madal!” Kyera whined.

    “No buts, toder. We are not forbidding you to go into the forest. We are saying you must stray from the Namigare and any of its creatures. And if you see one in our part of the forest once more, then you must let one of the hunters know immediately.”

    Kyera frowned, but reluctantly, she agreed. The conversation by the fire came back to life soon enough, and the situation was forgotten by all but her.

+ + +

    Kyera swung at a young fox with her sharpened stick, trying to keep it off of her pack. She was in the forest again, only a couple of days after the incident with the wolf, and had raw meat in her pack. The goal was to use it to bait a smaller creature such as young Zenig, a boar-like creature that was often used by apprentice hunters as a target for practice hunts.

    "Go away! Get your own meat!" she snapped. The fox yelped when she hit it with the length of her stick and it dashed away.

    The hunt was unsuccessful for the most part, but she trudged on, unfazed by her failure. She was convinced something had to show up sooner or later. There was plenty of animals in the forest. It was nearly impossible for there to be no animals to bait. However, that seemed to be the case. It boggled her. The animals only disappeared if they were hiding, yet from her experience and that of the Keg'weni, they only hid from creatures of the Namigare.

    She was considering every option when she stumbled upon a strange form in a clearing. It confused her at first, for it looked like a rabbit with a coat of black, but its form warped and shuddered in her eyes. When it finally stabilized, she saw what resembled a wolf pup. A fairy light darted around it, and the wolf whirled around, biting and snapping at it. It became obvious to Kyera that this was another Namigare wolf, as the fairy lights normally did not approach her or the other animals. She wanted to run, but this was but a pup. What harm could it do? She swore to tell anyone about a creature in their part of the forest, but a guilt washed over her at the mere thought of leading this pup to its death.

    Resolute, she stepped into the clearing. The fairy light fled, alerting the pup, who snarled and backed away from Kyera. Something about the way the wolf looked at her with its light blue eyes attracted her to it. For every step she took towards it, the pup took two steps back and snarled. It was only when Kyera got too close that the pup stopped retreating. Instead, it sniffed the air and looked Kyera up and down in suspicion. It growled and didn't back away from her, but its growls turned into something like snarls if she came too close. Kyera realized it must have been threatened by the stick and threw it to the side. The pup watched with wide eyes as she disarmed herself and sat down cross-legged.

    "Volv?" she asked, opening her pack and pulling a strip of meat from it. She held the meat out in front of her and towards the pup, who refused to come closer. Kyera gently tossed the meat towards the pup, hoping that it would take it. Reluctantly, it did.

    The pup watched Kyera with curiosity instead of fear after the first strip of meat. It sniffed the ground around her and nipped at her cloak, but it did not approach the part of her that it thought could attack it. This, Kyera understood. Better to examine what's harmless than what could unexpectedly lash out. She pulled out another strip and placed it in front of her. The pup ran to the strip immediately and ate as if it hadn't eaten in days, which led Kyera to wonder if it really was starved.

    Kyera took out another strip of meat, and this time the pup ate straight from her hand. The pup's fear of her seemed to be dissipating quickly, and soon enough, it was sniffing at her pack. She gently pushed it away and opened her pack to pull out another, but the wolf dashed in with a speed she couldn't match and took its own share. It ate them as quickly as it could and Kyera could've sworn it laughed at her.

    She reached out her hand to touch the pup and it reacted the way the wolf did, closing its eyes and leaning into her hand. This time she didn't feel a rush of thoughts and emotions. Instead, she felt a small flicker. That flicker felt like gratitude, and it didn't disappear like the other wolf's mind did. It stayed for as long as she petted the pup, who leaned farther into her touch, obviously liking the affection it was being shown.

Suddenly the pup shook her away and ran off into the forest. Kyera frowned. She got up and looked around, aware that some kind of danger might've scared the pup away, but upon finding nothing wrong, she fell to her knees and sighed in defeat. Just as she was thinking the pup trusted her, it ran off.

The girl reluctantly pulled herself to her feet and turned around, but as she took the first step, the pup ran through the brush and stumbled in front of her. She heard its muffled yelp and turned to see that it was holding her stick in its mouth. Kyera knelt down beside the pup and took her weapon from its mouth, scratching the pup behind its ears as gratitude. It almost smiled at her, but when she got up and turned away, it yelped in despair. She turned around and left half of the remaining meat in her pack next to a bush for the wolf to eat.

“Goodbye, little one,” she said gently, with a smile, but this pup was not soothed by her voice, unlike all the others. It growled when she stepped away, and as a last resort, bit her ankle.

“Egh!” she shouted, and slumped against a tree next to her. She glared at the pup, but it only responded by licking the bite. It seemed to ease the pain enough for her to walk away, yet she stayed to watch the pup bark at her and run off. “What a strange pup…”

When Kyera walked back into Keg’wen, she immediately became aware of the individual blades of grass on her feet and the way the leaves rustled. It was as if her senses had been heightened. She felt every erratic change in the breeze and when she sat by the fire, she felt the heat from all over her body. When a couple of the hunters’ dogs passed by, she could’ve sworn she felt every single hair on their body brush against her legs.

"Are you alright, Kyera?" Miik, her friend and apprentice hunter, asked her when the focus at the fire was away from them.

"I feel strange, but it is probably nothing," she replied softly, leaning to his ear.

"Are you ill?" Miik asked, his face worried. He placed his hand on hers, hoping to comfort her.

"Quite the contrary. I feel more healthy than I've ever been," she explained in a hushed whisper. Miik watched her confusedly and pulled his hand away. Kyera hardly noticed the loss of contact because she was so busy listening to the birds.

Kyera's newly improved senses proved useful in the next few days. She went on hunting trips with her father and could find which bush the rustling came from. She helped find missing livestock with ease and could hear when the neighbour's dog started pacing and whimpering nervously outside the house. When the traders approached as a part of their annual trip three days after her encounter with the wolf pup, Kyera was the first to hear the wheels and hooves. It became obvious that Kyera was above the other children in the village in terms of making the most of her senses.

Toder, Ignes has blessed you with a miraculous gift,” her father said to her one day, while they were sitting on a log in front of their house and he was sharpening a new stick for her. “I believe you have large potential to be a hunter. So when the traders settle, I will buy a bow for you, and soon enough we will start teaching you. Would you like that?”

“Of course, father!” she exclaimed, a large smile on her face. She leaned over suddenly and hugged him tightly. “Thank you, thank you so much! I’ll do my best!”

They laughed for a while and talked about hunting, until Kyon and two apprentice hunters called Zecaia and Wes called her father. He stood and furrowed his brows, hugged his daughter goodbye, and made his way to the three. They talked for a long time, and thought Kyera couldn’t make out most of it, she heard Zecaia say something about the traders and someone being missing. Her father went into the house, most likely to talk to her mother. Kyera stood up and brushed off her dress before following him inside. The fact that she could now feel every seam and curve in the fabric sent a shiver down her spine.

“Mai, I need to go,” echoed her father’s voice from the kitchen area. “You know how important it is for us to get goods from the traders and we can’t do that if one of theirs is lost in the forest.”

“I don’t see why you have to go,” her mother protested. Running water and the clink of dishes was heard while she spoke. “Ichus, what if something happens to you? What about Kyera? How long will this mission even take?”

Her father sighed. “Perhaps a day, two at the most. It shouldn’t be too hard to find them with the dogs.”

Then there was silence for a while. Kyera silently walked over the splintered and worn wood floor to her parents and saw her mother cleaning the dishes. Her father stood behind her with his arms crossed and waited for a response. “Very well,” her mother finally said, quietly, drying off her hands and turning around. “Go if you must, but please be careful.”

Ichus took two steps towards his wife and lightly kissed the corner of her mouth. “I promise.”

Neither of them bothered to explain the situation to Kyera as they both knew that she had heard everything. Her father grabbed his bow and quiver from the wall and left the house to join the hunters at the stables. She walked out behind him and watched with curiosity as three hunters strung their bows next to their horses when they reached the stables. One of the traders was next to them and Kyera could tell he was extremely distraught. The three hunters nodded in acknowledgement of Ichus’s arrival. Her father placed his quiver on the ground and strung his bow as well, barely noticing when Kyera sat down on the grass next to him, watching him string his own bow. When the four hunters finally got on their horses, the trader cried out in a southern lilt, “Thank you, Keg’weni! We will be in your debt!”

While her father was gone, Kyera went back into the forest. The grass in the village was scarce, but in the forest it was free to grow until its inhabitants ate it. Each blade tickled her feet as she walked. Eventually, she grew tired and sat down by a stream she had seen countless times before and reveled in the sound of rushing water. Reaching back, she took her time in pulling her braid apart and letting her long hair flow freely. The sound of the leaves rustling was about as calming as the bedtime songs her mother sang her before bed. Birds all around were chirping happily, and she could hear the rustle of grass as animals walked around her.

Without warning, the chirping stopped and a number of animals dashed away. Kyera could feel an odd presence near her, a presence that pushed against her mind and felt inhuman. It caused the healing bite on her ankle to itch, and she shifted uncomfortably. It occurred to her that she could now feel other living creatures around her. She wondered what would happen if she tried to reach out to it with her mind, but thought against it. What if it was stronger than she was?

You came back, a male, childlike voice echoed in her mind. Her eyes darted around, searching for some sign of the origins of the voice. In front of her stood the black pup from before. It sat down in front of her and tilted its head in confusion. This wolf’s voice was surprising, despite the fact that it should’ve been obvious. A young wolf pup would have a child’s voice.

“I did,” she found herself replying. The wolf’s eyes glowed softly. It became obvious that this was the reason the animals fled the stream.

Many days passed, echoed its voice again. I became worried.

His—Kyera assumed that since the wolf’s voice was male, it was male—words woke a feeling in her that she couldn’t comprehend. “Why did you bite me?” she snapped, barely realizing what was happening or what she was saying. The wolf whimpered and looked down in what seemed to be shame.

So I could find you again.

The pup's presence was impossible to ignore. It didn't brush against her mind as the rabbits and foxes did, rather, it found her and nudged against her, as if it was desperate to keep her attention. Another thing she noticed was that it did not feel as weak as it did before. When they met, the pup was a flicker. Now, it was closer to what the older wolf had felt like. His consciousness was an intricately woven system of thoughts and memories.

"What happened?" Kyera asked the pup quietly, leaning forward and reaching out to it. The pup yawned and took a few steps towards her. "It's been but a week. You were like a newborn. Now you know things. Could you speak before?"

I could not. I also did not know that to kill I must target the neck, but I learned many things from you, the pup explained, yet it only confused Kyera more.

"You learned from me?" she repeated questioningly. The pup nudged her hand playfully with its snout.

Aye, he said. There was very little detectable emotion to his words, but the Keg'weni girl couldn't help but sense a bit of amusement. When you touch me, the connection goes both ways. You see my mind, and I see yours.

The knowledge that this pup would see into her mind every time she touched it unnerved her. It made her terrified of it. That gave it an unimaginable power over her, regardless of how young it was. "Did you learn... everything?"

The pup snorted. I am less than two weeks old. I cannot understand information as fast as my mother could. She would touch a complicated creature and understand everything she felt. It was scary, but admirable. I only managed to catch a few things: how to speak, many words and their meanings, how to kill an animal, and a single memory of what your village looks like.

Kyera sighed in relief and leaned back against the tree. The pup sniffed at her feet, and his wet nose made her recoil in surprise. He ignored her reaction and climbed over her crossed legs and into her lap. His ears twitched, as if he was beckoning for her to pet him. She smiled and obliged without hesitation, comforted by the fact that he wouldn't be able to read her mind. She watched the pup in wonder as he closed his eyes and leaned on her.

A thought of a phrase her father had recently taught her and she began to wonder more about this pup from the Namigare. "Do you not have innate knowledge?" she asked, scratching him behind his ears. He wagged his short tail in joy, but stopped when he processed her question. He opened his eyes and lifted his head to look at her.

What does 'innate' mean? he questioned, cocking his head to the side. Kyera thought that he did look quite like a normal puppy, curled up in her lap and his tail wagging.

Kyera thought for a moment. "Innate," she mumbled, looking absent-mindedly at the stream. "It means something you're born with. Like, everyone is born with instincts. That's innate."

I understand. I do have memories of my ancestors. They are passed down from parent to child, that much I know. My mother gave them to me the same way I learned from you, and though I didn't understand at the time, she told me that as I got older I would be able to access those memories. Until then they are locked away in a corner of my mind, waiting for the day I can use them.

The pup was intriguing to Kyera. He had learned all he knew from her, but he lacked real world experience that would be vital to his survival. She had already forgiven him for the seemingly uncalled for bite mark on her ankle, because it gave her senses she could have only dreamed of having as a huntress. Yes, the pup was a creature of the Namigare, and if his jet black coat of fur didn't give it away, the flight of the animals of the forest wherever he went made it clear enough. Yet Kyera had taken a liking to him in their short time together, and he reminded her of the older wolf. That wolf was a light shade of blue, however, so she wouldn't consider the chance of that wolf being the pup's mother.

Kyera and the pup sat together by the stream and alternated between silent petting and random conversation. He had a very interesting view on life, and it was obvious that he was a predator at heart. He asked her about prey, in hopes that she could aid him in his hunts with her knowledge. She told him that rabbits were small but fast, and deer were rarely seen in their neck of the woods. Eventually the sun began to set and the sky turned an orange hue. Kyera realized with a heavy heart that it was time to go back home, lest she worried her mother.

The pup stepped around her feet frantically, his tail wagging slowly. Wait! Will you come back again? When can I see you again?

"I'll be back," she promised, kneeling down and stroking his face. "And next time I'll bring meat and a weapon to hunt with."

Really? the pup asked in disbelief.

"I promise," she said. He then sat and watched her run back towards the village with his tail wagging slowly.

 

The next day Kyera showed up in the forest, holding the stick her father had sharpened for her before he left and with meat in her pack, just as she had promised the pup. The only problem was finding him again, but she was pleasantly surprised to find that after a few minutes walking around and looking for him, he ran out of the bushes and at her, circling her happily.

I didn't think you meant the very next day! he exclaimed joyously. His little tail wagged faster than the girl's eyes could process. And you really did bring meat and a weapon!

"Of course," she stated proudly, putting her hands on her hips. “And today I’m going to help you hunt.”

We’re going to hunt? the pup asked, cocking his head to the side. Together?

"Yes, together," Kyera repeated, kneeling down to his level and scratching behind his ears. She was immediately hit by short memories of the forest. The forest in his memories was deserted and had an air of eeriness. The only other life the pup encountered, as she saw from his memories, were those in the Namigare. But how? the pup asked quietly, and Kyera realized she would have to make a decision that scared her. If the creatures of the forest feared him because of his origins, then they had no other choice than to hunt in the Namigare.

Sweat rolled down her neck when they reached the border between the forest and the Namigare. She had never been past the border, unless she counted the time she tore the arrow out the other wolf’s back. It wasn’t the Namigare itself that scared her, in all honesty. It was the fact that she had no idea what kind of creatures lived in there, what they were capable of. Kyera knew that on rare occasions, her father and the hunters would go into the Namigare, but they never spoke of what they found there or what they were doing there.

The pup, knowing its origins, wasted no time in crossing over. When he realized that Kyera wasn’t behind him, he turned around. What’s wrong? Are you scared?

“I’m… apprehensive,” she replied, tightening her grip on her stick.

Apprehensive. The pup cocked his head to the side. What does that mean?

“It means I have a feeling that something bad is going to happen,” the girl said, her eyes straight ahead, looking for any sign of glowing eyes in the Namigare. “And I’m worried.”

I understand. There is no need to worry. These creatures do not run from me and cower in fear like those of your forest. However, we have a…

“A food chain?” Kyera asked.

No. It’s difficult to explain, but you will see soon enough. They will fight back but they will not attempt to kill us.

Kyera took a deep breath. It was her idea, and she was going to go through with it. She stepped over the border to the pup, noticing that the blue-ish grass in the Namigare felt softer on her feet than that of the outer forest. The pup led her deeper into the forest, sniffing the air for any traces of prey. For some reason, it pleased her to see that in the discolored landscape of the Namigare, the almost jet black fur of the pup looked relatively normal.

They came across a feline creature, with a garnet pelt and yellow eyes. It was a little larger than the pup was, but it was obvious that it was a cub separated from its mother. The cub hissed at the wolf pup and the two began to circle, eyes narrowed at each other and stances defensive. The cub hissed while the wolf curiously stared it down, flicking his ears. Kyera wondered if she should intervene, but something about the conflict seemed wrong to her. She couldn’t comprehend two creatures that would seemingly be on the same level of the food chain hunting each other. It gave her a headache she could not explain.

Without any kind of hint or warning, the wolf pounced on the cub, bringing it to the ground and growling. The cub hissed and struggled, trying to throw him off and flailing its limbs. The wolf seemed to ignore the cub’s struggle and tried to close his jaws around its neck. The cub shook its body to make him miss his target and threw its own fangs around, but what Kyera noticed was that the pup was right about what he said to her. The cub tried to bite him frantically, but always aimed for somewhere on the leg. It was as if the cub had no intention of trying to kill him, it just wanted to escape. There was an unobstructed path to the wolf’s throat, yet the cub only tried to get him off of it.

The wolf finally overpowered the cub and locked his jaws around the feline’s neck. The cub mewled with its last breaths before the pup tightened his grip and snapped its neck. Do you see what I told you? the pup said to Kyera a few moments after killing the cub, meeting her eyes. That cub was a month old. She could have overpowered me easily, but she was both scared and did not dare make a fatal move. She fought back, but wouldn’t kill me.

“I saw,” Kyera said, taking deep breaths to calm the pounding of her heart. That kill wasn’t right. Not to her at least, and not to her stomach. The way the pup snapped the cub’s neck felt too human to her. “Let us hunt something I am more used to. Like a boar or rabbit.”

+ + +

That night at the fire, there was nobody except for Kyon, Wes, and an older hunter whose hair was grey and whose name was Ymir. Kyera sat down on the fourth and empty log by the fire and entertained a thought that had been on her mind ever since her ‘hunt’ with the wolf pup in the forest.

Many of the Keg’weni hunters had dogs they had raised from pups to help them in the forest. The dogs retrieved far away bodies and helped track deer trails. Very rarely did a hunter have a dog of a breed close to the wolf. These dogs were trained to attack the prey. The pup was a creature of the Namigare, but he had taken a liking to her as she had taken a liking to him. He seemed to have hunting in his blood, and it was no problem for him to overpower something larger than him, as shown earlier that day in the Namigare. What if she could ‘tame’ him--assuming he wasn’t relatively tame already--and have him as her hunting companion?

The problem arose that he was a creature from the one part of the forest that the Keg’weni had very strong feelings about and if he was found in the forest, one might consider him dangerous enough to use a poison arrow on him. The thought of the pup meeting the same fate as the other wolf filled her with rage, but she got a hold of her emotions quickly. Turning to Ymir, she broke the silence and asked, “Is there a way to build up an immunity to the poison?”

“Come again, child?” Ymir asked Kyera, startled by her question. Kyon and Wes turned to watch the two with interest. “Build immunity to the poison?”

“Yes,” Kyera nodded nervously, feeling that asking the question was giving her away completely. “For example, for the dogs.”

Ymir was silent for a moment. Then he chuckled and replied, “Of course. We give them small doses of the poison every day or two, and increase the dosage slowly until they aren’t affected by the amount we put on our arrows and darts. That way, if one gets shot on accident and the shot itself isn’t fatal, they won’t die.”

That night, Kyera found many bottles of the Keg’weni hunters’ poison for their arrows in her father’s cupboard and slipped one inside of her pack for the next time she went into the forest. The next morning, her father and the hunters came back with the missing trader. It so happened that the weapons smith was the one missing, and he declared himself in Ichus’s debt. The trader offered them anything they wanted from his goods. With Kyera’s help, Ichus chose two of the best recurve bows that the trader had--one for teaching her now, and the other for when she would be older and too big for the small bow. That afternoon, Ichus taught his eager daughter how to string and unstring her bow and told her to wake up early the next day for practice.

Over the two weeks, Kyera woke up early and practiced archery with her father in the mornings until the afternoon. Then she rested and went for a ‘walk in the forest’, during which she was actually feeding the wolf pup strips of dried meat from her hand and giving him small doses of the arrow poison. He opposed the idea of the poison at first, but he agreed when Kyera explained to him that it was to save his life in the unfortunate event that he was discovered, albeit reluctantly. Then in the evenings she sat at the fire with her father and the other hunters, listening to their stories and making sure that none of them had discovered signs of the wolf pup’s existence.

One day the pup came to her while she was sitting by the creek where he had first spoken to her and sat by her without a word. She scratched behind his ears, still slightly startled by the memories that he would project to her whenever she touched him for the first time. This time, it was of Keg’weni hunters. She recognized one of the hunters as Zecaia, but the other was one whose face she couldn’t see. They were talking about names of plants they saw.

What is a name? the pup asked. Kyera sighed and thought about her answer. She realized that this was probably how her parents felt when she didn’t know something that they considered basic knowledge.

“A name is something that you’re known as,” Kyera finally said, after minutes of thought. “But there are different kinds of names. There are names that are for a group of things, and then there are specific names for specific things.”

Can you give me an example?

“Well, for example, my kind are called people. That is a name for a group of things. But my father’s name is Ichus Nicholosson. That is a specific name, for him,” she explained as well as she could, hoping that the pup would understand.

I know what names are now, he murmured in her head. I just did not match the meaning with the word. Do your names have meanings? What is yours?

“Yes, they do sometimes, but not always. My name is Kyera, and my mother told me that it means ‘eternity’,” the girl said quietly, adjusting her braid.

Kyera, the pup whispered. That is a beautiful name. I do not have a name. Could you… give me one of your people’s names?

“Taka,” Kyera said without hesitation. She had been thinking of names that would fit the wolf for the past three weeks, ever since she started building up his poison immunity. Since she had gone so far as to protect him from possible death, it made sense to name him. Taka was the one name that stuck out to her as fitting. “It means ‘hunter’, and I think it fits you because you have the hunt in your blood.”

The pup lifted his head and looked up at her with his blue eyes. Over the course of the month and the few days since they had met, he had grown slightly larger and his fur had become slightly lighter. His eyes did not change color and his fur seemed to still be black, though in the light it was visible that it was closer to a very dark blue.

Hunter. Taka. The pup looked away from her. I like it. Thank you. From now on, I shall be named Taka.

Two months later, Kyera managed to strike the center of a target with her first arrow on the day of her birthday. Ichus rejoiced, and even though she didn’t manage to do it again until a year and a half later, it was nonetheless an impressive feat for a ten year old. Her father insisted that they celebrate, but the girl humbly turned down the offer. What she really wanted to do was go for a walk in the forest, she said. Her father was confused and slightly disappointed that she didn’t want to celebrate an achievement and her own birthday, but he let her go into the forest. She took her bow with her and ran barefoot, despite the warnings of the adults that the weather was growing colder.

“Taka!” she shouted out to the trees when she was far enough from the village for them to have their privacy. She held her bow tightly in one hand, and three arrows in the other. She took in a deep breath and felt the grass on her toes as she ran between the trees, calling her wolf’s name as she did so.

Her wolf. Taka was hers. The thought put an extra skip in her step.

Kyera! What makes you so joyful? came his childlike voice as the young wolf ran behind her.

“I hit the middle of the target in one hit!” she exclaimed, almost tripping as she stopped running. “It’s also my birthday!”

Happy birthday, Kyera.

“Thank you, Taka,” she said with a smile and kneeled down to pet the wolf and scratch him behind his ears, something she could tell he enjoyed by the way he pushed his head into her hand whenever she did it. “What did you discover today?”

The memories no longer startled Kyera. In fact, she welcomed them and learned how to give her own to him. She gave him the memory of the arrow hitting the target, which he gladly accepted. He gave her more memories of people speaking, however these were traders. He also showed her that the fox with black socks dared to approach him, and he was not hostile towards it. This made Kyera glad, both because the animals were warming up to him and he was trying to help the process instead of inhibit it.

Kyera, tell me… What is religion? Taka asked as Kyera shot an arrow at a tree, showing Taka her progress with her archery.

“Religion?” she asked, pulling back the drawstring. She shot another arrow at a second tree, farther away. She faced Taka in time to see his head nod in approval. “Why?”

The traders said that Keg’weni have a very strange religion. What does that mean, Kyera? he repeated his question, standing up and following Kyera as she went to each tree to retrieve her arrows.

“Religion is something that people believe,” Kyera said briefly, needing time to think that she knew Taka would be too impatient to give her.

About what?

“About gods, how the world came to be, and why we are here,” she continued, gently pulling the first arrow from the bark.

What is your religion, Kyera?

“We do not have just a religion so much as we have an entire culture. It’s called Mëlle, like our language and our heritage. We believe that the earth is a round orb that is gently held by the curved horns of Ignes, the Bull of the Earth. His two companions, the Moth and Butterfly of the Earth, shape the orb. The Moth shaped the land, and the Butterfly created the life to inhabit the land,” Kyera explained, making her way to the second tree and finding that the arrow was embedded deep into the wood. “It looks like we’re not getting this one back.”

What do you do with this Ignes? What purpose does he serve, besides holding the Earth?

“If we are bad, then Ignes punishes us by rolling the Earth around in his horns. Wherever the points enter the ground, a volcano erupts, and when he rolls it shakes the ground.”

So you believe everything is because of a higher being that you can appease, rather than being part of the intricate system that is nature? Taka asked incredulously, flicking his ears.

Kyera sat down by the tree with her second arrow embedded in its trunk. “Yes, that’s one way to put it,” she admitted sheepishly.

Ridiculous. There are no higher beings. The strong survive, the weak are killed. Sometimes unfavorable things may happen, but they are all tests of strength. The law of the world is survival of the fittest, he snorted, licking his chops.

The girl laughed and pulled the pup to her lap. Taka whimpered in surprise, but calmed down when she stroked his back tenderly. “You really are a creature of the hunt, my wolf,” she chuckled, to which Taka’s only response was to lick her face.

 

Kyera proved herself to be an able archer over the course of the next year. Her aim got more accurate at a very steady rate, and her father was not the only one to praise her improvement. Many of the elder hunters remarked that she was learning quickly for someone as young as she was, and even Miik, who was one of her closest friends—he even helped her out with her studies in the village school, which was from midway through fall until the end of spring—felt jealousy bubbling up inside him when he thought of her archery. Every day she practiced with or without the hunters, ate with her family, then spent anywhere between half an hour to four in the forest with Taka before coming back home to the fire. The hunters invited her on hunting trips with the apprentices more often than before, now that she could shoot a bow with enough accuracy to defend herself.

She remained as stubborn as before, only wearing her boots when it got so cold that her toes began to feel like they were frostbitten. She preferred to wear her hair in the messy braids that her mother tied for her the mornings while she was hunting, and only took it out when she was done for the day or at school. Taka had grown larger, as was to be expected, and his fur seemed to shed its jet black color for a dark shade of indigo. He could hunt on his own, and had gained enough of the animals' trust to be able to wander the forest without turning it into a ghost town.

Their bond only got stronger. Kyera and Taka learned to recognize what the other's presence felt like, so they would know immediately if the other came into their range. Taka could speak to Kyera without being in her direct vicinity, and Kyera could speak to Taka through her thoughts. (This proved extremely useful for hunting, as they didn't have to give themselves away to communicate.) She would transfer what she learned at school to him through their connection, so Taka extended his vocabulary, learned Mëlle, and could—theoretically, as they had no opportunities to test this—read.

However, the closer they became, the more restless Taka got whenever Kyera wasn't around. For him, the bond was more than just a connection, it was an itch he couldn't scratch whenever she was at home in Keg'wen. He would sit by a tree as the night passed and count the hours until he saw her again. His tail wagged and a joyous bark rose in his throat whenever he sensed a human around him, only for it to go between his legs and for that bark to become an angry snarl when he realized it was a lost child or a wandering hunter. One night, tired of the unrest and insomnia, the wolf let out a mournful howl, one that tore Kyera from her sleep and sent shivers down the spines of all others who heard it.

The following morning, the hunters who slept little and kept watch overnight spoke to Ichus and his troop, making it clear that it was imperative they figured out what had made that howl the previous night. Kyera, knowing her wolf might be killed without her, intercepted them before they left.

"Where are you going, varden?" she asked innocently, holding her bow and quiver.

Her father's gaze hardened when he saw her prepared to join them. He had not yet forgotten her encounter with the first wolf of the Namigare. "We are going hunting, toder, and we are going to kill it when we find it."

Her heart began to race."May I join you? Please?" she begged, and her father's jaw ticked.

"Of course not! You are but a child!" he snapped, but one of the hunters intervened before he could go farther.

"Ichus, she's coming whether we want her to or not. Better let her come with us where we can watch her than have her sneaking behind us and possibly get hurt," the taller man suggested, his hand on Ichus's shoulder. Though he didn't want to, Ichus agreed to let Kyera join them. The girl sighed in relief. She couldn't reach Taka from Keg'wen, but if she was in the forest, she could warn him to stay away from wherever they are. She had no intention of revealing him to her father just yet.

The only hunters who went were Ichus, Kyon, the older man who advised Ichus against forbidding Kyera from coming, and Zecaia. Zecaia was no longer an apprentice, but a fully-fledged hunter, who had decided to regularly trade with nearby villages or offer them his services for goods and horses, making him a valuable asset to Keg'wen. Kyon led the party through the forest, bow strung and at the ready. Kyon had heard the howl at the campfire, and was more unsettled than any of the others.

For hours they wandered the forest, not daring return without results. Kyon aimed his bow at anything that made a sound, while Kyera spent her time trying to locate Taka’s presence. She had come up empty and began to worry. She was about to consider the wolf dead until she heard his voice shout in her mind. Kyera!

Taka, where have you been? the girl asked, relieved that he was alive and well, but worried that he could have escaped her detection for so long.

I was home. What are you doing? Who are you with?

Don’t come here! she warned, her voice stern. Kyera hoped that Taka would pick up on the urgency in her voice and stay away.

For a moment, all was quiet, and Kyera was convinced that Taka had turned around. She barely noticed that she had fallen behind because she was trying to locate him. She sighed in relief, unable to find him again and turned back to the group, quickly catching up to them. Without warning, Taka slammed himself against her mind with a low growl.

No! I refuse to live like this any longer! he snapped, at the same time that Kyon swore and pulled back his bow. Taka had emerged from the trees, his stance defensive and his tail between his legs as he faced the party of hunters.

“The damned wolf must’ve had a pup!” the hunter hissed, his grip on the bow tightening. “I’m ending this now!”

As much as it pained her to have to reveal their secret, it hurt more to see any harm come to her wolf, so she attempted to tackle Kyon from the side. “You can’t shoot him!” she shouted flailing her arms around his body to keep him from aiming properly. Ichus tried to pull her off, but she shoved him away as well.

“You’re not saving this one, Kyera!” Kyon snapped, throwing her off. He pulled back the drawstring and aimed straight for the wolf’s head. “I’m not going to let another one of these devils get big enough to terrorize our village!”

They were backed into a corner, with only one way to get out alive. “He’s mine!” she shouted without hesitation, running to Taka and shielding him with her body. His shaking figure felt miniscule under her. “He belongs to me, and I’m not going to let you kill him!”

The party froze in shock, both at the sight of Kyera protecting the wolf from them and at her confession that she had somehow tamed the wolf and claimed ownership of him. A creature of the Namigare, a tame animal? A creature of the Namigare, belonging to one of their own? The hunters were silent, not sure of how to respond to this news. A gasp was heard, and it was as if Ichus was given a sort of higher understanding. He finally understood the reasons behind Kyera’s strict schedule of going into the forest every single day. She was raising this wolf behind their backs, something so absurd that he almost wasn’t angry in the slightest.

“This is what you’ve been doing?” Ichus asked his daughter pointedly, taking deliberately slow steps and towering over the two. “Raising this… thing?”

Kyera took a deep breath, gently scratching her wolf behind his ears. The shaking seemed to stop, but his tail remained between his legs. “His name is Taka,” she told her father quietly, trying to calm the pup.

Ichus seemed to go through scenarios in his head. He thought of the advantages of having Taka as one of their own, considering how close Kyera seemed to be with him, and then realized they majorly outweighed the disadvantages. “Have you hunted with him?” he asked.

Kyera stared at him with wide eyes. Could her father really be giving them a chance? “I have.”

“Have you been successful?”

“We have.”

“Then so be it,” Ichus mumbled, surprising the hunters. “If the wolf can hunt with you, then keep him. I am both surprised and disappointed by this, but if he can serve the purpose of a dog for you, then keep him. Just make sure he keeps away from the livestock.”

When the party returned home, Taka and Kyera were a sight to see. They came last to the fire. When the villagers saw Taka and realized what he was from his coat, they were close to panicking, but after many reassuring words from Ichus and the other hunters who had quickly come to agree with his stand on the matter, and seeing the obviously calm nature of Taka as he sat quietly by Kyera and did not attack the dogs, they warmed up to him and by the next month, treated him as if he had always been one of their own.

+ + +

By the time Kyera was midway through her teenage years, she was one of the best archers and scholars of her age in Keg’wen. She picked up on Mëlle quickly and was fascinated by books, and most of the time her arrows hit wherever she wanted them to go. One thing she easily picked up on was how to ride and care for a horse. She wasn’t old enough to have a steed of her own quite yet, but in a year’s time she would be able to take her pick.

Over the years it became apparent that Taka’s growth was relative to Kyera’s. He would not grow to be an adult until she herself was, and this lengthened his average lifespan as calculated by the villagers exponentially. He could process information much more quickly than before, so Kyera had no reason to worry about overloading him with new things after each day at school. She learned archery with her father, while Wes—who was also no longer an apprentice—tried to teach her and Taka how to hunt together. This proved a difficult task for him, since it seemed that their connection made it impossible to teach them anything new.

Keg’wen, though they were not completely isolated, still remained a village in the northernmost part of their nation, so they did not know much about what was going on outside of their general area. It was for this reason that they were completely unprepared for what happened.

It was a regular evening. Kyera, Miik, Ichus, and the rest of the hunters and their wives sat around the fire, making conversation and discussing the events of the day. Taka sat next to the log Kyera was on, listening to the conversation with interest and occasionally getting up to fool around with the hunting dogs. A few of the men were more drunk than they should have been and were cracking some of the best and worst jokes any of them had heard. A few of them were in Mëlle and a little harder for the younger villagers to understand, but the point got across somehow.

The night got cold for an autumn evening, and they decided it was getting late and time to go to bed. They all wished each other a good night and retreated to their own homes. It wasn’t even ten minutes later that they heard a commotion outside. Taka and Kyera, with their heightened sense of hearing, were the first ones to notice, but Kyon was the first one to step outside and confront whoever was kicking over the pots they had left by the fire. He began to shout, waking the rest of the village, but he was quickly silenced by a knife embedded in his chest. They had never really liked Kyon that much, but Kyera and Taka couldn’t help but feel rage bubbling up inside them.

It was Wes who left his house next, but the second he opened his door he was met with one of the men and was soon unconscious. Taka growled softly. Who are they? he asked.

“I do not know,” Kyera responded in a frantic whisper. These men were unfamiliar to her. Their armor made them look like knights, but they didn’t act like knights.

Then the men—there were six of them—split up and began breaking down doors of houses. Soon, the shouts of men being taken down and the screams of women being manhandled filled the normally peaceful Mëlle village of Keg’wen. Ichus and Mai woke from their sleep and made their way to their daughter and wolf, watching in horror as they realized what was happening. From one house, a girl that Kyera had once studied with and her mother were dragged out of their home in their nightgowns by two of the men. From another house, one of the knights was piling precious belongings outside the door. From a third, smoke began to rise.

“They’re burning the village,” Ichus whispered in despair.

“Who are they?” Mai questioned, gripping her husband's arm in fear.

“Members of the Royal Guard.”

House after house went up in flames and scream after scream was heard. Ichus looked at his daughter and the wolf beside her, then to his wife, and murmured something urgent to her in Mëlle. They moved quickly, Ichus taking his bow and Mai taking leather pack she had made long ago for long hunting trips. She shoved this bag into Kyera’s arms and ran into the kitchen to grab provisions.

Kyera, take your weapons, quickly. I have a very bad feeling about this, Taka hissed, a low growl emanating from his throat. This time she didn’t question and hurried to grab her bow, quiver and dagger, but it was almost too late.

Almost the entire village was in flames by then. A man with a short beard and moustache and tousled hair broke down their door. Ichus sprang into action and went to hold him back, while Mai dropped the bread and cheese she was holding and ran to her husband’s aid. Following Taka’s quick spoken advice, Kyera shoved her quiver and dagger into the pack and attempted to reach the bread and cheese. Her parents shouted for them to run, but their pleas were cut off soon enough when the guard in their doorway stabbed them both through the heart and gave her a menacing smirk. Her heart stopped as she watched the life drain out of their faces. Time seemed to slow down while their bodies fell to the floor.

Kyera, the back door! Taka shouted. Now!

Through an entrance at the back of the house, Kyera and Taka escaped into the night, barely escaping the clutches of the man with her weapons. Looking back one last time, they saw the village they had grown up in in flames. She felt numb as she watched the flames rise, and she felt emptier than she had ever felt in her life.

They ran off into the forest as fast as they could. Away from the fire, and away from all they had ever known.

 
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