Chapter 1: Kaja

It was so hard to sleep. Kaja threw her body against her pillow in frustration. “Go to sleep!” she commanded aloud, knowing no one would hear. Kaja’s restless body quivered with anticipation. Tossing and turning aimlessly, she considered the day ahead.

The Jolabot festival traditionally heralded the coming of spring and the end of the cold lean winter, but it was so much more than that to Kaja. Assorted fun and mischief were Kaja’s typical fare. Last year, she spent most of the festival shadowing her cousin Maren; both intrigued and slightly repelled by her deliberate toying with young men. The year before, she had followed her cousin Arnulf on a ritual hunt. Arn’s impatience and frustration at her presence easily offset by the adventure. But it wasn’t the potential for adventure keeping Kaja awake this year, it was the opportunity tomorrow represented.

Kaja was thirteen years old now. She’d only have one more chance if she failed to grab the red flag this time. Some women got heavier between their last leaps as puberty brought gentle curves to their bodies. Maren had nearly grabbed the flag when she was fifteen. Three years later, she wasn’t close. Even now, Maren blamed the marked changes to her hips and breasts that came with maturity for her failure. Kaja blamed those same attractive features for a great many of Maren’s problems. Fortunately, Maren had come to terms with the utility of her adult body; her tight-fitting, revealing clothing, pushed the limits of decency even among a people who celebrated the human form. In contrast, Kaja’s body hadn’t changed much as she reached maturity. And if the stories about her mother were true, Kaja would remain light and ethereal even into her twenties.

Freya’s disappearance ten years ago had morphed tales of her exploits into legends. Kaja had once heard that her mother made an exhibition leap over the red flag while five months pregnant with Kaja. True or not, by all accounts, Freya had been the most spectacular leaper the small village of Troms had ever produced. Stray thoughts of her missing mother brought a mixture of admiration, sadness and longing. It did not aid Kaja in her quest for sleep.

Failing to notice when sleep finally did arrive, Kaja awoke early with visions of chasms, wolves and small red flags in her head. As she bounced out of bed, nervous energy filled her body. Her thoughts drifted to the various preparations she needed to make; she wanted to stretch and warm-up properly, but also check her boots and jacket to ensure they wouldn’t present obstacles to her success.

These concrete concerns were easy enough to deal with. Today would little different than a long vigorous practice day. It was her mental readiness, her approach and focus, that now worried Kaja. Her thoughts kept stubbornly returning again and again to what may happen after her leap at the telling. As the only daughter of one of the most accomplished leapers in Troms history, she’d sat close to the current teller, Ordin, during all the previous events. She knew this was a privilege. She understood the distinction and benefit of being so intimately connected to the Jolabot festivities. But Kaja longed for more. She wasn’t content just sitting near Ordin and his great wolf, she wanted to be a rider herself. It was that thought that preoccupied her, the dream of her own wolf joining her and becoming her lifelong partner.

The village was decorated with colorful banners and totems to celebrate the fair. Kaja had a short trip planned before the events of the day carried her along. She quickly made her way down to the large grove just outside the village proper where the people of Troms buried their dead. The natural cemetery had no manmade boundaries. A stranger would not recognize the group of trees as anything but forest, save for their semi-orderly arrangement, and the names carved with care in the trunks of some of the larger trees. Karelian tradition dictated that the bodies of the dead were burned. The ashes were then brought to a grove and deposited in a small hole. A single acorn was buried along with the remains. Families sought out spaces of their own and a wide variety of different sized trees could be found in a familial plot. The people of Troms had been burying their dead this way for over two hundred years, the stand of great oaks was massive and utterly sacred.

The groves of wolfriders tended to be different. There was no hereditary rule that prohibited the sons and daughters of any villagers from competing in the games and earning the right to be a rider. Still, Kaja knew the traits that led to success in the games were often carried through family lines. Wolfrider groves were smaller than usual and typically matriarchal. Sons and daughters were buried near their mothers, but unless a rider had a father who wasn’t a rider, the father was normally unknown.

Kaja had asked numerous times for details and explanations, but had been told such conversations were impolite or even immoral. Kaja felt she had a right to know who her father was. So she’d asked repeatedly and was always met with disappointed looks and cold silence. The only person who’d even responded to her inquiries was Maren. Maren’s own relationship with her father Jaegar was ‘complicated.’ Kaja knew this meant he savagely beat her and her mother, but had no idea what was so complicated about it. Maren had told her that she was better off not knowing who her father was. She said that having Arn and Ordin was enough. She’d always said this without her typical humor and lightheartedness and Kaja had marked the words. Kaja’s need for familial bonds ran deep. She had no immediate family of her own, but her two cousins had always treated her like a sister and Maren’s mother Gala, her aunt, had basically raised her. Those four people had provided more warmth and care than some children with two parents and many siblings had ever received. Kaja was thankful and she tried to maintain a sense of gratitude for what she had. But a day didn’t go by where she didn’t feel her mother’s absence deeply and the vast emptiness it left inside her.

There wasn’t supposed to be a tree for Kaja’s mother in the grove. Although she was presumed dead, her body had never been found and custom prescribed that a tree could only be planted in the deceased’s ashes. That hadn’t stopped Kaja, with the help of her cousins, from planting a maple samara. The small wing-like seed of the great forest maples was secretly deposited in the shade of their grandmother’s oak. Since only living family members tended the groves, the small tree had sprouted and grown over twenty-five feet in the ten years since they’d planted it. Arn had suggested that the tree might not grow without a fragment of Kaja’s mother to germinate. His solution of mixed blood and hair, burned to ash, had frightened Kaja at the time. But Arn and Maren had convinced her, the way older family members often have the power to do. They had explained that only Kaja’s own samples could mirror Freya’s. Still an easily influenced child at the time, Kaja refused to let Arn and Maren down. She remembered crying from the pain, but also feeling that there was something real and powerful in the gesture she made. None of the cousins wanted to believe that Freya was actually dead. Arn’s wisdom and foresight had given Kaja a tangible remembrance of her mother. It was this tree that Kaja had approached on the cool, clear, crisp spring morning. She settled in front of the small tree, its new bright green leaves perfectly still. She sat, and began talking to her mother.

“I hope you can see me wherever you are. Your sister Gala misses you. I know she doesn’t come here much, but she misses you, I know it. I miss you too. Ordin says I look more like you each passing day. I’ve seen him do a double-take more than once — he thinks it’s you and it startles him.

“I’ve been training hard for the games. Every day, repeating the same boring exercises, again and again, until I’m utterly exhausted. In practice, I’ve completed the leap with room to spare. Ordin says the only person he ever saw leap like me — was you. Mother, if I make the leap, if I become a rider like you, will you return? Is that what you are waiting for? I don’t know. There is so much I don’t understand. Am I even ready? Am I worthy?”

A light wind broke the stillness in the air and moved the small branches of the tree back and forth gently. Kaja laughed and then cried nervously, choosing to interpret the slight movement as a sign. The affirmation filled her with hope and determination. She kissed the leaves and touched her head gently to the trunk. She ran back to the small cabin she sometimes shared with her cousins and aunt and gathered her things for the day.

With the trials only taking place every three years, Troms was a buzz with excitement, especially among the young. When she was ten, she had made such a promising show that Ordin had almost forgotten that she didn’t actually reach the red flag. Most of Kaja’s friends and cousins predicted success for her, despite the extreme rarity of the accomplishment. These high expectations had followed Kaja since birth. Wolfriders were incredibly rare; Kaja’s cousin Arnulf was the only rider chosen since Freya herself had completed the leap seventeen years before. If Kaja was chosen, she’d be just the third living wolfrider in Troms. The entire region of Karelia, representing well over seven thousand people combined, had just fourteen riders.

The various forecasts of triumph and success combined to make Kaja’s fate look inevitable. Kaja would be a rider, or so people said. Kaja tried to stifle her resentment. How easy it was to ignore how hard she’d trained, how much punishment her body had endured preparing for this day. Years and years of deliberate practice. Repeating exercises long past the point where they were no longer enjoyable. Kaja had been compelled to make hundreds of small leaps a day, each time focusing on a particular muscle and movement. Maren and Arn had watched her, coached her, and stood in awe when she continued to practice long after they were ready to be done for the day. This focus, this grit, this inability to stop pushing herself further — this was the quality that defined Kaja.

“Heading down to the square?” called Maren.

“In a minute!” Kaja replied.

“Don’t wait too long. Last one down, will be the last one up.”

“I know, I know,” explained Kaja. And she did know, but she didn’t care. Many of her peers believed it was an advantage to attempt the trial first thing in the morning, before the afternoon winds became a factor. Kaja recalled the stories about the leaps thirty years ago, when Jaegar had missed the red flag due to high sustained winds. Those afternoon winds had wreaked havoc on the timing and distance of the competitors. Thirty years though! Ancient history! According to Ordin, no one had been severely impacted by winds in the last four trials. There was no wind today and her mother’s maple had said she was ready.

Maren suggested that Kaja tie her typically flowing white hair in a tight bun to keep it out of her face during the trials. Kaja had never done this during practice and she wondered if it was necessary. It had taken fifteen minutes to get her hair to stay and she hated that it looked like a jumbled bird’s nest. She undid the bun and shook out her unusual white hair. Red, brown, and auburn hair dominated throughout the Karelian region, but Freya, Maren, and Ordin all had distinctive platinum locks. Likewise, most villagers had dark hazel eyes and delicate facial features. Kaja couldn’t be more different. The slight angular bend of her jaw, which on her cousin Arn looked strong and bold, made Kaja look boyish, not pretty. Her aqua colored eyes and the long pink birthmark that ran through her right eye and cheek marked her as a child of Freya. As did her size; standing just under four and a half feet tall, Kaja was surprisingly one of the tallest inhabitants of Troms. Weighing just forty-five pounds, she was also the lightest young woman on record to have reached maturity. Her rare coloring and atypical size represented visible reminders of her impressive family roots. But unlike Ordin, Maren, or Arn, or anyone else in Karelia, Kaja had pale ivory skin that stood in sharp contrast to the khaki and amber tones that prevailed. Most Karelian’s bronzed under the heat of the sun, Kaja went from alabaster to rose and often quite painfully. Even her mother had been the same darker shade of honey that was so common in Troms. Kaja’s pale skin was truly unique to her alone.

Ordin taught Kaja early to eschew ornamentation and colorful clothing, there being no way to obscure just how unique in appearance she already was. Heeding this advice, she wore her typical tight brown leather leggings, a dark green undershirt, and a close-fit brown leather jacket. Kaja couldn’t help but wonder if this was what her mother had once looked like.

Maren had apparently lost her patience waiting. Arriving at the giant oak they had agreed to meet under, Kaja found herself alone. Grinning and gazing up at the tree, Kaja crouched, bending her legs in preparation and focusing on a branch thirty-five feet above her head. The leap for the red flag was actually lower, just twenty-five feet high, but also included clearing a twenty-foot chasm filled with dried leaves and hay. Having practiced these leaps hundreds of times a month for many years, Kaja’s mental math told her that a thirty-five-foot vertical leap could easily translate into a twenty-five by twenty-foot leap with a running start.

Focus. Focus.

She closed her eyes and saw her hand reaching for the small red flag. Eyes open, she sprang up, up, up! Wind rushed by her face as she launched toward the branch. She was going to make it!

Reach! Just a little more.

She closed her eyes as exertion and gravity hit her at once.

Now. Open your hand!

Kaja’s fist unfurled just as she began to fall. Instinctively, her arm snapped out and her tiny fingers hung, just barely, on the massive limb.

One more leap.

As she dangled on the branch looking towards the square and it’s gathering crowd, Kaja marveled at her latest accomplishment, her proud smile stretching from ear to ear. Kaja had a reputation for being a great self-motivator. Friends joked when she called to herself in practice runs: ‘Do it! Come on! Soar girl soar!’ but something about these words and thoughts felt different. Focus? One more leap? Those words weren’t hers, were they? Maybe she was maturing, but those feelings, almost images…they were so powerful…did she even say them aloud? She didn’t think so, but they had felt like explosions in her head-

Two short howls interrupted her reverie. Kaja dropped, loosening her jacket so it caught the wind and slowed her descent. As she hit the ground, she felt a tiny pop in her right knee. She shook her leg, adrenaline coursing through her body, and began sprinting off towards the square.