One Winter’s Due
By Epidiah Ravachol
Steam still rose from Ondir’s crimson throat when his wife awoke next to his cooling body. No one doubted that it was Baethorn who stole into the lodge, settled a debt, and fled into the sleet-haunted night. It was the latest exchange in a century-long feud.
Many, however, marveled at Baethorn’s courage. Slaying a man in his sleep was no honorable deed. Nor was killing him while his wife slept beside him. Nor dripping his blood on his children where they slept, nestled in sheepskins by his hearth. But to slay Ondir — whose raven-haired sisters, Vanya and Ondrea, were known to have traveled beyond the very boundaries of the world and there vanquished foul and abhorrent beasts of legend — was an act of frightful bravery.
Ondir’s wife did not scream. She crept over his body to her children where she woke their eldest, with a hand over his mouth. This was his eleventh winter and it would not be kind to him. His father’s blood fresh on his forehead, he helped his mother wrap the corpse and carry it into the root cellar so that his siblings did not have to see it. There would be time enough for weeping later.
A storm of snow and ice that battered the farmstead hid well Baethorn and his party’s tracks. And the caution with which Ondir’s wife and his eldest hid the body from the rest of the children gave the slayers lead enough. For now, nothing could be done but to appease the restless spirit of Ondir with the appointed wailing.
It was Ondir’s wife who — not wishing to doom her sons and daughter to a continued fate of cyclical, bloody vengeance — called upon Vanya the following night and there, in the chill air and dancing light of seven mourn-fires, made her swear that Baethorn would not perish from his newly acquired blood debt. It was not an oath Vanya took to easily, and for a while, even the professional mourners could not be heard above the shouting women. But Vanya abated when Ondir’s wife, who was not unpracticed as a storyteller, told a true tale of the destiny of Vanya’s beloved niece and nephews with the horrid debt collected back and forth between grim families for another generation.
It was Ondir’s eldest who — not wishing to doom his brothers and sister to a fate of shame and unquenched vengeance — called upon Ondrea the day after the mourn-fires were allowed to extinguish and there, where ashes mixed with snow on the wind, made her swear that Baethorn would not live to see the moon wax again. It was an oath that Ondrea did not take to lightly. But when Ondir’s eldest made clear his intentions to seek retribution regardless, Ondrea acquiesced.
Thus the sisters found themselves, as they had many times before, at oath-odds. Being of an age too weary to take each other to the sword for it, they decided a cleverer solution should be sought. So they gathered their skis along with their sword-companions Awlani Half-Mountain and Bluetuck, and took Ondir’s eldest to seek the old man in the pines.
The five left when the farmstead was still in the long, blue shadows of dawn. By noon, nearly blinded by a half-day of sun reflected on the featureless snow, they came upon a line of trees that wended its withered way along the south face of Granstooth. There, high in a sallow pine, clothed in crude hides and sap-stuck needles, the old man spit at them, enraging Ondir’s eldest who was not prepared for such indignities. This, in turn, delighted the old man and Awlani Half-Mountain, whose laughter only served to infuriate Ondir’s eldest even further.
Ondrea, both impatient and sympathetic to her nephew, bounded out of her skis and up the tree. In a prodigious and unexpected leap, the old man traced an arcing shower of brown needles across the sky and landed in another pine nearly twenty feet up the mountain, startling two ravens to flight.
The spectacle swapped the rage of Ondir’s eldest with awe and redoubled Awlani Half-Mountain’s mirth.
The sisters were hunting now. So while Half-Mountain laughed, Ondrea held the old man’s attention by slinging curses upon him, his pines, and his tree-littered beard. Fleet Vanya and wiry Bluetuck quietly prowled upwards through the snow, until they found themselves wide of the old man’s tree and a fair way above it. With a rope strung between them, they skied down the slope. Bluetuck cut first to a snowy halt short of the tree. The old man ceased his laughter, but before he could gather his senses Vanya carved hard around his pine, whipping the rope high and across his chest. As her momentum shot her back up the hill, the rope pinned the old man to the pine.
The old man began cursing now as Ondrea, ax in hand, jumped down from her tree and trudged up to his pine. It was known that, above all else, the old man loathed to touch the ground. His curses became shrill with the first thwack of the ax against the soft wood. They then became dark with the second, and oathful after the third.
And so another oath was extracted to circumvent the first two that brought them to the pines. The old man was crafty and knew of secret places where the sisters might find a thorny path to the satisfaction of both their oaths. He promised to lead them there on the condition that Ondir’s eldest lay a trail of pine boughs before him the whole way.
By twilight, their wanderings brought them to a cobalt-blue hot spring hidden by icy rock and lush evergreens. The steamy waters were of such a deep color that they almost radiated into the growing night.
The old man pointed to a large, ice-covered stone that stood before the spring. He commanded that Ondir’s eldest shatter the stone’s frozen shell. The boy — exhausted from the journey he had made several times over in the work of retrieving and replacing boughs for the old man — could only chip at it. Impatiently, Ondrea turned the flat of her ax to it and cleared the stone in two swift strikes. Beneath the ice, the stone was deeply grooved with thick, unfamiliar geometric patterns.
The old man bid them to stand their swords in the snowy mound before stone, but to be warned that they had only until their weapons fell to satisfy the oaths and return to the spring. So the sisters half buried their blades of dark, aurora-shimmering steel in the snow, and the others followed, with Ondrea aiding the fatigued boy.
Awlani Half-Mountain leaned over the old man and warned him to leave the swords unmolested. Swearing his second oath of the day, the old man promised that he would have nothing to do with them. Now they were to undress and plunge into the spring. So they bundled their skis and gear in their furs and buried the lot in the snow beneath a nearby tree, careful to rake out their tracks with pine branches.
Naked in the freezing wind, standing on the edge of that blue pool was the first time Bluetuck objected. He called their attention to the weathered bodies of all but Ondir’s eldest and to the scars across Vanya’s face, born from battles with things wrought by weird sorceries. He did not know how to untie the oath-knot before them, but he knew well the horrors that hid within strange wonders. He would plunge with them if they went, but this was the precipice, their moment to turn back.
Vanya, oldest amongst them save for the ageless old man, was also tired. But she had not yet learned to turn her back and saw no way through but through, and said as much as she slipped her travel-weary body into the warm waters. The others followed.
Embraced by heat, Vanya’s flesh prickled at first, but quickly soothed. It was as if she melted as she submerged, losing the skin as boundary between her and the pool. She expanded, radiated into the blue as a liquid light. Each physical bit of her floating off in painless, limpid streams. And then, when she felt she was no more, her mind began to slough off and her thoughts turned the same endless shade of blue.
Deep within the echoes of her waning consciousness, a singular instinct held its ground. A self-preservation that had served her so well in the face of so many distant perils. A beacon of fiery red panic and rage, lighting the way for the rest of her to find its way back home. A feral beast that tore her from the eternal blue, and reminded her of the ceaseless pounding of her own heart.
She was drowning.
Pushing against the water with all four limbs, she shot to the surface, and broke into a bright night, alive with new sounds and crisp scents.
The pack emerged from the spring and shook their coats dry. Steam and a new musk rose from their fur. The world came into them by alien pathways — strange and distant sounds, keen scents, awareness and recognition at once bosom companions. Without looking, they knew the deer that chased through the forest miles south, the bear that had passed this way days before, the pair of ravens that circled overhead, the old man hiding in the pines, and his fear.
There was a jubilant energy writhing beneath their fur. The pack trotted out into the twilit snow and circled each other.
Wolves, to a one.
Bluetuck, dark and gray; Awlani Half-Mountain the largest, sinking further into the snow than the others; Ondrea white as the moon; Vanya’s snout crisscrossed with pink scars; and Ondir’s eldest yet a pup.
There in the stillness of the night, each felt their wolfhearts pounding in their chest, tasted the scents of prey and companions on the air, heard the living sounds that carried on the icy wind, and saw now the way between the oaths.
Baethorn could die by fang and claw, a natural death that would break forever the chain of blood debt owed between the two families.
Ondrea felt laughter well up within her and explode in an exuberant howl. The pup skittered off, hopped, and twisted in the air to face the others, landing with his head low and haunches high. Awlani barked and set to chasing him. Then the whole pack was at play, nipping, charging, wrestling and yelping.
Eventually, they bounded off for Ondir’s farmstead, leaving the old man in the pines to find his own way to flee this unnatural site without touching foot to ground. When all was still by the spring, the two ravens alit upon the crossbars of two swords, causing them to shift in the snow.
At dawn, when the wolves came within sight of the farmstead, a scent drew their attention. South, miles south, there was a fire in the forest. A small one. One not meant to be seen, but to cook by and perhaps to find some warmth on a winter morn.
Vanya changed their course, and the pack loped south. But the scents unlocked memories of fuller stomachs and soon the pack began to lag behind her, taking time to test the air for any sign of prey. With a nod to Ondrea, whose white coat was growing rosier with the rising sun, the sisters circled back, snapping at the rest and driving their minds back to the oaths.
South they went, breaking through drifts of snow as the sun shrunk away the morning shade. The crepuscular sharpness fading from their minds, none noted they were being hunted from above. From out of the north, where the beasts grow in proportion to trolls and giants, an ancient and massive owl swept across the plain, ever careful to keep its mountainous shadow far to the west of the pack.
They had not rested since setting out on their skis the day before, and Ondir’s eldest, unpracticed as he was at such adventures, began to lag. Twice Bluetuck fell back to nudge him forward, ever mindful of the deadline the old man in the pines had given them. When he turned a third time to encourage the pup, he witnessed the magnificent stoop of the owl, almost mistaking it for a coming storm.
Silently, gnarled claws snatched the pup from the snow with eerie grace. Giant wings beat against the terrifying inertia, attempting to lift bird and prey back aloft. Bluetuck leapt and caught the owl’s shoulder in his snarling jaws. The others turned and were blind in the snow raised by the beating wings.
Following her nose and the whimpers of Ondir’s eldest, ivory-furred Ondrea bolted through the snow to seize one of the owl’s legs. All was white and red, and the owl swiftly made a decision it rarely had to make — this prey was not worth it. It screeched, released the pup, and took to the air as best it could with Bluetuck and Ondrea still latched on.
Bluetuck’s grip on the wing was made slick by blood and he was quickly shaken loose, but Ondrea had to be slammed into a nearby tree before she fell.
Drizzling blood across the snow, the owl rose higher and higher into the blue north.
Having not fallen far, Bluetuck was reeling, but uninjured. However, the owl’s grip had broken several of the pup’s ribs and Ondrea was limping badly. Catching Vanya’s eyes, Bluetuck cast his head several times over his shoulder, indicating the way back to the hot spring and their swords. Vanya growled and turned away from his stare.
The pack sought shelter in a copse to ward against the owl’s return. Soon, Awlani Half-Mountain and Bluetuck cautiously ranged out in search of prey. Vanya remained behind with her kin, grooming them, licking clean their wounds. By sundown, Half-Mountain had slain a deer, they had filled their bellies, and the pack set out again under the waning crescent of the moon.
They moved slower now, but no less sure. Ahead of them, the rich smell of a campfire drew them through the night until the pack crept up on three figures on a hillock huddled about a small fire and shivering in their furs.
It was their prey: young Baethorn, who had seen perhaps three more winters than Ondir’s eldest; his uncle, a rover of many years; and his cousin, only a few years older than Baethorn himself.
The wolves crouched in the darkness. Vanya could smell more men in the woods. Three of them. Keeping watch perhaps. As she observed Baethorn’s uncle in the firelight leaning on his spear, a sensation gripped her heart. This was no natural way to be, to plunge into the den of men such as these with nothing to be gained. Her belly was full, was it not? Why risk that spiteful spear? Why not pass on into the darkness and live to worry hares and run down deer? This was madness.
The weight of the blood debt seized the pup beside her, and he shot out, snarling towards the campfire.
Vanya caught the back of the pup’s neck in her jaw, but before she could wrestle him to the ground, Ondrea dragged her off him. Frantically, the sisters fought each other in the snow. Ondrea striving to join her nephew’s charge and Vanya struggling to drag her pack safely from danger. Awlani Half-Mountain and Bluetuck snapped at the fray, trying to separate the sisters, but received claw and slavering jaw in return.
Then came the yelp from atop the hillock.
Silhouetted in an amber glow, Baethorn’s uncle hunched over the spear he had just driven into the pup. The keen wolf ears heard the gurgle in the pup’s throat, his last half-growl ended in a sickening whimper as Baethorn’s uncle gave the spear a twisting thrust.
The pack was still.
Baethorn’s uncle drew a knife from his belt and knelt by pup. Men came running and shouting to the fire. The pack fled into the darkness.
Safe in the bosom of the woods, Awlani Half-Mountain slumped to the ground, Bluetuck began pacing, and the sisters faced each other. There in silence it was agreed. Each damned the other.
And so Ondrea turned from her sister and limped back the way they had come. Bluetuck chased back and forth between the sisters until Vanya snapped at him.
Awlani began a mournful howl, Bluetuck and Vanya joined in chorus, and Ondrea’s white fur melted into the night.
In the darkest of that winter, Ondir’s wife lit twenty-one more mourn fires for her son and sisters-in-law who never returned. Come the thaw, in a place held secret by the old man in the pines, five swords wallowed in the blossoming understory before a stone deeply grooved with thick, unfamiliar geometric patterns.
It was thereafter known that Baethorn, slayer of Ondir, had died when a ghost wolf, white as the moon, flashed from the darkness into his camp and tore his throat, as witnessed by his cousin and his uncle, who in turn slew the wolf and made a mantle of its hide, cursing their family and their livestock to be thereafter haunted by three strange wolves.