Once Upon a Nightmare
A Wylder Tale
There had been a time when Resha had not hated her father, when her only concern had been checking her traps and learning knives from Grandfather. But that was before their village on the ridge of Mount Grimm had been attacked and destroyed by their enemies. After that, she’d learned a hunter’s claws must be longer and sharper. A hunter must always be prepared to fight as well as flee, Father said.
“Stay close, Resha,” her father hissed, drawing her attention to their bleak present.
She glanced ahead to see a moonlit shadow of his harsh figure. He looked every bit the predator he intended to be, with a wicked glint to his eye and battle scars. Before his death, Vilhelm had adopted this same stance as their father. Each time he returned from a raid, her brother would boast of the scars that showed man’s superiority over beast. Now that Vilhelm and Grandfather were lost to them forever, Father saw to her training. And soon she too must live by the code of tooth and claw.
“The beasts rely on their fangs and hooks, but they forget we are smarter,” Grandfather had often said. He had been hunting with her father when the enemy had surrounded him, ripping his intestines out. She’d taken the news bravely in front of her village, as was expected of her, and cried in the shelter of fir trees later. Men never lived long this far in the mountains, so close to the mirror.
“Resha!” Father called again, only now he had turned to glare at her. His rough hands tensed against the handle of his axe. “Get your head out of the fog, pup. Don’t forget we have a debt to repay. Sometimes I wonder if you are too soft to be a predator after all. How can you dawdle when we are so close we can taste their blood? Remember, you are a hunter, not a lamb.”
She cringed against the force of his fury, even though it wasn’t entirely directed at her. Still, she felt the weight of his expectations as much as his underlying berserker hatred for the ones they hunted.
Torch fire illuminated his features and reflected in his eyes when her mother came to stand between them. “Enough, Wolfsbane!” she hissed.
His fierce gaze flickered from Resha to Mother’s cloaked frame. Though she could not see her mother’s expression, it must be equally fierce. Her father wilted beneath Mother’s silent strength. He bowed his head and, without further argument, turned back to continue the hunt.
Only then did Mother turn to face her. Torchlight revealed the deep circles under her round golden eyes, the strain she had endured since the last attack on the village. But there was no sympathy in her gaze, only sorrow. “Stay close to me, pup,” she whispered and lifted a hand to cup Resha’s cheek.
Resha nodded, savoring the brief affection, and moved out of the cold shadows, into the halo surrounding Mother. She could always rely on her mother’s warmth. Her mother’s skin almost burned to the touch at times. Among a people who could stand the harshest of winters, Mother always seemed strongest.
Resha tightened her grip on the leather wrapping of the bone knife her grandfather had made her two moons ago. Grandfather had been the first victim, a prelude to the evil that had come for them soon after. She remembered little of the way he’d looked before Father had dragged his corpse back to the village, or rather what was left of his corpse. When she closed her eyes at night it was that look of frozen terror in her grandfather’s eyes she saw.
They had been on the run ever since the attack on Mount Grimm. An entire moon had passed since half the village had been murdered, including her brother Vilhelm. If any others survived they were hiding deep in the mountains.
The beasts had always been a threat to them. But recent attacks alluded to a new hunger to wipe out the last true folk living in the Wylder Mountains. Some in the village had blamed Wolfsbane and his quest to avenge Grandfather’s death. Now those who might still have blamed her family were dead.
Now all that was left to them was this hunt, her first true hunt. Before this she had been little more than a trapper, practicing her knife on the small creatures she’d found in the woods near their village. Every time she’d ended a hare or tripe’s life, she’d felt nothing of the thrill the other children did.
“Sometimes I wonder if you are too soft to be a predator after all.”
Truly, Father’s words resonated with her far more deeply than she wanted them to. A part of her was so much a child. She had never plunged her knife into the heart of a true beast. It was her greatest fear she would fail in a task Vilhelm would have fulfilled without flinching. Now the legacy of vengeance was left to her hands and the dagger Grandfather had made for her last moon day.
Resha released a deep breath and watched it hover in the freezing air. The territory they hunted in was new, closer to the lost city than most of their kind had ever dared to trail. Her father said they were searching for signs of man and beast. Father crouched and inspected every curve of the path the tracks had made. It was difficult to see anything but shadow and snow. Yet she could almost feel the faintest traces of their prey’s footfalls. It was the smell and the warmth Wolfsbane was following now.
Her attention was diverted by a bright splash of red along the roots of a nearby tree trunk. Her stomach clenched at the thought of the berries hanging from those thin branches. Mother had told her to forage whenever they came across nuts and rare plant life. Just because they were hunting didn’t mean she couldn’t savor a morsel. And she might even snatch enough to save for when they made camp. She glanced up, hopeful Wolfsbane would not notice.
She poked through the fur wrappings keeping her palms and wrists warm, making quick work of the winter berries. Meanwhile, she kept her eye on the glow of torchlight up ahead and slipped the rest into the satchel attached to her belt. The juice stained her fingers a faint purplish hue and she licked them, hoping to hide the evidence. Her eyes shut involuntarily as she drank in the sweet taste.
A hand grasped her wrist roughly and pulled so she was forced to face Wolfsbane’s grizzled visage.
“Foolish pup!” he growled. “This land is cursed and you are a fool to touch it. Do you wish to fall asleep forever in these woods?” With every word he squeezed her wrist tighter, drawing tears from her eyes.
“Wolfsbane!” her mother interrupted, gripping his arm. “You will not harm our last remaining child. She is hungry and we have not stopped for three days. Leave her be.”
They stood together against the torch, the light illuminating the sickly rage in Father’s eyes and the fear in Mother’s. Resha tried not to give into that same fear. Father would only see it as a weakness. He was too deep into the hunt and too addled by grief to know better.
So she lifted her chin and willed her tears to stop. To say anything would only spark his fury again. Instead she kept her eyes locked with his. Mother’s fingers crept higher, resting over both her wrist and her father’s tense grip. His anger faded, and for a moment, Resha saw the love her father had for her. He opened his mouth to speak and hope bloomed in her chest.
That was the moment a chorus of howls rose together like a nightmare in the woods around them. The cries began ahead of them, further up the valley. Often she had heard them in the distance as a small child within their cottage. Never had she heard them so close and so far away from all she knew.
Her breath came in short, violent gasps as her heart pounded in her ears. These were the beasts who had stolen everything from them, the ones they had been hunting ever since.
For the first time, Resha felt the stirring of the hunt in her blood.
“At last they have picked up our scent,” Wolfsbane growled. He rounded with the fluid movement of a master hunter. He bent his knees slightly as he pulled a second curved blade from its sheath to mirror the double-bladed axe he held with his other hand.
Resha wiped the remains of her tears away before they could freeze and reached for her mother’s hand. More howls rose into the night and this time seemed to come from every direction. Sounds in the forest often echoed loudly within the forest’s walls, making their location difficult to track with human ears.
“We cannot meet them head-on, my love,” Mother pleaded.
“Listen to the fear in their cries, Nephthys.”
“Wolfsbane, please,” she urged.
Some of the madness softened as he looked at her. Another howl sounded nearby, closer this time. His brow lowered and darkened. “Move!” Father demanded as he pivoted and took them down a different path.
Resha clung to her mother’s comforting warmth and the torchlight in her free hand. Together they stumbled over thick snow drifts and tree roots. Renewed energy filled her, giving power to her steps. A mysterious inner power filled her limbs and made her run like the wind. Mother picked up her pace to match her, though they were nowhere close to meeting Father’s retreating back. Their breaths came in quick, short pants at first. And then a strange calm fell over her and the snow and limbs were no longer obstacles. In this moment she became a part of the forest and avoided pitfalls and roots with ease. She felt free as the howling winds and the birds of prey that trailed them.
The wolves were closer now, their cries coming from the thicket her family had just fled. It wouldn’t be long before they were forced to confront them. Fear joined her fleeting joy but she forced it back down.
Grandfather’s rough voice came to her mind. “A hunter must own and relish in fear, to give speed and focus in the fight.”
Father stopped half a league ahead to wait for them. His head swiveled to gather as much of their surroundings as he could. She knew he was seeing more than the forest. Already he was making plans for their attack, trying to guess where the enemy would come from. He turned to face them as soon as they approached the edge of the small clearing. It was almost more painful for her to stop running than it had been to begin.
Her mother spoke through strangled breaths. “Shall we bait them here, then?”
Wolfsbane nodded as if her words were no more than a distraction, his focus entirely on the forest around them. Resha kept hold of her mother’s arm, amazed the torch she held was still lit and burning steadfast. Father answered, “You will remain here with the pup.”
Mother nodded. “The fire will hold them off long enough.”
Wolfsbane looked down at them and his gaze fixed where Resha’s fingers gripped her mother’s arm. She flinched when he approached.
He pushed his way between them with his burly frame and forced her to stand in the cold with him. He flipped the long, silver dagger so its worn handle faced her. “Take your claw, pup,” he growled.
Resha gasped, choked on her words as he took her hand and forced it to grip the dagger. This was called White Fang, a blade almost as legendary as the hunter who owned it. It had been long told in the village that as a youth, Wolfsbane had destroyed an entire pack on his own, thus earning his name.
“Use this and avenge your brother’s death,” he said.
Before Resha could spit out a reply, her father rushed away from them. He disappeared into night’s shade where not even the moonlight could penetrate.
The howls drew closer. In the forest, it was difficult to tell how far the enemy might be. At times a threat loomed closer than anticipated, or so she had heard.
“Keep an eye out for shadows, little love,” Mother whispered. Their eyes met across the small gap Wolfsbane had made betwixt them.
A howl cut through the brief silence and they turned in unison to face it. Resha listened to the crunch of her mother’s boots and tried to push her senses farther into the forest, where Father waited. He would try to cut around the pack’s path, rip apart their flank. But she wished he had remained to keep them safe. She jerked when her ears picked up the heavy huffs and puffs of beastly breath and peered past the white tree at her side.
“Resha,” Mother hissed.
Resha was frozen, tied to the sound of whatever awaited in the forest. She had never seen the creatures alive, only their pelts once the hunters returned from defending the border. And it was rare indeed for a hunter to return with more than one pelt. Father had once brought back thirteen.
She screamed when something grabbed her cloak. She slashed with her knife as she was pulled back around. Mother stopped the blade with the wooden handle of her torch. A sob escaped Resha’s lips, only it sounded much smaller and younger than she wanted to be then.
“It is all right, love.” Mother’s golden eyes sharpened, looking past her shoulder. “Climb this tree now. You’ll be safe there when the monsters come.”
Resha opened her mouth to protest. Father had told her to avenge her brother’s death. He would expect to find blood on her blade once they were finished with this pack.
“No arguments,” Mother said, “you are too young for bloodshed, my little runt. Let me worry about your father.”
With swift strength, she stuck the hilt of her torch into the snow and knelt to weave her fingers before Resha’s boot.
The climb was hard when Resha’s hands already felt numb and frost had taken to the smoothed-over bark. Resha used White Fang to claw her way up the trunk until she found a wide branch to sit upon. She wrapped herself around it, pressing her cheek to the frozen limb, seeking to share the hibernating tree’s hidden warmth.
Mother wasted no time in picking up her torch and removing a second from the pack against her back. With two lit beacons of flame at her fingertips, her mother seemed even stronger and more frightening. Light pushed the darkness farther at bay. Mother wove patterns in the air with each torch.
A yelp followed by a wounded cry came from the nearby forest. Other cries of pain followed in quick succession, victims of her father’s axe. She recognized the crunch of bone and flesh, heard Wolfsbane’s grunts and strangled cries. He never remained in the same place, ever circling the tiny clearing she and Mother waited in. Resha felt a brief, wild hope that maybe he would do it again, destroy the pack alone before the monsters could appear.
So she wasn’t prepared for one of the creatures to break from the forest and pounce onto the frozen earth in front of them. Its snout faced the tip of Mother’s torches. It was nearly double the size of the pelts she had seen from dumb wolves of lesser forests. This beast’s head nearly met her mother’s shoulders from all fours. Its black hair stood up on end as it snarled before the flames. A cloud of steam rose from its open jaws.
Her mother was not awestruck or afraid, however, as she brought the other torch through the air to smack against the beast’s side. It fell back with a yelp while sparks singed its fur and its glowing eyes rolled. One of Mother’s secrets was the tar she used to light her flames. Now it coated the wolf’s coat and the fire had jumped from torch to creature.
Another beast replaced its fallen brother. Mother met its snarl with a high-pitched cry and crossed the torches between them. The gray wolf darted around and clamped its jaws over the wood of the torch. Mother quickly brought the other overhead to bathe its back with living fire. The smell of burning flesh was almost unbearable.
Resha cried silently, because she knew then Father had been right. This was her fight as well, her rite of passage. She was failing him and she was too afraid to do anything about it.
The second wolf clawed at the sparks singing its fur. A third appeared with a fourth at its side and this time they attacked in unison. Mother screamed as one ran into the torches’ path while the other darted low to snap at her legs. She fell and the beasts rushed her. The first black wolf staggered to its feet, smoke still rising from its burnt back, but determined to join in the feast.
Resha didn’t recognize her own scream until she landed to the ground with a painful jab to her ankles. With Grandfather’s knife in one hand and White Fang in the other, she rushed the creatures. She barely rose over their massive heads, but did not hesitate to jump onto the back of the third wolf and plunge Father’s blade into its back.
It took more force than she was prepared for to dig the blade into its flesh. So she followed the first feeble attempt with another, far more vicious.
The next moments happened in a senseless blur. Vaguely she heard her mother scream and the crunch of bone, followed by Wolfsbane’s bellowing cry. She stabbed at the creature that had tried to kill Mother until they both lay prostrate in the snow. She struggled to free her leg from the weight of the dead creature and crawled over to her mother’s crumpled form.
Tar trickled from Mother’s torches out onto the snow, lighting it with an unnatural glow, catching fire to the wolf Resha had killed. She hovered over her mother with White Fang in hand and slashed when another wolf dared approach. Their eyes met as it fell, and the snarl died from its beastly lips.
Wolfsbane fought what remained of the rest of the pack at the edge of the tree line in a dance of shadow and moonlight.
“Watch the shadows,” Mother had said.
Red pooled from her mother’s open belly and Resha screamed again.
“Nephthys!” Wolfsbane cried out as he burst through the tree line.
A massive, black-furred wolf used Resha’s distraction to attack. Her blade went into its side as they fell into the pooling blood behind Mother and against a nearby torch. It rolled with them so a crescent of fire haloed them.
The black wolf clamped its teeth into her neck until her screams died and no sound escaped. The beginning acceptance of defeat pushed its way into her conscience. It was so tempting to give in. She had taken the life of the one that had taken her mother’s. She had avenged her brother’s death. She was a hunter now. But Mother would never know and Wolfsbane would hunt alone. Their kind, the last men of the Wylder Mountains, would fade into the snow like the majik of the lost city.
Rage filled her limbs and though she could no longer scream, she snarled as she pulled White Fang from the beast’s side. She changed angles as she plunged it again, piercing the creature’s heart. Its jaw released her throat and it yelped as she rolled on top of it. Resha stabbed and slashed until she could no longer see past her tears and blood.
Wolfsbane ended the last two monsters and at last his gaze fell to them. Resha watched as he stumbled to his knees before her mother. A bitter cry left his lips as he lifted Nephthys from the snow. His wails took the place of the wolves’ howls then.
Resha knew deep down that she would never speak again. So many things she had thought and felt but never spoken aloud before out of fear. Now she could never tell Mother she loved her. She could never tell Wolfsbane that she wanted to be the kind of daughter a hunter could be proud of.
Often she had longed to scream and make him understand that she would never be what he wanted her to be. She was… no, she had been a gentle soul, Mother’s little runt. She was too young to spill blood, Mother had said.
Now she couldn’t look away. There was too much blood, too much pain. She felt the life spill from her neck and grabbed a fistful of snow to staunch the flow. As it seeped past her fingertips, she thought the words she would never speak.
“I will make them pay. One by one, until they have suffered as much as us, I will destroy them, Mother. All.”