All four seasons had run crookedly, as if the gods had cast the tribe aside, no longer interested in their struggles or sacrifices. Death and diminishment had come to rest among them and there seemed no solution. Furthermore, they were plagued by what they wrongly came to believe was an evil spirit, not realising that the rising darkness was of their own construction.
The People of the Black Water called her Shaywolf. She was the alpha female of the high forest pack and was respected by all; wolf and human. A mighty creature, the folk of the summer meadow farms had watched as she brought down a dray horse on her own, before the rest of the pack followed their leader to tear the wretched animal apart.
A sheep – a few sheep – was one matter, but a valuable dray horse was quite another. The long accepted balance between wild and domesticated had tipped into impending chaos.
Dreams-of-Imbolc, the shaman, was asked at the elders’ meeting: what would be the best plan of action? Should they kill the whole pack, or just Shaywolf?
He told them that he would consult the spirits.
Having collected the ingredients from the forest, he went to his hut, prepared a smoking paste and smeared it onto a log. He partially blocked the chimney and set the log onto the fire. As the narcotic smoke filled the room, he closed his eyes and called upon his ancestors to impart wisdom on the matter.
Out of the undying forest they came, walking with power and resolve, pleased to enjoy a brief sojourn with the living. They already knew what he would ask them. They too had watched Shaywolf take the horse – the significance of the high forest pack killing such an animal was not lost on them. If the wolves thought taking this new victim was easy, they would continue in their attacks, emboldened by success, extending their range of prey.
Before long they would be attacking people, and the order of the High Lands would be thrown to the winds like chaff from the winnowing basket.
The ancestors of all the tribe were of one accord. Shaywolf must die. Yet, she was still a creature with a gods-given soul and must be killed with due respect and in harmony with the gods’ ways.
The next day, Dreams-of-Imbolc spoke to the elders. ‘I will kill her. Her alone. To kill more wolves would be a violation of the forest spirits’ law.’
They offered the services of the warriors and hunters, but he refused. One upon one, soul upon soul. The rest of the tribe should wait until the matter was resolved.
That day he went in search of more ingredients: wolfsbane and fly agaric. One old shaman against a wolf in the prime of her life would be an uneven contest, strength upon strength. Mind, body and spirit combined was how the contest must be conducted. Even with his skills, knowledge, and preparation, Dreams-of-Imbolc wondered about what the outcome might be.
He dried the ingredients over an open fire outside the hut then ground them up and added them to a mixture of mead and fuller’s earth. When the mixture had stiffened sufficiently, he coated five arrow heads with it and left them in the sun to dry. Shaywolf would die in transcendental bliss.
The hunters shot a deer in the open ground on the edge of the forest and left it untouched, so that their smell would not be upon it. Dreams-of-Imbolc hid downwind in the understorey and waited. Using dock-leaves on his hands, lest he touch the arrow heads, he laid the arrows down beside him and nocked one in readiness.
He considered how souls slip so effortlessly through body and mind, and pondered the best way he could offer the soul of Shaywolf an acceptable new place to reside.
There was a shifting in the trees and the next part of the journey was set in motion.
Two young male wolves broke cover while the remainder of the pack stayed under the cover of the forest. They circled the carcass, sniffing at the ground around it and raising their noses cautiously to detect the scent danger in the air. The pack emerged from the trees and waited until Shaywolf approached the deer. She too was cautious, and that was her undoing.
With a sense of regret that such a fine animal had to die, Dreams-of-Imbolc loosed two arrows before any of the wolves were able to react. The first struck Shaywolf behind the foreleg and touched her heart The second missed her as she reared upwards onto her hind legs, snapping her teeth at the arrow in her side which was out of reach.
For a strange long moment she was a heraldic beast, rampant and regardant, supporting a shield of willow and larch. Then she fell to the ground, still snapping vainly at the arrow.
Dreams-of-Imbolc released a third arrow, striking her in the flank.
Shaywolf, the ‘Terror of the High Places’, laid her head peacefully down with a sigh of acceptance. Her pack wheeled around her, some licking her face, some searching for the enemy that had struck down their queen.
Wolves understand the way other creatures think. From the lack of scent and the way the wind was blowing, the pack quickly calculated where the man-enemy was hiding and began to advance upon him.
The shaman pulled the bison horn to his lips and blew three long blasts upon it that echoed through the trees and down along the valley of the white mountain water. Then as the rest of his tribe ran up the hill towards the killing ground, Dreams-of-Imbolc stood, another arrow nocked on the string of his bow.
Confused and leaderless, the wolves growled and snarled both at him and at each other. As the humans arrived, whooping and yelling, the pack scattered through the trees, each running for its own self.
Dreams-of-Imbolc ran forward to the body of Shaywolf. She wasn’t yet dead but was already in the Shadowlands.
‘I’m sorry,’ Dreams-of-Imbolc said softly.
‘Better to die by the hands of a dreamer than that of a murderer,’ she replied. ‘I will travel easier for it.’
The old man nodded and stroked her neck as she set off on her journey.
Once he was certain of her passing, he took out his skinning knife to preserve the intensity of life in the dissolution of death.
‘I’ll do that,’ one of the young men of the tribe said.
‘Thank you, but no.’ Dreams-of-Imbolc looked down at Shaywolf’s shell, feeling shame that he had taken her life, no matter what the reason. ‘This is between her and me.’
Knowing that he had to wear it for her sake and for the sake of peace between the pack and the tribe, he took the skin. He was as cautious donning it as she had been coming out of the forest. Would she extract revenge — turn him into a werewolf, tear his soul to pieces — or simply capture his essence to run alongside hers though the Shadowland forests?
Yet Shaywolf’s proud spirit was bound to none of these possibilities. With the grace of the noble, she gave herself to him, soul to soul. Loyalty, courage and leadership began to seep from her pelt and into his mind.
The Great Hybrid was given being.
Dreams-of-Imbolc returned to the village, watched by the newly-woken flying squirrels, his awareness heightened as the gods walked with him. Snowdrops sprang up, bloomed and set seed. Snakes shed their skins to show their new finery in the rising warmth of the sun and good strong shadows were thrown by the sun-marker stones that had been standing in the cloying mist for so many years.
After three days of death-meditation and discussion with the spirits of wolf and human, the shaman emerged from his hut to discover that the tribe had been waiting to welcome him as their leader.
They cheered as Dreams-of-Imbolc accepted the task.
Their pathfinder, their guardian and their foundling hope for the new way; the soul of a wolf.
Looking for more great fiction? Check out these flash fiction and short stories from MockingOwl Roost contributors and staff.
Born in England but having lived in Wales for over fifty years, Jonah has been writing since he was a teenager. His first success was with stage plays, eight of which have been produced. He then moved onto radio, TV, film and published works. He is currently working as a writer-director of short films and lives in Llantwit Major which is the subject of a documentary written and directed by him, currently in post-production.