Word Count 518
By Sharon Collins
The trek back is an agony of pain and dread. Pain from tooth and claw pulses with each step. Dread of First-Wife’s anger when she sees me living still, mounts with every breath. I know she thought to have me dead. Her Judgement will be worse than the one I leave behind. I shiver at the memory of the She-Wolf’s death-throes, clamped in the fangs of the Forest Cat with Mother’s amber eyes. I see the bloody shard in the Headsman’s fingers and touch the wet warmth where he has marked my forehead. I stumble. Two Watchers walking beside steady me, as the Headsman hurries us at a furious pace. Behind me, four Watchers struggle, dragging the carcass of the enormous beast back to the cave. It will be my privilege to take her fur. I will fashion boots and perhaps a cape. There will certainly be hide enough.
The other six Watchers carry, each, a wolf pup. The She-Wolf’s children will be welcomed by the Clan. Our Wise-Man has spoken with Men of the Ice and has learned that wolf-pups can be trained to help in the hunt. These six will be tried once they learn to stop snarling and biting. I do not envy the unlucky Watchers carrying them any more than I envy the unlucky pups that now share my orphan-grief. Their brindled fur bristles and their yellow eyes glare; they are both brave and foolish…like me.
As we near the mouth of the cave, I hear them. Riding the wind, unearthly echoes clog my ears and set my teeth on edge. The pups cease squirming and begin to whimper. They too recognize the anguish of Death-Keening. The Watchers drop them in their rush forward . Too weary and hurt to stand, I sink to the ground beside their dead mother. They clamber over me and nuzzle her. Foolish girl that I am, I want to sob for their loss despite my survival. Unable to resist further, I give in and close my eyes.
A sunset and sunrise later, I wake to the drumming of Death-Rites and the taste of fish broth spooned by the Headsman’s Second-Wife. She tells me how it happened, how the Headsman’s First-Wife boasted the night of my Judgement; how she gleefully feasted on roast fowl; how she snapped its bones and sucked the marrow; how a sharp shard lodged in her throat and choked her to death. Unfortunately, Second-Wife also tells the Headsman how I laugh until I cry when I hear this. She tells how I call out to Mother’s Spirit, thanking her for saving me from both She-Wolves.
Too late I realize my mistake. My reckless words curse me. Only the Wise-Man may speak with Spirits and even he may not command them. Shunned and forbidden to return, I am outcast. Barely healed, wearing my wolf-cape, I retrace my steps to the foot of the rock ledge where Mother’s Spirit fought for my life. Kneeling in the soft pine needles to bury her Necklace, stolen from the Headsman’s pouch, I feel her amber gaze upon me once again.