Gone were the days of desperation and times of being reviled, yet still they were feared for they were fearsome. The king had seen this and sought them out, hunted and harried them. As a pack they had run, over barren hills and through wooded wastelands that were all they knew, what they belonged to alone. As a pack they had been cornered, captured and expecting only fire, pain and death. They had received much more than mercy. They were given a deal and purpose, an offer to serve. As knights with a fortress for shelter in the center of their rocky-hill surrounded wooded wasteland, no longer seeming so cursed they felt that it could bloom like the hope at the heart of their good fortune.
Still they were an unruly and savage pack, just as bloodthirsty as before and it gave the king heart. The fortress, rising with swift labor in the center of the land they had once cursed and been cursed to, gave them a shelter and home they filled with boisterous and wild spirits. More than walls and hearths it was warmed equally with growls and something they had thought lost to them forever, laughter. Again they felt almost as human as wolf, these new knights of blade and fang.
Not so new a generation’s worth of war and battle later. All that remained of those lucky first were Mother Lorin, grizzled old Erix and the even older Blake who’s back had long since bent full of aches that pained him more even than hard-won battle scars twisting and tugging wrinkled skin, a full half taken in service to the king’s army. It was only Mother Lorin who wore age with scant-scarred grace though she was full as fierce as any of her mates, sons or daughters. Almost young during the miracle born of the king’s sharp strategic mind, despite bright hair dulled to grey and wrinkles worn like adornments, she seemed almost young still.
It had been many years since she had been so young and felt so old, so cursed. She enjoyed almost nothing more than telling the stories just to revel in the contrast. Times such as these tucking into bed three of her own grandchildren she leaned patting covers over the trio so much like tirelessly squirming pups.
“What part of the story shall I begin tonight?” she smiled to unfold the last stage of the routine begun with her own children and repeated now with theirs.
In unison Ianthe and Eton exclaimed “Start at the start!” while Helen, the quiet triplet just smiled apparently pleased with her sibling’s taste in stories.
Lorin laughed in mock protest “Oh but that’s the most bloodthirsty part of all! It may give you nightmares. Are you sure?”
They all nodded and Ianthe complained “but that’s why it’s our favorite Granma Lorin! It’s scary and horrid but it ends so nicely. Pleeeeease?”
“Yes what ‘Anthy said Granma, and we’re all together how could we have nightmares?” Helen pointed out just as Eton threw arms up from the covers to add “the ones without blood and guts is all boring!”
Mother Lorin relented with a merry chuckle “Such gory little pups you are!” to which Eton made a show of snapping baby-teeth that would soon begin to loosen to be lost and gone and replaced long before his mouth would suffer the monthly fangs he now mocked. Even as she tickled them briefly she began “it started with one. A stranger, though he didn’t remain a stranger alone for long.”
Her voice fell into softly hushed rhythm all too quickly nearly interrupted by Ianthe’s exuberance. “That was Blake!” the little girl shouted with only the faintest hint of a whisper to her tone.
“Yes, that was Blake” Lorin nodded and brushed back the girl’s soft brown hair from forehead with age-softened hand and a voice that gave example for less quiet voices. “He was the stranger we found half naked, battered, bruised and seeming half dead on the very edge of the river. All tangled up in the roots of a tree washed out from the bank during the last spring flood, right before summer dried all the water just about halfway down to none at all. We scooped him up and carried him into your daddy’s own house.”
“Daddy was almost as little as us and Blake wasn’t old at all, that’s why he didn’t break” Helen whispered an awed observation. Those two facts more amazing to the youngsters than anything else about the tale as rife with amazing facts as it was.
Mother Lorin nodded with a small smile “not quite as little as you but he wasn’t full grown as he is that’s for sure. Your father’s family fished instead of hunting or cutting wood like the rest of us families, so he may have looked younger being scrawny for sitting all day on the side of the river just tossing line in the water” she teased her son-out-of-law a little over his family’s prior occupation.
It earned her looks both sour and disbelieving from the triplets, Ianthe even piped up with a chiding “our daddy’s not scrawny.”
Shaking her head their grandmother agreed “no he isn’t now, but he might as well have been when he was a boy. Now hush and let me tell the story” she chided right back with a gentle tone. It bore no explaining that the fisherman’s boys had seemed scrawny in comparison to the woodcutter’s children. That was a world and reality that these children listening to the story would both neither be able to envision or hold relevant. So as the children settled into silence, Mother Lorin just continued the tale to smooth the sour looks from their faces.
“Nobody else bothered to check on the stranger’s recovery. Even though it was a very small village where news and any change was wonderfully exciting, after just one day full of visitors to the fisherman’s house to see the stranger, everyone was just as busy as ever with their own houses, families and work. The hunter and his family were the first to notice anything strange several days later. While all spring the forest had been full of all sorts of animals for the hunting, it suddenly seemed as though every single creature had run from the wood entirely. Every morning the hunter would depart before the sun rose and though he walked further than ever before, each night returned home empty handed. The only sign that anything but the small handful of villagers lived in the wood at all was the time several weeks later when everyone shivered the whole night long held awake by the mournful howls of a single wolf.
Then it was the woodcutter and his children who noticed the silence that had fallen on the forest. Something easier for them to miss at first with how their axes rang such noise upon the trees and the trees themselves screamed to be felled. But soon enough even they felt the eeriness of the new quiet that cloaked their whole world. It made everyone ill at ease, then afraid and set them to jump at every broken twig or sigh of wind through the leaves. No one slept well for many weeks of dark nights, even before the night when that creeping silence was broken by screams and howls.”
Even as she described in great and jovial detail the blood and entrails of bloody bodies flung through the air, she was as always careful never to name those who were lost. It was too painful even now to remember with that much clarity those who had fallen to what had just changed the rest. Nor was it to mention that some of those screams had belonged to herself that night her house had been battered and shaken and she had survived only because of the slippery blood that pooled the floor where her dead family lay. Within her slight pause the triplets pounced. Eton asking “howls that broke the curse?”
She smiled nodding and patting the covers over his sleepy arms “almost but not quite Eton. Your father and uncles and two of the hunter’s sons and myself and my sister who all lived to survive were at first near broken and terrified so greatly that words were lost to our minds even worse than your words will be lost some nights years from now. It took a great long while of Blake caring for us the way the fisherman’s family had cared for him before our senses returned to us. And then still we were frightened and lost and hated him for the longest time.”
Helen blinked large innocent eyes at her as she gasped “not still?” confusion in that look on her face so much larger than that face itself. That phrase ‘the longest time’ tangling itself up in the mind of a child who’s life so far had measured such a small amount of time went far beyond her power to comprehend. The mere idea that Blake had ever been hated by this her family that he himself was so much a part was what made the little one, her sister and brother too, tremble and fret.
Mother Lorin stroked the children’s sweet foreheads as she shook her head “not still but it is a long story yet how we came to forgive and love him. There was so much trouble and hardship between this part and that next that I will have to tell you more tomorrow night.” She smiled at the sleepy dears with their heavy lids and lolling heads “don’t forget even that is long before the king and the deal that made everything well again after all.”
“Don’t tell us the end yet Granma” Ianthe replied on a voice halfway toward dreaming already. Mother Lorin just smiled, nodded and leaned to plant a kiss on each brow before she left them to their slumber.