Many people, aside from confident explorers, fear going into forests. Trees grow tall and thick; oppressive darkness hid creatures that would break the mortal mind. Beasts prowl and stalk helpless wanderers; great and small entities have been known to make people disappear to keep their secrets. While bountiful with flora and game in this particular region, the native people had abandoned it long ago to please the beast people who guarded the lands.
Beyond the expansive forest was a range of mountains where clouds dusted the lands with heavy snow. On the other side, rocky beaches remained untouched for several years. Every now and then, a boat would crash to the shore, but survivors never made it to any of the native human lands.
On this cool winter morning, on this same beach, cold waves brushed along the sides of a body that lay among the rocks. Next to the pale figure were planks of wood- evidence of a ship that had been dashed against deadly rocks that guarded against intruders.
The rocks crunched lightly as a hunter poked along the wreckage. Others from their troupe investigated the bodies found further down the beach. The young male, called Aitu by his people, scanned the ocean horizon from under their hood, nose twitching at the heavy scent of salt.
Glancing down at the body, the hunter nudged the human with the blunt end of his spear. To his surprise, the man gave a groan. Then he coughed, and globs of water and the bluish hue of his skin returned to pale pink.
The hunter knelt down and grabbed the human by his short, blond hair holding him up to get a good look at him. Young, with a few scars and a previously broken nose, a soft beard was growing on his gentle jaw. He was dressed in fabric clothes with leather arm guards, boots, and vest; a sword hung at his side.
Taking the sword, the hunter admired the craftsmanship of the braided metal and wrapped handle. Looking over his shoulder, he attached the blade to his side and called out to the others. There was one person still alive.
Everyone gathered around and examined the young man.
“Scrawny,” commented one.
“Bad luck,” said another.
They all paused and thought, some suggesting to kill the stranger. The oldest among them shook his head. “We take him to the shaman. We make no decisions without his say.”
Reluctantly the rest agreed, and one of the largest offered to carry the half-drowned man back to the settlement. “Maybe the shaman will let us keep this one like the other who washed on our shores,” said the large hunter. He grinned, showing sharp teeth, adding, “Should pay her a visit when we return.”
“Do you think with anything other than your cock, Torlarrin?”
“Rarely!” He and the other hunters broke into laughter as they journeyed into the forest.
As they crossed the border and darkness overtook them, an illusion that disguised many of them faded away. Bodies grew tall and became covered in various shades of thick fur. Noses and mouths stretched to create muzzles with fleshy black noses. Hands broadened and reshaped into paws.
The Arctic Moon tribe was one of the people who had been blessed by the spirits long ago with the shape of the wolf. Many chose to live their lives in their lycanthropic form. Some families had lost their human bodies over the centuries. Those in the hunting parties had to have the ability to disguise themselves as human if outsiders crossed their path.
As they entered the settlement, some of the group broke off to deliver their collection of scavenged goods from the wreckage and the hunt. The rest continued forward, feeling eyes on them as they headed to the shaman’s tent. Unlike the hunters dressed in their human garb, the others of the village in wolf bodies wore little clothing aside from decorative jewelry. Bright tribal tattoos were painted or permanently etched into their fur.
A few adults followed the hunters into the shaman’s tent. Mothers held squalling babies and curious toddlers, keeping them from pursuing their fathers and brothers. Inside, the air was warm. A soft fire glowed in the center of the ample space. Around the pit were furs and goosedown pillows for visitors. The shaman lay with one of his wives while the other worked at a loom toward the back.
The shaman, an elder wolf of dark grey fur and golden eyes, sat up, his beads clicking softly in his mane and in the jewelry around his neck and arms. He took the paw of the mate at his side and gave it a kiss, telling her to wait before stepping forward to greet the crowd.
“My children, you return with a human?”
Aitu knelt before him, trying to keep the sword he had taken hidden under his cloak. “Shaman Vatea, we do not mean to disturb you, but we seek your guidance.”
Shaman Vatea tilted his head. He took a deep breath, taking in the salty scent that stuck to the human. He smelled of far away, a stranger much like one they had found before. “A wise decision, Aitu. Torlarrin, set him before me. Let’s wake the human and find out why it is here.”
Torlarrin, now a brawny, ruddy-brown wolf, huffed and laid the human on the ground. The shaman uncorked a bottle given to him by one of his wives; each nose in the area twitched as the scent of bitter salts pierced their senses. Shaman Vatea held the bottle under the human’s nose.
On the ground, Dyri’s nose was assaulted by a terrible smell. He gagged and coughed, sitting up and swatting away whatever the thing was. Blinking his eyes, he looked around as his vision came into focus.
Before him was a large black wolf-like creature. Dyri yelped and tried to scrabble away, only to bump into strong legs. He was met with a more powerful brown wolf when he looked up. All around him were wolfmen and men dressed in wolf skins. Werewolves? What afterlife had the gods plunged him in to be surrounded by werewolves?
“Human,” said the black wolf; the grey around his eyes and muzzle and the authority in his voice marked him as an elder of some importance. “Human why have you come?”
Dyri’s mouth hung open. He couldn’t speak as fear gripped his throat tighter than a snake.
The elder wolf sat back, the beads in his braided mane clicking as they moved. “I am Shaman Vatea. You are commanded to speak and answer for your trespassing. You are not from these lands, therefore you threaten the safety of our clan with evil spirits. Speak so that you may have choice in your fate. If you do not, you will die here and now!”
“Expedition!” Dyri finally exclaimed. “I- I was part of an expedition with a large crew of men and women looking for new land.” He glanced around, examining the other humans but saw no one he recognized. “Are there… Have you killed my companions?”
The shaman turned his eyes to the hunters, who shook their heads. To Dyri, he said, “It seems only you survived.”
Shaman Vatea rose to his feet and took the ritual staff from one of his wives. The other gave him a pouch of herbs which he packed into a special pipe. Lighting the herbs, Vatea took a deep breath and opened his mind to the word of the spirits. Voices filled his mind, each offering advice or demand. He closed his eyes and considered their words carefully.
Around him, his pack, those he considered children under his guidance, waited in silence. He could smell the sweat on the human’s flesh. Feel the energy wafting off of him like a miasma of ill intent. Spirits from wherever he came from had followed and were looking for mischief.
A voice whispered in Vatea’s ear, making it flick with interest. With one last inhale from the pipe, Vatea blew the smoke through his nostrils then rattled the bones on his staff to dismiss remaining spirits. His wives lit special incense around the tent to cleanse the air.
Vatea took a seat before the human. “The spirits have spoken. You will not be harmed here, human, so long as you do as they bid.”
At first, Dyri was relieved these creatures were offering him mercy. However, the strange grin on the shaman’s face told him there was more to it. He waited for the elder to continue; when he didn’t, Dyri prompted him, “And…?”
The shaman leaned back, wrapping his arms around the shoulders and waist of his wives, two beautiful white wolves. His smirk grew wider as he explained, “You, human, may stay in our settlement under one condition only. Refusal means death. You are to take a new name, grow out your hair and braid it, and take on the roles as performed by our women.” The shaman extended a clawed finger, pointing to Dyri. “You are to become a woman of the clan and serve our people as one. In all ways.”