Night came quietly following the meeting of the wildling and the witch. Ren tore himself from his daydreaming as he remembered his responsibilities. Giving the dead unicorn a final, disdainful glare, he shook the dampness from his furred limbs before raising his head to utter a haunting call into the air. Within moments, other voices from various, far-flung corners of the forest echoed back in reply. Ren only gave a relieved snort after he heard the sixth. Good, they were all safe.
One by one, six other wildlings would arrive in the clearing as the sun vanished behind the mountains and cast them into growing shadows, their eyes adjusting easily to the gloom. First came the smallest of them, an eager, tan and brown female with water-slick fur and hair that still dripped as she clicked happily at Ren, her sharp-toothed grin pink with blood and her freckled cheeks still flecked with fish scales.
“Otter,” he acknowledged her with a nod from his post on a nearby rock, tail tucked up around the front of his legs. “Good hunt?”
“Very, very,” she hummed, beaming at him a moment before turning to investigate the unicorn. “The river is heavy, storms always bring out the big fish. But look at you, you got a silver horse.”
“It was hardly worth the headache it caused,” he grumbled, earning a inquisitive look from the other wildling. “I’ll explain once the others come.”
“Unlike you,” another voice observed, a greenish-brown wildling appearing from the tree above Ren, skin covered in moss and scales rather than fur, his tail coiled into a spiral. “To regret a hunt. Must be big news.”
“Chameleon,” Ren muttered, glancing up and watching the other hop from the tree to join Otter, checking her for injuries until she hissed at him and whapped him in the nose with a palm.
“Silver horse!” crowed a third wildling as he bounded into the clearing, losing his footing in his enthusiasm and tumbled to the ground, rolling through the grass until he came to a halt thanks to one of Chameleon’s feet flicking out against his forehead to stop him.
Easily twice the size of Ren in muscle weight, this wildling was white from head to toe, boasting thick fur, wicked-long claws, and a stub where a tail had once been that accounted for his poor sense of balance. He blinked up at Chameleon with pink eyes a moment before giving a loud laugh.
“Easy, Bear, you graceless oaf,” Ren snorted, clearly amused as he smirked a bit.
“I thought I smelled a delicacy,” crooned another female voice, though far more aged than Otter.
A thin, somewhat frail-looking wilding with clouded amber eyes stepped carefully into the clearing as she held to the arm of a black-maned wildling that walked with a gnarled wooden cane. While she was cream and grey with a pointed nose and feather-like patches of fur, he was tawny-furred, battle-scarred and had a slight limp. Patting his arm in thanks, she stood away to crouch and accept a hug from Otter as she skipped up to her, smiling at the younger wildling’s affection.
“And how is my little imp?”
“Full of fish, Lady Heron!”
“Been a while since we had silver horse, yer kind to share, Ren,” the maned wildling said, the volume of his voice a bit louder than necessary.
“Better than wasting it, Lion,” Ren called back, rising from the rock to await the sixth and final member of his pack.
Finally, the last wildling arrived, slipping quietly into the clearing as the first stars began to appear in the night sky. They were taller than any of the others, long hair falling into their face and thin fingers clasped together over their stomach, boasting brown-spotted tan fur and a charming smile as they saw the others gathered together. Unlike the other wildlings, they wore a tattered poncho that they had stolen from a human’s laundry line, preferring to keep it draped over their narrow shoulders and chest.
“Hyena, there you are,” Ren greeted, rolling his eyes as the other playfully bowed at the waist to him. “That’s everyone, then.”
Ren’s pack were an odd bunch, as wildlings generally did not live in large groups, preferring a solitary life or the company of only one or two others. When he was young and on his own, he had struggled, often going days between meals and being reduced to scavenging when larger predators---even other wildlings---would bully him away from his kills. One summer, he stumbled upon a pack that had come to rest beside a lake, several of the younger members playing in the water while the older wildlings kept watch. Approaching cautiously, Ren was greeted by the Alpha, a grizzled old female with silvery fur and kind green eyes.
In time, he came to understand that the pack had formed out of necessity, each wildling present possessing some manner of disadvantage that was overcome by forming a unit. The Alpha explained that no one wildling could do everything on their own, but as a pack, nothing was impossible. When her time came years later, she chose Ren as her successor, trusting that the young but passionate wildling would do right by them. Of the original pack, only two of the elders remained, four others having joined after the passing of the former Alpha.
“Anything of interest in the wood as of late?” he asked, settling now that his pack was together again.
“All is calm on the edge of the wood,” Hyena replied. “Though the humans have built a new wall. Iron spikes along the top, they’ve learned to fear our kind.”
“There’s a new pack of wolves prowling at the base of the stone slope,” Otter chirped, settling to sit beside Chameleon in the cool grass. “Scrappy things, I don’t think they’ll pose a threat.”
“More scouts,” he supplied as he ruffled the smaller wildling’s hair playfully. “Just looking, mapping. No hunts, but they carry weapons. Will continue to watch.”
“Lion found a dragon’s scale by the south lake,” Lady Heron explained, perching herself on a nearby log after her companion led her to it. “No other signs, so we hope that it was merely passing through and stopped for water.”
“Did you tell him about the scale?” Lion loudly asked, causing her to laugh softly with a nod as she pat his leg when he sat beside her.
“Autumn’s waning early this cycle,” Bear offered with a yawn, flopping onto his back in the grass with a pat to his round belly. “Gathered up lots of nuts and fruit for the winter cave, checked the water spring. Everything should be ready for us when the first frost comes.”
Ren took his time circling through his gathered pack, making certain that each was in good health as he listened to each wildling’s report, pleased to find everything in order and nothing of great concern to address. Sighing, he hopped back onto his rock and ran a hand through his hair, tutting as a finger snagged on a tangle.
“I’ve called you all in for your share of my kill, but also to tell you of a new...problem,” he began, already earning a look of concern from Otter and a raised brow from Lady Heron. “Do you see the trap there? Beside the unicorn?”
“I had wondered,” Chameleon agreed with a nod. “You wouldn’t take easy prey from a trap.”
“No, I wouldn’t. I was chasing it down and got my own leg stuck. It isn’t like the ones the humans use with sharp teeth. Cold iron and engraved with runes, it’s a witch’s trap.”
“Witches? This deep in the wood?” Otter blurted, eyes wide.
“A witch,” Ren corrected, looking a touch embarrassed after admitting his mistake. “A male one. He had been baiting the trap for the same unicorn that I had been tracking, and unfortunately, our paths crossed with me at a severe disadvantage.”
“And what could have possibly inspired a witch to give up a unicorn and a wildling?” Lady Heron hummed, intrigued by the unfolding story, eyes crinkling with a sly smile.
“I made a deal with him. And that’s where my problem lies…”
“Our problem,” Hyena corrected with a chuckle. “Nothing we face we face alone. So, what did we offer the witch in return for your life?”
“The Prince of the Forest,” Ren sighed, flinching as Hyena burst into laughter.
“But that doesn’t make any sense, you---” Otter began, but Chameleon shushed her with a pat to the head.
“We hunt the Great Stag!” Bear cheered, sitting upright in his excitement, clapping his hands together.
“That’s quite a task you’ve taken on,” Lady Heron said, blind eyes lifting to the sky. “I remember long ago when I was young, I saw the Stag. More like a bolt of lightning, he outruns even the wind. Do you really believe you can catch him?”
“If anyone can, it’s Ren,” Otter huffed, crossing her arms over her chest.
“How long do we have? Until the witch wants payment,” Chameleon asked.
“Winter,” their leader grumbled, moving over to poke at the unicorn’s head with his foot. “The witch didn’t exactly require it, but suggested it pretty heavily. He can keep an eye on my whereabouts, so I would prefer that our gatherings be brief and far between. I don’t want him to know about the rest of you.”
“But we are a pack, we do everything together, as one,” Hyena hummed, wiping a tear of humor from their eye. “That breaks our rule.”
“I’m still your leader,” Ren countered, kneeling down at the unicorn’s side to begin butchering it for his pack, Chameleon and Otter soon joining him to make the work easier while their older packmates rested. “It’s my duty to protect each of you. But that said, I can still count on you each to play a part. The wood is too vast for me to hunt the Prince alone, after all. I’m certain I can take him down, but tracking him, flushing him out...that’s what I need help with.”
“Anything you need, we do,” Lady Heron offered, Lion looking to her for a moment before glancing back to the others by the unicorn.
“I know,” he replied with a half-smile, handing the heart to Otter, who wandered off to give it to Lady Heron. “We need to work quickly, I don’t want to have this...thing looking over my back any longer than I have to. So tonight, we rest and make ready, we’ll begin the hunt tomorrow.”
“Plan?” Chameleon asked, taking the liver from the other wildling’s hands to offer it to Lion.
“Starting at first light, we divide up again and begin combing the wood,” Ren explained, handing off a sizable hunk of meat to Otter as she returned, sending her over to Bear with it. “Lady Heron, you and Lion will take the north. Bear and Hyena, west. You and Otter take south and I’ll start in the east. Call out if you find any signs of the Prince and we’ll work on running him to exhaustion and cornering him someplace. Drive him to the briars if you can, even he can’t prance through them as easily. Get him tangled up, surrounded, and I can finish him off.”
“Sounds fun!” Bear laughed around a mouthful, cheeks slick with silvery blood as he grinned eagerly at their new hunt.
“Can we wear the skulls, Ren? Please? It’s been so long, and this is as special a hunt as they come!” Otter chirped, Chameleon smirking around a mouthful.
“Gods help the poor humans if they see us. You remember what happened last time we wore them,” Lady Heron chuckled, though even she offered a sharp grin. “We became legend.”
On very special, rare occasions, the pack would gather to don blackened skulls and armor made of bone before tracking their quarry. Ren found that these trappings heightened their senses and tapped them into a deep, primal energy hidden inside all wildlings. These artifacts had always been part of this pack as far as he knew, his own passed down to him when the former Alpha passed. When not in use, they were kept in their winter cave, and he was ultimately the one who decided if and when they would wear them.
Ren wished he knew more about where they had come from, but there was no recorded history: they just were. New packmates would first prove their worth before being taken down into the chamber in which they stored the skulls and armor, and only when they had found the one that called to them would they be given a name that was usually based on the skull that had chosen them.
“Let them spin their rumors, any of them that get in the way will learn the truth for themselves,” Ren grumbled, looking over his fellow wildlings and he felt his spirits lifting already, even beginning to get genuinely excited for the hunt. “We’ll wear the skulls.”
“I haven’t been on a Great Hunt in eons,” Hyena sighed, looking wistful. “This will be fun.”
“You do realize the ripples this will cause, however,” Lady Heron spoke up, turning her unseeing gaze to Ren with a somber expression. “In claiming the life of the Prince, you vacate his crown. It would leave the wood vulnerable, not to have a leader.”
“The witch wants the crown, what he chooses to do with that responsibility is none of my concern once the task is done,” Ren growled, nose wrinkling slightly. “We keep to our own, I don’t see why I should worry about anyone else being vulnerable.”
“Still a stubborn pup,” Hyena scoffed, teeth showing in their wide smile. “You would pass that burden to someone else.”
“Someone who wants it!” he snapped back, earning laughter from the other wildling. “The witch lives in the wood, so he knows how things work. He would have refused my offer if it wasn’t something he was after!”
“Is it wise to let a witch be the new Prince? I’ve not heard pleasant things about them,” Otter inquired, brushing at her scale-sprinkled cheek with the back of a hand. “What if he’s a cruel ruler and banishes us? Or makes an alliance with the human’s king and lets them chop all the trees down and hunt unchecked?”
“You worry too much,” Chameleon snorted, earning a smack to his arm by the small wildling.
“I worry just the right amount! The humans already push their boundaries, all quiet and sneaky,” she huffed. “If they take over the wood, we lose our home!”
“I would never let that happen,” Ren assured her.
“Well, then I hope you know how to fight a witch if you need to,” she concluded, arms crossing over her chest as she stared at him firmly. “Because I don’t trust someone you had to cut a deal with to avoid getting...eaten? Do witches eat wildlings?”
“I think he mentioned using me for ingredients…” he admitted, flinching when she glared at him. “Alright, alright! I get it. I’ll be more cautious. Like I said, we get this done quick and never have to deal with him again.”
“Unless he starts causing problems for us,” Otter added sourly.
“Yes, unless he starts causing problems for us,” Ren sighed, trying not to look sheepish at her scolding.
Seeming faintly satisfied with his reassurances, the young wildling gave him a nod and returned to eating while Ren looked skyward to study the stars. Bear was right, autumn was already beginning to fade, which gave them much less time to track the Prince. If winter came before they could find him, it would not only become increasingly difficult to pick up his trail, but the witch would surely be on his heels to make sure he made good on his end of their bargain.
Grumbling to himself, Ren got up from the rock and sniffed at the air. Damp leaves, a flowing river, the unicorn and his pack...nothing else of note that he could pick up on. Not that he didn’t trust the other wildlings to be able to take care of themselves, but he was always on-edge, taking his responsibility as their leader quite seriously. Nighttime in the wood could be unforgiving, and now knowing that there was a witch living someplace relatively close by, Ren wasn’t going to take any chances by letting his guard down. Tail twitching behind him, he had the urge to go to their hibernal winter cave tonight, if only to give himself something to do other than thinking.
“Go,” Hyena chuckled with a fond grin. “Even Lady Heron can see that you’re restless. We won’t go anywhere.”
“Will keep watch,” Chameleon offered. “Fetching the bones?”
“Yeah, fetching the bones. Should only take me a few trips. I’m just anxious to get things going, I guess.”
“Race the wind, may as well practice!” laughed Bear from the grass.
“Exactly,” Ren snorted with a grin, taking one last look at his pack before slipping off into the shadows.
Despite loving their company, there were times when it could be overwhelming to be subjected to so many voices and scents all at once for extended periods of time, and Ren needed space to himself. There was an indescribable lightness when he pushed himself to his limits, air howling through his hair and even the sting in his eyes...it’s what he imagined birds and other flying creatures must have felt all the time, though no matter how fast he went, it was never quite enough. He could never leave the ground like wings would allow, and soon enough he would grow winded and need to slow down or stop altogether to catch his breath.
It reminded him briefly of the forced contentment that the witch’s curse caused, still able to recall the odd sensation of having warm sunlight in his chest. It had been...nice, which only served to confuse and piss him off, driving the wildling to run even faster. Nothing about the witch was nice, from his smug face to his unnaturally clean clothes, it all just made him want to shove him down into a bog and drown him in the muck.
“Would serve him right,” he hissed to himself as he bounded effortlessly over a fallen tree, pushing deeper and deeper into the wood.
Come morning light, the great hunt would begin, and then he could wash his hands of the whole affair forever. At least, that had been the plan...