The Vimmark moutains stretched along the southern coast of the Free Marches. They were brooding sentries, jealously guarding the lush plains and verdant countryside of the north. They were not as ominous as the Frostbacks or as mysterious as The Hundred Pillars, nor were they as desolate as the Gamordan Peaks. But the Vimmarks were not to be taken lightly, and their foreboding presence jutted out from the towering redwoods of the Planasene Forest.
The mountains had a way of tearing down a person to their very bones, leaving nothing but the foundation for a new life to be built upon. They tested your determination, your will, and your ability to survive. They took everything away, rebuilt you up as if out of clay, shaped you, and released you back into the world, a new person. The ultimate test was whether or not you could survive the treacherous peaks, the crumbling paths, the isolation; but once you came out alive, the entire world would move to meet your steps. It was the last test for the future Maiden of the Hunt. Winter in the mountains, come out changed and alive, and then you will wear the Mantle.
Old Bida stared at the craggy spires of the Vimmarks, her eyes now rheumy and no longer full of the light of her youth. Fifty years ago she had stood in this very spot, looking on the peaks with optimism and excitement. Now her heart was filled with regret and loss. So much time had passed since she walked out of the Wilderness and was rewarded with the Mantle. So much time had passed since she earned her title as Maiden of the Hunt. Time was not kind. Her hands now shook constantly, fingers crippled and stiff from years of using her bow. Old injuries kept her from standing too long, and her breath always came short. The bloom of her youth had flown away, and now a new initiate stood with her, waiting to test her soul against the Wild as so many more had before her in the fifty years she wore the Mantle.
She turned her head to look at the girl now. Elain was small, short even for an elf, but well built. She was covered in lean muscle, a side effect of years of training, and her stance spoke of an air of entitlement. She was the kind of person who demanded attention at all times, and often even deserved it. She focused on the horizon, the sun peaking from behind the mountains in a pinkish haze, her lips pursed in deep thought. Elain was the opposite of what Old Bida was in her huntress days; wild and dangerous compared to her own naive and carefree nature. Years of living as a figurehead brought bitterness to her once light heart though, and she grew resentful of her position. Bida knew that would not happen to Elain. The girl knew her duty, and had trained for it with a ruthlessness that frightened other elves in the clan. But it would keep her alive out there. A pity more huntresses didn’t possess her mettle, or they may have not met their doom in these dark passages.
And yet Bida did sense sadness in the girl standing next to her. Her posture was usually so challenging, but today, it seemed deflated. Something weighed heavily on her heart, but she would not pry. The life of the Maiden was a lonely one, as Bida had learned, and coddling her now would only cause more trouble as she wore the Mantle. The clan had already sent her off and now all that was left was her immediate family, waiting as Elain steeled herself to say her goodbyes. She put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“You must go now, da’len, or else you will lose your nerve,” Bida said sternly, brooking no argument. Elain looked at her and nodded, her face now cold and impassive. Bida did not smile, but she felt her heart warm at the resolve the girl showed today. She had learned her lessons well. She motioned to Paeris, Elain’s brother, for the small stool he held for her. The morning had been long and full of ritual, and all she wanted to do was let her old joints rest while she watched the girl listen to encouraging words from her family.
Paeris embraced the girl first, a hug that only siblings can share. It was full of secrets and affection, whispered memories long gone. He said to her in a low voice, “You can do this.” It was more for himself than Elain. He'd always be over-protective of his sister, always the doting older brother who tried to hide the problems and calamities of the world from her. Elain was wise enough to know that he needed it for his own piece of mind rather than as a way of controlling her. This separation would be hard on Paeris.
Next was Sohta, the mother of her childhood friend, Revas. After the girl’s mother had died in childbirth, Sohta nursed her as a tiny baby, her own son being six months old and weaning at the time. She was the closest thing to a mother Elain had known. Sohta cried dramatically, distraught over the thought of losing the girl who she thought of as a daughter. Elain comforted her, stroked her arms, called her “Mamae”, and assured her she would be fine. Sohta was not convinced. The hysterics grated on Bida's nerves, and she silently hoped for someone to interrupt her fawning.
Her request was answered as Master Vhannas lightly tugged on Sohta's arm and pulled her to the side. He said no words to his daughter. He knew above everyone what she was capable of, since he shaped her from her birth just as steadily as the mountains themselves would. His only guidance was a small kiss on her head, and a pat on her shoulder. It was enough.
At last, the girl’s best friend approached her. His eyes had purplish bags underneath, a sign of a restless night. His lips were a thin line, teeth most likely biting the inside to prevent him from losing his composure. They stared at one another, obviously unsure of what to say, both hoping the other would speak up. When neither one did, Elain pulled the leather cord on her neck and lifted it off over her head. Attached to the cord was a small ivory halla, one she was never seen without. She grabbed the boy’s hand, and placed the halla inside, forcing his fingers closed around it. He shook his head and moved his hand towards her, but she pushed it back and said, “Take care of it for me while I'm gone. You can give it back when I return.” He nodded his head in agreement and placed the necklace around his own neck, the ivory halla touching the onyx halla he wore himself. Old Bida realized that both figurines had been carved by the same hand. Her own hands twitched.
Elain turned to walk away but paused. She shifted the pack slung around her shoulder, and turned back to face the boy. She stood on her tiptoes and placed a soft kiss on Revas’ cheek, a fleeting thought she most likely needed to get out of her head before embarking on her test. The boy flushed under her kiss and watched her with his mouth agape as she began to walk away towards the mountains. She did not turn around again, and after a few moments, she disappeared into the dark woods leading her to the meandering mountain paths.
The group stood in silence, waiting for something, anything to break the still quiet. But the forest was eerily silent, and their hearts weighed as heavy as the coming winter chill. Old Bida refused to wait any longer though. She was too old to mourn something that wasn’t lost yet, and motioned for Sohta to bring her halla to ride back to camp. Her old bones wouldn’t make it that far on their own, so Sohta guided the beast as Bida wrapped herself in wool blankets on its back.
The men walked ahead of them, Master Vhannas in stony silence, and Paeris throwing accusing glances towards Revas. She smiled to herself at their artless anger over Elain’s action. The girl’s decisions had been made by her father her entire life, and her brother felt she was incapable of handling anything beyond the duty expected of her. They both underestimated her intentions. An act of free will as innocent as a tiny kiss showed how aware Elain was of her life and role, and Bida was proud of her ability to surprise and confuse. She would make a fine Maiden.
Later in the day, once the sun returned and the camp settled down from the morning's rituals, Old Bida sent for the boy to discuss thoughts weighing on her mind. She sipped on her tea and tried to ward off the cool air under the heavy blankets. It was of no use. The wind snapped right through her, and she never seemed to be able to warm her old bones. Each winter was more difficult. She would not make it through many more.
When Revas arrived, he was out of breath and red in the face. She invited him in her small canopied resting place with a gesture of her hand. He nodded graciously and sat on the stool near her cot.
“Would you like some tea, da'len? I'm afraid it has gotten cold from this bitter wind. But you do look a tad overheated,” she offered a cup and winked at him.
He smiled at her and reached for the cup. His lip was cracked and bleeding, and his hands were wrapped in leather. He had been fighting. The young hunters of the clan often grew restless and practiced hand-to-hand training on each other. It was a way to work some of the steam out of their hot blood. She knew that the boy was notoriously aggressive though, and she theorized that he was working out more than just steam.
“Thank you, hahren. I was going a round against Twig when the runner you sent arrived,” he apologized and sipped the tea.
“Twig? Is that what Kell's boy is calling himself nowadays?” she inquired as she drank from her own cup.
Revas smacked his lips and set his cup down on the ground next to him. “Yeah. Well, someone else gave him the nickname. We were hunting and Twig took down a wild boar that was on a path to gore Sorn. He cracked its back,” he made a snapping gesture with his hands, “Like a twig. It kind of stuck.”
Old Bida chuckled, “It seems all the young hunters are making names for themselves by saving poor Sorn'il from impending doom. Except for you, of course. You earned your fame in a much more...heroic way.”
She reached down between her furs and the frame of her cot and pulled out a metal flask. Carefully, she popped the lid with her shaking hands and poured a cap full of the strong spirits in her tea.
“I've heard even the Diceni Clan talk about your deeds in the Autini Valley,” she continued, “That band of slave hunters had been harassing clans in the Marches for months, spiriting away too many scouts and wandering hunters. You saved not only Elain's life, but the freedom of many more.”
Revas' hand rubbed the back of his head, and Bida noticed a flush creeping up his neck. He was still uncomfortable talking about the ambush, it seemed. It was strange seeing him so reserved. The boy was usually so willing to flaunt his victories and rub salt in the wounds of those he defeated. She wondered if all the loss he endured had calmed his hot blood a bit.
“I would've rather gotten famous for breaking a boar's back, to be honest. Autini was a damn nightmare,” he replied, his voice betraying his discomfort.
“And yet, there would've been three dead elves in that valley instead of one if it hadn't been for you,” she stated. It wasn't a placation, it was a fact. And the boy was smart enough not to try to argue with her.
“Why did you ask me to come?” he questioned. The idle chatter was over, and he was making a move to change the subject.
“The truth? I wanted to speak with you about your future as Banal'ras,” she started. He barked a laugh and shook his head at her.
“What makes you think I want to be the Shadow of the Maiden?”
“Do you think my eyes are so bad I cannot see what's obvious, boy? You've been her shadow since she learned she could wrap you around her little finger. This is just an official recognition of it,” she replied coolly. She took another sip of her tea, feeling his mood change immediately.
“You make a lot of assumptions, Old Bida. Elain doesn't control me. No one does,” he stood up with barely concealed anger, ready to leave. She had to reign him back in. If she didn't, he would refuse to work with her out of spite.
“Leaving so soon? And without giving proper deference to your elder? Hmph,” she put on airs of offense, “What would your poor father say?”
He stopped dead in his tracks. His whole body seemed to tense and go into a supernatural stillness. His fingers flexed, as though there was a phantom bow he was grasping between them. He was on the full defensive.
Her arrow had hit its mark. Revas' father had died only a couple of years prior on a hunt. He had been a pious man, respectful and serious. The man had always tried guide his son towards a more humble demeanor, and to curb his fiery temper. But just as the halla his mother had raised him around, no force could chain the boy's spirit. It would serve him well if he only learned to harness it. Bida planned to test whether or not he could.
“My father would be offended at your lack of respect for a fully-blooded hunter, hahren,” he said through gritted teeth. His hand balled into a fist, a physical sign of his rage brewing.
“I spoke no disrespect. Elain does not command you with her words, certainly. Your heart is another matter,” her voice was barely above a whisper. No one was meant to hear her words but him.
“I am not blind. I know what I saw this morning in the mountain passage. And Vhannas will know as well. If you would like to see yourself quietly banned to another clan or worse, then by all means, walk away,” she watched as his fist uncurled.
“I'm not afraid of Vhannas,” he said with more authority than she would have expected.
“You should be. He is a subtle man. His means of ridding his daughter of you will be unexpected but entirely rational. No one will argue on your behalf, and you will be disposed of as soon as nothing can come back to him,” she spoke of the darker side of Vhannas. The one very few knew of, and even fewer lived through once they saw it.
“Are you trying to tell me that Vhannas...Master Vhannas, our head craftsman...would have me killed? For being friends with his daughter?” Revas lowered his voice, but his disbelief was clear.
“More than friends, and don't deny it. You saved his daughter in Autini. That is the only thing protecting you now. Once she is Maiden, you will become a distraction for her in his eyes. Her willful kiss this morning is proof to him. That will be all he needs,” she spelled out for him what he seemed too naive to see.
He walked back to the little stool next to her cot and sat back down. He reached for the flask she had pulled out earlier and she handed it to him. He drank deeply before giving it back to her, and put his head in his hands. The truth was often hard to accept, but a hunter knew how important self-preservation was. The boy would make the right decision.
“What do I do?” he lifted his head, cheeks red and eyes tired.
“Ideally, you must get Paeris on your side. He can help convince his father you aren't a threat to Elain. If you cannot, you must keep silent. Do not tell a soul your intention to compete to become Banal'ras. But in either situation, you must win the right to be her Shadow. You will hold the most power in that position. Even Vhannas would not make a move against the Banal'ras.” The pieces of the game moved before her eyes, and she saw every outcome of every action, as she knew he would. They were trained as hunters. Trained to take advantage of their surroundings. Trained to see every weakness and exploit it.
“What if I don't win the title?” he pressed.
“If you, the best hunter in Clan Lavellan, cannot win the title, then perhaps you deserve the fate Vhannas decides for you,” she said coldly.
“He will decide nothing for me,” he said as he rose to leave again. There was little else to say. The plots had been spelled out, her suggestions laid before him like offerings at a shrine. He stopped just before he exited her small pavilion, refusing to face her.
“You will not decide for me either, Old Bida. And neither will Elain. What I do is my choice. Forget that, and I will reveal your clumsy plotting to Vhannas myself,” he said with quiet menace as he walked away.
She smiled as she drank what was left in her flask. She had underestimated him just as much as Vhannas. It was not a mistake she would make again.