The Children of the Forest

As told by Raleigh Mercy Hills, Tennessee Shifter Enclave

Once upon a time in the old country, there was a famine. The crops had failed for the second year in a row, and the little town didn’t know what to do. With winter approaching, it became clear that there would not be enough food to feed all the people who lived in the town, not by half. So they all came together one night as winter began to bare its teeth, and talked about what they should do.

“We should send the old ones out into the forest to be eaten by wolves,” said some. But the old ones would not agree and argued of all the knowledge they held that would be lost to the little town, and so the old ones were spared.”

And the townspeople said, “We should send those whose children are grown out into the woods, for they would have the best chance of surviving.” But those with grown children would not agree and they argued that their experience and their still strong bodies would be needed in the next planting season, if the gods saw fit to give them good weather. So they, too, were spared.

And so it went, through those with children and those without and those just old enough to no longer be children. And each group had an excuse as to why they should not be sent out into the woods to fend for themselves.

Which is how it was that they came to talk of the children, who being too young to speak in a meeting like this one, were home in their beds asleep. “They’re young, they contribute nothing to the town,” said one person. “They are a drain on our resources,” said another. And a third, “We can always have more, they can be replaced.”

“Where are we going?” the children asked as they followed their parents out into the trees.

“Someplace special,” their parents said and led them deeper into the woods.

Finally, they came to a clearing in the middle of the woods, where the trees had grown so tall that the ground beneath it was clear of snow.

“You can stay here while we go prepare,” the townsfolk said and left their children in the middle of clearing with a bag of bread and another of apples.

The children waited patiently for their parents to return, playing games as all children are wont to do. Soon it began to snow and shortly after that, small tummies began to rumble, wanting their lunches. They shared the bread and apples they’d been given, for they were good children, and made seats of the snow around the edges of the clearing. But soon the light began to fade and the children began to wonder where their parents were.

“Maybe they got lost. We should go look for them,” said one boy, older than the rest.

“No, you might get lost. They’ll find us,” said a girl of nearly the same age.

So they waited and the sky grew dark. In the distance, forest creatures howled and barked and made strange screeching noises, and the children huddled together both for warmth and protection. But in their sheltered clearing, no beasts approached, and so the first night passed.

“I’m hungry,” said one of the littlest ones.

The girl searched through her pockets, for they had eaten all the apples and bread the day before, but all she could find was three hard old biscuits, so dry that when she tried to break them, they shivered into a dozen pieces each. “Here, have this,” she said, and gave one piece to each of the other children, keeping nothing for herself.

“I have something too,” said the boy, in a tone of surprise. “I wonder where it came from.” He held out his hand, bearing three thick strips of meat, dried and cured. “We can share this too.” And the boy and the girl twisted and pulled on the strips of meat until they had pieces of meat for all but two of their group. “I can eat snow. Don’t worry about me,” said the boy, and passed the pieces out to the children.

“I know which roots are good,” said the girl. “I will go look.”

“And I’ll stay here and keep the children safe,” said the boy.

And so the second day passed. They slept that night curled up together and the boy and the girl took it in turns to watch over them through the night, for the sounds of the forest beasts had grown closer.

On the third day, the boy made a fire out of twigs and dried leaves so they could cook the roots gathered by the girl, and so they fed the children again, taking nothing for themselves. But while the children played happily in the snow after their meal, the boy and the girl drew themselves aside to make some plans.

“They left us here,” the girl said.

“We shall have to find our own way out of the wood,” the boy said.

“We will need food. I will go again to search for roots to feed the children, and then tomorrow we will search for a new home.”

And so they did as they had done the day before, the boy caring for the younger children while the girl searched for roots and other edible things for their journey. Having already harvested in the places closest to their camp, she found her self ranging farther afield, the snow growing deeper and the plants more difficult to find. The sky grew dark and the girl realized that she was lost. She looked at her bag of roots, so carefully harvested, and lamented, “Oh, how shall I feed my children if I cannot find them?”

“You are rather young for children,” said a woman’s voice behind her. It was warm and loving and yet as wild as the wood itself and it made the girl feel safe despite the crowding trees and the wild sounds of the beasts around her.

When the girl turned around, she gasped the beauty of the woman standing before her. She was tall and lovely, with long dark hair and blue eyes that shone like the sky at noon. She wore a long gown of white wool and a hooded cloak of gray wolf fur. “My lady,” the girl said. “I did not birth them, but sure as I stand before you, they are in my care now.”

“And where are these children that you did not birth but still care for?” the woman asked.

“In a clearing in the trees, guarded by my friend,” the girl told her. “We were left here by our parents and now must find our own way to safety, but we had no food. I came to look for roots to cook, but now I am lost and the children will be hungry.”

The woman walked toward her, her steps as graceful as the trees bending in the wind. She put a hand, warm and smelling of fur, under the girl’s chin and asked, “Do you love these children?”

“They are my charge and I do love them. They do not deserve this.”

The woman nodded. “Then follow me, child.” And then she turned and walked off into the trees, and the tracks she left behind were those of a wolf.

The girl followed her without fear, for despite the wildness that surrounded her like a perfume, the girl felt safe with this strange woman. Even when the wolves came out from between the trees to walk beside them, she felt no fear, for the wolves felt like brothers to her.

They walked in silence for a long time, until the girl’s curiosity overcame her. “May I ask Lady, what is your name? I have never seen anyone like you before.”

The woman turned a loving smile on her. “And nor will you. I am the Lady Lysoonka, goddess to the wild things of the wood.” At that moment, the light of a fire flickered through the trees and the Lady led the girl into the clearing.

The boy jumped to his feet and set himself between them and the children.

“Who is this?” he asked. He had a stick in his hand, heavy and dangerous. “Why are there wolves with you?”

The Lady put her hood back and the moon shone on her hair like silver. “I am the Lady of Wolves, Lysoonka of the forest. Tell me, what would you give to be able to provide for these young ones?” Her wolves sat beside her like sentinels, watching the children with eyes that shone with an ancient intelligence.

“What would you ask of me?” the boy asked warily. “I will not leave them without a protector.”

The woman smiled at him. “That is good, one should not trust too readily in this world. And the choice I offer you will make that caution even more necessary as time passes.” She gestured at the girl. “And you, what would you offer me for the lives of these children?”

“I would offer whatever was needed, so long as there was someone left to lead and care for them.”

The Lady Lysoonka stroked her fingers over the girl’s cheek in a loving touch. “You are indeed a brave heart and a kind one.” She turned to them both. “This I offer, for whatever I give, there must be something of equal value in return. So long as you worship me in the ways of the moon and the hunt, I will give two forms to wear–that which you show at this moment, and one to match my other children.” He hand dropped stroked the ruff of the wolf on her right. “I will teach you to live in the forest and in the world of man and you will thrive as masters of both.”

“And I will teach you care for your pack, how to tread the paths of leadership and bring prosperity to your pack,” said a deep bass voice from the other side of the clearing.

The boy spun to see who had crept upon them and found a man, tall and dark, wearing the fur coat of a wolf.

“Who are you?” the boy demanded.

“I am your father, child, if you accept my wife’s bargain. The Lord of Wolves, Lysoon of the forest. God of the wild things, guardian of the weak. Will you worship me and follow in my footsteps?”

The boy looked at the girl and she looked back at him. At his nod, she turned to the forest gods and said, “We will take your bargain, so long as it brings no harm to the children. Do you give your word?”

“Sworn on the life of the trees around us,” the Lady said. “You are my daughter, as he is my husband’s son.”

The Lord and the Lady of Wolves held their hands over the boy and the girl. “Take the hands of your children,” the Lady commanded. “Let them all be joined, as we of the forest join with you. And let us rejoice in this new life before you.”

The children came forward fearlessly and they all linked hands, from biggest to smallest, so that no one was alone, and everyone had someone to hold onto. The Lord and Lady sang to them, quiet songs of the den and family, wild songs of the hunt and the wind in the trees, the smell of fresh blood and the happiness of a full belly. And the children changed, their bodies bending and shifting to greet their new forms. Soon, a pack of wolves greeted the moon from within the clearing, their coats warm against the frost in the air. Only the boy and the girl had kept their human form.

The Lady turned to the girl. “You I will name Luba, for you have within you a great love, and it will serve you and your people well.”

She turned to the boy. “And you shall be named Vadik, for you shall be the ruler of your new people, and lead them in safety and prosperity. Never forget that those who rule must be gentle as well as strong, and care for their people before themselves.” And the boy and girl nodded and they knew their names. The Lord and the Lady laid kisses on their brows, and then the boy and the girl, Vadik and Luba as they had been named, took their new forms and romped in the snow with their new pack.

When they had accustomed themselves to four legs and a tail and the scents of the nighttime forest, the Lord and Lady led them away from the clearing that had sheltered them and brought them to a new home, in a valley rich with prey and sheltered from the cold north winds.

And there she left them, though it was not to be for long. As the boy and the girl grew, she visited often to teach them the ways of the forest. Their small pack increased in wealth and power and knowledge, and it was good. Vadik grew strong and handsome, as noble as any of the most revered rulers in the world. Luba became a woman as beautiful and fierce as the wolves of the forest that were their cousins. And when the time came, the boy and the girl were mated by the Lady Lysoonka under the light of the full moon while the Lady’s mate himself looked on and blessed them. And their children and their children’s children grew and prospered.

And thus were the people of the moon born and how shifters came to be.