Music chased itself through the trees. Sounds of a flute and a fiddle swooping and leaping around each other. First only a hint of a melody, but it grew stronger and undeniable. The unusual sound stopped Birgith’s tidying away the remaining bread and cheese after breakfast. She had only nibbled at it with her nerves about the manifestation test that afternoon. The Bear Leader and his entourage were due to arrive about lunchtime, in preparation for the event. Did the sounds outside mean her uncle arrived earlier than expected?
Her stomach tied itself in knots as she saw a floatship through the window making its way along the path towards Littledenn. The long narrow wooden vessel floated about knee high along the forest paths, powered by the musical group sitting at the front. This ship had a small cover over the passenger area and was twice as big as any Birgith had seen before. Her heart sank, knowing this must be her uncle, the Bear Leader arriving.
She checked how much water had dripped through the water clock on the mantelpiece since her father had restarted it when he arose at dawn. “It’s only three drogues since sunrise. They must have left the Citadel in the dark to get here now.”
The measured flow of water from one bowl into the other gave structure to their days and reassurance that things followed each other.
“Come on, Birgith. We’d better see them arrive.” Her father’s gruff voice came from behind his beard. “Trust Otto to arrive early to keep us on our toes.” As the Bear Leader’s older brother, and the Lord Warden of the Forest, he would also play a role in the testing ceremony later that day.
They left their cottage on the outskirts of the village, and the door closed behind them with a resounding thud. They followed the path through the trees to the centre of Littledenn. As they drew nearer, the houses got closer together and the trees thinned, but never disappeared as the community was built within the forest. The green at the centre was a large open space with the communal buildings along the edges. They were squat with grass roofs to blend in with the surrounding foliage. Only the plumes of smoke from some chimneys gave away their location.
Birgith wasn’t looking forward to more people being in the village. The prospect of performing in front of the Bear Leader intimidated her enough. He never seemed happy with anything her father did, and that carried through to her too. Birgith’s stomach was jittery at the thought of the testing, so she took deep breaths to calm herself as they walked.
Littledenn didn’t have its own floatship, so this massive one caused lots of excitement among the children. They crowded around to watch as it floated in to the village centre and stopped by the mooring post outside the village chief’s house. The conductor and two players slowed the tempo of their song to prepare it to settle on the ground. Their music floated over the gathering crowd, who waited to welcome the new arrivals.
Once the floatship stopped all the children crowded around, stroking the wooden shell. The three Conservatoire members were the first to leave the ship and make their way to the player’s cottage. There was one in every village, available for players to use, though theirs didn’t get used often. The two players must be highly skilled to levitate a ship of that size. The precision of their music affected the power of magic, so the better the musicians, the stronger the magic they could perform.
Otto, leader of the Bear Clan, and his wife Thanca disembarked and headed straight to the village chief. The Bear Leader looked like a bear, with his ruddy skin and large frame. While his wife walked pale and delicate beside him, all pointy elbows and knees with a permanent look of disdain. The village chief smiled in welcome as they approached, her bright white teeth a contrast against her ebony skin. Her eyes widened at the five large men who followed them out of the floatship and stood awaiting further instructions.
Birgith poked her father before they got too close. “How many men has he brought with him?”
“Does he really think we’re that dangerous?”
He raised one eyebrow at her.
“OK, OK. I’ll be good.”
He smiled and shook his head as they continued toward the group.
Otto smiled thinly at them as they approached and winced when his brother clapped him on the shoulder.
“Brother, so good to see you.” Rupert, Birgith’s father, was all smiles and joy. He tried to counter his brother’s suspicion with positivity, hoping he eventually saw that they posed no threat to his position as Clan Leader. Birgith wasn’t convinced that it would work that way, but she went along with it.
“Rupert. Birgith.” He nodded at them. “So this is the summer you are tested. Are you looking forward to it? I can’t say I was when it was my turn, but then I knew what I would become. And that’s not the same for you, is it now?”
“No, Sir.” Birgith dipped her head to him. He was right, though not for the reason he thought. Birgith knew her heritage, she just didn’t know which of the two would show: bear or dragon. And only one of those was safe to become.
Her father had unknowingly fallen in love with the last remaining dragon and then been left with their daughter to raise. The knowledge that a dragon had survived the purge hundreds of summers before and still lived in Kaitstud would have started a hunt to finish the genocide. So, in order to keep her mother and brothers safe he claimed to have found her as a baby in the forest.
“Good, good. Well, it will all be over soon. Don’t you worry too much.” The Bear Leader’s smile was full of insincerity.
With that, he turned back to the village chief and their conversation about accommodations for his guards. With all the extra visitors already, they only had two small cottages reserved for the Bear Leader and his entourage, which wouldn’t be enough now for all seven of them. And everywhere else was occupied. So however much Otto demanded more space, that couldn’t be fulfilled without kicking somebody else out. And no-one volunteered.
After the conversation had gone around with no progress, Rupert interrupted. “Look, one can bunk in with Birgith and I, and then you can make up a third bed with blankets in each of the two cottages you have. Should give us seven beds.”
The village chief nodded. The beads at the end of the many braids in her hair tinkled at the movement.
Rupert inclined his head to his brother. “Does that meet with your acceptance?”
Otto looked at his wife, who screwed up her lips, but nodded.
“That’s settled, then.”
“Shall we inspect the testing grounds before this afternoon?” The village chief gestured away from the village centre in the opposite direction to Birgith’s cottage.
Otto and Rupert nodded, and the three left, with Thanca and the guards following behind.
Birgith had the rest of the day to work herself up into a state about the testing. Many other candidates led their extended families around the village, enjoying being the centre of attention. Birgith walked to the outskirts of the village centre and sat on a fallen tree trunk, watching the preparations.
A work party from the human settlement tended a fire, and the spitted boar that hung over it cooking for the festivities later. Other humans spread chairs and tables through the open area, set up the drinks and hung bunting around the trees at the edge of the green.
Most Bears lived some seasons in the Citadel on the river, which is where the Bear Leader resided, and then the rest of their time scattered in small villages throughout the forest. Testing was for everyone who celebrated their sixteenth summer. It took place in the Citadel, or at one of the villages that the Bear Leader visited on that summer’s procession. Birgith supposed she should be glad he had named Littledenn this time, so she wouldn’t need to travel, even if everyone else in the village blamed her for all the upheaval it caused. More candidates had chosen to be tested in Littledenn than anticipated, hence the overcrowding. No doubt for the excitement of seeing her prove herself or fail and get her comeuppance.
Birgith smoothed the front of her linen shift. Her russet hair was, for once, neatly brushed and shined, clipped back behind her ears. Her father had given her his best wishes. Her old teacher, who had helped her get ready in place of her mother, left. She felt primped and preened like the dolls the other girls had had as children. Now it was all down to her. She sat shivering in the small tent allocated for her, forcing her breathing to slow. This was the moment she would show them all she belonged, or else that she was the monster from their darkest history and condemn her hidden family to be hunted. She saw no other option.
From either side of her she heard the murmur of other candidates being reassured by their families, but soon even that stopped. She squashed her joy that they were also now left alone to face their futures.
She stared at the pewter goblet holding the last preparation before she entered the testing grounds. It contained a drink to ease the release of her inner animal, though no one she had asked knew how it worked or what the drink consisted of. Birgith silently prayed to the goddess to be with her and help her succeed in the testing as she lifted the cup. This drink was the key to her embracing her animal. The key to her being able to bring it to the surface. The key to being accepted within the clan.
The liquid was indistinguishable from the shadows in the cup. She gulped it down in one go. Thick and cold, it tasted of unidentifiable herbs. She set the goblet on the table and waited for something to change inside her, but couldn’t feel anything. She hoped it would come by the time she had to shift.