Before I tell you of the coming of the great wolf god Velos among men and of the blessings of his shape, first consider this preamble.
A thousand years before the reign of Emperor Anduso Protalo, the great city of Varšambekon, of late the seat of a broad empire, was no more than a rough-hewn fort upon Varšam’s Hill. In those lost days, our story begins.
Across the wide north and to the east were the lands of those who were then a wilder folk. A moon’s journey through these territories leads the traveler along the corridors of dark woods, across plains of thick-grown grass under ancient hills, and finally to a procession of jagged mountains, known since ancient times as the Stony Mountains, or, in the language of the folks thereabouts, há Olnasa Thamoá. In the midst of those mountains, a winding pass leads up and through a great divide in the broken rampart of rock—raised by giants, it is said, to parry cruel gods. The pass there issues forth to a gentler, greener eastern slope. At hand, to the north of the great pass and the ancient highway leading east, runs another range of such mountains, like a green-cloaked arm of the Stony Mountains. For a familiar wall of cliffs to their east, these mountains, the Green Mountains, are often called Bearpaw, or Artafas.
In the crook of those two great ranges had long ago settled a people from the east. In latter days, they were called Kuetrans, a name worn down from their ancient name, há ará oaka ečeda kuet, ‘the ones that hid’, or há kuetra ará, ‘the hidden ones’. From the ancient tongue of this people near all the languages of the Shining Lands were born, and their wisdom filled the books—of those that wrote down things. Despite this, they became a forgotten people, a spurned people. Yet, they were forgotten only until the slavers came.
Upon a time lost to memory, a city of traders grew up on a rocky mount where the great east-west road came to the silver and flashing flood of the Kuetravyas River, which itself was born in a spring beyond the cliffs of the Bearpaw. The people of this city were a kindred people of the Kuetrans from the south. The rocky hill, which served as the hoary head upholding the stony crown of mannish build, was and is called ‘the hill of piled stones’, and so was the city in the tongue of the Hidden Ones, Kondolhonc.
As was the custom of this people, they robbed the lives and labors of others as they gathered treasures to themselves. Kuetrans were among those so robbed. But, they also were among the robbers—and so, as errant brothers, they became the worst sort of enemy.
Among the Hidden Ones were seekers who sought to preserve the ancient ways, wisdom, and liberty of their people. They sought to stave off the curse of ignorance and the bite of tyrants’ chains. One such seeker, called Lepamanto, hailed from the Thamoganta, ‘people of the mountain’, a Kuetran folk whose heartland was of old in the vicinity west of the Cliffs of Bearpaw.
During a hunting expedition, a slavers’ party ambushed and captured Lepamanto’s freshly-raised son, Myanataiko, and a number of others. Lepamanto’s path had been betrayed by an avaricious Kuetran who traded with Kondolhonc. As such a man, he was more accustomed to the ways of the city than those of his own people. For this treachery, the man received a sack of silver pieces, all a poison to his soul a wise man would suppose. A raid against the slavers’ party was defeated when a troop of Kondolhonc horsemen appeared in aid of the slavers. Lepamanto and a few fellows scarcely managed to flee to the shelter of the mountains.
Though he spent long hours in hushed frustration, many times still did Lepamanto go from his door, and by careful paths seek his son. He heard rumors of many young slaves and met some of them in the city and in certain places near to it. Yet his son remained lost to him. Lepamanto would return to his house at the foot of the mountains and the darkness and quiet would weigh on him to a greater extent each new day. If Myanataiko’s mother, who had died giving him birth, had been with Lepamanto, her comfort might have assuaged his rage and despair, both ever competing since the capture of his son to rule his heart and his hand. As these emotions caught him, Lepamanto, seeking comfort, did turn some to ancient contemplations precious to the Kuetrans. These contemplations had been outlawed in many lands and many had suffered cruel deaths to preserve them. Yet it shall be shown he chose wisely. For, if Lepamanto had not taken this path, he might have felt at the last his very own destruction from rage and despair.
Among other things, these contemplations, this wisdom, called erasehnoa oreramantoa, teaches remembrance of one’s origins as a child of the Incorruptible One, the Unknown Master from the farthest reach and the deepest deep, who has revealed himself in the gods, Aito and Manta, essence and wisdom. Eramantoa says that despite being the children of the Incorruptible One, men were ensnared by the great Ogre, Valkon. This being was also called Nékoisno, but he hailed himself Worldking, its maker and its master. Unlike other teachings which blind men to the Ogre,eramantoa teaches that one could slip the Ogre’s bonds and snares, and be unheeding of his jealous and cruel whispers. After all, he was no maker, the teachings said, only a thief. For though Valkon had indeed brought to life the shapes of men, like a corpse-waker, he did so against the wishes of the Incorruptible One, who would let his children sleep still as his preparations progressed. Eramantoa teaches that Valkon was also no world-maker, but a throne maker. It is said the only thing on Earth made by his own hands was a great hill in his own honor in a dusty plain between the Stony Mountains and the Green Sea. Even this was false, since the hill was the work of the slaves of a tyrant in Valkon’s thrall. But eramantoa also teaches that within us, beyond the horizon of our memory, resides our true souls—great sparks, they are called—gifted to us by the Incorruptible One at the moment of Valkon’s raising of man. These great sparks remained obscure to the Ogre and the remembrance of them is called the Bane of Valkon, whose rule is made of fear and lies. These great sparks made each child of man a power unto himself, a slaveless master. This wisdom also taught that Valkon, the terrible Ogre and all his deputies, meant always to work loose this knowing and keep power hidden from men by illusion and despair. Remembering ourselves, our great spark, the sacredness of our mastery of ourselves, is as a new spring, a morning to our hearts, and a sweet breeze in the smoke of the fires. It is the opening of a door to the unknown and the unseen, but a new revelation, too, of the world about us, our home.
Only after long such meditations did Lepamanto recall an ancient friendship of his people, forgotten and lost through disregard and unbearable tales—the wiles of Valkon, the Ogre. It was this memory that led Lepamanto out of the sanctuary of the stronghold at Bearpaw Cliffs one evening. What follows is an account recorded from the words of Lepamanto himself that long age ago:
One warm summer night, under a sky plush with stars, the cricket’s song about, I travelled by old, lesser-known paths across the hallowed wilds of Kuetra. Only in the small hours of the morning did I reach at last the place of which I had heard tell. There, onto a low precipice backed by a shelter of rock, I climbed. And there, as in my dreams, I met a great wolf. And the great wolf did speak to me.
“I am called Haimašo,” the wolf said. “I dreamt of your coming,”
“And I am Lepamanto of the Thamoganta,” I answered, a strange tongue issuing from my lips—the language, I guessed, of the wolf and anciently known by my people. “I dreamt, too, of this meeting. An ancient oath of friendship I have recalled—an oath binding in those days by honor and the blessings of friendship.”
“Our ancient friendship has also filled my dreams of late,” Haimašo said, “as from a happy memory. It stirs our honor, as well.”
In Haimašo’s one good eye I could see the wild, yet it barely hid wisdom and gentleness besides. The other eye, blind, had the tint of a sunset.
After three such meetings, during which Haimašo and I discussed much of importance to both our kinds, reviving old familiarities and sympathies, we both wondered at this riddle: What is the purpose of our reunion, of our memories? Was it to bring the fortunate restoration of an ancient bond and of no further object?
I slept that night with the wolves under the stars, or with the Moon, as they would say. The brief, silvery arc of a falling star served as my last waking memory that night. Until…
“Lepamanto,” came a voice, as if from a dream. I stirred, but did not wake. The whisper came again, this time more insistently, “Lepamanto.” I parted my eyelids slightly. I expected to hear the breeze in the trees and the sleeping breaths of the wolves. Yet, the vision before me caused a shock that arose and ran up my spine like a cat up a tree. The hair on my neck bristled and some deep, primitive corner of my mind told me to flee for my life. Yet it was all I could do at first to let out a short, sharp cry, awakening some of the wolves. I backed up against the rocky overhang, crawling backwards on my hands and feet. Speechless and trembling, I considered the sight before me. On the edge of the precipice stood what seemed to be a great man, the height of a chimney, he was. But, scarcely believing my eyes, I noticed the great man had the head, not of a man, but of a wolf! A great wolf!
“Velos?” I asked, yet only to myself I thought. My eyes must have widened, for surely my heart did race.
“I am the one known by that name, yes, good man,” came a voice rough but not harsh.
I hadn’t expected a reply, figuring it a dream. “Velos?” I asked again in disbelief; “God of all wolves?!” Dumbfounded as I was, in my mind I marked the details. His snout was long and his hair a fine silver coat. The wolf-god had upon his broad shoulders a great brown cloak, its border an intricate and strange design.
Velos laughed briefly—a low, good laugh that echoed through the dark trees and across the stony heights; a laugh like a song to the wolves nearby, the remainder of whom had finally awakened. For them, a visitation of Velos, I later discovered, was surely something to howl about on even the most moonless of nights.
I looked up at the wolf-god’s visage. “Only in the tales of my mother…” I began, leaving my thought clear but unfinished. I must have looked, and sounded, like a scared rabbit.
“I do cherish remembrance,” Velos said, “but I do not cherish fear in gentle hearts.”
I raised my eyebrows and sighed, resigning myself to astonishment.
“Your mother, I have heard, was a good woman,” went Velos’s song-like wolfen voice, “but I have come to speak to you.” Velos pulled aside his cloak so he could draw some unknown items from a leather belt with silver fittings. Unraveling what seemed to be a strip of fur, Velos knelt down on the ledge in front of me. The wolves crowded around reverently. Velos handed me the strip. My eyes met those of the Wolf God, but overcome with humility, I quickly looked away. I saw the strip of fur was indeed a belt of wolf’s hide.
“It is for this I came to my friend Haimašo?” I asked, as if to myself, then again to Velos. “It is for this I have come among the wolves?”
“Your need, the need of your people, has become known to Brása, and in a dream she has spoken of it to me,” Velos said. “An ancient gift we have decided on.”
“A gift?!” I asked, enticed, becoming accustomed to the vision before me.
“We have not trusted this gift to men in such a time that the memory of it is somewhat dim even to us,” Velos said, scratching his chin. “We walk into shadow now in loosing it again among your kind.
“It is made of the hides of my most elderly children,” Velos said, “those who have gone to their rest and await new shapes.” Velos looked at the wolves around him. “It is how they share their shape.”
“Their shape?” I wondered aloud, my eyes on the belt, my thumb stroking the thick fur.
“Such is the gift, man,” Velos said. “By the blessings of this belt, and the magics of this potion,” he added, handing over a silver flask, “a man may turn his shape to that of one of my children.” He gestured to the wolves.
I was stunned anew. There had been so much for my mind to wrestle with in just a few brief moments. I rubbed my eyes and opened them again. Yes, the wolf-god remained.
“Do you accept this gift, Lepamanto, son of the Thamoganta?” Velos asked, using my name for the first time.
“I do, I do, great Velos,” I said, rising to my knees.
The great wolf-man nodded. “The lady and I believe you worthy,” he said, referring to his companion Brása, the Blessed Mother of the Moon Goddess. “And your need great.”
“My need?” I inquired, not quite sure as to Velos’ meaning.
“Your need and the need of your people,” Velos said. “As does your kind, wolves desire freedom first among things. The slavers commit a grave crime, a violation against the order of living things. They know not freedom is bounded only by the freedom of others. That is a wide boundary, indeed, but too narrow for some.”
My mind turned once again to my son, Myanataiko, taken and kept in some unknown place. I struggled once again as I had many times before to chase away thoughts of a dark fate, ready to be glad for my son’s mere servitude.
“My children here,” Velos said, “shall help you bring out your son.”
I shot a quick glance up at Velos, sensing the wolf-god could see into my very thoughts. “You see into my heart, do you not?”
“My vision is like a dream, shadowy and vague—I would not have so guessed if it were not for the knowledge of it given to me by Brása and our daughter,” Velos said. “In your sleep, the echo of your sorrow came to them.” Velos watched me as my mind worked on the idea. Then he went on. “With the wolves, go into the slavers’ places. Take only the lives you must. The wolves are ready to become a terror to some in order to undo this violation and honor an ancient friendship.” He looked at Haimašo, who seemed surprised Velos knew their hearts so well. To him, he said, “Your minds are not so shadowy and vague to me.” He smiled. Haimašo blinked, lowering his head. “They know if they can unravel this slavery it may also unravel in turn the ill-wisdom of servitude itself.”
I looked around at the wolves, each of whom now looked me in the eye. “I would…” I began. I took a deep breath. “Of course I would be very grateful; very grateful. I will never forgive foul words spoken against wolves and I will scold all that speak them.”
Haimašo laughed, baring his white fangs. “There are cruel ones among our kind. So you may scold me on occasion.”
“Show yourself well in this, Lepamanto,” Velos said, his great wolfen eyes evincing no menace even as they narrowed, “and we shall invite others of your kind to bear this gift.
“Remember, it has been tens of centuries, long before the fathers of men had come to the Shining Lands, since we have entrusted such a gift to mankind. Take care in your path.”
At that moment Haimašo spoke for the first time in Kuetran, my own tongue. “Er ad mant…Velos…er ad he mant var!” he said. “He is wise,” he called me. “He is a wise man.”
“Your judgment, Haimašo,” Velos said, “stands well upon the judgment of Brása and I. We trust him as you trust him.”
At that, Velos turned to me, his eyes flashing darkly. “Great companions you have in these,” he said, gesturing again to the wolves.
I looked around at the wild eyes before agreeing. “That I trust, great Velos.”
With that Velos nodded and rose up again on the brink of the precipice to his great height.
‘Tall as pines,’ I thought.
The wolf-god then bade his wolves farewell, climbed quickly down the precipice and disappeared noiselessly into the darkness.
I stood at the edge there and stared into the shadows long after I lost sight of the god—my god. The spell was finally broken when Haimašo spoke.
“The youth awaits,” he said. “We have a few preparations first. We will depart for Kondolhonc within the hour.” My head still abuzz, I absently said I was ready. Then I repeated it more emphatically as I met Haimašo’s eyes. With that, the pair of us turned our attention to the belt and the potion. I balanced them in my hands, as if weighing them.
“Until now, my brother,” I said, “I did not know you spoke my language. From some memory unknown to me, I spoke only yours.”
Haimašo laughed again. “And very well you spoke the language of the wolves—though,” he said with a tilt of his head, “in an accent we have not heard before and less toothily so than we are accustomed to.” We both laughed long and hard at this.
As the moon had risen bright and clear over the dark woods, it had watched the coming of Velos. Now, as it fell, it spoke to me in whispers and visions, as if in a waking dream. I soon saw, and it seemed I felt, coarse black hairs sprouting across my arms, and then thickly from my shoulders and my legs. I heard a long and agonized groan seeming to come from somewhere inside me. I felt my eyes tear up. It seems I was being contorted by some strange magic. I dreamed of long fangs growing in my mouth, moving sharply then against my lips—which also grew long and wolfen. I felt something, like the untamed, pulse in my veins, filling me like a rough and heavy breath. It came with a sense of excruciating pain and a growing, and unknown, strength.
Soon my mind awoke to the night around me and I felt the dark woods whisper in my heart with a clarity unknown to me before. The moonlight poured over me like silver water.
Then with still trembling legs, I stood and looked at the Disk of the Moon, at Baláva, Daughter of Brása and Velos, Lady of the Night and Muse of Wolves. It seemed to me even the moonlight had a sound, like that of a humming breeze as its beams fell about. My whole body shook as, to my surprise, a long, wailing howl rose from my gut and broke through my throat, shattering the night’s quiet. I howled once and once again. Shortly, the wolves—my brother wolves—joined me. We howled in unison, and then one after the other, our wild voices echoing far and wide.
Then, with the other wolves at my side, and now a great black wolf myself, I sprang from the precipice and padded quietly into the night-shrouded wood, darting between tree shadow and moonlit glade.
So ends Lepamanto’s account.
And thus it was that the gift of shape-shifting passed once more to the hands of men. (But the story should be told and not forgotten that another shape, often taken by maidens, was that of the ladycrow. This was a gift of Brása’s daughter Lelat, an old goddess of power, and was more ancient even than werewolfery.) For tens of generations, as Seekers, as Vigilants, down to the time of our story, the Hidden Ones guarded their kind and their ways. All those born of the line of Lepamanto had, by Velos, running in their veins the blood of the varloká, the werewolves. Kuetrans called themselves borhaima, the ‘beast-blood.’ Yet, the magic was only an heirloom. As an unwanted birthright, Velos did not give his gift. A son must seek and be taught in the ways of the werewolf, as he would not come by them as he would his own nature. So the magic was revered by oath and honor and long and well did theborhaima honor their oaths, even unto the latter days. Only then did some falter. Kondolhonc, the old city of the Kuetrans in the East, at a very early time succumbed to the sickly vigor of greed and power. Fail, too, did the lesser ones, the Vigilants who were not borhaima, yet retained the magic of the werewolves and crow-maidens. These failures proved a great cost. In all their lands, the Kuetrans, all their great tribes and peoples, were beset—often by one another. In the newer lands, west of the Stony Mountains, they and their kin in Cernandea and Vodo Wood came under the haughty sway of the Emperor called Anduso Protalo. Yet his rule, the blessings of Aito and Manta would have it, was not unbounded and not as deep as the roots of all things. Often such power is undone, if only at times for the pride of a petty king or a band of thieves. Sometimes, despite the corruptions, a liberty long dead was made to live again. Yet—and of this you must remain forever aware—ever seeking are the willful who hesitate not to trespass in the places of others…
Copyright © Ron Leighton 2012