The bear sniffed at the air and took a moment to distinguish the cacophony of scents present.
There was the smell of the wood: pine, oak, mold, fungus, and moldering earth. Rich smells, deep and strong, signs of a healthy forest. But there were other scents as well, the faint musk of male deer and the slightly sweeter musk of female dear; a family then. The bear could also smell rodents: mice, rats, squirrels, but these were nothing to him.
What was missing was also notable: there were none of the smells or scents of man. Poaching was forbidden in the Wood. Occasionally some men would be given leave to hunt in small areas in order to bring food back to their villages, but that honor was granted only at certain times of the year, and only on the forest outskirts. If nonnatives ventured too far in, they would never find their way back out.
However, the bear and his kind had free reign to hunt whenever they so chose, provided they didn’t hunt while wearing their manskins.
The deer would suffice.
Also notable in absence was the scent of other bears, or of other competing predators such as wolves. This kill would go to the bear alone, uncontested. So he set off through the rills and rolls of the forest, his paws padding as silently as his bulk would allow. Every so often, the bear would sniff, and adjust course as necessary in order to track down his prey.
He found them close to evening. A buck with three does, two of which the bear could determine, through smell, were pregnant. The male being present indicated that it was mating season, and it was likely to leave the small herd when the final doe was impregnated.
Manbears were bolder than regular bears. Where a more usual bear might seek the weaker prey, finding a doe that strayed a bit further away from the rest, this bear knew his target would be the buck. It was a test of strength, and would allow the does to run off and bring their pregnancies to term. The buck would live on through his progeny. If the fates were good, perhaps one of its own children would grow up and have a chance to avenge it.
The bear stalked his prey through most of the evening. The small herd of deer stayed together closely for several hours and it was only when they decided to sleep that the bear decided to make his move.
As the deer dozed fitfully, the bear finally abandoned stealth and charged through the underbrush. The does were arrayed around the large male, but all four deer woke up at once as the bear came crashing out at them. It took a moment for the alarmed deer to realize what was going on, and it was that moment that the bear seized on. Hw bowled past one of the females as he completed his charge and tore into the side of the buck, tearing out a large chunk of flesh.
The does immediately fled, as the bear knew they would. The buck, however, stood its ground. It swung its head and forced the bear to retreat or risk being gored by the powerful antlers.
The bear didn’t expect his prey to go down without a fight. But the speed and strength of its reaction were impressive and the bear knew he had chosen well. This would be a worthy prey indeed.
The battle took hours and was far more wearying than the bear had intended. However, it was immensely satisfying, and he feasted on his prey’s heart, subsuming its strength for his own.
When at last he had feasted and stumbled his way to a sheltering cave, he took on his man skin once more.
The wounds on his body didn’t vanish as they might on a druid. Instead, he found bruises and gouges all over his torso. In pain, the man propped himself up against a cave wall and tried to let sleep wash over him.
Merva. That was his name, Merva.
Merva tried to sleep, but couldn’t. The pain’s edges were too sharp, his fatigue, while pronounced, was unable to overcome it. It wasn’t the first night of pain that Merva had to contend with. There was something primal about his spirit when he was in the bear skin that made him more vicious and, more importantly, more reckless.
There were skinchangers that hunted in packs. They lived as tribes, wandering the forests of Woval, the mountains of Fralam, and even the swamps of Morland. The only two nations that didn’t really seem to let tribes wander were Hal’la and Valgarde. Though skinchangers lived in those nations, they were relegated to specific territories.
However, many skinchangers were like Merva, loners who didn’t do well in association with others. Some were loners more when they wore their animal skins, and more willing to socialize when in their man skins. Others were loners through, and those were the ones that Merva understood best.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even visited a village. It had been… years. There had been a time when he would come back from the wilds, sometimes for a month, but over the years it had eventually shortened to a week, and now… not at all. There was nothing for Merva in the civilization of man. His family was dead. His love was dead.
But nature… nature was alive.
There was plenty of death in the cycle of nature, death and life were hand in hand in the wilds. Man was the only creature that seemed to so actively resist the advances of time. To some extent, they had won, man was among the longest lived of creatures and they had escaped so many of the daily terrors that haunted more primal creatures. Still, time was the ultimate victor. Death came for all, just like it had come for those he loved. It would come for him too.
Merva winced as he moved to stand. Pain was a constant companion in the wilds as well. How often had he come close to dying? A younger man might have convinced himself that his escapes were proof of immortality, but Merva knew them for what they were: luck, mixed with some skill, certainly. But eventually the luck would run out and his time would come.
“Merva.” The voice was soft, a woman’s voice. Merva shook his head and pressed his palms to his temples.
The memories were no strangers to him as well, in fact they often came hand in hand with the pain.
Merva looked around, startled. His memories had never shouted at him before. It took a moment before he recognized the voice, and recognized that it was speaking directly into his mind.
Flankies. Merva thoughts, allowing a tone of scorn to tinge the thought.
“You can save your dry wit for later.” Flankinerva spoke into his mind once again, “I’ve been looking for you for three days. Where are you?”
Not wanting to be found. Obviously.
“What did I say- ” there was an audible sigh from the woman, an audible sigh in his thoughts, “this is important, Merva. There’s about to be a war.”
Men fight. Men die. Why should I care?
“Because this fight will involve your kind. It will involve skinchangers.”
Merva couldn’t find a way to rebuff that, it had his attention. The silence was clearly telling, for Flankinerva pressed on.
“This is their moment. It’s time for the skinchangers to shed their shackles and take their place in the world.”
I have no shackles.
“No, of course not. The skinchangers of the Woval have never had to face the oppression others have faced elsewhere. Will you let that privilege blind you to their suffering?”
My fighting days are done.
“Mmm,” Flankinerva said, in a tone that quite obviously indicated disbelief.
My fighting days as a man are done, then. Merva responded, not sure if his exasperated tone would get through the mental link. Such things were as much the provenance of body language as they were of intonation. Another one of the quirks of civilization.
Though… Merva thought on it and figured that body language was just as important to animals as well. They may not have had the complex language capabilities of man, but they knew how to get their point across between noises and body language. It was yet another thing that the skinchanger preferred about animals to man. Things were very direct.
“No one said you needed to be Merva the man. Merva the bear is fearsome enough.”
To what end? Will you not need me for speeches and other nonsense?
“Speeches can be made by others. But, as much as I hate to admit it, there may be a need for blood regardless, before all of this is over.”
It would be easier for me to find you.
“I’m by Stran’s Stream, near the village of Ockla.”
It wasn’t difficult to find the Elf woman at all. She was a druid, which meant she often smelled of nature, but her Elvish scent, a faintly floral one, could not be disguised entirely and his bear’s nose could pick it out from well over a mile away. Still, Merva waited for the next day before setting out and it had taken half a day to get to her.
Flankinerva was beautiful, but all Elves were beautiful in their own way. There had, of course, been relationships between Elves and Humans that were legendary, but even the good ones were still tragic. Time came for humans much sooner than Elves. Already, Merva could feel his body starting to break down. It took longer to heal and pains didn’t entirely go away anymore from many of his battle scars.
If Flankinerva was scarred, she didn’t show it. Then again, Elves tended to be scarred by the many events that occurred over their long lifespans. Traumatic events left wounds and scars in a way that physical wounds could never match.
Flankinerva’s beautiful silver hair and heart-shaped face were lovely to look upon, but her gray eyes were sad. Always sad. She generally had smiles saved in store for Merva, but those smiles never quite reached her eyes.
She had a smile for him now, one which graced her high-boned, aristocratic features well. If he allowed himself, Merva could easily have gotten lost in them. However, whether it was the primal side of him taking over, or perhaps just a core part of his nature, Merva was impatient and that impatience always set at odds with Elves. If he could remind himself of that, he could avoid getting lost in their strange, exotic allure.
Merva slipped back into his man skin, and did his best to return a smile.
“Always so angry,” Flankinerva responded, perhaps it wasn’t even worthwhile trying to fool her.
“Do I not have reason to be?”
“I suppose you do. Still, once we talk, maybe you’ll find that zest for life you humans are always searching for.”
“Perhaps.” Merva’s reluctance was in his tone, but he couldn’t help it. “You said there was a fight?”
“I said there might be. It starts with the Werewolves of the Silverwood…”
“Ugh, those buggers?”
“…well, yes, but the Shadowclaws of Morland are involved too. This incident is spreading among your kind like a wildfire.”
Merva knew how dangerous those could be. “Very well, tell me more…”