Deborah Teramis Christian
One by one they joined the dance, until seven men capered like beasts about the campfire, pawing at the night sky, or lumbering on all fours with great whuffling snorts. The chill mountain air frosted in great billows before them as they circled and pranced, accompanied only by Gerick’s lone hand claps, and the guttural chant of Ulf the Bear. Their naked chests gleamed with sweat, smudging the ashen handprints and red-colored claw-strikes painted there. Bare feet trod pine needles and stones unflinchingly as the dance began to move more rapidly.
Gerick’s clapping paused as Ulf, forest Guardian and priest of Fadnor, handed him a drinking horn brimming with raffik. The young man took a long, burning swallow of the potent liquor, favored by bear-brethren and berserkers for the uninhibited frenzy it could bring on. Though Gerick already had the height and strength of an older, more seasoned fighter, the drink left him as usual with only a slow twist of queasiness in his stomach. There was no frenzy, and no sudden feeling of bear-kinship.
He squashed the crippling doubt that started to form in his mind, keeping his attention only on the dance that evoked the spirit of Fadnor, once a man, now demi-god of werebears and wild fighters. The warrior handed the drinking horn back to the priest at his side. With Ulf’s encouraging nod, he drew a deep breath, and joined the others in the fire-lit circle.
He danced with the best of them, Ulf’s admonishments ringing in his thoughts. “Feel the bear-spirit within. The heavy muscles, the sensitive nose. Feel the power in your stride, your great size and strength. Feel no cold, your fur keeps you warm, and your claws are ready to strike and rend…”
Gerick pawed the air and shook himself all over, moving smoothly through the ritual steps, well-practiced from recent sessions with the bear priest. For Ulf had taught him beyond what the others knew, showing the young warrior the movements of the sacred dance that only the most dedicated learned, the steps most imbued with power and certain to gain the favor of Fadnor the bear-god. Gerick showed more skill on this night than ever before, able in fighting prowess and the sacred ways, anointed with a holy potion of bear grease and magical herbs, painted with the red claw-strike symbols and others more arcane, different from his fellows. Ulf had given his newest warrior every possible aid, beyond what was needed by the older, more seasoned fighters in this elite band.
And still it served no purpose. One by one the dancers became more frenzied, their movements more forceful, their outcries more feral. One by one they clutched their bear claw necklaces, gleaming yellow in the firelight, and fell, writhing, to the ground. One after another they transformed into the shape of a mighty brown-furred bear, and lumbered from the fireside to gather by their priest and leader, Ulf the Bear.
All but Gerick Bare-skin, who soon danced alone, and then ceased to dance at all.
His transformed companions fixed him with their black eyes, accusing in the silence of the campfire circle.
Ulf looked at him sadly. “Next time,” he offered, then turned to lead the bears through the night-dark forest.
© 2011 by Deborah Teramis Christian. All rights reserved.
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