I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
Niklaus was a very fine name, it meant victory of the people – he never felt much like a victory when his father stared down at him with his big, dark eyes. Finn, Elijah and Kol had his eyes, but none of them managed to look half as intimidating.
"We should go back," he urged his father nevertheless. He looked around the woods, which had been growing darker and darker as the day drew to a close.
Mikael froze him with a gaze full of contempt. "Now the dead frighten you as well?"
He said as well as if Niklaus was afraid of everything. He was not. But he was not looking forward to seeing quartered bodies.
if his father wanted to call him a coward for it, he could do nothing to change his mind.
"They are not settlers, we have no business with them," he said instead.
Mikael almost growled at that, snorting, "If those bodies are not on their side of the woods you'll find that it is my damn business, boy."
Niklaus held his tongue and looked up at Elijah. His older brother looked like he knew he would have been dragged in the quarrel sooner or later and dreaded it. Niklaus could understand that.
Elijah almost sighed, "Does it really matter, father? They are dead."
Mikael could not be more disapproving. Niklaus was surprised to see him make that particular face at Elijah, he was almost certain the disappointment was only meant for him.
"It is our job to protect the settlement, Elijah. If the wolves crossed the borders on the full moon and even left bodies behind them, we have the duty to understand why and make it so that it never happens again. Our settlement, our responsibility."
Kol shuffled on his feet, looking at his father with unease. Niklaus knew the younger boy shared his jumpiness.
He had been going out with his father to patrol the perimeter for years, since he was ten. The first time he had been so nervous he had not eaten all day – that night at home he had regretted it when he was too starved to sleep. His father had forbidden him to eat, as a punishment, but Kaja had sneaked him a slice of bread.
After that day he came to accept the dark forest as a known companion.
But today he felt like running back home.
Kol felt it too. But then, he was a sorcerer, how could he not feel this edge in the darkness?
The real question was, how could he? Plain, stupid, cowardly Niklaus. He wasn't magic like Kol, nor a hunter like Finn, he didn't have Elijah's instincts. Yet, he felt it. They did not belong in this darkness.
Finn came back from his scouting, walking swiftly and silently like a wooden creature. He was a handsome young man almost in his mid-twenties, tall and slim as a longsword. In his black coat, pants and boots he looked the mirror, younger figure of their father.
"Their camp is a mile away, beyond the river. I got close enough that I could see people moving about but I did not cross the border. There were men and women both but no children. There were indeed dead bodies out of their camp."
Their father muttered low, "Were? Have they been moved?"
Finn nodded, "The bodies belonged to them, they were people of their village."
"But they were on our side of the woods?"
Finn hesitated before answering. "Yes."
Mikael nodded to himself, as if making up his mind. "You will lead us there then."
Finn's lips were so thin they almost disappeared, "Why father? It is almost dark – and it is not our business."
But their father did not care. "In almost fifteen years, the wolves never once crossed our borders. Now they did and I want to know why." He said, "You will lead us there."
There was nothing to be done to change his mind, when Mikael spoke he expected everyone to fall in line and so they did. Niklaus was actually surprised Finn spoke against their father.
Being given the order, Finn turned around with a blank expression. He led them through the undergrowth.
It felt like they walked for hours but it couldn't be for there was still sunshine, if barely. Niklaus could only be grateful for it – the last time they were out hunting, he had not seen where he was going and tripped over a root. He had fallen loudly enough to scare away all the wild animal in the neighborhood – his father had been so livid he had limped for three days.
Their father walked behind Finn, his stride confident and silent. Then came Elijah, who marched in front of himself and Kol with protectiveness. His hand was on the dagger hanging from his belt.
Kol was exceptionally silent.
When the trees became sparser, they knew they were close. The sound of the flowing river confirmed it.
Their village and the other were separated by a stream of water and several small bridges, roughly bounded together by leaves and wood and ropes.
They came upon the one they were looking for and even from a distance Niklaus could smell the stench of blood. It was awful. Animals didn't reek this way, he thought. Then he remembered the bodies had rotten under the sun all day.
There was little left of the bodies – pieces of flesh through the blood-stained grass.
Two men and a woman, dark of skin, were gathering whatever was left of their pack members.
Their eyes found Niklaus and his family as soon as they left the protection of the trees.
The woman halted them, "You are not allowed here."
Mikael shoved Finn aside and stepped in front of him, in front of all his sons, in a semblance of protection. "I am. You broke the Treaty first, I know of your incursion on our side of the river." He sneered at her. "It was the night of the full moon. Was it a declaration of war?"
"The people who crossed the border are dead," replied the woman. "There is no infraction to be discussed." The two men with her whispered something between themselves, one shook his head. The woman looked at them briefly, then turned back to Mikael.
"As they are dead we don't know why they crossed, but know we did not mean for it to happen. The Treaty stands."
Niklaus could see plainly that his father didn't care one bit for her words. "You must have an idea. Why would they leave their pack?"
The woman sighed, she was as fed up with Mikael as he was with her, "They were young women, who had just given birth. We thought that maybe their pups had somehow got themselves displaced and they went to look for them. But their pups are safe at the camp."
Mikael furrowed his eyebrows and Niklaus couldn't decide if he looked disgusted or just angry as usual. "You think one of your kids wandered accidentally to our village?"
One of the men who had stayed silent till now spoke up, "No, all the pups are accounted for."
Mikael was silent for a moment. As much as he wanted to shed light to this situation, even the wolves seemed confused about what had happened. Niklaus was aware of how rare it was for shifters to abandon their pack on the full moon. His father made sure all his children knew as much as possible about their dangerous neighbors. They were humans, men and women, but they behaved like animals. They lived in packs, had a leader who ruled like a king, who the other members of the pack obeyed with extreme loyalty.
His father believed that they also mated like wolves, but he couldn't be sure of that.
Wolf shifters were strong, stronger than common men, they were also faster and could survive most wounds that others would find lethal.
His mother taught them that they were cursed, forced by magic to take the form of an animal once a month.
"Who cursed them?" had asked Kaja.
"Witches," Esther had replied, "centuries ago."
These cursed people were not born as shifters, but they became such when they took the life of an innocent.
Niklaus could see why they would call it a curse, they were forced to become animals when the moon was full, and the shifting was said to be excruciating, but the benefits far surpassed the disadvantages.
As he looked at his father, Niklaus could only wish he was as strong as a wolf.
"Very well," said Mikael after a while, with a mocking tone. "When your leader decides to do something about this situation, send him to me." He turned around to leave, missing the furious, matching scowls on the two men's faces.
As Niklaus and his brothers turned to follow their father, he could have sworn the woman had looked at him with wonder.
When they managed to get back home it was almost late for dinner, but their mother and youngest siblings had waited for them to come back. Henrik looked half-asleep, sitting on the wooden floor, a toy in hand. Rebekah and Kaja were discussing quietly, bent over pieces of fur of different animals. Kaja was teaching the younger girl how to stitch them together. And their mother was by the fire, stirring the pot containing their meal. It looked like meat stew.
Mother looked relieved to see them and walked to her husband in smooth and long strides. She whispered to him quietly but the look on her face was one Niklaus has seen rarely in his life. Even Finn lost momentarily his usual blank look.
Their mother was angry. At their father.
Niklaus wanted to be very far from him. His mother may not be afraid of him – she was the only one in the family – but he was, they all were, and did not want to suffer father's rage after their quarrel.
" … Never take them there again, Mikael," he heard mother say, the lines on her face stern. Father's face scrunched up, annoyed. "They are not children anymore, Esther."
But their mother shook her head, even going as far as interrupting him. "They are. They are my children. The next time you presume to take them anywhere dangerous do not expect a warm meal on your way back, nor fresh clothes to change to, or even a bed to sleep into. Am I clear?"
Kol choked on his own spit as they all gaped silently, trying not to make it obvious that they were eavesdropping. Kaja and Rebekah raised their eyes from the stiches they were weaving and stared at each other with wide eyes. Niklaus met her gaze from across the room and smiled shakily at her.
Their father's thunderous shout made them all wince. "Presume? They are my children as well, Esther, do you remember that? They are sons, it is not for you to decide their upbringing. I don't tell you how to raise the girls, you don't tell me how to raise the boys."
Esther didn't blink, if anything her frown worsened, "You did not push them out of your own body, Mikael. I did. They are my children first. I will not allow you to put them in danger because you think it is their duty as men."
Mikael swore, "Thor give me strength. I was not putting them in danger, Esther! I was teaching them. One day very soon they will be men, have their own family to care for, they can't hide behind your skirts anymore."
"And when they marry they will have a wife I pray they listen to when she is trying to ask them not to put their children in danger."
"I do listen to you!" Mikael barked, grinding his teeth. He sighed forcefully, swearing under his breath. "Fine, Esther, you win. Fine." He seemed to be biting the intern of his cheeks.
Mother smiled, losing her tenseness. "Thank you, my husband." She kissed Mikael's cheek and walked away from him. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes."
Mikael watched her stepping away, panting as if he had just stopped running. Then he retrieved his dagger from the shelf he had placed it on upon arriving home and walked out quietly.
It was Elijah's sigh that broke the silence and Finn seemed to shake himself. "We need to set the table."
They all jumped as if Finn has shouted an order instead of stating a fact.
Truth was, no one wanted to be the one their father would find fault in once he came back so they all strived not to make mistakes.
Their father didn't come back for dinner. When he did come back he barely even looked at them and went straight to bed. They were all relieved.
He was their mother to deal with for the night.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.