We walked until night fell upon us with its weight, coming to shut our drooping eyelids and to wrap itself around our weary forms. We had found few signs of recent travel along our snowy path, with only occasional broken branches here and there. This landscape harbored more trees among its hills than our previous searching grounds, solemn though they were.
Ylva had taken charge, being older than Maccon and having more familiarity with the land than I. Not to mention, the woman had a clear knack for leadership. She decided that it was best for us to spend the night someplace along our current route.
“And where might that be?” I asked, looking around the clearing where we stood in yellowed, dry grasses where snow had long since melted. We were surrounded only by the chilled forest.
“I think it would be best for us to use our wulfen forms tonight,” Ylva said with a withered quality to her voice. “Then we could just stop here.”
I nodded. I had considered suggesting that we simply use the healing water to keep going through the night, but I knew she would have only looked at me in judgement, saying that we should preserve it for when we might truly need it. Ylva and I went into the woods to change out of our clothing and to wrap it loosely around our necks; this way, we could easily keep it nearby without needing to use our hands.
When I returned to the clearing in my more familiar body, I laid eyes on Ylva’s wulfen form again. Even through the darkness, the contrast of her ivory coat and her blue eyes left me stricken once more with the sharpness of her gaze. It drew me in and stole my breath. I realized that, in the days I had begun to get to know Ylva, I had felt something I’d never felt before. But I kept this to myself. I was a little embarrassed by these feelings, but at the same time, I didn’t quite understand what they meant.
She kept her eyes on me for a moment before telling me, “Look up,” gesturing with her jaw. I lifted my gaze skyward to see banners of colored light dancing through the darkness in rainbow flames of splendor. I had seen less impressive versions of the auroras back at the valley of the clan, but they were as mere candles to that hearty campfire of brilliance. I imagined my cares getting swooped up and carried away on the backs of the quiet auroras, into the nothingness of the pitch night sky. I hesitantly admitted within myself that these lands were beginning to win a place in my heart.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Ylva asked.
“Yes,” I said quietly. “But not as constant as the sea,” I grinned at her softly and she nodded her head. Our eyes lingered on each other.
“Hm,” Maccon interrupted.
“What?” I sounded a bit more defensive than I had intended.
“I didn’t say anything,” Maccon said.
“Can’t a man ‘hm’ without being questioned for it?”
“I’d hardly call you a man yet... but that gives me an idea.” I looked at Ylva with the colorful light surely reflecting in my eyes.
“What if I were to train Maccon in wulfen combat when you’re not training me in magery? He could mature in his fighting ability. He could challenge Rezso to a rematch to prove himself and regain his right as chief. He could win back the tribe himself, and I could return to Oli with my obligations fulfilled.”
“What, you really think I could do it?” Maccon asked, looking toward Ylva. “And who--”
“Is that what this is to you?” she snapped at me before Maccon could finish, then eased a bit. “I suppose I shouldn’t expect to be anything more than an obligation to you. We’ve only known each other a few days, after all.” Her voice hardened again. “But this? I don’t care if Maccon’s here, he needs to know! Our entire race is at stake, and the only one who can unify the tribes is the last of the Alpha line; the only one who can do this is you. You’ve got to realize what’s more important: one friend or an entire people. This isn’t about me or Oliana. It’s about all Dechi. And you can’t fail us. Not when there’s newfound hope.”
“Wh-what?” Maccon looked at me, dumfounded.
My speech was rushed with emotion. “You’re far more than an obligation to me, Ylva. But I don’t know these people. They’re not my people. I belong by Oliana’s side, where I’ve always belonged. That’s my responsibility. It's all I've ever known. I guess I’m just not the man you think I am.”
“I’ll say!” Maccon chimed. “You’re of Alpha blood? How’s that even possible?!”
“No. No, I know you better than that, Dechar,” Ylva said, ignoring Maccon’s incredulity. “I think I know what sort of man you are better than yourself. You do care about the Dechi. You do wish to see them delivered of their plight, but perhaps the greater problem lies within yourself. It’s not a lack of caring. It’s a lack of confidence. And I refuse to pass up the opportunity to see my people rise together again on account of your disbelief in your fate,” her voice had gone sour.
“Dechar? What the hell kind of a name is that?”
“Be quiet, Maccon!” she spat, her eyes remaining fixed upon mine. Then she spoke slowly. “Stop focusing on yourself and what you may or may not be capable of accomplishing. Focus on the situation of the Dechi race and decide what ought to be done. If you won’t fight Rezso, then you might as well leave in the morning. We don’t need your help anymore if you’re just going to tag along. If you refuse to help, you can find Oliana the old-fashioned way, because I won't be training you any longer. I hope you’ll choose wisely, Dechar. I know you will. I’m going to sleep.” She turned away, walking a little distance before bedding down in the grass.
I had to come to terms with the fact that Ylva had leverage in the situation after all. I decided to stick around and fight Rezso. But not for a prophecy, not for some clandestine hope. For Oliana.