Char rocketed through the air, grazing past mountain peaks and launching into space. It’s only a dream, thought Char, until she opened her eyes. The depths of space smelled like wet polyester. She pulled the blanket from her face to discover the progenitor of her unconscious flight—a narrow sled grinding across ice with wind howling overhead.
Someone had bundled her to near paralysis, securing her on her side within copious thermal layers. She attempted to roll onto her back, but her body was too massive to move. Char dug deep into her coats to find her belly bulbous and sore. She gasped as she explored herself, trembling with a complete loss of being. Time and place and body were just words. She had leapt into a stranger’s life, but she refused to be overcome. Fear is not for Fettels, thought Char, born or unborn.
Char gazed up to find her father’s chin in the clouds, frost-encrusted and shaking. He looked down at her with a nervous grin, canopied by a black hood. “Sorry for the bumps,” shouted Howard over the gravelly hiss of the sled. “There’s little snowfall this time of year, but it would have been too late otherwise.”
Char struggled to sit up in the sled. She found eight dogs pulling them across a frozen lake. On either side laid vast tundra undisturbed by men. Mountains beckoned in the distance, and to the south towered the imposing Denali, glowing in the rays of the morning sun. Her father had spoken reverently of it every time he returned from one of his “business trips.” Despite its majesty, Char had hoped for more details regarding the “business” of his trips.
She turned around as far as she could to look past her father. Behind him rode someone with a six-dog team. The musher’s face was covered with ski goggles and an oversized hood from his burgundy parka. It could only be The Warg, thought Char. She would have prayed for the lake to devour him had it not meant the death of six good dogs.
“How long have I been out?” yelled Char.
Her father misheard her and pointed at a small cabin miles ahead—nestled at the base of a mountain dwarfed only by Denali. As they approached she began to see paths carved into its side. Soon the mountain was all she could see.
The sled stopped abruptly as Howard placed his weight on the brake. The dogs were quick to veer to one side and chomp on mouthfuls of snow. Howard tossed out a steel hook meant to anchor the sled. The Warg parked nearby. He also dropped anchor and mashed it into the ground with his boot. He proceeded to topple his sled over before unhooking the lead dogs.
Howard remained at his sled, watching the entrance to the cabin. Char followed his eyes to the front door. Two emerged, bending generously to clear their heads from under the doorway. Their figures were unidentifiable. Not an inch of their bodies were uncovered by fur, their hoods fashioned from the heads of bears.
“After you’ve tended to your dogs come see me!” shouted Howard to the giants.
Char’s eyes filled with the intricate passageways that sprawled across the mountainside. She leaned back to watch them disappear into the sky. Even in my old body I’d never be able to climb that, thought Char. Her father responded as if he read her mind.
“Your feet will never touch it,” said Howard. “Lay on your side for now and rest.”
She did as he said. After the guides had retired Howard’s dogs to their kennel, they reported to him at once.
“She’s still unconscious,” barked Howard. “You two will carry her gently the rest of the way. So help you if you wake her before we arrive!”
Char felt the sled rise up from the ground. Her vessel floated unwieldy in the air for what felt like hours. Her insides sloshed about with every misstep. She placed her hands around her stomach to calm her children. She would have called out to the guides to slow down, but she pitied them, and did not want Howard to deliver on his threat.
The sled came to a stop and hovered low to the ground. She felt a hand brush through her hair. The fingers spun her locks as the nails caressed softly along her scalp. She knew it was her father before opening her eyes.
“You may sit up if you like,” said Howard. “You’ll want to see what’s ahead.”
Char grabbed the sides of the sled before sitting upright. She stared into an endless white sky. Below she discovered the mountain had been hollowed and settled into a hidden city. Hundreds of tiny homes converged in a gray mosaic; the size of which could have fit the entirety of the Bedlam Complex tenfold.
“You never told me what Leek Denaa looked like before,” said Char.
“I could never find the words. You needed to see it for yourself.”
They continued their trek to the sizable commune. The main road had been cleared for a procession nearly fifty people deep. One line contained all men of varying ages while the other was all women. Some girls looked no older than seven.
“What is this?” said Char, although she knew the answer.
Howard’s lip quivered before yelling for the Warg. “We’re late as it is to see Reka! This will only slow us down!”
The Warg nodded in the direction of the mass wedding. “Agreed. We’ll take the side streets to reach the safe house first. With any luck, we won’t suffer any further delay.”
They passed beneath multi-level cabins near the center of town. The unruly terrain propped some homes several stories above the main square where the procession found its end. Residents showered the crowd with baskets of feathers from their windows. Plumage of black and red and white fluttered over the ceremony—some fastening in the curls of child brides.
A Shaman stood upon a platform wearing the hide of a caribou complete with rigid, curved antlers. He spoke over the crowd in an unfamiliar tongue.
“Do you know what he’s saying?” said Char.
Howard sighed as he quickened his pace. “It would only break your heart.”
Char was forced to leave the sled behind when they arrived at the safe house. Her size made every action laborious, and she fought to lift one foot in front of the other. She wobbled as she took her first steps on the frozen ground. Howard caught her hand before she lost balance. His other hand clasped fiercely to his cane, stabbed deep into the snow.
“It’ll take some time to reacclimate,” said Howard as he assisted her over the threshold of the safe house. “You’ve been off your feet for some time.”
“Three and a half weeks—give or take.”
“What did you do to me?”
“You’ve been on a steady regime of medication prepared by The Warg.”Howard helped her up each step until she could finally sit on the bed in her room. “I’ve followed his advice to the letter.”
Char’s stomach felt like she was still being hauled in the sled. “Whatever he’s been giving me—stop.”
“That’s no longer up to either of us,” said Howard. “Remember this moment the next time you think about fucking some frat boy.”
Char’s hand lashed across his face. She felt nothing with the medicine still coursing through her. Howard was less immune, spitting out a bolus of blood and teeth. He smiled with blood dribbling from his chin.
“I suppose that’s appropriate,” said Howard as he wiped his sleeve across his mouth. He walked about the room to close the blinds at each window. Char looked about the low-lit space, barely able to see her father in the hindered sunlight.
“Welcome to your temporary quarters,” said Howard. “The staff here will cater to your every whim until the children are born. After that, we’ll make our home in the chief’s mansion.”
“My home is with the Bedlam,” said Char. “You’ve told me that since I was nine.”
“The Complex was on borrowed time—had been for years. She’s no one’s home now.”
“What about your people? Your family!? What about Danny!?”
“I gave them ample warning. Anyone who stayed has surely been buried with it.”
“You promised me you would take care of him!”
“And I did. I gave him a thorough education of survival. By the time we left, he had every tool necessary to strike out on his own.”
They were interrupted by Char’s newly appointed staff—three teenage girls in all. They each wore their hair pulled back into thick braids that cascaded down to the smalls of their backs. Their furs were dyed a light gold, and Char was unable to tell if they had belonged to foxes or dogs.
One girl lowered a tray of finger food and a pitcher of water onto the nightstand while another pulled out a clean fur robe from the closet and set it on the bed. Howard ordered the third girl to light the fireplace. The Warg appeared among them without a sound, waiting for her to acknowledge him.
“Who said you could come in here!?” said Char.
The Warg pulled off a glove and dispersed the servants with a wave of his hand. “I’m sure you all can find something to busy yourselves with if you try hard enough.” The Warg turned his attention to Char. “I apologize for the intrusion. The last thing you need is undue stress.” He placed his ungloved hand on her stomach. His touch made her anxious as if he were clasping her children’s mouths shut.
“You’re safe now.”
“Never touch me.”
The Warg lifted his hand and stepped back. “More apologies still…”
“I never agreed to being drugged. When did you—?”
“The children were developing faster than your body could adjust. Howard insisted I make you as comfortable as possible. Without chemical treatment, the pain would have led to constant black outs anyway. Unfortunately, we’ll need to start weaning you off the medication now. You’ll need to be alert for the coming weeks.”
“Am I stupid, or is there a reason we don’t just induce labor beforehand?” said Char. “Maybe we should consider a c-section before things get too dire.”
“Absolutely not!” said Howard.
“And why the hell not!?”
“Your body’s resources are being siphoned to your litter,” said The Warg. “They’re not developed enough to survive outside your womb, and you would most likely die during the procedure.”
“You’re a liar! I’ve seen infected babies trampled at the Complex and they just brushed it off like any other would!”
“Fetuses are not babies,” said The Warg. “And that’s assuming the rest of your children are Lek.”
“Don’t spout their words at us,” said Howard. “He means they might not all be born wolves.”
“I…I don’t understand,” said Char.
“Calling Lycanthropy an infection is a misnomer,” said The Warg. “It’s more a like a genetic trait—a recessive one at that.”
“So infected people don’t necessarily have infected babies?”
“We’ve already discovered the presence of a non-Lek in your litter.”
The Warg turned to Howard. “I believe we agreed you would tell her.”
“Tell me what?”
Howard took a seat next to Char on the bed and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Back home we recorded the sound of six distinct heartbeats—the day before we left, we found only five.”
Char dug her fingers into the mattress as a pain shot through her stomach. It’s my fault one died, and the others know it. “I didn’t…”
“A litter of six is considered high risk,” said The Warg. “I think you’ll find five much more manageable—“
“YOU SHUT UP!”
“Listen to me, Char, it wasn’t your fault,” said Howard. “This is just the way it is for people like us.”
“Gator. I want Gator here with me. You said you’d look for him!”
Howard held her tighter, and ordered the Warg to leave them. “I sent my best men to bring him back to you.” Howard hesitated to find the words. “None came back.”
Char buried her face in Howard’s coat and balled until the grief grew tired of her. “I can’t do this,” whispered Char.
“Of course you can. Fear is not for Fettels, remember? We will take it as it comes, just as we always have.”
“The Bedlam, Danny, Gator, my baby—all gone in a matter of hours.”
“I wanted to tell you when the time was right, but I have little control over such things anymore.”
“I just need some time alone.”
“Just as soon as we return from our meeting with the chief.”
“What do I care about some chief?”
“Reka has been a friend of the family for years. She’s eager to meet you, and I won’t slight her after all she’s done for us.” Howard lifted himself from the bed with the help of his cane. “Eat something, get dressed, and we’ll get this over with.”
“And that’s all I have to do? I just have to meet with her?”
“I swear on whatever life still rattles around in my carcass.”
When Howard left, Char’s hands began to shake. She looked up to find the three girls waiting attentively for her command.
Char composed herself and wiped away her tears. “None of you are taking part in the ceremony outside,” said Char. “Do you get a choice or…or are you already married?”
“Servants of the Chief are not allowed to get married, Ms. Fettel,” said the middle girl. She maintained eye contact with her soft almond-colored eyes while her sisters looked about the room.
“No one has called me that in years.”
“Mrs. Doogan then?”
How much did Dad tell them about me? “You can call me Char. What are your names?”
“My name is Trisha, my sisters are Emile and Constance.”
“Those are pretty names,” said Char as her eyes began to well again. “My baby died nameless.”
“The name isn’t important,” said Trisha, “it’s the memory. We promise to never forget this time with you. We’ll honor your child that way.”
“You’re very sweet,” said Char as she dried her eyes with the bed sheet, “and well spoken for a girl your age. I take it you’re the brave one?”
“We’re all brave, Char.” The three girls exchanged glances. “They do not have tongues.”
“What did you say?”
“If anything, I’m the coward. I wouldn’t dare speak with the passion my sisters had.”
Who could do that to children? “Was it Reka that did that to you?”
“The Warg…and your father are waiting for you. Please, let us help you into your new clothes.”
Char walked slowly with her father on one arm and the Warg on the other. She left her coats behind in favor of her new bearskin cloak adorned with raven feathers and decorative beads along the trim. In addition to being lighter and warmer, it made her feel less like an outsider. Men and women from the mass wedding still littered the main square as loved ones took photos. If I pulled the hood over low enough they might mistake me for a newlywed.
The people of Leek Denaa appeared peaceful enough, and Trisha and her sisters were accommodating and sympathetic. Only there must be something more. Char caught the eyes of a few people on their way to the mansion. Their eyes all did the same—darting from her to her companions, and then to the ground.
The Bedlam would not have been so shy, she thought. There was nothing wrong with shy, but it was not what she was accustomed to. She also wondered why friends of the chief were left to walk the streets unaccompanied by guards.
Her suspicions were interrupted by stabbing pains in her abdomen. She wanted to stop and ask the Warg about them, but she did not want to make a habit of asking him for help. It’s just the babies kicking, she told herself. The ones that could still kick.
They arrived at the mansion to find guards stationed at the entrance. The Warg lifted his hand to address them, and they waved the small party through. The double doors opened into a grand foyer. Double staircases curved around a candle-lit chandelier made from a whale’s skull.
They followed the guards up three flights before reaching the upper balcony. Char found a woman seated near the edge overlooking the last people to disperse from the ceremony. The sun had already begun to set, and the woman’s hair and cloak matched the fiery grays of the partial dusk.
The guards announced their presence before taking their leave.
The chief turned around, clutching a handkerchief to her mouth. She froze for a moment before calling out for Howard.
Why didn’t he mention she was blind? thought Char.
Howard approached her sheepishly with his cane making little noise. “Hello, Reka.”
The chief reached out and embraced him, nuzzling her forehead against his. “Is she with you?” she whispered.
“Come here, Char,” said Howard. “Say hello to Chief Reka of the Leek Denaa.”
As Char walked closer, she noticed Reka’s face was streaming with tears.
“Why do you cry, Chief Reka?”
Reka reached for Char’s head and gently pulled her close. “Many reasons, my love.” She spoke as she draped her calloused fingers across Char’s face. “I’ve lived through eighteen pairing ceremonies in my life, and they never get any easier to bear. How terrified they all must be.”
At least she’s sensible, thought Char.
“You’re as beautiful as your father said.” Her hands lowered to Char’s stomach. “And soon to be a mother yourself.”
“Thank you, Chief Reka.”
Reka held Char’s face with both hands, locking her striking visage inches from Char’s. Her steel eyes were mesmerizing—matched with a stately nose and full lips.
“I know you have suffered a great deal to come here,” said Reka. “I hope Leek Denaa will become everything you need it to be in time. Until that day comes, I hope you will find a way to forgive me for what I must do now.”
Char’s mind raced with what Reka could mean. The chief’s hands fell from her face as the sounds of guards readying rifles filled the balcony. Char turned around to find every weapon drawn on her father.
“What are you doing!?” said Char.
The Warg brushed her aside before confronting Howard. He spoke loudly with conviction that rung throughout the mansion.
“Howard Fettel! You are under arrest for crimes against your people!”
“THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU”RE DOING, WARG!” shouted Howard as he raised his hands in surrender.
“You stand accused of two-hundred and thirty-eight counts of torture, and the murder of one-hundred and three children.”