Svanni blushed as the others cheered, each of her siblings and my family elated as we entered the camp.
"Is that hers?" Astrid was the first to approach, her dirty blond hair drifting in the wind as she grinned.
"That it is. A fine shot, and a fine kill." I smiled, patting her on the back.
"You're one of us now, little sister!" Hjelga appeared, the second oldest of my children clamping her arms around Svanni as Hronn and Raegonn joined.
"Here, mother. You've carried that all day, rest your arms!" Raegonn offered, taking the deer as I reluctantly smiled.
"Heh, am I so old that you would take such pity upon me, son?" I stretched my arm, wiping blood off my shoulder as I hugged him.
"Only so much to take weight off your back, mother." He grinned, glancing at Svanni, my youngest daughter self-consciously blushing as Astrid and Hjelga doted over her. "I'll get this deer cleaned up and ready for the feast."
Though I felt happy at the sight of my family, I still felt a nagging sense of worry.
"We met travelers on our hunt." I spoke quietly to him, folding my arms.
"Travelers? All the way out here?" Hronn spoke up, eying me closely.
"The Order." I clarified reluctantly. "They figured out we were living up here."
"Damn it…you think they're going to come back?" Running his fingers through his thick beard, Hronn grimaced.
"I don't know. They don't know anything about us…and we weren't followed. " I shook my head. "Yet, I worry. It's the first time in years, since Svanni was born, that we've been spotted."
"This forest isn't for them. I doubt they'll return to such a place as ours." Hronn shrugged. "As dulled their city senses are, I'm sure they sense the presence in the earth."
"All the same, best we keep quiet. I don't think they're here about our…recent activities, but it's for the best that we keep to ourselves for some time." I decided. "Svanni's turning is tonight. Let's wait until after it's over with tell the others."
Hronn nodded solemnly, slipping off into the camp as I approached Svanni, Astrid still beside her and chatting.
"Hello, little pup. It's time to ready yourself for the feast. It's in your honor, after all." Kneeling beside her, I kissed her forehead, still smeared with dried blood. "Tonight is the most important night for the rest of your life."
"I know, mama. I can't wait, I'm so hungry." She grinned, giggling as I ruffled her hair.
"Good. Astrid, would you help her prepare? I need to get cleaned up and ready, myself." Kissing her, I turned to Astrid.
"Of course. Raegonn's preparing the feast, isn't he?"
"Yes…I would check with him before nightfall. I'll see you tonight, my little one." I patted Astrid on the shoulder and winked at Svanni, walking into the village.
It was hard to believe that our home had been around for so long, since my grandfather had come to found this place away from civilization. Wooden stakes and sharpened animal bones separated the camp, comprised of tent after tent made from bone and animal hides, from the forest and wilds beyond. It was all steadily positioned against the great mountain that towered over the forest and other hills beyond, directly in its shadow.
For over thirty-three years I had led the family, and somehow we had survived. That, at least, I took pride in.
Stepping into my tent, somewhat more private than the others, I let out a sigh of relief as I shed my hide trappings, my skin drinking in the breeze as I sat on my small cot, bare of constricting clothes.
"I am getting old, aren't I?" I smiled wryly, feeling my muscles aching from the long trip. I'd not felt such fatigue when I had first taken Astrid or even Hronn on their first hunts, but now I felt slow, pained from greater efforts. My red hair was lighter now, grayed in some strands even as I now braided it in a short plait, and my pale skin was deeply marked from scars and burns exacted from a long lifetime in the wilds.
Cracking my neck, I looked to the setting sun outside, shrugging with a complacent smile.
"I suppose I should get ready eventually. It wouldn't do to leave my youngest daughter waiting at her big feast." Glancing at my right hand, my palm deeply scarred, I took a deep breath, steeling myself for what was to come.