Bluebells are my favourite flower. In springtime, the ground below the great oak trees would be covered by them, spreading out in a great wave of blue as far as the eye could see. Sometimes, their scent, and the scent of the wild garlic that grew alongside them, was strong enough to cover the smells of the hillfort that drifted down. The woodsmoke and the scent of muck and cooking food – the smells of my home.
This is what I mean about this place being magical. I don’t think anybody else, when they left the green fort to go hunting, stopped to notice the bluebells. But I always did. And I noticed other things too.
I think the first time I properly stopped to notice things was when I met the grey wolf.
I’d seen wolves before, of course. I’d seen the brightness of their eyes caught in the flickering flames of the bonfires we lit to keep them away from the livestock. I’d seen the flash of a red tongue through the trees as a hunting party set off in hot pursuit. But this was the first time I’d come face to face with a wolf, just me and the wolf, here, in the forest.
I’d been tracking a wild boar and her piglets. I already had two rabbits on my back, ready to take home, and was planning to add their skins to the blanket I was making for the winter. But I’d seen the tracks of a wild boar, and the smaller hoofprints of her babies running after her, and I couldn’t resist following. It was springtime, food was a little scarce as it always is in spring, and my belly rumbled at the thought of roast pig for supper.
I stepped through the trees on light feet, looking all the time at the ground before me. And then I heard it. And I stopped short. Right in this spot.
There it was again: the snap of a twig. And I looked up and there she was.
Pink tongue lolling between long, sharp fangs. Eyes sharp and yellow. Grey-furred except for a band of white about her neck.
I felt my heart leap into my throat. Her eyes, those yellow eyes, sucked me in. There was such a wildness to her. Everything went blurry for a moment, and then I snapped into action. I reached for my spear. It was me or her. Either she’d take me, or I’d take her.
But before I could throw my spear, she turned her head away as if she were bored, and slunk into the trees. I followed her, I had to – I’d always been taught, if you see a wolf, you run it down, or it
will grow confident, and start to attack the fort, and take our animals.
The wolf moved through the trees at a pace that I could barely keep up with and yet she did not seem to be in a hurry. I began to pant. I would take her skin back to the fort, I decided, and make myself a wolfskin blanket for the winter instead. I tracked her through the trees with my eyes, trying to find the perfect moment to throw my spear.
Instead, I saw her stop, a short way away, and dip her head towards the ground. And I saw then what I would have noticed if I’d been paying more attention before – that her belly was loose and hung down towards the ground, and she was pregnant.
I don’t know what came over me. I just knew I couldn’t kill her, not while she was carrying wolf cubs. It just didn’t seem right. So I turned, and went back up towards the smell of woodsmoke, back up towards the village on top of the hillfort, and left her well alone. I did not tell a soul what had happened. I knew they’d think there was something wrong with me, to let a wolf go free, particularly one that was going to bring more wolves into our woods.
I thought of the wolf a lot, all the time in fact, in quiet moments, snuggled next to our fire in the roundhouse, or when I was putting the cows away for the night. I thought I would not see her again.
But I did. In fact, she did not leave me alone. Perhaps it was because I’d let her go that day, I saw the grey wolf all the time. It was as if she had decided to trust me, and she would appear at the strangest, most unexpected times. I’d be down by the river, gutting a fish, and feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and there she’d be. I’d be running through the trees on soft quiet feet after the flash of a red deer, and suddenly look to the side and she’d be running with me, always keeping pace, always a little way away.
I saw her throughout that spring as the bluebells grew thick on the ground and her belly got bigger and bigger. And then one day I came upon her, in exactly the same spot I’d seen her first, just here. She was lying on the ground below a tree, her pink tongue hanging out, and arranged around her were her cubs.
I didn’t go too close. I didn’t want to scare her. But I didn’t get any hunting done that day. I just watched from a quiet distance as they squirmed and squeaked and got up on small, shaky paws. My favourite was the one who was all grey like her mother, except for the speckles on her nose.
After that, I was always careful to come to the forest alone. To never speak of the wolves to anybody. I needed her, the speckle-nosed wolf, to grow up strong just like her mother.
Come with me now. Can you smell cooking? It’s tea-time at the hillfort, and I need to make sure I’m back before I’m missed. Can’t have anyone come looking for me, not with the wolves about. Can you follow me? This is my secret path, I’m the only one who knows about it. Go quietly. If you try not to make a sound, the other hunters won’t hear you and neither will the wolves.
Before you go, take a rubbing of this bluebell. Perhaps you can see some right now, strewn about beneath the trees.
As you get closer to the hillfort, as you climb up its western flank, you realise…something’s wrong…
She grew up fast, the speckle-nosed wolf. Just as I had to do.