I walked through the snow, the wind chilling me to my core. The world around me was blinding white from the blizzard, and my old bones ached with every step. It was strange. When I left on my final walk, the night had been clear, and the stars had shown brightly above. This storm had come out of nowhere as if to consume the last of my feeble life.
Frostbite and exhaustion should have taken me long ago. Still, despite the cold and the blinding snow, my feet kept moving more forward, each step taking me deeper into the storm. At some point, I would collapse, and my final walk would end. I was prepared for that, honored even. Not many of my people lived long enough to experience this. Still, I hoped it would end soon. I was tired.
Just as that thought crossed my mind, a shape began to form in the snow ahead of me. I stopped staring at the storm hesitantly. Then, the massive shape of one of the great spirits of the wild, the Wolf, took shape before. My hesitation switched to awe and wonder as I was confronted by the closest thing my people had to a god.
However, that wasn’t the end of it. Three more shapes began to form in the storm. Soon, the four great spirits of the wild were all arrayed before me. On my far left was the Stag, embodiment of kindness and empathy. Next to it stood the Bear, representing power and endurance. Beside it stood the aforementioned Wolf, the symbol of guardianship and loyalty. Lastly, on my far right, stood Owl, reigning over wisdom and intuition.
Wolf was the first to speak to me, “Hunter of the north, here at the end of your days, I look back on your life and see a father, a mentor, and a leader. When your people struggled or strayed from the path, you showed them the way, never giving up on them. I would offer you a place in my pack.”
I stared back at Wolf, stunned by its offer. My people had many legends about what happened to us after our final walk. Almost all said that we would join the great spirits, become one of them. Yet, I had never believed them. Not after I had found my grandfather’s body in the snow after his walk, his body frozen by the cold. I had never told anyone what I had seen. It would have shaken their faith to the core as it had mine.
Yet, Wolf wasn’t the only one who would speak to me. The booming voice of Bear echoed in my head next, “Brave warrior of the north,, over the years, you people have faced many threats, and it was always you who stood on the front lines. Your strength on the battlefield has earned you a place at my side.”
Memories of battles with bandits and soldiers from the kingdom to the south flashed through my mind at Bear’s words. Time and time again, I fought, leading the charge. It was true that I brought my people many victories, but those had come at a cost. Many people that I thought of as friends had died fighting by my side. Even now, I considered it more luck than anything else that I was alive.
Next to speak was Stag, “Truly, you were a great warrior, son of the north. Yet, such prowess fades with time and legends of your battles will fade into nothingness. However, the kindness that you have shown others will carry on for time unending. Where others would have sought conflict with other tribes, you saw that they shared the same struggles as your people and shared with them where you could. The bonds you have built will light to a brighter future for the people of the north. Such an achievement shows that you belong in my herd.”
The faces of the friends I had made in other tribes flashed through my mind. For many years, we had fought each other for the sparse resources available to us in the frigid north. It was true that we were joined together now as one people, but that was no success of my own. Anything I had shared with them was only out of necessity. If the kingdom to the south had never laid claim to our lands, our people would never have come together. It was only because they did that we were one now.
The last of the great spirits to speak to me was Owl, “Your kindness may have brought your people together, wise elder of the north. However, it was your guidance in your later years that will hold them together. Many would have held to the traditions of old, unable to adjust to the changing times. Yet, you chose to change with them and abandoned the migratory lifestyle you had always known. The new way of life you have given your people will allow them to navigate the coming storms. Such wisdom must be part of my parliament.”
Memories of the years of traveling the frozen north, our lives in tune with the land flashed through my mind. Those days were long gone now. Adapting the magic of the people from the kingdom, we had formed the grand lodges, no longer needing to wander in search of food, allowing our people to prosper. Yet, our connection with the land and the spirits had weakened, especially amongst the younger generations. Even now, I wondered how many people would take their final walk like this.
Once again, Wolf spoke to me, “Now, you have heard from us all. It is rare for one to be welcomed by more than one spirit. However, when they are, we leave the choice to them. Make your choice, spirit of the north.”
I looked to each of the spirits before me, considering what each of them said before making my choice. Finally, after a long moment, I took a breath and let them know my decision, “Great spirits of the north, it would be an honor to walk beside any of you. Yet, I fear the honor you have bestowed upon me is too great. For many years, I have lacked faith in you. I have made many choices that have led my people away from you. How can I possibly walk beside you knowing that?”
“You speak the truth,” Owl’s voice responded in my head, “Yet, that is exactly why we wish for you to join us.”
“I don’t understand,” I looked at them in confusion, “Why would you want me to join you if I have led my people away from you?”
“Even now, our power fades, overshadowed by your own,” Wolf spoke to me frankly, “In time, we will be forgotten, but you will be remembered for ages to come. By bringing you into our fold, we hope to thrive along with you.”
Wolf’s words surprised me. If what he said was true, then whatever spirits I didn’t choose would fade into history, forgotten by my people. Was that really okay? Was I really the right person to make such a heavy choice? I mulled these questions over in my mind for some time, unable to answer. Then, like lightning, it struck me, I wouldn’t choose at all.
“Great spirits, if you will fade without me, then why not tie your stories to mine?” I looked across each of the four spirits,“ Become part of my family, and I will ensure that none of you are forgotten.”
“I see, so you would make us a part of your pack to protect us,” Wolf’s voice echoed through my mind, “Your loyalty is impressive. Very well, I will place myself under your protection.”
Stag was the next to follow, “Despite your doubts, you would show us kindness where you needed offer none. I will gladly join your herd.”
“The path you have chosen will take great strength. Many will lean on you in the days to come,” Bear’s voice rumbled like thunder in my head, “I will walk beside you and offer you support.”
Owl was the last to speak, “Where we would choose to sacrifice our comrades, you would again choose a different way. I would be honored to continue seeing your wisdom as part of your parliament.”
“Great spirits,” I lowered my head to them one last time, “Thank you, I will not let you down. I will continue to grow all of our stories together.”
Finally, all four of their voices echoed in my head, “Then rise, great spirit of the north!”