Elsa had been waiting for this day as long as she could remember. She awoke in the early hours of the morning, just after the sun had risen and her house was silent. She was the only one awake in her whole village. Elsa ran to the other end of her room, hastily slipping out of her bedclothes. The wooden wall was scratched, far too many cuts to count. Every night, before sleep, Elsa would take the small dagger she was given at just six, and cut another groove from the wall. She had done this from the day she had been given it, and she was near seventeen now.
“To help you remember,” her father had said, “for the most important day in your life. You must count the days until then.” In truth, Elsa didn’t really count the days, but the carving in itself was still special to her. The marks had changed over time as well. Starting small, shallow, barely scraping the wall, they grew deeper and bolder as Elsa had grown older. The one she had made last night was the largest of them all. Her hands had shook with excitement as she had taken her dagger off the desk and drew it down the wall. She would make no more cuts on the wall. The day was upon her. It was to happen today. She pulled out her favourite dress from the cupboard, a dark grey and blue one made from dyed wolfskin. The dress was furred on both sides, and felt immediately warm as Elsa put it on. She carefully brushed the tangles from her black hair, slipped on a pair of sandals, and opened the door. She nearly ran out of the house, gleefully flinging open the front door and rushed into the sun. It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky. It was strange seeing the village so quiet. Normally Elsa had to be roused from bed by her mother, and would only emerge from the room an hour later. No one had to coax her outside now.
“Today!” She yelled. She skipped along the gravel road, yelling and singing her joy. She didn’t care about the cloud of dust that she stirred up with every step, even as it settled in the furs of her dress. Windows were slammed open, voices shouted and swore, but Elsa didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything.
It was to happen today.
An hour later, she was sitting back in her house. Her antics had woken the entire village, and no one was particularly pleased. Her father was sitting at the other end of the table, arms crossed, with a scowl across his unshaven face. Her mother was somewhere behind her, muttering angrily.
“Just look!” She grumbled. “I had this dress cleaned for you just yesterday! Yesterday! And look at it now!”
“Sorry, mother.” Elsa said, trying to keep her head downcast and face blank. But she could not help the smile that was on her face. Her father sighed and leaned forward.
“I know the ceremony is today, Elsa,” he said in a cool voice, “but that doesn’t mean you should abuse your poor mother. She works hard for you, and that dress isn’t easy to clean. She did it for you.”
“I wouldn’t wear it at the ceremony anyway. It’ll be fine!” Elsa protested.
“I know, I know.” His face softened. “Dear, chastise her later. It is a special day today.” Elsa’s mother left the room and walked into the kitchen. Immediately, Elsa planted her hands on the table and leant forward, grin spreading wide.
“What happens at the ceremony, father?” She asked breathlessly. “When is it? Is there food? How long will it be?”
“I can’t tell you anything. You know that.” Elsa sank back into her chair with a fake pout.
“You can tell me something, surely? Anything! Anything at all!”
“You’ll find out soon enough, sweetheart.” Before Elsa could badger her father with any more questions, her mother re-entered the room, holding the breakfast tray. She set it on the table and smiled, and Elsa couldn’t help but follow suit. The day had certainly gotten a good start. The tray normally held a few slices of bread, butter and maybe some meat or jam if the harvests had been good. But today, it was completely laden with mouthwatering foods. Two warm loaves of bread sat in the middle, surrounded by fresh, melting butter and grapes and slices of melons from the vines. Tiny pots of jams and jellies formed the next ring, with colours and smells that Elsa had never seen or smelt before. And right on the rim were rashers of bacon, cold cuts from last night’s dinner and sausages of various sizes and fillings. Elsa gasped.
“Mother… father… how did you get so much food?”
“Well, dear,” she said, taking a seat and smiling, “it is your special day, isn’t it? All the neighbours pitched in with some food, like we did when their children had the ceremony. It only happens once a lifetime!”
Somehow, Elsa and her grey-haired parents were able to clear the whole platter of food. Elsa hadn’t eaten that well in her whole life, and it felt wonderful. Truly, this was a special day. Elsa went back to her room and changed into simpler clothes. Even ignoring the layers of dust that coated her dress, the day was too warm to wear it. She said goodbye to her parents, and left the house. Soon, Elsa realised the worst part of today. She had her ceremony to look forward to, that was certain, but she didn’t know when, or even where it would happen. The suspense was massive, and she couldn’t keep her mind off it. Everyone she saw wished her a good day. In a tiny town such as this, there were no secrets, and the date of a ceremony was no real secret. The baker gave Elsa a lemon cake when she came in, and refused any payment. All the other stores gave her a small gift as well, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Elsa dropped off some of the gifts at her home, ate the lemon cake, and wandered down to the river. She spent a long time there, sleeping on the soft grass while her feet soaked in the clear water.
It was the perfect day for such an event. Other ceremonies had taken place in the rain and the cold. Her father’s had even fallen on the day of a fierce storm. Elsa had asked why they didn’t do it on another day, if the weather was so foul. Her father had simply said that the day of a ceremony mattered more than anything else. It couldn’t simply be changed, no matter the conditions. When Elsa woke, she began to think about her upcoming ceremony. She’d never been to one, and no one would tell her anything about it. She remembered how her parents would leave sometimes, telling her that there was to be a ceremony, and that they would be back at sunrise. Elsa had tried to sneak out after them once, but was swiftly caught. Her parents had been furious, and Elsa had been grounded in her room for a whole month after that. She wondered what possibly could be so secretive about them. Perhaps it was a test of some sort. Something you had to pass, without any prior knowledge. This idea made the most sense to Elsa. Whenever she thought of the ceremony, and how it was her turn, it felt like a knot was tying itself in her stomach. She was excited, so excited, but terrified as well. What if it was a test? And she failed? What would her parents think of her then?
Her parents found her by the river a few hours later. Elsa had drifted to sleep again, and was woken by a gentle shaking of the arm.
“It’s time.” Her father said, in a soft voice. Elsa sprang up, hugged her father, and kissed her mother, as her mother had her arms full with something. She then sprinted off into the village. But, there was still that feeling of dread, the quiet voice of concern that wouldn’t quite go away. The village was empty as she ran through it.
“They’re all waiting for me.” Elsa thought. The sun had set, leaving only the dying rays to guide her through the maze of wooden and mortar houses. The moon had risen high, huge and full in the sky. Elsa stopped, and realised she had no idea where she was going. Sheepishly, she waited for her bemused parents to catch up, before following them. They walked along the winding gravel road, past a unfamiliar carriage. Elsa, having spent her whole life in a small village, immediately knew when something was different.
“Did someone visit here, father?” She asked.
“Yes, Elsa. They’re out hunting now. Just some travelers staying at the inn.” Their path took them off the road, and into a thick grove of trees. Elsa would often run here with her friends, have picnics in the clearing within, play hide and seek in the trees or just talk in the solace of the lonely wood. Elsa began to shiver. She was only wearing thin clothes, and the wind was beginning to pick up. Perhaps it wasn’t such a nice day after all. Her mother noticed, and gave Elsa the bundle she was carrying.
“There you go, dear.” She said with a smile. It was a grey wolfskin jacket her father used to wear. Unlike her dress, the fur was only on the outside, but it was still warm and snug as she slipped it on. As they stepped into the clearing, Elsa realised it wasn’t such a secret place after all. Almost all of the village stood there, save for the few children younger than herself. They all turned as Elsa entered, and smiled warmly. Their shouts of encouragement all blended together into one loud hum, so Elsa simply nodded and smiled. She was led into the center, and stopped there. The crowd had formed a circle around her. No one spoke, but everyone smiled. It felt strange, being the complete center of attention. Her father stepped forward, holding a rimmed horn goblet.
“Elsa, my daughter,” he said loudly, “the time has come for your ceremony. We are ready to begin. Are you ready?”
“I am.” Elsa couldn’t keep the tremor from her voice, and her legs were shaking from both the cold and her nerves. Tears were beginning to cloud her vision, but she was able to beat them back. Her father passed her the goblet. Elsa took it in shaking hands, and looked down at what lay in it. The liquid within looked like oil in the meager light, shiny and black. Elsa swallowed nervously, then put the cup to her lips. The liquid smelled like rot, blood and sweat all mixed together. She felt her throat tighten.
“Drink.” Her father said.
“Drink.” The circle around her repeated. Elsa closed her eyes, then tipped the cup into her pursed lips. The vile mix tasted worse than it smelled, and her first instinct was to throw it all up again. Tears were streaming down her face as she fought to swallow.
“No.” She thought angrily. “I have to. I can’t fail the ceremony, not now.” So, even as her throat burned, and her eyes watered, she slowly forced down the drink. Her eyes were screwed shut, and it took her a moment to realise that there was no more in her mouth. Her father gently took the cup from her grasp.
“Well done.” He said, and there was a real warmth in his voice and eyes. “Many fail their ceremony here.” Elsa smiled, even though the foul taste still lingered on her tongue. The crowd around her had blank expressions now, silently watching. Elsa stood there awkwardly, unsure of what to do. Her mother broke the tension by walking forward. She held out a small porcelain bowl. Elsa took it cautiously, hoping she wouldn’t have to eat something disgusting as well. Her mother dipped two fingers in the bowl, and they came back smeared in a red paste. Her mother stood in front of Elsa, and began to trace runes on her forehead. The paste was cold and gritty on the skin. Elsa unconsciously screwed her face up as her mother continued to paint. After she finished with the runes, she drew a long streak down Elsa’s face, from the hairline, along the nose and finishing at the chin. Elsa’s mother stood back, bowed, then walked away.
“The ceremony is nearly complete, my daughter.” Elsa’s father said, stepping forward once more. “Prepare the others.” The circle parted, to reveal something that Elsa had missed in the clearing. Two men were lashed to a tree, bound and gagged. Elsa choked back a cry. She didn’t recognise them, they weren’t from the village, that was certain.
“Father,” she said in a terribly small voice, “who are they?”
“No one.” He replied. “It is nearly time.”
“Time for what?”
“Take off your clothes.”
“What? But it’s freezing out here, and everyone’s watching…”
“This is part of the ceremony, daughter of mine.” Elsa looked at him blankly. His expression was cold and hard. The crowd, too, stared at her. There was silence in the grove. Hesitantly, Elsa took the jacket off. Her bare arms swiftly erupted into goosebumps as she let it drop. She took her shirt off next. The air was freezing cold, and she clutched her arms to her bare torso reflexively.
“All of it.” Her father said. Elsa shivered. If the air was cold, the wind was colder, and each gust felt like it would blow her over. Still, she undressed, until she stood, hunched over, naked in front of her family and village. Elsa had never felt more meek and timid before, and just wanted to curl up and hide.
“Put the jacket on, Elsa.” Had her father relented? Whatever the reason, Elsa was grateful for any amount of warmth. She dropped down and gratefully spread it over her shoulders. It was large enough to go past her waist, and the sudden bliss made her smile.
“Are the prisoners ready?” Her father asked, turning. The two captive men were being held, still gagged, by the arms. They had small cuts on their arms that slowly oozed blood.
“Yessir.” One of the men holding the prisoner was the baker, who, just hours before, had been happily baking bread and pies. Now his face was like a stone mask, carved in a dark expression. Elsa stared at her father. She didn’t know if she had to do something. No one was telling her anything anymore.
Then her face began to burn.
It started with the nose, and it was pleasantly warm at first. But it spread across all of the markings on her face, and grew hotter and hotter until it felt like an open flame. Elsa screamed and clutched her face, bending double.
“Let them go now.” She could dimly hear her father giving the command over her desperate cries. The marks were only getting hotter and hotter, and Elsa’s screams grew more panicked. She clawed at her face, staggered blindly, and screamed until her throat grew hoarse. The pain stopped suddenly, mercifully. Elsa slowly took her hands from her face, and opened her eyes. But it was not over. Next, her skin began to prickle. It felt like there were a thousand tiny needles under her skin, trying to force their way out. It hurt, but was nothing compared to the burning she felt just a moment ago. Elsa stared at her hands in mounting horror. She could see the needles. Her skin was raised in points, stretching up in tiny peaks all over her hands. She looked down at her legs, they were covered in the little points as well. Her hands moved to the jacket, to look at her back, but it was stuck fast. She pulled at it desperately, trying to take it off for a look, but as she pulled it hurt. It felt like she was pulling her own skin…
Elsa screamed again. The jacket had adhered to her flesh all over, it was much a part of her as her hair and skin. The needles were pushing harder now. Her whole body ached, even her face was covered in the slowly growing peaks. As she began to stare at her hands again, finally, her skin gave way. The needles erupted from her flesh, sprouting forth bloodlessly. As they burst out, they spread, splitting into many smaller threads and covering her skin completely. She touched her arm, terrified of what they were. The new growths were as soft as fur and as dark as coal. She sobbed, sobbed wordlessly, sinking to her knees and burying her face in her furred hands.
Then her bones started to crack.
It started with the legs first. Both of her shins broke with a horrible crunch. The pain was unbearable. Almost immediately, they reformed, but had shrunken and been drawn together. Her thigh bones followed suit, but elongating this time, and soon Elsa was lying on the ground, crying in confusion and pain. She was dimly aware of the bones in her feet reshaping, breaking apart and coming back together, until the heel was well above and away from the ball of her foot. All she could hear were crunches and snaps as her bones broke. Elsa found herself on her new, tiny feet, balancing perilously. Everything inside her was breaking and putting itself back together. Her arms stretched out until they were nearly as long as her legs, and claws ripped themselves from the tips of her fingers and toes. Her torso grew longer and longer, to accommodate the now freakishly long limbs. Her spine elongated, forcing itself out through the flesh. Muscle, flesh and skin grew over the exposed bone, forming a long bushy tail. Perhaps the most terrifying, however, was what happened to her face. Her jaw tore itself out and stretched forward, fangs ripping through her gums and forcing out the old teeth. The top half of her mouth followed suit, forming a long, thin muzzle from her face. Some of the fleshy features began to change as well. Her nose flattened and grew broader, ears swelled, stretched and shifted to the back of her head. Elsa opened her eyes wide. They had changed from brown to a brilliant gold, pupils shrunken to tiny slits. As she drew in new breath, the world came alive. She could smell so much more, hear so much more. She could hear the nervous breaths of the crowd around her. Smell the rotting leaf litter under her feet.
And smell the blood in the air. Saliva started to pool in her misshapen mouth, and drip from bared fangs. Her throat and chest began to rumble in a deep growl. She dropped down to all fours, bracing her fall on padded fingers. Then she ran. She leapt over the crowd before her in a single bound, crashed into the soft earth and tore it asunder. As she breathed, the blood called to her. It smelled like nothing she had smelt before. It smelt warm, inviting, and almost hypnotic. It smelt better than anything, smelt like the best food in the world. And she was ravenous.
The world flew as she ran. She crashed through the trees, leaving a trail of shattered wood and fallen leaves. She’d never felt faster, never felt more free. She could hear her prey now. Muffled shouts, breaking branches, crunching leaves. Easily, she veered her course, bouncing off a tree and shattering the trunk with no effort. She didn’t see the trail of blood drops they left behind, but she didn’t need to. The smell of blood hung all around them, and that was all she needed.
She caught the first one just a moment later. Instinctively, she leapt through a bush to her side. Her paws slammed into his shoulders, easily throwing him to the ground. He didn’t have time to yell before her teeth met his throat. Blood welled in her mouth as she tore savagely at his clothes and flesh. Her muzzle was dripping a bloody froth as she looked back up a minute later. There was still prey to hunt. And so she took off again, leaving a mangled, half eaten corpse behind. She bounded through the trees, out of the grove. She was at the river bank now. Nothing, except the flowing water, stirred. She stood slowly, back on two feet, to get a better view. Still, she saw nothing. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with air and nose with scents. She turned to her left, and padded slowly along the bank. The smell came from the water…
The man finally burst from the river with a gasp. Elsa roared, and jumped into the water herself. The man yelled and dove back under, swimming away with all of his strength. It took her two strokes to reach him. The river ran red as Elsa surfaced, gripping his leg between her teeth. She brought the body to the bank, and feasted until the sun rose again.
When Elsa awoke, she found herself curled up on the mud by the bank. Her face and hands were covered in blood, but of her victim, there was no sign. She was back to normal, a human once more. She shivered, suddenly feeling the cold. As she stood, she saw something else in the mud. A small coat was lying on the ground, under Elsa as she slept. She picked it up, and studied it. It, too, was made of wolfskin, but was as black as night, unlike the silver grey of her father’s. She slipped it on, and it fitted her perfectly. It felt even warmer than her father’s jacket. It felt like it belonged. Elsa smiled, and curled back up on the ground, still tired. Her coat was like a pillow, and she drifted off to sleep easily. Her family found her some hours later, and took her back to the village, praising and comforting her.
The hunts were frequent from then. Whenever a full moon rose, all would step out into the cold night air, wearing nothing more than wolfskin. Their wolfskin. Then the air would fill with howls, and death would roam the woods for another night. Elsa joined them, and found herself reveling in the hunts.
And she didn’t have to wear her father’s skin anymore.
She had her own wolfskin now.