Once upon a time – long, long before your spirit or mine was chained to the earth by bonds of mud and sinew, in the days of the ancestors – there was a village. It was a nondescript village, the same as many others in our land, filled with herdsmen and shamans and hunters of great skill and cunning. The finest of these huntsmen was renowned far and wide for his stealth and prowess, for it was said he could creep upon the wariest winter-starved stag and let loose his arrow before it had even awoken, or knock the final fall leaf shivering from its mother-branch high in the tree-tops with one well-placed shaft. In those days, as in our own, such talent was not surprisingly thought to be a gift from the Gods, and the hunter was as revered in the community as the greatest temple priests. He brought much meat and much wealth to his people, and they called him Blessed, and were most grateful to him.
Now, this hunter had a son, a pale, slightly-built waif of a creature with a shock of hair as red as a roe deer's summer pelt. If the hunter's wife gave her youngest boy a proper name it has long since been lost to the ages; the other children of the village called him Wander, and the handle stuck like stray oats to a horse's muzzle, shaping his personality and habits as all names have a habit of doing. He was born during the Month When The Leaves Die, under a blood moon; the shamans looked at these portents and the fringe of auburn fuzz already growing on the babe's naked head and shook their heads worriedly, for red hair was as ill an omen as you could ask for in the village of the hunter. From that day onwards the boy was treated as something of a pariah, and this too moulded the clay of his being. He spent much of his time alone in the woods that surrounded the settlement, learning the tricks of his father's trade, and if being shunned by the other village children bothered him he showed it not at all. Indeed, while many of his peers were still clinging to the robes of their grandmothers, Wander was stalking through the undergrowth, observing the movements of the beasts and the birds as they went about their day to day lives.
Bitterness came home to roost eventually, however. By the time he had seen twelve summers the boy knew almost as much forest-lore as his sire, and yet the shamans steadfastly refused to allow him to participate in the rituals that all other hunters, young and old, were privy to. He was bad luck, they said, and an ill-favoured shadow fell behind him when he stood in the sun. The spirits might be offended by his red hair and pale eyes – why risk such dire consequences, truly? There was no arguing with the words of the holy men. Wander grew cold and sullen, nursing his grievance as one might suck at an abscessed tooth. His bitterness ripened until even his best friend, a pretty little thing being groomed for an eventual role as a temple maiden, could not look at his stony face without turning away and wincing.
A morning dawned when not even the girl was left to smooth his ruffled feathers; she was called into the service of the very shamans he so resented, and had little time left to spend stealing apples from the orchards with her companion as she had once done. This was the final straw for Wander. He made plans to leave the village forever, and would have done so if it hadn't been for his father, the hunter, who said little and saw much.
He shook his son awake before sunlight broke the very next day, giving no clue as to why the boy was wanted or where they were going. The sky was pregnant with unfallen snow as they set out into the woods; it was the kind of morning where the smallest crackle of a branch underfoot was amplified and redoubled by the cold. Ordinary men would have blustered and crunched through the undergrowth with a noise not unlike a group of rowdy youths playing stick-ball, but neither the hunter nor his son were ordinary men. They moved through that gray dawn like spectres, or wild things, and if they made a sound, mortal ears were not attuned to hear it.
The hunter led Wander far, far into the woods, farther than the boy had ever been wont to go before. Through dewy thickets and over shadowy streams they went, past great trees that had never known the threat of a woodsman's axe and fields full of wildflowers of an astonishing, unearthly beauty. They walked far and they walked fast, until, at long last, the older man finally halted and swung his son astride his shoulders, pointing with a reverent hand to the leaden sky. There, black against the gray, stood a dead tree, and perched in the topmost branches of that tree were two hawks, a male and a female. How beautiful and fierce they appeared! The boy was struck quite dumb at the sight of them.
His father whispered words of great importance into Wander's ear, and what he said was this:
Hawks were the eyes of the Eternal Blue Sky, all-seeing and ever vigilant. They were everything a hunter should strive to be: fierce, fast, and unflinching, even in the face of death. No hawk had ever begged for mercy; they died unrepentant and proud, and because of this their souls were free. To see one was a blessing, to kill it nothing less than blasphemy. Most importantly of all they were loyal - hawks mated for life and protected one another against all comers, great or small. Not even the final sundering could break this bond; when a hawk warrior's female died he never took another, preferring a lonely existence to the shame of perceived disloyalty.
No hawk had ever run from a challenge or a responsibility. In short, they were perfect creatures, and this was why great hunters and shamans received sky burial, in the hopes that, with luck, their souls would be reincarnated with great red wings and fierce, searching eyes. The boy should always keep in mind the traits of these noble ones, for in addition to all their other fine attributes, they were also the totem animal of his father's family, and thus would never lead him astray.
All these things the hunter told Wander, and the words sunk deep into the youth's heart, making an imprint that would not be erased throughout all the years that followed. As the first flakes of snow began to fall the hawks soared away, and although he could not see well through the screen of trees Wander imagined their shadows floating over his trail the entire walk back.
He never forgot the lesson his father had taught him. Not during his manhood trials, not during the hunter's own sky burial many years later, not even the morning his beloved was taken from him for reasons he never understood. The boy returned to the village that evening with defiant eyes and a head held high, and the shamans looked on these new traits with a vague, undeniable apprehension.
This would not be the last time he made them feel fear, but that is a story for another day.