Women….and wolves

The two women lived quietly after he was gone. The mother didn’t want to attract a man in the village and the daughter too young to be hand fasted. They did not want for food or supplies—the chickens were healthy, the pigs grew nicely on food scraps and roots, and the garden flourished. Between the two of them, the cottage was clean and orderly, the daughter swept the dirt floor daily, sprinkling it with water to keep down the dust. The mother went to the village spring for water and for a quick chat with her friends.

The village of course knew everything about her tragedy—there are no secrets in a village. Her man had heard the call of the king and left on their only horse. Rumors trickled back about terrible battles; scores of dead, the Morrigan would have many heads. No one in the village was sure why there were battles but if their king was fighting then the fighting was meant to be.

And then another village man returned, having lost a hand in battle. He stopped at the house of the two women, and with his head lowered, told them of valour and bravery, and death. He could not bring himself to say the words but the two women knew and thanked him through tears and sent him on his way to his own family, where his reception wasn’t half so nice so that his mind kept straying back to the calm sad faces he’d left.

And so it was. They were on their own, one too sad to start over, one too young. Unfortunately, where nature sees a void, it tries to fill it for good or for bad and the mother was not so old that tomcats came sniffing around. They whispered suggestions as she went for water or as the two of them left church.

Angry and frustrated she stomped down to the well, slapped the face of the blacksmith’s son who stood in her way, and sat with her friends. You would do well to choose someone new, they suggested, to stop any rumors. She stood up. It hasn’t even been a year; all I want is a year. Her friends looked at one another and nodded. A year it is then.

And the unwelcome advances ceased too. She was not sure how the mothers and grandmothers had known, but they had and they had the power to end it. Even the priest who had pinched her stayed as far away as possible.

A year went by and she fretted. A year went by and she never noticed that her daughter blossomed from a gangly colt to a fresh-faced beauty. The year ended and she took a deep breath and opened the door. And shut it.

Then she really saw her daughter, who had been startled by the door opening and closing. She took her daughter by the hand and went out the backdoor and into the cottage next to theirs where the couple had no sons. Then she returned.

She took a deep breath and opened the door to see every eligible young and not-so-young man from the village and further, dressed their finest, hair combed. If you are good enough for my daughter, she told them, then you must prove it. Bring me a black wolf skin and you may woo her. There was a slight rumble and then all the men ran to their conveyances, carriages, horses, mules, goat carts, on foot.

That would be clever, she heard a voice, since there have been no wolves in these parts in 100 years. There was a man leaning against the cottage, weather-beaten, smelling pleasantly of tobacco and leather. Besides, he said, I’m not here for your daughter; I’m here for you. She was stunned, but he had already brushed past her into the cottage and was making himself at home in a chair by the fire. Will you have tea with me? He asked.
And your name would be? She asked.

As he began to answer, the back door swung open and her daughter came flying through. The man leapt to his feet fluidly. This is my daughter she said, she’s quite exuberant. Mama who were all those people? We watched through a crack of the door said the very exuberant daughter. Then she saw the stranger in the room. Who is this, she cried. It’s all right; he is just visiting with me. His name is and she suddenly realized that she didn’t know his name, but he filled in smoothly, Stephen.

Stephen gave a courtly bow to the surprise of both women who had never seen anyone bow. And might I ask the name of these two lovely ladies? The mother took her daughter’s hand and squeezed. The names we are called are Maya and Lara. Her daughter started to protest but she squeezed harder and the protestation died.

The women carried the tea things to the small table fireside and served Stephen tea, small cakes, and pasties, which he found enormously satisfying, especially when Maya nudged a small bottle of something potent to be added to his tea for fortification.

He told them of foreign lands and battles and his own land and eventually the conversation wound around to wolves. Lara could not believe that Maya had sent all those men in the wild, but assumed most were at home in bed, and then laughed to think of them tracking non-existent animals in the woods.

Stephen watched them keenly and said that he had heard something of wolves in these parts, two white werewolves. The women gasped, their eyes wide. Are our animals in danger? Are we? They asked. No, he said, no danger. Although some blamed the wolves for killings, none had been proved so the two seemed to be interested in graveyards only. Graveyards, said Lara, skeptically. Yes, the two had been seen in graveyards all over the county. What they did there was anyone’s guess. They disturb nothing.

And what of your interest in these wolves asked Maya. Interest? Merely gossip as I travel. Stephen said. An interesting tale to tell. And with that, Lara, dear, wash up and bed, said Mara. Lara protested that she would be too scared walk to the creek, but Maya said the same things that were there yesterday are there today unless you trip over a lost suitor. Lara laughed, took a lantern, and walked out the back door.

Maya turned swiftly on Stephen. Does anyone in the village know you are here? No, said Stephen. Then you may stay the night by the fire, she said. But a warning, don’t repeat your werewolf story in the village. They won’t care to hear it and will run you off. Really? Said Stephen, taken aback. I am not joking. No mention of werewolves. Maya repeated herself.

The three of them settled for the night, Maya and Lara in the loft and Stephen next to fire with blankets and more blankets. He’d never been so comfortable. It was entirely counter to his nature to be so comfortable. It dulled his instincts, but not so much that he didn’t know that he was in the right place. So he waited. And soon small sounds from the loft told him that the women were moving about.

Soundlessly he left the cottage through the backdoor and crouched by the corner of the house, watching the front door and loft door. In the chill he was beginning to miss those blankets when the loft door opened with a slight creak. Two white wolves jumped down gracefully, their eyes glowing in the moonlight. He pulled back against the house but he could have sworn that they had seen him.

He watched them lope down the track towards the next village and once they were out of sight, he got up and started after them.

The closest cemetery was a small one next to the church but he didn’t see the wolves there and so he picked up his pace and kept going. The next was larger, wilder, where many unshriven people were buried and there he spotted them. They were tensed, watching a new grave, alert for prey. He dropped behind a hillock to watch and slowly got his bow ready. A white wolf pelt would bring him enough to live on for weeks. What were they doing? Had they spotted a rabbit?

suddenly the dirt in the grave boiled up, and a hand reached up through the soil. Stephen froze. The wolves immediately pounced and grabbed the hand, pulling hard until the whole body was pulled free, snapping and growling with elongated teeth. The wolves bit and jumped refusing to let the undead stand, and then, with a move that Stephen couldn’t really see, the body was headless and limp. The wolves backed away and three men who had remained hidden until this point came forward, re-dug the hole for the body and head and buried it. The wolves lay motionless at the side of the graveyard. When the work was down, the men bowed to the wolves and said a few words and left.

Stephen hadn’t moved through all of this commotion. Now he put away his bow and slid down the hillock and went on his way. The wolves knew he’d been there and had tolerated his presence. He wouldn’t chance his luck a second time. And the wolves were far more important to these people than he was. He’d be better traveling elsewhere.

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