Gray Mother

Her paws were cold, and her feet crunched in the snow as she walked, the crust under her claws unreliable, sometimes holding her weight, sometimes punching through and sending her into an uneven gait that caused her to sink into powder as high as her chest. When it happened, she would blow it away from her face with a snort, the ends of her whiskers tingling as ice crystals brushed against them, and dig in, her back legs kicking until she was on top again. It would tire her, and she’d stop when she reached a solid point, panting gently, stopping to lap at the powder until enough melted in her mouth, and she could ease the aching itch in her throat.

Wind stirred the powder, sending it swirling and spiraling in whorls and eddies, and shaking the boughs above her. Fat clods of snow fell from the branches and hit the ground with thick plopping sounds. Above her, a black bird shifted on its branch and fluttered its wings, trying to settle. It sighed.

“Will you not rest, Old Mother?”

It was the birds’ name for her, though she had been known by many. Waabishki-ma’iingan by the tall hunters in the summers, Long Fang by her packmates, and Ingashi by her litter, though they were long grown and in packs of their own these days. To the moon she had always simply been Grey, sister and daughter; mother, maiden, and crone. She craned her neck, catching the scents of deer and rabbit on the wind, and stared at the bird. She knew him only as Ebon.

“Over this next rise. We need to make better time. Maybe if you fly ahead. You can see if the pack is there.”

Ebon sighed again and fluttered his wings, then launched himself from the branch, sending more snow pattering to the ground. For a moment, the flap of his wings was loud in the clearing, and then they were gone. Grey settled on her haunches, watching the moon filter through the boughs overhead, sending skeletal fingers reaching into the white, a chiaroscuro sketch of murky futures. She lifted her head and sniffed, thinking maybe she would smell the dry dusting of Ebon’s feathers, or the carrion scent that clung to the hook of his beak, the points of his talons.

Too soon, she thought. Age and hunting had taught her patience in most things, but never in her need to be near family. Her mind drifted a little – it did that more these days, time unmooring and sending her down faded paths.

Blue-Eye had appeared in the spring grain, full of chest and tall, his withers wide and his teeth sharp. She had set her paws in the mud, green shoots tickling the pads, and lowered her head, her mouth set, her legs wide. She let a low rumble escape her chest, the sound like rocks tumbling in a stream. He paused and turned his head, one blue eye shining over his thick muzzle, the other a circle of fur bounded by a thick seam of scar. He turned his head and opened his mouth, tongue lolling out, as though he thought her challenge amusing.

Grey bounded forward, intending to teach him that she had little to do with joking, and more to do with keeping intruders from her pack. She leapt, and he stepped out of the way, banging his head into her ribs, and bringing his paws onto her side. She coughed out a surprised bark as she landed on her back in the mud, and he nipped her throat – not enough to draw blood, but a message nonetheless. She lay still, waiting, and he licked her face once, then tore off through the high grass. A fierce sort of something rose in her, and she found her feet and gave chase, wheat whipping by to either side, his musk in her nose, his hard breath ahead of her.

And then – and then there he was, waiting, and she rolled him this time, catching his throat in her jaws, a playful growl escaping her. After a moment, she let up, and he bounced to his feet. They stared at one another, that striking blue eye honest, and came together.

The memory faded, and Grey looked to the sky. Stars, unseen before, peeked through cracks in the clouds. There was a story her people told themselves sometimes, after a hunt, when the elders would lie in warm circles, and the pups wrestled among the pines. It was the story of Amarok. They said when the world was all forest, before the tall hunters, it was full of prey. Others abided there, the bear and the hawk, and darker – the wendigo and the alakwis. They said that when Amarok was just a pup, the wendigo took his father and gave him a hunger that could only be sated with his own people’s flesh. Wild and alone, Amarok’s father – Rust – fled to the wood, fearful that he should swallow his family and devour his pups.

In time, he was all but forgotten as the pack moved on, though it was said they could hear him moving behind them always, his paws scrabbling on the rough bark shed by ancient trees, claws clicking on stony hillsides. They whispered they could hear his rough growl behind the gorse and heather, and glimpse his shadow, hunched by hunger behind the thick maples. So, they moved, always moving, not letting He Who Lurks catch their throats.

Then, they began to fall. First, the old and infirm. Packmates rendered slow by the river of time, hobbled by nature, or sick with any number of things that could creep up and take the honorable in a dishonorable way. No one said more than was necessary. No one slowed their pace. It was the Way. The Way said you moved on. And on. And those who fell were left behind. Not forgotten, not discarded. Their time had come, and it was up to the Mother to reclaim them. There was no dishonor in death, for it came for all.

But Amarok knew better. He saw better. He saw how when the weak fell, a shadow fell over them. He saw jaws, dark and red, reach from the dark places between boles and snatch a leg, tear a tendon. And still he ran with the pack.

It was a clear night when his father came among them, sleeping in their groups. He stalked among the kits and whelplings, and his head would dip, coming back up with jaws working. He had grown lean in the intervening years. His ribs stood out in stark relief, his spine bristling. Rust’s eyes held a yellowish sheen, his teeth stained brown, and his saliva ran in rivulets from half-open jaws. Madness had settled in him like a thorn in flesh, and as his head swiveled side to side, he saw only prey – an entire world for the eating.

Amarok stood, and approached, head down, teeth bared. His father, if he recognized his son, slavered and snapped, and opened his jaws wide, a maw that reeked of black death and rot. Seeing his chance, Amarok dove in, for his father was huge – the largest wolf that had lived until that point – and Amarok fit between his teeth easily. He traveled down his father’s slick throat, into the furnace of his stomach. Once there, he ripped and tore, he rent and bled his father among the corpses of his litter-mates, and with a final howl, tore free of the beast’s stomach, rebirthed in savagery.

When the other wolves saw what he had done, they voiced their joy to the moon, the Mother, and she took notice. For each thing that Rust had devoured, she placed their souls in the sky and set them to burn so that all would know the good Amarok had done.

“Amarok. It is a good story.”

The wolf that stood apart from her was black, his eyes the green of the forest in summer. He settled to his haunches in the shadow between two great oaks. Grey watched him warily. She was not startled, though she hadn’t heard him approach, and was not surprised, though he seemed to know her thoughts. Grey had lived long enough to know that things worked that way in the world. There were certainly more things beneath the stars and between the shadows of the trees than could be accounted for, even in her long life.

“I am waiting for my friend,” she replied, as if that explained everything.

The black wolf looked out toward the rolling hills in the distance, trees clinging to them like bristling hairs. Snow had begun to drift down again in lazy see-saws.

“It may be a while.”

Grey sniffed the air again, and smelled only ice on the wind and the hours-old passage of prey. “My pack…” she began.

“Will be fine without you for a while.” It was the black wolf’s turn to raise his head and sniff slightly at the air.

“Tell me, Old Mother, aren’t you tired?”

The question rankled her. It was not their way to complain. Of the heat, or of the snow. Of the scarcity of the hunt, or the ache from old wounds. It was not their way to give voice to doubt or pain, or to whisper even to the wind of the way their joints ached with age, the way their paws no longer gripped tight to rocky land, or the way their vision sometimes blurred when something moved too fast before them. Despite that, all those things were true, and she kept her silence.

Instead, she turned her thoughts to Blue-Eye. She thought of his humor and his strength, his ferocity. She thought of the time they cornered a bear who had been harassing the fringes of the pack, snapping and snarling, pushing it back despite its size. And Blue-Eye, stupid, brave, funny Blue-Eye, had grown bold. He moved too close, lunging at the beast’s midsection, and it swatted him. It hammered him back like a tail would swat a fly, and – red fell, carmine and bloody in its fierceness. When they found her, she was bleeding, her ribs ached, and her leg would not support her weight. And beside her, the bear, its throat a ruin. Despite the pain, she stood over Blue-Eye, stood until she could no more, and when darkness fell, laid her head on the still-soft mat of his fur, resting until his soul burned among the stars.

Her thoughts turned to her cubs, loyal to pack and family, strong and good. They led packs of their own now – Sharp-Tooth and Little Bear and Red Sister. She thought of the days they frolicked in the long grass, and through crisp castoff leaves in autumn. She thought of the times she had brought down countless deer and rabbit, moving aside to share the kill, of the times she could only find squirrel or vole, and went hungry herself that they might be full and warm a night.

“Your love, your children. Where would they be without you?” He stood and began to pace a slow circle around her, passing into light and shadow, light and shadow. “Would things have gone differently? Have you only spared them what fate might have allowed given time?”

She growled then and bared her fangs. They were still sharp, despite age, her jaws still strong.

“Rest, Old Mother, rest and let time do its work. You need not worry. Time and age and the wind bring change to all things. Surely, you are tired?”

Even as he spoke, she felt the ache of years in her hips, the weight of a paunch gained from children, the soreness of teats that had never seemed to heal all the way after whelping. She felt them, and ignored them, and pushed herself to her feet, bracing against the shooting pain from the scars above her ribs.

“Yet you stand.” The sound that followed was a sigh. “Come then, Old Mother. Come and test your teeth against my throat.”

She moved, fast, but he was faster, and her jaws only scraped him while he snapped in and opened a wound in her leg. Crimson spattered white snow, steaming slightly in the chill night. She limped to the side and let him come at her, his head low, wide like a viper’s. She let him bull in, teeth opening a new wound on her scars, and she twisted, lowering her jaws, closing them tight around his throat. He yelped, and tried to pull away, but she held on tight despite his claws raking at her, front and back, making a red ruin of her fur. Grey shook her head, a mixture of snarl and whimper escaping her lips. Still, the black wolf fought her, opening wound upon wound as he struggled from her jaws.

For his part, it was useless. These were jaws that had felled countless prey, that had torn the throat from the beast who took her lover. They were jaws that had protected and killed for her cubs. She shook her head one last time, the action sending a ripple of pain up her spine, and with a final crack, the other wolf went limp. He ceased to struggle, and she dropped the limp bundle of fur.

Grey paced a few steps, and sagged to the snow, not caring that beneath her it grew warm and sticky, thick with her blood. She looked up, to the stars, and one among them winked blue. She chuffed out a soft greeting. Somewhere distant, drawing closer, like a chinook through the trees, came the sound of wings. After a moment, Ebon landed near.

“My pack?”

He cocked his head, taking in the scene. He seemed to process it, and then take it in stride. “Further, just beyond the hills.”

“Thank you.” She pushed herself to her feet, her body aching. She thought of the pack, alone in the night, and began to walk, the raven close behind.

Her War Heart

She had seven hearts, each in a velvet lined box of hardwood stained the color of clotted blood. She walked among them, fingers tracing the carved lids, and wondered which she would need today. She thought of the witch in the woods, the gnarled crone she had met when she was a little girl, and her sharp knife and promises.

“You will be different. You will be strong. The men will not dare lay their hands on your flesh, or speak promises only to be broken as soon as they are soft.”

The knife glittered in the dark, then slipped between her ribs, opening her like a puzzle box, bone sliding aside, breastbone opening as a lock under a key. Curiously, it did not hurt, and she only watched in dispassion as the old woman took her first heart – her true heart – and lifted it, glistening in the firelight. She placed it in a sack and told Agnes to bury it in the thick peat between the roots of a cypress tree, and when she was finished, to guard its secret well. After, she was to return once a year, for the old woman to give her a new heart, each a distillation of those things that made life worth living.

Seven years, seven hearts, and this year she returned. She never asked the old witch what she wanted in return. Agnes knew already. When she would visit, she would tidy the cabin, brush the old woman’s long hair, still shining a deep gold, and rub the calluses on her feet. She would prepare dinner, and they would sup together, and when they were finished, the old witch – Greta – would disappear into her bedroom while crepuscular light crept in through the windows. She would rummage around for a bit, and when she returned, a new box would be in her hands, the wood stained and polished to a shine.

Now, it was nearly another year, and she had laid out her dress, a light thing printed with flowers, and tall boots, for Greta lived in the forest past the fields, and the mud could creep up your ankles and into your shoes, and if it had been a wet spring, sometimes it climbed to your knees, sucking at your legs like a drunk sucks at a bone, trying to pull the meat and marrow from you.

Agnes wondered which heart to wear – joy, for the laughter she shared with the witch, or stoicism to accept that time was passing, and soon enough even Greta’s time would come to an end. It was something Agnes hadn’t considered when she was younger. The witch of the woods had always seemed immortal, especially when Agnes had been young, Great had still been very old. But the fact was that time crept on, and even the very old and powerful weren’t immune to its ravages.

Maybe sorrow, then? She shook her head. Too much. Too painful. Outside, someone was ringing the warning bell in the square, drawing her from her thoughts. A rabble of voices drifted on the wind, and Agnes peeked her head from a shutter to see what the stir was about. The sky had turned the orange red of a summer storm, and the wind had the tang of ozone. In the square below, someone had gathered a large crowd, and Agnes squinted to see who it was.

Gunter, the town constable, was standing on the platform usually used for mayoral announcements, his bald pate shining in the still sunny day, wisps from the salt and pepper fringe blowing around his scalp. His face was red – redder than the normal flush from drink – and he clutched a burlap sack in one gloved hand. Most of the town was gathered around, summer dress fluttering in the warm zephyr, men with shirts unlaced and hats in hand, some still holding pitchforks and hoes. Agnes frowned. This must have been called in a hurry.

Gunter raised his voice to a stentorian bellow. “There is an abomination in our midst!”

The crowd muttered and shuffled their feet. They’d heard this before, two summers ago when Gunter had been appointed constable, and he was eager to hunt out evil in a town of less than a hundred people. He’d insisted there was a witch in the woods, and that she lured in unsuspecting children, then devoured them whole. Agnes had laughed at the pronouncement, as had most of the village, though her reasons were different. The thought of Greta, a woman who subsisted on bread and roots, eating a lamb shank, let alone a child, was ridiculous.

Gunter had turned a deep red at the scoffing, throwing an accusatory finger in their faces. “You’ll see! When your crops wither and your children grow wan, you’ll see!”

He’d stomped off in a blind fury, and Agnes had crept away that night to tell Greta of his speech. The old woman worked a spell that summer, with sea salt and bread, with bone and earth, that strengthened the crops and made the children hale. When the village saw the opposite of what Gunter claimed, they mocked him in the street, calling him ‘Old Man Wind’, a reference to the storms he would blow but never break.

Now he stood in the town square, and the burlap sack in his hand writhed, and a pit of dread sat in Agnes’s stomach, because she could see the mud on his boots and the scratches on his arms. He glared around at the muttering and reached into the bag, and her stomach clenched even tighter. With a triumphant sound, he pulled his prize free, the crimson muscle still beating in the sunlight. Agnes gasped, echoing the townspeople.

“A witch, I told you! A heartless witch, and if she is bold enough to walk among us with no heart, what must she be planning for your children? Hannah? Your Ruth, is she well? Martin, your Jon, has he not been ill? Look among you!”

They began to glance at one another.

“Who among you is missing? Who among you would not deign to show her face for the good of the village?”

All eyes turned to Agnes’ home, and she blanched, pulling her head back into the room and slamming the shutter closed. Too late though – she knew they had seen her, and now she wondered what was to be next. Outside, the muttering had risen to a clamor, and she bolted downstairs with a jolt of fear, managing to slam the bar across her door as the first stone hit it.

They came in a flurry, a rainstorm of stones slamming into her door, breaking slats from the shutters and rattling against the roof and cupboard. There were shouts for her to come out, for her to make their children well, for her to end her life. She ran upstairs and threw her tiny closet open, looking at each heart in turn. Which could she use? Innocence? They’d never believe it. Joy? She’d appear a lunatic. Sorrow? They’d think her being contrite a false face, and after all, what did she have to be contrite about? Living? She’d never brought them harm.

Smoke trickled between the floorboards, and panic seized her limbs. Leaving the hearts behind, Agnes barreled down the stairs, seeing that the front door had been lit, the walls now smoking too as the townspeople piled brush and lumber against them. She banged on the door and shouted.

“You know me! Harold – I taught your children! Jane – who nursed your little ones when you had the pox?”

No response came, and she tried to kick the door down, to flee, but they had nailed it tight. The fire was under the house now, and the floorboards smoked and spat as the flames took them. She fled up the stairs, thinking to jump from a window, but when she threw the shutter, saw that the townsfolk had surrounded her house, some with their bows, and watched as it burned.

Weeping, she sat on the floor and curled up into a ball. Surely they would relent. Surely they would spare her. This was just a lesson. She had harmed no one. She had done nothi-

The floor collapsed, spilling her into the fire.

*

She had been in the forest. She couldn’t remember why. Her mother had died? Her father? They were both gone now, gone and away, and she was alone, and there was no one to tell her not to play there, so she did. When she found the path, neat and winding between the boles of ancient oaks and maples, she took it, feet crunching on leaves shed the season before. Past another turn, the third in the path, she saw a tidy cottage, small and cozy, smoke rising from the chimney. Being neither warned nor afraid of such things, she knocked. The woman who answered the door was dressed in black, her hair gold, her hands wizened. She smiled, and let the girl in.

“Do I know you?” The woman asked.

Agnes shook her head.

“Would I like to?” The woman asked.

Agnes nodded.

“What is your name, little one?”

“Agnes, but my mother always called me Aggie.”

“Well, then Aggie, come in and sit with an old woman. I am Greta.”

“What will we do?”

“Sup, and talk, and in the end, if you’re very good, I’ll show you a bit of magic.”

Agnes thought she would like that very much, and stepped into the cottage, the door closing behind her.

*

Somehow, she survived. Though, she was burned badly, her skin scorched down to muscle – that didn’t hurt as much – cold numbed those parts of her. In others, great blisters had risen, and her hair had been burned down to stubble. She wept a little when she woke. Part from the pain, part from the loss. She had lost her home, her friends, her hearts. When she was done, she crawled through the rubble until she could see the field behind her house, and beyond that, the forest. She listened, though it was a rest day, and no one toiled in the fields, or walked the streets, and she breathed a sigh of relief. When night fell, she crawled further, into the mud of the field, into the long grasses and stinging insects which stung a little less in comparison to the great ache in her body, and over hard stone, each movement causing her to gasp and writhe. Finally, she made it to the forest, and collapsed under the shade of a massive oak, its branches spread wide.

She lay there, cool leaves and earth pressing into her back, and stared at the stars between the boughs. She wondered if their fire was as hot as the one that had burned her, and found she was glad they were distant. A shadow moved into her line of sight, blocking them, and after a moment, cawed gently at her. She stared at it until it cawed again, fluttered its wings, and hopped to a nearby tree, another soft caw escaping it. I hopped from one foot to another and looked at her expectantly.

With a sigh and a painful heave, Agnes rolled over and crawled along the ground, not trusting her legs yet. She made way in slow movements that drug her skin across broken twigs and raspy leaves until she was under the tree. The bird moved on, waiting. She followed. They did this for some time, night passing into dawn as Agnes moved inch by agonizing inch along the forest floor. Finally, the sun broke the horizon, and she found herself clutching the bottom of Greta’s door. With what strength she had left, she scratched at the wood, hoping the old woman would hear. Then, she went to sleep, satisfied she had come as far as she could, and the night would bear out the rest.

*

When she woke, she was ensconced in Greta’s soft goose down bed, the mattress like a cloud. She looked around the room and saw that it was much like her own. A bed, dresser, nightstand, and a small closet. She wondered at the contents, considered asking now that she was in the woman’s room, but then Greta came in bearing a steaming bowl, and she let it drop. The other woman propped her head up and spooned broth between her lips. It was good, filling, and left a trickle of warmth that grew into a comfortable blanket when she was finished. Her eyelids grew heavy.

“I should have seen this coming,” Greta was saying.

Agnes shook her head weakly. “Not their fault.”

Greta waved that away. “Bah. People are dumb and panicky, and cruel when they believe lies. Sleep now, for a little longer. I have a gift for you.”

Agnes let the lassitude wash over her.

*

When she woke, it was alone. She felt stronger, enough to sit up and look around. In the bed was a box, the top carved with a flame. A note sat beside it.

“This is your war heart,” it read. “It is time you took your own back.”

Agnes opened the box, and inside was a heart the color of fire. It glowed gently, not a peaceful white like joy, or blue like sorrow, but a deep angry red, and when she held it in her hands, it was hot to the touch. It frightened her a little. Still, she opened her chest and placed it within, and when it began to beat, she felt strength flood her limbs, her pain dissipating. She threw off her covers, and opened Greta’s closet. Inside was a cloak and a blade, and she took both. The cloak was black and felt light as shadow, the blade white and bright as the moon. She stalked out of the hut and into the night.

*

She stood at the edge of the village and cried out for Gunter. He came on the third try, his face red, his hair disheveled. In one hand, he held his cutlass. In the other, the burlap sack. He stared at her, recognition not lighting his face. A crowd had begun to gather behind him, and when she swept the hood of the cloak back, they gasped. He stepped back and raised his sword, leaving the heart in the dirt.

“My heart, please.” Moonlight glimmered on her blade.

“Witch!” He spat.

Gunter lunged, his face alight with fanaticism, a fever that refused to break. She stepped out of the way and the war heart surged. Her limbs moved like clockwork, and she swept his head from his shoulders. His corpse tumbled to the ground.

“My heart, please.” She repeated it. A bold farmer, thick with ropy muscle, tried what the older man couldn’t, taking up his blade. Agnes ended him as well, and someone cried out.

“My heart. Please!” It was no longer a request, but a command, and yet no one moved to obey the woman cloaked in shadow.

“My heart!” Rage surged through her. The war heart whispered to her. She was born to kill. She was born to end. She would burn the world. She raised the blade and took a single step forward. The crowd shrank back, and she silently cursed them for cowards.

A voice, small and curious cracked the surface of her rage. “This heart?”

A child, no older than she had been when she’d met Greta held out her heart. Agnes nodded and knelt. From somewhere in the crowd, the girl’s mother wept, but Agnes had no time for her. She took her heart and stood, then leaned in, speaking in the girl’s ear.

“If you need, find me in the woods.”

With that, she stood and left the village in somber silence. Behind her, a choked sob escaped, or a muttered curse, but none reached her ears. She traveled light, and when she entered the tree line, disappeared altogether.

*

In the cabin, she placed her war heart in a chest, and sat beside the old woman who had given it to her, her body still cooling in her chair. She brushed her hair and rubbed her feet, then wrapped her in linens and buried her between the roots of the cypress trees. When she returned to the cabin, she put her old heart in her chest, and her new in the tiny closet, and waited. In time, she would have enough joy and sorrow, love and hate, and all the other things that make life worth living, and she would give them to a young woman to learn their lessons.