From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

August 11, 2014

The Wolf's Tooth

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in Wolfsongs Volume 1, November 2008. Full story behind cut.

We stand in the snow-choked cloister like a wall of statues, a perfect circle of gray around Abbot Birger’s mangled body. His eyes stare vacantly at the dawn-stained clouds piling overhead, as vacantly as the glassless chapel windows, black and gaping and baring all to the mercy of the elements. In the courtyard behind us, snowdrifts shift uneasily in the wind.
“We found him on the west bank, Mother Judit,” Sister Astrid says.
I shiver despite the thick wool of my cloak. “And our flocks?”
“Untouched, Mother.” A murmur ripples through the gray line of monks. “The Abbot said—before he went out—”
“I know what the Abbot said.” My voice seems to suck the sound from the cloister, leaving it so silent, I can hear the hiss of Birger’s blood dripping in the snow. “’The creature wants human flesh.’”
Astrid bows her  head and steps back into the line. With a heavy heart, I glance at the barred gates of the monastery. “Where is my nephew?”
Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howls.

“She’s here again.”
Vidar stood in the doorway between the locutory and the snowy cloister beyond, fists clenched firmly at his sides, knuckles white despite the blood collecting in his hands. He wore no gloves, though the air was chill enough to freeze his breath, and his shirt was open at the throat. Raised reddish welts crossed the exposed skin.
In the chair across from me, Abbot Birger raised a thin eyebrow in carefully calculated surprise.
I sighed and closed the account book on my desk. “Excuse us for a moment, my lord.”
Without a word, Birger floated out of his chair and into the cloister, sparing an acrid glance for Vidar on his way out.
As the door closed behind him, I rose and slammed my fist on my account book’s studded cover, wincing at the cold of the metal chips against my flesh. “Damn it, Vidar, you know better than to interrupt me when I’m with His Holiness.”
My nephew’s sky-gray eyes drifted to the book beneath my hand, and a pained look twisted his lips. “I’m sorry, Mother Judit,” he whispered. “But she’s here again.”
Who’s here again?” I made no effort to keep the weariness from my voice.
“The Wolf Maiden.”
I sighed and pressed my palms over my eyelids. “The Wolf Maiden.”
He nodded slowly.
“Is that what this girl calls herself?”
“No,” he said. “She doesn’t call herself anything. She doesn’t speak. But I see her sometimes, walking through the forest. She looks lost.”
“And why do you call her the Wolf Maiden?” It chilled me, the reverence with which he pronounced that name. Wolves were no friends for a monastery whose only income came from sheepherding.
Vidar shrugged. “It’s what she’s called. No,” he added sharply, seeing my exasperated stare, “I haven’t gone mad, Mother Judit. You should see her. There’s something…her hair, for instance—it’s as gray as a winter wolf’s, and her eyes are golden. When she moves through the forest….” His hand moved to the branch marks on his chest. “I tried to follow her, but she ran too quickly. I lost her trail at the Ylva’s eastern bank.”
A chill rippled down my spine like a drop of ice. “The sheep were moved to the western bank two days ago,” I said. “The wolf attacks…Blessed Mother, Vidar, you don’t think—”
A sharp rap sounded at the door. I gestured for Vidar to open it and sank into the chair behind my desk.
“Mother Judit.” Brother Harleif nodded his head once, sending a shower of snow over the rich locutory carpet. In the shadow of his hood, I saw that his eyes were wide with agitation. “Abbot Birger says for you to come quickly. There’s been another attack.”

The pastures were gray and thick with the dimness of early winter as we followed Brother Harleif to the wounded animal. Though the snow was too light and blowing to hold paw-prints, we could see by a trail of blood drops that the wolf had vanished into the foothills.
“This isn’t a normal attack, Mother Judit,” Abbot Birger said, his eyes tracing the blood trail to its source. “Why would the creature just leave its prey after going through the trouble of killing it?”
“They’re all like that, my lord.” I knelt in the snow beside Eydis, the wolf’s unfortunate victim. Her soft wool was matted with blood from her breast down to her swollen belly. “And she isn’t killed. Not yet, anyway. Brother Harleif?”
Harleif crouched beside me and began gently rubbing at the blood with his glove and a handful of snow. “These are the marks of a wolf’s teeth,” he said, pointing to a jagged tear on Eydis’s shoulder. “But look at the shape of the jaw. There’s something strange about it—the way the teeth don’t seem to line up.” As he spoke, he took a needle and thread from a pocket in his cloak, handed his gloves to Vidar, and began stitching up the wound. “The Abbot is right; it doesn’t make sense for the beast to leave her like this. And what’s more, it doesn’t seem to be picking out the weaker animals, the way wolves will when separated from their pack. Eydis can hardly be called an easy kill.”
“She’s pregnant,” Birger said slowly. “That’s rare at this time of year, isn’t it?”
“My lord.” I rested my hands on my hips and turned to him with a scowl. “Though our state of poverty may have left you in doubt of our morals, surely you do not accuse our ewes of lechery?”
He flushed a deep red and stared at the snow at his feet. I let out a small sigh, immediately sorry for my outburst. It wasn’t the Abbot’s fault the King was demanding yet another monastic tax. It certainly wasn’t his fault we couldn’t pay it.
“I apologize,” I said, folding my hands meekly at my waist. “And I thank you for all the Abbey has done to lessen our debt. As for Eydis…we’re doing the best we can. What with the wolves attacking and leaving our flocks to die in the snow—can we be blamed for rushing a new generation?”
“No, certainly not.” Birger cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose we’d best leave Brother Harleif to his work. Besides, Mother Judit, I was hoping we could continue with the account books. Unless, of course…” His eyes slipped across the snow to the bank of the Ylva, where Vidar was soaking cloths for Harleif.
“No,” I said. “No, we aren’t needed here. I think we—”
A sound cut me off, low and rough like the moan of a wounded animal. I turned to Eydis, but the ewe lay clam and silent beneath Harleif’s careful hands.
“Did you hear that?” I whispered.
Birger and Harleif exchanged startled glances. “Hear what?” the Abbot asked after a moment. “I heard nothing.”
But I felt Vidar’s eyes on my back, and I knew he had heard it, too. The low cry like a child abandoned in the snow; the rough howl like a wolf on the hunt.

“Your nephew,” Birger said, drumming his fingers on the desktop. “When does he plan on taking the vows?”
Once again, we sat in the locutory, uneasily balanced in a pair of low chairs on opposite sides of my desk. My account book lay open between us, the yellowed pages covered with spiderwebs of numerals and calculations.
I nibbled the tip of my pen, staining my lips with sticky, bitter-tasting ink. “I don’t think my nephew plans on taking the vows, ever,” I said.
Birger’s dark eyebrows made a sharp line across his forehead. “I mean no offense, Mother, but your monastery cannot afford charity cases.”
“He is my brother’s son!” I protested. “What was I to do—leave him in the forest for the wolves to raise?”
Birger shrugged. “It served Blessed Lady Sigrun when Our Mother left her orphaned.”
If there was one thing I hated about Abbot Birger, it was how difficult he made it to tell when he was being facetious.
“Vidar is no Lady Sigrun.” I traced a column of names in the account book.  “My lord, when my brother’s wife died in bringing my nephew into the world, I swore to help my brother look after him. Ingvar was only nineteen—little older than Vidar is now—and hardly ready to be a father. I promised to look after the child if anything happened…”
I let the thought hang and pressed my hands over my eyelids until I was no longer in danger of crying.
“When did your brother die?”
“Four years ago.” I paused to lick ink from my lips. “Maybe five.”
“And in all that time, did you ever consider finding another place for Vidar to go?”
“No.” I had to say it twice before a sound came out. “No, I didn’t.”
The Abbot rose and began to examine the bookshelves in the walls of the locutory, pausing now and then to tap a cover with his long, straight fingers. “The boy isn’t meant for monastery life; surely you’ve realized that by now. Silence, obedience, clear judgment…” He punctuated each virtue with a pointed tap. “He has none of it. What was that nonsense he interrupted us with this morning?”
“I can’t recall it now,” I lied.
“No matter. You see my point. It is as I said before; your monastery cannot afford charity cases.”
“If only we could go a season without losing so many sheep—”
“Ah!” Birger exclaimed, dropping back into his chair with a flourish. “Yes. The wolves. It seems you have two unneeded guests on your property, Mother.” I began to protest, but he silenced me with a glare. “Find a way to get rid of the wolves, or find another home for your nephew.  I cannot continue to support both.”
There was no banter in his voice; for the first time, Abbot Birger had dropped all pretense of civility. Charades had no place where gold was involved. A part of me understood, and hated me for understanding.
“Can’t you take him to the abbey?” I heard the pleading in my voice and felt sickened by it. “He would make a fine acolyte, if only someone had the time to train him.”
Birger shook his head. “My abbey does not have room for his kind.”
“What is his kind?”
The Abbot shrugged and turned back to the account books.

Eydis died later that night.
“I don’t understand it,” Harleif murmured, his hand hovering of the sheep’s still-warm body. “That wound should not have been fatal on its own, and there was no time for it to become infected…”
I pulled my cloak tighter around my neck and glanced at Birger, who frowned at the scene like a cathedral gargoyle. On my other side, Vidar pressed his clenched fist against his lips.
“What should we do, Brother?” My voice echoed in the dark.
Harleif shrugged. “I’m at a loss, Mother. Keep the flocks enclosed for the night; the old fence on the east bank should serve. Double the watches.” He met my eyes with a helpless twist of his lips. “It’s nothing we haven’t done before.”
“There is nothing we haven’t done before.”
The Abbot cleared his throat suddenly, grating like a church bell caught in a gust. “Have you made any attempts to capture the creature responsible?”
“No, my lord,” I began, when Vidar started violently.
“No!” he cried. “Mother Judit, you can’t!”
I tangled a hand in my hair, as if to call attention to its graying. “I know that perfectly well,” I said, and turned to Birger. “As you see, my lord, there are hardly enough brothers and sisters with adequate strength to stand guard over our flocks in this weather, much less to go tracking down wolves.” As soon as I said it, I felt my throat tightening in protest. After the humiliating task of examining our accounts, I didn’t think my monastery had any inadequacy yet to confess.
“Judit.” Briger took a step toward me and rested a heavy hand on my shoulder. “If you won’t look to your own best interests, I will have no choice but to look to them myself.” He turned to my nephew with a sneer that made my blood run cold. “Vidar, is it?”
Vidar nodded tightly, his eyes still on me.
“Fetch yourself another torch,” Birger said. “And find us a pair of muskets.”
“No!” Vidar made as if to throw himself at the Abbot, but I stayed him with a hand on his shoulder.
“You’ve been leeching off your aunt’s hospitality long enough, boy,” Birger said, his lips pulled back in a snarl. His sharp-nailed fingers curled around Vidar’s wrist. It took every ounce of my self-control not to slap them away.
“Please, Mother Judit,” Vidar whispered as I lifted my hand from his shoulder. “I can’t kill her.”
Holding my face carefully blank, I turned to the Abbot. “My lord,” I spat, “I wish you both happy hunting.”
As Birger dragged my nephew back toward the monastery, I noticed a spot of black wetness seeping down the shoulder of Vidar’s shirt. A shudder rippled down my spine. The hand at my side clenched and unclenched, sticky with Eydis’s blood.

“The screams came from the forest,” Astrid says, washing her hands in the chapel fountain. Blood floats off her hands in inky ribbons. “By the time we found a path to their source, there was nothing there but the ruins of a lodge, and a dark patch cleared of snow. A trail of paw prints lead down to the river and stopped.”
“When did you find the Abbot?” I glance back into the corridor, where his body still rests, covered now in a white veil. Brother Harleif stands watch over it with a small cluster of praying monks. The others are in the pastures looking after our flocks, or out searching for Vidar.
“We followed the blood.” Astrid frowns and dries her hands on the skirt of her robe. “He went to the river, too.”
“How long had he been dead by the time you found him?”
“It can’t have been long.” She follows my gaze as her voice drops to a whisper. “But there’s one more thing, Mother. He was cold when we found him, but before that…the screams hadn’t stopped until we reached the clearing. And it didn’t take us long to get to the river.”

I say nothing, only press my palms over my eyes and breathe deeply. The icy air burns my lungs. Tentatively, Astrid’s hands cover mine, her fingers cold against my cheeks. 
“Go inside, Mother,” she says. “Leave the search to us. I am sorry to have troubled you. You are wearied enough already.”
I let her lead me inside; I smile and thank her for her kindness. I do not tell her that I am afraid to be trapped in the monastery, and I do not tell her about the sounds I think I hear coming from the crypt.

A line of footprints leads through the dust on the crypt staircase, scuffed and uneven as though their maker was slowed by a heavy burden. The howls I heard from the courtyard grow louder as I descend—louder, and more human. I am no longer sure they are all in my mind.
At the sound of my voice, the cries stop. I have reached the end of the staircase: the crypt gapes around me, dark and cold and silent. Glancing between two massive brick columns, I notice a white figure curled up in the light of a torch.
“Vidar?” I whisper.
The figure moans again and looks up at me. It is a woman, I realize with a start, young despite the gray in her hair and the lines etching themselves in her forehead. Her blue lips are pressed together, her eyes wide with pain.
Golden eyes. Wolf eyes.
I kneel beside her in the pool of torch-light, close enough to see the sweat gleaming on her skin. Her white dress, loose everywhere else, clings tight across her belly.
My hand freezes inches from her hair. “Who are you?”
She watches me silently, her fingers grasping on something that hangs from the chain around her neck. A wolf tooth, long and curved and cool gray-white.
“You’re the Wolf Maiden.”
She nods and curls tighter. Her fists clench on the wolf tooth as she moans in pain.
“What is—”
“The child!” the Wolf Maiden gasps.
Her voice is like nothing I have heard before, cold and soft and strong all at the same time, like snow carried on a harsh breeze. “The child?” I repeat stupidly. Oh, Blessed Mother, save me! What do I know about birthing children?
“My son,” she whispers. “My son…”
“Mother Judit?”
I turn from the Wolf Maiden with a shout, and find Vidar standing in the shadows behind me. His hands are covered with blood.
“Vidar!” I extend a hand to him uncertainly. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?”
He kneels beside me, taking a bloody rabbit carcass from the pouch at his side and tossing it to the Wolf Maiden. I look away as she tears into it with her long, sharp teeth.
“Mother Judit,” Vidar says, “this is my friend, the Wolf Maiden. Once, she was known as Accalia.”
At the sound of the name, the Wolf Maiden raises her head. Blood runs from the corners of her lips. “How did you know?” she whispers.
“You used to live at the abbey, didn’t you? Until Abbot Birger threw you out.”
“Yes,” she says, her voice becoming a snarl. “That bastard…called me unfit to serve…”
“He’s dead now,” I say.
Her smile makes the blood drip faster. “I know.”
In a gentle motion, Vidar wipes her lips with the back of his hand. “That house in the woods—the one where Birger founds your tracks—that used to be yours, didn’t it?”
“Long ago,” she murmurs. “Very long ago.”
“When you left the abbey, you tried to come here. To this Monastery.”
“Yes,” the Wolf Maiden—Accalia—says. “But it was very late in the winter. Ethelwulf found me in the forest and took me to the house. I meant to come here again in the spring, but…” She bites hard on her lip before continuing. “But we fell in love.”
I think hard, trying to remember where I heard that name before. Ethelwulf. One of the few hunters who could still survive in the forests around the monastery. If I close my eyes, I can almost picture his gentle face, his clear blue eyes. “It’s his child, isn’t it?” I ask. “Ethelwulf’s child.”
“Yes.” Vidar lays a hand on her shoulder, and she looks at it strangely before continuing. “We married early in the spring. The harvest had been poor, and we had to compete with the wolves to eat.” The furrows in her brow tighten, but her voice doesn’t waver. “Ethelwulf tracked a deer to an old she-wolf’s lair. She had always been a beast—more human than dog, sometimes—and she was fat with cubs then. Ethelwulf didn’t understand how ferocious she could be. When I found him in the woods, frozen and bloodless, I…”
Her voice falters and she glanced up fearfully, as if she thinks she has said too much. “Go on,” I say as Vidar offers her another bite of rabbit. “What did you do?”
“I went mad.” She closes her eyes, rolling rabbit blood along her tongue. “I took my knife and went to the she-wolf’s cave. She was sleeping when I came there, with Ethelwulf’s blood still wet on her claws. I…I slit her throat and took the teeth from her mouth.”
I watch the candle light glint off the tooth on her necklace and nod for her to continue.
"It was horrible. I had meant to leave before she died, but taking the teeth took longer than I thought it would. By the time I had finished, she was gone. But her cubs…” Accalia presses a hand to her own womb. “Her cubs still stirred.”
We sit in silence while she finishes her meat. The sounds of the monastery preparing for sleep seem distance and cold.
“Why did you take the teeth?” I ask after a moment.
Swallowing the last of the blood, she lifts a leather pouch from the floor beside her and tips it out in her lap. She shifts through the contents—a handful of broken yellow bone—until she finds what she is looking for; another curved ivory tooth like the one on her necklace.
“There was a woman at Birger’s abbey who could do small magic,” she says, holding the tooth out to me. I take it carefully, started by its sharpness. “In exchange for the wolf pelt, she showed me how to enchant a tooth and use it to take on the she-wolf’s shape.”
“You…transform?” I remember childhood tales of shape-changers, of the men who had come over the seas with Haraldr the Fair, more wolf than human, and fought his wars for him. It is a hard image to reconcile with the fragile girl-woman before me.
She snatches her talisman away from me. “Who did you think was attacking your sheep, Mother?”  Her voice is bitter; it takes me a moment to realize that the bitterness is directed at herself. “It was the only way I could eat. It wouldn’t have mattered so much, if it was only me. I have gone hungry before. But a month after Ethelwulf’s death, I realized I was with child.”
My fingers brush the hand where she holds the second wolf’s tooth. “That’s what this is for, isn’t it?”
To my surprise, Accalia smiles slowly. “My son will need to eat.”
Her son. Her breath is coming quicker now, I notice, and red spots are beginning to appear on the skirt of her dress. A cold thrill of fear runs down my spine.  
Vidar has noticed it to. “Accalia…”
“I know.” She shifts her weight until she is sitting on her heels and bends nearly double. “For the last few days, I’ve felt it coming. It’s strongest when I change.”
Vidar turns to me, and I know what he is going to ask before he speaks. “I’ll try,” I say, holding up a cautioning hand. “But I’ve never played midwife before.”
“But Mother—”
Accalia cuts him off with a laugh, cool and bright as snowmelt running down a window. For a moment, the darkness of the crypt seems to disperse. “But Mother Judit, that’s why I asked Vidar to bring me here. You’ve spent your life in this monastery. Surely you’ve had some experience delivering lambs and puppies?”
“There’s a large difference between a dog and a woman,” I begin, but another laugh interrupts me.
“There’s not so large a difference between a dog and a wolf.”
Accalia takes the tooth from the chain around her neck and raises it to her lips. Her words come too low and fast for me to make them out, growing more and more animal until her voice is little more than a growl. It is the only part of the transformation that comes gradually. Where a gray-haired maiden sits one moment, a slender, silver-furred wolf stands the next.
The Wolf Maiden turns her golden eyes to me and crouches low until her jaw rests on my knee.
“Very well,” I sigh, running a hand across her back. She raises her head to lick my fingers. “I’ll try. Blessed Mother help  me, but I’ll try.”

It is not an easy labor, and I am glad to have Vidar there to help me. Twice I send him up to fetch clean cloths and bowls of hot water. The newborn cub is a strange thing, tiny and fragile and covered in short, snow-white fur. When I have washed away the blood and other traces of labor, I wrap him in one of the towels and place him in Vidar’s arms.
“What do we do now?” he asks.
As if in answer, the Wolf Maiden raises herself from the pile of blankets where she has been resting and begins to growl low in her throat. The cub in Vidar’s arms squeals and stirs restlessly as his mother straightens and  stands, a gray-haired maiden once again. Accalia lifts her son from Vidar’s embrace and murmurs something under her breath. When she holds him out again, he is a pale, blue-eyed baby with a head of thick black hair.
“Oh!” I gasp, brushing his soft cheek with the tip of one finger. “What will you name him?”
She looks at me strangely, brow furrowed, lips set in a frown. When she begins to speak, tears rim her clear golden eyes. “I don’t know,” she says. A tear runs down her cheek and drips onto her son’s. “I thought I would leave that up to you.”
“What?” I whisper, but I do not need to hear her answer. I already know.
Birger was right: a monastery is no place for my nephew. He is too curious, too spirited to spend his life behind stone walls. Only one thing in this place every brought him joy, and she is kneeling before me now, holding out her child with a fragile smile.
“I only have one more wolf’s tooth,” she says. “And my life is no life for a child. Please say you’ll look after him?”
I nod, unable to find the words. “You…You realize you can’t stay here?” I hear the pleading in my voice as I turn to Vidar. “The sheep—”
“Don’t worry about the sheep, Mother,” Vidar laughs. “We’ll find a place farther south—my father’s village, maybe, where the forests are filled with game. I won’t trouble you anymore.”
“You’ve never troubled me, Vidar.”
His only answer is to smile, lift the child from Accalia’s arms, and place him in mine.
The Wolf Maiden takes his hands, so that the two wolf’s teeth are pressed between their palms. Their eyes meet, golden and sky-gray, as they recite the enchantment together.
I lower my head to kiss the child lying against my breast. “Your name is Vidar,” I whisper, and he stirs in his sleep. When I look up again, the young man and maiden are gone.

Where they last stood, two lines of wolf tracks make a smooth path through the dust. 


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