Published: September 25, 2013
I leave the realm of sleep to be greeted by the winter cold and my grumbling stomach.
It’s been over a week since I last ate anything… and even then it was just some mushrooms that felt as though I’d swallowed a venomous eel. I rise slowly, shake the snowflakes off of my pelt, savoring the warmth that comes from movement, blood flowing through my veins once more.
I can’t make a fire. Even if I had something more useful than my bulky, clawed hands, I don’t know how to do it. Servants always made my fires back home.
My stomach gurgles and dull pains emanate through my body like an echo inside an empty cavern. Food… always on my mind, even haunting my dreams. I remember just two moons ago, back when it was still fall, the harvest season. Drink overflowed from full cups, food tumbled to the floor to be eaten by hounds for lack of table space, fires burned day and night, and all was right with the world.
From my place at the women’s table next to my younger sister, I sip on my sweet mead, gazing at the men on the other side of the hall. My father is being too loud again, telling some story about a battle... if you can call him and a hundred men-at-arms splitting unruly peasants’ heads open a “battle.” Things go well until my Great Uncle Conall, a large, broad-shouldered man with an equally broad white beard begins to speak. The men at the table turn their heads to listen, a pack of hounds distracted from their master’s voice by the sight of a wild animal. My father rolls his eyes and drinks deeply from his chalice, perhaps hoping to extinguish his envy with wine.
“I can’t even imagine Great Uncle Conall as a wolf,” says my younger sister Lavena as she drinks her mead. “A bear certainly, but not a wolf.”
“It was a long time ago,” I say with a shrug. “He was probably a lot skinnier back then.”
“Grandfather says he was he was always big, even after he returned home from living in the wild.” She picks up a strawberry tartlet, eating a quarter of it with an enormous bite. My sister eats and eats and never once puts any meat on her bones. “Can you even imagine that? Having your husband go running off for seven years to play hound in the woods? If there was ever a reason for divorce…”
Half-eaten tartlet in hand, she makes the sign of the cross and then takes a long drink of her goblet filled with the finest sweet mead.
“Well, I wouldn’t mind, Lavena. Uncle Conall brought great honor to the family. Six children, more than thirty grandchildren, and even some great grandchildren on the way. Expanded his father’s holdings five times over. Hardly an unfair trade, no?”
“Perhaps, but that’s quite the sacrifice to ask of a young wife.”
“It is…” I sip on my mead. A thought comes to mind that makes me smirk. “But what if, dearest sister, you were the wolf and your husband had to wait?”
Lavena looks at me, eyes wide, tightly clutching the tartlet and goblet as a warrior might hold sword and shield.
“That’s impossible…” she mutters.
“Do you know Lady Mac Tire? They say she and her husband met as wolves, courted each other as beasts do, and married the very day they shed their wolfskins.”
“Lady Mac Tire?” says my sister. “From the Southern Coast? With the red hair and full figure?”
“And Lord Mac Tire too? Both of them were wolves?”
“I don’t understand why that’s so difficult to believe. There are she-wolves, true? How else would they breed?”
“But they’re just she-beasts. Not ladies. Certainly not ladies as polite and dignified as Lady Mac Tire. Can you even imagine it? Living in the dirt and attacking highwaymen? Wearing that wolfskin would make even the most refined lady into a barbarian in no time at all. How does Lady Mac Tire do it after seven long years of that?” She eats the remains of the strawberry tartlet and selects another from the platter on the table. “But no matter… I’m sure that the both of us will escape that curse.”
“What makes you say that, sister?”
“The family hasn’t had anyone become a wolf, not since Great Uncle Conall. Maybe we’ve overcome it for good.”
I lean forward, smirking at Lavena. “A smart gambler would say that after so long without a wolf, we’re due to have one soon. Isn’t that what it is? Gambling with seven years of our lives?”
Lavena scoffs and finishes the last of her mead, beckoning a servant girl to fill it. I wait for her to finish her task and depart before speaking again on such a scandalous matter as gambling. So many servants are spies – though I hardly blame them for taking Lords’ money just to listen to idle gossip.
“What do you know about gambling?” My sister says. “Hardly a ladylike pastime.”
“I know everything Eamon O’Callaghan knows. While you were visiting grandmother, he and I went to watch the horse races… in secret.”
She laughs and leans in closer, whispering just loud enough to be heard over the loud men across the room. “How did you escape? If I eloped with a man for an afternoon, father would…”
“It was father’s idea – get us alone. I'll win his heart, you'll see. Lord O’Callaghan isn’t so fond of our family, but when his eldest son starts begging, he always gives him exactly what he wants.”
“Eamon O’Callaghan…” She smirks. “Never thought of you as being so underhanded.”
“Neither did I. I think that's why he likes me. Eamon has always had a deep appreciation for bold women, as I understand it.
I glance at the table to see young O’Callaghan at the table, black hair and smooth face just to the right of his bald-headed, eternally grumpy father. For a moment, we meet eyes, his so green and bright. His mouth gently shapes into a smile. My heart beats a bit faster, a merry dance instead of a dull working song, and my hands shake even as I try to still them. His smile disappears. Old man O’Callaghan barks angry orders, directs his attention back to Great Uncle Conall. I sigh.
“It’s just Lord O’Callaghan,” I say. “He’s the only reason why Eamon and I aren’t wed.”
“He’s at least sixty,” says Lavena. “Can’t have more than a few winters left.”
“What about Great Uncle Conall? He’s had at least eighty, maybe more. I’m not going to marry as an old woman.”
“Hmph… but Great Uncle Conall was a wolf. Aren’t they immortal?”
“Only for those seven years. That’s hardly forever. All this wolf talk… it’s almost as if you wish to become one.”
“Me? Me?” Laneva laughs. “God forbid… I’d leap from the castle walls before I’d put on a pelt and live in a cave.” She selects yet another tartlet from the platter. “Ooh… blackberry drizzled with honey! Your favorite, isn’t it?”
I think about the dinner – roast mutton, fresh bread, mountains of candied almonds, black pudding, wine, mead, venison, pheasant, game pie, salted herring, custard… I narrowly suppress a very unladylike groan of agony.
“Sister, if I eat one more thing, I may very well explode.”
“I’m sure you’ll find room for one of these…” As she bites into the tartlet, her smile contorts into a scowl. “Look at this!”
She turns over the tartlet, revealing the crust to be the color of charred firewood. A quick examination reveals that the others are no better and my sister drops the unwanted pastry on the table, drinking deeply of mead to wash away the presumably ashen taste.
A servant scurries to the table to refill the empty goblet.
“Bring the baker out here, quickly!” Lavena barks. “I must have a word with him.”
The servant curtsies and scurries away to the kitchen on her mission. I lean close to my Lavena to whisper.
“Sister, this is a wedding party, certainly we don’t need to interrupt it to dress down a baker. Wouldn’t it be best if we dealt with the matter later?”
“I want everyone to see,” she says, goblet in hand. “That way, no one will ever hire this idiot again.”
“But I know we’ve had the same baker for a while. Those blackberry tartlets have always been so wonderful. He just made a mistake this one time, I’m sure.”
“Sister, he’s a just commoner. They’re like animals. You make an exception and they think it’s a rule.”
“You’re starting to sound like father, Lavena.”
She smiles at me, quickly banishing it when a woman arrives wearing an apron covered in flour, eyes downcast like a humiliated dog. The noble guests at the party are looking at us, curious what spectacle is about to unfold.
“Where’s your husband?” asks Lavena. “Did he send you in his stead? Most unmanly, even for a baker.”
“No, my lady… he died. Just one week prior. I’ve taken on his duties.”
“I see. That certainly explains it. But tell me: did you inspect your work before you sent it out here or did you just hope that we’d be too dim-witted to notice?”
She keeps her eyes down, like a witch on trial. Her hands clench in front of her apron.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” she says, her voice barely more than a whimper.
My sister looks at me and smirks. I think her mind has become addled by drink and I decide to speak before she can further disparage the woman.
“Miss, please send us some fresh blackberry tartlets. They’re my very favorite and I’d hate to be without them. That will be all.”
She nods and quickly escapes before my sister can further insult her.
Lavena drinks from her goblet, rolling her eyes.
“Dressing down widows at wedding parties is very unladylike,” I say. “And most certainly bad fortune.”
“There’s nothing unladylike about putting a disobedient servant in her place. I hope you’re able to manage after you marry Eamon. His family has hundreds of servants, all of them trying to steal or wheedle their way out of work. You’re far too soft-hearted, sister.”
“And when you treat commoners like slaves, you become lower than both.”
Lavena glares at me, knowing that the words aren’t mine.
“Wherever did you hear that?”
“Great Uncle Conall.”
My stomach gurgles as I try to sleep. It feels like I’ve eaten twenty stones of molten lead, my abdomen beset by venomous heaviness. Perhaps a blessing in disguise. Just a few feet away, in her own bedroom, I hear choking coughs as my sister’s body purges itself of drink. She’ll probably sneak off into the kitchen and pilfer some more food. I groan softly and wrap myself tighter in the covers. There’s a bit of a chill in the air, but I pull up my blankets. I feel warm at last, my stomach settles down to peace, and finally...
A horrible, ear-assaulting scream brings me back to the world and it dawns upon me that I’m out of bed, nude, and on all fours… right in front of a chambermaid. Neither of us say anything for just a moment, both bracing ourselves for the sheer panic that comes next.
I scramble for modesty. I’m not in my room… in a hallway. I find my nightclothes strewn on the floor and quickly don them. I just wish I knew what was happening. Where did the chambermaid go? Hopefully not to my father; he’ll never forgive me for this… running around naked like a beast! No, too much thinking. I need to escape, now! Maybe if I slip unnoticed into my bedroom, I can deny the whole thing.
“Stop!” commands a deep, masculine voice.
I turn to see Great Uncle Conall standing there. He’s dressed less formally than at the wedding, but dressed all the same… and I feel hideously exposed. I raise my arm, try to cover myself more than my nightclothes will allow. My Great Uncle doesn’t seem to notice or care, as if I was standing there in a fine dress.
“How long have you had the dreams, little niece? I had mine for nary a fortnight when my time came.”
“What? I didn’t… I didn’t have a dream.” I feel twisting in my stomach. On some level, I already know what’s gone wrong and that I can’t escape my fate. “I’m not a wolf.”
“Dreaming or not, I heard your song.” He smiles. “You don’t understand, little niece. It may be a burden perhaps, but it is all the same a great honor.”
“Your howl. You called to me, just as I called to my grandfather so many years ago. I was waiting. It’s instinct, just like the beasts seem to know things that we do not. And I knew, deep in my soul, that someone in this castle would call for me tonight. But me? I’m not so important. You, little niece, are the most blessed person in all of this estate tonight.”
I’m not sure what to say, only that I feel like I’m floating, trapped in some bizarre dream. More strange words flow from my mouth.
“I can’t. I’m marrying Eamon O’Callaghan.”
My Great Uncle approaches slowly, places his massive, heavily scarred hand on my shoulder.
“When my time came, Brian Boru, the High King, had asked me to fight for him against the invaders. He was easy to tell no. The hard part was my wife and my sons, to leave them for seven years in wartime…” He pauses and sighs heavily. “That was... difficult.”
I can hear my father’s heavy footsteps clanking against the floorboard, his loud voice echoing through the halls. My life is fading away at frightening speed, like ice thrown into fire.
I sit on a chair outside of my father’s chambers like a condemned prisoner awaiting the King’s judgment. The flicker of a candle in the dark hallways catches my eye. As the light approaches, I see that it’s my sister. Her eyes are bright, watery.
“I’m so sorry…” she says, choking. “I’m sorry.”
“You did nothing wrong.” I force myself to smile and act like the elder sister.
“What I said – about how the family wouldn’t be cursed! I tempted God and now He punishes you.”
“No, sister, you did noth-“
My father’s voice roars through even the heavy oaken doors.
“I was on the verge of having her married to Lord O’Callaghan’s eldest son and then… this! Do you think Eamon O’Callaghan is going to wait seven years?”
“If he loves her, he’ll wait,” says my Great Uncle, his voice firm yet subdued. “Just as my love waited for me.”
“You were already married. Eamon is a boy – his eye catches every piece of young womanflesh. The moment that Cathryn leaves, he’ll forget. And his father certainly won’t allow him to marry her. Even once she takes off the pelt, she’s as tainted as rotten bread.”
I look at Lavena and try not to put my head in my hands. Eamon and I… he smiled at me at the feast, held my hand when we watched the horse races.
“I’m sorry…” Lavena says again. Before I can correct her, she scurries away, leaving me alone with the voices behind the door.
“It’s an honor and a blessing,” says my Great Uncle. “And more than that, a duty to a higher power than any man.”
“It’s an honor for a son! Do you think that a lord is going to want a wife who runs around in the wild like an animal? I’ll be stuck with her until she dies. If I’m lucky, maybe I can find some ill-bred lout of a lesser noble who would marry a sow for a big enough dowry.”
My stomach sinks and I clench my fists. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like – coming home after seven long years with the entire kingdom knowing that I was a beast. Lady Mac Tire came back with a lord heir husband. They could whisper and gossip, but it didn’t stop the wedding. And now, decades later, the beast she once was is half-forgotten, like an old cloak tossed in the back of the wardrobe to gather dust. Maybe I’ll meet a lord and we’ll court, become the subject of peasants’ songs… or I’ll meet no one, come back as a beast of a woman, and die alone in my father’s castle. It might be better if my seven years as a beast became an eternity. Just to live alone, never having to face the stares and whispers. And my father…
“I have six sons,” he hisses. “Not to mention Lavena, that ill-tempered skeleton of a girl, and God chooses my best daughter to His favored hunting bitch. And for seven years… she’ll be old when she comes back, maybe too old to marry.”
I hear a great sigh, as if the very wind were rushing through a man’s lungs. My Uncle, no doubt exasperated by now, still convinced that I’ve been given some twisted sort of blessing.
“Perhaps your view is too narrow, nephew. As I understand things, you have been having trouble with commoners. Three rebellions in less than ten years, yes?”
“And I’ve put them in their place every time. Don’t tell me how to run my lands, Conall.”
“Your lands and your people are yours to govern, just as I see to mine. I’m simply asking you to see this blessing for what it is. Your commoners are troublesome, angry, always blaming their lord for every misfortune. They need a spark of hope. Your daughter is that hope, their guardian, their protector. And they would most definitely appreciate knowing that their lord’s family is making a sacrifice on their behalf.”
“And quite the sacrifice. This couldn’t have at least waited until the wedding? Then O’Callaghan’s brat would be stuck with my bitch-turned daughter, like it or not.”
“God does things on His time. And perhaps your daughter will return with a husband as Lady Mac Tire did. Or perhaps find a husband seeking a wife who is more than ordinary – a wife with honor of her own.”
“No doubt some effeminate dandy seeking a woman to be his husband.”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps a young wolf seeking one of his kind. But weddings are not Cathryn’s concern for now. She needs to prepare. At nightfall tomorrow, her duties begin.”
My stomach clenches and it’s hard to breathe. That quickly… my life is over that quickly.
The morning came faster than I wanted. I sat in bed without sleeping until dawn, at which point my handmaiden roused me, dressed me, and dragged me before my Great Uncle for a morning walk around the grounds. He lumbers along with aid of a walking stick, his wide shoulders and paunchy stomach protected from the winter by his heavy black fur cloak that clashes with his long white hair and longer still white beard. He stops, slowly crouching down next to a patch of large white and red mushrooms.
“If you absolutely must, you may take livestock from the peasants. Only in extreme moderation, when the hunger pains are too much to bear. The peasants know what you do for them and will understand. The rest of time, you’ll be foraging. Mushrooms can be tricky. Like these - just one could kill a man in his prime. Don’t eat them, no matter how hungry you get.”
“I thought that God keeps me from dying when I’m… changed?”
“Yes, He will protect your life for as long as you wear you pelt. But protecting you from stomach aches? Oh no, little niece, that falls on your shoulders. I once ate enough of these to feed a small village and as I learned, some things are worse than hunger.”
He rises slowly, aged joints cracking.
“But why?” I ask. “Why do I need to feel cold, hunger, stomach aches? If He’s keeping me alive, why can’t he just make all that go away?”
“God has His reasons, certainly.” His smile fades for a moment and he closes his eyes. “Many, many times, I pondered this – when I was hungry, cold, exhausted, or in pain. Even after my service, when I had a fire and a castle, I wondered why. I don’t claim to speak for God, but I think it’s so that we don’t forget the suffering of those we protect. We are not Gods ourselves, only faithful servants.”
“Servants…” I spit the word as if it were bile on my tongue.
“Yes, little niece, servants. Servants to God and to the people, not to our own ends.”
"Fine, a ‘servant.’ But I don't understand... why can't I stay at home?"
“Because you will be a beast. A noblewoman of beasts perhaps, but a beast all the same. Your place is in the wild. Even the ones you protect will not trust you within their homes. Many of them will fear you, no matter how gentle you are.”
“Even horses and hounds live under a roof.”
“Ah, now there’s a compelling thought. Horses and hounds serve their masters and certainly you could too. A wolf is a warrior who cannot die, whose wounds close in moments. You’d be a fitting soldier, certainly. Perhaps you could turn mercenary, live in a great castle or even usurp the High King, become a wolf ruling a kingdom.” He smirks at me, as if he’d just unraveled a great riddle. “And that, little niece, is precisely why you will not live among the people, playing their power games. As God’s hound, you will live under the roof that He provides and eat His bounty. From time to time, you may take offerings from the peasants, but only because you are their protector. From the nobles? Nothing. Accept nothing."
I pause, stopping to kick a rock. I scowl as my Great Uncle stops and slowly turns to face me. His smile fades.
"Father said you fought for Brian Boru; that his son honored you for it, gave you money and lands. Made you from a minor knight to a wealthy noble."
“In wartime, the peasants suffer most of all. Kings, mercenaries, thieves – it matters little to the peasant who sees his lands burned, his food stolen, and his sons taken as conscripts. But the Viking mercenaries, the enemies of the High King, they were the worst. Often did they fall to my fangs. This was of great benefit to King Boru, but I never served him as a wolf, as badly as I wanted to fight for him. I sided with God, who just so happened to side with the High King in that war. Years later, after I returned to the world of men, did Brian Boru’s son learn that I had been the wolf who had slain so many of the invaders. Only then did he honor me. I was uncertain if I should accept. I prayed day and night on the matter, spoke to priests and monks and even the archbishop… but in the end, it was my wife who brought me to my senses."
He beckons for me to follow and continues walking. I hurry after him
“So it was just coincidence?”
“There’s no such thing, little niece. God rewards good service with good fortune. And when you too have served faithfully, you will be rewarded.”
I hike up my dress, stepping over a muddy puddle.
“But why me?” I ask. “Why not my sister? Or any of my brothers?”
“Do you suggest that God made a mistake?”
“No, no, of course not! It’s just that I’m a lady. Not a knight, not even a soldier. Why not give this duty to someone more suitable?”
“Knights…” He snorts. “Any butcher with a blade can become a knight as long as he does his butchering for the right lord.”
I gasp. I’ve never heard something so scandalous… perhaps even seditious.
“But Uncle Conall, aren’t you a knight?”
“I am. And it has little to do with my honor. When I took my pelt, I began to see things for how they are. I saw that knights do so little for so much. Slaughtering ill-trained boys with spears for lands, kneeling to their lieges for coin, and sometimes, lords receive titles simply for doing nothing – or worse, betraying their allies. But the noble wolves, like you and I, we ask only for food, a beggar’s wages.”
“But you didn’t answer my question.”
He touches me gently on the shoulder, smiling.
“Because you, little niece, have a good heart. In time, you’ll see that you don’t need vows or big rewards to be happy.”
I can’t imagine what reward could possibly be better than a marriage to Eamon O’Callaghan. Nor can I imagine what will be left of me after seven long years as an animal. My uncle just doesn’t understand.
The full moon hangs low on the horizon like a massive, bare golden platter. The Harvest Moon.
I feel my uncle’s hand on my shoulder as we walk away from my home, deeper into the wild, leaves crunching under my bare feet as I step around sharp rocks laid into the earth like an archer’s caltrops. Maybe he’s afraid that I’ll go running off like a cowardly soldier on the eve of battle. The autumn wind ruffles what the few remaining leaves on the trees and I shiver in my linen shift. We walk step after step for what seems like hours, until I can’t see the torches or even smell the fires of home. I can barely believe that Uncle Conall at his age can maintain a pace so robust.
“This is far enough,” he says. “After the change, walk directly towards the moon, until you reach a gully. There’s a cave there that should give you shelter for the night.”
“And what after that?”
“Just as I told you. Roam as beasts do, protect the innocent, serve God.”
He reaches into his leather bag and removes an item that I’ve heard about many times but never seen – an ancient belt sewn from a wolf’s hide. I take it gently, feeling soft fur under my fingers. My hands shake and my stomach lurches, knowing that a similar pelt will cover my body.
“There’s no clasp,” I say.
“It doesn’t need one. Remove your shift, wrap it around your waist, and God shall do the rest.”
I look at my great uncle, how he seems to be standing taller than usual, without the burdens of his advanced age.
“What if I choose not to don the belt? Will He strike me down? Cast me into Hell?”
“You won’t refuse. I know you too well.”
“I can choose, can’t I?”
“Of course. Is that not God’s will? That man shall choose between good and evil?”
“I’m not committing evil… I’m just… I don’t want to do this! Please don’t make me…”
I gasp for breath. Bile surges up from my stomach and tears cloud my eyes. I double over at the waist like a victim of sickness.
“If you decline,” says my uncle. “God may punish you... or perhaps not. I’ve never known of a wolf who refuses to accept his – or her – duty. I will wait. It’s my duty to protect the belt until you take charge of it.”
He turns his back and averts his eyes. Hardly the privacy I’m used to enjoying deep in the castle, far behind partitions.
My movements are fast and clumsy as I pull the shift over my head, trying not to think about how this is the last time I’ll have any degree of modesty for seven years. Cold digs into my bare skin, making me gasp for air. The belt falls from my hands. I whimper, jerking upright, awaiting God’s fury… but nothing happens. No lightning, no hellfire, no damnation. This is my choice. It’s always been my choice. I don’t have to do this, live naked in the woods as I am now. For seven long years, alone… I won’t.
I turn quickly, legs taking flight, making my escape from that damnable belt. Tall grass lashes at my legs. Every pebble trodden under my feet sends jagged pain into my bones. Cold wind lacerates my throat as if I’d swallowed nails. I run directly away from the moon, back home. Uncle Conall can’t catch me, can’t force me to wear the belt. I’m free! Free!
My foot finds something sharp and unyielding. I yelp, stumble. Every breath draws bitter blades of air into my tormented lungs. I need to rest.
It dawns upon me that when I get home, the guards and night watchmen will open the gate. They’ll be respectful to me – they must – but over drink, they’ll tell stories about how Lady Cathryn came home naked and laugh the long, brays of drunken men. Someone will overhear as they always do. The servants will whisper, the noblewomen will gossip, everyone will know how I not only ran through the woods nude as if I was a beast. A beast… I’ve already become a beast, one who scoffs at her duty and ignores God’s will. I’m not free. I’ve just disgraced myself. And when I get home, my father… I can’t imagine his words, only the sheer rage behind them. For all his faults, not once did my father ever refuse a call to arms from his liege nor refuse to pay his taxes.
Slowly, I limp back to the clearing, retracing my steps, trying not to put weight on my stinging ankle. I feel my skin turn gooseflesh as my sweat starts to chill. I shiver. After what seems like hours, I spot my uncle, clad in his heavy fur cloak as protection from the autumn cold. For the first time, having fur sounds pleasant.
“Good,” he says. “There was never a doubt in my mind that you’d return. Shall we continue? It would pain me to see you catch a fever.”
I nod. My uncle’s calloused hand gently grasps my shoulder even as he averts his eyes from my naked form. He places the belt in my hands once more. I clutch it close to me this time, careful not to drop it.
“I couldn’t go home,” I say. “I already destroyed my life.”
“You shouldn’t think of it that way.”
“How else can I think of it? I can either put on the belt and ruin my life or run home naked and ruin my life. I’m not a lady, not even a common woman.”
“Oh, poor little niece. Your blood makes you a lady, not your clothes. Life will go on for you, you’ll see. Whether you don the belt or return home, your life will most certainly continue. But for others, the poor and the helpless, the women and children...” He pauses, looks into my eyes. “Should you refuse God’s gift, evil will befall many, many people because you were not there to help.”
I know that terrible things happen beyond the castle walls every day. I know that the servants have feelings and families that mean as much as our own, it’s just… seven years. My modesty, my femininity, my value as a wife, my betrothal to Eamon, all of it will be gone. And if I don’t put on the belt, men, women, and children will die. Die alone, die afraid, in the cold. Evil men will run free. It dawns upon me that I’ll never be able to live with myself if I refuse. Justifications come to mind: I’m not surrendering, I’m trading. Trading my pride and dignity for their lives.
“I… I guess I’m ready.”
“Everyone has doubt, little niece. There’s no shame in it. Don the belt when you are prepared.”
“I don’t know what to say… I’ll lose my voice, won’t I?”
“Yes, you’ll speak only with a wolf’s tongue. Do you wish to say some final words?”
“I… just tell my sister that I’ll be safe. Tell her not to be afraid for me.”
“I will. Anything else?”
“My father, tell him…” I pause, remember his anger. I choke out a sob. “Tell Eamon not to wait. Just tell him… please. I don’t want to ruin everyone’s lives. Just… I know it’s not going to happen now. I…”
“Calm yourself. Breathe slowly. Young O’Callaghan will still be here when you get back.”
“He won’t wait for me.”
“Perhaps he will, perhaps he won’t, but there will be someone for you, little niece. I’m certain of it. I’ve never been so certain of anything in all my days.”
I can’t believe him, not with all I know about men and what they expect from their wives. As tempted as I am to argue, I let it go.
“But that, little niece, is a question that must wait. Duty must come first. Clear your mind, brace yourself, and then don the belt.”
My breath comes out in ragged gasps as I hold the belt around my waist. Once more, I’m tempted to drop it, flee back to the castle nude and tolerate my father’s wrath.
I sigh, shaking my head slowly. I don’t know why I’m lying to myself, pretending that there are other options. There isn’t a choice, not really. I’ve already come back once. I’ve already renounced my courtship with Eamon. To abandon my duty would destroy my honor, refuse the will of God. There is no return to my old life, not ever.
I pull the belt tight around me, wrapping it as best I can. It doesn’t seem to do anything… but…
I feel like I’m falling. No… I am falling. Dried leaves scratch my back. The world turns black and returns looking brighter. Pain lances through my body. I scream. Fire turns to numbness. My nose fills with the scent of dirt and mildew. My stomach reels and my body burns, a thousand pinpricks of heat at once. Another scream, this time a dog’s plea for mercy. My hands reach around my waist, desperate to find the belt, but feeling only soft, downy fur. Pain fades once more and I roll to my feet, suddenly aware that I’m using four of them. The world is shined, blurry, as if I’ve overindulged in drink or lapsed into a dream. But I know better. I can feel too much – the breeze ruffling fur... my fur. Bonded to my back tighter than any cloak.
My Great Uncle stands before me, face still set in a wrinkled mask.
“You’ll be in my prayers, little niece, always.”
As he turns away, his shoulders sag as if he were a man carrying boulders.
Morning sun brings harsh light into my world. I feel like a drunkard returning to the morning world after a sin-filled night of revelry.
There’s a bit of chill in the air and I reach over to pull another blanket over me. My hands scrape something cold and hard, finding nothing. I don’t feel the heat of the fire. Where’s the chambermaid? I call for her.
Except the word comes out as a loud, mumbling growl. I snap out of half sleep and sit up at attention. Gnawing pain shoots through my back, just like the time that I had visited Cousin Quincy’s estate and slept on those horrible rock-like beds. Rocks… I’m in a cave.
How could I have fallen prey to such wishful, childish thinking?
Slowly, I crawl out of my den, eyes half shielded against the light. The canine snout on my face partly blocks the view, reminding me what I am at all times. It’s cooler outside among the tall grasses, but not unpleasant, the sun having largely dried the morning dew.
Perfect play weather, I remember. As little girls, Lavena and I eagerly awaited days like this when it was neither too cold nor too wet nor stiflingly hot. We’d play “knights” or rather some variation of fencing where duelists attack one other with sticks until either one suffers a particularly savage blow and is reduced to tears or an infuriated handmaiden drags both participants away for unladylike behavior. It was our very favorite game, even more so because it was forbidden. And then came the fateful day when Lavena, upon being confronted by a servant, called her “an evil dragon” and hit the poor old woman right in the shin with all her might. Playing “knights” became harshly punished behavior after that.
I sigh, sinking back to my haunches. I’m not going to see Lavena for seven winters... or more. No doubt, father will marry her off sooner or later, even if he so pessimistically believes that no man wants her. But what if she’s married to some faraway lord and I never see her again? Or worse… there’s fever, which no amount of gold can stop. And falling, just like my little nephew died last summer. And childbirth, the deadly war fought by women. My mother died that way. I whimper softly. Seven winters... the whole world can change in just a day as mine did.
My stomach growls softly, expecting its usual breakfast meal provided by our servants from the kitchen. Servants… servants to build the fire, make my meal, and scrub the floors. Father has a veritable legion of them. I’m always surrounded by others: guards to protect me, a mistress to teach me, a priest to hear my confessions, a dressmaker to sew my clothes, minstrels to amuse me, noblewomen to share gossip, family to share kinship, and my father as the patriarch and taskmaster.
For the first time in my life, I’m alone.
A moon has passed… and I’ve done nothing but learned not to see the muzzle on my face.
Branches snap under my feet, nothing between the cold earth and my feet. I shiver. My stomach gurgles. My duty brings me only hunger and cold. Perhaps it was the stories; that I assumed that being a hound of God revolved around saving helpless children and chasing fleeing thieves. Or perhaps things were just busier in Uncle Conall’s time. Or perhaps they weren’t and I just didn’t want to believe it. I can’t help but remember how my father could take an account of riding down hapless peasants with a host of armored knights and spin it into a mighty tale of a great battle between Good and Evil not unlike a masterful linen weaver turning dead plants into fabric. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that with my experience.
I got lucky last week with a rabbit. It tasted metallic and chewy, tiny bones crunching in my teeth as I spat out bits of fur. Until that day, I had never tasted raw meat. If only I had a choice, I’d never want to again.
My stomach gurgles once more. I remember how Uncle Conall told me that the peasants will tolerate me feeding from their herds. That’s what I intend to do.
My feet follow the dirt road from the safety of the woods. I follow the rich burned wood scent of a hearthfire until I see a modest wooden house standing amid a great log fence. A fire… I’d do anything for a fire. Not just the warmth, but to feel like a woman rather than an animal. No, that’s fantasy. My focus is food.
I can smell the flock not far away, hear their pathetic bleating, and after a dozen more steps I can see their dingy white woolen coats standing out in the night. If there’s a shepherd, he’s nowhere to be found. As I approach, the flock starts bleating louder, recognizing a predator. I don’t have much time. Which one to choose… nothing too big. I don’t want them to starve come winter. My eye catches a runt lamb, scrambling on too-long legs. My clumsy hands take hold of it, gripping tight as it bleats for mercy.
I know where mutton comes from, smelled the blood in the butcher’s, it’s just that I never had to do such things myself. The lamb’s little hooves kick against my body, not unlike how Lavena would hit me with her wooden stick during our games. I force myself to think about something else, make my clawed hands move, and with a quick twist, the little lamb’s thrashing stops. My claws open its belly and I plunge my muzzle inside. It’s warm. Not cooked, but warm, and every bite just makes me want more of it.
Hot, burning pain lances through my back. I yelp and I turn around, keeping the lamb in my hands, to confront the attacker.
It’s a shepherd boy wearing a homespun tunic. He has to be at least a few winters younger than me and grips his bloodied spear tightly, hands trembling with equal parts fear and rage. Moments pass as we look at each other. Panic turns to curiosity and I tilt my head. Whatever wound the boy inflicted is but a memory. His jaw drops and he squints as he looks closer, only for his body to suddenly jolt with life. The spear is tossed aside as he falls to his knees.
“You’re… my lord! I… I…” He glances at the dead lamb in my hands. “Please forgive me! The traditions… I had no right! Please, take what you want!”
As he drops lower, head against the earth, I take the initiative to flee, padded paws thumping against the cold earth. The trees and the dark places offer safety far away from man, privacy as I partake in a bloody bounty.
The boy screams. I stop in my tracks and turn around. I hear the yelling of an older man. As quickly as I fled, I return. No, stealth would be better. I find concealment in the grasses near the fence and watch as a tall, thin man pummels the boy with the might of a titan.
“Father, please!” begs the child.
My nose picks up the scent of the brandy that peasants brew. I snarl softly. My father disciplined me from time to time, just as any father should, this isn’t spanking or the belt… this is cruelty above and beyond. Shameless, hateful violence. I wouldn’t tolerate it as a noblewoman and I won’t tolerate it now as a beast. I stand on two legs, up to my full height, intent on intimidating the man, when I hear the father yell very clearly:
“What’ll happen in the winter? One lamb might make the difference between us starving!”
“It was a hound of God!”
“I don’t care if it was Jesus Christ! You don’t let anyone or anything steal our sheep! Don’t you understand? You’ve killed us!”
I sink back onto my haunches and look at the dead lamb. My uncle told me that I can’t starve to death and no matter how hungry I get, I won’t get weak. But he also told me that the peasants wouldn’t take mind if I claimed a few sheep for myself. I already know that the former is correct, that as hungry as I am, I’m still strong. But the latter, he was wrong. I see now what I’ve done. It’s a sin, an unforgiveable sin, and I should know better. Five winters ago, the frosts came early and stayed late. My father lost an eighth of his serfs. “Lost” as a child might lose a toy. They were little more than numbers on a piece of parchment to him.
But what I mostly remember about that winter was that Lavena and I complained nonstop about how the venison seemed stringier than usual and the bread was always stale... complained while the serfs prayed day and night for the frosts to break so that they could have vegetables in their daily bowls of watery soup. A whimper escapes my muzzle.
The father turns wildly, looking for me in the darkness. I doubt that he can see me, my gray pelt easily disappearing against the overcast night, and he’s left standing there, impotently clenching his fists.
“You! You come here again and I’ll kill you! I don’t care what fat noble’s son you are! You’re dead! Dead!”
I slink quietly away, lamb tucked under my arm. I can’t bring it back to the shepherd, not now that I’ve partly eaten it. After I walk long enough that I can no longer hear the peasant’s enraged threats, I find a quiet place to sit and finish my supper. Every bite tastes like bile and by the time there’s little left but broken bones and wool, I feel sick.
As I find a soft place in the grasses to settle into sleep, it dawn upon me that the boy called me “my lord” and the father assumed that I was a son. He was close to the truth. I’m not a lady. A lady wouldn’t steal from peasants, not even if they permitted her thievery. A lady wouldn’t live in the wild or kill a helpless lamb. A lady wouldn’t leave a child to the mercy of his enraged father.
“She-beast”... that’s more fitting.
Snow crunches under my feet as I look up at a sky as gray as my pelt that promises more snowfall. I love winter… no, I loved winter. When Lavena and I were girls, the servants would build a raging fire while we would bury ourselves under blankets and furs and sip on strong wine until the drink made us so warm that we’d shed the layers and dance around the castle.
I look back up at the gray clouds and the full moon lingering in the morning sky. It must be close to Christmas by now, the first of seven that I’m going to miss. Beasts don’t celebrate holy days. In any event, the usual Christmas prayers of cheer and hope hardly seem appropriate any more. So often, when I kneel for prayer, I worry that God will think I’m mocking Him, grumbling out the words in my bestial tongue. There are no Priests to take my confessions or give the Sacrament and I can’t help but wonder how Great Uncle Conall kept his faith.
After prayers, my daily wanderings begin. The road seems like a good place to start, get myself oriented. My stomach gurgles and pain stabs into my body. I force myself to ignore it, even if it makes me wonder if any other creature in my position would have starved by now. A thought comes to mind: I could follow the road to a settlement, find a decent flock, and take just one sheep – just one, the oldest and least useful of the flock. I don’t care how it tastes, I just want something, anything, to put in my stomach. The shepherd boy comes to mind and I dismiss the idea. It’s winter – starving time. I won’t take from the poor, not ever again.
A new scent catches my nose – sweat, dirt, tanned leather and fur, cheap wine halfway to being vinegar, and… bread! My stomach gurgles and I feel drool well up in my mouth. I follow the scent, new energy flowing through my legs. I won’t steal. I’ll beg just as the poor saints of Christ’s time did. Who am I attempting to fool? I’ll beg like a stray dog for whatever burned or part-baked loaves they don’t want. Not what Uncle Conall would want, but I can’t resist the allure of food, finally something to quiet my stomach.
The dirt road comes into view. I’ve crossed it so many times, it being one of the few memorable landmarks of this part of the country. What’s not so familiar is the wooden cart sitting in the middle of the road, a simple two-wheeled type drawn not by beasts of burden but by a single man. It smells strongly of bread, rolls, and fresh pastries. Slowly, I approach, feeling exposed in the road without trees to hide me. Step by step, silent apart from my growling stomach. Just one loaf of bread… just enough to make my stomach leave me in peace for a day or two. There’s a wooden box lashed to the cart with rope. Abandoned no doubt… but if not, I won’t take too much. I promise myself and with a claw, I lift up the lid. The smell of baked dough overwhelms my nose. I reach in slowly and my mouth waters…
A scream echoes through the barren trees. A woman’s… the voice sounds vaguely familiar. I drop the lid, leaving the bread and the abandoned cart. Caution flies to the wind as I drop to all fours, leaping across creeks and around obstacles. I don’t feel the cold. My stomach falls silent. Scents grow stronger, sounds grow louder. Claws dig into frozen soil as I scramble into the woods and up the snow-covered hill to finally see the source: two men, clad in filthy fur cloaks. One stands guard, giggling as he drinks from a clay jug of wine, the other struggling on the ground with someone…. a woman, her scent strong of flour and the sour stench of fear, fights with the man amid desperate, pitiful whimpers.
Snarls rumble through my throat.
I don’t think about it. My legs are already moving. The guard says something. I don’t care what. My shoulder slams into the back of the woman’s attacker. We tumble toghter into the frozen mud. My claws dig into clothes and find soft flesh. I swipe and swipe, digging into warm, quivering flesh. Loud male screams fill my ears and the scent of blood fills my nose.
Burning, stabbing pain in my back. I don’t whine or whimper. The pain fades as quickly as I came. I turn quickly, rise to my feet and find myself facing the other highwayman who clutches a rusty iron sword freshly covered with my blood. His eyes are wide, glancing from me to what remains of his partner in crime and he pants for breath, mouth agape. He moves slowly, one booted foot back and then another. I snarl, slavering jaws held wide for him to see my fangs. The man turns quickly and runs, a frightened rabbit before a predator. He doesn’t make it far before my clawed hands find his back and my fangs find his neck. The highwayman screams, high pitched bleating so much like the lamb. My jaws squeeze, teeth rending soft flesh, finding bone and crushing. The screams stop. I lick my jaws, cleaning blood away.
Something acidic writhes in my empty stomach. My eyes wander between the two piles of shredded flesh and bloody clothing. The peasant woman stares at me, eyes wide. I turn quickly, drop to all fours, intent on escape…
I turn to see her on her feet, moving quickly towards me. Every part of my body wants to run far, far away from her, return to seclusion in the wild, but I stay rooted to the ground.
“You saved my life from those men... filth! I hope they’re burning in the hellfires right now.”
She looks at the corpses, spitting angrily in their direction. I just killed two men. Thieves, brigands, scum and I killed them, killed them as an animal would. I know that I should be proud, that I’ve delivered justice, that if I gave the highwaymen to my father, he’d have them hung from the ramparts of our castle… but I just feel dead. There’s no pride in what I’ve done, just a sliver of guilt.
The woman rubs my bloodied muzzle, her eyes welling with tears. Her touch is gentle, as if I were some monstrous daughter of hers.
“Thank you, my lady… thank you…” She glances at my ribs, little more than fur covering bone, and she gasps. “You’re starving. You protect us and you’re starving! Aren’t they giving you offerings?”
I look away, my thievery weighing heavily on my mind.
“No, no, this won’t do.”
She takes hold of my wrist as if I’m nothing more than a little girl being dragged along by her mother, leading me back to the road, to her cart. My mouth drools the moment that she opens the lid and removes a long loaf of braided bread and offers it. I sniff tentatively. My nose fills with familiar smells, flour, salt, eggs, milk, and yeast. A food made for men, not beasts. I turn my head away, but the peasant woman follows me, still offering the bread. She breaks off a piece and places it before my nose. My tongue darts out to lick the bread and just the mere taste of the salt makes me whimper. I feel like Eve being offered the forbidden fruit.
“You must eat, my lady. I won’t send you away on an empty belly. This is my gift, to you. You’re not stealing it.”
I meet her eyes. She’s not the serpent and this isn’t the accursed apple. This is a gift, a small reward for my service, the wages of a beggar. My jaws snatch the chunk of bread and chew, barely tasting before I swallow. Another piece of bread is presented and then another until the entire loaf is gone.
“Isn’t that so much better?” She smiles. “But I have something else, my lady, something special.”
I’m tempted to run before she tries to give me anything else. I don’t know if she can spare it, but my stomach softly growls, barely sated. I won’t let myself get any closer to the bread cart for fear that I may gorge myself. The woman smiles at me, unwrapping something covered with a cloth.
“Here we are. If memory serves, this one is your favorite, my lady.”
I smell sweet honey and blackberries... a tartlet just like the ones she made for the wedding feast. My eyes widen. She knows who I am! Our eyes meet and she smiles a bit wider.
“I know who you are, Lady Cathryn. Your father says nothing, perhaps wishing that he had but one daughter, but the servants whisper. They’ll whisper louder. I’ll tell them about you, my lady – that you’re a protector of women, a servant of God and of justice. I’ll never forget what you did today, my lady, never.”
She smiles as she offers the tartlet. It’s only then, with her in front of me, that I realize that because of what I’ve done, she will live to see another day. She won’t have her food stolen and starve this winter, won’t have to feel pain gnawing in her stomach as I do. She won’t have to feel the shame of being violated nor be forced to bear the child of a monster. Too many unthinkable fates, none deserved by this poor widow.
Maybe… maybe just one small taste, something to fill my stomach. I carefully take the tartlet in my claws and nibble delicately, not wishing to lose a single crumb.
It’s the sweetest I’ve ever had.