by A. Poythress

The winter had been hard.

Not that very much wasn’t in this cold, northern land. Little grew, much less thrived. The plants that did manage to creep up through the rocky soil were bitter and unpleasant. The meat from the livestock was stringy and tough. The people were the same: rough-hewn from such a desolate place, made stronger by its bleakness.

She had become a mother out of necessity, as it was expected, a grandmother some decades after that. She tended to her house and her husband and her children, until her children had gone, and her husband had died, and the house was all she had left. It was all she’d ever wanted, anyway. Her husband had been a stiff man, cruel at times. Her children had grown up selfishly devoted to themselves, no matter what she tried, knowing they had to be to survive this blighted land.

She’d done her job, taught them all the rules of their devil-haunted town; how they must weave the garlic-wreaths, how to combat a specter with the right prayers, how to drive any evil away with a medal of Saint Benedict. All lessons taught to her by her own mother, by the elder women of the town.

She hadn’t taught them of the other traditions her mother’s line had learned and practiced though; the proper way to birth a babe come feet first to keep mother and child alive every time, the herbs and roots that stoppered the spotted sicknesses, the stones and sigils to keep true evil away. These were all things the townspeople, with their newfound Christianity, could never understand.

Witch, they would spit at her from the corners of their mouths, even as they came to her for the drink that would rid them of their unwanted children, as they begged her to help their slowly dying cattle. They would drag her before their magistrates and courts, tell lies about nightmares cast and familiars suckled at hidden teats. If she denied, she was guilty, and if she consented, she was doubly so. They would kill her with stones and nooses and fire, driven mad by their fear.

She refused to die that way.

So, she kept her children ignorant of their birthright, of their inheritance, knowing now was not the right time to pass on her legacy. They grew up with their superstitions and church-ordained lessons, and she kept her practices hidden and secret, until it was just her in her house, all alone and free to practice her craft for the first time in years.

When her first child had children of his own, she was content to stay out of their lives; to play the role of the doting old widow, soft and senile and safe. Her second child had had one babe who died before his head touched the cradle. For that child, she mourned, the same way the town always did over a fallen young one, but nothing more. When her third child bore herself a daughter, only then did she truly pay attention to her expanding brood.

The girl-child, the one called Alina, grew up strong and sly, treading the woods on silent fox feet. Her hunter father taught her everything he knew when it came about that his wife would bear him no other children. He would teach her and show her the ways of his family, he insisted, even as his wife protested such unwomanly activities. Alina grew graceful as a willow-wand and whip-smart like a predator, eyes always flickering about clearly and taking everything in. A cleverer girl-child could not be found in all the rough, northern land. Beautiful, too, with winding chestnut hair and eyes blue and clear as a river. She was mooned over by more than one young lad in the town. Not that she cared a lick for any of their attention, did Alina, more content in the wilds than the kitchen.

In turn, the grandmother watched as Alina grew, and waited patiently, knowing this one would be of her line, no matter what her son-in-law claimed.

When the time came, when all the proper signs had arrived, the grandmother went out on the night of the full moon, deep into the woods. She drank from the white wolf’s paw print, taking in the strength she needed to pass on to her granddaughter. The transformation was quick and brutal, ripping her body apart before sewing it back together in a different shape. It was the first time she had ever felt it and she would make sure it was the last. She screamed to signify her hunt, one that had not been run in far, far too long.

The grandmother found Alina out on the trail, out when she should not be, drawn to the forest the same way she had been, crouched and wary with sharp, silver knife in hand. Alina was well prepared for the task, didn’t balk when her grandmother’s sharp fangs came snapping for her throat. The girl swiped with her knife and the pain was brilliant red for one bright moment.

Alina picked up the severed paw as the beast darted away, and in that moment, the transfer was complete. She shook her head as the new knowledge dissolved into her and felt her grandmother sigh once in the back of her mind, a soft noise of contentment as her grandmother settled down and was no more. The sound was echoed by a long line of fainter sighs, from women Alina had never known, before. The warmth of their knowledge and their presence relaxed her as she walked out of the woods after the soulless body thrashing its way back to its former home. She knew what to do, now.

Once it was over, the meat of the carcass sold to the butcher and the pelts presented to the tanner to be cured and the blood and fur washed off in the stream, Alina let herself rest in the rocker by the hearth. It was the same one her grandmother used to sit in at the end of each day’s work, the one she’d been presented on her wedding day. Alina smiled at the memory. Her bones settled easily into the familiar chair.