When the day finally came, the Feast of the Twelfth Night, I was hardly ready. How can one prepare for such things? I saw the black wolf pacing at the edge of the treeline and foolishly went toward it.
“What will you do?” I asked as I approached. “Where will you take them?”
The animal stopped and watched me with those familiar eyes.
“We’re fine now. We’re happy enough. Why don’t you leave them? Why don’t you let us alone?”
As I drew closer, the animal lowered its stance, lowered its ears and bared its teeth. I continued to approach. “What can I offer you? More cakes? I’ll leave you a haunch from our next — “
The animal lunged at me and I screamed, dropping the wood I carried, and staggered back.
“You do not know what you say,” the wolf growled. “Your impertinence bores and begins to annoy me.” She stalked around me, and I turned in circles, trying to keep her in sight. “You do not know the work I do. I will have what is mine in return for my labors. You will do well to remember who is a god and who is mortal, and be grateful that I leave you with breath.” She lunged at me again, and I was on my back, screaming as her teeth tore into my arm, and nails cut into my belly.
A second wolf ran forward, smaller and brown. It snarled and bared its teeth. The black one left me and the two animals calmed and nuzzled each other. Then the Great Queen leapt toward the trees and vanished.
When I looked back the brown wolf was gone as well, and my girl knelt at my side.
“Mother, you’re hurt!” Tears wet her face as she helped me to my feet. “You shouldn’t have been here! You always tell us not to go into the woods this time of year! She could have killed you!”
The little thing sobbed the whole way home. When we entered the village our neighbor saw us, and ran to help me. Another sent his son after my children’s father, and he came soon as well.
A wolf attack, my girl explained. I was blessed to survive it, everyone agreed. My girl helped me take off my torn clothes and bandaged my injuries, my bite wounds on the same arm as her burns, and an angry bleeding stripe across my belly, though only a surface cut, clearly marked that other savagery I had witnessed.
“Where did you come from?” I asked her, as she helped me into a loose fitting shift.
She laughed, a light and happy sound. “What does that mean?”
“You were… different.”
“I am myself,” she said. She had a hardness about her that I didn’t question further. She helped me to the fireside, then sat herself at my loom, the work all pulled from it now. She made no move to weave or spin anything. She knew she mustn’t.
“Will you be like her now?” I asked after another moment.
She sat a while in silence. “No,” she said finally.
“But you were…”
“I will do my duty,” she said lightly, and smiled at me, putting an end to the discussion. She went to her work box and pulled out a second cloak. “This one is yours,” she said, and put it around me.
It was a heavy wool, warm and soft, and expertly woven. The collar was ruffed in white feathers. I felt dizzy and tried to shrug out of it.
“I can’t wear this. I can’t wear this.” I could hear the panic in my own voice.
My daughter’s hand closed on my wrist and held until I looked at her. Her young face held sorrow and knowledge and joy beyond her experience. “It is meant for you,” she said, and pulled it back up around my shoulders.
I felt myself overcome by grief and sobbed, clutching her to me. If I had been more patient, more compassionate toward her as a baby, it wouldn’t have come to this.
Finally she pulled my arms away and stepped back to the hearth. “You should eat something.”
“I have no appetite,” I said.
“You’ll need it,” she answered, and set the fish stew and hard bread in front of me. She sat across from me and watched until I had eaten it all, like a patient parent with a fussy child. Like I should have been.
I didn’t know what would come, but I had a dread of it. I lay in my bed that night, the children across the room in each of theirs, their father out in his mask in procession. I tossed and turned, wide awake yet exhausted, the bedclothes too warm and kicked off, and then the room too cold.