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The Tale of the Wolf-Woman and the Magic-hater

There once was a girl who loved to be a wolf. Since she had been a child, she would become a wolf at all times of the day and night. Her parents would scold her and tell her that she must be more careful with her magic, that she must not use it all up, for she would want it when she was older. But the girl would not think of the future. She lived in the moment, as indeed all wolves did.

Her mother would try to keep her from wandering out at night into the woods. Her father would tie her foot to his to keep her close to the hearth where they both slept. But she would find a way around their securities. She would use her teeth on the rope her father had confined her with, and get free. Or she would howl so loudly that her mother could not bear it any longer, and stepped from the door to let her go free.

As the girl grew older, her parents had less and less control over her, and she began to spend more and more time in the woods. Sometimes she went for weeks without returning to her human form, and even then it was only for a brief time, to see if she could do it. For her mother had warned her that if she spent too much time as a wolf, she would forget how to be human.

The girl did not find it to be so. Her body returned to its human shape naturally, hardly without a thought. It had been born that way, she decided, and so it seemed unable to forget what she had been.

One night, when the girl had spent many months in the woods without returning to her home, she found her mother searching frantically, calling for her daughter. The girl had been trying to get a wolf pack to accept her as one of their own, and the pack heard her mother’s noises and ran to the attack. The girl had to protect her mother from being eaten by wolves, so she transformed herself once more into the near-woman she had become.

The wolves saw her and fled her, for fear of her magic. And the girl knew that she would have no chance to make them accept her again. She would have to find another pack, perhaps go some miles distant to disguise her scent, and try again. Why had her mother done this to her?

The girl turned to her, her teeth bared, though they were human, her hands twisted into claws, her throat making the rumbling sound of a wolf.

Her mother put up her hands in surrender.

The girl sighed and cleared her throat to speak once more in the language of humans. It was difficult. It seemed that those words had to be spoken so precisely, and with so much care.

“Mother, why are you here?” she asked.

“I came because I feared you were dead. I thought you must be, if you had never returned home.”

Her mother had thought to find her body in the woods, by calling her name? Well, perhaps it was so. The girl suspected that she did not understand humans well enough anymore to predict what they might do. No wolf pack would do this for one of their own who was lost, for it made no sense. If a wolf was dead, it was dead, and the pack had no use for it.

But a human might be different.

And even if her mother did not expect to find her, the girl wondered if she might have done that wandering anyway.

“I am living still. As you see,” said the girl, holding her arms out and turning slowly.

Her mother gave a great cry at the sight of a wound on the girl’s side, still dripping blood. “What is this?” she demanded.

The girl thought again how human it was to get upset over such a thing. “It is a scratch only. Given in play by another wolf. It is nothing to worry about.”

Another wolf would have had to do no more than sniff at the wound to know there was no death in it, nor illness, either. A good clean wound, and the pain was long gone from it.

“Play?” said her mother. “This is what a wolf calls play?”

The girl shrugged. “It is.”

Her mother sighed. “If you do not take better care of yourself than this, you will die here in these woods.”

The girl shrugged again. “Perhaps I will.” She believed she would, in fact, die in the woods with wolves. That was her intention, though she did not mean for it to be soon. She hoped to live many years yet, but if she did not—well, it was better to her to live as a wolf for another year than to live tens of years as a human.

“You do not intend to come home ever again, do you?” asked the mother.

The girl stared. “I said my farewells to you already,” she said. Did her mother not remember? Was she brain-fevered?

The girl had seen a wolf in this state once before, who had been in a battle with a bear, and ran away to save his life, but with a terrible wound to the head. He had never fully recovered, and eventually, the pack had set him out to live his last raving, feverish hours away from them.

The girl had never seen him again.

“I did not know that you meant forever,” said the mother.

“Well, now you do,” said the girl. Would her mother leave now?

Apparently not.

“Think of all that you are missing here in the woods. In this form. You will never find the happiness of a man who loves you, or of children to feed at your breast and call you ‘Mother.’”

The girl thought of children. It was true. She liked the thought of being a mother to a child, of raising it to be a wolf in shape, as she was. That would be a companionship that the wolf pack alone could not give her.

“I thought when you were a girl that you would grow out of this desire to take another form. I thought you would grow into yourself, and out of such childishness. But look at you—you are sixteen years old, with a woman’s body. But you do not think like a woman at all.”

“I am a wolf,” said the girl.

“You are not a wolf,” her mother insisted. “You are a girl pretending to be a wolf.”

The girl changed herself back into a wolf, as if in answer to her mother.

The mother spat at the wolf-form of her daughter. “I give you to the woods, then. Do not come back to my home. I gave birth to a daughter, not an animal.” And she turned her back and walked away.

For one moment, the girl thought of calling her mother back. As a wolf? As a girl?

But she did not do it. She was relieved to have the last tie to her human life severed. Now, she could truly go forward in becoming a wolf. She had learned much from the pack she had tried to join with here.

She would move on, find another pack. When they accepted her, she could have a child. Not the way her mother had demanded, but the child would be all the better for it.

She tried to find another wolf pack in the woods she had run in all her life, but she had no success being accepted by these. So she went to another woods. And another. Until she had crossed a desert and was nearly to the edge of the cold, black ocean. There at last she found her own wolf pack, though at first it was only self-defense.

She was attacked by the lead female of a wolf pack that had been chasing her for days, following her scent. She had eluded them only because she had a human mind in her wolfskin, and knew to go in rivers and hide up trees. But when at last she reached the ocean, she felt hopeless. She did not look around warily as she was used to doing. She was despondent at the loss of her dream and for the first time since she had spoken to her mother, wondered if she had been wrong to think she could become a wolf.

Then the attack came, and she responded instinctively to save her life. She used her teeth viciously, aiming at the lead female’s soft underbelly, willing to take damage to her flank if necessary.

It happened so quickly she stood on the ground of wet blood, looking out at the rest of the wolf pack, surprised to discover that they were not attacking her.

The lead male, in fact, was looking at her with some appreciation for the way in which she had so quickly dispatched his previous mate.

The girl lowered her head and turned her backside to the lead male, offering herself to him.

It could have been deadly, but part of the reason she took such a risk was that she did not care anymore. If she could not live with wolves, why should she live at all?

But the lead male accepted her. More than that, he made her the new lead female of the pack. In time, she found herself with a child in her belly, growing strong and healthy.

She was happier than she had ever dreamed possible. She would never be human again. She would never even think as a human again.

Or so she thought.

Then her son was born.

He was human.

A sickly-looking, wailing creature. Hairless, noseless, tailless. With no teeth and no claws.

It felt as though she had given birth to a worm.

The lead male, who had been waiting for the first scent of his son, growled at the sight of the worm-child and turned his back on her.

That was bad enough, for the woman had truly come to love her mate.

But then the rest of the pack attacked, the females at the fore.

They wanted her place, the woman thought. And now they had a reason to take it.

If she gave up her son, would that buy her freedom?

She shuddered at the thought of buying her life at the cost of his, but she knew it was impossible. If she could not give birth to a proper wolf, she would never be accepted into the wolf pack again. She could not give the lead male the heirs he needed. He would simply choose another wife and set her aside.

So the woman picked up the boy in her teeth and began to run.

The wolves did not chase after her, despite her expectations. She thought afterwards about why this might be, and came to the conclusion that it was most likely because the child frightened them.

It smelled wrong. And it looked wrong. They knew there was something uncanny about it. They could sense that there was human magic at work here. And so they let her leave and take her son with her without a chase.

Yet she moved as far from their woods as she could manage.

It did not occur to her until nearly a day later that she would travel better in her human form. The child was constantly slipping from her grasp. If it were a wolf cub, it would have been hairy enough and strong enough for her to carry so. But the human child wailed and made her stop at every turn to change her position.

So the woman did what she had thought never to do again. She made herself human again.

And found that it was just as easy to return to her human form as ever it had been before. She was still human first and foremost, it seemed, no matter how much she wished to be a wolf. And this was why she had given birth to a human child instead of a wolf cub.

She had thought to love a cub, if it had no magic from her, and was only like its father. She had thought to love a child who could change. But she could not love this child.

He had inherited from his father only a wolf’s portion of magic, and while she tried to teach him to change into the form of a wolf—or a bear or a grouse or a swallow or an ant—he only stared at her and babbled human sounds.

She hated this child. But she would not kill it.

So she crossed back over the desert and returned to her home. She knocked at the door.

Her mother answered. Her face twisted in anger, but before she could speak, the woman held out her son.

“I do not want him. You may keep him or give him to another if you wish.” And she walked away.

The mother looked down at the infant. She could see nothing of her daughter’s magic in him, and yet—she could not look at him without imagining how her daughter had given birth to such a child.

She could only think—Wolf, and shudder.

So she gave the child to another couple who had no children of their own, and the boy grew to a healthy age before ever he heard the stories of the wolf-woman who had given birth to him and then walked away, disgusted that he had no magic like hers.

He could not bear the sideways glances, the smirks or the hints about this snort or snuffle or that sound or that way of walking—all like a wolf’s. Nor could he bear the slights from those who had more magic than he had.

His mother had had magic and what had she done with it? Did that make her better than he was?

Day by day, week by week, year by year, he grew more angry and bitter at his fate. Though his parents loved him, he could only think of the mother who did not. The mother who had magic and hated him for his lack.

He began to study magic secretly. He did not ask anyone about it, but he saved up his coins and bought manuscripts first, then books later. And he watched those with magic as they practiced their craft. He watched and he learned.

His mother had been right, that he had only as much magic as a wolf, but that did not mean he had none at all. He had a small portion, but with learning, he told himself, that small portion could be honed and developed into a useful power.

One day he caught a mouse and tried to use his magic to change the color of the mouse’s tail. Instead, the mouse’s tail simply disappeared. He was as startled as the mouse was, and dropped the mouse, which scurried away.

What had happened?

He could not understand it.

He had followed the instructions in his book on the transformation of an animal’s skin. What had gone wrong?

At the time, he told himself to be patient, to learn more, and to wait to do more experiments with his small magic. But when he tried again, he had the same result. The animal he had tried to transform was damaged instead. Part of it simply disappeared.

Its head.

And at that moment he realized in a swift intake of breath that he had the power to take away the magic of others.

He did not know if it was because he was born out of the body of a wolf, with a wolf for a father and a human for a mother. He did not know if it was some other effect on his small magic, his hatred or his mother or his bittnerness for those who had more magi than he.

He had unmagic.

And because magic was the stuff of living, he could see that unmagic could be used for death.

He went to find his mother, who lived as a wolf.

His parents tried to keep him from going, but they had no more success than his mother’s mother had had, or than any other parents have when they try to keep nearly grown children from doing something powerful and disastrous.

He went.

And he found her.

She was not far. She could not return to the pack of her mate, but she could play in the woods of her childhood.

The pack here would not accept her, but she enjoyed watching them, and she did not ask for more than that, not after what had happened with her son.

He came upon her as the sun was about to set.

She was startled to see any human there, for she held her wolf form.

He did not know how he could see it so clearly, but he knew that she was his mother. Perhaps because she was a female wolf without a pack. Perhaps because he remembered her scent, from his birth. Or perhaps because of his unmagic. Even holding it inside him enabled him to see magic where it worked, and to undo at least the disguise of the wolf form his mother wore.

He did not call out to her, or greet her as his mother. He simply reached for her. And at his touch, her magic flowed out of her like water breaking free of a dam.

She gasped at the sensation. It was far worse than any wound she had ever taken, and yet she had no defense against this. How could such a thing happen? How was it possible? Those with magic had never been warned against the unmagic before. Had it never existed before her son?

She could feel her life slipping away from her. And her son smiled down at her, glad for his revenge.

It was not like any time when she had felt magic move inside her before. Then she had always had a sense of balance, that the magic moved over her for her use, but that it returned to the natural world from which it had come.

The first humans had used magic from wolves, she knew. But it had been freely given, not stolen.

Perhaps the wolves had not known then how many humans would come to use the magic, or how much magic they would demand. And always taken from another creature, another life.

Yet still, it had been only for a time, borrowed, and returned, even if not always asked for.

This was different. Her son was taking her magic, but it simply disappeared, no longer accessible to anyone. It was a loss of total magic, a true using.

A blackness where once there had been light.

And it was horrifying, more horrifying to know that she had had a part in it, that she had given birth to him. Had he been like this then? Had this been a destiny that could not have been altered? Or might he have been a normal boy, if only she had not rejected him because he was neither wolf nor magical?

In any case, she had to stop him.

But she could not so much as twist in his grasp to escape for a moment to counterattack. She could not turn her magic against him, for when she tried, it only slipped away faster.

She opened her mouth to speak, but even her words were taken from her, for they would have been in the language of the wolves, and that was magic that her son could take from her.

She felt her body turn to a human’s once more, its natural state, though this time she had no control over it.

Then he took even the magic of an ordinary human from her, her last connection to the world and the creatures in it. She was blind and helpless now, alone in a way that she had never imagined that she could be.

Her son—known ever after as the Magic-hater—leaned into her then and whispered to her, “You are only the first.”

With her last breath, she struggled to forgive him. And herself.

And thought of what the world would be, when he had taken all magic from it.

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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2007 all rights reserved.
Last revised December 24, 2007.