R5 Greta: Betrothed, part 3 of 3

The men left for the south and the Old River in the afternoon; still too early for some of the celebrants.  Papa went with them, of course, but Hans did not despite his little tantrum.  Greta heard nothing from Darius.

Greta went to see Mother Hulda every day after that and always brought something in her cloth covered basket.  There still seemed to be a great deal that she wanted Greta to learn, and it seemed like she started cramming as much as possible into the shortest time.  Greta went home exhausted every night, but she went back in the morning with her goodies and a ready heart.

By the end of the week the sky turned overcast and rainy.  Mama insisted that she wear her red cloak, and Mama pulled the hood up and tied it tight against the weather, like she did when Greta was a child.  Greta did not complain.  This was her Mama.

“Tell the good Mother I will be up to visit in a week or so when your Papa returns,” Mama said. Greta knew that she wanted to talk to Mother Hulda about the wedding, but she appreciated the fact that her mother did not say so.

“I’ll be home for supper,” Greta said, but as she left, a strange sense of foreboding came over her.  That feeling increased when she got out of sight of the house.  The feeling came on strong enough to make her stop and look around.  She imagined nothing at home, and nothing to do with Papa, but it felt like something behind her, or up ahead, but behind in a way, like in the past.  She started to walk again and tried to explore the feeling of dread.

She heard a roar behind, a growl and a scream, and she screamed.  She spun around.  She wanted to run but her legs gave out.  She screamed again, but then she saw Hans rolling on the ground, laughing.

“Hans!”  She yelled, not a happy person.  She decided some demon must have set that up.  She already felt spooked, and Hans nearly gave her a heart attack.  She got so mad, she stomped her foot, made a fist, and let the steam out through gritted teeth.

“But you were so funny,” Hans said.

“Not funny!” she yelled.

“You going to Mother Hulda’s?  Can I come?” He did not really ask.  He would tag along regardless of what she said. Then she thought that he had seemed very bored in the last few days.

“Where are your friends?” she asked, having caught her breath at last.

“Doing stuff, I guess,” he said, with a shrug.  Greta imagined it had something to do with his new position, as son of the high chief.  Either he said something or did something, or they did, or they were no longer sure about him.  Greta felt certain that like the rain, it would blow over in time, but for the present, she returned his shrug.

“Let’s go.” She still felt spooked, and thought his company might help, even if he was a little creep.

They had not gone very far up the road, though, when Hans started off across country. “Come on,” he hollered.  “Let’s take the shortcut.”

“No,” Greta hollered back.  “I’m not tearing this dress on briars and bushes.”  How many dresses did he think she had?

“I’m going,” he said, and left, so it turned out she walked most of the way alone, after all.

Hans waited for her where the road turned.  After the obligatory, “What kept you?” they crossed the last, short meadow to Mother Hulda’s house.  All the while, Greta shook her head.

“Something’s spooky,” Hans said.  Even he felt it.  When they saw the house, the feeling intensified.  By the time they reached the porch, Greta could hardly keep from turning and running away.  She stopped at the door and told Hans to get behind her.  He did not argue.

She opened the door and screamed, and this time she knew what she was screaming about. There were bits and pieces of Mother Hulda thrown all over the room.  Mother Hulda’s head rested on a corner of the bed facing the door.  One eye was missing, but she stared at them with the other.

Greta could neither move nor stop screaming.  Hans pushed passed to see and promptly threw up behind the door.  That probably saved his life.  A noise came from the back.  A man hurriedly shuffled out of the dark, his eyes wide with madness.  He stopped, naked and filthy, and looked as if he had been burned everywhere.  Sores and open wounds covered his body where there had once been blisters.  His face looked like it had melted.

Greta still screamed, but her legs felt like lead.  She could not abandon Hans.  She could not move.  She cried out for help, and someone answered from deep in time.  The nameless god pushed his way through the centuries to stand where Greta no longer stood.  He came cloaked in his armor and weapons, but he did not touch the blades.

The madman clearly sensed the change and the aura of incomprehensible power.  He sniffed and howled after a fashion, dove through the window, and headed toward the forest, moving at a speed which seemed remarkable for a man who appeared to be half dead.  Nameless knew the wolf was something he would have to deal with, later. He learned long ago not to react out of upset or anger, and for the present, he had Hans to take care of, and Mother Hulda.

Nameless took Hans outside and cleaned him up.  Poor Hans got too sick even to wonder who this man might be.  Nameless carefully laid a hand on Han’s head and deliberately blunted the memory, making the sight inside the house seem like something from long ago and far away.  Thus, it would remain until it became long ago and far away.  Then Nameless turned toward Mother Hulda’s house.  He felt concerned about any saliva or wolf’s blood that might have spilled there.

When the last of the Were People isolated themselves from the human race, they hoped it would solve the trouble they caused.  They did not know breeding with humans would pass on the gene.  They also did not know about the micro-virus they carried.  To them, it remained harmless.  The wolf, the bear, the owl and eagle were mainstays of those shape shifters.  But in humans, it became a terrible thing.  Even when the gene and micro-virus got together, it could remain dormant for generations, but once active, there was no known cure. Humans were not built to withstand shape shifting.  The human mind was not made to temporarily take on the mind of the wolf.  The madness that produced was an intelligent, but utterly inhuman viciousness and lust that could only be sated with blood and more blood.

Nameless felt worried about the blood and saliva because that was how the micro-virus got transmitted.  Someone might come who unknowingly carried the gene.  It felt too risky for half-measures.  He concluded a funeral pyre was all he could do.  He moved everything of value that he cleaned to the barn with only a thought.  Then he spread his arms and the house burst into flames.  He reached out with his heart and made sure a number of people in Boarshag looked up at that moment.  He knew there would not be much time, so he immediately knelt beside Hans.

“Wow!”  Hans said, coming around since his memory got blunted.  “Who are you? Where’s Greta?”

Nameless smiled. “My grandfather named me Valdir, but most people know me as Nameless.  I am simply a man of the earth.  You might call me the woodcutter.”  That seemed to fit with the gist of the story.  “Feeling better?”

“You’re not dressed like a woodcutter,” Hans said.

“Hush,” Nameless said.  “It might be best if you did not say anything about my being here.”  Nameless spit on his two fingers and held out his hand.

Hans looked at the fingers, looked long into Nameless’ eyes as if searching for something he could not quite touch, and then spit and agreed.  They made a deal.  Immediately, Hans got something in his eyes, and while he turned away, Nameless left and Greta came home.  She almost slid right into the armor, which would have adjusted instantly to fit her, but at the last minute Nameless remembered, so she appeared in her dress, hooded exactly as she had been, in her red cloak.

“Where did he go?” Hans squinted up at his sister who now stood exactly where the nameless man had stood only a moment ago.

“The woodcutter went home,” Greta said, and she turned toward the house, which rapidly turned to ashes, and she began to cry.  Perhaps Hans’ vision had been blunted, but Greta’s had not.  The horror of what she saw washed over her, and she fell to the ground in revulsion and tears.

People came.

Hans hardly had time to stand, much less to comfort his sister before they found themselves surrounded by Rolfus, Sanger and Drakka.

“I saw the flames and smoke.”  Drakka spoke. “I was so worried about you.”  He got on his knees and held her up so she could cry in his shoulder.

“Oh, Drakka,” she said, and she wished he would hold her like that, always.  That thought barely flitted across her mind before the vision of Mother Hulda made rivers of tears.

Most of the women and not a few men that came, wept with Greta.  Jodel and Yanda brought Koren from his field, and he wept with Greta, and no doubt he would have wept for her if he could.  Mama came, and she kept trying to comfort Greta through her own tears.

Eventually, they got the story, mostly out of Hans.

“It was a man, I think,” he said.  “Mostly a man, I think.”

“What do you mean you think it was a man?”  Drakka’s words were loud, but it came out because of anger to think that anyone would murder the Woman of the Ways.

“A funeral Pyre,” Greta spoke in answer to the question she got asked.  It seemed the best thing.  Half-chewed bits of flesh and bone all over the house.  No one should have to see what she saw.

“What?” Sanger also sounded angry, and the others stood right there with him, but Drakka had Hans by the collar and it looked like he might hit the boy if he did not get a better answer.

“Was it a man or not?”  Drakka vented his rage.

Poor Hans looked frightened and confused.  “I don’t know.  I’m not sure.”  He shook his head.

“Stop!” Greta yelled and got more attention than she intended, even as it stopped the back of Drakka’s hand.  “It was a man who is a wolf,” Greta said. “It was the wolf who did this.”

“That’s it,” Hans said, hopefully.  “It was a wolf man.”  He need not have worried.  Drakka dropped him to the ground to focus on Greta.

“Don’t talk nonsense.”  Drakka said. “Was it a man or a wolf.”

“It was the wolf.” Greta answered.  “The werewolf.”  The crowd hushed.  Though only something from legends and nightmares, everyone knew what a werewolf was. Drakka took a half-step back, and people made signs in the air, mumbled prayers, and did little rituals to ward off the evil and gain the protection of the gods.  Greta pulled her red cloak and hood tight against the chill while thinking of her basket of goodies which by then had to be ashes.  She whispered one more thought before she stood to return home for a new round of tears.  “It was the big, bad wolf.”  Mama heard, and helped her walk without a word of her own.  Back home, Greta could grieve in the seclusion of her own room.

************************

MONDAY

R5 Greta: Betrayal.  While the men go south to survey the good land, the enemy rides right into town.  The witch.  Yes, that is spelled with a “w”.  Happy Reading.

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