Lony found the wet, splintered bones with the soles of her feet, when some sound or silence had roused her from her bed. She had always slept barefoot, even in the cold of winter; after that night she never would again.
She screamed, before she really understood what it was she stood in. Then she did understand: that it was not a what, but a whom, and she could not scream any more for want of air. Lony fell amid the wreckage of her baby’s hollow bones and tried to count them, sought order and sense in this most senseless of things. Here in the breathless dark she could not remember how to cry; only the wind sobbed through the smashed door.
In this city of hope, a Wolf did not devour a child every day. But a Wolf might devour a child any day.
Friends and family came to the wake to comfort Lony, as if they didn’t understand that she was already dead.
On the kitchen table, clots of gelatin had formed about the rims of half-empty pans, and the remaining meat rolls wept brine onto their serving platter. Food went cold fast in the city in the winter. Lony focused on those remnants: how she would package them up, where in the icebox they would fit, as her sisters and their husbands and wives offered their condolences.
Lony was lucky, in a sense, the family told her, for sometimes a whole family was eaten up and here Lony still had her eldest, Nis. They pressed her cold hands and wept as they urged Lony to put it behind her, to be reassured. To leave the matter rest, for what good could come of it now? They knelt on the floor in front of her and reminded her: they needed the Wolves to keep the city safe, so all the other little children could sleep soundly in their beds. No other city in the world had such Wolves, and no other city yet survived. Yes, sometimes tragedy struck, for Wolves were still predators, and such things happened. Sometimes they ate the innocent, but mostly they ate the guilty. Surely Lony wouldn’t ask every other mother in the city to sacrifice their little ones’ well-being. Their blood would not bring little Grethe back to her.
Because of the Wolves, they said, there was still a future of hope and freedom from fear, here in the last bastion of light and goodness left to the dark wild world. But Lony did not want to turn her face toward that hopeful beacon, nor could she feel the warmth of goodness in the long cold night.
Attention peeled away from Lony then, toward an old aunt in the corner. To her audience, she recited a litany of poor choices made, of fateful missteps for which Grethe paid the price. If the child had been better taught to fetch her mother before answering the door at night, if Lony were not such a sound sleeper, oh. The family murmured to one another, that they would be wiser, better prepared; that their little ones would stay safe. Lony’s body had gone cold and numb, hardened and preserved in a shell of her own brine.
But while their aunt lectured on, Lony’s youngest sister Moya leaned in close to her ear, and whispered to her. “It was not right that Grethe was taken from you. Not a one of them should dare say otherwise.”
It was Moya, too, that finally ushered the rest of the family out to give Lony and Nis their privacy. They went, anxious and complaining, but they went, in twos and threes out into the quiet streets, and the ice-bitten air ghosted past them into Lony’s house.
As they passed through her freshly-repaired door she felt them leave their burdens behind. They had never plastered over streaks of blood and deep claw-grooves with paint that would never quite match the rest. They did not know the weight of a ruined carcass that had once been a child. Their little ones still woke, and laughed, and ate, and played. This freedom of theirs hung on Lony like rusty chains upon a coffin.
The blood of the city’s children would not bring back Grethe. But when Lony closed her eyes, the city was painted red with it, and the citizens packed the streets to scream and scourge themselves over the price they had gladly paid for false freedom.
Which came first: the city, or the Wolves? A question with no answer. They belonged to one another now.
Lony woke in the dead of night and stumbled out of bed. By the time she had her hand on the door to the children’s bedroom, her waking mind caught up with her sleeping body and stopped her. She had only been dreaming that she heard a bawling baby. The crib was empty. No, the crib was gone. Her knees faltered, but she kept her feet. She’d had such a dream many times before, and rushed to the children’s room only to find Grethe peacefully sleeping. There was no longer a little one in the house to squall and be soothed, but these midnight wakings still haunted her. The ghost of the ghost of Grethe.
She opened the door anyway. Nis slept, his face taut and troubled even in sleep. Ten years old was too young to rest so fitfully. His bed looked too small all on its own in the half-empty room, though the frost-shattered light from the streetlamp outside the window painted a mirror-image in somber shadows on the floor. She wondered when she would be able to look at him again without a blade cleaving her heart in two: love on the one side, loss on the other.
Movement down in the street below caught her eye. She leaned over Nis for a better view. A pack of Wolves patrolled the street, four abreast. Lony’s heart stopped, then hammered desperately at the prison of her ribcage looking for an escape. The moon huddled behind gray clouds, but the cold light of the streetlamp split and spilled over powerful withers and long tails. One turned its head to look up at Lony’s window, and yellow eyes flashed. She stifled her cry with one fist. Nis shuddered, but did not wake. She reached across him and yanked the curtain shut, wiping out the street’s light and the outline of the shadow-bed on the floor all at once.
Back in her own bed she lay awake, hearing wailing in every creak of the house and every whisper of the wind. Finally she acceded to wakefulness, and went back downstairs, where she counted the good knives in her kitchen and laid them all out before her on the table. For each blade, a Wolf, for she hadn’t enough to give each Wolf in the city a blade. When she closed her eyes she saw gray pelts slashed into shreds, she saw yellow fangs shatter against the sharpened steel.
One last time she numbered the blades, and then returned them to their drawer to rest. She might stand a chance against a Wolf or two. But Wolves had the strength of the pack behind them, and Lony was all alone.
The men of the city went out of the great gates the next day, to cut back the World-Woods where they crept up toward the city wall. A small pack of Wolves, perhaps half a dozen, went with them to protect them while they worked, to hold back the strange and terrible things birthed beneath those dark branches. All the workers always came back safely whenever they went out from the city. Lony wondered sometimes, that no dark creature of the forest had ever slain one of their number, even with the Wolves to guard them. She wondered too why no man of the city had ever chosen to simply walk away, never to return.
Nis hunched on the stoop and watched the men go, waving sometimes at a familiar face, a friend’s father or a shopkeeper, while Lony prepared their breakfast. He did not wave when the packs went past, though the children down the street whooped and cheered and even ran out to reach up and pet the Wolves’ soft necks when they paused. When the Wolves started walking again, some of the children followed along, laughing and darting between the beasts’ long legs. Nis stayed on his stoop. Lony burned the bacon as she watched him from the kitchen window, then called him in to eat.
He should have been back at the schoolhouse that morning, but Lony couldn’t bear to be parted from him yet, so she took him with her to the gathering she’d been instructed to attend at the little meetinghouse on the corner of Ivy Street. This was a difficult time, the city elders had said, and she couldn’t be expected to weather it alone.
Over the meetinghouse door, the corners of the wooden pediment had been carved into the shape of two Wolf heads, back to back. Lony ducked under without pausing for a closer look. Inside, a small group of people had gathered: mostly women, a few men, a pair of teenagers who might have been twins. Nis slouched off to a corner, two of his aunt’s meat rolls in his tin pail and a borrowed schoolbook under his arm. He opened it across his knees, but stared out over the pages at the meetinghouse’s little sitting-room. Lony lost sight of him as two other women swept over to gather her up in a hug. They asked her about her loss, but barely heard her words. They wanted to talk about dead husbands and lost children of their own. They wanted her to know that accidents were rare. There were worse things than Wolves that lurked out there in the great World-Woods, one woman said, and the others nodded. They all knew what had happened to the other cities, didn’t they? There were things in the wood that would devour them all, not just a poor lost soul here and there.
This last made one wild-eyed woman smother hysterical laughter behind trembling fingers. Lony startled at the sound, because she was surprised it had not come from herself. “Let them,” the woman moaned, “let the bones of the city be swallowed up by the trees, and all the gods know we would deserve it!” Someone else hurried to rush her out of the room; Lony reached out as they passed and brushed the poor creature’s salt-dampened knuckles with one hand.
What the others wanted most of all, of course, was for Lony to agree, to mirror their words and their wide-eyed sincerity back to them. To say, yes, the worst thing of all would be to lose sight of who we are. To smile with tears in her eyes and agree that living in the City of Wolves was all that could protect them from the evils that waited in the Woods. What they wanted from her was reassurance that they had not paid this price in vain.
Lony drank the tea they gave her, and when the clock chimed the noon hour, she took Nis home.
Again that night, she couldn’t sleep. She took the knives out and counted them, pricked one fingertip on a blade to judge its sharpness and to convince herself that it was real. When she stuck her finger in her mouth to soothe the pain, the blood she tasted was her son’s. She could not kill a Wolf if it meant leaving Nis unprotected in this city of spilt marrow and silence.
She left the knives on the counter. She took out an old canvas carry-sack, and packed it with her clothes and Nis’s and as much food as she could carry. She packed the knives too, rolled up in thick cloth but for the one she put in the pocket of her warmest coat, the good wool one. Then she woke Nis, if he had even been sleeping at all. She gave him an oatcake, served up on a platter of promises, and when she told him to get up and put on two pairs of socks and three shirts and his shoes, he did so at once. She cautioned him to quiet, and hand-in-hand they slunk out into the night.
Wolf-musk clung to the stones of the city. Tonight there was no breeze to clear it; no wind from the World-Woods to wash away the animal tang with the musty, decaying smell of old leaves. Lony listened for the click-clack of claws; intently she sought the glimmer of amber eyes in pools of unmoving shadow. They walked in darkness, and in darkness they stumbled. There was no snow yet this winter to soak up and spread the moonlight. Sometimes Lony thought she heard a child, so far away, crying softly. Nis’s hand was cold and damp in hers and they kept walking.
She had thought, sometimes, in the time before, about how she would leave the city when and if the time came. With Grethe in tow she would have had to try the city gates; on her own little legs the child would never have contrived to climb the city wall, and Lony could not have borne her on her back. Folk were permitted to pass through the gates, if they raised enough of a fuss about it–and if they were on their own. With her children, Lony would never have been allowed to chance the perils of the Woods. Endangering a child was a crime of the highest order.
But Grethe was gone now, slain not by the Woods but by Lony’s own inertia. Nis was older, and stronger. Together they watched a pack make its patrol of Grove Park, and when the Wolves had marched off shoulder-to-shoulder, they slipped through a crack in the old brick wall and were swallowed up by the shelter of the trees.
These were not the wild trees of the wood, but human-grown and human-molded. Apple and cherry trees grew with branches curved gently upward, branches that answered soundly to testing hands and feet. Lony laid a hand on the city wall. The stone, though cold, was promise-solid.
So too was a low distant growl, and the clack of claws on paving-stones. Lony gasped, and sighted the Wolf where it had entered the park. It could follow them out into the woods; their only hope was to lose him in the jumbled human scents of the city. She seized Nis’s shirt before he could reach for the wall. Down, she urged him, and down he went, swinging through the branches to hit the ground running. Back to the hole in the fence, Nis first and Lony shoving behind him. Through, then, so that the Wolf’s teeth shredded the hem of her coat and not her flesh. Lony fell on her hands and knees, only just outside the reach of scratching claws and slavering tongue. The Wolf’s eyes rolled yellow and white in its head, frenzied by the scent of the hunt. She had committed the crime in thought if not in deed, after all. Such things could only be paid in blood. Not Nis’s, she prayed to whatever gods still haunted these streets; she implored them not to let him be left alone. The Wolves had their packs. Could he not too?
Could they not have their own packs, too?
Nis had already reached the end of the alley and turned back. “Mama!” he cried. “Come on!”
She must obey, but the Wolf’s hot sour breath stole her balance, her strength. An idea beat at the confines of her temple and she was afraid to look at it too closely. She managed her knees, and finally her feet. Still the Wolf scratched after her, and still she stayed. Nis cried again for his mother. Her hand went into her coat pocket.
“Go,” she told him. “Run down the street to your aunts’ house, and when you get there, you must send Auntie Moya to me here. And then you must wait there. Until I come for you. Do you understand?”
He understood. Or he would, in time. All the same, he went.
The moment he vanished around the alley corner, the Wolf breathed in deep to bay an alarm-howl. The knife cut through Lony’s pocket in her haste, and opened a second smile in the beast’s throat, a smile through which its tongue still slavered scarlet.
She was only one woman. But it was only one Wolf.
Moya came, and she did not ask questions, and she did not offer reprobation. Moya brought a jug of turpentine to throw across the stones of the blood-stained alley, to confuse and twist the scent of blood. Moya stood watch at corners and beneath windows, and she helped Lony bear up the weight of the Wolf’s body. Moya opened the door of Lony’s house, and helped her roll the carcass onto the floor inside. “Good thing it hasn’t snowed yet,” Moya mutters, as the door shuts behind them; and then: “I know names.”
Lony remembered the weeping woman at the meetinghouse, too. Frightened citizens. Grieving families. Splintered hearts and sharpened knives.
There was no getting Grethe back. But there would always be another child, and another, and another, holding hands into infinity.
After, when the wash-water in the sink ran clear and the knife-bitten bones slept in the trash heap, Lony and Moya scraped the pelt clean and rubbed it with kitchen salt until their hands cracked and bled. It needed to dry, but Lony pulled it across her head and back anyway, and looked at her own reflection in the window. More Wolves would come, to punish the second crime as well as the first. There were so many, many more Wolves. But there was hope, too, here in the city of light. Or not hope, perhaps. Something like it, but more cramped.
Moya bade her come to the door and, wrapped together in the pelt’s warmth, they slipped out into the night. A pack of two, for now, but they would forge a greater number in steel and salt. They walked away, and the alley behind them was silent but for a babe in someone’s upstairs window, mewling for its midnight feeding.
Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts, angry princesses and dead gods. Her work can also be found in Fireside, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A graduate of Viable Paradise, she also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a zine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction.