“LIBAHUNT!” Alexei breaks the terms of the wolf-magic he inherited from his grandfather and loses the ability to control the shapeshifting. His grandfather’s magical wolf-pelt was meant to protect their rural village in 1880s Estonia by fighting the terrible storms in the sky but instead, it drives Alexei to kill, slaughtering his neighbors, his friends —even his family. Heartbroken, Alexei flees his home in search of an enchanter to free him from this hideous curse. Wandering through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Bohemia, he encounters the Master of Wolves, who forces Alexei to terrorize and murder the local farmers, and the infamous Frau Bertha who traps all those who anger her by turning them into wolves. Will Alexei find a magician who can free him?
Targeted Age Group:: adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
The authentic werewolf folklore in Estonia is unique in that the werewolves are "good guys" and the identity of the local werewolves are known rather than hidden. I wanted to explore what might happen when the traditional Estonian werewolf magic goes wrong.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I did extensive research on werewolf stories throughout the Baltic States and Central Europe; the characters in STORM WOLF grew out of the characters in these traditional tales and legends.
The wolf, its thick silver-gray fur bristling and standing up along its neck, stood its ground, snarling as the humans approached. Edvin and his father drew their hunting knives and the wolf fought to free itself from the clanking trap, even as it knew that it was doomed.
Edvin and his father stood before the trapped animal. Edvin heard a quiet whisper. “You’ve seen this done before, Edvin. You helped skin the wolves last year and have been practicing the kill all summer.” His father paused. Edvin’s eyes locked with the wolf’s squinting eyes. “Why don’t you kill this first one of this season?” The boy glanced at the older man out of the corner of his eyes and slowly nodded.
Edvin was able to slip up through the quietly crunching snow to the wolf from behind as it continued to glower at Edvin’s father—yellow eyes glinting, upper lip curled back, and snarl rumbling in the back of its throat, free legs poised and ready to leap at whoever would attack first. When Edvin leapt onto its back and held on with his left hand, the wolf twisted through the air, jaws snapping at the teen. Edvin wedged his knife into the wolf’s throat and pulled the knife back towards him, ripping the muscles, tendons, and arteries in ragged, jerky motions.
Blood sprayed out in great bursts as the animal’s heart pumped vigorously in its breast. Edvin held on, terrified of the still snapping jaws and knowing that the only safe place was on the giant’s furry back. It seemed to be forever before the monster gradually slowed its writhing and abandoned its attempts to bite Edvin’s young head off, before the shower of blood was reduced to a trickle, before the beast slumped down onto its haunches and then finally collapsed in the now bright-red snow. The iron trap lay still and silent.
Edvin pushed himself up from the carcass, panting. His breath hovered in frosty clouds before his face. He looked across the corpse at his father. His father grinned broadly before coming around behind and clapping him on the back. They surveyed the carnage before them.
Dead, the wolf seemed even larger than it had when it was alive and standing before them, crouching and ready to attack. It seemed the largest wolf Edvin had ever seen. As big as, or even bigger than, the wolf Fenrir that the old stories said would devour the sun at the end of days. Together, Edvin and his father hoisted the wolf onto their nearby sled and brought the creature back to their house on the edge of the vast forests of Estonia. Edvin was given the honor of skinning this, his first kill. He was careful to keep the gray pelt with its tawny streaks intact, rather than cutting it into easier-to-handle smaller strips. Then the whole family undertook the job of butchering the meat to be smoked, dried, or eaten that evening. There was enough to feed them for at least a month.
The skin was large enough for Edvin to wrap around himself three or four times, with the head—easily half again as large as his own—hanging over his left shoulder. The thing was huge, lush, and warm. It was beautiful. Edvin’s youngest sister wanted to add it to her wedding chest, but everyone else agreed that as Edvin’s first kill, it was his to do with as he pleased. He kept it on his bed but would, on occasion, wrap himself in it and play with the younger children, chasing them and catching them, pretending to devour them as they collapsed in giggles and laughter.
It was five years later that the terrible storm had appeared on the horizon.
Edvin’s marriage to his sweetheart in the village had been arranged for late in the summer of 1820. It was in the early summer, though, when the fields and gardens were full of the wheat and vegetables to feed the village during the coming year, that a tremendous storm appeared on the horizon, beyond the forest. As the massive thunderclouds slowly approached the village, they seemed to hang so low that they scraped the treetops. Ribbons of storm cloud streamed out behind them in the wind, and lightning flickered high in the sky. Deep within the clouds, thunder rumbled. Treetops tore rips and tears in the heavy, low-hanging thunderclouds and out came the howls of ghosts and devils.
That was when Edvin took the wolf pelt to the local nõiatar, the village cunning woman. In Estonia, in the traditional village practice away from the German and Russian landowners, it was the responsibility of the libahunt or suteksäija—the vlkodlak, or man-wolf, as many who do not speak Estonian might call it—to drive the storms away from the farmlands and villages. The werewolves of Estonia had been known to fly into the storm clouds and fight the spirits there, the ghosts and devils that bring terrible storms and blizzards that destroy crops and homes. But there had been no werewolf in Edvin’s village for many years, and he knew someone had to defend the farmers against the storm everyone could see coming. Because he didn’t know how to make the werewolf, he took the pelt to the cunning woman—he knew that she would need that to work with, at least.
The nõiatar took the pelt and rubbed it against her deeply lined face. The fur was thick and soft. Rarely had anyone killed such a large wolf, and keeping such a large pelt intact was even rarer. She studied Edvin. “Do you truly want to do this thing?” she finally asked him. “It is more dangerous than you know.”
“I do,” he answered. “It is dangerous,” he agreed, daring to look her in the face. “But we will starve next winter otherwise. The storm coming looks more terrible than any we have seen since my father was a boy. It is the duty of the werewolf to fight the storms, and our village has no werewolf. We cannot expect the werewolf of another village to fight the storm for us, and there is no time to travel far to find one who will. I have the wolf skin, so I must use it to save my family and the village.” He pulled himself up, holding his head high, and thrust his shoulders back. “I am young. I am strong. I can fight such storms, but I cannot do it as a man. I must become the werewolf.”
The cunning woman considered what he had said. “Yes, we need a werewolf to protect the village and it has been long… long since we have had one here. Yes, I can help you become the werewolf. But you must be careful. It is said that the power of the wolf skin can be intoxicating and can make you as drunk as it makes you strong and able to fight the storms. You must not use it every time it rains, but only when there is a true äike, a thunderstorm that can destroy the crops or flood the küla. Our village. You must resist the temptation to use the wolf skin for your own advantage and use it only for the sake of the küla. It is not a power to wield for yourself and your own benefit, but only to protect others. Can you remember this?”
“Yes,” Edvin answered without a moment’s hesitation. “I only want the wolf skin and its magic in order to protect the village. Or any village that needs our help. But you must do the magic now or it will soon be too late. The storm will be here any moment.”
She held the wolf skin to her cheek once more and closed her eyes. A half-smile crossed her face. Then she opened her eyes, turned, and placed the pelt on the log bench next to the door of her cottage. She entered the cottage and reemerged with a tray of jars and bottles. She set these on the bench as well. The sky, already gray, became darker, and a chill breeze stirred around them. She looked at the sky and shook her head.
“They will be here soon,” she muttered. “But they do not expect us to fight.” She looked at Edvin. “Help me lay the pelt flat on the ground.”
They reached for the wolf skin and unfolded it, stretching it out flat. The fur was on the ground, in the dust that could easily become a sea of mud if the rain began in earnest. The leather of the creature’s skin itself was upwards, facing the sky. A drop of rain caressed Edvin’s cheek.
The cunning woman took one of the largest jars and knelt next to the skin. She placed the jar next to her and scooped out a handful of old, foul-smelling grease. She began to rub it vigorously into the skin with her gnarled fingers. After a moment, she looked up at Edvin. “We don’t have all afternoon,” she snapped. “Help me.”
Edvin immediately knelt down opposite her and reached for a handful of the grease, wrinkling his nose at the odor. They rubbed handful after handful of grease into the leather side of the wolf pelt as occasional drops splashed from the sky.
“What is this grease from?” Edvin finally asked.
“Do you think that you truly want to know?” The nõiatar didn’t even look up as she continued working the grease into the massive piece of leather between them.
“Why? What is it?” Edvin thought about the stories he had heard of the ointments of the cunning woman, who also served as the village midwife. “Is it the fat of the stillborn babies that you’ve boiled together?”
The woman continued to massage the fat into the leather without answering. After considering, Edvin muttered, “You’re right. I think perhaps I do not want to know.”
Finally the nõiatar seemed satisfied that enough of the putrid fat had been worked into the skin. She covered that jar and put it aside, reaching for another one on her bench. She sprinkled what looked like dried, crushed leaves from it onto the skin. She stood and passed the jar to Edvin, indicating that he should do likewise on the portion of the skin that she could not reach.
“Poplar tree leaves,” she replied to his unasked question. “For flight.”
Next she took a cruet and poured out a thick, pale-yellow liquid that at least smelled sweeter than the grease. Edvin looked at her. “Oil from the roots of sweet flag, for bravery and wisdom, for strategy in driving off the storms,” she told him. The rain began to drum more persistently now, making small puddles in the wrinkles of the wolf skin.
She knelt awkwardly again to massage the flower root extract into the leather, and Edvin did likewise. Thunder rumbled in the distance. “Hurry!” the nõiatar barked.
As he continued to press the aromatic oil and ground poplar leaves into the grease-coated skin, the woman stood and took the last two bottles from the tray. She opened them, sniffed them each briefly as if to test them by their aroma, and poured out streams of liquid that seemed to contain a large quantity of crushed seeds. One was slightly green while the other was a pale red.
“If you must know,” the cunning woman told him as he watched the two streams hit the skin, splash, and then soak into the now supple leather, “these are teas made from smallage—for spiritual power and strength—and cinquefoil—for protection.” She emptied the bottles and then replaced them on the tray. She stepped back and peered at the wolf skin.
The leather looked hardly different than it had before. It certainly smelled differently now, though. Rancid grease and sweet herbs assaulted Edvin’s nostrils as he inhaled the fragrances that mingled on his precious wolf skin.
“That will have to be enough,” the cunning woman said at last. “Now remove your clothes.”
Edvin was startled and began to formulate a question.
“The pelt must touch your own skin,” the nõiatar snapped at him, as if he were a fool to even question her instructions.
He nodded. “Of course,” he muttered. Rain cascaded from the heavens now. He unbuttoned his shirt and folded it, placing it on the bench next to the tray with the jars and cruets. He sat on the bench to pull off his boots and then, taking a deep breath, removed his trousers and folded them, placing them on his shirt. The rain streaked down between his shoulder blades and between his chest muscles. The waterfall poured down between his buttocks as well. His hair, already plastered to his head, covered his forehead like a bedraggled pelt itself, and he pushed the hair back out of his eyes.
He stood before her, blushing, but she seemed to ignore his embarrassment. He could feel her eyes, searching for any blemish on his skin and weighing both his moral integrity and physical worth as a man. Her eyes lingered especially uncomfortably on his groin, and she salaciously licked her parched lips. Finally, she reached down to pick up the animal skin. The dirt beneath it had indeed become mud and it sucked at the fur, reluctant to let it go. Edvin helped to lift the large and unwieldy pelt. A sudden bolt of lightning crackled between the massive fortresses of clouds, and thunder deafened the young man and old woman who stood there, holding the heavy, sodden animal skin between them.
The nõiatar looked across the wolf pelt to Edvin. “You wrap the skin around you like a cloak or blanket,” she instructed him at last. “If we have worked enough of the magic into the skin, the transformation will follow of its own accord. After driving away the storm, you must return to the village and remove the skin. Then hide it. Put in a chest or trunk where no one else will find it. You yourself must be careful to only use it to protect the village, as I said. Take it from the trunk only when the greatest and most terrible storms threaten our crops or fields or bury our homes in the worst of the winter blizzards. Do you understand me?”
Edvin took a deep breath. “Yes, I understand. I will hide it and keep it safe. No one will find it, and I will be the only one to ever use it.”
“Then may God grant you strength—and save us,” said the woman, stepping up and pressing the leather against Edvin’s shoulders. He pulled the wolf’s head over his left shoulder and pulled the furry cloak around his torso, holding the edges tight in his right hand. He stepped away from the cunning woman and turned his face to the black sky. Rain poured down and another lightning flash blinded him.
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