Cycles of Violence

Ellen Kuhfeld

Normally, the waxing moon was a good time to own a Were bar. It was only the middle of the afternoon, but there were a dozen customers at the booths and tables already, clustered in small groups, chattering and cheerful, with an air of anticipation about them. They were eating, drinking, spending money, and behaving well -- much less rowdy than they'd be come the full moon.

And here Len's friend Bjorn was, standing behind the bar, acting as if he were waiting for the other shoe to drop. That wasn't like Bjorn at all.

Finally Bjorn sighed, mixed a Bloody Mary, and filled a tankard of mead for himself. He went to a booth where he could watch both the bar and the entrance, motioned Len over, and handed the blood-red drink to him. Bjorn sat for a while, took a sip of mead, and leaned back with a distant look in his eyes. He spoke.

"About a hundred fifty years ago, my family had a run-in with Wendigo. My great-great-grandfather Ulfbjorn had come from Norway to Minnesota for the opportunity. There was land to be had, and work cutting down trees, and all kinds of fur-animals. It was good bear territory. Lots of Norwegians were coming here, and Swedes, and even a few Finns.

"We'd brought our own heritage with us, our legends and tales and bloodlines. Were-bears are different, you know. For most of us it's in the blood when we're born. We don't need to be bitten by something, like the werewolves and the others. And we aren't ruled by the Moon.

"Ulfbjorn needed a stake before he tried anything ambitious, so he signed up with Paul Bunyan to do some lumbering. Paul was quite a legend already, even at his young age. He could beat great-great at arm-wrestling, though family stories say the odds were more even when it was full-body wrestling. Bears are great wrestlers, after all."

Len Scott -- about half Bjorn's size and nowhere as hairy -- sipped his drink. "Does this story include Babe the Blue Ox? I'm already starting to notice the bull."

"No, Babe never got into the story. Great worker, that ox, but he headed straight for the barn when the day's lumbering was over. And this happened after dark.

"Paul had hired some Indians to hunt for him. He had a hungry crew, and it took a lot to feed them; but deer and moose were abundant, and the local people were better at finding them than Paul's folk.

"Now, one of the Indians looked different, and didn't hang around with the others. Quite a loner. He'd come from far away, but didn't like to talk about it. And he never seemed to be around during the full moon.

"Great-great grandfather could see the signs, so he cultivated the man. His name was Yellow Horse. They'd sit together of an evening, smoking their pipes and talking. Yellow Horse began to warm up to great-great; and it soon became plain they shared something.

"Ulfbjorn was a were-bear, of course. And Yellow Horse was a werewolf, though his people called them 'skinwalkers'. They'd driven him out. Most settled people don't approve of werewolves. And Yellow Horse was a real werewolf, not the sort of 'wolf' we get today."

"Ah-HEM!" Len cleared his throat.

"Oh, no offense intended to you, or your friends, or the customers at my club. But the world was more stark in the old days, before we started having all these newfangled Weres showing up. And I guess the new Weres are a good thing, because there's less bloodshed, but these old family stories make me nostalgic.

"Where was I? Oh, yes. Ulfbjorn and Yellow Horse got to be close friends. They decided to go adventuring together when the full moon came. They set off early in the afternoon, so they would be well away from camp before moonrise, and headed for a patch of forest the Indians avoided. 'Bad medicine,' the locals said.

"The sun was almost down, and it had gotten pretty dark in the trees. Great-great was eating some blueberries he had found, while Yellow Horse was drinking from a stream a way off. They saw a pale form in the forest. It must have been eight feet tall, but it vanished almost before they saw it. No matter how hard they looked, they couldn't find it.

"And then it came out from behind a tree, and grabbed Yellow Horse. 'I'm Wendigo,' it said, 'and I'm hungry. Somebody here is going to get eaten.'

"Just then the sun must have slipped below the horizon, because Yellow Horse changed. He looked up at Wendigo, and said 'Best two out of three?'

"Wendigo had a bright star in its forehead, and it was dressed in white robes. Great-great grandfather said it looked like a ljosalf, a bright-elf. It was very surprised, because in all the time it had been eating Indians, none of them had ever turned into wolves before.

"They started in fighting. First it went hard on Yellow Horse, because Wendigo had a good grip; but he managed to get Wendigo's arm in his jaws, and began chewing his way up. Wendigo was dancing around, shaking its arm and trying to get the wolf off and banging Yellow Horse into trees. Great-great-grandfather was sitting back and watching the ruckus, laughing his head off.

"It must have been the laughter that did it. Soon Yellow Horse and Wendigo stopped fighting and were both staring at Ulfbjorn, and it wasn't necessarily a friendly stare. 'What's so funny?' they both asked.

"'Something I disagreed with ate me!'" Ulfbjorn said, which was nothing less than the truth. Both Yellow Horse and Wendigo had chewed off chunks of each other in the fuss. Ulfbjorn broke out into fresh gales of laughter, and pretty soon they all were rolling around on the ground laughing. There had been no real harm done in the fight, except to the trees, because both Wendigo and werewolves heal fast and well."

As Bjorn was talking, a low growling had started outside, gradually getting louder and closer. It resolved into the sound of many motorcycles. They came into the parking lot, throttled up and down several times, and stopped in a chorus of mechanical coughing.

Bjorn put his hand on Len's arm, and looked at the others in the bar. "Let me handle this."

A large man came in the door, every bit as large as Bjorn. He had wild hair, topped by a greasy bandanna. His torso was bare except for a black leather vest, windburned, covered with curly black hair. Several scars crossed it. His arms were the same, with burn-marks and disturbing tattoos. His hands were massive, the knuckles badly abused, with motor-grease and grime under the ragged nails. Behind him were at least a dozen smaller variations on the same theme.

"We're the Wendigos," he said. "We were in the neighborhood, so we thought we'd drop in to play with a few werewolves." His voice did not suggest he had softball in mind.

Bjorn smiled and shook his head. "You've come at the wrong time for that. Drop by in a week, when it's the full moon, and we'll have werewolves for you."

"We're an impatient bunch," the cyclist said. "We'll make do by playing with their friends, and their dainty little clubhouse." His eyes moved about the room, taking in the dozen or so people in the booths or at the bar or tables. His followers started spreading out through the room. The customers watched them come, and didn't seem nearly as unsettled as the cyclists might have wished.

"I'm going to insist you play nicely," Bjorn said. "It's the rule here."

"Wendigos don't play by the rules."

Bjorn lost his smile as he moved closer to the self-styled Wendigo.

"I know Wendigo, my friend, and you are no Wendigo. For one thing, Wendigo is at least eight feet tall, and I wouldn't rate you at better than six-five.

"Also, there is only the one Wendigo; there must be at least a dozen of you.

"Finally, if I pulled the arms and legs off Wendigo and fed them to the wolves, Wendigo would be ready to go another round with me the next day. I don't think you could measure up to that.

"Mind you," Bjorn said with a very different smile, one that showed his teeth, "I won't have any wolves for a week or so. But I do have a refrigerator to keep the arms and legs in, for them. Want to make the experiment? I'll even give you the extra week to get back in shape for the fight." Bjorn reached out and took one shoulder of the Wendigo claimant in each of his own massive hands. They locked eyes. The customers -- and the other cyclists -- watched.

There was a cold aura of sullen menace about the cyclist, but it was overshadowed by Bjorn's hot aura of barely-restrained bloodlust. The air shimmered about them. The cyclist felt claws digging into his shoulders. The rank, wild scent of Bear filled the air.

The cyclist's face went pale, and another scent joined the Bear.

Bjorn sadly let go, and patted the cyclist gently on the shoulder. "No," he said, "I guess you don't want to play after all. You'd probably much rather go home and change your pants."

Silently, shamefacedly, the giant cyclist dropped his head. He looked much smaller than he had when he'd come in. He waddled to the door, and out; and his followers -- followed. Bjorn stood alone in the center of the floor.

He went over to the booth he'd been sharing with Len, picked up his tankard of mead, and downed it in one gulp. He went behind the bar, filled it, and emptied it again. Then he filled it yet again, and went over to sit with his friend. He blew out a great gust of air, and slumped. "That was very close," he said.

"You didn't look worried," Len said.

"He was one mean fellow," Bjorn said. "I had to push myself almost to the edge of berserk to scare him off. If he hadn't backed down, I might have gone over and turned bear.

"The law makes such a fuss these days when you rip somebody to shreds. Pity - folk used to figure anybody foolish enough to challenge a berserk deserved what he got.

"Stop and think. I could have taken him easily. But he had a dozen friends, and I never could have caught them all, let alone eaten them. And what would I do about the motorcycles? One of those fellows would have gone yelling to the police, and there we'd be with blood and bones and scraps of clothing on the floor, and motorcycles in our parking lot. That wouldn't be good. I'd have to take off for the Northwoods, and the rest of you would lose the club."

"I wasn't thinking that far ahead," Len admitted. They both sat in silence as they finished their drinks, and so did all the other customers.

Bjorn went behind the bar. "This one's on the house!" he shouted, and everybody came to refill their steins and glasses. They'd resumed their cheerful talk, but now their eyes and gestures pointed towards Bjorn often as not. They seemed impressed and satisfied.

Len sat on a stool, leaned on the bar. "You never did finish your story," he said. "And it doesn't seem a coincidence for you to be talking about Wendigo when those other 'wendigos' appeared."

Bjorn smiled. "There's not much more to the story. Ulfbjorn and Yellow Horse and Wendigo went off and killed a deer, and had a good meal together and a good talk. But they split up well before dawn. When Yellow Horse turned back into a man at sunrise, he didn't want to be anywhere near Wendigo. Could you blame him?

"Since then, we've kept in touch. Even when you're the meanest S.O.B. in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, it's a good idea to keep track of the S.O.B.s in the other valleys. If you step on their toes, you don't want it to be an accident or a surprise.

"Now would you be astonished to find a werewolf -- one of the old-fashioned, bloodthirsty kind -- in a motorcycle gang? Not that they know he's a werewolf.

"Apparently there's been a leadership struggle among the motorcyclists. Yellow Horse's great-great-great grandson, Red Dog, found out that Crank, our recently-departed playmate, was planning this visit to build his reputation as a dangerous man. That could firm up Crank's position as leader.

"Red Dog gave me a call. For a wild one like him, friends are hard to come by. He didn't want to lose any, and figured giving me time to think might help. I've been thinking it over ever since; excuse me if I've seemed distracted.

"Of course with Crank this thoroughly embarrassed, Red Dog might take over the Wendigos. He'd like that. It's the way in-group politics goes, and probably another reason he called me. I hope he wasn't behind this all, just to get in charge. If I found out he was, I'd have to admonish him."

They sat, and drank their respective drinks, and contemplated the sins of politicians, no matter what their momentary species or affiliation. Werewolves were good, werewolves were fine, but they didn't want any politicians coming around the club. It would knock down the tone.