Once upon a time there was a tribe of gnomes living high upon a mountain overlooking a deep valley, their houses hidden among the high crags that kept the lowlands in perpetual shadow.
It was a hard life, even by gnome standards, but the fertile valley where they could have easily grown their crops was home to a sleek pack of wolves. Each member of that pack had a coat as black as midnight, except for the leader, an enormous she-wolf who was notable for her larger size and a patch of red fur upon her chest. The wolves were nearly invisible — even to the sharp eyes of wary gnomes — as they flitted soundlessly through the shadows of the ancient trees.
Many gnome families had gone into that valley seeking an easier life along the river that flowed swift and strong. None had returned, but the howling of the wolves seemed to tell their tale as it echoed from the mountain crags, in the moon glow where gnome children shivered and cried in their cold, dark beds.
Now the gnomes that remained on the mountain were starving. The animals that lived on the higher slopes — the mountain sheep and the stag — were too big for the gnomes to catch, and the soil in the mountains was so thin that the few crops they could grow were blighted and poor. Children were lucky to get a single carrot or half of a turnip for their dinner, and their parents had even less.
“Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo,” came the howling of the wolves every night, but in the ancient language of the starving gnomes it sounded like “Come down! Come down!” And many did go down into that shadowy vale, never to return.
Finally, there remained but two families still living on the mountain, and they were old friends with much in common. Both families had a mother, a father and a single child of the same age. One child was a little gnome boy, and the other was a little gnome girl, and they were so small that if they were standing beside you, the tips of their tiny red caps would only reach the bottom of your knee.
One day — a gray February day that was bitter cold with blowing snow and a biting wind — one gnome father, Matias, said to the other gnome father, Joona, that his larder was bare, and so Joona said to Matias that for supper that night, both families should share the one turnip that he had left.
That night, after eating the turnip and sending the children to bed, Matias with his wife, Oona, and Joona with his wife, Leonia, sat together around the table. The guttering flame of a single candle cast the gnomes’ shadows on the wall, making them seem much taller than they were.
“What will we do?” asked Oona. “We have no more food, and we grow weaker by the day.”
“We must leave this place,” said Matias. “If we go down to the valley, perhaps we will find fish in the river, or mushrooms growing under the trees. It is dangerous, but we must risk it!”
“But the wolves . . .” started Joona, voicing all their fears. “No one has ever returned from that dark valley.”
“The wolves matter not,” said Leonia. “We cannot just stay here and watch our babies starve! At least with the wolves, it will be over quickly!”
And so it was decided. The gnomes snuffed out the candle, plunging Joona’s and Leonia’s neat home into darkness. The gnomes all tried to sleep, but could only think about the next morning’s march that would take them down the mountain and into the valley below, that shadowy vale from which none had returned.
Deep in their valley, the wolves sat in council in a snowy meadow surrounded by giant trees. Lupercalia, their leader, stood in the middle of a ring of black wolves, her larger size and the splash of red fur on her chest made her stand out. She had led the pack for many years, but now two of the strong young males were unhappy.
“We are starving here!” growled Convel. “There are no rabbits left! The squirrels stay high in the trees where we cannot get them, and the mountain sheep and the stags all fear us and have moved high among the crags where we cannot go because the ice and sharp rocks cut our feet!
“You are leader here, Lupercalia,” said Olcan. “You must change the Law of the Wolf for the good of the pack!”
But Lupercalia would not be swayed. “The Law of the Wolf has seen us through for generations,” she said. “Yes, we are hungry, but just wait a while longer and surely something good will happen.”
Olcan and Convel only grew more angry, for their hunger gnawed deep in their bellies. The young wolves growled menacingly.
“Come,” said Lupercalia, “We will hunt along the river bank. We have not hunted there since last week, and perhaps there’s still a rabbit or two that we’ll scare from hiding.”
The wolves walked in single file along the slippery bank until they came to a wider place where the water flowed more slowly, forming a deep, ice-covered pond. Suddenly, there on the other side, one of the wolves spotted movement.
“Look, a rabbit!” cried Convel.
“But it’s on the other side of the pond! We can’t get it!” said Olcan.
“Stay here, all of you,” said Lupercalia. “I am the leader, so the risk shall be mine. I will get this rabbit and bring it back for the pack!”
The big she-wolf crept out upon the frozen surface, but upon her fifth step — CRAAAACK — the ice broke under her weight and she fell through! She scrabbled furiously to get back to the bank, but the slow current carried her underneath the ice and away from the hole she’d made. The other wolves were afraid and didn’t know what to do, but at last Lupercalia’s struggling stopped, and all they could see was the red mark upon her chest, pressed hard against the ice.
“Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo,” howled the wolves. “Lupercalia is dead! Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo. Who will lead us now? Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo.”
“I will lead,” said Convel. “I will lead, and I declare that the Law of the Wolf is abolished! And look,” he said, spotting the two families of gnomes walking down the hill, “Here comes our dinner!”
“Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo.”
Two families of gnomes — two mothers, two fathers, a boy and a girl — had come down from the mountain and stood in a copse of young birches. They trembled at the sound of the howling wolves.
“Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo.”
Suddenly the gnomes saw something, black shapes moving unbelievably fast, running up the hill toward them.
“It’s the wolves! Save the babies!” screamed the gnome mothers, Leonia and Oona. “Into the tree!” cried Matias and Joona, and all four of them quickly climbed onto each other’s shoulders — first the two fathers, then the two mothers — so that when the girl gnome and the boy gnome, Tina and Val, climbed to the top of the highest parent’s shoulders, they could just reach the lowest branches of the nearest birch.
“Climb higher! Climb higher!” shouted the parents to their children, and Tina and Val did climb, higher and higher until the small branches near the top of the birch started to bend, even under the slight weight of two tiny gnome children.
By then, Matias, Oona, Joona and Leonia were surrounded by the growling wolves, but they cared only that their children were safe.
The wolves were joyful! “Forget those two in the tree, we’ll have them later for dessert!” snarled Convel, snapping his teeth at the cowering parents. “We’ve got these four now, and the Law of the Wolf is no more! We won’t go hungry tonight!”
But just then a cry was heard from up above, and everyone — both wolves and gnomes alike — looked up into the tree where Tina and Val had lost their grip and were hanging upside down by their toes from one of the branches. The scared little children just held onto each other and cried, for there was nothing else they could do.
And that’s when it happened.
As the upside down gnome children held each other, their red caps came together and formed a shape the wolves recognized. It looked something like this:
“Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo,” howled the wolves. “It’s a sign! It’s an omen! Lupercalia!”
For when the children’s upside down hats came together, it reminded the wolves of their mightiest leader and the patch of red fur upon her chest, which was shaped exactly the same! Thinking of Lupercalia also made them remember the Law of the Wolf, the Pride of the Pack, and the sacrifice she had made for all of them.
With a snarling and a snapping, most of the wolves turned on Convel and Olcan and chased them away, because it was their actions that had almost made them forget their sacred laws.
A few of the elder wolves remained by the tree and spoke to the gnomes in the Common Tongue. “You may pass freely through our valley now, and follow those who came before you. Your friends crossed safely into the Land of Love and Harmony long ago. We are sorry for frightening you, but at last we remembered the Pride of the Pack and the Law of the Wolf, which states that we hunt only those animals that are old and sick, and we never eat gnomes.”
“We never knew,” said Oona. “We were frightened by your howling, and for nothing! But what will happen to you? You are starving, too! There, I see that your ribs are showing!”
The wolves were sad, and said, “We cannot follow the stag or the mountain sheep into the sharp rocks, so we will die here. But we will die with honor, remembering the sacrifice of our leader, Lupercalia, and honoring the Law of the Wolf.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
After some anxious moments getting the children down from the tree, the clever gnomes put their heads together and thought of a solution to the wolves’ problem. All six gnomes — Oona and Matias with little Tina, and Joona and Leonia with little Val — took off their hats, and along with two spares from their luggage, wrapped them around the feet of the wolves’ two best hunters, which just happened to be Olcan and Convel, who had tried to take control of the pack. After the whipping they’d taken, they’d come slinking back, and with the gnomes’ red hats now padding their feet, they raced high into the mountains to find the sickest and weakest among the deer and sheep that were wintering there, and thus the two young wolves’ honor was regained, the pack was saved, and even the strength of the deer and sheep herds was improved by removing the weakest members.
And that wasn’t all. Since they’re not very heavy, the gnomes were able to creep out onto the surface of the ice-covered pond, pull out the body of Lupercalia, and carry it reverently to the bank. There, Leonia — who had a reputation as a great healer among gnomes — built a small fire and brewed a special tea made from birch twigs, wolf’s bane and other secret herbs. She gently poured this down the giant she-wolf’s throat and nursed her back to life. Lupercalia made a full recovery and led her pack for many years to come.
But what happened to the gnomes?
Well, they passed into the Land of Love and Harmony, where they found their old friends who had traveled there before them. Why hadn’t those friends returned to tell the others that the trip through the valley was safe? Well, everyone knows that once we experience life in the Land of Love and Harmony, it’s very difficult to turn back!
After a few years, Tina and Val grew up and got married. They are very old now, but every year at a certain time their children and friends gather to hear their story, which never gets old even though it’s been repeated countless times, from generation to generation.
Every year, in the middle of February, the gnomes (and some humans who have heard the old story) display a symbol from that time when Tina’s and Val’s hats first came together. The symbol has undergone some refinements over the years, and it helps the gnomes remember the special bond between wolves and gnomes. It reminds them of Lupercalia and the hungry pack that honored its law and remembered its honor. The gnomes all raise their glasses, hug one another and shout . . .
“Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo! Happy Val and Tina Day!”
Some will recognize the name Lupercalia as belonging to an ancient Roman festival that might form the roots of Valentine’s Day, which we celebrate next week. Whether you believe there’s a connection or not, most people would agree that our candy, flowers and heart-shaped cards represent a gentler turn from the customs of a bygone age. To learn more about the ancient origins of the holiday, the Wikipedia article on Lupercalia is one place to start. Many thanks to Morgaine du Mer for the use of her aceo, which is what gave me the kernel of an idea for this story. Other images were found on the Internet, with sources either uncertain or unavailable. Finally, Olcan, Convel, Oona, Matias, Leonia, Joona, Tina and Val are fictional characters. Any similarity between them and real wolves or gnomes — living or dead — is entirely coincidental.