A work in progress.
JOHN ROBERT MACK
with ELIZABETH COLLINS as LITTLE REDDE
and AUSTIN TEDDER as WOLFGANG
This story grew out of a photoshoot, and it was an accident. There are more photos from the center of the story, because that’s the story that we sort of improvised after realizing the garb Elizabeth and Austin wore, by complete coincidence, made them look like Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. One never knows where a story will take hold…. and one often doesn’t know where they might begin…..
This one begins right here…
A single raven flew through a clear blue sky over the Deep Woods, a place where the branches grew so intertwined the floor lay dim on even the brightest days. For miles and miles all the bird saw was thick leaves and gnarled branches. Surely, a plethora of insects crawled in those dark, shaded limbs, but the bird had set its sights on something easier.
It passed over a clearing and circled. Below, a small cottage stood between a flowing creek and a disheveled garden filled with flowers and herbs and the start of some vegetables. It wasn’t a carefully pruned garden, the way folks grew them in the villages, but the woman who tended this garden would never be called carefully pruned, either.
Goodmother Greye stood in the center of her garden wrapped in several colorful shawls and scarves. She wore her grey hair in long, unruly braids that, today, she had simply tied back to keep them out of the way. She cocked her head and lifted her brown, shining face to the sky. Her eyes, blind and filled with white, closed as if she listened. She raised an arm.
The raven dropped from the sky and landed silently on her wrist.
Gee Gee as she was known to her friends and family, smiled. She held a number of wriggling caterpillars in her free hand, and the raven squawked once, gobbled down the tasty morsels one by one, then leapt into the air. Gee Gee treated the birds so they’d return. If they didn’t find her outside, they’d do their own hunting and that kept down the unfriendly insects.
“Damn caterpillars eating all my milkweed,” she muttered.
Today she gathered lavender. Several enormous bushes of the herb, almost as tall as Gee Gee, kept her in lavender all year long. She lifted her basket from the ground and settled it in the crook of her arm.
A jackrabbit stuck its head over the marigolds meant to keep it out of the vegetables.
“No carrots for you, you skalawag.” Gee Gee cocked her head one way and the other, once again as if listening. But it wasn’t really listening. Not really.
None of the village children, who sometimes snuck into the Deep Woods to spy on her, lurked anywhere nearby. Spying on a blind woman made them feel brave and heroic.
The villagers thought she was a crazy old witch. They said a blind woman couldn’t possibly survive on her own out in the Deep Wood without magic. For them, magic was always evil. And old? She was barely fifty.
Well, she didn’t look more than fifty.
“She controls the bears and wolves with magic,” more than one self-righteous villager had said, usually one of the Johnsons. “She consorts with devils and the Fae!”
Rubbish. Controlling bears and wolves with magic? Just because she was a blind woman out in the woods? She didn’t need magic to control the bears and wolves.
Her eyes sparked bright blue, and the rabbit’s eyes did the same. He hopped quite calmly into a nearby snare and hunkered down to wait until she would retrieve him and turn him into stew for little Redde, who always visited on Wednesdays.
Magic to control bears? Rubbish. She didn’t need magic to control the bears. They were smart enough to avoid the little clearing in the Deep Wood that Goodmother Greye called home.
Smarter than the villagers, at any rate.
The gardens in the Village had nothing in common with Gee Gee’s.
Redde hated them. Carefully lined rows of common vegetables with nothing but bare dirt between filled nearly every back yard. Each had a rough wooden fence around it and a scarecrow of some kind, even though the villagers hated magic, thought it backward and ancient. They were too “modern” for witchcraft.
Fah. What was the purpose of a scarecrow without a charm in it to keep away the birds? They all ended up covered in bird crap while the birds used them as perches to look over the garden and decide what to steal.
Gee Gee’s gardens were surrounded with marigold and other plants that rabbits didn’t like. She had herbs and mushrooms and… ugh… her gardens made so much more sense than the sterile swatches of dirt in the Village.
No matter. Redde traipsed along Main Street gently swinging the basket she carried, humming a tune her grandmother had taught her from the Before Time. Although the villagers would never know it, the tune carried a gentle spell that kept the mosquitoes and other bugs away.
She had the day off from work, as she always had on Wednesdays, so she was off to Gee Gee’s to learn her anatomy and herbs, and she knew that Gee Gee would love the cookies that filled the basket.
Well, the cookies that topped off the basket, anyway.
The cottages she passed were all uniform. Row after row of basic squares, some made of wood and some of stone with one window per room, and, unless the owner had rather more wealth than the others, rarely more than two, maybe three, rooms. Thatch roofs.
The entire village had been made by one family, the Johnsons, an old family of farmers and woodsmen, raising goats and trees alike. The goats kept down the underbrush and made the tree farming easier. In one way shape or form, everyone in the village worked for the Johnsons, whether it was directly working their fields or by providing the basic things every village needed. Mills, stores, bars.
The Johnsons had a mansion where Redde worked most days, helping in the kitchen of their homestead where they fed nearly forty or fifty people who directly worked the farm. She earned enough to keep her very own hut on the edge of town. While Goody Johnson occasionally reminded Redde that she was welcome to take a room in the house, her eldest son, Cutter, had a bit too much of a taste for wine and definitely kept his eye on the simple orphan girl who mostly stayed in the kitchen.
“Oh no, ma’am,” Redde lied every time. “I’m just a simple peasant, I wouldn’t even know what to do in a grand house like this… but thank you much for the offer.”
“Well,” Goody Johnson would say with a tight smile, “if you ever change your mind.”
It was a dance they shared. Goody Johnson had to know the reason for her refusals but felt the need to ask politely and to politely accept her refusal.
Polite. Everyone was always so damn polite. And ordered and clean.
Well, the clean part wasn’t really a bad thing, but Redde truly missed her day-to-day life with Gee Gee in the Deep woods where nothing was well ordered and anything like politeness came from sincerity, not façade.
“Little Redde!” Goodmother Gundersun waved from her front porch. She held her broom at ease and waved Redde closer. Hers was the only cottage that had a porch. She had seen Gee Gee’s and had fallen in love.
She had several strapping young grandsons to build it. They did whatever she said. Redde had known them her entire life.
“I’m nineteen years old now, and a father of three,” Gustov had told Redde one day, “And she’ll still expect me to drop trou so she can take a switch to my bare ass.” Then he’d winked. “Course, when the wife does that, I don’t mind so much.”
Redde had dumped a bucket of wash water over his head to cool him off.
They’d been friends their entire lives, so he took it as a joke as intended.
Redde was sixteen, now, and several of her childhood friends had married, but all that seemed ages away for Redde. She wanted to learn about science and magic both. She had so many things she wanted to do, so many places she wanted to see.
“Good morrow, Goodmother.” Redde dropped a curtsey, which was more respect than she showed most of the other elders, who treated Gee Gee like a pariah.
“Sweet girl.” Gunderson beamed. She stepped closer and gave her back to the street. “My, what lovely goodies you’ve made for your granny.”
Redde forced a smile. The old woman’s voice was so fake.
How could no one notice the acting?
Gunderson slipped a hand into the basket and raised the layer of cookies.
A human skull in clay gaped up at her.
“Yipes!” She jumped, then grabbed a cookie to try to recover. “Oh, my goodness, these look so yummy I can’t believe it!” She looked around to see if she had an audience.
Crazy Haddy was the only person nearby, and he only barely counted as an audience.
Gunderson raised a cookie. “Yummy.” She waggled it.
Haddy was too interested in his toes to notice. Then a butterfly fluttered past, and he leapt to his feet to chase it, laughing in his bright, sparkling voice.
“Bless his heart.” Gunderson turned back to Redde and held up the cookie with question marks in her eyes.
Redde smiled and nodded.
The older woman smiled and slipped the cookie into her apron.
“That’s a right fine sculpture.” She leaned on her broom. “Sure an Gee Gee will be proud.”
Redde pretended to be aloof and above things like praise, but she’d worked so hard to get the proportions right. Gee Gee was teaching her about anatomy, but all she had were ancient images from the Before Time for her rendering, so Redde did her best with what she had.
“Thank you, Goodmother. That’s kind.”
“Scared the daylights out of me.” She laughed and patted her ample bosom.
A hand slipped into Redde’s pocket.
Really? She could be subtle about payment?
“You’ll say hello for me, right?” Gunderson touched Redde’s hair and leaned in to kiss her forehead. “Let her know I’m looking forward to that new batch of lavender water.”
Lavender water. Code for anti-depressants.
Which contained so many things other than lavender.
Redde said her good-byes and ambled down the dusty street a bit slower now. Goodwife Gunderson always had a calming effect. Just her way…. Or……?
“Going to see your witch granny, as usual?” a familiar voice called out. “I swear, if Gunderson isn’t a witch, too, I’ll be damned.”
“Then I pity your soul, Greta.” Redde didn’t waste the time to give her a glance.
Greta Smithson was at the public water pump, holding a bucket. Her older sister worked the lever.
“Brave words from a damned soul like yours,” said Greta.
Redde stopped. Ordinarily, she tried to let things go, but Bianca, the older sister, had just visited Gee Gee to rid herself of a “trifling inconvenience” the week before.
Bianca, with her blonde flowing hair and readily untrussed bosom had needed to thus rid herself half a dozen times in the last two years. And she stood here silently while her sister insulted the woman who’d unburdened her without judgement.
Redde fixed the girl with a steely glare and raised one eyebrow.
Bianca’s eyes opened wide.
Really? Redde shook her head. Of course, she knew what her grandmother did to help.
Bianca smacked her sister’s head.
“What the hell?”
Redde resumed her journey.
“You say the exact same thing,” Greta complained.
“Behind her back,” Bianca hissed. “Behind her back…”
A shadow fell on Redde.
Oh! Crazy Haddy. He blocked her path and held out his hand.
A butterfly perched on one finger.
“Those girls are not nice.” He scowled his disfavor. Then he smiled. “To make you happy!”
The butterfly lifted from his finger and flew the short distance to Redde’s basket of goodies. It landed on the handle and slowly opened and closed its wings.
How did he do that?
“Your granny is a nice witch,” he said. “She tried so hard to help me.” He shrugged. “I am who I am. Have been for thousands of years.”
He turned on a heel and galloped away.
The butterfly fluttered after him.
“Bless his heart.”
The naked, crazy man ran back and forth across the street chasing whatever demons he saw. Unlike most crazy prophets, he kept himself clean bathing in the river almost constantly. The villagers took pity on him and kept him fed. On every full moon, they’d gather to hear him prattle on about the days in the Before Time.
If one insane man who didn’t look a day over twenty was to be believed, he’d been right there when the moon had broken. He’d been on the ground when vast shards of moonstone struck the Earth and ended everything known as “civilization.”
He was insane.
And yet, Gee Gee swore he’d been there when she was a little girl, chasing butterflies.
Gunderson said the same thing.
All the oldest in the village knew him from their childhood. Unchanged and eternal.
So maybe his stories weren’t complete rubbish.
Maybe he was a thousand years old. More.
What had he said about Gee Gee? That she’d tried to help him?
Hm. Redde would have to ask about that.
The sun was bright. The Spring air was just the right temperature. Cool enough for her cloak, but not chilly. She crossed the bridge over the river that ran through the village, and, sure enough, Haddy splashed around in the waist-deep water. He paused his antics to wave wildly at her.
“Give Gee Gee a hug for me!”
Redde smiled and nodded back.
The road headed out of the Village and into the Deep Woods.
Most villagers would heave a sigh and steal themselves against fear of the unknown.
Redde smiled and sighed.
So much like home.
As she left the orderly, sterile Village and passed under the dark and mysterious trees of the Deep Forest, Redde relaxed. The sounds of the birds and squirrels, of the hidden creeks and shuffling trees, all of these sounds relaxed her. Where most Villagers held fear of the darkness, Redde felt the peace of nature.
She’d grown up in these Woods, raised by Gee Gee, taught to appreciate them.
“Why do you want to go to the village?” Gee Gee had asked when Redde had taken the job at the Johnson’s. “What do they have you don’t have here?”
“I’m growing up, Gee Gee,” she’d said. “Don’t I need to learn how to have my own life? You know I love it here, but I need my own home, my own job, my own life.”
And Gee Gee had held her tightly.
“You know I don’t agree,” her granny had said, “but you need to make these decisions for yourself now. Just always know I am here for you if you change your mind.”
And that had been that.
Redde had found a job with the Johnsons and had settled her own home.
But she still spent every Wednesday with Gee Gee, the woman she would always love as a mother.
She knew every bird that sang in the trees. Every squirrel, fox, deer, and lizard that crawled through the shrubs. A snake slithered across the path. Rat snake. Harmless and good to have around a house. Mosquitos buzzed overhead but maintained a respectful distance when Redde resumed her song.
She inhaled the damp scent of the moss that covered the fallen trees. It relaxed her further. If the walk from town to Gee Gee’s house wasn’t an hour, Redde would have stayed at the cottage and hoofed it every day.
Wait. Something was wrong. She closed her eyes and listened
A man. Just around the corner from her. But that wasn’t possible; the animals were all chattering away as if nothing mattered. Anyone other than her should render them all silent.
She set the basket on the ground and extended an arm, dropping a button into her palm. When pressed, the button would release a knife from her sleeve and into her waiting hand. Redde could slice an apple from the tree in the highest branches.
Opening her eyes, she inhaled a calming breath, retrieved her basket, pulled up to full height, and rounded the corner.
A man sat on a rock just off the path. Shaved head with a beard. He wore a brown fur cloak. Sort of heavy for that time of year. He had a sword on a belt and a flask made from some kind of antler. Redde didn’t know it. He had to be from far away. Redde knew every sort of antler in the Deep Woods.
She nodded as she passed, to be polite, but she didn’t smile. He was likely old enough to be her father, but for some men that would be a perk.
“Good morning. Lovely day for a walk.” He rose from his haunches and skittered along a fallen tree. “Should a young girl like you be out in the big, bad woods by yourself?” He smiled. “There could be monsters.”
He leapt like a dancer and landed squarely in the path, blocking her.
“I’m more afraid of the big, bad men…” Redde settled the basket in the crook of her right elbow, finger poised over the button in her left. “… than I am of any creatures of the forest.”
“My apologies.” The man raised his hands and stepped back. “I am only hoping to make sure you are safe on your journey. I… heard you coming up the path and thought I should wait to see if you’d like a guardian as you walked.”
“Heard me?” Redde didn’t believe him. “I’m wearing soft leather and there aren’t any leaves or twigs on the path.”
“It’s the big ears.” He flicked one for emphasis and grinned.
In spite of herself, Redde smiled.
No. He’s not endearing. He’s trying to get you to relax.
“Did you get them in a matched set with the big teeth?” she asked.
Another large smile.
“And the nose.” He tapped the side of it.
In point of fact, all of his features were the normal size, but he was quite endearing. Something about him felt comfortable.
No. Redde straightened up and held the goodies in front of her.
“I can protect myself,” she declared.
“Of that, I have no doubt, now that we’ve met.” He settled into one hip and rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. Not in a way that was threatening. Just casual. “Your fierceness sets my mind at ease.” He glanced at her left hand. “That and the dagger ready to drop into your hand.”
What? Redde lifted the hand to her chest. How could he know?
“Your middle finger is held close to your palm in a rather unnatural way. Some kind of trigger is the most likely explanation, and a knife hidden up the sleeve the most likely purpose.” He stepped to one side and gestured up the path. “Although, now that we’ve met, it’s going to be a bit awkward since we’re headed to the same destination.”
“What? You’re going to my grandmother’s house?” Damn! How had she let that slip so easily? What if he were merely baiting her?
She resumed her journey, and he fell in step beside her. He had a graceful loping stride.
“There’s really just the one path,” he said, “and nothing on it except Goodmother Greye’s house for miles and miles and miles.”
Well, if he knew her name, he must at least know of her.
“Why are you going to see my grandmother?”
“Oh? Only little girls carrying a basket of goodies for their granny get to visit?” He sniffed. “Ginger? One of my favorites.”
What? How on Earth could he smell the ginger?
He tapped his nose with a smile.
No. She wouldn’t smile. She turned and commenced to walk. Bother him.
“I’m actually going to see my father,” the man admitted. “He’s visiting the goodmother, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen him.”
“Your father knows her?” How interesting. “What’s his name?” In all likelihood, if Gee Gee knew him, then Redde should, as well.
“His name is the same as mine.” The man stopped and waved one arm in a flourish as he gave a formal bow. “Wolfgang Amadeus Karloff. Although he has a three after his name, and I have a four.” He rose from his bow. “And you are?”
Oh, how rude she was.
“Redde.” She automatically dropped a tiny curtsey as she said it.
“Just Red? Like the color of your hood?”
“It’s spelled R-e-d-d-e.” Hmm. “And the color of the hood is a coincidence, I assure you.” She did wear it a lot, though. Might be time to branch into other colors. “And Redde is enough for a complete stranger with overly large facial features.”
He barked a laugh.
“All right little Redde…” He resumed the journey. “With your coincidentally colored hood… you’re just visiting your granny in the Deep Woods to bring her a basket of goodies?”
Redde stopped. The jokes had been cute at first, but now he’d branched over into condescending. She twitched the gingham towel aside and lifted the skull out. She held it to him.
“Goodies,” she said, “And this.”
The smile slid off his face.
Good. That had been the point.
“Awfully small for a human,” he said.
“It’s made of clay,” she explained. “Gee Gee is teaching me anatomy. This is part of my training.” She pulled herself up. “I’ve made an entire leg, as well.” One day she planned to have a complete skeleton.
Confusion filled his face for a moment, then it sort of slid off as one side of his mouth twitched and then the other. His head dropped back, and he laughed so loudly a plague of grackles leapt into the air and flew away.
“Are you mocking me?” She stepped closer.
“No.” He chuckled a bit more. “I’m just delighted to meet someone who can manage to surprise me as thoroughly as you just did. Good for you.” He walked off. “And the model is excellent work. Excellent.”
Redde hurried to catch up. Again, while she pretended to be above such simple things like praise, Wolfgang’s compliment filled her with pride.
But wait… she stopped.
“How do you know what a human skull looks like?”
“I might ask the same question of you.”
Off the path, something stopped with them.
Redde avoided closing her eyes, even though it was easier to listen. People tended to notice.
Far enough to avoid detection but close enough to watch.
An animal? A very large animal or a man.
“We’re being followed.” She set the basket down. Blast it, she had to close her eyes.
“How do you know that?” Wolfgang asked.
“You know my grandmother.” She stepped closer to the trees. His energy. It was odd. Not quite human, but also not quite animal. “So you know what it means that I am of her lineage.”
“Oh?” One simple sound asked so many damn questions. “Her lineage? Pale and pretty you?”
“Don’t be stupid.” She opened her eyes. That was as much as she’d get. “When it comes to Gee Gee, one doesn’t need to be blood to be a part of her lineage.”
A jump. It raced away through the woods up the path.
“Oh, damn.” Wolfgang tensed. “He’s off like a shot.”
“How do you know that?”
“Don’t be daft.” He picked up the basket and headed off. “He’s with me. Let’s go. Something’s wrong.”
“Wrong?” What in the world could be wrong? “How do you know that?” She hurried to catch up. “And why was your friend following us?” It seemed suspicious.
“That’s a lot of questions at once.” He picked up the pace and handed the basket to her. “Look. Someone is at Gee Gee’s place, someone who doesn’t belong there, and voices are raised. I know this because while my pedigree is different from yours, mine also grants me certain abilities. My friend’s name is Telemachus, and he’s not travelling with us… well, partly to keep us safe from a distance, but mostly because he’s… not very social.” He glanced at Redde. “We should hurry.” His head turned up the path. “Wait.” He stopped suddenly, and an arm blocked the path.
Hurry up… and now wait. What in the world?
A man stepped onto the path. He had long, unruly black hair and he wore a cloak that he held closed as he hurried toward them. Bare feet and ankles.
The knife leapt into Redde’s waiting hand.
Wolfgang closed the distance, and the stranger circled Wolfgang twice, then stopped between them, facing her.
She crouched and held up the knife over her shoulder to let him know she meant to use it if need be.
He glanced from the knife to her face with bright yellow eyes that had almost no white at all, then he turned his back and enveloped Wolfgang in his cloak. He pressed his face close to the other man’s ear and sort of whispered, sort of whined. Then… oh, well then…
He licked Wolfgang’s ear. So likely not just friends, then. He nuzzled Wolfgang’s neck.
And when he’d turned his back to Redde, she’d seen his legs above the knees. Also bare. So… Curiouser and curiouser.
“Please, sir,” Redde said. “Telemachus. Is my grandmother all right?”
The man stiffened and pulled back a bit from Wolfgang.
“She’s fine for now,” Wolfgang answered. “A large, very loud man is there arguing with her.”
“Cutter.” He was one of the largest—and certainly the loudest—men she knew. He was the eldest son of the family where Redde worked. “Has to be. Trying to throw his weight around.” Redde tucked the knife into her belt. “Was he alone?”
Telemachus shook his head.
“Damn.” Alone, Cutter was loud and boorish, with his men he could cause trouble. “Please run up ahead and make sure my grandmother is safe.”
The man nodded and turned.
“Wait.” She touched his arm.
He turned to her.
“Please take care of my Grandmother, but also try not to get hurt. Those men can be dangerous.”
His face wrinkled in confusion. He looked at the hand then into her face with more confusion. He glanced at Wolfgang, who shrugged and shook his head as if to say, “You’re asking the wrong guy.”
Telemachus touched her hand. He took a couple of quick breathes as if readying himself for something difficult. His mouth opened and closed. Another breath.
“Thank…” he said at last “…you.” His voice was deep and gravelly, not at all what she had expected from such a slight man. He took a couple more preparatory breaths. “You… are kind.” He nodded and turned away.
“Please turn your back,” Wolfgang asked.
“Just do it.”
She threw up her hands and turned away.
“Okay. You can turn around,” Wolfgang said before she’d even turned completely away.
Telemachus had vanished.
Wolfgang folded the cloak over one arm and headed down the path, nodding his head to ask her to follow.
“How?” She searched the woods. “Where is he?”
“He’s reaching the place we should be going to.”
Right. Yes. Gee Gee. But what in the world?
“We’re werewolves,” Wolfgang announced.
“What?” Redde stopped so abruptly she stumbled.
“Is that a problem?” He raised an eyebrow.
“No.” She scoffed. “I’m just startled I didn’t…” Oh, hell. She thumped her forehead with the palm of one hand. “Pedigree. You didn’t say lineage. You said pedigree.” Could she burn off his face with her glare?
He smiled. “I like to have my little jokes.”
She scoffed again and surged past, hurrying to Gee Gee’s.
“Very little,” she muttered. “Tiny. Miniscule. Not funny jokes.”
Wolfgang caught up.
They moved quickly. Not quite running, but they kept a brisk pace. Most likely, Wolfgang would know if they needed to run. With Telemachus, a giant wolf, most likely, standing guard, Redde wasn’t as worried. Gee Gee could hold her own, and if Wolfgang the fourth was a wolf…
“You have questions,” he said. “I can smell it. Feel free to ask.”
“Is your father a wolf?”
“Yes. And his father before him. I’m fourth generation wolf blood.”
“Does that make you different from turned wolves?”
“Yes. I’m not affected by the cycles of the moon. I can change at will. I don’t lose myself in the wolf. I’m just a shapechanger.”
“Is that a wolf’s skin you’re wearing?” Because if so, wasn’t that kind of like her wearing a human skin suit?
He barked a laugh.
Barked. Oh, damn.
“Wolves are different. If you kill a wolf in righteous battle, you get to skin it and wear it as a prize.”
“He raped my daughter.”
What? Redde stumbled again.
“We were all in wolf form, hunting deer. He led her astray, and when I found them, I clamped my jaws down on his neck and ripped out his throat. I wear the cloak to remember my daughter.”
Oh damn. She’d died?
“I’m so sorry.” What else could she say? “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“No.” He shook his head and raised his hands. “No, she survived. She’s alive.” He rolled his eyes. “She joined a pack of Ferals. I haven’t seen her in a few years.”
“She’s about your age, all things considered.” Again with the eye roll. “Ferals are wolves tired of the traditions, wanting to make a new way for us all.”
So. Even werewolves had rebellious teens.
Without another word, they resumed the journey.
“So…” He’d given her permission to ask questions, after all. “Is Telemachus a turned wolf?”
Wolfgang stuttered to a stop.
“From what I can tell, by the way, there’s just a lot of yelling going on.” He glanced up the path. “Telemachus is circling your grandmother’s house. She knows he’s there. She doesn’t feel threatened.”
Of course, that could change at any moment. Still…
“It’s funny you said it that way.” He shook his head. “Telemachus is, in fact, a turned wolf. Literally. He was a wolf bitten by a werewolf, who now transforms into a human.”
The wind stopped blowing.
The Deep Woods grew still.
“What?” She shook her head. “I didn’t even know that was possible.”
Wolfgang shook his head. He started down the path, but at a slower pace.
“No one did.” He folded his arms across his chest. “As far as we know, he’s one of a kind. And my dad and I, we’ve looked. Just… just to help him have a sense of community. I mean… I love him. He’s my world… but just like you can’t truly know what it’s like to be me and I can’t know what it’s like to be a witch, I can’t truly understand what it was like, on that first full moon, to wake up in a human body and scream in terror wondering why the pieces of the moon weren’t falling down.”
They walked in silence.
“Is that what really happened?” She asked. “I mean…”
“How could he even understand the first night?” He shrugged. “Who knows? But he did. All of a sudden, he realized that if those pieces of moon rock had been blown off the surface, why couldn’t they drop onto the Earth?” His face was so lined. What must he be thinking? “It’s like he suddenly turned human. He knew how to walk. He understood things. I mean, no one thinks to ask why can a bipedal human suddenly understands how to walk on four legs. Why wouldn’t a wolf suddenly have a basic concept of what it meant to be human.”
“But the words.”
“Yeah.” Wolfgang nodded. “Words are hard for him. We’re still figuring that out. Wolves have a language, but most of it has to do with movement and what your ass smells like, so words are sooo different.”
“What you said to him, when you asked him to be careful?” Was he about to tear up? “No one is that nice to him. Wolves resent the idea that they are one step away from being him, and humans… well, most of them just hear him stutter and pause and they think he’s…”
His head jerked towards Gee Gee’s house.
“Fuck.” He grabbed Redde’s arm. “We need to go. Now.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Gee Gee’s about to go all witchcraft on the big man’s ass.”
Confirming all their suspicions about her was not a good idea. And, not to put too fine a point on it, she likely could kill them all without breaking a sweat. The bears feared her.
She heard the argument before they even broke into the clearing.
“Just who do you think you’re talking to, boy?” When it came down to it, Gee Gee could be just as loud as Cutter. Don’t let her eyes glow. Don’t let her eyes glow.
“I think I’m talking to a crazy old witch who lives in the woods.”’ His voice had that haughty tone that would drive Gee Gee apoplectic. “Woods that my father owns, by the way. Just never forget that.”
“Your father owns these woods? Ha.” Don’t let her cackle. Please don’t let her cackle. “The Deep Woods own themselves. Your father has no right to this land.”
Redde hit the clearing.
Gee Gee stood a foot away from the big man, looking up at him in defiance.
Cutter, gods be saved, looked down at her as if she were a harmless old lady.
He had no idea how wrong he was.
A dozen men surrounded them, swords up, bows drawn.
“Dozens of settlers want to move into the area,” Cutter shouted. “They have every damn right to try to start a farm and make a life for themselves. They need farmland and they need lumber for their homes.”
Yeah, and his family wanted to arrange it so every settler owed them and paid them.
Well, as luck would have it, Redde knew exactly how to defuse the situation.
“Cutter?” Redde raised the pitch of her voice to sound like the village girls when they flirted. “What a lovely surprise.”
“Redde?” Wow. The shift from angry landowner to embarrassed schoolboy happened so fast. How did he not get whiplash? “What a surprise.”
The sword so recently gripped in his fist, slid calmly into its sheath. He gave a small vague shake of his head, glancing at the men around them.
Swords lowered to point at the ground.
Bows did so, too, suddenly no longer pulled taut.
Well, if it saved the day? She’d feel guilty about her behavior later.
“What’s going on?” Her basket held in both hands in front her of her, she ambled into the field with a flirty little walk she’d seen on the other girls in the village. “It’s so lovely to see you out here.”
“I’m trying to help your granny see reason.” He squirmed like a boy embarrassed when a girl he likes see him doing something stupid and boyish. “This old woods is a waste of space. No one lives here and nothing can be done with it. If we clear it, hundreds of families will have new homes and farmland.”
And his family would triple their wealth.
Not something to bring up.
“What about the creatures who already live here?” She sidled closer and lowered her voice. “Who call the Deep Woods home?”
Fortunately, Wolfgang seemed to understand her intention, and hovered at the edge of the clearing.
Cutter’s men broke out in laughter.
Cutter, too, then he seemed almost embarrassed.
“You sweet girl,” he said. “I see you’re still blinded by the old ways. If you listen to Reverend Paul, you’ll see. All those old myths… Just fairy stories to scare the kids into behaving.” He chuckled with his men. “Tell them about boogeymen to keep the teens from venturing into the woods to…” He blushed. “Well, I’m sure you can guess what folks do in the woods.”
Redde knew exactly what “folks” did in the woods. Nothing. They were too afraid of the boogeymen and true stories of people who had ventured into the woods and never returned. “Folks” found far less scary places for sex.
“With one breath you call me a crazy old witch.” Gee Gee pounded her staff on the ground, drawing attention back to herself. “With the next, you say there is no such thing as magic. I know the boogey man.” She pulled herself up as far as she could. “Make one more joke, and he’ll drag you feet first into a swamp.”
“Gee Gee.” Redde really didn’t need both sides aching for a battle.
“Just saying.” Gee Gee relaxed a bit and turned away from Cutter. She glanced at Redde in a way that told her she was only standing down for the sake of her granddaughter.
Good. Fine. Whatever worked.
“Cutter.” Redde pulled a cookie from her basked and held it out to him.
Food always helped.
A bit nonplussed, Cutter took the cookie. Of course, he did. He knew Redde’s cooking. The cookie was amazing.
“Gentlemen.” Redde moved from man to man, holding out cookies. Not one of them refused. “I know it’s hard to believe in the old ways when they haven’t been seen in so long… but that’s the point. You don’t want to see them. You want them to stay in the Deep Woods. If you start chopping down trees, you have no idea what might come out to complain.”
The men laughed around the ginger cookies.
“You know I have the utmost respect for you and your grandmother,” Cutter said, “But no one has seen any of these mythical creatures in generations. They’re just fairy stories to make bad children behave.”
“If only that were true.”
“Oh, Telemachus.” Redde felt it before it happened. Now that she knew the truth about Wolfgang and his mate, their energy was obvious. “I’m not certain this is the best idea.”
The trees shivered as if uncertain.
An enormous wolf appeared in the clearing behind Cutter and his men.
Holy mother of the gods.
He was enormous, an enormous black wolf, shot with grey, loping out of the forest. His shoulders stood high as a man’s chest. His mouth contained teeth longer than Redde’s dagger. His eyes glowed yellow.
All the jokes she and Wolfgang had shared about his appearance? Not even funny. now.
As he passed Cutter, the men all erupted in cries of astonishment.
Swords and arrows rose into alignment.
Wolfgang hurried across the clearing and brandished the cloak. As the fearsome wolf rose onto his hind legs, his mate threw the cloak around him, so by the time the wolf was a man, he was covered.
But they all saw it. They saw him change.
Not one of them could now pretend that magic didn’t exist.
“And there are creatures so much more deadly in the Deep Woods,” Wolfgang said. “We, the wolves. We can pass in your world. We can find a way to coexist. But others…” He held Telemachus closer. “Others are not so amenable. If you try to destroy their world, one of two things will happen. They will war with each other over territory, and your farmers will die as collateral damage, or they will simply strike back, and your farmers will die all the more.”
“You.” Cutter’s eyes had grown huge. “You’re a monster?”
“A werewolf,” Redde said. No more point in trying to finesse this day. “A person. Not a monster.”
“And both of you.” Cutter’s eyes flashed from one man to the other. “The same?”
“I am his mate.” Wolfgang lifted his chin in pride.
More murmurs. That was likely almost as objectionable as the fact they were werewolves.
“And you?” Cutter’s face fell ashen.
“For the sake of all the gods, no.” Redde shook her head. “No, I’m not a werewolf, but why does that matter? These are good and noble men.”
Mutters and sighs arose from Cutter’s men.
Cutter exchanged many meaningful glances with them.
Whelp. Chances are, Redde had just lost her chance at marrying the local rich man.
“Redde.” He would no longer meet her eyes. “I pray for your life and your soul.”
So much for an easy life as a brood mare for the local aristocracy.
Cutter and his men left.
Redde stepped to Telemachus first. She scratched him behind an ear.
“I understand why you did that.” He leaned into her touch. How adorable. “I truly do. But I’m not certain you’ve made your life any easier.”
“His life has never been easy.” Wolfgang made gestures with his hands. What did that mean?
Telemachus gestured back.
“This,” Redde asked. “What is this you do?”
Wolfgang stopped. “It’s a form of language using hand signs.”
“Speaking… hard,” Telemachus said. “Signs easier.”
“I want to learn this.” She settled her hands over his. “I want to learn your language.”
After a moment, he nodded.
She turned to Gee Gee.
Her face, as usual when she was angry, remained unreadable.
“So, just how bad is it?” Redde asked.
And then her face changed. Now that the bad men had left, she could be herself.
“First, I need to say hello.” She grabbed Redde in a fierce embrace. “Hello granddaughter.”
But then she released Redde and grabbed Wolfgang just as tightly. “Hello, son.”
“Hello, my other son.” She embraced Telemachus as well.
What the hells? She called them sons?
“Wait,” Redde demanded. “You know them that well? You call them your sons, but I’ve never heard of them?”
Gee Gee deflated a bit and exhaled. She looked down, then up at Redde.
“How old do you suppose I am?” she asked.
“You say you’re no more than 50.” Which was the truth.
She shrugged. “Do I look more than fifty?”
Nope. Not going to admit anything.
Redde shook her head.
“I knew Wolfgang’s father long before you were born.” She pinched his cheek with affection he tolerated, but which obviously embarrassed him. She turned to Telemachus. “And I was there when this one was birthed in his pack. I helped his mother learn how to feed her children.”
She hugged Telemachus.
“Wolfgang could have been my own.” She patted his head. “I could have chosen that path, but the universe had other plans for me. It brought me here. It brought me to you. But I was there for his birth, and I was there when this one was made.” She stroked Telemachus’ head. “It was a sad… confusing time. But we learned, and we helped Telemachus to learn. And we helped bring these two together.”
She held a hand to each of the men. They took her hands, and she brought them together.
“But all this was long before you were born, child.” She met Redde’s eyes. “Before your mother was born. We are all long-lived people, as will you be. You just haven’t seen that yet. You are still in a life that mirrors the life of the Known.”
The Known? What did that even mean, and how had Redde heard the capital letter?
“What are you saying?” she asked. “How old can I be?”
“How old do you want to be?” Granny touched her cheek. “There may not be a limit. Just ask Crazy Haddy.”
This is what has been written so far, but this is an ongoing project. Let me know what you think, and who knows what I might use!
Looking into the future!