When the battle-hardened warrior we ironically call Little Red Riding Hood speaks to me, I have to notice--I’ve been lied to. She is really tall and slightly menacing, sword at her side. She slouches and leans sideways to talk, but as soon as she’s not dealing with peers, superiors, or press like me, she stands straight and has that determined, efficient walk found in athletes and trained soldiers.
She could be pretty if she wasn’t so damn scary looking. She stares me down for a moment, as if she is evaluating how much I will slow her down when the battle starts. Her eyes are startling, so clear and purple blue, like a falling night, that I look away to see her scar, like a deep long dimple, on the left side of her face.
Miss Hood? (No one knows her real name except the Queen.)
Call me Red.
All right, Red. How long have you been in the Army?
A few years.
What made you join the Night Corps?
I like to run at night, always have, figured it would be safer if I had a pack with me.
This was an insufficient explanation for going through the most badass training possible. So I pushed her.
And the killing?
I’m here for the mission—I like to get things done right, fast, and quiet.
Special duty. I was to deliver a payload to a rendez-vous point. Things didn’t quite work out the way I hoped. Lost my crew. Got ambushed.
A Cleaver Unit was called in for rescue.
My quizzical expression gives me away.
She shakes her head, stares me down.
I thought you had clearance.
I have full clearance.
And you’ve never heard of the Cleaver Unit?
As I told you, you’re my first assignment. They shortened my training to get me into the field fast.
She stares at me.
This interview’s not going well. What would you like to talk about? I feel a little desperate.
Why don’t you follow me, for a bit? I need to get out of here. Back in the Woods.
Sure. I’ll get my stuff…
No need. We’ve got standard issue packs—that’s all you’ll need. What’s your running pace?
Six minute mile.
That’ll do. Let’s go.
I feel a surge of excitement. Holy shit. Outside with Red. When I got the assignment, I got excited. But even my fantasies weren’t this wild. She took a side door and we walked quietly down a long dark corridor to the supply room. She handed me a pack and picked up a bow and some silver-tipped arrows. It was late, the night patrols were already out, the room was quiet, cluttered, full of weapons lockers, it smelled like sweat, fear, and metal.
Show me your boots.
They’re standard issue.
I was wondering if we should be checking in with anyone, getting clearance before leaving Vindolanda, but I’d already signed a release, and if I was going out, well, I would never be safer than with Red.
She punched a code into the door lock. We went into a decon chamber, were cleared and then the door opened to the Woods.
The Woods. I had never been. I had been to the forests in the municipal parks, but they don’t serve ice cream and caramel popcorn in the Woods.
The Woods were like nothing I had ever seen. Everything was thick and dense, leafy, with hanging vines. A few narrow paths existed, but those paths were shared by people and werewolves alike. There wasn't much room to maneuver, or defend yourself, as the paths were carved among the tall brush. Whatever little light there was came down into the trees and was reflected among the Old Ones. The oldest of the trees known to man, they had grown thick and tall. I wondered why they weren't called the Silver Ones, since their bark transmitted light. We ran in a file among the trees, and the Woods were loud, noisy with life. I could feel small sharp toothed creatures whenever we paused, trying to get through my boots to my toes.
I felt wary and weird. The Woods made it clear that humans weren't wanted. I supposed that was part of the ancient enchantment. The enchantment that had pushed the humans back to the prairie lands called Vindolanda, the enchantment that had created the werewolves during the first war. The werewolves whose purpose was to hunt the humans and keep them out of the Woods.
Why are we out here? I wondered out loud.
We have a mission, said Red.
Yes, an important mission.
To do what?
We're going to find the Grand Mother. And we're going to try to negotiate for a bigger slice of the Woods. She's the last wizard and powerful. We need to convince her that the humans need more ground.
I had always thought that the Grand Mother was a legend. A story told to little children to frighten them. The only person more mythical than the Grand Mother was the Woodsman, and he definitely didn’t exist. There was no magic in the human world. Once you left the safety of Vindolanda and entered the Woods, you had to contend with magic. But the only magic in the human news was the magic of werewolves, because they kept finding ways into the kingdom. Some new werewolves came from humans who had been seduced and bitten.
That a Grand Mother existed was news, but it made sense--the wizards had created the world as it was. There had to be a wizard lineage--an authority to stay neutral in the war. Or maybe they weren't neutral. After all, the humans had a crowded territory, and the werewolves had the Woods. They just went on.
As we walked in silence, I wondered how a warrior like Red would fare faced with a wizard. Red had no magic, just weapons. Who knew what a wizard could do?
How are we going to find the Grand Mother?
That part’s easy, answered Red.
Easy? We're in the Woods, we could be attacked any minute, and you think we can find the Grand Mother. How?
Well, there's a reason you're on this journey with me, besides your good looks.
I have a heart stone.
A heart stone? I answered dumbly.
A heart stone is the last of our magical artifacts, the rest were destroyed in the war.
I thought humans weren't allowed magic.
Well, we don’t like magic, and we don’t use it in Vindolanda. Certainly, we're not allowed new magic, but old magic can't be destroyed.
So this is old magic.
Very old magic.
And what does this magic do?
It leads descendants of wizards to the wizarding conclave so they too can be trained.
I took this in. I finally said, You're suggesting that I can help.
So I have wizarding blood.
How do you know that I have wizarding blood when I've never even heard of such a thing?
Because the heart stone sought you out when we were in Vindolanda. Now that we are outside the human enclave, the heart stone, wielded by you, will find the Grand Mother.
You should feel honored, she said.
I feel like a meal on legs.
Well that too.
So you're my escort
I'm your chance to stay alive.
And the likelihood of me sleeping in a bed tonight? Maybe I didn’t have to ask.
You only run a six minute mile.
Have you ever been to this place before?
No one born has been to this place before. First we had to find the heart stone in the archive and then we had to find you. You and I just have to survive the journey there and back.
It's time to contribute. You want to help, don't you?
And I thought about Vindolanda. Vindolanda, the human enclave on the prairie. Its green fields, its crowded villages, the laughter of small children before they had been told of the wolves and the Woods. Fuck.
Well, what do I have to do, exactly?
I'm sorry to say this is going to hurt.
She had turned to look at me. I was looking at her, and her eyes were full of pity.
It's called the heart stone because it needs blood. We have to carve a space in your chest where the stone can rest.
Doesn't blood attract werewolves?
Blood and light attract werewolves. The heart stone works by getting brighter as you move in the right direction.
Great. So I'm going to be attracting werewolves.
Yes. Here's a dagger. If we are attacked and I die, kill yourself.
I had to point out the obvious. Why are we only two?
We didn't want to attract attention. No one can find out about our mission, and we can't scare off the Grand Mother by showing up in armored vehicles. We need her trust. A bleeding man and his guardian. That's an act of courage. Wizards appreciate that sort of bravado. Well, they’re supposed to.
I don't have a choice, I commented futilely.
You don't have a choice. I've got the stone, a knife, and you don't know how to get back to the base or how to navigate in the Woods.
I took off my jacket, and opened my shirt. She took a small vial out of her pocket. She smeared blue goo on my skin. It felt warm and then cool as my skin was numbed.
This is all I can do for you, she said.
Want a gag? She asked. You can't scream. Screaming will attract attention.
I want the gag.
She gagged me.
She looked at me, she reached out for my hand and held it, and with her other hand, she took the tip of her knife and drew it across my skin. I didn't feel anything at first and then I felt an angry burning that quickly got more painful. I screamed soundlessly against my gag. When I thought I couldn't bear the carving into my flesh any more, she took what looked like a dark piece of charcoal the size of a small plum and pushed it as gently as she could into my bleeding chest. The piece of charcoal drank my blood and started glowing red. It kept drinking my blood, sipping it. I felt the pain of the cut, the warmth of my blood seeping into the stone, and the stone warming slowly, and shining. I realized I would not have to rely on the red light of the stone because part of the stone's magic was knowing, completely knowing, like I had never known anything before, where we needed to go.
We need to take a left, I said.
There's a fork in the next half hour or...
That's when I first heard the sound of a werewolf. It was a strange sound. More than an animal sound. A magic sound. The sound of stones being crushed by bones mixed with the sound of raspy breathing by an enormous, angry, creature.
I thought werewolves were supposed to be stealthy.
They are, they normally circulate in the canopy. I've never heard this before. Must be the magic. Sometimes magic calls to magic.
I took my dagger. The heart stone, luckily, dimmed as the sound of the werewolf grew louder. I guess it wanted me alive.
Red looked around, made her way to the closest Old One and started climbing it. She hissed, Come!
And I scrambled over the thicket, trying to reach a branch. Thorns tore into me, my blood smearing the leaves. She leaned down from the branch and reached her hand out to me. I took it, and tried to help, but couldn't. She hoisted me up next to her. Climb, she commanded.
I climbed. Reaching with my arms and pulling myself up hurt, it jostled the stone, but the stone held secure, sucking more of my blood, the more efforts I made. It was an uncomfortable climb, but my desperation made me go fast.
Red followed me up a few feet, let me move away from her a few feet, drew her bow. I drew my dagger and looked around. The tree has long fat branches, spread out in a fan at every level, and we could stand side by side, with room to maneuver. The werewolf noise was growing louder.
How many do you think there are?
I'm hoping for one. When there's more than one, it sounds like thunder racing towards you.
How big are these things?
The noise had stopped. I realized I was holding my breath and was about to pass out.
It must have cloaked.
They have magical cloaks. We're taught to look for inconsistencies at the edge of our vision. But they're essentially invisible.
The heart stone was glowing blue now. A low seeping blue, and in the blue light I saw a shape, a shimmering blue shape, taller than Red, broader than the two of us combined, with long sharp claws.
Red saw it too. She took her bow, aimed and shot at the shape, which was moving fast when the arrow hit. The beast didn't make a sound. It just kept coming.
I was hyperventilating, and the blood stone's blue glow was growing more intense as the wolf approached.
Red stepped between us, sword and dagger drawn. The blue shape grabbed her by the throat, but she kept hacking at its arms and chest. If bones could laugh, that would be the sound I heard. I was growing weaker and the heart stone was growing bluer, and Red was hacking with her sword. But the beast was still advancing towards me, when I felt a charge in my chest, and a stream of blue light crackled out of me and hit the beast as I passed out.
I was pulled out of darkness by Red—she was shaking me and screaming. I couldn't make out her words. I felt numb and sick, and I wondered if we had died. Probably not because Red was bleeding and I could feel the heart stone, drinking my blood faster.
We have to go.
Is it dead? I asked, as I looked at the shape lying on the ground, a few feet away from me.
No. I don't think so. Stunned, like you. I'll kill it, but then we have to go.
She took her sword, stabbed the beast’s heart and started whacking at the head. It took her a few minutes to cut off the head, black blood pooling around her feet, the wolf’s eyes turning green. The wolf's eyes fading to white. The wolf shape disappearing once the head was off, and a beautiful, headless, female body lying on the ground. The wolf's head, with its gnashing teeth lay on one cheek, next to the body.
I tried to stand and stumbled.
The magic must be draining you.
I can feel the stone drinking my blood faster now.
The stone was glowing red, and brighter, and I needed to go straight.
Straight followed a stream, where jumping purple fish glowed mauve in the moonlight, and I was reaching out my hand to touch one, when Red grabbed me and spun me around.
I should give you the standard warning. Those fish are enchanted. Their touch removes their weight in flesh. Writers need hands, usually.
So I kept walking, eying the fish with a new leery gaze, still entranced by their moonlight dance. The stream went gently downriver and the bushes didn't grow quite so close to the stream. I was grateful for the easier walking now that I was too tired to run. The heart stone was wearing me out, my legs felt leaden and I didn't know how much further we'd have to go, or if Red would end up carrying me.
A little bit before I couldn't bear any more, Red glanced my way, said, You look terrible, and we stopped, mercifully.
We slept, which gave me some of my strength back. I felt like I had doubled in age, and my mood wasn't improved when we ate rations that tasted like rotten beans, which was close, they were fermented beans--energy food Red called it, farting ahead of me.
Three days into the march, we heard a werewolf pass by, and were relieved not to fight. But an hour later, the sound of rolling thunder made its way toward us.
Shit, said Red.
When you say it, I believe it, said I.
They're coming. It will be more than one wolf this time. Try to stay out of the way. Or do that blue bolt thing again.
I wish I knew how to make it happen, but I don't. It just... came out of me.
Well, make it come again if you can.
Are we climbing into the trees?
No point. We're just going to have to stand and fight. Dagger?
Dagger ready. I had a strangle hold on the dagger.
Just remember, it's better if you die than if they catch you.
I'm not forgetting.
The rolling thunder approached. I was nervous. Red had barely handled one wolf, how would she do with several? The only way I could help was to wait for magic I had no control over to manifest.
I gritted my teeth, clutched my dagger and breathed, trying to focus on the heart stone, to see if I could exert any kind of control over it.
How you doing back there, she asked.
Feeling anything like a wizard?
Not much, thanks.
I felt my blood seeping into the stone, but I had grown used to that, and I felt the stone exhorting me to head Northwest as fast as I could. My body was practically arguing with the stone, the stone's message was so urgent. I suddenly noticed that the rolling thunder sound had stopped.
Damn, they've cloaked. Where are you?
She looked straight at me and spun around as though she couldn't see me.
I'm right here, I answered.
Well that's a new twist. You've disappeared. Keep doing that.
No problem. I'll keep doing what I'm not doing.
Now get out of the way so I don’t slice you inadvertently. Why don’t you go there—she pointed at a tree we had passed a few feet back, and I retreated behind the trunk, still able to watch the fight.
I clutched the silvery smooth bark of an Old One, unable to see my hands. Red had retreated into a corner at the base of a tree, I guessed that this was so she couldn't be attacked from behind. She was suddenly lifted into the air, and instead of fighting it, she reached out one hand and found a grip, and knowing now where one body was, started stabbing the body of the werewolf that was grabbing her with her silver dagger. Very quickly, pools of blood hung in the air, making a vague outline of an upside down torso. She kept stabbing furiously when suddenly her body straightened out and I could tell that another werewolf had grabbed one of her legs because claw shaped gashes were appearing on her thighs. Red was kicking wildly and continuing to stab with her free hand. A werewolf body suddenly materialized and fell down the length of the tree, surrounded by a black cloak.
Red let go of the first werewolf and fell back to the ground, assuming a fighting stance. She was knocked back, hard into the tree. She screamed. I was very nervous for her and didn't know what to do. So I took my dagger and approached the spot where I hoped the werewolf was. I stabbed the air until I made contact. I got lucky and shoved my knife into the base of its skull, which was clear when the second werewolf fell to the ground and I could see it. It's cloak's power broken because the beast was dead at my feet.
I can see you now. That was a little too close, said Red.
I nodded and kicked the wolf's body out of the way so I could help Red limp to a mossy trunk. We sat down, and I held her bag while she dug around it for field dressing supplies.
I looked at her. She looked at me. I had blood on my hands.
We're starting to look ragged, she commented.
Better ragged than dead.
You’re sounding more like a soldier. Thanks for helping out, by the way. That was quite brave.
Not really. I was invisible. And I was lucky.
She nodded. And we sat, exhausted, staring at the ground for a while.
It was two more days of walking, and one more fight with a werewolf, much the same as the first, leaving me weaker than a newborn, but still able to walk in a stumbling fashion until we came to a meadow.
Red cooed, do you see those?
Flowers. I was nonplussed. I had not seen flowers in the Woods. But here was a field of short pink flowers and tall-stemmed white flowers, and it was lovely, and it was unexpected.
And Red just kept saying, I can't believe it.
Flowers? You-You get super excited about flowers?
These aren't flowers, they're warders. They are a good omen. Werewolves don't go anywhere near warders. At least that's the legend.
Which is when we saw a beautiful girl, dressed in leaves and moss, wearing a crown of flowers, halfway up a hill in front of us.
I wonder if that's the wizard, said Red.
I wonder if that's a werewolf, said I.
You know werewolves are rarely human.
Only when they want to mate and make new wolves.
If you're right, and it would be creepy if you were because it would make you more paranoid than I am--well, we're surrounded by warders, and that should dampen the magic of the wolf.
My heart stone had grown cold.
Wait, I can't feel my heart stone, how am I supposed to find the wizard now?
Maybe we won't have to look any further.
Your optimism worries me.
I'll go talk to her, you sit down and rest. Pick some flowers; smell some flowers--they have healing properties.
I sat down. The flowers smelled sweet, like a young girl wearing her first perfume at a village ball. I started tucking the flowers into my clothes, pressing them into my chest like a balm. The heart stone kept cooling, and the torn flesh around the heart stone hurt less. I felt a little foolish, mashing the flowers against my skin, but the more I stuck to me, the better I felt.
In the field of warders my full exhaustion came upon me like a leaden blanket surrounding my body. I watched Red approach the woman, and suddenly I felt frozen there in the field, flowers mashed into my chest, the smell surrounding me like a fog. The woman seemed nice at first, but suddenly there were several women with weapons surrounding Red. Red was fighting bravely, but she was surrounded and the situation looked hopeless.
I suddenly heard two voices behind me talking about me.
You sure this is the one? Said an older sounding woman’s voice.
Yes, we’ve been following them. He has a heart stone in his chest, said a younger voice.
The wizarding stone hasn’t been seen in generations. This is a great day for werekind.
The old woman sounded excited. Their voices were coming closer. I didn’t know what would happen next.
Why is he so still? Asked the young one.
The warders are well knows as healers and good omens, what’s not often discussed is the unfortunate side effect of healing—a freezing effect which grows stronger in proportion to your need for the healing. He must have been very ill. The traditional use of warders is to cut them and bring them home, and administer them right before sleep. I guess our young wizard wasn’t informed. You know the mission?
Yes, I know the mission, Wise One. Said the younger voice sounding deflated.
Tell me again.
A strange sight stepped in front of my eyes. An old woman whose body was half wolf half woman—the wolf part starting at the waist. I had no idea this kind existed. She addressed me.
I surprise you, young one. I am the oldest of the wolves. Age has few privileges, but in my case, I have partially mastered the turning. So you see me presently, half turned. Able to run like a wolf, but talk like a woman. Unsettling, eh?
I would have gulped and nodded, if I had been able.
You won't be able to speak for quite a while, she remarked, caressing my face. Meet your mate, she said, turning to the woman besides her.
A tall statuesque blonde gave me a cold appraising look. She had green eyes, the color of new spring leaves, but there was something deeply dead about her gaze. Like a snake.
I take this piece of meat to the Grand Mother, get past the protections into her house and eat her whole for her powers.
And? Probed the wolfwoman.
I won’t be able to kill for a week as I absorb her. Then I turn this one.
We need two wizards to assure the next generation is born. That is the point. Don’t disappoint me. I didn’t spend ten months training you for nothing.
I was hoping I’d be killed soon, but apparently I was destined to sleep with the mean blonde.
You know how valuable wizards are. Don’t rough him up too much.
Time to meet the Grand Mother, said the blonde one, hoisting me onto her back with ease. She has been waiting for you.
I tried to speak back but couldn’t.
I watched a fighting Red become smaller as we walked out of the field of warders into the Woods again. I couldn’t do anything, and I’m not sure I would have known what to do. I felt like a baby, totally at the mercy of the wider world.
I started feeling desperate. It didn't matter who or what I was. I just wanted to be home safe in a place I understood, surrounded by people who had low expectations of me. I was tired of the Woods, tired of the magic, tired of the heart stone draining me. I was afraid I would never see Red again. I didn’t want to die in this frozen exhausted body. If I could have cried, I would have wept messy tears and howled as snot dripped down my face. I didn't care about the wizard. I didn't care about the quest. I was exhausted by the constant danger and the constant effort. Leave me alone I screamed in my head to no avail. Once I calmed down, I took comfort in being carried. That was grim delight--not having to use my legs anymore.
After an hour or two of walking, we arrived at a little cottage. It was utterly unremarkable, except for being the first human home I'd seen in days. It sat in a very tidy clearing, a place where nature made human sense once again and had been ordered and tamed for the purposes of growing a splendid garden and veggie patch. A veggie patch which, now that I looked at it more attentively, contained plants I had never seen before.
About ten feet before the door, my carrier stopped and called out.
Grand Mother! Grand Mother! I bring the next wizard with me. He bears the heart stone. Let us in.
I was the magic ticket into the Grand Mother’s home? Now I felt mute and resentful. As soon as the grandmother looked at me, I hoped my eyes could convey my worry. I wasn't sure what to expect, when I heard the shuffling step of an elderly person. Suddenly I was looking at the forehead of a perfectly ordinary looking grandmother. Not even my eyes could move. That was annoying too.
The Grand Mother pinched my cheek, and said, you're in a bad shape, boy. Thank god you found some warders to keep you alive when you did. Otherwise you would have been dead before reaching my door, by the looks of you. Let's see what we can do to improve this sorry situation. I'm glad to meet you, Apprentice.
I had no intention of learning magic. I wanted to get away from the evil blonde and have a long hot soak in a bath. That was the limit of my ambition.
It's a good thing this young lady brought you to me. If the wolves had found you it would have been a disaster. They would have taken you hostage and used your blood for their magic. What is your name? She had turned to the blonde.
Lilith. It was a hard journey here. He told me where to go before he went mute. I brought some warders to heal our wounds. We’ve been in several fights.
The Grand Mother stopped, made an intricate hand gesture and there was a sound, like the parting of theatre curtains, and we shuffled forth into the cottage. It was strangely old fashioned, tidy but crowded with arcane objects I assumed had some purpose--skulls, feathers, stones, jars with potions. The fireplace had a great fire and two iron hooks supporting a large iron pot.
Are you hungry? Let me get you something to eat and drink. Oh, I'll have to help this young man out. I can't undo the freeze, but I can help him so he can swallow the food. She rubbed her hands against a golden amber globe, and then touched my throat with her thumbs. I could swallow, and I tried to move my lips, but found I still couldn't speak or move my body.
She served us stew from the fireplace, which was earthy tasting, like mushrooms and roots, and delicious, flavored with herbs I couldn't quite identify. The blonde was surprisingly gentle in slowly feeding me. I ate to my heart's content. Eating hot food had grown strangely foreign—it seemed all too human. I had become used to my cold bean diet in very little time. I was getting drowsy sitting by the warm fire, sipping strong sweet tea and eating stew.
I know I don't carry the heart stone, the blonde said to the woman, but I too want to be your apprentice.
That's a lot to ask. Those that don't have the blood find it exceedingly difficult. It takes them ten times longer to learn a fraction of the knowledge, and their magic is unreliable at best.
You must be able to teach me something?
Not much, a few arcane arts like weather and palm reading. Sometimes a little fortune telling through tea leaves. Some basic healing potions, but that's closer to medicine.
Grand Mother, I hope you'll allow me to rest for a few days before I start my journey back.
Of course, rest as you need, and I will do what I can to help you regain your strength.
Could I ask for one magical favor?
The Grand Mother stiffened. You can ask. I will decide on the wisdom of the request.
I would like the luck spell cast.
That's a hard one--I will need to prepare. But I am willing.
Thank you Grand Mother. Let me know if I can help.
Grand Mother started shuffling around the house, pulling ingredients off shelves, muttering to herself, sometimes smiling sometimes scowling. I didn't know what would happen next. The Grand Mother mixed ingredients in a bowl. Set the potion afire with a green flame, and a familiar smell filled the house--that of oranges and cloves.
That is the smell of luck, said the Grand Mother.
That's it? Said the blonde.
Not quite. Now I need to pray for the potion to reabsorb the luck. She sat down and started chanting softly. Her eyes turned white and wisps of light started swirling around her. She stopped talking and seemed oblivious to us.
The blonde got up suddenly, walked over to me, picked me up, and lay me on a cot. I had no idea why. She then walked over to a purple egg sitting on a shelf. She cracked it open into her mouth. She walked up behind the white-eyed Grand Mother, and now the strangest thing I have ever seen happened. The blonde’s head started to swell and grow, stretching as she opened her mouth hugely. She leaned over the Grand Mother who remained oblivious to what was happening around her. The blonde slowly, but surely, swallowed the Grand Mother whole. And then sat down, looking unnaturally pregnant and distorted, like a human reptile. She burped loudly. I stared horrified as she started aging rapidly.
I know I'm getting older. I can feel my joints creaking. Side effect of eating the truly old. Luckily, once I have absorbed the Grand Mother's magic, I can heal myself. No need to panic. You won't be sleeping with a crone.
Her hair was growing grey and getting long, even coming out of her ears, and covering her nose. Her nails were yellowing, thickening, and growing into long sharp claws.
It's never been tried before, she commented. We weren't sure how the wereblood and the magic would come together. As I learn to control this, I'll look more human. Just another reason why I'm covered in warders to suppress the wolf, she said, winking and pointing to her skirt which had split open to reveal a woven web of flowers beneath it. That’s why her magic alarms didn’t sound when I came to her door. Neat, eh? I’m going to need to rest now. You rest too.
I did. I slept deeply, though my dreams were filled with visions of Red screaming out as she was hacked to death by a circle of young women with bloodlust in their eyes.
For two days I lay on the bed and watched my now immobile, aged blonde, sleep.
I then started hearing screaming. A loud male voice, the familiar sound of Red, and the sound of several other female voices. A fight was coming closer to the Grand Mother's house. I was thrilled to know Red was alive, and wondering whether she had the strength left to stay alive. I hoped so. I didn't know what could be done about the sleeping digesting wolf on the floor.
Someone kicked in the door and a giant man's head appeared. A Woodsman, immense, just like the legends. Besides wizards, these were the rarest of the enchanted people. They too were of the woods, but were rarely seen. They tended the trees in magic groves. And they were allied with wizards.
I came as soon as I felt the Grand Mother's energy seep out of the forest, said the low gravelly voice of the giant man. He had to enter the cottage by crouching, and couldn't stand once inside.
He saw the giant mass I had been staring at on the floor. He said, It's only been two days. Maybe we're still lucky. He took out his knife.
Red came in after him, covered in blood, her clothes ripped and muddied.
He saved my life, she said, as she came to sit next to me.
The Woodsman was very gently, very carefully, cutting the belly of the blonde. There was no blood in the cut, the body was sliced open cleanly. The tiny head of the Grand Mother slowly emerged, then her body, which had shrunk. As soon as her hands were free, she started an incantation and golden lights started swirling around her. She grew as simultaneously the body of the blonde deflated around her feet, until all that was left was a bag of skin. And the Grand Mother was whole.
Thank you Woodsman, said the Grand Mother.
I'm just glad you're still whole, said the Woodsman.
She absorbed much of my magic, but not enough to stop me healing myself once her spell was broken by your knife.
I was blinking. I was blinking.
How are you feeling, said Red, turning to me.
Much better, I said, surprised I could speak.
The woodsman came over to me and said, I can help you. He rubbed his hand over my chest. Very suddenly the heart stone turned cold, my flesh healed, and the stone just popped out, laying on my chest, where it was plucked by the Woodsman. Red smiled and said, they are great healers.
The Woodsman gave the stone to Red and said, now you.
And he placed his hand on the claw wounds on her thighs, and the knife wounds on her face, arms and chest, and she too closed up, the blood disappearing under his touch.
Now goodnight, said the Woodsman, I must get back to my groves. I look forward to seeing the Apprentice under other circumstances, said the Woodsman to me. I nodded, confused.
Goodbye, Grand Mother.
Goodbye Woodsman. And he left, majestically, and quietly, crouching out of the cottage, and then disappearing into the Woods.
What is your name? Asked Grand Mother of Red.
My name is Red.
I have a gift for you, said the Grand Mother. And she went to a small trunk and pulled out a cloak. Try this on she said. And the cloak which had been black, changed colors as soon as Red touched it.
I'm giving you the first invisibility cloak for humans. I've been working on it for some time now.
Red pulled it around her shoulders, the red fabric glowed for a moment, and she promptly disappeared.