The New Adventures of the Little Red Riding Hood
The New Adventures of the Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood stepped out onto the porch which surrounded her Grandma’s house. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of the forest. One scent in particular stood out to her; dark, musky, somehow wild - this was the scent she would be following.
Red had always known that out there in the forest, the Big Bad Wolf was waiting for her. She knew it was her destiny to face him. However, Wolf had taken things a step too far, and had crossed a line. He’d gone after Red’s family. In vain, Red tried to banish from her mind the image of her Grandma’s unseeing eyes, staring out at her from under that ridiculous night cap she wore. Why Grandma, what big eyes you have…
Grimly, Red looked over her equipment. She had discarded her wicker basket, and instead found a large drawstring bag which she had filled with supplies for her journey and slung crossways over her body, to keep her arms free.. At both wrists, ankles, and at the back of her neck, throwing knives were securely tucked into sheaths. Her belt now had the addition of a short sword in its leather scabbard. And in her right hand, she carried the Woodsman’s Axe. It had saved her before, and it would now become the instrument of her revenge.
The Big Bad Wolf was going to find out that Little Red Riding Hood wasn’t so Little anymore…
Red tramped along the woodland path, noticing as she went the signs of the Wolf's passage before her. Broken grasses, claw marks on the ground, bark ripped from trees... Seems like he was still as Big as he was Bad.
Soon she caught the scent of fresh water on the air. Red knew that she was approaching Dolphin Lake, so-named for the shy species of freshwater dolphins which inhabited its depths. Red had never seen a dolphin, though she had heard plenty about them. The stories said they were afraid of humans, and kept their distance. Red had never been patient enough to spend hours sitting quietly by the lake, on the off chance that she'd see a glorified fish.
A few minutes later, the trees thinned and the trail widened to become part of a broad, sandy beach. Large paw prints went down to the water's edge, then vanished. There was no return trail. The only explanation Red could think of was that the Wolf had swum across at least part of the Lake in order to lose her by breaking his trail. She clicked her tongue against her teeth in frustration. The Lake was large enough that it would take her some time to trek round its edges, looking for where the Wolf had emerged. Yet to carry on following the path, unless she had Matrim Cauthon's own luck, would potentially cost her more time if the Wolf had gone in a totally different direction. Swimming the Lake herself was not an option. The Lake waters, fed by mountain streams, were cold even on the warmest day. And leaving behind her supplies and weapons was not something she was prepared to do.
Sighing, Red knelt to fill her water bottle and resigned herself to searching the Lake's edges for signs of the Wolf's exit and his subsequent choice of direction. As she straightened up, she suddenly became aware she was not alone.
Spinning, a knife slipping into each hand, Red faced the strangers who had somehow surrounded her. Where had they come from? Why hadn't she smelled them? While she sized them up to gauge the level of threat they represented, Red couldn't help but notice how stunningly good-looking the 6 men were. Each one was different, but all were beautiful specimens of manhood. Clad only in loincloths, their rippling muscles were easy to observe. Shame that my attention is elsewhere, really, mused Red, Otherwise I'd perhaps want to spend time with these guys.
None of them made any hostile motion; they seemed to be waiting for her to to make the first move. Clearing her throat, she addressed herself to the group:
"My name is Red. I am hunting the Big Bad Wolf in order to take revenge on him for the murder of my Grandmother. So if you'll excuse me, I have many miles to cover before dark. If you would care to move, I shall be on my way."
The men looked at each other. Then a fair-haired, pale-skinned fellow opened his mouth, but instead of words, a series of squeaks, clicks and whistles emerged. While Red looked on in confusion, the others mimicked him, seemingly having a conversation which she could not follow. After a few minutes, another man, this one with jet-black hair and green eyes, turned back to Red.
"My apologies," he began, in an odd accent which Red could not place, "But we have an offer to make you. We know of the Big Bad Wolf, indeed he also owes us a blood debt for the murder of our kin. When he entered our waters earlier, we took the opportunity to attack, and forced him to leave the Lake sooner than he intended, leaving him far from his den. We know the point where he left the lake, and we can take you there. But in return, you will owe us a favour which we may call on at a later date. And you will have to trust us to take you across the Lake."
Red blinked, trying to take this in.
"How... how can you help me? Do you have a boat? And what kind of favour? And who are you - I've never seen you before?"
"We are called the Aquasians. We keep to ourselves, away from the humans who would hunt us and steal our magic. The Lake is our home, and was named after us, in the shapes we normally wear. And no, we do not need a boat." The Aquasian man seemed amused at that last.
"The shapes... you... you're the dolphins who live in Dolphin Lake?!" Red could scarcely believe her own words as she spoke them.
"You understand! This is good." The group of men smiled at her.
Red took a deep breath. "And what if I chose to go my own way instead? Perhaps I don't want to owe you a favour, or trust complete strangers with my safety in deep water."
The smiles vanished.
"That would be an... unfortunate choice, Red Riding Hood." The black-haired Aquasian looked pained. "We have shown our true natures to you. We have risked much to gain an ally to fight against the Wolf with us. Should you try to leave without making a pact with us, we shall have to take you to our city, to give you time to... consider."
Red flourished her daggers, letting them catch the light as they spun in her hands.
"I'm not easy meat, gentlemen. I won't be forced into going anywhere."
The looks directed her way were stony. They knew that they had her out-numbered. However, Red did not carry her weapons for show. She was a seasoned fighter. But should she trust them instead, and gain their help?
Although Red knew that she could fight her way through the Aquasians, she had bigger fish to fry. Wasting her time and energy on fighting this pod would not only delay her trek, but also cost her possible allies. It was the Wolf she was after, not these intriguing dolphin-men.
The black haired Aquasian watched Red intently, his eyes focused on the daggers in her hand.
“So this is the way it shall be?” he asked with a hint of delight in his voice.
Red glared at him.
“Actually, I feel that it would be in my best interest, and yours,” Red said, spinning the daggers in her hand, “if I made this pact with you.”
“Agreed,” said the black haired Aquasian. “You may call me Tydros.”
“Well then, Tydros, shall we be going?” Red was growing impatient. She had no idea how far way the Wolf was, and speaking with Tydros was only delaying her.
“As you wish, Little Red,” Tydros smiled. This was no longer the child he had watched from afar, scuttling about in the woods. No, Red had grown into a fine woman, feisty and fierce, befitting of a name like Red. Tydros watched as she leaned to put her daggers away, her hair swaying in the breeze.
As Tydros spoke, Red straightened. She hadn’t been “little” in quite some time.
“I am simply Red, thank you," she said sternly.
“I see,” said Tydros. “If you will give us a moment to prepare, we shall be on our way.” Tydros turned to the rest of the dolphin-men, clicking and squeaking in their native language.
Red watched as Tydros turned to the other men. She was still a bit surprised at the idea of dolphin-men. “Weredolphins,” Red thought to herself bemusedly. As the men continued to click and squeak, Red began to really look at Tydros. With his back to her, Red realized that the loincloth did not leave much to the imagination. She smiled as she looked at Tydros’ body, taking in every curve. Red became lost in thought, imagining herself laying next to Tydros.
She gently ran her fingers through his long, black hair, and then began to trace a line along his face and stomach, feeling the smoothness of his skin and the definition of his muscles. Her hand moved lower, still tracing, until she felt the familiar pulsing of…
“Red,” Tydros boomed, knocking her out of her fantasy and back to the present. “Are you ill? You look a bit flushed.”
Red blushed furiously. “I’m fine,” she growled. “I’m simply waiting on you to take me across the lake.”
Tydros grinned, ever so slightly. This was not the first time he had seen a woman with this look. Taking on his human form often resulted in women acting quite strangely.
“Well, then. Taking you across the lake is not a simple task. Normally, we return to our dolphin form upon entering the lake,” Tydros paused, glancing back at the other men before continuing. “For us to transport you safely, we must remain in human form while crossing. This requires a large amount of magic, especially to transport an actual human.”
Red began to look concerned. A large amount of magic? Staying in human form? Exactly how are they planning on getting me across the lake?
“In our human form,” Tydros continued, “We can walk on top of the water. You, however, cannot. For you to walk with us, it will require that we surround you and make a steady surface on which you can walk. We must move quickly, as our magic will not hold for long. Do you trust us?”
Red had so many questions she wanted to ask, but she was losing ground the longer she stayed here.
“Yes, I trust you.”
“Then walk to the edge of the lake. We will surround you there, and be prepared to move quickly.”
Red walked to the edge, and waited. The six men surrounded her in a circle, with Tydros directly in front of her. At least I have a nice view if I’m going to die.
The men on either side of her grasped her upper arms. Red instinctively flinched, ready to grab her weapon, but then realized that this was neither the time nor the place. I must get across this lake.
Once Red was surrounded, the men began to move quickly. So quickly, in fact, that Red felt as if she was simply gliding across the water. Before she could say anything, the men stopped. Red looked down, and saw that she was on land. The two men let go of her, and retreated back into the water. The other three followed after, and Red thought she caught a glimmer of dolphin skin under the surface. Tydros was still standing on the shore.
“The Wolf headed through that clearing,” he gestured to an opening in the forest. “I told you that the Wolf owes us a blood debt for the murder of our kin. We are now your ally against the Wolf, and will help you in any way possible. In exchange for this partnership, you now owe us a favour, which we will call upon at a later time.”
“How can you be my ally if you are in the lake and I am in the forest? You will not know if I need assistance, although that is highly unlikely.”
“You underestimate the creatures around you, dear Red. If you are in need of our assistance, we will know and we will be there. We do not take a pact lightly."
Red nodded. “I must be off quickly. I have much ground to cover if I am going to find the Wolf.”
“Take care, Red.” Tydros said, reaching out and placing his hand on Red’s shoulder. His blue eyes focused intently on her green ones. “There are many allies to be had in the forest, this is true. But the Wolf has just as many allies out there. You must be prepared at all times.”
Red nodded as she watched Tydros head into the water. She then turned to face the opening of the forest, and headed in.
Red had no idea how long she had been walking, but it was quickly becoming dark. She had found the Wolf’s trail with no trouble, but as the skies grew dark, it was becoming difficult to pick up the subtle nuances that kept her on the right path. There had been no plan to stop for the night, but Red also knew she did not want to risk losing the trail.
With a string of disgruntled curses that would have embarrassed many a coach driver, Red stopped near a pine tree. Its branches hung low, providing a tent-like shelter. It’ll do for tonight, Red thought, hating every second of the time she felt she was wasting. She sat heavily on a root, rummaging through her bag in search of matches.
“Bloody matches,” she muttered. “Bloody things. Bloody dark…”
Having finally found the matches, Red toyed with the thought of making a torch, but soon discarded it – while she would be able to see better, it would also make her visible to others. Red grimaced, rearranging the weapon she kept close – the sword, the axe and the knife. She kept absentmindedly stroking the knife, feeling it would be the easiest weapon to wield should there be a sudden attack. For some reason or another, the sleek texture of the blade reminded her of that Aquasian, Tydros…
Red found herself wondering when she would meet him again. He said they would be there when I needed them… She shook her head. That was, of course, ridiculous. She had not spent years honing her skills just so that a bunch of men could barge in and claim to have saved the day. No, Red knew exactly what to do when the time came, and the Wolf would pay for what he had done to her family. Multiple times.
Sitting comfortably between the roots, and still stroking the blade, Red slowly dozed off, lulled into sleep by idle thoughts. Where did those weredolphins find loincloth? They mentioned magic, but if they could choose, then surely they would pick something more fitting…? Not that she was complaining – loincloth was also very tight fitting… … But if they had to, say, hide it somewhere… then surely, at some point, they’d have to be…
“Caw! Child of blood!”
Red started, her fingers instinctively closing around the hilt of the knife. She jumped to her feet, looking around wildly. What was that? The fog raised between the trees, colouring it silver. What was that?
“Child of blood! Caw!”
She turned around swiftly, raising the hand that held the knife. On the branch high above her head, there was a raven – the biggest that she had ever seen before. It turned its head left and right, watching her.
“Who made a mistake to give you voice?” Red asked, keeping a close eye on the surroundings. There was something about that fog and the way it somehow… crawled around the trees, to the point she could not see the edges anymore…
“Child of blood! Caw!” The raven rustled its feathers and shifted its weight from one leg to another, fixating the gaze of its one beady eye on her. Red felt shivers run down her spine.
“Well, what is it? What do you want?” Red yelled, tempted to just fling the knife and kill the bird that mocked her.
“Caw! Bloody child…” There was something undeniably menacing and sly in the raven’s voice, this time. Red felt something wet on her hand, then on her cheek, her arm, her shoulder. Slowly, like a puppet being pulled by invisible strings, she looked up, and there they were…
With a scream, Red woke up, her heart racing wildly. It took a while before she could hear the sound of rain over the sound of her own blood thrumming in her ears. Bloody child… Red wiped off the drops of rain that slipped though the pines onto her. Not blood, she thought, steeling herself once more. And those dismembered bodies, hanging in the tree, that wasn’t my family.
It was just a dream.
The lightning flashed, and something pulled Red to look up, outside her made-shift shelter, just on time to see the shine of black feathers, rustled in the rain.
“What do you want?!” Red yelled with the thunder, stumbling to her feet furiously, knife ready to be thrown.
“Caw! Careful with the shiny, shiny thorn, bloody child,” the raven said, in the same, sly voice she recognised from the dream. “Careful! For I know what you seek, of caaawrse, I know where he is…”
Red stood motionless; the only thing that moved was the blade, shaking in her hand as she struggled not to throw it at once. The wind howled through the woods, tugging on her cape and hair. “Who?” she asked sharply.
The raven tilted its head to the side. “The Wolf, of caaawrse… I can take you to him, yes, yes. Caw!”
“You know where he is?” Red started gathering her things at once, but still careful not to turn her back to the raven. “Good. Take me there, and…”
“And there shall be a price to be paid – caw! – yes, yes!” The raven scratched its head with a claw, seeming all too self-content to Red.
“What price?” she asked evenly.
“Caw! I can show you the way, yes, but you must leave the axe.” The raven almost spat the last word, ruffling its feathers almost nervously. Red looked at the Woodsman’s axe. She took it with her, knowing it would be useful, and a fitting weapon to end the Wolf’s life. It saved her once, that much was true, but… Did she really need it? Now that finding the Wolf was the matter of hours, and not days?
“Caw! You must hurry, child of blood, for there’s no time, no time… Caw! What say you?”
Red glared at the bird. "No," she said coldly, "I do not trust you nor your kind, carrion creature. Begone, and take your lies with you!"
The Raven cawed in displeasure. "As you wish, Child of Blood. But you make a grave error this day."
Red did not reply, instead drawing a knife from the top of her boot and readying it to throw. The black bird wisely took the hint and flew off into the forest.
Swearing and muttering under her breath, Red began to gather her gear, chewing on a strip of dried beef as she did so. She would find this Wolf on her own terms.
Raven winged his way through the Forest, cursing all things human, and regretting ever getting involved in this...this mess!
Soon he came to a dark cave, hidden behind a screen of moss and vines. He had not been lying when he said he knew were the Wolf made his den. That he had planned to lead her here for the Wolf to ambush her was a minor omission on his part.
Ducking into the cave, he nervously looked about for the Wolf.
"Wolf, sir? Are you there?"
Shadows moved at the back of the cave, resolving into the shape of a large, black and grey wolf. Amber eyes gleamed, reflecting the tiny amount of light let in by gaps in the moss.
"Where is she?" he growled softly.
Raven cawed nervously before finding his words.
"Um, she proved stubborn, m'lord. She refused to come with. Called me rude names and didn't trust me."
Wolf growled again, louder this time.
"You failed me. You failed me and you dare to return? You are fortunate that I dislike feathers in my teeth or I would snap you up where you stand."
The Wolf paced around the cave. Raven watched him warily.
"There is another option m'lord. We could ask them for aid. They do owe you a favour, for killing those irritating Aquasians."
Wolf tilted his head to the side, considering Raven's words.
"Perhaps you are right. This girl is necessary for my plans. I must have her!"
He turned, and suddenly was standing over Raven, looking down at the bird. Raven was suddenly aware of how close those huge teeth were, and hoped that Wolf really did not like having feathers in his teeth.
"You will go and speak to them, Raven. Secure their aid. Do not fail me again."
Raven backed away, towards the cave entrance.
"Yes, m'lord. I'll sort this out, m'lord."
Wolf did not reply, merely turning away and padding back into the depths of his den.
Raven took wing, hoping that they would take this opportunity to expunge the debt they owed the Wolf.
Red had been following the Wolf's trail for several hours, but all of a sudden, the trail went cold. Standing a a bend in the path, she could see what looked like a game trail leading off to the left. To the right, the regular path continued deeper into the forest. Neither way showed signs of the Wolf's passage. It was as if he had vanished. Down the game trail, she could hear what sounded like the calls of crows. The path into the forest was eerily silent. Red sighed. Which way should she go?
Red looked down both the trail and the path. The fact that the path into the forest was so silent disturbed her. But the sound of crows…That meant that something was down the trail. Adjusting the ax on her shoulder, Red started down the game trail.
A group of crows is called a murder, Red thought to herself. How poetic. She continued down the trail, watching for any signs of the Wolf. Something had been down this trail recently, as Red noted freshly trampled grass and some broken branches. Some of the broken branches were higher in the trees, almost if something, or someone, had been walking upright. Red wondered if the Wolf could walk upright. Nothing would surprise me at this point.
Red noticed a glowing light ahead, almost as if there was a campfire. The light illuminated a haze on the trail, and a familiar smell began to waft about. It smells like Grandmother’s tea. How is that possible? Red started to feel a bit odd, as if she were letting her guard down. She felt relaxed, a feeling she hadn’t felt since she found Grandmother that day.
Drawing closer to the clearing, Red heard female voices. But there’s no one else out here! Where would these women have come from, and why had I not seen a hint of them since I left the shore? Red drew closer to the opening and suddenly stopped. In the middle of the clearing stood five women, each nearing seven feet tall, dancing around a fire.
“Sister, do you hear that?”
“What is it, Einara? I don’t hear anything at all!”
“Cioesia, I hear something in the woods. I think we have a visitor.”
Cioesia looked around the edge of the clearing. The fire cast shadows of branches, as well as her other sisters, into the darkness of the woods. In daylight, she would have been able to see if anything was lurking about. But at night, even with the fire, her eyesight was not as sharp. Suddenly, she heard it: A faint rustling in the woods.
Red backed away as quickly and quietly as she could. She did not want waste her time or energy on a fight that didn’t involve the Wolf. She’d had enough of this weirdness, and wanted to finish her mission. Between the Aquasians and the Raven, Red had been delayed so long that the Wolf’s trail had gone cold. Red turned to head back down the trail.
“Why hello there,” said one of the tall women who had been around the fire. “Are you leaving so soon?”
Red was startled. She hadn’t heard the woman come up behind her, nor could she tell how the woman got there. Outside the trail was covered with branches and brush, so surely Red would have heard if the woman had come from there.
“I have no issue with you,” Red stated. “I am searching for something in particular, and I do not believe it has gone this direction.”
“We know what you search for, Little Red. And I think it would be a shame if you didn’t at least join us before you continued your search.”
Red glared. There was the “Little” Red again. She hadn’t been called that in ages, and even then it was only by her brother. He always called her Little Red, mostly because he knew it annoyed her so much.
“I am in no need of your hospitality,” Red stated quite curtly as she shifted her large ax. “I need to be on my way. I have lost much time in finding what I seek.”
“We know what you seek, and we know where he is. Now come, sit by the fire. We don’t bite”
“Unless asked nicely.”
Red spun around. Another woman was blocking the path. One in front of her, and one in back. Red quickly surveyed the area for a way out. The trail was blocked with brush and branches, so a quick escape was not likely.
“I will come sit by your fire, but you must tell me what you know about the thing I seek.”
“Certainly,” said the woman from behind. “We can tell you more about the Wolf than you care to know.”
Red’s eyes widened. These women did know what she sought. Slowly, the woman in front moved aside and gestured for Red to step into the clearing. Red began to move into a haze of smoke, and felt that relaxing feeling washing over her again.
Cioesia and Einara helped Red to a log near the fire. Einara chuckled as she looked Red up and down, then turned to Ipeia Ipeia knew that Yhaedra would want to meet with Red, and quickly.
“Sisters,”Ipeia shouted, “we must make haste to the eyrie at dawn. And we are taking Little Red with us. I am sure Yhaedra will want to have a little talk with her.”
Red could barely hold her eyes open. What had these women done to her? And how? Red had accepted no food or drink from them, nor had she felt the prick of a poisonous dart. She laid her head back against the log, and noticed that the sky was beginning to show the colors of dawn. I must get back on the trail, or I could be searching for weeks.
She sat up, and saw the glowing embers of the once raging fire. The women were standing in a group, when one turned and noticed that Red was stirring.
“Welcome back,” said the woman. “My name is Ipeia, of the eyrie Harpyja. We must leave at once, as Yhaedra is expecting you.”
Red shook her head. She hadn’t agreed to go anywhere, or at least not that she remembered. Of the eyrie Harpyja…An eyrie is the name of an eagle’s nest! Red quickly stood up, shifting her ax and quickly reaching for her knives.
“I have agreed to go nowhere!” Red drew her knives and stood at the ready.
“Silly woman,” Ipeia laughed, “we never gave you the choice!”
And with that, the women began to transform. Red shook her head in disbelief. The women’s bodies began to be covered in feathers. Their faces transformed, their nose and mouth morphing into a sharp beak. Much like the tales of the Aquasians, Red had heard rumors of these beings. Were-eagles!
Before Red could move, the bird that had been the woman Ipeia lifted into the air. Retaining her human form’s height, she was a towering presence. The other eagles lifted into flight as well, leaving Red alone on the ground. Suddenly, Red felt the talons firmly grasp her shoulders, lifting her into the air. She tried to escape, but the eagle simply carried her higher and higher until Red could see the entire wood below her and the sparkling water of the lake in the distance.
Ipeia flew directly to the eyrie. While it would take a human months to hike to the mountain and weeks to reach the summit where the eyrie lay, Ipeia was there in a matter of minutes. Nearing the eyrie, she began to descend, keeping in mind the precious cargo she was carrying. Ipeia gently placed Red on the grass, and then circled around to land. Upon landing, she quickly regained her human form.
She approached Red, who was bent over, appearing to be a bit ill. Ipeia put her hand on Red’s shoulder. Suddenly, Red swung around, her ax in hand. Ipeia had no chance to defend herself. The ax cut through skin and muscle easily. Ipeia stared at Red, her eyes taking on the glazed look that Red knew all too well. Ipeia fell to the ground without a word, a pool of blood seeping into the green grass beneath her.
“I DID NOT ASK TO BE BROUGHT HERE!” Red screamed. “I DEMAND THAT YOU TAKE ME BACK TO THE WOOD, OR THERE WILL BE HELL TO PAY!”
Red eyed the women. Who wants to be next?
Cioesia began to take a few steps towards Red, her yellow eyes glowing with hatred. She felt herself beginning to transform. Her talons and beak would make light work of Little Red’s body, leaving her in a heap as Red had left Ipeia.
“Ipeia, step away from Little Red.”
“Did you not see what she just did to Ipeia? She must pay!”
“I had expected more casualties than this.” Yhaedra descended the final steps of the intricately chiseled staircase. “Now run along, I have matters to discuss with Red.”
The women retreated, Cioesia still glaring at Red.
“Nevermind them. It is I who you should be speaking with. My name is Yhaedra, and I am the Mother of this eyrie.”
Red stared silently, still grasping her ax as Ipeia’s blood dripped from the blade.
“I know that you seek the Wolf. You should know that we have a…shall we say “entente cordiale” with each other. He has been quite helpful in keeping the Aquasians from stealing all the fish in the lake. We owe him a debt of gratitude for thinning their numbers a bit.”
Yhaedra watched Red carefully as she spoke. She did not want another attack.
“You see,” Yhaedra continued, “the Wolf has called in a favor of us. He asked that we deliver you to him.”
“Why did you not deliver me to the Wolf, then?” Red asked angrily. She was ready to take on the Wolf, and having been dropped off at his doorstep would have saved her a lot of time.
“That is an interesting question, my dear Red. We did not deliver you directly to him because, as I said, we merely tolerate him.”
“This still doesn’t explain why you didn’t simply deliver me as he requested.”
“We wish to end our alliance with the Wolf. He helped us in our fight against the Aquasians, but now he is utterly useless. We know that you seek to kill him, from which we would benefit greatly. There is, however, something you should know. The Wolf wishes to discuss some things with you. When the time comes, it would be to your advantage to listen to what he has to say.”
“Listen to the Wolf and his lies?” Red was doubtful anything the Wolf had to say would be of value to her. The only thing she wanted was to hear his final breath.
“You will do what you feel best when the time is upon you. But for now, you have a decision to make. I know where the Wolf has his lair. I can either take you there directly or drop you a short distance from him.”
Red tried to wrap her head around everything. Listening to the Wolf, being taken directly to his doorstep...This was all a bit much. Red knew there were advantages and disadvantages to each of the choices she had been given. If she was dropped off directly at the entrance, she might gain some element of surprise. On the other hand, if she was dropped off a short distance away, she would have more time to ready herself to fight. The only down side would be that the Wolf had that Raven roaming in the woods. If he saw her coming, the Wolf would have the advantage…
Red suddenly met Yhaedra’s eerily yellow gaze. “Take me to him,” she demanded, her voice gaining strength with every word. “I will not have that creature befoul my Forest any more than it already had.”
The Mother Eagle stood in silence for a few moments, her lips slowly stretching into a smile. Does she look… sad? Red was still cautious to let Yhaedra approach her, regardless of her previous words. After all, she had just killed one of her offspring.
The flicker of sadness disappeared in a heartbeat, so quickly that Red wasn’t sure if it had been there in the first place, and the impossibly tall woman stood regal before her once again, as merciless as the mountains around them.
“Very well, Little Red.”
Her transformation was quick and elegant, and before Red knew it she was being carried off the cliff, the sharp talons securely grasping her arms.
A moment later, the scream “I am not Little anymore!” joined the wailing of the winds.
“Little… Little… Little…”
The Wolf’s long ears twitched at the whisper in the wind. “Did you hear that?” he growled, making the Raven jump nervously in the air.
“Hear what, m’lord?” He had spent the last few hours with the Wolf, who was searching for a new den, listening to his paranoid muttering about the shadows closing around him. Their search was unsuccessful, and they ended up returning to the old den. As always, the Raven could see crows gathering on the branches above them. Normally he would ignore them, but there was a lot of them today. Silent. Occasional caw breaking the silence, as if mimicking his, but not exactly… real. And they were staring. Oh, they were, but when he looked at them…
… it was as if nothing was looking back.
“Are you sure they agreed to help?”
The Wolf’s irritated growl right next to him made him fly a feet up, flapping his wings in panic. Still, not even that seemed to have improved the Wolf’s mood. “Yes, yes, m’lord!” the Raven rushed to answer. “Caw! But they were very serious. Yhaedra said that she would make sure to put an end to this.”
Suddenly, the Wolf froze, his imposing, yet completely still figure resembling a coiled spring, a low growl coming from his chest and only after a while turning into discernable words: “She said WHAT, you pathe—“
He never got to finish the sentence; something fell right next to the Raven and straight on the Wolf in a flash of red colour, with a growl much like the Wolf’s. The Raven cawed in panic, struggling to gain height, squawking when an enormous beak snapped so close to him that he could almost feel his spine breaking in two. Powerful wings blew him away from the bloodshed that was about to happen.
And he was not going to make any complaints.
Red did not waste a moment – if she was going to be dropped at the Wolf’s doorstep, then why not straight on his head? Especially since she was carrying her ax – if she could cut the monster’s head off in the process, however underwhelming it might be, then…
But the Wolf had spent years terrorizing the Forest and he was big and bad and strong; he jumped to the side, snapping his jaw, a momentary fear in his eyes soon giving way to the smug grin that had his teeth flashing in their full size. One of his canines was coloured in red.
Red jumped to her feet, her grasp on the ax as firm as ever; she wiped the blood that dripped down her cheek with the back of her hand, a burning stripe where the Wolf’s tooth managed to scrape her. Too close – it had been so close that Red felt her knees grow weak at the mere thought of his teeth having been only an inch closer…
And that fear sparked the complete and utter rage that had been boiling inside her for years.
“Finally, you come to me…” the Wolf said lowly, seeming bigger with every word he said in that menacing voice, “… Little Red.”
Red took a deep breath. “How many times” – she grabbed the ax with both hands – “do I have to say… I am not little anymore!” With that cry she threw herself at the Wolf, not thinking, not daring to think what could happen next. Red was a whirl of anger and blades and determination and she came down upon the Wolf as the punishment itself.
He, however, was not going to give up easily. He avoided her attacks and between terrible growling and howling tried to snap her head off, but where he was big and strong, she was quick and agile. The crows were flying around them like small, black darts, adding to the chaos. They started cawing, being louder and louder, and the Wolf suddenly whimpered. Red immediately took the chance and swung her axe, leaving a nasty looking gash across his side. The Wolf wailed and fell to the ground, and Red knew it, it was time, finally, she would do what she…
A scream pierced through the cawing of the crows and Red’s pulse pounding in her ears; she cried out when something fell on her, trying to trample her – she could feel the stripes of fire opening across her shoulder and back…
“You killed our sister!”
Red’s eyes widened: it was Cioesia who tackled her, pinning her to the ground. The were-eagle’s features were human, but distorted with hatred in such a way that there was not much difference between the two shapes. Red could see other forms behind her, more were-eagles, closing in around her and Cioesia.
Yhaedra betrayed me! Red thought furiously. She struggled to set herself free, every motion sending pangs of pain down her back, but the were-eagle was much larger than she was.
But certainly not as determined.
“She had it coming, you… you chickens!” Red yelled. She would not be stopped now, not when she was so close, not when the Wolf was right there, waiting for the final blow, no!
Cioesia’s yellow eyes flared with rage and hatred. “I will end you!” she screamed, starting to transform.
In a heartbeat, the were-eagle was tackled, herself; the attacker, however, tripped over Red, managing to kick her side. She yelped, gritting her teeth as she stumbled to her feet, trying to find some kind of advantage. Her wild gaze soon found the attacker.
It was Tydros.
“You bloody IDIOT!” she yelled, rubbing the place where he had kicked her.
“Save the compliments for later!” he yelled back, wrestling with Cioesia. Everywhere around them, the Aquasians were attacking the Harpyjas, clicking and screaming echoing around the forest. “He is down! The Wolf! Now is your chance, Red!”
No thanks to you! Red grumbled to herself, but she was not here to fight him. She picked up the ax that she dropped and walked to the Wolf.
“Red…” The hissing sound came from the Wolf. “Red… You have to listen…”
A chill went down Red’s spine when she remembered Yhaedra’s words. Despite herself, she asked him the same question: “Why should I, you murderer?!”
“You don’t… know… half of it…” The Wolf heaved the words, and Red could already see the glistening of blood, darker on the dark ground. “Red… please…”
The blade of the ax caught light as Red raised it. He begged her. The Big Bad Wolf was begging her! But why? Did he honestly think that whatever he said would spare his life? Surely he knew better than that. Why, then? And Yhaedra… The were-eagle warned her, she knew that the Wolf would want to talk. Yhaedra, who sent her daughters to avenge their sister, after all… What did they all know?
“Kill him, Red!” Tydros yelled somewhere behind her. “Kill him now!”
The ax began to shake from the firmness of Red’s grasp.
What the hell was she supposed to do?
Red stood, her axe raised, chest heaving as she gasped for breath.
"Why by the light of the Seven Moons would I listen to you?! " she spat at the Wolf. "You are a monster! A rabid beast! A murderer. And I'm here to put you down."
To her utter shock, Wolf began to laugh. A wheezing, exhausted laugh, but unmistakably a sign of mirth.
"Oh, she did a number on you, Little Red. She had you eating out the palm of her hand. Bringing her food and telling you of the Big Bad Wolf, right? But she didn't show up until after your real Mother died, did she? And your brother. When Mother Hubbard took you in, Granny suddenly appeared and told you all about the Big Bad Wolf? "
Red stared at him. How had he known this? The details of her early life were a mystery to most. She herself remembered very little. Lowering her axe, but staying ready in case this was a trick, she nodded. The Wolf continued to speak, heedless of the continuing battle between the Harpjas and Aquasians behind them.
"What you never knew, was that Granny wasn't what she seemed. Our mother had run away from her, because of what dead Granny was. The tales of a wicked witch in the story weren't fairy stories,Red. Your dear old Granny was more of a monster than I have ever been. She was furious when your mother ran away with her two children. When the witch found her daughter, she punished her harshly. First she promised to steak the loyalty of her granddaughter. Then she turned your brother into a monster. Lastly she killed your mother and made it look like the work of a beast. Then she went to get you, practically raising you, turning you into her weapon. Of course, she didn't expect me to find her and take my revenge. I did follow you to Granny's house. You were her weakness. For both our mother and myself, I claimed my vengeance.
Red's head was spinning. Our mother? Granny a witch? My brother... A... Monster... NO!
"NO!" she shrieked at him. "You're a liar! You seek toto confound me with your stories. Granny would never..."
Her voice trailed off as she remembered the times when Granny's touch made her skin crawl, and when she'd peeked inin Granny's workroom and seen dead animals and bubbling potion bottles...
"You see?" said the Wolf, tiredly. "You were set up to kill me. The last punishment for our mother's flight."
Red shook her head. "No. I cannot believe this. It's all a trick."
The Wolf lay his head down on the hard rock. If he had been human, he would have shrugged.
"If you won't believe me, then kill me. I have lived this long without my family, and without your trust I may as well be dead."
Redsummoned up her anger for the creature now lying pathetically in front of her. She remembered the horrific scene in her Granny's cabin. She thought of the Aquasians, slaughtered by this beast. Caught in a deal by the were-dolphins, almost tricked by wicked ravens, kidnapped and drugged by were-eagles... Her life had gone to Hersh in a handbasket and this creature was to blame. His story was lies, meant to distract her from delivering the justice he was facing.
The axe glittered in the fading light as it fell, neatly severing the Wolf's head from his body. Red stood for a moment, staring at the body of her nemesis. Her axe now shone red. Around her, silence fell. The battlers had halted their fighting when they saw her axe descend.
Heaving a deep breath, the huntress turned from her prey, mentally preparing to deal with the Aquasians. As she stepped away from the corpse, though, Yhaedra gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. The other weres looked equally shocked. Red turned back, and stared in wonder at what was happening.
The body of the Wolf was melting, as if made of mist. The fur, bones and sinews simply disappeared into nothing. But the most shocking thing is what was left in their place. A large, dark-haired, bearded man lay where the Wolf had been slain. Suddenly he gasped, gulping in huge breaths of air. He pushed himself to his knees, then to his feet. And when he looked at Red, she felt the world spin again. She had been a small child when her brother had vanished. But this was unmistakably he.
"This cannot be."Red whispered. "You died. This is a trick. More foul, dark magic, trying to drive me mad!"
Her brother shook his head, sadly. "Oh little Sister, you know that is not true. It would appear my choice to allow you to kill me broke the curse. Dark magic could not stand up to sacrifice for love."
Red shook her head once more in denial. "No, I refuse to believe you. Tydros! I call in my favour from you. Kill this wicked spirit who impersonates my long-dead brother!"
At once, Tydros led his Aquasians in a charge towards the bearded, hairy man.
". No! You will not have him!" The shriek from Yhaedra madeRed spin to face the Were-eagle Queen.
"He was mine before... I never knew what had happened. Why he stopped visiting me... Why the Wolf aided us. But now I have found Lucan, my love, and you will not take him from me again! Harpjas, to flight!"
In unison, the women, Yhaedra included, shifted into their Eagle forms. Even as the Aquasians reached Wolf, they were knocked flat by giant bird forms, the wind stirred by their great wings sending up clouds of dust. In the confusion, Yhaedra clasped Lucan by the shoulders and lifted him away.
Red screamed her fury at the sky as the shapes of the Were-eagle faded to specks. Tydros came to stand beside herher, still coughing from the dust storm.
"What now, huntress?"
Looking at the Aquasian, she thought to herself again that those loin cloths left very little to the imagination... And that this was no bad thing.
Blushing slightly,Red replied; "I need to do some digging. Find out if what he said was true. This has been a very strange day. And," she added, "I do believe that I owe you a favour. Perhaps we could return to your Lake and... Discuss... the ways in which I may repay you?"
Tydros laughed and tookRed by the arm.
"Believe me, Little Red," he murmured to her, "it will be my pleasure. And perhaps your pleasure too..."