Thursday, 26 July 2007

Grandma's House

Grandma’s House

Originally published in Mam Tor's Event Horizon Book 2 with illustrations by Emily Hare

“Stay on the path, stay on the path,” Red muttered to herself over and over.

It was good advice, if only she’d been able to keep it. The problem was the path was no longer there. A bridge was supposed to take it across the river that ran through the middle of the woods. Unfortunately, all that remained of the bridge were two broken ends on either side. The recent rains must have swollen the river to such an extent that the timber supports had given way. The river was more or less back to normal now, it was a shame the same could not be said for the bridge.

Red had two options: turn back or find another place to cross. Turning back would mean she had failed; until she completed the journey she would not be recognised as anything more than a child. Crossing elsewhere meant using the ford that lay about half a mile upstream. That meant her journey would take her a mile off the path. The route was not an unfamiliar one, but she had always taken it with her father, during the hours of light, never alone, or in the middle of the night.

The pact ensured that no traveller using the path would come to any harm. Oaths signed in blood enforced the bargain, the old magic to all intents and purposes impossible to break By travelling off the path at night, Red was putting herself in harm’s way. The wolves would have no compunction about attacking anyone travelling through their woods, even if the travel was necessitated by the path being impossible to navigate. Nature, red of tooth and claw, did not have any sense of fair play.

By keeping to the banks of the river, Red hoped that she could mitigate the danger. Unfortunately while the wolves might prefer the shelter of the trees, they did not hesitate to venture into open spaces when it served their needs. Some of the bolder among the woodland breed would even venture into the village from time to time. After all, that was how Millie’s boy was lost, stolen by an opportunistic forest wolf.

The village men had organised a hunting party, tracking that particular wolf to her lair. She had lost a son of a similar age and had sought to replace him by stealing Millie’s child. The boy was unharmed, although from the moment of his return it had been obvious that he had been changed.

He had grown into a sullen child, shunning the company of his peers. His return to the forest was almost inevitable. Two days shy of his ninth birthday, that was exactly what he did. Millie had begged the men to track him down and bring him back again, but they had refused.

“He’s got the forest in him now,” Red’s father had said. “And there’s no turning a forest wolf into a town hound.”

The journey away from the path started uneventfully enough. Red hadn’t expected to encounter any problems right away. After all, with the path only a short distance away, it would be counterproductive for any lurking wolves to attack her while she still had a good chance of escaping. Perhaps if they were patient enough, they would wait until she reached the midway point at the ford when she would have to run half a mile in either direction to reach safety.

She almost turned back as she considered these possibilities, so convinced was she that they were lying in wait for her. However, the woods were large enough that there was every chance she wouldn’t come close to a single living soul during her midnight walk. She could easily be scaring herself for nothing.

“A surplus of imagination is what you have, m’girl,” her father would tell her; that and “Stop living in what might never be, it’s hard enough just living in the now.”

Red disagreed with her father, something she was finding happened more and more these days. Her mother put it down to the awkward nature that came with growing up. Red wasn’t convinced by that either. She didn’t think she was being awkward, she had just grown to realise how stupid her father could be. She still loved him greatly and respected him for the way he had brought her up; she was just convinced that he was completely and utterly wrong about certain things.

Still in one way her father was right, she did need to stop dwelling on those things that were beyond her power to change and concentrate on those that she could. For instance she couldn’t stop the wolves from being there by worrying, but she could plan ahead so that she could escape if they were waiting for her. She figured that the river was her best bet as an escape route. It was deep enough that she wouldn’t break her neck if she jumped in, even from a height, and it was fast enough to facilitate a quick getaway.

A crunch in the undergrowth drew her attention. She jerked her head around trying to spot the cause. She peered into the trees, trying to distinguish shadow from substance. Her imagination filled in the details of faces and forms lurking just beyond her sight. Another crunch came. This time she directed her focus to where she was sure it originated. Nothing moved, not a sight, not a sound. She held her breath, not dar5ing to make a noise, lest she startle or attract the source of the noise.

A rabbit bolted from the trees. In her sudden fright and just as sudden relief, she tried to inhale and exhale all at the same time and ended up hiccupping instead. At least it hadn't been one of the wolves. Her reaction speed had been so poor that she would have been devoured from nose to toes before having so much as a chance to consider flight.

The pregnant moon played its light across the shallows of the water; she had reached the ford. It was no coincidence that Red travelled during the full moon. The tradition that had her traipsing through the woods in the dead of night was connected to the time of the moon. The heavenly body was a symbol of the monthly cycle, the feminine tide of blood and fertility. Its passage symbolised the journey that Red had undertaken as she moved from childhood into womanhood.

The moon was also linked to the wolves, at least according to the stories told to frighten the children. They might have been more frightened were they to learn that the danger from the wolves didn’t just exist for the three days of the full moon, but all month long. The transformation the wolves underwent was one of choice, not of lunar pull. It was true that the wolves treated the moon as a sacred object when it was in ascendance. However the link was purely spiritual, there was nothing physical to it.

As she waded into the river there was no sign she had any company, save that offered by the silent presence of the forest’s trees. She splashed noisily across the ford in wilful disregard of both her fear and all common sense. She exalted in the sensations of the pebbles beneath her feet, the water lapping up her legs and the wind picking at her hair and clothes. This was living, this wade through the moonlight-flecked waters, not knowing if she would be around to see the dawn.

Across the river, she calmed down, the full moon fever having abated somewhat. Her sense of self-preservation once more rose to the fore. She re-examined her situation. She was half a mile from the safety of the path, in the middle of wolf haunted woods, her feet were wet and cold and there was no turning back anymore. Satisfied with her reality check, she continued on her way.

She had been walking for no more than a few minutes when she discovered that her plan to follow the river had run into a snag. Her chosen path was blocked by an impenetrable barrier formed by a cluster of deformed trees twisted into one another, thorny brambles surrounding them. There was no chance of going down to the water’s edge either. The riverbank sloped upwards to form the start of the gorge over which the broken bridge used to pass.

There was only one way forward - deeper into the forest.

Red held her position relative to the moon. Whatever else might happen, she had no intention of getting lost in the woods. Unfortunately her best intentions came to naught as the bending boughs of the trees soon obscured the night sky so that she could no longer rely on it for her bearings. All she had left to judge her path was her own sense of direction.

As she navigated her way through the trees by this blind sense, she came across a clearing. Again she could see the moon, and judging by its position in the sky, she had not strayed too far from her intended path. It was while she paused to take her bearings that she saw the wolf moving out from the shelter of the trees at the far side of the clearing. Red bent low, hoping that the creature wouldn’t see her. The wolf strode into the centre of the clearing, raising his head to gaze at the moon and he howled.

He was a magnificent beast. Red marvelled at the movement of his muscles under his pelt of dark fur, restrained power, like a spring waiting to uncurl. Red wondered what he would do if he caught her. The strength of his arms could easily rip her apart. A shiver of fear ran deliciously down her spine, as she alternated between terror and arousal. The feelings were not new to her, but never had she felt them together, never so strongly.

She could visualise the waves radiating off her body, her presence overpoweringly overt.
The wolf twisted his head around, seeking something out in her direction. He had felt it too! Red felt almost dizzy as the contradictory emotions collided in a maelstrom of fear and desire.

“I know you’re out there,” the wolf growled, deep in his throat.

Red held her tongue. Conflicted between her instinct to flee and the magnetic pull of the wolf, she chose the middle option and remained hidden.

The wolf sniffed the air, tasting her scent on the breeze. He sighed with deep satisfaction.

“Young, fresh, female. Guess where you’re going at this late hour, under this full moon.”

He sniffed again, drawing the air deeply in, as if enjoying a gourmet feast.

“Such a shame to waste your prime flesh on that shrivelled old harridan. I think perhaps I should do the honours instead.”

He moved in her direction, his steps measured, full of that barely controlled power. Red couldn’t put off the decision any longer, unless she wanted him to make it for her, but she wasn’t willing to cede that responsibility. She slowly rose almost hypnotised in his presence, a sacrificial bride to this this creature of fang and claw with his deep voice and his smells of sweat and fur and forest and blood. His upper lips curled, revealing those unsheathed fangs in all their glory. The thick redness of a fresh kill stained his lips, flecked his muzzle. He was intoxicating.

Red ran.

The wolf was taken aback for a moment, surprised by this apparently sudden change of heart. Had he been quicker off the mark, he could have taken her there and then, but he was too late. Red ran into the cover of the trees. While the wolf might have had the advantage of speed in the open, she knew that the twists and turns dictated by the greenery would reduce that advantage by some degree.

Even so, she knew that she would not long keep from his reach. Her only hope lay in the path being near enough for her to make before he could close the gap between them. She dodged between tree trunks, aware now that the river was running on her left, guiding her back to the path. Behind her, close now, almost within reach, the wolf crashed through the vegetation, all subtlety lost as he abandoned himself to the chase.

“Smell so good,” he growled, close enough that he might have been speaking directly into her ear.

Red refused to turn, knowing that doing so could cost her the race. Ahead her finishing line, the path, appeared. She dug into her reserves, put on an extra burst of speed and... snagged her foot on a tree root. She stumbled headlong into a denuded bush, the bare twigs scratching at her skin, tearing at her clothes. She rolled out of it to come face to face with the wolf.

“Hello, fresh meat,” the wolf said.

Red was unsure what would come next, whether she should fear or welcome it. She wouldn’t find out. As the wolf drew its head back, a flash of silver passed across her line of sight, taking the wolf’s head with it. The man-like body of the wolf, capped by a bleeding stump of a neck, remained in position for a second longer, before collapsing lifeless to the forest floor. Red gasped, too shocked for any other reaction.

A large, hairy, but human hand reached down to help her up. She took it and was yanked to her feet like a cork from a bottle. She overbalanced into the thick embrace of her rescuer.

“Easy there.”

He set her right, letting her stand unsupported.

“Are you all right miss?”

Red nodded, unable to find her tongue for the moment.

Her rescuer looked to be in his twenties, perhaps with as much as a decade over Red, perhaps less. He was powerfully built, a tree trunk of a physique. His axe, the flash of silver that had passed before Red’s eyes, gave away his profession; he was a woodsman.

“What are you doing out here at this time of the night?”

“I’m v-visiting my grandmother,” Red managed to stutter. “She lives in a cottage in the woods.”

“Well, it’s no time of day for a young lady such as yourself to be travelling through this forest,” the woodsman told her. “How old are you anyway? Fifteen?”

“Seventeen!” Red replied, her fear displaced by indignation. It was the age of majority in those parts and she was not going to let this stranger think of her as a child.

Obviously the answer was pleasing to the man, as he grinned foolishly at her. “Well even so, you shouldn’t be going about unescorted at this time of night.”

“Perhaps you could walk with me the rest of the way to my grandma’s house.”

“I’m sure I could at that,” he replied, trying to appear nonchalant.

Without a backwards glance, Red walked off in the direction of the path, knowing that he would follow.

“So why are you travelling in the dead of night?” he asked after catching up with her.

“It’s tradition.”

“What sort of strange tradition requires midnight hikes through monster-infested woods?”

His reply was mocking. Red shot him a hurt look. He backed off immediately.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult your customs. I just don’t understand why you would need to do something so dangerous.”

“It’s not dangerous if you keep to the path. The wolves can’t bother travellers on the path.”

“I wish I’d known that before I stepped into the woods. That’s the second of those brutes I’ve had to kill this night.”

“There was another?”

“Aye. Evil looking brute. Eyes as dark as his wicked soul. He would have done for me in an instant had I faltered. So, can you tell me more about this custom, or is it something strangers aren’t supposed to know?”

“It’s customary among my people that when someone comes of age, they’re initiated into the rites of adulthood by their oldest living relative. The Journey of the Moon is one part of that initiation.”

“Journey of the Moon?” The woodsman looked up at the full moon. “That’s why you’re out here on your own?”

Red nodded. “I’m supposed to make the journey by myself along the path. Only the bridge must have washed away, which was why I was walking through the woods.”

“Is it all right me being here then?” he asked. “My presence doesn’t invalidate the ritual or anything?”

“No. You’re a stranger to us, so it doesn’t matter you being here.”

“So what else does this initiation involve?”

“There is the Kiss of Welcome and the Sharing of Flesh. My first act as a woman is to find a man.”

“I see.”

Even though they were only lit by the moon, Red could still see the darkening of the woodsman’s cheeks as the blood rushed to his face. She touched his arm.

“I’m hoping I won’t have to look too far.”

The woodsman was spared the need to fumble for an answer; their destination was in sight. In the middle of a clearing in the woods, next to the path, stood a cottage with a thatched roof and gabled windows. A white picket fence surrounded the tidy rows of a vegetable garden; a cobblestone pathway neatly bisected the garden, running from gate to door.

“You need to remain here,” Red told the woodsman.

He nodded and settled down to wait.

“Will you be long?” he called after her as she walked up the garden path, but she was thinking so hard about what was to come next that she forgot to respond.

Red knocked on the front door.

“Come in, dear,” a voice called out from inside. “The door’s on the latch.”

Red pushed the door open and stepped inside the cottage. The interior gave the lie to the rustic charm of the outside. It felt more like cave than cottage: dark, claustrophobic and drafty.

“I’m in the back, dear,” the voice called.

Red walked along the narrow passageway that wound itself through the house. Candles, stumps of red wax perched in recesses along the walls, provided a flickering illumination. The pulse of the light was almost rhythmic; Red found herself keeping in time as she walked.

The passageway seemed unusually long, even with its surprising twists and turns. Red was sure that the cottage she had seen from the outside couldn't have contained it. She finally came to the end: a wooden door. She was about to knock when the voice called out again.

“Come on through, come on through.”

The room beyond, curtained with red silk sheets, was no better lit than the passageway. Smoke from the candles spread across the room lent a hazy pall to the atmosphere. Wooden tables, cabinets and shelves held all manner of macabre bric-a-brac ranging from petrified monkey paws to rune-covered skulls.

In the middle of the room, a shawl covering her legs, a gnarled old woman sat in a gnarled old rocking chair. She peered at Red over a pair of wire-framed spectacles.

“Come closer dear, these eyes don’t see so well.”

Red moved nearer to the old woman, unsure of what to expect. The old woman scrutinised her closely. Red blinked in surprise, she was sure the woman’s eyes hadn’t been so large a moment ago.

“Your eyes...”

“You’ll have to bend closer,” the woman said. “My ears don’t hear so well any longer. Now why are you here?”

Red bent to speak into the woman’s ear.

“It’s my time of majority.”

Red jumped back, startled. She knew that the woman’s ears hadn’t been so long a moment before.

“Then I welcome you with this kiss.”

The old woman opened her mouth, revealing rows of large, sharp teeth.

Then she leapt out of her chair to sink them into Red’s arm.

The woodsman had waited at the bottom of the garden, far enough from the cottage that when he heard the first scream he hadn’t been quite sure that was what it was. By the time the second came, he was almost at the front door, close enough to be certain.

The screaming had stopped by the time he reached the back room, but the cause of it still remained. A wolf, stood over the body of the red-headed girl. It wiped a paw across its bloody muzzle.

“So you’re the one who’s been killing my boys in the forest.”

The voice was that of an old lady. Distantly the woodsman noted that it seemed strange coming from those jaws. His eyes flicked to the body of the girl and back again to the wolf.

“In defence of myself for the first. The second only after he tried to hurt the girl.” He wasn’t sure why he was talking with the wolf. It must be the shock of it all, the coherent part of him considered. The rest of him just thought about taking his axe and putting an end to the life of another murderous wolf.

The wolf cackled in response to his statement. “Hurt her? Hump her more like knowing those randy buggers. That’s why they won’t let them in town. No manners whatsoever.”

The woodsman swung his axe back. “So it’s only you who kills children?”

“Only to bring forth the adult.”

As the woodsman swung his axe, his legs were yanked from under him. He crashed to the ground, his weapon flew across the room as his chin met the floor.

Red let go of his legs and sat up. The woodsman turned to see her leaning over him.

“Now we share flesh,” she told him.

There was just enough time for the woodsman to say one more thing.

“My, what big teeth you have!”

1 comment:

^_^ said...

hmmm.... I like that!