A Walk in the Woods

The road was long and dark. A mist floated delicately along the ground, clinging to it in places and avoiding it in others. The moon rose high above, full and round. It lit the world below with a mysterious white glow. She stared into the beyond, gazing through the mist and darkness. There was something mystical about it. Something enchanting.

She lifted her small foot and placed it gently in front of her. Then she took another step. Nothing beyond moved. Nothing in the darkness ahead changed. She slowly turned her head, glancing behind her. The world was still.

Pulling her thick velvet cloak closer around her small frame and gripping her basket a little tighter, she decided to move onward, despite the uneasy feeling that crept up on her and surrounded her. Her onyx hair fell in layers around her face, framing it, contrasting her fair alabaster skin. Her beautiful brown eyes were large and afraid, always looking at their surroundings, aware of the shadows that seemed to move ever closer. They reached out with invisible hands, grasping for her. She bit down on her lower lip, soft and red.

She walked cautiously, carefully. She told herself not to be afraid, but it wasn’t working. There was something wrong about this forest. Something wrong with the way the lifeless trees curled their gnarled claw-like branches as if they were the hands of skeletons, clambering from their graves in the ground. There was something unsettling about the silence. Something about the quiet whisper of the wind. There were no animals or birds, not even the familiar hoot of the owl. There were no calming gurgles from distant bubbling brooks. There was simply a stillness. As if the forest meant to hide something within the black that reached out for miles.

She should have left her home earlier, she thought. She should have taken her mother’s advice. She knew the journey to her grandmother’s cottage would take the better part of a day, but she had stopped in the village to visit a friend. She had ignored her mother’s words.

“Leave while there is still light in the sky, my child.”

She was a foolish girl. Nearly eighteen years of age, she was close to being a maiden of adulthood. Though her actions today proved otherwise. And perhaps, she thought, she wouldn’t make it to her next birthday, assuming the shadowy forest had its way.

The girl donned her hood and moved as quickly as her feet would take her. She walked until her pace became more of a skip. She tried hard not to think of what might be following behind her, or what was lurking beyond the corner of her vision. She looked ahead and moved with a fervent determination.

For the better part of an hour, she moved like this, as quickly and quietly and she could, stopping for nothing. She kept thoughts of her grandmother fresh in her mind. She was a sweet and brittle old woman. A small figure with soft white hair and bright blue eyes. She always seemed to know exactly what to do or say to make people feel better. It was a gift, one that the girl looked forward to now, as she traveled down the cold road alone.

It was then that a tall dark figure stepped into the road behind the girl.  They made no sound, no noise whatsoever as they moved. But all the same, the girl knew there was something there. She stopped and turned suddenly, staring. The figure was nearly two heads taller than she, standing like a tower, even from the distance at which they rested. It was a man with long, unkempt hair and a thick close cut beard. Both were steely and brown. His clothes were dirty and torn. But he wore them comfortably.

Everything about this man said to the girl that she should run. But there was something about him, something that kept her from fleeing. His smile was gentle. A charming grin that was so soft and kind it almost beckoned to her. Above his smile were beautiful golden eyes. Bright beryl gems that sparkled in the moonlight. Without realizing, the girl took a step forward.

The man nodded slowly. “Good evening, child.” His voice was warm and rich like chocolate. “What is someone so sweet doing on a road such as this tonight?”

The girl stammered. Her quiet soft voice, stumbling as she tried to speak. “Forgive me, good sir, but I am in a hurry, and I mustn’t keep my grandmother waiting. She is expecting me.”

“I only express concern,” The man said, his eyes flashing like yellow flames, “For you see, this road is filled with all sorts of unsavory types. It is no place for such a sweet maiden to travel alone.”

The girl hesitated. She knew she must go, but there was something about this man that kept her standing right where she was. Even with his wild shoulder-length hair and thick, rough stubble he was charming. His body was thin and lean but well sculpted like a statue. His chest heaved heavily as he breathed. She had never felt anything like this before. A warm burning started in her chest and moved to her gut. Her thoughts fluttered like butterflies just out of reach. She couldn’t grasp them, even to form words.

She took another small step forward on light feet. “My mother,” she started. “Warned me against speaking with strangers.”

“A wise woman.” The man said. He took one step forward, toward the girl. The burning in her chest and stomach strengthened. “You should listen to your mother, child.” His voice was as soft as her scarlet cloak.

She took another step. “She said not to trust anyone.” She pined to hear him speak. She ached to be closer to him. The burning in her chest blazed like a fire inside of her.

“There are unsavory characters who travel this road.” He said. “Creatures who would prey upon the innocent.” He moved closer.

The two now stood mere feet apart. She inhaled deeply. The man’s scent was strong and musky. It buzzed in her mind and stirred something inside of her. Something she had never known.

“I would hate to see something so sweet spoiled by something so sinister.” The man said.

The girl blinked slowly, this must be a dream, she thought. This could not be real. “Would you escort me?” She asked. The words simply escaping her mouth before she realized what she was saying. “I would feel more comfortable knowing I was being looked after.”

The man stepped forward one last time and took the girl’s hands in his. The fire in her belly dropped, falling between her legs. His scent filled her nostrils and she breathed it in deeply. Her breasts rose heavily with each breath, and she did not care. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears. She looked up into his golden eyes and fell into them. Deep pools of amber, gorgeous and intoxicating. He smiled, showing brilliant white teeth.

“I would be honored, my lady.” He said, that rich chocolate voice melting through the last walls of hesitation.

Together they moved through the woods, traveling along the silent long road hand in hand, which now, somehow seemed less terrifying. Every now again the girl would look up into his beautiful eyes and feel a calmness fall over her.  Hours seemed to pass. All the while they never spoke.

Soon enough the girl began to recognize the forest around her and she realized how close they were to her grandmother’s cottage. Rather than feeling elated, as she expected herself to feel, she was sad. She walked slower and even found herself dawdling, stopping now and again to pick flowers. For her grandmother, she would say.

Then, rounding the last curve in the long empty road she saw her grandmother’s cottage. It sat nestled back into the trees. A small yard in front, where a garden of carrots and potatoes grew. Colorful wildflowers of red and purple lined the ground surrounding the house.

As happy as the girl was to see her grandmother’s home, resting peacefully in the darkness of the night, she was saddened that her trip had passed too quickly. She wanted so badly to stay with the tall mysterious and handsome man. She stared out across the path to the small cottage. A light burned from within the small home. Her grandmother was waiting for her.

She looked up into the man’s charming face. “Will I see you again?” She asked.

He looked down at her and smiled, his long white teeth glimmering in the moonlight. “You can count on it, my dear.”

The girl slipped her small hand from the man’s grasp and stepped away. “Thank you,” She said, looking back.

“The pleasure,” He answered. “Was all mine.” The man bowed slowly, never removing his entrancing gaze from her.

The girl shivered as a chill ran down her spine. She watched longingly as the tall, statuesque man turned and strolled into the darkness, whistling a tune.

“Child?” A voice called from the front porch of the cottage. “Is that you?” It was the girl’s grandmother. She stood in the doorway of the small building, she held a candle in her hand and peered into the darkness.

The girl answered, “Yes Grandmother, I am here.” She walked toward the little old woman and wrapped her arms around her.

“My Dear, I was worried.” The frail woman said, ushering in her kin. “Where have you been?”

The girl lowered her head sheepishly. “Forgive me, Grandmother.” She said. “I was foolish, I stayed in the village too long, and left too late.”

The old woman closed the door to her home and hobbled slowly to a wooden rocking chair and sat. The chair creaked and moaned with age. It had to have been as old as the woman herself, the girl thought.

“You may place the basket on the table, child.” She said. “I am pleased to see you here safely. The road here is not wise to travel alone.”

The girl smiled, her eyes dreamy with admiration. “Oh, I was not alone, Grandmother! I had a companion. He made sure that I arrived safely.”

The old woman’s eyes narrowed. She looked the girl over, recognizing her demeanor. “Oh? And who was this companion?” She shifted her weight in her rocking chair, causing it to creak and moan even more.

“Oh, I do not know his name.” The girl answered. “But he was tall and handsome. He was a gentleman. His hair was long and his eyes, oh Grandmother, his eyes were the purest golden color I have ever seen!”

“This man was a stranger?” Her grandmother climbed to her feet, struggling against her aging body. She moved with a fervor the girl had never seen before. The old woman moved to the window and peered through the thick, fogged glass. The forest beyond was too dark and too silent.

“Did he hurt you, child?” The woman demanded as she moved from the window to the kitchen. The girl watched as her grandmother moved about the small, single room cottage. She was familiar with every nook and cranny of the hut. From its plastered walls and thatched roof to the crude, hewn furniture that filled the tiny home. But never before had the girl seen her grandmother move with such a pace. She moved through the cupboards with vigor.

“No, of course not, Grandmother!” The girl said, confused. “He was a perfect gentleman. I have never met such a man.” She could not understand what the old woman was up to.

“And you never will again. Creatures like that are not to be trusted, you foolish, foolish child!” The brittle woman retrieved a jar from the cupboard and opened it. She placed the contents on the rough table, next to the girl’s basket. She hadn’t even seen the goods the girl had brought her or the flowers.

“Grandmother, what is wrong?”

The girl followed the woman around the cottage as she placed stems and leaves at each window and at the door. Hanging the yellow flowered plant above the seal and at the seams.

“Wolfsbane.” Her grandmother said. “There isn’t much, but it should be enough.”

The girl sat on the nearby bed. She had never seen anyone act so crazed, let alone her grandmother. Suddenly she felt uneasy. Perhaps it hadn’t been wise to trust the stranger, yet how could it have been? She hadn’t felt as though she were in danger. In fact, the girl thought, she had never felt safer than she had when she was with that handsome man.

“You are not to leave here.” Her grandmother said. “You will stay the night and tomorrow I will return you to your mother. She will understand.”

“But Grandmother,” The girl began. “Where will I sleep? There is but one bed, and it is too small for the both of us?”

“You will sleep in the bed, I will sit in my chair.” The woman answered.

“But, Grandmother. Surely you cannot sleep in that chair. It is not soft enough, and I cannot allow you to sit there all night.”

“Child!” The old woman spat. “For once in your life, will you do as you are told? You have never listened to the advice given to you! And this time I fear, it may have cost you more than you are aware!”

The girl sat, stunned. Her grandmother had never yelled at her before. She waited a long silent moment before speaking again.

“I am sorry,” She said. “Forgive me, Grandmother. Will you please tell me what is going on?”

The old woman hobbled over to her chair and sat down. She pulled a long wooden pipe from her skirts and loaded it. She lit it with a match and puffed several times. The thick aroma of sickly sweet tobacco filled the cottage. She was brooding, contemplating. It worried the girl. She had never seen the old woman so concerned.

“Grandmother?”

“In due time, Child. For now, simply rest. In the morning the woodcutter will be here to trade his services for my vegetables. I will ask him to escort us back to your mother. Perhaps…” The old woman trailed off, deep in thought.

The girl removed her cloak. She had been so caught up in the commotion, she hadn’t thought to do so earlier. She closed her eyes and imagined the tall stranger with his aurulent eyes and warm, wily smile. She slowly untied the laces of her cloak and slipped it off. Her dress beneath was a soft white cotton, paired with a green velvet vest. It was low cut and revealing. The girl loved the dress, for it made her feel more adult. But her mother had always disapproved of the outfit, claiming she looked like a tavern wench. And now, in her grandmother’s cottage, she imagined herself, standing in front of the stranger hoping he found her as approvingly as she found him.

“Get ready for bed, girl.” Her grandmother said, still smoking her pipe, rocking in her chair.

The girl hid her smile as she slipped out of her dress, dropping it to the cold wooden floor. She stood, imagining the man watching her in her undergarments. She could see him, taking her in his strong arms and holding her.

The girl climbed into the bed and lay back on the straw mattress, eager to sleep and dream. Her eyelids felt heavy. It had been a long day, and a wonderful night, she thought.

“Will I see you again?” She heard herself say.

His warm chocolate voice returned to her. “You can count on it.”

 

Suddenly the girl was ripped from her dreams. Her grandmother stood at the window, peering out into the darkness. The fire still burned in the hearthside. There was a terrible sound coming from outside. A long loud howling. It was similar to howling of wolves, which the girl knew well. Wolves were common in these parts, often attacking the local sheepherder’s flock. But this was different. Something about the sound was deeper, darker, even sinister.

The girl sat up, “Grandmother, what is it?” She asked groggily.

“Go back to sleep, Child,” The old woman said. “He will not enter here.”

“Who will not, Grandmother?”

“To sleep, Child.”

The girl lay back down and closed her eyes, though she was not able to sleep. The loud wailing continued to ring out throughout the night. It tore through the silence like a knife tearing through a dress. Ripping it apart until there was nothing left but the tattered remnants of cloth. For the first time since she had entered the woods, the girl was aware of all the sounds of the night. It was if the howling had awakened every animal in the forest, forcing them all to cry out in the night. She couldn’t tell if they were singing along with the unsettling harmony of the noisy beast, or if they were calling out in fear. Each creature afraid that whatever was out there as if it were hunting for them. The howling went on for hours. The girl lay silently, every so often, opening her eyes to see the kindly old woman, standing at the window wearing an unfamiliar stern and concerned face. Her dreams turned from the beautiful stranger to nightmares of hungry wolves. They paced outside the cottage licking their lips, staring in through the windows at the girl with starving eyes. She tossed and turned, unable to rest.

It wasn’t until the early light of morning began to show through the tops of the trees and filter in through the windows that the girl noticed the howling had stopped. She was exhausted, and tired.

Her grandmother had relaxed as well. She had moved from the window back to her chair and her pipe. She smoked, puffing in long, deep intervals. The girl closed her eyes, finally able to sleep. She didn’t dream. There was only black.

 

“Wake up, Child.”

The girl opened her eyes. Her grandmother stood over her. Her hair fell down into her face, unkempt, dripping with sweat.”

“Grandmother?” The girl said stirring. “Is it morning?”

The sun came in bright through the windows. Its golden rays warm and welcoming. Birds chirped cheerfully in the nearby trees. It was as if the horrors of the night before had never been.

“He hasn’t come.” The old woman said.

“Who, Grandmother?” The girl asked, sitting up and pulling on her dress.

“The woodsman. He was to be here this morning. He has not come.” Her grandmother went about the hut, gathering the wolfsbane from the windows and doors. She gathered it into a bundle and placed it into the girl’s basket. All of its previous contents had been dumped onto the table.

“You are to travel to the wood cutter’s cabin and bring him back here.” The old woman said. “It is only three miles along the stream from here. I would travel with you, but I am too old and weak to make the journey. Tell him it is urgent and that I require his cart.”

The girl was confused. “Yes, Grandmother.” She answered.

“Do not stop for anything. Do not stray from the path and whatever you do my child, do not stop to speak with anyone. Do you understand?”

The girl did not know what to say. She had never seen her grandmother so upset.

“Do you understand!”

“Yes, Grandmother, I understand. I will not stop.”

The old woman handed the girl her cloak and basket. She walked her to the door and tied the cloak around her neck.

“I love you, Child.” She said kissing the girl on her forehead.

“And I you, Grandmother.”

“Now make haste, and return with the woodsman and his cart.”

The girl turned from her grandmother and stepped away. She made her way down the path toward the wood cutter’s cabin. She looked back only once. Her grandmother stood in the doorway of her cottage. “Godspeed, Child!” She called out. The girl waved goodbye and turned back toward the trail.

The morning air was cool and crisp. It filled the girl’s lungs with a freshness that revitalized her. Even in the absence of a good night’s sleep, she had a new energy pulsing through her. She walked quickly, moving along the path with speed. The trail turned, switching back and forth as it climbed higher into the forest.

Soon she came along a small stream and walked along next to it. She listened happily to the sounds of the birds in the trees and the bubbling of the water as it bounced and rolled over the stones in the riverbed. The girl looked up as she walked, soaking up the warmth of the sun. It was a beautiful day, she thought.

After an hour of walking, the girl’s vigor began to fade and her energy waned. Though her grandmother had instructed her not to, the girl stopped at an old log and sat down to rest. She could not continue. It would only be for a moment, the girl thought.

She placed her basket on the ground and untied her cloak. Sitting on the fallen tree she stretched her arms above her head. She stared at the stream, hypnotized by the water. It moved through the bends and curves of the ground, spilling over rocks and branches. It was a fluid, evermoving dance.

The girl wondered about her grandmother. The way she had stood at the window all night, staring out into the darkness. The way she had been a statue, guarding over her as if she had expected something terrible to happen. She remembered the look on her face, set cold and determined, listening to the sound of howling. That terrible, frightening howling, unlike any wolf the girl had ever heard.

And now, sending her to the wood cutter’s cabin. It all seemed so silly, the girl thought. The woodsman had been late, but was that reason to send the girl to fetch him? The girl was certain that the woodsman had better things to do than trade his services for her grandmother’s vegetables, and that he was most likely running behind schedule. After all, the girl thought, she always ran late. Why wouldn’t it be so different for the woodsman? She believed it was likely, even, that she would come across the man on her way to his cabin. Why, he could be just around the next bend in the trail, whistling a tune, carrying his axe over his shoulder, enjoying the morning sun, just as she was doing.

Deciding she had rested long enough, the girl gathered her cloak, tied it around her neck and donned her hood. She stretched her long thin legs and began walking, making her way up the path to her destination.

It wasn’t long before the girl arrived at the wood cutter’s cabin. There was an opening in the trees at the end of the trail. Sitting in the middle of the meadow was a small log cabin. Beside the stream sat a saw mill, and parked in front of the building was a cart. There was a small barn beyond, likely where the horses were kept, the girl assumed. Chickens bobbed about in the yard, pecking at the ground here and there and a lazy looking tabby, sat atop a tree stump, soaking up the sun. It glared at the girl, only stretching and seeking attention as she approached.

The girl stopped and stroked the cat gently. It purred and rubbed against her. The girl moved on toward the cabin. She knocked on the door and waited patiently. When there was no answer, she knocked again. She listened carefully, hoping to catch a hint of someone moving inside. There was nothing.

He must be nearby, the girl thought. She walked around behind the cabin and entered the small barn. It was dark inside and smelled strongly of animals. Standing in two separate stalls, slowly munching on hay were tall, thick geldings. In the corner of one of the stalls, a small rabbit nestled itself into the straw. The girl smiled and pet one of the horses. It smacked its lips approvingly.

“Do you know where the woodsman is?” She asked the horse.

Moving back to the front of the cabin, the girl sat down on the tree stump with the brown and black striped tabby. It sat on her lap purring as she rubbed its white belly. I’m sure he will return soon, she thought. I will simply wait for him.

When the cat became bored it hopped off the girl’s lap and moved on. The girl moved her attention to the chickens, trying to catch them as they moved along the ground. After she had caught one, she made her way back to the barn and brushed out the horses.

Before long the sun was beginning its slow decline toward evening. The girl knew her grandmother would worry and decided she would head back to the cottage. Before going, the girl tried knocking on the door to the cabin one last time.

She approached the door and rapped her knuckles against the hard wood. There was no answer. Without giving it much thought, the girl tried the knob. The door opened. It swung slowly. The room inside was dark. The girl pushed the door open further, letting in the sunlight. The cabin was old and messy. Tools and clutter were scattered everywhere. Furs and clothes were piled atop the bed. A small table in the corner of the room was covered in hard pieces of bread and papers.

Thinking that her grandmother would be upset, the girl decided that it would be best to leave a note for the woodsman. At least that way, the girl thought, he would know to come to her grandmother’s cabin as soon as he could.

She grabbed a quill and scrawled a quick message. She thought it best to leave a bit of description, explaining the events of the night before and her grandmother’s request for urgency. She signed it and placed the note atop the wood cutter’s bed, so to make sure he wouldn’t overlook it.

Then the girl left. She closed the door behind her, pet the small cat one last time, and left toward the path, back to her grandmother’s cottage. She traveled along the same trail, moving along the small stream. The sun seemed to set more quickly now, and for some strange reason the girl couldn’t understand, she felt increasingly uneasy. She quickened her pace, moving as fast as she could without running.

It isn’t much longer, she thought. Just around the next bend, just a hundred more feet. She looked to the west. Beyond the woods, past the village where she and lived and her mother probably waited anxiously for her return, the sun dipped below the horizon. The sky darkened and soon the sky would be black. The moon began to rise, more full the than the night before.

The girl came around a bend in the path and from where she stood she could see her grandmother’s cottage. It was well lit, warm and welcoming. She ran the rest of the way, smiling from ear to ear as she made her way past the vegetable garden and wild flowers.

“Grandmother!” The girl called. “I have returned!”

There was no answer. The girl stopped short of the porch. From here she noticed two very unsettling things. One, her grandmother, who she expected to be waiting eagerly inside was nowhere to be seen. Two, the front door was open. Not entirely, but just. The girl carefully crept toward the window and peered through. Inside a fire burned in the fireplace. The home seemed as warm and comforting as always, but still, the girl could not see her grandmother. She moved toward the open door and peeked through the slender opening. She strained, cautiously, trying to see anything. All was still.

The girl pushed open the door and stepped through the threshold. She looked to her grandmother’s rocking chair. It was empty, save for a long wooden pipe that rest, unused.  She looked to the bed, perhaps the old woman was tired. After all, the girl thought, she had stayed up all night. The mattress lay empty. The blankets remained as the girl had left them earlier that morning.

The girl worried. she had never known her grandmother to leave the cottage. Only once had she ever visited her and her mother in the village. She had come into town with the woodsman, on his cart. That had been when her father died, many years ago.

Where could she have gone? She wondered. She called for the old woman, half expecting to hear her grandmother’s response come from the kitchen or the garden. Only there was nothing but the same, unnerving silence from the forest outside. The girl removed her red hood and placed it on the table. It was at this moment that the girl realized she had left her basket. She strained to think of what had become of the bundle of wolfsbane her grandmother had given her. Had she left it at the wood cutter’s cabin? Had she left it in the barn with the horses or… Finally, it came back to her. She had left it on the trail when had rested next to the stream.

The girl was angry with herself. Not only had she left her basket, but she had also passed it on her way back to her grandmother’s without noticing. She wasn’t sure what the strange plant was for, but alone now in her grandmother’s cottage she felt that the bundle would have been a bit of comfort to her.

The girl tried to find something to keep her busy and keep her mind from straying to bad thoughts. She stoked the fire in the hearth and organized the kitchen. When she had finished that she sat in her grandmother’s creaky chair and held the long wooden pipe in her hands.

Curious as she was, the girl lit a match, and doing as she had seen her grandmother do a hundred times, she lit the pipe. She inhaled deeply, trying to puff the smoke out with the heir of someone older and wiser than herself. The smoke rushed in and burnt her lungs. She coughed and choked, trying desperately to expel the hot, painful sensation.

She put out the embers in the pipe and put it back down. Clearly, this was something you had to acquire. The girl had run out of things to do. And her stomach began to grumble with hunger. She wished that her grandmother were here. Or that someone, anyone, was here to keep her company. She thought of the stranger who had brought her here. The lean, handsome man. She imagined his long hair and how it lay wild down to his shoulders. She thought of his rough beard and tried to imagine how it must have felt against her soft silken skin. She thought of his beautiful smile with his long, white teeth. And she thought of his eyes. Those giant, gorgeous amber eyes! Oh, how she wished that he were here with her. Keeping her company until her grandmother returned.

Then, something stirred her from her dreaming. She turned in the chair and looked toward the window. Something was making noise outside. She stood and took a step forward, then paused, placing her small foot, back down before moving. She listened.

The sound was familiar and repetitive. Footsteps. Someone was coming up the road toward the cottage. The girl rushed toward the window and looked out into the darkness. The sun had fully set. The night was in full bloom and the blackness that she had seen the night before had once again absorbed everything.

She watched carefully, looking for whoever was walking outside. In the distance, emerging from the shadows came the form of a figure. The light colored clothing and the long white hair was a comforting sight. They walked slowly, but with purpose. It was the girl’s grandmother. She sighed with relief.

The girl stepped to the door and opened it. She waved. Her grandmother waved in return. She was so happy to see her, yet, there was something…

Something she couldn’t put her finger on.

She hesitated, then said, “Grandmother, where have you been?”

The old woman said nothing as she came closer. And the closer she got, the more uneasy the girl became. The feeling in the back of her mind grew louder and stronger. Something wasn’t right.

The girl strained her eyes as she peered into the darkness. Whatever it was, this feeling, this… thought she couldn’t quite form, it was now screaming at her. And when it finally became clear to the girl, it was almost too late.

The old woman walking toward her was standing a little too tall and a little too upright. Their gate was too long and their pace too fast.

The girl gasped as it dawned on her. Suddenly her heart dropped into her stomach as the realization, that this figure walking toward her wasn’t her grandmother, swept over her. And the closer the figure came, the easier it was to see.

The imposter stopped at the edge of the cottage, just beyond the garden. The girl ran her eyes up and down, scanning the person wearing her grandmother’s dress, taking in the sight. It was too small, coming up short and fitting just barely too tight. Their hands were too large and their legs too long. Then the imposter smiled. Their teeth too long, too white. Their eyes too bright, too big. My, the girl thought, what large eyes you have.

As the girl stood across the garden staring, the imposter spoke. “I said that you could count on seeing me again, did I not?”

The voice! The girl knew that voice! It was rich like chocolate. And all at once everything came together. All the details seemed to burn like flares in the girl’s mind. Her grandmother’s dress was torn at the seams and stained with blood. And…

Oh no, the girl thought, oh no no no!!! The imposter reached up and pulled the long white hair from atop their head, dropping the old woman’s scalp in the dirt. The girl watched in horror as the tall, handsome, menacing looking man stepped closer.

“Don’t be afraid, my dear.” He said.

The girl panicked. She stepped back inside the cottage as quickly as she could and bolted the door. She could hear the man, breathing heavily on the other side of the large oak frame.

“Oh, won’t you let me in?” He asked. His soothing voice, now stinging like a blade. The girl began to cry. She didn’t know what to do. She looked to the kitchen. She couldn’t understand what her grandmother meant by using the wolfsbane, but it was all she could think of. She rushed to the cupboards, hoping to find another jar of the small yellow flower. She threw each cupboard open with a fury, tossing out anything in her way and pitching it across the cottage. She frantically dug, searching. There was nothing. She heard his voice again, this time at the window.

“What are you doing in there, my love?”

“Leave me alone!” The girl shouted.

“It won’t be long now.” He said. “Soon this will all be over.”

Tears streamed down the girl’s face. But through her tears, she continued to search through all the herbs and spices, jarred in her grandmother’s cottage. All she needed, the girl thought, was to find a bit of wolfsbane. She sat on the floor sobbing. The shelves and cupboards were bare. Their contents now spread all over the gelid floor. She pulled her knees up and tucked them under her chin. Whatever came next, she thought, it would be final. For in her soul she knew there was no coming back from whatever was about to happen.

Then, sitting low to the ground, the girl spotted it. A tiny piece of plant resting on the floor beneath the old wooden table, it’s small yellow petals protruding beneath a discarded loaf of bread. Wolfsbane. The girl laughed, surprised and elated. It must have fallen when her grandmother had placed the bundle into her basket.

The girl lunged forward and grasped the wolfsbane in her petite fist. She rushed to the door and held it there, against the wood. The man outside laughed, his voice sounding distant.

“Wolfsbane?” He scoffed. “Did the old woman teach you that? Such a small amount! It might hold me at bay in this form, but just you wait, my love, soon not even that damnable flower can save you!”

The girl broke the plant into smaller pieces and spread it across the window seals and door frame. she held several yellow petals in her small hand. She was frightened and alone.

The man laughed outside. “Can you feel it? It’s here.” He said. “It’s the most indescribable feeling, my love. It courses through my veins. It pulses within me like fire!”

His voice, once rich and soft was now lower and guttural. “It’s like every part of me yearns for this moment. It craves it! The change is coming!”

The girl moved several inches closer to the window. She saw the man, standing in the garden, next to the road. He had removed his shirt, showing his stately, sculpted chest. Here the light of the bright full moon shined down on him like a beacon. He arched his back and began convulsing. At first, the girl thought he was in pain. His face grimacing and his jaws clenched tight. Then he smiled, welcoming the change. She watched in horror as the man fell to the ground, hunched over on his hands and knees. She couldn’t tear her gaze away. All at once it seemed as though she were going mad. Her eyes betraying her, or her mind, she couldn’t tell.

His flesh tore away from his body, and beneath it, where there should have been muscles and bone were thick tufts of steely brown fur! His hands shifted and changed, forming large clawed paws, and his face…

Oh, his face! The girl watched, unable to look away as the man’s nose and mouth stretched outward. His teeth grew long and dagger-like! My, what big teeth you have, she trembled.

Suddenly the man was gone. his flesh rent and tattered, like shredded pieces of paper, scattered about the garden. There was only the wolf. It was giant, bigger than any wolf she had ever seen. Larger than a bear, she thought. It turned its head from side to side and then shook itself as if drying off after a bath in a pond. The wolf looked toward the cottage. Its large hungry eyes, yellow with hatred, locked with the young girl’s. She couldn’t move. Terror had seized her body and froze her where she stood. The animal seemed to smile.

It threw back its head and opened its large, fanged jaws. It let out a blood-curdling howl. The sound was deafening and unnatural. Only a monster could make this sort of noise, the girl thought.

Slowly, almost casually, the wolf padded toward the front door of the cottage. The girl moved away from the window. Her foot caught on a jar of herbs and slipped, her ankle twisting the wrong way as she fell. Pain shot through her leg, but she ignored it.

The girl moved backward, sliding along the floor. She pushed herself into a corner and closed her eyes. She could hear the beast outside. It breathed heavily at the foot of the door, huffing and puffing, stirring up dust and dirt through the threshold.

There was a thump at the door. Then another, and another. The wolf was slamming its body against the thick oak. The door creaked under pressure. The girl knew it would not hold. Soon the demon would be at her throat, and surely, it would kill her.

The door exploded off its hinges, splinters shot across the room, nearly hitting the girl in the face. She screamed out as the gigantic beast entered the cottage. Its mammoth teeth shining wet from within its giant jaws. The wolf moved closer, now inches from the innocent girl’s face. She could smell the animal’s sweet musky scent emanating from its fur. Its hot breath poured down over her small frame. Peeking through slits in her eyelids, the girl looked up at the animal’s face. Their eyes locked.

Even in the face of death, even as she was about to be utterly destroyed, there was something about this beast, this man, that enchanted her. The girl felt the same warm desire burning within her stomach. It moved through her body, lighting flames in her chest and her groin. It held her, swayed her, made her want to reach out with open arms and invite death. There was dark magic involved in this, dark evil magic, and yet…

Yet there was no avoiding. The girl enjoyed and even yearned for this feeling. She wanted it, just as badly as the wolf, with its hungry ravenous eyes and its starving razor-like fangs wanted her.

There was a sound, at first it seemed far away, but then it came closer. She couldn’t quite make out what it was, but the girl was too enthralled to care. Then the wolf turned. looking away from the girl, moving its fiery glare toward the door. The spell was broken.

All her feelings of fear and terror came rushing back. All of it more overwhelming than before. She shivered and shook as the reality of death took hold with its icy hands.

Something entered the cottage. A man. He was tall and muscular, but unlike the wolf, this man was rough and worn, aged prematurely through hard labor. He had thick hair, cropped close to his head and a long red beard. Over his shoulder, he carried a long wooden axe.  The silver blade reflected the light of the fireplace and cast shimmering specks of light along the ceiling and floor of the hut. It was the woodsman. In his hand, he held a bundle of flowers with long green stems and little yellow petals. It was her wolfsbane. He tossed them at the wolf. As the creature sprang backward, away from the plant, the towering woodcutter took one giant step forward toward the girl. He wrapped a tree trunk of an arm around her small body and picked her up. The wolf maneuvered, trying to stop them, but the wolfsbane acted as a shield and kept the beast away.

The muscular woodcutter tossed the girl across the cottage out of harm’s way like a rag doll. She crashed to the floor, smashing jars of spices and herbs as she came down. The broken glass cut into her skin and caused her to bleed. She winced but refused to scream. She would not give him that satisfaction, she thought. The wolf watched this with a wily grin. It sniffed the air, as if to smell the girl’s blood, and chuckled.

“You will not have this child!” The large man boomed raising his axe with both hands.

The creature growled, the deep vibrato rumbling through the house like an earthquake. It pounced toward the woodsman, arching through the air like a catapult. Its mouth open with fangs bared and ready to bite. In a single move the man stepped to the side and swung his axe. It smashed into the wolf’s neck severing its head. The body continued to sail through the air and landed with a thud next to where the girl lay. She jumped, startled.

The tall woodsman dropped his axe and held out a hand to the girl. Her small hands fit entirely inside his large, calloused palms. He pulled her to her feet and stared down at her. She moved in and hugged the man. She had only met him on one other occasion in the village, and she had never spoken to him before, but she was grateful for him now. He slowly wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly.

“Is it done?” She cried, looking up into soft blue eyes that lay hidden beneath thick bushy brows.

The man shifted his gaze to the floor. The girl turned and followed his stare. The body of the wolf was gone and in its place lay the headless, limp figure of a man. Across the room lay his lifeless head. His yellow eyes, now dull with death, seemed to stare at the girl. An expression of sadness and betrayal spread across its face.

Outside, the sun began to rise. Fiery red and orange flames of sunlight began to filter in through the forest and shine in through the doorway and windows.

“Come, child.” The woodsman said. “Let’s get you home.”

The girl pulled back from the tall man and took his hand. Together they left the cottage and made their way to a cart, where two geldings stood waiting. The woodsman placed the girl inside the cart and climbed up to sit beside her. He flicked the reins commanding the horses to go.

As they rode away, down the long road toward the village, the girl looked back one last time. Her grandmother’s home seemed to sag with loneliness. As if the cottage itself knew, that she was never coming back.

The girl turned, the woodsman stared at her and smiled. She smiled in return as a cool brisk breeze blew through the trees and sent a chill down her spine. The girl pulled her red riding hood closer around her and enjoyed the rest of the journey in silence.

Written by Rick Bishop