The woods were dark and dangerous this time of year. Wolves and other such creatures became bolder. Town elders mused it was because of the lack of sunlight that predators prowled. Winter was a desolate season after all. No sense denying that. Like clockwork it crept across the landscape in flurries of snow, burying all it touched in a tomb of white silence. ‘Twas no wonder it brought death. It blanked out the sky with its shadow far too densely to provide any reprieve from the unknown.
Red wrapped her cloak around herself tighter. She wasn’t cold so much as she was scared. It had only been a fortnight since she had lost her cousin Lizbeth to the woods. The dearly departed girl would have been fourteen in August. Such a little goose Miss Lizzy was! Such a tender soul full of vim and vigor! The village wouldn’t feel half as welcoming without Lizbeth’s giggling voice or toothy smile.
“It’s the wolves’ fault,” Red muttered. “It’s because of their hunger Liz is gone.” Angrily Red digs her boots into the ground with increased fervor as she walks. It was time nature feared man; vengeance would be hers. The big bad wolf had slashed one soft belly too many for Rowena Red’s liking. The very thought of Lizbeth’s stomach having poured open like spilt grain from a mill sickened Red and left her reeling with disgust.
Lizbeth had been nothing but kind. A sweet girl with the voice of a canary. Dead now. Torn to shreds. The bits of her remaining left to repose in a grave on the edge of town. Lizzy’s mother Aunt Sybil had wrapped her daughter in her favorite lilac colored dress. Nothing left to mourn but pieces and fabric.
Since the funeral, Auntie had succumbed to a fever. The brutal loss of her child unhinged her and brought on a thick sickness the likes of which no regular herb or poultice could heal. Granny wouldn’t be swayed. There was one last healing draught to be had, but the mushroom needed lay in the heart of the trees. Red had volunteered her services. She was able bodied, lithe and quick on her feet. She could face the terrors unseen and win too. She knew she could.
Before leaving, Grandma had urged her granddaughter to be cautious. It was hardly a needed reminder. Red was always careful. She was no fool. Beneath the crimson of her robes she hid a nasty looking blade. It was a beauty too. Seven inches long with an edge as jagged as a cougar’s maw. Simply devilish! Father had good taste and wisdom for gifting her such a weapon. It would be the perfect implement of destruction for any big bad ugly to dare creep her way.
As the crimson cloaked lass wandered, two eyes of the deepest blue scrutinized her figure from the undergrowth. It couldn’t help itself. This girl was unlike anything the leering shadow had observed before. Yes, the young woman was scared. The observer could taste that sticky tart emotion upon its tongue thanks to the smell of the girl’s sweat as she trudged by. Fear was normal, as was cowering from it. What caused the creature pause wasn’t the lack of fear but the fact it walked beside the girl, and the girl didn’t flinch away from it.
The raven haired interloper carried herself as if her shoulders could bare any burden. Her strides were confident boot marks that glided upon the icy ground. Wolf was impressed. He wasn’t dealing with a child here: He was dealing with a huntress, a worthy adversary among men.
Before he knew it, Wolf had developed an admiration for the girl. She seemed so breakable yet powerful in his home. This one was an enigma; a curious puzzle to solve. His pack would protect her. How often had a human walked with such bravery in his woods without clinging to their pride and brashness? Not often. This girl was a wonder. She seemed humbled while stone faced. Whatever crossed her path she would stand her ground. Oh yes, Wolf liked this two legged one. She had spunk.
Huffing and puffing Red adjusted her basket. Where was that blasted aloe? It was the last component to Gran’s potion yet remained unseen. Such a rotten herb to find! No matter how hard Rowena searched for it, the herb remained stubbornly lost. Legs sore from hours of wandering, Red reclines against an oak tree. She scrunches her brow to clear her head. Where hadn’t she looked before? What was she missing? Taking two deep breathes, Red opens her eyes once more. Ah, there it is. A cave. And what should be thriving around said cave’s entrance? Why it’s aloe. Of course it is.
Cursing to herself, Red sloshes across a stream to reach the cave. Teeth shattering, Red curses to herself. She knows that young ladies such as herself shouldn’t resort to the profanities of men, however, this particular young lady has had a long and lonely day. And she was wet. Bound to contract a fever of her own at this rate. Whenever Red reached the sanctuary of home she would sup hot soup and merrily sip warm tea, all while regaling her Granny with tales of her adventures. Red silently prayed her blade wouldn’t remain clean either upon her triumphant return. No, not when fiends murder children in the woods.
Just as Red’s hand grasped the aloe bushel, something knocks her down harshly. Wheezing Red’s eyes wander up the length of her attacker. It was furry, large and formidable. It was a wolf. The wolf. Red sputtered and felt for her knife. It was time for action; it was time to become as ruthless as the wolf himself.
Lunging the youth screams with all her might. Her throat constricts. Burns. Red never knew she could growl that loud or that savagely. It’s a guttural sound. One of rage and grief. A cacophony of feral hatred. But, alas! That sharp wicked blade missed its mark! The wolf had sidestepped the attack in one long loping stride. How queer. . . Wait. . . why was this thing standing on its hind legs?
Shell shocked Red gazes upon her enemy: Erick the village woodcutter. There the wretch towered, face muddied with dirt and feces. His clothes covered by wolf pelts; his face obscured by the fur. Oh gods and his ax was raised. But why? How? Then Erick begins to laugh. His ax slumping down beside him. Red can feel the vibrations of his bellows through her very chest. They’re thunderous. Appalling.
“Not quite the age I like,” the man giggles. “But seventeen ain’t like being grey haired between the legs is it love?” And Erick reaches for her. Tears at Rowena’s cape and dresses. He’s so close and where oh where is her blade? Where. Is. It? There! It’s beside her. She must reach it, but his breath! His breath is so foul. Can’t move. Can’t move. He’s on top of her whispering such grotesque things. Then Red begins to shake. Lizbeth died this way. Her girlhood stolen before being butchered by a friend.
Erick must have been doing this for years. Red shuddered. Every winter the wretch had followed children into the woods under the pretense of retrieving wood for the village. There he violated and tortured them far from their families. If seen, people could mistake him for a wolf because of his furs. The shelter from the trees as well as the grey clouded skies of the most desolate season provided the coverage Erick so needed. The bodies too were easily disposed of. All the madman had to do was dismember his victims corpses then later leave the pieces where they lay, so the surrounding wildlife could devour them. The true wolf was Erick.
Suddenly Red and Erick stop their struggle. The woods erupt in an unsettling howl. Wolf leaps atop the Woodsman. His black fur bristling with fury. How dare this man wear the skins of his fallen brothers and sisters! How dare this beast touch this girl! This wonder of the woods! Wolf’s jaws snap around soft tender flesh. He rips and tears and slashes with his claws. His rage never abating.
In the chaos, Rowena Red rolls away. Fur and arms collide as Red slumps to her new position in the earth. Before Erick had a chance to react, Wolf had ripped his worthless throat out. Chomping at his neck as if it were a Sunday rib roast. Nausea overtakes the girl. She vomits. Berries and bread from luncheon spray onto the earth. Too much has transpired. Too much. But what about Lizzy? Red can’t leave things this way.
Erick’s death was a quick one in comparison to Lizbeth’s. It made Red’s stomach once again churn in revulsion. Wiping her mouth resolutely Red picks up her dagger. Wolf sits away from the sputtering man. It’s as if he’s giving Red permission to strike. Nodding her head Red whispers, “Thank you.” Mericessly Red cuts at Erick’s bloated body with a passion. The wolf simply sits and waits for her anger to subside.
It wasn’t until dan that Red’s hunger for revenge had been sated. Still her savior remained with her. There was an understanding between girl and beast now. They were more than friends it seemed. Almost as if Wolf had accepted Red as one of his own pack. Funny how earlier Rowena pledged her life’s purpose to ridding her woods of wolves. Now she knows the opposite: the world’s most fearsome foes were man not beast.
Absently, Red pets Wolf’s head as he follows her into the village, past the gaping villagers, and into her home. Without a word, Granny envelops her granddaughter. She doesn’t ask the girl about her new companion. She simply accepts his existence into their house as the new normal and begins preparations for her healing potion.
By the next winter solstice, Wolf became known as the town guardian. His pack too were welcomed and revered. A festival was even thrown in Wolf’s honor for his bravery and compassion towards a wayward youth in his woods. As for Red? She became the wisest village elder and fiercest huntress known to us as “Little Red Riding Hood.”Her legend, along with that of the wood, thrive even to this day. She lived happily ever after and (more importantly) Erick never lived to see another day happily or otherwise again.