There was once a great wolf who lived in a lush green forest. He was much like other wolves, embracing the freedom of night runs and enjoying routine meals of hare and the occasional deer. As a youth, he had left his pack to find his fortune in the wide world. Many of the woodland villages boasted the position of a town wolf, but time and again he was turned down. He was told he lacked the necessary qualifications or skill set, his personality wouldn’t mesh with the other staff, or in the few honest cases, he was just too damn big. Disillusioned, he settled under the canopy of green where he didn’t have to interact with many humans.
His nearest neighbor was an old woman who insisted that everyone simply call her Grandma. She was a witch, rapidly approaching retirement, and feared nothing and no one. To her credit, she was able to see past the fur, canine teeth, and impressive stature to appreciate the wolf as another of the forest’s valuable inhabitants. She welcomed her wild neighbors, both near and far, for polite conversation, meals, and the exchange of favors. Wolf had made a habit of fetching supplies from greater distances to save her arthritic joints the long journey. In return, she provided routine medical treatment and advice.
Grandma’s granddaughter dwelt in a nearby town with her parents and three younger siblings, though she often traveled the forest path. The ability to learn and perform magic skipped every other generation, making the granddaughter the next witch in the family. Her training under Grandma had been progressing along the usual lines, though Grandma expressed concern over what she had perceived as a cruel nature housed within a charming and adorable countenance.
On her walks to Grandma’s house, the granddaughter was known to magically bind small creatures unfortunate enough to come into her view. Although she released them upon her arrival for her lessons, she delighted in forcing the animals to do her will, particularly when it contrasted with the creature’s own nature. Grandma confronted her granddaughter after receiving a reluctant yet adamant group complaint, but the girl feigned an innocence which Grandma didn’t believe for an instant.
In that day, witches proudly wore bright red cloaks to indicate their station. In addition to being a cheery becoming color, it was an effective advertising campaign. Traveling witches, or those new to town, could be easily identified by those seeking their services. In an effort to alert the inhabitants of the forest, Grandma granted her granddaughter her novice witch’s cloak when she was still quite young. This allowed her to be seen from a distance through the undergrowth, and the woodland dwellers had been warned to avoid her.
The villagers, who doted upon the lovely granddaughter, with her golden ringlets, fair face, and bright blue eyes, took to calling her Little Red Riding Hood. At the age of seventeen, she was everyone’s darling. Men and boys desired her while girls and women wished to be like her. Grandma’s efforts to temper Little Red’s mean streak met with mixed success. Her nasty tricks grew less frequent but they took on a more vicious flavor and were more carefully concealed.
“I must ask you a favor, Wolf, my dear,” Grandma said one morning as she took delivery of several bunches of fresh herbs. “And it’s not something easy, this time.”
Keeping all four feet on the floor, as was polite, Wolf leaned across the table so he could smell her better. He stopped short of touching her with his blunt black nose. “What is it?”
She looked down at her fingers, separating stems, before raising her head to look at him. “I’m expecting my granddaughter today.” She folded her fingers together and sat down in her usual chair. “She’s up to something. I’ve sensed it during her last several visits, and I fear that whatever it is, it can’t possibly be good.”
Wolf shifted his weight back and sat down. “What do you want me to do?”
“Would you be willing to accompany her along the path to my cottage?” Grandma asked. She didn’t look away, but the concern over her request was evident on her lined round face. The lips, normally spread into a wide smile, were pressed together in a small wrinkled oval. She had the same blue eyes as her granddaughter, but they held a depth Little Red’s lacked.
“Do you want me to follow from a distance, and watch?” Wolf asked, guessing there was more to it than that. “Or do you wish for a genuine escort?” He didn’t relish the thought of getting any closer to Little Red than he had to.
She frowned, then reluctantly said, “I think it would be best if she knows you’re there.”
Wolf studied his front left paw, his eyes half lidded. He didn’t want to appear to be a coward, but there were some things it was sensible to be frightened of, and that young woman was one of them. “I don’t wish to fall under her spell,” he said, after careful consideration.
“Her charms have only worked on small creatures,” Grandma said. “No one larger than a badger has been controlled by her whims.” She smiled, a pleased, yet conflicted expression. “She lacks the focus to bind the greater beasts of the forest, something I have not felt it necessary or wise to point out to her.” She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “But I would be lying if I said you were perfectly safe with that granddaughter of mine. I suspect she has hidden some of her skills, quite probably gleaned from ill-advised sources.”
Wolf stood up and paced through the kitchen, then back again. He did not like this request.
“I just want you to keep an eye on her. You are an impressive sight, my dear, and I think even she would think twice before trying something unsavory under your nose.” Grandma stood up, brushing her hands off on the white apron that covered her blue skirt. “Perhaps if you told her I sent you to protect her from the bears, or something. You know how those villagers are terrified of things in the forest. They filled their wolf post with a runt, as you know. There are dogs bigger than their wolf.” She shook her head, and her pure white ringlets bounced in response. “You should be able to pick anything you like.”
Wolf ceased his pacing, stopping to stand directly in front of Grandma. Like many witches, she was petite. Unlike most women who attained her age, she wasn’t frail or curved in the spine. If he dropped his shoulders as though stalking, he could look her in the eye, which he did now. “I’ll be honest,” he said. “I don’t like this. But I’ll do it for you. You’ve been a good friend, and I’m willing to help if I can.”
Grandma reached out and brushed the back of her index finger against the side of his muzzle, downward in the direction the hair grew. “Thank you.” She opened one of the small drawers in the enormous spice cabinet that covered one whole wall of her kitchen. “I will not send you entirely unprotected, just in case,” she said. “Stick out your tongue.”
She dropped a pinch of crushed dried leaves on his tongue. It was bitter, and he licked at his teeth for a few moments to get rid of the taste. Then he went out to wait along the path, not far from the village.
The morning was waning when Little Red finally put in an appearance. Wolf had watched her many times from a distance. When she was still quite small, she routinely skipped the whole way whilst humming chipper little tunes that seemed so sweet and innocent, yet somehow filled him with revulsion and dread. She’d gone through a phase where she took tiny sideways steps on the balls of her feet, occasionally spinning, in a twisted sort of dance to Grandma’s house. That had been followed by attempts to appear as though she were floating, gliding effortlessly down the path. That had been her least successful experiment, and she’d quickly given it up for a more purposeful stride. It had clearly become her preferred method.
Today she carried a medium-sized basket in her left hand. Its contents were concealed beneath a white towel. In her right hand she carried a bouquet of wildflowers. Her red cloak was tied at her neck, the hood hanging between her shoulders to lay her blonde curls bare.
While she was still some distance away, Wolf strode out to stand in the path. He sat and patiently waited. He was pleased to see that she looked startled, if only for a moment. “Good morning, Miss Riding Hood,” he said, inclining his head in greeting.
“And good morning to you, Mr. Wolf.” She flashed him a smile, dazzling yet cold. “What brings you out at this time? I thought your kind preferred the darker hours.”
It took an effort to hold back the smile, an expression most humans did not understand. “I enjoy many hours of the day and night. The variety keeps me young.” He lifted himself to all four feet as she approached, just in case he needed to spring away. “But I’m here specifically at your grandmother’s request.”
Little Red stopped. She tilted her head to the side, just a bit, while looking at him as though trying to read his mind. It was one of the expressions the townsfolk found so charming. “Why would Grandma send you?”
He had chosen his excuse in advance, one recommended by Grandma herself, and which would not place blame or danger on any of the area’s current residents. “An enormous bear has been seen in this part of the wood. He is easily twice my size. Have you not heard?” he asked, feigning surprise. He had yet to run into bears as large as he described and suspected the giant Ursa had emigrated to the north long before his own kin made that journey. “The woodsman hunts him even now, for he is a fiercely dangerous beast.”
“Really?” Little Red asked, her eyes wide with excitement. “You must tell me more.”
“Do you know of the woodsman’s sister? She lives deeper in the forest than Grandma.” He waited for the young woman’s eager nod to continue. “The bear happened upon her children, a twin boy and girl, only yesterday.” He shook his head, as though unable to go on.
“The bear ate them up,” Wolf said simply. It was the most absurd thing he could think of, though he suspected a human might find it quite reasonable.
“Truly?” Little Red asked, too awed to fully hide her delight over such an event.
“There wasn’t so much as a scrap left when he was through,” Wolf added, thinking it would add to the horror.
“How dreadful,” she murmured, her expression turning calculating.
After a moment of silence he looked down the path toward Grandma’s house. “Come, we mustn’t dally. Grandma is waiting, and she will worry if we are overlong in arriving.” They walked together, side by side down the path, making good time. “My what a fine cloak you wear, Miss Riding Hood,” Wolf said, trying to make polite conversation.
“All the better to show off my rank,” she replied, beaming with delight and holding out her arms to allow for a lovely draping effect. “My mother had it sewn for my birthday. My old one was quite worn and far too simple. This is the finest brocade to be found. It suits me, don’t you think?”
Wolf nodded in agreement. “What lovely flowers you have,” he said, though some were brown tinged and losing their petals.
“The better to cheer Grandma,” Little Red replied, admiring them for a few paces. “She seems so glum at times, cooped up out here in the forest.”
“And what a large basket you have,” he said. The contents smelled delicious, and he wondered if she were bringing treats or if it were simply her own lunch.
“All the better to bring biscuits to Grandma,” she said. “I made them this morning, so they’d be fresh.”
“They do smell fresh,” he agreed. Perhaps he should ask Grandma to make him biscuits for dinner. They weren’t the sort of thing a wolf should eat every day, surely, but he wasn’t averse to expanding his palate.
“Would you like one?” Little Red asked, untucking the end of the towel with one finger.
“I couldn’t,” Wolf said. “But thank you.”
“But you must have one,” she said. “You’ve come all this way to protect me.”
He didn’t trust her food, no matter how good it smelled. “I couldn’t eat Grandma’s biscuits. It wouldn’t seem right.” That was a good excuse.
Little Red bit her lip for moment as though she were thinking. “You know, I’m not even sure if they turned out very well. I’d hate to give them to Grandma if they’re awful. Won’t you try just one, so you can tell me how they are?”
She was crafty. But he was, after all, a wolf and did not lack for craft of his own. “I shall eat one if you eat one,” he suggested. “After all, my sense of taste is very different from yours. I’d hate to tell you that they’re fabulous only to find that they aren’t what biscuits should taste like at all.”
After another moment of thought, Little Red nodded. “Very well.” Nestled among the biscuits was a little pot of butter. She dipped two biscuits into the butter, then handed one to Wolf.
He held it on the top of his paw, looked it over and sniffed it thoroughly. She was already eating hers, so he devoured his in one bite. He licked his lips. “Wonderful,” he assured her. “Grandma will be pleased.”
“Do you really think so?” she asked. “Would you like another?”
“I couldn’t,” he said.
“Oh, but you must,” she insisted. “You’ve been so kind.”
“Only if you have one as well,” he replied. So they each had another biscuit, and another. The supply was quite depleted when Wolf suggested they needed to hurry along. “We’d best save the last few for Grandma.” His suggestion seemed to disappoint Little Red, though she didn’t say so.
They walked quickly and soon they had arrived at Grandma’s cottage. As they neared the door, Wolf was suddenly very tired. It was with great effort that he lifted each foot for the last few steps. He felt hot, as he never had before. It wasn’t the heat of a warm summer’s day or the exertion of a long run. He could feel the blood coursing through his body, leaving a burning a trail in its wake. His stomach was heavy, as if he’d swallowed stones instead of biscuits. He turned to look at Little Red, and his vision swam, images swirling before him. When things became clear again, he could see the she looked distracted, and her cheeks were flushed.
“And how do you feel, my wolf?” she asked, her voice slow and drawling.
In that moment, he realized how monstrous a creature she was. She’d been willing to take her own poison, or potion, to trick him. It didn’t matter whether she simply wanted to see what she could do, or if she had some darker purpose for him, it was all the same in his mind. He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, tugging at his skin and making it prickle. His lips curled back to display his curved canine teeth, larger than her biggest fingers. But when he would have lunged at her, torn out her throat, he found himself unable to move.
A strange sound hurt his ears, and he realized Little Red was laughing. Those who had been taken in by her trickery might have thought it a gay happy noise, but to him it was only evil.
“Are you angry?” she asked in a sultry whisper. “Are you vicious?”
A low growl rolled from his throat. If he could only take a step toward her, that was all he needed to close the distance. But his paws were not his own.
“Very well then,” Little Red said. “I believe you’re ready to pay a visit to Grandma. You may not be a giant bear, but you’ll do quite nicely. And no one will suspect me.” She caressed his face.
He tried to snap at her, but failed.
Little Red turned the knob and pushed the door open. “Grandma, I’m here,” she called.
Wolf let out a howl, and wasn’t sure who was more surprised, himself or Little Red. Perhaps her control was not so perfect, for all that she had succeeded in enraging him. Before he had a chance to give it much thought, he was bounding into the cottage, his tormentor following.
“Wolf, what’s wrong?” Grandma asked, backing away as she read his body language.
He rolled his eyes as he stalked her around the table, growling without meaning to.
“What have you done?” Grandma demanded, looking at Little Red. “Release him!”
Little Red laughed. “And have him kill me? I don’t think so.”
“This is no way for proper witch to behave,” Grandma chastised. “What do you hope to prove?”
“I don’t wish to prove anything,” Little Red replied. “You have nothing more to teach me. You can’t even protect yourself from me. I don’t need you anymore.”
“If that’s how you feel, I invite you to go off on your own.” Grandma continued to circle the table, slowly followed by Wolf who was followed by Little Red. “Go, seek your fortune. See how far this kind of behavior gets you.”
“Why should I seek my own fortune when I can have yours?” Little Red asked. “You’ve lived for far too long. Every year my inheritance dwindles. That doesn’t suit me at all.”
Wolf was getting angrier by the moment, but he wasn’t entirely lost to the rage. He found he had some control over his actions, particularly when they were only a slight variation off what Little Red intended. She tried to make him grab at Grandma’s ankle with his teeth, but he was able to redirect himself at the last moment to grab the leg of the chair. It wasn’t great power, but it was a start.
“This sort of greed and control will get you nowhere worth going,” Grandma said.
Little Red’s laughter grated in Wolf’s ears and made his toenails ache. He would have flinched, had he been able to. He was so hot now, he could barely see straight. His breath made his throat and mouth sting.
“Why would I wish to settle down and make do as a country witch?” Little Red demanded.
“It’s made me quite comfortable,” Grandma said.
Little Red scowled. “I’m meant for better. The sale of your estate, such as it is, should allow me to travel in style. There’s a whole world I haven’t explored yet.”
Grandma nodded in agreement. “And folks you haven’t exploited.”
“It’s my life!” Little Red snapped, her temper apparently getting better of her. “And it’s my power to do with as I please.”
The part of Wolf’s mind that could still function, wondered if she was being mastered by the same rage she’d inflicted upon him. Perhaps it would upset her focus just enough for him to break free. But the heat and anger made it difficult for him to concentrate, much less remember from moment to moment that he needed some sort of plan. He abruptly leapt to the top of the table, something he never would have dreamed of doing himself. His ears nearly brushed the rafters. He felt his hind legs bunching to lunge, and knew Little Red was done playing with them.
He was going to have to eat Grandma, there was no doubt about that, but he thought he might have a choice in how it was done. He briefly considered attempting to make it as swift and painless as possible, but at the last moment decided to swallow her whole in the hope that she might survive.
Wolf gagged and writhed as Grandma went down his throat. He thought his heart might burst with the pain, which lasted well after he’d swallowed her down. Horrified by what he’d been made to do, he fell back on the instinct of a trapped and wounded animal. He caught the scent of Little Red behind him. She was sweaty and acrid, a repulsive combination that came from mixing magic and hate. He spun toward her, hackles raised, and a growl of his own rolled past his teeth. He took a slow steady step toward her, then another. Her slightly vacant expression turned to one of concentration, then panic.
“Back, Wolf!” she ordered, holding up her hands.
But he had read her body language and knew she no longer had control. It had taken everything she had to command him in his rage for the little time that she had done so. If she’d been quick, she might have been able to get him out of the cottage before her strength broke, but now it was too late. He sprung upon her, swallowing her even more quickly than Grandma. Again, his throat stretched and hurt as though he were eating giant porcupines whole.
Although it was justifiable, the part of his mind that was still sane was sickened and disgusted with himself as well as Little Red. He let out a howl of infinite anguish before collapsing to the floor in a fit of seizures. He thrashed like some enormous furred trout left on the shore, knocking over furniture and breaking things, all the while letting out a piteous cry. The rage had left him, and he lay spent and twitching on the floor when he smelled the arrival of the woodsman.
For a moment, it appeared as though the woodsman was simply going to chop off his head, and Wolf lay, helpless to stop him. His tongue lolled sideways out of his mouth and he could not speak to explain away the damning evidence. But the man stayed his killing blow, setting aside his axe in favor of a long sharp knife. With a careful hand, he sliced open Wolf’s belly. It hurt terribly, but again he was unable to move to save himself.
Suddenly, Little Red popped out of the hole in Wolf’s stomach. “My goodness, you wouldn’t believe how dark it was in there.” She smiled her sweet smile, dimples showing in her cheeks. Although the stomach slime dampened the effectiveness of her charm somewhat, the woodsman was clearly taken in by it. “Quickly,” she said to him, reaching for his wrist to emphasize her point. “You must shoot him.”
The woodsman slid his musket from his shoulder, taking steady aim at Wolf’s head.
“No, no,” Little Red said, pushing against the barrel. “Shoot him in the belly.”
The woodsman looked puzzled. “That won’t kill him.”
“It’s not the Wolf she wishes to kill,” Grandma said as she pushed her head out of Wolf’s stomach.
Little Red froze. Her mouth opened and closed, but no words came out.
“Thank you for your help,” Grandma said, smiling to the woodsman as she climbed out of the wolf. “But I must ask you to leave now. We have family business to take care of.”
The woodsman glanced from one witch to the other, then nodded and picked up his axe. “I’ll be by later to check on you, Grandma, but I wouldn’t dream of interfering.” He closed the door on his way out.
Grandma stood across from Little Red and held up a lock of golden hair, tightly bound by a single strand of white. “Isn’t this the most charming thing?” she asked with a smile. “I just happened to make it while we were both in dear Wolf’s stomach.”
Little Red stared at the hair, a strange expression of horror on her face. Once she began using her magic to bend others to her will, it had never occurred to her that she might ever have cause to fear.
“Did you think that just because I did not choose to use control, I could not?” Grandma shook her head. “You forgot your early lessons, my dear. Your confidence was your weakness and so you underestimated me. It will not happen again.” She tossed the hair into the fire on the hearth, and Little Red vanished in a puff of flame. Then Grandma took her large sewing basket to Wolf’s side. “I’m so sorry, my dear. I never dreamed she’d go after you,” she said as she threaded a needle. “No, don’t try to talk yet. I’ll explain what I think you’ll want to know, and after you’ve had a chance to mend, you can ask me anything you like.”
She stitched up Wolf’s stomach, humming in a way that eased his discomfort. “I’m not sure where my granddaughter learned what she did to rule you, Wolf. If I’d suspected, I never would have asked you to approach her.” She tied off the last knot, then helped him to his feet, where he swayed a bit. “And now you must rest,” she said, aiding him in the short walk to her bed. She was far stronger than she looked. “It’s as well I gave you those herbs before you left,” she said as she tucked him under the blankets. “They would have allowed you to shake off a simple spell, and they gave you the power to fight her control.”
She insisted that he stay with her until he was healed, giving him all the best food she had. In time, he was as good as new. Feeling that she was ready for a change of scenery, Grandma took the form of a crow and together they went off deeper into the forest where they may still live to this very day.
This story originally appeared in Wolfsongs #1, edited by M.H. Bonham and published by Wolf Singer Press 2008.