The wind broke, and Red wiped snow from her eyes. Orion stood upwind of her, his broad frame blocking the draft. Red’s cheeks warmed looking at him. He was the only Woodsman willing to follow her into the night, the only one who’d never whispered behind her back or shot her dirty looks across the hunting hall. The others let her stay because of her prowess on the hunt, but they’d never see past her family history. Orion understood that it drove her to make amends. She smiled at her betrothed.
Orion returned Red’s smile. “A fine night for tracking,” he said in a deep baritone. Red straightened and lifted her hood to plant a kiss on his lips. For a moment, the chill winds couldn’t touch the warmth they shared.
A howl echoed through the trees, chilling her deeper than any wind. She pressed a hand to Bane’s leather-wrapped hilt. The silvered dirk had gotten her through more hunts than she could remember. But the creature wasn’t in close quarters quite yet. She drew her crossbow and loaded a bolt. Woodsman doctrine was to fill a werewolf with bolts and then hack the monster to pieces. Of course, she was supposed to have a full patrol to help.
“This way,” Red said. She glanced back at Orion as he drew his own crossbow and nodded to her. Red jogged after the vanishing tracks. Trees grew denser around them, a canopy of thick pines casting long shadows in the waxing moon’s light. The tracks disappeared into a gully.
Red eyed the narrow path into the depression and the shadows within. Sometimes the beasts would hide when cornered by armed hunters, but this one would find no quarter with her. The beast’s slain family back in the village, ripped apart by its claws and teeth, were proof enough of what happened to any who showed mercy to a werewolf.
Red took a step down the path. A shadow spread around her: something overhead was blocking out the moonlight. She was wrong about the tracks. They didn’t lead into the gully; they stopped at its edge, as if the beast had leaped up into the thick branches. Red’s gaze shot up.
Golden eyes stared down on Red from a lupine shadow. The werewolf let go of its perch and dropped toward her, yellow teeth flashing in a long muzzle. Red threw herself to one side, landing hard in the frigid snow. The beast crashed down where she had stood a moment before, and its jaws snapped.
Orion loosed his crossbow. The bolt missed its mark in the moonlight and disappeared. The beast ignored Orion and lunged for Red. She rolled away and brought up her own crossbow. Her bolt struck true, smashing into the werewolf’s chest.
Red’s thrill of triumph was cut short as the beast lunged for her again. Her bolt had sunk into muscle but missed any vital organs, a trivial wound for a werewolf. As the beast closed in, Orion lunged forward with sword in hand and hacked a deep gouge in the tough hide. The werewolf yowled in pain. It seized Orion’s sword in a meaty paw and twisted even as the blade drew blood. Orion lost his grip with a grunt.
The werewolf hurled itself into Orion. Both went down in a crash of snow. The wolf’s teeth flashed. Orion screamed.
“Orion!” Red drew Bane and charged. The werewolf looked up and leaped at her, jaws gaping. Red ducked under rending claws and came up inside the beast’s reach. She shoved Bane into its throat. The silvered point cut through hide and flesh like so much velvet. The beast fell unmoving atop her, driving her to the ground and forcing the air from her lungs. Blood splattered across her face, cloak, and hair.
Red heaved the corpse off her and stumbled to her partner’s side. “Orion? Orion, say something.” Blood, so much blood, seeped into Orion’s cloak from the deep bite in his shoulder. Dread clenched Red’s guts into a hard pit. This was all her fault; she’d dragged him out into the windy night.
He groaned and blinked up at her. “Red, you’re okay.” He took a shuddering breath, deep voice cracking with pain. “The wolf, did you…”
“Yes,” Red said. She clutched his shaking hands in hers. “It’s dead. I killed it.”
Orion nodded slowly. He tilted his head to look at where blood froze in pools around his wound, and the little color left in his face drained away. “You’re not done yet, Red.”
Red made her tone light. “What, that?” She gestured at the wound, and her voice cracked from a barely suppressed sob. “It’s nothing, nothing that can stop an ox like you.”
“One bite,” Orion said in a trembling voice. “That’s all it takes.” With his good arm, he fumbled at something around his neck, a bronze pendant in the shape of a hunting arrow. She’d fashioned the pendant for him when she asked him to be her betrothed. He unfastened it and held it out to her. “Please,” he said, “I don’t want it on me when I change.”
The pendant fell into Red’s open hand. She looked at it, the metal still warm from his body. She couldn’t lose this man, the one who held her close on cold nights, who spent hours treating her wounds after a hunt turned ugly. Red’s hand closed around the pendant, and she tucked it beneath her cloak.
“No,” she said, “you’re not going to turn.”
Red retrieved Bane from the bloody snow. Then she knelt down, put Orion’s good arm around her shoulders, and boosted them both upright. Orion hissed in pain. “There’s only one way to stop me from turning, Red.” He tilted his head up toward the waxing moon. “Use Bane, now, before it’s too late.”
“There’s another way,” Red said between clenched teeth as she dragged her partner forward a step. “I’m taking you to my grandmother’s house.”
Orion went rigid. “You can’t be serious.”
Red turned her head to hide her grimace. She’d sworn it would never come to this. The other Woodsmen had said she was a sorcerer in the making, that she would turn out just like big bad Grandmother. She was about to prove them right. “She’s the only one who can help.”
“You told me that her help costs double in return.”
Red forced confidence she didn’t feel into her voice. “Let me worry about that.” She knew too well how high the cost could be and how impossible to predict. When Red was a little girl sick with the pox, Grandmother’s medicine had cured the illness, but the next day two healthy girls suddenly died of it. The seeds Red’s parents planted always filled their table with food, but somehow Red’s father wasted away to nothing even as he ate his fill.
Orion’s response was slurred to the point she couldn’t understand. He was fading, from blood loss, the bite, or both she could not say. She trudged on toward Grandmother’s house, carrying more and more of his weight with each step. His breath came in shallow gasps, quieter with each intake. Her legs burned from carrying him, and her throat clenched tight. She could make it. It wasn’t far – Grandmother’s house was never far.
She stepped between a looming pair of firs, as much dragging Orion as carrying him, when orange-yellow light bathed her. She looked up at the light flickering through a partially shuttered window. The house was two stories tall, dark stained wooden walls slouching forward as if to fall upon any who approached. Red swallowed. It was just a house; the danger was the woman who lived within.
Red gathered her strength and heaved Orion the rest of the way up to the heavy oak door. He moaned quietly at each jostle, and the sound stabbed at her heart. She knocked hard on the door, splitting the night time quiet with her knuckles. Again. And again. On the third knock, a panel slid open to reveal a pair of wide blue eyes clouded with cataracts. “Eh?” came a rasping dry voice. “Who’s bothering me this time of night?”
Red’s gorge rose. Those eyes burned into her childhood memories, eyes that had looked from her to her terrified mother and back over the finest tea cup in the house. “I need your help,” Red said in a choked whisper.
The eyes blinked through the open panel. “What now? Speak up girl, these ears ain’t what they used to be.”
Red drew a deep breath. She wouldn’t tremble. She’d faced down slavering beasts as a Woodsman, and she could face Grandmother. Her voice only shook a little. “Grandmother, it’s Red.”
“Red, my dear,” Grandmother said. “So nice to see you again. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“My partner has been bitten by a werewolf. I need you to stop him from turning.”
Grandmother cackled. “Few know more secrets of the werewolf than I, dear.” The panel slid shut and the door opened a crack. “I’d love to help your beau, but I’ll need something from you.”
“I know,” Red said. She held Orion tightly against her. His skin bore a yellowish tinge in the moonlight. If she didn’t ask Grandmother’s help, he would turn and be gone even more surely than the death she could give him. “I’m prepared to pay,” she said.
The door opened wider. Grandmother stood in silhouette, a heavy shawl around her narrow shoulders and over her slightly bent back. “Marvelous. For this, I’ll take Bane off your hands. I know you still have it. I can smell it on you.” Her tone grew wistful. “I remember when I gave that to your mother on the day of her majority. Good to see it coming home.”
Red looked at Bane in its sheath on her belt. The dirk was her edge over the monstrous creatures she hunted, its silvered blade spilling their life’s blood when no other weapon would do. To lose it could mean any number of foul beasts evading death to terrorize the land. Orion’s weight pressed heavily on her shoulders. It was a price worth paying. If she was lucky, it would be the only price. “Bane is yours, Grandmother,” she said.
Grandmother rubbed her bony hands together. “I’ll take it now, then.”
With her free hand, Red unfastened Bane and held up the sheathed dirk.
“Good girl,” Grandmother said. She stepped back from the door. “Put the dirk on my mantelpiece. Your love can lie on the low table there, and we’ll see what can be done.”
The house’s front room was stuffed full with shelves and cabinets. Moldering books crowded every bit of shelf space, the calligraphy of their titles worn away to illegibility. Those books that stood open showed illustrations of disembodied organs alongside stars arranged in unreal patterns. One volume displayed a diagram of a humanoid wolf, its flesh cut open to show the muscles and guts beneath. Atop and around the books were scattered dolls missing buttons, spiders with legs curled in death, and other items Red chose not to dwell on. The low table was a wide stone slab, polished smooth and set close to the low-burning fire. Sweat sprung up on Red’s brow as she navigated Orion around the cluttered floor to set him down as gently as she could on the table. In the fire’s light he looked even worse, his bloodshot eyes flicking open and closed, his cheeks sunken in.
Red placed Bane on the mantel and then hurried back to Orion’s side. Grandmother’s light steps made Red look up. The old woman drew a skeleton key from her dress. She unlocked a varnished wood cabinet and opened it a crack, just enough to reach in and pull out a lump of clay. She bustled over to the stone table and extended a long finger, prodding Orion’s cheek.
“Hmm, bitten good this one,” Grandmother said. “Definitely going to need some foxglove.” She looked up at Red with her clouded eyes. “What’re you standing there for, girl? Run down to the cellar, and fetch me foxglove. Third shelf from the stairs, you can’t miss it.”
Red was up and moving before she’d fully processed the command. She unlatched the cellar door and descended the creaking stairs. Shelf after shelf of herbs and spices waited in the cold chamber below, the smell of hot pepper dominating all other scents. Red found the third shelf and the heavy clay jar labeled foxglove. Her muscles still ached from carrying Orion, but she hefted the jar and brought it back up the creaking stairs.
Grandmother was stretching the lump of clay between her hands when Red returned. The old woman lifted the jar’s lid and rubbed a pinch of foxglove into the clay.
“Isn’t foxglove a poison?” Red asked. What part could it play in a cure?
“All the better to drive the wolf’s corruption from him.” Grandmother looked up at Red with a raised eyebrow. “Well, are you just going to stand there when the fire is dying down?”
Red glanced at the hearth, where embers and the remains of a few logs smoldered. “I’m sorry, Grandmother,” she said. “I’ll get more fuel.”
Grandmother bared her teeth. “Wonderful idea, child. Wood pile’s around the side, though you’ll probably have to split some; my old bones haven’t been up to the task in all this snow.”
The cold bit into Red as she closed the front door behind her and trudged to the woodpile. Her arms and shoulders went numb swinging the hatchet to split the logs and then carrying them back inside to build up the fire. When the hearth was full, Red’s eyes found Grandmother molding the clay into a distinctive shape.
“Is that a clay man?” Red asked. It looked like the focus of a dark spell, such as one that sent little homunculi scurrying after innocent victims.
Grandmother paused her shaping of the clay. “All the better to cure a man’s ailment.” She stared meaningfully at the dusty floor. “I left the broom upstairs.”
Red trudged up the house’s narrow stairs, past Grandmother’s bedroom and to the broom closet. Armed with straw bristles, she attacked the dirt-covered floor, working her way from the tiny upstairs to the cluttered front room. A snipping sound caught her attention and she glanced up to see Grandmother cutting off small lengths of Orion’s hair and attaching them to the clay doll.
Red’s stomach clenched. Stolen hair was at the root of more hexes than she could count. “Grandmother, do you really need to take his hair?”
“All the better to make him well, dear.” She cleared her throat. “I must work quickly now, but I’m parched and a cup of tea would be just the trick.”
Red sighed and hurried to the kitchen. She lit the small stove and poured water into the kettle from a tall pitcher. Waiting for the water to boil she dashed back, just to see Orion, to make sure he was okay. Her heart ached when he came into view, sweat standing out all over his skin, eyes and jaws open wide, though he made no response to Grandmother’s prodding – the final stage of a werewolf bite.
Grandmother met Red’s eyes. “Almost done, child. Just need a bit of sage from the cellar.”
Red nearly ran through the cellar door and took the steps two at a time. Her hands closed around the sage jar when the cellar door slammed shut above her. What was happening? Red sprinted back up the stairs, but the door held fast. She wiped dirt off the cellar door’s window and peered through. The old woman stepped nimbly back to where Orion lay. Red tried the door again. Nothing. “Grandmother,” she said, “let me out.”
The old woman’s voice was muffled through the door. “Oh no, child. I can’t have you interfering with my puppets, not anymore.” She turned her gaze to Orion. “We’ll put a stop to that, won’t we?”
Red’s mind reeled. Puppets? What could she mean? Any moment Orion would turn and tear the old woman apart. Grandmother opened the cabinet on the mantel. Red drew in a sharp breath. Inside the cabinet rested shelf upon shelf of clay figures, each of them a humanoid with claws and a long, wolfish snout. Grandmother reached inside and withdrew a pair of glass beads, pressing them into the clay man to serve as eyes.
Grandmother held up the clay mockery of Orion. “Werewolves, so easy to control if you have the knowing of it, and you brought one right to my home. I’d thank you, but it’s the least you could do after destroying so many of my other servants.”
Orion’s head jerked up on the table. Stubble appeared all over his face, as if he hadn’t shaved in days. The bottom fell out of Red’s stomach. Grandmother would let him turn; Grandmother wanted him to turn. Red slammed herself against the cellar door. Pain lanced through her shoulder, but the door refused to budge.
Orion came bolt upright, fur covering his exposed skin. He cried out, and his deep baritone twisted into a wolfish howl. A cracking squelch filled the house as his bones shifted into new shapes. Red screamed and battered the door, but the heavy timbers held. She sank down to her knees on the stairs. She couldn’t watch, couldn’t bear to see a wonderful man corrupted into a monster.
A long howl set Red’s hair on end. Grandmother’s cackling laugh joined it, echoing through the cellar door and into the chamber below. Red rocked back and forth, her chest constricted until she could barely breathe.
The cackling howl faded, replaced by Grandmother’s voice. “This way, my pretty, I’ve a task for you before the sun rises.” Heavy footfalls padded closer to the cellar door. Fear edged in on Red’s grief, and she backed down the stairs.
The latch clicked, and the cellar door swung open. A beastly silhouette stepped into the cellar’s darkness, black fur swallowing the light from the fire. Growling breaths emerged between the yellow fangs of a long muzzle. The breath carried a sharp, acidic smell that overpowered the cellar’s many racks of spices.
Behind the beast, Grandmother stood with a transformed clay figurine in one hand. “You’re only going to bite her,” the old woman said. She wagged a finger. “If she dies, I’ll be very unhappy.”
The beast growled low.
Grandmother looked past the beast at Red. “Don’t worry, child,” Grandmother said. “It’ll just be a little prick, and then you’ll be all the better to help your old grandmother.”
Red took another step backward, heart pounding.
A piercing whistle shrieked from the kitchen. Grandmother tilted her head. “That’ll be the kettle.” She raised the clay figure. “About your business then, puppet.” She slammed the cellar door, and the latch clicked shut.
Red’s feet hit the cellar floor. She had nowhere to go, just a few feet to the back wall and a host of herbs and spices. The beast stalked closer, its powerful legs bunched for a leap. Red cast about for a weapon. She had nothing, not even a knife, until she remembered Orion’s bronze pendant. It was shaped like an arrow, with a sharp point, and it was all she had. She dug the pendant out from her cloak and held it before her, ready to make a feeble jab. She’d brought a fate worse than death on both Orion and herself, but she would fight it until the end.
The beast stopped and stared. Its yellow eyes focused on her. Red blinked. What was it waiting for? She followed the line of its eyes and realized it wasn’t staring at her; it was staring at the pendant in her hand. She moved the pendant, and the beast’s gaze followed it.
Red sucked in a breath. How was this possible? Werewolves slaughtered and turned their own families as readily as strangers. But the beast stared at the pendant anyway, in defiance of everything Red had learned on the hunt. Red gritted her teeth. She couldn’t explain what was happening, but she could use it.
She crept forward toward the beast, pendant held high. With her free hand, she grasped a jar from the nearest shelf. The beast sniffed at the pendant, its breath a sour wind. Red brought the jar down on the werewolf’s forehead. The pottery shattered, sending a cloud of hot pepper into the beast’s face.
The beast reared back and wheezed a choking cry, scrabbling at its muzzle with heavy paws. Ignoring the pain in her own eyes, Red slid past the wolf. Behind it, she threw her arms around its neck and squeezed hard. The beast thrashed, caught between the pain in its face and the sudden lack of breath. Red pulled tighter.
Her back smashed into a spice shelf as the wolf tried to crush her. Splinters and clay shards jabbed into her flesh, but Red held on. Claws gouged the flesh of her arms, but she pushed the pain aside. She would not die or turn in this cellar. She would not let Grandmother gloat about her defeat.
The beast shuddered and stilled. Even such monsters required air to breathe. Red blinked through the stray flakes of pepper that burned her eyes. She should keep squeezing until the wolf was dead, make certain this beast would never visit terror and death upon the land. She slackened her grip. What a weak, lovesick fool she was. Still, the beast had recognized Orion’s pendant. She couldn’t destroy the monster, not while there was some fragment of Orion within.
Grandmother’s voice sounded from the cellar door. “Puppet? Oh, puppet? You’ve made an awful racket down there. Is the work done?”
Red whispered a prayer of thanks for the cellar darkness, but fear rose in her once again. She was still trapped, and soon the beast would awaken. Her only chance of escape was if Grandmother opened the door, but she’d never be so foolish, unless… Red prayed that the old woman’s eyes were as poor as they looked.
“Puppet,” Grandmother said from above. “Don’t keep me waiting. Up here at once.”
Red gathered what was left of her strength and lifted the beast’s limp form, holding it up before her like a shield. With one hand, she grasped the fur of its neck to keep its head from lolling sideways. Ignoring the dull pain in her wounded arms, she climbed the cellar stairs, her feet making heavy thuds on the aging wood.
“Puppet?” Grandmother said, peering through the small window. “Is that you? You don’t look so well…”
Unsure what else to do, Red grunted the best snarl she could manage and jerked the beast’s head back and forth. The silence stretched out.
Grandmother snorted a laugh. “My granddaughter wasn’t the type to go without a fight. Get out here with you.” The latch clicked, and the cellar door swung open.
Red dropped the beast and sprinted through the doorway. Grandmother gave a startled cry as Red tackled her. Red and the old woman both fell hard. The clay figurine dropped from Grandmother’s hand and slid across the floor. Red drove the breath from her opponent with a hard gut punch. Gasping, Grandmother took a pebble from her pocket and flicked it at Red. The pebble became a fist-sized rock in mid-air and struck Red across the jaw with the force of a charging bull. She reeled back.
“Clever, clever,” Grandmother said as Red blinked stars from her eyes. “But this old woman isn’t so easily beaten.”
Red reached for Grandmother’s arms, but the old woman stepped away before Red could close her grip. Grandmother plucked a clove of old garlic and popped it in her mouth. Red lunged, and Grandmother exhaled. The noxious breath invaded Red’s lungs. Her head swam, and she collapsed in a heap by the hearth. The hot stone burned Red’s skin, and she rolled away. Red groaned. Grandmother’s magic was so powerful, how could Red win against it?
“It’s no matter, child,” Grandmother said, rising to her feet. “You’ll serve me one way or the other.” Behind her, a low growl came from the cellar. The beast’s muzzle emerged, its yellow eyes tinged with crimson. Red struggled to rise onto aching legs. It was no use. She didn’t stand a chance against Grandmother and the werewolf together.
Grandmother turned to look at the creature. “Not dead then, puppet? Good. Now, where are your strings…” She trailed off.
Red’s eyes widened. Grandmother needed the figurine to control the beast. Would it work for someone else? The clay figure caught Red’s gaze where it rested beside the stone table. She lunged for it, Grandmother a split second behind her. They struggled over the still-soft clay before Red twisted away from the older woman. She held the figure aloft. “Orion!” she shouted in desperation. “Help me!”
The beast opened its jaws and sprang at Grandmother, bowling through the cluttered front room.
Grandmother danced away from the flashing teeth. “Oh no,” she said, her words half a cackle. “This old woman won’t meet her end on a wolf’s tooth.” She scooped up a dead spider and crushed it between her hands. The old woman’s legs lengthened and bent in arachnid proportions. She leaped over the werewolf’s head, scraped the ceiling, and landed lightly on the stairs. She raced up to the second floor, Orion close on her heels, and slammed the iron-banded door in the beast’s face.
The werewolf slashed and beat at the door, spraying splinters, but the door held firm. “Day breaks soon!” Grandmother crowed through the door. “When your stolen puppet is only a naked man, we’ll see who triumphs.”
“Stop,” Red said, holding the figure. The door would hold for hours, and she’d have no chance against Grandmother’s magic once the sun rose. “Orion, stop.” The beast, Orion, ceased slashing at the door and gazed at her with bared teeth.
Red put her hands on the unburnt end of a log from the hearth. She would stop Grandmother from coming after her, stop the old woman from hurting anyone else. She pulled the log from the fire and threw its burning end onto the stairs. Flames caught on the dry wood in seconds. Red took up the fireplace tongs. It was time to end her family’s shame. She pulled coal after red hot coal from the fire, scattering them across the floor.
Grandmother’s cackling laughter turned to a shriek of dismay. “No, you wouldn’t!”
Red swept hot ashes out of the hearth.
“Don’t be so hasty, my granddaughter. I can still save your beau if you’ll be reasonable.”
Red ignored her grandmother’s words. She was through with bargains and deals. New fires caught wherever a coal landed, devouring varnished shelf and papery book alike. Smoke threatened to choke Red’s lungs. She grabbed Bane from the mantel and fastened it to her belt. Time to go. She clutched the clay figure. “Follow me!” She threw open the door and ran into the predawn light.
She looked back toward the house just as the second floor collapsed in a roar of flaming embers. A shrieking wail echoed from the ruins.
Red limped away from the burning wreckage with Orion’s heavy footfalls behind her. The light and heat of the burning house faded, swallowed by the trees. Orion’s footfalls stopped, replaced by a cracking squelch, and then nothing. Red stopped. A slice of sun rose over the horizon. She turned back. A broad-shouldered man lay naked and shivering in the snow, the skin of his shoulder smooth as if he’d never been bitten.
Red doubled back and knelt beside Orion. She unclasped her cloak and tucked it around him, wrapping him in her arms for warmth and making soothing sounds. “It’s day,” she whispered to him. “The beast is gone.”
“Oh, Red,” Orion moaned. “You shouldn’t have let me change. I could have…”
“You didn’t,” Red said. She held him tighter against her. “You didn’t.”
“I’ll change again tonight,” he said. “You have to end this.”
Red shook her head. All her Woodsman training said the only cure for a werewolf was a swift death, that mercy would only lead to more suffering. But Orion had followed her commands, not only to attack, but to stop. She held up the clay figure, its lupine features now gone. “I got this from Grandmother.” She would explain everything when there was time, but now he had to understand. “I can use it to make sure you never hurt anyone when you’re changed.” She pressed her forehead to his. “Please, Orion, you don’t have to die, and I don’t want you to.”
Orion stared at the figure for a long time. Red held her breath. If she had been the one bitten, she wouldn’t have believed such an offer of salvation. She’d have insisted on the knife.
“I don’t want to die either,” he said at last. “And I trust you. If you say that thing is safe, it’s good enough for me.”
Red pressed her lips to his for a lengthy kiss. She hadn’t lost him, not to the wolf’s curse and not to Grandmother. They huddled together until the cold became too much, and they staggered upright. The village was close, where Orion could get out of the cold and into fresh clothes.
A song bird fluttered down out of the cold sky and landed on a branch at Red’s eye level. It cheeped at her and stuck out one leg, to which was tied a paper ribbon. Red stared at the bird, then at Orion, who looked just as confused. With a hesitant hand, she untied the paper and opened it.
“So wonderful for you to visit, my dear granddaughter,” the paper read. “And such a kind child to take care of my dirk and my puppet for me. Don’t worry, I shall return your visit soon.”