For the second time, she held the still-warm hand in her own hands. And it felt wrong. She slipped to her knees beside the bed. She felt tears spill from her eyes and as they tracked down her face and dripped from her chin to the ground, she saw that the liquid was a watery red. Her tears had mingled with blood.
How did blood get on my face?
She turned her head and looked at what remained of the body that once was her grandmother. She frowned in confused thought.
Where is she?
She had been there, in that body. Now she was not. Where was she?
She heard a noise in the doorway and if it was her attacker again, she would have perished right then, for she did not turn. She heard the clomping of boots and knew it was just the axman returning. He was breathing heavily through his nose.
“Whatever it was attacked your gran and you, it’s still out there, miss,” the axman said in a gentle but firm tone. “I must get you out of here and safe to my cottage. It’s nearby. My kin will look after you while I hunt this creature down.”
She reached out to open the bottom dresser drawer, where her grandmother always put gifts for her. There was a package there, wrapped in ribbon. A green riding hood.
But her hands were covered in blood. There was blood everywhere. But the hood was clean. She couldn’t touch it. She felt a heavy hand on her shoulder.
The axman must have seen. She felt his hand leave her shoulder. He pulled the drawer out, staining it with his own bloody fingers. He hoisted the whole drawer out onto his shoulders and held a hand out to her. She absently took his hand and he pulled her up on her feet and out of the house of her dead grandmother.
Once, Lotta and her family had lived close by, only half an hour’s walk from the little house under the oak trees where her grandmother lived. But her father had gotten work in the city. They were merchants now, merchants of wood and metal. They had not been hood-makers for two generations. Grandmother kept up the practice for the sake of tradition and custom. Even she had a different trade. Now, Lotta lived half a day’s wagon ride from her old village.
They received news that her grandmother was feeling ill and Lotta decided she would visit and stay with her grandmother, nurse her back to health, and speak to her frankly about alchemy, the craft that she wanted to learn and practice, that was too risky, not prestigious enough, and not profitable enough to satisfy parents who wanted safety and security for their child. It was grandmother’s craft. As well, Lotta had an apology to give and amends to make. She had acted childishly the past week when her grandmother had presented her with the riding hood for her birthday gift. She could not hold back the disappointment in her voice that she hadn’t received, as she’d hoped, her first alchemy book. Her parents might have disapproved, but grandmother had given her gifts her parents didn’t approve of before. That book of fairy stories for instance. She had seen eighteen summers now, but her grandmother still thought her immature and unready. Everyone had noticed Lotta’s disappointment. She only said the hood wasn’t her favorite color, and that she thought her grandmother knew her better. Her grandmother had looked guilty and abashed at this failure. Her mother, on the other hand, had been appropriately enraged. After her grandmother left, her mother laid into her for being petty, ungrateful, and spoiled. At first, Lotta had balked. She couldn’t tell her mother than it wasn’t about the cloak. She had mentioned once when she was younger that she wanted to be an alchemist. Her mother said it would be a good pastime for when Lotta was as old as grandmother, after Lotta had trained as a merchant, worked as a merchant, married and born children, taken care of her own parents, and lived on her own. Lotta had no plans to wait that long. But then she realized that her mother was right. The gift was a precious one. Red was the color of love after all. And blood—family. And red was grandmother’s favorite color. She didn’t know that until her mother told her. She had already decided to visit her grandmother, wearing her crimson hood, when news came of her grandmother’s illness.
In the letter her grandmother sent, she told Lotta she would have a gift for her. Lotta hoped it was nothing that took effort. She hoped her grandmother just had another story or fable to share. She imagined her grandmother’s face when she saw her in the crimson cloak. She hoped her grandmother would look pleased and triumphant. But then, her grandmother was too wise to care for triumph, especially triumph over someone she loved. She cared only for her granddaughter’s happiness.
Not knowing how sick her grandmother was, Lotta took a room in one of the village’s inns and left her bags there. She took only the basket of gifts. And she enjoyed her walk through the familiar forest. She thought about gathering flowers, but it made no sense to do so. Her grandmother’s garden would be in full bloom now. She could gather some posies from the garden to cheer up her grandmother. Besides that, her new boots already hurt. She’d only brought them as spares, not knowing how long she would stay. She’d meant to wear her well-worn walking shoes, but she couldn’t find one of them that morning. In another small mishap, she’d sliced her finger on a knife while trying to eat lunch. It was no wonder her grandmother had not yet entrusted her with a book. If she was so careless she couldn’t look after a boot or eat a meal without injuring herself, perhaps she was indeed too young.
Her riding cloak was as comfortable as her boots were not. Her grandmother had fashioned it cleverly. It felt cozy, cool when the sun shone on her, warm when she was in shadow and breeze. The outside was red velvet. The inside was satiny crimson. There were pockets everywhere, and there were snaps and buttons down the middle of the inside that when undone would let her fold the cloak inside out to reveal a dark red oiled cloth within. That would do for rainy, snowy weather. Near the left shoulder, her grandmother had sewn her signature symbol in black thread. Lotta suspected it was an alchemical sigil.
As she walked to her grandmother’s house, she heard the noises of the forest creatures, startled rabbits, dear moving through the wood. Halfway there, she felt a shape following her. She tried to see it, but it never got close. It did feel like an animal, but an animal with sense.
She wondered now if that shape could have been the thing that killed her grandmother.
The axman’s family lived just outside the village. His wife and daughter came out to meet them. They saw Lotta. And they saw the blood. The axman lay the dresser drawer down on a weatherworn wooden table just outside the front door. Wordlessly, his wife began pumping water from the well outside and the axman washed his hands. He explained to his wife what had happened. Lotta was trapped in a trance, watching the pump handle move up and down, but she heard and marked the axman’s words. He had been passing by and meant to check on Lotta’s grandmother. He knew she’d been ill and that she was expecting family soon. He saw the door open just as Lotta had when she arrived. But the axman saw a shape in the doorway, something his eyes could not make out. And before he could get closer or cry out, the shape slipped into the house. As he rushed toward the house, he heard a cry from within. That would have been Lotta screaming. She’d been holding her grandmother’s hand, blinking in disbelief and terror, when something knocked her down and clamped strong but dull teeth on her right shoulder as she tried to crawl away toward the bedroom door. She remembered the axman bursting into the chamber and raising his ax. She remembered the shape darting past him and out through the door. The axman gave chase. Lotta started crying. And for a second time, she grasped her grandmother’s hand.
“It was a wolf,” the axman said, setting his chopping ax down and taking up a crude old battle ax that was leaning against the front wall of his cottage.
A wolf? How in the six hells would a wolf get inside my grandmother’s house?
But some creature had bitten her. She was starting to feel a throbbing in her right shoulder.
That’s when they all heard something move through the hazel bushes in the surrounding forest.
“It’s here, papa,” the axman’s daughter said. She raised up the chopping ax that her father just put down.
“It must have followed us,” the axman said. “Just as well. It saves me the hunt.” He stepped beside his daughter and Lotta noticed that the girl was wearing a split skirt. “You stay back,” the axman told his daughter. “Do not attack unless it looks as if your father is a stroke away from death.”
Lotta felt a pair of hands on her shoulders. They were lighter than the axman’s, but also firm. It was the axman’s wife. “Come inside, child. Come to safety.”
But Lotta wanted to see the thing that had killed her grandmother. She wanted to face it. The axman was convinced it was a wolf, even though her grandmother had not been mauled. Perhaps it was. Lotta still felt those teeth on her shoulder, so close to her throat. The axman’s wife was trying to move her, but she resisted.
And they saw it again. A shape in the forest. It seemed to be circling them. It seemed to have followed Lotta and the axman. It darted through the trees. Her ears could follow the sound of its movement better than her eyes could follow the creature. It was on their right. But then, Lotta heard a rustling directly to her left.
There were two of them. The one on the left was louder, clumsier. Lotta narrowed her eyes and peered. The shape there seemed more solid. She recognized it.
It was a wolf. The axman left his daughter’s side and ran toward it.
He’ll never catch it, Lotta thought. But she watched as the wolf limped away. It was wounded. She lost sight of both wolf and axman as they moved deeper into the forest. The axman’s daughter followed, plunging into the woods. Lotta tried to move forward, but was held in place by the axman’s wife. She no longer tried to pull Lotta inside the house, but both she and Lotta glanced around. There had been a second shape, or so Lotta thought. Where had it gone?
They heard a sound then, a cry of pain, from an animal. The axman returned to the clearing with the dead wolf across his shoulders. Lotta watched the axman shift the wolf to his daughter’s shoulders.
“Skin it,” he instructed. “And lay the hide out to dry.”
She nodded, and struggling a bit with the weight on her shoulders, she headed toward the small shed some yards away. Lotta tried to follow, but those confounded hands were still on her shoulders.
“I would see the body of my grandmother’s killer,” Lotta said.
“You are too young for such sights,” the axman’s wife said, and Lotta could feel if not see the woman frowning.
It was a strange thing to say. Their daughter could not have been much older than Lotta.
“There is something else out there,” Lotta said. “Another one.”
The axman nodded. “I will keep watch out here for a little while. You should get inside and—”
“Papa! Come quickly!”
They all ran into the shed and found the axman’s daughter standing before the work table, on which should have lain the body of the wolf her father had just slain.
Instead, there was the body of a man.
The axman’s daughter, wide-eyed and horrified, held something up to her father. It was a black leather cord on which hung a stone, a flat milky blue stone, stained with blood. On the stone was carved some kind of sigil or symbol.
Lotta’s eyes went wide when she recognized the sigil. It was her grandmother’s.
“I saw it ‘round his neck,” the axman’s daughter said. “I thought it strange. How could a wolf be wearing a necklace? I took it off him and his skin just slipped off and here was the man underneath.”
There was what appeared to be a small bloody pelt of fur lying beside the table.
“Shape-shifter,” the axman’s wife whispered and she made the sign of the pentacle before her.
“Then we have done a greater service to this village and these woods than we thought,” the axman said. “I recognize this sigil.” He took the necklace from his daughter, then looked at Lotta, who held her breath. “It was your grandmother’s. I’ll wager she’s the one who put this on the creature, like the heroes of the old myths, trying to tie a noose around a magic wolf’s neck without getting bitten. It must have weakened him, enough for me to catch him and kill him.” He offered the necklace to Lotta, who let out her breath. “Keep this, as a symbol of her courage.”
He spoke then to his wife, who nodded and left.
“We’ll send a pigeon for the constable,” the axman said. “In the morning, he will bring the examiner and the corpse wagon. And we will be done with this.” He lifted up the skin—the pelt—that the shape-shifter had shed upon dying. It was still dripping with blood and tissue. “And this I will keep as my prize.”
“My grandmother is to lie dead in her bed all night?”
“Easy girl,” the axman said. He placed that heavy hand on her shoulder again. It was warm and solid and did indeed give her comfort. “It will be dark soon. Even the short walk to the village will not be safe. I locked all the windows and all the doors in her house.” With his other hand, he produced a small bunch of keys, the keys to her grandmother’s house. She kept them on a peg by the front door. “She will not be disturbed by any beasts or wanderers.”
Lotta looked up at the axman’s eyes and was surprised to see pain there. He had passed by on occasion when Lotta was visiting. Sometimes he merely waved to them if they were in the garden, his ax upon his shoulder. Sometimes he stopped for a snack and politely asked grandmother how she was doing. Lotta was glad someone was around to watch over her grandmother. But she never thought he might care for her grandmother as anything but an old woman who lived nearby.
Lotta nodded. He handed her the keys. In her mother’s absence, she was the inheritor of her grandmother’s possessions. Her mother. Lotta sighed, suddenly exhausted.
How will I tell them?
She had washed and the axman’s daughter had kindly lent her some fresh clothes. Lotta had refused only to surrender her blood-stained cloak, but to that no one had objected. They had fed her dinner, which she had tried to eat, for both her mother and grandmother would disapprove if she had treated such tender and good hosts with any sign of disrespect. But the axman and his family understood. They did not banter, nor did they remain silent. They gave comfort.
But all Lotta could think about was how her grandmother was lying alone and dead in her bloody bedchamber. And the nagging image of that second shape in the forest would not let her sleep.
They had made some bedding for her by the fire in the main room. She waited until everyone else was asleep upstairs. She slipped on her boots and her crimson cloak. She gently looked through the dresser drawer the axman had brought along and set beside her bedding. Aside from underthings and nightgowns, the green hood was the only thing in that drawer. Lotta checked the sides and bottom. She checked for hidden compartments. The green hood was a bit heavier than the red. Lotta wondered why, but she saved the thought for later. She slipped the green hood into the largest pocket in her red hood. And she took a small ax from the shed where the body of the shape-shifter still lay. The axman had covered his body with a torn-up potato sack. His features and the limbs that stuck out from the sack were slightly odd. He looked like a man, but a wolf-like man.
The moon was full and its light filled the forest. This time Lotta stopped to gather wildflowers from the woods to lay atop her grandmother’s chest. But she was careful not to stray too far from the path, not to stay too long off it. Mortal and natural creatures could be a danger anywhere. But if she stayed on the path, she would be safe from the unnatural. So said the stories her grandmother told her. There was knowledge hidden in those stories. Lotta knew those were her first lessons. So she heeded those stories well. And there were many tales about wily wolves and mischievous shape-shifters. But wicked wolves? Evil shape-shifters?
Before she reached the house, she saw the great oaks that protected it. As she drew closer, she noticed something else. There was a shape on the roof. Its eyes gleamed in the dim moonlight as the creature shifted. It was a wolf.
“You have killed my kin,” the wolf’s deep and throaty voice spoke from above her. “Have you come here to give me justice?”
Lotta felt her heart rise into her throat. He knew about the other wolf. He was surely that second shape she had seen. She kept her wits about her and responded. “It was not I who killed him. But I do believe he had harmed my grandmother. That is why he was hunted.”
“Why would you think he had harmed her? What proof have you?”
The wolf was right. She had no proof, yet. Had the creature guessed that she might be compelled to return here? Or had he known, having listened to her speaking with the axman and his family?
She was still on the path. She would be safe from this shape-shifter so long as she moved no closer. She placed her hand on the handle of the small ax she had brought. But what did she intend to do with it? She was no hunter. She was not yet an alchemist. She had no weapons against this creature. And if she carelessly wandered into its jaws, her family would lose two of their kin this day.
The axman was right. It was too dangerous to wander in the dark. She would have to go back, stay on the path and go back to the axman’s house. It was laid out in a pentacle, she had noticed. A shed, a water pump, a kiln, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, all laid out at the points of the star with the house in the middle. A pentacle of protection. The wolf would follow her, staying in the woods, taunting her, but if she could keep him occupied and distracted with conversation, he may not notice her leaving the path and walking into the pentacle, into safety. And there, she had the axman and his family’s protection. Here, without a living soul in the house, there was no safety. All the protections her grandmother had fashioned would have broken when she died.
Lotta took a casual step back. But then she looked at the house and saw that the door was open. She’d kept her eyes on the wolf. She hadn’t noticed before. It was wide open. The axman said he’d closed and locked all the doors.
“That’s a pretty hood,” the wolf said. “So red.”
Lotta felt her heart beating in her chest. She glanced between the wolf on the roof and the front door. What had he done? Had he desecrated her grandmother’s body? “My grandmother made it.”
“Your grandmother did not just make pretty hoods, you know. She made a good many other things.”
“Like that stone about your neck,” Lotta said. She was bluffing. She couldn’t see anything but the wolf’s eyes.
But she heard rumbling laughter. “Indeed,” the wolf said.
“How did you come upon it?”
“Come upon it?” The wolf stood now and Lotta made ready to dash away. “I did not come upon it. I was given it. By her.”
“You and your kin. You are shape-shifters, aren’t you?”
The wolf on the roof gave a slow growl that made her skin and bones shiver.
“We are wolves. We are the high wolves of a distant land. We were cursed to bear the shapes of men and women. We sought far and wide. We found none who could help us break the curse, but we did find one who could help us defy it.”
“Curses and wolves are of no concern to me,” Lotta said, astounded that she had not yet fainted away from terror and exhaustion. “I care only for the life of my grandmother. And since I could not save her life, I seek justice for her.”
“Do you believe you will find that justice in this house?”
“I mean first to bury her, that’s all.” She meant first to examine her grandmother, and the scene, and any detail that would give her a clue to who the murderer might be. But she wasn’t going to tell the wolf that. He might very well be that murderer. And that story about a curse might only be a story.
Suddenly, the wolf leapt from the roof and landed in beside the garden, only a few yards away. Lotta took a step back. In the moonlight, she could see him clearly now. She could see the stone around his neck. She could even see its color, milky blue. He was a great wolf, silver and black was his fur. And she could not help but to think that he was beautiful.
“I’ve been inside,” he said.
So it was him who had opened the door.
“Did you notice that she had but a cut on her hand and was otherwise unwounded?” he said. “Would a wolf attack someone that way?”
“Likely not, but a shape-shifter might.”
“There was blood everywhere. Too much to come from the cut on her hand. Where do you suppose that blood came from?” The wolf took a step forward. Lotta stepped back.
She was scared, but also fascinated by the wolf’s logic. “My grandmother killed her own killer.”
“She did.” Something about the wolf’s tone suggested that he was holding something back.
Lotta let out a breath. “Then she had wrought her own justice.”
Lotta frowned. “How do you mean, ‘no’?”
He took another step toward her. She stepped back and gripped the handle of her little ax. She could not help but think that he seemed to be herding her. She tried to glance around quickly. Were there other wolves in the woods?
Stay on the path.
Her right shoulder felt sore and weak. Something had bit her in her grandmother’s house. Sunk its teeth into her. It hadn’t broken any skin thanks to grandmother’s hood. But it left a bruise. Was it the other wolf who had bitten her? Or this one?
“She dispatched the one who killed her,” the wolf said. “He was but a weapon. She did not dispatch the one who sent the weapon.”
She had to distract him, change the topic, run away before he—or something else—fell upon her. “And the reason she died, does it have something to do with her helping you and your people?”
“I believe so.”
“You may be wrong.”
“I may be. Someone like your grandmother must have gathered many enemies. But she was protected from them. By this place and by her own cleverness.”
The wolf was cunning. The admiration in his voice for her grandmother sounded sincere.
“Then how did this particular enemy manage to get past all her protections, into her most private chamber?” A flash of memory. Her grandmother’s face. Lotta felt a surge of sadness. But this was not the time.
“I mean to avenge her,” the wolf said. “She has given my people her skill and her blood. She is kin to me now. And I mean to avenge my brother as well.”
Lotta started. “The axman was only trying to protect me and my grandmother.”
“I admit some bitterness towards this axman. But he was led to kill my brother. It would displease your grandmother if I were to harm the man or his kin. I will leave them be, if they leave me be.”
Suddenly, the wolf turned his head toward the forest. He snarled and before Lotta could react, he bounded into the forest. Lotta gasped. She hesitated for a heartbeat, then ran. It felt like a dream, a nightmare, she ran and ran and felt so slow, and the front door came no closer.
She finally reached it, dashed inside, pulled the door closed and bolted it. For a moment, she stood with her back against the door, breathing hard, shallows breaths. She wanted to close her eyes. But she had to keep them open. She went about the house, making sure all the windows and doors were closed. The only light in the house was the moonlight spilling in from windows. None of the curtains were drawn. There had been no one home to draw them.
By the door to her grandmother’s bedchamber lay the basket Lotta had brought. Mice were already upon the broken cakes that lay scattered on the floor. Lotta had baked them just the day before. The dark red pool around the basket was the wine that Lotta had brought for her grandmother. It had been a bright and happy crimson in the light of day.
She stepped hesitantly into the chamber. She could already see the dried spatters of blood on the opposite wall. She turned her head to the right, toward grandmother’s bed.
It was empty.
Lotta put a hand over her mouth and stepped closer. The sheets were flung about, covered in blood. Only blood. No gore. The room looked different. The dresser drawers were opened, their contents scattered. The bookshelves were upended.
The rest of the house was undisturbed, but someone had been searching for something in the bedchamber. It had happened after Lotta and the axman left. But where was her grandmother’s body?
“You must come away.”
Lotta spun around and slipped out the ax.
The wolf stood at the threshold. How had he gotten inside? Lotta let out a breath. It was no magic. Her grandmother had a dog once. She had built a flap for him to come and go below the back wall. The axman would have missed it. Lotta had forgotten it.
“What have you done with her?”
“I have done nothing. She is not here.”
“There,” the wolf said, looking up at one wall. “And there.” He looked each blood-spattered wall.
“You lied then, about this being the blood of her attacker.”
“I never said it was, you did. She did kill one of them, even as the other killed her. You came upon them. They did not expect you. The body you saw lying in the bed was not your grandmother.”
Lotta sucked in a breath. The way her grandmother’s hand had felt. It felt wrong. She thought it was death.
“They would have killed you too. I could not reach her in time. But you, I tried to help.”
He had knocked her down. Tried to drag her out, away from them. He had tried to scare her, chase her away. Or perhaps…this was the shape-shifter before her.
Great liars always told mostly the truth. The wolf the axman killed was indeed wearing her grandmother’s sigil. And perhaps she had indeed helped him in the exact way that this wolf said. The curse. The stone. It was probably true.
The only way to be sure was to see the sigil on the stone about the wolf’s neck. And the only way to do that would be to get close enough to let him kill her.
“You can prove you are my grandmother’s friend,” Lotta said. “Step outside.” She would draw her grandmother’s sigil in the dirt. If the wolf could stand within it, he was no enemy. At least, she hoped it would be so.
The wolf gave an impatient growl. “Her enemy is outside. He hunts you even now.”
“What were you looking for in here?”
“He is looking. He killed her to find it. He will kill you.”
“I do not know. I only know he did not find it here.”
“Her book. It holds her knowledge.”
“Well, if that’s what you’re looking for, I don’t know where it is. You shouldn’t have killed her. You’ll never find it now.”
“I did not kill her!”
Lotta backed away.
The wolf growled. “Come outside then and put me to the test quickly, before he makes a bloody cloud of us as well.” He dashed away.
Lotta felt a surge of anger. She looked around the bedchamber, at all that was left of her grandmother’s earthly body. She hadn’t yet taken the time to feel anger. She stalked outside.
She found the wolf out there and someone else.
“Lotta,” the axman said. He had his battle ax hoisted and was facing the wolf, who stood growling, his hackles raised.
Lotta raised her hand. “Wait, please. He may not be our enemy.”
The axman’s face was filled with rage. “Are you—you are consorting with it? With one of the things that killed your grandmother?”
“Whatever killed my grandmother, it was no wolf.”
“This is no wolf. It is a shape-shifter, girl. It shifted into something that drips poison, a snake, a spider. When she did not see or suspect, he slunk into her bedchamber and sunk his filthy teeth into her.”
“Do not trust him,” the wolf said. “He is not what he seems.”
“This creature has enchanted you,” the axman said. “Seduced you.” There was fear in his eyes.
He doesn’t see me. He sees his own child.
Lotta moved toward him. “The path is behind you. He can’t harm you there.”
“And what of you? Come here to me.”
She glanced at the wolf, but the wolf’s eyes were on the axman. If she could get the axman on the path and get the wolf onto her grandmother’s sigil, she could prove to herself and to them that they were both true, and that their enemy was elsewhere. And if she could not do one or either, then one or both were her enemies.
The axman was backing up, closer and closer to the path. If he were a shape-shifter, he would hesitate. Lotta breathed a sigh of relief. The wolf was stepping toward them.
Lotta stepped beside the axman. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Come on home with me.”
The hand felt…light. Lotta gasped. She tried to pull away, but the hand tightened its grip. He pulled her toward him and held her with his arm across her shoulders. She glanced at the axman’s arm, at his hand. There was a cut on the palm of his hand, just like the cut she’s seen on her “grandmother.”
“You’re not the axman.”
She felt a squirming at her back, a constant shifting. “I am not a man at all.”
“You’re the one who killed my grandmother.”
“You should have stayed with the axman and his family. Come here in the morning. I would have been long gone.”
“I don’t think so. You still haven’t found what you’re looking for.”
“You don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“Don’t I? Why do you think I was ‘consorting’ with the wolf?”
His grip on her shoulders tightened. So, what he sought did indeed have something to do with the wolf.
“What makes you think that you can help the wolf king, when your grandmother could not?”
“What makes you so scared of these wolves that you would risk facing a powerful alchemist?”
The wolf stepped closer.
The axman—the shape-shifter—put the edge of his ax at Lotta’s throat. “Back away, wolf.”
Lotta tried to take a step back and push the shape-shifter toward the path. He laughed.
“I know what you’re trying to do.” He stepped backward a few steps, dragging her along onto the path. “The path is a myth, little hood. No one is safe from anything on any path.”
The wolf leapt at them then. Lotta pulled away from the ax as far as she could before the wolf landed on them, and added to the motion of their steps. They all fell backward. The wolf bit the ax-wielding arm and Lotta rolled away.
The shape-shifter cried out and dropped the ax. Lotta pulled out her own ax. The axman shrunk and shifted and hair sprouted from body and his clothes, of a wonder, dissolved away, and he was a wolf. Identical to the wolf from the roof. The wolves lunged at each other and they tumbled back into clearing. Lotta looked between them, but she could not tell which was which. They both even had the stone about their necks. The shape-shifter would not have copied the sigil. But again, she would never get close enough to see that difference.
Lotta held her ax with the handle down. She used the handle to draw her grandmother’s sigil in the dirt, large enough to encompass both wolves. An open circle, a triangle, lines. It was a simple sigil. Alchemy was not magic. There was no bright light or wave of energy. She did not know if this would work. Her heart was filled with fear and rage, not calm and kindness.
The two wolves snarled and snapped and charged at each other. One grasped the other around the neck and clamped down and they stopped. They were locked together. Lotta did not know who was biting and who was bitten.
She searched her pockets. She had the stone, from the other wolf. Where was it? She could not find it.
The bitten wolf had fallen. She sliced her thumb with her ax. She dipped the index finger of her right hand in the blood and drew her grandmother’s sigil on the palm of her left hand. Her hands were shaking. It looked sloppy.
She approached the wolves. She placed her left hand on the head of the wolf who was biting down. If he was her ally, the touch would do him no harm. The wolf did not react. But maybe it was because the sigil didn’t work. Maybe she had drawn it wrong. Maybe it would work but not for her.
She looked down at the wolf that was bitten. She pulled the cord around his neck and looked at the sigil on the stone. It was her grandmother’s sigil. She raised her ax, but the shape-shifter let go of the wolf and turned his head to snap at her.
The wolf, the real wolf, turned the tables and caught the shape-shifter by the neck. There was blood tricking down the wolf’s fur.
Lotta raised her ax and the shape-shifter started shifting. It changed into Lotta’s grandmother in her nightgown, sitting helplessly on the dirt with a wolf at her throat.
“Lotta,” the shape-shifter pleaded.
Lotta shook her head.
“I cannot stomach that name,” she said. “She never called me that.”
She raised the ax and brought it down. She brought it down and cut off the shape-shifter’s right foot and the grandmother shape melted away. There was no blood. But with the cry of pain, the shape-shifter turned into its native form, a mass of gray flesh with two reddish-black beads in the center that could have been eyes. Lotta did not know if it had ears.
“What she did do, however,” Lotta said, “was tell me many, many stories. One of them was about a mischievous boy who could change his shape. He caused a lot of problems until someone chopped his foot off and forced him to stay in one shape. Of course in her story, the boy felt no pain and he stayed boy-shaped.”
The creature was harmless now. Or so Lotta hoped. Not everything her grandmother had taught her had worked. She was no alchemist. The sigil of protection had not worked for her. She had not earned its power. She emptied a box of garden tools, scooped the gray mass into it, latched it down, and set it within her sight.
The wolf was sitting on the dirt, breathing slow breaths.
“How badly are you hurt?” Lotta asked. Her fear of him was gone. Perhaps she should have been cautious of that. But where she had seen terrible beauty before, she saw nobility now. And sacrifice.
“I need a bit of time,” he said, his voice weak.
“Can you move? You’ll be more comfortable inside.”
“I am comfortable here.”
Lotta realized that he was sitting in the spot where she had drawn her grandmother’s sigil.
The wolf fell asleep. Lotta bound his wounds and kept watch all night. She drew more sigils in the dirt. She checked the shape-shifter’s prison. And she longed for the light of dawn.
Soon, it came. Bars of gold light warmed her. She drew some water from the well to drink. She started feeling tired, and thought about the warm little bed that the axman’s wife had made up for her.
The wolf woke and he seemed startled to find himself in the open.
“Are you well?” Lotta asked.
“I am better. Truly, the sigil can heal as well as protect.”
Lotta smiled. “I’ve been drawing it and staring at it all night.” And she had found the other wolf’s stone pendant in one of the pockets of her hood. She held it up. “This is no sigil. It’s my initials—my grandmother’s initials.” She looked at the wolf and saw the question in his eyes. “We have the same name,” she explained.
“Why is that intriguing?”
“What does it mean that she used her initials as her sigil for protection and the bending of our curse?”
“I believe it means she put herself into the alchemy. Her own body. Her own authority. Her own elements.” She drew a cup of water for the wolf.
“Does not the alchemist always do so?”
“I suppose, but this is far more personal.”
The wolf emptied the cup and looked questioningly at Lotta. She drew another cup.
“Healing is thirsty work,” the wolf said.
“I also had time to think about how anyone could have gotten past such a powerful sigil. I can’t very well ask the shape-shifter now that he had no voice.”
“He wouldn’t answer anyway. How do you think he did it?”
“He pretended to be me. That’s how he got past all her protections and caught her by surprise.”
The wolf emptied a second cup. “But surely she would have seen through that ruse.”
“He used my blood,” Lotta said. “My blood would get past her defenses, so long as I was still alive.” The cut on her hand from the tavern knife. One of her shoes being missing, the right one. It wasn’t her carelessness, as she’d thought. The shape-shifter had watched her at the inn. Had stolen her shoe, the better to copy her shape. Had placed a knife just so in the hopes it would cut her. Had taken the kerchief she’d used to dab the blood, the better to fool her grandmother.
Grandmother had been ill. Weakened. It was enough.
The wolf gave no response.
“I’m hungry,” Lotta said. “And I’d like some rest. If you feel up to it, I want to go to the axman’s house. The constable should be arriving and I have a story to tell.”
“They will not believe you.”
“I will tell a convincing story.” She pointed to the box. “They’ll have to believe that. That will clear your brother of the accusation of murder. His remains will be treated with respect.”
“There is no chance then of having him returned to us?”
“I will see if there is anything I can do.”
“I would be grateful.”
Lotta smiled. “The gratitude of a king is something I’d surely like to earn.”
The wolf sighed, but he did sit up taller.
“May I ask your name, highness?”
“I am loathe to give my name to the granddaughter of a sorceress.”
Lotta scoffed. “My grandmother was no sorceress. Can you not see? Stone and metal and plants. She was an alchemist.”
“I do not understand the difference, but if it is an affront to call her sorceress, I will not do so.” He managed to rise, but it seemed to give him some difficulty.
“You are not truly a king, are you?” Lotta hoped not, for she would not have teased a king, even a king of wolves.
“There is condition attached to this stone,” the wolf said, ignoring her question. And it seemed like a conversation he wanted to have before they moved on. Lotta turned away from the path.
“If ever it were to fall from my neck, the curse would fall upon me again and for good. Even if the curse were broken, I would never be a wolf again.”
That’s what had happened to his brother.
“It’s that horrid, then? Being a man.”
“I mean no offense, but I am a wolf. If ever you have been in a shape that is not your own, you would understand.”
They both glanced briefly at the prison box by Lotta’s feet.
“I am here because your grandmother summoned me. She had found a way to keep the stone upon me always. If I am a wolf when the curse breaks, then wolf I will stay.”
“But she was killed before you saw her.”
The wolf nodded.
“But that is not all. When she first cast these stones for us, she said there was a potion that might help us break the curse. It was a healing potion. The most powerful one. She called it quintessence, but she said it was beyond her skill.”
“A shape curse.” Lotta rubbed her chin. “I take it the shape-shifters placed this curse on you and your people. My grandmother got caught up in a feud between your peoples.”
“She did, and I am sorry for that.”
“Why was she helping you?”
The wolf sighed. “Your grandmother and I were old friends. I saved her once. She felt she owed me a debt. I never intended for her to pay it. But she became an alchemist, a skilled one. And I came under a curse, a powerful one. I came seeking her help, or her advice at least.”
“If you were her friend,” Lotta said, “and if she vowed to help you, she would not have stopped until she broke that curse.”
She knelt down. From the largest pocket in her hood, she pulled out the package containing the green hood that her grandmother had made for her but not given her. The wolf stepped forward as she unfolded the hood.
“The shape-shifters were after something they never found,” Lotta said. “I have surmised that it must be in this cloak.” She wasn’t sure what she thought she’d find. A vial of that quintessence. Her grandmother’s book of alchemy. She had expected to find something.
But she found nothing.
“It’s heavier than the red one,” Lotta said. “I thought that meant she had hidden something here.”
“Her blood is in your red hood,” the wolf said. “But her spirit is in the green one.”
“And I have not yet earned the revelations of her spirit,” Lotta said, folding up the green hood. Perhaps the hood was not what her enemies sought after all. It was a gift to her, of that Lotta was sure. Her grandmother would not have put her granddaughter’s life in jeopardy. But there were secrets in that hood that she would one day find.
“She gave her life to help me,” the wolf said. “I will repay the favor by making sure you and those you hold dear are kept safe from harm.”
Lotta hoisted the prison box. “Does that mean your kind will be stalking me and my loved ones from now on?”
“If that is what it takes,” the wolf said in all seriousness.
“I’d best tend to my learning, then. You weren’t the only one who was too late to gain from my grandmother’s talents. I will be an alchemist soon enough. By my grandmother’s blood and my own, if I can help you break your curse someday, I will.”
The sun shone on the path and on the flowers beside the path, offering respite from darkness and grief.
“So, you do not favor your name,” the wolf said to further lighten the heavy mood. “What is it then, that your grandmother called you?”
Lotta smiled and was glad she could still smile. “The day you tell me your name, king, I will tell you mine.”
And they started upon the path away from grandmother’s house.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.