Once upon a time, men could tread the Easrune Wood without fear. But those were days long past as Reed walked with stealthy poacher’s steps and an arrow in his bow. Midsummer moonlight filtering through the canopies of dark leaves above illumed the wood in patches of pale lunar glow. He was no stranger to night and shadow, but it was Reed’s keen ears and not his eyes that told him that whomever stalked behind his cloak was a fine hunter indeed.
But not his equal tonight.
Reed had caught faint traces of breath and padded footfalls drawing closer for an hour while he awaited the right moment to strike. Running a thumb along the fletching of his arrow, the gentle crunch of a leaf betrayed the stalker only paces behind him. He stopped, snapping the bowstring taunt as he spun around to place an arrow in their throat.
The wolf froze under Reed’s hard gaze, its eyes wide and locked on his drawn arrow.
The poacher lowered the aim of his weapon from the height of the man he was expecting to that of the grey wolf with its tail held high. “You’re a lucky one tonight. I don’t have time for you, wolf. Get. Shoo!”
With unblinking amber eyes, the wolf lowered its tail and backed away from the man. Relaxing his bowstring, Reed pulled it taunt again when the animal stopped and raised a snarling muzzle.
“Hunter! To your side!” the she-wolf shouted with a woman’s voice.
An axe swung from Reed’s left where he thought a tree stood a moment earlier. Granted a split second to react by the she-wolf’s warning, the red cloaked poacher thrust the limb of his bow into the oncoming blur. It impacted with the blunt haft of the axe, blocking the attack with a snap that splintered the bow in his hands.
Reed staggered backward from the impact and dropped his shattered bow. Still holding the arrow in his hand, his attacker lumbered like a nightmare onto the trail. Moonlight revealed the skeleton of a man with all its empty recesses and hollows, but overgrown and merged with uneven sinews of leafy wood. Its eyeless sockets leered above an open jaw spilling a sprig of green and black elderberries like a lolling, monstrous tongue.
The poacher shook-off his shock as the thing lifted the woodsman’s axe in its hands for another chop. Tossing the arrow aside, his hand dove under the leather of his cloak and drew his hunting sword. He barely managed to batter the blow away. Retaliating with a backswing, the thing slammed the butt and shoulder of the axe into his waist. The strike impacted with the strength of a mule, and the blow sent Reed crashing to the verdant ground as the grip on his blade was lost.
Gasping for the air that had been knocked out of him, Reed pushed himself up and the axe head imbedded itself deep into the mossy log where his head had lain an instant before. The monster pulled the weapon free with a lurch, hauling it back for a lethal swing as the poacher’s vision still swirled.
“It’s heart! It’s vulnerable at the heart!” the she-wolf shouted darting in from the side. Clamping her muzzle onto a root-like shin, she yanked the thing off-balance.
Reed felt the spoiled swipe of the axe blade missing his neck, brushing through the whiskers of his red beard. As the monster prepared to hack the wolf, he spied the fletching of his arrow beside it and lunged. Snatching the shaft, he grappled the nightmare of bone and wood and slid it between a gap in its ribs.
Something burst within, and a gush of black, sappy juice covered Reed’s hand as he left the arrow deep within the thing. The she-wolf released her bite and backed away as the grotesque skull on its shoulders turned to Reed with the stiff groan of tightening timber. Its arm now frozen in mid-swing, all animation drained from the monstrosity.
“It will never move again,” the wolf panted.
Reed shook droplets of black off his stained hand then buckled over on the trail as he caught his breath. “A, servant? Of the… Old Man of the Elders?”
“Yes, one of his Woodsmen, ” the she-wolf replied looking to Reed.
The poacher nodded as he probed his side and found nothing broken. Bracing himself on a tree he stood up. “I was expecting a cult of men, not monsters or talking wolves.”
The wolf looked up to the standing man. “And I expected another of his minions… But your kindness proved you otherwise.”
“I’ve heard tales of talking beasts, but I have never met any before you, she-wolf.”
“My kin have learned hard lessons teaching us that men are difficult to trust.”
“Your kin are wise, ” the man said wiping his hand on brown trousers. He then lowered the oxblood hood of his cloak to unveil a head of long orange-red hair that matched his beard. “I am Reed, and I owe you my life.”
The wolf lifted her tail and nodded. “You may call me what you like, Reed. My mother called me Autumn.”
Reed retrieved his hunting sword from a bush. “I give my word to repay you, Autumn. But—”
“—You have the hair and smell of Rose… are you her kin?”
He froze with sword half-sheathed and glared. “I am her father. Does-, does she still live?”
Autumn’s amber eyes nodded in the dark. “The Old Man of the Elder Trees won’t harm her until the stars are right. At midnight.”
Reed’s shoulders sagged as he sighed. “Praise Huntaine, I’m not too late—”
“—Don’t thank your Gods yet, we have little time left. Follow me!”
The grey wolf turned and lowered her tail as Reed nodded. “I’ve already searched these woods for days—”
“—I doubt your skills not, hunter, but the grove has always been warded so that men cannot find it without magic. Come!”
He re-cloaked his head and took a moment to hide the broken bow before following. “I understand that he’s a wizard, but what are you if you can find him?”
Autumn padded through the underbrush with the poacher behind her. “I’m neither a man nor man-kin, but your eyes should tell you that.”
“Fair enough. How do you know of my Rose and her plight?” Reed asked picking up his pace.
The she-wolf bounded over a mossy stone and looked at the man. “Because you and I are the same! We both have a daughter held captive by the Old Man of the Elder Trees!”
“And you haven’t fought to free her knowing where she is?”
The hairs of Autumn’s neck bristled as they began to move down a wooded slope. “Dare call me a coward and I’ll put my teeth to your throat!”
“—I can’t enter the grove! The wizard always sets a circle knowing my kindred can find it! It protects him like a wall!”
The sound of running water met Reed’s ears in the night before a brook came into view at the foot of the hill. “And your child?”
“My pup is bound within by his magic.”
Wading across the shallow water, the she-wolf sniffed the air as Reed’s boots strode over uneven stones to reach the other side. “And my daughter Rose is with her?”
Autumn glanced up and down the winding brook and exited it. “Yes. She’s caused him much trouble while I’ve watched from afar… He’s ill-prepared for human-kin.”
Reed let the she-wolf once again take the lead. “Then I need you to take me to the Old Man of the Elders… and you need me to cross the circle where you cannot.”
She looked to him in the moonlight. “Yes, and save our children.”
“Who is he, Autumn? All I know is legend and rumor… That he is immortal. That to fight him in the Easrune Wood is begging for death.”
The she-wolf’s tail arched higher. “My kin know him all too well! He was once apprenticed under the Old Woman of the Elder Trees, and she was of a long line who tended the elder grove where Lueinana blessed my bloodline with speech and more. It was a powerful and sacred place, Reed, sire of Rose… Too many stories to recount now. And all long, long before our time.”
“Then just tell me about the Old Man, Autumn.”
“Again, many stories… But they all end the same. He betrayed and murdered the Old Woman generations ago, felling the grove and binding its power inside himself! That’s where the Woodsmen—”
“—The thing that attacked us?” Reed said pushing a low branch aside.
Autumn nodded. “The same! They were thirteen men like yourself once … One for each elder tree that stood in the grove’s circle. After your arrow tonight, they number nine.”
“They became monsters for him?”
The she-wolf turned past the trunk of an old rotten oak in the shadows. “Because of him… My grandmamma said that the Old Man used lies so that they would bear the curse of felling the trees in his stead. He bound them to his will afterwards.”
“Is he immortal, Autumn?”
She growled and spoke. “He’s wicked, a powerful wizard that subsists on stolen lives! But immortal? No… He guards his life too well to be above death by fang or blade!”
Autumn stopped and sniffed the air between two trees, and Reed used the moment to look up to the stars through a hole in the leafy canopy above them. “Then we do have a chance to save them.”
The she-wolf started off in a new direction as mist began to mix with the brush and fallen leaves at her paws. “Tell me Reed… Was your Rose born seven years ago this Midsummer’s Eve?”
“Yes. I will never forget,” he said matching his pace alongside Autumn. “Her mother died in birthing her.”
They treaded past a fallen tree and Autumn paused to look back at Reed before they crossed behind its overturned ball of roots and earth. “To lose your mate in such a way is a heavy burden to bear…”
“Rose has her mother’s heart. Her love of wild things, and the touch of foresight that made her outcast. So in a way she is still with me… Is that why the Old Man took her?”
“That I can’t answer, but I do know this: Every seven years the Old Man of the Elder Trees must sacrifice two children on the Midsummer’s Eve to renew his life for another cycle. These children are invariably born on the Midsummer’s Eve exactly seven years prior. ”
The poacher balled his fists and scowled. “Every seven years?! How long has this monstrosity been playing out?”
“Too long!” Autumn snapped with a snarl. “Fate has always conspired that they be born amongst my kin, but now we are so few—”
“—And this year he needed to find his second child elsewhere.”
The she-wolf looked to Reed and nodded as they passed through a band of moonlight and mist. “You and your kin aren’t burdened with the knowledge I was when my Snow came to me early seven years ago this night… How did you know to make your way here, hunter?”
Tightening his leather cloak and hood against a growing chill, Reed turned his eyes forward. “They struck while I was away. I returned to a home shattered by axe strokes. But crushed and whole, it was the elderberries that stained our cottage and not my daughter’s blood.”
The she-wolf turned her ears upward. “No pack to guard her in your den?”
“I’m an outlaw… She is all I have. And hunted as I am… I am all there is to save her.”
Autumn lowered her head and tail, stopping to paw the ground and sniff before looking up. “I’m… an outcast too, Reed. My mate thought that for the good of all, my snow white pup should die to deny the Old Man what he needed to live another seven years. He didn’t relent until my teeth were on his throat…”
The red bearded man looked down into the she-wolf’s amber eyes. “You fled with your daughter?”
“Far, far away with my white whelp. We saw our kin no more, but the Old Man still found us to steal my Snow away on the last full moon…”
Reed had never seen a wolf shed a tear before. Kneeling, he met Autumn’s eyes and extended an upturned hand. “Shall we face this devil as allies… or friends?”
The wolf placed her paw in his palm. “Both!”
Smiling as he nodded, Reed looked to the mist surrounding the pair and the shafts of moonlight it caught. “Are we close to his lair?”
“Very,” she said returning her paw to the ground. With a turn of her shoulder, the grey she-wolf pointed with her nose to a low hillside rising under the trees. “Past the hill. We’ll need surprise, for if they spy you my plan is ruined.”
“I hope it’s a clever plan… because I was going to shoot him with arrows.”
Autumn shook her head then sat down on her haunches. “Not much of one, but it’ll have to do. The stars won’t slow for us, and they are almost where he needs them to be!”
The girl’s scalp was gripped by a bony green hand that caught strands of red hair in broken black fingernails. Wincing, she was pulled closer to his hook-nosed visage that reeked of bitter fermentation. Dabbing a finger into the wooden bowl beside him, the child’s emerald eyes watched his withered digit poke forward dripping near-black purple before a chill touch smeared another sigil upon the fair skin of her face.
His eyes were pools of black surrounding shrunken green rings that pulled back and surveyed the marks on the child. Nodding, he reached beside the bowl and grabbed the long glass neck of a bottle. Raising it in the moonlight, he sloshed the contents within its onion-shaped base before pulling out a cork with toothless gums.
“Drink,” he said spitting the cork to the dirt.
Shaking her head, the girl squirmed away from the mouth of the bottle.
He pulled her forward by the hair, evoking a cry as he shoved the sour-smelling wine to her lips. “Drink!”
His hand slid from her scalp to her face, an iron grip forcing her mouth open before he poured a draught between her lips. Struggling, she choked down the fermented elderberries as his fingers pinched her lips and jaw shut.
“Yeh have no idea how costly difficult this preparation was to brew for meh… But yeh ain’t right without it!”
He felt a forced swallow travel down her throat and let her slip away before she coughed and gagged. Gathering a loose pile of black ribbon on the bare earth by the bowl, he ran the length of the silken strip over his tongue while leering at her. The silk left his toothless mouth and he snapped it taught, whipping it over her wrists before it wrapped her hands painfully tight with its own animation.
“Ah’d like to see yeh snap meh gleipnirs now an’ be so spirited!”
The red-haired girl struggled with the unyielding bonds in her smock dress and apron, then looked at him with black-stained lips and defiant eyes.
Rising withered, green and naked, the old man handed the free end of black ribbon to a skeletal hand that gripped it with wooden ligaments. The woodsman lurched away, axe in its other hand before it was followed by a monstrous brother. It dragged a struggling snow white pup painted with sigils that matched her fellow captive.
The animal pulled against the silken lead and collar that choked her before the red-haired girl bent down and scooped her up between steps. Now following their captors together, the old man was subjected to the girl’s defiant gaze once more as she hugged the whelp. His black eyes unmoved, they were yanked away behind the lumbering woodsmen.
He looked to the full moon above. With knobby forked fingers he measured the shrinking distance between it and the Elven Star, then smiled. His eyes fell to the twelve stumps that formed a broad circle around the thirteenth in the center. The burning wolf-tallow candles placed upon them warded the lifeless dirt within the desecrated grove with a smoky stench. Beyond, a white mist hugged the forest ground leading all mundane men astray.
The Old Man of the Elder Trees turned and watched his woodsmen bind the gleipnirs of the sacrifices to the large central stump. “Make ‘em tight to the altar, Sambucus. Particularly the girl. ”
A wood-bound skull nodded with pale green elderberries bobbing in its eye sockets. Bone talons pushed the girl and the wolf-pup almost nose-to-nose on the block before the ribbons that bound them wound around the stump.
“Rose! You should’ve run,” the pup whispered as the gleipnirs pinned them down like iron bolts. “You should’ve left me!”
“I’m not leaving you,” Rose said reaching out to wipe away the whelp’s lone tear. Then the black ribbon snapped and she winced after her wrists were slammed to the stump’s side.
The pup struggled to breathe in the tightening bonds, then spoke again in her girl’s voice. “What was in the bott—”
“—Silence!” the Old Man commanded slamming the wine bottle on the table beside the altar-stump. “Ah feast but once every seven years… an’ Ah detest dinner conversation!”
He left the long necked bottle wobbling on the warped grey table atop layered stains of red. Moving naked and hunched beside the children, he tapped a green finger on the napes of their necks and pointed to the larger of the two woodsmen in attendance.
“Stars are almost right. But Ah want clean cuts this time, Sambucus! Yeh’ve been gettin’ sloppy lately!”
The monster shrugged and nodded, raising an axe with a wood shrouded arm. Its smaller counterpart opposite them did the same on the other side of the altar-stump, and beyond the ring of tallow candles shadowed figures in the mist followed suit as well.
“Papa will fell you like you felled the trees,” Rose choked out with her face bound downwards by the gleipnirs.
Snarling and toothless he looked at the girl. “Quiet!”
“The old woman showed me in a dream. You’ve taken what wasn’t yours and done terrible things with it!”
“Yeh has witchblood in yeh for sure, but yeh dream is wrong! ”
“Dreams with her in them always come true.”
The Old Man slammed his fist on the table, causing ritual tools and eating utensils to jump above a cracking board. “Yeh dream is wrong! Ain’t in the stars, child! They didn’t fall for her! They didn’t fall for meh! They won’t fall for yeh papa… An’ they certainly won’t fall for yeh! ”
“There was a stag,” Rose said before a branch snapped in the night.
His black eyes turned to the woods outside of the circle, across a carpet of fog that suddenly rippled in the moonlight. Bursting from shadows, a stag leapt into the clearing that separated the desecrated grove from the Easrune Wood. Cloven hooves kicked chunks of leaves and moss as it sprinted through the mist bellowing a panicked cry. Behind his velvet antlers, a herd a dozen strong erupted with the snap of branch and bush… and a long wolf’s bay.
“Neh! Not the bitch, again! ” he shouted as the deer were driven towards them.
Waving his arms to flag the great stag away, it instead jumped the ring of candles as he screamed. Hitting the bare earth within the grove white-eyed, the animal reared and bellowed before narrowly missing his bald green head with a cloven hoof.
The stag cried a second time as broken black nails gripped its horns, then was silenced by a sudden wet snap.
The Old Man lifted the still kicking carcass of the deer over his head with an enraged cry, throwing it at the herd that poured into his ritual space. They swept past him in a panic, one smashing into the table and flinging his tools in all directions. He leapt forward nimbly but in vain as they fell to the dirt… Save for the bottle of wine that he snatched from the air with a spry swipe.
Turning, he glared at whence the deer had come while they thundered out the opposite end of the grove. The grey she-wolf hurled herself headlong at him, slamming into the invisible barrier of the ward paces away from his throat.
He nearly buckled-over cackling, then pointed as Autumn scrambled to her feet. “Clever, clever girl! But no man or beast topples this ward but meh!”
The she-wolf bared her fangs. “I’ll see you die!”
He juggled the bottle and snatched it with a laugh “Not tonight! The stars ain’t right!”
The root-like foot of a woodsman stomped to her side, and Autumn dashed out of the reach of the swinging axe that whizzed past her tail. A second and third monster of wood and bone lumbered in to surround her.
With a satisfied nod, the Old Man motioned towards the minions behind his back. “Sambucus, go kill ‘er with the others before she has a chance to make a significant distraction…”
The huge woodsman lurched forward, taking a tall stride over the tallow candles while its master took in the sight of the she-wolf barely avoiding one axe swing after another. Glancing over his shoulder, he shouted at the woodsman that remained standing guard over the children.
“Yeh too, Adox. Ah can cut meh own meat tonight…”
He turned and immediately saw the black, sappy juice dripping from the inanimate woodsman’s ribs. It pooled onto an empty stump dangling cut gleipnir ribbons.
His screech turned the skulls of the remaining monsters to their master.
Seizing the moment of distraction, Autumn darted past the woodsmen to escape their encirclement. Only the low hefted swing of Sambucus’s axe tried to stop the she-wolf. Bounding over the attack, her eyes were locked on the red cloaked poacher running with his daughter clutched under an arm… and the white pup just behind them.
Reed reached the candle-topped stumps marking the grove’s boundary before the Old Man began his scramble to catch them. Raising his hunting sword while Rose clung to his shoulder, he looked back at the furious green face of the inhuman wizard before putting his daughter down.
“To the woods, both of you! We won’t let him follow!”
Snow leapt past Reed’s oxblood cloak high enough to clear the flickering wicks and see her mother loping towards them. “Rose! It’s Mama! We’re—”
The white whelp smacked into the same invisible barrier that had blocked Autumn. With a whine, she fell to the dirt before a dry voice hollered behind them.
“Yeh can’t escape! Yeh kin can’t pass in… or out! ”
Reed clenched his teeth and swept the blade of his sword down into the candles above the whelp. It bounced off the tallow as if it were solid iron, denting the weapon’s edge. With the wizard seconds away, Reed reared back slamming the heel of his boot into the waxy sticks. It had no more effect than the sword.
“None topples the ward but meh, Fool!”
Reed turned and shielded Rose behind his back as the Old Man charged with an almost simian gait. “Go to the wolf-mother, Rose! He shan’t have you both! ”
Autumn came to stop outside the ward in time to see Rose looking at the white pup by her slippers. “But Papa! Snow can’t—”
“—I’ll protect her! Go!” he shouted leveling his sword at the fiend skidding to a halt beyond the weapon’s reach. The Old Man’s leering visage eyed the quartet before he began a throaty, low chuckle.
Wide-eyed at the sight before her, Autumn pressed grey paws against the invisible barrier. “He’s vulnerable to steel, Reed! But his grip is death! ”
The she-wolf looked to her white daughter trapped behind the ward, then to a shaking Rose meeting her gaze.
“Listen to your father, child! Come to me!”
Rose reached out to embrace Autumn’s neck, but touched unyielding force instead. She pushed harder, hands held inches away from wolf-mother’s paws as if a pane of glass separated them.
Ears flattened, Autumn shook her head as the Old Man’s snickering gave way to taunting guffaws. “How can this be, Reed?”
Rose withdrew from the barrier and cast a puzzled look as her father glanced back.
“What’s this trick, Old Man? Your ward didn’t stop me!”
He cackled with a toothless smile, shaking the bottle in his hand. “Her soul wasn’t right, yeh fool! Ah had to add what Ah needed!”
Reed tightened his sword-grip and snarled. “What. Have. You. Done?!”
Rose lifted Snow up from the ground, silently holding the pup tight as the white whelp growled at the Old Man’s continued laughter. Behind them, Autumn glanced at the nightmarish woodsmen lurching closer and back to the children trapped behind the candles.
Then Reed lunged forward with his blade of steel.
The Old Man ducked the swipe of the hunter’s sword, then swept up and forward swinging the bottle of wine he held. It exploded on Reed’s face, spraying sour brew and biting glass while the blow sent him sprawling backwards.
Rose screamed as her father hit the ground several paces outside the circle. Blind and swordless, he skidded to a stop on his back but immediately clawed onto his knees. Choking and spitting out the fowl concoction that mixed with his blood, he wiped his eyes and rushed drunkenly back to the fight.
He crashed headlong into an invisible wall that knocked him back to the verdant, misty ground.
Autumn came to Reed’s side, helping him rise with teeth on his cloak before the green figure behind the candlelight let out another roll of laughter.
“Now yeh is as right as yeh daughter! An’ yeh can bay with the bitch as yeh watch her die!”
Staggering to his feet, Reed pushed against the ward while the black eyes and hooked nose of the Old Man of the Elder Trees loomed behind its protection. He shook the broken neck of the wine bottle at the struggling hunter, then casually tossed it to the side where it landed outside the circle.
Autumn growled a warning as the Old Man turned his back on Reed and faced Rose with Snow in her arms. The poacher looked to the she-wolf just in time to see her scramble out of the way of an axe-strike that pounded the ground. Darting out of range, she stopped as her paw touched cold steel on the ground.
“Reed! I’ve found your—”
A rusty axe-edge was swung through the night, and Reed dodged the swipe pulling a dagger from his belt. His stab missed the woodsman’s heart as his vision heaved and rolled from his injuries… or so he thought before the weapon sailed from a loosening grip as he stumbled to the ground.
Autumn watched wolfish feet slide out of Reed’s boots as he fell. Then every hair on her back bristled as the form under his clothes receded and flowed like water. He tumbled bewildered, losing the shape of a man as an axe-blow chopped a now empty cloak and trouser leg.
Awkwardly wearing Reed’s green tunic, a red wolf plunged out from under the cloak.
…The third and final part of The Old Man of the Elder Trees will be posted on Saturday, May 21st.
The two wolves stared at each other for a long second, ears and tails erect. Then the grey she-wolf saw the huge bulk of Sambucus rise behind the red wolf that the poacher had become.
“Reed! Move!” Autumn shouted as the monster swung down to cleave him in two.
He jerked to the side, and the axe slammed haft-deep through empty tunic cloth into the ground. Clambering backwards, Reed managed to pull his head and forelimbs out of the pinned garment. Sambucus yanked the axe free as the red wolf tried to run and instead fell splay-legged to the ground like a clumsy pup.
Autumn looked to the sword at her paws as the woodsman hefted his axe above a struggling Reed.
The Old Man of the Elder Trees licked his gums and reached for the trapped children as a wolf’s shrill howl pierced the night. “Meh supper’s late, but it ain’t too late!”
Snow growled and Rose backed against the barrier of the ward. Squirming in the red-haired girl’s arms, her mother’s bay faded as she looked the wizard square in his black eyes.
“You won’t hurt Rose!”
“They can’t save yeh, Pup! So shut-up an’ Ah’ll kill yeh painless instead ah hard!”
“No!” The whelp shouted as she kicked out of Rose’s grip.
Leaping with a snarl at the amused face of the Old Man, he stopped mid-laugh as Snow’s form shifted in a mid-air instant.
“Impossible! Yeh’s too young!” he screeched as raking claws swiped his face.
Behind the children, the hunter’s sword swept above Reed, impacting with the snap of wood and bone upon Sambucuss’ elbow. The blade severed his arm at the joint, and with one hand still gripping the axe it crashed just beyond the red wolf’s snout.
“Stand and fight like a man, Reed! I hardly know what to do in this shape!”
Reed saw a wolf’s tail pass over him before his savior shoved herself beside a half-toppled Sambucus. With savage fury she raised the hunting sword and hacked deep ruts into the woodsman’s bark-covered back. Unclothed save for grey fur, she was equal parts wolf and woman when her lupine head looked back at Reed.
“Get up! We’ve only a minute before his curse puts us back to all fours!” she snarled in a voice that was undeniably Autumn’s.
Snow had landed on top of the Old Man a white-furred and child-like wolfgirl otherwise much like her mother. Slightly larger than Rose, she clamped onto the moss-green fiend as he hissed and cursed the slashing cuts her furious claws wrought on his face and shoulders.
Rose backed away from the pair struggling back and forth, then caught sight of the fight beyond the candlelight. Hands pressed against the invisible barrier, she watched the grey wolf-woman decapitate a one-armed woodsman with her father’s sword. Then a red-furred wolf-man started to rise behind her, locking his hands on the axe haft the headless monster leaned on.
Snow snarled and the snap of her fangs narrowly missed the Old Man’s nose. Rose turned back at the yelp she gave just in time to see him grip Snow’s throat with broken nails. He held her up one-handed, choking and kicking above the ground while his bloodied face grimaced.
“No lie, there’s ah warrioress in yeh white hide! But tooth an’ claw can’t kill meh!”
Behind the children, Reed gripped the woodsman’s axe and tore it from Sambucuss’ skeletal hand. Headless, one-armed and weaponless, the monster still fought on by backhanding Autumn across the face. Staggering to the side, she turned and barely blocked another woodsman’s axe when two more foes stomped forward.
Her weapon locked in a struggle with her opponent, Reed stood and swung the axe in his hands. It landed with inelegant brutality, smashing Sambucuss’ chest in with the sound of snapping bone and timber. He yanked the axe back dripping purple-black gore as Sambucus slumped over.
Snarling at the woodsman Autumn grappled with, Reed charged to her defense and splintered the monster’s arms with a second swing of his axe. Regaining her footing, Autumn’s ears perked when the big wolfkin cleaved through a wooden sternum loosing a wild howl.
Rose watched the snow-colored wolf-girl caught in the grip of the Old Man. Grappling his arm in vain, the green wizard’s smile began to return as she slowly started to shrink and retract from her humanoid shape.
The shapeshifter gagged as he squeezed her throat tighter. “ ‘Bout time yeh went back to all fours, ain’t it?”
A slipper clad foot hit his wizened green shin, Rose kicking him over and over.
“Stop it! Let her go!”
Her attack did nothing more than draw the Old Man’s sour gaze. Gripping the top of Rose’s red hair with his left hand, he lifted her off the ground. “I reckon it’s ‘bout time for yeh, too!”
Rose struggled, kicking and screaming as he laughed. She punched and grabbed at his unwavering arm before her slippers fell to the bare earth below her feet. Clenching his forearm she tried to pull herself free, but lost her grip as thumbs and fingers pulled inward to form reddish paws.
She shrank in conjunction with Snow in his opposite hand, feeling the fabric of her smock dress loosening and growing more ill-fitting by the second. Paws withdrew into oversized sleeves, and long hair shortened into a furry scruff still tight within the Old Man’s grasp. Moments later, Rose’s lupine body slipped through the collar of her dress, the clothes falling empty beneath the red wolf pup she had become.
Reed turned at the sound of his daughter’s screams, his axe halfway through a woodsman’s chest. Fur bristling at the sight of the Old Man with a whelp in either hand, he didn’t see the second woodsman step forward to swing until it was too late.
Autumn lunged past Reed’s side, running her sword through the monster’s heart and saving him.
The Old Man looked up to the night sky still holding the pups with splayed arms. Licking the blood on his lips he found the full moon and gasped with wide, black eyes discovering the Elven Star had come into alignment above it.
“Neh time! Neh time fer formalities!” he shouted turning on his heels to face the altar-stump. “Ah’ll just have teh bash yeh heads in on the altar an’ hope fer the best!”
His back now turned to the wolfkin outside his ward, the wizard began reciting a slow chant of arcane and trilling syllables. Autumn winced at the black speech, knowing what would follow, then yanked out the sword she had plunged deep into the woodsman while looking to Reed.
“What are we going to— Ah!”
She yelped and cursed pulling the sword out of the woodsman when it slipped from her hand. Fingers and palm reverting to a paw, Autumn watched the weapon sail clumsily over the tallow candles. They heard it land paces away after passing through the ward they couldn’t breach.
Their lupine heads turned to one another so quickly that they nearly banged their snouts together. Exchanging looks of realization between themselves and the axe in Reed’s hands, the pair scrambled for the edge of the ward. Like a barreling grove, the remaining five woodsmen clamored forward in pursuit only moments behind them.
Autumn’s knees buckled under her no sooner than she began her dash alongside Reed. Hindquarters flowing like water, she let go of her humanoid form altogether and retreated back to her familiar wolf-shape. Hitting the ground on all fours and barely missing a loping step forward, she whined looking up at Reed with amber eyes.
Each step was a losing battle for him, the curse upon the Easrune wolfkin pushing Reed further and further from a manlike shape. With a hunched lurch he reached the circle of candlelight and bashed his shoulder against invisible force. Far more wolf than man, he lifted the axe high above his head with thumbs and fingers in swift withdrawal.
The Old Man of the Elder Trees reached the stump at the heart of the desecrated grove with a final stride and the last word of arcana passing his lips. Looking at the spot where he had beheaded the Old Woman so long ago, he raised the white and red pups to send them crashing down.
Rose and Snow felt the impact of Sambucuss’ thrown axe hitting the back of his skull.
The girls remained griped at the ends of his splayed arms, and for a long moment the Old Man stood ridged and motionless as the steel axe-head began to hiss in gore. Then Snow felt the hand at her throat slacken, and the white whelp struggled out a cough and gasp of breath. He trembled, the vice of his fingers giving way on the scruff of Rose’s pelt before she dropped to the ground.
Snow kicked free of the Old Man’s hand as he fell forward rigidly, landing in the dirt on all fours before the wizard smacked face-first onto the flat top of the stump. The white whelp panted for breath, backing away from the naked green corpse twitching in cadaveric spasm.
Snow cautiously peeked around the Old Man’s motionless, bare soles. “Rose?”
A red wolf pup lay on her back, legs swaying slowly above her in amazement. “I’m here. But… different.”
Rose stilled her paws and looked past them to the moon. To the ever changing face that Lueinana showed the world. A shooting star silently crossed her lunar glow, followed by a dozen others falling to earth in streaks before they vanished.
Then Snow’s upside-down face and perplexed expression filled her vision.
“Rose? You’re all cute and furry!”
Snow tackled her friend overjoyed before she started a proper round of furious licking. The girls laughed and rolled as Autumn pressed her forepaws against the barrier and looked over the candlelight.
She turned to Reed beside her and nodded. “They’re fine!”
The red wolf stood oddly, one eye making sure his paws didn’t slip-out from under him. “How are we getting them out of there?”
Autumn didn’t have time to answer as the first candle fizzled-out underneath her. Falling forward with a surprised yelp, she knocked tallow cylinders to the ground. Wicks flickered and fell dark in a curtain cascade as Reed stumbled up next to the she-wolf on the boundary stump.
“Mama!” a girl’s voice shouted as the final candle died.
Autumn loped past Reed, and he witnessed the reunion of mother and daughter in the moonlight. She nuzzled and licked at the bitter sigils that still marked her as Reed looked away from the tender sight. He then cast an embarrassed look at himself.
“Is that you, Papa?”
He looked around at the sound of his daughter’s voice, then pointed his snout downward. A pup looked back up at him from the base of the stump where he stood wobbly-kneed.
“Y-yes. I’m a wolf for some reason.”
Rose wagged her sienna red tail. “That’s alright Papa. I’m a wolf now too!”
“Wolf-kin,” Autumn corrected curling up beside Snow. “We’re not common wolves… Although common wolves are a fine lot as well.”
Reed probed downward with a cautious forelimb before carefully guiding twice as many legs as he was comfortable with to the ground beside his daughter. “I could never get used to this.”
Rose leaned back on her haunches, pawing and nuzzling her father’s side for lack of arms to embrace him. “Thank you Papa! You’re the greatest papa, and you felled the Old Man just like the old woman said you would!”
The red wolf’s green eyes looked down at the whelp. “Old woman?”
“In a dream, Papa. She said you would fell him as he had felled the trees. That the grove would heal after.”
Autumn lifted her ears giving Reed a pointed gaze before looking around the grove. “The Old Woman of the Elder Trees… Perhaps she, lingers.”
Reed lowered his head and pressed a furred cheek against his daughter. “Rose often has dreams that provide insight, or shadows of things to come. Her mother was the same.”
Autumn nodded before Reed spoke again. “The Old Woman didn’t happen to mention when we’d be back to normal, did she Rose?”
“No, Papa. She didn’t show me any of this.”
Reed sighed, then looked at Autumn. “Well, I’m sure we’ll turn back to our normal selves any time now… Now that the Old Man is gone and all. Right Autumn? ”
The she-wolf shook her head. “Devil if I know.”
Reed’s red-furred ears flattened. “But… that’s the way curses like this work, right?”
“If that’s true, why aren’t you man-kin now? His woodsmen and ward are no-more.”
He turned his lupine head looking to the five woodsmen rooted mid-stride and motionless outside the grove. “Then… I don’t understand. Are we trapped like this?”
“I don’t know, Reed… But I don’t think it’s a curse. Instead, I think the Old Man twisted something intended to be a gift…”
The red wolf’s shoulders sagged.
“Grandmamma favored the tale of Lis, who became kin forevermore through the use of an elixir the caretakers of the Grove prepared for her. She wed a thegn, proudly… and I am descended of her line.”
He looked to his daughter, who still wagged her tail. “But we didn’t choose this! What kind of life will this be for her?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how I would feel trapped in a woman’s bare skin, or to see my daughter share the same fate with me.”
Rose pawed at Reed’s side drawing his attention. “Don’t worry Papa! We can all change into people some of the time, like how you all changed before?”
They turned hopeful eyes to Autumn before she shook her head again. “I’m afraid that the shapes your father and I had before are as close to human as wolfkin get, little one.”
The reddish pup lowered her tail. “Well, I’ll learn to be a good wolf then! I’ll like it… so long as Papa’s with me. I promise!”
Snow rose and excitedly looked to her mother. “Does this mean Rose and her Papa are going to stay with us? Are we a pack?!”
Her exuberance instantly transferred to Rose, who looked up sharp-eared and wide-eyed to her father. “Can we? Please!?”
Autumn stood and chuckled before padding over to a glum Reed sulking on his haunches. “They’re welcome, if they want too.”
Reed sighed, looking up to the stars before turning snout to snout with Autumn. “Huntaine help me… I’m going to say yes.”
Nodding, Autumn lifted a forepaw and offered it to Reed. “Allies and friends?”
“Both,” He replied placing his paw atop hers.
“I’m glad. I’ll teach both of you our ways,” she said looking down to Rose.
Reed shook his lupine head. “I’m going to be an idiot of a wolf, I know it.”
“Nonsense, you’ll make a fine Kin.”
Reed’s green eyes were dubious. “If you say so…”
“I speak no lies. Before you had a wild heart in the chest of a man, now it rests in a more fitting place!”
Reed took a breath to protest, but his daughter spoke first.
“Don’t be sad Papa. You know she’s right.”
Snow wagged a tail beside her mother. “Yup. I thought I smelled it on you too. And Rose.”
Reed looked at the hopeful looks of the girls, then met the earnest gaze of she-wolf’s amber eyes.
Autumn leaned forward with a sly look. “Good. Finally less pity and more honesty.”
She looked to the white and red whelps between them then pointed outside the grove with her nose. “You two go and we’ll be right along. Snow, you watch Rose while she learns her legs, and I’ll do the same for her Papa.”
A bounding Snow accompanied Rose while her cautious tread grew more confident with each step. They crossed out of the grove as Autumn faced the red wolf with a chuckle.
“They’re like sisters! And so fair… I fear we’ll be fending off suitors by tooth and claw as they come of age, Reed.”
He rose up with a wobble on his four legs, standing much taller than grey Autumn. “Given her mother’s beauty, I had steeled myself for that when I was a man… But please tell me that time won’t be soon?”
“No time soon. We age and grow the same as men-kin do.”
“Well, that’s a blessing because—”
Reed was cut short as a canine shiver worked its way from his head to his tail. When it passed he crouched low and surprised.
“I didn’t mean to do that!”
She laughed. “See? You’re already learning and not even trying!”
“But I hardly know what to do in this shape, Autumn…”
“And I barely know what to do on two legs! But I’ll learn if you’ll teach me.”
He shook his head. “Why would you want to know things we can only hold onto for a minute?”
“It’s true that the Old Man held a curse over all the Kin of the Easrune Wood, binding us to our wolf shapes. But it was a curse he needed to renew every new moon.”
Reed’s ears perked. “But now that he’s gone—”
“—We’ll be free to shift mostly as we please, for the first time in generations!”
“I, could like that,” the red wolf said before noticing a slow wag escape his tail.
“You’ve done our Kin a great service, Reed. They won’t deny you and your daughter pack and home; they’ll welcome you… Or face my fangs!”
Reed slowly lifted-up from his crouch. “Thank you, Autumn. I’ve not yet known you a night, and you’re a better friend than most I’ve ever had.”
The she-wolf nodded looking to the ground and scratching it with her forepaw. “You deserve my friendship, and I’m honored to have yours.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be a good teacher, but I’ll try.”
Autumn looked up and met his gaze with eager eyes. “I want to learn of bows! And snares. And climbing trees! And of gentler arts. Like one hand to another. I’ve known fingers but for moments at a time… To have them whenever I need will be like a dream!”
Reed’s lupine head bobbed in agreement before he took an excited step forward, then stumbled short of falling. In response, Autumn trotted close and helped him stand straight with the push of a bracing shoulder.
“I must look ridiculous to you,” he said.
A nuzzling snout slipped under his throat. “Nonesense, Reed… I fancy you this way. You’re very handsome!”
Ear to his chest, she heard his heartbeat racing as fast as hers. Then he folded his neck over her and she wished the moment would never end.
“Now I’m in real trouble, aren’t I Autumn?”
“We both are.”
The girls peered at them sitting on Reed’s discarded oxblood cloak many paces away until Snow, white in the moonlight, nudged Rose’s red fur. Withdrawing her eyes from the quiet scene, she looked to Snow who bristled with excitement.
“Mama likes your papa bunches! Maybe he’ll be my papa too?”
Rose nodded, then closed her eyes smelling the night. There was the odor of elderberries, and in her mind’s eye she saw the Grove restored; beautiful and bathed in summer’s light. Within, a red she-wolf walked beside the translucent Old Woman of her dreams… a white wolf-sister not far behind.
Snow watched Rose open her eyes and wag a tail. “All is well. We’ll make a happily ever after!”
(c) Jason H. Abbott – May 21, 2016