The forest is magnificent. Giant yew trees reach for the sky, their leaves sending dappled sunlight down toward the moss-covered floor like a parting gift. Even Shiloh can’t deny the majesty of the place, as much as she might have preferred the wood around her a little more dead, with four legs, and holding up a tankard of beer.
But alas, good things apparently come to those who wait. And wait. Shiloh sighs, pulling her pelt more securely around her as she shifts into a warmer patch of sunlight.
“Are you almost finished?” she asks. “It’s nearing dusk, my love.”
The nearest tree is a monster. As thick around as three broad men standing in a circle, arms outstretched, fingertip to fingertip. It hides Shiloh’s wife from view. Just.
When Kae rounds the trunk of the tree, she makes it look a fraction of its years just by virtue of the contrast.
“Almost,” Kae says, broad hands smoothing over the bark like she’s soothing a spooked horse. “The bairn is sick with heart rot, the poor thing. I need to shore her up before it gets worse.”
Shiloh can’t find it in herself to be annoyed. Kae’s described heart rot enough for her to have some sympathy for the poor tree. And it doesn’t hurt that seeing her wife full of care makes a puddle out of her.
“It’s a good thing I enjoy watching you work,” Shiloh says, unable to help her soft smile. “Because it’s all you do.”
Kae looks to her, sharing the smile for a moment before her eyes snap suddenly back to her charge.
Shiloh tenses on instinct. “What?”
Kae’s alert, but not reaching for her axe. Shiloh relaxes her hold on her pelt but keeps it in hand for swift action anyway.
“There’s a girl in the forest,” Kae says. “Small. Alone. The… the trees are agitated.”
“Over a girl?” Shiloh says, confusion reflected in the look Kae sends her. “That’s a new one.”
Kae turns her attention back to her patient. “I’m almost finished here, then we can-”
“I’ll go on ahead,” Shiloh says, stretching her back out as she stands. “I’ve been sitting too long anyway, I’m going to grow moss.”
Kae doesn’t pick up the thread of the joke, looking as agitated as the trees around her must be. “I don’t…”
“I’ll be okay,” Shiloh says, stepping forward to clasp her wife’s hand between hers. “I have my pelt. I’ll even take my wrap-”
“No,” Kae says quickly, stopping Shiloh with a hand on her wrist as she reaches for their pack. “Don’t wear red.”
Shiloh raises an eyebrow. “That’s not what you said the other night, my love.”
And oh yes, now who’s wearing red? Shiloh grins as she uses her grip to pull Kae within reach, pecking her on one rosey cheek.
“It’s the trees,” Kae says, brushing a strand of Shiloh’s dark hair from her face. “They’re saying, don’t wear red.”
“How judgemental of them,” Shiloh says, but leaves her red wrap safely in their pack anyway.
Tracking the girl isn’t difficult. She smells of hay and woodsmoke, a combination that is as much out of place as her humanity this far into the woods. Shiloh hangs back, employing more caution than she would have otherwise, her wife’s worried frown at the fore of her mind.
The girl is indeed alone. Shiloh closes the distance between them until she can spy the girl’s back through the trees. Her hooded cloak is flapping around her ankles as she walks.
Her hooded red cloak.
Shiloh frowns and ups her pace, circling around the girl on soft feet until she finds a clearing up ahead with a downed tree to serve as a casual perch. The girl comes upon her bare minutes later, startling to a stop despite Shiloh’s deliberate, friendly smile and unassuming posture. Unfortunately there’s little she can do about her state of dress.
The girl can’t be older than seven summers, blonde hair tufting out of her hood as curious eyes look Shiloh over. Shiloh doesn’t blame her. She’s an unusual sight at the best of times.
Finally the girl breaks the silence. “Why are you naked?”
The bluntness of the question stirs a real smile to Shiloh’s features. “I’m not naked,” she says. “I’ve this pelt.”
The girl frowns at Shiloh’s wolf pelt, twisted about her in an approximation of a tunic. “It’s not very big.”
She’s not wrong. But then… Shiloh rises to her feet – carefully, so as not to spook the girl further. “It doesn’t have to be.”
The little girl watches her like one might watch a particularly interesting snake on one’s path. Cautious. Cautious but curious. Shiloh knows the sort. She sees it in the mirror those mornings Kae lets them hire a real room.
“What are you doing in the woods alone, child?” Shiloh says.
The girl rises to her full height, like she’s being inspected by someone with a badge. “I’m visiting The Grandmother,” she says, practically pronouncing the capital ‘T’.
Strange. Usually the trees warn Kae of any human settlements in the woods they travel. Kae’s parentage and Shiloh’s proclivity for travelling skyclad make chance meetings with humans something to be avoided.
“And where does she live?” Shiloh asks.
The little girl points along the direction she’s been travelling, deeper into the woods. “I’m to follow the sun to her cottage,” she says.
Right. Shiloh hums as she thinks. Kae isn’t far off and almost finished her tree-doctoring by her own admittance. She will catch up when she can. “May I walk with you, child?” Shiloh asks. “I’d feel much better knowing you got there safe, is all.”
After a lengthy pause, the girl nods, which is for the best really. It’s much easier to walk by her side than track her from behind.
The girl’s name is Scarlett.
“That’s an interesting name,” Shiloh says, the red of Scarlett’s cloak growing more vivid in Shiloh’s peripheral vision.
Scarlett shrugs. “Not really. There are lots of girls named Scarlett in the village.”
“Is that right?” Shiloh says, feeling more and more like she has a handful of puzzle pieces but no interlocking edges to fit them together.
They come upon the cottage as the sun kisses the distant mountains, sending the woods into an early dusk. Shiloh’s mildly put out when she notices how perfectly normal the place looks. The gardens are well-tended and the stoop swept. There’s even a cheerful glow warming the windows.
“This looks like the place,” Shiloh says, sweeping the clearing for something to explain the slow drip of dread down her spine.
Scarlett huffs a sigh next to her. She’d taken Shiloh’s hand not long into their walk and her little palm is warm and soft in Shiloh’s own.
“I guess so,” Scarlett says.
“You guess so?” Shiloh says, eye catching on a large shadow moving within the cottage. “You’ve never visited your grandmother before?”
“The Grandmother,” Scarlett corrects her. “And no.”
She says it like it’s the most normal thing in the world, but as Shiloh looks down at her, the red of her cloak seeming to glow in the darkness, she can’t help but think the situation is the very furthest from normal they can get.
“Is that visitors I hear?” Comes a voice from within the cottage. Shiloh looks up as the shadow in the cottage window moves toward the door. It gets smaller as it goes which is a funny thing, because Shiloh could swear it’s moving toward the light source…
The shadow is bare steps from the door when Shiloh gives an exaggerated shiver.
“Are you cold?” Scarlett asks.
“Yes,” Shiloh says quickly. “I’m afraid I didn’t think ahead. Might I borrow your cloak, child?”
Scarlett looks torn. “I was told not to-”
“Only for a minute or two,” Shiloh says, over the creak of the door. “I promise.”
Shiloh whips the cloak from Scarlett’s shoulders and about her own just in time to face the figure in the doorway who-
Is a little, old woman.
Shiloh balks at the sight, eyes warring with every other instinct telling her to run, fight, hide. Shift.
The Grandmother smiles. Her face is like a weathered peach and her hands look frail as spider’s silk. They clasp and unclasp in front of her, the only tell that she too feels the tension that’s fallen on the clearing like a woollen blanket.
“Where are you, my child?” The Grandmother asks, peering across the clearing. “Come closer, I’m afraid my eyes aren’t what they used to be.”
Scarlett is stepping forward before Shiloh can move to stop her, small hand leaving only a warm imprint on Shiloh’s palm as she lets go.
“Ah, there you are,” The Grandmother says, with a smile warm like home. “I see you now.”
Only she doesn’t. As Scarlett walks toward The Grandmother, the old woman’s eyes, suddenly sharp and shrewd, remain fixed on Shiloh. No, she thinks as she steps forward and the cloak flares out. Her eyes are on the cloak.
Don’t wear red.
“Scarlett,” Shiloh calls, pulling the cloak from her shoulders. The Grandmother’s eyes follow it’s rustle like a hawk as the fabric hits the grass.
Scarlett stops and turns back. And The Grandmother’s shadow starts to grow.
Shiloh doesn’t wait for the girl to obey, simply grabs for her pelt, reaches down deep and pulls. Scarlett screams and tumbles backward as Shiloh flies at her which makes leaping the girl an easy feat. She’s only half shifted when she hits The Grandmother’s charge but it’ll do. She’s got her teeth at least.
The Grandmother is easily the breadth of Kae’s yew patient and growing, but her skin, turning green and sickly by the minute, is easy enough to tear through. She bleeds. That’s the important thing.
Anything that bleeds can die, in Shiloh’s experience.
She’s fully shifted by the time The Grandmother hauls her back by her scruff and rakes jagged claws across her furred ribs. Lucky, Shiloh thinks as she hits the ground. She doesn’t think she’d have survived it in her human form.
Shiloh rolls to her feet and snarls. Her mouth tastes of copper and she can feel something sticky on her flank but the fight is a singing, beautiful thing in her blood. She might go down but she’ll give Scarlett enough time to put distance between herself and this… whatever this is.
The Grandmother’s skin seems to boil, lending her silhouette against the rising moon an air of gut-churning horror. Which is nothing to the sight of Scarlett behind the monster, branch raised like a club. Like she’s going to fell the beast with a stick.
Scarlett lets out a warrior’s roar as she brings the branch down and-
Nothing. It breaks on The Grandmother’s writhing back like so much driftwood. Scarlett goes from heroic to trembling in a bare moment and then The Grandmother is turning. Shiloh’s paws dig large grooves in the earth as she launches herself forward – she’s never moved so fast.
The axe moves faster.
Likely because it was hurled by a half-giantess.
The Grandmother’s skull cleaves like a ripe melon and Shiloh uses her forward momentum to barrel Scarlett out of the path of the monster’s falling carcass.
And then, silence.
Shiloh uncurls with a wince to find Scarlett unhurt if a bit squished under her bulk. She wasn’t kidding when she said her pelt needn’t be big. She’s a hulking wolf no matter the size of her talisman.
“Damn you, wife! You’d best not be dead!”
Scarlett’s eyes are round as the moon rising over them, flicking panicked from Shiloh’s less-than-reassuring countenance to the giantess bearing down on them. Shiloh can’t help but snort a laugh as she shifts back to her human form, pulling herself off the child as she goes.
“It’s okay, Scarlett,” she says. “This is my wife, Kae.”
“This is your widow more like!” Kae says, picking Shiloh up with one big hand to set about inspecting her wounds. “Because I’m going to kill you for that fright you just gave me!”
Shiloh endures the inspection, mostly because she’s had a lot of practice. “My love, you’re frightening the child.”
Scarlett seems to take that as a challenge, climbing rapidly to her feet. “I ain’t frightened!”
Shiloh kisses Kae’s palm on its way to pawing at her scalp to check for head wounds and sighs. “Yes, I could see that. What part of ‘run’ didn’t you understand?”
“The part where you were in trouble,” Scarlett says, chin jutting out stubbornly.
“Oh I like her,” Kae says, seemingly having satisfied herself that Shiloh isn’t going to keel over dead any time soon.
Shiloh rolls her eyes. “Of course you do.”
Silence falls on the three of them once more as their attention turns to the hulking corpse of The Grandmother.
Scarlett breaks it. “They sent me here to get et, didn’t they?”
Shiloh, who was behind the door when the Gods handed out artifice, says, “Yes, my girl, I think they did.”
Scarlett takes this news with the sort of stoicism that’s likely going to require a lot of crying at some point later. “I’d like to not go back,” she says, finally.
Shiloh doesn’t say anything, simply exchanges a long look with her wife. And then she holds out her hand.
One year later, the village drapes another little girl named Scarlett in red and sends her into the woods. Four hours later, she comes back.