The forest always smells of the battle between life and death. The rage on both sides is unconquerable. It can be felt always.
You feel it in the way your foot sinks into the emerald cushion of moss that carpets the forest floor; and in the spidery, gnarled fingers of the trees that reach out as you pass. When you walk through the low-hanging mists, there is the unmistakable sense of being in a place you shouldn't—like the feeling of entering a room in the midst of a conversation that is undoubtedly about you and some wretched, foolish thing that you have done.
There is also the sense of being watched: not just by the ferocious forces that govern our world, but also by its denizens. You can never see them—you can go days in the Moribund Forest without seeing—or hearing—anyone. Though at night, if the mist is drifting in the right direction, you might be fortunate to catch in your ear some stray notes of music from the Fair Realm.
Yet if you are foolish enough to follow after that music, you will soon find yourself in the arms of a dryad, strangled by her wooden hands. Or, worse yet, you might find yourself wandering the forest forever—well, at least until you die of fatigue and hunger. All edible life has a tendency to disappear when you are aimlessly lost. The forest, it seems, has its own sense of humor.
There are few men who dare to live, let alone hunt, in the forest. They call themselves swaggering names like The Huntsman or The Woodcutter—you know, things that appeal to male bravado and give them leave to swing about a sparkly axe. I suppose that with such names, it is only natural for them to give our hero the title of Big Bad, though the fools wouldn't know him from the rest of his brethren that stalk through these woods.
In fact, that's the real problem for these burly men. They don't know how many wolves inhabit the forest. It speaks volumes to the cleverness of my canine companions, who are sure never to be seen in large numbers. That is, unless they are on the battlefront, and King Fenrir is leading his many packs in all of their fang-exposed glory. Then it is that Man wishes he had never begun the war, and that he had never dared to choose the alliance of the three Pig Kings over that of the Wolf Kingdom.
But I will not waste space with blathering about political nonsense. Though I can hear—even from the shade of my den—the yelps and snarls of another pack setting out for patrol. Through years of fighting, the Wolf Kingdom has maintained control of the territory from the Moribund Forest to the Dilapidated Mountains—a far larger area of Grimm than you realize. Yes, Grimm—that is the name of our realm. A bit morbid, isn't it? Well, you needn't look at me with furrowed brows! If those two meddlesome brothers hadn't claimed godhood and renamed everything, we might have pleasant names for our land. But we don't. So you had best grit your teeth and square your shoulders.
Our story begins, like many stories of this nature, with a name. Of course, the name now means something entirely different, but it once meant something far simpler. In fact, one might compare its simplicity to that of human peasants naming their children after food or clothing—such as Candyfloss, or Cashmere. Though the Billy Goats hate the latter name, so, by royal decree, it has been outlawed by the High King, Cole Odinfrewr. But I know for a fact that the Mirror Queen wears cashmere, and that when she's not poisoning apples and turning her children into swans, she simply adores lounging in blankets and cloaks of the material. I'm digressing. Our story was supposed to begin with a name, but now it has just turned into rambling. I apologize. So, please: jump back a few sentences to the start of this tangential paragraph. A name—a silly name whose meaning was changed long before the unfortunate events of this tale unfolded.
If you are clever, you will not ask me what this means, but you will stand up, walk to your bookcase, and research the origin of the word. But I can assume that most of you are not very smart, or very dedicated to my story, so I'll spare you the few moments that it would take to exercise your mind. On second thought—no. You should rise to your feet and discover what the name means. Though given the context of our story, it will soon be apparent.
I really must begin telling the story. And so I shall.
- -^- -
Feet, clad in shoes of red velvet, meandered along the narrow path. They stopped at every other bush, and often rose to balance on their little toes to peer at some distant sight or lovely flower. Indeed, they were so preoccupied that they failed to notice when the white thatched cottage disappeared, and they had been entirely swallowed by the Moribund Forest.
But the crimson cloak was different than the flighty-minded shoes, and it flashed this way and that through the woods, glancing everywhere as its wearer continued to skip and prance down the path.
It was the cloak that first caught his eye.
At first he thought it was a flag—either from his brethren or from the Enemy. But the wind was with him, and he could not smell the musky, earthen odor of wolfkind, or the metallic stench of iron and steel. It was something else entirely.
Slinking, keeping low to the ground, he moved closer to the path. His golden eyes darted everywhere, and he occasionally lifted his long snout into the air to sniff. It was not the smell of Man, but something similar. Similar, but different. Different, because he could smell them—smell men—far in the distance. It was a whole garrison of Huntsmen and Woodcutters that would soon begin patrolling, as he was now doing.
The Wolf Kingdom allowed for the men to have a small base in the forest—if only because it gave the packs a way to amuse themselves when there was no real danger abroad. Which, believe it or not, was quite often. How they would jump into the air when you let out a howl right behind them! Of course, they'd swing their axes and curse loudly, but men are always slow and stupid, and they are always too late to catch taunting wolves.
He snaked through the underbrush, and began walking parallel to the creature. But it was no use: red fabric covered nearly all of its body, save for the little white legs. It could have been a prancing strawberry—though, he had never known berries to come alive and grow to such a momentous size. But the Glass Queen had her pumpkin carriage, so it was possible…All he could make out was a large wicker basket that poked out from beneath the folds of the cloak.
What manner of creature was this? The wind had shifted, and he could no longer determine its mettle. It had the flightiness of a bumblebee, yet its complete concealment beneath the cloak…
It stopped and turned.
He slipped back a few feet, and soon only his shining eyes could be seen through the thicket. They were two pools of molten gold framed by whorls of thorns.
How could he have been so foolish not to know what she was? And to track such a harmless creature as this! Had not been covered in fur, he would have blushed.
Golden curls poked through the crimson hood of the cloak, and though her skin was white as snow, it was not from fear. Indeed, her red, red lips parted and said—without fear or hesitation, but rather with immense and delighted curiosity: "Who's there?"
- -^- -
Of course, he did not respond, and continued to follow as she made her way—alone—through the woods. Why was a child of Man on this path? She was young—perhaps a turn of the seasons away from budding. He repeatedly stopped to look for the glint of an axe or the green, peaked hood of a ranger crouching in the bushes. The moss made his footsteps soft and silent, but he knew that the child was aware of his presence. She kept looking around. Yet it was entirely possible that she had the inconstant mind of a butterfly and had forgotten about him the moment after she called out.
His question was soon answered. She stopped with the stomp of a foot, setting down her basket to cross her arms. Her brows narrowed, and she let out a huff of air.
"It's terribly rude to follow someone!"
He halted, sinking onto his haunches.
"You could at least tell me what manner of creature you are, if you will not at least tell me your name!"
Should he say something? His tail swished from side to side.
"Or are you a creature that cannot speak?" she cocked her head and picked up the basket as she began to walk once more. She swung her free arm back and forth like a pendulum. "Perhaps you are something delightful—like a fawn! Oh, how I do love fawns! The deer sort, you know—not those beastly little men. One of them played the flute for my uncle once, and when he had fallen asleep to his enchanted music, the wretched thing stole all his money and ran away! But I have no money, so if you are a faun, then you will find me unappealing."
Though it was now apparent that she was talking more to herself than to anyone else, he rose to his feet and followed once more.
"This is my first time in the forest, you know,"
His father might have killed her by now—or at least leapt out to scare her badly and send her running to whence she came. But she was a small thing, and her voice was merry in its lilt. She reminded him of a bubbling brook, or hatchlings, or something new and light.
"Why will you not show yourself?" She stopped once more, and gently placed her basket on the path. "I would tempt you with food, but this is for Granny. The poor thing has taken in twelve children, and can barely keep them fed and clothed! That's where I'm going, you know. Though I don't see how a basket of bread and jam can really feed so many children! But Mama says that she often only gives them broth without any bread, which sounds unpleasant to me, so you must understand that this bread needs to go to her children and not you."
His ears perked, and he came closer to the underbrush. He had never known a man—let alone a child—to speak in such a manner. Did she not perceive that this was the Wolf Kingdom?
"Oh, by the Grimm Gods!" she cried, stomping her foot once more. "You are the most frustrating creature I've ever met! If it weren't for all of those thorns, and for Mama's warning to never leave the path, I would come in there after you and drag you out by your tail! But these are new shoes, and I would get a fierce scolding if I muddied them!"
Her foot tapped on the ground, the velvet shining in the gray morning light.
His heartbeat quickened, and his ruby tongue flicked to the tip of his snout. Would she turn into something monstrous if he stepped forward? It was entirely possible that she was a deceptive creature, and she would gobble him up.
"I will stand here until you speak—or go away."
His jaws parted, and he straightened. Two birds flew down the path, flying about each other in frenzied circles.
"Oh, how pretty!" she cried, and started forward to follow after them.
"I would show you my form," he said, his voice louder than he realized. The girl froze. "But you would scream and run from me." All intelligent creatures could speak the tongue of Man, though the Wolves loathed to do so. Even now, it felt taboo to be conversing with her.
"I will most certainly not scream!"
His mouth pulled back into a smile. His fangs glistened. "You will, child, and I will leave you now. I apologize for vexing you."
"Oh, please don't go!" she cried, starting towards the thicket. "I have a very long walk ahead of me, and it would be ever so nice to have a companion!"
Mid-step, he turned to her. "I'm afraid that you will find me an unsuitable companion," he called over the underbrush.
"Unsuitable companion indeed! I wouldn't even mind if you were a troll!" She twisted a blond curl around a finger. "Though…I hope that you aren't. Your voice is very pleasant, and it's not how I imagine a troll to sound."
He chuckled. This was a child of Man? "Thank you," he said.
"Please come out of the bushes," she said, letting the curl drop from her hand.
"Will you promise not to scream?"
She nodded vigorously. "Only babies scream,"
He waited for a moment, glancing and sniffing, then carefully wove his way out of the thicket. The path was hard and dry beneath his paw, and it sent odd vibrations through his bones as he left the carpet of moss.
Her turquoise eyes grew wide, but she did not retreat an inch as he came forward. They stared at each other, the birds chirping overhead and the wind whistling through the summer leaves. He was about the size of a pony.
"What pretty black fur you have," she said quietly. Her heartbeat had quickened significantly. "See?" she said, her voice becoming louder as she squared her shoulders. "I'm not afraid. I didn't scream, or run away!"
He sat down on the path. "What is your name?"
"Chaperon," she said, and raised her chin in the air. "It means 'hood.'"
"I know what it means," he said, though his tone was gentle.
"What is your name?"
His head lifted slightly. "Fenris, son of Fenrir."
"Son of who?"
"Fenrir, King of the Wolves."
She did not blink, or even bow. "So you're a prince?"
His head lowered. "Yes," he said after a moment.
"Why do you not wear a crown?"
"Animals do not wear crowns."
She rolled her eyes. "If I was a prince, I'd wear a crown all the time."
"It is easier for humans to wear crowns."
"But I'm sure some dwarf or clever creature could make one to accommodate those large ears of yours!"
Those large ears flicked.
"I can't dilly-dally," she said with a sigh. "It's a day's walk to Granny's house, and I've never been there before. We're not actually related by blood. They say it's shaped like a shoe, and that it smells of gingerbread. Do you know of it?"
Fenris nodded. "Yes, the cottage—I've heard of it." It was one of the few dwellings that they allowed in the forest. Apparently, the woman had been there longer than anyone could recall. To uproot her might release some sort of nasty curse. But what connection had she to this child, if they were not bond by blood?
"Good! You can lead the way," Chaperon said.
"Lead?" He did not rise to his feet.
"As my companion, you must bring me safely to Granny's house! And do you mind carrying my basket? It's so heavy—it's all of the jam. It's been hurting my arms mercilessly."
"I need all of my limbs to walk, and I will not carry it in my mouth," Fenris said, ears flattening.
"Then perhaps I can ride on you!" She clapped her hands together.
"I am not a horse."
"Please!" Her eyes sparkled with delight.
They would kill him—and her—if he were caught with the girl riding upon his back. Fenris did not know if he was more afraid of being caught by Men or Wolves.
"I'm afraid you cannot."
"I have blisters on my teensy, darling toes!" she cried. "I shall faint from exhaustion if you do not carry me!"
Fenris looked around. Her grandmother's cottage was secluded. It was possible that no one would see them. And she did seem tired—there were red welts on her hands from the weight of the basket.
"I will carry you for a little—until I reach the end of my patrol area."
"Is that what you do—patrol? Patrol for what?"
"For humans," he said. "Has your Mama not told you anything of Wolves and Men?"
"No," she said, adjusting the red hood around her face. "Mama won't tell me anything. Everything I know has come from books—though I have to sneak them out of her room when she's not looking, and make sure that I put them back before she notices."
"You like to read?"
"Of course," he said, and lay down on the ground.
"If you have no hands, how do wolves read books?"
He held up a paw, displaying one exceptionally long nail. "Before King Cole Odinfrewr made them stop, the Bookbinders would puncture a hole in the corner of each page so that our nails might catch them to turn pages. There was a time when Wolves and Men lived in peace, and we did not scorn them so."
"How clever! Where do you keep your books so they aren't spoiled by the rain?"
"We live in caves and dens—the books are kept there."
"I should like to see your home. I suspect that it is lovely. Do you live in a castle-like den?"
"It is a larger den than most—but it is not like your castles with turrets and drawbridges."
"I should love to go to King Odinfrewr's castle!"
"Are you a princess?" he asked with a smile.
"No," she said sullenly, crossing her arms. "But Mama goes to the castle often—and leaves me at home to watch Jack."
She looked at the sky, exhaling deeply. "The baby—what a fat, blobby thing! How he cries and cries for food! I've half the mind to stick beans up his nose! I did that once, you know—I stuck a bean up my nose…just to see what it would be like. And then it got stuck, and I was afraid it would go to my brain and sprout a beanstalk and split open my head! But Mama made me blow my nose into her kerchief, and I did—and out popped the bean!"
Fenris' tail wagged twice.
"Are you going to get on or not?" he asked, and she grinned broadly.
- -^- -
Chaperon jabbered and chirped as they moved down the path, talking of the Brownies that often stole her mother's pies, and the chickens they kept who scattered and ran about their yard. Her basket dug into his shoulders, and each time he asked her to move it, she would only say yes, but forget to do so (as another thought immediately entered her mind). It was an affront to allow for a human to ride a wolf, but there was something pitiable about her, and if another—more deadly—animal had come along and found her alone…
"Why do you wear so much red?" he asked, interrupting her flow of verbiage.
"It is the only color I wear!" Chaperon said merrily, though she looked down at her legs. "But I will allow for Mama to dress me in these white stockings. Though how they itch me so!"
"You choose red out of preference?"
"Of course! Why, it's the loveliest color in the world!"
"Because so many wonderful things are red!"
"No, not like blood, silly beast! Like strawberries, and roses, and rubies! All sorts of beautiful things are red, and I will not wear something as insufferable as pink, nor as dreary as blue, or as sickly as green!"
"So you will only wear red?"
"Yes—I have never worn another color for as long as I've been able to choose my own clothes."
He nodded, and they continued in silence. But it was soon broken.
"Why do the Wolves fight against Men? Mama is always referring to it in her letters—that is, when I get the chance to sneak a look over her shoulder—though she never takes the time to explain to me why we're supposed to hate you so much when I ask her about it. In fact, she usually just scolds me for being so sneaky, even when I'm not." She kicked Fenris' ribs to get his attention.
Fenris sighed, and shifted his shoulders to move the basket further onto his back.
"No one knows the real reason," he said. "My father told me that it was because of the encounter with the Pigs."
'Pigs? Like the sort that we have?"
"No, no," said Fenris. "These are a special breed—almost an entirely different species. They walk on two legs and wear clothes. They're smaller—almost dog-sized."
"I've never seen a pig with clothes!" Chaperon laughed. "It would be such an adorable thing!"
"Don't tell them that if you ever see one," chuckled Fenris. "They're proud—even prouder than the Wolves. You could say that the Pigs pretend to be Men, and each time someone reminds them of their position, they…well, they're quite touchy about that."
"So why did this start a war?"
Fenris sniffed the air. A doe—and her fawn—were just off the path. His stomach grumbled.
"My uncle, Gevaudan, decided that the Pigs needed a lesson. You see, Pigs aren't very bright, so when he came across a Pig that had built himself a house of straw, he knocked it down."
"That's not very nice."
"My uncle was King of the Wolves at the time—he could do what he liked."
She twisted his fur in her hands. "So what happened then? Did he eat him?"
"No—but they said that was his intention."
"The two other Pigs whose houses he ruined. The Pigs were so upset that they ran to King Cole and told them some far-fetched tale. But it was enough. The High King had been eyeing our territory for some time now, so he allied himself with the Pigs and declared war on us. We only went to war when your Great Louvetier caught hold of my uncle and killed him. And then the Billy Goats began their feud with the Trolls when King Gruff knocked the Troll King off his toll bridge and made him lose his magic shoes, and we found ourselves allying with all sorts of creatures, including the Trolls."
"The Billy Goats? You mean Goats who wear clothes like the Pigs?"
Fenris nodded. "They fight for the High King now. I was head-butted by one during battle—it was not pleasant."
"You've been in battle?"
Fenris' stomach let out a growl as the scent of the deer faded. "Yes—I have seen a fair amount of war."
"War must be terrible—my brother rides in the war-band of the Frog King. Mama is constantly weeping for his soul because we haven't heard from him in months. But I suppose that's because he's a terrible penman, and he could barely read before he entered the army, and I don't suppose that writing is essential to winning battles."
"Indeed, it is not," said Fenris, wincing as the girl tugged on strands of fur.
"How far is it to Granny's house?"
"We have a ways yet," Fenris said. "You may have to walk soon—I'm growing tired."
"Poor old thing! You should have told me!"
"I am not old," said Fenris. "But you and your basket are quite heavy."
"How old are you? I'm eleven."
"By your measurement of years, I'm twenty years old."
"So you're a boy!"
"I am not a boy," he said more proudly than he intended.
"A young man has his coming of age at twenty-one. You will not be a man until then. So you are a boy, just as I am a girl." She kicked his ribs. "Do let me down—you've made me feel beastly for burdening you so."
He did not object as he lay down and allowed for the girl to dismount. His back felt bare and cold as she left him. He could feel the wind breathing between the stands of his fur, and he ground his teeth. The midday sun filtered through the trees, catching within the clouds of mist that drifted amongst them. Birds chattered. Fenris scanned a small patch of open sky above the path that ran like a crack through the forest canopy.
"What are you looking at?"
He did not glance at her, but sniffed the air as his eyes scanned the sky. "I smell swans," he said. It was a scent mixed with many things: fish, morning dew, and a stagnant, almost stinging smell of feathers.
"Oh, how lovely!" she cried, and her hood fell from her head. A burst of gold followed suit, and he dragged his gaze from the sky to see her.
"Swans are not lovely," he said, and looked at the sky once more. "The Mirror Queen turned her eleven sons into swans, and now they are her spies. They look for Wolves constantly."
"To discover our hiding places and general whereabouts."
"No, no! I meant why did she turn her children into swans? That doesn't seem very kind."
"It wasn't. She tricked them, and uses her magic mirrors to control their minds."
"But they're princes!"
"If it's for the sake of the war, I'm sure others have not protested."
Fenris nodded and resumed walking, jerking his head to motion for the girl to follow. He felt light and flimsy without her weight. "And you humans say that we're the beastly ones."
He moved to the edge of the path, keeping within the shadows, and slowed his pace to accommodate her short legs.
- -^- -
The wall of sunflowers swayed in the breeze—like drunkards or dancers, he could not tell. Despite the towering heights of the flowers, the openness of the sky weighed down upon him like the glare of a great blue eye. He kept low to the ground, and balanced his attention between the sky and the girl who leaped and frolicked amongst the flowers. The smell of swans had faded, but he caught the scent of the Woodsmen—they were still a few miles off.
The air was warm, though it carried with it the suggestion of the upcoming autumn. It also brought the sounds of her incessant singing, and he could track her movements through the violent bending and swishing of the thick stalks. She was now a good way off from him. They had stopped for a rest—or, rather, for him to rest, and for her to eat a meager lunch. She offered half of it to him, but upon finding it to be only a piece of bread and an apple, he declined. His stomach still rumbled fiercely, but Fenris knew he could wait until the girl was gone before hunting.
He was just about to rest his head between his paws when a scream rippled through the air. He was running in an instant, knocking down the body-like flowers, and found her before the shriek had finished echoing across the field. Teeth barred, he skidded to a halt, and the snarl faded from his throat.
She had fallen to the ground, an arm across her face to shield her from some terrible evil, and Fenris chuckled as he beheld her assailant.
"I have never known little girls to be frightened of rocks."
"It's a troll!" she wept, though her arm lowered a little so that she might look at him. "It's a troll who will eat me!"
"It was a troll," he said, sitting down. "But now he's stone." She did not move. "Have a look for yourself."
Chaperon remained still, but then slowly turned.
"How did he—why is he stone?" she asked. His jaws gently latched onto the hood of the cloak to pull Chaperon to her feet.
"Either from the sunlight or from a curse."
They stared at the statue, much of which had already been worn away by weather. Its lumbering form was still in a state of running, and its fangs continued to pierce the air.
"Is he dead?" she asked, taking a retreating step.
Fenris moved forward, sniffing at the statue. There was a gash along its left arm, and he could see a rivet of blood—stone blood—frozen as it ran down to its hand. "I don't know," he said. The scent of the troll remained, but it was overpowered with the damp scent of stone. It must have been transformed recently.
"I hope that he is—it would be terrible to still be alive and trapped in stone!" Chaperon replied, and then looked at the ground. "Oh, curse it all!" she smacked her thigh and stomped her foot. "All of the bread has fallen out of the basket! It's ruined! I'll be beaten for this!" Hurriedly, tears welling in her eyes, she picked up the loaves of bread. Mercifully, most of them were unharmed. Fenris helped her the best he could, and carefully picked up the jars of jam in his mouth. There were some letters on the ground, and as he went to retrieve them, the breeze picked one up and blew it further into the field.
"I'll get it," he said as Chaperon started forward, and he darted after the letter.
When he finally pinned it beneath a paw, the girl was far behind, but he could still hear her cursing herself and cursing the troll for scaring her. He glanced at the letter, which had opened to reveal carefully formed words, and would have scooped it into his mouth were it not for what he read.
"Give Chaperon the Chain before she leaves tomorrow. Do not tell her what it is—but tell her that it is of great importance and that she must take care not to lose it. The High King will be waiting at our cottage for the delivery, and will go on to the battlefront. With it Fenrir will be bound, and we will have no more of Wolves or Trolls. In Chaperon's basket, I've enclosed letters for the Woodsmen from their families."
The letter went on and on, and the air became cold around the Wolf Prince. His heart beat rapidly, and his lips pulled back in a silent snarl. He knew of the Chain, but…but…
"Do you think Granny will notice the bread? It doesn't look entirely spoiled to me," Chaperon said morosely, and extended a loaf towards him. She did not see his snarl, and he quickly concealed it.
"Your Granny is not your kin?" he asked cautiously, moving away from her.
"No," she said, tucking the bread into the basket, and picking up the letter that Fenris had read. She neatly folded it and placed it inside the cage of wicker, not even glancing at the contents. Had she read them already? Did she know of the news she carried—of the evil of her mother, and so-named grandmother?
"And you have never met your Granny before?"
"No—apparently, she can't be bothered to visit us. I suppose it's all the children."
"Does your mother often send letters to her?" He could not keep the snarl from his voice.
"What queer questions you ask! Should princes be so nosy?" She poked his snout, and Fenris had to clamp down to keep from biting her hand off. How dare she touch a Wolf Prince?
"Does your mother often send letters to your Granny?" he repeated, beginning to circle her. She rearranged the folds of her cloak, shrugging. Did she not know a predatory animal from a docile one?
"I often don't get to see to whom the letters go," she said offhandedly. "Most of them are terribly long and boring, and there are always strange sorts of people that come to pick them up. None of them are very nice, and they always ignore me! Even when there are large groups of them over for dinner—though, sometimes I will sneak downstairs to hear them talking late into the night. But it's all about King Cole, and it's not as exciting as what one might think. They never mention princesses, though they'll sometimes talk of various Queens, none of whom seem very interesting to me."
Fenris stalked around her, his tail lashing out to whip the sunflowers. She was blameless—just a foolish little girl to be used as a pawn.
"Pick some flowers for your Granny," he said, almost barking before he broke into a run, and could still hear Chaperon talking as he barreled down the path.
- -^- -
The cottage was lopsided, and the enormous chimney did indeed give it the appearance of a boot. Smoke rose from the tall feature, and Fenris' hair bristled as he smelt both ginger and…and something else. Something foul, but also familiar.
It was a whitewashed house, and its thatched roof had caved in along one side. A fence of bones—bones each topped with a tiny human skull—ran around the perimeter, and had he not been so preoccupied with the strange scent, he would have remarked on the stilts like chicken's feet that held the cottage aloft.
The bone-gate was left ajar, and Fenris kept his snout to the ground as he slowly stepped forward. A path bordered with small, finger-shaped bones led to the front steps.
This was a house for twelve children? He could not hear their laughter, or even smell their soft, fresh scent. There were no dolls or wooden swords left in the decaying yard, and no clothes hung from the laundry line. He halted mid-step, his ears flattening against his head. But there were shoes—dozens and dozens of shoes, tucked beneath the house. Were it not for the stilts, he would have assumed that the house was built on a foundation of little leather boots and slippers.
Fenris slunk to the shoes, and quickly drew away—as if burned—as he smelled them. They were children's shoes, and they had not been worn for some time.
This was the grandmother of Chaperon?
Fenris' fangs glittered as he slithered up the front steps, peering into the open door. Someone was humming—no, not someone. A crone. He could hear the click and groan of the cumbersome loom, hear as the heavy bars of wood were pulled and swung.
"Do you plan to enter, Chaperon, or are you just going to sulk in the doorway?"
Fenris did not respond as he moved further into the house. He knew the nature of the Chain—he would rip out this woman's throat and bring it back to his father. Chaperon was still far enough away that she would arrive long after he had left.
He took another step, the dusty wood creaking beneath his large paws. An old woman sat with her back to him, working an enormous loom before the fire. Her dress was black, and a matching, shabby shawl was wrapped around her bent frame. A large table lay to her right, and it was filled with plate upon plate of gingerbread-men and women, their shirts and dresses lovingly decorated. On another table lay letters and maps, books and strange objects.
"I said," the woman started, turning in her seat. The words stalled in her sagging throat, but her eyes did not widen as she beheld the enormous wolf standing in the entrance of her house. A smile spread across her face, revealing a set of dagger-like iron teeth. The whites of her eyes were yellow—like aged paper—and a long, crooked nose stretched out so far that it threatened to hang over her upper lip.
He knew her immediately for what she was, for she had not the smell of Man—not even a variation, like Chaperon. Hers was a sharp and tangy smell, like milk left too long in the sun, or like the earth beneath an overturned rock. She was not the grandmother of Chaperon, for the child possessed the blood of Man, and the blood that flowed through this crone's body was purely of Witch.
"Your Highness," she said, rising from her loom. Her nails were long and cracked, almost brownish in their hue.
"You know me?" he asked, his face still twisted in a snarl.
"You can't be so foolish as to believe that this nose of mine is for effect," she said, and chuckled. Her iron teeth flashed in the firelight.
He did not reply. He must bite off her head—pounce upon her and bite off her head in one fell crunch. Though she would undoubtedly taste awful, and it would probably lay some curse upon him.
"Have you eaten my granddaughter, then?" she asked, unhooking her work from the loom. She gestured about the cottage as she released what appeared to be a very long and very beautiful ivory silk ribbon. "Please," she said, folding the ribbon upon itself, "make yourself welcome. It is not every day that I am graced with royal company."
Fenris did not move. He must kill her—kill her now.
The witch set down the ribbon on a nearby table and moved further into the room.
"That is undoubtedly why you are here," she said, and stood beside the desk littered with papers. "You killed my granddaughter and read all of the letters she was carrying. You know of the Chain."
"You will give it to me," he growled. "Or you will forfeit your life." He was going to kill her anyway.
She clicked her tongue. "Give up the work of my life?" The witch shook her head. "Weapon for your father's doom or not, this is still a master achievement!"
"Do not attempt to prolong your life with boasting words," he said, stepping closer to her.
"Boasting words? Do you not think that I am entitled to boast in the hour of my doom, boy? Do you know what the Chain is made of? The sound of a cat's footfall, the beard of a woman! The roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear! Fish's breath and bat spittle! Such ingredients are not to be found by just anyone! Why, I've had my children looking for them for ages!"
"And where are your twelve children now?"
The crone's teeth flashed. "We all get hungry now and then. And children do come running when they smell gingerbread."
"I suppose that you will eat Chaperon too."
"Chaperon?" the witch laughed loudly. "She may not be my granddaughter by blood, but I would never eat her!"
Fenris' golden eyes filled with light and fury. "And why is that?"
A slow smile stretched across the wrinkled face of the crone. "We are each slotted to a fate," she said with quiet malice.
"And you believe that my father's fate is to die within the strangling grasp of your Chain?"
"It has a name, you know," she said. "Gleipnir."
"It makes no difference what it is named!" he snapped, and took another step towards the woman, his snout extending towards her. He knew enough magic to defend himself from any incantations that she might utter, but still…Yes, he must act now. Kill her now.
"Once your father is bound by Gleipnir, he will be unable to break free, and King Odinfrewr will kill him."
Fenris leapt across the room in a mighty bound, his jaws open and waiting for her neck. But the witch was too fast, and she flew into the closet and locked the door. Fenris slammed into the wood once, twice—thrice. While the door groaned, it would not break.
"Where is the Chain?" he roared, hurling himself against the closet. The witch only chuckled.
"So young—so eager for glory and blood!"
"I will break through this door soon enough, old woman, and you will pay for creating such a monstrosity!" His shoulders ached from the repeated force of the impact, and he took a step away.
Minutes passed, and he at last sat down, his tail whipping from side to side.
"How long will you wait?" the witch called from the closet. "I can last for weeks without food or water, you know. We are not like Men. And the moment you leave my house, I will disappear."
"How long have you been feeding information to the High King's Woodsmen?" he said, anger roiling within his breast.
"Long enough for your dens to be known to me. I planned to deliver the information to King Odinfrewr myself—once Gleipnir was finished, of course. But if you go, and leave an old woman in peace, I will forget what my children have told me."
Fenris stared at the wooden doorknob, and did not speak for several minutes. Indeed, he was so intent on monitoring the slightest movement that he did not hear the pitter-patter of small feet through the yard, or the sound of the girl moving through the cottage on tiptoe.
It was only when she threw her arms about his neck and buried her face in his fur that he leapt up in surprise—and pain.
"There you are, you silly creature!" she laughed, and fire—fire like that of Hell—rippled through him. "Look, I've caught you with my new ribbon!"
She had wrapped the long, white ribbon of the witch around his neck as if to make a bow. It was strangling him, but not from strength—rather from the agony that it caused. Only a groan escaped his lips as she tied the knot, and Fenris found that he could not move.
"I shall make you my pretty pet!" she said delightedly, but paused as he became frozen and stiff, his eyes wide with anger and panic.
"What have you done?" he breathed, though his voice was barely audible.
The witch began to cackle—cackle like a magpie—from the closet, and the doorknob twisted a full rotation before the door opened.
"Granny!" said Chaperon. "Why were you hiding in the closet? That is, if you are my Granny! Come out and meet my dear friend!"
"Indeed I am your Granny, child," the woman said warmly. She was now wearing a nightgown, and a nightcap was on her head.
"What a large nose you have, Granny!" laughed the girl. "You look just like Prince Fenris!"
"Ah!" said the witch, walking forward to tickle the girl beneath the chin. "All the better to cook delicious things for you!"
Chaperon held up the basket of bread and jam. "But I thought you had no food," she said warily.
The witch seemed perplexed, but she only smiled again.
Fenris snarled—or the best he could, as his limbs had stopped working.
"Look at what you have done, girl!" the witch cried, and patted Chaperon on the back. "You've caught the wicked, bad wolf!"
The witch began to wrap the ribbon around Fenris' legs, and then moved onto his torso. The more he struggled, the tighter it pulled. He could scarcely breathe.
"Of course!" said the witch. "He tried to eat me, you know! Look at what a good thing you've done! You've saved me!"
There was a loud shout from the yard, followed by the stomping of boots. The witch turned to the doorway, pushing past Chaperon.
"What's wrong?" the child asked quietly, putting a hand on Fenris' head. "It looks as if Granny doesn't understand that you're my companion—or how to tie a bow! She's wrapped you up like a present!"
A Woodsman—no. It was not just any Woodsman. It was the Great Louvetier, the chief wolf-hunter himself. He knew him by his smell. The Death of Wolves lingered about him, in his pewter eyes, and his many knives. Fenris' eyes fell upon the silver axe strapped to the man's side.
"I came to inquire after the Chain," said the Louvetier, but he gasped as he beheld the wolf. "It seems that it works," he said, and began to chuckle, twirling his dark beard.
"That's Prince Fenris himself!" chortled the witch. "My granddaughter caught him—she tricked him all on her own! Such a clever, brave girl!"
"I did not trick him!" cried Chaperon, walking to the adults. "He is my friend, and you will release him, Granny! You tied the ribbon too tight and now it is hurting him so badly that he can barely speak!"
"Ribbon? I thought you were making a Chain," said the Louvetier.
"That is the Chain, you fool," said the witch. "But no scissors, or sword, or axe can cut through it. Only King Odinfrewr can unbind it now."
"You disguised the chain as a ribbon?"
"Gleipnir is its name," the woman said proudly.
"Please untie him!" pleaded Chaperon with sudden urgency.
The room had grown fiercely hot, and Fenris' vision blurred. His tongue hung out of the side of his mouth, and all smells melted into one. Death. Heart slowing, slowing, slowing down, he could only see the red of her cloak flashing about.
"Untie him?" said the woodsman. "You are a hero, child! You've saved Grimm from the biggest, baddest wolf of all!"
"He's not bad!" she cried, but the woodsman ignored her as he strode to Fenris in his big, clunking boots, and squatted before him.
"Well, wolf, what do you have to say for yourself?" He waited, and then laughed. "I forgot," he said in his deep, gruff voice, "you can't speak anymore. Let me help you," he said, and Fenris' world darkened and then exploded with sparks and flames of pain as the man ripped open his jaws, snapping muscle and bone.
Chaperon screamed, and the witch grabbed and held the girl as she attempted to move towards him. A wrinkled hand clamped over the girl's face, and though she tried to bite her, the crone's hand remained still.
"Rocks," said the woodsman, and with a wriggle of the crone's nose, a pile of fist-sized rocks appeared beside the man. Chaperon squeezed her eyes shut as the Great Louvetier took a rock and forced it down Fenris' throat. Even his gag reflex failed to work, and the prince felt his stomach rip open as the rock slid inside of him.
Before the pain of the first one finished, another rock had been pushed down his throat, and then another, and another, until such a great weight was in his belly that Fenris could bear it no longer.
The pile of rocks was half-gone when he lost his sight, and he could only hear the muffled sobs of Chaperon as life departed from him.
- -^- -
Chaperon never wore red again.
She was received with joy and immense gratitude when she returned to her cottage the next day. The witch came with her, and the Great Louvetier followed behind, dragging in a wheelbarrow the rock-filled body of Prince Fenris. King Odinfrewr was waiting, with her mother, and though the High King bowed to her, the girl did not smile.
Nor did she smile when the young Prince Siegfried, son of Odinfrewr, beheld her beauty, and asked her mother to make Chaperon his bride. Of course, he was fourteen, and they were forced to wait a few years, but he brought the girl to his castle that very day. Soon, the prince's patience wore out, and, despite conventions, he made Chaperon his princess upon her thirteenth birthday.
- -^- -
Chaperon stood in the Great Hall of King Odinfrewr's castle, staring silently at the wolf's head mounted on the wall. A hand was on her swollen belly, and her ankles were sore and aching beneath the yards of silk and jewels that covered her body. All around her dined the king's court, and her husband, the Crown Prince Sigfried, sat, laughing, beside his father.
Fenris' head hung above the High King's table, his jaws set in a snarl, and his golden eyes replaced by glass replicas. Whenever the court was exceptionally merry, they would often toast to her—lifting their glasses beneath Fenris' nose. She never partook in the activity, of course. Fenris' eyes, glass though they might be, followed her everywhere in the Great Hall.
"Dearest," Sigfried called to her.
Chaperon stared at the head, still hovering in the doorway of the Great Hall.
She dreamt of him when she should have been dreaming of her husband. Sometimes Prince Fenris was a Wolf—others, he was a man, nine years her senior, but handsome and kind. He would tell her that his spirit had been set free from his body upon his death, and had found itself again in the form of a man—a man who would come and take her from the castle that had become her cage.
She was fifteen now, her first child to be born in a matter of weeks.
Fenris' glass eyes pierced into the empty abyss that stretched across her heart, damning her with each life-giving beat. There were days when she would stare at his head for hours, and days when she could not bear the sight of it. Each time she asked Sigfried to take it down, he only laughed.
"Princess Chaperon," said the High King, and she blinked. The bearded king's eyes were narrowed, and she bowed her head as she stepped into the hall. The noise was overwhelming, and the air was hot. Many stopped to look at her as she passed. Her beauty had exceeded that of the Mirror Queen.
Perhaps she might have found some delight in it—some satisfaction. But any chance of that had been robbed the day she returned to her mother's house, and when she found herself a prince's bride at the age of thirteen. She could not even manage pride in the Seer's prediction that her first child would be male.
Prince Sigfried helped her to sit—a chair that faced Fenris. She could feel his gaze beating upon her head as she allowed her husband to pile food on her plate. When he was done cutting the food for her, she stared at the slices of meat and potatoes.
"You must keep up your strength," said King Odinfrewr. She did not look up at him. "If you want the boy to be the next Louvetier, you should be eating lots of meat."
Chaperon nodded her head obediently, and took a bite of mutton.
"Will you not at least smile, Chaperon?" asked the High King. "You are about to give birth to the future High King of Grimm."
Fenris's snarl stretched further across his face.
"After four years, you should know that she will not smile, nor laugh, nor do any of the merry activities in which my twelve sisters partake," chuckled Sigfried. "It would seem that her beauty gobbled up any hint of joy in her."
Chaperon raised her gaze to the face of her husband. He was handsome—golden-haired, just as she was, and had a quick smile. But her mother had given her to him when she was eleven, and allowed for Sigfried to marry her when she was thirteen. She had not seen her mother since the day of the wedding.
"It seems that her eyes have lost their sparkle as of late," said the High King.
"It will return when she gives birth," said one of the king's many daughters. "A baby's rather draining, father."
Chaperon only glanced at Fenris' furious face before taking another bite of her food. She was heavy—immensely heavy. Like a stone at the bottom of a river. There was no way to escape it.
No way at all.
- -^- -
And so one night, not a few weeks before she was expected to bring this Wolf-Hunter into the world of Grimm, Chaperon crept out of the castle, taking with her the large head of Fenris. She ran until she reached the Lethe River. There she loaded a large stone into her pocket and walked into the water.
It was we—the Wolves—who found her the next morning, floating facedown in the Lyngvi Lake, holding the head of Fenris close to her chest.
- -^- -
That was three days ago. The war has not changed, nor has either side come to some great compromise or understanding. Word spread through Grimm of the Princess' strange suicide, and no one can understand why the young woman would bring to her grave the head of the wolf that tried to seduce and eat her, and then disguised himself as her grandmother in order to complete the task (and gain a nice meal with the old woman as well). It is in response to their foolish talk that I write this tale, a tale that she once narrated to me.
You see: I owe Chaperon a great debt. I was caught by Men one year ago, and brought to Odinfrewr's dungeons to be tortured for information. Upon hearing that a Wolf was in the dungeon, Chaperon secretly came to investigate, and before she set me free, she told her story in detail. I hoped to one day repay her kindness, and it is my only wish that through the distribution of this text, I might honor the young woman, and our beloved prince.
Yes, this is rather sentimental nonsense, but, despite myself, I am a rather romantic sort of Wolf. Of course, Chaperon had no idea of Fenris' perspective—she merely narrated the bare facts—facts that allowed for my imagination to flutter about until a plausible story came into being. I have taken the liberties of inserting a scene from her perspective, though I believe my portrayal of her sadness to be fairly accurate based upon my perceptions of her gained from our brief meeting. If you're feeling rather impertinent, you might say that this is just as bad as the absurd rumors of Fenris eating people and whatnot. I feel that this is as close to the truth as we will ever come.
King Fenrir eventually suffered the same fate as his son. He was succeeded by one of his many heirs, though not nearly as popular as Fenris. We have been losing the war ever since, and have been forced to abandon much of the southern section of the Moribund Forest, the area in which Fenris and Chaperon first met. I'm rather sad about that—there were some lovely brooks and glens to be found there.
You might expect me to end this story with the sass and spark that was found in the beginning, but I'm afraid that it has made me rather sorrowful. Such can be the effects of one's writing—especially when writing unhappy tales.
So, please: return to your lives. Go fret over the menu for dinner—go yell at your child for drawing on the walls. Go sort through the mail, decide which dress you want to wear to your next party, and sneak a bit of dessert while the cook isn't looking. Go do whatever it is that you readers do once you finish a story, for I'm rather tired, and I don't wish to speak anymore.