Stephen Theiss scrunched up his nose. "Capture a dire wolf? Alive?" he asked incredulously. "Miriam. I'm a woodsman, not a superman."
"My lady insists," Miriam looked up with pleading eyes. "You've made a home of the deep woods. Surely you've at least seen one?"
Lucky for Stephen, the maid's curly dark locks were hidden under a scarf today. If they had been loose and trailing down her nape the way they had been at the Equinox fire, he might have been swayed to do something reckless.
"My father made our home there, not me," Stephen said. "I only stay there now because I promised him I'd continue to look after the place."
"But you've seen one," Miriam pressed.
Stephen sighed and crossed his arms. This year would mark his fifteenth year, but he had seen far more of the Black Forest than even a man twice his age.
"I can fetch your lady the acid that pools inside ogre lilies, and I can bring her a hundred stinging eels if they please her so, but Lady Rosette is mad for even conceiving the task you ask of me!" he announced.
A wealthy merchant's wife browsing fruit nearby gasped and almost dropped her basket. She stared at Stephen, eyes wide with shock. No one dared openly defame the new, young wife of Lord Hasting; not unless they wanted to vanish one night and never be seen again. She had earned the nickname Rose Red for her beauty and her thorns.
Stephen rolled his eyes. The townsfolk loved to gossip about the lords and ladies of Castle Hastings. Sixteen years ago, Stephen's own father and the youngest daughter of Lord Hasting had set the town ablaze with rumours.
"Please, Stephen. My lady would be indebted to you." Miriam tucked a strand of hair, blown loose by the wind, back under her scarf.
Stephen swallowed. "I'll have to think about it, but my answer for now is no."
The wind thrashed against the wooden cottage, throwing everything it had at it like a woman scorned.
"You'd think that someone was trying to blow my house down!" Stephen shouted to be heard above the wind.
In one hand he held a small wooden bowl while his other hand held a spoon that stirred its contents; mustard seeds, fennel, pepper corn and lemon peel drenched in wild honey.
A shutter broke loose and let in a mighty gust that snuffed out the candle and made light work of tumbling Stephen's belongings. With a frustrated bellow lost against the howling wind, Stephen yanked open his front door.
The wind died immediately, leaving an eerie calm with a shivering edge. In its place stood what appeared to be a boy child, though only a fool would mistake the creature as human. In the moonlight, it had ghostly white hair that stood up at all ends, and its skin was pale silver. Its eyes were black, without any whites to them.
"Zephyr, must you always be so impatient?" Stephen asked.
"You were late coming back home today. I thought you'd fled us." The avatar of the South Wind, known in these parts as Zephyr, regarded the woodsman with unblinking eyes.
"Would you blame me if I did?" the young man retorted as he thrust the bowl at the creature.
After inspecting it with a sniff, Zephyr eagerly accepted the bowl and gobbled down the sweet and spicy mixture.
"I would be very upset," Zephyr said between mouthfuls. "I have grown fond of you. I want to persuade Death to give you to my sister, Blizzard."
"I'm flattered." Stephen smiled and leant on door frame of the cabin. "Zephyr. Would you think me mad to try and capture a dire wolf?"
"Yes," it replied without missing a beat. "Their meat is stringy and their furs are mangy and matted with blood. You would get no coin for either. Why do you ask?"
Stephen recounted Miriam's request to the creature. For a long moment, it stared up at Stephen, its thoughts unreadable. Then it smiled, revealing a row of pointy teeth.
The wooden frame of Stephen's wagon sagged and creaked under the weight of a metal cage built for bears and the creature within it.
No horse would go near the wagon, and Stephen didn't blame the poor things. However, that did leave the woodsman with the onerous task of dragging his prize up to the castle. He panted and puffed and strained against the weight of the dire wolf, measuring his progress in inches.
As he approached, the portcullis was raised, and guards escorted him into the courtyard where a frightened looking groundsman relieved him of his burden. The dire wolf stirred, but did not wake. No doubt it was exhausted; any creature would be after a bout with a wind sprite.
A footman emerged from the castle to take his coat and usher him in where the lord and lady of the castle awaited him, sitting on the dais in the main castle hall. Stephen tried to keep a mild expression as he was introduced, but he couldn't quite tuck away the curiosity he held for Lord Hasting.
"Presenting Stephen Theiss from my lord's township."
Lord Hasting was a man in his late fifties with a trim, salt and pepper beard. He was every bit as curious as Stephen, but he had much more practice at feigning polite interest. Both were surprised to see that the other had his wide, green eyes.
Beside him sat Lady Rosette, a striking young woman not much older than Stephen. She had eyes like the winter sky, and hair as red as blood. She regarded the woodsman aloofly.
Stephen delivered a bow the best he knew how.
"Master Stephen," Lord Hasting began, sounding somewhat bewildered. "I... to be honest, I don't know where to begin..."
Stephen looked up at the old lord. He had always imagined the noble to be a cold, authoritative man that viewed the people he ruled like a hawk might view a shrew. Seeing the lord now, Stephen realized that he was a man like any other.
Lord Hasting cleared his throat. "I suppose you may be aware that there are rumours in town about your parentage."
"Yes my lord," Stephen murmured.
"You would also know that my previous wife only bore me daughters, and thus I am yet to produce an heir." The lord continued.
"Yes my lord."
"What you would not know is that we have recently found Lady Rosette to be barren."
Stephen's gaze flickered to the young lady. Lady Rosette bowed her head and Lord Hasting tenderly clasped his left hand on hers.
"My lady is as smart as she is kind and beautiful," Lord Hastings continued, "and so she came to me with the solution. She proposed that if the bastard of Hasting's blood could perform a feat of courage and strength, then he should be groomed to inherit. We bid little Miriam to approach you, as she always did to do my lady's bidding, so not to arouse suspicion. We were told that you refused the task, yet here you have brought us a dire wolf."
Stephen frowned. "Sorry, my lord. I am but a simple woodsman. Please, would you speak plainly?"
Lord Hasting sighed. "Master Stephen. I am asking if you would consider being my heir? Consider being the next Lord of Castle Hasting?"
Stephen stared at Lord Hasting blankly. "I..." he felt as though the floor had tumbled out from underneath him. "I... My lord. I am but a simple woodsman."
It was Lady Rosette who spoke. "You have proven otherwise."
"Please, think on it, Master Stephen," the lord said. "I will allow you as much time as you need to think it through. You will take supper at the castle tonight, and we have prepared your chambers. At least stay a few days before you make a decision."
Stephen, not knowing how to reply, simply bowed.
The bath that awaited him was hot and surprisingly pleasant. Stephen was dozing when the sound of someone shuffling around him brought him to full awakeness. He saw Miriam laying out clothes for him on the dressing stool near the bath tub.
She laughed as Stephen turned a bright red and quickly covered up certain parts of his body.
"I have come to fetch you for supper, my lord," she said, not even trying to restrain her grin.
"I'm no lord," he grumbled, sinking so low into the water that he could blow bubbles in it.
"Until you accept," she said, hands on her hips. "You will accept, won't you?"
Stephen sighed and righted himself. "Close your eyes. Turn around. No peeking."
Miriam cast him another bemused look, but complied. Not knowing how long it would last, Stephen dashed out of the bath and into the safety of drying cloths. As he dressed quickly, he marvelled at the softness of the fabric.
"Ok, you can look now," Stephen said when he was decent.
When Miriam faced him, she burst out into a renewed round of laughter.
"What is it now?" he demanded.
"Your tunic is on backwards, my lord," she teased.
When she stepped closer to help him pull off the garment, he realized too late that she wasn't wearing her scarf. His eyes trailed her dark locks of hair down to her... Stephen coughed and looked aside.
"To be honest, Miriam, I'm not sure what I'll do," he admitted. "I feel as though I'm in a strange dream."
He let Miriam help him with the tunic and silently revelled in her flowery scent. If he did decide to stay in the castle, at least he'd have someone who he already knew.
"You'd be a fool not to," she said. "It's the chance of a lifetime. Even if you don't want it for yourself, think selflessly. I certainly wouldn't mind being a lady. You could marry me and make my dream come true."
Stephen chuckled, and then gulped as Miriam looked up at him with her wide, hazel eyes. He felt his blood coarse though him and cause his body to throb.
"Miriam..." Stephen managed to croak.
She closed her eyes, and leant forward expectantly. Stephen hesitated, and then bent down to meet her halfway for the kiss. He registered the sickly sweet taste of willowberry, an ingredient of sleep draughts, just as his eyes fluttered shut.
Stephen heard the sound of dripping, and smelled damp rock and moisture with a metallic tang. When he tried to move his body, he found that he could not. There was a deep, sharp pain at his neck, and he could feel something wet and sticky pooling on the surface which he lay, matting his hair.
He opened his eyes to see his arms manacled a large slab of stone. Looking around frantically, he saw that his legs were similarly pinned. Fear bloomed with the realization of what was happening to him.
His eyes focused on the woman standing over him. Lady Rosette looked as beautiful as ever in a black evening gown. She held a goblet in her hand and sipped from it casually.
"Oh, you're awake," she said in a conversational tone as she absently wiped away the red stain her drink left on the goblet's rim. "I was sure that you'd stay asleep until the end, but my maid said that you might wake."
Stephen tried to speak, but couldn't get out more than a gurgling sound. He could only take in the horror around him. They were in a dungeon of sorts, cluttered with an assortment of jars and items. He recognised some of them as ones he'd sold to Miriam. The wolf he captured was here too, nearby in its cage, with cuts and scorch marks on it that Stephen hadn't put there. It stared at Stephen silently and intently; its cold eyes beheld the woodsman with alien emotions.
"You missed supper, I'm afraid," the lady continued. "My lord was most disheartened when Miriam told him that you'd fled the town to avoid his displeasure at rejecting his offer. I don't think you'll ever be heard from again."
Lady Rosette drained the goblet and then set it on the edge of the stone table to catch more of the red liquid that dripped off its edge.
"Don't look at me like that. I'm not the monster. The society that expects me to produce a healthy heir for my lord is the real villain here. I wasn't sure if your blood was thick enough to do the trick, being a bastard and all, so I had to test you." She smiled and laid her hand on her abdomen.
The last sight he saw was the lady raising the dripping goblet to her lips.
He was aware of two people conversing. From that awareness, came an awareness of himself. Slowly, slowly, the self pieced itself together. He remembered what he had looked like in reflections of pond water. He remembered that had lived in a cottage in the Black Forest, alone since the day his father died. He had grown up observing the ways of the forest, of the cruelty and beauty of the life that dwelled there. He had wondered what it would be like to live a different life. And then, abruptly, his life had ended. At the time of his death, he had felt utter terror, but now he felt only a cold, calm rage.
Stephen sat on the stone altar beside the body that once was his. He caught sight of the pale thing and scowled, looking away. His attention settled for a moment on the dire wolf. It licked its wounds and did its best to pretend it wasn't confined to a cage.
Zephyr was standing with a young woman dressed in a priest's cloaks. When they finished their conversation, they turned to regard the newly deceased woodsman. That was when Stephen noticed that the woman, like Zephyr, was not mortal. Instead of her face, she had a skull topped with willowy, white hair.
Zephyr shuffled towards Stephen. Death followed silently.
"Well, that was unexpected," Zephyr said with a grin.
"She's a witch," Stephen spat. "A dirty, filthy-"
"And what are you?" Zephyr cut in. "You practice magic yourself."
"Not this!" Stephen jumped down from the altar and pointed a shaking finger at his body. "Not this!" he said through gritted teeth. "Everyone knows this sort of thing is forbidden!"
Zephyr nodded. "You don't have to tell me. Perversions to nature hurt our kind the most, which is why Death and I have a proposition for you."
"What she has done is evil! And I'm not just angry in a self serving way, Zeph, I'm not." Stephen was shouting now. "She will give birth to a monster! Wait... did you say something about a proposition?"
The creature who wore the appearance of a young boy smiled. "Yes."
Stephen's eyes flickered to Death. In the shadows of her eye sockets, he glimpsed the world beyond.
"What's the proposition?" he asked.
It was Death who spoke, but her voice sounded in his head, not his ears.
Zephyr will grant you a second life with which you will avenge yourself, Death said.
"Done," Stephen growled.
"Hear her out," Zephyr drawled.
But you will not reap the vengeance from the woman you know as Lady Rosette. Her fate is already claimed. Death continued. But do not despair, The lady will be in my embrace soon enough, however, before that, she will give birth to a daughter.
Stephen bared his teeth in a humourless smile at the irony of his death. Lady Rosette's efforts were for naught for she wouldn't give birth to an heir.
The daughter's existence will be a bane to this world. She will do as her mother did and pervert the natural forces. Zephyr has agreed to bind your soul to a host body with his power so that you can one day defeat Lady Rosette's daughter.
Stephen thought only for a brief moment before he said, "I accept."
He wouldn't be able to touch Lady Rosette, not directly, but Death said nothing about visiting another woman who had been implicit in his brutal murder. He forced himself to look back down at his body.
"Oh no, that thing's useless now," Zephyr said. "We need something living. And from the rate you're fading, we need to find something fast..."
Stephen met Zephyr's eyes and then their gazes slid to the dire wolf, who stopped licking itself to regard the two with curiosity. The wind sprite grinned while the woodman's face hardened with grim determination.
A note from Augie:
This was written for the December Contest on Fylofox's Labyrinth forum. The prompt was to 'Write the back-story for a villain from a fairy-tale of your choosing. What events led them to become the antagonist?'
I enjoyed playing with the concept of a character evolving into the villain you read about later in titles such as Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Piggies. As always, I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.
21/12/13 - Make some changes and fixed up some minor mistakes (homophones are still my kryptonite). Thanks T Rasa for plugging up my plot hole. That sounded wrong, but you know what I mean.