Ill Met by Moonlight
As dusk descended, Kori set off through the suffocating forest. Her task was clear, even if her path was not. She had to find a lost little boy and bring him safely home. She had the unique ability, so she also had the duty. She was only the apprentice to the local wise woman, but she was the one with superior senses and strength. Madeleine, the wise woman herself, could not hope to find a child in the forest at night. Only Kori could do that.
The night closed in around her, a smothering shroud of darkness. With her keen eyes, she could still see. She hummed a Dark Forest marching song to herself, for that usually helped to lift her spirits. Kori liked the forest, the scent of the earth and the smell of the leaves. This would be like another trip gathering herbs and mistletoe and then when she brought little Gabi back to his parents, everyone would love her.
But then she heard a sound to make her blood run cold… Horribly, unmistakably, there came the sound of howling through the trees, still far off… the voices of wolves! She quickened her pace, her heart beating a tattoo of near panic in her chest. To her agitated mind the trees seemed to claw at her with skeletal black fingers, dragging at her robes and hair.
She called out: "Gabi! Gabi! Where are you? Gabi, please? GABI!" Suddenly the adrenaline rush of panic was replaced by a desperate hope. She could hear a whimpering nearby. That had to be him. She skipped lightly over the protruding tree roots as she changed direction to follow the sound. The Moon arose, nearly full, casting its silvery light through the branches above. Kori emerged into a clearing almost ankle deep in fallen leaves and there sitting in the middle was a fair child. It was Gabi, she recognised him from when his mother had brought him to Madeleine to cure his chest cold.
"Gabi!" Kori struggled to smile and make herself seem calm as she ran up and knelt down in the leaves beside him. "Gabi, are you hurt?"
He looked up at her. "I rec'gnise you. You're Kori. You live with the wise woman. I don't need med'cine."
Kori laid her hands on his shoulders, smiling at him. "That's right, dear. But now I need you to come with me, Okay? Your mother's worried sick and everyone misses you. If you come home, I can give you a special treat. How about a toy?"
She smiled more broadly. "It's a surprise. You'll have to come with me and see."
"Oh. Alright then." He stood up and she took his hand in hers. But now the howling was growing louder and Kori felt sick with apprehension, her heart thudded in her chest and the sour taste of fear was in her mouth. Her other hand closed on the hilt of the sharp Runeknife strapped to her belt. Now she saw them, a dozen blazing-red eyes smouldering like coals, watching them both from the darkness that surrounded the clearing.
Growling, the wolves slunk into the moonlight. The beasts had a lean, hungry look, their grey pelts scabrous and patchy, their ear-tips pressed low against their skulls, lips curling back from yellowed, slavering fangs. Gabi gave a little cry and shrank closer to Kori who glanced frantically around – they were surrounded. She unsheathed her Runeknife, the blade shining as it slid from its oiled leather scabbard. She had never had to use it as an offensive weapon before. Her heart sank like a stone. It was not only her life on the line, but Gabi's too. She couldn't fight the entire pack. She would fail to rescue him.
There was a snarl more menacing and blood-chilling than any she had yet heard this dreadful night and the wolves halted as one. With an icy surge of terror, Kori saw another wolf push through the pack. It was caught for a moment in the ethereal light of the moon… Kori had never seen its like before.
The creature was huge, a monstrous beast twice the size of any of its fellows. Its pelt was utterly black except for one long streak of grey running all the way down its back. The look of evil intent in its eyes was something wholly unnatural for any beast – the wolf's gaze had a human intensity... It gave a bloodcurdling growl and Kori could bear it no longer. The panic rising in her breast burst forth and she gave a terrible shriek, an ear rending sound she had never known she was capable of. A scream that was not human. Gabi looked up at her, his little face white and startled. The wolves yelped and edged back, all except the great wolf which sprang forward. Time seemed to slow down. As the wolf leapt Kori brought her Runeknife round in an arc, swiping hard at the beast's front paw. The sharp blade bit through bone and sinew and the wolf gave a howl of pain as its leg was sliced clean in half. It landed on the leafy floor of the clearing, gave a strangled yowl and then turned and fled. The rest of the pack went skulking after their leader.
Gabi stared at her in wonder. "You screamed so loud. How?"
Kori shook her head, feeling a bit nauseous. "I-I don't know, dear. I've never done it before."
"Was it your magic? You look more magic than the wise woman, your face and hands are all green."
Kori touched her cheek. "I'm green all over, not just my face and hands. I'm not a normal girl and that must have something to do with it. But are you alright?"
Gabi pouted. "Yes. Are the wolves gone? I want to go home."
"Yes, Gabi, they're gone." Kori fervently hoped they would stay gone. "I'm taking you home now. Wait…"
Kori caught sight of something glinting in the moonlight. She grimaced as she looked down at the severed paw of the great wolf. There was a ring of shining metal attached to it. How strange. But now was not the time to examine it. She gritted her teeth and knelt down, wrapping the bloodied object in a rag and stowing it carefully in her bag. She picked Gabi up and carried him as she hurried through the trees in the most direct route to Madeleine's cottage, dreading to hear the sound of wolves again.
Once in sight of the village, Kori's hammering heart slowed and she felt calmer.
"Nearly there, dear."
"Can you do that scream again? It was weird."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "I'll say it was weird. I don't think I can be so weird again."
They were in sight of the stone cottage complete with sagging thatched roof. Kori set Gabi down and then taking him by the hand, led him up to the iron bound oak door. She could hear voices inside the cottage. One was Madeleine, the other was her uncle! Her face split in a wide grin. "Oh Gabi what luck! My uncle Rudolph is visiting."
"I look forward to his visits more than anything. It's been far too long already. My uncle is one of the nobility."
She called out in her strident voice and heard the grate of bolts being pulled back. The door opened and her uncle stood on the threshold, his dark eyes crinkled in a smile.
Kori threw her arms around him, smelling the comforting scents of his hair and clothes. He had spent time in the forest, she could tell. His bushy black heard was getting in her eyes. She looked up. "Uncle… By the gods, it's been too long."
"Welcome back, my brave girl. I knew you'd succeed."
Gabi piped up: "Kori scared away the wolves, my good sir. She can scream really loudly."
Rudolph's eyes widened. "What is this?"
"We were attacked by wolves in the forest and only just got away. Uncle, there's something I must show you…"
Rudolph led them into the main room where Madeleine was stirring a cauldron full of shimmering blue liquid. She glanced up and seeing Gabi with them, gave Kori one of her rare smiles. "Good Kori, I'm pleased."
Rudolph drew the bolts across the door and then turned to glare at Madeleine. "What were you thinking woman? Sending her out with wolves prowling around?"
Madeleine frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
Kori dumped her bag on the table and tipped out the grisly trophy, still wrapped in rags. She gingerly took hold of the rags and pulled them away. And when she saw the severed paw horror twisted her heart in its chilling grip and she gave a start and a little scream. Rudolph let out a vehement exclamation.
"What is it? I want to see?" clamoured Gabi, standing on tiptoe.
What lay on the table was a gnarled, black furred claw, somewhere between a human hand and a wolf's paw. Even as Kori stared at it, it seemed to become more human and less animal in form.
Madeleine spoke up, her voice trembling. "This is an evil thing and should be destroyed. Throw it into the fire and be done with it."
"It has that ring on the middle finger," whispered Kori.
Rudolph picked up the claw. It was now almost completely human except that it sported long and hardened claw-like nails. He removed the silver ring from the finger and then hurled the transformed hand into the fire where it blackened and burned, the flesh crisping and crackling in the hungry flames.
"Eugh! It turned into a hand." Gabi wrinkled his nose in disgust. "But it was a wolf."
"A werewolf." Rudolph sounded uncharacteristically grave. "And you killed it, Kori?"
Kori shook her head. "No uncle, only cut off its paw. I had to protect Gabi. Just to think… a werewolf…"
"Neither of you were bitten, were you Kori?" Madeleine sounded very anxious.
Kori shook her head again.
Gabi giggled. "Kori screamed at the wolves and made them run away. I like her."
Rudolph nodded approvingly. "You're a bright young lad. And this Madeleine, proves what I've been saying."
"Not in front of the children," snapped Madeline. "Kori dear, take Gabi into the back. Your uncle and I will have words."
"Come, Gabi, let's look at my toys." Kori led Gabi into her own tiny bedroom. Among the books and bottles and vials there sat a wooden soldier doll. He had been a gift from her uncle long ago and Kori felt that he was a piece of Rudolph that always stayed with her. She picked him up and smiled and then placing him carefully back in position, she rummaged through her boxes, finding an invention of her own. An all purpose toy she had created, hoping that Madeleine would agree to giving them out to the village children. Now it looked like a bright pink blob, but it could take any form in her hands.
She showed it to Gabi and moulded it in her hands so that it assumed the shape of a bird. "There Gabi, how's that for a pretty pink chaffinch?"
"Do a wolf!"
"Oh Gabi, haven't you had enough wolves for one night?"
"Do a wolf!"
As they played, Kori's special hearing could not help but receive the conversation in the other room. She smiled to hear her uncle's voice: "I've told you, my gel, Kori is a fine, brave young lady. Look what she's done tonight. She deserves to be provided for as befits one of her noble station – at the castle. When I tell them, they'll have to agree."
"Your brother does not deserve the mortification that will come from having been forced to sire a child like her – against his will! Think man! He's never had to clap eyes on her before now."
"My brother is dead now. He's gone where none of this can hurt him and she is my blood too." Kori's heart stood still when she heard those words. Her father dead... The pink blob, already in a semi-lupine form, slid through her fingers onto the floor.
"Kori, what y'doing?" Gabi was peeved but Kori stood numbly, unable to help but hear Madeleine's next words.
"Then what of his lady wife and legitimate daughter? How will they receive the child conceived when he was abducted and raped?"
"His lady wife would improve upon the application of a little mortification. And as for Erika… my other favourite niece would like to have a sister like Kori, I feel sure."
Gabi tugged at Kori's arm. "Are you listening?"
But then, as Kori stood motionless in shock, there came the chilling sound of howling from outside.
Gabi covered his face with his hands. "The wolves can't get in here. They can't, can they Kori?"
Then there came a snuffling from outside, around the perimeter of the cottage. The wolf pack had them surrounded and were seeking a way in!
And then there came a heavy knocking at the front door and the sound of a creepy voice: "Little pigs, little pigs, let me in!" It was the voice of a man with an accent Kori did not recognise.
Exclamations from Madeleine and Rudolph in the other room.
The creepy man's voice rose to a roar: "Open the door, wretched swine! My brothers and I have come to dine! On you!"