Girl, Wolf, Woodsman (Dark Roots Short Series #1)
She works by the flickering light of a candle that still smells like summer; her fingers roll and shape the floury dough, then she pours a slick mass of sugared apple slices into the bowl and covers them with a criss-cross latticework. Her eyes glint with memories. Hope rides her shoulders. The glowing coals in her oven send wavy heat that flushes her cheeks when she slides the pie onto the rack and closes the door.
Beyond the path—past the open door of the cottage and the crescent of light spilling outside—other eyes watch. Heavy boots shift and leave treads of clotted snow beneath the swirl of a wool cloak. An axe, nearly as tall as the girl in the cottage, rests head down under the hand of the woodsman.
Is it the anticipation of danger that flushes her face under its scarlet hood? Is she afraid—and is that why she checks her wicker hamper once, twice, thrice? Or perhaps riding in her veins is the inevitable doom she seeks in her grandmother's cottage, the forbidden tryst under eyes too dim to notice. The watching woodsman knows not, but he follows her quietly, out of the circle of yellow light thrown by her storm lantern with its ornamental sides and its steady glow.
Snow, lofty flakes that light on her nose and settle on her dark eyelashes, makes the trail hard to see. A few times she pauses, looks at the naked trunks of familiar trees, and continues. The forest holds little fear for her; after all, she has taken this path her entire life since before she lived alone in the little house her mother left her, and since before her tastes turned from the predictable to the lupine.
Her knuckles, reddened by the cold, make a bell-like thump on the old woman's mulberry wood door which is set into a stone frame from centuries ago. A strip of light shines at the bottom even through the snow which has drifted against it. She shifts her feet and shivers. There is no answer.
Finally she pushes it open and doesn't bother to close it. A guttering light from the stone fireplace shows the woodsman her hesitant steps.
A chuckle, low and throaty.
"Where are you?"
"Come and find me."
Now she is beyond the woodsman's sight but not his hearing, which has been honed by many years of silent listening in the darkest reaches of his forest of menace. He can hear the girl he loves set her hamper on a table, hear her tentative footsteps on the worn stone of the cottage floor. He cannot hear the whimpers and creaks of an old woman in a rocking chair, as she should be. He grips the axe. Once the girl loved him, before this more exotic stranger. He can't forget the taste of her lips on his—the summer blue of her eyes—and the press of her soft breasts against his chest.
Her footsteps stop, and then the screaming begins. When he leaps through the door with his axe at his shoulder he sees a scene more ghoulish even than he expected. The wolf—finally showing his true form, enchantment either discarded or lost—has slit the girl's grandmother from throat to groin and wears her skin, but has forgotten clothing and good manners, both of which the old woman had in abundance. He sits, dripping gore, in the handcarved bed with its patchwork quilt, and the girl stands in the doorway and whimpers.
When she sees the woodsman she does not look surprised or angry, only a little relieved. He has waited for her to seem relieved at his appearance for months. He lays a gentle hand on her shoulder, ignoring the feral growls of the wolf for whom suddenly the game of macabre seduction has turned deadly, and points her toward the kitchen.
Once she loved him but the love does not flare in her eyes when she trudges away. Nor does it revive when he comes to her with the wolf's head in his fist, trailing blood and muscle across the floor of her dead grandmother's cottage. When he buries the old woman in the frozen ground—twelve hours of hacking with his blunting axe—she only thanks him, and turns away.
And when he asks if he can stay to watch for her, she only nods. Her eyes are dull when she hands him the basket that still sends spiced perfume to his senses.
Perhaps she will love him again.
He sits on the doorframe and sharpens his axe. The pie rests, untouched, beside him, for hours until finally he begins to eat its flaky pastry and its tender filling.