Thirteen: A Gothic re-Telling of Red Riding Hood

To give you a flavor of my forthcoming YA novel Rosewolf, I have reprinted my short story Thirteen, originally published at Burial Day Books.

Red Riding Hood Leaves the Forest by Laura Anderson

*               *              *


A Gothic Faery Tale inspired by Little Red Riding Hood


Alyne de Winter


Thirteen girls were ready at winter’s end. All in our thirteenth year, we waited to find out which one of us was to be awarded the red cloak. Time stood still while we stood in a ring around the moon dial.  The grandmothers sang and changed our positions at every thirteenth measure until the moon rose and cast the shadow of the dial, like a long, pointing finger, upon the chosen one.

Madame Silvanus had offered our threadbare village a great deal of money for one of us. The chosen girl was to live in splendor at her great mansion in the forest, wear gowns of colored silks and sparkling jewels; attend Madame’s magnificent midnight feasts. Madame did not reveal why she wanted one of us, only that she did not care about our common origins. Rather, she was looking for a girl with mysterious qualities that only the moon would know.

So there we were on that thirteenth day, at the mercy of the moon.

We thirteen watched the lengthening shadow of the moon dial’s pointer with mounting fear, for everyone had heard the wild chants and howlings that blew through the forest in the night, had seen Madame shun the church as if it burned her. Watched her grow old and then, eerily, young again.

Thirteen girls of thirteen years stood in edgy silence around the moon dial, watching the shadows creep closer. Telepathic voices whispered our fears beneath the constant singing of the grandmothers. Shadows rippled through the budding trees, rustled the green shrubberies, padded across the clearings to glance at us, and move on. The moon looked over the wind-swept evergreens at the central stone of the dial, and cast its long bone of darkness.

A long red cloak was draped around my shoulders, the red hood pulled up and over my head.

*            *           *

Madame Silvanus sent payment to the village. It was my role to wear the red cloak and distribute the gifts of  gold, silver, clothing, and sweetmeats to every house. I was to be petted and spoiled until flowers filled the trees. Then I was to walk alone into the forest to the other side of a stream, there to await my patroness. Friends came to warn me with stories of dark huntsmen, virgin sacrifices, and barbaric rituals. Some said Madame’s mansion was guarded by wolves. I shivered in my bed every night after that, dreaming that wolves chased me over the stream, drawn by my smell and the redness of my cloak, fluid as blood spilling among the trees.

The moon beamed down, washing my windows with white brilliance. I heard them in the distance, howling down the night.

*             *            *

When the trees smelled of honey, I was sent alone into the forest. The long train of my cloak swept over last winter’s leaves with a susurrus sound along a thin and winding path trodden centuries ago by hunters. On my arm was a basket, a gift from my mother to Madame of red roses, blood pudding, and blackberry wine.

Soon the trees grew unfriendly. Dark, tapering spires and long, tangled limbs crowded the boundaries of the path. Twilight brought owls and lowering gloom. Gurgling water alerted me to the nearness of the stream before I saw it rippling like a silver ribbon through the screen of trees. On the other side, an opulent carriage, pulled by three white horses, waited. The driver wore a hat that obscured his face. A gust of wind opened the door, and I was suddenly inside, sitting against a blanket of grey-white fur. As we rattled off, darkness fell until all I could see were stars and the glittering night eyes of wolves racing along the ground. The path went steeply up between banks of lupins before we drove into the forecourt of the mansion, a looming turreted darkness against billowing moonlit clouds.

*               *               *

Madame sparkled with jewels in her high-backed chair near the fire. Her dark red hair, held in place with a furred wolf’s claw, was a like flame rising from the smooth, pale, oval of her face. She gazed at me down the length of her nose with narrowed green eyes.  I struggled to still my trembling limbs as I was seated across from her by a maid who was not much older than I, and rather gruff for such a grand household.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Madame. “I am not your enemy, but your benefactress. There are many wonders in store for you. What is your name?”

“Flora, Madame.”

“Flora, for a flower. A charming name. And flowers you shall have.”

Madame rang a little bell and the maid returned.

“Elspeth, bring us some tea and cakes. And the box with the lupins on the lid.”

“Yes, Madame,” said Elspeth. She curtseyed and hurried away.

So softly that I was not sure if I heard them or not, wolves howled. The full moon shone into the tall windows onto Madame’s face and for a brief second, perhaps due to a trick of the light, I thought she was one of them.  I must have looked quite startled because she smiled in such a way that I thought I might have seen true.

“Why do you laugh?” I blurted out.

“Because the moon in her ineffable wisdom has sent me child with rare gifts. Not everyone can see me as I am.”

I was startled again by the arrival of the tea tray. On its golden surface were china cups and saucers, a steaming silver pot, and a box filled with dried blue flowers that Madame sprinkled into our tea. Her fingers entranced me with their rings and long, sharp nails. She pushed the teacup towards me, but I did not drink.

“Who are you, Madame Silvanus?” I asked

“That you will discover soon enough.”

“What of me? What part am I to play?”

“You are my companion, and when I am gone, this house and all its grounds, shall be yours. My house is very old and has, like a small foreign country, many strange traditions that must be maintained. Traditions much misunderstood by the outside world.”

“Why me?”

“The moon chose you out of thirteen. That is good enough for me.”

I swallowed my sense of foreboding, not daring to ask the questions that quivered like a bow-string between us.

*               *              *

Elspeth showed me to a room at the top of the house. There was the bed, the carpets, a dressing table, and windows that opened out onto a wide balcony overlooking a garden. The moon had fallen low among the trees, and out of that mass of shadows stepped a tall, dark man. He raised a winding horn to his lips and blew a somber note. Suddenly a large white wolf sprang out of the shadows below my balcony, and dashed away into the forest.

   *                 *               *

I never saw Madame Silvanus during the day, but was expected to join her in the drawing room at twilight. As all the gowns in my wardrobe were red, it was in a red gown that I sat with her.  She wore a black gown blistering with diamonds and rubies.

We feasted alone every night on such foods as I had never dreamed of eating. So rich and savory, so sweet and fragrant were they, that I had all could do to not over-fill my stomach. I was fascinated watching Madame handle things gracefully with her long fingernails, never trying to conceal the fine white fur on her palms.

One night, before she handed me the wine, she pricked her finger and let fall three drops of blood into my goblet.

“Do not be afraid, Flora. That is one of our old traditions to celebrate the dark moon. Drink up. You will not taste my blood diluted in the wine, but it will form a bond of eternal friendship between us.”

I dutifully drank my wine and felt my stomach grow instantly hot. I fell into a fever that lasted for several days and when I came out of it, I learned that Madame Silvanus had died.

She lay in state on a red cushion  in a casket of glass wearing a pale, jeweled gown.  Lupins were gathered in vases around her. Tall candelabra, numerous and bright, gave the impression of a forest burning. As I marked the serenity and beauty of my late mistress’s face, the dark man stepped out from behind the curtains, pulling them away from the window and letting in the night. He was very handsome in the candlelight, magnetic, mysterious. Yet I drew back, and fled out into the yard. A pack of wolves drove me back inside straight into the arms of the huntsman.

 *                *               *

Rays from the full moon shone across the foot of my bed onto a girdle of soft, scarlet leather stamped with gold. I stood at the mirror and put it on, admiring how well it suited me. I heard the sound of the hunting horn and instantly lost all track of myself. In the morning I woke, exhausted, lying in a field of purple lupins.

It was not long before my true fate was revealed to me. I was sitting in the high-backed chair beside the fire when the huntsman appeared in the room.

“Having fallen into wickedness to acquire her great wealth, Madame Silvanus was fearful for her immortal soul. The only way to save herself was to transfer her obligations to an innocent, and thus freed, leave this world unstained. You were that innocent. You now have the dubious honor of redeeming the sins of a werewolf.”

I drew back, horrified. “She has damned me? But I’ve done nothing wrong.”

He smiled.

“You dined at Madame’s table on human flesh, and drank wine containing Madame’s blood. Of your own free will, you wore the girdle made of Madame’s skin. You, my child, were chosen by the moon to ascend to Madame’s place as Mistress of the Wolves.”

                                                         *              *              *

The moon shines down full and bright. Thirteen blasts of the hunting horn, and thirteen wolves encircle the huntsman. Our paws beat a spiral into the snow. White and shaggy, I am the strongest and most eager. I lead them through the forest, to the lanes of villages unknown to me, and do the biddings of my lover, the huntsman.

By day, human though I appear, and ever so lovely, I will let no one see me. Elspeth must go with baskets of food and coins of pure gold to the village, leaving them under the moon dial as a gift from the Lady in the Great House. My people will not starve as they did when Madam Silvanus held sway. I made no devil’s bargain willingly. I repent every day.

I no longer wear the red cloak with the red hood, for it must be saved for another. Every thirteen years I shall seek my replacement. Pray she comes in the first round! For every year that passes unredeemed, my soul shall grow red with my deeds.


The End

THIRTEEN was originally published at Burial Day