A Flash of Red
by Inanna Gabriel
Kakaro watched the sun setting through the trees. The full moon was already visible, low in the eastern sky; a round, ghostly white smudge against the still-blue heavens. Soon, the blue would darken fully to black, and that pale orb would emerge, full-bright, to illuminate the forest. It was an event that Kakaro should have been delighted by. No, more than delighted: inspired.
Kakaro knew, though, that there would be no joy during this full moon, or any other in the foreseeable future. For him, as well as his brothers and sisters of the forest, the time of the full moon brought only fear. The sky was clear tonight, but the temperature had dropped quickly as evening approached, and mist from the lake was beginning to fill the forest. This would make it darker among the trees, but still allow plenty of moonlight in.
The fog thickened as the shadows grew, and the sun made its final dip beneath the horizon. Soon, the first sign of the approaching terror arose in the distance. It began as the faintest sound; rhythmic and dull, like when Kakaro ran among the trees until he could hear his own heartbeat thumping in his ears.
But Kakaro knew that this wasn’t his heart he was hearing now, though there would be plenty of chest-pounding running to come on this terrible night. The sound steadily grew louder and more distinct, becoming the cladda-clop cladda-clop of his nightmares. He made a low growl deep in his throat, ready to flee, but steeling himself for the fight as well, in case he was cornered into confrontation. At least one of them always was, after all.
The howl of a wolf echoed through the forest. Kakaro’s ears instinctively turned in the direction of the sound. Who would be so stupid? Either one new to this forest, and unaware of the danger here, or else one of his own brothers deciding to fight back. He hadn’t known the howl, but it was so rare for him to hear the voice of one of his own raised in this manner that he may just not have recognized it.
The beating hooves were much closer now. They were coming from the South, as they always did. Always the same direction, always the same menace. They only came at the full moon, when there was ample light by which to see. Moonlight to find them by, moonlight to reflect in eyes wide with terror, moonlight to bring out the red in the blood spilled on the forest floor.
Kakaro crouched down behind the largest tree trunk, fighting to keep his ragged breathing as quiet as possible. Then, he saw it — the image of his nightmares. A flash of red between two of the trees. It was Her.
CLADDA-CLOP CLADDA-CLOP CLADDA...
The horse had stopped, right by Kakaro’s hiding place. He couldn’t tell yet if she’d simply stopped to look around, or if she’d sensed him there. He could smell her nearby; a scent rich and bright, the color of blood and of the cape she wore. He knew that her kind possessed so weak a sense of smell that it may as well not exist. He’d heard stories about this one, though. Stories suggesting that she may not be like the rest of them, that she had keener senses, sharper instincts. Maybe she had some of the wolf in her, or maybe some preternatural ability, but she was different was all anyone knew for sure. Different... and deadly.
There was a soft thud, and the snap of a few twigs. He chanced a peek around the tree trunk to find that she’d jumped down from the horse. She was small for a human — only about five feet tall. Underneath the flowing red hooded cape, she was clad in well-worn trousers and a vest both made of the same grey material. He realized with a sick feeling that the material appeared to be tanned wolf’s hide. There was a frighteningly large knife strapped to her muscular right thigh, and a smaller one clipped to her left boot. Her dark hair was long, but tied back into a long braid. Around her throat she wore a necklace of wolves’ teeth. She had red paint in streaks across her cheeks and forehead. Or maybe it was blood. Her eyes glinted in the moonlight, reflecting it like Kakaro’s own.
Kakaro realized he’d never heard a detailed description of what the Hooded One looked like. The steel blade of the dagger on her thigh glinted in the moonlight, and he realized why no one had ever had such a tale to tell. He saw a bit of blood smeared on the edge of the blade, realized there was more on her trouser leg, where she’d wiped the knife clean. He looked back to the horse, and saw that in the woven basket hanging over its back (she used no saddle,) she had already placed her first kill of the night. It was a pup, though not one Kakaro could recognize from this distance. Someone had lost a child tonight. Kakaro decided that they wouldn’t be losing a brother as well, at least not this one. This time, someone would share the story of the Hooded One’s face. He ran.
He tore across the forest floor, huge paws pounding the earth, weaving deftly between the dense trees. She followed in pursuit. Her boots weren’t as quiet as his paws, but she moved as gracefully and easily through the thick forest and he did. And as fast. He could hear her running behind him, keeping up. No human should be able to keep up with a wolf — she really was something unnatural.
He ran and ran, only watching the space immediately before him, and only thinking about the space between him and her. Unexpectedly, he came to the edge of the forest. He paused, looking out across the open field before him. This was her realm, not his. Did he dare continue ahead, into her domain, giving her the advantag?
He heard her boots on the forest floor. He gambled a glance over his shoulder, to see a flash of red moving fast in his direction. No choice remaining, he left the relative safety of the forest and ran fast across the grassy plain before him. The mist from the lake was confined to the trees, and out here the moonlight was so ample it was practically as bright as day. Without the hindrance of the trees, he hoped his own natural speed would be enough to save him.
He was faster here, but just barely. She was falling just a bit behind, but Kakaro was growing very tired. He knew that if he kept on at this pace, that he would soon collapse. And if he slowed, she would catch him. He knew she must be tiring as well, but couldn’t chance that she wouldn’t outlast him by at least a few seconds — those few seconds that could well be the difference between surviving and becoming her next pair of trousers.
As he ran on, a small cottage appeared on the horizon. As he approached it, he could see that there were lights inside, and smoke coming from the chimney. Every pup in his pack was taught to stay away from humans; taught to avoid with fear any house, especially an occupied one.
But he was desperate. As a young wolf, he and his fellows had approached houses sometimes; daring one another to get a little bit closer, and then just a bit closer still. He’d never been inside a house — that would have been unthinkable. But he’d peered through the windows of a couple of unoccupied ones, and he knew that houses contained many small spaces. Cupboards for hanging the clothing that humans covered themselves with, for storing the dishes they ate from. At the time he’d learned this, Kakaro had only wondered why humans felt the need for all of these *things* just in order to go about the regular activities of life. But now, he realized that these small spaces could help him.
He knew that not all humans were like the Hooded One. They had weapons, sure, but they were also frightened easily, especially when caught by surprise. Kakaro found himself thinking that if he could get inside the cottage, he could maybe hide himself in one of the small spaces inside. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to find him at all, or maybe she would, but wouldn’t be able to reach him. She was small for a human, but he was smaller still, and able to shrink back into areas where she could never go.
With neither the time nor the energy for a different plan, Kakaro took the only opportunity he could see. He ran fast toward the window of the cottage, then sprang from the ground toward it.
As he flew through the air toward the opening, for a fraction of a second he thought that there was another wolf already inside the house, jumping back toward him. But then he saw the grassy field behind the other wolf, and the moon above, and realized that he was seeing his own reflection, like when he looked down into the calm surface of the lake. What was this stuff that reflected like water, and what would happen when he hit it?
He found out immediately, as he crashed through the glass and landed in the middle of the living room floor. The pieces of the window no longer reflected, but they were sharp and hard, and he had several cuts from which he was bleeding. He was not nearly as hurt, though, as he would be if she caught up with him. That thought spurred him on to seek a hiding place. He lifted his gaze up from the shards of broken glass to look around for a cupboard or other small space. In front of him, however, was a sight as terrifying as the Hooded One herself.
It was another human, though this one looked very different than his pursuer outside. It was also female, he believed, but this one was old. Her long hair was white, and tied up in a neat knot at the back of her head. She wore little spectacles, made of the same substance that Kakaro had just smashed through in the window, which she peered through to look the wolf squarely in the eyes. There was no fear in this one — her gaze carried the same uncanny strength as that of the other.
Her stare held him in place, anchored with fear. He found himself unable to move from the spot where he stood, and in fact felt compelled to sit down at her feet like a common house-dog. He did manage, at least, to will himself to look around at his surroundings; but when he did, he realized that he wasn’t likely to be the wolf who finally told the story of the Hooded One’s face after all.
There were wolves’ heads mounted on the walls. He recognized most of them. Alongside the heads were the flayed skins of several wolves as well, some still furred, and some not. In the far corner sat a strange object, what the humans called a machine. He wouldn’t have known what it was for, except that this old human had been using it when he’d burst in, and had left her work half done. It was a machine used for making the clothing the humans wore. The machine she used to sew wolves into trousers.
Just then, the front door opened, and the Hooded One came in. She looked down at Kakaro, smiling menacingly. “Hello,” she said, as though welcoming him to her home. She was speaking in the human language, which Kakaro couldn’t understand, but somehow she conveyed the meaning of her words.
Kakaro felt his eyes widen in terror. “My,” the Hooded One said, “what big eyes you have.”
Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author