A Cloak as Red as Blood - Sheena Power

Here, take my scarlet cloak...


I knew the wolf. Well, and why should you know that? It was long before you were thought of. There was a band of us, living wild in the woods, and I won't lie, it was a filthy life. We were cold and hungry, and we fought like cats.

Well, the wolf lived at the top of a hill, all alone. Only the hawthorn and the moths for company, and the moon, which rose full and gold above that hill. Wolves, you know, howl to one another, but that wolf was the last in the land, and had only the moon to howl at.

The wolf was a she-wolf. Yes, I knew you thought otherwise. She had been a matriarch, a grandmother-wolf. Yes, my love, a grandmother like me. All her kin had been killed – her grandchildren too, yes – because the king had decreed he would have no wolf in his domain, and the hunters were offered rich bounties.

Now my own folk did not mind the wolves. I do not say we never killed a wolf, but then the wolves couldn't claim to be any better. But it wasn't war, and it wasn't hate. We just crossed each other now and then, and tempers were hot. But there was a kind of respect, and a sort of friendliness.

We weren't a sentimental bunch – you can't mope in the wilderness, you're too busy running after, or from, something – but when we thought of the wolves' passing, it seemed a shame. The Land though, the Land was angry. She'd always had wolves, and we were relatively new and not so dear to her. To the Land, our flea-bitten lot were one and the same with the king and his hunters. We all looked alike to her. But while the king was deep in his castle like a grub in a nut, we were out in the Land's awful fury, and she made our previous existence seem like paradise. We were flayed by hail and withered by wind – the rain rotted our clothes and the frost sank its teeth into our toes, and agues roamed the land like demons.

It was half-dead with the hunger that I wandered up the hill one day, passing hawthorn and ash – unlucky trees, trees I'd have kept away from in my senses. I was gathering mallow-cheeses, for I'd eaten all the snails I could find. I caught a glimpse of mallow-purple near the summit, and stumbled my way towards it through snagging branches.

There I found her, curled under a whin. She was bone-scrawny and trembled with weakness, but her fur was a thick rich silver, and her eyes were the pale yellow of the moon. A terrible sadness pushed through me, as if the Land had seized me as her instrument to grieve. When she saw me, the wolf gave a low growl. “I'll be off -” I began to assure her, when I heard men talking and the snort of horses. Exhausted as I was, I knew it was the king's hunters, and I snarled as I thought of their victory.

“Creep under the hedge,” I told the wolf crooningly, and I came towards her as slowly as I could. She backed in under the thorns and leaves, and I stood in front of her, letting my cloak hang low in front. I prayed she would not bite my ankles.

The men appeared. They had no dogs, for which I was thankful. They were scouting for prey. When they saw me they barked in their harsh, cracking voices, and laughed jeeringly. They would not come near, I knew, for fear of the ague, so I just stared mutely back at them, until they muttered amongst themselves and then left. They were sure that there could be no wolves where a young girl lingered unharmed.

“Are they gone?” asked the wolf, and I told her, yes. She crawled out from the hedge. “I owe you now,” she said.
“I did it for the Land,” I said. “I hope that now she spares my kin and seeks her revenge on the king instead.” And so it came to be.

The weather grew kind. It rained still but it was a soft rain, rain for growing. The gales became breezes and the sun was warm. We had a good autumn, full of berries and boar. We found honey, and traded meat for wool, and no ague or pox came near us.

Being no simpletons we knew it was thanks to the wolf being saved, and we were careful to keep her that way. Wolves hunt in packs, and a lone wolf is a hungry one, so it was decided I would bring her a share of our food. I was young then – as young as you – my limbs were stretching and I felt I couldn't stretch them far enough. Gladly I would run up the hill, swinging a basket of boar-meat.

We'd talk as she ate, for wolves dine together. I'd tell her of my people, how we were growing fat and well now, and I'd tell her things we heard when we brought our meat to the market.

“The king is to give a dance,” I said one day, “as his only son is come of age.”
The wolf paused in her chewing, and looked at me. “The fine prince?” said she.
“Aye, fine enough.”
“Enough for you, you chit?”
“Is there such a man?” I asked, and laughed.
“Would you be a lady?” the wolf said. I leant back on my hands and stared up at the sky. “I would not,” I said at last. “Not that I don't envy their leisure, for they're the laziest creatures short of cats. But the poor things are pinched so by corsets they can't breathe, and the younger and fairer they are, the more hideous and old are their husbands. No, I wouldn't be having that. Not while we have things so good, anyway.”
“But their dances? This dance, for instance?”
“Ah, now, I like a good dance. It may be that our dances are better – music never sounds so well but under the stars – but all the same, I'd like to see the prince's dance, I confess. It is to be held in the castle, and will be very splendid.”
The wolf finished her meal, and then stretched out on the grass. I scratched her back, which she permitted, and I marveled once more at her deep, shining fur.
“Why shouldn't you go to the dance, then?” she said sleepily.
“Because they'd sooner let a goat in,” I said, matter-of-fact.
“Do you wish to go?”
“I do, but what's the use of wishes?”
“Come to me on the day of the dance,” she said, “and we'll see where our wishes get us.”

The day of the dance was fine, and the evening was copper-colored when I climbed the hill. I pushed through the hawthorns to the clearing at the summit, only to find a pool where before there had been grass.
“Off with your clothes,” said the wolf, “and into the pool.” So I did, and it was beautifully warm, as though the sun had been smiling on it all day. The wolf sat at the edge, and combed my hair with her claws. I dried myself on sweet-smelling grass, and then I said, “Well what now?” And the wolf said, “Your dress.”

Oh, it was a swan's dress. She told me the moon had made it, as a favor to her. It was spun of moonlight and spider-silk, and scintillated with tiny swarms of stars. I felt every drop of beauty I had come rushing up to meet it.
“And you will wear this cloak,” she said, bringing it to me.
“Is that not wolf-skin?” I asked.
“It is, but wear it with my blessing. The last of my children who were killed, I caught the hunter before he could bear their pelts away.”
“But why is it red?”
“The hunter I caught, I tore out his heart, and this cloak is dyed with his blood.” It did not look like blood, however. It was scarlet, like cherries in summer. I'd never seen a grander cloak.

The castle glowed like a lantern in the night. Fine folk were everywhere, gleaming and shining. But as I walked forward into the light, I heard gasps at my beauty. No duchess was my equal – no, not even you, my pet, and it's your own vanity forced me to say it. The prince thought me beautiful too, as I curtseyed to his father the king. He was a handsome prince, I suppose. He broke many hearts when he danced only with me that night. We whirled in eddies of music until I felt I was a violin, and my blood thrummed like strings.

“Come out with me, to the gardens,” the prince said.
“It is cold out there,” and I blushed becomingly.
“I will have a servant fetch your cloak,” he said, and clicked his fingers for a page. And meekly, mildly, I allowed my wolf-skin to be placed round my shoulders, and I took the arm of the prince.

We walked out onto a terrace hung with lanterns, and down into a gloriously dark garden.
“What big eyes you have,” said the prince, and I smiled. “All the better to see you with, my dear,” I said.
The autumn moon peered down at me through the high banks of box and holly, and reminded me of my promise. I sighed, and the prince looked down at me. “Why do you sigh?” he asked.
“Oh... for love,” I said, and he kissed me. And as he did so, I cast the cloak around his shoulders. And I screamed like the banshee, “WOLF!”

For indeed he was a wolf, the poor prince. Old grandmother-wolf had bewitched the cloak. He ran here and there, but he could not escape the high walls of the garden. And covered in blood as this wolf was, it was certain he'd killed the king's only son. So it was fitting and right that it was the king himself who slew the wolf, though this did not heal his broken heart.

Ah, my pet, your face! You didn't know? Of course you didn't know! It's not a tale to tell a brat. But you're almost a woman now – yes, yes, you are a woman now – and so it must be told.

After that, our family's luck only grew, and the old king wasted away. We grew rich, and sleek, and respectable, though I was never so respectable as I seemed. And nor was your grandfather, rest his soul. We preferred our dances under the stars and as soon as we could, we went back to live in the woods, though in a good warm cottage. Your mother now, she was always a lamb, and she likes to live in the town, as a good lamb ought. But for all that she's sent you to me now. Have you ever seen a ewe when she's defending her lamb?

So this new king, a young king, he's set his heart on clearing the woods. He will turn the oaks into ships so he can see the sea from his throne. The Woodcutter-King, they call him. Yes, my darling, they do. And you love this king? This man who sends you fine dresses and shoes made of gold thread? What paths can you walk in gold thread? None, none at all. He'd sit you on a cushion, and tie you up with corsets, and you'd live in a sumptuous coffin. But I know what you really are, and I know your soul has sharp teeth.

Of course it is your choice, my love, I know that. You must go to the dance if you wish it, and you must have the king if you want. You have dresses enough for twenty such nights. But here, take my scarlet cloak.
Sheena Power is an illustrator from Dublin, Ireland. Her work ranges from dragons on the cover of J.R.R. Tolkien: the Forest & the City, to Christmas cards for scientists. Although she draws for a living, her real love is writing. Her stories, Aurelia Aurita and On the Matter of Dublin's Gargoyle Population were included in Tales From The Forest. Her story, Queen, was shortlisted for the Allingham Literary Festival 2015 and was published in the print journal Boyne Berries.
You can find her on Twitter @Baglady_Designs

Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff
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Comments

  1. So many tangled magical elements. I was spellbound, Sheena!

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  2. Powerful, and so very innovative.

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