Blurbs & Excerpts!
From the time I was a little girl I was told the story of the wolves. How they were to be both feared and revered.
Generations ago our village was attacked by a dark force. An army so evil that to this very day, no one dared utter their name. The dark force was the nightmare which tortured sleep. The foreboding chill down your spine. A shadow swallowing the light. Knowing that no weapon forged on earth could defeat them, the elders of the village made the terrible decision to fight darkness with darkness. Reaching back to the wisdom of the ancients, to a time before religion or society…to a time when man was more beast than sentient being…the elders drew upon primeval magic.
Five men were chosen.
They thought they were chosen to fight.
They thought the elders were only blessing them before battle.
They thought wrong.
I’d always been taught the elders did what was best for the village as a whole, still, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the men. Did they know what was happening to them as the elders circled them chanting in a strange language? Did it cause them pain when they transitioned from man to beast? Did some spark of their souls remain, or was it extinguished? Devoured by the dark beast which took over their bodies.
The five men were turned into wolves. Enchanted animals. Ferocious beasts capable of fighting off the dark force.
Darkness fighting darkness.
The beasts prevailed but paid a horrible price. The enchantment was truly a curse. Trapping the men in the bodies of the beasts. Forever damning them.
They were cursed.
Cursed to protect the village they now reviled.
Cursed to live as immortal beasts in the forest which loomed near our village.
Now, over a hundred years later, they still drove back the dark force, keeping my village safe. But they demanded a price…a sacrifice.
When the moon is eclipsed four times in two seasons, there is said to be blood on the moon. It happened once a generation. On that night, the wolves entered the clearing, a forbidden, desolate stretch of land between the village and the forest which separates us from both the dark force and the vengeful wrath of the beasts we created.
As the blood moon rises, the wolves entered the clearing to claim their sacrifice.
Whomever the village chose, was never seen or heard from again.
“Red! Red! Where are you?”
Closing my eyes, I hunched my shoulders forward as I nestled further into the soft pile of leaves. I was hiding from…well…everyone. Hoping the wide, gnarled trunk of the tree I was leaning against would shelter me, I held my breath.
“There you are! Your grandmother has been looking for you. Honestly, Red, you act like you don’t know The Selection is about to happen.”
Groaning, I lay my forehead against the cool pages of the book I was reading. My name was Raina but from the time I was a babe, everyone had called me Red. As a bright scarlet lock slipped from my loose bun and tumbled onto the page, I was reminded why. Out of a cloistered village of several thousand, I was the only one with red hair. So everyone called me Red…everyone except for my grandmother.
Hildegarde Reithaube had raised me from the moment I was born…and hated me long before I took my first breath.
As an elder of the village, my grandmother had special plans for my mother, plans that did not include her falling in love with a lowly blacksmith’s son. My mother died giving birth to me. In her rage, my grandmother had my father put to death. His punishment was swift and merciless. Mine was equally merciless but painfully slow. My grandmother never missed an opportunity to remind me that my own life had cost the life of my mother. That I was a useless, unwanted burden. As a child, my only notion of love and protection was what I read in books—fairytales. There, tucked between worn pages, was the love and feeling of belonging I craved.
Nessa grabbed the book from my hand. “Come on, Red. You know what she is like when you make her wait.”
Rising I brushed the blades of grass and flecks of dirt from my dress. Nessa, a servant in my grandmother’s household, was my only friend. The other villagers, taking their cue from my grandmother, looked upon me with cold indifference. It was why, though past marrying age, no one had ever offered for my hand. Despite my family’s wealth and position, the men of the village knew there would be no benefit to marrying the Elder Reithaube’s outcast granddaughter. Since there was no life beyond the walls of the village, it seemed I was destined to find my happiness in books and daydreams only.
Nessa took hold of my hand and dragged me along. “The Selection is about to begin.”
“I don’t understand why we have to be there,” I protested. “This barbaric custom is for the elders and the men of the village to decide.”
“You know it is decreed that everyone in the village must bare witness to The Selection,” tossed Nessa over her shoulder, her eagerness shown in her quick step toward the town square.
I found the entire spectacle abhorrent. The elders should be trying to find a way to free those men from the curse, not giving in to it. Once many years ago, I accused my grandmother and the other elders of glorifying in the curse of the wolves because even hundreds of years later, it gave them power over the villagers. The power of fear…of life and death. My punishment had been cruel and severe. I learned never to speak on it again.
The town square was paved with gray flagstones and flanked on all sides by large, dark gray stone buildings. I hated it. The ominous unrelenting stone made me feel trapped as if I couldn’t breathe. I much preferred the grotto with its fresh water spring, wild flowers and old oak trees. Preferring the sweet, musty smell of the soil to the stale, perfumed scents of town.
A dais had been erected in the center under the watchful gaze of a large bronze statue commemorating the bravery of our ancestral elders who fought back the dark force. Seeing the stern visage and dramatic flowing robes frozen in bronze, I wondered…where was the statue thanking the men who had been turned into wolves?
“All must settle. The Selection is about to begin.”
This from my grandmother, looking regal in her purple robes laden with brocade and gold badges. She was in her element, I thought with a sneer. The Selection was supposed to be destined by the fates, but that did not stop the villagers from assuming her and the other elders had a hand in the final decision.
“As the sun sets, the eldest, unmarried child from each household must step forward.”
A ripple of unease swept over the crowd. While it had been a hundred years since the last Selection, we had all been taught the ancient texts. The text clearly states that it is the duty of the eldest, unmarried male of each household to step forward, never a female. In all the generations since the curse began, they had never sent a female.
“With all respect, Elder Reithaube, you mean for the males to step forward, do you not?” asked one brave man from the crowd.
“Do not question me!” shouted my grandmother.
I could feel Nessa let go of my hand. Turning, I watched as she lowered her eyes and took a step back, distancing herself from me.
I was the eldest, unmarried child of my grandmother’s household.
Swaying, I tried to hear past the pounding rush in my ears. Rough hands pulled on the sleeves of my dress as others pushed me from behind. Their touch became more insistent as my feet refused to move. Harsh hands gave me a shove. I stumbled forward. The crowd slowly parted. All I could see were hideously distorted faces as they swirled and danced before my eyes. Still, the hands pushed and pulled me forward. Finally, I was at the dais steps. I looked up to see my grandmother standing over me, a knowing smile on her thin lips.
A cold certainty fell over me.
She had finally found a way to truly punish me for my innocent sin.
Refusing to give her the pleasure of seeing me cower, I straightened my shoulders and held my head high as I ascended the staircase.
Several men with anxious faces joined me before I realized I was the only female to be judged for The Selection.
I watched in stunned silence as each man, one by one, was called upon by name to step forward and be judged.
Placed in the center of the dais was a massive white marble disk with the carved image of a fierce wolf with open jaws and polished pieces of amber for eyes. The chosen few must place their hand within the mouth of the wolf. If you felt the bite, then you were the selected one.
Several of the men had to be dragged in front of the selection disk as one of the elders forced their hand into the jaws of the wolf. Every last one broke down into relieved sobs upon learning he was not chosen.
“Raina. Step forward,” intoned one of the elders.
Standing before the effigy, I met my grandmother’s unfeeling gaze from across the dais. Sucking in a deep breath, I defiantly raised my chin and, without taking my eyes off her, placed my hand inside the wolf’s mouth.
Wincing from the sharp bite of pain as cold stone broke through my skin, I tried to wrench my hand free from the enchanted wolf’s mouth. The jaw stayed clenched. In a panic, I looked to my grandmother. Her visage seemed warped and distorted. Her thin lips pulled back in a taunting sneer displaying sharp teeth as her large eyes glistened with triumphant hatred. In a rage, I pulled back and swung my trapped arm sharply. The heavy marble disk tottered on its pedestal and tipped backward, releasing my hand moments before it crashed to the dais floor, shattering. There was a collective horrified gasp from the crowd. Their shock turned to fear as I raised my arm. The back of my hand glistened with bright crimson blood as it dripped down my sleeve. It flowed from two small puncture wounds. The mark of the stone beast.
The sky itself burned a bright orange and red as the sun descended.
On the horizon was the faint outline of the moon.
The blood moon was rising.
The village had made their selection.
Once again, I was pulled and dragged through the crowd. Their sympathetic glances could not hide their own relief that their own loved one had not been chosen. Better it be the red-headed outcast. The unwanted granddaughter of an elder. Than a son of a prominent family.
Led to the top of the square, I was pushed over the threshold of the sanctuary. The heavy wooden doors silencing the harried noise of the crowd outside. The air was cool and musty smelling inside the enclosed chamber. Like the square, it was made entirely of stone. The floor, ceiling and walls, all hard unrelenting stone. There were no furnishings or art work, save for a large, water-filled, stone basin decorated with a mirror image of the wolf from the selection disk. My chest constricted as I found it hard to breathe. I hated confined spaces such as this.
I turned to flee but my path was blocked by two large women. Refusing to meet my gaze, they nodded their heads forward. Turning to once again face the chamber, I watched as three women dressed in heavy hooded robes of white entered from a hidden door tucked somewhere in the shadows.
“Disrobe,” came the stern command.
“Why?” I asked, clutching the front of my dress close to my body, heedless of the blood which now stained my bodice.
“The sacrifice must be prepared. Disrobe.”
I recognized the voice of one of the women. It was Marla, the kind lady who owned a bakery near my home. Yet, in this chamber, she was acting as if she didn’t know me…didn’t care.
“Marla, please. I don’t understand all this. You must know my grandmother planned—”
“The sacrifice must not speak. Disrobe,” came her even response.
“Stop calming me the sacrifice!” I screamed. “My name is Raina. Raina. Say it!” The shock was beginning to wear off as the gravity of my situation bore down on me.
“Place hands on the sacrifice. We must prepare her,” intoned Marla, her face obscured by the large hood of her robes.
The two women from behind snatched me by my upper arms, propelling me forward. My slippered feet kicked and dragged against the smooth stone floor.
“This is madness! Stop! Stop!”
My pleas and cries went unheeded as determined hands tore at my clothing. Soon I was naked and shivering inside the cold chamber. Furtively shifting my gaze from woman to woman, I tried to back away. Harsh hands grabbed me from behind. Pushing me forward, I felt the sharp edge of the stone basin scrape against my bare stomach before my head was forced under the water. Bubbles caressed my face and neck as I screamed in surprise. A strong hand gripped my hair and wrenched my backwards. I had only a moment to choke on some air before my head was forced into the water again. My hands flailed as I tried to dislodge the grip on my hair. The cool water cascaded down my front to pool at my bare feet. I was forced under the water five times. I could hear the muffled sound of eerie chanting as it echoed around the chamber.
Two of the robed women stepped forward to place two poles with stretched canvas between over the basin.
Exhausted from my struggles, I did not protest when I was lifted and forced to lay upon the make-shift bed. The women forced my legs open and stretched my arms above my head. Ruthlessly, they began to painfully pluck all the hair from my body from the neck down. Groaning, I tried to shift my hips, to protect my hidden core, but their grip was too strong. My water-chilled skin began to warm from the agony of the hundreds of tiny pricks and pulls. When it was over, they began to chant once more. Through half-closed eyes, I saw one of the robed women approach me with a large flagon. Raising the clay pitcher over her heard, she called out to the ancient gods before pouring the heavily scented oil over my body. It felt warm and soft. The earthy scent brought me strange comfort.
Looking down, I cried out and tried to rise before hands pressing down on my shoulders forced me back down.
The oil was a sick crimson red. My pale skin looked as if it were drenched in blood.
It was an omen of my fate.
My fate with the wolves.
“The sacrifice will rise,” came the monotone command.
Offering no assistance, I was forced to awkwardly shift my hips to the edge of the basin and stretch my legs till my toes could feel the cold stone floor. Grimacing as the stone lightly scraped my bottom, I stood before the robed women.
Grabbing me by the shoulders, I was turned to face the South wall. One of the women pulled on a heavy braided cord. From high above the chamber, a thick curtain opened to reveal a large window showing the dark night sky and the glowing red visage of the moon.
The slow chanting began again. The oil was rinsed from my body. Raising my arms, I allowed them to drape me in a soft, shimmering white dress. Unlike my usual garb, this flowed unrestricted down my body. I felt a heavy weight as they placed a hooded robe on my shoulders. I looked down to see the red brocade fabric. The red hooded robe of the sacrifice. I had seen it many times in the illustrations of my school books as I was taught to fear the wolves who protected my village.
A frail elderly woman appeared before me. Leaning up, she kissed my cheek, whispering in my ear, “You are more in control of your destiny than you realize, my child.” Her cryptic yet kind words startled me. Before I could respond, I felt her place something in my hand and hurry away. Looking down I realized I held the handle of a large basket.
“It is wine and cakes to help appease the wolves,” said one of the robed women, answering my unspoken question.
Obeying their command, I followed them out of the chamber down a narrow corridor which opened into a wide ante-chamber. Two massive iron doors dominated the space.
“This sanctuary shares a wall with the wall which surrounds the village. The sacrifice will move directly into the clearing. Never to step foot in our village again.”
“Please—” I whispered in fear as I watched the women pull on the iron rings which opened the heavy doors. My whole life I had been taught to fear the clearing, to never venture beyond the safety of the village walls, and now I was to be cast out as if I didn’t matter, as if I were not a human being…as if I were only a sacrificial animal to be slaughtered and forgotten.
The doors made a horrific screeching noise as they opened. Outside all was still and quiet. If I had not been taught otherwise, I would have thought it was nothing more than a placid pasture bathed in moonlight.
A hand placed between my shoulder blades, gave me a shove.
Stumbling, I gripped the handle of the basket before sliding my foot forward. I could feel the soft squish of the earth, a sharp contrast to the stone floor, the moment the thin leather slippers they had given me touched upon it. I took another step forward. Despite my fear, my deep longing for the freshness of the open space, for the rich smell of grass coupled with the crisp clean scent of the night air compelled me forward. Leaving the oppressive chamber behind, I felt as if I were being bewitched….pulled forward by the moon and the call of the forest.
The stillness of the night was broken by the reverberating sound of the iron doors slamming shut.
The spell was broken. Dropping the basket, I turned to bang my small fists on the door.
“Have mercy! Please! Don’t do this! Please! Open the door!”
Cold silence greeted my impassioned pleas.
I banged on the door and screamed till my voice was hoarse. Pressing my back against the cold metal, I slowly slipped to the ground. Scalding tears fell down my cheeks as I tried to figure out what to do next.
As I stared across the clearing, I could see the outline of the forest shift and move.
Shadows detaching themselves from the darkness.
Breathing heavily, I pushed myself upright as I strained to see past the trees. Was it fear or my imagination? No. The shapes were taking form.
Stepping into the clearing from the edge of the forest, I could see five distinct outlines.
They were men. Men!
I knew from my lessons that the dark force, although never named, was like a black creeping cloud. An evil rising smoke. Never the shape of a man.
The five men stalked further. As they walked more fully into the clearing, I could see them in the bright moonlight.
Five large beastly men. Their brawny bodies barely covered with fur pelts. Their amber eyes glowing in the dim evening light.
Not wolves. Men.
Completely confused and frightened, for some strange reason being faced with five beastly men seemed far worse than a pack of wolves.
Turning, I desperately banged on the door. “Help me! Help! You must open the door. These aren’t wolves.”
Through my cries, I could hear a low collective growl.
Knowing my salvation was my own, I gave up all hope of rescue and did the only thing I could.