Old Connie Taint, known to all in the township of Derrymoor as “Grandmother Taint,” went into the woods every day and came back frustrated. Not even young Jim McDon would stroll beneath those boughs (and he had fought in wars), but Connie Taint turned a fearsome glare on anyone who so much as hinted that a “woman of her age” should stay indoors. After all, she would reply, the stove needed wood and there were mushrooms to gather for bread and stew. What she did not say of her true reason for visiting the dark forest on her own involved a secret that her family had kept for nigh-on a century, since near the founding of the town.
Derrymoor rested on the edge of the vast northern moors across which few travelers ever came, an expanse of chilly heath, peat bog, and howling wind. On the southern side of town, the forest made an impassable barrier, save for the old highway out of City Limeran by the sea. That road was the one taken by trade caravans that came to Derrymoor for the bog iron and sheep’s wool which were the town’s main industries.
Lately, though, no traders came, and no travelers either. With the town’s main source of trade suddenly and mysteriously cut off, people began to fret that robbers had taken up somewhere in the woods and were discouraging travel to the moors. The woods, other, more nervous people said, were haunted. A week earlier, Bran Folt and old Mr. Drander had gone south despite these rumors… never to return—though their horse had been spotted, a few days after they left, crossing the moor as if whipped by demons. Now folk said that, late at night, strange animal sounds could be heard in the woods, and so the stories began to circulate that something dark and malignant haunted the trees.
Yet, still, Grandmother Taint went daily into their shade.
Grandmother Taint owned the town’s single Inn, Ol’ Parlement, which sat nearest the woods of any building, where it commanded a prime view of the trade road. One foggy morning, roughly a month after the troubles began, a group of men set out across the field behind the Inn toward the woods, axes in hand. The two-story brick building looked somewhat neglected, its shingle roof dripping with the heavy morning mist, but out one clean window, Grandmother Taint watched the proceedings with steely blue eyes.
“What in the hells do they think they’re up to?” she muttered, furiously working the bundle of soggy cloth in the washtub in front of her. The wooden basin sloshed as she threw the pair of men’s trousers, which stank of ammonia, back into the soapy water. With a sigh like the blowing of a bellows, she dried her wrinkled hands on her apron and headed for the door.
“Jimmy McDon! Mind telling me what you think you’re doing?” she barked as she crossed the unkempt greensward that connected the Inn to the edge of the woods.
The men turned. She recognized Jim McDon and several of his friends, Jabe, Kaehl, Harnik. They all carried axes, except for Jim, who held a longsword in one hand.
“Not your business, Gran!” Jim called to her. At a glance, he looked for all the world like a storybook prince, though his blonde mustache and curly locks were somewhat dew-wilted from the early-morning fog.
“My property stretches a mile in, boy. That means it’s my business!”
Jim scowled. “Aye, it’s yours for now.”
Grandmother Taint reached the men and halted. “What was that, boy?” For a long moment, they stood glaring at each other face-to-face. For all her age, Taint still stood equal to young Jim’s height. After a few moments, Jim broke his gaze. He pointed with the tip of the sword toward the woods. “This is for the good of the town. Those trees hide something evil!”
She peered peevishly in the direction Jim thrust his blade. “And its time has come, has it?” she said. “Fancy yourself Jimmy McDon, slayer of unnatural beasties?”
Jim’s already ruddy face flushed scarlet to his ears and he took a step toward Taint, his mustache quivering furiously. “Something’s got to be done! Your own grandson’s missing. Don’t you want to know what happened to him?”
She glared at him with a wrinkled frown.
“Course I do, boy. Though I’m surprised you do. You and my Nale never got on much, did you, after that affair with poor Ginny Clemmons? How much of your daddy’s money did it take to get that hushed?”
Jim managed to go an even deeper shade of red. He took another step toward the old woman, his neck the color of boiled beet. “Ginny was asking for it,” he bellowed, “and if I ever see her again, I’ll make sure the whole town knows it!”
Grandmother Taint watched him unsympathetically, seemed to come to a decision, and shrugged. “Fine. You head into those woods and meet your beastie, boy. Don’t come cryin’ to me when things turn ill.”
Jim glowered at her. His father, Ulchin McDon, owned half the town and Taint knew that people let all manner of things go because of it. But the other half of Derrymoor belonged to her family, who had been in these parts far longer than the McDons. She glared in stoic silence until Jim, flustered, glanced back at his friends as if to make certain they were still there.
“This sword,” he said, hefting the big blade, “was by my side during the Pyranic war. It’s killed men twice my size, and armored, too.”
“Aye, very impressive,” Tain said with every implication in her voice that she thought the opposite.
He glanced back at his posse. “Anyhow, we have a plan.”
“Oh! do you now?”
Harnik, who Grandmother Taint still remembered as a thin boy who liked to climb trees, stepped forward. He had a gleam in his eyes and a freshly sharpened ax in one hand.
“Me’an the boys will surround it, fence it in,” Harnik said. “When it tries to escape… BAM!” He mimed hitting something with the blade of his ax.
“And while they hem it in, I go for the head.” Jim deftly flipped the sword tip up and then swung it forward toward the neck of an imaginary foe.
Grandmother Taint looked at them and felt her age come upon her like a sunstroke. The gout was acting up again and her legs had started to throb, standing still for this long. She threw up her hands.
“It’ll be good riddance, Jimmy.” She wagered a finger toward the woods. “Go on, get off my field.” And, with that, she turned around and hobbled back toward her home. Ignoring the boys as they set off for the dark boughs.
But Grandmother Taint felt a deeper sense of worry than she had shown. She knew, from her own experience trekking through those same woods, how an unsavvy woodsman could get turned around. Thinking of Jimmy and his friends entering those dark depths gave her the unsettling thought that perhaps her own search for the “creature in the woods” had been turning up empty for good reason: because the creature did not want to be found — leastways, not by her.
Her annoyance deepened. If something happened to Jimmy McDon, old Ulchin would raise the whole town to a fever pitch with money and threats, and then a lot of things would go very seriously wrong.
She returned to her inn and her washing, adding more soap and lye to rinse the smell of urine from the fabric of the trousers and shirt she had found in a forest clearing a few days earlier, tucked beneath a rock.
The men returned late that night, well after Grandmother Taint usually went to bed. Tonight, however, she merely sat in the rocking chair by the downstairs fire with her feet in a large tin pan of hot water, her shawl tucked around her shoulders. She heard the men long before they reached the inn door and, when they started beating on it with heavy fists, she pulled it open on their wild and fearful faces.
“Oh dear,” she said, “bring the boy in.”
Jim hung limp in the arms of his friends. They carried him into the inn and set him down on a table. Blood pooled on the wood and dripped onto the floor. Grandmother Taint looked down at him. “He’s gored bad,” she said. “You meet that monster of his, then?”
Kaehl nodded. He held his left arm, keeping pressure on a makeshift bandage spotted with blood. “Yes.” Beside him, Jabe looked pale enough to faint.
“Looks like it made a right mess of you lot. You!” Grandmother Taint pointed a thick, gnarled finger at Harnik. “Go fill that big kettle over there with water from the well out back. Go on! And you, go sit on the bench while Jabe helps me. You’re no good with that arm and there’s no time to waste. Jimmy’s losing blood all over my floor.”
For the next two hours, Grandmother Taint busied herself over Jim’s stricken form. Jabe left the Inn twice to throw up in the bushes outside. Finally, Taint wiped the back of her hand across her brow and gave her work an approving nod.
“Right. He’ll live. More’s the shame for the general public.” She grimaced down at her handiwork one more time before pulling Harnik aside. “Now,” she said, “tell me what you saw.”
The next day, Grandmother Taint slept late into the afternoon. When she woke, she first dressed in her heaviest leather apron, the one she wore when handling the pigs or cutting back the briars. Then she took down the previous day’s washing: the trousers and shirt she had hung on a line above the cast iron stove. These she rolled up into a bundle which she tucked into the front pocket of the apron, within easy reach. Finally, she settled in for a good nap in her armchair and did not wake again until the sun was setting.
As the last rays of light vanished and the sky took on the somber tones of evening, she made a quick meal of rye bread and pickled vegetables, eating alone at her kitchen table. Then, after quickly washing up, she removed a lantern from the hook by the door, lit it with a match, and headed into the gathering dark.
Grandmother Taint carried her lantern low and with its shade shuttered so it barely lit the road ahead of her. Even this was a grumbling concession.
“Time was, I could run up a mountain in the dead of a moonless night,” she muttered, kicking a stick out of her way with a bit more force than necessary.
Her stomping boots, caked with dried barnyard muck, crunched the rough road down as she left the Inn far behind. The forest stood before her, sharp and tall and impressive in its blackness. Taint remembered many of the stories of her childhood, the ones that had scared her before she learned the truth about them. She wished now that she had paid better attention to her rearing of young Nale. Men were headstrong and rarely listened well, especially when young. She sighed. Yes, she should have seen the signs earlier; she should have noticed the patterns forming.
Not that she minded young Jimmy getting mauled, the boy deserved a good reminder of his mortality, but the McDons were the sort of people to hold grudges, after all. “Blast it, boy,” she muttered. “This has gotten far out of hand.”
Taint liked Derrymoor and, more often than not, the people there were good folk. But they were also simple, easy for someone like Ulchin McDon to manipulate into their worst selves. He would simmer these Good People until he got the fear boiling fast in their bellies. Then they’d tramp into the forest to slay the beast properly, and would no doubt succeed in that, and far worse too. Fear spread worse than flames in a wildfire, which she knew for sure.
Grandmother Taint walked up and down the road through the woods for an hour or more before she spotted the signs of the battle. A trail of blood, a dropped ax. She held the lantern out, making sure that the signs were clear. Jimmy and the rest had met something here, alright, met it and found it more than they could handle.
She bent over, wincing at a pain in her lower back, and inspected the ground.
From the look of things, a couple of the boys had landed swings of their own on their attacker, not enough to permanently harm the darn thing, but enough to send it on its way. She held out the lantern, pointing its shaft of light off into the deeper forest, noting the clear path of broken branches and bent underbrush.
Nightly noises played about her, creaks and cracks and moans of a forest alive with tiny scurrying things and their hunters.
For several moments, she stayed perfectly still, considering. Then she opened the face of the lantern, reached in, and extinguished the flame under the calluses of her thumb and forefinger. Light would be more trouble than help, now, old eyesight or not. Sniffing the air, she waited for her eyes to adjust to the shadows, as much as they were able. Then she set off into the tangled forest brush.
Even going slow, the way proved difficult. Every so often, she muttered to herself, swearing loudly whenever a stray root or fallen branch tripped her up in the darkness. “Dammit boy!” She grumbled after nearly falling over a large rock buried under a layer of old leaves. “Get yourself out here before I break my neck!”
But nothing emerged from the forest and, with more quiet cursing, she pushed on. Every so often she would stop and sniff the air. Then she would nod, adjust her course, and continue on. The scent of blood called to her.
Some hours had passed since she first entered the woods when she came to the edge of a clearing in the trees. Ahead, shafts of moonlight broke through the thin canopy and filled the clearing with a pale milky ambiance.
In the center of the clearing stood a wolf.
It was fully as tall as Grandmother Taint’s shoulders, a beast straight from the pages of legend. It turned as she entered the clearing, glaring at her with yellow eyes. Its lips drew back in a snarl, revealing teeth as long as a grown man’s hand.
“Hey,” said Grandmother Taint mildly, “we’ll be having none of that now.”
The wolf continued to growl, its voice a rumbling vibrato that would have put a mighty fear into the most stalwart hunter. Grandmother Taint scowled and, slowly, reached into the front pocket of her leather apron for the bundle of freshly-laundered clothes.
The wolf leaped.
Fangs, long as sharp daggers, came straight for Grandmother Taint’s neck.
But Grandmother Taint held her ground until the very last moment. Then she stepped toward the beast. She slammed the bundle of clothing into the center of its face with all the force she could muster. At this, the wolf let loose an agonized howl. The blow knocked it to the ground where it lay, whining, beneath the pile of fabric. A whimpering sound.
A human sound.
“Boy, put your damn pants on,” said Grandmother Taint.
She glared down at the crawling, mewling thing lying beneath the thick pile of fabric, and shook her head.
No longer a wolf, grand and powerful. The figure in front of her, looking up through tear-stained eyes, was just a naked young man.
“What was going through your head?” Grandmother Taint sat on the shadowed grass of the clearing. The young man sat next to her, his skin muddy, his hair thick with grime. He now wore the clothing Grandmother Taint had brought, and a spot of blood had blossomed on one sleeve where a shallow cut broke his skin.
“You’ve any idea how much work it is to scrub three-day-old piss from a pair of trousers? The ritual’s not supposed to be for petty gains, dammit!” She shook her head. “You’ve caused a real mess, Nale. A real mess.”
She watched a few stray tears trickle into her grandson’s scraggly beard and wondered if it all had all been her fault. Clearly, Nale followed in his father’s footsteps. Unable to keep it in his pants, she thought glumly.
“’Course, I’m partly to blame. I’ve let you down, boy.” She stared into the night for a long moment. “Let the whole town down, really. Time was, we Taints were the folk everyone looked to. We kept people safe with our gifts and we made Derrymoor prosperous and proud. I never wanted any of that, see? Just wanted to live my quiet life. Be left alone.” A sigh escaped her. Well, she thought, that would change from now on.
But then Nale spoke, strangled by a sob. “No Gran, he did it! He and his da’ think they can hurt whomever they like and get away with it. You taught me to stand up to people like that!”
Grandmother Taint looked at her grandson and felt, not for the first time that week, the weight of her years. “You mean the McDon’s?”
But Nale wasn’t listening. He went on: “He does whatever he wants, no matter who it hurts! And he…he took her away from me.”
“What are you sniveling about?”
“I mean, after what he did to Ginny.” Nale hiccupped loudly.
“Ginny?” Hard, angry lines furrowed Taint’s weathered face. “Who did what to Ginny?”
“Jimmy McDon! You know what he did, last winter. He promised her all sorts of things and then he just left, he used her, and he left!”
Taint sighed and patted him on the shoulder. “I know what Jimmy did, Nale. But the thing about life, boy, is that it’s not fair. The rich do what they like to the poor. Their comeuppance comes in due time.”
“In due time?” Nale said, jerking his shoulder away. “He stole her from me! And then she disappeared. I know he did something to her. But I knew he’d come for me eventually. I had to put a stop to things, like you told me. I had to stand up for myself.”
“Stole her? My gods, boy! Are you really that daft? I taught you our family secrets to avoid this sort of nonsense! To make sure you knew how to control our gifts, not fling them every which way.” In the near-darkness, Taint’s eyes seemed to reflect the faint starlight seeping through the clearing’s sparse canopy, causing them to glint a dangerous shade of red. “The whole point was to keep you from accidentally killing someone.”
“I had to!” Nale’s voice sounded shrill. “I can’t let him get away with it!”
“Oh, you poor addle-headed child!” Taint was on her feet now, yelling down at her grandson. In her fury, she seemed like a dark mountain, her eyes twin red moons. “Ginny’s fine, nor is she any damn concern of yours! This isn’t about her, it’s about you getting folk afraid, riled up to the point where they’ll start acting on fear alone! And as for Ginny, she’s better off away from it all, and far away from the likes of Jimmy McDon, and you.”
It was like watching all the wind suddenly vanish from a full sail. Nale crumpled, in one sudden motion, into a heap on the ground. From a sitting position, he looked up, tears once again brimming in his big blue eyes.
“You know where she went?”
“Course I do! I sent her! She’s in the big city now, working at the Academy and bound to make something of herself. Unlike you, I might add.” She sighed and poked him in the chest with one huge finger. “You realize I can’t trust you anymore, boy?”
“Don’t ‘Gran’ me! You know what happens when people get the fear in them? They kill those who are different! Think our family’s at risk? We got fangs, boy! What about all those poor bastards who are just poor, or a little bit strange. Last Great Hunt killed seventy families, and do you know how many were werewolves? None! They don’t kill the likes of us when they get afraid, they just kill whomever they can get their hands on!” She paused, then suddenly roared, her voice loud enough to startle sleeping birds from the treetops. “YOU GET ME?!”
A deer burst from one side of the clearing, looked in panic at the two people, and then took off in another direction. Taint watched it for a moment.
The animal gave her an idea. Proof, she thought. That would be the trick of it all.
She looked back at her grandson. Nale shivered, his frail human body weak after the prolonged change. The red gleam in Taint’s eye grew dark and fierce. She stepped toward her grandson, who cowered before her.
“I’m sorry, boy,” Taint said, a hint of regret in her voice. “I promised your mom I’d look after you, but I can’t let this spiral out of control. I’ve got to end this, here and now. And there’s only one clean way to do it.”
Grandmother Taint returned to Derrymoor early that morning, tired and sore and wearing an expression as grim as hail-laden clouds. She carried something wrapped up in her leather apron. She made straight for Ol’ Parlement and settled down to wait for the visitors she knew would soon be knocking. Sure enough, they arrived within an hour of the dawn.
“Open up!” a man’s loud voice came through the door.
Taint grabbed her makeshift leather bag and heaved herself from the armchair. She hobbled to the door, freed the latch, and pulled the door wide. Sunlight streamed in, blocked only partially by the man standing on the stoop. Ulchin McDon’s ruddy features and cleft chin were the same as his son’s, but his hair grayed at the edges.
“Ulchin Mcdon,” Taint said without smiling. “How’s Jimmy, then?”
The man grunted. “He’ll be fine. You did good work. I, eh, I want to thank you for that. We’ve never got on, I know—”
Taint waved a dismissive hand. “None of that. The boy was injured, and I helped, that’s no less than should be done by any neighbor in these parts.”
Ulchin stared at her for a long moment. “I called the town council to order last night and we came to a decision. I know this part of the woods belongs to your family, but these attacks need to be stopped.”
Taint crossed her arms over her chest. “And just what did the town council decide to do?”
“We’re going to burn it out. Set fire to the underbrush and clear the whole area. Then go in and kill anything we find. I’m telling you as a courtesy because of what you did for my son.”
Taint nodded. “Well, seems to me you’ve got a plan that’s not needed.”
She held out the bundle made from her leather apron to Ulchin, who looked at it suspiciously before taking it and pulling it open. His eyes bulged.
He dropped the apron on the threshold, causing a lump of swollen red meat to fall to the ground. Blood spattered the sides of the door frame. He pointed at it with a shaking finger. “What’s this, Taint?”
“Your boy’s handiwork. He got off some good blows before the beast mauled him. I asked his friends about it and found the spot where they fought the beast. Sure enough, it had just crawled away into the woods to die.”
“So you cut out its heart?” Rob’s ruddy face blanched as he looked from the bloody heart to Taint.
She shrugged. “Scavengers were already laying into it. Not much left, really. Buried the rest nice and deep. By the look of things, it was just a starving wolf, probably driven north by the southern cities. Anyway, your son should be hailed as a hero. So, no need to burn down my firewood supply, right?”
Rob nodded, absently, still staring in horror at the lump of meat on the ground.
“Tell me,” Taint said, “how’s he feeling?”
“Says he can’t feel much below his waist,” Rob muttered, wiping his forehead. Sweat glistened there.
“Ah,” said Taint. “Damn shame, that.”
A week passed.
Taint sat in her living room, feet in her pan of hot water. Recent events had reminded her of responsibility to the town, as well as of the reality of her age. So, instead of working on her feet all day, she hired three of the worse-off town girls to help around the inn, putting them up in spare rooms to keep them out of harm’s way. She could afford it, now the road was open again. Trade was back in full swing.
One of the patrons, an elderly man who dealt in iron wares, poked his head into the room and smiled through his greying beard.
“Much thanks for the hospitality,” he said, his grin missing a couple of obvious teeth. “That venison stew’s sure something sweet.”
“Our pleasure. Wild-caught that buck m’self just last week.”
He raised a brow. “By yourself?”
“Broke his leg in a ditch, poor thing,” Taint said without missing a beat. She waved him back as he turned to leave. “Say, you came up by the seaside road, that true?”
“You see a young man, about five days back, heading south? Sandy hair?”
The man nodded vigorously. “Aye, I sure did. Called himself ‘Nale’. He’s what made me think about trying the forest road again since he was coming from the north and all.”
“Thank you,” said Grandmother Taint, and closed her eyes. She heard the old man shuffle away.
So, Nale was safe and the trick with the hart’s heart had done its job. That was a start. She hated the thought of breaking her promise to Nale’s mam, but the boy would go rotten in a place like Derrymoor. He had to grow up, sometime, and that meant getting into the big harsh world. Better he learned that lesson for himself, far away from the place where he could do the most harm.
Ol’ Parlement bustled around her, warming Taint’s heart. It felt good to be doing something again.
Hiring the poorer town girls was just the start.
Next would come clearing out the so-called town council and making some real changes around Derrymoor. If anything good had come from this mess, she thought, it was the realization that she had kept out of the center of things for far too long.
Ginny, Nale, Jim… none of it should have happened in the first place. None of it would happen again.
She smiled to herself as she gently rocked back and forth in the chair. There was no such thing, she mused, as a lone wolf. Only the pack. And it was about damn time that she took the lead.