Chapter One

"Rosetta, it's time to wake up," another loud rap on the door, "It's Goodie Day, so dress in your best clothes and be ready to go into the woods with your father," Mrs. Ryding called on the other side of the sliding door. She spoke as if her eldest daughter rarely went up the mountains and stayed at home tending the garden like her sister. Instead, Red did the work of a son, hiking the trails of the mountain range helping cut timber for the city of Hood with her father. It was always quite amusing to Red how her mother would try to act as if Red was a normal girl as if pretending she was would make it so. Red had just slid in her bedroom window in time to hear her mother. She had been up since dawn practicing climbing trees and fighting while she wore a traveling cloak similar to the deep red one she always had to wear when she visited her grandmother. She clicked together her dual-Dao-double-headed hatchets, her prized one of a kind weapon and tool, and laid the sheathed weapon on her cot. Her actions were stiff and sharp which was how she always acted on Goodie Day.
Father's warm laugh and Snowdrop's weak giggles resounded from the kitchen as Red removed her old worn work boots and strapped her best leather climbing boots. She slipped on some clean trek clothes, smoothed her onyx hair down with a bristled brush, and attempted to push her stick-straight bangs out of her eyes with no avail. She might have cut them off in anger but she remembered how horrible that always turned out. Red checked the glass for anything that would make Mother fret, as she left for the kitchen.
"Rose Red, Snow White, my lovely daughters have graced me with their combined presence. What a lucky man am I," Father boomed as Red slid into her seat at the family table. Snowdrop's pale cheeks lit up when she grinned at Father. Mother had her mind set on fitting all the mooncakes and honey buns and other goods the village had collected for the oracle into Red's small messenger basket and hadn't heard Father. Red barely smiled as she stuffed her mouth with the bowl of sweat rice laid at her place. It made Red mad that Father joked so much on Goodie Day, and he knew she hated being called "Rose Red" as much as she hated "Rosetta," she preferred just her second name "Red" but her parents never remembered that.
"Are you eager to see Grandmother, Red?" inquired Snowdrop in her meek voice. It was an innocent question, a soft spoken sentiment. The fragile girl who spoke meant no offence toward her beloved sister. That was what sent Red over the edge.
"Would you be eager to march all the way to the top of the mountain with basket filled with treats you can't eat just to have some blind old lady stuff her mouth and rant on about how good the crops are going to be for Yen family? Oh wait, how could I forget, you would love to do just that because all you do is sit around the farm all day dreaming about your pet bear and how you are the next crackpot oracle in the family!" Red had stood up at some point. When she realized it, she sat back down. Her anger was spent and there was no fire in her eyes to protect her from shame. Red gawked at the floor, gulping down the hard silence that was left when she stopped her rant. Still, she preferred silences to the sickening sound of tears. She felt the heavy stares of her mother and father.
"You're right," Snowdrop squeaked and Red looked up at her small sickly sister. Snowdrop's pale lips trembled slightly. "I do want to be like you and go on adventures in the forest and see Grandmother on Goodie Day. I do become ecstatic at the mere thought that someday I will go to the palace city and prepare to be the next Hood oracle. I am sorry my comment upset you." Red wrapped her bronzed arms around her sister's frail body and placed a kiss on her milky forehead. Winter was months away and Snowdrop's only true friend besides Red, the bear named Honee, came with the season's first snow. Snowdrop was twelve years of age, so she had almost four lonely summers left before her journey to the capital to train as the next oracle began.
"No, I'm sorry, Snow. I know how important Goodie Day is to you," Red whispered into Snowdrop's black and white striped tresses, the white streaks of an oracle. "Do you want to help me put on the cloak?" Snowdrop nodded. As if nothing had happened she hopped up and fetched the deep scarlet hooded cape that Red wore the day of the new moon, Goodie Day. Snowdrop might have forgiven her older sister with ease but Mother gave a disapproving look when the ill child skipped from the room.
"Oh my, Rosetta, you look so darling!" whatever resentment Mother felt fled the moment Red finished adjusting the goodie-basket beneath the cloak and tied the sheath of her axes around her waist. Red rolled her eyes, "darling" was not something she aspired to be. Father and Snowdrop shared a laugh at Red's obvious misery. Mother and Snowdrop waved as Red and her father made for the mountain path. They stopped to honor their ancestors and ask for protection from the departed.
The father and daughter kept each other's company for a length of the trek. They teased one another and made fun of Mother's silly worries. Father's heavy woodcutting ax was laid softly on his shoulder and Red's basket clanked against her hip with each step. When they reached the road that lead to the top of the withered mountain, Father turned into the wood with a wave over his shoulder and whistled away. Red left at the beginning of the path heaved a sigh and started her way to Grandmother's hut.
Besides the monthly trip to the peak, Red hunted, climbed, and cut small pieces of bark and timber along the path since she was old enough to explore on her own. She knew the way as easily as she knew how to breathe. The journey to the home of the oracle looked as if it was to go smoothly.

Jay Little awoke with a hard nudge to the ribs. His eyes had barely adjusted to the hazy morning light that peeked through holes in the tree fort's roof, when Jay's companion started talking. Why did I ever befriend a morning person who talks too much? Jay thought. His dreams had left him grouchy that morning, but he did not let his face betray his irritation. He pretended to listen to his friend while he reviewed the previous night's dreams before they slipped from memory.
His father made another appearance in his sub-conscious which, to Jay's utmost digest, was becoming the normal. As usual, after his father turned into sharp-toothed monster, the dream faded into the symbol which had been haunting Jay for the past week. He knew it from somewhere but could not remember where, an elliptical shape with pointed ends with the circular face of a clock at the center that looked like an eye surrounded by triangle and the crest of the Hood family beneath. He considered telling Robin about his dream, but he didn't feel like interrupting him.

The time piece eye, the withered mountain, and the Hood city crest, the seal on the girl's basket was definitely the seal of the Hood Oracle. This child, this girl in this red hood was suddenly a threat to Amadeus's plans. He stared at the problem. At the very short problem. He stared too long, for the girl spun on his direction and unsheathed a small double-bladed ax. No, two axes. His claws sprung from his fingers which surprised him. This little red blob of a child wielding toys was no threat to him, so he retracted his sharp extremities. He gradually wandered out of the thick brambles that concealed him.

The forest that crept up the mountain side was alive with creatures, so it wasn't the feeling that something was in Red's presence which alarmed her. It was the shiver of her spine, the heavy weight of a creature's gaze which caused her to draw her axes. The air became dense abruptly with the new threat of the predator that she felt lurking only paces away. Red turned to where she thought her company was and what she saw next was not what she had been expecting.
A figure slipped into the light. His head reached high and his shoulders broad. Red lacked in height but she spent enough time in treetops to know that the man before her was tall from any perspective. She contemplated his size so hard that it took her a moment to notice some other features he had. His ears were of an animal, pointed, long, hairy, and mostly detached from his head. The bushy gray tail of a wolf swung between his muscular legs that were clothed in tight bindings and shorts that were barely more than rags. He was a were-creature, part-human, part-fey, part-beast. Red had never encountered one before.
"Good morning," the wolf-man greeted, shattering Red's shocked silence. His voice was deep and cold and the tiniest hint of West Wood accent. When he spoke Red realized he wasn't very old. He appeared to be of the age that edged on adulthood but remained adolescent, maybe eighteen or nineteen. How long had Red been staring at this young man? Seconds or minutes? She was usually more vigilant but she had never seen a were-creature before. "The common response is for you to return the 'good morning' I believe."
"Yes, I apologize. Good morning to you, Sir…" Red's mother had warned her against talking to strangers, but she also knew she was not supposed to stare at them either.
"Bon Wolfe, Amadeus Bon Wolfe at your service. And you are?" Bon Wolfe extended a hand and Red noted the sharpness of claw-like nails.
"Red Ryding of Hood," after a moment of considering whether giving her name was a good idea. Her weapons gave her the confidence to speak as she tightened her grip on the handles of her axes. The usual wit she temporarily lost rushed back. She dared to ask, "What brings you to my wood, my mountain?"
"Your mountain?" Amadeus laughed haughtily, "I am a traveler of sorts and when I heard of the mystic who dwells on this peak, I had to see her for myself." Everything he said was the truth. Telling only a small part of the truth was much better then lying. Wolfe rarely lied. "Do you know of the oracle?" the tall creature inquired though he learned the answer from the girl's seal minutes beforehand.
Red's instincts had been fine tuned by years of working with her father. Her instincts caught something in the stranger's words or movements that kept her from answering immediately. Stick to the truth, she told herself. "How wonderful that you saw the oracle, she does not always allow visitors. I, myself, am on my way to see her with the concerns of the villagers down below." The rest of the conversation went like this, small talk and not quite lies.

He has left me to rot in this hut. Oh, I am fool to think he would come back. The shepherdess whined in her mind. But he loves me, he told me so. I just need to do as he said so he can get what he needs. He sees one tiny child on mountain pass...This mental battle ensued, fueled with perils of waiting for a lover. She felt like a scream wanted to be let loose, but she swallowed it. There was a knock at the door.

"Come in," rang a wispy voice from within the modest hut. Red's grandmother's voice was always raspy and whispery. She once thought it was due to the fact she was an oracle, but Snowdrop's voice, however high and frail, had never grown to sound like such. Red entered the one-room dwelling and did not pinch her nose or rapidly blink as most do for she was accustom to the dark room and its aroma.
The oracle was lump of bed coverings in the far side of the round room. This struck Red as odd for her grandmother was usually sitting in the clothe covered center of her home mixing strange smelling things and staring with blind glassed-over eyes into pools of water and milking sphere of quartz. Red slowly approached the shadow that was the oracle's sleepy form. Her head was as usual wrapped in clothe and her withered hid in shadow faced away.
"It's Goodie Day," Red softly coaxed.
"It is, is it?" replied the wispy voice that sounded almost girlish and high pitched but not quite. The pitch and girlish tone was new, as was this forgetfulness. Red feared her grandmother maybe succumbing to old age. Once every moon cycle, she visited, but that was enough to care deeply for the wrinkled mystic. Besides if she died before Snowdrop turned sixteen years of age, then Red's sister would be taken from her before she would be ready. If she would ever be ready.
"What do you need, little girl?" was all the voice said in the following moments, but it was all that it would take to make Red see. This difference was not of age, but of person. ...
The woodcutter learned over his years of being a father that worrying was worthless. He taught Red well on the ways of survival in the gloom of the tree shaded mountains, and though her body was frail from the gift of foresight, Snowdrop had always been clever. Still, as he watched his eldest disappear between the trees, his heart thumped a few beats faster. She was always going to be his baby girl.
The woodcutter marched on through the steep forest floor only half way to the area deemed safe to make a clearing when he heard the breaking of twigs and the disturbance that loose stones made when they tumbled down the incline. Something, big by the sound of it, was barreling down the slope, but whatever moved closer was not on a path. Dangerous things trod the hillside. He taught his children young to never go to far off a path. The woodcutter knew better then to stand there like easy prey but he froze, as his daughter had, when the mass of light grey fur appeared in front of him.

Red's muscles recognized the imposter before her mind and she was already in defensive as she finished the last thought.
"Child, I asked you what it is you need. Will make me wait here all day for an answer?" croaked the stranger. Red could hear now the feigned strain of mock elderly voice. Whoever this girl was, she was unaware that her cover had been blown or she would have reacted to Red's dramatic change in stance. The tension released in all her body. Red would deal with the imposter soon enough but she wanted to see if she could get some information out of her first. Her splayed wide hand hung by hip never wavering to far from her weapon.
"Oh, I just came to give you a basket of goods and sweets. They are from the villagers because we love you much, Great Oracle," the stranger called her a little girl, so Red gave her just that complete with a thick layer of innocence.
"Well, that is... very nice of them to um...think of me. Is there any other reason you came?" the shepherdess hunted for Red's motives, as Red hunted for hers.
"I had just been wondering how you are. What have you been up to today?" Red didn't know what that question would reveal. The stranger could not possibly be as empty-headed as to tell the truth, and if she answered wrong that would only further prove what Red already knew.
"I did today what I do everyday," the shepherdess started to suspect that the little red girl knew, but then she realized that the question was common and innocent. Still, there was something off in her tone.
"Of course, of course," as Red said it, both occupants of the humble home felt their masks stripping away. The game was up; neither was going to offer up any more information. Red tightened her posture, prepared, as she articulated, "Grandmother."

Both the word and the drastic change of the girl's voice confirmed that she knew. The shepherdess could feel the air tense as girl waited for an attack. She wasn't going to make the first move. Sliding her hand under the bed careful to not betray her intentions, the shepherdess gripped her weapon. Red, expecting an attack to the chest, had her feet swept out from under her and didn't see the shepherd's crook till she was already on the floor.
The figure stood on the bed now; her dress was ripped in several places but was distinctively southern in style. Red hopped up and braced herself for the next strike. The shepherdess raised the crook and slammed it down hard, but Red easily evaded it. The girl jumped from the bed and her next drive was blocked by one of Red's axes. Red swung her free ax at her opponent's side but the crook stopped it short. The crook, Red noticed, must have been made of some sturdier southern wood or else been effected by magic. Red's axes barely scratched the dark wood. The two danced in series of blows and blocks, neither girl faltered once.
"Not bad," the shepherdess huffed when Red dodged her crook and hooked it with both axes. She pulled back knocking Red forward and off balance. She regained it quickly.
"Not bad, yourself," Red countered by forcing the crook up with one ax and used the handle of its twin to impact the girl's stomach. With her enemy subdued, she added, "So you do pretend to be old blind women often? Is this a habit of yours?"
The girl laughed, or at least attempted laughter, the best she could with the breath knocked right out of her. She straightened herself with a cruel smile hanging on her face. "Trust me; we were as disappointed as you were to find that old windbag wasn't home. I only suffered the smell of this hole for love."
For love, we Red remembered the other stranger she had met that morning. "You wouldn't happen to be referring that Bon Wolfe fellow," the girl's eyes answered for her, "because if that was your lover then I offer my condolences."