The stone cottage stood in a clearing in the forest, with gardens unkempt for the past two winters. The roof leaked and mice infested the eaves. The old woman who lived inside wailed in pain during the depths of the night. Her granddaughter stayed with her most nights, trying to comfort and care for her.
The watcher observed the cottage from behind a shield of sapling pine trees. He panted out hot breath and listened to his stomach rumble in response to the exquisite smell wafting from the cottage. He looked up into the night and saw that the moon was not quite full. The fur on his back bristled up, and then he turned and padded off into the forest. He would wait two more days.
The night that the moon was full, the watcher returned to the cottage. He sat and tried to calm himself. The old woman's screams cut back and forth through the night. The watcher shivered and shook each time, as each scream furthered his transformation. When the moon was at it's zenith, the transformation was complete. The watcher stood slowly on his hind legs. His paws had become hands, and most of his hair was gone. He flexed his fingers and felt the cold bite through his naked body. The wails of the old woman stopped.
The door to the cottage opened. The granddaughter, dressed in red, crept out, closing the door quietly behind her. She was still a girl, not yet sixteen. She collapsed to the ground in a heap and started sobbing silently.
The watcher stepped out into the clearing and walked towards her. His stomach burned inside him and he clutched his abdomen. The granddaughter heard his footsteps and stood quickly with her arms in front of her.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
"I don't know anymore," he answered quietly.
"Stay where you are!"
The watcher stopped and dropped his hands to his side.
"You...you look sad," she said, dropping her own hands.
"I am," he said.
She looked him over.
"Why are you not clothed?"
"I only have a few hours. Until the moon sets."
"What?" she asked, squinting her eyes.
"I have been cursed," he said, "by her." He pointed to the cottage door, his lips curling up.
"You must have deserved it," she said, putting her hands on her hips.
The watcher looked at her, boring into her with his eyes.
"Maybe you're like her," he said in a low voice.
"Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. Why don't you tell me your crime?"
"It was not a crime," he said. His chest heaved up and he bared his teeth. She stepped back against the wall of the cottage, and felt the cold stones. "I killed a wolf. It was out of its mind and foamed at the mouth. My life was in danger."
The girl put her chin up and exhaled loudly.
"My grandmother has always cared for the forest creatures. They don't get sick under her protection."
"This one was."
They looked at each cautiously for a long interval. Then the girl looked down.
"My grandmother is ill," she said.
"I know," said the watcher. "That's why I need your help."
"I don't understand how she can be sick. She commands nature itself."
"I have a feeling there is a deeper sickness...one that runs through nature itself. Our world is changing. Dissolving. Soon there will be no magic left at all."
"That's blasphemy," said the girl, looking at him intently.
"And yet it's the truth."
"Leave this place!" she hissed.
The watcher growled and threw himself to her, pinning her arms to the wall. She kicked and struggled but he leaned in, exhaling acrid breath in her face. She gagged and turned away.
"Let me go!"
"You will help me," he said calmly.
"I will not!"
"You have to. I am only a man during the full moon. All the rest of the time, I am beast. If you do not help me, I will hunt you down and eat you."
"Do you think threatening me will make me want to help you?"
"If I cannot appeal to your base instinct, then I will appeal to your intellect. You have a chance to right an injustice. Will you be fair?"
"Let me go," she said.
He gripped her wrists tightly, then gently let go. He slowly walked backwards three paces, and held his arms out to his sides.
"You are free," he said.
"I cannot undo your curse," she said, rubbing her wrists.
"No, you can't. But she can." He nodded towards the cottage door. "You must convince her."
"She is barely able to speak now."
"She is dying then," he said. She nodded. "I thought as much. Then there is no time to waste. If she dies when I am beast, I will be beast forever. The curse must be undone tonight."
"I will ask her, but I cannot make any promises."
The watcher's eyes brightened and he grinned, showing wide rows of teeth.
"I have one condition," the girl continued. The watcher's smile faded. "You must prove that you are deserving of redemption."
"And how can I do that?"
"Kiss me." There was a small hint of threat in her voice.
"There is some trick here," said the watcher. "You say one thing and mean another."
"You can believe what you want," said the girl, "but it is the only way I will help you."
The watcher flexed his fingers nervously, then approached her. He gently took her hand in his, then kissed the back of it, while keeping his eyes fixed upon hers. She chuckled briefly, then withdrew her hand.
"I have done it. Will you help me now?"
"Come inside," said the girl, as she opened the door to the cottage and slipped inside.
The watcher followed, cautious. He had spent many nights observing the cottage, but never in his life had been inside, and what he saw inside shocked him. The interior was one large room, with a lit hearth. A four-poster bed dominated the center, but instead of bedclothes, it was festooned with heaps of dry, dead leaves of all colors. Ivy wound up the posts and connected to the ceiling. The rafters were filled with birdnests and birds flitted around room; some of them were engaged in battles with mice wanting to raid the nests. The floor was made of weedy grass in bloom with wildflowers, crickets, snakes, and frogs. And on the bed was a figure shrouded in a thin sheet of black muslin.
"What madness is this," said the watcher quietly, unbelieving.
"Not madness," said the girl with a controlled fierceness. "Magic."
"And you have lied. She has already passed."
"Not quite yet. The body still breathes. The mind is gone from her."
"Then I have no hope," said the watcher.
"Her mind has gone from her to me, as it was passed from her grandmother to her, centuries ago."
"What?" asked the watcher.
The girl smiled at him and the birds and the mice and the other creatures all became silent at once.
"I am the Red Witch, the protector of the magic that inhabits all of nature. I am older than the Earth itself. And yet I am dying, even in this young, new body. It is because of you."
"How?" asked the watcher. "How did I ever harm you!?"
"You murdered the wolf with a gun," she said sternly. "A hundred years ago it would have been an arrow. Before that a spear, and before that, a rock. You steal away the magic of nature with increasing efficiency."
"I am not of those past ages! How can you accuse me of such actions?"
"Not you. It is your kind that is ancient. You are like flowing water against a stone. In enough time, you will dissolve me and all that I protect. Do you wonder now why I transformed you into a wolf?"
"It is a cruel punishment! A horrible curse! You have--"
"Is it? Is it?!" she suddenly screamed. "I made you into a beast not as a curse but as a blessing, so that you would come to know compassion. It is your twisted soul that sees it as a curse."
The watcher shook his head in disbelief.
"I was always a good man," he said. "I want to be wholly a man again. Do not hold me accountable for what you see is an evil by all mankind."
"If not you, then who?" she asked.
"I cannot answer that," he said with tears beginning to roll down his cheeks.
She looked at her hands, then slowly raised them in front of her, with the palms facing outward.
"There is beast already in man," she said. "More savage than any creature of the forest. It lies quietly within most, sleeping. Few speak of it. The beast I have imbued in you satisfies its needs without artfulness, meanness, or largesse. It is the beast in balance with my magic, one that cannot steal. If I remove it, you will be left without constraint. And yet goodness already exists in you. It is a difficult decision."
"Please," said the watcher, falling to his knees. "I beg you."
She looked at him, with her arms outstretched, at once pushing him away and reaching towards him. Tears welled up in her eyes too.
"As you wish," she said, her voice tremulous.
She clapped her hands together, producing red sparks. The fire behind her suddenly bowed low and the room went dim. The birds began to chatter their loudest songs, and the body on the bed moaned out its last rattling breath. The girl drew her hands apart and a glowing red yarn of light grew from the space between. The yarn looped and vibrated and became longer and longer. It wavered in the air and then sought out the watcher. He was frozen in fear, staring with large eyes at the live yarn. It encircled his head at the level of his eyes, looping around, then it pulled tight and knotted itself.
"Run!" yelled the girl, and the door to the cottage flung open. "I curse you to be man for eternity! Do not ever return to this forest."
The fire in the hearth raged up again and the room was thrown into flickering, shifting shadows. The yarn dissolved, and the watcher found his feet. He ran from the cottage, down the forest path and into the night.
The Red Witch stood in the doorway, watching him pass from her sight. She looked up at the full moon and wiped the tears from her face.