(The real story of Red Riding Hood, who was not so little, and not so innocent)
This is not a fuzzy fairy tale and not appropriate for young children
This is what really happened. It was a very long time ago, as you probably suspected. It all took place in the forest of Northern Wales, close to the countryside town of Denbigh, and my grandfather swore that every word is true.
Red, whose real name was Gwynlyn, was a young woman of stunning beauty. Gwynlyn was magnificent, with shimmering hair the color of a raven’s breast, crystal blue eyes and skin that would make fresh cream jealous. Every man in the village sought after her, to woo her, to love her, to claim her as his bride. But it would take a very special kind of man to win her heart and gentle words of poetry or love songs strummed on a lute would not be enough. You see, Gwynlyn’s mother and father were both brave Celtic warriors. She knew the sword and bow as well as she knew the loom and kettle. Gwynlyn was not dainty or faint of heart; well, unless it suited her.
One night a man came riding fast into the village with news of a terrible tragedy. An old woman, one of the Cunning Women of the forest, had been found slain in a particularly vicious manner. This news was of great importance and distress to the villagers because it was the Cunning Women who brewed elixirs and potions to cure everything from a simple headache to serious infections and afflictions. This news was even more sorrowful to Gwynlyn. The Cunning Woman who had been slain was her beloved Nain, her grandmother.
It was with Grandmother that young Gwynlyn walked in the forest learning to appreciate the colors, smells and sights around her. She learned to brew tea from the bark of a tree that would relieve pain, make a thick heavily odored brew from a root that would relieve cramps when the time in her life came that she would need such a medicine and to harness the power of a delicate white flower that could put a suffering person to sleep for an hour, a day, or forever. She learned that her hands could be hard, grinding roots for a potion and the next moment be gentle enough to cradle a butterfly like a new mother cradles her fresh, pink infant. It was with Grandmother that Gwynlyn learned how precious a life is, no matter how small. It was with her parents that Gwynlyn learned how precious the power to end a life is when the time comes.
So it was not long before Gwynlyn decided what she must do. Such a terrible wrong against her family could not simply be forgotten and brushed aside. This creature of the forest night could not be allowed to claim more victims. And the young girl felt it was up to her to set the balance of good and evil right. Gwynlyn’s anger and anguish was at a peak. Her grandmother would be avenged and the village would be rid of this terrible creature.
The next morning a gypsy woman came to call on Gwynlyn. “I have seen the creature you seek,” she said. “It is neither all man nor all beast, but much of both. In Ireland it was called Laignach Faeled. The French call it Bzou. We have our own name for it, Blaidd-ddyn. It is very strong and has killed many, and yet it can be quite charming to a young lass, for which it has a compelling hunger. You should not challenge this abomination of nature, but if you do, remember that it was once a man, and when the time comes to strike, hesitation means certain death. ” Having said her piece the old woman vanished back into the forest.
Now Gwynlyn knew for sure. It was the beast her father had suspected, Blaidd-ddyn, the Werewolf, and her heart beat a little faster.
Talk of the beast had filtered through pubs and places where people meet to discuss things better not spoken of at home, in front of children or in the open air. It was a hushed topic. No one wanted to say it aloud, but everyone knew that this was no ordinary wolf.
Gwynlyn sat in their living room watching the flames in the fireplace, her father in his chair smoking his pipe, her mother gliding about keeping herself busy with trivial chores.
“It’s not a mere wolf, ya know?” It was her father who spoke. “It has killed many a strong man. Do ya hear me, girl?” His tone swelled.
Gwynlyn looked up to meet her father’s eyes and spoke calmly, yet with spirit, “I may still be a girl, but am I not my mother’s daughter?”
“Aye, that ye be, and as such I know ye won’t be stopped once set upon somethin’. But take care, and take this.” He tossed an old leather pouch to Gwynlyn’s quick hand. She opened it. “That’s the only thing that will kill the beast,” he continued.
From the long, leather pouch she drew out a double edged dagger of the brightest, shiniest silver she had ever seen. The edge was keen and thin as a baby’s fine hair; the grip was rough leather, lest it slip from the hand at an inopportune moment.
“It’s quite beautiful, Father.”
“It’s deadly, as you must be.”
“Do not fear for me, Father. I have more than the courage and skill you taught me, I have mother’s charm.” She rose with a mischievous wink and retired to her bedroom.
For eight nights Gwynlyn waited with the patience of a saint until the phase of the full moon.
“Father,” she asked, “How is it possible for such a beast to exist?”
“It’s a curse, darlin’, a vicious curse with no cure. I will tell ye somethin’ an old gypsy woman told to me. It’s sort of a poem, I guess. Goes like this,” and his voice softened, “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night, can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
“I’m ready for you dear,” her mother called from the kitchen.
“Back in a toot,” Gwynlyn said as she went to answer the call.
The girl is too young and hasn’t the experience, her father thought. She takes this with much too light a heart. Slaying a Blaidd-ddyn is something for a man to do. Then, with a chuckle he said quietly aloud, “Best not mention that to the Mrs., a-ay.”
In the kitchen Mother stood with arms spread wide holding open a hooded cape woven from the finest wool of Eglwysilan Mountain sheep. It was magnificent. But it was the color alone that caused Gwynlyn to cover her mouth and gasp. It was no tartan or tweed, nor any of the usual forest colors. This cape, this very special cape was dyed from the deepest, richest red berries in existence. Her mother turned it out to expose the lining, sleek and shiny as satin, fitted with one long, slender pouch of black leather the exact length of the dagger. On the top of the pouch was embroidered a single word “Rhyfelwr,” warrior. This would be Gwynlyn’s test, as every young man and woman would meet one day to become a Celtic warrior. To wear the emblem of Rhyfelwr one had to prove worthy.
Gwynlyn swirled the magnificent cape around and over her shoulders with such grace that one would suspect she’d owned it all her life. A last look at the dagger and it was then slipped effortlessly into the leather sheath, concealing it along with her intentions and slyness.
Without a word Gwynlyn made for the door. There would be no emotional good-byes, which would be too final; no tears, no hugs and no regrets. That was not their way. As she hesitated before the door her father handed her something in a small pouch and spoke with solid determination, “Come back to us, Daughter, but if you must die, die well.” He would restrain the tear forcing its way from the corner of his eye until she was gone.
“Mother,” Gwynlyn called out, “if it’s not too much trouble might I have some tea and biscuits with honey in the morning?” And without waiting for an answer she was out the door.
Their fastest horse with the bravest heart had been readied and awaited her. Gwynlyn slipped onto its back and with a single, almost imperceptible command the large animal obeyed instantly, digging hooves into Earth and the speeding off into the deep blue night of the forest.
As she rode off into the countryside the full moon rose before her, first cresting the mountain ridge, glaring off the low clouds until it was in full view, large, bright and fully rounded. Now, at the edge of the north wood where the beast had been hunting Gwynlyn pulled her horse to a stop. He stomped impatiently and snorted streams of hot mist into the cool evening air from his flaring nostrils. He had taken Gwynlyn’s mother into many battles and was enlivened for the fight. But not this time. Gwynlyn calmed him with a stroke and soothing words. “You must stay here, old friend,” she whispered. “I will be back. I promise.”
How many times, she tried to remember, had her mother and father said those very words to her? They had always kept their promise. Gwynlyn intended to do the same.
The area of tall trees was full of deep shadows and the ground covered with a thick layer of forest duff. Gwynlyn did not stick to the shadows nor step carefully to avoid snapping a twig or rustling some brush. In fact she walked along carelessly humming a tune as if she had not a thought of any evil. With the moon lighting a well-used path Gwynlyn strolled on, occasionally stopping to view, and even greet, an owl. As carefree as she may have seemed the girl’s senses were not lacking. She took long, deep breaths to fill her nose with every familiar scent. Any small sound was registered. Even the breeze was suspect.
“Good evening young miss,” came a voice from behind a large tree. She stopped abruptly. The voice was deep and melodic; almost soothing.
With care that a trembling tone would give her away Gwynlyn answered, “Oh my, you startled me good sir. And who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
A tall, thin man, finely dressed, stepped from behind the tree, but remained within its long shadow. “I am Dargryn, a simple traveler, perhaps like yourself.”
“I am called Lili, and it is my pleasure, sir.” Gwynlyn gave a slight curtsy and nod. She thought; does he know who I am? Are we playing a game?
“My, what a lovely girl you are. I think this is certainly my pleasure.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind.”
“Why do you walk so late in the forest alone, my dear?”
“I’m out to visit an old woman who has been ill. My mother sent me.” The smile that curved her berry red lips was as devious as it was alluring.
“Have you not heard that there is danger out here?” Dargryn probed.
“If there is danger then perhaps a fine gentleman like yourself might see me safely through the forest. I would be grateful, and feel so much safer in your company,” Gwynlyn almost cooed the last few words. The front of the cape draped partly open revealing a modest hint of her beauty. The tight bodice accentuated her curves and her eyes pooled like liquid mercury.
Dargryn stepped from the shadow. He was in full human form, a feat that only comes with experience and great skill. As Gwynlyn expected he was quite handsome; she could feel his presence. She could also see clearly that she had aroused the human maleness that remained within him.
“I will be pleased to escort you, my dear; very pleased indeed. And I will only ask for one small favor in return.”
“And what favor would you ask?” she replied, coquettishly ending her words with a tempting smile.
“I would ask but one kiss from you precious lips. May I?” Dargryn moved close and offered his hand.
Gwynlyn accepted it. At first his hand was gentle, but then his grip tightened and he pulled her hard against him. His lips came within a breath of hers. It took a second for her to become conscious the pain. A blade had been swiftly thrust into her belly. There was a moment of disbelief as she staggered and fell back onto the forest floor. She lay motionless, unable to speak.
Dargryn stood over her looking down with scorn on his now contorting face. His words were growling and garbled as he spoke through the deforming mass of flesh quickly being covered with hair as it twisted into the form of a half-human, half-wolf. “You thought you could fool me!? They sent you, a mere girl, to conquer one like me? Are they mad!? I will send them back what you will become when you pass through me. I am going to eat you from the toes up, very slowly, enjoying every scream and moan as I did with that pathetic old woman who barely filled me for an hour.
Tears, though not of pain but of sorrow, streamed down Gwynlyn’s cheek. The vile beast was speaking of her grandmother, and now her sorrow turned inward. It became a fire inside of her, a fire that was about to erupt.
As the beast, completely changed into the evil Blaidd-ddyn, bent to take its first bite, the moment of disbelief was now his. Like a cool breeze across his throat Gwynlyn’s dagger moved quickly and precisely in her hand slicing through the Blaidd-ddyn’s neck and all the way through its spine. The severed head fell with a thud.
Gwynlyn kicked the decapitated body away from her, took one brief moment to glare at the head and smile, but time was not on her side. The beast’s blade had gone deep and she was bleeding profusely from the wound. From a small hidden pocket in her bodice Gwynlyn withdrew a tiny pouch. She lay back, exposed the wound, opened the pouch and poured out the contents into the gash in her belly. “Thank you Father,” barely escaped from her lips and her world went black.
How they found her days later no one really knows, but when she came-to, lying safe in her bed at home, everyone stood around awaiting the first words form their returned, triumphant hero. She simply asked, “Tea and biscuits with honey, please?”