Red stared at the two youths struggling to straighten collars, refasten buttons, and restore order to their disheveled clothes. She recalled seeing the burly young man with the curly dark hair up at the pasture with Burch only this morning. What were they doing here--during a celebration, of all things?
"Why don't you watch where you're going?" growled the man. "We'd like a little privacy, if you don't mind! Be on your way!"
Red detected something in the edges of his voice, and she studied him closely. Did he not realize who she was? Just how much "privacy" did they think they would have in an open alleyway where anyone might choose to walk?
"Marc!" Henny murmured, tugging on his sleeve, "Let's just go..."
A warm, heady scent wafted off of the two young people, and Red grew keenly aware of the sheen across their faces. Everything pointed to a highly probable (if very indecent!) reason for their presence here--and one that she'd smelled before. Her hackles rose. She had always avoided that reek when it reached her in previous visits to Queston, but today she decided she would not tolerate it any longer. Privacy, indeed!
Red glared at Henny, who had just finished restoring the last button. "So this is the tailoring business you've been spending all your time at, while your mother, bless her soul, is working herself to the bone so that you might be able to make something of yourself!" Such long hours at the miliners', she said--oh, poor Deborah! If she knew the truth!
Marc's face twisted into a scowl, and he stepped forward. "Now see here--"
"What I do is my own business, thank you!" Henny piped up, lifting her copper-brown eyes defiantly to meet Red's gaze. "You don't know anything about how hard I work, nor how much Marc cares for me!"
"Cares for you?" Red grabbed the man by the arm and shoved him aside, not quite throwing him, but hard enough to separate the two. "If you think that, girl, then you're fooling yourself. I can tell just by looking at him that he means you no goodwill!"
Marc tried to interfere, but Red arrested him with an upraised hand.
Henny, meanwhile, gave a harsh laugh. "Oh my! What sharp eyes you have, to see such horrible flaws in people!"
Red didn't break eye contact with the defiant maiden. "All the better to see through a predator's lies, my dear," she quipped.
"Who are you calling predator?" Marc retorted, reaching for Henny's hand again. "Don't listen to her, Hen. You know me better than anyone, I will always--"
Red grabbed him by the arm, and this time, she didn't bother holding back her strength. He grazed the side of the building and tumbled into the stack of crates. "Spare her the deception, you dog. This is not the first daughter of Queston you've tried on in the last few years, anymore than you're her first 'trim on the side'!"
"How dare you!" Henny squealed, but Red kept going, pointing at the two of them, on either side of her.
"Don't think I don't know everything that goes on in these trees! What would Burch say if he knew--"
Marc arose with clenched fists. "I don't see how it's any of your business!" He planted his feet, crouching into a fighting stance.
Red faced him, folding her arms. "Everything to do with Queston is my business!" She declared, standing aloof before his threatening posture. "So what did you promise her this time? A tiny flock, a quiet home, faraway in some other valley where you will only have yourselves to look after?"
The events of that morning returned to her mind in perfect detail: the specks she found on the wool of some lambs, but not others--most likely paint or ink, and not a coincidence. In fact, now that she thought of it, the herd did seem to shrink every time the white wolf struck, even when there was no sign of an attack at all. "How many of the village lambs have you already marked for yourself, poacher? Too bad that wolf killed the bellwether this morning, or you would have been able to abscond with half the flock before anyone no--"
The heavy fist launched toward her face while she was still talking. Red ducked a little to late, so the blow aiming for the center of her head caught her in the cheek, knocking her backward.
Henny screamed, "Don't hurt her!"
"That's enough, meddling shrew!" Marc snarled, standing over the red-caped woman. "You might have the whole of Queston eating out of your flea-bitten hands, but I'm nobody's fool! I'm getting what the old man owes me!"
Red braced herself with her hand and pushed back onto her feet. She wiped the trickle of blood off her lip with the back of her palm. "If you think that, then you're the biggest fool of them all!"
Outside, in the square, the band struck up and people raised a cheer for the long-awaited arrival of Schoolmaster Remani. The noise out there covered the sounds of the scuffle from the alley.
Red pushed off with her legs and launched her body right at Marc's center of gravity, slamming him into the building. He threw another punch, but she dodged it and sent him a blow of her own, catching him full in the side. He grabbed her hood and yanked it off her head, but that only exposed her infuriated face. She pivoted back, reaching along his arm with hers and yanking forward while Marc's hand was still caught in the hood. He tripped and stumbled as his shoulder wrenched back with the momentum. Roaring in frustration, he came back around to charge at her. Back and forth they wrestled, Marc having the advantage of height and weight, but Red able to evade him thanks to wolf-like reflexes and a cunning knowledge of the most vulnerable areas to hit.
Henny crouched behind a large crate, shaking and blubbering. Red had shed her cloak, for the sake of the valuable jar in her pocket. She focused on evading Marc's blows and wearing him down with small, close hits while he flailed angrily. After one stiff jab to the face, he went down into a crouch. Red's instincts fired just before she saw the short silver blade in his hand as he stood again. No longer able to focus on his movements, Red followed the blade instead, dodging away from a feint she interpreted as a lunge. This mistake left her shoulder exposed to the blade.
Red roared with the pain as blood spread from under the knife, staining the tear in her sleeve. She wrenched Marc's forearm again. He released the weapon with a cry, but it had done its job already. She couldn't shove him hard enough to throw him off-balance.
“Ha!” Marc grunted. “The fabled super-wolf bleeds like an animal, too! Guess you aren’t as all-powerful as--”
With a snarl, Red reached over and pulled the blade out with her opposite hand, gritting her teeth and grabbing the hilt in her injured hand. She howled with rage as she sprang toward the man, slamming her good arm against his throat. In two quick movements she slashed the side of his leg, and shoved the silver blade straight in, perilously close to his side--but it only caught his shirt and bit deep into the wooden siding behind him. He squirmed and gurgled as she pressed on his windpipe, but he couldn't move.
Red scowled at him and spoke slowly, through bared teeth. "Get. Off. My. Mountain. If I ever see your tracks around here again, if I so much as smell your stench on a westerly wind, I will personally hunt you down and then we will see how you stand against a real wolf!" She stepped back and picked up her cloak, tying it around her shoulders with one hand as she let her wounded arm hang still by her side.
Marc gasped and coughed as he recovered from the chokehold, and it took most of his strength to rip his shirt away from the blade--and yet the knife itself remained, sticking there with a piece of his shirt hanging from it. He nearly turned back to Henny, but the furious Wolf still stood there, staring at him with murder on a hair-trigger in her eyes. He thought better of it and backed away, the cool breeze whispering like fear against his exposed side.
Red didn't tear her eyes away as Marc stumbled off into the hills, away from Queston. Her shoulder felt like it was on fire, but Red knew there was one more matter of business to attend to.
She turned to the quivering, sniveling girl still huddled behind the crate. "And as for you, Hepsibah Moriah Garrity--"
Henny sprang out of hiding at the sound of her full name. She couldn't even stand upright, but she groveled at Red's feet, reaching for her hand.
She pled, with tears running down her face, "Oh, please don't hurt me! And don't tell mother--I'll do anything you want me to!"
Red put her good hand on her hip and snorted. "Seems to me you are entirely too eager to do things for other people, when they don't require too much effort from you!" She shook her head and held out her hand, helping the young girl to her feet. "As a matter of fact, Henny," she continued, "this is what I want you to do: you will walk straight back into the dressmaker's shop. You will apologize to Bethany, and you will do everything she asks. When you are finished there, you will go straight home and apologize also to your mother--and you will do whatever she asks of you, and give her the rest she deserves. This will be your life for the rest of the year, and I had better not see you anywhere but exactly where you ought to be..."
Henny's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as Red listed the requirements. She cringed as Red delivered her ultimatum. "Or what? Are you going to hunt me down like you threatened to do to Marc?"
Red gave a thin, firm smile. "No; I'll simply tell your mother and your employer exactly what kind of 'tailoring' business you've been running behind their backs this whole time."
Henny gasped and clapped both hands to her cheeks. "You wouldn't--you cannot--Oh!" She pulled a pouting frown and stamped her foot. "What big teeth you have, you savage wolf!"
Red grinned, showing all her teeth, adding special weight to her words as she replied, "All the better to deal with anything and anyone that would threaten the safety of this village... my dear." She said this last in a deep, rumbling growl.
Henny scurried out of the alley as fast as she could go.