Once there lived a callous and cunning Witch on the far edge of town. Compensation came to her in various forms—never as gold—she did not trouble herself with material gains. The townspeople only sought the Witch under the direst of circumstances. She’d been helpful in securing a harvest for the baker during an interminable drought, and—having an abundance of lavender—she divided up the crop between the dressmaker and the apothecary to increase business still, nary a person requested the Witch’s aid unless it be a matter of life or death—metaphorical or otherwise. When a woman exclaimed she’d die if she never produced a child, the listener knew this to be hyperbole. In the case of the Princess, it was a guarantee.
The Prince had two previous failed marriages. The King’s only wish was that he meet his grandson and heir before passing on. Dalliances provided the Prince with immeasurable offspring—babes of bar maidens, courtesans, a subsequently ruined second cousin—“Foul,” she cried; “Liar,” he rebutted, and a liar she became. Legitimacy was the question, and “no” the answer. Wife after wife took to her back and received her fill though none ever produced a child. The habitual carnal gardening of his youth was wasted, and now, his future was fruitless.
Six cycles had passed, and the Princess became just as fearful as the Prince was agitated. Every blood caused the Prince to fly into a fit; every one cemented the ire he felt towards his new bride, though he never threatened her. No, he needn’t conjure words to make his passing loves feel ill at ease.
The royal servants warned the Princess of her predecessors’ fates. They thought her kind, unlike his first wife, and extraordinarily wise, unlike the second, and did not wish to see any cruelty befall her.
The Princess attempted every remedy, wife tale, herbal trick—nothing. Her last hope was the Witch.
In an effort to not draw attention to herself, the Princess donned an old cloak of hers, blue like the midnight sky, and the last bodice and skirt she wore as a commoner before making the trek.
The Witch’s obsidian cottage stood a butte the Dark Woods—a place where spirits and monsters were rumoured to roam—no one had the spine to investigate. Smoke snaked through the chimney, melding into a grey sky. Windchimes made of bones clacked together in the breeze. The stone threshold—stained with blood—churdled a weak stomach. Neither of these things caught the Princess’s eye; rather, she was struck by the lavender roses gathered in the windowsill.
“Come in,” the Witch called with a soprano’s tenor.
The Princess ducked her head under the low archway as she stepped inside.
A thick, evergreen cauldron sat over a roaring fire whilst something thick bubbled inside. An assortment of herbs and flowers hung from the rafters in varying states of decay.
“You’re a pretty thing,” the Witch commented as she surfaced from a square hole in the floor. “Whatever could you need?” The conjuress’s skirt and bodice were a reminder of a time long past. Her mulberry-coloured hair curled down to her calves. She didn’t appear to be an “old crone” as the townspeople described, yet a maiden she was not. Her hard eyes, void of enhancement, and the lines of her face conveyed a certain wiseness.
The Witch’s eyes zipped along the Princess’s features in search of her deepest wish.
“I need your help,” said the Princess as politely as possible.
Recognition donned on the Witch. “Help is what you think you need.”
“I beg your pardon?” The Princess missed her meaning.
“The Prince desires an heir,” the Witch declared, deciding to move on. “Easy enough.”
The Princess sighed with relief. The Witch whipped around on her heels and grabbed the basket from the pruning table.
“You’ll need supplies,” she told the Princess. “Won’t be easy to come by. Have you any nerve, girl?”
“The Dark Woods have caused even the bravest to piss himself and run screaming for the safety of his mother’s breast.” The Witch grabbed a tool here and a jar there—setting them into the basket. “This is your wish; you must be the one to prepare and perform the ritual.”
The Witch thrust the basket at the Princess. “Tell me what I need, and I will do it.”
“The sheers are for the bloodthistle—awfully thorny. Prick yourself with that and you’ll never cease bleeding. Elderberries, a jar of water from Lafin Lagoon—no,” the Witch waved her hands down towards the floorboards, shaking her head. “No, you haven’t the grit.”
The Princess stepped towards the Witch, eager. “I’ll do anything—please,” she begged.
“You haven’t the faintest idea what lurks in those woods, girl.”
The Princess straightened her shoulders. “I do not fear any creature.”
The Witch cocked her head to the left. She leaned forward—“It’s not a mere creature. Naming it a monster would be performing it a kindness, one it has not seen for a thousand years. Loupdefer. Capelli di drago to the Italians. In Prussia, drachenwolf. The Vikings were quite creative—ildragulv.” Her mouth curled into a grin for a moment before immediately falling grim again. “It cannot be killed by any man, and I see your eyes,” The Witch criticized the Princess’s doughty gaze. “Don’t be a fool. This is no folktale to frighten peasants. Be wary or die.”
The Witch thrust the basket at the Princess, who took it in hand, glancing down at the contents within.
“Go,” the Witch urged rather rudely.
The Princess set off into the Dark Woods. The umber vines that twisted across the forest floor snagged the hem of her cloak and tattered her skirt. Concerned with the time and generally annoyed, she tucked the front left portion of her skirt into her belt and hung her cloak over her basket arm.
The elderberries were easy enough to find; they grew near the forest's edge—vibrant blue orbs set against ashen leaves.
The lagoon was situated farther in—centred in a clearing. The wind whistled through the willow branches—she swore it sounded like a hundred voices whispering. The Princess dipped the glass jar into the milky grey water and secured the lid.
Lastly, the bloodthistle. She’d never seen the thorny weed before—no clue where to start. She sat at the water’s edge, gazing out at the fringes of the wood. The Princess found this place calming, not terrifying. A secluded slice of serenity. There was enough space for a cottage at the north end. The separation of the branches above made way for the sunlight, allowing for a garden. Beyond the field of cattails swaying in the gentle breeze, fireflies danced—yellow diamonds floating above the low fog. She stared, transfixed—particularly by the two blue ones that hovered some feet above the ground.
The longer she stared at the blue fireflies, the larger they grew. They appeared to be coming closer to her. Just as the blue fireflies broke through the fog, she realized they were not insects at all. She could make out the shape of a wolf’s face—indeed no wolf grew to be so large? As it stepped into the clearing, the Princess could see that this was not a wolf at all: though it had a wolf’s head, covered in inky black fur, its body transitioned from canine to dragon—black scaly haunches and sliver talons to match a tail spiked like a mace. The most striking feature of this beast was its wings—like those of an eagle with feathers so dark you could only make out the red with a bit of illumination.
The Princess fastened her hand around the sheers as the loupdefer crept towards her, its head low in a predatory pose. She feared she could not outrun it or succeed in attacking it head-on. The best alternative would be to allow it to get close enough for her to strike. The closer the creature came, the tighter she gripped the sheers.
It leapt towards her—darting through the air—she froze, not from fear but because it no longer focused on her. In a single bound, the loupdefer landed next to the Princess; its jaw locked around an arm reaching out from below the surface of the lagoon. Its teeth broke through the translucent flesh that exposed swollen veins and rotted muscles underneath. The arm struggled to pull itself from the creature’s teeth, eventually successfully retreating beneath the water.
The Princess stared at the loupdefer, struck. It lingered, body still heaving from the attack. She could feel the warmth of the creature from where she stood. The air around them felt charged, changed.
The Princess reached out, her fingers inching towards the creature’s fur.
“Go!” It bellowed, rendering her still. “Leave! NOW!”
The Princess ran—she never looked back, she hardly looked forward—just ran.
Bereft of breath, she stopped to access her location.
* * *
Some hours after the sun set, the Princess returned, basket in hand, cloak left behind. She handed the basket to the Witch.
“I do hope you’re not keeping the bloodthistle in your bodice,” the Witch sassed as she eyed the contents.
The Princess sighed—she’d forgotten.
“Never the matter,” said the Witch. “You’ll fetch it tomorrow.”
The Princess journeyed back to the castle—never uttering a word of her journey to the Prince who concerned himself with her whereabouts.
That night, he took her to his bed, as he had every other night, and nothing came of it.
Morning came. The sunlight soaked the Princess’s skin while she walked. Winter arrived early—frosting the windows in the early morning hours and giving the evening air a discernable bite.
In a dirt patch outside the cottage, the Witch knelt, carving the ground with her trowel.
“Still want a child, do you?” The Witch asked as the Princess approached though it did not sound a question. She rose to her feet, grabbed the basket from the windowsill where a fresh bouquet of roses, gold, stood in a shallow pool of water at the bottom of the vase and thrust the basket at the Princess.
Clouds rolled over the village threatening the townsfolk with a violent storm. Thunder roared, and lightning blinded anyone who dared glance at the heavens. The Princess did not witness the flashing sky or hear the rumbling drums from an emerging storm.
Mud caked onto her soles. The Princess went east, back south, west, and eventually, north, finding herself in the clearing with the lagoon. Blisters burst on her heels, and muscles burned from exhaustion. She settled onto an arching root—far from the lagoon.
“Did I not tell you to flee?” The loupdefer growled from behind. The Princess spun—gathering splinters in her skirt. The creature stood just beyond the trunk—criticizing her with its sapphire eyes. “You’re either dense or fearless.”
“Thank you,” said the Princess—anxious to not miss a chance to express her gratitude.
The loupdefer bristled at her kindness. No one had ever thanked it for anything, and the creature didn’t wish for them to start. “Funny way you have of returning thanks.”
“By expressing it?” she asked.
“By returning,” it barked. “Are you so desperate to die?”
“You have me mistaken,” the Princess corrected. “I am here so that I may live.”
This further puzzled the loupdefer.
She explained the reasoning behind her quest in brief detail.
“I see,” the loupdefer said. “Very well, this way.”
The Princess followed the creature through the wood. It questioned her about her home—not the castle, but the countryside where she was born.
The Princess did not come from a well-to-do family but a respectable one. Her countryside childhood home sat a three days ride from town, atop a hill adorned with scarlet and gold flowers in the spring. Her mother delivered her blooms for the Festival of Flowers. On one such occasion, while providing freshly cut florets that were to be worn by the Queen, she caught the eye of the Prince a fortnight into his returned status of bachelor. She was every bit of his previous wives—and more—so he took little time in securing her hand.
“‘When you meet a prince, you’ll find your true love,’ that’s what a witch told my mother,” The Princess recalled without any inclination that she believed the prophecy.
Sensing her sadness, the loupdefer changed the subject.
They discussed history, philosophy—particularly the social hierarchy of the country.
“I’m familiar with your king,” the loupdefer told her with disdain. “A long line of nobs if you ask me.”
The Princess laughed in agreement.
They arrived at a briar patch that spread for miles around the ruins of a castle long abandoned. At the base of the thorns grew the bloodthistle.
“You’ll want to carve the thorn from the stem to pluck it,” it advised her.
Once she had the ingredient secured inside the basket, the Princess smiled at the loupdefer. “I’d thank you, but I suspect the sentiment would be inappropriate. Instead, I will promise to never return to these woods. I apologize for my intrusion.” She bowed to the loupdefer and went on her way.
* * *
“Well done!” The Witch exclaimed, impressed. “Not a scratch on you.”
“The ritual?” The Princess asked from the other side of the pruning table.
The Witch stuck her knife into the wood, gathered the minced belladonna and tossed it into a stone bowl. “There’s one last ingredient.”
“Oh?” The Princess responded in surprise.
“The heart of the loupdefer.”
This vexed the Princess. “No,” she refused. “There has to be another way.”
“If you wish to have a child,” the Witch explained, “you need the heart of the loupdefer.”
“I don’t believe you.”
The Witch shrugged. “Believe what you’d like. I don’t make the rules or the rituals—I convey them.”
The Princess left the cottage, leaving behind the basket full of ingredients.
For days, she pondered her options. Maybe this time would be different—perhaps the Prince and her would finally produce a child. With little evidence to support this fantasy, she slid back into paranoia. The loupdefer had done nothing to her—how could she take its life?
With few options and little time, the Princess spent her nights restless—staring at the ceiling of her bed-chamber before passing out from exhaustion. The royal library offered few answers. There was no mention of a loupdefer in the leathery volumes that expounded on lore—myths and legends to fascinate children or unsettle soldiers fresh from recruitment.
Still put out with the Witch, the Princess returned to her all the same. The Witch smiled at her as the Princess passed the coral roses in the windowsill. “Sit down by the fire,” she called from inside the cottage. “You’ll catch a death.”
At the Princess’s urging, the Witch told her all about the history of the loupdefer.
“I knew the alchemist,” the Witch laughed, remembering the man who created the loupdefer. “Such imagination!”
“Is it the only one?” The Princess asked.
“A unique creature.” The Witch sighed. “Fated to be alone—unless…”
The Witch grabbed a fresh kettle and filled the Princess’s cup. “I don’t have the answer you seek.”
“And what is that?”
“A reason to kill the creature so you can go to bed easy.” The Witch set the kettle back on the hook. “There is no ease in killing. Only measured absence of heart.”
The Princess wandered out of the cottage in a haze—questions buzzing around in her head. Diverted by thought, she paid little attention to where she was going.
She found herself at the lagoon, staring over the edge at the water. Still, like a mirror, the water reflected the Princess’s haunted look at her.
“What is it?” she asked. She’d heard the beat of a familiar heavy gait behind her.
“A portal to the underworld,” replied the loupdefer. “Purgatory where the undead dream. Eternity? No one truly knows. What resides in there is neither dead nor living—trapped.”
The Princess leaned over, her face changing in the water: eyes went white like opals and the skin surrounding them—raw from burning.
“His first wife fell from the turret of the tallest tower,” she told the loupdefer. “They said she was mad. The curse that set her in repose for centuries eroded her senses—unable to discern reality from fantasy. Barely a season had passed after her wedding night.
“The second—charged with adultery; she paid with her head. Dropped into her palms like an apple from a summer’s grove. And when I met him, he was courting another, but she disappeared at sea. A quiet thing. The crew believe she tumbled overboard and, unable to scream, silently sank below the surface.”
What would be her fate? She wondered. How would she disappear?
“Have you ever considered it?” she asked.
“What?” The loupdefer whispered as he crept towards her.
“Hundreds of times.”
“And?” she asked, holding her breath as she stared transfixed at a possible fate. Whatever the water held for her, she imagined it better than a thousand crushed bones or the cut of her neck—oh, what the sight would do to her family.
“I cannot die,” it said.
The Princess turned to the loupdefer. It stood close; the wispy white air of their breath mingling.
“Then how to do you escape,” she asked.
“‘The blood of my true love’—I drink and I become human, I become mortal.”
The Princess stepped away from the lagoon, her mind following a deep trail of thought. “Would you—if you found your true love?”
The loupdefer watched the Princess; its eyes never leaving her.
“May I sit here a while,” she asked.
“As long as you would like.”
* * *
Over the coming days, the Princess returned to the Dark Woods to visit with the loupdefer. They spent hours together sharing stories, debating policy, exploring ruins, reading, laughing…
The Prince, in a lustful mood but far too lazy to seek pleasure, found his wife’s chamber empty. When he questioned the staff, they did not have an answer.
That night, the Princess reported to the Prince’s bed-chamber, as per usual. He scrutinized her with his eyes—checking her for the slightest irregularity. Satisfied by his examination, he stripped her of her skirt and forced her over the foot of the bed. He gripped her hips, bruising the skin. The Princess, who’d been dry, awoke sore and bloody, though not from the Prince. Another cycle. She was out of time.
Before making her way into the woods, the Princess stopped for a visit with the Witch. She’d been in such a hurry that she didn’t notice the strange roses in the windowsill: white with red soaked tips.
“Are you sure?” The Witch asked as she scribbled the instructions for the ritual on a bit of paper.
“I’m not sure of anything,” the Princess confessed. “But I know what I want.”
The Witch pushed the paper across the table, and The Princess placed it in the basket and left.
The Princess fled—dashing into the Dark Woods. She met the loupdefer at their usual spot, by the lagoon.
The creature raised from its spot on the ground.
“I can help you,” the words spilled from her quicker than she could conjure them. “I can help you. The Witch—she gave me a spell—”
The loupdefer shook its head. “No.”
“NO!” he bellowed before sprinting off into the trees, disappearing behind a veil of fog.
The Princess decided to wait, convinced he’d return. The more time passed, her resolve only hardened.
She turned excitedly at the crack of a twig.
“So, this is where you have been going,” the Prince spoke as he entered the clearing.
The Princess’s body stiffened—what could she say?
“To think I believed you’d taken the lover,” the Prince laughed as he sauntered towards her. He drifted around her, raising his hand to her throat. The Prince bent his head to kiss her neck.
“Please,” she begged.
The Prince reached under her skirt to feel her—angered by the state of her. He pushed the Princess away, wiping his fingers with a handkerchief.
“I’ll leave,” she promised.
The Prince flew into a fit of rage, kicking the basket over, spilling the contents across the ground. He threw the handkerchief down, spitting on it.
She backed away from him—never tearing her eyes away.
The Prince snatched the shaved end of the blood thistle—“No!” she cried—and thrashed the Princess. She raised her arms to shield herself; her linen sleeves could not protect her from the razor thorns. With every swing, he delivered a dozen cuts. Her body wept blood. The Princess descended onto her knees, fading. The Prince tore open her dress, exposing a field of flesh to be mauled. He sliced the skin of her face, neck, chest.
The loupdefer flew into the clearing, landing behind the Princess. Upon seeing its beloved lying in a pool of blood, its claws dug into the dirt. The loupdefer lowered itself, snarling at the Prince—teethed exposed and lip curled, trembling with rage.
The Prince dropped the bloodthistle for his sword. The creature barked—causing the Prince to raise his hands in forced surrender. Warmth spread down his thighs, soiling his trousers.
The Princess, clinging to this world by a thread, reached towards the creature with that of a finger—uncurling for a moment. She exhaled, and then all was still.
The loupdefer stared at her, searching, though there was nothing to be found in her vacant eyes. It erected its head up towards the sky and released a howl that could be heard across the realm.
The Prince ran from the Dark Woods, his urine-soaked trousers chaffing his thighs—his salted face drying out in the crisp winter air.
“A drop,” the Witch had told the Princess back at the cottage. “That’s all the creature need consume to become human. Alchemy is not creating something from nothing; it’s exchange. A drop is the ingredient—it’s power that binds, that makes magic.”
The loupdefer nudged its snout under the small of its beloved’s back and rolled her onto its neck—carrying the quickly paling and bloodied corpse over to the lagoon. The loupdefer bowed, allowing her to drop into the shallow water. One by one, hands broke the surface, latching onto a wrist, a thigh, breast, ankle, lips—dragging her under.
The loupdefer rested its head on the soft ground and watched as the rain washed away every drop of her blood.